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Remembering the Sisters

Rev. Mónica Maher
Sun, Jul 08

Text: Mark 6:1-13


Good morning, First Church! It is great to be back with you here in the United States after a long year away in South and Central America. I thank Dan and Karin for the invitation and all of you for the warm welcome.

Our Gospel reading today is well-known for its description about prophets being without honor in their hometowns, and about the commissioning and sending out of the twelve disciples, two by two. Take nothing for the journey. Shake off the dust and move on when not welcomed or heard. Proclaim repentance, cast out demons, anoint and cure the sick. These are all phrases that are well-known. Underneath them is a deep message about wisdom and power, and prophetic authority.

Yet, there is one phrase that really stands out for rarely being given attention: Are not his sisters here with us? Did you know Jesus had sisters? I have asked many people this question in the last few weeks and very few have answered yes. Unlike for the brothers, James, Joses, Judas and Simon, the Gospel does not offer us the number nor names of the sisters. There is only one other place in the Bible that they are mentioned. That is in Matthew 13:56, Are not all his sisters with us?, implying that there were three sisters or more. Conjectures are that their names were Mary, Lydia, Salome and Anna. But, there is very little research on the sisters of Jesus, so we do not know much.

 Here in our family of faith at First Church, we have been searching for the number and names of our sisters and brothers who were members of our community, who were baptized here, owned the covenant, but who have gone unremembered as persons of color living enslaved by white members, including by two former ministers. Thanks to the sabbatical and continued research of our Senior Pastor, Dan Smith, we have access now to their stories, our stories as a community. It is a liberating though painful process. Dan notes “the courage it takes to stare down past sins... to rise up again in faithful anticipation of a better future.” He states there can be “no healing without justice, no reconciliation without truth, no truth without honest, soul-searching remembrance.” Some of our sisters whose names we have recovered from records of the early 1700s are:  Fidella, Jane, Cicely, Nancy, Lucy, Zillah, Venus, Rose, Margaret and Flora. Details of their lives are scarce. As many of you know, they are listed in historical documents as “Negro servant of, Indian servant of, Mulatto servant of…” Marriages and births of their children are sometimes noted, as are their deaths… “died at 15 years of age, died at 22 years of age. “ It takes a strong heart to read the documents, courage to stare down the past, but there can be no healing without justice, no justice without truth, no truth without honest soul-searching remembrance.

 Are not our sisters here with us?

Fidella, Jane, Cicely, Nancy, Lucy, Zillah, Venus, Rose, Margaret and Flora.

 Earlier in the gospel, Mark 3:35,  Jesus introduces a definition of family that goes beyond biological ties, emphasizing faith-filled ethical action as what binds us: Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.

 Today more than ever, we are in need of a sense of family, across time, across space, across socially constructed divides of race, ethnicity, nationality and class. We still witness the criminalization of bodies that are brown and black, evidenced in mass incarceration and police brutality; in migration policies which separate families at the Mexican border and now will detain whole families indefinitely on US military bases, policies which refuse to recognize domestic violence and gang violence as reasons for seeking asylum, and block citizens of entire nations from entry, targeting Muslims in particular.

 And so they went out and proclaimed all should repent (and) they cast out many demons.

 How can we cast out demons?

 How do we interrupt systemic evil, break historical cycles of violence embedded in white supremacy, patriarchy and economic inequality?

 Like the disciples, we need a power and wisdom beyond us, the power and wisdom of prophets. We need nothing for the journey but this prophetic authority. It is everything.

 So, I invite us to think about sisters on our journey whose wisdom and power can serve as guide posts, whose courage and creativity can help us rise up in faith-filled response to God´s will for a better future and present. Who are the prophets of our time?  Maya Angelou, recently deceased (2014), and Alice Walker come immediately to mind. Poets and political activists whose words and lives challenge, inspire and turn us in the right direction.

 I have a book by Alice Walker on my living room table, the title of which I appreciate everyday: Hard Times Require Furious Dancing: New Poems. In it, she writes, “the world has changed: it did not change without your prayers without your faith without your determination to believe in liberation and kindness; without your dancing through the years that had no beat.”[1]  She asserts, “Though we have encountered our share of grief and troubles on this earth, we can still hold the line of beauty, form, and beat. No small accomplishment in a world as challenging as this one.”[2]

 The prophetic witness of Alice Walker has given rise to a whole genre of Christian theology, womanist theology, grounded in the moral wisdom of black women. There is now a banquet of books to savor by brilliant prophetic sisters including Emilie Townes, Katie Cannon, Delores Williams, Jacquelyn Grant, Kelly Brown Douglas, Melanie Harris.

 And today, I want also to hold up the prophetic voices of our sisters in Latin America. There are two in particular who stand out, who have become very strong symbols in the continent, both assassinated in the last two years for their witness to justice. One is Berta Caceres, murdered in March 2016, the other is Marielle Franco, murdered in March of this year. Both feminists, Berta was an indigenous defender of human rights and the rights of nature in Honduras, and Marielle, a sociologist and leader of the black rights movement in Brazil. They grew up in contexts of economic poverty, Marielle in the urban favelas of Rio de Janeiro and Berta in the rural countryside of La Esperanza, Intibucá; from childhood, both witnessed and experienced much human suffering and injustice, and both became determined to transform it.

 Marielle broke through seemingly insurmountable barriers to be elected as the only black female to the City Council of Rio. Committed to improving life in the impoverished favelas, she was an outspoken advocate for economic and racial equality in Rio which had 6,731 violent deaths last year,[3]disproportionately affecting the black population. In February this year, Brazil’s President Michel Temer, ordered military forces to take over the city in an attempt to quell the violence. Marielle ed the commission charged with monitoring the military presence, watching for any potential abuses. As a long-standing critic of militarization, she attributed the high levels of violence in Rio to police brutality, and economic and racial inequality. In Brazil as a whole, police officer killed more than 4,000 people in 2016.[4] Marielle emphasized the need for structural change, and opposed military searches of private homes and bodies, the terrorization of the civilian population. Just a day before she died, she wrote: “Another killing of a young person possibly committed by the Military Police. Matheus was leaving church. How many more must die for this war to end?” The next day, March 14 (just four months ago) Marielle, age 38, was killed along with her driver, Anderson Silva, when returning home from an event on the empowerment of young black woman entitled, Black Women Changing Power Structures. She was shot four times in the head. Thousands took to the streets in widespread protests which made visible the dignity and determination of  multitudes of black women who held signs that read, “Marielle, We Will Be Your Voice Everywhere. Marielle Vive/Marielle Lives.”[5]

 The outrage and calls for justice after Marielle´s death mirror the response to the political assassination of Berta Cáceres. At protests in Honduras and around the world, people sang: “Berta didn’t die; Berta didn’t. Berta became millions. Berta am I.”

 Like Marielle, Berta challenged structures of patriarchy, white supremacy, and economic injustice in a spirit of fearless truth-telling which catalyzed thousands to action. Many in the resistance movement began to say, “They fear us because we are fearless.” As founder of  the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), Berta is best known for successfully organizing the Lenca indigenous community to protect their sacred River Gualcarque from a World-Bank-financed dam project of Chinese Sinohydro, the world’s largest hydroelectric company. After Sinohydro and the World Bank withdrew, Berta received the prestigious Goldman Award for her brave and creative leadership. She dedicated the prize to all living rebels and martyrs who have given their life to protect natural resources, explaining that the spirits of girls who protect the Rivers “teach us that to give your life in multiple forms for the defense of the Rivers is to give your life for the good of humanity and of this planet.”[6]

 The Honduran government has made hundreds of concessions of lands and waters since the 2009 military coup, allowing foreign companies to carry out highly profitable projects with the protection of armed forces, while at the same time criminalizing indigenous and afro-descendent social movements. A total of 30% of Honduran territories have been conceded to transnational companies without formal consent of the communities affected, violating international law. Such illegal appropriation of ancestral domain is a primary source of conflict throughout Latin America, a clear form of militarized capitalism and neo-colonialism. For this reason, the success of Berta was a beacon of hope to many throughout the continent. She and COPINH not only stopped the dam on the Rio Gualcarque but resisted a total of 10 hydroelectric dam projects, as well as illegal logging, tourism and the privatization of water.[7]

 The US government, a supporter of the Honduran coup and its tragic aftermath, is without a doubt implicated in these dynamics, in the plundering of lands and people for profit in Central America. These are some of the clear push factors that lead to desperate migration to the US, which we must examine closely in order to address root causes.

 In the face of such deep structural issues, one wonders what the key to successful resistance is for COPINH. In a protest after Berta’s death, one sign read, “The key to resistance is JOY.”[8] Joy, a lightness of heart, helps maintain perspective and generates energy.

 Under Berta’s leadership, COPINH often relied on a sense of humour and surprise. In one act of civil resistance, for example, they took advantage of the farmers’ unventilated rubber boots, known as bombas (bombs) because of the horrendous smell of sweaty feet they emit when taken off. A good friend of Berta, Beverly Bell, describes:

 “Early in COPINH’s history, a team went from La Esperanza to Tegucigalpa to negotiate with the government on a land titling law. The discussions went on for days. At one point, the negotiations were tense and the members of COPINH’s team were shaky on their strategy. They asked for a recess, but the government refused. So someone on the COPINH side gave a discrete signal, and altogether the farmer-activists pulled off their bombas. The smell was so toxic that the government officials fled the room. COPINH was able to regroup and develop a stunning strategy. The indigenous radicals won the law.[9]

 Playful, strategic humour provides resiliency amidst danger and death. And, there is a great power behind the playful spirit. In Berta’s words, “Here (in Honduras) it is easy to be killed. The cost we pay is very high. But most important is that we have a force that comes from our ancestors, a heritage of thousands of years, of which we are proud. That is our nourishment and our conviction at the hour of struggle.”[10]

 In a context of extreme repression, the key to ongoing resistance is collective spiritual force, an ancestral wisdom, a millennial power. Berta claimed: “I have a conviction in the spirituality of the Lenca people, that the ancestors accompany us, and that the cause of COPINH is just, and that force is what keeps us going,”[11]

 Berta incorporated Lenca spirituality into public acts of resistance in a very direct and visible way. She described protests not just as expressing a political demand but also as a “rebellion of spirituality.”[12]

A rebellion of spirituality. That is a clear and challenging call.

 

 In all our actions,

To remember and rely on the force of the ancestors

 For courage and creativity, for wisdom and power, for prophetic authority.

A rebellion of spirituality.

We remember and call upon our brother, Jesus, upon his ancestral wisdom, power and love.

We remember and call upon Jesus.

And are not his sisters here with us?

We remember and call upon Mary, Lydia, Salome and Anna.

And are not all his sisters here with us?

We remember and call upon our sisters, Fidella, Jane, Cicely, Nancy, Lucy, Zillah, Venus, Rose, Margaret and Flora.

Are not our sisters here with us?

We remember and call upon Alice Walker and Maya Angelou, Marielle Franco and Berta Cáceres.

May their wisdom, power and prophetic authority guide us and give us strength on our journey.

 

Amen.

 

[1]Alice Walker, “The World Has Changed,”Hard Times Require Furious Dancing:  New Poems (Novato, CA:  New World Library, 2010) p. 96.

[2]Walker, “Preface:  Learning to Dance,”p. xvi.

[3]Jay Forte, “Number of Violent Deaths in Rio Increased by 7.5 Percent in 2017,” The Rio Times, 18 January 2018 (http://riotimesonline.com/brazil-news/rio-politics/number-of-violent-deaths-in-rio-increased-by-7-5-percent-in-2017/).

[4]Travis Waldron, “Brazil Police Are Killing More People Than Ever. Somebody Tell Madonna,” Huff Post, 1 November 2017 (https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/brazil-police-violence-madonna-rio_us_59f9dc68e4b0d1cf6e91f1ef).

[5]Raphael Tvaskka Garcia, “Marielle Franco may be gone, but she is not silenced,”  Al Jazeera, 21 March 2018  (https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/marielle-franco-silenced-180321114024253.html).

[6]Berta Cáceres,  Goldman Environmental Prize Acceptance Speech, San Francisco, CA, 20 April 2018 (https://www.goldmanprize.org/recipient/berta-caceres/).

[7]Claudia Korol,“Las revoluciones de Bertha Cáceres. Pensamientos y prácticas rebeldes. Fragmentos de diálogos con Claudia Korol,”  In Claudia Korol, ed., Feminismos Populares:  Pedagogías y Políticas (Buenos Aires, Argentina:  El Colectivo, 2016), p. 268-269.

[8]Karla Lara,Una Canción De Amor,(Honduras:  Entrepbs/Herriarte, 2016) Music Video (https://vimeo.com/162504336).

[9]Beverly Bell,  ”The Life and Legacy of Berta Cáceres,”  Democracy Now!   10 March 2016 (https://www.democracynow.org/2016/3/10/the_life_and_legacy_of_berta text).

[10]  Cited in NancyArévalo,  “Once frases por las que Berta Cáceres no se murió, se multiplicó,” Once Noticias, 2 March 2018 (http://www.oncenoticias.hn/once-frases-ambientalista-berta-caceres/).

[11]  Cited in Korol,p. 283.

[12]  Cited in Korol, p. 284.

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