Friday, June 27, 2008

Frank Buchman believed that peace depended on new motives in people, that hatreds needed to be answered as he had found them answered in his own life.

Seventy years ago this month a great American minister, Frank Buchman, with whom I worked for more than ten years, made a memorable appeal. At a time when the nations were focussed on military rearmament before World War II he called for moral and spiritual rearmament as well. He believed that peace depended on new motives in people, that hatreds needed to be answered as he had found them answered in his own life.

His work which galvanized thousands could not delay the onset of war but after the war he is credited with initiatives to heal the resulting bitterness. Much of it resonated from the conference center in Caux, Switzerland which was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and led to him being decorated by the French and German and Japanese governments for his efforts towards post-war unity. Those efforts at reconciliation continue today at Caux and are called Initiatives of Change.

Buchman, who loved America and helped many foreigners like me to appreciate his country would have rejoiced as I do at the monumental achievements in the current election campaign. He felt strongly on the subject of race, even from his early days of the last century at Penn State University. In the 1950s and 60s his emphasis on character not color as the important consideration inspired the musical The Crowning Experience which helped integrate audiences in Atlanta. The musical featured the life of the great African-American Mary McLeod Bethune who had said that to be a part of what she called “this great uniting force of our age” was ‘the crowning experience of my life.” At recent celebrations of the life of Daisy Bates in Little Rock tribute was paid to Buchman’s influence in the bringing of her together in an historic handshake with Governor Faubus.

The foundations of his work in the 30s and 40s in Richmond, Virginia, are to this day carried on by Hope in the Cities which is pioneering a model of honest conversations on race, reconciliation and responsibility that have caught national and international attention. Rob Corcoran, its director, writes, “The heat of a political campaign is unlikely to provide hospitable space for truly forthright dialogue on race relations. But whether or not Obama succeeds in his bid for the White House, Americans of all backgrounds should seize this window of opportunity to reach out rather than ‘retreat into our separate corners.’”

I am not involved in politics and would not want anything I write to be construed as endorsing one candidate or another. But having lived and worked in the US in the early 50s, and being involved in trying to bring races together in Oregon in the 1980s and 90s, and now having been these last weeks on a visit here I feel it is important that no Americans should underestimate what the campaign so far has meant not only for disillusioned citizens but also for this country’s image abroad. As Bob Herbert wrote in the New York Times, the fact the Barack Obama is the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party and that the two finalists for that prize were a black man and a white woman are events of the highest importance: “We should not allow ourselves to overlook the wonder of this moment.”

Hillary Rodham Clinton’s achievements for women and Barack Obama’s for black Americans will be remembered long after any bitterness that some may have about other political figures whom I hardly need to name. I had an email from Richmond from Paige Chargois, an African-American minister, author of Certain Women Called by Christ, in which she wrote, ‘I’m still rejoicing about Barack Obama. America has changed. I’m so glad it has happened in my lifetime. That’s not to even think that we have solved all our racial problems by any means but it definitely suggest we’ve come the longest part of that journey.”

She added, after Senator Clinton’s gracious concession speech, “While we were all strategizing and diligently working to end racism ‘on the front side,’ God was at work ‘on the back side’ to virtually bring it to an end in America. Even before Hillary spoke, my thoughts were about how God prepared Moses for 40 years to return to Egypt and lead His people out of enslavement. Little did we know that God was actually preparing two persons: Barack & Hillary for such a momentous time in our history. So quietly they both ‘slipped’ onto the stage without our being aware initially how deeply and how greatly they would change us relative to gender and race over these past 18 months.”