The Mirror of Memories on the Growing Edge
Mirrors. Mirrors. How many times have we looked in our mirrors over the years. At least once a day when we make sure we are wearing our best public face. And those exciting checks in the mirror when we were teenagers: girls trying on the latest makeup. Boys checking for signs of sprouting facial hair. And as we get older worried checks in the mirror as we watch gray hairs appear or even hair disappearing. I too who for a long time looked much younger than my years now check in the mirror and see sags and bags. Gee whiz! I guess I really am 86 years old! Mirrors don’t lie! Indeed us oldsters are just pleased we are still up and able to look in the mirror each morning!
Now I want to look in another kind of mirror: The mirror of memories on the growing edge. The truth-telling mirror of my memories. Memories mirrored at several specific moments in my life when the path I had been on radically changed.
1963 Let us look into the mirror of the year 1963. Look and you will see a well-dressed white family enjoying a noon day meal at a Howard Johnsons after attending Easter services at the conservative Lutheran Church they belonged to in Durham, North Carolina. I am seated next to my husband, a Duke University professor. Our three young children, two boys and a girl are also there along with my mother-in-law visiting from Charleston, South Carolina.
In the middle of eating our meal, we hear distant sounds of singing coming from the hillside in front of the restaurant. We look out the big window and see a large gathering of young, black people. They are joined together in singing Civil Rights freedom songs: “Woke up this morning with my mind on freedom” and “We shall overcome” and other justice songs. Several of the black leaders are at the front door of the restaurant. They are college students from the local black college seeking to be admitted to the segregated restaurant: White’s only, this is the segregated South.
My mother-in-law is upset. “Why would those negras want to come into a white’s only restaurant?” And I was upset although I did not share my thoughts out of Southern good manners. I knew deep in my heart that those black college students had every right to demand to be served in a public restaurant. To demand equality and dignity after centuries of humiliation and oppression. I had not grown up in the South and still had the marks of a liberal education at Oberlin College. Deep in my memories from childhood Sunday school days I had stored away in my childhood memory the hymn “Jesus loves the little children, red, brown, yellow, black and white they are precious in his sight.”
Something radical began to shift in my soul. From typical faculty wife and mother doing department teas and intellectual book clubs to taking the first steps into the world of the Durham black activists. Over the following years I attended black church rallies. The black church of both spiritual sanctuary as well as the social justice call. I who had sought God through the intellect had entered into the active God of the Exodus and Exile. Coming alive in the shouts and the singing.
We heard that call to freedom message again this morning from the passage from the Gospel of Luke. The Jewish Jesus is in the synagogue at Nazareth. He is reading from the ancient Jewish Prophet, Isaiah: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim the release to the captives. And recovery of sight to the blind, To let the oppressed go free.” Liberation words that had echoed through the long years of the freedom struggle of blacks to end slavery, to end Jim Crow and to end second class status in the 20th century. To claim their full humanity and equality as children of the one God.
Years later when I was a part time campus chaplain at Duke University and ordained to the ministry I had the rare privilege of being part of the worship service at a black AME church in Durham where the famed black theologian and mystic, Dr. Howard Thurman was the preacher. He preached the Jesus of the disinherited, the Jesus of the good news to the poor. It is why this morning I wanted to share with you his thoughts on the Growing Edge. Out of his bitter memories of growing up in the segregated South he fashioned a powerful faith based on the Jesus of the disinherited. His vision of the Jesus on the growing edge spoke to overcoming the fear, deception and hate of an oppressed people; freeing them to enter true liberation. “Look to the growing edge of freedom” he wrote , “even when all are weary and in despair”. His powerful poetic images were the spiritual underpinnings for Dr. Martin Luther King and the non-violent Civil Rights movement. Dr. King always carried his Bible as well as Thurman’s book, Jesus and the Disinherited during his years leading the civil rights movement.
I had became a social justice activist joining the black organizers in Durham in voter registration, in programs to begin to undo the damage done to poor black children in the segregated public school system. Supporting the emergence of indigenous black leaders from the ghettoes of Durham. Joining with them to confront the local white power structure demanding the end to slum housing and the right to better employment. From faculty cocktail parties to soul food fund raisers.
I had dragged my family out of the conservative Lutheran church. Began a search for a church home that would be living the true social justice call of Jesus of the Gospels not the theology of individual salvation and apologetics for the dehumanization of blacks.
Along with my new life as a co-worker and friend of so many wonderful black activists, I had joined the Anti-Vietnam War protests in local vigils and massive marches in Washington and even London, England.
1975 Now let us look again at my mirror of memories. It is February, 1975. A group of serious adults, Duke professors, seminarians and social justice laity are meeting in a Sunday School class room in Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Durham, North Carolina. I was part of that adult Bible class having finally found after years of searching a white, liberal church home in the United Church of Christ. I had earned a Social Work masters degree and was now a seminarian at Duke Divinity School. My mentor and Liberation theologian at Duke, Professor Fred Herzog had been leading the Bible class teaching God’s preference for the poor. We were aware that the Southern criminal justice system was infected with virulent and cruel forms of racism and classism. It was a juggernaut dehumanizing even more so the minorities and the poor. The dominant conservative churches supported the harsh system. They preached “an eye for an eye” and a punitive God of wrath and retribution.
That winter morning we Sunday School liberal visionaries boldly adopted a church Task Force on Criminal Justice. Thus was set in motion another radical shift in my life.
Instead of a typical seminarian placement as student pastor at an area church I became the organizer for the Task Force. I co-chaired the North Carolinians Against the Death Penalty, started a Prison Ministry at the local road camp, joined a support group seeking the freedom of the Wilmington Ten, a justice cause of the national office of the United Church of Christ. From never having known a law-breaker or prisoner I now spent hours visiting inmates in state minimum and medium security prisons. Finally I entered into the forbidding grounds of the state maximum security prison in Raleigh. Where inmate and visitor were separated by a thick glass wall. Here I became friend and minister to a Chicano lifer. I had traveled a long distance from those days of secure, middle class Southern white life.
Not many years later I broke with all my past, left the South and traveled to a new world in Southern California. I had been a feminist during my seminary years at Duke. For the next ten years I entered into the complex lives of women and children survivors of domestic violence running a Safe House in Santa Barbara County. I then developed a day center and residence for the women and children survivors of homelessness on the dangerous street of Los Angeles. To sustain me spiritually I I had found two progressive United Church of Christ church homes. They were my families of support and acceptance, my safe haven where I could preach from time to time and teach.
For all those years I was part of another family, a poor, third generation Mexican- American family living a tough existence in the barrio of East Los Angeles. They had remained connected a continent apart to that same Mexican- American I had first visited in Raleigh, North Carolina and then were reunited with him in a federal prison in Southern California. Between the efforts of his family, mine and so many social justice supporters , he was paroled in 1986 after serving twenty-five years of harsh incarceration.
1991 Now one last look in my own mirror of memories. I am sitting in the small pastor’s office in June of 1991 at Community UCC in Boulder Colorado. The compassionate and supportive pastor, Rev. Kayrene Pearson is listening as I pour out the bitter-sweet account of my endings in Los Angeles and my journey from California to start a new life in Boulder. Here I was blessed to be welcomed by my one year old first grandchild and her parents living in Boulder. As Howard Thurman recalled in his words; “ when worlds crash and dreams whiten into ash, The birth of a child-is life’s most dramatic answer to death –This is the Growing Edge incarnate.”
One more time I was being welcomed as a wayfaring stranger by a compassionate minister of the United Church of Christ liberal wing. And since those first hard days of defeat and loss I recovered to return to my social justice activism. Kayrene had welcomed me as a peer to preach and teach and soon to minister to the homeless and poor seniors of downtown Denver with a commissioned ministry from here. I joined in other actions for social justice as a member including the vigils and marches opposing the war in Iraq
2014 Now this year of 2014 has been one of celebration for Boulder Community UCC as we have looked in the mirror of our collective memories remembering the fifty year story of our church beginning with our home birthing in a house in Southern Hills in 1964. Memories of the church’s growing edge as a toddler with earlier members of this congregation and the pastors who have led it in good times and hard times. Joining in the demonstrations at Rocky Flats protesting the production of plutonium triggers for atomic bombs. From my own 23 years as a member I remember the leadership of Rev. Kayrene Pearson when we became an Open and Affirming UCC church. Continuing with the leadership of Rev. Ginger Taylor who gave a warm welcome to the GLBT community.
Those foundational years have set the groundwork for our progressive church to install, Rev. Rick Danielson as our next minister this afternoon. As a gay, married pastor and teacher he exemplifies the sure path to acceptance our congregation has followed over the years. This afternoon, Rick, you are being called to continue quote “this progressive church fellowship of spiritual seekers who believe there are many paths to God” –Open and Affirming, a Peace with Justice Church” And I might add an Eco Justice Church under the leadership of Rev. Peter Terpenning.
Finally on this day of the growing edge of our church what are some of the social justice issues we face? Racism remains in its many ugly forms. And human caused global warming has become our most imminent threat to our collective future.
I have pondered what I want to say next but feel it is important for churches to continue to be prophetic as well as pastoral. Many informed religious activists including some in our church here have been working on policies that will lessen the impact of humans on the web of life. But more and more I have come to realize as have others, including our own social justice activist, Robb Lapp, that our economic system is inevitably connected to our environmental problems. Capitalism for centuries has been the powerful, welcome dynamo applying the ever expanding knowledge of science and technology to radically improve our life as humans on planet earth. Our good life is now the model for the rest of the world’s billions. But it has also fostered a global culture of acquisitiveness, of more and more wealth and power in the hands of fewer and fewer. Of profit first before calculating the damage to the planet. Basic humane, religious values of justice, fairness and equality are challenged and the American Dream is being tarnished by the pervasive pursuit for more and more money.
Over two thousand years ago the founder of our faith, Jesus the Christ confronted the same ancient sins of exploitive wealth and power in Palestine. And over and over the Jewish Jesus urged the wealthy and powerful overcome the lure of wealth and join in the liberation of the disinherited . Today we are called as progressive Christians to speak truth to power not just for disinherited people but for the disinherited earth.
We as church cannot see into the hidden mirrors of tomorrow but today we as a hope-filled, vibrant church can act on our ministries of social justice in anticipation of our pregnant tomorrows. Today we are called to look into the mirrors of the past reflecting our social justice forbearers. “Their roots are silently at work in the darkness of the earth against the time when there shall be new leaves, fresh blossoms, green fruit. Such is the growing edge!.” Let the church say” AMEN !
Sermon delivered by Rev. Harriott Quin, October 26, 2014 at Boulder Community United Church of Christ.