Social reform as loving your neighbor

As I was scrolling through Facebook this past week I came upon a post from a good friend of mine from college. I have known Alex for over twenty years and consider that friendship a blessing, here is what he said:

            “One of the wonderful and terrible things about NYC is that you occasionally see things most people try very hard to ignore.  I was walking over to Penn Station to grab a downtown E and I noticed a man talking to himself and gesticulating at nothing.  That in and of itself is not unusual.  Nor was his starved appearance, which is typical of those late in both meth and fentanyl addiction.  So, nothing was out of the ordinary.

            However, my brain was in debugging mode, having spent the last few hours on a driver issue.  I noticed that his arms had tattoos on them.  Again, nothing unusual.   What stuck out to me was the quality of the ink.  Despite his dying skin, the colors were vibrant, there was no blowout, and the overall art was gorgeous.  So, he clearly had had at least $1000.00 to spend in the chair.  Those were not partiers or prison tattoos.

            So, I am now on the train wondering what happened?  He had clearly known better days.  Did he have a good job?  Did he have a mother who loved him?  Did he talk in the chair?  Did he tip his artist well for a job well done? I’ll never know, but I hope I remember today for a long time.”

            Alex’s words struck me immediately and I asked his permission to share them with you this morning, which he obviously gave. I wanted to share it because his reaction to the gentlemen he observed on the street is the exact reaction we are called to have. Alex did not judge this man, who clearly has some issues, instead he saw him and continued on his way. Should Alex have assisted the man, like the good Samaritan? No, he shouldn’t have, because the issues this particular person is facing are not solvable by Alex, they are issues that need to be solved by society. What Alex did, was not pass judgment, he didn’t say anything about how this person needed to clean up their act and get a job, instead he accepted the person for who they were in that moment, acknowledging why they were likely their and then noticed something positive about them, all of which is an act of love.

            In today’s passage form Mark Jesus tells us that whomever asks, searches, or knocks will receive what they need. In the case of the tattooed man from New York, only he knows what he needs and when he is ready to seek it out he will find it, in the mean time he is asking for nothing more than to be seen as a human being and that is exactly what Alex saw. Alex did not see a bum or a drug addict. He saw a man that had clues to who he used to be and that made Alex wonder what happened, without judgment; which sometimes is all loving our neighbor means.

            Today we are celebrating the lives of four incredible women who led the way for various social reform movements. Elizabeth Cady Stanton is known as the founder of the women’s suffrage movement, but that is only a small portion of what she fought for. Over the course of 50 years, she publicly held the Church accountable for oppressing women by using Scripture to enforce the subordination of women in marriage and to prohibit them from ordained ministry. She held society accountable for denying women equal access to professional jobs, property ownership, the vote, and for granting less pay for the same work. Her work paved the way for other reformers and the eventual passage of many, many laws including the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. Shortly before she died she said: “My only regret is that I have not been braver and bolder and truer in the honest conviction of my soul.”

            Amelia Jenks Bloomer was a close friend of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and never intended to make women’s clothing reform a cornerstone of her work, but when she published a picture of herself wearing Turkish trousers, ministers across the country preached against her wearing of pants, quoting Moses who said that women should never wear men’s clothes. She fired right back and eventually women’s undergarments changed with the adoption of slightly baggy long-johns as a standard undergarment, instead of a corset. This new undergarment became known as bloomers in honor of the woman who inadvertently led the movement.  In addition to clothing, she railed against the church’s oppression of women, believing it contributed to societies views on the role of women and of course fought for women’s rights alongside her friend Elizabeth.

            Sojourner Truth was born into slavery and as a young woman walked away from her master’s home believing that she had a right to do so. She spent her life preaching the Gospel, believing that God had called her to do so. From the pulpit she railed against slavery and the mistreatment of women. She moved in Florence Massachusetts to become a part of the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, which was a Utopian society dedicated to abolition and equality. They produced really poor-quality silk, which is why they named their community Florence, hoping people would mistake their product for the silk produced in Italy, the plan did not work. During a women’s rights convention in Ohio, Sojourner gave the speech for which she is best remembered, now known as “Ain’t I a Woman.” In which she exposed the hypocrisy of the white male ministers, pointing out the ways in which slavery had forced her to become as strong as any man, and noting that Jesus himself never turned women away or refused to teach them on account of their gender. Until her death, she continued to speak and preach, advocating for the right to vote to be expanded to all women, not only white women.

            Harriet Ross Tubman was born into slavery sometime in 1820. When she was about 24, she escaped, but could not forget her parents and other slaves she left behind. Working with the Quakers, she made at least 19 trips back to Maryland between 1851 and 1861, freeing over 300 people. She foresaw the Civil War in a vision and when it began, she quickly joined the Union Army, serving as cook and nurse, caring for both Confederate and Union soldiers. She also served as a spy and scout and led 300 black troops on a raid which freed over 750 slaves, making her the first American woman to lead troops into military action.

            In 1858 – 9, she moved to upstate New York where she opened her home to African American orphans and helpless old people. Although she was illiterate, she founded schools for African American children. She joined the fight for women’s rights, working with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, but also supported African American women in their efforts to found their own organizations to address equality, work, and education.

            These four incredible women loved their neighbor by never backing down. They knew what was right and they dedicated their entire lives to fighting for the change that they believed was needed and not one of them lived to see those changes take hold, but it didn’t matter to them because what they were doing was bigger than themselves and they knew that God had called them to push society towards the kingdom. They asked the questions, they searched for the truth, and they knocked on so many doors, doors that opened and because of their work God was able to shift society and the things that these women fought for came to fruition. Sometimes loving your neighbor means meeting them where they are, like Alex did and sometimes it means knocking on some doors because others aren’t able to do it themselves.