Nehemiah Sighting

Nehemiah came to town this weekend.

Saturday saw a series of rallies that collided, mingled and shared energy over a stretch of four hours of gorgeous February afternoon. They didn’t quite merge completely, but it was close and it was exciting.

This was an example of what I’m now calling a Nehemian moment: Multiple groups of people with varying agendas coming together in common cause, without central coordination or even much planning about how the groups organize. As the first entries of this blog point out, Jerusalem was rebuilt using Nehemian methods. I believe that this is how God is moving in Cairo, Benghazi and occasionally other places.

Saturday was only a glimpse, but I want to share the details because I think they illustrate the Movement as well as some blockages we are throwing up.

One participant posted some video that captured everything from the first singing of “On, Wisconsin!” (Go Badgers! – and while I’m at it, Go Packers!) at Dupont Circle to the joyous chaotic scrum of Arabic chanting in front of the White House (with a blogger-sighting along the way at 4:13 –  Hi mom!)

There have been almost-daily solidarity rallies in Washington. First it was with Egypt, which climaxed in a lovely three-hour dance party outside the embassy the day after Mubarak fell. More recently Libya, Bahrain and Wisconsin. (Was my previous post’s prediction on Algeria wrong, or what?)

Saturday’s labor rally was good, although initially unremarkable. There was a series of speeches, interspersed with chanting and occasional singing. The only surprise for me was when they announced that the rally’s permit was actually gifted at the last minute by an abortion-rights group that had long planned an event. This prompted a very angry argument among a few older white guys right in front of the stage. Whatever one thinks about abortion rights activists, it must be admitted that giving away a permit in exchange for only a few minutes of mike time was a good and generous thing to do. That’s solidarity folks.

As it was wrapping up, the MC announced a spontaneous march to visit the Arab solidarity rally, about a mile away and due to start an hour later. So several hundred people headed, chanting, down Connecticut Ave. I was briefly nervous that a mob of excited (mainly) white people having a spontaneous rally and possibly getting the cops excited could cause problems for the folks who had actually made a reservation. But the whole collision turned out beautifully, which I guess makes sense because God was moving.

There were actually several other solidarity rallies planned that afternoon for the White House. When we arrived, there were two groups representing Yemen and Bahrain, having their separate low-energy events about 100 yards apart. Each group had around 20 people. The Yemenis were chanting mildly on the sidewalk, many sporting face paint; the Bahrainis were over in the park, milling about with a collection of gruesome giant photographs of wounds sustained by their comrades back home.

When the labor mob arrived, it stirred things up considerably. The police stepped in a little to make sure that the labor folks stayed on the street (where permits are not needed), and that unfortunately cemented a division in the crowd. I was one of a handful of people who realized there was nothing stopping us from individually switching rallies. Nothing, that is, except our learned fear of chanting Arabs.

So the labor folks chanted from the street, and the Yemenis chanted on the sidewalk, and the Bahrainis decided it looked like a party and they had to come over and check it out. Eventually someone in the labor crowd made an announcement that folks should stick around for the (Libyan) rally at 2:00, and that unfortunately had the opposite effect: Only a handful out of a crowd that had started in the hundreds stuck around, and everyone else missed out. Their visit brought the two Arab groups together and set the stage for something beautiful.

Once the labor rally dissipated, the energy shifted to a fascinating interplay between Yemenis and Bahrainis. At first, they each had a megaphone going, more competitive than cooperative. The Yemenis chanted “Down, down, Ali Saleh!” The Bahrainis chanted “Down, down, al-Khalifa!” at slightly different speeds. It was sort of a mess.

But then the Bahraini megaphonist got an idea: He joined the response to the Yemeni chant.

The Yemenis loved it, and the energy kicked up several notches. After a while, the Bahraini megaphone tried to switch back to al-Khalifa. Eventually the Yemenis got it and the rallies merged into a pair of crescents facing each other, calling and responding.

Meanwhile, a much larger crowd was gathering, apparently alerted via social media (although I’m not sure since much of what I’m finding is in Arabic). 2:00 came and went. Finally, an older woman wearing a hijab and a Libyan flag moved into the front of one of the crescents, which were merging into a big circle. For several minutes she worked up her nerve to interrupt the two very excited male megaphonists. She waited for a good moment, but as soon as one would pause, the other would jump in.

Finally, she just butted in, and the rally was underway. Gradually, the circle closed in and the energy rose. At first, the chants were primarily in English, which struck me as performance. But Arabic took over once people got into it: “Ash-sha’ab yureed isqaat an-nizaam” – the people want the downfall of the regime – was a favorite, but there were many others. It must have been thrilling to come together and share that now-viral statement of resistance, after fleeing political repression and finding the environment here in the U.S. far from perfect due to Islamophobia and “anti-terror” investigations.

By the end, it had more a feel of a party than a “demonstration.” It also felt like a religious revival of sorts. This may be a bizarre analogy, but if the earlier labor rally felt like a childhood Sunday morning back at Fremont Presbyterian, this crowd’s pulsating electricity and unpredictability reminded me more than anything of some Southern Baptist churches I’ve attended. I know I felt the Spirit moving from even at the edges of it. The center must have been incredible, and I imagine that many people forgot about the cameras, Obama and anything beyond this pure moment of joy and unity and resistance to evil.

At the same time, it wasn’t utopia. Five megaphones were going at various times, sometimes coordinated, other times less so. There were moments of animated negotiation about who was leading what and when, but overall everyone was extremely easy-going. The main exception came when someone tried to start a chant that “Obama must go!” People weren’t up for that and the megaphone was quickly passed on.

There was also an Iranian rally about 100 feet away, which was all demonstration all the time. A couple dozen people lined up with giant posters and flags, facing the White House and demonstrating on the need to ask the U.S. government to protect Camp Ashraf, which is an Iranian opposition base in Iraq that is now apparently being attacked by government-backed thugs as Iran’s influence in Iraq grows. These demonstrators didn’t seem to notice that there was another rally nearby; and had a much louder sound system, which they used to blast alternating speeches, techno music and awkward chants (although to be fair Ahmedinejad is the worst chanting name ever).

Still, there were Iranians in the “Arab” crowd (despite the ancient Arab/Persian rivalry) and I had to wonder whether any of them had originally come to the Camp Ashraf event and decided it was lame. I respect their cause, but their action reminded me mainly of the tone-deaf socialists who see this year’s excitement as their big opportunity to sell newspapers. It was extremely top-down, and relied on a model of organizing that was exactly like the Biblical story of Ezra’s failed attempt to restore Jerusalem, which I argue is a contrast to the Nehemian model that God implements successfully.

There are difficult issues to be worked out as these various revolutions play out. I read somewhere that many Egyptians living in western Libya have had to flee into Tunisia, where they must wait for their deeply distracted government to help them out of a nation that is still reeling and experiencing deadly unrest.

An Ethiopian was handing out two fliers. One hailed the peoples’ victories in Egypt and Tunisia. The other expressed “alarm over the fate of Ethiopian refugees in Libyan jails.” Like most societies, Libya has issues of racism, and migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa are at risk for being assumed guilty as Gaddafi relies on foreign mercenaries to do his dirty work. As the struggles intensify and merge, there will be rough patches, to put it mildly.

But Saturday was glorious. At the crowd’s peak, I estimate there were close to 500 people, and I counted symbols of 14 nations that are experiencing some degree of uprising: Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, Iraq, Tunisia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon, the United States, Egypt, South Yemen, Iran and Palestine. There was also a Maltese flag, although its bearer made a point of saying that his people were already free. I suggested that perhaps they could be more free, but he didn’t think so.

It must be nice, perfect freedom.

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