November 2022


Belvie Rooks is co-founder of the Growing a Global Heart project. She is a writer, educator and human rights and social justice advocate whose work weaves the worlds of spirituality, feminism, cosmology and ecology. As an educator, Belvie was  invited to be part of the founding faculty of the College of Social Justice at the State University of New York (SUNY) Old Westbury. She has served as Visiting Faculty at Naropa University's Graduate Program in Environmental Studies, core faculty at Holy Names University's Sophia Center Program in Culture and Spirituality, and as a lecturer at UC Santa Cruz.

You met the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when you were a teenager and he was a young man. Can you talk about that experience and the ways you've carried it with you?

In 1958, when I was 15 years old, I was invited to attend a four-day high school conference on civil liberties sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee. It was held at the Asilomar Conference Center near Monterey. One of the guest speakers was going to be a young Baptist minister named Martin Luther King. Most of the students had never heard of him. Because I had family in the South, I knew that he was one of the leaders of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott. The South was segregated then. The boycott began in 1955 after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat for a white person.

You can imagine how excited I was to be invited. I was from San Francisco and this invitation went out to about 400 students from all over California. I have no idea how we'd all been selected but we were happy about it, especially because we were getting out of school for an extra day.

So we took a bus down the coast. It stopped in Palo Alto and picked up this young woman who got on with a guitar almost as big as she was. She headed to the back of the bus and started strumming her guitar and singing If I Had a Hammer. Soon we were all singing. She was really good on the guitar. Somebody asked her name and she said Joan—Joan Baez. We thought her last name was cool; she said it was Mexican and Irish. I remember thinking that it doesn't get any cooler than that!

Fast forward, and we're all gathered, excitedly waiting for Dr. King to talk, and who should walk out on the stage but this girl, Joan Baez, who had been on our bus. I think she had shared that she was a senior at Palo Alto High School! We couldn't believe our eyes. She was a high school student the same as we were and she was opening for Dr. King. After her set, a very young Dr. King walked to the podium.

Witnessing that first encounter must have been a shock.

Oh, it was. This was the first time Dr. King and Joan Baez met. We later realized we were witnessing history.

Because he was so young, his message seemed very accessible. We listened intently as he talked about the incredible courage of young people our age in the South, the risks that they were taking, and the dangers they faced willingly, to make the world a better place.

He talked to us about Gandhi and the creative power of nonviolence. He talked about the redemptive power of love, and how truth, goodness, righteousness, and how love will always win out in the end. He talked about our personal responsibility and the power that each of us had to make a difference in the world.

I remember vividly, how at the end of his speech, he not only got a standing ovation, but we were stomping our feet and yelling and we were holding each other and we were crying. The tears flowed.

He had spoken to our hearts. He had spoken to our unformed visions of hope and possibility for the world. He appealed to our sense of fairness and justice, and the fact that we were, according to him, special. We were special, not in an elitist way. He said we were special, because he knew he could trust us, that he could count on us to keep the faith and honor the sacred calling of loving a better world into existence.

After he spoke, I made my way down to the stage to see him. He was surrounded by so many people, all wanting to shake his hand. I remember touching him and saying, "Dr. King, Dr. King." He turned and he looked at me and kind of did a doubletake. There were very few African American students there. I realized later I just really wanted him to see me, to know that I was there and to know that I heard his message. Really heard it. So much of the social justice work that I have done over the years, as well as my intergenerational passion flows from that moment and that encounter. It's had a lasting impact.

I can't imagine the AFSC could have anticipated the impact of that event on you.

It was transformative, not just for me, but for all these amazing young people. Fortunately, the elders and mentors of the AFSC did see the impact of this experience on us, and because of that — because of our tears at having to go our separate ways — they kept us together for another year and a half. They saw and supported the best of who we could be.

Is that the art of eldering?

It is, really. As I reflect on it, our AFSC mentors and elders listened deeply to the love and caring that was in our hearts and lifted us up. By their example, they taught me what it means to support the emerging desire of young people to make the world a better place. It's what my late husband Dedan and I have dedicated our lives to doing.

When I meet with young people, I know that I have lived a life that is difficult for them to comprehend. And by the same token, they are living into a future that I can't quite imagine. Wisdom is lived experience, and as older adults, we have wisdom based on the lives we have led, the struggles we have endured, and joys we've celebrated. In collaboration, we are hopefully able to live into an understanding of the effect of love, caring, compassion, and truth-telling. But really, it's mostly about the love.

Read more about Belvie's experience with meeting Dr. Martin Luther King.