Cursing a Vigil

Cursing a Vigil

It was a vigil. A candlelight vigil for a seventeen year old black young man who was shot and killed by a Chicago police officer.

The week after the verdict came back guilty in the officer’s trial, a friend of mine hosted the vigil at her small church in the Norwood Park neighborhood on Chicago’s northwest side. Her church is part of a coalition of churches in the area who came together to promote racial justice when a woman with a Puerto Rican flag on her shirt was harassed at a local park. They wanted to remember Laquan McDonald as more than a symbol, and stand with his family and friends in their grief at his loss.

No verdict can bring him back.

The church where the vigil was held meets in a train station in the heart of the neighborhood. It’s a lovely spot in the center of a small park filled with trees with a picturesque wrought iron fence around it. I arrived early and was startled to see bright royal blue plastic bunting tied to every post in the fence and an apparently semi-permanent sign firmly attached next to the sidewalk that said “Blue Lives Matter.” I wondered if all this was normally there (it wasn’t), or had just been put there because of our vigil (it had). As I walked up the path to the train station, every tree was wrapped in the blue plastic bunting.

It wasn’t subtle. Far from it.

Laquan McDonald had just turned seventeen when he was killed. Raised mostly by his great-grandmother until her death, he’d talked of becoming a nurse. He was back in school and had a part-time job learning to rehab properties. He liked working with his hands. He loved his little sister fiercely.

He was like my brothers, yours kids, our nephews – if they had the early childhood trauma of a mother struggling with addiction and abusive foster homes, if they grew up in a violent neighborhood with poor schools and few opportunities where people survive by self-medicating with readily available street drugs, if they had the symptoms and struggles common to those who suffer with PTSD.

His family loved him like we love our kids – by age five he was living with his great-grandmother, with a large extended family nearby. His mother worked to get her life on track and built a loving relationship with her son. His family misses him – like we would miss our kids.

In the face of obstacles I can barely imagine, Laquan was a kid trying to survive and find his way to a good life.

We met to remember Laquan, to pray for his family, and to pray for change in the system that resulted in his death.

And that was something part of the community could not stand.

When we walked outside with candles lit, the men (I saw no women) gathered along the edge of the small park began to yell. “SHUT UP, B****!” I heard that more than once above the blare of truck horns. They’d lined the block with trucks (some had more signs) and set of all their alarms. It was meant to be threatening, and it was. Particularly to the handful of black women who drove in from their neighborhoods to join us.

I kept wondering, what are these men so afraid of?

When I listen to friends who are concerned that “Blue Lives Matter,” they are worried that we are minimizing the risks police officers take in the course of doing their jobs. But our society clearly believes that the lives of police officers matter. We protect them with body armor and armored vehicles. We give them weapons to use and latitude to use them – batons, Tasers, guns. And when officers are killed in the line of duty, we honor them with funeral parades, salutes, and memorials.

(Where are the memorials for young black women and men who should still be alive?)

In the only interview he has given, the officer who killed Laquan McDonald said something that gave me chills. He said, “I might be looking at the possibility of spending the rest of my life in prison for doing my job as I was trained as a Chicago police officer.”

It’s something I’ve heard again since the verdict in interviews with other officers and representatives from the Fraternal Order of Police.

It’s part of the reason for our vigil after the verdict.

I suspect it’s a large part of the reason those men yelling expletives at us are so afraid.

Norwood Park is 80% white (down from over 90% in 2000) and home to many of Chicago’s police and firefighters. They see a colleague convicted and going to jail for doing what they consider to be his job, and it scares them.

The power to kill makes them feel safer (and we wonder why gun violence is so prevalent on Chicago’s west and south sides), and that power is being threatened by outside accountability and consequences.

And so they cursed a prayer vigil. They beat their chests and roared their roars and blared their horns and tied their blue bunting in a message that could not have said more clearly, “Our lives matter more than Laquan McDonald’s.”

Which is why we must continue to insist – Black Lives Matter, too.

Laquan’s life mattered.

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Feeding the Lions

Feeding the Lions

Several years ago I had the opportunity to accompany a class of seminary students on several field trips to meet ministers working in different ways on the south and west sides of Chicago. They were eye-opening days, and I came away with a deep respect for the people in these communities and the pastors who work with them. It changed the way I listen to the news, the people I follow on Facebook and Twitter, and the assumptions I’d always had about violence in “bad” parts of town.

There are few things that make me angrier on social media than people who live in the suburbs and across the country saying something along the lines of “If ‘black lives matter’ so much, why aren’t these people doing anything about black-on-black violence? Just look at Chicago! Where are the protests about that?”

They have no clue how many vigils and protests there are in these communities, or how hard pastors and other community leader work to redeem their neighborhoods. And beyond their ignorance about what is or is not actually happening, they betray a deep ignorance about what exactly these communities are up against.

The racialization of Chicago neighborhoods has a long history marked by racist real estate and lending practices (supported by federal policies), preferential treatment of white neighborhoods and constituencies, and police brutality against black people. Reduced legitimate opportunities and choices creates an increase in illegitimate options, and an illegal, shadow system breeds violence.

Chicago has its own unique factors, but the overall dynamics are no different anywhere else in the country.

Individual responsibility matters. But it isn’t the only thing that matters. Social responsibility matters, too, and sometimes, more.

The Bible is full of this reality. We are called to recognize and help the individual in trouble – someone robbed and beaten and left by the side of the road. But we are also called to care for and support “the poor” – a whole class of people who, Jesus said, we will always have with us.

Can we help the whole class by ignoring the individuals? No, of course not, and that is the pitfall of the distant-humanitarian (or politician or bureaucrat) who is content to support an abstract idea even if (perhaps because) it hides the reality of people’s lives.

But can we help the individual and ignore the whole class? Yes, and many of us do it every day – some because the problem of the class seems overwhelming and unsolvable to them, and others because they refuse to believe the class even exists. To these, there are only individuals who are poor, no class of “the poor” or “the oppressed.”

Both are ways to avoid social responsibility.

Social responsibility recognizes that, while individual have real choices, the choices available to any given individual are shaped and limited (or expanded) by societal (social) forces beyond their direct control. Social responsibility recognizes that “status quo” societal forces are perpetuated by default by those individuals who are unaware or in denial of them, in addition to those who are consciously complicit. And social responsibility recognizes that it is individuals, aware and choosing to work together, who can change the possibilities for a given disadvantaged group of people.

One of those field trips I went on took us to a rally of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition on Chicago’s Southside, and after the rally we had a meeting with Rev. Jesse Jackson. That meeting was not what I expected. We didn’t meet a politician or public persona (though he is both of those), we met a pastor. “We need your help,” he told us. “When these families lose a child, and they don’t have a church, we’re the ones they call.” We don’t have enough pastors for them – there are too many families and too many funerals, he told us.

But we need to do more than bind up their wounds, he continued. The church is good at binding and healing wounds, but we send them right back out for the same lions to keep devouring them. We’ve got to deal with the lions, too.

I haven’t used quotation marks because I don’t pretend to remember his exact words that day, but I will never forget what he told us, or the pastor’s heart he opened up to us.

Individuals need their wounds tended, and that is our responsibility. But it is also our responsibility to fight against the lions that savage their lives.

There’s more than one way to fight those lions – racism, sexism, economic oppression, discrimination against people because of who they are or who they love. But we will never defeat them if we cannot even acknowledge they exist, and if we cannot admit the many ways we have knowingly or unknowingly fed them.

For some of us, those lions are harmless pets, or mythical monsters, or species that are rare and exceptional to encounter. Some of us even see them as protectors against the pests that would destroy our hard work, like the mousers on the great-grandfather’s farm. We see them as essentially separate from ourselves, rather than as extensions of our lives and choices.

The truth is harder. It requires us to accept a responsibility that is both individual and social. And that responsibility requires a response.

Fundamentalist Baptist Theater Majors

Fundamentalist Baptist Theater Majors

I was socialized by fundamentalist Baptist theater Majors. It’s not like being raised by wolves, but in that context….

People usually either laugh or look confused or bemused when I tell them. But it’s true.

After being largely rejected by my peers through elementary, the beginning of seventh grade was no improvement. I attended a private Christian school, an elementary and high school that was owned by our church and shared a campus with the large Baptist university it also owned. Seventh grade was the first year of junior high, and we shared a building on campus with the high school.

Seventh grade began for me with the same survival strategy that had gotten me through elementary: reading through lunch and pretty much everything else. But after a few months, I found myself sharing a table with another lunch-reader, a junior named Lisa. She was new to the school, and it wasn’t long before we were sharing book recommendations and her dad’s amazing oatmeal cookies.

Lisa’s older sister was a theater minor at the university, and their family lived only a couple of blocks from campus. By eighth grade I was part of the family, and Lisa and I were hanging out with her sister’s music and theater friends. When Lisa graduated and enrolled in the university, my entire social life moved with her.

I spent four years of high school (and then most of college) in the world of those theater kids (young adults, really), and to an awkward teenager, they were talented, glamorous, confident – everything I wasn’t. But more importantly, they were kind.

It was a season of years when the university’s theater program was thriving with an excellent faculty and some amazingly talented students. I saw musicals, Shakespeare, Faulkner, and Chekhov, among others. I learned every note of the soundtracks to Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables. I loved it all, absorbing other lives in other worlds.

But even more important than the escape of the plays and the songs, those theater students welcomed me as one of their own and gave me a space to begin to figure out who I was.

I’ve thought about them a lot over the past few years. As I’ve sung the songs I learned with them at Show Tunes night at Sidetrack in Boystown, and as I’ve walked alongside Christian gay friends and their wives as they unpacked their faith and undone their marriages to recreate their lives and families.

I’ve thought of all the stories they were trying to pour into those plays. All the things they had to keep in. How much we learned to hide. So many of them were gay. Not that they told me then, and I chose not to speculate – I saw the damage that could do. But as we’ve reconnected on Facebook, and I’ve seen many of them out, finally living out loud, I haven’t been surprised. I’ve been glad, and grateful.

And in retrospect, the journey my own life has taken over the past several years shouldn’t have been so surprising. Thirty years ago, I was socialized by fundamentalist Baptist theater majors – gay and straight, creating a family that welcomed outcasts and gave them (me) a place to grow up, a place to be ourselves that was probably as safe as we could make it in our context.

They lived in inherent tension – all of the contradictions are there in the description: fundamentalist Baptist theater majors. And I learned to be at home in that space – however ironically, to feel safe there in a way I imagine many of them never could. But they gave that gift to a “kid sister” who showed up one day in need of a family.

I grew up with preacher boys and theater kids, sometimes one and the same, and when I look around at Gilead on Sunday evenings, I see the same kinds of folks. Only now no one needs to hide a thing.

Radical Welcome

Radical Welcome

Welcome others as you have been welcomed. That’s right up there with “Love others as you have been loved.” (John 13:34, my paraphrase)

It’s a bit harder though when you haven’t been welcomed yourself first. I’ve always wondered and struggled with that. I was so definitively not welcomed by classmates and peers growing up, and it was agonizing years of unrelenting rejection. By nature, I’m almost a pure extrovert, but I was so isolated for so long, I spent years functioning as an introvert to survive. It was an experience that taught me to assume I’m not really welcome, which can make it hard to realize I am.

You’d think that, knowing how it is to be on the outside, I’d be all the more welcoming of others as a result, but it hasn’t always worked that way.

Sometimes my natural extroversion exerts itself and I welcome all comers with a more-the-merrier enthusiasm. But other times I fight an instinct to raise the drawbridge behind me and repeat the pattern of exclusion that kept me on the outs for so many years. And far too often, I struggle to feel like I have the right to welcome others – like I’m still a guest and only have probationary status at best. It’s not always easy to find the space inside of me that knows how to welcome others.

It’s hard to move yourself from outsider status to belonging. It’s something we need help from others with.

Welcome others as you have been welcomed.

Late each Sunday afternoon I head the two blocks east to a neighborhood bar where Gilead Chicago meets, a quirky bar church where we tell each other our stories, sing pop anthems like hymns, and welcome all sorts (including a surprising – or maybe not – number of former seminarians who weren’t sure they could ever feel really good about church again).

It’s a place where I’m learning more about welcome, but it’s not the only one. Most of the places that have taught me the most about welcome have been queer spaces to one degree or another. The LGBTQ storytelling night I go to each month. The classic Episcopal church in my old neighborhood where the gay families came around me as my own family began to reject my faith and life. Gilead.

There’s a common experience of being outsiders that is shared in those spaces, and with it, a radical welcome. Conservatives (including me when I was one) often complain that they aren’t welcome or tolerated in these spaces, and thus dismiss them as hypocritical. It feels clever, like playing a trump card, but I’ve come to realize it’s an exercise in missing the point.

Every community gathers around something, and these communities gather around a radical welcome. If you are unwilling to extend that radical welcome as well, you have excluded yourself.

It’s like a baseball enthusiast wanting to join a soccer league in order to play with baseball’s rules, and then complaining that no one will play ball with them.

It’s disingenuous at best, gross presumption at worst.

Radical welcome excludes no one, but it also doesn’t include everyone, because it leaves room for some to exclude themselves. It wouldn’t be very radical otherwise.

Ironically, it was fundamentalist separatists who first taught me that, with their insistence that God’s love welcomes all, but that those who persist in false beliefs exclude themselves. They removed themselves from all who held and acted on such beliefs –hence the identification as “separatists.”

That’s something Jesus didn’t do. He didn’t walk away from anybody, turned no one away – even the ones with good reputations who would only come secretly at night (John 3). And the one outsider he tried to turn away? She called him on it and he changed his tune (Matthew 15). Everyone was welcome with Jesus – including the scandalous, but many walked away.

It broke his heart, but he let them.

Welcome others as you have been welcomed.

So many people still need that radical welcome of Jesus, and the only way they’ll ever know a welcome like that is if it comes from you and me. “Christ has no body now but yours; no hands, no feet on earth but yours,” as the poem says.* I’m grateful for those who’ve given me such welcome. They continue to challenge me to broaden my own welcome of others.

And I ache for the day when no one any longer feels the misguided need to exclude themselves.

 

*Usually misattributed to Teresa of Avila, the poem is actually the cumulative work of a Methodist minister and young Quaker woman in the late 1800’s.

Obscene Generosity

Obscene Generosity

God loves with obscene generosity.

The lengths God is willing to go to, the depths God is willing to stoop to – time and time again it baffles, even offends, those who think they know God. Ninevites are loved, prostitutes, pagans, drunkards, adulterers, murderers, idolaters, terrorists. The wrong people. The wrong kind of people.

Whatever else they are or were, they are other. Outsiders to whatever inside we’ve laid claim to. Normal; perverted. Legal; criminal. White; black. Civilized; uncivilized. Smart; foolish. Spiritual; worldly. Clean; dirty. Legitimate; illegitimate. We’re right; they’re wrong.

Yet God forgives them and blesses them and talks to them and hangs out with them. God likes them.

And it kills us. Because we want to believe we’re special.

And we are.

But so are they. They aren’t like us and they are special. Those other people who missed the boat, who get it all wrong, who mess up and hurt other people and make bad choices. (Or just choices that aren’t the ones we’d make.) Who are for whatever reason just the wrong people.

We want a “but…” on that. But…they repented. But…they changed. But…it wasn’t their fault. But…they were deceived. But…they learned. Maybe they did or do or will or were, but that’s not the point of why and how God loves.

If there were ever a foolish lover, it’s God. Loving those who turn their back again and again and again. Loving those who don’t get it, who assume they are just that lovable. Loving the selfish, in it for what they get. Loving the hurt and angry, who lash out when you get too close. Loving the ones who push away. Loving the ones who don’t care, who don’t want your love. Loving the ones who are too busy. And loving them all beyond reason or what is reasonable. This is no measured love – it’s impetuous and inappropriate.

It’s just too much!

It crosses all kinds of lines, how God loves. It’s not reasonable. The priorities are all over the place. It’s indiscriminate, wasteful, disorderly, prodigal. It even crosses the lines we understood God drew!

It makes us so uncomfortable. Maybe not in theory, where, after all, we can readily affirm that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son….” But in practice?

Yogi Bera is quoted as saying, “In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is.” And it’s so deeply true. Theory stays safely abstract – love stays safely abstract. But when we actually see the obscenely generous love of God at work, in practice?

It disgusts us.

“That’s just the easy way.” “Shameless!” “Oh come on, you’re smarter than that!” “I can’t believe you’d even consider it!”

I’ve been on the receiving end of that disgust. I even remember feeling it myself at times, that profound disapproval of others who I believed were foolish at best, defiant at worst.

We don’t want something that’s so easily given. Its “cheap,” we say, “You’re too easy.”

As if God could do anything that isn’t priceless. Some things are of such immeasurable value that they can only ever be gifts.

The Light of Clarity

The Light of Clarity

You’d think in this atmosphere thick with division and the tendency to head to our respective corners of extremism, that we’d have no issues with clarity – with being upfront with our values and convictions.

You’d be wrong.

The pro-life movement recently celebrated a win in a Supreme Court case contesting a California law which would, in part, require pro-life crisis pregnancy centers to post signs stating that the state provides free or low-cost access to birth control and abortion services. Pro-life centers argued that this violated their free speech rights.

I agree. I don’t think pro-life crisis pregnancy centers should be required to in any way advertise the availability of abortion.

But I do believe they should be clear about who they are and what they do provide – that was the purported aim of the law. Clinics that do not offer licensed medical care had to say so, and clinics that offered licensed reproductive care only within the restrictions of their anti-abortion convictions had to say where a full range of services could be found.

You’d think that Christians who are adamant and proud of their pro-life convictions would have no issue with most of that, but you’d be wrong.

While all may not use the tactic, pro-life crisis pregnancy centers and hotlines are notoriously deceptive in their signage and advertising. They hope that vulnerable women who are pregnant and frightened will seek them out so they will have the opportunity to steer those women away from seeking an abortion. They believe that the longer they can delay a potential abortion, the less likely it will happen, so they rarely hesitate to use a kind of “bait and switch” strategy with these women.

That kind of deceit is deeply disrespectful of women and the pro-life cause.

While I’m sympathetic to the pro-life argument that they should not be compelled to disseminate information about the availability of abortion services, I have no sympathy with the deceptive practices. Pro-life clinics should proudly post signs stating they are just that: pro-life. “We are a pro-life clinic. We will do everything in our power to ensure you have a healthy pregnancy, support and good options as you choose whether to keep your baby or give it up for adoption with a loving family.”

Clarity. Honesty. Respecting all lives, including those of frightened, vulnerable pregnant women.

For people who follow the one they call “The Way, the Truth, and the Light,” that should be a given. But it’s not the only area Christians have a hard time being clear in.

If you are an LGBTQ Christian with a same-sex partner (or the hope for one) who is looking for a church, you’ll have a hard time figuring out where might find a spiritual home.

When you’re looking at an evangelical church’s website in particular, it will usually be difficult to ascertain whether you will be fully welcome and free to share your gifts with the church. A Master of Divinity degree and a lifetime of navigating the in and outs of evangelical positions and affiliations may help, but even with those you’ll have some guess work to do.

Hint: the vast majority of evangelical churches will not perform or affirm a same-sex marriage.

But how would a visitor know that?

Many churches don’t want to make a straightforward declaration of their policy. Some pastors don’t want to clarify something they know members have differing assumptions about. Others want to “contextualize” their position and explain it on a more individual basis – they want the. Hence to make their case and explain themselves. Some just want to avoid controversy. Still others insist they can take a “take-no-position” position and are in denial about the tenuous place that puts their LGBTQ+ attendees.

Whatever the reason, they resist clarity.

Clarity is the beginning of trust, and what kind of a church will you have without trust?

Even affirming and inclusive mainline churches can struggle with this. Church leaders confused by the array of orientations and gender identities want to “just welcome everyone” without realizing that those who find themselves rejected in most places need to know that means them, too, in their particulars.

A generic “everybody is welcome” means nothing to them. Thee are assumptions embedded in our “everybody,” and they are used to being excluded where “everybody is welcome.” It takes something different to truly welcome some people, whether that’s accessible facilities or gender-neutral bathrooms.

Whatever the position, clarity is vital.

(Churchclarity.org works to encourage churches to be clear about their policies regarding women and LGBTQ+ folks on the primary websites. They don’t rate churches based on what their policies are, rather they rate them based on their clarity about those policies. It’s only reasonable, and you can submit a church for scoring at https://www.churchclarity.org/crowdsource.)

Civility and Non-Violence

Civility and Non-Violence

Civility and non-violence.

They’re not the same thing.

There’s been quite a lot of discussion in the past few weeks about “civility.” In the midst of extreme political differences and polarizing public policy, calls for “civility” have rung out from both ends of the spectrum.

How to engage polarizing discussions is something I’ve been thinking a lot about for the past couple of years – well before Trump’s election. My faith has led me to such different convictions than my family and many friends (themselves people of deep faith and convictions) that I’ve had to wrestle with it.

With some, it’s easier. They may not be where I am, but they wrestle with many of the same questions and can at least accept the possibility that the conclusions I’ve come to might be reasonable or valid. For others, the directions I’ve moved directly contradict some of their most foundational paradigms, and their convictions obligate them to defend what they believe to be true. It can create deeply painful interactions.

I want to stay connected and engaged with them, but it’s hard. I’ve learned to discern how to interact based on the relationship – close family are different from close friends who are different from colleagues and acquaintances. And since most of our interactions are on social media, there can be a mix of friends and strangers in any given conversation. It’s complicated.

About a year ago, in a difficult exchange with a member of my extended family, something clicked for me. I remembered the movie, Selma. When King and the leaders of the movement were planning their march for voting rights, they chose Selma, Alabama because they knew the sheriff there was likely to respond violently. They knew that, however peaceful, they were going to be provocative, and they knew they were going to have to prepare if they were going to respond non-violently.

That’s not easy work. Non-violent protest. Non-violent resistance.

It requires knowing yourself, learning deep self-control and even a different way of seeing. It requires deep confidence – in both who you are and what you are standing up for. It requires the humility and faith to endure unmerited suffering, and trust that it can be redemptive.

It requires something very different from civility.

Civility, in the way we use it, means politeness and courtesy. That’s about social deference, both to individuals and within societal norms. Civility doesn’t work when what you are doing is refusing to defer.

Non-violence does, though.

With non-violence we can refuse to defer, refuse to back down, refuse to go away or be quiet, refuse to be convenient or cooperative, even to the point of persecution or abuse.

Civility itself doesn’t stand for anything. It doesn’t even stand for the dignity and value of every human life – great evil has been done with great politeness and courtesy.

Civility doesn’t stand for anything but keeping the rules, spoken and unspoken. And if what needs to change, what needs to be resisted and protested, are those very rules, civility is impotent. Worse, it can be complicit.

Reformation offends the rules. That’s its point. It can’t be done without deconstruction (and sometimes destruction), but it can be done non-violently.

And that’s hard work – hard work to do, and hard work to figure out how to do and prepare for.

Next week at the Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, NC, I’m excited to be on a panel with Brian McLaren, Robyn Henderson-Espinoza, and Xavier Ramey about what it looks like to do that work. The session is called Taking to the Social Streets: Non-Violent Engagement on Social Media, and I’m looking forward from learning with these amazing human beings and everyone who joins us for the discussion. We’d love to have you be part of that conversation – Saturday at 2:00 in the Greater Things Tent.

The roots of the word “civility” are in something much deeper than courtesy and politeness. The Latin civilas means ‘relating to citizens.’ It’s about citizenship, and citizenship is about where the power and privilege in a society lies. Citizenship is at the heart of what divides us today – the legal technicalities of citizenship, yes, but also the full privileges of citizenship – both formal and informal. We disagree on who should have that standing, and we disagree on what it means to be a good citizen of America. In this deeper sense of ‘civility,’ it is about what constitutes civility itself that we disagree.

Those who seek to challenge us to live up to the highest of American ideals are actually the most truly civil – even, especially, when their tactics break the social rules of politeness and courtesy. When they make us uncomfortable with our failure and with our denial of that failure.

A man sitting at a lunch counter where he is neither wanted nor allowed is impolite, but he is civil.

Marchers taking up space on a sidewalk or street are discourteous, but they are civil.

A person naming the realities of systemic racism is not polite, but they are civil.

Servers refusing to wait on a customer who has publicly dismissed and demeaned them are discourteous, but they are civil.

Protestors chanting their protest in front of a public official who defends morally repugnant policy are not polite, but they are civil.

But that’s not the kind of “civility” so many people are calling for. They want the politeness and courtesy that keeps them from feeling too uncomfortable – that keeps issues safely in the abstract and theoretical and doesn’t push too hard for costly change. Or they want the façade that politeness and courtesy can give to anger and pain and suffering and oppression.

That civility is killing us. May we find the non-violent response that will help us truly live.