The Leadership Center for Social Justice Podcast

Hospitality, Compassion and the Transformative Power of Love: A Conversation with Rachel E. Harding

February 07, 2024 Rachel E. Harding Season 2 Episode 9
Hospitality, Compassion and the Transformative Power of Love: A Conversation with Rachel E. Harding
The Leadership Center for Social Justice Podcast
More Info
The Leadership Center for Social Justice Podcast
Hospitality, Compassion and the Transformative Power of Love: A Conversation with Rachel E. Harding
Feb 07, 2024 Season 2 Episode 9
Rachel E. Harding

This episode features a conversation with Rachel E. Harding. Rachel is an associate professor of Indigenous Spiritual traditions in the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado, Denver. Rachel also co-directs the Veterans of Hope project, a community initiative on religion, creativity, and inclusive democracy. A native of Georgia, she is a writer, historian, and poet, and a specialist in religions of the Afro-Atlantic diaspora. In her scholarship, she examines the relationship between religion, creativity, and social justice activism in cross-cultural perspective.

In this episode, Rachel shares about the book that she wrote with her mother, Rosemarie Freeney Harding, Remnants: A Memoir of Spirit, Activism and Mothering. Rachel shares stories about the spirit and the faith that sustained social justice work in her family's life and in her own life.


-Remnants: A Memoir of Spirit, Activism and Mothering

-The Veterans of Hope Project

-Rachel E. Harding Website

Episode Transcription available here

Host: Ry O. Siggelkow

Producer: Adam Pfuhl

Podcast Engineer: Michael Moua

Music: Kavyesh Kaviraj

Episode Recorded on December 4th, 2023

You can find out more about the Leadership Center for Social Justice on our website and on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Show Notes Transcript

This episode features a conversation with Rachel E. Harding. Rachel is an associate professor of Indigenous Spiritual traditions in the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado, Denver. Rachel also co-directs the Veterans of Hope project, a community initiative on religion, creativity, and inclusive democracy. A native of Georgia, she is a writer, historian, and poet, and a specialist in religions of the Afro-Atlantic diaspora. In her scholarship, she examines the relationship between religion, creativity, and social justice activism in cross-cultural perspective.

In this episode, Rachel shares about the book that she wrote with her mother, Rosemarie Freeney Harding, Remnants: A Memoir of Spirit, Activism and Mothering. Rachel shares stories about the spirit and the faith that sustained social justice work in her family's life and in her own life.


-Remnants: A Memoir of Spirit, Activism and Mothering

-The Veterans of Hope Project

-Rachel E. Harding Website

Episode Transcription available here

Host: Ry O. Siggelkow

Producer: Adam Pfuhl

Podcast Engineer: Michael Moua

Music: Kavyesh Kaviraj

Episode Recorded on December 4th, 2023

You can find out more about the Leadership Center for Social Justice on our website and on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

In Conversation with Rachel E. Harding

Ry Siggelkow [00:00:01] You're listening to the podcast of the Leadership Center for Social Justice at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. We seek to open a space for critical theological conversations about pressing social issues we face in our world today. Thanks for listening. Hello everybody. I'm Ry Siggelkow and I direct the Leadership Center for Social Justice at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. 

Today, I am excited to be in conversation with Rachel Harding, associate professor of Indigenous Spiritual traditions in the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado, Denver. Rachel also co-directs the Veterans of Hope project, a community initiative on religion, creativity, and inclusive democracy. A native of Georgia, she is a writer, historian, and poet, and a specialist in religions of the Afro-Atlantic diaspora. In her scholarship, she examines the relationship between religion, creativity, and social justice activism in cross-cultural perspective. Doctor Harding is author of A Refuge in Thunder: Candomblé and Alternative Spaces of Blackness and Remnants: A Memoir of Spirit, Activism, and Mothering, which combines her own writings with the autobiographical reflections of her late mother, Rosemary Freeney Harding. The book explores their family history and the role of compassion and spirituality in African-American social justice organizing. Welcome to the podcast, Rachel. 

Rachel Harding [00:01:58] It's my pleasure to be here, Ry. Thank you for the invitation. 

Ry Siggelkow [00:02:02] Rachel, it's really fantastic to be talking with you. I didn't mention this in my introduction, but I should say that I initially came to you and your work through the writings of your late father, Vincent Harding. Now, some listeners may already be familiar with that name, Vincent Harding. He was a veteran of the Southern black freedom movement, a scholar and an important figure in the formation of the field of black studies with his leadership at the Institute of the Black World. He was an author of several significant books as well. 

But for me, I first encountered your father's work when I became a Mennonite pastor. Among the many other things that they were, your father and mother were also Mennonites. I didn't grow up Mennonite, and I was mostly unfamiliar with Mennonite culture before joining a congregation and then eventually becoming a pastor in 2015. I was initially drawn to the Mennonites as a young person because of their strong antiwar position, their connection to the Anabaptists of the 16th century, and their history of activism and conscientious objection. I was 18 when 9/11 happened, and I was appalled by the Christian support of the US led invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. And so I joined the Mennonite church as a kind of safe haven. And then when I became a pastor several years later, which was right after the uprisings in Ferguson, Missouri, and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement here in Minneapolis, one of my first public experiences as a pastor, was joining an occupation of the Fourth Precinct building of the Minneapolis Police Department following the murder of Jamar Clark. And I remember preaching and teaching during this time period and looking for resources within the Mennonite tradition to respond to racism. 

And I quickly encountered the work of your father, Vincent Harding, and specifically his writings on Black power in Mennonite periodicals and journals in the late 1960s. And they were so inspiring, so helpful for me. He spoke over and over again of the need for Mennonites to make their peace stance count when it came to the issue of racism, and to draw on their long tradition of radical non conformism. And so your father's work became a very important theological guide for me for the next several years. In a way, I felt like he sort of became my pastor as I was seeking to pastor a white progressive congregation during those years. So I just wanted to mention that by way of background before we began our conversation. 

And I'm wondering if you could perhaps share with us by way of introduction. And I'm sure you get asked this question a lot, but I wonder if you could talk about your experience growing up as a child of parents so deeply committed and engaged in the black freedom movement as an expression of their very expansive faith? I mean, I know there were a number of movement people all around you growing up, and I wonder what that was like for you and how it shaped you. 

Rachel Harding [00:05:23] Well, thank you for the question. And just for the opportunity to reflect on those times and on the impact of growing up the child of movement activists. I recently got an email from someone who I may have met, likely met, when we were very young because he too was the child of movement activists in Atlanta. And he had heard another podcast that I did last year. And the two of us were just exchanging memories of that time and how significant it was to grow up in the context of a large, or what felt to us at the time certainly, like a large group of people who had an incredible vision for what is possible in the country, for the kinds of changes that needed to happen, but also for a new sense of what kind of multiracial democracy could exist in this place. And so I would say for me and, in my conversations with my younger brother, he has similar thoughts, although his experience was a little different because he's almost four years younger than me. But we talk a lot about growing up in a context of just believing very deeply in the possibilities of the nation. And I think that we inherited that from our parents, who, because of the nature of the work that they were doing in the southern freedom movement, and then for the rest of their lives in social justice movements, movements for compassionate social, racial, gender, economic transformation in this country. 

We just inherited the belief that something much better is possible, something much more humane, something much more compassionate. Not only as possible, but we had little tastes of it because of the kinds of people who they were friends with, who they were aligned with, people who were creating community schools with different kinds of values, people who were creating organizations. I remember in particular, by the time I was a teen and in my early 20s, lots of solidarity work with Central America, with Southern African freedom movements and all of that grew out of my parents southern freedom movement experience and the insistence, the strong understanding that the struggles and visions and possibilities for African Americans are integrally intertwined with the visions and the possibilities and the struggles of other people in this country and outside of this country who are fighting for a new meaning of humanity. 

Ry Siggelkow [00:09:03] Wow, thank you for sharing that. Well you open this book, Remnants: A Memoir of Spirit, Activism and Mothering. This really is a gorgeous book that you wrote with your mother, Rosemary Freeney Harding. And you open it with this incredible poem. Or is it a prayer? I'm not quite sure. Perhaps a combination of both. But I wonder if you could, if you'd be willing to, to read that for us. That opening poem. 

Rachel Harding [00:09:34] Yes. So I'll read the beginning of the Précis and then I'll read the first paragraph of the initial section as well that follows it. This is Foreword: Daughter's Précis. "There is no scarcity. There is no shortage, no lack of love, of compassion, of joy in the world. There is enough. There is more than enough. Only fear and greed make us think otherwise. No one need starve. There is enough land and enough food. No one need die of thirst. There is enough water. No one need live without mercy. There is no end to grace. And we are all instruments of grace. The more we give it, the more we share it. The more we use it, the more God makes. There is no scarcity of love. There is plenty and always more. This is the universe my mother lived in. Her words, her ways. This is the universe she was raised in by parents from rural Georgia who came up in the generation after slavery. People who had lived with many terrors but who knew terror was not God's final say. This is the universe she taught me. Whatever I call religion is this inclusive Christian, indigenous, Black, southern cosmology of compassion and connectedness. It is the poetry of my mother's life". 

Ry Siggelkow [00:11:35] Thank you for reading that in your own voice. I've read it to some of the pastors in my program here at the Leadership Center as a way to sort of open our time together. And I find that many people are moved by these words. This poem, this prayer, it forms sort of the heart of the book's themes, the story of your mother's life. And I'm wondering if you could unpack this prayer for us. 

What does it mean to make these radical affirmations of abundance? Where does such an expansive sense of faith, of love, of grace, of the earth and its abundance for all come from? And what are its fruits? The fruit of that vision. 

Rachel Harding [00:12:31] Wonderful questions. Yes. Well. Oh. Those are wonderful questions, and I think they're really important questions for us, always, but in some particular ways, now. Because that sense of abundance, of connectedness, of just a deep value that is shared among all lifeforms is something that I think my mother inherited from her parents, who got it from their parents. And my sense, and this is a combination of just years of living with my mother and hearing her many, many stories of family, particularly her relationship with my grandmother, but then also my own study of indigenous traditions, particularly African and Afro-Atlantic traditions. You know, indigenous peoples all over the world have various ways of understanding and remembering connections to the universal forces, the forces of water, of fire, of Earth, that sustain us, more than anything else in the world sustains us. These forces of nature are what created us and keep us here. And so I remember some conversations with my mom as I was studying in a formal way, these traditions. And she would talk about what she learned just being a child in a southern African American household. 

Now, she was born in Chicago, but the family was from southwest Georgia and brought with them, like many of the migrants who moved north and west in the last century, in that great migration, they carried their understandings of what it is to be human in the world. And I think it's really both in some ways, it's amazing. In some ways it's important, it's beautiful to recognize that these people who the larger economic, social, political structures of the society had worked so hard to dehumanize, to devalue, to violate in many ways, were holding on to another understanding of not only who we are as African-Americans, but who everybody who is human is. People who by and large refused to hold inhuman, unhuman visions, even of the people who oppress them. 

So my sense is that a lot of that, you know, came out of the spiritual understandings and the choices about how to live human lives even in the midst of tremendous oppression, and to live those lives in such a way that you are constantly creating an alternative to that oppression, that you are constantly creating resistance to it. Whether it's in the culture, whether it's in the words, in the language, whether it's in the way that people interact with each other, within families, within communities, or whether it's a more directed kind of resistance to structures of injustice. Anyway, my sense is that it was in the culture. It was in Southern African American culture. And it came there or it was put there by the indigenous understandings that Africans brought with them to this land and that they found and cultivated in relationship with Native Americans, where those relationships were able to happen. 

Ry Siggelkow [00:17:30] Yeah, much of the book then seems to be sort of stories or examples of these expressions of compassion, of connectedness. In one of the early chapters of the book, your mother recalls stories about her great grandmother, referred to by the family as Grandma Ry. Ry with an e not my name, Ry. Grandma Rye loved to fish. She was an herbalist, a teacher, and a healer. And she had also been a slave. The way of her living; her connection to water, fishing, plants, roots and herbs. And her silence. What the book calls "her mystic attention to the world" maintains a powerful, almost ghostly presence throughout the pages of the book. 

Can you tell us about Grandma Rye; her presence in this book and in your lives, and about her prayers for the generations that came after her? 

Rachel Harding [00:18:42] Yes. Well. So. Grandma Rye is the furthest back that we know in the family that we have been able to trace. Like many, if not most, African American families, it's difficult for us to trace our lineage through documentation. Not impossible by any means, but it's difficult because black people were considered property. Even in places where notations were made by slave holders, oftentimes the names of individuals were not included. It was just their name, their ages, their gender, and the roles that they played as enslaved people. But our family stories, our oral histories are places where many of the characteristics, the values, perhaps the things that the people themselves really wanted us to remember are maintained. 

And so in the case of Mariah Grant, of Grandma Rye, Mama Rye, what we understand is that she was a slave in Florida, and it appears that she was sold from Virginia. And we're not clear whether she herself was one of those folks who was brought over from West Africa, likely after the official end of the slave trade when, for a while, a number of of shipments of people continued to various parts of the slave states. So we're not sure whether she was actually the one who came or whether it was her mother. And then perhaps she was born here in North America. But in any case, the story is that she was in Virginia and as a young girl was sold to Florida and worked for a man who owned at least one boat, maybe a small shipping line that carried cargo up and down the Atlantic coast, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina. And she cooked for this person and, we believe, had a couple of children by him and then was able to later on have children with a man of her choosing. And she was a healer, as you said. That's the biggest piece of what we remember in the stories now. You know, more than 100 years since her time with us. We remember stories about her cooking. We remember stories about her healing people with different kinds of teas and different kinds of herbs. 

And I think for my mom in particular, Mama Rye, Grandma Rye, represented the two kinds of energy. She represented a kind of contemplative energy. She loved to fish. And as anybody who fishes regularly knows, there's a lot of quiet involved in fishing and a kind of a meditative spirit is helpful for catching fish. And so she carried that and she carried this energy of healing. My aunt, my mother's older sister, Auntie Alma, told the story of, and she remembered Grandma Rye as a child in Leesburg, Georgia. And she remembered Grandma Rye praying for the well-being of the family. And in the prayer, she would pray not only for her children and her grandchildren, but her grandchildren's children and their children and their children. Just an intense prayer for healing and well-being that just was sent out along her lineage, to those who had not even been born yet, to those whose parents and grandparents hadn't been born yet, she was sending that energy. And so that's one of the ways that we, in the family, remember her and I think she represents for us the power of lineage and care. 

And even when we aren't always able to physically be in the same place because, you know, like lots of families in this country, particularly African-American families, we have really been scattered, since the 60s and 70s. We were concentrated first in southwest Georgia. Then almost everybody moved together to Chicago. And, since the the changes in the country, economic and political changes in the country, especially since the late 70s and, and then tremendously the 80s, the Reagan era, lots of the kinds of jobs that people were doing in factories and otherwise were lost. And so people had to move. So we are now everywhere. We're in Las Vegas and Denver and Arizona and some folks are back in Georgia. We're in Ohio. And it's not as easy to stay connected as it was when we could just walk around the corner the way my mother talked about in the book and visit aunts and cousins. But there is something still, in that lineage, that is related to what our ancestors hoped for us and prayed for us that I think, connects us, those of us who are present now and the generations that come from us. 

Ry Siggelkow [00:25:52] Your mother's parents, Doc and Ella Freeney, in the book, they are referred to as Mama and Daddy Freeney. So as you mentioned, they left Georgia for Chicago in the early 20th century. I don't know if you named the year exactly, but the reason was in Daddy Freeney's words, "I wanted my sons to live". It's difficult to imagine the intensity of terror that black people experienced in the South in those years, and the fear with which most black people lived. And yet your mother describes the way her parents spoke of the South, what they told her and what they left untold in a way that seems almost ambivalent about white people and their ways.

I wonder if you could read for us a bit from that section of the book that tells the stories of how Mama and Daddy Freeney would speak about the South and what they would tell and not tell. 

Rachel Harding [00:26:59] Yes, yes. Okay. I'm happy to do that. And just before I read, I want to say, I don't know if it's so much an ambivalence. What it is in my understanding, and I've had some wonderful conversations with the great, public theologian Ruby Sales about this in recent years, is that one of the ways black people survived that horror in the South was by not centering white people. So even though we had to be aware, clearly, of what the legal restrictions were for our moving and our doing. Somehow our ancestors did not center that, those restrictions in their lives and, clearly, black religion, black family, black education, these three institutions that were in many ways under the control of the black community, or certainly, we had more control of those institutions than other kinds of institutions. These were places where just tremendous effort was put into making sure that black people, especially black young people, knew that their potential was unlimited. And that sounds like a contradiction in a Jim Crow segregationist, racist society. But again, that's some of the I don't want to, you know, I don't want to... The word that immediately comes to my mind is magic. But I don't want to say that in a way that diminishes the intellectual richness and acuity that was required for people to create, you know, within the limitations. 

There was just, and you hear I mean, if you read the stories of black folks who grew up in segregation, there just so many of these stories of how powerful the emphasis within the black community was on making sure people knew they were loved, making sure people knew that there were possibilities for them. And that's what that's where the energy of the movement came from was people who believed that there was another way for them to live. So I'm just saying, you know, white people, yes. You know, you had to deal with them, but you didn't center them in the fullness of your humanity. You could not. If you did that, that would be very dangerous for you, you know? Okay. So I just wanted to say that before reading this piece.


Ry Siggelkow [00:30:05] Thank you so much. 

Rachel Harding [00:30:07] Oh. You're welcome. "There were lessons, indirect perhaps, in the choices my parents made". And again, this is my mother's voice. I'm talking about my grandparents, my mother's parents. 

"There were lessons, indirect perhaps, in the choices my parents made about telling stories of their lives down south. I think they were conscious of the impressions left by brutal memories, and they used reticence and discretion to point toward an alternative. The absence of a full reporting in my childhood of the southern horrors was not so much that mom and dad wanted us to live in simple minded obliviousness. Rather, they wanted us to always hold a basic respect for other human beings, even for people who might victimize us. They wanted us to be able to develop our own spirits without undue prejudice, not to be so burdened by disdain that we couldn't grow our souls. I think they understood that the terror they went through, stark as it was, was not the last word in human experience, and that there are cords deeper and more resilient than racism can ever be. And they wanted to give us access there". 

Ry Siggelkow[00:31:35] Wow. And there are a number of stories in the book about how Mama and Daddy Freeney lived their lives, how they lived out their commitments. What is sometimes referred to in the book as their simple religiosity. There's one instance when your mother describes some young people shoplifting from the family grocery store, and how Mama Freeney responded with grace and generosity of spirit. And there's another instance in the book where we learn about the awful murder of your mother's older brother, Bud. And here again, Mama Freeney's response to his killing is not to press charges and not to retaliate. This is an important moment in the book, because it is the point at which your mother shares about how she learned about nonviolence from how her parents responded to her brother's death. And that became then an important connecting point when she later joined the Mennonites. 

I suppose the question here, I guess I have is about the theme of nonviolence in the book and its importance in your mother's upbringing. And then later, of course, in her life's work. How do you understand its meaning and power in these stories? Clearly, it's much more than some kind of passivity in relation to violence or in relation to racism. But how would you describe it, Rachel? 

Rachel Harding [00:33:03] Okay. Well, it might help, if I give a little more background on that story that you were indicating, Ry. It's a story that I remember my mom telling me numerous times, and that I heard some parts of from other members of the family. Her brother, Bud, was the second oldest son and was just one of the members of the family who was just really beloved. He was someone who really looked out for family members. He was very gregarious. At the time he was working, if I'm not mistaken, as a bouncer at a club. And one of the patrons got into a fight with him and stabbed him. And he died from those wounds. And the piece about my grandmother and grandfather deciding not to press charges. I think, your listeners would be helped to understand that this was in the context of, my grandparents saying, "you know, this young man has killed somebody. And what more can you suffer when you've killed somebody". And knowing that these were two young black men. If I'm not mistaken, this was in the late, oh mid-forties, I think. Early to mid 40s when my uncle was killed and so there was already the context in Chicago, of the violence against the community from police and from other sources. And so my grandparents were thinking in this larger context about what to do that might be useful. What did the family need? What did this young man who had killed their son need? And in terms of what the family needed, at that moment, was just togetherness and the kind of comfort and strength and just being together that people do when you lose somebody. 

So my mother's story was about how aunts and cousins and friends, people just flooded the house and that there were people there almost 24 hours, for days and days and days, 24 hours a day for many days, and food and crying and just being together. Because now that Bud was gone, there's no way to bring him back. And so the choices have to be made around what do you do that enables you to continue? And so on the one hand, there was that energy around just supporting the family, the brothers and sisters, the parents, the cousins, uncles and aunts. And then on the other hand, how do you respond to this other child of the community, this other young person who had done this violence?  And, as my mom tells the story, she said, her brother Bud was known for his capacity to and his desire and capacity to take care of himself and his family members. And so she said she thought that the person who killed him may have been so overwhelmed, almost with fear that he just, instead of just hitting him 1 or 2 times and wounding him, he killed him. And my mom said that that may have been out of some fear as well. But in any case, my grandparents decided that whatever that young man was dealing with, having killed their son, was enough for him to struggle with for the rest of his life that he didn't need to go to prison. I would start my response there.

The other thing I would say is, my grandparents and I think particularly of my grandmother and my mother too, always had an understanding that there was, there's a time. There's a season. There's a time for everything in the world or in life, in the universe. And there may be times when violence is called for. But in their understanding, that was not one of the times. That was not a time when a violent response or a response that would cause that young man even more trauma and pain was needed. That was not one of those times. 

Ry Siggelkow [00:39:22] So it wasn't necessarily some kind of principled commitment to nonviolence, but it does reflect this deep sense of, I mean, even the way you spoke about it, right? In response to a tragedy like this, what is most needed? To be together as a family to heal. 

Rachel Harding [00:39:43] Yes. 

Ry Siggelkow [00:39:44] What is not needed is to punish someone or get revenge. I mean, I didn't hear any of that from what you were saying. Right. And I guess that that's such an important lesson because our society says the opposite, right? I mean, it's inverted, right? I mean, a society that imprisons, that tortures, that punishes, that gets revenge, that goes to war. Right? Yeah. There's such a depth of, there's this practical depth and theological and philosophical depth about how they acted in response to this event that had this impact, as you say, on your mother or as the book says, on her life.

Rachel Harding [00:40:43] Yeah. And I think she did. I mean, I'll just add, particularly since she passed, you know, after she passed, she passed in 2004, you know, family members began to share other stories with me about her because I grew up in Atlanta. Most of the family was in Chicago. And although we would go almost every holiday season, Christmas and many summers, you know, I didn't have the constancy of the large family in my life. I did have some individual cousins who lived with us for a number of years, which was magnificent, for which I'm, to this day, tremendously grateful. But I wasn't in the thick of just all the family stories when I was growing up. 

So when my mom passed, I remember my Aunt Mildred and some other cousins talking about how my mother always did seem to have a reconciling spirit. That there was that energy in the family anyway. But mom, in particular, had some of that. And so I think that her, and, you know, I won't go into all of the detail about it, I certainly will encourage people to read Remnants for more information about this. But her attraction to the Mennonites was both, recognizing some of that peacemaking energy that was in the family, that was in her, and that she saw in the Mennonites, and frankly, a way to understand and cultivate some of the mystic experiences that she had from early in her life. Certainly, you know, her early teens and then in a particular way, in her late teens, she began to have some really powerful mystic experiences as she was looking for a spiritual religious structure to help encourage that. And, it just so happened that her older sister, my Auntie Alma, had already joined one of the mission churches of the Mennonites on the West Side of Chicago. And because my mom so admired and loved her big sister and said, whatever Alma's doing must be good. So I'm going to go and try that, too. That was, you know, another way that she got into the Mennonite fold. 

Ry Siggelkow [00:43:34] Sure. Well, in the early 1960s, your father and mother left Chicago for Atlanta, Georgia. They were commissioned by the Mennonite Central Committee to start a ministry called Mennonite House. Your mother saw this as a return of sorts, a kind of homecoming. While in Atlanta, your mother and father connected with civil rights organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Congress on Racial Equality, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and also the then newly formed Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC. They also connected with Koinonia Farm and Quaker House, and I know this was a formative time for them. 

One of the things that I've been thinking a lot about lately is this idea of accompaniment as a practice of ministry for social justice. We see this theme appear in the reflections of Archbishop Oscar Romero before his death. And more recently, I have encountered this theme in the life and work of Staughton and Alice Lynd, two Quakers whom I know were very close friends of your mother and father, particularly during this time period, I think, is when they first met.

In the book, your mother talks about the practice of hospitality as an important part of their ministry at Mennonite House. And she also shares about the radical meaning of accompaniment. And I wondered if you could speak to some of these themes, but also if you could, if you'd be willing to read again for us from this part of the book, it's pages 160 to 162, and perhaps talk to us a bit about what accompaniment meant for your parents and how that connected to their commitment in the struggle for social justice. 

Rachel Harding [00:45:28] Okay. Yes. Thank you. Maybe I'll start with the reading. This is a section called A Radical Meaning of Accompaniment. 

Ry Siggelkow [00:45:38] Yeah, I love this. I love this section so much. 

Rachel Harding [00:45:43] "And yet it is not simply nonviolence per se that I'm speaking of here. Really, it is a meaning of accompaniment, a kind of radical compassion that understands the essential nature of human relations and the essential nature of human divine relations to be one of shared experience. There are two traditional gospel songs my daughter likes to sing that helped me conceptualize this idea in a more concrete way. One of them is we shall walk through the valley in peace, and the other is you've got to stand your test in judgment. On the face of things, these two songs seem to be carrying opposite meanings. The first one states we shall walk through the valley in peace. We shall walk through the valley in peace. If Jesus himself shall be our leader, we shall walk through the valley in peace. 

It continues with a verse that says, there will be no dying there. And then repeats the original lines. If the valley is understood, as it often is in Christian imagery, as a place of difficulty, of trial, of suffering, as in the valley of the shadow of death, then the message of the song seems very clearly to be one of safety in the presence of spirit. In this case, Jesus. The second song, a call and response is sung, you got to stand. You got to stand your test in judgment. Test in judgment. You got to stand. You got to stand it for yourself. For yourself. There's nobody here. Nobody here to stand it for you. Stand it for you. You got to stand it for yourself. For yourself. Further verses saying, you got to walk that lonesome valley. My mother had to stand her test in judgment, and my Jesus had to stand his test in judgment. 

Here, the immediate impression suggests that the tests of the spirit, the so-called dark nights of the soul that all human beings experience are experienced at an individual level alone, and that the correctness of one's choices in these times is ultimately one's own responsibility. The examples of people like the Tibetan Lamas with whom I studied, and many of my friends from the movement days, as well as my own experience and the lessons I received from my family, offer a way of understanding both of these songs in terms of the radical meaning of accompaniment. A kind of connection to the divine and to other human beings that allows us to experience the juxtaposition between the reality of the valley and its terrible loneliness, and the simultaneous reality of accompaniment, compassion.

 In the first song, it bears emphasizing that the words are we shall walk. Which suggests multiple levels of accompaniment, that of human beings sharing tribulation together, and that of the presence of spirit as an essential companion to humanity. In the second song, the shared experience of the valley of the judgment test is not so immediately clear. But if we understand it, especially if we sing it with an attempt to discern a meaning of accompaniment, we can experience it that way. As I mentioned, the song is a call and response. At a very basic level, that structure in itself mitigates the idea of a completely individual, unaccompanied experience of trial. You got to stand. Yes. But immediately following comes an affirmation from outside oneself. You got to stand. In effect, the second voice, or the choir is a corresponding presence, a company for the first. 

And while we all have experiences of deep, personal, even spiritual crisis in which it seems as if nobody was there, I believe that at the most fundamental and most transcendent levels of our experience as human beings, we are never left alone. There's always accompaniment. There are always remnants. What I sensed in the radical acts of compassion of Clarence, Marion and the Lamas was the effort to live, to act from such an understanding of the human community. We are all part of one another, and none of our judgments is truly separate". 

Ry Siggelkow [00:51:58] That is so beautiful and you have a gorgeous voice, Rachel. I didn't know that. And I grew up in a family of singers too, so I mean the importance of song, right? And building community and being connected to one another and also lifting each other up, I guess I know that from experience. 

And I think about Mennonite House. I was never there, of course, and the kind of space that must have been for people coming through. The kinds of transformative experiences that people would have when that is the tone, that is within the context of a struggle that cost many people their lives. I mean, the risks that people were taking, right? I mean, I remember your father. I think I heard it in an interview, once, about these three men who were murdered. It was, I think it was the beginning of 1964, that summer of 1964, when he, I believe it was in Ohio. 

Rachel Harding [00:53:09] Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner.

Ry Siggelkow [00:53:10] That's right. 

Rachel Harding [00:53:11] Yeah. Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner. They were killed in Mississippi. 

Ry Siggelkow [00:53:18] Yeah. Well, I just am now recalling that story because Staughton Lynd talks about this story too. It happened in the beginning of the summer of 1964, when folks that had been doing training, I think at the time, were on their way to Mississippi. 

Rachel Harding [00:53:37] Freedom Summer. 

Ry Siggelkow [00:53:39]  Bob Moses was there, your father was there, and Staughton Lynd was there. And these young men were killed. And Bob Moses had to share this with the group and then say to folks, these volunteers who were going to go to Mississippi for the summer, had to say to folks, you know, these are the risks. And if you're not able to do this, no one's going to judge you. You can go home. And everyone, pretty much everyone decided to stay.

And your father talks about it in one interview. People singing together. Kumbaya. I think it was. And he said, you know, people joke about Kumbaya, and turn that into as if it's this sort of corny song. But he's like, I don't believe that because of this experience that I had where people were really together in that moment, lifting each other up. And I mean that to me is one of the huge things we have to learn from this book and from your parents and perhaps this tradition that they have been a part of, they were a part of during that time. But yeah, I can. I almost smell the smells of the food and hear the songs of Mennonite House right now as you were singing. 

Rachel Harding [00:54:59] Good, good. Well. Yes, I would just add to what you said, Ry, and that is, a powerful story of the three workers, the freedom Summer workers. Two Jewish brothers and one black brother from Mississippi, the two Jewish workers were, if I'm not mistaken, from New York, and had gone down and had been working, all three of them had been working in the black community in Mississippi as part of organizing drives for voter registration and other kinds of organizing. And they disappeared, and ultimately were found to have been murdered, right in the midst of this training, as you said, that was happening, in Yellow Springs, Ohio, getting dozens of young people from all over the country, many from colleges, primarily white colleges in the north and northeast. But also, black young people from outside of the south too, who were coming to just support and to do a major effort to break down segregation in Mississippi, which at the time was understood as if not the, worst bastion of Jim Crow and racism in the country, it certainly was in the top 2 or 3. 

So, your point about the power of the singing is something that I just want to really affirm and highlight a bit more because it is related, as you suggested yourself, Ry, to the tradition that the freedom movement grew out of, and that is the tradition of African American spirituality, African American religion and the role of congregational singing as a form, a resource, a tool for building strength when you are afraid, when you are threatened, when you are in danger. 

Bernice Johnson Reagan, just the extraordinary cultural anthropologist and composer, a singer, founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock and who was also, one of the founding members of the SNCC Freedom Singers. And in various interviews that she's done over the years talks about black people using music, particularly using congregational singing, acapella singing as a way to change the energy in a space. And so, if you and your listeners may know, almost always before demonstrations, before protests, before actions, people would meet often in churches and just sing for hours and hours and hours and call up that energy, call up that spirit, that accompanying spirit, the divine spirit, the ancestral spirit, the spirit of the land. And go out then into the street with a sense of feeling the way, Bernice talks about it almost as if you're impermeable. Ultimately, of course you're not. But you do feel this incredible energy of protection and accompaniment that allows you then to do things that you might not have had the strength or the courage to do without if you hadn't called up that spirit through the music, the collective singing. That was a very, very, very powerful resource in the movement. So, I'm glad that you raised that in the conversation. 

Ry Siggelkow [00:59:41] Yes. Yeah. Weapons of the spirit. I think you know, through that singing, it's a different kind of weapon. Yeah. I recently assigned this book, Remnants, in a class I taught here at United on the mission of the church in the world. And actually, I suggested that your parents were missionaries of a certain sort. I ask students to peruse the back of the book, where there is an incredibly useful list of people referred to as freedom movement colleagues and spiritual teachers. And anyone that picks up this book, don't forget about that part of the book. You have to go back and look at and read through this list of remarkable people. And I asked students to choose a figure that interested them from that list, and to learn more about them, and to present a profile to the class about their life and their work. 

I know that sharing the stories of these people's lives was so important to your mother and father, and in part, this is what led to the creation, if I'm not mistaken, of the Veterans of Hope project, which you now co-direct. And by the way, students found the website very useful, the Veterans of Hope website, as they were researching for their profile presentations, because the site actually has links to a number of interviews with these Veterans of Hope. I'm wondering if you could share about the Veterans of Hope project, and why you think it remains important to continue to share the stories of these freedom movement colleagues and these spiritual teachers. 

Rachel Harding [01:01:15] Great. Yes. Thank you. Well, one of these days, I really should either you know, in an interview context or just, you know, making an audiotape for my own use or writing I really want to write some about the origins of the Veterans of Hope project and, where this came from, because they're they're different vertents. And it's a fascinating story. 

One of the first pieces is actually my parents' involvement with Black Side, which was a black owned film production company based in Boston, run by Henry Hampton. And those who are familiar with, the extraordinary civil rights history that was done in video, a film forum called Eyes On The Prize may recognize the name of Black Side, that's the company that put that together. And just parenthetically, lots of extraordinary people, documentarians, Llewellyn Smith, Sam Pollard, Judy Richardson, lots of folks who have gone on to do tremendous work since that time. Since the 80s and early 90s who got some important parts of their training in the Black Side context. 

Anyway, my dad and mom were advisors to that series, Eyes On The Prize, and I remember just seeing my daddy come alive in the context of the production schools, which would be sometimes up to a week of lectures and conversations and preparing the producing teams to do the work of research and interviewing and then, you know, filming and editing. They would bring together scholars and activists and artists who were involved in the movement to give context and give information and encouragement to the production teams. And so my dad was a part of that, and I was able to sit in on a couple of those gatherings, and then later on I did some work with Black Side too. But I just remember him just getting so deeply moved and encouraged and of course, his book, Hope and History: Why We Must Share the Story of the Movement, was written kind of as an accompaniment to that series, particularly for teachers. Because for my dad, and you're right, I think in a lot of ways, they both saw themselves in the broadest and best sense of the term missionary, missionaries for this new vision of what the country could be. Grounded in a spirituality of hope, grounded in a spirituality of knowing, unflinchingly, the deepest and truest history of the country and knowing that it is both, as James Baldwin said, and I'm paraphrasing here, both more terrible and more beautiful than we can imagine. 

Anyway, so part of the beginnings of it were in that context where I think he began to see some more possibilities for the work of sharing the stories of the movement. And when Henry Hampton passed, I think my dad really felt something of a responsibility and a deep desire to in his own way. You know, he wasn't a filmmaker in the same way, but he certainly was someone who could gather the stories of, in the case of many of the people who were interviewed for the Veterans of Hope project, these were folks who were colleagues and friends of my parents and who worked with them, both in the southern freedom movement and in other movements that they were involved in in the 70s, 80s and 90s up until the end of their lives. That's what my mom and dad did. They just did social justice organizing work with all kinds of groups, from labor organizations to, as I was saying earlier in the conversation, solidarity organizations, lots of racial justice work. And they then culled from those relationships, these conversations with people, some of whom are more well known, like, you know, Andrew Young and Julian Bond, and some very few people know, but whose stories are profound and profoundly important to the history of grassroots social justice organizing in the country. 

So, I won't go into all of the other things that helped stimulate it. But, you know, I've been watching movies, documentaries that a lot of the Black Side alumni, so to speak, have made recently. And I keep thinking about how powerful and how important Black Side was as a training ground. And then how inspirational it was for my father and for my mother and how that helped them decide that they needed to continue gathering these stories of people who, grounded in some meaning of spirituality or religion, very broadly defined. You know, there were folks, a lot of folks who identified as Christian, but also people who were Muslims, people who were involved in indigenous religions, Buddhist people, folks who were connected to Judaism. But who all were doing profound grassroots social justice work from some connection to something beyond themselves, something beyond their own kind of personal human existence. 

And so, when my dad passed, actually starting a year or two before he passed, we arranged for Emory University to host the archive. There are more than 70 longform interviews with activists, with people who are involved in the movement, social justice movements of the last third of the 20th century. And those are available. Almost all of them have been digitized now, and some clips are available on the  Veterans of Hope project website. But the larger archive is at Emory and one of our hopes and plans for the not too distant future is to get funding to link the Veterans of Hope projects website with the materials at Emory so that people can easily get access to the full range of what we have gathered. And so that was kind of the heart of the Veterans of Hope project. We're gathering those stories, really with the intention of inspiring another generation of young people and older people, people of all ages who have a feeling that something else, something wonderful is possible in this country. And to know that there are people who have come before you who also held that vision and who were willing, as you said, Ry, to take the risks, often significant risks, to stand up against the powers that be that did not want and still, unfortunately, do not want the the wonderfulness of a multiracial, multicultural, multilingual, multi-faith, beautiful country that this place has the possibility to be. But there are folks throughout our history and particularly, in that period from the mid 1950s through the end of the 20th century, beginning of the 21st century, where there was just tremendous organizing, tremendous kind of intersectional connections around making this country a more humane place. 

And so my parents were involved in gathering up those stories and sharing them with as many people as possible. We were able to do a collection of about 12 edited interviews with study guides. And then the others are, as I said, available in long form, still kind of in the original interviews. So that was a key piece. 

And then, in general, we would do these interviews in Denver, in some cases, we traveled when people were not well enough to come or for other reasons, it made sense to go to them. But oftentimes we were able to bring people to Denver. The Veterans of Hope project, for many years, was based at the Iliff School of Theology, where my dad was a professor, and we would do cultural and educational events related to the visits of the people. So, for example, when poet and activist Sonia Sanchez came, she came several times. Once she did a class on poetry and the Spirituality of Activism at Iliff. And she did poetry readings in the community. We had, oh, God, my dear teacher, mentor, Charles Long, who has since passed, but one of the great historians of African-American religion came and taught a course with David Carrasco, just another luminary in History of Religions. David works more on Mesoamerican traditions but they are both, they were colleagues, friends. David was a student of Doctor Long, and they came and taught together. And so we would, you know, do classes at Iliff, we would do programs in the Denver community. 

And then one of the pieces that I was, and still am, particularly thrilled by and love of the Veterans of Hope project work is the international connection. So we interviewed artists and activists from Guatemala, from Mexico, from Brazil, and then developed a study abroad or study tour program. Taking students, faculty, community members, religious leaders from the United States who were interested in learning about the Afro-Brazilian struggle for human rights, about the role of Afro indigenous religion in that struggle, about that history. We would take people to Salvador, Bahia, sometimes to Rio as well, and then bring elders from the Candomblé tradition and from the Afro-Brazilian rights movement, to the US to be available for churches and schools and universities to be in conversation with others who are looking at these issues of racial justice in relationship to religion and spirituality. And so there are other kinds of things that we have lots of, you know, lots of programs. But the heart of the work was gathering the stories. 

And so, since my parents have both passed, we've continued, as I said, making sure that the archive as a whole is now in a place where it can be accessed and used by students and teachers and filmmakers and others who are interested. And we're also now continuing our work with the international piece. I still take groups to Brazil and bring folks from particularly Salvador, Bahia, the northeast of Brazil, every other year or so for conversations, for retreats, for lectures,  in various places, sometimes churches, as I said, sometimes universities and schools. And we have a wonderful collaboration now with a BIPOC yoga teacher training organization, called Satya Yoga, here in the Denver area. It was founded by a wonderful sister Lakshmi, who understands yoga as essentially a way of doing compassion centered activism in the world. And so it's not simply a matter of movements, of postures, but really recognizing that the meaning of the tradition is a meaning of not only personal transformation, but societal transformation and giving people the resources to be able to do that long term. 

Because that was one of the concerns of the project initially is how to both share the stories and then encourage the continuing process of people doing this work long term. And that requires spaces of healing, spaces of rest, spaces of connection, beyond the personal connection to the natural world, connection to, as I was saying at the outset, the forces of the universe that sustain us. So we're always looking for ways to recognize these links between the activist work and the work of building community and building health and wellbeing for those who are committed to the activist work. 

Ry Siggelkow [01:17:33] Thank you so much for sharing about that history. And then, you know, especially now what you're up to with and putting your own expertise into it, your own passions as this develops and grows, which I know is also critical, right? As we bring our own spirits into these things, and they are enfolded. We draw from the past and we move it into the future and make new connections. And yeah, it's very inspiring. We need to share these stories. I mean, you know, you described your father's face, the energy that he had when he was participating in the Eyes On The Prize film. And, you know, he was inspired, it seems, by all these stories of people that he knew. And that's why he needed to share it. He needed to share the good news, you know, especially in this time now. 

It's so easy to despair, Rachel. It's so easy to look at the future and think what are we going to do? And you know, when we begin to despair like that and when we begin to fear, right, we begin to isolate ourselves. We begin to think in terms of scarcity, right? Where we start holding on tightly to the little bit of thing that we have. Right? We protect ourselves against the other. We build walls, we arm ourselves. Right? I mean, we see that at the structural level within how nation states do this. But as individuals, we do that too. And we isolate ourselves and disconnect from others. 

And so your work with Veterans of Hope, your family's work, your writing, and I mean, what I see in this tradition is an invitation to listen to the stories that have come before and pay attention to the people in your own life that bear witness to a different way of living that isn't determined by what the social structure is and by what the media want us to think and do, but instead a different way of living, a different way of connecting with compassion. And it's also this ecological dimension I hear a lot of as you talk. This connection to water, to fire, our fundamental interconnectedness with all that that lives and breathes. So yeah, I want to thank you so much, Rachel, for taking time to have this conversation. I've learned so much from you. And I want to recommend again for readers to pick up Remnants, to visit those archives that you spoke of, and to follow what's going on with Veterans of Hope. And yeah to continue on this struggle we need the sustenance of one another that includes the singing and the sharing of stories and the living it. So thank you so much, Rachel, for your time. 

Rachel Harding [01:20:40] Oh, it has been my absolute pleasure. Thank you very much, Ry, for inviting me and for your own work in keeping this visioning and this determining that we can and should and will be a more humane society. And I'm just glad for your role in reminding us of what's possible. And thank you for the invitation to join you today. 

Ry Siggelkow [01:21:11] Thank you. Take care. 

Rachel Harding [01:21:14] All right, you too. Bye.


Stella Pearce [01:21:20] Thank you for listening to the Leadership Center for Social Justice podcast. To learn more about the center and its programs, visit Or follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter at United_LCSJ.