Accompanying the Oppressed to Form a Just World

Carol Bullard-Bates
Helen Walker

Psalm 146 makes it clear that God is behind and rejoices in every action we take to uphold the cause of the oppressed.  God watches over the alien in our communities.  That was Jesus’ way of life, to be with the oppressed and develop their leadership power in sharing the good news that they were God’s people, no matter how outcast they were in their society.  That gave them the vision of what God’s Kingdom was, so they could stand up against oppression and work for justice.

Listen to Carol's teachng:

Jesus was born into the oppressive Roman Empire that had colonized Israel.  Even the Jewish religious leaders were more focused on the details they had added to the law that effectively left out the poor, than what God wanted of them.  Jesus was immersed in the words of the prophets who had to keep reminding Israel that God wanted them to take care of people who were poor and the aliens rather than focus on self-serving sacrifices that had nothing to do with God’s justice.  We too, as followers of Jesus, can be so brain-washed in our oppressive empire of the United States and its militarism and consumerism and racism, that we forget that God upholds the cause of the oppressed, and wants us to act to end the oppression with leadership from the oppressed, not for them.  It has been so painful to see our President increase the oppression of our aliens and our poor people and so make the chasm between rich people and poor people even greater.

Those of us who are white are blinded to the fact that we are unconsciously oppressing our brothers and sisters who are people of color, or those with less education or income than we have, or with disabilities, without even being aware of it.  We do not see the privilege we live in as compared to our brothers and sisters of color, who are treated badly and disrespectfully every day of their lives, even by us some times.  I have experienced this type of disempowerment with my own disability throughout my life, with everyone looking at me differently as I walked with a full leg brace as a child, then with a cane in my 30’s, and now with crutches.  I saw this disempowerment in action with Helen Walker when she and I were trying to find out about space available last Thursday for Helen’s auxiliary congregation of the United Covenant Union she is leading, the Empowerment Community Center.  We walked into the white building manager’s office of St Stephen’s church.  I introduced Helen and me and started talking to him about the space possibilities.  He did not talk to Helen at all in discussing the space, so I introduced her again.  He still did not even look at her.  He showed me the schedules he had on his computer for the different spaces they had to rent and described each space.  After we left Helen shared how she had gone to talk to him about space and he had barely talked to her about anything except what they charge for rooms to rent.  She shared how she was “used to it.” She has shared how she and others are mistreated at the food pantry.  I am sure the building manager was totally unaware of his inattention to Helen, but it is so clear to me what our brothers and sisters of color go through every day, unseen, unheard, and disempowered. 

Earlier I had seen Helen in action at the food pantry which is run out of St Stephen’s Church.  She was directing me nonverbally about who would respond to me and who I shouldn’t try to talk to because they would not want to talk.  Later I talked with Matthew Mounk, from the United Covenant Union, in Baltimore, who is working with Helen and me to support our leadership development.  He stressed, that Helen is a leader; those who use the food pantry look up to her.  I have appreciated seeing her in action as she investigates the neighborhood and its resources for the Community Center and envisions what she wants the Center to be.  She is a treasure of spiritual power and is going to make a difference in our neighborhood as she leads people who have been clients in dependent roles in nonprofit organizations, to become decision-making members of the Empowerment Community Center.  She wants to lead her members in fighting DC policies and laws that are holding people of color back and disempowering them.  It has also been exciting to see Eugene this week, drawing his vision of the layout for the Community Center space when we find it. 

Those of us who are white who have been in the Church of the Saviour for decades have often seen those who are oppressed as having needs we think we know.  Many of us decided to form nonprofits to provide for those needs, without working with the people we were supposedly serving, and have them tell us how we can help.  I am guilty of this and I repent of it today.  I am now trying to follow a different path of community organizing.  It is a path I am learning from Matthew Munk of the United Covenant Union. 

The United Covenant Union is the first spiritually based union in the United States whose vision is to create auxiliary congregations of people who are disenfranchised to form strong supportive relationships in their community, train them in understanding their spiritual power, and their political power in the public arena.  By training them in leadership skills, they are able to create community, and work together to provide for their own needs, as well as change the policies and laws that disempower them.  Matthew is also the Coordinator of the United Covenant Union.  He, Harold Vines and I are working with people in this community who have needs and supporting them in creating the path they want to follow.  Helen’s Empowerment Community Center is an outgrowth of this process.  We are focusing on creating congregations that develop their own leadership and make their own decisions, discover their own sense of personal and community power to work for better treatment and more just systems in our community and city.

Jesus’ best friends who followed him were those who were poor and despised, the fishermen, the tax collectors.  He chose twelve men, many of whom were looked down on in Israel’s society, to be his leaders.  He spoke to women who were considered property in his time, and encouraged them to speak about His vision for their lives.  He spoke to the lepers and told them to share the good news of their healing, bringing them back into the community.  By encouraging these oppressed people to share their personal stories of meeting Jesus and being healed, all of these people became leaders wherever they went, sharing the good news of their release from their poverty and shame, and their new-found spiritual and personal power that was available to everyone who was oppressed, poor and outcast.  Jesus’ life was all about empowerment and helping the oppressed to realize they were powerful children of God.  He knew they could build God’s Kingdom on earth.

If we are to be followers of Jesus, we need to be hanging out with the poor and oppressed people of our community, sharing our journeys together, encouraging them to claim their personal and spiritual power to fight for what they need.  Jesus used Isaiah’s words to introduce his ministry, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to preach good news to the poor…” Later from the same scripture, Isaiah,  says “they will become oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord,” and “they will rebuild our ruined cities and the places long devastated.”  Isaiah shared God’s vision that it was those who were poor who would rebuild the city and the community.  Can we support our poor people here in Washington DC to do this?

Amos challenges the complacent in Zion who lounge in their easy living, feel secure, and forget those who are oppressed and suffering.  He warns them that their exile is coming.  David Hilfiker is also sounding the alarm that our democracy is ending.  I question whether we have had a democracy when I look at all the voter suppression tactics we have perpetrated in the time of our democracy.  Will it be a bad thing to have this supposed democracy go in to exile?  Are we going to fight the greater and greater chasm between those who are rich and those who are poor?  Where in our lives are we complacent about the needs of poor and homeless people here on Columbia Road?

Luke describes Jesus telling the story of the rich man who dressed in purple and fine linen, and lived in luxury.  Lazarus, a beggar, laid at his gate.  The rich man had everything he needed, and Lazarus “longed to eat what fell from the rich man’s table.” Jesus describes a situation where these two men were living close to each other, but there was a chasm between them because the rich man did not ever “see” Lazarus as human and in need.  Lazarus could see what was being eaten and what was falling off the rich man’s table, but the rich man never looked at Lazarus, never had compassion on him.  The rich man’s blindness created the chasm, not Lazarus.  Lazarus was there, desperately hungry.  The rich man missed his chance to be Lazarus’s friend.  Then after death, the chasm continues, but now it is the rich man who is looking up at Lazarus, longing for water to quench his thirst in Hell.  Lazarus is safe in a close relationship with Abraham in heaven, enjoying the presence of his father in the faith.  Is Jesus telling us that whatever chasm we create in our lives here on earth with each other will be true after we die?  Who are we not seeing and hearing in our lives?

I remember when I first came to DC with my first husband Harvey Bullard-Bates, Gordon told me to get to know someone who was poor.  I met Rufus Clayton who lived in Sarah’s Circle.  He taught me a lot and inspired me to follow Jesus more closely.  He also told me how he had been working on building the Pentagon and that at least one or two black men’s bodies were poured in to the concrete of that building.  I was horrified.  I recently heard the names of some of the male slaves who built the White House.  It meant everything to hear their real names, at the same time as feeling the deep shock of the misery they had suffered without their freedom, building a president’s home that was supposed to be an emblem of democracy. 

Kent and I listened Thursday night this week to Gordon Cosby’s last sermon he gave on December 28, 2008.  He surprised us both when he said he was involved with the biggest scam in his life: separating the well-to-do from the underprivileged.  Gordon recognized the chasm between rich and poor people he had supported in his ministry.  Let us not continue that chasm in this church or in this world.

If we are to follow Jesus, we need to hang out with those who are oppressed, too, like Jesus did, develop close relationships with them, accompany them to discover their spiritual power and leadership ability and have them lead us to fight their oppression and bring justice to our community and our world.  I challenge Eighth Day to be a sponsor for some of the congregations of oppressed people we are envisioning in this neighborhood with the United Covenant Union.  I am hoping Wendy Dorsey will consider being your field agent to keep you in touch with what is going on in the congregations we are forming.  Helen’s congregation is being developed as we speak, and Harold’s congregation of returning citizens is in process, as well as one the members of Jubilee Church and I are envisioning for our homeless neighbors on the street. 

 asked Helen Walker to come up and share some of her life experiences.  (No transcript available for Helen’s teaching but an audio is available above.)

Helen sang a song about going to God’s throne when she is in trouble before she shared about her life.  She shared about being the child of an addicted mother who left her alone for days at the age of five and younger with no food and asked people to take care of her in different places.  She would knock on peoples’ doors to ask if she could eat.  She did not remember ever taking a bath.  She was abused by her mother’s boyfriends and was eventually put in foster care.  When she was taken away from her mother, the social worker gave her a bath and gave her clean new clothes.  She had been wearing her clothes for a month and children used to make fun of her at school because of this.  Her foster mother was physically abusive and she was raped by her foster brothers.  She was placed in Junior Village several times and was raped by men there.  In spite of all her abuse, she completed her GED and learned hairdressing and is now heading up the Empowerment Community Center. 

Helen’s son, Eugene, then read about the Empowerment Community Center which Helen and he are working to create. 

The Empowerment Community Center is a member led organization of the United Covenant Union focused on creating and running services for ourselves that are respectful and empowering to our members.  All members will have a voice in what happens at the Center because members are the decision- making group for what we want to do.  We will not be clients, we will be members who lead the organization and choose its goals.  We are focused on advocating for ourselves and will work on making changes to laws and governmental services that affect us negatively.

Our goals are the following:
1. To create a food bank that provides fresh and healthy food to its members, and share in a healthy meal once a week together.
2. To meet together weekly to strengthen ourselves spiritually, build community, support each other, and make decisions about our next steps.
3. To learn about civics so we can change our lives for the better in the public arena.
4. To work to change laws and services that affect us negatively.

Please join us and make a difference in your life and the lives of others!

We meet on Thursdays at 11AM in the Mount Pleasant Library on Lamont Street, in one of the conference rooms in the lower level.

We look forward to seeing you there!

Helen Walker, Steward
Carol Bullard-Bates, Local Chaplain Organizer
Matthew Mounk, Acting General Coordinator of the United Covenant Union

Carol continued:

At the end of Gordon’s final sermon, he shared the beginning of John’s gospel about who Jesus is.  “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.  We have seen His glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Gordon shared that Jesus’ glory is love.  We are all connected in that love.  There is a spark of God in all of us, no matter how dim it may have become.  Jesus caused that spark to shine wherever he went and with whomever he met.  His healing and prophetic challenges helped every person realize their spiritual power and their ability to be loved and to love.  He helped the tax collector to see he had to pay back those who he had cheated and start acting justly.  The apostles learned from Jesus about who they were in God’s eyes, as well as seeing the structures of oppression from Rome and their own spiritual leaders.  Then Jesus trained and empowered seventy others, and sent them out to train others to learn about God’s and Jesus’ love and the spiritual power they had to change their lives and their society.  The training and the love and the empowerment kept going through these disciples more than two thousand years to today.  Now it is our turn.  Jesus’ followers changed the face of this entire world with just three years of Jesus’ empowerment.  Let us accompany our poor brothers and sisters, so their sparks and light shine and they can change their lives, this city and this world!   Amen.