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.

 

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…

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.

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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”

CLK1DmNVEAEy4Vy.jpg-large

 

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.

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.

As God’s Chosen

A Sermon for Sunday January 18, Colossians 3:8-17, Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church (Martin Luther King Jr. Weekend)

Screen shot from the music video "Same As It Ever Was (Start Today) by Michael Franti, December 2014. From Google Images.
Screen shot from the music video “Same As It Ever Was (Start Today) by Michael Franti, December 2014. From Google Images.

Intro:  When news outlets reported in early December that a New York grand jury decided not to indict police in the chokehold death of Eric Garner, popular hip-hop-reggae artist Michael Franti immediately wrote the lyrics to Same As It Ever Was (Start Today). And in less than two weeks, he recorded the song and filmed a 4-minute music video. I would like to show you the video to open the sermon, but first I want to let you know that it contains some images of white police brutality toward blacks over the last five decades—including the death of Eric Garner—which may be difficult to watch.

Of course, the subject of race is never easy to talk about; it stirs up many emotions for people. People are at odds over the grand jury’s decision to not indict officers in both incidents. And not everyone agrees that Garner’s death or the incident between Officer Darren Wilson and Michael Brown in Ferguson was racially motivated. But matters of race can’t be ignored completely when it is clear that views regarding discrimination are almost evenly split between whites and blacks. In a predominantly white congregation such as ours, it’s important that we discern and pray about such issues of justice. Please know that neither the video nor the sermon is an attempt to disparage our brave men and women who have sworn to serve and protect our communities. It is merely an opportunity to “touch hearts, make people think and be moved to work for change” because we could all do better[1]:

Prayer:  Will you pray with me? ….May the words of my mouth and the meditation of each and every one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God the harbinger of justice, peace and love. Amen

……………………………….

Same as it ever was/There’s gotta be a better way/It’s the same as it ever was/But today is a different day/You and me could make that change/But it’s the same as it ever was/We better start today            

An activist for peace and social justice issues, Franti said in an interview[2]:

My intention for the song was to give voice to feelings that many of us are going through right now and to offer a starting place for friends, family, school classes, and workplaces to have dialog about the issues surrounding police killing of unarmed African American men, police/community relations, the justice system and where we all go in the future. The song is not an indictment against all police officers or departments. I have friends, fans and family members who are honest, fair, hardworking people who do a job everyday that’s much more difficult than mine, where quick decisions are made that affect people’s life, death and freedoms. But when police make mistakes, those individuals should be held accountable for their actions just like anyone else. This would be a first step in creating an opportunity for substantive change to occur.

Since the killing of Trayvon Martin in February 2012, there have been more than 25 incidents of unarmed black men and women (a few under the age of 18) being killed by whites—sometimes police and sometimes citizens. And there have been nearly 80 of these types of cases since the 1999 brutal New York police shooting of Amadou Diallo, a 23 year-old immigrant from Guinea. [3] Despite the humongous strides that have been made since the times of segregation in the first half of the 20th century, the tumultuous 1960s Civil Rights Movement, and the breaking of color barriers in all arenas of life (entertainment, sports, academia, business and politics) over the last five decades, black-and-white racial tensions and issues surrounding race are still a thing of the present. Not something in our past.

The notion that we are post-racial anytime we have the first African-American of something is a myth. We have never been post-racial. We are always presently immersed in matters of race. And as Christians, we are always answering God’s call to understand the values of another’s race because of the love that unites us as the body of Christ—the love that identifies God’s people as being chosen ones, holy and beloved by our Creator.

America’s a better place/than it was fifty years ago/There’s been a whole lotta change/But we gotta long way to go

selma_ver2 On Friday, Elizabeth and I saw the Oscar nominated Selma—an inspiring and powerful film about the summer of 1965 when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a non-violent campaign in Selma, Alabama to secure equal voting rights for blacks in the face of cruel and violent opposition from authorities. King and the marchers sought to be recognized by whites as God saw them: chosen ones, holy and beloved.

It is one thing to read about the events from that time or listen to interviews, view old photographs or watch grainy documentaries. And it is quite another to see, on a large screen, the brutality that many citizens and civil rights activists faced before, during, and after the courageous movement in Selma. Our eyes were streaming throughout the movie. One of the most tear-jerking scenes is of the incident known as Bloody Sunday, in which state troopers attacked 600 unarmed blacks that were attempting to march to the Montgomery state capital to exercise their constitutional right to vote.

As I watched the troopers, armed with billy clubs and tear gas, chasing and beating the marchers unmercifully, I was reminded of the standoff in Ferguson between military-armed white police officers and mostly peaceful protestors, many of who were black.

While blood wasn’t shed in the wake of the grand jury’s decision in Ferguson, the conflict between the Ferguson police and the people of Ferguson was eerily similar to the tension in Selma. The “I Can’t Breathe” and “Black Lives Matter” protests held across the nation, including the campuses of Emory and Columbia Theological Seminary, in response to non-conviction in the Garner case also flashed in my head—affirming that we are not far removed from those 60s protests.

It’s true, as Franti sings, that America is a lot better than it was 50 years ago. The police brutality on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in 1965 and the use of fire hoses and police dogs on black protestors by Birmingham Police in 1963 are non-existent. There are no more savage beatings, bombings or lynchings or burning crosses. Public places are no longer segregated with designated “white only” signs in restaurants, schools, parks, businesses and government buildings.

And blacks are no longer vehemently denied opportunities to make their lives and the world better; they have the right to vote and be elected to public office, to make a living and influence the progress of industry, technology, the arts, and athletics.

There’s been a lot of change, but there is certainly a long way to go:

*The 114th Congress, which began its work this month, is the most diverse in our country’s history and yet it is still more than 80 percent white.[4]

* 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.[5]

* 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.[6]

I share these examples not to make whites feel guilty or insinuate that all whites are racists. I mention them simply to raise consciousness that we still live in a system where the color of one’s skin has a great (and often unjust) impact.

When we used to have a problem/we would call the police/But who we gonna call when the police make a problem/I’m not saying that they’re all bad/I’m not saying that I’m any better/All I’m just trying to say is that we could all do a lot better

When a recent CNN poll asked “How many police officers in the area where you live … are prejudiced against blacks?” 17% of whites said “most or some,” but more than twice as many non-whites — 42% — felt there is prejudice.

And when asked, “Does the U.S. criminal justice system treat whites and blacks equally?” 50% of whites said yes while nearly 80 percent of non-whites said no. [7] Other studies reveal that African-Americans are incarcerated more often than whites, even if both races commit the same crime.[8] It’s also been reported that while white Americans use more illegal drugs than black Americans, blacks are far more likely to go to prison for the drug offenses than whites who break the same laws.[9]

None of this is to say that most or even half of the authorities (police, lawyers, judges, politicians) in a white dominated society are prejudiced or bigots. There are many good people, white and black, serving on our streets and in our courtrooms, government buildings and jails. I met many upstanding police officers when I was a newspaper reporter in the late 90s in Birmingham, Alabama. I observed many white and black cops performing risky and courageous deeds to better the community. I met honorable lawyers and judges who strived to make fair and just decisions.

However, despite the good of the U.S. criminal justice system, there is much that is corrupt about it. There are many who have not ridden themselves, as the apostle Paul writes, of “anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language” from their mouths. And that holds true for everyday citizens like you and me.

We lie to one another. Deceive one another. Judge one another. Despise one another. Resent one another. Fear one another. Hate one another. We cling so tightly to those old clothes of deceit, trickery, judgment and harm instead of clothing ourselves with the new self that Paul describes— A new self, “which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its Creator.” A fresh identity, which is being bound in the unconditional and redemptive love of Christ Jesus.

I say it in my own house/and I say it on the street/I say it on a record and I say it on the beat/I paint it on the wall so everybody sees/when we all see justice/then we’ll all see peace.

In my house growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, several family members uttered the n-word quite often. Distinctions were made between black people who were the n-word and those who weren’t. The distinction was based on a person’s criminal activity, education, or economic status: “He’s not like other blacks.” “She speaks very well for a black person.” “That’s interesting, his voice sounded white on the phone.” “Another (n-word) shot somebody.”

1973 James Bond in "Live and Let Die" with Roger Moore and Gloria Hendry. From Google Images
1973 James Bond in “Live and Let Die” with Roger Moore and Gloria Hendry. From Google Images

I remember in 1986, when I was 10 years old and visiting my grandparents in Florida, the 70s blockbuster movie Live and Let Die was airing on syndicated TV. Starring Roger Moore as British spy James Bond and Gloria Hendry as double agent Rosie Carver, the film marked the first time a black woman was ever sexually involved with the white 007. When the romantic scenes appeared, my grandfather and grandmother openly expressed their disgust over James Bond kissing that “n-word” woman.

Flash forward more than 20 years to 2008, a time in which I naively believed I had escaped the prejudices of my upbringing and entering the post-racial society of the 21st century. We had just come to the Duluth area, and our white real estate agent was driving us around various neighborhoods in Gwinnett County to look for a home. As we were coming out of a house that we sorta liked, we noticed a black family living next door. The real estate agent looked at us and said, “Well, you don’t want to live here anyway.”

About a year later at our current home in Lilburn, Elizabeth was outside chatting with a couple of neighbors, both white, when an African-American woman drove by in a fancy sports car. She was in the neighborhood to see a million-dollar home that was for sale—a house and piece of property much swankier than the rest of the neighborhood. One neighbor scoffed and said to the other: “Don’t worry. They can’t afford a house like that.”

Racism these days is subtle, institutionalized, and implicit. It is often disguised as white concerns about crime, property values, and schools. In public—at schools, restaurants, shopping malls and football stadiums—black and whites co-exist without any trouble. Things are much different than they were 50 years ago. But sometimes in private, whether in our individual thoughts and attitudes or in one-on-one chats with other whites, subtle and implicit (and sometimes explicit) prejudice survives. I confess that for all the preaching I’ve done on race relations and issues of justice.

For all the admiration I’ve expressed in regards to the achievements of Dr. Martin Luther King, and other civil rights activists, I too have held (and still grip) many subtle prejudices toward blacks.

I’ve anxiously clicked the lock button on my car when I’ve seen a black man in casual clothes walking down the street, something I’ve never done when a white person has walked by my car. I’ve assumed that all black people in the projects are drug dealers, thieves and gang members, forgetting those decades of intense segregation, racism and white-flight to the suburbs that helped create slums and projects where its residents hardly have the means to escape. I’ve thought of a black person who acts like a jerk on TV as an n-word, but consider the white person demonstrating the same behavior to just be a jerk.

I’ve seen black people unknown to me sitting in the church’s coffee area and assumed they were poor and in need of financial assistance when actually they were professionals waiting for a meeting. Essentially, I’ve forgotten at times that I am one of many members of the Body of Christ who has the privilege of being part of the white majority. And for all of the talking that a lot of us do about equality and God’s love for all, it’s time to admit that many of us here and many in our society still have some prejudices towards blacks.

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from Google Images

It’s time to start confessing our prejudice, and it’s time to start talking about prejudice and racism with other whites, and most certainly people of color. It’s time to do so because, as Dr. King reminds us, we “can’t be silent about things that matter.” It’s time we start praying to God to forgive us our sins and show us a new way. It’s time today to shed those old clothes of sin and wear new clothes given to us by Christ.

They can try to divide us/They can try to increase/all the pain and suffering/But this is everybody’s street/There is just one love y’all/and there is just one beat/And when we all see justice/then we’ll all see peace.

The powers and principalities of this world can try to distract us from adhering to God’s call of us. Those loud and extreme voices in the media, the ones that come at us from the Left and the Right, can try to divide us. Try to tell us we are foolish for showing God’s love and working for God’s peace and justice. But we mustn’t let them. None of us must let them.

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,” says the apostle Paul, “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.”

I don’t have a 7-step plan for what white folks can do to be more loving and just toward people of color in our society. There’s no magic formula or ideal blue print.  As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, all that any of us in this world have is our hearts, enveloped by the clothes of Christ’s love. We must simply follow the beat of our hearts, practicing what Paul teaches and trying to change the world for the better.

For me, the best example of what it means to abide in love and peace might be the story of 12-year-old Devonte Hart and police Sgt. Bret Barnum of Portland, Oregon.[10] A few days after Thanksgiving, Devonte and his mother went to a Ferguson rally in their hometown of Portland, Oregon “with the intentionality of spreading love and kindness, and to remind (ALL) people that they matter in this world.” Standing alone in front of a police barricade, Hart held up a “Free Hugs” sign. As the rally proceeded, the young boy began to cry and that’s when Sgt. Barnum noticed him. The interaction was awkward at first, with the officer trying to make general chitchat with a distraught kid.

Photograph by John Nguyen, November 25, 2014
Photograph by John Nguyen, November 25, 2014

But then Sgt. Barnum asked Devonte why he was crying and the boy told him his concerns about the level of police brutality towards young black kids. The officer replied, “Yes. I know. I’m sorry. I’m sorry…can I have one of those free hugs?”

Barnum and Devonte’s example doesn’t solve all of our racial problems instantly.   But it’s a good start if we are to clothe ourselves in love and let peace dwell within us.     It’s the beginning of a new life for all people whom God has made, all whom are chosen, holy and beloved. Amen.

Hymn #543  “God Be The Love to Search and Keep Me” (Glory to God Hymnal)

A child in the congregation handed our head of staff this message after the worship service to give to me.
A child in the congregation handed our head of staff this message after the worship service to give to me.

Benediction (Benedictine Prayer, 1986):

May God bless you with discomfort At easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships so that you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger At injustice, oppression and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless you with tears To shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, starvation and war so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them, and to turn their pain into joy.

And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in the world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.

Amen.

…………………………………….

[1] http://www.rollingstone.com/music/premieres/hear-michael-frantis-powerful-song-for-peace-between-police-and-communities-20141217 [2] http://www.relix.com/news/detail/same_as_it_ever_was_start_today_michael_franti_on_grief_anger_and_utter_bewilderment_following_eric_garner_chokehold_case [3] http://gawker.com/unarmed-people-of-color-killed-by-police-1999-2014-1666672349 [4] http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/new-congress-mostly-male-white [5] But I Don’t See You As Asian: Curating Conversations About Race by Bruce Reyes-Chow, 2013 [6] http://www.cnn.com/2014/11/26/us/ferguson-racism-or-racial-bias/index.html [7] http://www.cnn.com/2015/01/02/us/foreman-police-race/index.html [8] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/09/06/incarceration-gap-between-whites-and-blacks-widens/ and http://www.naacp.org/pages/criminal-justice-fact-sheet [9] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/17/racial-disparity-drug-use_n_3941346.html [10] http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/ferguson-hug-between-protester-and-police-office-goes-viral and http://www.cbsnews.com/news/devonte-hart-hug-at-ferguson-rally-goes-viral/ and http://papertrail.co.nz/meet-devonte-little-boy-big-heart/

Open Hands, Take Your Cross, Love Another

believe-tattoo-design-inked
Believe tattoo. Google Images

A Sermon for Sunday August 31,  Exodus 3:1-8a, 10; Romans 12:9-10, 14-16, 21 and Matthew 16:21-24
Believe.

A small word with profound meaning: to have a firm religious faith, to accept something as true, genuine or real.

Believe.

A word used by people as a way of resisting oppressive and unjust systems or justifying oppression and injustice toward others.

Believe.

A word used to convey one’s religious and moral convictions and attitudes about God and life, which can birth goodness or create much harm.

Believe.

I believe. We believe.

I believe that, but you believe this.

We don’t believe what y’all believe.

Do you believe? Do you belieeeeve in the nameee of Jesussss?

Believing and claiming what you believe is an important part of religion. But believing is not the single most important component of religion.

I realize that might offend several of you and it’s understandable to think that what I’ve said is blasphemous.

For centuries human beings have been taught that it was our job, our sacred duty to believe and only believe and all would be ok.

That idea is at the heart of all our beloved stories and myths. There is a crisis and the hero (Superman, Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter) rises up to save the day and fixes everything!

This hero narrative is good movie popcorn fun but it has not practical application. History tells us over and over that there isn’t one hero that swoops in to save us all.

Yet our expectation and belief that a hero will save the day and repair a broken world in mere minutes remains deeply ingrained in our minds and hearts. We as human beings often place this expectation on our leaders and authority figures—politicians, police, pastors, and so on. And many self-identifying Christians certainly place this expectation and belief at the feet of Jesus.

It is common to hear some fellow Christians say, “Jesus saved. I’m saved (if I believe). We’re all good. No need to worry about the other stuff going on in the world. God will sort it out in time or maybe not. Either way, I’m saved and others need to be saved by accepting Jesus and that’s what matters.”

But Jesus doesn’t charge onto the scene like the mythical heroes of our culture, and with the wave of a hand or a show of super strength, end evil and suffering instantaneously.

The scriptures tell us that while God in Christ has/is/will transform the entire world in unconditional love, Jesus commands each one of us to follow and be a part of what God is doing in the world.

follow-image
“Follow” Artist Unknown. Google Images

Jesus says, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of people.”

Jesus says, “You give them something to eat.”

Jesus says, “Whenever you do for the least of these, you do also for me.”

Jesus says, “If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Jesus calls us to humbly and selflessly follow, to live like he did. Jesus’ actions inspire others to join in a movement toward God’s kingdom of love, mercy, peace and justice.

This movement narrative (as opposed to the hero one) underlines these ancient stories of the Bible, our own history and the greater over-arching story of God and humanity. It’s not about one hero saving the day but one person or group of people inspiring others to make the world a better place, to make God’s kingdom a reality in the here and now.

In the words of Margaret Mead, the famous American anthropologist: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Martin Luther King Jr., and Mother Theresa were champions of civil rights for blacks and the poor, respectively, and yet, they alone didn’t bring about complete change nor entirely fix the problem of racism and slavery. It was through the living out of Jesus’ command that they inspired others to take up the cause long after their deaths.

In today’s passage from Paul’s letter to the early church in Rome, the apostle gives instructions on how to live like Jesus, focusing not on what one must believe to be a disciple of Christ but on what one must do to be a Christian:

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor…. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly, do not claim to be wiser than you are…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Notice that Paul uses active verbs—be genuine, hold fast, love, outdo, bless, rejoice, weep, live, associate, and overcome.

Paul emphasizes that it’s not enough to simply make a belief statement or passively believing. Being a Christian, says Paul, is about putting what you believe into action. It’s about living out the good God wants us to do.

This past week, a video of a gay intervention of a 20-year-old college student in Rome, Georgia went viral. In the beginning of the conversation, the family of Daniel Ashley Pierce, told the young man that although they loved him, they believed his sexual orientation went against God’s Word. They further explained that if he continued to be gay, they would no longer support his education or allow him to live at home or come to visit. As the young man, who recorded the incident on his cell phone, struggled to understand his family’s motives, the stepmother became enraged. She yelled obscenities at Daniel and beat him while the grandmother cheered her on. Eventually the father pulled his wife away and then looks at his son and says exasperatedly, “You are a disgrace.”[1]

The family states in the video that they believe in God’s Word, but their actions clearly don’t show it. They aren’t living out God’s goodness.

A friend once told a story about his son who was having trouble behaving at school. The father got into the habit of telling his son each morning as he dropped him off for class, “Be good today, buddy.” Sometime later, it dawned on him how important those words were in a culture that often tells people, particularly children and youth: “Don’t be bad.”

Many Christians, like Daniel Pierce Ashley’s family, have reduced the religion to a list of don’t-screw-ups. Don’t cuss, don’t drink, don’t dance, don’t do this, and don’t be that. Don’t say or do anything wrong if you want to be a true Christian, go to heaven and find favor with God.

Although we have to take responsibility for the times we hurt God and neighbor through selfish choices, fretting over a list of don’t-screw-ups doesn’t advance God’s kingdom.

Paul reminds those who desire to follow Jesus that even when you fail, keep following God’s command to be genuine, hold fast, love, outdo, bless, rejoice, weep, live, associate, and overcome. Paul tells us that when there are problems, get out there and love.

Getting out there and loving others is hard. It’s much easier to miserably dwell on a list of don’t-screw-ups.

Following Jesus can be costly. We have to choose whether we will set our minds completely on human things or on divine things. We have to choose whether we will acquire success through status and material goods or love successfully without giving any thought to prestige and wealth. We have to choose whether we are going to pick up our crosses and follow Jesus or leave them on the ground to collect dust.

It’s tempting to do the latter, considering that the culture is opposed to the idea of selflessly loving and caring for everyone. The culture will immediately condemn those who carry their cross and follow the Divine Light who lifts up the suffering, binds the broken-hearted and blesses them with dignity.

Look at what happened to Jesus and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Martin Luther King Jr., and Oscar Romero and many others who, for God and God’s people, went against the culture of individualism, self-interests and preservation of the status quo, to claim love and grace for the poor, the stranger and oppressed.

Keep in mind that it is never noble to suffer or to strive for suffering, nevertheless we are sometimes called to suffer for God and to stand with those who are suffering, to “weep with those who weep,” and “associate with the lowly.” We are each called to deny ourselves and take up our crosses and follow Christ.

The question then becomes: What is our cross and what price are we willing to pay to ensure that all of God’s children are treated with the love poured out for them?

Another friend of mine who is studying to be a minister told me this weekend that our crosses to bear are the systematic injustices that occur all around us when we don’t place ourselves in communities unlike our own. She said

to work toward fighting the injustices of systemic racism, sexism, ageism, we have to listen to our brothers and sisters on the other end of those systemic issues. We must go into the communities like Ferguson and join hands, be in dialogue with our Jewish and Arab partners in faith to find commonality, create safe places for those among us dealing with prevalent but shamed mental health conditions.

More can certainly be added to the list. There is a world of hurt and God’s people, much like the Israelites who were enslaved to the Egyptians, are crying out. From cities in the U.S. to the Mexican border to Syria to Gaza to the Ukraine, the misery of God’s people are well known.

God hears their cries and then calls us to go and stand with the hurting—to bring them out of their suffering under oppressive systems. Are we ready, like Moses, to listen for the call of God, turn our heads and see where God lives in the gutters of the world?

Recently, a group of Presbyterian ministers in the state of Missouri, traveled to Ferguson to protest the institutionalized racism that became apparent to the nation following the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson.

Before leaving to join the protests, the Rev. Landon Whitsitt released a statement calling the PC(USA) to stand in solidarity with the people of Ferguson:

“We must as the possession of God…stand where the Lord stands, namely against the injustice of the wronged. … Sisters and Brothers, we must stand arm in arm with the people of Ferguson. Black bodies matter and our white bodies will signify that the killing of black bodies is unacceptable.”

As it was reported on the news and in people’s social media feeds, the most common way people protested in support of Brown was by raising their arms and chanting, “Hands up, don’t shoot!” In response, a group of supporters for Officer Wilson responded with “Shoot! Shoot! Shoot!”[2]

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Keep Calm meme. Artist Unknown. Google Images

It is quite an image for the mind and hear to grasp. In an attempt to humbly and selflessly follow Jesus, I would like to offer a third way of protesting and an invitation to practice a much different chant and gesture as we go out to stand with the suffering and face the unjust systems:

Open Hands, Take Your Cross, Love Another.

This we must believe and practice.

Jesus calls us to do nothing less.

In the name of the One whom we follow,

Amen.

Many thanks to David LaMotte who talked me through an outline of the three lectionary readings and largely inspired the direction of the sermon. I am grateful for his thoughts and insight as well as the story he shared about a mutual friend/colleague who got into habit of saying “Do good today, buddy” to his son. I am also grateful to Addie Domske, an aspring seminary student who I quote toward the end of the sermon and for insights from friends Jennifer Larson, Omayra Gonzalez-Mendez, Rachel Pence, Josh Stewart, and Stacey Tarrant.

[1] http://www.ajc.com/news/news/georgians-video-of-gay-intervention-goes-viral/nhB26/

[2] http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/obama-orders-review-policy-enables-police-military-equipment-article-1.1914610 and http://www.reviewjournal.com/columns-blogs/sherman-frederick/truth-doesn-t-fit-templates