by Amy J. Miller
Dear friends. Fellow cadre. Beloved. What a week.
I am writing to you from this shitty, shifty moment of global pandemic as the coronavirus and its sibling crises keep precipitating — making it rain down — fear. I can almost feel it in the air. As it causes us to isolate, changes our plans, pushes the economy faster and further into turmoil, ramps up our anxiety and keeps us on edge. Oddly, perhaps, I’m feeling kind of calm; making a lot of jokes about limes. Trying to get my head around what actions, concretely, can take best advantage of this political moment. And a handful of phrases keep running through my head.
One that’s always rambling around in there is a favorite from Rumi: Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love. It will not lead you astray.
And a Kairos staff member signaled Hebrews 10:39. But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.
Serene Jones ended her first email of the crisis (not yet a week ago) with: For such a time as this you have been called. She is President of Union Theological Seminary where I work at the Kairos Center.
And then there has been “fear shall not restrain our freedom to love,” which I was having a hard time placing. But the search for that one led me to 2 Timothy 1:7: For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, love and self-discipline.
I really like “For God has not given us a spirit of fear…,” but it’s not exactly “Fear shall not restrain our freedom to love.” Where was that from? So I Googled and pondered and finally my brain coughed up the answer: I wrote it. Almost exactly 25 years ago – Spring & Easter, 1995. It was in a journal I kept that Lent. I was 24. It’s a kind of movement anniversary for me — I’ve reflected on that time in other writing and I guess that line has just planted itself in my emotional terrain.
That was also a time of crisis — not a global pandemic, but an intimate crisis for people in this movement back in 1995. And that crisis, that moment of disruption, ended up being transformative for me. It allowed, invited, required me to dive from the periphery and end up—well—right here, 25 years later, working at the Kairos Center and on the Poor People’s Campaign, writing this piece.
There’s something special about times such as these. Something about being called by the universe, by God, by the moment, by our deepest selves…to proceed through the fear. And I notice that it is Lent again right now. I’m no longer observant in that way where I go to church to get ashes and palms. But I do always observe, notice, watch out for, Lent and its power story. It’s often a helluva season for me, so I will also tell it in those terms: we are called to move through the entire journey of the Passion (the final scenes in Jesus’ life). We must move through the persecution, through the fear, through the dying, and all the way to the rising. In times such as these.
I teach a writing class and advise students to tell the small story inside the big story. So I offer you this small story from 1995. Maybe it helps us all remember that we have all weathered difficult times — personally and politically — and we will weather these times. Maybe it helps us remember that we are connected by larger stories. Maybe it helps us remember that times of crisis, times when it’s raining down fear, are really made for a revolutionary spirit. And many before us have followed what they truly love. Maybe it helps us heed the call.
Just for the Summer
“Amy, it’s Abbie.” Her usually cheerful voice was flat and tense over the phone. “I have some bad news.”
By April 1995, Abbie Illenberger and I had been working together in Empty the Shelters (ETS) for about two years, she in Atlanta and I in DC. ETS was a student anti-poverty organization that took its vision from Freedom Summer. We wanted to shift students from charity work to organizing for fundamental change, bring 1,000 students to Philadelphia to rip the boards off the abandoned houses (there were, and I’m sure still are, more empty houses than homeless people), and “Empty the damn shelters.” We never got 1,000 students — but for me (and a few of us still around this work) that organization held us, further politicized us, developed us, and led us further down this path.
In the months before this particular call, Abbie and I had talked often because I was planning to spend Summer 1995 in Atlanta to prepare for the 1996 Olympics. The city was hell-bent on destroying public housing, treating workers badly, installing all kinds of video surveillance, and passing anti-homeless legislation like making it illegal to “camp” in public or be in a parking lot unless you could prove you owned a car there. They were busy “re-locating” homeless people so they wouldn’t be visible to the world. And Atlanta would also surely play up their gold medal Civil Rights history in a gross contradiction. The lead up to the Olympics would be full of opportunities to organize and truth-tell about poverty. I was drawn to the work and curious about the South. Plus, Abbie was my first justice crush. There were plenty of reasons to head to Atlanta to do some “organizing.”
But that day, there was no fun flirting. Just terrible news. “Kathleen’s in the hospital, Amy. She was riding her bike home after her waitressing shift and got hit by a drunk driver. They’re saying she probably won’t make it.” Stunned, I couldn’t think of what to say. Knowing, Abbie answered, “Pray. That’s all you can do right now. I’ll call you back if there’s any more news.”
Kathleen Sullivan was a recent grad from Penn who played a lead role in developing the relationship between Philly ETS and the Kensington Welfare Rights Union (KWRU), an emerging, powerful, multiracial organization of the poor. I had last seen her a few months earlier at a meeting in San Francisco about growing ETS into a solid national organization. Like many ETSers, Kathleen radiated brilliance, compassion, anger and energy. She was a great organizer and her commitment to ending the poverty and violence she saw every day in North Philly guided her every day. She worked her ass off to bring students into the movement and train them up.
Abbie called the next morning with the final news. I drove up from DC for the funeral with Chris Daly, another ETS buddy of mine. The most diverse crowd I’ve ever seen at a funeral packed the Quaker Meeting House. Men from the Union of the Homeless walked over from their shelter and sat next to Kathleen’s upper-middle-class family. Poor moms from KWRU and Kathleen’s sorority sisters from Penn all cried their way through the service. Everyone talked about her passion, her compassion, her driving energy, her coffee intake, her love of chocolate. The campus minister, Rev Bev, empathized with us as “a pre-Easter people.” Then she basically told us to get on with it. To get back to being with each other and to the work Kathleen loved. Rev Bev called it the work of the resurrection. Kathleen probably would have called it the work of the revolution. It’s the same work.
After the funeral, we gathered back at Jubilee (a house that served as a base for the movement) to tell stories. My favorite is that one of the paramedics who responded to the accident asked if Kathleen was a courier. Her backpack split open when the car mangled her bike and body – and out spilled hundreds of flyers for a KWRU rally and about ten bags of chocolate Easter candy. “No, not a courier,” someone told him. “She’s a revolutionary. And CVS was having a sale.”
Abbie and I talked in the hall at Jubilee. We both already suspected I wouldn’t be heading to Atlanta. Kathleen would have co-led the 8-week ETS Philly summer program to train 30 students in anti-poverty organizing and put them to work with various organizations of the poor — KWRU, the Union of the Homeless, the Annie Smart Leadership Development Institute, and Guerilla Video Productions. Her co-coordinators, Gloria Casarez and Beth Green, were going to need some help and support. Kathleen was one of their best friends. One of their cadre. And we do not just let people “handle it.” We do what we can. When Gloria called me a week later, I agreed to be that help and support as best I could. I didn’t have as much trust or experience as Kathleen, and I wasn’t such a hot shit organizer, but I had some chops. And mostly, I was available and I had been called. So I moved to Philly, into Kathleen’s room at Jubilee. Just for the summer.
My tone shifts slightly here…I am patchworking without apology. But it’s okay. Just sink in a little and let your gaze soften. Remember to breathe.
That spring as this story unfolded, my words sloshed with poetry and faith. With darkness and light, dying and rising. These were Catholic metaphors for me then — the Easter story. If they feel a little awkward to you (they do to me sometimes these days), just think of them as holy cycles that surround us all the time. The sun brings light into darkness. And the grass dies each year and then rises. We call it morning. And spring.
This is what I wrote in that Lenten journal, 1995:
The Tuesday before Easter
Here I am again. Showing up for my promise, my discipline, for Lent this year. To write. Every day. To scribble words and ramblings. Forty days nearly done. It seems close enough that I could quit now. After all, I know the end of this story. Heard it a million times. Trust it, despair and hope in it. Lent always ends with brutal death. Sneaks up with resurrection. Easter always equals resurrection. And chocolate bunnies.
The Thursday before Easter
And then God reminds me that Lent is hardly over. Kathleen was hit by a drunk driver. In a coma. She died this morning. On Holy Thursday. In this season of Paschal Mystery. It makes no sense. They get off fucking easy by calling it a mystery.
The Friday before Easter
Good Friday. And I am reminded, in the time of your life, live. Do the work you know you need to do. Do it now. Live it now. No need to fear. Kathleen was doing the work when she was killed. She was 23. That’s how long she got to do it. I feel blessed to be part of her community. Which grieves today.
After a long day at Kathleen’s memorial, I skipped the Easter Vigil last night. Went to Mass this morning. And here I am, back at the keyboard. Rev Bev, who seems to understand liberation, young women, struggle, led the service yesterday. She pressed upon the Spirit to be with us. Pressed God to be passionately life-giving amidst the death. She spoke of us as a pre-Easter people. Like Jesus, she said, we are looking out amidst the chaos and asking, “Why?”
She urged us not to wallow — but to get busy and live life, live struggle, live love. Continue on together toward the rising. Kathleen was an Easter person, she said. A woman who made the hard choices to join others in their suffering and created the possibility for, often even the reality of, joy. And so I went reluctantly this morning to celebrate the rising. I wasn’t ready. Wasn’t in the mood. But perhaps just as we don’t plan the dying, we also don’t get to plan the rising. More by God’s hand than our own.
And this story doesn’t end today just because it’s Easter. It’s a story about learning to know the living, dying, suffering, chaos, beauty and rising among us. Know them more fully, more gracefully. Be able to walk around them barefoot. Chris and I talked the whole way back; he said that we will have to get good at all this. That we will necessarily witness more tragedy, perhaps a lot more, before our work is done. We tend to seek desperate places, join with those in suffering, and confront those who may wish us harm.
But why worry? God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and love and self-discipline. Be careful, yes. But not paralyzed. This is still the time of your life. And in the time of your life, live. Fear shall not restrain our freedom to love.
I resolve again today to work for resurrection. For revolution. Lend my hands to God and to the work of the day. I both grieve and find peculiar comfort that Kathleen and I were never close. Just distant sisters in a circle of social change. And I rededicate myself to that circle. To this circle. To learning stubbornness, compassion, joy. To unlearning fear, cynicism, gloom. To real study, real politics, real action. To real and ever-deepening connection. Real and ever-deepening understanding. Real and ever-deepening faith. To power. To coffee. To chocolate. To voice.
What a week. Friends. Fellow cadre. Beloved. We are not of those who shrink back. Take a big, deep breath. Let your mind be aware and let your heart be filled — with your own power, our collective power, and the mysterious power of God. Let the fog of anxiety and fear be burned off by the sun of this movement. We Rise Together. For such a time as this we have been called.