When the Impossible Becomes Possible
Address to Annual Meeting 2016
For many of us, this hasn’t been just a hard few days, it’s been a hard 18 months. And the election results left us in disbelief. Shaken. But our faith is not one of despair. It is of hope.
Over the past couple days, as I’ve gotten to meet and talk with so many of you, as I've become increasingly familiar with FCNL's rich 75 year legacy, and as I now look around this room, at the experience and the wisdom in these seats, I am humbled. Humbled and profoundly grateful.
I am privileged to work at a pretty phenomenal organization. And honestly, I have some pretty phenomenal coworkers. They are, some of the sharpest, most dedicated people in Washington. Their commitment to this work, their commitment to you is unequivocal. And I am so proud to work alongside them every day.
But I am also not under any illusions as to the real engine behind this organization's effectiveness. You are FCNL’s greatest asset. We can reach into congressional offices, relationship build, and find common ground not because we always have winning arguments or convincing data points but because we carry a powerful faith perspective and an active and persistent grassroots constituency.
I ask you to think about what brought you here today. Look around this room. The people sitting next to you. Three days after one of the most divisive and staggering elections, when most people in the country were still reeling from the outcome, still recovering from all the advertising, talking heads, dirt digging, scandal selling, finger pointing, perpetual polling, just wanting to put Washington politics out of their minds, you chose to come here. To be here. To step right into the belly of the city defined by political partisanship and ideological divide.
Washington is not necessarily an easy place to be two days after the elections—especially after Tuesday night. But I suspect for many of you, it just makes sense. FCNL’s work, our prophetic witness, this is living out our faith. It is a calling, and its magnetic pull cuts through pessimism, cuts through disillusionment, cuts through partisanship.
Like many of you, personally, this hasn’t been just a hard few days, it’s been a hard 18 months. And Tuesday’s results left me in disbelief. Shaken. But our faith is not one of despair. It is of hope.
This past August, I stepped aboard a boat and I sailed across the Atlantic Ocean. One night, unable to sleep, I walked the deck. We were 600 miles from the smallest island. 12 miles above the ocean floor. Now that’s a big ocean. That’s a big ocean. As I stood at 3am admiring the enormity of God's creation, the stars across the endless night sky, the moonlit ocean path to that distant horizon, I couldn't help but feel small and a bit insignificant.
And my mind went to that passage in Mark, chapter 4 where Jesus and the disciples cross the Sea of Galilee in the midst of a giant storm. A storm so severe it overpowers their boat. So severe it brings terror even to these expert fishermen. Winds growing ever fierce, waves and water swamping overboard.
Yet as these fishermen panic, Jesus lies asleep in the back of the boat. He is unconcerned by the waves. Undisturbed by the wind. The disciples, filled with anxiety and fear, wake him up, shouting “Teacher! Do you not care that we are perishing?” Jesus wakes up, rebukes the wind and calms the seas. He then says to the disciples “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
As Dr. David Renwick puts it, the disciples' fear and Jesus' question “Have you still no faith?” is not about the disciples' faith in Jesus' ability to calm the storm. The disciples know his power. It is not the storm they're afraid of. It is the fact that they believe they are dying and Jesus, the one with the power to save them doesn’t seem to notice. That question, “Do you not care?" is the disciples' plea to know that they are valued and loved. They are crying out—we're about to perish and in this moment of need you are absent.
People have defined this election in a number of ways. But I believe at the core, this has been a “disciples in the boat” election. People across this country are facing killer storms and yet those in power, the ones we look to for leadership and help, they appear asleep in the back of the boat, unconcerned by the waves. Undisturbed by the winds.
I see older workers jobless as the manufacturing industry disappears. Many, unemployed for a year or more. Another job may come but with less pay, less seniority than before. And at a time in their lives when you’re supposed to be looking forward to retirement, many are having to rely on their kids to help pay the bills. I see men crying out, “my way of life, my sense of purpose and dignity is dying here and you don’t even seem to care. Is my life not valuable to you?”
I see immigrant families, parents crying out, children are being locked away in detention centers, our families are being torn apart under an administration known as “deporter in chief,” 6-year-olds are having to represent themselves in deportation hearings. "We kept hearing politicians talk about our broken immigration system but we’re not seeing action. We’re dying here and you don't even seem to care. Is my life not valuable to you?"
I see men and women of color who continue to see their communities over-policed, over-incarcerated under-invested and under-employed, witnessing police-shooting after police shooting, crying out, "it doesn’t matter if I put my hands up or my face down on the ground, cops keep shooting us and we’re dying here and you don’t even seem to care. Is my life not valuable to you?"
In these post-election moments, who better to help this country move forward in hope and healing than people of faith? Who better than the people in this room to hold these concerns? Lift up these voices? Who better than those recognizing, affirming that there is that of God in everyone?
But this isn’t just a “disciples in the boat” election. We also gotta look to Jesus in the boat. As constituents and voters we have power together to help rebuke the winds of structural oppression and the waves systemic injustice. We gotta take some responsibility for the ways in which institutionalized racism, discrimination, and privilege pervasively seep into the oxygen of society, blighting our world and choking off our movement towards justice.
Not fearing the police should not be a privilege. Contesting wage theft without risking deportation and being forced to leave my home, my family--that should not be a privilege. Walking away alive from a traffic stop should not be a privilege. These things should be cloaked in the invisibly of ordinariness.
We are called to use our positions, with all the privileges we embody, but particularly as voters and constituents, to transform these privileges into universal norms.
God gave us voice. We were created to be lobbyists.
And we are here today to boldly step before our members of Congress and demand that in this lame duck session, criminal justice reform be the first item on their agenda.
But if you don't say anything, they won't know. Listen, the Almighty may know your prayers before you say them, but I guarantee you that is not how it works in the United States Congress.
I'll be candid with you. We've got a tough road ahead of us. The news reports are dim, the congressional calendar is tight, the political landscape is daunting, and many advocates have given up or turned their attention to easier goals.
But I did not come to FCNL looking for easy roads and superficial wins. We are not lulled into that deceptive comfort of managed expectations. We know that God can work through us to light up the path and the possibilities before us.
I could maybe understand if we didn't have the precedent of FCNL's successes. If we didn't have the victories of the ADA, the Peace Corps, and the New START Treaty then maybe I could understand. If we never saw the Iran deal or the Gibson Resolution. I could maybe understand if we didn't have 13 new sentencing reform cosponsors directly from Advocacy Teams and FCNL grassroots lobbying. And if we didn't have the history of opposing all forms of war, violence, and oppression whether in Iraq and Afghanistan; Israel-Palestine, Ferguson, Missouri, or Cannon Ball, North Dakota then maybe I could understand resigning ourselves to working towards some painted-over version of the status quo. But that is not our vision. And this is not our legacy.
Some may say, we tried. Tried to pass bipartisan criminal justice reform. But question is not, did we try? The question, is are young men and women still being locked up under overly-harsh, unacceptably-long prison sentences for non-violent drug offenses? Yes? Then we're not done yet. Are we still incarcerating people of color six times the rate of whites? Yes? Then we're not done yet. Are we still spending more money on a school to prison pipeline than we are on a school to doctor, teacher, judge, organizer, engineer, activist pipeline? Yes? Then we are not done yet!
How can we let this moment pass without doing everything we can to transform these bills into law? And if Tuesday’s election results did nothing else, I hope they released some fire in your soul and sparked a new urgency to our work. We gotta see this legislation through to its end.
One of my great passions in life is running long distances—marathons and ultramarathons. My favorite distance is the 100 mile race. When I walk up to that start line, no matter how many times I do it, I question its feasibility. The very concept of running 100 miles is still hard for me to comprehend. I've done it before. I know what it feels like, but still I can't wrap my head around it.
I will confess that sometimes, especially in these moments, after just electing a president who has made overtly racist and discriminatory statements, when I think about all the war and hate and suffering in this world and then think about that vision of the world we seek, I feel that same way. Just like I have trouble imagining the finish line 100 miles and 30 hours away, the world that we seek can be hard to picture. Anyone here ever feel that way? It's so big and so different from the reality I know and the world in which I live in today.
Yet, who better than people of faith to boldly pursue a vision unseen but not unreal? Who better to demand and inspire our elected leaders to bring peace, to bring opportunity and justice, to restore our earth, than people of faith?
But this I can see. I can see getting to that next tree or the next mile. I can see another cosponsor on GAPA and signer to the Gibson resolution. I can see more funding directed to refugee resettlement and the complex crises fund. But we won't stop there.
I can see Congress passing this first real step in sentencing reform, finally marking some acknowledgement that failed drug policies and racist attitudes have been buttressing up a mass incarceration system that dismantles families, damages communities, and destroys futures. But we won't stop there
I can see an increasing number of voters questioning how we can spend billions of dollars on planes the Pentagon doesn't want yet fail to fund the summer meals that children need.
And it may not be in the next four years, but in the distance, I can see Congress finally passing comprehensive immigration reform that provides a path to citizenship and doesn’t further militarize the boarder but instead takes a compassionate and community-oriented approach. I can see the House and Senate truly recognizing that diplomacy does work, the Iran deal was a historic achievement, and that those negotiations really do make this world safer. But we won't stop there.
I can see bipartisan momentum growing for a price on carbon as more people throughout the country wake up their members of Congress, effectively sounding the alarm about the environmental crisis in which we’re headed. I can see elected officials being forced to respond to the growing outrage over our country’s out of control influence of money in politics.
This is the path set before us. This is the road to the world we seek.
You are a part of this moment. You are a part of this history. Running 100 miles always tests my body and my spirit. There are inevitably moments I don’t think I can go on. I’m nauseous, throwing up on the side of the road, exhausted, feet blistered, ankles inflamed, and every step brings wrenching pain. My insecurities flame up, my doubts grow. Friends have seen me in these moments, and they ask me, why do you keep going back? Running these races?
My response is simple. It’s who I am. Running is when I experience my greatest joys and deepest prayers. It’s when I feel closest to God. And it’s in those dark moments that I’m forced to lean on a power bigger than myself to get through, a God who can transform those moments of suffering into a renewed hope, a renewed life. And by continuing to put one foot in front of the other, sometimes, I get to witness the impossible become possible, and arrive at that 100 mile finish line.
I suspect, FCNL’s prophetic witness and faithful advocacy—this work is a part of who you/we are. A part of your/our faith. And despite moments of pain and challenge, this is a calling, and we can’t help but feel that pull back to the start line again and again. Because we know, reaching that finish line is possible and absolutely worth crossing.
I know, that one day we'll say we once imprisoned 25 percent of the world’s prison population, but that is an unrecognizable past. One day we'll say that members of Congress are far more outraged over the billions wasted in the Pentagon than the whopping 3 percent error rate in the food stamp program. One day we'll say that the Gibson Resolution was that first chip that ultimately cracked the dam of partisan resistance, unleashing a tidal wave of political will that seriously addressed climate change. One day we'll say that victims of military drone strikes deserve just as much attention and concern as Brangelina's break up.
One day we'll say that Jim Matlack and Roger Hansen and Gabrielle Jones and Nancy Corindia and Ed Snyder and a group of hundreds of thousands of devoted FCNL constituents in their faithful and persistent advocacy, wrote letters, made phone calls, submitted op-eds, pushed the press, stormed the halls of Capitol Hill, year after year, carrying forth an effort that helped us realize that vision of the world we seek.
I am a believer. And I believe in the power of faith. I believe in the power of constituent lobbying. I believe we can move Congress. I believe you are making change right now—even if you don't feel it right now. I believe God is with us in this room at this moment. I believe together our power is great and our resolve is strong. And I believe. God will see us through to that promised day when the poverty and violence that now fills the streets and souls throughout this world is one day replaced by a future aglow with the possibilities of all God intended. I believe we all will one day radiate with the light and the love of God who will one day beam down on us in magnificent glory as the vision of the world we once sought after becomes an undeniable reality.