Faith and Activism
 — Fran O'Brien

Have you ever been challenged to "put your money where your mouth is"? That happened to me in 1964 in the most unlikely of places — a movie theater.

I went with some friends to see Judgment at Nuremberg. In one scene the American judge asks his German housekeeper what it was like to live under Nazism. She replies very defensively: "We didn't know...We are not political... We are just little people." All at once I thought of racial segregation in America. Yes, I had spoken out against it — in the safety of a college classroom. But just a few days earlier I had been challenged to do more.

A recruiter for Freedom Summer spoke at the Northwest Conference of United Campus Christian Fellowship. I was attending as a delegate, representing Pacific University. All weekend I had been very vocal about the necessity of ACTING on Christian principles, not just talking about them.

Now this man was giving my own words a new meaning. At first he told about enabling all adult citizens of Mississippi to vote, regardless of color. That meant teaching black people to answer purposely difficult questions about the state constitution. (The same questions were not asked of white applicants.)

"That lets ME out," I thought with some relief. I had only the barest knowledge of my own state's constitution. I'd look like a fool trying to teach anyone else's. Then the recruiter told about Freedom Schools and community centers. "If adults come to voting classes and teen-agers come to the Freedom School, someone will have to look after the younger children." He went on to explain how this was to be not merely babysitting" but a real learning experience. As he elaborated, describing exactly the type of activities I had been doing with children for years, I felt my comfortable excuse crumbling out from under me like a badly warped stepladder.

After the presentation, I picked up an application form and filled it out. While I was still dithering about whether to mail it or not, I saw Judgment at Nuremberg.

Sending the application was an act of faith; I had no idea how I would proceed if I were accepted. Traveling to Oxford, Ohio, a place of which I had never heard, was another. It involved an arduous bus trip five nights and four days, including one night In a bus station. I was alone until transferring to a local bus in a small town in Indiana. There I met a few other volunteers on their way to Oxford.

The training sessions at Western College for Women made me feel like a kindergartner thrust into the sixth grade. I could define "participatory democracy" for a test but I never had written to a Congressman, much less taken part in a demonstration. I didn't even know the songs.

The first morning we learned that three of our men were missing in Neshoba County. Not mincing words, Bob Moses informed us that when people disappeared at night in Mississippi, "missing" meant "dead." The same thing could happen to any one of us.

Yet at no time did I doubt I should be there. Sometimes I wondered why; often I wondered what I would do and how on earth I could possibly be useful; but never did I use the question word "IF." It did not occur to me I might have made a mistake in coming. I KNEW I was meant to be exactly where I was. That is faith. In my case, it led to a unique type of activism.

There is a saying, "God doesn't call the qualified; He qualifies the called." I discovered the truth of that during training. By the end of the week I felt a part of the group. I even helped with a drama workshop.

Many times in the years since Mississippi I have caught myself thinking, "I can't do this!" only to find out that I can. Not everyone can do the same things — and how boring it would be if we did! But everyone can do something. God planned it that way.

Copyright © August 2004, Fran O'Brien

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