4 Months, 28 Days, 5 Hours, 11 Minutes

Thursday, September 3, 2015 - 5:27 am

4 Months, 28 Days, 5 Hours, 11 Minutes

Yesterday I shared a lunch with an elegant, fierce, beautiful, and intelligent African-American woman who had been married to an icon of our lifetime. Her husband passed away on May 19, 2014. His passing drove me to tears that would not stop, and I couldn’t imagine what it had been like for her. I knew that they had been in each other’s lives for about 50 years. I asked her for how many of those decades they had been married. She looked at me with the gentle smile of an elder, and answered:

“4 months, 28 days, 5 hours, 11 minutes.”

These days I sit a great deal with joy, second chances, and a love that lingers into eternity. This conversation reminded me yet again that this Divine love, this lingering love, need not come around the first time or early in one’s life.

The conversation was with Aljosie Harding, the widow of one of my heroes in life. It was a conversation that moved freely from the context of struggles for justice in the 1960s and 1970s to today, from the challenges of being in the public spotlight to their abiding love.

Aljosie Harding was married to the late Vincent Harding: a close companion of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a long-distance runner for love and justice, a perennial voice of wisdom and compassion. Yes, that Vincent Harding.

The “Uncle Vincent” who wrote the primary draft of Dr. King’s most controversial speech, the Riverside Church speech where Dr. King (and Vincent Harding) came to connect racism and poverty at home to militarism abroad in Vietnam. The “Uncle Vincent” who was so important for so many, myself included, in reminding us that America was still possible, that he was a citizen of a country that did not exist… yet. The “Brother Vincent” who always reminded me that it was insufficient to speak of how “America was never America to me” without also adding with the same breath: America will be.

Aljosie Harding was married once before, though single for 30 years when she and Vincent became companions in the 2010s. Vincent had been married, too, for 44 years, though his first wife had passed away in 2004. Aljosie and Vincent had known each other 40 years before, mainly as coworkers in the Institute of the Black World. Their friendship had endured and, as they approached 80 years old, took a turn towards something more tender, more intimate, and more romantic.

I met a few times with Vincent Harding, and the last time I saw him he had just gotten married. Married for the second time, at age 82. He was giddy with joy; there was a bounce in the step of this long-time warrior for peace. He spoke so lovingly, so tenderly about his North Carolina lady, Aljosie.

When I spoke with Aljosie, she told me about their friendship that went back decades — how, after decades of friendship, they started to spend time together again, to the point that Vincent referred to her as the great love of his life.

I reflected on the 4 months, 28 days, 5 hours, 11 minutes, marveling at how precise it was. Once in every few eternities you find a soul who breathes a few eternities into each breath. The now becomes the eternal now, the ever now, where there is no need for words but a million poems are present in every silence.

She said that it wasn’t until Vincent that she truly learned to cherish every minute. Yes, since his passing there are times when she cries out to God, wistfully wishing that they could have had more minutes, more hours, more days, more months together. But she thanks God for having tasted such a love. Even after his passing away, when the wind brushes up on her arm, she feels Vincent’s hand tenderly touching her arm.

There is a love that is stronger than death.

We give anything to taste such a love.
Whether it comes early in life,
    In the middle days
                                     Or in the last of our earthly days. 

There is a love that sometimes in the form of an old friend
Sometimes it comes, 
              re-invigorating a life that has grown stale
Sometimes it comes 
              in the form of a stranger, standing in a corner of a lobby. 
And upon first glance, you know 
              that you have known this stranger since before there were stars. 
Deep in your bones, 
              you know that for as long as there has been a keeper of the Stars, 
                       there has been this divine love. 

What a gift this love is. 
And what work it has taken to prepare ourselves for this love. 

As someone said, the task of life is not merely to find love. 
It is to knock down all the obstacles that stand against love inside our own heart.

When we knock down our own ego, 
our own hardness, 
our own shadows, 
then love comes to town. 

Some of the shadows can only be removed when love comes, 
when light comes, when the Beloved comes. 

But the Jesus of our hearts 
        has to kick over the tables of the moneychangers, 
The Muhammad of our soul 
            has to knock down the idols of the Ka‘ba,
before the Divine love can come rushing in.

Sitting with Aljosie, listening to story after story about beloved Uncle Vincent, this gentle giant of a man, this fiercely compassionate voice who was so loved all along his life, and loved again at the end of his earthly life, I wept.

I wept with joy for how surprising, unexpected, and joyous love erupts. 
Sometimes love comes to town
    Late in life
        Breathing new life into all.

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is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Thursday.

He is Director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center. He is the past Chair for the Study of Islam, and the current Chair for Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion. In 2009, he was recognized by the University of North Carolina for mentoring minority students in 2009, and won the Sitterson Teaching Award for Professor of the Year in April of 2010.

Omid is the editor of the volume Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, which offered an understanding of Islam rooted in social justice, gender equality, and religious and ethnic pluralism. His works Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam, dealing with medieval Islamic history and politics, and Voices of Islam: Voices of Change were published 2006. His last book, Memories of Muhammad, deals with the biography and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad. He has forthcoming volumes on the famed mystic Rumi, contemporary Islamic debates in Iran, and American Islam.

Omid has been among the most frequently sought speakers on Islam in popular media, appearing in The New York TimesNewsweekWashington Post, PBS, NPR, NBC, CNN and other international media. He leads an educational tour every summer to Turkey, to study the rich multiple religious traditions there. The trip is open to everyone, from every country. More information at Illuminated Tours.

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