Orphan Trains, Malcolm X. and Mr. Khan: Pilgrim Tales

A Sermon by the Rev. Aaron McEmrys

Delivered to the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara, November 14, 2010

At the height of the Great Depression the hardest hit cities like New York, had a problem; a whole generation of orphans. Some were literal orphans, children who had actually lost their parents, while many others were virtual orphans, children left on hospital doorsteps; in train stations and firehouses by broken-hearted parents who simply could not feed them.

The Children’s Aid Society stepped forward with a bold new plan.  The children would be “collected”, loaded onto special trains and then “shipped” out West, to families that needed extra laborers – and who would, in return, care for the children.

Things started out well enough, but soon it wasn’t only orphans who were being shipped out, but all sorts of children: vagrants, children picked up for shoplifting, or whose parents were undesirables. Some children were even sold to the Aid Society, yes sold, by their parents or by kidnappers who claimed to be their parents.

Many of the children were taken by force, and, as one officer who participated in these forced adoptions understatedly observed, “In general, mothers don’t like to part with their children.”

At every stop West through Ohio, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, the children would stand in orderly lines as the locals, farmers mostly, would examine them, checking their muscles, their teeth, their eyes as they would an animal.

One orphan, now in her eighties, is still shocked to recall the day she discovered that her new “family” “did not want a child, but a slave.” Another orphan, much luckier than most, who had been arrested for petty, but escalating crimes on the streets of New York, remembers his new parents, who were unable to have children of their own, promising, “If you come home with us we’ll buy you a pony, a bicycle and a puppy.”  The old man starts to cry; “He never did spank me, no matter what I did.  It was the kindness that got up to me.  He saved my life.”

Children who were not adopted at one stop were loaded up and sent still further West, to the end of the line. 

It is estimated that about 200,000 children rode the orphan trains, most of who never saw their birth parents again and do not remember their given names.

The survivors of the Orphan Trains, now approaching the end of their lives, look back with a muddy blend of bitterness, gratitude and wonder.  “Who would I have been if not for the train?  I wonder what my name was?  Did I have sisters or brothers? Did my mother weep for me?”

These children were shaped by a journey, a kind of forced pilgrimage from one place to another, one life to another, pushed by social, political and economic realities they did not create and could not understand. And while their example is stark, it is only a matter of degree, for we are all so shaped by the lives we are dealt and the roads we travel. 

Many people live the whole of their lives like this, like children loaded onto trains bound for futures beyond their ken. But there are also those who go off the rails in search of another way, in search of another self in search of a path, however unexpected, that can only be traveled by their two soft feet.

 Our next pilgrim, Malcolm X. is one of these. When he was a little boy their home was burned to the ground by white-robed members of the KKK, and not long after his father was lynched by a group of anonymous white men because of his “uppity” talk about freedom.

After that, his mother increasingly withdrew into some impossibly distant place within herself, every day less able to take care of her children until she crossed some arbitrary threshold, was labeled “mad” and institutionalized. 

Malcolm and his brothers and sisters were separated, broken up and sent to foster homes across the state. 

“I can’t describe how I felt.  The woman who had brought me into the world, and nursed me and advised me, and chastised me and loved me, was gone.  We wanted and tried to stay together. Our home didn’t have to be destroyed.  Hence I have no mercy or compassion in me for a society that will crush people, and then penalize them for not being able to stand up under the weight.”[1]

He grew up to be an idealistic, powerful, charismatic man with the ability to touch hearts and stir minds.  Driven by anger, hurt and bitterness, he devoted his considerable powers to exposing the terrible “truth” as he saw it: that the white man was, quite literally, the Devil, and that only by severing themselves completely from the white man’s world and white man’s power, could the people stolen from Africa, stolen even from themselves – finally be free.

For most of his life, Malcolm X. hated white people, truly hated them, and he vented his rage powerfully and articulately, giving voice to the collective anger and despair so many black people felt, their lives, as Malcolm put it, “a nightmare without end.”

Of course then, as now, many white people agreed with him.  Many wanted no part of racism and wanted to help build a better future, and the vast majority of letters Malcolm received were from white people who wanted to help.  When he deigned to reply at all, it was with venom and scorn.

It was here that the wall of thorns around him first started to soften:

“I’d never seen anyone I ever spoke before more affected than this little white college girl.  She demanded, right up in my face, “Don’t you believe there are any good white people?” I didn’t want to hurt her feelings.  I told her, “People’s deeds I believe in Miss, not their words.”  What can I do? She exclaimed.  I told her, “nothing.”  She burst out crying, and ran up and out and was gone.”[2]

Malcolm X. began to feel increasingly lost after this.  He doubted.  He was no longer sure he was on the right path, and didn’t know how to find the right one.  And he was so very tired.

So he went on pilgrimage, to Mecca.  He didn’t know what else to do. And as is always the case with true pilgrimage, he couldn’t have guessed what he was about to experience.

He writes: there were  “throngs of people, Muslims from everywhere, bound on the pilgrimage, hugging and embracing. The feeling hit me that there wasn’t any color problem here.  The effect was as though I had just stepped out of a prison. Packed together, white, black, brown, red and yellow people, blue eyes and blond hair, and my kinky red hair – all together, brothers!’[3]

Mecca, when he finally entered it, “seemed as ancient as time itself” – and he realized just how narrow his world had been, and his broken heart opened. He sat down and wrote long letters to his wife, Betty, to his mentor, Elijah Muhammad, and to his congregants.

“For the past week, I have been utterly speechless and spellbound by the graciousness I see displayed all around me by people of all colors.  I have been blessed to visit the Holy City of Mecca; I have made my seven circuits around the Ka’ba.  I have prayed on Mt. Arafat.  There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, of all colors from all over the world, all displaying the same spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America led me to believe could never exist.  This has forced me to rearrange and toss aside many of my previous conclusions.”[4]

Malcolm X. returned to the United States a different man. In addition to his new way of seeing the world, something else had changed as well.  He was possessed of a kind of calm, a steadiness that was new to him, as well as gentleness, openness and even love, all of which had seemed lost since childhood.

He was murdered on February 21, 1965; assassinated by his former friends and congregants largely because of his new way in the world; because of those beautiful, hopeful letters he sent back from Mecca.

He was only forty when he died, the same age Muhammad was when Allah first whispered in his ear. But at least he completed his pilgrimage and wrote home about it, something all too many of us never do.  Not even his death could take that from him, or from those of us who read his letters today.

Some of us begin our pilgrimages with a clear idea of what we’re looking for, or at least what we “think” we’re looking for.  But what we’re looking for and what we actually find, actually need, are often entirely different things. 

Everyone experiences a sense of “something missing” in our lives from time to time, and we try everything under the sun to meet that longing.  Becoming a pilgrim means to give up our dictating and striving by deliberately stepping outside our comfort zones and simply putting one foot in front of the other, trusting that the journey itself will lead us where we need to go. 

As Kerry Egan observes, “The act of walking is, at the heart of the motion, falling.  You pick one foot off the floor and then must shift the bulk of your weight and center of gravity to that foot before it ever hits the ground.  The crux of walking, the action that actually propels you forward, is a precarious one, an action in which you must move forward with faith that your leading foot will land on solid ground.  For a second in every step, you are completely off-balance, in a kind of controlled fall.”[5]

We all journey in life, whether we like it or not, but all too many of us blunder ahead like sleepwalkers, or worse, like crows, flying off course every time we see something shiny – no matter how many times it turns out to be nothing more than an empty candy wrapper or soda blowing aimlessly across an empty lot.

To walk the path of life in pilgrim’s shoes is to experience both the unsettling feeling of controlled falling and the faith it requires – on purpose and with our eyes open, “for pilgrim’s, it is written, are poets who create by taking journeys.”

The recent Bollywood film, “My Name is Khan” is about such a pilgrim poet.  But he walks the pilgrim’s path not only for himself, but for all of us.

Shahruhk Khan plays a young man from India with Asperger’s Syndrome living in America. He is terrified of the color yellow, afraid of crowds and “sharp” sounds. 

But underneath his awkwardness Rizwan is a good man, and in time he finds Mandira, a Hindu transplant who can see him and love him in ways so many other cannot.  They fall in love, get married, and he becomes a bashfully loving stepfather to her son, Sameer.

And their lives are happy.  Until 9/11, when the towers fall.

From that moment everything is different.  Suddenly their brown skin is a stain, Rizwan’s gentle Muslim faith a wedge and he narrowly escapes a beating for praying in Arabic at a vigil for the victims of 9/11. 

Meanwhile the little boy, Sameer, is also being punished.  It starts slowly with insults too horrible to repeat, and then mounts, his eyes wide and stunned as an ugly tide of photos of Osama bin Laden pour out of his locker at school. 

One day the boy tries to fight back, and in a fit of xenophobic madness poor Sameer is beaten to death by a group of boys who leave his body where it falls. 

Mandira, beside herself with grief, cries,  “If you were not a Muslim, Sameer would still be alive!”

“But, Mandira, I am not a terrorist!”

“Well you go and tell them that, you go and tell the President of the United States that you are not a terrorist – you do that!  But until them, go, just go!”

Being a literal-minded person, Rizwan sadly packs a backpack and goes off in search of the President of the United States.

Khan follows the President’s scheduled public appearances, crisscrossing America to town after town after town. He walks across the barren wastes of Utah with only vast power lines and lonely Joshua trees to mark his passing.

Eventually he finds the President in Santa Fe.  He pushes his way through the crowd, a strange, dark-skinned man who mutters to himself and won’t meet anyone’s eyes.  As the president steps out of his bulletproof limo, Khan yells, “Mr. President, my name is Khan.  I am NOT a terrorist” – but the only word anyone around him seems to hear is “terrorist.”

He is arrested, beaten and interrogated despite the fact that he is so transparently innocent.  His story is picked up nationwide and galvanizes American Muslims everywhere.  Rizwan Khan becomes a symbol of all the good, peaceful, ordinary Muslims everywhere whose hearts are breaking under the brutal talk-radio stereotypes of post 9/11 America.

Mandira, now stricken with remorse, sees his story on TV and rushes to Washington to fight for his release.  He is eventually freed and in the last scene of the movie, meets President-elect Obama, who says, as millions of Muslims watch rapt on TVs across the world, “I know who you are.  Your name is Khan, and you are not a terrorist.”

“And this is my son,” says Rizwan, holding a battered snapshot in his hand, “he wasn’t a terrorist either.”

“I know” replies the President with sad eyes, “I am so sorry for your loss.”

“Let’s go home,” says Mandira.  “Yes”, he answers, “Let’s go home.”

That’s all he needed, all Mandira needed, all the thousands, millions of Muslims around the world need – to be recognized as human, to be seen and to be valued, to be real people in a country where thousands of American Muslims are the victims of hate crimes every year.

This is a movie, a Bollywood melodrama, but it is as achingly sincere as anything I have ever seen.  And the questions it poses are real.

My Name Is Khan is a fantasy of redemption – and it is a plea, a desperate, heartsick plea for tolerance, understanding and forgiveness.  It is a tale of pilgrimage, of how even one person’s journey can make a difference.

In an interesting real-life footnote, Shahruhk Khan, the actor who played Rizwan was recently detained for several hours in Chicago, where he was scheduled to march in a parade.  He was held and questioned because, get this, his last name really is Khan and he really is a Muslim.[6] Talk about life imitating art.

Today’s stories are stories of pilgrimage.  But the journeys we take don’t need to be dramatic to be helpful or healing.  Pilgrimage is an art, a way of being in the world, and at the heart of pilgrimage is hope. 

“Hope” argues Egan, “is the emotional center of every pilgrimage.  One journeys perhaps out of devotion, or a longing for adventure, or confused and even desperate searching, but the emotional heart of all those things is the idea that change can happen for the better if one is willing to go somewhere else, to a place (however metaphorical) where other people have gone with great hope, too, and been changed.”[7]

To become a pilgrim does not require us to travel barefoot to the ends of the earth or to cross the Himalayas on our knees.  But it does require us to make time for it.  Time in our often feverish lives for journeys that matter, time to put one foot in front of the other as we do all day, everyday – but this time on purpose, with intention, humbly surrendering to the controlled falling at the heart of every step.

We do not go on pilgrimage to change others or to change the world, but to change ourselves.  And yet, as we change and grow and deepen – the world around changes too. 

Kerry Egan writes that to be a pilgrim is to “be in an in-between space for a little while, a time of both great transition and great potential.  In this place we learn and experience things that would be impossible otherwise.  A pilgrim experiences just what Malcolm X. did at Mecca, communitas.  Barriers are thrown aside as a great feeling of unity and connectedness brings people together in a way that seems impossible within the regular structures of society.  This communitas is a force that can transform the world.”[8]

What path are you called to tread?  What longing laps at your shores?  What can happen in your life, even today – if you choose to walk your life, even for a single hour with pilgrim’s feet and pilgrim’s eyes?


[1] Malcom X. and Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. (New York: Ballantine, 1964) p. 22

[2] Ibid, p. 292

[3] Ibid, pp 328-340

[4] Ibid, pp 346-347

[5] Kerry Egan, Fumbling: A Pilgrimage Tale of Love, grief and Spiritual Renewal on the Camino de Santiago (New York: Doubleday, 2004) p. 55

[6]Questioning a Bollywood VIP Named Khan”, New York Times August 15, 2009

[7] Kerry Egan, Fumbling: A Pilgrimage Tale of Love, grief and Spiritual Renewal on the Camino de Santiago (New York: Doubleday, 2004) p. 10

[8] Ibid, p. 18