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Eleven Years Old

I have some memories of my life at eleven years old. They aren’t any significant events worth reporting, but they were fond memories of life lived under the shadow of two parents who didn’t live together. I don’t remember being engaged in any life-transforming activity, but there’s one story that I remember very well. I must have been about eleven or twelve years old. I was walking on my way to church to serve as an acolyte on a Sunday morning. As I walked, I overheard rumors of a coup d’état in Ghana. I remember becoming so distressed about it that I inquired from a gentleman that I saw walking on the same road, but going in the opposite direction. I asked from him if he’s heard about the coup d’état, and if it was true. He asked if I had any issue with it. I responded that I thought it was becoming a little too much. The man simply looked at me, shook his head, and walked off. I wonder what he thought about an eleven or twelve-year-old boy becoming distressed over a coup d’état.

This past week, we lost Representative Elijah Cummings - an icon of Maryland and of national politics. He served diligently in the United States House of Representatives. There are many in our community of faith who agreed with his politics and many who did not agree, but that is beside the point. We celebrate him for offering his life in service to all, and for the transformative change that was made possible because of it. I am particularly enamored by a story I read in the Washington Post about an eleven-year-old Elijah Cummings. There are two events in that story I’d like to invite us to ponder over.

The first, according to the story, is that Elijah and his friends had grown a little too big for a small, shallow swimming pool in which they regularly swam. He recalls that the pool was so small that they had to wait turns to get in. One woman, Mrs. Mitchell, suggested to Elijah and his friends that there was a better, Olympic-size swimming pool in which they could swim. The only problem with her suggestion about this Olympic-size swimming pool - which was a public swimming pool - was that it was public in name only.

In August of 1962, Elijah and his friends would walk to the swimming pool and jump in. You can only imagine the response of people who thought that Elijah and his friends were undeserving to be swimming in a public swimming pool. According to the Post, “Crowds of angry white residents, sometimes numbering one thousand, according to newspaper coverage at the time, surrounded them. They held signs saying “Keep Our Pool Germ Free” and “White People Have Rights Too.” Elijah remembers that these people were adults who called these boys “…every name you can imagine, everything but a child of God.” Representative Cummings remembers a mob surrounding the pool one day. They were only held back by a line of police with K-9 dogs, while he and his friends enjoyed the water. Some of these people were so angry that they threw all kinds of objects over the police officers’ heads, one of which hit the eleven-year-old in the face, cutting his eyebrow and leaving an indelible scar. This marked for him the struggle he had to contend with in his effort to change public attitude. 

In my sermon last Sunday, I made the point that there’s an indomitable spirit which sits in each of us, and that this spirit doesn’t quit in its pursuit of justice. As an eleven-year-old boy, Elijah knew that something was wrong with the picture, and that not even an angry mob would deter him from his pursuit of justice - of swimming in the bigger pool like everyone else. I have no idea what each of us was doing at 11 years old, but it is likely that we were more concerned about thriving than simply living.

The second part of the story happened about thirty years after eleven-year-old Elijah and his friends integrated a public pool. Elijah recalls a man who approached him after a campaign event and apologized to him.

With surprise, Elijah asked, "What are you apologizing for?"

The man responded, “I was one of them people back then in 1962 who was throwing the bottles and the rocks and the stones. And I’m sorry.”

To this, Elijah responded, "Apology accepted."

It is telling that this man, after so many years, remembered the eleven-year-old Elijah, but not only that, he remembered his own actions and felt the need to apologize. Remember, there’s an indomitable spirit which not only fights for justice, but also pursues what is right.

The courage it took for the gentleman to apologize, and Elijah's courage to accept the apology, remind me of Lorraine Hansberry's play, A Raisin in the Sun. A young man comes home to see his family after he has lost all the money that would have given them a future, destroying their hopes. His sister calls him every despicable name imaginable. After she curses out her brother, the mother speaks and says, "I thought I told you to forgive him."

"Forgive him? There's nothing left to forgive," she responded.

"There is always something left to love," says the mother, "and if you haven't learned that, you haven't learned anything. When do you think it's time to love and forgive somebody? When they've done good? When they've made you proud? The time to love somebody is when they are at their lowest because the world done whipped them so."

A smaller world says that we have to sort out who we should love and who is not worthy of our love, let alone God's love. But there is always something left to love - always, always. Do not live in a smaller world than God has given to you!

At eleven years old, Elijah refused to swim in a smaller pool, and so can you.


The above photo and a retrospective of Rep. Elijah Cummings can be found here.


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