Ebenezer Abernathy and The Sound of Freedom are fired up again! And we’re planning a party on January 9th, 7:30pm at Grace Episcopal Church in Syracuse. It’s a freedom party. You need to be there. We want you there. Your voice and your face need to be there so that you can publicly make yourself accountable by answering the question: What’s your New Year’s Revolution?
And now… the blog…
The shootings in Newtown roused me from a half-slumber I didn’t even know I was in.
This project, The DFR, started with an eye toward using art as a political organizing tool, much in the same way that El Teatro Campesino in the 60s used its physical, comedic style of people’s theater to support Cesar Chavez’s nascent United Farmworkers Union. In my mind, the DFR was going to use the celebration of Syracuse and of local community to invite people into deeper conversations and actions about, among other things: 1) a new, local, 21st century economy, including a reality check about fossil-fuel dependance; 2) resistance to the privatization of public education; 3) the loss of public spaces where people can build relationships and plan collective action across borders of difference and boundaries of distrust; 4) the assault on workers and families; 5) the increasing militarization and corporatization of our democracy; 6) And More!
Both fear and anger fueled this project. But also a sincere belief in the ability (and desire) of human beings to organize on their own behalf, with the power to disrupt and overturn oppressive systems. Of course, the history of social movements tells us this is true. Drawing from Paulo Freire and his many descendants, I subscribed to a politics of hope. I subscribed to a politics of human agency. I understood that oppressive forces are counting on people being too tired, too divided, and too dispirited to come together in common cause. Further, progressive activists, working on so many discrete fronts, and on so many issues, seem always to compete for the time and attention of their natural allies. Rather than working collectively and planning strategically about when to take action on a given issue, all are working on their separate issues, diluting the potential for impact.
Couldn’t we find a way to bring everyone together — under “the big tent” — in a way that inspired, that educated, and that called people to action?
And when I heard the news from Newtown I realized how the act of creating and performing had cooled some of the fire that was this project’s early fuel. In that moment, I felt the relative impotence of what we were doing, despite our modest local presence and effect. What especially pulled me up short was not the actual killings. (That ,of course, is a tragedy that as a father of two young children is hard to wrap my head around.) What pulled me up was the discussion I heard among friends, and even within my own house, about the danger of public spaces, including schools, movie theaters, and places of worship.
Again, it was this assault on the public and on public spaces, so similar to the assault that was happening in Wisconsin that catalyzed DFR. Like Scott Walker’s campaign to strip public employees of collective bargaining rights, this assault was fueled in part by the pathology of capitalism. More outrageously, it was also fueled by the cynical campaign that ties profit derived from the manufacture and sale of automatic assault weapons to the 2nd Amendment. The old rage stirred in me. The feeling that if DFR was to do anything at all, if it was to mean anything at all and be anything more than a fun show, then it had to bring people together It had to invite people to tell stories together, and to see one another. It had to pull people out of their bunkers! It had to be a celebratory counter assault, on fear. It had to stand up, and invite others to stand up — in public — to the very notion that public spaces and public communion were dangerous. Or rather, to affirm that indeed public spaces and public communion are dangerous — for entrenched systems of oppression!
My wish for this new year is that 2013 be the year that the city of Syracuse claims for this generation its legacy as the birthplace of democracy. That 2013 be the year that we write and sing this city’s 21st century song of freedom, with ALL our voices singing together. In different languages and different sounds, but unified in the harmony of our shared humanity.
My New Year’s Revolution is to sing louder, to preach more passionately, and to think more deeply about our shared fates and futures. I promise to love and celebrate this city and all the people living in it. I vow to remember the words of Rosa Parks who told a young activist seeking commiseration about the grind of activism: “If you ain’t tired, you ain’t working hard enough!” (I also promise to take care of my mind, body, and spirit, and to nurture my family and friends, so that I have the support to do all the rest!)
So, like I said: Ebenezer Abernathy and The Sound of Freedom are fired up again! And we’re planning a party on January 9th. It’s a freedom party. You need to be there. We want you there. Your voice and your face need to be there so that you can publicly make yourself accountable by answering the question: What’s your New Year’s Revolution?
We set about the work again. We set about the work, again, of building and strengthening our communities and our cities. We set about the work of reclaiming our children and ourselves from lives lived passively, from lives lived watching others, from lives lived on the sidelines.
We set about the work, again, of re-imagining ourselves outside of imposed consumer identities. We imagine ourselves producers, creators, instruments of the gods. We imagine ourselves, extending beyond ourselves, moving toward “the other,” toward all others, claiming what is good and rich not only for our own good but for the common good. The greater good. We allow ourselves to actually see each other, the essential goodness of each other. We resist media-induced fear. We imagine we can build more together.
Who will join us in this work? Can you who bemoan and deride the fleeting brilliance of the so-called Occupy movement now take up its mantle in your own work? Or do you find it easier to point and laugh at what you perceive as “failure”?
Can you see that Occupy could only ever be a wake up call? Now it’s on us.
So here in Syracuse we’ve taken to singing. We’ve taken to playin’ instruments, loudly. We pitch gypsy tents and dress like punk-carnival freaks and say we travel through time fighting for freedom. At least once a week, and sometimes more, we act like fools and jump around like idiots.
What’s your Revival? What’s your work? Where do you shine your light? Don’t know yet?
Well I am the Dr. Reverend Ebenezer Abernathy and I run with The Sound of Freedom. And I invite you to come on and join up with us if you dare to. You’ll be amazed how much fun citizenship can be! I’d wager a bet that you’ll find yourself doing things that’ll amaze your friends and family! I assure you you’ll amaze even yourself! Your children and pets will begin to see you in an entirely new light!
Come on then! What’s holding you back now? It’s not a rhetorical question: I want to know what your excuse is. What does the voice say that keeps you from takin’ a part in this celebratory form of civic life?
Come on now, girls and boys. Come on now. Come for the fun and you might just stay for the freedom! Come for the celebration and I think we might keep you for the contemplation! Come stand up with us and we’ll make sure you get down with us!
If I haven’t said it before let me say it now — The DFR: It’s good for what ails ya! So be in touch. We’re waiting for you!
A lot of people want to leave this place. It’s a post-industrial city, a rust belt city with high unemployment and one of the ten poorest zip codes in the United States. To the unseasoned eye, it looks ugly. The sky is grey a lot of the year. We get more rain than Seattle. Most winters, it snows. A lot — enough to consistently win New York’s Golden Snowball award. The city is divided in four and one learns quickly what it means to live on the South/West/North/East sides of the city. There’s racial and class division, and a real tension between the so-called “red” and “blue” state worldviews. Our lake, Onondaga, is a toxic super fund site.
(Wanna move here yet?!)
Still, somehow, Syracuse has exerted a spell on me. I continue to fall in love with the place and I continue seeing the ways in which this city and this region contain the seeds for renewal, not just for itself but for the world. I know this sounds hyperbolic but I also think it’s true.
I’m reminded of something I read last year, part of my peak oil obsession that precipitated this whole DFR idea. The quote was something along the lines of, “peak oil is already here; it’s just not equally distributed yet.” And in relation to Syracuse, I want to say to those who would rather flee than stay, “you can run but you can’t hide.” At some point, no matter where you are, you’re going to have to deal with all the nasty things that I mentioned above: environmental destruction, loss of jobs, poverty, division, and increasingly brutal weather patterns. You probably live somewhere where these things are already happening. Maybe you’re “lucky” enough not to have to deal with them on a daily basis. You probably will, someday.
I don’t know: maybe I’m a masochist but I guess I’d rather engage in the struggle than run somewhere where I can pretend there isn’t one.
I said in a sermon a few weeks back that I get frustrated when I meet assistant professors and med students new to the city who introduce themselves by saying something along the lines of, “Yeah, it’s better here in Syracuse than we thought it would be but we’re probably heading back to [fill in the blank].” And then in the sermon I rattled off a list of what I called “the bubble bath” cities because of how relaxing and enjoyable they are for people who call themselves progressive: “Amherst, Ashland, Asheville, Austin, Boston, Boulder, Brooklyn, Chicago, Ithaca, The City, North Hampton, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle.” As I said in the sermon, I’ve never been a fan of bubble baths. I find them a little boring.
I’ve never been anything but proud to say that I was born and raised blue-collar. My Dad was a chain smoking boilermaker. When he came home from work, he smelled like grease and smoke. I want to work. I like to work. And while I don’t pretend that there’s any American city that doesn’t need people fighting the good fight on behalf of those who find themselves on the nightmare side of the American Dream, I can guarantee you that every one of those Bubble Bath cities has plenty of people there already doing the work. It’s places like this, like Syracuse — these ugly, blue-collar cities — that could use a few more people sticking around to contribute to the kind of critical mass needed to uplift a place.
The Revival on Sunday night was a culmination of sorts. We hit our stride for the first time after 9 months of trying. A birth, I suppose. It wasn’t perfect but it was damn good. We sounded good. We looked good. We added some social comedy that worked. The invitation to testify produced just the right kind of aspirational testimony from the audience. And Ebenezer finally found the right balance between civic freedom and spiritual freedom. And between levity and weight. Between sincerity and self deprecation. I’m clear now that the whole message, if we’re to adhere to the origin story, has to find its footing in the spiritual/democratic philosophies of the Haudenosaunee. These contain the seeds of renewal. The seamless marriage of the civic and the personal, of individual responsibility and a concern for the common wealth, of the political and the spiritual — this is a path forward. From many we are one. Freedom for all. Spirit in all things.
I asked the congregation the other night, after making note of the Great Peacemaker’s power to bring five warring tribes together: who’s in your tribe? How big is your tribe? Who is in and who is out? I do believe that human beings want to come together. The impulse to be separate is a perversion, something resulting from some deformity or abuse, whether of gene or mind or body or spirit. I believe the natural impulse of a healthy human being is to be in communion, to belong, together. And I believe that there is a path toward saving this planet and toward saving ourselves in the face of gross, pointless, and selfish accumulation, in the face of environmental degradation, in the face of a politics of cruelty, and in the face of a mind numbing war apparatus.
That path is one upon which all life is considered sacred, and where responsibility is asserted not only for ourselves, our families,and our communities but for the seventh generation after ours. It is a path of “attachment citizenry” that demands we bring our wayward neighbors, friends, and citizens closer to us, not hold them further away from us, when they “act out,” when they succumb to the impulses of their conditioning. It is a path upon which we have the capacity to see all as one — to see all as members of the same tribe.
The language of civic freedom is simply a codified version of the language of true human freedom, which is to say an instinctual and primal desire to be in our natural state. We are free, but we experience our freedom only insofar as we recognize and honor the inherent freedom in all. And further, to see all in ourselves and ourselves in all. Without the ability to expand the tribe until all belong in it there can be no experience of freedom and there can be no peace. This is our message from Syracuse, Central New York, Onondaga Nation.
From many we are one.
And thus concludes DFR: Season One. We’re taking the summer off to work on a few things. Next show is at Feel the Pulse of Syracuse: Saturday August 25th, 5-7pm, somewhere outside, near Armory Square. Hope to see you there.
Have a great summer, everyone. Peace!!
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.