The Power of Public Witness

By Bill Mefford

I remember when I was a kid growing up and I occasionally saw old film clips from the 1960s of the sit-in’s by young black students calling for the desegregation of public places like stores and restaurants. I remember seeing the marches and demonstrations against the Vietnam War and I was so challenged to do something similar; to make a difference. So, when I got to a small college in Abilene, TX in the mid 80s I was surprisingly shocked that there were no sit-in’s, no demonstrations of any kind, no outrage about anything. Nothing was happening!

Well, it was West Texas in the 80s and the overwhelming majority of students were conservative and were quite happy with Reagan’s America. It is striking that I mistakenly thought any fellow students would have been as swept up in the images of protest and public witness events as I was. Decades after the students marched for equality and against war their public witness was still transformational. And it continues to this day.

Years later, in 2014 on President’s Day, I joined a small group of faith leaders from across the United Sates as well as undocumented students and we demonstrated outside President Obama’s White House protesting the 2 millionth deportation his administration had committed against undocumented immigrants.

Because we stood in solidarity with the undocumented students none of us took any ID with us so therefore, our time in jail took much longer than originally planned. Thus, it was night time before I got back to my office and checked my phone and social media. I had written a post that morning on my previous blog, Jeremiah Weeping, as to why I was committing civil disobedience. What I found was that the blog post had blown up - thousands of people were reading it and I had well over 100 calls, texts, and voicemails, with hundreds more emails.

And they weren’t just from political progressives. They were from some still very conservative friends and people I had not heard from since seminary. They were all entirely positive too; encouraging me, telling me they too felt called to engage in public witness on the same issue of immigration and other issues as well. It was overwhelming.

This is the power of public witness. Public witness events help motivate and mobilize others to action on that issue or even related issues. Now, this is not the only reason to do public witness events - there needs to be a larger strategy that your public witness event needs to be linked together towards the larger goal of accomplishing change. Too often, especially among some justice-oriented organizations based in Washington DC, there is often a need to do public witness events for the sole purpose of having public witness events. That’s nonsense.

Nonetheless, public witness events are powerful because they an alternative vision for the world. They show courage located in a community passionately dedicated to the same goal of social change and the greater realization of justice. Just as courage breeds courage, public witness events breed public witness events. Imagination breeds imagination, faithfulness breeds faithfulness, and revolution breeds revolution.

So, yeah, I know you are tired. I am too and the crap from this administration just keeps on coming. But what you and I do today can and will have an immense impact on so many people tomorrow. And God knows we need a helluva lot more courage, imagination, faithfulness, and yes, revolution these days. So let’s do this.

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