January comes to a close and we now greet February, the second month of this new year. For all of us, we live in a time of great change. For many of us, the majority of these changes are not welcome as we continue into Donald Trump’s presidency of the United States. As many have said, we have no choice but to protest. In fact, a new moniker has come out to describe our state of being: protest nation.
Many opportunities will come our way to speak out and to act out in protest. But we must also remember that each of us is human and we have limits. We cannot do all things that need to be done. That leads to burnout. When that happens, we are no good to ourselves let alone to others. We are in this for the long haul. We can trust our inner voice, which I believe is also God’s/Spirit’s voice within, to guide us. As we listen and honor this interior wisdom, we will know when to speak and when to act.
Lessons Learned from 19th-Century L. Maria Child
My doctoral dissertation explored the relationship between politics and religion in the career of L. Maria Child (1802-1880). She was one of the most well-known authors and activists of her time. She published over 55 books and wrote hundreds of periodical sketched and editorials. She was a long-time activist fighting to end the enslavement of black men, women, and children; advocated equal rights for freed people; fought for female suffrage; stood up for American Indian cultural survival; and desired religious toleration.
My introduction to Maria came at the beginning of my PhD when I took a course on the history of abolitionism. Our professor wanted us to write a paper on one of the abolitionists who had been in the struggle for decades. He desired for us to explore how they stayed the course for so long. I chose Maria as a fellow white activist and ally plus the common feature of both of us being writers. She converted to abolitionism in 1831. She continued as a reformer until her death in 1880, working in all of the campaigns just mentioned.
As to be expected, much needed to be done. Many times, her colleagues urged her to be involved in all kinds of activities. In her early years, she indeed did that, although writing was always her primary social-change tool. From the early 1830s through mid-1840s, she worked through the official anti-slavery societies, even being one of the first female officers of the American Anti-Slavery Society in the 1840s. In 1841, when she and her husband accepted the co-editorship of that society’s publication, the National Anti-Slavery Standard, she became the first female editor of a national newspaper dealing with political issues in the United States. She had a baptism by fire when she entered the anti-slavery fight. In 1833, she published the first political and economic analysis of slavery in the United States, An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans. This volume propelled her to the front lines of the nascent movement.
Maria and her husband David also engaged in petition drives, going door to door in whatever community they lived. In the 1830s, David became involved in the Free Soil movement which advocated products made by workers who were not enslaved. Sugar from cane was the number one global product made by enslaved men, women, and children. David and colleagues pursued sugar beet farming and manufacture as an alternative. He even traveled to France and Germany in the mid-1830s to learn how to farm the crop and then glean the sugar. This meant moving from Boston to Northampton in central Massachusetts. In addition to being a farming community, this city was a vacation spot for Southerners. Being rural and so close to slave owners (literally, one of their neighbors) did not set well with Maria. However, she knew their efforts with the sugar beets were vital for the cause, so she survived the best she could during those farming years.
Beyond these actions that Maria and David did in the abolitionist movement, they constantly were asked to do more. For instance, since Maria’s written voice was so powerful, many implored her to do public speaking. She refused. For her, that was not an option although she fought for the right of other women to do so. After 1843, Maria chose to withdraw from the formal anti-slavery societies due to so much in-fighting. She was burned out. She chose to focus exclusively on her writing. She eloquently communicated this discernment process in an 1846 letter to friend Francis Shaw:
Some, for instance, would convince me that I am doing very wrong not to attend reformatory meetings, to be on their committees, to draw up reports, help settle disputes, visit prison, & c. But when I try to do these things, I feel that I am going out of my own life, into something which is to me artificial, and therefore false. My own appropriate mission is obviously that of a writer; and I am convinced that I can do more good to my own race by working in that way; infusing, as I must necessarily do, principles in favor of peace, universal freedom, & c. into all I write.
Maria and David courageously took part in many different activities in this needed protest movement of their day. When she began to experience burn out, she did not listen to her body. She continued to push herself beyond what she could endure, ending up in almost total burnout which included a legal separation from her husband. She remained committed to abolitionism as well as the other reform movements that caught her time and attention. Through her discernment process, she stopped doing what others thought she should do and began listening deeply to her own inner voice and guidance.
A Dream from a Few Years Ago that Speaks to Me Now
Like Maria, I, too, have been involved in a multitude of activist actions over the years. One of the primary goals of my life is to help make this world a better place. I started out as a social worker, went to seminary, got ordained, and worked in community ministry for 22 years. During my doctorate, several of us were involved in a three-year student movement,
protesting power abuses at our seminary which included institutional racism. Eight of us were arrested and jailed at the beginning of a 31-day hunger strike that involved five of us. As one of my professors aptly described, I became radicalized during that time. I have marched for civil rights and protested U.S. wars, especially our second invasion of Iraq. Always, yet especially now in our current climate, I keep abreast of the news and sign and send numerous petitions and letters to elected officials and leaders. I write blogs like this and continue to bring forward silenced or forgotten voices from the past. They powerfully speak to us in our current situation.
I remain open to other activist actions as I feel called. During this time, I am reminded of a dream I had a few years ago. In it, my inner voice guided me to go stand with a young Latina woman and her two children. We were on a boat. That guidance did not make sense to me as she was just fine. So, I went ahead and disembarked. As I glanced back, I was dismayed to see that she had been detained by some type of officials. My intuition, in the dream, told me that if I had just gone over to her as my inner voice wanted me to do, she and her children would have gotten off the boat with me with no problem.
Upon awakening from this dream, I vowed to myself that I will listen to my inner voice, to God/dess within. I will speak when called to speak, write when called to write, do other actions when called to do so. I will not hesitate. I can trust that guidance even when, like in the dream, I do not initially understand. I encourage each of us in this direction. Our voices and actions are needed, NOW.
 LMC to Francis Shaw, 3 August 1846 (from New York), in Milton Meltzer and Patricia G. Holland, eds., Lydia Maria Child: Selected Letters, 1817-1880 (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1982), 228.