Tag Archives: community organizing

We Are Going to Need Each Other

mlkspeech-1On Monday evening, I had the honor of delivering the keynote speech for the DuPage County Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration. It was a great evening that included great music and a dramatic delivery of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Here is the text from which I gave my remarks on Monday.

I don’t have the words fully to express to you how honored I am to have the chance to stand in this pulpit this evening. I am humbled I am to stand in the line of the fine speakers you have had addressing God’s people on the occasion when we honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I sat right there in the front row last year and was deeply moved by the words of Dr. Tracy Malone. I am grateful to my colleague and friend, Pastor Kevin Williams, and the people at Second Baptist Church for extending the invitation and for all the work that has gone into organizing and publicizing this event.

Pastor Williams called me on Friday afternoon to check in and see how things were with me.  “Man, something has changed,” he said. “We are going to need this gathering and each other more than ever.”  Amen to that.

When I accepted this invitation back in September, most of us thought we would be on the cusp of swearing in the first woman president of the United States. It didn’t work out that way. Instead, we are about to inaugurate a new president who campaigned on division, bigotry, and xenophobia. He won the presidency by way of the electoral college, though he lost the popular vote by nearly 3 millions votes. Some people have said that we have taken a step back in progress we had made in addressing the challenges of a racialized society. I wonder if that’s true. I have a hunch that the curtain has been pulled back revealing who we have been all along; but the ugliness is no longer hidden. It’s out there in the open for all of us to see; and it seems to legitimize action that comes of the darkest corners of our collective psyche.

I remember 8 years ago at inauguration time. There was almost this giddy sense of excitement and optimism. I invited our church staff over to our home to watch the inauguration. We ate snacks and toasted with champagne. The theme was hope, and in every place where a crowd gathered you could hear the chants, “Yes, we can.”  What a contrast to “Lock her up.”

Something has shifted. I don’t know many who are feeling that sense of unbridled optimism, even among those who voted for the president elect. Instead it’s like a pall of fear has descended on our whole country. Fear seems to be consistent among those who voted for him and those who didn’t. I’ve spent some time talking with those who voted for our president-elect. I’ve wanted to understand. Among many things I’ve discovered is that even those who are happy with the results of the election are not feeling a great sense of optimism and hope; they don’t feel like we have taken some giant step forward. It’s hard to know for sure what’s going on.

Fear is nothing new. In an age of iphones, social media, and the constant, 24/7 barrage of headlines and sound bites it’s a wonder we ever come out of our homes. The evening news is often little more than an update on what we should be afraid of today. What we eat, what we drive, what’s going on halfway around the world, what’s going on in our own city — the list of things we should be afraid of is never ending.

But the present fear goes beyond that. The campaign language of bigotry has unleashed a storm of bigoted actions. The disregard for truth has left us with an even greater suspicion of the institutions that are so vital to our democracy. We’ve even coined language for it, as if it’s perfectly acceptable and normal — they say we now live in a post-truth culture.

But it’s not normal. And it’s not the kind of country that I want to live in. I do not want to live in a country where truth doesn’t matter. I do not want to live in a country where fear and suspicion and hatred and stridency are the dominant forces that drive our public life.  Do we want communities where we are suspicious of each other? Where we choose to highlight our differences? Where there is no room for the stranger or for the person trying to make a new start, for the family trying to make a life for themselves, to escape the violence of their neighborhood or their home country? Do we want communities where we slice and dice and categorize based on color of skin or which street you live on or which symbols are in your house of worship or where your parents were born?

Dr. King had a vision for something greater and grander. On Christmas Eve, 1967, just a few months before he was assassinated he preached these words at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where he was co-pastor:  This Christmas season finds us a rather bewildered human race. We have neither peace within nor peace without. Everywhere paralyzing fears harrow people by day and haunt them by night. Our world is sick with war; everywhere we turn we see its ominous possibilities. And yet, my friends, the Christmas hope for peace and good will toward all men can no longer be dismissed as a kind of pious dream of some utopian. . .Let me suggest first that if we are to have peace on earth our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means that we must develop a world perspective. No individual can live alone, and as long as we try, the more we are going to have war in this world. . .As nations and individuals, we are interdependent. . .All life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality.

That’s what we want. An interrelated community that reflects how the creator has made us. When God created that first man, God said it is not good for the man to be alone. So, God created the woman; in that moment began the interrelatedness of the human species. We are created to be in community. Not just created in community, but created to care for and love and support one another.

In my religious tradition, Jesus is kind of a big deal. Throughout his ministry, Jesus lifted up the necessity of caring for one another. When he was preaching for a crowd of thousands and saw that they had no lunch, he fed them. When he encountered a blind man, he restored his sight, the deaf man could hear again, the lame man could walk again, the lepers he cleansed. He authorized his followers to do the same thing. He told a story about how some folks had given food to the hungry and a drink of water to the thirsty and clothing to the naked. And when they did that, Jesus told them that they had done it for him. When we serve our neighbor, we are serving God. We see God in the face of our neighbor. Caring for one another in community and relationship is holy work. That’s the beloved community of our dreams.

The challenge always is to turn our dreams into reality. This week, all our attention is on Washington, there being an inauguration and all. Some folks think there’s this big thing called government that’s going to take care of stuff. We elect the right people and the right things will happen. And when we don’t elect the right people, well, bad things happen and that’s government. It’s too big and the forces are too strong and we can’t do anything about it. After all, you can’t fight city hall.

But I refuse to believe in that kind of determinism, that we are subject to inevitable and unassailable forces. We are not victims of the vagaries of history. If there’s anything the legacy of Dr. King has show us it’s that common, ordinary people have the agency to be a force for the good in the communities where they live.

Too many people subscribe to a narrative of the civil rights movement that is simplistic and simply not true. In his book, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, Charles Payne summarizes that popular narrative like this:

Traditionally, relationships between the races in the South were oppressive. Many Southerners were very prejudiced against Blacks. In 1954, the Supreme Court decided this was wrong. Inspired by the court, courageous Americans, Black and white, took protest to the street, in the form of sit-ins, bus boycotts, and Freedom Rides. The nonviolent protest movement, led by the brilliant and eloquent Reverend Martin Luther King, aided by a sympathetic federal government, most notably the Kennedy brothers and a born-again Lyndon Johnson, was able to make America understand racial discrimination as a moral issue. Once Americans understood that discrimination was wrong, they quickly moved to remove racial prejudice and discrimination from American life, as evidenced by the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965. Dr. King was tragically slain in 1968. Fortunately, by that time the country had been changed, changed for the better in some fundamental ways. The movement was a remarkable victory for all Americans. By the 1970s, Southern states where Blacks could not have voted ten years earlier were sending African Americans to Congress.

Simplistic. And wrong. The movement was much more than that. That’s not how it happened. The civil rights movement didn’t start in Washington with the courts or with federal government. It started in the towns and villages of Mississippi and Alabama where people whose names we don’t remember went door to door and did the long, slow, hard work of relating with people and organizing them, folks like Amzi Moore and Mrs. Haner and Mrs. McGhee and Annie Devine. Dozens of college students and a handful of high school students spread across Mississippi and went door to door getting to know people and finding out who would show up for actions and what people were worried about. When big actions were planned, actions like bus boycotts and the March from Selma to Montgomery, leaders and ordinary folk gathered to plan and to train. They role played about what would be said or done in certain situations. They trained people in how to take a beating. A younger version of U. S. Representative John Lewis was present for that training, and maybe that’s what allowed him to take the beating at the hands of the Alabama State Police that left him bleeding on the Edmund Pettis Bridge with a fractured skull. By the way, you can say many things about U. S. Representative John Lewis. But you cannot call him a man of all talk an no action. He is one of the living heroes of our democracy.

The leaders of the civil rights movement understood that when citizens want to get serious about becoming agents for the common good in their own communities it takes a lot of long, slow, persistent, consistent, and mostly unglamorous work. It requires sitting down one on one, talking to people. It requires painstaking research to discover what actions can be taken that will move us towards justice, righteousness, and that peaceable kingdom. It involves knowing the power structures in a community and institutions. It demands planning actions that will elicit a reaction. When the civil rights movement leaders planned marches and put school children in the front of those marches so that they would be the first ones to encounter Bull Connor’s police dogs, that was not an accident. It was planned to elicit a certain reaction. Those young people who went door to door building relationships and training leaders began to coalesce their power. They were organizers. It was long, slow work, but it was respectful work, work that was intentional and the kind of work that was absolutely essential to their success.

Weeks ago, when I was thinking about these remarks, and making some notes, I wrote this note to myself:  “I don’t want to make this speech into a commercial for community organizing.” A few weeks later, I came back to that note and I wrote in the margin, “But maybe I do.” 

What I have experienced in organizing is that we can turn our care for our communities and our neighborhoods and our neighbors into action that is more than symbolic. Symbolic action has its place. This gathering this evening is mostly symbolic. That doesn’t mean it isn’t important. It’s just to recognize the limitations of a symbolic gathering. Hopefully, it will be inspirational, and we will leave here with a sense of hope and a determination to go to work. At its best, this gathering will prod us to action. But this gathering makes no plan for action.

If we were to make a commitment to join together for the sake of working together, that would be something different. If we made a commitment to plan together and to work together and we began organizing ourselves to actually do that, we could expect that we would begin to enact the vision that we have for what our community should be. If we were to make specific determination about the challenges of our community and pull together the power of the people, we would discover that we can do things, we can make a difference. It doesn’t have to be all talk.

What I have experienced in community organizing is the best chance we have to enact God’s vision for what the world should be. I am a leader with DuPage United, an affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation, a national parent organization for organizing work that is being done across the country. We are doing real work. Here in our community, we have taken action to stand in solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters in the face of ramped up Islamophobia. We have pushed the DuPage County sheriff’s Department to provide Crisis Intervention Training for all of the sheriff’s deputies out on the beat. We are in the process of setting up community mental health crisis centers so we keep people who are having a mental health crisis out of the emergency room and out of jail, and most importantly, insure that they get the help they need. We can’t rely on the state to get this work done. The state of Illinois is broken. We’ve got to take things into our own hands, and we can do it. Yes, we can. 

In the next four years we are going to need each other. We are going to need to be in relationship. We are going to need to be organized. We simply must do the hard, slow, painstaking work of meeting with one another, developing a web of relationship in our community, so that I stand with you when you need me, and you stand with me when I need you. It remains to be seen whether the hateful and divisive rhetoric of the campaign will turn into policy and action. In a sense, it doesn’t matter; we’re going to need each other. You need to know that when your health insurance stops covering pre-existing conditions, your neighbors will stand next to you and fight for what’s right. When you are required to register because you are a Muslim, you need to know that there will be Christians who will stand in that line and get registered right along with you. When the school to prison pipeline keeps growing and flourishing, you need to know that you will have neighbors who will take action with you to demand that fairness and equality and justice are blind to skin color. We will need each other more than ever. I believe that’s the work that Dr. King was involved in. I think that’s the work that preserves and continues his legacy. It doesn’t matter who is president of the United States or what the Congress does or doesn’t do. We will join hands and we will work and plans and organize and fight and demand together, until justice flows down like water.

Indulge me with just a few more minutes to speak to those of you here tonight who are members of the white Christian church. If this speech was a letter, this would be the P. S. The white church has a miserable record of silence, complacency, and complicity when it comes to matters of race in this country. Too often, the white church has worked to maintain the structures of racism that have oppressed our fellow citizens of African descent, systems that have denied them the same opportunities that we white people have taken for granted.

I confess that I am late to this work. I confess my own complicity. I confess that it took the shootings at Mother Emmanuel Church to wake me up. The shooter was a member of a church in my denomination. He grew up in a white Lutheran church and attended confirmation class, probably not all that different from the confirmation classes I teach. Yet somehow his connection to church, to my church, could not erase a deep hate based only on race.

Shortly after that shooting,  I went to a colleague who pastors a church with a significant African American membership and asked if we could get members of our congregations together; I said I needed them to help us understand the problems and challenges of racism.  He schooled me; he told me “That’s not our job.” He told me, “You white people need to do your work, begin to understand racism and white privilege and how racialized our society has become.” I was taken aback. I had never heard that before. So, I got on the Facebook page for the clergy of my denomination. And I asked the question there. And I got schooled again, this time not so gently. “You white people need to do your own work. When you have done your work, come back and then we can talk.” So, that’s what I’ve been trying to do. In my congregation, all of our staff have been through anti-racism training. We have sponsored anti-racism training for our members. We are reading; we are having conversations; we are learning. We are waking up.

In the past year, Jim Wallis of Sojourners and Drew G. I. Hart have both written compelling books on racism and the church. While they disagree on certain points, they both believe that we will not make substantial progress in dismantling racism in our country until the white church shows up and starts making it a priority. That is not to say that white liberals are going to bring racial equality to the people of color. That’s a colonial attitude that has been part of the problem. I mean to say that we have our own work to do in recognizing white privilege and doing our work to begin dismantling the structures of racism.

This is my challenge to you, white church. Show up. Do your work. Have the conversations. Read TaNehisi Coates, Between the World and Me, Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns, Nell Ervin Painter, The History of Whiteness, Debby Irving, Waking up White.

We are going to need each other. And if we in the white church are going to be our best selves and really be neighbors, then we simply must do our own work.

No matter the darkness, there is always light. No matter the fear, there is always hope. Together we can do this work.

This is a song that I learned as a child and I will never out grow it. Dr. King said that darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Together we will shine the light into the dark places.

(And we sang:)This little light of mine.I’m going to let it shine. . .

Ev’ry where I go, I’m going to let it shine. . .

Make No Big Plans

acornThis morning’s Chicago Tribune included an editorial cartoon by Michael P. Ramirez depicting a herd of elephants and donkeys heading off a cliff. A pair of small rodents sits on the edge of the cliff; one of them opines, “They’re giving us lemmings a bad name.”

There does seem to be a sense of doom and  inevitability. The train is headed for the end of the line and the brakes aren’t working. The engine on the airplane has gone out and we’re headed for a crash landing.

With so much wrong, societal problems that appear intractable, and institutions that people have relied on for so long falling apart, I’m hearing a sense of resignation. What is, is.  What will be will be. Deal with it.

Resignation assumes that we are victims of forces around us; we can’t do anything about them.  But I don’t believe in fatalism; I am not a victim of forces that I can’t do anything about. I don’t believe there is ever nothing we can do. We are human beings capable of action. We have agency. We can take responsibility.

So, what to do in the face of big problems? Alas, there’s the rub.  Big problems can only be solved by big plans, or so we think. When the big problems and the big plans are beyond the reach of mere mortals, hope becomes dim.

Daniel Burnham, the late 19th century and early 20th century architect who had an enormous impact on the development of downtown Chicago, famously said, “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably will not themselves be realized.”

I say to hell with big plans.  Big plans are the nemesis of making progress on the hard things.

Jesus apparently was fine with little plans. Maybe little plans as small as a mustard seed; he used the tiny seed as an image for the kingdom of heaven.  Planted in small, unnoticed ways, it grows imperceptibly and becomes a tree large enough to provide a place for birds to build their nests.

I can speak up for my Muslim neighbors and friends.  I can seek dialogue with people who hold views that are different than mine. I can teach my kids to be kind. I can treat the people I work with dignity and respect. I can invite a local politician or the police chief or the elementary school superintendent  for coffee and find out what’s on their mind and let them know what’s on mine. I can invite a few neighbors over for dinner to discover who it is I’ve been saying hello to all these years. I can put my screens away occasionally and interact with people face to face, eye to eye, real voice to real voice. And I can find people who care about the things I care about and figure out together how to make some small plans.

What will you do? Who will you talk to? What action will you take?

When ordinary people make small plans that become effective action then big things are bound happen.

A Modern Pentecost

imageAt least once a year when I have to preach on the great story of Pentecost, I sit at my desk wondering what that must have sounded like. The story in the Christian scriptures tells how the followers of Jesus were stuck indoors waiting for instructions about what to do next after Jesus had returned to the Father. The writer of Luke-Acts describes the sound of a rushing wind enveloping the room. Later in the day, those same Jesus-followers took it to the streets and there began telling the story of Jesus to the visitors who had made pilgrimage to Jerusalem. I try to imagine the buzz on those Jerusalem byways as people from all over the world heard the proclamation in their own languages.

I caught a glimpse of the Pentecost phenomena on Sunday afternoon at the “Know Your Muslim Neighbor” Solidarity Event on Sunday afternoon. The event was sponsored by DuPage United, our local Industrial Areas Foundation community organizing affiliate. 850 people showed up. Yeah, I know. Amazing, right?

The numbers were impressive. But it’s not the raw number that is the important thing here. It’s what the numbers stand for and what happened. That many people showed up on a Sunday afternoon when they didn’t really know what was going to happen. What is a “Solidarity Event” anyway?

I have a hunch why our Muslim neighbors showed up. There is some measure of fear in the Muslim community. And with good reason. Too much of the hate-filled rhetoric coming from public figures is directed at them. They hear the language and see they the footage on television. Two days before our event, three Muslim teenagers were shot execution-style in Fort Wayne, Indiana. More importantly, they experience it in their daily life. One woman told a story of making phone calls for the PTA at her child’s school. The mom on the other end of the line asked her where she came from – she was born in America, by the way – and then proceeded to tell her that she didn’t belong here; she should go home. A Pew research poll a few years ago indicated that nearly 60% of Americans believe that Islam and American values are at odds. Yet 60% also admit to never having met a Muslim. My experience – at the event on Sunday also demonstrated – is that Muslims are eager to make connections and to dispel the stereotypes. The best way I can think of to do that is one person at a time.

But why would the Christians and Jews show up? I’m not exactly sure. But when I have talked with a few members of my congregation, they came because they don’t like what they see. The division and rancor in the national conversation disturbs tem. They don’t know what to do but they want to do something. So they showed up. And without exception, they have reported what a meaningful experience it was.

This event was designed and planned for the primary purpose of making connections across the communities, communities diverse in religion and culture, but communities that share so much in common.  We believed that if we could get people into the same room talking to each other, we could begin to dispel the stereotypes. We also wanted to make a public statement – directed especially at public officials and the media – that we will not tolerate hate-filled, prejudice-laced rhetoric.

The program wasn’t fancy. There were some introductory remarks, and a series of three speakers, each of whom spoke for 5 minutes. But the speakers weren’t the central focus. Between each of the speeches, the participants were invited to turn to their neighbor and hold conversation on a particular question. They questions were not particularly deep; they were not controversial. They were simply doorways into a one on one, human contact that is the fundamental building block of human society. Judging by the response of the folks on Sunday afternoon, it’s something that people are craving, even though the contact happened to be with perfect strangers.

In the last few days, I keep hearing powerful testimony of what happened in the conversations. Muslims told their stories of experiencing harassment and prejudice; non-Muslims learned and sometimes were shocked to hear that in this country where we supposedly honor the value of religious freedom, our fellow citizens do not feel free to practice their religion. A clergy colleague wrote me that she and a young Muslim woman sitting next to her realized at one point that they were both crying. The tears were partly sadness at the way things are, but they were also tears of hope at what might be, hope embodied by 850 people sitting together making conversation.

When small seemingly insignificant conversations become powerful moments for people, it says something. It’s worth noticing. It’s work that is fundamental to repairing the fabric of our society. We have a fundamental need to get beyond the isolation and division. We need a vision of what e pluribus unum might look like in the 21st century. That vision will not be enacted by politicians passing legislation; it won’t be happen by activists marching in public places. It will happen as we engage the long, slow, sometimes difficult, and ultimately rewarding and healing work of relating person to person, congregation to congregation. It will happen as we build those relationships, build our power, and then begin to take action.

In both the ancient Hebrew and ancient Greek language, the words nephesh and pneuma can be translated variously: Spirit, wind, breath. Gathering in that room on Sunday afternoon, as folks used their breath to engage in conversation, it sounded like the rush of a mighty wind. And I’m convinced it was the voice of the Spirit.

Today, I Stand with My Muslim Neighbors

groundbreakingToday, I stand with my Muslim neighbors. As a pastoral leader in the Christian tradition and of a Christian congregation, as a leader in my community, I speak out publicly that I stand with my Muslim neighbors and colleagues.

Over the weekend, I’ve seen and read too many stories of Muslims being persecuted, being frightened to go out for fear of harassment, and of church and civic leaders making discriminatory statements about all Muslims on the basis of the horrible actions of radicalized people.

I should note as an aside, that though the perpetrator in the Charleston Mother Emmanuel Church shootings last June was a member of an ELCA Lutheran Church (the denomination in which I serve as a pastor) never once was I called on to defend my faith over against that killing or to distance myself from the shooter. It grieves me to know that my Muslim neighbors are now called on to do that thing they should not have to do.

Over the past 10 years in our broad-based community organizing work (DuPage United) here in DuPage County, Illinois, Muslim mosques and associations and people associated with those institutions have been valued colleagues and partners in our work. I have gotten to know many of my Muslim neighbors; they are people of peace who are concerned with justice and who are loyal fellow citizens of the United States.

We have worked together on concrete issues that matter to our community: government accountability, workforce development, mental health, accountability in our local community college administration, and affordable housing, to name a few.

On several occasions, a Muslim brother or sister has spoken in our congregation, either in worship or in our adult faith formation. They have participated reverently and appropriately in our worship, demonstrating a respectful curiosity for what we believe and how we practice our faith. When they spoke to our adult group, my colleague Ahmed did not avoid the difficult questions some of our folks asked about the treatment of women in Islam, the notion of jihad, and questions about Islam as a religion of peace.

In 2005 when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, we launched a project to fill a semi-truck trailer with food and other supplies needed by those displaced because of the hurricane. While we received a consistent trickle of support from local Christian congregations, it was the Muslim girls’ school in Lombard who appeared one afternoon with a rented van and a couple of minivans filled to the brim with supplies they had collected from their institutions.

In late 2011 and early 2012, MECCA, an association of Muslims, purchased land and made plans to build a mosque and community center in the southwest corner of our county. In response, the County Planning and Zoning Commission began proposing a number of restrictions that would have prevented the construction from going forward. Several Christian congregations — partners in DuPage United — appeared before county meetings on behalf of MECCA. In the end, the restrictions were not enacted, permits were granted, and construction was able to begin. As a sign of their gratitude, they asked me to be the speaker for their groundbreaking ceremonies. It would have made so much sense to ask one of their own to speak and for me to attend as an honored guest.  Yet, they asked me to speak. That was an extraordinarily generous gesture.

I could go on with story after story of my own life and ministry being enriched by the gift and blessing of being able to work together with Muslim partners. The relationships I have formed have been meaningful and mutual. I am a better person and pastor for having had the opportunity to work with them.

I am saddened, disappointed, and angry that these fellow American citizens are experiencing persecution because of misunderstanding of Islam and the fear of the other. I cannot control what others do or say. But I can make sure that my voice of support, admiration, and respect is heard in the public square.

Today — and every day — I stand with my Muslim brothers and sisters.

When the Newtown, Connecticut Police Chief Stepped to the Podium. . .

donotstandidlyby. . .the tears began running down my face. It wasn’t so much what he said. It was seeing in flesh and blood a man who had seen far more of the consequences of senseless violence than anyone should ever have to see; it was seeing in the lines on his face the toll that such a tragedy had taken. And it was the deep sadness that the senseless loss of life from gun violence goes on because we have not decided yet that enough is enough.

On Monday, I was at McCormick Place, the huge convention center complex in downtown Chicago, for a rally and press conference sponsored by Metro IAF, the midwest/east coast version of the community organizing affiliate that our congregation works with. For a couple of years now, Metro IAF has been working on a broad strategy directed at gun safety, Do Not Stand Idly By.

The rally was timed to coincide with the 2015 conference and exhibition of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. About 200 citizens mostly from Chicago and surrounding suburbs stood at the edge of the street stood across the street from the hall where the conference was being held. Inside the exhibition hall, major firearm manufacturers were displaying their wares, competing against one another for more sales to the government entities around the world that purchase these essential tools for law enforcement.

The IAF’s strategy is to leverage the buying power of government agencies at every level to force gun manufacturers to begin manufacturing their guns with smart technology that would allow only the owner of the gun to fire the gun. The technology is already available. One approach uses fingerprint recognition technology, similar to the security apparatus on the current generation of iPhones. Another approach requires a bracelet to be worn on the shooting hand before the gun will fire. (In addition to the website linked above, you can read more about the strategy in this Washington Post article.)

We heard personal stories that illustrate why the need for action is so urgent. DiAne Boese of Oak Park told of how as 4 year old child, she was a gunshot victim. She was playing in her yard with the child from next door who had found a gun at home and thought it was a toy. He pointed it at her head and pulled the trigger. The gun was loaded and went off, sending a bullet through her head. She spent most of her childhood enduring a series of surgeries and treatments attempting to repair that damage from that tragic accident.

A pastor from Bridgeport, Connecticut told of a promising 15 year old member of his congregation who got caught in the cross-fire of a gang-related shooting. “I have buried too many young people who have died before they had a chance to live,” he said.

Every day 150 Americans are shot and 83 (including eight children) are killed by firearms. Every year an average of 30,000 Americans die from firearms. A 2009 study at the Yale School of Medicine showed that over 7,000 children are hospitalized or killed due to gun violence every year. An additional 3,000 children die from gun injuries before making it to the hospital, bringing the total number of injured or killed adolescents to 10,000 each year. Why are we ready to accept such carnage? Why do we think it’s acceptable?

Attending the rally were police chiefs from Palatine, Illinois, Bridgeport, Connecticut, and Newtown, a few of the dozens of chiefs of police around the country who are endorsing this effort. When Chief Kehoe from Newtown spoke, his heartfelt plea was to take action. He is supporting this approach that provides a way forward that ought to find support across the political spectrum. It is neither pro- nor anti-gun. It’s a reasonable approach to gun safety and reducing the number of tragic shooting deaths. “With people like you involved and working, we can do this,” Kehoe said.

Decades ago, as a society we decided that too many people were dying in automobile accidents; we forced auto manufacturers to install seatbelts. Then we made laws that made it a ticketable offense not to wear a seatbelt. When that wasn’t enough, we forced auto manufacturers to install lifesaving air bags. Auto deaths have been reduced dramatically.  When we decided too many children were dying accidentally in baby cribs (a tiny fraction of the number of children killed by guns), we forced the manufacturers of baby furniture to change their design to reduce the chance that a baby would get stuck and die in the crib. The list goes on and on and on of instances in which the federal government has forced manufacturers of a wide spectrum of consumer goods to make changes that make those products safer.

I’m not so naive as to draw a straight line of causation between easy access to guns and the epidemic of gun violence in this country. That epidemic has a tangled and complicated web of causation. Still, it’s reasonable to hold that easy access to guns is part of the equation and something that we can easily do something about, if only we muster the communal will to do so. And it’s about time.

When Friendship Is Not the Thing

friends.jpegI suppose I’m not surprised that so much of the blogosphere and Facebook chatter about race has died down. I suspect it’s symptomatic of our short attention span. If it’s not in the news, then there’s no need to think about it anymore.

Except that there is. In the lively social media conversation a couple of months ago, there were several threads to the conversation that had to do with the notion that most white people don’t have any black friends. The implication seemed to be that white people should go out and make some friends who are black.

While I’m certainly not opposed to friendship, I think the notion is a red herring.

While my experience doesn’t need to be emblematic of anyone else’s, it’s the only experience I can speak of with any authority. In the first place, I don’t have many friends period. White or black. I am not the kind of person who cultivates a large number of social friends. I don’t go to a lot of parties. My social contacts are to a great extent the people of my congregation, and while I am friendly with them, and have a good relationship with many of them, they are not my friends.

I am also in a vocation where nurturing friendships is not particularly easy. I’m a pastor. My schedule doesn’t match the schedule of much of the world around me. I mostly work weekends, and when I do have some time on Saturday, it’s spent catching up on domestic chores that I’ve ignored all week. I don’t like to go out on Saturday night because I’m preoccupied with Sunday morning.  My day off is Friday, when most folks are working. And I often end up working two or three evenings a week. That’s why over the years, the few friendships that I have cultivated have been mostly other clergy. Our schedules mesh. It’s easy for us to find time for coffee in the middle of the morning or the afternoon or even an occasion for a late afternoon beer before heading home for dinner and another evening meeting.

Having said all that, though, I think friendship across racial lines is not necessarily what’s needed. What’s needed is public relationships across racial lines and all the other lines that tend to divide us: religious, political, socio-economic, and on and on. What we need, what I need, what the world needs is people who are willing to sit down and get to know what the Other cares about, is passionate about, lies awake at night worrying about. If racism is going to be addressed in any meaningful way in our communities, then we have to do the relational work that will make a difference in the long run.

I don’t know what it’s like to live as a black man in the western suburbs of Chicago. How could I? So, I also don’t know what’s needed or what actions on my part or on the part of the faith community I serve might be helpful. So, rather than take a stab in the dark or engage in action that is merely symbolic, I reach out.

I sit down and talk about the issues of racism and interactions with police and what it’s like to live as a person of color out here. I sit down as a pastor with members of my congregation who are African-American or Hispanic or refugee or gay or poor or any of the other boundaries that separate me from them. I reach out to my clergy colleagues across the boundaries of what makes us different. I sit down across the coffee shop table from them with an inherent curiosity and ask questions and listen. I ask them who else I should be talking to. And I encourage and challenge the members of my congregation to do the same thing.

When we do that enough times, not only are we building meaningful relationships, we discover that certain themes begin to emerge. Now we are positioned for meaningful action that just might get something done instead of the often symbolic flash in the pan action that gets some attention and then dies as if nothing at all had happened.

When enough of those conversations happen, when enough people begin to listen to one another across the lines that divide us, when we can agree on mutual action that will begin to lift some of the burdens that our brothers and sisters carry simply by virtue of the color of their skin, then we will begin to make meaningful progress towards communities where what happened to Michael Brown and Eric Garner will not be repeated over and over again.

I’m not whistling in the wind here. This is not theoretical. This is work that I do and that the community I serve does and it’s work that is bearing fruit. But it’s slow, plodding, time-consuming work. It’s work that requires a persistent, determined, and disciplined effort. And it seems like it’s not the kind of work that very many people have the appetite for in an instant gratification culture. It’s the kind of work that will draw no TV cameras, will elicit no requests for comments for a newspaper article, nor probably is it the kind of work that one can ever post to Facebook or tweet about.

But it may be the only kind of work that will really make a difference.