The Lenten journey is a time both to reflect upon injustice and brokenness, and to anticipate the coming of new life. This Lent, as we celebrate Black History in the United States, let us remember three people – a poet, a playwright, and a preacher- who were sought new life through creativity and struggle.
A Poet and a Playwright
Lorraine Vivian Hansberry, an American playwright was born in Chicago in 1930. Hansberry's family had struggled against segregation, challenging a racial restrictive covenant which intended to keep neighborhoods racially segregated, eventually provoked the Supreme Court case (Hansberry v. Lee). Undaunted by the segregated world in which she lived, Hansberry wrote the award-winning play A Raisin in the Sun which opened in 1959 before the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Lent is the church's gift to us of time, in prayer and reflection, to consider God's offer of new life.What corners of our heart need cleansing and rebirth? What new life beckons us to become a witness for economic and racial justice in our own congregation and community?
The first black woman to write a play performed on Broadway, she highlighted the lives of Black Americans living under racial segregation. The title of the play is inspired by Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem”:
What happens to a Dream Deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore-- And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over-- like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Speaking to issues of racism and the longing of the human heart for justice, the play was eventually translated into 35 languages. Sadly, Hansberry died of cancer at the age of 34 but left the world with a literary contribution that helped eliminate legal discrimination.
Eventually, the Civil Rights Act did outlaw discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin and ended unequal application of voter registration requirements, racial segregation in schools, the workplace and facilities that served the general public, known as public accommodation. Although not always evenly or fairly applied it is the law of the land.
In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King wrote the book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community in which he lays out his dreams for America's future, including the need for better jobs, higher wages, decent housing, and quality education. With a message of hope, King coveted an end to global suffering. He declared that humankind has the resources and technology to eradicate poverty. This proclamation continues to go unattended.
Some 54 years later, racism and poverty continue in the form of racial isolation, stigmatizing and profiling, violence against young men, children and women and mass incarceration.
And occasionally there are signs of hope. Recently the New York Times editorial board carried a story, “Ending the Cycle of Racial Isolation”. The 1968 Fair Housing Act required states and local governments that receive federal money to try to eliminate patterns of racial isolation.
The Times argued that when the cycle of racial isolation is broken good things can happen. Using the case of Mount Laurel, NJ where isolation remained for many years, now an affordable development is more diverse with 60,000 homes for low-and moderate income families.
Challenging the concern of the existing community of Mt. Laurel which had violently opposed “affordable” housing fearing it would create crime, public housing ghettos in urban centers something new happened. Crime did not rise, property values did not drop and taxes did not go up.
Churches and communities can address issues such as affordable housing, mass incarceration, violence and poverty. So where do we go from here?
Where Do We Go From Here?
In one of his last and sometimes forgotten addresses, Dr. King writes:
“One night, a juror came to Jesus and he wanted to know what he could do to be saved. Jesus didn't get bogged down in the kind of isolated approach of what he shouldn't do.
Jesus didn't say, ‘Now Nicodemus, you must stop lying.’
He didn't say, ‘Nicodemus, you must stop cheating if you are doing that.’
He didn't say, ‘Nicodemus, you must not commit adultery.’
He didn't say, ‘Nicodemus, now you must stop drinking liquor if you are doing that excessively.’
He said something altogether different, because Jesus realized something basic - that if a man will lie, he will steal. And if a man will steal, he will kill. So instead of just getting bogged down in one thing, Jesus looked at him and said, ‘Nicodemus, you must be born again.’
He said, in other words, ‘Your whole structure must be changed.’ A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will 'thingify' them - make them things. Therefore they will exploit them, and poor people generally, economically. And a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments and everything else, and will have to use its military might to protect them. All of these problems are tied together. What I am saying today is that we must go and say, ‘America, you must be born again!’"
Lent is the church's gift to us of time, in prayer and reflection, to consider God's offer of new life. What corners of our heart need cleansing and rebirth? What new life beckons us to become a witness for economic and racial justice in our own congregation and community?