Reflections on the March on Washington 50th Anniversary

My husband Bill and I were involved in a number of the many activities that took place commemorating the 1963 March on Washington.  What a blessing to be here in the District of Columbia to participate.  Here are some snapshots:

Most Moving

On Friday the 23rd, we attended an event presented by The Mamie Till Mobley Memorial & Trayvon Martin Foundations, and it was called “Civil Rights, Human Wrongs, and the Charge for Youth Leadership.” It featured a film by Keith Beauchamp, “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till,” which had been updated to include a bit about the Trayvon Martin case, followed by a panel discussion with Emmett Till’s family and the parents of Trayvon Martin.

I am aware of how awful the murder of Emmett Till was, but it wasn’t until I saw the film, which took us through the ensuing trial and release of the murderers, that it really hit home to me how horrendous life was for black people living in the South in those days.  I thank my parents for moving from their home in Mississippi to raise us up in relatively safer northern Illinois.  Even though I experienced segregation and some hate growing up, it was nothing like the deep south. I was also moved by the strength of Emmett Till’s mother, for without her willingness to display the body of her son so brutally beaten and butchered, the murder would have passed by unnoticed by most of the rest of this country.

I am absolutely moved by the grace and strength of Mr. and Mrs. Martin and their younger son as they share the case of Trayvon’s murder with the world.  They have taken up the mantle just like Emmett Till’s mother, and have helped to make it clear to this country that laws like the Stand Your Ground Laws and the Stop and Frisk laws are tools that are used to target and brutalize people of color, especially our young men.

Most Inspirational

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Bill and I had decided we could not handle being out in the sun and on our feet from 8 am to 4 pm at the Saturday March for Jobs and Justice, so we waited until about 11 am to go.  I wasn’t sure if many people would attend–I just hoped there would be enough people to make a statement.  But even at that late time, we found the subway packed with people of all ages and races still on the way. Having to stand in line to get out of the subway moved me to tears.

On our way to the Lincoln Memorial, we saw a stream of people leaving, even though the crowd coming in was much larger.  Bill stopped to ask one woman why they were leaving, and the older woman said she’d been there since 6:30 am.  I’m convinced that there were more people there that day than could be counted, because the crowds were coming and going like that all day long.

I heard Eleanor Holmes Norton, who helped to organize the 1963 march, on a radio interview say that they had no idea how many people to expect when they planned that first march. Can you imagine how the organizers must have felt when they stood on the steps of the LIncoln Memorial and saw the great crowd of witnesses pouring in? The people have spoken!

Most Fun

On the way to the Lincoln Memorial in that first march, we found ourselves behind a group IMG_0174of United Auto Workers who were chanting and marching, so after a while we began to chant and march right along with them!  On the way back from the Lincoln Memorial, we were provided with some wonderfully jazzy music.  At one point, while waiting for the crowd to move forward, a white man in front of me began to kind of bounce, and another, older white man on the side started dancing, so I said “Let’s get it on” and started dancing, too, and so did a few of the other folks.  What fun!

Most thought-provoking

On Tuesday, we went to a panel discussion hosted by the Methodist Federation for Social Action entitled “Climate of Suspicion: The Criminalization of Race in America.” One of the panelists was Reverend Gil Caldwell, a good friend of Bill’s.  The discussion centered around the mass incarceration of people of color, so you know Bill and I were right at home.  Rev. Caldwell provided the necessary theological reflections for people of faith, Charles Thornton discussed his experience as a youth with no guidance, ending up in prison for 10 years for distributing an illegal drug before he was old enough to make a life for himself, and Kara Dansky, senior counsel at the ACLU, provided statistics and some information on actions.  This was an excellent panel, but what was most thought-provoking for me was our conversation with some of the other people there who were members of the MFSA.

We ate with a small group of them after the discussion before heading over to Asbury United Methodist church for a worship service.  We shared common concerns, with Gil helping to keep us focused on the larger moral, cultural and theological pictures.  One thought that came to me as we talked about greed being such a major cause of injustice is that maybe we ought to start being more intentional about teaching our children a better attitude towards money and materialism. Someone at that table suggested that the church is the place where that should happen.

I woke up the next morning, on the day of the commemorative march, with my mind on a phrase from our Negro National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (which had been sung several times throughout the various events):  “lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee.” Has the Christian church in the U.S. become drunk with the wine of materialism and greed without realizing it?  Food for thought.

Most Uplifting

We attended the Interfaith Service at Shiloh Baptist on Thursday morning before heading out to the commemorative march.  I was so happy to be there in a church packed with people of different faiths, ages and races, hearing from the march leaders and  blessed with star performances by the Shiloh Baptist Choir, the Children of the Gospel Choir, the Voices of Freedom, Lydia and Latrice Pace (who rocked the house with their song “There’s a King in You”) and the fantastic Angella Christie, who praised God on the saxophone in her rendition of “Total Praise” (If you’ve never heard of her, you ought to check her out).

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The discussion between Rev. Dr. Otis Moss, Jr. and his son, Rev. Dr. Otis Moss, III was absolutely wonderful!  The father passed the torch on to the son, symbolically climbing up stairs towards justice.  Those on the journey haven’t got to the top of the stairs, but the older ones have gone as high as they can climb. They must stop at their landing, having done much to break the bonds of racism and hatred, but now it is time for the younger leaders to move on up the stairs from that landing into the direction the stairs are leading today:  voting registration laws, stand your ground laws, mass incarceration of our youth, public school funding….you know the list.  You can see the whole of this wonderful service by clicking here.

Most Inspirational (part 2)

To our surprise again, the March on Thursday the 28th was just as packed as the first, even though the threat of rain pervaded the day. It was so packed that we decided not to wait the hours it would have taken to get through the security checkpoint.  We made our statement by attending for a while, then we went back home to watch our President’s Speech on TV. While he was inspiring, as usual, I had hoped he would provide some concrete plans or legislation that would help deal with the issues we’re facing.  But the more I thought about what he said, the more I got what he was saying.  He’s telling us that it’s up to us to make the difference that we need to make.  It’s up to the people to not only march, but to take the necessary action to make change happen, like Dr. King and the other civil rights leaders did in 1963.

We’ve spoken with our feet.  Now we need to speak through our email and internet presence, through our letters and phone calls to federal, state and local representatives, through our community activities and our continued engagement with each other. Now we must speak truth to move the “powers that be” to make this wonderful country live up to it’s Declaration: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Amen.

Mockery

I’m spending the week in Ocean Park, Maine, where I preached on Sunday and am leading a morning discussion this week. As the name indicates, Ocean Park is right on the ocean, and I’m blessed to have the opportunity to enjoy some of the most beautiful beach we have on the East Coast.  There’s something about the place where the vast and fluid ocean meets, caresses, rhythmically slaps against the solid and steady earth that speaks to my spirit.  Especially in the early morning dawn.  I wanted to share with you a video I made of dawn over the beach at Ocean Park, so you can hear the sound of the waves and the birds, and through the whole scene, to hear God speaking.  But the file was too large to incorporate into this blog, and I don’t know another way to do it.  So I’m sharing this picture and asking you to use your imagination.

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It truly is peaceful and beautiful.  Just like God.

I felt the beauty of God’s creation like that most poignantly when I was in Ghana, high on a cliff looking out on the Atlantic, thousands of miles from here, from the other direction.  The view was wondrously beautiful. I was in a large castle-like building.  In the massive building was a torture chamber where slaves were chained, beaten, held in brutal captivity, then sent out in ships from the door in that place, which the slaves knew as “the door of no return.”

Can you imagine so much heart wrenching, evil horror taking place amid such beauty, the beauty that God created  for us out of God’s great love? I couldn’t help but cry at the thought of the agony my ancestors went through at the hands of horribly brutal people, many who claimed to believe in the God of creation.

I felt that same paradox here in Ocean Park Maine, as I was trying to deal with my broken heart over the injustice of the decision that set free as “innocent” the man who shot Trayvon Martin.  It still hurts.  And it was all done under the rubric of the legal system, which is designed by humans to implement justice. What a mockery. What a mockery of the God of justice.

I think those jurors, if they were being honest, would have come to a different conclusion without the 29 pages of jury instructions and the convoluted efforts of the defense to make what seems right into something much more complicated.  Without the complications of the law, they would have seen Trayvon as an innocent, unarmed young person, going on his way, minding his own business.  They would have seen Zimmerman as the aggressor, armed with a dangerous weapon, the one who disobeyed police orders not to follow. They would have recognized that if Zimmerman had not followed Trayvon, Trayvon would be alive.  They would have had enough common sense to understand that if Zimmerman had not gotten out of his vehicle and come up from behind close enough to Trayvon to make Trayvon feel threatened, there would have been no altercation.  The jury would have seen that Trayvon is dead, slaughtered at the hands of a man who went against the authorities, whether or not it was was Zimmerman’s initial intention to kill him, and whether or not Zimmerman may have feared for his own life. I thought they would at least have had the common sense to conclude that Zimmeran did in fact initiate the acts that resulted in him killing an innocent and unarmed man–manslaughter.

They were confused, at best. And I’m sure, as are most folks in this world who know anything about how this nation works, that if Trayvon had been white and Zimmerman black, Zimmerman would have been arrested immediately and thrown under the jail.  Isn’t that what happened in the case of the black woman in Florida who was sentenced to prison after trying to use the same law to justify her shooting into the air and not killing anybody? The jury had to be confused, unless they were bribed, because the decision doesn’t make any sense.  And I can’t rule bribery out, either, because there was money behind Zimmerman that I can’t figure out. Maybe some of you know more about the money that financed this man’s defense than I do.

My heart was crying when I talked to God at dawn that beautiful morning, looking out over the Atlantic Ocean. Crying over the injustice of it all.  Crying over such horror committed amid such beauty.  Crying over such evil that exists in the hearts of people, who wrap the evil up and try to hide it with good words like justice, law and order, patriotism, and yes, even sometimes Christianity.  I felt like I could see all the way across to Ghana, and realized that the horror has not really ended for us.

God’s justice will not be mocked.

As a Black woman, the result of this fiasco of a trial has taken me across a tipping point. This is the fourth slap in my face. The first slap I felt was from the efforts of state officials in Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Virginia,Texas and others to wrench away the votes of mostly Black and Hispanic people during the last two Presidential elections. Ouch!  The second was the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act, which has refueled those efforts to take away our votes. Ouch! The third is the continued effort by white people to do away with affirmative action, claiming that they, the ones with all of the power on their side, are being discriminated against by laws that were designed to help ameliorate the hundreds of years of slavery, oppression, and injustice that our people have faced and still face. Ouch! Four slaps ought to wake us up.  (I wish Clarence Thomas could feel these slaps. I’m convinced that he’s numbed by his own sense of self-accomplishment.  Maybe he doesn’t realize that it is his numbness (antagonism?) to his people that made him the right choice to be maneuvered into place by those who want that numbness in high places–or maybe he does realize that, I don’t know.)

So instead of hearing peace in the gentle, rhythmic slapping of the waves on the shore this week, I heard a call to action.  I heard God proclaiming that God will not be mocked, that God’s justice should flow down like a river and God’s righteousness should be like a mighty stream. Justice should not be tripped up by pages and pages of jury instructions or political shenanigans that try to make right seem wrong and wrong seem right.

It’s time to wake up and get busy.  It’s time to unite and stand up and fight back.  It’s time to renew our commitment to and membership in the NAACP.  It’s time to again march on Washington, this time united with people of all colors and faiths who know true justice when they see it.  It’s time to organize and participate in organizations that will speak, with the power of the people behind them, to those in  powerful positions. It’s time to change laws and lawmaking, time to shore up the voting rights act, time to reclaim the need for Affirmative Action more than ever.   Are you with me?

 

 

On Being Black American

When I was serving as National Organizer at Call to Renewal, an affiliate organization of Sojourners that was created to organize religious leaders around poverty and race issues, I wrote an article published in Sojourner’s magazine entitled “Because We Are Black.”  I had almost forgotten about it;  I ran across it while doing some research.  The article shares some of my thoughts on what it means to be Black in America, stemming from the tragic slaughtering of respected coach Ricky Byrdsong in a suburb of Chicago by Benjamin Smith, a racist on a rampage the weekend of July 4, 1999.

Here’s the link to the article: http://sojo.net/magazine/1999/09/simply-because-we-are-black. (I was Alice J. Burnette Davis then…I’m happily Alice Burnette Greene now.)

I’m sharing it with you on this weekend of July 4, 2013, because much has changed, and yet so much remains the same.  One of the questions I raised then has been answered:  Having a Black president is no longer a novel idea–and our President has an African name, to boot!  (I admit that I was one of those very many people who said “I never thought this would happen in my lifetime.”)

When President Obama was elected I felt for the first time like I could stand with pride  and sing “The Star Spangled Banner,” and really mean it.  That didn’t last too long. Yes, I understood completely the feeling shared so honestly by our First Lady when then Senator Obama received the Democratic nomination.  But her honesty about being proud to be an American for the first time was repeatedly attacked, quite viciously.  Those early attacks on her should have helped us to understand that while this country had met a great milestone, many Americans, especially those who claim to be the most patriotic, have little understanding of what it means to be Black in America.  And I believe they don’t really want to understand because it would burst their delusional belief that this is the greatest country in the world.

Don’t get me wrong, I do believe the United States is a great country, and the Democracy created here is to be applauded.  But African Americans know that this country has not lived up to the high morality of its beautifully crafted Declaration of Independence:  We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it....

All of the hateful shenanigans, the polarized and obstructive political maneuverings, the right-wing angst and the hate mongering that has surrounded President Obama — in his own country-–  help us to understand that we are still Blacks in a country that many (most?) think of as White.  And in order to keep it that way, they are still trying to strip away our right to be counted among the “governed,” by diluting our voting power.  To be Black in America, we must recognize that racism is still real and quite alive here. Putting a Black man in a white house hasn’t changed the need for us to identify ourselves as African Americans rather than simply Americans.

Here’s the article I wrote in1999.  Please read it and let me know what you think by clicking the little balloon at the top of this post to post your comments:

Over the July 4 weekend, Benjamin Smith went on a violent, vicious killing rampage that targeted minorities. He drove around Illinois and Indiana, killing a black man and an Asian American and wounding eight others, including several Jews. As I talk to other African Americans about this tragedy, we verbalize some basic, deeply felt understandings that are a part of our reality simply because we are black and in America. These basic truths are understood as a result of our more than 400 years of being black in America. No other group in America shares the legacy of racial hatred that is so deeply felt in our souls.

One truth that African Americans understand is that color is always there. And it is always a factor, particularly when we interact with unfamiliar people. But even with persons we know well, race is always a factor. Consciously or not, we evaluate others’ racial views by their actions toward us. Did that sales clerk really overlook me? Was that negative remark by my new boss based on her bias? Can this person deal with the fact that I’m his supervisor? Events like Benjamin Smith’s racist rampage and the growth of the racist World Church of the Creator let us know that what is often seen as our paranoia or “oversensitivity” is in reality a natural and necessary defense mechanism.

A second truth that grounds African Americans is that we are strangers in our own land. We are born here, yet we are the “other.” We are the “minority,” and the “majority” rules. We must continually highlight ourselves and celebrate our worthiness because our value as a people is constantly challenged by our position on the margin of this society. Some of us deny America as our cultural heritage and adopt African culture and styles. Others try very hard to “melt” into the all-American lifestyle. Either reaction has as its roots a continual sense of discomfort—a feeling of not quite being at home in our homeland. Dare we move into a small town in North Dakota? Can we really be accepted as leaders of major corporations based on merit alone? How long will it be before the thought of a black president is not a novel idea?

This feeling of being the “other” is not so much fear of the other race, like a white person may feel walking through a black neighborhood. It is more a constant, discomforting knowledge that maybe we should feel fear. We can never really know what to expect. Coach Ricky Byrdsong was shot in his own neighborhood, where he should have been able to feel safe. We are always aware that the hateful racist act may come from anyone at any time and in any place, just because we are black.

A third truth is that because color is always a factor, and because our “otherness” is always felt, we are brought together in ways that others will not understand. Our color and our otherness serve to unite us at a very basic level across economic, religious, and social differences. There is a connection between a black high-powered attorney and the black woman who cleans his office that they both understand on some level, whether they are open about it or not. Those of us who are Christians feel this connection as a part of our Christian walk. We understand that Christ is on our side, the side of the marginalized, and he gives us strength to stand up for justice and righteousness for our people and for others who are in the margins as well.

When vicious acts like Benjamin Smith’s bring racism into the public arena for discussion, African Americans are reminded that we are neither paranoid nor oversensitive about our place in this country. Our antennae must be up for racism, whether it is the subtle racism in the workplace that is so hard to define or the blatant, violent, and evil act that kills us simply because we are black.

Seeing Hope in the Voting Rights Act Setback

This week I was going to turn to a message of hope. I was going to let you know about some of the hopeful things I’ve seen recently on the school-to-prison-drug war pipeline issue.  I was going to share about recently meeting a few elderly people who were marching in boycott outside of a local Wells Fargo bank, because Wells Fargo is a major financier ($100 million of stock) of GEO group, one of the private prison owners in North Carolina, where many D.C. Prisoners and immigration detainees are sent. Check out the website: www.wellsfargoboycott.com. I was going to share about a the recent debut of a new film produced by the South Jersey Theater Ensemble, titled “Don’t Throw Me Away” (in which my husband Bill plays  a role).  It’s about the trend in New Jersey, just like in so many other states, to spend more on prisons and less on supporting our kids in schools.  (More information about this great little film, later). I was going to let you know that the American Baptist denomination invited Michelle Alexander, the author of  The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, a book sharing the concern for the mass incarceration of our children, to be a speaker at their biennial gathering, so this concern could be shared with thousands of American Baptists.

I was going to share a recent article by Ariana Huffington in the Huffington Post that highlights a new film “How to Make Money Selling Drugs,” which castigates the War on Drugs. Here’s a tidbit to encourage you to read the article, which also highlights the history of the Huffington Post challenging the war on drugs: “That’s why it’s so important that we all lend our voices to a conversation that can reach Washington and finally overwhelm the entrenched forces that keep this disastrous war — a war not on drugs but on our people — going year after devastating year.”

That quote captures what I was ready to focus on, the need to organize so that we can move from conversation to action in order to make this thing right. From these and other initiatives that I’ve shared with you (See my March 14 Post: A Must See, the March 21 post:  A Stellar Model for Action, websites like The Sentencing Project and books like Michelle Alexander’s, mentioned above), I believe that God is sending prophetic voices to speak truth that needs to be heard in powerful places, and I think that the time is ripe to make change happen.

But I now have to step back.

All of us who seek justice for our children have been pushed back 40 years, to the time when our government enacted one of the most important pieces of legislation to help our people live free, survive and try to thrive in this land where our ancestors were brought as slaves.  The Supreme Court of the United States knocked down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, the section that required states (and some counties) with a history of voting rights violations, mostly in the south, to get approval from the Federal government before they made any changes to how elections were run.  This provision is what gave substance to our demand for civil rights, and it worked well.  But the Supremes decided that the states in the South no longer had a problem with race and voting, and sent the Voting Rights Act back to Congress to rework the provision to adjust to modern times. Click here for a good article about what the Supreme Court did with the Voting Rights Act.

The failure is also in the Congress, which had been warned in an earlier opinion that continuing to rely on 40-year old data to justify the monitoring of those states was not going to last forever.  But can we expect any more from this Congress?  Can we expect them to do what would be the right thing, to evaluate the purposes behind all of the recent gerrymandering and restrictive voting laws that states are enacting in order to restructure Section 5 to make it work for the time we live in now? That doesn’t seem to be likely, at all.

You see, we need to have people in Congress and in the our state legislative bodies who will represent our views on things like the War on Drugs.  If those who create the voting rules work it out so that we no longer have a representative voice, the only thing left for us to do is to go back to the streets, boycott, March on Washington, etc.  Which is what worked 40 years ago.  (I guess that’s why so many of us really empathized with the recent Occupy Movement.) So now we face a more basic problem–we must protect our ability to  attack problems in the political arena. Now we have to step back and focus on what’s most important.  Makes you wanna holler!  Makes me wanna cry. But we have to do it.

And there is always hope.  God sometimes sends us into difficult situations to move us into the new vision that God has for us.  Just this morning I found an article by Christine Pelosi entitled “We Have No Civil Rights without Voting Rights,” which makes the connection between the importance of the Voting Rights Act, the filibuster by Texas Senator Wendy Davis and the LGBT win on DOMA.  The more people understand the importance of what has happened with the Voting Rights Act, the sooner we’ll be able to make sure that this crucial law is rejuvenated, so that states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, which were not under the provision of the Act, as well as states like Texas and of course, Florida, don’t get away with recent restrictive voting laws designed to keep their favored party–and policies– in control. We must push Congress to do what is right.

As I once heard a preacher say, “A setback is just a setup for a comeback.” With hope, all things are possible. And with faith and hard work we can make this happen, just like we elected President Obama for a 2nd term.

 

 

Puzzling

I like it when puzzle pieces come together.  I’m one of those people who will sit up through the night trying to get the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle to gather in completion.  When the pieces come together, the picture becomes clear, and being able to see the puzzle’s hidden picture provides a great deal of satisfaction.

Steven Hawkins, the  executive vice president and chief program officer of the NAACP (who just yesterday was announced as having been selected to become the next executive director of Amnesty International) wrote a December 2010 article for an online magazine, The American Prospect entitled “Education vs. Incarceration.”  [Just in case you need to know, you can click on the green print to reach to the sites mentioned.] Mr. Hawkins provided some important information in that article to support some of the things I’ve been saying (or rather ranting about) in this blog about the importance of providing more financial support to educate the poorest of our children.

He provides information to document that most states are increasing spending for prisons and decreasing spending for schools. His premise is stated here: “Since 1980, the U.S. prison population has grown exponentially, expanding from approximately 500,000 to 2.3 million people in just three decades. … We spend almost $70 billion annually to place adults in prison and jails, to confine youth in detention centers, and to supervise 7.3 million individuals on probation and parole. Indeed, confinement costs have claimed an increasing share of state and local government spending. This trend has starved essential social programs — most notably education.” He reports:  “In 33 of 50 states, corrections-related costs made up a larger proportion of the general fund than in the previous fiscal year, while spending on K-12 and higher education decreased.”

That’s one piece of the puzzle.  Another piece into which it fits is the connection between the increased spending for prisons and the failure of schools in poorer neighborhoods:  “NAACP research shows that …the lowest-performing schools tend to be in the areas where incarceration rates are the highest.” He then predicts: “When future budget years arrive… and states and counties try to balance their books without the assistance of the federal stimulus, young people will experience more of the same: school closings, teacher layoffs, diminished after-school programs, and rising tuition at colleges and universities. All of this will happen while prison spending grows.”

Isn’t that what we’re seeing now, in the recent reports of battles over school closings in Philadelphia, Washington, DC and Chicago? Isn’t that the picture we’re seeing as we look at skyrocketing costs of higher education? Dr. Hawkins concludes from putting these pieces of the puzzle together:  “If states were to properly invest in reopening schools, keeping quality teachers, maintaining sensible classroom sizes, and sustaining the affordability of higher education, it’s quite possible — particularly for economic crimes like low-level drug dealing — we would not need to imprison so many people and could stop sinking our valuable taxpayer dollars into an investment that has demonstrated scant return.”

Is the picture of this puzzle becoming clearer for you now?  I hope so.  In order to help those who need it the most, children from poor and low-income families (i.e., “the least of these” according to Jesus in Matthew 25), we must provide them with strong education, beginning with pre-school, and affordable higher education.  Yet, instead of doing that, they’re closing down the schools in the neighborhoods where most of the least of these live and, through the sequestration, cutting back on services to help them.  We see the picture of that puzzle described by Mr. Hawkins coming together, right now.

So the question for us Christians is who will help the least of these? The least of these are those who need a hand up so they can make it in today’s system, but the political climate instead approaches them with a fist.  The least of these are children who are able to do better if they are helped, but those who have the ability to help them continue to engage in practices that instead make them fodder for the prison system. If we do nothing, we are the ones who help keep together this puzzle that shows a clear disregard for serving the least of these, who, in case you didn’t read the passage, are Jesus.

 

Inviting Culture Shock

Up until a few years ago I served as Pastor of Irving Park Baptist Church, a small mostly White and aging multicultural congregation on the north side of Chicago.  I love that church.  The people are wonderfully open to trying new things and embracing change.  To be honest, not everybody liked change.  But enough of them were willing to try new things to make change happen– like calling me, an African American woman, as their pastor, and inviting a highly gifted pony-tailed guitarist to serve as their music director.

There is one change this church went through that will always keep them close to my heart.  As with most changes, it was difficult for them at first.  But this effort truly changed the church, I believe for the better. It all had to do with a children’s home down the street from the church.  It’s a home for children who’ve been removed from their families for safety reasons.  Some of these children may eventually return to their families, some are adopted, and some stay at the home until they reach 18 and come out of the foster care system.

The thing about these kids is that most of them are Black.  Irving Park is a predominantly White neighborhood that has recently gentrified and is now also predominantly well to do. Some of the members of Irving Park Baptist say that they can’t afford to live in the neighborhood anymore.  The kids at the home clearly stand out there, and are known to some in the neighborhood as “those” kids from the home, without any further identification other than their skin color.

At my instigation, the church reached out to the home to invite the kids to participate in activities we planned for the neighborhood, like vacation bible school, Martin Luther King Day celebrations and outdoor family fun festivities.  The home didn’t respond for a couple of years, until I finally made contact with one of the counselors who came over to the church to talk with me about the kids. She thought that the kids might be difficult for the church to handle, that they were rough and some had “issues.”

And while she told me this, I knew she was challenging me, and the church, to make sure the church would be a safe place to bring these kids, who she loved deeply.  She wanted to make sure they didn’t get hurt.  Like other foster kids, the one thing most of them wanted above all else was to be able to go home to a safe and secure place, to have a loving and healthy family.  The last thing they needed was to be treated like outsiders, like much of the rest of the neighborhood treated them.

So we planned to bring the kids over for a Saturday Fun Fest, just for them.  Several of the women of the church had taught Sunday School for years, some of them had been teachers, many had worked with kids in various capacities, and a couple of them had worked with handicapped children. So they got ready, planning arts and crafts projects and songs to sing, food to eat and a time of bible study.

When the kids arrived about 1/2 hour late, accompanied by their counselors (always), we were shocked.  We had planned for children who we thought would be mostly grade schoolers.  These kids were mostly junior high and high schoolers, and much more mature than we expected.  These kids were not like the children the women were accustomed to working with.  They were from a different culture, a different place, a place that these women did not know.

It was truly culture shock.  One young woman who had planned the arts and crafts said she was surprised that most of the kids were bigger than she was.  So we adapted. I don’t remember how, but we did. We talked together after the experience, and the church wanted to continue to have the monthly Saturday sessions for these kids.

That was a key point in my relationship with the church.  They wanted to try.  They were willing to stretch themselves because they knew that these kids needed more love in their lives, and they wanted to help make that happen.

A group of us worked hard together to make sure that the activities were more age-appropriate.  We planned every minute out with things for them to do.  For a few months it felt like hard work, until we began to get to know the kids better.  After a while, we figured out that they were happy just to come, to be there with us, to “chillax” (for those of you who don’t get that, it means to both chill and relax) away from the home.  We found it more fulfilling to sometimes just to talk with the kids, to listen to their stories, to get to know them as kids, just kids.

And sometimes it didn’t go as planned.  Sometimes one of the the kids would get in trouble with the counselors and that made us all uncomfortable.  Sometimes they didn’t show up, or were late, or we got our signals crossed about something.  But the church kept on inviting them, and they kept on coming.

Over the years, the relationship deepened, and the kids responded to the church in some very positive ways..  More on this next week….

Who Profits From Imprisoning our Children?

 

Just today I received an email with this link to a Youtube video showing a street fight in my home town, Maywood, Illinois: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oXhXmWDAeaY Associated with that link are links to other street fights.  I didn’t want to watch them, but apparently videotaping street fights and posting them is a thing with some people.

I couldn’t help but wonder what will be the future for these young people.  And I couldn’t help but wonder how they got to be like that.  Last week’s blog  (The Victims of Poverty) was about how tough it is to grow up healthy in impoverished neighborhoods. No matter how much these kids may celebrate their street gang lifestyle, it’s not healthy.  They are likely to end up in prison, having babies they can’t take care of, and dying too soon. And they won’t know how stupid it is for them to waste their lives like that until it’s too late.

There is a culture around them that encourages the gangster lifestyle.  This culture includes people who they don’t see, but who profit from their foolishness.  These are people who’ve invested in keeping the gangster lifestyle alive, an underground network of support for them, in a sense.  Like those who profit from drug sales.  I’m not talking about the sellers on the street, or even the local drug lords.  I’m talking about the ones who make the real money, from the producers to the shippers. I don’t know enough about how it actually happens to speak with authority on it, but I think it’s common knowledge that if there were not large profits being made by those who produce and ship the drugs into the neighborhoods, the drugs wouldn’t be on the street.

Yet, the “War on Drugs” has focused mainly on arresting and imprisoning the end users and local suppliers, with a special focus on those who live in poor and Black neighborhoods.  In an op-ed article for Reuters entitled “The US Drug War and Racial Disparities,”  Bernd Debusmay shared this common knowledge:   “African-Americans make up around 12 percent of the U.S. population, account for 33.6 percent of drug arrests and 37 percent of state prison inmates serving time for drug offenses.” A Human Rights Watch report  on drug arrests and race analyzed data relating to drug arrests and prison admission, concluding that in 2003 “…blacks are 10.1 times more likely than whites to be sent to prison for drug offenses.” This has been consistent over the years, and our prison population has consequently exploded.

The music industry has also profited from the gangster lifestyle. It is well documented that the music industry has historically been involved with the mob.  I don’t know that much about it, but it is also clear that the mob mentality is what has fueled the success of the infiltration of rap music with gangster mentality. And those who profit from gangster rap include more than the gangsters like Tupac, Eazy-E and Biggie Smalls, who are likely all multi-millionaires.  The really big money makers include the recording companies and agents and others who’ve been involved in the music industry much longer than the gangsters.

There is a post going around the internet that someone who claims to have been a leader in the music industry was invited to a secret meeting by some investors in private prisons. In that meeting the plan was pushed to promote gangster rap in order to popularize criminal activity and thus create a need for more privatized prisons.  You can read the whole post here. Some debunk this theory, such as Michael Raine of the Huffington Post in “Gangsta Rap Conspiracy Theory Goes Gangbustas”.

Could it be true?  I wouldn’t be surprised, because of the money involved. And because the prison industry is in fact profiting from the gangster mentality.  Bernd Debusmay, in the above-referenced article on the Drug War and racial disparities, recognized that one of the difficult problems in attempting to reduce the number of people being imprisoned is the rise of the private prison system:  “The biggest obstacles for change are entrenched interests. By some estimates, getting the prison population back to where it was (in terms of percentage of the overall population) before the drug war began would cost the jobs of at least a million people working for the criminal justice system. Not to forget the damage reduced incarceration would do to the flourishing private prison industry.”

In my home state, the new prisons–although not yet privatized– are located downstate, far from where most of the prisoners come, and in a locale where the prison industry is one of the largest employers. The political will to lose those kind of jobs will be hard to find downstate, especially when it’s not their children who are being imprisoned. I sure hope that’s not the fate of the kids in that street fight.

With those kind of entrenched interests, it’s easy to see why imprisoning so many of our children has not received the attention it should in the highest levels of our justice system.  It’s easy to understand why it’s not one of the issues argued in political debates.   Isaiah tells us that God is displeased when  “justice is driven back, and righteousness stands at a distance; truth has stumbled in the streets, and honesty cannot enter” (Isaiah 59:14), and that “God was appalled that there was no one to intervene.” (59:16).  Justice is failing our children, and truth is not being spoken on their behalf.  We need the prophetic voice of the Church to speak this truth to power until they listen and act.

A good source for more information on racial disparities in our system of justice: The Sentencing Project.  And you might want to read The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, a civil rights lawyer.