8 Freedom Heroes: Changing the World by Faith by Brennan R. Hill. St. Anthony Messenger Press (Cincinnati, 2007). 282 pp., $17.95.
In Their Footsteps: Inspirational Reflections on Black History for Every Day of the Year by Daryl Grigsby. ACTA Publications (Skokie, Ill., 2007). 400 pp., $14.95.
Hegel wrote in the 19th century that history was a charnel house, but that out of the bloodshed humanity moved toward greater freedom. Brennan R. Hill would add that the growth of our freedom was accelerated by the actions of the men and women whose lives are outlined in his book, 8 Freedom Heroes: Changing the World by Faith, the second volume of what the author terms “biographical theology” and a follow-up to 8 Spiritual Heroes.
In this latest volume, Hill offers to younger readers eight sketches of men and women whose faith and experience of personal freedom led them to seek freedom for others. It is a group that includes familiar names such as Nelson Mandela, Susan B. Anthony, Cesar Chavez, Corrie ten Boom and Harriet Tubman, but also the less familiar, like Sister Thea Bowman, Redemptorist Father Bernard Haring and Jean Vanier.
Father Haring, as a Catholic chaplain in World War II, nursed both German and Russian soldiers in the ruins of Stalingrad. His experience of the horrors of totalitarianism persuaded him that personal freedom was the basis of moral theology. His thought and untiring work at the Second Vatican Council led to some of the most profound revisions in the way the Catholic Church sees itself: not as a hierarchy, but as the people of God.
Vanier served in the Canadian navy, lived for several years in a Cistercian abbey and later in a cottage near Fatima, Portugal, then found his true calling in middle age: founding the L’Arche houses where mentally and physically disabled people who had been exiled to the perimeters of society could live in loving, sharing communities.
Sister Bowman, the daughter of a black physician who chose to practice medicine in the poorest communities of Mississippi, became a convert to Catholicism. After being educated in Catholic schools in her youth, she went on to earn her doctorate. As a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, her mission focused on having African-American culture, especially its music and spirituality, become part of the vast tapestry of the Catholic Church which had emphasized exclusively its European roots.
It is debatable whether Vanier or Sister Bowman really belong in this company of freedom fighters, but their stories need to be told until they are as familiar as the others in this volume.
Sister Bowman, Mandela and Tubman also are profiled in the book In Their Footsteps: Inspirational Reflections on Black History for Every Day of the Year, a group of brief reflections on black men, women, institutions and customs.
People one would expect to find here are present: Frederick Douglass, Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis and many others. But it is the stories of more obscure heroes and heroines that provide the real interest of this volume. Daryl Grigsby, the author of In Their Footsteps, has a story of his own that’s as interesting as the people he profiles.
Both 8 Freedom Heroes and In Their Footsteps remind us that greatness has little to do with the circumstances of one’s youth and nothing to do with what one earns, but everything to do with using one’s gifts and living for others as citizens of God’s kingdom.
Yearley is earning a certificate of advanced study in theology at the Ecumenical Institute at St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore.