Modern: Announcement of the Poor People’s Campaign by Dr. Martin Luther King, 1967, Atlanta, Georgia.
“The Southern Christian Leadership Conference will lead waves of the nation’s poor and disinherited to Washington, D.C. next spring to demand redress of their grievances by the United States government and to secure at least jobs or income for all. We will go there, we will demand to be heard and we will stay until America responds. If this means forcible repression of our movement, we will confront it, for we have done this before. If this means scorn or ridicule, we embrace it, for that is what America’s poor now receive. If it means jail, we accept it willingly, for the millions of poor already are imprisoned by exploitation and discrimination. … In short, we will be petitioning our government for specific reforms and we intend to build militant, nonviolent actions until that government moves against poverty.”
Ancient: Luke 19:28-38
28 Jesus went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. 29 As he approached Bethphage and Bethany at the hill called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, 30 “Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a donkey tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it.’” 32 Those who were sent ahead went and found it just as he had told them. 33 As they were untying the donkey, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the donkey?” 34 They replied, “The Lord needs it. 35 They brought it to Jesus, threw their cloaks on the colt and put Jesus on it. 36 As he went along, people spread their cloaks on the road. 37 When he came near the place where the road goes down, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen: 38 “Blessed is the king!”
“DONKEY” – THE CHILDREN’S STORY
Audio of Palm Sunday children’s story given at the First Unitarian Church of St. Louis.
Palm Sunday, The Radical Procession
A young boy sits on the side of a dusty road. His eyes squint, his hair catches the sunlight and it glistens with gold and orange. His little fingers worry the hem of his pants. His skin is a deep, earth rich black. Or, he is the color of pink limestone, or his skin is the brown of a sparrows winter feathers. His knee is split, and dried blood and pus collects around the wound.
He has been taught, slowly, by his world, that he is powerless. He has been taught to not speak out when he is uncomfortable, he has been taught that most contexts are ones in which some part of himself will be taken from him. He is a child, and he already has been asked to sacrifice so much from his own life. He has been told, in so many situations, that he has a roll to play, and that is a silent roll. The roll of the poor person. The roll of someone whose silence makes everyone else’s comfort possible. Every aspect of his life, all angles come at him, letting him know that he must not speak up about the subjugation that he feels. It’s just the insidious context of his world, believing that he must take it as his soul breaks down and his light dims.
The Lenten season, which is a season in the Christian calendar, is coming to a close. And today marks an important story in the Lenten epoch. The story of Palm Sunday, the day that Jesus rides into Jerusalem. The day that Jesus processes into his holy city. Riding proudly on a little donkey, the sun warming his face as his friends and followers flock around him waving palms. His face set resolutely as he nears the most powerful city in the world, his head held tall. This is an old story. A story that I bet many of you know. A story that you might have been taught in Sunday school. But this story is so old that we have forgotten what it’s really about.
Imagine yourself in ancient Israel. You are, like Jesus, a Jewish Jerusalemite, in the year 33. You are living in a conquered Jerusalem. Your society has been washed over by the Roman Empire and you are being pressed into a system that doesn’t honor your God…you world, that was ordered by the compassion of you own God, but is now ordered by Caesar. In your world, the poor must be taken care of, the orphans and the widows taken in, debt forgiven every seven years. But in this new system, you trade coins with the face of Caesar on them, and there is a marketplace in your sacred temple.
Imagine now that you are in your clay house, and hear a procession coming in to town. You would think, naturally, that it was Caesar back from war, processing triumphantly into Jerusalem. And you would look out into the desert sun, and see the dust kicking up. In your mind’s eye, you’d see Caesar like you’d seen him so many times before. Riding on a huge horse, wearing beautiful robes, surrounded by people waving flowers, and cheering, “Blessed is the King!” And you, you would go back to your washing, and you’d think to yourself, “God, I hate that guy.”
Until you hear shouting and you see that it isn’t Caesar processing. It’s a young man, riding on the sorriest little donkey you ever saw. But people are surrounding him, processing with him. He is wearing a filthy sackcloth and sits not in a saddle, but on a muddy blankets. The donkey plods not on a clean path, but on the coats of the people who surround him. And there are scores of people, all looking more worn than the next. And their hands are raised, slowly waving palms. And you know, because you are just a regular old working-class Jerusalemite, that palms are the most common weed in the land, scrub brush, it’s like they’re throwing the brown grass of early spring. And you hear them chanting, “Blessed is the King!” And it dawns on you, slowly, just as it dawns on everyone else, that this procession into Jerusalem was not just an entrance, it was a MOCKERY.
It was a chilling public mockery of the state. It was a calculated nod that slowly dawned on the Roman Empire, that the poor people were defying their roll. They were making themselves visible, but not visible in the normal way, as beggars and prostitutes: but as the fully cognizant and deserving human beings that they were. They were the meek, putting themselves first as the fully voiced, fully realized human beings that they were. Only they saw a side of the state that no one else could see, so the things that they had to say were not pretty. And watching from a hill near by, a little boy, with the skin of the rich black soil, with one hand shielding his wide clear eyes, while the fingers of his other hand curl around a palm frond, his chest slowly rising and falling as he watches the people go past, their faces set in seriousness.
And they were serious. Because the Palm Sunday procession is part of the larger story around Jesus’ crucifixion. When one mocks the state in a powerful way, there are consequences. Jesus was riding to his death, sacrificing himself for his religious beliefs, because Jesus knew that the way we govern is a reflection of our deepest morals, that the empire was affecting the well-being of the people whom he loved, that any government that depends on the silence of some it people is backwards.
To live in the world, where human beings suffer at the hands of the system they depend on, that is backwards. For people to be without work, to be with out homes, is backwards. To let people live in slums, to not education, to spend money on war rather than books, to bail out the rich while letting the poor suffer, to not let black veterans buy homes on the GI bills, to block some people from marriage, to cut off people’s electricity in Philadelphia, their water in Detroit, is backwards.
Jesus was not the only one living in a government that denies the well being of the poor. And Jesus was not the only Christian person to so intelligently hold the state accountable. There is another person who stands out, a person of our time, who believed that the poor should no longer by silent.
Another person who respected the poor enough to trust them to be able to speak about their lives. This was Dr. King, and the Poor People’s Campaign. Like Jesus’ movement, these were poor people, people who were struggling to make a decent life. And they were tired of being backwards, so they decided to instead march forward in a procession. They formed a line of covered wagons and started moving. They called their caravan the Mule Train, and on their wagon bonnets, they inscribed the words, “Don’t laugh Folks, Jesus was a poor man.” They processed all the way up from the state of Mississippi, and straight in to Washington DC, in 1968. A parade of poor people, processing straight into one of the most powerful city in the world.
And in one of these covered wagons sat a boy, his hands on the wagon’s gunnel, bracing him as they bounced along the gravel roads. His white t-shirt and jeans, his tennis shoes, are caked in southern red dust, and his pink skin, the beautiful color of a streaks in marble limestone, has burned and freckled from the time he spends out with the caravan, helping cook and pushing wheels out of the mud. He speaks with the other people, hearing himself say things that he didn’t know he knew how to say. Articulating his life in poverty and his speaking about his values with an intellect he always knew he had but had never spoken before. He watches with amazement as the huge white buildings of Washington DC appear on the horizon.
The Mule Train didn’t stop until they got to the National Mall, and there they stayed. 3,000 people camped right there on the nation’s capital, for six whole weeks, and they named their campsite Resurrection City. The poorest of the poor, living in the mud in the front yard of the most influential government in the world. This, too, was the poor making themselves visible. Not as the share croppers and the farmers, not as the factory workers and miners, but as the people who have a right to this nation, who have a right to speak about their lives, a right to be present. As if to say, “O! “This is the wealthiest country on earth? This is the best-run government in the world? Then what are we doing here?” This too, was a MOCKERY.
And even though we live in the United States, even though I, too, believe in our country and feel a catch in my throat at the thought of our highest patriotic values, I also understand that Martin Luther King was becoming a very, very powerful person, perhaps too powerful of a person. He was speaking about being black, and being poor, refusing to slip back into the terrible silence of invisibility. The Poor Peoples Campaign asked for 30 Billion dollars to be allocated for anti-poverty work, for 500,000 homes for the homeless annually, and guaranteed income for all.
Dr. King was a leader that rose from the people, and he essentially could have reorganized the US budget, he could have massively changed the government, reorienting it towards people, instead of putting them down. And, he was uniting poor people across racial boundaries, which was a real threat, because there are a lot of poor people. And they all have a common adversary.
When one mocks the state in a powerful way, there are consequences. Both of these men believed in the beauty and specialness of all human life. They were so committed to their religious beliefs, that ultimately, they both were killed.
This story of Lent and Easter is about all about personal sacrifice, but the story of Palm Sunday deepens it. This is about Jesus sacrificing because of his religious beliefs about how the state treats the poor. It’s not about sacrificing chocolate, or wine, it’s about us asking ourselves, how important is a life? What is the value of a life? Is life worth 30 billion dollars? Or, should we just spend 2,000 billion dollars on war, instead? In what ways does our state take life away? And what sacrifices can we make to ensure that we are doing everything we can right our system?
The thing that was so amazing about Jesus and Dr. King was the breadth of their love, their insane, insatiable love of people, their refusal to back down from what they knew in their hearts: that we are all invaluable. That life itself is a wild and magnetic and mysterious occurrence that needs to be honored at the cost of everything else. Because what more is there to worship than the fact that we are alive? What more could this be distilled into? What more is there to fall on our knees in front of than life itself? To put anything before it is insane, idolatry, blasphemy.
They knew the value of a life, and they let everything else fade away. They gave so much, so much of themselves. They saw the value of life, and weighed their own safety and comfort against it. I wonder, could you feel so strongly connected to people who are outside of your family that you would sacrifice any amount of your security, your way of life, your comfort, your way of thinking, to protect and uphold your deepest religious yearnings?
Our boy is now a young man, his almost black hair glistening with orange and blond as it blows against the backdrop of the most beautiful blue Missourian sky you ever saw, white clouds and gentle breeze warming his hand as it pulls him up the railing at the Statehouse in Jefferson City. His fingers are long and jointed, the beautiful brown of a sparrow’s winter feathers, his eyelashes shading the deep wells of his eyes as he puts one hand on his heart for strength, and takes the microphone with the other. This small boy, become a man, the color of soil, of rock, of feather, has been asked his entire life to sacrifice his security, his comfort, his thinking. To shrink away.
But he has learned from the thinkers who came before, has found his voice, has come, to Jefferson City to make himself visible, not as a migrant farm worker on the side of the road or a homeless man on the streets, but to defy his roll as the invisible sufferer, to speak about his love of life, to speak about what it has been like for him to grow up poor in this country, to say that he won’t do it any more, that all people are deserving and dignified, and that he will sacrifice nothing else. He addresses a crowd of 1 and a half million people, all of the poor people in Missouri who live and eat and support their families on less than $22,000 dollars a year, the poor black people from St. Louis, the white rural poor, all of these people together, exhausted at the end of their processions, for they have processed from all over Missouri.
Imagine it. It could happen. The only thing that is stopping a movement of the poor is the resistance of everyone who is not poor, people not demanding better of their state, unwillingness to make personal sacrifices in the name of all that is holy. In order for life to flourish, we all need to make very conscious choices about what we put first, because we’re all in this together. It is our duty as people on this earth, as religious people, as Unitarian Universalists, to make sacrifices in our own lives so that all of life can flourish. We are responsible for our earth, responsible for our fellow people. We ought to have the thing that is most sacred at the very center of our lives, and let the other things slough away, and then we won’t even really be sacrificing, we will simply be raising up and honoring the thing that is most important. And then, we will be that much closer to the thing that gives us life.