Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The making of a better me

2014 has been an amazing year.   I’ve learned lessons that have considerably shifted the way I think about life, love and faith. My biggest regret is the time misused in focusing on the wrong things and failing to honor what it means for each of us to be created in the image of God.

I’ve discovered what it means to live in balance.  This lesson has been a process that began over 10 years ago after things began to fall apart.  All of us endure these types of seasons – a lost relationship, career changes, the death of a loved one or the inability to find meaning – but what matters is we learn from it all.

Sometimes we have to fail before the light bulb lights the room.  Like I said, learning these lessons will alter the way you function.  I like to call it enlightenment. 

This is some of what I learned

Learning to let go of things that don’t mater

My life had been an unending game of grabbing for one thing after another.  I gave things power in defining my worth.  Things were used to determine my happiness.  I limited meaning by playing the game of counting toys and depending on things outside my skin to make me smile.

Things began to change when I moved to Columbia, Missouri.  I gave away most of my possessions.  I took pride in the things collected over the years – furniture, art, clothes, cars – and depended on them to nurture my self-esteem.  Things told part of the story, but none of it came close to communicating what was happening within.  I was changing, but material things interfered with the massive growth begging to burst free.

Letting go was the first step in discovering the power things played in forming my understanding of life, love and faith.  The more I let go, the more I learned about myself.  It’s an important lesson that many never learn.

Now that I’ve been set free from the power of things, I’m able to recognize the power things play in limiting the lives of others.  I now pray for my friends who limit life, love and faith by asserting most of their energy toward grabbing more things.  They lack significant balance.  They find themselves trapped on a merry-go-round that keeps grabbing at things they do not need.  The more they gain, the more they need, because it is never enough when happiness is dependent on things that don’t matter.

Discovering the power of my name

There is another consequence related to grabbing one thing after another.  Our attachment to things leads to undeniable stress, but it also leads to our defining ourselves based on the world around us.  Our opinions and ideas are not our own, but are the result of our desire to fit-in with those who form who we are with their opinions. What we wear, what we think, how we think and most of what we do are a construction of their opinions.

As a result, we don’t know our own name.

We spend our days chasing happiness. We fear rejection.  We fear isolation and non-meaning.  We keep pressing toward the vision of others until our true identity is lost in our pursuit of happiness found in the things we grab for in search of happiness.  We fear pain.  We define pleasure based on the things and people we collect in hope of avoiding the things we fear.

The pursuit of freedom

We are taught to collect things and fame.  We keep pursing things in hope that they will make us happy, but when we acquire the things we seek, we don’t stay happy long and begin chasing something new in hope of finding happiness.

Our life is eaten up with deep anxiety related to chasing things we hope will make us happy.  We worry when something we grabbed is lost.  After chasing one thing after another, we discover the things we thought will make us happy leads to deep misery.

In chasing one thing after another, we lack the freedom to detach from the things we think we need for happiness. Our lives are defined by things and we forfeit our freedom in discovering who we really are detached from the things we convince ourselves we need.

Freedom comes when we give ourselves permission not to chase what we want.  Freedom is learning to live with the things you don’t need.

Living within my skin

It’s empowering to no longer give external things the power to make me miserable.  The misery comes because things lack the ability to make me happy.  But there is more.

I had to learn that I was being trapped by my own ideas about goals and rewards.  I was ensnared by the notion that happiness demands that I find a better place.

Living within my own skin accepts that this is the better place, and that the reward I seek is already mine.  Happiness is not where I live or where I work.  It’s not conditioned by the terms used by others to define meaning and worth. 

It comes from learning to live within your skin.  It means embracing and loving yourself in a way that celebrates the gifts you bring to the party.

Yes, it’s been a great year. I’m thankful for the lesson.

And I love me some me.

Join me by learning to love yourself

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The police can help by saying "I'm sorry"

Members of the New York  City Police Department turn their backs to Mayor Bill de Blasio during funeral (picture: Wall Street Journal)

There are a few things in life that are hard to overlook.  It’s demanding to hold a conversation with a person who refuses to admit their mistakes.  It’s challenging being attacked by a person who thinks they know it all. Its problematic being in the presence of a person who assumes power over their critics and it’s hard to forgive a person who refuses to apologize.

These are some of the reasons people don’t like the police.

When I say people, I mean primarily black people, but others are beginning to read between the lines of defend and serve to get to the fine line of do what we say, not what we do.

I’m saddened to make this claim. Why? Because some of my best friends are members of law enforcement. I know, insert upchuck beside “some of my best friends are black”. That’s the common line used to wiggle out of the assumption that you’re carrying judgment related to a group of people.

It’s true that I grew up calling police “pigs” and “popo”. I hated police because of what I witnessed – unfair treatment of people who look like me.  So, after working with and getting to know the men and women who wear those uniforms, I moved past the assumptions I made.

I learned to respect law enforcement.  September 11 helped.  Americans wanted to love and support police and firefighters after so many gave their lives to rescue people after the twin towers came tumbling down.

But things have changed.  Their arrogance is showing.  People are turning their backs on the police and it’s not the fault of those who protest.  It’s because of a lack of humility after the deaths of black men and women.

People are screaming “Black Lives Matter” for a reason.  Stop. Don’t get insensitive by screaming back “all lives matter.” Of course they do.  Everyone knows that.  The point of it all is a lack of sensitivity coming from those so bent on making a point that they refuse to say “I’m sorry.”

After a grand jury set Darren Wilson free, instead of saying I’m sorry, he said he would do it again.  No remorse.  He defended his judgment. He failed to apologize and show the pain related to killing an 18 year-old. He called Michael Brown demon-like.

Excuse me!

That spirit seems infused in the culture of the police. Not only are they demanding respect for defending and protecting us, they promote the right to not be criticized when a mistake is assumed. They attack people who attack them under the veil of legal jargon and police policy. 

Now, police unions are moving beyond defending and serving by demanding a different type of law enforcement.

On November 30, St. Louis Rams wide receivers Tavon Austin, Kenny Britt, Stedman Bailey and Chris Givens came out of the Edward Jones Dome with hands raised in the fog. The next day, the local police union demanded punishment. They wanted to team to take a position.  They wanted the league to stand up.

No takers.

Cleveland Brown wide receiver Andrew Hawkins decided to protest by wearing a shirt.  The shirt read, "Justice for Tamir Rice and John Crawford III." Both were shot and killed by police.

"They are there to play football, not to judge what we do out there. … They owe Cleveland Police officers an apology," said Cleveland Police Patrolmen's Association President Jeff Follmer.

Cleveland police shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice as he reached for an air-soft gun that looked real.

Tension was rising.  The bullies were out of control.  Then the madness intensified.

On Dec 20, officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos were gunned down in their patrol car by Ismaaiyl Brinsley after Brinsley had made online threats, including a vow to put "wings on pigs" and references to the Garner and Brown cases.

All of us grieved their deaths.  There was space for healing and understanding.


Within hours of the death of Liu and Ramos, the head of New York City’s police union blasted Mayor Bill de Blasio and those who protested the deaths of Michael Brown and the 48 others killed since Brown’s death.

They blamed protesters and the Mayor rather than mental illness.  They used the meaningless deaths of their colleagues to affirm a point that should have been off limits – we told you so.

"There's blood on many hands tonight," Patrolmen's Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch told reporters outside the hospital the day officers Wenjian Liu, 32, and Raphael Ramos, 40, died.

"Those that incited violence on the streets under the guise of protest that tried to tear down what New York City police officers did every day. We tried to warn it must not go on, it cannot be tolerated," Lynch said. "That blood on the hands starts at City Hall in the office of the mayor."

The mayor's office responded to Lynch’s attacks in a statement reported by CBS New York.

"It's unfortunate that in a time of great tragedy, some would resort to irresponsible, overheated rhetoric that angers and divides people," the statement said. "Mayor de Blasio understands this is the time when we must come together to support the families and friends of those brave officers New York City lost tonight -- and the entire NYPD community."

Others supported Lynch’s claim.

"Sickened by these barbaric acts, which sadly are a predictable outcome of divisive anti-cop rhetoric of #ericholder & #mayordeblasio. #NYPD," tweeted former New York Gov. George Pataki.

Can you hear the unwarranted conjectures?

When people protest it leads to the death of police?  This is not a case of mental illness, but this is about protest.  We told you so.  We know it all. We’re not sorry for what we did, and, yes, we would do it over and over again.

I want to support the police. How can you when they refuse to adequately apologize for the death of a 13 year-old for carrying a toy gun?  How do you trust police when they demand silence?  How can you move forward when police establish a culture of us against them?

It’s a simple lesson.

Confess your mistakes and give us a chance to forgive.

We all make mistakes, but, when lives are lost because of those mistakes, gives us time to share our pain and don’t assume it’s easy to forgive.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The challenge of Christmas memories

Crystal lay in a coma as the choir sang Christmas carols.  It’s was her last Christmas before she died the next month after a two year bout with brain cancer. 

I attempted to sing with the others, but listening to her breaths sounded like a clock ticking – tick, tock, tick, tock – to remind me time was coming to an end.  I took a few steps back from the choir and quickly made my way to my bedroom to cry alone.

It’s one of the memories that have led to my battle with depression every Christmas since.  It begins on December 4, Crystal’s birthday, and ends on January 10, the day she died.  It’s a Christmas memory that brings balance to my preaching, teaching and service to others.  It’s a reminder of the gift of love that shows up when a 13 year-old sister looks at her brother, with eyes bigger than her face should hold, and says I love you for the last time.

I welcome the depression. 

After years of confronting the despair of missing her, I’ve discovered that she has been with me every day since she died in 1976.  I hold my depression close. I cherish each tear that comes in between the date of her birth and death.  I feel her presence deeply when my body shakes so fiercely that it feels like a part of me will break.

Christmas is about memories. 

We reminiscence about childhoods were evergreen trees adorned with bright bulbs and flashing lights stirred laughter after the opening of each gift. We beam from ear to ear when thoughts of mama and daddy bellowing with deep joy after witnessing the joy of children.  Christmas reminds us of days when family bonds overshadowed the weariness before the coming of the promise of peace, joy and hope.

Christmas cultivates thoughts of grandma’s honey baked ham and collards greens placed in the middle of the table were uncles, aunts and cousins held hands in prayer.  Memories of snowmen built during a white Christmas and recollections of journeys down the hill in the back yard on a sleigh with room for two. 

The good comes bundled with all the bad that challenges the peace and questions the hope of Christmas.  Memories of the first Christmas without grandma cooking and grandpa telling stories that sound like lies told after a fishing trip.  The urge to stay away from the emotions that creep up in the middle of the first verse of silent night keep coming, and coming until you can’t fight the tears from coming. 

The temptation to hide from people, conditioned to have a good time, makes it hard to appear.  How do you sing happy songs when you only know the blues?  How can you pretend to have happy feelings when death, loss and misery keep coming back to disrupt the indulgence of eggnog and decorated cookies?

Christmas is about the good and bad of life and death.  The promise of life inspires the best of us, while the pain of loss challenges us to embrace the hope lurking with each song we sing.  Christmas is a reminder that more is left after everyone leaves. We’re left with the promise of more because Christmas comes again.  For those who trust, it comes every day, and can be found within each breath we take.

I stepped back in the room at the end of verse one.  The tears remained pasted on my face as I joined the choir.

Silent night, Holy night
Son of God, love's pure light
Radiant beams from thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord at thy birth
Jesus, Lord at thy birth
I prayed for Crystal to open her eyes. 

“Give me a miracle God. Please,” I prayed.

Her eyes remained closed as the sound of inhales and exhales matched the movement of her chest.

Heavenly, hosts sing Hallelujah.
Christ the Savior is born,
Christ the Savior is born.

I stopped singing. The tears came back.
There are many memories of Christmas.  Some evoke pleasant thoughts. Some renew thoughts of death and pain.

I’m looking for that star that twinkles bright – the one called the “North Star”.

I’m listening for the songs that awaken hope.

Christ the Savior is born.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Black sororities forbid members from wearing Greek-letter paraphernalia during protest

You can’t wear your Greek-letter paraphernalia when you protest the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

That’s the official word coming from the heads of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc.  Both sororities have stood on the frontline in promoting community service and social justice in the black community. Why would the women wearing green and salmon (AKA) and cream and crimson (DST) forbid their sorors from promoting their participation in the protest against police brutality?

What damage can come from sporting a t-shirt with those celebrated Greek letters?  Is the official word from the big shots a statement against the protest, or is this a way for the more seasoned membership to keep youth in their proper place?

Translation, don’t mess with the corporate brand.

Recent actions of black institutions expose a deep generation divide that could impact the future of black activism. As older black leaders seek ways to manage protest, youth are outraged over the criticism they receive after putting everything on the line for the cause? A variety of assumptions are made regarding youth that feeds the expansion of the schism between older leaders and youth.

In Columbia, Missouri, members of the local chapter of the NAACP challenged college students not to march after the grand jury decision related to the death of Michael Brown was read.  Mary Ratliff, state president of the NAACP, informed students their planned march wasn’t sanctioned by the national body, and there was no way to assure their safety.

She asked them not to protest.

“This is not a youth movement,” Ratliff informed those gathered at the Second Missionary Baptist Church to hear the ruling. “It’s up to us who have done this before.”

The protest couldn’t wait for corporate approval.

Youth showed up after members of the NAACP marched 130-miles from Ferguson, Missouri to the Missouri State Capitol.  Seventy-five dedicated people endued all kinds of weather and racist confrontations along the way to the capitol.

“We march because all, all, all, all lives matter!” Cornel William Brooks, president and CEO of the NAACP, shouted to the cheers of 150 people.

Tension began to swell when Roslyn Brock, chairman of the NAACP’s National Board of Directors, made an assumption about the youth in the crowd.

“I want you to think about the consequences of your actions, because too many folks died for the right for us to be here,” Brock said. “The time is now, because courage cannot skip this generation.

What did Brock mean by confronting youth regarding the consequences of their actions? Was she blaming those in the room for looting and rioting? Her words reflected a deep disconnect with youth. Her words were perceived as disrespectful of the hard work of youth in organizing and showing up in Ferguson soon after the death of Michael Brown. 

Michael Hassle challenged the NAACP marchers not to take pride “in marching 100-and-something miles, when we’ve been out there protesting for over 100-and-something days!”

The Rev. Cassandra Gould, pastor of Jefferson City’s Quinn Chapel AME Church, told the crowd she understands the “passion” of the younger protesters. 

In Ferguson, youth managed violent protest the best they could.  Youth organized on college campuses and communities across the nation.  They have done so devoid of the support of adults.  This is why youth dismiss the opinion of many civil rights icons.  It’s why they asked Jesse Jackson to leave and question the motives of Al Sharpton.  It’s why many turn a deaf ear to the voice of black clergy.

Many showed up too late, and many who showed up failed to consistently show up.  Youth are demanding accountability, while older leaders are demanding respect for what happened long ago.

Brock told youth not forget those who led the civil rights efforts of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s “to move this nation forward, not backwards.”

Youth want to know why many failed to show up before the cameras took over. 

“The time is now, because courage cannot skip this generation,” Brock said.

To that youth are asking a deeper question.  Where have you been? Youth are not waiting for the baton to be passed on to their generation of leaders.  They have created their own way, and aren’t looking for or asking for permission from those still stuck in an old strategy.

Instead of telling youth what to do, take notes.

The AKA’s and Delta’s are attempting to define the terms of protest.  They want youth to keep their name out of the movement for justice.  They don’t trust youth with their corporate brand.  They’re afraid a picture will be taken with a looter wearing a t-shirt with their Greek letters.

They don’t get it!

This is not an AKA or Delta movement. 

It’s a “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” and “I Can’t Breathe” movement.

Word of wisdom to old leaders - stand back and watch.

You showed up too late, and your baton is too short to pass on to these youth. 

They carry a big stick.

And, in case you missed it, the stick isn’t used to beat people.  Like Moses, youth use that big stick to point the way to justice.

They show up every night.  They keep fighting, and they don’t need your permission.

That’s called a new day.

Friday, December 5, 2014

This feels like strange fruit dangling from a tree

I feel numb.

That is the only way to describe what I’ve been carrying for the past week. It’s been hard to move.  It’s even harder to speak with clarity related to what just happened – two grand juries ruling not to indict white police officers in the death of unarmed black men.

My numbness is not caused by shock.  It’s the outcome of hauling painful luggage for as long as I can remember.  I’m saddened even more by the knowledge that I’m not alone.  Most black men share the burden of stuff so deep and old that we can’t frame words to define the angst in our souls.  Black women bring feelings compounded by anxiety related to witnessing their sisters beaten and killed, potential husbands broken, and their children and other kinfolks opposed by a system rooted in enduring hate.

I simply don’t know how to feel.  What I do know is how the madness impacts the assumptions I bring to the work I do. My work as a journalist forces me to discard many of the ethical expectations we embrace when we say yes to this work.  I’ve abandoned the desire to be impartial in my reporting and writing on the stories involving the death of black men and women.  I’ve rejected the need to get the other sides of the story.  I’m critically aware of how all of this influences my credibility as a journalist.  I get all of that, but I’m too numb to make the transition back to the land of impartiality.

I’m not sure if it is possible to keep yourself out of the story.  Journalists are taught not to make the story about you. I’m long past violating the sacred trust of locating the real story and allowing readers to come to their own conclusion.

I get it. I embrace all of it. I teach it, and I want my students to enter the field with eyes pointing beyond their assumptions.  All of that is true, but how can I commit to that vision?

This story has impacted me personally.  I carry the commentary regarding the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner with me each day.  The images of their dead bodies follow me to work, to school, and the places I spend money.  My faith is measured by their deaths.  My willingness to trust is impacted by the disappointment of no indictments.

It is about trust.

I’ve been seeking clarity regarding this numbness. Where did it come from? What can be done to overcome this pain that has my heart beating faster than it should?

It came to me after listening to Charles Barkley dispute Kenny Smiths contention that we shouldn’t bring up slavery whenever problems like this show up. Smith penned an open letter for USA Today to address some of the comments made by Barkley during a recent broadcast of NBA on TNT. Barkley called those who looted stores in Ferguson, MO “scumbags”

Barkley apologized for going too far by calling looters “scumbags”. What followed was an enlightening conversation that displayed the complexity and diversity of responses in the black community.  Smith questioned why the media quotes Barkley as an expert on black life and thought.

The conversation shifted when Barkley stated his opinion on slavery.

“The only problem I had with Kenny’s, umm, open letter was, umm, I don’t think anytime something bad happens in the black community we have to talk about slavery,”  Barkley said during Thursday’s broadcast of the NBA on TNT. “Listen, slavery is, uh, well, I shouldn’t say one of the worst things ever, because I don’t know anything about it other than what I read or what my grandmother told me,”

That’s when it hit me.  The tension in America is about slavery.  Barkley suggest we shouldn’t bring it up whenever there is a problem in the black community, but is it possible that all of the tension is the result of the lack of trust related to treatment during slavery?

Is that the foundation of my personal numbness? I can’t trust that America won’t treat me like my ancestors during slavery.  So much of the evidence authenticates the legitimacy of my fear.

It’s like a person in an abusive relationship.  We tell them to leave before it’s too late.  If he beats you once, he will do it over and over again. Despite the warning, she comes back.  Isn’t that what we feel? Has trust been shattered due to the constant attacks after we come back home to try again?

I had to pause to contemplate my thesis.  Is it the same? What do I feel when I witness the body of a dead black man burning on hot pavement?  What are my thoughts connected to watching a police officer chokes a black man after he cries “I can’t breathe”? What do I carry, deep down, when I watch until he stops moving? How can I move on when I see it over and over again, and each conclusion ends the same?

No indictment.

That’s when it hit me.  This is our strange fruit.

That’s why I can’t stop crying. It could be me dangling from the tree.

Its bullets instead of nooses made from rope. 

Slavery officially ended in 1865, but it feels like we’re beaten whenever we attempt to run from the grip of the white man on the plantation.

That may be an unfair assumption, but those are the emotions behind this numb feeling.

How can I move toward the future when the past stands in the way?