Monday, August 24, 2015

Awakening to Enduring Racism

An exhibit at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry features a display of patterns found in nature: spirals, fractals, the golden mean, and Voronoi motifs. After seeing this visit, I began seeing similar designs everywhere. How was it that I hadn’t really noticed them until they were pointed out to me?

The same goes for racial bias happening throughout our culture. Until Michelle Alexander published The New Jim Crow (Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, 2010/2012), I wasn’t aware how racial bias permeates every step of the criminal justice system. Until Bryan Stevenson wrote Just Mercy (A Story of Justice and Redemption, 2014), I didn’t realize how innocent people end up on death row, all because of profound racism. 

Until Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote about the systematic exploitation of blacks migrating to Chicago ("The Case for Reparations" in The Atlantic, June 2014), I had no inkling how so many black families couldn’t raise the financial capital to build homes and businesses, and were cheated out of ‘The American Dream,’ only to be thrown together in massive housing projects. The ironically painful story of how Chicago became segregated becomes so much more clear--and ugly. 

Until acquaintances of mine in the Community Renewal Society shared with me the horrors of being charged with ten- to fifteen-year prison sentences for getting caught with drugs as young adults, while the same drugs were tolerated at predominantly white colleges, the essential truth of racism still seemed theoretical. But these are people I know and respect. Hearing their personal stories vividly illustrates the victimization caused by racism.

Until hearing these accounts, along with stories such as those Coates shares in Between the World and Me, as well as from other readings, from observation, and from listening to the personal struggles of people I know and love, I didn’t understand just how far so many black people must go to avoid confrontation with the police. 

Until the murder of unarmed black people by over-aggressive police officers, until the videos of Sandra Bland being arrested in Texas, Eric Garner being suffocated in New York City, and Walter Scott being gunned down from the back in South Carolina, only to have the police officer put a Taser gun next to his bleeding body and claim self-defense in his report, until these egregious behaviors were caught on film, I, as a white person, was blinded by ignorance.

And now that I am aware -- just like becoming aware of the shapes and designs in the Voronoi exhibit at the Chicago Museum -- I recognize the pattern of racism much more often. And so are others.

It is in the midst of this cultural awakening, this cultural grappling and heaving, that I believe the most critical civil rights work of our time is being done, particularly here in Chicago with “Black Lives Matter.”

As a pastor of a vibrant and socially active Oak Park congregation, I invariably want to provide pastoral and prophetic leadership for my people and the region. But more than that, I want to contribute to the emerging movement that truly declares that Black Lives Matter. I seek to participate in and cultivate networks of thoughtful, committed people here in the Chicagoland western corridor to foster compassion, equity, and justice in human relations.

The next step for me is sitting down with other pastors on the west side of Chicago and the corridor that includes Oak Park and the communities to our west, both individually and in networks. I am grateful for the Community Renewal Society and The Leaders Network that prioritize the voices of those most vulnerable among us. I want to discover other networks of people of compassion and people of faith in our region calling for justice. 

There is great need for people like you and me to gather in solidarity with others seeking to make real change. As opportunities emerge to bring people of all colors together in order to examine and work for racial justice, I will enthusiastically share such collective calls to action! 

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

One Degree of Separation from Sandra Bland

This past Sunday, to mark the anniversary of the horrific and needless death of Michael Brown, my congregation took a 4 1/2 minute silence during worship, and we shared a printed list of the names of 96 unarmed black people and the dates each was killed by police over the past year. 

Sandra Bland’s name was on that list. She would be alive today if it weren’t for atrocious police action. That Sandra Bland was pulled over and harassed after making way for a police car to pass without signaling is shocking. That she was handcuffed, manhandled, and jailed is outrageous. 

This morning I attended a gathering of Chicago pastors on the westside known as The Leaders Network. One of the pastors in this group, Bishop Jeffrey Davis, has long served as the pastor of Sandra Bland’s family. Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, is an active member of Bishop Davis’s The Word Works Church in Humboldt Park.

Bishop Davis brought Ms. Reed-Veal to speak with us and to receive prayer from us. It was a powerful gathering. I was reminded of the power of that comes when people of faith come together in the face of overpowering grief and shared lamentation regarding gross abuse of power.

As Ms. Reed-Veal got up to speak, I was struck by how she demonstrated strength and clarity. She’s not looking for pity or sympathy for the tragic loss of her daughter. She’s not even looking for people to express their anger and rage to her. She’s not looking for people to vent about what’s wrong with the world. 

What does she want? this woman who has buried her baby? She’s looking for people to wake up to the truth that a profound sickness has a hold of our nation. A sickness that treats people of color as less than other people. She’s looking for people who will act and refuse to be silent in front of injustice and inhumanity.

She said, “I see my daughter’s death not so much as a travesty or a tragedy but as a testimony, a testimony of how some people are treated differently by law enforcement, a testimony for the truth which so many don’t want to look at, a testimony that is a call to action if we want our other sons and daughters to live in a different world.”

She said, “I am angry, and I know I must not let anger define me. I must--and we must--channel our anger for action.” 

One of her words jumped out at me: “anchored.” She spoke of being anchored to a faith community that calls her to ground herself in love rather than anger. And that’s what I am grateful to be reminded of. It’s what we all need when we face crisis.

I can’t but think of how Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke of being anchored in a faith community so that we can be instruments of love, radical love. 

Now that there is only one degree of separation between me and the late Sandra Bland, notably her mother and her mother’s pastor, this work is ever more personal. 

I can imagine what a bright, thoughtful, articulate person Sandra must have been because her mother is such a devoted, thoughtful, and engaging individual. Her testimony fuels me for the journey. 

Sandra Bland’s death and the death of so many others point to a profound sickness in our nation--and in ourselves. We must wake up to love, radical love, born of crisis, struggle, and hope. I’m grateful for the Leaders Network that calls us to uncover and generate this kind of love, to act on it in connection with others, keeping hope alive, and to bring forth the Beloved Community. 

Friday, August 7, 2015

It Should Be a Time to Celebrate But It's Not

It’s been fifty years since the Voting Rights Act and there’s not much to celebrate. 

The historic Voting Rights Act became law soon after--and largely because of-- the harrowing marches in Selma, Alabama. And now, after being gutted by the Supreme Court a year ago, opening the way for several laws that make it difficult and more inconvenient for minority and low-income people to vote. 

In the last five years, several states have enacted voter-restriction laws at a pace never seen since the 1890s at the beginning of the Jim Crow era. These laws require photo IDs, limit voting hours, eliminate early voting, prohibit same-day registration. The result is suppressing turnout among African Americans, other minorities, and young people. 

Some of the laws are so glaringly discriminatory that the Supreme Court has overturned the most egregious of these, but this requires tremendous amounts of work, money, and time on behalf of those who seek equality in voting. That’s was the whole point of the Voting Rights Act--new laws regarding voting needed to be reviewed in certain states due to the history of racist behavior and a pattern of discriminatory laws.

One of those current laws is one in Texas. You can vote only if you have a valid identification. A driver’s license or a gun license (no joke--the NRA made sure that was included). But a student ID? Nope, can’t vote. Not even if it’s from a state university. 

Fortunately the Supreme Court saw the craziness of this bill and overturned it earlier this week... But that law wouldn’t have been on the books--and upheld for a year--if the Voting Rights Act was still in effect. Here's the full story.

But the pattern of laws that are being developed is, as Morris Dees says, “shameful. It’s outrageous. And it’s un-American.” 

I appreciate his leadership in mobilizing progressives to reclaim the ballot box for the many Americans who are now losing access as the result of a decades long campaign to erase the Voting Rights Act.

To help encourage voting and the push for voting rights, Morris Dees with the Southern Poverty Law Center are making their new Teaching Tolerance documentary Selma: The Bridge to the Ballot, available free to community groups. 

The Voting Right Acts of 1965 is not the only travesty remembered this week. This weekend marks the first anniversary of Michael Brown’s death. 

Over the past year, videos have emerged of police killing black men, only after the police account had intentionally covered over what really happened. How common is this? Until this year, I wouldn’t have imagined it was very common. But now? 

Given how this has happened again and again and again, just this past year, I wonder how anyone can argue against using cameras. 

There’s no question now that race figures significantly. Although all our laws are race-neutral, the implementation of them are so often racially biased.

In honor of the Black Lives Matter movement that has emerged after Michael Brown’s needless and horrific death, I am becoming acquainted with black pastors here in the Chicago area and reading the experiences of my peers who have grown up in a different culture. 

The future of our democracy depends on thoughtful people getting to know one another and waking up to where our nation fails to embody the ideals it professes. For there is a huge gap between the ideals upon which this country stands and the manifesting of these ideals for all people.