Our Suffering Produces Understanding and Transformation to create the Beloved Community

Carol Bullard-Bates

Our Suffering Produces Understanding of our Problems and ultimately leads to Transformation to be who God wants us to be and Create the Beloved Community

 

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion— to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor. They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations. Strangers will shepherd your flocks; foreigners will work your fields and vineyards. And you will be called priests of the LORD, you will be named ministers of our God. You will feed on the wealth of nations, and in their riches you will boast. Instead of your shame you will receive a double portion, and instead of disgrace you will rejoice in your inheritance. And so you will inherit a double portion in your land, and everlasting joy will be yours. “For I, the LORD, love justice; I hate robbery and wrongdoing. In my faithfulness I will reward my people and make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants will be known among the nations and their offspring among the peoples. All who see them will acknowledge that they are a people the LORD has blessed.” I delight greatly in the LORD; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the soil makes the sprout come up and a garden causes seeds to grow, so the Sovereign LORD will make righteousness and praise spring up before all nations.

Isaiah 61: 1-11, New International Version

 

Jesus uses this scripture in Luke 4:18-19 as he introduces his ministry after his baptism. In his hometown synagogue, He challenges his own neighbors of Nazareth to see how blind they have been to who they are, who the people are that they looked down on are, and who God chooses as His own. He shares the stories of Elijah going to help the widow in Zarephath in Sidon, instead of Israeli widows, and Elijah healing the Syrian leper, Naaman, instead of lepers in Israel. The Nazarenes are so Israel focused, they cannot stand to think of Jesus’ and Elijah’s good news being preached to others, and try to kill him right then and there. Jesus was trying to open the minds and hearts of those he grew up with so they would see God’s far wider vision of who can be God’s people. 

 

The people of Israel were living through oppression by Rome. Many of their religious leaders were co-opted by their oppressors, as many of our church leaders who claim to be followers of Jesus have been co-opted by power in our country today. Those living in Nazareth were focused on Israel’s needs and no-one else’s, just as many of our people in the US have been led to believe that by making “America Great Again” their problems and their suffering would be changed. Jesus chose this Scripture from Isaiah because he knew that it would ring true to his neighbors in Nazareth. They were living under captivity, they were poor, many were mourning and grieving their loss of independence under Rome. They truly were captives. They were at a low ebb. But they could not see the suffering outside of their country, and the needs of those in other nations. It was too painful to see beyond their lives and to even consider that others needed God’s healing and release. From their pain came their anger at Jesus challenging their perspective, and then their hate. They were ready to kill their hometown boy even though they had heard he was healing and preaching in other places.

 

And so, Jesus calls us to this point in our world’s, nation’s, community’s and personal history to see what His perspective is in this suffering of the pandemic, the suffering of white supremacy and racism, and the suffering of militarism. I am called today to open our understanding of how suffering can either open our minds and hearts to new possibilities and see the disenfranchised people of our world as those who can rebuild us, and lead us in to a new Beloved Community, or close them in anger and hate towards those who are suffering. I believe we have experienced both of these in this country and we need to spread the light and hope of Isaiah’s and Jesus’ challenge to us at this moment in our history. Jesus wants us to walk with Him in the suffering so we can understand what our problems are, both individually and collectively, work with these problems and grow in to people who can change the world in to the Beloved Community, where everyone is honored, respected and is flourishing. When we are walking on the path of being healers and reconcilers in community, we can experience the everlasting joy that Isaiah 61 describes. We who are white will accompany and support our poor, captive, blind, Native people, minorities, and unemployed so they can guide us to see what needs to be done. Then we will work towards what structures need to be changed in our church and in our society. Then we will rebuild the ancient ruins of our democracy, and the places long devastated by our US empire. Then we will all flourish with their wisdom and strength. Our oppressive structures in this country have created so many blocks for the creative power of our oppressed people to be expressed. These structures prevent us from experiencing the beauty of their ideas, gifts and strengths. White supremacy has “put out the fire of the Spirit” in our people of color. It is time for a change.

 

I am going to start here with my own personal growth in this time of suffering. As the oldest child of an oldest child, of an oldest child, of an only child, I have had problems with taking charge and being bossy.  I also came from a boisterous, talkative family where you have to interrupt others to get a word in edgewise. Add to that the fact that I had polio at one and a half years old, and had to wear a brace from that time onward until I was 16 years old. Ever since I can remember, adults and children in public places have said, and continue to say out loud or under their breath, “What’s wrong with you?” or “What happened to her?” which resulted in my feeling that I need to prove myself to the world. I felt I needed to show the world that there was nothing wrong with me.  If you ask Kent, he will verify without hesitation my tendency to tell him what to do and how to do it. I also remember when one of our Bethany board members years ago told me I was not listening and was interrupting people. I still have to control this tendency in myself. And yet, as horrifying as this pandemic has been in destroying people’s lives, with Kent and me at home so much more than has ever been the case during this pandemic, I have been able to see more often all my tendencies to tell him how to do things, when to do things and all my comments about him not doing something the way I wished he would have. Kent has patiently pointed these issues out to me, and I keep on focusing on how our love for each other is much more important than the details I often focus on.  I am slowly being transformed. How have you being transformed in this time in exile?

 

God has also given me the gift of being the chaplain organizer of two congregations during this pandemic: the Empowerment Faith Center, which is a community of undocumented immigrants, and Jethro’s Covenant Center, which is mostly a community of returning citizens. Jethro’s members have decided they want to support returning citizens and homeless people. Our focus in these congregations is on developing leadership in the members, to support each other spiritually in our lives, and to work for justice in our community. No matter how much I want to take over in the meetings, I am constantly aware of the congregation’s needs to develop their gifts and strengths. God and Jethro’s and Empowerment Faith Center and this pandemic all are helping me to step back, and see the gifts and strengths each person has to give! How sad I feel that I missed so much in the past because of not listening or interrupting, or not letting those I know give this world their insights and gifts. Forgive me Jesus and those I have hurt or limited in any way. I do not want to quench the Spirit’s fire.

 

Now I want to focus on the Eighth Day Faith Community and what the suffering of the pandemic and the racism of the Trump administration and focused light on the ongoing racist structures of our society has brought to us. Wendy Dorsey, and Steve and Karen Mohr have been voices calling in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of antiracism in Eighth Day Faith Community!” for many years, but there was little response, and in some cases, push back. Steve and Karen Mohr preached to us about racism. We whites were not ready to look at our own racism as a community, and face how we have perpetrated racism in our faith community of mostly white people, because of those of us who are white not wanting to explore deeply together our unconscious white privilege and racist thinking as a community. I know that I personally have hurt Helen Walker because of my unconscious sense of white privilege in our work together with the Empowerment Faith Center. Helen is a woman of incredibly strong faith, and wonderful ideas. She has the gift of encouragement and love, and is committed to those who have suffered and who are homeless because she has known suffering in her own life. She has had a ministry with youth in the past, and with people on the street. She ministers to all people she comes across, including the ones she would do hair for in the nursing home where she worked. I want to confess to all of you, to Helen and to God how I am deeply sorry for how my blindness to my white privilege hurt her. I desperately need this process in my life of becoming an antiracist person. Thankfully, Wendy, Steve and Karen did not give up, and worked with Sharon Lockwood, and Harold Vines and Michael Hopkins and others to continue their vision of the path of racial reconciliation in our church and community. Some of our white members also attended antiracism training and attended Friends of Jesus Church to look at their own white privilege and unconscious racism. It has been a journey. 

 

We have no longer been able to deny white supremacy being alive and well in this country as Trump has encouraged it and opened up the floodgates of those who claim white supremacy and racism as their hope of defining our country. Then the pandemic hit, and the deaths of more and more men and women of color at the hands of police or white people continued to come to light, which has been the reality of our minority communities for centuries. We white people could no longer deny it. The fact of the health care disparities between our people who are white and our people of color in the time of the pandemic has also shone light on the truth of the systemic racism in our country.   I am thankful to see our new Eighth Day Faith Community Council, consisting of many more young people, affirming the proposal from the Racial Reconciliation and Justice Collective last week, to embrace becoming an antiracist church. This is truly Jesus’s call to broaden our perspective beyond our limited white privileged view of our lives, and to seriously open up to giving up white power in the church for establishing the Beloved Community. I was so glad to hear that our first task is to look inward at ourselves as a community to see where we need to change to become an antiracist church. I believe this will be one of the most challenging and important spiritual growth experiences for our white members in our lives. Forgive us, Jesus, for the ways we whites have hurt or limited our brothers and sisters of color in any way. I am so sorry and sad for any way we as a church have limited your gifts and your strengths. We have missed so much of what you had to offer us because of this. I pray this is the beginning of us accompanying you in what you are called to do so you can fully flourish in the Spirit, and we are no longer “putting out the Spirit’s fire” in your lives, as Paul talks about in I Thessalonians 5: 19. This is the good news of Jesus for all of us in Eighth Day. Our people of color will rebuild the ancient ruins and the places long devastated by our white privilege.

 

As a nation, we saw the death of George Floyd, and the emotional disconnection of the officer who killed him to George as a human being. We whites could no longer deny the danger men and women of color face every day in our country. The reality of our country’s white supremacy and its evil was staring us in the face. We all mourned the reality of a white officer not caring or even paying attention to this man pleading for his life, and letting him die in front of us and under his knee. I heard the pain of my friends of color, the depression and feelings of hopelessness that George Floyd’s unnecessary death brought up in them. They recognized the image of the white officer’s uncaring spirit with his knee on the neck of George Floyd as what they experience every day in just trying to live, with whites having their knee on their neck, limiting what they can be and do. It was too close to home and too much to see and process. It hit them in the heart. It was too painful and too real, exposing what they face every minute in the white world. Michael Wright has shared how this white supremacy knee prevents children of color to develop a strong identity. Then there was renewed energy for the fight against racism. Black Lives Matter took up the mantle and so many people across the nation dedicated themselves to defending our people of color and their rights in the community to not be attacked and killed unexpectedly, not to be imprisoned unjustly. My son Daniel’s girlfriend, Lovey, had her boss talk to her and listened when she recommended the company hire more people of color.  Our President Elect chose a woman of color to be Vice President. He is placing people of color in top roles in the government. From the suffering of this time of the pandemic, and the recognition of racism which has been spouted from the White House, God’s call is being heard to open up our eyes to help everyone to flourish in this country. We have looked at the enemy and it is us white people and white structures of oppression in every aspect of our society. 

 

We as individuals, as a church and as a nation cannot let this moment pass by and return to life as usual. There have been too many moments like this that have been passed by without major changes in our racist systems or in our full church’s commitment to dismantling our racist systems that plague us within our church and outside it. We must call ourselves to action and not stop until this injustice is ended, which will be a long haul. For whites, looking at our own white racism and white privilege is the first step. Ibram Kendi in “How to be an Antiracist” looks at his own unconscious acceptance of racist attitudes about his own community of color and chronicles his journey out of that mind set in to seeing himself and all people of color as racially equal, seeing the roots of the problems for people of color in power and policies, and the importance of confronting racial inequities wherever they exist. May we follow his lead and his path to become an antiracist church. We whites have begun to be willing to look at our racism which is the first step to becoming antiracist. Our understanding on how we break down our country’s racist structures will be clearer to us whites as we break down our own conscious and unconscious racist attitudes and beliefs.

 

We have gone through other suffering in this country in this election and the realization that we have almost half our population who are willing to follow a demagogue and his lies to help them with their pocket book, their feeling of personal and national power, their fear of anarchy, and their fear of suffering people from other nations with whom they feel they have no connection. They are the Nazarenes who can have hate take over their minds. How are we as Jesus followers to understand these people who God loves, but who are so different from us? Dee Taylor recently talked about how we need to look at our own internal struggles, which have been evident in me with how much trouble I have had to pray for Trump to change. Many of these people who followed Trump have chosen this demagogue, who is focused on the dismantling of our systems of government in favor of the corporations, so they will make more money. Many of them are focused on him because of their fears their jobs will be taken from them by immigrants, in spite of the research that it does not happen. Many are focused on him because of the issue of abortion which they do not believe in. How do we enable our citizens who feel left behind and fearful and angry to be empowered, so they will feel safe and feel they have a say in our society? As Bruce, our son in law, said to us yesterday, “How can we walk in their shoes?” How do we speak Jesus’ truth to them of focusing on poor and disenfranchised people and caring for those from other countries as our brothers and sisters? How do we create congregations so that poor people can develop the spiritual and political power to make a difference in the world? I believe the model we are using at the Empowerment Faith Center and Jethro’s Covenant Center is an important one. Jesus wants disenfranchised people to teach us how to be a just nation who honors every person, no matter who they are! This is a challenge to all of us and will be an ongoing journey for those of us who have Trump supporters in our families, or at our work, or in our community.

 

The other side of this election is how our communities of color and Hispanic communities gave us the opportunity to rid our country of this demagogue, Trump. So many people of color focused on getting out the vote to disempower this demagogue. So many white people had succumbed to the power of the demagogue. Our minority communities saw through his lies and the pandemic exposed his ineptitude to handle a destructive virus. I do believe that this allowed him to lose his presidency, and that if the pandemic had not happened we would have our democracy even more dismantled in these next four years. I am deeply grateful to our minority communities who, in spite of the inequities and racist policies they face in our country, still stood with our very flawed democracy to save it. That was a gift I will always treasure in our history. Our minorities saved our democracy, and will continue to do so even more if we take our white knee off their necks. Through their vote, they have begun the process of rebuilding our ancient ruins and the places devastated by our racism and white supremacy.

 

Another question I have is, how can we change as a nation to end the militarism of our country, and the ongoing destruction of countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya and so many others? Why are we supporting the Israeli military occupation of Palestinians? This is not God’s path and we need to open our eyes to the fact that our US budget is more than half military spending under normal times, when so many of our children are hungry and go to inadequate schools that do not encourage their children of color that attend. What could have happened in those countries we have destroyed if we had sent the money we spent on destroying them by investing in their countries in areas for which they needed help? Our budget also has to demonstrate our commitment to giving every child in this country a good education in safe schools, opportunities for every person to work productively, and health support. I pray that in our church budget, which we will discuss later, our church will commit ourselves to helping our children of color to be a spiritual and political powerful part of our community and the world. This will begin to happen with a call Michael Wright is hearing.

 

Psalm 126 speaks of when the captives were brought back to Zion from exile. I am sure the captives had had a long time to think about where they had gone wrong in their nation during their exile. In the Isaiah passage, he speaks God’s words, “For I, the Lord, love justice; I hate robbery and iniquity.” The captives had seen how Israel had treated poor people unjustly during their exile. They were ready to follow the Lord and establish justice, end robbery and iniquity. “Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy.” When we keep close to God and Jesus’ path, examine ourselves, and grow in to the people and the community and the nation God wants us to be, we will have joy. I would like to have us share some of the joy we have experienced in this pandemic. My 95-year-old father told me that he finds joy in “seeing my friends, getting exercise, eating well. Life is a joy. At my age, every day is a joy.” My son Daniel said he finds joy in “imagination games like dungeons and dragons, having a really comfortable love in my life, exercising and moving my body, fun video games, and tv shows. Getting to connect with people I miss.” My husband Kent said “When I wake up in the morning and realize you and I are doing our best to help people change their lives.” I told him back that I find joy in “Deep meaningful relationships,” many of which are happening with Victor, a returning citizen from Jethro’s Covenant Center, who sits with me in front of Potter’s House every Wednesday and Friday morning to speak to those who are homeless or on society’s edge to give them spiritual strength and support them in any way we can. Sitting with and working with Victor helps me truly experience that I am on this journey with Jesus. Eliana’s response to where she feels joy was “being able to spend endless time with my family.” Irene, Eliana’s and Michael’s daughter, said she finds joy in her little sister Destiny and at her birthday. I would love to ask anyone who would like to share a word or a phrase about the joy you have experienced in the midst of this pandemic, to please share it now.

 

Can we imagine when we have established the Beloved Community in our midst, what joy we will all experience? We all have been in exile with this pandemic. Our people of color have been in exile for four hundred years, taken from their vibrant cultures. Our Native people’s exile began in 1492 when Columbus arrived and began the destruction of their civilization, which would have shown us how to live in this precious world without destroying it. Will we change ourselves and our country so that Psalm 126 is fulfilled “Then it was said among the nations, The Lord has done great things for them?” May God continue to guide us to use the exile of this pandemic for the transformation we need to be the people, the church and the nation Jesus calls us to be. Then we can experience the joy of loving each other no matter how poor or how rich, how educated or how uneducated, no matter what color we are. We will create a world where every person feels a strong sense of identity and can use their gifts and strengths for God’s Kin-dom, and we will bring Jesus’ light everywhere we are. We are ready for your birth, and your light Jesus, in our hearts, our minds, our church, our society, and our world. Amen