Sunday, September 17, 2017

My Encounter with a Stranger From Somalia. U.S. Citizenship?

The man was sitting outside Barnes and Noble, having just removed from a paper sack his newly purchased guide to taking the U.S. Citizenship test book. I, sitting across from him, noticed his slender black face, and his fingers turning the many pages. The book was thick. He was quiet, but I sensed he was overwhelmed.
      It would be an intrusion to interrupt, but something in me compelled me to speak anyway. “I wish you well,” I said. He looked up, smiled, and said, “Thank you.” We were both quiet again. But then I asked, “Where are you from?” “Somalia,” he said, and then added, “There are so many questions in this book. How will I know which ones they will ask me?”
     “You won’t know which ones, but they won’t ask all of them. Don’t let the book overwhelm you.” Not knowing how much of what I was saying he understood, I continued anyway, because his eyes indicated he did. “I suggest you read one or two pages every day. Then you will gain understanding and confidence.” He smiled broadly and replied, “Confidence, yes, confidence.”
     Now we were engaged in conversation—at least as we were able, two strangers, sitting on benches outside of Barnes and Noble. He was waiting for his brother who was still in the store, already a U.S. citizen.  I was waiting for my husband, also still in the store.  The man had been in the U.S. four years. I said I had not been to Somalia, but had been to four countries in Africa, including Kenya. He smiled and said that was near Somalia.  Then he asked where I was from.  I said, “Iowa.”  He knew that was nearby, but asked further, “But where are you from?”  I then realized, that he assumed I, even though a white woman with a midwestern U.S. accent, must be originally an immigrant if I were so positively interested in his becoming a citizen, he being from one of the 6 countries with a Muslim majority population on Trump’s travel ban list.

     Just then his brother came out from the store and the man immediately told him about this woman sitting across telling how to study a little bit of the book every day so that he could become confident to take the citizenship test. He was excited now.  Then my husband came out and introductions were made all around. The conversation was short. We all had places to go, but before he left I asked about any family he might have still in Somalia. His face turned sad.  “My children. . . ”  He was determined to take the citizenship test now, even though it would be hard, but the chances of seeing his children again anytime soon would be harder, and all four of us knew it.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

All Those Boats

“Other boats were with him.” (Mk. 4:35) Day after day seeing all those boats of ordinary citizens in the Texas flood waters, this one sentence from Mark has kept ringing in my head. This is the biblical story of the great windstorm and the waves. We’ve seen the water rising all week. And I see the disciples: “they took Jesus with them in the boat, just as he was.” 
       Who could not be moved this week by all those boats taking people “just as they were,” into their boats to be rescued? They were taking Jesus. And all those other boats were with him. We usually focus on the rest of the story, of Jesus calming the sea and of Jesus identity.  But, for today, I simply see, all those other boats, and Jesus.

Friday, August 25, 2017

When to Not Take Responsibility Alone

In Hillary Clinton's new book, she reflects upon the things she could have done differently to have not lost the 2016 presidential election. She goes further to say the responsibility for that will weigh on her for the rest of her life. Knowing what we know now, all of that responsibility does not rest on her alone. Moreover, often women so quickly "take responsibility" for things.

I know I am socially conditioned to say, "I'm sorry," even when a situation had nothing to do with me. The point is, I see such a contrast between her feeling such a weight of personal responsibility and Trump's propensity to blame any and everyone else for every and anything else.

How quickly, one by one, his blaming and shaming take people down--and out. What Hillary took from him while still smiling and remaining calm, day after day and month after month, was utterly amazing.

What can each of us do now, to resist being either intimidated by or obsessed with his clever bullying and pay close attention to the damage being done every day at deeper levels lest the responsibility remain on all of us for years to come?

We live in the Forgiveness of Christ and therefore are called to be ministers of reconciliation. But that goes beyond just saying, "We want peace among divisions in this country." We must, as Hillary says in her book, dare to turn around and call out a bully to his face. We cannot do this alone. Together we need to pay attention to the issues. We cannot let one person take the fall and the rest of us become spectators. The damage being done to so many each day through policies and presidential executive orders and justice department decisions is huge. We are called to act responsibly together so that we as a whole people do not lose our collective democracy.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

What Can One Person Do?

In the face of overwhelming national and global issues of racism, economic inequality, nuclear war, immigration, individuals are left wondering what their personal vocation can be. A lifelong friend of mine, Phyllis Kester, living in Denver, wrote me recently asking this very question. Here is our exchange of letters:

Dear Norma,

Our household subscribes to the Sunday edition of The New York Times.  So this morning I sat down to immerse myself in my favorite section:  "The Sunday Review" (the editorial section.)  I'm speaking of the Sunday, Aug. 6 edition.

Two of the in-depth articles resonated powerfully.

The Policies of White Resentment, by Carol Anderson

The Walls We Won't Tear Down,  by Richard  Kahlenberg

For years - I've been drawn to the challenges of institutionalized discrimination.  And for years,  I've been overwhelmed about what one person can do constructively to work for change.  

So I decided to share my questioning mind-heart with you.  What DOES one person do in constructive response?   No doubt you could write a book on the question.

Your loving & head-scratching friend,  Phyllis

Those questions are so important, even more important after Trump’s provocative remarks and Korea’s response, all leading us closer to nuclear war.  Burton and I also saw the movie, “Detroit” this week.  The issues are huge, complex and not getting any easier.  I share your anguish over what to do as one person about institutionalized discrimination and systemic racism and all the isms. 

So I could ask you the same question. "What can one person do?"

I do know that we still have a voice.  We have more power than so many millions.  And, at least for the moment we still have time.  What are your possibilities, Phyllis?  The press is under attack but we still can write letters to the editor that can be printed. There is social media.  I have Twitter and Facebook and blog avenues.

There is the power of one. But I think the power of groups, even small groups is more effective. Tell me what are the possibilities in Denver for you and others, Phyllis?  I think about this here in Iowa.  I/we have only so much energy, so how do we choose where and when to use it?

Personally I have been thinking about pastors and often the gulf between them and their congregations.  A pastor often serves a congregation where people have very different views from one another  How to you preach/minister there effectively?  I may want to spend time and energy listening to such pastors and helping them in their roles. 

I don’t know, Phyllis, but I do know that your questions and mine are the same. I pray God will help us discern our vocations at such a time as this

Dear Norma,

You are kind to respond to my musings-questions.  I appreciate your categories of voice - small groups - place.

For years, I've contributed financially (as a member) to the Southern Poverty Law Center.  I was initially introduced to this essential "small group" by one of my heroines, Barbara Jordan (Texas Rep. to U.S. Congress.)

For years, I've participated as a "citizen lobbyist"-- in person or usually by email or phone.  In the 1980's, I was advocating for Salvadorans & Guatamalans through the U.S. Sanctuary Movement.  In Denver now I'm part of the Colorado Faith Communities for Gun Safety.  

For years, I've written PBS and NPR about specific issues.  In the 1990's, Jim Lehrer actually wrote back.  To my amazement,  he implemented my suggestion for an educational reporter.

Currently, I'm overjoyed at the new dean of St. John's Cathedral.  However, I'm patiently moving at his pace - - - to explore where to "come down together" in unison.

Off the wall - - I have the most amazing, direct, impromptu conversations on the Colfax bus in Denver (the most diverse bus in the city) and with my LYFT drivers.  One of my LYFT drivers was/is a pastor of an African-American church in the Denver area.  We talked intensely for 10 minutes-driving-together about the challenges of church integration in the face of neighborhood segregation. These conversations have the feel (to me) of mountain streams with kayakers in unpredictable interaction.

The power of the arts is not to be underestimated.  We have a poet laureate in Denver who intentionally rides the Colfax bus from beginning-to-end - - as his muse for writing relevant poetry.   My brother-in-law Terry Kester (now in Wilsonville, Oregon) is a life-long theater director/producer.  He has long influenced me about the power of drama to speak to the heart concerning the most knotty (and evil)  of our communal problems.   I recently spent a week in Wilsonville & was awed by a one-man dramatization of Clarence Darrow.  The entire performance focused on Darrow's representation of legal clients who were powerless (financially & culturally.)  Darrow was a one-man Southern Poverty Law Center.

Volunteering at the St. Francis Center for the homeless seems like both a service and critical education in my limited life.  It is also the most remarkable witness of blessings - given & received - among the guests & hosts. 

I stand in profound appreciation of your engagement with clergy who are with congregations with divergent views.  Such a juxtaposition seems like a fulcrum of "our knottiest problems."

May God guide us indeed on our uncharted journey.

Your loving friend,  Phyllis


Monday, July 17, 2017

Fifty Years After the Detroit Riots

Fifty years ago I wrote this letter about the Detroit riots which had begun on a quiet Sunday morning, July 23, 1967. Our family lived in the heart Detroit then where Burton served as pastor of Gethsemane Lutheran Church. Look back with me as we approach the 50th anniversary this coming Sunday. Excerpts from the letter written after Detroit burned:
     “The word ‘Detroit’ has become a synonym for devastation. We can hardly bare to look at the heart-tugging pictures of the children among ruins or listen to the reports of our ‘All-American City.’ Millions around the country spectate and speculate and do not understand. A burned Detroit is horrible; a burned Detroit without receiving the message people are crying out with their very lives is a tragedy.
     “Sunday night the words of Compline, “fear and terror of the night,’ became real. We smelled the thick smoke, even though the media had guarded news of the riot half a day to avoid panic. We heard one hundred blocks were now engulfed in flame. Then a curfew was imposed on the city. By morning it was 175 square blocks and still spreading.
     “Concordia College in Ann Arbor opened their doors to house ‘refugees,” but going meant leaving others on our block who refused to leave their homes and possessions for fear of looting. Should we go or stay? Going meant my husband need not worry about his 8 ½ month pregnant wife and 4-year-old son so he could move more freely about the neighborhood. We convinced only 5 women with 7 children to leave. I then understood the reluctance of people to leave home in other disasters. We made our way through side streets because the expressway was under gunfire.
      “Being away meant frustration that we could not fight the fires or bandage the broken. We returned in a few days. The riots continued. Being able to say we have been through the biggest riot in American history was not the point. I need to write to you because even more difficult is realizing that the National Guard and the federal troops called in had their guns aimed at us, the people of Detroit. Law enforcement was protecting the stores. There were endless editorials in the days after, blaming the rioters. One man even said that the riot was started so that the federal government would pour money into the area. Thereby this man planted seeds of more hated and division in the hearts of Americans. Such words merely harden the hearts of hardened, self-righteous Americans, making us unable to repent for the sickness we, too, have caused.
     “Let’s try to imagine what may cause looting, what makes it especially tantalizing in a materialistic age. It is not a matter of the “good” and the “bad,” of the “lawful and the “lawless.” The rioters took goods from stores at the price of sweat and blood of store owners. However, we buy items from another country at the expense of work of underpaid people there. We get a ‘good deal.’ We exploit secretly and have our prestige promoted. The price Detroiters paid for one ‘bargain day’ was jail. We have never paid that price for our daily exploitation.
     “The ‘we/they’ continued. Before the ashes were cool, ‘sight-seeing tours’ from the suburbs began. I was sickened to see traffic jams through our burned-out streets, causing the governor to again place a curfew on Detroit.  
     “The U.S. president announced the riots are over and the troops have left, when we still see them on our streets. The real question of justice is in front of us. How we handle these five thousand rioters, many of whom the police admit are innocent, is the challenge before us. Men become more bitter while their families wait in hunger.
     “Another question is whether or not this was a race riot. In the same sentence newscasters say it certainly was not and then use the term ‘race riot.” Whether or not blacks shot at whites or whites shot at blacks or whether they looted and burned together, the riot is a reality, the reality of frustration, resentment, hatred; it’s really a rebellion. Not just a few would start over 1000 fires. It feels hopeless until we remember that God loves the countless homeless, the 5000 in jail, the 37+ dead, the 2000 injured. May God bend all our knees in repentance. May God enable us to build again.
     “What about next month, next year? The patterns of exploitation will resume. Food and clothing and blood donations have poured in. But who will work for new hospitals in the city where poor shed blood every day? Poor people still find themselves unable to get a loan to buy a home, unable to find a place to rent. Unable to find a job and equal educational opportunity. Now that we’ve talked a little and prayed a little and given $5.00, do we understand any better?”

       That letter was written fifty years ago. Today, do we understand any better?

Friday, June 30, 2017

One Woman's Persistent Voice Can Finally Be Heard

I Don't usually print what's in the news, but I this time I do, because it's important. In a time when many of us feel helpless and perhaps hopeless, Representative Barbara Lee from California simply kept on using her persistent voice yesterday, and, she was heard! Much work remains to be done. Impossible? Perhaps. But absolutely necessary, So, here's what happened yesterday, receiving little news reporting:

 September 14, 2001, Rep. Barbara Lee, who represents Oakland and Berkeley, stood up in the House of Representatives to cast the lone vote against the Authorization for Use of Military Force, a measure that paved the way for the war in Afghanistan.

Nearly 16 years later, a House of Representatives panel voted on Thursday for Lee’s amendment to repeal that authorization, which has been cited as justification for a vast array of American military actions in at least a dozen countries over three administrations.
In a move that surprised many on Capitol Hill, the GOP-controlled House Appropriations Committee approved Lee’s amendment to the annual defense appropriations bill with a voice vote. If signed into law by President Trump, it would repeal the 2001 authorization eight months after Lee’s amendment passes. A new vote in Congress would be required to continue military action against the Islamic State or other terrorist groups.
“Today was a remarkable victory, I think, for the American people,” Lee said in an interview with the Mercury News and the East Bay Times. “I’ve been working day and night for many, many years with Democrats and Republicans to get to this point. It’s been quite a journey.”
Thursday’s vote was a sign that there’s a bipartisan desire to revisit the sweeping powers given to the president to wage the war on terror. When the amendment passed, her fellow committee members broke into applause. Several of her colleagues then publicly congratulated Lee, who has proposed a form of the amendment every congressional session since 2001.

But it’s still just a first step, with a long legislative process ahead, Lee said. Procedural maneuvers could even remove the amendment from the spending bill when it goes for debate before the full House, the Associated Press reported.

The 60-word Authorization for Use of Military Force, written as bodies were still being pulled from the rubble of Ground Zero, authorized the president to use force against nations, groups or people involved in the 9/11 attacks “in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States.” It’s been used to justify at least 37 different military actions since 2001, a Congressional Research Service report found.

“Any administration can rely on this blank check to wage endless war,” Lee told her colleagues before Thursday’s vote. “Many of us can also agree that a robust debate and vote is necessary, long overdue, and must take place.”
Only one member of Congress, Kay Granger, R-Texas, argued against Lee’s amendment at the committee hearing, saying it “would tie the hands of the U.S.”

“It cripples our ability to conduct counterterrorism operations against terrorists who pose a threat to the United States,” Granger said.
But other Republicans commended Lee. “She has raised an important point — I think she’s done it repeatedly and effectively, and I think the Congress ought to listen to what she has to say and we ought to debate this issue,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma.
Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Maryland, said Lee had changed his mind on the amendment. “I was going to vote no, but … I’m going to be with you on this, and your tenacity has come through,” he said.
When Lee walked into the committee room this morning, she said, she wasn’t sure whether her amendment would pass. She credited statements in support from Republican members of Congress, including several former military veterans, as having a big effect on the debate.
The broad support in the committee for Lee’s bill doesn’t mean it will be embraced by the full House or the Senate, said Monica Hakimi, a law professor at the University of Michigan who’s studied the authorization for the use of force.
“I could very easily imagine a situation where various members of the military testify to Congress that even the possibility of a drastic change” in the authorization would be a huge disruption, Hakimi said. That could slow any drive toward repeal.
Nonetheless, Thursday’s committee vote is a major milestone for Lee, one of the strongest anti-war voices in Congress. After her lone vote in 2001, she faced condemnation from politicians of every stripe, a deluge of angry phone calls from around the country, and even enough death threats to merit around-the-clock protection from the Capitol Police.

“I’m pleased that more members of Congress are seeing what I saw then,” Lee said. “We need to rein this in and have Congress included — it’s our constitutional responsibility.”

Sunday, June 11, 2017

We Must Respond to the Call of the Current Situation

 I have been in public ministry for 57 years.  What has been the current call to faith communities in those various decades?

People feel the fear today: global instability, gun violence, economic inequality, inhospitality to refugees. All these challenges amidst lowered church attendance.

People contrast that to the 1940’s and 50’s when churches were building, growing, and full! But the “current” then also included the millions killed in World War II, refugees, and the beginning of the nuclear arms race.

My first call to parish ministry was the fall of 1960, to a 2000-member suburban congregation in Missouri with 800 in education classes, including a parish school.  We started classes for those with intellectual disabilities. However, inclusion of racial diversity was not so easily accepted. People thought Norma Cook was a great minister, but she had “one problem; she liked Negroes.”  

Living in Detroit later in the 1960’s we were part of inner city churches leading in the Civil Rights movement.  I had a seminary master’s degree; my theology was deepened on the streets through community organizing. The challenge was racial inequality. The “current” situation was revolution, called riots, in cities throughout the United States. The nation, and faith communities, were divided further over participation in the Viet Nam war.

In the 1970’s our “current” context moved to New Haven, Ct. where we lived simultaneously in two worlds: the inner city and Yale University Divinity school. I worked on the streets and taught in the classroom. In both places there was need for the Gospel in individual lives and for shaping community.  The feminist movement brought new opportunities for women and men.

“Current” has changed since 1979 when we moved here. Dubuque decided purposely to become more diverse. I’m a native Iowan, but not a native Dubuquer. That term itself is now being revisited. ‘Inclusive Dubuque’ and the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque are two groups addressing the current challenges.

The call now to faith communities, whether struggling with attendance or not, is to work together to face continuing deep issues of global unrest, racism, refugees, nuclear arms escalation, inequality, and the need for stable, credible leadership.  Always current is the unconditional love of a faithful God active in the midst of the world’s greatest needs.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Never Take For Granted a Gentle Hand on Your Shoulder

                Children loved to hear the invitation to gather “in the front” of the sanctuary during worship. They scrambled up the aisles to gather around as I sat on the altar steps. The adults in their pews also were eager to listen in to the Scripture story I was about to tell. As the children pressed in from every side, I suddenly, but quite gently, felt someone’s hands on my shoulder. They were warm, firm, caring . . . and small.  I glanced over to see four-year-old Caroline, standing behind me, listening, and loving me. It was, after all, a place to stand, and to see.  Did she know, could she understand, that she was caring for me?
When was the last time someone put hands on your shoulders? A parent saying, “I’m proud of you!” A teacher saying, “I know you can do it!” It seems we should grow out of the need for such hands. But we don’t.
How often our shoulders tense with worrisome burdens of people depending upon our words, our organizational skills, our “doing.” Being a responsible, dependable adult is a joy. But we also continue to need affirming, empathizing caring hands on our shoulders.
Christians may think of Lent as a time of giving up pleasures, of self-sacrifice, or of not giving in to temptations.  But even such focus on self, rather than on Christ, may be one of three temptations. First is to believe that “I am able; therefore, I only am able.”  The second is, “I am the most able; others will not do the job as well.” Thereby we cut ourselves off from the gifts of the community. The third is, “I must care for everyone.” I try to be the omnipresent parent, the omniscient teacher, and finally omnipotent. But who am I to play God?
We need the suffering servant, Jesus. At the very moment when our belief in ourselves which is self-trust, self-sufficiency, pride, or despair, is exposed, Christ already is there to love and sustain. Sometimes Jesus nourishes in surprising, spontaneous ways and sometimes through ongoing ministering servants in our lives.

The God who made us the capable people we are and gave us all those responsibilities, wants to love and care, guide and fill us with Christ’s servant self. God’s hands are gentle and steadying. Sometimes they may feel like small hands, but they are always big enough. 

Saturday, December 24, 2016

A Private Birth in a Public World

Christians join together on Christmas Eve to mark the birth of Jesus Christ. The Gospel of Luke in the Bible gives the most vivid account. The birth of the Christchild was such a private event meant for the whole public world.

The story begins with the name of the Emperor: Augustus, and the governor: Quirnius, and with people needing to be registered. Then and now we live in a public, political world.  Joseph had to travel from where he lived in Nazareth to Bethlehem, the place of his family heritage. We all come from somewhere and are strangers somewhere else. Bethlehem would turn out to be an unwelcoming place for a private birth. Joseph and very pregnant Mary were outsiders. “No room for these people.” So they had to take refuge where they could find it. Where animals were sheltered the very Son of God was born; where the Creator’s animals ate, the baby was laid in a manger.

 So dark, so quiet, so private. Yet such public implications for this day. No one is a stranger to God. For the homeless, the refugee, the immigrant, the one unwelcome, the one for whom there is no room, the Good News is that no one is abandoned by God. What is our calling for the one who would be left out in the cold?

How would this very private birth be made public for the world? No newspaper reporters. No television cameras. However, in that region, shepherds had a night job—every night. Who else would watch over their sheep? It was dark until a light brighter than a news flood light, a light which could be described only as, “the glory of the Lord” shone around them. They were terrified! An angel said the same word said to Mary nine months before, “Do not be afraid.” We who live today in a public world filled with great fear are terrified much of the time.  The Shepherds did not know what to do with the news of “great joy” that a Savior was born. But they seemed to hear that this news would be for all people. News in a private field for a global world. 

They believed what they heard and the multitude of heavenly host who appeared praising God: “Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace. . . ,“ and they went. They went with haste, and they found Mary, Joseph and the child. And they told. They went back to their vocations, their plain work of taking care of sheep, and they also became the first witnesses in the public world of God’s grace present in human form on earth. What is our calling, whatever our vocation, our work in the world, to see and believe, and to hasten to tell everyone about God’s grace and love for all and for peace in the whole, public world?

Monday, October 10, 2016

The Election: Predatory Power or Partnership?

Power. It’s all about power—and powerlessness. The predatory sexual assaults of Donald Trump are being met by moral outrage. Some, however, separate this behavior from his general outlook on all things, including business, international relations, class and race. 

The point is this: oppressive systems of sexism, racism, classism, ableism, nationalism, militarism and other isms are interrelated.  They are all forms of oppression of the powerful over the powerless.  Oppressive systems do not just cure themselves. The power cycle continues, holding oppressed captive, keeping us from life-giving partnerships.

We have come a long way, of course. We see women and men side by side at the new anchor desk, co-parenting, and sharing work responsibilities.  And yet we know that we continue to live in an atmosphere of rape. We see African Americans leading corporations, as presidents of universities and of this nation, but also as victims of oppression in the criminal justice and economic systems. 

Hurricane Matthew roars through the Caribbean and up the Atlantic coast, causing terrible property damage and some deaths in the United States. Meanwhile hundreds die in Haiti, the poorest nation in this hemisphere. It is dangerous to continuously be among the oppressed. 

In the power cycle, those with power can at first ignore people, groups or nations with little or no power. Hence a Donald Trump seeks to project wealth, size (property, buildings, name on buildings), being a “winner.” Those in power can—at least for a while—ignore small nations, people of other religions, migrants at the borders.  But it is in the ignoring that those who think they are powerful remain the most ignorant. So a political candidate knows not one name of a leader of another nation, while people in small, less powerful nations know substantially more about “great” nations. They need to in order to survive! Note that Trump at the second presidential debate/forum, showed little interest in the people asking the questions.  He cares little about the oppressed people making his ties and shirts in poor nations overseas. 

But when those formerly ignored stand up and say, “Here I am.  I am somebody. I have a name. Look at me,” there is the potential for partnership. Hence Hillary Clinton’s campaign, “Stronger together.”  Hence the United Nations.  Hence all kinds of creative partnerships across socio-economic divides.  However, the powerful may grow threatened. A common response is to trivialize the oppressed trying to be seen: “Isn’t she a cute little thing?”  “That was a nice idea, but let’s go on to the important business at hand.” “Those people will never amount to much. They don’t belong here anyway.”  This is when we hear jokes, a hurtful form of trivializing, followed up by “Can’t you take a joke?”  The response must be, “No, I choose not to, because I am not a joke.”  “We are not a joking matter.”
But what if the trivialized start to claim their power of voice?  What if they start to act like partners?  All sorts of new possibilities arise.  Men start to see women in a new way.  We start to become partners by acting like partners with respect and new knowledge of one another across races, religions, and borders. We learn about and from one another. People with power start to share power and together, we all become more able, more empowered, less dangerous to one another. 

OR, the powerful become threatened. The need to keep the oppressed out or down intensifies. They ridicule, even saying ridiculous things, or threaten.  Afraid they may not be seen as powerful, or famous, or the most important, they bully, demand and demean.  Meanwhile the oppressed may caucus for support and wisdom and strategy. This is needed and helpful on the way from oppression towards justice.  Women gather and realize they are not alone in having been forced to have sex with a powerful, “famous,” man. Groups of people of color, and whole neighborhoods gather in community halls and in the streets and say that their lives matter. Nations bring their causes together to an international body. There is potential, finally, for dialog, and people at the table who were never at the table before, and for talking about deep issues.  This will take providing a safe, healthy, trustworthy environment to be different together.  It will take time and trust.  Working together, beyond conversation.  This will mean changing systems.
So, which will it be?  If the powerful resist, the next stage of the power cycle is “Eliminate.” The powerful dismiss, exclude or annihilate the powerless.  The woman or child who is raped is killed.  The woman sexually harassed, particularly the one who tries to claim her own voice, is fired.  The racial or ethnic group that seeks to no longer be ignored or oppressed, is put down and some are killed.  The group of people at “our” borders who seek to come in whose names and religion we could formerly ignore are excluded by walls and made to pay for their own exclusion.
It’s all about power, and the powerful keeping it at any cost.

Or will we, finally, say, “No!”  to predatory sexual assault and to predatory business practices, to ridiculing religious and racial actions, and “shoot-first” local and “bomb-first” global strategies that keep us from being equal human beings?  At each of these stages there is the potential for partnership, for really seeing each other and for living together in respect, and care. What kind of leadership does that call for? What kind of people does that call us to be?

For more on "The Power Cycle" see Chapter 8 "Transforming Power for Partnership" in Norma Cook Everist and Craig Nessan, Transforming Leadership (Fortress, 2008)

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Pres. Obama's Words for Us All

Remarks by the President at Memorial Service for Fallen Dallas Police Officers
Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center
Dallas, Texas
Scripture tells us that in our sufferings there is glory, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.  Sometimes the truths of these words are hard to see.  Right now, those words test us.  Because the people of Dallas, people across the country, are suffering. 
We’re here to honor the memory, and mourn the loss, of five fellow Americans -- to grieve with their loved ones, to support this community, to pray for the wounded, and to try and find some meaning amidst our sorrow. 
For the men and women who protect and serve the people of Dallas, last Thursday began like any other day.  Like most Americans each day, you get up, probably have too quick a breakfast, kiss your family goodbye, and you head to work.  But your work, and the work of police officers across the country, is like no other.  For the moment you put on that uniform, you have answered a call that at any moment, even in the briefest interaction, may put your life in harm’s way.
Lorne Ahrens, he answered that call.  So did his wife, Katrina -- not only because she was the spouse of a police officer, but because she’s a detective on the force.  They have two kids.  And Lorne took them fishing, and used to proudly go to their school in uniform.  And the night before he died, he bought dinner for a homeless man.  And the next night, Katrina had to tell their children that their dad was gone.  “They don’t get it yet,” their grandma said. “They don’t know what to do quite yet.”
Michael Krol answered that call.  His mother said, “He knew the dangers of the job, but he never shied away from his duty.”  He came a thousand miles from his home state of Michigan to be a cop in Dallas, telling his family, “This is something I wanted to do.”  Last year, he brought his girlfriend back to Detroit for Thanksgiving, and it was the last time he’d see his family.
Michael Smith answered that call -- in the Army, and over almost 30 years working for the Dallas Police Association, which gave him the appropriately named “Cops Cop” award.  A man of deep faith, when he was off duty, he could be found at church or playing softball with his two girls.  Today, his girls have lost their dad, for God has called Michael home.
Patrick Zamarripa, he answered that call.  Just 32, a former altar boy who served in the Navy and dreamed of being a cop.  He liked to post videos of himself and his kids on social media.  And on Thursday night, while Patrick went to work, his partner Kristy posted a photo of her and their daughter at a Texas Rangers game, and tagged her partner so that he could see it while on duty.
Brent Thompson answered that call.  He served his country as a Marine.  And years later, as a contractor, he spent time in some of the most dangerous parts of Iraq and Afghanistan.  And then a few years ago, he settled down here in Dallas for a new life of service as a transit cop.  And just about two weeks ago, he married a fellow officer, their whole life together waiting before them.  
Like police officers across the country, these men and their families shared a commitment to something larger than themselves.  They weren’t looking for their names to be up in lights.  They’d tell you the pay was decent but wouldn’t make you rich.  They could have told you about the stress and long shifts, and they’d probably agree with Chief Brown when he said that cops don’t expect to hear the words "thank you" very often, especially from those who need them the most.
No, the reward comes in knowing that our entire way of life in America depends on the rule of law; that the maintenance of that law is a hard and daily labor; that in this country, we don’t have soldiers in the streets or militias setting the rules.  Instead, we have public servants -- police officers -- like the men who were taken away from us.
And that’s what these five were doing last Thursday when they were assigned to protect and keep orderly a peaceful protest in response to the killing of Alton Sterling of Baton Rouge and Philando Castile of Minnesota.  They were upholding the constitutional rights of this country.
For a while, the protest went on without incident.  And despite the fact that police conduct was the subject of the protest, despite the fact that there must have been signs or slogans or chants with which they profoundly disagreed, these men and this department did their jobs like the professionals that they were.  In fact, the police had been part of the protest’s planning.  Dallas PD even posted photos on their Twitter feeds of their own officers standing among the protesters.  Two officers, black and white, smiled next to a man with a sign that read, “No Justice, No Peace.”
And then, around nine o’clock, the gunfire came.  Another community torn apart.  More hearts broken.  More questions about what caused, and what might prevent, another such tragedy.
I know that Americans are struggling right now with what we’ve witnessed over the past week.  First, the shootings in Minnesota and Baton Rouge, and the protests, then the targeting of police by the shooter here -- an act not just of demented violence but of racial hatred.  All of it has left us wounded, and angry, and hurt.  It’s as if the deepest fault lines of our democracy have suddenly been exposed, perhaps even widened.  And although we know that such divisions are not new -- though they have surely been worse in even the recent past -- that offers us little comfort.
Faced with this violence, we wonder if the divides of race in America can ever be bridged.  We wonder if an African-American community that feels unfairly targeted by police, and police departments that feel unfairly maligned for doing their jobs, can ever understand each other’s experience.  We turn on the TV or surf the Internet, and we can watch positions harden and lines drawn, and people retreat to their respective corners, and politicians calculate how to grab attention or avoid the fallout.  We see all this, and it’s hard not to think sometimes that the center won't hold and that things might get worse.
I understand.  I understand how Americans are feeling.  But, Dallas, I’m here to say we must reject such despair.  I’m here to insist that we are not as divided as we seem.  And I know that because I know America.  I know how far we’ve come against impossible odds.  (Applause.)  I know we’ll make it because of what I’ve experienced in my own life, what I’ve seen of this country and its people -- their goodness and decency --as President of the United States.  And I know it because of what we’ve seen here in Dallas -- how all of you, out of great suffering, have shown us the meaning of perseverance and character, and hope.
When the bullets started flying, the men and women of the Dallas police, they did not flinch and they did not react recklessly.  They showed incredible restraint.  Helped in some cases by protesters, they evacuated the injured, isolated the shooter, and saved more lives than we will ever know.  (Applause.)  We mourn fewer people today because of your brave actions.  (Applause.)  “Everyone was helping each other,” one witness said.  “It wasn’t about black or white.  Everyone was picking each other up and moving them away.”  See, that’s the America I know.
The police helped Shetamia Taylor as she was shot trying to shield her four sons.  She said she wanted her boys to join her to protest the incidents of black men being killed.  She also said to the Dallas PD, “Thank you for being heroes.”  And today, her 12-year old son wants to be a cop when he grows up.  That’s the America I know.  (Applause.) 
In the aftermath of the shooting, we’ve seen Mayor Rawlings and Chief Brown, a white man and a black man with different backgrounds, working not just to restore order and support a shaken city, a shaken department, but working together to unify a city with strength and grace and wisdom.  (Applause.)  And in the process, we've been reminded that the Dallas Police Department has been at the forefront of improving relations between police and the community.  (Applause.)  The murder rate here has fallen.  Complaints of excessive force have been cut by 64 percent.  The Dallas Police Department has been doing it the right way.  (Applause.)  And so, Mayor Rawlings and Chief Brown, on behalf of the American people, thank you for your steady leadership, thank you for your powerful example.  We could not be prouder of you.  (Applause.)     
These men, this department -- this is the America I know.  And today, in this audience, I see people who have protested on behalf of criminal justice reform grieving alongside police officers.  I see people who mourn for the five officers we lost but also weep for the families of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.  In this audience, I see what’s possible -- (applause) -- I see what's possible when we recognize that we are one American family, all deserving of equal treatment, all deserving of equal respect, all children of God.  That’s the America that I know.
Now, I'm not na├»ve.  I have spoken at too many memorials during the course of this presidency.  I’ve hugged too many families who have lost a loved one to senseless violence.  And I've seen how a spirit of unity, born of tragedy, can gradually dissipate, overtaken by the return to business as usual, by inertia and old habits and expediency.  I see how easily we slip back into our old notions, because they’re comfortable, we’re used to them.  I’ve seen how inadequate words can be in bringing about lasting change.  I’ve seen how inadequate my own words have been.  And so I’m reminded of a passage in *John’s Gospel [First John]:  Let us love not with words or speech, but with actions and in truth.  If we’re to sustain the unity we need to get through these difficult times, if we are to honor these five outstanding officers who we’ve lost, then we will need to act on the truths that we know.  And that’s not easy.  It makes us uncomfortable.  But we’re going to have to be honest with each other and ourselves.
We know that the overwhelming majority of police officers do an incredibly hard and dangerous job fairly and professionally.  They are deserving of our respect and not our scorn.  (Applause.)  And when anyone, no matter how good their intentions may be, paints all police as biased or bigoted, we undermine those officers we depend on for our safety.  And as for those who use rhetoric suggesting harm to police, even if they don’t act on it themselves -- well, they not only make the jobs of police officers even more dangerous, but they do a disservice to the very cause of justice that they claim to promote.  (Applause.)  
We also know that centuries of racial discrimination -- of slavery, and subjugation, and Jim Crow -- they didn’t simply vanish with the end of lawful segregation.  They didn’t just stop when Dr. King made a speech, or the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act were signed.  Race relations have improved dramatically in my lifetime.  Those who deny it are dishonoring the struggles that helped us achieve that progress.  (Applause.) 
But we know -- but, America, we know that bias remains.  We know it.  Whether you are black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or of Middle Eastern descent, we have all seen this bigotry in our own lives at some point.  We’ve heard it at times in our own homes.  If we’re honest, perhaps we’ve heard prejudice in our own heads and felt it in our own hearts.  We know that.  And while some suffer far more under racism’s burden, some feel to a far greater extent discrimination’s sting.  Although most of us do our best to guard against it and teach our children better, none of us is entirely innocent.  No institution is entirely immune.  And that includes our police departments.  We know this. 
And so when African Americans from all walks of life, from different communities across the country, voice a growing despair over what they perceive to be unequal treatment; when study after study shows that whites and people of color experience the criminal justice system differently, so that if you’re black you’re more likely to be pulled over or searched or arrested, more likely to get longer sentences, more likely to get the death penalty for the same crime; when mothers and fathers raise their kids right and have “the talk” about how to respond if stopped by a police officer -- “yes, sir,” “no, sir” -- but still fear that something terrible may happen when their child walks out the door, still fear that kids being stupid and not quite doing things right might end in tragedy -- when all this takes place more than 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, we cannot simply turn away and dismiss those in peaceful protest as troublemakers or paranoid.  (Applause.)  We can’t simply dismiss it as a symptom of political correctness or reverse racism.  To have your experience denied like that, dismissed by those in authority, dismissed perhaps even by your white friends and coworkers and fellow church members again and again and again -- it hurts.  Surely we can see that, all of us.
We also know what Chief Brown has said is true:  That so much of the tensions between police departments and minority communities that they serve is because we ask the police to do too much and we ask too little of ourselves.  (Applause.)  As a society, we choose to underinvest in decent schools.  We allow poverty to fester so that entire neighborhoods offer no prospect for gainful employment.  (Applause.)  We refuse to fund drug treatment and mental health programs.  (Applause.)  We flood communities with so many guns that it is easier for a teenager to buy a Glock than get his hands on a computer or even a book -- (applause) -- and then we tell the police “you’re a social worker, you’re the parent, you’re the teacher, you’re the drug counselor.”  We tell them to keep those neighborhoods in check at all costs, and do so without causing any political blowback or inconvenience.  Don’t make a mistake that might disturb our own peace of mind.  And then we feign surprise when, periodically, the tensions boil over.
We know these things to be true.  They’ve been true for a long time.  We know it.  Police, you know it.  Protestors, you know it.  You know how dangerous some of the communities where these police officers serve are, and you pretend as if there’s no context.  These things we know to be true.  And if we cannot even talk about these things -- if we cannot talk honestly and openly not just in the comfort of our own circles, but with those who look different than us or bring a different perspective, then we will never break this dangerous cycle.
In the end, it's not about finding policies that work; it’s about forging consensus, and fighting cynicism, and finding the will to make change.
Can we do this?  Can we find the character, as Americans, to open our hearts to each other?  Can we see in each other a common humanity and a shared dignity, and recognize how our different experiences have shaped us?  And it doesn’t make anybody perfectly good or perfectly bad, it just makes us human.  I don’t know.  I confess that sometimes I, too, experience doubt.  I've been to too many of these things.  I've seen too many families go through this.  But then I am reminded of what the Lord tells Ezekiel:  I will give you a new heart, the Lord says, and put a new spirit in you.  I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.
That’s what we must pray for, each of us:  a new heart.  Not a heart of stone, but a heart open to the fears and hopes and challenges of our fellow citizens.  That’s what we’ve seen in Dallas these past few days.  That’s what we must sustain.
Because with an open heart, we can learn to stand in each other’s shoes and look at the world through each other’s eyes, so that maybe the police officer sees his own son in that teenager with a hoodie who's kind of goofing off but not dangerous -- and the teenager -- maybe the teenager will see in the police officer the same words and values and authority of his parents. 
With an open heart, we can abandon the overheated rhetoric and the oversimplification that reduces whole categories of our fellow Americans not just to opponents, but to enemies.
With an open heart, those protesting for change will guard against reckless language going forward, look at the model set by the five officers we mourn today, acknowledge the progress brought about by the sincere efforts of police departments like this one in Dallas, and embark on the hard but necessary work of negotiation, the pursuit of reconciliation.
With an open heart, police departments will acknowledge that, just like the rest of us, they are not perfect; that insisting we do better to root out racial bias is not an attack on cops, but an effort to live up to our highest ideals.  (Applause.)  And I understand these protests -- I see them, they can be messy.  Sometimes they can be hijacked by an irresponsible few.  Police can get hurt.  Protestors can get hurt.  They can be frustrating. 
But even those who dislike the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” surely we should be able to hear the pain of Alton Sterling’s family.  (Applause.)  We should -- when we hear a friend describe him by saying that “Whatever he cooked, he cooked enough for everybody,” that should sound familiar to us, that maybe he wasn’t so different than us, so that we can, yes, insist that his life matters.  Just as we should hear the students and coworkers describe their affection for Philando Castile as a gentle soul -- “Mr. Rogers with dreadlocks,” they called him -- and know that his life mattered to a whole lot of people of all races, of all ages, and that we have to do what we can, without putting officers' lives at risk, but do better to prevent another life like his from being lost.
With an open heart, we can worry less about which side has been wronged, and worry more about joining sides to do right.  (Applause.)  Because the vicious killer of these police officers, they won’t be the last person who tries to make us turn on one other.  The killer in Orlando wasn’t, nor was the killer in Charleston.  We know there is evil in this world.  That's why we need police departments.  (Applause.)  But as Americans, we can decide that people like this killer will ultimately fail.  They will not drive us apart.  We can decide to come together and make our country reflect the good inside us, the hopes and simple dreams we share. 
“We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”
For all of us, life presents challenges and suffering -- accidents, illnesses, the loss of loved ones.  There are times when we are overwhelmed by sudden calamity, natural or manmade.  All of us, we make mistakes.  And at times we are lost.  And as we get older, we learn we don’t always have control of things -- not even a President does.  But we do have control over how we respond to the world.  We do have control over how we treat one another.
    America does not ask us to be perfect.  Precisely because of our individual imperfections, our founders gave us institutions to guard against tyranny and ensure no one is above the law; a democracy that gives us the space to work through our differences and debate them peacefully, to make things better, even if it doesn’t always happen as fast as we’d like.  America gives us the capacity to change.
Only by working together can we preserve those institutions of family and community, rights and responsibilities, law and self-government that is the hallmark of this nation.  For, it turns out, we do not persevere alone.  Our character is not found in isolation.  Hope does not arise by putting our fellow man down; it is found by lifting others up.  
And that’s what I take away from the lives of these outstanding men.  The pain we feel may not soon pass, but my faith tells me that they did not die in vain.  I believe our sorrow can make us a better country.  I believe our righteous anger can be transformed into more justice and more peace.  Weeping may endure for a night, but I’m convinced joy comes in the morning.   We cannot match the sacrifices made by Officers Zamarripa and Ahrens, Krol, Smith, and Thompson, but surely we can try to match their sense of service.  We cannot match their courage, but we can strive to match their devotion.
May God bless their memory.  May God bless this country that we love.