No One Gets to the Promised Land Alone

As we remember Dr. King this weekend, I have one question for you: “where is your village?” Where is your village?

Don’t miss the movement for the sake of honoring the man.

There is an overly simplified version of Dr. King being taught in America, sometimes even in our kids’ textbooks. The simplified version goes something like this: “after president Lincoln ended slavery, Black people and White people were still stubbornly divided by race. Along came Dr. King. Standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, he told America about his dream, that all children could live together in harmony. Now each year we take a day off work and school to remember how Dr. King ended racism.” Isn’t that basically the story? I don’t have to tell you, Holy Communion about all the inaccuracies. But I wonder how many celebrations of Dr. King this weekend will tell a version of that story.

The popular story of Dr. King misses so much, about systemic racism, about the radical anti-capitalism of King’s message, yes. But this morning I simply want to ask, “where is your village?” Sometimes we tell Dr. King’s story as if brother Martin brought about Civil Rights on his own. Dr. King has been called, “the American Moses.” He set his people free. If that is your narrative, if King is the only leader, the anointed one, you are miss the movement. You are miss the whole story. You miss the village.

Dr. King didn’t walk alone. He walked across the Edmund Pettus bridge with thousands, including John Lewis, who even after the police nearly beat him nearly to death on that bridge, kept organizing, and leading, and making good trouble. Dr. King marched on Washington with Bayard Rustin, the black queer activist who helped organize the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. King marched with Mahalia Jackson, the gospel singer who helped fund the work and said that day to Martin, “tell them about the dream.”

King even preached with others. He borrowed his famous refrain from Prathia Hall, the early womanist theologian and preacher. It was Prathia’s dream before it was Martin’s, and she probably would have told you it was God’s dream before it was hers. Look, Dr. King was a brilliant leader and preacher, but he didn’t walk alone. He was surrounded by others leaders, organizers, activists, and, yes, preachers. This weekend we honor, Dr. King, but don’t miss the movement for the sake of honoring the man.

It Takes a Village to Survive

There’s an old African saying, “it takes a village to survive.” One of my favorite theologians and contemplative teachers these days, Barbara Holmes, likes to point out that Hillary Clinton did not invent the phrase “it takes a village” with her 1996 book. Clinton borrowed the phrase, “It takes a village to raise a child,” likely from the Igbo people of Nigeria. It is definitely true for child-raising. Even the strongest single parents know, you don’t survive parenting alone. The saying is broader than just kids. It takes a village to survive.

Tied intimately together with structural racism, and sexism, and heterosexism is the myth of self-sufficiency. The world wants to tell you, “you shouldn’t need anyone else. You should be able to do it all on your own.” Tutors and helpers are for the those who struggle. Great leaders don’t need help. That myth of self-sufficiency is at the root of raising up just Dr. King as if he was singular. That myth helps us fail to see the interconnected and systemic ways structural racism persist, yes. But the myth also hides the village that comes together to push back. We need that whole village.

As a priest, in counseling folks, I can’t tell you the number of times I have heard some version of, “I just don’t know how I am going to solve this problem. I know I need to find a way through. I need to fix it. I need to cope. Do you hear it? “I, I, I,” I’m learning to ask folks: “why is this all on you? Where is your village? Where is your support system? Who can share the load?”

Particularly high academic achievers, folks who have gotten far in their career, cough, Episcopalians, cough tend to get isolated. We raise up singular leaders and fail to see the community that did the work together. Leaders themselves take on too much, and fail to lift up others, support learners, fail to share credit. When I see a particular leader lifted up, I think it’s worth asking “where is your village?” Who is behind you, alongside you, who is lifting you up? When I see a leader struggling, I think it is also worth asking, “Where is your village? Who can you mentor? Who can you involve? How can you share the work?”

Jesus wasn’t in it alone. He was Building a Movement.

Our reading from the Gospel of John today might feel like a bit of a bridge passage. In the other Gospels, Jesus performs a miracle as he calls disciples. After a night with no catch, he tells the would-be-followers to let down the net on the other side of the boat. They can’t even count the fish. But here, in John’s Gospel they just sort of hear about him and ask if they can see where he’s staying? It might seem a little odd to make a whole Sunday out of this simple story. I wonder though, isn’t hearing about how Jesus buil the movement not crucial? At the end of the story Jesus give one of them, Simon, a new name: Cephas, Peter, Petros, the rock on which I will build the church. Jesus knew.

Jesus wasn’t in it alone. Sure, he needed time to be alone to pray every now and again. The Gospels even tell stories of Jesus’ anger, frustration, and disappointment with his village, but he never leaves them entirely behind. He continues to bring the village into the work of proclaiming, of healing, of building the movement. Jesus didn’t carry his work alone, Jesus didn’t even carry his cross alone. Who do we think we are when we try and rely only on ourselves?

Finding your Village

Friends, I need to pause for just a moment, because I know that question: “Where is your village?” hits some of us differently. Some of us long for a literal village, back in our home country. Some of us couldn’t wait to get out of our small town, where too many people knew us. Some of us were rejected by the village which should have cared for us, because our family of origin couldn’t accept our sexual orientation, or our career, or our politics. Some of us are refugees and asylum seekers. You still need a village.

Look, I do love how accessible this church is now online. I do. I’m a nerd. I love technology. I love that people can stay in touch and engaged with the preaching and worship when they can’t make it to church, but, but, I worry a bit. Because I have watched this church become a village for people in need of a village. I have watched young LGBTQ+ folks find friends, and spiritual mentors, and elders over breakfast or at theology on tap. I have watched this church care for parents whose kids are a little tough to manage. I have seen surrogate grandmas and aunties greet an overwhelmed mom or dad at the door and say, “don’t worry, we’ve got this with you.” I have heard from folks who after a big surgery who have had meals delivered, rides to doctors appointments. This parish has the capacity to be a chosen village. But that kind of community care is really hard to access through a 9×16 rectangle online. You have to show up.

If you’re feeling disconnected, you have to risk a little vulnerability. You’ve got to show up. You’ve got to reach out and ask for help. That can be really hard, especially if you have been let down before. But all of us need a village, to survive, to grow in faith and in life. And if you want to make a difference, a real difference in the world. You’re especially going to need a village.

I am grateful we are celebrating Dr. King. He was a singular leader. But these days, I wish we also had a day for Ella Baker. Baker was a generation ahead of young Martin. She had started organizing for civil rights in the south twenty plus years before Martin came on the scene. A lot of the success of the Civil Rights movement came because people like Ella Baker had been training up leaders across the South. Baker was a bit of a King skeptic. She questioned especially whether the movement should put so much on one leader’s shoulders. She advocated more shared leadership, shared risk-taking.

If we are to continue the work of Civil Rights, of human rights, if we are to seek to follow Jesus, I think it would benefit us all to ask, “where is your village?” Because, no one, not Moses, not Jesus, not Dr. King gets to the promised land alone.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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