Hayti was an historic African-American community that is now a part of Durham, North Carolina. Hayti was founded after the Civil War by black freedman who came to work in the city of Durham. By the early 20th century, it was a self-sufficient community, the first of its kind. It had mostly black-run businesses as well as schools, a library, a theater, a hotel, and more.
Hayti thrived to such a degree that its main drag was known as Black Wall Street. It was a place of opportunity and advancement for African-Americans in an age of segregation and discrimination.
But it all came to an end in the 1950s. Under the guise of “urban renewal,” many homes and businesses were destroyed or displaced. This permanently dismantled the community of Hayti. The urban renewal project built North Carolina Highway 147, a road I traveled frequently in my time living in Durham.
Highway 147 made commuting easier for suburban, mostly white residents, but it split Hayti right down the middle. And the story of Hayti and 147 is not unique to Durham—it just happens to be the story of this kind that I know the best. This pattern of highways being built right through low-income neighborhoods has been repeated all across America: in Birmingham, Detroit, Los Angeles, Chicago, New Orleans, St. Louis—the list goes on and on.
And so, when Ferguson protestors starting shutting down highways this past week, it reminded me of the story of Hayti. On Monday, November 24, the announcement came that a grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri had decided not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of unarmed black 18-year-old Michael Brown. Protests began that evening and have continued since. The anger on both sides has contrasted sharply with holiday celebrations already underway.
And now, all over the country, protestors are shutting down highways. St. Louis, Detroit, Atlanta, New York City, Cincinnati, Oakland, Nashville, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., and in Durham, North Carolina—all over the place, protestors are banding together on some of the busiest roads in their cities and bringing traffic to a standstill.
Standing out on a freeway may seem reckless and dangerous, and it is that—but knowing the story of Highway 147 and many other roads like it show that the symbolism runs deep. One article pointed out the “symbolism of forcing a pause.” There is something powerful about bringing traffic to a halt, stopping the cars that would just zoom above the remnants of neighborhoods and communities that were sacrificed decades ago to convenience and self-segregation.
As I scrolled through images of protestors marching down four-lane highways on foot, I couldn’t help but hear John the Baptist’s cry: “Prepare the way of the Lord.”
That cry begs two questions: one, what does preparation look like; and two, what is the way of the Lord?
We are in the season of Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas. In Advent, we prepare for Christ’s birth. Advent is a time of waiting, a season that is intended to force a pause.
Of course, the waiting of Advent is an active waiting. This past Sunday, Tammy, our youth director, shared her experience of being pregnant during the season of Advent. In the nine months leading up to the births of each of her sons, she waited, but not passively—she decorated the baby’s rooms, read books on birth and pregnancy, and ate, and ate, and ate. Like Mary when Jesus was in the womb, during Advent we wait, but not without preparation.
But a pastor friend of mine said to me the other day that usually we’re not so much preparing for Christ as we are preparing for Christmas. And there is a difference. Many people say that the holidays are the most stressful time of the year. There are parties to attend, family gatherings to plan, decorations to put up, and lots and lots and lots of presents to buy. We are constantly on the highway, literally and metaphorically, throughout the holiday season.
Advent is a time of active waiting and preparation, but the madness and consumerism of Black Friday and the whole holiday shopping season has nothing to do with that. Tammy’s sermon pointed out the irony that Americans are expected to spend over $600 billion dollars this holiday season in order to celebrate the birth of a poor, homeless child.
John the Baptist is one of my favorite characters in the Christmas story, because he seems so out of place. All our decorations show cherub-faced baby Jesuses and angels with haloes and miraculously clean barnyard animals gathering quietly around the manger. And here comes John the Baptist, wearing camel’s hair and eating bugs.
John the Baptist forces a pause. His call to preparation is a call to repentance. And this Advent, we need to consider what in our lives might require repentance and restoration. How much are we owned by the consumer culture that demands holiday spending? What relationships might we have left broken for too long? What wounds are festering and in need of tending? Where does our culture need the truth to be spoken, even when it is hard?
Advent calls us to prepare, but it also calls us to pause. It calls us to slow down, to ask where we’re going and why and how we’re getting there.
A few weeks ago, we had a guest artist named Heather Maloney play a concert on this stage. Heather sang one song for us that I’ve had stuck in my head off and on ever since. It’s called “No Shortcuts,” and it starts by talking about a drive through the country where Heather and her companion need to find a hotel. The local they ask for the quickest way to a Motel 6 replies this way:
Baby there ain’t no shortcuts on your way
Oh baby there ain’t no highways in these parts
You know baby gonna have to drive yourself down every little windy road
If you really wanna get to where you’re goin’
The next two verses turn that idea into a metaphor. First, Heather describes a session with her therapist where she asks, “What’s the quickest way out of this mess to that happiness?” And then she sings about being in the meditation hall and asking, “What’s the quickest way to freedom and love?”
And to both of those questions, the answer is the same—there are no shortcuts; there are no highways. You’re gonna have to drive yourself down every little windy road if you really wanna get to where you’re going.
I heard our first focus song sung by Mollie O’Brien here back in February. I was struck by the last verse where it says, “It’s a long way from heaven to Bethlehem.”
This hit me in a particular way at the time because I had just returned from a trip to the Holy Land. The group I was with spent 4 nights in Bethlehem. The birthplace of Jesus is surrounded by a concrete wall over 20 feet high. This wall is known on the Israeli side as the “security wall” and on the Palestinian side as the “apartheid wall.”
Remembering all the evidence I saw of deep conflict and fear in the birthplace of Jesus, I couldn’t help but think, “Yes, it is a very long way from heaven to Bethlehem.” I thought of how our tour bus took routes designed to avoid the stark visual of the highest parts of the wall, how we sped past graffiti screaming “FREE PALESTINE,” how most tour groups popped into Bethlehem to pay a visit to the Church of the Nativity and then quickly returned to Israeli territory.
There was little time to pause, and so it was only in a late-night side trip that a small group of us were able to walk through the refugee camps in Bethlehem. We met Palestinian families who still held the keys to homes taken or bulldozed in 1948. We gazed upon the murals calling for resistance and justice and peace. Unfortunately, we did not have any time at all to hear the stories of Jews whose families had suffered in the Holocaust, whose people’s history is one long tale of exile. We were too much on the highways to stop along the little, windy roads where people lived and worked and prayed and loved.
Increasingly, I am trying to choose driving routes around Winston-Salem that avoid the highways. To be fair, this is partly because Business 40 becomes a parking lot this time of year and US-52 is constantly under construction. But driving through neighborhoods instead of around them can be a sort of spiritual discipline.
When I drive through the city, I learn how different communities are connected beyond which exit they’re closest to on the highway. I see and cross boundaries of wealth and class. I notice which parts of town have supermarkets with fresh produce and which have only corner stores with processed foods. I observe how the size and condition of housing changes dramatically when I cross invisible boundaries.
The way of the Lord does not bulldoze neighborhoods or avoid embarrassing landmarks or bypass the bad parts of town. The way of the Lord is not about convenience; it is about people and communities who need good news. Mary and Joseph did not take highways to get to Bethlehem, and their long journey landed them not in a 5-star hotel but in a stable.
There are no shortcuts on the way to Christmas—we have to drive ourselves down the little, windy road of Advent, because only that journey can prepare us for the shock of what we’ll find at the destination. And what we find there is God made human in a helpless child born in a barn to unmarried immigrant parents. The good news of the incarnation was so unexpected that it forced a pause for the entire universe.
Our passage for tonight begins with these words: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The good news starts before Jesus ever teaches or preaches or feeds or heals or dies or rises again. The good news starts with John the Baptist calling anyone who will hear to prepare the way of the Lord.
And that means that the good news we are waiting for is found, in part, in the waiting itself. The good news we are preparing for is found in the preparation. As Catherine of Siena is quoted as saying, “All the way to heaven is heaven.”
In a world shattered by war and violence and heartbreak and greed and anger and racism and injustice, the waiting can be unbearable. Mary certainly experienced pain and worry and sickness throughout her journey of pregnancy. We feel these pangs in our own ways all through the season of Advent.
But the song we’ll hear in a minute says that this is the season of “feeling the full weight of our burdens.” Mary felt the full weight of the child she was carrying, just as any mother does—and yet with an extra dose of awe and wonder and fear, because this child was the Son of God.
Sometimes we treat Christmas like a time to ignore our burdens. We put on our happy faces and put family drama on hold and say why yes it is the most wonderful time of the year. We take the highways of pretense and politeness to bypass real life, even to bypass one another. But I suspect that even if we did find a shortcut to happiness, it wouldn’t get us all the way to joy.
So what might it look like to feel “the full weight of our burdens” in a season of hope, joy, love, and peace? John the Baptist gives us a clue—confession is a big part of it. In the last few years, I’ve come to think that Advent shouldn’t be so different from Lent. Lent is the time leading up to Easter when we repent of sin, deny ourselves, and seek forgiveness. We tend not to associate Advent with repentance, but it’s right here in Mark chapter 1. It’s how John the Baptist tells us that Jesus is coming.
Perhaps Advent forces a pause and makes us feel “the full weight of our burdens” so that we can let them go. John’s baptism is not just of repentance, it is of “repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” And not just individual forgiveness for wrongs we have done, but for the reconciliation of each one of us and all our families and communities, even our whole world, in the kingdom of justice and peace.
I was moved by an image and a story that came out of Portland, Oregon this past week. It came from a protest in response to the Ferguson grand jury’s decision. There, a 12-year-old African-American boy named Devonte Hart stood in front of a police barricade holding a sign that said “Free Hugs.”
At one point, a white police officer approached him, at first asking questions about school and what he was going to do next summer. But then Officer Barnum asked the real question: “Why are you crying?” And when Devonte expressed his concern about police brutality toward young black men, the officer did not discredit him or defend himself. Instead, he said, “Yes. I know. I’m sorry.” And he asked for one of Devonte’s hugs. The image that moved me is of this tearful, 12-year-old boy held in an embrace by this police officer.
This story is remarkable because it should not be remarkable. It should be the norm for a police officer to reach out to a community member with compassion and understanding. I have known many who do so, and for that I thank them. But today, a grand jury declined to press charges against the NYPD officer who used a chokehold that was against departmental policy and killed Eric Garner in what the autopsy ruled a homicide, and that felt like par for the course.
It should not be noteworthy that this past Sunday our church filled a room with donated food for our Loaves and Fishes community ministry. It should not be striking that a coalition of faith communities in this city have come together to open a winter overflow homeless shelter. It should not be worth mentioning that in a few weeks Centenary is hosting a worship service specifically for those who are mourning during the holiday season.
But I will not stop remarking and noting and celebrating and mentioning these things. Because I refuse to accept a status quo in which injustice, hunger, homelessness, and silence in the face of depression and mental illness is the norm. Because even though God’s kingdom has not yet come in its fullness, it has already come in part, perhaps never so tenderly as at Christmas.
We cannot save the world. We cannot make the kingdom come. But we can prepare the way. We can force a pause. We can get off the highway. We can feel the full weight of our burdens. And then, we can lay them down. Because heaven, however far it may seem, is coming to Bethlehem, and if to Bethlehem, then to all places, bringing justice and peace down every little windy road. Let us prepare the way of the Lord. Amen.
Sarah S. Howell