The story of Passover is a story shared by both Jews and Christians. And in a sense, it is a story that speaks to all people. In its deep wisdom, the Jewish tradition understands that it is not just a story from thousands of years ago, but that the cry of the Israelites for deliverance from their oppressors is a story that is still being cried out today, from many corners of the globe, including our own city.
As Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center asserts, "In every generation, Pharaoh! In every generation, Freedom!"
We know that freedom is not free and that each day we must advance justice and peace. It takes hard work, reflection on our faith and openness to God's grace in our daily lives. And we fervently believe that God hears that cry again, and we as God's people hear that cry.
The seder calls us to look inward, or as Rabbi Waskow says, "to the liberation of our own person and relationships from the habits, addictions and hostilities that are our internal Pharaohs and that eat away the hope, the love and the life juices that spring from the core of our beings."
As we remember and celebrate this Passover story of liberation, I think of a quote that has had an enormous impact on us at Project H.O.M.E. since our earliest years. It comes from Lila Watson, an aboriginal Australian activist, who said, "If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together." We have translated this sentiment into our vision statement, which is "None of us are home until all of us are home."
We say this because we have learned that the issues homeless and low-income people face are our issues: decent, affordable housing; quality education; employment at a livable wage; a health care system that meets our needs; safety, healthy communities that nurture healthy families; and freedom from discrimination.
Those in our society who are poor, homeless or otherwise marginalized are affected by dehumanizing social values, such as rampant individualism, competitiveness and excessive materialism, which equate our worth as persons with what we have or what we consume.
Jewish core values tell us that everyone has value. There are no throwaway people. But the dehumanizing values affect all Americans: A hyperproductive ethic leaves us all stressed and busy, cut off from relationships and community.
When we see a person on the street we can no longer pass by and say, "There but for the grace of God go I" — but rather "There go I." As Martin Luther King, Jr., challenged us: "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality; tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."
This is particularly true these days. We all know we are going through tough times in America — perhaps the toughest we have experienced since the Great Depression. Millions of Americans who believed they were economically secure are experiencing what seemed unthinkable: foreclosure, job loss, dramatic downsizing, and fear for the future.
But rather than point fingers, perhaps this time of crisis can become a time of reflection on who we are as a nation. As more Americans experience economic insecurity, we may recognize that we are closer than we think to the families in the inner city or in shelter. Many people may be forced to realize that the American dream is not solely a matter of material comfort as the way to security or happiness. Passover lets us believe in a "Love that is strong as death." That joy and fulfillment are found in the struggle to uphold human dignity and community.
We should seize this time to evoke the best parts of the Jewish tradition. The Torah and the prophets introduced a radical understanding of God — not a divine figure who blesses and upholds the emperors and Pharaohs of the world, but One who has a special love for the poor, the widow and orphan, one whose very character is expressed in liberating people from oppression and injustice.
Sister Mary Scullion is the co-founder of Project H.O.M.E., a non-profit organization that serves chronically homeless men and women in Philadelphia. This piece is adapted from her remarks as the guest speaker at the Women's Seder sponsored by JEVS Human Services.