“There was a time when the church was very powerful,” wrote Martin Luther King, Jr. from inside the Birmingham jail. A time when, “early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed.”
“In those days,” King wrote, “the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘
And I have a confession to make. I once considered Rev. William Barber II a disturber of the peace.
When Republicans took power, and Barber spoke out, I feared he was creating a Tea Party of the left, an uncompromising opposition tying a cinder block to the base of the Democratic Party when they needed to reach out to suburbs and the center.
My first job after college was working for a civil rights non-profit which engaged urban communities of color in the political process. So as a North Carolinian, I should have been drawn to Reverend Barber from the start. But I wasn’t.
I’d lost my faith.
I graduated from law school the summer Moral Mondays sprang up and attended one in Charlotte. But I remained skeptical of protest politics and after returning home to practice law only followed the movement from afar.
Democrats in North Carolina lost the next election and the momentum died down. But in hindsight it wasn’t Moral Monday’s fault. According to Nate Cohn of The New York Times, North Carolina’s electorate that year was “distinctly whiter, older and more Republican,” and more “than two million voters who participated in 2012 stayed home.”
In a state with nearly two million poor people, Kay Hagan avoided the word poverty like the plague and lost.
Now Democrats admit it will take years to win back the General Assembly. Redistricting is a factor. But Democrats also have no message for rural areas where the county is the district and cannot be redrawn; where white working-class voters have left the party entirely and are voting for Donald Trump.
Reverend Barber came to my rural county last year to form an NAACP chapter in a room almost half white, where I met him briefly and admired his courage, but even then was skeptical of his tactics.
The same feelings were directed by white liberals at Dr. King. “You may well ask: ‘Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?'” wrote Dr. King from the Birmingham jail. But nonviolent action, “seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”
From poverty and addiction to racial discrimination and mass-incarceration there are issues in America that can no longer be ignored. And last night, on national television, William Barber fostered a brand new tension through his spirit and his love.
I was surprised to see his name on the schedule Thursday afternoon and expected only brief remarks, a two minute speech, or a prayer perhaps. I’d forgot about his slot by the time he came on stage. He came on slowly, this time without a crutch.
“I’m so concerned about those that say so much, about what God says so little, while saying so little about what god says so much,” said Barber, the arthritic pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina. “In my heart, I’m troubled. The prophet Isaiah cries out, what I’m interested in, the nation, pay people what they deserve. Share your food with the hungry. Do this and then your nation shall be called a repairer of the breach.”
The revival was on.
“Jesus, a brown skinned Palestinian Jew called us to preach good news to the poor, the broken, and the braised in all those who are made to feel unaccepted,” said Barber. “Our constitution calls us to commit our government to establish justice, to promote the general welfare, to provide for the common defense and to ensure domestic tranquility.”
“Now, to be true, we’ve never lived this vision perfectly. But this ought to be the goal at the heart of our democracy,” said Barber. “And when religion is used to camouflage meanness, we know that we have a hard problem in America — a heart problem in America.”
In the audience heads were nodding and cheers grew louder as Barber spoke of moral values “reviving the heart of our democracy,” when they fight for voting rights, a higher minimum wage, immigrant rights, and against the NRA.
“In times like these, we have make some decisions and I might not know — normally I’d be here as a preacher, an individual, but when I hear Hillary’s voice and her positions, I hear and I know that she is working to embrace our deepest moral values and we should embrace her,” said Barber. “But let me be clear, let me be clear, she, nor any person can do it alone. The watchword of the democracy in the watchword of faith is we. The heart of our democracy is on the line this November and beyond.”
“My friends, they tell me that when the heart is in danger, somebody has to call an emergency code,” Barber said. “And somebody with a good heart will bring a defibrillator to work on the bad heart…we are being called like our poor mothers and fathers to be the moral defibrillator of our times.”
It was the line of the convention, perhaps of the year. Delegates on the floor were getting saved and white male Democrats raised hands in the air and hung on every word. Huddled with foreign journalists around a TV in the press tent, my eyes began to water as the feed cut to celebrities crying in the stands.
“We must shock this nation with the power of love,” said Barber. “We must shock this nation with the power of mercy. We must shock this nation and fight for justice for all. We can’t give up on the heart of our democracy, not now, not ever. So I stop by here tonight to ask, is there a heart in this house?”
Mine was beating again. “Is there somebody that has a heart for the poor, and a for the vulnerable,” Barber asked. “Then stand up. Vote together…Fight for the heart.”
Those were the most powerful words from a North Carolinian on a convention stage in decades, not from Hagan, Tillis, G.K. Butterfield or Richard Burr, but from a preacher, a protest organizer, the leader of the state’s NAACP; from a man bringing a dying civil rights movement back to life.
Dr. King waged battles for civil rights and voting rights through direct action in the Deep South when he called on the Christian community to “recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church.”
But William Barber was not speaking to the church. He was bringing the church to the Democratic Party.
He was speaking to a progressive movement that for too many years has been an irrelevant social club unwilling to struggle and more willing to judge. I was one of those sinners and for one one night in Philadelphia, a preacher restored my faith.
Unlike the others speakers Thursday, Barber spoke not to undecideds, but to dispirited Democrats in the hall and at home.
After a brutal primary and a horrifying RNC, delegates came to the convention divided and depressed, and in speech that will be long remembered, Reverend Barber put a defibrillator on their heart.