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CPJ Day speaker: ‘Maybe God has a plan, and God’s plan is us’

David LaMotte starts discussion of movement-building at Presbyterian conference in Washington

By Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

Speaker, author, activist and musician David LaMotte was the keynote speaker at Compassion, Peace & Justice Training Day, presented by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Public Witness at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. on April 5, 2019. Rich Copley

WASHINGTON — David LaMotte was telling the story of Wesley Autrey, who was dubbed the “Subway Superman” and “Subway Hero” in 2007 after he saved a man who had fallen onto the tracks of the New York City subway while suffering an epileptic seizure.

When Autrey and another man couldn’t lift the young man off the tracks before an oncoming train came, Autrey lay on top of him in a drainage trench, and all but two of the subway trains passed over them, close enough to leave grease on Autrey’s cap. Later that year, Autrey was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people, with an essay penned by Donald Trump.

“It’s an amazing story of courage and heroism,” LaMotte said. “Let me be super clear in saying, I am not saying heroes don’t happen all the time, that people don’t do heroic stuff. I’m blown away by Wesley Autrey. What an extraordinary man.

“Here’s a question for you: Is this the model for change?

“If this is our model, how do we deal with climate change, or anything, really?”

LaMotte was speaking the morning of April 5 in the sanctuary of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., where more than 200 people had gathered for Compassion, Peace & Justice Training Day, presented by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Public Witness. The speaker, writer, activist and musician — who showed off his musical chops later in the weekend at Ecumenical Advocacy Days — was there to start a series of discussions about movement-building, which he said is a concept that runs counter to the hero narrative we often embrace for how things get done.

In the hero narrative, LaMotte said, a crisis happens, someone comes in and does something extraordinary and saves the day, and everyone else claps. It’s supposed to be inspiring, but LaMotte suggested that it can also be paralyzing.

“There’s heroes, and there’s me,” LaMotte said. “The syllogism is, if heroes fix things and you’re not a hero, then ‘It’s not my job to work on stuff.’ So, I wait, and I wait, and I wait some more … wait for the hero.

“Bless you for not buying into that. By your presence here, it is clear that you’re resisting this narrative.”

That’s because there are problems all around, LaMotte said, and they need people, like the folks in his audience, to join movements to fix them. It may not be as dramatic as jumping in front of a speeding train, but LaMotte said being a part of a movement can be just as important.

LaMotte started his keynote address with two concepts: “Stories matter a whole lot more than we give them credit for in guiding our daily actions,” and “Christians are called to change the world.”

“You can’t really take seriously the teachings of Jesus and be people of the status quo,” LaMotte said. “What does it look like for what I believe to match up a little bit better with what I do?”

LaMotte went through a number of examples of effective movements, some of which do have heroic figures, such as the Civil Rights Movement with Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., or the end of apartheid in South Africa, with Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu. They all were part of and supported by deep, large movements, LaMotte said.

LaMotte recalled hearing a talk by Palestinian rights activist Omar Barghouti, who said he drew inspiration from being involved in the fight against apartheid when he was younger, saying that if apartheid could end in South Africa and Mandela could become president of the country, he could not be told that peace between Israel and Palestine is impossible.

It was an example of one of the terms LaMotte defined at the outset of his talk: hope.

“Hope is proceeding in the direction of what you think ought to happen, regardless of the odds,” he said. “It’s active.

“The opposite of hope is not doubt — it’s certainty.”

Another term LaMotte defined was activist, which, again, can get romanticized with images of angry people marching in the streets. But there’s a lot more to it, he said.

“An activist is anyone who believes in taking action in the face of a problem, rather than being passive and doing nothing,” LaMotte said. Through stories, he showed how that could be anything from speaking truth to power, to copying flyers that help get a boycott in motion.

But self-doubt is natural, going all the way back to the Bible.

“There’s this common conversation between God and prophets in the Bible, where God says some version of, ‘Hey, I’ve got something I need you to do for me,’ and the answer is not only ‘no’ but, in my reading, ‘I’m not good enough’; ‘I can’t do it’; ‘I’m only a child, I’m only a boy’; after God said, “Do not say to me, ‘I’m only a boy’; ‘You want my brother’; ‘I don’t talk right’; ‘I’m from the wrong tribe’; ‘I’m too old’; ‘I’m a woman.’ All the things, like ‘You can’t possibly want me’ — and that’s in a direct conversation with God, where God is saying, “I’ve got something I need you to do.”

“Some of us are more confident in our own inadequacy than we are in the will of God, when God is speaking directly to us.”

Of course, as someone in the CPJ Day audience pointed out, Christianity has its own hero narrative.

“The hero narrative of Jesus is ‘Jesus died for my sins, I’m forgiven, all is well, and my only job is to clap, to praise and worship.’ Stop there,” LaMotte said. “Whereas the movement narrative of this story is that Jesus is asking us to live radically differently, to participate with him in bringing about space for the Kingdom of God, right here, right now.

“Maybe God has a plan, and God’s plan is us.”

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