Amid crises, Michigan professor mentors ‘Spiritual Warriors’

December 10, 2021
Amid crises, Michigan professor mentors ‘Spiritual Warriors’

Note: This article is edited from a report by Reese Weatherspoon, a youth participant who has been accompanied within the Educate Youth program by Dr. Richard Thomas, a Baha’i and university educator of long standing.

Amid a global pandemic and heartbreaking violence nationwide, one professor’s efforts to connect with and support young people in his community have continued to deepen.

Richard Thomas (back row, right) and a group of young people get together for a pre-pandemic session of the Educate Youth program in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Photo courtesy of Richard Thomas

Toward the beginning of 2020, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, Richard Thomas of Ann Arbor, Michigan, began volunteering with a group of mostly Black high school students at an after-school program in nearby Ypsilanti called Educate Youth.

At first, Thomas – professor emeritus of African American history at Michigan State University, where he taught for 40 years – was meeting with the students occasionally to discuss history and poetry. But when the pandemic caused local schools to close for regular classes, he took on a greater role in their lives.

Thomas began meeting twice a week with the students via Zoom. Together they would read books including The Hate U Give and “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You”: A Remix of the Stamped from the Beginning. They also discussed local and U.S. history.

After the killing of George Floyd in May 2020, Thomas discussed the history of race relations in the United States with them in detail.

During their meetings they also began to talk and write about their lives. Their poetry has been published in a book titled Spiritual Warriors, a phrase Thomas had often used to characterize them.

Asked to describe Thomas, one student said, “He is spiritually divine,” adding that “he has an energy that came through the computer. He asks questions about us and he is truly concerned. He is consistent, motivated and passionate about us. He is a kind soul.”

As the students have returned to school, Thomas has continued meeting with the young people and they have since taken a field trip to the Detroit Institute of Art.

Thomas, now 80 years old, said he heard about the program from another Baha’i in his community, Rhonda Palmer, who previously served on the board of directors for Educate Youth. Thomas said Palmer was also instrumental in compiling the poems for Spiritual Warriors and helped make the publication a reality.

Thomas said he was honored to have these young people give him their time, trust and energy, and he is hopeful some of the things he is learning through his work with Educate Youth can be shared with those working in the junior youth spiritual empowerment program in his community. It is a program that helps middle-schoolers strengthen their capacities through study, conversation, recreation and service projects.

“I just got the opportunity to be an older, grandfather figure to these young people,” Thomas said. “I thought it was important for them to have an older Black male they could share their thoughts with.”

“Some of the things these kids have had to experience are pretty difficult. I remember when [one youth’s] brother was killed … the poem was so uplifting! That’s why I call them spiritual warriors.”

A poem included in the book Spiritual Warriors:

Chaos and Wisdom
By Howard Williams

What would you do if I told you to stay
Flower petals slowly drift away
Staying here I remember fond memories
Still, I’ll leave the past behind, all for my destiny

Laughs among death
Echo through the house
The unknown attacked
As loud as a mouse

People chose to ignore it,
Told others “get out”
Faces became a mystery
This will be your history

Ravage
Savage
Bridge and casket

Death of one, of millions, tragic
Words from afar
Heard within view
I hope you know that I’ve treasured you

Brilliance
Resilience
Fists up
He spilled it
Painted emotions
Inside of one million,
A billion smiles all made for you
Please understand your sunshine is true

I’ve walked a thousand miles
Just to see your face
Seen many youth with broken
And shattered faces

Cruel world I despise your tragic taste
Of joy
We carry a boundless weight

Given to us, but we never hate
Rich dreams are realized at an alarming rate
Sit back and rehearse just so we feel safe
Yet, Words appear on paper in a gorgeous state
An old spiritual warrior smiles from miles away
Chaos and wisdom, I have enjoyed your stay.


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