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Posts Tagged ‘ Diana Mahoney ’

Day 9: Nine

Tuesday, May 17th, 2011

By Diana Mahoney

They still take my breath away. I thought that by now, I’d have become immune, desensitized, overexposed. Day after day, wandering through galleries, hearing stories, gazing at blatantly honest photographs. Mangled human bodies, bloody beatings and people bent over, sobs wracking their entire frame.

I can’t understand the Rwandan Genocide. Or the Holocaust. Or the Klu Klux Klan. Stories like that of Emmett Till, haunting, chipping away at my desire to believe in the goodness of humanity. Glossy photographs of brutal police beating based on skin tone, shattered glass reflecting the bloodied face of Jim Peck, black and white film reels capturing forever the cruelty we as human beings are indeed capable of.

Once upon a time, in what would come to be remembered as one of the most horrific moments of humanity, a young girl scribbled out a sentence which would come to be remembered and repeated for decades.

“Despite everything, I believe that people really are good at heart.” Anne Frank’s infamous quote echoes through the Holocaust and into the years following. With hints of naivety and hope, she voices an idea that I can’t help secretly, yet desperately wanting to believe is true. And then I switch on the television. Or pick up the newspaper. Child soldiers. Human trafficking. Domestic violence. Inhumanity so beyond my comprehension, so polar opposite to the world both Anne and I want to believe in.

Sitting in the dark church, watching the Freedom Riders documentary for a second time, I feel my breath catch. Because I’ve met these people, ate with these people, laughed with these people, received hugs from these people. No longer are they simply characters in a story that inspires me. Flesh, blood, memories, families and stories… they’re real.

Photographs flash across the screen of people armed with clubs and hate, and images of people I shared heaping plates of steaming spaghetti with mere hours ago. I suck in my breath and try to make out their facial expressions in the dark room, try to comprehend how people can commit these atrocities against other human beings.

Later that night, after trading in the business casual look for t-shirts and gym shorts, a few of us sprawl out on one of the large hotel beds. One in the morning seems the ideal time to discuss Communism, Eminem, and reoccurring dreams.

“In Chinese culture, the perfect number is nine. Because if you reach ten, you’ve peaked, it’s a downward slope from there. Thus, nine is the perfect number because it means that there is room for growth,” Zilong, an exchange student from China, explains.

Nine. It’s the reason that each and every one of the forty of us have gotten on this bus. Nine gives us hope, that there is still space left to make a difference, space to grow. Nine hints at possibility, reminding us that we still have new heights to reach, something to strive for. That amidst all the horrific things that have been and that are, a space is created. A space full of hope, full of possibility. An avenue for humanity to begin picking up the broken pieces and begin piecing them together in a step towards redemption.

“It’s not a safe space, it’s a brave space… step up and step out.” said someone in our group as we sat around on tiny, multi-colored plastic chairs during a discussion on race. I couldn’t agree more. The world isn’t a safe space.

Be brave. I find myself repeating it back to myself constantly. I can’t understand the inhumanity, the violence. And perhaps, in some way, I’m not meant to. Nine. There’s still work to be done, risks to be taken, people worth believing in, potential. Nine. We haven’t peaked yet.


Day 7: Lily

Sunday, May 15th, 2011

By Diana Mahoney

Oversized plaques, encased exhibits, multi-colored murals, all in an effort to convey stories of what has been. Attempts to unpack the past, to inspire the future. Millions of dollars poured into glossy photographs and stimulating exhibits. Our abridged attempts to give explanations to the “whys” of what has been. To unravel the complicated web of the stories we have tangled together over the centuries.

Once upon a time, before we understood inhibitions or colors or hate, we were her. Neither the tension in the air nor the black and white pictures of a burning bus adorning the brightly lit walls of the town’s new exhibit bother her as she toddles back and forth between the rows of adults. Adults who are attempting to make peace, to reconcile a half-century-old story.

Cookie crumbs clinging to her little hands, she reaches out to me to pick her up. I lift her up, tiny billowing white sundress and all and am greeted by two huge, beautiful brown eyes.

“Hi.” I say. Because it’s the best thing I can come up with to say to an almost-two-year-old. She stares back at me before wrapping her tiny arms around my neck and I feel her soft heartbeat as she snuggles close. She pulls back and looks deeply into my eyes and points at the tall, hulking frame of a man across the room.

“Grandpa.” She says.

“Grandpa.” I repeat it back to her. A contagious smile spreads across her little face and I can’t help but smile back. The man she is pointing at, the hero of the evening, is Hank Thomas, whose first greeting from Anniston was in a blazing Greyhound bus surrounded by a jeering, violent mob fifty years before. Whose physical presence is bringing a whole new dimension to my understanding of history and the people it takes to make change possible.

“Monuments aren’t about buildings or plaques. They’re about the people that are walking around. They’re you, and you, and you. Because you are the ones who are living testament to what we fought for.” Charles Person, one of the original Freedom Riders confided in us late one night as we sat around on mix-matched chairs talking about forgiveness and reconciliation with the nature of people.

We’re all monuments. Because we stand testament to the stories of those who came before us, through our lives we bring remembrance to the stories of those who have come and those who have gone. We are evidence that they were here. That their stories, their struggles, their sacrifices, were not in vain. Our lives, living, breathing, passionate monuments whose everyday existence stands testament to the future they unswervingly and faithfully believed someday would be.

As the program draws to a close a man stands in the center of the crowd. Choked up with emotion, he turns toward Hank Thomas and admits that his father was part of the mob that brutally beat Hank fifty years before. The men embrace for a moment before Hank releases him, reaches down and swoops Lily up.

Lily’s that monument. I’m that monument. You’re that monument. Museums, plaques, statues cannot come close to displaying the effect of the past on today the way we can. The sacrifices, dreams and desires of yesterday are manifested in the way that we walk, and talk and think today.

The three of them embrace in a moment that takes my breath away. Lily stares first at her grandfather then at the other man. Her eyes wide, questioning. She wiggles out of Hank’s arms as he sets her down on the floor. She takes one good, long look around the room, and then, suddenly, she begins to dance.


Day 4: Give Thanks

Wednesday, May 11th, 2011

By Diana Mahoney

They are like pieces in a complicated jigsaw puzzle. Daily, we try to piece them together in an effort to capture and convey the chaos of emotion racing and swirling through our minds and hearts. Sometimes we get it right, sometimes we don’t. People remember them, repeat them, build hopes and dreams around them, get their heart broken by them. Words. In contrast to the strength of emotion behind them, they seem flimsy in comparison. In syllables, we try to capture and convey what lies beneath our surface. Chaining meaning to sounds, trying to transmit hearts brimming with emotions to those around us.

Thank you. Two short words that seem to ring empty and hollow in nearly every situation that demands them. How can the same two words that are used in response to someone holding a door or ringing up your groceries be used interchangeably to express how you felt the time your friend, who had an exam the next morning, spent the night driving you hours to the hospital to see your grandmother the night she died. That’s right, they can’t.

That’s why I was surprised today when those two simple words came to be the rocking moment of my day. Which, if I’m being honest, I’m beginning to get used to. Being caught off guard and shook up daily in the most unexpected moments, by the least likely of people.

It was during the beautiful luncheon put out in Rock Hill, South Carolina where the infamous Friendship Nine Sit-Ins occurred that it happened. The lights had been dimmed and we were halfway through the documentary on Rock Hill that she walked across the room. Young and beautiful, the well-dressed African-American girl bent down and leaned her head in close to Joan Mulholland’s.

“I have to leave early, but I just wanted to come over and say thank you for making this life possible for me.” I watched out of the corner of my eye as Joan reached out and wrapped the young girl in her embrace.

“I love you.” Joan whispered into her hair. I felt my heart skip a beat. It was just such an incredibly beautiful moment. Suddenly it hit me. That this tiny, beautiful woman sitting next to me played a huge part of life as I know it. I gazed around the room at my fellow student riders and thought of the people that have played parts in my life up to this point. At their varying skin tones, of their diverse ideas, of their unique voices, of how much richer my life has become because they are in it. Of how much of this beautiful life I would have missed had this woman and those like her not stepped up and spoke out.

I feel like my “Thank you.” doesn’t cut it. Every time I see these incredibly courageous people, I want to convey how each and every day I am appreciative for the world they sacrificed so much for. The world I was lucky enough to grow up in, thanks to them. But somewhere deep down inside, I know that no matter how many times I say it, those words stand almost as a barrier in conveying the swell of emotion, gratefulness and indebtedness I feel I owe to each and every one of the original Freedom Riders. It is humbling to graciously accept this gift the Freedom Riders have given us. I can’t fit together words to say thank you properly. As the days roll by I find myself more and more in agreement with author Elizabeth Gilbert who reflects that, “In the end, maybe it’s wiser to surrender before the miraculous scope of human generosity and to just keep saying thank you, forever and sincerely, for as long as we have voices.”


Day 2: Diana Mahoney

Monday, May 9th, 2011


Student Rider: Diana Mahoney

Thursday, April 7th, 2011

Messiah College
Grantham, Pennsylvania
Hometown: West Chester, Pennsylvania

Watch the full episode. See more Freedom Riders.