[This keynote address was delivered at the tenth annual Fighting Poverty with Faith Interfaith Vigil at the Rhode Island State House on January 3, 2018.]
I am humbled to be standing in the hallowed halls of the State House Rotunda for the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. As an African American descendant and preacher of the Gospel steeped in the Baptist tradition, I am confronted with our State’s rich historical legacies of religious freedoms and its participation in slavery.
Standing here surrounded by clergy persons reminds me that Rhode Island faith leaders participated in the ratification of the United States Constitution and the Virginia Declaration of Rights in the seventeenth century. And now, we continue to affirm the separation of church and state while attesting to the power of faith to shape the contour and framework of our governance, institutions, mores and values of our society. Yes, faith has eternal answers to the questions of our time as chronicled in the Holy Writ, “What does the LORD require of [us]? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with [our] God.”1
We are here today to declare that ALL Rhode Islanders:
- deserve nutritious food, affordable housing, decent wages, quality education and accessible healthcare.2
- deserve fair, just and affordable bail, sentencing, and parole as well as protection from predatory lending and other socioeconomic injustices no matter your ethnicity, race, nationality, sexual orientation or zip code.
In 2016, Reverend Docctor William Barber used the metaphor “the heart of our democracy” 3 to addressed our collective work and responsibility to care for the most vulnerable. Today, I expand that metaphor. And with your help seek to get to the heart of the matter. From a biological perspective, the heart is the central organ that pumps blood and oxygen throughout the body. Simply put, we cannot exist without a heart. In my faith tradition, when we talk about the heart we also refer to one’s mind, will, thoughts decisions and desires. Have you ever heard the idiom, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also?”4 Which begs the questions, What do we treasure? Or Whom do we value?
When I assess the spiritual condition of the heart of our democracy, I have determined that we have a heart condition. The Prophet Isaiah and Jesus taught us “to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, and to set the oppressed free.”5 Yes, our faith propels us into action. Our faith causes us to lead with love rather than judgment, vengeance, malice or strife. Reverend Shavon Starling-Louis, pastor of the Providence Presbyterian Church defines the activity of love this way: “as a people individually and collectively we do not move from judgment to curiosity without being grounded in love. Love opens our hearts to allow us to trust that if we let go of our thoughts we will be held together by something greater – Love.”6
This quote epitomizes that love is the answer. The Beatles were right, “All you need is love.” 7 not in a trivial or trite way but because love truly makes a difference. Love is the incarnational embodiment of humanity. Love is not a powerless ideology but a pragmatic reality that changes the world we reside. Love is not passive but it is active and intentional. Love is an action word. It allows grace and mercy to abound. Love excavates the hardened and fallow ground of our souls and uncovers our common humanity.
I oft hear the words of another Baptist preacher, The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr, who said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”8 This Noble Prize Laureate proved to us that ”love has within it a redemptive power that eventually transforms individuals”9 and that “love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.”10
Today, I request that we examine our hearts, our prejudices, our stereotypes, our presuppositions and assumptions. That we be willing to undergo the necessary treatment to restore our health and heal the wounds of our democracy.
I have borne the stripes from the whips and lashes of racism, sexism, and discrimination. Thus, I understand the arduous task of speaking truth to power and seeking to address the systemic structures and evils embedded in the tissue of the heart of our democracy. Yet, my faith is strong and resolute because of love. Love lifted me…when nothing else could help…love lifted me!
Saint Paul writes “And now these three remain: Faith, hope and love but the greatest of these is love.”11 So, when you experience gridlock, conflict, complacency or hyper-partisanship in your politics, I challenge you to apply a little more love. I encourage you to be more understanding, empathetic, merciful, curious and compassionate. I admonish you to practice civility and to treat one another with dignity and respect even as you engage with passion and rigor to love’s end.
- And when you observe atrophy and paralysis that stem from a lack of heart. I encourage you to be strong and of good courage. Apply a little more love so that you are willing to love your neighbor as yourself whether that neighbor be native, naturalized, nationalized, immigrant, or foreign.
When we see through the eyes of love, we are willing to listen more deeply, to forgive more readily, and to act more intentionally to sustain our union. There is a remedy for all that causes heartache, heartbreak, and heart damage. We need only apply the balm of love. We need each other in order for the heart of our democracy to operate properly.
Therefore, we stand united to compel our political leaders to pass Source of Income Fair Housing Legislation. Working together, we can prohibit discrimination based on a person’s receipt of lawful source of income for approximately 8,300 section 8 voucher households.12 And ensure that these citizens receive adequate housing opportunities throughout the State of Rhode Island.
Furthermore, we stand united to urge our leaders to invest in the future by financing early education and care for all Rhode Islanders. We need access to high quality learning programs for children from birth to kindergarten. Investing in our children is the best return on investment we can make.13
Finally, medical practitioners tell us that with the proper diet and exercise, we can strengthen the condition of our heart. This is Good News. Today, we build our calisthenics:
- by agreeing to work together…
- by agreeing to collaborate and compromise for the common good…
- by continuing to advocate for the oppressed, the downtrodden, the marginalized, the imprisoned, the aged, the homeless, those without healthcare, and the “least of these” among us. Today, we fight poverty with our faith!14 Why? Because lessons from antiquity teach us that “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self- seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”15 So risk love!
Our presence here today represents the strength of our resolve, commitment, compassion, and love towards our communities. “We hold these truths to be self- evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”16
- WE the people are determined to resist legislation that will clog the arteries of social, economic, and political justice.
- WE the people will ensure that the heartbeat of our democracy pulsates for truth and justice.
- WE the people recognize that even when our heart undergoes severe trauma and strain, whether by arrhythmia or direct attack we can receive a love transfusion that will revived and repair our spirits.
- WE the people will continue to be led by the Spirit with a heart full of “love, joy, and peace”17 in order to exercise our rights and pump new energy, life, and love into the veins of our democracy.
- WE the people are inspired to continue to tell our stories of faith, hope and love. Why? Because our heart beat is strong and resilient in the face of unsettling, unnerving and uncertain times.
With every beat of our heart(s) we continue to champion the lyrics of the Battle Hymn of the Republic. For “God’s truth is marching on. Glory, Glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah! God’s truth is marching on.”18
- Holy Bible. Micah 6:8
- Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty. January 2, 2018. Email Event Announcement: Fighting Poverty with Faith Vigil. https://www.endpovertyri.org/
- Barber, William. July 28, 2016. Democratic National Convention Speech.
- Holy Bible. Matthew 6:21
- Isaiah 61:1 & Luke 4:18-19.
- Starling-Louis, Shavon. December 25.2017. Conversation
- The Beatles. 1967. “All You Need Is Love”
- King Jr, Martin Luther. A Testament Of Hope: The Essential Writings And Speeches. https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes
- Ibid. King, Jr. , Martin Luther. https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes
- Ibid. King, Jr. Martin Luther. https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes
- Holy Bible. 1 Corinthians 13:13.
- H3266/S236 Source of Income Fair Housing Legislation (2017).
- RI Kids Count. September 2016. Issue Brief: Investing In The Future: Financing Early Education & Care in Rhode Island.
- RI Interfaith Coalition To Reduce Poverty – Motto. https://www.endpovertyri.org/
- Holy Bible. 1 Corinthians 13:4-8.
- United States Constitution – Preamble – The United States Constitution Online https://www.Usconstitution.Net/Xconst_Preamble.html
- Holy Bible. Galatians 5:22
- Ward Howe, Julia. 1862. Battle Hymn of the Republic.