My Easter

Easter was to my mother what Christmas was to me -- the best of the best. When I was old enough to articulate my preference for Christmas, I'd start with the unpleasantness of "Good Friday." How could torturing someone to death be the cause for celebration?

My mother, seminary-trained in an era when few women even dreamed of being ordained into the ministry, would dutifully wrap theology around the whole of "holy week," enough at least to last until the next year when I'd raise all those questions again. And again.

"Church" with all the trimmings was simply not optional in my family of origin. It was unquestioned as was the requirement that we accept -- indeed, appreciate and even celebrate -- the many ways that people worship. "No one has all the answers" pretty much covered the subject.

So in August, 1961, even though I was too young to be a "delegate," I was an enthusiastic participant in the (one and only) "North American Ecumenical Youth Assembly" (NAEYA) in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Even the concept of "ecumenical" was apparently considered outlandish enough that The John Birch Society and their fanatical fellow-travels took note. It would take another 50 years before "ecumenism" began to get real traction (and before the Bircherites took command of the Republican Party).

As to the NAEYA itself, its "radical" theme for the 2,000 assembled young people was "Entrusted with the Message of Reconciliation." Along with some of the most senior members of more than 30 different religious organizations across the U.S., Canada and beyond, the event showcased music and drama, both "serious" and outrageously relevant like the prescient For Heaven's Sake.

We were challenged to address, among the word's many ills, bigotry of all kinds. I especially remember the power of a handsome young Congregationalist minister, Rev. Andrew Young, soon to appear on the world's stage at the right hand of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Heady stuff for a youngster.

By high school, given that the family tree bent toward the religious, I was a natural to become involved in the area-wide Aurora (Illinois) Christian Youth Council. I was particularly intent on reaching beyond its Protestant-heavy membership. After all, Vatican II was reaching out to the modern world and I had always been welcome in the Jewish community. (To my knowledge, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists had not yet arrived in town, though they would.)

In the early '60s, teenagers were barely out of the "seen and not heard" mode of the 1950s in which we'd grown up. The fact that our Youth Council was given full responsibility for producing the city's 1963 Easter Sunrise Service was notable enough to grab the front page of the city's weekend newsmagazine.

While I was uncomfortable that the event took place in a public school gymnasium, acting on my lifelong commitment to the separation of church and state would have to wait. My responsibility that year as the Council's rising president was to enlist the featured minister, preferably someone who would draw a crowd.

This would turn out to be my first lesson in "make no small plans." I invited the most illuminating preacher in the land, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. King responded to my letter with one as gracious as it was gentle, one which I still cherish. While he sincerely appreciated the invitation we young people had extended, he felt it his responsibility to minister to his own congregation on Easter Sunday.

I was disappointed, but not surprised. Easter itself held the surprise.

The "congregation" Dr. King would be serving that Sunday morning of 1963 would be the world. Rather than standing in a pulpit on Easter -- in either Atlanta or Aurora -- he was incarcerated in Alabama. Two days later, The Atlantic published one of the 20th Century's great masterpieces, Dr. King's "Letter from the Birmingham Jail."

I still refuse to accept that torture can be justified in any way. And I still find no "good" in "Good Friday." But I do understand that good can be created from bad. Was that what my mother was trying to tell me about Easter?

While Jesus' tortured murder was state-sanctioned -- like countless lynchings of Black Americans over centuries -- Dr. King was simply murdered five years after the Birmingham jail, 10 days before Easter. He, like the Master he served, died exemplifying his faith, working to free us all, striving for justice to flow like a river. We're not "there" yet, but we've made progress. Easter season 1968, I witnessed five separate American cities under martial law, from Cleveland to Memphis. Violence beget violence.

For me, Easter is a reminder, yet again, that we are the agents of our future. It is our creation. It is no accident that Easter is celebrated in the Northern hemisphere's spring.