Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage* (Luke 9:37-62) transports me to the kitchen table of a house on north Pope Street, Louisville, KY, circa 1988. Pope Street was in the Clifton neighborhood, the community where I was attempting to learn and practice the art of community organizing. The issue at hand facing all lower income neighborhoods in Louisville at the time was utilities reform, as many fixed income families were facing freezing winter weather without heat and electricity, when they couldn’t afford the LG&E bills that often were more than 25% of their income. The various grassroots organizing centers around the city had banded together to create a movement initially called POWER: People Outraged With Energy Rates. Later some of the cooler heads in the movement convinced others that a more palatable acronym would be “People Organized and Working for Energy Reform.” We had all sorts of popular education trainings and leadership development workshops and strategic planning sessions in support of convincing the KY Public Service Commission to pilot a Percentage of Income Plan (PIP), through which fixed income families would not have to pay more than 10% of their monthly checks on heat and electricity. Despite studies from other cities that had such a plan demonstrating its cost-effectiveness and its success in keeping people from freezing to death, LG&E was fighting the idea tooth and nail. POWER maintained pressure, and along with the education and training, there was a weekly Friday afternoon intercessory prayer meeting in the Clifton neighborhood, hosted by an elderly African American woman named Frances Richardson. Frances invited all her neighbors to the meeting there on Pope Street, and it turned out to be the most diverse and envelope-pushing ecumenical gathering I’ve ever witnessed. They were all retired folks, but that’s where the similarity ended. There was a Roman Catholic Bingo caller, a Methodist who had to get done in time to get home and watch her story, a reserved Anglican who brought readings from the Book of Common Prayer. That was the only common thing about the meeting, though. Frances would begin with a passage from the Psalms, and then she would open the circle of prayer, beginning very softly, slowly rising in a music-like crescendo until she was calling down fire from heaven to melt the stony hearts of those LG&E executives who were resisting efforts at a PIP. The prayer would then go around the circle, with the Catholic man using his Rosary beads, the Methodist leading us in the Lord’s prayer, and the Anglican reading a Common Prayer. I would offer whatever you’d call my seminary-influenced Baptist intercession, and then Willie would finish the prayer. Willie was an elderly African American “mennocostal” – a crazy kind of convergence of Mennonite peace and justice orientation with pentecostal manifestations – shaking, being slain in the spirit, speaking in tongues, and something that was completely new to me: animal visions. The latter involved him going into a trance in which he described the faces of various LG&E executives, and then telling us what he saw when the Lord opened up the eyes of his heart. He might see the face of a bull with ram’s horns, or the face of a pig with a rooster comb, or some other fantastic animist features, all of them manifestations of the devil as far as he could tell, and he’d conclude his time in the holy spirit with stern rebukes of the evil spirit that had obviously seized the unwitting corporate executive and was causing him to act so unjustly.
The amazing thing to me about those Friday meetings was the willingness of each participant to allow the others to bring their way of praying to the table, without judgment. Each of them in their own way was praying the same thing, a rebuke of the stony-hearted obstinate greed that was keeping corporate power from doing the right thing. I feel sure that if Jesus had shown up, they would have been just as welcoming of his particular style of prayerful rebuke against the evil spirits that captivated the people and the culture around him. In this series of five brief pericopes found in today’s passage, Jesus is in castigation mode; he’s on a veritable roll of rebukes with every encounter. It’s the act of upbraiding that ties all the encounters together. The initial demonic power seizing the young boy was not the only evil spirit inhabiting the air around Christ. The disciples were seized by the spirits of competitive greatness, violent revenge, and exclusivity. Would-be-followers were seized by the spirit of misplaced priorities that blinded them to the call of the movement. Jesus, like Willie, could immediately recognize the shape and form of the spirits that were inhabiting first one group and then another in his culture. He may not have described animal features, but he rebuked and called out the spirits nonetheless.
All this rebuking, from Pope Street outrage against an oppressive power company to Palestinian street outrage against oppressive spiritual powers, was completely foreign to my relatively nice Baptist upbringing, rooted in the southern culture of nice-ness. It was way out of the comfort zone of my personal piety. I was not the only one made uncomfortable; some of the Legal Aid lawyers at the heart of the POWER organizing movement didn’t think it was appropriate for energy reform efforts to get “sidetracked” by sectarian prayer that might be off-putting to non-religious folks. They tried to squelch the prayer sessions. As much as the group made me uncomfortable, I was nonetheless mighty proud of Frances for raising her voice and preventing the lawyers from pushing Pope Street prayer out of the official POWER calendar of activities. Years later, I discovered language that created a comfortable bridge between my somewhat sanitized prayer life and Willie’s outlandish manifestations. It was a New York theologian and biblical scholar, Walter Wink, who helped me feel more at ease in the presence of people like Willie. His theological framework of engaging the powers challenged overly rational and sterile spiritualities like mine to learn how to discern principalities and powers that rule the air, domination systems that comprise our cultural milieu and seize the inhabitants of our world. I’d like to think that Walter and Willie would have gotten along quite well; they certainly shared a strong and direct rebuke of the destructive spirits at work all around us. Willie, at least from my perspective, was just a little more theatrical if not downright entertaining in his manner of rebuke.
How about you? Where does this Primary Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.