Ruby Bridges Through Her Eyes

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Having grown up in the area where Norman Rockwell painted some of his most famous works, I remember not only the actual photographs of the little girl, but also the iconic painting of the girl in the white dress flanked by four federal marshals.

The white dress, white socks and shoes emphasize the darkness of her skin. On the wall behind her is a racial epithet. Smashed tomatoes lie at the foot of the wall. You don’t see the marshals’ heads, but their fists are clenched as if ready for battle.

Friday I had the privilege of hearing the woman who grew out of that little girl speak. Ruby Bridges’ name is writ large in the history of civil rights. As she came onto the stage at Smith College, the crowd jumped to its feet with thunderous applause.

ruby nowMs. Bridges is a reluctant speaker. She never meant to spend the last 20 years of her life giving public addresses, she said. But this is what she has felt called to do. She uses no notes, just says what she believes God wants her to say. Her soft voice is mesmerizing as she speaks, reaches back into the memories of her six-year-old self in 1960, as she tells us what it was like through her eyes (the title of her memoir) in segregated New Orleans.

Though Brown vs. the Board of Education mandated the integration of public schools in 1954, it took years for segregated school systems to comply. When the NAACP knocked on doors in the New Orleans projects seeking children who were in the first grade, Ruby’s mother was enthusiastic about letting her daughter be used to integrate the schools. Mrs. Bridges had grown up in a sharecropping family in Louisiana and going to school was a rare occurrence; she regretted not having a chance to be educated.

Ruby’s father had a different point of view. He had served in the segregated Army of the Korean War. He might be on the front lines with white soldiers at one moment, but when they returned to base, he had to go to the “colored” barracks and the white soldiers to the white barracks. He did not want his daughter to experience the shame he had known.

Ruby’s mother overrode his wishes. Ruby was taken for all-day testing and passed. Since she hadn’t been told anything about what was happening, she got it into her head that she was going to skip from first grade directly to college.

Then came the first day of her new school. Creating a new ritual, neighbors came to her house to help get her dressed in her beautiful new clothes (though she hated the coat her mother made her wear). Four white men came to the door, put her and her mother into a car, and her journey began.

Seeing all the people lining the route to the school, hearing them shout, seeing them throwing things, seeing police on horses and motorcycles, Ruby thought she was in a Mardi Gras parade, even though it was November. The white men told her mother that when they got out of the car, the men would surround her and Ruby and they should not look around them. They entered the school and went to the principal’s office. And there they sat all day long as white parents entered the school, angrily pointed at Ruby, and then took their children home.

“College is easy!” Ms. Bridges said she thought when she went home that day. She ended up having school alone with a teacher, Mrs. Henry, all day every day for the rest of that school year. She loved Mrs. Henry and she learned a lot, but she was so lonely for the company of other children. She slowly came to understand what was happening and that she was alone in her class because of the color of her skin. She could hear the voices of other children when she hung up her coat in the cloakroom. She could smell food from the cafeteria but had to bring her own lunch because of threats made to poison her food.

Eventually, because she kept asking about the children’s voices, Mrs. Henry took her to the cloakroom, moved a cabinet that revealed a door, and took her to a room where white children were playing. She sat down next to a little boy who told her, “My mother said I can’t play with you because you’re a nigger.”

His words gave birth to what she now emphasizes when she speaks in public. “Racism is a grown-up disease and we must stop using our children to spread it.” It is adults who have failed, she said, and brought us to where we are now, by “robbing children of their innocence.” Children aren’t born racists; they are taught to be racists. We must raise them a different way, encourage their dreams, and truly follow Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dictum to judge others not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

There really is an “us” and a “them,” she said. “We all have a common enemy and it is evil.” Sometimes the evil looks just like us and is hard to recognize, she said as she talked about the murder of her oldest son, who was killed for trying to find out who had shot into his younger brother’s car.

Ms. Bridges noted at the beginning of her talk that she gets many letters from children telling her how brave she was when she took those historic steps into a white school. “I have to set the record straight,” she laughed, “I wasn’t brave at all because I didn’t really know what was going on.”

But it is bravery, and it is courage, to follow her faith and tell her story over and over again all these years later. Her insistence on inclusion at all points is sometimes not popular – as when a student seemed to seek her approve for the effort to get all-black housing at Smith and Ms. Bridges said she did not approve of black separatism – and her refusal to hate the little boy who said he couldn’t play with her show courage indeed.

I have cried over the picture of the beautiful smiling little girl who was in effect offered up to be the face of integration. Having seen her in person, and heard her words, I will just smile and celebrate her from now on.

 

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Sermon on Mark 1:14-20

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The Gospeler Mark would have been great on Twitter.

In just six short verses, each one just one sentence, he pretty much tells us everything about Jesus’s incarnation.

That doesn’t mean we don’t need to study Scripture anymore. It does tell us, though, all about God’s vast love for humankind, a love so vast that he set aside his crown and came down to show us the face of that love and how to show it to others. That was important then; it is vitally important now, on January 21, 2018.

Aside from later flashbacks, Mark dispenses with the story of John the Baptizer and then barrels straight into the main event. John is the opening act, but Jesus is the superstar everyone was waiting for. Drum roll, fireworks, hoopla . . .

“Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the Good News of God,” we’re told. In fact, Jesus WAS the Good News of God, God incarnated, God we can see and hear and touch. Ain’t a that a good news?

The time is fulfilled, Jesus says. He’s not talking about chronological time; he’s talking about God’s time, metaphysical time, the RIGHT time, the time is ripe for the unfolding of God’s dream for mankind, to redeem his beloved children and bring them back unto himself.

What a time it was! For the Jews, it was yet another time of upheaval, of being ruled by a foreign power. Zealots planned insurrections; the Jews longed for Messiah to come and speak truth to power, to break the chains of Rome and set them free.

They got instead a simple man, this humble Jesus, clearly not a warrior, not wielding a sword or a knife, but saying words that did speak truth to power if only they could understand what true power is. Nonetheless, many would hear the ring of truth in them and follow him.

No, the Jews who were expecting a warrior Messiah didn’t get the fireworks, the drum roll, the hoopla. Because that’s not how God works and it wasn’t how Jesus worked then or today, is it?

“The Kingdom of God has come near,” Jesus says, because he represents the Kingdom of God and he has come down to model for us the way back to God and the way to make God’s will come on earth as it is in Heaven.

“Repent, and believe in the good news.” Repent, literally change your mind, open your inner vision, think outside the box and understand what good news really means in God’s world.

Jesus came quietly, at first, walking on a beach, seeing fishermen who were probably dirty and smelly and he said to them, “Come, follow me.”

And they did. They immediately left what they were doing and followed him. The time was right, and somehow they knew it.

Some would scorn Jesus, the temporally powerful, the influential, the priests and scribes and Pharisees and Sadducees, the ruling class. Someone would say, upon learning where Jesus grew up, “What good can come out of Nazareth?”

Does that sound familiar? Does that statement resonate with anything said, oh, the week before last? What good can come out of Haiti, of Africa, of El Salvador?

Those Jesus asked to come and follow him were, for the most part, humble, disenfranchised people. Some were outcasts. Some were simple laborers, concerned with subsistence living and maybe even selling enough fish to save some money up. The wealthy young man Jesus asked to follow couldn’t do it; the poor could because they had nothing to lose, and that is often the point where true power in God’s world begins.

As Jesus modeled for them the will of God to bring heaven on earth, he brought healing to other outcasts, crazy people, lame people, lepers, blind beggars, all were what might have been considered the lowest of the low. Yet these were the ones to whom he gave not only physical healing, but spiritual healing, the kind of healing that only comes from an encounter with the divine, the healing that comes with being made to know unconditional love.

Jesus chose people who, in theologian Howard Thurman’s words, had their backs against the wall. They were free of the entrapments of the world, and he knew they would get things done after he had given his very life for them.

In his book, Jesus and the Disinherited, Thurman seeks to answer a question that had bothered him for many years, a question put to him by a Hindu college president while he was on a fellowship mission with the YMCA in India.

The question was, how can you, a black man whose grandmother was enslaved, preach the gospel of the white man, a gospel forced on your people as a way to sedate them and keep them from thinking of freedom. It took Thurman many years to come up with his answer.

“The solution which Jesus found for himself and for Israel, as they faced the hostility of the Greco-Roman world, becomes the word and the work of redemption for all the cast-down people in every generation and in every age. I mean this quite literally. I do not ignore the theological and metaphysical interpretation of the Christian doctrine of salvation. But the underprivileged everywhere have long since abandoned any hope that this type of salvation deals with the crucial issues by which their days are turned into despair without consolation. The basic fact is that Christianity as it appears in the mind of this Jewish teacher and thinker appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed. That it became, through the intervening years, a religion of the powerful and the dominant, used sometimes as an instrument of oppression, MUST NOT [my emphasis] tempt us into believing that was thus in the mind and life of Jesus. ‘In him was life; and the life was the light of men.’ Wherever his spirit appears, the oppressed gather fresh courage; for he announced the good news that fear, hypocrisy, and hatred, the three hounds of hell that track the trail of the disinherited, need have no dominion over them.”

If I believe in anything, I believe that if Jesus came to earth today, he would seek first the Haitian, the Salvadoran, the Mexican, the African, the African-American, the Dreamers, all those whose backs have been shoved against the wall.

Does that mean he wouldn’t seek us? Are our backs against the wall? Are we victims of fear, hypocrisy, and hatred, the three hounds of hell as Thurman describes them?

Well, we are if we let the status quo reign supreme. We are if we pass up a chance to speak out. We are if we don’t recognize that as followers of Jesus, everyone who suffers in the temporal world is our sister and brother in God, for whom we have a responsibility to them and to God to lift up.

For Jesus does call us too! Every morning when we awake, we are called anew to follow Jesus, to help bring the good news of God’s love and redemption into the world, to help bring the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven, and to let the Holy Spirit work through us to say no to the powers that create the disinherited, the marginalized, the disenfranchised, to stand up for God’s justice, and God’s equality.

Because if we don’t share that love and that redemption with those whose backs are against the wall, we don’t deserve them. They don’t exist in a vacuum. If anyone is made to feel unworthy, then we are all unworthy.

Don’t forget that Jesus also modeled anger for us well as love. He let his anger loose when he saw the perversion of God’s will in the usurers in the temple marketplace and those who insisted that if you didn’t sacrifice an animal or birds, you couldn’t get close to God, in the priests who hid behind the temple veil as if only they could decide what God wanted of God’s people.

The time is fulfilled! Prepare yourselves! Humble yourselves! And when you hear the tender voice in your inmost heart saying, “Come, follow me,” you’ll know what to do.

 

 

 

Don’t Add to Puerto Rico’s Problems

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I’m getting wind of rumors about Puerto Rico that seem to be part of a propaganda campaign to explain away why the territory is not getting the help it needs from the US government to recover from Hurricane Maria.

Another possible intent of the propaganda is to enact even more restrictive voter ID laws; even as the “president” dissolved the voter fraud commission, he started tweeting about voter IDs.

His Twitter fans are very enthusiastic, one person calling for both an ID and a birth certificate to be shown when voting. The thing is that it’s very unlikely that white people will be asked to show both of these, while people of color will.

INVENTED RUMOR: Puerto Ricans who have left the island since Hurricane Maria, not just for fun but for survival, will allow “illegal Mexicans” to reproduce their IDs so the “illegals” can vote too.

UNTRUE RUMOR: Puerto Ricans don’t pay into Social Security or Medicare, but they can get Social Security and Medicare. The implication is that we mainland taxpayers are funding the shiftless Puerto Ricans. In fact, Puerto Ricans do pay into Social Security and Medicare.

MISLEADING RUMOR: Puerto Ricans don’t pay taxes to the US so don’t deserve aid. While it’s true that Puerto Ricans don’t pay a personal income tax, they do pay taxes in Puerto Rico that are shared out to the federal government. According to VOX, Puerto Rico paid $3.6 billion in taxes in 2016.

What I thought was the most vicious rumor turns out to be true; well, the facts are true, but the way it was sad to me was vicious. There is a very high incidence of squatting on abandoned or government land. Lorraine Woellert of Politico tells the story at https://www.politico.com/staff/lorraine-woellert

Puerto Rico propaganda artLet’s get this straight: The US “won” Puerto Rico under the Treaty of Paris of 1898 along with Cuba, the Philippines and Guam, after the Spanish-American War. Spain had owned the island since good old Christopher Columbus “discovered” it in 1493. The French, Dutch, and English all tried to take it away. US Forces invaded during the Spanish-American War and managed to wrest it away from Spain.

At no time did the indigenous Taino and Carib Indian population have a say in any of this, much less the offspring of Africans who were enslaved and brought to Puerto Rico by Spain.

Puerto Rico became a US Commonwealth in 1952. Puerto Ricans are US citizens but have no voting rights in Congress and can only vote in Presidential primaries but not Presidential elections as they don’t qualify for Electoral College votes.

Yet over the years American companies have enriched themselves by locating in Puerto Rico and paying low wages and enjoying tax laws that benefit them. A venture called “Operation Bootstrap,” patronizingly designed (or said to) help pull Puerto Ricans out of poverty in fact caused more poverty and dislocation.

The harm that these rumors and half-truths will do if left unchecked will cause incalculable harm. Puerto Rico has been at a disadvantage for hundreds of years. As the modern-day commonwealth tries to recover from a storm as destructive as Maria need all the help they can get, from the US government and from fellow US citizens.

Please, if anyone brings these subjects up in front of you, shut them down.

 

 

 

Ghost of The Innocent Man

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Had I known how emotional I would get at the end of listening to Ghost of an Innocent Man by Benjamin Rachlin, I probably would have waited until I was at home to play it.

Instead, I was zooming along a major highway through Pennsylvania at 70-plus miles per hour with tears streaming down my face.

Tears of relief, happiness, sadness, and release of tension.

I knew from the beginning how the true story of Willie Grimes and the 25 years he spent in prison for a crime he did not commit would end, but Mr. Rachlin’s book, which came out late this year, still kept me in suspense for many an evening while eating dinner. I can’t number the heavy sighs that came out of me at each twist of the botched investigation, the refusal of the Catawba County officials to do more, and the heartbreaking years during which Mr. Grimes was shuttled from prison to prison, all the while protesting his innocence and searching for someone who would listen to him.

It wasn’t until the creation of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, spearheaded by young lawyer Christine Mumma, that someone did.

Carrie Elliott, a woman in her late 60s, was raped in 1987 In her own home. One evening a knock came at her door, and she opened it to find an African-American man who forced his way in and proceeded to rape her repeatedly.

Willie Grimes was miles away with his girlfriend, Brenda, doing a personal errand and then attending a party. Mr. Grimes slept that night on a sofa at a friend’s house. A couple of days later, he was told that the police were looking for him, so he went to the police station to find out why. He was not free again until 2007.

Mrs. Elliott was shown two different sets of pictures of possible assailants. In one was the picture of the man who had raped her, Albert Turner. In the second, Mr. Turner’s picture was not included but Willie Grimes’s was. Influenced by a neighbor, who said that the assailant sounded like Mr. Grimes and gave her a description of Mr. Grimes, Mrs. Elliott then picked Willie’s picture.

The neighbor also went directly to the police and received a $1,000 reward for naming Mr. Grimes.

The two men looked nothing alike. And though Mrs. Elliott had not mentioned a man with a mole on his cheek or scars on his chest (Willie) right after the rape, the police thought they had an open and shut conviction. That, along with a pseudo-science report that a hair found in Mrs. Elliott’s house was identical to Mr. Grimes’s hair, the police in fact did have an open and shut case.

The police also ignored a banana that the rapist had eaten part of and tossed aside, which would prove to have fingerprints that would have identified Mr. Turner, the actual rapist.

And Willie Grimes, in his early 40s, was sentenced to life imprisonment.

His girlfriend died while he was in prison. Carrie Elliott died while he was in prison. Three brothers died while he was in prison. He was repeatedly denied privileges because of his refusal to “accept responsibility for his crime.”

I came to love Willie Grimes during the course of the book, for his perseverance, for his anger, for his joy when freed, for everything he endured.

We know that he is just one of many, many people wrongfully imprisoned whose fate is in the hands of organizations such as the Innocence Project, Equal Justice Initiative, and the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence.

Knowing just one person’s story leads to an understanding of others’ stories and the hopes and prayers that they too will find the exoneration they seek and deserve. We can help by supporting such organizations as well as calling for reform in the American justice system. Just one day in prison for an innocent person is one day too much.

You can hear an NPR interview with Mr. Rachlin and Mr. Grimes here: https://www.npr.org/2017/08/27/546497386/-ghost-of-the-innocent-man-a-story-of-24-years-of-wrongful-imprisonment

The GOP’s War on Christmas

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Yes, Virginia, there is a War on Christmas.

It’s just not being waged by those who the “president” and Bill O’Reilly have accused.

You see, Virginia, the “president” and the Congressional GOP mostly identify as Christians. Yet, less than a week before the celebration of the birth of Jesus, they have shown themselves to either blatantly disregard, or not believe in, any of Jesus’s teachings.

Rather than feed the hungry, clothe the poor, visit those in prison, or heal the sick, the “president” and the GOP want to enrich the already wealthy, steal from the poor, arrest the protesters. and let the sick get sicker even to the point of death.

Take care of widows and orphans? Oh no, they say with their actions, we need that money to pay for the billions of dollars we are giving our donors and ourselves.

Not only that, your children and your children’s children will have to deal with the mess of the trillion-dollar deficit and the ruined environment.

We don’t really know whether Jesus was born in a barn, but we have faith that this story reflects God’s message to human kind.

Wealth, earthly power, and political authority are not what God wants for God’s people. Sharing one’s heart and soul with all God’s children – and therefore our sisters and brothers – and caring for the most vulnerable in any society is what brings the kingdom of heaven to earth.

If we fight the GOP’s War on Christmas, we have righteousness on our side, Virginia. Never forget that loving the outcast, welcoming the stranger, and walking side by side with those who have met with discrimination are our weapons.

This is a war we can win if we believe in the sanctity of our cause. Christians, Jews, Muslims, and humanists can all agree and come together to form a great army that is on the side of justice.

Let it be so.

 

 

 

Howard Thurman’s Vision

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howardthurmanTheologian Howard Thurman might not have wished his book, Jesus and the Disinherited, would be as important today as it was when he wrote it in 1949.

Sadly, the African-American mystic would have hoped that his vision of Jesus’s love overpowering fear and hatred of the marginalized and most vulnerable people in our society would have been taken to heart by all who call themselves Christians.

Thurman grew up in Florida in the early 1900s, in a segregated Daytona. His grandmother had been enslaved and told him stories of slave preachers. Much of his young life was centered around the church and people who came to speak there. He remembered Mary Mcleod Bethune singing and talking about her dreams for education for Negro youth.

He was an exceptionally smart youth; since there were only three high schools for black youth in all of Florida, he boarded with relatives in order to go to the Florida Baptist Academy. Because he graduated as valedictorian, he earned a scholarship to Morehouse College. He eventually went to Rochester Theological Seminary in New York (many other seminaries did not accept Negroes).

Thurman was considered a mystic because of his ability to put himself into a place where he felt himself to be in the presence of God. In Disciplines of the Spirit, he calls that place the Inner Sea. Over a long career with many distinguishing chapters, including being dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University, founding the interdenominational Fellowship Church in San Francisco, being honored by Eleanor Roosevelt, and being an influence on Martin Luther King Jr., there was yet one painful issue that he came back to again and again.

In 1935, Thurman chaired a delegation sent on a pilgrimage of American students to India, Burma, and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). After a talk at the Law College of the University of Colombo, he had tea with the principle. The principle said this to him:

“. . . During all the period since then [Emancipation] you have lived in a Christian nation in which you are segregated, lynched, and burned. . . I do not wish to seem rude to you. But, sir, I think you are a traitor to all the darker peoples of the earth. I am wondering what you, an intelligent man, can say in defense of your position.”

While referring to this painful episode in his memoir, With Head and Heart, as “the paradox of being a black Christian minister who was representing and, by implication, defending a religion associated in the minds of many of these nonwhite peoples with racism and colonialism,” Jesus and the Disinherited was his book-length answer.

In this time when Christianity has been hijacked by political agendas that again marginalize people of color, the poor and the powerless – and all the intersections of those categories – Jesus and the Disinherited should be a wake-up call to members of the Jesus Movement and those who would be part of the Beloved Community.

Jesus, a radical outcast, preached a radical love, and especially radical love for those, in Thurman’s words, with their backs against the wall. Why, then, “is it that Christianity seems impotent to deal radically, and therefore effectively, with the issues of discrimination and injustice on the basis of race, religion and national origin?” he asks.

And in just 102 pages, he gives a prescription for doing so.

 

By Their Fruits You’ll Know Them

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When I was in my 20s, I went out with a man who made himself objectionable to my friends.

One friend, an older man, tried to talk to me about the relationship. He pointed out that if a person is kind to everyone, that is a good character trait. But, he said, if someone like my boyfriend was only nice to me but unkind to others, it could mean he was just trying to get something from me.

I was hurt, and the relationship went on to a predictably unhappy ending. It took many years for me to gain the wisdom to see that my friend had given me some serious life advice.

I thought of this unhappy episode Saturday morning while listening to Scott Simon on NPR’s Weekend Edition. He interviewed David French of The National Review. This was before the Northern California shooting, and not a week after the Sutherland, Texas, rampage.

Mr. French was there to accuse “Twitter activists” of being unfair to politicians who offer “thoughts and prayers” after mass shootings.

“. . .the prayer life of a Christian is something that’s very, very rich,” he said. “And prayer saturates their lives. . .So when you’re targeting prayers, a Christian, for example, would look at that and be, frankly, kind of puzzled by it.”

As a Christian, as someone who believes in the power of prayer, and as a “Twitter activist,” I bristled at Mr. French’s words. Perhaps you had to hear his patronizing tone. He spoke as if only Christians have a rich prayer life and as if “Twitter activists” are heathens.

Mr. French went on to say that “it’s not that these politicians are offering thoughts and prayers and no action . . . “ Yet he equivocated about what kind of action these politicians are supposedly taking. In fact, Mr. French said that he can’t even imagine what kind of action might have been appropriate after the Las Vegas massacre.

When Mr. Simon suggested that it is the difference in reactions to domestic terrorism and imported terrorism, Mr. French said, “But different mass killings demand different kinds of responses. They’re not all the same.”

He concludes by saying, “What use is an activist tweet anyway?”

Well, I’ll you, Mr. French. The more people who are talking about the problem of gun violence in this country by home-grown terrorists, the better. The politicians you say we twitter activists are criticizing unfairly are white male members of the GOP such as Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, who only like government when it is used to hurt people, such as punishing tax “reform” (read tax cuts for the wealthiest of the wealthy) and taking away any kind of a safety net for the most vulnerable among us.

I do not believe them when they speak of thoughts and prayers. Mr. French, you quoted Scripture on the air; I’ll quote back at you: “You will know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:16) This is Jesus speaking, the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, where he has spoken about the poor, the humble, and hypocrites. It doesn’t get any more “Christian” than that. And the fruits of the politicians who talk about “thoughts and prayers” when they have the power to take action (“Faith without works is dead” James; not a scriptural principle, Mr. French, but actual Scripture) to prevent these tragic, senseless, avoidable murders is nil. If a bill is brought to the Senate or the Congress that might actually help citizens of the United States, and I include Puerto Ricans here, these politicians will do their damnedest to derail it.

I learned my friend’s lesson well, because what he was really telling me was “You will know them by their fruits.” That’s what I look for in a politician. They can say whatever they like, but what do they do?

If they do good in the rest of their dealings, fine, I believe them when they send thoughts and prayers. If they don’t, like our current GOP-controlled Congress, I don’t believe them. And I’m not puzzled by twitter activists who criticize them.