Thursday, March 29, 2012

Narayan Desai in Montgomery

An unusual lunch hour for customarily dormant Montgomerites…

Narayan Desai is the closest we can get to Gandhi today; this is how author and pacifist James W. Douglass introduced the 87-year old student of “The Mahatma.” Desai’s 2,300 page-long biography, My Life is My Message, comprehensively recounts the extraordinary and inspiring life of the Indian leader. Narayan surely had plenty of material to work with for his multi-volume book about Gandhi: Narayan grew up around him and surrounded by his followers. Narayan’s father, Mahadev Desai, was Gandhi’s personal secretary. As a teenager, Narayan was already trusted and well respected by Gandhi to the point that The Mahatma asked him to write a letter to Adolf Hitler. He was part of the Indian liberation movement.
After Mahadev’s death in a British prison and Gandhi’s assassination, Desai committed to spend the rest of his life to the practice and teaching of nonviolence. As one of the leaders of the land grant movement, he walked 12,000 kilometers and between 1952 and 1960 he helped liberate over 3,000 acres of land. He was national secretary of Shanti Sena (or “Peace Army”) and founding director of the World Peace Brigade.
It may sound cliché but Mahadev Desai is a man who emanates wisdom and inner peace.
Accompanied by his daughter, Desai speaks to an audience of mostly women, and, uncommonly enough for Alabama, women of different faith, age, background, and ethnicity. The event, organized by Leadership Montgomery, Open Hearts and Minds, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Montgomery, and Emmanuel Presbyterian Church, is hosted by the recently-opened Cloverdale Playhouse in one of city’s most beautiful neighborhoods. Attendees are seated and have been fed, and they are now ready to hear the guest speaker.

Desai’s presentation, “Living Non-Violently in a Violent World—Gandhi’s Wisdom” takes immediately an exciting turn as Narayan says he’s actually not going to give any speech. He wants, instead, to ask the audience a question. He has stood up by now, and somehow I’m surprised to see how tall he actually is in spite of his old age and the hardship he put his body through in his struggle for a peaceful world.
“Do we really want to live a nonviolent life?” If so, he continues serenely but firmly, one needs to be prepared to make sacrifices. One needs to be ready for a change. If my lifestyle is sustained by a violent system, we need to question that lifestyle and our own nonviolent intentions.

Nonviolence, Desai explains, was a negative term in India before Gandhi. Thanks to him, it became an active force of change in society.
There’s still a debate whether the nonviolent way has worked politically, he says; even if it hasn’t, “the people who lived a nonviolent life,” he asserts, “died with the satisfaction of having lived a honest life.” Then Desai delves into his notion of faith, which it’s twofold: faith “in the goodness of Man,” and faith in the ultimate realization of a peaceful society.

This all makes perfect sense to me, and it seems everyone should agree on something that simple. But then I think of how dissonant this might sound to many Christian ears. “Goodness of Man?” This is not the theology that many Christians, and many Christians in the South, have been taught. Conversely, most Christians have been inculcated this idea that they are inherently bad, actually, because humans are all marked by the original sin.
“Joy comes from goodness and from sharing with others,” Desai adds to my request to expand on his first notion of faith.
His daughter, who sits next to him, translates for him—Desai wears a hearing aid—and he always pauses before answering a question. Make time for reflection. “Reflect, don’t react” was one of Gandhi’s teachings. It was through reflection that he changed his own ideas about nonviolence. In 1982, “I withdrew a campaign because there was violence.” In hindsight, Desai admits he shouldn’t have. He now believes the nonviolent movement should have continued with its peaceful stand. “You see, this notion for me is constantly changing.” He says. “It’s never a static idea.”
“Is physical violence ever justifiable?” Rabbi Elliot Stevens asks from the audience.
No. The magnitude of violence may change (Desai here refers to another question about the situation when one nation is attacked by another), but not its wrongness. The nonviolent way is a total revolution. And so it’s called the center (Institute for Total Revolution) Desai set up in Vedchhi, in the Gujurat State of India, where he teaches nonviolence and the Gandhian way of life.
A woman asks Desai about the motivation for his visit to Montgomery. She mentions Martin Luther King Jr., and the fact that he himself had studied Gandhi. Desai kenw King and his wife Coretta; they were his guests in India. 
Desai pauses a little longer before answering. “It’s a pilgrimage for me,” he begins.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

14th Annual Vigil for Victims of Hate and Violence

On a cold and windy Sunday afternoon, after driving by the Montgomery Capitol and there being redirected to the Union Station Train Shed, I stand at one end of a semicircle of probably 60 people near an improvised stage.
It’s Feb. 19, and the LGBT community remembers Billy Jack Gaither and all the victims of hate crimes. Representative Patricia Todd, Alabama’s first openly gay elected state official, reminds the audience that Alabama still doesn’t recognized crimes committed against gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender individuals as hate crimes. In October 2009, President Obama signed the law that made a federal crime to assault individuals because of their sexual orientation. The Hate Crimes Prevention Act includes crimes committed because of sexual orientation or identity, but the Alabama code only addresses race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, and physical or mental disability.
A train rolls noisily by, as Todd, chair of Equality Alabama and associate director of AIDS Alabama, talks about the Hate Crime Bill she hopes to see pass this year; the bill, among its other aims, seeks to protect veterans too, in order to make it easier for conservative state representatives to swallow the pill. In Alabama, being gay is still considered by many a choice, if not something “unnatural,” or just plain wrong.
Sam Wolfe, a civil rights attorney with the Southern Poverty Center, is next to take the stage. He is visibly nervous, and struggles to keep his notes on the lectern in the cold wind. Wolfe describes in detail how Billy Jack Gaither was brutally murdered at age 39 on the night of Feb. 19, 1999. His killer, Steven Mullins, had met Gaither at a bar in Sylacauga, in Talladega County; it was “the queer stuff” Billy Jack began to talk about that triggered Mullins’ homicidal plan. Mullins lured him into taking a ride with his friend, Charles Monroe Butler.The three of them drove to a remote location in the woods, and there Mullins slit Gaither’s throat and then beat him to death. Mullins and Butler were sentenced to life in prison without parole; yet, Gaither’s murder has not yet been recognized as a hate crime.
Even after his death, Billy Jack’s father denied that his son was a gay man, Wolfe says. Billy Jack hadn’t come out. He was too afraid of disappointing his family. Billy himself had conflicting feelings about his sexual orientation due to his religious beliefs, according to his sister Kathy. He had been engaged more than once, in his attempt to be accepted by his family. Kathy, who is gay herself, had come to terms with her own sexual orientation, but she claims Billy never did.
Wolfe has been pivotal in launching SPLC’s LGTB Rights Project, which focuses primarily on ensuring safety for LGTB students in schools across the Southeast.
The freight trains continue passing by, inevitably loud, but not loud enough to drown out the shaky yet strong voice of 16 year-old Sarah Couvillon. Last year, Sarah wore a T-shirt that read: “Gay? Fine by Me.”  Hoover High School officials thought that was against the school rules and one of them, as Sarah recounts to the audience, equated that to wearing a pro-marijuana T-shirt. They claimed to be concerned “for her safety”; conversely, they chose not to grant Sarah her Constitutional right to free speech and, ultimately, to be who she is: a gay adolescent.
According to a recent study by the Gay,Lesbian & Straight Education Network, nine out of 10 LGBT students experience harassment in school. When positively supported by the staff, LGTB students contribute to “a range of positive indicators including fewer reports of missing school, fewer reports of feeling unsafe, greater academic achievement, higher educational aspirations, and a great sense of school belonging.”
As a straight individual, only occasionally I feel addressed by the speakers; yet, it’s enough for me to look around as the made-up of the audience speaks for itself.  Most attendees are longtime supporters of the cause, as this is their cause. However, next to me are Rev. Bob Graetz and his wife Jeannie, active participants in this 21st century battle for equal rights. The Graetzes were among the not so many Whites who actively participated in the Montgomery Bus Boycott and many other civil rights actions to follow. Their home in Montgomery was bombed once in the middle of the night when one of their children was only 9-month old: fortunately, it was just a big shock, but the message was clear. Some didn’t like what they were doing; they were considered “traitors to the white race.” Yet, their contribution to civil rights movement, as the one of other Whites, has been crucially important in the struggle of African Americans for justice and equality.
The Graetzes would be the first ones to tell you how essential it is to create alliances and work together towards the realization of Martin Luther King Jr’s “beloved community” beyond the strictures of identity politics. This is even more relevant in Alabama where social separation and inequality persist.