When Martin Luther King, Jr. marched illegally & disruptively through the streets of Selma, he noticed that his once small, humble operation was quickly growing into a collective of humans transcending race, class, gender & religion. A beautiful tapestry was emerging - weaved together with the understanding that black skin is divine, and that such a truth demands of this country the same legal, civic & economic protections every other hue is afforded. Akin to Moses' in Egypt, this was a cry for liberation, God's untamed & wild Spirit was on the move, and MLK was following in Her steps.
As this trans-religious movement continued to gain steam, it integrated one of the most influential & pious Rabbi's alive at that time: Rabbi Abraham Heschel. He is one of my greatest influences, and many others have said the same of him. Reflecting on his march through Selma, Rabbi Heschel noted that in all his years as a minister & as a student of the faith, he never quite fully understood prayer until Selma when, "It felt like my feet were praying."
This kind of showing up is exactly what our faith compels us to. Let me be stronger: the book of James tells us that our actions define our faith. Our practices are what communicate love to the world, for love is a verb.
Some might claim, 'You have faith and I have action.' But how can I see your faith apart from your actions? Instead, I’ll show you my faith by putting it into practice in faithful action. It’s good that you believe that God is one. Ha! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble with fear. Are you that dense? - James 2:18-22
This also reminds me of God's words, spoken through the Prophet in the 22nd chapter of Ezekiel:
"'This is what the Lord God says,' when the Lord hasn’t spoken: 'The important people of the land have practiced extortion and have committed robbery. They’ve oppressed the poor and mistreated the immigrant. They’ve oppressed and denied justice. I looked for anyone to repair the wall and stand in the gap for me on behalf of the land, so I wouldn’t have to destroy it. But I couldn’t find anyone. So now I'm angry. Now comes fury anger. Now I hold them accountable.' This is what the Lord God proclaims." - Ezekiel 22:28-31
It's made clear to us that what defines our Christian faith is what we do (or don't do) with our bodies - and the gaps we put them in for those treated unfairly & robbed of justice. The gaps that cause extortion, that oppress the poor and mistreat the immigrant, that oppress and withhold equal justice for all. It is these gaps where we put the full weight of our individual and collective bodies, and in this work, we find our faith. But make no mistake: IT.IS.ACTIVE.WORK. Our practices shape our faith - not our good vibes or good intentions; not our thoughts nor our inside voices. No - it is our practices. The apostle Paul knew this when writing to James. The prophet Ezekiel knew this. Martin Luther King knew this. Rabbi Heschel knew this. Frederick Douglass knew this. Rosa Parks knew this. And now a moment such as this is before us too.
So as the Rabbi says, let our legs pray. Let our bodies mind the gaps before us.
I don't say this lightly: I think this is the most significant moment we've ever lived through. From scale, to scope, to the subject and its urgency - I cannot think of one that appropriately compares to this in my 36 years. After chatting with a mentor this week, he seemed to confirm this. As a graduate student in the Civil Rights Era, he was deeply involved and has a criminal record to show it. As he reflected on the 8 decades he's lived through, he said this is the only moment that compares to then. Before we hung up, these were his final words to me: 'Hold the line children, hold the line. There is nothing more important than this. This is a moment for the church."
Admittedly, these words were as emboldening & encouraging as they were heavy given that they came from a participant in the Civil Rights Movement. I've always wondered what I would done were I alive then, and I think it's safe to say that what we choose to do now is what we would have done then. Let us choose well siblings. Let us not miss the invitation to join God in this work.
Now, all that being said, let me clarify something very important: while often most of the attention is paid to protesting & marching (both then and now), this is most definitely not the only way we can put in the work. It's not the only way to be the church. In fact, it is but one of the many fronts we can engage. In short, if you aren't the marching type, so be it. Remember, we are called together as a body of Christ, and each of us have been gifted differently & beautifully in order to complete work where problems are legion and solutions are manifold. I do want to encourage everyone to show up at least once to public demonstrations - if for nothing else than to feel the positive energy of resistance, hear the sounds of non-violent protesting, and see firsthand police interactions with unarmed protesters. But I also want to note how many legitimate reservations abound - not least the threat of Covid here in New York.
So, if protesting is not your front, that's ok, but the work before you is quickly & deliberately finding your lane. And since we're encouraging this so strongly, just ask should you need resources to help you engage the work. Just ask & we are here to help, because this is the non-negotiable at Common Ground: we are a community fully committed to dismantling whiteness, uprooting anti-blackness and fighting for racial equity. This is core to who we are. Now, what all this work will entail is still being determined. Assuredly, it will require our time, labor and money. It will also likely involve pivoting away from all standard practices in order to zone the whole community into anti-racist work. Centering everyone on this will give us a common language and it will increase the trust necessary to, as a new community, exorcise the corrupting powers of racism, othering, racial hierarchy & whiteness. May we all become fluent in this language.
The fact of the matter is anti-racism has been a part of Common Ground's core values & practice since our inception in 2019. It's in our founding documents and on our website. It's been part of our team building and leadership training, and anti-racism is one of the primary frames we use to apply scripture to our times. But with the the killing of George Floyd and the moment the country now finds herself in, we believe we're being called into the next necessary step of being an anti-racist collective: involving the entire community in the work, so it pervades every part of our shared life. As we said above - the time is now for this to become our common language, and may we all become fluent in it.
In the meantime, follow along on our Instagram & Facebook as we add some resources there. As Common Ground works to formalize this and develop curriculums, please don't wait to get started on your own individual learning. Don't hesitate to loop others into it (at CG and/or your other networks). Anti-racism is a blend of individual & communal work - but assuredly it is not only one, or the other.
Friends, many saints have gone before us. From Angela Davis, to Dolores Huerta, to Cesar Chavez, to Yuri Kochiyama, to Malcolm X, to Yuji Ichioka, to Harvey Milk, to Bayard Rustin, to today's Black Lives Matter movement (started, by the way, by three queer womyn of color) - this fight for liberation is core to who God is. I'm excited for us as a country, for you the reader, and for us at Common Ground to engage this work faithfully. Let no one miss this moment & let this season bring us all closer together.
Black lives matter. Undocumented lives matter. Indigenous lives matter. Queer & trans lives matter. Asian presenting & brown lives matter. Incarcerated lives matter.
And until all of these identities matter & are celebrated equally (and in Christian spaces to the extent that they're ordained, depended on, influenced by & validated equally), our plate of work is quite full. Saints - onward & upward in this holy work.
Chris was born & raised around NYC and has spent most of his life here. After living in Venezuela for a bit following undergrad, he returned to NYC for work in the corporate sector. His faith journey began there when, as an adult, he wandered into a local Evangelical church. A few years later he was working for that church, but his faith was collapsing after discovering its positions on race, queerness & non-male leadership. Rejecting that fundamentalism but still compelled by the faith, he moved to LA for grad school & to pursue ordination in the PCUSA. A few years later he was invited back to NYC to organize a new church - now Common Ground. His identity & upbringing is one of contrasts: mixed race, Latinx but white passing & raised income insecure but around white affluence; This all shaped him to see how inequity (sexism, racism, het-normativity, classism, ableism, etc) shapes supremacy culture. His heart's with the left out & left behind, and he's gathering CG so all know they have a seat at God's table.