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.