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.
Attorney Daryl Atkinson of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice
Daryl Atkinson isn’t just quoting statistics when he talks about America’s most overlooked domestic crisis-mass incarceration as a result of the War on Drugs. 2.3 million people in prison, nearly 7 million in our criminal justice system. The United States incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than any other nation in the world. Since the early 1980′s, when our War on Drugs was declared, incarceration rates have increased by nearly 800%. The result: 65 million Americans-most of them people of color-have been relegated to a criminal caste that is denied access to employment, federal housing, and financial assistance for education.
Daryl quotes these facts from memory, rapid fire. They are a part of the stump speech he gives dozens of times each week, no doubt. But on this particular Sunday afternoon at the end of April, as we’re sitting before a mass meeting that our local NAACP has called to address “racial profiling,” Daryl says something important. “I’m not here because I know this stuff. I’m here because I spent 40 months in an Alabama state prison on a nonviolent drug crime. I’m here because I’m a victim of America’s War on Drugs. And there’s nothing special about me. I left a thousand intelligent brothers behind the walls.”
Ella Baker, community organizer and mother of SNCC
Ms. Juanita teaches three year-olds at the Head Start program downtown. She stays just a few doors down from us in Walltown, but I never see her in the morning. She catches a bus to work long before I come downstairs, put the kettle on for tea, and walk down to the sidewalk to get the newspaper. A room full of three year-olds is no walk in the park. (I know; mine usually wakes up before the tea is done.) But when Ms. Juanita sends the last kid home with her parents at the end of the day, she catches another bus to night school. She’s been keeping this schedule for over three years now.
Most nights after dinner is done and the dishes are washed-about the time we’re getting ready to start the bedtime routine with our kids-Ms. Juanita comes walking down from the bus stop. She’s tired, of course, which she’ll tell you. But she always has time to ask how our kids are doing, to tell a story from her day, to talk about the most recent neighborhood news. For the past couple of years, she and I have coached a 7-8 year-olds basketball team together. One night a week thru the winter, we head off for practice about this time in the evening. I’m always amazed that Ms. Juanita is still standing.
When we moved to Walltown ten years ago, we got to know Ms. Juanita’s kids. They’d come by our house in the afternoons and often stayed for dinner. They were middle school kids with sweet smiles. In their early twenties now, they both still live with mom. One is in school, the other has been in and out of jail for the past two years.