In Memory of A.J.
In Memory of A.J.
My first true mentor was a Catholic priest. His name was Reverend Albert J. McKnight. Early in his career Father McKnight, who was born and raised in Brooklyn, chose to work with poor people in the South. Not long after he arrived, he took a picture with Wil Guillory and Al Mc Zeal sitting on a stack of sweet potato crates. They had just organized the first black sweet potato cooperative in Louisiana. The rest, as they say, is history.
I spent the summer between my first and second years of law school in Lafayette, Louisiana working at the Southern Cooperative Development Fund. When I finished law school, Mac convinced me to work with him for $17,500 per year. He had also convinced the most talented group of young people I have ever worked with to join him. We worked with poor people all over the South. We were confident, we were brash, and we thought we would change the world. The world didn’t change much, but my life surely did, and I was only one of many seeds that Mac planted to build a better future.
We read “Plan to Planet” and lived by the Nguzo Saba. We learned that the bible is a book of economics. We were taught to meditate and that leadership is service, not self. We met governors and civil rights leaders. We built houses and financed hotels. We worked community farms with Israelis. We even bought a bank. We did all of this while most of us were still in our 20s, and Mac was our guide.
One day, when I was going through a rough patch in my life, my mentor and I got into an argument over government money. I quit my job and he called me an uncommitted capitalist. He was wrong on both counts, but I think he was hurt by my defection.
I went on to serve on his Board of Directors, join his “Black Unity and Spiritual Togetherness” movement, explain his sandals to my mother-in-law at my daughter Nia’s baptism, help him get folks out of jail, cry on his shoulder at my brother’s funeral, spend time with him in Haiti, borrow some money from him to help me buy a house.
Whenever AJ would visit, after the kids were asleep, we would inevitably end up discussing God and Jesus and the relationship between the two. Mac was one of the smartest people I knew, so what I viewed as his blind allegiance to his religion and his faith frustrated me at times. Whenever I thought my logic was about to win the day, he would just flash that toothy grin and go “Uh, uh… my faith is my strength.”
I last saw Father at a retirement home in California a few years ago. I have spoken to him only a few times since then. I intended and intended to visit him one more time, but I never did.
I could thank Reverend Albert J McKnight for many things. If I had to pick one however, it would be his grin. It took me some time to understand the source of his elation. When Father saw human suffering, he saw a fertile field; an opportunity to do God’s work. AJ was happy because he was blessed as a spirit born to serve, and he took joy in the clarity of purpose that was his life.
So Father, Mac, AJ, whom I sometimes called a “son to me” as a teasing expression of my love; thank you for teaching me to see the world through the eyes of God, to see each day as a new beginning – another opportunity to serve. I’ll miss you, but you are very much a part of me, and for that I am grateful.