Interview by Terry Messman
Street Spirit: Rev. Lawson, you told me that when you were growing up, you realized that horrific violence was directed against the black community — Jim Crow laws, segregation, lynching. In the face of that violence, why did you make a commitment to nonviolence at age 15 that has lasted for the past 65 years?
Rev. Phil Lawson: I’m firm in my understanding and beliefs, Terry, that nonviolence is a way of life. Rather than a tactic or a strategy to overcome problems, nonviolence is a way of life that leads to community. You cannot build community on violence, whether it’s psychological violence, economic violence, cultural or environmental violence. Regardless of the adjective you put before the word “violence,” violence will not produce community.
And the goal of my life, and I think for most human beings, is community. The opposite of slavery is not freedom, but community. The opposite of abuse and oppression is not just to be free of that, but to live in a community where that abuse is infrequent, where that is not supported, where that is not structural. We live in a nation in which violence is structural; it is not personal. Racism is structural.
Spirit: What do you mean that violence and racism are structural?
Lawson: They’re built into the way the system operates, the way we socialize people in the United States. Growing up, I was taught and pushed by everything in my education and my relationships to act in a competitive way with other human beings — seeking after power and control.
So that’s built-in structural and cultural violence. It’s built into this system. Poverty is built into the financial and economic system. Gender bias and racial bias are built into the way the nation operates.
It’s structural. It is not personal. And that’s the thing that many people engaged in movements do not quite understand. They think it’s personal and private. It’s not personal and private — it’s public and political. It’s in the structural arrangements of the way we work together that produces the damage done to us.
So nonviolence is not necessarily just an option. It’s the only way we are going to live together as a community, as a nation, as a world. Dr. King’s last book was entitled Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? There are no third ways. It’s either chaos or community. And community is built upon compassion and nonviolence.
Spirit: King said that the choice is between nonviolence and nonexistence.
Lawson: Nonexistence! That’s exactly right. We need to stop playing the games in the United States to think that we can tinker with the system and transform it into a real justice system. We cannot. It has to be dismantled, and we have to build a new system.
Spirit: You were active with Religious Witness with Homeless People in San Francisco, opposing the violence directed against homeless people by the police. You also spent many years as director of interfaith housing with East Bay Housing Organizations in Oakland. Why have you devoted so much of your life to the issues of poverty and homelessness?
Lawson: This was an important issue for me in almost all my ministry. Feeding the hungry and housing homeless people was important in my ministry back in Kansas City. When I came here, to the Bay Area, it was equally important. I became pastor here at Easter Hill in Richmond in 1992, and prior to that, I was pastor at El Cerrito in 1980, then at First Methodist Church of Vallejo in 1986.
I’ll show you the progression, Terry. When I was pastor of the El Cerrito United Methodist Church from 1980 to 1986, I began working with the Greater Richmond Interfaith Program (GRIP). We became aware that a lot of people on the streets were hungry. So we started fixing sandwiches and soup and giving them out in the park in 1982 through GRIP.
The Volunteers of America came in and decided that they wanted to be a part of giving out sandwiches and soup. So for several years they did that, and we assisted and supported them in giving out sandwiches and soup, but then they decided they had another priority and went in another direction. Then GRIP picked it up again, and over the years, we have moved from passing out sandwiches in the 1980s to a large center now at 165 22nd Street in Richmond where we feed three meals a day to 200 to 300 people a day. It’s called the GRIP Family Housing and Supportive Services Center.
Spirit: I remember when GRIP opened its Richmond center in 2006. Along with the Souper Center meal program, it offers shelter and transitional housing, permanent housing, and case management in an area of Contra Costa County that has few other services for homeless people.
Lawson: Yes, GRIP still does all that, and it began doing so many years ago.
Spirit: GRIP was ahead of its time in responding to hunger and poverty in the early 1980s, at a time when most people were still unaware of the extent of homelessness. Now, GRIP has greatly increased its commitment to helping people on the streets. What led you all to care about homeless people so much, when most people still don’t comprehend the extent of the suffering on the streets?
Lawson: At the core of my theology, at the core of Judeo-Christian theology, is care for the poor, care for the neighbor. Mercy and compassion for the neighbor, for the other, for the stranger, for the poor and hungry, for the powerless. That is the centerpiece of theology. For me, it’s not a strange thing, but it authenticates theology and religion. It’s the heart of it all. Without it, you can’t live.
When Jesus talked about care for the neighbors, he told the story of the Good Samaritan, and at the end of it, he said to a lawyer that this Samaritan — your enemy, the Samaritan — is the one who shows mercy to the man who fell among robbers. At the end of the story, Jesus said, “Go and do likewise — and live.”
Understand what the theological message is: You love your neighbor, and be merciful to your neighbor, and you learn how to live. “Go and do likewise — and live.” You love and then you learn how to live. You don’t live and then learn how to love. The progression for me is that you show mercy and then you learn how to live, and learn what life is all about.
Spirit: How did GRIP’s homeless programs change as homelessness and poverty increased and the housing crunch worsened in the 1990s?
Lawson: We first started in GRIP with feeding hungry people, and then in the 1990s, there was a gradual increase of homelessness happening. At that time, I was president of the GRIP board, and we decided that the GRIP churches and congregations would allow homeless people to stay in their sanctuaries during the winter months. So we moved homeless people around from place to place and each congregation would then feed the homeless people and care for them in their church. Some of them got very creative in having programs — educational programs and entertainment programs — to take care of their guests.
In the 1990s, the meals and the homeless programs proceeded together. Every winter, in the early stages, we would get 27 homeless families in the rotating church shelter program. And by the end of winter, we were able to put all of those families into housing.
But the homeless problem became so great that we could no longer place people in housing before the end of winter. So GRIP decided we needed to build a permanent homeless shelter, and that evolved into the family resources center we built down on 22nd Street in 2006.
It’s a permanent center for housing homeless families. We have a one-stop place, a family resource center with showers and lockers for personal items, and a shelter on site. They can use it as a base of operations and leave their stuff safely and go do what they have to do in terms of looking for jobs or hustling for their livelihood. They have a program of relating to the school district so the kids of homeless families can get into school and education can go on. People looking for jobs can meet employers. We feed three meals a day to at least 200 people. And GRIP has since taken over possession of two houses and they’ve used those for transitional housing.
Spirit: That’s really admirable work because a lot of people are hurting due to high levels of unemployment and poverty in Richmond. Not just people living on the streets, but a lot of people in these congregations were hurting themselves, yet they cared enough to help others.
Lawson: They did what I think was the thing they most needed to do in making use of their buildings for people who needed to get out of the winter weather.
At the same time I was working as president of GRIP, and doing these services here in Richmond, I was also president of the Northern California Ecumenical Council (NCEC). The NCEC was the main body that was given the responsibility through the National Council of Churches and the federal government for helping immigrants coming from the civil wars in Central America —Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
The federal government decided to allocate funding to transition refugees from the wars that we were engaged in down in Central America, and NCEC was the body that would register immigrants, and help them get their benefits and give them assistance in that transition.
As president of the NCEC, I became aware of the increase of homelessness in San Francisco in the 1990s. Sister Bernie Galvin brought some people together to create Religious Witness with Homeless People.
Spirit: Yes, in 1993, while on sabbatical, Sister Bernie felt a calling to work with homeless people, and she began seeing how homeless people were suffering under the Matrix program in San Francisco. She founded Religious Witness with Homeless People and began organizing faith leaders in a campaign to protest the way they were criminalized. Sister Bernie called me in to the third meeting and got me heavily involved in Religious Witness as an organizer and writer. I remember that you were part of many of the protests we organized on homeless issues in San Francisco.
Lawson: Yes, I was part of those. We did a major campaign around the vacant housing at the Presidio when the federal government tried to destroy all the unoccupied housing at the Presidio.
Spirit: Why was it important for you, as a religious leader, to show your solidarity with homeless people targeted for police repression in San Francisco?
Lawson: San Francisco called that the Matrix program. You have to say “No” to power, to authority, when that authority is instituting inhuman policies, when it’s criminalizing people for being poor or hungry. That’s what the Matrix program was all about.
People of faith have to say “No” to all that. My father was a pastor. I discovered very early, Terry, as I grew up in the church, that I could not say “Yes” to Jesus and God, until I had previously said “No” to Jim Crow laws and slavery. You cannot just say “Yes” to Jesus and let those things go on. You have to also say “No” to injustice and inhumanity.
Today, many people say, “Jesus is my lord.” But at the same time, they should be saying, “America is not my lord.” But most people don’t do that other thing. They forget that they have to turn their back on the current stuff that is making people inhuman, that’s killing people, and that’s going to kill the nation. I discovered early you have to say “No.”
Spirit: It works both ways. By saying “No” to the police repression of the Matrix program, you also were saying “Yes” to the lives and dignity of homeless people. In that same period, didn’t you also stand up for the human rights of another scapegoated minority — immigrants and refugees?
Lawson: In 1993 and 1994, when then-Governor Pete Wilson attacked immigrants for the economic problems that were going on in California, as president of the NCEC, I called together committed people and we decided that we would form the Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights. We started passing out little cards telling immigrants of their rights. The Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights started working with immigrants and it has continued to work up until today.
Spirit: So you were involved simultaneously in defending the rights of homeless people, and the rights of homeless immigrants. In your mind, does the scriptural message to “welcome the stranger” apply equally to both groups?
Lawson: Yes, that’s right — hospitality. Hospitality! Also, what kind of a people are we going to be? What kind of a community are we moving towards? Remember the goal is community. And before you can enter into community, you have to be free. I have to be free of poverty. A woman has to be free of physical and emotional violence, and then she can negotiate with her husband what it means to live in community. But while you’re under oppression, you cannot enter into community. So the first thing is that people have to be free.
Spirit: Many religious leaders from both white and African-American churches did not support the rights of immigrants. Why did you get involved?
Lawson: Biblically, the Old Testament says to treat the alien in your midst, the immigrant, as if they are your brother and sister, as if they are citizens. What you would do for yourself, you must do for those who are immigrants. That is what the Old Testament says. So the needs of immigrants, and the way they were scapegoated by Governor Pete Wilson in the early 1990s, created a sense of injustice among people of faith, so they created the Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights.
That’s how I got into those battles. The battles happen, and you decide whether you’re going to join or not join it. If Gov. Wilson had not scapegoated immigrants in the early 1990s, those of us who were concerned would not have responded by creating an agency to serve the immigrants. We didn’t pick that struggle. It came out of the domination system.
Spirit: You felt you had to become involved when the nation’s political leaders started scapegoating immigrants?
Lawson: In 2005, Representative Sensenbrenner passed a law making it a crime to provide services for immigrants.
[Editor: Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc., sponsored a law passed by the House in 2005 that made it a felony to live in the country as an undocumented immigrant and included other attempts to crack down on immigration. The bill triggered massive protests in U.S. cities.]
The immigrants across the nation rose up and went into the streets. We started a new sanctuary program, trying to help immigrants and giving them sanctuary. The NCEC was asked to take a delegation of leaders from California to Washington, D.C., to lobby. We lined up 72 bishops and leaders from all faiths — Muslims, Hindus, Jewish leaders, Baptists and Catholics from across California — and took them to Washington for lobbying. When they came back from their lobbying, I mentioned to Rev. Kelvin Sauls, the pastor of Downs Methodist Church in Oakland, that the African-American voice is not being heard in immigration issues.
Spirit: At a time when many African-American clergy didn’t want to be involved, why did you go in the opposite direction and take such a public role in defending the rights of immigrants?
Lawson: My great-grandfather escaped from slavery and went to Canada. So the question came to me: What was the relationship in Mexico to slavery? Because it was closer than Canada, and lots of people went up to Canada to be free. So how many thousands of slaves ran south into Mexico to be free of slavery? I did some research and discovered that Mexico was the greatest friend of the slaves.
Spirit: I think very few people realize, even to this day, that Mexico welcomed slaves, refused to extradite escaped slaves back to the U.S., and instead helped them gain their liberation.
Lawson: All a slave had to do was walk across the border from Oklahoma into Texas — which was still Mexico at that time since the United States had not yet taken it over. Mexico welcomed them and gave them jobs, and encouraged its people to intermarry and intermingle with the slaves that came across the border.
Spirit: That’s fascinating. Mexico also abolished slavery long before the United States, didn’t it?
Lawson: I researched all this, Terry, and I found out that in 1829, the president of Mexico outlawed slavery in the territory of Mexico. And that president himself was the son of an ex-slave!
[Editor: Vicente Guerrero, the second president of Mexico, signed a decree abolishing slavery in Mexico in 1829, decades before it was abolished in the United States. Guerrero, referred to by historians as the Abraham Lincoln of Mexico, was the general who led Mexico’s independence struggle, and then helped write the Mexican constitution. In 2011, UNESCO officially honored new research showing that President Guerrero was of African and Indigenous descent.]
Spirit: There has been so much division created by pitting the needs of African Americans against the needs of poor immigrants. So you’re countering that division by teaching the real story of this history of friendship and support offered by Mexico to escaped slaves?
Lawson: Yes! We need to look at that truth. I began talking to people about Mexico as the friend of slaves because of the recent animosity between Mexicans and African Americans. We formed the Black Alliance for Just Immigration in 2006 just so we could begin to get the truth out.
We did a number of classes that started out here, at Easter Hill Church. We had afternoon sessions with the black people and the members of this congregation to talk about their feelings about immigrants so we could get them to understand that Mexicans are not our enemies.
We were invited into several congregations in Oakland to do educational work so we could help them to talk about the issues of immigration, and to understand that they’re not enemies — immigrants, blacks and whites. And we looked into the issue of the free trade agreements that President Clinton pushed. All those agreements did was to destroy Mexico’s economy.
Spirit: Didn’t many refugees flee the economic hardships that were a direct result of U.S. free trade agreements?
Lawson: The World Bank found several years ago that four million Mexicans left their farms and came to this country because of the free trade agreement. They discovered that they could no longer earn their living on their small farms because the price of corn that was being sold in Mexico that came from the United States was cheaper than they could grow down there. The free trade agreement destroyed the economy in Mexico.
Spirit: Just as you were ahead of the curve on homelessness, you were early in calling for this mutual understanding between immigrants and African Americans. Was that controversial or were people responsive to this message?
Lawson: Well, we started with the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, and we brought together black clergy in some of the major black churches in Oakland to carry on a conversation about immigration. We met once a month with black clergy and talked about the issue of immigration with them, and then took a delegation of black clergy from Oakland and across the nation down to the border between Arizona and Mexico, so we could see what was happening at the border.
We let them see the wall that was going up and helped them understand that the company that was building that wall is the same company that is building the wall in Palestine between Israel and the Palestinians. We went into Mexico and visited cities right on the border where people coming up from Central America and South America were gathering to look for help in getting across the border, and we talked to some of those people who were warehoused in rows of bunks, one on top of another. Men were making great money off them because they were waiting for people to take them across the border into the United States. This was a way of helping the black religious leaders from across the nation learn something about the immigration issue.
Spirit: What impact do you think that trip had on the members of the clergy?
Lawson: Well, we were able to get Bishop Warner Brown, the bishop of the United Methodist Church in Northern California-Nevada — he took all of his staff down to the border to get the same experience, and to see the people who are working with immigrants. So these visits had a great impact.
Spirit: When did you become so involved in the struggle in the church around equal rights for gay and lesbian people, and same-sex marriages?
Lawson: While all these things were going on — homelessness and feeding programs and immigrant issues — at the same time within the church, there was this struggle going on around the issue of homosexuality. Now you must remember that in the Methodist Church, starting in the 1970s, a major right-wing foundation put together large amounts of money to influence the major denominations around their social activism.
During the time of Dr. King’s movement in the 1950s and ‘60s, the Methodist Church gave significant amounts of money to Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. That money was given from the Methodist Church because of the Black Caucus that we organized in the Methodist Church in the 1960s. We influenced the boards and agencies to support the civil rights movement.
The same thing happened in the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church and the Lutheran Church. Now these are predominantly white denominations. By the end of the 1960s, there were Black caucuses in every mainline denomination to help Dr. King’s movement.
As a response to that, wealthy people put money together to change the activism of the mainstream denominations. I was part of a team of five people that researched the amount of money that was funneled into Methodist churches by these right-wing organizations. In 2003, we published a book called United Methodism @ Risk: A Wake-Up Call, in which we documented that upwards of 60 million dollars had been funneled into the United Methodist Church to undermine the authority of the Methodist Church and the bishop and the structures of the church.
Spirit: They attempted to undermine the church as a way to derail its social justice activism?
Lawson: The way they organized to disrupt the Methodist Church was through an organization in Washington, D.C., — the Institute on Religion and Democracy. They are still alive today and continue to funnel money to groups that they have organized. The Institute on Religion and Democracy gets funding from the right wing and works in the denominations to oppose the environmental movement, government responsibility for the poor and anti-war activism.
Today, there is a publication that goes out to every minister and every lay leader in every congregation in the Methodist Church. Now, understand that the Methodist Church has five major geographical organizations called Jurisdictions, and in those Jurisdictions, they have annual conferences. In the Western Jurisdiction, I’m a part of the California-Nevada annual conference. There are six other annual conferences in the Western Jurisdiction alone. In my conference there are 400 churches, just in my conference. Add the number of churches from the other conferences in the Western Jurisdiction, and you get a sense of what we’re talking about, with thousands of congregations across the nation.
[Editor: The United Methodist Church is the largest mainline Protestant denomination in America, with about 7.8 million members. The 2010 U.S. Religion Census found there are more than 30,000 United Methodist congregations in the U.S.]
Today, every Methodist minister and every lay leader receives a newsletter called “Good News.” And if you read “Good News,” it’s a conservative attack upon the Methodist Church. They attack everything that the Methodist Church stands for. The major issue that they use to attack and subvert the Methodist Church has been homosexuality.
Spirit: Are you saying they use their opposition to gay rights as a wedge issue to divide congregations and promote their right-wing agenda?
Lawson: Absolutely. I know how it happened, I was a part of it. In 1972, we had a general conference in Atlanta that went on for two weeks. On the last day, a man made a motion from the floor to add to the law of the church — what we call the Book of Discipline — a statement that says that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” That’s the statement.
On the last day, without major discussion or debate among all the delegates, that passed. Once it got in there, that was the wedge by which they began to attack homosexuality in the church. We haven’t to this day been able to get it out of there.
Spirit: The statement is still in there?
Lawson: It’s still in there. The vote is getting closer, but still a majority of voting delegates voted last year to keep it in.
Spirit: What has that meant for the Methodist approach to gay rights?
Lawson: That little statement has meant that the Methodist Church will not ordain gay, lesbian or transgender people, and Methodist pastors cannot officiate at same-sex marriages. Therefore, gay, lesbian, and transgender people cannot be full members because of what the statement says about it being “incompatible.”
We’ve been fighting to get that changed. That’s why there’s the controversy about homosexuality. So they’ve been fighting that in the church since this happened. In 1999, the United Methodist Judicial Council said that Methodist ministers could not officiate at marriage ceremonies of same-gender people.
[Editor: In August 1999, the Judicial Council ruled that the prohibition on same-sex unions was a binding law, and performing them was a punishable offense.]
In response to that, about 100 of us came together in Sacramento and all of us together, as ministers, officiated at a marriage of two women, as a sign of resistance to the action of the Judicial Council.
Many other ministers and I were put on a church trial for this. In a church trial, they select clergy to serve as the jury and the bishop acts as a judge. We went through about a month-long trial. The minister colleagues who served on the jury decided that we were not guilty, although we did in fact officiate at the same-sex marriage.
Our position was that the prohibition about officiating at same-sex marriages is in violation of the other provision that we are to minister to all people. Now, if we are to minister to all people, that means we have to violate the prohibition on same-sex marriages. The ministers here decided that we did not commit a crime.
Spirit: How did you feel about being vindicated after taking this stand?
Lawson: I was pleased with it, but I was ready to do what we had to do because we were acting in terms of justice.
Spirit: You joined in that act of resistance way back in 1999. Once again, you were ahead of the curve, because almost a decade later, in 2008, during the Prop 8 campaign in California to ban same-sex marriages, polls found a lot of opposition to same-sex marriages in the religious community and among African-American churches. Given all this controversy, why did you care about this issue so much that you would stick your neck out?
Lawson: To me, it’s obvious, Terry. It’s obvious that there should be no prohibition against anyone becoming a full-grown participant in the Methodist Church, from top to bottom — leadership or bishops or anyone else. Equality and open access for all is what it means to be a member of the church.
I’m too well aware that 150 years ago, members of the Methodist Church believed, and voted, that black people could not be Christians — and they were wrong. One hundred years ago, they believed that black people and white people should be segregated, and could not marry one another — and they were wrong.
Now, after we won that battle in the 1960s with the breakdown in segregation, now people are trying to tell me that gay and lesbian people cannot be Christians because their interpretation of the Bible says so — and I’m sure they’re wrong! Because just my own experience tells me that they’ve been wrong all along. So why should I believe them now?
The same people that told us that such and such was the case in Vietnam, we knew it to be a lie. Now the same people are telling us the same lies about Iran and Afghanistan. Why do we believe them?
Spirit: Was there any impact in your own life from your involvement in conducting the same-sex marriage in 1999?
Lawson: That was when I got heavily engaged into gay rights, once I did the marriage. The year before we did the marriage, Dr. Mel White formed Soulforce. Mel White and his partner Gary Nixon created Soulforce in 1998, a national organization of gay, lesbian, transgender and queer people. They decided they would use Dr. King’s and Gandhi’s techniques of nonviolent resistance to stop the spiritual violence done to gay people by the churches. That was the focus: Stop the violent language of the churches against gay people.
Mel White asked me to work with Soulforce on nonviolence, so I became a member of the board and my brother Jim Lawson and I did nonviolent trainings for them. In May 2000, Soulforce brought in about 3,000 people to Cleveland, Ohio, at the General Conference of the Methodist Church. Hundreds of us were arrested there because we wanted the Methodist Church to take out that little paragraph that they put in there in 1972.
Spirit: What was the act of resistance that led to your arrest?
Lawson: We blockaded the conference. We blocked all the doors of the convention and got arrested.
Spirit: Was that act of blockading the Methodist conference very controversial in church circles at the time?
Lawson: Oh yes, very much so. It stirred up things, in terms of the Methodist Church.
From 1999 to 2006, I was at two or three or four Soulforce actions every year, at either the Southern Baptist Convention, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Episcopal General Conference, and the Lutheran conference. We would go to those conferences and do nonviolent actions to try to get them to change their language about homosexuality.
Spirit: That’s a gutsy thing to do. It doesn’t seem that there are that many African-American clergy taking such a visible public role in pushing for gay rights, are there?
Lawson: No, there are not. Those who do believe in equality and justice for all, are somewhat timid about it, given the atmosphere. But it’s getting better here, much better.
Spirit: Was it difficult to find the strength and clarity to stick your neck out for a less-popular cause?
Lawson: It wasn’t a big process of discernment, as I think back on it, Terry. It just came clear to me that you love your way into life. You love your way into life. You don’t live your way into love. You don’t live your way into community. You love your way into community, and then you learn how to live. You practice mercy and love, and then you learn how to live.
So I didn’t try to think through all this to get a rationale and a position on how to live that led to a certain level of thought where I could decide, “Now I can love other people.” That wasn’t the way it happened. Instead, I loved other people, and then that’s how I learned to live. Does that make any sense, or not?
Spirit: It makes a lot of sense. I think that’s a truer description of what nonviolence is than the word “nonviolence.” Nonviolence is kind of a negative concept. It merely means: no violence. The deeper thing is reverence for life, or as you say, love. I think that’s a better description of its essence. Love and compassion, that’s what nonviolence grows out of.
Lawson: Yes. In my early teens when I came of age in the Methodist Youth Fellowship and found out about Gandhi and the Fellowship of Reconciliation, I used to write down a poem on a card and I would take the poem with me and then take it out and read it. And the poems would become a part of my life.
Edwin Markham wrote a poem that I learned during this teenaged stage when I would memorize hymns and poems to help me fortify myself. Edwin Markham wrote a poem that goes like this:
“They drew a circle that shut me out.
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win.
We drew a circle that took them in.”
That’s what I was saying about how we love our way into life.
Spirit: That poem also describes an inclusive community. And the people I’ve talked to about your ministry say that’s one of the most important things you have meant to them — you have stood up your whole life for a consistent ethic of inclusion. You have stood for the inclusion of minorities unwanted by society.
Lawson: Justice is not divisible. I tried to practice and believe — and I still believe — that racial justice is not different from economic justice. If I’m working on eliminating and dismantling structures of racism, I’m at the same time dismantling structures of sexism and economic injustice.
You can’t divide it by saying, “This is my little work over here, and your work for higher wages for low-wage workers is over there.” It’s one and the same work. It’s all justice work. And the more we can get a unified understanding of what we’re about, the closer we’ll get to building resistance to the system. And once you build more resistance, then you get a national movement for justice.
If you look at the building of the movement in India with Gandhi, or in South Africa with Nelson Mandela, you go through a major beginning point when you’ve run smack up against it, and prejudice or injustice happens and it knocks you down, and you get angry. And you cry out in protest. You may hold a protest march or a protest meeting about it.
Now, that’s the early stage of a justice movement. But it seems to me that as it moves on, it moves into the stage of resistance where you by yourself, and with groups of other people, begin to resist the power of the authorities and subvert it in all kinds of ways. You create underground economies. You create underground railroads and other ways of subverting the authority. It’s all a part of resistance that leads to the building of a national movement for freedom or for justice. But you have to go through that process. We haven’t been able to develop a national movement for justice because we have not yet developed the groups of people who are carrying out acts of resistance. And a lot of resistance has to happen prior to a national movement for justice.
Spirit: There has been a large national movement in the last couple of years called Occupy. I know you were part of Occupy’s Interfaith Tent in Oakland and you were part of a forum in Oakland where you spoke out very passionately and eloquently for nonviolence.
Lawson: When Occupy happened in 2011, I was working as the director of the interfaith housing program for East Bay Housing Organizations in Oakland. I was mobilizing the interfaith community to respond to the needs for adequate housing in the Bay Area. I had started gathering activists and others together, some 30 people, for meetings once a week in downtown Oakland. We did seven or eight trainings, once a week, and while we did these nonviolence trainings, then Occupy happened at the same time.
When Occupy happened in New York on Wall Street, I received e-mails from a number of young clergy in Northern California, expressing the need to respond to the Occupy Wall Street movement. Then I heard that in Plymouth United Church of Christ in Oakland, there was a group of young clergy and others who were meeting around what to do about Occupy.
I invited that group from Plymouth Church to come down to East Bay Housing Organizations so the two groups together then formed a larger group that met down at Rev. Brian Woodson’s church on Clay Street. Then we decided we would be an interfaith presence at Oakland Occupy. So we set up an Interfaith Tent so there would be a physical place where relationships could be built.
At the same time this was going on, I was two years into the work of organizing the National Council of Elders with my brother Jim Lawson and Vincent Harding. The three of us were serving as a triad to organize the National Council of Elders. It began when I invited Jim and Vincent Harding to come to Oakland to speak at an East Bay Housing Organizations program I had initiated. I started a yearly breakfast so the interfaith community could come together and get to know one another. In 2009, I invited Jim Lawson and Vincent Harding to come and carry on a dialogue about how do we build a national movement for housing justice.
Out of that meeting, Jim and Vincent and I said that there needed to be a Council of Elders. I started badgering Jim and Vincent to get the work done. We had the first gathering of the coordinating committee for the National Council of Elders in Chicago two years ago. The two decisions that came out of that meeting were to officially set up the Coordinating Committee; and to declare that we, as elders, wanted to say to the Occupy Movement that we were in solidarity with them.
So coming out of that meeting, we set up events with the Occupy movement in Wall Street, Oakland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, Chicago and Detroit, where elders from the coordinating committee met with the Occupy movements and did some kind of ritual to demonstrate our solidarity with them, and Occupy’s solidarity with the movements for justice of the 20th century.
Those services were held on Nov. 20, 2011, at the same time that we were holding weekly meetings of the Oakland Interfaith Tent. So that’s how I became so involved in the Occupy movement.
Spirit: So one of the very first actions taken by the National Council of Elders was to declare solidarity with Occupy. Why did the veterans of the civil rights era move so quickly to embrace the cause of the Occupy activists?
Lawson: It’s an important question, Terry. In the student movement in the early 1960s in Nashville that my brother Jim Lawson was organizing on behalf of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Diane Nash was asked the same question: “Why did you get involved in the Nashville Movement?”
Her response then is the same as mine now. She said, “It’s the only movement in town.” Why did I get involved in the Occupy movement? It’s the only movement in town. And within a very, very short time, the Occupy Wall Street movement spread across the nation.
Spirit: It was truly amazing to see so many people become so involved so quickly. I was glad I lived to see it all happen.
Lawson: In 1600 cities there was an Occupy movement. Not only did it rapidly spread across the nation and become an international movement, it also captured the imagination of the public. Prior to Occupy Wall Street, economic inequality and poverty was not on the national agenda. But after Occupy Wall Street happened, everyone was talking about poverty and economic injustice. It really changed the whole conversation in a relatively short time.
Spirit: We can second-guess the strategy of Occupy with the benefit of hindsight, but what an amazing accomplishment. It made poverty visible, and exposed predatory corporations in a nation where they always get a free pass.
Lawson: That’s right. That’s right. So from the very beginning of the Occupy movement, everywhere I talked about it, I said that movements have an organic life. And my reflection on Dr. King and Rosa Parks is that after Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, they started out with a single goal: Stop the indignities to our women on the buses. Stop making them get up and give their seats to a white person — a very simple goal.
Then they marched for a whole year, boycotted the buses for a whole year. It wasn’t until almost the end of that year that they developed a larger program and declared that they wanted jobs and had many other specific goals.
Many people jumped on Occupy because “it had no goals.” But a movement doesn’t have that in the beginning, but then you grow and you develop the goals and the structure later on.
Spirit: What it did have at the very beginning was a profound conviction that things were wrong, that people were being treated unfairly by the banks and the White House. And you’ve had that awareness your whole life, and perhaps that’s why it was natural that you readily joined in.
Lawson: Yeah, and the same reason why, when I was in the Army in 1955 in Colorado and heard that black people in Montgomery, Alabama, decided they would no longer ride the bus, but they would walk. That resonated through my whole body. And I knew it was the right thing to do.
Spirit: And you felt that same way with Occupy?
Lawson: Yes. When Occupy happened, I just felt, “Yeah! Right on!”
Spirit: One mistake that many people think Occupy made is not having a solid enough commitment to nonviolence. At the height of the controversy that broke out between nonviolence and diversity of tactics, you spoke out strongly at public forums in Oakland for nonviolence as a way of life. But didn’t you also want the two sides to try to keep communicating with one another?
Lawson: Well, in Oakland I debated with the black bloc people. In Oakland, we had many small conversations, and two large conversations around tactics and nonviolence.
It’s commendable that the Oakland Occupy movement was the only movement in the national network that refused to kick out those anarchists and others who wanted to be free to do property destruction. I commend them for that, because they were trying to experiment with democracy that was inclusive: “Even though you believe in different tactics, we’re not going to be your enemy.”
When the major demonstrations and violence took place in Seattle [during the massive protests against the World Trade Organization on Nov. 30, 1999], one of the negative things about that action was that people began turning against one another. Nonviolent people turned against the people who did property violence, and the destruction of the community took place.
So I was insistent in Oakland that we not allow that to happen, and that we stay together. It’s very much what I felt in the 1960s about the Black Panther Party. I did not believe that we should allow ourselves to be separated by the forces outside of us, but to maintain our unity together. I think that’s still the correct position to take.
Spirit: Yet you also spoke out strongly for nonviolence in the public forums.
Lawson: Oh yes. I spoke at a debate here in Oakland and I had a long, three-hour session at the Occupy movement in Wall Street around the issue of nonviolence. I advocate for nonviolence completely because the message of love is the only way you can build community.
If the goal is to build a community, then we cannot build that community unless we use love. That love must be self-giving, sacrificial. It’s not mutual, because some people don’t love you, so you have to love them without that mutuality, or reciprocity. You have to continue to love them in spite of them wanting to hurt you.
It goes back to the poem I mentioned to you before. Is my love and my imagination great enough that we can draw a circle that takes them in?
Spirit: So at its deepest root, it’s that love-ethic that leads you to nonviolence?
Lawson: Yes, that is nonviolence. Yeah. It comes from Jesus but it goes back before Jesus. One of the first nonviolent demonstrations was in the early part of the life of the Hebrew people when there was a declaration by Pharaoh that all newborn children two years of age were to be drowned in the river. Two Jewish handmaidens decided that they would not drown the baby Moses. They saved him. That was one of the first acts of nonviolence.
So there is a very clear history of nonviolence that has now developed. It is a science. It is not happenstance. There is a methodology and a science that began with Gandhi. Gandhi began to put together the principles and methods for nonviolent social change.
Spirit: In the context of the Occupy movement, even though you wanted to keep the black bloc in the circle of community, why did you feel it was crucial for Occupy to use only nonviolent tactics?
Lawson: Two reasons, I would say, in Oakland. The tragic mistake that the Oakland Occupy movement made and was not able to correct was that it was not in relationship to the black community in Oakland. If they had done their homework — the difficult job of developing relationships with the black community before they developed an agenda — they would have understood the ethos of the black community. The black community is not going to choose violence as a means of developing a community or a nation.
One of the remarkable things about my ancestors: Black people who were slaves did not, by and large, adopt violence as a way of escaping slavery, or even after they got out of slavery and came face to face with Jim Crow laws, they rarely adopted the methodology of violence.
Spirit: You said there were two reasons why nonviolence was crucial in Occupy. The first was that violence alienated them from the black community. What was the second reason?
Lawson: One of the goals of any action is to educate the public and bring the public into your arena, so they separate their allegiance from the system and make their allegiance with you. And violence will not do that because it frightens them. It frightens the public more than it reaches them.
We were never able to overcome the public impression that Occupy Oakland was a violent movement, even though the violence was blown out of proportion by the media. But we could not overcome the impression that people had. Even though later on, the Occupy movement wanted to go to the churches and talk, they had already lost the battle for public opinion about who they were and what they were about. Yet, all of the actions that they had at Occupy Oakland that I participated in were fantastically nonviolent, and had a great spirit.
Spirit: I agree. I saw people remaining nonviolent right after they had been rammed with a truck. All these young people were chanting, “Peaceful. Peaceful.” Right after they had been run into by a truck! That was 99 percent of them.
Lawson: Yes, they had a great spirit. It was a tremendous experience.
Spirit: When you began conducting nonviolence trainings in Oakland, you were working as director of interfaith housing for East Bay Housing Organizations (EBHO). Why did you move on from Easter Hill Methodist Church in Richmond to EBHO in Oakland?
Lawson: In 2003, I was retired from the Methodist Church. The Methodist Church has a law that says once you reach 70, you are no longer eligible to be a pastor of the church. So at 70, I resented being retired. I was at the height of my powers, I thought. I still am.
In 2004, I was hired as director of the interfaith housing program of East Bay Housing Organizations. So my purpose was to bring the influence of the interfaith community to bear on the crisis of affordable housing in the Bay Area.
Many people do not see this crisis, but if we are not careful, in 25 to 50 years there will not be poor people or people of color able to live in the Bay Area. They are being driven out and will have to live on the outskirts. We’re moving in that direction, unless there is a conscious movement to get the government to build affordable housing again, as they used to, up until 1980 when Reagan came into office.
To build affordable housing, there are three things you need. You must have land, you must have money and you must have the public will. Most congregations have land that is not being used efficiently. So churches have land and they have the ability to influence the public will. So you have two of the three things needed to build affordable housing. The money comes from government; it’s not going to come from private industry.
In the 10 years I was working for East Bay Housing Organizations, I brought the interfaith community together with nonprofit housing developers. So it was very exciting work that I enjoyed very much.
The other thing I tried to do was build the relationship with the immigrant movement, the economic justice movement, and the interfaith community for worker’s justice. I tried to bring them all into relationship and to understand that justice is one movement.
We ought to be able to have a common message. So if I’m working on housing, I should also speak about poverty and the environment and civil rights, as well as housing. I should not just talk about my piece of the justice movement. If all the various activists in the various justice areas were to speak in a holistic sense, then we would develop a common message, a unified message. A national movement for justice will have to have a unified message that people will come to join.
Spirit: You have now been working for justice for the past 65 years, since you joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation when you were 15. What sustains you in doing this work? What gives you hope to go on when times are hard?
Lawson: I know now, Terry, that love and compassion are what sustain me. Love and you can learn how to live. By doing love and trying to do justice, you learn how to live. That’s what has been sustaining me. It’s what I do.
I told the Council of Elders this. 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.
I’ve said to the members of the church here: When you’ve lost your loved one and you’re in a state of grief, the most powerful thing you can do to sustain yourself is to go to the hospital and just start visiting people. And that will sustain you.
In 1994, my son died of AIDS after a long struggle with the virus. Right after he died, I got my sleeping bag together and told JoAnn, my wife, that I was going to San Francisco and sleep out on the steps of City Hall with the homeless people at a protest action held by Religious Witness with Homeless People. I spent most of the night talking with homeless people, and they ministered to me in that time.
Spirit: I was at that action, Phil! We did that sleep-out to protest the way the San Francisco police were targeting homeless people. How did the homeless people at that sleep-out minister to you?
Lawson: While I was grieving my son’s death, they shared their stories with me, and shared themselves with me, and they shared their own experiences of grief, and they ministered to me.
That’s a piece of what I mean about sustaining yourself. When you get down, or something happens to you, or you have a loss or an injury, take a step towards someone you don’t know, and see what happens in that interchange to sustain yourself. I’ve learned it’s the best thing you can do when you’re down, when you’re hurt.
Ministers know it deeply. When you visit someone in the hospital, the person who gets helped the most is you, not the person in the bed. When you visit someone who is poor or sick — anybody knows that.
We have churches that provide meals for homeless people every day. The people getting the most out of that are those people in the churches. Because they’re getting a sense of well-being. They’re doing something for another human being, but they get the most out of it. Of course, the people who are hungry get food for themselves, but the sense of being a good person, being a strong person, that the giver gets is far more important. Do you understand that?
Spirit: Absolutely. It’s why caregivers who help others can end up feeling that they’re cared for themselves, on a very deep level.
Lawson: Yes, when you help out another person, it helps you. I come away from that feeling like I’ve been blessed.
That’s the thing: Love, and you learn how to live. Be compassionate, be merciful, and you learn how to live, and you can enter into life. I’m convinced that if you love where you can, and try to be compassionate and merciful, and do justice where you can, you will discover that you get stronger in life and you learn how to live.
Spirit: That’s a beautiful insight. Instead of just an interview, I feel you’ve given us a deep look into the very meaning of life itself. One last question: In looking back over your life, who inspired you to do this work? Who are your most significant role models?
Lawson: I have to say, first of all, that it was my brother Jim Lawson because we have been so close all of our lives. In fact, we used to be able to go around when we were in our teens, and people thought we were twins. That’s how close we were. So Jim has to be number one.
I was very fortunate as a teenager in my formative years, to hear A.J. Muste speak and read his writings and hear his sermons. [A.J. Muste was a Protestant theologian and anti-war activist who was the director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.]
I’ve been blessed to be introduced to Rabbi Abraham Heschel. His book on the prophets is great, the best! His book is still my resource and I use it all the time. [Heschel, author of The Prophets and one of the most influential Jewish theologians of the 20th century, was an activist against the Vietnam War and joined Martin Luther King on civil rights marches.]
I have favorite writers that I read every year. Rabbi Heschel is one of them, William Stringfellow is another of them. [Stringfellow was a lawyer, theologian and activist, and the author of My People Is the Enemy and An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens In a Strange Land.]
C. Wright Mills wrote the book, The Power Elite, back in the 1950s. He was the first to identify who the power elite in America was and that was very influential with me.
As I said before to you, I developed a habit of writing down poems and sayings that I memorized. There would come times when I would get into situations and I would say those poems to myself to reinforce myself.
When my brother Jim first took me to Methodist youth meetings and conferences when I was 13 years old, I was introduced to black men, ministers, who I thought were revolutionary. One group of three men were brothers — Clarence Nelson, Merle Nelson and Wally Nelson. Two of them were Methodist ministers, but all of them when I met them back in the 1940s were engaged in housing and civil rights and war tax resistance for their parishioners. Just getting in touch with them was very influential in helping me to get a picture of a different way of being.
Reflections on the Life of Rev. Phil Lawson
Rev. Brian Woodson
When asked to pen a few thoughts about Phil Lawson, the first word that came to my mind was sagacity. The Rev. Dr. Phil Lawson has the ability to see deeply into the heart of our social and societal malevolence. He 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.
His is a constant witness that love, truth and gentleness when focused against evil is a force that will change hearts, imaginations and the very world in which we live.
I have long had a deep admiration for my friend, Phil Lawson, and his continued commitment to nonviolence for more than 60 years. He began that path in the Fellowship of Reconciliation, learning from Bayard Rustin, and another of my close friends, George Houser. Phil has worked tirelessly for justice in all areas — racial discrimination, fair housing, immigration, just wages, and many more.
I most recently have had the privilege of working with him in the Interfaith Tent of Occupy Oakland where he led the way for discussions between those who proposed a “Diversity of Tactics” and those with deep commitments to nonviolence, as practiced by Gandhi and Martin Luther King. He also facilitated, with Rev. Deb Lee, a widely diverse discussion group using “A Force More Powerful,” a video based on six of the stories from a book by the same name.
I particularly appreciate Phil’s deep compassion, approachability and availability. He always willingly participates in actions, and gives voice to the voiceless. Most recently he has been a part of the National Council of Elders — “veterans of the Civil Rights, Women’s, Peace, Environmental, LGBTQ, Immigrant Justice, labor rights and other movements of the last 60 years… who work with the diverse peoples of our nation to transform our country into a more democratic, just and compassionate society — a more perfect union.”
Phil Lawson is a lifelong peace and justice activist who works for the radical transformation of our society, to one where every person can live with dignity. He is willing to struggle and even go to jail for his beliefs.
Because he lives by the values and principles of nonviolence in his own life, Phil is an example of what a good Christian pastor should be. In the struggle to build a just and peaceful society and world, he has helped the church to become a headlight instead of a taillight. His longstanding work for real immigration reform is a model for how the churches can stand on the right side of justice.
Phil’s commitment in establishing the Interfaith Tent in support of the Occupy movement in Oakland is a great example of his relentless persistence. He has that sparkle in his eye, and you know that he means what he says and that hope will always have the last word.
[typography font=”Cardo” size=”16″ size_format=”px”]
To read the accompanying article about Rev. Phil Lawson click here.