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…

What’s Next For Christian Education?

Screen Shot 2015-03-18 at 10.50.56 PM(Note: A slightly different version of this post was published at 7 am on the new Christian Education resource blog HOPE4CE: A Place Where Innovative Ideas and Lesson Plans Can Be Shared For Christian Education)

I recently returned from the NEXT Church Conference, held  March 16-18, in Chicago, and once again it nourished my soul and heart for ministry. Worship services, presentations and workshops (regarding innovative ministry and discernment about what works and what doesn’t) as well as opportunities to connect with friends and colleagues filled me with hope for where the PC(USA) and its churches are headed in the foreseeable future.

While the conference didn’t explicitly talk about the best Christian Education models or ministries (which relate to me as an associate for youth at the church I serve in Georgia), the various leaders, teachers and presenters faithfully teach Christians about what it means to be the body of Christ and to do God’s work in the world—to (according to this year’s theme) go “beyond our walls, our fears and ourselves” to encounter God’s transforming grace. Also, Christian Education is about being creative in the ways we tell the good news of God’s love, and the act of imagining and sharing ideas is the essence of the NEXT Church movement.

Worship in particular is so moving, inspiring and thought-provoking (with liturgy, prayers, music, preaching and visual art) that it is impossible not to remove your shoes because you are standing on holy ground like Moses.

Photo taken by NEXT Church photographer, posted on NEXT Church Facebook page. Art done by NEXT Church worship team.
Photo taken by NEXT Church photographer, posted on NEXT Church Facebook page. Art created by NEXT Church the Rev. Shawna Bowman.

For the closing service on Wednesday, the representation of a bird was hung from the ceiling of the sanctuary. The piece is made mostly of strips of paper (taken from old hymnals) upon which we wrote our prayers earlier in the week and tied to a make-shift chain link fence that symbolized the things and fears that hold us back.  

The bird soaring high above exemplified how God knocks down our walls and sets us free. During the service, these words (written by the Rev. Shawna Bowman who also created the art piece) were offered to help us connect the meaning of the flying bird:

Grounded in the grace of God

Our love takes flight

Not beyond one another

But beyond ourselves

Beyond our fears

Beyond our own limitations

God’s blessing infuses us

God’s spirit blows us

God’s strength emboldens us

God’s beauty beckons us

Out into the day and the night

Out into the world beyond these walls

To be the people of God

In the world God created.

 This poetic and prophetic piece reflected a profound statement made the previous evening by writer/dreamer/theologian Diana Butler Bass who said during a presentation on Christianity’s “Great Awakening:

The best part about being human is that history is ours to make and we make that history with God.

Diana’s wisdom, closing worship and a workshop I attended earlier in the week–“Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast” by the Rev. Jan Edmiston–stirred up many questions about how we might discern the role of Christian Education in a faith community of the 21st century world :

 –What kind of history are we making with Christian Education and what stories are we telling that feeds people’s hunger to know about their faith and beliefs?

 –What does Christian Education look like when it’s beyond ourselves, our fears and walls?

 –What does Christian Education look like out in the world God created as opposed to being in a church building or classroom?

–What is God’s strength and beauty moving us to do differently, unexpectedly, creatively, and imaginative with Christian Education?

— What cultural shifts are we willing to make to keep Christian Education relevant and viable ministry that nurtures and emboldens others to be the body of Christ? (This question and the subsequent ones are adapted from questions that Jan Edmiston posed concerning general ministry).

 o   What does Christian Education look like if we focus less on attendance at events, the building to house classes and the cash it takes to run programs? What does CE look like if we focus on doing the ministry in the surrounding culture and neighborhood of the church?

 o   What if we move a church school class or youth adviser training from the church parlor to a coffee shop?

o   What if we move from doing CE events at the church to attract people (like VBS or a Fall Festival) and send people out into neighborhoods to do VBS or host a Fall Festival in the town square or community center?

o   What if we ask more questions about our purpose for doing a certain CE program and event and whether people are passionate about participating or comfortable with failing or afraid of trying something new?

o   Who is being spiritually nourished and what relationships are being nurtured by CE? Who is being transformed to become more faithful? Who is being impacted?

 o   How can CE better nurture faith and discipleship that carries over into every aspect of our week and lives, beyond Sunday mornings and the Wednesday evening supper and Bible study?

Photo: Joachim Wendler/shutterstock.com. Posted on the NEXT Church website, http://nextchurch.net
Photo: Joachim Wendler/shutterstock.com. Posted on the NEXT Church website, http://nextchurch.net

These questions must be wrestled with and answered so that the people of God can faithfully educate Christians on how to live fully in Christ, so that we can all take flight into the wildly creative imagination of what God has for us next.

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.

A Shelter from the Storm

A Sermon for Sunday October 12, Domestic Violence Awareness Sunday in the PC(USA), Psalm 23 and Isaiah 25:1-9, (The Voice translation)

This summer, as I was looking at curriculum and choosing topics to present to the High School Youth Group, I decided on “ethics in college sports” for a Sunday night in mid-September. It seemed to be a timely and relatable subject:

Many youth are athletes and/or college sports fans.

We live in the South where college sports are king, especially football.

And there are always ethical issues about cheating, sportsmanship, etc.

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Ray and Janay Lewis. Google Images.

But in the week leading up to the lesson, news agencies reported on three separate incidents where NFL star running backs were caught in domestic abuse scandals. The incident that garnered the most attention revolved around Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens who is seen on video punching his then fiancé, now wife Janay Palmer, in the face and knocking her unconscious inside an elevator of an Atlantic City casino.

The NFL player scandals immediately stirred up dialogue about domestic violence on talk shows, social media and office break rooms, and I knew that I needed to bring that conversation to our High School youth.

Every few years, the High School Youth Group engages in a lesson on teen dating and how to spot the occurrence of abuse in a relationship.  Anna Brown led that lesson several times when she worked with the High School Youth Group for more than a decade, and I have picked up that practice during my six years at Pleasant Hill.

I remember talking about dating and abuse with the High School Youth Group in 2009 when one of our young women shared her experience with an ex-boyfriend who had verbally abused her. She spoke openly about the pain and shame that she felt being told that she was unworthy or useless. She talked about how hard it was to be in a relationship that was controlling and manipulative. And she explained that it was the help of family, friends and the church that allowed her to end the relationship and enabled her to see how much she was valued, appreciated and loved in the eyes of others and God.

So similarly, when the High School Youth Group gathered in September to talk about dating and abuse, some of the youth told stories of friends and relatives who were victims of domestic violence. Another youth expressed their bewilderment over seeing a male neighbor on their street get hauled away by the police for allegedly striking his wife.  And one of our advisers courageously shared her story of how a boyfriend verbally and physically abused her in college. The adviser expressed how the love of family and friends and the awareness of her self-worth, which helped her get out of the relationship and eventually heal and become whole.

Suffice it to say, it was a powerful evening in which we ultimately affirmed that God created us to embody love instead of indifference, hate and abuse.

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Love Is Respect.org poster

I carried that experience into the following Monday as I began preparing for today’s sermon.  And while looking at the lectionary passages on the Presbyterian Church (USA) calendar and discerning what I should preach, I discovered the denomination had set aside this particular Sunday of October 12 to address the issues of domestic violence.

Feeling the Spirit stirring deep in my heart, I realized the conversation about domestic violence needed to continue in this sanctuary. And my hope is that the conversation and the stories will go beyond this place and me.

I understand this might not be the topic you expect or want to hear about in worship. Pondering the nature and effects of domestic violence are uncomfortable and unsettling …even if you’ve never personally experienced that type of abuse.

It would be much easier to sing lovely hymns and hear a nice word about Jesus and then go on with our day without a care in the world.  Of course, there’s nothing wrong with worshipping in that manner…some of the time.

But if we always enter and exit this place with rose-colored glasses, we miss out on seeing what an active, restorative God is doing in an actively broken world.  At Pleasant Hill, we are all about the motto “Connecting Faith With Everyday Life,” which means we wrestle daily, even in our worship, with how our faith and belief in God intersect with the details of our lives, i.e.

How my faith connects with my understanding of the pain that a loved one, friend, neighbor, stranger or I experience.

How my faith connects with my realizing that “worship, witness and service are inseparable” and that just “as God is concerned for the events in everyday life, so members of the community in worship appropriately express concern for one another and for their ministry in the world.”

How our faith connects with our being responsible as a church to routinely raise the issue of domestic violence to break the code of silence and help us as a congregation to focus on the violation of God’s will for families and to recommit ourselves to directing our ministry toward addressing the brokenness in families within and beyond the church.”

How our faith connects with our calling as the body of Christ to care for and nurture the parts of the body that have been broken, abused and deemed unworthy.

In other words, we can’t “connect faith with everyday life” and not discuss heart-wrenching issues like domestic violence, especially when there are people walking through the darkest of valleys—fearful of the evil that has or will be done to their hearts, minds, bodies and souls.

According to the Presbyterians Against Domestic Violence Network, the malevolent act domestic violence is defined as:

A recurrent pattern of assaultive and controlling behaviors directed toward an intimate partner. The violence can be actual or threatened and can cover a wide range of behaviors. Many people think of physical, sexual or verbal assaults, but subtle forms of abuse are also common: isolation, humiliation, ridicule, threats…These learned behaviors are used to control the victim and they cause physical and psychological damage. Anyone can be a victim of domestic violence; there are no specific categories of typical victim/survivor profiles. Likewise, abusers come from all contexts… Domestic violence has no boundaries. It cuts across all religious, economic, racial, cultural, educational and age lines.[1]

Many organizations devoted to domestic violence prevention also point out that many victims, most of whom are women, stay in an abusive relationship because they…

feel responsible or that they deserve the abuse

think that jealousy and possessiveness are signs of love

are threatened by their abuser if they try to leave or express any dissatisfaction in the relationship or marriage or mention the abuse to others.

 still love the abuser

 believe they are breaking the covenant of marriage by leaving

 believe that their faith requires them to forgive the abuser and save the marriage at all costs

want to prevent the abuser from harming their children and pets

 may not have the financial resources to care for themselves and their children apart from their partner

 may not have access to supportive services in her community or lack knowledge about those services

may have come from an abusive family and think that this is normal and expected behavior.

 may not have anywhere to go and no one to turn to for help[2]

When there are people—mothers, aunts, sisters, daughters, friends, co-workers, neighbors, our child’s schoolteacher or the postal carrier—suffering right under our very noses, we have to speak out against the abuse.

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Anti-Abuse advertisement. Google Images

We have to acknowledge that domestic violence happens everywhere (even to people of faith) and that abuse is always inexcusable. We have to be open to creating a safe and welcoming space where victims and survivors can share their stories of abuse without judgment. And we have to be willing to speak out so that the cries of others might be heard.

We can no longer be silent knowing that 1 in every 4 women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime, or that an estimated 1.3 million women in the U.S. are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner each year. [3]

We can’t be silent when 85 percent of the victims of domestic violence are women, or when females between the ages of 16 and 24 experience the highest rate of intimate partner violence.[4]

We can’t keep silent when nearly 1.5 million high school students nationwide experience physical abuse from a dating partner in a single year, or when one quarter of high school girls have been victims of physical or sexual abuse or when 3 million children have witnessed domestic violence in their homes annually.[5]

And we certainly can’t keep silent when there are victims and survivors of domestic abuse sitting in the pews, and more among us who will potentially suffer.

We have to be voices of hope for the hopeless, voices that attest to the reality of a living God who, in the words of Isaiah,

makes marvelous and beautiful wonders;

stands up for the poor and weak, giving them comfort and empowerment

provides protection from the relentless heat and torrential rain

silences the arrogant sounds of violence

swallows up oppression and death

gently wipes away all tears and deflects scorn and shame

and saves us so that we may rejoice and celebrate the gift of life

This God, whom the prophet describes, intends for creation to live in harmony—in trust, love and mutual respect—with one another.  This same God strongly opposes abuse and violence, violations of the Creator’s desire for us to live as beloved creatures. And this God stands mightily on the side of the abused and oppressed.

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The 23rd Psalm. Artist Unknown. Google Images.

Like a shepherd, this God, writes the psalmist, walks with the abused.

This God leads, restores and comforts those who have been threatened and mistreated.

This God walks through the darkest valley with a staff to ward off predators.

This God prepares a table for the abused, a feast overflowing with mercy and goodness, even as the abuser lurks nearby in the shadows.

This God brings blessings of peace and love.

This God brings hope.

And God’s hope can show up in some surprising ways.

For Lizzie Hampton, it arrived in the form of Rainbow Village, which has been dedicated to breaking the cycle of homelessness, poverty and domestic abuse in Gwinnett County for more than 20 years.  Here is Lizzie’s testimonial which was filmed in 2010:

Before I came to Rainbow Village, I was in denial. I was in a domestic violence relationship and I decided to leave my home. My name is Lizzie Hampton. I was in the Rainbow Village program from 2003-2004. The reason why I decided to leave was because of the things I experienced in my home, which was mostly verbal, emotional and mental abuse. And for so many years, I thought that wasn’t really abuse. I thought physical abuse was really the key to being abused. It can be a cycle in your children’s life if you don’t get free. I was in the program for one year. … The turning point for me was they gave us opportunities to be able to meet with a full-time counselor. And the caseworkers and the people who worked at Rainbow Village were mentors to me. When I met with my counselor, I was able to vent my feelings about what I went through. My children were able to be a part (of the program) and talk about their feelings and (participate) in the afterschool program. All of it was very important in all of us getting back to being healthy again. Rainbow Village had classes about being abused and the right way to be treated. And it woke up my eyes to realize that I deserved to be treated in a loving and kind way. And it taught me about myself, self-esteem and how to love myself. It taught me how to be a better mother. It taught me how to not look back on my experience and beat myself up. It taught me to go forward. I would like for women to learn from me to not be in denial of their situation and circumstances that they’re dealing with in their home; to get help because there’s so much help out there for them; and they’re not alone. And to go forth and reach the skies because the sky’s the limit to what God has called them to do and be on earth. Spiritually, I am loving God more, seeing who he has made me to be. I didn’t love myself before. I didn’t think of myself as being beautiful. Now I know who I am in Christ and I know he fearfully and wonderfully made me to be where I am.[6]

If you’ve been abused or are being abused by an intimate partner, know that you are a beautiful creation of God who is fearfully and wonderfully made, deeply loved and cherished.

Remember always that you didn’t do a thing to deserve the abuse. It is never your fault. Never. Your. Fault.

Tell someone your story and share your pain so that you can receive help and escape a situation that will only get worse. You are never alone. There are pastors and church members who will support you.

Heed the advice from Lizzie Hampton, currently a board member of Rainbow Village and an employee of a Gwinnett County elementary school, who says:

Go forth and reach the skies because the sky is the limit to what God has called (you) to do and be on earth.

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Isaiah 25. Artist Unknown. Google Images

And finally, as one who grew up with domestic violence in his home as a child and survived and is standing before you now,

cling tightly to the truth that no matter how much the oppressive winds and rains threaten to weigh you down,

this living God, whom we worship and adore, and whom we put our hope in,

will always be a shelter from the storm.

Amen.

………………….

[1] https://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/phewa/presbyterians-against-domestic-violence/
[2] https://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/phewa/presbyterians-against-domestic-violence/
[3] http://www.ncadv.org/ and http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs239/en/
[4] http://www.ncadv.org/ and http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs239/en/
[5] https://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/phewa/presbyterians-against-domestic-violence/ ; http://www.ncadv.org/ and  http://www.loveisrespect.org/
[6] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zcmNlpnOQno

………………………………….

Resources for Domestic Violence Awareness and Prevention

Ahimsa House: Helping People and Pets Escape Domestic Violence (71 % of victims entering domestic violence shelters report that their abusers threatened, injured or killed the family pets)

Love Is Respect

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence

The National Domestic Abuse Hotline

Presbyterians Against Domestic Violence Network

Rainbow Village: Breaking the Cycle of Homeless, Poverty and Domestic Abuse

World Health Organization International Statistics on Domestic Violence

Be Revealed

A Sermon For January 19, 2014, Amos 5:24, Galatians 3:27-29, John 1:29-34

[Race Relations Sunday/Baptism of three sisters, 3, 2 and 9-months-old during the 11 am worship service]

In one of several emotionally packed scenes from the epic film 12 Years A Slave, Edwin Epps, who believes the Bible sanctions his right to abuse slaves, becomes enraged when he discovers that the young female slave Patsey left the plantation.  Upon her return, Patsey, who daily picks more than 500 pounds of cotton to avoid a beating, reveals to the fuming Epps that she went to another plantation to ask for soap so that she could bathe:

Epps, unwilling to believe her story and angry over her act of defiance, forces another slave, Solomon Northrup, to whip Patsey. Eventually Epps grabs the whip from Northrup and brutally lashes her. In essence, Epps like many slave owners of the time, refuses to recognize Patsy as a beloved creation who is claimed by a loving God in the waters of baptism.

12 Years A Slave-posterThe dehumanization of Patsey is taken from the pages of Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir whose film adaptation recently netted a Best Picture Golden Globe Award and nine Academy Award nominations, including best picture, best director, best actor, best supporting actress and best screenplay. 12 Years A Slave tells the true story of Northrup, an African-American musician from New York—a free man—who is kidnapped in Washington D.C. and sold into slavery in Louisiana.

12 Years A Slave has garnered much attention for its accurate portrayal of one of the darkest periods in American history. And the notice the film is receiving is timely considering that many congregations in the Presbyterian Church (USA) commemorate Race Relations Sunday in their worship today as a way of honoring the birthday and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King on Monday.

Along with other 2013 movies like Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Fruitvale Station and Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, the big screen retelling of Northrup’s life as an indentured servant has stirred up immense conversations and feelings about the occurrence of slavery and racial discrimination—both then and now.

Film critics and moviegoers have observed entire theaters sobbing throughout the entire 2 hours of 12 Years A Slave, including grown men covering their eyes or turning away during especially graphic scenes.

It’s remarkably powerful to think about how 150 years after the abolition of slavery, the history of that horrendous time can still evoke suck heartbreak and lament.  Quite possibly, we mourn the sins of the past because the same hateful mindsets thrive mightily in today’s climate.

While slave plantations are non-existent in this country and the nation is half a century removed from the days of segregation, lynching, vicious police dogs and water-hoses and the cross-burning Klan, slavery and racial discrimination creeps into every part of society nowadays.

We still live in a world where people fail to honor the love of Christ in another human being—

  • A report from the 2013 Global Slavery Index found that nearly 30 million people around the world are living as slaves.[1]
  • A U.S. government study reported in 2012 that more than 42,000 adults and children were found in forced prostitution, labor, slavery or armed conflict worldwide.[2]
  • Surveys conducted in 2013 by the renowned Pew Research Center showed that 46 percent of blacks and 16 percent of whites see “a lot of discrimination” toward blacks; And 70 percent of blacks and about 37 percent of whites say “blacks are treated less fairly in their dealings with the police.” [3]
  • Statistics from the Southern Poverty Law Center which monitors hate and bigotry show that there are 939 hate groups operating across the country–a 56 percent increase since 2000 and the number of “Patriot” groups have increased dramatically in the last six years, from 149 to 1,360.[4]
  • Since January 2013, the news have been filled with stories of racial discrimination, racists attitudes and cultural assumptions:

Racial Discrimination Collage 1

The Trayvon Martin case;

voters protesting the Supereme Court’s decision to strike down a section of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act;

Celebrity Chef Paula Deen who testified in a lawsuit deposition that she used the “n-word” and threw Old-South plantation-themed parties; and

Phil Robertson, the star of the hit reality TV series Duck Dynasty who told a reporter that the impoverished black adults he worked alongside as a teen were always happy, happy, happy and never complained about their civil rights.

Racial Discrimination Collage 2

Megyn Kelly, the Fox News Anchor who insisted that everyone should accept that Jesus was a white man when he was actually a Galilean Jew born in Roman-Palestine;

African-American teen Christopher Rougier who was told by a teacher at his New Mexico high school that he couldn’t dress up as Santa because he was black;

An MSNBC segment in which host Melissa Harris-Perry (who is bi-racial) allowed a panel of guests poke fun at former Presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s adopted black grandson; and

African-American actress Tamera Mowry who told Oprah Winfrey that she had been called “a white man’s whore” because her husband is white and they have a bi-racial child.

Racial Discrimination Collage 4

New York-born Latino-American pop singer Marc Anthony, who traces his heritage to Puerto Rico, was widely blasted on Twitter for his rendition of God Bless America at the All-Star Game. Many felt that it was wrong for an illegal Mexican to sing an American song;

America’s Got Talent competitor, Sebastien De La Cruz, a 11-year-old who received similar criticism for singing the National Anthem in his native San Antonio during the NBA Finals between the Spurs and the Miami Heat. Several people on Twitter accused the boy of being an illegal who snuck into the country to sing the anthem;

Nina Davuluri, a native of New York who became the first contestant of Indian descent to be crowned the winner of the 2014 Miss America Pageant, was attached on social media for being an Arabic terrorist. Others ridiculed Nina for her family ties to India, labeling her “Miss 7-11”; and

Last week’s episode of the hit series How I Met Your Mother in which the all-white cast put on yellow make-up and dressed in stereotypical Asian attire to foster an ongoing gag about humorously slapping a good friend.

Racial Discrimination Collage 03

Justine Sacco, a former PR executive for IAC Media Company, who made headlines by tweeting: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white;” and

Famous comedian Steve Martin who in response to a question about how to spell “lasagna” tweeted: “It depends. Are you in an African-American neighborhood or at an Italian restaurant?”

And pop legend Madonna, who on Friday (talk about sense of timing) used the n-word “as a term of endearment” in an Instagram photo of her white teenage son.

As Christena Cleveland, a researcher and social psychologist at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn, put it in a December magazine article:

There is still a long way to go. I don’t think people understand when we are separated; nothing good can come from that. All we do is misperceive each other. All we do is develop these boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ I don’t think a lot of majority-culture Christians understand how bad these issues really are.”[5]

Judging by the racial diversity of the congregation here at Pleasant Hill, I would surmise that many actually do understand how bad racial discrimination is these days.

At the same time, I also realize it’s easy for anyone to respond to these examples of racism by saying “Oh it’s not as bad as it was 50 years ago,” or “there are a few members in my family who use the n-word but that’s just an older generation that is set in their ways” or “you can’t judge racial tensions by the dumb and ignorant things people say on social media or TV.”

Maybe those responses have a ring of truth to them. But maybe the examples of racial discrimination I just mentioned also reflect the prejudice that occurs on a daily basis in average cities and neighborhoods across the country.

In case you’re unsure, let me offer personal stories from some non-white friends I spoke with this weekend about the ways they experience racial discrimination:

As a parent, I’ve had the opportunity to get know some of the church families whose children are my 5-year-old daughter’s peers, like Ted and Abby R. and their two children.

Ted, who is black and hails from Chicago, is a new elder on Session who serves on the Christian Education Committee. Abby, who is white and grew up in Oregon, is on CE’s Preschool Board and both parents teach church school.

This past August, Ted and his daughter were out shopping when Ted noticed another shopper react oddly to him.  Bewildered by the person’s actions, Ted immediately posted on Facebook: “Just had an old lady see me in Wal-Mart and clinch her purse. Shaking my head.”

……………………………….

One of the most valuable ministries here at the church is our partnership with Rainbow Village, which holds its After-School tutoring and mentoring program in the upstairs classrooms during the week.  The success of the program is due largely to the incredible leadership of its program director SB, an African-American mother of two grown boys and a grandmother of two toddlers.

SB said to me over the phone that what she often finds most disturbing is perceptions of who she is based on the color of her skin. She told me that over the years, some whites, after meeting her, would later remark privately to her employer about how Sondra is so well spoken and articulate. “They seem to be impressed that I’m not talking ebonics,” she said. “I wonder how they thought I’d be. Wouldn’t they think that if I work at Rainbow Village, I would be professional?”

SB says that while she believes race relations have come a long way, there is still more to be done. She says she longs for the day when she doesn’t have to over-worry about perceptions or even take precautions when speaking to her sons about how they should behave in public. “I always tell them to be polite as they should but I usually have to tell them more. I tell them that if the police are talking to you, don’t move. Stand still. Give short answers. Don’t reach into your pockets, even if nothing is there. I think it’s wrong that I have to be over cautious and give such special instructions but it’s what I have to do.”

I think it’s fair to say that few, if any, whites have ever been given those type of instructions, much less have to worry that their words and actions might be greatly misconstrued by authorities.

And yet the shooting deaths of Trayvonn Martin and much more clear-cut cases—like the killing of Florida A&M student Jonathan Ferrell and 19-year-old Renisha McBride—gives every parent and guardian of a racial and bi-racial children enough reason to give precise directions about behavior, all to ensure more innocent blood isn’t spilled.[6]

…………………..

An inspiration to me in my ministry is Derrick Weston, a 34-year-old African-American and Presbyterian pastor who is director of the Pittsburgh Project, a non-profit community development in Pennsylvania.

Derrick has a passion for talking about church transformation and issues of poverty and racism. When I asked him to share his experiences with racial discrimination, he wrote me the following email:

Where I have most commonly experienced racism is in the area of other people’s expectations of me. Assumptions about how I should dress, how I should talk, what kind of music that I *must* like, assumptions about my athleticism (which were almost always wrong!)… I don’t think most people think of those things as racism, but they certainly are. When you tell people that they are not allowed out of the box that you have for them, that is oppression….I had some awful things said to me when I served a church in Springfield, Ohio. Worries that I would bring “my kind” to the church. Lucky for them, “my kind” wouldn’t go anywhere near that place.

……………………..

WorrPHOTO-Cover-and-Bruce-720x380ies over “another kind” coming inside the Church is a statement that our denomination’s former moderator, the Rev. Bruce Reyes Chow, has also heard in his ministry along with other racially charged comments. Several months ago Bruce was sitting in a coffee shop when a white person came up to him and said in their best Asian accent: “You no rike riving here, you can rive somewhere else.”[7]

Bruce, who is a California born Asian American with Filipino and Chinese heritage, writes in his book But I Don’t See You As Asian: Curating Conversations About Race, that we can’t afford to brush aside or ignore the racism that pervades our society:

When we choose to dismiss or avoid these difficult conversations, we reinforce and remind people of color that they are still the other. We are not expressing a willingness and yearning to embrace the wonderful complexity that is brought to the larger human family…We must keep talking about race and how we engage the conversation, because how we do these things impacts the ability for people of color to full live and achieve in society.”[8]

How we have these conversations about race—how we engage others about their experiences and stories—also impacts the ability for the newly baptized to speak boldly and confidently of God’s love for all races and cultures.

For Christians, our starting point for having these conversations and working toward racial reconciliation is immersed in the words of the apostle Paul who wrote to the early church in Galatia:

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:27-28)

Our desire to create racial harmony and seek out the holy in another human being is attuned to the wild cries of John the Baptist who witnesses the baptism of Jesus:

Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! … I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel…I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.” (John 1:29-42)

Our purpose for carrying out the promises we just made for those three girls at baptism–to nurture people in the love and mercy of Christ–is rooted in the prophetic words of the vine grower Amos who proclaimed:

Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24)

Our baptisms in Christ remind us that regardless of our cultural differences, we all belong forever to God.

Our baptisms remove the sin and injustice from our lives, washes away the hate, the discrimination and misperceptions we have toward those of another race.

Our baptisms free us to be rivers of justice and streams of righteousness and peace for people of color.

Our baptisms in Christ reveal us as beloved creations that are called to love one another, especially those who are mistreated because of their differences.

So may it be. So may it be.

Amen.

………………….

Preacher’s Note I: Following the sermon, the congregation sang the Hymn #757 “Today We Are Called to Be Disciples” from The Presbyterian Hymnal: Glory to God. For the Benediction, I read stanza three: “Pray justice may come rolling down as in a mighty stream, with righteousness in field and town to cleanse us and redeem. For God is longing to restore an earth, where conflicts cease, a world that was created for a harmony of peace.”

Preacher’s Note II: As I researched the topic of race relations for this sermon, I found several articles that provided eye-opening insight into the issue, allowed me to process my thoughts and feelings, and that should be shared with others as a way of continuing the conversation:

–‘12 Years A Slave’ Inspires True Conversations About Slavery, NPR Morning Edition, Jan 16, 2014

Seeing Opportunity In A Question: Where Are You Really From, NPR Morning Edition, November 11, 2014

White Men, Black Female Bodies, and Renisha McBride, by Christena Cleveland, Sojourners Magazine, http://sojo.net, Nov. 19, 2013

No Turning Away, or Back, After Seeing ’12 Years A Slave’ by Cathleen Falsani, Sojourners Magazine, http://sojo.net, October 28, 2013

The American Church’s Absence of Lament, by Soong-Chan Rah, Sojourners Magazine, http://sojo.net, October 24, 2013

After Racial Strife, New Pledge Commits Christians to Unity and Solidarity, Sojourners Magazine, http://sojo.net, October 24, 2013

The Most Controversial Sentence I Ever Wrote, by Jim Wallis, Sojourners Magazine, http://sojo.net, October 24, 2013

The ‘S’ Word, the ‘D’ Word, and ’12 Years A Slave’ by Lisa Sharon Harper, Sojourners Magazine, http://sojo.net, October 17, 2013

Waiting For Another MLK by Carlos Malave, Sojourners Magazine, http://sojo.net, October 16, 2013

–’12 Years A Slave’: A Film Of Moral Gravity by Brian McLaren, Sojourners Magazine, http://sojo.net, October 15, 2013

How Feeling Each Other’s Pain Changes Everything, by Christena Cleveland, Sojourners Magazine, http://sojo.net, October 15, 2013

–‘12 Years A Slave’—Could It Happen Again? by Paul Louis Metger, Sojourners Magazine, http://sojo.net, October 14, 2013

–Some Brief Thoughts on ‘The Butler’ by Derrick Weston, from his blog http://derricklweston.wordpress.com, August 14, 2013


[1] New Global Index Exposes ‘Modern Slavery’ Worldwide, BBC, October 17, 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-24560937

[2] U.S. Traffiking Report Reveals ‘Modern Slavery’ Toll, BBC, June 19, 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-18514626

[3] For African-Americans, discrimination is not dead, Pew Research Center, June 28, 2013, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/06/28/for-african-americans-discrimination-is-not-dead/and King’s Dream Remains An Elusive Goal, Pew Research Center, August 22, 2013, http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2013/08/22/kings-dream-remains-an-elusive-goal-many-americans-see-racial-disparities/

[4] Southern Poverty Law Center, “What We Do”, http://www.splcenter.org/what-we-do/hate-and-extremism

[5] Chasing the Dream: The Year’s Best Film, 12 Years A Slave, exposes religion’s ugly history with race, by Emily McFarlane Miller, Relevant Magazine: Faith, Culture & Intentional Living, Nov/Dec. 2013

[6] During the 11 am worship service, I removed—in the interest of time due to having three baptisms and a Choir Anthem—the paragraph where SB talks about the instructions she gives to her sons and two paragraphs that followed, regarding how whites don’t have to worry about such things and the killings of Jonathan Ferrell and Renisha McBride. I did preach these words at the 8:30 am worship service.

[7] How I Survive Everyday Racism by Bruce Reyes-Chow, August 30, 2013, Huffington Post: Religion. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bruce-reyeschow/how-i-survive-everyday-ra_b_3833714.html

[8] Excerpt from But I Don’t See You As Asian: Curating Conversations About Race by Bruce Reyes-Chow, p.22-24. Self-Published. 2013.

A Southern Presbyterian Preacher’s take on the “Duck Dynasty” flap

Phil Robertson on the cover of GQ, courtesy of Google Images and GQ Magazine
Phil Robertson on the cover of GQ, courtesy of Google Images and GQ Magazine

I cringed and shook my head when I first read the quotes Phil Robertson, the patriarch of the hit A&E reality TV series Duck Dynasty, made in the recent GQ article “What the Duck?” by Drew Magery. I

I wasn’t exactly shocked that the duck call mogul had a conservative evangelical worldview.

As a big fan of the show I’ve consumed nearly everything about the Robertson clan.  I’ve watched every episode up until this current season, own Seasons 1-3 on DVD and have shown a couple of episodes in an Adult Church School Class to teach a lesson on parenting and faith.

I’ve read their books, The Duck Commander Family: How Faith, Family and Ducks Built a Dynasty and Si-cology 1: Tales and Wisdom from Duck Dynasty’s Favorite Uncle, (the latter of which is signed by Uncle Si himself), perused Phil’s auto-biography, read articles about their rags-to-riches story and watched countless videos about their life apart from the show (behind-the-scenes vignettes on A&E’s website, interviews on Sports Spectrum and public speaking engagements on YouTube).

After absorbing any or all of the material that is available on the nation’s most popular reality TV family, it becomes quite clear that Phil is old school, possibly more so than the rest of his family. His wife, sons and daughter-in-laws usually give him a (lovingly) hard time for being stodgy in his ways (Phil typically views non-hunters and people who spend too much time with their gadgets and luxury items as yuppies). Phil’s a 67-year-old hunter who lives simply (despite his accumulated wealth) and loves running around in the woods of his rural home near a small town in Monroe, Louisiana. He’s also a recovering alcoholic who nearly lost his family, later converted to Christianity and is now an elder at his local non-denominational evangelical church who for years has gone around preaching the Gospel.

It’s no secret that he’s an evangelical conservative and actually more of a fundamentalist. To  be honest, neither his religion, politics or way of life is all that unique, particularly in the South. These pieces of Phil Robertson’s identity don’t make him less of a human being. While I certainly don’t agree with his or his church’s theology, his politics and views on homosexuality and other issues, (I am a liberal PC(USA) minister serving in Atlanta), I’ve discovered–mostly through the show–that Phil is a good family man who is trying his hardest to follow Christ and treat others with Christ’s love (the Robertsons are no strangers when it comes to mission work and helping out the poor).

The Duck Dynasty guys: Jase, Si, Willie and Phil, courtesy of Google Images and A&E
The Duck Dynasty guys: Jase, Si, Willie and Phil, courtesy of Google Images and A&E

The thing that draws me to the Robertsons and Duck Dynasty is their folksy country humor and strong family ties (which is reminiscent of my favorite TV program of all time, The Andy Griffith Show).


As a connoisseur of pop culture and faith, I’ve enjoyed observing the faithful ways in which the Robertsons parent and treat one another with love and respect, no matter how frustrating and ugly their relationships or life can get. And I’ve appreciated how at the end of every episode, the family gathers around the dinner table where Phil says a prayer of thanksgiving and a lesson about that particular episode’s events is heard in a voice-over by son and Duck Commander CEO Willie Robertson.

Duck Dynasty has also taught me much about stereotypes. I avoided watching the show for some time because I assumed these guys were a bunch of dumb, uneducated, dysfunctional rednecks who only liked killin’ stuff. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Beneath the beards and hunting gear are educated, intelligent, hard-working and loving fathers, husbands, sons and friends. In some ways, they aren’t much different from me or my family and friends. And I discovered that I could actually value the other who was vastly different from me, despite opposing viewpoints on the Bible, homosexuality, etc.

So it was with great disappointment that I read about Phil’s more open views about homosexuality among other things. Again, I wasn’t surprised by his views or how they differed from mine. I was amazed at how Phil Robertson expressed his opinion in such an unfiltered and coarse manner without giving much more thought to what he was saying and who he might be hurting with his comments.

I’m not suggesting that he should’ve been perfectly polished or politically correct. However, there is a huge difference in saying, “I think homosexuality is a sin based on these passages in the Bible, etc.” and comparing homosexuality to bestiality and making a creepy comment about how vaginas offer more to men, as Phil so bluntly put it. (Click here for a more in-depth look at Phil’s view of homosexuality in the CNN article “Does Phil Robertson get the Bible wrong?”)

I also was a bit floored by his observation of the Pre-Civil Rights era in Lousiana and his reason for voting for Romney instead of Obama in the last election:

I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field…. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!… Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.

……………………………………

If I’m lost at three o’clock in a major metropolitan area…I ask myself: Where would I rather be trying to walk with my wife and children? One of the guys who’s running for president is out of Chicago, Illinois, and the other one is from Salt Lake City, Utah. [Editor’s note: Romney is from Boston, not Salt Lake City.] Where would I rather be turned around at three o’clock in the morning? I opted for Salt Lake City. I think it would be safer.

All three quotes immediately sparked a reaction from the American public which has caused me to squirm even more.

Conservative politicians and pundits like Sarah Palin, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindhal and Sean Hannity have attempted to advance their own political agenda by making this a First Amendment censorship issue, solely because A&E decided to put Phil on hiatus from the show.

The argument that Phil’s constitutional right to speak is being violated is quite a reach and reveals misunderstandings about the First Amendment. While Phil Robertson certainly has a right to his opinion, so do others who disagree with that opinion. A&E’s statement about Phil’s comments is also a First Amendment right as well as their decision to place someone under their employee on leave.

I will concede, though, that while A&E’s admonishment of Phil’s comments was appropriate, its decision to put the show’s patriarch in time-out was a bit over-reactionary, especially when you consider that Season 5 of Duck Dynasty has been filmed and is scheduled to premier in January 2014. The network’s suspension of Phil wouldn’t take affect till a possible Season 6 aired in August. So since that’s a long way off, it might behoove the A&E big wigs to stick to their statement about Phil’s views and hold off on taking further action, allowing time for honest dialogue and grace. As Tyler Huckabee points out in an article for Relevant Magazine online:

By putting Mr. Robertson into a timeout, A+E has wasted just such an opportunity. What could have been a chance for them to engage has instead become just another chance to point out loony rednecks and their backwards beliefs. Imagine how different things may have gone if they had instead acted like Shane L. Windmeyer, an LGBT advocate who has struck up a friendship with Chick-Fil-a owner Dan Cathy. They talk about their differences. They seek common ground. They learn from each other.

Similarly, it seems ridiculous that close to 200,000 people on Facebook have signed a petition to A&E to reinstate Phil and to urge a boycott of A&E products until he is allowed back on the show.  And even more absurd are the social media memes which claim that America is hypocritical by supporting Miley Cyrus while a “godly man” is censored; that A&E should be ashamed and that Phil’s opinion “affects no one.”  There are certainly more important things to stand up for than the star of a TV reality show being temporarily taken off the air.

The meme stating that Phil’s comments “affects no one” probably bugs me the most because in actuality, Phil’s opinions, while a God-given constitutional right, do affect others. They fuel hate and fear about homosexuality and race as well as ignore the plight of slavery and civil rights among African-Americans.

Although Phil had a good working relationship with blacks as a poor white boy growing up in the late 40s, the absence of comments about prejudice and injustice doesn’t mean that those things didn’t exist. And just because the blacks Phil grew up around were friendly and sang songs of praise doesn’t mean they were not angry at Jim Crow laws or personal mistreatment by privileged whites.

And while Phil shared the same economic status with other African-Americans at the time, they likely never showed any displeasure because they were afraid to say anything in front of another white person, regardless if they were poor or not. It’s also likely that Phil’s black neighbors, like many African-Americans, put on smiles and stayed positive precisely because it was how they pushed through the racism and prejudice, and how they tried to maintain hope in a world that rejected them.

This does not mean that Phil Robertson is a staunch racist nor a militant homophobe. He is, in my opinion, someone who simply has a narrow understanding and antiquated views of African-Americans and the GLBTQ community.

Other people, however, don’t see it that way.I’ve been disheartened to see more liberal Christian voices with like-minded views on homosexuality and race, (most of whom have never seen an episode of Duck Dynasty) condemn Phil Robertson and lazily call him a dumb redneck. Talk about hypocrisy. (Click here to read an excellent column by S.E. Cupp a friend of the Robertson’s and host of CNN’s Crossfire entitled: “Don’t Reject the Duck Dynasty Family”).

My hope for all of this (in the midst of the Advent Season in which millions of Christians celebrate the coming of peace and love into the world) is that more civil dialogue will be had about homosexuality and race in our society and nation.  Even more importantly, I hope that the residents of Monroe, Louisiana and employees of Duck Commander and fans of the show far and wide (particularly Christian gays and lesbians and African-Americans) will reach out to Phil and begin a conversation that sincerely attempts to listen, understand, accept and love the other.
Phil and Kay Robertson, courtesy of Google Images
Phil and Kay Robertson, courtesy of Google Images

At the end of the day, it’s the conversations in love that make lasting change and ensure justice and equality for all people. The political sound-bytes, the Facebook petitions, memes and comments and the media sensationalism…all of that is a bunch of quack.

But the love is something we all need to be hunting more carefully for.

Remembering 4 Little Girls: The 50th Anniversary of The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing

God still has a way of wringing good out of evil…And history has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as a redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city. (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.)

 

4 Little Girls Killed in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing, Sept. 15, 1963: Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins and Denise McNair
4 Little Girls Killed in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing, Sept. 15, 1963: Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins and Denise McNair

Tomorrow, Sunday Sept. 15 marks the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama which killed four little girls as they were putting on their choir robes prior to that morning’s worship service.

As a reporter for The Birmingham Post-Herald (1998-2001) I was assigned the task of covering the re-opening of the case when authorities, in May 2000, discovered new evidence implicating two ex-Klansman who had been long-time suspects of the crime.

I preached a sermon last year about confronting evil in which I shared my experience interviewing Thomas Blanton Jr. in August 2000, eight months before he was convicted of the bombing.

Reporting on Sixteenth Street Bombing case  and interviewing those who were connected to the event in 1963 and 2000-2001 was an eye-opening experience. I was immediately thrust into the history that shaped my hometown of Birmingham and the deep South, and ultimately my identity as a pastor and a Jesus-follower who believes whole-heartedly in justice, equality and love for others, regardless of race, creed, culture, gender and sexual orientation.

Carolyn McKinstry from her book "While The World Watched" Tyndale House Publishers (Feb. 1, 2011)
Carolyn McKinstry from her book “While The World Watched” Tyndale House Publishers (Feb. 1, 2011)

My faith and belief that the Light will always shine in the darkness is strong because of the encounters I had with those who lived through the African-American Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s. One of those individuals who served as an inspiration to me as a reporter and whose words echo in my life and ministry today is Carolyn McKinstry, the author of While The World Watched (2011) in which she reflects on the day of the Sixteenth Street bombing, her friends who were killed that day, the Civil Rights movement, and her life since.

On Tuesday May 1, 2001, a few hours after Blanton received a guilty verdict in the Sixteenth Street Bombing, I had the privilege of interviewing Carolyn McKinstry outside the church.

Here is the story as published in the Wednesday May 2, 2001 edition of The Birmingham Post-Herald:

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Church member glad to see chapter end

by Andy Acton

Birmingham Post-Herald

Carolyn McKinstry awoke Tuesday morning feeling unsettled. She was still feeling restless when she went to her job as a consultant with Accenture. Throughout the day she had a hard time concentrating on her work. The restlessness wouldn’t subside.

Later that afternoon, after stopping briefly by Sixteenth Street Baptist Church where she is a member, she went home. Ten minutes later she received a phone call from friend Antoyne Green, a reporter at WBRC-6. Green told her that Thomas Blanton Jr., an ex-Klansman, was found guilty of murder in the bombing that killed her four childhood friends 37 years ago. The verdict came a week to the day after the trial started.

“I felt this surge, and it was this overwhelming relief that we can move forward with our lives and the church can move forward with what it needs to do,” said McKinstry, who was 14 years-old and sitting in the sanctuary of the church on Sept. 15, 1963 when a bomb exploded beneath her. Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins, Carol Robertson, all 14, and Denise McNair, 11, were killed in the blast.

On Tuesday, Blanton, 62, became the second man in 24 years to be convicted of murder in the bombing that turned the nations eyes to the civil rights struggle that had inflamed racial tensions in the South. Former Ku Klux Klansman Robert Chambliss was convicted in 1977.

McKinstry, now 51, said after Green told her the verdict, she was silent for a few minutes, what she described later as shock. While standing outside the church Tuesday evening, McKinstry said she and others who were close to the four girls were not expecting another guilty verdict.

“I think we had emotionally detached ourselves because we didn’t want to be disappointed,” said McKinstry.

There was a look of both relief and reflection on McKinstry’s face as she stood in front of the church steps. Her eyes welled with tears as she talked about the verdict.

“Now it has an ending. It has a final chapter, a chapter we can live with, an ending we hope will help the family have some feeling of closure,” she said.

McKinstry said friends and family members were surprised the verdict came so quickly. “We felt like we’d get 1963 repeated,” she said, recalling the feeling that the bombers never would be brought to justice.

A vice president of the church’s board of directors, McKinstry said the bombing and its aftermath will be a “great teaching tool” to share around the world and with future generations.

“This story was all about hatred and racism….These were four very beautiful young girls, and they will always be missed by their family and church,” she said. “We want to make sure the events that led to their deaths aren’t repeated.”

Memorial window at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, given as a gift by Wales not long after the bombing.
Memorial window at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, given as a gift by Wales not long after the bombing.

McKinstry said the church will remember the four girls with a special service Sunday. “We will reflect on those times and God’s goodness,” she said. McKinstry said the church will also open it’s doors today through Friday for anyone who wants to pray and reflect on the bombing. By Tuesday, about 50 people had come inside the church’s sanctuary to pay their respects to McKinstry and other members, she said.

The story of the bombing may have one more chapter left. The trial of Bobby Frank Cherry, a 71-year-old ex-Klansman, who was to be tried with Blanton, has been postponed pending a medical evaluation.

“Our position has always been that we left things in the hands of God,” McKinstry said. “If the system says he is fit to stand trial. If the system says he is guilty, then he should go to jail. We leave that in their (the system’s) hands and God’s hands. …We will remain low-key and reverent. A lot of our posturing (throughout the Blanton trial) has been out of respect for the families.”

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For those of you who are reflecting on the 50th Anniversary of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing or learning about it for the first time, check out the extraordinary documentary 4 Little Girls by Spike Lee and to read all the mainstream news articles you can find on this tragedy, including this excellent piece from Time Magazine: “Fifty Years After Bombing, Birmingham is Resurrected”

I also encourage you to lift up prayers for the families of Cynthia, Carole, Addie Mae, and Denise who long for the day they will see their girls again; for Carolyn McKinstry; for the congregation of Sixteenth Street; for the city of Birmingham that continues to move forward toward equality; the victims of racism, slavery and other forms of injustice today and the men, women and youth who fight hate and intolerance through peaceful and non-violent means.