True Community: The Peaceful Revolution In Our Own Hometown

By Rev. Harry Knox

Serendipity, that holy gift, landed two slim volumes on my bedside table last week: first poetry by Nikky Finney in Head Off and Split; then theology from Walter Brueggemann in Truth-Telling as Subversive Obedience. The trouble for you, Gentle Reader, is that they got me thinking.

When I worked as a statewide, then national progressive organizational leader, one of my primary tasks showed up only tangentially in my job descriptions. “Encouragement of the already over-committed” never got it’s own bullet point; but it was inherent in every duty from strategic planning to volunteer recruitment, training and deployment to fundraising.

I must have said 1000 times, to groups in fellowship halls and cathedrals, some version of this: The most important work we do is done in that hardest of places – our own hometowns.

It seemed to help. People struggling to work for justice needed to hear from national leaders that we at least acknowledged and honored the difficulty of doing that work in community. Hearts opened to strategic suggestions when ears heard the gratitude that underlay that affirmation.

Now my body doesn’t allow me to work as I once did. No more planes and trains; no more seminars and sermons. I am retired and home in South Georgia among family and people that speak with the same accent I do and who call me by my childhood nickname.

Private citizen is my new vocation. My workplace is a little hodgepodge of doctor’s offices, the grocery store, post office, library, and family events. My mission, however, has not changed.

I asked God to relieve me of the call to justice work in compensation for the boring crap my illness is putting me through. God said, “No. And by the way, Who do you think you’re talking to?”

So in the midst of the US government’s jarring lurch away from most of what I believe is humane and life affirming and true – and as I experience new physical and mental challenges – I have been seeking through prayer, tantrum and study (each spiritual graces) to work out how to advocate for justice in my new circumstances.

Turns out I was right about the difficulty of discerning what is just and working to make that manifest at home. Not because people in my family and hometown are stupid – they are most decidedly not stupid. And not because they are unfaithful or mean. The great majority of them are devoted to their faith/beliefs and compassionate. The hometown work is not hard because I am smarter or better in any way than my neighbors.

The work is hard in part because smart and caring people in our country, including me, I confess, have allowed ourselves to worship at an idol called ideology while the Spirit of Justice has been calling us to community. Ideology requires false dichotomies. Community requires an ongoing mix of engagement, seeking of common understanding, forgiveness of self and others, commitment to new common goals, rinse, repeat.

True community – that place where everyone’s needs are met because we all care for each other as we care for ourselves – will require a peaceful revolution. Power will have to be given up and shared. That’s hard.

Here is what is also true for me at this point in my life. The hometown work is hard for me because I no longer have time to see if my efforts will do any good. I asked God to hurry up and get done with the justice and peace thing so I could see how things turn out. God said, “Who do you think…”

Hmm…

So I am re-learning some things I thought I had learned already. Like I am most powerful when I equip and enable others to exercise their own power. And real change doesn’t come because I make a superior argument or talk louder, but only happens when I create safe space around me that invites and helps people change. And that my job is not to win or be right; my job is to engage and learn, then inform, then love and trust my neighbors and family.

Does that mean I am promising some new passivity and mellow attitude? That I’ll stop forwarding news about injustice and calling out the powerful? That you’ll love kindly old disabled Rev. Harry? Who do you think you’re…

No.

I hope it means that I am entering into this still-new year with renewed hope and faith in old ideas that have staid valid because they are timeless and true. I have answered yes again to my personal calling as a minister of the Gospel of that radical revolutionary Jesus, with deep respect for those of you who follow other paths. It means I love you and want to encourage you, as so many of you encourage me.

Be well, dear ones. It ain’t over and you ain’t in charge. Thanks be to God neither am I.

Rev. Harry Knox was President of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice in Washington, DC, and  the founding director of the Human Rights Campaign’s Religion and Faith Program. This piece first appeared on Rev. Knox’s Facebook page and is republished with permission.

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