Peace Covenant Church of the Brethren
“A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
This image that closes out this passage seems an unlikely one to me. This is one of Jesus’ hardest teachings: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who abuse you. If you love the ones who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. No, Jesus says, I say to you love your ENEMIES. Do good. Lend without expecting anything in return. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
Don’t judge anyone, he continues. Forgive and you will be forgiven. This long list of nearly impossible relational commands – the master course in discipleship – and then the passage ends with this image: A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap.
What in the world?
I watched this great documentary on Netflix called Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. In the episode about fat, the chef and star, Samin Nosrat, goes to visit an olive oil company in Italy.
The place is unbelievably gorgeous – twisted olive trees growing on an Italian mountainside. The proprietors of the old world olive oil company walk her through the process of harvesting the olives, making them into paste, and then pressing them in a gigantic, circular, cold press. The image of rich, thick oil running down the sides, overflowing the machine: oil that is spicy,; oil that will flavor everything it touches – this is what the bizarre line from our passage reminds me of.
It also reminds me of Psalm 133:
How good and pleasant it is
when God’s people live together in unity!
There is this image of abundance, of pleasure, of precious, overflowing oil associated with the love of God’s people for one another in the Psalms, and the same kind of abundant, overflowing goodness here, coming directly from Jesus. What’s that about?
During the 1960s, life here in Durham was filled with the work and intensity of change. Durham had long been known as a town with what white people referred to as “good race relations.” There was a significant upper class black community here – NC Mutual’s headquarters, the largest black-owned business in the country, helped make Durham known as “Black Wall Street,” and both business and politics between white and black was carried out in private, back-door compromises between the white and black elite. By the mid-1950s, however, things were changing. The country was changing, and poor people in Durham – both black and white – were becoming more involved in decision making.*
C.P. Ellis was born here in Durham in 1927 in a small house in East Durham. His family was poor, and he grew up in deep poverty. His father worked in a cotton mill and he knew intimately the insult for mill workers and their children: “linthead.” He grew up poor and remained poor, even after he became the owner of a small service station in East Durham. In 1961, sensing that he might find community and purpose there, C.P. Joined the Ku Klux Klan. He rose quickly up the ranks there, proving his instinct correct. By 1965, C.P. Was elevated to the role of “Exalted Cyclops,” the leader of the Durham branch of North Carolina’s KKK, what federal investigators called “the most active Klan state in the country.”
C.P. was a gifted leader. He drug the Klan out of the shadows and into public. He made intentional contact with city leaders of government and business, and showed up at community gatherings and city council meetings. He was known all over town as the leader of the KKK, but some important, “big” men, though they called him at home and met him in secret, refused to acknowledge him on the street. This disrespect, so like the disrespect he’d grown up with as an impoverished mill kid, wasn’t lost on C.P. But he forged ahead, working hard at the Klan’s goals.
Ann Atwater moved to Durham in 1953 from a tiny North Carolina town, summoned by her partner and father of her daughter. That man didn’t even meet her at the bus station when she arrived, and soon moved on for a new place and new job. He asked Ann to come with him, but she refused, and stayed here, in Durham, until she died in 2016. Ann was poor, black, and a single mother raising two daughters. She lived in Hayti, in a tumbling down house with bad plumbing and safety hazards galore. She did what was available to her, but not much changed about the housing or the city’s services. But Ann was a leader – and in 1965, Howard Fuller recruited her to start working as a community organizer around the issue of housing. She began confronting slumlords who refused to repair their property, organizing her neighbors for marches and protests, and showing up at every action, and almost every city council meeting.
Ann and CP knew each other. They were both showing up in a lot of the same places, working with their communities on opposite side of issue after public issue. At city council meetings, they’d compete to see who would fill the most seats first: at one meeting, Ann and her crew arrived early and filled the entire gallery. The next meeting, CP’s Klan members arrived even earlier and filled the hall before Ann arrived. Ann and her organizing friends figured out how to get around that, though: when a seat opened up beside a white Klan member, one of the black organizers sat down. The Klan man, unable to sit next to a black person, scrambled to his feet and another black organizer sat in his seat, causing the next white Klan man to jump up and move – a domino effect until the civil rights activists filled the hall.
The enmity didn’t stop at seat filling, though. CP wasn’t stranger to violence. He never attempted to hurt Ann herself, but when a young member of the Klan called him to report that a white boy had been mugged by a group of black men, he grabbed his gun and fellow Klan members and drove over to the scene. When he saw a group of young black men standing on the corner, he asked what they knew. Unsatisfied with the answer they gave, CP grabbed his gun and shot at them, striking one of the men in the leg. He turned himself in, went to trial, and was found not guilty.
During one particularly heated city council meeting over a commission to institute a Human Rights Commission in Durham, CP gave a particularly nasty, racist speech. Ann reached into her purse and grabbed the knife she kept there. Infuriated with CP’s racist furor, Ann stood up and lunged toward him, intending to kill him. Luckily, three of her friends were between Ann and the aisle and managed to wrest the knife from her hand before she could make it to the microphone.
Ann and CP were enemies. There’s no other way to describe their relationship. They were both strong leaders, had earned the respect of their communities by working hard and being public.
In 1971, the Durham public schools were in the process of de-segregating. Federal law mandated that the community work together to determine how they would go about the process of integration. The process involved was called a “charrette” – a French term for a meeting in which all stakeholders in a project attempt to resolve conflicts and map solutions. The meeting requires an intense period of meeting, conversation and design. In Durham, it was a period of 10 days, with meetings all day and into the evening every day. The idea was to bring people together: rich and poor, liberal and conservative, white and black.
The leader of the charrette knew that he needed buy-in from all sectors of the community for the plan to work. He had met CP and Ann in different contexts, and began to wonder if he would have any luck convincing the two of them to co-chair the effort. A long shot, but worth a try.
Both CP and Ann were dead set against participating, but in similar chains of events, each was convinced by friends, inner compulsion and – I suspect – the Holy Spirit – to agree. For Ann, it was a natural outreach of her activism work. For CP, who had steadily increased the Klan’s public presence in Durham and whose own children attended woefully under-resourced public schools, it was a gamble.
The first few meetings didn’t go very well. Ann and CP refused to talk to each other. They spoke to one another only through translation of a third party. At a meeting to raise awareness and interest for the charrette, CP set up a display of KKK materials. The exhibit hall was crowded. As CP left the room for a moment, he saw a group of young black men move in to tear his display down. Ann, seeing CP’s distress and recognizing that the two of them were going to have to learn to trust one another somehow, yelled across the room in her loud, deep, commanding voice at the young men, preventing them from tearing apart the display. CP was understandably surprised. After the event ended, CP saw Ann sitting in the office of the building and walked up to her, asking how she was doing. Ann couldn’t quite believe that he was talking to her, and answered honestly: that her daughter was getting taunted and bullied in school because Ann had agreed to work with a Klansman. CP was gobsmacked: just that morning, his own son had confessed that he’d been teased and taunted for the very same reason: his daddy, a Klansman, was working with a black woman.
Something happened in that moment. CP started crying. Ann cried, too. Ann reached out and grabbed CP’s hand, a simple gesture of comfort. But in that moment, CP remembered the upper class politician he’d seen on the street the other day, the one who was happy to call him late at night and meet with him in secret about the Klan’s ideas for Durham but who out there on the street acted like he didn’t see him, passing CP by with his hand outstretched.
The charrette was intense. People participated, but not without drama. Ann and CP both endured taunts from their friends and neighbors about being race traitors. But the decisions of the charrette were good ones, and they were put into practice. CP left the experience at a loss – he left the Klan, or, perhaps, the Klan left him when they realized that he was no longer committed to their racist agenda. He turned to drinking more than he already did, and even ended up in the hospital after a drunken attempt at suicide. It took a long time for CP to admit that Ann and some of the black people he’d met during the charrette work treated him better than most white people.
But CP had felt it – that overflowing of grace, the abundance of people who know they’re loved and are willing to act out of that wealth. Like oil on the head of Aaron, like a good measure pressed down, shaken together, and running over, CP found his place as a child of God. And I cannot imagine any other way that Ann could have befriended this man, other than that kind of overflowing, abundance of love, directed by the Holy Spirit.
When CP died, the family held a small funeral – family only. But they invited Ann. Ann told the story of arriving to the funeral home, a bit early. She was the first person there, and when she sat down in the pew, an employee came up to her, questioning look on his face: “You know this is the service for CP Ellis, right?” “Yes sir, I know.” “Well, you know it’s only for family, right?” “Oh, yes, I know.” The man kept looking at her, clearly waiting for her to get up and leave, but Ann looked right back at him:
“CP was my brother.”
The man left.
Ann died in 2016. This story is a tiny glimpse into her remarkable life here in Durham, organizing, marching, protesting, demanding that the city step up and acknowledge its white supremacy and do something about it. This spring, a feature film about Ann and CP premieres, called The Best of Enemies.
Here is Ann’s version of the story, in her own words:
God of abundant, extravagant, overflowing love,
Hear our prayers this morning as we bring our whole selves before you, the parts of us that are celebrating deep joy and the parts of us that are mourning deep pain. You know every hair on our head and every word even before it arrives on our lips to speak, and so we know that you are already here with us, celebrating and mourning alongside us.
Help us, God, to absorb your love – the love that is deeper than oceans, that reaches to the heavens; the love that passes all understanding, the love that seeks us out when we are lost, the love that holds us fast, the love that will not let us go. You are closer to us than every breath we breathe. Your love created us, sustains us, and keeps us alive.
Surround us with this kind of love, God, your kind of love. Open our hearts and our heads to receive it – a gift, freely given, meant specifically for us and rooted in the same love that created the heavens and the earth. Pour it over us, God. Surround us and immerse us and season us and marinate us in your unending, unbounded love.
We need your love, God. We need to be saturated with it. Because your call to us is to be the people who witness to this love, people who love one another, people who love our neighbors, and people who love even our enemies. We cannot do this, God, unless we know the kind of love that comes only from you, the kind of love that permeates and makes possible the things that seem to us to be impossible. Make us your witnesses, God, people from whom love overflows.
God, as we pray this morning, hear our prayers:
Hear our prayers of thanksgiving, for all the love we have experienced:
Hear our prayers for those we know to be in need of this abundant love:
And God, this morning, help us to pray for our enemies, for all those who hurt us, who devalue us, who ignore us, who put stumbling blocks in our path, for all those who wish us ill. For those enemies that we cannot bear to name or pray for, may your Spirit intercede with sighs too deep for words.
God of great, abundant, overflowing love, hear our prayers this morning. Amen.
*I’m grateful for Osha Gray Davidson’s book, The Best of Enemies, for background and narrative of Ann and C.P.’s story.