Sunday, January 10, 2016

Young Lives Matter II: The Growing Edge

Preached at First Congregational Church of Manhattan

It is my honor to preach in a church with a history of anti-slavery. Feeling our abolitionists ancestors sitting here with us, silently and invisibly encouraging us to keep on walking towards Zion, towards justice. And it is my honor to be called a youth worker, in this time. Because Whitney was right, the children are our future. I don’t take much of the Bible literally, but when Jesus said a little child will lead them, I take that passage as literally as possible. I get to spend almost everyday with the future leaders of the world, children so beautiful it makes my heart break. The young people in my life have given me the hope that there can be an end to the small mindedness and homogeneity of our thinking and decision making. They have found ways through the madness when we adults have given up. They have shown me their resilience against the incessant violence this world offers as they laugh and play through pain and loss. They have shown me what unconditional love is in their defence against any injustice, even injustices against perpetrators. The youth are what keep me going when I want to give up.

It’s a general rule in scripture, especially in a letter like we read from Paul to Timothy, that they are fairly reactionary texts. Therefore it should be assumed that if Paul says let no one despise you for your youth then his reasoning must be because the youth in Timothy’s church were looked down upon. This should come as no surprise, some of our laws may have changed, but youth in our society are still an ignored and misused class. There are two roots to why I find myself being a youth advocate. The first is because of my parents, who are Quaker, who raised me with the Quaker belief that all voices and experiences are equal. They taught me that there is truth and G-d in every person, and thus the truth of even the youngest child was treated with seriousness and contemplation. If during Quaker worship a child were to speak and give a message, everyone would be attentive. And so I knew I had a truth and that G-d was in me at a very young age. The other side of my experience growing up though, the firey anger that makes me so passionate about youth work, was that I knew what it was to be despised for being young, for being Black and for being male. I knew it from teachers, from classmates, from business owners and from police officers. It has been my work to make sure that no young person ever feels that hatred from me, but rather that they know they have a protector and friend who knows their beauty and wants to help them share it and bring it out.

Sometimes though, sometimes that beauty can only be released through the hard places, through those places that make our hearts break. The late Maya Angelou once said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” I’d like to think that there are no stories of agony for me to share, but the truth is there are many, and that truth resides in them. Early in my life I was less aware of the difficulties I inherited in being a young Black male, because the love and respect from my parents and religious community worked as an innoculation against the dis-ease of the lies of superiority and inferiority. They helped me to see everyone as being as equally worthy of love as I was. But still I found that I was never fully immune to what society saw me as.

I remember being a young child, maybe six or seven, watching some Michael Jackson music video with my cousin. Naturally we were confused by his “transformation”, and my cousin turned to me and said, “You know when we grow up we’re going to be White.” I don’t remember what I said in response or if I said anything, I just remember the feeling I had. The feeling like life was going to be so much better when I got older if this was true. I don’t know how I had this feeling at such a young age, all I know was that if I saw a Black youth on tv it was either because some nice White family had adopted them onto their sitcom or because he was being portrayed as the very reason that America wasn’t great anymore. He was never the superhero, never the knight who saves the princess, never the kid who got to make a wish and become Batman for a day. He was the real life boogeyman. Not the supervillain with the sinister laugh, no, the young Black man on tv was the guy who would actually steal your wallet and kill you, in real life. I did not want to be the boogeyman, I wanted to be the hero.

In my last sermon I pointed out how Jesus knew what it was to be despised. How from the moment of his birth the government had mandated that all Jewish children under the age of two in the town of Bethlehem be murdered. This hatred for the Rabbi Jesus continued into his adulthood as he was forced to hide his ministry, but he could not hide his ethnicity, and it was clear that he was also despised in no small part because he was Jewish. To make matters worse, Jesus had the habit of going into places he wasn’t wanted, and leading people to stand up against systems with intricate power structures. I’m sure that Jesus was used to walking into a room and seeing people roll their eyes or turn their back to avoid any Jesus trouble. This is one of the reasons I believe that Jesus beckoned children towards him, he noticed his disciples rolling their eyes with the same disdain. As a child I’m sure Jesus had many questions about why he and his people were despised, but by adulthood Jesus knew and fought to innoculate both the youth and his disciples against it.

By high school I didn’t really need anyone to explain to me why it was that people rolled their eyes when I entered the room. My best friend in high school was a quarter filipino and three quarters white. I remember one day his mother took us out to roller skating rink in South Jersey. Unfortunately while we were there she noticed that some of the money was gone from her wallet. I don’t remember the accusation, all I remember was the apology, when she told me she shouldn’t have blamed the Black kids at the rink. But I also remember the disdain in the sigh with which she said it, as if she was more upset that she had to take back her racial prejudice, as if me being Black and not a thief was an inconvenience to her beliefs. I don’t remember her accusation because the accusation was an expectation. By that point in my life not only had I been openly followed in retail stores, I’d been denied service and entry while youth of different skin colors were admitted. By that point in my life I knew that it didn’t matter that I attended a Christian high school, went to youth group twice a week, led the worship band for chapel and never missed Sunday worship even if my Christian punk band didn’t get home until 2 am Saturday night, the local ice cream shop still wouldn’t hire me because I would make the customers “feel uncomfortable” and I knew that most of the girls in my church weren’t allowed to date me because their families didn’t approve of my race.

We know that Jesus was despised when he spoke out. But we also know that he didn’t have to speak out in order for his oppression to be real. In the mock trial before his lynching, Jesus really doesn’t say much. It’s his presence, his promise, that there will be an accounting for the subjugation of the Jews, that the Empire will fall. We also know now the hell that youth catch daily in this country at the hands of racism in law enforcement and court systems. It is often not because of something said or done, but because of what is represented. In high school I never spoke out against racism, never led marches, I didn’t even curse. I was about as good as they got. But I was a reminder of the evil that had been and continues to be done to my people, a reminder that some day America must reckon with that evil. And my young age meant that America had many more years of looking into that mirror, into that reckoning. Our youth are that reminder today. They remind us that we haven’t ended racism or even segregation. They remind us that we didn’t deal with the real questions of sexuality and gender. They are reminders that we have failed the poor and the outcasts. It’s why there is an epidemic of gay and trans suicides in our schools and why bullies can literally get away with rape and murder. It’s why there is malnutrition and starvation in the richest nation in the history of the world. It’s why Black boys are the demographic most likely to get suspended from preschool and locked in prisons.

It took me until I was 21 years old to realize that Jesus was among the despised people. I took a class with a professor named Sudarshan Kapur who came from India to study and teach the Civil Rights Movement. In his classes I realized the different ways that Black people had been innoculated to survive the horrors of being stolen from their homeland and forced into chattel slavery. I learned in particular how Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. had his own source of strength and inspiration through the Black teacher and mystic that he called his pastor, Dr. Howard Thurman. Dr. Thurman wrote many books, among them was one the one that King carried with him in his travels called Jesus and the Disinherited. The book was about how Jesus spoke for the oppressed and the disinherited, those whose livelihoods had been stolen, because Jesus, as a Jew, was of the disinherited. I knew then, that not only was I of the disinherited people, but that if I walked with the knowledge of all of those who were in my company, then I could affect change just as they had.

After a college career spent trying to address privilege and oppression in my university, I had the opportunity to go with a group of high schoolers to Nairobi Kenya in a cultural exchange. This was before violence had erupted there and so things were relatively quiet as far as destabilized African nations go. But still there was the undercurrent of the AIDS epidemic, an epidemic that to this day creates an orphan every 18 seconds. While I was in Nairobi I had the opportunity to visit an orphanage, filled with children with AIDS who had either lost their families to the virus or were thrown out of their homes because of their positive status. These were some of the most despised children on all of the planet, yet one small boy’s smile caught my attention and convinced me there were more important concerns than the droning of our boring tour guide. The child beckoned me and I followed him to the playground. As we walked he told me that if they can catch the virus before the age of 5 then the effects might be reversed and children with AIDS can live long lives. I asked him when his status was detected, he told me at age 8 and my heart began to break. But then I looked at him, placed him on my back, and we danced in the African sun. Far too soon our time was up, the group leader called us onto the bus and my shoulders slumped and my eyes filled with tears as I trudged towards our ride, when I felt a small tug at the back of my head. I turned around and saw this small boy, with a grin across his face, holding in his hand a dreadlock from my hair. It was my innoculation against ever allowing any of our children and youth to be despised. As I collapsed into tears I knew in that moment that my job was to create love and joy in the lives of all youth.

The truth of the matter is, when youth lead, they will face hatred. It is what happens when we stand up against injustice. As we come up to MLK Day it’s important to remember that contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t just White people who wanted to maintain the status quo that hated King, though that was the majority, it was also black people who didn’t want to ruffle feathers, and who were also the vast majority. How did he survive so much hatred? Through the innoculations of his family, his community, and his pastor, Dr. Thurman.

That is the beauty that I get to experience working with youth. I get to pass on the innoculations. The innoculations of Jesus, that they can kill your body but not your spirit or your message. The innoculations of Dr. King, that you are somebody who can change the world for the better, no matter if you are the child of slaves or you are the child of slave masters. The innoculations of my parents, that EVERYbody’s voice matters.

I’m going to end with the words of Dr. Thurman, but before I do I want to reiterate that my message is simple, youth, it is your job to lead, and adults, it is our job to make room for them to lead and to innoculate them with the belief that all of us, no matter what, are worthy and equal. And lastly, it is the job of us all to look towards what Dr. Howard Thurman called, The Growing Edge

Look well to the growing edge. All around us worlds are dying and new worlds are being born; all around us life is dying and life is being born. The fruit ripens on the tree, the roots are silently at work in the darkness of the earth against a time when there shall be new leaves, fresh blossoms, green fruit. Such is the growing edge! It is the extra breath from the exhausted lung, the one more thing to try when all else has failed, the upward reach of life when weariness closes in upon all endeavor. This is the basis of hope in moments of despair, the incentive to carry on when times are out of joint and men have lost their reason, the source of confidence when worlds crash and reams whiten into ash. The birth of the child--life’s most dramatic answer to death--this is the growing edge incarnate. Look well to the growing edge!

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Rest In Love Tamir Rice

I preached today in Topeka, it was an experience. Let me just say that Kansas is still bleeding. I didn’t expect to be preaching at a church that Westboro Baptist pickets, mostly for their open and affirming status. But it reminded me of the deep wounds around the slavery divide in this state that still linger in ideology. The comment after church by one of the parishioners that my sermon was the most depressing she’d ever heard and that I should have said more good things about cops since there was law enforcement in the congregation made me second guess myself. That was until I realized why I had invited friends and loved ones in the first place. They all looked into my eyes and reminded me of my purpose and all of the prayers of friends and family around the nation gave me the strength I needed to preach my sermon. I hope you don’t find it too depressing, but it’s a commemoration to a 12 year old, so it’s not supposed to be happy, it’s supposed to be inspiring. And I hope you realize that I love all people and that our fight is not against the cops, or the right wing or Republicans, it’s against oppression of all peoples. But I’ll let you decide for yourself what you see. Peace and love.

Young Lives Matter

Happy New Year! As we come out of the Christmas season I see, spiritually, reason to celebrate. It was said that in the birth of Jesus, The Divine became human so that humans could become divine. I also know, for some, the time of Christmas can be difficult, it can remind us of the good and the bad from our pasts, it can remind us of how petty and materialistic we have become, it can remind us of how ridiculous and sometimes scary religious zealots can be. But for me, Christmas has always meant time with family and loved ones, the joy of sharing and receiving gifts, and eating some seriously good grub. And on a spiritual level, it reminds me that even in the dead of winter, when things are at their coldest and darkest and sometimes most depressing, there is a light, a little child is born, a mother nurses and swaddles him, and an anxious young man plots how he is going to be the greatest father he can be. It is a beautiful story told again and again, yet somehow the happy moments are so very brief. After that child is born, after the parents get their bearings, they receive news more disastrous than can even be imagined, their precious baby boy is a target for the government, they want him dead, and the only way to save him is to go on the run, and to leave all of his peers behind to be slaughtered, assassinated, in their second year of life. We are often taught that the Greatest Story Ever Told has the most tragic ending, but truly, it was tragic from the very beginning. It begins with the genocide of innocent baby boys. I’d like to think that Jesus, the one who reached out to young people when others were trying to shoo them away, was aware of the tragic circumstances of his birth, and was all the more sensitive to children because of it. This is something that Jesus and I have in common, we tend to think that young people matter.

That’s one of the reasons I got my nickname, Baby Pastor. So let me tell you about this Baby Pastor that stands before you. When I was a student minister in Oakland, California, I was showing some classmates the church where I was an intern and we ran into one of the homeless who was living on our steps. She said, in a slightly drunken drawl, that there was a pastor of the church, but that I was the baby pastor. My classmates laughed and the name stuck after everyone around me realized the combination of my cheeky sense of humor and the fire that I had in honoring and protecting the lives of young people. Even after I became the pastor of that church, I spent the majority of my time taking care of youth in an after school program in East Oakland, notorious for its poverty, gun violence and forced prostitution. This passion for the lives of the young is one of the reasons I chose to attend seminary at Pacific School of Religion, because I knew the poor care that religious leaders took of my soul during my youth, and I wanted to learn how to provide spaces where young people could question themselves and their traditions without persecution.I believe that the most important lesson I learned in seminary was that in every passage in the Bible, and indeed in every moment in history, there are interpretations of liberation and interpretations of oppression. This is an idea that has never left me.

Another important fact of me that you may have noticed, is that I am a Black man. I used to think that this was an insignificant characteristic, being a Christian who believed in no divisions, but it does mean something. It means I have an experience and know something of necessity. I do not know everything about what it means to be Black, I have not experienced everything that every Black person has experienced. But I do know what it’s like to have to fight to see my beauty through all of the ugly ways Black boys and men are portrayed in this society, and I know what it is to feel hatred and experience oppression from others for no other reason than the color of my skin combined with my gender expression. Why is this relevant to a sermon in a church of G-d? Because the church of G-d has often been seen as being indifferent to issues of racism and the livelihoods of the young after they have been born. In my church in Manhattan, KS, every time we post a sign that says Black Lives Matter, it gets torn down. The other day someone came into the church to question why we thought it necessary to hold an anti-racism training on MLK Weekend, because we’re a church, and churches aren’t supposed to care about racism. Something in that story is missing.

This is the time of Christmas, a celebration of the joy of birth, with mangers and animals and wise men who are sometimes ⅓ darkskinned. We “fa-la-la-la-la”, and where bright colors and then party like it’s 1999, or we sit sadly because we wish for a happier time or those Christmases that are portrayed in movies and television. But always central is that precious baby Jesus, or that big screen tv that you want for Christmas, depending on your mood. That’s what we reach for. To retell the story, even though they didn’t reach the inn, the baby was born healthy anyway. Why is it that we forget to ask the question, what happened after the birth? A little family, too poor to afford shelter during labor, has a baby boy. A powerless child under the boot of an empire. An empire so afraid of losing their power that they go to the hometown of this child and kill every Jewish baby boy under the age of two. An act so murderous, so despicable, that the family of Jesus has to become refugees in the country of Egypt. Why don’t we hear this part of the story? Because it’s just a legend, mythological, perhaps. Or perhaps it’s because in an Empire of millions, the story of the murder of 20 possible boys in a town of 1,000 just wasn’t really that important. Perhaps it was because they were Jews, and how many millions of stories of murdered Jews have we not heard? But this is the Christmas story, this is the whole story, and what happens when we forget to tell the whole story? We continue to play it out, not knowing how to protect the world from oppression.

When we don’t tell the whole story we forget that Jesus lived in the world of Palestine and Syria, that he was on the run from the authorities, that he experienced a political assassination through crucifixion, so public it exceeded our own country’s lynchings. We forget that Jesus was marked by the color of his skin and the names in his prayers. We forget to tell our whole stories or even to ask about the details.

Instead the stories we are told are, “A black person with a gun was shot and killed by the police in Cleveland.” This fits into the story that what police do is use their power and authority to protect the public from violence. What happens when we fill in the details? When we find out that Ohio is an open carry state, when we find out that the Black person was a 12 year old named Tamir Rice, when we find out that the gun was a toy, when we find out that the cops shot him within 2 seconds of exiting their car, when we find out that one of the police officers who shot him failed the police academy because they were emotionally unstable. What happens when all these facts are given and we find out that the Grand Jury still decided to acquit the officers? What happens is that the world starts to look a little bit more like an Empire, and I start to question if it’s better for our young to flee to Egypt rather than face genocide.

Part of my story as the Baby Pastor is that I get to bounce children on my knee to make them smile, I get to tell them it’s o.k. when they fall, I get to laugh when they make bad jokes, I get to squeeze them when they need a hug. The other part of my story is that as a person of color, I know that children are often times targets of violence, and that children of color will need certain information to keep them alive and to keep them sane. I’d think that since the time of Jesus we’d learn that it is barbaric to murder children, I’d think that since the time of Emmett Till we’d learn that there is no reason that a child should be tortured and murdered, especially not for the crime of whistling at a white woman. But I find myself searching for the words that will keep young people of color safe. If you put your hands up they won’t hurt you? Mike Brown. If you stay behind these gates you’ll be safe? Trayvon Martin. If you surrender the weapon you’re playing with they’ll see it wasn’t real and let you keep playing? Tamir Rice. Don’t worry if they take you into custody, you’ll be fine, I’ll just come pick you up? Sandra Bland. If the police jump out with guns blazing, run if you want to live? Alan Blueford. I’d like to say that girls don’t experience police violence, but I know it’s not true. I know that at any moment the life of people of color can be snuffed out, and what can I do about it? I’m not sure if you’ve noticed but there are a number of people out there who do not want Black people, especially Black boys and men, to survive, and a number of those people carry guns, some with badges. I’d like to tell you it’s getting better, but it’s not, it’s getting worse, far worse. Herod has it out for us, and even though the spotlight is on his genocidal ways, the deaths keep mounting.

So when we continue on with the Jesus story, we have our Christmas, and then we have the story of Jesus having to flee as a baby because the government wants him dead, but Jesus returns. I’m going to assume there were good moments, I’m going to assume it because Jesus tries to spread those good moments to others, even the young, and it makes me think that he must have had some good young moments and he wants all young people to have those moments. But I must assume something else, something that transpired between him and his father Joseph around the time that he was deciding whether or not it was time for him and his family to return to Israel. Before that day came, Joseph would have to have a talk with his little boy, his sweet little boy. He would have to look him in the eyes and say, “Son, I love you, I’m with you, I’m your father and you’re my son and I’m proud of you. You are good and strong. We are going back to Israel, it’s where you were born, it’s where your people were born, it is a holy land, but there are people there who will not see you as holy. They will want to hurt you. They will want to destroy you and your culture. You have to watch out for these people, or you will die a horrible death.” I know that Joseph would have to have some conversation like this with Jesus, because you can see it, when he performs a miracle, when he forgives sins, he says, “Tell no one,” he flees before they can find him, and string him up. Because he’s a Jew who subverts their authority by his mere existence.

This is the story that I hold in my heart as Baby Pastor. You see as Baby Pastor, my work is to love the youth. How beautiful it would be if all loving them meant that I got to make them happy all the time. But that’s not the whole story. The whole story that loving youth means is that at some point in their development I have to tell them that young people in this country are murdered for nothing. I don’t mean I have to because G-d told me to, or because I can’t keep it in because it excites me to tell it. No, it tortures me to. I have to because I want them to live.
When I was in Oakland, teaching young people, the news told me a story. It told me that a young Black man had shot at them on a street corner, striking one of them in the foot, and so they killed him. But his mother told me the whole story which was later corroborated by an investigation. Alan Blueford was 17, about to graduate from high school. He stood on a street corner when the cops came out of their cars with their guns drawn. He ran, they shot at him, one police officer shooting himself in the foot. When they caught him he screamed, “I didn’t do anything,” and they shot him in the back as he lay on his stomach. No indictment. This was blocks from the school I worked at. If I didn’t tell my youth the whole story, all they would know is that people in their neighborhoods hate and fear the cops, they wouldn’t know why or if it was justified. But most importantly, they wouldn’t know that there is more than just hatred and guns pointed at them just for being, they wouldn’t know that people love them just for being.

I am Baby Pastor, but soon I will also become father Joseph, and I will get to hold my very own baby Jesus or baby Mary. I can’t wait for that joy that exceeds any big wheel that I always wanted for Christmas. But it’s not the whole story. The whole story is that I’m afraid of having the talk. Not the sex talk, I’m fine with that. I mean the talk where I have to explain that someone might hate them for the color of their skin. I mean the talk where I have to figure out what to do with the fact that I don’t want anything bad to happen to them, but it might and I’ll be powerless to stop it. I’ve seen too many fathers and mothers crying over their dead children whose murderers get exonerated to believe otherwise. One of the main reasons I moved to Kansas from Oakland was because I knew I wanted a family one day, and I didn’t want my child to be another police murder. But there is not a state in this country where the police don’t murder. I’m not just talking about the murder of young gang bangers. It’s the murder of the innocent, the mentally disabled, the schizophrenic, the suicidal, grandmothers, bystanders. But I refuse to let that be the end of the story. They must know that love is stronger than hate. They must know it because we must live it.

That’s why I say to you all Happy New Year. Because it’s the New Year it means that we don’t just get to start over, we have to start over, and this requires the opposite of forgetting what happened before and starting with a clean slate, rather it requires that we hold what has happened before in our hearts. On New Years of 2009 I was in Oakland, I didn’t see Oscar Grant, father of a little girl, get shot in the back and killed on a BART Train platform while he was laying on his belly and he was handcuffed. But I felt the city seeth and burn, I felt the sting of tears flood the city afterwards. And here we are in 2016, the first year that a tally has been kept of police murders. 1,134? And our government doesn’t even keep count? That means we have to. We have to tell the whole story. Tell the story of Tamir Rice, of Sandra Bland, of Michael Brown, of Alan Blueford, of Oscar Grant. Tell the whole story, don’t skip the part that they were unarmed, that they were people, that they were beautiful. Tell the whole story of Jesus. Not just the pretty baby, but the murder of infants, the hiding in the shadows, the oppression. And don’t just think that these stories need to be told to the targeted and the oppressed.

For one thing, if Black people are the only ones to raise their voices when a Black person is murdered, the police will never stop murdering us. If women are the only ones who march when women are being raped, sexual violence will never end. If trans folk are the only ones who commemorate the murder of a trans person, trans people will keep getting killed. But for another, in the world of the Empire, at some point all of us can be a Roman oppressor and all of us can be Jesus of Nazareth. If the Romans had stood up for Jesus and against the oppressive governmental disgust of crucified lynchings, then maybe Jesus might not have been murdered. In any given situation we can use our power and our bodies to stop a lynching. And why should we? Because young lives matter.

At some point every person of color must confront their fear and figure out what they will do with it, I know. And at some point every person of color who has or knows a child of color must figure out how they will help that child survive racism. I refuse to let my unborn child live their lives in the crosshairs of racism. I need you all to refuse with me, to not allow this world to crucify another Jesus. If you will do this with me, say amen.