by Meg Riley, senior minister, Church of the Larger Fellowship
When I was a kid, it seemed like magic. My mother would take a piece of fabric and somehow bewitch it, so that it became a shirt, or a pair of shorts, or a dress for me to wear. Flat, lifeless pieces of cloth in a drawer, and suddenly—voila! A piece of new clothing!
I asked my mom about it, and she told me to watch her. She took pieces of paper and pinned them to the fabric and cut them out. Then, following a huge sheet of directions with pictures, she sewed them together in particular ways. And plain old cloth became a beautiful new garment to wear.
It was amazing to watch, but I remember as the magic fell away. There was disappointment, but also a way forward. Suddenly, I knew how to move from cloth to garment, and none of it was mysterious at all. Some people do the same thing with words, with images, with food. They create something that, to the untrained eye, appears to have been conjured from stardust and mystery. But actually they are doing it methodically, step by step, following written instructions, or the teachings of their ancestors, or a particular gift that lets them do it intuitively.
Which is how, mostly, we need to go about making change in the world. Methodically. I was taught history as if it was full of magic—benign acts by which people in authority handed over power to those without it. But watching and listening and reading history has taught me that the words of Frederick Douglass are true: “Power cedes nothing without demand.” Ceaseless demand.
I study the patterns, the templates, the instructions built by people who have demanded and achieved a shifting of power. I am alert when anyone succeeds in creating something new and life-giving.
After yet another horrific school shooting—this time in Parkland, Florida—young people demanded change. Mainstream media was in awe of the mysterious, magical power that the students had to actually convince corporations and politicians to change their policies. Though the changes were smaller than many wished for, the youth broke through gridlock which had set up an absolute wall to frustrate any reform at all.
And yet, further learning said that this was not completely mysterious. These were young people fortified with information gained in Advanced Placement history class about how discussion had previously been stopped in the aftermath of shootings. Gun control had been a subject of a year’s worth of debate for some of them.
Others were theater students, well-practiced at speaking before large crowds. The pieces of what they were doing were not magical or mysterious, but rather specific and well-honed. So much so that detractors accused them of being paid by left wing sources to fake their emotional states.
These young people also got enormous boosts from celebrities, from teachers who forgave their absences as they went to protests and media events, from mainstream media that could not gush enough about their talent and their heroism.
Making change is not easy for anyone, and my hat is off to these young people. However, watching the assists that they have received, the open doors to cordons of power, the millions of dollars amassed to help them with their work, I’ve also noticed a sharp contrast to how the grief and anger of other young people has been met recently.
When Michael Brown’s murdered body was left lying in the hot streets of Ferguson, Missouri, for four and a half hours before being tended to, his community, like the community of Parkland, was both angry and deeply grief-stricken. When the people came to mourn their beloved, to hold a vigil, they were met with tanks and militarized police. Mainstream (white) media labeled the protestors as dangerous and violent, when in fact the vast majority of them were grieving neighbors and peers. The scene escalated, and many people and businesses were hurt.
#BlackLivesMatter (BLM) emerged as a powerful, visionary force of collective liberation. These mostly young, mostly women and queer folks pieced together their own pattern for change, for creating a different way of being. Indeed, much of what the Parkland students have done is crafted on the techniques of BLM: create your own video and send it out via social media rather than relying on other sources; use many voices rather than electing one leader to represent the group; speak truth to power.
And yet the young people involved with BLM were not seen as heroes or visionary leaders. They were criminalized and judged and violently assaulted in cities across our land. Some are in jail still. Nonetheless, their work has had a positive impact on many communities across the land.
I am grateful for all people, especially the young, who dare to believe that we can still co-create the world; who can see the world we live in now and somehow find a way to imagine shaping something new from it; who take whatever tools are at hand and, with or without approval or support from others, use them to make something new.
Now that I’m older, I can also see that such leaders, such movements, such moments, are not to be taken for granted. That, in fact, when they happen—when groups are greater than the sum of their parts, when the walls crack enough for new life to come through—there is perhaps a bit of magic going on after all. Method…and magic.