I was watching the Global Citizen concert that aired April 18, enjoying especially seeing three Keith Urbans singing a wonderful rendition of Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love.” Afterward Urban provided a shout out of gratitude to all the health care workers on the front lines of fighting the pandemic—as did the hosts and other performers throughout the show. I was surprisingly verklempt all evening. I am not inclined toward commercially produced group sentiment, but I needed this. I realized how much energy I spend shielding my hope, my ideals, and my deepest longings. News headlines are scary to the point of being apocalyptic. Our cultural discussions are so divisive and hostile that I feel I need to wash my soul for twenty seconds afterwards. And I do not even want to explain why our politics does not bring out the best in me.
So when I saw not just a broad swath of Americans but ambassadors of the global community come together to raise funds and say a loud “thank you” to those serving the sick, the hungry, the homeless, and the needy, my tear ducts started to act on their own accord. And all the main networks were carrying the event, which is as close as we get today to having a shared national experience.
But the part of the show that has stayed with me the longest was when the Today Show host Hoda Kotb interviewed Shirley Raines in LA who for years has been feeding the homeless and has continued her efforts during the pandemic. When asked why, Shirley said, “Because I love them.” That made me live out the title of Jackson Brown’s song, here come those tears again.
In his new book American Prophets: The Progressive Roots of Progressive Politics and the Ongoing Fight for the Soul of the Country, journalist Jack Jenkins argues that we should look to people like Shirley Raines for the real power behind what moves our nation forward. It turns out that it is people like Shirley–those who actually live out Jesus’ teaching that we love and care for one another and who act concretely to oppose what is unjust and make sure we live up to our ideals–that these are the people who start movements, make us uncomfortable, and eventually, with God’s help, sway us to listen to the better angels of our nature and change.
Jenkins reveals that despite the Religious Right getting all the press, it turns out that it is actually what he calls the Religious Left who really push the political agenda forward (though I think God’s agents seldom fit neatly into our cherished terms like conservative, liberal, right, and left). Religiously motivated activists have been the main actors against slavery, women’s rights, civil rights, creation care, immigration reform, criminal justice reform, and even the passage of the Affordable Care Act—which is how Jenkins opens his book. This pattern keeps getting repeated: God hears the cries of those in need; God troubles the waters; a few special souls heed the call; and their actions trouble our consciences; and, hopefully, we begin to change. Jenkins’s book is a needed corrective and a surprising story of how religion actually works today.
And that is why I keep thinking about Shirley’s answer, “Because I love them.” The pandemic has made us see anew what we have lived with for a long time: how the needy are not being cared for and so suffer disproportionately, how we have not provided equal opportunity or access to the fruits of our nation, how we have failed to create systems to make sure our neighbors are taken care of. Sheltering-in-place has slowed us down enough to ask questions and see what we have been too busy to focus on. My hope is that we use this time to write another chapter in the story told in American Prophets. For me that means listening to people like Shirley Raines.