Wings of faith make dreams fly
by Victor Doughty, Major –
“What dreams we have and how they fly…”
Paul Laurence Dunbar
My mother (who celebrates her 75th birthday this month) grew up in an amazing neighborhood in Dayton, Ohio. It produced household names like Erma Bombeck, Jonathan Winters, Phil Donahue, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Edwin Moses, Mike Schmidt, Martin Sheen and, of course, eclipsing them all, Wilbur and Orville Wright, the first brothers of flight.
Less known, but a giant of human imagination nonetheless, is the close high school friend of the Wright brothers, Paul Laurence Dunbar, the first internationally renowned African-American poet and writer. Although his life was tragically cut short in 1906 when, at the age of 34, he succumbed to tuberculosis, he left behind a body of work that includes novels, plays, short stories, newspaper articles, essays and over 600 poems.
His poem entitled “Religion” challenges us to avoid being so heavenly minded that we are of no earthly good.
I am no priest of crooks nor creeds,
For human wants and human needs
Are more to me than prophets’ deeds;
And human tears and human cares
Affect me more than human prayers.
Go, cease your wail, lugubrious saint!
You fret high Heaven with your plaint.
Is this the “Christian’s joy” you paint?
Is this the Christian’s boasted bliss?
Avails your faith no more than this?
Take up your arms, come out with me,
Let Heav’n alone; humanity
Needs more and Heaven less from thee.
With pity for mankind look ‘round;
Help them to rise—and Heaven is found.
With a twinkle in his eye, Mr. Dunbar penned this verse entitled “Theology.”
There is a heaven, for ever,
day by day,
The upward longing of my soul doth tell me so.
There is a hell, I’m quite as sure; for pray,
If there were not, where would my neighbors go?
The son of former slaves, Mr. Dunbar’s poems often express the deep-seated anguish of the African- American experience:
We Wear the Mask
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be overwise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
We smile, but O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!
When I traveled back to Dayton, Ohio in January for the funeral of one of my aunts, I was surprised to discover the whole neighborhood had been transformed into a national historic park (complete with its own Walk of Fame) thanks in large part to the monumental contribution of the Wright brothers to the field of aviation.
As I walked the streets with my mother, I thought about what this neighborhood must mean to her and to her family: she, the oldest of nine children, the daughter of Hungarian immigrants. Her father, a Baptist minister working for General Motors in order to make ends meet at the height of the Depression. One day their lives forever changed when a street meeting on the corner, just down from the Wright brothers’ bicycle shop, caught my mother’s attention. It was The Salvation Army. An enterprising corps officer heard the beautiful voice of a young girl and invited my mother to sing a solo in the open air ring.
The rest is history. Lured away by the open air meeting, my mother, along with her brothers and sisters, became involved in that storefront corps around the corner from their home. It was from that old converted theater filled with music and basketball that my mother entered the training college in 1948.
Yes, my mother grew up in a truly amazing neighborhood. But I suspect that there are equally amazing neighborhoods in every city. Places where latent human potential is just waiting to be tapped. Places within a few blocks of our Salvation Army corps where future writers, entertainers, athletes, inventors, poets and, perhaps, even Salvation Army officers are just waiting to be discovered. Everywhere we look there are unrealized hopes; visions and dreams waiting to be fulfilled, needing only wings of faith to make them fly.