Pastor Brian Eklund's bio is evidence of a long and dedicated life of spiritual service and influence. He most recently retired from being the Pastor of St. Marks Lutheran, a multi-cultural community based church with a mixture of African, African-American, Belizean, Anglo and Hispanic members. He helmed hot food programs, clothing giveaways, youth employment and community gatherings as well as traditional religious activities.He was also passionate about providing opportunities for bringing together the various cultures in his parish, and especially passionate about helping the poor. Pastor Brian and his wife Ruth, a school teacher, live in the Western Heights community and are my neighbors. Over the years, we have enjoyed many heartfelt, thoughtful and passionate porch discussions about spirituality and particularly social issues and justice. As this story was being created, the new Pope Francis made clear in a 224 page document that he plans to refocus the church on the needs of the poor, stating: "The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor."
TNN: Talk about your understanding of Christ's message regarding the poor.
BRIAN: It might be nice to start at the beginning with the birth narratives. Jesus, Mary and Joseph start their lives as homeless people. They are called to come into Bethlehem and have no place to stay. Jesus basically is born in a stable or in a garage, like some of our people in South Central LA.
So they begin as poor people who don't have a place to stay. They travel to the city of David where there's no home for them, and in many of the stories they have to go from door to door seeing if anybody will take them in, like standing at the freeway with their cup hoping somebody is going to give them a little bit of money so that they can have a place to stay that night.
That's the beginning of Jesus' whole journey. He is born as a homeless child and to an unwed mother. Then who are the people that it's announced to? It's the shepherds who were out in the fields. We like to glorify that announcement with the angels coming and the songs and isn't it beautiful, but the shepherds are amongst the poorest of the poor. They are the low-income workers and they are the ones that receive the announcement that finally the Messiah is born. They hear the news first and they are the first ones to journey to come and see the baby, born in somebody's garage in the back of this house in South Central LA if you will.
If you continue with the story, you have another interesting theme. The three Magi, the wise men that come from the east, are astronomers, people who study the stars. They're wisdom people of different backgrounds from different places. A lot of the depictions like to show that one of the Wise Men was of African descent. We have foreigners coming into the picture right away. Right away an explosion that says, look who notices the birth. Not people of a a particular faith or culture but outsiders.
Then we have Herod, who finds out that a baby has been born that might threaten his reign and threaten his kids. As the story unfolds, we have Jesus, Joseph and Mary are warned that something bad is going to happen so they pick up and go to another country. So they are immigrants. Of course, these are the non-historical stories, but this is what came through to us in the tradition, so this is what we have. Jesus begins his young life as an immigrant.
Later on, they come back to Israel at some point and what do we have? We don't have Joseph the king. We don't have Joseph as a religious leader. We don't have him as a high priest. Joseph is a carpenter. He's a guy that works with his hands, and we have to imagine that as Jesus grew up, we know it says he gained in wisdom and understanding, but what did he do? From what we could tell of the records he didn't begin outreach until he was about 30 years old. We have to imagine that Jesus, too, was a person who knew what it was to work with his hands… that knew what it was to be a day laborer.
Those are all the stories that we really have of Jesus' early life. They all begin and come out of some of the key justice issues of our day. Are we a people who are just particularly focused on Jesus as my Lord and Savior or are we a people who are able to see the breadth and width of what these stories open us up to see? Are we a people who are able to see the importance of the poor and the marginalized as they are immediately brought and drawn into the drama with us? As soon as we turn this into a story about the kings and the angels and the heavens, we lose the earthiness of this amazing Christian story.
Then you move to the Book of Luke, where as Jesus begins his ministry, he goes to the synagogue and he's asked to read, so Jesus goes and he unrolls the scroll to what he wants to read and he finds a passage from Isaiah and he says, again his first words that we know of his that proclaim what he's about are, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to bring good news to the poor, to liberate the oppressed, to heal the sick." We have these words that are the heartbeat, the great mission of Jesus from his own readings ,and then he goes on to say these words: "Today, these words are fulfilled in your sight." Even without proclaiming himself as the Messiah at that point, he's saying, "This is what God has put in my heart to do. This is the person that God has put in my heart to be." That's the Jesus that unfolds.
What happens in our traditions, of course, is messages are changed and become something different as the followers become wealthier and the leaders become powerful, the way we see things becomes co-opted from the top down, from the top of the pyramid, from the people with the most. So the message becomes Christ the King, Christ sitting on his throne, but the Jesus that we see through almost all of our New Testament Scripture is the humble, poor, the one that walks with the marginalized, who walks with the poor and continues to just beat the drum again and again consistently for justice and for a connectedness between brothers and sisters.
TNN: Also, for empowerment? I often think of that great line I'm not quoting it perfectly, "But everything I have done, you shall do and more." He's not saying, "I'm special and I'm here to help you, but I'm here to open you up and heal you so that you can empower your own self and your own life."
BRIAN: He's really a mentor. Again, look at the people he calls. There's no theological professors, kings, lawyers. They are fishermen, carpenters, tax collectors, the unliked, the poorest of the poor, these are the ones that he gathers to mentor. Jesus' whole style I like to say in a symbolic sense is circular. It's all about the circle and Jesus is part of the circle with us. He sits at the table.
It's in much of Jesus' teaching if you listen to the way he teaches, he’s drawing people out. “How do you see this? What do you understand? Who do people say that I am or do you think I am?” Having a dialogue. The thing about a circle is everybody is important, everybody counts. Everybody's opinion is valued in the circle.
This is Jesus way of teaching. It's never me, me, me and it's never about me and Jesus. It's always about us. It's always an us in the circle. What happens historically in our church is that very quickly we take the circle and we shape it into a triangle, into a pyramid. As soon as you go back to the pyramid, you're back to the symbolic Egypt. What are the pyramids about symbolically? The pyramids are about oppression. Somebody is on the top.
TNN: What's interesting about that image is that the point at the top is supported by this square at the bottom. That the bottom is really where the power and the support is and ...
BRIAN: Without the bottom, the top is nothing. The spiritual path requires a different way of seeing the world, a different lens. That's really what Jesus brings. Jesus as a transformer, his whole message is transformative. It's changing. Hopefully not with guns and revolution, we've seen how ineffective that is. In our day and age it's just pathetic to see how that has emerged as the solution.
TNN: In your ministry you dealt a lot with the poor and with the people in power. What do you think prevents this message from moving forward, that prevents people from connecting to this spiritual message that really lives within them?
Brian: It begins with the nature of consciousness. Again, with Jesus, his message is so consistent in that regard that the eye is the light for the whole body. If you don't see properly, the whole body is going to be corrupt. Let your light shine, so much of what Jesus talked about is light, opening your eyes, seeing.
TNN: Light being a metaphor for information and awareness...as in "shining a light on" something.
BRIAN: One of the things that happened in the late 60s while we were going through all the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement, and really even earlier than that in the 50s when we were beginning the Civil Rights Movement, the anti-war mentality, those were all consciousness raising moments in our history. Those were times where God was really hitting us on the head in a very concrete way saying, “Open your eyes and see some stuff. See things differently.'" Because up until that time, most Americans, white Americans, for instance, even in the Civil Rights movement, really didn't see what was going on.
As I grew up I would hear the complaints about black people. They don't do this. They're lazy. They won't da, da, da.Then when you suddenly have your eyes open, you say, "Wait a minute. These are lies. This is stuff that keeps you from seeing the truth, seeing the reality as it is." What does Jesus say about the truth? "The truth shall set you free." Those were moments when most of us who saw our government and our role in wars as always just, always fair. We only did good things. We only fought for proper reasons to protect life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Suddenly, in Vietnam for at least some of the population, a good portion of the population, people started to say, "Why are we really in this war? Why are you doing this?" Interestingly enough, 50 years later we were happy to jump in again without raising the questions. Consciousness comes and goes.
TNN:Also, the 60s was only one short decade after television entered peoples lives and the news and information was now being broadcast into people's living rooms.
BRIAN: In Latin American countries the same thing, of course, was happening and out of Africa and Third World countries came a whole new way of looking at theology. It came to be called "liberation theology." They have three foundations that they came to see as our paths or steps. The first one in Spanish is, “Ver la realidad,” see reality. If we're not willing to see reality, we're not going to be transformed. We're not going to be changed or if we only want to see reality from our vantage point. What that means is that we do live in a social pyramid. We even do it with countries, First World countries, Third World countries. Guess what? Third World countries see things differently than First World countries see things, surprise, surprise. Guess what? People with lots of money and resources see things differently than the poor people do. Guess what? White privilege sees things differently from folks of African descent who have been subjected to prejudices their whole life.
Latinos, who come up across the border and struggle to make a life here, see things differently from the farmer on the border who thinks he's protecting his property by developing vigilante groups and shooting immigrants. We are born and raised with cultural and economic blinders, social blinders, race blinders.
TNN: It is very difficult to have one’s reality challenged and more difficult to have a value system that allows one to challenge oneself.
BRIAN: To me, this whole thing of Jesus, of Buddha, of Mohammed is really to broaden us so that we see more and more. The first step is to say, "We need to see reality and we need to see it differently." How can you honestly judge what's going on if you haven't seen anything beyond your own limited reality? If you stay in your cultural ghetto?
The second step in that process according to liberation methodology is “pensar,” to reflect or to think. We need to tilt our head and say, "Wow, I never noticed this before," and become someone who ask questions, think critically, as we did in the Civil Rights Movement. As we needed to do more before we jumped into Iraq and Afghanistan and some of these other places in the Middle East, and gratefully as we did before we jumped into Syria.
Then we need to take that new insight, that "Hmm, it's different, but what do I do with that" and take whatever your holy book is and if it's the Bhagavad Gita, or the Koran, or the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Bible, we need to begin to reflect using something as our guide. Christians use our Bible to reflect.
Then get together with people who are willing to wrestle and to struggle with what it means. You can do it with a group of people who see things the same way you do, but then guess what? You're stuck in the same world. Some of our best Bible studies came when we finally started doing bilingual Bible study. We had Latinos and African-Americans and white folks and a couple college students all together. This is where the circle comes in. Where everybody in the circle has value and we all have input and we try to figure out, what does this mean? What is this saying to us? How does this affect us? That is where the real “aha” moments happen.
TNN: But what do you do with all that insight?
BRIAN: The dialogue is transformative, because spirituality is about transformation. It's not just being a log. It's about being moved, being changed in some way. It continues to change us as we really hear others. For some people, honestly it takes a long time to break down the cultural blinders.
Then you can start to say that, "Hmm, I don't want to be part of the problem. I'm going to be part of the transformation to make this different." That's what you do.
TNN: This is the hard part…where the pedal hits the metal.
BRIAN: This moves us into the final and third phase, because we talked about seeing reality, reflecting together with groups, sifting through your holy books, through your value system. Then the third thing they say is ”actuar,” you have to act. You’ve got to do something. In all three levels there's transformation going on, but acting is one of the beautiful things. Then we're acting not as a do-gooder coming to make it better for you poor people. We're not doing things “to” people, we do things “with” our brothers and sisters. We become activists, who work together for the common good, very consciously trying to make a difference. Activism and spirituality are two sides of the same coin and they have to be.
It can't be "us and them", it has to be us. It's always us and us. As Pogo would say, "We have met the enemy and he is us.” Forever and even as we're fighting for change, we're still part of the problem because it's our nature. It's the nature of being alive, being human beings.
That's what I've been doing for the last 40 years here in Los Angeles, working to change systems and to make a difference. You have some victories. They are few and far between and there are lots of failures. I remember some people who were visiting us in South LA saying, "Why do you keep doing this when you hardly ever win?" Because you have to, because this is what we do. You see. You reflect. You act. Then later you evaluate. How are we doing? What else should be different? You do this in community. To me, this is the Bible. This is what it's fundamentally about.