On the Island

For Freedom by Rev. Lauren Smith

This piece is an excerpt from It Is Time Now: Offerings from the Beloved Community Project, an educational resource produced in 2019 as part of Star Island’s Beloved Community Project. The Star Island Beloved Community Project is a journey SIC has begun as an organization to create a more inclusive and intentional community, to help spread more empathy and understanding in the world, and to become a more welcoming place for all people. We recognize and affirm that many have been on this journey for a long time, and we are excited to listen and learn as we continue on this important journey.


This is my prayer for you, dear reader: Risk wholeness, aliveness and freedom.

Every Martin Luther King weekend, it has been my practice to reflect on and preach from Dr. King’s teachings. Most years, I have selected a sermon from which to preach. This year I chose a lesser-known text, Dr. King’s speech to the Freedom Riders in the spring of 1961.

The Freedom Riders were an integrated band of women and men who rode Greyhound buses across state lines with the goal of integrating interstate travel. De-segregated interstate travel had been the law of the land for a while, but it was effectively banned by the threat of violence. Like the sit-ins at lunch counters and the voter registration drives, the Freedom Rides were an action designed to ensure equal access to the rights of citizenship. It was a demand for freedom and a charge to the nation to live up to its ideals.

Dr. King described his work with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as a massive campaign to end segregation, saying, “…we …seek to mobilize thousands of people, committed to the method of non-violence, who will physically identify themselves with the struggle.”1 He said, “We must stand up not for ourselves alone, but in order to carry our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in the formation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”

Freedom for ourselves. Freedom for others. This is one of the reasons we gather.

There’s a line in a Leonard Cohen song that I have always loved. It goes:

Like a bird on a wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir,
I have tried in my way to be free.
Like a worm on a hook, like a knight in some old-fashioned book,
I have saved all my ribbons for thee.

For me, it always comes back to freedom. It comes back to the foundational belief that none us can be truly free until all of us are. We are, in the words of Dr. King, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.

“I have tried in my way to be free,” Mr. Cohen sings. “I have saved all my ribbons for thee.” And his descriptions of himself reflect the challenge of it all, the human frailty and also, somehow, the beauty and the power.

About nine years ago, during another period of transition, I sat in the courtyard of Espresso Roma in North Berkeley, California. I wrote in my journal five words: “Whole. Alive. Free.” and “Connect. Serve.” Three adjectives, two verbs. The first three express what I believe the fruits of spiritual life ought to be. The last two express the charge to act in tangible ways, to be doers of the word and not just hearers, in the words of the apostle James.

This my prayer for you: that you accept this challenge, this core demand of our faith: Risk wholeness, life and freedom. Abet wholeness life and freedom in the world.

I will not lie to you. It may not be easy. Freedom, as we know from the bumper stickers, isn’t free. But take heart. There are those who have walked this path before you, to whom you can turn for inspiration and insight.

I think of my great great great grandparents and their families. They were black men and women living in North Carolina in the waning days of slavery, the pressure cooker years before the start of the Civil War. They were free black people, but their freedom was circumscribed by law and circumstance. Their relative freedom depended on the passes they carried and the whims of the white people among whom they lived. They could be re-enslaved for modest infractions, real or manufactured. They lived on the knife’s edge. And this was the only reality they had ever known, the only place they had ever lived. The world beyond Wilmington must have felt like a great dark void, like the edge of the earth on world maps drawn before people discovered that the earth was round.

And yet, despite all this, they imagined a different future. They packed up, picked up, and moved on. They made the treacherous journey north to Oberlin, Ohio then east to New England. They set out for freedom, for a new life unlike any they had ever known. It was not perfect. Moving north of the Mason-Dixon line didn’t mean full access to citizenship, but it did open new doors of opportunity and they chose to walk through those doors. My great great grandfather became an educator, an architect and a Unitarian. He found a message of liberation in our tradition and a commitment to manifesting that message among some of its people. I am the beneficiary of my ancestors’ vision and courage. They remind me that I, that we, stand in a liberating stream of our faith tradition.

I think of my ancestors, and I think of Fannie Lou Hamer. She’s one of my heroes, a tower of courage and integrity to whom every American is indebted.

Hamer was born into a sharecropping family in Mississippi in 1917. Sharecropping was slavery lite, in many ways. Often, sharecroppers were not allowed to leave the plantations on which they worked without permission of the owners. There was an elaborate system of finance that bound families to the plantations through debt and being forced to purchase food and supplies from owners at inflated prices. And while black people technically enjoyed the rights of citizenship, there was a cultural prohibition against exercising those rights backed up by the threat of violence.

This is how Fannie Lou Hamer grew up. It’s all she knew. But from very early in her life, she was determined to get away. One day in 1962, she attended a mass meeting sponsored by SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. SNCC organizers were encouraging black people to register and vote. Mrs. Hamer says she never knew until that time that black people could vote. 72% of the people in her area were black, which means that if black people voted in large numbers, they could upend local power dynamics. When the organizers asked who would go down to the courthouse to register, Mrs. Hamer volunteered. She went by bus with a group of people down to the courthouse and made her wishes known. The people on the bus were afraid, but when tension started to rise, Mrs. Hamer began singing in her powerful deep voice what would become her signature song: “This Little Light of Mine.” And the people settled down a little.

Days later, she had to flee from her home with her family to a friend’s home. An attempt was made on her life there. She fled to a third location, but somehow an organizer tracked her down in a plantation shack. He walked in the door and found her sitting in a chair next to wood stove. He said, “I’m looking for Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer.”

She rose from her chair.

Not yet knowing who he was, not knowing whether he was friend or foe, she stood up and said, “I’m Fannie Lou Hamer.”

In later years, she would endure threats and a brutal beating at the hands of police officers in Winona, Mississippi—a beating that caused permanent damage to her internal organs. But after all that, she said, “From the time I began working, I never had a mind to stop. …After that happened to me in Winona, I knew there wouldn’t be anything to stop me other than death.”

I heard her say those words in an old recorded interview. When Mrs. Hamer said, “…After that happened to me in Winona,” I expected the sentence to end the way I would have ended it. I expected her to say, “…I lost my faith,” or “…I had to retreat for a while,” or “…I didn’t know if I could go on.” But she said, “I knew there wouldn’t be anything to stop me other than death.” I will never be as strong as that woman. I can’t fathom moral courage like that, or a will to live free that runs that deep. But I, we, bolstered by her example, can live into the outer reaches of our own capacity for moral courage, love, and allegiance to life.

Especially now, in these turbulent times, it matters that we embrace life, that we work for freedom for all people. It matters that we, in the words of Dr. King, “carry our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers.”

We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.

This is my prayer for all of you.

Be whole, alive and free.

Connect and serve.

Make no mistake: The way will sometimes be hard. Freedom is neither free nor easy.

But you are not alone.

The towering figures of the past and present are with you.

Let them be your strength and your inspiration as you discover the outer reaches of your vision, imagination, and courage.

Let their love be your consolation and your peace.

Blessings to you on the path.

Traveling mercies.

And much love.