I believe that the first time that I took my political ideas to the streets was about 20 years ago. I was in college, with, in truth, very little to complain about as far as my own life was going. I was a student at a university that was opening up my world. My school fees were paid by the government and each term I received a check from the Department of Education to help me with room and board. Aside from the weather, which I remember often as grey, life at university was pretty idyllic.
Yet, as idyllic as it was, the world still pressed in against the windows of the vaulted ceiling libraries and old English pubs, and it gradually dawned on me that a political life in the world no longer needed to be a practice I observed in others; I could also take part in it myself. I was buoyed by visits to the Oxford Labour Club by then, junior shadow minister Tony Blair and his vision for a more just Britain. A few months later, I had the chance to shake hands with Desmond Tutu and heard his account of the profound struggle for freedom the black population of South Africa endured under apartheid. Something in me was stirring.
Earlier in the year I had slept with others overnight in the main shopping area in protest at the high incidence of homelessness in the city, and so having had a taste for at least a modicum of activism, when the opportunity came to join a group heading off to a march in London, I took it. I can remember piling onto a bus in the early morning in Oxford, and marching along a few streets until we made it into one of the Royal parks for a concert. There were no counter-protests. No scuffles or any sort of animosity I could see at all. It was all very British, and orderly and at the end of the day we headed back home to the dreaming spires of Oxford and to our essays and cloistered college quads.
Some five years or so later in seminary, I had stepped from being a participant to becoming just a little bit more of an organizer, trying to stir the hearts of my fellow seminarians to join me at a peace rally, again organized in London. My theological studies were opening up new literary worlds and I can remember being particularly taken by the beautiful imagery of Amos, as he describes ‘justice rolling down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream’. I wanted my practice to mesh with my theology.
Why do we march? Why do we get on the move with others, taking over streets and singing songs with complete strangers? We do so because we feel something stirring in us, a call to action, and a desire to move beyond the complacency of passivity and indifference. In short, we feel that we have to do something.
Indifference to the plight of others is one of the easiest of the sins of omission. The New Testament letter of James puts it simply, like this: “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.” That for one, makes sinners out of us all. Since I got married and moved from student life to professional work, the apparent reasons for inaction seemed to have multiplied: not enough time, or energy, or both; too many conflicting commitments; the packed schedule, the full inbox, the pull of expectations tugging in opposite directions, and before I had noticed, the taking of my political ideas to the streets became something that I used to do, when I was closer to twenty than I am to fifty. Yet God is faithful. As the second letter of Timothy says: ‘if we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself.’ He cannot disown himself, the God abiding in me and you, calling us to seek out that kingdom born of Jesus, yet promised to us all. He cannot disown himself and we cannot disown each other.
The first stirrings of dissatisfaction with my political inactivity appeared in my heart when a neighbor of ours attended a meeting of the governing body of our church wanting to make plain that he took exception to how we were ‘welcoming the homeless’ into his neighborhood. It was when he referred to people living on the streets as rats that something turned within me. Since that meeting, we have held two memorial services for a homeless man and woman, and listened each time to the gifts of beauty and grace that each of those lives offered to the world, and I knew as we gave thanks for their lives that thanks was not enough.
And so we organized, and a little under eighteen months ago, we founded the Pacific Beach Homelessness Coalition, raising awareness and building bridges and breaking stereotypes one encounter at a time. Our church building has hosted a tiny house of prayer to help focus our minds and hearts on the needs of those around us, and the coalition has held a ‘Tiny House Expo’ – building houses and relationships at the same time.
This long road brings me to the Women’s March on Washington, the standing in a bone-crunching crowded San Diego downtown street, unable to reach the rest of the contingent from our church, and doing all I could to keep my kids of getting knocked over through the hour and more speeches and rallying cries. Once more, after quite a hiatus, I was back on the streets on the march with others. I was there because while women are still underpaid and passed over more often for promotions at work than their male counterparts, while they still fall victim to more sexual assault and are objectified by billionaires and bigots alike, indeed while they are not yet treated with the full dignity that God bestows on all of us, man, woman and child, there is a compulsion to be there. Yet this time there was something more. As we stood there, literally rubbing shoulders with strangers, one of the women turned to me as said, “I want you to know why I am marching today.” She pointed at my daughter, “it’s for her. I’m marching for her”, and as she said it, I realized, so was I.
At the same time, I was also there for something more than just her. Of course. We all were. And it was happening as we marched, an alternative picture of power replicated across cities in America and the world, from its epicenter in Washington to London to Paris to Sydney. Place by place, person by person, power was being renegotiated not in the corridors of power in Washington but on the streets of power’s lived articulation, where women and men and children make life together. Were there more people on those streets than had been there the day before at the President’s inauguration? Who can say? Those are alternative facts to the concerns of the people on those streets who brought their children to walk with them; alternative to the irrepressibility of the imagination wherein another power is birthing.