Sunday, September 1, 2013

Courage to Change

50th Anniversary March on Washington August 28, 2013

Courage to Change 

by The Rev. Connie Yost

A Sermon Preached at
Eastrose Fellowship Unitarian Universalist
Gresham, Oregon

September 1, 2013

I returned last night from an inspiring week in Washington DC, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. On Tuesday, I attended a conference on Civil Rights, titled "Marching Forward By Looking Back," where people from diverse backgrounds came together to share stories and solutions of what has worked in different communities and what still needs to be done. There was a lot of hope and excitement in the air. I went to bed that night grateful to be part of this historic occasion and grateful to be in the work of ministry -- that work of justice, hope and healing that we all share.

On Wednesday, August 28, the exact day of the March on Washington fifty years ago, I joined with thousands of others as we marched in the rain along the streets of DC for about a mile and a half, down famous streets with names like Constitution and Pennsylvania Avenue, pausing at the Department of Labor, noting that the theme of this March was "Jobs and Freedom," a theme that was Martin Luther King Jr's focus when he was assassinated in 1968. It was an experience I will never forget, walking shoulder to shoulder in solidarity, with young people, old people, people in wheelchairs, people in baby carriages, black people, brown people, white people, people of all races, men, women, people of all sexual orientations, all religions, all together, all as one, singing "We Shall Overcome."

The March ended at the Lincoln Memorial where 60 speakers, including Presidents Obama, Clinton and Carter addressed us. President Clinton urged us to put our "shoulders against the stubborn gates holding our people back." Forest Whitaker and President Obama urged us to become the "unsung heroes" of justice, just like all of those unsung heroes of 50 years ago who quietly and bravely toiled and pushed against great odds to win the victories of freedom known today.

But it was President Obama's speech that was particularly moving to me. Our first black president reminded us that our task today is to work on economic injustice, the stuff that increasingly holds people of all colors -- but disproportionately people of color -- in spirit-crushing cycles and generations of misery. I don't know who said it, but I heard someone say, "What good does it do to sit at the lunch counter if you can not afford to buy a meal?"

Surely change along that arc that bends toward justice is possible, but as President Obama said, it does not bend on its own. At this important time for reflection, we look back on fifty years of change which saw the dismantling of Jim Crow laws, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These victories did not come out of the blue, but were the result of years of disciplined, nonviolent actions by people who were willing, and often did, sacrifice their livelihoods and their lives in the name of justice.

A movement for change needs visionary leaders. I continue to be inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr. and others like John Lewis who suffered a skull fracture during the March 7, 1965 march across the Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. The Unitarian Universalist minister the Rev. James Reeb was clubbed outside a restaurant during this same time in Selma, and died of his injuries a few days later. Martin Luther King, Jr. eulogized Reeb with these words:

"James Reeb, symbolizes the forces of good will in our nation. He demonstrated the conscience of the nation. He was an attorney for the defense of the innocent in the court of world opinion. He was a witness to the truth that men of different races and classes might live, eat, and work together as brothers (King, 15 March 1965)."

On Thanksgiving Day in 2008, I arrived in Memphis and began a tour of the historic sites of the Civil Rights Movement. I started backwards chronologically as I began at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis where King was murdered in 1968. From there I worked my way south through Mississippi and Alabama. I visited all the museums and important public places, marveled over the plaques and memorials to all the martyrs and visionaries of this time in our history. In Money, Mississippi I cried at the crumbling building that used to be Bryant's Grocery, where 14 year old black Emmett Till paid with his life for allegedly flirting with the 21 year old Mrs. Bryant. Emmett died on August 28, 1955, 8 years before the 1963 March on Washington, and the reason they choose the date of August 28 for the March.

In Montgomery, I put my hands in the water rolling over the names of the fallen outside the Civil Rights Memorial Center. Inside the Center, I typed my name in the computer and watched as it rolled down the huge Wall of Tolerance, joining the more than half a million people who took this pledge:

"By placing my name on the Wall of Tolerance, I pledge to take a stand against hate, injustice and intolerance. I will work in my daily life for justice, equality and human rights - the ideals for which the Civil Rights martyrs died."

But it was during the tour of the parsonage where Dr. and Mrs. King lived in Montgomery that I learned the depth of the sacrifice true vision requires. True change takes an enormous amount of courage. On the tour of the parsonage, we stopped in the kitchen where a 1950's style gray Formica table and chairs (a lot like the one I grew up with) graced the center. It was here that Dr. King would sit at 3 in the morning, wrestling with a crippling fear for the safety of his family. He was part of the leadership of the Montgomery bus protest, and had been getting threatening telephone calls and letters at his home. That night, the telephone rang and an angry voice said, "Listen, nigger, we have taken all we want from you. Before next week you will be sorry you ever came to Montgomery." Dr. King spoke of that night saying,

"I hung up, but I could not sleep. It seemed that all of my fears had come down on me at once. I had reached the saturation point…..I went to the kitchen and heated a pot of coffee. I was ready to give up. I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing to be a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had almost gone, I determined to take my problem to God. My head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud…"I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I have come to the point where I can not face it alone." At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never before…the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying "Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth. God will be at your side forever."

When their house was bombed three days later (and you can still see the hole in the porch on the house tour), Dr. King took the news calmly. "I knew now that God is able to give us the interior resources to face the storms and problems of life."

In his book, Strength to Love, which is a collection of his sermons, Dr. King clearly shows us that the depth of his faith was at the core of the work that he did. In sermon after sermon he speaks of a divine, loving presence that binds all of life. His God was loving and forgiving and most importantly with him in his struggles.

His was a faith that looked at the world as it is, and he had no difficulty talking of evil. In fact, he wrote that "in a sense, the history of man is the story of the struggle between good and evil." He saw the work of fighting for freedom as overcoming evil. His God "struggles with us." And why doesn't God "break in and smash the evil schemes of wicked men? … [because] by endowing us with freedom, God relinquished a measure of his own sovereignty and imposed certain limitations upon himself. If his children are free, they must do his will by a voluntary choice."

If we are to do the work of justice, if we are to advocate for change, then we must have the inner resources - the courage - to do this work. It is not easy work. It demands everything we have, and then more.

I want to propose that there are two things we need in order to do the work of justice:

We need each other and we need a personal source of courage and sustenance.

For Dr. King and many others in the Civil Rights Movements of yesterday and today, God is the word they use for the source of Divine Love that holds out sustenance and hope in spite of difficult circumstances. You may not feel comfortable with the word God. You may prefer Love, Spirit, Grace, Beauty, the Holy, or no name at all. But I would like to explain what I mean when I say God.

For me, God is not a person-like being who either did or did not create the world and who either does or does not orchestrate everything that happens in the world.

In my work as a chaplain, I was privileged to be with people as they struggled to make sense out of their suffering. I did not impose on them my own thoughts on why they got sick (heaven forbid!) or how they should cope with their illness, or what it all means in the grand scheme of things. That is what each and everyone one of us has to do for ourselves. But I learned that those who feel a sense of being held by a loving presence seem to suffer far less, no matter how terrible their actual circumstance.

For me, God is that loving presence that is always available, no matter what. God is love and beauty and compassion. The Catholic monk Thomas Merton called God "mercy within mercy within mercy." I like that. God is sheer, unrelenting compassion.

Many have noted that the path to transformation is often one of suffering. I remember years ago opening the newly published book by Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled, and being dumbfounded by the first sentence: "Life is difficult." I was 27 years old and that statement hit me like a ton of bricks. At that time, I was an unchurched, fallen Missouri Synod Lutheran. I grew up in that church and though I remember being told constantly that I was evil and sinful and it was a good thing Jesus died so gruesomely for me, I was never told that life is difficult, or could be difficult or would be difficult. Was it the post-WWII effort to forget the hard times and just focus on happy things? Was it the cultural assumption that bad things happen to people who more or less bring them on themselves, so we certainly would not admit to any difficulties even if we had them. Was it the church? Was it my parents and the way their parents raised them? Most likely it was all of the above that made me so very unprepared for the difficulties that I experienced as a young adult.

So it was indeed liberating to find out that not only is life difficult, but that difficulties can be dealt with in a way that transforms them into spiritual experiences that deepen faith and compassion. It is why I am a minister now. I cannot think of anything more important than helping people deal with the whole of their life experience in a way that allows them to deal with their pain and utilize it in the service of love and mercy within mercy within mercy.

For this kind of transformation to take place, either within ourselves or in the world, we have to take the long view. If we anchor our hope on results that we can see and experience now, or even in our lifetime, is to be set up for disillusionment and burn-out. The activist preacher Jim Wallis tells of being on retreat and visiting a slave cemetery from the old plantation days. He writes,

"I often just sit for awhile with these children of God who knew so much sorrow and pain and yet were brought closer to their Creator than most of us ever get. They waited all their lives for deliverance and it never came. But in their waiting and hoping, they discovered a presence and a power never understood by their oppressors. How is it that out of the experience of such violent suffering came the most powerful spirituality this country has ever produced? The spirituals, preaching, gospel music, prayer, and social transformation that have flowed from that mighty river of human pain have shown the redemptive truth of the gospel more clearly than almost five hundred years of white Christianity in North America. ..The slaves knew powerlessness, and out of it they found the power beyond themselves. For me, that is the deepest struggle. It is far easier for me to embrace the suffering than to accept the powerlessness…Never achievement or success….but rather the giving of ourselves in faith leads to life. In that powerlessness lies the real spiritual power."

Mother Pollard knew that spiritual power. Her feets is tired, but her soul is rested. She knows that "God's gonna take care of you." Not to save you from suffering, or death, or difficulties. But to be present with you, offering creative possibilities for love, beauty, and compassion.

In the work of justice, in the work of life, we need a personal source of courage and sustenance, and we need each other. We need to march together, shoulder to shoulder. In King's words, we need to "reach across the divide because we cannot walk alone." Obama said, "Courage comes when we turn to one another and walk together."

I can tell you that when I walked down Constitution Avenue with thousands of others, I felt a strength and a sense of joy, hope and optimism that I often do not have on my own. We will find the courage to do the work, but we have to show up in the places where poverty and injustice saps the soul.

Especially on this Labor Day, let us vow to join in solidarity with the many millions of us who cannot find a job and who cannot make a living wage, no matter how many jobs we work. We are needed -- you are needed -- in the movement for Jobs and Freedom. That is where we are needed. Let us March there together.


Copyright 2013 Constance B. Yost. All rights reserved