When I was growing up, preachers had a tendency to hit the streets.
Images of white ministers, most of them "collared," and black ministers, most of them Baptist, marching in the streets of most major, and some not so major, American cities remain etched in my memory.
The life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. included lots of this "street work." His message mobilized the nation and led to significant changes in civil rights legislation, as well as national attitudes concerning race, poverty, fairness and equal opportunity.
His impact also "turned out" the pastors who marched at his side.
Many of the images were extremely impressive. They still affect me.
King's message remained thoroughly biblical from start to finish. Thus, his success with the pastors and thousands from their congregations.
These preachers engaged in fairly radical behaviors.
They organized mass demonstrations, participated in economic boycotts, supported and took part in sit-ins and protested based on their clearly defined, values-based agenda.
These ministers made it very clear as to where they stood on these matters.
Racism was an evil that needed to be challenged and eradicated from American culture, economics and law.
Poverty was an enemy against which the nation's resources could and should be marshaled with determination and moral courage.
War with no moral basis could not be accepted. At the very least, honest, open debate had to be defended and championed as a legitimate and accepted fact of life in our democratic system.
The preachers I watched on television as a young boy were not trying to build their churches. There were no megachurches back then. No, these ministers were attempting to lead their congregations and the nation in the ways of God out in the public square.
The actual results of their actions on American life and policy remain impressive.
These days I find myself longing for those days.
From my point of view it is not for the absence of moral issues that the streets are empty of preachers today.
Our economy and the public policy that sustains it continues to crush the poor while promoting the rich.
We are enmeshed in an unbelievable war with no end in sight.
Here in Texas our legislature left Austin for the second session in a row without passing a school finance plan. They did manage to get a marriage amendment approved for voter consideration in the fall--like Texas needs that! But, they left our children and our teachers hanging. Now our governor has called for a special session. I wonder if the poor children of Texas will fare better at the end of this next round of debate than they did during the first?
Yet, the preachers remain locked away in their churches. The streets remain empty.
It appears to me that the vacuum relates to courage, depth and direction of message and the widening gap between current theology and daily reality, especially for the poor in our nation.
The silence haunting our empty streets may also relate to the growing chasm dividing the poor and the rich in our nation. Speaking out, organizing and taking action may be too costly to consider these days. I don't know.
A few years ago while attending a seminar in Atlanta as part of the Interfaith Health Program at Emory University, I met a Cambodian monk who was the national leader of his part of Buddhism. During the bloodiest part of his nation's recent history that produced the "killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, he risked his own life to walk across Cambodian protesting violence and promoting peace.
His words about the life of monks challenged me when I first read them:
"We Buddhists must find the courage to leave our temples and enter the temples of human experience, temples that are filled with suffering. If we listen to the Buddha, Christ, or Gandhi, we can do nothing else. The refugee camps, the prisons, the ghettos, and the battlefields will then become our temples. We have so much work to do.
"This will be a slow transformation, for many people throughout Asia have been trained to rely on the traditional monkhood. Many Cambodians tell me, 'Venerable, monks belong in the temple.' It is difficult for them to adjust to this new role, but we monks must answer the increasingly loud cries of suffering. We only need to remember that our temple is with us always. We are our temple." (Step by Step: Meditations on Wisdom and Compassion, Maha Ghosananda).
My Cambodian friend speaks the truth here.
Life for the poor will not improve until people, and especially leaders, of faith begin to publicly engage and challenge injustice once again.