Friday, June 19, 2015

A Letter to My Black Friends

One is guilty, but all are responsible (to paraphrase Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel). I awoke Thursday morning to the news of the tragic deaths of the nine people of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. Their only “crime” according to Dylann Roof, their killer, was that they were black. As a white person who does not share Roof’s racist views, I would like to believe that his action was a random act of violence at the hands of a troubled and deranged young man; that way I could go on feeling sad but free of any responsibility. Yet I know it is not that simple.

The tragic events of Wednesday night are only the most recent example of how tenuous life is for those who are black in this country. Going back nearly 400 years when African slaves were first brought to North America and the hundreds of years of torture and humiliation they endured, through the Jim Crow era and the lynchings, through the time of  bombs, dogs and hoses of Bull Connor’s Birmingham to the unnecessary deaths of Trayvon, Michael, Eric, Tamir, Freddie and so many unnamed more at the hands of police brutality, to the recent tragedy in Charleston, the safety, security and mere livelihood of black people in America has been fragile and tenuous. I know that intellectually, but I have no idea what it is like to live in an environment where at any moment – even in a church at a Bible study – you could be gunned down; I can’t even imagine.

At its root the word “compassion” means “to suffer with” and to the extent I am able, I suffer with those who knew the victims personally or indirectly, and I suffer with those who experience these murders as a reflection of their own grief and suffering. Yet as a white person I can only approximate that suffering in a small way. Even if I were to change my skin color like John Howard Griffin (author of Black Like Me), or seek to pass as a black person like Rachel Dolezal, I cannot know what it is like to have the color of one’s skin be the sole characteristic that some use to judge whether or not your life has value. Black lives do matter not more than others, but as much as others. That is not a given in this country – that much I have come to understand, and to my limited ability to empathize I suffer with you.

However, responsibility goes beyond feeling sad and expressing compassion; it calls for continued action. I have sought to be a person who speaks, writes, teaches and marches for racial justice in all its forms, and I commit myself again today to that calling. While Dylann Roof may have acted on his own, the attitudes that moved him to do what he did came from a culture that at best tolerates and at worst promotes racism. He may have learned to hate from his family, from a group of friends, or from the numerous White Supremacist organizations on the Internet; it does not matter. As long as such attitudes are given credence, our work is not done. Moreover Roof, like all of us,  lives in an American culture that routinely discriminates in education, employment, housing, criminal justice and so many more areas, even as it uses the language of inclusion and equality. As a person of faith and conscience, I will continue to work for the realization of a society where the color of one’s skin is not a target for others’ hate.

The 5th century Greek poet Aeschylus wrote: “He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, becomes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.” By “awful grace of God” he meant “filled with awe.” That is to say that understanding the grace of God lies beyond our full comprehension. I can only hope that this terrible tragedy and the ongoing struggle of what it means to be black in America can be changed as we move to address the racism in our society. Through that ongoing work and struggle, I pray we may grow in Wisdom and experience the Grace of God in ways that moves us forward toward the vision of the Beloved Community for which we long.

May my prayers, my thoughts, my compassion, my actions convey in some small way the comfort of God in this sad and terrible time.

Saturday, June 06, 2015

In Praise of Crazy Dreamers

These last few days have confirmed for me the value of persevering toward our dreams. On Friday (June 5) I received a publisher’s draft of my forthcoming book White Allies in the Struggle for Racial Justice (due out Fall 2015).  Approximately four years ago I began researching and writing the stories of White folks in U.S. history who had sought to be allies with People of Color in the struggle for racial justice. In the Spring of 2014 a publisher (Orbis Books) agreed to take a chance on the topic and I finished the first draft. In the last year there have been countless re-reads, rewrites, and edits to the point I thought it would never end. There were many times  early in the process I despaired of finding a publisher, but even after the publisher agreed to work with me, I wondered if it would actually come to be. This Friday, seeing my words in book template form was the first time I really believed it would happen.

Despite my proliferation of blogs, writing does not come easy to me. I am truly in awe of people who write for a living or who write profusely. A musician friend of mine once told me that being a professional musician is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration; I feel the same way about writing. I thoroughly enjoyed researching and interviewing the subjects in my book. I came to feel deeply connected to them and their stories inspired me. I even convinced myself that if the book never got published, simply learning and engaging with these amazing people was worth the effort. On the other hand, the writing has been laborious, frustrating and exhausting. So to realize this book will actually come to be makes me truly grateful. While I still have to re-read and edit the manuscript one more time, soon this book which was only an idea four years ago, will become a reality.

However, even more inspiring was an event I attended on Saturday (June 6) morning at Sweet Union Baptist Church in the Carroll Park neighborhood of West Philadelphia. Over five years ago I began talking with Zack Ritvalsky, pastor of the church and learned of his vision to transform the Carroll Park neighborhood. One day he came across something called the Mondragon Model of community development. In 1941 a Roman Catholic priest, Jose Maria Arizmendiarrieta was sent to a small parish in the village of Mondragon located in the mountainous Basque region of northeastern Spain. Father Arizmendiarrieta started a technical college that taught business skills, as well as the basic principles of Catholic social teaching. In 1955 he selected five young men to start a cooperative business, who decided to pool their profits and then give money back to the community to start new coops. Today the Mondragon Corporation oversees 250 cooperative business ventures around the world, all built on the simple vision of worker-owned cooperatives giving back to their communities, and allowing people to own a part of their livelihood.

Pastor Zack shared the Mondragon model with some people in his church and neighborhood, and
soon 50-100 people began meeting monthly and working together toward the realization of several ventures, one of which was the HMC Squared Realty Development Group that would purchase vacant properties in the neighborhood, fix them up of with as much local labor as possible, and re-sell to local residents at a modest profit. The profits would then be recycled back into a fund to purchase, renovate, and sell more houses. In this way members of the four neighborhoods of Haddington, Morris Park, Cathedral Park and Carrol Park (from which HMC2 gets its name) could own their neighborhood and protect it from real estate speculators looking to flip cheap houses and make a huge profit, thereby driving local residents out. The idea for the Realty group to start was for individual investors who either work, worship, own a business, or are involved in the betterment of the community would buy up to five units at $2000 per unit as an investment which would develop the capital to begin the process of buying and selling houses. For over two years members of HMC2 have been working through the legal and financial logistics to bring the Realty Group into being, and today the first of 500 available units went on sale and were purchased. It was the realization of a dream that not long ago barely seemed possible in this low income urban community. While there are still a lot more investors who need to be brought on board, the process has begun!

In his book The Answer to How is Yes, Peter Block says that too often we sacrifice what really matters in life to what seems “possible” and “practical;” in doing so, we too quickly forsake our passions, values and dreams. Block writes: “The price of practicality is its way of deflecting us from our deeper values” (p. 25). Block is not suggesting that we should not plan and seek to take practical measures to achieve our goals, but he is suggesting that too often we allow the tendency to be “realistic” to keep us from following our dreams, pursuing our passions, and living our lives according to our deepest convictions.

These past few days I have experienced how the impracticality of pursuing a dream can actually pay off, and how what seems improbable, or even impossible, can come into being. In the ancient Hebrew prophetic book of Jeremiah, the prophet buys a field outside of Jerusalem just as the city is about to be captured and destroyed by their Babylonian enemies. Jeremiah has been tortured, discredited, and dismissed as a nuisance; no one is paying attention to him or his message. Nonetheless he buys the field as a concrete testimony to his belief that one day God will restore the city and its people to a life a peace and prosperity; at the time such a belief was not only considered impractical, it was ludicrous. Yet Jeremiah prevailed with his crazy dream of a new Jerusalem, and eventually it came to be ( See Jeremiah 32).

So here is to crazy dreamers – like Jeremiah, like Pastor Zack and the members of HMC2, and to one would-be writer who wanted to share some stories about some other crazy dreamers. May we always follow our passions and visions in spite of what seems impossible.

Members of HMC2 preparing to make their investment

[All pictures from the author]