Ruby Nell Sales, at the invitation of the Rev. Jeannette McKnight of St. Peter’s, Lyndonville, was the featured guest at a three-day community sponsored event—“Freedom: A Constant Struggle”—April 2-4, that celebrated the life and witness of Jonathan Myrick Daniels.
Daniels, an Episcopal seminarian, civil rights worker, and grandson of a Lyndonville family, was martyred in 1965 in in Hayneville, Alabama. He was shot by a deputy sheriff after pushing Sales, an African-American teen out of the way of the bullet intended for her.
Sales, who later attended Daniels’s seminary, now Episcopal Divinity School (EDS) in Cambridge Massachusetts, is founder and co-director of The SpiritHouse Project, a national organization headquartered in Columbus, Georgia, that uses the arts, research, education, action, and spirituality to bring diverse peoples together to work for racial, economic, and social justice, as well as for spiritual maturity.
Sales spoke at Lyndon Institute on Saturday evening, preached at St. Peter’s on Sunday, participated in Evensong at a local Catholic parish, and spoke to some 600 middle-school students from the area on Monday.
Mary’s Song is a call to a new world and a new beginning and a new creation. And I imagine that this is what was in Jonathan’s mind as he headed down to Alabama to be a part of what was one of the most significant movements of the 20th century.
The Lyndon Institute event featured music by an ecumenical choir and speakers who had known Daniels. The Rt. Rev. Stewart Wood, retired Bishop of Michigan, active participant in the life of St. Paul’s, White River Junction, and a member of the Vermont State Advisory Committee of the U.S. Commission on Civil Right offered welcoming and closing remarks.
The choir sang the Magnificat, which echoed a thread running through both Sales’s talk at Lyndon Institute and her Sunday sermon. As she told the story, it was during the singing of the Magnificat at Evensong in the Episcopal Theological Seminary (later EDS) chapel that Daniels heard the voice of God saying, “Go down to Alabama, Jonathan, and work with my people because they are my people too.”
Sales said, “I love Mary’s song. I think it is one of the first freedom songs of the gospels. It makes it very clear that God is on the side of the poor and oppressed. That song is a song of hope. It is a call to a new world and a new beginning and a new creation. And I imagine that this is what was in Jonathan’s mind as he headed down to Alabama to be a part of what was one of the most significant movements of the 20th century.”
Sales stressed the importance of understanding the context of Daniels’s life and sacrifice, of understanding the African American community that had moved from enslavement to a brief period of hope and freedom and back into a culture of oppression and white supremacy. Daniels, said Sales, found in Alabama a community of people so filled with faith that they “were not afraid to stand up in front of guns and billy clubs and horses and dogs. It was a community that was willing to go to jail for their freedom.”
The struggle, said Sales, “was not only a struggle for civil rights but a struggle for dignity, for human dignity, and a powerful struggle to open up the society and to give white people a clear vision of the kingdom of God.” The struggle enhanced the lives of both African Americans white Americans. “It was,” she said, “a struggle that gave each of us an opportunity to become more fully human and in right relation with each other and with God. What a powerful moment of grace. Jonathan entered a movement that reaffirmed that we are not entrapped in our history, that we can change our lives and the lives of others. We are not entrapped.”
Sales was 16 when she went to work in the civil rights movement, a movement that had, she said, something “that made us believe…that we were part of something larger that ourselves, that even if we were killed, that dream would continue, that our lives were not more important than the dream.” On the road in Alabama, she said, “Jonathan’s faith as a Christian met his actions. And I think that on the road in Alabama, he was no longer fragmented from God’s people just like himself.” She explained that meeting Daniels and others like him gave her a “larger vision of what white people could be at their best. And I think,” she said, “the same thing happened to Jonathan in terms of African Americans. We needed each other in a fragmented and divided world in order to be whole. And it was our relationship that got us through the days and nights in terror of violence.”
Sales told the story of the day Daniels was murdered and of the failure of the legal system to hold his killer accountable. And she said, “I am getting very tired of people wanting to hear this like it is a warm and fuzzy story. I want to touch people’s hearts. I want to strengthen people’s faith, so that they have the courage, even at 70 years old, to step out in the world to be gray-haired witnesses for peace and justice and say that, ‘I will use the last breath that I have to carry on the work that Jonathan was a part of in Lowndes County, Alabama.’”
The challenge faces both the white and black communities, she said, because “We’ve all forgotten the destination,” which was not one of personal power or domination. “It was a destination,” she said, “that came out of a deep longing for freedom that was a constant struggle and the firm belief that as a people of God, we could live together peacefully, doing the work that we’ve been called to do.”
To take up the challenge today, Sales said, “We can no longer afford to be quiet as Christians as violence erupts around us everywhere, as people get poorer in this country, as more than a billion people around the world live on less than a dollar a day. We can no longer be quiet. As long as I have breath in my body, I will see the struggle through, but you must also make that commitment.”
The confirmation class from St. Paul’s, White River, attended Sales’s talk, and several of them asked questions and engaged with her following the formal session. Sales’s sermon on Sunday at St. Peter’s—Bishop Thomas Ely presided at the service—again took up the themes of the Magnificat. What does Mary, as part of a marginalized people, have to sing about, she asked and said, “coming from my culture, we would expect Mary to sing a blues song, with all of what is happening to her. Instead she sings a freedom song that comes out of her community’s struggle and aspirations for economic, social and political freedom from the bloody, dehumanizing and oppressive chains of the Roman Empire.”
Message is ClearGod’s message is clear. Emperors do not hold the reins of history. Nor do their empires last forever. In the long run, God will have the last word, and the people of God will be free.
The people of the civil rights movement sang the same song, said Sales. Mary is a prophet, and “Mary’s song is valid today where far too many people live under the heel-print of tyrannical and oppressive governments.” It was valid for Jonathan Daniels, who “understood that Christianity held up the possibility of chipping away at the stones and bricks that surround our hearts and cement our hearts with hate and otherness. Jonathan understood that Christianity held out the exquisite possibility of loving each other.” We must, said Sales, “continue on this freedom journey that is the cornerstone of the vision of the Magnificat.”
Sales recited the words of a song by Bernice Johnson Reagan called, “I remember, I believe,” which is about the “essentiality of memory to a life-affirming theology.” She concluded, “This is why Mary shouts. She remembered, and she believed, because she remembered that, without a doubt, God intends for the coming of Jesus to send a powerful and nonnegotiable warning to the state.” Sales continued, “God’s message is clear. Emperors do not hold the reins of history. Nor do their empires last forever. In the long run, God will have the last word, and the people of God will be free. Thanks be to God.”