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A Call to Service

Updated: Mar 8

On April 25, 2023, we lost a person who devoted his life to service. Harry Belafonte passed away at the age of 96. He would have been the same age as my own father who I lost when he was only 42 years old. There are so many similarities between the two. Both men served in the United States Navy during World War II to fight against Hitler's fascism and both were very proud to serve their country. Both were people of color.

For Harry Belafonte, he expected to come back home, to be celebrated and to be given the opportunity for jobs, education, to live the American dream. Instead, he found those opportunities were not for him. It was the mid-forties when he returned from the war and America was not a place of milk and honey for most Black Americans as they suffered the ills of segregation, discrimination, and outright racism. Things were not as bad for my father but they were not easy either. My father was an advocate for social justice and believed in equality for all. Had he lived longer, I am sure he would have contributed toward the social justice movement.

For Mr. Belafonte, after he soon realized the opportunities he thought he would have were not available to him, took a job as an assistant janitor, where by chance one of the tenants of the building he cleaned gave him two tickets to the American Negro Theatre in Harlem. He fell in love with the art of performance, met a man by the name of Sidney Poitier, and the rest is entertainment history.

For me, the entertainer side is not what drew me to Mr. B's life story. What drew me to him, was his activism. His relentless service to help those who were voiceless, the oppressed, and the marginalized. Sounds like someone we know. Right? Jesus. I know Mr. B was raised Catholic; however, I am not sure he stayed in the faith; I do know he believed in God. His mother was a devout Catholic. I believe that his call to service sprouted from his mom's teachings. As most of our mother's have prayed for us, I am sure Harry's mother prayed for Jesus to wrap his arms around her son and show him the way to service. Harry recalls his immigrant mother telling him, " When you grow up, son, never go to bed at night knowing that there was something you could have done during the day to strike a blow against injustice and you didn’t do it.″

I am thinking of Mr. B today because on Friday, March 1, 2024, the day he would have turned 97 years old, the Belafonte family and friends held a Celebration of Life for him. I am so glad they did, not because he expected it, but because many of us who admired his service, were able to celebrate his life together either physically or virtually. My own dad would have been 97 in April 2024.

Harry Belafonte counted as friends some of our great civil rights leaders including Dr. Martin Luther King, Paul Robeson, and John Lewis. There are too many stories to tell including harrowing experiences of placing his life at risk for the sake of social justice, breaking racial barriers, feeding the hungry, standing against apartheid, and being a friend of those who believed in justice without judgment and regardless of the color of their skin.

He wasn't perfect by any stretch of the imagination, he was human. During this time of Lent, we are reminded of the importance of repentance and forgiveness. We are reminded, we are all one, and God made us all in his image. I hope we are all able to recognize the good in others and also to recognize the good in ourselves. We often talk about forgiving others when sometimes we need to take the time to give ourselves grace and to love who God made in us with all of our flaws. If you would like to learn more about Mr. Harry Belafonte's story, I highly recommend his memoir, My Song: A Memoir by Harry Belafonte. There is also a documentary on his life titled Sing Your Song: Harry Belafonte. Both inspire us and remind us of Jesus' call to us all to serve and love others. Mr. Belafonte's memorial was also live-streamed and is available on YouTube.

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