I’m climbing a mountain. Of course. Mountains are where God does mighty things.
On Moriah, He tested Abraham. On Ararat, He rested Noah’s ark. On Sinai, He set aflame a bush that didn’t burn up, inspiring leader Moses. Then God issued from that same mountain His commandments for a holy life.
God and mountains? His power moves them. His will infuses them. Nebo. Carmel. Gerizim. The Mount of Olives. The Mount of Beatitudes. And at Calvary—a hill actually, but still set above—the Lord gave His sinless perfect life for raggedy, imperfect us.
Surely in high places, God works.
Our mutual kindness on this lofty place somehow feels right. Especially in a divided world. Especially in a bickering nation.
So here I go—a shy black woman in a windbreaker walking up to a tough white combat veteran in a motorcycle jacket—and we’re shaking hands and laughing. It’s not your typical scene in America, but this is not your typical place.
We’re halfway up a mountain, Pikes Peak—yes, “America’s Mountain” on the Front Range in Colorado. So our mutual kindness on this lofty place somehow feels right. Especially in a divided world. Especially in a bickering nation. All of us struggling to move our own mountains.
But moving mountains is God’s work. So I look up, marveling at His spacious skies, because that’s what drew both the combat vet and me to this remarkable place—a peak whose 14,115-foot-high summit inspired “America the Beautiful,” one of the nation’s most beloved songs.
But will we sing it?
O Beautiful, for Spacious Skies
The words we learned as children were written in 1893 when Katharine Lee Bates, an English professor at Wellesley College, took a life-changing train trip to Colorado Springs. She was hired to teach a summer session at Colorado College, but along the way she stopped at the World’s Fair in Chicago, marveled at the “waves” of grain in Kansas, and gazed at fruited plains of the fertile Midwest.
Then on a sightseeing jaunt one day, she rode a wagon, then a mule to the summit of Pikes Peak—its sight so awe-inspiring that she returned to her hotel room to write the poem that, years later, became a beloved patriotic anthem.
So here I go—a shy black woman in a windbreaker walking up to a tough white combat veteran in a motorcycle jacket—and we’re shaking hands and laughing.
Now I’ve journeyed to this same mountain, on this sunny blue day, to climb it with my husband Dan—by car, not mule—to see how it all fits: spacious skies, brotherhood, and asking God to crown it? Such a beautiful ideal. Yet people fail at this. Miserably. Even Christians fail. Intending to love, we get angry. Intending to help, we strike out.
Or maybe we can’t imagine it. That’s what I asked about brotherhood to my husband as we drove up the mountain earlier in the day. “Is it that hard?” I questioned. “Or is brotherhood just too hard to see?”
Dan pondered, peering out at blue sky. “Nope,” he finally said. “I think it’s about vantage point. And faith. If we can’t see what God sees, we doubt it’s even there.”
Yet now here I was, a black woman, talking to a white combat veteran in a tough-looking leather jacket bearing an insignia: “I Am My Brother’s Keeper.”
So I shake his hand, thinking that is a good way to start. Say hello. Ask the tough man’s name and tell him mine. I mention Bates and her song, but he already knew of it. Introducing me to his buddies, he said Bates’ tribute drew them to the mountain today, too.
“I woke up this morning, saw the good weather on the mountain and told all my guys, ‘C’mon, let’s ride!’” Good riding weather is a must when taking on a towering peak—but it also helps when contemplating the high ground of brotherhood.
Climbing to Brotherhood
It’s takes a tough heart indeed to climb to unity. Of all people, Katharine Bates didn’t seem likely. Shy, nearsighted, and not physically agile (as biographer Lynn Sherr described her), she should’ve rejected a climb on mules to a sky-high peak.
Yet she loved nature. And also people. When she was a month old, her Congregationalist minister father died, leaving Bates to be raised by her widowed mother. In their remote whaling village of Falmouth, Massachusetts, she was blessed to know through her poverty the wealth of neighborly kindness.
“If we can’t see what God sees, we doubt it’s even there.”
Climb a big mountain like Pikes Peak? She couldn’t resist. As a Wellesley colleague would recall of the teacher Bates, she “did not present her students with a problem to solve, but with an experience to enter.” And never mind the obstacles. High winds. Nerve-bending switchbacks. Barely enough oxygen to take a decent breath. Or doubt, as in her profession, that women were qualified to make it to the top.
Yet the views! At altitude, we see possibility. Perhaps that’s why, at about 9,500 feet, after pulling with Dan into a parking lot, I had noticed not just nature, but the humanity. Red and yellow, black and white. Precious in His sight. In a world often separated by skin color and creed, people from across the nation had gathered.
I also noted license plates: Texas, Tennessee, California, Illinois, Kansas, Arizona, Wyoming, Oregon, Colorado, and beyond. Yet climbing out of the car, what did I notice was different?
People were talking. To each other. Shaking hands. Asking questions. “Going up top?” Despite our differences, but of the same mind, we shared a common goal: Conquer this peak. Thus connected, people were friendly, kindly. Indeed, brotherly?
The late theologian J. Vernon McGee spoke of such connection regarding brotherhood—that “within the body of believers” there is a brotherhood, “and the Lord Jesus Christ is the common denominator.” As he added, “Friendship and fellowship are the legal tender among believers.”
Oh, let it be. I could pray that for our nation. And the world. But is that a sound prayer? Honoring of Bates and her song?
To answer, God had sent me a test in the form of those combat vets on motorcycles, like the cavalry—or what sounded like it—a thundering rumble, a long line of shiny chromed motorcycles roaring around a curve, their procession ending impressively in a mountain parking lot, clouds of dust flying.
For a second, I had felt tempted to toss brotherhood ideals to the wind, thinking danger. Motorcycle gang. But I took a second look. Then I found some courage. Before I knew it, I was saying hello, shaking their hands.
Keep on Climbing
I talk with the burly vets, my new friends, for what feels like a long while. About the mountain. About brotherhood. Even about Jesus. “You’re a Christian writer?” one asks. I nod. Says his friend, “I’m down with that.” Our legal tender.
For a second, I had felt tempted to toss brotherhood ideals to the wind, thinking danger. Motorcycle gang. But I took a second look.
In fact, these guys aren’t a gang. They’re members of the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association, Pikes Peak Chapter 3-2, out for a group ride. American vets? Yes, all of them. And they’re from everywhere, including an “Arab from Egypt” who’s now a U.S. Army veteran.
I ask to take a picture. Dan lines everybody up and snaps away. The group’s “top”—a retired army officer—explains: “We’re from every branch. Veterans helping veterans. Check us out on Facebook!”
We both laugh, exchanging business cards. I ask Dan to take more photos. Then we’re off. One points upward. “See you at the top!”
It’s a high road, to be sure, to brotherhood. And the climb? It needs a Savior. Katharine Bates wouldn’t have said it that way. She wasn’t “religious,” a fact that gives me pause. I’d hoped she was a bold believer.
Her faith “remained private and deep,” her biographer wrote. “But she was entirely comfortable in ‘America the Beautiful’ invoking God’s grace—as long as it was clear that it was an ecumenical appeal, all-inclusive, as spacious as the skies above.” Thus, when invoking a national ideal, Bates painted “a portrait of America not only as it is, but as it could be.”
The same could be said of the whole world. Brotherhood is a golden possibility. But only with God’s help can we think together how to climb that high.
So I keep going on the Pikes Peak trail. With each mile up, temperatures drop. Toughening winds buffet the car. Caution signs mark the road, some warning “15-mph curve.”
Brotherhood is a golden possibility. But only with God’s help can we think together how to climb that high.
“Oh, yeah,” says Dan, braking hard near a sheer drop-off. “Now that’s a 15-mile-an-hour curve.”
At 11,000 feet, I peer a mile straight above us, cars like toys creeping slowly toward the sky.
“Is that where we’re going?” I try to ask. But I knew the answer. Roads to high ground always rise. And to finish the trip, there’s only one choice: Keep climbing.
At 14,110 feet up, we make the final turn. A painted sign announces: “Summit! You made it!”
To this? I look in disbelief. This summit is bleak. A moonscape. Above timberline, not one blade of green anything grows. But people all around are laughing. Taking pictures. Greeting one another again. The view west is endless. No vegetation here. Little oxygen. But of the same mind, we’d made it. And the view is spacious, beautiful.
Later, I buy a souvenir sweatshirt. Then we drive home. Where the real road to brotherhood is paved. But will we walk it? Beyond race, culture, creed, or tongue? If we do the hard work, Jesus promises this: He will crown it. He will lift us higher.
Photo-Illustration by Patrick White