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Racism in America: Why Can’t We Get Rid of It?

With the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States, many wanted to claim that racism in America had been defeated. We thought we had achieved something great. Blacks and Whites of good will were filled with pride.

That pride brought us a sense of accomplishment. And we took time to relax and enjoy the victory. During the Obama Presidency, we’ve celebrated other milestones that reinforce our supposed triumph over racism in America.

Racism in America: Celebrating AccomplishmentIn the past decade or so, and for a few more years, every great accomplishment of the Civil Rights Movement turns 50 years old. There have been numerous commemorations and televised specials. There will be countless more. In 2018, I’m certain many will speak of how much we’ve accomplished since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Country will celebrate his sacrifice with pomp and circumstance. Whoever the President is will host a big affair, and the King children will pretend to get along long enough to bask in their father’s glory.

Yet, the reality is that racism in America is not dead

The recent massacre at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, and the burning of Black Churches across the Nation remind us of this fact. America was comfortable with the murders of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Kajime Powell, Eric Garner, Rumain Brisbon, et al, because some could say there were two sides to the story. There was a “justifiable” reason for those killings. There was a way for many in America to blame the victims.

No such reasoning is possible with Emmanuel AME Church. There is no way to blame the victims here. Even the effort at suggesting the Church should have had armed security is theologically reprehensible. The undeniable fact is that there’s still a tremendous problem with racism in America. That this horrifying terrorist attack could inspire even more racially motivated violence is even more evidence of our problem.

We can’t seem to escape racism in America

Why is that? Why is it that no matter how much we think we’ve overcome, we come right back to this familiar place? That is the question I explore in this sermon:

Christmas Greetings: Making Nice with the Dead

Even as a priest, I almost lost my Christmas Spirit.

Somewhere among all the Holiday Parties, TV commercials and my interactions with others, preparing for “the Season,” I just couldn’t take it.

You see – as you know: in our politically correct world, you can’t talk about Christ in the workplace, or at school. And, this conditions us to remove Christ from all public conversation. I mean, even Christian clergy give “ecumenical prayers,” which don’t appeal to the love and mercy of God through Jesus Christ.

We don’t want to offend anyone.

Christmas Greetings Must “Respect the Beliefs” of Others

And so, “Merry Christmas” has become as innocuous – as vanilla – as “Season’s Greetings” or “Happy Holidays.” We’ll say “Merry Christmas” because it’s safe. I mean, after all, the holiday we’re to be happy about is called Christmas. So, we can’t get in trouble with the workplace/schoolyard authorities. We won’t offend the atheistic interest groups who want you to celebrate their unbelief.

“Merry Christmas” is safe. It allows us to toe the line: to fool ourselves into thinking we’ve found a way to be in Christ without offending the world.

We’ll say “Merry Christmas,” but will we wish the blessing of the Incarnate Lord? Will we pray the True Light shines in the lives of others – whether or not they want it?

Not everyone will accept that Light. Some will reject it. That’s their choice. Our choice and our joy is to share the gift of the True Light, Who has come into the world – for the life of the (whole) world.

Oh, what a joy!

To know that “unto us a Child is born, and a Son is given.” How can that joy be contained? How can any of us really be filled with that joy and then confine it to those private and safe moments of life?

Christmas Joy is Buried to Appease the Dead

Everywhere is death. Turn on the news: death. Watch your favorite television shows: death. Go out in the streets: death. Death suffocates us. And, we just want to play nice – hoping that death might leave us alone.

Rather than confronting the dead with the living God, in the hope they too might live, we bury our joy at the Incarnation of God. We make nice with a dead Society and dead people…appealing to the dead to comfort and bring peace to the living.

This time, let Christmas be different!

I pray this message emboldens you to rejoice, at all times and in all places:

Ferguson and the Failure of the Black Elite

Life is about story…the story people ascribe to themselves. The story that gives meaning to a people. Modern Jews have the Holocaust and their deliverance. It defines their identity and gives them a sense of purpose.

The Black American experience has also been a Exodus-type story. Dr. Albert J. Raboteau said that “No single story captures more clearly the distinctiveness of African-American Christianity than that of the Exodus.” Exodus gave our people hope that we would indeed “overcome some day.” From bondage in slavery to Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement, what you see in the arch of Black American History is the story of a people, delivered from bondage and oppression despite incredible odds and immense opposition.

Isn’t that true?

Look at Isaiah 64. We can see our own experience in this story. We’ve seen the fire burn up the adversaries. We’ve seen this nation and the nations disturbed by the presence of the Lord in the midst of Society. The glorious works He has done through us, for us and for the life of the world has made the very earth tremble.

And we saw it tremble. We can still see it tremble, when we watch a good documentary on the Civil Rights Movement.

And because of what we’ve seen and heard about the Black Experience in America, we know there is none other who got us through except Jesus Christ! The Black Experience in America bears witness to the mercy of God, given to those who do righteousness and remember His ways (Is. 64:4).

We know that mercy. The history books bear witness to that mercy. The documentaries bear witness to that mercy. The personal accounts of those who were there bear witness to that mercy.

Yet we sinned and went astray. We got comfortable…integrated, assimilated and forgot or disconnected.

And then we see #Ferguson.Ferguson

We see Ferguson and we are faced with the reality that whatever remains of our Civil Rights legacy cannot protect our people from injustice. And so: we must march again…

The fact that Ferguson can happen shows us that all we can offer to God is like a filthy rag.

Isaiah 64:5 states: “We all are become as unclean, and all our righteousness is like a filthy rag…”

And, wait until you understand what the filthy rag is…

You see: this “filthy rag” of which Isaiah speaks isn’t like a man who’s working on his car and brings into the house, a rag soiled by motor oil. Yea, the rag is filthy. And, you mightn’t put it on your white furniture…but you’re fine leaving it on the floor until you get around to the laundry. You’ll come home and leave, walking pass that filthy rag. You walk past that rag many times, and only be reminded that you need to take care of that rag when you do the laundry.

That’s not the filthy rag the Prophet Isaiah is describing.

The filthy rag is a menstrual rag…it’s a pad…a tampon. I doubt anyone would leave a a used menstrual pad or tampon lying around the house.

I can imagine some of you are appalled. And, that is Isaiah’s point! That is what the Lord thinks of the righteousness displayed by the people.

Ferguson and IsaiahAbout that passage of Isaiah, St. Jerome says: “Whatever righteousness that we who are unclean in ourselves appears to possess may be compared with the rag of a menstruating woman.” Whatever righteousness we think we have is nothing more than a filthy rag of a menstruating woman.

On the same passage, St. John Cassian says: “…just as our goodness with regard to the goodness above becomes like evil, so our righteousness compared with divine righteousness is like menstrual rags.” Whatever righteous deeds we might enjoy bragging about is like menstrual rags when compared to the righteousness God requires.

Ferguson is a nationwide failure. As we see, cities across the nation are responding to Ferguson out of their overall frustration with an oppressive system.

Some will want to shift the discussion to our failure of educating, mentoring and etc. They’ll want to talk about single parent homes and the lack of male role models…high incarceration rates, joblessness and crime. Others will want to talk about what the system hasn’t done. They’ll talk about laws that haven’t been enforced, or those that need to be removed from the books. They’ll put up all sorts of excuses.

Yet, the reality of Ferguson is a glaring indictment that we have failed to finish the Movement. Clearly, we must have stopped short of the goal, right? This couldn’t be what the fight was about!

Ferguson YouthBut, we – the Black Bourgeoisie (or, “blackish”) – will keep talking about the crisis of Black youth: Blacks in the Inner City have yet to learn how to not give “the man” an excuse. They keep expecting handouts from Society. Or they have completely given up on a Society that has completely given up on them.

We believe that because we have seen the door to escape oppression that everyone would be able to make it out, when many of them can’t even see the door – much less reach it. But their failure to escape as we (think) we have ultimately threatens our own “blackish” security. Now, we’re uneasy while sitting with our White colleagues trying to reassure them that we aren’t as angry as those protesting in the streets.

We’ve detached from our community: physically, politically, economically. Physically, politically or economically, we have no stake in our community. And mentally, we’ve found ways to justify our tangible detachment.

But I can prove this detachment in a simple practical sense: Black organizations no longer meet at the Church.

We have detached ourselves from the only vessel (the Church) that can confront the power structure and effectively protect the “least of these.”

The Church was an actively engaged part of the Civil Rights Movement. We can romanticize that fact with all we read in books, see in film and hear from oral tradition. But, the real reason the Church was so involved was because the Church was the only place we could gather freely. It was the only place that was ours…that we controlled.

And, there was something about gathering as the Body of Christ. Even if it wasn’t planned…even if it were simply by chance: there was something about Black organizations gathering at the Church that gave them spirit-filled power to defy the odds.

Yet, we abandoned that legacy and now meet where convenient. If we live in the suburbs, we meet in the suburbs. Now that legal segregation is over, we are free to meet in libraries, recreational centers, schools and etc. We don’t have to meet at the Church. And, our struggle has lost its power.

So all we can do is watch…

As we see Ferguson in upheaval…as cities across the nation are in upheaval, all we can do is watch. Even those of us who feel the injustice and know that something must be done can only watch and react, with no direct and effective impact.

The Church – as the Church – has no active presence in the struggle. And, like Bob Marley said: there’s gonna be burnin’ and a-lootin’ tonight.

And all we can do is march again…

Unlike the Jews coming out of the Holocaust, we weren’t serious about “never again.” So, Negroes will march 120 miles from Ferguson, MO to the Missouri State Capital for a press conference at the governor’s mansion.

Really?!? One Hundred and Twenty Miles! We can’t just drop by? We can’t just make a phone call? We have to march…still? One hundred and twenty miles?!?!?

Ferguson is the Failure of the Black Elite

Ferguson is our failure.

Because if we remember the goal of the Civil Rights Movement at all, how can we not admit that we have failed when faced with the reality of Ferguson?

The fact that Ferguson can happen shows us that all we can offer to God is like a filthy rag.

We may have monuments, holidays, movies, books and yearly conventions. But, all of that is a legacy of great accomplishment that no longer strikes fear in the system. As important as those accomplishments are, they don’t matter much in the face of the reality we now see on TV.

We want someone to “take us to the King,” but, this filthy rag is all we have to bring. So, we must realize that nothing we can do will improve our situation. When we view the results of our witness of the evening news, we know there’s no reason for God to come to our aid, than the fact that we are His creation. God should restore us, simply because we are His people.

We must admit that we’ve dropped the ball. The torch was either passed and dropped, or not passed and burnt out. But the reality of all that’s happened in Ferguson from August until now proves that we have failed.

So like the Psalmist says, “Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.” Isn’t that what we want? To be restored? To be converted?

When we look at Ferguson, we must want to be changed…no? Don’t we?

And the change we seek is Incarnation: for Christ to be born among us. We want to again see everything as part of our Journey to the Promised Land. We need to reconnect the struggle to the faith…not with “religious leaders” who have left the Church. We need to struggle as part of the Church, don’t you think?

The Church is the gathering place for the people of God…the Body of Christ. It is the seat of Grace, giving grace to all who enter. There is something about being connected to the Church that gave the Movement a spirit-filled power to defy incredible odds.

Ferguson is Our Clarion Call

Black & Civic organizations should begin to hold their meetings at the Church again, so that the work of those organizations might be blessed by the presence of the Spirit, and we might be saved from the discord and strife we see in Ferguson and beyond. The reality of Ferguson should make it clear that the Movement has not reached its end. Clearly, the work isn’t finished…right?

We know how to do this. Our history is battle tested for doing this. So, it is time to pull our armor from under the bed, in the back of the closet, and the other places we stash our memories. We must dust off that armor, for the fight is not complete. Through the Church, with the Church and as the Church, Black Americans brought an oppressive Society to its knees for repentance. Is it not time for society to repent again?

Poor People: A Disease no Christian Would Touch?

Poor People and Raising LazarusJesus raised Lazarus from the dead…

I’ve read that passage many times before. It seems so plain, right? I mean…miraculous – yes. Here is a man, Lazarus, who had be dead. The mystery that reveals, I tried to capture in a poem I describe here. You can listen to a sample of that poem and download my poetry album here.

Yet, this miracle isn’t my focus here. Instead, I was struck by the disciples’ hesitance to go to Bethany with Jesus. They flat out object to going there. Eventually, they agree and go with Him. Yet, it was clear they did not want to return to that place.

And yes, the Jewish authorities had just tried to stone Jesus to death in Judea. But this is NOT the only reason the disciples did non want to go to Bethany. There’s more to it than that.

Poor people seem to have always been a disease to followers of Jesus. No one wants to go into the places where the poor reside. No one wants to risk their life to tend to poor people, especially when poor people, like Judas, might betray you for the chance to get a little money.

Sure, Jesus, let’s go there so we can die! There’s a plan that makes a lot of sense…let us go into a place where the authorities want to kill us…let us go into a place where we are surrounded by sick and poor people!

Why can’t we follow Christ without involving ourselves in the lives of poor people? Why must we face certain death in their defense, or in their care? Poor people are a disease no Christian wants to touch. And, that is revealed in John 11 and the raising of Lazarus from the dead.

Listen to this and hear where I’m coming from…

Black Organizations and Sacred Cows

An older brother came out his coat on me a few days ago. No…that’s not a metaphor or a euphemism. I mean that literally: he sat upright, eyes bulged out and exclaimed, “I take offense to that, now,” as he ripped off his coat! All this at a conference for the Church. #MercyLord

This week, I’ve been at the New Communities Conference for the Episcopal Church at Kanuga Retreat Center in Hendersonville, NC. We’re here to discuss issues of race and reconciliation…finding ways forward for ethnic communities. Native Americans, Blacks, Asians and Hispanics are all gathered here. To her credit, Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Shori (the top Bishop of the Episcopal Church) has been here listening throughout the duration.

That said, we had a breakaway session for our respective ethnic groups. In the “Black meeting” we sat in a circle and put out ideas for moving our particular people forward. As we shared ideas, I noticed a common thread: we need someone (or some entity) at the table, to advocate on our behalf.

Having spent years in DC Politics, I understand a thing or two. Effective advocacy requires either numbers, money or both. Having both is the best vantage point.

UBEIn the spirit of Absolom Jones (the father of Black Episcopalians), there was founded an organization named the Union of Black Episcopalians (UBE). Being mentored by a few past presidents of the Union, I’m quite aware of its contributions of the past and it’s potential value for the future. Yet, as with most Black Organizations, after the golden years of Black Activism the Union of Black Episcopalians has become a shell of its former self.

Now, you understand why that man jumped out his coat at me!

Black Organizations have become sacred cows. You can’t critique them. Even if their irrelevance is obvious, you must pretend as if it is still the glorious organization of yesteryear. No wonder we can’t get ahead.

We are so caught up in nostalgia that we cannot get out of the past. We are stuck there: remembering what was and holding on to it, as if it were really still here. Then we smack down young adults because they see the reality…and when those young professionals decide there are better things to do with their time than waste them on nostalgia, leaders of Black Organizations always condemn the youth for “apathy.”

But what is true?

The reality is Black Organizations don’t have the same gravitas they once had. Although the President, the Attorney General, 42 Members of Congress and three US Senators are Black, Black Organizations aren’t able to communicate an agenda and move that agenda into reality.

This same unfortunate reality is true in the Episcopal Church as well. Much like the United States, the Episcopal Church has a bi-cameral legislature: the House of Bishops and House of Deputies. Anything that is to happen in the Church, happens through passage of legislation. So just as there is a need for interest groups in Federal Government, there is also a need for interests groups in the Church.
Who will ensure that budgetary cuts do not disproportionately affect Blacks and other minorities? Who will push the institutional Church to address institutional racism and societal disparities that might remain unseen?

If it is true that we must be the change we want to see in the world (and it is), then how can we look anywhere but to a failing of ourselves in the stagnation of progress?

Now, I realize my youthful zeal. I also understand that I need to find ways to communicate with the old guard so they are assured that I value their contributions. Many have fought hard and those fights must be honored. And the best way to honor those fights is to see their value not just in history, but in the present and the future.

To his credit, the brother who wanted to fight me came and apologized. I forgave. We reconciled. He realized he had reacted without listening. And I appreciate his saying that.

Our elders must learn to hear youth without visceral reactions. At the same time, we youth must learn how to communicate the truth in ways that still honor the contributions of those who have gone before.

The fight isn’t over. And to continue the fight, our organizations must change! Our organizations must be revitalized and reinvigorated. The harsh reality is that our organizations have become irrelevant to young adults.

When I attend Anti-Racism meetings in Central Florida, I’m the only attendee under 60. When I attend UBE meetings in Central Florida, I am the only attendee under 60. If this is the reality, what will become of the important work left to do?

But all around us testifies to the important work left to do in Racial Justice and Reconciliation. The outcome of the trials for the murderers of Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin scream of this. The New Jim Crow and the School to Prison Pipeline scream of this. Lack of services on and care for Native reservations, Immigration reform, the tone towards anything from President Obama, the wide range of social and economic disparity, and a host of other matters bear witness to the need for racial justice and reconciliation.

Yet, in order to do that work we need strong organizations to represent the various groups. So, although I faced the ire of the old guard I still remain steadfast. We must reinvigorate our Black organizations – to include the Union of Black Episcopalians, to ensure that we are effective in the cause of true racial justice and reconciliation. If not, we will only end up with the appearance of reconciliation. And that can’t be good for anyone…can it?