The Fierce Urgency of Now

A sermon delivered during the 2018 Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Birthday Celebration, sponsored by the Black Heritage Library and Multicultural Center of Findlay, Ohio, and held in the sanctuary of the Church of the Living God, Findlay, Ohio, Monday, January 15, 2018.

Last month, I did something that I typically do ever December.  I had my eyes examined.  As in prior years, the optometrist confirmed what I already knew:  I suffer from nearsightedness.  This means I have a hard time focusing on images or words that are far away from me.  When I look ahead at the road signs when driving on I-75, all I see is a colorful blur.  I can’t seem to focus.  Remember that when you see me on the road!

The fact is, many among us and around us suffer from vision issues, yet not all of them have to do with our eyes.  For within many boardrooms and boroughs where decision makers dwell, and within the chambers and corridors where communal power and group privilege intersect, a troubling level of nearsightedness can be detected among many.

Social, economic and political nearsightedness is a condition that blocks many of us from seeing and considering the realities and issues of people we perceive to live far from where we live even if only around the corner or across the railroad tracks.  This condition can lead to personal discounting of their experiences and systemic distortion of their aspirations, just because they happen to have a skin color we are not familiar or comfortable with, or speak language we do not understand, or those who wear a hoodie instead of business attire, or subscribe to a religion that does not enjoy mainstream, star-studded, celebrity status across the land.

Social, economic and political nearsightedness, when left uncorrected, not only disables our ability to see other people, but it spreads to other vital functions. It weakens our hearing to the point where we mute their voices, claiming not to even hear their complaints or record their versions of truth while giving automatic credibility to the narratives of those who possess the power of position and uniform and prioritized skin pigmentation.

This nearsightedness ultimately leads to a cardiac concern, a social heart condition where we withhold care and compassion from the most vulnerable around us while holding fast to an ideology that accepts catastrophic hunger as normal, glorifies greed as a sign of success, and allows bullying to masquerade as political leadership, while crafting make-believe problems like voter fraud, and then devising a real-life draconian solution called Voter ID as a winning political strategy for those who are bankrupt of creative, workable ideas for the common good.

I would submit to you today that too many people in too many communities in too many segments of the human enterprise suffer from social, economic and political nearsightedness and are therefore living unfocused lives, lacking the ability or the desire to see clearly; just feeling their way along, no compelling vision; clear direction, no captivating plan of action.

Accordingly, I maintain that the most under-rated yet significant threat to the societal well-being and human progress is the seemingly growing number of unfocused actors who live day-to-day with no commitment to the common good.

When you suffer from comprehensive nearsightedness, you are a candidate for living an unfocused life; you don’t know what you are, who you are, or why you’re even on the planet.  When you’re living an unfocused life, you’re really not living; you’re just existing, hanging out, settling for that which is simple, and embracing that which is easy, and you hold onto that which makes you and you alone happy, and most of all, you confuse being nice with being just.

The goal of unfocused institutions and organizations, including organized religion, is to produce generations of nice people, people who embrace and espouse a live-and-let-live approach to life.  Here’s the motivation:  the nicer one is, the more rewards one receives.

After all, just last month and every preceding December, so many of us joined together to sing to our children and anyone else who will listen to these well-worn words, “you’d better watch out, you’d better not cry, you’d better not pout, I’m telling you why.  Santa Claus is coming to town.

Here are the money verses (literally!):  He’s making a list and checking it twice, gonna find out who’s naughty and nice, Santa Claus is coming to town.  He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake.  He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake!”  Who knew that Santa Claus worked for the FBI or Google?

This behavioral national anthem says it all.  Nice people are desired.  Nice people are rewarded.  Why?  Because nice people do not cause any trouble.

They have read the social script and internalized the social contract, which reads in large print:  Just be nice; be a team player; smile; if asked how you’re doing, respond “just fine” even if you have rocking pneumonia and the boogie-woogie flu; speak to people; follow all rules and instructions; worship God once a week; mind your own business; embrace shallowness; and do not under any circumstances ask any probing questions of anyone in authority!

It is this litany of expectations that comprise the gospel of nice.  However, as with prominent prescription drugs that are pushed every hour via television commercials, there are some side effects that come along with simply being nice.

Nice people view their faith adherence as a little else than a personal code of conduct, a sign of social respectability, an individualized self-help system, and a means to eternal life some glad morning when this life is over;

Nice people have memorized Robert’s Rules of Order, and live by their own version of their Miranda Rights:  They reserve the right to remain silent in the face of glaring injustice and group humiliation right across town, around the corner, across the country, and around the world, as such preserves their image as non-controversial beings;

Nice people affirm with enthusiasm that “All Lives Matter” while refusing to take seriously the stories, eye-witness accounts, and cell-phone video clips of those who beg to differ with that affirmation.

Nice people view this very day, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a day off, a day to get a good deal on a mattress or a car; or one day out of the entire year to engage in some meaningful, non-nearsighted act of caring.

When one aspires simply to be nice, essentially, that one elects to become somewhat of a societal butter knife, shiny, dull, and non-threatening to anyone.

This is how some broadcasters, politicians, and even religionists have repackaged, remixed, and repurposed the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  In a seemingly concerted effort, these pundits have dismissed the fact that Dr. King was a Christian, a Baptist minister whose work for justice was rooted in and demanded by his faith. Moreover, they have whitewashed his anti-racist activism; downplayed his critique of capitalism; ignored his rejection of the Vietnam War; glossed over his disgust with low wages for Black workers; diluted his outrage over the denial of Black people’s right to vote; and looked past his pointed and game-changing rebuke of the silent lambs of White faith groups who criticized him and called him an antagonist.

All of this and more, they have done in order to reduce Dr. King into being a butter knife, a harmless, non-threatening, simple dreamer of a colorblind society.  Thank God that you and I, and millions of others, know better.

While I really do not wish to believe that the nice people I describe here have no compelling vision, pardon me as I suggest just that.  For nice people who live as I have outlined here are essentially agents of the status quo, and when they are in leadership, serve less as leaders and more as curators of the museum of unenacted dreams or worse, managers of credit unions that are often confused as being houses of faith where the benefits of love and acceptance are afforded only to those who fit the membership profile.

Now I am not saying that we should not strive to be pleasant people, and I am not granting permission for anyone to be rude or license for anyone to be insulting. After all, recent signals out of Washington illustrate the clear and present dangers that exist when bigotry is married to political power, and when undisguised hate is given a hall pass by seemingly responsible others who elevate their political viability over what is just and what is right, as they somehow cannot recall vulgarity as spewed from the commander-in-chief.

However, if we are to take Martin Luther King, Jr. Day seriously; if justice is what we truly seek, and if peace is what we honestly aspire to attain, now is the time for us to say to ourselves and to our neighbors domestically and globally that being nice is not enough. Now is the time!

What I am offering here is that there is a problem in being nice as if it were an anesthetic for societal pain or a vaccination from the ills of your neighbors who live across town or across the state in poverty and in a food desert.  I mean to suggest that it is perilous to simply aspire to be nice in order to avoid controversy.

For if we exist only to be nice and hear people say great things about us, we will always live a compromised life.  We cannot be true to the values of God and God’s decisive expectation for justice and goodwill because we are living by the laws of self-preservation.  We, therefore, end up producing generations of faith leaders who know more about Robert and his amazing rules for running a meeting than they do about the expectations of their faith and the needs of people in their contexts and beyond

Dr. King’s ministry centered on his understanding of Jesus and the movement he started.  So then, consider the life of Jesus, as presented particularly in Luke 4.  Jesus was riding the wave of popularity.  He had been running a revival, teaching in Galilee and all throughout the countryside.  Jesus was teaching in synagogue after synagogue.  He was on the preaching circuit, traveling on his camel limousine service, and trailed by Holyland Security. Everybody was seemingly on his side.

However, Jesus refused to live by the social contract!  He was not that blond-haired, blue-eyed, passive “Sweet little Jesus boy” you see so often in religious artwork – given his North African/Mediterranean origins, I do not recognize that image of Jesus.  Biblical Jesus rejected a life of comfort because he lived a life of conviction!  Jesus was not living an unfocused, anything goes kind of life! He didn’t have nearsightedness, but omniscient vision, for he could see the oppressed, those who had been kicked out, locked out, and left out of the mainstream of society.

The Bible says he was filled, not with fear, not with insecurity, not with selfishness, but the Spirit!  And if you remember, the Spirit led him to leave the comfort zone of praise, and go home! (Christians whose praises never lead to protesting injustice make me a bit nervous!)

Jesus went home.  He took the risk of going back to Nazareth where he had been brought up.  He went home where people knew him. And once in worship, he defined himself in the words of the prophet Isaiah, saying that he was anointed to preach good news to the poor;  He was anointed to preach release to the captives.

He was anointed to bring sight to the blind;  He was anointed let the oppressed go free;  He was anointed to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor!  This was life-transforming, systems-altering social justice ministry, the kind that animated and punctuated the ministry of the historic Black church that resisted and fought what Jim Wallis calls, America’s original sin: racism. The Historic Black Church is America’s Original Freedom Institution.

Dr. King helped us to embrace the fact that working for justice is sacred, urgent, authentic work of people of faith, and because of this, I get anxious every January when people in the news media refer to Dr. King only as a “slain Civil Rights leader,” for we all know that he was much more than a slain Civil Rights leader: he was a minister of the radical gospel of Jesus Christ, living out sacred, urgent, authentic ministry as anointed by the Holy Spirit.

So many Christians say they want their congregations to experience transformation, yet what they are really saying is they want to keep them from dying.  I am sympathetic to their aspirations.  However, transformation is not some software program or some app you download and it fixes your faith community; transformation is a spiritual process, where people of faith actually practice their faith and live as God leads them.

The transforming presence of God covers you and changes you, alters you and rearranges you!  When God is with you, you become a new creation!  No longer do you belong to yourself; you are not ruled by concrete, xenophobic conservatism; you are not driven by big talk/little action liberalism; and you definitely don’t participate in anybody’s tea party, no matter how well all their candidates debate; for you transcend party because you belong to God. You are in God’s love/justice movement!

God’s presence gives you the power to risk your respectability, and sacrifice your social status in order to live as Dr. King and so many others did, as agents of holy change!

Dr. King said, “that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness, stand up for justice, stand up for truth.” He would go on to say, “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”

Following Dr. King’s lead, I must affirm that if God is with us, and if we are with God, we will live by a Reverse Miranda ruling, meaning that we will not remain silent in the face of social injustice!

We will not remain silent in an era of obscene sexual harassment in the workplace punctuated by the scandal of paying women less than men who work the same jobs;

We will not remain silent while our loved ones and neighbors succumb to addictions and others suffering from mental illnesses;

We will not remain silent while human trafficking and modern-day slavery consume lives of women, men, and children domestically and globally;

We will not remain silent while hate groups are given new life and a perverse credibility by misguided politicians and underinformed leaders;

Let us speak out until deportations cease and people are given fair pathways to citizenship!

Speak out until everyone, especially the most vulnerable among us, has access to health care and appropriate medical treatment!

Speak out until no one is subject to lose their job of their home because of who they love or their gender identification!

We will speak out until mass incarceration comes to a screeching halt and the death penalty is dismantled!

We will speak out, affirming that yes, all lives matter, yet in an age of systemic racism, White privilege, and related patterns of state-sponsored violence and exclusion, we boldly and unapologetically reject any notion of colorblindness, and we forever assert that Black Lives Matter!

My friends, when I use the term, “we”, I am suggesting that the work for justice and peace has not been assigned to any one race, religion, agency, or neighborhood.

This sacred endeavor is a calling and a responsibility we all share.  For people who identify as progressive or supportive of the common good all know that the work for justice is not an elective course but a core requirement if we as a community will become a beloved community.

As Dr. King asserted in 1958, “Desegregation is only a partial, though necessary step toward the ultimate goal which we seek to realize. Desegregation will break down legal barriers, and bring ‘people’ together physically. But something must happen so as to touch the hearts and souls of ‘people’ that they will come together, not because the law says it, but because it is natural and right. In other words, our ultimate goal is integration which is genuine intergroup and interpersonal living. Only through nonviolence can this goal be attained, for the aftermath of nonviolence is reconciliation and the creation of the beloved community.”

So I sat there in the optometrist’s chair, receiving my annual eye examination. Now except for dilation and that dreaded puff of air thing, I thought this ought to be a relatively smooth experience.

What I liked the most about the eye examination was the part where I got to experiment with different lenses.  I felt as if I were on “Let’s Make a Deal” as the doctor asked, “Which lens is better one or two? One or two?  This one or that one?  Ultimately, he asked me one last time, which is better, one or two?  Of course, I chose the lens that helped me attain clear vision, with no fuzziness.

As my doctor read my responses, he added a twist.  He said not only did I need glasses, I needed bifocals!  I said, excuse me!  Don’t you know who I am?  I am Mr. Forever 21!  Cutting through my vanity, he explained to me that if I were going to have clear vision, I needed corrective lenses, even bifocals.  So here I am on this platform tonight, trying to adjust to my new “progressive lens” glasses.

My friends, unlike the false ballistic missile warning for Hawaii, the fragmentation that plagues us, the discrimination that haunts us, and the indifference that weakens us, serve as real threats to the collective wellness and progress of our nation.

In order to turn back the threat, we as a society need corrective lenses! Progressive lenses!  It is time for new vision!

Allow Dr. King to be our optometrist!  Let the light of his life transform our societal darkness, and thus give us a vision where love outdistances fear, hope outruns despair, unity outpaces division and justice outlasts unfairness!

It is a vision where all can triumph and none is trivialized!

Let us commit ourselves to honoring everybody, respecting anybody, serving somebody, and hating nobody!

Allow this vision to cause us to live the words of the old spiritual that Dr. King loved deeply, If I can help somebody as I pass along; if I can cheer somebody with a word or song; if I can show somebody that he or she is traveling wrong, then my living shall not be in vain!  Amen!


This Christian’s Response to the Nashville Statement

Amid heartfelt national concern for rescue, relief and recovery for thousands of Hurricane Harvey-impacted people in Texas, and as people in Charlottesville and across the land tenaciously continue efforts to dismantle the monuments of white supremacy and disrupt the machinery of systemic racism, a group of church folks, sequestered in Nashville, Tennessee, somehow found time to issue an edict against our LGBTQ sisters and brothers.

However, what those behind the Nashville Statement seem incapable of grasping is that they do not own a copyright on what makes for authentic Christianity.  Therefore, I am glad today that there are significant and sizable numbers of Christians across this land who possess biblical and theological understandings that are directly and dramatically opposite of those that erupted from Nashville, and I am privileged to be among them.

Together, we categorically refuse to allow the bold and bright sun of our authentically Christian convictions of love and equality, and honor and acceptance of all people, including our LGBTQ sisters and brothers, to be eclipsed by the small moon of fear, bigotry and nullification.  As a diverse array of people who are sparked by the grace of God and stitched together by the dual threads of our God-given dignity and worth, we will endeavor to live the words of faith and vision of the Peter Scholtes song many of us sang at church camp, “We will work with each other, we will work side-by-side, and we’ll guard each one’s dignity and save each one’s pride.”

As we do this, the nation and world will know we are Christians, not by our ability to isolate and humiliate, or dominate and denigrate, but by our love. Amen

Things I Wanted Senator McCain to Say

Like millions of other Americans, I heard Senator John McCain’s impassioned speech to his colleagues in the United States Senate today, July 25, 2017.  It was quite uplifting to watch him enter the Senate Chamber to cast his vote on the healthcare debate after having undergone surgery last week to remove a cancerous tumor from his brain.  When I consider the time Senator McCain spent as a prisoner of war and his brave effort to confront the vicious form of cancer that has invaded his brain, I realize that he has forgotten more about patriotism and valor than most of us, including the president who once criticized him, will ever know.

Having established my respect for Senator McCain, I must state that over the years I have found myself in sharp disagreement with him over many issues including the Affordable Care Act, a law he has enabled to be gutted if not repealed through his vote and those of 49 other Republican senators and the Vice-President cast before his speech today.

I applaud the Senator’s call for bipartisan efforts to arrive at a workable replacement for the ACA, and I receive with gratitude his sense of personal and corporate confession for the divisive tone and progress-canceling actions that have imprisoned the Senate for several years. In addition, I deeply appreciate his call for his colleagues to disregard the “bombastic loudmouths on the radio and television and the Internet.”

However, what I wanted to hear this legendary leader say had to do with the way large numbers of members of his party steadfastly refused to work with then President Obama in crafting the Affordable Care Act.  I wanted to hear a straight out confession over the ways he and his colleagues seemed to express no desire for the poor and most vulnerable members of society to have access to health insurance, even as they enjoyed such coverage themselves.  I wanted Senator McCain to confess the way his party prioritized the concerns of businesses and their own political viability over the needs of everyday constituents who were left on the sidelines of adequate healthcare because of excessive insurance company premiums and denials over pre-existing conditions.

Senator McCain, I wanted you to confess how your party made its attack against the Affordable Care Act personal in nature, relentlessly identifying the law as “Obamacare” not in honor of President Obama and his historic achievement but as an attempt to stir its base into a politicized and certainly racialized toxic stew of fear and bitterness against him.  Confess the ways your party responded to President Obama’s political gains by conspiring to strengthen its support not by the creativity of its ideas but by the craftiness of its ability to enact voter suppression laws designed to weaken if not cancel the voices and votes of African Americans and other people assumed by your party to be supportive of President Obama and the Democratic Party.

To be sure, I am praying for Senator McCain with hopes that he continues to receive the best healthcare possible, and that the aggressive form of cancer in his brain is decisively defeated.  Cancer claimed the lives of my mother and each of her siblings.  It is an ugly disease that has in one way or another impacted the lives of almost everyone I know.  However, my hope for Senator McCain is one that I have for everyone in our great land: that people of all income levels have access to the best healthcare possible.

As successful as the Affordable Care Act has been in enrolling millions of Americans in health insurance plans, it is not a flawless law.  However, when it is examined and tweaked by lawmakers who have flawless commitment to the health and well-being of all people, especially the poor, the Affordable Care Act will be avoid becoming part of a party-driven scrapbook of contempt and repeal and will instead become part of a bipartisan honor roll of compassion and respect as crafted by people who value human life and affirm human dignity. When Senator McCain and his colleagues vote yes to compassion and respect for all, political integrity and true progress will be the result.


A Christian Voice on the Health Care Debate: From “Mind your own business” to Speaking Out for Love and Justice

Like many of you, I have watched the painful footage of congressional town hall meetings where ordinary people divulged their most personal and private health information in a collective effort to convince their representatives to mend-not-end the benefits provided under the Affordable Care Act. Such imagery is quite difficult to view and impossible to forget.
I just do not get what is exceptional about US social and political systems that require citizens to essentially beg their political leaders, in public forums, to protect and improve legislation designed to provide potentially life-preserving and life-extending medical treatment to those who cannot obtain such treatment through their own resources alone. Furthermore, I am amazed at how the curators and guardians of such systems frequently benefit from uncritical and unchallenged acceptance of their stances by many who identify as being adherents of Christianity.
While I hold no monopoly on what constitutes authentic Christian faith, I firmly believe that there is no legitimate theological cover for political leaders, many of them people of faith with significant if not unfathomable wealth, and their supporters to strip vital health coverage from the most vulnerable of their constituents.
Along with telephone calls, email notes, and tweets that call on Congress to protect medical insurance for all citizens and especially the most vulnerable – steps we must take today, I think it is time for more of us Christians to make as part of our ministries the engagement of legislators, their staffs, and the public itself in the study of scripture, as somehow, the biblical Jesus, who through his love/justice world view, healed the sick, upheld and extended dignity to the poor and marginalized, and challenged and condemned unjust social practices and political norms, has been repurposed.
In the minds of many political leaders and scores of their constituents, the mission of repurposed Jesus is to a. preside over the “mind your own business” code of social conduct that allows for looking over or past the suffering of others while attending to our own affairs; b. usher “believers” into heaven when they die while calling them to just be nice, self-focused, risk avoiding people while on earth; c. serve as the holy defender of the social and political privileges of the powerful few while maintaining the invisibility and irrelevance of the masses; and d. confer the titles of blessed, wise or “favored” on those who gain wealth and power through the humiliation of the poor domestically and globally.
While our nation sincerely needs deeper and more honest political conversations on health care and other critical matters, I think that those of us who understand and, by God’s grace, attempt to live the love/justice dimensions of Christianity, as modeled by Jesus himself must take swift, clear and decisive steps to articulate and add to the conversation the good news about Jesus as Savior who has the power to transform individuals as well as the systems that influence their lives. We must share the good news about biblical Jesus as caring liberator of oppressed, silenced, hurting, and despised people. It is the love/justice-oriented ministry of this Jesus that anchors and animates the ministry of his followers to stand up for laws and policies that enable all people to receive full access to the resources they  need to live out their God-given potential. Health care is one such resource. Thus, the health care debate is not merely a political concern; it is a theological issue as well.  God loves all of humanity and is therefore is a stakeholder in this debate.
Political ideologies, as important and impressive as they may be, possess limited redemptive and transformative properties. However, those of us who function as clay jar carriers of the redemptive and transformative power of God made known through Jesus Christ, know of God’s limitless capacity for caring and God’s unending willingness to extend compassion. Inasmuch as the elements of care and compassion have been absent from much of the health care debate with costs most often occupying the center stage, I believe that Christians must now join with partners from other faith traditions in speaking up and speaking out our collective convictions about God’s love/justice vision for humanity.  As we do this, we will recognize that there is a social and political wilderness all around us that is crying out for a voice of care and compassion. Now, right now, is our moment to be that voice. Let us use this day to demand that our lawmakers commit their energies to efforts that will ensure that every person who needs health insurance may receive it in the most affordable and accessible ways possible, without having to beg and make themselves vulnerable at town hall meetings.

PWB: Preaching While Black! Ten Indicators of Racism in Predominantly White Church Bodies and What You Can Do To Address Them

Just as sure as a midsummer’s cool breeze can chill one’s skin without ever being seen, or a pungent smell can wrinkle one’s nostrils while never being detected by the radar of human sight, racism, a deliberately toxic blending of racial prejudice and institutional and social power and authority, is an element with a presence that often evades the visible realm yet not the lived experiences of Blacks and scores of other People of Color who work in predominantly White milieus.  While there are times when clumsily crafted racist references, jokes, and images can be read or heard within the corridors of institutional life in North America, racism and its offspring known as White Privilege, do most of their corrosive and nullifying damage through often subtle yet impactful executive and operational practices that confer institutional dignity and worth on White employees and volunteers while withholding these necessary components from Blacks and other People of Color who labor within organizations.

Racial Stereotypes and DWB: Driving While Black

People harboring racist views often assign an array of negative behavioral traits to the groups of people they feel are inferior to themselves.  These race-infused negative traits are called stereotypes and are often behaviors that have been amplified and taken out of context for the purposes of justifying harsh treatment of people within certain non-White races and cultures.  Racially prejudiced people who wield social and institutional power can easily employ racial stereotypes in their daily management and operational decision-making roles.  (They may do this knowingly and unknowingly.  Even so, the negative impact is the same.)

The phrase “Driving While Black” (DWB) was coined by Black motorists who complained of being stopped by White law enforcement personnel for no reason other than the officers’ determined beliefs that the Black motorists fit stereotypical behavioral profiles or loose descriptions of crime suspects who just happened to be Black.

When a DWB police encounter occurs, Black motorists essentially are treated as suspected criminals who must go well out of their way to prove their innocence.  Of course, questioning or protesting their unjust encounters with law enforcement has often been viewed as resisting arrest and exhibiting hostile behavior toward the officer (with the presumption being that White officer’s actions, descriptive narrative, and corroborating testimonies of other officers were always the “correct” procedures and versions of reality) and can cost Black motorists their freedom and with increasing frequency, their lives.  Thank God that more and more citizens with cameras on their smartphones (as well as officers with body cameras) are videotaping some of the encounters that Black citizens have with law enforcement personnel.  Such video often tells a vastly different story than what is indicated in official police reports.

The Unholy Union of Racism and Christianity

Racism and Christianity are no strangers to each other.  While no theologically and biblically alert and informed person of our day would dare to defend racism as a legitimate, holy expression of Christianity, it is important to note that United States church bodies were on both sides of the matter of the enslavement of Africans, with some “Christian” ministers and theologians taking the time to bend some biblical texts while remaining silent on others, in order to offer  heretical justification of the evil practice of slavery while crafting the doctrine of White supremacy and Black inferiority to provide a perverse platform on which it was placed.  Of course, segregation, discrimination, and White privilege as hallmarks of societal racism, were found in organized church bodies as well.  Several predominantly White church bodies continue to struggle with racism in both society and their organizational bodies.  Some have made defeating racism a priority, while other church organizations have gone so far as to call racism a sin and to issue apologies for their historic and contemporary silence and complicity with racist orientations, laws, and church practices.  Still, a large number of church bodies choose to remain silent on the matter perhaps while not realizing that this option actually emboldens racist practices.

When racism invades and infects the body of Christ, it can leave Blacks and other People of Color congregants and leaders confused, hurt, angry, as they observe White church officials operating out of a White supremacist world view that renders them more suited for roles as flesh-consuming zombies on the hit TV series, “The Walking Dead”, than for ministry posts intended to give life and advance God’s agenda of hope, justice, and redemptive love as made known through Jesus Christ.  Here is the confusing part:  In one church arena, White people sing and preach about love and unity in Christ, while in another arena, racial stereotypes and White privileged behavior devour, dishonor, and undermine Black leadership and service, and make it difficult for anyone to recognize the presence of Christ at all.  Sometimes the same people are involved in both arenas.

Racism in the church also leaves many Whites dazed as the absence of burning crosses and racist slogans, along with the placement of a few Blacks and other People of Color in visible leadership roles have made them believe that racism is undetectable and may no longer even exist.  Some may even ask, “Since we have visible diversity, what exactly is the problem?”

PWB:  Preaching While Black

Personally, I have spent 32 years “Preaching While Black” and otherwise giving leadership and service in predominantly White denominational circles.  Sixteen of those years were spent within regional and international settings where I was often one of a very few number of People of Color on board, and at times, the only one.  During my ministry, I have enjoyed more amazing, uplifting, and life-altering experiences than I ever dreamed.  By the grace of God, I have been mentored, taught, and supported by an array of people to include Blacks and Whites, as well as Latina/o, Asian, and Native American persons.  They celebrated my achievements, comforted me when I mourned, challenged me when I needed a boost, and picked me up when I was knocked down.  Truthfully, a rainbow village of people, one that most certainly included White people, has channeled God’s rich goodness, grace, and love to me, and I am quite thankful.

However, I must also admit, painfully so, that I have sustained more damaging treatment from small collections of White people dressed in clergy robes and holding church titles than any who paraded around in the robes, hoods, and leadership designations of the Ku Klux Klan!  I have had to accept that two-fold truth that while predominantly White church bodies can be supportive, loving, and caring, they can also exist as cold, stress producing, and unfaithful organizations with respect to inclusion of the presence, gifts, and cultural perspectives of Blacks and other People of Color, and their fair and just treatment in church life.  Thus, “Preaching While Black” (PWB) in a predominantly White church body is a real condition, one that warrants serious, prayerful, and just consideration by Blacks and other People of Color, as well as Whites who so very often maintain and serve in lead roles where they exert power in predominantly White church bodies.

As I think about the ways many predominantly White church bodies function, and the experiences of several Black and People of Color clergy and laity who have worked within their realms, including myself, I know that a good number of people, particularly White people who occupy executive offices, and/or sit on governing boards, decision-making bodies, human resources/personnel units, and staff teams often wonder if racism exists in their church organizations, and if so, how it might be detected.  These questions are important and timely as in an increasing number of contexts Blacks and other People of Color are giving service as executive staff in lead or senior capacities.  The presence of People of Color in high ranking posts in predominantly White church bodies provides convincing proof to some that racism does not exist in their organizations.

I thank God for the historic PWB professionals whose boldness, courage, and tenacity paved the way for all Blacks and PoC who work in predominantly White church bodies.  With respect to these pioneers, and appreciation for all Blacks and PoC who have worked in predominantly White church bodies and to those who are doing so at present, I offer “Ten Indicators of Racism in Predominantly White Church Bodies” as one way to tell part of our massive collective story.  In addition, I present this treatise and particularly the “What You Can Do to Address Them” component as an effort to offer assistance to those who possess hearts to sincerely seek to recognize and dismantle racism from their church structures while challenging others who think racism does not exist in their church organizations.  To be sure, I do not have the last word on how racism looks and feels in all predominantly White church settings.  Even so, trust me; I do know a few things about the subject!

As you read and process the Ten Indicators, be sure to pray for your church body and pray with People of Color you know and even those you have yet to meet.  By all means, avoid blaming and defending institutional turf and practices.  Be open to the not-always-linear leading of God as the Holy Spirit moves through you to transform your church body into a true anti-racist organization, or deepens any prior commitments to actively and intentionally work toward dismantling institutional racism and to build racially hospitable, healthy, and just places for Blacks and other People of Color to lead, work, worship, serve, and flourish, to the glory of God.

Ten Indicators of Racism in Predominantly White Church Bodies

1. Diversity with No Integrity: Racial/Ethnic diversity is important only for maintaining visible pleasantries and institutional auditing, but not for forging new organizational identities, sharing leadership, and sharing power in ways that honor and factor in perspectives and aspirations of Blacks and other People of Color (PoC).

Institutional Responses:  Rather than achieving diversity for the sake of meeting quotas (yes, they still exist), learn to view diversity as a sacred sign of the current or potential strength of your church organization.  Be intentional in receiving historical perspectives, values, and future goals of Blacks and other PoC.  Ask questions of PoC and supply educational resources that help to ensure the perspectives and worldviews of PoC are woven into the daily operational fabric of your church body.  Build transparent, accountable avenues through which directional/decision-making power is not limited to White people only.  Commit to ongoing anti-racism training.

 2. A White Church template (church orientation, values, customs, artwork, etc.) is viewed and accepted as standard for all churches and church ministries.  “It works for us, it should work for you!” is the attitude.

Institutional Responses:  Through research and development, identify methods through which Black and other PoC church bodies are succeeding in grasping a sense of God’s vision while joyfully and innovatively implementing it throughout their growing and impactful church bodies.  Tap into the deep, overcoming spirituality of the historic Black Church that possessed the theological, cultural, and social strength necessary to resist slavery, work for liberation, and dismantle Jim Crow segregation.  (That is the kind of spirituality declining White church bodies need in order to thrive and engage in life/systems-altering ministries when funds and numbers are low.)  Since much of the biblical story took place in North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, your church maps, artwork, and images of biblical characters must reflect this geography.  In other words, you need to post darker-skinned images of Jesus and biblical characters!  If color truly does not matter, as many will say, then go ahead and add the darker images!

3. The leadership template expresses an idolized view of White leadership and considers White orientations to leadership as standard.  No meaningful preparation for Black and other PoC leadership can be detected.

Institutional Responses:  If your church body hires or calls (preferred understanding) a Black person or another PoC leader, staff member, or volunteer, prepare for her or his arrival by engaging in ongoing anti-racism training before the PoC leader arrives, and WITH the new person after arrival.  Increase the number of books and resources by Blacks and PoC in your church library.  Joyfully anticipate and affirm the different style of leadership and preaching that the PoC leader will bring to your church body, and make room for those style differences at planning and decision-making tables.  Your PoC leader will likely understand church to be something different than what your church body has traditionally accepted.  This means new values and priorities will emerge through your PoC leader, so allow the Holy Spirit to open hearts and minds for the new, potentially refreshing direction.

4. Blacks and other PoC who are considered for inclusion and executive leadership roles must demonstrate that they can work and play well within White-led and White-designed structures.  Black and PoC leaders who are deemed as change agents may not be given consideration for top posts unless they internalize White ways of functioning.

Institutional Responses:  Study and appreciate the journey that Blacks and other PoC leaders had to experience just to have their credentials presented to your search and employment tables.  Understand that PoC leaders working in predominantly White structures must be amphibious (a concept I received from one of my doctoral mentors, the late Rev. Dr. Samuel DeWitt Proctor) meaning they must do well in their own cultural milieus as well as within White environments.  What this means is that folks will need to forget the sinister notion that Black and PoC leaders were called into service in predominantly White church bodies simply because of their race.  Your Black or PoC leader would not have been called to her or his leadership post without being extremely well qualifiedIn fact, Black and PoC leaders are very well qualified leaders within their own cultural settings as well as yours.  Your church body’s task is to recognize this reality.

5. White leaders and systems are not expected to have achieved cultural competence and meaningful track records with respect to working with Blacks and PoC in general, and Blacks and PoC with authoritative roles in particular.

Institutional Responses:  Make sure the people who are supposed to support and work with, alongside, and for PoC leaders have been vetted for their past experiences and successes in working with, alongside, and for PoC leaders in the United States and/or Canada.  Engage in mandatory ongoing anti-racism training that includes institutional power analyses.  Do not put Black and PoC leaders in the unfair position of frequently having to teach White folks about racial and cultural diversity, for unless that role is in their job description, it will become a completely new and time consuming task that will take away from the work they were called to do.  Moreover, do not ask Black and PoC leaders to go out and find more PoC to be on committees and boards.  That is your organization’s responsibility.

6. Managers of governance systems isolate, ignore, and scapegoat Blacks and PoC leadership, and thus create systems with invisible men and women whose unique needs and basic requirements for success go unacknowledged and unmet, their achievements overlooked, and their mistakes magnified.  PoC are never asked, “What’s it like to work here?”  Instead, the “one size fits all stance” of White officials is, “Shut up and be glad you have a job alongside us.”

Institutional Responses:  Guardians of the institution must ensure that supportive groups such as personnel teams, ministry help groups, and pastor-parish teams are assembled, healthy, are committed to anti-racism education, and actually and regularly meet and work with PoC leaders.  These teams must monitor the power sharing relationships between the PoC leader and governance leaders, particularly when the governance leaders are White.  PoC leaders must be put in direct communication with any parties that have concerns or complaints.  Personnel teams should be expected to take steps to lift up achievements, accomplishments, and important days pertaining to PoC leaders while faithfully working with them to creatively and justly address mistakes or shortcomings, perceived and real.

Take steps to ensure that PoC leaders are not scapegoated for institutional problems they inherited.  Also, do not allow unhealthy agendas and poor internal communication styles of others to sabotage or undermine Black and PoC leadership.  Unmask unjust decision-making and prevent the unethical placement of individuals who vied for the lead organizational role that the PoC leader now holds, into positions of authority over the PoC leader.

7. Cultural arrogance leads stewards of church systems to think they are prepared to work with Black and other PoC leaders simply because they had one day of Anti-Racism training, married a Black person or another PoC, had a best friend who was Black, can dance the Electric Slide or Wobble, or voted for President Obama.

Institutional Response:  Just showing up for work as White is not enough!  There are no shortcuts to cultural competence!  Cultural competence cannot be achieved during one isolated seminar; it is a life commitment that will require ongoing, non-negotiable institutional expectations that all staff, governance officials, and volunteers participate in continuous anti-racism training and team/group building experiences through which historical perspectives, values, and aspirations of different racial and cultural groups can be grasped, probed, and incorporated into operational stances.  This goes beyond types of food, dress, dance, and sports; it considers and honors the often unknown and trivialized stories of PoC.  Remember this startling reality:  many White citizens have never read a book or attended a class about and created by Blacks and other PoC.  Be sure that the Black Civil Rights struggle is probed by all staff and governance members through documentaries such as the PBS Eyes on the Prize series or movies such as “Malcolm X” and “Selma.”  Point out the often overlooked achievements and contributions of Blacks and other PoC to many fields (including religion and theological studies) beyond sports and entertainment.  Make continuous anti-racism education an expected part of ministerial preparedness, and the development of all leaders including and especially children and youth.

8. The church body accepts, condones, and endorses “institutional terrorism” where PoC leaders get phone calls from ranking church officials saying, “People are concerned about your work but they don’t want to talk with you or have their names disclosed because they don’t want to be viewed as racist”.  The Black or PoC leader is therefore tormented and left to contend with shadowy figures whose identities are withheld while they hide behind the church’s proverbial Grassy Knoll and assassinate the leadership of PoC.  This leads to a kind of denominational COINTELPRO designed to undercut and undermine Black and PoC leaders.

Institutional Responses:  If attempting to mediate a conflict, never enable White people or anybody to be anything else than direct in sharing their concerns or frustrations with PoC staff and leaders.  Build systems that are healthy, fair, and just, through which conflicts and tense moments end with transformative, win-win outcomes.  Work to keep a spark of concern from unnecessarily becoming a forest fire of anger that can consume PoC staff and leaders, and the organization itself.  Remember, communication and truth telling are not just one-way journeys; the truths, views, and experiences of of Black and PoC staff absolutely must be taken seriously as well.  The narrative of White people, often given automatic credibility because of numerical strength and racial familiarity and privilege, must be given no more weight than is given to the narrative of the PoC staff leader.  Remember that although Black or PoC persons may have lead roles, they may not have institutional power and authority or benefit from having numerical strength within the organization.  These facts point to an institutional power imbalance that must not be discounted.

9. Managers and guardians of the institution refuse to engage in anti-racist ways of diffusing or addressing real or perceived problems.  The “problem” is always linked to the PoC leaders, and the sentence is always death of character, death of position, death of job.

Institutional Responses:  Although many of us tend to avoid conflict and step away from thinking difficult thoughts about people we have known, loved, and worked alongside for years, we must accept the fact that some White people really do target and scapegoat Blacks and other PoC in church leadership roles.  Whenever a problem arises, the first thing some do is figure out a way to blame the Black or PoC leader.  Also, know that some Whites in leadership roles do not want to share leadership and power with PoC colleagues.  Perhaps these White leaders are skeptical about the preparation and abilities of the Black or PoC leader as compared to themselves, buy into stereotypical understandings or racist rumors and innuendo, or just find it easier to jump aboard the ship of blaming Black or PoC leaders for institutional problems instead of doing the hard work of self and institutional evaluation.

In my experience, five realities create fertile ground for scapegoating Black and PoC leaders:  1. Outdated organizational vision; 2. The absence of a compelling, energizing, and unifying mission; 3. Archaic, top-heavy internal structures that focus more on institutional management and maintenance than Christ’s mission; 4. Inadequate care for and relationship building with stakeholders; and 5. Dwindling financial resources.

Therefore, instead of blaming Black and PoC leaders for institutional woes, I think questions like these should be asked: 1. What were conditions like before and when the PoC leader arrived?”; 2. When was the governing board and institution were evaluated?; 3. How have the governing board, executive committee, and board chairperson actually helped the PoC leader to navigate through the organization, build key relationships with board members and stakeholders, understand the organizational culture, and make achievements that help the organization meet its goals?”; 4. “What commitments have governing board members made to address institutional issues and realities?”

10. There is no authoritative institutional mechanism or office where Black and PoC leaders can go to file a grievance or concern.  This means the church body lives less by the values inspired by its faith and more by “Right to Work” laws as well as the March 6, 1857 Dred Scott decision of the United States Supreme Court: Blacks were never citizens, were unfit to associate with the white race, and had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.  These church bodies function like many police departments whose internal investigations, heavily factoring in the “corroborating” testimonies of officers, always find that the shootings of unarmed Black and Brown people were justified.  Whites in racist church systems are very seldom held responsible for their racist performances as, of course, their actions were always justified, their narratives were always accepted as truthful, and Black or PoC leaders were always responsible for their poor treatment, denial of institutional support, or loss of job.

Institutional Response:  Consider it an abhorrent sin and grave injustice that any staff persons, particularly Black and PoC staff persons, would have no forums or commissions to which they may lodge formal complaints or grievances concerning ways their church body employers may have acted in racist and/or unjust ways regarding their employment, working conditions, and treatment.  If the church will not address perceived racial injustices within its own ranks, how can its priority of wholeness, justice, and love ever have credibility?  Church bodies must therefore assemble grievance teams staffed by people who are skilled in mediation and conflict resolution, while possessing growing commitments to Jesus Christ and becoming an anti-racist church.  Grievance teams should have authority to intervene, investigate, mediate, and issue statements of fact and judgments when necessary on behalf of PoC staff that the teams have determined have been mistreated by church bodies.

No One Wears Body Cameras At Board Meetings; You Must Use Your Privilege to Fix The Problem

As your predominantly White church body examines the thorny issue of racism, declare that addressing and dismantling racism is not the work of one committee or task force; it will become and must be the work of the whole church body.  Also, know that it is not the job of Blacks and PoC to fix the problem of racism; this is largely White folks’ work.  Remember, no one wears body cameras to church governance meetings where the worth, presence and character of Blacks and other PoC are debated and often discounted.  Meeting minutes do not always signal the ways racism and White privileged uses of power undermine the leadership of Blacks and PoC.

When participating in governance forums, personnel meetings, Sunday school classes, and even worship services where God’s presence is invoked and God’s word is preached, White Christians have to be willing to let go of anesthetizing notions of colorblindness and the conflict avoidance stance known as “all lives matter” in order to have frank and honest talks about race amongst themselves and with PoC.  As racism specifically trolls and targets Blacks and PoC, a “Black Lives Matter” stance will be required!  Moreover, Latina/o, Asian and Pacific Islander, and Native American lives, respectively, matter!  As the lives of People of Color matter to God who created us all, they must matter to God’s church, even the segments of it that are White.

We Have No Holy Right To Remain Silent

People who proclaim and depend on the love of God, that would be all of us in the church, do not have a holy right to remain silent on this matter.  White people must take the lead in acknowledging that racism is a sinful and wicked departure from the will of God, and that racism and White privilege exist within their church bodies and communities.  Furthermore, they must admit that although White privilege can be used to disrupt racism and support the lives and leadership of Blacks and PoC, it is often exercised at their expense.  This is a call for White Christians to acknowledge the systemic and personal pain of Blacks and People of Color that has been caused by institutional racism, and then commit themselves pastorally, administratively, programmatically, and prophetically to the necessary separate and cross cultural work that will be required if we will stand a chance of dislodging the evil presence of racism.

The work to defeat racism is sacred ministry; no Christian is exempt from it.  Know this: Inasmuch as our racial ball of yarn did not become tangled overnight, its difficult knots will not be resolved quickly.  Even so, the words of the late James Baldwin instruct and encourage us at this grave hour: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced”.  As sisters and brothers who rely on the liberating, redemptive love of God as made known through Jesus Christ; as people who call forth God’s vision to be lived on earth as in heaven every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer; and as women, men, youth and children who believe that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us, let us face the challenge of racism together, and in so doing, defeat it.  Amen

“But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.  We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.”  II Corinthians 4:7-10 (NRSV)

©Jack Sullivan, Jr. 2015


The Age of Colorblind Innocence is Over: Black Lives Must Matter

With an attitude of reverence for the victims of the Charleston Church Massacre and their families, I joined South Carolinians and people all across the nation and world who thunderously applauded the removal of the confederate flag from the South Carolina Statehouse.

While the confederate flag was certainly a sign and symbol of racism and hate in southern states, its presence in northern states where I have lived has always been quite perplexing and menacing to many people, myself included.  Considering just my most recent northern state of residence, Pennsylvania, where I traveled across the state on an almost weekly basis, I noticed a confederate flag on nearly every trip.

The “In-your-face” racism symbolized by the confederate flag

As I had always interpreted the confederate flag as an “in-your-face” indicator of White supremacist thought as well as a warning of potential violence against known and unknown African Americans (How can people hate those that they don’t even know?), I steered away from gas stations and restaurants where the flag was displayed on parked automobiles and trucks, even if it meant driving many miles to find the services I needed.  Of course, I never felt safe on long trips when either my gas tank or my stomach tilted toward empty status!

It is true that the confederate flag lowering or decommissioning in South Carolina was a moment in time that many people thought they would never experience in their lifetimes.  With tears in my eyes, I watched the state patrol officers as they dutifully removed that flag from the house that belonged to the people of South Carolina.  Alas, the removal of that flag announced to the nation and world that the Statehouse truly belonged to all of the people of South Carolina.  As the confederate emblem made its way down the flagpole, it seemed that hopes and aspirations of African Americans and people of goodwill in South Carolina and everywhere were lifted up.  No more would that flag cast a state-sponsored, government-endorsed shadow of nullification on the road toward equality and justice.

The flag is down in South Carolina, but our work must continue

As important as the flag lowering was, wisdom and lived experience dictate that we must not take too many victory laps around the Statehouse, for we have important work to do.  Whether toting a confederate flag or not, racists with guns and an appetite for violence remain a threat.  In addition…

*racist arsonists are yet targeting worship places where African American Christians gather while trying to intimidate African American women pastors;

*state legislatures continue to initiate and uphold Voter ID laws and restrictive voting opportunities in ways that seek to deny scores of African Americans their hard-gained right to vote;

*corporations are allowed to dump toxic chemicals into the water systems where African Americans and the poor receive their drinking water;

*racist employment practices and White-privileged decision making create hostile work environments for African Americans in corporate and religious institutions;

*racial profiling in law enforcement leads to unjust arrests and deaths of African American people; and

*African Americans continue to be incarcerated and sentenced to death at rates that are both disproportionate to their population percentage and higher than the incarceration and death sentence rate for Whites.

After the Charleston Church Massacre, the Black Church fires that followed, and the perverse continuation of questionable deaths of African Americans in custody or pursuit by law enforcement personnel, many people wonder aloud (some for the first time) how they could best respond to systemic, unchecked racism and racial violence.

With the diligent crafting of Civil Rights laws, the desegregation of schools, the hiring of African Americans to key leadership and executive roles in public and private organizations as well as secular and religious institutions, and the election of an African American to the presidency, many people might consider last week’s flag lowering as a slam dunk, game over move on racism.  However, those who benefit from the matrix of White supremacy always seem to be able to change their jerseys or uniforms, bend a rule or two, and keep their corruption alive and moving.  So, what can be done?

I think two things must be done in every US organization, institution, and system of life:  First, the adoption a non-negotiable stance that all life matters is an absolute must.  It must come along with a descriptive declaration that our society has absolutely no people or racial/ethnic groups that it can afford to lose, and that regardless of race, age, physical condition, sexual orientation and gender identification, religion, or sex, everyone is equal, valuable, and has something to offer for the common good.

Black Lives Matter and the Inadequacy of Colorblindness

Second, if we really desire to be taken seriously as agents of anti-racist change and true goodwill (there can be no goodwill as long as systemic racism is tolerated), we must now declare fundamentally, that Black Lives Matter.  As historic and recent acts of racial violence and discrimination have been demonstrably non-vague while displaying devastating particularity in their assault on Black lives, our affections, energies, and commitments to fairness, peace, and justice must be non-vague and particular as well.

Adopting a Black Lives Matter institutional stance means the guardians of tradition and order will go out of their way to inspect and evaluate their executive, operational, and programmatic methods of functioning  to ensure that the history, values, and aspirations of African American people are woven into the fabric of how they conduct their affairs.  It means that they will both hire African American people as well as build the kinds of internal structures that enable African American leadership and service to flourish.

A Black Lives Matters approach would mean that before White staff persons are hired, they are vetted for their multicultural competence as well as past successful performance when working with and for African American leaders and staff persons.  You see, in many venues, only African Americans must prove and embody such dualism.  If Black lives truly matter, anti-racism education will not be reduced to an every-three-years half-day seminar; it would be part of the ongoing professional development of all employees and volunteers.  Methods of promotion, evaluation, compensation and more must pass through the prism of an anti-racist analysis of institutional power and decision making.  This requires us to know that even though an organization may have African Americans in key leadership or executive positions, actual decision making and truth authenticating power may very well have been reserved for Whites whose presence transcends official titles and positions.  This is how White privilege works.

Accordingly, each of our organizations and our society at large must awaken from the social anesthetic of colorblindness that dulls sensibilities and weakens appreciation of the unique set of circumstances that African Americans of all walks of life confront and contend with every day, even within their places of employment and as they pursue the goods and services necessary for healthy and productive living.  During a time of overt and covert racial antagonism, colorblindness is an inadequate response for these reasons:

*Colorblindness mutes and conceals the piercing realities that some folks really do hate Black folks, while others, through White privilege, contribute to the demise of Black success and progress whether they intended to or not.

*Colorblindness gives permission to skip or exclude classes on African American history and thought or to avoid gaining non-superficial knowledge of African American life through the written words and values of actual African American people.

*Colorblindness produces cultural arrogance that makes some in institutional life believe that what works for White people works for all people, while it justifies and accepts White privileged leadership, decision-making, and rules on what makes for fairness.

Clearly, colorblindness is no friend to racial justice.

People who have expressed a colorblind approach to racial diversity and racism are often well-meaning individuals.  Even so, I frequently recommend that these fine folks consult a licensed ophthalmologist, for I want them to be able to get a clear, unobstructed look at the color of my skin and intentionally and proactively get to know my story and the stories of people who look like me.

This time, if we really intend to have more than a temporary post-tragedy wave of goodwill and change with respect to racial justice and inclusion, we have to take bold, decisive, and accountable steps that ensure that the histories, perspectives, contributions, and aspirations of African American people are sewn into the very fabric of American life, thus creating a mainstream that is truly is mainstream.

In our workplaces and offices, Black Lives Matter.

In our churches or synagogues or mosques, Black Lives Matter.

On the governing boards and personnel committees where we are positioned, Black Lives Matter.

In our networks of social impact and political influence, Black Lives Matter.

In the practice of real estate and shaping communities, Black Lives Matter.

In the places we spend our money and make monetary investments, Black Lives Matter.

In public and private education systems, Black Lives Matter.

Teach it.  Preach it.  Look for it.  Demand it.

The Charleston Church Massacre served as yet another indicator that the age of colorblind racial innocence in America is over.  In fact, such an approach contributes to the unchallenged, oft-denied matrix of racist thought and action.  No longer will speeches, good wishes, rallies, and symbolic acts be accepted as proof that we have overcome for once again, reality tells us our work to rid ourselves of systemic racism is not finished and our mission to neutralize White privilege is incomplete.  We need systems that allow all to triumph and trivializing none.

The work to uproot racism and end racial discrimination and violence is not limited to any one political party or religious orientation.  Further, it must not be assigned to “blue ribbon” committees or task forces that produce reports that scarcely influence the direction of their main bodies.

This must be an “all in” effort for all of us.


Responsible Independence, 1 Corinthians 12.12-27

During this 2015 Independence Day weekend, it would be right for us to give thanks to God for the bold vision of those individuals who fought and worked together to shape and craft our nation from its earliest conceptual stages, through the declaration of Independence, up to this present moment.

It is good and it is right to take time to reflect on great and courageous work of our past, particularly as such reflection prepares us to project and commit to great and courageous actions that will define our future.

Regardless of party affiliation or length of citizenship, today and throughout the weekend, we reaffirm, with joy, our great freedom story.  

When our collective foreparents crafted the blueprints for our nation, and when they declared independence from the British Empire, they set the nation on a course from which it would never stray, a course of self determination, that is, we will define ourselves as a nation, and by that definition, we are prepared to live free from tyranny, free from subjugation.  We are independent from the Crown.

However, no matter how brilliant the light of our freedom story may have been, much of it was hidden under the politically broad yet morally bankrupt bushel of exclusion, brutality, and nullification as made known through nation’s participation in the Transatlantic Slave Trade and its legalized, even baptized systems of racism, enslavement, and racial discrimination against persons of Africa descent.  

For the many who longed for authentic freedom and equality with full integrity, Independence Day celebrations have always been punctuated by an asterisk, one that asserts that only after the heroic, sacred, and sacrificial dedication of those who labored for Civil Rights and Equal Rights, could the nation as a whole move closer to paying credible tribute to nationalized doctrines of freedom and justice for all.

Now it is my belief that independence for the purposes of self-determination was and is the key element that was and is vitally important for the emergent and continued life of our nation.  In fact, it is the independence of our nation, and the freedoms that over time we have learned to tweak, craft, and finally (begrudgingly) offer to all citizens regardless of religion, race, sex, age, sexual orientation, or physical condition, that make us the shining example of hope and liberty we are to many segments of our world.  

Inasmuch as we continue to mature and accept responsibility for promising and protecting liberty for all of our citizens, as imperfect as our delivery systems may be, we will have widespread credibility in matters of freedom and self-determination of our people and people from around the world.  

These understandings I present here focus on legal statutes that shape and govern us as a nation.  However, I believe we now must turn our attention to the social and moral requirement necessary for us to flourish and advance as a people, and that is interdependence.

As diverse as our land has been, is, and is becoming, we now find ourselves on the threshold of an inalterable future that will be characterized and animated by diversity.  

Some of us trace our ancestry back to the native peoples of North America; some to the African Continent; some to Europe; some to the Caribbean Islands; some to Latin, Central, and South America; some to Asia and the Pacific Islands; and some to other lands.  

Regardless of our national orbits of the past, we’re all in the same orbit now.  If this nation will move forward and avoid being pulled into the consuming vortex of self-interest, division, and hate, we must learn to tame our coveted independence and our sacred societal mythology of rugged individualism with the public declaration of our interdependence on each other, and our fundamental need to live as people who are united.

In my view, the church must always offer a visionary, leading voice in this effort as we have been given a great and glorious image of unity.

In 1 Corinthians 12, we learn that the Apostle Paul came to realize that the church at Corinth had become a conflicted and divided church with numerous parties and factions.  There were fissures among the faithful over spiritual gifts and social class, and as I read this passage, I get the feeling that Paul had simply had enough.  So Paul took the time to issue a simple yet powerful image for this church to consider then, and for the church to consider now: we are one.  We are a body, one body, and all body parts are important and needed.

No body part can legitimately say to other body parts that their functions are not welcomed or needed on the body!  In fact, Paul is clear that God has designed a sort of ecclesial affirmative action policy in the body so that stronger parts share their strength in order to assist the weaker parts.  The weakest links are not voted off the team or told to pull themselves up by their own biological bootstraps.  Dislike and distrust, imperfections and impatience don’t lead the strong and the majority to profile and profit off of minority or weaker and parts of the body.  So that’s why when I go running and sprain my now 56 year-old right ankle, my left ankle breaks out in a Bill Withers song, singing, “Lean on me, when you’re not strong and I’ll be your friend. I’ll help you carry on, for it won’t be long, till I’m gonna need somebody to lean on.”

Now to be sure, life is more complex now than it ever has been.  As a nation we are acutely and profoundly more diverse than ever before.  Many customs, beliefs, practices, and assumptions of the past are being reexamined as new ideas, healthier images, different languages, and previously overlooked histories are coming to the forefront.

By now we understand the reality that church pastors, regional and conference ministers, and bishops contend with even when they are ushered into church service under an expectation of change and growth:  Change and growth create conflict.  So with the impatient emergence of new realities, much-needed justice-based social, political, and religious correctives, and the justifiable cry for a new cultural template, we now face the question that the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once inspired, “Will we have chaos, or will we have community?”  Along with this question, I have my own: How can we avoid the self-selected national diminishing that comes when our many groups use their creativity, gifts, and resources for themselves exclusively, and instead elect to flourish live as a nation whose diverse parts willingly offer their best for the common good?

I think the answer to these questions lies in what I learned from watching the Christian Women’s Fellowship group of the Detroit church where I once served as senior pastor.

Every Tuesday, a group of mostly retired women from Detroit’s United Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and community would gather for worship, fellowship, lunch, and quilting.  As a courtesy, they would invite this pastor to join them in the worshipping, fellowshipping and the eating, but not the quilting!  Joyfully accepting their invitation, each week I would pray and break bread with these strong sisters of faith, and afterwards watch them work on the quilts.  I carefully observed them as they would intentionally select individual strips of cloth and weave them together into one strong and beautiful quilt.  Each strip was unique and special!  They were of many different colors, shapes, and sizes.  Some were visibly older while others had the shine of newness.  Amazingly all of different strips were carefully and deliberately woven together to form one quilt of many colors.  No strip by itself could function as a quilt.  It was necessary for each strip to be woven and connected to other pieces of fabric, for only the interdependence factor could transform a collection of stray strips into a united quilt.

One day, one of the women, Ruth, said to me, “Pastor, please bring us all of your old ties and worn out shirts so that we can use them when we make our quilts.  Now this may have been a commentary on my wardrobe, yet even so, I did as she asked!  As she issued this request of me, I thought, how awesome it is, that older clothes were not excluded for they, too, had something that they could contribute for the good of someone else.  They could be connected to newer strips of fabric and together, they all could become a beautiful, warm, and protective quilt.

As we chart the course for the future of our diverse nation, I believe we would do well to consider the work of these amazing quilting women, women who possessed skillful eyes that could see the worth and value of every piece of fabric, even those that had once been deemed as unimportant, or believed not to matter, or forced to reside in the closets of life.  We would do well to learn from these women of intelligence, character, and vision, who possessed enough patience to weave diverse strips of fabric together into one strong and beautiful quilt.

We must possess the eyes of God, in whose image and likeness we all have been crafted!  God’s eyes love and justice see the worth and dignity of all of humanity, regardless of whatever scrapped and stray condition we are in.  We must say with one voice that all lives matter!  Yet, don’t stop there, for at this juncture, when institutional racism continues to be misdiagnosed, under-acknowledged, and denied; and when race-based injustice and violence continue to be perpetrated against African Americans causing them to wonder if they can survive encounters with law enforcement personnel, or be treated fairly at work, or receive justice in the courts, or find sanctuary from racist violence even in their own church buildings,  we must cry out with one voice and with loving specificity, Black Lives Matter!

Each of us must be willing to give the best of ourselves for the common good, to be woven together to form one nation, united and strong, that refuses to see diversity as a sign of weakness, as some seem to assert during election cycles, but instead as a signal of its strength.  As James William Fulbright wrote, “The source of a nation’s strength is its domestic life, and if America has a service to perform in the world, it is in large part the service of its own example.”

When we adhere to a domestic life that is characterized by justice, the many and varied pieces of fabric from across our land will be woven together for the common good and the advancement of the nation and the world.  When we arrive at the grand conclusion that our diversity truly is our strength, we will possess the requisite cultural vision that enables us to live in the “subjunctive mood” as the late Rev. Dr. Samuel DeWitt Proctor was fond of saying, where we are motivated not just by what was, but by what may be.  It is out of this enhanced national template that we will be able to nurture our children in the hope that comes to each as a birthright.  Amen.