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'My spiritual calling': A lifetime of fighting for social justice

OPINIONThis piece expresses the views of its author(s), separate from those of this publication.
Story and art by Mike Thompson, USA TODAY

NOWADAYS, THE ORDAINED MINISTER IS HEAVILY INVOLVED IN ELDER CARE IN THE GRAND RAPIDS, MICHigan, sENIOR LIVING CENTER, WHERE HE RESIDES. GLEASON ALSO WORKS WITH HOSPICE PATIENTS AND SPENDS HOURS EACH DAY MAKING DEVOTIONAL VIDEOS FOR THE FACILITY’S IN-HOUSE TV CHANNEL.
BUT THEN A CONVERSATION WITH A YOUTH MINISTER LAUNCHED HIM ON A LIFE’S MISSION.

“I REALLY BELIEVE IN (SOCIAL) JUSTICE … IT’S MY SPIRITUAL CALLING.”
“I WAS HOPELESS … HE SAW IN ME WHAT I COULDN’T SEE IN MYSELF.”
GLEASON THEN MADE A PROMISE TO GOD.
“IF YOU MAKE ME STRONG ENOUGH, I WILL SERVE YOU EVERY DAY OF MY LIFE." 
RAISED IN A CONSERVATIVE, SMALL TOWN IN NORTHERN OHIO, GLEASON’S FAMILY WAS POOR. HE WAS THE SMALLEST BOY IN HIS CLASS AND WAS BULLIED AT SCHOOL.
"THAT’S BEEN THE MANTRA EVERY DAY OF MY LIFE.”
“LOOK IN MY EYES…I KNOW YOU’RE HAVING A TOUGH TIME, BUT I WANT YOU TO KNOW THAT GOD LOVES YOU …AND IF YOU DREAM BIG ENOUGH AND LOOK HARD ENOUGH, YOU CAN DO ANYTHING YOU WANT.”
“I’M CURSED WITH EMPATHY,” RICHARD GLEASON JOKES. AT 85, HIS PASSION FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE HASN’T WANED in the 60 years since HE WAS ARRESTED FOR TAKING PART IN THE FREEDOM RIDES IN 1961.
GLEASON BECAME AN ORDAINED MINISTER, MOVED TO CHICAGO AND WORKED AS A YOUTH MINISTER IN A SMALL MISSION SERVING THE ROBERT TAYLOR HOMES, THEN THE LARGEST PUBLIC HOUSING development IN THE country. 
“I COULD SEE … THE HOPELESSNESS, AND THE DESPAIR AND THE STRUGGLE JUST TO BE SOMEBODY. AND I UNDERSTOOD THAT.”
GIVEN THE TIMES AND RACIAL ATTITUDES IN THE SOUTH, HE WAS LITERALLY RISKING HIS LIFE.
SHORTLY INTO THE RIDE, THEIR COVER WAS BLOWN, AND THE FREEDOM RIDERS WERE VERBALLY ASSAULTED BY THEIR FELLOW PASSENGERS FOR MUCH OF THE SEVEN-HOUR TRIP.
HE FLEW SOUTH, AND BECAME THE 67TH FREEDOM RIDER, BOARDING A BUS FROM MONTGOMERY, ALAbama, TO JACKSON, MISSissippi, WITH OTHER ACTIVISTS.
WHEN THE MISSION CLOSED, HE LIVED ON THE STREETS FOR A YEAR, CONTINUING TO MINISTER TO THE COMMUNITY. IT WAS THEN THAT GLEASON SAW ON TV THE ATTACKS ON THE FREEDOM RIDERS.
HE PAID A $200 FINE AND FLEW BACK TO CHICAGO, WHERE HE WAS MET BY AN ANGRY CROWD THAT WAS INCENSED BY HIS ACTIVISM.
HE WAS UNDER POLICE PROTECTION FOR ALMOST SIX WEEKS.
in JACKSON, GLEASON WAS ARRESTED FOR ENTERING THE “COLORED” WAITING ROOM AND CHARGED WITH BREACH OF PEACE.          
HE CONTINUED to minister to residents in CHICAGO public HOUSING FOR THE NEXT 20 YEARS, CREATING OPPORTUNITIES AND ADVOCATING FOR DISADVANTAGED children. HE HELPED START A STOREFRONT CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY CENTER AND A SUMMER CAMP.
“I DO IT OFTEN, I SAY ‘LOOK IN MY EYES.' ... SEEING THEM AND SEEING SOMETHING THEY DON’T SEE IN THEMSELVES.”
LIKE MANY veterans of the CIVIL RIGHTS era, GLEASON CAN’T HELP BUT COMPARE THE ACTIVISM IN THE 1960S TO THE LACK OF AN ORGANIZED MOVEMENT AGAINST THE ATTACKS ON CIVIL RIGHTS TAKING PLACE TODAY.
“I JUST HAVEN’T SEEN THE ENERGY. … HOW DO WE GET PEOPLE TO PULL TOGETHER LIKE THEY DID IN ’61? IT GOT THE CONSCIENCE OF AMERICA TO RESPOND, IT STOPPED SEGREGATION IN PUBLIC FACILITIES.”
GLEASON NOTES THAT JUST 328 FREEDOM RIDERS CAME TOGETHER AND ACCOMPLISHED ALL THAT.
“WHAT IF WE HAD 328 PASTORS?”