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The Streets Become Sacred
by: 
Rainah Umlauf

 

There is a community of the spirit.

Join it, and feel the delight

of walking in the noisy street

and being the noise.

-Rumi

Palm Sunday is a story of faith in the streets. The streets are crowded – and noisy. Jesus enters town on a borrowed donkey and wearing dusty sandals. He is surrounded by people – normal, working people – and is showered in palms and branches. As he proceeds, the streets house the soul; the mundane becomes the sacred.

I like the idea that our King would meet His people in the streets.

My teammates and I, Trinity’s Justice and Reconciliation Team, spend a lot of time in the streets. We walk circles around the ICE building and protest in front of City Hall. We’ve marched across the Brooklyn Bridge in July and through the Upper East Side in January. We herd high school students on buses headed to Albany or subways headed to the Public Theatre. The Rev. Winnie Varghese walks in witness along the US/Mexico Border. Every day, you’ll find us at the front of St. Paul’s Chapel handing out brown bag lunches.

As Jesus rode through town on his borrowed donkey, I can imagine how, to his contemporaries, he was not only the promised, prophesied spiritual king of legend. He was also a radical, who practiced proximity to those who were cast aside. As the mundane lives of these people were interrupted by the spiritual Son, I can also imagine them cheering for the political revolutionary: “He hears us! He advocates for us! He drew near to my body – despite my sickness, my sin, my hurt.”

There is spirit-work. And there is justice-work. How can we, like in the story of Palm Sunday, bring our faith to our streets? What would it look like if our revolutionary acts – protesting, resisting, standing in witness– were as sacred as the sacraments? 

What would it look like if our revolutionary acts – protesting, resisting, standing in witness– were as sacred as the sacraments?

Many great social leaders have talked about the holiness of justice work. Saul Alinsky, one of the greatest community organizers of the 20th century, described the work of justice as nothing less than a search for ultimate meaning. The cry for revolution “is literally the revolution of the soul.” He says that this shouldn’t be surprising: “Confronted with the material decadence of the status quo, one should not be surprised to find that all revolutionary movements are primarily generated from spiritual values and considerations of justice, equality, peace, and brotherhood.”

Theologian Romand Coles writes similarly. Christianity, he says, demands decentering. It calls us to challenge our notions of purity and pushes us into interactions with those outside of our everyday circles. This decentering “is the heart and soul of the practices to which Jesus calls people.” Without it, Christianity is simply lost in hope for other-worldliness and serves as nothing more than “a comforting illusion that draws our attention away.”

Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967 echoed this sentiment in his sermon: “And what I’m doing in this struggle, along with many others, grows out of my feeling that the preacher must be concerned about the whole man. Not merely his soul, but his body. It’s all right to talk about heaven… But you’ve got to talk about the earth. It’s all right to talk about long white robes over yonder, but I want a suit and some shoes to wear down here…And any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the slums that cripple the souls…is a dry, dead, do-nothing religion in need of new blood.” 

When spirit-work and justice-work are combined, the result is a method of democratic, faithful witness in which a radical is drawn out of her typical sacred spaces and into a common life with people she may disagree with or may not understand. The modern task of today’s justice-worker is nothing less than, in Coles’ words, “to discern how differences and distances might be brought together and held apart such that we might become more receptive of [each other’s] gifts, more capable of giving, less resentful and revenge-seeking, more radiant.”

We can imagine what protests look like when they do not embody radical faithfulness. “A mess of rhetorical garbage about ‘Burn the system down!’ Yippie yells of ‘Do it!’” in Alinsky’s words. This radical protester is a radical in rhetoric but not in spirit, someone who uses “tired old words and slogans, calls the police ‘pigs,’ and has so stereotyped himself that others react by saying ‘Oh, he’s just one of those.’”

This is not to say that there is no place for anger, self-care, or violence in justice work. Marrying our justice-work with our spiritual-work simply invites us to hear and be humbly present with others beyond the stereotypes, ideologies, and quick responses that mark our political world. It values the holding and hearing of others more than the demanding of their conversion.

When we attend to strangers, let us embody it as a sacred practice, a ritual lived through messy, uncomfortable, unforeseen encounters. May we not be so allergic to the risk of failure; may we work to transform ourselves as well as the world.

This Palm Sunday, the priests of Trinity Church will proceed down Broadway in their decadent vestments. Perhaps the thurifer will be swinging her rich, intoxicating bundle of incense, joined by live donkeys and parishioners. Last year, our procession occurred alongside a protest that challenged Trinity’s inclusive values; the two processions were separated only by the width of Broadway. I wonder, if this were to occur again, how could we have creatively merged the sacred and political to exemplify our care for the radical ordinary?

May we all embody a faith that is so radically decentering that it extends far beyond the comfortable interiors of our church and spills out into the messy, noisy streets.


Rainah Umlauf

Bring your faith to the streets and merge your spirit-work with your justice-work by joining Trinity’s latest action to Close Rikers in support of a more just criminal justice system. Visit the Close Rikers page on our website or email action@trinitywallstreet.org for more information.

Rainah Umlauf is part of Trinity’s Justice and Reconciliation Team, where she actively supports a variety of social justice initiatives. She has played a pivotal role in Justice work at Trinity, including the Stations of the Cross art series, the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice gallery exhibition and play, and the ongoing Close Rikers campaign. She is a prolific reader of fiction, theology, and poetry, a gifted artist, and a graduate of Vassar College where she studied Social Justice and Religion.

Each Sunday in Lent, Trinity staff and community members are offering personal takes on the intersection of faith and social justice action. Check back each week for insights into how you can get inspired, involved, and make a difference this Lenten season—and beyond! 

April 14, 2019 Readings: Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; Luke 19:28-40