Lessons from Louis Gregory: Detachment and Responsibility
March 27, 2011
A particular comment in Louis Gregory's biography struck me as illustrating the combination of personal responsibility and material detachment in Reinhold Niebuhr famous prayer, "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference."
Not having marked it, I'll never find the exact passage. In Gregory's journeys throughout the south in the '20s through late '30s, he typically found himself traveling by train. As a black man, he was always subjected to the worst riding conditions: for instance, riding directly behind, and in the dust of, the coal truck. But he was not one to complain about this or try to change his immediate fate. This applies equally to the appalling lack of hotel, restaurant, and other public accommodations for traveling African Americans.
Having disembarked, he would proceed to give sometimes half a dozen talks a day, extolling the need for unity amongst the races. He preached the gospels of forgiveness and cooperation. While his public audiences were largely black, they not infrequently included skeptical whites who were moved enough by the contents of his talks as to offer him congratulations and warm words afterward. And in his more private interviews with the Bahá'ís and other admirers across the region, he constantly encouraged and accompanied them in their struggle to understand, and overcome, the limits of their prejudices.
Gregory saw this work as his personal responsibility. While he could find the patience to be resigned and detached from the difficult travel conditions, he also had the courage to speak up and work to quicken the change in hearts and minds, which would in turn change words and actions.