as preached Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday at the First Religious Society Carlisle, January 19, 2014
When she remembers the 1960s, the civil rights activist Zoharah Simmons tells a powerful story about organizing in rural Mississippi. She was part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, the major African American student civil rights organization. Fifty years ago, during what was called Freedom Summer, she travelled to Laurel, Mississippi to organize African Americans to vote. Zoharah had never been to Laurel before and she knew no one there. When she and her two colleagues had been assigned the task of organizing in Laurel they were told, “Now you are going to have to drive up to Laurel and be as clandestine as possible and try to open up… the town… Try to find people who might want to be involved in this and who will give you shelter.” They were given a list of names to contact and little else.
When they got to Laurel they went to the home of one of the people on the list. She gave them more names. Zoharah picked Mrs. Euberta Sphinks’s name from that list and went to knock on her door. I can imagine the scene, Zoharah nervously approaching the house, pausing, drawing breath, and then knocking, tentatively, half hoping that no would answer. Someone did. Mrs. Euberta Sphinks’s came to the door. Zoharah introduced herself, afraid of being rebuffed, told that her efforts were futile, that Mississippi was never going to change, that she should go home. But Mrs. Sphinks did not tell her that. Instead, she looked Simmons up and down and said, “Girl, I’ve been waiting on you all my life. Come on in.”
Now, I love this story. It has so many rich strands to it that we could spend the next twenty minutes just pulling it apart. There’s Zoharah Simmons and there’s Mrs. Euberta Sphinks. They both have so much to teach us about what it means to change the world. I want to ask questions: what would have happened to Mrs. Sphinks if Zoharah had never come to her door? Would she have kept on waiting forever? What about Zoharah? Would she have stayed in Laurel, Mississippi and kept trying? Or would she have packed her bags and left? I also want to know, is there someone out there waiting for me? I am I waiting for someone? Maybe we all are…
Patience is something that is crucial for any form of social transformation. The world changes slowly, especially when it comes to moral issues. And yet we have to be ready for that change, for the opportunity for change, at any time. I had a professor in seminary who liked to underscore this point. He was a very devote Jew. He refused to close doors completely. He said, the messiah might come at any time. He didn’t want the door to be closed, and miss the announcement, when she arrived.
This Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday I want to ask all of you two questions: What are you waiting for? How are you preparing? Hold onto those two questions as I proceed with the sermon.
Almost precisely a year before he died Martin King challenged this country with his sermon at Riverside Church “Beyond Vietnam–A Time to Break the Silence.” It was a sermon that changed the way he related to the domestic power structure and how he placed himself in relation to global struggles for freedom. In it he made a direct connection between the struggle for freedom, equality and economic dignity in this country and the struggle against American capitalist imperialism in Vietnam and other countries. In it he told us that we were “a society gone mad on war” and warned that this country “would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube.” Not long after that, in a different speech, he made his point even more graphically: “The bombs in Vietnam explode at home.”
In that last year of his life Martin King warned us that the struggle for freedom, equality and economic dignity faced three triple giants: racism, militarism, and materialism. Unless we underwent a true moral revolution we risked being squashed by those giants.
Now, I am from Michigan and I spent five years as a parish minister in Cleveland, Ohio. I can tell you that in the last four decades bombs meant for all countries that the United States military has attacked have dropped on the cities that I love. The bombs meant for Vietnam have hit Detroit. Bombs sent to Cambodia landed in Cleveland. Those destined for El Salvador hit Roxbury instead. Bombs dropped on Iraq found their targets in Washington, DC. Missiles launched in Afghanistan brought death to Oakland. And rockets sent to Bosnia ended up on the South Side of Chicago. The list of countries that the United State military has bombed since 1968, the year Martin King was assassinated, is more than twenty names long. As a society we continue to spend the vastly more on war than on ending poverty.
The city of Detroit declared bankruptcy this past year. Its infrastructure is crumbling. In places the roads are little more than gravel, the street lights are broken, and the abandoned buildings stretch on for blocks. There are neighborhoods that are returning to prairie. I have seen poverty there, men in the street with open sores on their faces, that should not exist in the twenty first century, in the richest society in human history. There’s a skyscraper in downtown Detroit, a forty story building, that has been abandoned for so long that standing on the street you can see mature trees growing on its crown.
When the poet Amiri Baraka wrote about the African American freedom struggle he said, “we / vote among roaches.” Wherever we are in the struggle to build a just society, we still have a long way to go. The federal government has essentially abandoned Detroit. The city’s bankruptcy debt is about $18 billion. This country’s military budget in 2013 was more than $700 billion. For the cost of funding the military for about a week the federal government could have saved Detroit from bankruptcy. Not only did this not happen, there was no national conversation about it. Martin King would have been ashamed of this country. If he was alive today, on this day we celebrate his birth, he would say to us now what he said back in 1968 to his congregation, “The judgement of God is on America now.” And he would ask you, and he would ask me, “what are you waiting for?” He would remind us that he was willing to give his life for what he believed in. And he didn’t just believe in racial justice. He believed in economic justice–that everyone should have a safe place to live and job that gave them dignity. He would have cried with gentle rage about the chemical spill in West Virginia that rendered water undrinkable for 300,000 people. He would have been indignant that we bailed banks but left home owners in cities like Cleveland and Detroit to rot. He would have reminded us that he believed not only in racial and economic justice but in peace. He believed that men and women from this country should not go and kill men, women and children in other countries. It is hard to say these things in polite conversation anymore. But the question remains, why are we still waiting to build a world with peace and justice? What are you waiting for? What I am waiting for? Who are we waiting for?
Poet and civil rights veteran June Jordan famously said, “we are the ones we have been waiting for.” She is right, there really is no one else. It is just us. If we do not figure out what needs to be done then no one will. What needs to be done? Martin King knew. He said, “we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society.” What might that revolution look like? Let me tell you a couple of stories. They come from my mentor Staughton Lynd, the historian and civil rights activist who served as coordinator of the Freedom Schools during Mississipi Freedom Summer. That was the same project that brought Zoharah Simmons and Euberta Sphinks together.
Staughton likes to share a story about James Farmer, who at that time served as SNCC’s Executive Secretary. One day Staughton and his wife Alice went to the SNCC office early in the morning for some reason. The only person they found there was James Farmer. He was sweeping the office floor. When Staughton tells the story he often remarks, “He is the only person in a similar position of authority whom I have ever encountered performing such a task. Alice and I attempt to act likewise.”
This might seem like a discordant note when placed alongside Martin King’s call for a revolution in values. It is not. Stay with me for a minute. I am going to go a bit further afield with another of Staughton’s stories before bringing my point home. This story comes from the Spanish Civil War, which was a struggle against fascism right before World War II. The anti-fascist forces included a lot of different groups. One of the largest were the anarchists who sought not just to defeat fascism but to build a new world, a world without poverty and war, as well. As Staughton tells the story:
“It seems that one day during the Spanish Civil War there was a long line waiting for lunch. Far back in the line was a well-known anarchist. A colleague urged him: ‘Comrade, come to the front of the line and get your lunch. Your time is too valuable to be wasted this way. Your work is too important for you to stand at the back of the line. Think of the Revolution!’ Remaining where he was in line, the anarchist leader replied: ‘This is the Revolution.’”
I want to suggest that there are three lessons that can be drawn from these stories. And that these lessons point to the kind of revolution of values that our society needs to undergo and what we as individuals can do to bring about such a revolution. First, and most important, a revolution in values begins in this moment, in the here and now. Yes, it has to be a focus on changing the structure of society. But we will only be able to make that change if we change the way we treat each other. If we want a more egalitarian society, we have to treat each other as equals. If we want a society without racism, we have to strive eliminate racism from our own lives. As the great peace activist A. J. Muste said, “There is no way to peace–peace is the way.”
Second, if we want a new society, a just society, then we have to create institutions that can serve as seeds for that society. We have to develop spaces where we can challenge each other to undergo a revolution of values and question how the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism operate in our lives.
The great Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams, thought that this was the purpose of our religious communities. He taught that voluntary associations, groups of people that came together united by common interests and bonds of commitment, were the most powerful force in human society. The revitalization of society stands or falls with such voluntary associations. We tend to fixate upon prophetic individuals but, the truth is, truly powerful prophets are parts of organizations. We know who Martin King was because of the organizations he participated in and led. The civil rights movement is much more the story of heroic organizations than heroic individuals. Without the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference a prophet like King would have found himself alone in the wilderness.
Most prophets have recognized this. Jesus, after he received his call, gathered up his disciples and created a religious community. Mohandas Gandhi built ashrams in both South Africa and India to serve as spiritual bases for his activism. The characters in Lynd’s stories are both involved in organizations. Zorah Simmons did not end up in Laurel, Mississippi on her own.
This brings me to my third point. Organizations need leaders. However we conceptualize them, organizations need people who can inspire others to act. A revolution in values requires a new kind of leadership. And I do not think that Martin King, as great as he was, necessarily exemplifies that kind of leadership. Instead, I think it is to be found in people like James Farmer, or the anarchist from Staughton’s story. Such leaders remain in direct relationship with others from the movement of which they are a part. They do not try to assert dominance over others. Instead, they try to build capacity in others. They are driven by the belief that anyone can acquire the skills to be a leader.
This is a lesson we can learn well if we look around on Sunday morning. It takes a lot more than a minister to make a powerful worship service. We have musicians. We have to people who tend to the administrative functions. We have to keep our space clean and inviting to guests. All of these people take us a little further down the road than we would be able to go without them. Elsewhere, I have observed that some of the most unappreciated leaders in the congregation are the people who get everyone else clapping to the hymns on Sunday morning. I always notice when such people are absent. The service is less lively, less renewing, without them.
Let me summarize my three points. A revolution in values requires us to build organizations that challenge us to develop a new kind leadership. This is a leadership that sees everyone as a potential leader and brings out the best in them so that they can bring the best in the community, and ultimately the world. Such an organization will challenge us to confront the triple giants of racism, materialism, and militarism both in the wider world and in those places where they are operative within our own lives.
Let me suggest that this congregation can be a starting point for such a revolution in values. To return explicitly to our Unitarian Universalist tradition, James Luther Adams, the theologian I mentioned earlier, liked to remind us that our congregational polity was one of the sources of democracy in this culture. He even joking referred to our religious tradition as “Spiritual Bolshevism” to signify the revolutionary potential within it.
I think that there is one thing, only one thing, that we need to do to start to realize that potential. And here I return to the story of Zoharah Simmons and Euberta Sphinks. There is a part of it I forgot to tell you. Euberta Sphinks had already organized her neighbors. When Zoharah showed up at her door Euberta went across the street and knocked on the door of her friend, Mrs. Carrie Clayton. I am telling you these names because today we should celebrate not just Martin King but all of the leaders, known and unknown, who made built the civil rights movement. Anyways, Euberta Sphinks went across the street to tell her friend, in effect, we are not alone. There other people out there struggling for the same things we are struggling for. And now one of them has found us. We are stronger than before and we can take our struggle, here in Laurel, Mississippi, to a new level.
And that is exactly what they did. People in those little towns in Mississippi had been struggling for African American freedom for hundreds of years. In the 1920s and 1930s they had organized sharecroppers unions. Their grandparents had fought with the union army to end slavery. Their great grandparents had resisted the slave masters in endless, untold, creative quiet ways. Each generation built on the struggles of the previous ones. When Zoharh and Euberta found each other they were able to take that struggle to a new level.
Let me close with a brief autobiographical note. I have spent much of my adult life as an organizer. In doing so, I have been part of groups working to bring about a revolution in values. Wherever I have gone to organize I have discovered that the people there were already organized. What they were waiting for, whether they knew it or not, was someone from another group to tell them, “Hey you are not alone. Together we can take this struggle to a new level.” This has been true whether I have been organizing truckers in the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, bike messengers in Chicago or taxi drivers in Cleveland. It has been true in every congregation I have ever served. It was true when I committed civil disobedience alongside other Unitarian Universalist clergy in Phoenix, Arizona and went to jail. If we, Unitarian Universalists, are going to help bring about a revolution in values then we need to get outside of our comfortable communities and find others struggling against the triple giants of racism, militarism, and materialism. When we do we will discover we are not alone.
We already have everything we need to change the world. We truly are the ones we have been waiting for. But first we need to find each other. Who are you waiting for? Who am I waiting for? Who is waiting for us?
As I leave you to contemplate those questions I say Amen and Blessed Be.