Activism

Letter to My Child from Your Minister Activist Mom

This post originally appeared at The MAM Network on March 1, 2016

To my little world-changer:

When I first found out you were coming into our world, I knew I had so many things to tell you. While you were still a bundle of dividing cells, I was already imagining how you might change the world – and how we might do it together. Before I even had morning sickness, (and did I ever have morning sickness!) your dad and I had long conversations about how we would invite you into our work and vocations, how you would travel with us and be part of every aspect of our lives. We knew from the beginning that our most important job was to teach you how to create a more just world. Now as a 4-year-old, you still tell people that you will grow up to be “a filmmaker and a professor.” I guess this work of inviting you into our vocations is taking root.

In my own life, I’ve decided to never be only one thing. I hope you learn the importance of this as well. I am a professor with a Ph.D. in Christian Ethics, but I am also an activist, a minister, a mom, a wife, a community development practitioner, and a teacher. I’ve tried to teach you these things from the beginning.

When you were four months old, you marched in your first protest. Troy Davis was on death row and about to be executed, despite serious and widespread evidence to his innocence. Despite the fact that we tell our children “do not kill” but as a state, we tell them killing is justice. So we joined a friend and marched from Woodruff Park to Ebenezer Baptist Church. You were there, sleeping through the chanting, snuggled to my body in the baby wrap you loved so well. I remembered your presence in this first march four years later when I worked long hours on Kelly Gissendaner’s campaign. I knew in the midst of that intense work that somehow I was part of this campaign for you as much as I was part of this campaign for Kelly and her kids.

We marched again in Chicago when Mayor Rahm Emmanuel decided to close 40 neighborhood schools. You were two during that protest, and you watched the marched from your daddy’s high shoulders. This time you chanted along. But we had to make you stop when you kept forgetting to say “don’t” before yelling “close our schools.” That day we watched as minister friends got arrested in the protest. When you asked what was happening, I told you they were being brave.

I see already you have a fire in your bones. It’s the fire that my mamma, who you call Mimi, and my Granny, who you never met, helped stoke through their constant compassion toward those who are on the margins. Right now, that fire in your bones comes out in your play. Last week I loved acting out Rosa Parks with you. But I also listened outside your door when you role-played school segregation and told your stuffed animals, all lined up for their lesson, that it is WRONG to have separate schools for “kids with brown skin and kids with light skin.” I love that you know this, not only because we teach you, but because you have two amazing Pre-K teachers that also care about creating a more just world.

I knew from the moment you were born that there would be times when we would need to make difficult decisions. Because I am a mom, a minister, and an activist, I cannot always be with you. There are other calls on my life. My work often requires that I teach in the evenings when you need to be tucked into bed or that I travel at times when you need to be in school. But as I follow these other calls, you will always be my priority. I will measure the worthiness of the work that I do by asking whether this might create a more just world for you and your children. And I will continue to invite you to come with me. To march, to listen, to learn, to travel, to be in community with other justice-seekers.

Yesterday, as we renewed the passport that you were given as a 4-month-old, I realized that you will have travelled to 6 countries before you turn five. Possibly more if we ever let your globe-trotting grandmother know where we hide your passport. This year, I loved watching you learn to speak Mandarin in China and practice your bow in Thailand. I am thrilled that this summer you will come with us to East Africa – a place your dad and I have loved for so long. I cannot wait to see where else your life will take you.

There are many things I can give you in this life. A roof over your head, food on the table, a Bible we read together, a school where you are welcomed, and love – so much love. One thing I cannot give you is a just and perfect world.

We will need to work toward this together.

Activism, Reflection

Advent, Genocide, and the Baby in the Manger

This post originally appeared at Huffington Post on December 5, 2014

 

Advent is my favorite time of year. The idea of waiting for hope to be born is irresistible and wonderful. When I was a kid, I memorized the entire Christmas story from the gospel of Luke for a Christmas event at church. Since my childhood, the words from Luke 2 have never left me. My family still asks me to quote the story each Christmas when we gather on Christmas Eve.

But this Advent, I’m not thinking about the story in Luke’s gospel; I’m stuck onMatthew’s account instead. In light of the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown,Tamir Rice, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, John Crawford, and too many others, the image of a sweet, sanitized (too often white) baby Jesus in a manger is inadequate. We need to read the story from the gospel of Matthew and remember that the baby we celebrate was nearly a victim of a genocide organized to keep the powerful in power. This Advent we must remember that the holy family had to flee to Egypt where they waited for Herod to finish killing every baby boy under two in Bethlehem.

No, this year Advent cannot be about silent night. Not when black lives don’t seem to matter on our streets. Our silence and complicity has been rightly interrupted by protesters’ loud screams for the tone deaf to listen.

If there’s an Advent song that fits this season, it is this:

A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more (Matthew 2:18, NRSV)

This is a song of grief to help us grieve, but it is also a song that screams for us to wake up. Too often at Christmas, Jesus is born white. But this Christmas, we must recognize that Jesus was born black. If Jesus is not born black and fleeing genocide, then we have no hope for changing this world. The Jesus we celebrate during Advent was clear in his mission:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

As a white Christian with privilege I do not find myself in these verses. While I have experienced discrimination because of my gender, I do not consider myself oppressed. I do not fear for my child’s life. Instead, I fear for the lives of her black and brown friends. And even as I name this truth I’m tired, too tired, of hearing white folks say this. What we white folks need this Advent is a black Jesus to save us from ourselves. A black Jesus who demands that we join in this struggle or stop calling his name at all.

Black Theologian James Cone reminds us that if Jesus is to have any meaning for us then he must be black. Jesus is black because he stands with the oppressed in their struggle. The very life of God is bound up in freedom for the oppressed. Our lives should be as well.

The church — especially white folks in the church — must realize that these deaths (and the failures to indict) are not isolated incidents, but evidence of a system that was built to privilege white bodies and police and oppress black and brown bodies. If we as Christians cannot get this, with our thick understanding of sin, and the way it spills into every inch of our lives, then we are in trouble.

Advent is a time of hope, and the hope of Advent is this: God with us came into this world to turn everything upside down. Only a Christ who fled a violent genocide can teach us how to end violence for good.

The violence against black bodies will not end with a few protests or policy changes. This is only the beginning. The struggle will be long because the entire structure of our society must be reshaped. We must work for a world where #BlackLivesMatter more than cigarillos or untaxed cigarettes. We must work for a world where black men and boys aren’t killed for holding toy guns while white men are allowed to open carry assault rifles in their local grocery story. We must work for a world where peace and justice are valued more than power, violence, and oppression.

For white folks like me who want to be part of this change, it means listening — really listening — to black folks who are speaking their stories right now. And after listening, it means following the lead of black folks who know this terrain and can teach us all how to change it. If we want to find our own salvation this Advent, then we must listen to our black friends and neighbors as if Christ himself were speaking (because he is.)

There is much work to be done to deconstruct and reconstruct this built-to-be-broken system. But that is the hope of Advent. Jesus came to completely change the world. This Advent, our call is nothing less than this impossible, hopeful task.

Activism, Teaching

On Teaching (and Activism)

This post originally appeared at Huffington Post on August 15, 2013

 

When I was a kid, the first day of class was all about the school supplies. Saying goodbye to summer seemed less dreadful with a fresh box of Crayola crayons and a Trapper Keeper in my backpack. Throughout my days as a student, this excitement of the first day of class was always a constant in my life. When I was in high school and too old to buy crayons, (ok, that’s a lie, I still bought crayons) there was the excitement over AP classes or meeting new friends. In college and grad school I couldn’t wait to get see the syllabus on the first day and learn what tasks and readings would fill my semester. With the exception of a few math classes I’d like to forget, I’ve always loved being a learner.

But now I am a teacher, and to be honest it takes a bit more work to get excited about the first day of class. No one buys me crayons and I have to write that syllabus myself. But there’s still a deep joy to the first day of class. It’s the day I meet the students who will be co-learners with me for the semester. On the first day of class I remember bell hooks words about radical pedagogy in Teaching to Transgress, “the professor must genuinely value everyone’s presence.” The first day of class is the day I begin to deeply hope and believe that we’ll learn and be transformed together.

In articulating my pedagogy, I call myself a teacher-activist. I deeply believe that our classrooms should transform both students and their teachers. As a professor in the humanities (theology and ethics, to be exact) I have a great hope that our classrooms can move beyond individualistic learning outcomes and transform our communities. Eventually, they might even change the moral discourse of our society. I believe classrooms are spaces where civility can be born, where collegiality can be learned and practiced, and where difficult conversations can happen in (safe) space. But the transformative classroom does not happen automatically. It takes a deep commitment on the part of all the learners — including those who teach – for transformation to truly occur.

This past month as I worked to tweak my grad-level “Foundations of Social Justice” syllabus for the fall, I thought of all that happened over the summer. Fresh on my mind was Trayvon Martin’s death and the George Zimmerman verdict. Now, as I look forward to the first day of class I wonder how we will read Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” differently in light of Trayvon’s too-short life or the Supreme Court’s decision on the Voting Rights Act. Most importantly, I hope we will read it differently.

I like to think of the classroom as a starting place for grassroots activism. But I also know the classroom is a space of privilege. Some kids don’t get new crayons. Lots of kids don’t get to go to college. Even fewer have the time, money, or privilege to enroll in the grad school courses I teach. In East Africa where I do research on HIV and AIDS, children walk miles to go to school and sometimes can’t go because they can’t afford a uniform, or the roll of toilet tissue each student is required to bring for class. In Chicago where I live and work, parents are worried as the school year draws near about their kids crossing gang territory to get to school due to this year’s massive school closings.

Education is precious, which is why it must be transformative. If our classrooms can’t give us a space to talk about race, or discrimination, or the violence that is too common in our country, then we might as well pack up our crayons and books and go home.

But I think teachers know this well. In our hearts, I believe most of us who teach are teacher-activists whether we name ourselves in this way or not. Teaching isn’t just a job — it’s a vocation.

So here’s a challenge for all of us — teachers and learners. When we return to our classrooms in the next few weeks, let’s think about teaching and learning as activism. Let’s bring the injustice of our world with us into the classroom so we can deal with it here. Let’s draw a circle around it and sit uncomfortably for a while, listening to the stories of those who have experienced injustice firsthand. As we do, we might just learn together how to become agents of deep and lasting change as we transform more than just the classroom.

Activism, LGBTQ

The Nugget Boycott: Week Two

This post originally appeared at Huffington Post on August 1, 2012

 

It’s been two weeks. I’m nearly through the detox period. OK, I’m exaggerating. I do (usually) eat other things besides those tasty chicken nuggets. But like a bad diet, when you’ve set something off limits, you really start to crave it.

One question I’ve been asked is, “Why boycott?” Good question. I am not arrogant enough to think that Chick-fil-A will miss the $7 bucks I give them once a week for that nuggets combo. And unless Dan Cathy and his buddies stumbled on my article by googling themselves, they likely don’t know I exist. This is OK because here’s the thing: I’m not boycotting to get revenge. I’m not trying to “stick it to them.” I’m boycotting to save my own soul.

You see, each time I walk past a Chick-fil-A without stopping in, I reaffirm my commitment to not contribute to an organization that marginalizes people based on their sexual orientation. In this small act, I am paying attention to my own moral formation. The decisions we make each day, especially the ordinary ones, shape the people we are becoming. In boycotting, I am less concerned about Chick-fil-A’s reaction, and more concerned about my own conscience. Changing ourselves is the first step in creating change in our world.

Of course, I would love it if Dan and the good folks at Chick-fil-A saw things differently. I honestly wish that they knew some of the good people I know. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender folks who live each day in loving, committed relationships with God and each other. Folks who raise their kids with care and faithfully sit in the pews and serve in their churches on Sunday mornings. I want them to know that Christians on the “other side” are reading the same Bible they are reading, but coming out with different conclusions. This is because we have realized (from knowing each other and seeing God in each other) that in the time the Bible was being written, there was simply no concept of committed, loving or even consensual same-sex relationships. The same-sex relationships we know today would have been nearly impossible in a biblical world ruled by patriarchy. And while we’re on the subject, opposite-sex relationships where women were not property would have been nearly impossible as well.

We all want people to see things the way we do, or at least to hear us out. This is our human nature and I believe it comes from our longing to be in community with each other. From the way Chick-fil-A spends their money on anti-gay campaigns, I can assume that the good folks at Chick-fil-A might wish that people like me on the “other side” would see things their way too.

A lot of people have assumed that I’m boycotting Chick-fil-A because of Dan Cathy’s personal views on “gay marriage.” (There have been letters!) But that’s really not it. I have friends and family members who share his same view. We still go out for lunch and coffee and have yet to “boycott” each other (unless you count those people who have unfriended me on Facebook this week). My response is about the civil rights that I believe should be extended to all people. It is about the$5 million that Chick-fil-A has given to organizations that the Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled as “hate groups,” groups who are trying to convince us that civil rights are only for straight folks.

Some of the money that Chick-fil-A is using to fund these groups came from my wallet, which means I share in this brokenness and violence that has been done in the name of Christ. As a person of faith, as a former customer at this establishment, I am also responsible, and therefore I have a responsibility to respond.

So here’s my response to Dan and the good folks at Chick-fil-A and to any others who might find themselves listening: Perhaps I’m too optimistic, but I would like to think that a church built on the teachings of Christ could agree on at least a few issues in this “debate.” Yet, instead, we’ve entered into a war of words where it has become too easy to do violence against each other or violence against ourselves. Some words that are being spoken are in themselves violence. These words forget that we’re not talking about an issue, but real living and breathing people, all created in the image of God.

As a follower of the Christ, who said we will be known by our love, I believe that its time to find some common ground. Contrary to the opinion of a few pastors who have spoken hate from the pulpit, I believe that most Christians agree that hate crimes are wrong. Should we not also agree that hate speech, which too often incites violence, is also wrong? When Christians like Dan Cathy evoke images of God’s judgment, then they are contributing to an environment where people feel compelled to take this “judgment” into their own hands.

I was glad to read this week that Chick-fil-A has decided to not make any more statements on same-sex marriage. This is a start but it’s not near enough, not as long as they are paying others to speak hate for them. I guess we boycotters will wait for next year’s financial reports to come out to see what Chick-fil-A has done with their charitable giving. After all, Christian Scriptures tell us that “where your treasure (or your money) is, there your heart will be also” (Luke 12:34, NRSV). Until then, I guess we’ll all just learn how to make our own Chick-fil-gay sandwiches at home.

Activism, LGBTQ

Chicken Nuggets and Family Values

This post originally appeared at Huffington Post on July 18, 2012

 

I have one fast food weakness — an eight-pack of chicken nuggets in a white and red box. I could go years and never crave a fast food burger, but I’ll admit I have a deep kinship with Chick-fil-A’s version of fast food. As a kid growing up (Christian) in the south, Chick-fil-A has always been part of the good food I loved. They donated free sandwich coupons to our church fundraisers, and as a teenager I attended community prayer breakfasts that met at our local Chick-fil-A. True story: I’ve even dressed as a cow to get free food.

But today, we’re parting ways. For the past few months, I have been following the news that Chick-fil-A donates money to groups such as Marriage & Family Foundation, Exodus International and the Family Research Council. These groups and others have contributed extensively to the religious hate speech that marginalizes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. They have spoken out against civil rights for LGBT individuals and have even discouraged anti-bullying campaigns that seek to prevent LGBT teens from taking their own lives.

I’m not one to rush to a boycott. I recognize that many of the places I eat have unjust practices. Even when I cook in my own kitchen, I have little knowledge of whether or not those who grew, harvested and packed our food were paid a fair wage for their work. Beyond buying a label that says “organic,” I have little information about whether the process of growing my food hurt or healed the earth.

But we are what we eat — isn’t that what they say? And as it turns out, I can’t eat hate. Over our breakfast of fair-trade coffee and organic fruit this morning, my husband and I read Dan Cathy’s latest anti-gay comments in The Huffington Post. In talking about the article, we both admitted we’d felt guilty every time we popped into Chick-fil-A for nuggets or that delicious cookies and cream shake. But we knew what we needed to do. As people who grew up in the churches that fueled this dehumanizing anti-gay rhetoric, we’ve stomached enough hate for a lifetime.

As I read where Dan Cathy talked about the “the biblical definition of the family unit,” I couldn’t help but think of the teenage girl in Louisville, Ky., who was beaten by a group of adults who shouted anti-gay slurs as they broke her jaw the day after his comments. Unfortunately, the “biblical definition of the family unit” that Cathy speaks of would not seek justice for this girl. After all, those who were considered an “abomination” could be stoned for their lack of conformity to the patriarchal norm. Did I mention that the place where this teenage girl was beaten was in front of two churches? Words have consequences, and the words that some churches have been speaking are still creating an atmosphere where violence can be justified. The consequences of our words are coming back to our doorsteps to call us to account.

As cited in HuffPost, when Dan Cathy was asked by Baptist Press about his company’s support of the “traditional family,” he replied, “Guilty as charged.” Like Cathy, churches that speak hate through exclusion are “guilty as charged” for the violence we incite. By promoting (or simply ignoring) speech that marginalizes people — any people — we deny that we are all made in the image of God, deserving of human dignity and human rights — no matter who we are (or aren’t) having sex with.

As a kid, I not only loved Chick-fil-A’s nuggets, but I also loved that Christian values shaped their business. I loved that they hung out a sign to say they were closed on Sundays. I still believe that, as people of faith, we are called to live out our faith in whatever work we are called to do. But hate is not a Christian value. Jesus, who never married, did not come to marginalize people but to proclaim justice. Perhaps Dan and his family will understand. I’m hanging out my sign. I won’t eat at Chick-fil-A on any day of the week because I can no longer be part of these contributions that fund hate. Words have consequences. I don’t want to be “guilty as charged.”

I have a 1-year-old daughter who also loves her chicken nuggets. Unfortunately, if Chick-fil-A continues to donate money to groups who speak violence against LGBT individuals and their families, then she will not grow up with same love for this food that my husband and I had as children. A small sacrifice, I guess. I just hope she grows into a world where hate crimes become uncommon, where people are not beaten in a church’s front yard for being different, for being queer.

Throughout the Christian church’s history, food has always been a sacred space of sharing. The common religious ritual that forms both liberal and conservative churches is communion — the act of taking part in the table of Christ. Willingness to participate in the life of Christ — willingness to drink the cup and taste the bread — has always been the signifier of our faith, not our sexuality. I teach ethics, and during a recent class the subject of homosexuality came up. When some students began to cite the biblical reasons against homosexuality, another student felt marginalized by the discussion. She said, “I’m glad to hear everyone’s voice, I’m glad that as a church we can come to the table, but I can’t come to the table if people are throwing food at me.” The violence is not only at our doorsteps, but at our altars as well.

On my daily commute to work, the only Chick-fil-A in the city is 10 feet away from my subway stop. To leave the train and walk the one block to my office means I will pass Chick-fil-A each day. But now, instead of stopping in for a chicken biscuit and coffee, I’ll keep walking and say a prayer for peace. I’ll pray that love will conquer hate, that justice will roll down like waters and that I’ll have the strength to keep on walking.