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.

IMG_0061

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.

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….

Is Poverty Inevitable?

I’m a Star Trek fan. Yes, I admit it. I wouldn’t actually call myself a “Trekkie,” wouldn’t dare dress like Lieutenant Uhura or attend a Star Trek convention. But I’m a fan. I love to watch the tv series and movie reruns. My all-time favorite Star Trek quote is made by an alien, beautifully made of pure crystal. When the crew is finally able to decipher what the angry crystal being is saying, it calls the humans: “You ugly bags of mostly water.” I can see how a crystal alien would see us like that.

I like shows that help us to imagine the future. To do that you have to pay attention to what’s happening now and imagine how the now might become better, or worse. Many of the futuristic technical ideas on shows like Star Trek have become reality, like laser technology. Maybe one day we’ll say “Beam me up, Scottie” and get transported!

The reason I’m going on about Star Trek is that in the future envisioned by the writers of the show, there is no longer any poverty. There also isn’t any more war or any use for money, either. But the idea that at some point we could actually become such a progressive society that we could eliminate poverty is quite intriguing to me. Poverty seems to be so ingrained in the fabric of our society that most people don’t think about a future without it. Poverty just seems to be an inevitable fact of life.

Having come of age during the 60’s, I remember well as a young black girl how racism felt inevitable. In our suburb outside of Chicago, the African American children all were assigned to one school and we all lived within a few designated blocks. When a few of the families moved out of our area and had to attend “white” schools, we cried. I was called the “n” word more than a few times by people who didn’t like my skin color. I went to a summer camp and the white girls wouldn’t do activities with me. The “black” night at the skating rink was on Mondays. And so on…

Racial hatred was just a part of the way things were, and we learned to deal with it. It never occurred to me that things could change until segregation was challenged by Dr. King, the civil rights movement, and all those brave souls who stood up against the injustice of it all. I imagine that slavery must have felt inevitable like that, too, until brave souls saw it as an abomination and stood up against the injustice of it all.

We’re not all born with equal capabilities, but we are all born as beautiful children, all loved equally by God. For us as a people to believe that we should try to eliminate poverty, we have to embrace the idea that all people are beautiful children of God, all worthy of our true love. We have to believe that every child born has a right to live safely, to adequate medical care, and to an education that will nurture their gifts. We have to believe that gaining more and more material wealth for ourselves while others go hungry or don’t have a place to live is an abomination, as abhorrent and backwards as racial hatred and slavery.  We have to believe that poverty is a tragic waste of human resources and gifts that hold the potential to benefit us all.

To eliminate poverty we’ll need some brave souls to take the kind of radical actions that will make others pay attention and stand against the injustice of it all. Radical actions, kind of like Jesus taught us when he told us to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile and give to others whenever they ask. Would Jesus accept poverty as inevitable? Some people think so, because He said to the disciples “You will always have the poor with you.” That’s the topic of next week’s blog.