McMickle: ‘Endure, press on, fight the good fight, finish the race’

Column by Mary Lee Talbot.

“I want to start with a reading from W. E. B. Du Bois’ Prayers for Dark People. It was written for African-American people going through a dark time. The years 1895 to 1925 were the nadir, the darkest and most difficult time for black people. Sharecropping, the KKK rallies and the known lynching of 3,000 black people and maybe as many as 3,000 more, made it a dark time,” said the Rev. Marvin McMickle. He was preaching at the Wednesday 9:15 a.m. Devotional Hour. His topic was “Having the Faith to Endure,” and his text was 2 Timothy 4:1-8.

According to McMickle, Du Bois said that African-Americans must learn to endure to the end, to finish things and to bring them to full fruition. They should not be content with plans, or ambitions or only part of an education. They should “resist the temptation of shirking, but have the grit to endure to the end.”

McMickle continued, “In human nature, we have the tendency to start, but when things become difficult or challenging, our determination lapses and our enthusiasm wanes. We have a whole closet full of books we never finished reading, jobs, projects that never got done, marriages that were never seen to the end, degree programs that never got finished. It was never our intention not to get to the end, but our desire to fulfill the task gave way to ‘I tried; I gave it my best shot.’ ”

Du Bois, in the nadir, counseled people to go forward even when it did not make sense to keep going, to find the grit to endure. McMickle noted that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton used Harriet Tubman as an example of grit in her 2008 Democratic Convention speech.

“Harriet Tubman, who was not content just to be free herself, but wanted others to be free with her, returned 19 times to lead slaves to freedom,” he said. “Before they set out each time, she said to them, in part, ‘When you hear the dogs barking, keep going. When you see the torches in the woods, keep going. When you hear them shouting for you by name, keep going. Don’t ever stop; if you want to taste freedom, keep going.’

“If you don’t like Du Bois and you don’t like Tubman, try Paul. Do you know how many times he could have quit? He did not have to press on and on, but he was not going to surrender. And who said it would be an easy journey? Once you are baptized, are you just supposed to tarry until the Holy Ghost comes to translate you into heaven? The more you take on, the more difficult life will be, but you will learn the language of perseverance. If it comes too easily or too quickly, you will value it too lightly.”

McMickle continued, “But some things can sidetrack us. Don’t be fooled by this 6-foot-5-inch frame; I am terrified of roller coasters. My brother was ruthless in his criticism. I kept thinking, ‘Who in his right mind would get on one of those things?’ But he made me so ashamed of being afraid that I agreed to take a ride.”

There was an amusement park near their home with a roller coaster called the Fireball.

“We got in free, and you only had to pay for the rides,” he said. “But on the way to the rides, there were sideshows, games to try, a house of mirrors.

“I was on my way to the Fireball, but I kept paying out the change I had. When I got to the Fireball, by the grace of God, I had spent all my money. By God’s mercy, I never had to ride it. I intended to, I had the courage to, but I squandered my resources on other things. Don’t let the sideshow allow you to squander the resources you need to do what God has called you to do,” he said.

“Of how many of us could God say: ‘You did it. You never compromised, and you did everything you said you would?’ How many of us could say, ‘I really did fight a good fight.’ Most of us say ‘I started, but because of fear, doubt or uncertainty, I never quite reached the finish line,’ ” McMickle said.

The Tuskegee Airmen, the Red Tails, lived a contradiction, McMickle asserted. They wanted to fight and die for their country at a time when they were considered subhuman. They wanted to defend their country in the air. They were told they were not qualified, but they became the single most successful air combat unit in history.

“Why?” McMickle asked. “They learned from their commander, Benjamin O. Davis. He taught them how to endure. Davis was the first black man to graduate from West Point. When he went through West Point, not one cadet would speak to him, sit with him, eat with him, room with him. The only voices he heard were his instructors.”

McMickle’s mother, Marfetta, was the valedictorian of her high school class in 1933. She was a pianist and organist. When it came time for the high school graduation program, she was told that colored girls could not participate. The salutatorian was also a person of color, so she could not participate.

The school went to the person ranked third in the class “who had the indecency to accept. She saw others passed over just because of their color, and yet she accepted. My mother could have been overwhelmed with hate, but she just pressed on,” he said.

Derek Redmond worked hard to qualify for the 1988 Olympics. In the 400-meter race, in the very first heat, he took six steps and heard a tear in his hamstring.

“He hobbled off, his dream over. But his father, James Redmond, said, ‘Let’s try again,’ ” McMickle said.

The father and son went into rigorous training, and Redmond qualified for the 1992 Olympics in the 400-meter. He got through the first and second heats. In the third heat, which would qualify him for the medal round, he was half way around the track and tore the same hamstring.

“This time he got up and on one leg hopped down the track. He was determined to finish even if he did not win. But he got tired and was about to give up when someone came out of the stands,” McMickle said. “It was his father, who wrapped his arms around his son and they moved toward the finish line. At the last step, Derek went over the line on his own, and then they celebrated together.

“I don’t know what life has thrown at you. I only know it is within you to draw a deeper breath, endure, press on, fight the good fight, finish the race. If you don’t, life will break you somewhere. You may be hopping down the road alone, but somewhere in the stands is someone who will come and say, ‘We will finish the race together.’ As W. E. B. Du Bois said, ‘Resist the temptation of shirking, but have the grit to endure to the end.’ ”

The Rev. J. Paul Womack presided. Carol Christiansen read the scripture. She is from Gainesville, Fla., and has been coming to Chautauqua since 1990, first for short visits and then for the season since 1998. She has sung in the Chautauqua choir since 1998, and has participated in Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle events including the Great American Picnic and the Guild of the Seven Seals.

The Motet Choir sang, “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” arranged by John Ferguson with test by William Williams. Jared Jacobsen, organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music, led the choir.