James Reeb—No Greater Love
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, February 27, 2005
On January 18, 1965, Martin Luther King arrived in Selma for the opening of Project Alabama, a massive civil rights effort aimed at securing the right to vote for the black people of Alabama. Week after week, black men and women demonstrated in the streets of Selma, demanding their rights. They were met by stiff resistance from the local police and the Alabama State Highway Patrol. Finally, on March 5, on the Jefferson Davis highway just outside of Selma, “Wallace’s storm troopers”, as the Highway Patrol had become known, charged a group of demonstrators, with billy clubs flailing the air. Scores of demonstrators were hammered to the ground. Then, the police regrouped again, this time firing canisters of tear gas into the crowd. The marchers fell back in clouds of acrid smoke, choking and crying in pain.
But Wallace’s storm troopers weren’t done yet. As white onlookers cheered wildly, the mounted police again charged into the crowd of demonstrators, lashing them with bullwhips and rubber tubing wrapped in barbed wire. Reeling under the blows, the demonstrators retreated back to Brown Chapel, the road behind them littered with the bodies of the injured.
(Remember, my friends: We are not speaking of the history of some foreign nation here. Nor are we speaking of ancient history. This is not Soweto; this is not the massacre at Tien An Men; this is not the streets of some Third World hotspot. This is America, just over a generation ago. Let’s not kid ourselves that the struggle for justice in this land of ours is over: “Power concedes nothing with a demand,” Frederick Douglass reminds us, “it never did and it never will.” And God bless those with courage enough to demand concessions from those in power, who push the wheel of history just a little more toward justice. For without them, these would be no movement toward freedom in this world of ours.)
The air still reeked with tear gas as Martin Luther King sent out a flurry of telegrams to religious leaders across the country. “Come to Selma,” he implored them. “Come to Selma.” It was time for well-meaning people across the country to get off the sidelines. Come to Selma; get directly involved in the struggle for freedom and justice. A massive, interfaith “Ministers’ March for Montgomery” was scheduled for Tuesday, March 9.
In Boston, a Unitarian Universalist minister named James Reeb decided to respond to Dr. King’s call. He made his way to Selma, as did scores of Unitarian Universalist ministers from across the country. They were joined by colleagues from countless other denominations as well, as overnight, it seemed, perhaps 500 or more ministers, rabbis, priests, and nuns—black and white alike—came to that small Alabama town to stand together in support of freedom. Governor Wallace branded them as “agitators—one and all.” “Why not?” shot back one clergyman. “The agitator is the part of the washing machine that gets the dirt out.”
On Tuesday morning, the “Ministers’ March” took place as planned, and the marchers came to that place along the Jefferson Davis Highway where the events o “Bloody Sunday” had taken place two days earlier. A court injunction prohibited the marchers from proceeding on to the state capital, but they had made their point by coming together here: the conscience of the entire nation was finally becoming aroused. The “Ministers’ March” made its way back toward Selma.
That night, James Reeb and several other Unitarian Universalist ministers had dinner at a black café in Selma, after which they parted company. One group went one way, while another—Reeb. Orloff Miller, and Clark Olsen—went a different one, back toward their hotel. As they walked past the Silver Moon Café, a voice rang out, and four white thugs emerged from the shadows. They fell upon the ministers with clubs and 2 by 4s; one kept hitting at Reeb’s head, as though swinging a baseball bat. Reeb lapsed into a coma. He died in a Selma hospital two days later, on March 11, 1965—40 years ago next month.
James Reeb had often spoken of the “inner light” that he followed; the “inner light” that would not let him go; that made the difference in every important decision he faced in life. But James Reeb was also one of those prophetic souls whose inner spirit was matched by an outer light of almost transcendent radiance; whose inner fire of love broke forth time and again in an outer cloak of justice.
He had been born in Wichita, Kansas, on New Year’s Day in 1927. He was, then, only 38 years old when he died.
He had been ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1953, but found his way to the Unitarian faith, just a couple of years before its merger with the Universalists. He became assistant minister at All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, DC in 1959, but let there in September, 1964 to become Community Relations Director of the Boston Metropolitan Housing Program of the American Friends Service Committee. He chose to move from one of the largest and most prestigious churches in our movement to a fairly risky, innovative effort at community organization in Roxbury; from a comfortable parsonage in suburban Chevy Chase to a simple apartment in Dorchester.
Reeb made this move because he thought it was the right thing to do; because by doing so, he felt he was answering some deep inner calling to the authentic work he had to do in life. Originally, he had wanted to remain in the parish, and serve an inner city church in our own denomination; but such an opportunity to serve did not seem to exist within the Unitarian Universalist movement at the time. In frustration, he wrote to a friend in the spring of 1964:
“The [Department of Ministry] assures me they will get my name on the lists of ‘desirable churches’. If there is anything I’m not interested in, it is in joining the lists of those looking for ‘desirable churches’…”
So, Reeb’s inner light led him to Boston, to Dorchester and Roxbury. When he arrived in Boston, he wrote to a friend: “I have seized the bull by the horns—I am doing what seems important and let the damn torpedoes come!”
Certainly, he had accepted a challenge, and James Reeb was never one to meet a challenge half-way. He didn’t want just to work in the inner city of Boston; he wanted it to become his home, and his family’s home. From the very start, he and his wife and their four children plunged into the community life of inner city Boston. They were often the only white faces in the crowd; their children were the only white children in their school. But Reeb knew that he had at least as much to learn from the people among whom he lived, as he had to teach them.
What was the spirit that empowered James Reeb to do what he had to do, to take the risks and make the sacrifices that his times demanded of him? What was the power that guided him on, that energized the inner light deep within his soul?
He was a man who could not rest until his ideals had become alive in the daily living of his life. He had enlisted in the army in January of 1945, the day after his 18th birthday, even though there was no longer any real necessity for him to do so. The Second World War was drawing to a close, but Reeb knew that he had to play at least a small role in the fight against tyranny and fascism. The love of freedom and respect for human dignity were just too deeply ingrained within him for him to remain on the sideline for very long. When he arrived in Selma in March of 1965, an old friend greeted him by saying: “I knew The love of freedom and respect for human dignity were just too deeply ingrained within him for him to remain on the sideline for very long. When he arrived in Selma in March of 1965, an old friend greeted him by saying: “I knew you would be here!”
James Reeb was also a man of profound compassion, who deeply internalized the sufferings of others, in whose very being the traditional Christian message of the Cross became oftentimes painfully real. “His first instinct was always to bear the pain, rather than hurt someone else,” a biographer has written. “One can imagine the deep impact the beatings of helpless people in Selma must have had on him.”
His adult life was dedicated to meeting the unmet needs of his fellow human beings, wherever he found those needs to exist. He was, on the deepest possible level, a contemporary “good Samaritan”, who could not rest if others suffered; who could not proceed on his own comfortable journey through life if there were downcast souls along the road. Reeb was a deep thinker and a man of great spirituality; but faith, for him, was primarily about deeds, and not about creeds. In Reeb’s view, the practical and spiritual aspects of life were intimately connected, and unless the practical needs of human beings were met—unless what he called the “iniquities of life” were dealt with—the will of those who suffered would eventually be crushed, and there could be no full flowering of the human spirit.
The life and ministry of James Reeb was energized by a religious understanding that was radically this-worldly in its perspective. Reeb’s theology began with a vision of this world as our home, and he saw the Divine at work always within the world: God was at work within the hearts and minds of individual men and women; God was at work constantly creating, sustaining, and redeeming a world which is essentially good, in spite of the profound evils that exist, and which need to be overcome. In Reeb’s vision, all of the world could be transformed into sacred space; all the world was his church; all the world could become the theater for holiness and wholeness.
James Reeb was not opposed to the concept of the institutional church, but he could become awfully impatient with it. He took the church at its word; he knew how important the work the church had before it truly was. But he could not tolerate the self-satisfied idea that the church existed as an end in itself, as a lofty and isolated institution, detached from the pain and need of the modern world. As Reeb’s friend Ronald Engle has put it: “[He] could not believe that the church was justified in devoting its resources to bigger buildings and programs when the earth was groaning outside its doors, laboring to bring forth a more just social order.”
In nourishing his hunger for a new heaven and a new earth, James Reeb looked time and again toward the pages of ancient scripture for sustenance. To Reeb, the Bible was neither the immutable, literal Word of God, nor was it just an arcane, irrelevant ancient text. It was, rather, the record of God’s saving acts in history—a prophetic record of a people’s struggle to do justly, love mercy, and keep faith with their God. Reeb saw the biblical narrative as a call for an openly public, and not exclusively private faith. The great lessons of the Bible, Reeb pointed out, do not take place in temples or churches, but in the world: in Promised Land and in desert; on top of Sinai; by the Sea of Galilee; in royal palace and in lowly manger; on battlefields and in the marketplace. Moreover, God’s saving power takes place through history: in the midst of public conflict, struggle, suffering, and service. The Word of God is made alive in the repentance, sacrifice, and witness of men and women of faith.
This was James Reeb’s vision of the mission of the Church Universal: to witness to the prophetic events now taking place in this world, in our own time, in our own present day. This was the call he had answered in entering the ministry, and which had led him to seek a free and open church which met the cause of human need, and refused to cage in the Spirit.
The prophetic call of his time, Reeb believed, was the call toward human freedom, seen most clearly in the struggle for full civil rights for all people. The call of freedom resounded in his soul. That voice of prophecy resounds in our own time, just as clearly.
We can hear that voice speak unto us, as it did to the prophet Isaiah: “Whom shall I send to comfort my people?”
And we can each respond, as James Reeb responded: “Here I am. Send me.”
We each have deep inside of us a calling that is ours to answer. We each have a greater dream of life that we can help make true.