Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Terrorisms We All Face and the the Privilege we Take for Granted

My great-grandfather & three daughters, after the death in childbirth of his wife & son

I have tried to imagine the pain and daily stress of living as a person of color in this country. I do so not to suggest that I, a white, educated, middle to upper middle class heterosexual woman, really can identify with that pain, but because I want to understand as deeply as I can, if even infinitesimally, what it is like to be marginalized, and then to say to myself: Multiply this by the thousands. Now you have the experience of a person of color. Multiply this by a lifetime.

I don’t know whether it is helpful/right/or wrong for me to think about this. I only know that it has given me a window into my own experiences and how they affected me, how I did/did not handle them, how they have continued to play a part in my worldview.

My mother, Marjorie P. Cain 1916-1960

I would say that my first experience of being marginalized was having a mother who died suddenly when I was five. In our small, rural school, this was something that did not happen. Rather than being embraced in some way by the community, our family (which by virtue of my father’s isolation and refusal to discuss her death) was undoubtedly the subject of gossip and whispers. I can recall a schoolmate saying, “My mom said your mother died because she was crazy.” Because we were forbidden to talk about her, I had no place to take this. My response to the unnamed grief and felt judgment and fear of my peers (I see now) was to “feel sick” and go, almost daily, to the school nurse with vague symptoms until my father hauled me off to the doctor so that he could pronounce that there was Nothing Wrong with me so I would stop faking it.
As a young girl, with step brothers.

Later, I was teased for things like having a slight  lisp, walking with my feet turned out, but these seem minor. I suspect nearly everyone is ostracized in this way. The pointing out of these “flaws” actually motivated me to work on them until they were (almost) unnoticeable. If anything, I became more of an insider, part of the group that marginalized the “other” during most of the rest of my school years. I wouldn’t say I was a “Mean Girl,” but I sure didn’t step up and speak out when others were being shunned or treated hurtfully.

Teenage me, insecure.

In my first marriage, I accepted the role of a stay-at-home wife and mom. Although I had a degree, and a strong will, I sat through jokes, comments, and slights made by men who, gathered together and consuming alcohol, were supposed to be “funny” but were demeaning to women in general, and to those present in particular. I stayed quiet while my husband openly “checked out” and flirted with other women. I worked in restaurants where women were treated like objects to be groped in the kitchen by cooks and even managers. It barely crossed my mind that any of these things were other than typical male behavior that had to be endured.
The church, an attraction for terrorists.

Now, having been a minister for twenty years, I have witnessed and listened to tales of members of congregations treating ministers horribly. These people have been willing to use tactics that are so similar to those of terrorists that it is alarming. Indeed, I am not the first person to use the phrase “terrorists in the church.” Vague and indirect threats, surveillance, manipulation, secret meetings, misinformation, and much more have led to ministers’ resignations, terminations, upheaval in congregations, lack of trust in our community, dire financial and professional consequences, and yes.. I would argue, suicide and early death. Because ministers care about the other people in the congregation, as well as their own future, they often leave without pointing fingers, and the terrorism continues. This occurs across denominations. So, yes, there have been times when, as a clergy person, I have felt like a marginalized person, a person with no power, no agency, unable to express the truth or to be believed.

Nonetheless, I grew up and understood the issues surrounding my mother's untimely death and gleaned ways to cope. I was able to leave the marriage in which I felt demeaned and diminished, although I know that many women still bear this fate. And, although I faced the terrorism of antagonists in the church on numerous occasions, I gleaned tools to endure them, and I knew that ultimately I could leave ministry if I must.

It was not until, after adopting our son Seth, an autistic child who is now ten, that I experienced a fraction of what a person of color might. Because his disability is visible to others, because it is something he will always live with, and because there are so many stereotypes and misconceptions about Autism and ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorders) I have experienced, and witnessed him experience, judgment, cruelty, shunning, inequity, dismissal, and assumptions of every stripe from strangers and church members and even "family." It was in this arena that I finally glimpsed, perhaps, an iota of what a person of color must feel. Anger, rage, indignation, and even fury at the insensitivity and downright cruelty of human beings. And yet, I have also realized that I have been less compassionate than I ought to have been before Seth became a part of my life. Besides being a treasure, he has taught me innumerable lessons.
Seth & his teacher 2015

Now. All of this aside, I walk into the world each day with a freedom, a passport, a red carpet, and open doors.. all because of one thing. The color of my skin. But from this time on, I do not take that for granted.

For every privilege I accept, for everything that I have been given for free, including the benefit of the doubt, I will stand up for, fight for, argue for, the rights and freedoms of a person of color. It’s the least I can do.

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.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

On Not Smoking the Pope Dope

got the T shirts, didn't go....

Last Thursday, I happened to be in New York City as final preparations were underway for the arrival of Pope Francis. I didn't see any souvenirs, T shirts or banners, but as I made my way toward Penn Station, the streets were being cordoned off for what I imagine was a motorcade to happen in a few hours. The same day, my stepmother was transferred to Cooper Hospital in Camden for some tests. My immediate thought was: How will we get in and out of Camden this weekend? The city was to become an access point for folks walking in to see the Pontiff.

As it turned out, there were few problems. Camden was pretty much deserted, and I heard on NPR that only 250 of 8,000 parking spaces had been sold. Furthermore, just a small fraction of the day's reserved train tickets had been claimed, and there were still rooms available as well. It occurred to me that possibly, just maybe, the local Catholics were not smoking the Pope Dope.

Camden is a city that sits directly across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. Notorious for its high crime rate and urban blight, it stubbornly resists efforts at renewal. It has one of the highest rates of poverty in the nation.

I grew up here, ten or 15 miles from Camden. And yet, I can count the number of times that I've driven through its streets. So when, upon making the trip to the hospital on Saturday, I was routed through its residential section, I was unfamiliar with this town I have lived near for most of my life.

I came upon a mural. Hands, reaching up from bodies submerged or buried. People are drowning here. Calling for help. I saw people, on stoops and sidewalks, people of color, children, teenagers, old people. I knew the Pope was right across the river being shown the gleaming and glorious parts of Philly, and mostly white faces. It struck me then that this was where he needed to visit.

I grew up with Catholics. Italian, Irish, Polish and German Catholics. Some were just first or second generation Americans. But I can testify that even in the 1960s and 70s, those Catholics were not adhering to Catholic teaching. Maybe they felt guilty about it, but birth control, pre-marital sex, and even abortion were not off the table. I used to joke about how many times I might have gotten into someones confessions. Meanwhile, my father forbade us to go out with Catholics. So, Catholicism was something I didn't understand.

But I lived, for almost 40 years, in a world that did not acknowledge Camden, that didn't have to. When I reached the hospital, its gleaming plaza and the surrounding blocks of gentrified row homes were a stark contrast with the blighted buildings I had just passed.

Cooper Plaza, Camden

There were many things that troubled me about the Papal visit. But the one that may have disturbed me the most was the number of liberal and progressive people who expressed unqualified delight over the visit.

I watched with growing concern as he skimmed over the very serious question of child sexual abuse. This scourge is rampant, not only in the church, but throughout society, and with the Pope's influence, it might become possible for change to occur. As is, pedophiles are nearly free to go on with their abuse until enormous damage has been done. This is especially true when. as is often the case, the victims are in the perpetrator's family. A father, step-father, or close relative has almost carte-blanche to sexually abuse children in his care, and our so-called Child Protective Services look the other way. I have first hand experience of this, and of the lack of will to change it.

I couldn't believe that he canonized Junipero Serra. Where were the Native Americans who should have been protesting this? Here's a rather generous spin: Click here.

And , yes, there were attempts made by Native American rights groups, but where was the media? Click here.

Next, his refusal to acknowledge the role of women in leadership positions continues. The women priests who protested are courageous and determined. Two of them were ordained to the Priesthood at the UU Church of Lexington, KY while I served there. Click Here.

So, finally, when one of these moments came to light, one that has not been orchestrated for the press, but instead held in secret, people started back-pedaling. I'm guessing some may have gone back and erased their Pope-posts on facebook. Even I, who had remained skeptical and yet happy for the progress Francis represented, was stunned to hear about this. And yet, if we stop and think: the truth was there before us all along.

It actually helped me. Once I heard about Kim Davis, and the clandestine meeting, I decided something. I had been studying the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement. I was thinking about Camden, and Newark, and Jersey City, and asking myself how these balkanized cities are any better than the Indian reservations or internment camps or Jewish ghettos. Mostly, it became crystal clear how the lies, myths and half-truths we'd bought into have perpetuated all of this. It is hard for me to disentangle this from the institutional church, because this, along with family and school, is how myth, or truth, get learned. I'd been thinking a great deal about how change comes about, about power, systems, and organizations. I realized that I am completely over doing things the nice, kind, conciliatory way (those who know me will wonder when I ever did them this way.) I think the idea of revolution has merit, and an older person with less to lose has a part to play.

Black Lives Matter

This isn't about Francis at all. He may be a very kind man, or whatever you wish to believe. But anyone who steps into that role is bearing the weight, the burden, of the Catholic Church and its centuries of sins. I respect people (like many nuns whom I love and admire, or the woman priests) who stay in the church and wait and pray for its betterment. And I think it's also fine that he visit here. I am not a Catholic. Perhaps Catholics have reasons to be hopeful, or joyful, at signs of progress. To me, the stakes are high, and time is growing short.

But I admit that I am disheartened by how easily Americans allow themselves to be swept away by surface things, so much so that they fail to examine the underlying implications, the residual damage, or the potential left unmet. Yes, the Pope's visit was beautifully orchestrated, and everyone, Catholic and non, was able to see his finest qualities.

Interestingly, I am probably one liberal whose opinion of Francis did not change when the Kim Davis debacle broke. I never saw the man as infallible; I assumed he'd probably been somehow duped or misled into it; and yet it neither revealed him to be a homophobe nor did it turn out that he was indeed not opposed to what Kim Davis does. He is still, to me, the most humane Pope, and therefore, the one who has an enormous opportunity. 

We can do better than jump to conclusions and we must. We are being bamboozled in so many ways, and the future of this planet and its people depends upon our thinking clearly, reflectively, and acting courageously.

Camden, NJ.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Words and Worlds Part Two: Safety

I am writing this on the 52nd anniversary of the bombing of the Birmingham Baptist Church, an atrocity in which four little girls were murdered. The horror of this crime reverberated across the nation, and still does. While in Birmingham last Spring, for the 50th anniversary of the march on Selma. I took our son Seth to see the church, the memorials, and the park dedicated to the children of the Civil Rights movement. Seth understood, and was moved to caress and sit with the statues of the girls, especially the one who shares my name: Cynthia.

May we never forget

We didn't mention them, or the anniversary, in our service this past Sunday, however; in fact, I'd vowed not to mention anything related to the Black Lives Matter movement. Why? It had caused, as of Sunday, two members of the congregation so much distress that they felt the need to take a leave of absence. Not that they opposed the sentiment. They simply felt that we had exposed ourselves to far too much danger and risk without adequate safety and security in place, something they had lobbied for since the new and beautiful facility was constructed in a wooded site partly obstructed from view. It had become clear that the stress occasioned by the online attacks, threats, and now this departure, albeit temporary, of beloved members, had set everyone on edge.

My mind and heart was, I knew, in a different place. To me, the risk was a calculated one, and small: after all, the church's liberal stances were well known, and it had stood, undisturbed, for 7 years. And UU churches, nearly a thousand of them, functioned all over the country without incident. The one shooting that had occurred, in Tennessee, could have happened anywhere. A bitter ex-husband, who hated the liberals because his wife had gone there, came in one Sunday, determined to enact revenge. There was no way anyone could have prepared for or predicted that.

What I saw, and had witnessed, in my interviews, my reading, and my conversations, was that African Americans lived every day with the heightened level of threat that we had experienced for approximately two weeks. I saw this as a kind of opportunity to examine our white privilege.
But to have said so this Sunday, after this couple announced their leave, would have been a bad move.

It was Water Gathering Sunday. People bring waters collected from the places they've traveled that year. I did manage to mention that we ought not celebrate these moments without an acknowledgment that so many on this earth exist without water, or with contaminated water, and this year, in particular, refugees are being drowned trying to reach safe shores. Even here, we are being faced with the realities of drought on our West Coast. In reality, the Water Communion has become less and less meaningful to me, a rather inward-looking ritual that points to our utter lack of awareness of our privilege. But, I digress.

So, that same week, that issues about the safety of our building really came to a climax. with a Board meeting, followed by other special meetings, a large budget request, and many action items to improve our security (not only because of the sign, but because they were always needed, and the sign issues brought them to light), I could not help seeing the irony as I corresponded with a new member of our congregation.

Aaron & Stephanie's kids w/ kids from the AME congregation at our dedication

His name is Aaron. He and his family have attended regularly, and joined the Anti-Racism Task Force. One of the things his wife told me is how frightened their kids have been that he or another Black male in their family will be killed by police, since they have seen and heard the news this past year. So, on the Sunday after our sign was defaced and then re-hung, Aaron and Stephanie had offered to teach the kids about the Black Lives Matter movement. Of course, they didn't know that it would be painted over with white paint by the time Sunday came. Here's Aaron & Stephanie.

I was home in Kentucky that Sunday, and had to do all my connecting by phone and email, but while on the way back, I met with my Interim mentor in West Virginia. I was telling her about the sign, and the vandalism, and our decision to return it to the roadside with the vandalism. I then read Aaron's emails to her, and she was very moved. She asked me if she could include them in her sermon, so I asked Aaron for permission to share: 

Hi everybody,

 First off,  this is a very bittersweet moment for me personally.  It's great to see so many of us coming together for this cause but at the same time,  we're still coming together to fight a fight that has been started in this 60's,  civil rights. 

One thing that bothers me is how the word "black" automatically means the "black" race when it's deep than that.  The "black power movement" was a movement that focused on giving "power" to the oppressed people. The "blacks only" sign also applied to any and all POC (people of color).  I'm not the founder of "Black Lives Matter" but I feel it's the same concept.  

Teaching the kids Sunday really opened my eyes to how many people are affected by racism,  not just people of color.  The fact that KIDS are being threatened for who they want to hang out with makes sick.  It showed me that POC are not the only ones going through this nightmare. 

We only hear in the media the extreme cases of police misconduct.  But we don't here about the countless times of harassment that POC endure from law enforcement and the community daily. Where's the governors?  Mayors?  Judges?  Lawyers? How can we reach out to them and get them involved?  Reaching out to Stockton and even ACCC is a GREAT idea.  The more people we can get involved the better. 

 Later, he writes.....
I can't thank you enough.  Your words means so much to me and the acceptance I feel for me and my family from the congregation is nothing short of amazing.  How ever I can help/contribute I am more than willing.  This is very new to me so I'm trying my best not to "vent" but for so long it seems my concerns for this community (Atlantic County) falls on deaf ears.  I've been close to a lot of people in the "streets". Growing up between Atlantic City and Pleasantville for most of my life,  I've seen the good and bad from the residents and law enforcement.  With that being said,  the only time I've ever had a gun pulled on me was by a police officer,  on several occasions. Me being unarmed of course,  getting of the SCHOOL bus,  coming home from playing basketball all day,  and even jogging home from the gym were the times I've encountered this situation to name a few (it's happened a few more times)  all to be told "I fit the description". Again,  I can't thank you and the congregation enough for welcoming me and my family and making us feel at peace outside of our home.

I look forward to helping anyway I can.Thanks again,


 It was only then, upon re-reading, that I saw their import: Aaron had told me that it was only in our church that he and his family could feel peace outside their home.. could feel, in other words. safe.

So we have this collision of worlds. People who think we are in great danger because we have posted a sign supporting Black Lives Matter.. and people who feel, finally, a haven. 

To be continued.

When Words (and Worlds) Collide

First Baptist Church Springfield, KY

My current situation: serving a congregation in New Jersey, 3/4 time as a two year interim pastor, living in my childhood home, and returning to my family and permanent home/farm in Kentucky one week per month, can be confusing. Both places are "home."  But since I have markedly increased the active work on racial issues in both places, the juxtaposition and collision of worlds has grown even more. 

Don't be fooled by easy assumptions! Indeed, my worst nightmares with overt racism are coming true NOT in Kentucky, but in the rural Pinelands of South Jersey where, evidently, the Southern Poverty Law Center's statistics are accurate, as are those of members of our congregation who say they know: hate groups are active, and mind sets are conservative and reactionary. And, when it comes to race, conservative means bigoted. 

There is no large city in South Jersey equivalent to Lexington or Louisville, where folks can find bastions of sanity and progressive, egalitarian values. Long time residents, it would seem, have chosen to co-exist with these racist and dangerously hate-filled individuals without speaking up or challenging them, and so, the mere fact that we, a church, dared put a sign on our own property, with three little words proclaiming a rather modest sentiment: Black Lives Matter, is seen as an affront that must be put under attack immediately. In 2015.I am still in shock over this. Nonetheless, I find that even with each of my two "worlds," I am constantly making adjustments and shifting my ability to listen and learn based upon where I find myself.

Pansy Valdez, right, co-creator of Springfield project

 Here is one example: While in Kentucky, I have started to attend the AME Chapel in Springfield, which is, of course, primarily African American. I first visited to meet Australia Poole, one of the men I interviewed for my book/project, who is a deacon there. Now I enjoy going because the  of the greatpeople, the choir (led by Tyrone, an out gay man in a town that heretofore as far as I could tell, had NO gay people, Black or white) and the Pastor, Michelle Washington, whose preaching I can only describe as fiery! Meanwhile, Pansy Valdez, with whom I am conducting the interviews, has urged me to attend her church (the other Black congregation other than the Black Catholic church), so I went for Sunday school.

The first woman I had interviewed was teaching the class. I was already a bit discomfited at finding that we walked on past a classroom filled with men, and entered an all-female class. But I was delighted to see familiar faces, women I'd met via the project. I was warmly welcomed. The lesson was from Acts 4:31 "And when they had prayed, the place was shaken where they were assembled together; and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and they spoke the word of God with boldness." Within the first ten minutes, our teacher informed us that she could not help thinking of Kim Davis, "that poor woman in Morehead," who had been speaking and standing up for God's word, and was being persecuted for it right now. 

This was so unexpected for me, so alarmingly unexpected, that I just listened for as long as I could. The entire hour turned into more or less a diatribe against homosexuality. The best thing I can say is that about half of the people (including Pansy) did not take part, and were quiet. But Wanda, the teacher, was one of the strongest and most articulate leaders in the community and she was leading this conversation. My biggest thought, aside from the fact that their literal interpretation of scripture needed some challenging, was that these very same people who were supporting Kim Davis were the people who would be out flying Confederate flags and supporting racist-tinged rants by would-be Presidential candidates. They went on to talk about how people would "roll over in their graves" if the saw what some people are doing today, and how the government is allowing it; how "those" people used to move to the city, but now they are right here; and finally (this is where I also saw a glimmer of hope) they have always been around, there is nothing new under the sun. 

Finally, she asked if anyone else had something to say. I raised my hand, realizing that my hopes and dreams for the project might be going out the Sunday School windows. I  guess I need to say that nowhere in Jesus' teachings did he speak about homosexuality. He loved everyone, even the worst sinners. I understand that you might oppose gay marriage, or maybe you even believe homosexuality is a sin, but I have many friends and family members who are gay, my church is inclusive of gay people, and it is hurtful to hear you talk this way. Jesus loved everyone, regardless. I'm just being bold, as you taught us, and asking you to consider that. Of course, they became defensive and told me that they didn't HATE gay people, they just hated the sin, and that it WAS in the Bible (Sodom & Gomorrah) etc. Still, I hope they heard me. I left a few minutes before 11 to go to Johnson Chapel. Chris, another woman I'd interviewed, followed me into the hall. She had not joined the harangue. She hugged me and told me her sister was gay, and she understood. 

Just a minute later, I reached the steps of the AME Chapel, and ran into Pastor Michelle, who was getting something from her car. "I didn't know you'd be here!" she exclaimed. I asked her how she was: Not good. Oh, do you have a bug? No, the Lord hasn't spoken to me this morning. Oh! I showed her the article in the paper that I was carrying, about our sign, and told her that it had just been vandalized, we had had threats made against us, and then asked for her prayers. But I also told her that I was still shaking because of what I'd heard at the Baptist Church, and she looked alarmed. They are saying that there? She lives in Louisville, and although she has pastored in the small, remote village for many years, I do think the parochial mindset is still distant for her in some ways. 

I was never so delighted as I was to be in that place that morning. Pastor Michelle gave a gorgeous homily. There was a warm and relaxed atmosphere, and a great deal of humour. Tyrone was absent, so the choir had to muddle along without him. Mistakes were made. We had communion. I felt so at home, because the words were so close to those used in my faith of origin, the Episcopal Church. The litany was a special one, called "Commitment to End Racism Sunday." The text for the sermon was: Ecclesiates 1. There is nothing new under the sun. Yes. The very same words I'd just heard uttered with scorn at the Baptist Sunday school. But Pastor Wasington took these words, and preached up a storm, as is her wont, about how all the material things of this earth mean less than nothing if you don't have God, if you don't fix your mind on higher things, if you don't open your fist from grasping and give to others, help others, and ; love others. Same words, used to increase love instead of increasing hate. 

When words and worlds collide. To be continued.

All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full.
Unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.
All things are full of labour, man cannot utter it.
The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be.
And that which is done is that which shall be done.
There is nothing new under the sun.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015


One thing they DID teach us in history, along with all they did NOT, was the history of the lunch counter sit-ins. Somehow that was an almost "nice" part of the Civil Rights movement, along with Dr. King, his eloquent speeches, and the peaceful demonstrations he led.

But anyone who took the time to dig even a little deeper knows full well that even the lunch counter sit-ins had an ugly, vile, side to them. Whites were allowed to taunt, torment, and abuse those who sat patiently. And it was not only black students who sat. Many of these demonstrations were mixed-race, where whites supporters sat with black students, taking their punishment, which may at times have even been more harsh.

Here is one description of some of these events:

Lunch Counter Sit-Ins

I've been mindful of this lately, as we've struggled at the congregation I serve in New Jersey with the decision to post a sign that says, simply BLACK LIVES MATTER, by our own church sign on the road in front of our property, and, as over the succeeding two weeks, we have been the recipients of hateful, spiteful and even threatening calls, emails, and facebook posts, an outpouring shocking both in relation to the percieved "offense" (after all, this is America and we have free speech?) as well as in relation to the location.

When I visited the local AME congregation here in Springfield, KY, a place I've worshipped before, and told the (woman) pastor, she was visibly surprised: "In New Jersey?" she repaeated several times. "I just can not believe it."

Well, believe it, everyone. It's true. And even though we have determined that the majority of facebook posts came from outside the local area, and even from out-of-state, most were from states north of the Mason Dixon line. And, I don't think that whoever took it upon themselves to spray paint over our sign came here from Indiana or Michigan to do so. No, we live amongst racists. We need to look around now, with new vision, vision that has been clouded and confounded too long.

There is much to do. 

I'm reading a book called Devil in the Grove. It's a story about the early days of Thurgood Marshall's career and a horrifying case of injustice in Florida. It makes me realize all that our sisters and brothers of color have lived with and dealt with day by day, year by year, in this country. And it makes me realize how little we have acknowledged it. 

Hence I propose that putting a sign up that says BLACK LIVES MATTER is an act like sitting at a whites-only lunch counter, although we may not have intended it to be. It is a provocative act. Like those who sat at the counters, we may not leave it there for ever. It has to be followed now by meaningful, courageous work. I simply pray that the import, not of the sign, but of the backlash, will not be lost upon all of us.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Gaslighting of the Movement & Non-Violent Resistance in the Virtual World

In the days that followed the ceremony and the hanging of our "Black Lives Matter" sign, I waited each morning for the call to come: The sign has been stolen. The sign has been destroyed. The sign has been vandalized. This, because probably about half of the signs that have been hung, or posted at UU congregations, have been stolen, ruined, or painted over, by vandals.

But not just any vandals. Vandals with a specific, malicious purpose. Vandals with the energy and focus and the ill will and intent to get up early in the morning, park their car where it won't be noticed, and apply spray paint, all the while crouching and hiding along a busy road, to our nearly $400 double- sided sign.

To turn the words "Black Lives Matter" into "All Lives Matter."

So when I heard about the vandalism, a mere ten days after the ceremony to install our sign, I was sad but not surprised. I had been meeting with a man whose cancer had returned, and talking about deeper things. Talking about life, death, family, and love. His love for the world, and for another friend, whom he will eulogize next week.

Shortly after that meeting, I had to prepare to return to Kentucky to spend the Labor Day weekend with my family. Stopping along the way to field calls from TV, radio, and newspaper reporters about the damage, as well as congregational leaders about the decision to re-hang the sign when we realized it could not be repaired, it took me 5 hours longer than usual to travel home.

I had plenty of time to ruminate upon what had happened, what was happening, how I and the congregation had responded, would respond, and what it all meant.

The war on Black Lives Matter has had a two-pronged front, and neither have validity. One purports that the movement is "Anti-Police" and must be stopped. The danger here is not so much the ignorant and ill-informed citizens that believe it as it is the pundits, politicians, and media moguls who are perpetrating this notion. The reality is that a better-trained, more well-informed law enforcment and judicial system and citizenry will benefit our officers as well as criminals and unarmed citizens. the reality is that people want to shut down this dialogue because they fear facing the facts about over-policing, police brutality, and unwarranted killing of not only Black citizens, but citizens of all backgrounds. Because the facts are incredibly disturbing, and demand change. Because people fear and resist change.

The second prong of this attack is the idea that Black Lives Matter is "racist" because "All Lives Matter," and so somehow it is wrong to focus on only Black ones. The absurdity of this argument is so blatant that I don't even want to spend time on it. Somehow, I prefer the anti-police argument, because there I can see the line of reasoning, the fear that exists for officers of the peace, the difficult decisions they have to make, the anxiety their loved ones face, and I can extend my compassion to understand the defensive and angry reactions they or their families might have to "Black Lives Matter."

But these people, goaded on by the politicians and the commentators who irresponsibly feed their anger, are actually dangerous. We are heading into a time where the simple and legitimate request for the grievances of the Black (and yes, Brown) community to be addressed is at a crisis point, and what we are seeing is an attempt to stifle it, tamp it down, shut off all avenues of dialogue.

Unitarian Universalists aren't going to allow that. When the rubber hits the road, we will be there. I know this about my fellow people of the liberal faith. We are going to hold the line. We are the people of reason and we are the people of justice and courage.

So my own act of non-violent non-resistance right now, is to keep on preaching, keep on reaching, keep on speaking, keep on hanging up the sign, keep teaching, and not be delayed. deterred, distracted, depressed, demeaned, or detoured by these voices of hate and untruth.... be they on Facebook, with spray paint, in comments on the articles, or on the radio. I don't answer them, and for the most part, I don't read them.

Truth does have a way. The sign is back up.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015


Over the past three weeks, I have had adequate time to reflect upon three words. Black. Lives. Matter. Since I am a "word person," an English major, a writer, a preacher, and a reader, words are my tools. They are my weapons at times, my children sometimes, and my companions. It is words that have opened my mind, and words that have helped me to be of service to others.

I think we knew that posting a sign that read Black Lives Matter  on the road in front of our church's property was a big decision. We prepared for months, explaining it to the congregation through various venues. I preached on it numerous times.

We had a ceremony on Sunday, August 23, to dedicate the sign. It was a beautiful day, and a beautiful ceremony. Singing. Holding hands. Tears.

Some things happened that day that I suspect will remain in my memory for the rest of my days. When I told the minister of the nearest AME congregation about our decision to post the sign, she said that she would come, and support us. As it turned out, those friends who came from St. Paul AME were not the only persons of color who showed up. We do have, now 4 families and individuals who are African American.. they were there, and brought family, and a Community Organizer from Atlantic City came, bringing a Black minister. Another minister we had met in our community work showed up too, just as the ceremony was ending.

But it was actually a few unplanned things that stand out for me: first, one of our members offered to sing. She sang, "A Change is Gonna Come," and that was how we opened the service. Her singing was radiant. It brought everyone into the shared space, hearts and minds. Then, I had asked our Board President, Art Wexler, to say a few words. Art is a recently retired administrator of a Community College. He is quiet and unassuming, but wise and direct. He started to speak, and then he said, "One more thing: Michael Brown's life.. mattered. Freddie Gray's life.. mattered. Eric Garner's life mattered." He mentioned a few others. But then he continued, "Emmett Till's life mattered. Medgar Evars' life mattered. These killings we have seen this year are abominations.." During his words, I heard the softly whispered chorus of "Yes," and "Amen," from the Black attendees. That's when tears filled my eyes. But it was not until hours later, driving home, that the full impact of what Art had dne with those few words hit me, and I shook with sobs. He had been, in a sense saying the Jewish prayer of mourning, the Kaddish, and raising the importance of these deaths (ehich until that moment hadn't been mentioned that day) to the same level as those historic, history-making ones. You see, Art grew up in a Jewish household, but he also attended an historically black college, so even though he is quiet, and reitiring, he has a wealth of thought, and just the right words. I can only begin to imagine how hearing those words from a white male in a position of power must have felt to our guests. Words.

These people were with us because we have been building relationships. We have started to attend walks in Atlantic City organized by the Police Department; we have been helping at a food bank, also in Atlantic City; and we sent flowers to St. Paul AME after the murders in Charleston.

But creating relationships where trust and goodwill are present takes time, effort and wisdom. I feel as if my own preconceptions are being challenged every day. Talking with police officers, especially officers who are persons of color, about their work, the dangers, the decisions they have to make, how they feel about the Black Lives Matter movement, is a bit scary but so important.

Each time I leave Atlantic City, I feel as if I am being born to some entirely new understanding of my life, my world, my childhood, and my past. The words, "Atlantic City" meant nothing to me except "boardwalk," "Miss America," and, later, "casinos." Although I lived a bit over an hour away, I probably went to Atlantic City three times. But I didn't go to the city. It never even crossed my mind that here is a place, a residence, a city inhabited primarily by people of color. 
map showing racial makeup of Jersey shore area, including Atlantic City
Green area is AC (Black residents) Blue =white residents

People who went there to work in hotels, casinos, and in many cases were born there because their parents worked there. There are schools, neighborhoods, gangs, and lots of children. There is hunger, joy, addiction, beauty, love, and renewal. These are my fellow citizens of New Jersey. I love getting to meet them at the food bank, and exhanging a few words. These words, I feel, are like gems. It matters  what I say. Many times, they brighten my day even more than I do theirs. They are survivors. They matter.

You don't have to go far inland to find some of the most virulent hate groups this land has to offer. Right here in South Jersey. Indeed. I was told, the week before we posted the sign, that a "convoy" of these trucks had driven through the towns near our church, including the one we are located in. SPLC (Southern Poverty Law Center) lists 18 hate groups in New Jersey, far more than in Kentucky. I took this picture of two in Manahawkin, near Long Beach Island. What I continue to contemplate every day is the distance I am traversing, short in miles, and yet light years in experience, opportunity, economy, accessibilty, I have taken for granted. This is white privilege. By posting the banner, by wearing the pin, or the wristband, by doing the work of building relationships, I am unlearning white privilege. And there are moments when I simply can not believe it. What it takes to maintain this.

Here's a death threat one of my colleagues recieved on our Facebook page. These people are out there. As soon as the story of our banner and the dedication appeared in the Atlantic City Press, we were bombarded with posts attacking us for the banner. Many of them just said, "All Lives Matter" over and over. But many were far worse, cursing our church, calling us racist, cop-haters, evil, and lots of other things. They've begun to simmer down, but I feel certain that this war of words is going on everywhere, all over the Internet, and that very few people are being convinced either way. I also recognize that many of these people are women. They are angry and vile, and I can't help thinking of the women who stood out in front at the Civil Rights protests, their faces contorted with hate:

After a while, I decided to find out where these people lived. They live all over the country (by the way, almost none in the South, but some in Texas), but only 1 or 2 in New Jersey. This was so helpful. It made me realize that while our immediate neighbors might  be the KKK members or the Confederate flag truck-people, they weren't the ones on Facebook. Maybe they will just chalk our sign up to another thing those liberals are doing, and leave us alone.

But some members of our congregation don't agree. They feel we need to ramp up our security, and that is happening. Three words. Three little words that should be self-evident. I look ahead and wonder, what will our children say about this time? "Why did people attack others for saying 'Black Lives Matter?' " "Was it that bad?"

Well, yes, it is that bad. That's why we have to say it, and go on saying it, despite the threats, the taunts, the vile, ugly attacks. Because the opposite of Black Lives Matter is not "All lives matter." It is "Black lives don't matter." That is being shown to us in countless ways. And attacks on the sign, and on the words, are one more way.