The Common Good

Tearing Down Walls in Memphis

On a muggy Memphis night last week, Tiffany Kelly and Imani Phipps, both juniors at local high schools, sat at the top of the historic Levitt Shell amphitheater as chants of "One Memphis, One Love" floated over the crowd.

The girls, whose matching purple tee-shirts read "Bridge Builders," came to Memphis's fifth annual "Tear Down The Walls" concert to celebrate their city's diversity, said Kelly.

Rabbi Micah Greenstein of Temple Israel conceived of the concerts as a way to promote unity among Memphians of different faiths (the official tagline is "unity without uniformity"). But more broadly, Tear Down The Walls encourages understanding and justice in a city whose historical track record with discrimination has been less than stellar.

Phipps acknowledged that certain barriers -- especially racial ones -- still plague Memphis. "But it's encouraging that we can share one subject," she said. "And that's love of God."

Indeed, the folks gathered last night at the Levitt Shell were trading expressions of faith in a way that doesn't happen that often (in this southern town, anyway). While A Jewish rocker performed, gospel singers belted solos, and chamber choirs sang backup. A special offering collected funds to purchase Qurans for the new Memphis Islamic Center that's currently under construction. And Muslim, Jewish, and Christian faith leaders took turns addressing the crowd. They led us in shouting "shaloms," "salaams," and other expressions of peace that I feel pretty sure I mispronounced.

But I found myself wondering -- why is this necessary? Those of us who came probably support diversity anyway, so why have an event to articulate that? Why can't we just know that we tacitly affirm one another? And why did Kelly and Phipps -- high-schoolers who could have been cooler places, and who likely had homework to finish -- add themselves to the sea of mostly middle-aged, mosquito-swatting people in the Shell?

Phipps's comment -- that we can all "share" love of God -- is significant. "Share" can have a passive meaning: "to hold in common." By that definition, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Bahá'ís, and whoever else can all just know that we love the same God. We're on the same team. That's great. But its meaning can also be active: "to trade, to exchange, to offer to each other." As people of faith, we need to put ourselves in situations in which God's love can actually flow between us. To constitute a community of Memphians -- and not just a collection of folks who share a zip code -- there has to be an element of togetherness. Preferably literal, physical togetherness.

At one point, Rev. Marilynn Robinson, co-pastor at St. Andrew African Methodist Episcopal Church, asked the crowd to adopt the phrase "let it be me" as a statement of personal investment in our city and as a "declaration of defiance." We need a spirit of defiance against our own passive attitudes toward community. We need to reject the comfort of always worshiping with and talking to folks whose backgrounds, creeds, and accents are identical to our own. After all, history is proof that social victories -- justice for people who've experienced discrimination, strengthened communities, walls of division coming down -- don't just happen on their own. Those things require intentionality and personal effort -- usually from a heck of a lot of people. "Let it be me who doesn't just hope for a new Memphis," preached Rev. Robinson. "But let it be me who wakes up and makes it happen."

On Thursday night in a park in the middle of the cotton belt, an amphitheater full of folks was getting that right.

Amy Barger is a former Sojourners intern.

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