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.

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.

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.

The Heartbeat of Union: Seven Last Words

When I hear the phrase “Seven Last Words”, I smile. I have fond memories of sitting in church to hear a pastor (actually, seven pastors) engage in a sermon series that draws upon Jesus’ seven last statements before he died. It is a Holy Week tradition in which seven preachers participate in a preaching relay race of sorts. I say that, not intending to trivialize this tradition, but to highlight the aesthetic of the event. It is an event that invokes a myriad of emotions and thoughts. This is not your standard church service.

A few weeks ago, I saw the phrase “seven last words” pop up on my Facebook newsfeed. “It’s only October”, I thought to myself. “Why are we talking about Holy Week in October?”

And then I was amazed.

This Friday, October 24 at 6:30 p.m., The Center of Black Church Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary, along with several noted co-sponsors, will host a Seven Last Words series.  It will be hosted at Shiloh Baptist Church in Trenton, and the event will be live streamed. Yes, in October. But this event does not intend to raise the last words of Jesus. Instead (or perhaps, in addition), these seven preachers and activists will raise the seven last words of Black women and men killed by police, security, or vigilantes. Wow. Now that’ll preach.

The very organization of such a series raises several feelings for me, many of which I cannot name. I am relieved that my pain will be understood and made legitimate from the pulpit, especially since religious leaders so often make headlines by cosigning oppression. I am frustrated that this event exists, and I wish we didn’t have to mourn life.  I am grateful to be in a space where theory and practice converge in sermons. I am affirmed in my Blackness and am reminded of the Blackness of the Jesus I imagine. I am reminded of the many parallels between the Jesus story and of the story of Black American experience. Black Americans, like Jesus, are seen as outsiders. We are misunderstood, both by peers and by authority figures. We are considered to be an enemy of the state and a threat to the Empire.  And yet, as much as I wish these seven words represented only seven deaths, I know better. I am scared for the Eighth Word, though I know it will come.

I look forward to this series. I will be keeping up with the twitter discussion and live stream. And I thank, in advance, the people who are doing the work to raise the slaughter of Black people as an issue of sin.     Seven Last Words

The Heartbeat of Union: Who’s Here?

“Struggling myself don’t mean a whole lot, I’ve come to realize that teaching others to stand up and fight is the only way my struggle survives”

Ella’s Song, Sweet Honey in the Rock

I have a terrible “poker face”. If I’m excited or displeased, you’ll know before I open my mouth. I’m still working on that. When I first heard of the “Keeping Ferguson Alive” discussion, my face immediately told my story. I was doubtful. Apprehensive, even. Usually when well-meaning people with degrees and relative privilege have discussions about where we go from here, we miss the fact that the people who should actually be speaking aren’t even invited to the table. We should always be curious.

But then I saw the list of panel participants, and I felt much better. The panel consisted of four Union students, Khadijah Abdul-Mateen, Aimme Rogers, Kendrick Kemp, and Foster J. Pinkney, professor of philosophy Dr. Cornel West, and Reverend Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou. These are six incredible leaders of their own merit. The four students are incredibly active and engaged on campus and in their community. It absolutely makes sense that these students were sent to Ferguson this summer on behalf of Union Theological Seminary. Dr. West, framed the conversation as an extension of the “militarization of our schools”, alluding to the practices of security scanning in public high schools. Rev. Sekou provided heartfelt reflections on what it means to be a preacher in the midst of societal turmoil. For me, it made sense that these six brothers and sisters could offer harmonious reflection together. And it meant something special to me to see this conversation happen with people I trusted leading the discussion.

Still, it isn’t just about who’s on the stage. It’s about who’s there to listen.

As a teacher, I know that coordinating any kind of off-campus visit is a headache in itself. But when full time teacher and Union student Grace O’Keefe invited seven of her students to join her in this discussion, I saw love.

I happened to sit right in front of Grace and her students while I was live-tweeting the event. These students weren’t paraded around like cutesy mascots. These students were meaningfully engaged in the conversation with a beloved teacher. I listened to them snap at high points of energy, gasp at provoking statements, and ask questions like “are we getting scanning too? Don’t they see how that won’t work?” In fact, the first two questions from the audience were questions that Ms. O’Keefe’s class had written on index cards. At one point, Foster Pinkney spoke to the reality of stifling pedagogy as an obstacle to true liberation, and quickly a student from Ms. O’Keefe’s class said “well, that’s why I’m glad we have our Senior Seminar with Ms. O”.

More than once Wednesday night, panelists spoke to the courageous leadership of young people. I could easily write about what amazing things Dr. West said, but you’d expect that. I could easily talk about Rev. Sekou’s charisma or Aimme Roger’s insightful food justice question. But that’s expected, and you can still check out the video link here. I think the panelists would rather that I use this opportunity to share that students in this city, and others, are absolutely ready to participate in a revolution. I trust that all of the members of that panel would want me to take this time to remind us to listen to the children. Are we ready to take them seriously?

The thing about town hall community discussions is that it’s hard to call people to action without employing the top-down model. I was initially skeptical because I’ve seen charismatic leaders throw slogans rather than solutions. But if anything was learned from this experience, it is that teachers like Ms. O’Keefe and students like hers are seeking a community of encouragement and recognition. Do we hear them when they speak out against school closings or unfair enrollment practices? I stayed after the panel and watched Ms. O’Keefe introduce her students to the panelists. Full of energy and excitement, one thing became clear– when children move to the beat of their own drum (or Beats Headphones), the revolution begins.

I got two sermons that Wednesday night. One from the comments of dynamic panelists, and another from the reciprocated love between Ms. O’Keefe and her students. I am still processing how beautiful it was to see a teacher and her students in the loving fellowship of civic engagement. If we think this movement is happening without young people, we are seriously mistaken. And as it proved clear that night, young people all over this country are using their own language to make sense of Michael Brown’s death. It is time to listen to the youngest among us.

If you have a story you’d like us to cover here at The Heartbeat, email Candace Simpson at cs3282@utsnyc.edu . We’d love to have you.