Trouble the waters. Heal the world
I have vivid memories of being in civil rights marches with my father, a Presbyterian seminary professor in Louisville, Kentucky, in the 1960s. My parents and I were moving along in a crowd of mostly Black faces. Pressed within that sea of sweaty adult bodies, I felt small and different, a stranger, and self-consciously white, but I also sensed that I was part of something large, something significant. Because our marching was punctuated by praying and singing hymns, faith became intimately connected to justice, to movement, doing something with others to make a difference.
My parents were there marching because of their childhood memories. I still remember the anguish in my father's voice when he told me how, as a youth near Wilmington, NC, he saw a Black man dragged behind a car around and around the town square until his body was unrecognizable. Likewise, my mother talked of being awakened as a child by robed Klansmen, on horseback with torches burning, who rode the mile to their home to harass her father for founding the only school anywhere in Pender County, N.C. to educate African-Americans. These memories carried my parents into lifetime commitments as leaders in the community--bridge-builders and seekers of justice.
And they carry me into my own leadership of Auburn Seminary today. As it was almost two hundred years ago and still is today, Auburn's business was and is leadership. From its inception in 1818, Auburn became known as a seminary whose leaders engaged the social issues of the day--anti-poverty, anti-slavery, children's rights. And here we are; it's a new day and the stakes for leadership toward justice have never been higher. We see all around us the devastation and destruction left in the wake of leaders who have fallen short, fallen from grace, religious leaders who have stolen from children their childhoods, leaders from Wall Street, Washington and Main Street, who have given into magical thinking, cooked the books, told lies, misused power, failed leaders.
At Auburn we have done a lot of thinking about religious leadership--what kind of leaders will fill the bill today. And our strategy for healing the world is to equip bold and resilient leaders who embody the moral courage for which our world hungers, who can rise to the challenge of this hour. And there is no separating social justice from this challenge.
My father's theological understanding of justice came from his love of the Bible, as a beloved professor of Old Testament and Hebrew. (He made sure I learned my Hebrew alphabet right alongside my ABCs.) And so early in my childhood I fell for the beauty and power of the Bible. I learned that the Gospel of John tells of people lying under a portico by a pool waiting for something to happen, waiting for an angel to come and stir the waters to heal them. But the message is that there is no need to wait - have faith, get up and get going. I learned early on that when you are lying under the portico by that pool longing for healing, just like those people in the story of John's Gospel, sometimes all you need to do is take that first step and WADE IN. When you are afflicted, conflicted, blocked from the flow, filled with doubt, when you feel overwhelmed, when the possibilities seem narrow, just get up and Wade IN.
And this background filled with stories of working for justice eventually opened me to another beloved text: the prophet Isaiah's declaration that the very act of easing the oppression of others, of doing justice, of repairing breaches of all kinds, actually brings you nearer to God, actually waters your own soul--"you shall become like a watered garden whose waters never fail."
Wading in. The message from my childhood and these texts is that sometimes you have to just get going and wade in. We need to wade in to be healed and to heal others. We need to dare to partner with God and with each other to stir things up.
April 16, 2010; 12:00 PM ET
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