Sunday, March 19, 2023

Lenten Reflection: Coming to Grips with Our Blindness

His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents?” May I speak to you in the name of the G-d who creates, redeems and sustains us? AMEN.


Today’s Gospel presents us with a puzzling story. In today’s lesson, as Jesus is leaving the Temple he encounters a man born blind and his disciples ask him “Rabbi, was it this man’s wrongdoing or his parents’ that caused him to be blind?”

To our modern ears, that’s a strange question. But to people in the 1st CE Middle East, it made perfect sense. The sins of the fathers often were seen as visited on their children, sometimes for several generations, in the form of suffering. Because we human beings do not handle notions of meaningless suffering well, it is not surprising we attempt to assign blame for suffering somewhere. In this case, it’s either the blind man himself or his parents whose sin is seen as the origins of his blindness. So, which was it, they ask Jesus.


Either possibility is problematic. To say his parents’ sins had caused this man’s blindness suggests he is being unfairly punished for someone else’s deeds. His suffering is thus meaningless in any real moral sense. But, to presume he had done something to merit such extreme punishment as a lifetime of blindness requires Jesus to hold knowledge of a complete stranger he’s just met.


It also points to a deity more prone to arbitrary punitiveness than anything loving. Whatever else that god may be, it is not the loving Father Jesus so often references, the G_d who makes the rain to fall on the just and unjust alike. In either case, this practice of shaming a human being who is already suffering evidences no small amount of sadism.

Sounds Familiar….

 It would be easy for us to dismiss this reasoning as the product of a more primitive culture than our own. But if we look carefully at some of our own theology, we can hear echoes of that same kind of reasoning.

I have never found Augustine’s teaching on original sin terribly compelling. Augustine argued that a newborn child is born a sinner and will be eternally punished unless s/he is baptized and later buys into the set of ideas that the western Christian church has proclaimed everyone must hold. That’s simply not credible for those who engage their faith with any degree of critical reflection. Anyone who has held a newborn for even a couple of seconds knows that this beautiful tiny human being bearing the divine image, just beginning its life, may be a lot of things but sinner is simply not among them. 

Augustine’s vision is a rather classic example of this “sins of the parents” thinking that Jesus is being confronted with here. Our original parents, Adam, whose Hebrew name means the human being, and Hava, whose Hebrew name means the mother of all living beings, were said to have inflicted their original sin onto all of their future progeny, according to Augustine.


[Image: Masaccio, Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, 1427]

 Again, I find little of that to be compelling. Much like the way we sometimes read scripture, if we take Augustine’s understandings literally, we end up in the ditch. But I think Augustine was onto something worth considering. And I believe it is strongly tied into the theme of blindness in our gospel reading and in today’s epistle from St. Paul.


Original Brokenness and Its Wounds

Richard Rohr helped me locate that seed of truth in Augustine’s thinking with his notions of original brokenness. Unlike Augustine and the theologians spawned by his pessimistic reductionism who describe our world as “fallen,” Rohr, ever the good Franciscan, takes the Genesis account very seriously when it assesses the Creation at the end of the sixth day as “very good.” Not perfect. The Genesis writer simply says that the Creation - in all of its grandeur as well as its pain and suffering - is very good.


That said, we know there is pain and suffering in our world. And, like Jesus’ disciples in today’s gospel, we want to understand why that is. Rohr’s answer is simple: We are all born into families and societies where brokenness is part of the total picture present when we arrive. As such, we inherit all the woundedness that occurred before our births.

Over time, we become wounded ourselves and wound others. And it is this brokenness that we will in turn pass on to our children. And while G-d loves all of who we are, warts and all, brokenness and woundedness are unavoidable aspects of every human life and every human society.

So why don’t we just deal with our baggage? Why don’t our families just come to grips with their wounds? Why don’t our lawmakers create laws that repair our social world? Why must we pass this on generation after generation?

I think the answer is in front of us today. We inherit suffering and generate our own largely out of blindness. In some cases we know that our thoughts, words and deeds are harmful to ourselves and others. But in other cases, we are unaware that what we are thinking, saying and doing is wrong. In many ways, this is the most pernicious form of harm. As New Yorker reporter Hannah Arendt learned in covering the Nuremberg Trials of the agents of the Holocaust, true evil can come to be seen as normal, everyday, all around us. To an unconscious people, evil is invisible. As Arendt would put, evil can become banal.


An Unexpected Lesson

Many of us know that blindness personally. And as I offer my own story to illustrate that, I suspect some of you may relate to it.

When I was six years old, my family moved to Bushnell over in Sumter County from Clearwater. This small town was very different from the metropolitan area we had just left. And so when we went to the courthouse downtown one afternoon for my Father to take care of some business there, I quickly found myself on wrong side of the law and social mores without even realizing what I had done. 

 As we waited for my Dad, my Mother and I sat outside the Tax Collector’s office on a long bench in the hallway. Across from us were two water fountains, each with a sign over it, one reading White and the other reading Colored. I was only six years old but I have always had a very active imagination. And so it occurred to me that while I already knew what White water looked like, I’d never seen Colored water. Indeed, I wondered what color that water could be. And so in one swift move, I was up off the bench, across the hall, climbing the kiddy stairs to the fountain’s basin, ready to turn the handle to see the colored water.


Suddenly my Mother shrieked. “Stop!” she said, “You can’t do that, son! Come back here this minute.” I was shocked. I felt I was being punished for simply being the curious kid I always was. But there was something more to this, something darker, something unspoken. And so I asked the obvious question, “But, why Momma?”

I will never forget her face clouding over at that moment. I thought she might cry. And she said, “Oh son, I need to tell you some things.” She then began to explain the system I would later come to know as Jim Crow. It was the first time I had ever been aware of racism. I must confess that I did not make it easy for her, responding over and over, “But, why Momma?” to which she finally said, “It’s just the way it is, Son, and you will have to follow these rules if we are going to live in this town.”

 The truth was, she knew it was wrong. I could sense it in her demeanor and the trembling in her voice, the tears on the brim of her eyes. But I also knew she was serious about my following those rules whether I understood them or not. And as I would discover, this was the mere tip of the iceberg of a deeply racist culture into which I had been born. As a Black seminarian classmate of mine often said, “In America, we breathe racist air.” That brokenness is pervasive in our culture. And it continues to be powerful in its ability to wound generation after generation.


[Image: The Problem We All Live With, 1963]

I do not believe that inherited brokenness and the wounds it causes are by definition sinful in themselves. None of us had anything to say about that. We arrived in a context already in existence. But what I do think is sinful is when the blind slips from our eyes and we begin to see our lives and our world clearly as they are and we do nothing in response. What is decidedly sinful is our insistence upon reimposing the blinds over our eyes because the truth makes us uncomfortable. And we compound that sin when we use the power of our governments to remove books from libraries and impose gag orders on teachers when that truth threatens to be told.

I have struggled with the racism I inherited from my family and my society all of my life. And I will wrestle with those demons, who often sneak up on me out of the blue, as long as I live. I suspect the same is true for you as well. And if we are being honest with ourselves, we will admit that this is but one of many forms of blindness we wrestle with. In truth, in a time of rapidly changing understandings of everything from the ways our lifestyles impact our planet to the way we understand gender, we all have an awful lot of unlearning and relearning to do. 

The Blessing and the Curse 

So let us begin by being honest with ourselves. Losing the blindness that once shielded our prejudices and the harms they do to the children of G_d is painful. It does make us uncomfortable, as it should. But at some level that curse is also our gift. The discomfort of cognitive dissonance recognizes what we teachers call the teachable moment. It offers us an opportunity to learn, grow, mature, and become more fully human. 

This Sunday marks the mid-way point through the Lenten season. The church has designated this to be a time of reflection, introspection, of wrestling with our souls. Lenten lessons raise troubling questions: Where is the blindness in our lives? What is it that we don’t want to look at and yet know we must? Where is the brokenness in our lives? Have we dealt with it in a healthy way? Have we worked diligently enough to heal our wounds? And, if not, what brokenness and unhealed wounds might we be passing on to the next generation of souls coming to this world? 

 The consolation in all this wrestling with our souls is that we are never alone. G-d is present in all things. Our willingness to engage painful growth experiences is always met by G_d’s empowering and healing presence. And that is precisely is why we respond to all of those promises in our Baptismal Covenant with the words “I will with God’s help.” 


I close with a Collect we often use at the conclusion of our Prayers of the People. As I wrote this sermon, it spoke to me in a new way and I hope it will to you as well:

Almighty God, to whom our needs are known before we ask: Help us to ask only what accords with your will; and those things which we dare not, or in our blindness cannot ask, grant us for the sake of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 


[A sermon preached at St. Richard’s Episcopal Church, Winter Park, FL, Sunday, March 19, 2023, Lent IV. You may listen to the sermon as it was preached at the link provided below:]



Harry Scott Coverston

Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

Those who believe religion and politics aren't connected don't understand either. – Mahatma Gandhi

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d?  - Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. Rabbi Rami ShapiroWisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)

   © Harry Coverston, 2023



Friday, March 17, 2023

Grieving the Loss of Riches

A couple of weeks ago my calendar program notified me that it was my cousin Ansel’s birthday. He would have been 66 this year. He was a graduate of New College and though he’s been gone several years now, he and his alma mater have been on my mind the past few weeks.

A Brilliant Mind, An Oversized Heart

Ansel was brilliant, possessing a sharply honed mind that took no prisoners matched by an oversized heart that was regularly broken in the suffering of the world he so readily engaged. He was talented musically and often spent his weekends playing the piano for residents of convalescent facilities near his home in Cary, North Carolina. 

But Ansel always had a difficult time holding life together, especially all the pain he experienced as a deeply empathic gay man. He routinely anaesthetized those demons with alcohol and with “whatever I can get my hands on,” in his words. A number of nights of my life were spent at the local detox center waiting to check him in.


Ansel had come to live with Andy and me in Orlando in the mid-1980s. He enrolled at Valencia College, where I then taught. Through their special student services office he was able to gain admission to the state’s Vocational Rehabilitation program. The program was able to provide funding which allowed him to find his own housing and covered tuition, books and living expenses. He quickly achieved a brilliant record at Valencia taking classes full-time and working part-time for the college. His professors would often glow as they spoke of his performance in their classes. When it was time for him to graduate, his counselor worked hard to find him an appropriate place to transfer. 

That place was New College.


A Place Where He Could Flourish


In the mid-1980s, New College had just become a state university system school, having begun its life as a private liberal arts college. With limited enrollment and dedicated faculty, New College was a dream come true for Ansel.

Like all New College students, he was required to plan his own educational program. He  focused on political science and history which he loved while broadening his program to include encounters with all the other disciplines. Ansel had enough structure to function and enough guidance and encouragement to flourish. And at New College, he found classmates who understood him and among whom he blossomed.

I visited Ansel a couple of times during his stay at New College. I was impressed by the rare combination of open-ended creativity and demanding academics I observed at work there. As a college instructor, I was clear that this was exactly where Ansel and students like him needed to be even as this approach would not work for every student. Most of my students simply needed more structure than New College would have provided. From the beginning, New College was never the place for every student. But it was perfect for students like Ansel.

Ansel would graduate from New College and move back home to North Carolina where he would attain a master's degree in political science from North Carolina State University. He was working on his doctorate there when he suddenly died. I never knew what the cause of death was. But I suspect his tired body simply could no longer sustain his compulsion to numb the pain that so often plagued his broken heart.

But if the events of his life broke his big heart, the news coming out of Florida regarding his beloved New College today would surely shatter his very soul.


An Ideological Purge 

While Florida’s current governor and state legislature have readily ignored serious issues like the ravages of climate change which are already impacting Florida more deeply and more immediately than most places in the country, they have doubled down on culture wars using the power of state government to wage them. New College has found itself in the cross-hairs of this battle.


The first round in this assault was the appointment lasts year of six new trustees for the college, ideological culture warriors ready for battle. One of the new trustees immediately asserted “We will be shutting down low-performing, ideologically-captured academic departments and hiring new faculty. The student body will be recomposed over time: some current students will self-select out, others will graduate; we’ll recruit new students who are mission-aligned.”

In other words, New College would be ideologically purged and its instructional staff and students replaced by ideologues who hold the party line. This is a playbook right out of every authoritarian regime from the fascists of the early 20th CE to the communists of the latter 20th CE.

The second round occurred when the president of the college was fired and replaced by another ideologue, a former state legislator who a colleague there praised as having “picked more fights with more people than anybody I've ever seen before.” What a perfect choice for a college president.

As commissioner of education, he had championed union-busting, fundamentalist charter and private schools funding and forcing schools to remain open even as Florida’s COVID rates led the nation. Described by teachers as imposing a Christian fundamentalist approach on Florida’s public education system, the commissioner tipped his hand early on by asserting “All education is ideological” and revealing his intent to ideologically shape the next generation of Floridians.

Forced to resign from that position after he was named in a closed bidding scandal involving his own business and a county school system he was then overseeing as commissioner, he was then rewarded by the governor whose culture war he had waged with appointment to the presidency of New College. Immediately upon replacing the president the new board had just fired, he was awarded a $400,000 salary increase over his predecessor.

Clearly, ideological allegiance has its privileges.


The latest step in this assault has been the closing of the college’s office which handled diversity, equity and inclusion. This is the office that had made major strides in connecting town and gown, of integrating New College’s brilliant students into a community marked by a stark division between the very wealthy and the working poor who serve them. Students were encouraged to work among the homeless and the town’s people of color, combining academic rigor with real life experience.

The tarnishing of the educational success story that was New College is tragic. And it is unclear whether the college will survive this assault. Long a jewel in the state university system, the ideological purge and reconstruction the state is attempting to impose on this very fine college, its faculty, staff and students, is a travesty.


Resistance is Not an Option, it is an Imperative


Of course, this is but one of many elements of the culture war in a state which is increasingly being recognized by observers around the world as a laboratory for the rise of a post-democratic fascism. The moral panic around LBGTQ issues, the banning of books in libraries and the shutting down of any in-depth discussion of racism in our state are all part and parcel of an experiment to replicate the neo-fascist regimes we see in places like Orban’s Hungary today. The sad thing is that there are now so many new white retirees who have flocked to artificial communities across the state to live out their golden years avoiding taxes and social responsibilities who are more than happy to go along with this drift into fascism so long as their privilege is not questioned.

For the time being, there seems to be no stopping this speeding train hurtling toward the washed out bridge ahead.

This day as I think of my dear cousin, whose heart simply could not hold the suffering of the world he so deeply felt and whose body finally gave way to the abuse it endured to numb that pain, I grieve both his loss as well as the loss of the college which gave him hope. I know this is not forever. Repressive use of power is never able to sustain itself for long, those who wield it almost inevitably turning inward and devouring each other. Fear almost always has an insatiable appetite.

But the casualties of this culture war are still occurring and may yet prove to be severe. The loss of a crown jewel in what was once a promising state university system would be a deep wound indeed. For those of us who love our state and weep over the devolution we see occurring here, resistance is not an option, it is an imperative.

A very fine account of what is happening at New College and how its staff, faculty and students are handling this assault can be found at this link from WGCU, the public radio station at Florida Gulf Coast University in Ft. Myers. Libby Harrity, who was one of the students interviewed for this broadcast, is a parishioner at my parish, St. Richards, Winter Park, where her mother is the rector. Libby is the quintessential New College student - brilliant, outspoken, passionate.

I think Ansel would have loved her.





Harry Scott Coverston

Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

Those who believe religion and politics aren't connected don't understand either. – Mahatma Gandhi

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d?  - Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)


  © Harry Coverston, 2023





Wednesday, March 01, 2023

The Magic of Ash Wednesday

I have always loved the Ash Wednesday liturgy. I say that even as I recognize that I do not find the sin/salvation focus of most Christian theology compelling. I think the Way of Jesus is way too important to obsess over sinfulness. I see that obsession as largely a form of unrecognized egocentrism. Taking sin seriously does not require making that the starting point or the ultimate goal of the Christian faith even as it has often served as exactly that. It is an impoverished vision of the Jesus experience, as I see it.

Frans van Everbroeck, “Memento Mori” (1672)

Similarly, while I do not think the obsession with death that we see in the medieval Christian mind is healthy, I likewise experience the reaction formation of our modern death-denying culture to be suffocating. That plays out in a youth fetish that drives industries peddling everything from erectile disfunction drugs to plastic surgery to erase the image of aging. It also results in a denial of the wisdom of elders and often a warehousing of human beings that become little more than passengers seated in Death’s Waiting Room.

Death is a part of life. It is the inevitable end point of our mortal journeys. And it is the deal we made coming into this finite life, even as it is the part we often like least. Francis of Assisi was onto something when he referred to that last part of the deal as the visit of Sister Death. In truth She is always with us even as we do our best to deny her presence. But Francis knew we would do well to honor her.

Becoming mindful of our death and reflecting on it in a liturgical setting as a community is a healthy thing, I think. There is something deeply moving about each of us going to the altar, standing shoulder to shoulder, and having a cross mark made of ashes from last year’s Palm Sunday placed on our foreheads that touches our souls. 

We are there together, as our souls were before coming to this plane and as they will be upon leaving it. In the meantime, we share this life and this time together, in solidarity with one another on our earthly journeys. And we are with the G-d who is always present with us though we are far too often not terribly conscious of that presence.

Ash Wednesday provides us with the reason, the time and place to remember these things. There is a reason we engage in this rite every year.

A Magical Moment

My favorite memory of Ash Wednesday came from my time in law school. It was my senior year there. I would graduate with a Juris Doctor from the University of Florida within a couple of months. I would be leaving Gainesville, this beautiful college town where I had lived off and on a good portion of my life. Nothing was stable in my life at that moment including the upcoming challenge of being admitted into the Florida Bar.

At that moment I was fighting myself at least as much as the challenges of the law school courses my History major had poorly equipped me to take (State and Local Tax, e.g.) but required to pass in order to procure my degree. Worse yet, I was pretty clear I was not temperamentally suited to be a lawyer even as I was intelligent enough, commanded superior verbal skills and had become sufficiently educated in the law to provide me passage into the legal profession a year later. 

It would take me eight years thereafter to realize that no amount of pounding the square peg of my life would ever allow it to fit comfortably in the round hole of the legal profession. That's how long It would take me to work up the courage to walk away from practicing law. But I was nowhere close to that on this Ash Wednesday. I had no way of knowing the difficult road that lay ahead of me. I simply knew that I needed to be in church that day.

I had gotten high with a friend earlier that afternoon. He was a Roman Catholic and I thought perhaps he’d go to services with me. He declined. But, undeterred, I decided to drive across town to Holy Trinity Episcopal, the venerable old Episcopal Church downtown, to attend the late afternoon service by myself. 

I’ve often wondered how much of what I experienced thereafter was the THC in my system. In 1981 marijuana was still illegal in Florida as we had just learned in our criminal law courses. But there is also a long, venerable history of peoples around the world who regularly enter into spiritual experiences by means of psychotropic drugs. And I think I understood that after this experience.

A Rich Song of Humanity

Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Gainesville, FL

I always loved being in that old gothic parish, its stained glass windows allowing little pools of colored light to pour into the sanctuary, its carved wooden interior darkened by years of candle and incense smoke, the odor of which was always faintly present when I came into this church. There was a sense of the holy in this place, made sacred by the presence of souls assembled for prayer there over the years. The presence of the Holy was palpable.

As I sat listening to the penitential rite, I suddenly became aware that the bottom hung casement windows below the stained glass panels were open. The parish had a day school and nursery on-site and the playground for the nursery was just outside the windows where I was sitting. Through those windows came the sounds of happy children playing, singing, running, shouting. Their glee mixed with the beautiful somber Elizabethan English spoken by the clergy at the altar forming a rich song of humanity.

It was a sunny, warm day in early March. Outside the azaleas, amaryllis and dogwoods were in full bloom. The smell of the flowers wafted in on the breeze, mixing with the lingering smells of incense and candle wax inside. 

I felt my soul suddenly coming alive at that moment. The elements of life and death, of penitence and celebration, the smells of solemnity and fertility, were all blending together in that darkened, candle lit parish as the sworls of colored light pouring through stained glass windows danced on the hardwood floor and the back of the pews.

It was truly a magical moment. Indeed, for a few moments, I felt I had been transported to another world.


Hank Willis Thomas, "The Embrace," Boston Commons (2023)

Perhaps more importantly, I felt myself wrapped in the arms of the Holy, comforted, secure. I so badly needed that service that day. I had no idea where I was going. I had no idea what life would bring to me. And in retrospect, I had good reason to be fearful.

But for that moment, in the midst of that crucible of the holy and the profane, I was there, present with G-d, present with fellow worshippers, present with all the souls of the departed that had once made that parish their home, their presence periodically made known in the popping of the wooden roof and creaking of the kneelers in the pew. And that was precisely where I needed to be.

I was OK. And somehow I sensed that everything would be OK. The liturgy reminded me that death certainly awaited me at the end of my life journey. I had no trouble remembering that I had come from ashes and would return to ashes. But I also was certain that the Holy One would be present in the ensuing journey with me and with all of us that day, from the three year old boy bleating joyfully from the swing set outside to the failing elderly man stumbling on his way to the altar to receive his ashes.

I never fail to think of that day every Ash Wednesday. I don’t think I have missed a single Ash Wednesday liturgy since then. My journey has brought me much further along that road to my own encounter with Sister Death since then. But the magic of this special liturgy continues to enchant me. And this past Wednesday, as I sat with a community I have come to love and have dared to allow myself to be loved by them, our heads all bearing an ashen cross, all I could feel was gratitude. 

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return 


Harry Scott Coverston

Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

Those who believe religion and politics aren't connected don't understand either. – Mahatma Gandhi

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d?  - Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)

  © Harry Coverston, 2022




Saturday, February 04, 2023

Saying Goodbye to a Legend

We came to bear witness to a man who had changed our lives.

There were thirteen of us from South Sumter High School who had come to the funeral of L.C. Coney in Leesburg. He was our high school band director in a time when everything seemed to be up in the air. He replaced a long time beloved band director whose progressive difficulties from a stroke had made it impossible for him to continue. And he came as one of the many teachers from the local black high school which had just been closed and merged into the white high school we attended in 1967.

There was nothing certain about the world we inhabited in the time following desegregation. And that impacted everyone from administrative staff to teachers to students. What was going to happen? That was the question on everyone’s minds.

Then this man stepped into the lurch.

They Called Him a Legend

At the funeral, they called him a Legend. That was probably an understatement. He could pick up any instrument in our band hall and play it adeptly. His ability to bring forth the love of music in his students was remarkable. But his role as a mentor, an exemplar of the fully human being, is not captured by the references to his work as a music teacher.

What I remember about Mr. Coney was his ability to touch my soul. Beginning with music. It helped that he had played my instrument, E flat alto saxophone. He demanded that I learn to play the saxophone as best I could. And I would play it six years in the band, in contests he insisted we attend, and into community college where I played in the pep band at basketball games.


But musical education was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to Mr. Coney. It was his ability to step into highly charged racial dynamics and bring all of the parties to a place of seeing each other as human that astonished me. “I stopped you from singing that song because they (our black classmates) had a song they were ready to sing in response. Everyone would have been at each other’s throats at that moment. So I stopped it.”

It was important to me to hear that our black classmates were feeling walked over. That was not something I thought much about. Indeed, we were trained not to think about that. But it was more important to have a teacher say to me, “Look, your behaviors have impacts on others.” It was important to me that a teacher recognized my value as a human being but insisted that I extend the same to the black classmates and teachers who were going to share our lives together.

In the end, I learned much more than music from this man.


Lessons in Courage and Tenacity

I often say that Mr. Coney held our school together in those tense times of desegregation, when our school mascot was the Rebels and our school song was Dixie. In retrospect, I can only imagine how hard that was for him and for all our black teachers and classmates who had just lost their own beloved school and now were forced to attend the one that I had always taken for granted. In time, we would change the school mascot to the Raiders and Dixie was never played again. As much as I resisted that at the time, I recognized in retrospect that I was wrong, it was absolutely the only path forward. 

Over the years, I came to trust Mr. Coney. That was saying a lot. I did not trust the white men who were coaches and former coaches turned administrators who ran our school and whose world I  would never share. But, Mr. Coney was real, candid, honest. He spoke to me as a human being, one on one. And I learned very quickly that when he said something, I needed to take it seriously.

What was most important was the human being he presented to us. I say us. I mean white people. We had been taught to see black people as less than human. That included the teachers who came from the black school. Surely they were less than proficient teachers. The federal government may have required us to deal with them but we all knew they weren’t real teachers.

But they were. I think back about all the teachers who came from Mills High School in Webster, the former black school, to their newly integrated and instantly overcrowded high school at South Sumter.  Each one taught me something of value. And that was often in the face of enormous pressures from white kids and their parents who presumed Black teachers had nothing to offer their children. But they did, in spite of that enormous pressure. To this day, I honor their courage and their tenacity.

What It Means to Be Human

Mr. Coney, however, was in a class unto himself. The many speakers at his funeral from fellow FAMU alumni to the Florida Bandmasters Association who read resolutions and acknowledgements honoring him evidenced that. The many people who came to bid him farewell evidenced that. The eleven of us students from South Sumter – the handful of white attendees in a sea of black mourners - were there to testify to the incredible gift we had received from this teacher.

What Mr. Coney had exemplified was the humanity of a black man who appeared to us in the form of an incredible teacher. We saw in him the fullness of what it means to be human, a man with incredible talents, a man intent on sharing those with the world, a man who insisted his students become all they could be, a man who cared deeply about all his students as persons and would settle for nothing less than them learning to engage each other in their full humanity. 

Bear in mind, our admiration of Mr. Coney was a stark refutation of the racist constructs with which so many of us had been raised. The idea that a black man was fully human was anathema to the cultural understandings in which we had been steeped both consciously and unconsciously from the beginning of our lives in a deeply racist culture.

But this man broke apart all those stereotypes. We came to trust him. More importantly, we came to love him. And, before it was over, we came to revere him. As a result, we began the long, painful process of dealing with the cognitive dissonance that told us that what we had been raised to believe was wrong. And incredibly destructive.

We all had a lot to unlearn back then. And we are still unlearning it today. But thanks to our beloved teacher, we got a head start.

Our hearts ached as we said goodbye to him. But our spirits soared as we realized how fortunate we had been to know him, giving thanks to a generous Creator who allowed us to experience a Legend if only for a short while.

G-dspeed, Mr. Coney. May your Legend live on in us.


Harry Scott Coverston

Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

Those who believe religion and politics aren't connected don't understand either. – Mahatma Gandhi

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d?  - Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)

  © Harry Coverston, 2022