I don't cry easily. I almost never cry. But all at one moment, watching the inauguration, a geyser of tears erupted from deep within me. My body convulsed with deep emotion, unable to stuff the tears back to the hidden place from which they suddenly had come.
There had been no tears the night before…even though my church's Martin Luther King Day celebration had touched me deeply. I had read from a sermon preached by Dr. King at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church on April 7, 1957, the year he and Rev. Joseph Lowery founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The words were powerful. But they did not moved me to tears.
A musical setting of Dr. King's last words from the night before his assassination had hushed us all to silence. "I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountain top… And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the Promised Land."
I had felt the shudder of sorrow and hope, but the words did not release the tears.
Throughout the next morning I wondered why I was so unmoved by the ceremony of the inauguration. I was watching, but it wasn't touching me. I was a distant observer…until… until Yitzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma begin to play that sweet Shaker hymn "'Tis a Gift to Be Simple" … and the camera zooms in on the smiling face of Yo-Yo Ma with his cello. His face is beaming with joy! And now the camera moves to the President-elect sitting serenely, his posture erect, his head bowed, his eyes closed, the look of a man at prayer and peace. And I lose it. Tears and vocal sobs gush up in me like a geyser of tears blocked up for years.
They are strange tears, like none other I have ever felt. It confuses me. I wonder what they're about. It feels like joy. A joy I have not felt for a long time. Joy… and hope… that something really new is happening. Joy that all the struggles and all the marches that wore holes in my generation's shoes on behalf of civil rights and peace have brought us to this indescribably holy moment that transcends the old divisions.
For sure, the tears that rise up in me are tears of joy. But they're also about something else. They feel like the convulsing sobs of a prisoner released from prison. They come from a hidden well of poison -- the well of deep grief stuffed away over all the years because of all the marches, all the beatings, all the blood, the well of buried anger -- the silent tears of grief over the America we had almost lost.
Then I realize: Only the appearance of joy and hope can release such deep grief. It was the joy on Yo-Yo Ma's face that finally released the poison locked inside my soul. It is the joy and hope of a new generation that's able to take us where my generation cannot -- free of the taint of sore feet and scars and old grudges the new President says we must move past.
The inauguration felt like that moment -- a kind of ritual cleansing where grief gives way to joy and hope for a better tomorrow…where, in the words of Dr. Joseph Lowery's benediction, the silenced voice of his dear friend Martin once again rang out across the Washington Mall: "God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, Thou who hast brought us thus far on our way, Thou who hast by Thy might led us into the light: Keep us forever in the path."
-- Rev. Gordon Steward is pastor at Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska