Over 300 persons died in Cook County in the past year and were buried by the Medical Examiner’s office because no friends or family were available to receive their bodies. Their names were read in solemn dignity at a memorial service held in their honor at the Chicago Temple, on Wednesday, May 21, 2014. The following post is based on the sermon preached by Dr. Shanta Premawardhana, president of SCUPE preached at that service.
Dr. Vincent Harding died this week. This hero of the civil rights movement was a friend of SCUPE. This professor of theology, a Mennonite, from the peace church tradition is credited with influencing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to speak out against the Vietnam war and with writing the sermon he preached exactly one year before his death at Riverside Church in New York entitled “Beyond Vietnam.”
I met Vincent Harding about two months ago in at the Soka Gakkai Buddhist Temple at 14th and Wabash. He had written a book “America will Be…” That phrase comes from Langston Hughes poem “Let America be America Again.” Here are a few lines from the latter part of the poem:
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath-
America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain-
All, all the stretch of these great green states-
And make America again!
The poem is worthy of deep reflection. I hope you will read it again and again. Speaking to that packed hall Dr. Harding affirmed that he stood with Langston Hughes in the affirmation America will be. But “How is it possible that he make that audacious claim?” he asked. After all, he had just said several times over in that poem that “America that was never America to me.” How could he possibly swear an oath that “America will be?”
I felt very skeptical. We are going the wrong way, I thought to myself. People in our city are struggling to make ends meet. We used to think that it is right that we as citizens pool our resources not just out of our generosity, but because justice demands it, for the sake of the common good or what we used to call our common-wealth. This is why we elect City, County and State governments, to manage our public money, or our common-wealth.
But our public discourse has decidedly turned against the common-wealth to support individual wealth. As a result wealth disparities are significantly increasing. Today, the wealthiest 1% owns 40% of the nation’s wealth; the bottom 80% own 7%. SCUPE’sCongress on Urban Ministry will address this very important question when we gather June 23-26 at DePaul University.
This narrative of personal responsibility, of pulling yourself up from your boot-straps has become a religion these days. Yes, personal responsibility is important, but that narrative does not take into account, the structural disparities that put large numbers of people in our city, particularly those in racial minorities, at a clear disadvantage. How can personal responsibility work if there is no level playing field? So, unlike Langston Hughes and Vincent Harding, I wondered, “Will America ever be…”
My organization, SCUPE, trains pastors and church leaders to understand the dynamics of the city. We put our students directly into the streets and communities, and ask them to listen to the stories of people’s struggles, their pain and indeed also their laughter. That’s where theology begins for us, with stories of struggle. We know the stories of single mothers who struggle to feed their children, families who live in food deserts, people struggling with two or three minimum wage jobs, families whose children are incarcerated and children left alone because their parents have been deported. We know people in our neighborhoods who live in constant anxiety, in midst of very real gun violence. And we know the struggles of those who try very, very hard to get out of that situation and we know how discouraging that struggle is. Our students have listened to many persons like the ones whose lives we commemorate today.
Sisters and brothers, the values that we hold, the stories that we tell, the policies that we embrace, the leaders that we elect are based on what we believe, or our theology. If we believe in the Ayn Rand theories of hyper-individualism then we will act in one way. If we believe that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper, or that we should love our neighbor as ourselves, we will act another way. If we believe that God comes to us in the guise of another, we will act in even different ways.
The Indian tradition is very clear. When we fold our palms in a gesture of greeting and say Namaste, what that in fact means is that the God that is in me, greets the God that is in you. If we were to put this in language that is common to both Jewish and Christian traditions, I recognize that you are created in the God’s image, and you are a child of God.
On this matter, the Christian story is also very clear. God comes to us as a helpless infant, desperately poor and outcast. God is not incarnate in a kingly palace as the wise men thought, but in a smelly, crowded, stable with live animals, lying in a manger upon the hay that animals eat. Can you just imagine that! Almighty God is incarnated as a homeless baby, and is then run out of town as a refugee. As an adult, Jesus comes to town from a small village called Nazareth, an out of the way place where no good was supposed to come from, and gets crucified by the imperial Roman government outside the city and hangs there in utter powerlessness. If you went out looking for God, you wouldn’t recognize God, because God comes to us in disguise.
There are lots of stories in scripture that tells us how God comes to us as a stranger. Jesus himself tells a story about the last judgment in Matthew 25:31ff. When the Son of Man comes as King, he will separate people of all the nations gathered before him as a shepherd separates sheep from goats. To those on the left side he would say “Away from me you that are under God’s curse! Away to the eternal fire which has been prepared for the Devil and his angels, These people are flabbergasted. Why, some of them may have been devout Christians. “I was hungry, you would not feed me. I was thirsty, you would not give me to drink. I was a stranger but you would not welcome me in your homes. I was naked and you would not clothe me. I was sick and in prison and you would not take care of me.” And they answer, “When Lord, did we ever see you hungry, or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and we would not minister to you.” You see, they were expecting Jesus to fit into their image, their theology and their religious structure. Now, here’s the kicker: Whenever you did not do it to one of the least of these my sisters or brothers, you did not do it to me.”
Here’s one final story to bring it home.
There once was a little boy who decided he wanted to find God. He knew it would probably be a long trip, so he decided to pack a lunch — four packs of Twinkies and two cans of root beer. He set out on his journey and went a few blocks until he came to a park. On one of the park benches sat an old woman looking at the pigeons. The little boy sat down beside her and watched the pigeons too. When he grew hungry, he pulled out some Twinkies. As he ate, he noticed the woman watching him, so he offered her one. She accepted it gratefully and smiled at him. He thought she had the most beautiful smile in the world. Wanting to see it again, he opened a can of root beer and offered her the other. Once again she smiled that beautiful smile. For a long time the two sat on that park bench eating Twinkies, drinking root beer, smiling at each other, and watching the pigeons. Neither said a word. Finally the little boy realized that it was getting late and he needed to go home. He started to leave, took a few steps, turned back and gave the woman a big hug. Her smile was brighter than ever before.
When he arrived home, his mother noticed that he was happy, but strangely quiet. “What did you do today?” she asked. “Oh, I had lunch in the park with God,” he said. Before his mother could reply he added, “You know, she has the most beautiful smile in the world.” Meanwhile, the woman left the park and returned home. Her son noticed something different about her. “What did you do today, Mom?” he asked. “Oh, I ate Twinkies and drank root beer in the park with God.” And before her son could say anything at all, she added, “You know, God’s a lot younger than I had imagined.”
Sisters and brothers, we honor these women, men and children who died in our city not because we want to salve our conscience that we have done something. No. We do this because our destiny is wrapped up in their destiny, our salvation in theirs. When we want to see the face of God, we need to look in their face. When we need to hear God’s story, we need to hear their story. If we are to stand with Langston Hughes and Vincent Harding and have their defiant faith that America will be America again, that requires us to see in all our sisters and brothers, God incarnate among us. Nothing less will do.
Featured Image: Dr. Vincent Harding (Photo by Joe Amon/The Denver Post)
The Rev. Dr. Shanta D. Premawardhana is President of the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education in Chicago. Originally from Sri Lanka, he was most recently the director for the Program Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation at the World Council of Churches (WCC), a worldwide fellowship of 349 Protestant and Orthodox churches based in Geneva, Switzerland. Prior to moving to Geneva, Premawardhana served as the Associate General Secretary for Interfaith Relations at the National Council of Churches of Christ, based in New York.