Freed to Free

Freed for New Beginnings

“I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.”
—Harriet Tubman
“And before I’d be a slave I’ll be buried in my grave; and go home to my Lord and be free.”
—lyrics to “Oh, Freedom”

The GLIDE team at San Francisco’s 2017 Martin Luther King March. Photo credit: Martin Soto

It’s befitting to begin this season with words from a trailblazer—an escaped slave turned American abolitionist. Guided by her unwavering faith and an assertion that “I can’t die but once,” Harriet Tubman, the great Underground Railroad Conductor, delivered people from the bondage of American chattel slavery.[1] Her journey, like many journeys, began with a choice: Do I remain in slavery or do I gain control over my own life?
You see, Harriet was born a slave. Freed from the nurturing waters of her mother’s womb, Harriet was immersed into a culture that benefitted from the sweat and tears of her bondage. (Stop and think about the last sentence for a moment before you keep reading.) According to the law, Harriet was property. Therefore, her decision to escape was a violation—of the LAW. Harriet’s choice to gain control over her life teaches us an important lesson:

Laws can be unjust (people, too). Unjust laws must be resisted (people, too).

Harriet’s unwillingness to allow her fate to be determined by people who benefited from her bondage paved the way for the liberation of many people. Recognizing her freedom, she teaches us another timely and relevant message:

You were born to be free. Your freedom, however, isn’t just about you!

Good news to the poor isn’t good news to people who benefit from the poverty of others. As in all times, the prospect of justice in the face of inequity is a welcome prayer for the oppressed. Harriet, like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., like Rabbi Abraham Heschel, knew that true prayer, however, is more than words—it is an active force.

Prayer is more than a passive performance—it is a pervasive protest.

For Rabbi Heschel, prayer was, “also about seeking spirituality in a modern age that often tries to expunge the role of God and replace it with human accomplishments.”[2] He also recognized something else. Upon the conclusion of the March from Selma to Montgomery, Rabbi Heschel said the following:
“For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”
Rabbi Heschel, like Harriet Tubman, understood their actions as both political and spiritual. The act of resisting oppression was an invaluable marker in strides towards freedom.

Rev. Theon, Rev. Angela and Theon’s sister Erica at the 2017 San Francisco MLK March with the GLIDE community. Photo credit: Martin Soto

These are momentous moments. In an era where governmental leaders talk about building walls instead of building bridges, we must resist. In times when sterile politics and ideological differences cause leaders to seem more like a cast on a reality TV show rather than ambassadors of justice, we must be grounded. In times when conversations regarding voter fraud are used as scare tactics for voter suppression, we must organize. In an era when public policy could potentially be shaped 140 characters at a time, we must demand that leaders GROW UP!
And… We must never lose hope. Why? Because there have always been people who have sought personal gain at the expense of the masses, people who have used fear as a framework for repression. At the same time, there have always been people who have resisted such actions. Check out this video:

Reverberations of the call during the 1960s rings anew in the heads and hearts of many. In the face of unparalleled evils, people sang a song of protest…

We Shall Overcome…SOMEDAY.

Photo credit: Martin Soto

This timely call received an upgrade as winds of change blew across the American landscape. GLIDE Memorial Church, energized by the witness of the Rev. Dr. A. Cecil Williams, is an example. Dr. Williams, a 34-year-old African American minister, alongside a team of ministers, GLIDE congregants and community members, proclaimed through song, We Shall Overcome…TODAY.
Today, threats of restrictive legislative agendas, intensified xenophobic rhetoric, rampant racism, harmful Islamophobia, heightened heterosexist hegemony, and political gridlock are being buttressed by vitriol. We must meet an often zealous yet under-informed populous, fueled by misunderstanding, with a counter witness—a loving protest. Perhaps another upgrade is in order:

We Shall Overcome…NOW!

  • Who will bear witness to the suffering of our immigrant brothers and sisters?
  • Who will decry systemic racism and the criminalization of black and brown bodies in America?
  • Who will stand alongside our Native American brothers and sisters in the struggle to protect and defend sacred lands and waterways?
  • Who will name the injustices committed against LGBTQIA brothers and sisters?
  • Who will testify that ALL LIVES will NOT MATTER until we affirm that BLACK LIVES MATTER?
  • Who will advocate for women’s rights?
  • Who will resist evil and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?
  • Who will sing the songs of freedom and protest that will stir the hearts of a new generation?
  • WHO?!

I will! I hope you will, too.
Harriet Tubman’s story is an American story. Filled with triumph and tragedy, her story is one of BECOMING…becoming more than what she was.
These are momentous moments. And, for such a time as this, YOU exist. Yes, YOU. It’s taken 13+ billion years to set the stage. As strange as it may seem, your BEING is COSMOLOGICALLY significant. There is no better time than NOW to do what only You can do. You were made for this moment!

  • Be Brave.
  • Have Faith.
  • Do Good.
  • Trust Hope.
  • Love Radically.

In doing these things, you will discover that you are destined to do more than merely exist—you exist to LIVE!
[1] http://www.azquotes.com/author/14834-Harriet_Tubman
[2] https://www.voices-visions.org/content/poster/collection-poster-rabbi-abraham-joshua-heschel-paula-scher

The Rev. Theon Johnson III is an Associate Pastor at GLIDE Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco. He came to GLIDE from Mississippi where he served as the United Methodist Campus Minister at Jackson State University. Theon believes that love is a revolutionary force which empowers people to transform the world.
With a background in Philosophy, Religion and Education from Millsaps College, Theon studied Theology and Ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. While in Washington, he served as an Advocacy Associate with the General Board of Church and Society on Capitol Hill. Currently, Theon is a doctoral student in Educational Leadership at Jackson State University.