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I’m Still Here: A Review

Austin Channing Brown’s I’m Still Here:  Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness was released this year and I commend it to you. Brown’s memoir is essential reading. Especially Christians who are white and living in the United States will benefit from listening to Brown’s wisdom and perspective as a woman of color.

Her absorbing book starts with a surprising story that immediately draws the reader in: Brown describes an encounter she had at the age of seven when the librarian was suspicious and questioned whether the library card actually belonged to this young Black girl. When Brown confronted her mother afterward, her mother confessed that she and Brown’s father had intentionally chosen a name most typically given to a white male, because they hoped that potential employers in the future would give “Austin” a chance not normally extended to people of color.

After this powerful chapter, Brown tells her story chronologically. She describes attending a private Christian elementary school in Toledo, visiting extended family in Cleveland, and she shares experiences—both positive and negative—with teachers at her Catholic high school and majority-white college in Chicago. After graduating, Brown worked at a number of Christian non-profit organizations. Brown is someone who is well acquainted with white evangelical culture, and she writes with persuasion and spiritual strength.

Going into the working world after college, Brown admits that she had assumed that she would be able to fearlessly combat racism, slaying racist nonsense as if it were a dragon. What she discovered, however, was that racism was not so much an “imposing beast” but a “poison” that “seeps into your mind, drip by drip, until it makes you wonder if your perception of reality is true.” My guess is that many young clergywomen could resonate with this experience. We may enter a ministry with idealism and a desire to effect change, but systems that oppress continue to oppress, and others undermine our truth at every turn. Every time we seek to name the problem, we are told that the problem is with us. It can be wearying.

For this reason, I am grateful for Brown’s tenacity: throughout her memoir, she fearlessly challenges the presence of white supremacy within the American church. At the same time, it was clear to me that she wasn’t using Christianity as a punching bag: there was no malice in her evaluation, only love. She writes, “even though the Church I love has been the oppressor as often as it has been the champion of the oppressed, I can’t let go of my belief in Church—in a universal body of belonging, in a community that reaches toward love in a world so often filled with hate. I continue to be drawn toward the collective participation of seeking good, even when that means critiquing the institution I love for its commitment to whiteness.”

In the workplace, Brown discovered how insidious white supremacy is. She writes, “Whiteness constantly polices the expressions of Blackness allowed within its walls… It wants us to sing the celebratory ‘We Shall Overcome’ during MLK Day but doesn’t want to hear the indicting lyrics of ‘Strange Fruit.’ It wants to see a Black person seated at the table but doesn’t want to hear a dissenting viewpoint. It wants to pat itself on the back for helping poor Black folks through missions or urban projects but has no interest in learning from Black people’s wisdom, talent, and spiritual depth. Whiteness wants enough Blackness to affirm the goodness of whiteness, the progressiveness of whiteness, the openheartedness of whiteness. Whiteness likes a trickle of Blackness, but only that which can be controlled.”

There were times as I read this book that I had the same sensation as when I watched the James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro. What I had previously seen as benign in American culture was exposed, by Baldwin and Brown’s keen insights, to be grotesque. Brown rightly observes that the white church has viewed power as its birthright rather than its curse, and her memoir is a testimony of the damage done by the curse of whiteness in the American church.  Read more

macaroni and cheese

A Land Flowing with Milk and Honey: Food Justice & Soul Work

“Attitudes to food have always been integral to the spiritual life and a prime metaphor for vital energy for our goal…the nourishing of a community is inextricably bound up with the notion of eating together.” Shirlyn Toppin[1]

macaroni and cheeseThe way we think about food and eating is deeply connected with the way we think about ourselves, families, and communities. For Black women, cooking, serving, and eating are bound up with our faith, our families, and our culture. Eating together is a spiritual act that heals, redeems, and refreshes those who participate. Not every woman knows how to nor wants to cook or serve; yet every woman eats. The eating and sharing of a meal can be an opportunity for Black women to receive that healing, redemption, and refreshment.

Tina Turner asked one of the most important questions of all time in one of her biggest hits, “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” When it comes to food and faith, the answer is, “Everything.” Love has everything to do with food and faith. Food is an extension of oneself. Food is an avenue to show love to the others in our lives. Food and faith have always been a major part of Black lives, including in my life. The church is where many believers learn how to love and treat their neighbors; simultaneously, food gives believers the opportunity to demonstrate that love for their neighbors.

Growing up, I was expected to participate in worship every Sunday during church service and to be in the fellowship hall for dinner after service. I couldn’t wait to get into the fellowship hall to eat. Churching really does bring on an appetite! While the doctrine and dogma of religion restricted me, food seemed to free me. Food was never restricted. In fact, I had to eat all my food on my plate because it was rude not to and wasting food was prohibited. It felt good to be filled physically and enjoy tasty soul foods such as crispy fried or smothered baked chicken, creamy macaroni & cheese, rice & gravy, butter beans, cabbage, fresh yeast rolls, and pound cake or chocolate cake.

When food is scarce, it can feel like a trial not just to our bodies, but also to our souls.  My faith has been adversely challenged when I experienced those times of lack of food. I remember a time when no one in my immediate family had money to buy food and all we could make was bread. I felt the tears welling in my eyes and I immediately ran into my room so my family wouldn’t see me cry. I asked God why was God doing this to me? What was the purpose? Later, I learned through the Wake Forest University’s Food and Faith program about the systemic designs of hunger and lack of economic justice which, unfortunately, plagues many Black women and children.

Can faith move the mountains of hunger and lack of economic justice alone? Fannie Lou Hamer said, “You can pray until you faint, unless you get up and try to do something, God is not going to put it in your lap.” Read more

The author’s sign and shirt for March for Our Lives. The Cross in both is made from parts of an AK47.

Swords Into Plowshares

The author’s sign and shirt for March for Our Lives. The Cross in both is made from parts of an AK47.

The author’s sign and shirt for March for Our Lives. The Cross in both is made from parts of an AK47.

I would like to begin by sharing a bit of how I came to realize that gun violence is my problem, and not only can I be a part of the solution, but as a Christian, as a human being, as a mother, I have to be.

I grew up in rural Maine. Many of my family and friends are gun owners. Hunting is a way of life in Maine – and a source of food for many Maine families. Guns were a part of my environment growing up, but they were a tool for protecting livestock from predators and for getting food. Maine has one of the highest gun ownership rates in the country, but one of the lowest gun crime rates, so I simply didn’t encounter the issue of gun violence. I went to college in Medford, Massachusetts, just outside Boston, where there certainly is more gun violence than in Maine. However, it didn’t come close to me, so sadly it was easy to ignore.

The reality of the issue of gun violence began to be real for me when I spent my first year of ministry working as a hospital chaplain in New Haven, Connecticut – a city that sees numerous shootings every year. I remember how my colleagues who had been there a long time would lament when the weather began to get warm in the spring because it meant the guns would come out, and there would be an increase in shooting victims arriving in our Emergency Room. No longer was gun violence something that happened “out there;” it was close and real.

But then I left hospital ministry and worked in a small town parish and on a PhD in theology, and gun violence stayed at a distance. However, it was through my parish work that I began to learn that gun violence did not need to be a permanent reality. I learned about stories of hope and transformation. The parish in which I was working, and our diocese of Connecticut, have a companion relationship with the Diocese of Lebombo in Mozambique. Through that relationship I learned the remarkable story of what had happened to the guns at the end of their civil war.

Their bishop started a program that quite literally turned swords into plowshares. People were invited to trade in their guns for farming equipment and tools of industry. And the people did. Over 800,000 guns were turned in. Those guns were turned into artwork, such as the cross above, which is made from the pistons of an AK-47. The good work of the people of Mozambique give me hope that transformation is possible.

Since 2011, I have worked on diocesan staff, and I was in my office on the 14th of December 2012 when I began to see news alerts that there had been a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. Since I have chaplaincy training, I offered to go with my bishops that afternoon. We spent the afternoon at Trinity, Newtown, planning a prayer service for that evening. We ministered to anyone who came in the door and heard heartbreaking stories – particularly when it became known that a six-year-old whose family was very active at Trinity was among the victims. Hundreds of people poured into Trinity that evening. The shock and terrible pain was evident on every face I saw that night. Read more

when they call you a terrorist book cover - title, authors names on a colorful background

Homegrown Terror: A Review of Patrisse Khan-Cullors’ When They Call You a Terrorist (a Black Lives Matter Memoir)

when they call you a terrorist book cover - title, authors names on a colorful background

When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele, with Angela Davis (St. Martin’s Press, 2018)

When I think of my own childhood, I remember playing barefooted in the backyard with my sisters. I remember planting pumpkin seeds beneath our jungle gym, that eventually grew into a reaching vine, stretching for the house. I remember an idyllic, safe childhood. This is not how Patrisse Khan-Cullors’ work, When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, describes hers. Her childhood was defined by terror. Love, too, but the terror was most haunting for me as a white person reading this book.

You see, her memories include the normative regularity of her brothers being harassed by the police and arrested. Her memories include being handcuffed in front of her school class at the age of twelve for suspected drug use, even though no drugs were found on her. Her memories include attending a gifted middle school, and befriending the daughter of her slumlord, the very man responsible for the year her family did not have a working refrigerator in their apartment.

Hers was a childhood marked by pain and trauma, yet at the same time, vibrant life and fierce love: the love of siblings who care for each other, the love of a mother who works damn hard to feed her kids, the love of a father who claims her even though she is not biologically his, the non-judgmental love and honesty of her biological father, the love of friends who become family to her. While Khan-Cullors and I both experienced deep love in our childhoods, the contrast between my sheltered childhood and her terrorized childhood is one example of the painful difference between the experience of being a white person and being a person of color in the United States.

Perhaps this painful experience fueled Khan-Cullors’ powerful passion to later become one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, and why her memoir, written with asha bandele, is a heartbreaking and inspiring call to action. When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir seamlessly weaves the particularity of Khan-Cullors’ story with sweeping statistics of brutality against people of color.

This accessible tapestry breaks through the lies us white people tell ourselves about our individual responsibility and unquestioned assumptions of the “good” intentions of police officers. In particular, the story of her brother Monte’s struggle with schizoaffective disorder, his torture in prison, and inability to get proper care at home (even after calling 911), is a scathing exposé of the terror Black communities experience daily.

The reader cannot help but notice that the title of the book is a reference to the Black Lives Matter movement being branded as a terrorist movement, even when it is they who are on the receiving end of terror. Khan-Cullors reveals how sheltered we white people are from our own complicity in terror (through raids, murders, prison systems, and the like), and she will not let us ignore or forget this any longer.

Yet, just as her childhood was not only marked by terror but also by love, so this book is more than a stark documentation of terror; it is an inspiring text of hope and survival. It powerfully reveals glimpses of what Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz would name the “kin-dom” of God – a radically inclusive community marked by equity, justice, and peace. Read more

The Darkness Shines in the Light

The author smiling, wearing a light-colored shirt with dark-colored stripes and a bee on the upper left chest

The author

White privilege is marked by blindness to the ways our language hurts and harms others. The process of learning to see is, like the story in John’s gospel of Jesus’ healing a blind man by caking his eyes with mud made of spit and dirt, both messy and profound.

In January, I attended a gathering in Chicago called The Mystic Soul Conference. An outgrowth of the Mystic Soul project, the event combined spirituality, hospitality, community, and justice. The entire gathering centered people of color (POC), which meant that I, as a white woman, was invited to de-center myself. What this meant was explicit: I was not to be the first to speak up in group discussion; I would sign up for care sessions (massage, spiritual direction, body work) only after people of color had done so. White people were not presenters, or organizers, or leaders. The non-POCs present were there to listen, to follow, and to exhale into the work of justice that restored us to our rightful place as co-laborers instead of blind guides.

One of the most powerful lessons from the conference for me occurred in a session called “Dark and Divine: Healing the Light vs. Dark Dichotomy in Spiritual Speech.” Artist and educator Amina Ross led our group of POC and non-POC folk through exercises to explore the concept of darkness. A curator of an ongoing art exhibit in Chicago – featuring artists who use darkness as a medium – Ross invited us to do the same.

I learned that my understanding of darkness has been shallow, one-dimensional, paltry, and feeble. I’ve allowed the simplistic correlation of light = good, and darkness = bad, to rule the way I understand light and dark, both in life and in metaphor. I didn’t even know that I had forfeited so much truth and beauty in my thin imaging, but as I was invited to poke around and become curious about darkness (the world’s and my own), I realized that I had never spent much time asking questions or imagining other possibilities. When we shared our reflections at the end of the workshop, I was surprised by both the depth of other peoples’ answers – clearly, they had spent time considering the ways that darkness was simultaneously a gift and a liability in their own lives – and by the shallowness of my own.

I am ashamed to admit that I have lived, unconsciously but persistently, with the idea that darkness = evil for a long, long time, expressing that idea as anti-black racism in both overt and subtle ways. If light = good, and dark = bad, what does that mean for the ways I see and interact with sisters and brothers who live with darkness as a visible part of their identity? Read more

Lisa Lopez head shot - smiling

Why We Need More than a Framework of Rights in the Struggle for Justice

Lisa Lopez smiling, sitting at a table in a restaurant, with a menu in front of her

The author: The struggle for recovery after Hurricane Maria has eroded my confidence in using the framework of human rights for continued justice work.

On September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria devastated my home island of Puerto Rico. In less than 24 hours, over 3 million people lost access to running water, electricity and telecommunications. Hundreds of families became homeless; hundreds more lost the assets that provided for their employment. Healthcare services became severely limited, and the educational system was thrust into crisis. Unable to hear the voices of loved ones immediately following the hurricane, many Puertorricans living in the continental United States began to organize for recovery, knowing that the island would need all the help it could get. What I didn’t know then was how the experience of the struggle for recovery would erode my confidence in using the framework of human rights for continued justice work.

Most of us diaspora Puertorricans organized out of a sense of responsibility towards all residents of our beloved island, but we called others to labor with us out of the conviction that we were fighting for the human right of all Puertorricans to a standard of living adequate for their health and well-being. We felt compelled to call others in the United States to action because Puertorricans have been United States citizens by birthright since 1917.

Yet it didn’t matter how eloquently we implored others to recognize the people’s fundamental human right to a standard of wellbeing; many agreed with the idea of the human right, but not with the call to responsibility for that right. It also didn’t matter how insistently we asked our government and neighbors to treat residents of the island with the same respect and care our country bestowed upon victims of Harvey and Irma just a few weeks earlier. The appeal to citizen’s rights also fell on deaf ears.

“We have spent enough,” I heard, while people began to die from lack of access to treatment that could have been provided with the power grid in better shape. “They can’t expect help forever,” I heard, when it had barely been a few weeks since the disaster hit and millions were still without running water. Most interesting was how often the plight of suffering Puertorricans was dismissed by appeals to fairness that sounded more like excuses for inaction.

I heard many argue that the financial response of government and citizens had to be balanced with the concerns of the rest of the nation, yet made no effort to explain what they understood those concerns to be. Others, naming victims of subsequent disasters as reasons why aid to Puerto Rico should be limited, seem uninterested in considering scenarios where full recovery for all those affected might be possible. Still others in communities like the one I serve, where people contend with different levels of poverty as a daily reality they can’t escape, found it difficult to join in the recovery efforts for Puertorricans when it meant fighting for access to services they do not always enjoy themselves.

It became exceedingly clear to me that though the call for the defense of human rights often takes center stage in contemporary struggles for social justice, it is dreadfully insufficient for the kind of enterprise we need to undertake if we are to protect the life and dignity of every human being. To speak of justice on the basis of human rights is to speak of justice on the grounds of what people deserve, and we have never been skilled at recognizing the good for another without thinking about our own good first. Read more

Lessons We Can Learn from Wakanda

The author

My flight has safely landed back into town after visiting Wakanda – the mythical and majestic homeland revealed in the film Black Panther – a journey that left me mesmerized. I was immediately pulled into the world of Wakanda, with its technological advancements, beautiful African fashions, futuristic architecture, and tribal rituals so intense that, when my visit came to a close, I did not want to leave. I truly enjoyed getting to know the king of Wakanda, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), his sister and Wakanda’s key inventor, Shuri (Letitia Wright), and the fierce Dora Milaje, all-female warriors who protect the king. During my journey, I witnessed T’Challa fight for his honor and birthright to rule Wakanda after his father King T’Chaka’s sudden death, all the while struggling to keep his country safe and of one accord during the transition of power.

My self-pride as a Black woman was immensely heightened by the bold presence and uniquely authoritative femininity of Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), spy and love interest of T’Challa. Equally impactful was this same powerful femininity in Okoye (Danai Gurira), the head of Wakanda security and General of the Dora Milaje. Certainly, my trip would not have been complete without the dramatic and complex encounters between T’Challa and villain Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), and Killmonger’s partner in crime Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis). The story unfolds with heightened drama for T’Challa when diplomacy becomes even more complicated by a would-be chance meeting with CIA Agent Andy Ross (Martin Freeman), the man with whom he became acquainted in Captain America: Civil War. Each complex character navigates their intertwined narratives and conflicting interests, leading to the seminal purpose of saving the world, or destroying it.

My Black Panther journey was made possible by the creators of that character: writer and artist Jack Kirby, and writer and editor Stan Lee, who also makes a cameo in every Marvel movie. Black Panther first appeared in the July 1966 issue of Fantastic Four. While the Black Panther character has been confused with the Black Panther Party (which was formed in October of 1966 in Oakland, California), the two are not synonymous. Black Panther first joined the Marvel cinematic world in Captain America: Civil War in 2016. T’Challa will make another Marvel movie appearance in the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War film (debuting in April 2018) where he will fight – and hopefully save the world – alongside Iron Man, Spider Man, Captain America, the Hulk, Doctor Strange, and others.

What made my trip to Wakanda even more special was that I shared this momentous occasion with millions of people in the world, particularly people of the African diaspora. Many of my friends and associates had already seen Black Panther twice by the time I saw it on the Sunday night of its opening weekend. I have never felt such an energy of love for Blackness blended with an anxiousness to see any movie in my life. Who knew that a fictitious movie would cause people nationwide to come together in one accord with Black pride, wearing Dashikis, African attire, or dressing in all Black, and taking selfies in front of countless Black Panther posters? Read more

Fungibility: A Vocabulary Lesson for White People

The author

The nerd force has always been strong with me. When other kids were competing in sports events over the weekends, I was competing in storytelling contests to see who could recite a story from memory with the most accurate detail. Middle school found me occupied with a group called Future Problem Solvers, who were given the task of “solving” invented, but based in reality, situations from ecological catastrophes to diplomatic disasters. (Designing the t-shirt for that group was the pride of those years for me.) During college, I ignored my chemistry homework in favor of reading theological tomes like David Bosch’s Transforming Mission for fun.

So, it should perhaps come as no surprise that I find myself to be something of a quasi-professional nerd these days: a full-time student, with a backpack to boot. Pastoral care conversations in parishioners’ homes have been swapped for intense chats with authors who don’t so much as offer me a glass of lemonade. During these chats, I’m frequently bombarded with words I’ve never heard of: leitmotif, interdiction, dehiscence, interlocutory, and thantalogical (and that is only in one article, alas). One word keeps cropping up again and again, especially in my studies of African American theology and ethics: fungibility. It sounds kind of cute, doesn’t it? The first images conjured for me were of gerbils who were the life of the party (fun-gerbility), or the special talents of fungi. But this word, despite containing “fun” within it, is not in the least bit fun. As I often do with confounding words, I consulted the oracle (Google) and discovered this:

“Fungible: being something (such as money or a commodity) of such a nature that one part or quantity may be replaced by another equal part or quantity in paying a debt or settling an account.”[1]

But here’s the rub: fungibility wasn’t being used to talk about bitcoin, or pennies, or bartered boxes of Girl Scout cookies. It was being used in my readings to talk about Black bodies. People as fungible: interchangeable, profitable, which made them understood not as people at all. Read more

The author with a fellow Moms Demand Action member at the annual Virginia Interfaith Lobby Day for Gun Violence Prevention

Striving for Justice and Peace Among All People: Advocacy, Activism, and the Baptismal Covenant

During Baptisms, Easter and other special occasions in The Episcopal Church, churchgoers are asked eight questions known as The Baptismal Covenant. It begins as a statement of faith laid out in straightforward question and answer style with questions aren’t all that questionable.

Do you believe in God?
Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?
Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?

Then the covenant transitions into questions about how we will live out our faith.

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching, their fellowship, communion and prayers?
Will you resist evil and return to God when you sin?
Will you proclaim the Good News of God in Christ?

And to these three questions we respond heartily, “I will, with God’s help.”

But then there are the last two questions, which have always been far more radical to me than the six preceding them.

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.

Again, we respond, “I will, with God’s help,” but I’ve always wondered what crosses through folks’ minds as they respond.

These fundamental promises define who we are as Episcopalians. The way in which we live and move and have our being as Christians is deeply embedded in these baptismal promises. We know that seeking and serving Christ in all persons, striving for peace and justice among all people and respecting the dignity of every human being are things we should be doing as followers of Jesus Christ, but, truthfully, I found living out these promises incredibly challenging while working as a parish priest. Read more

The author

The Messiness of Microaggressions

1 Corinthians 12:12, 26 NRSV

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

 

The author

The author

Hey there, friend. I have news: we are all a mess, and you are messy, too.

I feel called to tell you that because I love you, and I love the people with whom you come in contact.

While we may know each other well, marginally, or not at all, the fact that you were willing to click on this link and at least start reading this think piece means that I can trust you with a bit of truth. I am guessing that something intrigued you to mentally and spiritually lean in towards a topic that most of the world would still choose to turn away from, minimize, or utterly deny.

With that in mind, I am going to assume the very best in you; I am going to trust you with my truth. Because, as we see being played out in government (45, I am looking at you), the media, and in the comment section of almost any page online, communication has no worth without an explicitly expressed value of trust.

Along those lines, let’s establish our starting place, friends. I am assuming that you and I have a shared value for what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. named the Beloved Community. That is, the kind of community that respects the intrinsic worth of all members of humanity. The King Center writes, within the beloved community “racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood.”

If this is not your shared stance on humanity, please feel free to exit this article because it will be a waste of your time, and probably only offend you. Honestly, I love you enough to let you be who you are. If the work of edifying the beloved community of humanity is not your shtick, then this is conversation is not for you.

I will give you a few seconds to go if you need to: 3… 2… 1…

Read more