Monday, June 29, 2015

Confessions from a Southerner

Not many days ago, I bought sand, candles, and nine small glass vases for our worship service, to mark the murders at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. We spoke their names, prayed for the church, lit the candles. Since then, I've prayed and I hope others have as well. Our denominational leaders in the Carolinas issued a letter, calling for prayer during the week following the murders, especially for how we address racism.

I'm proud to say that in my predominantly white congregation, we can talk about racism and how deeply it's entrenched. I, and we, hope to be allies. I know we could do more.

As I sit in Arizona, most of a continent away from Charleston, I'm also haunted by my own demons. You see, I'm a Southerner. Yes, I'm a border state Southerner, young enough that I've rarely heard the Civil War referred to as the War of Northern Aggression, but still a Southerner. The killer who walked into Emanuel AME Church, who prayed among people who became his victims, is a little too familiar for comfort.

I choose not to know if people I went to high school with have joined white supremacist groups, but I'm certain some have. Culturally, it's not a very far leap.

Students went hunting before school; guns were just part of life, as was carrying a pocketknife to school for that matter. If I remember correctly, there was a 2.5" blade limit. Confederate flags were common. One of the cooler guys had the same horn on his truck as the General Lee on the Dukes of Hazzard. If you're not familiar, it's "Dixie." Yes, "Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten," Dixie.

There were lots of poor white people and almost no people who weren't white. Still, I've heard the question, "Do you really think they're like us?" Everyone remembered that the original version of the state song for Kentucky has the word "darkeys" in it. Students scoffed that didn't attend school on Martin Luther King Day. Looking back, the epithets used for the day are appalling. If I misbehaved, my grandfather told me he'd have to go buy a little girl to replace me. You can guess the color of that imaginary child's skin.

All of that is the surface version of racism that is so deeply entrenched that white supremacists with plenty of guns are more common than most people would like to admit. And yes, all of that is deeply tied to being Southern. I've seen my share of "Heritage, not Hate" Confederate flag memorabilia. I know all the words to Hank Williams Jr.'s "If the South Woulda Won." For better or worse, Southern is part of who I am, even if my accent has long faded.

This picture was taken in worship this past Sunday, July 21. It shook me in a different way. The little girl's dress looks suspiciously like the dresses I wore to church most Sundays when I was her age. I don't know if she wore a scratchy slip underneath to add volume to her skirt, but I sure did. The immaculate dress of the man holding the door open, that's familiar, too. So's the paneling in the background, the bulletin board. The door is larger and grander than any church I attended as a child, but the other things are weirdly, remarkably the same. These are all the markings of Sunday in the South. There's a country song or two about that.

Roots run deep. So does fear. Fear that tells us who we are involves guns and a flag and General Lee. Fear that tells us skin color does matter. Perhaps the deepest, most haunting fear of all: it could be my brother, or cousin, or high school prom date pulling the trigger against innocent people. As a result, we end up clinging to relics, shouting at anyone who would dare say they're a problem.

God and Google know how many blog posts and articles you could find on combatting systemic racism. Read them. Practice the things that are suggested. This very pale Southerner has confessed what she can.

God help us to do better.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Bouncy Balls and the Handwriting of 8 Year Olds

"Very truly I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice." John 10:1-4

I've never liked the Good Shepherd portion of John. In general, John is a text I love to read and hate to preach on. Even at that, I've always figured I'd be just fine if John had skipped that particular passage. That probably says more about me than any one or anything else. And I know it. I live in a city to preserve my anonymity, at least if I choose. I don't like having an entire town that can recognize my car, much less always end up in a conversation in the grocery store. Deep familiarity isn't appealing to me.

Except it is. In fact, the familiarity of community is for me one of the deepest, holiest parts of church. On some days, I could drop the "one of." There's beautiful simplicity in community. There's beauty in deep familiarity, someone knowing you, someone welcoming you. Cheers was right: "Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name, and they're always glad you came."

Each Sunday, there are a few people whose footsteps I recognize long before I see them--those bringing walkers and baby strollers in particular. Other voices are distinct. Some even arrive at incredibly predictable times.

The rhythms of my life are tied to their lives in strange ways. On Monday mornings, as I correct attendance taken by a lay leader and sift through a pile of attendance slips, I smile when I see the handwriting of an 8 year old. It's her job to fill out her family's attendance slip each week. I can attest that her penmanship has improved a great deal during 2nd grade. This morning, as I walked out to the mailbox to see if I'd gotten a notice for an undeliverable Amazon order, something red in the dirt caught my eye. I dusted off a red bouncy ball. I'm pretty sure it belongs to a four year old boy who was distraught when he lost it under the bushes. I put it on my desk to give back to him on Sunday.

Before I sat down at my desk this morning, I had to put away the board game he'd taken out of the box while his mom was meeting with worship participants. He currently has a fascination with all the games under my desk, stored there between our Thursday game nights. The pieces are intriguing, but never lost. He always puts it away as well as a four year old can put away a game designed for people a few years older.

Familiarity, after all, means people know what you need. It means safety, in most cases. It means a place where it's easy to be. It's home. It's someone you know, who calls you by name, all in the name of the Shepherd. I like that story more all the time.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

At the Mosque Last Night

It's been a long time since I walked into some place with police present just in case something happened. I was among the many who walked into the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix last night in support of the community that faced protestors on Friday night. The mosque was packed with Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and people from a few other faiths. Surprising to me, a huge spectrum of Christians were present. One of the speakers for the evening is Nazarene; I admit they wouldn't have made my list of friends of Muslims. A few children were scattered among those sitting on the floor. I smiled when I saw the tall, African-American man sporting a cowboy hat, giant belt buckle, and handlebar mustache there. There were clerics in collars and stoles. There were people with dark skin and very light skin. It was one of the most diverse gatherings of people I've seen in quite some time.

The few chairs set out for those who couldn't easily sit on the floor filled quickly. (Mosques typically have only a few chairs, since Muslims pray with their bodies and their words.) Elderly men and women found seats on the floor, instead. I wasn't particularly comfortable. I know beyond a doubt they weren't. But they still sat there, stayed there, refusing to abandon their neighbors.

I don't know how many people showed up. They were expecting 600; it was more than that. Some said the number was near 1000. I don't know. There were piles of shoes outside the worship area and piles of flowers inside, brought as requested as a sign of peace. The parking lots were full, despite the fact that most people carpooled. I proved my Chevy Sonic can, indeed, fit four adults in it. The evening was holy, for no other reason than so many people inconvenienced themselves enough to show up and say, "You matter to us."

Most reports of the evening won't mention the man with a megaphone outside the gates. I'm glad they won't, but I will. He used his megaphone to tell us we would burn in hell, we would be converted, the flowers we carried may as well be flowers for our graves. He spoke of human rights violations, particularly women's rights, and how wrong we were to support Muslims who commit vile crimes against women. He went through the same list of warnings over and over.

And I know he's right. There are Muslims who hate women. There are Muslims who force conversion. There are Muslims who do all sorts of stomach-turning, deplorable things. The same is true for Christians. And Jews. And Sikhs. And white men. And Americans. And Europeans. And Africans. And people in wheelchairs. And left-handed doctors who live in houses on cul-de-sacs. And all sorts of other categories of people. There are truly despicable people in every category you can come up with. But most are not.

So yes, there are some Muslims who hate women, and force conversion, and would love me in a grave. There are some Muslims who join and lead militant groups. There are some Muslims who do just about everything.

On the floor of a mosque, seated among both friends and strangers, I am grateful so many people realize that some Muslims do not represent all Muslims. I am especially grateful for the Muslim neighbors whom I've learned to call friends.