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‘Tis a gift to be free: A sermon on simplicity

Acting in Faith  |  By Tai Amri Spann Wilson, Jun 27, 2013
Photo: Emily Higgs

On June 14, 40 young adult Friends from across the country gathrered at Pendle Hill, a Quaker retreat center outside of Philadelphia, to take part in a youth conference on spirit-led activism. The theme of the week was the Quaker testimony of simplicity, and participants explored both the spiritual and the practical meaning of simplicity in the world.

Tai Amri Spann-Wilson, a young adult Friend living in Oakland, Calif., delivered the following sermon during worship on Sunday morning. His powerful stories and challenging message called all of the participants to consider how simplicity in our lives might lead to powerful action for social change.


I cannot tell you how excited I am to be with you this morning. Excited to look out at the benches and to see family and friends, friends with the capital “F” and the little “f.” Excited to be a part of a worship with so much silence. I’ve been a pastor in Oakland for two years now, which means that my Sunday mornings are filled with sounds and void of silence. And finally, excited to be speaking on this land so rich with history.

I spend a lot of time trying to explain to myself and my loved ones why I read the Bible. While I question many of its suppositions and while I see so much potential for exploitation and oppression within its pages, I still try to believe that there is some way that the Bible can be a book of love.

It reminds me of a sermon I heard recently of one of my greatest spiritual teachers, Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman. This constantly praying and meditating, kind hearted and amazingly compassionate holy man, who grew up in segregated Florida, spoke about the struggle he had in seeing that of G-d in each person. 

He spoke on the troubles he had in sometimes just trying to want to like white people. I don’t really have that problem with white people, but I could say, sometimes I have trouble loving Republicans or NRA members or homophobes or bank CEOs.

I want to believe that somewhere in the Bible I can learn to love the unlovable. I want to believe that somewhere in EVERY individual is a light that loves me as much as G-d does. It is this power of belief that moved the mountain of slavery. If our ancestors did not believe that slavery was an evil that must end, we would not be here today.

That’s why I want to take a minute to honor our ancestors with the pouring out of libations, because even Quaker ancestors get thirsty. To all our relations, of this land, and of all lands, we honor you. We young people have gathered to understand simplicity, this simple act of honoring our ancestors helps to connect us all, and so I want to give you all a moment to honor any of your ancestors. Speak out their names as I pour out the libations.


So I want to apologize for my attire today. Who I am apologizing to is mostly my grandmother, because I know she likes when I get dressed up on Sunday. But you see right now I’m wearing my victory outfit. I work in an elementary school in East Oakland and every year we have a soccer tournament with three other elementary schools. And every year I tell them that if they win the soccer I’ll get a mohawk. So this is the second year in a row that I had to get a mohawk and this is the outfit that I was wearing. It’s kind of become my lucky outfit.  Sorry grandmommy.

I want to bring the children that I’ve worked with to this sermon today, and I want to bring you to my children, because some of the greatest lessons that I have learned have come from the wisdom of young people.

Children have a way of laying bare, and of simplifying and synthesizing the problems of the world in a way that we complicated adults just often forget how to do.

Last night, brother Shane Claiborne said something that caught my attention. He said that even though he lives in one of the poorest communities in Philly, it is an amazingly community-rich. He also said that the richest neighborhoods are often community-poor because what happens is that there is rarely any reason to have to rely on your neighbor.

I knew what he was talking about because the school I work in in East Oakland is one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, what some people call the ghetto or the hood, but I call it the "barren lands." This term "barren lands" is similar to the term "food desert," a term that speaks to the lack of healthy nutrition options, where if you want to buy “groceries” your choices are to go shopping at a corner store filled with processed foods and rotting, GMO-filled fruits and veggies, or to eat out at McDonald’s. But the barren lands are barren of more than just grocery stores; they are barren of trees and grass and public gardens, they are barren of playgrounds, devoid of drugs and safe streets to walk day or night, they are barren of hospitals and museums, libraries, and toy stores. And, oh Lord, are they barren of justice.

Having worked with children for over 15 years now, I’ve seen them educated in multiple settings. In some settings it seems there is a swing for every child. Not so in the barren lands. There we have a small blue foam island with some monkey bars, surrounded by an ocean of concrete, not a swing to be seen.

I’ve worked in some settings where each incoming class gets a new set of books. And I’ve worked in the barren lands where students have to march the streets for days just to get even a used book, just to make sure their teachers get paid and even to make sure their publicly funded schools don’t get closed or taken over.

I’ve worked in some schools where children get as many chances as they need just as long as they are willing to work through their problems, but in the barren lands, students, mostly black and brown, are thrown out the door at the first sign of trouble, as if they were plagues.

I’m thinking now about one of the black boys that was in my program in East Oakand. I’m remembering how he had been in one of my poetry classes and in the class we working on an assignment to write, “I Wish” poems.

In the class I shared a poem that I had written as an example and one of the lines I had written said, “I wish the butterflies would come back to East Oakland.” This boy promptly interrupted me and said, “There aren’t any butterflies in Oakland, butterflies hate Oakland.” It was of the many times that the words of a child stunned me to silence.

When I tell people this story they think it’s crazy. I live in beautiful, sunny California, how could there be no butterflies? Even people who live in Oakland are shocked—Oakland is gorgeous, filled with eternally blossoming flowers. How could he believe that there are no butterflies in Oakland?

Because his life is centered in the Barren Lands, a concrete jungle, where he is labeled predator, but in reality he’s the prey. He was recently kicked out of my program by our coordinator because she said he was too violent, but the violence done to young people of color by school expulsions is nauseating.

This past year I’ve seen a growing concern with police brutality and misconduct in Oakland. These issues are not new of course, but I believe that much of the leftover energy from the Occupy movement has shifted in this direction.

I’ve been trying to lend my hand to struggles to bring about alternative solutions to punitive justice in schools and in law enforcement, because the demonization of black and brown children in our schools is but a microcosm of what occurs in our prisons and on our street corners.

In 2010 the city of Oakland erupted after 23-year-old African-American son, brother, lover, and father, Oscar Grant III, was shot on a public transit platform on New Year’s Eve 2009 in front of hundreds of spectators while he was handcuffed and laying on his stomach surrounded by police officers. In a little while the whole world will know about the tragedy of Oscar Grant when the film “Fruitvale Station” hits the big screen.

Imagine that, your busiest night of the year, an unarmed man gets shot in front of everyone and nothing happens. People of Oakland wouldn’t stand for it and they marched for over a year just to get a two-year manslaughter charge on the officer who shot him.

But today I carry in my heart the story of Alan Blueford. He was 18 and a well-loved senior at Oakland’s Skyline High School. Standing on the corner with his friends one night, officers pulled up to him with their guns already drawn. Not knowing what to do, he ran for two blocks until he fell on his back, with his hands raised he screamed, “I didn’t do anything!” before he was shot dead.

The world does not know this story because unlike Oscar Grant, Alan Blueford was executed where there were few witnesses, in the dead of night, in the barren lands. But I know this story, this is the story of my nightmares, Alan’s face replaced by the many black and brown children that I work so hard to educate. As simple an act as it is, I MUST TELL HIS STORY.

When I was preparing for this message I kept singing the song, "‘Tis a gift to be simple ‘tis a gift to be free." It’s a song I remember singing growing up in Quaker schools; it always helped me settle into the silence.

Writing this message I began to wonder what the words really mean. What is true simplicity and how is simplicity and freedom a gift? Something in me has begun to bristle now when I hear the words to that song. I’m reminded of my own enslaved ancestors for whom freedom was but a hope and I think of the children that I work with in the barren lands of Oakland. For too many in this world simplicity, like freedom, seems less a gift and more of a privilege.

We’ve commodified everything; we’ve given it all a wrapping and a bow. But true simplicity is only that which cannot be purchased, it’s that which cannot be individualized, it must be the big “S” simplicity. Just as we know that none of us are free unless all of us are free, nothing is simple unless everyone can partake in its simplicity.

As brother Shane said last night, some people have so much and some people have so little, we have to start questioning the distribution not just of that which costs money, but that which costs nothing.

I began by talking about all of the children I have worked with and all of the possessions that they and their schools have. In a world where some kids have multiple game systems, hand held and on their TVs, computers and more toys than most children can ever dream of, I think on the barren lands, and my little school that doesn’t even have a soccer ball, where you feel lucky if you can find a free jump rope or a hula hoop.

We may not have a screen to look at or a remote controlled helicopter, but we have something far better, we have one another, and the Bible says where two or more are gathered so is G-d. This simplicity of the barren lands is this, all we have is one another, all we can own is love.

When all else falls away, you are the one who will march for my justice, I am the one who will play tag with you, you are the voice who will lead me out of slavery, I am the one who will pray for you. All we have is each other, and because we have each other, we have G-d, we have everything. Peace.


About the Author

Tai Amri Spann-Wilson is a preschool teacher and youth minister in Lawrence, Kansas. He has deep roots in Philadelphia and among Quakers, ignites a fire in those around him with his messages about radical change, the edges of poverty, racism, spiritual depth and transformation, and the remarkable grace of humanity. He has a degree from the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics and studied theology at the Pacific School of Religion. He served as a co-pastor of a Disciples of Christ Church in Oakland, California for two years during the height of the Occupy Movement.

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