The Common Good

Taking the Long View vs. the Fierce Urgency of Now: Lessons from Arizona

Arizona won a significant victory last week when Russell Pearce, author of Senate Bill 1070, lost in a first-ever recall election. 

It was not without great effort. I’ve since been reflecting on the lessons of the work and how we traveled from the darkness of SB1070 to the hope we feel today.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Archbishop Oscar Romero are our heroes. They shared much in common: Both ultimately were focused on being obedient to God and his call on their lives and as such they were both, first, ministers of the Gospel. King and Romero were fixated on justice — in love with poor people and hurting communities. Both searched for middle ground while others stayed safe inside comfortable margins; both were agents of reconciliation.

And, finally, both were martyred for their message.

Yet Romero and King have a seeming discrepancy I want to explore.

Romero called us to take the long view; King discussed the fierce urgency of now. 
Romero essentially prays: Trust God, be faithful. King preaches: now is the time, act forcefully. 

There is tension in these two precious messages for me. While I believe God doesn’t simply ‘help those who help themselves’ and that God is at work in the world with or without me, I also believe that people need Justice yesterday and that “We are God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Eph. 2:10). 

It is hard to both understand and trust in God’s larger plan where we are often insignificant and simultaneously act with determination in the moment trying to affect great change.

Romero, in the prayer ascribed to him, said:

“It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view.  The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is beyond our vision…. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.  We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not messiahs.  We are prophets of a future not our own.”

King’s message in one of his lesser-known speeches delivered in 1967 to a group of ministers was:

“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now… Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity…. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: "Too late." There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect…  We still have a choice today; nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation... We must move past indecision to action.”

Fast-forward to April 2010. Arizona is knee-deep in the national news cycle due to its historically punitive immigration legislation. 

The Reform Immigration for America team, led by Petra Falcon and Raquel Teran, asks a few of us to pray early one morning at the State Capitol for the governor to make the moral choice and veto SB1070. 

We knew she wouldn’t veto. But still we prayed. Because it was a good visual for the TV cameras and because we really wanted to try to trust God. I wanted to believe that God could soften the governor’s heart to keep us from this hard and hurtful thing.

But she signed the bill as expected. Russell Pearce gloated. The students in my youth group cried. I got mad at God.

I hear Romero saying to those of us in this work: “I know it’s hard to pray and trust God that He is at work. I know it feels like we are losing all the time and like we might even be moving backwards. But trust: God loves you and is in control; you don’t have to solve everything.  Do what you can. The seeds you plant today will bear fruit; be faithful.”

The vigil lasted another 103 days. Day and night we stayed at the Capitol; still trying to pray. Out of this conflict and tension birthed a new organization and movement, which we named, Promise Arizona. By the end of the year, using local young people and volunteers, Promise Arizona had registered over 13,000 new Latino voters.

King adds punctuation to Romero’s prayer. There is no option but to respond to God’s invitation to join in His work, today. Dr. King was calling those preachers to finally have courage, to be bold. We have to act now!

We feel similar urgency when we see our 19 and 20-year-old outstanding and undocumented young people working diligently through college with no potential to use their degree upon graduation. We are running out of time. Our faithful response must be aggressive and begin immediately.

Promise Arizona has been canvassing Latino neighborhoods since the summer of 2010. Young people as young as 14 have knocked on thousands and thousands of doors. They walked for miles in the middle of the Arizona summer registering people to vote and reminding them to vote. We signed people up to receive early ballots in the mail. We wandered Wal-Mart parking lots asking shoppers whether they were registered. Our volunteers made phone calls asking folks to volunteer or to remind them about Election Day. We were hot and discouraged much of the time. But our work is bearing fruit.

On election night, the results came in. Pearce lost the historic recall election. Two grassroots Latino leaders won seats on the Phoenix City Council. Voter turnout in the recall and mayoral runoff election was historic. Latino voters are being given credit for much of this electoral outcome. Arizona has a new image. A year and a half ago we never could have imagined any of this. 

Yet Romero and King remind us together: Trust God, Act Now.

Romero called people of justice “prophets of a future not our own.”

King knowingly said that we “might not get there with you.”

We have seen a glimpse of the mountaintop and the beauty of the Kingdom calls us to act even with the knowledge that we may not always see the final outcome. 

And so we work with a sense of urgency, clinging to hope, trying to pray.

Ian Danley is a youth pastor with Neighborhood Ministries in Phoenix, Ariz.

Statues of the Rev. Martin Luther King and Archbishop Oscar Romero at Westminste
Statues of the Rev. Martin Luther King and Archbishop Oscar Romero at Westminster Abbey. Image via Wylio.

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