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. 

Monday, August 4, 2014

What Can You See Across a Border?

We recently returned from a two-week trip through Canada. We appreciate Canada and have enjoyed being in most of the provinces through the years. One thing that impresses us every time is that their television weather map does not stop at their border, whereas U.S. weather maps on TV show a vast “nothing” beyond our northern border. For two weeks we could grasp a larger picture. Ah, Maine and New Brunswick sit side by side.

What can we see across borders—all kinds of borders?

The House and Senate left for five weeks without any helpful action on the critical situation at the U.S. southern border.

Hamas tunnels are being destroyed; Israel rockets hit yet another U.N. school.

A commercial airplane is shot down flying high above a war zone on the border of Ukraine and Russia.

Thousands of Syrian refugees remain across borders in Jordan and Lebanon.

The Ebola virus spreads across borders of Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria in West Africa.

It’s all about borders and the need to understand people on other side.

What do we need to see in regard to the Ebola epidemic? People in the U.S. need to look beyond being only concerned that people in this country not be at risk. (Yes, we do need to ensure safety procedures in hospitals against diseases.) We need to see ordinary people in West Africa where the outbreak is by far the largest ever in the nearly four-decade history of Ebola. We need to focus on the huge risk to people there who are being infected and dying. And, yes, help. For example, through Doctors without Borders. 

How can we see people across borders when we build higher and higher walls?
How can we see people across borders from thousands of feet in the air?

What do we need to see when children are walking across the Texas border and turning themselves in to border authorities? Can most Americans even picture the countries of Central America, particularly Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, from which the unaccompanied and migrant children are coming? We need to commit ourselves to global education beyond our own self-interests to see the complexities of the contexts. We need to understand the issues of drug trafficking in Central America, Mexico, and the United States, in which we also participate, which contribute to this migration. Even while holding divergent views on how best to shape and implement just and comprehensive immigration policy, we need to really see the children.
And we need to go beyond our fears which come from not really seeing, fears which breed rumors such as “Unaccompanied minors are carrying drugs” when drugs are not being found on the children from Central America. Tens of thousands of children are fleeing terrible poverty and gang violence in their countries. They risk dying on the journey rather than becoming killed in their home countries.
Two days before the full outbreak of World War II more than 10,000 Jewish children from Germany, Poland, Austria and Czechoslovakia were sent by train to Great Britain. The “Kinderstransport” saved their lives as their parents and relatives provided an escape from the horrors of Nazism.
Today parents from Central American countries face a similar dilemma, and they too have chosen to send their children to seek refuge from the horrors of daily life under the ruthless actions of drug cartels and street gangs.  Rather than being welcomed, as were the Kinderstransport children, they are received with suspicion and seen by many as intruders, opportunists and law-breakers. But some families and church and humanitarians groups are really seeing the children and offering hospitality and care.
On our trip, in Buxton, Ontario, Canada, we visited one of the settlements which was an endpoint of the underground railroad for slaves from the United States seeking safety and freedom in the mid-19th century. Refugees made it across a border.
Borders will always present challenges   No one person or country can deal with a border crisis on their own, but together we can. We need to work with those communities and countries who feel so overwhelmed, not just for our sake, but for the sake of the world.  
What do we see?  We will not understand what we do not see. We will not be able to act wisely on what we do not understand.  We need to look not only through a US lens. Moving beyond personal fear we can begin to see global consequences and search out global answers.

Home from Canada, I will this week be attending a memorial service for my friend Thom Determan who died slowly from cancer.  Up to the very end he worked every day on global education.   Purposeful work.  Incomplete work that we all need to continue.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Aimee: A Caretaker of Creation

Picture the scene outside six months ago. If you were in the Dubuque area or anywhere in the northern United States or Canada then you surely have not forgotten how high the snow was the first of February and how many nights temperatures fell below zero all winter long.

Spring came slowly. I watched through March and April and into May to see which perennials, bushes and trees had made it through the hard winter. Our Red Bud tree had only a few flowers, but the leaves finally came. Some of our shrubs which each year had borne the weight of heavy snow, this year had dead brown sections. Our dogwood tree bore no leaves at all.

For years I had nurtured a small evergreen volunteer in a large pot, taking it in during the winter. But last summer, when our 4-year-old granddaughter, Aimee, was visiting from Phoenix, we boldly planted it in the backyard. Covered with snow all winter, now its needles were totally brown. There was absolutely no sign of life; but I could not bear to discard it. Not yet. Aimee would be visiting again this summer. So I waited, and then, in June, new green life pushed through at the ends of its branches, beyond the brown needles.
In mid-June, when I had determined it was time to cut down the obviously dead Dogwood, my husband saw oh-so-small new leaves on the tree.

A hard winter indeed. We have a God of Creation and persistent renewal, giving life amid signs of death. Human beings experience the destructive forces of tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, forest fires, drought and flood.  How can we understand a God of creation in the midst of destruction? Yet many of us believe that the Creator God is also the Renewing God who loves the Creation and calls us to be stewards of the earth, not to dominate and use it only for personal benefit.  We who are part of creation are called to be caretakers. Yes, first conservation. (Some remember when only a handful of people recycled.) Yes, interest in ecology. And yes, the seriousness of climate change. We, who seemingly have so little power or control are participants. I believe the Creator God loves the creation and calls us to watch for the redbuds, and to participate in the renewal of the earth.

Aimee visited again this summer. She saw the brown dead needles and the new green life and said, “The sunshine came!” Together we tended the young tree, still alive.