Yiayia / Γιαγιά

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In my heart this week, I have held my grandmother, my “Yiayia” who came to America at age 25 with an older husband and two babies. One of them was my mother. December 16, 1916 it was when the ship Guiseppe Verdi reached Ellis Island. My Yiayia — line number 25 on the ship’s passenger manifest — had never envisioned coming to this land. She never considered she might leave the tiny Greek village on the island that was her home.

Her husband, wanted by Mussolini as a political detractor, had no choice but to flee in the dark of night in search of a place of safety and refuge for his little family. He had the courage to survive and to dream. But here’s the thing: my grandparents were welcomed into this country when they arrived to see the brightness of the Lady Liberty’s lighted torch. To be sure, their life in America was not all bright or easy. They worked hard to eek out a living and to become a part of a new community so very far from the home they loved. 

After I was born into the world, a toddler at Yiayia’s knee, I watched her struggling to learn English, to speak English well enough to be understood by her neighbors. One of my most vivid memories was sitting next to her at our kitchen table next to an enormous silver radiator that creaked and groaned, but warmed us famously. With The Birmingham News spread across the table in front of her, she drank her coffee, dipping her Zuieback toast and reading the newspaper, every morning.

She taught herself to read English, but The Birmingham News was not merely a reading primer for Yiayia. She learned from it. She understood the news events of her day. She knew that liberty was a gift worth protecting. So she studied the political climate and the political personalities asking for her vote. She would insist that you MUST vote, that you must know the candidates, that you must cherish the right to free and fair elections.

So Yiayia would dress in her finest clothing, simple but lovely dresses. She would put on her earrings and her brooch, her rings and her watch. Then she would dress me, and off we would go, across the street and down the block to the polling place. We would go together into the booth with the dark brown curtain. She would vote and I would stand in close to her with the view of only that brown curtain and her chunky shoes, heels of course.

Before we exited the booth — every time — she would look down at me and say, “We are Democrats! That’s how we vote, always!” And to this very day, I have followed her voting directive — always. The truth is that her definitive directive about voting had much more to do with the process than the political party she supported. It went deeper than any party loyalty, all the way back to reading The Birmingham News, seeing the beam of the Statue of Liberty, crossing the ominous ocean, remembering how it felt to have to flee from government oppression and grieving the loss of the island of her home.

Today, it’s not so simple for our neighbors who must flee their homes for so many reasons — safety, survival, fear, oppression. Our president says they are not welcome here. Many Americans say they are not welcome here. Just today, The New York Times reported that Mr. Trump’s growing migrant paranoia resulted in the forced resignation of homeland security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who resigned on Sunday. She is part of Trump’s wider “housecleaning” designed to appoint persons who will make sure migrants can not get across our southwestern borders. Only department heads who will enthusiastically implement the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy will keep their jobs. May we never forget the images of thousands of migrant children who were separated from their families.

The president, in a not so presidential tweet, took aim again Sunday night when he tweeted, “Our Country is FULL!” So yes, he says that our neighbors are not welcome here. Yet, millions of us, second generation citizens of the United States of America, will never forget where we came from. We will always remember that our roots spanned the ocean and survived in a new land.

In my friend’s blog last week, I found words that touched me in a profound way and caused me to grieve the land of welcome we once knew. Her words express a startling poignancy. 

“A country that unwelcomes the world,” she writes.

I want to share with you her entire blog post — Jericho Walk — because it is well worth your time to ponder it, but first I emphasize this portion:

Often there is a shofar
to remind us just how deep
are the cracks
in the foundation of a country
that unwelcomes the world . . .

Jericho Walk
by Maren

I return to the Jericho walk,
in Manchester,
having not been well enough
for a couple months,
and it feels like home —
this moving vigil, silent, but with signs
and grateful waving for drivers
who honk their support.

We travel around the large block
of the federal building
where people we love and
some people we have never met
come to discover
if this week they’ll be deported.

We walk around seven times
hoping the walls
will come tumbling down —

around this place
that sends into certain danger
kind, hard-working,
tax paying, family-loving people
who contribute so much
to our community

Often there is a shofar
to remind us just how deep
are the cracks
in the foundation of a country
that unwelcomes the world,

but today there is a flautist
playing “Siyahamba”
over and over again —
walking
in the light of God,

and I think of that less-military
Jericho story —
the one that defines neighbor as

anyone from anywhere
who stops to help vulnerable ones
fallen on the side of the road.

Thank you, Maren. 

Thank you, my dear Yiayia, for teaching me that God grants us the grace gifts of refuge, safe haven and freedom. And no human — not even a big, bad, bully president — can take those gifts from us and from the generations that come after us.

May God make it so. Amen.

 

 

Thinking about Justice

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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Berlin on September 12, 1964;  PhotoquestGetty Images

Coffee, aloneness and silence. A perfect time to think! It’s what I need in the morning. I may be running around the rest of the day doing those tasks that most of us have to do. But in the morning, I crave the quiet time that allows me to think.

So here’s what I’m thinking. Since yesterday when we remembered Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I have been pondering a very intriguing article I read about him yesterday in Time Magazine. It was about Dr. King’s 1964 visit to West Berlin.

Now you need to understand this: being a lifelong student of Dr. King’s life and legacy, I should have known about this visit. I did not! According to Time, West Berlin’s Mayor Willy Brandt invited Dr. King to participate in a memorial ceremony for President John F. Kennedy, who had been assassinated the year before. Simultaneously, Dr. King also received an invitation to speak in East Berlin from Heinrich Grüber, who had been a pastor at a church there and a prisoner in a concentration camp for three years during World War II for openly criticizing the Nazi Party. So it would seem that Dr. King was in the company of leaders who, like him, challenged systemic injustice.

Historian Britta Waldschmidt-Nelson wrote that Grüber had been driven out because of his “anti-government views.” In a letter to Dr. King, Grüber wrote, “I write in the bond of the same faith and hope, knowing your experiences are the same as ours were. During the time of Hitler, I was often ashamed of being a German, as today I am ashamed of being white,” Grüber wrote. “I am grateful to you, dear brother, and to all who stand with you in this fight for justice, which you are conducting in the spirit of Jesus Christ.”

The Time article reported that on Sept. 13, 1964 — two months after the Civil Rights Act was enacted and a month before he won the Nobel Peace Prize — King addressed 20,000 people at a rally at the outdoor stadium Waldbühne in West Berlin. Later, King delivered the same sermon at St. Mary’s Church in East Berlin, which was over its 2,000-person capacity, and then gave another, unscheduled speech to the overflow crowd at Sophia Church, similarly over its 2,000-person capacity.

It is interesting to me, in light of the demagoguery of our day, that standing in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, Dr. King said, “While I am no expert in German politics, I know about walls.”

As always, Dr. King’s eloquence was evident in the words he spoke to East Berliners:

It is indeed an honor to be in this city, which stands as a symbol of the divisions of men on the face of the earth. For here on either side of the wall are God’s children and no man-made barrier can obliterate that fact. Whether it be East or West, men and women search for meaning, hope for fulfillment, yearn for faith in something beyond themselves, and cry desperately for love and community to support them in this pilgrim journey.

As you might expect, the U.S. State Department nervously monitored this visit. Historian Michael P. Steinberg explained the nervousness: “King is determined to cross the wall and see East Berlin, and it’s very clear, at this point, that the U.S. embassy does not want him to do this. They do not want the press.” American officials were particularly concerned as racial violence in the United States was frequently held up within East Germany and the Soviet Union as “an indication of the failure of American society.”

The embassy did confiscate Dr. King’s U.S. passport, hoping that doing so would deter him from crossing into East Berlin. But Dr. King managed to get into East Berlin by flashing his American Express card. 

German scholars have written that the visit was key, not only to raising the Germans’ awareness of the American civil-rights struggle, but also to sow the seeds of non-violent resistance there. Some say it inspired participants in the Prague Spring four years later, as well as the activists who campaigned for the Berlin Wall to be torn down in 1989. 

A final interesting historical fact from Waldschmidt-Nelson: East German opposition movements marched to “We Shall Overcome” in the 1980s.

So there you have it: a little-known story about a very well-known man! And thanks to him for a lasting legacy that continues to inspire us toward justice.

Make Room for the Unimaginable

C0F3E414-0365-4F43-890F-EAF928810C56Don’t you love skies . . . blues and purples, the sun’s brightness, the dark black of night, clouds and stars? It is good for us to look into the heavens and lose ourselves in the beauty of God’s creation, to make room for the unimaginable.

There is a beautiful poem in German by Joseph von Eichendorff, in which the poet says to God, “You are the One who breaks up above us those roofs that we so firmly build, so that we may see the heavens. And therefore I will not despair.”

We do build firm roofs that completely cover us, fences that separate us from neighbors, walls that divide us one from another. And we hear a great deal of talk these days about building a wall that is designed to keep people from other countries out. Visitors living in this country despair at the possibility of being deported. Even those who have been here for years and have followed all the rules.

There was a time when immigrants were welcomed here, encouraged to dream of better lives for their families. It was a time when their dreams brought them to a land of freedom, without oppression. My grandparents dreamed that dream when they came to America with my infant mother. And so life began for them here, among neighbors, in a safe and welcoming haven. My brothers and I are the products of that dream. 

So I am sad about the wall and hope in my heart that it will never be built. 

I am reminded of the Berlin Wall. It stood for 10,316 days, from 1961 until 1989. A guarded concrete barrier that physically and ideologically divided Berlin, it was sometimes referred to as the Wall of Shame. Over 100,000 people attempted to escape and over 5,000 people succeeded in escaping over the Wall. More than 200 people died trying to cross the Berlin Wall, but it stood solidly, forbidding passage. It was a blight on Berlin’s landscape that proclaimed absolute division. I remember the day of the wall’s destruction, June 13, 1990.

Brother David Steindl-Rast, OSB shares a beautiful truth:

Build the walls so lightly that you are still aware that you have neighbors. And build the roofs so lightly that you can look through and see the stars.”

That kind of roof God does not have to break. If we build our life in that form, we are people of hope. If we build any more firmly . . . we should expect that God shatters it all, to make room for the unimaginable, so that we will see the stars.

I used to be . . .

734D4A65-1E4E-4705-A356-D13DF9C7F9B4I used to be . . . 

It’s a phrase I use a lot these days as I fight off the feeling that in retirement, I am useless. It’s not true, of course, that I am useless. But to be honest, I do feel just a little useless these days, at least some of the time. The reason? I used to be a bona fide workaholic. I used to feel important and productive. I used to be busy all the time, night and day. I used to be a perfectionist. I used to have just a bit of obsessive compulsive disorder, and all,of that drove me to a dangerous place.

The problem is that when you love and believe in your work so much, your work can become your whole life. Then things can get unbearable. So I admit that I am a recovering workaholic. I was the person that put in far more than 40 hours a week and never took a day off. But the critical question I had to answer was this: Is my ego at the root of my workaholism?

What was the job that was important enough to push me to work so hard?

I was a minister and a trauma counselor, and I was executive director of Safe Places, a nonprofit organization that served victims of violence. There was always someone in trouble, someone who had been battered by a spouse, someone trying to escape trafficking, a teen that was recovering from rape, a child that had been abused. So the work was never done.

I loved my work. I believed in it with all my heart. But I could not see what others saw. I could not believe the truth spoken by friends and colleagues, that I needed rest, that my work was hurting me. As much as I didn’t want to admit it, I was working myself sick. Circumstances, and maybe the alignment of the stars, brought me to a “come to Jesus” moment that forced me to take stock of my life. I realized I couldn’t do it all. So I took a very slight respite and pulled back from the constant work. In the meantime, as the stars would have it, we lost our federal funding, and suddenly Safe Places was gone. It was over. 

The stress did not end, though, because those that needed help kept calling . . . my phone. I had no staff left and, though I tried, I simply could not continue helping all these hurting people by myself. So I was forced into an unwanted and unplanned rest. 

During this “rest” time, grief and loss took over my psyche. But miraculously, my body began to rest. My pace slowed down. I was becoming mindful of every moment and what was going on in every moment. And in spite of the grief and sadness, my mind and spirit began to heal. What happened next was the shock of a lifetime. As my mind and spirit began to heal, I finally allowed my body to tell me what was going on. My doctors got to the bottom of it and diagnosed me with end stage kidney disease. Before I could even begin to take it all in, I was hospitalized and on dialysis.

I honestly believe I had worked myself to death, or at least nearer to death than I wanted to be. I spent a great deal of 2014 in the hospital trying to stabilize and then working to take my life back. It was hard work learning to write again, to think again, to walk again. But I made it through to a “new normal” that meant for me at least 7 1/2 hours of dialysis every day for the rest of my life, unless, of course, I am able to get a kidney transplant.

The experience of serious illness changed me. After I began to recover, people told me that I was unusually quiet. I didn’t speak much even when others around me were engaged in meaningful conversations. I knew that I was being quiet, quite unlike my normal personality. I was often silent when normally I would have had a great deal to say. I was different, to be sure, but inside myself I was okay. If I had to describe myself I would say that I was soft, broken open and free. And I was content in that place, although my family was concerned about me. I had traveled to a new place in my life, and it was a good place to be.

So here I sit in my “new normal,” tending plants, painting, cooking, writing, reading, and doing all things for pleasure. Most often I am still tempted to dive in and work on something until I am exhausted. But when the tiredness begins to creep up, something in my body remembers. Remembers I need to rest, to embrace stillness, to just “be.”

Still, I fight my old workaholic ways. Sometimes they push me to do things faster and better and longer. Sometimes my old workaholic ways push my button, the button that accuses me of uselessness, as in, “You are not worth much anymore! What are you going to do to change the world?”

Good news! I have finally given myself permission to not change the world. It has been a major shift for me, but I am seeing the truth more clearly, that I never could have changed the world anyway! So most of the time, when I feel myself pushing past my edge, I walk away. I write a blog post or fiddle with my flowers. I cook something fabulous or watch a little Netflix. So what will I do to live happily in these retirement days? I hope that I will keep studying the secret art of rest. I hope that I will continue to learn the grace of mindfulness, just cherishing the moment, every moment.

I used to be a workaholic. Not anymore.

Oh, and one more thing . . . a prayer. Though my faith tradition has always eschewed prayers to Mary, mother of Jesus, many very beautiful and meaningful prayers are prayed to her. I leave you with this one written by Mirabai Starr.

Mother of Consolation, help me to let myself be consoled. 

I hold it all together, Blessed One. 

I have convinced myself that it is up to me to keep the airplane aloft with my own breath, that I am the only one capable of baking bread and scrubbing floors, that it is my responsibility alone to alleviate the sorrow in the heart of every single person I know. 

But I have forgotten how to weep, Tender One. 

Teach me to reach out to the ones I comfort and ask for their comfort. 

Let me feel the tender touch of the Holy One on my cheek when I wake in the night, weary and frightened. 

Help me to be vulnerable and soft now, broken open and free.

— Mirabai Starr

 

 

Growing Up Inspired: My Granddaughter and The Little Rock Nine

28332D92-A50E-4817-9663-6D13F00790D5June 16, 2012 . . . My three-year-old granddaughter standing among the bronze sculptures of The Little Rock Nine.

Her parents had told her the poignant story of The Little Rock Nine, but at age three she had no idea of the many ways their lives would impact hers. Because they crossed an invisible, but very real, line that divided black children from white children, they opened the door to educational equality in a racially divided state. Because their parents were brave enough to let their children breach the three stately doors of Little Rock Central High School, their world changed in unimaginable ways. And with that change, my granddaughter inherited the highly cherished right to equal education and all the opportunities that would follow. Because of that change, my granddaughter would grow up inspired.

In case you do not know about The Little Rock Nine, here is some background. 

On September 3, 1957, nine African American students — The Little Rock Nine — arrived to enter Little Rock Central High School only to be turned away by the Arkansas National Guard. Governor Orval Faubus had called out the Arkansas National Guard the night before to, as he put it, “maintain and restore order…” The soldiers barred the African American students from entering.

On September 24, 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered units of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division — the “Screaming Eagles”— into Little Rock and federalized the Arkansas National Guard. In a televised speech delivered to the nation, President Eisenhower stated, “Mob rule cannot be allowed to override the decisions of the courts.”

On September 25, 1957, under federal troop escort, The Little Rock Nine made it inside for their first full day of school. The 101st Airborne left in October and the federalized Arkansas National Guard troops remained throughout the year.

They were nine solemn figures, nine teenagers just trying to do what every child up to age 18 had been mandated to do: go to school. Nine figures who entered the annals of American history the day they passed through the front door of Little Rock Central High School.

These nine African American students — Melba Pattillo, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Gloria Ray, Carlotta Walls, Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas, Minnijean Brown and Thelma Mothershed — are now immortalized in a striking memorial located on the grounds of the Arkansas State Capitol in Little Rock. The life-size bronze statues, entitled “Testament,” were designed and sculpted by Little Rock artist John Deering, assisted by his wife Kathy, also an artist. A comment from each of The Nine is found on individual bronze plaques identifying each student. Across the street sits the State Department of Education, just a few hundred yards from “Testament.” This Arkansas State Agency has been embroiled in this same desegregation lawsuit for over 50 years. 

Nine young students walked bravely, defiantly, yet filled with fear, in an act against prejudice and ignorance. These nine are heroes of every grueling story of segregation and racism in American history, every story we have heard and the millions of stories we will never hear.

So I am deeply moved by these photos of my granddaughter because there is deep meaning in each one. She seems to be looking up at the sculpture of Melba Pattillo (Beals) with what seems like admiration and awe. Dr. Beals grew up surrounded by family members who knew the importance of education. Her mother, Lois, was one of the first African Americans to graduate from the University of Arkansas in 1954. While attending all-black Horace Mann High School, Melba knew that her educational opportunities were not equal to her white counterparts at Central High. And so she became a part of the effort to integrate Central.

B3083DBA-2BEB-4137-B162-B8CB19B4AD64And my granddaughter stands in front of Little Rock Central High, a school she may choose to attend someday, a school she will be able to attend because The Little Rock Nine took a dangerous risk to make it possible.

 

 

CCBDA845-BD2D-42E4-85B2-28749F2EA762Finally, my granddaughter stands playfully on the steps of the Arkansas State Capitol. I know that it is possible that she may one day proudly walk through its golden doors as a state senator or representative. That is possible because nine Little Rock students were brave enough to be a part of changing history.

 

At three years old, my granddaughter probably was not very inspired by Central High School, the Little Rock Nine Memorial, or the Arkansas Capitol. But her parents took her there to see and to learn so that she would grow up inspired. When she is older she will remember what she saw and what she learned from that seemingly insignificant sightseeing trip, and she will realize that it wasn’t insignificant at all. It may just be what motivates and inspires her to follow her dreams, because now she knows that all of her dreams are possible. It’s all about growing up inspired. It’s what we want for every child.

Dr. Melba Pattillo Beals, Minniejean Brown Trickey, Elizabeth Eckford, Dr. Carlotta Walls LaNier, Mrs. Thelma Mothershed Wair, Dr. Ernest Green, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Dr. Jefferson Thomas, Dr. Terrence J. Roberts, you made sure that every child can grow up inspired. when you were just young teenagers. When you walked through the doors of segregated Little Rock Central High School, you did so much more . . . for every student who came after you and for my granddaughter 

 

Moving Towards the Sunrise: An Essay on Immigration

F6C9AEAC-5F90-4F42-B0D9-FF50DDA7D60F.jpegI could decide to stand on this side wondering what life might hold on the other side. I can see the brilliant sunrise, perhaps a symbol for a bright new life for my children. I can see the tiny lights of dwellings or businesses. I’m not sure what they are but perhaps each tiny light is a warm welcome, a place of refuge, a safe haven.

I hold on tightly to the hands of my children, and now I look back and remember the violence, the fear, the drugs, the hopelessness for the future of my children. I consider going back, barricading my family in our tiny hovel and hoping for the best. It’s the life we know. It’s what we’re used to. But do I want my children to grow us “used to” violence and crime? Do I want then to be used to fear and hopelessness?

I decide to take a chance toward the sunrise and the tiny lights that will surely open their doors to a mother and her children. The land of the sunrise is called “the land of the free.” The land of the sunrise offers the wonderful promise of welcome . . .

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free . . . 

Give these, the homeless tempest tossed to me. 

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

Yes, I resolve. We will go forward. Yes!

I make, in this very moment, the most significant and life-altering decision of our lives. I choose  hope! We will go!

With great fear in the depths of my spirit, I move us toward the sunrise. I hold tightly to my children and begin the hope-filled crossing. Holding them all close on a grueling hike, I can see that we have almost made it to the other side.

Now we are actually standing in the light of the sunrise. We have crossed. Those who are to welcome us are approaching. Finally, I have made the journey to new hope for my beautiful children. Thanks be to God for safe passage! 

The welcoming people come near. But they are loud, boisterous, frightening. I never expected this. Oh my God, they have ripped my children from me. The youngest is crying, pleading for me, struggling to get away. The others are screaming “no” as they try in vain to work themselves loose from the powerful arms of those who restrain them. But the grip on them is too strong. I cry out and plead that they will not harm my children. I fall into the dirt, sobbing as they take my children away. 

Dear God, what have I done?

May God have mercy on us all.

Freedom, Liberty, Justice, and the National Anthem

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Patriotism can be defined differently by different people. A plethora of actions and ceremonies cause a lump in the throat. For me, many ceremonies, sights and sounds can create a catch in my voice and a visceral emotional response. 

Singing “America the Beautiful” (1)

Watching the U.S. Navy Blue Angels paint the sky

Singing the song written by Irving Berlin in 1918, “God bless America, land that I love . . .” (2)

Hearing the stunningly beautiful words of Emma Lazarus, “Give me your tired, your poor . . .” (3)

Singing the hymn known as the African American National Anthem:

Lift every voice and sing, 
‘Till earth and heaven ring, 
Ring with the harmonies of liberty . . . 
Stormy the road we trod, 
Bitter the chastening rod, 
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died . . .
Out from the gloomy past,
‘Till now we stand at last
Where the bright gleam of our bright star is cast . . . (4)

And finally, watching the flag billowing in the breeze while the melody of the National Anthem floods a football stadium . . . 

While National Football League players stand tall and sing as they gaze at the American flag; 

While other players place their hands over their hearts in an act of honor; 

While still others kneel because they long for America to be better.

The National Anthem should not be the focus of controversy. The American flag should not be a catalyst for divisiveness. Both are symbols of freedom and liberty that inspire deeply personal acts of patriotism. National symbols should never cause us to ostracize any individual whose patriotism looks different than our own. 

CNN’s Van Jones spoke definitively about what we know as the National Anthem controversy:

People who look like me have put blood in the ground, and put martyrs in the dirt for this country, to have it be liberty and justice for all… It is beyond insulting to have people lecture us about patriotism. (5)

   Van Jones on the NFL National Anthem controversy

Approaching the commemoration of Independence Day reminds me to look more intently to see the acts of patriotism all around me. It prompts me to ask myself what “liberty and justice for all” looks like in these troublesome days. It moves me be a more committed advocate for freedom in all its forms. 

As a Baptist for fifty years, I have been thoroughly immersed in the Biblical concept of soul freedom, an all-encompassing freedom that is, by the way, not just for Baptists. James Dunn provides one of the best descriptions of soul freedom

Soul freedom, all freedom and responsibility are God’s gifts to humanity. God created and endowed people to be free moral agents. Soul freedom and responsibility are not invented by government, or devised by social contract. All dignity and respect afforded persons comes from God as revealed in Scripture. (6) 

For me, a part of soul freedom allows me the right of expression — to worship as I wish, to honor my country as I wish, to exercise my freedom to be the person I was destined to be. I cherish the gift of such extravagant liberty and know full well that it is a tenuous and fragile freedom. That fragility is one cause for the unfortunate and unnecessary controversy surrounding the National Football League and the National Anthem.

My heritage compels me to advocate for the right of every person to express his or her patriotism as they choose. As a child of immigrant parents, I will forever honor the American flag and revere the National Anthem. I may do it as I sing. I may do it through my tears. I may stand proudly and face the waving American flag. I may kneel in solidarity. I may cry as I remember my grandmother’s frightening journey to this country with my infant mother. I may pay tribute in various ways, but I will do it in my own way. As should we all.

So let us move forward in freedom. Let us stand fast in the liberty (7) that has made us free. Let us persist in our resolve to demand justice for all humankind. And as we do, let us go forth boldly with freedom-words on our lips:

Oh, freedom! Oh, freedom! Oh, freedom over me! (8)

Sweet land of liberty . . . (9)

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free . . . 

Sweet justice, climb the mountain though your hands may be weary . . . (10)

Lift every voice and sing ‘till earth and heaven ring, ring with the harmonies of liberty . . .

God bless America!

Amen.


(1) Lyrics by Katharine Lee Bates; music by Samuel A.Ward
(2) Irving Berlin, 1918
(3) Emma Lazarus, From the poem, “The New Colossus “ 1883; inscribed on a bronze plaque placed inside the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in 1903
(4) James W. Johnson, 1871-1938; J. Rosamond Johnson, 1873-1954
(5) Van Jones on the NFL National Anthem controversy; https://cnn.it/2JxzD36
(6) Jamie’s M. Dunn, Soul Freedom: Universal Human Right in Soul Freedom: Baptist Battle Cry, James M. Dunn and Grady C. Cothen, Smyth and Helwys Publishing, 2000.
(7) Galatians 5:1
(8) Traditional spiritual, arr. by Valeria A. Foster
(9) Samuel Francis Smith
(19) Jill Scott

A Prophet Among Us

51D84C45-AF36-41C2-824C-3E29EE93E434Because of the recent opening of The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, I have been contemplating the terror of lynching in our history. The Montgomery site is the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with police violence.

“Set on a six-acre site, the memorial uses sculpture, art, and design to contextualize racial terror. The site includes a memorial square with 800 six-foot monuments to symbolize thousands of racial terror lynching victims in the United States and the counties and states where this terrorism took place.” (eji.org)

But racial injustice is not merely art used to contextualize racism and violence. We also have the cold, hard facts. For instance, The Tuskegee Institute reports that 4,743 people were lynched between 1882 and 1968, including 3,446 African Americans and 1,297 whites, mostly white individuals who tried to help their African American neighbors.

Who were the prophets among us who proclaimed in those days a Christian Gospel of justice?

The NAACP reports that today African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of white people.

Who are the prophets among us in these days? Who is calling for justice, for liberation and freedom for those who are oppressed?

Across a range of human rights issues in 2017, the United States moved backward on human rights issues. The current U.S. president has targeted refugees and immigrants, calling them criminals and security threats. He has emboldened racism by promoting white nationalism. He consistently champions anti-Muslim ideas. His administration has embraced policies that will roll back access to reproductive health care for women and has created health insurance changes that would leave many Americans without access to affordable health care. He has undermined police accountability for abuse. He has expressed disdain for independent media and for federal courts that have blocked some of his actions.

The individuals most likely to suffer abuse in our nation include members of racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, children, the poor, prisoners and other vulnerable groups, who endure renewed attacks on their rights. Issues of injustice include gender equity, poverty, the right to health care, immigration and the rights of non-citizens, sexual orientation and gender identity, criminal and juvenile justice, harsh criminal sentencing and mass incarceration,.

Where is justice today? Who will call each injustice by name? Where is the prophetic voice among us that will proclaim liberation?

06B7213F-F174-4BD0-9B73-D8AB170F288BWhile in seminary, I immersed myself in the study of liberation theologies. Not surprisingly, my research led me to the writings of black liberation theologian, The Rev. Dr. James H. Cone. I became what some might call a follower of Dr. Cone. I saw him as a Christ-like superhero. Much of my research and writing in those days delved into the history of liberation theology, so Dr. Cone’s books covered my desk for months.

On Saturday, I learned of his death and experienced both sadness and gladness. Glad, because of his enormous contribution to Christian theology’s imperative response to injustice. And sad, because his voice of justice is now silent. By his death, we lost a prophet, a persevering voice that championed racial justice. We lost a voice that gave the world an interpretation of the Christian Gospel that paid attention to the voices of the oppressed.

YES! “A prophet was among us.”

These words from Judge Wendell Griffen honored the prophet, Rev. Dr. James H. Cone, and named him as the central figure in the development of black liberation theology in the 1960s and ’70s.

The prophet and scholar was raised in a small Arkansas town, giving him a clear view of the harsh reality of racial injustice. Dr. Cone rose up from his simple roots to become the foremost voice of his day on black liberation theology.

84C76F50-B538-4A1C-91DA-48E4357609E2Google it.

“Black liberation theology”

The first image you will see is that of James H. Cone. And then you will see image after image of him as well as a list of the plethora of books he has written and a list of the places around the world where he taught and preached.

What is my point?

First of all, I want to add my voice to those who are honoring this prophet of justice. But more importantly, I want to own and name the present reality: that there has never been a time in history that needs the message of liberation more than this day. To be sure, the horrific lynchings of African Americans in this country took place many years ago, between 1882 and 1968.BAD8200A-0958-4FBE-9241-F4E2DDEBCA70

And this is a new day, is it not?

It is a new day, a new day that has moved our society to the national shame of mass incarceration of African Americans. Consider this research:

  • By the age of 14, approximately 25 percent of African American children have experienced a parent — in most cases a father — being imprisoned for some period of time.
  • On any given school day, approximately 10 percent of African American schoolchildren have a parent who is in jail or prison, more than four times the share in 1980.
  • The comparable share for white children is 4 percent; an African American child is six times as likely as a white child to have or have had an incarcerated parent.

(Valerie Strauss, March 15, 2017; The Washington Post; https://www.washingtonpost.com/people/valerie-strauss/?utm_term=.8d67a553a8db)

  • In 2014, African Americans constituted 2.3 million, or 34%, of the total 6.8 million correctional population.
  • The imprisonment rate for African American women is twice that of white women.
  • Nationwide, African American children represent 32% of children who are arrested, 42% of children who are detained, and 52% of children whose cases are judicially waived to criminal court.

(NAACP.org)

TMI . . . Too much information, right? Perhaps it is too much information, but the amount of information here barely scratches the surface of the many ways injustice has gripped our nation in these days. We can turn our backs, stop up our ears, and blind our eyes to it, but that will not change the fact that people are being oppressed, injustice is doing its horrific work, and liberation seems a distant, unreachable dream.

The people of God must be the people of God and accept the mantle placed by God on our shoulders — being a prophetic voice in a land where injustice has its way.

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;

to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
(Isaiah 61:1-3 NRSV)

But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
(Amos 6:24 NRSV)

We are the prophets among us. Let’s act like it!

 

 

Lynching’s Long Shadow: America’s Shame

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The memorial is inspired by the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin and the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg.
Photography: Audra Melton for The New York Times

Nothing casts as long and shameful a shadow on our history than does lynching. Lynching is a part of America’s history that we want to ignore. As a people, we cringe at the thought of it, yet do not often allow ourselves to think of it. We do not own lynching. It happened in another time in history, with decades separating us from its shame. We secretly hope that if we do not talk about it, we can move forward without acknowleding the depth of its impact. And above all, we cannot admit that such violence is still possible in this day.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is a living reminder for us. The Memorial, which opened today on a six-acre site overlooking the Alabama State Capitol, is dedicated to the victims of American white supremacy. It demands a reckoning with one of the nation’s least recognized atrocities: the lynching of thousands of black people in a decades-long campaign of racist terror.

At the center of the Memorial is a grim cloister, a walkway with 800 weathered steel columns, all hanging from a roof. Etched on each column is the name of an American county and the people who were lynched there, most listed by name, many simply as “unknown.” The columns meet you first at eye level, like the headstones that lynching victims were rarely given. But as you walk, the floor steadily descends; by the end, the columns are all dangling above, leaving you in the position of the callous spectators in old photographs of public lynchings.

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Bryan Stevenson and a small group of lawyers spent years immersing themselves in archives and county libraries to document thousands of lynchings.
Photography: Audra Melton for The New York Times

 

The magnitude of the killing is harrowing, all the more so when paired with the circumstances of individual lynchings, some described in brief summaries along the walk:

Parks Banks, lynched in Mississippi in 1922 for carrying a photograph of a white woman;

Caleb Gadly, hanged in Kentucky in 1894 for “walking behind the wife of his white employer”;

Mary Turner, who after denouncing her husband’s lynching by a rampaging white mob, was hung upside down, burned and then sliced open so that her unborn child fell to the ground.

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A 2017 sculpture by Titus Kaphar, “Doubt,” sat amid accounts of slaves and former slaves at the museum.
Photography: Audra Melton for The New York Times

A grassy hill rises in the middle of the memorial. From there you can see the Montgomery skyline through the thicket of hanging columns, the river where the enslaved were sold, and the State Capitol building that once housed the Confederacy. It is a striking view.

The striking exhibits and sculptures in this Memorial exist to remind us, to challenge us, to create in us a determination to always fight injustice.

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Jars
Hundreds of jars of soil from the sites of documented lynchings, collected by families of victims or community volunteers, are on display at the museum.
Photography: Audra Melton for The New York Times

May we more deeply understand our tragically unjust and violent history. May we vow to make peace and demand justice. May we never forget what happened in this nation so that it will never happen again. It is very real that our history of lynching innocent people casts a long and dark shadow upon our existence. May we intentionally work for justice so that we will no longer live in that shadow.

This blog post is words, just words. But our words are not enough. Our declarations are empty and meaningless if we do not also immerse ourselves in the hard and grueling work that makes for justice. God does not care about our words and promises. God does not accept our carefully planned events — filled with flags and crowds and songs — held in American cities and counties and town squares to commemorate our history. God demands pure and genuine righteousness that vows to do whatever it takes to create justice in our nation and in the world.

May God lead us in making it so. May God help us to step out of lynching’s long shadow and walk in the light of justice and righteousness.

Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.

But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

— Amos 5:23-24 (New Revised Standard Version)

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Your World Ends

66A9AA3C-258F-40E7-AB87-32000E79567EMy adult son is a master at denial. He can get very upset over a situation, but before you can blink, he has moved on as if it never happened. To be honest, I have often envied that part of his personality. As one who tends to brood over life’s challenges and problems, I would love to just be able to blow things off.

There is no chance of that happening for me. I think that this brooding part of me emerges from the trauma I have experienced over the years. My world has ended many times, or so it seemed. Yet, there has been a positive aspect of my brooding: that I have learned to sit with an issue for a while, dissect what has happened, feel the depth of hurt, and reflect on the depth of the emotional assault I’m experiencing. Blowing off pain just doesn’t work for me. Denial is not my way.

Denial never makes hurt go away. Denial never even diminishes hurt. So be warned. Blowing off pain is a path to internal disaster. As difficult as introspection can be, I am grateful that I am able to deeply feel the feelings I feel, to let the hurt wash over me, and finally to emerge better and stronger. Feeling the depth of my heartaches has served to disempower them and, most importantly, to enable me to harness my inner power to be free.

This, I believe, is the path that takes us beyond despair. This is the path that lets us own our heartbreak and then leave it behind to move into a fresh, new day. I am strengthened by the words of poet Nayyirah Waheed.

feel it.
the thing that you don’t
want to feel.
feel it and be free.

the thing you are most afraid to write, write that.

it is being honest
about
my pain
that
makes me invincible.

i don’t pay attention to the
world ending.
it has ended for me
many times
and began again in the morning.

To sit with your pain, to touch the heart of your hurt . . . that is what makes you free. And that freedom will be for you this miracle . . . when your world ends, and it may end many times, it begins again in the morning.

Thanks be to God.