In July 2010 I joined with around 100 freedom fighters in Chicago, many of whom had traded the previous year of their lives to fight for comprehensive immigration reform. And we knew it was not going to happen in 2010, at least as we had imagined. Many in the room were exhausted, and defeated, and spent. The response from the campaign was to talk about the next hill to climb rather than deal with the pain and exhaustion in the room.
Doing justice is hard and exhausting work. We are compelled to action by the urgency of the suffering and pain and evil that mark life for so many in God’s world. And the work is never done. Win or lose, there is always another hill, another peak, another challenge that lies ahead. So the temptation is to keep on keeping on, and to rise to the next challenge.
For the past 20 years, I have either been a pastor or a community organizer, and for many of those years I have been both. For pastors and organizers, there is always one more email to write, one more call to make, and one more strategy to be explored. To be blunt, burnout and exhaustion are the order of the day.
So how might we craft a justice movement that keeps us in this for the long haul, that nurtures leaders and organizers and freedom fighters to stay with the movement? When I am paying attention to self-care and balance in my work for justice, I am finding that the words of Psalm 1 are becoming fundamental and foundational for my life.
Psalm 1:2-4 says:
“[Happy are those whose] delight is in the law of the Lord, and on God’s law they meditate day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper. The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.”
A few brief reflections:
1. I am at my best in my work for justice when I am deeply rooted and grounded in God’s word. I try to read Scripture for at least 10 to 15 minutes each day. This time of slowing and rooting not only centers me each morning, but also provides a deep well of wisdom and power as I engage in the public arena.
2. Our advantage in our fight against evil as followers of Jesus is our connection to living water, to the source of all that lives and moves. The old freedom song hearkens back to this Psalm: “We shall not, we shall not be moved, we shall not, we shall not be moved. Like a tree planted by the water, we shall not be moved.” Our ability to stand and fight and remain resolute in our fight for justice is grounded in a deep and growing relationship with God.
One way I remain grounded is taking an hour or two each weekend to prayerfully reflect on my previous week of activity and prayerfully prepare for the next couple of weeks. I write a two- or three-page report for my colleagues. These reflections help me remain grounded in mission and centered on what matters most. By sharing these thoughts with others, I also introduce accountability or checks and balances into my life. Over the past few years, a colleague has said to me on more than one occasion, “We have to get your travel under control. Let’s talk about some strategies.” These are words that remind me of the need for balance and rest and grounding in what matters most.
3. Those committed to evil and injustice are not rooted and will not prevail. I love the image that those who are filled with hate for immigrants and make a profit off of incarcerating boys and men of color are like chaff that the wind drives away. This drives me deeper into my relationship with Jesus and my disciplines of Scripture and reflection. Trust me, those working for evil are busy too, and they are always writing that next email, making that next phone call, and plotting that next strategy.
But they are not rooted and grounded and resting in the deep wells that God provides. We are on the Lord’s side, we are rooted, and, in the end, the side of justice will prevail. As Martin Luther King reminded us over and over again, “The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Troy Jackson is Director of Ohio Prophetic Voices, and was formerly senior pastor of University Christian Church (UCC) for 19 years. He is part of Sojourners’ Emerging Voices project.
Image: Man on a wheel, Hermin / Shutterstock.com