08/22/2014 04:05 pm ET Updated Oct 22, 2014

Let's Have Their Backs

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, the city of our childhood. At the front door, my mother pulled me close and said, "Watch out for your brothers. Don't forget to watch out."

My job growing up was to watch my brothers; I helped raise these men. When they were young, I was chief babysitter in charge. I taught them how to read. I organized chores and homework. While our sister played with them, I cooked dinner and tucked little brothers into bed. My primary job was to have my brothers' backs.

As teenagers, they were amazing students and star athletes. Though their high school was only a few blocks away, my parents drove them to school to protect them from peers who coveted their basketball shoes or jackets, to keep them safe from the "bad" crowd and the policemen who congregated in those spaces to keep order.

"Watch out for your brothers," Mom said, against the backdrop of CNN news coverage of the violence in Ferguson. Mom believes her now-grown-up boys are still in danger -- that if they are stopped by the police for any reason, it will not matter that her boys have protected their nation in four tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq, or that her boys work pro bono cases to help people keep their homes, or that her boys teach teenagers like Michael Brown and provide a future full of hope and promise.

My brothers are black men. Many white people fear them and some white policeman might hurt them. It is a dangerous situation.

When I was a little girl, Officer Friendly came to visit us at our school. I learned to trust the police, to ask for directions when lost, to find a way to the policeman if a stranger approached me. I thought of our local policemen as allies and protectors, an extension of the village that raised me.

That feeling was shattered one day when our neighbor across the street was dragged out of his house, thrown up against his car, and beaten with the butt of a gun. My siblings and I watched aghast, asking our parents what our neighbor did to deserve the beating. "He had parking tickets," my father explained, "and he was black."

I think we are a nation at war. The front line right now is in Ferguson, Missouri, but it is not the only place of war. A war of ideals is being waged in our nation. Who are we as citizens of the United States of America? What values do we cherish in the land of the free and the home of the brave? We stamp on our money "In God We Trust." Do we trust in the God who created all people equal, the God who endowed us with certain unalienable rights?

We are a nation divided, not by borders and barbed wire, but by fear, hatred, and suspicion. The historic election of President Obama is coincident with an erosion of civil rights and an increase in racial tension in our nation. Voter suppression, the rolling back of affirmative action, and the disproportionate incarceration rate of African American men -- these are just a few signs of the time. The shooting of Michael Brown and the subsequent violence in Ferguson is a manifestation of the state of racial/ethnic relations in our land. As our demographics shift to a time when white people will no longer be the ethnic majority in the year 2040, I sometimes fear the violence will get worse.

We have not yet overcome; people of faith have work to do. With the spirit of God at our backs, we are called to be healers.


  1. We are called to participate in courageous conversations. Take a colleague to lunch, some one of another race/ethnicity. Talk about Ferguson. Take a risk to be honest, vulnerable. What is pushing your buttons and why? Make a covenant to stay in conversation with this person. Then, gather a group of friends and watch the film Crash (2004). Discuss the danger of prejudice and hold each other accountable to judge less and risk more.
  2. We are called to peaceably protest when we see injustice, remembering Dr. King's words that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. If you can't march or demonstrate in person, protest with your hands, sharing petitions that speak to changing the story. Use your social networks to dismantle the lie of race. There is only one race, and that is the human race. Share your favorite quotes or images about equality and justice on Twitter and Facebook. Help reconciliation go viral.
  3. We are called to pray because prayer changes things. Prayer gives us power to do what might seem to be undoable. Prayer anchors us, holds us while we stretch into God's vision for a healed world. In your community of faith, create a prayer circle for peace.

My three brothers are great guys. Our parents were working class, but they scrambled to give them, my sister, and me everything they could. We grew up with love, support, affection, direction, and a life of faith that would sustain us; we knew our parents and our God had our backs.

Like my congregation, Middle Collegiate Church, did last Sunday, I am praying today, with my hands raised high, for a nation in which black boys are not feared, a nation in which they also need not fear for their safety. I am praying for congregations to support black boys with educational programs that nurture their self-esteem and creativity. With the spirit of God at our backs, let's have theirs.