Crazy Making: The Short Road from Boston to Ferguson

Crispus AttucksOctober 22, 2014 is the 19th Annual National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation.  This day has received renewed interest in light of the events at Ferguson, Missouri this year and because we are finally hearing the real stories of police brutality against people of color. Men, women and children of color as well as transgender men and women, people with physical and mental disabilities  who have suffered at the hands of those who are being paid to serve and protect are finally being seen and heard.  Sadly however, too many of their voices are being heard only after they have been silenced.  We are all called to action to fight the institutionalized oppression by militarized police that has been at work much too long in the United States.

On October 18, I attended the 59th Annual Freedom Fund Dinner of the San Diego Chapter of the NAACP and I was particularly grateful for the keynote speaker, Professor Theodore M. Shaw from the University of North Carolina School of Law. During this distinguished and much lauded professor’s address, he used an expression that immediately made me perk up: “Crazy Making.” This is a common urban slang expression that I also often use to describe the effect of insane, repetitive behavior, and I’m sure I got the expression from a sitcom or at least from pop culture somewhere. He said it several times to great effect speaking about the state of black people in America: the continued objectification and persecution felt by blacks in America, particularly black men is “crazy making”; if you come from a legacy of violence and lack of access, poverty and starvation, both physical and intellectual, it is “crazy making”; to be viewed as a monster by a culture…”crazy making.” He’s right; it’s a wonder more of us aren’t truly insane.

The events this summer in Ferguson, Missouri have become another touchstone in what seems to be an ongoing pattern of police targeting black youths with excessive gun violence. There are those who have already written off the court case, believing that the accused murderer Darren Wilson will be acquitted. But the sad truth is, not only is this not new, but there is an eerie precedent going back nearly 250 years that makes it clear the degree to which this situation is status quo in America. In 1770, John Adams, future President of the United States, stood in court and defended 6 British soldiers who had fired upon and killed a number of unarmed men in what would be called the Boston Massacre. Most specifically, one of the casualties was a black runaway slave by the name of Crispus Attucks. We often get the picture of the men killed in the massacre (including Samuel Gray, James Caldwell and ultimately Samuel Maverick and Patrick Carr) as being heroes of the early American Revolution. In addition, we also think of John Adams as a man who dedicated his life and career to “liberty.” But the historical data comes across a bit differently. Adams’ words from the original court documents describing the crowd that attacked the soldiers say a great deal about his opinion of the accused:

“We have been entertained with a great variety of phrases, to avoid calling this sort of people a mob.-Some call them shavers, some call them genius’s. -The plain English is gentlemen, most probably a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and molattoes, Irish teagues and out landish jack tarrs.-And why we should scruple to call such a set of people a mob, I can’t conceive, unless the name is too respectable for them: The sun is not about to stand still or go out, nor the rivers to dry up because there was a mob in Boston on the 5th of March that attacked a party of soldiers”[1]

Further on in the court documents we also find this assessment of Attucks (who was classed as ‘mulatto’) by Adams:

“[…]this reinforcement coming down under the command of a stout Molatto fellow, whose very looks, was enough to terrify any person, what had not the soldiers then to fear? He had hardiness enough to fall in upon them, and with one hand took hold of a bayonet, and with the other knocked the man down: This was the behaviour of Attucks;-to whose mad behaviour, in all probability, the dreadful carnage of that night, is chiefly to be ascribed.”[2] 

Crispus Attucks had escaped from his enslaver some 20 years previous and had endured not only the persecution of being black in a slave economy, but the continued fear of being caught as a fugitive. His post slavery career had been spent largely at sea where, again, he was always subject to oppression and threat of recapture. By the night he was killed, Attucks had banded with a group of other seamen, and by dint of their trade they had an already contentious relationship with the British Army. But as an escaped slave, Attucks was particularly at risk of being pressed into service in the army at any time against his will. Simply put, by any standard, the life that Crispus Attucks had led to this point would have been “crazy making.”

Michael Brown was killed on August 9, 2014 for walking in the street. But video footage shows him having a confrontation with a convenience store clerk over cigars just prior to his murder. Darren Wilson’s traffic stop was unrelated to this at the time alleged theft, but certainly Michael Brown was carrying the awareness of his  previous interaction with the store clerk with him. The court will now try to paint Brown as someone who was dangerous and “worth” killing. Brown was headed to college in a few days and by all reasonable character accounts, had a clear sense of wanting and knowing how to manifest a productive future. So why have a confrontation with a store clerk over cigars (note: video footage shows he actually paid for them)? Why put up even a slight fight against an armed and clearly confrontational officer? The continued objectification and persecution felt by blacks in America, particularly black men…the legacy of violence and lack of access, poverty and starvation, both physical and intellectual…being viewed as a monster by a culture…it is all “crazy making.”

I won’t ever claim that black men are not to be held accountable for their actions. Nor do I intend to make the point that all black men are crazy or that we all steal. But to think that black men have had a 200+ year history of being public targets for various kinds of police brutality in the United States is astonishing. Both Crispus Attucks and Michael Brown are regarded as martyrs, but for very different reasons. We are taught to look at Crispus Attucks through the rosy view of his contribution to the American Revolutionary War. Clearly by John Adams account, there were those who would prefer to have seen him as the 18th century equivalent of a “thug” just as some would like to paint Michael Brown the same way today. Part of me has to believe that Crispus Attucks’ actions actually had little or nothing to do with feeling a patriotic kinship with a nation and people who would enslave him, make him a 20 year fugitive and keep his life in constant threat. I believe that Crispus Attucks’ actions had more in common with Michael Brown in that moment when he had the altercation in the convenience store. These are both acts of social disobedience that say to a hostile American culture, “I am not a slave in body or in spirit! I am here! I am real!  I am a human being!” These are both men demanding a place in their world and willing to do something crazy as a way to show it.  But in the end, the only truly crazy ones are us if we don’t use their legacies to end the real “crazy making” policies, systems and psychologies that plague people of color and primarily black men in this country.

End racialized police brutality NOW!

National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality, October 22, 2014 – #O22

[1] http://www.crispusattucksmuseum.org/

[2] Ibid.

Personal Infrastructure: Building the Post Ferguson Beloved Community

Barney RubbleOften when the expression “Personal Infrastructure” is used, it is in reference to either technology or specific systems and ways of being in the business world. But I believe there is a much more important way to apply this concept. What about those systems that we use to choose friends or create partnerships? All of these kinds of interactions are based on ways that we have learned to be in the world and together they create a framework, an infrastructure that supports us. Simply put, real Personal Infrastructure is the set of systems we use to support the decisions we make that determine how we live in community.

This week, I read my friend Kenny Wiley’s blog post on Unitarian Universalists in the aftermath of Ferguson and in the run up to the 50th Anniversary of Selma, Alabama. Like me, he continues to struggle with the ignorance and “Barney Rubble” eyes of blank though well meaning confusion that he is met with as a black man in a predominantly white denomination. Like me, he feels both Ferguson and Selma in ways that cannot be understood unless you are wearing brown skin.  And like me, he is left wanting at Unitarian Universalism’s response to today’s race wars.  The questions and the isolation make one genuinely wonder why pursue this faith at all; yet we persevere. His post is very timely for me in that I am working on a longer piece about race in Unitarian Universalism where I raise some very challenging questions about “why” the racial divide continues to persist in a faith tradition that touts its ability to be multi-cultural and welcoming.

This awareness (persistent Unitarian Universalist whiteness) made me think that there is an underlying element of Personal Infrastructure that may be worth exploring more deeply. Before diving in here, I want to be clear that when I speak of Personal Infrastructure, I do not intend to place a value judgment on that structure.  Instead, the intent is to simply and objectively highlight the underlying structures that people create that result in certain outcomes. This is different than in technology and business where, when Personal Infrastructure is raised, there is always a “good” or a “better”, or an “effective and ineffective”…or worse a “failure.” The attempt here is more arithmetic than algebraic…more empirical than it is philosophical. I am looking at the “x + y = z” not the “x if/then y = z2” of how we relate to one another.

Personal Infrastructure as a way to look at community came to me when reflecting on some of the planning issues facing San Diego, my current city. In the world of public policy and urban planning, infrastructure will most often refer to sidewalks, utilities, roads, and sometimes schools and even healthcare. These are the tangible systems that are in place that allow people to live in a modern Western society. I thought then, what about applying this same concept to how people are in social community with one another. What are the “roads” and “utilities” that must be in place for people to be able to thrive and relate to one another and share values and a way of life together?  Even more pointedly for my ministry, what are the systems in place that result in the continued racial segregation within Unitarian Universalism?

Unitarian Universalists

Unitarian Universalist churches are predominantly white. They desperately explore ways to find deeper connection with people of color and ways to attract more people of color, but they continue to miss the mark. Despite some prominent people of color being present in the broader movement and despite Unitarian Universalist presence in several political discourses that center around people of color, on Sunday morning, Unitarian Universalist churches are almost entirely white. Here is where we can look at the question of Personal Infrastructure. The systems in place that bring people into the church relate to location and community. More specifically, these are the same systems whereby members bring people to church. The personal infrastructure of most Unitarian Universalist congregants includes a social circle that is entirely white on an immediate level, between family and intimate friends.  Significantly, this is also true for people of color who are already within Unitarian Universalist congregations (a point also brought up by Kenny.)  Again, without value judgment, it is clear that people come to church because of people they know or people they want to know. If no one in the church knows any people of color, people of color will not spontaneously appear.  Therefore, whiteness as a Personal Infrastructure keeps Unitarian Universalist churches white.

Cautionary Tale

The danger here would be slipping into value judgments and by default simply labeling the situation outlined above as “racist.” But it is not. Again, Personal Infrastructure is not about motivation or even intention, it is about observation and about the system. It is the same with gun violence.  A gun is a system and therefore a gun never killed anyone; people use guns to kill. The system (congregants bringing people they know into the church) is not racist, but the system can be used for racially biased outcomes. The subjective choice to be surrounded socially by one demographic is based entirely on social location and it is not a system in itself. So the solution exists in using the system differently or creating a new one. By understanding this system, the effort can then be applied to where it will make the most difference.  For instance, using the system differently could look like asking Unitarian Universalists to explore who they are in relationship with and how that translates into congregational diversity. Creating a new system could mean intentionally planting churches in communities of color with local residents after doing outreach to community leaders.  No matter what, the system that must change is in the Personal Infrastructure of existing Unitarian Universalists.

By looking at real Personal Infrastructure, I believe we can take an objective view of highly problematic systems and come up with realistic and well thought out solutions. When I was a personal trainer, I often said that it is crucial to let go of punishment narratives and negative influences in order to make real progress.  Constantly dwelling on white guilt and slapping down oppressive behaviors will not fix Unitarian Universalism’s race problem.  Instead, because the goal is objective and non judgmental, the exploration of Personal Infrastructure has the potential to dive deeper into actual problem solving. For instance, by looking at a congregation and assessing the level of actual engagement of congregants with people of color outside of the church, one can create a plan and awareness. One can then ask congregants to look for times when they may have missed opportunities to develop relationships with people of color, then and only then should they ask “why?” Is this a cultural choice that has been passed on or learned? Is this motivated by fear or discomfort or some other way of being in the world? Looking at Personal Infrastructure paves the way toward asking these tougher questions.

Infrastructure supports the way we live in our society. Knowing our real Personal Infrastructure supports the way we choose to live both in our society and within ourselves.  And if Unitarian Universalists are willing to really explore their Personal Infrastructure as it relates to race, it could potentially change the dialogue within the denomination and give us a voice outside of the denomination when it is most needed.

What community will you build on your Personal Infrastructure?

Check it out!: Kenny Wiley – Who Are My People

The Chicken or the Cart?

The sermon below was delivered to the First Unitarian Universalist Church of the South Bay in San Diego, California on October 12, 2014.  The sermon is based on the monthly theme of “chaos.”

The title of this sermon actually comes from my experience of receiving text messages from people that are either illogical or partial…because they were written when someone was distracted.  It is a combination of the two expressions “Which came first the chicken or the egg” and “Putting the cart before the horse.”  As a culture, we are in a state of perpetual multi-tasking.

But what does multi-tasking say about us spiritually?  Does our tendency toward wanting to have multiple focuses have any important lessons for us as we try to embrace a truly multi-cultural spiritual world?

Also, check out this article in Bloomberg Business week…surprisingly spiritual for a business journal! (Continuous Partial Attention – Not the Same as Multi-Tasking) I think Linda Stone gets at the core of where I’m going.

Peace,

Adam

The Only Fight

brown-cancer-ribbon

The symbol to the left is normally used to denote support for cancer awareness.  I’ve turned it upside down as a symbol of my commitment to end the cancer of racism.  Upside down, its shape is also a reminder that the United States never passed a law against lynching…one of the most explicit and brutal acts of institutional racism in the history of this nation (although the government “apologized” in 2005.)  One of my earliest memories is the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot.  46 years later, black men are still being gunned down out of racially motivated hatred.  Where is my government?  Where is my church?  Where are my people?  

I offer the following plea to all people during what sometimes feels like a perpetual night of horror that has lasted my entire life.  If you agree, please share this image and these words:

WE believe in a truly United States…

We demand an immediate and more engaged national response to racism.  We insist on aggressive action from our leadership (government, faith, social, etc.) and we encourage hands on action and vocal responses to injustice that demonstrate the power and will of THE PEOPLE to dismantle institutionalized racism in America once and for all. 

Racism in the United States is a global embarrassment and demands our priority attention.  The question of race is part of every cultural, ethical and spiritual aspect of life in this country.  As a result, American racism is a sickness that lies at the root of economic inequity, environmental abuse, health disparity, immigration justice, gender, sexuality and gender identity marginalization, political and social disenfranchisement as well as countless other gross injustices, past and present.

We will no longer tolerate the specific issue of racism being sidelined.  THE PEOPLE have the power to turn American racism into history.  We demand change TODAY. 

- A.D.

Is This the Place?

San Diego Temple

San Diego California Temple

This morning, I began my day by reading a Huffington Post article about the “mass resignation” of at least 500 members from the LDS church (see the Facebook page here.)  I think this caught my eye because I was speaking with a dear friend just this weekend who grew up Mormon and enlightened me to the fact that the Mormon church is shrinking drastically; that like other denominations of organized religion in the United States, the LDS church is having trouble not only keeping members, but growing new ones as a result.  I was surprised by this personal report because there is a good deal of information out there (mostly generated by the Mormons) that says quite to the contrary (here is an interesting article on the disconnect between some of the reported numbers.)  But whether or not the LDS church is growing, doesn’t concern me as much as whether or not Unitarian Universalism has a place for them if they do leave their home church.

I love engaging people who come to the UU faith from other traditions.  In fact, these have been some of my richest interactions.  Frequently, the conversations are prompted by some statement that someone who self identifies themselves as a spiritual “refugee” has made when I invite them to tell me what brought them to a UU church or to explain or dive deeper into why they carry bitterness, or dismissal or outright hatred for their birth faith.  I have encountered Mormons in our circles as well, who are challenged not so much by negative feelings about the church they left or by UU free thinking, but more by what can sometimes feel like a lack of spiritual and theological discipline and rigor in UU spaces.  It is that ever reverberating question “what do you believe?”

My friend and fellow UU blogger, Andrew Hidas, this week posted about “The Difference Between Faith and Belief” which has me thinking about this question as well.  Not everyone who comes to UU churches from other faith traditions is coming damaged, or as a “refugee.”  Some (and I would even argue most) are coming because they believe in “both/and.”  They still believe in their faith tradition (or would like to), but they also want to be in authentic community with others who may not share that faith; they also come with genuine questions about faith in general.  This is my personal predicament.  I identify as a Christian.  In fact, I’m about to embark on a deeper exploration of my Christian faith, specifically as a part of my Unitarian Universalist journey and to deepen my understanding as to how to bridge the gap between Unitarian Universalists and historically Christian communities of color.  As a seminarian, I am often asked, why then don’t I just seek ordination from the UCC or Episcopal church?  My reply is twofold: a) I believe in a religiously pluralistic community and b) am I not welcome as a Christian?  Much like the children’s hand game, I often wonder if Unitarian Universalists are distracted by the monolithic organizations (the church and the steeple) before they are able to see the individual people inside of other churches.

The larger percentage of religious people that I encounter, regard their religion as a framework.  Whether taken literally or figuratively, the texts, practices, creeds, and even dogma etc. serve as a reference point that allows them to move through their everyday life with a feeling of security that gives them perspective on what is frequently a turbulent ride (here is a Gallup poll on the numbers of people who interpret the Bible literally as one example.)  Also, I don’t believe that most people consider themselves intellectuals.  They are not primarily concerned with the more esoteric and broad societal implications of a doctrine that speaks to a greater, less tangible good. They are concerned with putting food on the table.  More plainly put, most folks just want some help, either in the form of kindness or by being told that someone once suffered more than they did and it came out okay.  On a basic level, this is what organized religion does for many “believers.”  I look at some of the Mormons I’ve known over the years and I see this.  On the most basic of levels, they are a close community that believes in family and generosity and life with a purpose.  I am not for one minute ignoring or excusing the fact that the same church organization banned blacks until the 1970s, and created Proposition 8, but I have to believe that there is a middle ground between a belief structure that inspires one toward rich relationships with humanity and political mind control and abuse of power and privilege.  Religion cannot be all or nothing.

Unitarian Universalists have a unique calling.  As we have evolved (and specifically as a non-creedal faith where “all are welcome”) we must find a way to actually support people in their various beliefs and non-beliefs.  It would do us no good to say to the Hindu, “you are welcome in our church, but leave your belief in Dharma outside.”  Just as it would be equally problematic to say to a Mormon “come on in…but don’t bring Joseph Smith.”  If we are truly “multi religious” we can’t just paste up the symbols of multiple religions in the back of the pulpit and say “we’ve got it covered”…Clarence Skinner and the Universalists who founded the Community Church of Boston discovered the challenges with multi religious community first hand, and in fact, reflecting on our Universalist history in particular might be a good starting point to get us closer to fulfilling our modern calling.  Unitarian Universalists’ greatest and most challenging task is still ahead of us: reconciling the relationship between the “non believing” and the “believing.”  Creating a space that celebrates faith, belief and non belief while offering a connection to them all through our shared, common existence.  Only then, will we be able to call ourselves truly multi-religious and be able to give a genuine shout out to everyone, including the Mormons, in the house.

Standing Right In Front of Love

20140628_205710I draw the title of this post with great appreciation for and no offense meant to Jason Shelton who wrote the song “Standing On the Side of Love” or to the hallmark social action program of the same name in the Unitarian Universalist denomination that is currently celebrating 5 years of bearing witness as part of our faith.

Last night, I had the accidental fortune to be right in the thick of the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly “Worship, Witness and Waterfire” event that was the centerpiece of the Saturday happenings.  I say accidental because I hadn’t intended to go.  I had a dreadful headache that kicked in during an incredible late afternoon presentation by Sister Simone Campbell as the Ware Lecturer for this year’s general assembly. Despite my headache, I was completely blown away by her commitment.  I’ve followed her and the Nuns on the Bus for a while and have regularly looked to Catholic nuns as some of the deepest inspiration as a group of people who genuinely “bear witness” in so many different ways.  I think of my friend Sr. Joann Heinritz who is committed to body work and sharing the need for human contact with people who are denied touch through her own hands-on work as a massage therapist, working with people from all walks of life, doing footwashing and healing with homeless people, simply because it needs to be done.

Following, Sr. Campbell’s beautiful talk that included her reflections on bearing witness of people in real pain both in traditional war zones and the war zone of the United States southern border, I took some time to tend to my headache in a dark room that was just in earshot of the “worship” portion of last nights festivities.  I heard spirited singing and the word love bandied about with abandon.  My head was swimming with Sr. Campbell’s words “walk willing toward trouble” and I found myself questioning how easily Unitarian Universalists are talking about love at this General Assembly.  What does the word “love” mean?  I’ve spoken with many people at this gathering (both young and old) who are questioning what feels like a surface engagement of the love ethic.  The singers and musicians in the service are all extremely talented good friends and I don’t mean to take anything away from their gifts or their efforts, but for me and many of the others who are questioning how this has all landed, “love” is always a verb; it means nothing outside of action: where you choose to live, what you say and do, who you support, how you engage your community and those around you…even how you exist in your own body.  Evangelicals who preach “good news” praise-type worship always include a call to action or a challenge as to whether one has been living the word of Christ good enough.  You will never see a congregation of that kind simply singing about love to itself; it is always about love focused with a purpose, usually outward.  We may not follow Christ, but we also want to be challenged.  We want to be called to action…every single time.  As another attendee mentioned, you can’t just make the announcement about letting the people with mobility issues leave the arena once at the beginning of the conference…you have to do it every time.  Although singing about love is good, the real “witness” always depends upon where one is actually willing to stand. 

20140628_203106

Street Dancers…amazing!

I eventually took myself out of the stadium and made my bleary eyed way toward the busses back to my dorm.  As it would happen, the busses were running only sporadically.  Long story short, I realized that it would be better for me to just stay put until after the Waterfire event that would be happening nearby on the river.  This was to be the “witness” portion of the activities and I realized that I had the opportunity to actually witness, the witness.  I readied my camera and walked toward the event.  As I arrived I noticed a broad range of locals gathering.  There were young and old, black and white, different languages…it reminded me in some ways of the block parties we used to have in New York in the early 70’s.  There was a very real innocence to those parties where everyone from every walk of life came together without biases or bigotry, just to enjoy being in community.  And everyone was equal.

As I arrived at the main basin where the event was happening where there would be fire accompanied by music right on the water (hence the name ‘Waterfire’) I noticed that the front of the area closest to the water was cordoned off.  I thought at first that this was for safety.  The ‘braziers’ where the fire would be lit were large and when lit would probably send up a fairly huge conflagration.  But I soon realized that this was actually a “reserved” standing area and that it was for the Unitarian Universalists.  As I watched, this empty area closest to the action steadily filled with yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” shirts with the help of security and ushers who moved non-UUs out and moved credentialed UUs in.  I watched yellow shirts push past, walk around and yes, even climb over residents who had been waiting for up to 2 hours to see this event.  From my vantage point among the local crowd, what was intended to be a “witness” turned into more of a “display” and somewhat of a distraction.

20140628_204236

One of the “viewing” areas before the UUs showed up…

I believe that our organizers had the best of intentions.  They were aware of a local event that is unique and beautiful and they wished to find a way for the denomination to show up in force to affirm this gathering of a community.  We are often reminded that “just showing up” is the first and most important step to offering solidarity. But one must also be mindful of how one shows up.  Sr. Simone, as with many Sisters, does not wear a habit.  Traditional garb can be a useful tool, both for safety and for sending an important message, so not wearing the habit is not only personally liberating, but it is situationally liberating.  However, I’ve been told by Sisters that when they wear the habit, there is also an expectation of behavior that goes with it that can become a distraction and hindrance to their work when they are pushing the boundaries of love in which they believe.  I was shown another example in a lecture earlier this year with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence where I heard them make this same important claim.  Their “battle drag” is part shock value, part theater and part toolkit.  It is intentional and never taken for granted in the many privileges (and vulnerabilities) it brings them in their work.  When I see Unitarian Universalists show up at a local event in bright goldenrod t-shirts, I question how well we’ve thought out the “how” behind the way we are showing up?  At the Waterfire event, were we showing up because we want to be with the people of Providence or are we showing up because we want to be seen and get a good seat?

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The same area after the UUs showed up.

In order to ‘walk willing toward trouble,’ I think it is important for Unitarian Universalists to understand first that we don’t always need a banner to tell everyone.  Certainly it is useful when marching on Washington, supporting Moral Mondays, gathering in solidarity with local hotel workers protesting union policies…places where our visible presence makes a difference to media and people who aren’t engaged looking on.  But when “witness” is asking a community to welcome our support of their efforts, it is easy to stumble over the line of show boating.  One of the great lessons I learned as a massage therapist and that continues to be important for me in ministry is the ability to simply be present with people.  As an organization, we could learn more about this delicate balance.  We need to always show up, but without an agenda, and instead with open hands that say to those who have asked us, “please use me as you most need, I am willing to walk with you toward trouble.” That is love.