Every time I leave the Lakeland Correctional Facility in Coldwater MI after visiting our son Mark I feel a sense of angry frustration. Not with Mark -- the visits with him are increasingly pleasant and positive and forward-looking as we spend more time together -- but with the prison system in general, and in MI in particular. Mark wants to communicate, wants to learn, wants to take correspondence courses (currently applying for an art history class) wants to prepare for his release in a few years -- but he has no access to a computer. This is proof to me that the prison system does not want inmates to succeed in life outside prison walls. If this were the goal, computer skills would be at the top of the list of requirements for all exiting prisoners. I know in my heart that it is wrong that MI has chosen to build more prisons rather than provide true education for change and success among its huge prison population. I know that this issue is a deep one of racism and the American “throw-away” culture.
So I dream of being the little old lady who fought the system and got computers and computer classes into every state prison in MI. [Hold up my placard saying “I care about prisoners!] I get on the internet, I search and surf. I haven’t found much so far. There don’t seem to be organized groups that I can join for concerted effort. I haven’t yet found evidence of legislators who have suggested providing computer access for prisoners. Some of you probably know more than I do about computer access in prisons. I admit this is a dream and I feel quite hazy and lazy about pursuing it. What am I going to do? [Hold up my sign saying “I ___?___] Do I have the time, energy, commitment and patience needed to be an advocate for computer access for prisoners in MI? Will I make the longed-for waves, or join the ebb and flow of the guilt tides, or let it fade and see if it pops up again in some “directed” way, or forget it?
I do this over and over. An issue, someone suffering, my race/country/community/self complicit in some awful injustice. I rise up! I want to be involved in bringing change! Rarely do I immediately fall into something easy, like clicking on “sign here” boxes for petitions and email letters to people in power (though I do a lot of that and feel very good about it). I calculate time and money required to make a real commitment. Usually I step back reluctantly, squash the bit of guilt, and say a silent “sorry” to the universe. Do I listen for God’s calling, as we’ve been learning to do this month? Is this what I’m doing when I make the initial stabs at involvement? Is that my Way of finding my Way?
Take a couple minutes to think of the things that you advocate for, that you care about in a special way. Immigration reform? Health care for all? Conservation? Save the whales? Children, what are things that you really care about, things that you’d like to work for? Stop pollution? No more bullies on playgrounds? World peace? Can you think of something you care about and write it on one of the placards on your pew? Adults, you do this, too. Okay, everyone hold up your placards and turn them around so we can read all the advocacy ideas in this group!
Our OT scripture this week is the story of Elijah proving that God is stronger than Baal. Last week at the camp-out we learned about how difficult it was for Elijah to find out how to be a strong advocate for God when the people had turned away from God and were worshiping Baal. Elijah knew he was chosen by God to be an advocate, but it took forever and put him in a lot of danger and hard places. He suffered right along with everyone else when there was no rain for three years. Now it’s time for him to let Ahab know that the rains will come again, even though it doesn’t say that the people had returned to following God. He frightens dear faithful courageous Obadiah when he asks Obadiah to serve as messenger. And then he sets up a dramatic sound and light show to convince the people, and bad King Ahab, to change their ways. It certainly is effective with the people but also results in the gory death of 450 prophets of Baal. The chapter ends with Elijah inviting Ahab to celebrate the coming rains at a banquet and then, after an anxious time of waiting to see if the rain really would come, Elijah warns Ahab to get home before the deluge hits, and even runs powerfully in front of the king’s chariot all the way back to the castle. Is he now in collusion with the evil power of the government? We could spend a lot of time picking this apart! But one message is clear: When God “calls” us in to advocacy, it probably won’t be a short project and results will always be hard to predict.
I am intrigued by a very different but also illustrative story from the NT: the parable of the persistent widow in Matthew 18:1-8. The subtitle of this parable is: the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Jesus says he is telling this story to show the disciples that they should always pray and not give up. He uses an uncaring judge and a pestering widow to introduce the concepts of justice, persistence and non-violence to the advocacy issue. He points out that God cares very much about those who suffer injustice and that he is able to use even unjust people to work for change. Even though we are tempted to holler, “But we don’t see those who cry out to God day and night getting justice, and certainly not quickly!” Jesus is making the point that persistent prayer (widow’s plea: grant me justice) and action (knocking on doors) can make a breakthrough for justice, and that Jesus is hoping to find people of faith working for justice whenever he is among people.
These two stories give us the guidelines for advocacy, which, as the children showed us two Sundays ago, is what we ADD to the VOCA (calling) of vocation and avocation.
We all know these things, and when I think about this congregation I am aware of a myriad of advocacy efforts going on everywhere. We are blessed to be in a setting where resources for advocacy on important issues are very, often overwhelmingly, available. So I am not saying we need to do more, or trying to convince you to join me in the advocacy activities to which I have been drawn. But I do want to encourage you to 1. Believe that actively working for justice is part of Christian life. 2. Listen when your heart is drawn to something that needs justice work. 3. Don’t overdo it, but don’t give up, either.
Now pick up another sheet to put on top of the one you just wrote. This time you will fill in the line to say what you do as an advocate: I ________________. Write letters? Make phone calls? Give money? Talk to someone who might help me know what to do? Re-cycle? Great! Turn these around so we can celebrate the things we do to work for justice. During the rest of the service you can be thinking of other things and changing your placards. We’ll share more at the end of this meditation time.
When David and Maria were about three and four, I began to have nightmares of horrible things, mostly torture. I was at that time becoming more aware of the use of torture by many governments around the world. Finally I couldn’t stand it anymore and somehow sensed that I had to do something. [Hold up I care about torture placard] I joined Amnesty International, began to write letters on behalf of political prisoners, worked as a writer for the group called American Christians for the Abolition of Torture, and later was able to do some research in a South African homeland, documenting the case of a political prisoner there. [Hold up I write letters placard] The nightmares stopped as soon as I’d signed my first letter, I think. And the connection with AI has been a constant thread in my life ever since. Somehow, even when I have been out of touch for a while, a request appears that I feel a strong longing to respond to. I honed the general interest down to a focus on Africa and on the death penalty for a long time, but the revelation of what young people the same age as my children were doing in prisons in Iraq to prisoners brought a “surge” of anger and horror that has not yet found its focus. At least I did renew my membership a couple weeks ago. [Hold up I give money placard]
Many issues previously hidden began to be revealed in the 80’s and when Ellie was a baby I learned that child abuse was not something horrible that happened in a few really messed up families, but was a way of life for a significant portion of the American population and takes many forms all over the world. [Hold up I care about child abuse placard] In South Africa and Congo I have learned more than I can sometimes bear about abuse of women for health and political reasons, and as part of the evil of greed, corruption, and “enforced” poverty of the contemporary world. [I care about women’s bodies and rights]
The tie that binds all this together has slowly emerged as I have tried to respond without being overwhelmed. The thread throughout all the issues to which I feel drawn is the horror of economic madness, the total loss of soul which greed can introduce into even the most principled of lives. [I do research.] People owning people and people trying to own the earth have resulted in crippling post-traumatic stress syndrome behaviors and self-perceptions among the majority of the world’s people, making most of them unable to create the societies their hearts long for. [I pester people with emails] Those of us who might be tempted to be crippled by guilt and anger at God and ourselves because of this thread, which is so deeply sewn into our own psyches, need to focus on the lessons of the two Bible stories we have heard today:
The simple lessons I take from these stories, which give me a sliver of solid ground from which to listen for the call are:
Advocacy means working for justice.
You will be called to be an advocate. Listen. Listen to God and Gut.
Choose your issue, and your actions, based on what you are good at and what you like to do.
Do your research or hook up with those who have already done it.
Be persistent; rarely will it be over but it’s exciting along the way, especially if you are not alone, and there will be miracles and revelations.
Turn guilt into intercessory prayer [I pray] but have symbols [I light candles] or actions [I talk too much] so it’s not all in your head and heart.
Like I said, you know all this already; each of you has listened for your advocacy call and done something about it. But I wanted to affirm and encourage and celebrate. So hold up your placards!