Justice: On Acts of Loving Kindess

Justice: On Acts of Loving Kindess

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This post is the eighth in our series this month on the spiritual practices of activism
that are rooted in and enhance our faith lives.

“Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof” (Justice, Justice you shall pursue) – Deuteronomy, 16:20

“The world rests on three things, Torah [the Bible], Avodah [worship], and Gemilut Hasadim [acts of loving kindness].”
Pirkei Avot  [Ethics of our Ancestors] 1:2.

I believe that the pursuit of justice is not found merely in the grand fights: the fight for racial justice; the fight against unjust war; the fight against hunger and poverty. I believe that the pursuit of justice comes in the myriad decisions that fill our lives and in realizing how those decisions affect others.  Justice for me means Tikkun Olam—repairing the world—or leaving the world a better place than when I got here. And while there are differentiating views on what it means to repair the world, I believe strongly that it means to fight against oppression and to walk lightly and be conscious of the affect that our choices can have on people and the environment.

My religion, Judaism, is not the one I was born into. Yet it is the one I chose, in great part, because it provided me with a basis in faith for fighting for justice and righteousness in a way centered in, though separate from, my relationship with God. I struggle with my relationship with God. I do not know what my concept of God is, but I do know that if God exists and if God created this beautiful world, then God would want us to care for it and for one another.  This is my faith, and it is the basis for how I live my life.

My maternal grandparents modeled for me how to live one’s faith through acts of loving-kindness. My grandma is what I would call a Pope Francis Catholic. She doesn’t live her life as if praying and belief in God were enough to get her a pass to heaven. Rather, she and my deceased grandfather focused on good works. I remember well as a young child accompanying them to deliver food and gifts to the poor for Christmas. And later, during school holidays in junior high and high school, I would join my grandmother in feeding the hungry at the local soup kitchen, where she volunteered every week for years.  My grandfather, who was a civil engineer and professor, volunteered at Head Start as a math tutor for young (often single) mothers studying for their GEDs.  They were outdoors people, who took me on long hikes and camping trips and taught me to appreciate and love nature. They never bragged about these works or did them for the praise of others. They helped because they believed that it was important to care for those who had less than them.

While I did not choose my grandparents’ faith, like them, I did choose to live my faith by acts of loving-kindness and by pursuing justice.  The Torah (the Christian Old Testament), Psalms, and the Books of the Prophets (together called the Tanakh), and my faith’s traditions provide me with the spiritual resources and guidance to work for justice.  My faith commands me to welcome the stranger and care for the orphaned and widowed. My faith commands that I ensure that the hungry have food. My faith commands that I yearn for the day when “war and bloodshed cease,” when “water will flow to the thirsty as a stream.” My faith commands me to pursue justice. I live my daily life in accordance with these commands.  I buy food from local farmers who use sustainable practices. I buy clothing from companies that have good labor practices. Most importantly, I try to teach my children empathy and love for everything and everyone.

Every Friday night before we light the Shabbat candles, my family puts money into our tzedakah box, which we give to the hungry. Tzedakah, which is related to the word tzedek (justice) is often compared to the act of charity. We hope to teach our children the importance of giving thanks for what we have and of giving to others who have less.  On Shabbat, we recite Psalm 92 (A Song for the Sabbath), in which we remind ourselves that “the Righteous will flourish like the date palm; like the cedars of Lebanon they’ll grow.” We even gave our second son his Hebrew name from this Psalm (Adam) Erez–both in honor of the nature-holiday he was born nearest (Tu B’Shevat/the Birthday of Trees) and in the hope that he will be a righteous man in faith and works.

My career as an immigration attorney I chose after I chose my religion. I wanted to be a lawyer to work for justice for the vulnerable. But it was through intense prayer and searching that I realized my place was working for this particular population.  Only a daily basis, I fight the good fight for the oppressed and persecuted.  But I know that each individual I help is merely a drop in the bucket. This is why I do not stop fighting for justice when I leave the office.

Like my grandparents modeled for me the importance of the small acts of loving-kindness, I try to do the same for my children on a daily basis. In the end, I believe that my pursuit of justice and my faith are worth nothing if the work ends with me. They must be taught and passed on: l’dor v’dor—from one generation to the next.

IMG_7349Christie Popp is an immigration attorney in Bloomington, Indiana, as well as a wife and mother to two young boys.  In her spare time, she exasperates her husband by worrying about all of the terrible things that are happening the world or that could possibly happen to her children. She recently began to channel those worries at overwroughtmom.wordpress.com.  The rest of the time, she can be found at www.poppimmigration.com.

Justice: On Considering MLK Jr.

Justice: On Considering MLK Jr.

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This post is the seventh in our series this month on the spiritual practices of activism that are rooted in and enhance our faith lives.

We must accept finite disappointment,
but never lose infinite hope.”
― Martin Luther King Jr.

I have so enjoyed the posts shared so far on Mihee’s blog about justice, and spiritual practices of activism! I have long wrestled with the tension between spirituality and justice. While the integration between them seems like it should be obvious, that is not always the case. I’ve met a lot of people along the journey who emphasize spirituality without justice, as well as justice without spirituality.

Hebrews 13.7 says we should remember our leaders, and “consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” The faith leader whose faith I most admire when it comes to this topic is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His ability to integrate justice and spirituality into a cohesive form of faith activism is exactly the “way of life” that I want to imitate.

The clearest account of this integration was on display on January 27, 1956 – an account that he recorded in detail in his journal. It was close to midnight, and King was exhausted.

The events of the last year had seemed to unfold at blinding speed. In December 1955 Rosa Parks was arrested in Alabama for refusing to give up her seat at the front of the bus for a white man, and that became the match that lit the Civil Rights fire.  A boycott was organized, and Dr. King was recruited to lead it. He initially had only lukewarm interest, but ended up forming the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) with a group of other concerned citizens. The boycott to stop segregated busing was challenging but ultimately successful.  The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that the bus segregation laws of Montgomery were unconstitutional, the boycott ended, and Martin Luther King had become a national hero and an acknowledged leader in the civil rights struggle.

But the victory had not come without cost. King’s life was now consistently in danger, and it was taking a psychological and spiritual toll on him.  On this particular night in January, Coretta and his two-month old daughter Yolanda, whom they affectionately nicknamed “Yoki,” were already asleep, and he was eager to join them.

Just before he got into bed the phone rang.  King grimaced, suspecting that he knew what awaited him if he chose to answer. For most people a middle of the night phone call would be unusual, but for the King family it was becoming too common. Threatening phone calls had become a daily reality for them. Afraid that the ringing would wake his family, King reluctantly answered. The voice on the other end was as bad as he feared. One hateful insult was thrown at him after another, trying to tear apart his confidence. Once the long list of insults was finished, the caller ended the threat with a nasty finale. King was told that if he and his family didn’t leave Montgomery immediately, they wouldn’t live to see the end of the week.

Dr. King hung up without comment, as he had begun to do when receiving one of these disturbing calls. He had been able to ignore these calls for the most part, but something about this one cut all the way to the bone. Maybe it was the hatred that oozed from the words of this particular threat. Maybe it was exhaustion. Maybe it was the sheer number of threats finally catching up.

He tried to calm himself down and decided to join his wife in bed. But as he lay there staring at the ceiling, anxiety began to take hold of him.  He began to think of his precious daughter and her little gentle smile. He began to think of his beautiful wife who had sacrificed her music career so that he could take up leadership in the south. He began to wonder if the risk level was getting too high, and feared that he might be putting his precious family in harm’s way. What if they were taken away from him? Or more likely, what if he was taken from them?

The anxiety became overwhelming, and Dr. King realized he was not going to be able to fall asleep. He got up and headed to the kitchen to make a middle-of-the-night pot of coffee. He sat at the table and breathed deeply, trying to calm himself down. But, like an incoming tide, the waves of fear and anxiety continued to rush in.

As the fear intensified that night, Dr. King began to entertain thoughts of resigning his post and stepping back from his important but dangerous mission. He began to develop an exit strategy, in hopes that he could figure out “a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward[1].”

Sitting at the kitchen table sipping the coffee, King’s thoughts were interrupted by a sudden notion that at once intensified his desperation and clarified his options:

“Something said to me, ‘You can’t call on Daddy now, you can’t call on Mama.  You’ve got to call on that something in that person that your daddy used to tell you about, that power that can make a way out of no way[2].’”

As the son of a pastor, prayer was a familiar practice in the King home. But that night he discovered that there are different kinds of prayers needed for different kinds of situations. There is a type of prayer that is sweet yet often superficial – a type of prayer where we ask God to bless us and keep us as we pursue our dreams. Then there is another type of prayer that comes from the deepest part of the soul – the type of prayer that we need to genuinely sustain our activism efforts for the actualization of justice. It was in this desperate place that Dr. King threw himself before God:

“Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I still think I’m right. I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now, I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage. Now, I am afraid. And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone[3].”

King sat quiet, alone with his thoughts and prayers. He allowed the words of his petition to hang in the air for what seemed like forever. Suddenly, Dr. King sensed the presence of God begin to come near. He had a personal experience of Immanuel – “God with us.” God began to speak to Dr. King’s heart in a way that felt unmistakable:

“Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for the truth. And lo, I will be with you. Even until the end of the world[4].”

I love this part of Dr. King’s story. It strips away the romanticism of pursuing justice. It reminds us that it is serious work to stand up for truth. To do so places us squarely against systems, structures, and oppositional powers – both at the human and the spiritual level.

But it also reminds us that this is the work of Jesus Christ himself.

When we stand up for justice, and when we stand up for truth, we stand next to the one who embodied his very identity in these ideals. We were never designed to fight justice on our own. To do so is a fool’s errand. The only genuine source of power and transformation comes from that deeply spiritual place.

Here is how Dr. King finished his autobiographical description of that dark night of the soul. I come back to this often, as I’m convinced it’s the only place where true courage comes from in the fight for justice:

“I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on.  He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.  No never alone.  No never alone.  He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone… I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before… Almost at once my fears began to go… My uncertainty disappeared.  I was ready to face anything[5].”

[1] Clayborne Carson, The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, (Grand Central Publishing, 2001) p.77

[2] ibid

[3] ibid

[4] Clayborne Carson, The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, (Grand Central Publishing, 2001) p.78

[5] ibid

DanielDaniel Hill is the pastor of River City Church in Chicago, Illinois, which is a multiethnic, economically diverse church. He is also the author of the book10:10: Life to the Fullest.

Justice: On Being Useful

Justice: On Being Useful

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This post is the second in our series this month on the spiritual practices of activism that are rooted in and enhance our faith lives.

Katie and I met on Grad Cafe when we both were contemplating PhD work at Drew. She’s an incredible pastor and writer with a beautiful spirit!

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Jaapani püttsepa tööriistad / A Japanese cooper’s tools

“We think that because it’s private, it’s sacred. In Jubilee all things private became common. It’s yours until someone needs it.” ~Cláudio Carvalhaes

Several years ago, I became a single parent while attending seminary. I lived in the family housing apartments with my children, and in my last year one of my classes began at 8:30am, the exact time when my younger son needed to be escorted to the school bus stop. The family apartments were 15 minutes away from the lecture halls. My son was too young to meet the bus on his own. The class was a requirement to complete my degree and ordination. If I did not take this class, I had either wasted a ton of money on a degree I wouldn’t finish, or I would have to waste another ton to take one class the following year. I was out of money, out of time, and out of options.

So I sent an email around to neighbors and friends asking if anyone could watch my child for a half hour, two days a week, and escort him to the bus stop. One by one the emails came back with the sentence, “I’m sorry I can’t help.” Every last one of those emails came with a reasonable explanation of why they couldn’t help: this one had too many kids already, that one couldn’t commit twice a week for a semester, the one over there didn’t feel comfortable not knowing us well, this one also had a class, that one had to work, the one over there went to the gym at that time.

Honestly, I understood all the reasons, and I carry no ill will. I understood it was a nuisance favor to ask. I also knew how a total of 12 hours of someone’s time could have made a huge difference. I ended up hiring someone to “babysit”. You can’t pay someone to babysit for a half hour, so that was an expensive solution, with no money coming in to pay bills.

One person shook her head and said, “Man, that’s tough. I can’t imagine doing this as a single parent.” I never know what to say to that.

About the same time, I attended an event hosted by Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal where Vijay Prashad presented some thoughts on justice and activism, and afterwards he stuck around for a bit of Q&A. I didn’t have any specific questions, but I stood nearby and listened as people asked their questions.

One young student shook Dr. Prashad’s hand and asked, “I want to make a difference, where do I start?”

Dr. Prashad smiled, and said:

“Look around you and see what needs to be done. And then do that.
And enjoy the work. You’re allowed to enjoy the work.”

I’ve spent the last two years doing work with youth in and around Trenton, NJ. It’s a challenging space to work in with a constant culture clash between white suburban youth and black and brown youth from both the suburbs and the city. The disparity of wealth and resources is painful to see, white folks don’t want that to be true, and people of color are scrambling to get by and provide a life for their kids. So far this year there have been 14 murders in Trenton, all black and brown men who died too young from the violence plaguing our city.

When I look around me, it is easy to get overwhelmed by all that’s in front of me that needs doing. I remember all the times people have said to me, “Call me if you need help!” This has become a mostly empty phrase along the lines of “Let’s have lunch, sometime.”

I’ve realized, being on the under side of needing help, that people “help” for all kinds of their own condescending reasons. “There but for the grace of God, go I,” is a common refrain in social justice work, accompanied by a slight shudder and grimace.

One year, the police department in the wealthy township we lived in contacted me in November. They had received my name from the free lunch list as someone who might appreciate a Christmas basket. It would include a turkey, some fixings, and a few presents for the kids. That sounded good, so I agreed. The sergeant said he’d be in touch closer to Christmas with details, but I could count on the basket.

December 22 he called again and said he’d be out with some volunteers the next day to deliver. And they sure were! About 11am, into my apartment complex came a firetruck and a police car, sirens blaring, lights blazing, with a pick up truck bringing up the rear. Santa was perched in full regalia. They pulled in to the front of my house, Santa jumped off the truck and yelled, “Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas!” And then 10 volunteers streamed out of vehicles and into my house to deliver the turkey and fixings and presents.

My kids were transfixed.

The neighbors were too.

I wanted to disappear.

The sergeant met my eyes and got his people out of my house.

I didn’t accept that basket the next year.

Thinking on what it’s been like to be poor the last few years, I’ve moved away from asking for help, accepting help, or offering help.

These days what I’m interested in is, “How can I be useful?” I’ve been looking around to see what’s in front of me and trying to do that. Even if, and maybe ESPECIALLY, if what is useful is inconvenient.

Being useful cuts right through discussions of privilege, who has what, who has an obligation, why someone has need. It’s just a simple matter: if I have something that is useful to someone else, to the community, to a justice movement, then I give it. No justification needed.

No need to explain why you are a single parent. No need to explain why you don’t have the money to get your kid to camp. No need to beg me for that 12 hours of time. If I got it, you can have it. There’s been other’s who’ve done for me.

Useful cuts through the donkey dung of the white savior complex. If I’ve got something that can be useful to the community, then the community can have it. If not, then what is most useful is sitting my butt in a chair until I can be useful in a different way.

Simple, but not easy at times. Plenty of days I don’t want to be useful when I could. And plenty of days when I wish I was useful when I’m not.

But when I find myself saying, “I’m sorry I can’t help because (insert reasonable reason),” I remember how expensive it was to ask for what I needed and the shame I felt for needing it.

And when I find myself reveling in my supposed usefulness, I remember that Santa firetruck brigade and the neighbors looking straight at my poverty on display.

How can I be useful? What in front of me needs to be done? What do I have that is needed by others? In this way, in these small steps, we can change everything.

The Rev. Katie Mulligan is a youth and young adult pastor for three churches in and around Trenton, NJ (Ewing, Lawrence Road, and Covenant Presbyterian Churches), and a chaplain at Rider University. Her writing on lgbtq concerns, intimate violence, and theology can be found at http://insideouted.blogspot.com and she is otherwise known as @grammercie on twitter. She is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and ordained as a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Also, cats. The reverend adores cats.

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Justice: Spiritual Practices of Activism

Justice: Spiritual Practices of Activism

RNS-HOMELESS-JESUS

(A recent story on CNN depicts the controversy over a statue in Davidson, North Carolina. The statue is located outside of Saint Alban’s Episcopal Church, and it renders Jesus Christ as a homeless man lying on a park bench and includes room to sit down beside it. Photo credit here.)

“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.”
― Cornel West

I sign up for too much.

Andy and I argue about this weekly if not daily. That I’m doing too much. And of course, it’s compounded by my not making any income to cover the childcare we need sometimes for me to get that “work” done. Sometimes it does seem like there aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything. But, it doesn’t matter – I keep the course because there’s something bigger than me that compels me to work towards justice, compassion, and bringing God’s kingdom to bear in this world. Those reasons include everything from God or Jesus to my children, and the young people and adults I work with on a regular basis – so much is at stake right now and I have a Gospel-of-Mark (a get-off-your-ass) urgency – that drives me to work as if our lives depend on it.

Our lives actually really do depend on it.

Maybe it’s coincidence or serendipitous Holy-Spirit-blowing, but I keep lately having conversations with people about activism. In seminary I did an independent study with a professor on a theology of activism – I wanted to know the ways people have seamlessly integrated faith and activism. Social justice work – advocating and protecting, feeding and housing, loving and serving and walking along side those on the margins, those displaced, those voiceless and oppressed, and stripped of dignity or life – felt like territory that had been pushed out to the periphery of the church, and I couldn’t help but feel that nagging something-isn’t-right. Reading about the Sanctuary Movement and Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona sparked something for me. It made me seek out and see all the injustices that need the capital-C church to respond by standing in the picket lines and hosting forums and panels and getting out into the neighborhoods and streets, mobilizing and moving people forward in pragmatic ways that express God’s reconciliation and equality in radical ways.

So all the thinking, wondering, talking, and questioning, especially dreaming with like-minded souls made me want to hear more – to connect faith and activism more, or actually, to see that connection that’s already there. To make sense of the ways we work for both justice and love. And, that’s why this is called “spiritual practices” because they are things we do to be intentional about the activism work we do in the world – everything from resistance to advocacy to campaigning to fundraising to tweeting – and what we do sustain and cultivate our faith.

We’ll hear from a variety of writers, pastors, leaders, activists, and artists about the practices they employ to regularly engage in activism for the sake of the higher call to be the neighbor. Come back in June. It’s going to be encouraging and inspiring to say the very least.

“To be a Christian is to live dangerously, honestly, freely – to step in the name of love as if you may land on nothing, yet to keep on stepping because the something that sustains you no empire can give you and no empire can take away.” 
― Cornel West

June 2 Kent McKeever: On Wearing Orange
June 4 Katie Mulligan: On Being Useful
June 6 Emily Maynard: On Listening and Believing
June 9 Ines McBryde: On Worshiping on Earth like Heaven
June 11 Brian Merritt: On Occupying Possibility
June 13 Caris Adel: On Being a Witness
June 16 Daniel Hill: On Considering MLK Jr.
June 18 Christie Popp: On Acts of Loving-Kindness
June 21 Mark Koenig: On Praying for a Girl
June 24 Seth Haines: On Dignity

June 30 Suey Park: On Being A Prophet and Heretic