Buried in “Section 4, Lot 2738-B” of Arlington National Cemetery is First Lieutenant William McBryar: Buffalo Soldier, Medal of Honor recipient, and veteran of multiple military campaigns. He was born a slave in the Carolinas just months before the Civil War began, the son of an African-American mother and a white, Scott-Irish father bearing my family name.
William survived the war, and as Reconstruction descended upon the South he headed north to attend college. After a semester he dropped out, and with no other real prospects, joined the U.S. Army in 1887. He served for decades all over the world, and when he was finally forced into retirement because of age and arthritis, William decided to finish what he started. At the youthful age of 73, he returned to school and graduated from Tennessee State Agricultural and Industrial College.
I knew nothing of Lt. William McBryar until recently (as some of my family’s ancestral researchers still refer to the Civil War as that “act of Northern aggression”), but discovering him has been astonishing. Because he was a war hero? Because of his tenacity? Because my middle son, who is days away from joining the military and is an African-American descendent of slaves himself, has found solidarity in this man?
These are all important, yes, but McBryar inspires me most because of how he grew as a person, not just because of what he did. While always proud of his military service, later in life he was sometimes conflicted over what he had been asked to do – especially against people of color.
I have a dissertation that he wrote after he returned to school (thanks to the archives of Tennessee State University, formerly Tennessee A&I). These are the words of a wise elder, not a young warrior: “We have been inoculated with a barbaric spirit which should cause us to tremble for the future of civilization. What is the nature of that human weakness which seeks justice for one’s self but denies it to others? What is it within us which causes us to accept cruelty with complacency? Why is justice glorified for one race but denied to another?
“Justice causes [us] to protect the weak, to provide for the care of children and the aged. Justice in the courts, justice between men, justice among races, as well as the recent ambitious national program of social justice. Justice is the life-line of a nation; injustice, the cancer which slowly eats it away. Allow justice to become stagnant, and the nation will languish and die.”
So, on this Memorial Day weekend, I am remembering a soldier lying in Arlington, born a slave and buried a decorated serviceman. Was he a hero? He wouldn’t call himself that, nor would he say that every battle he ever fought was right. But he would say, with his years of collected wisdom, that it is always right to do what is right. The future – our future – depends upon it.
Last month, the Reverend Chu Yiu-ming, at age 75, made an appearance in a Hong Kong court room to defend himself against the charge of being “a nuisance to the public,” along with a number of additional subversive accusations.
Reverend Chu, a Baptist minister, is a leader of Taiwan’s “Umbrella Movement.” It was – and remains – a peaceful campaign to stop the growing authoritarian leadership of Taiwan’s government. When police and military units turned teargas and pepper spray on pro-democracy demonstrators in 2014, the protestors hid behind umbrellas to shield their eyes and faces from the chemicals. Thus, the movement had a name, and in Yiu-ming, a moral champion.
Chu escaped mainland China and Chairman Mao’s atrocities as an orphaned child. Ultimately turning to faith and religious service, for decades he ministered in some of Hong Kong’s poorest neighborhoods; sheltered survivors of the Tiananmen Square massacre; and routinely smuggled Chinese dissidents to safety.
When the Umbrella Movement erupted, Chu tried to sit it out. He was old, his health was fragile, and his friends and family reinforced the opinion that he had “done enough.” But as young students began protesting totalitarianism, he knew he had to protect them – and following the pattern of Martin Luther King, Jr. – try to keep the protest peaceful.
He describes his efforts, saying: “We strive for freedom, equality, and universal love. Our way is to peacefully expose injustice, making it impossible for evil to hide. We strive to inspire self-sacrificing love not to incite anger and hatred.”
On the day he was found guilty in court, Chu preached a remarkable sermon from behind the smudged glass of a holding cell: “Today, old and gray, I find myself making a final plea as a convict. And yet, at this very moment, my heart tells me that I have found the most honorable pulpit of my ministerial career.
“I hope that consciences will wake up, and together we will work to save the day. And should I still manage to find some strength in my aging body, I shall continue to toll the bell in the church, in the world, and in each human heart, because, ‘God has made clear what is good and what is desired: Do what is right, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.’
“So I, Chu Yiu-ming now declare: We have no regrets. We hold no grudges. No anger. No grievances. But we do not give up. To the Lord, I entrust my life.” When he finished speaking the courtroom erupted with applause and the unfurling of scores of umbrellas.
What will become of Yiu-ming, his partners in freedom, and the generation of young Taiwanese who want nothing more than a voice in their own future? It is impossible to say, yet as spoken by Chu’s inspiration: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” That justice comes to those who do what is right – and who do not give up.
After months of evading the task, my wife and I finally sat down and updated our wills. I was the evader, actually. This subject had been on my wife’s mind for months, and without her persistence I am sure that our old and woefully outdated wills would still be occupying a dusty safe-deposit box.
What compelled this beautiful, healthy, fit woman in the prime of mid-life to become so concerned with our end-of-existence planning? It’s not because we think we will be dying anytime soon; we hope for decades of life to come. And it certainly wasn’t to ensure that she protect the “fortune” that will be hers upon my death – no one gets rich in the 12% tax bracket.
No, we lost young friends this past year, suddenly, and the bedlam that followed for some of the surviving families was almost as painful as death itself. We both have aging parents whose affairs, shall we say, are not completely sorted out, so only God knows what will happen when the inevitable occurs. Meanwhile, two of our children are reaching young adulthood – old enough to take responsibility in our absence – but not seasoned enough to set a wise course for the future.
Being the superb mother, sibling, child, friend, and spouse that she is, my wife cannot bear the thought of leaving this world without taking something with her when she goes: Some of the chaos. She doesn’t want our deaths to inflict unnecessary confusion or turmoil, and thus, has done all she can to lighten the load for those left behind.
This is a good lesson for all of us, and I am not speaking only of our wills, testaments, advanced directives, and healthcare surrogate decisions (as necessary as these are). We are all going to die. There’s nothing especially morbid about that. And when we go, someone – or ones – will be left with what is left.
This may force your thoughts immediately to your financial bottom line. After all, most of us would like to be able to leave our children and grandchildren a few dollars, an annuity, or a beach house. There’s nothing wrong with this, but what about taking some things with you when you go, so your loved ones will not be left to sort it out in your absence?
Inflicted shame. Accumulated stigma. Forgiveness unspoken. A decades-long grudge. Generational addiction or abuse. Why not take these with you when you go; let them be buried with you? Why leave others with the chaos of such things? Because of selfish pride or the stubborn refusal to “let go?” It hardly seems worth it.
So, follow my wife’s example: Put your affairs in order – now – while you are of sound mind and able body. And begin with those affairs of the heart. Because for all that you might leave behind, the best things could be what you take with you, empowering those you love to live lives of wholeness and peace.