This profile was published as part of Gandhi’s Be Magazine’s #ProfilesofChangemakers series, uplifting the stories, lives, and work of Changemakers who are being the change they wish to see in the world.
Brian Merritt serves as Co-Director at Mercy Junction Justice and Peace Center in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
1. How did you become involved in this type of work and advocacy/activism?
From my youngest age I remembered my father going out on strike and attending Union picnics. Even though I grew up in a pretty fundamentalist culture of Nebraska I was fascinated by local politics. By High School I got involved with the Lincoln chapter of Youth for a Nuclear Freeze because of my religious pacifism. I really made a movement toward activism when I was working in the projects of Cabrini Green, Cook County Hospital and Humbolt Park with gangs and AIDS patients during college. Because of the racism, sexism, homophobia and unhindered support of the first gulf war in the religious community I was a part of I could no longer remain silent. I left the church for awhile and became a refugee to the Presbyterian Church (USA). They have accepted my radical notions and given me space to do ministry in the way I am called.
When I was asked to start Mercy Junction in Chattanooga by the Presbytery of East Tennessee my most recent efforts as Protest Chaplain with Occupy DC informed my creation of this ministry. I knew that there was little separation between what I called activism and worship of the divine. When I broke down that artificial barrier between secular and spiritual there were a huge amount of possibilities in front of me. To me there is no longer a secular and sacred. All is sacred.
2. Who were your biggest role model(s)? Who was your biggest inspiration?
There are probably too many role models to mention. Here are two: Toyohiko Kagawa is one of the most important religious figures for me. His book The Religion of Jesus changed the way I felt about the church and faith. It gave me the challenge that all love is action. Also, the incredible work of Charles Stelzle to create the Labor Temple in New York City during the beginning of the 20th century. His vision of a welcoming place for all working people is inspiring. On the opening night of the Labor Temple, Labor activists, socialists, communists and anarchists came together with people of faith to proclaim good news.
I am inspired by a woman named May who was part of my congregation in Washington DC. She told me at the age of 90 that she decided to have her birthday party around gratitude for those she could still tell it to. Then she said it was because my preaching had convinced her to be more grateful. I know that she changed me in ways she never imagined.
3. How has your work impacted others? Please share some of the successes that have truly touched those involved…
Each week that I get into the pulpit at Renaissance Presbyterian Church I get to see people that I know are blessed. I am not really able to judge how I impact others. I just know that when I am doing what I am supposed to do according to my calling in life, they impact and touch me.
Recently we had a meeting to counter the mass incarceration of Tennessee Prisoners in for profit prisons in the state. I think hearing openly defiant stories from ex-prisoners and families was inspiring. It should me that even in the depth of death the divine resides.
4. What have you learned from the journey and experience along the way so far? Any unexpected challenges or surprises?
I have realized how incredibly hard it is to live a life of peace and justice that is active. There is a certain amount of trauma that one encounters in the type of activism and advocacy work that I do. It is hard to turn it off and to free myself from other people’s burdens. Over time I am learning that I should not be carrying others burdens, but walking alongside them for as long as I am able.
5. How has your experience changed your life, your outlook, your interactions with others and with regard to your advocacy/activism?
There are many times that I want to quit, to walk away, go back to working as a clerk in a store. I think I crave a simple life. I want to unthink what I know, unsee what I have seen, to unhear what I have heard, but I know that with understanding I am given greater responsibility. Then I get back to work and find that there are the faces of the Spirit staring back at me. In my resentments, self pity and fear I have forgotten that I am not alone. I am never alone.
6. Where do you see yourself 5 years, 10 years from now?
It is difficult for me to say in faith what 5 to 10 years will look like. One of my most firm beliefs is that if there is a divine presence, that presence is only available to me in the present moment. I cannot morbidly hold onto the past, nor can I live comfortably in the future.
What I hope for the future is that it will be filled with art, poetry and creativity. I know that in unlocking my full potential as a human I must access those creative parts of my being. I think creativity and activism are closely related. It takes a poet to envision the world as it should be.
7. What will your legacy be and what will others glean from your experience?
I hope that my legacy is that I did good. I desperately want my daughter to be proud of the work her dad does. I do think that I am part of a movement in the church to decenter it from the hierarchical structures and oppressive decisions of it’s past. I do think that there is as much to learn from my mistakes as there are from my successes.
8. Do you have anything else you would like to share with Gandhi’s Be Magazine readers?
Yes. I have become increasingly aware that the strength of growing together as community eschews idealism. It looks for us to bring the best of what we have of faith and taking the best of what others have. It means knowing that we are broken and must together move toward wholeness.