Living Isaiah 61: Justice Work is My Song of Praise to God
"I do the work of justice not out of a disdain for the privileged but out of a love for Life." - Womanist Theologian Dr. Kelly Douglas Brown
For a little over two years I have been working with NY Faith & Justice, and I can say that this work is an answer to prayers. Early in my Christian walk I desired to do social justice from a Christ-centered perspective. This desire is birthed out of a deep gratitude for the total salvation I experienced at age 14 after four years of being led by the Holy Spirit to pray and read the Bible (outside of the church). I was not raised in a Christian home and had only been to church two times during my entire childhood. Christ did not just save my soul but he saved me from the unjust systems that enacted violence on my very being as a young black woman growing up in the inner-city community of East New York.
Recently I realized it has been 20 years since my little brother and I were unjustly removed from our mother and placed in foster care -- the response to my mother's request for assistance while we were living in a welfare hotel in Queens. As I reflected over the past 20 years of my life, I realized how much God's faithfulness had sustained me and how literal Isaiah 61 has been in my life and the lives of my siblings.
Justice work is my song of praise to God, not out of a desire to deal with my personal problems through this work, or to make those responsible pay, but out of a love for the God of the orphan who came to preach good news to those just like me, and who did not stop there but actually said that those like me would repair the ruined cities and restore the devastations (Isaiah 61:4). This gives me joy and no reason to pity myself. God ordained that I would have agency in righting the very wrongs that were committed against me, and organizations like NY Faith & Justice have given me the opportunity to work toward the fulfillment of this prophecy.
I will not say that the road has been easy. Because even when you accept Christ, you have to "wrestle against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in high places" (Ephesians 6:10-18). For me this has meant systematic injustice that reaches all the way back to my family being owned by one of the largest slave-holding families in America, to the racist real estate practices that turned East NY into a ghetto, and to the drug epidemic that further eroded my community and the lives of those closest to me.
Even as I write this my mother is estranged from the family and homeless, dealing with addiction and mental illness. So as I work for systemic justice, my family and I are praying and working toward individual justice and restoration for her. Sometimes I have struggled with not feeling equipped to do the work of justice due to my family's struggles. Often we do not see those who are personally affected by injustice actually standing up to it, but Isaiah 61 (which is the foundational scripture for NY Faith & Justice) has encouraged me that God actually can use me because of the injustices I have experienced, not in spite of them.
I strongly hold the conviction that each time justice is enacted in the world we get one step closer to salvation, one step closer to the kingdom, and one step closer to answering the prayer that God's will be done on earth as it is in heaven -- and THIS is my song of worship.
Onleilove Alston is a former Beatitudes Society Fellow at Sojourners. She serves on the Servant Leadership Team of NY Faith & Justice, and is a nominated Poverty Scholar and Faithful Democrats Fellow.