Service Title: Struggle and Lament: We Welcome All Victims of Empire
Scripture: Mark 1:14-20
Jess Williams, Kansas Poor People’s Campaign
The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news. These words from Jesus are powerful as we reflect on their meaning on this two year anniversary of the start of the Freedom Church of the Poor. At that time there was a small group of us who were associated with the Kairos Center who had met together in NYC just a couple of months before, and were scheduled to gather with others in NYC in March of 2020. And the purpose of our gathering was to continue the work of reading the Bible with the poor, to continue to strategize about how the Bible helps us to change the narrative in this country about who are the poor, why we are poor, and the moral and political agency of the poor to unite across lines of difference to change the systems creating poverty and dispossession.
We didn’t get to gather together in March of 2020 and many of us haven’t seen each other in person since before then. But what became enormously clear to us in that month was the necessity of doing this work. And out of those reflections Freedom Church of the Poor was born. It wasn’t a brand new idea by any stretch. As Colleen’s work teaches us, it is a movement and organizing strategy and a faith community that builds on the same strategy and organizing work from other movements in our country’s history. And it wasn’t the first time that any of that group of us had talked about wanting to begin a church as part of this movement. But it was a moment whose time had come. It was in a kairos moment that the Freedom Church emerged.
In the scripture from Mark 1 that Oshara just read, it says that Jesus went to Galilee and began preaching, saying “the time has come. The kingdom of God is near.” The word there that is translated time is the Greek word Kairos which means a decisive moment in time when people are challenged to decide how they will be, what they will do in times of crisis. That describes where we were in March 2020. I remember that early in the pandemic as I watched worship services online I noticed a striking silence about how the pandemic both revealed and worsened the plight of the poor and working class. Just a few weeks after the Freedom Church of the Poor began meeting was the murder of George Floyd and the Freedom Church of the Poor took shape as a place of mourning and grief, of anger and outrage, and of inspiration and hope. And it remains so today. In Freedom Church we proclaim that Jesus was a poor man who led a revolutionary social movement, that God’s design for this world is that all people have abundant life, and that the least of these are most us. We support one another and our organizations and communities as we build this movement to end poverty and its interlocking injustices. We engage in this battle for the bible understanding that sermons and interpretations that demean the poor and blame the poor for their poverty are not simply biblical, are not the gospel. Instead the bible teaches and offers a roadmap for and shows that God requires that we build a society in which all people can thrive because everybody has a right to live.
The community and the theology of the Freedom Church of the Poor is desperately needed in our movement and in our country today. This church is a way of organizing, as well as serving our movement. We do so through worship, prayer, reflection, song, biblical interpretation, and caring for one another all toward building a movement to end poverty and its interlocking injustices. And that sounds a lot like the gospel to me.
Becca Forsythe, New York Poor People’s Campaign
I am so grateful to be standing in this space with each and every one of you. The Freedom Church of the Poor has been a spiritual home for me and so many of my comrades in this fight. I have been re-introduced to the truly revolutionary power of God’s love in this space. I hear Rev. Liz’s words about this Kairos Moment… the possibility for change, for hope, for joy! I remember a saying I’ve seen once or twice: We shouldn’t apologize for raising dragon-slayers in the time of dragons! There is a time of great crisis and peril…in this moment, but there is great hope! It feels like revolution in the air!
I have learned what it meant when Jesus opened Isaiah’s scroll in the temple and said:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
That is what happens in this space every week. We come together as those who are called to be the hands and feet of Christ, in our community, loving our neighbors with reckless abandon. I have met so many powerful leaders in this space. I think of Keith Bullard, standing with low-wage workers in North Carolina and demanding living wages. I think of Kenia Alcocer who taught me what it was like to experience the Nativity through the eyes of an immigrant living in these oppressive and divisive times. I think of Aaron Scott who taught me that Jesus calls us to leave our SLJs, or “shitty little jobs” as Willie Baptist called them, and follow him. I think of Savina Martin who taught me the power of revolutionary mothers like Mary—not meek and mild and passively becoming the mother of God but the tenacious and fiery woman who rode a donkey in a war-torn country, running from and outsmarting the powers of Empire to ensure the safety and future of our Savior. The same mother who watched her son be brutally nailed to a tree for the sake and sin of each and every one of us.
I have so much more insight into the messages of this book we call the Bible and the conditions that created the need for these words in that time…because of this space. We call it the most powerful book of organizing for organizers ever to exist. I’ve seen how these stories relate to the struggles against Empire in ancient days as well as today and the amazing prophets of old as well as in our time that help us to see it by crying in their wilderness, where most don’t hear their words…but we do! I’ve seen the old testament prophet’s words walking along our streets and living in our midst…warnings being delivered and that must be heeded if we are to survive. Isaiah, Hosea, Jonah, Amos, Ezekiel and all of the rest. These messages are still pertinent today and spoken loudly and with great passion from leaders like Tammy Rojas of Put People First PA, Alicia Kuhl of the California Union of the Homeless, Rev. Ari Douglas of the Wisconsin PPC and the Rev. Justin J. Pearson of the Memphis Community Against Pollution!
Each Sunday in this space, I’ve learned about the power inherent in a Savior who was a homeless man, some would say the leader of the first Freedom Church of the Poor. I’ve learned the politics of bread…how it can divide or dignify. I’ve seen the majestic nature of water…and how it can purify or poison. I’ve learned to see the Passion of Christ in a whole different light…a Brown-skinned Palestinian Jewish man of light and truth killed by police brutality in hopes that it would silence his message of revolutionary love…only to amplify it and embolden its agitation! I’ve seen the beloved community as the apostles built in the book of Acts. I’ve seen first hand what it means when God’s people come together and love one another as we were instructed to do, when we build fusion spaces and come together as the true Children of God, who built each and every one of us with the inherent dignity and respect due to the imago dei, the image of GOD!
Before I joined Freedom Church, I was all too aware of the pain and suffering inflicted on our people every day by this death-dealing society of Empire. This space has introduced to me a new way of doing things. A new way…. that’s been around as long as time itself. As the prophet Isaiah said:
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland. (Isaiah 43)
I’m so grateful to be one of those voices in the wilderness. I sit on the banks of the streams in the wasteland and I thank God for bringing together the remnant. He is making within us a mighty power that will change the world….the blocks that the builders discarded will become the chief cornerstone…and I’m just so glad I get to be counted in that number! Thank you!
Cynthia Pease, Massachusetts Poor People’s Campaign
I learned about the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival shortly after retiring and at a time when I wondered what the next chapter of my life would look like. The Moral Congress in DC in 2019 was a revelation to me of what could be done in unity with others who looked at our broken world the way I did. The excitement of going to MORE rallies in New Hampshire and Massachusetts and to a NY PPC meeting at the People’s Forum, organizing a bus to go the June 2020 March, and attending a Kairos Center Bible study in the fall of 2019 carried me through that first year while at the same time fighting a landlord who wanted to triple my rent, knowing that I couldn’t possibly afford it.
I say all this to set up where I was when the lockdown came and, on almost the first day of the lockdown in Massachusetts in March 2020, nascent arthritis burst into full bloom. I felt utterly cast down, wondering where and how I would regain a sense of purpose in community.
But lo and behold! There was Kairos Center again, offering a buoy to grab onto in the swirl of pandemic information, misinformation, fear, and uncertainty. When Freedom Church of the Poor was born, it was indeed like hearing Jesus in Matthew’s Scripture, telling me the Good News that the movement was continuing in full force and I was invited to be part of it.
Every week I came to Freedom Church of the Poor to learn, to witness, to sing, to share, and to cry with and for those whose testimonies have highlighted the ways in which governments and corporations have prosecuted war against the poor and those who suffer under the interlocking injustices of systemic poverty. How quickly we realized that the pandemic, as the Rev. Liz said, was shedding its light on the foundations of injustice and creating new, lethal injustices. So-called essential workers were soon revealed by their greedy employers to be expendable workers, and so the war on the poor was not at all fazed by the pandemic but in fact gained new momentum from it.
When just a couple of months into the pandemic, society started to wail about returning to “normal,” Freedom Church wailed back that normal had been horrible for almost half of the country; normal was not acceptable, and we were going to use this Kairos moment – time outside of chronological time, God’s time – to heal, to reveal, and to continue to fight for transformation of hearts and minds.
And so it has happened, week after week for two years. I think of the amazing people I’ve heard speak here and the bonds we’ve created and the love I feel for each one. I am so grateful for this place and this space and for all who fill it. Let the people say, Amen.