Senator Robert Byrd never appeared as the headliner at a public event without inviting a local clergy person to offer an invocation and benediction. I was that clergy person at the National Conservation Training Center ground breaking ceremony in 1994 and a few years later at the dedication of the Byrd Science Center at Shepherd University.
On both occasions, following my invocation, Byrd rebuked me.
At NCTC he rebuked me for acknowledging gender diversity among the gathered crowd. Before launching into his prepared remarks Byrd gleefully affirmed his LOVE for the King James version of the Bible, which says: “God created man in his image.” And to be sure we got it, he repeated: “MAN. In HIS image.”
I wasn’t sure what his point was, but it stung.
I sat behind him during his speech, which, in part, blasted Congressman Frank Wolf of Virginia for complaining loudly and often in the Washington Post about Byrd’s largesse for the state of West Virginia. As I sat nursing my wound, it occurred to me that I would have the “final word” that day.
So I preceded my benediction with an unscripted line.
I, too, love the King James version of the Bible, especially the part that says: The lion and the lamb shall lie down together in God’s peaceable kingdom. But, apparently, it will be a long, long time before the bird and the wolf nest together.
Heaven only knows why I was later invited to the Shepherd dedication. At that event, looking across the campus toward the Potomac River, I acknowledged Native Americans who hunted these hallowed lands and fished these hallowed waters long before white people arrived. Then I offered thanks for our democracy.
Byrd followed me.
“I hate to disagree with the good reverend, but I don’t know what he means by Native American. I’m a native American. Perhaps he meant Indians.”
“Further, we don’t live in a democracy, we live in a republic.”
Good point. The United States is a representative democracy, also known as a “republic.”
I miss Senator Byrd.
Byrd repented of his racism and grew into a statesman. He cast his vote for Obamacare from his wheelchair. He stood against Bush’s invasion of Iraq. He voted against the confirmation of Clarence Thomas. He carried the Constitution in his inside coat pocket, next to his heart.
Byrd would weep for our republic today.
I wasn’t present at the NCTC event; however, I recall the Shepherd event very clearly.
I thought your Native American comments were thoughtful, sensitive, and historically accurate. (We all cringed during the Senator’s critique.)
Thanks for the many invocations and benedictions that you gave to the community through the years—well done.
I second that emotion; I too miss Senator Byrd. He was a quintessential American who lived by his example and wasn’t afraid of personally changing and growing, a trait that used to typify what we once knew as American. We all came from somewhere, and hopefully we’re busy “becoming” as we hurry, all too quickly, through life. It was only a few years ago that I used to extoll America to my students saying, “We’re the envy of the world, even for those who wish to destroy us.”
The King James version of The Bible is also the edition that I prefer because of the poetry. I prefer to find common ground with my representatives, my chosen or even my not chosen leaders. I also shared Senator Byrd’s passion for traditional Appalachian music and Bluegrass. George W. Bush and I could come together over baseball; and any time he wants to, I’d love to have him stop by to help me with cut brush at my place. We could swap stories about our most pernicious vegetative nemeses. Then there’s Lee Atwater, albeit not a leader, who’s scorched earth tactics certainly degraded our national political discourse. Lee and I could’ve found common ground with a blasting sound track of R&B and Blues over barbecue washed down by copious amounts of beer. The bedrock being that we finally have to agree on the one common trait that bound us, being Americans. More than 50 years ago the Beatles exhorted us: “Come together / Right now.” Once we lose this grand experiment called, “representative democracy,” we won’t be able to retrieve it.
Speaking truth to power is the work of prophets.
Pandering is the way of people without a compass.
Politicians who survived as long as Sen. Byrd care about votes & money……not prophecy.
Senator Byrd’s speech against the Iraq war was eloquent on March 19, 2003, as he said, “Today I weep for my country”. Speaking of his “heavy, heavy heart”, he remarked: “No more is the image of America one of a strong, yet benevolent peacekeeper” and “around the globe our intentions are questioned”. Once a racist, he now spoke as a prophet. His speech still resonates today. He would weep even more in the present moment given the recent Supreme Court rulings and the threats to democracy.
May our weeping lead to wisdom. May our tears enable the voices of “we the people” to rise. May our tears be the windshield wipers for our spirits to see more clearly and act more courageously. Let us hope that, in the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, the tears we shed today might become the rain for tomorrow.
“I, too, love the King James version of the Bible, especially the part that says: The lion and the lamb shall lie down together in God’s peaceable kingdom. But, apparently, it will be a long, long time before the bird and the wolf nest together.”
Peace, Love, Joy, and May the Force be with us.
Thank you for sharing your stories. Senator Byrd left an indelible mark on West Virginia, and the nation. An imperfect human being, as we all are. We each speak our truth, as we see it. I resonate with your words, which he took exception to; and I know he loved the constitution and our better angels too. I weep with many for our Republic…and know how important our words and actions are – to our localities, our state, our nation, and our world. Heaven help us all🙏🏼
In our house we have a copy of the Constitution given to my son Skylar by Senator Byrd.