Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Black Lives Matter - How Disturbing We Must Say So

The North Miami Beach Police Department has been using mugshots of black men for target practice, according to the Washington Post. When confronted, the police chief said this was a common practice and initially refused to acknowledge any error in judgment. Is there any question that our wider culture needs to be reminded that "Black Lives Matter"?

Clergy got word of the North Miami Beach Police Department and posted photographs of themselves on Twitter under the hashtag “take me instead.” The posts shamed the local community’s practice, and within a week, the city council banned the practice of using mugshots for target practice. The city manager was deeply apologetic to the large number of people who showed up at the city council meeting demanding that the practice stop. 

How this practice was carried out until public outcry is emblematic of a deeper more systemic problem. People of color too often get treated differently. Even at a leading university--read what happened to the son of New York Times columnist Charles Blow: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/26/opinion/charles-blow-at-yale-the-police-detained-my-son.html

A week ago, our nation celebrated the legacy of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. We are coming up on the fifty anniversary of the Selma march and the greatest civil rights legislation, and yet our nation grapples with the reality that the color of one’s skin contributes to how one is treated--sometimes with lethal consequences. 

Racism still plays a pernicious role in our society, reducing the odds of people of color to live full and flourishing lives. As our country grapples with its original sin of treating black people as less than human, real change will come only on the local level where hearts and minds are changed. This takes the sharing of stories and millions of personal conversations. 

Here in Oak Park, I offered the opening prayer for a Black Lives Matter Solidarity Rally. Here are my words:

O Source of All Love, Eternal Mystery of God within, among, and beyond us, 
We gather heartbroken, angry, 
impatient, indignant. 
We also gather in hope, 
for justice.

O spirit of life, 
warm our hearts in each other’s presence, 
for we gather to stand together to declare Black Lives Matter, 
to declare that we cannot tolerate patterns of injustice.

You open our hearts to the anguish of the parents of Michael Brown, 
to the agony of the family of Eric Garner, 
to the suffering of untold families who have lost loved ones 
to the reckless, needless violence of individuals charged to maintain order.

You disturb us with overwhelming discontent with how too many police officers whose brazen show of force, even if scared and overwhelmed, don’t even elicit, in our current system, a fair trial.

Save us from apathy, 
from cynicism, 
from denial. 
Don’t let us be simply too busy to care. 
Turn our hearts to the deep sorrow and concern and outrage 
that the color of our skin does matter 
how each of us is treated, 
that people of color are much more likely 
to be targeted by police for misconduct, 
penalized more harshly in a court of law, and killed by members of our law enforcement. 

Open our spirits to the sun of your grace and warm our hearts in each other’s presence. 
Black lives matter. Black lives matter. (chant)
show us how to walk with one another to embody this conviction, 
not just today but in the months to come. 
Show us how to walk with one another 
to stand for meaningful change.

And so, O god, Guide us, if we're willing and drive us if we are not,
into the hard ways of justice-seeking and justice-making.

Breathe into us the restlessness and courage 
to stand together, 
to be moved by one another, 
and make something new, something saving, and something true, 
so together we embody beloved community. 

How shall our community in Oak Park and the wider Chicago area take a next step in making a difference? We need to learn how to respond provocatively to get messages of hope and justice into the hearts of all. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Social Change Is Not Rocket Science!

When I arrived at Unity Temple eleven and a half years ago, the congregation wanted me to develop their social justice ministry. There was just one problem: I didn’t have a clue how to do it. I was up front with them about this -- that we would need to learn how to do this together. But here’s what’s hard to admit: for nearly eight years in Oak Park, I remained in the dark about how to do social justice work effectively. I remember trying to support a few good folks, but try as we might, we’d get very little traction. 

Everything changed when I attended a three day training at Community Renewal Society for faith-based community organizing. I took four of my leaders with me. We learned that the heart of relational organizing is having genuine conversations with others, conversations about what we value and what motivates us so that we develop an ever expanding network of relationships and we know who is committed to what issue. We also discovered that this kind of faith-based organizing connects us not only with each other but with people much different than us. Over these three days, several leaders of Ceasefire were also being trained as were members of FORCE, Fighting to Overcome Records and Create Equality. We got to know these folks and others who had profoundly different life experiences yet so clearly shared our commitments. We bonded. Ever since, these conversations--these connections--have motivated us. 

I hadn’t realized until having conversations and making these connections, just how many people in the Chicago area live with felonies on their records, all because they have drug convictions--and how people of color are arrested at far higher rates than whites, even though the rates of drug use are very similar. And so I joined the effort to get legislation passed to allow felons convicted of non-violent crimes to seal their records four years after doing their time. 

Because my congregation created UTCAN, the Unity Temple Congregational Action Network, we turned out 100 people out to a Martin Luther King Day action that joined several hundreds of others from churches throughout the Chicagoland area. Since Unity Temple had so many people there, my senator, Senator Don Harmon, agreed to sponsor the bill. Three months later, we took 30 people to Springfield. Members of my congregation persuaded two Republican legislators to sign on the bill. And it’s now the law of Illinois. 

This is my awakening: social change is not rocket science! 

Only a few people can build rockets, but anyone and everyone can participate in social change. And when people come together to stand strategically for a clear, meaningful, and attainable goal, ordinary people--organized--have tremendous power. I have witnessed this several times.

It all begins with relationship building. This is what makes the journey joyful, nourishing, and meaningful. 

This year, UTCAN turned out 95 people to join nearly 1,500 people to the Martin Luther King Faith in Action Day, held at Liberty Baptist Church on Chicago’s south side to take action in the spirit of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We gathered for the sake of taking action to reduce violence, repair lives, and rebuild communities. At Monday's gathering, community leaders asked pointed questions of Chicago mayoral candidates, Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle, seven Illinois State Senators, and ten State Representatives. All of them committed to support the vision we shared. Go to http://www.communityrenewalsociety.org/building-power-winning-victories-mlk-assembly for more information.

May this journey of learning how to love ever more courageously be infectious and bring so many more of us together for the sake of bringing about ever more justice, equity, and compassion among us all. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

A Legacy of Love with Courage

Welcome to the first blog post of Love with Courage! 

It is no coincidence that I am launching this blog on Martin Luther King Day. In my eyes, there’s no greater exemplar--at least, no greater American exemplar--of love with courage than Martin Luther King Jr. How was it that in nine short years, Martin Luther King went from an obscure young Baptist minister to the leader of the most effective civil rights movement in American history? 

His civil rights leadership began in Montgomery Alabama when he called for a city-wide boycott of the city’s segregated bus system, lasting nearly 13 months and, within a year, moving the Supreme Court to rule Jim Crow seating unlawful. In Atlanta, King formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an alliance of church-affiliated civil rights organizations which supported sit-in demonstrations and freedom rides throughout the South. In 1963, he decided to “dramatize the Negro plight and galvanize the national conscience,” by organizing a mass nonviolent demonstration in the arch-segregationist city of Birmingham, resulting in the arrest of 3300 black men, including King himself. From that Birmingham jail, King wrote a letter appealing to his white colleagues, a letter that resonated with many people of conscience and raised the question for this nation, what does it mean to take a path of integrity. 

What does it mean to take a path of integrity? For me, integrity means being honest, keeping your word, and getting clear on where we are broken, not only as individuals but as a wider community and choosing and embodying the better angels of our nature. Integrity is about how we live our lives, How we choose to allocate our time and resources. Integrity is bringing our actions in accordance with our values, to take risks for what we really believe in. Taking a path of integrity as well learning how to love with courage requires us to ask questions like: “What breaks your heart?” “What causes you despair or sorrow?” then sharing that with others, and standing for and walking with others who are similarly heartbroken.  

So one important way we take a path of integrity is through active, non-violent, loving, firm community organizing, just as King and his colleagues organized the 1963 March on Washington for jobs and freedom, the march from which this image was taken, the image that hangs in my office, reminding me of the significance of clear, strong leadership, appealing to the conscience of all people. it embodies our second principle as Unitarian Universalists: to promote justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. It is emblematic of love with courage.

At the heart of our integrity is our humanity, our soul, where we may or may not get clear who we are and what our lives are about. And because the legacy of Martin Luther King often makes him look larger than life, it is easy to overlook King’s humanity, what it was like to be Martin. How he experienced transforming wonder. That he knew great joy and was a man of deep laughter. How he moved and led from that experience of being called to stand for something greater than himself. Whether we call it non-violence, integrity, or God, it doesn’t matter. What matters is cultivating the capacity to move through and beyond the many fears that hold us back.

I am struck how he described his motivation for staying the course by reflecting on the faces of people he met and got to know who struggled, prayed, hoped, marched, and sacrificed. Faces of those who suffered oppression, poverty, and indignity and yet carried on with hope and dignity. 

I have come to believe that King’s contemplative life, where he held close these faces, and the stories behind them, was what, perhaps more than anything else, took him through his fears. For King had much to fear. He suffered threats on his life and the lives of his loved ones. By the beginning of 1965, his house had been bombed 3 times, the hotel room where he had been staying in Birmingham was bombed and several people hurt. And while signing books in 1958, he suffered a near fatal knife attack. And yet, he pleaded for non-violence, especially after the most heinous of events. And he never carried a gun, even though many around him urged him to. His response, “How could I if I am a champion of non-violence?”

How did he stay the course in the face of such hatred and real danger? He suggested his commitment and passion was born out of a recognition of how deeply we are connected, and connected to a transforming love that guides our lives. And as he affirmed in today’s reading referring to Paul’s epistle, “a Christian should rejoice at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believe.” According to his wife Coretta Scott King, he found steadiness and clarity in the depth of his contemplative life. When he prayed, he was reminded of the depth of his connections,. Interestingly, his prayers were very short. Often only a couple sentences, but direct, clear statements of intention and hope for the possibility of better tomorrow. 

He wasn’t one to be serious all the time, especially with family. He even made light of his brush with death. For it had been written in the papers that King’s injury was so critical, he would have died if he had sneezed. And King loved to publicly quote a letter from a girl who wrote, “Dr. King I am so glad that you didn’t sneeze.”

One of his greatest moments of despair was when four young girls lost their lives by a horrific, hate-filled bombing of a Birmingham church. His spirits were lifted only by the witness of over 3,000 unarmed young black women and men who while walking to a prayer meeting faced--with only their bodies and souls--the police dogs, clubs, and hoses of Bull O’Connor, and how they prevailed in their dignity.

And that’s what kept him going: human connections, expressions of hope, of faith in a better tomorrow, of our shared capacity to take a path of integrity and make the world better for everyone. That’s what love with courage is all about.

And this work of making connections, while simple, takes practice. It takes intention. And it takes a sustained commitment. And I experience this practice of making connections as a spiritual practice that hones my own integrity. Getting to know others both in and out of this congregation, learning what motivates others, hearing stories, witnessing the hope, love and sorrow in their faces, in conversations that rarely go more than 40 minutes. This has been the most meaningful and nourishing part of my ministry. And this is what makes possible effective organizing together for change. 

This is a new journey for all of us. I welcome your feedback, comments, and participation.  Please also go to Facebook to like the Love With Courage page and/or twitter to follow me.