The Heartbeat: The Petri Dish, Ministry, and Protest

The Union Community joined together to protest the non-indictments of the police officers who killed Eric Garner and Michael Brown.  Collective effort empowered the support of a multidimensional protest hub, affectionately known as the “Love Hub.” Students, faculty, and staff worked the jail support hotline, offered temple massages and prayers, organized study sessions, led teach-ins, baked bread, cooked pasta, poured coffee, and listened to the laments of a hurting community. We’ve been clear that this project was appropriate for this particular stage, and we are working to sustainably transition this model. As proud as I am of our collective effort, I have also been disappointed.   I’ve never believed that anything happened by accident. So this break, I asked myself, “What was God trying to tell me here?”

Well, that hit me after a friend got strep throat.

When someone is suspected to have strep throat, the doctor swabs the patient’s throat with a cotton swab. The swab is wiped onto a Petri dish. Eventually, the sample reacts and displays a positive sign in the Petri dish. Doctors can then move forward with the treatment. The Love Hub was a Petri dish, and this is what it taught me. I’m writing these down because I need to remember these tips for my future (and I suppose, present) ministry. No good doctor keeps information to herself:

1.     Everyone can participate. But everyone’s participation won’t look the same.

All the protest doesn’t happen in the street. And not everyone can be out at night at each action. We need to check our ableist discourse of what counts as “worthwhile” protest. We are a diverse community, and we should respect the choices people make with their bodies and hearts. One student wanted to come out with us one night, but couldn’t because she would need to hire a sitter. Instead, she and her family cooked an awesome pasta casserole. And the young daughter of a professor donated her allowance so that we could buy snacks for people headed out.

Each share made the stone soup richer. The Love Hub would not have been as powerful or as productive without the people who made the space as it was. For some, sitting and praying in the space was the most meaningful contribution. For others, it was helping to create signs.  No one can do everything. But everyone does need to feel useful. And everyone does need to contribute something. The trick is in discerning the gift.

2.     Even the most sacred spaces can be contaminated.

Our Protest Hub was not the antibiotic of our ailment. It was the Petri dish, a microcosm, a snapshot. And that’s okay. One thing has remained clear to me even through explicit participation in protest activities—Oppression is so deeply rooted into our conditioning that it inhabits even the most sacred of spaces. Sometimes worship is hurtful, sometimes protest is underwhelming and triggering, and sometimes the classroom can be hostile. But, what do we expect? I have come to abandon the idea of “Safe Space”. I believe it is a worthwhile goal, and I still choose to hold people accountable. But if I got mad and took my toys home because I didn’t want to play anymore, I’d never get a chance at bat. Is the game rigged? Is it unfair? Is it toxic? Absolutely, that’s exactly why we are here. There’s work to be done. I don’t have the luxury of abandoning it. And truthfully, this is why we carve out spaces of friends and loved ones. Because someone needs to hear our cries at midnight, and sometimes it doesn’t feel like God is listening.

3.     Mindfulness takes time to craft.

In the Love Hub, we were reminded of the very names and faces of those we’ve lost to police brutality. A shrine displayed the faces of Renisha McBride and Michael Brown. Every time I walked into the room, I felt their eyes on me. Their presence, even in this way, energized us. We watched professors, students, friends, and family take the time to craft a mindfulness about the urgency of now.  I’m grateful for professors who offered gracious extensions and for administrators who bought us pizza. I am still thankful for the common language and muscle memory we have developed. Now, I feel that I can hold my peers accountable to the cause of anti-racism efforts, and I trust them to hold me accountable, too. The very presence of a headquarters created an opportunity for people to come and share things they might not have shared otherwise. What would happen if we could replicate this practice in our other communities? It was impossible for anyone at Union to pretend that everything was normal in the world, because we purposefully disrupted campus with this project. Certainly, this is what #ShutItDown is all about. We will continue to disrupt life as usual until the world understands that Black Lives Mater.

We learned a lot. The task isn’t over, either. I’m glad to see us jump in and be of use as we are able. We must be cautious of the instinct that imagines all evil outside of our homes. Hopefully we can apply what we learned in this experience to the ways we interact with people in the halls, in the classroom, in our field education assignments. I believe we all learned something valuable for our ministries through this process. As for me, I’m much more aware of the multiplicity of spiritual and vocational gifts. I want to make sure all people feel useful and empowered to build something beautiful. I’m much more aware of the treacherous nature of oppression, and I’ve learned that we will always have to fight this Beast. And more than anything, I’ve learned that living out the practice of mindfulness does not happen magically. And we won’t always get it right every time. I’m learning to have grace for myself and others.

I still don’t think anything happens by accident. I know that we are here at this time for a reason. Perhaps we are being taught something special about ministry.

I Matter! What a Concept!

I always find it interesting that life is a series of coming out or coming into oneself. #BlackLivesMatter is not just a powerful protest slogan.  It is a coming out.  I look in the mirror, which ain’t always easy to do and say, “Black Lives Matter”.  And you know what for the first time in a very long time I see myself . . . mattering.  The struggle to be me has always stemmed from wondering if my body mattered to anyone other than myself, my people, my tribe, my folks.  In the grander scheme of things it means that I have spent a lifetime seeking out places and people where my Black Life, where my Black Body matters.

And I holler!  Who in the world gave the powers and municipalities I encounter everyday to doubt whether I matter or not.  Who in the world gave the powers and municipalities I encounter everyday to determine how I matter and when I cease to matter.  No one in this world has the right to make me question the veracity of my being.  But it was I.  I gave the powers and municipalities I encounter every day the power to instill that doubt, to determine my existential fate, to lead me to doubt the veracity of my being.

I am grateful to a generation of people who are standing up and resisting the authority of those powers and municipalities to determine how and even if they matter.  I am grateful to a generation who refuse to let theology look the way it has always looked.  I am grateful to a generation that bring their bodies to the streets—black bodies, brown bodies, sepia bodies, peach bodies, muted golden bodies, white bodies, etc.—screaming “#ThisIsWhatTheologyLooksLike!”
Bodies that reflect the very nature of God.  Bodies that know how to be in the library and live the learnings in the street.

There are so many lives that have been taken from the world, from black communities by the authority—police, district attorneys, investigators, the justice department, the FBI, the CIA, the UN an others too many to name.  There are too many black men dying in this new era of authorized and televised lynchings.  Hey ABC, CBS, NBC, NY 1, CNN, FOX do you think my children need to see murder on the television screen at every turn.  Do 12 year old black youth need to see a grainy video of a Tamir Rice being gunned down for playing in the playground?  Do my people need to see Eric Garner choked over and over and over and over and over every time his name is mentioned?  I understand that we need to see that Mike Brown’s body laid a “smoldering in the street” for four and a half hours underneath the white sheet the photographer’s lens so salaciously lingered upon?  But how do we not let it get so engrained in our conscious that we do react like I find myself doing—experiencing trauma at the sound of sirens and lights?

Hey you out there!  Black lives matter!  What are you so afraid of when you see us walk down the street?  Michael Brown was not a hulking giant.  Darren Wilson was tall too but he had a gun, pepper spray and a wall of blue behind him.  Eric Garner was what we call a big boned man.  But the officers that grabbed him weighed more than him in their combined weight.  They had guns, batons, etc.  And as Eric Garner lay on the sidewalk dying the EMT watched.  How are EMT afraid of an incapacitated man?  Oh yes, his skin was black.

These are my ramblings to be sure, but and may not make much sense.  But let’s be clear I am a black man and am shocked to find myself just now in my life shaking of the fetters of this deeply entrenched injustice as normality.  It’s easy to preach it and to shout for justice from the hilltop of Harlem Heights, but to actually loosen the chains that have had me bound—to dislodge that poisonous bit of mentality from my psyche and my spirit is intense and powerful.  I feel like a tumor has been removed and I must find take the time to adjust to life without said tumor.

Reading this,  you may not get the sense of how powerfully important this moment in time is for an SGL Black Man of a certain age.  But in the totality of myself I stand tall with hands up not asking “please don’t shoot” but actually demanding “Don’t Shoot!” and reclaiming my life from the bullets headed my way.  Before when I said, “I can’t breathe” it was a solitary grasp for air, for life.  Now when I say, “I can’t breathe” I know it is because “we can’t breathe”.  And when enough of us can’t breath God hears and sends the breath of life to us.  The world can’t have my breath because it’s God’s breath.

At this time and in this space something is changing from the inside.  No baton can beat it down, no bullet can pierce it, no jail cell can stop it, and not even death can make it not matter.  A change this deep can never be taken away.

Just some thoughts . . .

Jeremiah is in the Streets

“And all I get for my God-warnings
are insults and contempt.
But if I say, “Forget it!
No more God-Messages from me!”
The words are fire in my belly,
a burning in my bones.
I’m worn out trying to hold it in.
I can’t do it any longer!
Then I hear whispering behind my back:
“There goes old ‘Danger-Everywhere.’ Shut him up! Report him!”
Old friends watch, hoping I’ll fall flat on my face:
“One misstep and we’ll have him. We’ll get rid of him for good!”
(Jeremiah 8-10 MSG)

The above words come from a powerful passage in Jeremiah, as the author laments over the burdensome weight of prophetic visions. These words  happen to be the origin of Charles Blow’s most recent book, Fire Shut Up In My Bones.  Though I’d never call myself a prophet, I can certainly empathize with the core of this passage. What do you do with words that threaten the world as it exists? And what do you do when people try to silence you?

This is the beauty of collective response to the recent non-indictments of the killers of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. Jeremiahs of today have been urging us to see daily the race, oppression, and the pain of those who mourn. The sadness I feel reading Jeremiah is real. When you try to warn a nation, through scholarship, activism, and sermons it sure does hurt when we see the gut-wrenching pain caused by the very oppression we speak against. It hurts, partially because mourning is heavy. But mostly, it’s painful because we predicted this.

We have been screaming about this. The critique of White Supremacy and its capitalist interest in the prison industrial complex has been on our lips for some time. We told the world that systematically pushing poor people into public housing and then policing those buildings was a bad idea. So for many of us, Akai Gurley’s death was painful because we predicted it. We have been yelling that over-policing Black communities only results in pain and sorrow. And now, sadly, we have a case study, a hashtag, and a footnote to elucidate what we’ve been trying to say for years. This is the Prophet’s pain. No one listens until it is too late.

It is why we write, why we create art, why we teach. And yes, it is also why we protest. Because many of us have found comfort in the prophet Jay-Z who declared “the scales was lopsided, I’m just restoring order”. Each child we tutor, each college student we push to read Audre Lorde, each independent artist we support at a show, each sweet potato pie we share with a friend, each loving action is a dismantling of the system we’ve created. Year-round, we do this work lovingly because we know there is no other option.

I know this feeling all too well. Many of us do. In fact, I’d even say that is the very thing that brought us all to Union. We are, or at least we understand ourselves to be, progressive believers committed to social justice. We wouldn’t need to name that thread of values if it wasn’t already in opposition to the status quo. We are dissenters. If I were to name one thing that unites us all as Union students, it is the “Collective Powerful Side-Eye” to business as usual. Kudos, kinfolk.

But that’s not enough. As much as we push boundaries outside of our institution, we must have the grace and the courage to aim at least some of our energy inwards and in love. It will not be easy, it will not be comfortable, and it will not be glamorous all the time. After all, that “fire shut up in our bones” is hot. But I promise, caring for the fire is worth it.

I look forward to participating in a panel with Charles Blow and President Serene Jones on December 10 at 6:30 in James Chapel. You are more than welcome to attend and to participate in this discussion. May the fire burn bright and hot.

Rising Tide Lifts Only Yachts

From “Apostles of Growth” by Timothy Shenk in the Nov. 24 issue of The Nation: “From the aftermath of World War II through the 1970s, most of the total earnings from economic expansion flowed to the bottom 90 percent of Americans. That came to an abrupt end in the 1980s. Although the Clinton years posted marginally better tallies on this front than the Reagan era, the record since 2001 has been abysmal, and the worst has come under Obama. From 2009 to 2012, the last year with reliable data, incomes for the lower 90 percent have declined, while those for the top 10 percent have increased at a healthy clip, with the greatest gains accruing to the 1 percent and above. The tide still rises, but it lifts only yachts.”

We’ve heard these statistics before.  The economy grows, but not for everyone.  Any human being with a sense of fairness would judge such an economic system to be unjust. But for so many people, the “injustice” is also “unkindness.”  It is hurting them.  Injustice causes suffering.

In the face of suffering, followers  of Jesus and Buddha feel compassion.

And in this case, compassion will insist that an economic system that is producing suffering must be fixed.  Or it must be changed.

The Strongest Call of My Life

This Thursday is the second installment of the Keeping Ferguson Alive series, titled “Not Worth Saving: Why is the Black Body Expendable?

I went to Missouri a few weeks ago in support of #FergusonOctober. When the opportunity was first announced, I felt a warm sensation in my belly that told me to go. It was the loudest Call I had ever felt. We packed a bus and nineteen of us headed to Ferguson. I found that we would soon bond in a way that none of us could explain. We had all felt a different Call to be on the bus. This is the story of mine.

I worried that going to Ferguson for a weekend would feel like drive-by activism. And if I was being honest, in some ways it was.  We discussed, more than once as a team, the importance of lifting up the voices of local organizers and deferring to their leadership. Still, nothing would prepare us for the experience of standing in the street where Michael Brown was shot.

We gathered around the wet pile of teddy bears, candles, and memorial t-shirts in a small street. This street was no wider than one of the divided halves of pavement near Union. This was a tiny community. Though it looked different from the community I call home in Brooklyn, it felt eerily familiar. I looked at the street until it finally hit me—this precious child was murdered here.

I could not stand in the street any longer. I walked back to our bus alone. I had finally allowed myself to feel the things I had tucked away in a box inside my heart.

“Why would a police officer be here? Why would anyone who doesn’t live here, be here? How could this happen, logistically?”

As I hit that last wonder, I saw the answer. A Ferguson police car was parked in the leasing office parking lot.

That’s how this happens, or at least, it’s one of the reasons. We have infographics, data, charts, and personal anecdotes to remind the world that communities of color are over-policed and under-protected.

I remembered the sight of cops in plain clothes, waiting at the turnstile for a young kid to hop over without paying. I thought of the ways certain schools are encouraged to police their students.  Like bees buzzing outside a honeycomb, police forces (and people who believe they are police) hover around Black communities in the hopes of “protecting and serving.” Except, unlike bees, they aren’t too sweet about their methods.

As a teacher, I couldn’t separate this experience from memories of my students. I felt their presence every time we said Michael Brown’s name. I saw Alaya’s big eyes, heard Jayden’s Knock-Knock jokes, and smelled the peanut butter on Josiah’s breath. I thought about my not-so-little brother, who happens to be 6’8”. I could not deal with the thought of mourning over them. And while I usually enjoy exploring language, all I could say that weekend was “this isn’t right.” It’s not.

The students in Keene rioted violently during #pumpkinFest, but were framed as “kids” making “poor decisions.” The protestors in Ferguson have been mischaracterized in the media as looters or “thugs.” What other explanation, besides a gross understanding of race and a denial to acknowledge that we haven’t solved that problem yet?

The illusion is that all the work is happening in Ferguson. A good amount of it is, but it’s right here, too. We chanted often that weekend that the “whole damn system is guilty as HELL!” But what would happen if we took that chant seriously? If we really thought of ourselves as part of a system, just as guilty as anyone else? When we continue to see people of color as more threatening, more sexual, less worthy of protection, we are guilty. And as people of faith, we spend our lives wondering how to reconcile that reality.

I do not pretend to have all the answers. But I do appreciate that Union is making a space for this very discussion. This Thursday, November 13 at 6:00 pm, members of the Union community will lead us in an honest conversation about the ways Black bodies are seen as dangerous. If you are unable to attend the event, it will be livestreamed.

We’ll talk about the legacy of lynching, but we’ll also talk about the ways their murders have been rationalized by the media. We might not all be able to go to Ferguson, and honestly, I don’t know if we all should. As we await some decision from Ferguson in the coming days, we can be accountable to responding from where we are. The whole system is guilty.