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Purpose Over Cause

My parents grew up in the south in the 1960's.  They were no strangers to racism or systematic oppression.  Growing up on the west coast my sister, brother and I were somewhat protected from racism's ugly sting, at least I thought we were.  I read about the civil rights movement and my parents told me about growing up in the south but, in my mind, all that was in the past and out of reach in current times.  However, visiting my family in the south came with special rules, don't go here, don't travel there after sunset, if you come into contact with a white person be respectful and polite.  These rules seemed strange because we were always taught to treat everyone with kindness and at home we had no restrictions on where we could go.  Finally, under absolutely no circumstances, were we to go anywhere alone.  Like I said these rules were odd but, I put them in a "special rules for the south" category telling myself things were just "different" there.

Then, in 1991, my world was shaken.  I turned on the news and, right here in California, there was video footage of a black man being beaten in the street.  At first my cognitive dissonance kicked in; I thought, "well what did he do, because certainly a police officer would never do this unless he had to."  But more and more of the story was released and then we heard the audio files.  Sitting in my safe living room watching my safe TV I realized that racism was alive and well in America.  Now of course, I had experienced prejudice in my world, and my parents gave me the tools to deal with that personally.  But this, this was like going back in time, before the civil rights bill, before the marches, this was clearly social injustice.  

After the verdict came and the riots began I remember I wanted to do something.  I knew that the looting was wrong, but the reason for the looting I totally understood.  I remembered that the stories of the marches and boycotts from the 1960's were documented by the news and photographers of the day and so I told my dad that I wanted to take my camera and capture what was happening. My father and I shared a love of photography so I thought he would at least allow it if not join me in my crusade.  To my surprise my father not only said, "no way", but he also said, "Ursala let me tell you a story" which my siblings and I always knew meant there is a life lesson here.  The following is that story my dad told me.

My dad lived in Memphis Tennessee in an area called Binghampton. He said it was shortly after the death of MLK and he felt like he wanted to do something.  He was out and happened upon a march that was just about to happen so he decided to join.  He told me he remembered there was a large crowd and, since he was late arriving, he was at the back.  The march began and in the beginning everyone was united. He said everyone had the same message and the same voice, but as the march continued people became more and more spread out; at the back of the line (where he was) the message started to change.  People started to shout out different things that the front of the line hadn't said.  My dad remembers thinking, "Hey man, this isn't the message that we started with," but he kept marching.

The march was mapped to go from the poor side of town (the black side) to the more affluent side (the white side) and as they marched the back of the march got more and more off topic.  As the march progressed, they started to pass shops and storefronts and then people started to loot.  My dad said he saw people breaking windows and turning over trash cans and as he walked he kept saying, "This isn't our message!"  Then all of a sudden one of the looters runs up to my dad and says, "They have suits in there man, go get you a suit!"  At this point my dad said, "Honestly, I began to think about the opportunity that I would have to get a really nice suit. You have to remember Ursala, it's the 60's and jobs for black men are scarce."

My dad (admittedly after some moral deliberation) decided not to take a suit.  Instead he caught up with the front of the march and continued the protest.  Finally, the marchers reached their destination and there was some speaking and, when they finished, they all started to go back to the other side of town.  They had some people driving folks back, but my dad decided to walk.  He said as he walked back he saw all the damage that had been caused by the people at the back of the line.  There was broken glass and overturned trash cans; it was just a mess.

And then my father said something that I would never forget.  He said, "Ursala, it was that day that I decided that I would stand for a purpose, but I will never again stand for a cause."  Then he said, "You see, a cause is something that you can get on and off of.  It changes over time and, when it suits you, you can decide to go another way."  He continued, "A purpose, on the other hand, drives you.  It wakes you up in the morning and pushes you forward. If you have a purpose, you're focused and your voice will not waiver."  Then he pointed to the TV and said, "This is not purpose, Ursala." 

It was then that I realized that although I understood, and even agreed with, the 'WHY' behind the rioting, the message was buried because they had lost purpose.  That's not to say that they didn't start with one, but they allowed the message to get distorted towards the back of the line.  It reminds me of that game we used to play as kids, telephone. Someone at the beginning of a line would say something, but by the time the message was relayed by several people it was all jumbled up at the end.  Needless to say I did not join the rioters, and since then I have always remembered my father's words about purpose over cause.  I anchor my emotions with my father's simple question, "does this drive my purpose?"  My parents were in the trenches battling for their freedom, they did it for my siblings and I, for their grandchildren and for the generations to come.  Today I stand in those same trenches with my parents, full of purpose.

As followers of Christ it is essential that we remain grounded in purpose, always reaching into the hurt and brokenness of this world. We cannot allow our myopic view of the world to narrow our purpose or harden our hearts. Jesus offers clear and defined purpose.  He commissions us to bring the Kingdom now, to be the good news, to care for the downtrodden, and to sacrificially love.  Keeping our hearts focused with these things will ensure that our hearts stay aligned with the purpose of Christ.

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1 Comment


Regina Irwin - July 29th, 2020 at 10:44pm

so good..thank you for sharing your families story..you fathers words of wisdom and insight are powerful and I will remember them too.

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