Twelve Songs of Dignity



No more manager scenes. Resistance this time.

i. John of Patmos understood. In his apocalyptic vision he saw a great sign in heaven—a Woman clothed with the sun, her womb struggling to bring forth new life, who so antagonizes the Powers (Powers, represented by a Dragon, which deceive) that they sweep to earth a third of the stars. The Woman flees to a plot of land which is prepared to nourish her for a time and times and half a time —1,260 days!

ii. Orishas are Yoruban deities. Some of them crossed the Atlantic on slave ships. One of them, Oya, is an Orisha of winds, violent storms, lightning, birth, and death. Named for a river in Niger which has nine tributaries, she has been torn by the nine children she bore.

iii. An apocalypse is the full revelation of the knowledge of good and evil. Knowledge so well articulated and widespread that it necessarily brings with it the destruction of the present age.

iv. Dynamite Hill was the nickname given to Center Street, the site of multiple drive by bombings in Birmingham, Alabama which itself was known by the sobriquet “Bombingham”. Between the 1940s and 1960s, there were some forty bombings in a city known for the viciousness of its segregationist sentiments and practices.

Center Street marked the residential color line running through the area of Birmingham known as Smithfield. Whites claimed the land to the west. Blacks were consigned to the land to the east. At the top of the hill, prosperous middle class Blacks steadily chipped away at the boundary as zoning laws were successfully challenged. As it chipped away, occupying White land, the Ku Klux Klan pushed back with fires, gun shots in the night, and dynamite.

Theodora Shores, the wife of NAACP attorney Arthur Shores, once found a case of dynamite in her garden. Her home was a frequent target of mob violence which led to a Shores family ritual: hit the floor and crawl to safety.

The frequency of fires and bombs prompted a neighborhood group called the Dynamite Hill Defenders, a rifle patrol, to defend their properties from attack.

v. Mary, her son, Jesus, growing in her womb, sang a resistance song about bringing down the powerful from their thrones and filling the hungry with good things. So dangerous was she that she had to flee to the hill country of Judea. When her kinswoman, Elizabeth, who also was pregnant, heard Mary’s approach, she cried out loudly, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” Elizabeth’s own child leaped within her womb.

vi. Susan Diane Mitchell has borne nine children all of whom survive. She lives now on Center Street and 11th Court North. Inspired by Dynamite Hill’s legacy of resistance, courage, and self-determination, its community spirit, and the sight of revolutionary Angela Davis’s former home across the way, in 2015 Mitchell initiated the Dynamite Hill-Smithfield Community Land Trust with support from the Magic City Agriculture Project. The Project emphasizes democratic decision making in the development of sustainable, cooperative agriculture. Mitchell and her beloved partner, Rev. Majadi Baruti, find spiritual nourishment in remembering the Black Goddess.

vii. The Black Goddess bears a resemblance to the Virgin of Guadalupe who is a representation of the Woman who fought the Dragon. Clothed with the sun and with stars on her cloak, she stands on the moon, pregnant. Known in Mexico now as the Queen of the Americas, the madonna first appeared to an indigenous man near Tepeyac sometime after the Conquest. The Spanish had destroyed a temple to the Aztec’s mother goddess, replacing it with a chapel dedicated to their European goddess, Mary. But resistant indigenous people knew she was, in fact, Tonantzin.

viii. In 2014, Birmingham had been chosen as the site of the 2021 World Games. With tax incentives, the choice accelerated the development of Downtown Birmingham. For residents of the Smithfield Community, the first community west of Interstate 65 and Downtown Birmingham, “development” is a euphemism for “gentrification” or the displacement of the low and moderate income residents who already lived there.

ix. Susan Mitchell and Majadi Baruti have a home in Smithfield. In the land around the house, they grow food to eat, sell, give away, or barter. A registered urban farm, they named it Ua Mer which means Beloved Water. The name was chosen in solidarity with the millions of women around the world have no access to clean, nourishing water.

The Land Trust Susan established is part of a plan to provide access to affordable housing and sustainable agriculture in the five predominantly African American Smithfield neighborhoods through a process of land adoption. A cooperative, the idea is that the Trust will own the land but individual families will have access to their own plot. There, they will give back to Mother Earth more than they receive.

For Susan, the Trust is an act of resistance and remembrance.* Her resistance is not only to gentrification, but it is resistance to the toxicity of living on earth in the present age. She dreams of creating small villages where people live communally, share what they have, acknowledge the indigeneity of land, and where they can have a home to care for.

The Trust is also an act of remembrance of a time before patriarchy, before large scale agriculture, and before capitalism when land was not owned but was worked by women. Susan remembers the time before the Garden spoken of in Genesis.

x. The Black Goddess whom Susan and Majadi remember is the crystallization of this long ago time when the black or brown or red earth was our Mother whose womb provided home and hearth, living waters, clean food, and safety.

xi. In an act of resistance, members of indigenous communities all across Colombia marched to demand the country’s leaders adhere to the terms of a peace agreement. They said, each and every one with the red and green flag held high, with pain and anger for their fallen comrades at the hands of the government for the sole reason of defending their territories, the platform of struggle and the principles of unity, land, culture, and autonomy called them to defend life, Mother Earth, and every being that inhabits it. They called each and every indigenous in one voice to sing a single song of dignity.

xii. So angry was the Dragon with the Woman that it tried to drown her but the earth came to her rescue, opened up its mouth, and swallowed the river pouring from the mouth of the Dragon.

*Many thanks to Susan Diane Mitchell for explaining what the Black Goddess, Ua Mer farm, and the Land Trust mean to her, in a phone conversation, October 31, 2017.

Ellin Sterne Jimmerson

Jeff Hood


“Queering the Fall”

Jeff Hood holds a Master of Arts, a Master of Science, a Master of Divinity, a Master of Theology, and a Doctor of Ministry. He is an activist theologian and author of fifteen books and numerous articles. In 2013, Hood was awarded PFLAG Fort Worth’s Equality Award for activism and service. In 2016, Hood’s book, The Courage to Be Queer, was named the third best religion book of the year at the Independent Publishers Book Awards. Through consistent media appearances, Hood has been able to share the message of queerness with a broad audience. He lives in Denton, Texas.

Purchase Rainbow in the Word here.

A Christian Border Patrol Agent’s Reflection on The Border Wall

Now that Donald Trump has been elected president, immigration as a topic of Christian concern has re-surfaced—or, in some cases, simply surfaced.

My mind often wanders to this encounter I had with a deeply reflective Border Patrol agent on an airplane between Tucson, Arizona and Guanajuato, Mexico in 2011. I had gone to the area on the US/Mexico border to shoot footage for my migrant justice documentary, The Second Cooler, narrated by Martin Sheen.

My cinematographer, Adam Valencia, and I had been in the Sonoran Desert with Mike Wilson, a tribal member of the Tohono O’odham Nation. Mike, a former Special Operations military officer in El Salvador and Presbyterian lay minister in Sells, Arizona, had long defied tribal elders’ prohibition on putting water in the desert for migrants attempting to cross through it into the United States. This despite the fact that the brutal desert had already taken the lives of at least 5,000 migrants.

Photo by Alejandra Platt. Used by permission.

Photo by Alejandra Platt. Used by permission.

Mike has four stations among the rattlesnakes and cacti where he sets out water: St. Matthew, St. Mark, St. Luke, and St. John. He arranges them in the shape of a cross so any passing migrant will feel confident the water has not been poisoned.

As we were heading back to Tucson after shooting, while still on the reservation, we encountered a young, indigenous migrant from Oaxaca in southern Mexico. He name, oddly enough in this deathtrap, was Eulogio—eulogy. He was eighteen years old and had been wandering with his party in the desert for ten days. The previous three days he had neither food nor water. He was weak and asked us to call Border Patrol so he could turn himself in. Eulogio did not want to die in a foreign desert. He wanted to return home to his wife and seven month old son.

After Adam and I boarded the plane to journey on to Guanajuato, I called my husband to tell him about our encounter with Eulogio. When the call was finished, the young man sitting next to me on the plane asked me, “What kind of work do you do?” “I’m a filmmaker,” I said. “What kind of film?” “Immigration.” “What kind of work do you do?” “Border Patrol.”  We were delighted at the coincidence and laughed.

The agent told me his name was Steve. We chatted a long time.

Originally from the Dominican Republic, Steve and his three brothers had been abandoned as young children by their parents in an orphanage where they languished for years. They had become so mentally disturbed that they used to urinate and defecate on one another. Eventually they were rescued by an American Mennonite couple. Over time, all recovered from the traumas of abandonment and abuse.

The brothers grew up on the principles of peace and non-involvement with the military. When Steve told his mother he was going to join the Border Patrol, holding to her faith principles, she objected to his decision.

Adam Valencia and Eulogio

Adam Valencia and Eulogio

When we met on the plane, Steve had been with Border Patrol for only about a year, but had turned in his resignation. He said he had decided to become a BP agent because he wanted to work outdoors and because he wanted to help stop drug trafficking. Steve learned, though, as he said, that being a Border Patrol agent really was about destroying people’s dreams. The dreams of people who were just like he had been earlier in his life. When he would find migrants wandering in the desert, they would beg him for their lives. He said they were as dependent on his mercy as he and his brothers had been on the mercy of strangers in that miserable orphanage in the Dominican Republic.

I asked Steve, “What is the youngest migrant you have ever captured in the desert?” He pointed to the baby daughter in his lap, dressed in pink frills and just beginning to stand. “About her age,” he said.

Painting by Guadalupe Serrano, used by permission.

Painting by Guadalupe Serrano, used by permission.

“I can’t do this any more”, Steve said. He reflected on the long, heavily militarized border wall called El Muro by many Latinos. “When we build border walls,” he said, “we act like we don’t believe in God at all. Our security is not in walls and Border Patrol agents. Our security is in God. We say we believe in God, but we act like we don’t believe in Him at all.”

Steve would not let me interview him on camera, although I asked him several times. I have no idea where he is now or what he is doing. His reflection on what it means to believe in God, however, will remain with me forever.

Structural Sin and the Purpose of the Church

Jesus Cleansing Temple jpg

Bernardino Mei, Christ Cleansing the Temple, c. 1655

America is coming apart at the seams. Greed, corruption, fear, and violence are among our defining qualities. We Christians must confront the fact that we have done a poor job of proclaiming Good News in America. As such, there are two conversations we must have in 2016. This first is, “what is sin?” The second is, “what is the purpose of the church?”

The opening verses of John’s Gospel provide a biblical basis for such conversations. Paraphrasing, they say that “In the beginning was Logos (Word) which was God. Logos became Flesh and went to live among human beings.”

No search for John’s original meaning can fully excavate such an abstraction as logos becoming flesh. What we can do — what we are invited to do — is to be creative with John’s gospel. Despite our saying that “God never changes,” John indicates that changeability is part of God’s nature especially as it relates to human need. If God has a history of changing, surely our definitions of sin and attitudes toward the church should be open to change, too.

1. What is structural sin?

We Christians long have interpreted sin as a personal break with God. Instead of focusing on personal transgressions, however, Christians need to talk about an idea well represented in the Bible – that sin is a structural break with God. The declarations of the Prophets, the Exodus and Resurrection events, Jesus’s disruption in the Temple all point to the idea that structures of sin make complete union with God difficult if not fundamentally impossible. There are at least five structural sins that Christians must address if we are to proclaim Good News in America. They are sins because they deal in death – spiritual, emotional, and bodily – and need to be reckoned as such.

  • Fear of gays, lesbians, bi-sexual, transgendered, intersex, and other people who are not “cisgendered”

By cisgendered, I mean people who conform to standard ideas of gender physiology and identity. These fears lead to bullying, isolating, Christian parents condemning their own children, fringe Baptist pastors proclaiming God Hates Fags, attempts to equate homosexuality with pedophilia, suicide, and murder. Homophobia and its variations are sins.

  • Factory produced food

Corporately produced chickens, lemons, tomatoes, and many other food items are products of cruelty and exploitation. A typical bowl of ostensibly nourishing homemade chicken soup is made from a chicken which was caged its entire miserable life, processed by vulnerable undocumented workers in an appallingly dangerous industry, and garnished with tomatoes picked by “guest workers” toiling in conditions of servitude, sometimes so doused with pesticides that their babies are born without limbs. Factory food is a sin.

  • Free Trade Agreements

FTAs, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, remove tariffs designed to protect small farmers and other small producers. They are designed to concentrate wealth in the hands of a few corporate owners by forcing small producers into competition with them. Millions around the globe are suffering from an epidemic of globalized worker exploitation associated with FTAs. Looking for decent work, many cross borders illegally and often are robbed of their money, dignity, and lives while in transit. FTAs are sins.

  • The militarization of our southern border and inner cities

The militarization of the US / Mexico border began in conjunction with NAFTA. It has caused the deaths of thousands of migrants. The Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, S. 744, which passed in the US Senate in 2013, the so-called Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill, was to a significant extent a border militarization package. President Obama’s 2014 Executive Actions on Immigration were designed to “crack down on illegal immigration” via further militarization. We glimpsed the militarization of interior cities in the aftermath of the shooting death of Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO. Militarization is a sin.

  • The for-profit prison industry

Six million people are under correctional supervision in America. The industry preys on poor people, especially poor black men more than ½ of whom go to prison at some point in their lives. For-profit prisons, which exist through contracts with governments, target illegal immigrants. The largest American prison groups, the GEO Group, Inc. and the Corrections Corporation of America, have contracts with the Federal government to house 34,000 immigrant detainees a day. The prison industry is a sin.

2. What is the purpose of the church amidst structural sin?

  • Tell truth to power

There is no point in having conversations about structural sin if we do not tell truth about it to our congregations, other faith leaders, community organizers, and politicians. They all wield power. Moreover, we need to tell truth to power in ways that will make systemic change inevitable.

  • Create crisis-packed situations

Martin Luther King, Jr. reflected in his “Letter From Birmingham Jail” that resistance to structural sin involves creating “a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.” Jesus cleansed the Temple because it had become a “hideout for thieves” – part of the Roman Empire’s package of structural sin. Jesus created a situation so crisis packed, it led to his execution.

Not all crisis-packed situations lead to executions. The 1963 Children’s Crusaders in Birmingham, organized by Rev. James Bevel, were met with Sheriff Bull Connor’s police dogs and fire hoses. The crisis-packed situation, broadcast on TV, resulted in the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In 1968, Catholic priests Philip and Daniel Berrigan broke into the offices of the Selective Service in Catonsville, MD and publicly burned draft board records. These and other crisis-packed situations eventually ended the war in Vietnam.

It has been a long time since church leaders created situations so crisis packed they led to ending structural sins. If the church is to proclaim Good News in America, it may be that the time for creating crisis-packed situations is upon us.

Lenten Sacrifices: What Ernesto Cardenal Gave Up

Ernesto Cardenal

Ernesto Cardenal

Last week, I wrote about what Nicodemus gave up in order to pursue holistic liberation. I am struck by how much he reminds me of Nicaragua’s Ernesto Cardenal. For those of you who don’t know about him, Cardenal is one of the most widely-read poets in the Spanish language and a Roman Catholic priest.

To understand Cardenal, you need to know that throughout most of the twentieth-century, Nicaragua was the U. S.’s primary Latin American client state. I don’t think its hyperbolic to say that Nicaragua existed at the pleasure of the U. S. Nor is it hyperbolic to say that the Catholic Church in Nicaragua existed at the pleasure of President Somoza and the Nicaraguan National Guard. So, in my mind, there is something of a parallel between the relationship of the Nicaraguan Church to the U. S. and the relationship of the Jewish Temple leadership to the Roman Empire.

As a young adult, Cardenal participated in a plot to overthrow the Somoza / National Guard dictatorship. However, because of the excessive violence of the reprisals against the rebellion, like Nicodemus, Cardenal had a “born again” experience in which he disavowed violence and decided to enter the priesthood. He went to Kentucky to study philosophical non-violence with Thomas Merton. At Merton’s urging, Cardenal later returned to Nicaragua where he founded a commune devoted to contemplation, the arts, and strict non-violence.

Along with Daniel and Phillip Berrigan as well as Thomas Merton, Cardenal became one of the key figures of the philosophical non-violence movement. Philosophical non-violence was indeed that which made them such exemplary Christians. It was a principle they knew was right.

But by 1972, Cardenal reluctantly concluded that priestly calls for non-violence would not end violence. Indeed, he began to conclude, it would only prolong the intense suffering of the Nicaraguan people. And so Cardenal scandalized his international admirers with a decision to publicly support the guerrillas who were gathering strength in their effort to overthrow the Somoza / National Guard dictatorship. He longed for fullness of life for Nicaragua and concluded that hope for Nicaraguan life was inconsistent with philosophical non-violence and its bargain with the dictatorship.

His decision was most welcome among the young guerrillas with whom he read and discussed the Bible at the front and among many other Christians in Latin America. Yet, it was most unwelcome among good Christians outside Latin America including Daniel Berrigan and Pope John Paul II whose criticism was especially hurtful. When I see video footage of the Pope wagging his finger at a kneeling Ernesto Cardenal on a public runway in Managua, I hear an anxious caution from the Pope: “Surely, no prophet will ever come out of Nicaragua!”

As with Nicodemus’s turn from that principle on which he had staked a calling and a career, Cardenal’s turn from non-violence coincided with preparations for a major Christian festival. On the morning of December 23, 1972, a violent earthquake struck Managua as the city’s elite were preparing for a lavish Christmas. Later, Nicaraguan poet Tomás Borge wrote that Managua shattered “like a castle of cards constructed by a Peruvian sorceress.” Approximately 10,000 people were killed. Hundreds of thousands more were injured or left homeless. The devastation to property was nearly incalculable. National Guard soldiers, often led by their officers, engaged in extensive looting. They enjoyed tormenting desperately hungry people chasing them by showing them tin cans of food which they would not give up. Massive amounts of foreign aid poured into Nicaragua. Most of it ended up in the already deep pockets of Somoza, his family, and his business and Guard cronies.

Cardenal concluded that the Nicaraguan Church’s bargain with the National Guard and Somoza would never lead to fullness of life for Nicaragua. Cardenal, like Nicodemus, responded to a political temple-cleansing Jesus who was the full-blown, apocalyptic, Word Become Flesh, Son of Man. He recalled Liberation Psalm 118 and Mary’s Christmas Magnificat and became reborn once again.

We are entering into the final days leading up to the major festival of the Christian calendar, the Easter festival, the festival during which we Christians celebrate more than any other the promise that fullness of life can overcome even the politics of death, It seems appropriate that we remember Nicodemus and Ernesto Cardenal. It seems appropriate that we recall that the political Jesus who cleansed the temple and died on the cross is the apocalyptic Son of Man sent to bring the whole world liberation. Most importantly, it seems appropriate during what remains of this Lenten season that we, too, examine that which makes us a good Christian. If being a good Christian is inconsistent with the full liberation of the whole world, are we prepared to give it up?