Thursday, January 5, 2017

Race Relations and the Church

[Presented Sunday Morning, 8/14/2016 to the Eagan, Minnesota, Church of Christ] 

The topic for this morning is race relations and the church.  I want to consider the subject by looking at how Jesus approached race relations in his teaching and how the early church dealt with it.  It was a problem for them and it is still a problem for us.

As you know, the reading for the morning was the story of the good Samaritan.  But what often gets missed in that story in the apparent contradiction in the title.  Of course the title wasn’t included on the original writing of the story, but the title is an accurate description of what happens.  You see, to the Jewish people of the day Samaritans were not good.  They were to be avoided.  They were not to be spoken to, you could not do business with them and a respectable Jewish person would not even be seen having a conversation with one.  The Jews took the long way around to avoid the area where the Samaritans lived.

According to their teaching, a Jew was under no obligation to help any Gentile who was in need, and in fact, if a Jew killed a Gentile, the guilty Jew could not be put to death.

Yet when Jesus was confronted by a lawyer who set out to “test” him, Jesus told the story of the good Samaritan.  The lawyer knew the answer to the question he asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  And when Jesus turned the question back to him, he gave the correct answer.  He was trying to trick Jesus into saying something that would get Jesus in trouble with the religious leaders.  But to keep from looking so foolish, he asked Jesus a defensive question, “Who is my neighbor?”  I can see him looking around at his audience as he asked it, “Who is my neighbor?”

And Jesus answered with the story of the Good Samaritan.  By all indication, the injured man was a Jew, yet the Priest and the Levite passed by on the other side of the road.  These were people who should have been teaching compassion to their constituents, yet they got as far away from the needy man as they could. It was the Samaritan who stopped to help the injured man.  

Jesus could have reversed the roles in this story and still had a powerful illustration.  The Samaritan could have been the injured party.  In fact, that would have been the more direct way to illustrate the point about neighborliness.  But Jesus didn’t tell the story that way; he took the illustration a step further and made the Samaritan the good guy.
Why do you suppose Jesus made the story go this way?  Why would he make the Samaritan out to be the hero, contrary to the way Samaritans were viewed by the Jews, and very probably by this lawyer he was telling the story to?

He was clearly trying to teach something to this lawyer and to the others who were listening.  By choosing the man who was looked down on, both racially and religiously, to be the good guy, Jesus made an important point.  The lawyer had just admitted that the way to eternal life included loving your neighbor as yourself.  And in answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus made the neighborly person – that is the one likely to inherit eternal life - turn out to be of the social, religious, and ethnic class that the lawyer doubtless hated – the group that was most looked down on.
How could Jesus have made this point any more clear?  Regardless of their ethnic, religious and cultural beginnings, everyone is precious to God.  And not just precious in the sense that we should help whoever needs help.  Because when we are the helpers that puts us in a “one up” position and we can feel good about ourselves.  But by making the Samaritan the helper Jesus crossed that boundary and made him “one up” in a good way in a society where he had always been ignored, put down, profiled, passed over and discriminated against.

I want to illustrate this point some more from scripture about Jesus, God and the New Testament writers arguing for racial inclusion, but first let’s look at where this understanding leads us today.

Race relations seem to be going backwards today.  There was a time not so very long ago when we could pretend that everything was getting better and that soon race would not be an issue in America.  But today shootings of Black people by police officers seems to be higher than ever.  That is surely in part because the media has their antenna up and every local incident now gets national attention.  But beyond that, there seems to be a real increase.

Part of the increase might can be attributed to an increased reluctance on the part of young Black people to follow the lead of their elders to just go along and do whatever the police officer tells them to do, regardless of the obviously discriminatory, racially based motives of some officers. 

Yes, there are some racist police officers, just as some of the Black people being shot were shot by well-meaning public servants who were merely defending themselves or others.  And yes, the innocent officers are caught up in the hysterics of the crowds, just as the bad guys are included with the innocent victims in the minds of the Black crowds. And by overreaching, by including those who do not deserve to be included, both sides contribute to the misunderstandings between the two groups.

As the rhetoric escalates, what is the role of the church?  First, let’s review the definition of church.  When some think of “the role of the church” they think of an organization, often headquartered far away somewhere.  Or at least they think of the appointed leadership of the local church, who have their meetings and decide the direction and goals the church will pursue.  In either case the role of the church is something we don’t have very much to do with.  It will be decided by someone else, somewhere else.  But we know from scripture that we are the church.  And in our little version of it, we don’t have the luxury of passing the buck to someone else.

So, if we are the church, what is our role in race relations in the Minneapolis/Saint Paul area in the Fall of 2016?

“First of all, do no harm.”  Thoroughly examine your attitudes and your conversations.  “God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him should not perish but should have eternal life.”  And he called on us to love the world too, regardless of race.  Think about your attitudes, particularly as they are reflected by your actions. 

Be alert to what is going on around you.  When you walk into a room, notice who is standing or sitting with whom. Is there a small group of Black people in one corner and the rest of the room is full of white people?  Or is there one Black person by himself, being ignored by the larger group?  Go over and make yourself known.

And in conversation, when someone makes a racist comment, at least don’t make the appearance of agreeing.  Hopefully you will be able to gently suggest an alternative way of looking at the situation.

Show generosity and love to all people wherever you are, and whoever is there.

When I worked for Ramsey County I publically suggested that racism was stronger and deeper here that it was down south. Shortly a few Black employees came up to me individually to acknowledge that what I said was true.  It is subtler here and is sometimes covered in a disguise of being “polite”, but it is in some ways more vicious, while down south it is more in your face.  Keep your antennas up and be ready to come to the defense of anyone, red, brown, yellow, black or white, who is being pushed aside or left out or, worse, harshly treated.  Don’t let that kind of situation pass without taking some kind of a stand in their defense.

You have to know that Black people are very cautious when dealing with White people until they have come to know them.  If we don’t understand the Black people around us, we will not come to understand the churches they attend.

Let’s look at some more ways the Bible deals with the issue.  Take the story of Peter and Cornelius, the Roman Centurion.  Now Peter had been travelling with Jesus for three years.  He knew about how Jesus taught the Samaritan woman at the well – the woman he was not supposed to be talking to - in the place he was not supposed to be.  And how he sometimes healed non-Jewish people.  But when it came down to responding to Cornelius’ invitation, Peter had to have a vision from heaven and a voice from the Spirit to get him to go.  But the Spirit made it clear in this passage that the gospel was for everyone.  What convinced Peter finally was the fact that Cornelius and his whole household received the Spirit just as the apostles had on the day of Pentecost and Peter used that fact to convince his brothers back in Jerusalem.

Jesus, throughout his ministry kept saying, like our song says that “the gospel is for all.”  He kept hinting and outright stating that the Gentiles would be brought in to his kingdom.  In John 10:16 Jesus says, “I have other sheep, not of this flock.”  He goes on to say that in the future there will be one flock and one shepherd.  Some like to think he is talking about aliens from space here, but it probably a reference to non-Jewish believers.

He said, “One flock and one shepherd,” yet even in the churches of Christ, we have a Black flock and one that is largely White with a handful of Black people.  It has been said that Sunday morning at 10:00 is the most segregated hour of the week.  And it goes further.  Our Black brethren have their own Bible college, their own annual national gatherings and their own national youth conference.  They are more comfortable there.  Their culture is not our culture; our culture is not their culture.  Even after living together as free people for 150 years, and after over 50 years of integrated schools, our cultures are still different enough that we are really not comfortable in each other’s settings.

That is a hard one to break.  Who is going to give first?  Even our politics are different.  Black church people tend to vote Democratic these days while White church people tend to vote Republican.  Crossing the Democratic/ Republican boundary may prove to be harder than crossing the barrier of who leads our services and how we sing our songs. 

But are we called on to give up?  There were two churches, both churches of Christ, in Haiti that met side by side.  I discovered this fact one afternoon when I showed up early and alone for a Wednesday night service.  There was a middle school student there that I didn’t know but who knew enough English to carry on a rudimentary conversation.  We ended up walking around the grounds and met a young boy next door – just across the fence.  In conversation with him I discovered that there was a small church meeting there. 

I spoke with some of the leaders of the larger congregation and was told that they had talked to the little church, albeit years ago, and that the little church didn’t want to talk about merger.

Charlene and I visited with the little church a few times, while the larger group was meeting next door.  We had some meetings of representatives of both groups, but the little group was still afraid.  They were mostly scared that they would lose their identity and would forfeit all control.  I gave up.  But by this time an Alabama missionary named Larry Waymire was aware of the situation and he persevered.  Through Larry’s leadership, there is now one church where there were two and the song leader from the little church leads most of the singing at the combined services.  As it turned out, that was one of the major, unspoken, hang ups.  The song leader wanted to be able to continue leading the singing.

I told that story to illustrate that giving up on fellowship should not be one of the possible options in our catalog.

Jesus prayed in the garden that we would all be one, just as he and God are one.  Do you think he was thinking about the difficulty the early church would have with Jewish churches and non-Jewish churches?  Or what about Black churches and White churches in the 21st century?  Would that be a part of it?

And when Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, he got all over them for the way they were treating each other.  In 1 Corinthians 11:17 he said “Your meetings do more harm than good.”  Oof! That hurts.  They were apparently having what we might call a pot luck meal.  Yet each person or family ate only what they brought.  And some of them were bringing huge meals and some were even getting drunk, while others were going away hungry.  Do you see what was going on here?  There were different classes of people in the same church.  And the lower class people were left hungry, in spite of Jesus’ instructions to the contrary.  We have used this passage to figure out which element of the Lord’s supper to pass around first and to be sure we do remember the Lord as we should.  Have we also missed a larger instruction here, that the whole church is despised when we shame those who have less?  I encouraged you to pay attention to what is going on around you.  Apparently the Corinthians had not noticed the effects of what they were doing.

So, what are we to do? 

Paul said this in 1 Corinthians 9:20-22: “To the Jews I became like a Jew to win the Jews… To those not under the law I became as one not under the law so as to win those not having the law… so as to win those not having the law (that’s the Gentiles)… To the weak I became as weak to win the weak… I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” 

Paul learned how to communicate cross-culturally.  Can we not do the same?  He learned how to be like the people he was with.  Remember, our goal is not to eliminate the Black churches.  They are at least as legitimate a response to God as what we say and do here on Sunday morning.  But we do want, are instructed to want them not to feel isolated.  And for us not to feel isolated from their culture. 
I do not have a grand plan. There is no program you can sign up for.  But you can do these three things:
1.  Be determined to do no harm.  Watch your speech and your actions.  Remember you are being watched.
2.  Be aware of what is going on around you and step in to bring peace, harmony and love to every situation, whether it is a brief encounter in Walmart, or a major incident of disrespect shown on a street corner or on public transportation – or in your office.
3.  Seek out a Black person and determine to get to know them.  Familiarity with people of other cultures is the first major step to breaking down barriers.

It may seem that I have made a giant leap – from Black people being shot and killed to “get to know a Black person,” but that is where it has to start. We have to come to know and love each other.  How do you change the world?  One conversation at a time.  Maybe then you and your Black friend can then come up with next steps toward reconciliation of Black people and White people in this nation.

I have much more to say on this topic, and I may ask for another opportunity, but this is enough for one Sunday morning.  We love the Lord.  That is why we are here.  And we love his people, but we are not equally comfortable with all of them.  And they are not equally comfortable with us.  And that contributes to the distance between us.  That is where we need to start.  Thank you for this opportunity and for your attention.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

David May speaks to the remaining students in Roberta.'s home school, on the occasion of the graduate of the first student, Michemanna Blaise, July 4, 2015

Challenge to students in Roberta’s home school program on the occasion of the graduation of Michemanna Blaise, the first graduate.  By David May, BAE, MS, friend of the family.  July 4, 2015.

Today we have come together here to honor Michemanna and her achievement and all her hard work and perseverance.  And I want applaud her for that.  Some said it could not be done.  And today it has been done.  

Now that Michemanna has torn down that wall, the rest of you can join hands and go running through the hole she has made.  It is hard work, and it gets boring day after day.   But I want to encourage all of you to hang in there.  I often ask one of you how many more booklets you need to finish in order to complete the grade you are working on.  So far, none of you have been able to give me an answer.  I can't imagine how you can keep at it like that, never knowing whether you are almost done or have just begun.  I challenge you to find out exactly how many books you need to finish in every subject in order to complete the grade you are working on.  And then work on them diligently.  Make a list and mark them off as you get them done.  Seeing them crossed off the chart will help give you the courage and the hope to keep going.  I will continue to ask you how many books you need to finish, and I will expect you to answer, 3 math, 6 science, 4 social studies.  Or whatever the correct answer is.

You also need to know this.  Roberta (Mom) has given you a tremendous gift.  By providing you with the English language, she has opened many doors for you.  Some of you have already been making money translating for English speakers and listeners.  But more than that you need to continue your education.  A knowledge of science, math and history are essential to getting and keeping a good job.  

And you will need to know your French.  Just because French speakers can seem a little snobbish is no reason for you to ignore it.  Listen to this: You need French to speak intelligently to people who will not otherwise listen to you.  [Repeat]. Just as the Apostle Paul used his Roman citizenship when it worked to his advantage (and didn't mention it when it wasn’t) we need to have the ability to be “all things to all people.” 1 Corinthians 9:19-22.

90% of Haitians speak only creole.  That puts those of you with good English ahead of 9 out of 10 of your peers.  If you can pick up French and Spanish, that will put you in the top 1 or 2 percent.  But you can’t slack off on the math, science and social studies.  If you speak the languages, but don’t know anything intelligent to say, it won't do you any good.

Listen to this, God said, “’I know the plans I have for you.’  This message is from the Lord.  ‘I have good plans for you.  I don't plan to hurt you.  I plan to give you hope and a good future.  Then you will call my name.  You will come to me and pray to me and I will listen to you.’”  Jeremiah 29:11-12.  

But God is not going to impose his plans on you.  He doesn’t work that way.  You have to pick up the books.  Get this: this is not Roberta’s school; this is your school.  It is here for you.  You don't have to do anything with it.  You can ignore it.  And you don't have to do anything with the plans God has for you, you can ignore them.  But you will be disappointing them both, Roberta and God, if you don't take advantage of the gifts they have given you.

There is a song from the movie, “The Sound Of Music” that I dearly love.  That’s a great movie with lots of talented singers, but this song  is my favorite.  It is an older woman giving advice to a young woman just starting out in life.  It goes like this:

Climb every mountain, 
Search high and low, 
Follow every byway, 
Every path you know.

Climb every mountain, 
Ford every stream, 
Follow every rainbow, 
'Till you find your dream.

A dream that will need
All the love you can give, 
Every day of your life 
For as long as you live.

Climb every mountain, 
Ford every stream, 
Follow every rainbow, 
Till you find your dream

You need a dream and you need to dream big.  A detailed road map will do you no good if you don't know where you are going.  Think about it.  Pray about your dream.  Talk to others about it.  Ask God to give you wisdom as you choose your dream and courage as you go after it.  Don't be satisfied with what others are doing – dream bigger.

But the song talked about climbing every mountain, and in Haiti we know that when we get to the top of the mountain, what is on the other side?  Yes, another mountain.  But the Haitian Christian Acapella group, Ujece, sings a song called “There are Mountains beyond the Mountains.”  And in that song they sing that faith is believing what we cannot see, and that God gave us wings and gave us freedom.  We may not know what is on the other side of the mountain, but God knows.  He has gone before us.  

We are like the Israelites reported in Deuteronomy 1.  God said they should not be afraid, that he would go before them and he would defeat their enemies.  Sometimes we are too afraid or too lazy to give it a try.  When the Israelites were not bold enough to follow God into battle, God told them that they would not ever live in the promised land – that their children and grandchildren would, but not them.

But there were other Bible characters who did trust God.  Rich Mullins is one of my favorite musicians.  One of his songs is called “Where You Are.”  It talks about the fact that wherever you are, God is there.  He sings about Daniel in the lion’s den and the three young people who the king had thrown into a fiery furnace.  The song goes that the “fire didn't burn them and lions didn't bite, and the Lord reached down and you can be sure everything turned out right.” Then he goes on to say, “Oh, you meet the Lord in the furnace a long time before you meet him in the air.”  You can meet the Lord over your school books.  Talk to him about it!

Let's don't be like the Israelites who were afraid to go, even though God promised to go before them.  Pick up the books.  Work on them.  And get this.  Help each other.  Don't try to do it by yourself.  If you think you can't do it alone, you may be right.  Work on this as a team.  Set a goal that when you graduate, your friend will be standing beside you.  If someone doesn't understand something, help them out.  And when you come to a hard part, ask for help.  You know this verse: 

Ecclesiastes 4:12
“An enemy might be able to defeat one person, but two people can stand back-to-back to defend each other. And three people are even stronger. They are like a rope that has three parts wrapped together—it is very hard to break.” You are not in this by yourself.  You have your family and your friends and you have God.  And don’t fall for Satan’s lies that it cannot be done.  It has been done.

In closing, I will offer these words both to Michemanna and to the rest of you coming along behind.  

Psalm 121:  "I lift up my eyes to the hills.  Where does my help come from?  My help comes from the Lord,  the Maker of heaven and earth.  He will not let  your foot slip- He who watches over you will not slumber;  indeed, He who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.  The Lord watches over you - the Lord is your shade at your right hand: the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.  The Lord will keep you from all harm - He will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.

Monday, June 29, 2015

How a White, Southern Boy Learned About Racism

I learned about racism in a cafeteria line.  I was at school, in the 10th grade, 14 or 15 years old, depending on whether it was before or after my mid-November birthday.  The year was 1956.

It seems strange that I would learn such a lesson at such a late age, given that I was raised in highly segregated Memphis, Tennessee, but I had not been around people whom I knew were racist and I was not familiar with the concept.  It was not something people talked about.

Memphis Central was the oldest high school in town and was recognized as the college prep school.  When someone “lettered” from Central, the letter they were given was an “H” for High School.  Nearby Memphis Tech was the technical school.  Both were all White.  It didn’t occur to me that things could have been organized differently until the next year, in 1957, when our sister school, Little Rock Central in Little Rock, Arkansas, was desegregated by nine courageous students with a court order and a bevy of U.S Marshals.

The high schools in Memphis were three year schools (Grades 10-12) at the time.  In 1956 I entered Central as a Sophomore.  I was added to the ROTC and joined it’s drill team.  As I remember it, the Reserve Officers Training Corps was mandatory for Sophomore boys, and was voluntary for Juniors and Seniors.  The Drill Team was voluntary for all grades.  Girls were not under consideration for ROTC.  I am not sure what they did instead.

There was this one guy in ROTC who had it all together.  Thankfully, I don’t remember his name, but he was really cool.  Everyone looked up to him, including me.  He was the person we all wanted to grow up to be like. We weren't friends, but somehow on the day in question I ended up behind him in the cafeteria line.  As I remember it, we had to have a nickel at the end of the line. Something to do with milk, I think.  I was juggling my tray, a couple of school books and my nickel, so without thinking I put the nickel between my teeth.  I didn’t think anything about it.

So, this hero guy turned around, saw my nickel in my mouth and got the most horrible look on his face.  I don't believe I would remember the look, though, if we're not for what he said – “Eww!  Take that out of your mouth!  Some N***** may have had that is his mouth!”  My view of the world came apart.  I lost a hero.  He had instantly become a jerk instead.  And I began to understand that some White people did not see all people as equal, in spite of what Lincoln had said in the Gettysburg address.  In a sense, I lost my innocence that day.  I am sure it was to my betterment in the long run to recognize what was really going on around me, but it was really painful.

Friday, June 26, 2015

South Carolina's Confederate Flag

Flags mean different things to different people at different times.

When I was a kid I used my bicycle to get around Memphis. My favorite destinations were my Dad’s barber shop, about two miles away and my grandmother’s apartment in government housing about five miles away.  Though I didn’t know the term, I guess you could have labelled my grandmother a “liberal.”  Besides the multiple pictures of her grandchildren she had around, there were two large pictures on her wall – one of John F. Kennedy, the other of Franklin Roosevelt. She also had a three inch brass medallion of Roosevelt that I still keep.  I learned about her heart, though, not from any discussion of politics, but from watching how she treated the people around her.

When I was older, I rode the city bus to school.  That was the 1950’s.  The Black people rode in the back, the White people in the front.  As a kid, I didn’t know to question the arrangement.  That is just how it was.  But I do know that I frequently sat beside a Black woman on the bus about half way back.  I didn’t learn about racism until the 10th grade, but that is another story.

For the four years of college (1960-1963)  I worked in a (White) Boy Scout camp in North Mississippi.  The first summer at the end of camp the staff were all asked if any of us wanted to work another week or two at the Black camp, not far away.  I was the only volunteer and was the only White person at the camp.  I was the most junior staff member.  I served as a cabin counselor and a scout craft teacher, teaching things like knot tying and map reading.  I fondly remember one little boy who asked to sleep under my bunk because he would feel safer there.

My school was Ole Miss, the University of Mississippi, which in my last year there earned notoriety with the federal imposition of the admission of James Meredith, it's first Black student.  My friends and I cheered his arrival, and the arrival of the U.S. 101st Airborne to ensure his safety.

Yet, I remember taking pride in the confederate flag.  I did not see it as a sign of racism.  The Ole Miss marching band had a copy that was as wide as the football field and once each year they would bring it out. It would completely cover the band on the field while they played Dixie.   To me it represented warm summer evenings, thunder storms, playing in the rain, fried chicken, sweet tea, mashed potatoes.

But as I grew older, I learned that it represented much more to others.  To some it represented “Whites Only” signs, segregated schools, the back of the bus, KKK rally's, and even lynchings. What was beautiful to me was ugly to others.  As my eyes were opened to its broader meanings, it became less beautiful.  To fly it from a state Capitol says to the world, “We don’t care about its ugly side, about its hateful past.  We don't care about the people who are hurt by seeing it there.”

So the purpose of this little note is to add my voice to those who are calling for South Carolina to take it down.  Not because you have to, not because of any law or federal requirement.  South Carolina, take it down because it is the right thing to do.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Disenfranchised! No place for me?

My first vote ever in a national election was for Barry Goldwater.  Goldwater’s platform was that less government was better. I had been a very independent teenager and remained, though in the United States Marine Corps at the time, a very independent young man.  I saw no need for the government to go messing in my life or anyone else’s.  A lot of that is still with me.

About 30 years later one of my sons and I helped get Ross Perot on the Minnesota ballot by getting signatures on a petition.  We worked the front of the local grocery store.  Perot’s platform was about what he called “the crazy aunt in the basement.”  The crazy aunt that no one talked about was the budget deficit and the national debt.  Ross promised to eliminate both of them.

Somewhere between those two, Matt and I went to see Jesse Jackson during his campaign for the Democratic nomination for president.  We stood by the entrance door and got to shake his hand as he came into the auditorium.  We even went to the local Democratic caucus to try to get him on the ballot. 
Jesse, of course is as far from Barry and Ross, ideologically, as you can get, but I wasn’t into ideology as much as I was into fairness.  It was time for a Black person to make an entrance onto the national political scene.

Since then I have tried to reconcile what I see as good about the Republican Party with what I see as good about the Democrats.  My grandmother, “Nina” (nih nah) was a dyed in the wool Democrat.  She had family pictures in her little government owned apartment, but the biggest and most prominent photos were of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F Kennedy.  A non-attending, but contributing, Methodist, her heart was with the poor.  In all-white government housing in the 1950s her house was a regular stop for the Black mail carrier for a glass of ice water at her kitchen table.  And the fatherless children knew they could find an open ear at her house.

Today I have problems with both parties.  My beef with the Democrats is their adamant support for killing off unborn babies.  That’s the same reason I cut off support for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP).  Republicans, on the other hand exude meanness toward the poor, toward strangers, and by extension at least toward people of color.  

Neither can I reconcile calling myself an independent because there is a capitol “I” Independent party that picks up the deal breaker positions from one or both of the other two parties.  

So here I sit, with another national election warming up, and no suitable party to turn to.  Do we have to start our own?