The 9 Caravans of the Poor People's Campaign

Transgressing the Boundaries of the “Kingdom”

Here is the message I delivered at First Friends in Greensboro, N.C. on Palm Sunday.

Reading from John 12:12–16:

The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord— the King of Israel!” Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.” 

Thresholds

This morning I want us to look at Palm Sunday as an example of what it means for people of faith, starting with Jesus, to cross over certain thresholds in our world.

Now we all know what a threshold is. It is a boundary that delineates one space from another. When you walked through the doors to this meeting room, that was a threshold you crossed over. Thresholds are barriers, sometimes visible and sometimes invisible. Jerome Berryman says that “A threshold sets apart but it also provides the way into a different space.”

On Friday, my wife Emily and I took the tour at the Civil Rights Museum in downtown Greensboro and one of the things that stood out to me during that tour was the separate entrance marked “colored people” that African American’s and other people of color had to use to enter the train station. That is a very specific threshold that not only symbolic power but legalized power used to create and sustained a racism, and over time that threshold has been crossed over and dismantled.

Building on this, let’s look at three more images, three processionals – if you will – that have crossed over invisible thresholds in history.

Three Processionals

In the Spring of 1968, only a few weeks after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. the Poor People’s Campaign launched. For those of you who know King’s work, this was to be his crowning achievement.

Over the course of the last few years of his life, King became more and more razor focused on the poor and began using his influence to not only bring awareness to the plight of the poor but to bring an end to poverty.

In his Riverside Sermon he delivered the year before called, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence,” he denounced the war in large part because of its crippling impact on the poor within our society, acting – as he said – like a “demonic, destructive suction tube” that sucked up all the resources that could be used to care for the poor in our society.

Thus, when, on April 29, the Poor People’s campaign launched, without their key leader, all those broken-hearted people, had even more cause to press into the capital of our country and call for deep systemic change.

Poor people, and those who supported, them rode in nine different caravans from all over the country, their faces and hearts, set towards DC, with a determination that would not be overcome. Men and women, boys and girls took:

the “Eastern Caravan,” the “Appalachia Trail,” The “Southern Caravan,” The “Midwest Caravan,” the “Indian Trail,” the “San Francisco Caravan,” the “Western Caravan,” the “Mule Train,” and the “Freedom Train” (A New and Unsettling Force, 25).

Yes, in good Palm Sunday fashion, people took a “Mule Train” up from Marks MS to D.C.  Bertha Burres known as the mother of the Mule Train ride during the Poor People’s Campaign said that the Mules symbolized the parts of our history as people migrated West in hopes of “new beginnings.” Burres said, “[King] thought they went out there…[to] start a new beginning, and he said that that would be good for us because we needed a new beginning. We had need of everything. We need housing, food stamps…we need help…[including] medical attention” (ibid., 38).

So imagine with me this poor people’s Palm Sunday processional, transgressing those invisible thresholds that continue to separate, victimize and silence. While riding those mules they declared not only that they thought poverty was a bad idea, they physically crossed over the threshold of poverty and the threshold of classism, and racism, and ableism.

And when they go to the Mall in DC they build a tent community they call “Resurrection City,” to announce once again that a new and beloved community was what they sought in bringing an end to poverty.

Onto our second boundary crossing processional.

James Nayler was seen as central to Early Quaker leadership and in fact, some scholars believe that he and Fox competed for the top role in the movement. Leading up to October 24th 1656, James Nayler and George Fox had a falling out. Nayler, wanting to distance himself from Fox’s leadership, feeling that Fox was too much of a gradualist when it came to dealing with the political and religious authorities of the time. Prior to becoming a Quaker, Nayler was a Seeker, that believed, as Ben Pink Dandelion argues,

“God would not take humanity backwards, especially to a faith which had been so easily corrupted before, but that they were living in a new and distinct age” (2007: 14).

Nayler believed now was not the time for compromise because “this is the day,” this is the time of the new age of God. And in keeping with this conviction, Nayler wanted to declare the new age had arrived.

That’s why on October 24, 1656, Nayler took a Palm Sunday mule train ride of his own. He mounted a donkey and rode through the center of Bristol while those around him said “Holy, Holy, Holy, Hosanna…” Nayler’s Palm Sunday processional reminds us of how powerfully provocative the Hebrew and Christian practice of public theater is within our tradition. How when you take these things you can get yourself in trouble.

I believe that Nayler’s Palm Sunday processional was about acting out & challenging the structures of society that go to great lengths to maintain the status quo. And that this is at least partly why we are tempted to dismiss it. In his reenactment of Palm Sunday, Nayler crossed over the threshold of our inertia, comfort and passiveness that are true not just for politicians and bureaucrats but those within our movement as well.

Our third processional is the first “Palm” Sunday.

Our final image is from the Gospel of John who tells us that Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem, while a “great crowd” waved palms branches saying:

“Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord— the King of Israel!”

NT Scholar Wes Howard-Brook says that the crowd is participating in a “Liturgical Direct Action” because they are using powerful symbols with powerful words. The palms were symbolic of revolution and pointed to the fact that they believed Jesus to be the new Maccabaeus, the new liberator, who will become a national leader and overthrow the emperor who would violently, if necessary, restore the temple (WHB; cf. 2 Mac 10:7).

Over against this image of power, greed, and violence, Jesus takes a mule train ride into the center of empire. He subverted the symbols to announce a new kingdom.

My friend, Jarrod McKenna, says instead of Jesus riding a tank into the center of Jerusalem, as people would have expected, he came riding a tricycle.

Send in the Tanks Palm Sunday Jarrod McKenna

This is a new kind of liberator, who brings about a new kind of kingdom. One where poverty must come to an end. One where sacrifice is no longer needed. One where everyone has access to God. One where it is not enough to have the right beliefs or rituals, but where we must act out with our bodies the kind of community Jesus calls us to inhabit.

And so – Just as Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem, we are called to cross the thresholds of religiosity that continue to say that God favors some over others. Instead, let us announce that the kingdom of Christ is come, and we are committed to the dismantling of these obstacles whatever they may be.

And Just as Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem, we are called to cross the thresholds of inertia and comfort that tempt us. Because we know that people in our communities do not have the luxury of compromise. Instead, let us embody that new and distinct age that Jesus ushers forth in his death and resurrection by how we show up alongside those who need advocates in need in our community.

And Just as Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem, we are called to cross the thresholds of fear and despair that confront our hearts and know that where ever our mule train takes us, God is already there, God is already at work, and God is waiting for more of the people of God to show up and lend a hand.

Let us act out the kind of world we believe Christ has already put in place in the resurrection.

Let us act out the kind of future we wish to be a part of for us, our children and our grandchildren.

Let us live out the beloved community and be committed to its coming into existence.

Thank you, Friends.


9 Caravan’s image supplied by “Aaron Hearts Jesus” of the Poverty Initiative at Union Theological Seminary.

Published by

Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.