Friday, September 4, 2015

What if We Turned Things Around?

Repentance means to turn around. The reluctance of refusal to face divisive racial issues needs to be turned around. The domination of one political candidate who at first was amusing but now shapes the national conversation needs to be turned around.  What if we did turn things around?
What if we decided to probe into Donald Trump’s emails and see what kind of ethical and moral breaches he had made over the years in his business dealings?

What if we heard every speech live of the candidate who truly has consistently had the largest turn-outs? Bernie Sanders. What if the news media interviewed the people of Wisconsin to see why they worked so hard to gain a recall election of their governor, Scott Walker?

What if for one month we neither heard nor saw Donald Trump on TV (unless he paid for ads) nor any candidate or political reporter was asked questions about him? What if, instead, each candidate in turn, was asked about policy, covered in speeches given and events attended?  I know, I know, viewer ratings would go down. But how about encouraging each to say the most radical thing they could about care for poor people, care for the earth, and care for the refugees of the world?  

What if we the people were not so comfortably satisfied being spectators laughing and cheering and venting our rage while neglecting being co-operative workers in a participatory democracy? This government of the people, by the people, for the people takes hard work.  Government is not “them” but “us.”  What if town-hall meetings were covered by the press, town-hall meetings where locally selected leaders were chosen to set a trustworthy environment where all the people were encouraged and empowered to speak and work on real issues together.  I guess they would all be called, “activists.”  Maybe that would look and sound like an Iowa Caucus.

What if religious leaders were not relegated to the private sphere and people did not separate their “Sunday faith” from their faith at work in daily life all week long.  What if the voices of the full range of religious leaders, not just the religious right, were sought out and heard.  Oh, that’s what has been happening for the past year. When people gathered to remember and commemorate the 10th anniversary of Katrina in New Orleans, in the midst of speakers and music, was 10-15 minutes devoted to prayers led by Roman Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist, Vietnamese leaders and more. In Charleston and Baltimore and Ferguson and many other places religious leaders have spoken and worked in public to create communities not just of peace, but of justice. And they were interviewed by the press!

More needs to be turned around. We live in a deeply divided and dangerous time. Which direction will we turn things? The question is posed now at least once a week if not every day. When a person of color is shot will Caucasians simply retreat further into white enclaves? When a police officer is killed, will the “Black Lives Matter” movement be blamed?  When people are shot in their houses of worship, will we be advised to all bring guns with us when we gather to pray?

There is a time to turn, turn, turn.  There is a time to gather and listen to each other, a time for respect, a time for truth, a time to repent, a time to finally put down our guns. Surely that seems impossible.  We’ve gone too far to turn back now. Guns are everywhere. But so was drunk driving, and smoking and . . . 

I am tempted to believe we can’t—won’t—turn around. But we can because we have to. Only one person on her block used to recycle her plastics and bottles. Two people in a community after 9/11 started a group to have inter-faith dialog. One person in my neighborhood after the “riots” (revolutions) of the 60’s said “I ought to shoot you,” but he didn’t and we talked.  Twenty people in your school . . .  A hundred people in your city . . . What if we dared to turn things around? God has in Jesus Christ and God can through us today.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

The Burning of Black Churches

The burning of black church, a long smoldering phenomenon, sparked news stories in the summer of 1996 and then, flames quickly doused by a fire-retardant mixture of guilt and self-interest, the public once again falsely assumed that the fire of racism was controlled if not out.  This nation’s inability to include and maintain a healthy diversity threatens to intensify as we arm ourselves against one another though gun, bomb and torch. The real significance of burnings should be determined by those whose churches have recently burned. The members of each faith community in this country need to take note of an attack on any faith community.
“The church stands as a symbol of black pride and self-sufficiency,” said Rose Sanders, a black lawyer in Selma, Alabama. “Burning one is as close as you can come to a lynching without killing somebody.” Meanwhile investigators often dismiss the idea of deliberate arson due to a climate of white supremacy. Others hold to the belief that the fires are a mere coincidence. From January 1995 through June 1996 more than 60 African-American and multi-racial churches, most in the southeast, were burned.
Whites often fail to recognize the significance of the black church, tending to believe there is nothing racial about the fires today. The attack on black churches is an attack on the heart of the black community, its political, social, educational and spiritual center. Whites, motivated by genuine care sometimes raise money to help rebuild burned black churches. If they are able to find a conspiracy by a few on the radical fringe they can exonerate themselves from the racism that still smolders. But racism is a problem much greater than arson. Rebuilding structures does not dismantle racism. Simply sending money does not include African-Americans in the ecclesiology of a nation which believes it has the soul of a church.
Once again the black church is the target of violence.  Dominant whites still exclude African-Americans from full participation in the community of the nation and exclude themselves from the black church. A conspiracy theory is not new either. Vincent Harding, African-American historian, noted that near the end of the Detroit rebellion of 1967 Lyndon Johnson made a special address to the nation. He was frightened and so was all of America. Johnson suspected that a black revolutionary conspiracy was at work. Harding wrote, “The nation was frightened, confused . . . . In spite of what Lyndon Johnson suspected, there was no organized, national black revolutionary movement.” The conspiracy theory is a way to isolate the issue and relegate the problem to a few. Racism is more insidious than that and the African American struggle for freedom is more powerful.
Although 1996 investigations found no organized conspiracies, it was no coincidence that the fire at New Liberty Baptist church in Tyler, Alabama, was set just two days before thousands gathered to commemorate the Selma demonstrations that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Studs Terkel wrote in his 1992 book, Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel about the American Obsessions, that race obsesses everybody, even those who think they are not obsessed. An obsession rules us, as a god might; the original sin of racism remains a powerful obsession. Racism is real. It goes beyond prejudice and discrimination and even transcends bigotry, largely because it arises from outlooks and assumptions of which we are largely unaware.
Many Anglo-Americans believe that for at least the last generation blacks have been given more than a fair chance and at least equal opportunity if not outright advantages. Moreover, few feel obliged to ponder how membership in the majority race gives them powers and privileges. Albert ("Pete") Pero said that we must go beyond the fact that some people don’t want to be bothered by multiculturality. We must move beyond the attitude that somebody “played the race card. This isn’t a game of cards." He went on to say that, "God created all these people and that the Spirit sparks a fire of love . . . so you don’t have to burn the guy who seems to be creeping up on you."
The Black Church is a sign of hope and at least an implicit challenge to the belief system of white privilege in the United States. Will black churches be hope or threat to a nation which has come to doubt its own role in being a redeemer nation to the world?
Most important, we must come together locally in houses of faith and in the network of faith communities and talk, and listen, and dialog, no matter how difficult.  People of color know a great deal about white Americans—they must in order to function in this country. Whites remain remarkably unaware of the lives, feelings and hardships of people of color. The latter are weary of educating white people. On the way toward trust, we need to listen, not judge, debate or defend, but simply listen and see what the flames signify.
[The above are direct words from an article I published in 1997 in Currents in Theology and Mission after the rash of burnings of black churches. I write them again today—no update necessary.]

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Father's Day Card: Jennaya and Her Grandfather

Colorful Father’s Day cards convey all sorts of messages this weekend to dads, grandfathers, godfathers, mentors and more, men in our lives who have guided us and given their love. One special hand-made card touched my heart this year. No baseball glove or fishing rod. No Teddy bear or generic sentiment. This one had a special purpose that greeting card companies could not provide.

Our ten-year-old granddaughter, Jennaya, sat down and quickly took her colored pencils. She drew a picture of herself and her grandfather, my husband, Burton, side-by-side but with a line in between. On one side was her grandfather lying on his bed in a local cancer center receiving his daily 8-week treatment.  Above him was the word, “Radiation.” On her side she drew herself lying in her bed at the University Children’s Hospital in Iowa City, attached to a machine. Above her was the word “Remicade,” the medicine infused into her body for 4 ½ hours at a time every few weeks for her Crohn’s disease.  (Jennaya remembered to put a series of dots under each word representing the Braille she had noticed in hospital corridors beneath words.) Both grandfather and granddaughter had big smiles on their faces. Jennaya composed this message, written in red letters: “If you can do it, I can do it, and if I can do it, you can do it!  Happy Father’s Day. Jennaya.”

Mutual support. Unconditional love. Trust.

Dorothee Soelle wrote in her book, The Strength of the Weak, that Christ did not want to be strong except through the solidarity of the weak. Who is weak?  Who is strong?  Father’s can share their weaknesses, too. Christ understands, “For he was crucified in weakness so that we might be strong by the power of God (2 Cor 13:4). Whatever age, we can care for and support one another. We need each other in the body of Christ to give one another courage. Jennaya and her grandfather know that and do that for one another.
One more thing: Relationships themselves can be transformed. Many of the New Testament Epistles are addressed to, “My brothers and sisters in Christ” with the greeting, “Grace and Peace to you.” No matter what the nature of our human relationships, we are transformed into brothers and sisters, across generations, across the miles, around the world, connected in order to love and support one another this weekend and every week in times of health or sickness.   What a gift!

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Many Men Still Fear Women with Public Power

If we learned that racism was not over with the election of Barack Obama as the first black president of the United States, we will learn that sexism is surely not over with the possible election of the first woman as president of the United States.

Political commentators have noted that Republican candidate Carly Fiorina can go after Hillary in a way that the male candidates cannot. There are still vestiges of an ethic of men not beating up on a woman, even though they do it all the time; it’s simply called “domestic” not public abuse. There’s something about watching a woman going after a woman. “Let’s watch a cat fight,” people say.

Quite frankly, there has always been something to be gained in a male-dominated world by keeping women divided against women.  Old/young; married/single; lesbian/straight; fat/thin; pretty/ugly; working/non-working—whatever that means; all women work. Women candidates, such as Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina, for example, will present a sharp contrast in policy, principles and personal leadership style, but we need to be watchful that they are not pitted against one another “to see women fight.”

Women taking their full place in public life is an unfinished revolution. We have celebrated women’s accomplishments. And yet, as with any great social change, remnants of longing for the past linger. Fear of loss of male power and domination remain in some quarters. One sees and hears it, in blatant statements or small, off-hand remarks.  Recently while traveling, my husband and I stopped at a convenience store. At the counter a stranger remarked to us about his wife standing beside him, “She always gets what she wants.”  Why did he feel he needed to say that to us? There’s something there, unfinished, for him, and for thousands of other men, who cannot rejoice, even years after the modern feminist movement began.  It’s reminiscent of a question we early feminists often heard, “What else do they want?”

The issue is still about power—and elusive partnership. Another man said to me last week in speaking about Hillary Clinton, “How old is she? She probably won’t have the energy to serve a full term.”  Not enough power!  While others have long said Hillary has too much power.  There’s always something wrong with a “public woman.” Too weak.  Too strong.  Too quiet.  Too loud.  Too . . .  I even heard a committee interviewing a candidate for a leadership position say that she was “Too happy.”  To find something wrong with every woman indicates a continuing deep reluctance to trust women in leadership for fear they will change everything and usurp power from men. 

Of all the women with whom I have worked in the past five decades, willing and able to serve as leaders in the public sphere, not a one of them has had as her goal to take away power from men.  Their goals have always been full partnership of women and men. And we have achieved amazing new models of women and men working together as true partners in so many fields.  The feminist revolution has been a revolution for men, too.  The transformation of society has meant a transformation of power itself.

And yet. . .   And yet, systemic sexism remains.  The barriers may be different today than in the 1950’s and 1960’s, sometimes more subtle, sometime just differently blatant.  How important for women and men to recognize them. 

In regard to the resurgence of racism, we say, “We need to start a conversation.”  Not only a conversation, but a listening to the deep fears that remain, and a determination to eradicate racial violence.  During this presidential election campaign we will see a re-emergence of systemic sexism, sexism that may have only gone partially underground. (I totally dislike the term, “being politically correct,” a sure sign that someone has not been transformed, but only feels they must pretend to be.) Rape continues.  Sexual discrimination continues. Fear of women fully using their gifts continues.  We have work to do.  Together.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

A State Trooper Washed His Feet

 Foot Washing is an every day gift. The following was written by my husband, Rev. Burton Everist, who is chaplain at Luther Manor, here in Dubuque, Iowa:

"Today is “Maundy Thursday,” named for Jesus’ commandment that we wash one another’s feet as he himself washed his disciples’ feet.  Every year many churches practice this within worship services.  This is a good reminder, but it is even more an invitation to our daily life of serving others.
"Yesterday morning I had my feet washed by an Iowa State Trooper.  No, he did not literally wash my feet.  He changed my front tire at the side of US 80 somewhere south of Des Moines.  As soon as I had pulled off the road he pulled off in front of me and asked what the trouble was.  I showed him my very flat front tire on the driver’s side.  He asked if I had a spare and immediately offered to change the tire.  With sturdy gloves and sure hands he efficiently did the job and lifted the heavy flat into my trunk.  After I thanked him he carefully watched me pull onto the highway.
"Today, Maundy Thursday, I read the story for our morning devotionsI shared the story of the ministering Iowa State Trooper.  It helped me realize how foot washing ministry is an everyday service here at Luther Manor. 
"Some actually do wash the feet of residents, and more.  Others administer the necessary medicines, keeping careful track.  They also help residents get to their meals where still others serve the food planned and prepared for them in the kitchen.  Therapists work intently with many residents. 
Program activities are planned, supervised and led to provide enjoyment, simulation and companionship for as many as possible. 
"Almost invisible, cleaning and maintenance  staff keep the rooms, floors, and outside facilities as immaculate and as fully functioning as they can.
"Our social workers consult with residents and their families about various challenges each resident faces.  Behind the scenes staff keep track of expenditures and income.
"They are, whether they are aware of it or not, living the foot washing ministry to which Christ calls all of us.
"While I have accented the ministry of the staff here at Luther Manor it is equally true that all of you and of me as we care in our various ways for others are foot washing.  Daily foot washing.  It is Christ’s gift to us."

Saturday, March 28, 2015

What Was the Motive for the Crucifixion of Christ?

 “What was the Motive?” the news media asked when three Muslim university youth were shot in the head “over a parking space.” Was it a hate crime?  In the intervening weeks, we’ve heard that question dozens of times. “What was the motive?” when someone “in a quiet neighborhood” (would a noisy one be different?) killed his wife and them himself? “What was the motive?” when a loyal employee of 35 years betrayed her firm by embezzling thousands of dollars.  How do we make sense of “senseless” crimes such as a mom picking up her armed son to chase a young man with road rage who in turn shot her?

As Christians enter Holy Week, what was the motive for the arrest and crucifixion of Christ? The events from Palm Sunday to Good Friday happened quickly. Was it about Jesus being a threat to the empire? (At Jesus’  birth King Herod killed all the children around Bethlehem.) Was it jealousy of the Jewish leadership? Was it because Jesus associated with the marginalized and healed the outcast?

Or perhaps a single, clear motive is not the question. Maybe it never is. Sin can be subtle as well as blatant. Even the disciples denied and betrayed their friend.

A specific motive may be the tip of the iceberg.  Beneath lay jealousy, threats, greed, fear, abuse, racism, classism, unjust systems which exclude and keep many people powerless.

Christ died for the sins of the world. Christ dies not just for my own personal specific sins, but for the entire entwined sins of rage, hate, suspicion, oppression of individuals and groups that build up and lead to the cross.  This understanding of the nature of the human problem takes the focus away from “God’s plan to save me by killing his son.”  That making sense of things can lead to my getting a gun to take revenge on people I label as “bad.” We do not have a revengeful God.  We have a loving God who in the midst of the mess of humankind bore all the sin of the world.

Let’s not jump too quickly from Palm Sunday to Easter missing Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. See Jesus in the Garden. Do you know betrayal?  Do you feel the world’s suffering? Be with him on Good Friday. Then when Easter comes, the open tomb is really a surprise.  What’s the motive for that?  Only God’s.  The surprise that in Christ’s resurrection life conquers death.

Monday, March 16, 2015

My Mother Used to Say, "Don't Make People Wait."

My mother used to say to me when I was a little girl, “Don’t make people wait.” Now that was a long time ago, and perhaps not always the right advice, but it has stuck in my head.

Sometimes it’s strategically wise to wait for the right moment. Sometimes keeping people waiting for you not only inconveniences them, but causes them to miss opportunities of their own. You probably know where I’m going with this.

“It’s time for Hillary to declare herself a candidate,” we hear. “She would have had people in place to publicly handle this email problem.” Or, on the other hand, “Not having to go through being torn apart in a primary saves her political strength for the battle with the Republican candidate.”

So, what do you think about Hillary? As a man? As a woman? We know a lot about her. Too much? She won’t be ignored. But she brings all that baggage. Each week new baggage, such as complications with contributions to the Clinton Foundation from foreign entities.

But, you see, there is always something wrong with a woman. That’s what I tell the women I teach who are preparing for public ministry. “You will be too young or too old; too tall or too short; too married, or too not married; too out-spoken or too soft-spoken; too fat or too thin, too . . .” Well, you have the idea. One woman, when interviewing for a position a few years back was told she didn’t receive it because she was “too happy.”

Women have been ignored for centuries, a classic way to pretend they had nothing to contribute.  (The saying that a woman who puts forth a good idea in the board room will have it ignored until a man puts forth the same idea is true, of course, again, and again, and again.) Or women are ignored as a way to pretend they do not exist. So, we need a candidate for president who is known.

We also cannot seem to deal with too many women in positions of leadership. That frightens people. Any “minority” group rising to majority status threatens those in power whether by  gender, race, economic class, or anything else. Women not actually being a minority makes things even worse.  “How many more of you are there out there?” I was asked when I became the first women professor in a tenure tract position in a seminary of my church body. “Quite a few,” I answered. (Or did I say, “A lot”? Probably not—I wanted the position!)

But back to Hillary. She is known. She is smart. She has tens of thousands of followers. She is a global figure. She is experienced, and not just as “the wife” of. . .  She has earned the right to become a presidential candidate. She is an amazingly hard-worker.  She is committed to helping people and her country.
And she will be vilified. For all sorts of reasons, including contradictory ones.  “She should not have stayed with Bill.” “She should have stayed with Bill.” Speaking of Bill, he has made major global contributions since he left office. Speaking of Bill, he could trip Hillary up in a well-meaning effort to be helping her.

Back to waiting.  There’s a strange thing about being the “first woman to. . .” Just because there has never been a woman in a particular occupation or situation, people seem to assume no woman but one is prepared for that opportunity. It’s all in the timing. Hillary knows that. And she also knows that she stands among millions of women worldwide with gifts to serve in their countries and communities.  Hillary has and will open doors for many women, speaking out for women and children and all who are oppressed.

She is more than qualified.  The time is now in the minds of many women and men. And yet for many others the time will never be right. “Can’t you wait a few more years?” I was told (not asked) when seeking ordination to pastoral ministry after having waited 17 years for my church body to be ready.

Too young.  Too old. Have you noticed that when a woman is finally deemed experienced enough to be qualified for a public position, or is old enough to have accomplished things in life, her first name becomes “Grandmother”?  Grandmother leads corporation. Grandmother chases away bank robber. Grandmother speaks out against. . . The first name of a leading male politician or male anything is not “Grandfather.” This is simply another way to diminish a woman and to put her back in her “domestic arena.”

Hillary is here in the public arena. Hillary is authentic. The time is now. No more waiting!

Saturday, January 3, 2015

What if the Wise Men Had Not Brought Gifts?

What if the Wise Men had not brought gifts? For many Western Christians the tree has already been taken down, or at least wrapping paper has been cleared away. Many Orthodox Christians, in the United States celebrate Christmas January 7. Globally this commemorates the baptism of Christ.

January 6, Epiphany, is observed by Christians as the coming of the Magi, a light to the Gentiles. In St. Matthew’s Gospel 2:1-12: “after Jesus was born in Bethlehem (we don’t know how long after), wise men came from the East . . . .”  They observed a star and when they found the child, “on entering the house . . . they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”


But what if the Magi had not brought gifts? Would we not have had the frenzy of Christmas (holiday) shopping on Thanksgiving, Black Friday, and Cyber Monday? Would our attention not have been focused on how much profits were higher or lower as compared to a year ago? On what bargains we found or missed?


But we did buy gifts, and gave and received them. And we gave generously to help those in need, on “Giving Tuesday” and throughout the Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwanzaa seasons. We gave gifts to each other, those we love. Although wrappings are gone, the love goes on.


We will need the love and the light as we begin this New Year. We need to share both generously because the world needs both. In the Matthew story, King Herod heard about the wise men from the East and asked about the child.  Reading through vs. 18 we see secrecy, and fear of losing power, and anger and finally an infuriated ruler who killed all the children around Bethlehem two years or under. That’s what fear and power can do. Then came the weeping for the children. Parents could not be consoled.


We begin a new year. What was the gift buying about anyway? How might we remember the Gift of God, the love, and claim to walk outside together in the light so that there be no more fear of each other, no more abuse of power, no more sons and daughters dying. Let’s claim the gift of not being afraid of each other. Let’s love one another across all divisions. Let us walk in the light together.


Friday, January 2, 2015

Integration or Apartheid for Us and Our Children?

Children return to school after their holiday break. Congress returns to Washington with a shift in power. Commentators refer to this administration’s remaining two years in office as “lame duck” although since the November elections President Barack Obama’s actions have proven he intends to do everything he can for the good of the American people and for the world.

So what needs to be done? The news, of course, focuses on who will be in the pool of candidates for the 1916 presidential elections. Jeb jumps in and Hillary supporters urge her to run. Meanwhile, the issues of race and class linger. They not only linger, but surround us with complex issues that need more than a “conversation.” Who will be shot next? Whom can we blame? We need community policing.

All of which brings us back to those children, those millions of children returning to schools across this nation, an issue that few are addressing. Most people realize that the election of Obama in 2008 did not usher in a post-racial era. We have seen the central agenda of many in Congress has been and no doubt will continue to be to undermine anything he might accomplish. The proliferation of deaths and the lack of trust between citizens and police have finally brought to light our racial divide. Facts show the economic growth during the Obama administration but a gap grows between the wealthiest and those who remain poor. We are a nation divided by race and economic class
And what about the children? More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education (1954), in which the Supreme Court declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional, school systems across the south—and not only in the south—are re-segregating. From the time of the mid 1960’s Civil Rights legislation which forced school boards to find ways to integrate schools, through the seventies and eighties and into the nineties, children learned together, learned from and about one another. Although of course things were not perfect (many white parents moved their children to the suburbs or to private schools), millions of school-aged children of all backgrounds and colors sat together in integrated schools. And it made a difference!  The progress of children of color did not come at the expense of white children.  Attending integrated school made people more likely to understand one another and later work together and live together in integrated communities.

But then things began to change, at first here and there, and then in many places, particularly around the year 2000.  Court rulings were relaxed or reversed. Often for fear of economic decline in municipalities, and, yes, because racism and classism don’t easily go away, school boards, found ways for white children, or children from higher income families to go to  schools with children like themselves, or at least where they did not fear they might become the minority.

What about children today? Many children attend schools that look as if Brown v. Board of Education never happened. Perhaps we are even now back to 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson which legally sanctioned separation by race. Jonathan Kozol’s 2006 New York Times best-selling book, The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America makes a strong case for how far back we have gone, as do many other articles by writers such at Nikole Hannah-Jones, an investigative reporter at ProPublica.

It’s not the same as pre-1954. Ironically, thousands of black children again go to almost completely black schools; it’s just that those schools are now named Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. And before 1954 under strict segregation African-American children from the poorest homes may have gone to school with African-American children of professional parents.  Today apartheid schools (where white population is 1% or less) intertwines race and poverty. And the resource gap between schools is huge.

So here we are, with an economic gap the nation is not seriously trying to solve, particularly when those at the top do not want to. And here we are, in a precarious situation in cities, small and large across this nation, with guns aimed at each other. Arne Duncan, we have argued under your leadership as U.S. Secretary of Education about “No child left behind” and “core curriculum” What will you say about the fact that according to a ProPublica analysis the number of apartheid schools nationwide has mushroomed from 2,762 in 1988 to 6,727 in 2011? Two years left in this administration. Don’t blame public schools or teachers. Our children cannot wait another generation for integration.  This country cannot wait for a way to live together and learn with one another. 

Monday, November 3, 2014

Vote Beyond Fear: Hallowe'en, All Saints Day and Sandy Hook Promise

As music set a quiet tone, first a dozen came in the door to hear Nicole Hockley at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa.  Soon a few hundred filled the room. That was last Thursday night.

As we turned on our porch light, first a trickle of children came to our door, and then more and more children, dressed in scary costumes, but filled with laughter as we handed out little pumpkins and gourds. That was last Friday night, All Hallows' Eve.  

Saturday was All Saints Day followed by All Saints Sunday.  People entered church doors lighting candles and praying in remembrance of their beloved who had died this past year. 

On Tuesday all are invited outdoors to vote.

The days are connected in my mind.
Nicole Hockley was brought to Dubuque by the Dubuque Coalition for Nonviolence. Her talk:  “Creating a Safe Community: Working Together to End Gun Violence.” She is the mother of Dylan, one of the first grade children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, almost two years ago.

I was not afraid of the children who came to my door on Hallowe’en. And they were not afraid of my husband and me.

So, what are we afraid of? The fear factor is a real player in the November 4 election. Fatigue over scary negative ads makes people simply want the election to be over rather than vote at all. The over-whelming  fearful focus on Ebola in the United States distracts from the urgent necessity of concentrating efforts to stop the disease in West Africa. Terrorist beheadings make people fear the stranger of a different ethnicity or religion.

Grab a gun quick! “I’m afraid.”

The community members who came Thursday night heard the speaker from Sandy Hook Promise emphasize their work is about keeping children safe. Everyday dozens of mothers and fathers experience loss because gun violence is such a pervasive part of our culture: death on the streets, death through unsecured guns, death through domestic assault, death through suicide. These are in all races and social economic classes. Nicole gave the statistics of 289 shootings a day where 90 people die, seven of them children and teens. That’s over 100,000 acts of gun violence every year.

Trick or treat. The laughter of children in scary costumes is not scary at all. But gun violence is.

All Saints Day. When a child dies, well-meaning people of faith often say things like, “God wanted another little angel.” Nicole Hockley hesitantly confessed to the Dubuque community that her faith has been shaken, saying that hearing people say this is “God’s will” is not comforting. Rather, she said, “There are different ways to grieve.”  Friends, love and acceptance of each other’s grief with respect have been most helpful.

So, on this Voting Day, who will dare to go outside and vote in a culture of fear? And who will be so overcome with apathy or impotence that they just stay inside closed doors? Cultures of fear separate people. Divide people. We blame, scapegoat, and therefore excuse ourselves from any positive action.“But choosing to do nothing does not honor the dead nor protect the living. We need to work together for positive change,” said Nicole.

Gun violence is not even among prominent issues in polls for this November 4th election, although school shootings obviously have not stopped. Rather the culture of fear has widened: All those children coming across our borders from Central America, ISIS, Ebola. The images on morning news programs follow a pattern: “Breaking overnight” followed by the most eye-catching images that excite more than inform. They frightfully entertain if our role is merely spectator.

But if our role is to go outside together, to become really informed, to enter the dialog, to act, to become a part of movements to make a change, then we can make a difference.

All Saints Day: “No longer are we bound by the sting of death,” was the message I heard. “You are free.”

Voter suppression will work only if we let it. Saints will help their neighbors vote. No tricks.  And voting must lead to empowerment of people to have voice to move their legislators to actually act. And we dare not go back inside after Election Day is over, with our own personal bag of candy. I have my treats; forget about your needs.  There is so much we really can do together: caring about the children: victims of gun violence, those children who come across the border, the thousands of children with or orphaned by Ebola in West African nations, the millions of children who continue to live in poverty.

Anti-gun violence laws, immigration reform, international health, economic inequality, wise strategies for global peace call us outdoors to vote and to act.

Saturday, October 11, 2014


October 11 would have been my parents’ wedding anniversary. My father died when I was a child, so I don’t have memories of their anniversaries.  But their life together, like their singular personalities, are part of my identity. A long-standing question: “Is nature or nurture more important in formation?” No doubt both. One thing is certain, nurture in faith communities is crucial. However, saying, “Our church is like a family” can be problematic. I know what people mean: close ties, belonging. But that image also can signal exclusivity to the stranger, and to those who don’t resemble the predominate membership
The Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) speaks of tribes, but in the New Testament Gospels Jesus talks about leaving brothers or sisters or mother or father or children for the sake of the Good News and of receiving a hundredfold brothers, sisters, mothers, children. The Epistles (the Letters of the New Testament) are often addressed to “Brothers and Sisters” of the new churches. There are warnings against saying “I belong” to this family or that leader, and against divisions between Jews and Gentiles.  Christians are described as, “all heirs through adoption.”

Jesus Christ experienced suffering in being estranged from religious leaders, separated from family, deserted by disciples, and finally forsaken by God on the cross. We have and we will experience brokenness in families, and being estranged from one another, even within faith communities. The church is not just a cozy family. The gift of grace in Jesus Christ is reconciliation.

When my mother was widowed we moved from Des Moines to Mason City; a congregation invited us in. There we found not just families: the Swansons, the McMurrays or the Ortegas, but a broad caring community. 

When Burton and I married we decided—I don’t remember how or when—our home would be open to whomever God placed within our family.  Within a year, we were invited to adopt a child—while we were yet in seminary. Through the years our family has included a chosen child and two biological children. And through the decades, we have received a hundredfold brothers and sisters in Christ.

Although we disconnect, forget, and mourn the loss of one another, God creates and recreates community, far more than a hundredfold. Through God’s warm embrace we become ever-reaching-out people, way beyond biological families, so that we can nurture one another. How far? Refugees, immigrants, strangers wait for our welcome.
Yesterday The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to India's Kailash Satyarthi, a Hindu, and Pakistan's Malala Yousafzai, a Muslim, a remarkable and prophetic  sign of being kin across religious and national boundaries. These two remarkable people inspire us all in their courage, passion and work that all children, including especially girl children deserve an education, and that no child should be a slave, nor property, nor oppressed or in danger. Indeed, how can we be ever-reaching-out people?

Monday, August 25, 2014

How Long, Michael Brown, How Long?

The funeral service for Michael Brown, filled with music, celebration, and challenge, is over. There’s other news: the earthquake in Northern California, ISIS. The cameras move on.  The Time magazine cover this week: “The Tragedy of Ferguson.”

The New York Times magazine cover June 29, 1990, was “The Tragedy of Detroit.”  Same phrase 24 years ago. That cover was 23 years after the 1967 Detroit “riots.” That’s 47 years. The Rev. Al Sharpton ended his words at Mike Brown’s funeral with, “We are required in his name to change the country.” Will we?

In Detroit 1967 forty-three people were killed in the streets, most of them blacks gunned down by police or the National Guard. Eventually President Johnson sent in 4,700  federal troops.  Afterwards “For Sale” signs sprang up in white neighborhoods.  Developers built shopping malls beyond Eight Mile and a mass exodus began.  The story of Detroit is a long and lingering one.  Then it was white suburbs vs. a black city.  There have been racial tensions in St. Louis for just as many years. But this time, St. Louis County particularly North County, has grown more black while whites move further out to the exurbs.

One quote from 1990 article by then black Mayor Coleman Young, echoes today: “White people find it extremely hard to live in a neighborhood they don’t control.”

Why do I contrast these two cities, when I could draw incidents from dozens of others?  Why do I have a 1990 magazine?  Because I and my family lived in Detroit in the summer of 1967 and because I lived in St. Louis before that.

I was serving a church in St. Louis Hills, just inside the south county line; my husband served a congregation in North St. Louis. We went back and forth. I got into trouble in my all-white congregation, when I marched in solidarity and protest in the streets of St. Louis after the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four Sunday School  girls. My picture just happened to appear on TV. About me, congregation members said, “She’s very nice. It’s just that she has this problem: she likes Negroes.”

Four years later, living and serving in Detroit, I was 8 ½ months pregnant when in July, 1967, we saw the smoke begin to rise. Later that night, while hearing “This Land is My Land; This Land is Your Land” play on TV, the trailer across the bottom said “Curfew. Everyone must be off the streets.”  Well, people did not leave the streets.  The city burned, night after night. The police and military guns were protecting major stores and aimed at us, the inner city residents.  I was young, then, but I remember the moment it became so clear (even after working for years in the Civil Rights movement) that change will not come just because there has been a tragedy. National TV cameras had left Detroit. President Lyndon Johnson came on TV and said that things were calm now and, “The troops are gone.” The troops were not gone.
After that everyone had more guns. In 1992, after the Rodney King beating in LA, over 2,300 people were injured.

Guns and more guns. We had hoped the tragedy of Sandy Hook would change things.

Cameras will leave Ferguson for now. But we dare not forget yesterday’s headlines. (Just where have the child immigrants at our southern border gone in the past few weeks?)

And we need to do more than remember headlines, lest names change but headlines be merely repeated. Systematic problems can be addressed: community organizing, political engagement, voter registration, commitment to truly integrated public schools, facing the militarization of law enforcement.

At the funeral Michael Brown’s name was recognized as being now known around the world with the potential for his young life to be a turning point for change.  A Church of God in Christ pastoral representative whose own son had been gunned down on the streets asked, “Will things ever get better? Will justice ever be achieved?” He empathized how hard it is to understand, and quoted Phil 4:7, “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Including himself and his wife he said to the parents of Michael and the parents of Trayvon Martin, “You didn’t choose to be part of this group, but we have a special calling, to be agents of change.”

Last week Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson said, “When these days are over and Mike Brown’s family is still weeping . . . We need to thank Mike Brown for his life and we need to thank him for the change he’s going to make that is going to make us better.” The days ahead will be hard, very hard. We need to call for and work urgently towards justice, peace and reconciliation.

I watched the service via live streaming video. Held at Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis which seats 2,500 with 2000 overflow, I heard the powerful Gospel music.  Nurses in white lined the center aisle.
The Rev. Michael Jones welcomed everyone to the “Life celebration.”  He said that the church is a place of peace and refuge because of the Prince of Peace. The Old Testament lesson was Psalm 27  read with fervor, “When evildoers assail me . . .” (v. 2) and the powerful beginning, “The Lord is my light and my salvation: whom shall I fear?” Another person read from the New Testament, Romans 8:28-39. I love that text, especially, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, not things to come, nor power, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”(vs. 37-39)

Activists, hundreds of members of the Ferguson community, large numbers of the extended family sat and stood and clapped (some more loudly than others or course—not all black churches are alike). Jesse Jackson was there as were Martin Luther King III and his sister Rev. Bernice King, along with quite a few members of Congress. Two and a half hours later, more people could have spoken, but it was time to go. We had been to Church together. The funeral procession left for St. Peter’s Cemetery.

Oh, and the baby I was carrying in July 1967 in Detroit? He was born, but a few weeks late. His birth story goes, “He wasn’t so sure he wanted to come into this world.”  For over twenty years he has been a public high school vocal music teacher, creating community among teenagers not only by singing together, but through listening to each other’s stories, pain, and joy, in their own lives and internationally through global music.