It’s About Time

It’s About Time

You don’t have to go to Pharoah to design a course on freedom, so says Professor Michael Eric Dyson, of Vanderbilt University.  Per usual, Dyson puts the pith into pithy.  We need his clarity as we enter Black History Month 2023. Right on time, Michael Eric Dyson nails the ugliness, the meanness and inappropriateness of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ efforts to block the content of AP African American Studies curriculum. 

This is but a contemporary example of a governor standing in the schoolhouse door.  It is like George Wallace in 1963 who sought to block African American students Vivian Malone Jones, Dave McGlathery, and James Hood from enrolling in the University of Alabama.  This time it is a governor seeking to block the free exchange of ideas and a shared knowledge of a painful history.  It is an attempt to keep us from acting like respectful adults, as people open to the free expression of differing ideas.

But, what about us?  Easy to pick on a demagogue stirring up racial animosity as he prepares to run for the presidency. How might churches faithfully respond in this time?  Let me speak for my group, the United Methodists.  We, who are heirs to John Wesley’s legacy, have a ready response built into our theological DNA.

Sadly, many of our congregations and denominational institutions have forgotten and others often don’t display it. Early Methodists, in cities like London and Newcastle, formed a Strangers Friend Society. Wesley taught Christians “should meet strangers in their own habitation.” These societies designed “to visit and relieve the sick and distressed” were expressions of acceptance and inclusion. One such society still meets, weekly, in John Wesley’s New Room in Bristol near a clock identified as the Strangers’ Friend clock.

In the United States, the distressing chronic illness of racism continues – sometimes it seems to overwhelm. The tragic death of Tyre Nichols in Memphis in recent days is an expression of our dilemma. Let me suggest it is time for United Methodists to turn STRANGERS INTO FRIENDS.  What if United Methodist congregations across the nation and world offered classes in Critical Race Theory or on Being “Woke” to Racial Injustice?  Okay, not realistic, you say.  Well, what if… oh, let’s say 50%, or 25%, or even 10% of United Methodist congregations offered such courses?  What if pastors and lay leaders in these places taught complementary classes based on Biblical sources and drawing on curriculum already developed by fine faculty in our seminaries?

 In a time when all Christians, especially United Methodists, are too focused on much less relevant matters like institutional survival, or on how to handle our divisions, what if we called for healing of the disease of racism in our nation. What if we acted like we believed in a conversion (a wokeness).  What if we called for the need of repentance and conversion from our chronic racism?

I can imagine certain politicians’ discomfort when they passed the church with the sign “Critical Race Theory Taught Here, Monday Evening at 7:00 PM, Register NOW.”  It’s about time!

Avoiding Deep Change: Racism and the Ineffectual Church, Chapter 2

Racism and the Ineffectual Church, Chapter 2

Racism and the Ineffectual Church, Chapter 2

“Preaching leads to changed lives,” I recall one of my seminary homiletics professor’s assertation. Another professor, a diminutive Scot, with a marvelous Scottish brogue (involving the trilling of ‘r’s in his speech), offered instead that “Ser-r-mons are r-r-eminder-rs of where God is al-r-r-eady active in the lives of the people.”

In my experience, sermons typically aren’t life-changing events for the hearer — or the preacher. Like workshops they can be helpful, but not often transformative.  Now, after more than five decades, I have much appreciation for my Scottish professor’s understandings. A sermon may assist others in taking a step along faith’s journey.  I don’t recall anyone greeting me after worship and saying, “that sermon was transformative.” On the other hand, years later a few have said, “You didn’t know it but that word came at a time in my life when I was ready to hear.” Amazingly, years or decades later, some have said, “I remember that sermon back in 19??.  It came at a time when I was seeking another path, another vocation, or a new partner. Thanks.”

Recently, I wrote about well-intentioned but ineffectual Diversity, Equity and Inclusion workshops. Like sermons, such events rarely lead to substantial change in racialism and discrimination. But this is not written as a screed against workshops or sermons. Instead, it is the proposition that when these activities are accompanied by a clear invitation to join with others in witnessing and addressing racial discrimination, remarkable transformation is possible.

So, why this focus on preaching and racism? Well, put simply, addressing racism is about more than words or ideas. Racism is often distilled into the belief that it is only about personal attitudes or prejudice. For Whites — for all people – sermons are effective as they are joined to changes in the ways we live. Parker Palmer suggests “Changed thinking doesn’t lead to changed actions so much as changed actions lead to changes in the ways one thinks.”  Sermons and workshops are insufficient, helpful perhaps, but in isolation they may serve as an inoculation avoiding fundamental change.

Several Open Housing campaigns in the 1960s carried the slogan: Your heart may be in the right place, but are you? As hundreds of thousands were moving to the suburbs avoiding racially integrated schools and neighborhoods, the church was… well, preaching a lot about racial justice.  Meanwhile in only a few cities were churches at the center of racial justice and integration efforts.  In 1961 Gibson Winter, theologian and social scientist, documented this in the book “The Suburban Captivity of the Churches.”

Dr. William Pannell

A cherished friend of mine, Professor William Pannell of Fuller Seminary, is now in his nineties. We met in the late 1960s when as a young seminarian his book “My Friend, the Enemy” spoke powerfully about racism being more than personal prejudice. As friends, he taught me that it was not enough to have a “changed heart.”  I needed to acknowledge the enemy we both faced of white privilege, culture and discrimination. 

Sermons, workshops, and conferences can be mechanisms of avoidance. Bill speaks of the 1966 World Congress on Evangelism. The theme for the 1966 gathering was One Race, One Gospel, One Task.  Evangelical leaders invited more than 1,200 delegates from 100 countries to Berlin for this World Congress on Evangelism (an important precursor to the historic 1974 Lausanne Congress). Pannell speaks of a small group of African American Christians who discover that even though the theme was One Race, One Gospel, One Task, there was a silence about racial injustice.  Imagine this in the middle of the Civil Rights struggles of those years. As Pannell tells it, (see:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AkpYIg8tpOI) those concerned about this omission confronted the conference leadership and, as is often the case, they were asked to write a document on racism to be approved by the Congress.  Pannell then reports, these more than fifty years later, that document must be “sitting on a shelf somewhere.”  You see, the passing of a nicely worded document, was not connected to concrete institutional and cultural change.  Or as Pannell would have it, “Vital and Biblical evangelization.”

All around we have the opportunity to join in activities to address racial injustice and do more than attend workshop or preach sermons.  However, those of us who are now, or have been, a part of Mainline Christian leadership need to learn to listen to and support others.  There are some remarkable young persons ready to teach and lead us. Persons who come from different racial experiences.  I will share more in future chapters. Urgently now, look for places where persons are addressing the evil of White Christian Nationalism. Check out the upcoming event: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/how-white-christian-nationalism-threatens-our-democracy-tickets-439763242697#search.  Then do more.  A true addressing of racism involves deep change in the ways our institutions understand, and act differently based on the structural, financial and cultural options pursued.

One of my other heroes was Thomas Broden on the faculty of Notre Dame Law School. Tom joined a team working on an initiative called Project Understanding, back in the early 1970s. It focused on city congregations across the country (Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Dallas, Indianapolis, Bay Area, South Bend). My work was to carry out research on ways racial attitudes might be changed and how racism in many forms might be addressed.

I recall the day we recommended to Broden that lay persons from many denominations be gathered to study and consider ways to address racial injustice. Tom’s response was “That’s okay as far as it goes.” He had my attention! He went on, “We will want to get them involved in some activity with persons who differ racially and in situations where discrimination can be clearly seen.”  In South Bend, one of the activities he suggested was to have lay people sit in welfare offices and observe the cheating going on there.  I was appalled – Tom laughed – “Oh, he said, cheaters will be found, but few of them will be those seeking assistance!”  He was right, so very right.  Today, in Indiana every welfare office must post “the rights of those who seek assistance.”  That came directly from the work of lay people in Project Understanding.  In Chicago and Dallas, change came from teams who sought to rent an apartment (some teams were White only, some Black only, some mixed racially). After visiting the same apartment and seeking to rent it, the teams would gather and learn about the ways discrimination was seen in the prospect of renting the same apartment. In California, there were engagements with persons seeking immigration or work documents.  Sermons helped, workshops were okay, but the research showed that true and lasting changes in racial attitudes were rooted in real and concrete efforts to address discrimination and unjust institutions.

Or, as my seminary preaching professor would put It, “Serr-r-mons are r-r-eminder-rs of where God is al-r-r-eady active in the lives of the people.”

Avoiding Deep Change: Racism and the Ineffectual Church, Chapter 1

Avoiding Deep Change: Racism and the Ineffectual Church, Chapter 1

A year ago, October 1, 2021, I made a calendar note, “Write about this next year!” A year ago today, I had just read of another “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” workshop planned by a denominational group. My heart sank. One could find dozens of such events planned — and, no doubt, there were consultants who were happy to have the work!

Please understand. I am not against “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” commitments. A good thing this. I’m not as enthusiastic about workshops, training events, webinars, etc. that are unhinged from engagement in the communities nearby where undiscovered neighbors, real people, live and work. Workshops can become tools of avoidance, especially as stand alone, one-off, efforts. Without a deeper look at institutional and cultural strata shaped by racism over decades there are well intentioned but shallow responses. Tragically, they sometimes result in representational leadership (a minority person promoted to a leadership role) without addressing the deeply embedded patterns upon which institutions function.

Let me confess that I delayed a year in writing this because I didn’t want to be reactive. Perhaps, if I waited, something would emerge to assuage my doubts. Or, I could give a more measured response than simply concluding most church leaders would prefer to avoid, delay and placate all the while appearing to make progress by offering training sessions. Perhaps I would see real, deep and sustainable change. As of a year — I still wait for something substantial to address the racial injustice in which we are mired. Even worse, in this year it appears white nationalism sentiments have grown, sadly often within congregations.

A year ago, following the murders of George Floyd and Breanna Taylor I had been involved in several conversations, web seminars, zoom meetings and the like, where I attempted to share research that showed education and sermons were not sufficient to bring enduring change. I attempted to argue that DEI workshops would not be enough — they would be ineffectual. I even warned pastors “Don’t preach that sermon” until you have in place a way to work with neighbors on antiracism measures in your setting. This advice was not based on a hunch, but on research on addressing racism that had been done decades earlier as part of a program called Project Understanding. That research made it clear that real and enduring change to address racism at a root level involved action with others who brought their differences, as well as education.

A true addressing of racism involves deep change in the ways our institutions understand, and act differently based on their financial and cultural options. There are instruments designed to address institutional racism. These were not requested. There was work to be done beyond training sessions — work to support minority owned banks, address racial discrimination in housing, business, and real estate. Any true addressing of racism in the church would take more than sermons, minority clergy serving as pastors in predominantly white settings or pulpit exchanges once a year with a racial ethnic congregation down the street. There were concrete, measurable ways congregants could be deeply involved, spiritually alive and committed to take common action with persons of different racial and religious groups — action for fundamental change.

An early Inventory of Institutional Racism, from 1973

The year has past… Surely some good has resulted. Please share this in the comments section. Even so, I don’t hear much being reported that is substantial and sustainable. I write a year later of my concern and will in the next few postings offer again insights regarding other approaches. I will share insights from saints who are nearing the end of life or have now passed on — persons like William Pannell at Fuller Seminary, Thomas Broden at Notre Dame, Joseph Taylor and LaVerta Terry at Indiana University, Gilbert James at Asbury Seminary and Jicelyn Thomas who was a gifted preacher and theologian taken from our earthly fellowship too soon, too soon.

2-2-2-2uesday

2-2-2-2uesday

Today is a Twos-Day. This, the twenty-second (22) day, of the second (2) month, of the year twenty-twenty-two (2022), has me considering the things that might be “twinned” together. What are two places, two events, or two persons that share something in common.

Briefly then, I write of two persons who come to mind on this day of 2s. I join author John Green in not being a fan of heroizing individuals; even so, I risk it here. The belief that there is some hero in a white hat who will come along and save the day, is a deeply inculcated myth in our culture. It does much damage. One the one hand, some folks chose to wait for the hero to appear, not stepping forward to join others in seeking to address some injustice of shared dilemma. On the other hand some think they are called to act as hero and come up with “the great fix” that will solve whatever problem they perceive to be at hand. One doesn’t have to live long in low-wealth communities to see the damage done by the continuing cycle of “heros” who appear and believe they are going to fixt things, all the while ignoring the gifts of the persons or neighborhoods they were scheming to FIX.

Even so, on this day of twinning, there are some difference-makers who come to mind. They show up in our world to point us to noblier paths. On a day when tyrants, like Vladimir Putin, act as bullies on the international stage, there are other options. On a day when one can, in hindsight, see through the thinly veiled efforts of our former U.S. president to take us out of NATO, and undermine the democratically elected government of the Ukraine, I want to hold up two other persons. If Putin and Trump can be seen as twinned — at least in their preference for autocratic governance, there are two men who have shown a different path forward: Paul Farmer and Jim Wallis.

The news came yesterday that Paul Farmer had died. I only met Farmer once and briefly. Still his life, his writings, and his witness standout. He would not accept that healthcare should limited to only the wealty or privileged neighborhoods in our nation or world. He did his work encouraging the resources at hand — whether with the people by establishing neighborhood health worker corps or building clinics and hospitals using the natural resources and gifts of the communities where they were built. Read more about Paul Famer here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/02/21/how-paul-farmer-saved-millions-of-lives/.

Farmer was clear and persistent. His calling was to act along with others, to make a difference, to give access to health care FOR ALL. A friend tells of a time Paul Farmer was asked to meet with executives of a large pharmaceutical company in the Midwest. In his presentation, he said he could make a difference in a nation in Africa if a donation of $3 million in specific medicines could be made available. At the close of this talk, the executives quickly huddled, then came back saying the best the company could do was $1 million of these medicines. Dr. Farmer responded that, then, he wouldn’t be able to accept their donation because it wasn’t sufficient to the challenge the people were facing. As he stood to leave, the executives asked for a moment to discuss the matter further. Upon their return to the room, they assured Paul Farmer he would receive ALL the medical supplies he requested. Clarity and Persistence. We grieve Paul Farmer’s early death and celebrate the gifts he shared.

The second man that comes to mind is Jim Wallis. Jim is still very much alive and I give thanks for this. My friendship with Jim has been a long one, beginning back in San Francisco in 1974 when we were both called Young Evangelicals. I was teaching in an urban studies progam and invited Jim to come speak at a conference on the role Christians might play to address discrimination and poverty in our cities. As the editor of a new magazine, The Post American, later to become Sojourners Magazine, Jim was one of several persons who were emerging as important Christian witnesses. Jim would be the first to say he is not a hero; and my years of friendship would confirm his assessment. Like every person I know, he has his blemishes. Still, I suspect, that when a list of the saints of our generation is written, his name will be on that list (or at least he will be in a place of honorable-mention!).

Currently, I give thanks that Jim Wallis’ voice and experience in making it clear that voting rignts for all in the U.S. today is a moral issue: https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2022/02/18/sojourners-jim-wallis-voting-rights-religious-left/. As Wallis puts it, “For me it’s the first book of the Bible. We were all made in God’s image and likeness. Voter suppression on the basis of skin color is a throwing away of Imago Dei.” Jim has spent more than fifty years giving witness to the ways the Gospel calls us to live beyond the prejudices and discrimination still so prevelant. Clarity and Persistence.

These two men are connected by Clarity and Persistance: 1) they believe every human being is made in the image of God; 2) No matter the evil patterns and powers and persons who seek to exclude and dominate, God’s way of love for all is the preferred way for humanity. Paul and Jim have demonstrated THE BETTER WAY on this Twos-Day.

Practitioner of Intelligent Love

Practitioner of Intelligent Love

When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. So goes the aphorism. Another version of this idea, attributed to Buddha Siddhartha Guatama, is: “Teachers are like enzymes. Nature’s go-to facilitators of change.” Even if only partially true, there is much wisdom here — at least in my experience.

Dr. Gilbert James,
Used Courtesy of the Archives and Special Collections of Asbury Theological Seminary.

By the late 1960s, my generation in the U.S. were “teacher-ready.” We watched as young men, many of them friends, were being shipped off to an inexplicable war in Vietnam. Too many returning in body bags. State governors stood in univeristy doorways blocking entrance to African American students. We witnessed the assinations of M. L. King, Jr. and the Kennedy brothers. Riots were breaking out in many cities and the emerging “counter culture” saw a growing interest in drug use. Given the availability of “the pill,” a sexual revolution was afoot.

Like other young men, my name was placed in the military lottery; I was one of the lucky ones with a high number, so after college I headed to Asbury Seminary in Kentucky. There I met Gilbert James. He was teaching courses on The Church in Society, Race Relations and Sociology of Religion. The teacher appeared and I was “ready.”

Gilbert James: Free Methodist pastor, sawdust revival preacher, boxer, university professor, union organizer, poet, brilliant social researcher, friend of the poor, worker for racial justice, comfortable in a corporate board room and on skid row. Great “teachers” are not limited to the classroom. Fortunately, for many of us, Gilbert offered graduate-level insights wherever you found him. He challenged us to learn, whether in a classroom, on a Chicago “L” train, in a Congressional office, or, on a street corner in Harlem. Socratic in approach, he would ask probing questions, frame a situation so that those within earshot began to teach and learn from one another. How does one cipher the complexities of this man?

Not far beneath the surface was Gilbert James’ commitment to an historic Wesleyanism that encouraged vital piety, valued knowledge and sought social justice. He was one of several teachers at Asbury Seminary in those years who found ready students. I think of Bob Lyon who helped us explore serious Biblical interpretation and modeled a faith that included deep commitments to nonviolent action.

Gil James spoke easily of personal conversion and Christian experience; after all, he had come to faith by such a personal spiritual journey. However, he was critical of an individualism that ignored the Biblical mandates to love God and the neighbor. He spoke of a church that might live in terms of a “Jubilee sharing” of resources with the poor. He was suspicious of fanaticism and cautioned against the abuses of those seeking power for power’s sake – especially in the church. He had seen enough chicanery in the church and beyond. He knew the dangers of fanaticism when mixed uncritically into the religious life.

Gilbert encouraged us to be “both faithful and forward leaning.” At the same time he wanted us to know our ancestry. James reminded us of the insights of Eighteenth Century Methodists (including Free Methodists, Wesleyans and others). Our legacy included those who opposed pew rentals privileging the wealthy, who supported abolitionist struggles against slavery, who welcomed women in leadership, who encouraged ecumenism and unity, and who practiced peacemaking — often as pacifists.

Gilbert knew of the dangers of individualistic theology and the drift away from a balancing of personal conversion with social justice. In my next blog, I will share a letter from Gilbert written 52 years ago in the midst of an extended revival at Asbury College (a neighboring undergraduate institution to the seminary, seperate in curriculum and faculty).

James knew of the marginalization experienced by religious conservatives and foresaw a time when greivance would spill over and could lead to a insatiable hunger for power and status unmoored from Biblical ethics. He noted the transformation of Fundamentalism into Evangelicalism — that brought a sophistication in the use of political power. It might result, he suggested, in danger for our nation and the ruin of our churches. I remember thinking, as we were reflecting on the writings of Reinhold Neibuhr, that James was being overly grandiouse. Today, I see how on target he was about this threat that faith could to be compromised by a lust for approval and blind acquisition of institutional power these fifty years later.

Over coffee in the seminary cafeteriaI, I recall many informal “debates” with other faculty and students. Such exchanges were common and truly a gift. Students might be asked to “grab a cup and join the conversation.” I recall, one well-known faculty member offering up a common trope used at the time. Assuming the notion that there were two camps in American Protestant Christianity, this faculty member said that “Evangelicals were always rooted in ultimate authorithy of scripture, but Liberals always let the dominant culture set the agenda for their theology.” I recall Gilbert wriley smiling and responding, “Your culture does not set the agenda for how you read the scripture?”

Other exceptional teachers followed (Jackson Carroll, Earl Brewer, Gwen Neville) at Emory University. I then went on to my days of university teaching and Gilbert stayed in touch. In Atlanta, at Candler School of Theology, I helped him bring a group of Asbury students to that city, just as he had brought me as a student to Chicgo, Detroit and New York a decade earlier. He was still learning, teaching, making connections and demonstrating to students the ways a life of faith might be practiced among the institutions of the powerful and the gifts in low-wealth communities that were often hidden.

Gilbert James touched many lives and shaped the work of pastors and laity in diverse places. We found him to be a READY teacher and friend. Still, his concerns about the corruption of Evangelicalism ring true; and, are more applicable than ever. At his funeral in 1982 the great African American pastor and theologian James Earl Massey stood to speak of Gilbert and his influence. Massey summerized my teacher’s greatness in these simple words: He was a “practitioner of intelligent love.” It is my sense that we have a whole new generation of students ready to find such teachers today. May it be so.

Strangers’ Friend: It’s About Time

You don’t have to go to Pharoah to design a course on freedom, so says Professor Michael Eric Dyson, of Vanderbilt University.  Per usual, Dyson puts the pith into pithy.  We need his clarity as we enter Black History Month 2023. Right on time, Michael Eric Dyson nails the ugliness, the meanness and inappropriateness of Governor Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ efforts to block the content of AP African American Studies curriculum. 

This is but a contemporary example of a governor standing in the schoolhouse door.  It is like George Wallace in 1963 who sought to block African American students Vivian Malone Jones, Dave McGlathery, and James Hood from enrolling in the University of Alabama.  This time it is a governor seeking to block the free exchange of ideas and a shared knowledge of a painful history.  It is an attempt to keep us from acting like respectful adults, as people open to the free expression of differing ideas.

But, what about us?  It’s too easy to pick on a demagogue stirring up racial animosity as he prepares to run for the presidency. How might churches faithfully respond in this time?  Let me speak for my group, the United Methodists.  We, who are heirs to John Wesley’s legacy, have a ready response built into our theological DNA. Sadly, many of our congregations and denomination institutions have forgotten and often don’t display it. Early Methodists, in cities like London and Newcastle, formed a Strangers Friend Society. Wesley taught Christians “should meet strangers in their own habitation.” These societies designed “to visit and relieve the sick and distressed” were expressions of acceptance and inclusion. One such society still meets, weekly, in John Wesley’s New Room in Bristol near a clock identified as the Strangers’ Friend clock.

In the United States, the distressing illness of racism continues – sometimes it seems to overwhelm.  Let me suggest it is time for United Methodists to turn STRANGERS INTO FRIENDS.  What if United Methodist congregations across the nation and world offered classes in Critical Race Theory or on Being “Woke” to Racial Injustice?  Okay, not realistic, you say.  Well, what if… oh, let’s say 50%, or 25%, or even 10% of United Methodist congregations offered such courses?  What if pastors and lay leaders in these places taught complementary classes based on Biblical sources and drawing on curriculum already developed by fine faculty in our seminaries?

 In a time when all Christians, especially United Methodists, are too focused on much less relevant matters like institutional survival, or on how to handle our divisions, what if we called for healing of the disease of racism in our nation. What if we acted like we believed in a conversion (a wokeness).  What if we called for the need of repentance and conversion from our chronic racism?

I can imagine certain politicians’ discomfort when they passed the church with the sign “Critical Race Theory Taught Here, Monday evening at 7:00 PM, Register NOW.”  It’s about time!

https://www.newroombristol.org.uk/strangers-friend-clock/

Shifting Margins

What an interesting coincidence that the violent attempt to overturn the presidential election of 2020 occurred on the day Christians celebrate Epiphany! On the first anniversary of that ugly day and as another Epiphany arrives, it seems appropriate to reflect on the relationship between them.

Epiphany comes from a Greek word meaning “appearance,” “manifestation,” or “revelation” and is commonly linked with the visit of the Magi to the Christ child (Matthew 2:1-12). The Magi, from the region of what we know as Iraq and Iran, were foreigners who studied the stars for signs of divine presence and revelation.

An implication of Matthew’s story is that the God made known in Jesus the Christ reveals God’s self in multiple ways and to ALL people. God’s saving presence is not limited to our religion, our race, our nation, our culture, our political party. God is sovereign over ALL!

Matthew portrays Jesus’ birth…

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How to NOT Cure an Illness

How to NOT Cure an Illness

This week a note popped up on my calendar dated, October 1st, 2020. It was a reminder to do a little one-year analysis of progress made regarding racial justice in the U.S. It read: “Next year consider if any thing more than reading and talking about racism has been done in your networks over the past year. Let’s check annually.”

I chuckled to myself. Since writing that note I had sat in on a number of conversations. Back in the summer and fall of 2020, following the tragic murder of George Floyd, and several other murders, folks were ready — to talk. I preached a few times. There was much conversation and study. Many church folks joined reading groups. There are many fine, fine books and some good conversation that has taken place. I am encouraged and at the same time dubious that real progress was being made.

If one has a headache, and the doctor prescribes aspirin, is it enough for the patient to sit and read the aspirin bottle label and not take the medicine? If a person is diagnosed with cancer, should the patient only review the research on carcinogens and treatments? Racism is endemic in our nation. We seek to make a difference every generation or so, only to fall back into old patterns of bigotry, separation and discrimination. Ours is a repetitive cycle of two steps forward and then one back. Yes, we are making progress, but we have miles to go and we are only progressing a few yards each decade.

My dear friend, LaVerta Terry once told me that “It’s going to take a lot more than reading and talking for things to change.” She reminded me of the quote by Frederick Douglas, “I prayed for twenty years and received no answer until I prayed with my legs.”

Research done decades earlier, in the 1970s, part of a program named Project Understanding, taught me that church people like to sit and talk. Getting up and doing something is much more challenging. Many like hearing challenging sermons about justice — well, okay, some folks like them, not all. I laugh thinking of folks who would leave worship following a “prophetic” sermon seeming so grateful I had railed against racism or sexism or homophobia. One fella, many years ago, thanked me at the door following such a sermon saying, “That was good, we like it when you talk dirty to us.” Yikes, is that all some these sermons were? Just a scolding? Treating the congregation like a collection of bad adolescents? Are they just a public rehearsal of “oughts, musts and shoulds” that cause folks in the pew to squirm?

Since that research on racism now nearly fifty years ago, I have seen over and again that there is a better way to deal with racism than reading or preaching. In the 1970s we would challenge congregations by asking “Did your church spend more on light bulbs or toilet paper in the past year than on programs in the community supporting racial justice?” Maybe we should be asking that question again. There are ways to engage with persons across the racial lines that continue to separate and harm. There are ways to “walk our prayers into existence.” Whatever your race or ethnicity, we can do more than read — we can ACT, LEARN, BEFRIEND, TOUCH, LAUGH as we PRAY.

Yes, marches for justice are necessary. Yes, passing the voting rights act is essential. We also need to take account of how our institutions spend time and money. What will have changed for us when October 2022 comes around?

My friend LaVerta Terry, died five years ago. She worked with the Black Student programs at Indiana University. More importantly, I now realize that her best gift was as my friend. We laughed often and well. We went to the opera and marched to address racist behaviors or in support of a student who had been excluded or verbally wounded by hateful language. LaVerta would say “The more opposition I faced, the more I decided I could make a difference, but to do this I had to make some people uncomfortable.” We strategized as to how to make changes and not only talk about them. I can hear her still, saying “If all we are going to do at church is talk, talk, talk, I’ll be waiting outside the door to walk, walk, walk.” LaVerta taught me much — talking is good; walking is better; strategize to get up and make a change; make a new friend; and, laughing together can’t be beat.

How not to cure an illness? Just read the label? Okay, what are you planning for next year? Any new friendships in your future? Let’s check in again next October.

Named as Friend

Named as Friend

Juneteenth is officially a national holiday. Good. Great even! It is an annual remembrance of when news of the Emancipation Proclamation ending slavery finally reached Texas, 1865. It had taken two and a half years for the news to arrive from 1863. Today, it has taken 156 years for our nation to make Juneteenth a national holiday. Check out the poem by the Rev. James Forbes (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aafi3a9-eS8).

Some say the Juneteenth holiday is only symbolic. The challenge of addressing racism requires more than a holiday, or two if you count ML King Jr. Day, every year. Each of us, each of our communities, must determine our responses to persistent racism. As an ole White guy who acknowledges my own struggles, who has worked to address racism and thought much about it, let me offer three suggestions for predominantly White folks to consider: 1) Being a friend; 2) Defining the problem; 3) Acting our way to new ways of thinking.

Dr. William Pannell

Friendship. Dr. William Pannell is a friend; a longtime friend with whom I have spent too little time. It was in the late 1960s when we first met. Bill’s book “My Friend, The Enemy” was published in 1972. Over the years while our paths have occasionally crossed; the message of his book has remained as a companion with me. Bill is Emeritus Professor at Fuller Theological Seminary for whom that seminary’s African American Church Studies Center is named. Bill wrote of our “Pigmentocracy” where “whiteness” was automatically, often unconsciously, given a higher status. He said if our national dilemma were given a color, that color would be white. Bill valued the paradoxes of racial engagement in the United States. He was an early teacher of the value of moving past easy dichotomies — one could at the same time be both friend and enemy when ensnared within the dominant culture. He noted that the challenges of racism aren’t going to be solved by simply changing the hearts of individuals, one at a time. Bill, who was a professor of Evangelism, believed in conversion and also noted that an individualistic proscription (changing hearts) was inadequate. Something deeper and more substantial was needed.

The friend might also be an enemy, or at least live and work behind enemy lines. Friendship, based on an honest knowing of the other and an honest awareness of the matrix of systemic brokenness, was critical, if racism was to begin to be addressed. Bill spoke of a gross ignorance of one another exhibited across racial lines — especially the ignorance folks like me have about persons of color in our society. Bill wrote “my White brother taught me to sing, ‘Take the World, But Give Me Jesus.’ I took Jesus. He took the world.”

Racism Defined. “There is not a racist bone in my body.” I heard these words again just last week. Typically, they are spoken by a person who would define racism around the single notion of prejudice or personal bigotry. Can one be racist and still believe that they view all persons equally, no matter the race? Well perhaps, but racism has a larger definition. For now, let’s simply begin by saying understanding racism needs to include both individual prejudice as well as systemic discrimination. There are cultural inequities as well. The person who said “there is not a racist bone in my body” also attended schools that were racially segregated. That person also benefited from national housing policies preventing Blacks from the mortgage support offered to whites, from educational and health advantages and from employment options over the years. Benefits offered to one generation accrue and are passed on to the next. The ways racism shapes our everyday lives, over the years, is wide and profound. If one thinks racism is only about individual attitudes, he or she, is ignoring the benefits accrued to and for them over generations.

Acting our way to new ways of thinking: Last Juneteenth, as our nation was reeling in the wake of the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Brianna Taylor and George Floyd, I watched with some discomfort as well-meaning folks made plans to address the persistent racism in our nation and in my denomination. You see, almost fifty years earlier, I had been involved in research on racism and how it might be best addressed by the church. (My research drew on research of over 1,100 persons in six cities and over forty congregations, and also included studies that went back decades further.) I remember having some blow-back last year when I advised pastors “don’t preach that sermon on racism now.” If they did, it was probably too late; but certainly a sermon alone was inadequate. If you are going to preach it include some action as follow up.

We like clear and simple formulas for success. You know, the “five things that will make your life better” type of things. In the church this has been particularly true. I have often thought that church growth, or solving the dilemmas associated with the broad national move away from Christendom in our time, would better be labeled “the Church’s one fixation.”

So, when I suggested that there were better things to do than preach a sermon or hold a book study, I knew my counsel would not be heard or would be misunderstood. I kept saying it is more important to make friends with people who are of a different race. It is important to work together on some project to address racism than have a book study. At the time, I knew such counsel was futile. After all, a book study is so much easier to organize — and be counted. Don’t get me wrong, there are some very good books out there. Read them; even better, read these books in a racially diverse setting where the likelihood of some substantial change is much greater.

Last summer, within a few weeks, I watched as study programs on diversity and efforts to teach cultural competencies were offered. It is all well and good… but these efforts are insufficient and can even be counterproductive as folks think, “We’ll now I have the cure.” Again, this is about more than educating an individual or changing hearts and minds one at a time. Until we walk alongside persons living in a different racial reality, we will have difficulty understanding the breadth of white privilege. Until we establish lasting friendships we will miss the necessary struggle to establish meaningful, structural ways to address generational racial inequity. Go ahead, name your friends… or, make some new ones.

Fortnight – Day13: All Saints

Fortnight – Day13: All Saints

All Saints Day 2020 arrives two days ahead of the Presidential Election. We remember lives well lived — and others lived not so well. We consider the fraying of our national identity and the evident threats to our commonweal. Mortality lurks as a backdrop on the nation’s theatrical stage this year. I think of the friends who have died. Many wonderful folks. There are 230,000 others in the United States and 1.2 million around the world who have died in the COVID-19 pandemic since February. We know only a handful of their names or life stories. Still, this is ALL SAINTS DAY.

The New York Times today (11/1/2020) carried an opinion piece entitled “Obituaries for the The American Dream 1931-2020.” It was inspired by Lizania Cruz, a Dominican artist and museum curator, who asked other artists When and How The American Dream Died For You? The Times opened the question to a wider audience and invited readers to respond.

One of the original responses was from, Marsha McDonald who wrote: “The American Dream died for me when I realized how many of my fellow Americans valued selfishness over community, power over justice, prejudice over generosity, demagoguery over science. For me, the 2020 pandemic is very real, but also a metaphor. How sick our national soul is! The old dream should pass away. Isn’t it time for us to dream new dreams, better dreams, that include us all?

Since All Saints Sunday 2019, I have spent countless hours looking into the history of Methodism and the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana.** This research led to libraries, books and articles, old newspapers along with dozens of conversations and email exchanges. There are mysteries yet to be solved. Even so, I have sadly learned more of the broad swath of racism and religious bigotry that infected (and still infects) the church. At the same time my research uncovered the lives and witness of dozens of remarkable persons of faith in the early 20th Century who opposed the Klan and worked against this corruption of the Gospel and human dignity. In their day, these women and men dreamed “new dreams, better dreams, that included us all.”

If I were I to write my letter as a part of an Obituary for the American Dream today it would be a rolling set of dates — times of death, trauma and despair — and times of hoped for rebirth. Scores of times, a refrain, recurring rhythms of loss and return. Times when the dream died – along with Dr. King or the Kennedy brothers in the 1960s, or the twenty children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, or the treacheries of hunger, violence, betrayal and death witnessed while working in impoverished settings filled with saintly people in the U.S. and Latin America, and on and on and on. THEN – times when hope was rekindled.

Shortly after the death of Pope John XXIII in 1963 author Morris West wrote an appreciation titled “Good Pope John” for Life Magazine in which he wondered: “Will they canonize him and make him, officially, a saint in the calendar?  In a way, I hope not… I want to remember him for what he was — a loving man, a simple priest, a good pastor and a builder of bridges across which we poor devils may one day hope to scramble across to salvation.” In 2014, Pope John XXIII was canonized — so much for the wishes of Mr. West.

I don’t know that any one American Dream should be canonized. In truth all of our best dreams will end up in some graveyard of good intentions. In fundamental ways, our society and culture are flawed and destined to continuing corruptions — as are all human political and institutional designs. Our hope is not in finding the perfect president, or political ideology or government program. In truth, there is no “draining of the swamp”; instead we require an honest assessment of the human dilemma and self-critical response — where better oversight and care of all of our swampy places is required — social and personal. The future is not yet clear, even so I join in cautious hope.

I pray that Jon Meachem is correct in offering that: “In our finest hours…the soul of the country manifests itself in an inclination to open our arms rather than to clench our fists; to look out rather than to turn inward; to accept rather than to reject. In so doing, America has grown ever stronger, confident that the choice of light over dark is the means by which we pursue progress.” (The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels)

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Thomas Merton wrote: “What makes the saints saints is a clarity of compassion that can find good in the most terrible criminals. It delivers them from the burden of judging others, condemning others. It teaches them to bring the good out of others by compassion, mercy and pardon. We become saints not by conviction that we are better than sinners but by the realization that we are one of them, and that all together we need the mercy of God.” (Merton, Thomas. New Seeds of Contemplation, p 57)

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Ordinary Saints, Malcolm Guite

The ordinary saints, the ones we know, 
Our too-familiar family and friends, 
When shall we see them? 
Who can truly show 
Whilst still rough-hewn, 
the God who shapes our ends? 
Who will unveil the presence, glimpse the gold 
That is and always was our common ground, 
Stretch out a finger, feel, along the fold 
To find the flaw, to touch and search that wound 
From which the light we never noticed fell 
Into our lives? 
Remember how we turned 
To look at them, and they looked back? 
That full- -eyed love unselved us, and we turned around, 
Unready for the wrench and reach of grace. 
But one day we will see them face to face.

(Malcolm Guite, From Plough, March 22, 2018)

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**[My interest was in part linked to my appreciation for the research by retired Indiana University Professor James Madison, whose book The Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland arrived in September 2020. Madison rightly argues that the Klan was made up by more than the “hillbillies and Great Unteachables” as some claimed. Klan membership extended into the ranks of community and church leaders. My interest, of course, was given more urgency by the tragic murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the past year.]

Harvesting Surprise

Harvesting Surprise

Each autumn, as harvest-time nears, I re-live a surprise. Now, in early walks on crisp, chilled October mornings, I am reminded anew. I look to see if Jack Frost has spray-painted fresh abstract art on meadows. Recollections of other autumns come: hayrides, jack-o-lanterns, golden, maroon and salmon colored maple leaves gathered and pressed in the pages of an old encyclopedia. Or, I recall watching children “bob for apples” in an old wash tub or remember sweet, steaming cider served by a fireplace.

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As I gaze to discover if hoarfrost has tinted a field in a crystalline hue, a rime-like shadow reaches across my consciousness. Perhaps the year was 2011; or thereabouts. A lovely autumn day and I am traveling across the nation’s farm-belt from of a distant meeting to my home, several hundred miles away. It promises to be a leisurely drive.

There being no urgency, I think of long-time friends. They work a large family farm. I will pass nearby. Hospitable folks, these. We exchange annual Christmas greetings. Every few years, some special event might bring us together. Each time — scribbled on a holiday card or spoken in a face-to-face visit — is the same gracious invitation: “Please, come visit; just drop by, anytime; no need to plan ahead.” I would nod, saying I would love to see their place; and, mean it. Still, years passed and the visit was never made. This would be a day I could stop. Surprise them.

PublicDomainPictures.net

This visit was the first of several unforeseen miscues that day! Readers familiar with the ebb and flow of agricultural life already know my error, my blunder. My surprise landed right in the middle of harvest. From sunup to sundown, and sometimes longer, combines whirled, rumbled and slashed. Farm trucks carried grain to the elevator cycling back and forth and back again unloading their bounty. This “surprise” visit was a first unforced error of the day.

When I greeted her on the phone, I should have picked up the overwhelm in her tentative voice. “Yes, so good to hear from you. Today? Well, yes, we would love to see you. The fellas will be gathering in the barn at noon. Can you make it by then? It is quicker if you take the county road over to our place. Come to the house first. You can help me carry over the lunch.”

Slow witted me! It was only as the call ended I realized I had bushwhacked them right in the middle of harvest! I was the city-slicker dropping by announced from the outskirts of hell.

I made it to the farm with a few minutes to spare and immediately offered my apologies. My friend only smiled and said, “It’s okay. You can help carry these things to the car.”

Arriving at the barn a half mile away, we pass the Pioneer Seed signs, the fuel pumps and grain storage elevator. Parking by an old John Deere we walk into a large structure with huge sliding doors at each end. It is full of implements: tractors, planters, harrows and several charts and computers along the western wall next to a small office. I am reminded that farming is an ever more sophisticated business.

We set out the lunch on a long table. Slowly others, family and farm hands, gathered. My friends introduce me as “a preacher friend who came by to pray for us today.” Okay, my turn to be surprised. So, I pray for a good harvest, for safety and well-being of all in our world during this harvest. I kept the prayer short knowing folks were eager to get back in the fields before rain might arrive.

Ample portions of chipped ham sandwiches, potato salad and iced tea are served. Some peanut butter cookies followed. There is teasing, talk about the weather, feeding the barn cats, and a few questions about mutual friends and grandchildren. Knowing the need to return to combines and trucks soon, I am amazed when my friend goes to his small office and returns handing me some papers. “Your going to enjoy this,” he chuckled.

It is a printout from an old dot matrix printer. Here before me were a collection of “jokes.” Reading the blue inked words, were some of the most offensive, racist jokes imaginable. They were about the President of the United States. Surprise hardly captures my emotions. It was closer to horror.

Still, I care for these people. My friend thought I would be amused, but this had burst across a divide in our worlds. I was confused, sad, disgusted, tongue-tied. I knew there was racial animus and bigotry toward Barack Obama, but surely not here. These were my friends, my good Christian friends.

I wish I could tell you of my courageous response, of my righteous witness. As I remember it now I didn’t say much, only mumbling “I don’t find this very funny.” A human hoarfrost was now stretching across our faces, our conversation, challenging the core of our friendship.

Soon, I was off, watching the dust of the combines in my rear view mirror. I was on my way home — back to another world, my natural habitat, an urban setting, on a university campus.

This surprising harvest occurred nearly a decade ago. Each autumn its memory returns and I realize it was a harbinger of much that has unfolded in our nation, especially in the last four years. Without any sense of irony, these are “good Christian folks,” at least in the way the see themselves and are seen by others. Even so they had burst open my easy assumptions.

They had reached out with hospitality to me — at least before I made my raid on their assumptions and routines. Racism is not the exclusive property of country folks. Many, many rural folks do not accept such bigotry; but many do. And yes, racism is alive and well in our cities and suburbs too. Still it seems to wait along the corridors of everyday activities to suddenly startle and divide us.

I have thought much about the culture that shapes these friends and their religious and political perspectives. Through study and conversations with many farmers, I know more of the stresses on those who today seek to make a living following a plow. I better understand the racial and cultural divides that can so easily be manpulated into fearful mistrust and misinformation.

I have learned that agriculture is changing dramatically, at an ever more rapid pace. Industrial-style agriculture is extraordinarily expensive and risky. Debt is high and weather is increasingly unpredictable. It is destined to change. It will ultimately be replaced by models more attune to sustaining the land, water and soils. Efforts to farm with perennial polycultures, like those being researched at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, will hopefully offer new options.

I am sad for my friends who carry the heavy load of racism and fear (and probably economic threat) that limits their ability to see the depths of racism that damage the soul of our nation. I pray they learn — in their church or social gatherings — of the ability to see others as persons of worth and dignity. I am saddened by the urban/rural and cosmopolitan/ localist divides in our nation and world.

I suspect my farm friends think me to be a “latte drinking urban elitist.” Even though, I don’t like latte! And, I am mindful of my own limited vision and fears that shape my understandings.

Richard Longworth’s fine book “Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism” offers compelling insights into the challenges of those who currently farm in America. He notes the phenomenon of vertical integration wherein every element of farm activity, from selecting seeds to spreading fertilizer to selling in a market is controlled by a large agribusiness — and not the farmer. As Longworth puts it, “Why own the farm when you can own the farmer?”

I don’t excuse the racism of my “friends.” Not at all. Nor do I miss the reality that a deep social/cultural divide was already emerging on the day I burst in on them. I fear such racism has only taken up greater residence in the minds of good people who now share their “jokes” on Instagram or Facebook rather than on a dot matrix printouts.

Something else was harvested on that October day a decade ago. My unacceptable silence was surfaced. It is the silence of too many of our churches, too many of our cultural and political leaders. What might I do better to express theology that valued all as Children of a loving God? How might I do better at harvesting respect, hope, love for the neighbor AND the stranger?

Perhaps I am overly optimistic, but it appears a harvest is underway in our society regarding racism. In the midst of the tragic deaths of folks like Breonna Taylor and George Floyd a new awareness seems to be possible. I suspect my farm friends don’t see anti-racism activities in the same hopeful light that I do. I see these as a sign of a potential harvest of hope — a sign that increasing racial justice might some day arrive… a time when the frozen assumptions and categories of our common life are thawed. It is not easy, not for my friends or for so many others caught up in the swirl of human distrust.

As I write a national election is only days away. I pray the current patterns of racism and ugly vitriol encouraged by the current national administration will be rejected and fresh sense of respect and the valuing of our common life can be harvested.

No matter the outcome, I will plan to make another visit to my farm friends — it has been too long since I saw them. Be assured I won’t bushwhack them again during harvest!