a sermon by Rev. Jill Cowie
The Resistance movement forms from the histories and lessons of the leaders, organizers and participants that came before us. This sermon will explore how the resistance of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X continues to inform faithful resistance today. Come to this Whole Congregation worship service to explore our heritage of resistance and how a few participants of the Fall Anti-Racism workshop are making resistance real in their lives.
One person that helps me keep Martin’s dream alive is news commentator and long-time social justice activist Van Jones. I first was “introduced” to him 10 years ago a teach-in he was doing on social justice for the Pachamama Alliance, a predominantly white organization that has partnered with an indigenous group in Ecuador on behalf of environmental justice. As I watched a video of his presentation to them at a posh retreat about 10 miles away from his father’s Oakland home. He ended with these words,“ My father is in surgery right now, he has stage three lung cancer, the whole time I have been talking I have been worrying about my him. I had to make the decision today-was I going to show up?
This is a question each of us must ask every day, am I going to show up for racial justice? Van told the group he showed up because of his dad. He says, “When my dad was a child he didn’t trust white people. He grew up in rural south and saw his mother maltreated. One day coming home from Yale law school, my dad picked me up at the airport. He was proud, and he said “boy you are going to pass me up, and I can’t give you advice anymore, but I am proud of you. You remind me of the 60’s and I worry about you-why don’t you just get a good job. Van said to him, “Daddy I can’t do that…I know your heart was broken when Martin was killed, I have to do something.” His dad said, “No son, my heart didn’t break when Martin was killed, my heart broke when we lost Bobby Kennedy, because when Bobby talked, you felt like he was talking to you, directly to you, and you wanted to help that man. Bobby went to Appalachia, he went to Harlem he didn’t just talk about it; he stood with the poor, he put his name on the line. Van said to the group that day, “We need Bobby back. And with tears streaming down his face he said. “I am going home maybe to see my dad the last time. I need to be able to tell him there are people willing to do what needs to be done. Go out and be Bobby.” A man who grew up not trusting whites, telling his son to go be Bobby.
His words echo that of my African American professor in seminary who was teaching us Martin’s life. He ended his last class, “go out and be Martin.” And that is the ask of us, to take on the movement of resistance, to show up, to be willing to do what needs to be done. And maybe that’s why its so important for us to be here together, all ages, with diverse identities to learn the lessons of those that came before us and to give those lessons meaning and form by the way we show up today, and the next.
Ethicist Sharon Welch says the moral calamity of our day is that flawed communities are unable to see as unjust the inequality crucial to their functioning. Martin made visible the inequality, as did another Civil Rights leader of his day, Malcolm X. I delved into their lives of resistance to understand the power of their convictions. Both were profoundly influenced by their parent and their very different childhoods. Martin’s dream was centered in humanity’s oneness, and the Black Church’s understanding that their role is to establish God’s rule of love by making right what white people had got so wrong. A spirituality that was deeply implanted within him from the age of five. He grew up a few doors down from his daddy’s church and was surrounded by a neighborhood of people that affirmed daily the reality of God’s love in the struggle for justice.
Malcolm’s dad was a preacher too, and both his parents worked for Marcus Garvey’s organization to create and sustain separate economies for people of color. His dad was killed in a streetcar accident when he was 6, a loss his mother never recovered from so at the age of twelve Malcolm became a foster child in a white home and attended all white schools. He didn’t have the culture or the neighborhood to help protect him from prejudice and racism. He went through some tough times, spending years in prison but eventually thanks to the Islam faith, he became the voice of Black Urban Americans, the person that spoke their truth about the hard realities of life in the ghetto. Like his parents, he grew up to create separate economies and communities for people of color, telling his people “not to unite with whites until you unite with yourself.” Martin was all about integrating Blacks into full citizenship through non-violent protest, while Malcolm was about creating communities of Black Power and Solidarity. They often disagreed with each other. But before the end of Malcolm life, they started to learn from each other. Martin began to understand how true economic justice was beyond the reach of any racial collaboration, and Malcolm learned to that collaboration with White’s could help his people. If they had both lived, I am convinced, their movements would have come together and the world would be far more just than it is today. Van’s, Malcolm’s, and Martin’s lives of resistance were all formed by their parents and their childhood communities.
Sometimes I catch a glimpse of what I imagine Martin and Malcolm could do have done together in the work of Reverend Dr. Barber and the Poor People Campaign. Like Martin, Barber is grounded in non-violence and the prophetic voice of people to change the moral narrative of this nation. And like Malcolm, he dwells on the details of hardships experienced by injustice, yet he creates solidarity by asking each person to tell the story of another. His resistance movement is based on the mutually transformative power of knowing what it feels like to live another life. Something he calls fusion politics. Something I call the beginning of love. Yesterday, leaders of Barber’s Campaign met in Worcester and we will learn more in the months to come how we can show up for racial justice, but in the meantime lets claim our faith in living lives of resistance to injustice that makes real Martin’s dream of democracy, and Malcolm’s passion for truth. Go out and be Martin, be Malcolm, be the person who has taught you what it means to show up.
In the words of Van Jones “I think the most hopeful thing I could point out to you is look to your left and look to your right. Look at the beautiful people who are around you right now who are willing to do more today than they were willing to do yesterday, who are willing to live for change. We don’t need any hero on a
horse. We’re the people we’ve been waiting and for we have within us enough love to save the planet.” Take a moment, and look around, connect with another with your eyes, they are the windows of the soul-until you can feel our collective power.