Credit: Creative Commons/Forge Mountain Photography
In school rooms across America, kids like mine are coloring pictures of Martin Luther King and watching slide shows about Ms. Rosa Parks. It’s Black History Month again-”the shortest month of the year,” a friend of mine wryly observes. But it’s amazing how broadly we celebrate those who sat-in, marched, and cried out for justice in America 50 years ago. No one in America today can argue that King doesn’t matter. He’s standing on the National Mall, memorialized in stone.
But remembering our history matters little if it doesn’t reshape how we see the present. While communities across America are telling neat and clean stories about the 1960s, most of the mainstream media is ignoring the biggest broad-based organizing effort in the South since that time.
In the spring of 1961, Kennedy’s White House was focused on Cold War politics. The civil rights struggle in the South felt like a distraction to the President and his staff, the FBI opposed the movement as Communist, and most people in middle America were just getting ready for Mother’s Day weekend.
But the day after Mother’s Day, 1961, a burning bus was on the front cover a newspapers across the country.
In Aniston and Birmingham, AL, the Klan violently opposed integrated riders on public transit. The Justice Department intervened to cool things down. They flew the battered riders to New Orleans and tried to get them off national television. But some students from Nashville insisted that the ride must go on. They took up the cause, and hundreds of them ended up doing time in Mississippi’s Parchman prison. More importantly, “Freedom Rider” became a household name. And the Civil Rights Movement became a force in American politics.
Maybe the most astounding thing about the Freedom Ride of 1961 is this: college students changed the political conversation in America.
A year ago today, my friends Chris and Phileena Heuertz started Gravity: A Center for Contemplative Activism. In twenty years of working among the poorest of the poor, they learned what we’ve learned here: it’s easy to loose your center. But Christian tradition offers us a wealth of resources to help us find our center in prayer. And we have it on good account that this Center holds. To celebrate the first anniversary of Gravity Center, I wanted to share this reflection on how contemplative, liturgical prayer has saved me and our community.
If the Baptists who raised me in rural North Carolina taught me anything, they taught me to love Jesus and the Bible. Hard-working farmers and factory employees, my people had high hopes for me. They stressed education and sent me with care packages to go out and see the world. But however far I might go, they made sure I knew that Jesus and the Bible were at the center of everything. Jesus was our Lord and Savior, the ultimate answer to life’s biggest questions and my heart’s deepest longings. In Sunday school, I learned that you find Jesus through the Bible. The Good Book was our constant companion. We memorized it chapter and verse.
As I crossed the country on Friday, passing through three US airports, Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, was on every TV I saw. She took the stand to testify that it was in fact her son crying out on the 911 call that came in moments before his death. After reading the news, I also learned that George Zimmerman’s mother testified that it was her son and not Trayvon crying for help.
I’m not sure we’ll ever know who was crying out on the recording. But I’m certain that Ms. Fulton and millions of other mothers in this country are crying out for something that our current justice system cannot give: the assurance that their black and brown boys will not be suspect before we bother to learn their name or their story.
Unfortunately for all of us, the most important cry in the Trayvon Martin case is one that will not be heard in the courtroom. The only reason this case has gone to trial is because Mr. Zimmerman is not an officer of the law. It is on record that he called in his concern about a young African-American walking through his neighborhood and was instructed not to pursue him. If Trayvon were my son, the legal question of whether Mr. Zimmerman later acted in self-defense would feel like a moot point. What I would want to scream is that he had no right to chase Trayvon down, and he knew it. Whatever the details of their struggle, the confrontation should have never happened.
Since April, a growing number of North Carolinians have gathered at our state’s General Assembly to collectively petition an extreme legislature whose daily decisions are attacking the general welfare. We have called these gatherings “Moral Mondays,” and an awakening of hope led by people of faith has been at the heart of them. Several weeks ago, our Moral Monday was led by hundreds of pastors, drawing attention from The New York Times. But pastors are not the only people whose faith is inspiring them to action. On this Monday in June, dozens of doctors, nurses, school teachers and environmental activists led the crowd of over 4,000 people. Holly Jordan, a Durham public school teacher, was among those arrested. This is the statement she made on the Halifax Mall before her arrest.
As a public school teacher in North Carolina – not an “outsider” that Governer McCrory alleges is at the helm of the Moral Monday protests, but an educator grounded in and devoted to the community of Durham – I am ardent to stand up for the future of my students. When I came out of college straight into teaching seven years ago, I believed that teaching English was going to be about, well, teaching English. I thought that my task was to impart in my students a love of, or at least a less fervent dislike for, Shakespeare and To Kill a Mockingbird.
Abbey Church at St. John’s Abbey, Collegeville, Minnesota.
I’m just back from three days at the monastery with a working group on community-pastors, scholars, monastics and new monastics trying to understand what it is we mean when we say we want “community” and how this desire is cultivated and directed toward the common good in our society. One of my great heroes in the American pursuit of beloved community is Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement with Dorothy Day. He was a street teacher who distilled his message into “easy essays.” I’m not sure this is yet 100 proof (as we say in NC moonshine country), but I tried to do a little distilling of what we discussed in our time together.
Toward a Definition of Community
Community is not the crowd where we are together without being known (though a crowd is fine-unless it becomes a mob).
It’s not the club where we commit without encumbrance (though a club is fine-unless it becomes a clique).
Neither is it the clan where we find safety in shared history (though one’s clan is fine, too-unless it becomes a gang… or a military superpower).
Beloved community is, instead, that fellowship in which we know ourselves as we are known in mutual dependence.
It is the membership in which we learn to take responsibility for our future in mutual accountability.
It is the circle of trust in which we know our flourishing depends upon mutual welcome.
As I prepared to enter the NC Legislature last Monday with hundreds of fellow citizens who are deeply concerned about how policies coming out of our General Assembly are harming our most vulnerable neighbors, I was glad to see Leigh Bordley, a member of our school board in Durham. I’m grateful for the work she’s doing for all kids in Durham (including mine). But I was moved by her testimony about why she, as a Christian, knew she had to go to Raleigh for Moral Monday.
When a friend of mine told me about her experience of being arrested on May 13th, it was the push I needed to do the same thing. I had read about the Moral Monday protests and intended to go – but in a general, amorphous way. Once I talked to my friend, I made a plan to go the following Monday. I was eager to go express my disappointment and outrage about the bills being proposed and passed in the General Assembly. I am blessed to have representatives there who represent my views; the only downside to this is that I have no one to complain to or try to sway when legislation I don’t agree with is being considered. Participating in the demonstration was one way to have my voice heard and at least be a warm body that could be put in jail.
For the past four Mondays in Raleigh, North Carolina, evening sessions at the Legislature building have been interrupted by a growing numbers of protesters. After months of petitioning Gov. McCrory and leadership in both houses, NC NAACP chapter president, Rev. William Barber, called for civil disobedience to highlight immoral policies which are being made into law with disregard for the millions of North Carolinians who will be harmed. On the first “Moral Monday,” April 29th, seventeen people were arrested.
On Monday of this week, hundreds of people filled the rotunda of the Legislature building, singing “We Shall Not Be Moved” and lifting up prayers for a better way forward in this state. Nearly sixty people were arrested, bringing the total number of arrestees in the “Forward Together” campaign to 153.
This much of the story about what’s happening in North Carolina has been reported widely.
Ten years ago, when we were starting a little community in Durham, NC, that wanted to take Jesus and justice seriously, we went every year to the annual conference of the Christian Community Development Association. Back then, a long weekend with two thousand people who were walking the same journey felt like an oasis. We never missed it.
About that time, Charles Marsh, a great theologian and historian at the University of Virginia, published his book The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice from the Civil Rights Movement to Today. With good research and compelling story-telling, Marsh connected the dots between Martin Luther King, Koinonia Farm, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and CCDA. What happened to the civil rights movement after 1968, Marsh asked? It didn’t die. It went underground, off the radar, and continued doing the long hard work that thousands of faithful souls had been doing before 1955.
Last week, I wrote to say how I’m inspired by the young people at our local Catholic parish here in Durham who are advocating for the release of their youth minister, Fabiana. She was arrested and shipped three states away for deportation because her immigration papers are not in order.
I’ve been asking people of faith and good will here in Durham to stand with these kids and appeal for the release of Fabiana Polomo-Muniz.
What most Americans don’t know-what I didn’t know until other young organizers taught me-is that ICE does not have to detain any person who has not committed a crime in the U.S. While our government tries to sort out the complex issue of immigration reform, Asst. Secretary of Homeland Security John Morton has instructed each local Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office to exercise “prosecutorial discretion.”
This means that detention centers across the U.S. are full of nonviolent, law-abiding people who have been separated from their families and communities. And nothing requires them to be there. They could be released today.