This guest column originally appeared in the Religion Column (Our Pilgrims Journey) in the Bloomington Herald-Times on January 11, 2020. It is published here with permission.
“God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth.” Acts 17:26
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, … slave nor free, … male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28
Two professors of education at Indiana University have in the past year published memoirs with the University Press on their struggles of faith, courage and persistence to reach educational goals, which must have seemed as youngsters virtually impossible to attain. As the 91st birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. approaches on Jan. 15, it is well to remember these stories and the values that made their success possible. Charlie Nelms was born in the Arkansas Delta to an African American family struggling just to survive. His memoir is titled “From Cotton Fields to University Leadership” and tells the absorbing tale of how he overcame racism and other obstacles with determination and hard work. He was influenced by the Missionary Baptist Church to seek education as the way to a better life. And seek it he did, finally receiving both a master’s and doctorate degrees from Indiana University.
He later served two positions with the University at Gary and finally as chancellor at IU East in Richmond. In many positions, he was the first of his race to serve and blazed the trail for others coming after him. His memoir is filled with humor, encouragement and great hope for those who are striving to make it to the top in spite of racial discrimination and continued inequality in the American system. His boyhood faith remains important to him, as he is an active member now of St. Mark’s United Methodist congregation.
Gerardo Gonzalez’ story of a similar climb from extreme difficulty and disadvantage to a place of great service to others is titled “A Cuban Refugee’s Journey to the American Dream.” Driven from the island after Castro’s ascent to power, the 11-year-old boy faced language and cultural barriers after his family escaped to the United States. Subtitled “The Power of Education,” Gonzalez’ difficult life also followed the path of education as a means of succeeding in this new land, where not only the weather but many other things seemed strange and forbidding. Aided along the way by his Catholic faith and organizations like Catholic Charities, Gonzalez attributes to God the question that ultimately changed his life: “Why don’t you go to college?” It was a community college in Miami, Florida, that paved the way to his success and he has spoken twice at Ivy Tech commencements in Bloomington. His story, like many in similar circumstances, resonates with students who are having a hard time but still want to pursue and complete a college education.
Telling his story — both with the written and spoken word — is an important part of his mission today. Hard work combined with faith, perseverance and native intelligence brought them both a long way on their journeys, and they yearn to share that story with others. Gonzalez supports St. Paul Catholic Church, in addition to a parish in St. Augustine, Florida.
Martin Luther King Jr. remains an icon of many in Cuba today. A center with his name brings together Protestant and Catholic service organizations serving the poor and needy in Havana. His example of equality and brotherhood is exemplified by Nelms and Gonzalez, and their desire to help others to the top, in spite of difficulties, is a story from which all can benefit in our desire to overcome the evil and sorrow in today’s world.
“We shall overcome, we shall overcome, we shall overcome some day. Oh, Deep in my heart, I do believe. ... We shall overcome some day!” — lyrics from “We Shall Overcome”