Thursday, June 23, 2016

This Blog has migrated

This blog will no longer be hosted at this site and has been migrated to my new website at

Come see me there!

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Driving Me Crazy

Looks like what drives me crazy
Don’t have no effect on you –
But I’m gonna keep on at it
Til it drives you crazy too
(“Evil,” Langston Hughes)

Though I have read and studied many of Langston Hughes’ poems, I had not heard this one until a few weeks ago when Rev. William Moore, a prominent African-American pastor and community leader in Philadelphia, recited it at the Philadelphia Poverty Summit, where he spoke about the continuing to  address economic inequities in the city, the state and the nation

In Philadelphia, as in other cities, huge tax breaks are given to corporations like Comcast and Verizon, and yet people working service level jobs march for a living wage and their demands are regarded as economically infeasible. People work full time for minimum wage, and go home to families they can’t adequately feed or provide for. Corporations like Walmart hire people part time so they don’t have to pay benefits, and tell folks to go on welfare. The CEOs and corporate leaders earn hundreds of millions dollars each year, yet turn around and say $15/hour for their workers is not feasible.

Looks like what drives me crazy has no effect on you.

During several of the Tuesdays in May and June, I have joined dozens of others with the interfaith social justice network POWER on a trip to Harrisburg to advocate for funding increases in our public schools. In urban and small rural districts across the district, schools are operating on less than a shoe string. Class sizes are overcrowded, buildings are physically unsafe and unhealthy, books and materials are outdated and in short supply, and teachers must purchase their own supplies from their own money. Nursing staffs are cut, libraries are closed, extra-curricular activities are eliminated. When I talked with some legislative aides (despite there being “representatives” in those offices, they never seem to have time to see their constituents), I am told that such funding increases are “politically impossible.” What is so impossible about adequately funding schools, so that kids can get the decent education the Pennsylvania Constitution  in mandates them to provide? If it there were their kids or grandkids in those schools, you can bet they would find a way.

Looks like what drives me crazy has no effect on you.

Then of course there is the tragic shooting in the Pulse night club in Orlando by a young man, Omar Mateen, who just a few days before went into a gun store and purchased an assault rifle and a pistol. At last count 49 people had died, and countless others were injured and traumatized when this man went in and executed people on some sort of imaginary mission from ISIS. Yet when the issue of how easily his guns were purchased, the Senate has to have a filibuster to even be forced to talk about it and then of course with the NRA lying in the background, nothing gets done, guns are still as available as before, and the world outside the US looks at us and things we are violent and crazy --- and all for something called the 2nd Amendment.

Looks like what drives me crazy has not effect on you.

I could go on: the refusal of many states to help resettle Syrian refugees, the callous and inhumane treatment of undocumented immigrants, the lack of clean drinking water in places like Flint, the refusal of conservative politicians to admit that climate change exists, the growing imprisonment of young men of color in the school-to-prison pipeline, and so much more. It drives me crazy.

I often despair of our system. I march, write letters to my representatives, I call for change, I talk to my friends and associates, I write this blog, and for what? But then I remember that substantive change does not come in a week, or a month or a decade, or even in a lifetime. Many times others reap the benefits of those who have gone before. Maybe I am in that “gone before” group on some of these concerns; I hope not, but perhaps I am. So I will keep calling these and many other injustices crazy, and maybe someday those with the power to change the laws, the culture, the system, will get crazy too, and do something.

As I Iistened to Rev. Moore at the Poverty Summit, I realized he had been at it a lot longer than me, and he was still pushing.

Looks like what drives me crazy
Don’t have no effect on you –
But I’m gonna keep on at it
Til it drives you crazy too

You can count on it!

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Learning to Walk in the Dark

“Hello darkness, my old friend
I've come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains within the sound of silence” 
                                                         (Simon and Garfunkel, “Sounds of Silence")

Over the last year or so, I have been learning to do what Barbara Brown Taylor calls “learning to walk in the dark (1).” In June 2015 I went on a seven-day spiritual retreat, which was both challenging and transformative. The challenging part had to with my inability to go thru the day without talking or interacting with people and spending an inordinate amount of time with myself. The transformative part began much later and is still in process.

Later in the summer, I began to feel myself slip into what I later came to understand was what St. John of the Cross called “the dark night of the soul.” The clear categories that were informing and guiding my life seemed less able to order my thoughts and help me understand the world around me. My sense of God always defined by Jesus began to take on more a sense of mystery, so much so that I wasn’t sure where God was or what I should consider God. I felt alternately and often simultaneously confused, depressed, anxious and overwhelmed. I wasn’t even sure who I was anymore or what I should be doing in this phase of my life. Outwardly, I carried myself pretty much as I always had, but inwardly I knew something was going on and I was not either willing or controlling its direction.

I turned to a spiritual guide I had found so helpful in times past, Thomas Moore, author of Care of the Soul and so many other good works. In his book Dark Nights of the Soul (2) Moore began to give me language to understand my experience. He described what I was going through as a liminal experience, an experience of transition, much like a cocoon-like experience. He also made clear that there was not much I could or should do, but go with it. So I did.

Then the university where I work began going through a re-evaluation that led to a significant downsizing, and our Urban Studies department of five was reduced to three, and we were informed that the faculty line of one of our members who was retiring would not be replaced, and so in September we will be two. This disruption, which occurred at the end of 2015 threw me into a deep hole and the feeling of darkness intensified. My workload significantly increased and I felt like I was of little help or comfort to my colleagues and my students. At times it was enough just to get through a week. Living through the aftermath of that downsizing has been a continuing challenge where I am asked to live with decisions for which I had no input, decrease my resources, and increase my responsibilities, and over which I have had little to no control.  While I have been overwhelmed, in a paradoxical way I have found a deeper sense of community with others going through the same experience. Misery and struggle has a way of bringing folks together, and it did for me

Then in the spring a friend gave me a copy of Barbara Brown Taylor’s book Learning to Walk in the Dark (1). Taylor helped me re-frame my experience from one of anxiety to one of curiosity. She helped me see that in these dark night experiences, there is much that I can learn about God, myself, and the world and people around me. She invited me to see the loss of control as a gift, much like the thrill of riding a roller coaster and lifting one’s hands when you go down the steep incline: frightening but exhilirating. She invited me to be open and receptive to what God, the universe, Life, Destiny or whatever one wanted to call it might bring into my life.

Psychiatrist and spiritual guide Gerald May (3) added further to my understanding by helping me see  that much like a seed in the ground or a caterpillar in a cocoon, or a baby being conceived, the most creative and fruitful things in life often occur in the dark. He helped me translate the writings of John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila (the two medieval mystics who first described this experience in concrete terms), and to see that the dark night is not just a temporary episode in one’s spiritual and emotional journey, but is an ongoing process of growth and discovery.

Just as I began to feel more at home with this experience, my 89-year-old father died in a way that for me was unexpected. At one level we all expect and hope that our parents will live forever, and that was part of it for me. The other was that after what for a few years seemed like a gradual decline, he quickly deteriorated and was gone. His death has left a void in my world that I did not see coming, and for which I was not prepared As a result I have entered a darkness of grief that I am still coming to terms with.

So here I am. I am learning to walk in the dark with less anxiety, more curiosity and greater receptivity. There are still times when I wake in the middle of the night with sharp pangs of anxiety, sadness, and feelings of being overwhelmed. I sometimes have dreams so vivid and unnerving that I don’t want to go back to sleep. Yet when I sit with the initial impact of these night time visitations, I try to turn my mind toward curiosity and what these messages in the dark might be saying to me. I am trying to see this whole experience as an adventure of sorts, where I am not in control and where I don’t know what will come next. I am learning to trust that whatever I encounter in the dark, it will not overcome me, but will draw me a place I never thought I could go.

So, I end with poem by Rainer Marie Rilke, which seems to capture my experience in the way only a poet can.

When I lean over the chasm of myself
it seems
my God is dark
and like a web: a hundred roots
silently drinking.

This is the ferment I grow out of.  

                     (“Like a Web”, Book of Hours I, 3)


1.        Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (Harper, 2014)
2.       Thomas Moore, Dark Nights of the Soul: A Guide to Finding Your Way Through Life’s Ordeals (Gotham Books, 2004).

3.       Gerald May, The Dark Night of the Soul (HarperCollins, 2005).

Friday, May 20, 2016

A Good Man, a Complicated Relationship and the Measure of Greatness

Dad and I in 2012
(Note: My father, Darrell “Derry” Boyd, died on May 3, 2016 of natural causes at the age of 89. For the last two years of his life he lived happily in a skilled nursing facility in Wayzata, MN, but for the years previous he had lived a full, active and by all accounts enjoyable life. The Memorial Service for my dad was held on May 11, 2016. What follows is an adaptation of the remarks I shared at that service.)

I am so thankful for all the people who took the time in the days following my Dads’ death to write or say how he had touched their lives.  Old friends, friends of my siblings and me, former co-workers, babysitters, church folk, and many more wrote emails, sent cards and contacted us personally to share how he had impacted their lives, and to tell us what a caring, fun-loving and personable man he had been. It was overwhelming in a good way, but also confusing.

Often when I have gone to funerals or memorial services, particularly of the parents or siblings of a friend, that is, a funeral of someone I really did not know personally, I have come away wishing I had gotten to know the deceased better because they sounded like such a great person.

In a way that was my experience in the week following the death of my father because I did not know him in the way that so many people spoke of him; I didn’t even know him in the same way as my own siblings. I am the oldest of eight children and the early years of my life were characterized more by Dad’s absence than his presence.  Because of his job as a salesman he was forced to travel a lot because of his work with 3M Company. He would leave on Monday morning and would not return until Friday. Sometimes he was gone 2-3 weeks at a time. Until I was 12 or 13 he just wasn't around.

Dad and I want I was 2 or 3
By the time he was around, I had moved into that stage of adolescent life where kids believe their parents don’t know anything. Then I went to college and never really lived at home again for an extended period time. That time of his absence in my early youth left a gap, a hole, that Dad and I were never able to bridge.  We didn't have a bad relationship but never had a good relationship, the kind of relationship one wishes they had with their father. We did not understand each other, and did not have that deeper bond that could transcend the space between us. 

Furthermore, we never were able to recover that lost time. Despite some attempts to patch things, up, I don't know that either of us tried hard enough to do so. Yet all the kind words of others helped me see another side of him, and I am thankful for that.

Dad and I did not agree on much. I came of age in the late 60’s in the midst of the anti-Vietnam war movement, the end of the Civil Rights Movement, and the emergence of feminist and environmental movements.  Dad and I had strong disagreements when it came to the Vietnam war, politics, economics, social issues, the role of business, and who ought to be the next president. I remember in high school and during summers when I would come back from college, sitting at the table after dinner with my father debating whatever the current issue of the day was. He clearly thought I was wrong in my view, I knew he was wrong (!). Through those debates and discussions, I learned how to disagree agreeably. Dad never raised his voice, and always backed his points up with evidence. At times my mother would get very emotional and try to jump in to support my father’s views. Dad would turn to her and say “Sis, if you can’t stay calm, you are going to have to go in another room, until you cool down,” which of course only worked her up more. However, I learned from those after dinner debates that I could disagree with someone without disrespecting them. I can’t say I always kept my cool – I am more like my mother in that way - but the lesson has stayed with me and gotten me through many difficult times.
Dad and I in 2009

The most impressive thing I think Dad did in my mind was to take care of my mom when she began to develop Alzheimer’s in her late 50’s. When he was 63 he stepped down from his job at 3M, a job that he clearly loved and was good at. He devoted himself to taking care of Mom. What amazed and impressed me was the tenderness and gentleness with which he cared for her. Upon reflection I think that tenderness was there all the time in subtle ways. Despite all the time he spent away from the family when I was young, he always made a point to take Mom out on Saturday night for dinner, a movie, or dancing, and they often took vacations, just two of them, and left us kids under the care of others (from which there are many interesting stories - Parents, do you know what your children are doing when you are away?). I think his care and love and tenderness for Mom was always there, it just took her getting sick for me, perhaps for all of us, to see it.

After she passed, he showed that same tenderness with Junie, a woman he was with for 10 years. Junie was much different than my Dad (and my mom, for that matter). She is an artist and a Democrat (I thought there might yet be hope for Dad!). His tenderness with both Mom and Junie reminded me that there is always more to a person than meets the eye; that was certainly the case with Dad.

With the Grandchildren 
Of all the emails and cards about my Dad, the one that touched me the deepest was something that my daughter Phoebe wrote when she heard about her Poppy’s death. She wrote:

  Thank you Poppy for showing us the way to be great. You               lived a happy, honest, and fun life. You never stopped                     encouraging us to be ourselves, to be great and most of all             to love one another.

The phrase "you taught us to be great" caused me to reflect on what greatness is. Greatness is not measured in the amount of money one has earned, or the accomplishments in one's life, or how much power one has accrued, or the position one has achieved.

These are the ways our culture measures greatness. These are the ways that 3M Company for whom my father worked his whole career, measures greatness. Just take a look at who is listed as Time’s “100 Most Influential People”, that is the criteria they use.

However, that's not true greatness. True greatness is measured in the lives one impacts and hearts one touches. Dad was successful in business and in many areas of his life, but his true greatness is measured in the lives he impacted and the hearts he touched.  Dad's greatness is seen in the way he treated  his 14 grandchildren, my wife and the other spouses in our family, my seven siblings, the people who worked with him and for him, his many friends, Mom, and even me.

I approached the service celebrating my father’s life with great ambivalence. I had a great deal of regret for what he and I did not share with each other, for the gap that always existed between us. However, the testimonies of others, even my own children, speak to a kind of greatness that I can only describe as Grace,  the gift of seeing someone I admired and loved, but with whom I also struggled, through the eyes of others.
His 88th birthday - 2015

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Paulo Freire on the Relationship between Colleges and the Community

These days colleges and universities have come under increased scrutiny and criticism for (1) not adequately preparing students for employment upon graduation, and (2) for being too expensive for the average person to afford. So the question has been raised and debated, “Is a college education worth it?” As a faculty member at small, faith-based liberal arts university, I cannot stand aside from this debate since I am both a product and purveyor of higher education. However, it often seems to me that underlying these criticisms and the ensuing debate is another more fundamental issue, which is the relationship between colleges and universities and the communities in which they are located, and say they seek to serve. 

The so-called “Town and Gown” tension has been widely advertised and been the subject or backdrop for any number of books, movies and even television shows like the current hit “How to Get Away with Murder.” At issue is the perception, rightly or wrongly, that institutions of higher education may employ members of the local community, but somehow see themselves aloof, and perhaps separate, from the communities in which they are located. To make matters worse, these non-profit institutions pay no property taxes while occupying large swaths of lands from which  town and city councils could make revenue from if those lands were not so occupied.

In response to this criticism and dilemma, the Carnegie Foundation has developed an award that recognizes colleges and universities that seek to engage and serve their local communities. Students increasingly are encouraged to participate in service learning, internships and volunteer activities designed to serve the local community. There are now academic journals and organizations whose purpose is specifically to highlight university-community engagement. While these are all good things, all too often these efforts seem to use the community as a place of learning, service and research without really connecting in a meaningful way with the people who live in that community.

With these things in mind, I want to share some thoughts from the Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, whose book Pedagogy of the Oppressed is a standard, though often exoticized, text in many teacher education programs. In a series of letters to his niece, published as Letters to Cristina, Freire comments on the role he believes the university  should have with the wider community beyond its campus. Given the current concerns about the value of higher education, I find his insights to be helpful and even profound.  In the 12th letter of Letters to Cristina, he writes:

[T]he distance between the university (or what is done in it) and the popular classes should be shortened without losing rigor and seriousness, without neglecting the duty of teaching and researching… In order for that to happen the university must, if it hasn’t yet, increasingly become a creation of the city and expand its influence over the whole city. A university foreign to its city, superimposed on it, is a mind-narrowing fiction… [T]he university must start to be identified with its environment in order to move it and not just reproduce it…. These universities should cooperate with the state, towns, popular movements, production cooperatives, social clubs, neighborhood associations, and churches. Through such cooperation, the university could intensify its education action (Letters to Cristina, 1996, p. 133, 134)

What Freire is saying is that a college or university that only sees its mission as educating the students who enter its halls, has too narrow a vision. Learning is not an enterprise of the select few, but is part of what it means to be human. Thus, a university’s mission must extend beyond its walls to the wider community. In an age when local school districts particularly in urban and rural areas struggle financially to offer even the most basic level of education, when arts, music and sports programs are being cut because of lack of funding, and when politicians remain polarized over the role government plays in promoting quality education, institutions of higher education must step in.

In particular Freire sees universities in his native Brazil stepping in and providing teacher enrichment services for overworked and under-prepared teachers. In our U.S. context programs  could be created  to help community residents address local issues and challenges, as well as providing support and succor for movements for social change. For the past several years I have sought to bring my skills and experience to serve local neighborhoods and to be a support for efforts to enrich the quality of life in those places. I have offered my writing and analytical abilities to efforts of activist groups to address social inequities. Yet I have done these things largely without the knowledge or the support of my institution; i.e. it has been on “my own time.” I have often wondered what it would be like to have part of my responsibilities to share my research and teaching opportunities with these communities. What if my courses could involve students with local residents where both students and community folks could be educated by each other. I have done these things by taking my students to these places, but again it has often felt like I have done it in spite of rather than because of my responsibilities as a professor.

Many colleges would contend that they serve the community by the graduates they send into the workforce and the community at large, but Friere would say, and I would agree, that such a vision is far too narrow. In the midst of the current economic disparity, institutions of higher education have both the opportunity and the duty to seek to find ways to concretely and continuously engage with the communities around them and even beyond in the global community in ways that are enriching and life-giving for both. I, for one, would welcome that paradigm shift

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Donald Trump, Howard Beale and “Network” Revisited

 Last night I decided to watch the 1976 award winning film “Network”starring Peter Finch as the crazed, mad-prophet newscaster Howard Beale. Both Finch and Faye Dunaway won Academy Awards in 1976, as did the screenplay. The movie begins with Howard Beale being informed that he was being replaced as the anchor for the evening news program of the fictional television network UBS.  The economy is in a slump, oil prices are rising, there is an air of uncertainty throughout the country and political leaders are not trusted (this is at the time right after the Watergate era and the Vietnam War). As Beale announces that he will be stepping down as the anchor in two weeks, he also proclaims that on his final show he will commit suicide on the air. This causes an uproar among the management of the network. After some back and forth, management decides to give Beale another chance to sign off appropriately and this time he announces that everything he has been talking about for the past 11 years has been bullshit. When he is given a third chance, he asks all of his viewers to go to their windows and shout as loud as they can “I am mad as hell and I am not going to take it anymore!” Millions of people across the country do as he suggests and overnight Howard Beale has become a cultural sensation.

Meanwhile the young, aggressive director of programming Diana Christenson (played by Faye Dunaway) is watching this. She realizes Howard Beale is a hot commodity and so convinces her bosses to keep Beale on the air as "the mad prophet of television." So night after night Beale goes on ranting and raving about everything from the politicians to the oil companies to berating his viewers for being non-thinking robots who do whatever the people in charge tell them to do. He rants for a couple of minutes and then he feints night after night.  Ratings go through the roof. This show goes on for months until it reaches a crisis that brings the movie to an eerie and troubling climax. I won’t spoil the plot by giving the ending away, only to say that when it was over, I realized that 40 years later “Network” is still a powerfully relevant movie.

In 1976 “Network” was a statement about many things that were going on in the 1970’s, not the least of which was the complete control a few major networks controlled on what was news worth reporting. However, as I watched Beale rant and rave and stir up anger across the land, I could not help but think of Donald Trump and the violence that has begun to characterize his political rallies. Just the day before his campaign had to cancel a rally in Chicago due to the presence of so many protestors. A few days earlier in North Carolina a 78 year old Trump supporter sucker-punched a protestor as he was being led out by police. When asked about such incidents Trump either would say the protestors deserved it or as he said just today, he blamed supportersof Bernie Sanders for the violence; anything but taking responsibility for his divisive, polarizing, hate-filled rhetoric throughout the campaign.

In 1976 the message of “Network” was basically that the media was no longer interested in providing reliable and newsworthy information to the general public, but was about providing entertainment in the guise of news and making money by putting anything on the air that would get people to turn the channel to their station. Likewise the Trump campaign has not sought to offer reasonable solutions to the challenges facing the nation. Trump's  success has been built on his ability to provide a regular stream of outlandish statements and outright lies that made good headlines.

Early on in the primary season, I kept wondering why Trump was getting so much free air time. Then I remembered that long ago I realized that the reporting on political campaigns was not about the issues or fact-checking politicians’ assertions; no, political reporting was about winners and losers and focus on the most extreme and controversial things any politician said.

  • Have you ever wondered how a candidate can be “gaining momentum” leading up to a vote, when no vote has been taken?
  • Have you ever wondered why there is a new poll out almost every day as to which candidate is gaining or losing ground when no vote has been taken?
  • Have you ever wondered why newscasters will report what a candidate has said without actually checking if there is any truth in it?

It is because the media is not helping viewers make informed political decisions when they enter the voting booth; the media sees politics as entertainment and so the more outrageous, the better!

Just like Howard Beale, Trump is cultural phenomenon who has tapped into the frustration, disillusionment, and anger of a certain segment of the population. He makes outlandish statements like he will deport all undocumented immigrants, cause all Muslims to be registered, and “bomb the hell” out of ISIS, as if these are reasonable positions, much less constitutional or remotely feasible. Then he directly and indirectly encourages his followers to violence and blames someone else for the violence when it happens.

Howard Beale was a fictional character 40 years ago, but 40 years before Beale there was a real figure named Adolf Hitler who likewise stirred a nation to anger and insanity, and eventually dragged the whole world into a World War. Adolf Hitler’s end was tragic, as was the end for Howard Beale. What will happen if Trump continues on?

Mainstream Republicans are worried that Trump will become “their candidate.” However, if he does will they seek to stop him, or in the end will they fall in line like lemmings? And will the rest of us sit easy while a mad man stirs many of our citizenry to madness? By speaking out against Trump, I am not painting any other candidate as flawless, but Donald Trump has revealed an ugly side to our country that cannot be ignored.  Regardless what happens to his candidacy, the fact that he has gotten this far is an indictment against all of us who failed to stop him and a media industry that has allowed him to get this far.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Power of Poetry #2: Headlong

About 18 months ago, a friend introduced me to the poetry of Mary Oliver. As often happens when one is introduced to something new, all of a sudden you seem to see it at every turn. For instance when we bought a red Prius, all of a sudden we seemed to see a red Prius everywhere we went. It wasn’t that red Priuses came out of the woodwork when we bought one; we just became more aware of them.

Well it has been the same way with the poetry of Mary Oliver. I started hearing her quoted in sermons, mentioned by authors, interviewed on the radio and so much more. From that first book of poems I bought another, Felicity (Penguin Press, 2016). On page 9, I found the poem entitled “Moments” which immediately spoke to something deep within me.

There are moments that cry out to be fulfilled.
Like, telling someone you love them.
Or giving your money away, all of it.

Your heart is beating, isn’t it?
You’re not in chains, are you?

There is nothing more pathetic than caution
when headlong might save a life,
even, possibly, your own.

I love the last stanza. How often have I not spoken or not acted because of caution: a fear of rejection, of not being understood, of feeling foolish, or even being rejected. As I move through my 60’s, I am being constantly bombarded with messages warning me about the need to save for retirement, to gird myself against ageing, to prepare for financial constraints, to avoid foolish choices, and prepare for the worst.  At one level this is all good advice. Yet at the same time I find myself rebelling against these messages of fear and caution and opting for freedom from expectations and from what others think is “right” for me. Two years ago a buddy and I participated in an obstacle course called the Goliathon; we were easily twice the age of most the other participants, but we had a ball. In the last few years I  have taken up long range biking, and will hope to ride 100 miles in a day one time at least this this summer. I also am taking advantage of the opportunity to visit Kenya with a group of students; Africa is a place that has always fascinated me. So many people are surprised and wonder if I am running away from the truth of my age. However it is not that; rather its that  I want to grab life for all that is there.
Mary Oliver

This is not to say I am just doing physical things. I also want to be “headlong” in my generosity, in my expressions of both love and outrage, and in my relationships. To the best of my ability I choose to not let anything that needs to be said, remain unsaid and what needs to be done, to be left undone. I want to invest myself in people and causes that make the world possibly a more peaceful, healthy, caring and just place. I want to spend myself in things that matter and people who mean a lot to me. Even, if possible, to excess.

Such a choice is not easy because I have been socialized to be “responsible” and “prudent.” I have been taught to act my age, and behave according to the expectations of my surroundings. I am supposed to be at a place where I “settle down” and "settle in." Yet the Jesus I seek to follow calls me to give it all up to follow him and his early disciple Paul claimed “foolishness” as a positive virtue. That’s good enough for me. So I seek to live a “headlong life” to whatever extent that is possible. I am still living into this desire… and who knows where it will lead; but if Mary Oliver is right, the life I save may be my own.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Power of Poetry #1 – Rilke’s “Neighbors”

Over the last year and a half I have begun to appreciate the power of poetry, the ability of words to create images, capture feelings, speak deep truths that go beyond the rational to the emotional and spiritual. Mostly I have been reading Ranier Marie Rilke, Mary Oliver, Langston Hughes and poems of former students. Here I share a poem that speaks to me about my relationship to God; it is called “Neighbors.”

You, God, who live next door:
If at times through the long night, I trouble you
with my urgent knocking ---
this is why: I hear you breathe so seldom
I know you’re all alone in that room.
If you should be thirsty, there’s no one
to get you a glass of water.
I wait listening, always. Just give me a sign!
I’m right here.

As it happens, the wall between us
is very thin. Why couldn’t a cry
from one of us
break it down? It would crumble
it would barely make a sound.
(Rilke, Book of Hours I, 6)

For a long time I have sensed that God is near but not talking to me. I am particularly taken by the thin wall the separates the neighbors, so much so that they can listen for each other’s breaths. Yet there is no sound, no communication, no acknowledgement of the One on the other side of the wall.

My faith has taught me God is near, God hears my cries and God cares for my deepest needs. God is my neighbor and in my neighbor, and yet like Rilke’s neighbor, God seems silent. Why don’t my cries break down the wall? I am listening for God, but hear only the faint sound of a breath. Is it God’s or is it mine?

I am not sure.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Confession of a Recovering Racist

[On January 29, 2016, I spoke before a gathering of students, staff and faculty at Eastern University, speaking on the topic “White Allies for Racial Justice”. The following is an excerpt from that presentation in which I discuss why I call myself a “recovering racist.”]

Today just happens to be my father’s birthday. Today he turns 89. He lives is a skilled care facility in Minnesota. It just so happens that the year I will turn 89, if I live that long, will 2042. That year 2042 is the year demographers predict that a black or brown or Asian or Native American child will be born, and those folks who identify racially as white will comprise less than 50% of the U.S. population. At the younger age groups that shift has already begun to occur, but in 2042 it is predicted that in the U.S. population as a whole there will be no racial or ethnic group that can claim to be a majority. And most white folks are not prepared for living in a society they are not the dominant group both numerically and culturally; Most folks of color have developed what W.E.B Dubois called a double consciousness; knowing how to code switch so as to be able to operate successfully in a white dominated society. But we who are white folks have very little idea of how to operate in a world where white is the dominant group. We don’t know how to make the shift to living a truly multicultural, multiracial society.

And so while I hope what I have to share is relevant to every one of you here today, I particularly want to speak to those of us here today who identify racially as white, and what this changing demographic is challenging us to be and do.

But I want to begin with a confession: I am a recovering racist. I was born a white male into a white community that is part of a racist society and racist political structure which gave me privileges and access denied to others. I did not know I had these advantages, I didn’t ask for them, but from the day I was born doors were opened to me, opportunities presented to me, resources made available to me simply because I am white that gave me leg up on many others. I worked hard and people said I earned what I had achieved. And I didn’t know the game was been rigged, and because I was white, I had a huge head start.

 I grew up in a community in suburban Minneapolis where most the people looked like me, thought like me and had advantages like me. I didn’t know any better. My parents were moderately progressive folks teaching me to care for others and for the world at large. We attended progressively minded church, where even in the 1960’s, our predominately white congregation had a partnership with a predominantly African American congregation. We were concerned for the suffering of people of color in our city, and beyond. Yet subtlely, almost imperceptibly, through things that were said and unsaid I was taught and socialized into thinking I was just a little bit better, a little further advanced. It was a progressive form of white supremacy, a liberal sort of racism where we were concerned and even willing to help as long as it did not disrupt our safe and comfortable world where we, the whites, still were in control.

I said I was a recovering racist. If any of you have been through a 12 step program or know those who have, you know that when a person completes the 12 steps, he or she never says they are a “recovered” alcoholic, or drug addict or gambler. They say they are “recovering”, because staying straight and healthy and free of addiction, is a daily commitment. 

When I was in my 20's doing youthwork I met a youthworker from Knoxville, TN named Jabo Cox. Jabo had been a heroin addict in his 20's, but got clean, and hadn't used in over 30 years. Yet he confided to me: "Drick, even though I haven't used in 30 years, every morning I wake up and I want to take a hit, and I have to decide not to use." That's what it means to be recovering; it is an ongoing, daily choice to live and think another way.

Like a baby born to a drug addicted mother, I was born into a white culture addicted to the privileges and power of whiteness. And for the first 20 years of my life I didn’t realize how addicted to my privilege I was until I started to  become aware of my own racism, and for the last 40 years I have been working on my addiction.

So I don’t come before you as one who has things all figured out, but one in the ongoing process of recovery from the racism I was born with and born into..

But why do I say this, why do I share my struggles? I suspect that many of the people in this room, particularly those of you who identify as white, like me you are committed to fighting racism. However, if we are ever going to be able to contribute significantly to the fight against racism out there, we need to start by confronting and dealing with the racism in here. We have to confront our own blindness, our own ignorance, and our own fears and prejudices that we rarely speak, but know are there. We have to acknowledge and analyze our comfortable white bubbles that have been constructed all around us, and then burst those bubbles.  I think it’s virtually impossible to grow up white in the United States and not be racist.

William Sloane Coffin said many years ago:  “Racism is America’s original sin,’ and we and our white ancestors are the perpetrators and beneficiaries of that sin. We like to think of how great our nation is, but what we don’t want to admit is that it was built on stolen native lands with slave labor, on the backs of Latino and Asian, poor White laborers in a culture that used and degraded people of color all the while treating them as less than full citizens.  Part of our repentance and our healing is to learn and acknowledge that history, and seek find another way to live that doesn’t perpetuate the racism at the heart of our institutions and our culture.

Anti-racism activists such as Ewuare Osayande  and Mark Charles contend that the truth about the history racism in the US is a truth that has been largely denied by our education system and hidden from most of us. That history contains some hard truths we have yet to come to terms with. That truth of history and the reality of our present are painful to face.  That’s why so many of us White and even some persons of color run away from it, rather than face it. Dealing with our addiction to racism begins with acknowledging and grappling with the truth of who we are and where we came from historically and personally. Only then can we truly enter into our recovery.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Beyond the Burning Bus - A Review and Reflection

In the process of researching and writing my book, White Allies in the Struggle for Racial Justice, I came across several stories that I was not able to include but where worth honorable mention. One such story is contained in the book Beyond the Burning Bus: The Civil Rights Revolution in a Southern Town  by Phil Noble (New South Publishers, 2003). What follows is a review and reflection on this book and the story it tells.

On Mother's Day, May 14, 1961, group of young people, both Black and White rode on a Trailways bus through the small town of Anniston, Alabama on the route from Atlanta to Birmingham. These Freedom Riders, as they were called, were seeking to make a point of challenging Southern racism by defying So customs of forced segregation on commercial buses. The ride had started in Washington, DC and up to that point, had been relatively calm. As they approached Anniston, they were met by an angry mob of White citizens connected with Ku Klux Klan, who set the bus on fire and then beat the frantic riders as they exited to safety. All of the riders escaped alive but many were badly injured. This horrific event made the national news and put Anniston on the map as place noted for violent racial hatred.

Rev. Phil Noble was a young and relatively new pastor at the First Presbyterian Church. Like many Southern towns, Anniston was economically, geographically, culturally, politically and religiously divided along racial lines, and the burning bus only heightened the racial tensions in the community. Shortly after  this incident two black ministers, Rev William McCain and Rev Nimrod Q. Reynolds,  called on Rev. Phil Noble to discuss how their churches - Black and White - could work together to bring racial justice to Anniston. The pastors had interacted casually in professional circles, but over the next six years they became partners in the struggle for domestic peace and racial justice in Anniston.

 This book tells the story of the courageous men who made up Anniston's Human Relations
Council (HRC) and relates the first two years of the Council's work made up of five Whites and four blacks who sought to bring down the walls of segregation. For Rev. Noble and the other White members the goal was to avoid the violence that had enveloped other Southern towns like Montgomery and Birmingham. For the Blacks the goal was racial justice. The burning bus incident revealed to both that Anniston could erupt at any moment  into all-out chaos if leaders did not act to address both the immediate and underlying issues. As Noble relates the story, for Whites the fact that there was no further outbreaks of violence was progress, but for the Black leader the progress toward desegregation was too slow but still enough to keep them engaged. Noble’s account shows that when courageous Whites and Blacks collaborate to work for the justice, reconciliation is possible. At the same time Dr. King was decrying the inaction of the White moderates in Birmingham in his famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail", the White moderates in Anniston stepped up and were able to bring progress with relative peace (there still were many acts of violence and people killed) even in the face of strong segregationist opposition. This is a story not often heard in the days of the Civil Rights South and so is worth exploring.

One of the things that comes through clearly in this book is the different objectives of Blacks and Whites in the Civil Rights period. For the Black community in Anniston and throughout the South, the goal was clear: tear down the walls of segregation and the double standard for Blacks and Whites in all areas of life. For Whites the goals were equally simple: keep order and quiet with the least amount of disruption to their “Southern way of life.” While there may have been many Whites like Noble who had begun to understand the essential wrongness of segregation, it was only when horrific incidents like the burning of the Freedom Riders bus obliterated  the myth of Southern tranquility, that such Whites acted. It is a classic case of what Derrick Bell,  the reputed founder of Critical Race Theory (CRT), calls “interest convergence.” CRT assumes that Whites only act for racial justice when somehow it is in their self-interest. Anniston’s Mayor and Chief of Police and other leading Whites in Anniston did not have a dramatic conversion to racial equality, but rather were persuaded by the specter and threat of violent outbreak to dismantle their segregationist culture. Furthermore they were convinced  by Phil Noble and other moderate Whites that working for racial justice was not only good for the Black community, but also good for the business community and the town’s image in the state and nation.

While I found the book interesting and encouraging, I think  two additional aspects of Phil Noble’s account would have added needed depth to the story. First, throughout the book he makes reference to the quiet resistance and passive acceptance of his congregation toward his  involvement in the HRC’s desegregation effort. He describes how his church exchanged preachers with black churches and that there were occasional comments for or against his efforts. However, he never discusses his efforts to address the segregationist attitudes within the congregation. For many anti-racist Whites the most daunting and difficult challenge is confronting the racism in their own family and friendships. The question I am most often asked is how to talk to one’s networks about racism; in many White circles such conversation feels difficult if not impossible to address. I would have liked to have heard how Noble sought to address it, regardless how successful he felt his efforts were.

Denmark Vesey
Second, after fifteen years Rev. Noble left Anniston to pastor a church in Charleston, SC. Historically, Charleston has been a hot bed of racist activity and attitudes. Charleston was a major port for slave ships, the place where the first shots of the Civil War were fired, and the site of landmark court cases challenging disparate pay for black teachers and challenging all white primaries. Denmark Vesey in 1822 led a failed rebellion of slave and free Blacks. And of course, this past summer, a young white man Dylan Roof shot and killed nine Black parishioners of the Emmanuel AME church while they gathered for a prayer meeting.  When Phil Noble went to Charleston how did he take the lessons from Anniston and apply them with his congregation in Charleston? Most certainly there were many opportunities, though less dramatic, to continue to address racism in that church as he had in Anniston. Addressing and struggling against racism is not a temporary project but a lifelong endeavor.

Beyond the Burning Bus raises the interesting question of how one addresses racism both on a personal and systemic level. Noble was moved to act because of his personal relationships with Black pastors, which in turn led to his involvement in changing the policies and culture of a small town in central Alabama. Even today I suspect in Anniston the struggle continues to address racist attitudes and the systems that support them. Yet it is always important to remember that the actions started 
first because people knew each other and acted out of a personal concern that led to systemic change.

Beyond the Burning Bus is an interesting read of challenging story that illustrates that with persistence, courage, and committed  relationships, racism in its many manifestations can be addressed and in some cases overcome.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Donald Trump and the Evangelicals

In 1978 I entered an Evangelical seminary in the New England area. I chose to go there over other options because its New Testament department was reputed to be one of the best in the area, and in addition the school had a vibrant urban ministry program. Though I probably had heard the term “Evangelical” before, I had no real idea what it meant, nor did I care. However, upon entering the school, all my professors and most of my fellow students  used the term “Evangelical” as if was synonymous with “Christian.” I was mystified how I could have been a Christian for nearly 10 years at that point, and yet had no idea what an Evangelical was. So I asked.

Dr. David Scholer, now deceased, was a New Testament professor for whom I worked two of my three years at the seminary. One day I asked Dr. Scholer: “Can you tell me what an Evangelical is?” His reply was priceless: “An Evangelical is a person who another so-called Evangelical considers to be one.” In other words, Evangelicals are a theological club that is overwhelmingly white, middle class and located in suburban and rural areas. This explained why I as a person involved in urban youth work, as well as my African American classmates, didn’t qualify as Evangelicals.  We had not been inducted into the club until by inadvertently going to that seminary we became one.

Historically, Evangelicals trace their roots to the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy of the 1920’s. Conservative theologian Carl F. Henry and evangelist Billy Graham, along with several others wanted to maintain the conservative theological orientation of the Fundamentalists, while being more engaged with current social and political issues like the Social Gospel folks. So they created a middle path, recruited other like-minded pastors, started some colleges and seminaries and Evangelicalism came into being. They founded a magazine Christianity Today, which came to be and still is the voice of Evangelicalism. However, over the decades from that year, with the likes of so-called Evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson began linking Evangelicalism with a conservative political agenda: pro-family, pro-life, pro-gun, pro-business, anti-government regulation.

While I was still at seminary I saw this ascendancy of conservative politics over theology when actor-turned-politician Ronald Reagan was elected easily over lifetime Bible-teaching Evangelical President Jimmy Carter,  largely with the support of the Evangelical vote. Fast forward to 2016 and now Donald Trump, thrice-married, wheeling-dealing, foul-mouthed real estate mogul who routinely berates his opponents and detractors, has been endorsed by Jerry Falwell, Jr., the president of Liberty University, and Robert Jeffress the pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas has said he would be “very comfortable with Trump in the White House.” All of a sudden Trump talks about “we Christians” and makes all the promises conservative Evangelicals want to hear. All these years later my professor’s definition of Evangelical applies here; Trump is an Evangelical because he got invited into the club.

I have long since shed any personal identification with Evangelicals. For a while I allied myself with so-called progressive Evangelicals like Ron Sider, Tony Campolo and Jim Wallis, all religious leaders I respect. I teach at a college whose president likes to link to Evangelicalism, though many if not most of the faculty do not identify as such.  I even hold to some “evangelical positions” such as a concern for the family and a commitment to  pro-life concerns. (However, I don’t feel outlawing abortion is the answer, but rather providing affordable safe alternatives. Also I am what Ron Sider calls “completely pro-life” linking my opposition to abortion to other life issues such as opposing capital punishment, refusing to participate in war, and gun violence prevention.) Long ago I found that Evangelical was not a club I want to be a part of.

To be fair, there are a number of Evangelical leaders, like Richard Land, president of Southern Baptist Seminary, who have warned against a Trump-Evangelical alliance as fundamentally adverse to their conservative Christian values. Yet even many of them have come out in support of Ted Cruz, who speaks the Evangelical language, but who is reportedly known around Washington and within Republican circles as egotistical and who is generally considered to be a distant and unlikeable person. The natural Republican candidates for Evangelicals would be people like Gov. Mike Huckabee or Dr. Ben Carson, but since they are not leading candidates, my guess is that Evangelicals would rather back a winner than be faithful to their creeds and values.

As a follower of Jesus I find this Trump-Evangelical romance to be deeply disturbing. As I seek to understand the life of Jesus and follow his teachings, I practice a faith that is centered on justice for the poor, a call to repentance for the rich and powerful, and the building of a beloved community across lines of race, class, gender, sexual orientation and national identities. Furthermore, I don’t see hope as ultimately promised to any political party or candidate, but rather in the Spirit of God working through people of faith to seek after what Jesus called the Reign of God. I participate in the electoral process and work to influence policy-makers, but do so out of a deep commitment to values and principles of Jesus. By contrast the Trump-Evangelical alliance has faint echoes of Adolph Hitler’s co-optation of the German Lutheran Church in the 1930’s. One can only hope that enough Evangelical leaders will wake up to the reality an alliance with Donald Trump or Ted Cruz is an alliance that calls them to forsake the basic values they espouse, and that such an alliance hurts not only their cause, but the country as a whole.

Information about the Evangelical-Trump Relationship can be found at this link

Monday, January 18, 2016

A Reflection for Would-be White Allies on the King Holiday

This Martin Luther King Jr Day remembrance, at the urging of anti-racist activist  Ewuare Osayande I have re-read portions of Dr. King’s 1967 book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community. Written two years after Selma and the signing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, King bemoans how little has changed since the law was passed because its provisions have not been implemented and its restrictions on discrimination have not been enforced. King also notes that many of the white allies who marched with him in Selma have retreated to their lives, treating that historic event as an experience rather than an historical watershed and a turning point in history. Overtly racist whites have struck back, segregationists have been elected to office, and violence against people of color continues. The words of 49 years ago sound hauntingly contemporary.

For King in 1967, as it is for many people of color in 2016, true equality remains a distant illusion. In the first chapter of Where Do We Go From Here, King writes:

Why is equality do assiduously avoided? Why does white America delude itself, and how does it rationalize the evil it retains?

The majority of white Americans consider themselves committed to justice for the Negro. They believe American society is essentially hospitable to fair play and to steady growth toward a middle class utopia embodying racial harmony. But unfortunately this is a fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity. Overwhelmingly America is still struggling with irresolution and contradictions. It has been sincere and even ardent in welcoming change. But too quickly apathy and disinterest rise to the surface when the next logical steps are to be taken.  (p. 567)*

I wrote my book White Allies in the Struggle for Racial Justice to provide role models for white folks
who say they are serious about seeking racial justice. The book provides stories of 18 white folks through U.S. history who lived their lives with racial justice as a central focus. What became so clear as I researched and wrote the book is that for white folks working for racial justice means moving out of our comfort zones and living against the grain of white culture. Noel Ignatiev calls such action being a “race traitor” and Tim Wise calls it “racial treason.” Whites may be uncomfortable with phrases like “Black Lives Matter” wanting to respond “Wait, don’t all lives matter.” However, when whites make such statements they ignore the fact that in terms of employment poverty, education, health care, criminal justice and so many other aspects of our society black lives matter far less than that of whites. The promises and accomplishments of the Civil Rights movement that had not been fulfilled in 1967, remain largely unrealized in 2016. Whites must affirm the slogan not because it suggests white lives don’t matter, but that in U.S. society today black lives are literally and figuratively left to die on streets all over the country.

King writes: “Like life, racial understanding is not something we find but something we must create.” (p. 572). On this MLK Day, whites must realize that if we desire a world where all lives actuall do matter, we will have to let go of our comfortable distance, perhaps face the anger and frustration of our colleagues of color, and commit ourselves to the long haul of racial justice. 

When I talk about our call to work for racial justice, some white folks say: “I don’t want to do or say the wrong thing. How do I avoid a mis-step?” I respond by saying: "Get over it. Accept that you will mess up.” Working for racial justice is a messy, complicated, emotional, confusing process, but if you are in that process, mistakes can be overcome and forgiven. However, if we never step out of our comfort zone, we will make the greatest mistake of all: passively affirming the status quo.

[References to Where Do We Go From Here are from A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. Edited by James M.Washington]