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.