My Lunch with Reverend Jackson
Leader of the Baltimore and Philadelphia Societies
"God works in mysterious ways," said Hollister Knowlton, my wonderful new Quaker friend who is helping me connect with others working with Occupy Philadelphia. Knowing my non-theistic perspective, she gave me a reassuring smile. I smiled back and said, "Or maybe I just got lucky!"
That is how I felt about my lunch with the Reverend Jesse Jackson—I lucked out. I had made a couple of trips to Occupy Philly with donations of fresh fruit and other food, but I had just begun visiting the interfaith tent at Dilworth Plaza. After our Humanist Thanksgiving at 1906 Rittenhouse Square, I returned to the tent and Hollister welcomed me heartily, saying that Reverend Jackson was planning to visit. In preparation, I swept the sidewalk and straightened things up a bit. Suddenly Rev. Jackson emerged from a cab and came right up to me and shook my hand.
Left to right: Hugh Taft-Morales and Jesse Jackson, Jesse Jackson in interfaith tent at Occupy Philadelphia
"I had the pleasure of knowing your sons at St. Albans School where I taught decades ago, Rev. Jackson," I said, hoping to make a special connection with him. He just nodded and continued greeting the others in the growing crowd. I was satisfied with my brief brush with the famous civil rights leader, two-time candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, and current leader of Rainbow/PUSH.
Rev. Jackson had come to the interfaith tent to offer guidance on how best to connect the Occupy Movement with the social justice efforts of African American clergy in Philadelphia. Rev. Jackson suggested that a good start would be a press conference the next day, Monday, November 21st, with Occupy Interfaith and black clergy.
On the eve of being evicted from Dilworth Plaza, he said to keep the faith because, "...the Occupy Movement is not about this space. It's about the space between rich and poor, the space between those who have access to medical care and those who don’t, the space between the 1% and the rest." Then he brought some clergy into the interfaith tent for a prayer and further discussion about coalition building and moving forward. After all the news trucks and reporters were gone, I got my biggest surprise when Rev. Jackson invited me and a couple of others to lunch.
I didn't feel I had earned the thrill of lunch with such an inspirational leader. Hollister, Rev. Peter Friedrichs, of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Delaware Valley, Quaker Joyce Haru Moore, Rev. Jackson, and I had an hour to talk. I was struck by his calm, almost soft-spoken, manner. He spoke gently about President Johnson's genius in deracializing the civil rights debate. He noted that the President began his "War on Poverty" in predominantly white rural Appalachia, assuring the broadest support possible. In the same way, today the Occupy Movement must work in broader and broader coalitions, avoiding the splintering that so often plagues progressive movements. This will take, he said with a wry smile, convincing the black clergy that Occupy can be more than a "white hippy and derelict movement." It’s about inclusion.
I am grateful that I had this opportunity to meet with Rev. Jackson and fellow clergy. As I contribute what I can to this work, I am in awe of the many individuals I am just getting to know working long hours to assure that Occupy Philly survives the winter and returns in the spring on stronger, more diverse and inclusive footing.
Near the end of our meal, Rev. Friedrichs asked Rev. Jackson, "What sustains you?" A part of the answer that I will never forget went something like this: "Well, we've had some victories. It excites me. And you young guys here at this table right now—you are my 'angels'." So many others have paid a much higher price than I for speaking truth to justice—they are the angels. But Rev. Jackson's humbling words challenge me to do more to earn his faith. And for that I am grateful, and I feel very lucky.