What Now

 

How goes it with your spirit?  I have to say that I have been crushed by this election.  And when I say crushed I don’t just mean disappointed.  I mean my spirit has been pulverized and left gasping for air.  I am still struggling to catch my breath and absorb what has happened.

Last Sunday I stated this election was not about electing a man or a woman, or even about electing a republican or a democrat to the office of the presidency.  It was about ratifying and affirming our nations most sacred values—E pluribus Unum—Out of Many, One.  Our unalienable birth rights of Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Liberty and justice for all.

Apparently, America no longer wants to be an America that celebrates E Pluribus Unum. That value was okay to proclaim when America was 90% white in 1950.  It apparently is not okay when America’s white people reflects 61% of the population in 2016 and is projected to be 49% in less than 30 years.  When America finally begins to look like E Pluribus Unum, Whites get nervous because it will mean they will need to share their power.

I shouldn’t be surprised given how White America treated our first Black president who probably will go down in history as one of the all-time great presidents.  Not by this generation but by future generations.  Abraham Lincoln was hated when he was president[i].  I mean states seceded from the union and millions of people died because he became president. Not exactly how one wins and influence friends.

I still believe these values were the heart of this election.  I still believe that this nation was given an opportunity to make a deliberate choice to embody the values on which this nation stood, albeit imperfectly.  We were given a choice to turn away, even if ever so slightly, from our nation’s original sin of racism.  We were given a choice.

And we chose white supremacy.

I think what stung me the most was the realization that the only demographic that overwhelmingly voted for Trump was the White vote. Of the 70% of White voters, 58% of them voted for Trump.  No other racial demographic overwhelmingly voted for Trump.  No other racial demographic comprised a majority in their support for Trump. Not one.

Now there are many individual reasons why a person might have voted for Trump.  So when individuals begin giving reasons why they voted Trump, the reason is not because they believe that Whites need to stay in power and oppress other groups. No, they believe there are other reasons, but the aggregate reason is racism.  This is an important distinction.  Let me rephrase this point another way.  Trump’s appeal to individual White voter’s is not because individually they supported his racism, but the systemic impact in this election of White voters is racism.

We need to understand the message this sends to marginalized groups when one demographic votes overwhelmingly for a demagogue like Donald Trump. We need to understand that their fear, my fear, is not unreasonable but is based in the history of events over the last 24 months.

We have seen an uptick in hate crimes against Blacks, Muslims, Trans-fulx, Mexican immigrants over the last 24 months committed by White people who support Trump.  Southern Poverty Law Center reports 200 hate crimes[ii] were documented in the 72 hours after the election alone.

And these are the ones that are documented as hate crimes.  The hanging effigy of a black man off the apartment balcony above OHenry’s is not considered a hate crime.  The poster displaying Trump with a statement saying, “Obama, You’re Fired” in a math teacher’s class in Northridge High School is not considered a hate crime. The American Latino citizen, who was yelled at by a passerby “to go pack because Trump is deporting your ass” is not a hate crime.  The woman at UA who received anonymous rape threats because of her public support of Clinton. Our congregation’s children being told in school by friends that Trump is going to remove all the gays from Alabama. These have all occurred in the last week here in Tuscaloosa. They may not be hate crimes per the current statutes of the law, but they carry with them pain and anguish.

The KKK in North Carolina is planning on hosting a victory parade in Trump’s honor. The Alabama Klan has come out publicly stating they are going to hold Trump accountable for his campaign promises to deport immigrants, ban Muslims, and repeal LGBT rights. But the White nationalists do not represent the White 70% of the 59 plus million who voted for Trump. But the White nationalists have benefitted from the collective vote that supports their agenda for oppression.

If your vote supports the oppression of others even if you voted your conscience for your personal reasons, then your vote supported racism.  It is that simple and that complex.

I need to sit with that information and realize that I as a white person have some responsibility in these election results.  I did not speak to my relatives of my concerns regarding a Trump presidency.  I did not tell my relatives that if they loved me and supported my life as a gay man, that they should consider not voting for Trump.  I didn’t, because if I did, then I would have to contemplate that my relatives do not in fact love me for who I am.  That fact would be too painful for me to face.  Despite all their verbal assurances that they do, their actions shout no.  So I would prefer not hearing them say the words that they would prefer a Trump presidency over the safety of a gay relative. Did you tell your relatives—that a Trump presidency would endanger the life of your gay minister or your trans friends in this congregation?  Or your friends of color?  Or your Muslim friends? Or your immigrant friends?

But the individuals who voted for Trump are not going to be able to hear that a vote for Trump was a vote for racism. Not going to hear it because standing in their shoes, they believe that Trump finally heard their cry for help. They see their ability to earn a livable wage and to give their children a better life than they had, slipping away. Their concerns are not, in their essence, based in racism; they are based in economic realities. The median income finally rose this year to just over $56.5K[iii] but its buying power is still less than it was in 1999[iv].  The hard truth is that for millions of people in this country, they are hurting. No matter what they have done to try to get ahead they are thwarted in their attempts.  My colleague, the Rev. Daniel O’Connell noted that half of the country ‘finally feels heard and the other half feels a deep and anxious fear for their future.’

I also know there is a desire to self-differentiate myself from the 58% of White voters who voted for Trump.  I don’t want marginalized people, who do not know me, wondering if I voted for Trump because I am white.  My age group voted overwhelmingly for Trump.  So I want to differentiate myself. So I get it when others want to send some sort of signal, some sort of sign that says, I did not vote like the rest of my white family and neighbors. Should you decide to wear some symbol as a sign, a blue finger nail or safety pin, be ready to back that symbol up with some actions.  Don’t wear them and then remain silent when the racist or sexist comment is made.  Don’t wear them and then turn a blind eye when you see a person being discriminated against because they wear a hajib or are Black or Brown.  Don’t wear them and then walk on by when you see someone being attacked.

I don’t know what the future holds. I appreciated Clinton’s concession speech.  I appreciated Obama’s comments on the election and the smooth transition of power that he is in the process of ensuring.  I even appreciated Trump’s acceptance speech which, if that was the first time I heard him speak, I would have thought wow, what a classy guy, praising his opponent and all.  But that was not what he shared on the campaign trail. He made threats to prosecute his opponent if he was elected. He made threats against me and people like me, he made threats against my immigrant friends, those here with visas and greed cards and those undocumented, he made threats against my Muslim friends, and he made threats against my black friends.  I can only assume that he now intends to follow through on these threats.

So what now in light of this turn of events in our nation’s history?  We, as a congregation seek to love one another all the more.  We find ways to differentiate ourselves from every other predominant white congregation in Tuscaloosa County so when people come here to visit, know that they have visited someplace unique and special and most importantly safe. That they will know our principles and our personal creeds are not just lip service but is indeed who we are in our most inner being.

As I stated I do not have a crystal ball to predict what is coming down the pike with a Trump presidency. We live in one of the most conservative states in the union.  But every fiber in my being tells me that we are going to need one another more than ever if we are going to thrive in this brave new world.  This means your support is needed more than ever to ensure that this congregation is able to support you in the days ahead.  Support and nurture your inherent worth and dignity. Support your ability to develop justice, equity, and compassion in your relations.  Support your free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Support your right of conscience and the democratic process.  Support your work towards developing community with peace, liberty and justice for all. And support the well-being of your spirit.  Blessed Be

[i] http://knowledgenuts.com/2014/01/02/abraham-lincoln-was-actually-hated-when-president/

[ii] https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2016/11/11/over-200-incidents-hateful-harassment-and-intimidation-election-day

[iii] http://money.cnn.com/2016/09/13/news/economy/median-income-census/

[iv] http://www.davemanuel.com/median-household-income.php

What Now? 13 November 2016 © Rev. Fred L Hammond  delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa.

We attempted to live stream the sermon and discovered that the internet bandwidth was insufficient.  So the video below is severely pixeled but the audio is relatively ok by comparison.

Anti-Racist vs Non-Racist

I came across the following article today:  “I don’t trust white people, even the liberals, and science backs me up.”   It is a good article that exposes the difficulty white people have after 400 years of white supremacy immersion to behave in ways that are non-racist.  The good news is the science this author is citing is behavioral science and not science like the immutable laws of science, such as the law of gravity. This means that white people can change their behaviors and become non-racist.

Non-racist?  I do not see too many people in the anti-racism work talking about being non-racist.  They mostly use the term anti-racist.  So what is the difference?  Actually there is a huge difference.

My taking action as a white ally in a Black Lives Matter protest is an anti-racist action.  I am standing in solidarity against the racism that has been institutionalized in our criminal justice system. (If this statement is new to you; there is a whole body of work out there that documents our criminal justice system as racist, so I am not going to spend time here justifying that statement.)

My reading and researching about institutional racism in the United States of America is equipping me with information to bolster my ability to recognize racism as it has been displayed and continues to be displayed in this nation.  This reading and researching is anti-racism work.  But this work still does not make me non-racist.

As the article points out, there are still unconscious racist messages embedded into my culture that I practice without even batting an eye even as I proclaim anti-racist statements with my mouth and body. To be non-racist in my behaviors means I need to be willing to examine my behaviors in the context of racism. It means that I need to have a wider frame of reference in which to place my behaviors and decisions.

I will give an example.  And it is easier to look at someone else’s behavior than it is my own.  Alabama’s Governor Bentley recently made the decision to close down department of motor vehicles in the most rural counties of the state.  He stated this was for financial reasons because of shortfalls in the state budget. Governors have the unpopular task to make the hard decisions even though it will affect people’s lives. If state budget was the only factor behind this decision, this might seem like a difficult but reasonable decision to make.

However, in the wider context, this decision affects people of color in greater numbers than it does white people.  In the wider context, this decision was made after the state of Alabama passed the requirement that people have to have state issued photo IDs in order to vote in elections. In the wider context, this decision will force people to take time off from work to travel 3 or 4 hours away to wait in line for several hours to get their license and photo ID. In the wider context, the majority of people living and working in these counties do not have positions that pay for personal leave or sick time, so a day off from work is a day’s pay lost.  This may translate in not being able to make rent that month or place food on the table that week.  What first appeared as an unpopular and hard decision to balance a state budget, now begins to look like yet another means to oppress and disenfranchise the poor who also happen to be predominantly people of color.

Now Governor Bentley has stated this decision was not done for racist reasons. On the face of his statements, I believe him. But intention does not negate impact AND look at where he lives. He lives in a state whose state constitution of 1901 was created for the sole purpose to promote and sustain white supremacy. His actions are in line with 114 years of white supremacy codified into the Alabama constitution.

In order for Governor Bentley to be acting from a non-racist place, he needs first to be aware, consciously aware on a daily basis, how the constitution that he swore to uphold is first and foremost a racist document written in such a manner to prevent people of color to fully participate in the governmental process. He also needs to be aware, consciously aware on a daily basis, how his actions affect all of his constituents along racial lines. If he wants to truly be seen as non-racist, then he needs to change his behaviors when making decisions that will negatively impact people of color.

Let me attempt to give a more personal example to distinguish the two terms. I recently shared a sermon with my minister colleagues at our fall retreat entitled:  For Such a Time As This. It was the sermon I gave at the installation of another colleague. In it, I challenge our Unitarian Universalist denomination regarding racism within our faith.  Afterwards, one of my African American colleagues thanked me for stating things that he could not have stated then added ‘with such words comes great accountability.’ My sermon was anti-racist. My accountability to that sermon needs to be non-racist behavior.

It is easier to be anti-racist because that is merely pointing out the splinter in our neighbors’ eyes. The harder work, the aspirational work is to be non-racist, the plucking out the log within our own eye so we can see our own behaviors and change them to be increasingly non-racist. Undoing the ingrained behavior of a 400 year plus white supremacist culture will take concerted effort on all of our parts.

Those who are dedicated to this work need to be both anti-racist and non-racist. The willingness to stand in solidarity with people of color against racism and the willingness to do the hard soul-searching work to change our own behaviors so they no longer oppress others.

 

 

 

For Such A Time as This

The following is the sermon I gave on September 12, 2015, at the installation service of Rev. Lynn Hopkins, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Montgomery in Alabama.  May it help inform our faith and help us set the direction for the prophetic witness we are called to in such a time as this. 

Text: Esther 4:13-14

We have the story of Esther in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Born of lowly birth to a Jewish family, there was not much promise for her status in life.  She did have one thing in her favor. She was beautiful.  The king becomes enamored by her and marries her.  But the king also has an adviser who hates the Jews so much that he convinces the king to have them killed.  Esther feels distressed and also helpless in this situation since she is not the esteemed first wife of the king.  But her uncle, Mordecai says to her, “Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”

For such a time as this.  Haunting words for Esther to engage her destiny and find a way to entice the king to give her an audience and perhaps save her people.

And have we come to our royal position for such a time as this?  Our faith as Unitarian Universalists for nearly 300 years has enjoyed the royal position of privilege—white privilege, white supremacy, class privilege. Our spiritual ancestors not only helped create this nation of white supremacy and privilege but some even held the highest office in the land. Some have been seen as prophets—William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Theodore Parker; even as these individuals whose legacies revolutionized Unitarian faith they did so from the framework of white supremacy and white privilege of their day.

Their lives were imbued in class privilege, in white privilege, in white supremacy which continued to influence the direction the Unitarian faith was to follow.  And it is that unfortunate legacy that led later White Unitarians to view their liberalism and progressivism as holding them at a safe distance in an enclaved haven. They saw themselves as being that beacon on a hill, high above all the rest. While some deplored the injustices in society, Unitarians, for the most part, were content in their position of privilege.  They were arrogant and haughty.

This was evident in the decisions that our American Unitarian Association made regarding people of color who wanted to become ministers of our faith.  Examine the sometimes brutal responses the AUA gave to the vision of Rev. Elthered Brown who founded a Harlem based Unitarian Church and the subdued support to Rev. Lewis McGee and his congregation in Chicago. And it wasn’t just the Unitarians, examine the dismissive and arrogant regard the Universalists gave Rev. Joseph Jordan and then his daughter, Annie Willis in their work in providing an education to African Americans in Virginia.

Our history in standing on the side of love has not always been consistent in terms of dealing with our own complicity in racism.

Today, we like to proclaim that we were good in the early 1960’s when pointing the finger at those white supremacists during the Civil Rights movement but we would rather forget that we were not so good when Black Unitarian Universalists began to hold White Unitarian Universalists accountable to our own inbred racism in the late 1960s.  We have struggled as a faith denomination with coming to terms with our own white privilege and our propensity to use white supremacy to our advantages.   But the process to become not only anti-racist but non-racist in our heart of hearts is going to take an individual commitment of all of our members.

We have seen in recent years, how merely acknowledging the issue is not sufficient to uprooting the weeds of white supremacy in the field planted with Unitarian Universalism. We need to recognize how the wheat, oats, and barley that are also planted in the field support and aid the weeds to flourish.  If we are unable to own our complicity, individually and collectively, then we will continue to miss the mark of becoming the prophethood of all believers that we know can be our destiny. James Luther Adams knew this required “something like conversion, something more than an attitude.” People in our communities need to know that we are the people of the covenantal promise of love made real.

It means we have to become comfortable with confessing our own white privilege and feelings of white supremacy.  It is no longer good enough to have an intellectual understanding of white privilege and white supremacy as it is displayed in this nation.  It is no longer enough to declare we give money to black causes or declare our scorn at those who fly the confederate flag.  We need to have a heart understanding of what every black person in America already knows.   It means we are going to have to begin living our values in ways we have yet to imagine.  It may challenge us.  It may seem uncomfortable but when has deepening spiritual awareness and transformation of lives ever comfortable?

We need to develop a spiritual practice of comfortability. Comfortability is a portmanteau of two words combined to create a new word.  I define the word as having the ability to be willing to embrace the feeling of being uncomfortable in situations in order to confront a held bias or prejudice.  In the context of being confronted on racism, it means not being defensive or deflective in response but able to be held accountable to our complicity with white privilege and white supremacy and then using that skill to transform our hearts and change our behavior.

The spiritual practice of comfortability was recently described by another Unitarian Universalist, Annie Gonzalez Milliken in her blog post entitled, Spiritual Practices for White Discomfort.  She lists these possible steps towards the skill-set needed for comfortability.

Sit with the discomfort and acknowledge it with mindful meditation, the art of breathing in and breathing out.  Instead of judgment turn judgment into a curiosity.  “Where is my discomfort coming from and what can I learn about myself?”  In other words take some time for introspection. Read up on the subject—find out the social context for the action taken that caused our discomfort.  Process our emotions with other committed allies privately.  Focus on the big picture. Practice deep listening and keep quiet.  Unitarian Universalists love to share opinions but that is expressing our own sense of privilege and is not always helpful. In fact such sharing before we have fully processed our own stuff can result in deflection away from the focus of ending racism.  When people of color spend their energy answering white discomfort it can be ‘especially draining.’

White liberals, all whites regardless of political stripe, need to develop the ability to sit in discomfort of how the system whites created serves to oppress, demean, and destroy Black Lives and other people of color. White Liberals need to recognize how they continue to benefit from this system even when putting on the mantle of being progressives with anti-racist rhetoric. White privilege protects white liberals from these feelings of discomfort.

I have heard some white liberals declare their protestations when confronted with supporting the system of white privilege and white supremacy, to deflect ownership by stating their support of petitions, giving money, marching in unity marches, and having friendships with people of color.

All of these actions are good in and of themselves but these actions become distancing tactics meant to make ourselves feel good when confronted with our complicity. They mean very little if we are not also on the vanguard confronting the system that gives one group protection over and above another group.

We have hid behind our principles without living the spirit of our principles.  When Black Lives Matter banners are displayed, the cry from some of our Unitarian Universalist members point to our principle of inherent worth and dignity of every person therefore, the logic goes: all lives matter.  This is a deflection because All Lives Matter is the idealized dream but Black Lives Matter is the living reality that they should yet do not. It is a painful reminder that in our society today, we have the walking dead.  These are the people who are seen in society as already dead socially so when they die physically, there is no further loss felt.  How does a nation grieve the loss of someone who is already dead to society?

But it isn’t just Black lives that are socially dead.  The mentally ill are socially dead.  The elderly are socially dead. The poor are socially dead. The disabled are socially dead.  And now that our society has found the slaughtering of children bearable because our nation has placed 2nd amendment rights as more important than the lives of our children, our children are socially dead.

When the walking dead begin to resurrect and claim their voice; whites with privilege, whites with power, whites who bask in the benefits of white supremacy become nervous and uncomfortable. There is a scramble to enact laws to keep them dead.  Voting ID laws, gerrymandering voting districts, laws to prevent municipalities enacting minimum wage standards, laws to limit or destroy unions, welfare reforms, all are geared towards disenfranchisement and all to keep the socially dead, dead.  Don’t believe me?  Look where we slash our budgets on the state and federal levels?

Medicaid, Mental health services, Aid to families, education services, children services, food stamps. These cuts are allowed because these people are not valued, their lives do not matter.  When we are not outraged when a mentally ill person wielding a serving spoon is shot by police because the police officer feared for his life at a distance of 24 feet; when we are not outraged when a Black person is shot and killed at a simple traffic stop; when we are not outraged when Medicaid is cut and lives are lost then we declare these people already dead in society. We do not fund the dead.  The only thing left for them is to be buried.

What does our faith call us to do?  It certainly does not call us to huddle in our predominant white congregational havens where we can wag our fingers and heads at those outside these doors who shoot Black Lives with impunity.  No, our faith calls us to love mercifully, to act with justice, and to walk humbly in our place in the universe.  This is not a time to act all high and mighty and laud our liberal faith of acceptance yet do nothing to create substantive change.

It is a time to speak up boldly on behalf of those who have lost their voice or are having their voices constricted.  It is a time to stand on the side of love not just along the side of the road in picket line formation but in the office, in the park, in the grocery store, in the daily interactions we have with everyone we meet. Our being in covenantal relationship does not end once we leave these hallowed halls.  Rather it begins. It is time to be an anti-racist anti-oppression faith, not just in the ideal pretty words on a page, but in the hard daily reality.

It comes to this.  Our faith does not require that we all believe in the same God or in any God.  Our faith does not require that we profess a creed of doctrines that would enable us to enter the gates of heaven.  Our faith does require us to love one another as we love ourselves in the here and now.  Our faith does require us to be stubbornly determined in loving life into society’s socially dead—because black lives matter.

That is our resurrection miracle.   Lazarus, a black man, raised from the dead is now seen as crucial to the prosperity and general welfare of the entire community.  To remove the blindness from the eyes of those who would oppress to suddenly see Lazarus’s inherent worth and dignity as vitally connected to their own inherent worth.   Lazarus’s resurrection and liberation is tied into our liberation and resurrection. We cannot be fully alive and liberated without the liberation of Black Lives.

These are the times in which we are found. Do not think that because you are in a white liberal and progressive faith, that you alone of white liberals will be protected from being held accountable. For if you remain silent in the crisis facing Black Lives, relief and deliverance for liberation will arise from another place, but this faith will be found irrelevant and will vanish from society.  And who knows if you have come to this faith for such a time as this?

The Subtext was Racism

Last week, Pastor Thomas Linton of Bethel Baptist Church called for all Christian Clergy to gather in prayer because of the racial tensions in the city and in the nation.   Tuscaloosa News reported the following:

Linton, the Rev. Schmitt Moore and William Scroggins say they fear racial tensions in Tuscaloosa might be on the verge of exploding.

So the three preachers — two black, one white — are asking their fellow clergy and Christians in Tuscaloosa County to pray not once but in a ceaseless and unified prayer for all of Tuscaloosa.

They said they believe through the power of prayer, race relations in Tuscaloosa County will finally be what they should.

“Fifty, 60 years ago, we were facing similar problems as we are today,” said Linton, 83, the pastor of the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. “The Lord reminds us, ‘if my people turn from their wicked ways and come to my house to pray, I will heal their land.’ I think too many times we leave him out. He’s depending on his people to unify this division. We’re hoping that the government, the president, Congress, the mayor, or someone does it. But God said if ‘my people come together, I will heal their land.’ ”

Last night, about 50 clergy and lay people gathered to pray at Bethel Baptist Church.  And while I am not Christian Clergy, I decided in the spirit of unity to join them in prayer.  I am not sure they accomplished what they set out to do.  Racial tensions were not mentioned once in the prayers offered from the pulpit.  I am not sure why they feared to address it head on–it seemed to be subtext. There were good things said and to see a group of white and black clergy together in one room praying was huge.  HUGE.  The most segregated hour is still Sunday morning.

Rev. Joel Gorvette of First Wesleyan Methodist spoke and gave a good analogy of the Christian body.  He spoke of the pro-bowl games where the best players play a game.  They each wear the same jersey but their helmets are different.  The helmets reveal their true allegiance to the team that pays their way.  He asked where were our allegiances.  Since this was a Christian crowd, he said the jersey people wore declared they were on team Jesus but the helmets revealed their denominations–First Wesleyan, Bethel Baptist, Church of God, etc.  All with different doctrines and beliefs.  But the jerseys worn declared something else.  Were we going to play with our full heart on this team or were we going to hold back because our allegiance was to our denomination?    I understood this to mean that we had to place our values, our core values, our core faith, above our doctrines if we were to come together and end racism.  This was stated explicitly but the purpose for our gathering and the reason why we needed to focus on Team Jesus was  buried in the subtext.

Rev. Randy Fuller of New Beginning Family Worship Center spoke.  This man.  He started out well, “Where is our [clergy’s] burden?  Where are our tears in what is happening in this city, nation? What has to happen to get us to pray–we don’t cry out anymore–we don’t rend our hearts / our garments.”  I was right with him.

If the clergy are not crying out against racism then how can we expect our congregations to cry our against racism. Again, no mention of racism but it was in the subtext, right?   We have not cried out as a community regarding the atrocities against young black men.  We have not stormed the gates of heaven or city hall for racial justice in our criminal justice system.  A report recently came out that stated black jurors were 82% more likely to be dismissed in Henry and Hale Counties in Alabama when the death penalty was a possible outcome.  We have prisons beyond their maximum capacity and the majority are disproportionately black.   Where are our tears!?  Our burden?  We, whites, are seemingly unaffected so it does not occur to us that families are in deep emotional turmoil over the blatant racism against their members.  There is an air of resignation/ of acceptance that violence is the way of the world. How many times have we heard folks state, “They must have done something wrong otherwise the cops would not have shot them.” How many times our silence gave assent. We must become affected by the plight of others being trampled upon.  We must feel the burden and the raw rubbing against our necks caused by the yokes of white supremacy and privilege. If we do not feel the pain and the heart wrenching that racism has caused in our nation then how can we pray?

But that is not where Randy Fuller was going.  He then stated the unconscionable. He called our trans-children confused and tormented by Satan.  He called them tools of Satan and demon filled.  Tears welled up in my eyes. My heart broke.  Here is my burden.  Children created by a loving God being called demon possessed.  I thought of Jesus’ saying, “Let the Children come unto me.”  I thought,  how do we love the least of these?  How do we create unity when we are quick to tear down and demonize those we choose not to understand?

Rev. Fred Schuckert of Grace Church spoke about the need for repentance.  He echoed that we had to know our burden in real heart rendering ways before we could repent–turn to go in a different way. And since I was focusing on the subtext, the true text that shall not be named aloud in this forum, my thoughts went to Martin Luther King who stated we  become adjusted to the injustices. We must become maladjusted to our religious bigotries.  We must become maladjusted to white supremacy.

Martin Luther King called out to people to stop being adjusted to the civil rights injustices of his day.  We have our injustices today.  And it is easy to be adjusted, to think these are normal acceptable behaviors from our police shooting unarmed black men to the dismissing of black jurors, to the extraordinarily harsh and prolonged sentences in prison.  It is easy to be adjusted.  But we must be maladjusted to these injustices.  We must see how our being adjusted to religious bigotry and hatred is harmful to our beings as well as those we inflict it upon.  We must see how our indifference to the violence committed by our police  system has contributed to increased violence in the streets. We must not adjust to this as the new normal.  We must not seek to silence those who speak up about our being adjusted to this systemic onslaught against Black America.  We must listen to our present day Prophet Amos’s, and Jeremiah’s and Elijah’s who come in the form of Black Lives Matter, Presente, NDLON, SONG. We must listen.

As Rev. Schukert stated in order for us pray from the heart of our beings, we must repent [subtext: of our own complicity to the system]; only then can we truly intercede in prayer to find the solutions in word and deed to heal our city/our nation.  And I believed him.

Comfortability

I admit it.  I was uncomfortable with the Black Lives Matter protest at Bernie Sanders’ rally in Seattle. I thought their point was made at the Netroots rally a few weeks before.  And I thought Bernie Sanders had taken steps to adjust his campaign to meet Black Lives Matter’s concerns.  And I felt uncomfortable when I began seeing posts that stated I should not be questioning the actions of Black Lives Matter–even if my questions were seeking to understand.  But I moved forward in my being uncomfortable.  I read more posts.  I sought out words from the organizers of that rally and began to understand the context of the protest. Context that is oft times lost in the mainstream media.

One of the goals of Black Lives Matter’s, as I currently understand, is to confront the bastions of privilege and racism where ever it may lodge.  And white liberals, and I am one, can easily hide behind the rhetoric of racism is a reality in this country and then return to business as usual feeling proud that we recognized that the issue exists, but having done nothing to break racism’s hold on the nation.  Black Lives Matter were stating that Seattle’s white progressives have been such people and have done nothing to end the racism that exists in Seattle other than a head nod in their general direction.  Head nods do not make a difference when lives are being lost. Such a stance rests in the protection of privilege. If we were to truly respond by doing something, it might mean losing the privilege.

Bernie Sander’s record on civil rights, better than most of our presidential hopefuls, does not mean anything if white progressives/liberals are not willing to step up to follow people of color’s lead to end racism in this nation.  Respectability politics is no longer the way to go when people are dying daily to racist policies enforced through our police forces, our city councils, our states and federal government.  Black Lives Matter placed white liberals and progressives on notice that knowledge about racism is not what makes an ally.  It is a piece towards the making of an ally, but it, and it alone, does not make an ally.  It never did.  Not today.  And not when Bernie Sanders was marching with Dr. King.  It is action.  It is the willingness to place our lives on the line to prevent one more life from being taken too soon by police or by denied access to Medicaid.

To hear that white progressives are not any better than confederate flag waving white supremacists is a hard pill to swallow.  It is uncomfortable.  It takes us aback.  And we might respond defensively… “but, but…” we begin to say and then add what ever pops into our defensive heads next. ‘I’ve always given money to black causes.’  ‘I’ve always signed petitions.’  ‘I always decry racists whenever I see their confederate flags.’  ‘I’ve got black friends who agree with me.’  Deflections, every one of them.  And when those deflections fail, we dismiss the person who stated such things to us and fall back into our white progressive slumber whereas the person of color must always keep their guard up because they are one traffic signal away from being shot.

When I was in seminary, I attended an anti-racist conference hosted by Meadville Lombard.  The seminary wanted to work towards becoming an anti-racist institution.  At that conference composed of a majority of white people, I stated that we (white folks) needed to develop the skill of comfortability.  I then defined the word as having the ability to be willing to embrace the feeling of being uncomfortable in situations.  In the context of being confronted on racism, it meant not being defensive in response but able to be held accountable to our complicity with white privilege and white supremacy and then using that skill of comfortability to change our behavior.  I was chided for suggesting this.  I was told by grammar elitists that comfortability was not a word.  Several people openly dismissed this notion and shifted the conversation.  Of course, it wasn’t a word, I just made up the portmanteau.

It is indeed a skill that needs to be developed.  Gyasi Ross writes in his editorial about the Bernie Sanders protest:  “Why shouldn’t the folks in the crowd have to talk about race—they consider themselves “progressives” or “liberals,” right? If they truly wish to be an effective ally, then they should WANT to feel the discomfort that we feel when we’re constantly confronted with questions of race. They should EARNESTLY DESIRE to feel the awkwardness of explaining to our children why our kids have different outcomes than white kids when they interact with law enforcement. [emphasis the author’s]”  He is writing about developing the skill comfortability.  White liberals, all whites regardless of political stripe, need to develop the ability to sit in discomfort and listen to how the system whites created serves to oppress, demean, and destroy Black Lives and other people of color. We need to recognize how we as white people continue to benefit from this system even when we put on the mantle of being progressive liberals with anti-racist rhetoric.  White privilege protects us from these feelings of discomfort.

We need this skill.  We need it yesterday.  Because if we do not develop the ability to listen with humility no matter how uncomfortable the charge of racism is, then our hearts will harden and we will find our selves siding with the supremacists who want ‘those agitators gone’ by any means necessary. Only we will do it in the white liberal progressive way by becoming increasingly silent and complicit when police kill a child for playing with a toy gun, or when a woman is pulled over for a traffic stop and is publicly finger-raped by police for an unsubstantiated drug search. Silence equals death. Complicity yields to consent.  I will no longer remain silent and I will no longer give consent even when I find my skill level in comfortability is lacking.

 

 

 

What’s a Mother to Do?

Toya Graham, mother of six, sees son on the Baltimore news throwing rocks at police cars, tracks him down, and smacks him several times in the head for his behavior. A bystander videotaped this altercation and it went viral on social media and picked up on national TV.

Many praised her actions as Mother of the year for teaching her son that rioting is wrong. But to hear her say it, the real motivation was “That’s my only son, and at the end of the day, I don’t want him to be a Freddie Gray. ”

Freddie Gray is the young man whose spinal cord was severed while being transported by police after an arrest. Gray died a few days later. His death sparked protests and riots in several sections of Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods. For a mother to live with fear that her son may end up dead like Freddie Gray at the hands of the police, is a fear that no mother should have to live with in her daily life.

What’s a mother to do? About a year ago, she heard gun shots outside her West Baltimore house and found a person who had been shot and left for dead. Her neighborhood is filled with violence. She reports she tries to keep him home but now that he is 16, she knows she can’t do that as often any longer.

West Baltimore is a poor area of the city. The per capita median income is 35% less than the Baltimore average and 56% less than the state’s average. 24% of the Black population is living in poverty. Unemployment is in the double digits and while it is down this past month to 11.5%, unemployment rate among black youth is at 16.1%, triple the national average. 60% of those over age 25 do not have a highschool diploma or GED. Life expectancy is 20 years less than other neighborhoods in Baltimore. A third of the properties are vacant or abandoned. This is the reality that she and her family face every day. This is the larger context to the Black Lives Matter movement. It isn’t just the police shootings of unarmed black men, it is the whole picture of the social landscape in which they breathe and have their being.

The New York Times has been publishing online a series of short documentaries entitled Conversations. There are two that I want to mention here. The first one I watched was about growing up Black. It focused on Black male youth sharing their experiences of racism. The youngest was 10 the oldest was in their 20s. One youth tells the story of walking down the street with his white friend and seeing a group of black teens walking towards them, the white friend suggests crossing over to the other side of the street. Another youth states that he will cross the street if he notices white people having a terror in their eyes as he approaches them. One wife describes all male teens and adults as potentially being seen by whites as a large scary black man. Her husband interrupts; I am not a large scary black man. One young man spoke about attending his school that was in two buildings and being stopped by police while walking to class from one building to the other. He expressed his shame and embarrassment he felt as his white student peers would walk pass him. This was not a onetime event, but one that happened several times. He was told the police were there to make him feel safe. He asks, “How can I feel safe when I feel like I am being hunted?”

The other short film was about parents having the “conversation” with their Black son. In white families, the ‘conversation’ usually refers to sexual behavior and responsibility but in these families the conversation is about how to act when, emphasis on when, police stop you. A father tells the story of placing and keeping his hands on the steering wheel in order to keep the police from becoming nervous about him and realizing that same action made his children in the back seat nervous and scared. A mother states, “It’s maddening that I have to prepare my kids for something that they are not responsible for.” Another parent instructs her children, “Under no circumstances are you to talk/ask questions to a police officer if stopped.”

To have this conversation be the norm in African American families is a terrifying prospect to fully grasp. It counters the white experience in this nation where whites are taught that the police are your friends and if ever in trouble, a police officer can help. Because whites typically do not have this experience with police, many are incredulous when they hear this reality for Blacks.

This is not a new phenomenon in America. This is not something that only began happening when Michael Brown was shot or Eric Garner was strangled. The Black Lives Matter movement is not reflecting on a new never before heard of act of aggression by police. Unfortunately this is a generational issue that dates back hundreds of years.

The issues faced by the black community in the 1870s after the civil war, in the early 1900s, and the 1960s are the same issues that are being faced today in 2015. In the 1870s and early 1900s, the police and vigilantes used lynchings to send a message to the black community; today we use the police and excessive force to the point of death to do the same. And when they are killed there is an immediate vilification and demonization of the victim to convince the public that somehow this death was justified. That somehow in this instance, the police officer had no choice but to shoot, or to hold the person in a choke hold, or slam the person to the ground and kneeing them in the back preventing them to breathe.

The riots that broke out in Ferguson and Baltimore as heinous as they are in their destruction of property and people’s livelihood; they too have a context in which they develop. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave that context:

It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.

I stated earlier the conditions of Toya Graham’s neighborhood of West Baltimore; the high unemployment rate, the high poverty rate, the violence that is already rampant in the streets. These factors have the effect of keeping people trapped in poverty. It does not help to have a system in place to also keep them there.

Alabama State Senator Smitherman stated recently in a public hearing that Alabama is one shooting away from making Baltimore look like a kindergarten outing. The issue of racism and excessive force by police is not just in cities like Baltimore, New York, and Ferguson but also throughout the south.

Here in the south we have statues and schools commemorating civil war leaders who fought to keep the slave economy intact. The statues around the Capitol building commemorates confederate soldiers. It must be painful to be reminded that this state wanted to keep African Americans in shackles. Imagine being a black youth attending a school named for Jefferson Davis or Robert E. Lee. How must it feel to know that the school you are attending is honoring someone who wanted your family to remain uneducated and in slavery? Or to have the Alabama history lessons still honor Jefferson Davis as a great statesman and to honor his treason with a state holiday?

It does not help that Former President Jimmy Carter, a southerner, along with Congress officially pardoned him and restored him to full citizenship in 1978 posthumously. Davis had the opportunity for a pardon while he was alive if he applied for one, but is quoted to have said, to ask for a pardon would require repentance, and he hadn’t repented. There is no reconciliation for a person who did not see they had done anything wrong or immoral. Slavery is immoral. And to exonerate Jefferson Davis sends the message that it was okay after all.

Using excessive force against an unarmed person, especially when they are being compliant to police requests, is immoral. There was a recent video where the young black man under his own volition is in the process of getting down on the ground and a police officer runs up and kicks him in the face, breaking his jaw. This was not justified behavior, even if the person had run away from the cop moments before, it is not justified nor is it moral.

There were two commemorations happening in Selma this year. Bloody Sunday was 50 years ago at the height of the civil rights movement and the Battle of Selma, 150 years ago with the reenactment of that battle on the heels of the Bloody Sunday commemoration. At the reenactment, the KKK and other white supremacist groups were out in full number. Imagine how the predominantly black community of Selma felt to have the KKK once again at their doorsteps proudly waving their confederate flags for an era that while it must not be forgotten, needs to be placed into a new narrative of creating justice and liberty for all Alabama’s citizens. Instead it glorifies the confederacy and its rebellion against the Federal government.

This is the context in which the black community lives and breathes. To say racism is dead or is diminishing because we have elected to the highest office in the land an African American contrasts the vast unevenness of civil rights in this country.

So what is a mother to do? Julia Ward Howe in 1870 called on mothers around the globe to unite for peace and to help prevent the sending of our children to war. That declaration became the advent of Mother’s Day. Somehow the protest, the anger, and grief over the loss of young lives that gave birth to Mother’s Day has been reformed into a quaint hallmark card and flowers.

However, yesterday Julia Ward Howe’s proclamation was again brought to the forefront. Valerie Bell , who lost her son, Sean, on his wedding day, when police fired 50 shots into his car because they thought the occupants had guns but none of them did, joined Mothers for Justice United; a group of women and family members who have lost young men and women to police violence. She writes:

This year we are taking back the original intention of Mother’s Day: a day founded for mothers to stand up together to make collective demands. After the Civil War and the economic turmoil that followed, American abolitionist Julia Ward Howe, horrified by the wars and devastation of her time, penned a proclamation to mothers everywhere:  “Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause,” she wrote. “Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience… From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says: Disarm, disarm!”

Howe called on women to “promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.”
It’s now a century after the founding of Mother’s Day, and our sons are still being taken from us. Society has not disarmed, but militarized to the teeth. Mothers’ sons everywhere are still killing and being killed. We have had enough.

Yesterday Valerie Bell and other mothers of slain young black men marched in DC to bring attention to their grief and loss. It is not just the few that have made the headlines in recent months that they were protesting. The numbers are staggering.

Between 2010 and 2012, black teens were 21 times more likely to be shot and killed by police than white teens. In order for white teens to be of equal risk, it would require an additional 185 young white teens to be killed during that same time period or 1 additional death a week. The disparity does not stop there. Drug use among whites and blacks are about the same percentage. However, blacks in 2013 data collected by the FBI were 4 times more likely to be arrested for drug use than whites.

For me to stand here and tell you that the system is broken and needs fixing does not bring justice to this American tragedy. It is safe for me to speak. It is safe for me because I am at a distance from this reality. And many of you are also at a distance from this reality that is the nature of our social placement in society as Unitarian Universalists. We are considered a white liberal faith that can safely protest within our four walls, maybe sign a few petitions, and if we are brave, maybe join a rally to shake our fists in the air. But many of us won’t even do that much, we will shake our heads at this sad state of affairs and when this service is over return to our lives, celebrate Mother’s Day with our wives, mothers, and children and have a nice dinner.

But until we decide to listen and honor the first hand stories of people of color in our congregations and in our communities, our in-house actions are meaningless. Our declaring only to each other that we are white allies is really a vapid experience with no ability to make a difference other than to claim separation from those racists. We need to find a way to have heart awareness, a deep empathy that will call us to action, to speak up when our white co-workers proclaim that Freddie Gray got what he deserved or that Michael Brown was guilty or that young 12 year old Tamir Rice should have known better than to be black and playing with a toy gun on his property. Or when our white co-workers mention Brian Moore and other police officers shot and killed in the line of duty as a defense of police actions, we need to stand up and say the death of an officer does not justify the deaths of unarmed black men. This is not quid pro quo killings.

We must begin applying pressure on the system to create change so the deaths in the process of arresting someone ends. There is no call for police to kick a person in the face breaking his jaw. There is no need to shoot a shopper in Walmart because he picked up a toy gun. We need to have as much passion as Toya Graham who would go out in the middle of a raging riot and grab her son by the neck to pull him to safety. What would a mother do to save her children from harm?

What would you do, if you lived in her shoes?

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa
10 May 2015 © Rev Fred L Hammond

HB 50 Disenfranchises Voters with STDs

State Representative Juandalynn Givan (D-Birmingham) after hearing about a minister in Montgomery who engaged in ministerial misconduct with multiple women from his congregation and had infected several with HIV/AIDS presented a bill in the state house, HB 50, that would increase the penalty for knowingly transmitting a sexually transmitted disease (STD*)  from a Class C Misdemeanor to a Class C Felony. This was a horrible event.  Ministerial misconduct even without the transmission of disease is an act of betrayal of calling and trust from the congregation that alters the member’s lives of that congregation for generations to come. Few denominations have been willing or able to train their leadership in developing healthy boundary skills and effectively deal with the aftermath when those boundaries are broken.  That said, criminalizing transmission is not an effective disease prevention strategy.

The result of criminalizing transmission of STDs only increases the stigma and shame that already surrounds STDs and the behaviors that transmitted them.  It makes it harder for people to come forward to seek testing and treatment because they, themselves, do not want to know and risk the penalty of this law.  This is on the front end of the law.  Once convicted of a felony in this state the person is disenfranchised of their voting rights. More on this later.

For complete disclosure before becoming an ordained minister in the Unitarian Universalist faith, I was the co-founder of the Interfaith AIDS Ministry of Greater Danbury in Connecticut where I served as executive director for eleven years.  I was also a certified HIV/AIDS prevention educator through the American Red Cross for 15 years. I am also a gay man.  So I believe I come to this topic with some expertise and years of experience in preventing the spread of HIV as well as other sexually transmitted diseases.

What exactly is happening in the state of Alabama regarding STDs? It is no secret that Alabama has some of the highest rates of STDs in the country.  Chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis cases are statewide double the national average and in some counties like Montgomery and Dallas, 4x the national average.  It is also no secret that Alabama, like the rest of the south, has among the highest rates of transmission of HIV in the country.

This is certainly an issue that needs to be addressed by our state legislature.  The question is how to address the epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases in the state to prevent its spread.

Public Health protocol in stopping the spread of any disease is to find out the population that is most affected by a disease outbreak and to then target that community with prevention efforts that includes broad based education of the entire population about the disease and how it is and is not transmitted.  In Alabama the transmission of HIV/AIDS, already high, has been increasing every year since 2005 in young adults ages 15-29. This group is twice as likely to become infected with HIV than other age groups. Young African American males of this cohort is 10 times more likely to become infected with HIV than “the average Alabama resident” (read White).  In Alabama, African Americans are 7 times more likely to become infected with HIV than non-African Americans. African American females in Alabama are 8 times more likely to become infected with HIV than non-African American females.  I’m curious as to what happened circa 2005 that would be a factor in the upswing of infections.

In December 2011, Governor Bentley  wrote executive order number 26 forming a task force to address HIV/AIDS in the state.  No where in this executive order is the word education mentioned as a priority prevention strategy. And within the state plan that was developed, outside of mentioning the various good work done by AIDS organizations,  only one line mentions the need for education services but it does not indicate how these will services will be developed or what authority this plan has in the development of state budgets.  This is problematic. It reveals a lack of serious commitment by Governor Bentley to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS and other STDs.  His refusal to expand medicaid and to find ways to increase access to medical care in rural areas of the state is troubling to say the least in light of this STD health crisis that affects over hundreds of thousands people in Alabama.

In those states where there is comprehensive sexuality education mandated to be taught in schools there is a significant drop in STDs and HIV/AIDS transmission.  In Alabama it is not mandated and if sex education is taught it is abstinent based only. Further the sexual behaviors of gays, lesbians and transgender must by law be taught as unacceptable behavior and illegal in the state of Alabama.  Rep. Todd has prefiled a bill HB 252 to remove this from the abstinent based curriculum.

According to the Guttmacher Institute review of State Policies on Sex and HIV Education, Alabama is not mandated to offer sex education, it is mandated to offer HIV education.  But here is the caveat, it is only mandated to be age appropriate not medically accurate, not culturally appropriate and unbiased, nor is it mandated to not promote religion.  Parents can opt-out their children from this education. When abstinence is the only approved method being taught STDs will soar.  This is not opinion.  This is a fact proven over and over again in the raw data.

Add to this the factors of poverty in the state. Lawrence Robey, Madison County’s health officer focused on this factor regarding the high rates of infection of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis.  “On average, residents in poorer communities are at greater risk to contract and transmit STDs because of substandard public education and transportation as well as smaller tax bases to pay for medical centers and physicians, Robey said. Likewise, wealthier counties in northern Alabama often have average or below average STD incidence.”  All of these diseases and HIV/AIDS are transmitted in exactly the same manner through unsafe sexual practices.

So any effective prevention strategy cannot simply be the tracking, monitoring and treating those infected, which is the primary focus of Bentley’s task force.  It must include comprehensive sexual education that teaches not only how to use safer sexual behaviors such as properly and correctly using latex condoms and dental dams but also relationship building skills including respecting the word NO from potential partners, how to talk about sexual history with a potential partner, and negotiating the limits and boundaries of the relationship. Without an all out concerted effort in talking honestly about healthy sexuality and how to develop positive sexual behaviors that promote health, this plan will and is failing.

Sexually transmitted diseases are on the increase in Alabama.  In 2012, the last year  the Alabama Department of Public Health posted a full year  of numbers of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis infections,  41,042 cases were reported nearly double the number of cases reported in 2004.  As in HIV rates, there is a sudden and sustained upswing in infections beginning in 2005.  What policy changes happened in 2004/2005 that placed thousands of people at risk of STDs?

The four sexual transmitted diseases I have mentioned are not the only ones in Alabama.  HPV is also high in Alabama. There is about a 25% prevalence rate in young females age 15-19 and  45% prevalence rate of HPV in females aged 20-24 in the United States!  The numbers that may already be infected in the state is outlandishly high. This STD is a cause cervical cancer that can be prevented through a vaccine.  This fact alone should result in a public health policy that mandates all adolescents before they begin sexual behaviors are vaccinated. The rates of death from cervical cancer in Alabama is among the highest in the country.  Two issues here.  The first is this is a disease that is now preventable with vaccinations but because of our stigma regarding sexual behavior we are not protecting our children.  The second issue is the access to timely medical care to treat the cancer once it develops.

There are other viruses such as herpes simplex  (HSV) that while not a notifiable disease is sexually transmitted.  There are estimates that upwards of 76% of the American population have this virus.  This infection can cause severe medical complications in a person whose immune system is compromised.  Should 76% of Alabamians be convicted of a Class C Felony for transmitting HSV?  They know they have it, it is those lip cold sores and genital sores that develop on the body from time to time.  Have they disclosed their HSV status to their sexual partners before engaging in intimacy (kissing)?

Rep. Givan’s HB 50 targets those who knowingly transmit a sexually transmitted disease to an unknowing partner with a class C felony.  Given the fact that in this state the disproportionate numbers of African Americans who are living with sexually transmitted diseases but are perhaps too ashamed because of Alabama’s cultural mores surrounding shame and sexual behavior to discuss their illness with potential partners before engaging in sexual behavior makes this bill a disenfranchising law that will potentially remove thousands of African Americans disproportionately from the voting rolls. This felony could be considered to be under the sexual abuse category of those felonies that cannot have voting rights restored after serving the sentence.  I realize disenfranchising voters is not her intent.  As an African American woman, she is painfully aware of the history of voting rights in this state against African Americans.  Her bill is one of enabling others to take revenge on their sexual partners failure to disclose with the unintended consequence of mass disenfranchisement.

The responsibility for safer sexual relationships is on both partners.  I recognize the power dynamics of this particular case and unfortunately it is a power dynamic that is prevalent in many relationships regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.  But if we are serious in reducing the spread of sexual transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS then we must, absolutely must, teach and empower women to stand up for their sexual health in relationships. But to do this we must create a culture that is open in discussing sexuality.

Our schools must teach comprehensive, medically accurate, culturally unbiased, and free from religious proselytizing.  Our schools must teach safer sexual relationship in a manner that does not stigmatize or marginalize the LGBTIQ persons in their classes. Rep. Todd’s bill HB 252 must be passed to remove the mandate to send a negative message regarding a minority of our students.  We must de-stigmatize sexual behaviors so we can talk about sex in an open and healthy way with our young people.

My denomination, The Unitarian Universalist Association in partnership with the United Church of Christ developed a comprehensive sexual education curriculum called Our Whole Lives.  It is curricula that is developed around the  core values of self worth, sexual health, responsibility, and justice and inclusivity. It is an excellent program in teaching healthy sexuality and reducing the spread of STDs and HIV/AIDS. It is just one model of many that provides the resources our young people need in making healthy decisions about their most intimate relationships.

HB 50 is not the solution.  It merely slams the jail house door on the person, nothing more.  It does not curb the spread of STDs.  There is no empowerment of the partner to take control of their sexual health only the taste of revenge which does not soothe the heart; only forgiveness can offer lasting resolution of this pain.  Plus this will disenfranchise potentially thousands of African Americans and others from being able to vote in our state.  HB 50 must be defeated as it serves no healthy purpose.  Todd’s HB 252 must be passed as it will save lives.

 

*the more current medical term is Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) since not all result in disease but because this bill uses the older nomenclature of Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) I am also using this term.

Advent 2014

This is meant to be a season of great joy
Watching children’s glee grow brighter
With every ornament placed on the evergreen tree
And with every strand of light hung on windows
Shining like myriad of angels on that grassy knoll
singing peace and good will towards all.

I want to protect their innocence
To present the world as it could be
A world of deep mystery and fascination,
The wonder of a star that shown the way
Of possibility with each new life bringing joy.

This year it seems a charade.
I feel no joy in this season
Instead I feel despair.
A bottomless sadness
for another black man’s life taken too soon.
Another life deemed unworthy.
Another life lynched in the light of day
Another life reduced to viral fascination.

Facts need to be gathered, we say.
Facts reveal the truth, we say.
Facts prove the system works, we say.
Facts are dismissed or used to excuse.
Evil is justified by facts.

I want to cry.
I want to rend my clothes and don ashes
I want to howl my grief at the gods

If my tears declare black lives matter;
If I cry out mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa
If my outrage is loud enough, strong enough,
If I repent of my complicity
will the star of Bethlehem appear
To beckon us to follow a new creation,
a new way of being, a new way of loving the world?

 

(c) 2014 Fred L Hammond

The specific vs the system

I do not know if my family discussions at Thanksgiving are typical or not of other families, but this year the conversation trending at the Thanksgiving gathering this year was the no indictment charge for Officer Darren Wilson.  Some of my family thought if they were on the grand jury investigating this that they would have voted for indictment so that a criminal trial could have been pursued and a jury could have decided whether or not the officer was guilty of excessive force that killed Michael Brown.  The role of the grand jury was not to find Officer Wilson guilty or not-guilty but rather if there was enough circumstantial evidence to warrant a trial.  Others felt the grand jury was correct in its assessment that Officer Wilson did no wrong.  The grand jury’s decision not to indict does indeed declare innocence.  I personally wanted an indictment but an indictment, even if the criminal trial resulted in a manslaughter conviction, would still result in something missing in the pursuit of justice.

Not once did I hear the larger ramifications of this case–that there exists in the American justice system a racial bias towards people of color.  This scenario was not mentioned other than what appears to be a blanket dismissal of racism.  As I listened to my family discuss this, it suddenly dawned on me what is missing in this conversation.

White America looks at the specific case as if the specific case lives in a vacuum.  What has happened in Ferguson and in Staten Island are not seen as any part of a larger pattern or system.  They are entities unto themselves and therefore, White America says,  must be treated separately from one another.  And so must the shooting of 12 year old Tamir Rice holding a toy gun in an open carry state and John Crawford holding an air rifle that he is considering purchasing at Walmart must be held as separate individual cases.  And the young man who was walking down the street with his hands in his pockets on a cold November day.  He wasn’t shot, but as the police officer told him someone called him in as being suspicious because his hands were in his pockets.  These are not, White America proclaims, to be seen as related episodes that develop a pattern over time.

Our justice system is based on individual events not aggregate events.  But there is an aggregate that these cases and the thousands of others like them develops.  And White America does not perceive or think in terms of systems when it comes to justice.  We proclaim we are a nation of laws and that everyone can have their day in court.  This is an individual approach to justice.  It is not an aggregate approach to justice.  Nor a systemic approach to justice. Nothing changes in the system when a guilty verdict is rendered.  Therefore each case of police brutality that is exampled is an individual case and not part of a larger whole.  Every case of a police officer shooting a civilian is an individual case and not seen as part of a larger whole.  Yet, when it is a civilian who shoots a police officer, that, that is seen as confirming the aggregate.  That event in the reverse is seen as a pattern and informs the police and justifies their shoot first, ask questions later approach.

This leads to a false reading of reality.  All societies are systems based.  Whether it is a democratic society or a dictatorship or a plutocracy, societies are maintained by systems.  There is homeostasis that keeps the society at a certain level of tension that enables it to remain intact.  Just as the surface of a droplet of water has a level of tension to keep that droplet of water intact so too does society. If the tension becomes too little or too great the droplet of water will cease to be.  The individual molecules of the water in tension with other individual molecules of water hold that form that we call the droplet of water.  When the tension changes by removing or adding heat, that droplet of water either freezes or boils and becomes steam. Society is held together in a similar manner through the system that is created.

I have heard people say the decision of the grand jury in the Michael Brown shooting was the correct decision.  They state when looking at all the evidence the actions of Officer Wilson were justified.  Wilson felt his life was in personal danger by Michael Brown. They then state the protests therefore were unwarranted.  Even if what they state is true, that Officer Wilson acted correctly in shooting Michael Brown, they fail to see what this individual case represents in the larger system.  They fail to see that the Black community in particular is responding not just to Michael Brown’s death but to every instance of police profiling their community for decades.  It is not just this one case that is at the heart of the protests, it is thousands of them.

It is the accumulation of  hundreds upon hundreds of police stops where young black men are harassed by officers for walking down the street with hands in pockets.  Or driving with a group of friends and being pulled over in ‘a routine’ stop.  It is the immediate suspicion that is aroused when a person of color is seen in a neighborhood that allegedly is white. It is the assumption that a person who was arrested once for a petty crime, say shoplifting, is going to commit other more volatile crimes and therefore must be kept under heavy surveillance and become well known to the police. There is no freedom once a person of color has been arrested and convicted of breaking the law.  They will always be harassed in our system of justice.

I hear the conversations by Whites that the person had it coming.  If they were law abiding they would not have been stopped. If they were not doing anything wrong, they would have no reason to fear.  The assumption is riddled with the belief that blacks are criminals. This assumption is reinforced.   A recent TV news story reported a successful black business man was arrested for cocaine possession and fortunately his store’s video surveillance revealed the undercover cop planted the cocaine in his store.  The TV news story did not show the picture of the white officer who planted the drug but rather showed the black business man symbolically reinforcing that black men are drug dealers.  This black man did not have it coming.  He did nothing wrong.  Yet, time and time again, black men are killed not because they have done anything wrong but because they have stood up to their constitutional rights. This is what is happening in America.  We are taught daily that black equals criminal. It is reinforced by the media.

I hear the retort about Black on Black crime as if that somehow justifies police excessive force.  The assumption is that Black communities are doing nothing about this issue. It is a false assumption. They are addressing the issue, just because the media chooses not to tell that powerful story does not mean it isn’t happening.  And using Black on Black crime in this argument is an easy scape goat for White America to call upon to not face their culpability in the crisis of White police targeting and using excessive force against Black Americans.  What is White America doing about White on White crime?  Nothing. Exactly. We don’t even talk about it. Using the Black on Black crime argument is a ruse and distraction from the issue.

It is not the specific cases here that one needs to look at.  For every specific case that I can state where excessive force was used against a person of color, someone else can site specific cases where the police officer had no choice.  We are not going to get anywhere if we continue to focus on the individual cases.  White America needs to examine the patterns. White America needs to realize that what is happening across America today is of our creation.  We did this.

If we are going to promote America’s values as the best in the world, then we need the current conversation to be on how do we change the system that targets unjustly people of color.  It is okay to state our values and then to state we have miles to go before those values are fully realized.  But we need to be working on having those values fully realized.  Unlike Fox News stating something as so does not make it so.  We have to work on making it so. The system will change, one way or the other.  The temperature is rising and that droplet of water is feeling the tension mounting.  Are we going to do this in a mature manner with honest open dialogue or are we going to do this the hard way as has been our historical pattern with racial issues?  The choice is ours, White America.

Perhaps Love

“Perhaps love.”

“Perhaps love is like the ocean full of conflict, full of pain**.”

It is, isn’t it?  We like to think, oh, no! That is not love.  Love is happily ever after.  Love is all roses and sunshine.  Love is all that and a bag of chips.

We need to face the reality … love contains conflict.  Love contains pain.

Now before I go too much further with this line of thought, let me clarify what I am talking about when I mention conflict and pain as being within love.

Let me separate out the pain and conflict experienced as the result of emotional/mental/physical abuse.  The sort of conflict and pain that arises from abuse is not about love, that is about power—control over another human being. Love is not about power over another person.  So when I state love contains conflict, love contains pain; I am not referring to abusive relationships.

I am referring to the pain that arises when someone is hurting, physically/emotionally/mentally.  I am referring to when a loved one is sick.  I am referring to when a loved one is being harassed.  I am referring to when a loved one dies—regardless of circumstances.

On a larger scale—I am referring to when there is injustice against people.  People who seek to love one another face conflict and pain when there is injustice.  I am referring to when pain and conflict arise because of a systemic condition of the hardening heart in the collective hive.

This has been a tough summer for those who believe that Love wins. I know for me it has made me seriously reconsider my calling as a minister who longs for the day when justice runs down like a mighty stream.  What am I doing here in Alabama?  What am I doing here in the United States? If I, as a minister, am not on the forefront of justice standing on the side of love with the people who are in pain, what am I doing?  I cry for justice to reign in this land.

Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson was only the tip for me.  I listened to my relatives defend his being shot and became nauseated.  His senseless death is an abomination to all of America’s ideals and principles.  But his death is not the only one, and we don’t really know how many others because our police and government do not track violent encounters[i] between police and civilians. A law was passed by Congress in 1994 requiring the Attorney General to collect and track such events and give an annual report[ii].  No such report has ever been submitted in 20 years.

There were at least 4 other deaths of unarmed black men in the month of August—their names must not be forgotten:  Eric Garner—Staten Island, NY; John Crawford—Beaver Creek, OH; Ezell Ford—Los Angeles, CA; Dante Parker—Victorville, CA.  How many more deaths are needed before America wakes up to the evil it is perpetuating?

This is the pain that love contains. The pain is greatest at the epicenter, with their loved ones who grieve senseless deaths at the hands of a corrupt system militarized by fear and racism. But it is a pain that radiates out like an earthquake and is felt far away by those who are sensitive to it.

How does a family live with such pain?  Where is their comfort to be found?  How do we respond to such an earthquake of pain?

There are other pains that love contains.  This past week Save OurSelves hosted a daily Jericho March around the capitol regarding the pains that our current state administration is enforcing on the people of Alabama—in total disregard of the pain and grief it causes their citizens.

These daily marches focused on Immigration Rights, Education & Youth, Women’s Rights/ Equal Justice, Worker’s Rights/Living Wage, Criminal Justice/Due Process, Medicaid Expansion and Health, and Voting Rights.

These issues all intersect with one another. There is a coordinated effort in our state to hold people down from their great potential by denying the ability to organize in the workplace, by removing funding from our educational budget, by taking away a women’s right of agency to address her own needs, by creating laws that unjustly increase incarceration and slavery in our prisons, and the grief experienced by loved ones who died because of no healthcare—when healthcare could be afforded to them with Medicaid Expansion.

Love is like an ocean, full of conflict, full of pain.  What does one do with the ocean so that Love wins?

We expand the ocean.  We support one another when pain occurs. We cry out together.  We let our wails be heard like the mothers in Ramah. We place our lives on the line when others are threatened.

Many of you know that I was arrested within the capitol building on Thursday for attempting to participate in a 24 hour prayer vigil for the expansion of Medicaid.   I spoke with our board president before I made my decision to do this but it was obvious that this was where my heart was leaning.  Too many deaths have occurred that could have been avoided if our governor, a doctor by profession, had agreed to expand Medicaid.  I could no longer be silent on this sanctioned death by denial of healthcare any longer.

The pain and grief he has caused 700 families this past year alone is unconscionable, not to mention the 300,000 people who are struggling and praying that they will not need medical intervention to save their lives.  My heart this summer has broken open and I am compelled to speak out in a way I have not before.

I see his refusal to expand Medicaid to be an evil act against the people of this state, people he was elected to serve.  Many of whom he defined as his brothers and sisters in Christ, since he has made it clear he does see non-Christians as his brothers and sisters in humanity[iii].  With brothers like that, who needs enemies?

Our Governor is a victim of his own lies and deceptions.  And like Governor Wallace before him, he must be convinced of his betrayal against the people he was elected to serve.  The only way I know how to reach him and save him from his own deception is to rip the veil off on white privilege and supremacy which this administration has fought to preserve and strengthen and to fill the capitol with hundreds, even thousands of people demanding to see Medicaid expansion now.  And to insist laws put into place that expand rather than contract a person’s ability to reach their full potential.

This must be a concerted effort and a coalition of people broad and deep.  It means we must be motivated more by love than by fear of the stigma of being arrested. As the Rev. Kenneth Sharpton-Glascow said to me in the Montgomery County Jail, Jesus was arrested for his civil disobedience.  So was Gandhi, so was Martin Luther King, Jr. so was Annie Pearl Avery, who is one of the original SNICK participants in the 1960s and who joined me in being arrested on Thursday.

Ms. Avery is now 79 years old and told the police at the Montgomery jail that it was partly her actions in the 1960s that enabled them to have the jobs they have today. She enjoined them to recognize that we are fighting again for rights that are being denied Alabamans and join us in our struggle—not fight us by locking us up.

But these people I mentioned by name are all people of color.  We live in a nation where people of color are disproportionately arrested even though all people share equally in the crimes committed.  I realize that as a white person, I have been conditioned to believe that only bad people are arrested.  And in this country, bad people are conflated with being people of color because that is what White America is taught to believe.  There should be no shame in being arrested for justice.

I am also aware that in our Unitarian Universalist movement, the temptation is to make an arrest for a just cause to be some sort of an elite status symbol.  Across our denomination clergy arrests thus far have resulted in no time served, a small fine, and some court costs.  In Washington, DC, the arrests of 112 clergy and faith leaders were an orchestrated show against deportation of immigrants.  We knew in advance that we would be released with no further court cases, no threat of prison time. The risk was minimal. It gave us media publicity.  If we are serious in our quest for justice, we need to take larger risks that place our lives on the line, a few hours being arrested is not a personal risk.

While there was some media present at the rally on Thursday, the arrests that happened were no media stunt.  The Governor’s office did not want to arrest us and pleaded with us to leave. We stated we needed to pray for the governor to expand Medicaid and therefore would not leave.  We were charged with trespassing in the second degree which carries a $ 500 fine and /or up to 90 days in prison.  We could have been charged with trespassing in the third degree which carries a small fine.(In delivering this sermon, I misstated the penalties based on a website I found regarding these terms.  It is corrected here to Alabama criminal codes.)  My court date is Sept 15. I cannot predict the outcome.  Our governor does not want to become the next North Carolina with thousands swarming the capitol and over 900 arrests.  He is hoping this will deter others to follow.

We must not be deterred. Love does not stand back in the face of evil actions. It stands firm.  It holds the pain felt and assimilates it into more love.

I am committed to justice for the people of this state and therefore I must be willing to sacrifice the white privilege I am afforded.  If need be, to be arrested and bear the consequences.  The consequences I face do not even compare to the lives painfully lost because of denial of healthcare.

The evil that we face today is the same evil that Martin Luther King faced in the 1950s and 60s.  My actions are not the seeking of a status symbol, they are a call to action, to be willing to put our heart and soul into the belief that people need to be free to reach their full potential.

I realize some of you may not agree with the actions I have taken.  I understand. I have said this before and it bears repeating, I do not desire a congregation that follows their minister blindly. I do desire that this congregation will be informed of the issues.  Study them.  Read up on them.  Consider these issues a matter of faith development importance because they are indeed a serious matter of faith development. The future of our faith is dependent on how these issues play out. There are forces that seek to take away our freedom to practice our free and liberal faith.

I don’t know how many of you have seen the billboard out on University Blvd entering Cottondale.  It is a huge sign displaying the #Secede.  This group wants to recreate the confederacy in the form of a White Supremacist Christian Theocracy.  I have talked with some people who have experienced this group firsthand and they are a vicious and hateful bunch.  They are feeding off this country’s and state’s current hatred for our President. Be forewarned, there is very little difference between this group and the white elected officials in Montgomery with their declarations of a specific Christian theology that places women back into the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant and laws that place black and brown men into slavery through incarceration.

Perhaps love. Perhaps love is like the ocean full of conflict, full of pain.  The ocean is wide and deep. There are many ways to hold that conflict and pain. Some will grieve and wail uncontrollably.  And that witness of love is essential.  Some will share their stories of injustice committed against them. And that witness of love is essential. Some may do so by supporting those who stand on the vanguard. And that witness of love is essential.  Others may march, wave banners, and shout slogans.  And that witness of love is essential.  Others may stand with hands raised in silent protest in front of the guns and tanks pointed at them. And that witness of love is essential.  And others may choose to engage the pain with civil disobedience, risking their livelihoods, their freedom to enable others to be free.  And that witness of love is essential.

Peace is not the absence of violence.  Peace is the ability to remain centered and grounded while the world is raging threatening storms.  It is the ability to move forward in love because of the inner conviction that justice is the victor already. Love ultimately wins.

Love is large enough to contain the conflict and the pain on the journey towards justice.

Blessed Be.

This sermon was delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa on August 31, 2014 (c) by Rev. Fred L Hammond.

** This quote is from John Denver’s song “Perhaps Love.”

[i] http://www.latimes.com/opinion/opinion-la/la-ol-ferguson-police-killing-african-americans-20140819-story.html

[ii] http://www.hrw.org/news/2014/08/12/dispatches-tracking-us-police-brutality

[iii] http://www.towleroad.com/2011/01/alabama-gov-elect-bentley-tells-non-christians-hes-not-with-them.html