The Gates of Hope

The Gates of Hope

This article was adapted from The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear (Basic Books,


In his book On the Rez, Ian Frazier tells a story about South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation. In the fall of 1988 the Pine Ridge girls’ basketball team played an away game in Lead, South Dakota. It was one of those times when the host gym was dense with anti-Indian hostility. Lead fans waved food stamps, yelling fake Indian war cries and epithets like “squaw” and “gut-eater.” Usually, the Pine Ridge girls made their entrances according to height, led by the tallest seniors. When they hesitated to face the hostile crowd, a 14-year-old freshman named SuAnne offered to go first. She surprised her teammates and silenced the crowd by performing the Lakota shawl dance–“graceful and modest and show-offy all at the same time,” in Frazier’s words–and then singing in Lakota. SuAnne managed to reverse the crowd’s hostility–until they even cheered and applauded. “Of course, Pine Ridge went on to win the game.”

Here’s another story of daring, of the meeting of our passion and the world’s great hunger for justice: Thirty years ago, to march in the streets of any city, as a gay man or a lesbian, openly, took wild courage, outrageous imagination. But there was more. Those who were there tell us that once you have glimpsed the world as it might be, as it ought to be, as it’s going to be (however that vision appears to you), it is impossible to live anymore compliant and complacent in the world as it is.

To march was a dangerous risk. But not to was a risk of another kind–of living half-dead, with no name, unremembered, in the dark, surviving on scraps and the pious ultimatums of the hate-filled present moment. Why not risk all that, and walk out into the sun in the summer, in the world as it ought to be, thereby bringing it to bear? Why not march and carry on–act out, act up–as if your life depended on it?

I am interested in what Seamus Heaney calls the meeting point of hope and history, where what has happened is met by what we make of it. I am interested in hope on this side of the grave–for me there is no other kind–and in that tidal wave of justice that could rise up if only we would let it.

Six months after 9/11, our Unitarian church had a little evening forum. People were invited simply to share with one another how they were feeling. That was the only agenda and assignment, that small yet huge question; and at least for the first of the two hours, we hoped to live within its discipline. We hoped not to barrel right away into all those noisy Unitarian Universalist opinions, all those articles they’re reading, websites they’ve found, positions they’re defending so ably, and of course the persistently wobbly but heartfelt agenda of the underfunded Social Action Committee. We knew we’d get to all that eventually, but we didn’t want to go there right away.

It was a lucky night. The circle held. When anybody wandered off or lost their way in the dry sands of rhetoric or opinion, the circle gently called them back, so thirsty were these people to connect with one another and with something original, essential, deep in themselves. There were maybe twenty people–high school students, an 82-year-old member and everybody in between. It was not long before they left off speaking about September 11, that particular, precise disaster, and began to talk instead and cogently about September 10, the mutilated world we’d known before but maybe had not seen so clearly, which is in fact the world we live in now.

Sorrow flowed into the room, like a river. Rage, decades old–or new and young and raw–stormed into the circle. Silence made its holy way. And now these were dangerous waters–and as we spoke and heard each other, inevitably we paddled close that night to the deadly shores of cynicism and despondency (which in some communions is a sin). Then someone in the circle, with more presence of mind than I could muster in the moment, saved us all from drowning, saying: “You know we cannot do this all at once. But every day offers every one of us little invitations for resistance, and you make your own responses.” I wrote it down, right then, because this person is prone to neither social activism nor religious language, of any kind, but it was he who said, “It is a sacred offering, the invitation to resistance, and every day you make your own responses.”

He mentioned that story from Pine Ridge, which he’d heard not long before in a Sunday morning service, and he said, “You know, that girl changed the world out there in South Dakota, and I know it because hearing her story has changed me, and ever since I heard it (and I wish I hadn’t heard it), I’m moved to do things which I never would have done. I couldn’t see the way. Or wouldn’t.” He talked about how at his job, in a large corporate setting where he’s some kind of manager, he had placed a four-inch American flag upside down on the outside of his cubicle, because he feels his country is in desperate trouble, that its soul is in trouble, that its soul is sick. “I guess it’s like my shawl dance,” he said–so humbly, so quietly, but with trembling conviction. And we were grateful and amazed.

Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of hope–not the prudent gates of Optimism, which are somewhat narrower; nor the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense; nor the strident gates of Self-Righteousness, which creak on shrill and angry hinges (people cannot hear us there; they cannot pass through); nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of “Everything Is Gonna Be All Right.” But a different, sometimes lonely place, of truth-telling about your own soul first of all and its condition, the place of resistance and defiance, from which you see the world both as it is and as it could be, as it will be; the place from which you glimpse not only struggle but joy in the struggle. And we stand there, beckoning and calling, telling people what we’re seeing, asking them what they see.

With our lives we make our answers all the time, to this ravenous, beautiful, mutilated, gorgeous world. However prophetic our words, it is not enough simply to speak.

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