An Open Seat, Just For You

This week’s post is written by a special guest: my daughter, Rheannon. She is a freshman in high school this year, active in a local service organization, theater, and her church’s youth group (as well as Freedom Fellowship which she talks about in the post).

Many of these thoughts have been circulating in her mind for a long time, but the sermon we heard at our church yesterday brought some clarity and focus. I hope these words will encourage you as they have encouraged me. 

Yesterday at church my preacher talked about the kingdom of God, and how hard it was to understand how church was really supposed to be. He spoke about how the kingdom is not where you are comfortable – church is not the place where everyone looks like you, thinks like you, believes what you do.

Church is where you are different, and challenged, and uncomfortable.

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This picture was taken at Freedom Fellowship, a satellite church of Highland. I’ve been going to Freedom for six years – longer than I’ve been at Highland. Every third Saturday night, Freedom does a special worship service and serves communion. Since I’ve been going, I’ve stood at the end of the line and given a hug to the people passing through the line.

I have always felt the closest to God in those moments. I’ve felt the presence of God on earth every time someone new passes through and return the hug for the first time.

Freedom’s ten year anniversary was a HUGE event – a big neighborhood party. Everyone who had been at Freedom in the beginning spoke about all the special things Freedom offered, and shared their favorite memories. Terry St. Pierre spoke about communion and how it started. Then, he talked about my hugging and how much it had affected the people who experienced it.

Then, we broke bread. And I gave hugs like I had been doing for almost half my life.

The woman featured in the picture had been going to Freedom for a couple of weeks at that point. I’d seen her in worship, uncomfortable at first, and then getting into it as the weeks went on. Every time I saw her raise her hand in worship, it brightened my day in amazing amounts.

I believe God put her in Freedom for a reason. I believe God sent her to Freedom to experience his love.

I believe she was sent to feel how worthy she was in the kingdom.

This would be the second time she had taken communion at Freedom. The first time, I’d given her a short hug and let her move on quickly like I did with a lot of newcomers.

That night, though, I gave her the biggest hug I could manage. I tried to relate to her God’s limitless love for her.

And I received more from that hug then I gave. She gripped my neck and gave everything right back to me, and I’ve never felt more blessed.

Because God’s kingdom comes when people give up their safe zones for the unknown without fear. God’s kingdom comes to earth when we allow ourselves to love without boundaries.

I believe that Freedom is the closest I will ever come to heaven on earth, simply because there is no judgement and no hate. Freedom gives me a chance to experience things churches strive for.

We welcome everyone.

We do not judge.

We do not leave anyone out of what they want to be a part of.

We do not assign certain jobs to certain people based on sex, or race, or social status.

Freedom is a place where the things others people say and believe no longer hold any truth or importance and you can believe what God believes about you and be affirmed by dozens of people that know how important you really are.

Today, we’re celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who fought for equality and respect among all people.

One point made in church yesterday was that a big part of the civil rights movement was the assembly of church. MLK was invited to talk with many churches, to have dialogue with the people who believed what he believed and who wanted to help.

Church has always been important to people who wish to bring peace among humans. Church is the place that people could be together and not be afraid.

And suddenly, church seemed to stop being that place. It began to become a place where we pretended to be perfectly okay to fit in. Church became a place where I no longer wanted to be.

But Freedom Fellowship? That’s where, at my most uncomfortable, I felt the most peace. Freedom is where I began to believe in the power of church again.

And there will always be an open seat, on any pew, on either side of the auditorium for anyone who wants to be there.

There is always a place at any table, inside or out, where anyone can sit and share a meal before worship starts.

There is always a place in God’s kingdom for anyone who has ever existed.

There is always a place for you.

Update: I forgot to give photo credit to Zach Snyder. The photo was taken on Freedom Fellowship’s 10th anniversary celebration.

Things Have Not Gotten Worse, We Just Started Paying Attention

Back in the mid-90s, I attended a conservative Christian college in west Texas. When I arrived as a freshman, I felt like I had a pretty solid grasp on just about everything. You know, the typical 18 year old. During my sophomore year, I started attending a predominantly African-American church.

It was a great experience. It was the first time I worshiped in a context different from the one in which I grew up. It was a time of learning and growth for me. I learned as much about preaching from the minister there as I did in all my classes at the college I was attending.

One lesson I struggled to learn, however, was that being a black person in west Texas was a totally different experience than being a white man in west Texas. (For that matter, the experience was different in most, or all, areas of the country.) I even went so far as to tell my friend, the preacher, that he was wrong. I told him he was imagining things. I told him racism no longer existed and he needed to get over it.

I was convinced that I was doing him a favor enlightening him on how much better his life would be if he would just get over it.

And then it happened.

I was shopping with him in the college bookstore one day. In addition to being a local preacher, he was also a full-time staff member at the university—Spiritual Activities Director. At a college that had daily chapel, he was in charge of coordinating that chapel. He was on stage and in front of the entire university a lot. And as we walked around the campus store, he was followed by an employee. (Poorly, I might add.)

A full-time staff member, a local preacher, a man dressed in slacks and button-down shirt, was followed. You know, just in case he was going to steal a pack of pencils.

That event bothered me. It opened my eyes in a way that was painful. But my education would not end there. Later that year, our college had the opportunity to host a national youth event on campus. The event was attended primarily by African-American high school students from across the country. There were going to be 1000 high school students on a college campus. Huge score for the recruiting department, right?

The Director of Admissions at that time wrote a letter to the Dean of Students. In that letter, he used the sentence, “I know we want to have large groups of students on our campus, but are these the kind of students we want?” The Dean had an appropriate response: he wrote several comments in pencil and sent it back to the admissions office.

Two events separated by only a few months. They both made something abundantly clear: as much as I wished it wasn’t true, racism and prejudice were still alive and well within my church and my country.

Now, those events did not make that true. But they opened my eyes. In other words, race relations did not get worse that year. I just started paying attention.*

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I remember a story when a black man was pulled out of his car by the police and severely beaten by four officers while others watched. Even though the event was videotaped, none of the four officers was convicted in criminal court. The event led to a number of riots across the country. It even led to a response condemning the police officers’ actions from the President.

Ferguson 2014? No. Los Angeles 1991. Almost 25 years ago.

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When I went to high school, our football team was good. We won the state championship my junior year. My senior year, we made it to the state championship game again. Things didn’t go so well. I believe the final score was 35-0. I remember the 0 that we scored. The other team may have had more. Our quarterback, a black classmate of mine, was all the rage in the town while we were winning. When he was pulled out of the game in the 4th quarter, the townsfolk sitting in the stands changed their tune from “hometown hero” to “worthless n—-r.”

2015? No. 1993.

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Racial tension is not higher now than it was before.

My college roommate, an African-American, didn’t become afraid to drive through Louisiana and Mississippi in the past year.

Parents of black children didn’t all of a sudden become nervous about how their children would be treated in the past 12 months.

The reason you think things are worse now is you are being forced to pay attention. Last year, Walter Scott would not have been a story. The police officer who shot him in the back and planted evidence on him in order to fabricate a story would have gotten away with it.

Last year, Sandra Bland likely would not have made the news cycle. She would have been portrayed as a belligerent black woman who ended up committing suicide. Most people would not have cared.

Still, it is true that many people do not care. But thanks to increased cell phone videotaping, livestreaming, social media storms, and just sheer tenacity, people are getting the message out more. People of color are no more oppressed now than they were 10, 20, or 30 years ago. But more people are finally listening.

And it is about time.

Because people of color are also no less oppressed now that they were 10, 20, or 30 years ago.

You might be uncomfortable. You might want to blame President Obama. You may want to throw around the term “race-baiter” and confirm that you don’t really know what that word means.

But we cannot deny this truth: race relations are not worse in 2015 than they were in 2005. Or 1995. Or 1985. We are just finally talking about it more. We are using social media more. We are utilizing the technology at our fingertips more. Those things we wanted to ignore before are now put in front of us on an almost daily basis.

And we need to stop ignoring it or simply wishing it away. We have to pay attention. Whether we want to or not.

And you have to choose how you will respond.

I respond by saying Black Lives Matter. I respond by working to fight against unjust societal structures. I respond by acknowledging my privilege and looking for ways to leverage it to help others. I respond by listening to people who have had a different experience than me. I respond by acknowledging that advances that have been made in civil rights and race relations, while commendable, have not yet gone far enough. I respond by seeking to have uncomfortable conversations with people I may disagree with in order to create stronger relationships and build better communities.

It’s uncomfortable. But it’s necessary. Problems exist. They don’t go away by ignoring them. We’ve got work to do.

 

*I believe it is important to note that since the time of this story, the college I attended has done a lot to address their past sins of racial discrimination. There is still a ways to go, but they are making honest attempts to move forward.

Symbols Matter

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Symbols matter.

Certain images are forever etched into our memories both individually and collectively. That’s why people were so upset when this image:

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Or this one:

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Were co-opted with rainbow imagery.

It’s why people asked me why I would dare make my facebook profile picture yellow equal sign on a blue background (or pink on red).

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It’s why some people wear a cross with Jesus on it and some wear a cross without Jesus on it. It’s also why some people do not wear a cross at all.

Symbols matter.

Sometimes, the meaning of a symbol can change. The fact that the Christmas tree was once a pagan symbol is largely irrelevant. The cross was used a torture device and now it is a symbol of God’s grace and mercy and His presence in the world.

Some symbols are filled with conflicted meanings. The U.S. flag for many represents colonialism and oppression. For many, it represents freedom and courage. For others, it is simply a symbol that unites a country of diverse people.

But the meaning of some symbols cannot change. Some symbols are not conflicted in their meaning. The Confederate flag is a symbol of white supremacy and treason. It is the flag that flew for the army that seceded from the Union. It is the flag that was flown in defiance of the Civil Rights movement. While there are some people who may have grown up without that realization, it does not change the fact that the heritage the flag refers to is one of hate.

The flag coming down from the South Carolina statehouse today is an important move. May that flag never fly in a public place again. And for those who wish to use their right to fly the flag at their home or on their vehicle—go for it. You can do that.

But ask why that symbol is so important to you. Why do you need to fly a flag that represents hate and treason to show your pride? Why can you disregard the experience of generations of people who recognize that symbol as one of oppression?

We are repulsed by swastikas. We feel a sense of apprehension or anger when we see pentagrams. We are even convincing ourselves we are seeing ISIS flags at gay pride parades.

Symbols matter.

If the symbols that are important to me anger you, it falls to me to act out of love and understanding. I must ask you why. I must learn from you what your experience is.
If the symbols that are important to you anger me, it falls to me to act out of love and understanding. I must ask you why. I must learn from you what your experience is.

They are important. But relationships are even more important. If my symbols are affecting our relationship, then work must be done. Tough conversations must be had. Humility and love must be present. And a desire to be in relationship must be greater than a desire to be right.

The Charleston Murderer Is A Terrorist, But He Is Not The Problem

In Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, I was taught that alcohol was not my problem. It was a symptom of my problem. The true problem ran much deeper than the substance I poured into my body.

A young man walked into one of the most historically significant African-American churches in the South, opened fire, and took the lives of 9 people. Not only are the lives of the families of those 9 people forever altered, an entire community now mourns, and a nation is brought face to face again with the reality of racism in our midst.

But he is not the problem. The problem runs much deeper.

The problem is hate. In a state that still flies a flag that is a symbol of hatred, division, and white supremacy people are actually asking where this young man could have learned to hate black people the way he does.

It is not enough to think we can just ignore our differences and our nation’s history and the result will be our children growing up to be loving and accepting. We must teach love. We must teach appreciation of one another’s cultural differences. We must be examples of this in the ways we speak and the ways we act. We must set the example in speaking against injustice of any kind. Until we actively teach love and appreciation of our differences, we will face these issues over and over.

The problem is maintenance of the status quo. We don’t want to be uncomfortable. We don’t want anyone to rock the boat. We want to believe that things are okay. Or at the very least that they are better than 50 years ago. We want to believe that if we don’t talk about the problems that exist we can pretend they don’t exist.

The problem is too many white people have allowed the status quo to go unchallenged.

The problem is too many of you are upset with me saying “white people” in my last statement than with the truth of that statement.

As Christians (especially white Christians), we are often unwilling to talk about racism from the pulpit because we are afraid it will make us uncomfortable when we mess with the status quo at church. But nine people had their lives taken from them while they were at church. It’s okay for us to get a little uncomfortable.

“The way things used to be” or “the way things are” is not good enough. The status quo lulls us into a false sense of security. We think we are balanced. But that balance comes at the expense of recognizing those for whom balance is little more than a fantasy. We must wake up to the problems that exist around us. We must acknowledge our role, either explicit or implicit. We must make changes. The simplest way to begin that is build relationships with people who have different experiences than we do. And it must be intentional.

The problem is trying to make excuses instead of facing what the real problem is. Media sources came out yesterday trying to proclaim that this was a religious issue, not a racial one. Many pundits said we would never know what the motive truly was behind what he did. Many people took to social media to say this was not about race and we should quit making everything about race and we are race-baiters for saying this was a racist attack.

Do you know who made this a racial issue? The shooter did. Him and only him. He made this a racial issue when he chose the place he chose; when chose the victims he chose; when he spoke the words he chose: “You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”

When we refuse acknowledge the real problem we alienate ourselves from those who are truly victims. Racism is still alive and well in our country and when we try to sweep it under the rug or give it a different name or turn a blind eye to it we are telling people of color that we truly don’t care about them or their experiences.

When we acknowledge that racism exists, we can do something about it. When we confront the structures and systems that are infected with the disease of institutional racism we can begin to effect change.

But we cannot change anything until we point to it and say, “This can stand no longer.”

The shooter perpetrated a horrific evil earlier this week. But he is not the problem. The problem runs much deeper.

The problem is the system that allowed him to grow into that hate and the individuals who turned a blind eye and a deaf ear because they thought everything was “good enough.”

Let us work on the real problem.

Can We Actually Learn Anything From McKinney

My youngest son wants to grow up and become a police officer. In fact, the local police chief was willing to sit down with him one day recently and have a conversation about his career goal.

I attend church with and enjoy spending time with several officers on the police force. I have even had email conversations about topics on which we disagree with a couple of them. I look forward to having even more.

I truly feel for the officers who were terrified by the events that occurred in Dallas last night.

But I still think we have a lot to talk about concerning the state of policing in America.

Calling for police reform does not make one an enemy of police.

Saying that police violence is a problem does not mean one hates the police.

Seeking a better system does not mean one does not care when a police officer is hurt, or killed, in the line of duty.

We still need to have some difficult, uncomfortable conversations.

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What we saw on the video from McKinney, TX, this week was awful. There is no way around it: the situation devolved into a mess and one person in particular was caught on tape treating children in a way no child should be treated.

After the video of Officer Casebolt went viral, he was called out by his own chief.

“Conley emphasized that 11 out of 12 officers on scene ‘performed according to their training.’ He decried those who violated community rules and disrespected authorities during the incident, but also made clear that Casebolt, as a police officer, is held to a higher standard.” Conley also used the terms “indefensible” and “out of control” to describe Casebolt’s actions.

This statement from a highly ranked police officer highlights both positives and negatives.

First, the negative.

Twelve officers responding to teenagers at a pool party? Specifically, black teenagers at a pool party in a mostly white neighborhood?

There is a suspicion of black bodies in our country; especially when they are somewhere “they don’t belong.” This is a difficult concept for many white people to grasp. This is also a difficult concept for white people to hear. But when teenagers in swim suits necessitate 12 police officers, it is legitimate to question the response.

When the child in the video is referred to as “the black girl” or “the girl with the braids” instead of by her name, DaJerria Becton, it is legitimate to think that black bodies are dehumanized.

Have you ever seriously considered why minorities feel targeted by the police? Or have you essentially dismissed their argument with phrases like “Most police officers are good,” or “It’s not the 50s anymore.”? Have you ever delved into the dark history of the treatment of minorities in our country?

Have you ever sat and listened to a POC talk about their experience?

This altercation began when an adult slapped a teenager and then told the group to go back to their Section 8 housing. Our words reveal a lot about what we believe. They also reveal why minority groups feel threatened, excluded, and unwelcome.

When the voices of white, teenaged witnesses are silenced and the voices of white adults who were not present are given airtime, it is another indication that some people are trying to propagate a story they know isn’t true.

This is also revealed when people continue to rush to the defense of a police officer whose actions were deemed indefensible by his own chief. The person in charge said his officer was out of control. Yet still people are standing up justifying his behavior.

Because too many of us don’t want to believe that people we look up to can and do make mistakes. And some professionals must be held to a much higher standard. Body slamming unarmed teenagers in swimsuits is not acceptable.

But there is also a positive.

A police chief called out one of the bad apples. We hear often that those who do bad things are few and far between, and maybe that is true, but when police departments, FOPs, and city officials refuse to call out the bad ones, it appears they are condoning or covering up bad behavior.

The more people in authority stand up and say, “This is unacceptable behavior,” the more trust will grow.

Likewise, we should want to see more videos of other police officers standing in to try and calm down an out of control colleague. If the “bad apples” truly are few and far between, then let us work together to remove them.

Another positive is the fact that the young people present were willing to speak out and tell the truth about what they saw. When teenagers are willing to stand up for truth and justice, we can begin to feel better about the direction our country is headed.

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These are the beginnings of the conversations we need to have. I live in a community that does not have many of the issues between police and community that are present in so many towns and cities across the country. But that does not mean everything is perfect. There are still conversations to be had. Thankfully, our police chief is (usually) willing to have those conversations.

If we want to see relationships improve, we need to actually build relationships. Talk to each other, not past each other. Community forums, cups of coffee, times for people to admit mistakes made. Transparency from civic officials. Work on the local level.

What many people in the dominant culture (yes, meaning white people) fail to understand is that most protestors are not against the police. They are against the overuse of violence by police in disproportionate numbers towards minorities. If we want to being building and improving relationships in our communities, let’s start by acknowledging that. Let’s listen to the experience of those who feel targeted without telling them they are wrong. From those conversations, growth can begin.

Also, we need to dig deeper than community-police relationships. While those are important to build and nurture, there are systemic issues that create much of the tension. There are many unjust laws and systems that create and maintain poverty and discrimination. We must fight to eradicate these. Do you know how difficult it is to find a job or rent an apartment or get an ID or set up a doctor’s appointment when you are poor? Especially when that poverty has been generational and no one has been present to teach you how to navigate the system?

Learn what it is like for people in lower socio-economic classes to do the things you take for granted.

We must ask why so many churches are silent on issues of social justice. Church, we need to stop being afraid to say things that are deemed political; many issues are not truly political, although they have been politicized. We must still speak truth and justice into those issues. We must not only be preaching and calling for justice from the pulpit, we must be in our neighborhoods-daily-seeking ways to help heal the hurt that exists.

One way to do this? Walk the streets of your neighborhood. Pray for each house and each person living in that house. Knock on the door and ask two simple questions: “Can we pray for you?” “Can we do anything around your house to help you?” Don’t evangelize. Just serve. Build relationships.

We need to have many difficult conversations.

Let’s start talking.