Skip to content

Be a Leaf



Image credit: John Muir Laws – How To Draw Trees: Oaks

I came with a confusion: what is my role in the work as a Brown body? I asked this question because injustice is often framed as a Black and White issue. As an immigrant from Việt Nam, a son of a war refugee, I inherited broken fragments of history. I have no way of mending the fragmentation and filling in the gaps that reverberate through my soul. I felt there was no room where I can articulate my ancestral trauma that is rooted in the war in Việt Nam and connect to the struggle of Black people. But I know my heart is set on the path of love and justice. So, I came to Atlanta with the intention of being guided by the spirit of history into healing, empowerment, and the fulness of my humanity.

I thought to myself that the brother I never knew could’ve been among those Brown children.

My heart was moved by the scene of Bayard Rustin traveling to refugee camps in Thailand and Cambodia to sing songs of freedom with the children. I thought to myself that the brother I never knew could’ve been among those Brown children. And at that moment, I saw the radical presence of Bayard to my people across the divides. I saw human beings playing with each other, with a yearning for happiness and freedom. Suddenly, I could imagine Black, Brown and White people work- ing together to complete the Global Liberation Movement of the 1960s. Violence, greed, and ignorance of colonization have done our ancestors wrong. But there is a virtue in this tragedy. It is us. It has brought us together and given us a shared-purpose. So, we must own up to both the conditions and aspirations that have brought us here today.

It is humbling. fifty years ago, our ancestors were scattered across the world. They were either fighting for justice, crossing borders, negotiating with power, exploiting others, or simply trying to survive. But now, we are all here in one space, hands-in-hands, heart-to- heart marching toward justice together. Our ancestors sacrificed and fought for us to meet, for our paths to cross, for history to be resurrected, and for their vision to be realized in our union. We are history, and that comes with a responsibility to show up fully. That is exactly what happened to me. I had a space to share and own the history that lives within my trauma, my hurts and ultimately, my humanity. The Vietnamese monk Thích Nhất Hạnh said that “once you have seen the truth, you cannot avoid suffering, otherwise, you have seen nothing at all.” It is eerie, discouraging, and suffocating to feel the weight of history reiterate itself on our shoulders, on children being separated from parents, and in the very desks, we are sitting made by modern slavery. But with an enlarged awareness of history’s truth and suffering, our faith has a chance to be strengthened, our courage sharpened, and our love deepened. This experience has helped me to reaffirm that I am an optimist at heart. I sincerely see in us the possibilities of transforming history and weaving the world anew.

His faith in young people makes me feel like I have the power to change the world.

Throughout this journey, I’ve seen historical and living examples that show us the way. I am touched by John Lewis’ unwavering commitment to the issues of LGBTQ and immigrant rights—two issues close to my heart—as if they are his own issues. It makes me want to take up all the issues that matter to those near and far as my own. He helps me realize that that injustice is never a Black and White issue or a matter of identity politics. Injustice is a humanity issue. His faith in young people makes me feel like I have the power to change the world. His continuous effort to fight despite his old age inspires me to fight a good fight.

Another piece of wisdom that has guided me is from Dr. Hooker. He said: “Be the person you would be in the world that you want because the world won’t show up until you become that person.” I meditated on this challenge in search for an answer for the rest of the program.

As we walked on Stone Mountain, I’ve learned that history not only writes its trials and triumphs, pains and aspirations in books. History is written in bodies and imagination and poetry and language and painting and places and the earth. Earth remembers the scars humans carved onto her body, but she also forgives. Like a mother’s love for her mischievous and naïve child, tomorrow, she still rises. She rises to nourish us foolish wanderers with shades of trees and streams of waters. And as the Rev. Otis Moss, Jr. beautifully described, a tree bears the sacred formation of her love. It is in this sacred dimension that Dr. King, John Lewis, Elaine, Dr. Hooker, Bayard Rustin and great spiritual leaders like the Dalai Lama and Thich That Hanh lived. It is through this space that Elaine made a choice to be a mother to all children despite the unjust and inhumane violence inflicted upon her body. It is in that moment of choosing to love instead of hate, choosing to see family instead of an enemy that a new pattern of history is inscribed into the universe. It is through this sacred space that the spirit is unchained by the vices of history. It is through this space that a new world where the virtues of history are realized. I want to be in that space and walk from this space. I want to inscribe a new pattern into this world with my body, mind, and heart. But how?

“if you can’t be a great tree, then be a leaf.”

I felt like my prayer was answered when we were attending a Sunday service at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church. As I heard the words of Rev. Otis Moss, Jr. that said, “if you can’t be a great tree, then be a leaf.” I want to be like a tree, to work for eternal freedom for all, but never lose sight of how it needs to be a leaf first. To be a leaf is to be kind and forgiving in everyday life, in moments when no one sees. To not deny the sweetness of joy. To be the moonlight in the dark night. To love life. To give, even when there is no thank you. To let the heart lead the way. This is where human rights start—from a place of humanity. Taking care of one another, face-to-face, heart-to-heart, even across the divides. Treating people right next to me as full human beings, even when my humanity is erased. Seeing the world and people with kind eyes. Seeing people’s aspired self. Aiding them to weave it into creation. And lastly, stand by people when they need me most. Seeing their suffering as my own. Seeing the person I love the most—my mother—in you.

I don’t yet have a concrete vision for the world I want to live in, but being a leaf is a start. I am humbled. Through my Fellows’ stories and courage, I can feel an opening in my vision. Through your trials and triumphs, I feel like the sky is the limit. I know that my heart is expanded to be a little bigger, a little bit more tender, and my family extended a little further. I see you as family, for we are on the path of justice and love, hoping to arrive at a place where we can occupy our humanity wholly, our potentials fully, our heart sincerely, and thus, our destiny wholeheartedly. And I believe when we’ve arrived in that sacred space—the home within ourselves—the past, present, and future will meet, and the wheel of justice will spin how it is supposed to—moving us all toward freedom. It had been an honor to be a part of your journey. You all have my heartfelt respect.

how many rivers to cry
for the pains
to be soothed? how many seas
of blood to swim
for the sufferings
to be fully felt?
and how many stars
must one see
to keep on going?
for i am really
to see the days
but there came a day
when i put my hands
and i closed my eyes
to extend awareness
to the deaths
around my body
above my head
and below my feet
there are so many names
and so many suffering
that my heart breaks
its limit
in trying to contain
the pains
such a little human
that i am
but i am sure of
one thing
as i walk toward
the light of the
blue sky
above my head
looms history
for freedom is not
mine alone
and alone
i shall not walk
for the sounds
of the waterfall
had spoken
the voice of the
that soothed my
aching heart
and healed my broken soul
it says
walk in peace
but never forget
the deaths that hung above
your head
for forgetfulness
could claim your soul
and those you
hold dear
i closed my eyes
and put the palms
of my hand together
to thank the universe
for gathering siblings
i did not know
who died unjustly
thank you for gathering
so their souls
can be prayed for
so that the present
can forgive
the past
so the past can
let go
of the present
and a new future
can be born
free of resentment
free of guilt
free of greed
free of ignorance
and peace can
finally arrive
on this broken land
and dignity can be
to its people
my mentor said to me
it will take a lifetime,
or many lifetimes,
for our soul
to fully heal
and I know that
a true vision
of the world I want to
live in
must come from
a heart
that had forgiven
the hurts
it had endured.
but because
the heart knows pains
it can stretch
far and wide
across the oceans
and above the mountains
so that it can hear
even a chicken’s cries
i know this task
will take many lifetimes
but in this short lifetime
of mine
i vow to be
a leaf
for a great oak tree
can’t be without its
little leaves
reaching for sunlight
holding morning dew
exhaling fresh air
day in
day out
and most importantly
dancing together
without stepping on
one another
in this impermanent song
we call
so a little leaf
i shall be
and every moment
a little leaf
of love
a little leaf
of hope
a little leaf
of sincerity
of kindness
so, my comrades
i will stand by you
knowing that
the divine
stands on our side
and together
we are the great oak tree
protecting justice
and humanity
so today
and everyday
i pray:
may all beings
be happy and
and may the
thoughts, words
and actions
of our life
contribute in
some way to that
and to that
for all.