My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is the second book I’ve read from the Justice and Spirit Unitarian-Universalist Book Club on Goodreads. The book club unfortunately seems to have withered away. There was a little discussion of the Rosa Parks biography in January, but last month there were maybe 1 or 2 comments and there was virtually nothing this month on this book at all, except for a thread I started with the subject line, “Anybody There?” This is too bad, because I think this book deserves a wide readership, especially outside North Carolina.
This book probably best serves as a primer for people who didn’t previously know much about Rev Barber or Moral Mondays. It is written in an accessible and conversational, rather than scholarly, style. There aren’t any footnotes. The book follows Barber’s life from his birth as the son of a preacher man in North Carolina, through his time at Duke Divinity School, his early calling preaching at Fayette Street Christian Church in Martinsville VA, his work as a pastor at Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro NC, and with the North Carolina NAACP.
I would have found much of this section unremarkable except for the tremendous physical challenge that struck Barber just as he was turning 30. One Friday night in August, he “woke up at home and could not move.” He spent the next 3 months in the hospital, eventually diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, an extreme form of arthritis that fuses bones in place. In describing this time of his life, he also mentions off-handedly that his father died one summer, then his mother-in-law, then his daughter had brain surgery, then his son had a vitamin deficiency problem. And now this. “I didn’t have it in me to keep going,” he admits.
Later he has an encounter in the hospital with an amputee woman in a wheelchair who prays for him. She is never identified or even found by the medical staff, but he calls her his amputee angel, and after that he is able to get out of his hospital bed. He will still need to walk with a walker for the next 12 years, but he keeps on working and ministering.
As a Unitarian-Universalist and a scientist, I’m generally skeptical of stories that even sound a little bit like “faith healing.” I don’t like being in crowds of people and revivals scare me. I’m much more of a “small, still inner voice” type of person, and the smaller, stiller, and inner-er the voice, the better. But this story moved me. It moved me because it seemed believable. Barber wasn’t miraculously healed by the touch of an angel, he was given the strength to go on by a courageous woman who was herself wounded. He says he didn’t even take her offered hand.
Most of the rest of the book deals with forming the coalitions that will make up, first, the Historic Thousands on Jones Street People’s Assembly (somewhat awkwardly abbreviated as HKonJ) and then the Moral Mondays movement. There are two major themes that run throughout this section: the first is how welcoming and inclusive the movement is. Theirs is a coalition of “liberals and conservatives, Christians, Jews, and Muslims, the documented and the undocumented, black, white, and brown sisters and brothers.” The second theme is one of morality based in faith.
I was concerned that, despite the promise of the first theme, I would find this second theme to be off-putting. I don’t just believe that no single religion has a monopoly on morality, I believe that morality is separate from religion altogether. I’m with novelist Mary McCarthy, who said “from what I have seen, I am driven to the conclusion that religion is only good for good people.” But I’m also willing to give Barber the benefit of the doubt and accept faith as something different from religion. His story, like that of the Civil Rights, feminist, and LBGTQ movements, is one of small steps forward followed by intense backlash. Faith is what enables him to hang on through the backlashes and keep fighting without getting discouraged and giving up. “If we had accepted the liberal consensus that suggests that faith is either divisive or inherently regressive, we would have never had the resources to stand our ground after the initial backlash of 2008.” And he points out that even those who struggle with religion can have faith in something greater than themselves. “We were also learning how to trust one another and a Higher Power beyond us when we faced uncertainty.”
The Appendix for Organizers at the end is also a gem, in particular where he emphasizes the importance of empowering local people to advocate on their own behalf. “Helicopter” activism, in which “national leaders” are flown in to speak to reporters, doesn’t work, in his view. “We do not speak for those who can speak for themselves. We do not create a platform for politicians to speak for those who can speak for themselves.” His emphasis on empowering local, “everyday” people, and on giving a voice to the voiceless is a refreshing change from what many of us have come to know as politics as usual.
The backlash is strong right now, in North Carolina yes, but everywhere else too. We need Barber’s voice, and the voices of his fusion coalition now more than ever.