The building of my home congregation is wedged between three worlds: a funeral home, where people bring their grief and mourning; an old home subdivided into a surprising number of small, crowded, but affordable apartments for those who make little in the tourist industry; and an extraordinarily large, recently constructed stone mansion, complete with gatehouse and dog runs, owned by a couple desperate to make their mark in society – going so far as to shop around a reality show about their life to various cable networks. Down one street is an elite college and equally elite neighborhood, a combination of old and new money, and predominantly white. Down another is a poorer neighborhood, where low-income housing and homeless shelters exist in the predominantly minority neighborhood. Down a third is the thoroughbred race track, a symbol of opulence – hiding the oppressive conditions of living quarters for the migrants who are employed by the track (called the backstretch workers).
Depending on the door you look out, you might think the most pressing social justice concern is emotional pain, or income inequality, or immigration, or the war on workers, or homelessness, or racism.
And the truth is, they are all the most pressing social justice concern.
At General Assembly 2013 in Louisville, I attended a workshop by Rev. Beth Ellen Cooper entitled “Occupy Your Faith.” Rev. Cooper spoke about ways to make our faith real and active; like the Occupy movement, she said, our faith isn’t anarchical; rather, it is immediate and active, not an idea with manifestos and declarations. The call isn’t to declare what issue we want to tackle, but to get out there and tackle it. She challenged us to consider “who is our neighbor, and what is their pain?”
Since General Assembly, I have been thinking about this charge, and have been challenged by it. At Union Theological Seminary, we are in a beautiful, upper class institution, on the edge of Harlem – between the opulence of Columbia University and the struggles of 125th Street, between comfortable middle class apartments and people sleeping on benches in Riverside Park. And that’s just our neighborhood; inside the ‘castle’ we have people and organizations who speak about and work toward justice in a variety of areas – from the Poverty Initiative to the Edible Churchyard, from the Black and Latin@ Caucuses to the Institute for Women, Religion, and Globalization, and more – each group speaking loudly about the call to action our faith demands. Every issue is important. Every concern is vital to people’s lives. Every injustice – to people and to the earth – requires full and immediate attention.
And the call is clear; as Frederick Buechner writes, “There can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.”
The call is clear: as Rabbie Arthur Waskow wrote in The Freedom Seder:
For if we were to end a single genocide but not to stop the other wars that kill men and women as we sit here, it would not be sufficient; If we were to end those bloody wars but not disarm the nations of the weapons that could destroy all mankind, it would not be sufficient;
If we were to disarm the nations but not to end the brutality with which the police attack black people in some countries, brown people in others;
Moslems in some countries, Hindus in other; Baptists in some countries, atheists in others; Communists in some countries, conservatives in others—it would not be sufficient;
If we were to end outright police brutality but not prevent some people from wallowing in luxury while others starved, it would not be sufficient;
If we were to make sure that no one starved but were not to free the daring poets from their jails, it would not be sufficient; If we were to free the poets from their jails but to train the minds of people so that they could not understand the poets, it would not be sufficient;
If we educated all men and women to understand the free creative poets but forbade them to explore their own inner ecstasies, it would not be sufficient; If we allowed men and women to explore their inner ecstasies but would not allow them to love one another and share in the human fraternity, it would not be sufficient.
How much then are we in duty bound to struggle, work, share, give, think, plan, feel, organize, sit-in, speak out, hope, and be on behalf of Mankind!
The call is clear. And it is enough to paralyze a person. The list of injustices is so overwhelming , we can be paralyzed in deep anguish so we can’t even register the thousands of ways, big and small, our world is hurting. As Rebecca Parker says in Blessing the World, “our despair keeps us from being able to see.”
So what can I do? How can I engage every social justice concern in my ministry, knowing that alone I cannot solve every problem, knowing that every problem is dependent upon every other problem? It goes back to Rev. Cooper’s challenge: Who is my neighbor, and what is their pain?
As I leave New York City for the warmth of Key West, Florida, and my ministerial internship at One Island Family, I know my first step is to learn who my neighbor is. I already know there are issues of homelessness in Key West, as well as a similar question of income inequality in a tourist town. I already know people come to Key West for a variety of reasons, but that one of those is escape from personal pain. But that’s just what I know from some discussions with Rev. Dr. Randy Becker and a short visit in March. I imagine that in Key West – much like any location I find myself in – the first months will be exegeting the community and learning who these people are and what they face.
The second step, of course, is action. How can I help ease their burdens? And how can the congregations and communities I find myself in help others? We don’t have to take on large tasks – I think of Bishop Desmond Tutu’s comment that “the good news to a hungry person is bread.” If we can offer food to someone who is hungry, or a roof to someone who is homeless, or child care to someone who needs help in order to work, or medicine to someone who is sick, then we should do that first. The letters to politicians, the marches and protests, the large fundraising efforts – those are important too. As Margaret Mead rightly said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Our most pressing social justice concern is the one in front of us – we fail as ministers if we do not act.