by: Jacqueline J. Lewis on July 2nd, 2013 | Comments Off
This week my heart experienced incredible joy and deep sadness about the Supreme Court decisions. I am so thankful to God for the historic Supreme Court decisions on DOMA and Prop 8. I stood with other activists at the Stonewall Inn on Wednesday night celebrating with colleagues and allies. What an important victory! But the Supreme Court decision on the Voting Rights Act felt like a punch in my stomach. I am an African American pastor; my people paid a high price for the right to vote. After all of the absurdity in the last presidential election about redistricting, and as our country “browns-up,” this decision is a huge step backward, and one that needs to be addressed swiftly.
The U.S. Supreme Court rulings are a testimony to the ways time and personal stories change our understanding. The decisions are part of an ongoing narrative of change in the movement for justice. It took time, but Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat changed the story of segregation in the South. It took time, but Martin Luther King’s inspired speech helped us all to dream dreams of reconciliation. It took time, but the court ruled it is unconstitutional to deny married same-gender couples federal benefits and the court paved the way for California to allow same-gender marriages. Congregations and religious leaders who testify for marriage equality change the story. We do it because we hear the “still-speaking Word” shout into our hearts: Now is the time for justice.
When I began advocating publicly for gay rights, my parents wanted to talk to me about “What the Bible says…” They are Christians, and their faith and the Bible sustain them. Even so, they stand back from some of what it says. They know that the Bible was used to justify slavery. They know the Bible has been used to prevent women from leading congregations. They understand that texts have contexts and that God’s Word is a Living Word. “What the Bible says…” isn’t the only thing that guides their lives. Like many of us, guided by the ethic of love, they listen for the “still-speaking” Word.
They also listen to testimony, to the ways the still-speaking Word moves in the real lives of people. In a recent visit, Mom and Dad asked me about John and Jimmy. My parents had been present at Middle Collegiate Church a few years ago when we celebrated John and Jimmy’s 20th wedding anniversary. Their union had been blessed in the 1980s at Middle Church as sacred. You could see the joy and love John and Jimmy shared on their faces as they marked their anniversary. My parents, contemporaries of John and Jimmy, connected to a relationship that weathered decades, was rooted in their faith, and blessed by their church. John and Jimmy felt called to marry in a church before the state legally granted them the right because they were drawn to what the Bible says about relationships. God blesses the life partnerships human beings make; when we find our “help-mates,” God smiles.
While stories have been shifting people’s thinking about same-sex marriage, we also need to remember the stories of the fight for and ongoing need for the Voting Rights Act.
On March 7, 1965, activists John Lewis and Hosea Williams led more than 600 marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. At the end of the bridge, they were met by Alabama State Troopers, who ordered them to disperse. When the marchers stopped to pray, the police discharged tear gas and mounted troopers charged the demonstrators, beating them with night sticks. Lewis’s skull was fractured, but he escaped across the bridge, to a church in Selma. Before he could be taken to the hospital, John Lewis appeared before the television cameras calling on President Lyndon Johnson to intervene in Alabama. Two days later on March 9, Martin Luther King, Jr., led a “symbolic” march to the bridge. On Sunday, March 21, about 3,200 marchers set out for Montgomery, walking 12 miles a day and sleeping in fields. By the time they reached the capitol on Thursday, March 25, they were 25,000-strong. Less than five months after the last of the three marches, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
I wish the justices knew the testimony of my grandmother, Louella Edwards, and her brother George. Along with Fannie Lou Hamer, they were some of the first to vote at the Mount Galilee Baptist Church after the act was signed into law. They risked the anger of their White neighbors; they risked danger to their bodies and to their livelihoods. They were denied credit by banks and grocery stores, yet they stood in line and voted.
And so many are still struggling to vote against racially-determined odds. Viewed nationally, wait lines at the polls in the 2012 election were longer for African Americans (23 minutes) than for Hispanics (19 minutes) than for Whites (12 minutes). According to MIT Professor Charles Stewart, “While there are other individual-level demographic differences present in the responses, none stands out as much as race.” This story seems to be left out of the conversation.
God still speaks, using real people to testify to what love and justice look like. Stories told with courage, compassion, and commitment to truth; stories told with vulnerability; stories
laden with the values of the Beloved Community — they are powerful tools for movement building. Stories are powerful tools for changing the minds of parents, co-workers, and friends. They are powerful tools for healing the world and creating a more just society.
But let’s keep it real — sometimes our stories are not welcome. People reject us and our stories. Prophets and ordinary people have been killed for testifying to God’s vision of a Beloved Community. They have been killed for telling their stories, for living their stories. Those tragic stories that blow our minds with the cruelty and pain also enrage us and make us rise up and shout, “No more of this violence, not on my watch.”
Race still matters. And as people of faith, we are going to have to keep testifying to congressional leaders, rising up, and saying “not on our watch.” We are going to have to remind them as Rev. Dr. King said, “The arch of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Human beings, inspired by the still speaking Word of God, need to teach, preach, blog, tweet and testify about the need for a just world.
The Supreme Court rulings last week mark important episodes in the human story. And the movement for justice continues. This movement is an ongoing narrative, with a beginning, middle, and an end. We don’t know how long it will take for justice to fully come. We do know that any important story has plot twists and turns, moments of joy and feelings of defeat, episodes of both conflict and deep collaboration. This week we have experienced great joy and deep sorrow in the movement for justice. Representative John Lewis said the Supreme Court “…stuck a dagger in the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.” Together, we can pull that dagger out, and breathe new life into freedom. Here is what we can do right now: visit the NAACP and take action at http://www.naacp.org/page/s/vra-no-voting-rights. Those of us who believe in freedom must work together until we one day glimpse love, liberation, and justice for all.
Together, we honor our stories and work to write new ones. We are engaged as prophets, justice-workers, dreamers, and storytellers. Our testimonies of our own transformation are transforming the greater story, changing the human story. Testimonies are changing my parents’ heart. We are bending that arc with our relationships. Relationship by relationship, story by story, we will one day glimpse love, liberation, and justice for all people. We will, in fact, be free.
The Reverend Jacqueline J. Lewis, Ph.D. is Senior Minister of Middle Collegiate Church in New York City and Executive Director and co-founder of The Middle Project, a leadership institute that trains faith leaders. Rev. Lewis is a sought-after national preacher. She speaks throughout the United States and in South Africa on how to build multiracial/multicultural congregations.