By Tom Wakely

Recently I agreed to write an article for the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Then, reality hit. What should I write about? What could I possibly say to the FOR community that hasn’t already been discussed and debated? I thought about the news headlines, and surmised there are plenty of topics I could consider.

Children continue to cross the Texas/Mexico border by the thousands seeking refuge from cartel violence, poverty, and a changing climate. Mass shootings and gun violence nationwide have let to an outpouring of grief and anger. We’re in the middle of a pandemic – yet people refuse to wear masks to slow its spread, despite the fact that over a half a million of their fellow Americans have died from this terrible respiratory disease. And like some old 1950s Zombie movie, Jim Crow has crawled out of his grave – with a Bible in one hand and a gun in the other – and declared the South will rise again.

But even after considering all those potential themes, I didn’t know what to say to a FOR audience. So I asked my wife for help. Then I asked a buddy, a retired letter carrier. I even asked my dog, but all she did was look up with those dark brown eyes of hers that said, “Why me?”

When I finally told my wife how I planned to spend my Sunday, she just gave me “that look.” After a few awkward moments of silence she leaned over, wrapped her arms around me, hugged me tight, kissed me on the cheek, and then softly whispered: “Today’s our wedding anniversary.”

I froze. Oh my God. I forgot. (Again.) Releasing me from her embrace, she stepped back and said in her beautiful Mexican accent: “No te preocupes mi amor solo prometeme dos cosas. Escribe esto para el articulo y celebraremos esta noche con una o dos botellas de vino tinto.” Oh, what a lucky man I am.

I kissed her with a promise, sulked over to my office, and turned on my computer and then my stereo. Music has always been a major part of my life (even though the only instrument I know how to play is the radio). Music also seems to lead me in the right direction with my writing.

The first tune that queued up on my Pandora playlist was just perfect. It was the opening track on A Love Supreme, John Coltrane’s 1964 album that explored his spiritual awakening and how God had entered his life, which in turn had led him to a richer, fuller, more productive life. I now had something to write about. You know: God, social justice, that sort of thing. Perfect.

Photo by Jonatan Svensson Glad/ Wikimedia Commons.

As I gathered my thoughts, more songs played. A swinging Manhattan Transfer tune came up, followed by a song just as sweet by Hootie & the Blowfish. Then, however, my thoughts were shattered by Pandora’s algorithm. I was no longer headed in the uplifting direction Coltrane’s music had initially pointed me.

Instead I was pushed down a darker path by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. The album: Let Love In; the song “Red Right Hand.” He sings about a gathering storm and the coming of a tall handsome man in a dusty black coat with stacks of green paper in his red right hand. Whoa – the devil is on the move. I thought maybe, just maybe, I could build on that. Something about how all our good works are so often stymied by the evil that surrounds us.

Unfortunately, that damn Pandora algorithm kept sending me from one direction to an opposite one, just as quick as you can say “Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Pepper.” My head was spinning. My wife was getting anxious. She wanted to spend our anniversary together, not alone. I was more frustrated than when I had sat down.

A Billy Bragg song about unions started playing. That seemed an excellent focus: the labor movement, with which FOR has had a long, rich history of involvement: I could write about A.J. Muste’s work, which decades ago led me to get involved with Cesar Chavez’s grape boycott campaign. Yeah, something about FOR and the labor movement and how we need each other more today than ever before.

Then a Tracy Chapman song came on. She was singing about poverty and homelessness. Now, that was something to consider: I started out my career as a social and economic justice activist many decades ago. Her lyrics evoked FOR’s commitment to overcoming social injustice by strengthening the movements that reshape society.

But the very next song sharply turned my emotions, bringing up unpleasant early childhood memories. It was from Aerosmith’s Pump album. In “Janie’s Got a Gun,” they tell a story of a young girl who shoots her sexually abusive father. It reminded me of my own sexual abuse in 1st and 2nd grade by a couple of Catholic priests and the nuns who facilitated that abuse. Perhaps I could write about the millions of children, women, and men who are trafficked worldwide every year.

Once again, my train of thought was derailed by the playlist: Jimmy Buffet’s “Margaritaville” reminded me of the time my wife and I took a break, moving to the Pacific coast of Mexico to open a jazz bar on the beach of Manzanillo. But I wasn’t quite sure how to weave that story into a FOR article, so I moved on.

The last song I listened to, before I finally turned off my stereo, was an old Woody Guthrie tune, and for some reason it reminded me of something someone told me a thousand years ago. (Or maybe it was something I just read; who knows?) We are all working in the same vineyard, just different parts of that vineyard.

And that’s so true about FOR. Some of us are working on nuclear disarmament; others on economic injustice and the Fight for $15. Others run homeless shelters or food banks; serving the least among us. Still others are looking at how we can counter gun violence, police violence, institutional racism and white supremacy. All of FOR’s myriad of struggles take place in the same vineyard, just different parts of that vineyard.

But when that vineyard as a whole is threatened, it’s imperative that we all come together to fight that threat. Otherwise, when the locusts swarm and destroy everything, all of our good works will have been for naught.

I’m talking about climate change. It is, in my opinion, the most serious, most existential threat modern humans have ever faced. We’re already seeing climate refugees at our southern border, close to my Texas home. These refugees are fleeing the effects of “natural disasters,” like hurricanes that have become more frequent and more powerful in a world that is heating up.

Refugee camp in Kibumba, Democratic Republic of the Congo, close to the Rwandan border. Photo by Julien Harneis, Wikimedia Commons.

As the folks over at Earth.org, a global environmental NGO, describe, “as extreme weather events worsen, insecurity feeds the insurgence of armed conflict in fragile regions (like Africa) where weak institutions and economies, injustice, violence and social insecurity are already prevalent.” And the invisible player in Syria’s relentless civil war is, you guessed it, climate change.

I could go on with climate change scenario after another. I don’t consider myself an alarmist, but then again, given the state of our world, maybe I should be an alarmist. Honestly, when I first saw Dennis Quaid’s movie The Day After Tomorrow about a decade ago it scared the bejeebers out of me.

I’m convinced that if as a species we are to survive we will have to make painful economic decisions now – and by “now” I mean in the next few years, not the next few decades. And given how dysfunctional our nation’s government is right now (and probably will be for years to come), it will be up to organizations like FOR to save the vineyard from being destroyed by the locusts.

Rev. Tom Wakely is a community activist in San Antonio, Texas. A graduate of Chicago Theological Seminary, where he organized a FOR chapter in the 1990s, Tom is a veteran of multiple runs for U.S. Congress, including in 2020 as a Green Party candidate for Texas’s 21st Congressional district.