On the last Sunday of October, many Mennonite churches in the United States observe Mennonite Heritage Sunday, a day set aside to remember the gifts that our spiritual ancestors have bequeathed to us. Our Anabaptist ancestors participated in one of the biggest religious, social and economic upheavals in European history. The 1500s were a time when the structures that had governed society for centuries were being actively challenged and dismantled by the masses, who were seeking to transform these economic and political and religious structures to be more egalitarian and just. It was an apocalyptic time, a time of violence and fear and hope and vision when the world truly seemed to be ending and something new truly seemed to be happening. Sound familiar?
Our social context today is similarly apocalyptic — a time of transformation, when centuries-old structure are failing and something new is desperately trying to be born. Our service today will look at how we in this church are participating in the many moments for transformation swirling around us. Kate Irick, Jim Lichti and Helen Stoltzfus will be offering reflections on that theme, which follow.
Reflection by Kate Irick
God of Life
God of The Roof Over Our Heads God of Home
God of Community
This reflection is about what it can look like to fight for home and family amidst the devastatingly unequal place that is San Francisco. Not only home in the literal sense, where we shelter, and not just family in the sense of “legal” or “chosen” family. But, rather, the home and family of right relationship and common struggle that demands a place for all within our city.
This reflection is also about what it means to bear witness to injustice and inequality in the Bay Area and, in spite of that, how we might find a path to transcend the walls that separate people across difference. It’s about how we might relate to this beautiful, broken place by seeking relationship with one another and dignity for all.
There’s a lot we’re up against in doing this work. The song, “Forgotten Eyes,” by Big Thief describes an encounter that many of us experience daily on the streets of San Francisco, Oakland, Richmond, San Jose… In it, lead singer Adrianne Lenker observes addiction and homelessness and asks herself: :
Hollow-eyed on Eddy street… is it they or is it I
Is it me who is more hollow as I’m quickly passing by? And the poison is killing them, but then so am I
As I turn away
The wound has no direction
Everybody needs a home and deserves protection
What we know is that our attempt to live amidst overt suffering and injustice bears wounds. Knowing we are part of the structures that impoverish and displace, but seeing no solution, we feel forced to look away, or do what we can, however we can, knowing that it will never feel enough.
Recently I’ve had the opportunity to participate in an organization that is shifting that perception for me for the first time since I moved to the Bay Area. Faith in Action is an interfaith movement fighting for affordable housing for low-income seniors in the Mission by building power among low-income communities of color and their allies in San Francisco. Their vision? To reclaim the soul of San Francisco. Faith in Action has shown me an example of how to participate in this dynamic of inequality differently.
The leaders of this movement know the fight for home is more deep and challenging than having a place to sleep and house our worldly belongings. The struggle to belong in a place like San Francisco means tearing down walls that have divided the city and its inhabitants for centuries. Sometimes all it takes is sharing meals, celebrations, and dreams, to bring together those who society has structurally and historically kept separate.
In this coming together, there’s richness and a possibility of dismantling our collective relationship to inequality and privilege, which instills shame and guilt in those who benefit from this system and despair and inferiority for those who are oppressed by it.
In the short time I’ve participated in Faith and Action’s meetings, it’s become clear to me that one place for our community in their struggle — in addition to listening and learning, in addition to “showing up” or being in “solidarity” or “accompanying,” as we would call this work in Spanish — is to lean into the complex and rich relationship-building space that this movement provides.
The opportunity for transformation for me personally is to not see my participation in their movement as a place to offer my skills or knowledge (needed or not) to a good cause, or as a conscience-clearing activity, but rather as a model for community, a place to build family, to see the movement as a community struggle in which our collective efforts and fates are bound.
My time with Faith in Action has shown that it is an organization that knows how to be in family. In contrast to the narrative of service and helping, the struggle for justice under Faith and Action’s model stems from the interdependence of communities whose realities have long been kept apart. This interdependence is in the mundane, it lives in humor, and in human relationship; it extends beyond the scope of any policy goal or public demonstration.
In Faith in Action, the spiritual dimension of building family is palpable. In the first community meeting I attended last month, there were many seniors from the Mission neighborhood present, each embattled with the threat of eviction or in search of hope that they might find a way to stay in a city which is rapidly pushing them out.
In the opening prayer for this meeting, one of the Latina community leaders shared gratitude for a piece of good news in her life: She had recently obtained her green card and could go home to see her mother for the first time in over 20 years.
With tears in her eyes, she said, “I am sharing this with you all because you are my family, and even though there are many people still on the list, I am one less, and though I wanted to celebrate this with you all, we will not stop fighting until there is no one left on the list.”
During this prayer, I thought, What does it mean to sit in this room and be referred to as family? What would it mean to be family to our neighbors whom we may not know? In this moment of connection, I noticed God’s presence and wondered what does that say about God?
Family is also one of the words I would use to describe the First Mennonite community. We share the richness of celebrations and traditions, the depth of connection and support in times of need. Not just showing up, but sticking around.
Now with Faith in Action as an extension of my faith community in San Francisco, I think about how powerful it would be if I could find ways to hold the low-income seniors of the Mission in the same way that this community holds one another – hearing our gratitudes and fears, sustaining one another with both food and prayer, playing a vital role in one another’s collective well-being. Should I find a way to do this, I know what would follow is to transcend the hollowness of feeling disconnected from the well-being of those with whom I am spiritually intertwined.
Of course, this is no easy task.
For this to be possible, I envision for my life that relationships across difference are the norm, instead of the exception. Where my family is vast and complex, and my compass always points toward inclusion and equality, even when it’s uncomfortable, hard, and vulnerable. I see a world where maintaining these relationships comes at no cost to the love, stability, and joy that I seek in life but rather strengthens and deepens those aspects of my community.
But is upending oppression even possible? The Latina organizers of Faith in Action tell us that alone it is not. For that we have a God of justice, a God of right relationship, that is able to do the work that for us alone is impossible. But for the part that is our job, to love one another, to show up again and again, to celebrate together our victories and mourn together our losses, to lead the way toward justice – that part is up to us.
Reflection by Jim Lichti
I will start by saying a few things about the role of the Red Rebels in Climate Justice activism.
This past September, there was an entire week of actions in San Francisco sponsored by a range of Climate Justice organizations. It started with the Youth March on September 20, and about 15 members of this congregation were on that march. Later that week, on September 25, these same organizations staged an illegal occupation of Montgomery Street.
For the entire workday, from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., we took over the street that is home to financial institutions that continue to bankroll fossil fuel companies with billions of dollars. Artists covered the asphalt with stunning murals, and several activists even managed to climb to the top of the Wells Fargo building, unfurling a banner that proclaimed:
EXTINCTION = EXTRACTION
100 MILLION PEOPLE DEAD
IN THE NEXT TEN YEARS
So briefly, what role did the Red Rebels play in this act of nonviolent civil disobedience?
For starters, we make a visual impact: We wear WHITE face makeup, and we are dressed all in RED.
There were close to 30 of of us, and from the moment we leave our homes costumed and in make-up, we maintain the Red Rebel persona, which includes silence and slow and flowing movements. And it was with silence and slow and flowing movements that we processed back and forth along Montgomery Street on September 25, collectively embracing the actions of civil disobedience taking place around us.
To summarize what we represent, here are a few lines from the Red Rebel Manifesto written by our founder, Doug Francisco:
The red rebel brigade symbolizes the common blood we share with all species,
that unifies us and makes us one.
As such we move as one, act as one and more importantly feel as one. […]
We illuminate the magic realm beneath the surface of all things, and we invite people to enter in, […]
We are who the people have forgotten to be!
Since this is Mennonite Heritage Sunday, I thought about how the approach of Climate Justice activists relates to our tradition; for example, our peace witness relates to their commitment to non-violence; we share with them, I think, the notion of being stewards of the earth; and the somewhat androgynous or even feminine Red Rebel costume brings to mind the witness of the Anabaptist women whose voices speak so boldly in sixteenth century court records and on the pages of Martyrs Mirror.
But the approach of Climate Justice activists also makes me think of aspects of our Anabaptist heritage that we’d just as soon NOT remember or perhaps even sweep under the rug.
For example, the message of Climate Justice activists is apocalyptic, and in the places where Anabaptism truly became a mass movement that transformed the countryside, it was also an apocalyptic movement. What was at stake back then was more or less everything: the imminence of the Kingdom of God. And what is at stake now is more or less everything: the imminence of worldwide environmental catastrophe.
And if we are uncomfortable with Apocalyptic Anabaptism, we’re also uncomfortable with Anabaptist biblical literalism which led to icky things like “the ban.” But for Anabaptists, it was the written word that provided an authority with which they could confront established worldly authorities – just as Climate Justice activists confront the worldly authorities of today to take the projections of climate scientists far more literally than they would like to. The literal message is urgent in part because past scientific projections have underestimated the pace of environmental degradation – suggesting that the actual rate of degradation will be faster than anyone dared imagine.
This is a key reason why Climate Justice activists are calling for disruption, and – on the whole – Anabaptists were a disruptive lot. The context for their emergence was widespread peasant rebellion; for a short time, we had our own totalitarian kingdom; and various forms of Anabaptist terrorism persisted well into the 1580s. The legal basis for imprisoning and executing Anabaptists was NOT as heretics; Anabaptists were imprisoned or executed because of their disruptive impact on society.
Now I don’t like being disruptive. And I don’t want to be imprisoned OR executed either. So, I would just as soon forget about these dimensions of Anabaptism.
But we owe a great deal to them. It was this apocalyptic and literal and disruptive fervor that fueled Anabaptist momentum and solidified distinctive Anabaptist convictions. So, we don’t get to take figures like Thomas Müntzer or Hans Hut or Melchior Hoffman or Jan van Batenburg or EVEN Jan of Leiden and lock them up in the Anabaptist closet.
And I don’t think we want to imitate them too closely. But for the struggle we face today, we need their boldness, we need their fervor, and we need their activism.
With that introduction, I hand over the pulpit to Helen who will read a poem about her experience processing as a Red Rebel along Montgomery Street this past September 25…
We Are Walking by Helen Stoltzfus
I am walking because the world is on fire dressed in red red headdress red robe red gloves red for anger? blood? despair? love? fire?
I am walking and behind me walk my ancestors the ones whose worlds were also on fire the ones strapped to ladders lowered onto flames hands held in prayer surely they must have reached for their children in their last moments?
I am walking for the children of my daughter the ones she wants I want – my daughter to have children who can breathe the air drink the water I want to be a worthy ancestor
I am walking because last November in Oakland I wore a mask for 5 days to protect me from toxic air from the wildfires… and because this weekend I am waiting for the power to come back on due to wildfires.
I am walking because a Wenger cousin on my mother’s mother’s side I don’t know her name put out a deadly fire against all odds during the Civil War when the Union army swept through the Shenandoah Valley the breadbasket of the South and set fire to all the barns of the Virginia farmers in what was called the Great Burning…
I am walking because I cannot even comprehend our Great Burning in which already men, women and children in India in Greenland in Columbia have lost their livelihood their lives because of fire drought heat the unraveling of nature because 29% of the birds are gone in North America because African-Americans in Bayview Hunters Point in San Francisco have been dying and ailing for decades because of the toxic air my friend Deborah stopped singing at age 40 because of asthma
I am walking because WE are walking because walking alone is eccentric but walking with 26 others is a movement a spectacle our red veils covering our faces faces white for death white for clowns white for other-wordliness white for absence of life white because our grief is too much for this world.
Her world is on fire too – my distant cousin in the Shenandoah Valley she glances out the window of her house a flash of blue Union soldiers! then a flash of orange as they set fire to the shed next to her barn she must save the barn her children her livelihood she has 15 seconds everything they have worked for all their lives her eyes race around the room desperate for what? a weapon? she does not fight- what then?-…
We are walking up Montgomery St. where dwell the mighty kings in their palaces who pay for the extraction and production of fossil fuels that fuel the fire JP Morgan-Chase-Wells Fargo- Citibank-of-America
We are walking up Montgomery in slow
and ahead I see the street blockaded by a handful of protesters with a banner declaring Climate Crisis and… in that moment…(pause)
…the eyes of my Virginia cousin land on a basin of water and in a flash of improvisational genius – she runs grabs the bar of soap rubs it across her teeth fills her mouth with water swishes until her mouth is foaming… races outside pulling her hair rolling her eyes screaming incoherently a madwoman maybe even contagious…(pause)
And in that moment seeing “Climate Crisis” in huge letters I am suddenly overcome by how few of us there are by how many of us there are by my beating heart by my feeling of nakedness as though I had no robes on at all my heart laid bare crying why am I crying as sorrow such deep sorrow washes over me at all that is already lost our bodies a poem of despair of defiance…(pause)
…the Union soldiers see that she is crazy maybe even dangerous the leader blows his whistle and scared out of their wits they gallop away not bothering to finish lighting the barn… (pause)
“…a bunch of crazy over-zealous protesters – texts my one-time Republican friend when she sees a photo of the Red Rebels – that’s what I’d think if I saw you on the street – that or what are you trying to sell?”
We walk because we do not know what else to do
And when she sees the soldiers leave she races back into her cabin grabs her children and rushes them outside to the shed which is burning hotter now, they scream, they cry, they hold onto her skirts…
We walk slowly because time
and we must act
Quick! She calls to her children Fill this bucket with water!
We are mute because there are too many words dry words burn up quickly in this fire which is not a fire at the stake not a fire blazing through one Virginia valley but a fire that is sweeping the world …
Fill it with water NOW she tells them quickly there is no time to lose!
Nothing to lose but life itself says my ancestor at the stake in the fire
I save no one
I quench no fires
The ancestors act
I only gesture
I love my children so I will go mad to save them
I love my children so I will turn my body to ashes to protect them
I love my children grandchildren so I will dress in red until someone somewhere turns off the valves once and for all
There is only this moment
Each does what she must do
my Virginia ancestor lifts the bucket
The woman in the fire lifts her song
I lift my veil
© 2019 Helen Stoltzfus