January 17, 2016 – The United Churches

Amos 5: 6-7, 10:15, 20-24

In the year 2000 I took a dozen youth from the Presbytery of Olympia to a new national youth event called: Presbyterian Youth Connection. We were going to be like a youth General Assembly proposing bills for consideration at the “real” General Assembly. Locally we had talked about things that we wanted to propose and our main concern at that time was to make the church a safe and welcoming place for GLBT youth. We had our bill proposals written as we flew off to Slippery Rock University in PA. Our work together followed a basic legislative process and I went through it all fueled on too much caffeine and too little sleep. It had been a long time since I had slept in a dorm room. In one of our plenary discussions, I remember feeling like I had been startled awake when a black young woman came to the microphone and exclaimed “It’s hard to run the race when our shoes are tied together!” “Huh?” I thought? “Shoes tied together?”

I am almost embarrassed to say that I was a grown adult with High School aged children, when I first understood in the smallest of ways that the life of the African American was different than my life, then the life of my child. You see I had been raised by my parents to believe that everyone was the same, and that we should all love one another. I was raised by my parents to believe that the American Dream could be claimed by any child who was willing to work hard to get ahead. The light was finally on in my head, but it was as dim as a candle.

Years later, my daughter married a man whose mother is Puerto Rican and whose father is white. Thanks to my association with this extended family, the light of clarity around the racism our our country has grown a little brighter. Slowly it has dawned on me that everyone in America doesn’t have the same experience and opportunity that I have, as a white woman imbued with the invisible back pack of White Privilege. (Peggy McIntosh’s Article is available in the entry.) Still I went on, thinking about racism in an abstract way without really being affected by it.

I had been here at the United Churches as the transitional pastor about 6 weeks when we had the officer involved shooting here in Olympia on May 21, 2015. I didn’t know about the incident until I received a call from Interfaith Works about going to a gathering in the evening at Temple Beth Hatfiloh. The gathering was to make space for the people of Olympia to share about their feelings about the incident. I immediately got on the Internet and learned about what had happened by watching the press conferences with Mayor Buxbaum and Chief of Police, Ronnie Roberts. The chief described what happened in a kind of clinical way. During the question and answer period, when asked about the suspects race, the Chief responded “Race was not a factor in this case at all.”

“What?” I thought. “That’s crazy! There is no way these two young men would have been shot if they were white.” I rushed to judgement of Chief Roberts, not acknowledging that my own understanding of racism was pretty dim. It is most likely that Chief Roberts was also raised by parents who taught him that we are all the same and that we should all just love one another.

Love is not enough. What does all of us loving each other really mean? Does it mean that I will make the assumption that your life and your experience is just like my own? For a bunch of us here at the United Churches, we decided that we needed to learn something about racism. Tom, the white guy that is my co-grandparent, helped us understand that it is not fair or kind to ask people of color to teach us about racism, because when they have to teach us, they risk emotional injury to themselves when exposed to our unintended ignorance. We decided that we had to teach ourselves about race. As you know we held the community forums utilizing the PBS series: Race, the Power of an Illusion, read articles by Peggy McIntosh and Robin DiAngelo, organized a remembrance service for Michael Brown and Ferguson on the Capitol Campus and we held a book study, facilitated by Tom Womeldorff on Waking up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race. We joined in the kick off of the Black Alliance of Thurston County and participated in a Community Conversation hosted by the Olympia Police Department and the Black Alliance. The light of understanding grows brighter. But there is so much more we must do.

Tomorrow is a federal holiday in honor of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In his iconic speech in front of the Lincoln memorial in 1963, Dr. King tells his listeners that one hundred years before, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, “and that this momentous degree came as a great beacon light of hope to the millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice…but one hundred years later, the Negro is still not free.” Dr. King went on to describe the plight of his brothers and sisters in the 1960’s, declaring that they had come to the nation’s capitol this day to cash a check…the promissory note that is given to every American, black and white, the guaranteed rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. He went on to further describe how America defaulted on this promissory note insofar as the citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, he said, America has given the Negro people a bad check, one that has come back marked with “insufficient funds.” Dr. King said that “we have come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now…now is the time…now is the time to make justice a reality for all God’s children.”

Making justice a reality for all God’s children has been a challenge for centuries. Even Amos, a prophet in the 8th century along with his contemporaries Hosea, Isaiah and Micah called for justice. Both the kingdoms of Israel and Judah had enjoyed long periods of peace and prosperity. Prosperity for some that is. Though there were no outward threats to the kingdoms, but there was a breakdown of family and old tribal systems and land was being accumulated by the wealthy few. There was a rise in the upper class concentrating all the wealth in a smaller number of citizens, while the majority was impoverished. The poor were getting poorer and were not receiving any help or any justice. Justice, at that time was meted out at the city gate by the city elders. These elders were not acting in a just way. They continued to oppress. While they oppressed they still gathered for worship at Bethel. They were not handing out justice, but continued to celebrate and at church as if all was well. Amos spoke out against this vigorously! “Take away the noise of your songs; I won’t listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”  Evidently God is not much impressed by mere talk, by melodious hymns, by eloquent prayers. What God wants to hear is the constant flow of justice. What God wants to hear is the constant flow of righteousness.

What do we mean by justice? In America, we think that justice is when the good are rewarded, and the bad are punished. But in the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for justice, mishpat, means that the neediest in society are cared for. A just society takes care of those who are needy. An unjust society does not want to take care of those who are in need. Let justice roll down like an ever­-flowing stream!

Amos asserted that if the people continued this social injustice and religious arrogance that the Lord would punish them with military disaster. That is exactly what happened. 40 years after Amos prophesied Assyria sacked Israel and carried her people off into exile.

It has been 52 years since Martin Luther King challenged the people of this country to make justice a reality for all God’s children.  Fifty two years later and still we are not a just society, taking care of those in need. Fifty two years later and the residents of Flint, MI, a largely black community are being poisoned by lead in their water. This would not have gone on for 7 months if this had been the largely white community of Grand Rapids. Fifty two years later and black children playing with toy guns are accidentally shot by police. Fifty two years later and blacks are pulled over in small towns like Tenino for no infractions. Since Ferguson was on fire the collective anger and devastation of the black community has become a powerful national movement. In his book Between the World and Me Ta-Nehisi Coates implies that it’s not his job, or by extension the job of other black voices or leaders to coach white folks or worry about their feelings. Which it is not. We are the ones who should be thinking about black people – their feelings, their reality – which is most likely dramatically different than our own. Structural racism won’t change until we white people change.

We have to get off the sidelines and join the struggle. A good example of this is Leslie Cushman who put on a nice suit, and took this sign, and stood outside of the Downtown Association Ball. She did it as a witness. People did not want to make eye contact with her. We white folk can listen. We can listen to stories that are painful. A number of us from church attended a rally organized by Circle United where only black voices were allowed to speak. They were not people that were practiced as public speakers, and the stories they told about being black in Olympia were painful to hear. One young black student told about a noose being left on his desk at one of our local high schools. He tried to joke about it, perhaps because it was just so painful, or to “fit in.” His white teacher told him that this was a hate crime and that they together should report it. Robbie Clark, organizer of Black Lives Matter Bay Area asks us white folk to stop saying “All Lives Matter.” Our Black brothers and sisters are saying that all lives WILL matter when black lives matter, and black lives don’t matter right now. How many people of color are in your close circle of friends?

Leslie Cushman has been working hard with the Black Alliance of Thurston County to introduce legislation to change the language around the use of Deadly Force by our police officers. According to Amnesty International, Washington is 50th of 50 states in our laws around the application of the use of force. The bill now has a sponsor and is supported by the church council. This would be Amos’ idea of justice meted out at the city gate. Amos reminds us that it is not enough to worship and pray and celebrate in church if justice, which means caring for the least in our nation, isn’t flowing down like an ever rolling stream. May it be so.