For many, including myself, the past few weeks have been discouraging, given the state of our politics and culture and what many vulnerable people across the country are experiencing. But despite the frustration and even grief sometimes I have been reminded of the importance of “saving faith.”
My favorite Twitter response last week said this, “If all American Christians behaved as you do, I wouldn’t have to be such a huge a**hole of an atheist.” (Edits mine.) It came in response to a column I wrote about the new film, 12 Years A Slave (see it if you haven’t yet!), the continuing realities of racism in America that we still tolerate, and the need for churches to provide leadership in the changing demographics of the country by becoming the multiracial faith communities we were intended to be.
The week before saw many of faith leaders, pastors, and young people out in the rain at the U.S. Capitol during the government shutdown in a “Faithful Filibuster,” reading each day through the 2,000 verses in the Bible that speak of how we should treat the poor and vulnerable. One of those nights a family friend, the father of one of the boys I have coached in Little League baseball, came over to our house. He said, “You know I am an atheist, but I really admire what you are doing at the Capitol — that’s what Christians ought to be doing.”
Right after the government shutdown ended, Sojourners had our annual staff orientation. The program included each staff member telling their story of when and why they came to join us. Listening carefully, I was struck by how many Sojourners staffers recalled times in their lives when they were about to lose their faith, but rediscovered it after stumbling upon Sojourners. In my remarks to them that day, I also told stories of a few of the legion of people who have told me over the years of how they had lost or were about to lose their faith until they heard the messages about a faith that does justice.
It has all reminded me again how Sojourners began.
Watching the dysfunction in Washington over the past two weeks has been painful. Our leaders have grown too comfortable with pushing the limits, and we let a few dozen of our own representatives — the people elected to promote the common good, or “general welfare,” as the Constitution calls for— hold the nation's economy hostage for the sake of their political self-interest.
But after the storm comes the promise — the hope of lessons learned and new ways forward together. A few key groups of people have renewed my faith that this is possible.
When I began to read, I started by going through the Psalms. An elderly gentleman paused to listen, and then requested if I could read aloud his favorite, Psalm 91. As I read it, he also began to softly quote the verses by heart, praising God and saying “hallelujah” before thanking me and walking on.
Later, a local pastor from the District Church in Colombia Heights came to read. We met a couple visiting from Louisiana. The wife was a furloughed federal employee with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It was interesting to hear her point of view working first-hand with immigrants in a deportation capacity. She said as a Christian, it is sometimes very difficult to find a balance between desiring to deport violent criminals, and also wanting to keep hardworking, law-abiding immigrant families together. She and her husband thanked all who were participating in the Faithful Filibuster for keeping Christ present during the government shutdown.
As the next speaker from Salvation Army was reading, several teens participating in a rally at the Supreme Court came to ask about what we were doing. After explaining the filibuster’s mission, a young boy thanked us, shook hands, and said “God bless you.”
I couldn’t believe what I heard. On my television screen a member of Congress quoted the Bible in defense of cutting SNAP benefits. He stated in his testimony, “Scripture says if you don’t work you don’t eat.” The only Scripture that came to my mind as I looked on in sadness was “Jesus wept.”
You see, I had just come from the food pantry my church has operated for more than 20 years. With the economic downturn, our pantry volume has steadily increased from 15 to an average of 40-50 families each day we are open. These families are able to shop with us one time in 30 days, and we attempt to provide three meals a day, for three days, for each member of the household. Our clients are beautiful people who are struggling. Each and every day we hear statements such as, “I never thought I would have to come to a food pantry to feed my family,” or “We just can’t make it to the end of the month.” Our clients come from all walks of life and have one thing in common: they’re struggling.
So, as I listened to the congressman use Scripture to marginalize the very people I care for every day, I felt I needed to do something. I could no longer be silent as the Bible was being used to hurt vulnerable people. I had to speak, and I remembered the Faithful Filibuster. I sent a tweet to Jim Wallis asking if they needed support or extra voices, and he replied that in fact they did. This was a Friday afternoon at 4 p.m., my daughter and I were on the road from Ohio to Washington, D.C., the next morning at 5:30.
We arrived in D.C. at 1:45 just in time to change and walk to the small pulpit labeled #FaithfulFillibuster for our 2:30 time slot. As I stepped onto the grass and began to read, the long hours of the trip began to fade away as the words of the Gospel began to cross my lips. I remember feeling that I would have driven a thousand miles to be able to proclaim the good news of the message of Christ and to speak the Word out loud in a way that comforted God’s people. I would have kept on reading until I couldn’t do it anymore, true filibuster style, all the while looking at the Capitol building with all her power. Our Christian story is one of liberation, new life, abundance, and mercy. It is a story that brings good news to the poor, and I will tell it until I no longer have breath.
Setting an away email with no date of return was almost as odd as leaving work and not and knowing when I’d be back. This unexpected time off gave me the opportunity to do everything on my to-do list and spend ridiculous amounts of time at the dog park. Naturally, it also gave me time to catch up on reading and visiting with other furloughed friends. But this past Wednesday I was beginning to feel a bit hopeless about the whole situation.
Scrolling through Facebook I noticed Sojourners updates on its #FaithfulFilibuster and it truly made me ashamed of my hopelessness. I was ashamed because I forgot who was in charge. I was ashamed because I forgot where my hope lies. And I was ashamed because I was so wrapped up in my own struggles of furlough I forgot about the families that were already struggling and now also dealing with a loss of paychecks.
On Thursday I saw another update from Sojourners, and despite the rain, I felt compelled to go check it out. I expected to do nothing but observe and admire faith leaders stepping out to reclaim hope and speak for the millions of silenced voices in this country. However, when I arrived, something different happened. I was asked if I wanted to participate, handed a Bible, and stepped to the podium to read.
Jim Wallis talks about the #FaithfulFilibuster outside the Capitol Building and offers a reading of his conversion text, Matthew 25.
On our way over to the Capitol, I re-read the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. I was struck by the phrase of those building the tall tower "we'll become famous." That sounded a lot like lawmakers and politicians in Washington — it seems that they all want to become famous. In the story, the people were confounded by speaking different languages and their words went past each other. The words of the politicians and pundits are going past each other and their words are not really meant to be understood. They're not meant to find solutions or common ground. These are words that are meant to fight. To win. To defeat. Even, it seems, to foster hate.
The words we're hearing are of politics and punditry, meant to divide and not to unite. The words coming from the top have consequences for those at the bottom. And like Babel, these words are just babble.
We're hearing lots of babble at the Capitol, but across the street, we're trying to hear the word of God — what God says about the people, families, and children who will suffer the most because of Washington's babble. These words aren't just directed to churches and charities about what we should do with the poor. They're about the obligations of kings, rulers, and government to protect the poor.
Under a cloudy and drizzly sky, across the street from the U.S. Capitol, David Beckmann read passages from the prophet Isaiah.
“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God,” read Beckmann, president of Bread for the World and one of several Protestant and Catholic leaders who gathered Wednesday to launch “Faithful Filibuster.”
The effort is intended to remind members of Congress that the government shutdown is hurting poor and vulnerable people.
Thursday marked the tenth day of the government shutdown and the second of the #FaithfulFilibuster — A Vigil for the Poor. People of faith, both across the street from the Capitol Building and across the world on social media, are reading through the more than 2,000 Bible verses that deal with poverty and justice as a witness for those the shutdown is affecting the most.
The rain didn't deter the prayers, as leaders from Sojourners, Bread for the World, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Salvation Army, and more gathered once again to call on Congress to end the shutdown and stop hurting the poor.
They are asking people of faith to reach out to Congressional leadership. Join along with them to Tweet at those members of Congress with your message to them and hashtag #FaithfulFilibuster.
It’s time to end this shutdown. I’m standing in full view of the Capitol Building with a group of clergy and faith leaders who are here to offer a “Faithful Filibuster” of the government shutdown – and we’re going to keep talking until things change.
We know that this shutdown disproportionately affects the most vulnerable in our society. So our words will not be wasted diatribes or placements of blame. Rather, we will use God’s own words – reading the more than 2,000 Bible verses that speak to God’s justice for the poor and vulnerable – until this shutdown ends.
And while we recite the verses to bear witness for those suffering, we want to make sure that every single member of Congress can read them too. It is our goal to send each member a copy of the Poverty and Justice Bible, which highlights each of those 2,000 verses. Our elected officials need this reminder now more than ever.