Laughter, Faith, and Service: The Life of Dick Gregory
Rev. Dr. Angelique Walker-Smith
Last month, African-American comedian and civil rights activist Richard Claxton Gregory passed away. Dick Gregory’s life reminds me of a perpetual question of faith: “How does one find joy and laughter in the struggle for justice, especially when matters of life and death are at stake?”
The Bible and the life of Gregory’s life give us some clues. There are 165 uses of the word “joy” in the King James version of the Bible.
Proverbs 17:22 says; “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” In Genesis 18:12 Sarah laughed when the guests in her home said that she, in her old age, would have a son. Ecclesiastes 3:4 says; “There is a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance. Psalm 16:11 says; “You make known to me the path of life; You will fill me with joy in Your presence…” Luke 6:21 says; “Blessed are ye that hunger now: for ye shall be filled. Blessed are ye that weep now: for ye shall laugh.”
The evangelical writer, Jack Wellman, writes in the Christian Crier: “Joy isn’t like happiness which is based upon happenings or whether things are going well or not. No, joy remains even amidst the suffering. Joy is not happiness. Joy is an emotion that’s acquired by the anticipation, acquisition or even the expectation of something great or wonderful. “
Dick Gregory’s contributions illustrate aspects of these biblical insights on laughter and joy. While he could create moments for laughter with social commentary of comic relief, he also found ways to show solidarity with those who experience hunger and poverty. This may be, in part, because of his ethical formation in church. In the 2009 “Stand” documentary, he said “the Black Church was his daddy and his school.”
He worked with African-American church leaders in the civil rights movement where the agenda of economic reform was addressed. He also ran for public office and went on several hunger strikes for related causes. He was committed to improving the life expectancy of African Americans, which he believed was being hindered by poor nutrition and drug and alcohol abuse. Since the mid-1980s, Gregory was a figure in the health food industry by advocating for a raw fruit and vegetable diet.
Ministers recently recognized Dick Gregory’s lineage of faith, laughter, solidarity and service in a silent remembrance during the recent Ministers’ March in Washington, D.C. on the 54th anniversary of the March on Washington. May we also remember his contributions and that we too are called to serve with joy in our mission to end hunger and poverty for all God’s children.
Walker-Smith is senior associate for Pan-African and Orthodox Church Engagement at Bread for the World.