Man·tle1 – noun: an important role or responsibility that passes from one person to another; verb: clothe in or as if in a mantle; cloak or envelop.
Last month, I felt an unexplainable urge to call my first grade teacher, Mrs. James. She’s one of those teachers you never forget. She’d been a pivotal figure in our town in many ways over the years, working tirelessly since the 1960s as a civil rights activist alongside her husband, while teaching and raising two daughters. She was devoted to her church, belonged to numerous civic organizations, fought for a progressive education for all children in our small New England town, and had a list of accomplishments too numerous to list here. In other words, as the elders might have described her back in the 1960s, “She was a credit to her race.”
But, as a 5-year-old parochial school student, I didn’t know any of that. I just knew that she was pretty, dignified and elegant like my mother, and she seemed to like me a lot. She always found ways to make me feel special. After I’d won a history contest in our school, she presented me with a lovely, tiny cross on a delicate gold chain, enameled on one side in robin’s egg blue. It was similar to a pin I noticed she often wore on her skirt suit jackets or dresses.
Mrs. James always found ways to highlight my drawings for projects in class and events at school, or she’d encourage me to do things like taking the lead in the school play or running for class leader, even though I was painfully shy. I wanted to be an artist, a teacher, and a writer because of all that she encouraged within me, and through her, I saw no reason why I couldn’t do it all. She was one of the first adults outside of my family who not only saw and promoted the best in me as a student, but she also seemed to see the woman I could become.
A mantle symbolizes the call to continue the mission God placed within the previous generation.
Throughout my life, I’d keep in touch with Mrs. James, even moving back to my small hometown and joining her in civic endeavors over the years. And when I announced that I would be looking for photos for a book which honored African American community, culture, and civic achievement, she was among the very first to respond, sending her precious family mementos encircled with a special encouraging and supportive note.
On the night last month when I’d called her home out of the blue, it was her husband who answered the phone. He immediately explained, as if I were waiting to hear some sort of news, “She’s still in the hospital. She’s in a coma now though, after the stroke…”
Everything went quiet in my head. Mr. James continued to speak to me for a few seconds, then the phone went quiet on his end. Moments later he asked, his voice barely audible, “How did you know?”
ELIJAH PASSES THE TORCH
In 1 Kings 19 is the story of how God reveals to the great prophet Elijah that, after he’s gone, a young man named Elisha would carry on his ministry. When the time had come to pass the torch, Elijah, in symbolic gesture, threw his cloak – also known as a mantle – over Elisha. And with total commitment and enthusiasm, Elisha met the challenge of taking over as spiritual leader for his people. He asked to “inherit a double-portion” of Elijah’s spirit in order to go further for God than his mentor had. (2 Kings 2).
A mantle here represents not just a garment. It is also symbolic of the present generation’s responsibility or call to use its spiritual gifts and purpose to continue the mission which God placed within the previous generation. The imagery of the mantle as a coat also symbolizes the “covering” and protection we receive when we surrender to God’s will for our lives and continue on the path which God has ordained to move us, as His people, forward.
The story of Elijah and Elisha reveals that we are not here to live for ourselves; we have a higher calling, if we choose to accept it. Jesus said in Matthew 16:24-25 that if we want to follow Him, we must “take up our cross” and let go of our own personal desires. 1 Peter 2:21says,
“To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.”
That’s the only way to true fulfillment.
Our world is in trouble. For every issue our society faces is a purpose within someone which has gone unrealized; a mantle which has not been accepted. The question is, are we, as a generation, prepared to take the torch from our forefathers in order to continue the journey toward manifesting God’s perfect Kingdom? God is the same today as He was in the Bible (Acts 11:15-17), but have we been witness to His miracles today? Are we willing to ask, as Elisha did, for a greater manifestation of God’s power to use for His purpose, or will we allow the dream of our ancestors to die with us?
A couple of months after my conversation with Mr. James, I received a call that Mrs. James, my teacher and role model, had passed away. When I heard the news, my sadness turned immediately to a feeling of loss. “Has the torch fallen?” I thought. “There wouldn’t possibly be anyone else like her again. Who had her will to teach children to see the best in themselves? Who saw her vision of the promise of America as a people, and as a nation? And who was left to fight so tirelessly for us now?”
And just then… I remembered my cross.
SCRIPTURAL REFERENCES: 1 Kings 19, 2 Kings 2:9, Matthew 16:24-25, 1 Peter 2:21, Acts 11:15-17.
Karen Lascaris is a regular contributor to Westa.org. She’s an artist, designer and author of “In Our Own Image: Treasured African-American Traditions, Journeys, and Icons”, which can be found in libraries, schools and archives across America.
*The name has been changed to protect the privacy of the subjects.