Marylanders’ National Conference in Rhode Island

By Theodore T. Hodge

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

February 2, 2004

I was ambivalent about going to Rhode Island to meet with my fellow Marylanders - quite joyous and optimistic on one hand, yet apprehensive as well. My apprehension was not due to meeting my fellow citizens - to that I looked forward with great joy and anticipation as usual. My concern, however, was about the pending deliberations and their probable outcomes. This presentiment was due to what had transpired among my dear brothers and sisters via correspondence in cyberspace. From Illinois to Maryland, from Minnesota to Pennsylvania, from Ohio to Rhode Island, reaching as far away as Arkansas and Oklahoma and Texas and bouncing off a computer screen near me, I sensed tension - dare I say a potential disaster? It would be an understatement to note that discourteous remarks and strong, negative sentiments were being expressed at an alarming rate as we prepared for the conference.

The conference had a three-fold purpose: to deliberate matters of constitutionality and other matters regarding the mechanics pertinent to rules and procedures, to inaugurate the newly elected slate of officers and to launch a fund-raiser for the J.J. Dossen Memorial Hospital. While it was my sense that raising funds for the reconstruction of the hospital and the pledging of solidarity with our brothers and sisters, back home and elsewhere, was a matter we positively embraced, the other two major items had the potential for controversy and problems.

We met on Friday, January 23, at the Holiday Inn in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. We spent a pleasant evening together in reunion. A series of informal discussions were capped by a simple reception before we retired.

On Saturday morning when I walked into the scheduled conference, it was already "show time", as they say in the movies. Every issue or item was being debated with great passion and energy. Unfortunately, it wasn’t too long before I realized we were at the verge of slipping into complete chaos and derailment. I looked on, with my fingers crossed, hoping for the best. It is undoubtedly with sadness that I report that some of the exchanges were quite vituperative - far from the desired level of decorum.

The president came under constant fire for alleged leadership and personality flaws. She was accused of taking actions without consultation and for a certain style of communication considered undiplomatic and undemocratic, to say the least. To say that there was no merit to the issues raised by even the most cantankerous objectors would be dishonest. Yes, there was merit to a number of the arguments and debates raised - my fear was that the heated exchanges could derail this fragile effort.

The president, although defensive, was quite composed coming under such fire. I must say she showed strength in trying moments, a mark of good leadership skills. On the other hand, the parliamentarian was quite stern and iron-fisted in defending the president. He seemed all too willing to be dismissive of others’ concerns, legitimate or not. He tried to shoot down every perceived point of opposition raised. All along, he cited "Robert’s Book of Rules" as the basis for this and that. The issue of technicalities seemed to overshadow the smooth and simple democratic process.

In retrospect, I can clearly say that the parliamentarian earned high marks for restoring order and moving the deliberations along. However, he was seen as being over-protective of the president, to an extent of being partial.

Passions were inflamed and emotions were running high. By the end of the conference, however, many members spoke with equal passion urging compromise and unity. Public apologies were made and exchanged and miraculously, we adjourned the session by reaching a series of compromises. The induction ceremony and fund-raiser were scheduled for the evening hours.

Anatomy of an evening, a more conducive and promising atmosphere…

As we returned for the evening’s festivities, Marylanders were in their usual cheerful and friendly mode. After all, we were joined by invited guests. The evening was a sharp and happy contrast to the tumultuous day’s affairs.

The highlight of the evening was a wonderful and brilliant speech delivered by our keynote speaker, the Hon. J. Rudolph Johnson, whose speech was titled "For Whom the Bell Tolls". He began by relating the story of his birth and the circumstances that made him a blessed child of two worlds (if I may be allowed to stretch the imagination a bit). He was born unto the union of J. Sumu Johnson, a "full-blooded Grebo man from Hoffman Station, Maryland County and Meisimi Dunor of Kolahun, Lofa County". Although born and bred in Lofa County, he was conscious of his great heritage, the other half of it, that is, although it remained a "fairy tale" to some large extent.

Hon. Johnson had the pleasure to travel to Maryland County on a number of occasions - moments he described as "very pleasant, rewarding and uplifting". In a moment of quiet eloquence, this is the way he summed up his romantic and adventuresome life story: "Yes, this full-blooded Grebo man from Hoffman Station, Maryland County, is here not so much to claim, as to accept, with great humility and gratitude, the birthright you have so graciously handed him on a silver platter today. It is truly an honor to have been invited to serve as keynote speaker for this auspicious occasion, this grand homecoming". From the thunderous applause following that statement, it is safe to say the tender feelings were mutual.

I shall not pretend to have the intellectual prowess to be able to break down Hon. Johnson’s speech in a justifiable way, so I have convinced my editor to carry the speech in its entirety. We here at The Perspective consider it a pleasure to post this reflective piece. But I cannot resist the impulse to dwell on his postscript, because in a sense, he expressed the exact sentiments I felt at the moment. This is what he said:

"Now, before I take my seat, permit me to say just a word about the rather ugly and unpleasant row that nearly derailed our conference earlier on. In this connection, please listen carefully to this gem from Aesop’s fables:

‘A mountain was in labor, sending forth dreadful groans, and there was in the region the highest expectation. After all, it brought forth a mouse’

"Yes, only a mouse!

"We, Marylanders are too big for that. Yes, from time to time, people will have their differences; that is to be expected. However, the way that little disputes are handled makes all the difference in the world - and says everything about our capacity and about who we are. We must remain highly disciplined and resist every temptation to expose or to ridicule our own "country devil", if we expect others to fear it. Let us respect those we have chosen as our leaders by remembering the golden rule - not only Robert’s Rule".

After having read my own reflections on the weekend that was, it will come as no surprise that we must have viewed the events and activities under similar lenses. I hate to say "great minds think alike", since I don’t claim to have a great mind myself. But I can hardly resist the urge to align with a clearly great mind like Hon. Johnson’s. Kudos.

Did we finally end on a good note, after all? Yes, we did. We must have listened to the challenge indirectly posed by our speaker by wisely quoting Aesop’s fable. We, Marylanders, collectively were the mountain in labor. After all these groans, were we to bring forth only a mouse, a mere mouse? A subliminal challenge stood.

Dr. Mariah Seton, our illustrious president, had spoken and announced that our federation was undertaking a goal to raise one million dollars within the next fiscal year. That projection seemed a bit unrealistic to some, including myself. But here was the first test: The goal of the evening was to raise at least $10,000.00 (ten thousand dollars).

We raised over $12,000.00 (twelve thousand dollars) that night! Yes, we were a mountain in labor. Did we bring forth a mouse? No, it was an elephant, albeit a small one. But I left feeling optimistic that as time goes on we will bring forth other large mammals. We may even bring forth twins, triplets and quadruplets -- in combinations of elephants and whales; no mice, thank you. (I did miss the Sunday morning ceremony hosted by a local church. I understand additional funds were raised and pledged; I had to rush home).

Yes, we had a rough start. But it is safe to say we recovered and overcame the minor obstacles and we now look forward to the great task ahead: the rebuilding of our homeland. Marylanders everywhere must be mindful that this is our task, our fight, the good fight. May I take the pleasure to end this piece as our guest speaker began his wonderful speech, by quoting the legendary Dr. Martin Luther King who said: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied to a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly".