Generation after generation history advances, borne on the shoulders of its heroes. We honor them as we listen to what they have done, and how stories about them have called attention to their celebrity. These events, and the great mythic tales that flow from them, describe what may never have happened, but is always true.
Often we honor our military heroes, men — and now women — who have defended the nation in times of conflict. These members of our armed forces may have exhibited great courage in the face of peril and violence. We honor them with visible tributes including the Congressional Medal of Honor. Even if some of these stories exaggerate their deeds, we owe them our thanks for whatever they may have done. Their comrades and their nation depended on them, and the stories of their exploits have kept their memories alive. Where would we be without Paul Revere and his cry, “The British are coming!”?
There are also heroes who never carried a gun or engaged in armed conflict, but whose lives stand as beacons of hope. We think of our nation’s founders: Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison and others, who declared our independence, and crafted the world’s most dynamic form of government of, by and for the people.
There are many others whose words and deeds have enriched life for all of us, particularly the downtrodden and left out. Chief among them may be Martin Luther King Jr., whom we have honored with a yearly national holiday. With him were countless others, on buses, on an Alabama bridge, lined up waiting to register at county courthouses. These untold thousands have borne witness to King’s passion for freedom as they faced dogs, fire hoses and the vitriol and hatred spewing from public officials and violent mobs.
Even beyond those we properly celebrate, there stand in this nation’s Hall of Heroes, men and women whose names have been lost but whose courage will be remembered and honored as long as this society exists. Let me call out just a few names most of our readers will recognize.
Eugene Debs, Jane Addams, Louis Brandeis, Florence Kelley, John Dewey, Margaret Sanger, Charlotte Gilman, Roger Baldwin, Eleanor Roosevelt, Phillip Randolph, Paul Robeson, Woodie Guthrie, Ella Baker, Jackie Robinson, Rachel Carson, Thurgood Marshall, David Brower, Pete Seeger, Betty Freidan, Cesar Chavez, Harvey Milk, Ralph Nader, Gloria Steinem, Bill Moyers
Now I suggest that you put aside these names, and let the magnet of memory pass over your own life. Perhaps it will lure up from all your days and years the names and even the faces of those who have been your heroes, persons no one else might know. Who are your heroes, and how might you honor them?
The church I served at the University of Chicago worshipped in a great stone gothic structure fashioned by Dr. E. S. Ames during his 40 year pastorate. All around the vaulted ceiling there are niches where the statues of the saints are normally placed. But these niches are empty! Dr. Ames said that when anyone enters that building they are to bring their saints with them and place in those niches these heroes who have guided and enriched their lives; persons no one else might even know. The occupants of these niches are known only by those who placed them there, and by God who has enshrined them in the eternal Hall of Heroes.
In many cultures families place their ancestors in temples even if these sacred places are only small living room shrines. Thus they are reminded that there are no self-made persons, but that all of us are only part of history’s ongoing procession. It may be that even what we may call “ancestor worship” is really the awareness that in the great sweep of life we are not alone.