Rep. Jeanette Mott Oxford (D-MO) is not only one of the better state representatives serving in our legislature, she also happens to be an ordained minister. Below the fold, I’ve copied the sermon she delivered at the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Webster Groves on Sunday.
First Congregational UCC, Webster Groves, MO; Jan. 18, 2009
Biblical Texts: Isaiah 58; I Corinthians 11: 17-34
I was born in 1954 in the rural southeast tip of Illinois on the Ohio River. Jan Barnes (a minister at First Congregational) figured out where I was from in about two minutes when we met on the first day of classes at Eden Theological Seminary in August, 1986. I was baffled when this stranger walked up to me at the reception after opening convocation and asked me “Where in southern IL are you from?” When I said “Cave-in-Rock, IL” I learned that she had often visited her grandmother there as a child. (Apparently we have a distinctive accent in the deep south of IL.)
My mom and dad were salt of the Earth people. The kind of folks who always went out of their way to help others, like bringing food when there was a death in the family. I don’t know how many times my dad answered a knock on the door in the middle of the night and rose to take his tractor or truck and a logging chain to pull a car out of a ditch on the wash-boardy gravel roads of Shawnee Holler and Job Catt Mountain where we lived.
Mom and Dad brought me up in the Christian faith at Keeling Hill General Baptist Church. I memorized whole chapters of the Bible and went to church at least four times a week – Wednesday night, Saturday night, Sunday morning, and Sunday night – and often other nights of the week too when one of my Uncle Dean’s tent revivals was nearby.
Yet there was something else that my mom and dad taught me. They passed on the racist messages that their parents, schools, churches, and other trusted persons and institutions had passed on to them. One of the earliest lessons was “if you are walking down the road and see a black man, run and hide in the woods. He might hurt you.” Another lesson was the mixed message, “Black people are just the same as us in the eyes of God, but we’re all meant to stay in our own places.” Later they refused to let me bring an African American classmate home for a visit, so apparently “our places” didn’t include visiting each others houses.
I’ll confess that “black people” might not have been the word they used. At that time, the polite term my parents had learned was “Negroes,” and they sometimes used the very offensive “N-word” as well. Jokes told in Black dialect happened at our family gatherings, perhaps recycled from minstrel shows that were often performed by churches, including here in St. Louis. And speaking of St. Louis, I was often warned never to visit here because I would get on the wrong street, and the Black people would kill me, according to my parents and countless other residents of Hardin County, IL.
It is important to me that you not assume that my parents were simply “bad people.” They were wonderful people, and I am so thankful to have had them as my parents. My parents were taught the racist language and attitudes that they reflected, and they sometimes rose above it. The segregation of the region in which we lived – virtually an all-white area – that left them without information that would cause them to challenge what they had been taught. It is through repeated positive interactions with the object of our prejudice that the lies, stereotypes, and distortions break down, and my parents did not readily have that opportunity or hear a suggestion that they should make up for this deficit.
Thankfully as a child, I also started to receive some information to cause me to question what I was being taught about the inferiority of other races and my own superiority. Television helped in this process – my family purchased a TV in 1961 when I was seven. In the 1960’s, on news programs I saw African Americans attacked by German shepherd dogs and rolled down the street by the force of water cannons. I saw eggs broken of the heads of neatly dressed black men in suits sitting at lunch counters, and yes, I saw Dr. Martin Luther King make many speeches, including the “I Have a Dream” speech. My father sat watching with me and was moved to tears, and being the General Baptist deacon he was, often uttered a “Bless him, Lord” when Dr. King expressed his faith that God would deliver his people to freedom. As I watched the violence and cruelty and courage and determination on that 19-inch screen, it was clear to me where the moral superiority was, and it was not usually wrapped in a white skin.
I watched Fannie Lou Hamer and members of the Mississippi Freedom Party challenge the all-white delegates seated at the 1964 Democratic convention, and I watched Congresswoman Barbara Jordan’s remarkable speech in support of the impeachment of Richard Nixon.
Fortunately for me, this journey of learning and new awareness continued as I attended colleges and seminary with people from many ethnicities. And in 1996 I had a particularly transformative experience at a six-day Dismantling Racism Institute conducted by the National Conference for Community and Justice. I now recognize that I, like all children, was born without prejudice, but that my development as a young child was full of oppressive messages about all the characteristics that make human beings different – skin color, eye shape, gender identity and sexual orientation, income level, religion, physical and mental abilities, and on and on. I was a child and could not protect myself from these messages. Now as an adult, I can examine what I was taught and make decisions about how to live responsibly in the present and in the future, with my newfound awareness of the sins of oppression.
Many of you also lived through the pain and glory of Dr. Martin Luther King’s leadership in the Civil Rights Movement as well as witnessing the courage and determination of Fannie Lou Hamer, Barbara Jordan, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Bayard Rustin, and countless others who helped overturn the race-based legal discrimination that had been part of our national fabric since the founding of the United States. Like me, you are surely celebrating the historical marker of the upcoming inauguration of the first Man of Color to become President of the United States.
It was State Senator Robin Wright Jones who called to my awareness that Obama’s inauguration comes 40 years after Dr. King’s death. Sen. Wright Jones said at the King Day celebration in Jefferson City this past Tuesday night, “We have been wandering in the wilderness for the past forty years, and now it feels like we are stepping into the Promised Land.”
Yet the inauguration of Barack Obama is not the end of our national journey toward social justice, as important and as encouraging as it is. We have a long way to go to realize what Dr. King called “the beloved community.” We still live in a nation deeply segregated by race and class, as our local school systems demonstrate. As Dr. King pointed out, laws can bring about desegregation, but integration requires more. It requires a change in attitudes. It involves personal and social relationships that are created by love —- and these cannot be legislated.
Dr. King said, “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” And that is also the message of today’s biblical readings.
In Isaiah 58, the prophet condemns worship that is done for show while workers are oppressed and the needy are ignored. In a beautiful series of “If/Then” statements the prophet connects the dots between the hungry and homeless and the health and happiness of the wealthiest members of society.
If you share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your own homes, then your light shall break forth like the dawn.
If you provide coats and blankets for those who shiver in the cold and refuse to hide yourself from your kin – and biblically speaking we are ALL kin – then when you call for help, God will say “Here I am.”
St. Paul gets at this same principle in the 11th chapter of First Corinthians. Paul addresses a house church that is probably meeting at the estate of one of the wealthier members in order to have needed space and resources. But all is not well. The wealthier members are eating and drinking all the food and wine before those who need the meal most have arrived. “What?!” Paul rages. “Do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?!”
When we fail to discern that we are all part of one body, St. Paul says, some get sick and some even die. I think of this passage often when I read the statistics on the number of uninsured in our state and nation. Over 800,000 of the approximately six million residents of Missouri are presently uninsured. Woe to us if we do not discern either the pain and suffering of our neighbor or the ripple effect that this has on our own healthcare costs and quality.
On this very special Dr. Martin Luther King Day, on the eve of this very special presidential inauguration, let us pledge to march on “’til victory is won”, in the words of James Weldon Johnson’s magnificent poem, set to music by his brother – the hymn we are about to sing*. In doing so we must face the reality of our “gloomy past,” having tread our path “through the blood of the slaughtered.” We stand “full of the hope that the present has brought us.” But we also acknowledge the dangers that come if we allow ourselves to be “drunk on the wine of the world”, including the racist, sexist, and heterosexist messages that have mutated over the years, plaguing us like a national cancer.
Dr. King understood non-violence resistance to be the path to the beloved community. Let us recommit ourselves to live in justice and in peace, even eliminating the pointing of the finger and the speaking of evil that often plant the seeds that grow into physical violence. Then we will earn those lovely titles spoken of in Isaiah 58 – “repairers of the breach” and “restorers of streets fit to live in.” May it be so! Amen!
*Note to readers: The lyrics of James Weldon Johnson’s poem/hymn “Lift Every Voice And Sing” may be found below. It is sometimes called “The Black National Anthem.”
Lift every voice and sing, till earth and Heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise, high as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.
Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet,
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered;
Out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,
Thou Who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou Who hast by Thy might, led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee.
Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee.
Shadowed beneath Thy hand, may we forever stand,
True to our God, true to our native land.