Vincent Harding: In Our Cloud of Witnesses
Vincent Harding died on Monday. One of my most important and dearest mentors is gone; there are countless other people across America — indeed, around the world — who are feeling the same as me.
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But he really hasn’t gone; his memory and presence will continue on with us in a “cloud of witnesses,” which is the most important thing Vincent ever taught me.
At the Illiff School of Theology in Denver — the last place he worked and taught — Vincent’s title was “Professor of Religion and Social Transformation.” That was apt for someone who spent his life teaching and showing how faith was meant to transform the world, beginning with our own lives.
The first time I met Vincent Harding was at a talk he gave at Eastern Mennonite University titled something like “The People Around Martin Luther King Jr.” We expected to hear about all the famous civil right leaders from the movement. Instead, he spoke of those who had gone before, often many years before King, who had shaped, inspired, and sustained him like a family tree, a community of faith, or “a cloud of witnesses.”
This historian of the civil rights movement, this respected author, this professor who was also a practitioner, this friend and even speechwriter for Martin Luther King Jr. (including his remarkable and historic speech against the War in Vietnam at Riverside Church), this man, and his beloved late wife Rosemarie, were part of the inner circle of the southern freedom movement. Vincent Harding was a teacher, mentor, elder, encourager, spiritual director, and chief cheerleader — in the deepest sense of that word — for legions of people.
Vincent became a contributing editor for Sojourners , and came to our community many times, often to lead retreats. The two of us met often, whenever we were together in the same places around the country. In February 1985, he preached a sermon at Sojourners Community worship on Hebrews 10, 11, and 12 called
“In the Company of the Faithful.”
I invite you to read this sermon over this Memorial weekend in memory of Vincent Harding so you too can be mentored by him. Some of us think it is one of the best articles ever published in Sojourners.
This marvelous text from the book of Hebrews describes our “heroes of faith,” the men and women who have gone before us, suffered incredible things, often dying without seeing success, and yet remained faithful.
Here are the people. Here are the beautiful, suffering, overcoming people … faithful ones tortured, refusing to accept release; the people suffering mocking, scourging, chains, imprisonment; and some stoned, some cut in two, some going around in caves and in deserts.
What a wild company we belong to! I mean, do you understand? These are our foreparents. Do you understand? These are the founders of our faith. Do you understand? These are the old alumni. These are the ones who established the "institution" — these wild people, persecuted people, afflicted people, impractical people, going-out-not-knowing-where-they're-going people.
In grand conclusion to the famous recitation of faith leaders in Hebrews 12 begins like this:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
Harding recounts names of our more recent cloud of witnesses: like Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Clarence Jordon, Thomas Merton, Oscar Romero, Malcolm X, Gandhi, among others. All their pictures, along with others, are on a wall in my home office where I am writing this piece. My own “family tree” hovers over me as I think, write, and decide what I am going to next do to live out my own faith.
Vincent focuses, in particular, on the powerful meaning of Hebrews 11:39.
And all these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.
Harding says this great cloud of witnesses in the book of Hebrews and those that have come after them are heroes “whose fulfillment cannot take place without our own.” That’s why they are “like a great cheering squad for us.” Vincent would lift up for me a vivid picture of our battling in the dirt and mud of the field, while Dorothy, Martin, and all our friends were now sitting in the bleachers, on the sidelines, literally and enthusiastically cheering for us. He says, “In the midst of everything that seems so difficult, that seems so powerful, that seems so overwhelming, they are saying to us: ‘We are with you,’ and ‘There is a way through; there is a way to stand; there is a way to move; there is a way to hope; there is a way to believe. Don't give up!’
And this is not only about the “heroes,” but for all of us as people of faith, Vincent always reminded us. “Living in faith is knowing that even though our little work, our little seed, our little brick, our little block may not make the whole thing, the whole thing exists in the mind of God, and that whether or not we are there to see the whole thing is not the most important matter. The most important thing is whether we have entered into the process.”
Vincent Harding taught me about the company of the faithful as a living reality, a community of those who have gone before but now care about us because we are part of them and they are a part of us, “citizens of a country that does not yet exist — and yet does.” The letter to the Hebrews is about the visionaries and leaders who "died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen it, and greeted it from afar" (Hebrews 11:13).
“To know them, to know that they are present,” says Vincent Harding, “is to know that regardless of how alone we feel sometimes, we are never alone. We are never alone: nowhere, no how, in nothing. Never.”
Vincent’s picture now goes up on my “wall of faith.” And my vivid memories of him will help me remember that I am never alone. Vincent Harding will be still be, one of the best cheerleaders I ever had.
Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, The (Un)Common Good: How the Gospel Brings Hope to a World Divided will be released in paperback this summer. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.