It’s funny to say but Ebenezer thinks things that I don’t. It’s why it’s so hard for me to break character on Revival days. When I’m working on the sermon, I have to experience the world through Ebenezer’s eyes so that he can figure out what he wants to say.
There was a line he came up with last Sunday, when we were pacing around Plymouth Church before the Revival. We were a bit awed, the two of us, by the prospect of preaching in such a beautiful space and we were thinking about how “secular folks” can sometimes dismiss churches and holy places because of their stance in relation to the teachings that go on there, or to the hypocrisy between the teachings and the actions of some of the men (usually) who are in positions of authority. I know I can be one of those people — throwing the baby out with the bathwater as it were. And as we were thinking about singing and preaching in that space later that day, and assuming that the audience would be joyful — singing, clapping, dancing together — the way they’ve been joyful during most of our Revivals this year, Ebenezer thought, “this is what a holy place should be: a space that invites you to the spirit without telling you how to get there. A space that invites you to think without telling you what to think. A holy space is one in which people are allowed to be alone inside themselves while surrounded by a community of people deep inside their own selves. Together in our solitude. Thoughtful and soulful, alone and together. And if we could invite everyone we knew into this holy space, there would be no judgement. There’d be no lyin’, no theivin’, no killin’. In fact we’d have no need of commandments. No need for commanders. No need to be commanded. It would all make sense. Seeing the beauty in ourselves and in one another would bring us into communion. One. From many we are one. And then all those commandments would take care of themselves.”
We have one more Revival this Sunday but in terms of actual time, Year One is in the books. A great party last weekend at Mary Jean’s place marked exactly a year since a handful of neighbors (mostly strangers, actually) came over to the Brill-Bott backyard to hear me outline this pretty far-out vision of a secular Revival for freedom led by an itinerant preachin’ Irishman by the name of Dr. Reverend Ebenezer Abernathy. Never that day could I have imagined that in a year’s time I’d be preaching and singing at Plymouth Church with a few hundred people, backed by the 15 person Sound of Freedom band and choir and, gosh, I don’t know, 100 smiling, beautiful singers from the Syracuse Community Choir.
And yet, what do you know, there we were on Sunday: singing, dancing, and shouting. A real Revival in a holy place. From nothing, something: the miracle and gift of creativity. From an idea and a feeling, a brand new thing in the world: the powerful aligning of mind and soul in action.
The next meaningful DFR anniversary will be in August when we audition for a new group of performers. And then another on October 6, when we’ll perform in NYC, almost a year to the day of our first public performance in Syracuse. This one’s been an eventful, exhausting, and definitely exciting orbit around the big star…
I continue struggling to understand what the relationship is between the form & content of DFR and its impact. I began last year with an idea that the Revival could be an inspring doorway into deeper, concrete conversations and actions around local political issues. And I wanted to create a whole methodology for connecting the performance to story circles where people shared with one another and then to connect those to action plans. I envisioned the DFR being a regular event (weekly? monthly?) from which people would be mobilized, campaigns would be launched, and change would be effected.
And maybe that will happen around the DFR someday. There are so many organizers here in Syracuse. Goodness, we have a former Green Party vice-presidential candidate in our midst. We have the oldest independent, American peace council in our city. Maybe someone will work with me to bring such a vision to life. But I’m not an organizer and the DFR reflects what it is I can do, which is entertain and inspire.
And I’m starting to wonder if that’s not enough.
Maybe I wasn’t wholly honest with myself when I started this thing. I say to this day that the idea came from some online research of Syracuse that inspired me: the history of freedom movements on one hand and a religious tent revival movement on the other. The story is absolutely true. But it omits my lifelong interest in the spirit. It omits my own interest in charismatic spiritual leaders who changed contemporary politics — from Jesus to Martin Luther to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. I never could get into the dogma of formal religion but I have always been intrigued by the way these men addressed politics and drove real structural change through their religious convictions.
The DFR was to be a secular version of a Revival. But I’m finding that the language of the spirit and the language of freedom are one and the same. Was MLK, Jr. a spiritual leader or a political revolutionary? Jesus? Malcolm X? I’m finding that the place Ebenezer wants to take people is the same place true spiritual leaders want to take people, which is into contact with their best, true selves. Into a place where they can see the best of themselves and the best in others. From many we are one. I can’t figure out how to be “political” without being spiritual. And I can’t figure out how spirituality can be disconnected from oppression in the world. Politics is about human beings — not just their machinations and their agendas. It’s about their dreams and aspirations and dignity. Our dignity. When I leave those pieces out of the sermons and focus exclusively on power and policy, the Revival falls flat as it did at the Occupy rally on May Day.
The Great Peacemaker of the Haudenosaunee taught his people, “from many we are one.” an idea with a profound spiritual foundation, but one that served an earthly, even political, function: the end of warring between separate tribes of people. The Haudenosaunee seem to be (and I am only beginning to meet members of the Haudenosaunee and learn about their philosophies) amongst the most spiritually infused people ever to walk the earth. And I am learning that they modeled perhaps the most democratic of cultures — much more democratic that anything anyone else has got going on today.
So I ask, can we talk politics without bringing people into the spirit? Can we have democracy if we continue to see ourselves as separate? I’m becoming convinced that my purpose in this role is to refine a message that lifts hearts and minds to the highest of human aspirations and then to find a way to connect that message to the work we need to do here on Earth to create the world we want to live in. Ebenezer said in his sermon that he believes we meet the people and places we need to meet in order to learn the things we need to learn. I truly believe that anyone living here in Syracuse and Central New York, at this moment in history, who cares about the question, “How then shall we live?” should embrace the living wisdom that surrounds us. We live in a powerful part of the world. Both holy and democratic.
I’m excited about where we are at the end of the first orbit. It’s exciting. Sunday was powerful for me and I think for everyone in the group. I think I’m starting to see more clearly from whence Ebenezer’s philosophy and teachings come. I’ve learned a lot this year and I’m excited to take this summer to see the world through Ebenezer’s eyes and to craft a more coherent message of the spirit and of the people. Holy and democratic.