Did you hear the story of the hairdresser from Halifax? Her car broke down in New Glasgow and she had to wait an extra day to get it fixed, so in order to try to shake her bad day, she went to the movie theatre and bought a ticket to sit on the main floor.
The manager discovered that she was sitting on the main floor and told her she had to sit in the balcony. She refused as she didn’t want to climb the stairs. They called the cops, threw her out of the movie theatre, she got arrested and spent a day in jail on top of everything else.
This really happened! Her name was Viola Desmond, the year was 1946, and she was thrown in jail for wanting to sit on the main floor of the movie theatre. What had she done wrong? She had sat in the ‘all white’ main floor of the theatre. She was charged with tax evasion because the ticket to sit on the main floor was 1 cent more than it was for the balcony, and by buying the cheaper ticket, she supposedly defrauded the province of their tax. She was fined $26 and given a police record.
What happened next was just as startling as our scripture reading for today. We’ve heard about Jesus promising The Spirit who will come as companion, and guiding Paul and his friends in a convoluted journey through Turkey into Greece. What is this Spirit who closes doors to going in one direction, then starts churches through co-incidental meetings at rivers when people least expected it? And does it still happen?
And the real big question, how do we know if this is the Spirit leading us or if it’s just a figment of our imaginations?
I think that there’s something inherently scary for us intelligent types of folks when it comes to the Spirit. When I was a child, we heard it called ‘the Holy Ghost’ which meant it was right up there with Frankenstein and Dracula, something that came out on Midnight on Halloween. And as a young adult, I saw examples of people rolling around on the floor, speaking in tongues, going to faith healers, being slain in the Spirit, you name it. That was not something I wanted to experience, no thank you!
But this church was built by people who trusted that there was something deeply true and meaningful in the stories we hear in the book of Acts. The Methodists built this building 103 years ago, and the symbol of Methodism is the Dove. If you look around, you can see more than one image of the Dove on our walls, and if you look at our new crest, the Dove is still incorporated in it. Methodists were founded after John and Charles Wesley went to a Moravian prayer meeting and found their hearts ‘strangely warmed’. This warmth inspired them to take the book learning they had gathered and bring it to places like the riverside. They went to where they found people, and they made the message of Jesus, the message of hope and companionship come alive for those folks. The Wesleys found a need for guidelines for telling if our thoughts were from the Spirit or from ourselves. Some of their followers had taken the idea of the Spirit to mean that since they had been ‘saved’, they could do no wrong, even if they participated in drunkenness and debauchery. John and his brother, being graduates of Oxford University and ordained Anglican priests, were not at all happy with the turn of events.
John developed a few simple questions that help us even today: Is it scriptural? Is it logical? Does it fit with our experience? Does it fit with our tradition?
Scripture would say, pay attention to those little nags and hints and dreams. Peter and Paul listened to their dreams and what a change it made for them and us. Our intellect would say, is this logical? Is it safe to follow my impulse to go for a run past a drug house in the middle of the night in Mississippi? Probably not, unless I’m 6 foot 6 and run in a bulletproof vest.
Experience is also important. Does this impulse seem like it’s coming from God or coming from my own ego? Is it really God telling me to eat that chocolate bar? Or is it my own lust for chocolate? That is a trivial example, but I have seen people rationalize everything from their addictions to staying in an abusive relationship. It takes practise to hear that voice of peace.
Lastly there’s tradition. For me that’s the United Church, but it could be the Anglican Church or the Baptists, or wherever you find God. Our traditions say we should care for the poor and the hungry, the oppressed and the discriminated. When that little voice connects with my tradition and my congregation feels empowered by it, then that’s the Spirit calling. Synergy.
Viola Desmond went back home to her congregation. She talked to them and together they helped figure out what the Spirit was calling them to do. They hired a lawyer to fight the criminal charges. She was still found to be guilty, but embarrassed the lawyers, the government and the movie theatre. Her lawyer refused to charge her and donated the funds to a new organization for equality. One person said
... this meant something to our people. Neither before or since has there been such an aggressive effort to obtain rights. The people arose as one and with one voice.
This happened nine years before Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus down in Alabama that kick started the Civil Rights Movement. It was an act of Spirit moving in the heart of a brave hairdresser that still provides encouragement for us all to fight any kind of oppression of one human by another. And if you happen to be in Halifax someday, take a ride on the Viola Desmond ferry, donate a few dollars to Cape Breton University’s Viola Desmond scholarship, and check out her portrait in Government House while reading about her pardon that was given in 2010. And keep listening for that small voice of the Spirit who moves us to work for peace and justice for all.