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A Day Spent With Congressman John Lewis

January 17th, 2017  |   

Yesterday I decided to forgo the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. parade and speeches. Instead, I spent the better part of my day with Congressman John Lewis. It was my very own way of remembering Dr. King. That is, remembering John Lewis.

I met Congressman John Lewis in 1999, when I took him into a chicken house on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. But this was, by no means, the first time he had been in a chicken house. 

As a little boy, chickens, the ones in his own farmyard, fascinated him. He had a heart for them. He writes about them in his book, “Walking With The Wind: A Memoir of the Movement.” While others prized the horses, cows, hogs, dogs and cats, and viewed chickens as “the lowest form of life on the farm—stupid, smelly, nuisances, awkward, comical birds,” Lewis was drawn to their lowly “outcast status…forsaken by everyone else.”

The henhouse itself seemed a holy place to me…I preached to my birds just about every night. I would get them all into the henhouse, settle them onto their roosts, and then stand in the doorway and speak to them, reciting pieces of the Bible, the same verses I memorized for Sunday school…I could imagine that they were my congregation. And me, I was a preacher.

So there we were, on a cold, rainy day, in a smelly chicken house near Berlin, Maryland, with thousands of these comical birds fluttering around our feet. John Lewis had not come to preach. Instead, he, along with four other members of Congress, had come for an opportunity to listen to, and better understand, chicken growers, plant workers (a huge Latino population) organized labor leaders, environmentalists and church folks talk about the injustices associated with raising chickens for the poultry industry.

In August 1963, thirty-six years prior to meeting John Lewis, I was preparing to start my last year of seminary in Alexandria, Virginia. Just across the Potomac River a huge crowd had gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” address. One of the many civil rights leaders scheduled to speak was the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, John Lewis. He had prepared an angry, fiery speech.

The night before the event, Lewis’ speech was mistakenly leaked to the press, and thus read by the leaders of the March. They were troubled by parts of the speech. The harsh criticism of the Kennedy administration’s civil rights bill, along with a militancy that boiled over with a call to “march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did.” The leaders invited Lewis to a meeting to discuss the speech.

Yesterday, honoring Dr. King, in my own way, I went back to my copy of John Lewis’ book. It had been a signed gift from him, following our day in the Maryland poultry house, and his briefing. I read about that eventful meeting, held the night before the March. In the account I found the fiery version of the speech, as well as the rewritten one, with the changes John Lewis finally made and delivered.

There as well, was the explanation behind Lewis’ decision to make those changes. It was Dr. King’s comment, “John, this doesn’t sound like you.”  (See the Bill Moyers interview with Lewis at https://vimeo.com/70562136)

So, Congressman John Lewis, eighteen years after that day in a smelly poultry house, has announced that he intends to absent himself from Donald Trump’s Inauguration. That sounds, to me, like John Lewis

The ever- tweeting president-to-be has chirped two disparaging messages in response. The last one says John Lewis is, “All talk, talk, talk—no action or results.”

The only response I could conjure up to that chirp, in light of the darkness that surrounds this ugly election and depressing Inauguration, is the last paragraph of Congressman John Lewis’ book.

There is an old African proverb: When you pray, move your feet.” As a nation, if we care for the Beloved Community, we must move our feet, our hands, our hearts, our resources to build and not to tear down, to reconcile and not to divide, to love and not to hate, to heal and not to kill. In the final analysis, we are one people, one family, one house—the American family.

Add comment January 17th, 2017

WHAT’S NEXT?

January 3rd, 2017  |   

What’s next? Thanksgiving turkeys and Christmas trees have come and gone. Empty champagne bottles have been tossed, having delivered their bubbles, and more than a few leftover hangovers.

So, what’s next! Valentine’s Day. You know, romance for a day? No, no, we aren’t finished yet with January. Don’t rush through 2017. Hey, Inauguration Day! That’s what’s next.

What’s next isn’t just a date on a wall calendar. It’s a date with a question embedded in it. A question many people are pondering right now. I hear it being asked everywhere I go.

What’s next, after January 20th, Inauguration Day?

What’s next, more military spending for more war?

What’s next, less health care for poor people?

What’s next, more environmental destruction and global warming?

What’s next, less support and protection for LGBTQ folks?

What’s next, more restrictions, even deportations for immigrant populations? 

What’s next, a Supreme Court that curtails hard won civil liberties and reproductive rights?  

What’s next, less space for refugees, and a more threatening climate for Muslims?

Four days after January 16th, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, what’s next, a retreat from all that has been achieved in our nation’s Civil Rights struggles, and less concern for black lives that matter?

Waiting for the ball to drop into 2017, I tried to answer one man’s question: “Are you still hopeful?”

My answer then, and now that 2017 has arrived, and as we move closer to January 20th, remains the same. Yes, I am hopeful. Provided that hope takes shape in the form of resistance

Be patient, Jim Lewis, and the what’s-next-folks. President Trump will give us plenty to resist. And like any resistance work, we will get stronger and more powerful as we organize for justice and peace.

I was recently sent a prayer written by the Reverend Dr. Michael W. Waters. pastor of the Joy Tabernacle African American Methodist Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas. You’d just know that I would love his prayer.

It might very well be one I could pray, after Inauguration Day, as I find ways to resist any effort that contradicts the spirit of this prayer.

I Will Resist: A New Year’s Prayer

 For the ancestors, who now dwell in the company of angels, accosted and assaulted while present upon the earth, enduring avalanches of animus of which have never been atoned,  

I will resist.

For babies bombarded by bombs, bounties placed upon their beautiful heads at birth,

I will resist. 

For the cacophony of cries citing crimes against humanity, callous cycles of crisis with casualties colored in chalk upon concrete,

I will resist.

Until the lion lays down with the lamb,

until we study war no more,

until everything is not just everything, but what it’s supposed to be,

I will resist.

Until we are free.

Against hate,

against racism,

against oppression,

against suppression,

For the ancestors, who now dwell in the company of angels, accosted and assaulted while present upon the earth, enduring avalanches of animus of which have never been atoned, 

I will resist.

For babies bombarded by bombs, bounties placed upon their beautiful heads at birth,

I will resist. 

For the cacophony of cries citing crimes against humanity, callous cycles of crisis with casualties colored in chalk upon concrete, 

I will resist. 

Until the lion lays down with the lamb,

until we study war no more,

until everything is not just everything, but what it’s supposed to be,

I will resist.

Until we are free.

Against hate,

against racism,

against oppression,

against suppression,

against xenophobia,

I will resist.

Until peace is not just two digits raised in the air,

until justice flows like waters, and righteousness, like a mighty stream,

the LORD being my witness and my help,

I will resist.

Amen.

Add comment January 3rd, 2017

On Waiting For The Ball To Drop Into 2017

January 1st, 2017  |   

As people around the world waited for the clock-focused revelry associated with the arrival of 2017, the human spirit was stretched for sober inspiration in the midst of global chaos.

While waiting and watching for an 11,875 pound ball, covered with 2,688 Waterford Crystal triangles, to drop 141 feet in Times Square, I couldn’t help but wonder when and where the next shoe would drop, a boot full of violence and terror.

The recognition of potential boot-droppings was visible in the 7,000 police officers, the 65 sand trucks weighing 40 tons each and 100 blocker vehicles, the helicopters overhead, and the security boats in the East and Hudson Rivers.

And then, just before the ball dropped, a boot dropped in Turkey. At least 35 people were killed and over 40 wounded when a lone attacker opened fire on revelers celebrating New Year’s Eve at a nightclub in Turkey.  

In a recent conversation with a man from Aleppo, I was asked if I was still hopeful. He was looking for an encouraging word.

When I think of that fractured city, the wasteland in Syria, the faces, the bodies, the rubble, T.S. Eliot’s words from The Waste Land come to mind. “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”

In all honesty, was I capable of digging deep enough in my soul to find a word of hope for this man who, like me, wants more from life than violence and bloodshed, more than seeing his homeland reduced to dust and ashes?

Like a man mining for gold, I feel compelled to dig for a redemptive word, a hopeful word, a word upon which I can stake my life, one that might even help to restore hope, perhaps even save lives in this alarming time in which we live.  

One of the followers of Jesus, Matthew, by name, when faced with the horrible violence and terror of the Roman Empire, wrote: “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed.”

For God’s sake, Matthew, give us a break! How can we not be alarmed? We not only hear of war and rumors of war, we also see war on handheld electronic devices, and in our homes, as we stare at the bloody boob-tube news.

We also see the residue of war in the broken bodies and spirits of veterans who return home with less of themselves than they had when they left home.

If that were not enough, we are left to discover, if we care to look, the exorbitant perpetuation of military weaponry, built so outrageously into the warp and woof of our bloated war-dominated budgets.

As the year dwindled down to a closing finale, my mail and e-mail messages were filled with desperate apocalyptic warnings. They offered me a “last chance” to make a financial contribution to a multitude of worthy causes I support, such as:

·      A gift to feed local homeless and hungry people. 

·      Money to support a Jewish organization’s effort to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.

·      Local and national campaigns to resist the assault on a woman’s right to reproductive choice.

I’m told that I have one last chance to give before the ball drops. 

On Monday, the ball will be stored away. Folks will begin a 2017 schedule, one that will move inexorably toward the inauguration of a new President, Donald Trump. The rush for end-of-year giving will have given way to a new year of giving. And what then will we have to give to our needy country, as well as the troubled world?       

What we have to give may very well be tied to the answer I dug out of my soul for the man from Aleppo who asked me if I was hopeful, given the war torn state of the world.

Yes, I say, I am hopeful. Provided that hope takes shape in the form of resistance.

Antonio’s words in Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest, might very well provide direction. “What’s past is prologue.”

This hideous election is past, and the prologue is resistance. And I feel certain that President Trump, and his administration, will give us plenty to resist.

 

Add comment January 1st, 2017

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Nations will hammer swords into plows, their spears into sickles, there shall be no more training for war. Each person will sit under his or her fig tree in peace.
Micah 4:3 - 4