Monday, October 31, 2016

March On, March On

Brewster Hastings and DGJ, in New York
This morning I learned of the sudden death of Brewster Hastings, a servant of God, a beloved priest at St. Anne's Church outside Philadelphia, and a classmate of mine at Union Theological Seminary in the 80s.  We didn't really stay in touch after graduating from Union, but not a week has passed when I don't remember Brewster and the two times we were arrested together, in nonviolent protests, in midtown Manhattan.

Brewster and I joined a seminary cohort working with the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility and strategizing with the Anti-Apartheid/Freedom Movement in South Africa.  We were, both of us, privileged and undeniably white.  And together we wrestled with the implications of such privilege, in light of the gospel and the call to discipleship.  I remember long, quiet conversations on the subway, as we shuttled off to actions downtown.  And I remember thinking of Brewster as a mentor, though we were the same age, both of us trying to make sense of seminary, racism, New York and all the rest.  

Two times, we participated in active nonviolence and civil disobedience.  Divestment, we insisted, was the urgent cry of South African allies and the moral obligation of corporate America.  No longer could we stand by idly, complicit in institutional racism.  In South Africa or anywhere else.  Two times, we were arrested together, Brewster and I, with a diverse circle of friends and colleagues.

Several years ago, I set to writing a kind of 'discipleship curriculum' for my church here in California.  Brewster figures prominently at the front-end of that curriculum--because his example remains for me a powerful witness to the power of the gospel and the practice of Christian love.  At one action, in particular, his ministry to me made all the difference in the world.  In my curriculum (as in my ministry), I want to call out the connections between prayer and courage, between spiritual devotion and nonviolent action, between grace and sacrifice.  Brewster demonstrated all that for me.  Given what I'm reading about his 21 years as priest at St. Anne's in Pennsylvania, he embraced these connections throughout his ministry and life.
Here, below, is the chapter I wrote for my curriculum at Peace United Church.  I offer it as praise, to God, for a life well-lived and a disciple who walked in the steps of Jesus.  March on, brother, march on!

Brewster, 2nd from top left; DGJ, 2nd from top jail!

From "The Core Four: Transforming Progressive Faith into Daring Practice" (2011, DGJ).


I'm sitting cross-legged, and shaking anxiously, at the end of a long line of activists.  I'm not quite twenty-six and contemplating my escape.  New York City police work their way down the line, arresting one activist after another, hauling friends off to waiting wagons.  Behind us, behind huge ground-level windows, employees of Mobil Oil are massing in the corporation's 42nd Street lobby.  Waiting for an open door.  Itching to get out for lunch.  They're making a lot of noise.  And I'm quietly intimidated.  I wonder, silently, if this is what crazy feels like.  Because I'm ready to bolt.

It's 1987, and Mobil Oil is one of several U.S. corporations still making a bundle in South Africa.  Officially, the company insists it plays a positive role in a country still controlled by a white racist majority.  But South African activists--including a few in our protest--have concluded that foreign investment simply bolsters apartheid and delays the inevitable.  So I've cut up a Mobil credit card and committed to a nonviolent action at the oil company's corporate headquarters.  In a seminary kitchen, I make my own sign: "MOBIL OUT OF SOUTH AFRICA!"

As we huddle in a union hall across the street, early in the morning, one of our organizers reads a letter of support from Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  Heady stuff.  We cross 42nd Street just before noon.

I've never been arrested before.  As we sing "We Shall Overcome," my heart races briefly with excitement, a sense of solidarity, even a dim awareness of Jesus on that busy midtown street.  This is a different kind of church.  A little piece of God's kingdom on earth.  But the thrill doesn't last long.

Just after noon, we sit, as planned, directly before the main doors leading to the building's busy lobby.  Police arrive within minutes and tell us to move along quickly or risk arrest.  Seventeen remain.  Sitting.   Singing.  Praying.  One of our organizers is giving an impromptu interview: something about corporate responsibility in the global community.  It's time for Mobil to do its part.

A few minutes pass, and police make their first arrest.  On that busy Manhattan sidewalk, one activist after another goes limp before a trio of nonplussed officers.  A couple of activists are South African.  Several are seminarians.  A few, leaders from black churches.  Each is carried by two, sometimes three officers to a nearby wagon.

From the end of the line, I'm catching just glimpses: arms, legs, cameras flashing, officers in dark blue uniforms.  I watch anxiously with two seminary friends, Cathy on my left and Brewster on my right.  Somewhere deep in the crowd, someone starts singing:

      We shall not--we shall not be moved.
      We shall not--we shall not be moved.
      Just like a tree that's planted by the water,
      We shall not be moved.

No more singing for me.  No voice, no singing, no nerve left.  I'm fighting myself now, struggling for every breath.  And my right leg--because it's always my right leg--is bouncing all over the place.  I'm thinking I should pray something: but nothing comes to mind, no words, no breath, nothing.  Briefly, I forget where I am.  A full-on panic attack.

“The cross,” writes Parker Palmer in The  Promise of Paradox, “calls us to recognize that the heart of human experience is neither consistency nor chaos, but contradiction.”  Imagine the familiar shape of the cross, the one you see every Sunday in church or the one recently tattooed on your arm.  “Its arms reach left and right, up and down, signifying the way life pulls us between the conflicting claims of person against person, the conflicting claims of life human and life divine.”  Reality, writes Palmer, has a cruciform shape.  Conflicting claims in community.  Mixed motives in the human heart.  Despair and determination on 42nd Street. 
The heart of human experience is contradiction.  The shriek of pain as a baby’s born.  The darkest hour just before dawn.  We discover pieces of ourselves in seasons of loss.  We find new strength in a difficult illness.  And all of this is as thrilling as it is exasperating.  For just as the cross represents the way the world contradicts God, it also represents the way God contradicts the world.  “No matter how often the world says, ‘no,’ God is present with an eternal ‘yes,’ bringing light of darkness, hope out of despair, life out of death.”

And that’s the reason for this book, for this meditation on Christian practice in the 21st century.  The cross, after all, is more than a symbol, more than a picture, more than a 1st century Palestinian executed by empire.  It is also—and more importantly—a way of life.  It’s a way of life embodied among friends in daily practice, and a way of life inspired and encouraged by scripture, tradition and the church itself.  It’s not easy, and we never get it completely right.  That’s not the point.  And yet, without this daily practice, Jesus and his ministry are reduced to simplistic claims and rigid dogma.  Without discipline, we are like the canvas without its painter, like sheep (Jesus liked to say) without their shepherd.  “Only by allowing life’s contradictions to pull us open to the Spirit,” writes Parker Palmer, “will we be able to live beyond the dualities that frighten us, the dualities of yes and no, day and night, right and wrong.”  In a sense, then, it’s daily practice—embodied in ordinary lives—that ‘pulls us open.’

And that’s the cross.  That’s the way of life Jesus pioneered all those centuries ago—in small towns, backwater fields and city streets.  This exploration of four core practices is a journey to that cross, a pilgrimage of practice and discovery.  Each of the four—mindfulness, forgiveness, discipleship, communion—allows life’s contradictions to pull us open to the Spirit.  Each of the four invites compassion in the midst of conflict, wonder in the midst of fear.

Might we learn this way together?  Even hold one another accountable for it?  Are we ready to “live beyond the dualities that frighten us”?  I can’t think of more pressing questions for my community and my generation.  Fear tears at the fabric of our economy, our politics, our religious lives too.  Jesus weeps, mourning all our suffering.  But he rises, then, to his feet, and teaches us a new dance: healing steps, loving resistance, generous communion.

Looking back these twenty plus years, I can still taste the terror of that moment on 42nd Street.  I was desperately afraid.  Afraid of a confrontation with authority; afraid of a physical encounter with arresting officers; afraid of all that grabbing, and strange men carrying me off to jail.

But more than all that, I was afraid of my own cowardice.  Afraid cowardice would overwhelm conscience, principles, even faith.  Afraid I’d pull out of line, walk away and avoid the grim confrontation altogether.  The thought had crossed my mind.  I’d noticed a seam in the crowd.  I knew I could get away.

But I wasn’t alone that day.  Just to my right, Brewster kept an eye on me, even as he too monitored the police coming our way.  And, as I lost it, as I planned my escape, Brewster inched just a little closer.  He’d noticed my weeping and shaking.  At one point, to be completely honest, my wild right knee had inadvertently nailed him in the shin.  But nothing seemed to shock Brewster.  And he did something then that I never will forget.  For as long as I live.  He turned gently toward me and put his right hand on my knee.  The wild one.

And he looked me in the eye.  I mean, he really looked me in the eye.  He got right up close.  And Brewster said, “Dave, it’s OK.  I know it’s all gonna be OK.  We can do this.  And I’m gonna be right here with you.”  That’s all.  “I’m gonna be right here with you.”  He had this tiny little hand.  But he was so calm and so centered and so totally present in all that chaos.  He’d seen me crying.  He’d seen my shaking.  And he was making this promise.  “I’m gonna be right here with you.” 

In my tradition, we call this kind of story, the one I’m telling here, testimony.  So here’s mine.  Brewster’s touch, at that moment, healed something, something that was breaking furiously inside me.  That’s what I felt.  I mean, it was breaking fast.  In the deepest part of me.  I was ready to bolt.  Ready to give in.  But Brewster’s touch—his tiny hand—restored some small bit of purpose, just enough balance, even a measure of peace.  On that Manhattan sidewalk, in all that noise, I found some fragment of faith.  I came just so close to walking away.  But Brewster made it possible for me to stay.

Before long, three New York City police officers were standing over me—reading me my rights, taking my arms and legs, and hauling me off to join the others in jail.  As if on cue, trailing behind me, Brewster was singing: ”Just like a tree that’s planted by the water, we shall not be moved…”  These days, when folks ask me about Jesus, I remember that moment, and that song.  I remember Brewster's voice in the street.

There’s a postscript to this story—and I’m wondering now if it’s not the most compelling part.

We were released from jail, on our own recognizance, later that afternoon.  I remember feeling a bit full of myself—the exhilaration of the protest, the camaraderie of cellmates, our release.  It was one of those days I’ll never forget.

When I returned to the seminary dorm, I studied some into the evening before stumbling downstairs for a late night snack.  Crossing the seminary quadrangle, I noticed a small figure sitting quietly on a wooden bench.  It was Brewster—praying, his palms turned up to God, his breath tuned to the keeper of the night sky.  When I returned to my room a half-hour later, he was still there, in the shadows, praying.

Thomas Merton wrote, “One who attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening his or her own self-understanding, freedom, integrity and capacity to love, will not have anything to give others.”  I stood there quietly, for about thirty seconds, watching Brewster pray.  That same skinny hand that had rested on my knee was now turned skyward, silent and still.  I think I may have wept that night, in gratitude. 

There are undoubtedly many paths to spiritual maturity, many traditions and teachings and rituals to draw from.  Like all the others, the one pioneered by Jesus of Nazareth necessarily involves reflection and renewal, discipline and practice.  Much like Jesus, Brewster trained for that moment on 42nd Street.  Like Jesus, he committed to a practice of mindfulness and meditation.  In all likelihood, that practice sometimes puzzled and frustrated him; it undoubtedly fed his spirit too and shaped his vocation.  And that day, on 42nd Street, belted by noise, facing a friend in need, Brewster was ready.  He was remarkably present, open to the Spirit, tolerant of contradictions.  He was an instrument of God's strange and merciful peace.  Jesus traced a path that Brewster walked deliberately, courageously, generously.  It was no mistake he was there beside me that day; no mistake he knew what to do and say.  He practiced his faith, Brewster did, day by day by day.  And he was ready. 


Not long after, I first came across Bruce Cockburn’s “Lovers in a Dangerous Time.”  It seemed to me an anthem to grace and a clarion call to discipleship.  These three decades later, and it’s almost like scripture to me.  I’m not sure I’ve gone a week without sliding it into the stereo (or dialing it up on the iPod), and singing along.  “Lovers” captures—as only music can—a bewildering matrix of wonder and dread, beauty and anxiety.  So many contradictions.  So much grace:
Don't the hours go shorter as the days go by
We never get to stop and open our eyes

One minute your waiting for the sky to fall
The next you're dazzled by the beauty of it all
Lovers in a dangerous time
Lovers in a dangerous time

These fragile bodies of touch and taste
This fragrant skin, this hair like lace
Spirits open to a thrust of grace
Never a breath you can afford to waste
Lovers in a dangerous time
Lovers in a dangerous time

Bruce Cockburn, "Lovers in a Dangerous Time" on Stealing Fire (1984)
The way I see it, this is exactly who we are and where we are in 2011.  One minute we’re waiting for the sky to fall, and the next we’re dazzled by the beauty of it all.  One minute we’re overwhelmed by rising sea levels and devastating urban hurricanes.  And the next we’re dazzled by the rainbow of human diversity, by the sweet strength of a Dalai Lama, by the wild wonders of a rainforest.  

Across the planet's face, there are too many walls in too many places--dividing the saved from the damned, separating the wanted from the unwanted, protecting the haves from the have-nots.  These walls scar the landscape and add only toxicity to cities, nations, faith traditions.  Our own American culture is marred, even now, by a mean-spirited and bitter politics.  Reports have surfaced, just this summer, that starvation is on the rise in American cities.  We battled sword to sword over a debt ceiling while species disappear from earth at a devastating rate.  Too many are eager to judge and condemn, to dismiss and distance.  We live in gated communities, walled-off cities; and even our magic--technologies beyond imagining--can't save us.

I offer this curriculum as a kind of protest.  Jesus calls us to gentle persistence, loving resistance, and the creative dismantling of walls that divide and condemn.  We do this deliberately, prayerfully and peacefully.  We do it in sustained study of an ancient, strange and unsettling story.  We do it in practices that require humility, commitment and good humor.  I cannot dismantle walls or heal the brokenhearted without also deepening my own "self-understanding, freedom, integrity and capacity to love."  I cannot take up the cross without discipline and accountability.

The kind of protest imagined here emerges in just this way: in self-understanding, christ-like integrity and the capacity to love.  This and only this will suffice in our generation.  And in our churches.  I've taken up this project because Brewster touched my knee that day and taught me about the healing power of mindfulness.  I've taken it up because there are other dreamers out there, who refuse to give up; who want to heal the wounded planet, sing and dance in the fields, and share broken bread.  And I've taken it up because there are still, churches daring incarnation.  

I believe that Jesus is powerfully committed to our life together, deeply invested in our experiments in love and abundance and meditation.  And I'm assembling this curriculum because we can be--and have every reason to be--lovers in this dangerous time.