Activism

VIDEO: Nashville Sit-Ins

In the 1960s Rev. Dr. Sam Dodson, a Methodist pastor in Nashville, Tenn., received pressure to stop his unpopular desegregation activism. He and many others who were a part of the ecumenical “clergy movement” were considered the black sheep of the Methodist church, facing resistance from their own congregations for their actions.

Read “The Cost of Discipleship” (Sojourners, March 2015) to learn more about Dodson and the clergy who supported civil rights in Nashville. Check out the video below to see what the black community and their supporters faced during the Nashville Marches.

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The Cost of Discipleship

BORDERED BY strip malls, chain restaurants, and drug stores, four-lane Hillsboro Pike in Nashville, Tenn., carries cars from the Vanderbilt University area out to suburban neighborhoods. Every afternoon, thousands of drivers heading home from the city crest a ridge and pass a long, red-brick church.

That church, Calvary United Methodist, is where I was confirmed, participated in youth group, and sang in the choir. In the archives room off the education wing, a visitor can open a filing cabinet drawer, flip past photos of youth group retreats and church league basketball games, and find a manila folder labeled “Rev. Dr. Sam Dodson, 1958-1965.”

The folder is thin, but its contents are weighty. A letter to the local Methodist bishop from the church’s board explains that Dodson cannot adequately minister to his congregation while participating in political activities and suggests he be demoted to assistant pastor. A newspaper clipping from 1965 announces that Rev. Dodson and his family will be moving to Athens, Greece, where he will head St. Andrew’s American Church. I recognize some of the names signed to letters calling for Dodson’s demotion—an usher who pressed strawberry candies into my palm whenever I asked, a woman who looked me in the eye when I was 11 and told me I would be a leader in the church someday.

During the months and years immediately after the relative success of the 1960 sit-ins and before the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed Congress, a wide range of activist groups and individuals in Nashville sought to desegregate restaurants, movie theaters, churches, schools, and recreational facilities, many in predominantly white areas of town. “The ‘Whites Only’ signs were down, but we had not yet seen the white mind behind those signs,” remembered Kwame Leo Lillard, a college student in Nashville in the early ’60s who participated in Freedom Rides to the Deep South to desegregate interstate buses.

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A Farm Grows in Brookland

ON A TWO-ACRE parcel of land in Washington, D.C., tucked behind the provincial house of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, Gail Taylor offers a visitor dragon’s lingerie.

“It kind of looks like fishnet stockings—that’s how it got the name,” Taylor says, holding up the heirloom snap bean, its pale yellow-green hull mottled with purple.

Across the aisle, Jack Be Little miniature pumpkins hide under leafy canopies. There are tomatoes and mustard greens, eggplant and legumes, lettuce and squash. “We’re doing a lot of intercropping and companion planting now,” Taylor says. So asparagus lies next to parsley, both behind a bed of raspberry bushes. Flowers also abound, with bursts of hot pink blossoms and purple clover that beautify the landscape while attracting pollinators.

For nearly 100 years this area, owned by the Oblates, a Catholic religious order, was only a grass field, a place where the priests would sometimes play soccer. In 2011, Taylor approached an Oblate priest and requested use of the land. “They were amenable and excited,” Taylor says. “They’re ecologically forward thinking, and they lead the Catholics in creation care.”

The space has become a location for Three Part Harmony Farm, the urban agricultural project Taylor established in D.C. She hopes it will become the first commercial farm in the District of Columbia since 1939, producing locally grown food to be sold in stores and farmers’ markets. First, there are some hurdles that the 36-year-old farmer must clear.

Taylor came to Washington in the late 1990s to work in social justice organizations. During a period of unemployment in 2005, she began volunteering at a farm in Upper Marlboro, Md. She enjoyed the work and began to think about a career change. The farm offered her a job the following spring, and she spent the next five years learning farming techniques.

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I Am an Activist Do-Gooder in Recovery

Insulated superhero. Vector concept courtesy artenot/shutterstock.comm
Insulated superhero. Vector concept courtesy artenot/shutterstock.comm

I went to college thinking political activism was sexy. Living in a large city gave me unparalleled access to protests for countless good causes. Chanting at anti-war marches and getting arrested on behalf of climate change legislation would make interesting party stories, I thought. I quickly hopped on the Occupy Chicago bandwagon, a movement which calls for a more equitable wealth distribution, but whose leaders and participants were largely white college graduates. None of my organizing work focused on racial inequalities, but stayed in the realm of money in politics, equitable banking practices, and climate change.

My journey took a profound turn at an organizing training where I proudly stated I was there because my faith called me to advocate for the least of these. In response, a powerful, albeit brash, leader in Chicago’s movements angrily characterized me as an “activist do-gooder” who was fueled by the need to be a good white person. This label devastated me. I’m outspoken, passionate and willing to lead, I thought, so why can’t people see me as a resource? I took a break from the organizing world feeling disillusioned and miffed.

This attitude forced me to ask myself, why was I drawn to political activism in the first place? What was it that drew me to the movements in which I involved myself? And why was I so offended that someone had questioned my motives?

 

 

New and Noteworthy

Living God's Reign
In Witnessing: Prophecy, Politics, and Wisdom, edited by Maria Clara Bingemer and Peter Casarella, international scholars write on many aspects of Christian witness, including martyrdom (especially Catholic martyrs in El Salvador), personal narrative, the interlocking realities of God’s beauty and justice, and intercultural dialogue. Orbis

 Prophet at the Gates


Forward Together: A Moral Message for the Nation gathers the speeches of North Carolina NAACP president William J. Barber at the 2013 Moral Mondays protests and other progressive events in that state. Powerful God-rooted words, yearning for equality and justice for all. Chalice Press

Peace Adventures
Since nonviolently resisting a snowball barrage at age 7, Quaker David Hartsough (executive director of Peaceworkers and co-founder of the Nonviolent Peaceforce) has put peace into practice. His story, Waging Peace: Global Adventures of a Lifelong Activist, is both an optimistic memoir and a resource for activists. PM Press

 Lens of Creation 


The Salt of the Earth is a documentary following the cross-continental travels of photographer Sebastião Salgado over the past 40 years. The film is beautiful and jarring—a stunningly captured testament to the magnificence of creation and the waywardness of humankind. Directed by Wim Wenders with Salgado’s son, Juliano. Sony Classics

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'Don't Get Weary Though The Way Be Long'

IN JANUARY 2012, I was driving in the flatlands of northern Indiana with historian and democracy activist Vincent G. Harding. I was Harding’s tour guide and chauffer for the week. As we drove he asked me what I hoped to happen at an upcoming meeting. “We’re open to whatever you feel inspired to share with us,” I responded. He replied, “Joanna, this is your community. I want to hear from you what is important in this conversation. You know better than I what your community needs to be discussing right now.”

This was the organizational formula Vincent Harding had been using for more than 50 years: Bring people together, remind them of the strength of their roots, listen to their wisdom, and connect them to a broader biblical and historical movement.

Harding, who died May 19, 2014, was a lifelong activist for the development of a compassionate, multireligious, multiracial democracy and a leading historian in the black-led freedom struggle in the U.S. Harding and his spouse, Rosemarie Freeney Harding, who died in 2004, had been colleagues of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King in the 1960s, and Vincent later became the first director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center in Atlanta.

When historian, author, and longtime friend P. Sterling Stuckey heard about Harding’s death, he said he found it hard to believe because “Vincent was larger than life.” Harding’s effect on movements for justice in the U.S. was far-reaching. He was a convener of scholars, activists, artists, youth, and people of faith. He believed that transformation happened when everyone was engaged and contributing—and he believed that everyone had something to offer in the creation of a compassionate, multiracial democracy.

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Challenging Drone Warfare in a U.S. Court

Brian Terrell, Georgia Walker, and Kathy Kelly. Photo courtesy Kathy Kelly
Brian Terrell, Georgia Walker, and Kathy Kelly. Photo courtesy Kathy Kelly

On Oct. 7, Georgia Walker and I appeared before Judge Matt Whitworth in a Jefferson City, Mo., federal court on a charge of criminal trespass to a military facility. The charge was based on our participation in a June 1 rally at Whiteman Airforce Base protesting drone warfare. Walker and I attempted to deliver a loaf of bread and a letter to the base commander, encouraging the commander to stop cooperating with any further usage of unmanned aerial vehicles, (drones) for surveillance and attacks.

The prosecutor, USAF Captain Daniel Saunders, said that if we would plead guilty to the charge, he would seek a punishment of one month in prison and a $500 fine. We told the prosecutor we could accept a “no contest” plea but were not willing to plead guilty. The prosecutor then said he would recommend a three-month prison sentence and a $500 fine. The judge refused to accept a “no contest” plea. We then requested a trial, which has been set for Dec. 10.

3 Ways to Cultivate Joy While Working for Change

wavebreakmedia / Shutterstock.com
wavebreakmedia / Shutterstock.com

I was among millions across the globe wrapped up in the glee of Pharrel William’s song, “Happy.” I first heard it while watching Despicable Me 2 with my family last year. As the credits rolled I remember making a mental note to add it to my workout playlist.

Pharrel even released a 24-hour video of the song on YouTube for millions to enjoy globally – creating a sort of time released happy capsule that was just a click away.

I thought about how this “Happy” anthem struck a chord in our world’s collective unconscious. “Could it be a sign that all of us, the human family, crave deeper joy and some levity?”

I think faith-based communities can discuss this for years to come at a time where joy is a necessity more than a luxury, and ministers are flaming out quicker than ever, and according to a New York Times article, suffer from depression “at rates higher than most Americans.”

Maintaining a sense of joy is then vital for my own work, especially since I lean toward New York-bred cynicism and incredulity. Activism can be rewarding, yet also extremely discouraging at times. Change can seem incremental at best, and the issues are much bigger than any one person or institution can handle. Making joy a vital ingredient in the active life of faith, within the soul of activity.

I’ve been considering three approaches in cultivating joy, a God-given, buoyant energy, in the midst of some weighty work.

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