“Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these,” says Jesus. We can imagine Jesus saying these words with excitement. We can also imagine him saying these words with a dry wit. “You just wait and see, honey.”
After 2020, many of us would rather not wait and see any more surprises. We’d rather reality be really boring for a change. Nothing new in the news cycle but a really boring thumbs up. Everything is kind of okay. Do we have energy for greater things in 2021?
Jesus, it would be nice to know in advance if these greater things are going to require a lot of effort or energy. These are in short supply right now. We’d all like to know what we’re signing up for.
Deep down we really would like to experience some greater things. Jesus isn’t just promising the disciples that everything will go away. Instead Jesus is pointing towards a world-turning towards justice, embodied in Jesus’ own love and grace. We could all use these kind of greater things. We yearn for a more just world that is rooted in love and grace.
This weekend embodies a turn towards justice, rooted in love and grace for many. This is Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, both in the US, and increasingly celebrated around the world including in Canada.
The Martin Luther King Jr. weekend evokes a lot of feelings for me. As many of you know I spent ten years in Virginia and the last three years my ministry focused on community organizing. We helped begin a Martin Luther King Jr. Community Parade in Lexington, Virginia. This year the organizing team is celebrating their fifth annual parade. Due to concerns around Covid they cannot gather in the same way, hundreds of people marching shoulder to shoulder, shouting chants. Instead they are offering a physically distanced parade where people take up a spot on the street and stand there with signs and visiting with neighbours. A kind of stationary parade in which people take up space in the community and still come together, but safely, wearing masks, keeping distance. It’s a brilliant idea and I was heartened to see friends and colleagues interviewed by a Virginia news affiliate about this innovative twist to the annual MLK parade.
How do we lift up Martin Luther King, Jr. in a Canadian context? The Anti-racism Coalition (ARC), otherwise known as ARC, is located in Vancouver and asked for people in BC to wear a black shirt this past Friday marking the Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend. They’re building momentum for this to become a BC-wide tradition, including public schools for wearing black shirts in solidarity with civil rights for Black Canadians. It’s in the same way that Black Lives Matter is the same but different in Canada, so too there are ways of lifting up Black neighbours in Canada and hearing their stories.
Today instead of reading from you an excerpt from Dr. King’s sermons or speeches, although I urge to read these or listen to them on-line, I want share some experiences from Black Canadians to hear about some of their struggles that are unique to Black Canadians.
Tomi Ajele, “2020 Was the Year I Stopped Trying to Live up to Others’ Definition of Blackness,” huffpost.ca)
Tomi Ajele, a young Black woman from Alberta shares her story in a recent Huffpost.ca story. It’s titled, “2020 Was the year I stopped trying to live up to others’ definition of Blackness.” She begins the piece quoting things she’s heard people tell her growing up in Canada:
“You’re the whitest Black person I know.”
“But you’re not like Black Black. You may as well be white.”
“[Insert name of white girl who likes Wu-Tang Clan] is way more Black than you.”
She writes, “I got a lot of this growing up [in Alberta]. The words varied, but the message was the same — there’s a right way to be Black, and I’m doing it wrong.”
Tomi tells her story growing up being among the few Black kids in her school and neighbourhood apart from her siblings. She grew up as a second generation Canadian, with parents who immigrated from Nigeria, which was a challenging combination. She felt she had to choose between identities of Blackness either represented by her parents and their Nigerian roots or identities of Blackness depicted by African Americans in the US. There wasn’t an accepted model of being African Canadian with a readily identifiable narrative.
Even when Black Lives Matter became an international story last summer, it began with US roots. White Canadians have been slow to admit it’s not just a US story. That when bad things happen to people of colour in Canada, it’s not just Trumpism creeping north of the border. That we have home grown racism and anti-Blackness.
Tomi points especially towards hiring discrimination being worse in Canada than in the US and systemic racism being a problem in Canadian education systems. So too the Black Lives Matter movement in Nigeria against police brutality there received little international attention.
Tomi writes, “In his poem, “How Black?”, Edmonton’s-born-and-raised rapper Cadence Weapon also explores Black conceptualization: “the gradients of Civil War black and Kenyan black and Alberta black.”
[For Tomi], “Civil War Black” was Black America, Black Lives Matter — a Black that the global community wanted to see liberated. “Kenyan Black” was Nigeria Black, #EndSars Black — a Black that the world felt comfortable being silent about. And then there was “Alberta Black,” Black Canada —a Black that was altogether ignored.
[Tomi asks] Did my experiences even matter? Or was I just the wrong kind of Black?”
On a hopeful note, through her self-discovery Tomi has helped found a media company and connected with other Black Canadians asking similar questions. She concludes the article with, “I am starting 2021 with a better understanding of who I am and how I fit into Black Canada. Most importantly, I stopped modifying my Blackness in order for it to make sense to the rest of the world.”
How do we respond to anti-Blackness in Canada?
How do we respond to Tomi’s story? What do we do with the reality that Black Canadians feel isolated, lonely, and in need of support? We could start with listening to their voices. Listening to the Tomi’s in our midst who are asking us to make space for them, to make sure their voices get heard, that they receive equal opportunities for jobs, housing, education, and human flourishing.
We start with not gaslighting them, which means not telling them their experience isn’t true or that it’s exaggerated. In the same way that the #MeToo movement is about believing women’s stories, Black Lives Matter and Black Shirt Day, are about believing the stories Black Canadians tell us about their experiences being Black in Canada.
“Greater things than these…”
Wouldn’t it be great if together this Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, we could be part of the “greater things than these” Jesus is referencing. That we could walk with Black folks and all people of colour away from the cringe-worthiness of 2020 and early 2021, into the future God desires for all people to live.
Imagine a kingdom of God unfolding in which Black neighbours truly feel safe. That they don’t have to feel suspicious as to whether they’ll be discriminated against in some way.
In the church we are an obvious place to start. As the body of Christ in this place, yearning to live into a kingdom in which there is justice, rooted in grace and love.
I see a lot of hope and possibility. Even though there are a lot of reasons to be wary. I am excited that as a congregation we are leaning into grace and love. We are unashamedly professing Jesus’ love for people on the margins. We are a beacon of hope and grounding for a lot of people in the church. As we work with partners that will only continue to grow.
Thinking about a way forward together with Black Canadians, think about our approach with Truth and Reconcilation, working with Indigenous folks. I think about I think about our recent public conversation with the Rev. Dr. Martin Brokenleg. He was so magnanimous and grace-filled in every way. Several people I heard from after the talk mentioned his comments about inter-generational trauma. There are connections with the trauma with Indigenous people, with people in Israel and Palestine given some of his current work, and also among Black Canadians. Some of Tomi’s struggles described earlier are connected to her family’s struggles moving from Nigeria to Canada, including an invisibility being Black Canadian. We can imagine how many people asked her, “But where are you really from?” As though Alberta or Canada are not good enough answers.
Greater things than these…a story
Thinking about Jesus’ promise to reveal “greater things than these,” I think about a Black Lives Matter rally at the BC legislature in downtown Victoria last spring. There were Black youth leaders and Indigenous youth leaders at the front taking turns speaking. There was dancing. There was music. Meanwhile at times they were overpowered by the sound system of an anti-mask rally on the opposite side of the legislature lawn. Nevertheless they prevailed. This image gives me hope about the future. It’s not easy work, it’s not glamorous. Not even that many people showed up to the legislature that day. And yet they proclaimed a message of justice rooted in grace and love. They centred people on the margins in front of the seat of power. They were not deterred by a bunch of anti-maskers.
That is bold leadership. Not being deterred in the face of great challenges. There are times when we feel weary. Times when it’s all to much during this pandemic. Times we don’t have the energy for various tasks. Yet we know when we show up, usually we feel better. We join in prayer and song even via a worship livestream and somehow we’re connected. No one can take that away from us. We don’t have to have all the right words. We don’t have to be perfect. We know the disciples mostly got things wrong and yet Jesus still loved them. Jesus loves us and we share that by loving one another.
Grace friends. Love. That’s enough. Let’s keep showing up for worship and praise and just maybe the Holy Spirit will speak a new word to us. Maybe the Spirit has already spoken that word and is awakening us for just this day. I leave you with that. How is the Spirit breathing new life into you? Hang onto that thought and trust that Jesus is revealing “greater things than these” to us today. Amen.