Thursday, August 30, 2012

Traveling the freeway of change

Change is a strange thing.  It’s often the best thing that can happen, yet it is the hardest thing to approach.  Although it’s good to change, fear keeps us from moving toward the end to begin the journey toward something new.
On Sunday, I bring to an end 23 years of ministry in Durham.  Since making the announcement that I have chosen to disband Compassion Ministries, I’ve had numerous conversations with others in the middle of change.  There must be something in the air.  Each person spoke of the thrill of change while not being sure what will come next.
Change is a strange thing.
I spoke briefly with Steve Schewel about the change in his life.  Schewel, who serves as a member of Durham’s City Council, recently sold the Independent Weekly to Williamette Week, an alternative weekly paper in Portland, Ore.  Schewel ran the Independent Weekly for over 30 years.
Things have changed since the Independent Weekly first came off the presses.  The newspaper industry isn’t what it used to be.  It will never be the same.  I left my conversation with Schewel believing change was good for him.  He talked about being at peace.
Earlier that day, I ran into Sioux Watson, the publisher of the Independent Weekly.  She told me she won’t be around to run the Independent Weekly now that the paper has been sold.  She told me the change is a good thing.  Something new will come out of it all.
The changes at the Independent Weekly left me pondering all that it has meant for me to serve Durham over the years.  When I started working as a local column writer all the papers were locally owned.  The News & Observer was the first to be sold.  I’ll never forget the day the Herald-Sun was sold to the Paxton Media Group.  Many of my close friends were forced to leave without a chance to say goodbye.  I’ll never forget hugging Flo Johnston as she entered the elevator with her things in a box.
Change wasn’t good on that day.
The exit of many of my friends from the Herald-Sun led to the creation of the Durham News.  I stayed on board with the Herald-Sun until Bob Ashby, the managing editor, asked me to take a big pay cut.  I nicely told him no thanks and took my pen and paper to the Independent Weekly and the Durham News
The change wasn’t a bad thing.  It came with good and bad.  Change rarely finds you in a place that is the same. You have to learn to appreciate the good that comes with moving in a new direction.
So, what I’m trying to express is the feelings that come with my change.  Since 1997, my life has been a blending of column writer and pastor.  Throw in the pile a bunch of advocacy and activism and I’ve made a life that defines me in a way that leaves me feeling complete.  There’s nothing like walking in footprints that defines the things important to you.  I’ve been able to use the pen and the pulpit to dig deep while exposing the hypocrisy and contradictions that drive me crazy.
Back home, before coming to North Carolina, I used to talk about sharing the Good News and the bad news in the same week.  Back then I was working as a television reporter.  Things have changed since then, but many things are the same. 
That’s the good thing about change. Circumstance may alter, but we stay the same.  We may do work that is different – be it television, radio or newspaper, ministry or the world of nonprofit management – but we stay the same.  Our focus may differ. We may learn a few lessons that make us better at what we do.  We add a few new friends along the way to bring a different perspective, but the gut stays the same.
Knowing that grounds me in my decision to move toward change. Change does not mean a change in me. Change is about the beginning of movement toward something better in me.
Change is about celebrating magic.  Some call it faith – walking toward the unknown, knowing something better is there waiting for you to show up to marinate in the magic.
I can’t wait to see what will come next.  Like the leaves that come with autumn, I’m waiting for the wind to blow.  Imagine floating in the wind. Imagine going places you have never been before.
Yes, it gets scary sometimes, but I’m reminded of where I’ve been.  I’m taking the best of me with me as I travel toward discovering the gift of the new me.  I’m still the same, just a bit better because of the journey.
Thank God for change!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Rush Limbaugh wants Hurricane Isaac to kill black Democrats in New Orleans

Our friend Rush Limbaugh is at it again.  His recent comments sound like a curse to destroy black Democrats in New Orleans. Here’s what he said during a recent radio broadcast.
Thinking about what we can do to the Republican convention! I’m getting chills thinking about it! Now, if you missed the first hour, I, of course, Mr. Solution, El Rushbo, suggested that the Republicans head off some of this criticism that they know is coming their way by doing two things. First thing is send 500 bus drivers to New Orleans right now. Because, remember, it was Mayor Nagin of New Orleans who didn’t mobilize the buses to help evacuate the poor citizens.
Bush got blamed for it, of course, but it was the mayor who didn’t activate the buses. So we send 500 bus drivers in. The second thing we do: Instead of sending sandbags to shore up these levees, which have ostensibly been repaired since Katrina, we send in bags of money! We send in bags of money delivered by Mitt Romney’s sons. And we take those bags of money down to those levees.
We maybe even set one bag on fire just to show ‘em we’re Republicans. This will accomplish a couple things. A, it’ll show we care. “We have sent money directly to New Orleans, in bags at the levees.” The second thing that will happen is that citizens in New Orleans, when they find out there’s money in those bags, will head down there and try to steal the bags, steal the money, at which time the levees will fail because the bags are being taken away.
And more destruction, damage, and injury. In the process, the Republicans succeed in having fewer Democrat voters in Louisiana again. Just like they did with Hurricane Katrina. And everybody knows that was the point. Steer Katrina in there; wipe out New Orleans. Have the people that survive go to Texas and take Democrats away from Louisiana and make it not a Democrat state. That’s what the media told us Republicans did with Katrina. So relive it.
Those are my ideas
I don’t expect them to be acted upon.
But using bags of money would be cheaper than giving taxpayer dollars to the local Democrats who have been in charge of the levees, because that money has just ended up in the back pockets of the Democrats and didn’t go to levee repair. They used the money to buy votes, or in the case of William Jefferson (Democrat-Louisiana) he just put the money in his freezer.
Come on Rush! Using Katrina is a low blow.  I could write that Hurricane Isaac disrupting the Republican Convention is proof of God’s judgment against the Republican Party.  Isn’t that what many claimed after Hurricane Katrina ripped through New Orleans on this date (August 29) in 2005?  Hurricane Isaac offered an opportunity to give conservative minded Christians a piece of their own medication.
On September 18, 2006, Pastor John Hagee, who endorsed Senator John McCain for President, said he was glad to have told NPR’s Terry Gross that “Hurricane Katrina was, in fact, the judgment of God against the city of New Orleans.”
“New Orleans had a level of sin that was offensive to God,” Hagee went on to say.  “There was to be a homosexual parade there on the Monday that the Katrina came.”
Rushbo’s comments come after a series of offensive statements regarding how God uses natural disasters to expose sin.  Pat Robertson used his bully pulpit to attack the victims of Katrina.
"I was reading, yesterday, a book that was very interesting about what God has to say in the Old Testament about those who shed innocent blood…But have we found we are unable somehow to defend ourselves against some of the attacks that are coming against us, either by terrorists or now by natural disaster? Could they be connected in some way?" Robertson said in a September 12, 2005 broadcast of "The 700 Club," soon after Hurricane Katrina.
Robertson used the tragic earthquake in Haiti to make another point about God’s judgment. "They were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III, or whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, we will serve you if you'll get us free from the French. True story. And so, the devil said, okay it's a deal [...] ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other."
Couldn’t we claim that God is angry with the greed and deception among Republicans?  If God used natural disaster to make a point in New Orleans and Haiti, can’t the same apply to Republicans in Florida to nominate Romney?
Limbaugh seems obsessed with Hurricane Isaac. Earlier in the week he blamed Democrats for altering the forecast to force a cancellation of the first day of the convention.  He then asserted Democrats want Hurricane Isaac to hit New Orleans. Now, he rekindles reminders of Katrina with a dream of killing poor black folks to reduce the number of Democrats in New Orleans. If I didn’t know any better, I would say ole Rushbo is doing his best to stay away from talk about God opening eyes to Republican sin.  I don’t think he’s smart enough to recognize the contradiction. 
He shifts the blame for what happened after Katrina away from President Bush to Mayor Nagin knowing the blame for what happened has many layers.    Katrina is too painful a memory to use to make a silly point.  What would people think if Rushbo suggested boxes of fried chicken be placed on top of a building in New York city to trick black Democrats to go on top on the anniversary of 911.  It is no laughing matter.
So, if we’re going to use natural disasters to make a point, try this. 
God is using Hurricane Isaac to kill the top leaders in the Republican Party.  It’s God’s judgment for years of racism, sexism and greed.
I don’t believe that’s true, but it’s the type of crap those Republicans use to manipulate their base.
God help us!

Monday, August 27, 2012

Does Hampton's decision to ban dreadlocks mean a person with them can't fit in corporate America? Change the culture

It’s amazing how many people want to talk about hair.  My blog from last week generated the most hits in the history of the Rev-elution (close to 10,000).  It received the most comments ever, and was reposted on Facebook by 195 people.
Most readers are irritated that the business school at Hampton University imposed a ban on male students with cornrows and locs.  It is significant to note that the sanction only applies to male students, a detail missed in my previous blog.  Some may consider the acceptance of women with locs and cornrows a small victory.  That factor merely draws greater attention to the difficulty black men face in gaining acceptance in mainline culture.
Hampton, and other HBCU’s, are faced with the tough challenge of proving they have adequately prepared students to assimilate into a job market where they are the minority. They are entrusted with proving students are different from what popular culture reflects as normative among black men.  Students may possess the grades that merit a job in corporate America, but what about the rest?
Hampton’s decision is held in contempt among those searching for ways to affirm and celebrate the unique culture of black America.  One way we do that is with hair.  Hair has always been used to measure a black person’s willingness to let go of afrocentric identity by placing the culture of business above everything else.
Be it the afros of the 70s or the braids of the 80s, black hair has been held in contempt due to the way it draws attention to black radicalism.  The movement toward celebrating black identity is correlated with embracing different ways to manage hair.  The journey has been filled with indecision.  It has been a work in progress.  The more black people seek to be free, the more they battle attacks against the way they use hair to reflect that freedom.
Thus, we have a case of conflicting agendas.  Hampton is in the business of preparing students for the world after graduation.  They have to prove to potential employers that they have trained students on the inside and out for corporate success.  Locs and cornrows are viewed as a form of rebellion indicating an unwillingness to play by the rules of the game.  Why do black people have to pick personal success over racial pride?  Why can’t we have both?
White women will argue they have to adjust to similar rules.  Their dress is monitored in a way that forces change.  White men contend that facial hair, of any type, is forbidden in corporate American. In other words, everyone has to play by the rules.  It’s not just a black thing, its part of the life of corporate America.
There is some truth to that assessment.  Most companies are searching for people who fit the corporate image.  The problem is with how that corporate image can serve in the dismantling of the celebration of legitimate cultural expression.  The point of my last blog was a simple one.  As a man who has locs, I take offense at any effort to curtail my right to celebrate my culture.  If it is a hairstyle, cut it off.  If it is more than a hairstyle, it’s difficult to let it go due to how so much of my identity is attached to the decision to loc my hair.
The matter of identity is complex, and often forces the question of how personal identity is supported and undermined by perceptions of identity.  How much of how a person understands their own identity is wrapped up in how other people view what that means?  If one becomes trapped in reconstructing their lives based on the assumptions of others, then the power of what it means to be a person is given to others to define.  A person should never negotiate their right to define what it means to be human.
The decision to ban locs uncovers the matter of acceptable black masculinity.  Black men are confronted with the obstacle of overcoming the negative images of other black men.  The business school at Hampton University hopes to prepare male students with the burden of proving they are different from the black men portrayed in popular culture.
It’s not enough to be educated, black men have to look the part of being educated.  They have to fight the assumptions made by those who meet them for the first time.  Black men are constantly fighting to overcome the mistakes of those who look like them.  Sadly, hairstyles and dress become variables in defining legitimacy within a culture that has loads of stereotypes to work through before giving you a chance. In essence, they have to prove they are not what you think you see when you meet them.
The business school at Hampton is one of many institutions fighting to prepare students to overcome the hostility and assumptions black men face when they are interviewed for jobs in corporate America.  Administrators are aware of the tough road facing those who graduate from their school.  HBCU’s were formed to bring legitimacy to those willing to make the transition into the white world of business and politics. 
The black Church was used to teach black folks how to dress in the world of white privilege.  The church taught proper conduct, how to speak and dress as a way to legitimize the work of the former slaves.  Hampton’s decision to ban locs and cornrows continues a long legacy of black institutions working to educate youth on proper conduct and dress in the world outside the black neighborhood.
Should we blame Hampton for the world our youth face? No.  I don’t blame Hampton. I blame the rest of us for failing to redefine legitimate culture for those outside the black community.  If the black community fails to embrace that which is meaningful, then how will others celebrate our efforts to cling to our own heritage?
There are divergent opinions related to what that means.  Some regard my locs as a foul thing that needs to be cut.  Others recognize it as my desire to connect to a long history of holy men who wore locs as a sacrifice to God.  My hair is more than a hairstyle.  It is part of my spiritual practice.  To ask me to cut them invalidates what it means for me to enter into a special bond with God in order to purge myself of all forms of vanity.
Yes, hair is a personal decision.  In some cases hair is used to define a person’s character.  Often that determination is measured with unfounded assumptions.  In some cases, the assumption is true. 
The only way around it all is to get past all that hair to get to know the person.  Maybe that takes too much work.  It’s easier to simply fit in with the corporate image than to invest the time in getting to know the person.
Could that be the problem?  

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Hampton University business school bans locs and cornrows

Photo courtesy Kura Magazine
I was close to cutting my locs when I got the news. Oh, for those who don’t know, I don’t call them dreadlocks.  I’m told they’re called dreadlock because when white people saw them they called them “dreadful locks”.  After 9 years, I was prepared to chop them off to begin a new journey.
That was before I got the news that Hampton University has imposed a ban on business students wearing locs and cornrows. It’s safe to conclude that the folks at Hampton consider them dreadful.  Administrators at the business school claim those hairdos aren’t appropriate for the world of business.  What better way to prepare students for a competitive business world than by forcing them to chop off those afrocentric, too radical for the white world manes?
“When we look at the top 75 African Americans in corporate America, we don’t see any of them with extreme hairdos,” Sid Credie, dean of the business school says.  The fact that he calls locs and cornrows extreme is enough to force me off the sideline into a kick your butt position.  The fact that the ban comes from Hampton speaks to a problem deeper than how a person wears their hair. 
Black folks have a problem with embracing the fact that we will never be white.
The black community’s fascination with hair, and the ridiculous thoughts about how we, the black people of America, choose to style our hair, has become the measure used to define legitimate movement toward ridding oneself of the last strand that says we are different.  Folks get embarrassed when they see a black person accepting all of that history and culture connected with that permanent tan.
So, it’s not enough for a person to bring grace, intelligence and substance to the table.  You have to look good when representing black folks.  Maybe that’s why so many people had their panties up their back crack when Gabby Douglas won Olympic Gold with messed up hair.  People wanted to know how her mama failed to check that mess before letting her represent the rest of black America.
Hair is a reminder that a black person can’t make it in the “real world” by being overly black.  What Credie and the administration at Hampton assert is an unspoken expectation that their policy confirms – stop being black.  Get rid of that nasty, dreadful hair and act white.  The top 75 black folks in the world of business don’t look like that, so play by the rules son.  Get with the program girlfriend.
I really can’t blame Hampton for telling the truth. Shucks, one has to play by the rules if they want to make it in the real world.  Most people have to conform to the culture that comes with getting that fat paycheck.  I respect Hampton for being bold enough to protect those who want a job with a Fortune 500 company.  I get it, but dang it hurts when a historically black college informs the world that being black is no longer an option.
I hear you screaming at me now.  Go ahead and tell me it’s just hair dude.  Cut the darn locs and get with the program.  That may apply with those who approach hair as hair.  If it’s a hairstyle chosen to embrace thug life or to morph into Little Wayne, cut the locs and get a low cut fade to go with the blue suit, white shirt and red tie.  Play the power game.  Feel me?
But folks like me do it for other reasons.  The truth is I get pissy when I see a young dude wearing locs with no clue about the history behind it all.  It makes me want to take scissors and chop them after a long lecture about stop making me look bad by pretending to be like me.  It makes it harder for those who are making a point beyond looking cool and radical.  It’s not extreme; it’s a way of life.
Hampton had to do it, because if Duke, UNC or another school with a majority white crowd had ruled the same, black folks from Los Angeles to the motherland would be holding signs while screaming “we shall overcome, someday.”  We would call it racist.  Russ Phar, Tom Joyner and the crew and Al Sharpton would all be camped outside the dean’s office demanding a change in policy. 
A national debate would take place about legitimate black expression.  We would revisit Don Imus and his “nappy haired-hoes” comment from 2007.  Discussions would be had about changing the way people think about black hair styles.  None of that will happen because Hampton has ruled based on an opinion that is rampant within the black community.
If it ain’t white, it ain’t right.  Get rid of those extreme hairdos if you want to make it in the “real world”
At least there’s a place in the business world for a man with thick lips.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Lessons from the Spook Who Sat at the Door

I grew up thinking about a revolution.  By the time I turned 12, I had read the Autobiography of Malcolm X, Richard Wright’s Native Son and Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice. My passion for books was fueled by my hate toward those who called me by that name. “Nigger”.
I first heard it when I was 10.  It happened during a walk home from school.  As I approached Dean St., three older white boys began assaulting me.  They beat me and then threw me into big oak tree in front of the house occupied by my cousin. 
“That’s what you get, Nigger.”
The journey down the road of hate began that day.  I wanted to fight back.  I spent hours gazing at the gun collection in the case in our family room.  The thought of a few bullets aimed at those boys echoed in my mind.
Black became my favorite color.  “Say it Loud, I’m black and I’m proud,” became my anthem.  I kept my hate inside to protect me from my mother’s scorn and my daddy’s rebuke.  I called myself a Black Panther, hoping my brothers in black leather would protect me from the evil ways of white boys.
Such was the life of black boys in 1969.  Revolution was a thought stamped in the minds of those tired of fighting just to find a way home.  We wanted to be Black Muslims and Black Panthers because it was the best way to survive.  We wanted to fight back.
We wanted to burn things to get attention.  I was tired of screaming while no one listened.  My role models were street hoodlums.  My medicine became marijuana.  Soon I graduated to cocaine.  The pain of blackness never seemed to escape.  It was used against me like bad credit.
We wanted pay back.  Books and movies served as an outlet after our dreams got lost after being told black boys can’t do those things.  I wanted to fight those who told me I’m not good enough to achieve what white boys take for granted.  It happened enough to form a file stacked miles high in my memory.
I wanted a revolution.  The Spook Who Sat by the Door came in the middle of it all.  The Spook Who Sat by the Door is a 1973 film based on Sam Greenlee’s novel by the same name.  The movie is a cult classic and is considered one of the most important black productions of the era.  The story focuses on a black man trained as a CIA agent.  Greenlee used the word “spook” as a double entendre – the slang for “spy” and a term used to refer to black Americans.
The “Spook” is trained as a government operative, but uses the racist perceptions of black inferiority to fight oppression in his community.  Greenlee wrote the screenplay and worked with Ivan Dixon to produce the film.  Dixon, a 1954 graduate of North Carolina Central University, directed the film. Infiltrating Hollywood: The Rise and Fall of the Spook Who Sat by the Door (2001) is a documentary on the making of the film.
The documentary focuses on how Greenlee and Dixon used the film industry’s biased expectations of the black-themed films in the 1970s to cut their dailies to look like Blaxploitation in order to obtain funding and support from a major distributor to complete the film. United Artists took the bait and was dismayed at the final production of the film; however, the company was bound by contract to release the film. Instead of images of pimps and prostitutes perpetuated by Hollywood during the 1970s, the film portrayed black people who were willing to fight for their beliefs to achieve freedom from oppression.
 The North Carolina Humanities Council has awarded North Carolina State University’s African American Cultural Center and the Africana Studies Program a grant to present a film and humanities discussion of the documentary. This project is made possible by funding from the North Carolina Humanities Council, a statewide nonprofit and affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities
The North Carolina Humanities Council grant is a part of a unique Triangle and Triad consortium -- the Southern Black Film and Media Consortium -- involving the NCSU African American Cultural Center; the NCSU Africana Studies Program; the UNC Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History; the Mary Lou Williams Black Cultural Center at Duke University; film/media/Africana Studies programs at Bennett College, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Shaw University, St. Augustine’s University, and North Carolina Central University; and the Hayti Heritage Center.
The program is scheduled for September 29th, at 5:00PM at the Hayti Heritage Center and will feature the author, Sam Greenlee, as well as Dr. Joseph Jordan, director of the Sonja Stone Center, Dr. Charlene Register (UNC), Dr. Yvonne Welbon (Bennett College), Dante James, assistant director of the African American Cultural Center, and Dr. Sheila Smith McKoy the director of the African American Cultural Center at North Carolina State University.
Yes, I wanted to be a revolutionary when I was a boy.  I’ve traded my gun for a pen, but I’m still fighting for justice among those who are marginalized.  I’ve decided to fight hate with love.  Things have changed since 1969, but there is so much we can learn by going back to visit life during a time when black boys were called Nigger for walking down the street.
This spook stopped sitting at the door a long time ago.
I’m the Rev-elution. I won't stop until change has come.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Will anyone listen to the pain of black men?

People get upset when I talk about being black.  It becomes amplified when I do it within the context of poverty.  I’m beginning to feel many are fed up with black folks talking about overcoming.
My anxiety related to people avoiding issues of poverty and race is further complicated by the notion that white people are being discriminated against.  How and when did that happen?  The trend hit me in the face when I heard a man state on NPR that he wasn’t voting for Barack Obama because he hates white people. Isn’t Obama the child of a white mother?
Those comments forced me to reflect on the energy behind the statement.  Is it rooted in public policy or some proposed initiative?  Was there something said on the campaign trail that led to the conclusion?  I’m one determined to get at the root of what a person feels versus attacking before allowing them to get to the end of the statement.  That gets hard when comments are taken from the hole on the backside.
Never have I felt such hostility when it comes to conversations about race.  The common theme trickling through most of what I read is “we have come a long way” or “we should focus on the good instead of bringing up the bad.”  In other words, “we don’t want to talk about that anymore.
The sadness in the avoidance is in how race continues to matter, and how race shows up whenever poverty is discussed.  Race shows up in academic achievement.  It’s there when one considers disparities in health.  There are more who are black and brown who are unemployed and underemployed.  That is not to imply that pain escapes those who are not black and brown. It does assume a fact that can’t be swept under the rug because it makes people feel uncomfortable whenever we raise the question.
So, I have embarked on a journey to understand poverty in Durham, North Carolina.  I’m using the bus as a way to know the lives of those forced to use public transportation.  I’ve concluded that public transportation, as it currently functions, is part of a culture that defines what it means to be poor.  There are other pockets of society that do the same.  A trip to the Department of Social Services, a day at the county courthouse, a visit to a check cashing center or a drive past the county jail will remind you of the correlation between race, poverty and pain.
In a recent blog, I explored comments made by a black man on the bus.  He claimed that a black man can’t make it in this country.  Is he right?  In his mind his statement is valid.  My time on the bus has uncovered many black men with the same story. Many readers were critical of my using his remark as a way to uncover the mindset of those on the bus.  Important in this conversation is the realization that the man who spoke his version of truth is not alone.
“It’s hard out here,” a passenger recently told me. “My faith in God keeps me doing what others do out here to make it.  I can’t go down like that.”  The nodding of his head revealed something deeper than his words.  Something wasn’t right.
“I would leave Durham, but I don’t want to leave my children,” he continued. “That and my grandma.  I take care of her.  She’s 84.  She’s like my mama.”
When I asked him the ages of his children he listed five.  His criminal record keeps him from finding work.  His love for those children and grandma keep him in Durham hoping and waiting for a breakthrough. 
Many will claim it’s his fault for getting in trouble with the law.  It’s not race or poverty that keeps him on the bus; it’s the consequence of his decisions. Does that mean we should give up on those who make mistakes?
“I retired early,” a black male passenger told me as he showed me the bus pass he was able to obtain because he receives Medicare.  “I got disability when I was 34.  I hear voices.  Doing better because of the medication.  It’s bad when I don’t take my medicine.”
He talked about the day his daddy died.  It was shortly after his mother’s death.  “Daddy dying hurt me bad. I was in college.  Had a 3.8 GPA.  I couldn’t go back after daddy died,” silence followed his statement like a brick wall.  I could tell he was fighting back the tears.  I couldn’t fight back a few that came because I knew it could have been me sitting in his chair.
Most of them remain silent.  Their gaze into their imagination speaks to a gloom that can’t be fixed due to things they can’t control.  The ride is a reminder of what could have been if they had done more to prevent the madness. 
People don’t want to listen to the pain of black men doing their very best to find a way.  No, it’s not all about race.  Some of it is self induced.  Knowing that doesn’t make the pain go away.  What does one do when that pain becomes too much to carry?
They get on the bus.
Many stay away from pain by refusing to ride the bus.  Some will say it’s not safe.  Others will say it’s an inconvenience.   Maybe it’s too much to ask them to get on board.  Who wants to watch all that pain?
The face of poverty is hard to face.  My ride on the bus won’t make it go away, but the least I can do is ride and attempt to understand.
There’s so much to learn.  I hope others will listen.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

It's not the panhandlers keeping people away from 9th St.

Some tell me 9th Street is my second home.  I make my way over to the Bean Traders everyday to drink tea of coffee, sit on that amazing leather couch and write until I can’t take it anymore.  I go because of the people there.  Sarah, Sydney, baristas at Bean Traders, and the rest of the gang are like family to me.
I also go because of the panhandlers on 9th Street.  I’ve built a bond with Slim, Concrete and the others who hang out hoping to pick up bits of change from those willing to rid themselves of a buck or two.  Each of them blends in with the rest who come hoping to see a familiar face.
My time on 9th Street inspired me to use my home away from home as the backdrop for the short story I wrote for 27 Views of Durham: The Bull City in Prose & Poetry.  The book features 27 writers, who in poetry, essays, short stories, and book excerpts tell the story of life in the Bull City.  Authors include Steve Schewel, Barry Saunders, Jean Anderson, Katy Munger, David Guy, Ariel Dorfman, Pierce Freelon, Miguel Rojas-Sotelo, Andre Vann, John Valentine, Shirlette Ammons, Jim Wise, and others.
My contribution is titled Home is a Cup of Coffee. It’s a work of fiction that tells the story of one of the homeless missing during cold weather.  Customers at the Bean Traders are concerned as the weather worsens.  It’s a story of love and support that transcends economic barriers.  The care for the panhandlers on 9th Street is one of the things I love most about living in Durham.
So, when I hear that business owners on 9th Street claim potential customers stay away because of the panhandlers, I’m forced to object to their claim.  I’m told it’s the topic of heated conversations during those meetings held by business owners designed to fix community problems. 
Those disgruntled by the assumption of panhandler sabotage need to take advice from those who hang out on 9th Street.  We’re not concerned about Concrete and Slim.  Few people stay away from 9th Street because of panhandlers.  If a business is not making a profit, it could be because of what they have to offer. 
I love Vaguely Reminiscent.  It’s the place I go whenever I want to pick up a gift for Connie.  They know her taste, and whatever I get makes her smile and gets me out of long periods in the doghouse.  The ladies at the store always greet me with a smile. 
I love picking up books at the Regulator.  I get a good feeling when I support a locally owned bookstore.  Besides, the always keep a stack of my novels (Preacha’ Man & Backslide) on hand for those who want to read the story of the Preacha’ Man.
I’ve noticed Hunky Dory while making the quick walk to Chubby Taco to pick up a shrimp taco, but I have no desire to go in.  It’s an old school head shop, and, given my past, I stay away from places that remind me of getting high while listening to Jimi Hendrix.
I love Ox & Rabbit, but my desire to reduce my midsection forces me to fight the urge to get one of those floats every time I pass the place.  It takes prayer and dedication to fight the temptation.
I’m troubled that Francesca’s has decided to leave 9th Street after so many years.  My love for their homemade ice cream stacked on top of lemon pound cake used to be part of a weekly tradition.  I miss those Sunday evenings when I would go there to celebrate a day of worship.  I had to let it go.  Help me Jesus.
I do miss Specs and George’s Garage.  Other changes are coming that will alter life over on 9th Street.  New construction will change that small community vibe that draws hippies and bohemian types. For now, there’s enough to keep me coming back, but with the revival in downtown Durham and the Brightleaf District, it’s not the businesses that have me there every day.  It’s the people who meet me there. 
So, business owners may want to reconsider blaming panhandlers for the decline in their business.  I suggest they rethink their plan to get greater police presence to rid the street of my friends who share the place I love so much.  I can’t speak for other customers, but I’ll be certain to find a more affirming place to get my coffee and tea.
Home wouldn’t be the same with Concrete and Slim9th Street isn’t 9th Street without reminders of those who need a helping hand.
That’s what it means to be community.
Book launch will be at 7:30 on Thursday, Sept. 27th at MOTORCO (732 Rigsbee Ave.) Sponsored by the Regulator Bookstore. 
7 Views of Durham
The Bull City in Prose & Poetry
Introduction by Steve Schewel
Eno Publishers
$15.95 paperback
6 x 9        
240 pages
Fiction | North Carolina | Poetry

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Ending the cycle of poverty transportation

“A black man can’t make it in this country,” an animated rider declared as the bus turned right on Dowd Street. “The white man has everything.  Ain’t nothing we can do to change things.”
A woman dressed in scrubs did her best to persuade him to consider a different outlook.  She held in her hand a novel with pages folded back, indicating progress made to get to the end of the story.  Her calm demeanor exposed a familiarity with men made wild by disappointed and injustice.
“There are some things you can do to make it better,” she offered as the roar of the engine made it difficult to hear what was being said.  His face said more than the hostility in his words.  I sensed that something had happened during the day. Maybe it was the pain of rejection – a woman who gave up after waiting or an employer unwilling to risk offering a job.  A few beads of sweat flowed from his forehead and traveled like a river to the vein on the side of his neck.
A quick canvass of others on the bus exposed a deep angst that a conversation about hope wouldn’t make go away.  The faces of the men on the bus, all black, suggested a burden deeper than the shallow words that challenged them to pull up their bootstraps. I considered my own journey to undo the deep tension caused by walking in skin too dark to gain common approval. Each conversation was a pitch aimed at proving I’m not like other black men.
The calm voice of the woman in scrubs caused the man to grind his teeth to hold back the scream brewing in his belly.  “You don’t understand what it feels like to be a black man,” his words touched the part of me made tired by the need to constantly gain approval.  Something was wrong.  Something was dreadfully wrong.
He was not alone.
“There is hope my brother,” I began to chime in thinking the journey of another black man would encourage him.  “My faith has helped me achieve a level of success.”
“Then why you on the bus,” his retort slammed the door on crafting hope from that place too weary to listen.
It didn’t matter that I have degrees from the University of Missouri, Duke University and the Princeton Theological Seminary.  It didn’t matter that I write columns for The Durham News, was named Tar Heel of the Week by the News & Observer and have led congregations for close to 30 years.  All that mattered in that moment was the mode of transportation we used.
It was the ride on poverty transportation that added fuel to the flame of disappointment.  Each corner turned, each stop made unearthed another reminder of the cruelty that comes with being forced to board boxes packed with tragedy.  Like misery loaded on slave ships, they made their way to places that promised more burdens once the trip ended.
There was too much on board to unpack with a rousing sermon with promises of a better day. There was too much defeat headed down familiar streets to unleash fury caused by living the same day over and over again. Those on board needed more than the standard promise that trouble don’t last always. Their faces seemed tired of the rhetoric designed to kick start a desire to keep breathing. They needed more than route changes and promises of better customer service.  They needed a way away from reminders of a life limited by what they can’t make go away.
My cynical friend made his exit from the bus on Avondale Drive. “A black man can’t make it in this country,” he hurled his parting words for those sitting in the amen corner. He held firm to his discontent like a missionary sent to convert the heathens.  It was an easy sell for those on the edge of giving up.
A mother with three children made their way off the bus at the next exit. A group walked across the street to make their way to Oxford Manor 15 minutes after the angry black man made his parting declaration.
The journey on poverty transportation is a trip moving in a circle. Those on board end up in the same place each time they get on board.  The ride is a reminder of a vicious cycle leading to the same mound of pain.  There are too many on board with the same story.
The conclusion may not be true, but what do you say to a person who can’t get off the bus?

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Finding God with the Sikh community

I felt the presence of God.  It didn’t come after the rendering of one of those soul stirring hymns.  It wasn’t after a prayer loaded with loud shouts and declarations accented with the name of Jesus.  It wasn’t a message in a sermon.  It came in the middle of a chant.
I didn’t understand one word.
I felt something budge from the inside.  It came after sitting for over an hour in a room filled with people from different faiths.  Death brought us together.  Shame forced us to pray.  Politicians and faith leaders uttered what all of us thought - what happened at the Oak Creek Sikh Temple in Wisconsin is not who we are as a nation.  The madness involving the murder of people while in prayer forced each of us to consider what it means to be an American.
No one knows what Wade Michael Page was thinking after opening fire on those in prayer.  The hundreds who gathered on Wednesday night at the Sikh Gurudwara of North Carolina declared a commitment to learn more about religions other than their own.  Bill Bell, mayor of Durham, and Michael Woodard, member of the Durham City Council, both talked about the importance of religious freedom.  All of the speakers did the same. 
America is about freedom, not intolerance.
It is sad that it took death to bring us to this temple, Jose Lopez, Durham’s police chief and others said.  It is true.  It was my first time worshiping with the Sikh community.  There was so much I didn’t know about them.
“You know the first person beaten after 911 was a Sikh,” Michael Woodard whispered in my ear as we prepared to start worship.  The brochure passed out to visitors when we walked in states that 99% of those who wear turbans in the United States are Sikhs.  People confuse them with Muslims.  It’s one of many examples of how intolerance is fed by ignorance.
I sat and listened as small children walked into the temple and bowed before taking their seat on the floor.  I felt the sincerity as I watched as Sikhs watched me.  Their deep fixed stare was occupied with a smile.  Each person who smiled followed with “Thank you for coming.  Thank you so much for coming.”
I had to come.  How could I stay away?
“Forgive us Lord for the way some teach the faith I share,” I whispered as I listened to the soothing music and chant.  “Lord, help us become more loving.  Grant Christians the spirit of the Sikhs.”
That’s when I felt the movement from a place too deep to find. Psalms 42:7 came to mind. Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me. The floodgates were opened.  A wave of emotions forced me to swim to find safety.  I couldn’t find my way to the shore.  It was too much to get away from the flood.
Only questions emerged.  Why do we hate so much?  Why can’t we see the beauty in all religions?  Why the need to minimize others to validate our own faith?  Why can’t we stop and listen?
I paused from my fight with myself long enough to look at my friend.  Michael Woodward invited me to come.  He sat next to me in a way that seemed to reflect a need to find his own way.  His message to those gathered mentioned a Desmond Tutu talk about God not being just a Christian.  I considered my friends work on the city council.  I considered his work in the church he loves so much.  I thought of his run for the North Carolina Senate that is all but certain.  I thought of what brought him to the temple.
His gut ached as much as mine.  Deep calls to deep in the roar of the waterfalls, I had to stop swimming.  I couldn’t get there alone.  We have to get their together - one act of faith at a time. When we can’t swim any longer, our combined faith will carry us to the shore.
We then went outside to burn candles and pray. As those of Sikh faith prayed, I heard a song from that deep place. There’s a sweet, sweet spirit in this place.  I closed my eyes.  I opened them and looked at the flickering candles.  I was surrounded by light.  It came in the midst of darkness.  All of us were there – Christian, Muslim, Bahá'í, Jewish, Unitarian Universalist, Buddhist and Sikh.  We prayed together. 
I’m not sure who began the rumor about needing to prove others wrong to make yourself right.  The sparks of light piercing through the darkness radiated beyond the sacred space in front of the temple.  We were held together by a hand large enough to calm the tension caused by indifference. 
We became one.
It’s a shame people had to die to help us see the light.  Now that we have been captured by the power from the deep, we can’t let it go.
Too much has been lost to go back to what we were before it all happened.
I've got my light. I'm gonna let it shine. 
Rest in peace.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Rev-elution to request renaming streets to Durham's City Council

It’s official.  On tomorrow, I head over to City Plaza to pitch members of the Durham City Council on identifying streets to name after prominent past and present residents of Durham.  I have a long list.  I’m not ready to propose specific names.  This is much bigger than a person.
Sure, I hurled a few possibilities in a previous blog.  I do believe we should consider finding a street for André Leon Tally, the most influential person in the fashion industry.  It troubles me that people in Durham don’t know that Tally attended high school at Hillside and probably threw rocks somewhere near North Carolina Central University.
Folks in Durham don’t know our own history.  It’s time to change all of that.
I could spend considerable time slapping council members on the wrist for missing out on a few significant naming opportunities.  With all the new development in Durham, there had to be a few pathways to name after one of the who’s who of Durham.  I’m fed up with streets being named after fruit trees or a number.  I love the number nine, but it doesn’t leave me feeling proud for having been there.
My quest to rename things isn’t limited to streets.  I’m ready to push members of the Durham School Board to name the next school after Mayor Bill Bell.  Why not?  Bell fought through massive opposition to force the merging of the former city and county school systems.  He did it while serving as chair of the Durham Board of County Commissioners.  The move was contested by both black and white parents who weren’t quite prepared to take a risk on creating a system that offered a quality education for all students living in Durham.
It took guts. 
We have enough schools that denote vicinity – Northern, Southern, Southwest and Eastway.  It’s sad to me that opportunities to educate kids are compromised out of fear that someone may get upset for not having a building named after them.  It’s not just the name that matters.  It’s the history connected with the name that can be used to shed light on how we got from point A to point Z.  People worked hard to help us overcome fears.
Conversations should be underway to honor Howard Clement.  Clement has served on the Durham City Council longer than anyone.  Ever.  There has to be a street, a building, a room, a something to name after Clement.  He fought to integrate the Carolina Theatre.  He fought against all forms of discrimination during those tender years when young people went to jail while singing “we shall overcome.”  Isn’t he an example of overcoming?
My list is long because Durham’s history is rich – much to rich to limit our street names to the honoring of other cities.  How many Chapel Hills do we need?  We have Chapel Hill Blvd., Chapel Hill St. and Chapel Hill Rd. One is left feeling that Durham wants to be Chapel Hill.
So, I’m pushing for a group to consider this matter.  There are ways to get it done.  We could make it part of a high school project.  Pick a group of students to come up with a list.  Use the naming of streets to educate young people about Durham.  Wouldn’t that be exciting?
Come to think about it, that sounds like a winner.
I’ll let you know what members of the council have to say.
Sorry, I have to go.  I have to rush to get to an appointment on Saint Pauli Murray Street.
Join the Rev-elution at the City Council work session on Thursday, August 9 at 1:00 pm. The meeting is at City Plaza in the council conference room on the second floor.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Saying goodbye to ministry from a Durham pulpit

Carl W. Kenney II delivering the keynote address at the Triangle Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Interfaith Community Breakfast at the Sheraton Hotel, RTP, NC in January of 2000.

It’s hard to explain the emotions that come with letting go of the work that has been such a big part of your life.  It’s not that I gave up.  I decided to let go.  There is a big difference between the two.

Since 1989, I have stood before congregants every Sunday to deliver a message of hope.  I have baptized people, performed marriage ceremonies, dedicated babies, given eulogies and fought with great passion to change the lives of broken people.  The title pastor has preceded my name.  That will cease on September 2 when Compassion Ministries of Durham comes to an end.

Since making the decision to put the work to rest, I’ve pondered the meaning of it all.  What has it meant for me to walk down this road less traveled?  What lessons do I take with me after having poured so much of myself into living by the teachings of the one I serve?  The answers continue to pour into my spirit.  Some are about moments of transcendence.  Others are about mistakes and consequences.  Still more is about defining what it means to be a Christian and how that translates into the work I do to fulfill the meaning of it all.

The gift is in not being tainted.  My life is richer for the travel.  I’m made better for having taken risks rooted in a faith beyond my fears.  Moving forward is filled with a level of sadness, but the voice that echoes beyond this present moment compels me to seek the what beyond the now. 

My faith is carrying me.

God’s love has carried me through places where others were too afraid to follow.  I have addressed topics that made friends into foes.  I’ve been amazed by the power of words.  They are capable of shifting the culture of love into a battlefield of division. I’ve grieved over the humiliation of scorn caused by popular opinion.  I’ve asked that we all do better.  I’ve used my own life as an example of being humbled by errors made in the heat of emotion.  I’ve refused to compromise the purity of love for the sake of personal comfort.

This has been a heavy cross.

There are no regrets for grabbing hold of the cross.  My love for those I meet is much too deep to place my own needs above the call to serve.  How often have I prayed, “not my will, your will be done?”  That prayer preceded every sermon given in the midst of rejection.  Yes, there have been times when I’ve preached love and hope while carrying far too much to bear on my own. Yes, it has been God’s grace and mercy that has endured while my heart ached too much to take another step.  Yes, I have cried more than I want to admit because of being misunderstood and for being underappreciated.

None of that has mattered. 

What matters are the people God allows me to meet along the road few travel.  I have listened to their stories.  I’ve begged God to help me do better at helping them find a way. Who are they? What are their names?  They are legion. There are too many to list.  I carry each of them in my spirit and continue to pray for them to find a way.

There’s the 74 year-old woman I met the other day on the bus.  In her arms she held her great-grand child who she is raising because the baby’s mother abandoned him.  “God will bless me,” she shouted while telling me the story.  I pray for her.

There’s Angela.  She called me last week to inform me she is being evicted.  All after her disability check was reduced due to the part-time job she took to make those ends meet.  She makes less than $700 a month. She has 7 children, five under the age of 10.  I pray for her.

There’s a beautiful woman in Raleigh who has repeatedly been raped.  She was raped by family members and treated like sex play by every man she has ever met.  Now she flips between relationships with men and women because the pain is too deep to accept the possibility of deserving true love.  I cry for her whenever I think about the desperation in her voice when she shared her story.  I pray for her.

There’s a gay man who begs for money on 9th Street.  He talked to me about his father, a minister, and how he has been kicked out and ridiculed by his family due to his orientation.  He shared with me being beaten by men, being robbed and taunted by those who refuse to see the humanity beyond his tight shorts and loud mouth.  I pray for him.

I pray for all the broken addicts who come to me for help.  They have no church home.  I pray for those with criminal records who can’t find work.  I pray for all the women and children overcoming all forms of abuse.

I pray and weep.  I pray because of my faith.  I weep because I can’t do more to change their condition.  My words have been a plea for more to rise above their own quest for more than enough.  My throat is bruised after screaming for more to walk this path with me.

This work has not been limited to the walls in the building.  My step away from the pulpit, for a season, elevates me to different platforms.  The message has not changed.  The purpose is the same. My work has shifted to embrace, even more, those crying from the wilderness.  I have not walked away from them.

I continue to need your support.  You will hear more from me within the next few weeks.  Until then, please join me in saying goodbye to ministry from a Durham pulpit on Sunday, September 2 at Compassion.  We worship in the chapel at the Calvary UMC, 304 E. Trinity Avenue.  Service begins at 9:30 am.

“Weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5).  It’s morning time.