Lift Every Voice
(See more of these amazing firefly images at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2539185/Shining-examples-natures-beauty-Mesmering-images-fireflies-U-S-caught-using-long-exposure-photography.html)
We celebrated the life and teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. this morning at church. As part of our commemoration, one of our congregational hymns was “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” It’s such a beautiful and moving song. And one summer ensured that my heart leaps each time I hear it.
I’d never even heard it until the summer of 1991. It was my final summer of five working with developmentally disabled kids at Camp Sparrowwood, part of the United Methodist Camp Glisson in Dahlonega, Georgia. Our leadership team had worked each summer to find ways to integrate our campers into activities with the Village and Pioneer camps, which happened concurrently with Sparrowwood sessions. That last year we took a big step and founded a mini-session of a fully integrated outdoor camping experience at our “outback” Pioneer camp.
We took six highly functioning intellectually disabled kids and six “non-disabled” kids. And then, well, we just had camp. Nothing inherently special. We hiked. We sang. We got dirty. We slept in platform tents. We prayed. We canoed. We cooked. We did the high elements course. We worshiped. We ate smores. And we sat around the campfire.
One of my favorite things about Pioneer camp was sitting around the fire circle at night. The camp was situated in a big clearing surrounded by mountainous woods. At night, you could warm yourself by the fire and look out to the woodline and see the fireflies flashing on and on and on through the darkness. It was a wonderous light show that always left me in awe, and still makes my heart skip a beat when I think about it today.
One night we had finished our dinner and were all relaxing around the fire. I think we might have been having our camp talent show. One of our campers was a shy, tiny little African-American girl with long braids, who was about eleven years old and, to me, the worst kind of “intellectually disabled.” Just “disabled” enough to test into a label and way smart enough to know that she was living with stigma. She was enjoying camp, but was just one of those kids who was happy to sit quietly, smile sweetly and only speak when spoken to. I think we’d heard about five quiet, small words out of her all week.
So we were all surprised when her counselor spoke up and said the girl wanted to sing a song. We weren’t really sure what to expect. And then that beautiful little girl stood up with the greatest confidence and belted out the clearest, sweetest, most heartfelt rendition of “Lift Every Voice And Sing” that I have heard in my life. (I’ve got goosebumps right this second just writing about it.)
It was stunning. It was like all the air was sucked right out of that mountain valley. She sang through that dark night and the fireflies blinked their secret messages and the fire blazed and popped. And God was real. He was right there with us. The darkness wasn’t defeated, but it was overtaken by the light that night. All because one brave little girl lifted her voice.