Small, Courageous Acts

Over the weekend, my husband and I hosted our long-time friend, Ana Maria Spagna, and her partner, Laurie, as part of Ana Maria’s tour promoting her new book, Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus – A Daughter’s Civil Rights Journey. I’ve read the book once just for the pleasure of learning the story of Ana Maria’s path to understanding her father’s involvement in the Tallahassee Bus Boycott. I’m reading it a second time to learn from this skillful writer how to tell a multi-layered story like Test Ride. Ana Maria uses literary techniques to, as she says, “braid” the stories of her father, who died when she was eleven; her own discovery of her father’s past that had not been discussed in her family; and her mother’s experience with cancer (find out more at

One of the joys of hearing an author read and talk about her own work is to be able to learn more about her process and what she discovered about herself through her research and writing. I was fortunate to get two of those opportunities during Ana Maia’s visit – both at her public reading and earlier in the day when I interviewed her for our local low power FM radio station.

I heard about how she starts her writing day first reading someone else’s writing that inspires her. Then she re-reads what she wrote the day before. “Sometimes I think it’s the worst thing I’ve ever written,” Ana Maria said. “At those times, I allow myself to just close that file without hitting the delete button, and move on to something else I’m working on. That’s the benefit of working on more than one project at a time.” Then she writes for a few hours, or revises if that’s the stage she’s at on a piece. “I’m pretty unproductive at writing after two or three in the afternoon,” she says, “so I shift to preparing for a writing workshop or the on-line teaching I do for a writing program.” Ah yes, the reality for most writers of having a “day job” (or two or three).

Ana Maria also talked about the two years of research she did about the civil rights movement and especially about the Tallahassee bus boycott and her father’s role in it. Here’s a synopsis of what she learned about the latter.

One Saturday morning in Tallahassee, Florida in January 1957, three black men and three white—my father, Joe Spagna, among them—gathered outside Speed’s, a small corner grocery, to wait for a city bus. Their plan was simple enough, to ride the bus together, but it was dangerous as hell.”

Through her research, Ana Maria got answers to many of her questions about what happened after that bus ride, questions she had wanted to ask her father but couldn’t because he had died when she was eleven years old. She also learned a part of U.S. history in much more depth and much more personally than she’d ever understood. As Ana Maria shared about that learning, she ministered to me.

“I had grown up with such a limited view of what happened during the civil rights movement,” she said. “I’m embarrassed to admit I had accepted that condensed version I’d been taught in school – the stories of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and the four young black children who had integrated an all-white school. What I learned is there were hundreds and hundreds of people who did courageous acts, large and small, to try to bring about justice.”

Hundreds and hundreds of people doing small, courageous acts to bring about justice. I’m just as guilty as Ana Maria of looking at only the well known, headline-making actions of people working for peace and justice—and holding myself to that standard. While it’s true that change usually requires that some people take action that gets lots of attention and demands huge sacrifice, sometimes even loss of life, I’m grateful for the reminder from Ana Maria’s story about the importance of the small things many of us do every day. I’m open (most of the time) to the possibility that someday I’ll be called to act in a big way, and I pray I’ll have the courage to follow such a leading. There really are so many examples, though, so many stories, of the small, courageous actions within our families, our communities, and our own hearts that contribute to peace and justice. Ana Maria learned about many of them that never made it into any history books or newspaper headlines. I’m grateful she had the courage to share some of them through her writing. They support me to put my energy into remaining faithful to the opportunities the Spirit provides me and trusting that those small actions, combined with others, will make a difference.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

An update on my experiment with blogging. I spent more time than I would have liked this morning figuring out how to include the image of the cover of Test Ride in this post, but that’s part of the learning of a new skill. I’m discovering some unexpected ways this medium connects me to other people. For example, a couple of the people who have commented on my posts have included information about their own or others’ blogs. When those links appear in their posts or profiles, it’s easy for me to click on them and encounter some people and ideas I hadn’t known about before.

Having set a goal to post every week is supporting me to focus my journaling and meditation time and going deeper into some of the ideas that surface. I’m also getting practice at disciplining myself to use this tool for that deepening rather than as a way to avoid it by getting diverted to other sites.

1 Comment

  1. I admire and appreciate your comment that “I’m open (most of the time) to the possibility that someday I’ll be called to act in a big way, and I pray I’ll have the courage to follow such a leading.” I think it's important to remember that famously successful activists typically spend years doing the hard work of personal and community organizing before it pays off. For example, “at the time of her action, Rosa Parks was secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and had recently attended the Highlander Folk School, a Tennessee center for workers' rights and racial equality.” ( Nor was she the first to refuse to give up her seat on the bus for a white person. As current events in northern Africa and the mid-East demonstrate, you can't predict which action, spontaneous or not, will be a spark to revolution.

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