A TV station in Rochester, NY, set up a camera this morning and did a live feed from Susan B. Anthony’s grave. It was touching to see all the flowers and gifts people had brought there, and all the “I Voted” stickers adorning Ms. Anthony’s gravestone, and all the people stopping to have their pictures taken at the final resting place of this mother of women’s suffrage. More than a century after her death, and nearly that long since the fight she and others, such as Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Mott, had waged for so long was finally won, men and women alike honored her memory on the day they had voted for a female President for the first time.
There is something to be learned here, especially for us who long for the reign of God to become a reality “on earth, as it is in heaven.” Anyone who has taken part in the struggle for justice and peace has known moments of despair when the enormity of sin and evil fills one’s entire field of vision and the overwhelming tide of resistance to change erodes one’s hope and saps one’s energy. Susan B. Anthony must have felt it many times over the long years of struggle, when condemnation and abuse were more common than support or kindness. William Wilberforce must have felt it in the midst of his decades-long fight to end the slave trade in the British Empire. I suspect that even Jesus felt it occasionally as he looked out at the crowds gathered around him like sheep without a shepherd, every day bringing more diseases to be healed, more demons to be exorcised, more stories of humiliation, poverty, and degradation to be heard.
But each of these people soldiered on. Wilberforce, at least, got to see the fruits of his work in his lifetime, but the others were not so lucky. Jesus died a seeming failure, executed for sedition and abandoned by his friends. And Anthony died in 1906, unsuccessful in her life’s work, never knowing that she came but fourteen years shy of legally casting a ballot in an American election. Never imagining that in 2016 both women and men would be able to cast a ballot for a woman to hold the highest elected office in the land.
One of the things you learn after being engaged in Christian ministry for any length of time is that you have to take encouragement where you can find it. Seldom do you see the fruits of your labor right away. Seldom do you have an unqualified success. You have to be content with small victories, and take the long view. Much of the work of ministry feels like failure a lot of the time. When you don’t get the response you were hoping for, or you work hard on something and all you seem to get is criticism, it can be disheartening.
But every once in a while, you get to see the light go on in somebody’s eyes, or you look at the life of someone on whom you had some influence years ago and you’re proud of what you see. And somehow it all seems worthwhile.
Susan B. Anthony died without the right to vote. Jesus died abandoned, mocked, and alone. But they were not failures. You may feel that your efforts on behalf of justice, compassion, and reconciliation go unnoticed and have no good effect. But you are not a failure, either. Keep plugging away. Nothing is ever lost.
Tomorrow morning we may very well have a female President-elect. And wherever she is, Ms. Anthony will be smiling.