Wednesday, August 23, 2017

A Name to Remember

I speak the name James A. Fields often. In prayer, in thought, in worry, in conviction, in determination. James A. Fields is the name I need to remember, not Heather Heyer. Who she was matters a great deal, but I know plenty of people like her. They are willing to march, to give money. They shop at businesses owned by people of color. They are people who recognize their privilege and work to be an ally. They don't always get it right; they're willing to hear they got it wrong and try better next time.

I know how we create the Heather Heyers of the world. There are many ways I strive for the same goals. But we create the James A. Fields of the world, too. In some cases, we create with the same intentionality as the people seeking justice; in others, it's the byproduct of our entrenched racism, our entrenched white privilege turned to supremacy.

Here is my truth: I know White Supremacists. Maybe I should say confession, I don't know. It's this haunting truth inside me though: I know White Supremacist. I grew up with them. Maybe they didn't call themselves that publicly--good Lord, I am shocked that we've made it safe for White Supremacists to come out of their closets and into public spaces unashamed--but they were White Supremacists all the same.

They were there, lurking in the teenager who called Martin Luther King Day by "Nigger Day" instead. (I thought about using n***** instead, but niceties go out the window in confession.) Does he remember that? We're friends on Facebook and he, his wife, and two kids are living a nice suburban life. Yet, somewhere, he learned that word, that phrase, and had no problem using it in front of his friends. I saw so many faces like his in the photos of the marchers at Charlottesville.

The White Supremacists were there, in those same places. Confederate flags were everywhere, but there were those who had swastika patches on their backpacks or sewn onto their jackets. They'd sometimes be made to remove the emblem or turn their coats inside out while at school, but the rule was enforced sporadically at best. Was there a rule against swastikas? To tell you the truth, I don't remember. I am certain the Confederate flag was just fine. Heritage, not hate, after all. These were the people I sat on a school bus with, an hour at a time.

I wonder, were the White Supremacists gathering in that abandoned house on the other side of the hill? Sometimes, at night, a light would be on. It was the kind of light you use in a garage, a bulb on the end of a cord. The room it illuminated was covered in flags: US, Confederate, Nazi. I don't remember people gathered there, just flags, but the image that remains is vivid and terrifying.

Never, ever, have the KKK or Neo-Nazis been merely an idea for me. Maybe because it was the South, or maybe because it was a rural area, but they were always there somewhere. They were in the newspaper when they got arrested. They were whispered about by teenagers interested in joining. (Yes, interested, I remember that much, too.)

Moving away means I don't know if I know White Supremacists now--other than there this lurking feeling that I must here in this deep red, SB1070 passing state.

And so I remember James A. Fields because he is the person I might have sat with on a school bus, or watched a teacher make change clothes, or wondered how he found the people meeting in back rooms and back alleys. He is the person I might stand in line with at Starbucks, or cut off on the freeway, or run into at a city meeting. He is the person I must remember is here, at least until we, until I, make it clear he's not welcome.

After all, he is the person who persevered, persisted, held on to the demons we've never exorcised.

I confess: I do not know how to exorcise these demons.
I confess: I know I helped create them. I know I help sustain them.
I confess: James A. Fields. Because so much is wrapped up in that name.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017


Surprise, surprise, I got myself into a little bit of trouble a few weeks ago at our denominational gathering. On social media, I critiqued the number of speakers who said how long they had been part of the denomination; the majority of speakers in large gatherings presented such a credential, apart from their biography. In every case, the point was that it had been their entire life, or even for generations. For the record, I still maintain that it's a good way to make people who did not grow up in the tradition feel unwelcome. That remains true for me, and I imagine I'm not the only one.

After I posted the critique, several people carefully explained to me why I was wrong to feel that way. Let me tell you, that is always incredibly helpful. I got at least one, "Why do you come, then?" Yep. That was welcoming, too.

If I kept typing about that, I still wouldn't get much of anywhere.

Y'all, here's the thing. I can play the credentials game all day. No, I didn't grow up in the denomination I serve, but by golly I've logged a crazy number of church hours. I didn't do youth group intensely, but I've logged a crazy number of mission trip hours, too. I've topped out at communion three times in one day. Nursing homes, lock-ins, VBS, going to Sunday school, teaching Sunday school, most everything churchy, I can play that game. I've slept on floors and raided church kitchens in more states than I care to count and discovered three year old condiments in the fridges of most all of them. If you want to quote scripture, let's go for it. By the way, I also have a Master's degree from Emory University that I'm damn proud of. We could talk about my lack of student debt, too, if you'd like. There are all kinds of ways to play that game.

It becomes terrifying quickly, though, this proving that you're "enough" of something to matter. The other day, I got an email from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). I get an email from them most days, sometimes several a day. Many of their emails are about Muslims being harassed. This particular one was about a daughter of a legal immigrant. The daughter, the woman being harassed, was born in the United States, so she is a citizen. In other words, she's really an American, so she deserves to live here without harassment. Or so the email implied.

Some would say crazily, I think she should get to go about her daily life without harassment regardless of her citizenship status, or her faith, or pretty much anything else. Being and feeling safe is a right, not a privilege. I actually think that's Gospel. I'm also aware that me feeling like crap at a denominational gathering pales in comparison.

Still, this insider/outsider game is real, and it's playing out in terrifying ways right now. How Muslims in our country are being treated is the tip of a giant iceberg. From middle school bullies to the President himself, there's a lot of concern for who is in and who is out.

For once, I don't have a Jesus story in response; I have Paul:
"If anyone else has reason to put their confidence in physical advantages, I have even more:
I was circumcised on the eighth day.
I am from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin.
I am a Hebrew of the Hebrews.
With respect to observing the Law, I'm a Pharisee.
With respect to devotion to the faith, I harassed the church.
With respect to righteousness under the Law, I'm blameless.
These things were my assets, but I wrote them off as a loss for the sake of Christ."
                   (Philippians 3:4b-7)

This is one of the times Paul got it just right.

For the sake of Christ, we'll stop asking those questions to prove if you're enough.
For the sake of Christ, we'll invite you in.
For the sake of Christ, we'll believe you when you say you're one of us.
For the sake of Christ, we'll say, "We're glad you're here."

I picked up a quote from Yvonne Gilmore at that same conference. It sums up what I most deeply believe about Church, "I am yours and you are mine."

I don't think we should wait so long to say so.