Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Bethel Experience: Walking in the footsteps of old dreams

It felt like the cold would chill my dreams.  I stepped out of my Ford F-150 to begin a journey that would unthaw my iced heart.  I didn’t know it.  Journeys often begin without our knowledge. 

My friend Clanton Dawson invited me to the lectionary group that meets every Wednesday at the Rock Bridge Christian Church.  Maureen Dickman, the pastor at the church, followed up with an invite when we met at Dunn Bros Coffee.  I was looking for a safe place to unwind and share Biblical and theological thoughts.  I needed more than the Sunday morning shout that came with sitting in the pews at the Second Missionary Baptist Church.

Part of me was fading away after deciding to relocate to Columbia to take care of my sick father.  Most of my nights found me waiting in the dark, afraid to sleep after watching my father fall on numerous occasions.  My desire to preach and participate in worship kept me trapped in between sickness and hope.  My midnight torture was followed by days of walking devoid of sleep.

Caregiving was taking a massive toil on both my spirit and body.  I prayed for time away from cooking, taking vitals, handing out medication, trips to doctors and tending to other household chores.  Surviving with the daily task was worsened by the messages from Durham, NC.  We miss you.  Things are not the same.  Please come back. When will you come back? Why did you leave?

Each note did more to shatter my dwindling hope.  Each day felt like a nightmare.  I needed to preach.  I needed to pray.  I needed a place to remind me that God’s will for me is here. 

I exhaled with each footstep as I approached the door. Clanton was there to greet me. Maureen was happy to see me.  The others welcomed me to the group.  More exhales followed as I contributed to the study.  For a moment, it felt like I was back in the classroom. Yes, temporary relief from the burden.

Then she spoke.  My friend spoke.  My twin shared.  Bonnie Cassida’s body was bruised by a long illness.  She needed relief from the weekly activity of the church.

“Can you preach for me?” she asked through email shortly after our meeting.

It was hard for me to preach that Sunday.  It came after my father was forced back into the hospital due to an infection.  The illness would lead to an amputation.  After weeks in rehab, he returned for more amputation and a longer stay.  Then he broke his femur.  Everything seemed to be falling apart.

The crying worsened. 

“God fix my daddy!” I screamed each night.  “God grant me the strength to be what I must be in this situation.”

It was never enough.  There was more to do than I was able to give.  The urge to preach, to pray and pastor intensified.  Then Bonnie called.

“Can you serve Bethel Church as I take time to heal?”

I said yes.  Saying yes scared me.

There were no comfort zones.  All of my teaching and preaching was offered from the perspective of the black faith tradition.  I agreed to offer service without knowing what to do.  I brought my faith and training, yet something was missing.  Everything was unfamiliar.

There were no amen’s and yes Lord's to set the tone for my preaching.  The idiomatic expression of the black faith tradition was not there to create the context for what I do best.  My preaching was limited.  The mood and issues in the room forced me to step outside of myself and learn from those in need of ministry.

I felt lonely when I preached.  It was a new language in need of translation.  I pulled from my vast library for help. I revisited Theo Witvliet’s The Way of the Black Messiah to address the balance between universality and particularity.  I clung to the teachings of Howard Thurman to rekindle his vision for a multicultural church.  I read J. Kameron Carter’s book Race: A Theological Account and Willie Jennings book The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race to connect with the teachings of my friends who teach at Duke University.

I needed more to help me.  I agreed with Carter's contention that race is a social construction used to manage belonging.  I agreed with Bonnie’s vision regarding diversity.  I needed more.  In giving, something was being lost along the way.

I reflected on my conversations with Craig S. Keener, professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, before his decision to join me at the Orange Grove Missionary Baptist Church. I told him to read the Autobiography of Malcolm X and meet with me after he finished.  I wanted to be sure he understood black culture and pain before becoming a white minister in a predominately black church.  He came back a few days later.

“I wish I could take my white skin and make it black,” he cried.

He joined us.  We learned from him.  He taught us humility and service.  He was ordained and moved on to become one of the leading New Testament scholars in America.

He tore off his skin and made it black.  Could I do the same?

I preached with hesitation.  I learned to strip myself of the part that limited my being present.  They loved and accepted that part of me that presented itself on Sunday morning.  I felt the message of Frantz Fanon in his book Black Skin, White Mask.  My training allowed me to maneuver around the sensitive matter of race and other divides, but was something lost along the way? Was I becoming something other as I offered a part of myself in ministry?

I kept praying.  The tears followed each prayer.

“Lord, what does it all mean?”

Then it happened.

You are called to this.  Move toward Howard Thurman’s vision.  Embrace King’s dream.  It’s not what is lost along the way; it’s the emergence of a new reality that demands the steps you are taking.

Pause and pray. Weep some more. Still asking questions along the way.

“Send me Lord, and I will follow.”

This is the road less traveled.

Teach me Lord Jesus, teach me.

Monday, July 28, 2014

NFL position on domestic violence is guilty beyond reasonable doubt

Stephen A Smith, commentator on ESPN’s First Take, launched a huge controversy when he asserted women should learn “the elements of provocation” to prevent men from responding with violence.

Those words, “elements of provocation”, sparked massive resistance from women who have endured men putting hands on them in inappropriate ways.  It was one of those, “no he didn’t say that” moments that had women from coast to coast standing tall with one hand on a hip and the other wagging a finger to denote rage.

Men like me took a few deep gulps in solidarity.  As much as we appreciated the effort, we knew better than to blame sisters for provoking domestic violence.  You can’t say that.  It’s out of bonds, and Smith made good by starting today’s show with a heartfelt apology.

I get the mistake. I certainly get the apology.  Stuff had to be checked, and Smith was taken to the woodshed for his lapse in judgment.  He fessed up. All is cool. Right?

Nope.  Stuff still needs to be said.

Lost in the hoopla related to Smith’s faux pas is what brought us together to yell at Smith.  Stephen A., Cari Champion and Rick Bayless were discussing the NFL’s treatment of Ray Rice.  NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Rice two games for knocking his fiancĂ© unconscious.  Rice, a running back for the Baltimore Ravens, was caught on a hotel surveillance camera dragging Janay Palmer out of an elevator after punching her in the face.

We expected swift and severe punishment.  Considering Goodell’s punishment for helmet –to-helmet contact is normally one game, and the average suspension for violating the league substance abuse policy is 4 games, it was feasible to expect stiff punishment for knocking your girlfriend out in an elevator and dragging her like a piece of meat.

Are we to assume a league policy that regards violence on the football field worse than cruelty toward a woman?  Are we being told that smoking marijuana is worse than knocking a woman unconscious? Is the NFL taking domestic lightly, and if so, what is the proper response to the NFL’s leniency?

NFL Senior Vice President of labor policy Adolpho Birch defended the league’s two-game suspension of Rice.

"Listen, I think if you are any player and you think that based on this decision that it's OK to go out and commit that kind of conduct, I think that is something that I would suggest to you that no player is going to go out and do that," Birch said Monday morning on ESPN Radio's "Mike and Mike,". "So in terms of sending a message about what the league stands for, we've done that. We can talk about the degree of discipline; we can talk about whether or not third parties need to be involved. I would suggest to you that a third party has been involved in this matter and that was the court that reviewed it, the prosecutor that reviewed it.

 "But if it is a question about what the principle of the league is and what standards we stand by, that cannot be questioned. I think it is absolutely clear to all involved that the NFL does not condone domestic violence in any way and will not tolerate it in our league. I don't know how you can reach a conclusion other than that although I certainly respect the opinion."

Someone needs to boo Birch off the stage for that lame explanation regarding the NFL’s suspension.  Birch claims the NFL doesn’t condone domestic violence, but all evidence suggests the opposite.

Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy, who plays for the Carolina Panthers, was recently convicted on two domestic violence charges for assaulting a female and communicating threats.  He was sentenced to a 60-day suspended jail sentence and 18 months’ probation for attacking his ex-girlfriend.

Hardy has appealed the decision, and the matter will not be resolved until the end of the coming season.  The NFL has decided not to make a ruling related to suspension until the case is finalized, and the Carolina Panthers have decided to wait on the league to decide on suspension before extending punishment.

The lame decision by the league and the Carolina Panthers allows Hardy to claim all of his $13.1 million salary this coming season.

Birch’s argument that the NFL takes domestic violence seriously is muted by the absence of a decision to suspend Hardy.  All bets are off.  The NFL is serious about helmet-to-helmet contact and smoking marijuana.  Goodell is quick to strike the whip whenever the game is compromised by one of his players.  He enforces his version of the law with reckless disregard. Goodell takes no prisoners.

The rules change when it comes to domestic violence.  Goodell and his staff depend on the courts to decide prior to pronouncing punishment.  The long wait leaves fans of the game wondering if they care about violence against woman.

So, yes, we needed to place a sock down Stephan A Smith’s throat for his upsetting statement regarding provocation.  We shouldn’t let him off the hook, but, while we have him caught in the web of his own creation, let’s not forget what brought us here.

We gather here today because of Ray Rice. Exhibit B is Greg Hardy.

The defendant is the NFL, and the league is guilty of not giving a damn about domestic violence.

I rest my case. Guilty beyond reasonable doubt.



Monday, July 14, 2014

It's time to listen to "those" people

I sat and listened as a group of well-intentioned religious leaders discussed ways to make a difference.  The burden of the moment began to tug at that part tired of enduring processes with no end in view.  The myriad of problems stacked on the table made it appear no way could be found to break through the massive wall of division in Columbia, Missouri.

I've been down this road before.

Only two black men sat at a table to discuss issues that impact poor, black people in Columbia and throughout Missouri. I was one of them. The people at the table brought varied levels of power and privilege to discuss ways to help "those" people. Yes, "those" people.

How can we help "those" people?

I closed my eyes one last time and prayed to remain silent.  I couldn’t. The rage linked to living and working in Columbia left me devoid of the strength to remain mute.

“Columbia doesn’t have a black community,” I said.

“Yes there is,” the people in the room responded.

“There are no blacks on the Columbia City Council.  There is no black radio station.  There is little black representation in the press.  There are no black businesses in downtown, and few that don’t cater services exclusively to blacks,” I said.  “A community within the context of the larger community is minimized when it lacks the power to impact change.”

I pondered the teachings of Paulo Freire, “the trust of the people in the leaders reflects the confidence of the leaders in the people.”

Freire was an influential leader in the critical pedagogy movement.  Freire taught that education should create space for the oppressed to regain their sense of humanity, and, through that process, overcome the conditions leading to their oppression.  Freire believed the oppressed must participate in their liberation.

“No pedagogy which is truly liberating can remain distant from the oppressed by treating them as unfortunates and by presenting for their emulation models from among the oppressors,” Freire wrote in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. “The oppressed must be their own example in the struggle for their redemption.”

It was a point that those in the room needed to hear.  Although they came with a sincere desire to make a difference for those hindered by policies and systems of subjugation, true liberation demands the input of those not in the room.

“You mean well,” I continued.  “You are here for the right reasons, but the people who need to speak are not here.”

I continued to share the consequences related to their absence.  I told them they are not present because of a lack of trust rooted in a long history of racial divide.  I told them people are unwilling to come to the table because of the process used before they arrive.  Those with power and privilege make decisions, and then come to the broken for an endorsement.

How do we break that cycle?

We must empower those who feel they hold no power.  We must equip them to take ownership and control of an agenda that will improve their condition.  They must lead the way.

Yes, we must listen.  We have nothing to say until we have adequately listened to the voices of those in need of liberation.

Steps have been taken to begin this process.  For the next few months, members of Columbia Faith Voices will be listening to the people.  We will begin with the Douglass Park Neighborhood Association.  We are asking for permission to attend your meetings.  We only won’t to listen.  Our promise is follow your leadership.

We will listen to other communities.  In doing so, we stand with you in collaboration.  We bring the power of our privilege to demand you will be heard.  We bring the power of our faith and the clout of our votes.  In listening to you, we will learn more about ourselves.  We’re asking that you teach us.  Teach us about the conditions that limit your progression.  Teach us how we, each of us, have stood in the way.

If crime is your concern, teach us how we can help.  Help us yell for you.  No, help us yell with you.  Teach us how to yell.

My vision for empowerment is simple.  I envision a massive collaboration between faith communities, business leaders, nonprofit organizations, academic institutions, county, city and state government, law enforcement and citizens.  I envision a bottom up approach to human service delivery and community development.  I pray for a work led by the people that will lead to the advancement of all of Columbia citizens.

I’m seeking a new model for community development that begins with listening. 

Columbia Faith Voices is on board.  Speak to us Douglass Park.  We are waiting on you to lead us in the transformation of your community.


Back to silence.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Why I don't celebrate Independence Day

There will be no barbeque and fireworks for me. 

I don’t celebrate Independence Day.

I both understand and appreciate the importance of the day.  It is the birthday of our nation.  I say our devoid of hesitation. I love being an American, and believe in baseball, hotdogs and apple pies.  Well, I don’t eat hotdogs, but I accept them as part of American culture.

I don’t celebrate Independence Day because doing so would affirm a lie.  It is not my Independence Day.  I know, that’s old news, but buying into the celebration would deny years of subjugation before the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

Note that I didn’t use Juneteenth, June 19, 1865, as black Independence Day.  Juneteenth is a holiday that commemorates the announcement of the abolition of slavery in Texas.  Although it is more appropriate for blacks to celebrate Juneteenth as their date of independence, the mention of freedom from slavery did not equate to true independence until the legislation of laws to protect freedom were imposed in 1964.

It could be argued that black people continue to fight for independence.  That is a matter for debate.  It is true that many have experienced the promise of the American Dream, while others continue to grapple to overcome the grip of oppression.  Some will say the limits of some are the result of personal choices, and that institutional barriers that hinder progress have been eliminated. Again, that’s a debate for another day.

My issue relates to the validity of our claims.  Independence Day is not a day of celebration for me.  It is a reminder of the hypocrisy of our nation’s history.  It shed bright lights on the scandal of our past, and the consequences related to blacks in America.  It’s a past that shouldn’t be neglected in our quest to wave flags, eat barbeque and watch fireworks to celebrate our national pride.

As much as I would like to get over it, my love for history won’t allow me to pretend.  I can’t let America off the hook by participating in our nations lie.  We can imagine a nation ruled historically by the mandates of its constitution.  We can fantasize over the contribution of the fathers of the nation, while forgetting they were all white men.  We can conceive in our imagination a history of people bonded by an agenda for universal freedom, but all of that is a lie.

That is not who we have been, and for black people to celebrate independence, while trapped in a history of suppression, denies the pain of our past.  I can’t claim that history as my own.  My ancestors continue to cry from the grave begging me to state the truth regarding the rest of the story.  To claim national independence negates the brutality of a system that refuted the humanity of the slaves.

Yes, that is a painful past, but it remains part of our national truth.  To expect my participation under the cloak of patriotism is a position rooted in privilege.  It strips me of the part that demands to be heard and respected for surviving the journey.  It recants the stories of my great-grandparents who endured being slaves.  It tarnishes the witness of those who fought for, waited for, and died for authentic independence.

I love America.

I believe in the values expressed in our constitution.  I believe that all men, and women, “are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.  That among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. “

I believe in the natural rights of all men and women.  I believe those natural rights exits irrespective of race, nationality, religion, gender or sexual orientation.  I believe those rights should be respected and affirmed in the face of mental and physical condition, political affiliation or past mistakes.

It is my belief in our constitution that compels me not to celebrate Independence Day.  My refusal affirms the rights of those denied, and the independence of those forgotten.  My saying no is a yes for those who seek to be protected by the constitution we celebrate on this day. My no obliges us to move past the memory of the words, and apply them in a way that includes those forgotten between the lines of hypocrisy. 

I refuse to celebrate because I love the vision of America.  I love what we can be if we uphold fully the tenants of our constitution.  I love the hope of each word written.

I refuse to celebrate because we’re not there yet, and there is a gruesome past that we sweep under the rug whenever guilt and shame show up to prevent authentic healing.

This is what it means to be created equal.

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

For all men and women.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

A lesson on power and privilege

Illustration from

Every now and then I’m forced to step away from my writing and reflect on comments made by readers.  I rarely respond to what people write.  It’s a policy I implemented years ago to allow readers to go at it without my intrusion.  That doesn’t mean I’m not reading.  I do.  I laugh, sometimes I cry, and there are days I take a few deep breaths before screaming – y’all don’t get it.

My last blog about white privilege is an example of my desire to yell at readers.  To their credit, the confusion may be the fault of the author – that would be me – due to the introduction of conceptions that require a more profound explanation. 

So, let’s go to class on the meaning of privilege.  Take notes.  Be patient, and prepare to apply the teaching as you seek to embrace diversity.

To begin, privilege is not a condition of selection.  It is not limited to philosophy or political position.  Privilege is not something you can remove with effort.  It comes with being you.  As much as you regret having to claim your privilege, it comes with being born with, or acculturated within an institution of privilege.

White privilege is given at birth.  It opens doors, extends benefits and assigns merit for no other reason than the advantage of being born that way. You can’t denounce white privilege.  Association with radical positions and disassociation with extreme positions doesn’t lead to the forfeiture of privilege.  It comes with being born white, and your life is both measured and rewarded based on that privilege.

Got that? On to point two.

There are numerous forms of privilege. Some are physiological while others depend on the environment of the moment.  There is gender privilege, age privilege and heterosexual privilege.  Each weighs heavy on the way people are affirmed or marginalized in their pursuit of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  Privilege extends to attraction, mental well-being, and the lack of privilege shows up for those with mental illness and disabilities.

Privilege can exist among those accustomed to unfair treatment.  There’s black privilege when the majority in the room are black.  When that shows up, privilege isn’t about perception within a broader context, but how being the majority affords advantages that others miss.  My black privilege shows up within the context of worship in a predominately black church.  My black male privilege supports my personal agenda when a seek leadership within a black church.  My black, male, heterosexual privilege grants me power, influence and authority if I promote an anti-gay agenda within the black church.

Privilege is used to subjugate others.  This often shows up as an unconscious action.  The benefits associated with privilege are extended lacking perception.  Privilege doesn’t require participation. Advancement associated with privilege is laden in a myriad of historical and cultural actualities. Unwrapping how privilege impacts the ability to maneuver through systems is critical in advancing diversity.

Owning ones privilege is decisive in releasing the power that comes with privilege.  Personally, my list of privilege is vast.  Some of the things on my list have to be filtered through the context of a particular setting.  I hold education privilege as a person with graduate degrees.  Although my position of privilege exists within a broad community context, my lack of race privilege limits my ability to utilize the normative power associated with such privilege. My lack of normative advancement, comparative to those with white privilege, is construed as supreme privilege when juxtaposed within the context of black culture.

There is power that comes with privilege.  This is a truth that can’t be surmounted by simple will or association with groups that confront the advantages of privilege.  My willingness to listen to and embrace feminist and womanist ideology isn’t enough to counteract the advantage of my male privilege.  My being an advocate of LBGTQ rights isn’t enough to undo the advantages of my heterosexual privilege. 

The power that comes with my privilege requires ongoing introspection related to how I function as a person holding advantages.  Although privilege is something often given without demand, how I function with that privilege may limit the progression of others.  I’m constantly examining ways in which I use my privileges to hinder others.

Many would rather assume they hold no privilege.  Conceding the ownership of privilege is difficult when one considers it a function of will.  It is challenging for some to consider their advantages due to how history shows up as a reminder of ongoing negation.

All of us hold privilege. For some, there is power that comes with that privilege.

Now that we have that out of the way, take a look at your own privilege.

Class dismissed.