[Note: This is the third of five keynotes given at the Montreat Youth Conference Week Five, July 27-July 31. Below is a transcript and the photos/videos used in keynote that aren’t on the SoundCloud audio track]
Wednesday July 29, Keynote 3- “Our Stories Are Intertwined”
Our stories—even the ones that are silenced—are intertwined
Luke 16:19-31 – “Rich Man and Lazarus” (What happens to the “other” matters to us and God)
As we discussed yesterday, our stories, our life, and our world are messy.
Yet God meets us in our mess with love. God reminds us that we are more than our messes and that our stories aren’t over.
God loves us all. God doesn’t prefer one group to the other.
And God also calls us to show compassion to others, particularly the poor and the oppressed.
We’re not meant to disregard others and their stories and simply live unto ourselves.
We’re not meant duck our heads, close our eyes and walk away from the messes.
We’re not meant to avoid opportunities to see the face of God in another.
To not recognize how we are connected and how our stories are intertwined is un-Godlike and inhuman.
In Africa, the people ascribe to a philosophy known as Ubuntu. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who helped bring an end to the oppressive system of apartheid in South Africa more than 20 years ago, says ubuntu means “you are human because you participate in relationships… A person is a person through other persons.” Or put another way: “I am because we are.”
This concept is reflected in the Bible, specifically Ephesians 4:15-16 in which the apostle Paul writes:
God created us to be together, and God wants us to maintain our connections with one another. And it is our connections that remind us we are bound to God.
Paul sees our connection with God in Christ and one another as a functioning body. Christ is the head and we are the various parts “joined and knit together” to ensure the body is working properly.
We are connected to other human beings, and we are connected to God who creates and fuels those connections. To disregard or even severe a connection is to go against God’s purpose for creation, God’s design for us to be in relationship.
This idea of Ubuntu, of connectedness, of intertwining is counter cultural in our world. There is much emphasis in society on individualism and fending for oneself.
And yet God’s command to love the mistreated and to seek justice for the downtrodden is essential to our faith and a common thread throughout the Bible. And it was one of Jesus’ main teachings.
Let’s take a look now at the parable Jesus tells in Luke 16:19-31 about “The Rich Man and Lazarus” This version comes from The Cotton Patch Gospels by Clarence Jordan who founded the Koinonia Partners, an interracial farming community in southwest Georgia. (Because it is written in the language and colloquialisms of the time, the passage must be read in a Southern accent and I’ve invited a youth, Catherine Jones, to read with me.)
Once there was a rich man, and he put on his tux and stiff shirt, and staged a big affair every day. And there was laid at his gate a poor guy by the name of Lazarus, full of sores, and so hungry he wanted to fill up on the rich man’s table scraps. On top of this, the dogs came and licked his sores.
It so happened that the poor fellow died, and the angels seated him at the table with Abraham. The rich man died, too, and was buried. And in the hereafter, the rich man, in great agony, looked up and saw from afar Abraham, and Lazarus sitting beside him at the table. So he shouted to him, ‘Mr. Abraham, please take pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in some water and rub it over my tongue, because I’m scorching in this heat.’
Abraham replied, ‘Boy, you remember that while you were alive you got the good stuff (the good jobs, schools, streets, houses, etc.) while at the same time Lazarus got the left-overs. But now, here he’s got it made, and you’re scorching. And on top of all this, somebody has dug a yawning chasm between us and you, so that people trying to get through from here to you can’t make it, neither can they get through from there to us.’
The rich man said, ‘Well, then, Mr. Abraham, will you please send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers; let him thoroughly warn them so they won’t come to this hellish condition.’
Then Abraham said, ‘They’ve got the Bible and the preachers; let them listen to them.’
But he said, ‘No, they won’t do that, Mr. Abraham. But if somebody will go to them from the dead, they’ll change their ways!’
He replied, “Well if they won’t listen to the Bible and the preachers, they won’t be persuaded even if someone does get up from the dead.’
The wealthy man was familiar with the scriptures and God’s commands to be welcoming to the widow, the orphan, the stranger and the poor. Yet he still chose not to recognize someone suffering outside the gates of his home.
And that was the man’s sin—not that he had all the finest things one could dream of, but that he did not see Lazarus.
Even when the man “sees” Lazarus later in the afterlife, he still views Lazarus as someone who is beneath him, a poor, lowly being who is meant to do his bidding.
We can’t ignore the connections with other people: people whom we know, people whom we pass by, and people whom we only know in the history books or in a news story.
Ignoring the connections ignores God who is present in those ties that bind.
When we snub the connections and our need for them (like the rich man in Jesus’ parable) we tend to become more selfish, more bitter and more resentful.
We create our own living hell.
We become less and less human and more like monsters with sharp claws that slash out at those whom God means to be our brothers and sisters.
This was very much the case in the turbulent year of 1965 when, despite constitutional law, black people in the South were denied the right to vote by local governments as is depicted in the award-winning film Selma:
Cruel, unjust incidents like these prompted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other Civil Rights activists to come to Selma to champion for black residents’ legal right to vote.
King decided that the best way to push for federal legislation to prohibit racial discrimination in voting would be to conduct a non-violent march from Selma to Montgomery.
The first march took place on a rainy March 7, 1965 (50 years ago), however the Civil Rights activists barely made it across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.
State troopers and a group of angry white citizens armed with billy clubs, tear gas and whips immediately confronted the peaceful marchers.
The marchers included a young John Lewis (now a long-time U.S. Congressman for Georgia who spoke on this stage for the 2010 Montreat College Conference). In the photo, Lewis is the man in the long trench coat.
The head of the state troopers gave an order for the marchers to disperse to their homes. The marchers kneeled on the ground to pray and that’s when the troopers and the mob began attacking them in what became known as Bloody Sunday.
Law enforcement fractured Lewis’ skull before he and the other marchers were able to flee back across the bridge to safety at a chapel.
The events of Bloody Sunday spurred hundreds of more people (white and black) from all over the country to come to Selma to march. They believed they needed to stand with their black brothers and sisters who were being denied their right to vote and to be treated with dignity—brothers and sisters who were being mocked, beaten and killed.
All those who fought for civil rights for African-Americans believed as many do today that our stories are intertwined as the body of Christ, and that all parts are needed to help seek justice for and show compassion to the oppressed.
Five months after the marches in Selma, on August 21, 1965, Dr. King spoke at the Christian Action Conference of the Presbyterian Church held here in Anderson Auditorium. During his speech, King told the conferees:
It’s crucial to our existence that we become aware of our connectedness and do what we can to let the world know that another person’s story matters to our own.
And that often means becoming more in tune to the ways in which we are disconnected.
For all the amazing ways it can link us, social media can also break our connections.
They can quickly become petri dishes for cruel and abusive comments about another’s race, culture, religion, sexual orientation, gender, and economic status. And it even occurs while we are sitting here in this auditorium or hanging out at the Huck. Even in this sacred thin place, there are some who try to tear down someone else and make him or her feel worthless.
Mockery and ridicule is not limited to social media, of course. There are some who will make disparaging comments to a person’s face.
During Week I of the Youth Conference, the Pleasant Hill and Trinity Pres of Atlanta youth groups invited the youth from two immigrant congregations in the Atlanta area—newcomers to Montreat—to join us for an ice cream and game party in the parking lot of the Winnsborough one evening. One of the immigrant congregations was made up of people from various Latin American countries.
As some of the Latin American guys were walking past Lake Susan on the way to the Winnsborough they passed by a group of young white males who immediately hurled racist comments at them.
The Latin American guys didn’t respond to the insults and they kept on walking.
But upon their arrival to the ice cream party, it was clear that they were deeply hurt and saddened by the sudden encounter with racism.
And no matter how many youth and adults—including their own back home leader and pastor—offered them encouragement, love and support, the boys refused to go past the bottom steps that lead to the parking lot and join the party.
They were too hurt, and angry and filled with fear.
Their connection to other human beings was severely damaged in that moment. They were made to feel as if their lives and stories didn’t matter.
The wise Desmond Tutu reminds us that:
What you do—good or bad—affects the world, even the smallest corner of it.
Maybe not right away, and sometimes when you least expect it. But trust me, it makes an impact.
So make sure that what you do affects the world in a loving, grace-filled way.
Stand up for what is right and show compassion to those who are suffering. Don’t overlook them.
Open your eyes and see them for the unique and beloved creations and stories God has created them to be. See them the way God sees them.
When you do so, you will be amazed at how much it changes a person’s life and world for the better as the folks on Atlanta’s hit radio morning show “The Bert Show” learned a few months ago.
Davi, the show’s producer who is in her mid 20s, found her childhood journal. While perusing through it, she found “MULTIPLE entries spelling out this sad dislike for herself and how she looked.”
Davi remembered that when she was a teen, the girlfriend of her older brother had a “(huge) impact on her self-esteem and stuck up for her.” She then knew that she needed to find this woman and thank her.
After some searching, Davi found Kelly’s contact info and she wrote her a letter that was read on air and which Omayra (our conference theme assistant) will read to you now:
Thank you for taking the time to read this. You have only shown me respect in the short time we once knew each other and I want to do the same for you. I completely understand your wishes and am so grateful to have the opportunity to write you.
It was nearly 20 years ago when our paths crossed. I was somewhere around the age of ten. Perhaps you don’t remember me at all! Maybe you hate thinking back on this time in your life. I doubt you look back on the relationship you were in fondly. I get it. (Seriously. I’ve met the guy.) If that is the case, I truly apologize for stirring up any negative emotions. Personally, I have many bad memories of that time. But I remember you. And I remember your kindness.
I also remember that you were strong. You walked proudly with your shoulders back. You seemed like the type to not put up with any B.S. – hence why you got rid of my brother. You were nice. And so cool! A twenty-something body builder putting herself through college. Inspiring!
I need to explain myself a little bit more just to adequately express how much your presence in our home was needed at that time in my life.
When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you’re flawed. That’s the best part of being a kid! Kids don’t see the stress-inducing magazines of supermodels in the grocery. They only see the comic books. Kids don’t know that things about them are weird or disproportionate. They just want to play!
“As long as my sneakers light up- I’m happy.” Right? Kids don’t think “I’m odd” or “I’m ugly” until someone else plants that seed in their head. Then a few more people say it. I happened to hear it again and again.
Before long that’s all I saw in the mirror. A monster. Put together all wrong. I was subject to that kind of abuse at school from other children. Boys and girls. Kids that don’t really know any better. But the cut downs were worse within the walls of my home.
We weren’t an affectionate family. The only acceptable emotions to display are anger or disappointment. And instead of board games everyone collectively got their kicks from picking on each other. And when the abuse is happening, no one speaks up to defend for fear of becoming the target. And if I was present, I was always the target. I heard horrible names, everyday –
just to name a few.
So many insects and rodents, right? Those creatures you don’t want in your home. Why would family say these types of things to each other? I was always so sad and confused. I cried. A lot. My diaries are filled with pages of monstrous self-portraits and wishes. But not your average childhood wish.
“I wish I could hide my face,” or “I wish I didn’t exist.”
One day, we were all gathered in our living room to watch television. My father started the name calling. My brother joined in. You said that they should be ashamed. You stood up for me. You made me feel good about myself at a time when I never did. Yours was a strong female voice that I desperately needed to hear at that time. As an adult, I find we concentrate so hard on the negative comments that we don’t ever hear compliments. But long ago, you told me I was
“beautiful” and that has always stuck with me.
You made me realize that the ugliest thing in that room was not me, but the people firing shots. It always had been. Those words and that atmosphere was ugly. That attitude is ugly. I didn’t deserve it. And I didn’t have to put up with it forever.
After that, I stood up for myself. A lot. My parents even threatened to send me to juvenile boot camp a few times. I got teased more – but I fought back.
I’m not weird. I’m an individual! After awhile, I would see myself in pictures and not be totally repulsed. Because I valued myself. I studied hard. I worked even harder. I grew up. I got out of there.
This all sounds quite trivial as adults, right? Because we know now that being “pretty” is not the point.
We’re not on this earth to look nice.
We’re on this earth to BE NICE.
Stick up for one another.
Stand up for what is right.
And ultimately, that is why I want to write you so many years later. You may not remember this moment as well as I do – but you taught me a wonderful lesson that day.
I have always wanted to thank you for that lesson in humanity. From the bottom of my heart – Thank you.
Kelly received the letter and a few days later responded with the following message to Davi which Marci (our conference preacher) will read now:
I read your letter, and I must say it left me verklempt.
Your spirit of triumph and courage surely compelled you to share a very personal experience—
a contribution that clearly touched many lives and not only with the young girls who are at the age of learning those mean girls tactics that evolve into grown women ruthlessly tearing one another apart.
Your story has also undoubtedly reached some young girls who suffer emotional trauma and abuse at home.
And even reaching just one is enough to change or save a life.
How amazing is that?
You’ve also unknowingly paid it forward by touching a little girl I know and love with all my heart, and I must personally thank you.
You see, my 11-year-old daughter was recently involve in a mean girl incident which actually rose to the level of a mom participating.
As you might imagine, I contacted the mother about the horrific behavior she was modeling for these young girls.
But still my heart aches for my baby who wants to eat lunch in the office every day at school because it feels safe.
I played your story for her from the Internet yesterday, and her beautiful little face lit up.
You connected with her in a way that my offerings of support and affirmation has not.
It was a remarkable thing—a moment in a developing girl’s life that offered hope
(And by the way she says both of your picture on the website are pretty.)
It make me so sad to hear the thoughts and feelings that were thrust upon that beautiful little girl you were some years ago.
What an injustice!
I’ve been a guardian in the courts for abused and neglected children and fought for people who had their world turned upside down by other people with more power.
For as long as I can remember I have not walked away from a fight for the underdog.
That is who you are too, my friend.
I am proud to have been part of your life, and you’ve added indelible meaning to a time in my life that I previously tucked away.
You may not make a history book or maybe you will.
You are still young, but either way you’ve made a change in the world.
Thanks you for that. Please call me any time. I would love to talk to you.
Our stories affect one another in ways that we can’t even fathom.
But that’s how God made us.
We’re not meant to live alone; We are meant to live together.
Our stories are connected, and we are called time and time again to recognize those connections and to strengthen them.
Let’s continue to discover those connections throughout the conference experience this week. Those connections and stories are all around; you just have to be willing to see and cultivate them. We’ll even help you seize a special opportunity today to make and recognize your connectedness with another by setting up a rec station on Anderson Lawn called “Take A Seat, Make A Friend” Ball Pit…
We invite two random people to come by, stand or sit in the ball pit, pick up a ball and ask questions one of another for a few minutes. We’re not asking you to become best friends or agree on everything. But we want to encourage you to take a risk by reaching out to someone else and seeing them with God’s eyes.
You will be amazed (maybe not right away or weeks or months from now), by the affect your actions have on the other person…and the world!
As you embark for the rest of your day, don’t take the connections in your life or the chance to be a part of someone’s story for granted…
More than 25 High School Youth members of the Jeremiah Project performed a “Pay It Forward” skit set to the music of Greg Holden’s “Hold On Tight.”
During Week Five, due to not having enough Jeremiah Project members, we showed the music video to “Hold On Tight” instead.
And the body of Christ said Amen!