A legacy of advocacy

On this day, Sept. 11, we remember the horror from 22 years ago of airplanes crashing intentionally into the World Trade Center Towers in New York City, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania. If you were alive, you probably remember where you were when you first heard the news. The crash isn’t the only memory. The care given by the first responders also stands out. When tragedy strikes, we often see the triumph of human community. So many people ran to help those in need who couldn’t help themselves. They were advocates in that moment for the helpless, the voiceless, the lost, the dead. This crisis created a community of care.

I wonder if on this day in honor of all the first responders — the angelic advocates — we would commit ourselves to be advocates as well. I know that at times attending college can make one self-absorbed as you try to figure out your major, career path and future steps in life. You are at Duke to learn, to receive knowledge and to gain experiences. But I encourage you to also view this time as an opportunity to give and to be an advocate for someone else.

There’s an ancient Bible story that has compelled me in recent weeks about the importance of being an advocate. It’s the account of the daughter of a “Canaanite woman” who is “tormented by a demon” (see Matthew 15:21-28). All odds are already against this daughter because of the customs of that day about culture, gender and age. Being both young and a girl (or woman), her voice would not have authority, and as a Canaanite, she was a cultural outsider to the Jewish people featured in the story.

And so, this daughter suffers in silence. The disciples, the girl’s mother and Jesus do all the talking. The girl is the only one in this story who doesn’t say a word, and yet she’s the tormented one. She’s the one who needs healing. But we don’t hear a smidgeon from her.

How many people do we know who are suffering in silence today? This isn’t unusual in ancient times or our time. All the so-called wrong identities or traits or beliefs or affiliations or illnesses can make you close to invisible in a so-called civilized society and cause you to be silenced, even though you’re the one in need. Hurting human beings such as this daughter need an advocate.

It may not come as a surprise but there is one person in this story who is her advocate: her mother. Her mother cries out for her daughter who can’t cry out, whose torment has terrifyingly twisted her tongue so much so that she has no voice or agency. Her mother gives voice to her dire situation and advocates for her when she can’t do it for herself. She speaks up for someone who has no voice.

This is what advocacy is. Someone has to cry out for the tormented ones, the sick ones, the disabled ones, the imprisoned ones, the ridiculed ones, the anxious ones. The mother uses her freedom and agency on behalf of the freedom of another, her daughter. This is a reminder that we all need people in our lives who are for us — our champions. We need people who will cheer us on in rooms we’re not in and want the best for us.

And advocates, like this mother, know that it takes courage to do advocacy work. In the story, the mother knew that her region, culture, ethnicity and gender were considered an aberration and unclean in society, yet she musters up enough courage to cross over the social, political and religious borders to seek help. She risks rejection and hatred for the healing of her ailing child. And, indeed, she’s called a dog; some want to send her away because of the noise she’s making. But she persists.

Finally, the mother knew what resources to call on to help her daughter. In this case, she calls on Jesus. Eventually, we are told that the mother’s advocacy paid off. Her daughter is healed.

Who needs your advocacy? Who needs your voice because they have no voice? In the deep roots of Duke is the concept of service. What human being(s) can you serve this year with your advocacy? On a day of remembrance such as Sept. 11, I hope you will be remembered for a legacy of advocacy.

The Rev. Dr. Luke A. Powery is Dean of Duke University Chapel. His column runs on alternate Mondays.


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