Friday, November 27, 2015

Black Lives: Thoughts on Black Friday

This time last year, our thoughts had already turned to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and the shootings of unarmed African American men by police. A month later, at our Christmas-time service, we placed a black infant doll in the crèche and named him Every Mother’s Son in honor and remembrance of Michael Brown. A few months later, our Anti-Racism Task Force began meeting, and started to explore the ways in which we could best 1) overcome our own White Privilege; 2) Work against white supremacy and white privilege around us; and 3) combat racism by working together with the African American community by showing up, standing up, and speaking out.
How incredibly blessed we have been! Click here for our journey so far.

I truly want to raise up a hymn of praise for the individuals who have entered my life this year, walking into the rooms of my heart like warriors of love and justice into closed-off chambers that had laid unexplored for decades. Parts of me that were filled with shame and despair, old wounds from my own past, my complacency, my complicity, and, yes, my own racism. And other places that had not given up hope for change, but that had really consigned myself to believe that, as passionate as I felt about the struggle for justice and equity for my sisters and brothers of color, as much as I felt my own call to ministry was to help along that struggle, perhaps I was not to be the one to do so.

First of those for whom I am so grateful today is the Task Force at the UU of South Jersey Shore congregation, about 12-14 folks who have met monthly and who have been steadfast, courageous, and incontrovertible. It was they who decided to post our “Black Lives Matter” sign, they who planned and hosted a vigil after the massacre in Charleston, they who re-installed our sign after it was defaced, then repaired and returned it a month later; they who have worn their “Black Lives Matter” buttons and explained, patiently, over and over, why “All Lives Matter” is not an appropriate response. Just this week, while I have been in Kentucky, the sign was attacked again, and these folks held an impromptu meeting, got ahold of a carpenter, and had the sign back up, all before I heard about the damage!

Next are the community members who showed up as we began to reach out to the African American community, and who have steadfastly remained our allies: Kaleem Shabazz, now a Councilman in Atlantic City; Perry Mays; AC Prosecutor James McClain; NAACP President Olivia Caldwell; and many others. Their words and actions have been of inestimable value. Attending the dedication of our sign; coming to services when we were under heavy fire on Facebook and elsewhere, feeling very real fear; and sending letters to us and to the Press in support of our efforts… what blessings they have been!

Then there are the Core members of the Planning Team for our year-long series, Black Lives Matter: Beyond the Slogan. We have dreams for this gathering, but it is also a walk of faith. So many people have asked what are the goals, and what the results will be.. but truly, that depends upon the people who show up, and the people who stay at the table.  Like any grassroots organization, the true value, purpose and vision will not be carved out at the outset, but will be eked out by the participants who engage. We have a great Core Team,  and it will grow: Joshua, Marte’, Shelee, William, Carolyn, Princess, Chivonne, Brielle, Blake and others who step in & out, as well as the dozen or so organizations who have committed to sponsor in some way… Each individual brings unique passion, talents, skills, and commitment. As we could not have known a year ago that this will exist, we have no idea what fruits will be borne one year from now. But we know if we do nothing, then nothing will occur.

Here's one ministry: Repent, Inc.

And another: Luminary Rising!

Finally, I place all of these individuals on my Jewel Tree, as each of you have taught me lessons of humility, hope, justice, faith, and courage. But I have to raise my colleague, someone I did not know even six months ago, to a special place, because he has surely been a hero in my eyes. Rev. William Williams, of Asbury United Methodist is actually the person from whom the idea of the forums (now known as events) first emanated. Even though he is just a year or two older than my oldest son, he has wisdom and dedication that I believe will guide him through a ministry career of courage and fortitude. I feel so blessed to know him at this foundational stage. I have to remind myself that Dr. King was this age when he led a whole movement! It is hard to imagine my life before I knew him, and knowing him, as well as all of the other young people on this team, helps me face each day and each painful truth with conviction. He does this hard work and so much more, while being a devoted husband and father of 3 very young children.

Atlantic City is a unique and challenging place to undertake a ministry of overcoming racism.
The hopes of the disenfranchised (who are the majority of residents) have been trodden upon for so long that they have virtually no  trust in authority, confidence in the future, faith in leadership, patience, or ability to withstand empty rhetoric. A brief over-view of history can explain that. In our first session, I learned that AC, once 60% Black, has declined to 40%; that decent paying casino jobs routinely go to out-of-town workers while AC unemployment remains at very high levels. 

·       AC is third highest city for prostitution
·       AC is #1 city for male prostitution.
There is something obscene about hearing and seeing Donald Trump rail against immigrants, make overtly racist statements, and rake in thousands of followers, while his massive casino (now closed) dominates the skyline over decaying housing and gentrified neighborhoods that still force people of color out.

The purpose of our events, in my mind, is singular: it’s to #tellthetruth . When the truth is told (and believed, things change.

So may it be.

Monday, October 19, 2015

AT THE WILD FIG: A Long, Strange, Wonderful, Love-Filled, Sadness & Joy-filled, Trip.

Gurney Norman, Divine Rights' Trip
A regular! at Wild Fig Books & Cafe

I was home for only six days. in less than 48 hours, I had to go to court with a friend who is fighting for custody of the little girl she has fostered (more on that later,) run over to Louisville for a wedding rehearsal, take our ten year old Seth up to Lexington to see his Grandma (my sister,) and then head back to Louisville for the 5PM wedding. Squeezed in there was a special favor.

A few months ago, I got a note from some former church members whose service of union I'd performed four years ago, when I was the UU minister in Lexington. A few things I recall from the day are the joy with which they elaborately decorated the church, and the sadness they expressed that Martin's parents would not be attending due to religious convictions.

They stopped attending services not long after that, because Martin is a nurse, and Brandon's two kids from his former marriage often spent weekends with them, and the long drive from Pikeville became too difficult. But until then, they were surely the folks who came the farthest to our UU church. Pikeville is a true Appalachian community, a good 2-3 hours drive, deep in coal country and on the Kentucky border. But now, Same sex marriage is finally legal in Kentucky, and they were hoping that maybe on their anniversary, I might be able to sign their genuine wedding license.

Brandon, Martin & the boys

I told them I would be delighted, and that in fact it was on a weekend I would be in Kentucky... BUT I'd already committed to a wedding in Louisville, so the best I could do was meet in Lexington. They said they'd meet me anywhere. They'd even drive to Louisville! But we didn't get too detailed about where we'd meet. If it were a nice day, I thought, we'd do the ceremony outdoors, then maybe go to lunch. It was a bit cool, upper 50s, but sunny, so I told them we'd meet at the Arboretum. Plans (mostly) made, we set off. Seth and I to his grandma's and then to the meeting, Martin and Brandon on the long drive to Lexington.

Our texts must have crossed! We simultaneously realized that we needed two witnesses! To be fair, I've done nearly 300 weddings and have no idea why I didn't think of this. We kidded about it being a good thing they didn't live in Rowan County and they told me the clerk in Pike County had been really nice to them. Quickly, they called the few people they knew in Lexington.. but all were busy. Understand that since I am still "barred" from my former congregation until the new minister has been there for a year, I was limited in the number of people I could call. I tried both of my sons. One working, the other at a seminar. Almost went out to the construction site where the one was working. What else are kids for? They owe you. Then I remembered the Wild Fig. I was headed there anyway!

The Wild Fig Books & Cafe

The re-incarnation of a great new & used bookstore, the Wild Fig had recently opened, and I'd saved up for some titles that I wanted to buy anyway, to support a small & locally owned bookstore, as well as an African American business. I'm praying that it will take off because it's in a part of town that is really starting to hop and have a funky arts scene, but that still needs some convincing for the stuffy folks to head over there. The house it's in is cozy and the interior is sunny and inviting. 

As soon as I got there, I knew it would be perfect for the little ceremony! Owners/authors/artists Ronald Davis & Crystal Wilkinson were, I knew, GLBT-friendly, and would probably agree to be witnesses if they were there. But, when I arrived, Crystal's twin daughters, Elainia & Delainia were on duty... and no one else there. I introduced myself, took a deep breath, and... soooo,"I have a question!"

They were great. Not only did they agree to be witnesses, they were photographers, videographers, wedding planners, and they even, when I told them how much Brandon & Martin LOVED Dolly Parton, pulled some Dolly music up on their Spotify for the men to walk in to. 

As we gathered round to take a few group photos, trying to set the automatic shutter, a regular customer came in, a hip looking guy with his baby in a front pack and another tyke hanging onto his leg. I think his name was Griff. He walked over, the little blond boy dragging across the polished floor like a ball and chain, and snapped a few photos. He offered to buy pumpkin muffins for wedding cake.

Then he said, "I know you guys are going to make it, because your shoe laces match."

We'd already observed that everything Martin, Brandon & I were wearing was either blue or orange that day. By then, nothing would have surprised us. Call it God, call it coincidence, call it synchronicity. So many horrible, ugly, mean, and spiteful things are happening all over.

But every once in a while, you just gotta testify, something truly beautiful happens. Love walks right in the door and stays awhile. And we get the strength to rise another day.


Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Movement for Black Lives, Change & the Liberal Conundrum

There is no longer only Black & White. Or, person of color, and then "white people." When I hear the rhetoric of Minister Farrakhan at the #JusticeorElse rally, I am partly there, and partly not with him. He is preaching a white-devil rant that has not been successful in moving things forward yea, these past forty years. This is a musing about people, white people, liberal & progressive people, who are working against racism, and working on their own white privilege, and why it seems so hard. It is also a collection of my thoughts on why so many progressives seem not to be on board right now.

First: Farrakhan. I understand the genesis of his words, and the roots of his rhetoric.

I, a white person, stand accused. If not guilty of overt racism, surely I am guilty of white privilege and of not hearing the many calls to see this in my own life and community.

But this is a new day.

This day, in this era, we see, if we look, that a whole generation of young people, people of color and non-POC, will not tolerate the racism, or the bigotry, or the heterosexism of the past. We who are older, we who tolerated it, and we who benefited from it, must support them, engage them, encourage and empower them. How will we do it?

One: example. Our children, grandchildren, and the young people in our neighborhoods and religious communities are watching us. As we do, so they will follow. When someone says to me that placing a Black Lives Matter sign in front of our church might endanger the children downstairs, I say: If you are so certain that people of the calibre you speak of surround us even now, then allowing our children to grow into this world without seeing us speak up and speak out endangers their very souls... not to mention, continues the mortal threat to the well-being of people of color faced daily.

Whence comes the resistance of liberals to full engagement in the movement for Black Lives? Those of us who've jumped in feet first have seen it. We've been unfriended, unfollowed, disliked, and not-liked on facebook. I get dozens of "likes" for a post on pumpkins, but 2 or 3 (with over 1,000 friends) for one on Black Lives. The silence is audible. Almost all of my friends and "friends" are progressive.

But, they want, it seems to me, progress in a way that doesn't take away anything they have. That includes material things, but more: safety, security, their 'stories' of their lives, comfort, clean consciences, the myths we all cherish, shared rituals & holidays, patriotism, and a reasonable belief in a future in which these givens will continue.  So, two: work through grief.

(If you are able to enlarge the chart above, you can see how the stages of change/grief correspond with the process of becoming Anti-Racist. In my opinion, many people revert to resistance/denial because they are unwilling to give up the comfort, safety and familiarity, not to mention needing to be "right."

To acknowledge that for almost all of Black America, none of this is guaranteed, the future is an ever-shifting mirage, the present a fragile and threadbare tightrope, is too painful, too destructive, for most people, even, or perhaps, especially, most liberals. Because we, liberals and progressives, want so much to feel good about ourselves. We're rather self-righteous and we can be, well, smug. The way we all watched Jon Stewart every night, thinking okay, now I feel vindicated, the way we come together in our liberal circles, and laugh or despise people like Donald Trump and Rush Limbaugh without questioning: What is it, though, that people are seeing in these pontificators? 

How do I know all of this? Because: I am one of these people. This is my story. I have walked, and waded, and trudged through my own white privilege this past few years. I think lots of us have. I sometimes wish there were a tattoo or a little badge we could wear to identify ourselves to one another: "I'm here. I'm working this out. Hey! You too? It's so painful. But it's so good to finally see the truth." Then, three: Find allies.

I want to compare the feeling of actually recognizing white privilege, seeing it with unclouded vision, day unto day, in all of one's affairs, so that you cannot make a purchase, enter into a contract, or engage a conversation without an awareness of how privilege you have been and always will be with an experience people will recognize. So let me try:

For me, it was like realizing that what I had believed was a reasonably happy childhood, albeit marred with sadness due to the early death of my mother, was actually one in which two of my siblings were suffering repeated and severe sexual abuse at the hands of a stepbrother, a person who has still not been legally prosecuted, and who still, despite extreme efforts of my behalf, has young children in his custody.

I can only imagine that it might be like thinking you've been happily married or partnered, and finding that, indeed, your spouse has had one or many long-term affairs of which you were blissfully unaware. Not only are you chagrined, disturbed, and shocked, and impelled to do something to bring about justice, you have to reimagine what you thought and felt your life actually was.
Four: Move through grief, and be willing to re-write your life story. The whole version of your life as you imagined it. This may be more painful than anything you have ever done, and it may take months or years.

God is in the details. Once one starts to wake up, to really see the interconnected web of oppressions and lies and myths and to listen to stories, again and again, reflecting a reality that many white people will never experience, there is really no turning back. You will dedicate your being, your time, your money, and your soul to healing this evil. You will hear and answer every call.That's why I think Farrakhan is partly wrong. Cornel West said it when he addressed the UUs at our General Assembly: "I think there are people in this room that are willing to go down swinging like Muhammad Ali." And then he turned and walked off the stage.
And, five: Enter the territory of the enemy. Give up all of your privilege and everything it contains, and walk right out onto the field as an ally, a co-sufferer, armed with love, truth, God, and courage. Go to death if need be, because you know that this is one cause that is absolutely worth it. Become a warrior.

I know some of these people. Some are UU people, and some are just people.

But they keep me going, and I love them with all my heart, from up close & afar.