When the grand jury decided not to indict a police officer in the Eric Garner case, I joined the protests near Rockefeller Center and found myself behind two white women in a heated exchange. One had an American Girl shopping bag; the other woman carried a sign that said, "Black...
A timeline of the events in Ferguson.
I suppose if Ferguson was an isolated context or if Michael Brown's death was an anomaly, congregations this Sunday might simply pray for the families, for the burning buildings, for the broken glass in the streets and the broken hearts in Ferguson and around the nation. But neither is true. Eric Garner. Marlene Pinnock. Akai Gurley. Trayvon Martin. Emmett Till. The stories attached to these names break our hearts and make us feel the past is pressing into the present. Even when we are not sure that circumstances are motivated by racism, race is "read" into these events due to our history.
Racism is in the air -- in coffee shops, in classrooms, in conversations in the workplace, and in our congregational life. It breaks my heart.
As we move toward the season of Advent, and consider the circumstances of our nation, I find two texts particularly compelling.
In Luke 4, Jesus proclaims his call to ministry. Jesus came to release those who are captive to poverty, oppression, physical malady and political realities. Jesus' role as liberator, status quo destroyer, and shackles breaker is ours, because we are the body of Christ.
In Isaiah 58, against a backdrop of national turmoil, the prophet Isaiah reminded the people of God that when we loosen the bonds of injustice, "...You shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in."
Our faith means a call to be liberators. And what we need most to be liberated from -- what impinges the souls of Black folk, White folk and all people in these United States -- is the tragic legacy of racial prejudice in our nation.
In the only book he ever published, Notes on the State of Virginia (1781), Thomas Jefferson wrote:
I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.
This suspicion led to pseudoscience and to a lie: white supremacy. Despite the Emancipation Proclamation, despite the Civil Rights Movement and now a Black man in the White House, America is not liberated from the shackles of fear and hatred based on the lie.
When a Black life is cut down, and a grand jury says that a trial is not even needed for the one who did the shooting, it seems justified by the lie.
Being Black in America can feel like suffering a million paper cuts every day, micro-abrasions that build up over time. These wounds and our history are the context for the sorrow pervasive on a day like today. There is the sense that we are devolving rather than progressing. Tragically, this sorrow can turn to anger, and the anger can lead to depression, malaise, and disengagement. It can also lead to violence.
The lie of white supremacy imprisons White people as well; guilt, shame and paralysis can result. Most of us are caught up in this lie. It affects housing patterns and resources for public schools. It affects voting rights and health care. It affects infant mortality and rates of incarceration. Sadly, 11:00 on Sunday morning is still one of the most segregated hours in America, because the lie has our hearts bound in iron.
God's people are called to be in the business of liberation, and with that work of liberation, our names are changed. We become "repairers of broken places," and "restorers of streets to live in." We must take the kind of worship God desires out of our sanctuary doors and into the streets. We can do this with in three ways: with peaceful protesting, with courageous conversations, and with our eyes on the prize of racial reconciliation.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said,
I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality... I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.
I agree with King; our peaceful protesting will bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice. It will take time, commitment and persistence, but I personally find hope in the human capacity to be tenaciously committed to love-in-action.
Peaceful protests might be on the ground in major cities and in Ferguson, but they are also in the virtual community. Watch Twitter and comment. Post on Facebook words of hope and peace. I am personally disappointed that this case will not go to trial. But, as Dr. King says, "We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope." No matter your position on this case, our nation is broken around issues of race. So, with hope as our impetus, we must lose the notion of faith as a spectator sport and engage racial injustice with peaceful protest.
We must engage in courageous conversations. We need to have them in and amongst our own people--our families and our children, our close friends and allies, and in our racial/ethnic groups. A caucus can be an important thing. Make space for the asking of deep questions and the sharing of even awkward sentiments. Why is this happening? What does it mean? How does it affect my soul? Aren't we past race yet, and can I do anything about this? How does my faith in God relate to these issues? How can I be a healer?
And we must have these conversations across what might seem to be natural divides. We need to have cross-racial/cross ethnic conversations. In order to do this, we must have relationships. We can't liberate each other while we are in silos. Multiracial/multiethnic congregations like Middle Collegiate Church are critical to the work of racial reconciliation. If your church is diverse, think of ways to encourage deeper relationships. In our context, we have an ongoing small group called Erasing Racism, in which we are having critical conversations about race. If your context is mono-cultural, find a partner with whom to relate. Create a joint worship celebration or prayer vigil during Advent and have conversation as you break bread. Use questions like: When was the first time I was othered due to my personhood? When have I othered someone else? How can these experiences plant seeds for empathy? How did I learn the story of race and what can I do to change it?
Finally, there is something about the very personhood of Jesus the Christ, a person whose ethnic heritage is in itself diverse (see Matthew 1:1-17) and whose very body calls the Body of Christ to be always on the border of difference working for racial reconciliation. This requires engagement, education, and commitment. Be a student of race and culture. Grow your "border personality;" start by reading Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye or Tim Wise's White Like Me, or United by Faith by Curtiss DeYoung, Michael Emerson, George Yancey, and Karen Chai Kim.
As Ferguson smolders from last night's violence, as a nation processes testimony and tactics, as the case is tried in the media, I am thinking about the lyrics to a song, penned by my friend Tituss Burgess, inspired by the poetry of June Jordan--
You and I are the ones we've been waiting for, you and I thought this was somebody else's war, you and I, are the ones--the ones we've been waiting for.
Now is the time, and we are the ones, to release and liberate ourselves from bondage to racism, to repair what is broken in our nation, to restore peace born of justice in the streets.
Bible Study Questions
1. How have I been a releaser or liberator; is there a space in my context for more work in this area?
2. With whom might I partner for courageous conversations on race?
3. What is the call to action these texts speak to my heart?
For Further Reading
The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison
White Like Me, Tim Wise
United by Faith, Curtiss De Young et al
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I am big sister to three black men: a 49-year-old army general, a 44-year-old attorney, and a 40-year-old theater director. On Sunday after church, we were all glued to my parents' television, watching the events unfold in Ferguson, Missouri. Afterward, we dressed to go downtown to hang out in Chicago,...
Sparks flew at the Sunday celebration remembering Dr. King's legacy of non-violence at Middle Collegiate Church in New York City. A blacksmith, named Mike Martin, literally turned a gun into a farming tool. Inspired by the prophetic promise to "beat swords into plowshares," Martin transformed a Remington rifle into a two-sided gardening tool called a mattock.
We all need to do something about the violence. A year after Newtown, our nation feels as though it is standing still, unable to move gun violence prevention laws forward.
Both Isaiah and Micah cite turning swords into plowshares. A sword and a plowshare are not so different. They both have blades; one is designed to kill, the other cuts grooves in the soil, so seeds can be planted, and bring forth life.
Swords into plowshares signaled hope to the ancient Hebrew people in a time when violence and war were both recent memories and future threat. The prophecy meant that the people of God will one day know a time when they will no longer be tools of war and violence but rather instruments of peace.
The night before he died Dr. King said, "It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it's nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today."
A Remington Rifle with enough power to down a rhinoceros killed Dr. King. Guns killed Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln.
And then there are the children. One child dies or is injured from a gun every 30 minutes. More children die from guns every three days than died in the Newtown massacre. The number of children under five killed by guns in 2010 was higher than the number of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty that same year.
I am tired of the violence. I don't want to mourn any more slain heroes. I don't want to wear any more hoodies because another Trayvon has been killed. I don't want to witness any more school shootings, or weep over any more Auroras, or Newtowns or shootings in Sikh Temples or churches or movie theaters.
The majority of Americans believe that common sense gun control makes sense. After Newtown, the Obama administration vowed to limit the availability of military-style assault weapons and created a task force lead by Vice President Biden. However, compromise legislation that would have banned semi-automatic weapons and expanded gun background checks was defeated in the Senate in April 2013, despite extensive public support.
We must demand sensible gun laws: ban high capacity magazines, expand the 24 hour gun background check to make it universal, and reinstitute the assault weapons ban immediately. We must insist that assault weapons have no place beyond the battlefield -- not in our schools, not in our movie theaters, not in our places of worship, not in our streets, and not in our communities.
And we must protect our children, not the guns.
At Middle Church, 2014 is The Year of the Child. Children learn leadership skills while they learn how to sing. This spring, our artists will mentor the children as they create art about non-violence and peacemaking in a Teach-In and share it in worship on Mother's Day. Our staff will journey once again to the Children's Defense Fund's Haley Farm and learn skills to start a Freedom School, in partnership with the Lower East Side Girls Club. All year long, we will partner with our sister non-profit, the Middle Project, to launch our Children and Youth Leadership Lab, to teach our children conflict management skills and non-violent communication skills.
We want our children to be instruments of peace.
The farming tool Mike Martin made in worship is a gift for Mayor de Blasio. I smile as I imagine him using it in his garden. Or maybe he will leave it on his desk, to remind him of his commitment to keep children's concerns in the center of his administration, and to work for common sense gun control in our city.
As we celebrate Dr. King's birthday, we also celebrate people like Mike Martin and the ways good people across our nation are birthing an interreligious non-violent movement for social justice, peace, and reconciliation.
Happy Birthday, Dr....
Thank you, God! What a joyful day. I am so excited about the historic Supreme Court rulings for marriage equality.
When I began advocating publicly for gay rights, my parents wanted to talk to me about "What the Bible says..." They are Christians, and their faith and the Bible...
I am dumbstruck as I listen to the tumble of words about the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut. My heart is broken. I have turned the news off, then on again. So many words. Breaking details. What do you say when children are senselessly murdered?
I can't really talk, but I...
I am on sabbatical this summer, learning, reading, writing, thinking about words and how they matter, what they evoke. As I work on my book, I am sitting by water, listening to birds, trying to make my words as lyrical as their song.
It has been said and written many...
There are times when my heart breaks wide open at the state of our nation. My tears fall for the couple that camp each night on the futon outside my apartment building. I cry for the woman in my church who can't yet retire but also can't find a job. I weep for the gay people around our nation who can't marry their beloved and who are told by their churches that they are sinners. I grieve about the delusion that we are post-racial, when, frankly, the color of our President's skin makes it difficult for him to lead. I am angry about the gap between the haves and the have-nots.
As we celebrate Independence Day, I am wondering, why is it so? Surely, there are enough resources in our land so that everyone can have enough.
My heart also breaks because working for justice is difficult and sometimes lonely work.
But here is the thing: begin where you are to make a difference. My friend Tituss Burgess is a songwriter and a Broadway actor. Earlier this year, I referenced a closing line from June Jordan's "Poem for South African Women"-- "We are the ones we have been waiting for." Tituss made an impact with what he knew best. He wrote a song, "We Are The Ones"--
I sat back waiting, anticipating at some point, change would begin. And then it hit me I was what was missing: my weight was dead that's why we couldn't move ahead. So no more delays, it all ends today. It don't have to be so heavy if we'll pull our weight. You and I are the ones we've been waiting for. You and I thought this was somebody else's war. You and I are the ones we've been waiting for.
He offers the song and nine others in the album Welcome as a way to begin where he is, and to raise money for hunger programs, for LGBTI ministries, and for racial justice work that happens in New York City through Middle Collegiate Church.
When one person begins to contribute, others watch. Film maker Shari Carpenter witnessed Tituss sing in church. She was so moved by his song that she volunteered to direct a music video that shares the message of the song in images. In faith communities, working for justice does not need to be lonely work.
Perhaps you are waiting, hoping that someone else can make it better, because you don't know where to begin.
As we celebrate our nation's independence, let this be our call to action and service. Do one thing today to lighten someone's burden. Take that guy on the street to get a sandwich. Mow your older neighbor's lawn. Share this music with a friend; purchase it and help do justice in New York City. We start where we are. We are the...
This Lent, the metaphor of the "lengthening of our days" keeps circling back to me. As spring approaches, I am not only thinking about how the...
When I fell in love with God in a church on Michigan's Upper Peninsula in 1964, I was five years old and did not notice that my family was the only black one in the pews. A year later, when our family moved to Chicago, we swayed to the music and prayed to our God in a black Baptist church. When I was 7, we moved to a Presbyterian Church, where Aunt Yvonne was the pianist. While my caramel-colored aunt played piano, Mrs. McIntosh -- plump, Irish and kind -- played the organ, and Reva -- the spitting image of her cocoa brown mother-- directed our children's choir. For just a moment in time, worship in our multiracial church was a festival of gospel and classical music, with show tunes sprinkled in for flavor.
Then, our white neighbors moved further south, away from their black working-class neighbors.
It was just after The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in 1968 that I read his quote, "11 o'clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours if not the most segregated hours in Christian America."
Last week during a worship celebration at Middle Church, the congregation viewed our short video "Lead the Change" that includes excerpts from a 1963 interview King gave on this topic. The congregation was struck by how his words seemed so timeless. "I think that the opportunity of the future is to really go out and to transform American society, and where else is there a better place than in the institution ... the institution that should preach brotherhood and make it a reality within its own body."
King grew up in the segregated churches of the south. Yet the church was a place where God's children found spiritual resources like prayer, song and community to navigate the trials of racism in America. For the activists of the Civil Rights movement, their leadership was rooted in their faith.
The church should be an institution to nurture and support leaders. Martin Luther King, Jr., grew up watching his father, Daddy King, guiding members of the Ebenezer Baptist Church to fight racism. He watched as they used their bodies and feet to stand and march in protest of injustice. They behaved the vision in their congregations, neighborhoods and homes. Though the darker brother, they knew they were beloved of God, full of gifts and dignity. They were full citizens in God's Kingdom, and so they should be full citizens in their country.
With his sister Willie and brother Alfred, Martin learned in Sunday School that rooted in God's Spirit they could have the courage to change things. And, though he would grow up to question religion and resist his call to ministry, Martin learned, in the heart of the south, pelted with the sharp stones of racism despite his family's middle class status, that he and his "so-called" colored friends were all created in God's image and that anywhere they went, God would find them and care for them.
In Psalm 139, we read: "O Lord, you have searched me and known me ... Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?" This prayer acknowledges that God is always as near as our breath; and with God that close, we have the opportunity to live without fear.
The night before he was killed in Memphis, Dr. King said with the confidence of the Psalmist, "I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."
Martin was unafraid. His faith fueled his courage and inspired millions to live in the light of non-violent protest. Marianne Williamson writes about the importance of embracing our light and how God can live through each of us, "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us."
Too many of us are afraid of our light. I have heard countless times in my ministry that some people -- no matter their race -- feel unworthy of God, think they can't be used by God. Let us not be afraid of the liberating love-power at work within us. We are afraid to speak up, to stand in, to voice our disgust and disappointment at the ways systemic racism continues to grip our nation in its ferocious teeth. We are waiting on someone else to do it, waiting for some hero to arise and lead us to freedom. And while we wait, the myth of "post racial" plays in our country because we elected an African-American president. While we wait, we build higher fences on our borders to the south, where the darker brothers and sisters live, our xenophobia and racism seething under the guise of immigration control.
It's important that we address the ways race matters in our communities, and why not start in our churches? We need faithful, courageous leaders who are unafraid of their light, unafraid to turn God's liberating love loose in a world that desperately needs it.
Dr. King was a man with a profound trust in God, a man of extraordinary intelligence who ignited a movement. He was also an ordinary human, with passions and faults, flaws and desires. Motivated by an unalterable vision, and a holy frustration with the status quo, King moved right into the face of injustice, and fearlessly claimed his role in the healing of the world.
King wasn't the only one. A woman named Rosa, who refused to sit in the back; a man named James, who trained student protesters; and a girl named Ruby who walked a lonely path to school -- they all claimed their light and shone it on a broken world, repairing some of the breach.
You and I must face the fear of our light. We must liberate ourselves and one another from the fears that keep us silent and still. We actually can, by God's Grace, heal our world.
In April, The Middle Project will host its sixth annual conference targeting leaders who want to build multiracial/multiethnic communities of faith, working for justice. We invite you to gather with us as presenters like James Forbes, Gary Dorrien, Barbara Lundblad, Macky Alston, Curtiss DeYoung and Miguel De La Torre help us empower our congregations to live out not only King's dream, but God's vision. We need to be intentional about how we design worship, choose music, and preach the Word so that we are setting the table for a radically welcoming community in our sanctuaries.
It is not easy, nor simple for churches to "preach brotherhood and make it a reality within its own body." But the church is the place and our faith is the source with which we may be instruments of...
I was a child with a vivid imagination. I believed in everything. Lions and tigers and bears and tin woodmen who could sing, and flying monkeys who could talk. Little girls who could click their heels and find their way home. A poor young woman whose fairy godmother could change...
This week in New York, we watched wounds delivered to human bodies and to the freedom of assembly. Mostly young protestors were evicted from Zuccotti Park, their belongings tossed into trash compactors and destroyed. Some were sprayed or batoned; some were arrested with reporters. We watched congregations like