My John Lewis


Though I use the word “my,” this is not about me but about the extraordinary human being John Lewis was.

When I first went to the National Book Festival in Washington, DC, I was more than excited to see that Mr. Lewis would be one of the featured authors because March #1 came out that year.

My sister had been going for years when the Festival was held on the Mall. This was the first year it would be held in the Walter Washington Conference Center.

I posted on Facebook that I was determined to meet Mr. Lewis. Sally, my sister, laughed and said, “Do you know how many people there will be at this event? There’s no chance you’ll meet him.”

I didn’t exactly stalk him, but I made sure I would be scoping out the area around the ballroom where he would be speaking at least a half-hour before hand.

As I trotted up the final staircase, I just happened to look to my right and there was Mr. Lewis surrounded by young people from his district!

I joined them, trying to fit in despite my having at least 40 years on any of them and, in most cases, being much shorter than anyone else – except Mr. Lewis.

I finally made my move and threw my cellphone to one of the young people and asked them to take a picture of me and Mr. Lewis. By then I had no idea what to say to him, until I blurted out, “Mr. Lewis, I thank God for the day you were born!”

With a sort of sigh, he threw his arms around me and hugged me in the most beautiful embrace. I would say I had been touched by an angel, but in fact, according to Time Magazine, I was being hugged by a saint.

The magazine called Mr. Lewis a living saint in the 1960s. It was not a casual comment in an article, but a carefully thought-out homage to a very young man in his 20s. Can you imagine having to live up to that? And yet he did.

Recently, on my once-a-week return from the grocery store, I noticed a billboard with giant figures of meerkats. It was an advertisement for a pest control company. My very first reaction was to say aloud to myself, “They’re not the pests; we are.” How much destruction and violence and horror have we humans brought to this beautiful creation that the Bible says we are stewards of? Genocide, “ethnic cleansing,” hate crimes, out-of-control wars and human-caused famines, babies in cages, the crimes of humankind are so many.

And yet. And yet, there is John Lewis. There is Elijah Cummings. There is CT Vivian and MLK Jr. and Eleanor Roosevelt and Ida B. Wells and Fannie Lou Hamer and Oskar Schindler and Elie Wiesel and Abraham Heschel and Howard Thurman and more who spent their lives, and risked their lives, to show us that yes, there are better angels of our natures out there.

I heard historian Jon Meacham, who wrote a biography of Mr. Lewis, say twice over the weekend that, though he could not agree with him, Mr. Lewis truly believed that God’s kingdom could come on earth as it is in heaven. Since Jesus told us this was so, many Christians still don’t believe it. It’s only in recent years that I began to understand the profundity of what Jesus said and to believe it with my whole heart.

Mr. Lewis’s extraordinary life was a living out of the desire to bring the Kingdom of God to earth. As people contemplate who will carry the torch farther, I say it is up to each and every one of us to fight the good fight every day to bring God’s commonwealth of peace and freedom to our fragile island home, this blue marble that spins around the sun.

To repeat Mr. Lewis’s words, “If not now, when?”

Breath of Life or Death?


Three years ago, I preached on Pentecost Sunday at my church.

In the week preceding that Sunday, a terrorist attack in London wounded or killed some 35 people; at least 90 women and children died in a terrorist attack in Kabul and several more killed at a funeral; two men were stabbed to death by a white supremacist in Oregon for defending young Muslim women, and African-American college student Richard Collins III was fatally stabbed by a white supremacist on his college campus.

And once again, in the week before Pentecost, George Floyd’s breath was quite literally taken from him in a brazen murder committed by police.

Many commentators have noted the tragic relationship between those who are dying of COVID-19 who cannot breathe and Mr. Floyd’s death by asphyxiation. The vast majority of the nearly 110,000 citizens who have died would not have died if not for the criminally inept non-action of the so-called president. Mr. Floyd need not have died either, but for the criminally inept policing of the Minneapolis police.

For many priests and pastors, the other tragic irony is that Pentecost is a celebration of the giving of holy breath to the disciples, which turned them into apostles.

And even more ironic, tongues of flame appeared above their heads in the room in which they had been hiding. This emboldened Peter to address the crowd who had come to Jerusalem to celebrate Shavuot, and as he did, everyone in the crowd, no matter what language they spoke, could HEAR and UNDERSTAND each other.

In the Greek, the Holy Spirit is called “pneuma,” which literally means breath. It came in the form of a great wind, which rushed through the dwelling, clearing away the disciples’ fear and anxiety about when the advocate that Jesus had promised was going to come.

In our 2020 case, wind created by military helicopters hovering over protestors brought down branches that hit some of them and drowned out their pleas for understanding that black lives matter.

It also deafened the cowardly General Mark Milley, who strutted around Washington, DC, in his fatigues checking on his “soldiers” when, in effect, martial law was imposed on the city this week. Of all people, he should have known best about Posse Comitatis Law, which forbids the US Army and Air Force from acts of war on US soil.

And here is yet another tragic irony in this most devastating week. The Law of Posse Comitatis was signed by President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1878, supposedly at the “end of Reconstruction.” In fact, Reconstruction was nipped in the bud because the law gave an easy out to secessionist states from having to be held accountable for slavery and the post-Civil War uprising of vigilante groups not just limited to the Ku Klux Klan. President US Grant had allowed a military presence in the South and had virtually destroyed the Klan and its ilk. Hayes was elected as Southerners who had signed the oath of allegiance to the Union were regaining political offices and influence.

So a law that helped to re-create the Ku Klux Klan and other “night riders” and ushered in the Jim Crow era, which still has not ended, is now being breached to quell the descendants of those newly freed people who were in effect re-enslaved when Reconstruction failed.

For Christians, Pentecost symbolizes a holding to account of those in the Jesus Movement to follow  Jesus’s words and actions to usher in the Kingdom of Heaven on earth by raising up the most marginalized and the most vulnerable, binding the wounds of the soul-sick and the physically sick, and living in communion with one another by acknowledging all of us as brothers and sisters.

But on the day after Pentecost, the wannabe dictator in the White House declared war on all of us and then defaced a church by going into, taking a Bible and using it for a photo opportunity.

Not Triage, But Lasting Change Needed


Americans love to think of themselves as charitable people. When disasters strike, news media carries many stories of neighbors helping neighbor and people going out of their way to provide help in times of crisis. It’s beautiful to see, and it brings tears to the eyes.

Yet when fundamental changes that could help make triage unnecessary, or “mutual aid” as it’s now being called, are proposed, society rejects them as unrealistic. Christian churches, even the progressive branches, are often among those who are the first to quote the so-often misinterpreted Scripture, “The poor will always be you.”

It sometimes seems to me that we worship our own good triage deeds more than the Christ who was embodied in Jesus of Nazareth, the God in human form who led a non-violent revolution to bring the Good News that we can bring Heaven to Earth.

We can have permanent, safe housing for everyone in this country at truly affordable rents or mortgages, not just rents and mortgages that are deemed affordable by market standards.

We can have guaranteed educational opportunities for every child that doesn’t just teach to tests or make education an apprenticeship for a future job, but also teaches children how to be members of a just and humane society.

We can have safe elections that ensure that every single person eligible can vote without obstacles thrown up in their path.

We can have universal health care that follows citizens from cradle to grave that includes modalities to take care of the whole body and not just its parts.

We can have clean water and air so that none of us has to worry that toxins in our drinking supplies and being spewed into the air will turn our planet into a poisonous dump, killing the incredible variety of life on it including homo sapiens.

We can have a country that builds instruments of peace rather than instruments of war.

We can have a country that values the lives of every single person on these shores regardless of race, ethnic background, creed, and national origin.

So why aren’t more people working for this?

We talk about these matters every Sunday at 6 PM at Freedom Church of the Poor on the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice’s Facebook page. We look at Scripture that gives us a blueprint for how to do it, from the ancient texts of the Torah and the Prophets to the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. We sing together, we pray together, we mourn together, and yes, we laugh and rejoice together.

We are a community that acts in the best interests of our marginalized brothers and sisters because we know that when they are lifted up, we are all lifted up. Some of us are living in poverty or low wealth and have experienced homelessness, and yet we share our experience, strength and hope to lift others up as well. And we call out those who would keep any of our brothers and sisters down.

For many, many years the director of the Kairos Center, the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, has lived with, organized with, inspired and ultimately helped change the narrative for marginalized people. She and the priests, pastors, rabbis, and imams associated with the Kairos Center are forming communities much like those formed by Moses and the apostles to share and to show other people how to model God’s dream for us. She is also co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, a National Call to Moral Revival.

The Divine doesn’t do triage. The Divine abides within us to guide us to permanent change in how we view ourselves and our brethren on Earth.

I’ve spent much of my life not wanting to be part of any group that would have me for a member. But I am proud, and also humbled, to be accepted into the community of the Freedom Church of the Poor and, by extension, the Poor People’s Campaign, A National Call to Moral Revival. I know I am right where I belong.

Maybe this is where you belong as well! Get a taste of Freedom Church of the Poor here: May 17, 2020

Kairos Center for Religions, RIghts and Social Justice

I Will Not Pray for Evil

  1. Cynical use of Black people for political ends
  2. Sympathy for White Supremacists
  3. More lies in SOTU than can be counted
  4. Vindictive (and illegal) retaliation against people who testified in impeachment hearings
  5. Arrangement with DOJ to open investigation on Bidens.
  6. Arrangement with DOJ to have top prosecutor removed from Michael Flynn case and replace with hand-picked person who asked for indefinite delay of sentencing
  7. Proposed budget that continues to cut safety nets and increase even further the DOD budget.
  8. Plans to deport thousands of Hmong people from Wisconsin who settled here under a program that acknowledged that they cannot safely live in Laos.

These eight actions occurred between last Tuesday and today. I have not yet dared to look at today’s news.

We officially have a regime now, not an administration, which means we do not have a democracy.

We can no longer ensure that by November 3, elections will even exist in this country as we know them. We cannot have any faith that in January of 2021 the dictator in the White House will leave it, even if someone else is freely elected.

Watch out for people disappearing, because that is the next step in a dictatorship.

Nancy Pelosi, you are a better woman than I am.

I cannot, I will not, and I choose not to pray for the evil person who is at the heart of this.

I would not have prayed for Hitler, Stalin, Trujillo, Baby Doc Duvalier, Idi Amin, or any of the other evil dictators who have caused so much suffering on this earth, as I do not pray for Putin or Kim Jong Un or Bashar Al-Assad or Rodrigo Duterte or Mohammed Bin-Salman.

I can only pray for justice and the people who suffer from injustice under such regimes. I can only pray for the lifting up of leaders and the continued work of the prophets among us. I can only pray for an end to corruption and venality.

As much as anything that has scared me in the last week was the chilling speech given at the National Prayer Breakfast, which made a mockery of God and prayer, and the enthusiastic applause by many attendees. Trump Prayer Breakfast Speech

The voice even sounded satanic as it growled out its lies about its enemies. Its enemies are anyone who has any sense of compassion or justice or mercy. That is the voice of a person who believes he is above God. That is the voice of a person who has damned himself and wants to cause others to be damned along with him.

I will not pray for that voice or the person it belongs to or the people who enable it and support it through their own crimes.

I will not pray for Incarnate Evil. If that makes me any less in Jesus’s eyes, so be it. I accept that, but I will not budge.

Poverty Needs to be Considered in Recession Talk


I believe that when Jesus told his disciples, “The poor will always be with us,” he wasn’t giving a mandate, but was prophesying.

He knew that if they couldn’t understand what he had told them about his impending death, they would not have heard his constant exhortations to feed his sheep, to clothe the poor, to take care of the widows and orphans, to visit the imprisoned.

If they couldn’t spare the time to sit at his feet for the short time he had left on earth and learn from Him up until the moment of his death, how would they (read “we”) ever be able to do the more difficult things he bade them to do?

It is driving me crazy to hear talking heads prattle on about their opinion that we’re due for a recession. When they say, “That’s the way it flows,” they really mean that that is the way the stock market flows.

They don’t, however, mention that in times of either depressions or recessions, the poor are always hardest hit.

Not because they’re lazy. Not because they’re shiftless. Not because they’re stupid. Only because they live in a world whose well-being is dictated by an artificial construct called the stock market.

I’m not an economist, and I’ve never invested a cent. I think I might correctly say, however, that the stock market construct was invented by wealthy people in order to make money off of their wealth and allow them to become even wealthier. In many cases, that wealth was either unearned or created by enslaving people to do the actual work for them and by exploiting others who were paid very little to break their backs working for the wealthy.

One way or another, it is those living in poverty or low wealth who will find it even harder to pay for the very necessities of life than anyone else. So why are they not mentioned in discussions about a recession?

The talking heads also spout on about the great economy were “enjoying.” Great for whom? Certainly not for the 140 million people who live in poverty and low wealth in this country, let alone the millions more around the world who die of starvation every year. Their tone-deafness is appalling.

Since January 1917, I have noticed that prices in the grocery store have risen continually, sometimes even weekly. I do not have a fancy diet. I eat very little meat. Before 2017, my weekly budget for food, entertainment, and incidentals was about $100 a week.  It didn’t need to be, but I didn’t see any reason for it not to be. Now that I’m retired, entertainment and incidentals have gone by the wayside; food alone could cost more than $100 a week if I weren’t paring back and rationing what I buy.

If that is my situation, I can’t imagine the situations of people living in systemic poverty, and especially families. And yet, they are not mentioned in discussions about the great economy and a possible recession.

Why not? If not now, when? All the systems of our government and our economy are stacked against the poor. Yes, the poor will always be with us if we don’t start giving a damn. Jesus prophesied and greedy humankind turned it into a self-fulfilling prophecy by turning deaf ears and blind eyes to what he really meant.


I’m talking to you, @allinwithchris @chrislhayes @maddow @AriMelber @TheBeatWithAri @Lawrence

Luke 8:26-39 & The Poor People’s Campaign


Last Sunday’s Gospel appears in all three of the Synoptic Gospels, and it always follows the miracle of Jesus calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee. The area where the boat fetched up was part of the Decapolis, a federation of 10 cities inhabited by Gentiles.

One could blame the storm for putting the boat off-course and bringing Jesus and the disciples to a dreary, dark place that is home to a demoniac. Or, one could believe that Jesus knew exactly where they were going because there was something He needed to do there.

Whichever, the group is met by a man given no actual name other than a demoniac, a person inhabited by demons. Since as recently as the 19th century, many illnesses were blamed on some form of possession, we might assume that the man was schizophrenic, had bi-polar disease, or suffered from any of a number of neurobiological diseases that made him a pariah in his country.

In each version, though, the man recognizes Jesus as someone who has authority over him. He begs Jesus to send the demons into the herd of swine in a nearby field. Jesus does, and the swine rush down like lemmings into the sea and drown.

The man, now restored to sanity, asks Jesus to let him follow him. But Jesus tells the man to go back to the towns and tell everyone what God has done for him.

Now, I want you to imagine what the disciples might have been thinking and feeling through all this. They’ve just come off a boat that was rolled about by a storm-tossed sea while their leader slept. They were sure they were all going to die. After interrupting Jesus’s rest, he calmed the sea before their eyes.

Then he brings them to a dark, barren cemetery where a madman runs around breaking stones on his head among the tombs. Why would Jesus bring them to such a dark place? They had somewhat of a triumph at the Sermon on the Mount; then they almost perish in the sea, and then they find themselves at risk of being attacked by demons.

The man isn’t Jewish, so why care about him? Moreover, there’s a herd of swine waiting in the wings, and swine are anathema to the Jews. Would they have felt any more comfortable wandering around Gentile cities evangelizing to people who they sometimes felt were enemies?

I’ve heard one or the other of these versions of this Gospel probably hundreds of times, and only came away happy for the man and sad for the pigs. I don’t know what blocked my understanding, but it is only after studying this Scripture, and reflecting on the patterns in my own life, that I see in a new way the patterns Jesus used to teach us that He always goes to the dark places to find us and to heal us and to send us out to others in dark places to witness and to help.

Following Jesus does involve going to dark places; there’s just no avoiding that. But the miracle for us is finding that there is light even in dark places, and sometimes, we are the light.

Last September, I spent two weeks in a fairly prosperous small city in Georgia. I had booked a suite at an extended-stay hotel. The pictures were beautiful and the price was reasonable. I couldn’t wait to get there. When I did, I found myself in a rather dirty, small, dark room containing chipped furniture, a stove that didn’t work, and a plague of neon green grasshoppers that allowed me to share their space.

I quickly learned that the “extended-stay” description really meant a housing project for homeless people. This little community was made up of mostly women with young children, many of whom had been forced out of public housing by the city, which had sold the buildings they’d lived in to developers who were creating fancy new condos to attract the affluent.

I didn’t know this when I arrived, hot and tired, at 7 o’clock at night. My first introduction was when two young boys playing in the parking lot offered to help me unload my car. My second introduction was when their mothers and other women came to check out the newbie, assuming I was homeless too.

Over the course of two weeks I became embraced by this community, consulted and accepted. Each woman eventually confided her story to me. Though I feared scornful responses, I offered to pray with them, and you might have thought I had offered to pay their rent.

Fast forward to the past week of my life, when I attended the Poor People’s Campaign’s Moral Congress in Washington, DC, led by the Rev. Dr. William Barber and the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis.

I became aware of Dr. Barber of North Carolina about five years ago when, as the head of the NAACP in that state, he started the Moral Monday rallies in Raleigh. In the time since, I read his memoir, learned about the bone disease that attacked him as a young pastor and father, and began to subscribe to his newsletter. I heard him preach for the first time last year, when he was one of the many speakers at the day-long event in Memphis commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

Dr. Theoharis is the director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary. In 2017, she and Dr. Barber rebooted the Poor People’s Campaign, which King had created shortly before his murder.

Dr. Barber had been told that he’d never walk again. He walks, though it appears with great pain. He cannot move his head left or right, but has to move his whole body. This condition gives an added authority and power to what he has to say, because you know he has been in dark places and that Jesus came to find him.

For the past two years, he and Dr. Theoharis have traveled to some of the darkest places in the country and listened to the poor and documented their stories and allowed themselves to be arrested in direct action campaigns. Out of their travels came “The Souls of Poor Folks,” an evidence-based document that refutes the myth that poor people are to blame for their situations.

When I received an e-mail in April announcing the Poor People’s Moral Congress that would take place in June in Washington, DC, I knew I had to be there.

Dr. Barber stresses that the Poor People’s Campaign is not an organization, but a moral fusion of coalitions that deal with several intersecting problems in this country that lead to poverty: systemic racism; poor housing, health care, and education; ecological devastation, and the war economy.

For three days, I listened and discussed the fact that it is governments, through immoral policies and budgets, that is responsible for poverty and what we the people can do to demand that our country heed the cries of its people.

According to our own Founding Fathers’ documents, the role of government is to help its citizens secure “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Yet almost from the beginning, politicians of all parties have catered to the wealthy and preached the myth of scarcity, hoping we would believe that there is not enough money to help our citizens in this, a land of abundance and riches.

Here are statistics from the “Souls of Poor Folks”:

  1. 140 million people live in poverty or low wealth, meaning they are one emergency away from poverty.
  2. 74 million of these people are women; 65 million are men; 39 million are children; 21 million are over the age of 65.
  3. 1 million are indigenous people; 8 million are Asian; 26 million are African-Americans; 38 million are Latinx; 66 million are white.

They constitute 43.5% of the entire US population, so nearly half of the population of these united states live in poverty or low wealth. Can we really believe that almost half of the citizens of this country have made themselves poor?

“Any nation that ignores almost half of its population is morally indefensible,” said Dr. Barber. A budget is a moral document, reflecting the values of the budget maker. In the US budget, every year, 53 cents of every discretionary dollar goes to the Department of Defense. Most of that DoD money goes to trans-national corporations that keep the war machine going. So little of it goes to the troops whose are on the ground that there are many veterans’ families who need to apply for food stamps and Medicaid. Is this for real? Is this the country we want to live in?

I spent four days this week talking to, listening to, and interviewing those among the 1,000 people who came from 40 states, including Hawaii, to attend the Poor People’s Campaign. We were black, we were brown, we were white, we were indigenous, we were Latinx, both documented and undocumented; we were Christian, we were Muslim, we were Jewish, we were agnostics; we were gay, we were transgender, we were straight; we were infants, we were toddlers, we were teens, we were middle-aged, we were seniors; we used skateboards and bicycles, canes and zimmer frames and wheelchairs. We were homeless or formerly homeless, we were union organizers, we were activists, we were faith leaders.

In other words, we were a perfect microcosm of this country. We sang together, we ate together, we played together, we laughed together, and we wept together. We watched four of our number testify to the House Budget Subcommittee on their experiences, a meeting to which the House Speaker made a special and rare appearance. I heard good questions and responses from some of the representatives; I also heard appalling statements from white men that they knew all about poverty but they had pulled themselves up by the bootstraps. One man practically bragged that his district includes one of the poorest cities in the nation, Johnstown, PA. And we all were asking ourselves, But what are you doing about it? What if our government’s priorities deny people the bootstraps by which to pull themselves up?

We met with nine Presidential candidates to ask whether they would pledge to ask that just one of the primary debates be dedicated to talking about poverty.

One of the most humbling and inspiring things about my week was that the many women I spoke to, all of whom had been homeless, now devote their lives to helping other homeless people. They talk about what they do now with great joy and vigor.

I would have loved to follow Dr. Barber and Dr. Theoharis. But God told me She had other plans for me and bid me come home and share my experience, just as Jesus told the “demoniac” in the cemetery to do.

When Jesus asked the unfortunate man what his name was, he said, Legion. A legion was a Roman military unit, numbering between 4,000 and 6,000 men, and representing Caesar. I would like to suggest that casting the Legion into the herd of swine was prophetic and metaphorical, Jesus’s way of saying that Caesar’s power was crumbling now that He was bringing the world a new vision of God’s commonwealth, God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

So the question is, do we follow Jesus or do we follow Caesar? Was Jesus speaking to the crowd or to Caesar when He said, “When you saw me hungry, did you feed me? When you saw me naked, did you clothe me? When you saw me in prison, did you visit me?”

Since I just experienced sharing with a thousand of my fellow human beings, sharing information, sharing concern, being hugged for no other reason than that I was there, holding hands, breaking bread, praying over and being prayed for, I have to believe that Jesus was talking about Caesar.

My Neighbor IS Myself


Mark 12:30-31 

30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’[a] 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] There is no commandment greater than these.”

Over the course of my 66 years, I’ve heard people say that they can’t love anyone else because they don’t love themselves.

While I’ve no doubt that many of them had serious attachment disorders, I’m equally convinced that many people are using it as an excuse not to love, or even recognize, their neighbor.

I think there is a fundamental misinterpretation of what Jesus was saying.

I’m not claiming that Jesus told me directly, but I do believe that God is still speaking and that God speaks to me in many ways. Here is the way in which this commandment is revealed to me:

Love your neighbor because you and your neighbor ARE one. Do for your neighbor what you would do for yourself because you and your neighbor ARE one. Give to your neighbor what you would give to yourself because you and your neighbor ARE one.

I was pretty much born believing this. I don’t know where the belief originated in me, but I can’t remember a time when I didn’t believe this, even through a lot of rocky years of having a very fraught relationship with God. Fundamentally, everyone on this Earth is my neighbor and part of me.

Would I make war on myself?

Would I refuse to feed myself?

Would I not avail myself of medical care?

Do I not try to live with dignity?

Do I not want to live out my spiritual beliefs without hindrance?

Do I not want to have a voice in my community?

If my answers are no, then how could I possibly think that other people deserve to be victims of war, of famine, of lack of medical care, of religious persecution, of silencing?

In agreement with John Donne that “no man is an island, entire of itself,” part of me is diminished every day when I learn of a new, horrific result of the polices that are governing this country and this world.

It is inconceivable to me that the director of Homeland Security can sit stony-faced before Congress and the world and blame parents for the death of their children while in Border Patrol custody.

It beggars belief that a person of wealth can shut down the government and put federal workers on furlough, meaning they will never be repaid for the time the government was shut down.

I can’t conceive of a mindset that allows millions of children to die with the gift of US weapons to a murderous regime.

I thought I had been suffering outrage the past two years; it is not outrage, though, it is grief, pure and simple. Grief that sometimes stuns me into a state of numbness. How do I help my neighbor and therefore help myself? At this time in my life, all I feel capable of is writing about it and speaking out about it, and showing kindness to the neighbors I see in person every day, whether I know them or not.

I’m not sure that is enough. God help us all.

Benjamin Lay: Abolition’s Prophet


When I hear people try to excuse historical acts of racism by saying, “That’s how people were then,” I get apoplectic. I think of people who throughout history have clearly demonstrated they knew right from wrong, no matter what the prevailing society was like.

Now I have another weapon in my arsenal: Benjamin Lay (1682-1759) of Abington Township, PA.

Thanks to Marcus Rediker, the general public can know more about this fierce warrior for emancipation through his book, The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became First Revolutionary Abolitionist.

In 1738, Benjamin Lay walked 20 miles to attend the annual Quaker’s Philadelphia meeting, according to Mr. Rediker. Keep in mind that it wasn’t until 1758 that the Quakers outlawed slave-holding among the brethren. Lay carried with him a hollowed-out book containing an animal bladder filled with red pokeberry juice. When it came his turn to speak,

“Throwing the overcoat aside, he spoke his prophecy: ‘Thus shall God shed the blood of those persons who enslave their fellow creatures.’ He raised the book above his head and plunged the sword through it. . . .He then splattered (the red juice) on the heads and bodies of the slave keepers.”

He was expelled from the meeting.

Lay was not a single-issue prophet, though. It wasn’t just his views on emancipation that caused people to disparage him. He truly believed and tried to bring forth a Utopia where everyone was equal and would live simply by growing their own food and making their own clothes and respecting nature. He himself lived in a cave, subsisting only on fruits and vegetables because of his belief in animal rights, and he refused to use anything that existed because of slave labor.

Mr. Rediker posits that Lay isn’t well known today because was not a “gentleman saint” like William Wilberforce, who led the British abolition movement. Lay was “wild and confrontational, militant and uncompromising.” Sounds like a great many prophets.

Being a little person as well as having a hunched back made people think he was “deformed in both body and mind.” It could be that his own “otherness” contributed to his strong feelings about slavery, but it is obvious that his main inspiration is from his understanding of Scripture and what was revealed to him.

According to Joe Lockard of the Antislavery Literature Project at Arizona State University, Lay also was known to perform what might be considered “guerilla” street theater to try to get people to confront the evil of slavery. He even kidnapped a fellow Quaker’s son to show the pain that enslaved families endured when slave-holders broke those families up.

The one book that Lay wrote, which was published by Benjamin Franklin, is available online at: The book is titled All Slave-Keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates. It looks as if it will take some effort to read, but may be well worth the fortitude to understand Benjamin Lay’s devotion to the cause.

Lay must have felt well vindicated when the Society of Friends in Philadelphia did decide to discipline and/or turn slave-holders out of the community. He died a year later.

Mr. Rediker’s book is available in audible form as well as hard-cover and paperback. He is Distinguished Professor of Atlantic History at the University of Pittsburgh and Senior Research Fellow at the Collège d’études mondiales in Paris. He is the author of numerous prize-winning books, including The Many-Headed Hydra (with Peter Linebaugh), The Slave Ship, and The Amistad Rebellion. He produced the award-winning documentary film “Ghosts of Amistad” (Tony Buba, director), about the popular memory of the Amistad rebellion of 1839 in contemporary Sierra Leone.

An essay from his book appeared in The New York Times last year and the last paragraph is relevant to our times:

“In his time Lay may have been the most radical person on the planet. He helps us to understand what was politically and morally possible in the first half of the 18th century – and what may be possible now. It is more than we think.”

Why I Love Howard Thurman


I’ve written about my favorite theologian before in this space, but I have to do so again.


Because no matter whether I’ve heard or read Howard Thurman’s wisdom before, it zaps me in new and different ways upon second or third or even fourth reading. He touches my heart and my soul to a depth where I just thank God for this beloved servant.

Pretty good for someone who died more than 30 years ago! I can’t imagine what it must have been like to have known him or sat in his congregation or been taught by him.

Even the way I was introduced to Howard Thurman has the divine written all over it. I was sitting in centering prayer when suddenly the faces of several older African-American women and men appeared in my vision. The faces sort of circles around until one man’s face came forward and the others faded away. A couple of months later I came across Pastor Thurman’s name during Black History Month. I looked up his writing and it pulled me in from the first. I bought recordings of him giving sermons and leading meditations. I bought his books. I learned everything I could about him.

Yet it wasn’t until earlier this year that I realized that his was the face I had seen. I was, quite literally, awestruck. A few days after that revelation came a notice in a diocesan newsletter about a retreat in Sewanee, Tennessee, that would focus on Howard Thurman and contemplative practices. I was signed up and paid within a few minutes. I no longer ignore such synchronicity.

I find such solace in his words, whether he is writing or talking about contemplative practices, racism and the disinherited (Martin Luther King Jr. considered him a mentor), humble ruminations about his own failings, his ecumenicism, and most of all, his deep, deep conviction that we are all united by a loving God who has a dream of whom we are to become.

The passage that prompted this outpouring is “God is making room in my heart for compassion: the awareness that where my life begins is where your life begins; the awareness that the sensitiveness to your needs cannot be separated from the sensitiveness to my needs; the awareness that the joys of my heart are never mine alone – nor are my sorrows.”

Thurman grew up in segregated Fort Lauderdale; his grandmother had been enslaved. He was the first African-American to matriculate at Colegate College’s seminary. He walked the walk, and he also maintained the gentle humility of someone who knows his own worth as developed in him by God.

tagoreIt also gave me great joy to see how Thurman’s witness often coincided with the great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. I would read a passage by each man every morning and sometimes be amazed at the similar sentiments behind the Christian’s and the Hindu’s words. Tagore’s Gitanjali (Song Offerings) also came to me by chance long, long ago. They are short poems that can be appreciated by people of any and all (or even no) faiths.

“Thou hast made me endless;
Such is thy pleasure.
This frail vessel thou carriest again and again
Yet fillest it ever with fresh life.
This little flute of a reed
thou hast carried over hills and dales
And hast breathed through it melodies eternally new.
My little heart loses its limits in joy
And gives breath to utterances ineffable.
Thy infinite gifts come to me only on these very small hands of mine.
Ages pass and still thou pourest,
And still there is room to fill.”




Julian of Norwich

Tagore was the elder, and perhaps Thurman gained inspiration from him. They both, I would dare to say, gained inspiration from Julian of Norwich, the 14th century prioress who had a series of divine revelations that she chronicled in “Showings.” Such a flow of love for all of humanity and all of creation can be felt in each person’s witness that one truly can’t help but feel that “all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.”

Film producer Arleigh Prelow has spent years making a documentary, “The Psalm of Howard Thurman,” which is now in post-production. She first conceived the idea after Thurman’s death and, amid other producing and directing work through the years, she has interviewed Thurman’s wife, Sue Bailey Thurman, and many other people who knew and loved and worked with him. Actor Sterling K. Brown provides the voice of Howard Thurman. Funds are still needed to complete the work and donations may be made here.

The Cross & The Lynching Tree


I didn’t know anything about James H. Cone until the day he died, April 28, 2018.

I was at a “Dismantling Racism” training in Georgia. His name was on the syllabus. When I went online at the end of the training, the first thing I saw was Dr. Cone’s obituary.

I subsequently learned that he was considered one of the fathers of Black Liberation Theology. It was recommended to me that I read his book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (2011).

As the title suggests, Dr. Cone makes the case that “until we can see the cross and the lynching tree together, until we can identify Christ with a “recrucified” black body hanging from a lynching tree, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America, and no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy.”

Others have written about the nexus between Christianity and the avid way in which the oppressors’ religion was taken up by slaves. But Dr. Cone is the first I have come across to directly identify the broken body of a lynched person with the broken Christ on the cross.

He says that the cross has always been central to African-American worship because “the cross inverts the world’s value system” when it turns death into hope. Death doesn’t have the last word.

Enslaved blacks seized on the transcendent power of the cross; the cross is God’s critique of white supremacy, he claims.

This may seem like cold comfort at first, but for people whose lives were made to seem meaningless, the cross gave meaning to life and promised a life after death. And it did give hope. Dr. Cone quotes Richard Wright as saying, “Our churches are where we dip our tired bodies in cool springs of hope.”

Dr. Cone gives a long chapter to discussing how black artists were often able to make the connection between the cross and the lynching tree better than theologians and pastors. The blues were another way to transcend suffering, he says, and the poets, particularly Countee Cullen, who wrote about the “Black Christ” recrucified are many (see a portion of the poem below). He also writes about the famed Billy Holiday song “Strange Fruit,” written ironically by the Jewish Abel Meeropol many years before the Holocaust. Mr. Meeropol and his wife were the couple who adopted the orphaned sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

A long chapter is given to the most famous theologian of the lynching era, Reinhold Niebuhr, who was well-known as a social justice activist but who never spoke out personally or theologically about the sin of lynching. Many white supporters of equal status for blacks still used the argument at the time that “their day would come.” Martin Luther King Jr. would later say, “It is hardly a moral act to encourage others patiently to accept injustice which he himself does not endure.”

Of course, a whole system of theology cannot be explained in a one- or two-page blog. I hope to give readers a curiosity to read The Cross and the Lynching Tree for themselves. But as Dr. Cone says, “Though we are not fully free and the dream not fully realized, yet we are not what we used to be and not what we will be. . .We continue to seek an ultimate meaning that cannot be expressed in rational historical language and that cannot be denied by white supremacy.”