Charleston: Yes, It’s About Race. So Pastors, Preach.

Less than two days ago, a white man walked into a black church in Charleston SC, opened fire, and killed nine people. Fox News was quick to offer its commentary by finding just the “right” pundit to propagate its long-established refusal of the reality of racism in this country. Bishop E.W. Jackson said,  “Wait for the facts, don’t jump to conclusions . . . Most people jump to conclusions about race. I long for the day when we stop doing that in our country.”

So let’s look at the facts that have been reported.

The shooter, Dylann Storm Roof, entered a black church and prayed with the congregants for an hour before stating that he was there to kill black people. He announced, “You rape our women and have taken over our country, you have to go” (an epithet that reminded me of racist propaganda from the Jim Crow era). Roof’s roommate later stated that Roof “was big into segregation,” and told him that “blacks were taking over the world [and] someone needed to do something about it for the white race.” A former classmate stated that Roof would often make “racist jokes,” which the classmate now realizes “the things he said were kind of not joking.” After being brought into custody, Roof confessed that he wanted to start a race war.

A Facebook photo of Roof shows him sporting the flags of apartheid-era South Africa and Rhodesia (a former colony in South Africa that attempted to establish itself as a white supremacist state). These flags are “popular in some white supremacist circles as a way to advertise to others in the know without being as obvious as wearing a swastika.” Roof also displayed a Confederate flag on his license plate, a symbol of white supremacy and racism.

Roof chose to kill black people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The AME denomination was founded in the early 1800s by black Christians who sought to create a space where they could worship God free from the racism and discrimination they experienced at the hands of white Christians. Emanuel is the oldest AME church in the south. One of the church’s founders, Denmark Vesey, planned a slave revolt for June 16, 1822, which reportedly would have been the largest slave revolt in the history of the United States. Vesey was arrested and hanged along with thirty-five others, and the church was burned down by white supremacists. The shooter’s heinous act of terrorism occurred one day after the anniversary of this planned revolt.

Among those killed was Reverend and State Senator Clementa Pinckney. He was an advocate for racial justice and police reform. On April 4, 2015, unarmed black man Walter Scott was murdered by a white police officer. A citizen’s release of cell phone footage exposed the officer’s lies surrounding the event, resulting in the officer’s arrest and a murder charge. Rev. Pinckney attended the vigil for Walter Scott and advocated for legislation requiring police to wear body cameras. He delivered an impassioned plea to the Senate, stating:

When we first heard on the television, that a police officer had gunned down an unarmed African American in North Charleston by the name of Walter Scott, there were some who said, “Wow. The national story has come home to South Carolina.” But there were many who said, “There is no way that a police officer would ever shoot somebody in the back 6, 7, 8, times.” But . . . when we were able to see the video, and we were able to see the gun shots, and when we saw him fall to the ground, and when we saw the police officer come and handcuff him on the ground, without even trying to resuscitate him, without even seeing if he was really alive, without calling an ambulance, without calling for help, and to see him die face down in the ground as if he were gunned down like game, [we] said, “I believe.” . . . It is my hope that as South Carolina senators, that we will stand up for what is best and good about our state and really adopt this legislation and find a way to have body cameras in South Carolina.

Emanuel AME is “not just a church. It’s also a symbol … of black freedom . . . it’s a church that represents so much about the rich history and tradition of African Americans in Charleston.”

So here’s the reality. The Charleston shooting was not some random act of violence. Nor can it simply be understood as an act of persecution against Christians. It was a premeditated, strategic act of terrorism against black people. It is indeed about race, and it is symptomatic of the disease of racism that has ridden our country since its inception.

JPEG image-A39B78B9B7C4-1Here’s my special word to pastors and church leaders, especially for those in predominately white churches. If you are a pastor, do not fail to talk about the evil of racism in our society. Do not let this Sunday come and go without naming this act for what it is. Do not let this Sunday’s services happen without your congregation hearing you renounce the evil of racism in this country and this world. Do not diminish these events by limiting the discussion to violence or guns or church persecution. Please acknowledge the fact that there are people of color in your congregations who will be thinking of racism, terrorism, death, fear, and trauma as they sit in the pews. Do not ignore their pain. Do not let the service go by without naming those lost to this wicked act: The Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41; Cynthia Hurd, 54; The Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45; Tywanza Sanders, 26; Ethel Lance, 70; Susie Jackson, 87; Depayne Middleton Doctor, 49; The Rev. Daniel Simmons, 74; Myra Thompson, 59.

If you’ve never preached about racism, about Ferguson, about the consistent murder of black people by the state and white vigilantes, about God’s desire for those suffering under the oppression of racism to be liberated, about racial justice as a component of our Christian discipleship—now is the time. Now is the time.

Sexism & the Church, Pt 1: When the Church Calls You “Whore”

The following is an introduction to a short series I am writing called “Sexism & the Church.” Though I’ll be focusing primarily on the church, I will also be thinking about sexism in other social contexts. f you have any suggestions for areas to explore, please leave a comment at the end of this post. I do not pretend to have any of these reflections 100% tidy and polished, but I hope you’ll come with me on my journey.

Recently, a friend of mine responded to a Facebook wall comment I made back in 2008. I forget the main content of the post, but at the end of it I called my friend a “whore.” I didn’t mean it in a derogatory way—rather, this term was used as a token of my affection, a term of endearment that I only used with my closest friends. In my social group, “whore” meant “bestie,” thus using this term was a sign that you’d somehow crossed over from “good acquaintance” into “sacred friendship.”

It has been years since I’ve interacted in a friend group that talked with each other in this way. To be honest, I had completely forgotten that we referred to one another as whores until my friend, for whatever reason, took a trip down memory lane and commented on my 2008 post. Because I’ve been thinking a lot in recent years about feminism and women’s situation in the church, the reminder of how I inadvertently participated in this form of oppression was particularly jarring. It raised some significant questions for me—when did it become normal for women to use these terms for one another? What is happening on a psychological level when women engage one another through oppressive language and power structures? Where does the church fit into all of this?

Even a year ago, I would have dismissed our language as simply a childish means of friends attempting to relate to one another. Recently though, I have begun to see the ways in which this kind of language roots itself into our consciousness and validates narratives of oppression and violence. I have spent the past year interning at a middle school where I’ve provided counseling services to students. I hear girls refer to each other as whores all the time, and the word is used both to denigrate and to express affection. It is used to create solidarity in a social group, and also to bully. It is used to elevate a girl’s status and also to crush her, depending on the context in which the word is used. In this paradigm, every girl is a whore—it’s just that the kind of whore she is determines the rung of the social ladder she will land on.

The church is not immune to these kinds of ideologies. Just recently, in fact, I was in a Christian context in which women were consistently portrayed as sexual temptresses that male leaders must protect themselves against. “Whore” is not just a word for scaling the teenage social ladder, or a description of a particular social identity. It is an ideology of hatred towards women that has deeply infiltrated our social structures and institutions.

I have spent the last quarter in school studying the Jewish Talmud, which contains laws that were passed down orally through the generations and finally recorded between the 2nd and 5th centuries. The ancient laws present women as sexual temptations, and thus a man must be careful of how many women he is around and when he is around them. Men and women were siloed into particular gender roles because they could not accidentally find themselves alone with one another—this was a violation of the law. It was amazing to me to read the ancient laws and hear parallels between these edicts and contemporary evangelical recommendations for how the sexes should interact. I cannot count how many times I have heard stories, particularly from women, that echo these laws. I remember hearing a story in which a woman and her male co-leader were the last two people at church after an event, and the male co-leader literally told her that she needed to find her own ride home because he could not be alone with her in the car.

Many women have so internalized this sexism that they feel ashamed of their bodies, their lives, and their dreams. It is easy to identify sexism when the word “whore” is thrown around—but when sexism couches itself in Scripture and theology, it is far more covert. These ideologies have created a church in which many of its members believe that women are not permitted to lead, teach, or even have formal seminary training. People cherrypick verses that demand women be silent in the church, but fail to take into account historical context, as well as the myriad examples of female leaders in Scripture.

Although I don’t hear pejorative words in my adult professional circles in the same way that they are used among my middle schoolers, I certainly hear the ideology. I hear it every time a man panics when he finds himself alone with a woman. I hear it whenever a male Christian leader refuses to meet one-on-one with a woman because it might be “improper.” I hear it when women are refused leadership positions or pastoral jobs precisely because they are women. I hear it when women are paid less for the same job that a man holds.

What has been most discouraging for me is witnessing the ways in which women have internalized this sexism and allowed it to permeate their lives. My own past is filled with internalized sexism that has both shaped my identity and hindered me from pursuing my dreams. It has obscured my vision so much that until recently, I was not able to see myself as a theologian or a pastor at all. I did not think I was capable or worthy of such a calling.

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Last week, I attended a conference in which we considered the various ways that social oppressions have affected our lives and communities. We participated in an activity in which we created human statues that embodied these oppressions, and I helped to enact the oppression of sexism. I chose to portray a woman who is being silenced in the church—she is on her knees, while a man is pressing the Bible into the back of her head as he preaches. After holding this pose for awhile, observers were asked to enter into the statue and imagine how they might help the oppressed. I felt a featherlight touch on my shoulder, but that was all that changed. Because my eyes were fixed toward the ground, I could not see the person who was trying to help me. Though I sensed that the touch on my shoulder was sincere, the pressure on my neck was not alleviated. I knew the person was trying to help, but I got the sense that she did not know how to help me.

In a strange way, I realized that the woman placing her hand on my shoulder was me. There have been times that I have thought a featherlight touch would be enough to heal from these wounds, but what I truly needed was to find the courage to throw off the chains. What I truly needed was to lift my eyes up and see possibility, to dream.

I have been a part of many contexts in which women were not permitted to lead in the church. It is only recently that I have realized how deeply these ideologies affected me, and how much they have stalled me from pursuing my dreams. I hear “whore” when I am told I cannot be a leader, a pastor, or a theologian because I’m a woman. I hear “whore” when I am told my only important accomplishment in life will be to make my spouse happy and bear children. I hear “whore” whenever I worry whether people at church will think my skirt is too short or my top is too low. “Whore” is a never-ending mantra.

This blog post is the first in a short series that will be engaging the topic of sexism in the church. It is my attempt to cease the placating featherlight touch and instead break the chains of bondage that have enslaved me. My hope is that through my reflections, bonds of oppression will crumble—not simply for me, but for anyone who happens to find themselves reading this. My hope is that women will find freedom from the ideologies that deem them “lesser” and will break free of the ways in which both church and society has called them “whore.” To the extent that women have come to believe these things about themselves, I desire that they will begin to discover the deeply rooted oppressions in their own lives and weed them out. And I pray I would find healing where I need it, as well.

I encourage your thoughts and comments along the way. Where have you seen sexism in your own life, in the church? What do you think of when you hear the word “whore”? What resonates with you?

From a Protester to Seattle Church Pastors and Leaders

(Author Note: Though this is written specifically toward Seattle pastors and church leaders, it can easily apply to leaders in other locales.)

IMG_11801Last evening, Seattle Pacific University and First Free Methodist Church hosted the event “Seattle Evangelicals for Racial Justice.” Church leaders from various denominations and churches all over Seattle came together for worship, confession and lament, and expression of righteous indignation over systemic racism. The congregation corporately confessed that through its silence, the church has perpetuated and upheld systems of oppression and violence, both historically and in the present. Church leaders were specially commissioned for the task of racial reconciliation and justice, and were given the charge to bring this message to their various contexts. Leaders were invited to make a pledge to actively engage this issue in their particular contexts, and to commit themselves to the work of racial justice in our society.

All of these things are good, but the church must not stop there. This worship service of confession, lament, and commissioning was a necessary first step in beginning this work together, but we must be careful not to become comfortable with the idea that participation in this worship service means we’ve now “done something” and the work is complete. Church leaders were charged to “act” with this message, to “do,” and to put feet to words.

IMG_11791Every leader is on a different level when it comes to this task. Many have been doing this work for a long while, some are just getting started, and others have no idea where to start. I want to affirm that this is an overwhelming task, and for leaders that may never have specifically engaged the topic of racial justice before, it can be difficult to know how to begin.

I am aware of how burdensome this might feel for church leaders, particularly for those whose ministry contexts have not historically engaged this issue in an overt manner. I am not unsympathetic to the fact that the charge to work toward the dismantling of systemic oppression and racism is a heavy one. I know that as church leaders begin to push for this in their contexts, the backlash they will inevitably receive from some members of their congregations will be exhausting and painful.

It is understandable to be hesitant in participating in this fight for justice. It is not easy. But hesitation, or feeling overwhelmed, or the threat of potential backlash from congregants does not absolve one from responsibility. Recently when I was talking to a friend about the role of church leaders in this fight, I was told that church members can indeed act outside of leadership, that “we are the church” and perhaps we don’t need to push for church leadership on this issue. I agree that parishioners “are the church” and we certainly need to be doing this work of our own volition and motivation. However, it is also true that the church’s pastors and leaders are crucial to the building up of the body. There is a reason that at the service last night, church leaders were called to the altar in order to receive the charge to fight for racial justice. Church pastors and leaders have a very particular and special role to play. The good news is that there are many church organizations in Seattle that are doing phenomenal work in this area, and the leaders of these churches provide amazing examples in how to move forward in this effort. Moving forward can have a lot of different “looks” to it, but there is one thing in particular that I want to address.

Just before the commissioning at the end of the worship service, one of the organizers of the event stated that he had recently met with students of SPU who are participants in the downtown Seattle protests. These students were in tears, lamenting the fact that the church has been profoundly absent from the streets. These Christian young adults are using their bodies to disrupt the status quo, to cause discomfort, to shake people from complacency. Christian young people are responding to their theological convictions of justice by marching for hours in the rain, standing with one another in solidarity, and risking being maced, physically assaulted, and arrested. They are participating in and facilitating corporate prayers of lament and truth-telling through protest chants of “black lives matter,” “no justice, no peace,” and “hands up, don’t shoot.”

These Christian young adults are becoming pastors on the streets of Seattle. They are encouraging those who are weary, praying for protesters, fighting for the kingdom of God, being the visible presence of Christ. And they are tired.

Church/protest outside the Seahawks game

This is a moment in which the church has an amazing ability to be the presence of Christ on the ground, to show the most marginalized and oppressed individuals in our society that their lives matter and that the church will fight for them and care for them. It is an opportunity to build up and stand with the young Christian leaders who are facilitating, organizing, and participating in protests. It is an opportunity to begin paying attention to the justice work that people in your congregations might already be doing, and to ask how church leadership can begin to support and participate in that work as well.

One question I have heard consistently over the past few weeks is where someone might begin in this work. From the perspective of someone who has been protesting regularly, and who has heard Christians who are leading and organizing the protests lament over the lack of clergy on the ground, the following are some suggested action steps. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but these are things that I think might be helpful.

1. Attend a protest. To find out when Seattle events are scheduled, visit these Facebook pages: Justice for Mike Brown-SeattleOutside Agitators 206. Just as we need legal observers on the ground with protesters, we also need pastors on the ground in prayer. The visible presence of church leadership in the streets with protesters is a powerful thing. When one of the main leaders of the protests revealed to other leaders that she is a Christian and is protesting because of her belief in Christ and her theological convictions, they were shocked that a Christian even cared about this. I can’t imagine how protesters would react if they saw someone with a stole or a clerical collar in the streets with them.

To learn more about the downtown Seattle protests and its leaders, read independent journalist Casey Jaywork’s blog post, “Among the Outsiders at Seattle’s #BlackLivesMatter Protests.

2. Be aware that at a protest, there are all different kinds of folks with all different kinds of beliefs and ways of expressing themselves. Don’t be afraid to interact with people who are “radical.” Remember, Jesus did that too.

3. If you attend a protest, make an effort to meet the leaders and keep in touch with them. Treat them to coffee. Encourage them, pray with them, and ask them what they need right now. Ask them how they would like to see the church getting involved in the work of fighting for racial justice. Let them know you are there for them. They might want to meet with you, they might not – but the fact that you cared enough to ask will mean a lot.

4. If you know people who are protesting on the streets, meet with them and ask them about their experience. Try to check in with them once in awhile. Even an email of encouragement is helpful.

5. If you know any young people who are participating in these efforts, make a special effort to reach out to them. Many young people are reconsidering their chosen educational/career paths because of their efforts in this movement, and a little encouragement and/or counsel might be helpful (particularly from church leaders who are more experienced on this topic).

6. Visit protesters in jail. Go to their arraignments if possible. Be the presence of Christ to them in a place where Christ may feel absent.

7. Be bold about your stance on racial justice in your churches. If a sermon hasn’t been preached on Ferguson yet, preach one. If there aren’t any conversations happening in your church right now about how the congregation can participate in the effort toward racial justice, start one. If the church isn’t very diverse, start asking questions about why that might be. Make the topic of race and racial justice a primary focus of your gospel message. Build a culture in your congregation such that when people hear the name of your church, they know you’re about racial justice.

8. Dedicate yourself to learning more about this topic by staying informed on local and national news. Follow Facebook pages or blogs that highlight these topics. My favorites are Urban CuspThe Root, and Colorlines. Read theological texts on racial justice and racial reconciliation and start community groups and sermon series. Check out these suggested texts for that purpose.

9. Try not to move too quickly into peace and reconciliation language. We pray and hope for the day when peace and reconciliation will be our reality, but right now we are drowning in systems of racism, oppression, and violence. Calling out these systems and breaking them down might not look very peaceful. Jesus didn’t look peaceful when he was turning over tables in the temple. If our language prevents us from doing the work that would dismantle oppressive systems, then perhaps our language needs to sound different. We live in the “now” and “not yet” – although we see the presence of Christ and the ushering in of the kingdom of God through the body of believers, we know that sin still exists in our world. We need to figure out how to hold that tension better – our kingdom of God language must not render invisible the suffering and affliction that are still present in our world.

10. Establish partnerships with other churches that are already engaging in this work. As churches form more intentional partnerships with other churches and parachurch organizations, the presence of the body of Christ in our city will be powerful.

These are just a few examples of ways to begin this work and to support young people who are leading the charge on the streets, and it’s certainly not limited to this. If meeting with people is not your gift, if acts of service are not your gift, if encouragement is not your gift – figure out how to utilize your unique gifts for this movement, and commit to engaging in the fight for racial justice in the best way you are able to. Although in this blog post I’ve used the word “protest” to reference street protesting, there are many different ways to protest. For more ideas, check out the article “Eight Ways to Support Protests Against the Criminal Punishment System, if You Can’t Get Out on the Street,” and also see Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil’s new blog series #ProtestProfiles, in which she highlights people performing everyday acts of protest through their particular giftings and contexts. Whatever your spiritual gifts are, use them as your act of protest. Be vocal about it, and encourage others to do the same. To the extent that the church is silent on the issue of racial injustice and oppression, it is complicit – so let’s get loud.

Christian leaders cannot, on their own, do all of these things. But what would it look like if every Christian leader in our city committed to doing just one of these things? How would our city change? Would people who have long ago given up on the church have their faith restored?

There’s no way to know until we try. I implore you, Seattle church pastors and leaders, to begin this work with intention if you haven’t already. We need you. If you have already been doing this work, thank you, and I pray that God will give you the strength to keep going, and will raise up others who will help to shoulder that burden with you. I truly believe that the time is now for the church to stand together on this, and I hope and pray we will answer that call faithfully.

Ferguson: Why White People Need To Talk About It

protestI’ll preface by saying that this message is mostly for white people and white Christians in particular, though I offer it as a confession to all of my non-white friends as well.

On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by an officer in Ferguson, MO. Following this event, people took to the streets of Ferguson to protest not only the unjust killing of Michael Brown, but also the systematic oppression and racism experienced by people of color in that city and in our country. The police responded to these protests by deploying SWAT teams and utilizing military-grade equipment and protocols, including tanks, tear gas, and rubber bullets. The event facilitated a wave of protests in both Ferguson and around the country which have continued more than two weeks later. If you are unfamiliar with Michael Brown or the events that have been occurring in Ferguson, MO, go here to familiarize yourself. 

Since the event, I have posted article upon article upon article on my Facebook page in an effort to keep this on people’s radars. One week after the killing of Michael Brown, all I was seeing on Facebook were videos of the ice bucket challenge, and barely anything about Ferguson. (For an interesting article regarding the ways in which the ice bucket challenge may actually be obscuring/ignoring systemic injustice, read this.) The events of Ferguson deserve at least as much attention as this viral campaign has received, and my endless Facebook posts have been an attempt to keep this event at the forefront of people’s minds.

At the beginning of this entry, I posted a link for people to check out if they are not yet aware of what’s been happening in Ferguson. The title of this blog post is “Ferguson: Why White People Need To Talk About It.” The reason for these things is that—18 days after Michael Brown’s death, 18 days after protests started and continued, 17 days after the SWAT team was called in and tear gas and military-grade weaponry was deployed, 8 days after this police officer on the ground in Ferguson was suspended for pointing a weapon at protestors and threatening to kill them, 5 days after another police officer was suspended for a video that surfaced in which he said things like, “I’m into diversity. I kill everybody, I don’t care”, 2 days after Michael Brown’s funeral service occurred, which was attended by thousands (4500 people according to CBS news)—after all of this, I am still encountering white people who do not know who Michael Brown is and who do not know what is happening in Ferguson.

Yes, you read that right.

There are hundreds of reasons why this might be so. We could talk about the fact that “75% of of whites have ‘entirely white social networks without any minority presence,’” that “on average white Americans live in communities that face far fewer problems and talk mostly to other white people,”  and that maybe this lack of presence is rendering the experiences of people of color invisible to white folks. We could talk about the phenomenon that people who use Facebook are half as likely to bring up controversial political topics in fear of causing conflict or losing friends. Christians could talk about the fact that, according to a study performed in 2008, “only 7 percent of American churches are racially integrated” (we can only hope it’s gotten better since then), and consider whether the church’s separatism has something to do with the lack of integration.

For now, I’m choosing to talk about the decision of white silence.

 White silence is something that I’ve been complicit in, largely because I will never know what it’s like to walk in the shoes of a person who’s not white, and there’s a sense of not knowing how to deal with that tension. I never feel my skin. I never think about my skin until I’m in situations where white people are the minority in the room—and these situations are few and far between. I never worry when I’m around authority figures or police officers that they might be threatened by my skin color. I remember once after a cop pulled me over as a teenager, I opened the glove compartment to retrieve my identification. I didn’t have to think about whether the cop might mistake that as going for a weapon. I didn’t have to tell him why I was opening the glove compartment. In fact, I never once wondered whether I would come out of that experience alive. I never once wondered whether I was going to be unfairly arrested. I never once thought, “I better be careful right now because I’m white.”

It’s hard to think about the fact that my non-white friends have to think about these things. I don’t know how to resolve that tension, and I don’t always know how to talk about these things with non-white people. What I’ve come to understand, though, is that my inability to know how to resolve the tension does not mean that I have the right to be silent about it. In his blog post, “This Is What We Mean When We Say It’s About Race,” Jelani Greenidge says, “When impassioned people of color are saying that a particular event or issue is about race, what we’re aiming to both uncover and dismantle is the racialized system of interlocking societal institutions that perpetuate these kinds of outcomes. We’re not necessarily trying to blame you for what happened, as much as we’re asking you to consider your situation, consider the reality around you, and try to make it better for those of us who, for a variety of reasons, aren’t getting a fair shake.” As a white person, I have the immense privilege of not even having to think about race if I don’t want to, which means, of course, that I have the equally immense privilege of remaining silent—because I don’t have to worry about whether or not I’m going to get a fair shake as a white person. (As a woman, that’s a bit of a different story—though as a white woman, I’m still not too worried.)

White silence, or what can also be viewed as “impartiality,” is “the logic of privilege, the logic of those who are actually protected and served by the system and are so safe to give or withhold judgment freely.” It is this white privilege that not only gives me tacit permission to be silent when I read the stories of injustices that people of color have suffered, but it is also white privilege that renders these stories invisible. White privilege means that the following stories, all of which happened since the killing of Michael Brown, might not be something white people know about: 

Kajieme Powell, a black man, is killed by police in St. Louis. Police fired 12 shots because Powell was displaying erratic behavior and approaching them with a knife. Those who knew Powell state that he was suffering from a mental illness.

TV-Producer Charles Belk is cuffed and booked outside of a pre-Emmy event for being a “tall, bald head[ed] black male,” the description of a suspect in a nearby robbery.

Kametra Barbour, a black mother with four children in her car, was pulled over and detained at gunpoint—apparently her burgundy red Nissan Maxima looked a bit too much like the beige Toyota they were looking for? (Or maybe they saw a black person driving and figured she must have done something wrong anyway.)

White privilege means that the names Eric Garner, John Crawford, Ezell Ford, and Dante Parker, all unarmed black men killed by police in the last month, may have been unfamiliar before Ferguson, and may even remain unfamiliar now. Read more about their stories here

These are just some stories. How many more have occurred that I don’t know about?

In the past year I’ve taken two seminary classes about race, and it’s made me think a lot about privilege and silence. Silence means that racism goes unchallenged, that these things might never change. Silence means that violence will continue to occur and be deemed normal. As I’ve wondered how to challenge the notion of privilege and its oft-accompanied silence, the first step for me was to begin asking some pretty hard questions, both of myself and of the institutions in which I have found myself. Here are some of them:

In the two years that I served in AmeriCorps, the team I served with was overwhelmingly white, and in the school site where I was placed, most of the teachers and principals were white. The communities that we served were diverse, but the leadership was not always very diverse. Why?

Seattle does not lack diversity, but in the past two years the spaces I’ve found myself in have been incredibly white. The private Christian university where I’m in graduate school is really white. The church I’ve been attending for the past four years is really white. Most of my friends are pretty white too. Why?

The neighborhood I live in isn’t all white, but the majority of the neighbors whose names I know are white. Why?

After the death of Michael Brown, various social media sites began listing the names of other black men and women who lost their lives to police brutality. Some of the names I knew, many I did not. Why?

I don’t know the answers to many of these questions, but by asking them, I’m breaking a silence. I’m confessing white privilege—privilege that I didn’t ask for and wish I didn’t have—and attempting to step into a different kind of reality than what I’ve known in the past. I’m confessing that in the ways that I have been silent in the past, I have been complicit in this oppressive structure of white privilege. I am confessing that, as a church and as a society, we need to begin a deeper process of listening to the stories of non-white people in our lives, to attempt to understand the history of racial injustice and oppression in our country, and to actively seek out opportunities to learn under the leadership of those whose experiences and perspectives are different from ours.

The following are some of the ways that I am going to attempt to live as a result of this confession, and are ways that perhaps can be useful to some of my fellow white friends.

1. Find and participate in environments that value diversity, especially nonprofit organizations that work in areas of community building, poverty relief, and education.

Find an organization in your community with a diverse population and volunteer there. Make a concerted effort to get to know people of a different race and/or culture than you, whose experiences may not have been as easy as yours. I know many people who thought they knew everything about how to solve poverty, welfare, and racism, without ever having worked with people who are affected by these realities every day, and when they began volunteering in nonprofit agencies, their perspectives drastically changed. It is problematic if someone thinks s/he knows how to solve the problem of poverty, but has never known people who are experiencing it. It is problematic if someone judges a person on welfare, but has never known anyone trying to live through that system. It is problematic for a person to claim that racism doesn’t exist in our country, when that person does not have any non-white friends from whom s/he can learn.

2. Find some news sources that consistently report on the experiences of non-white people in this country, and check those sources often.

After seeing the names of people of color who have been killed or profiled by police in recent months, I wondered why I did not recognize a lot of them. I realized that the news sources I relied on were not reporting these things. I have since started following The RootUrban Cusp, and ColorLines, where I’m sure it doesn’t take military tanks rolling down the streets of a suburban neighborhood for news to make headlines.

3. Learn some history.

In my undergraduate program, I read a book titled Long Memory: The Black Experience in America, which profoundly shaped the way that I think about the experience of black individuals in American society. The authors state in the preface, “Convinced that the ideas articulated by blacks in poetry, song, folklore, novels, cartoons, plays, speeches, autobiographies, newspapers, and magazines reflected their attitudes and significantly affected their actions in the political, social, and economic arenas, we have relied heavily on such material in developing our themes.” The inclusion of various art forms in this history book not only makes for an incredibly interesting read, but also reminds me that the people in these history books are real, their stories are real, their pain is real. Other books that have been recommended to me in recent days are The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander, Racial Domination, Racial Progress: The Sociology of Race in America by Matthew Desmond and Mustafa Emirbayer, and The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America by Khalil Gibran Muhammad. I hope you’ll join me in reading some of them.

4. Be willing to be unpopular.

This week I attended a local event in which artists, activists, columnists, and scholars presented on the events of Ferguson. One presenter urged participants that if they wanted to be a part of a movement of change, they needed to be okay with being unpopular. One of my professors, Brian Bantum, said something similar once—that affecting change in the area of racial justice means being “that person” who always brings up the topic of race, who is always willing to say something and challenge people when it is clear that a racial injustice is happening. As a white person, talking about race has not made me the most popular kid in the club. People have argued with me, put me down, called me an idiot, and made me feel both incredibly angry and “less than” all at once. Despite this, however, I have committed to speaking up. It’s too important. I would rather lose friends than stay silent when black men and women are being systematically oppressed and executed by the very systems that have served to keep me privileged. If I am silent, I am complicit.

As the church, in this moment, it is incredibly important to be a part of this conversation. It is important for white people in the church to listen to our non-white brothers and sisters, to learn from their experience, to come under their leadership. As Christena Cleveland notes, “The gospel calls us not only into individual faith in Christ, but also into the multi-racial family of God.” This means that white Christians must be intentional about forming relationships with non-white people, learning about the experiences of non-white people in our society and elsewhere, and working to build bridges across racial divides through education and raising awareness.

I will conclude with this, from Brenda Salter McNeil and Rick Richardson’s book The Heart of Racial Justice: How Soul Change Leads to Social Change. They state, “What should the church’s response be in a world being torn apart by prejudice, hatred, and fear? We believe it is imperative that the Christian church regain its integrity to address injustice. This will require that we relinquish the individualism and isolation that have been prevalent among evangelical Christians in the past, so that we can develop new models of racial reconciliation, social justice and spiritual healing. Our unity and reconciliation efforts could be the greatest witness of the church to the power of the gospel in the twenty-first century” (Kindle Location 148).

There is indeed hope. Hope is found in the body of Christ uniting as one to “loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yolk, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke” (Is. 58:6). White Christians—don’t be silent. Don’t be complicit. Ask questions. Listen. Become more informed. Don’t be afraid to start conversations, and don’t be afraid to be unpopular. This conversation is simply too important to ignore.

Ferguson: Conviction, Lament, Hope

I have been sitting on this blog post for about a week now. There are so many things that I want to say, so many thoughts whirling in a hundred different directions, and it’s been hard figuring out what to write. Many Christians are writing about racism in our country, urging white Christians to wake up to these realities if they haven’t already and listen to the voices of those who experience racism every day. Others are writing about practical action steps and encouraging churches not to simply say they stand with Ferguson, but to show they stand with Ferguson. While I hope this will contain some of those elements, I think in this moment I simply need to reflect on the turmoil and tension that was happening within myself, a white woman who grew up in a white, privileged family, as I slowly began to see the story of Ferguson unfold. What follows is a narrative, and I hope that it expresses something of what many of us are feeling as we try to figure out where to go from here.

*****

I’m on vacation. My family and I are in a cabin in the woods in the middle of nowhere. We’ve been here since Saturday, floating in plastic boats on the lake, driving into town to shop and eat potato pancakes and omelettes for breakfast, laying in the sun. On Tuesday August 12, I hear the name Michael Brown because my friend has posted a Facebook status that says, “Peace to the loved ones of Robin Williams, Michael Brown, and all who are suffering or gone in Gaza and Iraq.”

Michael Brown? I google the name. Multiple wikipedia pages come up, but nothing that looks like it could be what my friend has referenced. The rest of my newsfeed is inundated with Robin Williams and something called the ice bucket challenge. It’s late at night, I’m tired. If the name is important, I’m sure I’ll find out more later. I sleep.

The next morning my family is watching the news, and I find out who Michael Brown is. Another black boy killed by a cop. I can’t believe that it’s taken this long for me to hear about it, that my google search didn’t turn up anything more last night. I should have searched more. Some family members start commenting about the news report, and the message underneath the words indicates something I’ve heard many times before—“of course they’re going to try and make this about race.” I don’t like what they’re saying. I shout at them, I leave the room, I stew. I decide to try not to think about it. I make some Harry Potter jokes on someone’s Facebook. I read some theology books I’ve been meaning to read for awhile. I try to get further on my 2048 game. I go to breakfast with the family. I post a picture of myself on Facebook holding a waffle cone—the epitome of summer vacations in Wisconsin. That photo gets 42 likes, and including my own contributions, 21 comments.

That night I start seeing more articles on Facebook about Michael Brown and Ferguson. Protesting, riots, militarized police. I start liking the ones I find pertinent. This feels risky, because I have many friends on Facebook who I know won’t be sympathetic to Michael Brown. I don’t want them to criticize me, and I hate arguing so I don’t want them to confront me. Maybe if I just “like” things instead of “sharing” things people will leave me alone.

But things get worse, and conviction settles in. I begin to remember things I learned in seminary classes from professors Brenda Salter McNeil and Brian Bantum about the responsibility of Christians to speak up when witnessing racism and injustice. I remember the reasons I joined AmeriCorps, and ultimately the reasons I decided to enter seminary—to participate in God’s work of loosening chains that bind and dismantling systems of oppression and violence. I remember the first time I started caring about racial justice at 17 years old in AP Government—I remember how passionate I was, how outspoken I was, how I devoured information about the civil rights movement. I remember listening to Bob Dylan’s the “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and “Hurricane” over and over again. I wonder where that passion went.

I begin posting articles on Facebook, because finally I simply can’t not post. Over the next week and a half, 20 posted articles generates 29 likes. I wonder why a picture of myself with a waffle cone garners more attention than articles speaking truth about racial injustice in our country.

*****

It’s Tuesday. We’re driving to St. Charles, Missouri to visit more family. Over the next 36 hours I will see eighteen family members. We will eat meals together, go swimming, talk, go to a baseball game. It is difficult to get these many family members together at once, and this will be the only time I see them this year.

Ferguson is 14 miles away. Michael Brown has become personal to me, and this city has become something that I feel in my body, a deep weight that has settled in my chest. I protect that weight fiercely. I am personally affronted when I hear people criticizing the protestors or questioning Michael Brown’s character. I continually hear comments from people who simply wish that this would be over soon, or that the media would stop covering the events of Ferguson. I am so angry.

I feel profound tension. I have come to Missouri to visit family that I hardly get to see, to visit a grandfather who has just been moved into a nursing home. I need to spend as much time with them as I can. But I need to go to Ferguson.

It’s Wednesday. I have a three-hour window of free time. I take a cab to a bus stop, and then I’m travelling to Ferguson. It’s strange to me that I need to take a cab to get to the first bus station—to get in, to get out, means effort, means money, I think. On the first bus I’m the only white person. I feel my skin in a way that I haven’t in a long time. It’s good. I transfer to another bus. As we enter Ferguson I see stores with boards over windows and signs that say We ♥ Ferguson and Justice for Michael Brown. This bus is different than the first bus—no one is talking, it feels somber and heavy. I pray for the people on this bus, for the people in this community, for the people who are fighting every day to expose the injustice that has happened.

I get off the bus. I walk. It’s taken over an hour to get here. I need to be back in St. Louis soon because my family is going to a baseball game. I wrestle with whether to go because I want to be here, in this place, doing this work. I pray, I walk. It’s early afternoon, the street is quiet. I don’t want to leave. I stay as long as I can, then I get on the bus and begin the trek to Busch Stadium. I feel alone. I want to stay. 

The next day, I watch the video of Kajieme Powell’s confrontation with the police. Nine shots. Kajieme is killed, then cuffed. Feared even in death. I am shocked, though I don’t know why.

I should have stayed, I think. It wasn’t enough to just show up, to just pray. I should have stayed.

Later in the day, I see this:

photo 1

I am still angry at myself for deciding to attend the game instead of staying in Ferguson, but this feels like some sort of comfort from God. Even though I couldn’t stay, at least I went—and somehow, Ferguson was there at Busch Stadium too. There is not only history of Ferguson in this baseball team, but Ferguson is carried with me. My family looks at me and knows where I have been—my body, in this moment, is a reminder of Ferguson. There is continuity in this story despite the incongruity of these spaces, a stadium of cheerful fans and a city ridden with grief.

*****

I’m back in Seattle. I attend the Sunday church service at Quest, a church that is dedicated to racial reconciliation and freedom for the oppressed. I hear of the tangible ways this church is planning to support the people of Ferguson. I learn of future plans to stay committed to advocacy and education, to partner with other organizations and communities who fight this fight every day. I’m humbled at the opportunity to participate in this community. I’m hopeful.

peacevigil

Photo courtesy of Quest Church, Seattle.

There is a peace vigil at Westlake. Christians are invited to come and stand in solidarity with the people of Ferguson, to protest the killing of Michael Brown. I go. I don’t know anyone here, but we are all united in one purpose—to stand against injustice, to lament, to pray. We listen as pastors and leaders of the community speak truth. We sing African-American spiritual hymns. We pray. We chant “hands up, don’t shoot.” We hold signs that declare God’s truth. People stop and stare, take pictures, record videos. People stop and join us in prayer. The gospel is revealed, the gospel is declared, the gospel is heard. There is hope in that. There is hope in the body of Christ coming together for the sake of the gospel, committed to exposing and fighting against systemic injustices in our country and our world. There is hope, even in the profound tension of a life filled with the hope of Christ and the lament of fallenness. It is to this I cling as I move forward.

My vacation draws to a close on the day of Michael Brown’s funeral. I am reminded that there is no space of time in which we are immune to the painful realities of our world. Life is a profound tension of holding joy and sorrow in one body. Laughing with family members while mourning the loss of life in another’s. Attending a baseball game while people lament and protest injustice 14 miles away. Ice bucket challenges while police unleash tear gas on men, women, and children.

Can we hold these tensions within ourselves? Can we enjoy the life God has given us and still mourn? Is it possible to laugh, to play, to dance, and still stand against injustice and fight for freedom of the oppressed?

It is possible. I pray that we as a church, as one body of Christ, can figure out how to do it.

Today, I pray that we would let our sorrow encourage conviction, our anger drive us to action. I pray that God would use our lament for our own transformation, that we would not succumb to indifference or helplessness. I pray that we would not forget the joy we have in Christ, and that we would not forget to pray this joy over all people. I pray we would not forget Ferguson and Michael Brown, that we would not forget those who live with the realities of racial injustice every day. I pray that, as time moves forward, we would not let this become a mere shadow of our past. I pray that we will remember these days, that we will remain impassioned, that we as a church will continually stand for justice and peace, that we won’t forget. I pray that the joy in our lives would remind us of the reasons we fight—for the hope of Christ’s kingdom come. I pray that we will cling to the promise that God will wipe every tear from our eyes, that one day this world will no longer suffer under the weight of death and sorrow—and I pray that we will actively participate in God’s work to build this kingdom on earth. The call of Jesus requires it.

#PrayforSPU: Reflections on the tragic events at Seattle Pacific University

Screen Shot 2014-06-08 at 9.36.33 AMI don’t blog often, but if there is anything that warrants it, this is one of those times.

On June 5th my school experienced a tragedy that I never thought I would see firsthand. I remember watching the news for hours  during other school shootings, and I remember thinking to myself, “Thank God that hasn’t happened to my school.” With that kind of statement comes a sense of guilt, as well, because though it’s not true, you feel like you’re saying, “Thank God this has happened to someone else and not to me, not to my people.”

This has happened now. To me, and to my people.

I co-lead an undergraduate women’s Bible study, and Thursday night was going to be our last event of the year together. Our plan was to go to the beach, have a bonfire, eat good food and sing worship songs together as we celebrated the amazing year we have had. Another year of “making it through.” I went to pick up one of my small group women from the UW, and was parked outside of her house when I received a group text message. The first in the thread was from a friend I’d attended seminary with and is also a Seattle police officer. The message was simply, “You guys OK?” The next—“I’m okay, with friends in Bellevue.” The next—“We are in Bellevue, so we are okay. A bunch of people are in Kingswood [our seminary house] in lockdown.” The next—“Really good to know. I’m not working today, so I’m just getting scraps of info. Right, Kingswood, good place to be right now.” The next—“Glad you’re not working.”

My simple response—“What’s happening?”

What is happening? Why is there so much gun violence in this country? Why do the perpetrators all look the same? What are we doing to the boys and men in this country that makes them think this is a proper response to pain and suffering and anger? What systemic evil is in place that is so deeply ingrained and yet so carefully obscured, such that the response of the people who knew this perpetrator was simply, “He seemed like such a normal guy.” I can only ask, is this what normal has become in our country? As Anna Minard from The Slog states, “this isn’t a new story, and it’s not a new event, not an unusual event, not a surprising event. There was a double-shooting this last weekend. There was a dramatic spate of gun violence in the city just a month ago. This is the world we’ve built.”

“There’s been a shooting on campus,” my friends told me. My first reaction was that it must have been at the bank, or maybe the 7-Eleven. There’s no way there’s been an actual shooting on campus. That doesn’t happen at SPU.

Except that it did. This is exactly what was happening.

I started receiving text after text after text, “Are you ok?” My response was—“I’m okay, I wasn’t on campus.” The latter portion of this statement is what has been turning over in many of our minds as we’ve begun to process. “I wasn’t on campus.”

It seems like something gets let off the hook when you say that. “I wasn’t on campus” means “I’m fine.” But a very wise friend of mine blogged about this and reminds us, “even if we were all safe, we were never going to be ok. We aren’t ok. I’m not ok.”

I was not on campus. But that does not mean this event is distant to me. It does not mean that I’m “okay” even if my body has not been broken, even if most of my friends were not in that building.

I had a class in Otto Miller just this past winter. A psychopathology class, in fact. Every Monday night we gathered in that building for three hours. We spent our breaks in the lobby, sitting on couches, standing in foyers, laughing, talking, commiserating. We never sat in the lobby and thought, “What if a gunman came in at this very moment?” We never thought to ourselves, “I don’t feel safe.” We never thought that someday the floors of that hall would be stained with the blood of our schoolmates.

We never thought these things, but now we must think them. We will never again live in the luxury that our school is the safest place we can be. We will never again enter Otto Miller without remembering the moment when a life was taken, when so many other lives were threatened, when evil pressed against us and over us and onto us so profoundly.

Checking Facebook in these times is the best and the worst thing. Your newsfeed is filled with prayers for SPU, with people checking in as they huddle together in the various buildings around the school, waiting for the lockdown to end so they know the threat has been contained. “There’s been a shooting on campus, I’m safe, please pray for us” was the status of many. Amidst these statuses were updates from people in other places just living their daily lives as though nothing happened. Here’s a selfie, isn’t the outfit I’m wearing to the bar tonight great? On a hike, aren’t these mountains beautiful? Watch this video of my dog performing the new trick I taught him!

Don’t these people know what has happened? Don’t they know that our world has been profoundly rocked, altered, disfigured? I don’t care about your selfie right now, I don’t care about these mountains, I don’t care about your dog. Don’t you know what has happened? How can you carry on as though nothing has happened?

These thoughts are not fair, I’m the first to admit that. But it so perfectly exemplifies where we were at, and where we continue to be. The world keeps moving on around us, people keep praying but keep going to work, keep living their lives, keep taking their selfies. We all do it—even we do it—but at the same time that we try to continue living our lives, going to work, writing our final papers and taking final exams—still, this tension lives in us. How can I possibly write a final in the midst of all of this? How can I possibly go to work? How can I live as though this hasn’t happened, as though this isn’t happening?

I wasn’t on campus, and “oh good” people say. I wasn’t on campus, and “it’s so weird, I knew that was your school so I just had to text you and make sure you weren’t killed!” people say. I wasn’t on campus, and “I need you to fill out this paperwork for corporate,” people say.

I wasn’t on campus, and “I’m glad you’re okay,” people say. I wasn’t on campus and “Thank God,” people say. I wasn’t on campus, and “are your friends okay?” people say.

So much tension. So many things to balance. People I haven’t talked to in months checking in to make sure I’m okay, and yet people I love dearly who haven’t checked in at all. We have all experienced this, every one of us. We are all trying to figure out how to balance these things.

The plan for Thursday night was to celebrate with my Bible study women, to sing songs of worship, to laugh together, to talk about the year, about what we loved and what was challenging, about things in the future that we were looking forward to and things we were scared about. Instead, many of those women were in lockdown. One of them was in lockdown in Otto Miller. An evening that should have been spent in celebration at the beach was spent praying, singing, and lamenting together in churches and buildings and outdoor venues around campus. Instead of celebrating our victories, we grieved our losses. Instead of rejoicing that we “made it through,” we mourned the young man who didn’t. Instead of ending the year with a sense of closure, we are ending it with a sense of ambiguity, of displacement, of wondering how things will ever look and feel normal again. Instead of looking forward to saying goodbye to this school for the summer, we want to cling so desperately to it, and to the people who are such wonderful family, whether we know them personally or not.

And tomorrow is Monday, and we must take finals, and sit in classrooms and libraries, and walk past memorials and signs of “We will overcome.” We must live in this new reality, this tension, this sense that nothing is okay but we must continue to live our lives.

I am so profoundly thankful for my SPU family, for my professors, for the people who are continuing to support this community. I am grieving, but am so grateful for this school, for these people, for the body of Christ that has surrounded us, for the face of God shining upon us. We remain faithful, we remain hopeful, despite the fact that our world has been torn.

A Brief Response to Boston

This morning we reel from continued news of the tragedy of Boston. As updates about the events of the past few days and newly discovered information about the suspects continues to be revealed to the public, I am left with an impending sense of dread of the public response.

Inevitably, when our nation is hit with tragedy such as this, we are quick to point fingers, to place the blame, to argue that “if only we had done such-and-such none of this would have happened.” People will say we need gun control, and our Facebook newsfeeds and Twitter accounts will suddenly fill with arguments about 2nd Amendment rights. Unfortunately, most of these won’t be real conversations or debates about the issue. People will post propaganda on their walls and “like” memes that mock the opposing side’s argument in disparaging and crude ways. Recent news reports have stated that the two suspects are Muslim. I can only imagine the kind of comments that will arise from this information, but I’m imagining a lot of religious bigotry, racial profiling, and hate speech.

Here are three thoughts I am left with as I prepare to move forward in light of these terrible events, and I would encourage all of us to consider them:

1. The actions of these two men were terrible and wrong. But I grieve for their souls. They were wrong—their actions were evil—but they were human souls. I grieve the fact that they clearly did not know what a gift it is to have been created by God for the purpose of loving God and loving others. I grieve that they did not honor others as made in God’s image, and I grieve the fact that they clearly did not recognize this in themselves.

2. As we prepare for the inevitable arguments about gun control and religious/racial profiling, let us remember those who are victims and survivors of these events. Let us remember and pray for them, their families, and their communities. Let us make a conscious effort not to let these events turn into mere bolstering of our existing political or religious affiliations. Let us remember the people who have suffered, and let us honor them.

3. Remember that God is here. God is present and God cares. It is difficult to see where God is in all of this, and why God would let this happen. We will probably never know the answer to that question in this lifetime. But when tragedy happens, we are called to bear God’s light, to display the light and life of Jesus to all the world. We are meant to be people of peace, hope, mercy, and love. We might not be able to see God in this—but let us remember that we are temples of God, that when we are in the presence of another believer, we see Jesus’ face looking back at us. When we can’t see God, it is these moments when community is most important. We are God’s hands and feet in this world—so let’s act as Jesus did.

To help me remember these things, I will be meditating on the following verses in the coming weeks to remind myself of who God is calling me to be in response not only to these events, but also to the inevitable maelstrom of vitriolic comments that are sure to emerge:

James 2:19-20: Everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.

Romans 12:18: If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.

Matthew 5:43-44: “You have heard it said that it was, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Matthew 5:3-10

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”