by Ellen Sims
Acts 2: 1-4; 12-18
Open Table’s new vision statement says, in part, that we “work through advocacy and social justice for the oppressed in this world.” In a moment I’ll share about a specific advocacy and social justice effort being practiced through the Poor People’s Campaign. But for now let me connect the word “advocacy” to today’s Gospel reading. John names the Holy Spirit as the Advocate. When John speaks of the Spirit that animated the life of Jesus as the Advocate, he is saying that a loving presence stands also with Jesus followers to advocate and testify for us, to defend us and take our side. The Book of Acts offers different imagery for the Spirit that invaded at Pentecost and launched the church: Tongues of flame! Rushing wind! But the Gospel of John pictures the Spirit as a lawyer, an advocate who takes our case and pleads for us, someone we call on for help. The text doesn’t say that the Spirit pleads our innocence before the cruel judging God ready to sentence us to hell. The Spirit and God are one. So the spirit of advocacy is what we can invoke when, moved by God’s justice and compassion, we plead for the cause of the poor and marginalized.
If you want to make the invisible Spirit of God visible, engage in advocacy. I’ve seen the Holy Spirit most visible recently as the Advocate is working within and through the Poor People’s Campaign.
I want to share from my experience last Monday because I need to “testify” to this experience of the Advocate working right here in Alabama in 2018. Even as I sat in a jail cell Monday night in Montgomery, I felt the Advocate was with me. And I like to think those of us who volunteered for an act of civil disobedience at the capitol earlier that day were helping the Spirit advocate for the poor.
You, too, were with me “in Spirit,” partnering with the Advocate in your prayers for me.
I stood in a “hassle line” for nearly two hours on Dexter Avenue waiting to be arrested Monday, one of ten who volunteered to nonviolently disobey orders to stop blocking the street. We did so in hopes of calling attention to injustices against women, children, and people with disabilities, the list of injustices the Poor People’s Campaign focused on last week. As I stood in the heat, as the police grew more insistent, as I locked arms with the other “moral witnesses,” you were with me “in spirit.” I could hear your voices singing “Stand, O Stand Firm” as you did this past Sunday. At that very time of need you helped me to “stand firm and see what the Lord can do.” Your prayers buoyed my spirits and strengthened my resolve when I was dehydrated, exhausted, headachy, overheated, and worried about the unknown.
Monday was rough. But the Spirit was powerful. And the efforts for and within this campaign immense. The preparations and prayers for that one act of civil disobedience involved many people giving many hours of many days over many weeks. Let me first give you a simple overview of the highs and lows for me of that experience before I theologize about it.
1.The heat and thirst. The air conditioning wasn’t working in the building where we trained and staged from 10:00 that morning to 1:30. We then drove to the capitol and gathered on its unshaded steps for rousing speeches, prayers, and songs from 2:00 until about 2:45. Then we marched and sang our way to Dexter Avenue where we blocked that intersection. Most of us drank little water prior to the direct action because we would not have access to bathroom facilities and the direct action might last hours. By the time we were arrested and handcuffed around 4:30, we were almost grateful to be placed in an air conditioned paddy wagon.
2.The mistreatment of our men. The 7 men and 3 women were taken to jail in separate paddy wagons. The women were moved immediately inside the jail to be processed first. Later we learned the men had been kept handcuffed in the police van with the windows rolled up and without AC for nearly two hours in the heat.
3.The humiliating strip search.
4.The long process. We’d been told to expect processing to take about an hour and that we’d likely be released without being placed in “the general jail population.” Wrong. The seven men never mixed with “the general jail population.” But after paperwork, finger printing, mug shots, donning the jumpsuits, calling the PPC’s attorney as the one phone call allowed but only getting his voicemail) the 3 women were finally taken to a room to pick up our bedding: a thin blue mat and a thin blue blanket. Bedding? Our hearts sank at that point because we realized they were preparing us to stay overnight at least. Next they took us by elevator upstairs to the women’s cell block which consisted of maybe 6 to 8 cells with 2 bunk beds in each cell, 4 inmates per cell. We were not locked into the individual cells at that time but locked into the larger celled area that permitted a narrow strip of common space outside the individual cells. Christine, Wynne and I had not eaten since morning and had missed dinner at the jail. But we really weren’t hungry; we were dehydrated and a little weak. With no clock, no window, and no watch, we lost our sense of time. I grew worried that George and Georgia would be worried because they had expected to hear from me by early evening.
1.My most secret and petty prayer was answered: that I would not see roaches in my cell. Our daughter says the jails where she meets with her clients are roach infested. I’m nearly phobic about roaches. Thank you, LORD, for a roachless night.
2.I sang and prayed and held the line with the kind of folks you want with you if you go to jail. My two gentle and wise cellmates and I bonded quickly by sharing stories and talking about social justice commitments during the more than four hours between our arrest and release. If it hadn’t been for Wynne and Christine, I might have been afraid. I was a little anxious about all the unknowns. But I was not ever afraid.
3. Another blessing: the PPC trainers and organizers were inspiring, strategic, committed, and caring. They loved on the “moral witnesses.” About 20 people were waiting for us in the parking lot of the jail when we were released, and they cheered and hugged us to pieces. I was so ecstatic to see them that I raced out with both fists pumping the air. (Picture Sylvester Stalone—because at that point the theme from Rocky was playing in my head. Duh duh DUH! Duh duh DUH!)
4. But the very best thing that happened occurred because of the worst thing that happened to us. The worst thing was that, as I mentioned, the women arrested were placed in the “general population” with other inmates, contrary to everyone’s expectations. But not only did we 3 activists, who previously were total strangers, connect at a deep level in the uncertain hours we shared a jail cell, we also eventually connected with some other cellmates. When we first entered the cell block there was only one cell not fully occupied. The one woman who previously had that cell to herself told the three of us which upper bunk was hers and indirectly invited us into that cell. She wasn’t warm to us, but she didn’t seem like a “mean girl.” She moved to the common area for awhile, as if to let us get our bearings. And in a way I’ve been trying to get my bearings ever since. This sermon is a part of that process. Let me share two thoughts from my time in the women’s cell block Monday:
Theologizing After Advocacy and Arrest
First, I learned something by seeing a change in my two PPC cellmates. When we at last sat down on the two lower bunks, tired and thirsty, I saw how radically my own status had changed by looking at Christine and Wynne. They became my mirror. The grey-green, ill-fitting prison garb under the harsh lights of our cell had triggered the final metamorphosis. Those two lovely companions who earlier in the day still had clean clothes and fresh faces and neat hair, and who had only a few minutes before looked merely sweaty and disheveled — like women having a bad day — had finally faded into two washed out, haggard, humbled women like those you find living on the streets. And I knew I looked and smelled just like them. And I saw more clearly than I ever had before our common humanity. None of us is above some great reversal of situation. And who we are has nothing to do with what we have. And all of us need grace. The Spirit that came at Pentecost and allowed all those disparate people to understand one another’s language in a fresh unity — that same Spirit stripped away all but my core humanity, if for a brief time.
The second thing that is still dawning on me has to do with our interactions with the other women in the cellblock. When my new best friends Wynne, Christine, and I entered the women’s cellblock, we newbies were a bit wary of the other women and vice versa. The cellblock was loud and raucous, not the kind of atmosphere for making introductions. Besides, this wasn’t summer camp. But a few of the other women grew more curious about us. When we told them about the Poor People’s Campaign, they seemed uplifted, incredulous that we were in jail intentionally. We didn’t express it in these terms, but they realized we committed our crime for them. I think one woman actually said, “You did this for us.” We explained how they could learn more about the Campaign so that THEY could be a part of a movement for the poor and all who need justice. I don’t want to exaggerate, as preachers are prone to do. Honestly, only a handful seemed interested and we didn’t really engage much until the end, but when finally we were taken from the cell block to be released, several called out to thank us and wish us well. It was an amazing moment. I could only call back to them, “God bless you! God is with you!” Later it seemed to me as if Wynne, Christine, and I had been like Paul and Silas in jail, sharing the good news that the other prisoners were glad to hear — just before our chains fell off. We’d been gospel bearers to people who needed to hear about the good news of the Poor People’s Campaign and the hope it holds and the way it honors their lives and lifts up their needs. Maybe these women would not have heard this gospel if “Paul and Silas” and Ellen hadn’t been bound in jail.
My friends, when we advocate, we are aided by the Spirit of God, our Advocate. Those who hope to work for justice can draw strength from the Spirit. At times we quietly tap into a source of strength, and at other times, we just might need to raise a ruckus on the capitol steps on behalf of others, knowing our Advocate is with us.