Rev. Phil Lawson: Building the Beloved Community

Rev. Lawson has worked his entire life to ensure that there will be room enough in the beloved community so no one will be left outside to suffer and die in poverty on the streets, no one will be locked out by border walls, and no one will be denied entrance because of racial intolerance or homophobia.

 

by Terry Messman

At some point in the course of his lifelong work to build a truly inclusive community, Rev. Phil Lawson became a pastor for all the people. His ministry now extends far beyond the walls of the Methodist churches where he ministered to his congregations in Richmond, El Cerrito and Vallejo.

The walls of his church have expanded to include the homeless and hungry people cast out of American society, the refugees from war-torn lands in Central America, the same-sex couples he joined in marriage, the low-paid workers in Richmond struggling for living wages, the peace and justice activists who look to this soft-spoken man for leadership, and the Occupy activists seeking to build a nationwide movement for justice.

As Lawson’s ministry has expanded through all these years of pastoral service and nonviolent movement building, it has become clear that there is only one edifice large enough to provide sanctuary for all the people he has included in his ministry — the “beloved community.”

At a forum on nonviolent resistance held at the height of the Occupy movement in Oakland on Dec. 15, 2011, Rev. Lawson declared: “The end result of nonviolence is redemption and reconciliation. The purpose of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community.”

Drawing the blueprints for the beloved community

Rev. Lawson has now devoted his entire lifetime to drawing up the blueprints for what Martin Luther King, Jr. called the beloved community. He has laid the foundations of that refuge with his ministry, his inspirational activism, and his consistent ethic of championing the rights of those who have been segregated, scapegoated, arrested and outlawed.

After many long hours of interviewing Rev. Lawson, after talking to his colleagues, after studying his life’s work, a glimpse of an edifice began emerging, a vision of a longed-for refuge, a massive sanctuary large enough to provide safe haven for all of those who have been persecuted, rejected, vilified and cast aside — the beloved community itself.

Rev. Lawson is a paradoxical fusion of the pastor and the rebel, two seemingly contradictory roles that somehow co-exist and define his ministry. As a pastor, he is gentle, soft-spoken, modest and caring. As a rebel, he is constantly to be found at the heart of radical movements for justice.

Rev. Brian Woodson, an Oakland pastor and social justice activist, captured this dual nature of Rev. Lawson with rare insight in telling Street Spirit: “Rev. Phil Lawson speaks truth to power with a gentle tone and soft voice, but as he does the ring of a sledgehammer slammed on the anvil of the universe is heard. He teaches that wherever there is injustice one must find and reveal the lie upon which it is perpetuated. Rev. Lawson’s life is a witness that nonviolence has the power to hammer the red-hot iron of injustice until the lies are revealed and destroyed.”

Neither cowardice nor violence

In 1959, Rev. Martin Luther King was immersed in the white-hot struggle against racism and segregation in the Jim Crow South, and, in addressing the civil rights activists who faced brutality, bombings and police violence on almost a daily basis, King rejected surrender and submission as moral cowardice, and he simultaneously rejected violence as a dead-end road for humanity.

Dr. King said, “The way of acquiescence leads to moral and spiritual suicide. The way of violence leads to bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers. But the way of nonviolence leads to redemption and the creation of the beloved community.”

More than 50 years after King spoke those words, Rev. Lawson would convey his message about the beloved community to the young activists of the Occupy movement at a moment of great controversy in Oakland.

Lawson came of age during the civil rights struggle and was greatly inspired by the courage and commitment of the Black ministers and activists who sacrificed so much of themselves to confront a system of evil so deeply entrenched and so overwhelmingly violent that it was nearly totalitarian in its domination and control.

Lawson never forgot the power of people to rise up in nonviolent resistance, and he made it his own life’s work to carry that message into the future.

The Occupy Movement

After an entire lifetime of activism, at the age of 80 when most people have long since retired, Rev. Phil Lawson carried King’s message of building the beloved community to the Occupy movement. Just as he had been tirelessly active for decades in showing his solidarity with labor unions, homeless and hungry people, immigrants and refugees, and gay and lesbian rights groups, the white-haired Rev. Lawson now stepped directly into the wildly tumultuous series of militant protests and general strikes organized by Occupy Oakland.

The pastor and the rebel are always closely joined in Lawson’s life. The rebel immediately began organizing the Interfaith Tent in Oakland to show support for Occupy Oakland. Lawson also worked with his brother, Rev. James Lawson, and Vincent Harding to organize the National Council of Elders. One of the very first acts of the newly formed Council of Elders was to travel across the country, organizing demonstrations of solidarity with Occupy movements in many cities. It was intensely moving to see these veterans of the civil rights and antiwar movements now declaring common cause with the young people of the Occupy movement.

But right alongside the rebel, the pastor was also present during the Occupy Oakland uprisings. When a controversy broke out between the adherents of nonviolence and the supporters of “a diversity of tactics,” the pastoral side of Rev. Lawson became engaged.

Asked to speak at an Occupy Oakland forum on “Nonviolence vs. Diversity of Tactics” on Dec. 15, 2011, Lawson said adamantly: “Nonviolence is not a tactic or strategy. Nonviolence is a way of life.”

He immediately made it clear that he had no respect for cowardice or passivity in a time of great injustice. Lawson told the Occupy activists that nonviolence must be rebellious and brave, adding, “Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people. It’s active nonviolent resistance. It is not pacifism. It’s not passive resistance. “

Then, Lawson spoke the words that merged his dual identities as pastor and rebel — the words that also revealed his longstanding faithfulness to the vision and commitment of the civil rights activists who had inspired him as a teenager.

“The end result of nonviolence is redemption and reconciliation,” Lawson said. “The purpose of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community.”

A spellbinding historical echo

It was a beautiful moment — a spellbinding historical echo — when everything that Martin Luther King had taught the young activists who joined his campaigns for justice and freedom in the South was now being transmitted to a new generation fighting for the same cause of justice and freedom in a new century.

Yet controversy often has dogged the footsteps of this gentle, soft-spoken minister. Even in his involvement with Occupy Oakland, the stands that this pastor-rebel took were not always popular.

Even though Lawson spoke forthrightly for nonviolence as a way of life, he also pushed for the full inclusion of all sides in the debate between nonviolence and diversity of tactics, arguing that Occupy activists were all part of the same community, and that even the anarchists and black-bloc activists who had resorted to property destruction should not be excluded from the Occupy community.

A minister’s pastoral role does lead in the direction of including all people in the vision of community. But trust Lawson to take that pastoral commitment so seriously that it provokes controversy — and not for the first time in his long life.

At the end of the 1960s, when Lawson was pastor of the Methodist Inner City Parish in Kansas City, Missouri, he worked not only with nonviolent activists, but with alienated and militant inner-city youth who were attracted to the Black Panther Party in the wake of King’s assassination.

Lawson himself always had a profound commitment to nonviolence, beginning when he joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a pacifist organization, when he was only 15. As a teenager, Lawson joined in nonviolent direct actions to integrate stores, movie theaters and swimming pools in Washington, D.C.

The young Lawson’s main inspirations were Dr. King; A.J. Muste, a Christian pacifist and executive director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation; Bayard Rustin, also a leader in the F.O.R and a key strategist of the civil rights movement; and Phil’s own older brother, Jim Lawson, who became a conscientious objector in 1951 and served 14 months in prison for refusing to report for the draft.

Rev. Jim Lawson later traveled to India, immersed himself in studying Gandhi’s nonviolent campaigns, and then taught Gandhian nonviolence to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, becoming one of the most important nonviolent trainers for the Freedom Movement.

Accused of treason

With his long history of nonviolent activism, it might seem at first surprising that Phil Lawson began working with the Black Panthers in Kansas City, Missouri. Yet, his pastoral side made him listen very closely to the anger and anguish of the black youth he counseled in the aftermath of King’s assassination, and his rebel side understood their uncompromising demands for justice and dignity.

To stir the flames even higher, the pastor was invited to North Vietnam with other members of an F.O.R. peace delegation, and while there he spoke on radio, urging American soldiers in Vietnam to refuse to commit war crimes, and resist orders that would lead to the massacre and rape of Vietnamese civilians.

That pushed things to the breaking point. Because of his work with the Black Panthers, Rev. Lawson was subpoenaed to testify at the House Internal Security Committee, successor to the dread House Un-American Activities Committee. At the same time, the Methodist bishop in Missouri was outraged by Lawson’s speech telling U.S. soldiers not to commit war crimes, and wanted Lawson removed from the Methodist ministry for “treason.”

Decades later, Rep. Barbara Lee had an entirely different perspective on the matter. On May 15, 2003, Rep. Lee spoke at a Congressional event to honor Phil Lawson upon his retirement as the widely respected pastor of Easter Hill United Methodist Church in Richmond, California.

In an ironic historic reversal, the same Congress that had once subpoenaed Rev. Lawson as a dangerous dissident now had gathered to honor him. Rep. Lee said, “Mr. Speaker, we rise today to honor a great religious, spiritual and civil leader, Reverend Phil Lawson, for his magnificent ministry. Today we honor and celebrate this giant of a human being.”

Lee’s speech focused on Lawson’s dedication as a pastor and his long years of constructive work in the community helping to feed the hungry and assist those in need. But she did not shy away from the controversy that once led another Congressional committee to investigate him.

The Rev. Phil Lawson rallies supporters of full rights for gays and lesbians in the United Methodist Church following a protest march on the floor of the denomination's legislative body in Pittsburgh. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

 

Rep. Lee said, “Rev. Lawson’s Ministry for Justice reached nationwide attention in the United Methodist Church in the ‘60s and ‘70s when his ministry led him into close relationship with the Kansas City, Missouri, Black Panther Party. Additionally, his passion for peace led him to travel to the former Soviet Union and North Viet Nam in 1970. Consequently, the Internal Security Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives began its investigation of the Black Panthers by subpoenaing Rev. Lawson in 1970, and the Missouri West Annual Conference convened a special session to ‘deal with Phil Lawson,’ also in 1970. Both events generated national support for Rev. Lawson and his ministries. He has consistently spoken truth to power.”

An inclusive community — The heart of his ministry

At the heart of Lawson’s ministry is a consistent ethic of building an inclusive community by welcoming the very people that mainstream society has cast aside.

As an African-American pastor, Rev. Lawson was ahead of his time in working to safeguard the rights of immigrants and refugees, even at times when many in the black community were greatly concerned that meeting the needs of impoverished immigrants would mean that the needs of the black community would be neglected.

Lawson insisted that building a beloved community meant there had to be room for African Americans and immigrants to live there together. He spoke out against the dangers of scapegoating immigrants, and taught black churches that many refugees were fleeing horrific wars in Central America caused by U.S. military intervention, and that many immigrants were forced to flee Mexico because of U.S. free trade agreements.

Lawson’s pastoral work also reached out to another group too often marginalized by mainstream religious denominations — gay, lesbian and transgender people. At a time when many clergy in African American churches were opposed to gay rights, Lawson championed full equality for gays and lesbians, and joined other ministers in officiating at the same-sex marriage of a lesbian couple in a high-profile act of resistance.

Rev. Lawson — The Squatter

I’ve never forgotten the time I truly encountered the steadfast spirit of Rev. Phil Lawson in an abandoned house in East Oakland in 1993. We had broken into and occupied the vacant, HUD-repossessed home as a statement of resistance to the federal government’s role in the terrible rise in homelessness.

When friends at the Ecumenical Peace Institute, including Rev. Phil Lawson, Carolyn Scarr, Joan McIntyre and Rev. Lee Williamson, took part in our housing takeover, I jokingly told them it would wreck our image when people saw that the “solidly respectable middle class” had joined our ragged crew of squatters.

Rev. Lawson — white-haired, immaculately dressed, clerical collar — looked like the most respectable one of all. Yet, he acted as if our illegal squat was the most natural place in the world for him to be. He seemed supremely comfortable living on the floor of that squat during the days and nights of the housing takeover. He warmly related to the homeless people there, and he warmed all our spirits.

We had sledge-hammered our way into abandoned houses a couple dozen times and were greatly disliked by Oakland police and city officials for our lawbreaking ways.

But Rev. Lawson buoyed our spirits by giving his strong support to our housing occupations, saying it was crucial to awaken people to the need for homes for poor people. We felt blessed and strengthened by his presence, and his warm, gentle spirit. It was one more example of a man who is simultaneously a pastor and a rebel.

Building the Beloved Community brick by brick, room by room

In reflecting on Lawson’s lifelong work for justice, one can see Dr. King’s beloved community being built brick by brick, room by room, home by home.

In our mind’s eye, we can see the beloved community begin to take shape in a neighborhood in Richmond, in the form of a meal program for the hungry and a housing center for homeless families that Rev. Lawson helped to build with the Greater Richmond Interfaith Program.

As we continue our tour of Rev. Lawson’s legacy, we see that next door  to the homeless center is a sanctuary for political refugees from war-torn lands in Central America. Across the street is a welcome sign in front of the home of newly married gays and lesbians, a welcome sign set up as Lawson was arrested repeatedly with members of Soulforce for protesting for equal rights and tolerance.

Down the block are the homes of low-wage workers who can afford housing because Lawson worked with labor unions in Richmond to win the highest living wage in the Bay Area, and worked with EBASE to pressure Safeway’s CEO during the grocery workers’ strike of 2005.

Near Oakland City Hall is the Interfaith Tent set up to show solidarity with the young Occupy Oakland activists that Lawson joined in marches, rallies, general strikes and tent encampments.

And most recently, the living legacy of the beloved community is now being preserved and passed on to a new generation by the newly formed National Council of Elders that Phil Lawson co-founded with Vincent Harding and Rev. Jim Lawson.

The loss of a son

Yet even as he has given so much of his life for justice, Lawson also has received, as he explained while recalling a time of deep personal grief.

He said, “When you are down and depressed, or hurting or grieving, the most powerful thing you can do to sustain yourself is to get up and go do something for someone else who is hurting.”

In the 1990s, I worked with Sister Bernie Galvin, Father Louis Vitale, Ken Butigan, Rabbi Alan Lew and other religious leaders in organizing Religious Witness with Homeless People to oppose San Francisco’s Matrix program. Instigated by former mayors Frank Jordan and Willie Brown, Matrix targeted homeless people for police raids. They were persecuted like subhuman creatures with no rights at all.

Rev. Lawson had been instrumental in calling religious leaders together to form Religious Witness in the first place, and he often came to our protests to speak, or march, or join our sleep-outs, or give away “illegal blankets” to “illegal campers.”

Phil had come to one of our sleep-outs at City Hall on the very night in 1994 that he found out his son had died of AIDS after a long struggle with the virus. (Rev. Lawson is married to JoAnn Lawson, and also has two daughters, Kelly and JoyceRenee.)

I remembered that City Hall sleep-out very well, and I was floored to find that Phil had come to that action while mourning the death of his son.

An ethic of love and mercy

In our interview, Phil described the ethic of love and mercy that underlies nonviolence. The ethic of love is what got him involved in building meal programs and housing for homeless people. The ethic of mercy led him to resist the Bay Area’s harsh anti-homeless laws.

In the fullness of time, the ethic of love became a two-way street and the minister found himself being ministered to by homeless people. In his deep grief over losing his own son, Phil spent most of the night talking to homeless people and found, to his deep gratitude, that homeless people were ministering to him.

He said, “While I was grieving my son’s death, they shared their stories with me, and they shared their own experiences of grief, and they ministered to me.”

So many times, Lawson had been a blessing to homeless people by helping create meal and housing programs, and by resisting police repression of the poor. Now, in one of the saddest moments of his life, Rev. Lawson was himself blessed — or twice-blessed — as Shakespeare described it in The Merchant of Venice:

 

The quality of mercy is not strained.

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

 

Rev. Lawson has lived out the full meaning of that passage. At the end of our interview, he said, “When you help out another person, it helps you. I come away from that feeling like I’ve been blessed. Love, and you learn how to live. Be compassionate, be merciful, and you learn how to live.”

I was very deeply moved at the end of my interview with this modest, soft-spoken man. I have come to know many dedicated activists and caregivers in my life, but I was overwhelmed by the depth of Rev. Lawson’s insights and commitment.

The word “beatitude” flashed in my mind. Beatitude is the great joy and bliss that arises from being blessed, as Phil was blessed by the homeless people that evening. One of the Biblical beatitudes seems meant especially for him:

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.”

Love and mercy are deeper, truer words than nonviolence. It was mercy that led Rev. Lawson to work for an entire lifetime to ensure that there will be room in the beloved community for all the people, and that no one will be left out on the streets to suffer and die in poverty, no one will be locked out by a border wall, and no one will be denied entrance because of racial intolerance or homophobia.

 

To read Street Spirit’s interview with Rev. Phil Lawson click here.

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