The Common Good

The Waiting

As I write, I'm stuck in the Central Wisconsin Airport (near the bustling metropolis of Wausau, Wis., for those keeping score at home). And, you guessed it, I'm waiting. Fog in Minneapolis prevented our plane from landing there, and now I'm left sitting in a very small regional airport with no restaurant and no coffee and no concrete sense of what the rest of my day will look like as I make my way to California. All I can do is wait.

Photo: People waiting, © phototr  / Shutterstock.com
Photo: People waiting, © phototr / Shutterstock.com

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I do know, barring something entirely unexpected, that I'll eventually make it to San Francisco. Right now I'm living the axiom offered by Tom Petty decades ago: "The Waiting is the Hardest Part."

Advent, a season during which Christians honor and attempt to approximate the longing for a Messiah more than 2,000 years ago, is often described as a chance to exercise our patience muscles. Advent can serve as a season of anticipation and hope and longing, void of desperation. This is Advent for those who already have most of that for which they wait. But for countless people around the globe, every additional day of waiting comes with a heavy price.

Just a few weeks ago, we were reminded that the longing for lasting and sustainable peace between Israel, Palestine, and Gaza remains as elusive as ever. This Advent season, waiting in the Middle East is costly.

And expensive waiting is not limited to war zones, disease, or tensions in other parts of the world. Here in the United States, many are waiting for more sublime and life-altering changes than reaching a destination on a cross-country flight. Some are pining for the promises of increased health care coverage under the Affordable Care Act to finally become reality, as a handful of states threaten to reject the law's expansion of Medicaid, meaning many working poor are wondering and waiting for a change that may never come.

Undocumented immigrants organized and mobilized over the past decade to create an opportunity for comprehensive immigration reform that will provide a path forward for millions. The promising rallies of 2006 came up short, and the decisive vote on health care reform drowned out the 2010 march in Washington, D.C., for immigrants. Meanwhile, families remain divided, some immigrants continue in detention week after week, month after month, and others are living in the shadows, vulnerable and afraid.

No, for far too many this Advent season, the waiting is not benign. The waiting, when justice is at stake, is devastating, and yet the eternal aching goes on and on and on.

I am reminded that fifty years ago, in December 1962, Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil rights advocates had been organizing, registering voters, and selectively boycotting discriminatory stores and industries for seven long years. Progress was slow and episodic at best. Their attempt to redeem America's soul seemed Pollyannaish. The Kennedy administration offered only tepid support. The Albany campaign of the previous year had failed to bring advances at the local, state, or national level. Nobody would have blamed these freedom fighters if they began to believe they were living in perpetual Advent.

Then came 1963. Birmingham. Bull Conner. Firehouses and police dogs. Four little girls. A motorcade in Dallas. A year of tragedy, sacrifice, and pain.

Then came 1963. The children's campaign. Victory in Birmingham. JFK calling for civil rights legislation. The March on Washington. The building blocks in place for the 1964 Civil Rights Act. 

But during Advent 1962, King would be forgiven if he were unable to dream all that would happen over the next year.

Perhaps, with the recent re-election of President Obama, and more importantly the resolute sacrifice of countless ordinary people in the United States and around the world, 2013 can be a watershed year for immigration reform, for access to affordable health care, and even for a just peace in Israel and Palestine.

 

And based on what I witnessed in Ohio this Fall, I'm inspired to believe that the waiting of tens of thousands is rooted in hope-filled resolve. Early vote opportunities shrunk in Ohio this year. Ohio Secretary of State John Husted became the focal point for many of the attempts to restrict early voting in 2012. In a late August meeting with 40 Ohio clergy, we urged Husted not to be a Bull Conner during this election, but to insure as many people have the opportunity to vote as possible. Prodded by the courts and the urging of a coalition of clergy and citizens, we reclaimed many important opportunities for early vote that are especially important in communities of color. 

Churches headed the call and — like school teachers who emptied their classrooms to allow children to march in Birmingham — pastors filled vans and buses and got people to the polls! I drove by my county board of elections six times to vote early, and every time the line was out the door. On the Sunday before Election Day, the line was more than 1,000 long — the vast majority people of color. They waited in line to make sure their voices were heard and their votes got counted. They leaned into the national call rooted in the words of Dr. King: "Let my People Vote." Now that the election is over, those same voices are saying, "My People Vote!"

And they waited in four-hour-long lines not because the activity stopped on Nov.6, but because like 50 years ago, the real struggle lies ahead.

This Advent may we wait, but not as a cute spiritual exercise enjoyed by the privileged while the multitudes pay the price. No, may we wait together, without passivity, with the resolve and conviction and sacrifice of those freedom fighters fifty years ago, and those wise men two thousand years ago.

My prayer this Advent season is not that I finally get out of the Central Wisconsin Airport. No, my prayer is that for those who are paying the greatest price this Advent, the wait would soon be over.

Troy Jackson is senior pastor of University Christian Church in Cincinnati, a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, and earned his PhD in United States history from the University of Kentucky. He is author of Becoming King: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Making of a National Leader (Civil Rights and the Struggle for Black Equality in the Twentieth Century) and a participant in Sojourners' Windchangers grassroots organizing project in Ohio. Learn more about organizing around Ohio jobs.

Photo: People waiting, © phototr | View Portfolio / Shutterstock.com

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