Preacher: Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Message: "Community Control"
Movement for Black Lives Series
Scripture: Jeremiah 1:4-10
We’ve reached the middle of August, and some of our students and teachers are already back to school. Oakland schools started last week, Berkeley schools start tomorrow, Albany and Alameda schools start the last week of this month. We’ll be lifting up all of our students and educators on August 30 in worship as we celebrate this time of going Back to School, and the importance of learning and growing and serving. I remember starting school in the middle of August and often going just half a day due to heat warnings. We’re blessed with relatively temperate weather in the Bay area, but even so, these longer summer days can make it hard to remember the cold and short days of winter.
But time does move forward, seasons change, and we will be in a new season before we know it. On one particular cold and snowy winter day in December 2013, I found myself in a rented SUV with seven other Fellowship of Reconciliation staff members headed from metropolitan New York City to Ithaca, New York. We had planned to leave at 9 that morning but had to delay until 11 for roads to be cleared. Why were we heading north to upstate New York in the middle of snowstorm you might wonder?
Well, Ithaca is the home of Cornell University, which in turn is the home of the Dorothy Cotton Institute. Dorothy Cotton was the education director for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Though she was a member of Martin Luther King’s inner circle, we don’t hear much about her story. With Septima Clark who King called “the mother of the movement”, Cotton created and directed the Citizen Education Program which focused on teaching the requirements for voter registration and well as community empowerment. When King was assassinated in Memphis, Cotton was with him. After that time of great foment in the movement, Cotton was recruited to Cornell University’s administration in keeping with her vocation as an educator. Within a few years, she had established the Dorothy Cotton Institute at Cornell to promote education for global citizenship and human rights.
Every year, the Fellowship of Reconciliation presented the Martin Luther King award for nonviolence and social justice and on that year, the recipients were Dorothy Cotton and Vincent Harding. Vincent Harding was also among King’s closest companions. He was the writer of King’s pivotal Beyond Vietnam speech, delivered at Riverside Church in New York City one year to the day before King’s assassination. Neither Cotton nor Harding ever gave up on struggling for the vision of a transformed world. They heard the call of God as young persons through the language of their faith and their time, and never stopped responding. And because this award was to be presented at the annual gala of the Dorothy Cotton Institute, we were travelling to Ithaca, New York, in December.
In their acceptances speeches, both Cotton and Harding spoke of the importance of persistence and how they sustained hope over years and decades. For Cotton a key to her perseverance was her love of gospel music, which inspired the formation of the Dorothy Cotton Jubilee Singers. She began her speech that night singing Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around, and those at our table who had just been with her in Palestine talked about how she would lead the delegation there in singing freedom songs, bringing the voice of struggle and hope into that land of our faith so mired now in conflict and despair. She was an ardent advocate of nonviolence as the most potent vehicle for change. She said, “If a house is burning, and a bucket of water doesn’t put out the water, it doesn’t mean that water won’t put out fire. It means we need more water. And so with nonviolence.”
When Vincent Harding spoke, he talked of the importance of being grounded in one’s own community and culture, knowing his history and those who had sacrificed to get him where he was. Harding was a prophet who lived his life in faithful struggle, beginning as a young man when he and an interracial group from the Mennonite church he founded in Chicago travelled to Alabama to meet Dr. King. He was 27, King was 29. He persevered for the next six decades through a changing political landscape, ending his career as a professor at United Methodist Iliff School of Theology. Harding’s formula for activism was: bring people together, remind them of the strength of their roots, listen to their wisdom, and connect them to a broader biblical and historical movement. Engage them in the levers of power in their community and beyond.
It was an inspiring and powerful night, hearing the sweep of history both Cotton and Harding had lived.
The next morning, several of us were up early to catch a 6am flight out of Ithaca, one of few not cancelled due to weather. We sat on the tarmac for some time and it was unclear if we would take off. After a couple of hours, it was finally wheels up. I had not been home in almost two weeks and did not want to miss my connecting flight, so when we finally landed in Detroit, I ran with singular focus to my next gate, only to see the gate agents close the door when I was about 300 feet away.
As I walked up to the customer service desk, I saw that Vincent Harding and his wife were there ahead of me. It wasn’t clear but there seemed to be some trouble. Vincent and I greeted each other and then I looked at the customer service agents and said, “Do you know who this man is? He is a hero. We’re both coming from Ithaca where he was presented with a lifetime award.” “Oh! What do you do!?” the customer service agents exclaimed. And Vincent said, simply and with a wry smile, “I work on democracy.”
Today concludes our series on the platform pieces of the movement for Black lives with a focus on the plank advocating for Community Control. When Vincent said, “I work on democracy,” he was talking about community control, the engagement of citizens, and particularly Black citizens, in collectively determining what is best for them. He was talking about the power of communities to govern in representative and indigenously appropriate ways. The platform states, “We demand a world where those most impacted in our communities control the laws, institutions, and policies that are meant to serve us – from our schools to our local budgets, economies, police departments, and our land – while recognizing that the rights and histories of our Indigenous family must also be respected.” One of the chants in streets right now is “This is what democracy looks like!”
Our scripture for today comes from the book of Jeremiah as Jeremiah receives his call from God to prophesy to the community of Israelites. The strength and gift of the Jewish people was their singular relationship with God, Yahweh. In the values and practices of Judaism, this distinct community, was supposed to create systems and structures that supported their particular God-given ethics of justice, compassion and mercy. The belief and trust that theirs was a special relationship with a God who desired freedom and goodness not only for them but for all people was supposed to guide and form their lives. But the people had strayed from this singular relationship with God, allowing the politics of the day and their materialistic desires to have more of their attention than faithful living.
And so God comes to Jeremiah, a young man of 18, and says, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations. You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you.” Jeremiah, aware even at that young age of the demands this call would make on his life, protests. But of course, this only serves to confirm that this is indeed a legitimate and divine call.
Like Jeremiah, when Vincent Harding and Dorothy Cotton were called into prophetic service by a God who has a special relationship with them and their community of Black Americans, they were young persons, in their early 20s. Like Jeremiah, both spent their lives in prophetic service as educators, preachers, exhorters, guides. Now both have passed away, Harding in 2014 less than a year after that wonderful evening in Ithaca, and Cotton in 2018.
And now, 60 years after they both began in what Harding always referred to as “not the civil rights movement” but the “Black led freedom struggle” new leaders, new prophets are rising up. We have heard about some of them in this series. When we look at Jeremiah, at Harding and Cotton, what we need to understand is that the words of any prophet in any age are not suggestions, they are divine orders. When Alicia Garza, Opal Tometti and Patrisse Cullors say Black Lives Matter, this is not a suggestion, it is a divine order. It is not merely a good idea to struggle for racial justice and the dignity and humanity of Black and brown persons. It is a requirement of persons of faith as commanded by God. It is a calling to each of us that cannot be denied.
In the beginning as Jeremiah exhorted the people to turn away from the ways that were exploitative and focused on power for a few, the King, Josiah, embarks on reforms. King Josiah begins to rule in a way that returns the temple to its central role in the lives of the people. There is progress in this movement toward freedom and faithfulness. But then Josiah dies and the people return to their idolatry. This faithlessness makes them weak, and they are crushed by the invading Babylonians from the north.
Jeremiah lived in a tumultuous time of upheaval and uncertainty when the thrill of progress shifted to the despair of stagnation or worse, the pain of slipping back from hard won gains. Yet, because Jeremiah kept reminding the people who and whose they were, it was also a time of great hope. We, too, live in a time of upheaval and uncertainty but also great hope. In spite of the subjugation of the Israelites by the Babylonians, Jeremiah continually reminds them that they were not made for that. God calls them into freedom and God will walk with them on that journey.
At the end of the Book of Jeremiah, when the kingdom has been conquered and the Israelites have gone into exile, the word of the Lord again comes to Jeremiah. In the midst of destruction brought about by the refusal of the people to listen to God’s call to repentance and uncertainty about the future, God tells Jeremiah to go to the land that was once theirs and buy a field. Jeremiah can’t believe this instruction, it’s not a rational act based on the reality around him. But it is a hopeful act. It is an act based on how things should be.
Today we are in a time in the movement for Black lives when we are beginning to see some reforms. Harding and Cotton, too, lived in a time when they had the blessing of seeing some progress in racial justice. But we also have a long way to go. When God tells Jeremiah to buy a field it is an assurance that in spite of the distance to the promised land, we will get there. As an educator in the second half of his life, Vincent Harding was known for beginning gatherings with singing. His favorite song to lead was Jacob’s Ladder, but he would add new words in accordance with his own prophetic call. “We are building up a new world,” he would begin… “Builders must be strong.” Then he would continue, “Courage, sisters, don’t get weary. Courage, brothers, don’t get weary. Courage, people, don’t get weary, though the way be long.” May we hear the words of this prophet not as suggestion, not merely as a good idea, but as a divine order to people of faith, and may we respond with courage and perseverance. Amen.