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!

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