What am I forgetting…

During my second year in seminary, I participated in a trip called a “Sankofa journey”. The word “Sankofa” is a word from the Kwi language of Ghana and translates to “go back and get it”. There is a proverb that uses this word that says, “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten” (Wikipedia).

In the spirit of this proverb, a Sankofa journey is a walk through history, a discovery or rediscovery of a forgotten past. For us, that meant traveling to important places in the story of the Civil Rights Movement. We started at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, site of the Civil Rights Museum, and the place where Martin Luther King was murdered. We then traveled to Birmingham and worshiped at the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four little girls were murdered in a bombing; we walked through the park where attack dogs and fire hoses were unleashed on young people marching for the right to cross the street into the all-White business district. We spoke to one of the women who marched that day, and learned why Birmingham’s nickname was “Bombingham”. From there we traveled to Selma and then to Georgia before journeying back home.

For me, the most profound moment of our trip was when we walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. The bridge is a huge arch, and as we made it to the top of the arch and looked down, I could imagine in my mind’s eye the imposing line of police officers mounted on their horses, billy clubs in hand, defying the marchers to continue their trek to Montgomery. They were marching for the right to vote, and the officers were tasked with stopping them. In one breathless moment, they stood, protesters and law enforcement, face to face. No words were spoken in that moment. And then it happened. John Lewis was one of the marchers in the front of the crowd, and as they took their first steps over the county line, the officers charged forward, pursuing the marchers back over the bridge, beating and tear gassing them.

None of these marchers were armed. They were not violent. They did not fight back or resist. They simply wanted the rights of full citizens of this country. And they were beaten for it. I cried that day as I walked. I cry now as I write this post.

Many people would say that we need to forget the past. That the reason we can’t move on is because we refuse to forget. I would disagree; I would say it is because we refuse to remember.

The history of my family is the history of slavery; of Reconstruction; of Jim Crow; of lynching; of Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma; and the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. It is not for pity that I remember, but for strength. It is a reminder that what I am today, who I am today is due in large part to the very real suffering, strength, vision, and courage of those who came before me. It would be a dishonor to their sacrifice to forget.

I do not remember to make people feel guilty.

I remember because it encourages me to go forward. It teaches me lessons to take down the road with me. I cannot compartmentalize my life to edit these things out. I’m a “what you see is what you get” kind of girl. I am not ashamed of my heritage; and I am not fearful of my future. This is the life story I have been given by my Father in Heaven. I want to use it for His glory. And to do that, I must be real about it.

On this day, I choose to remember. I choose to go back for what I have forgotten, so I can press on with greater wisdom toward what is ahead.

Because freedom is never free.

Shattered glass, smoke and ash…

It’s déjà vu all over again.

My mind is now occupied with thoughts reminiscent of last fall, as I watched Ferguson, MO dissolve into chaos, pain, anger and frustration. The images that flashed across my TV screen, Facebook and Twitter feeds left me heartbroken, frustrated, and at times enraged. 
My frustrations are a mixture of pain and sadness, anger and annoyance. I am annoyed with the element that uses the moment as an excuse to riot and loot, which takes the attention away from the thousands (yes, thousands) of people peacefully protesting and demanding answers and justice for Mr. Gray. I am saddened and hurt for the community organizers and citizens who led these protests, not wishing to destroy, but to build up, to bring light to a situation still shrouded in mystery so that the family can know why their loved one died in police custody. This family deserves answers. Regardless of why Mr. Gray was apprehended, he did not deserve to be injured in custody to the point of losing his life. And the family wants to know why. They deserve to know why. 
But now…now their voices are lost in a sea of shattered glass, smoke and ash. The only images you see on any media outlet you turn to are buildings burning, people stomping on cars or throwing rocks at police. Nothing of the actual protest that began the day, a peaceful, lawful demonstration of every citizen’s right to air their grievances and be heard. 
The history behind protest and rioting is long and complicated. A quote I’ve seen a lot since yesterday is a statement Martin Luther King made about rioting being “the language of the unheard”. Here are his words in context:

Now I wanted to say something about the fact that we have lived over these last two or three summers with agony and we have seen our cities going up in flames. And I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non-violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view. I’m absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.

That his words could still ring true today only deepens the sadness in my heart. That we still see this simmering pain, anger, history of distrust and loss of hope that even makes such an event possible is cause for long reflection, not finger pointing, justifying or condemnation. 
This is all I will say on this subject…my heart is weary, my soul tired. The polarization of our culture, both in and out of the church is draining. Nothing that I would say right now would have any measure of theological nuance or penetrating analysis; right now, I’m speaking from a broken heart, raw with emotion, desperate for the Lord to intervene. My heart simply needs to pray. I don’t have a solution; I don’t know what to do to bring about the change needed, and I’m not going to attempt to give answers to a problem that is as old as this country. All I know is what I said on my Facebook page yesterday: our country needs prayer. Oh, Lord, heal our land…

Where My Heart Is, Part One…

Hope Shines Through…by M. Lewis

Okay, I have to honest. I am wearied by the recent barrage of conversation about race that the Michael Brown case has brought about. I’ve thought many times about blogging about Ferguson, but have not really had to stomach to do so. It seems no matter what you say or how you say it, you will somehow be misunderstood. Many times that misunderstanding explodes into accusations and brutal judgments. And I’m not just talking about on secular blogs either. 

Yesterday’s journal entry was a pages-long diatribe of emotional release. When I read it back to myself I was appalled at my self-righteous attitude, but also was struck by the anguish and pain that wove its way throughout the prose. Never for public consumption, the cathartic release laid bare my heart in a way only my heavenly Father can truly address and heal. Anything I would write on a blog would indeed be more measured. But how best to do that? I’ve questioned if what I am writing right now will ever leave the safe confines of my journal. Race is all too personal, and the discussion of it is all too volatile. 
Everyone has an opinion. Do I really need to share mine? 
Today I was prompted to read afresh Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail“. In it, King is writing to fellow members of clergy who were chastising him for his social justice involvement. They question his timing and his methods because they always lead to violence. They feel that it was not the place of the church to involve themselves in such affairs; that it is best to just let the system work itself out. We need to just wait. Besides, we’re all about the Gospel, after all…
His words still sting today. They remind us of the truth that there is indeed nothing new under the sun. But they also remind us that in many ways, we never seem to learn from our past. We keep repeating it, hoping for a different outcome.
I have to say at the outset that Black folk are not a monolithic group. There are different views and opinions on the current state of affairs and the remedy for what ails us. And I am certainly no expert here. I am one lone Black woman living in the Midwest, watching things unfold every night that tear at the fabric of my heart and leave me feeling tattered, bruised and emotionally exhausted. I see, think and feel things I strain to understand myself, much less explain. But, this is my best attempt.
So, since this is going to be published after all, it will have to be in multiple parts. This thought stream is just too long…
Let me also say this. The circumstance in King’s time was very different. We can all look back and agree (I hope?) that the social maladies King was fighting against at the time were horribly immoral and unjust. Segregation and Jim Crow were an affront to the humanity to all involved, both the oppressed, and the oppressor. In King’s words: [Segregation statutes] gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.” The danger was very real and very present for Black folks at the time. And not just in the Jim Crow South. Black men and women, as well as children, could be killed, beaten, hanged, terrorized without any legal repercussions. And – and this is key to our conversation about Ferguson – much of this assault was carried out by the legal system. Police officers, mayors, city councilmen, senators, local prosecutors, all worked in collusion to deny justice to Black folks.
King’s commitment to nonviolent social action was meant to “create a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.” He was of the firm belief that “there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.” Those who worked with King were committed to this type of social nonviolent protest, and were willing to pay the legal penalty for breaking laws they deemed unjust. However, they were often met not with handcuffs, but Billy clubs, fire hoses and attack dogs; civil rights leaders were killed, or their houses – and in one case their church – bombed. All sanctioned by local government and law enforcement. Black folks had no recourse, nowhere to turn for justice. King led a movement that highlighted the inherent dignity of all humans, while simultaneously revealing the inhumane underbelly of so-called “separate but equal” segregation laws and the attitudes that formed them.
The circumstances today are in many ways very different. In the case of Michael Brown, it is true that he and his friends engaged in criminal activity prior to his death. He aggressively engaged with Officer Wilson when asked to move to the sidewalk. Many would then argue that his altercation with the officer justly ended with his being gunned down in the middle of a neighborhood street. Many don’t quite understand how this could possibly result in the rage and anger that resulted, and the mass protests in the wake of the Grand Jury not returning an indictment of Wilson.
We could also argue that the struggles that King and the Civil Right Movement fought brought about the desired change. Laws were repealed and new ones enacted in their place. Constitutional protections were put in place to ensure that states could no longer openly discriminate against a group of citizens based on race. Why do we feel the need to rehash this history over and over again?
But…there’s always a but…(smile)….
I believe that we should all be students of history. If you study history, you find patterns, threads that connect one era to another. If you can ascertain where those threads lead, you can learn how to change the pattern. So I don’t think it’s a bad thing to retell history, especially if the lessons of that history have yet to be learned. I am of the belief that we at such a time in our present day, and this tragic event has reopened a wound that has never actually been allowed to heal…
Here are a few questions, and I’ll stop. I just want to hang them in the air for a bit.
Can we erase 340 years (at the time of King’s writing) of systemic oppression and denial of opportunity in one, or even two generations?
Is there a way to mourn and even denounce (rightly so) the violence that sprang up from the initial incident and the announcement of the Grand Jury decision, but still seek to understand where such anger comes from without dismissing the entire group as “thugs”? Or, put another way, can we appreciate the voices of those who are truly protesting (versus using the chaos as an excuse for criminal behavior) and seek to understand them, without punishing them for the actions of those whose only answer is violence?
Can we simply state, without qualification, that the loss of any life is a tragedy? Ask a mother of an incarcerated child, and she will more often than not tell you she still loves her child in spite of what they they have done. Even in the most hideous of crimes. This mother lost her child. Her pain is real. His father’s pain is real. How do we speak to that pain?
I write these things out of a firm conviction that Christians in America must speak to these things. Perhaps it is because of the type of church I was raised in, but I fail to see how we can separate these things from our desire to reach people with the Gospel. Is this the “Gospel”? No, and I will state that as emphatically as I know how. The Gospel is Christ coming in flesh, fulfilling all righteousness, and dying for those who cannot. He was raised so that we can raised to newness of life. And that newness has implications for how we live. I suppose our disagreements come from what it means to live out those implications. Can we really deliver the Gospel to hurting people without addressing the tangible issues that are causing that hurt?
We live in a culture that is markedly different from Paul’s world. Ours is a democracy, which affords us certain freedoms that Paul did not enjoy. He did however, avail himself of the privileges he did have as a Roman citizen to assist him in his work to spread the Gospel. How can we best do that in our time and space? How can we avail ourselves of that with which the Lord has blessed us? What does that look like for us?
Could it be that getting our hands dirty in the muck and mire that our racial history has left us is a way of cooperating with God as we pray that His Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven?
This is my warm up (oh boy). As I hit the publish button, I will second guess every single word I just wrote. But this is where my heart is right now; this is where I must start…

Needing to know where I’ve been so I know where I’m going…

My second year in seminary a group of us took a trip called a “Sankofa Journey”. Wikipedia defines “sankofa”:

Sankofa can mean either the word in the Akan language of Ghana that translates in English to “go back and get it” (san – to return; ko – to go; fa – to look, to seek and take) or the Asante Adinkra symbols of a bird with its head turned backwards taking an egg off its back, or of a stylised heart shape. It is often associated with the proverb, “Se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi,” which translates “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.”

The purpose of such a journey is to look back so we can move forward. Most would find this idea preposterous…but in reality, we understand ourselves better when we first know where we have come from. I particularly like the definition “go back and get it”, the idea of going back and “getting” what our history as a country says about how we have been shaped into our various ethnicities, races, etc, so we can more accurately determine a better way forward. I am of the firm conviction that I need to know where I’ve been so I know where I’m going…I believe we all do…

Our journey was a tour of locations that were significant to the Civil Rights Movement. We began in Memphis, travelled to Birmingham and Selma, Alabama, and ended in Atlanta. We were paired up with another person from a different ethnic background, and walked through the journey together, sharing our different reactions and feelings as we faced our collective history. It was a life-changing experience in many ways.

The most significant part of the journey for me was in Memphis, where we visited the National Civil Rights Museum. The museum was built as an extension of sorts to the Lorraine Hotel, the hotel where Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered. The exhibit took you from chattel slavery all the way to the day Dr. King was shot – the final stop being the room where he stayed the night before he died, and a window looking onto the balcony where he stood when the fatal shot was fired. At the time, we were not allowed to walk onto the balcony, but just being there, looking at that quiet balcony where a man was brutally gunned down was enough to jar the senses. At least for me.

After the museum tour, we walked across the street to the building where James Earl Ray fired the shot, looking out of the window where he rested his rifle and pulled the trigger, viewing the weapon used. It was an eerie feeling to be in that room.

I could write pages and pages about that journey and the myriad feelings I experienced through each step – from standing in the basement of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham where four young girls died, to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma where marchers were greeted with riot police and Billy clubs as they sought to march to the state capitol to draw attention to voting rights.

There are those who would say all this happened ages ago and should be forgotten; but it was not so long ago that battles raged. Many who fought the battle still live among us and bear the scares in their souls and bodies. Race is still a dirty word that raises the volume of many discussions, sometimes rendering them useless in seeking solutions. We see it in our politics, our neighborhoods, our churches…if we believe we live in a post-racial, or even post-racist society, we are wrong. Our country’s identity was forged through the defining of people groups into those who would enjoy the benefits of democracy and those who would not. Race was paradigm through which these decisions were made. Race has shaped who we are as people, to the point that I would even argue we wouldn’t understand ourselves as Americans if we took it away. It is part of who we are, for good or for ill.

I am most concerned with how this has shaped the church in America, I have written and spoken before about my own struggles with race and identity, and how, even in the church I find no true remedy for those struggles. In Christ, my identity is assured; but as I walk through this life, it can be hard to reconcile the truth of my position in Christ with my lived reality. That is a post for another day; quite frankly, it exhausts me to think about it. But perhaps in the near future I will revisit it again…

I chose today to write about this because 45 years ago today, Dr. King stood on that balcony. Forty-five years ago today, the shot was fired that took his life. This man, who dreamt of a day when something as arbitrary as skin color would not determine the fate of his children, or any other child. What is interesting about Dr. King is that he believed in the founding documents of this nation; he loved the vision they cast. And he saw that our country was living far short of that vision. His passion was to see that vision come to pass, for us to live up to our stated purpose as a nation. I am a realist; I realize that we will never reach perfection; that does not mean, however, that we should not seek to do our part in moving us a little closer…

I blinked…

It’s February 28, the last day of Black History Month. Wow. That flew by, as it always does. You blink, you miss it…I guess I blinked.
I started the month with a small lament that we still have a Black History Month, and that there is still a need for one. As I reflect on the month that has passed, this thought came to me:
My mom gave me one of the greatest compliments last night. We were talking about various issues, which is our custom, and I made a statement, “I just don’t like it when people get messed over.” And her response, “You get that from your grandma.”
My grandma was a wonderful woman. She was hard to know, but not hard to respect and admire. Her life was characterized by service: to her family, her church and her community. She was very active in fighting for equality and fairness in housing and education in Champaign, Illinois, and was a faithful servant of the Lord at her church. Her drive: she hated to see injustice. And she was not one who sat idly by on the sidelines and complained. She was a woman of action. My mom inherited that passion and has modeled a life of service and advocacy herself.

To be told I am like her is the highest of compliments. And I pray I will continue this legacy myself.

So…about Black History Month. This month is about more than the achievements of notable African Americans that made “history” in some fashion. This is indeed important, and should be taught – and all year around I might add. But it is also the history of family. My family history is rich and broad. I love the fact that I know so much about their lives and struggles. I have a better understanding of myself as I learn about where I came from. And it helps steer me into the future as I consider the direction of my life from this point forward.

If I were to sum it up, understanding the meaning of my ethnic identity is rooted deeply in my understanding of my own family history. As I get older, that understanding has grown, and I have come to appreciate who I am in within that largetr context. This spurs me on to follow in the footsteps of those who came before me and seek to make a difference, even a small one, in much the same way they did.

That’s the real purpose for Black History Month…at least from my vantage point.

Grace and peace…

I

Welcome to Black History Month…

Yesterday was the start of Black History Month. The start of our celebration of this month began in 1926 when Carter G. Woodson designated the second week of February as “Negro History Week”. In 1976 it was extended to a month by the US government (see this article for a longer treatment of the history).

I can recall celebrations of Black History Month during my school days, and it was so interesting that this was the only month that Black history was even mentioned. I found that to be odd…and still do. When I landed on the campus of the University of Illinois in the Fall of 1990, I was absorbed into a world of immense Black pride and frustration. If the Black Panther party had still around, I would have joined. I learned so many things about my history as a Black person that I never heard as a child, and it made me angry. Why was this information withheld from me for so long? And why was “my” history not a part of US History in general? Why did I only hear about it one month out of the year, and why only a select few things related to slavery and the Civil Rights Movement? To say I was militant was an understatement…

I have since shed that militancy and anger, by the grace of God. But I have to be honest, the practice of a “Black History Month” still puzzles me. And ours is not the only month out there. We now have Asian American History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, Greek-American Heritage Month, Irish-American Heritage Month, Asian Pacific…It is hard to keep track of them all (and if I missed one, my apologies).

Maybe I’m missing something, but it seems to me that all these special months can have an unintended consequence of keeping us separate, not bringing us together. It would seem more productive to rethink how we write American history in general to include a richer, more accurate portrait of how America came to be America. This would require deep, painful soul searching on the part of all Americans – and I don’t think we are ready to go through that. Thus, a month to represent each ethnic group that makes up the fabric of American life.

Today I read two blog posts that really resonated with me. The first, by Trillia Newbill, is especially powerful to me. The question: How should Christians approach the celebration of Black History? Her argument is that is should be more than just a month, that moving beyond the designation of a month would provide opportunity to build greater understanding within the church. I would agree, and say that all ethnicities should be included in that argument.

Another was a bit more intriguing to me and leads me to my reasons for blogging today. This article landed in my tweet feed today, and I loved it. The author is explaining why he will no raise his children to be “color blind”. And I have to say I resonated deeply with what he was saying. This quote encapsulates his argument:

“I want my my daughter to see race, to understand race, and to value her own race and seek understanding in the racial experiences of others.”

There’s a lot to unpack there – and I would tweak my own expression of this thought – but I agree with his basic premise and desire. I’ll try not to go too long, but I will attempt to explain it and circle it back to how I feel we should think about “race” as Christians.

My first thought is that we need to understand that race is not a biological reality, but a social construct. Scripture makes clear that “from one man he [God] made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live” (Acts 18:26 NIV 1984). Our common heritage is that we are all from Adam. That is the starting point. As Christians, we can take this a step further and say that we are all “in Christ” – our common heritage is our adoption into the family of God through Christ. Regardless of “racial” identity, we are one in Christ. That identity should inform all other identities we have.

But notice what I did not say – it informs but does not obliterate differences. The fact that race is merely a social construct does not make it any less real in our lived experiences as Americans. To admit that and acknowledge it, even in our churches, does not have to divide us. To ignore it can.

This is what I mean – I have been told by many that “when I see you I don’t see race. I just see you.” I know what they are saying, and I know that it is good. But in reality, you cannot really “see” me unless you see my race. Part of the reality of who I am is my race. It is not something we should shrink back from or ignore; it is part of what makes me a unique individual within the body of Christ. That uniqueness – that diversity – can be celebrated without being cause for division. When that happens, true unity can happen.

The problem is this: In America, race has a sordid painful history. Race was used to separate people and determine who could enjoy all the riches of our democratic society and who would be excluded. There is pain and ugliness involved in discussing race, and we don’t like facing that. But facing it can actually heal us and remove the barriers that exist among us. When we take on the realities of our brothers and sisters and make them our own by virtue of our unity in Christ, we can then work to change that reality within our communities. The pain and injustices of one brother or sister become our own, and we can unite to make a real difference in the lives of all believers. This is true reconciliation.

I have so much more to say, but this post is getting too long. More to come…