Speaker: Rev. Taryn Strauss with Rev. Joseph Santos-Lyons

Service Times: 9:30 am & 11:00 am


“Some Walls are Lined with Gold”

Towards the end of his life, MLK called upon us to look at our economic injustice, and to develop a religious ethic opposing poverty.  We will explore his theology behind the Poor People’s Campaign and apply it to our relationship to money and power.


Sermon Text:

It’s wonderful to have Rev. Joseph Santos-Lyons here with us today.  He and I have probably met before, though we don’t remember it. I’m not making this up, we met at a wall.  Or at least, a wall was heavily involved.  

It was 2003, and I was in my early twenties, serving as a youth adviser for a high school youth group in North Carolina.  In those years, every third week of November, we chaperoned our youth on a trip down to Fort Buenning, Georgia, to protest the School of the Americas, which now has a new title, The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. 

The school made headlines in 1996 when the Pentagon released training manuals used at the school that advocated torture, extortion and execution. Despite this admission and hundreds of documented human rights abuses connected to soldiers trained at the school, no independent investigation into the facility has ever taken place.  

Over the years, graduates of this military school have been responsible for dozens of coups that benefit United States trade and economic interests across Central and South America.  

There is, in fact, a deep connection between the training we provide in Fort Benning, and the widespread violence and instability across Central America that begets a major influx of migrants at our Southern Borders.  These connections run deep.  

The year that Joseph and I were there, both as respective leaders of different Unitarian Universalist Youth Groups, was also the year that Martin Sheen and the Indigo Girls spoke, and Utah Phillips played some great protest songs.  The weekend of protests included a full agenda of excellent speakers on global militarism, human rights issues, and economic injustice. I remember it was the first time I ever heard the phrase “Google It.”   

The Bread and Puppet Theatre marched with their giant paper mache absurdist creations, and the weekend’s events culminated in youth passing under the wall of the school, and getting arrested for trespassing.  

That year in particular, the energy was palpable, it felt like we were getting more press than we had in the past.  The whole town of Fort Benning comes out for these protests, and has entered into a symbiotic relationship with the protesters.  

Townspeople set up smokers and BBQs on their lawns and offer lunch for $5, or parking, or sometimes even progressive bumper stickers.  The people of Columbus, Georgia, generally support the military and the school, however they eagerly anticipate the financial boon the massive protests bring to the entire community.  It’s impossible to escape the economy of our social and political choices.

Some of those kids who got arrested that year did spend time in federal prison, they grew up into UU ministers or community organizers or political leaders.  

This was the kind of outcome that Martin Luther King was organizing for.  He wanted to create a new generation of youth who did not accept the status quo, who could see how things could be different, and how people could change the course of our national conversation, our collective destiny and our national economic policies.  

In his announcement of the Poor People’s Campaign which we heard excerpts of earlier this morning, Rev. Dr. King appeals to Americans desire for a stable government, our desire for freedom, and our desire to be honorable people.  

A quick check-in: 

How’s your sense of stability these days?  

Do you feel free?  

Do you feel your sense of honor reflected in your government and its policies?  

Friends, it might as well be 1967 in many respects. We must recall Dr. King’s appeal, because while we are at serious risk of losing our honor, our freedom and our stability, the individual stock portfolios of many upper middle class people are in a serious upswing right now.   This is not a good trade. Trading our integrity for our personal economic gain is actually a very dark reality, and it’s one that I struggle to face head-on.  

The freedom that Dr. King spoke of was not the freedom for some people to live more comfortably than others.  It was the freedom that comes to each of us, when those who are the most vulnerable have the most opportunity.  

There is nothing stale about his aims fifty two years ago.  Dr. King’s message is as fresh today as the crocuses blooming in my backyard though it’s only mid-January.  The relevance of his words, though beautiful and hopeful, carry doom and devastation, because of the timing.  Because they are so completely relevant.  

Because the walls that keep some of us in and others out are so well-constructed, so calculated and insidious.  

The School of the Americas is still walled off from the people of Columbus, Georgia, who ask few questions and know little of how just over those walls, wars are being waged, coups are being plotted, and lies are being told in the name of American military and economic domination over our closest geographic neighbors. 

We need the resurgence of the Poor People’s Campaign.  We need to uplift the poor and their unique struggles, we need to walk humbly behind the poor and advocate for better lives for them, and for all of us.  We need not assume that when we speak of poor people, we speak of people whom we do not know, or who do not sit among us. We need not construct those walls within our own community.  

This congregation includes lawyers, artists, doctors, social workers, architects, landscapers, teachers, people who are out of work, telemarketers, plenty of us are on minimum wage, plenty of us struggle to find work that is meaningful, and don’t we all want all of us to thrive?  

Dr. King saw things clearly: We are dealing with widespread social insanity and spiritual debilitation, that has us on a course for national ruin.  Which is why we must join the new civil rights movement, the new poor people’s campaign, organizing, traveling as we are able, working for justice and bringing change that will end the war within our nation.

Do you remember the Olympic Games of 1996, when our Olympic basketball prospects were not the most hopeful reflection of our nation’s capability and talent?  They had to assemble a new team, picking from our professional teams across the country. They called it the Dream Team. If I were in leadership of the Poor People’s Campaign Today, I would assemble a new Dream Team.  A team of youth, students from across the country who will organize, march, and take messages of hope and abundance to Washington, to the Capitol here in Atlanta, and to their communities. There are enough resources in the United States to lift us all up, if we can only dream another society is possible.  

With Dr. Rev. William Barber at the helm in 2020, the Poor People’s Campaign continues to mobilize and capture the moral imagination of our fellow citizens.

In the coming year, our ranks will increase as we broaden our efforts and stretch the banner of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival even wider. We rise together because:

  1. We rise to demand that the 140 million poor and low-wealth people in our nation — from every race, creed, color, sexuality and place — 

are no longer ignored, dismissed or pushed to the margins of our political and social agenda. 

  1. We rise not as left or right, Democrat or Republican, but as a moral fusion movement to build power, build moral activism, build voter participation, and we won’t be silent any more!
  2.  We rise to change the moral narrative and demand that the interlocking injustices of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy/militarism and the distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism all be ended. 
  3. We rise to challenge the lie of scarcity in the midst of abundance.
  4. We rise to lift the voices and faces of poor and low-wealth Americans and their moral allies with a new vision of love, justice, and truth for America that says poverty can be abolished and change can come.

Do you hear in these statements the walls crumbling down everywhere, between wealthy and poor, between Democrat and Republican, between scarcity and abundance?  We must find ways to reach across these walls in our psyches and in our communities, support each other’s rising up from the rubble when these walls lined with gold come tumbling down.