Saturday, January 23, 2016

We Need Voices Like Yours!

To honor the legacy of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1,500 people of faith gathered on January 18 at the First Baptist Congregational Church on the west side of Chicago. More than 20 elected legislators were there, as were the three candidates running for Cook County State’s Attorney. We called upon them for fair police reform, expanded restorative justice efforts, and working toward a fair income tax.

All these people showed up even when it was 5 degrees outside, including 250 Unitarian Universalists from eight congregations. I was delighted that more than 80 people from the congregation I serve at Unity Temple showed up. Because we gathered with other people of faith and brought our voices together, we demonstrated a powerful coalition. Because we all showed up together, people in decision-making roles know what is important to us as a powerful collective. And, they will be accountable. For example, not only did all the elected officials agree to our policy platform, all three candidates for State’s Attorney agreed to meet with the Community Renewal Society every three months. 

I’m grateful for other religious leaders and communities who, like us, use their ability to connect and organize in order to work together for meaningful change. One of those is Rev. Marshall Hatch.

I’ve recently become close to Rev. Hatch, who has served for more than 20 years at New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church in North Lawndale. On December 26, Rev. Hatch visited a home where violence had taken two lives just that morning. There, he discovered a member of his congregation, sobbing, “Pastor, the police, they killed my mother.” 

Bettie Jones was killed in the incident involving the shooting of Antonio Legrier’s son.  Mr. Legrier had called the police to explain that his son was suffering from mental health problems.  Apparently, he had appeared dangerous to the police because he was wielding a baseball bat. However, once the facts of the case became clear, the physical evidence appears to question the story reported by the police. 

That week, Rev. Hatch delivered eulogies for two bereft families. 

Shortly after that, Rev. Hatch was on his way to a gathering I attended. He was stopped by a white man where a police car was blocking the road near the home where the shooting had occurred. 

The man motioned to Rev. Hatch to lower his winder and said, “I recognize you from WTTW and I knew Bettie Jones.” Tears began forming in his eyes as he added, “I also know the officer who shot her and Antonio -- Officer Rialmo. He’s just a kid who made a terrible, terrible mistake!” 

“We need more voices like yours,” the man said.

If you live in the Chicago area, I invite you to join me for an evening with Rev. Marshall Hatch, Pastor Ira Acree, and Pastor Cy Fields. They will share about their organization, The Leader’s Network that serves the needs of the westside of Chicago. It is a community leaders network led by these pastors.

We will together explore what it means for all of us who live in Chicagoland’s western corridor to stand together, in relationship, as we work to oppose violence, corruption and injustice. 

We need more voices like yours.

The event is at 7:30 p.m. on January 25. We will gather at Pilgrim United Church of Christ, 460 Lake St. (The Oak Park Farmer’s Market is held in their parking lot.) 

This gathering is hosted by the Community of Congregations

Monday, January 18, 2016

Love Is a Rock In a Weary World

It was a century ago, in 1915, that a bright, young black student was denied entrance to the all-white seminary at Oberlin. The denial letter simply stated he didn’t have the proper credits. So this young man traveled to Oberlin to talk with the head of admissions. When the Head of Admissions re-stated the reason, the young man said, “Do you want students with credits or students with brains?” The head of admissions took down a book from his shelf written in German and handed it to the student to read. He did and was sent to the dean, the imminent Dean Bosworth. After a second similar repartee, he was handed a book in Greek. This student knew Greek even better than German, and this young man was offered provisional admission. Upon graduation, he was selected to give the student oration and it wouldn’t be long before he was the first African American to have a sermon included in The Best Sermons of the Year. His name was Vernon Johns.

The life work of Rev. Vernon Johns was to seek a more just society by resisting the forces that prevent so many people of color from living fully engaged lives. He called for change when few people could imagine it. He served in Lynchburg Virginia and then Montgomery Alabama. There in Alabama, he would post the title of his sermons. It was 1940, and one sermon title read, “Is it OK to Lynch Negroes in Alabama?” Another sermon title was, “Is Heaven Segregated?”

Rev. Johns made a lot of people uncomfortable. Every week, his sermon included a statement how God did not intend for people to live in segregation.  The local police would often drive around the church wondering what new edgy things he would say. On one occasion, the police brought Rev. Johns to the police station and demanded what he’d be saying in the upcoming sermon. He responded, “Come to church and I’ll tell you, first after taking an offering.” 

Some people Rev. Johns made uncomfortable weren’t only outside the church. His own deacons after several years proclaimed to their pastor: “You’re too controversial.” And they let him go. As they looked for his replacement, they sought a minister who would be scholarly, reverent, not very controversial, someone they could control. They found a young minister who had just completed his PhD and grew up a preacher’s kid. His name was Martin Luther King, Jr.

My friends, if it weren’t for people like Vernon Johns, we wouldn’t be celebrating this weekend the life and legacy of Dr. King. Today we honor not only his life and legacy, but the dedication and witness of all those, past and present, who strive for justice. We all have benefitted from those who have sought truth and justice throughout the centuries. And we, if we so choose, pave the way for others. But we ultimately don’t do so alone. 

This month, the congregation I serve is exploring the theme of resistance, what does it mean to take a path of resistance? It is high time for us to reflect on nonviolent resistance, the philosophy and practice of Martin Luther King. As a theologian, Dr. King reflected often on his pilgrimage to nonviolence. Nonviolent resistance, he concluded, is a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love. His approach calls for nonviolent resisters to assert themselves and their demands without violence or intimidation but instead by leading with one’s vulnerability and seeking to win the friendship or at least the respect and understanding of one’s opponent. 

Howard Thurman was another great African American preacher who influenced Martin Luther King. Thurman was King’s mentor at Boston University. And throughout his ministry, whenever he left home, King took a copy of Thurman’s beautiful little book, Jesus and the Disinherited. In this work, Thurman identified the hounds of hell as fear, hatred and deception, and love is the only thing transforms the hounds of hell and provides the keys to human dignity. And so Dr King called for nonviolent resistance to be focused against structures and patterns of injustice, never against people. For if one allows hatred to grow towards a fellow human being, one descends into violence of the spirit. And violence of any kind can never lead to reconciliation. And so nonviolent resistance requires a deep faith in the future stemming from a conviction that the universe is on the side of justice.”

Dr. King, as did Rev. Johns, also held close the essay by Frederick Douglas published in 1857 entitled “If There Is No Struggle, There Is No Progress.” Both of them quoted a passage: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out what people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.” 

Just as Vernon Johns and Howard Thurman and Frederick Douglass paved the way for Martin Luther King, King paved the way for us all here in the Chicago area. 

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Chicago Freedom Movement. During the campaign Martin Luther King, Jr., chose to live on the westside, in North Lawndale, to bring attention to an especially poor part of the city and how black people suffered under unfair housing laws not only on the southside. I’ll have plenty to share about this in time, but for today my point is that King paved the way for us to engage in nonviolent resistance--and nonviolent resistance is as relevant and needed today as ever. 

Too often nonviolent resistance gets misunderstood. Somehow we have equated an open society to prioritizing toleration above all else, but toleration was not in Dr. King’s vocabulary. If he were alive today I suspect he’d ask:
What happens when you tolerate the intolerant? Let hate speech pollute the airways. Let corporations buy up your courts and state and federal legislative bodies. Let the Christian religion discredit science and be manipulated by charlatans to demonize Muslims, gays and intellectuals. Let unions wither under corporate assault. Let social services and public education be stripped of funding. Let Wall Street loot the national treasury with impunity. Let sleazy con artists use lies and deception to carry out unethical sting operations on tottering liberal institutions, and you roll out the welcome mat for fascism.
Chris Hedges penned these words four years ago and they seem all the more relevant today.

Love and truth are calling us to resist, to resist the fear, the hatred, and the deception that so easily breeds in the human heart and manifests in our wider culture. Resistance is an act of deep caring. Resistance is a call for compassion. And compassion is, as Jesus knew and Martin Luther King knew, ultimately a political act. My friends, to say that the church should stay away from political engagement is to say we should ignore how fear, hatred, and deception has taken hold in our world. 

Over the last six months, I’ve become close with Rev. Marshall Hatch who has served for over 20 years in North Lawndale at New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church. Three weeks ago, Pastor Hatch, stopped by the home where he had heard violence had taken two lives that morning. He was shocked to discover there a member of his congregation, sobbing, who said, “Pastor, the police, they killed my mother.” That’s when my colleague learned that Antonio Legrier’s father had called the police because his son had a mental health episode and was wielding a baseball bat and Bettie Jones was also killed. The physical evidence didn’t match with the story put out by police. That week, Pastor Hatch delivered two eulogies for two bereft families. 

This past Friday, when Pastor Hatch was on his way to a gathering that I attended, he shared that he stopped where a police car was blocking the road. There a white man approached and asked him to roll down his window. The man said, “I recognize you from WTTW. We need voices like yours. I knew Bettie Jones.” Tears began forming in his eyes as he said, “I also know the officer who shot her and Antonio. Officer Rialmo. He’s just a kid who made a terrible, terrible mistake. We need voices like yours calling for police reform and reminding us we are all in relationship. We need voices like yours.”

We need Pastor Hatch’s voice, indeed, and not just Pastor Hatch’s voice. All of us 
“have a voice” as W.H. Auden wrote
“To undo the folded lie, ... the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

We need voices in the public square, at protests. We need voices in the local newspapers. We need voices in the Wednesday Journal. We need to be clear, visible, and build our power. And above all, we need to be grounded in love. We need to grow our souls. We need to lessen our focus on the material and the technological and cultivate our moral faculties, to hone our capacity to speak truth to power in love. We need to engage nonviolent resistance.

If you live in the Chicago area, I invite you to join me this Monday on January 25 at 7:30pm for an evening with Pastor Marshall Hatch, Pastor Ira Acree, and Pastor Cy Fields. They will explore what it means for all of us who live in Chicagoland’s western corridor to understand that we are all together “westsiders.” We shall gather at Pilgrim United Church of Christ, 460 Lake St. (The Oak Park Farmer’s Market gathers in their parking lot.) 

I’m grateful for other religious leaders and communities who like us hold faith in our capacity to connect and organize for meaningful change. 

“Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reforms,” Frederick Douglass said in 1857. “The whole history of the progress of human history shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of struggle. ... If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. ...”

But our resistance must be grounded in love. 

It matters who we are in relationship with. 

It is time to participate in nonviolent resistance.

Don’t give up. Don’t give in. Don’t give in to cynicism. Our spirit is a rock in a weary world. Love is a rock in a weary land. May we participate in the legacy of Martin Luther Kiing, Jr, and channel this spirit and this love in the days ahead.

Love with Courage,


Tuesday, January 12, 2016

In the City of Chicago, Some Lives Don't Matter

It is time to act to repair justice, restore lives, and rebuild community.
Laquan McDonald’s life was expendable in the eyes of so many. Beyond those who initially learned of the horrific circumstances of his death, no one was supposed to learn his name. He was a kid who was abused, so much that he was a ward of the state when he was killed. And yet, his name has become known by millions and invoked by the President of the United States. Why? Because the truth has come out: 

In the City of Chicago, some lives don’t matter.

Police reform is long overdue. In October 2014, Laquan McDonald was shot 16 times by police officer Jason Van Dyke who, despite completely unambiguous and chilling evidence of his involvement in the crime, was not charged and indicted for that crime until December 17, 2015.  Cook County State’s Attorney, Anita Alvarez, and the chief of police allowed Officer Van Dyke to remain on the payroll and not face consequences. Only when a court finally ordered the release of the graphic dash-cam video, did Alvarez quickly file murder charges--just hours before the video’s previously unanticipated release.  

I hadn’t realized just how many levels I would be disturbed by the video of his needless death and the gross and wide-ranging cover-up. The reality of “16 shots and a cover-up” unveils the breadth and depth of corruption. It’s not just Officer Van Dyke and his four colleagues who clearly lied about what happened and at last face appropriate discipline. The Police Chief and the head of the Review Board have appropriately lost their jobs. And I can't help but wonder how often cover-ups have happened in the past.
I would like to think that none of these people on his or her own would ever have acted with such cynicism or negligence. But there’s tremendous pressure--which ultimately is no excuse—from a wider system of corruption and racism that must be addressed. The need for reform has been obvious to so many for so long. Yet the entrenched attitudes and resulting behaviors hold fast to the justification that nothing is really wrong.  
Three days before the video was released, Channel 7 interviewed Rev. Cy Fields and myself at his church, Landmark Missionary Baptist Church, located in North Garfield Park. As members of the Leaders Network, a clergy-led community group serving Chicago's westside, we had shared press releases about the need for police reform and transparency. What spoke more loudly than our brief comments was the image of an interracial clergy response. 

Since then, I've been inspired by how people of every hue have come out to protest the truth that has for so long kept hidden--and yet known by so many: Some lives are expendable. 

It has been true for decades, centuries. Wide swaths of people have long been failed by the City of Chicago, treated far differently than people of privilege. The history of this deeply disturbing reality goes way back, rooted in the institution of slavery and the displacement of native peoples. Poor people of color haven’t ever mattered in the eyes of the privileged.  

It’s time to act to repair justice, restore lives, and rebuild community. Police reform is long overdue. One of four demonstrations I attended in December was with Community Renewal Society (CRS) demanding Fair Policing reforms--reforms that we at CRS, led by Rev. Cy Fields, requested of the mayor twice over the past year. Reforms that the mayor flatly rejected, saying they were unnecessary.  
Fortunately there are avenues for bringing about change: organizing people of faith and people of compassion
One is Community Renewal Society (CRS). CRS's mission is to build relational power among people of faith to address poverty and racism, and has specifically addressed police brutality by calling for Fair Policing reforms.  In addition, CRS is currently focused on restorative justice efforts, bringing forth a fair tax, and creating job opportunities for people with police records. 
On Martin Luther King Day, CRS will hold a Faith in Action Assembly. Many elected officials will be in attendance from the state legislature and the Cook County board. Neither the mayor nor the Cook County State’s Attorney has ever attended despite many requests from constituents.  
Come join us to demonstrate that it's time to repair justice, restore lives, and rebuild community!
In the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr., come join me and hundreds of other people of faith as witness to Dr. King’s legacy by and calling upon elected and other city officials to support specific demands on behalf of our community. Monday, January 18, Martin Luther King Day, 9:30am-12:30pm. At First Baptist Congregational Church, 1613 W. Washington in Chicago. 
If you are in or near Oak Park, join me and members of Unity Temple and Third Unitarian Church at 805 South Blvd in Oak Park at 8:30am. We will gather for fellowship, prayer and breakfast and take a bus to Faith in Action Assembly together. 

Love with Courage,