August 21, 2011 “Blessed are Those Who are Persecuted…”
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake…. A few verses earlier, Jesus says that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be satisfied. In the context of the Beatitudes, righteousness means fairness, wholeness, justice for all people. Thus, those who hunger and thirst for fairness, wholeness, and justice for all people, we are told in Matthew 5:6, will be fully satisfied….mostly because those who hunger and thirst for justice and fairness are likely to seek them out and make them happen. And that’s a good thing, right? Seeking fairness, wholeness, and justice for all people….
What Jesus DIDN’T in Matthew 5:6, but does say now in 5:10-12 is that hungering and thirsting for righteousness also is likely to make you some enemies. Actually working toward wholeness and justice for all people DEFINITELY will make you enemies. Jesus tries to prepare his disciples for that reality when he says “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” If you take action to the end of creating justice and wholeness for all people, there’s a good chance you’ll experience some persecution.
Working for righteousness—the wholeness and well-being of all people—looks different in different times, in different cultures, for different people. Many of us have taken stands for and worked actively for the wholeness of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered folks. Mahatma Gandhi worked for the poor of India, as did Mother Teresa. Mr. Wilberforce in the 18th century, worked to end the institution of slavery in England. Our own Dr. Joyce Baker worked for the physical wholeness of the poor in Honduras when she served as a medical missionary there for 30 years.
The thing is, as any seeker after righteousness knows, going against the cultural norms, trying to change the status quo sometimes creates enemies. It’s like Brazilian Bishop Dom Helder Camara said: “When I fed the poor, they called me a saint. When I asked why they were poor, they called me a communist.” Changing systems can be dangerous. And yet, that seems to be what the Gospel is all about.
We’re calling this year a “Year of Koinonia.” In part, we are exploring what it means for us to be a Christ-centered, God-following community. (Koinonia is the Greek word for community.) We’re also learning about Koinonia Farm, an experiment in Christian community started by Clarence Jordan in 1942 in Southwest Georgia, near Americus.
The system those Koinonians in the Jim Crow south sought to change was racial segregation. After worship today, we’ll be showing the film, “Briars in the Cotton Patch,” an excellent documentary on just what sorts of persecution the people at Koinonia Farm experienced for their righteous stand for the equality of the races. Koinonia—by its very life—threatened the status quo. That threat netted them the wrath of their fellow south Georgians.
A few weeks ago, Jimmy Loyless came to me and said he’d be willing to share with us some of what life was like in south Georgia during the 50s and 60s. Jimmy?
[The rest was written and spoken by Jimmy Loyless. Note: The original was typed–appropriately–in “Georgia” font.]
IS LIFE ANY BETTER
OR THE WORLD ANY DIFFERENT
FOR THE PERSECUTED SINCE KOINONIA?
Welcome to the most segregated morning in America, which it was for Clarence Jordan in the 1940s and it still is today in 2011. Oops, I forgot, we have a different reason for that today – the music is too different for those people at the AME churches and at First Congregational in Atlanta!!
You have heard the scripture for today read from the version of the Bible we use here at Pilgrimage. That is certainly not the version my father used in his sermons – “the King James version is the holy and only word of God”, I remember he would say!!
Y’all please do sit back and relax, I do not have his cadence or his typical sermon length!! However, one of the phrases I most remember from his sermons is “Brothers and Sisters, just remember that when my finger is pointed at you, my thumb is pointing back to me.”
Well, there is another version of today’s scripture I would like to read from, “The Cotton Patch Version of Matthew and John” that was written by Clarence Jordan. “You all (or y’all) are God’s people when others call you names, and harass you and tell all kinds of false tales on you just because you follow me. Be cheerful and good-humored, because your spiritual advantage is great. For that’s the way they treated men of conscience in the past.”
Today’s scripture was likely the “vision” statement for Clarence Jordan. He was certainly persecuted for the vision he pursued when he established the Koinonia community just southwest of Americus in Sumter County, Georgia. If there is anyone who deserves to be seated at the table with our God in heaven, it is Clarence Jordan along with many others who have lifted the plight of the impoverished, opened the doors of opportunity to those who historically faced locked gates before reaching the front (or back) porch, and defended the rights of all of God’s children, not just those who were the same skin color as they are.
Just a few years before Clarence Jordan established the community at Koinonia, there was a prominent American who was forming a vision to address the impoverished communities he saw while taken for a car ride through the countryside near Warm Springs, GA. As an aside, his car was often driven by my cousin, Tom Loyless, who was manager of the Warm Springs Center. Many of the ideas developed for President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal were formulated while undergoing treatment at the well known rehab center just northwest of Columbus, GA.
President Roosevelt arrived at Warm Springs by train and he often traveled by train to other parts of the South, including my hometown. On both the car and train trips, Franklin Roosevelt saw the impact of the Great Depression first hand. He saw some of the freed slaves and the first generation of “born free” blacks struggling to survive beside the black and white sharecroppers who were also scratching out a meager existence in the area where the red clay meets the sand in southwest Georgia.
President Roosevelt saw people who had lost their life savings when their local bank failed or who had not recovered from the stock market crash of 1929. Farm families were still devastated from the arrival of the boll weevil that destroyed their crops and their livelihoods. The majority of the population was in poverty and was no longer in a position to retire or scale back from working, due to the devastating losses and the poor economy. At times, it seems that part of our history is repeating itself today.
I was born in Bainbridge, GA and graduated from high school in Blakely, GA. Those towns are 70 to 90 miles away from the Koinonia Community. All of those towns and communities are south of the “Gnat Line” in Georgia.
My early childhood was in an era when many of the norms and practices associated with the Jim Crow laws continued to exist. Included amongst those practices were separate sections for whites and blacks on buses and train cars, restaurants and businesses offering services to whites only, separate entrances and waiting rooms at doctors’ offices, and separate schools.
Fortunately for me and for so many, I grew up in a time of marked change in those norms and practices. There are many memories and recollections of those times, a few that I appreciate the opportunity to share with you today.
When school choice was initiated in Bainbridge and Decatur County in 1966, a local minister and his church decided to start a private, “Christian” school. He approached all of his fellow ministers within the ministerial association to demand of them that they place their children in this new school. In a blessing for me then and for my lifetime, my father refused and stated, “Jimmy will be around people who are different from him for the rest of his life and now is as good a time as any for him to be getting used to it.” My father only completed sixth grade due to the death of my grandfather but, my oh my, did he outsmart Rev. Dr. Bishop?
Around the same time, my father pastored a small rural church that had a normal attendance of twenty to thirty each Sunday – he pastored there for nine years until one fateful day. One of the member’s grandsons was killed while serving his country in Vietnam. As tradition was then, the minister normally meets with the family at their home before going to the church.
Things did not seem right when we turned down the red dirt lane toward the church. Standing on the top step outside of the church was a deacon while the honor guard and casket were not yet in the church, as they should have been.
When asked by my father, the deacon forcefully stated, “them boys ain’t coming in this church.” My father responded by saying the honor guard is with us to represent our country and to participate in the service for this young man who gave his life for all of us.
My father asked the deacon to move aside because the service was going to proceed as planned. To which, the good deacon stated it would be the last service my father led at that church.
The very next week, four families from that church met together to pray about and plan a new church start. One family donated two acres of land. A new building was completed in six months with much of the work done by the members, friends, and relatives. My oh my, what people with a vision and a unified mission can do.
During much of my pre-school years, I often spent time at my uncle’s and aunt’s house due to my mother’s illnesses. My uncle was a supervisor at a local mill that produced feed for many types of animals, including horses, cows, and chickens.
Most of the employees under his supervision were black. He often shared time with them outside of work, including fishing together.
When he died in 1971, several of the black employees came to the house to pay their respects to my aunt and cousins, saying they had so much respect for him for the manner in which he treated them as employees and as people. They also felt that they had to ask if it was OK for them to attend the visitation and funeral – what a shame they felt they had to ask.
In 1970, schools were integrated in Blakely and Early County. A new, county-wide high school was built to facilitate the change. The existing white high school in Blakely became the county-wide middle school and the existing black high school in Blakely became the county-wide elementary school. Four school buildings around the county were closed and everyone was bussed to the three new locations.
To my best recollection and from those of many of my classmates, the process went very smoothly, considering the radical nature of the change and unlike many other schools in the South and the North.
The only incident many of us can recall was pre-game at the first home football game that year. The black drum major was much more animated with his on-field routine – it appeared our principal was going to hyperventilate. After all, it was rumored the principal had banned Elvis and the Beatles at proms in the past.
What we did not do well at the start was having separate proms – something again about the music, from both perspectives. That is no longer true; I was “volunteered” to assist decorating the cafeteria for this year’s prom while visiting home.
To this day, my graduating class is yet to have an integrated reunion. Some of us have started work on plans for that to change next year for our 40th.
A lot of things have changed back home since the founding of Koinonia and the repeal of the Jim Crow laws, some good and some not yet. The population of my home county has declined from 18,679 to 11,008 from 1940 to 2010, a drop of nearly 40%. Less than half of the population (48%) remains white while the percentage black has dropped from 51.5% in 1940 to 49.6% in 2010.
The high school graduation rate has improved to 72% but remains 10 percentage points below the state average. Today, over 35% of the people in the county are living below the poverty level, compared to 16% for the state. The median household income is $20,000 below the state average. But, the average travel time to work is only 18.7 minutes.
There are so many challenges the Koinonia area and my Early County continue to face today. In Early County, people have worked together to form a vision for the community and to collectively work to improve the community by business development and job creation. In forming that vision and plan, participation was open to all members of the community. They sat around the table and worked together to envision the future for the community.
In his time, Martin Luther King gave many fiery, prominent speeches with several phrases and sentences continually used to this date. One I heard again recently for the Table of Brotherhood Project that is being held in various locations certainly seems to define what Clarence Jordan envisioned – “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood.”
Today, we are all sitting at the same table but are all of our lives any better and what they could be? May we better strive to reach the visions of Clarence Jordan, Franklin Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King to lift the plight of the impoverished, open the doors of opportunity to those continue to face challenges, and defend the rights of all of God’s children, no matter where you are from or no matter where you are on life’s journey. Peace.