Uncle Vincent, A Man Who Could See

Sunday, May 25, 2014 - 5:59am
Uncle Vincent, A Man Who Could See

A young preacher remembers the legendary Vincent Harding and "his gift of sight to help us see ourselves and each other."

Commentary by:
Lucas Johnson,  guest contributor
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Credit: Steve Pavey

Vincent Gordon Harding’s death is being grieved and his life is being celebrated all over the world. From courageous activists in Palestine to visionary leaders in Detroit, to the young men and women of the Atlanta University Center, there are thousands of people who will never be the same because of his life and his willingness to live it faithfully, earnestly, and lovingly.

This man of Harlem and the South Bronx, this son of Mabel Lydia Broome named Vincent Gordon Harding was a gift. Through tears I give thanks to God for him. Through tears I give thanks for being seen by him, known by him, and loved by him. To describe what he meant to me in the brief time I knew him seems impossible, but I can attempt to testify to a grace-filled life that I knew and saw with my own eyes.

It’s not only that he could recall for us the visits to brother Martin’s body at Sisters Chapel or the conversations he had with “Jimmy” Baldwin about American democracy; that ability to recall was a great weapon against this forgetful and alienating culture. Against the alienation, against the dismembering, Uncle Vincent had another power too — he could remember. And by remember, what I mean is that he could see. Or rather, he had the gift of sight that must have been passed down from the Spirit that so permeated his life and community.

Amid so much blindness, this gentle man could see. He could see us, each of us whom he encountered. He did not see the caricatures of ourselves, not what our ideological commitments had made us, or our fear had tricked us into becoming. He could see in us who we were destined to be: more fully human. And he used his gift of sight to help us see ourselves and each other.

Credit: Steve Pavey

He helped us to re-member, not just from where but from whom we had come and to whom we belong. This country, this world, can be so splintering, so alienating, and mean, especially when one is young, when one is black, when one is gay, and when one has been wounded in the many battles for freedom in this, his home country with countless ways to imprison one's soul. By pointing behind us, to a man killed years ago, he helped us to see forward. By helping us see within us, to the love we have attempted to kill, he helped us see beyond.

There was strength, a remarkable strength, even until the end of his life in a hospital in Philly. This was a man who knew how to wrestle: with difficult questions, with powerful adversaries, with fear, with life, with death, and with God. Though I am still crying, I cannot help but give thanks for the gift he was. This remarkable, beautiful man loved me and showed me how to love others more deeply, more consistently than anyone I had seen before. I called him Uncle Vincent, and he was known and loved by my family. I have to give thanks to his family who shared him lovingly with so many and I am grieving with them.

Many of us are trying now to do what he told us to do after every phone call or encounter: to be strong. His encouragement of strength was not a sentimental phrase to be spoken, it was a real sending forth, given in hope and wisdom born of years in the struggle.

He knew that the work that we are called to do, the work of” building up a new world” as he sang it, requires strength. It requires strength beyond which any one person can possess. We have to be strong. It may be that a bullet will take our lives when we are young, but ”be prepared to be in the struggle for 50, 60, or 80 years he told us.” Are you ready? I can hear him asking, Are we ready?

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Lucas Johnson is a pastor and Southeast & Mid-Atlantic Regional Coordinator of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation. He also serves on its international committee and the board of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America.

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7Reflections

And testify you did...it was truly a blessing to read. You see too, just like your Uncle- thank you for sharing this eloquent memoriam. A gift he was and will continue to be through you and all those lives he made good differences in- may he continue to inspire.

Thank you for sharing this.

My condolences for your loss.

I'm grateful to the folks at On Being, who introduced so many of us to him. Though I did not know him, I am encouraged and inspired by him.

Thank you for this wonderful essay on this great man

Well written article. People like Vincent Harding deserve to be talked about after having passed away. This way he can continue to serve as an inspiration and an impact for the people from his direct environment as well as from different communities. The values according to which Harding lived are basic rules, really. Yet we tend to oversee them as a result of an overwhelming amount of secondary information. Nowadays the dedication to subjects like philosophy, ethics and other social sciences is somehow frowned upon because it is considered unproductive and unprofitable. People take it for granted thinking it is a natural ability to practice the right values without having to reflect. Long story short: We need people like Vincent Harding that give themselves over to making the world a better place as a couter-measure to the mostly unnoticed developments we are currently in...

Bless you...

Beautiful memorial, Lucas, thank you.

your words make me smile... and bring tears to my eyes.

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