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Free to Be: Keeping Faith in the Time of Pandemic

Reverend Anne Felton Hines

May 17, 2020

In 1974, when my daughter would have been 8 or 9 years old, and my son only a year old, a children’s book was published by the Ms. Foundation, called Free to Be You and Me; many of you may remember it. The story Liora and I read earlier comes from that book.

It was the brainchild of actress Marlo Thomas, and had other great stories in it by a variety of authors – like the one about a princess who refuses to get married before exploring the world; or a girl who insists that “ladies” must always go first, and so gets eaten by lions!

There were songs included like “It’s Alright to Cry,” which gives boys permission to cry; “William’s Doll,” which affirms that it’s good for boys to play with dolls; and the title song, “Free to Be You and Me.”

I often read the stories to my children when the book came out, in hopes that they might escape some of the messages still coming from the wider culture about what and who they were supposed to be, based on their gender.

Shortly after the book was published, a group of entertainers collaborated with Thomas to turn it into a television special, which was even more engaging than the book. (It’s quite delightful to watch football player Rosie Grier sing “It’s Alright to Cry.”) Eventually, a recording was made of all the stories and songs, which my children and I listened to often.

I was reminded of the book and TV show a couple of weeks ago while watching the mini-series, Mrs. America, which is a dramatization of the struggle to pass the Equal Rights Amendment back in the late 1960s and early ‘70s.

So I’m sitting on my couch watching the latest episode of “Mrs. America,” which ends with Gloria Steinem and her boyfriend joining another couple to watch the TV special created from the book, “Free to Be You and Me.” Suddenly I’m right back there with them in 1974, filled with anticipation and waiting eagerly for the show to begin. I watch with them as it opens with the title song: “There’s a land that I see, where the children run free, and I say it ain’t far to this land from where we are.”

And with no warning, sitting in my living room in 2020, I suddenly burst into tears – not just a few quiet tears, but loud, controllable sobs. My heart feels as if it were breaking. “What has happened to our country,” I think. “What happened to those dreams we had back then, when we thought we could do anything and change the world?!”

For the last three years, we have been witnessing what I believe to be a steady dismantling of our Democracy – a shredding of our American ideals. As I’ve watched many of the institutions that are supposed to protect us from tyranny become a part of it, my despair and cynicism has only deepened.

But before the pandemic arrived, there were always actions I could take – marches and rallies that would be seen by the nation and beyond; gatherings of like-minded people that would inspire me to not give up. Before the pandemic, I was able to keep a glimpse of that feeling that we could do anything – that we could make a difference.

But that day sitting on my couch, remembering those visions of 50 years ago – the hope that I’d held back then for the future of my children and my eventual grandchildren – I felt overwhelmed with despair and hopelessness; I had completely lost my faith.

But then, a day or two later, I received Jeanne Parent’s report to the Fellowship Board, in which she talked about how, despite Covid-19 suspending visitations to immigrants in detention, she and others have been writing letters to the detainees, and advocating on their behalf.

Her report told how KWESI has been participating in on-line meetings with faith leaders from around the state to figure out how to provide post-release services in case any detainees get released during this “stay-at-home” time.

I spoke with Nancy Renfro, and learned that she – with help from Don – has been making face masks for a Buffalo Soldiers project, and that Elaine LeCain has joined them in that effort. To date they’ve probably delivered some 300 masks for distribution to black churches and other organizations in Bakersfield.

And I learned that Sabrina James has been making masks for the Bakersfield AIDS Project.

I learned that many of you from our Fellowship have not allowed this pandemic to diminish your faith that you can make a difference, no matter how hopeless things may appear; you are all an inspiration to me.

You reminded me that the way to keep faith during this difficult time is to make sure we do something beyond ourselves. The way to keep at bay debilitating despair about what’s happening in our country is to stay involved with those organizations that have inspired us – have called to us in the past, and call to us now to walk with them – only now, the walking, the marching, the rallying, will be done primarily from home, with our hands and with the help of technology.

After watching that episode of Mrs. America, I posted on Facebook my “meltdown” upon hearing the song “Free to Be You and Me,” and the despair I was feeling. Almost immediately I began receiving responses: “You are not alone, my friend” said one; “Yes, I feel the same way!” said another. But my daughter wrote: “I watched that episode of Mrs. America also, and I started singing along. I didn’t even know I still knew the words. Hope that puts a smile on your face.”

Which it did. In fact, it prompted me to order the book, since I’d given it away when I retired; I ordered two copies, actually, so I could give one to my daughter. It has already brought a smile to her face.

We are living in a fearful and challenging time, and it can be easy to slip into despair and even apathy as we stay in our homes. It can be tempting to let go of our faith that we can make a difference in the world.

So it is imperative to remember that we are not alone, you and I; and that we can and must continue to work for our common vision of “a land where the children – all children – run free.” We must keep faith that it’s not far from where we are now.

May this always be so; amen.

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