Embrace hopelessness, play the trickster to find justice, De La Torre says

Today, 25,000 children will die of hunger and preventable diseases,” Miguel De La Torre said. “Tomorrow, 25,000 children will die of hunger and preventable diseases. Yesterday, 25,000 children died of hunger and preventable diseases.”

De La Torre preached at the 9:15 a.m. Friday Ecumenical Service in the Amphitheater. His sermon title was “Embracing Hopelessness,” and the Scripture reading was Matthew 7:7-11, ask and it shall be given.

De La Torre

“These children ask and did not receive,” he said. “They seek and find nothing, they knock and the door is closed to them. They ask for bread and receive a stone. This is reality. How do we reconcile this with the Scripture we just read? It is easy to have hope on this side of the Resurrection. The majority of my people live in Holy Saturday, with the blood and gall of Good Friday, and they are not sure there will be a Sunday. To tell them that all things will work for good is paternalistic and false.”

He recalled a classic sermon illustration where, after a storm at the beach, a little girl throws starfish back into the sea. A grumpy old man tells her, “You can’t save them all.” She tells him, “I can save this one.”

“I am the grumpy old man,” De La Torre said. “The stench of the rotting flesh of my people is choking me. You pick one Miguel, and you tell me, ‘You made it out of the barrio.’ I never forget those who did not make it. The one who makes it out is put on a pedestal and people say, ‘See, it all works out.’ ”

All week, people have asked De La Torre what they should do: What is the solution?

“Do you go to the domestically abused spouse and ask her to provide a solution?” he asked. “Do you go to the abusers for solutions? People have told me how brave, how courageous I am. But I haven’t been talking to you. I have been talking to the few faces of color here, my own people. This is what we have been saying all along without the filters on. We just let you listen in this week.”

And neoliberalism, he said, has won.

“When I am food for the worms, the vast infrastructure designed to make sure people remain oppressed will still stand,” De La Torre said. “This hopelessness compels me to practice an ‘ethic of joder.’ ”

This ethic, using a Spanish term for a common Anglo-Saxon expletive, means playing the trickster, screwing with the structure in order to survive. The poor have been doing it for centuries.

“I have to go to the police to get a permit to have a demonstration to protest police brutality,” De La Torre said. “Then we drive to the march. We have domesticated protest. The only option is to screw with the system in the ‘hope’ that new opportunities will emerge.”

In 1969, a street gang, the Young Lords, went to a church in Spanish Harlem in New York City and asked to use a room to feed the children, distribute clothes and food and encourage consciousness growth. The pastor called them a bunch of Communists and threw them out.

They returned on Sunday, threw the pastor out and declared the building a people’s church and held it accountable to its rhetoric.

“The church was packed, as it lived into its mission until the police came, beat them up and threw them in jail,” De La Torre said.

Another time that year, the Young Lords went around picking up garbage in the barrio and placed the trash in bins on street corners. They called the New York City sanitation department and asked them to come and pick up the garbage.

“The sanitation department laughed and said there was no scheduled pick-up in that section of town,” De La Torre said. “The Young Lords took that trash to Third Avenue during rush hour, built a wall with the garbage and set it on fire. They were holding the city accountable until the police came and beat them up and threw them in jail.”

De La Torre then offered a call.

“To my brothers and sisters of color in the congregation, screw with the systems and embrace hopelessness with me,” he said. “When you have nothing to lose is when you are most dangerous, most revolutionary. You have the ability to turn the world upside down.”

As long as my people have bought into middle-class trappings, he said, they have become complicit; they talk, but they do not do.

“You must lose everything again so you can change society to be more just,” he said. “Some may think that I am just teaching you how to curse in Spanish today. If you are offended, remember this is the profanity of the lives we have been relegated to live.” 

The congregation stood and applauded.

The Rev. Susan McKee presided. The Rev. Mary Lee Talbot read the Scripture. Debbie Grohman, clarinet, Barbara Hois, flute, and Joseph Musser, piano, played “Five Waltzes,” by Paul Harris, for the prelude. The Motet Choir sang “The Prayers I Make,” by Jane Marshall, for the introit. For the anthem, the choir sang “Down to the River to Pray,” arranged by Sheldon Curry. The Daney-Holden Memorial Chaplaincy and the John William Tyrrell Endowment for Religion provided support for this week’s services.

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The author Mary Lee Talbot

Mary Lee Talbot writes the recap of the morning worship service. A life-long Chautauquan, she is a Presbyterian minister, author of Chautauqua’s Heart: 100 Years of Beauty and a history of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. She edited The Streets Where We Live and Shalom Chautauqua. She lives in Chautauqua year-round with her Stabyhoun, Sammi.