Being the Good Samaritan Isn't Enough
By Irene R. DeMaris, M.Div.
A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?” Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?” He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”
But the legal expert wanted to prove that he was right, so he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus replied, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves, who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death. Now it just so happened that a priest was also going down the same road. When he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. Likewise, a Levite came by that spot, saw the injured man, and crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day, he took two full days’ worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Take care of him, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.’ What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?”
Then the legal expert said, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
This Sunday at my church, the Rev. Dr. Luke Powery, the Dean of Duke University Chapel, preached for our Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday. His words were prophetic and courageous, I quickly took notes and there is one part of his sermon that struck a nerve with me. He talked about the Good Samaritan, that it was a good first action, but not the last step in seeking justice. Powery brought up that we needed to know why the road was so violent, what was the systemic reasons behind this. How come the others didn’t stop, why did the Samaritan have to pay so much out of pocket to heal the man? He opened up the parable for me and as I sat down to write about the ACA and how it affects women’s reproductive health, I can’t get it out of my head.
Last week we learned that 91% of the 115th Congress identifies as Christian thanks to the Pew Research Center. The religion of the prolific healer, Jesus Christ who healed those who needed him. Yet, in the same week in the dead of the night last week, the U.S. Senate begun its work dismantling the Affordable Healthcare Act and taking us backwards from the Gospel. In a space of Christian majority, the Gospel did not flourish.
We also know now, there are ten senators who identify as United Methodists and eight of them voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act: Jeff Sessions, Tom Cotton, Johnny Isakson, David Perdue, Pat Roberts, John Kennedy, Richard Burr, and Rob Portman. (It is worth noting, two United Methodist senators voted against: Elizabeth Warren and Debbie Stabenow.)
Some of our United Methodist siblings voted against our neighbor. Those we are in communion with, who verbally join in our baptismal covenant, yet do the opposite. What are we to do? Our neighbors who are about to lose their healthcare are hurting at the hands of our siblings.
The stories have flooded our news feeds of people who will be directly affected by the repeal of the Affordable Healthcare Act. They grow by the day. You may even have your personal story. As I listen, it’s hard not to lose hope. The ACA was not perfect, it was a first step like the Good Samaritan caring for the man on the side of the road to Jericho. Repealing the ACA is walking by one of God’s beloved children in pain and not doing a damn thing.
Instead of repealing it, we should be addressing it and the systemic issues regarding health care. Why profit comes before people. Why a group of overwhelmingly Christians are ignoring Jesus’ words and actions. A group who knows that the most vulnerable is disproportionately affected by these changes.
I think another part of the parable’s lesson for me is that we also need to call to task the priest and the Levite who walked past the injured man on the road to Jericho. We need to hold those in our communion, who join our baptismal covenant to our Wesleyan heritage of radical love, grace, and justice.
As we move forward into the fight to maintain the ACA, instead of strengthening it, I will leave you with The Social Principles section on Right to Health Care:
Health is a condition of physical, mental, social, and spiritual well-being. John 10:10b says, “I came so that they could have life—indeed, so that they could live life to the fullest.” Stewardship of health is the responsibility of each person to whom health has been entrusted. Creating the personal, environmental, and social conditions in which health can thrive is a joint responsibility—public and private. We encourage individuals to pursue a healthy lifestyle and affirm the importance of preventive health care, health education, environmental and occupational safety, good nutrition, and secure housing in achieving health. Health care is a basic human right.
Providing the care needed to maintain health, prevent disease, and restore health after injury or illness is a responsibility each person owes others and government owes to all, a responsibility government ignores at its peril. In Ezekiel 34:4a, God points out the failures of the leadership of Israel to care for the weak: “You don’t strengthen the weak, heal the sick, bind up the injured, bring back the strays, or seek out the lost.” As a result all suffer. Like police and fire protection, health care is best funded through the government’s ability to tax each person equitably and directly fund the provider entities. Countries facing a public health crisis such as HIV/AIDS must have access to generic medicines and to patented medicines. We affirm the right of men and women to have access to comprehensive reproductive health/family planning information and services that will serve as a means to prevent unplanned pregnancies, reduce abortions, and prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. The right to health care includes care for persons with brain diseases, neurological conditions, or physical disabilities, who must be afforded the same access to health care as all other persons in our communities. It is unjust to construct or perpetuate barriers to physical or mental wholeness or full participation in community.
We believe it is a governmental responsibility to provide all citizens with health care.
We encourage hospitals, physicians, and medical clinics to provide access to primary health care to all people regardless of their health-care coverage or ability to pay for treatment.
Being the Good Samaritan isn’t enough, moving backwards from the Gospel is also not acceptable. As people of faith, we must protect our siblings who are on the precipice of losing their healthcare. All hands are needed on the road to Jericho. It’s time to stand up and act.
Call the United Methodist Senators who are actively trying to repeal the ACA today!
Senator Jeff Sessions: (202) 224-4124
Senator Tom Cotton: (202) 224-2353
Senator Johnny Isakson: (202) 224-3643
Senator David Perdue: (202) 224-3521
Senator Pat Roberts: (202) 224-4774
Senator John Kennedy: (202) 224-4623
Senator Richard Burr: (202) 224-3154
Senator Rob Portman: (202) 224-3353
Irene R. DeMaris, M.Div. is a feminist, lifelong member of The United Methodist Church, and former MFSA intern who advocates for women’s health through a faith-based lens.
A sermon delivered to the First United Methodist Church of Schenectady, NY
December 11, 2016
Rev. Sara E. Baron
It has been said about Mary, “No woman in scripture is more honored, blessed as she was ‘above all women’ (Luke 1:42), and she holds an iconic status shared by no other woman in Christianity. Through the accounts of Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke, Mary is one of the first biblical characters many children encounter. Along with Eve, Mary is integral to shaping how Christians understand the nature of womanhood and motherhood.”1 What is said is true. Mary, along with Eve, has both shaped how women are understood in Christianity AND the inverse: perceptions of Mary (and Eve) are indicators of how Christianity is understanding women. How Mary is seen is a bell-weather for how women are seen. Cary Gibson, the author of the opening quote, also says, “Mary is a container into which we pour ideas of what it means to be a woman. In turn we then draw from her image ideas about our own womanhood.”2
Most commonly, Mary is said to be meek and mild. Usually, it is her subservience that sets her up as the ideal woman. The pedestal of womanhood that Mary most frequently occupies as the ideal woman is the pedestal of the selfless mother, the one who exists simply so her son can exist. She’s faithful, sweet, and biddable. There is, however, one issue with this common perception Mary: it completely ignores the words of Mary found in the Gospel of Luke.
Now, I’m not saying that I really think some literate scribe was following Mary around during her pregnancy to record her insights for posterity. However, I am saying we have a rather long monologue attributed to Mary that defies the way she is most commonly defined. The meek and mild ideal does not match the actual Gospel. The myths around her are more about what Christian women have been told to be than they are about the actual stories about and words of Mary.
Therefore, it seems worth exploring the words attributed to Mary. Whether the words are what Mary said, or something Mary could have said, or simply what it made sense to someone that the Mother of Jesus WOULD have said, they are attributed to her. Since the general perception of Mary is based on 20 centenaries of trying to put women in their place, and I’d prefer to get to know Mary as presented in the Gospel. It may be that we can take a look at Mary-the-ideal-woman and get a different answer about what it means to be an ideal woman.
For starters, these words are not meek, nor mild. In fact, Cary Gibson says Mary, “voiced a defiant and righteous hope in the face of violence and injustice.”3 It is true. These words express a HARDCORE faith and a great ideal for women to seek to live up to. Men too. This is the sort of faith we can all aspire to!
First of all, Mary’s song is deeply rooted in her faith tradition. It echoes Hannah’s song of celebration after Hannah fulfilled her promise and brought her son Samuel to Eli to serve him as a priest. It also echoes with phrases from the Psalms. The version of this song that we have is a work of theological and scriptural brilliance and sophistication. Hannah’s song is powerful, but reflects a less mature faith. Hannah yearns for God to smash the powerful, deride her enemies, and break the mighty. In her mind the powerless are lifted up BY making the powerful small. There is violence in her imagery, even as there is celebration of the goodness of God and of her sense of becoming more significant in the world.
Mary’s song, though, is not vengeful. She also speaks of lifting up the poor and lonely. Like Hannah she speaks about God’s power, but she also adds God’s mercy. Mary speaks of lowering the mighty, but the lowering isn’t violent or dangerous for them: the proud are “scattered in the thoughts of their hearts” which sounds like a way to be more humble; the powerful step down from their thrones (but she doesn’t suggest they’re harmed afterward); the rich are sent away empty – as if they don’t need any more. Hannah had the the formerly “full” “hire themselves out for bread.” Mary is interested in lifting up the lowly and removing their oppression, not in oppressing the oppressors. She is a actually meeker and milder than Hannah, Hannah’s is pretty rough. Mary is simply less violent!
Hannah speaks of her victory, Mary speaks of being treated with God’s favor. While both are grateful for the child they are able to nurture, and while both express incredible gratitude to God and deep theological reflections, they have different energies. The insertion of material from the Psalms into Hannah’s original poem changes it into a more gracious piece. One scholar found that in addition to the source material of Hannah’s poem, the song of Mary includes 7 pieces of different Psalms, as well as a quote each from Deuteronomy, Job, Micah, and Isaiah. By that scholar’s reckoning all of the words of Mary’s song are attributable to Hebrew Bible quotations.4
Mary’s song starts in the specific. She is grateful to be useful to God, humbly aware of her status as a poor woman in her society, and attentive to the change of her status because of God’s favor. She attributes her life change to God’s greatness, and she praises God. She expresses who God is: merciful, consistent, strong, and powerful. She talks about a God who cares about the lowly, and feeds the hungry with GOOD food. Her song makes another journey outward, celebrating God’s care for all of the Jews and then attributing God’s care to God’s merciful nature and God’s promises. She moves from celebrating God’s work for her, to celebrating God’s work for the vulnerable, to celebrating God’s work for all her people. It is as if she is expanding her gratitude in increasingly wide circles.
While it is unlikely to be factual, this text suggests that Mary knew her scriptures well enough to combine them creatively into a truly beautiful and majestic song celebrating God WITHOUT demeaning anyone else. It suggests that her humility was real, but it wasn’t a form of self-deprecation. It says she was genuinely honored to be able to serve God and be useful in forming the world in God’s kindom of shalom. She was delighted and amazed to be chosen. She recognized the depth of the blessing she received, seemingly without thinking that it made her more important than others. She said she was blessed, and was amazed that people would remember her as blessed. That indicates she didn’t think she’d done anything right or worthy, it was God’s choice not her worthiness that mattered. Her gratitude was expansive and celebratory and still focused on lifting up the lowly and attentive to the hungry. She kept her head!
The Mary of this song is wise, strong, compassionate, creative, humble, and grateful. She knows and celebrates a God who is a fierce advocate of justice. John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, in their book “The First Christmas” point out that each of the Gospels start with a “Gospel in miniature” (with the possible exception of Mark which starts at a gallop and just keeps going!). Luke 1 and 2, which likely do NOT represent authentic memories of things that really happened, DO represent themes of the Gospel, understanding of Jesus, foreshadowing of things to come, and ways to see how God is known in the Gospel. Luke pays particular attention to women – as we can see here where Mary gets a prolonged monologue – as well as to the poor and vulnerable. We can also see that here in the words Mary speaks. The writer of Luke, and/or the Christian tradition, and/or the editors who came later attribute these words to Mary largely to help those of us who came later to understand her son.
Now, I don’t want anyone to think that I’m disparaging Hannah’s song. Her song is FIERCE and profound, and reflects an era one whole millennia before Mary’s. Hannah, as well, sought justice. She sought it for herself and she sought it for all of God’s people. She understood God to be one who cares about the poor, the hungry, the feeble, the barren, the low, and the needy. That is a reflection of the unique tradition of Judaism, from a pretty early time. Other ancient peoples believed in god and goddesses. The Israelites were unique, however, in believing in a God who cared about how they treated each other, and in a God who cared about the people who had the least power and influence. There is a constant tension in the Bible between this belief – in a God who cares for the poor and lowly – and the human tendency to prefer the rich and powerful. Hannah reflects the God who cares for the poor and lowly without being pulled toward the rich and powerful at all. Then Mary manages to take it a step further and acknowledge a God who cares for everyone. They sought justice, and believed in a God who wanted justice. This is our radical tradition. This is the wonder of worshiping a God of compassion.
Those sons of those women took their justice-seeking natures and their understandings of the God of Compassion, and changed the world. We mostly know about the mothers because of the sons. Samuel anointed kings. Jesus healed the sick, fed the hungry, ate with sinners, and told parables that still confound us today. Both sons changed the world. Both mothers are presented as sources of wisdom for their sons. Their stories are preludes to their sons stories, and yet I am so grateful that the Bible gives them voices and songs and stories! They are not ONLY vessels through which their sons come to be, they are interesting in their own right.
I do wish for all of us to be able to be a bit like these justice seeking mothers. And if we are going to hold up Mary as the ideal, then I hope it takes the form of being moved to sing our gratitude to God and celebrating the wonder of God’s good work in the world. I hope we can become so steeped in our faith tradition that we can use it in creative ways that bring more caring, compassion, and justice to our tradition. I hope that we can see and name the goodness of our lives without taking ourselves too seriously. And I do hope that when push comes to shove we are more like Mary than like Hannah, and that we can hope for the transformation of oppressors – not the oppression of them. I hope we too can always remember the people of God who are struggling the most, and find ways to help lift them up. I hope we can be part of our tradition that remembers God as a God of compassion for the least, the last, the lost and the lonely.
If Mary is the ideal, and she seems to be well set up to be the ideal, then let’s seek to be like her: fierce, grateful, and brilliant. Amen.
Dear Justice Seekers,
For 109 years, MFSA has been a prophetic voice for justice-seeking people of faith in The United Methodist Church, in our nation and the world. We will continue to be that voice. We are a voice for peace with justice in Israel and Palestine. We are a voice working against racism and white privilege. We are a voice for reproductive health and justice. We are a voice for a healthy planet. We are a voice against colonialism, militarism, and misuse of power. We are a voice of inclusion for all God’s children, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. We are a voice that welcomes our migrant neighbor. But most importantly, we are a voice at the crossroads where these concerns for justice intersect.
We believe the recent decisions made by President-elect Trump with respect to leadership in his administration speak against the very foundation of our justice seeking faith. We are alarmed. We believe these individuals have not shown the necessary skills for leadership and whose past words and actions have not represented the values of civilized society. As justice-seeking people of faith, we stand opposed to not only one individual, but the emerging pattern that President-elect Trump is building a cabinet founded on white supremacy, fear, and bigotry.
MFSA calls our church to expand its understanding of the radical call of the Gospel to be an inclusive, justice-seeking, risk-taking Body of Christ. We live out our belief that to be faithful witnesses to the Gospel of Jesus Christ is to be involved in the transformation of the social order. Therefore, we call The United Methodist Church, the Council of Bishops, congregations, and its members to join us in taking active steps to publicly “resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.”
Experiences of injustice do not happen in a vacuum, and therefore it is imperative to: develop the most effective strategies to create space for understanding privilege; organize in an intersectional framework led by marginalized communities; and build effective systems of resistance and cooperation to take action for justice. We invite you to join us in this work.
We invite United Methodist leadership including our bishops, clergy, and lay leaders to join us in signing the “Faith Leaders Call on Republican officials to reject Mr. Trump’s Cabinet of Bigotry” letter distributed by Faith in Public Life. You can find the link here: https://goo.gl/J9zXSx
We call on all Justice-Seeking People of Faith to join us by:
- Contacting your legislators to express as a justice seeking person of faith your concern that the leadership of our nation must reflect justice for all people.
- Speaking and working against the narrative that privileged communities are being oppressed when they are asked to acknowledge the ways their privilege perpetuates bias and injustice.
- Committing to create opportunities for education and advocacy to publicly and actively resist white supremacy, white privilege, and implicit bias in your communities.
Seeking Justice Together,
The Staff and Board of Directors, Methodist Federation for Social Action
November 15, 2016
- Create Sanctuary churches
- Invest time, money, and other resources to support the work of the General Commission on Religion and Race in your annual conference, local church and communities at large.
- Speak and work against the narrative that privileged communities are being oppressed when they are asked to acknowledge the ways their privilege perpetuates bias and injustice.
- Prioritize and center the voices and experiences of marginalized communities in any conflict
- Increase funding and institutional support for racial/ethnic ministries and new church starts.
Experiences of injustice do not happen in a vacuum, and therefore it is imperative to: develop the most effective strategies to create space for understanding privilege; organize in an intersectional framework led by marginalized communities; and build effective systems of resistance and cooperation to take action for justice. We invite you to join us in this work.
The Staff and Board of Directors
Methodist Federation for Social Action
What’s at stake in this election?
Deaconess Darlene DiDomineck
Interim Executive Director
Families. Families are at stake in this election. Families that look like my quirky, non-traditional, Jewish-Christian interfaith family and families that look quite a bit different than we do.
Families with a member living with a serious medical diagnosis that depend on the elimination of the pre-existing diagnosis clause in the Affordable Care Act to ensure the continuation of life sustaining health care coverage.
Muslim and interfaith families who fear for their safety with a rise in Islamphobia in this nation.
Working class families who fear for the loss of jobs that pay a fair and living wage with benefits that protect their futures. Families struggling to make ends meet even when working full time.
Families that fear the loss of income when a child is born without access to paid family leave.
Families with Dreamers that fear the loss of the only home they have ever known without access to just immigration reform.
Families that fear for the lives of their black and brown children each and every time they leave the house in the face of police related violence. Families who fear going to church on Sunday morning and bible study on a weeknight for fear gun wielding hate fueled racism will walk through the door.
Families that fear a rise in gun violence and question their children’s safety at school, in movie theaters and at the local shopping mall.
Families that fear the poisoning of their water from lead, oil and fracking.
Families that depend on the legal right to marry the person they love. This legal right protects them, their children and their spouses and extends health care coverage, health proxy and adoption. Families who serve this country with honor and distinction in the armed forces and were extended the same protections of law following the repeal of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy. Transfamilies who fear their safety as there is an increased attack on the lived equality of LGBTQ people by state governments throughout the U.S. These laws create a culture that has contributed to the death of more than 20 transgender people of color this year alone.
Have you asked your local, state and federal candidates what they believe on economic justice, racial justice, climate justice, gender justice, reproductive justice, peace in Israel/Palestine, immigration reform, LGBTQIA justice? If not, you still have time. #mfsavoices #votesmatter #christiansvote
- To pray for those on the commission, especially the LGBTQ persons that have made themselves known and for those who have not, whatever their reasons.
- To pray and be in solidarity with Boards of Ordained Ministry and Annual Conferences that are faithfully pursuing non-conformity with any policies that stand in the way of love.
- To challenge your bishop and church leadership to uphold and continue the commissioning and ordaining of openly LGBTQ clergy, and the support of openly LGBTQ lay leadership.
- To step out in faith and advocate for LGBTQ people in your communities. There is an increased attack on the lived equality of LGBTQ people by state governments throughout the U.S. These laws create a culture that have contributed to the death of more than 20 transgender people of color this year alone.
- To connect and build deeper relationships within your own faith community. The work of reconciliation must begin within ourselves and our own communities first.
We call on the Council of Bishops…
- To live into their prophetic call. It is long past time to claim the sacred worth of LGBTQ people and our families by advocating for our full protection in the communities in which we live.
- To be vulnerable within your own context. For such a time as this, we need you to boldly express your support and pastoral care for LGBTQ people. What you say or don’t say matters. LGBTQ people need you to be our pastors, too.
- To lead the church in our baptismal call to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever form it presents itself – by naming the harm of erasure and exclusion that is done through legislated discrimination woven into the very fabric of our polity.
- To commission, ordain, and appoint openly LGBTQ clergy.
In the words of Mark Miller, “No matter what the church says…” as justice-seeking United Methodists, it is our courage in faithfully living out our gospel commission to love God and our neighbor by seeking sacred change and breaking boundaries that we will find a way forward boldly proclaiming…you are a “child of God.”
The Staff and Board of Directors,
Methodist Federation for Social Action
Common Good, Collective Liberation
A sermon delivered at Arch Street UMC
October 9, 2016
By: Rachel Ternes, Global Mission Fellow US2
Jeremiah 29 1, 4-7 (NRSV)
“29 These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. 4 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
We’ve been hearing for many of the past weeks, scriptures from the book of Jeremiah, a prophet who lived in the time leading up to and during the exile of God’s people from Jerusalem into the unfamiliar wilderness of Babylon. Jeremiah had prophesied that the people would be exiled as a punishment from God for their disobedience. Other supposed prophets had been assuring the people and the king of Judah that God would not let them be overcome by the Babylonians, just as God had protected God’s people so far in the story. Unfortunately for them, Jeremiah was right. This scripture starts the first letter that Jeremiah sends to the people in exile, sharing with them God’s instructions on how they should live purposeful lives, even after having been kicked out of their homes and sent to a strange land.
The instructions are strange. Jeremiah tells the exiles to invest in their new city. To build houses and live in them. To plant gardens and eat what they produce. Basically to settle in, and love the city as if it was their own. God, through Jeremiah, goes as far as to say that the exiles should seek the welfare of the alien city and pray for it to flourish, because the exiles’ welfare will be determined by the welfare of the city.
How strange it must have been to the exiles to be told to pray for and invest in a city that they did not consider home. It wasn’t their home– it represented the people who had uprooted and overturned their lives. The welfare of this new city must have been a very low priority to the exiles. They had no emotional connection to the city, no history there. They did not identify with it in the way they identified with their true home of Jerusalem. And yet, here God is, telling the exiles that their own destiny was bound up in the destiny of this strange, alien city. On one hand, it’s not something that I would be really excited to hear, as one of the exiles. On the other hand, it makes sense because it sounds like something our God would say. Our God is a God of relationships. Our God wove all of creation together in such a way that our decisions and the way we live our lives have impacts that reach far out into the rest of creation. Our existence was formed in such a way that the flourishing of a seemingly separate part of creation contributes to my flourishing. Isn’t that beautiful? Seek the welfare of this city, for in its welfare, you will find your welfare.
This concept that God is sharing with the exiles in Babylon, the idea that their welfare is bound together with the welfare of a city that they don’t identify with, is similar to the concept of collective liberation, a philosophy and way of working followed by many activist movements today. To describe collective liberation, I have to first talk about intersectionality, a term coined by the legal scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw. Intersectionality describes the way that all our individual identities and our systemic oppressions are interconnected and complex. That racism and ableism work together. That sexism and homophobia feed off one another. That classism and environmental degradation are intimately connected. Once you know that, and you want to do something about it, collective liberation is the response. When we fight for good jobs and fair wages, we think about how how race and gender impact that fight. We don’t put on blinders and say, this is about labor, not racism! We coordinate with groups that work for racial justice and gender justice. Because we know that our liberation from all the intersecting forms of oppression is going to be a collective liberation, and the work to get there is going to be collective work. As the civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer said, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” The liberation of every part of God's creation hinges on the simultaneous liberation of every other part.
In the scripture, God instructs the people in exile to “build houses and live in them.” I can think of a building project that lives into the idea of collective liberation. I live at Serenity House, our church's ministry in North Philadelphia. The story of this building project started a few years ago, when a group of environmental studies students began working with Serenity House to do environmental projects, like reviving the back yard garden, and installing a solar panel. What was special about their approach was that they recognized that environmental justice work is intersectional, and they made that intersectionality a focus in their work. Because God created everything to be in relationship, when you work for the welfare of the earth and the green things on it, the humans automatically benefit. These students and the community members they worked with made that concept a part of their model. When a solar panel was donated to the group, it became an opportunity for new learning and empowerment for the Serenity House men’s group, through a series of lessons about solar energy and how solar panels work. That grew into a project that you may have heard about: Serenity Soular, spelled SOULAR, has gone through the process of raising money, connecting with a local North Philadelphia solar installation company, recruiting and training two young people from the neighborhood, and involving them in the solarization of Serenity House. God calls us to invest in our communities by building houses and living in them. This house that’s being solarized is already built, but we’re adding onto it, building the infrastructure, making it more liveable. The Serenity Soular project seeks the liberation of God’s natural creation by reducing energy consumption and emissions, but it doesn’t stop there. It seeks the liberation of the people of North Philadelphia from racism-impacted poverty and disinvestment, by believing in and investing in its young people and helping them develop the skills and tools to flourish in their own lives. The first two young people who were recruited have since been hired by the local solar company, and Serenity Soular is preparing to engage two more apprentices to be involved in solarizing a church down the street. This project seeks not just the environmental welfare of the earth, not just the economic welfare of the people, but the collective liberation of humanity and all the rest of creation. As Jeremiah would say, it seeks the welfare of the entire city.
In the scripture, God instructs the people in exile to “plant gardens and eat what they produce.” Guess what? The Serenity House neighborhood is following this instruction too! The collective liberation seed that those students planted branched off into another project that I’ve been very involved in. There is a vacant lot around the corner from Serenity House that for years had been good for nothing but dumping trash and being a dangerous eyesore. Before I started serving here a year ago, some neighbors and community members decided that something needed to be done about that lot. They started dreaming of a space where North Philly neighbors could grow and harvest fresh fruits and vegetables, where children could play and learn and feel safe, where elders could sit and relax, and where everyone could cultivate community and a sense of neighborhood pride and self-sufficiency. A year later, we now have The People’s Garden, a beautiful space around which a diverse, intergenerational community has formed. As people came together to plant the seeds of sunflowers, tomatoes, collard greens, carrots, they were also planting the seeds of new friendships. The children, who are some of the most dedicated gardeners in the neighborhood, helped the fruits of the earth grow, and in return they had the experience, very unique and special for urban kids growing up in a food desert, of knowing where some of their food came from, and feeling the empowerment of helping to create a plate full of carrots and tomatoes from some tiny seeds. “Plant gardens and eat what they produce.” I think the prophet knew that when a community comes together to plant a garden, they can’t help but begin to think intersectionally. My neighbors know that by investing in the flourishing and welfare of the People’s Garden, they are investing in their own flourishing.
The world we live in today can sometimes feel like hopeless Babylonian wilderness. The terrible incidents of racist violence seem like they will never stop, and the white supremacist cultures and structures seem determined to make People of Color live like exiles in their own lands. Women are treated like objects and subject to violence and discrimination, and our culture defends and celebrates the men responsible. Native people with a deep understanding of the connectedness of the welfare of the Earth and the welfare of humanity, are seeing their sacred land ripped out from under them to be turned into a pathway for the dangerous products of dangerous oil extraction processes. Queer and trans people are experiencing physical violence, spiritual violence, psychological and emotional violence, often at the hands of our own Christian church. The greed and shortsightedness of corporations, governments, and organizations (including the United Methodist Church), are prioritizing profits over people, and contributing to global climate change, and the results include increasingly severe natural disasters that have the most impact on the the world’s poor people, and People of Color. Almost 900 people have been killed in Haiti by Hurricane Matthew in the past few days. [Edit: as of 10/11/16, the death toll is 1000 and counting.] The same greed and shortsightedness are fueling war and destruction all over the world. Is this what wilderness looks like? Is this what exile feels like?
Some other prophets around at the same time as Jeremiah were prophesying a victory for Judah, saying that Babylon would be defeated. They were wrong, and Jeremiah called them out as false prophets. We would like to believe that some prophet, or politician, or church leader will appear and solve all these problems, end all this oppression, but that’s not going to happen. God says that it’s up to us to work together like neighbors facing a hostile world, to think not only of ourselves and the issues that affect us clearly and directly, but to seek the welfare of the entire city. The collective liberation.
Serenity Soular and the People’s Garden make it look easy. But it’s not always easy. Just like the exiles probably didn’t like being told to invest in a city they didn’t identify with, to be honest sometimes I don’t like being told to invest in an issue that doesn’t seem to impact me. We fail sometimes. An example: I recently read an article on how the new policy platform of the Movement For Black lives, (a movement that for the most part can teach all of us a lot about collective liberation, with their understanding of the way racism is in cahoots with capitalism and sexism and homophobia and transphobia), how their platform is lacking in disability solidarity. This is a huge oversight, as the majority of people who have been murdered by police in the US were disabled or deaf. The struggle for liberation from white supremacy must happen hand-in-hand with the struggle for the welfare of people with disabilities. Even the Movement for Black Lives will have to stretch in that regard.
There is another example of a failure to seek the welfare of the entire city, going on here in Philadelphia. Later today, many of us will be walking over to the Gayborhood for Outfest, a block party in celebration of National Coming Out Day. While we are dancing and celebrating, we cannot ignore the stain of racism that exists in the Gayborhood, and that had been getting more attention in recent days and months. Last week, a video surfaced of the owner of a popular Gayborhood bar addressing customers of color with racial slurs. It has sparked a lot of anger, for good reason, but many queer people of color have said that they are not surprised. That racism is the standard in many parts of the Gayborhood, and that for decades certain clubs and bars have enforced dress codes that are meant to subtly exclude Black people. This stain is made so much uglier by the fact that it’s white LGBTQ people, who know what discrimination feels like, who are guilty. Maybe they somehow don’t know that queer justice is bound up together with racial justice. But now we know. We know that, if we are to seek the welfare of the entire city, we cannot accept racism anywhere.
It can be a difficult mental shift, to live into collective liberation. Our culture teaches us to be obsessed with getting ahead, with being a winner instead of a loser. It teaches us to care only about the issues that we think directly impact each of us, and even to compete with other causes, other movements. But God teaches us that we are all one body, and if we don’t work together, across lines of identity, for God’s justice, we are shooting ourselves in the foot.
There is a lot of violence and injustice out there. The wilderness can seem overwhelming. But we do not need to lose hope. God is with us. God has provided a way for us to overcome the oppression, and God has even given instructions. “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” Working in solidarity with groups we don’t identify with can be difficult, but what’s even more difficult is trying to change the world alone. We can’t do it alone. But victory over racism and sexism and homophobia and environmental degradation seem so much more possible when I know that it’s really all one struggle, and we are all working together. In your welfare, I will find my welfare, and our liberation will be collective.
Rachel is a young adult missionary serving through the United Methodist Church's Global Mission Fellow US2 program. She serves at Arch Street UMC in Philadelphia, PA, and at Serenity House, where she also lives. She is halfway through a two-year term in the program. Rachel served as one of the Love Your Neighbor Coalition scholarship recipients monitoring legislation during General Conference 2016. Check out her blog.