“The Prophetic: That Which Keeps Us Alive”
McCormick Theological Seminary, October 22-23, 2014
Opening lecture: “Fire, ashes, bread, water and Spirit: that which keeps us alive”
Dear Sisters and Brothers, may the peace of Christ be with you!
First of all let me start with a prayer from the Native American Osage Nation; “Grandmother! Grandfather! Sacred One Above and Sacred One Below. Thank you for this day, for life itself, and especially for this gathering of relatives in the struggle for liberation.”
I am so glad you came to McCormick days. I thank our precious Nannette Banks who organized this whole feast for us. Nannette please stand. Let us give it up to her now. Thank you friends for inviting me, I am deeply honored to be here with you all. Please let us give a hand to our dancer Gloria Kamin Mwez. Thank you! And our musician and painter Kevin Sparks, let us give it up to him.
DANCE BY GLORIA
Friends, let me say this: I am on fire!
Turn on the jacket lights. – Turn off
I didn’t start the fire! It was God! In me fire and ashes, the movements of the Spirit.
“Fire, ashes, bread, water and Spirit: the Prophetic, that which keeps us alive.” This is our theme for today. But we will leave bread and water for tomorrow. Inspired by the movie Back to the Future I changed my whole talk for us today. Here is a trailer for the movie: (1:06)
I propose for us to do a different kind of travel today. Still, a travel to the future but the future of somebody else. We will have with us today, by the word of God, one Ms. Kora Davis, a descendent of the 10.7 million Africans who survived out of the 12.5 million people who went through the dread Middle Passage, coming from Africa and disembarking in North America, the Caribbean and South America from 1525 to 1866. These people made the entire history of the slave trade to the New World, according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. Ms. Kora Davis was a descendent of one of the 388,000 Africans shipped directly to North America.
We don’t know much about Ms. Kora Davis. What we know is that God gave her a chance to come back to United States to see the future of the country she lived in and shaped her life. We also know that Ms Davis’ travel back to her future was done in the same sweet chariot that once took her from this earth to the arms of her Lord. Oh how she loved the low swinging of that chariot, a chariot of grace, a chariot of redemption. It was the Lord who asked her to travel back to the future to bring us a word that God wanted us to hear.
Kora Davis left the river Jordan where she lived with her sweet Jesus and the band of angels who praised God day and night in order to come visit a history that she didn’t have the chance to see. She surely didn’t want to leave heaven but Jesus said to her: “My precious daughter, the people who are living in weary days right now need a word from me. And I have chosen you because you know what it is to live in weary days! During your days in the United States when people called you a slave you lived your terrible life, something very close to what the prophet Jeremiah described in the book of Lamentations:
you have had your teeth grind on gravel,
and had to cower in ashes;
your soul was bereft of peace;
and you have forgotten what happiness is;
so you said, ‘Gone is my glory,
and all that I had hoped for from the Lord.’
The thought of my affliction and my homelessness
is wormwood and gall!
My soul continually thinks of it
and is bowed down within me.
However, you knew me and this you said:
But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul,
‘therefore I will hope in him.’
So go down and find in their history what they can see to keep themselves alive, teach them to say ‘The Lord is my portion,’ ‘therefore I will hope in God.’ So Kora gladly obeyed and came back to her future. And from now on I will let her speak.
My name is Kora Davis, I was a beloved child of God when I lived as a slave. I remember the stories shared about the ships crossing the oceans bringing my ancestors to this new and strange land. I remember my life being like living in hell. Work, work, work, I never knew what to rest was. Work, work, work, from morning until late at night. Worked in the field, worked in the house, worked everywhere. Sometimes I felt my back was going to break. I was always cold and hungry. I tell no lies. This is the gospel truth.
Some of us worked in the tobacco, cotton or sugar cane fields. Owners of plantations became rich on our back. We all had to produce a certain amount per day or we would be beaten up really bad. I remember some of us being beaten almost to death.
They only prevented themselves from killing us because they had spent money on us so we had to stay alive to give them profit. Some days we were sick and could not even leave the bed but we had no choice. As slaves we were also bought to play with the children of the white slave owners. I remember one day when I was a small girl. We were playing in the barn and James said to me: Come on nigger let us go to the river. And I said: I ain’t no nigger! He said: “yes you is: my pop paid 200 dollars for you, he bought you to play with me.”
I also remember Martin Jackson, when he was 90 years old saying: “I have 85 years of good memory. My earliest recollection was when my boss presented me to his son Joe. I was 5 years old and my own master was only 2. No sir I never went into the books. But I would get a dictionary three times but to put it under the chair so my master could sit higher at the table.”
I remember having to come late from the field and wash my master’s feet, I collected their shit and their piss and I washed their linens. One day I was cleaning the house and there was a biscuit in this jar. I had never seen a biscuit. I was so hungry I ate it. When the mistress came she screamed “where that biscuit?” I said miss I ate it because I was so hungry.” She got the broom and started beating me over the head and said go down nigger. The thing I knew the best was not to fight with white folk, and so I don’t know why I started fighting her. Then the driver came in and started beating me so bad I had many open wounds. They spread salt all over my cuts for punishment. Lord oh Lord, those were weary awful days.
I remember my boss raped me so many times… and every time I died. But I had to recollect myself and go to my place and sleep, for in the morning I had to go work. I had 5 children, one died and the other 4 were slaves too. Two of them were sold and two stayed. I wish my master had sold everyone so I wouldn’t see their suffering and they wouldn’t see mine.
I never saw good times but when I went to meeting with folks at our hidden church, back then called the ‘invisible institution,’ I found strength I never thought I would have. See, my people joined Christianity in part because “participation in the dominant European religion reflected (and helped to bring about) a colonial society in which blacks were more fully integrated and enjoyed greater rights than later generations of slaves would. However, slaves also saw conversion to Christianity as a road to freedom. In the early years of settlement, for instance, fugitive slaves from South Carolina, headed for Florida, where the Spanish Crown promised them freedom as a reward for conversion. Slaveholders in the British North American colonies became increasingly fearful that Christianization of slaves would lead to demands for emancipation. In 1667 Virginia passed a law declaring that conversion did not change the status of a person from slave to free. Other colonies passed similar laws during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.”
I died singing songs of freedom and hopes for the new Jerusalem. I remember this song we sang:
Oh Lord, do remember me,
Oh when I’m in trouble, down on my knees,
Oh Lord, do remember me,
Oh when I’m in trouble,
Oh Lord, do remember me,
Oh when I am dying Lord,
Oh Lord, do remember me,
But that is enough about me. I will tell you now what I saw in your history during my quick travels and bring a word from God so you can remember and have hope!
I saw that finally this country abolished slavery! But I also saw how slavery continued for a long time and it is still present in your days. I saw the hardships of my people, treated like dogs, beaten up like pigs, and living under threats from a massive colonized white supremacy project. So many of your blacks and latinos are in jail right now. Surely a new form of slavery and oppression. I know that way too well, o Lord yes I know… So much blood spiledl and tragedy in the history of this country, nothing really different from what I lived. I don’t know why you call this country the greatest country on earth. Greatest for whom? Surely not for the blacks and Latinas and the poor.
Looking at our history I saw the Indians and the black folks being almost driven out from this nation. I am even surprised the Indians are still around!
I learned these two things with Native American theologian George T. Tinker, two strategies to exterminate blacks and Native Americans:
“Our experiences ring with a certain similarity even if the colonial process of oppression and racialization has been played out differently depending on the context and the specific needs of the colonizer.
For instance, African Americans were historically denied any integral participation in American life on the basis of their skin color even after slavery was officially abolished in the 1860s. The general rule was that a single drop of African (Black) blood was (and is) enough to contaminate the person with this disease of Blackness, and thus, even mixed-blood African Americans could not shed the stigma no matter how light their resulting skin color. (and could also easily turn people into cheap labor as slaves).
With regard to American Indians, however, the U.S. government has concocted a scheme to determine exactly when, through the process of intermarriage, we stop being Indian and can be safely considered to be White. Both of these are racialized political responses to the world.
The one strategy was intended to separate Black people from economic and political opportunity in general and to maintain a source of cheap labor within the United States; the other was intended to include Indian peoples so that our lands and economic resources could be more easily taken away from us without the specter of guilt ever looming over the process.”
Throughout this time I saw the construction of American Exceptionalism, Manifest Destiny and the robbing of Native American, African and African American values by white supremacy. Now, everything that does not resemble the values of white supremacy is labeled as hatred of the US! I was struck by the insurgency of the Civil Rights movement, a mighty movement changing and transforming the life of this country!
But even before there I saw W.E.B. Du Bois – Civil Rights Pioneer: (2:22)
W.E.B. Du Bois didn’t start the fire! But he put us on fire! In him, fire and ashes, the movements of the Spirit of life.
During the civil rights movement I saw Fred Shuttlesworth that called my attention more than almost any other civil right participant: (1:54)
Fred Shuttlesworth didn’t start the fire! But he put us on fire! In him, fire and ashes, the movements of the Spirit of life.
I saw Rosa Parks: (3:03)
Rosa Parks didn’t start the fire! But she put us on fire! In her, fire and ashes, the movements of the Spirit of life.
I saw James Baldwin break down racism in one minute: (1:00)
James Baldwin didn’t start the fire! But he put us on fire! In him, fire and ashes, the movements of the Spirit of life.
I saw the fantastic Ella Baker (2:21)
Ella Baker didn’t start the fire! But she put us on fire! In her, fire and ashes, the movements of the Spirit of life.
But I also saw other oppressed people fighting along too:
Asian American Civil Rights Movement (3:30)
They didn’t start the fire! But they put us on fire! In them, fire and ashes, the movements of the Spirit of life.
I saw Latinos fighting: (3:59)
They didn’t start the fire! But they put us on fire! In them, fire and ashes, the movements of the Spirit of life.
I saw so many more people and especially those mothers and grandmothers who sustained their children by fighting against all the odds. My heart is on fire now!
However, I see now the same kind of economy, an economy based on slave ownership. Surely the capitalist system presents itself as free, giving you freedom as well. However, what this economy does is to make all of you slaves of a new system that owns your feelings, scares you day and night, and makes you live in scarcity when resources and wealth are abundant. But abundant just for very few.
I saw Martin Luther King Jr. talking about economic justice.
UP TO 2:45 minutes
Dr. King didn’t start the fire! But he put us on fire! In him, fire and ashes, the movements of the Spirit of life.
I had a hard time grasping my mind around the ways in which this new system has expanded itself.
There is a video where this fierce white theologian explains a bit what this neoliberal system is all about. We will watch just the very beginning so you can have an idea… (UP TO 1:29)
Your situation is a disaster and it will get worse! The rich is getting richer and the poor getting poorer. Unless you fight against it. As I see our history, there is so much to do…
Perhaps you all need to pause to think together and invent a new world. For a new world is possible. Your lives are crumbling down. You are all losing access to resources and especially poor communities are hurting terribly. This system is based on a social Darwinism where the fittest will survive. Those who cannot fit, meaning, those who don’t have any money or cannot be in the market to buy stuff , those people do not have any reason to exist. When asked “where is your brother,” those who believe in this oppressive system will respond: “I don’t care.” If he is not here it is not my business.”
This economic group is breaking down communities all across the world, dismantling our connections, instilling in us an individual sense of personal care. I care for me and you care for you.
And we will die of disconnection and sadness and stress and anxiety. These people are stealing you all, they are robbing you from your common sources just as it was when I was here. You gotta do something!
There are people everywhere fighting this system of privatization everywhere! The British came to Bolivia and tried to buy the water of the country and people said no!
The Bolivian people didn’t start the fire! But they put us on fire! In them, fire and ashes, the movements of the Spirit of life.
The Landless movement in Brazil, the via Campesina, the Palestinians in Gaza resisting, all of these movements are holding on the fire of life. (FROM 0:47to 3:05)
The Palestinian people didn’t start the fire! But they put us on fire! In them, fire and ashes, the movements of the Spirit of life.
There are many challenges out there. I saw so many people killed by the police and this one was almost like the same I saw when I was a slave. I am sorry this is a very difficult video to watch: (1:00)
Eric Gardner didn’t start the fire! But he put us on fire! In him, fire and ashes, the movements of the Spirit of life. Do you understand when I said: there was no joy in our lives back then?
In all of these people and movements the fire of life, the ashes of life and the Spirit moving in uncountable ways! Try to set an account of the movements of the Spirit in the world and you will not be able even to start. The Spirit of God is active and alive on the planet earth!
You all have to follow the smoke sing of the fire, go after with heaing when you see ashes and be attentive to the work of the Spirit! There are signs everywhere and you have lots to do. See my friends, you have better conditions than I did. You have so much in your hands…. Here in Chicago you have a wealth of resources for a new revolution and fighting for rights and just ways of living and dying.
Look at your city! There is fire everywhere in the history of Chicago. Chicago is considered by many as the birthplace of the American labor movement, home to more “Local 1” unions than any other city, Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) and so many other grassroots movements. Just to mention a few women:
Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, a prominent labor and community organizer, who beginning in 1871 started coordinating strikes, organized the Knights of Labor and the United Mine Workers union.
She cofounded the Industrial Workers of the World. In 1902 Mother Jones was called “the most dangerous woman in America” She lived in this city!
In the late 30’s, the Latina Guadalupe Marshall was active in the expanding labor movement in the city.
Also, in the 40’s Clara Day and Johnnie Jackson were two black women who fought for labor rights. Clara Day was vice president of the Coalition of Trade Union Women and Johnnie Jackson the president of the Chicago chapter
And yet, you can’t breathe! I am back from heaven and I can’t barely breathe here too! Along with fire there are many ashes… Until we feel that whatever happens to any child is also what happens to our own children you will not have a measure of God’s love for one another. We must all agonize with the poor in the public square! We must shout words of justice! No one can stop us!
This country claims to be a democracy and that means that the power belongs to the people. We will not go anywhere! We will shout until the plight of the poor is heard.
And now… now you have #BlackLivesMatter! (TIL 1:10)
The BlackLIves Matter didn’t start the fire. But they put us on fire! In them, fire and ashes, the movements of the Spirit of life.
And before I leave, let me tell something to the older generations: you will need to come to terms with the fact that what will sustain you from now on, will not be the ways of being Christian or protesting that you are used to. Many of the 60’s ways of living the faith and protesting are not working anymore. The times are of a new essence and God is calling you to open your heart.
Here is a song I learned just this week with Xavier Paul, a BlackLifeMAtter’s activist from the “Let Us Breathe” movement in Chicago, a song that feeds the black movement. In this short piece, there will be cursing and difficult images, but I show these new ways to you so that you might have hope in your heart. Or at least that you might let God do the work God needs to do, even if it is different from what you are used to seeing. Try to look past your offense.
Kendrick Lamar song: alright – (2:40 to 4:20)
Kendrick Lamar didn’t start the fire! But he put us on fire! In him, fire and ashes, the movements of the Spirit of life.
All of this is so difficult. But if you saw what I saw in my life you wouldn’t be complaining much. But the point here is not your uneasiness level but the call to fight together! Yes I say together, for I am here representing your ancestors, those who came before you to prepare the way for you to live better.
One of our tasks is to add other forms of reasoning, of living and being human together. These new ways of reasoning will expand our ways of perceiving and living our lives. We will have other resources besides the ones we are used to. We are being called to live with the poor and discover ways to respond to their pleas.
In many of the videos and people mentioned here, there is a blazing fire burning, ashes mounting up and the movement of the Spirit all over it. What is it that keeps you alive?
Your own history! But also somebody else’s histories as well!
Your own people! But other people who are not yours as well!
The symbols are sources of your faith but the symbols are sources of somebody else’s faith as well!
You didn’t start the fire! But you can put us on fire! In you , fire and ashes, the movements of the Spirit of life.
And know that:
Those who struggle with you are your people!
Those who are hurting elsewhere are the people you should serve.
Those who are in the lower level of our class society. They are your people! There, there is where the people of God should go! And serve! Inventing news ways of ministering! With and without money!
Like this church in Minneapolis: a small Presbyterian church. They had no money to gain the licenses to become a shelter in the city. However, that didn’t impede them to act. The church decided to have a vigil, a prayer service every night from 9 pm to 9 am! This way, everybody could go into the sanctuary and “pray.” Isn’t that something that keeps you alive? What are the signs of God’s movement in your own life and in your community?
We are still living in weary days, but this I bring to my heart so I can have hope: that God’s redeeming acts are everywhere!
God’s transforming power is right here inside of us and at our hands to create a new world! You don’t see hope? Don’t be naïve!
Look to the history of this country, look around the globe and see that there was an immense cloud of witnesses consumed with fire who prepared the way for you! Take the challenge, hold on to that fire they are passing and prepare the way for your children and grandchildren, those near and far. Alone we die of cold, together we share the warmth of the fire God put on us!
Repeat with the Prophet and the people who lived with me during slavery:
‘The Lord is my portion,’ ‘therefore I will hope in God.’ – ALL
I must go now… It was great being here with you! Remember, you have fire, ashes and the Spirit everywhere around you and within yourselves! Keep this fire blazing! It will burn the injustices of this world. And by the power of the Spirit we will keep on marching, we will keep on moving, and we aint’ gonna let nobody turn us around!
Aint gonna let nobody turn me around:
 Tinker, George E. “Tink,” American Indian Liberation. A Theology of Sovereignty (New York: Orbis Books, 2008), 17. http://www.orbisbooks.com/chapters/978-1-57075-805-8.pdf
 Slave Experience. Religion by Kimberly Sambol-Tosco http://www.pbs.org/wnet/slavery/experience/religion/history.html
 Tinker, George E. “Tink,” American Indian Liberation. A Theology of Sovereignty, op. cit., 21.