Day 237: Deciding to be different

“And that is how change happens. One gesture. One person. One moment at a time.”
― Libba BrayThe Sweet Far Thing

Last evening, I was a part of an interesting conversation on my Blog Talk Radio show on the Life Coach Radio Network about race, racism, police militarization, Michael Brown and Ferguson. It was a moment in time when it seemed important not to just go about our normal calendar, but put things off for now, converse with people who have skin in the game — literally and figuratively — and think about how whites and blacks can use this as a moment to open up the sometimes uncomfortable conversation (primarily for white folks) about race, and the sin of racism that oppresses both the majority and minority culture, both black and white.

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We do not live in a society that treats everyone the same. We want to. Many of us wish we did. Some of us who lived through the Civil Rights Movement and saw us elect this country’s first President of African descent believed that perhaps we had become post-racial. But we haven’t. Brown and black bodies are not of equal value as white bodies. White deaths still take precedence over black deaths. People of color and whites are treated unequally by local police and all branches of law enforcement. People of color know that they have to teach their children survival techniques when dealing with those who have sworn an oath to protect them. Too many incidents in recent days have clearly shown that police officers all too often do not have the same regard for the lives of people of color as they do for the lives of white folks.

Not all police officers are bad — many are good — just like not all black teens are thugs — many are good. We paint our world in broad strokes and we react out of fear in circumstances when trust has been broken. Trust between police and black/brown communities has been broken for far too long. When I was growing up, I knew that if I had a problem, I could go to a police officer and they would help me. They were there to serve and protect. But too often police protection in communities of color has been non-existent at best and harassing at worst. Many children in these communities have been told that they need to fear the police, and have been taught to shout to them, “Hands up, don’t shoot!” rather than be the next victim.

Things have to change, and we need to help that happen. All of us, doing what we can when we can. I blog, I host a radio show that folks listen to, and I pray that what I do will make a difference somehow, some way. I can’t make it all happen at once, none of us can — but if we do what we can when we can, one day at a time, one gesture, one small thing, and if each of us do just one small thing, we can change the world. We can decide in our circle of friends and family to be different. We can decide to hold our police and law enforcement authorities accountable. We can change what we can when we can, and things will change. They must.

We can’t sit idly by in communities like mine and say that Ferguson doesn’t matter, or that Staten Island doesn’t matter, or the Chicago doesn’t matter. Black and brown lives matter. They matter to God and they need to matter to us. Love our neighbors as we love ourselves, Christ taught us. We have to widen our definition of who our neighbor is.

So I challenge you to do something today, just one thing that will change you. Decide to show up differently. Decide to stretch yourself outside your comfort zone. Read more and become educated on the issues. A good place to start is Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Keep an open mind. Challenge your assumptions of how the way the world is. Decide to be different.

If we have learned anything in the past two weeks it’s that we cannot do this work alone. We need to work together — not with white folks leading — but following and taking cues from our black and brown brothers and sisters who know what they need, and what their communities need. As whites we don’t need to speak as much as listen — listen to the pain that is coming from these communities, and allow it to seep into your bones. Accept your part of the blame for perpetuating the status quo. Show up and shut up. Follow. Stand in solidarity. Pray. And the world will change.

But first we have to decide to be different.

Day 236: Taking the Road Less Traveled By

“We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road—the one “less traveled by”—offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.” 
— Rachel Carson

I won’t win any popularity contests among folks who for whatever reason want things to stay the same as they are right now by saying that something big has got to change. But it does. This country has to be willing to take a long hard look in the mirror and question whether or not when we say we live in a “free country” that means freedom for all or freedom for some.

These folks don’t consciously want freedom for some — and will say that they want freedom for all. But to create that society where all have equal freedom (and yes, where all have equal responsibility that this freedom brings) might come at a cost for those in our society who have benefitted from the system as it stands right now.

And those are folks like me — folks of European ancestry — who settled this country by force, displacing and slaughtering those who were here when they “discovered” the land, brought enslaved Africans here to live in captivity, and have believed for centuries that the “American Dream” is possible for anyone. These are the folks who “live in the bubble” as I called it in my last blog post.

I want to believe in the power of our ability to be self-reflective and learn from the mistakes of the past, but I don’t. I wanted to believe that Columbine and Newtown would change our view on guns and it didn’t. And while I desperately want to believe that the killing of unarmed and seemingly non-threatening black men and women by armed and threatened white police officers will call us to rethink what we do in the name of law enforcement and, perhaps most importantly, how we do it — I don’t believe it will change anything unless people of faith and conscience refuse to be placated by explanations that just don’t add up.

We have to demand that we do better. We have to acknowledge the sin of racism and the ways in which it devalues each of us. We need to see one another as holy and beloved children of God. If we cannot see each other as our brother or sister, we will never be able to love them in the way that we have been commanded in scripture. What is the greatest commandment? Jesus was asked.  How did he respond?

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength. And the second is like it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Therein lies all the law and the prophets.”

If we are going to call ourselves Christians, we need to love as Christ loved. And perfect love, the epistle writer James said, casts out fear. You can’t love and fear at the same time. And we are called to love. And love calls us to change — change how we see one another and how we interact with one another.

A week ago, John Oliver on “Last Week Tonight” did an amazing piece on Ferguson. I think everyone should watch it. (Click here to go to the video.) It speaks to the ways in which we as a society are contributing to situations like Ferguson.

I don’t want to see another Ferguson, another Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin or Eric Garner. I don’t want to see another Antonio Smith — the 9 year old boy who was shot multiple times just blocks from home on the south side of Chicago. I’m tired of the killing, and the violent society in which we live. When we give police officers military weapons we make our streets a war zone.

Let’s go down the road less traveled by — let’s decide today, right now that enough is enough. Let’s stand together, show up, speak out, work harder to make our communities, our homes and our churches places of peace and sanctuary. Let’s pray for our communities, and for those who work hard every day to keep them safe; and let us pray for everyone and for every encounter with law enforcement. Let us strive to dismantle racism in all its forms and to make positive changes in communities most affected by violence.

Day 232: Why Things Won’t Just Settle Down

I’ve recently learned how easy it would be for me, a white woman married to a white man and living in the Midwest, to live my life blissfully ignorant of the world around me. I moved just over a week ago, and despite my attempts to get service connected when expected or even sooner, the cable installer has yet to come – meaning that I have not had access to television or the internet (except on my phone and iPad) for over a week. And if I wasn’t on Facebook, I wouldn’t even be aware of the events taking place in Ferguson, Missouri.

I’m somewhat disconcerted by that. I’ve moved into life in “the bubble” – the bubble of comfortable white middle class life where no one has to talk about Ferguson and no one has to talk about race; in fact, no one has to do anything. No one has to be uncomfortable. No one.

I’ve not always lived in that bubble, so I can at least see the bubble for what it is, and appreciate the privilege that I have to live therein. But it’s discomforting to me — downright disconcerting. Is anybody out there with me on that?

There was a time, earlier in my life, where my everyday life bore witness to the realities of racism. I was helping to raise a young black man – a teenager when he lived with his father and I – and I remember what it felt like in the pit of my stomach every time he walked out the door. I knew that he would be treated differently than I would by the police and I prayed a thousand prayers for his safety.

I would have thought that in the nearly twenty years since that young black man lived with me that things would be better – that things should be getting better, not getting worse. But I think they are worse, perhaps even 100 times worse. I did not have to school him to say the words, “Hands up, don’t shoot!” While his father regularly reminded him that if he had any contact with the police he was to be respectful and do as he was told, we all knew it would only be worse for him if he didn’t. But I didn’t fear that the police would shoot him — perhaps that was naïve on my part — but our overriding fear was that he might be in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people.

Ferguson has brought all these memories – these feelings – back to me with a vengeance. I’m so sorry for Michael Brown’s mother and for all the mothers of black and brown male children who have become all too easy target by the police – those whose names we don’t know, in communities we don’t want to know. From NYC’s policy of “Stop and Frisk” to the teargasing of innocent and peaceful protestors and neighborhoods in Ferguson, to the shooting of an unarmed young man with 6 police bullets, the culture of violence that is allowing these things to happen has got to change. But from what I can see, it won’t be changing any time soon. As long as civilians can roam the streets with concealed weapons, and the police can hide from public scrutiny and prosecution – even when they are in the wrong – nothing will change. It will take more than retraining our police officers to be more even-handed. The mistrust is palpable and it runs deep. I don’t have any answers. I’m not even sure that I am raising the right questions.

But for all of my friends and all the mothers I don’t know who live in fear that their children might walk out the front door and never return. I am sorry. And I am culpable. I live in the bubble, in the house in the suburbs, in the quiet neighborhood in what seems like a place so far removed from the violence of the streets of our cities and towns — towns like Ferguson. And while I may be far removed, I am not far away; I live less than 30 miles from the city limits of Chicago. This is the city that I love, and the city that has been plagued with seemingly uncontrollable violence and death – particularly during these summer months.

So I will testify to the realities of racism — both as I experienced them and the structural racism that pervades our culture. Perhaps I can speak to some who live in my bubble and don’t understand why things don’t just settle down in Ferguson. It’s not about settling down, I’ll say. It’s life and death and fear and intimidation and systemic racism and racial prejudice and…without justice, there can be no peace. There must be justice – for Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin and all the other young men whose only crime was WWB (walking while black). And I will continue to listen to my brothers and sisters who never get to walk away from this fight, and when invited, stand with them in solidarity. And I will tell my story, for what it’s worth, and hopefully help someone in the bubble think a bit more deeply about why things won’t just settle down.

Day 138: Moving. It’s what we do.

“I give you this to take with you:
Nothing remains as it was. If you know this, you can
begin again, with pure joy in the uprooting.” 
― Judith MintyLetters to My Daughters

There is no other way I can say it. Moving sucks. I know this in my bones. This will be move #18 in my nearly 31 years of adult life. That is counting going to college as one move (not counting summer jobs in different parts of the country) and only counting “living” somewhere if I actually moved my all my stuff.

My husband and I move for a living. He is an intentional interim pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and very good at it; my work as a writer and spiritual life and leadership coach is completely portable, so I move with him. The good news is that we can move anywhere. The bad news is that we do. Thankfully, we are best friends.

We move into a community and dig right in. There is no time to lose. We visit the sites that most people who live there never go to — because they always can. We become a part of the community. We make friends. We build relationships. We are completely unpacked within days of arrival. (Can you imagine if we didn’t? We’d always be living out of boxes.) We live in the now — not thinking about where we will be 5, 10 or even often 1 or 2 years from now because we can’t think that far ahead. When we say that “God only knows” where we will be 5 years from now, we mean it.

We have entered the transition phase of this interim position. The church will likely soon be ready to call its next installed pastor (and no, I don’t know anything for sure) and we will be looking to move to a new location. I am particularly savoring the flowering of the lovely dogwood in front of our home, as we will likely not be here to see it bloom next year.

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I often say to people that, “This is what we do.” It is. Gavin has been doing it for 16 years, and I have been on this journey with him for the past seven. Now that this interim is nearing its conclusion, I too will have to move on, say good-bye, pack our things in a moving truck and go to the next place.

It’s hard to say goodbye. You meet people, and if you are like me, you kind of fall in love with them, and then you leave and it feels a little like ending a summer romance. Even though you knew wouldn’t last beyond Labor Day, it still hurts when it’s over. It’s hard to say good-bye. But you do it. Or, I should say, we do. It’s what we do.

This morning in church I cried. This is nothing new for me — I’m a crier. And I do it often. Real tears. I’m easily moved to tears. (But you know, I come from a long line of criers, and I’m pretty sure it’s genetic. I can cry crocodile tears and not make a sound.) I thought about moving and these amazing kids that were confirmed today and leaving these people who I love and this house that I love and this tree that I love, and it’s all hard. All of it.

But it will be ok because this is what we do. And more than that, this is what we are called by God to do. That may not make much sense to you, but all I can say is that in the end, it will all be ok. Or maybe even better than ok. We’ll probably fall in love all over again.

Because this is what we do.

 

 

Day 128: #BringBackOurGirls…Why I care

Our prayers are with the missing Nigerian girls and their families. It’s time to . -mo (Michelle Obama on Twitter, 5/7/14)

There has been a lot written over the past few days and weeks about the 234 young women abducted by the Boko Haram in the rural Nigerian village of Chibok on April 15, 2014. Why the fuss?

These young women were the best and brightest that their villages had to offer. They were defying social convention in order to get a secondary education. They were not only the future of their country’s women; they were (and I pray, are) the future of their country.

But what about the thousands of women and girls who are daily abducted and trafficked around the world? This does not take anything away from any of the many efforts around the globe that are trying to end the tragedy of the trafficking of women and girls. This does not ignore them. If anything, the egregiousness of this act highlights the price that women and girls pay everyday for doing the most radical of things — becoming educated.

When I was in Ghana in 2006, I attended the graduation of young men and women from the Baptist Vocational Technical College — a residential high school for young men and women who had been redeemed from fetish priests in their community. They had been given by their family to the priest to pay off some particular sin and to buy absolution. These children were then essentially slaves of the priest, until they were redeemed through the efforts of the local Baptist congregations and brought to the school to be educated, because they were no longer welcome in the families who gave them up. It was inspiring to meet these young women and men, hear their stories and celebrate the ways that they are working to make a better life for themselves.

At the graduation of the Baptist Vocational Technical College in Ghana in May 2006.

At the graduation of the Baptist Vocational Technical College in Ghana in May 2006.

In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr from his Letter from the Birmingham Jail:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.

I can’t sit idly by in NY and not think that what happens in Nigeria affect me. It does.

But so do so many other things. Those young men and women who are being killed on the streets of Chicago and Detroit and New Orleans and St. Louis by guns and drugs and hopeless and lack of opportunity for a better life — they all matter, too. The 20 children and 6 staff who were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School count, as do the children and young adults who have been affected by school shootings and violence all over the country. Violence matters. All of it.

Imagine with me for a minute if those abducted were 234 young women from a high school in the US — let’s make it a prestigious all girls school like the Brearly School on New York’s Upper East Side. Or better yet, let’s think of a prep school in the middle of a cornfield (or close to it) — Culver Girl’s Academy in Culver, Indiana. Can you imagine the media coverage of an abduction of this magnitude of young women anywhere in the US? Do these young women deserve anything less because of where they were born or the color of their skin?

It has only been because the social media world said we will not be silent that the news media world picked up the story. This is not unlike the Trayvon Martin case in that respect. It was only after the story about this young man’s murder in Florida circulated on Facebook and Twitter did the national news pick up on the story.

We are living in a time where social media has the power to drive the news media. This is the democratization of what is to be considered, “news.”

So I am praying that the Nigerian military with the assistance of others in the international community can find these girls and reunite them with their families and with each other. I am praying that somehow, some way the hashtag #bringbackourgirls will do just that.

 

Day 104: Let it overflow.

On Spiritually Speaking with Rev. Jen, Rev. Jen welcomes Brian ‘Wolt’ Wolters, founder and director of The Overflow Project. During the season of Easter, participants are invited to make small sacrifices that make meaningful change. Rather than just writing a check, simplify your life by giving up something that you don’t really need and donate that savings — which will then be used to provide clean water for people worldwide or don’t have access to clean, safe water.

Click the link below to listen to the show in part, or in its entirety, or download it to listen to later.

Spiritually Speaking with Rev. Jen

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From the website (overflowproject.org):

“Writing a check can be too easy. The Overflow Project challenges us to step beyond simply writing and instead, invites us to get involved. Together we can invite family, friends, and communities to change the world.

Simplify: Enough is enough. Simplifying our lives engages us in the process of creating change. Consider how you currently allocate your time and finances. Identify creative ideas to give up purchases to save at least $1 a day.

Give: Open your hand and heart. YOU already have what you need to make a difference and with thousands of people joining together to give $1/day, the effect on poverty will be significant.

Change: Engage locally and globally. Change starts with the way you live, and when you change, so can your community. And through this project lives around the world will be transformed by clean, safe water.”

Day 77: Work hard.

“You can have unbelievable intelligence, you can have connections, you can have opportunities fall out of the sky. But in the end, hard work is the true, enduring characteristic of successful people.” – Marsha Evans

When I look at someone who has had the success that I want to have, it’s easier to see the ways that the world has conspired to make that person successful, than it is to admit that just maybe, they worked harder than I did, or wanted it more, or were called to that particular ministry, or given that particular gift. I want to believe that they were just luckier, in the ways that people can be lucky.

But I also don’t believe that all we have to do is work harder in order to succeed. I know a lot of hard-working people who have not been able to conquer the world, or even move themselves or their families out of poverty. Hard work matters, but it matters more when you have intelligence, connections, and opportunities. (All the things that come with racial privilege and higher socioeconomic status.) It’s a whole lot easier to earn a run in baseball if you are born on third base, than it is if you were born in the dugout.

As a society that values hard work, we want to believe that because some can rise out of poverty through hard work, that everyone can do it if they just work hard enough. In my years in advocacy, I heard this argument over and over when I was trying to advocate for an increase to the minimum wage. It isn’t just about getting people more education and moving them into professional jobs.

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One of my colleagues who was advocating on behalf of one of the labor unions was fond of saying, “Even if I have 100 people who are working for $8/hour caring for patients in a nursing home, and I give every single one of them better education and training so that they can earn a higher wage in another profession, I will still have 100 $8/hour nursing home jobs that need to be filled.” Yes, individuals can move up through upward mobility, but we still need workers to pick produce, care for our elderly and our children, work at the grocery store, wash dishes at the restaurant. And these jobs still pay poverty wages. As we always say in the minimum/living wage movement, “A job should keep you out of poverty, not keep you in it.”

So whatever you want, go for it. Work hard. Make it happen. As a coach I do believe that we have the ability to do much more than we believe that we can do. However, it is never lost on me that there are others who have barriers to success that may just preclude them from living their dreams. That’s not an excuse, but it is acknowledgement that there are forces beyond our control that make achieving the things we want either easier or harder. Some of those are internal, personality traits, but many of those are external societal realities — not that those cannot also be overcome, but appreciating the difficulty involved in doing so.

My approach to ministry and life is this: I pray as if everything relies on God, and I work as if everything relies on me. And in the end, I believe God honors my work and multiplies it in ways that I cannot begin to fathom. So go ahead, work hard, pray hard, and leave the rest to God.

Day 67: Be an optimist.

“Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope or confidence.” (Helen Keller)

We are often led to believe that optimism is seeing the world through rose colored glasses, seeing the glass half full, knowing that the sun shines behind the clouds. I don’t believe any of those. I believe that not everything will always work out, that sometimes the glass really is half empty, and the clouds are very real.

Optimism is believing that despite the current state of affairs, despite the evidence  before us, that things can get better. And yet, it may well be that things cannot get better unless we take the initiative to make them happen.

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For example, I am optimistic that science and political will may still be able create the circumstance that will allow us to prevent the total collapse of our ecosystems because of climate change. I believe in that possibility, and not that it is in any way a foregone conclusion. It is a possibility that puts the onus back on me.

It is up to us to decide what we need to do to make our home, our community and our world, a place that we are not only proud of, but a place where we want to live. But we first need to believe that what we do can effect real change. We need to be able to trust that our efforts will not be in vain.

That for me is the difference between those who are essentially optimists and those who are not — whether or not they believe that their efforts can and will make a difference.

Day 64: Don’t wait.

How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world. (Anne Frank)

Today is Ash Wednesday in the Christian calendar and I got a chance to do a little something good; I went to downtown New York City to Union Square Park and together with a group of friends performed the imposition of ashes on those who so desired. People were prayed for and touched with ashes to be reminded of our mortality, and that “in life and in death we belong to God.” Over and over we would say, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

New York City is an amazing place to do such a thing, perhaps like no other. An entire cross section of the cities 8 million people passed by us in the time that we were there and many people accepted the offer of ashes.

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photo credit: Adam Janos for The Wall Street Journal

You wouldn’t think that ministry can happen in a short interaction between strangers, but you would be surprised. I prayed for a young woman who was pregnant; and for another who was on her way to get a breast biopsy. I prayed for families, and families of friends — and a young girl named Sophie that has cancer. I prayed for a grieving mother who had lost her son, 28 years old just last week, and a woman who will be acknowledging the one year anniversary of the day her mother died this week. I even prayed for a man who asked me to pray for his infidelity. I imposed ashes on a little girl of about three and her mother; and many for whom English was not their first language. Among all those who came there were residents of the city and tourists, workers who came because they read about it in Tuesday’s NY Daily Newsbut most who were just passing by.

These were all people who believed, and for today were willing to wear their beliefs on the outside of their body.

In the few moments of interaction with these children of God, perhaps they were reminded that they indeed belong to God. Perhaps they were reminded that the church cares for them, even if they don’t particularly care for the church. The group that I was serving with, Presbyterian Welcome, was formed to help move the Presbyterian Church USA toward a more open stance on the ordination of individuals who are openly lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgendered and questioning. We know that people have been wounded by the church — whether they are LGBTQ or not. Perhaps some of these people would never have stepped into a church today, and perhaps it mattered to them to receive a prayer, ashes and even in some cases, a hug.

Maybe the world changed a little bit today, maybe not. It changed me, and at the end of the day, that’s enough. Blessed Ash Wednesday to you all.

Day 38: Life isn’t fair.

“Don’t try to make life a mathematics problem with yourself in the center and everything coming out equal. When you’re good, bad things can still happen. And if you’re bad, you can still be lucky.”   ― Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible

I’ve learned the hard way that even when you do everything right, work your hardest, accomplish your goals, bad things still happen. You lose your job. Your marriage ends. Friends and family members die. Life isn’t fair.

I’ve been thinking recently about a job that I had that came to an abrupt and painful end — and not from any fault of my own. I know it happens. People get fired for no good reason and it isn’t fair or right, but it happens all the time. I just didn’t think it would happen to me.

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And so I ran the gamut of emotions — anger, hurt, sadness, grief, righteous indignation. I knew I had done a good job. I knew that the people whose idea it was to fire me were not good people, and had ulterior motives. But they had the power and I didn’t. There was no magical equation that was going to change that. I couldn’t wish it away.

This is why I am so very angry that the Senate voted to not extend unemployment benefits to those who are, and have been out of work for an extended period of time. The argument is that these folks aren’t even trying to find work and are taking advantage of the system. That certainly doesn’t describe the folks that I know who have lost their jobs. They are doing everything they can to find work — anything that will pay the bills.

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One of my friends was out of work for nearly a year. I decided not to go back to working for someone else and started my own ministry of spiritual direction and life coaching. Starting your own business (or in my case, ministry) is not easy; neither is a constant search for work that is suited to your gifts skills and abilities.

Jesus tells the parable of the workers in the vineyard to grant us a picture of God’s vision of economic justice. In this story, a vineyard owner goes out periodically throughout the day to hire workers for his vineyard — and as he pays them, the workers learn that they all are receiving the same pay from the first hired to the last. The workers hired last were not hired last because they were lazy, or came out to town square late and missed the bus. No, they were standing in the heat like everyone else, hoping and praying that they would be hired.

Compassion is a spiritual practice — one that our friends in the Senate could do well to practice more intentionally. You don’t have to be poor or unemployed to be able to imagine what that might be like. You just need to be able to put yourself in their shoes for a day. Imagine, dear Senators, what you would do if you were unable to pay for heat or feed your family.

Yes, life isn’t fair. But we can do things to make it easier for those on the receiving end of life’s challenges — both in big and small ways. We are called to do nothing less.