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  • Writer's pictureMark Koyama

Eulogy for Harriet C. Ward

Rev. Mark Koyama


Harriet Ward at "The Embrace" monument to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr



I grew up in New York City, so I know how to cross a street.  


But I’ve been living in the hills of Western Mass long enough to bury a dog, age another, and raise three children, so, yeah, I suppose my urban instincts are a little rusty. 


Sunday late afternoon, Downtown Crossing.  I’m with Harriet and my son Silas, heading up Tremont Street toward Boston Common.  Churches with tombstones dating back to the revolution catty corner from fluorescent lit fast food joints.  The locals look down and move fast; tourists have bobbleheads, checking out the old steeples, chattering and moving slowly.  


“Whoa!” Harriet yelps. 

“Wassup?”

The curb is deep, and it runs into a gnarly looking gutter.  Harriet eyes it with concern.

“This is a backwards,” she proclaims.

“Alright.”


There is an art to pushing a wheelchair.  Not only that, there is a language to it – at least there is for us. 


“A backwards” is any obstacle big enough to catch the small front wheels – this could be anything from a curb to a patch of rough gravel, to a deep crack in the sidewalk.  Carelessly careening into such a trap could pitch Harriet out onto the asphalt!    The solution is to stop, turn a full 180 degrees and proceed backwards, letting the larger back wheels manage the obstacle.  


The physics of a wheelchair makes going backwards safer than going forward… except of course, that you can’t see what’s coming.  The best thing to do is to go forward, slowly.  But most folks don’t know about slow.  I’m guilty of this too – I forget myself and go too fast.   


When I was first getting to know Harriet, she wouldn’t let me push her in the wheelchair.  


We’d be going somewhere, and it would be taking forever, and I would ask:


“Can I push you?”


And she’d say: “No.”


And I’d sigh, inwardly, and resolve myself to the fact that, wherever we were going, we would eventually get there, and it would probably be OK.


But then, one day, when I asked her, she said “yes.” 

 

But she told me to keep asking.  Asking, from then on, was not about getting permission – I’d gotten that.  Now it was functional – it was about giving her an awareness that her body was about to move through space.

 

I got into the habit of taking hold of the handles of her wheelchair and saying: 


“Are you ready?”


When she said yes, she was ready.  Only then I’d push her.


“Not too fast!”

“Okay, okay!”


**



Reverend Goodwin just read a story for us from the Gospel of John.  I asked him to read this story because it was one of Harriet’s favorite Gospel stories.


The story has two parts.  The first part tells the details of how Jesus encounters and gives sight to a man who had been “blind from birth.”  


The second part of the story narrates how the community responds to the healing of the blind man. 


According to the text, some neighbors asked: 


“Isn’t this the same man who used to sit and beg?”

“Some claimed that he was.”

Others said, “No, he only looks like him.”


To this, the man who was once blind, responds with the essential claim.  

This is the claim – the singular claim that is at the very core of all human experience:


 “I am the man!” he insists.


I claim my story.  This is who I am.  I have integrity.  

No matter who you are, in the eyes of God, you cannot take this away from me!


I claim my self!



Harriet was reaching for a red pepper in the vegetable aisle in the Hannafords when, without warning, someone came up behind her and started pushing her wheelchair. 


“Stop!” she screamed. “What do you think you are doing!”


The man was indignant.  He called her a foul name.


“I was just trying to help,” he said.


She returned the compliment, calling him a foul name.


When she yelled at that man, she was making the claim… 


The man thought: “here is a crippled woman who needs my help.”


No, she insisted. “I am the woman!” 


I claim my story.  This is who I am.  I have integrity.  

No matter who you think you are, in the eyes of God, you cannot take this away from me!




Isn’t it strange?  


We live in a society that requires some people to continually re-assert that claim – the essential claim that 


I am 


But wait.

God too makes this claim!

When Moses, standing in his barefeet in the sand, asks God to reveal God’s name, God replies:


“I am, that I am.” 


So this claim – I am…

Is not just an insistence of identity…

It is the insistence that I am a child of God.


Everywhere she went, throughout her life, people tried to say: “No, she only looks like her.”


And everytime anyone said this to Harriet, she replied:


“I am…”

“I am that woman!”


This insistence was the insistence of Harriet’s life. 


Everywhere she went, she inevitably encountered a deep curb, a patch of rough gravel, a deep crack in the sidewalk – someone who said…


She only looks like a child of God, she is not really a child of God.


They saw a black woman in a wheelchair, and they thought “She must need my help.”


Ugh…


Take a deep breath Harriet…

This is “a backwards.”

We have to take this obstacle slowly.


**


Harriet liked to talk.  Many of our conversations spanned many months.  Something that came up on the phone while I was doing dishes, would reappear weeks later, when we were walking under the trees at Boston common. 


“The problem with “ally” she said, “is that it’s a one way street.”


This was a familiar problem.  I had named the “sacred ally quilt ministry” before I was aware of the rich irony of white people blithely giving themselves the credential, feeling good about themselves, and deciding that racism was not a problem anymore.


“Why is it a white people thing,” she asked.  “Why do they get to be my ally, without my consent?”


“Yeah,”  I was only half listening.  This was old terrain.  Something else was occurring to me. “Hey,” I said, “Isn’t that new Martin Luther King monument  around here somewhere?”


“Yes!” she said eagerly… “I think it is.”


We found the statue.  It’s an odd and beautiful sculpture, that depicts the arms of Dr. King and Corretta Scott King in an embrace.  The arms are there, but no body.  No heads.  This feels peculiar, until you realize that you can stand (or sit) inside the embrace.  You can be inside their love for each other.


Silas and I took a selfie.


Silas took a picture of Harriet and me.


I took a picture of Harriet – that picture is the one that is on the cover of your program.


Look at it.  See her I am face.  A child of God.  A woman of extraordinary integrity. 


“What makes a sacred ally different from an ally,” she said, “is that sacred allyship is a two way street.  You may be my ally, but I am your ally too.”



And so, this eulogy ends in an embrace.


An assertion – an insistence – that I am is not the last essential claim.  I am always seeks we are.


We are.


We are requires trust.


Patience.


This is the great transformation that I learned from Harriet – The art of pushing a wheelchair…


The language of it.


Love is not efficient.


Like making a quilt, it takes time… precious time.  


Yes… It will take longer, but we will get there… eventually.


Amen


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