March 04, 2012

Glimpses of Unity

The café was buzzing with energy. Silverware clanked against plates, steam rose from coffee cups like miniature flues scattered around the room, and dozens of conversations joined together to create a low-level hum. This is a common picture at Cherith Brook in the mornings, but this morning brought something special with it. It was the day we were to celebrate the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

We planned a few things for the morning. Josh prepared some civil rights songs for us to sing, volunteers were busy serving a southern-style breakfast, and I was facilitating a communal reading of Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. I was initially hesitant about reading this particular speech because its popularity has kept hidden some of Dr. King’s writings about economic justice and the dangers of militarism. However, this hesitation quickly subsided as the readings and singing began.

We had arranged the morning in such a way that between songs, different guests would come up and read sections of Dr. King’s speech. Some folks read quietly, some read loudly and some seemed to take on the persona of Dr. King himself—singing their way through the speech. All of this singing and reading began to transform the shower house. It seemed that the further we got into Dr. King’s speech, the more the spirit of the room changed. It was as if we were all becoming engulfed by a wave we knew we couldn’t escape—so we chose to surrender and go with it. It was clear the Holy Spirit was at work as a spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood descended and filled the café. It was beautiful.

I am using the word beautiful in an expansive way. The mood in the shower house that day was joyous, celebratory, and freedom-filled. Our differences seemed to melt away as we all were swept up in the moment. This moment of reconciliation, of oneness, reminded me of something beautiful Paul wrote to the church in Corinth:

“Because of [the resurrected life] we don’t evaluate people by what they have or how they look. We looked at the Messiah that way once and got it all wrong, as you know. We certainly don’t look at him that way anymore. Now we look inside, and what we see is that anyone united with the Messiah gets a fresh start, is created new. The old life is gone; a new life burgeons! Look at it! All this comes from the God who settled the relationship between us and God, and then called us to settle our relationships with each other,” (2 Cor. 5, The Message).

In a world that labels people by status, power, race, class, nation, tribe and tongue, Paul reminds us of a more beautiful way of viewing the world – a world where everyone is welcomed regardless of their standing; a world filled with redemption and reconciliation; a world where all the broken pieces have been picked up, dusted off and put together again in a new, more perfect way. This, my friends, is beauty on a large scale! And all who were present that morning in the shower house got a taste of that new world.

Unfortunately, this is not always the reality we live into. A city ordinance was passed recently that prevents recycling centers from accepting anything that is transported by a shopping cart. The “shopping cart ban” was a small part of a much larger ordinance, aimed at hopefully curbing the increased property crimes that have been taking place. Our neighborhood paper even ran a story about this ordinance, which contained a couple of photos of our friends pushing shopping carts. The implied message was obvious: people who push shopping carts steal copper from homes. In the paper, our friend’s names were not cited and they were not interviewed. The truly sad thing is that we know the people featured, and they don’t steal the things they recycle. Yet the local newspaper looked only at those who do steal what they recycle and then painted everyone who is wheeling a cart around in a negative light. The truth is that the two people featured in the article come by their scrap honestly; rummaging through dumpsters, recycle bins and empty lots. They would rather scrap to earn a wage than hustle or rob someone. Now these people who have been labeled “thieves” have to come up with some other means to transport what they find to make ends meet.

I mention this story because it highlights the brokenness present in our relationships. Paul spoke to the church in Corinth about how we are charged with being reconciled with our neighbors. This “shopping cart ban” is an example of an otherwise useful ordinance being tarnished because of an unwillingness to understand the people behind the carts. Instead of bringing us together, this ban drives yet another wedge between “us” and “them,” which is not what this new world is about. Until we wipe the film of division and assumption from our glasses we will not be able to see clearly the harm we are doing to one another, which will prevent the beauty that comes from reconciliation.

There are many hardships our friends in the shower house endure daily. This new ordinance is just another tool to criminalize those already down on their luck. It is a heavy yoke to bear, which is why the hope, inspiration, and laughter present that morning while we listened to Dr. King’s words was so beautiful. Despite the marginalization, oppression and isolation there was a shared sense of freedom among us. We were being made new. We were being given a fresh start. We saw a glimpse of the reconciled community and didn’t want it to end.

Steve, a friend of ours who frequents the shower house, requested to read the final paragraphs of Dr. King’s speech. When the time came for him to read, the room fell silent. Then he boldly sang out the most powerful words of the morning. It was like we were hearing Dr. King himself. A sense of freedom gripped us as Steve sang these words: “And when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and hamlet, from every state and city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children—black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Catholics and Protestants—will be able to join hands and to sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last, free at last; thank God almighty, we are free at last.”


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  1. The shopping cart ban makes some sense, unless you actually know the people behind the handles. I guess it is easy for city leadership to legislate from their standpoint, but it shows that there is not good solidarity with those who are affected by their rules.

  2. Nick, this is beautiful. Thank you for taking the responsibility to put a person face to folks that tend to be painted (and almost always negatively) with such a broad brush that the individual is lost in the landscape.