“The Ghost of Tom Joad”

Sometimes, I am certain of little, but one thing that I do know is that folk music tells stories far better than I ever could. Singers like Woodie Gutherie, Pete Seeger, Ani Difranco, Joan Baez and so many more give music to the people by telling their stories of injustice, of struggle, of triumph. In the face of great odds against institutional racism, sexism, violence against bodies, heteronormativity, classism, ageism, they have sung in protest. It’s the music that keeps me going because I am reminded that I am not alone, but I am rather in the company of a great cloud of witnesses. For me, protest music is as sacred and sometimes more sacred than hymns. For me, it is holy music.

For that reason, tonight, I wish to share the story of “The Ghost of Tom Joad” written by the great Bruce Springsteen in the mid 90s. He says that it “was an attempt to regain my own moorings” and contains as its final verse the beautiful speech that Tom Joad whispers to his mother at the end of The Grapes of Wrath. He says that “the singer in my song is in search of the ghost of Tom Joad, the spirit that has the guts and the toughness to carry forth and live their ideals.”

I first heard this song when Bruce sang it at Pete Seeger’s 90th Birthday party (see above link)… he called Pete Seeger the ghost of Tom Joad and spoke of many of the ways that Pete sung the People’s Music.

So I’d like to read this social justice ballad, this song of lament, this song of protest tonight. And in doing so, I remember and honor all the folks who have sung in protest for freedom.

Here it is:

”The Ghost Of Tom Joad”

by Bruce Springsteen, 1995, Columbia Records

Men walkin’ ‘long the railroad tracks
Goin’ someplace there’s no goin’ back
Highway patrol choppers comin’ up over the ridge

Hot soup on a campfire under the bridge
Shelter line stretchin’ ’round the corner
Welcome to the new world order
Families sleepin’ in their cars in the Southwest
No home no job no peace no rest

The highway is alive tonight
But nobody’s kiddin’ nobody about where it goes
I’m sittin’ down here in the campfire light
Searchin’ for the ghost of Tom Joad

He pulls a prayer book out of his sleeping bag
Preacher lights up a butt and takes a drag
Waitin’ for when the last shall be first and the first shall be last
In a cardboard box ‘neath the underpass
Got a one-way ticket to the promised land
You got a hole in your belly and gun in your hand
Sleeping on a pillow of solid rock
Bathin’ in the city aqueduct

The highway is alive tonight
Where it’s headed everybody knows
I’m sittin’ down here in the campfire light
Waitin’ on the ghost of Tom Joad

Now Tom said “Mom, wherever there’s a cop beatin’ a guy
Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries
Where there’s a fight ‘gainst the blood and hatred in the air
Look for me Mom I’ll be there
Wherever there’s somebody fightin’ for a place to stand
Or decent job or a helpin’ hand
Wherever somebody’s strugglin’ to be free
Look in their eyes Mom you’ll see me.”

Well the highway is alive tonight
But nobody’s kiddin’ nobody about where it goes
I’m sittin’ down here in the campfire light
With the ghost of old Tom Joad

The Church at the US/ Mexico Border

The painted desert, the Sonoran, home of lumbering Pipe Cacti, coyote, sidewinders, rattlesnakes, mice, owls, eagles, desert primrose, hawks, roadrunners, sunsets that wrap the day up with a bang and towering mountains of the Santa Catalina range. The fragile Jan- June 2014 163ecosystem of the Sonoran is disrupted by roads. Roads used for transporting tariff-free goods from Mexico to the United States and vice versa, roads which welcome U.S. citizens to pass, roads which carry U.S. Border Patrol to remote parts so they may patrol the border. A visible, visceral wall lines the border as a tangible reminder of who is and is not welcome into the United States.

The Sonoran desert drew me into the conversation of US immigration policy; it called me to witness the human rights violations being committed within it; it called me to walk its trails of hope and hopelessness.

In the desert, I walked along migrant trails which were littered with socks, jeans, underwear of persons frequenting the trails in the hope of crossing the border undetected. I stopped at a shrine on the trail which was created by migrants who passed through and stopped for a rest and prayer to the Holy; there they left small crosses and pictures of St. Jude, the patron Saint of Lost Causes.

The Patron Saint of Lost Causes.

At critical parts of the trail, a humanitarian group called No More Deaths left water in milk jugs with messages written on them. Some said “this water is safe to drink” because they are often told by their trail guides, or coyotes, that the water has been poisoned. Jan- June 2014 135Some messages were those of hope and love. The dichotomy of the unforgiving desert and inhospitable wall was countered by pictures of St. Jude and gallons of water from persons who cared. It seemed to me like many folks in this country, legislators, citizens, officers have forgotten basic human rights. Over 6,000 basic human rights.

To date, over 6,000 bodies have been found in the desert and this count increases daily, especially as the summer temperatures soar well over 100 degrees.

It seemed like we forgot basic human rights when I heard personal accounts of detained migrants treated like dogs as they ate their food off the floor in detention and stories of cells being incredibly cold. It seemed like we forgot basic human rights when I sat through two hours of migrants being charged with criminal offenses for coming over the border and being given about 45 seconds a piece with a judge to accept a plea bargain. Or maybe it was when these men and women came in the courtroom with their hands and feet shackled that we forgot human rights. It seemed like we forgot basic human rights when I stood in Nogales, Mexico where a US Border Patrol officer shot 16 rounds through the wall and killed 16 year old Jose Antonio for throwing rocks at him.

The Reverend John Fife.

Our paths crossed in Tucson, Arizona at Borderlinks, an organization committed to facilitating education for groups desiring to come learn first hand of the activities along the border. Rev. Fife sat down and told the story of the Sanctuary movement; he is a retired pastor and served at Southside Presbyterian in Tucson; in the 1980s, Southside responded to the human rights crisis of the US rejection of Central American refugees coming across the border. The US was complicit in helping create the toxic civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala by training military leaders and providing weaponry. Southside, under Fife, began the US Sanctuary Movement wherein Southside essentially answered Fife’s question of “what does it mean to be church in the particular context that we find ourselves?” Southside, along with

Wall between US & Mexico

Wall between US & Mexico

Quaker support, conducted night-time border crossings of many refugees and then housed them in the sanctuary of the church. On average, Southside would host 50-100 refugees a night. In 1982, Fife and others were indicted by the US Attorney’s Office and decided that they would go to the media to highlight this grave injustice and need.

When Southside went public with this, the response by US churches and synagogues was staggering. Within two years, 237 houses of worship across the United States had declared sanctuary and welcomed refugees coming across the border. Colleges and universities also joined in what became known as The Sanctuary Movement. Somewhere on the order of 13,000-15,000 refugees received Sanctuary during that time until eventually Fife and others sued the US Government and settled out of court; the government agreed to cease all deportations from Guatemala and El Salvador, giving asylum and work permits.

When faced with the question of why he spearheaded this movement, Fife said,

“when the government violates human rights, the church has to make the ethical move from advocacy to resistance. I have never figured out how to duck that move. There is a role for advocacy, but when so many lives are threatened and dying, you have to make that next move from advocacy to nonviolent resistance. Sanctuary became that ethical move.”

Fife went on to say that “the church is right in the middle of the empire and the largest section of the church has blessed the empire, but at the same time, there has always been a segment of the church who has moved to active resistance.” This resistance is something that Southside did not see as a choice, but an obligation because they were paying attention and giving voice to the immediate needs of the Tucson and surrounding communities.

What does it mean to be the church in the context in which we find ourselves?

We are reminded of ancient Hebrew hospitality in the writings of the Torah: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34, NRSV). We are reminded of Christ’s parable of the Good Samaritan wherein a Samaritan, who shared the same heritage of the Jewish man but their tribes were enemies, saved a Jewish man. Here this story shows that hospitality was given by the least likely passerby, the enemy. And hospitality was withheld by the most likely passerby, a Jewish Levite and also a priest. We are reminded of the Writings of the Psalms, “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalms 139:13-14a, NRSV). Here we see and believe that all persons, regardless of any identifying feature, are made in the Imago Dei.

So I ask, what are the borders that are drawn in our communities, and even in our own congregations? How are we complicit in blessing the empire? How are we challenging the empire? Have we well researched the US’s immigration policy and how difficult it is to achieve a US citizenship unless you marry a US citizen, are independently wealthy, a famous athlete, a scientist, etc.? Are we aware of the current trade policies, like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), that have significantly contributed to the desperate poverty in Mexico and Central American countries?

What is the role of the Church as a social movement? And is this role a prophetic voice?

If we truly believe that all persons are made in the image of God, then how can we, as a church, allow migration to be criminalized? How can we allow hospitality to be criminalized?

The Reverend Fife ended with saying, “I can’t imagine being the pastor of a suburban church for 35 years and asking myself, ‘what the hell did I do?’”

As a Baptist seeking ordination, I want to be able to answer that question with integrity after a lifetime in ministry. I want to be able to say that I lived my life and served in a church which sang, ate, and breathed radical hospitality.

May it ever be so.

The Nun Who Defied the US Government

If you are a Tennessean, you are probably very familiar with Oak Ridge, TN. When we say “Oak Ridge” around here, we are probably referring to the nuclear plant, which is a famous or infamous, depending on your stance, national laboratory which essentially was established in 1942 to develop the atomic bomb. It continues to be a site of scientific nuclear research and a housing facility for uranium; one particular lab at Oak Ridge is the Y-12 National Security Complex. This complex was originally used for electromagnetic separation of uranium and continues to presently be used for nuclear weapon production. Even as a scientist,  I am slightly unnerved to be sharing the same state with such a facility.

On July 28, 2012, an 83 year old nun, Sister Megan Rice, and two other members of Transform Now Plowshares, a movement which promotes active nonviolence and references the Biblical text of Isaiah which calls us to hammer swords into plowshares, broke into the Y-12 National Security Complex, creating the biggest security breach of this complex to date. The 83 year old nun and her two colleagues cut the wire fence and proceeded to spray paint verses and statements on the complex, spread blood on several surfaces, and read verses from the Bible. Hours later, they were discovered and arrested. This is not the first arrest for Sister Rice, in fact, it’s speculated that she’s been arrested over 30 times for acts of civil disobedience. Rice holds a BS and MS in cellular biology and spent the greater part of her life teaching children in Nigeria and Ghana.

Last week, on May 9th, 2013, Rice and company were convicted of sabotage and depredation of government property, which could result in up to a 20 year prison sentence; the sentencing is set to occur in September of this year.

What a brave woman…a humanitarian nun who called herself in the trial “a citizen of the world” and who said: “I believe we are all equally responsible to stop a known crime.” I can just imagine this frail, petite woman quoting scriptures over the voices of her arresters. I am in awe of a woman who has continued to sacrifice her freedom for the freedom of others.  A woman who realizes that violence begets violence and who calls evil what is evil: nuclear weaponry.

I wish I could sit in her company and hear the stories of the devastation she’s seen throughout her 83 years that was brought by nuclear weaponry. I wish I could ask her what it is that drives her to give up her life for peace. But I suspect I already know.

Her faith. Her God. The Christ.

I suspect that she cannot reconcile the development and use of nuclear weaponry with her faith. I suspect she understands that peacemaking is the work of legends; that peacemaking is much, much more difficult that making war, than dropping bombs, than releasing drones. I suspect that she believes, with all of her heart, that the peacemakers will be blessed, and that these people will be called the children of God.

I suspect she cannot accept the billions of federal tax dollars which are doled out to sustain this nuclear arsenal; I suspect she believes we are violating international law.

This woman may receive a sentence that would keep her in bondage till she dies; she accepts it because she knows this cause for peace is greater than her life. Her equals are Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and Mother Teresa. She engages in civil disobedience because she believes by not acting to create peace and reduce nuclear weaponry, she is equally responsible for its violence.

This woman, whether you agree with her or not, is an inamorata. A woman of valor. And if I was suffering from the health and economic repercussions of nuclear weaponry or drones, I think she would be my hero. It is my hope that a judge in September will agree.

You can find out more information about the story here and here.

Do you share my opinion that these acts of civil disobedience were warranted?