In the late 1950s in Montgomery, Alabama, an eleven-year-old African American girl named Jamila Jones was watching as the civil rights movement unfolded right in her own back yard. Jones enjoyed singing – she often gathered with her girlfriends to sing and create harmonies together, and they often found themselves singing freedom songs – the music of the movement these girls were observing around them. They soon realized that they sounded pretty good – adults began paying attention to them – and soon these young people were using their music to raise money for the movement. As Jamila Jones grew into her adolescence, she found herself moving in spaces that she otherwise might not have gotten to experience. Her music, along with her many companions on the journey, brought her into an inner circle of the growing civil rights movement in Alabama. And so she kept singing, through her teenage and college years, and into young adulthood.
One night, Jones and some fellow young singers had traveled to Tennessee and were stopping for the night to stay at a church near the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle. They’d waited until nightfall to enter the town, knowing the racialized violence that could await them there if they entered in broad daylight. As they settled into the church for a quiet movie night, a group of angry white community leaders ran into the building with flashlights and instruments meant to threaten, yelling and demanding that the lights be turned on so they could know what was going on. The singers, though afraid, turned to music, as they’d always done. They began to sing a new verse of a familiar freedom song: “We are not afraid,” to the tune of “we shall overcome.”
Ms. Jamila Jones shared about this story as part of a Smithsonian oral history project, and she described the moment this way:
“We got louder and louder with singing that verse, until one of the policemen came and said to me, ‘If you have to sing,’ and he was actually shaking, ‘do you have to sing so loud?’ And I could not believe it. Here these people had all the guns, the billy clubs, the power (we thought), and he was asking me, with a shake, if I would not sing so loud.”
The intruders eventually left, and the singers were left, again, with their music.
These young people were singing songs of hope against all odds. They were singing, “we are not afraid,” in the face of racialized terror; proclaiming, “we shall overcome” in the face of obstacles that many others had deemed insurmountable. They were using their gifts and their training and their many years of experience with resistance to proclaim their own hope in the face of violent power.
Hope and bold action in the face of violent power. The midwives in today’s Exodus story knew something of that experience, too. They acted boldly, hoping for a better future beyond what their community could see. They had hope, against all odds.
We find ourselves at the very beginning of the Exodus narrative, the story of God’s people during the time of Moses. But the story does not begin with Moses – it begins with a decree from Pharaoh: “Let’s be careful here,” Pharaoh begins, speaking to his constituents in Egypt. “If we aren’t careful and clever, the Israelites – these foreigners – are going to keep increasing and increasing and then one day they’ll join in with our enemies and then they’ll all crush us and escape!” This is our first wild hint of the kind of power we’re dealing with in the beginning of the Exodus story: a leader whose fear of a community is so intense that it requires great shrewdness, great ingenuity to crush the possible threat. And so Pharaoh sets up a complex system of oppression that keeps the Israelites in their place. Overworked and undercompensated, the Israelites experience the ruthlessness of that system, and yet it still is not enough for the powers-that-be. Pharaoh demands that the Hebrew midwives do away with all the sons born to Israelite mothers. Oppression has turned a corner to genocide. Enter the two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah.
These two courageous women quietly refuse to carry out the orders from atop their social hierarchy. They refuse to do the unspeakable thing – they refuse to let the final glimmer of hope fade into the shadows. Instead, they cling to that hope, believing that the story of the Israelite people does not end with Pharaoh’s desperate power grab. They take hold of one small bit of light, believing that there still might be hope for God’s people, that there still might be a way forward, that the oppression they’re experiencing is not God’s final word for them.
Shiphrah and Puah refuse to obey, and that act of defiance sets in motion the entire exodus story. These midwives are implicated in a long line of defiant women whose courage and hope make way for God’s good future. As you may remember, the story that comes right after this one is the story of the baby Moses, drawn up out of the river by another defiant and hope-filled woman, the daughter of Pharaoh himself. Shiphrah and Puah are the mothers of this lineage, matriarchs of hope. Or, in the words of womanist scholar Wilda Gafney, they are “the mothers of a revolution waged by women.”
The hope that these midwives bear into the world is not a light and fluffy hope. It’s not the kind of hope we’re talking about when we say, “I hope it’ll snow a little less this winter!” And it’s not the hope of toxic positivity – “just be positive and it’ll all turn out great!” – or “hashtag blessed” culture – “good vibes only! Hashtag too blessed to be stressed!”
The hope of Shiphrah and Puah is a strong and subversive hope. It takes seriously the suffering that surrounds their people. It’s a hope that looks around at the chaos and struggle of the present moment and still has the audacity to imagine that there is another way. Theirs is a hope in the face of despair, against all odds, that drives them to faithful action.
And the hope of Shiphrah and Puah is risky – it requires something of them. When Pharaoh inevitably finds out about their scheme to rescue those babies, he’ll probably fly off the handle with a punishment that befits level of oppression he has already unleashed. Suffice it to say: Shiphrah and Puah’s hope is both subversive and risky.
But this is not just a story about people who struggle and respond in the face of oppressive power. This is ultimately a story about God. As scholar Walter Brueggemann writes, stories like these remind us that “God has a generous intention to act on behalf of those whom God loves.” Those faithful midwives trusted this promise, even beyond their present circumstances.
Of course, we know that the story is far more complicated than this – there are twists and turns for the people of God throughout their journey, and there are twists and turns in the story even before Moses grows to be an adult. But this chapter in the story of liberation begins with the subversive, risky, against-all-odds hope of a pair of midwives.
Throughout history, we have seen this kind of hope in action. There were those who sheltered on-the-run enslaved persons in the United States as part of the underground railroad. They held onto the glimmer of hope that there was a better future in store for their people across this country. There were communities of people in South Africa who resisted apartheid, and countless others who have believed in the small glimmers of hope, and whose actions have been transformational.
And of course, there were those young people singing hope in that dark church basement in Tennessee. They sang right in the middle of the powers that sought to keep Black folks disenfranchised. They believed that melodies of freedom could sound louder than cries of fear and crashes of violence.
This may sound too obvious to say out loud, but I’ll say it anyway: the hope of Shiphrah and Puah is the kind of hope we need right now. There is a great deal in the world around us that makes despair, cynicism, and apathy much easier than hope. But just as the Exodus story was not over at the time of Pharaoh’s decree, the stories at work in the world around us are not over yet, either.
Over the past couple years, one of the beautiful things I’ve noticed about the youth at Westminster is that they hold onto hope. They might not call it hope, but there is a sense of hopefulness in the way they go about their lives in the world. And theirs is, at times, a hope against all odds, a Shiphrah and Puah kind of hope. For instance – this week I asked some of our high schoolers why they continue to care about climate change if there are so many obstacles in the way to its reversal. The answers I got were about hope. One young person said, “there is always a glimmer of a better future we can lend a hand in.” Another said, “if people decide there’s something that can be done, change might happen and it might not, but at least there’s a chance that things get better.” This is resilient hope, hope that sees beyond our current moment into God’s good future.
A final anecdote about hope. This week there was a small gathering of members of the mission component team from the Enduring Hope capital campaign. Lay leaders and members of the clergy and staff team gathered with leaders of the six Twin Cities organizations who are receiving funds as part of the mission component. These are amazing organizations, all committed to leadership development for Black and Indigenous young people – I invite you to find their names in the July issue of the Westminster News.
As we ate breakfast together in the Meisel Room, we were guided by conversation starters placed on the tables in front of us: What guides your hope for the future? As I listened around the room, I heard the “against all odds” kind of hope – hope that catches a glimpse of what is possible in God’s future; hope that moves us to faithful action. I heard about 21st Century Academy at Liberty Church, where leaders have hope that racialized trauma can be healed. I heard about 30,000 Feet in St. Paul, where leaders have hope that through creative learning experiences, cycles of poverty can be transformed. I heard about Migizi, where leaders have hope that Indigenous young people can build professional skills and learn about and support Indigenous community. And there are more stories – this is the tip of the iceberg.
God’s story in our own community is not over, and we do well to listen to those in our midst who have radical hope for God’s good future. We do well to listen and learn, and then join in. This is a partnership and accompaniment kind of hope, a resiliency and resistance kind of hope, a kind of hope that is not about us but about the good future that God helps us to envision together.
The writer of the hymn we’ll soon sing offers such a vision: O day of peace that dimly shines through all our hopes and prayers and dreams, guide us to justice, truth, and love, delivered from our selfish schemes. May swords of hate fall from our hands, our hearts from envy find release, till by God’s grace our warring world shall see Christ’s promised reign of peace.
May it be so. Amen.