“More so than anything, this community, its people and even this pastor are tired. It is a challenge to be hopeful.” Willis Johnson, African American pastor of the Wellspring Church in Ferguson, Missouri, spoke with NPR’s Audie Cornish after a grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson, the officer who fatally shot Michael Brown on August 9.
Tired. That one word from Johnson’s reaction has clung, like a burr, to my Advent reflections. Advent is a season of longing and expectation, a time for cultivating patient faith. Johnson’s fatiguing hope reminds me that nearly two thousands years ago, God delivered on his promise to a tired people, who, though they had returned geographically from exile, still waited. The Messiah had not yet come. They languished under Roman oppression and wondered when God would put the world to rights. Their hopes were on hold—in ways not dissimilar from African Americans today.
But unlike Johnson, unlike first-century Jews, I’m not tired. Indeed, as a college-educated white woman living in North America, I’d have to admit, however reluctantly, the relative ease of my life. If my birthright is privilege, how can I learn to long? How do I enter the Advent story, which first came to the poor and powerless? Can I, too, learn to magnify the Advent God who “brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate” (cf. Luke 1:52)?
I’m hopeful that this cultural moment in America can teach me something of the longing and waiting that had been necessary for the first Advent—and continues to be important for the second. No doubt blacks in America know better than I what it means to hold out vigilant hope, despite ominous odds, for a light to dawn in great darkness. In his bold piece for The Atlantic in June of this year entitled, “The Case for Reparations,” Ta-Nehisi Coates outlines the haunting timeline of waiting for racial justice in America: “250 years of slavery. 90 years of Jim Crow. 60 years of separate but equal. 35 years of state-sanctioned redlining.”
Though many will disagree with Coates’ conclusion on the necessity of financial reparations to cleanse our national conscience, it will be hard to disagree with the cold facts of our collective biography. In the land of the free, freedom hasn’t been guaranteed for all. Even today, in hyper-segregated American cities like Cleveland and Chicago and Detroit, two Americas exist. Most often, one affords decent schooling and police protection. The other does not. And the divides in these cities are starkly racial, having been decided by decades of unfair, government-sanctioned housing practices, which grew up in time of the Great Migration between 1915-1970.
Beginning with the First World War, six million blacks left the South and migrated North in search of a better life. By their migratory patterns (they went farther than might have been expected), some sociologists conclude that these “immigrant” families had more in common with refugees of famine, war and genocide. Yet despite their optimism as the trains pulled away from the cotton and tobacco fields and barreled northward, they were met with the conditions only marginally better than the South. The “colored only” signs had disappeared, but the racial prejudice persisted. Blacks moved into the cities—and whites moved out.
When Harvey Clark moved his family to Chicago from Mississippi after having served in World War II, he, his wife and two children rented a two-bedroom apartment, which they shared with another black family of five. Yearning for a little more room to breathe, Clark found a suitable apartment for his family in all-white Cicero. When they tried to move in, they were met by a crowd of protestors. The Clarks sued and won the right to occupy the apartment, but when they attempted to move a second time, the mobs gained force and eventually stormed their apartment. They threw down all their furniture from the third-floor and set it ablaze. “In an hour, the mob destroyed what had taken nine years to acquire,” wrote the historian Stephen Grant Meyer as quoted in Isabel Wilkerson’s important history of the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns.
This is not a history that has been mine. But it seems l like one I ought to learn, especially if I want to enter the yearning and hoping, even the longsuffering required for Advent.
“For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!'” wrote Martin Luther King, Jr, from a Birmingham jail cell. King been arrested for his participation in peaceful civil rights protests and chastised by a group of Southern clergymen who called his action “unwise” and “untimely.” “This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never,” King continued. “Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say ‘Wait.’ . . . I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.”
If Advent is about longing, maybe it is also about unavoidable impatience. The world is not yet put to rights: there is too much suffering and poverty and war. Dimly, I sense the myopia of my privilege, how it affords me distance from the everyday experience of degradation. But if I mean to be formed by Advent, then I must, at the very least enter imaginatively the tragedy of every act of injustice—and seek to relieve it, as often as, by God’s grace, I can.
Martin Luther King, Jr. lamented in his Letter from Birmingham Jail that he’d often heard southern ministers support integration because it was the law. “But I have longed to hear white ministers declare, ‘Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.”
This Advent, I recall the patience of the tired. And remember my common ancestry with the poor and the powerless.
Come, Lord Jesus.