Beloved Community fights empire with dignity, abundance, belonging

The third verse of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” turns away from a recounting of the journey of Black Americans and turns its attention toward the future, the Rev. Michael-Ray Mathews said at the 9:15 a.m. Thursday, July 14, morning ecumenical worship service in the Amphitheater. 

Mathews began with a song, “Breathe on Us,” by Billy & Sarah Gaines: 

“See that candle burning dim / Patience that has now worn thin / Revive Your people once again / Lord, bring us new life. / Breathe on us / Breathe on us / Holy Spirit we invite / Breathe on us / Breathe on us / Lord, bring us new life.” 

In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Baby Suggs, holy, led her community to a clearing in the woods near Cincinnati. 

“This is one of the most powerful passages in the novel,” Mathews said. “Oprah Winfrey played the daughter-in-law of Baby Suggs in the movie, and her character is remembering this scene.”

Mathews read a passage from the novel:

“It started that way: laughing children, dancing men, crying women and then it got mixed up. Women stopped crying and danced; men sat down and cried; children danced, women laughed, children cried until, exhausted and riven, all and each lay about the Clearing damp and gasping for breath. In the silence that followed, Baby Suggs, holy, offered up to them her great big heart.

“She did not tell them to clean up their lives or go and sin no more. She did not tell them they were the blessed of the earth, its inheriting meek or its glorybound pure.

“She told them that the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. That if they could not see it, they would not have it.

“ ‘Here,’ she said, ‘in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard …’ ”

Mathews described Baby Suggs’ character.

“Baby Suggs, holy, was an unchurched, uncalled, unrobed and unanointed preacher,” he said. “Her people had survived slavery and some were still fugitives from white supremacy. They had little value in the wider social context, what she called ‘out yonder.’ ”

Even in Ohio, they did not enjoy love. Baby Suggs told her congregation that out yonder did not love them and they had to love their very flesh, “love it hard.”

“What other recourse do you have when the world is set up to revile and hate you?” Mathews asked the congregation. “Even the religious system is built to benefit the corrupt, so we have to learn to set up our own love and grace.”

He continued, “As we gather here in this clearing, could we talk about life out yonder? Can we talk about the grief and lamentation in our families, neighbors, schools, congregations and government?”

The speakers at Chautauqua have been talking about “out yonder” all week, he said. They have talked about the polarized discussions about law enforcement, about whether schools could tell the truth about slavery and racism. The speakers have talked about gun violence, COVID-19, masking, political life in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection, the rise of White Christian Nationalism, the Congressional deadlock and the power of technology to exacerbate misinformation. 

“Prophetic Resistance,” the podcast Mathews hosts through Faith in Action, is now in its sixth season. It began in fall 2016 to bring together multi-faith leaders to inform each other about how their communities could commit to resist injustice and cultivate the Beloved Community.

The theo-ethical framework for Faith in Action has been a question raised in the wake of the events in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 with the death of Michael Brown Jr.: “Are you a chaplain for the empire or a prophet of the resistance?” 

Faith in Action wanted to keep the pain of Ferguson and all other Fergusons alive to address the systems of the empire that are at the heart of the challenges in these communities.

“The empire tries to divide and marginalize people by race and class. It does this by using hierarchy, scarcity and isolation to divide people,” Mathews said.

The empire uses hierarchy to say that some lives matter more than others, particularly, white, cisgender, male, Christian lives. 

“The empire practices an economics of scarcity that uses Black and Brown bodies and black and brown earth and says there is not enough for all,” Mathews said.

He continued, “In the political social realm, there is heightened individualism that blames the individual for their own poverty and divides people into tribes.”

The Beloved Community, toward which Mathews and Faith in Action work, believes in dignity, abundance and belonging. 

As Faith in Action struggled to keep alive this dynamic resistance, the 2016 election reframed the target of the resistance. 

“Our response to the election had a problem: It was made about one person in the White House. We lost the deeper, broader historical conversation with our institutions,” Mathews said. “We still have a critique that applies a critical lens to the society of hierarchy, scarcity and isolation.”

Mathews said that in the face of the grief and loss in 2022, Faith in Action again has to reimagine resistance. 

“We want to lift every voice and sing, but we are not singing together. People are still seeing the setting sun from the depths of hell. People are still sighing, and the blood still cries out,” he said. “We have to reimagine prophetic resistance as a life-giving spiritual practice for the Beloved Community, to provide the power to celebrate life, love and joy in the Beloved Community.”

In Deuteronomy 30, Moses, at the end of his life, told the people of Israel that they had the capacity to enflesh and embody the commandments of God. The commandment to turn to God with all their heart and soul was not hard to follow, Moses said, because it was in their mouths and hearts. 

Baby Suggs, holy, told her congregation that they had permission to experience God in the flesh in a world that hated their flesh. She gave them spiritual permission to laugh, dance and cry as a resource to thrive out yonder. 

Mathews quoted again from Beloved

“And O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. And all your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver — love it, love it, and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.”

Mathews told the congregation, “We have to walk together, to not get weary. There is sacredness in deeply loved flesh. May God keep us on the path to freedom and healing. May God delight in making us prosperous in mind and soul. The path to freedom and healing is very near. Together we will lift every voice.”

The Rev. Mathews told the congregation that his wife was still getting up in the morning to watch the livestream of the service on CHQ Assembly. This week, her aunt, Peggy Ingrahm from Austin, Texas, is visiting, and he asked the congregation to wave and say “Hey, Auntie.” The Rev. John Morgan, senior pastor of the Williamsburg Presbyterian Church in Williamsburg, Virginia, presided. Tom Brownfield, administrator for the Chautauqua Association of the Disciples of Christ and its two guest houses, read the Scripture. The prelude, “En se jouant” from “Feuilles au vent,” by Gabriel Marie, was played by the Motet Consort which included Rebecca Scarnati, oboe; Debbie Grohman, clarinet; and Willie LaFavor, piano. The anthem, performed by the Motet Choir, was “Don’t Be Weary, Traveler,” arranged by Alice Parker from a traditional spiritual. Jim Evans, a choir member, was the soloist; Joshua Stafford, director of sacred music and holder of the Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organist, directed. Stafford played “O Welt, ich muss dich lassen,” op.122, No.6, by Johannes Brahms, for the postlude. The Jackson-Carnahan Memorial Chaplaincy and the John William Tyrrell Endowment for Religion provide 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.