Behind the Scenes

Detroit, MI

By Tommy Airey, a homily preached at The Abbey Church (Victoria, BC) on Sunday, January 20, 2019

“When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from…” (John 2:9a)

Theologian Kelly Brown-Douglas explains that when the earliest slaves in America listened to the reading of the Bible, they heard the voice of “The Great High God”—the free, sovereign divinity they knew well from their African heritage. This was the creator God who was far greater than humans and all “the lesser gods” in the universe. This is the God defined by Steadfast Love in this morning’s Psalm: in this Higher Power, there is refuge and abundance, feasting and drinking from the river of delight.

In her book The Black Christ, Brown-Douglas proposes that the best portrayals of Christ in our world are in the faces of Black heroines, especially those living below the poverty line. She calls these women icons of Christ, from the Greek word for “image,” used for centuries by the church to make the God of Steadfast Love real and tangible in our worship. Icons spark our spiritual and theological imaginations. The divine comes to life! They are sources of encouragement and challenge, creativity and accountability for the faithful. Brown-Douglas writes:

It is only in a commitment to insure the life and wholeness for “the least of these” that we can grasp the radicality of who Christ is…

In contrast, the icons of the colonial script—celebrities, politicians, professional religionists, wealthy white men—are the default for all of us living in North America. They serve as mirrors, shaping us in destructive and dehumanizing ways. I have come to the realization that I desperately need new icons, images that more faithfully illuminate the risen Christ in my own context. This challenges me to flip the script—just like Jesus did.

So I start here (1) because we always must start somewhere and (2) because, down in the States, this long weekend marks a federal holiday to honor Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in an era when median black household wealth is about $1,700 and falling, while median white wealth sits at over $116,000 and (3) because Lindsay and I have been living and working in Southeast Michigan for the past 4.5 years, taking cues from Black women who are organizing for clean and affordable water.

An episode about wine and water, a woman and servants, is a gift for those of us being rearranged by what is bubbling up from below. The bible scholar Walter Brueggemann points out that, in the Hebrew Bible, the three money crops (wine, oil and grain) serve as a contrast to three marginalized communities: widows, orphans and immigrants. The litmus test for justice was (and is) was the demand that these come together—that workers enjoy the fruit of their labor. In Egypt, they did not. In the Promised Land, they always should. And so our Gospel episode re-directs the narrative away from the wedding celebration to the real action: what’s happening behind the scenes. It pulls back the curtain and unveils the backstory. The real story.

In Detroit, businessmen and politicians and media outlets are touting “a comeback.” One of our mentors, Monica Lewis-Patrick–an icon of Christ–calls the comeback nothing less than “a collaborative, well-orchestrated system of evil.” While the state of Michigan bestows hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies to billionaires building stadiums and rehabbing skyscrapers, they are foreclosing on residents who cannot afford property taxes. Business leaders and politicians transferred hundreds of millions of federal dollars from mortgage relief to blight removal—clearing out poor folks to make room for more development. Wedged in the Great Lakes region bursting with more than 20% of the world’s fresh water, the city is shutting off water to tens of thousands of occupied homes because these residents cannot afford the high rates.

In Flint, the water was poisoned after switching the source to the Flint River, a decision directly tied to campaign contributions from corporations seeking rich government contracts to build a new water pipeline to Lake Huron. Meanwhile, two hours north, Michigan sold a $200 annual permit to Nestle to allow the multinational corporation to pump 400 gallons per minute out of the ground to bottle it and sell it for massive profits.

In our Gospel episode, Jesus commands the servants to fill the jars with water. In Detroit, a city council women cynically proclaimed publicly that if folks don’t pay their water bills, they should bring their buckets to the river to get it for themselves. Instead, shut-off residents in Detroit, a supermajority of them poor Black women, are hauling their jars and buckets to homes of compassionate neighbors who allow them to fill up every day.

Jesus commanded the servants to take a sample and have it tested by the chief steward. In Flint, after repeated denials from city and state officials, on-the-ground resident-activists, and others like “Flintstones” Claire McClinton and Nakiya Wakes–icons of Christ–organized and recruited water engineers from Virginia Tech to test the water independently. These chief stewards of water announced what Flint residents long knew. The water was tainted with high amounts of lead and bacteria. Only their tireless work behind the scenes made it possible to overturn official proclamations from the powerful.

fireThe chief steward in the Gospel episode also had positive test results to announce. But this was imminently good news, Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now. This is the punch line of the narrative. It is what the whole story is all about. Lindsay shared recently that when she pivots from texting on her phone to writing in her morning journal, her ability to express herself is limited because she is stripped of her use of emojis. This line at the conclusion of the episode needs something like heart eyes or Lindsay’s current favorite: fire!

We need an emoji to magnify the truth that our hope comes from a God of Steadfast Love who will save the best for last and who will do it through those we least expect. Along with the woman and the servants, we readers of the Gospel episode share the vital knowledge about where and how the good wine is fermented. According to the text, the chief steward did not know where it came from. His punch line challenges us to pull back the curtain and go behind the scenes of every comeback story. Because when Capitalism serves up a comeback, there is always a widow, an orphan or an immigrant forced to carry the water behind the scenes.

The radical Christian hope is that there is good wine, fermented over the centuries by ancient, prophetic wisdom. This is what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called “a radical revolution of values.” The shift from a thing-oriented society (wine, oil, grain) to a person-oriented society (widow, orphan, immigrant). Dr. King consistently told audiences that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. In the meantime, we need a 12 step recovery from the inferior wine we are addicted to—what King called “the giant triplets of evil:” racism, militarism and materialism. The challenge for those, like me and Lindsay, with privilege and opportunity, is to pull back the curtain and follow those who are fermenting the good wine.

It was behind the scenes, at organizing meetings in Detroit, where we found Maureen Taylor, the executive director of Michigan Welfare Rights. In one of our first encounters with her, she had a confession for a few dozen of us resisting water shut-offs in Detroit. She mailed a package of Spanish onions to Governor Rick Snyder, who had been evading and denying Michigan’s water injustice for years. She attached a note urging him to slice one of them if he needed help crying for the victims of poisoned and shutoff water.

On another occasion, at a monthly standing-room-only People’s Water Board meeting, Maureen squirmed and agitated while the director of a local nonprofit shared the news of his organization’s partnership with the city government on an extensive survey of Detroit’s neighborhoods. She raised her hand and testified,

We’ve been around the block a few times and when it comes to our needs, your partner has given the answer of no, no, no and then definitely no. When the wolf starts asking the questions about what the chickens need, we start running for the exits because we’ve learned that the next thing they do is break out the A1 sauce.

I propose that we celebrate Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in the subversive and creative spirit of Maureen Taylor. The rest of the world is waiting for followers of Dr. King and followers of King Jesus to fulfill their dreams with a lifestyle that is intoxicating. People are waiting for an embodied apologetic, to prove that the God of Steadfast Love is alive and on the move by living Steadfast Love in real time. This is the kind of evangelism that my Al Anon fellows call attraction not promotion. It is compelling, not coercive.

I’d like to end by going back to the beginning of the episode: an obvious allusion to resurrection. On the third day, there was a wedding. Resurrection is like a wedding where all the real action is behind the scenes. The real actors are those Jesus called in another Gospel “the least of these.” Our trip to Vancouver Island is a homecoming for me. My great-grandfather Tom moved here from the UK in 1906 to seek a better life. He worked in the coal mines of Nanaimo. After only a couple of years, he and his wife Mary hauled their four sons east, across the southern border, down into central Washington, to settle on “old sage brush land” where he planted an apple orchard.

After I spent some time examining what was going on behind the scenes, I learned that Tom and Mary and the kids were greeted with open arms by the U.S. a few years after indigenous tribes were rounded up and forced into a reservation on the other side of the river. “Old sage brush land” was actually Okanogan land. In his final sermon, just a few days before his assassination, Dr. King pulled the curtain back even further, contrasting the intergenerational story of his family with mine:

[The federal government] simply said “You’re free,” and it left him there penniless, illiterate, not knowing what to do. And the irony of it all is that at the same time the nation failed to do anything for the Black man—through an act of Congress it was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest—which meant that it was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor.

The truths of my family tree and my nation’s history call me to a ministry of fermentation. These powerfully subvert the success stories I’ve been told and assumed. They help me connect the dots so I can tell the truth. They help me practice resurrection–carrying the water with the widow, the orphan and the immigrant. Behind the scenes where the good wine is fermenting.

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