Listening Post #2: The Faith That Does Justice: Mrs. Viola Sanders

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A luminous Philadelphian, Mrs. Viola Sanders, died on November 5 at the age of 76. I met Miss Viola about a year and a half ago, and periodically would drop by to visit her just to listen, to learn from this venerable community activist about her life as a political and spiritual warrior. Hers is a story of the power of love and faith when these two forces converge in one tiny woman. Frail as a bird, her long beautiful hands punctuating the air as she reminisced about her many years in the struggle for justice, she spoke stirringly not only of her own heroic past, but of the ongoing need for a motivated and activated citizenry to address systemic inequalities. “I’m a little frustrated”, she confessed. “43 million people without health insurance. Why aren’t people taking to the streets?’

Among her many accomplishments, Miss Viola co- founded  the Philadelphia Welfare Rights Organization  in the 1960’s with her sister,  Louise Brookins. Brookins was the pragmatic Head of  PWRO,  but Miss Viola was its Heart. Together they created a powerful organization, forged from the steel of their own characters and tempered by the suffering they and their children shared with so many other women and children who were poor.
For Miss Viola, political action flowed from a deep spiritual reservoir. She once helped organize a “spiritual rally” on the steps of the capitol in Harrisburg. Why a ‘spiritual’ rally?  Because, she said, “the place where politics and spirituality meet is in raising righteous hell.” And raise righteous hell she did. She worked tirelessly for families who had nothing. She could be demanding and persistent, but never just for herself; she always advocated for others.

The culture wars of the last quarter century have fostered a mistaken and unreasonable assumption in public discourse that a strong faith perspective is usually accompanied by  a narrow, knee-jerk  political conservatism.  Miss Viola’s life was a ringing testimonial to a different ideal, one of the Faith that does Justice. She was indeed rooted deeply in her Baptist religious tradition. But her faith made her hunger and work for a different temporal reality. She labored for the right to live in dignity, for equal education, for health care, for the right of people swept to the social margins to speak and be heard.  Referring to her own activism, she said, “I pulled myself up by the bootstraps I didn’t have, and started crying out on behalf of the children. ”

And cry out she did, but not in a loud voice. Hers was often the whisper of invitation. Community Legal Services attorney Richard Weishaupt recalls that following particularly vitriolic exchanges between activists and immovable bureaucrats or politicians, when others fumed in frustration, Miss Viola would gently interject, “Surely there is something you can do for us,” or “I know your heart is not completely frozen; I can see you are a good man and want to do the right thing.”

This is the activism and politics of Possibility; no blame, no judgment, just an unwavering belief in our common human hunger and thirst for justice, in the capacity of every heart to care deeply about the sufferings of another.

Her funeral was a joyful celebration of her deep faith, and her life reflected the very concrete and transformative power that faith can have on one’s actions. Miss Viola knew that the integration of faith and activism created a powerful force for change. In a country where 84% of Americans professes some kind of religious belief and practice, Miss Viola stands as a sturdy, hopeful role model. Imagine our world if, like Miss Viola, all people of whatever faith allowed universal values of love and justice to take such vigorous and generative root that their hearts broke open into compassionate action for the Common Good.

Lately, I think that the seeds planted by people like Miss Viola are starting to sprout. That world is coming.  Soon, and very Soon.

For a more complete listing of her life’s work, view her obituary in The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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