Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday 2011: We shall overcome someday

This is the Sunday we commemorate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Jim and Holly are the first to arrive to help set up, as usual. Then our musicians. Juan has brought a small space heater. There’s  Philip and then Amy.  As cold as it is, I joke that later that afternoon, over 60,000 people will sit outside in colder weather watching  a football game. (Of course a few beers help.)
During the time with children, Deacon Pat asks what would Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. think of today? She recalled her pride, her tears when Obama was elected. There has been change, but...
That indeed is the question before us today.  
There is much on my mind as I think about that question:
*  The shock waves that continue to flow out from the shooting in Tucson. How the President's words reminded us of the HOPE he inspired as he ran his campaign. Would these words touch anybody, change anybody not already committed to civility in the public arena?  I wrestle with the current level of divisiveness, our continuing  fascination with guns. And how we deal with the mentally ill. And the fact that families of victims and accused need support and prayer.
  • Our clergy meeting in Wednesday when we talked about the new shelter for 200 men.  The city’s need to find shelter for burgeoning numbers of homeless. The new profit opportunity for the illegal hotel owners to sign shelter contracts with the city. Yes, shelter is needed in this cold. But what we really need are permanent affordable housing apartments to better weave the fabric of our community. 
Hope asks: so if they’re paying $100 a night for shelter, why not let the men stay there permanently? Have enough services available to help the residents  transition back to work? Back to neighborhood life? Wouldn’t that make sense?
  • And i ‘m thinking about the city wide rally for the Living Wage we went to Thursday night at Convent Avenue Baptist Church.  Reminding us that Dr. KIng’s last mission was to join the fight  for a living wage for sanitation workers in Memphis. The statistics are disturbing: the citywide unemployment rate is 9.1% and the unemployment rate for people of color is three times that, around 28%. Only 2.3% of city contracts go to companies owned by people of color.  And worst of all, 30% of the children in this city live in poverty.  What would Dr. KIng say?
What’s being asked for is pretty small:  $10 an hour with benefits, $11.50 without. As I overheard at the bar at Gabriela’s while waiting for my take out pollo con mole poblano, “In New York City you have to be middle class just to be poor.” And its inappropriate for a billionaire mayor to talk about letting  the market decide when these companies receive subsidies  from city taxes. Certainly the Los Angeles experience seems to show that employment actually increases with a living wage, not decrease it.
In the words of Dr. James Forbes, Pastor Emeritus of the Riverside Church and Director of the Healing  of the Nations Foundation, we have to learn how to tangibilitize our  values. From the verb tangibilitate : to  make tangible, real, concrete our values.
* And it was one year ago that the Landmarks Commission voted to designate West-Park as a landmark. The commissoner said he would do “everything in his power.” That was a year ago. Councilmember Brewer said that she could  and would raise $20 million. Subcommittee Chair Landner was convinced help would come. Committee Chair Comrie promised we would  “be all right.” That was eight months ago. So what do we do now? What do we have  to do to make our story public? Hold these offocials accountable? 

* And two wars that seem to go on with n en din sight wit mainly children  the poor and people of color dying. 
Dr. King had,as spoken by the prophet Isaiah, a mouth “like a sharp sword.” We need like he did, that experience of precision, disappointment, failure that comes with the prophetic call. The feeling that all our work has been in vain. Dr. King knew depression a swell. How do we move beyond that? 
Part of it comes in understanding that Isaiah makes clear that this call is universal, not just for “Jacob” and certainly not just for Christians. Imam Talib reminded us that Dr. King called us to set aside our prejudices and join together in a truly ecumenical movement, in sense of worldwide household. That means full acceptance of all, even those whose experiences lead them to question or reject faith, all who join together in good will. To that we have the challenge of being  universal without being unitarian. To maintain the uniqueness of our witness even as we reject triumphalism. 
The Psalmist speaks from a place of depression as well. Many of us have been there. Even Dr. King. What doe it mean to sing a new song? What is new? Are we ready to embrace it? Brave enough to sing it?  God gave us “an open ear.”  To hear what? The voice of God? The voice of those around us? Is there a difference? Yes, Dr. King was rooted in the African-American Christian experience, but he grew to a universal vision.
On Saturday, I saw the movie “Red Shirley.” His interviews with his 100 year old aunt, a refugee from Poland who became a union organizer in the garment workers Union. How as a Yiddish speaker she had to speak to Italians. How today its Latinos and African-Americans but still the same union. She was at the theatre in person after the movie. Spoke of  her sadness at the passing of the day when society, young people had a shared sense of social right and wrong. What realities were simply unacceptable. What does it take to live a life of commitment? To raise our children so they will have that innate sense?

I show the congregation my bracelet. the one with basta! on it. I say, 'Basta de que? Basta de guerra, injusticio, politicos que dice muco y hace, basta de todo...enough of it all..."
When asked where he was staying, Jesus told his disciples “come and see.” Yes, come and see. He is staying with the immigrants, the mournng in Arizona, the unemployed, the children in poverty...he is staying there....Walter Breuggeman said that the “Jesus event”shows God “eagerly invested” in the world. We are inheritors not of certainty, but a continuing struggle to know God and follow Jesus and to seek to understand what that might mean.  How our seemingly small witness can move from ineffectiveness to global impact. We are called to a deep openess to what might happen. 
We cannot live in 1968 or any other era or time than our own. We must resist the appropriation of Martin Luther King, Jr for any self-serving purpose, the ritualization, the holidayzation of the day. We must begin  by being ultimately present in this moment with everything we have. 
That’s what we talked about.  Philip sang “How Great Thou Art,” recalling the Thursday night service. P____came to the candle, praying for her case. We spoke of the next day’s march. of the week ahead. And held hands as we  sang our Halle, halle, halle, hallelujah and “We shall overcome...” with everything that lies ahead, inside and outside our doors...
Deep in our hearts, we do believe, that we shall overcome some day.

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