Who have been the mentors in your life—not just people who gave you professional advice, but those who shared important lessons about how to live a good life?
After the Children’s Defense Fund’s last Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry CDF began the CDF Proctor Institute Book Club—a new opportunity to explore books that complement and enhance the spiritual growth, insights, commitment to justice, and community nurtured at our annual Proctor. It is open to everyone and especially relevant for faith communities interested in child advocacy because it will help people focus on the importance of continuing child advocacy ministry year-round. November’s selection is Lanterns: A Memoir of Mentors, which I wrote to share the stories of some of the people who helped shape my life and some of whom helped transform our national life like Fannie Lou Hamer, Robert F. Kennedy, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Several were my college and graduate school teachers and role models including historian Howard Zinn at Spelman College and Yale chaplain William Sloane Coffin Jr., with whom I lived during my law school years. But my greatest mentors were my parents and community co-parents in my South Carolina hometown like Miz Tee, Miz Lucy, Miz Kate, and Miz Amie.
In the preface to Lanterns I share how blessed I felt to be born who I was, where I was, when I was, and with the parents I had. As a Black girl child growing up in a small segregated southern town, I could never take anything for granted and never for a moment lacked a purpose worth fighting, living, and dying for, or an opportunity to make a difference if I wanted to. I was richly blessed with parents and community elders who nurtured me and other children and tried to live what they preached. They believed in God, in family, in education, and in helping others and that service is the rent each of us pays for living.
I cannot recall a single one of my childhood mentors ever talking about how to get a job but rather how to find a purpose worth living for which would leave the world better than I found it. They emphasized education, excellence, and service—not career. If I were excellent I’d have less trouble securing a job—even as a young Black person. I can’t remember the clothes a single one of them wore or the kind of car they drove or whether they drove a car at all. What I do remember is their integrity, courage in the face of adversity, perseverance, and shared passion for justice and a better life for children—their own and other people’s—and for education as a means to the end of helping others and leaving the world a better place. With one exception, Charles E. Merrill, Jr., son of the scion of the Merrill Lynch brokerage firm who chaired the Morehouse College Board of Trustees during the presidency of Dr. Benjamin Mays, none had much money. Some had none and lived hand-to-mouth by the grace of God and friends. And Charles Merrill knew money was a means to help others and not an end. He used his to give dozens of young women and men like me and Alice Walker a chance to travel and study abroad and experience the world he had been privileged to see and share with others.
Many of my mentors were well educated but many had little or no formal education so I learned early not to equate wisdom with a degree. But they valued education and were very astute about life. Some of the wisest words I have heard and most important lessons I have learned did not come from Harvard or Yale or Princeton or law school or Ph.D. trained mouths. They came from poor women and men educated in the school of life and fighting against daunting odds. Their books were struggle. Their pencils and pens were sharpened by poverty and racial discrimination. Their mother wit was created by the daily battle for survival. Their inner faith was nourished by their outer losses. Their eyes were riveted on searching for and doing God’s will rather than human ways, and their standards were divine rather than human justice.
How many of us were blessed to have lanterns like these? Every new generation of children desperately needs adults who will be these kinds of mentors for them and every adult can commit or recommit to finding new ways to encourage and share their wisdom with the young people they know right now. As we enter this season of thanksgiving the best way to thank those who were mentors to each of us is to follow their example and light the way for others.