Prophets In Our Midst

January 27, 2019 — Rev. Paula Norbert


We celebrate Martin Luther King today and as a national holiday last Monday in our nation. For all of us who have paid attention to the news in recent years, we know there is still much work to be done in our world to fulfill the dream Rev. Dr. King shared with so many who found inspiration in his words and in his actions. We know that he, himself, was inspired by Scripture, by the prophets of old and by the ministry of Jesus, as well as the examples of Mahatma Ghandi and others who sought to find non-violent ways to resist oppression and seek social, racial, and economic justice. They say prophets are never welcome in their own towns; Jesus found this to be true as well. Prophets are often not always welcome in their own times; we often do not fully appreciate their contributions until long after they have died. Let us pray, O God of righteousness and compassion, we ask that you continue to inspire each of us and people throughout the world to speak out for the rights for all of humanity, to work for civil rights and human rights and against oppression of all forms. May we be empowered by the prophets you have sent among us to speak for truth, for justice and for love. Amen.

Last year, Tom Bancroft, who was serving on the board of the Maine Council of Churches, shared some bumper stickers at one of the meetings of our Social Justice group. You may have seen one on the back of some of your cars. It reads, “Speak the truth, even if your voice shakes.” In most cases, speaking the truth does not always lead to the tragic outcome that Jesus, Dr. King, Ghandi and others around the world have suffered, but it is still often difficult to do. It takes a level of courage to speak out and work on behalf of those who feel marginalized. I recall one of my heroes, Kip Tiernan, who was a social activist for homeless women in Boston for years, once said, “If you stand with the oppressed, you are bound to absorb some of the violence directed at them.” Whether it was Isaiah or Joel in the Old Testament or people today in our world, prophets are often hard to listen to. It takes courage and strength and a creative sense of the possibility of hope for a different world to truly be a prophet.

Recently, a friend sent me a copy of an article that ran on the website Global Citizen. The title of the piece is “These 9 Youth Activists are Changing the World.” I’d like to share a few of their stories.

I’ll start with someone with whom most of you are familiar. In 2014, Malala Yousafzai became the youngest person in history to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize — at the age of 17. Yousafzai, who survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban and went on to become an activist for young girls and women everywhere, showed us that with drive and spirit even the most challenging circumstances can be overcome. 

She also showed us that oftentimes it is the voice of a young girl, from a marginalized community, that can be the much-needed spark for large-scale global change. The resilience of young people, especially at a time when adults are caught up in policies and politics, can play a role in lifting communities up and driving them to do better by those who are marginalized. 

The nine youth activists in the article, some of whom you may have not heard of, challenge gender stereotypes, mobilizing their communities to care for the environment, and even speaking with presidents. They are igniting change in the world and they have a confidence to speak out on issues that affect them and all of us.  

11-Year-Old Marley Dias is an all-star reader who in 2016 organized a book drive, called #1000BlackGirlBooks, that delivered more than 8,000 books to young girls.  Now, she’s got a new project in the works: a book of her own. Scholastic has picked up the rights to Dias’ new book about literary activism, which focuses on “the importance of literacy and diversity” and “delivers hands-on strategies for becoming a lifelong reader.” 

In 2015, Sophie Cruz, five years old at the time, broke through security at a Papal motorcade to give Pope Francis a letter asking that her parents — who are undocumented immigrants — not be deported from the US. 

Now six, Cruz is still on the front lines of advocating for immigrants’ rights. When she spoke at the Women’s March in Washington last year, Cruz brought the house down. “We are here together making a chain of love to protect our families,” Cruz said. “Let us fight with love, faith and courage so that our families will not be destroyed,” she added, before launching the crowd into a cheer of Si Se Puede! (Yes we can!). 

There is a young motivational speaker who goes by Kid President (whose real name is Robby Novak), who made headlines when he was 13 with his series of unconventional pep talks that have now garnered tens of millions of views on Youtube. 

“If we’re all on the same team, let’s start acting like it,” Novak explains in that video. “We’ve got work to do.”  In 2013, Novak was invited to the White House, where he was pictured sitting at President Barack Obama’s desk in the Oval Office and giving Obama a hug.  A lesser-known fact about Novak is that he was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, a rare disease that makes his bones break easily. He has broken more than 70 bones in his young lifetime, but has not let the disease slow him down in the slightest, continuing to preach unity and togetherness (and also skateboarding fearlessly). 

After escaping from child slavery in Delhi, Payal Jangid, 14 at the time, became an advocate for girls’ education, and won a World Children’s Prize for her work with rural communities in India. She’s now the leader of her town’s Child Parliament, working to make her village “child-friendly” by educating the community about domestic violence and child marriage.  

Some of you who follow issues on climate change have likely heard of the next group of young people. In 2015, a group of 21 plaintiffs ages 9-20 from Eugene, Oregon, took the United States government to court for burning fossil fuels. They argue that human-made climate change challenges their future, and thereby their constitutional right to due process under the law, according to the Atlantic.  Avery McRae, the second youngest in the group, began her environmental activism at age five, raising $200 to save endangered snow leopards. Now, she’s taken that activism to the next level, and imagines the court case could still be going on by the time she reaches high school. 

Among that group is a young man named Xiuhtezcatl (pronounced ‘Shoe-Tez-Caht’) Roske-Martinez. Roske-Martinez is the youth director of Earth Guardians and has spoken on climate change at the United Nations General Assembly and the Rio+20 United Nations Summit. He also served on President Obama’s 2013 Youth Council. He gave his first speech at the age of six, and it was incredible.  “When I was 5-years-old, I wanted to go to all the factories and shut them down with my little brother,” he said in that speech. “But once I turned six I realized that it was us that were buying from the factories.”  He is wise beyond his years, and all of ours. 

Melati and Isabel Wijsen (ages 15 and 13) founded Bye Bye Plastic Bags in 2013, after being inspired by classroom lessons on Mahatma Ghandi and other activists. Started on the island of Bali, Indonesia, the initiative aims to remove plastic bags from beaches, schools, and communities throughout the country. 

Melati and Isabel’s organization has grown from an idea to a youth-led organization with a 25-person staff and a board of directors. Thanks to their trailblazing work, the organization succeeded in lobbying the Bali airport to initiate a plastic bag ban in August 2016. By January 2018, the entire island of Bali was declared plastic bag free, with the country of Indonesia planning to ban plastic bags by 2021. 

I am sure that almost all of us were deeply impressed by the high schoolers from the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas high school in Florida who, in the months after the tragic shooting there, did incredible work to speak out for safety in schools and to prevent gun violence. Together and with the support of those who followed their lead, they helped organize the marches that took place last year throughout our nation, including the largest one in our nation’s capital. It was extraordinary to watch them speak with conviction and to try to meet with leaders on the state and national level in an effort to share what it feels like to have grown up with so much fear and worry about mass shootings in schools and other public buildings across our country in the last several decades.

When I think of the courage and idealism of the young people I have mentioned here, I can’t help but wonder if some of them are too young to fully appreciate the resistance that they may meet from those who will not want their voices to be heard. We know Malala suffered terrible consequences for speaking out for educating girls in her country. Some people who are older find a level of courage that they didn’t know they had when they were young. But we are all invited to be prophets, to find the courage to speak out on behalf of the Gospel values that Jesus taught through his words and actions, to speak out on behalf of human rights and women’s rights and civil rights I will close with this brief reflection from Tales of the Hasidim compiled by Martin Buber… A Wise man came to Sodom…