The Rev. Dr. Russell L. Meyer
Advent focuses on hope and expectations. But whose hope and what expectations? When Mary sings, the Mighty One “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty”, a lump forms in my throat. Of course, things are relative and have to be understood in context.
In the big scheme of things, I am the rich one. I, this middle class White American, qualify as one of the richest people in the long span of human history, even though it doesn’t feel that way when I look at my retirement account. Yet my family has taken hit after hit – hurricane, cancer, fire – and we’re still thriving. That simply can’t be said about many Americans, or indeed most people outside the North Atlantic.
Like I say, things are relative. Being white and educated sets me apart. Until recently, I didn’t notice my privilege. I took it for granted like the air I breathe and became steamed when somebody didn’t extend me dignity I felt I deserved. I now see that as a clue to Mary singing, “sent the rich away empty” – though of course there’s more.
Soon after taking up a pastoral call in the mid-1990’s in Lakeland, Florida, a church member nominated me to serve on the county’s 2020 transportation plan. A variety of issues were addressed on that task force. The highway department’s big dream included a new toll road that would tie the recently opened Polk Expressway into the Florida Turnpike. The project proposed going south around Winter Haven, cutting through the center of Edna. Edna is a historic Black farmworker community. The toll road would separate neighborhoods from local schools. When I asked how grandmothers were supposed to walk their grandchildren to school if the town was cut in half by a toll road, I experienced the indignity of highway officials – my white, middle class peers.
If you stand on the floor of the Florida House of Representatives and look to address the assembly, you see a series of large panels adorning the back wall. The first one on the right is Ponce de Leon landing on the shores near St. Augustine – America’s so-called “oldest city”. Under the Doctrine of Discovery, de Leon claimed the land for the Spanish crown. None of the indigenous peoples who populated Florida then survived the “discovery”.
The second panel portrays General Andrew Jackson holding out his sword, assuming authority as the first military governor of Florida for the United States, with an African wash woman before him. Jackson said his mission was to make Florida for White People only. He initiated what became 40 plus years of war against the Seminoles and runaway slaves. At one point in he 1840’s, the federal government spent more money fighting Seminoles in Florida than the entire national budget. Those captured rather than killed were marched to Fort Brooke at Tampa Bay and then shipped north to march across the panhandle on the Trail of Tears.
Before oil was big, the pine tar forests of north Florida were critical to national enterprise and military support. Turpentine and other wood products played fundamental roles in commerce of all kinds. The worst of slavery and later convict-leasing occurred on those pine plantations. Today, that industry is a shadow of itself. The economy has been replaced by the prison industry in which generations of families secure correctional institutions. Juvenile justice was founded there in the Florida Reform School for Boys, also known as the Arthur G. Dozier School. At its height, Florida put boys from across the nation in the school. In its early days, the school leased boys for local farm work. When a boy ran away, the school held a boy hunt for the local townspeople. Whoever caught the boy received a hog or side of beef. Boys were killed. The first guards of the school came from the pine tar convict-leasing camps. According to school logs, over 170 youth have been unaccounted for.
One other item: more lynchings occurred in Florida than in any other state. It’s not a fact addressed in our high school textbooks. The large migration into Florida over the last generation knows little about the state’s history of racial injustice and oppression. But it’s reflected by the large population incarcerated for non-violent crimes and under law enforcement control. It’s reflected by how we spend more of the state budget on the prison complex than universities. It’s reflected in that the state denies voting and civil rights to one out of six Floridians. Research suggests that generations of incarceration lie at the root of much of the state’s poverty.
So what are Advent’s hopes and expectations? Surely they are very personal within our own families and closest relationships. Our longing for experiencing the communion with each other that is promised through and with God involves real names and actual faces. Advent’s hopes, following Mary’s song, are also global in ways that connect me with people and processes of which I may have little knowledge or experience. Here’s the thing, the Bible along with all of the great sacred texts of humanity, says that my personal hopes and expectations are connected with those of the wider world. There is a profound moral unity tying all things together. Its complexity is such that at any time I can enjoy happiness while others know only suffering, and vice versa, but make no mistake these are deeply connected.
Perhaps Paul was speaking just to the Christians in Corinth when he wrote, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” I’ve come to know this is not simply a family, group or tribal phenomenon. It’s descriptive of humanity – which, with Paul, I think is destined as the Body of Christ.
Therefore, I join in solidarity with African-American faith leaders who call folks to wear black on Sunday. I believe violence in our society, from whatever source, dissipates when we can truly say “We suffer together.” My Advent hope in Christ is that we are redeemed from such suffering, and my Advent expectation is those with privilege recognize it so that they can join in solidarity. So will come much happiness, peace and goodwill upon the earth.
Russell Meyer is EALA Public Witness Circle Coordinator. He serves as Executive Director, Florida Council of Churches, and is the Webminister & Ecumenical Representative for the Florida-Bahamas Synod.