Reflections on “Waking Up White”: Chapters Two and Three

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Chapter 2: “Childhood In White”

In this chapter, Irving shares how her family valued the importance of being accomplished, staying busy, having a good attitude, being complaint free and restraining emotions (displays of anger, pride, sadness, anger, jealousy and fear) which conditioned her to become “deeply uncomfortable around people who exhibited any of the disapproved emotions, especially anger.” The emotional numbness, she writes, had “huge implications for racism” which she learned much later in life and will explore in an upcoming chapter.  She closes Chapter 2 with the question:

What values and admonitions did you learn in your family? Think about education, work, lifestyle, money, expression of emotions, and so forth. Try making a list of ten principles, values and unspoken beliefs. … Now consider what conclusions you drew about people who did not appear to follow your family’s belief system

  1. God is love and God wants us to love one another and be helpful, courteous, kind and merciful.
  2. Lying, cheating and stealing is wrong
  3. Save your money, don’t waste it like other people do
  4. It’s not like the good ole days where you can walk on downtown streets safely without getting robbed or shot
  5. Get a good education and job, follow the rules/behave and work hard to avoid laziness, poverty, digging ditches, drugs, crime, jail, being sent off to war
  6. Guns keep us safe and it’s our right to shoot someone in self defense if they break into our home or threatens us with violence
  7. The homeless aren’t interested in jobs because they refuse to do menial tasks like sweeping streets
  8. Democratic party and leaders on local, state and national level are crooked and not to be trusted
  9. There’s a difference between black people and the “n-word” (i.e. blacks who were poor and lazy, criminals, crooked politicians, political activists like the Black Panthers and foul-mouthed trouble makers like rappers and some comedians.)
  10. Gay is not normal and goes against God’s teachings in scripture

I didn’t draw any conclusions about people who didn’t appear to follow my family’s belief system because everyone around us held the same beliefs and values–relatives, neighbors, church members, and school teachers (all of whom were white). Spoken and unspoken.  I did, however, become quite paranoid and suspicious of anyone who was “other” unless they met the approval of the authority figures in my life. I also believed for a long while that certain places were more dangerous and violent because of the poor and people of color.

I never felt comfortable despising and hating people who were different than me and I always questioned the validity of several of the values and admonitions that were spoken, although I never dared to express them out loud.

Mostly, I was just scared and doubtful about the world and other people and surroundings that were foreign to me, and I sort of resigned to the notion that if I simply behaved and did what I was told, I would live a good and successful life and not have to experience any of the scary stuff of the world.

Chapter 3: “Race Versus Class”

Irving posits that both race and class are real issues that matter,and shouldn’t be pitted against another:

Trying to determine which one is the ‘real’ issue does a disservice to both. Concluding class is the real issue would give me permission to avoid thinking about race. Similarly, assuming race is the most significant issue overlooks the complications faced by white people caught in a vicious cycle of poverty. Both can trap people in a kind of second-class citizenship. If you can’t get the education you need to get a job to pay for healthy food, medical care, transportation, and a home in a neighborhood with good schools, then you can’t educate your children in a school that will prepare them for a job that will…and so on. Any cycle that traps someone in a state of perpetual disadvantage is the real issue for the people experiencing it. And yet race and class are inextricably linked….

Until I understood the impact skin color can have on one’s life, I wasn’t able to consider racism in combination with other factors that influence one’s culture. The culture that shapes people are breathtakingly complex when you consider all that goes into them. Era, geographical location, language, level of education, ethnic heritage, race, gender, sexual orientation, income, wealth, religion, health, family personalities and professions, birth order, hobbies and sports provide multiple variables that mix and match to create a unique culture in each and every family and each and every person. ..When it comes to culture, the only thing we all have in common is that we have one, and it shapes us….

Yet race stands apart from the variables listed above. Not only is race visible and permanent; it’s come to act as a social proxy for one’s value in American’ society. White has long stood for normal and better, while black and brown have been considered different and inferior. Social value isn’t just a matter of feeling as if one belongs or doesn’t; it affects one’s access to housing, education, and jobs, the building blocks necessary to access the great American promise–class mobility.

At the end of the chapter, Irving asks:

Class is determined by income, wealth (assets), education, and profession. Betsy Leondar-Wright, program director at Class Action, suggest these categories as a way of thinking about class: Poverty, Working Class, Lower-Middle Class, Professional Middle Class, Upper-Middle Class, Owning Class. How would you characterize your parents’ class? Your grandparents’ class? Your class as a child? Your class now? What messages did you get about race in each?

I would characterize my family as being Professional Middle Class–Like my parents, I grew up with a roof over my head in a suburban neighborhood (that was completely white), nice clothes, plenty of food, summer vacations to the beach, presents for birthdays, Christmas, Easter and even Valentine’s Day in addition to the occasional purchase of a toy or book during the year. We had access to public schools and could afford luxuries like dinner at a restaurant, a TV and cable (as well as the latest tech gadget), more than two cars, a swing set in our backyard, a yard and trees to play in, etc.

My paternal/maternal grandparents and maternal great-grandparents, having grown up during the Depression as Working Class, felt the desire to be more generous to their offspring as they moved into the Professional to Upper-Middle Class as adults. Both sets of grandparents regularly took us to the movies. Both grandfathers took us to UAB basketball games. My maternal grandparents took us to Atlanta Braves games and Six Flags less than a handful of times. They also owned a modest vacation house at The Still Waters Resort in Dadeville, Alabama where we would go for the weekend, usually for an Auburn Tigers football game 20 minutes away in Auburn. My paternal grandparents were in the Upper-Middle Class due to their business success in waste management services (and later other ventures) and thus were able to afford a condominium in Florida along with two charter fishing boats. We spent many summers on the beach and going deep sea fishing.

Granted, my younger brother and I never got everything we asked from our parents and grandparents. If we got a hole in our jeans, they got patched up. My brother got a lot of my clothes that I outgrew instead of new ones. We had to do chores and earn an allowance and save our money. Their was a strong belief in making purchases last until they went kaput, i.e. cars, appliances, furniture and so on.

Often we had to share our toys. Restaurant outings were special occasions, not a weekly or monthly splurge. (Although, we did have steak and potatoes almost every Saturday night growing up.) The only place we traveled to outside of Alabama was Florida with the exception of two trips my maternal grandparents planned:  A visit to Alberta, Canada for the Calgary Stampede and Wyoming for Yellowstone National Park when I was 11 and the California coast when I was 15 or 16.

We never lacked anything and we were taught to be appreciative of what we had and to not be greedy for more stuff. And yet, the message that members of my family relayed, directly and indirectly, was that people of color often couldn’t succeed because they weren’t willing to work hard, didn’t follow the rules, were greedy and unappreciative.  That notion always bugged me, even though I admit to believing it at times when I was a teen and young adult. I realized in college and beyond that this was a giant misconception.

Today, our family of me, my wife and our two children, 8-year-old daughter and nearly 3-year-old son, is Professional Middle Class. We have everything we need. We don’t have a second vacation home but we can afford to take trips every summer to the beach, go to the movies on occasion, have iPhones, iPads, laptop computers and maintain three cars. We’re privileged to have my mother-in-law live with us to help take care of our children, one of whom is on the autism spectrum and one who has some development delays. She helps cover costs for special needs therapy and provides for the family in other ways through retirement savings. Education and basic necessities are met every day and then some. We have a nice home in a suburban neighborhood that is tad more diverse than mine growing up.

I’ve realized from all of this that while a lot of hard work is responsible for our status and comfortable living, we have been privileged as whites to have the access to be in the Professional Middle Class. My family now and then has opportunities many people of color don’t have. I’m much more aware of that reality and that one’s lack of status or designation in a respectable class doesn’t mean people aren’t working hard or being good citizens or living good values.  And I don’t feel more deserving of what I have earned and been given than someone else who struggles to gain opportunities and needs they deserve and should be given.  

I hope I’m teaching my own children how to be aware of their privilege and also not judge others who are denied opportunities because of their race and class. And as they grow older, I also hope that I’m able to show them how to knock down racial and class barriers and work toward equity for the poor, the oppressed and cultures that have been denied many benefits from a majority white system.

 

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Reflections on “Waking Up White”: Chapter One

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In an attempt to be more aware of my privilege as a white male and discern the ways in which I can start dismantling racism in my life and relationships, I’ve decided to write reflections that answer the questions posed at the close of each chapter of the compelling book Waking Up White by Debbie Irving. The book was recommended to me (and a multitude of folks) by co-moderators of the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) of which I serve as an ordained minister of the word and sacrament:

 

 

Waking Up White is composed of 46 chapters divided into nine sections.The first section is Childhood In White and Chapter 1 is titled “What Wasn’t Said.”

Debby shares how her mother, school and the media of the time presented a single perspective about race that didn’t ever encourage her to dig deep enough in the history of other cultures, like Native Americans to understand them as something more than stereotypes.  Then she asks the reader:

What stereotypes about people of another race do you remember hearing and believing as a child? Were you ever encouraged to question stereotypes?

I grew up with a lot of stereotypes as a child and youth about African-Americans, Middle-Easterners, Asians, Hispanics and LGBTQ–from the time I was 7 years old in 1983 till I turned 18 in 1994. 

I shared some of those stereotypes about African-Americans in a sermon I preached on racism in early 2015: “As God’s Chosen.”  Additionally, I was taught that most African-Americans were lazy, crooked, foul mouthed, violent troublemakers who didn’t care about cleanliness or speaking proper English. Middle-Easterners, particularly the people living in Iran, Libya, etc. were called “dune coons” and considered to be evil, murderous terrorists. And gays and lesbians were viewed as perverts who lived unnatural lives of debauchery or were just plain weird.

Now, Asians and Hispanics were appreciated for their cuisine and some cultural contributions to society like math, science and art, but were often mocked for speaking a different language, not speaking English well and for their appearance (eyes, facial hair, clothes). But like African-Americans, they were also mis-characterized as lazy, violent, etc. Asians were also believed to be extremely uptight and strange for their beliefs in Buddha instead of the Judeo-Christian God.

The stereotypes I learned were reinforced by some TV shows and movies of the 80s and the educational system. Most African-American were viewed as incompetent and unimportant unless they were talented entertainers, did menial labor (cafeteria work, trash collecting, maid services, etc) or excelled at sports.

I began questioning and challenging stereotypes when Bonkey McCain and his family joined our Presbyterian church in suburban Birmingham-becoming the first African-American members. And I was fortunate during my older teen years to have some church members, friends, High School youth group advisers and teachers  regularly encourage me to challenge stereotypes about race, culture, gender and sexual orientation. This education of open-mindedness and questioning continued during my college years and beyond.  My early career as a newspaper reporter in Birmingham, Alabama from 1998-2001 and a seminary education at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta from 2002-2005 deepened my understanding of social justice and the history of oppression and unjust systems.

By no means am I free of stereotypes. I still have painstaking moments where I entertain a prejudiced thought or change my behavior because my mind latches onto one of those terrible labels I was taught as a kid. And I certainly benefit (directly and indirectly) from a system of white privilege, supremacy and normalcy that continues to pervade our world. As such, I’m guilty for doing very little to say it’s wrong or work toward changing it.

Yes, I’ve spoken out against racism. I’ve preached about racism, justice and unity, invoking the words and lessons of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Congressman John Lewis. I’ve posted articles on Facebook from Sojourners Magazine and other sources that talk about the injustice perpetuated toward African-Americans and how it is counter to the gospel and God’s vision of the beloved community.

However, I don’t do much more or champion against racism often enough. It’s mostly due to fear of what other whites will say or think if I start a conversation about race much less preach about it. I become uneasy thinking about how I might be accused of falsely judging another white person for being racist or having privilege. Of how I might be accused of being a trouble maker, a race baiter or having a biased, destructive liberal agenda.

To be honest, I have been accused of those things, even when I’ve spoken from the heart. And while others have affirmed and praised me for speaking out, I tend to focus on the ones who had a negative reaction and thus become paralyzed and afraid of saying more. (As a side note, my struggles with anxiety and depression, while not excuses, contribute to me withdrawing into my own corner and staying silent at times.)

On the other hand, maybe I’m being too hard on myself. A friend, a gifted writer and pastor,  wrote the following blog post in September entitled “The Five Things I Need From White People Right Now” The intriguing part, after reading the essay, is I’ve discovered that mostly all I’ve ever done in the past decade or so is No. 3–I’ve used my privilege for good; I’ve used my platform to speak out against racism. Not as frequently and often as other folks, but would be unfair to say I haven’t said anything.

I’ve also abided by No. 1 and 2. I don’t silence or dismiss the voices of blacks like Colin Kaepernik. I try more than I ever have before to listen to the thoughts and views of African-Americans.

But again, that’s not enough because I also have to be committed to No. 4 and No. 5 and continue to strive to do all 5 better and more consistently–engrain them in my life. 

And practicing No. 4 and No. 5 (loosely) is what I’m in the midst of figuring out now. Over the last year, I’ve immersed myself in black culture, not as a source of mere entertainment, but to really destroy the stereotypes and understand (up to a point) what African-Americans go through on a daily basis in a country and world that continues to mistreat them because they have brown and black skin. I’ve also done so to gain a deeper appreciation for the incredible contributions that African-Americans have made and to whom we all should be indebted for having such a rich world and life–endeavors in medicine, science, sports, architecture, music, art, literature, pop culture. 

My life is being shaped by The Steve Harvey Morning Show and Ed Gordon; Ta-nehesi Coates Between the World and Me and Marvel’s The Black Panther series; Drew G. Hart’s Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing The Way The Church Views Racism; the work of James Baldwin; Beyone’s Lemonade, the TV shows Black-ish, Luke Cage, Atlanta and Speechless, the movies Dope, Dear White People and Selma and the (social media) voices of…

Rev. Denise Anderson, Rev. Margaret Aymer Oget, Charles Blow, Austin Channing, Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow, Laura M. Cheitetz,  Carl Dukes, Ava DuVernay, Tre Easton, Omayra Gonzalez-Mendez, The Rev. Broderick Greer, Melissa Harris-Perry, Rev. J. Herbert Nelson, Rev. Mihee Kim-Kort, Rep. John Lewis, Rev. Jerrod Lowry, Deray McKesson, Rev. Otis Moss III, Brittany Packett, Hiram Perez-Cordero, Rev. Paul Roberts, Efram Smith, Jessica Vazquez Torres, Rev. Derrick Weston (and many, many more)

These incredible, creative people of God are encouraging me to question and smash the stereotypes.

My hope and prayer is that I can continue to be shaped by their voices; amplify their voices through the platforms that I have; and join mine with theirs to proclaim that their lives (and the lives of all people of color) matter too. 

Without their lives, without their fight for the freedom and right to live without fear of racism and intolerance, the rest of us are never truly free. We’re just bound up in the stereotypes and privilege that we as whites have created and pushed for centuries.

And so my journey of “waking up white” and continuing to find myself in the story of race moves onward…

Our Stories Are Intertwined

A Sermon for Sunday, September 6, Ephesians 4:15-16 and Luke 6:19-31

(A shorter version of the third keynote I delivered for the 2015 Montreat Youth Conference, Wednesday July 29)

During my last sermon in July, I preached about how God meets us in the mess of our stories, life and world with love and grace, and how God reminds us that we are more than our messes and that our stories aren’t over.

In that spirit, I’d like to take us one step further by saying that God continues to call us to live out and to share our story with others as well as listen to other people’s stories, particularly the messy and difficult parts.

God calls us to show compassion to others, particularly the poor and the oppressed.

God doesn’t intend for us to disregard other people and their stories; to duck our heads, close our eyes and walk away from the messes; to avoid opportunities to see the face of God in another.

To not recognize how we are connected and how our stories are intertwined would be un-Godlike and inhuman. To attempt to live solely unto ourselves conflicts with God’s design for us to be in relationship with our fellow human beings.

In Africa, the people ascribe to a philosophy known as Ubuntu, which means “you are human because you participate in relationships… A person is a person through other persons.” Or put another way: “I am because we are.”

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This concept is reflected in the scriptures, particularly Ephesians 4:15-16 in which the apostle Paul writes:

Ephesians 4 Quote

But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

God created us to be together, and God wants us to maintain our connections with one another. And it is our connections and our sharing of one another’s stories that remind us we are bound together with God.

Paul sees our connection with God in Christ and one another as a functioning body. Christ is the head and we are the various parts “joined and knit together” to ensure the body is working properly.

We are connected to other human beings, and we are connected to God who creates and fuels those connections. When we sever a connection, we are going against God’s purpose for creation.

This idea of ubuntu—of connectedness and intertwining—is obviously counter cultural. There is much emphasis in society on individualism and fending for oneself.

However, our faith demands that we live a different way. God’s command to love the mistreated and to seek justice for the downtrodden is essential to discipleship and a common thread throughout the scriptures. And it was one of Jesus’ main teachings.

Let’s consider the parable Jesus tells in Luke 16:19-31 about “The Rich Man and Lazarus” This version of the story comes from The Cotton Patch Gospels by Clarence Jordan who founded the Koinonia Partners, an interracial farming community in southwest Georgia. (Btw, The Cotton Patch Gospels were written in plain Southern speak and therefore it must be read with a thick accent)…

 Once there was a rich man, and he put on his tux and stiff shirt, and staged a big affair every day. And there was laid at his gate a poor guy by the name of Lazarus, full of sores, and so hungry he wanted to fill up on the rich man’s table scraps. On top of this, the dogs came and licked his sores. 

It so happened that the poor fellow died, and the angels seated him at the table with Abraham. The rich man died, too, and was buried. And in the hereafter, the rich man, in great agony, looked up and saw from afar Abraham, and Lazarus sitting beside him at the table. So he shouted to him, ‘Mr. Abraham, please take pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in some water and rub it over my tongue, because I’m scorching in this heat.’

Abraham replied, ‘Boy, you remember that while you were alive you got the good stuff (the good jobs, schools, streets, houses, etc.) while at the same time Lazarus got the left-overs. But now, here he’s got it made, and you’re scorching. And on top of all this, somebody has dug a yawning chasm between us and you, so that people trying to get through from here to you can’t make it, neither can they get through from there to us.’

The rich man said, ‘Well, then, Mr. Abraham, will you please send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers; let him thoroughly warn them so they won’t come to this hellish condition.’

Then Abraham said, ‘They’ve got the Bible and the preachers; let them listen to them.’

But he said, ‘No, they won’t do that, Mr. Abraham. But if somebody will go to them from the dead, they’ll change their ways!’

He replied, “Well if they won’t listen to the Bible and the preachers, they won’t be persuaded even if someone does get up from the dead.’

The rich man had everything one could dream of having. He had the finest education, the best job, the most delicious meals and the biggest mansion in the most luxurious neighborhood. And like any good Jewish person of the time, he was intimately familiar with the scriptures and God’s commands to be welcoming to the widow, the orphan, the stranger and the poor.

And yet with all that wealth and power and opportunity to do some good, he chose to focus solely on himself instead of recognizing another person suffering outside the gates of his home.

That mistake—that sin—burned him. The problem wasn’t that he was wealthy and fortunate. The issue was that he refused to see and help someone in his midst who was hurting. He refused to reach out to Lazarus and hear his story.

 Even when the man is enduring the scorching heat in the afterlife, he still views Lazarus as someone who is beneath him—a poor, lowly being who is meant to do his bidding.

You see, when we ignore our connectedness and view someone else as inferior, as the rich man does, we also ignore God who is present in those ties that bind.

When we snub the connections and our need for them, like the rich man, we tend to become more selfish, more bitter and more resentful.

When we refuse to help out someone who is hurting in our midst and get to know his or her story, we end up crafting our own living hell.

We become less and less human and more like monsters with sharp claws that slash out at those whom God means to be our brothers and sisters.

We become more destructive and less creative; more hateful and spiteful and less loving and merciful. And we end up forming a deathly and expansive chasm between God, humanity and ourselves.

Therefore it is vital to our existence as human beings that we live and thrive together in the mutuality of God’s wondrous and transformative love.

It’s crucial to our well being that we become aware of our connectedness and that we do what we can to let the world know that another person’s story matters to our own.

The wise retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who helped bring an end to the oppressive system known as apartheid in South African more than 20 years ago, reminds us that:

Desmond Tutu Quote

 You can’t be human all by yourself. And when you have this quality—ubuntu—you are known for your generosity. We think of ourselves far too frequently as individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world.

 What you do—good or bad—affects the world, even the smallest corner of it. Maybe not right away and sometimes when you least expect it. But trust me, it makes an impact.

So make sure that what you do affects the world in a loving, grace-filled way. Stand up for what is right and show compassion to the Lazarus’s of the world who are being mistreated and pushed to the margins of society. Don’t overlook them.

Open your eyes and see them for the unique and beloved creations and stories God has created them to be. See them the way God sees them.

 When you do so, you will be amazed at how much it changes a person’s life and world for the better. It’s a lesson the folks on Atlanta’s hit radio morning crew “The Bert Show” learned several months ago when Davi, the show’s producer who is in her mid 20s, found her childhood journal.

While perusing through it, she found “MULTIPLE entries spelling out this sad dislike for herself and how she looked.”

And then she remembered that when she was a teen, the girlfriend of her older brother had a “PROFOUND impact on her self-esteem and stuck up for her.” Davi knew right away that she needed to find this woman and thank her on the radio show. And so she wrote the following letter which Jillian Zinn will read for you now:

 Hi, Kelly.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. You have only shown me respect in the short time we once knew each other and I want to do the same for you. I completely understand your wishes and am so grateful to have the opportunity to write you.

 It was nearly 20 years ago when our paths crossed. I was somewhere around the age of ten. Perhaps you don’t remember me at all! Maybe you hate thinking back on this time in your life. I doubt you look back on the relationship you were in fondly. I get it. (Seriously. I’ve met the guy.) If that is the case, I truly apologize for stirring up any negative emotions. Personally, I have many bad memories of that time. But I remember you. And I remember your kindness.

 I also remember that you were strong. You walked proudly with your shoulders back. You seemed like the type to not put up with any B.S. – hence why you got rid of my brother. You were nice. And so cool! A twenty-something body builder putting herself through college. Inspiring!

 I need to explain myself a little bit more just to adequately express how much your presence in our home was needed at that time in my life.

 When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you’re flawed. That’s the best part of being a kid! Kids don’t see the stress-inducing magazines of supermodels in the grocery. They only see the comic books. Kids don’t know that things about them are weird or disproportionate. They just want to play!

 “As long as my sneakers light up- I’m happy.” Right? Kids don’t think “I’m odd” or “I’m ugly” until someone else plants that seed in their head. Then a few more people say it. I happened to hear it again and again.

 Before long that’s all I saw in the mirror. A monster. Put together all wrong. I was subject to that kind of abuse at school from other children. Boys and girls. Kids that don’t really know any better. But the cut downs were worse within the walls of my home.

 We weren’t an affectionate family. The only acceptable emotions to display are anger or disappointment. And instead of board games everyone collectively got their kicks from picking on each other. And when the abuse is happening, no one speaks up to defend for fear of becoming the target. And if I was present, I was always the target. I heard horrible names, everyday –

 Ugly

Idiot

Crypt Keeper

Praying Mantis

Bug Eyes

Ratface

 just to name a few.

 So many insects and rodents, right? Those creatures you don’t want in your home. Why would family say these types of things to each other? I was always so sad and confused. I cried. A lot. My diaries are filled with pages of monstrous self-portraits and wishes. But not your average childhood wish.

 “I wish I could hide my face,” or “I wish I didn’t exist.”

 One day, we were all gathered in our living room to watch television. My father started the name calling. My brother joined in. You said that they should be ashamed. You stood up for me. You made me feel good about myself at a time when I never did. Yours was a strong female voice that I desperately needed to hear at that time. As an adult, I find we concentrate so hard on the negative comments that we don’t ever hear compliments. But long ago, you told me I was

 “beautiful” and that has always stuck with me.

 You made me realize that the ugliest thing in that room was not me, but the people firing shots. It always had been. Those words and that atmosphere was ugly. That attitude is ugly. I didn’t deserve it. And I didn’t have to put up with it forever.

 After that, I stood up for myself. A lot. My parents even threatened to send me to juvenile boot camp a few times. I got teased more – but I fought back.

 I’m not weird. I’m an individual! After awhile, I would see myself in pictures and not be totally repulsed. Because I valued myself. I studied hard. I worked even harder. I grew up. I got out of there.

 This all sounds quite trivial as adults, right? Because we know now that being “pretty” is not the point.

 We’re not on this earth to look nice.

We’re on this earth to BE NICE.

Stick up for one another.

Stand up for what is right.

 And ultimately, that is why I want to write you so many years later. You may not remember this moment as well as I do – but you taught me a wonderful lesson that day.

 I have always wanted to thank you for that lesson in humanity. From the bottom of my heart – Thank you.

 Kindest Regards,

 Davi

Kelly received the letter and responded a couple of days later with the following message to Davi, which will be read by Kristen Ching (8:30 am worship)/Amy Lewis (11:00 am worship):

Dear Davina,

I read your letter, and I must say it left me verklempt.

 Your spirit of triumph and courage surely compelled you to share a very personal experience—

 a contribution that clearly touched many lives and not only with the young girls who are at the age of learning those mean girls tactics that evolve into grown women ruthlessly tearing one another apart.

 Your story has also undoubtedly reached some young girls who suffer emotional trauma and abuse at home.

 And even reaching just one is enough to change or save a life.

 How amazing is that?

You’ve also unknowingly paid it forward by touching a little girl I know and love with all my heart, and I must personally thank you.

You see, my 11-year-old daughter was recently involved in a mean girl incident which actually rose to the level of a mom participating.

As you might imagine, I contacted the mother about the horrific behavior she was modeling for these young girls.

But still my heart aches for my baby who wants to eat lunch in the office every day at school because it feels safe.

I played your story for her from the Internet yesterday, and her beautiful little face lit up.

You connected with her in a way that my offerings of support and affirmation has not.

It was a remarkable thing—a moment in a developing girl’s life that offered hope

 (And by the way she says both of your pictures on the website are pretty.)

It make me so sad to hear the thoughts and feelings that were thrust upon that beautiful little girl you were some years ago.

What an injustice!

I’ve been a guardian in the courts for abused and neglected children and fought for people who had their world turned upside down by other people with more power.

For as long as I can remember I have not walked away from a fight for the underdog.

That is who you are too, my friend.

I am proud to have been part of your life, and you’ve added indelible meaning to a time in my life that I previously tucked away.

 You may not make a history book or maybe you will.

You are still young, but either way you’ve made a change in the world.

Thank you for that. Please call me any time. I would love to talk to you.

Kelly  

 Our stories affect one another for the better in ways that we can’t even fathom.

But that’s how God made us.

We’re not meant to live alone and ignore others.

We are meant to live together and love one another.

Our stories are connected, and we are called time and time again to build those connections, recognize how we are intertwined and strengthen our relationships with another human being—

the suffering and downtrodden as well as those we disagree with or those we consider enemy.

We are called as the church to be the hands, feet, eyes, mind, and heart of Jesus who helps bind people to one another…every ligament knit together for the purpose of building up love!

We are called as the church to be the body of Christ—

a community of faith that reaches out to others, regardless of who they are, and says:

Welcome. Join us. Be loved. I am because you are.

Let us always take the time to be and become and grow the body of Christ.

Let us always make the effort to see and cultivate the connections and stories that are all around us.

And as we go into the week, let us never take the connections in our lives or the chance to be a part of someone’s story and life for granted…

 And the body of Christ said:

 Amen!

2015 Montreat Youth Conference “This Is Our Story” Week Five: Keynote 4 – God’s Story Is Still Being Written

Thursday July 30, Keynote 4 – “God’s Story Is Still Being Written”


God is with us no matter where the story takes us!

Scripture

Jeremiah 29:11Jeremiah’s Prophecy to the Exiles” (God does not abandon us. )

John 20: 19-23 “Jesus Appears in the Upper Room” (God often enters our stories in unsuspecting and surprising ways.)

Some of the Jeremiah Project Youth and Omayra Gonzalez (conference theme assistant) come out on stage. They do an interpretative dance to the song “Brother” by NEEDTOBREATHE feat. Gavin DeGraw. Music fades about 2 and a half minutes in. The Jeremiah Project Youth freeze in position on stage and Omayra steps forward to share her story:

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Omayra:

When I was 2-years-old, my father died, and my mother and siblings moved from a big house to a smaller one. 

A few years later, at the age of 5, my big sister got really sick.

Since we lived in a small town that was literally in the middle of literally nowhere and no access to medical services, our family moved three hours away to the capital of San Juan so my sister could be seen by a specialist and receive care in a large hospital.

For some of you, three hours is nothing. But for our family it was far and difficult without a reliable car or public transportation.

Over the course of the next few years, my older brother Omar and I moved from one house to another while my mother and sister stayed in the hospital.

My brother and I were exiled from our own rooms to live in my grandparents’ house to live with my aunts or uncles homes. We never had one permanent place to call home.

It was strange not having what other kids have: a complete family and a home. It felt lonely, but we were not alone. You see, when my father died, the first person to visit my home was a Presbyterian pastor. And the pastor’s visit inspired us to regularly attend church.

You remember when Andy talked on Monday about people in the church who make promises in baptism to care of others? Well, the pastor and congregation comforted us as we grieved my father’s death. And after my sister got sick, church members, young and old, would visit us, help us with our schoolwork and even provide us with food.

You might be thinking: “That’s the church’s job to take care of people who are grieving and hurting.” But it wasn’t just a job to them. They weren’t helping because they had to help. They were helping because they truly loved and cared for our well-being.

Some of them were youth just like you. The could’ve ignored us or viewed us as those “poor kids with a sick sister and a dead dad.” But they didn’t. The treated us like we were part of their family…because we were family.

Song begins again at 2:38. Jeremiah Project return to the center of the stage, clapping and singing together with Omayra:

 Brother let me be your shelter
Never leave you all alone
I can be the one you call when you’re low
Brother let me be your fortress
when the night winds are driving on
Be the one to light the way
Bring you home
Be the one to light the way
Bring you home

……………………………..

 There are times in our lives—moments in our stories–where we are abandoned, rejected, isolated or exiled by others.

Maybe it was a time when your family was forced to move into an apartment and wear thrift-store clothes because of cutbacks at your parent’s place of work.

Or maybe it was that time when the minister of your church preached that homosexuals were going to hell and your stomach twisted up in knots knowing that your family would have to leave because you were gay.

Or maybe it was that time when the school jock intentionally, who thinks your nerdy and weak, dumped a tray of food on you, prompting everyone in the cafeteria to howl with laughter.

Or maybe it was that time when you walked into a store and several white clerks looked at you suspiciously and asked you repeatedly if you were in the right place simply because you were black.

Experiencing exile is a difficult and disorienting time because you suddenly discover that you don’t fit in anywhere.

You are not welcome.

You are not worthy.

You are not like everyone else.

And in those moments, it seems as if there is no chance of being treated like the unique and beloved creation that you are…no way of returning “home” to a place where you are unconditionally loved and accepted.

It seems as if the despair of exile will last forever and forever and forever…

The ancient Israelites knew first-hand of what it meant to be exiled.

In the Book of Jeremiah, the Babylonian Empire, run by the ruthless King Nebuchadnezzar conquers Jerusalem, destroying the temple and burning the city.

And soon thereafter, Nebuchadnezzer orders several deportations of the Jewish people to Babylon. The first deportation included the Jewish prophets like Jeremiah.

Babylonian Exile 1

It is Jeremiah whom God calls to be a messenger to the Jewish people who are suffering at the hands of the oppressive Babylonians. And Jeremiah speaks an encouraging message from God:

Babylonian Exile 2

Babylonian Exile 3

“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”

When all seemed hopeless,

when exile and despair appear to mark the end of the journey,

God tells the people that the story isn’t over…

There is more to be written. There is a future with hope.

The troubadour Manola learns this lesson in the animated film The Book of Life. Manola, tricked by Xiballba the god of Death and facing exile to “The Land of the Forgotten,” begins the long and arduous journey to return “The Land of Living” (via the Cave of Souls)…

 “You are not living the life that was written for you,” the Candlemaker tells Manola, “You are writing your own story!” (Kapoosh!)

 And you are writing that story with others. The connections we have and the connections we make lend to the shaping and continuing of our stories.

We are not alone. There are other people who are with us  in our ongoing stories of exile and despair—people from our present and our past, including those who are no longer living.

As the writer of the Letter of Hebrews tells early Jewish Christians living under Roman occupation:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”

The hope that exists in exile is that our story continues because of the people who walk alongside us and the people whom we carry in our hearts push us onward.

 Our culture often teaches through story that in order to survive, the main character must persevere single-handedly and emerge as the sole victor or hero.

But that’s a false notion. We are not alone when we experience exile and despair.

We are not alone because there are others who are by our side and within our hearts.

We are not alone because God is with us. And God never abandons us.

Yesterday I shared with you the story of the Selma Marches and Bloody Sunday. As you might remember from the film Selma and your history books, Dr. King and his fellow Civil Rights activists were no strangers to exile.

The unjust laws of Jim Crow and segregation that permeated the South pushed blacks to the furthest edges of town into remote rural areas.

And blacks that lived in town were exiled to their homes where they would lock their doors out of fear of lynch mobs and the Klan. Civil Rights activists—deemed thugs, animals and agitators by white authorities—were exiled to dark jail cells for non violently protesting and standing up for their dignity and rights.

Being carted off to jail in chains like an animal was an dehumanizing experience that took its toll on those activists, including King himself:

Feeling great exhaustion, doubt and despair about their fight for equality, Martin Luther King Jr considered giving up and disbanding the movement. King wondered if maybe the story of the struggle for black freedom was written, was over.

But then God reminds King through his good friend, the Rev. Ralph Albernathy, that there is hope.

God has not abandoned King or the activists or the black race.God is with them and God tells King not to worry, not to fear because like the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, the Lord will take care of them. 

The Lord will deliver a suffering, oppressed people from exile just as God eventually did for the Israelites and later for the first Jewish Christians.

The Lord God, King realized, will deliver the people from the violent system of segregation and racism. And King also learned soon after that fighting non-violently for a future of equality could result in great injury and death from those who don’t follow God’s plan to do no harm.

During a peaceful protest, a young black activist, Jimmy Lee Jackson is chased into a local diner and killed in cold blood by the police. 

Upon hearing the news, King goes to the morgue to meet with Jimmy Lee Jackson’s grandfather:

God, King tells Jimmy’s grandfather, was the first to cry.

Even in the exile of grief over a life that was cruelly and unjustly taken from the world, God is with Jimmy Lee’s grandfather and King and all those who know they can be killed because of the color of their skin.

Even as violence and death surrounded King and black citizens in Selma, the South and the entire nation, every minute of every day,

God was with them and God was saying:

“I have a plan for you, a future with hope.”

God enters our stories in unsuspecting and surprising ways, even when we are fearful, worried and grief stricken as those twelve disciples were following the death of their teacher centuries ago…

 The Jeremiah Project Youth re-enact a modern version of John 20:19-23 “Jesus appears to the disciples in the Upper Room post crucifixion” Jesus suddenly appears or photo bombs a group selfie taken on an iPhone. 

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 The disciples are in exile.

They are frightened and they are hiding inside a house with locked doors, likely huddled up together in the dark.

Any moment, the religious priests and Roman authorities could find them, charge them with treason and kill them like Jesus.

But then suddenly, when all seemed lost and hopeless, the risen Christ appeared before them and said: Peace be with you. …Receive the Holy Spirit.

 And they did. They received God’s peace and God’s breath of grace.

And they lived out that peace and grace with every fiber of their being.

Their story wasn’t over.

They clung to Jesus’ promise for their lives, God’s plan for a future with hope.

They, with the help of God and one another, continued to write their story.

 King and many black people, during that turbulent time of the 1960s, clung mightily to God’s promise that they would receive a “future with hope.” And they faithfully held tightly to Jesus’ promise of peace and grace.

They knew their story wasn’t finished. And with God, one another and many more standing alongside them, they continued to write their story.

Fifty years later, African-Americans still believe fervently in those promises of God.

Now, that might sound peculiar to many of who us who are white. 

Have we not moved past segregation, racist laws, lynchings and the burning of black churches?

 Have we not become post racial and started living into a hope-filled future?

 Haven’t we as a society done enough to bring about equality?

Sadly, no.

Certainly, many strides have been made. Institutional, legalized segregation is non-existent, and color barriers have been broken in every aspect of life.

Things are definitely not the same as they were half a century ago.

But that doesn’t make us post-racial.

We are, in fact, deeply entrenched in matters of racial injustice. The stories have constantly flooded our TV screens and social media feeds for more than two years.

Stories that we must not forget or turn a blind eye toward:

Race 1

–The shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Renisha McBride, Tamir Rice (and) Walter Scott, and the chokehold death of Eric Garner

Race 2

–The shooting death of Michael Brown & the protests in Ferguson

— The death of Freddie Gray in police custody & the protests in Baltimore

Race 3

 —The racially charged Charleston shooting which left Rev. Clementa Pinckney and 8 church members of Emmanuel AME Church dead. 

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–The July 19 shooting death of Samuel DuBose.

Race 5

–Rachel Dolezal, a former NAACP chapter president, who pretended to be a black woman for much of her life.

Race 6

–The fiery debates about the Confederate flag that led activist Bree Newsome to temporarily remove of the flag from the South Carolina State House “in the name of Jesus” before it was immediately hoisted back up.

And if those stories aren’t troublesome enough, there are the daily realities of inequality. For instance:

–The median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households. And the black-and-white income gap is about 40 percent greater today than it was in 1967.

–In 2004, professors at the University of Chicago and MIT, conducted an experiment in which they sent out 5,000 identical fictitious resumes in response to 1,300 help wanted ads. Some of the resumes had traditional white names like Brendan and others had traditional black names like Jamal.  Applications with white names were 50 percent more likely to get calls for interviews.

I don’t share these examples of racial injustice to make whites feel guilty or insinuate that all whites are racists or that all law enforcement officers are bad folks. (There are many dedicated men and women in blue who daily risk their lives to do what is right.)

But I mention them to raise consciousness (mostly among white society) that we still live in a system where African-Americans are mistreated because of the color of their skin.

I bring up the problem as a reminder to white Christians that we called by God to value and appreciate another person’s race because of the unconditional love of God that binds us as the body of Christ.

We can’t sing “Justice Flow Down” or dance to the energizer “Revolution” (by Kirk Franklin) with any integrity if we don’t actually believe in the words of those two songs; if we don’t actually believe in doing what the songs suggest—which is

standing alongside and hearing the stories of those who are hurting, those who are being oppressed, those who are being exiled.

standing alongside and hearing the stories of our black brothers and sisters who are suffering from the stings of racial prejudice every day.

White folks can’t turn away from the racial upheaval we see in numerous communities and say “It’s not my problem.”

Because, frankly, it is our problem.

When one of the members of Christ are hurting, the entire body of Christ hurts.

When an entire race of people is living in exile (right among us, no less!) we must walk alongside them and give encouragement as they continue to write their story—a story that is to be heard and received and respected.

And regardless of who is in exile,

regardless of who is hurting,

regardless of who is being oppressed,

we must all put our trust in a God who shows up in our midst

and who calls us to share a vision

of hope

of peace,

and grace.

 

Toward the end of the music video at approximately, 2:45, 17 people, Jeremiah Project Youth and Small Group Leaders, appear on stage and around the inside of Anderson, holding up signs with the following messages:

 “I Want A Better Day!!!” 

“When We All See Justice…” 

“We’ll All See Peace.” 

“I Am The Change” 

“Love One Another” 

“See God In the Other” 

“Listen to the Cries of the Hurting” 

“Be Compassionate” 

“Talk About Race” 

“Lift Up the Oppressed” 

“Welcome the Stranger”

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This afternoon in Small Groups you will be asked to take pictures while holding signs of God’s plan for you (“a future with hope”)—which may be very similar to the signs you are seeing now in this auditorium—and you’ll be posting those photos to Twitter & Instagram. ….

Your story is still being written.

What will it look like?

Go and find out

with God

with one another

with hope

with peace

Amen.

2015 Montreat Youth Conference “This Is Our Story” Week Five: Keynote 3 –Our Stories Are Intertwined

[Note: This is the third of five keynotes given at the Montreat Youth Conference Week Five, July 27-July 31. Below is a transcript and the photos/videos used in keynote that aren’t on the SoundCloud audio track]

Wednesday July 29, Keynote 3- “Our Stories Are Intertwined”

Our stories—even the ones that are silenced—are intertwined

Scripture

Luke 16:19-31 – “Rich Man and Lazarus” (What happens to the “other” matters to us and God)

As we discussed yesterday, our stories, our life, and our world are messy.

Yet God meets us in our mess with love. God reminds us that we are more than our messes and that our stories aren’t over.

God loves us all. God doesn’t prefer one group to the other.

And God also calls us to show compassion to others, particularly the poor and the oppressed.

We’re not meant to disregard others and their stories and simply live unto ourselves.

We’re not meant duck our heads, close our eyes and walk away from the messes.

We’re not meant to avoid opportunities to see the face of God in another.

To not recognize how we are connected and how our stories are intertwined is un-Godlike and inhuman.

ubuntu

In Africa, the people ascribe to a philosophy known as Ubuntu. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who helped bring an end to the oppressive system of apartheid in South Africa more than 20 years ago, says ubuntu means “you are human because you participate in relationships… A person is a person through other persons.” Or put another way: “I am because we are.”

This concept is reflected in the Bible, specifically Ephesians 4:15-16 in which the apostle Paul writes:

Ephesians 4 Quote

 

God created us to be together, and God wants us to maintain our connections with one another. And it is our connections that remind us we are bound to God.

Paul sees our connection with God in Christ and one another as a functioning body. Christ is the head and we are the various parts “joined and knit together” to ensure the body is working properly.

We are connected to other human beings, and we are connected to God who creates and fuels those connections. To disregard or even severe a connection is to go against God’s purpose for creation, God’s design for us to be in relationship.

This idea of Ubuntu, of connectedness, of intertwining is counter cultural in our world. There is much emphasis in society on individualism and fending for oneself.

And yet God’s command to love the mistreated and to seek justice for the downtrodden is essential to our faith and a common thread throughout the Bible. And it was one of Jesus’ main teachings.

Let’s take a look now at the parable Jesus tells in Luke 16:19-31 about “The Rich Man and Lazarus” This version comes from The Cotton Patch Gospels by Clarence Jordan who founded the Koinonia Partners, an interracial farming community in southwest Georgia. (Because it is written in the language and colloquialisms of the time, the passage must be read in a Southern accent and I’ve invited a youth, Catherine Jones, to read with me.)

Once there was a rich man, and he put on his tux and stiff shirt, and staged a big affair every day. And there was laid at his gate a poor guy by the name of Lazarus, full of sores, and so hungry he wanted to fill up on the rich man’s table scraps. On top of this, the dogs came and licked his sores.

 It so happened that the poor fellow died, and the angels seated him at the table with Abraham. The rich man died, too, and was buried. And in the hereafter, the rich man, in great agony, looked up and saw from afar Abraham, and Lazarus sitting beside him at the table. So he shouted to him, ‘Mr. Abraham, please take pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in some water and rub it over my tongue, because I’m scorching in this heat.’

 Abraham replied, ‘Boy, you remember that while you were alive you got the good stuff (the good jobs, schools, streets, houses, etc.) while at the same time Lazarus got the left-overs. But now, here he’s got it made, and you’re scorching. And on top of all this, somebody has dug a yawning chasm between us and you, so that people trying to get through from here to you can’t make it, neither can they get through from there to us.’

 The rich man said, ‘Well, then, Mr. Abraham, will you please send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers; let him thoroughly warn them so they won’t come to this hellish condition.’

Then Abraham said, ‘They’ve got the Bible and the preachers; let them listen to them.’

 But he said, ‘No, they won’t do that, Mr. Abraham. But if somebody will go to them from the dead, they’ll change their ways!’

 He replied, “Well if they won’t listen to the Bible and the preachers, they won’t be persuaded even if someone does get up from the dead.’

The wealthy man was familiar with the scriptures and God’s commands to be welcoming to the widow, the orphan, the stranger and the poor. Yet he still chose not to recognize someone suffering outside the gates of his home.

And that was the man’s sin—not that he had all the finest things one could dream of, but that he did not see Lazarus.

 Even when the man “sees” Lazarus later in the afterlife, he still views Lazarus as someone who is beneath him, a poor, lowly being who is meant to do his bidding.

We can’t ignore the connections with other people: people whom we know, people whom we pass by, and people whom we only know in the history books or in a news story.

 Ignoring the connections ignores God who is present in those ties that bind.

When we snub the connections and our need for them (like the rich man in Jesus’ parable) we tend to become more selfish, more bitter and more resentful.

We create our own living hell.

We become less and less human and more like monsters with sharp claws that slash out at those whom God means to be our brothers and sisters.

This was very much the case in the turbulent year of 1965 when, despite constitutional law, black people in the South were denied the right to vote by local governments as is depicted in the award-winning film Selma:

Cruel, unjust incidents like these prompted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other Civil Rights activists to come to Selma to champion for black residents’ legal right to vote.

King decided that the best way to push for federal legislation to prohibit racial discrimination in voting would be to conduct a non-violent march from Selma to Montgomery.

The first march took place on a rainy March 7, 1965 (50 years ago), however the Civil Rights activists barely made it across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.

la-na-spider-martin-photographer-selma-bloody-sunday-20150308

State troopers and a group of angry white citizens armed with billy clubs, tear gas and whips immediately confronted the peaceful marchers.

The marchers included a young John Lewis (now a long-time U.S. Congressman for Georgia who spoke on this stage for the 2010 Montreat College Conference). In the photo, Lewis is the man in the long trench coat.

The head of the state troopers gave an order for the marchers to disperse to their homes. The marchers kneeled on the ground to pray and that’s when the troopers and the mob began attacking them in what became known as Bloody Sunday.

Bloody Sunday 2

Law enforcement fractured Lewis’ skull before he and the other marchers were able to flee back across the bridge to safety at a chapel.

The events of Bloody Sunday spurred hundreds of more people (white and black) from all over the country to come to Selma to march. They believed they needed to stand with their black brothers and sisters who were being denied their right to vote and to be treated with dignity—brothers and sisters who were being mocked, beaten and killed.

All those who fought for civil rights for African-Americans believed as many do today that our stories are intertwined as the body of Christ, and that all parts are needed to help seek justice for and show compassion to the oppressed.

Five months after the marches in Selma, on August 21, 1965, Dr. King spoke at the Christian Action Conference of the Presbyterian Church held here in Anderson Auditorium. During his speech, King told the conferees:

MLK Quote at Montreat 
It’s vital to our existence as human beings that we live together in the mutuality of God’s love.

It’s crucial to our existence that we become aware of our connectedness and do what we can to let the world know that another person’s story matters to our own.

And that often means becoming more in tune to the ways in which we are disconnected.

For all the amazing ways it can link us, social media can also break our connections.

They  can quickly become petri dishes for cruel and abusive comments about another’s race, culture, religion, sexual orientation, gender, and economic status. And it even occurs while we are sitting here in this auditorium or hanging out at the Huck. Even in this sacred thin place, there are some who try to tear down someone else and make him or her feel worthless.

Mockery and ridicule is not limited to social media, of course. There are some who will make disparaging comments to a person’s face.

During Week I of the Youth Conference, the Pleasant Hill and Trinity Pres of Atlanta youth groups invited the youth from two immigrant congregations in the Atlanta area—newcomers to Montreat—to join us for an ice cream and game party in the parking lot of the Winnsborough one evening. One of the immigrant congregations was made up of people from various Latin American countries.

As some of the Latin American guys were walking past Lake Susan on the way to the Winnsborough they passed by a group of young white males who immediately hurled racist comments at them.

The Latin American guys didn’t respond to the insults and they kept on walking.

But upon their arrival to the ice cream party, it was clear that they were deeply hurt and saddened by the sudden encounter with racism.

And no matter how many youth and adults—including their own back home leader and pastor—offered them encouragement, love and support, the boys refused to go past the bottom steps that lead to the parking lot and join the party.

They were too hurt, and angry and filled with fear.

Their connection to other human beings was severely damaged in that moment. They were made to feel as if their lives and stories didn’t matter.

The wise Desmond Tutu reminds us that:

Desmond Tutu Quote

What you do—good or bad—affects the world, even the smallest corner of it.

Maybe not right away, and sometimes when you least expect it.  But trust me, it makes an impact.

 

So make sure that what you do affects the world in a loving, grace-filled way.

Stand up for what is right and show compassion to those who are suffering. Don’t overlook them.

Open your eyes and see them for the unique and beloved creations and stories God has created them to be. See them the way God sees them.

 When you do so, you will be amazed at how much it changes a person’s life and world for the better as the folks on Atlanta’s hit radio morning show “The Bert Show” learned a few months ago.

Davi, the show’s producer who is in her mid 20s, found her childhood journal. While perusing through it, she found “MULTIPLE entries spelling out this sad dislike for herself and how she looked.”

Davi remembered that when she was a teen, the girlfriend of her older brother had a “(huge) impact on her self-esteem and stuck up for her.” She then knew that she needed to find this woman and thank her.

After some searching, Davi found Kelly’s contact info and she wrote her a letter that was read on air and which Omayra (our conference theme assistant) will read to you now:

Hi, Kelly.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. You have only shown me respect in the short time we once knew each other and I want to do the same for you. I completely understand your wishes and am so grateful to have the opportunity to write you.

It was nearly 20 years ago when our paths crossed. I was somewhere around the age of ten. Perhaps you don’t remember me at all! Maybe you hate thinking back on this time in your life. I doubt you look back on the relationship you were in fondly. I get it. (Seriously. I’ve met the guy.) If that is the case, I truly apologize for stirring up any negative emotions. Personally, I have many bad memories of that time. But I remember you. And I remember your kindness.

I also remember that you were strong. You walked proudly with your shoulders back. You seemed like the type to not put up with any B.S. – hence why you got rid of my brother. You were nice. And so cool! A twenty-something body builder putting herself through college. Inspiring!

I need to explain myself a little bit more just to adequately express how much your presence in our home was needed at that time in my life.

When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you’re flawed. That’s the best part of being a kid! Kids don’t see the stress-inducing magazines of supermodels in the grocery. They only see the comic books. Kids don’t know that things about them are weird or disproportionate. They just want to play!

“As long as my sneakers light up- I’m happy.” Right? Kids don’t think “I’m odd” or “I’m ugly” until someone else plants that seed in their head. Then a few more people say it. I happened to hear it again and again.

Before long that’s all I saw in the mirror. A monster. Put together all wrong. I was subject to that kind of abuse at school from other children. Boys and girls. Kids that don’t really know any better. But the cut downs were worse within the walls of my home.

We weren’t an affectionate family. The only acceptable emotions to display are anger or disappointment. And instead of board games everyone collectively got their kicks from picking on each other. And when the abuse is happening, no one speaks up to defend for fear of becoming the target. And if I was present, I was always the target. I heard horrible names, everyday –

Ugly

Idiot

Crypt Keeper

Praying Mantis

Bug Eyes

Ratface

just to name a few.

So many insects and rodents, right? Those creatures you don’t want in your home. Why would family say these types of things to each other? I was always so sad and confused. I cried. A lot. My diaries are filled with pages of monstrous self-portraits and wishes. But not your average childhood wish.

“I wish I could hide my face,” or “I wish I didn’t exist.”

One day, we were all gathered in our living room to watch television. My father started the name calling. My brother joined in. You said that they should be ashamed. You stood up for me. You made me feel good about myself at a time when I never did. Yours was a strong female voice that I desperately needed to hear at that time. As an adult, I find we concentrate so hard on the negative comments that we don’t ever hear compliments. But long ago, you told me I was

“beautiful” and that has always stuck with me.

You made me realize that the ugliest thing in that room was not me, but the people firing shots. It always had been. Those words and that atmosphere was ugly. That attitude is ugly. I didn’t deserve it. And I didn’t have to put up with it forever.

After that, I stood up for myself. A lot. My parents even threatened to send me to juvenile boot camp a few times. I got teased more – but I fought back.

I’m not weird. I’m an individual! After awhile, I would see myself in pictures and not be totally repulsed. Because I valued myself. I studied hard. I worked even harder. I grew up. I got out of there.

This all sounds quite trivial as adults, right? Because we know now that being “pretty” is not the point.

We’re not on this earth to look nice.

We’re on this earth to BE NICE.

Stick up for one another.

Stand up for what is right.

And ultimately, that is why I want to write you so many years later. You may not remember this moment as well as I do – but you taught me a wonderful lesson that day.

I have always wanted to thank you for that lesson in humanity. From the bottom of my heart – Thank you.

Kindest Regards,

Davi

Kelly received the letter and a few days later responded with the following message to Davi which Marci (our conference preacher) will read now:

 Dear Davina,

I read your letter, and I must say it left me verklempt. 

Your spirit of triumph and courage surely compelled you to share a very personal experience—

a contribution that clearly touched many lives and not only with the young girls who are at the age of learning those mean girls tactics that evolve into grown women ruthlessly tearing one another apart.

Your story has also undoubtedly reached some young girls who suffer emotional trauma and abuse at home.

And even reaching just one is enough to change or save a life.

How amazing is that?

You’ve also unknowingly paid it forward by touching a little girl I know and love with all my heart, and I must personally thank you.

You see, my 11-year-old daughter was recently involve in a mean girl incident which actually rose to the level of a mom participating.

As you might imagine, I contacted the mother about the horrific behavior she was modeling for these young girls.

But still my heart aches for my baby who wants to eat lunch in the office every day at school because it feels safe.

I played your story for her from the Internet yesterday, and her beautiful little face lit up.

 You connected with her in a way that my offerings of support and affirmation has not.

It was a remarkable thing—a moment in a developing girl’s life that offered hope

(And by the way she says both of your picture on the website are pretty.)

It make me so sad to hear the thoughts and feelings that were thrust upon that beautiful little girl you were some years ago.

 What an injustice!

 I’ve been a guardian in the courts for abused and neglected children and fought for people who had their world turned upside down by other people with more power.

For as long as I can remember I have not walked away from a fight for the underdog.

That is who you are too, my friend.

I am proud to have been part of your life, and you’ve added indelible meaning to a time in my life that I previously tucked away.

You may not make a history book or maybe you will.

You are still young, but either way you’ve made a change in the world.

 Thanks you for that. Please call me any time. I would love to talk to you.

Kelly

………………………

Our stories affect one another in ways that we can’t even fathom.

But that’s how God made us.

We’re not meant to live alone; We are meant to live together.

Our stories are connected, and we are called time and time again to recognize those connections and to strengthen them.

Let’s continue to discover those connections throughout the conference experience this week. Those connections and stories are all around; you just have to be willing to see and cultivate them. We’ll even help you seize a special opportunity today to make and recognize your connectedness with another by setting up a rec station on Anderson Lawn called “Take A Seat, Make A Friend” Ball Pit

We invite two random people to come by, stand or sit in the ball pit, pick up a ball and ask questions one of another for a few minutes. We’re not asking you to become best friends or agree on everything. But we want to encourage you to take a risk by reaching out to someone else and seeing them with God’s eyes.

You will be amazed (maybe not right away or weeks or months from now), by the affect your actions have on the other person…and the world!

As you embark for the rest of your day, don’t take the connections in your life or the chance to be a part of someone’s story for granted…

More than 25 High School Youth members of the Jeremiah Project performed a “Pay It Forward” skit set to the music of Greg Holden’s “Hold On Tight.”

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During Week Five, due to not having enough Jeremiah Project members, we showed the music video to “Hold On Tight” instead. 

And the body of Christ said Amen!

 

Sabbatical Reading Reflections: March, Book 2 by John Lewis

President Barak Obama, Congressman John Lewis and former President George W. Bush hold hands during the 50th Anniversary Commemoration of the Selma Marches in March, 1965. Photo Credit: Gerald Herbert, Associated Press
President Barak Obama, Congressman John Lewis and former President George W. Bush hold hands during the 50th Anniversary Commemoration of the Selma Marches in March, 1965. Photo Credit: Gerald Herbert, Associated Press

During a speech this weekend commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the historic Selma marches to secure voting rights for blacks, Congressman John Lewis said:

“We come to Selma to be renewed. We come to be inspired. We come to be reminded that we must do the work that justice and equality calls us to do…Don’t give up on things of great meaning to you. Don’t get lost in a sea of despair. Stand up for what you believe.”

This wasn’t the typical political rhetoric but great wisdom from a man who at the age of 24 was beaten and bloodied nearly to the point of death on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965, a day that became known as Bloody Sunday and signified a turning point in the Civil Rights movement.

Bloody Sunday was also a seminal moment in Lewis’ life and for many people across generations, it’s the event they immediately connect to the Civil Rights icon. But that experience on the Bridge, in which he suffered a skull fracture, wasn’t the first time Lewis had been attacked by racists (regular citizens and police) or faced death.  It was an all-too common experience for Lewis who, as the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was the youngest of the Big Six Civil Rights Leaders. During his time in college, Lewis was an active member of the Freedom Riders who rode segregated buses throughout the South to challenge the non-enforcement of the United States Supreme Court Decision which ruled that segregated buses were unconstitutional.

march_book_two_72dpi_lgThose brutal, harrowing and fearful days of the Freedom Rides are chronicled in the marvelous graphic novel, March, Book 2 by John Lewis and Andrew Adyin with extraordinary illustrations by  artist Nate Powell.

Over the last 20 years, comics have become more than just funny pages for kids to read. And graphic novels have gone beyond the exploits of super heroes to portray–with breathtaking words and art–the real life figures who have shaped our country and world for the better.

And March, Book 2 (as well as March, Book 1 whose opening scene depicts the first attempted march on the Bridge) are as fine as pieces of literature as any history book or biography. The level of detail that is captured from Lewis memories is such an incredible gift to readers.

march-book-2-clothes-e1422956768462While I have considered myself to have better-than-average knowledge bout the Civil Rights movement as a preacher, admirer of Dr. King and former Birmingham newspaper reporter, I was still astounded by the particular hardships that Lewis and other activists faced during the Freedom Rides and on a daily basis. And I also was profoundly amazed by the activists’ sense of humor that served as the kindling to keep the spark of hope alive. And I continue to be moved by Lewis’ (among others) valiant commitment to non-violent protests for equality and non-violent responses to the horrendous violence they endured for simply wanting to vote, use a bathroom or eat at a lunch counter.

John Lewis gives a beautiful interview on “The Art and Discipline of Nonviolence” for Krista Tippet’s On Being, which still be heard and downloaded here. However, to see the stories come alive on the pages of March is mesmerizing. It is impossible not to be drawn into the story and witness the strength and courage that Lewis, Nash, Shuttlesworth, Williams, King, etc., exhibited during a tumultuous time in this nation’s history.  And it is also difficult to not be reminded of how some of the same scenes in the story are being re-enacted today, whether in Ferguson or Ohio, New York or Oklahoma.

Come to think of it, probably wouldn’t be a bad idea for some University of Oklahoma frat boys to get their hands on some copies of March and immerse themselves in the stories of brave black men and women, children, teens and adults who non-violently crusaded for freedom.

Actually, it would do good for all of us to read (and re-read) the stories of the Civil Rights movement so we can continually learn how to practice the ways of non-violence to combat the racism and hatred that is occurring in black communities today.

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Congressman John Lewis holding a copy of March, Book 2. Photo Credit: Yahoo News

As Lewis eloquently tweeted: “Our march continues. There is great work still to be done. Dedicate yourself to nonviolent social change, and we shall overcome.”

Sabbatical Reading Reflections: Dear White People by Justin Simien

Dear White People is one of the most important films of this day and age, and one of the best films of 2014. It was also snubbed by the white-centric Academy of Motion Pictures during Oscar time.  But, dear white readers of this blog, that doesn’t mean you have to snub it or the book which is equally wonderful and powerful companion piece of art. 

Justin Simien infuses the book, Dear White People: A Guide to Inter-racial Harmony in “Post-Racial” America with the same biting satire and wit that is found in his ground-breaking debut film. It’s the actualized version of Sam White’s commentary on her underground radio station at the fictional (but realistic Ivy-league) Winchester University. 

The book is a laugh-out-loud, thought provoking and convicting read. Although I have become more aware of my own prejudices and racist attitudes, this book shed more light on my whiteness and the privilege of my skin.  I was immediately taken aback by a paragraph in Simien’s introduction:

For black folks, being stereotyped is nothing new, but it typically can have a very real impact on their daily lives, even when it comes in the form of well-meaning gestures and questions from their white friends or colleagues like, “As a Black Person, why do you think people talk back to the screen in movies?” These are called “microagressions.” It’s not lynch-mob racism, but being spoken to or even treated in a kind way because of an assumption about your race by a member of a race that on the whole has cultural, political and economic control can feel unsettling.

This is one of many microagressions that I commit in my thinking or in conversations with other whites, and an assumption that, well, plainly put, makes me an ass for having such thoughts.

Amid the clever and humorous quizzes and charts where one can seriously discover microagression translations; determine whether you are “tokening your black friend”; and discern when it’s the right time to wear Blackface (ummm…never);  there are passages that hold the mirror of my racism up against my nose.

The section of the book that struck a deep chord with me was the chapter “Please Stop Touching My Hair,” in which Simien breaks down the racist implications in white people’s fascination with black people’s hair:

A white co-worker might wonder with admiration, no less, how a black woman can come to work with a Halle Berry-style pixie cut one day and a shoulder-length blow-out the next. “How does she do it?” this hypothetical white coworker might say motto voce. And while that’s a fair question, using your fingers to find the answer will only ensure that Sheryl in accounting will stop inviting you to lunch…

For some black people, being asked for permission to have their hair touched or, worse yet, having it touched by surprise elicits a visceral negative reaction. We can’t help it. According to the theories of Carl Jung…all of us have powerful genetic memories going back to our ancestors. Do not be surprised if a black person responds to a request to touch their hair by defiantly yelling out, “I AM KUNTA KINTE!” They are subconsciously recalling that scene in Roots where Geordi from Star Trek is being poked and prodded by a slave trader. Thus is the nature of genetic memory, probably.

tumblr_n971hrX0Tl1r8jjn6o1_500-1423262633Even if images from made-for-TV slavery stories aren’t the first things that come to mind for the person on the receiving end of all of this curiosity, the feeling of being on display at, say a petting zoo isn’t one anyone would want to feel at work, home, or play. Adding adorable phrases around the request doesn’t help either. Whether you’re saying, “Wow, that’s beautiful; may I?” “Your little naps are so cute!”; or “Lower yo’ head, boy, so Massa can inspect you,” it all comes across, more or less in the same way. There are, of course, some notable exceptions to this rule. In intimate relationships, for instance, it is natural.

The reason why this resonated–why I suddenly “got it”–is because of an incident that occurred about eight years ago at a Presbyterian Middle School Youth Conference in Virginia. A black seminary classmate, friend and fellow conference leader, shaved his head three days into the event. I and another friend (a white female and also a seminary classmate and conference leader) were so fascinated by his new look that we enthusiastically ran up to him and rubbed his head. Rightly so, he got angry and snapped back at us: “Don’t ever touch my head!” I remember feeling a sudden sense of guilt because I was unexpectedly scolded and also because I knew I’d done something wrong, although I wasn’t sure why. In the moment, my other friend and I thought he was being over-sensitive and we chalked it up to him just needing space or being tired/moody at that particular moment (which all of us get at conferences due to long hours, lots of high energy activities and little, little sleep).

But now I understand that what we did was wrong. We treated him like he was something on display, a pet at a petting zoo. This microagression (or maybe it was closer to a macro one) was even worse in the context–an all white conference in which he was the lone person of color. Although we didn’t realize it, our desire to rub his freshly buzzed head was racist. When I first read Simien’s words, I attempted to justify my actions, thinking that “Well, surely I would’ve rubbed the buzz cut of a good white friend who had shaved their head because a) it’s so dramatically different and b) buzz cuts feel cool. And maybe I have or would have. But a) that’s kind of creepy even if it’s a good white friend and b) the action doesn’t erase the fact that it’s wrong and racist to do that to a person who is black.  It’s a personal domain that shouldn’t be invaded and no one’s head, regardless of race and especially because of their skin color, should be on display for white hands.

To my friend, I’m sorry for violating your personal space and for offending you. And I lament that it took me this long to realize my wrongdoing.

The irony of this convicting book (which should also be read alongside the incredibly insightful But I Don’t See You As Asian: Curating Conversations About Race by Bruce Reyes-Chow) is that white people shouldn’t need black people to educate them about their humanity as Simien expresses with a quote from Audre Lorde:

When Black and Third World people are expected to educate white people as to our humanity…the oppressors maintain their position and evade their responsibility for their own actions. There is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves…

And yet, at the same time, if I didn’t get the education I’d never be aware of my sins and shortcomings and be motivated to change for the better. I suppose the difference with me is that  I don’t expect other black people to educate me, but am open to the views of people who are different (race, gender, sexual orientation, economic status, etc.)—views  and voices that will reshape my heart and understanding of the world I live in so I can be a better participant in it. So I can take responsibility for my own actions and find an alternative and non-oppressive position in which to stand.

This book has affected my perspective in ways that other books haven’t.  From sections on black myth busting and a deconstruction of the idea that we a post-racial society, I am seeing with new eyes.  Simian’s voice and art is to be treasured.