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Thursday, April 30, 2015

I'm a white suburban mom, and I must speak out for justice for Freddie Gray

I've written this blog in my head hundreds of times since Sunday night, since I saw the rioting in Baltimore one week after Freddie Gray's death due to severe spinal injury, after an arrest and ill-fated wagon ride with the Baltimore police.

I wrote a few sentences when I heard a friend from church say: "Did you see that video of the mom beating her son? I loved it! Wasn't that great? This is happening because the youths have gone crazy."

I told him he was wrong, but I didn't tell him the video made me want to cry. A mom myself, I could only imagine her pain. Her desperation. That her son might not die, like so many others who shared his skin color. Why were we cheering the beating of a child, of another young black male? Did we so desire his humiliation?

I wrote a few more sentences when I heard well-meaning Christians lift up prayers for peace in Baltimore - that they couldn't understand people destroying their own community - that everyone just needed to calm down.

I was haunted by a friend's post the first evening of the riots: "An African-American is killed by the police in Baltimore under suspicious circumstances and only the black people on my (Facebook) timeline seem to care. The protests about the aforementioned death turn violent and then everyone has a hot take. Thanks."

Did property damage matter more than a young man's life?

I read and read and read and prayed and prayed and prayed and hugged my son. So much powerful journalism, from WBAL's Deborah Weiner, who interviewed gang members in Baltimore.

Another friend from church said breathlessly that the riots were brought about by gangs, who gathered together with their hoodies pulled tight and colluded to kill police.

"That's not right," the Bloods said on WBAL. They weren't there to be violent. They wanted justice for Freddie Gray. They came together so that unlike Michael Brown in Ferguson, someone might be held accountable for this young black man's death at the hands of the police.

It wasn't as simple as Ferguson: many of Baltimore's leading officials and police officers are themselves black - and yet in a part of town where thousands suffer lead poisoning and a third of the population over 25 doesn't have a high school diploma - this was also about money and class.

It was about a people forgotten, left to go to jail or die.

"They treat us like animals," a member of the Bloods told WBAL's Weiner. "And now we're acting like animals ... I don't agree with it, but I understand it."

The gang members spoke of unity, of their cause of justice lifting them out of the turf wars and causing them to shake hands with rival gangs - not to kill cops, but to protest peacefully, united together as black men who didn't want to die or go to jail.

"They've looked at us this way for so long," another said, and I kept replaying his words.


I was the "they." The white suburban homogeneous masses who pack organic snacks for their children and watch baseball practice and hockey games and worry about vaccinations, not lead poisoning.

The "they" who offer platitudes for peace but neglect the righteous cause of justice.

The "they" who dutifully attend church every Sunday but fail to care about the oppression of our black brothers and sisters across town and across the world.

The "they" who say, "well, we don't really have any black people in our church or in our community, so it just doesn't really affect us. We're here for Jesus, not to talk about race."

I have so many times felt that pull into suburban silence, the right perhaps to post about gay rights but not about race, to say oh that's very sad but not take it any deeper.

I've felt odd, wondering about my place at the table among my activist friends: white and black, who live in neighborhoods like the one where Freddie Gray grew up. What could I possibly have to say, typing on my MacBook, sitting on my Crate and Barrel couch wearing JCrew flats? The pressure is to keep the status quo. Perhaps to say: I'm praying for peace in Baltimore, and sip my latte.


On Monday night as I read about the riots and watched the unfolding news coverage, my Facebook News Feed bombarded with posts both from activists and from folks who hated the rioting but didn't care about Freddie Gray, I thought about saying a prayer for peace.

I started to pray, but God interrupted me, in the words of the prophet Jeremiah:

"They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,
saying 'Peace, peace,' when there is no peace.
They acted shamefully. They committed abomination.
Yet they were not ashamed."

Was I the they?

Who were God's people?


There is no peace in Sandtown-Winchester, Baltimore today. Perhaps it has never known peace, since or before the April riots 47 years ago after Martin Luther King, Jr.'s death.

Baltimore has the highest concentration of heroin users in the country. To be born into Sandtown-Winchester is to be born into a neighborhood where your own home might literally poison you, where 1/3 of homes are abandoned, where murder happens at twice the city's already high average.

Imagine, for a moment, that you are Freddie Gray. You were born two months early and spent the first five months of your life in the hospital, before heading to a home with dangerous levels of lead. There are few trees, parks - your mom can't afford swimming lessons or tee ball or toys - the adults you know either barely get by on assistance or low-paying jobs, or they become a part of the neighborhood's most viable industry: the drug trade.

What do you do? College - heck, high school - is out of the question. You survive. You live. You sell and use a little marijuana, maybe a little heroin - because who wouldn't want to escape? You get arrested and instead of rehab or treatment you go straight to jail, where you learn more about criminality and become more hardened. The Baltimore of the waterfront, Camden Yards, the museums, Johns Hopkins University - it may as well have been Paris. You've never left the West Side.

Now the stories are floating out. Freddie Gray already had a spinal condition. Freddie Gray injured himself. The rioters are thugs. 

It sounds like a dismissal. Who is responsible? Anyone but me. I am not a part of this. I am above it.

"They treat us like animals," said the young man on WBAL. 

Freddie Gray died, and we didn't care.

But why would they destroy that business?


We say that the protesters in Sandtown-Winchester need to be peaceful; we pray for peace on Baltimore's West Side - as if when the rioting stops and all goes back to "normal" it will be peaceful.

We say we don't understand why they would ruin their own neighborhood - as if their neighborhood wasn't already ruined, by disrepair and disregard by the city, by a blind eye, by failing schools and laws that punish blacks and whites differently when it comes to drugs.

We speak as though they are rioting in Central Park, and if they'd just stop rioting, the flowers would bloom and wouldn't it be lovely again in Sandtown- Winchester. 

The riots are a symptom not a cause. The cause is deeper, rooted in classism and racism and legions of young people America forgot, left to languish in houses full of lead and overcrowded, angry jails full of young black men who never got a chance. 

It's not about race in the same way Ferguson was about race and yet race colors everything we say about Freddie Gray and about Baltimore.


Blogger and author Jen Hatmaker became one of the first prominent white Christian voices to speak up about Freddie Gray. The title of her article in the Washington Post called her "a white mom of two black children." She took a brave stand, to pledge her support and alliance to the cause of racial justice.

Unlike Hatmaker, I will never have to have "the talk" with my pale-skinned, redheaded son. I am a Lutheran Pastor of a predominately white congregation on Chicago's North Shore. What have I to say? My son benefits from the same policies that led to Freddie Gray's death.

But as a white mom of a white son in the white suburbs - as a woman who would dare to call myself a disciple of Jesus - I am compelled to speak by the same Bible that resists calling for Peace where there is no Peace ... I am compelled to speak by the same Jesus who said He came so that the oppressed may go free, the captives may be released, and good news might come to the poor.

As long as the struggle for racial justice is only a black and brown struggle, it will be incomplete. 

My struggle is not that of the African-American mother, struggling to save her son from being unjustly accused, imprisoned, or maybe even killed.

But as a follower of Jesus, I must struggle with her. I must lift my voice and say that what is happening in Sandtown-Winchester - what happened to Freddie Gray - what happened to Eric Garner - what happened to Michael Brown - what happens to young black men across the United States each and every day is not right. It is not just. It is not constitutional. It is not what Jesus would have done.

We have been comfortable out here, isolated and at peace in the suburbs, for far too long. We must become uncomfortable, as our brothers and sisters of color have been, for far too long.

May we become bothered and begin to pray - not for peace but for justice - not when riots begin and property is damaged, but every time a young black man dies.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Soccer in Kinshasa: And Why We're So Unhappy

CAPTION: A soccer player practices before a game in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo
Photography by: Federico Scoppa / AFP / Getty Images
See original image here

I saw her pink soccer socks first, so daring they were almost more orange than pink, pulled up high to meet black and hot pink Adidas shorts in a uniform that surely designated skill and supremacy.

She was kicking the ball in the air, juggling and bouncing it on her knees as onlookers, perhaps her family, watched, the younger boys dreaming of a day when they too would have neon socks and a bright nylon uniform, crisp cleats covered in dirt and muscles honed by hours on the pitch.

She was good, that was clear. An athlete and a team member who practiced because she loved it.

Her teammate sat behind her, knees pulled up, waiting next to their soccer bags, toes shoved through thong sandals and those same distinctive socks: socks of belonging and prowess and, somehow, hope.

She looked utterly normal. Unaffected, as though the ball could soar through the air - touching Jupiter and Mars and Neptune and maybe even heaven - and sail back through the air to her and she'd juggle it without a hitch, so confident was she that the ball would return to her and the game would be on.

She smiled as it came down, as though no one had ever once suggested to her that women shouldn't show their knees or their arms, that girls should learn to pick up after their brothers and their fathers and should never smile except secretively, when no one could see their mouths.

She smiled as though she were free - unencumbered, without fear, without pain - as free to run up and down the pitch as she was to run up and down Africa, no one standing in her way but all gazing up at that bright pink uniform that matched the fiery sunset and shouting: Bravo! Bravo! Well done!

Her face seemed better suited for London, or Liverpool, or Barcelona or even Orlando, Houston, San Diego, Denver, Chicago. The audacity of hope we often limit to the affluent West, leaving Africa shadowed and forlorn.

I did a Google Image Search for Democratic Republic of Congo (People), where she lives. Five categories popped up, three of which were devastating: Poverty. Hospital. Child Soldiers.

The Congo has been mired in Civil War since 1996, nearly 20 years, after 31 years of reign by the authoritarian dictator Mobutu. Five and half million lives have been lost, mostly due to disease and malnutrition. Nearly 3 million children have died. One study suggests that 400,000 women are raped each year in the DRC.

Our soccer player lives in the capital city, Kinshasa, home to more than 9 million people and a homicide rate of 112 per 100,000 (as a comparison, Chicago's rate is 18.5). An estimated 20,000 children - many orphaned or abandoned during the war - live on the streets.

Most Americans see photos of the Congo in desperate men and women fleeing violence and despair in their villages. Young women carrying babies on their backs; children with distended bellies; young boys carrying AK-47s over their shoulders, a hardened, desperate look in their eyes.

Yet she smiled. In her hot pink uniform, practicing for her soccer game, she smiled.

I thought about that moment a few hours ago when I angrily honked at the van in front of me on a crowded intersection in downtown Chicago, as he backed himself into me with abandon and the light refused to change.

About when I grimaced to button up my sweater and pull on a stocking cap to 20 mph winds and 40-degree temperatures in the denial of spring.

I thought of my casual hatred, my callous dismissal, my impatience and frustration and #firstworldproblems.

It's funny when we say that, except we laugh that dry laugh - free of mirth - because inside we know these really are our problems, covering over the deeper problems of addiction or depression or illness or broken relationships or loss of meaning or mounting debt or divorce or fear or aging or infertility or jealousy and inside we know even our money and our mortgages and our handbags cannot free us - that we are encumbered by appearances and lies and determined disregard for life itself.

I do not even know her name but she has stayed with me this week since I first saw her photo last Monday. She reminds me of myself, in those moments when I too am unencumbered, casting away fear, and drinking in joy with confidence that glows from within like neon pink and orange soccer socks.

She reminds me of grace - that when we see those photos of devastation or fear or death in the Congo - we never are seeing the whole picture. Down that same street where the death trucks once rumbled, pick-up beds full of little boys with machine guns, today a young girl practices soccer, and she is full of joy.

Our worlds are not so different, except when we make them so.

It is not, as we often imagine it to be, that joy comes in after all the cobwebs of evil, doubt, despair and death are swept away: when the baby is born, when the loans are paid off, when you graduate, when you retire, when you get married, when you go to heaven, even.

Rather joy, as it did for Jesus at Calvary, exists alongside death and despair, at least here on earth. We are so unhappy because we make ourselves wait for joy. We refuse to embrace it, to realize it can happen just as easily at a red light in traffic in windy Chicago as on a beach in Jamaica.

Joy is not like a mountain peak but rather like a hanging apple, waiting to be picked.

Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

Sometimes we hide our joy, we cover up the Kingdom of Heaven, and we become so terribly unhappy, covering up our unhappiness with possessions and addictions.

Sometimes Jesus discovers the Kingdom of Heaven, and puts it in a photo series - in the midst of death and materialism and natural disaster - a young girl is playing soccer in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo.

I did a Google Image Search for Democratic Republic of Congo People. Five categories popped up. Three were devastating: Poverty. Hospital. Child Soldiers.

This time I clicked on the first category. It said: Happy

Thursday, April 2, 2015

9 Questions raised by Hozier's hit song "Take Me to Church" - and why Christians should care

Since last Sunday - Palm Sunday - I've been listening to Hozier's Take Me to Church all Holy Week, an odd sort of spiritual exercise I suppose.

At first it was the hauntingly catchy refrain: Take Me to Church - and after all I would be going to church all week this week, the holiest of weeks in the Christian calendar. Maundy, or Holy, Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil, Easter Sunday.

The refrain was jarring against the artist's desired impact of the song, that in fact no one would be taken to church, that no one would trust the institutional church which has proven so dogmatic, divisive, violent and decidedly un-Christlike in its practice as to become "a fresh poison each week."

Take Me to Church is about sexuality, about dogma, about prayer, about worship, about heaven, hell, life, death, sacrifice, sin, confession, and absolution. About Catholicism and Protestantism and Jesus and atheism and fear and hope and love.

We each see pieces of it. Many American viewers saw Hozier's music video and wrongly assumed he was gay; that the sum of his message was about the church's persecution of homosexuality - and yet while even though Hozier is not gay, he did mean to indict the church for its horrible treatment of the GLBTQ community - but the message of his song goes beyond sexuality.

Hozier is an Irish singer, a man who grew up with the deadly legacy of Catholic-Protestant war, a man whose national church was beset by sexual abuse scandals, and pews full of dogmatic believers who had never read the Bible; Masses in many cases dominated by ritual - women and babies sent away to church-run facilities where the bodies of nearly 800 infants were recently found in an unmarked mass grave. Where a woman died in 2013 because she could not have a life-saving abortion ...

Americans can look on the Irish church with judgment, yet our own church scandals and hypocrisy can fill even more pages ...

As a Pastor looking toward Easter Sunday 2015, I see something else in these lyrics. I see and hear a deep longing. Not only for sex. But a longing for the God who came to earth in Jesus, who died and rose again because of love. 

I asked colleagues and friends about their response to this song, as it dominates airwaves during Holy Week, and no one seemed to want to broach the topic. Too sexual, some said. Another, that "it could not be redeemed." Another, that "people would be too offended."

It's not my job to "redeem" Hozier's song. But his is a poetry that demands Christians consider the deep longings and pain of those on the sidelines of the church. It is a deeply wrought pain and yet also a pain wrenched in spiritual language, a compelling and historical language - words and pain out of which not only death, but life, can come again for disciples of Jesus in 2015.

I don't want to redeem Hozier, to explain his lyrics or attempt to say why he's wrong and church is not dog-like devotion but instead a community of faithful people attempting not to imprison but to set free. Now is not the time or place for a defense or even a confession. Rather it is the time for the beginning of the discussion, for the Church to engage - and not shut out - those pained yet longing masses who have swallowed its edicts but vomited its sin, left sitting on the edges and wondering where Jesus went.

Now is the time for questions raised by Hozier's song - and a chance for the Church to consider and respond.

1) Hozier uses the word "worship" 5x in Take Me to Church, following it 3x with "like a dog." He seems to understand "worship" to be dumb, mindless devotion - as though churchgoers are like dogs who have been taught to play tricks: pray, stand, sit, genuflect, sing, raise your arms.

Is this primarily how people understand "worship?" How is worship described in the Bible? What type of worship did Jesus desire, and was it "like a dog?"

2) The song begins with humor - and laughter - set at odds with a stern church. Whoever Hozier's lover is, her joy is the opposite of what he encountered in religion.

Are churches lacking joy, humor and laughter? Is this what Jesus intended?

3) Among Hozier's most chilling lines: "Every Sunday's getting more bleak ... a fresh poison each week." The lines are chilling because upon self-inspection, perhaps they are true to experience. 

Is there a bleakness in our churches? Are we hastening towards death or towards life? What responsibility do Pastors have in light of bleak churches?

4) One of the principles of Catholicism - and Christianity in general - that Hozier seems to have swallowed is the principle of Original Sin: "I was born sick," he says, "but I love it." 

Do we presume all people to be 'sick?' Have we so thought of our churches as 'hospitals' that we have forgotten their primary role is not healing but maintaining and spreading life, love, hope and faith? Have we emphasized individual depravity at the expense of recognizing and rooting out institutional depravity in our churches? What does it mean if the Church's primary defining characteristic of humanity is "sick?"

5) Hozier says: "Worship in the bedroom ... The only heaven I'll be sent to is when I'm alone with you." Sometimes this seems to be the only lyric Pastors hear when confronting this song!

Are we - the Church - so afraid of talking about sexuality that we neglect the rest of this song because of our prudishness about this line? What does it mean for Hozier to define worship as sex? What role does sexual pleasure play in a Christian life, and how can the Church embrace sexual pleasure and sexual relationship without endorsing promiscuity or unsafe sexual behaviors?

6) Hozier condemns the church, but he keeps vestiges of Jesus in his song: "Command me to be well," he sings, reminiscent of Jesus' healing of a man with leprosy in Matthew 8, and says: "Let me give you my life," reminiscent of Jesus' instructions to his disciples in Luke 9, to take up their cross and follow him, for whoever wants to save their life will lose it, and "those who lose their life for my sake will save it." 

In what ways might Hozier be reaching out to Jesus in this song? As Christians - are we so quick to defend the Church that we miss modern-day prophets who speak the words of Jesus? Does our religiosity get in the way of our mission for the Gospel?

7) Hozier seems to reference Holy Communion midway through the song, speaking first of "sacrifice," and then of "starving faithful." 

In what sense are Christians today spiritually starving? When we offer communion, do we offer it in such a way that it fills - or do we leave people starving for the Good News?

8) Hozier sells, "I'll tell you my sins - so you can sharpen your knife," which seems a reference both to confession and also to priest sexual abuse scandals, where in some cases priests exploited the sanctity of the confessional to abuse children. Knife in this instance could even be a phallic symbol.

Has the Church lost its high ground on confession? How can Christians uphold the importance of confession without looking like hypocrites? In what ways can the Church publicly confess of its own sins and how might this be healing?

9) Before the last chorus, Hozier ends his song with these lines: "I am clean ... Amen. Amen. Amen." Like the leper who meets Jesus, perhaps even in his anger toward the church, Hozier believes there is some advantage to being 'made clean.' 

Can the Church play any role in helping people and institutions be 'made clean'? Why would Hozier end his song with Amen, as though it were a prayer?