The New Look of Faith

Okay.  I’m about to show my age again….I remember when I was a child, how the women
wore white gloves and hats to church.  And on Easter, oh my!  All the children got brand new clothes, even down to our socks.  We wore our Easter bonnets proudly.

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You remember the song “The Easter Parade?”  It really was like that.

Church was different in my parent’s time.  Now that I’m a grandparent, I know that the church I became comfortable in, with lots of gospel music and social activities, seems old to many of the Millennials and the Gen X’s.

One constant about Church is that it changes, which, I believe, reflects God’s movement through human generations.  These changes happen usually with a lot of kicking and screaming,  especially over the music, but churches will change.  Each generation has it’s own way of reflecting belief and faith in God.

Many of you know that more Americans claim to be unchurched now than at any time in our history, and this is especially true of the 20-30 year age range. From a 2010 study done by the Pew Foundation: “Millennials are significantly more unaffiliated [with a faith tradition] than members of Generation X were at a comparable point in their life cycle (20% in the late 1990s) and twice as unaffiliated as Baby Boomers were as young adults (13% in the late 1970s).”

But that does not mean that they do not have some expectation of what it means to be Christian. Phyllis Tickle, in her book The Great Emergence:  How Christianity is Changing and Why, identifies some of the new ways these younger generations are reflecting faith:  “…the new faithful began to meet among themselves and hold worship services among and with those of like spirit.  The house church movement began and then quietly boomed, as did such outre things as pub theology and bowling alley masses.  In time, of course, some of these gatherings would grow into nondenominational churches.  …. Other gatherings of emergents have no site at all and roam from public park to football stadium to Seventh-day Adventist churches to high school gyms, as the case may be in any given week.  Some others, from time to time, fall heir, for a song, to old and abandoned church buildings which they occupy but feel only slight need to ‘fix up’ in the traditional sense.  All, however, share one shining characteristic: they are incarnational.  Not only is Jesus of Nazareth incarnate God, but Christian worship must be incarnate as well.  It must involve the body in all its senses and take place among people, all of whom are embraced equally and as children of God.”

This new Emergent Church is, according to Dr. Tickle, the next great movement in the church, equal to The Great Reformation (when the Protestant church broke from the Catholic Church) and the Great Schism (when the Eastern Orthodox Church broke from the Roman Catholic Church). The thing about these great changes is that they do not destroy the previous form of faith, but they do create a vibrant and new way of living out faith.

What does this new way of living out faith look like? According to Wikipedia: “Members of the [Emergence] movement often place a high value on good works or social activism, including missional living … [S]ome in the emerging church believe it is necessary to deconstruct modern Christian dogma. One way this happens is by engaging in dialogue, rather than proclaiming a predigested message, believing that this leads people to Jesus through the Holy Spirit on their own terms. Many in the movement embrace the missiology that drives the movement in an effort to be like Christ and make disciples by being a good example. The emerging church movement contains a great diversity in beliefs and practices, although some have adopted a preoccupation with sacred rituals, good works, and political and social activism.”

I had the privilege of meeting with a few folks last week to talk about some ways the young generation of African Americans are drawn to faith. Two young ministers gave us these insights about this generation: They do not want to be judged, but accepted and challenged.  They want to feel comfortable, to be able to come as they are (certainly not having to dress up to show up). They prefer the services to be less regimented, more casual, with opportunities to engage in dialogue.  They may be biblically illiterate, but are inclined to be involved in helping the poor and addressing social issues. Use of social media would be important to reach out to them.

The thing for me is that I like what they like–except the biblically illiterate part. So I guess I’m not that old after all! I have great faith in the movement from regimented and dogmatic religion to being involved in discussion and service for Christ.  I do believe this generation is leading all of us in a good direction.

They are our children, let’s help them lead the way.

 

 

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.

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.

 

 

More Puzzling

In last week’s post I reported on a 2010 article I found by Steven Hawkins on The American Prospect website entitled “Education vs. Incarceration.”  Mr. Hawkins drew the connection between increased state spending for prison systems and the failure of inner city schools, and he predicted the school closings and reduction of support for poor children that we are seeing now.  Fast-forward to a May 2013 article in The American Prospect entitled Children of the Great Collapse, by Jared Bernstein, an economist and senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. He was formerly chief economist to Vice President Joe Biden and a member of President Barack Obama’s economics team. Dr. Bernstein provides an extensive and informative report elucidating the economic benefits provided by the Obama Administration’s Federal Recovery Act, and how the success of that effort is now being undercut by a mean-spirited (my term) political climate that claims to be based on reducing deficits.

Dr. Bernstein explains: “The bad news is that most of the Recovery Act’s outlays have now been spent, and pressure to reduce deficits leaves other spending on children and families under assault.” He analyzes what this means to the people who need help the most:  “….the data make a solid case that the policies we’ve put in place over the years…..worked well. But when you combine this perhaps under appreciated information with the well-known long-term stagnation of middle- and low-income working families’ incomes, we end up with the anomaly: A lot of folks get some insulation from the downturn but stagnate in the upturn.”

Here is where the puzzle pieces provided by these two articles come together. Dr. Bernstein concludes his report by wrestling with the question “What types of measures might help give families and kids a fighting chance at claiming more of the economy’s growth?”   The two things he suggests that will most likely help are income support for low income families and quality preschool. On preschool, he says “A large body of research shows both how important quality preschool is for later outcomes and how its returns over a lifetime far surpass its costs. In his State of the Union address, the president cited the well-documented finding that $1 of investment in good preschool returns $7 of benefits. These results are particularly strong for kids from less advantaged backgrounds.”

The connection with last week’s article is clear.  Both of these articles ought to help us see that we’re all in this puzzle together. If we help those who need it most, we will find that over time we spend less money and reduce heartbreaks all around. Providing quality preschool funding and early childhood education support will help prevent the dramatic costs we pay for the cycle of broken lives, the crime that touches all of us, our overburdened court systems and the overpopulated prisons and parole systems. When we direct more of our taxpayer dollars to help rather than to punish, we’ll replace the jobs that are lost in the prison industry by the increase of jobs in education and social services. The only ones who stand to lose in this scenario are those who aim to get rich by putting our children in prison. And they are a powerful lobby.

While this part of the puzzle ought to be clear by now to anyone who’s paying attention, what’s more puzzling is why we can’t seem to get anything done about it. Could it be the powerful lobbying? More to say on that next week.

I’m getting tired of ranting about this.  It’s time to take action.  So, for starters, I’m asking all who care about poor children to do something pretty simple:  Call, write, email, text, or twitter your Senators and Congress persons and tell  them you support our President’s initiative to provide preschool support for children. Here’s one of several websites that will give you contact information for Congress: http://www.contactingthecongress.org

That’s easy enough to do.  Let us know when you do it.

 

Faith’s X-Ray Vision

Wouldn’t you like to have x-ray vision like Superman?  I mean, you could see through things to find stuff that you lost, and you could avoid people you didn’t want to see without opening your door.  Of course, you would need to be like Superman and not use your super power for any kind of nefarious purpose.  Yeah, right.  Maybe that’s why God didn’t give us that capability.  On the other hand, if we all had x-ray vision, it wouldn’t be such a big deal, would it?

As powerful as Superman’s x-ray vision is, it is not as powerful as God’s vision.  Superman can see through things–God sees into the heart.  When the prophet Samuel was assigned to choose among Jesse’s sons who would be the next King of Israel, Samuel assumed the choice would be Eliab, the handsomest, eldest, and the tallest of the boys.  He would not have chosen David, the youngest and smallest, if God had not whispered in his ear:  “I don’t see mortals the way you see them–I look at their hearts and not on their outward appearance.” (See 1 Samuel 16:1-13)

God’s ability to see into our hearts is even more compelling than Dr. King’s admonition that we are to measure people not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.  God sees even beyond the character we show to the world.  God sees through to our hearts, with the authority that only God holds, as the one who knows us completely, and who knows who we were intended to be.

And God wants those of us who believe to see the world through God’s eyes.  God calls us to be ambassadors for Christ in the world, and that means we need to see things as God sees them so we can properly represent God in the world. (See 2 Corinthians 5: 16-21)  Whew!  That’s a pretty tall order.  If our job is to try to see the world around us as God sees it, we have to learn how to see beyond the physical appearance of things. We need to see into the hearts of people and into the hearts of the situations that we face. We have to understand God, somewhat, in order to do that, don’t you think?  And it takes faith. That’s what we are to use, a kind of x-ray vision that comes through faith in God.

When we look at others through faith’s x-ray vision, we don’t see color, race, nationalities, cultures…all those divisions that the world creates among God’s people.  We instead see the beloved children of God, a beautiful rainbow of diversity designed according to God’s amazing creativity. When we look through faith’s x-ray vision, we no longer see different religions, just children who’re struggling in their own different ways and cultures to understand God.

When we understand that all of this earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, we  no longer see people coming from Mexico as illegal aliens or people trying to take away our jobs.  We instead see a people who are trying to make a living for themselves, and we see that there is plenty of land between these two countries with more than enough resources for all of us.  As Ambassadors for Christ, we understand that there is  a better way to allocate the resources so that all can do well– and we understand that we need to help others see that.

Through faith, we no longer see children who are brutal gang members and who learn evil as fodder for our prison systems, but we see them instead as children who have themselves been brutalized by poverty and strife and abuse, with no one to help them through it.  As Ambassadors for Christ, we understand that there is a way to reach them with the love of God, and we know that if we work at reconciling them to their true natures, we can save them.

Through faith, instead of seeing people with different political agendas as enemies or opponents against whom we must fight because they don’t want the same things we want, we see a people who have different views, some of which may be legitimate.  As Ambassadors for Christ, we take the first step to reconcile, to mend fences and begin real conversations to work for what is best for all.

Through faith, instead of seeing people who are poor as people who don’t know how to take care of themselves, people who are dependent on others and who drain our resources, we see poverty as the problem to address, and not the people.  We see a broken system that protects the haves who want to hang onto what they have and who think they need more than they do. As Ambassadors for Christ,  we know it is our job to help the world understand how to better share the abundantly plentiful natural resources that God has given to all of us.

With faith’s x-ray vision, maybe we can become more like Superman! Or better yet, more like God.

 

 

 

 

Where Deep Calls to Deep

I just finished reading Maya Angelou’s beautiful and thought-provoking poem “A Brave and Startling Truth.”  It touched me deeply. She read it on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations in San Francisco, June 26, 1995,  I am sad to say that I had not read it before…. I found it the other day quite by accident.  I was researching a bit on a concept for a sermon, and searched  the phrase “where we come in,” just to see if there were others who had used this as a title in anything– something I do sometimes just to find out what’s out there.  This phrase is not in her poem at all, but it is closely enough related to the phrase repeated in her poem, “when we come to it,” that Google picked it up.

Her poem took me somewhere deep, a place to which I love to go but don’t seem to get to often enough.  It’s the place I seek when I turn my thoughts to sermon writing; a place that if I haven’t got there, I don’t feel prepared to speak.  It’s the place I hope to help others find when I speak and write.

I remember the first time I found that place, deep within, long before I ever felt the call to ministry. I wrote a couple of notes to myself then because I wanted to remember how I felt. I’ve kept these notes for more than 35 years:

I feel like beautiful feelings

Like writing love music

Conducting a symphony orchestra

Painting a sunset

Singing a sweet sad song

Like crying

Like hugging

Like loving

Like caressing a loved ones’ cheek with mine

Like sharing a warm feeling

Like smiling from deep within.

When it comes it makes me want to

Make earrings out of something

Make poetry out of thoughts

Put some of me down on paper.

 I’m sharing this with you now (although I have second thoughts about the “make earrings” part!)  because this place, deep within, is the place where I believe our inward spirituality connects to God.  Psalm 42:7 describes the feeling:  “Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me.” Howard Thurman, the great spiritual leader and former Dean of Howard University’s Rankin Chapel, described a moment in his ordination when he felt “the heavens opened and the spirit descended like a dove.” Then he wrote:  “Ever since, when it seems that I am deserted by the voice that called me forth, I know that if I can find my way back to that moment, the clouds will lift and the path before me will once again be clear and beckoning.”  With Head and Heart, p. 58.

We all need to find that deep place within where God’s creative love breaks in on us and refreshes our souls. To me, when I’m not there, I’m just skimming on the surface of life, distracted by the many things around me that always seem to need my attention. We need to escape periodically from our everyday-life-management stuff so that we can tend to our spiritual lives, our inner beings, the deep place in which we find our true selves and hear God’s desires.

Getting there requires space for quiet and peace, personal time not distracted by other needs.  Getting there requires prayer and personal meditation. Some may need direction from spiritual leaders or teachers. Some can get there with a favorite bible verse or song. We all need to get there, whatever it may take, because that is where our direction can be found– not in the things of this world, but in the secret places of our hearts, where deep calls to deep. In that place we are refurbished. That’s where we share the joy of love with the One who created us out of love and for love, and we receive direction on how we are to share that love in the time that has been given to us.

Maya Angelou’s beautiful poem struck me so deeply because she lifts up the great paradox of humanity–our ability to evoke such great harm and so many awful disasters in this world, yet at the same time our ability to share such great, selfless and healing love. In this age of information when we are bombarded by the news of atrocities like those three young girls who were kidnapped and held in brutal captivity for a decade, the lethal bombing in Boston or the children being mowed down in Newtown Connecticut, we need to be reminded that there is also great love being shared.   We need to be reminded of the power of people like Mother Teresa, Hellen Keller, Mahatma Ghandi, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther KIng, Jr.,  and the millions of heroes and sheroes who constantly pour out God’s love for others through their kind actions.

When we come to that “brave and startling” truth that we have the power to fashion this world to be a better place, my prayer is that we will choose love as our creative blueprint. The kind of love that we need in order to fashion the world into a place where God’s kingdom will be seen here, as it is in heaven, is found in that place in our souls where “deep calls to deep.” If you’ve ever been there, you will feel the need to go back. If you’ve never been there, you should work on finding the way.

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.

The Victims of Poverty

I remember thinking, when my first grandchild was born, about how new babies bring with them so much new love into the world.  I felt that same love for my children and many other babies as well, but for some reason it was that first grandchild, over whom we profusely “ooh-ed and ah-ed,” who really connected me to the thought that this is one way God brings more love into the world. The thing about babies is that they are so beautiful and yet so very vulnerable.  What a great responsibility it is to care for a fragile, tiny being who cannot survive without our help!  It’s hard enough for a family with sufficient monetary means to raise a child, but for parents who struggle to make it in life, raising a child successfully becomes much more difficult.

As our society advances further into the information age, or digital age, as some call it, workers must compete more and more for professional jobs (engineers, doctors, teachers, etc.) or settle for low wage service jobs. And in the competition of a globalized economy, the wages for service jobs are no longer sufficient for raising a family. Many families are already left behind as the market has shifted from industrialization to information.  Education is the key for their children to compete successfully, but studies have shown that children born into poverty will need twice as much financial support to successfully compete with children born into more affluent families. That’s support these families can’t provide.

Often when I talk about the need for schools to provide stronger support systems for poor children, the response I get is that the family needs to do more.  I agree that families should be involved in their children’s education–they should help the children with their homework and participate in school activities and work alongside the teachers to help their children succeed.  But too often they just don’t, or they won’t, for reasons that run the gamut from never having had that role model in their own lives, to working more than one job to bring the food into the house, to having some kind of health problem or being caught up in drugs or some form of addiction that disables them.  These are the children whose parents either will not or can not help them succeed, no matter how much they may love them.

The result is that children who do not receive the additional support are likely to  drop out of school.  And they will end up in jail. Nowhere is this seen more blatantly than in the lives of black boys born in inner-city poverty stricken neighborhoods. The Schott Foundation for Public Education publishes data on the outcomes for Black males in public education, called “The Urgency of Now.”  They report that in 2009-10 the national graduation rate for Black male students was 52%. This sadly low number is a new high, and for the first time was more than half.  These numbers include a higher graduation rate for black students who are in more affluent high schools, which indicates that: “…Black males, on average, perform better in places and spaces where they are not relegated to under-resourced districts or schools. When provided similar opportunities they are more likely to produce similar or better outcomes as their White male peers.” You can access their latest report here:  http://blackboysreport.org/national-summary/preface

Tavis Smiley produced an excellent documentary, recently broadcast on PBS, on the problems many of our inner city black boys face, entitled “Too Important to Fail.”  These children come from impoverished families and broken school systems, where “zero tolerance” and juvenile detention feeds too many of them into the prison system.  He interviews several educators who have dedicated their lives to helping black boys succeed, as well as several of the boys.

Here is a bit of the information he provides:

  • We begin to lose students in school around the 3rd Grade, when they move from learning to read to reading to learn. If children don’t master reading by the 1st grade, they will have less than a 20% chance of graduating high school.
  • The children are victims of societal problems that they have no control over, such as drugs and violence in their neighborhoods and lack of health care, and the schools must provide social services to bring stability in their lives if they are to succeed.
  • Extracurricular activities that keep the children off the streets are extremely important.
  • The children need teachers who care, and show it, and who fully expect the children to succeed.
  • They need curricula and teachers they can relate to.
  • They need role models, because, as one of the children in juvenile detention put it, “Without a role model, you just keep on doing what you’re doing.”
  • For some of these children, prison is what’s normal in their neighborhood.

You can see the show online at:  http://www.pbs.org/wnet/tavissmiley/

If “prison is what’s normal” for these children, then they are achieving what is expected of them.  I would hope that we would expect so much more.  Yet, states are less willing to spend more money on schools, while spending more and more money on prison systems. When school budgets drop, services for students are dismissed first. The saddest thing about this is that investing in the children while they are small is clearly much more economical for states than putting and keeping our young men in prison.

The Church needs to use her prophetic voice to speak the truth about this to those in power, in order to save these children’s lives.

I’d love your comments!  Next week:  Whose making money by putting our children in prison?

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.

A Must See

Have you seen the recent film The House I Live In?  If you care at all about poor children of color in this country, you should see it.  It’s by award-winning documentary filmmaker Eugene Jarecki. The film won the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Danny Glover is one of the producers, and John Legend has been promoting the film as well.

In the film, Jarecki shares a comprehensive and heart-wrenching look at how the war on drugs has fueled the prison population in America.  The higher sentences for non-violent crimes involving crack cocaine, which is used more frequently in minority and poorer communities, than for powder cocaine, used by the more affluent, has not only increased the prison population, it has torn apart families and neighborhoods, fueled the increase of prisons as a business industry, and flooded the “poverty to prison pipeline.” But it hasn’t made a dent in stemming drug usage.

Some of the information shared in the film:

  • The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prison population.
  • Today, more people in the United States are incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses than were incarcerated for all crimes in 1970.
  • One in eight state employees today works for a corrections agency.
  • About 14 percent of drug users in the United States are African American, but 56 percent of those incarcerated for drug crimes are African American.

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