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In this last week, two more black men were shot to death by the police. What is happening here? Is our nation falling apart? I don’t think so. What is happening here is that we have the tools of social media that show what has always been happening here: black and brown bodies have always been at risk because of the fear engendered by our racist society; it’s just now we are capturing it on video. To be sure, most police officers are not murdering unarmed black men. But that is not meant to excuse the reality that men, boys, women and girls of color are dying at the hands of the state in vastly disproportional numbers than white people. On Wednesday night in Tulsa, OK, my colleague Marlin Lavanhar, senior minister of our large church in Tulsa, spoke powerfully at the service for Terrance Krutcher who was shot by a Tulsa police officer, with his hands up on the car, AFTER backup had arrived. Terrance was unarmed and cooperating.
For Service to be our law we have to sit up and talk about racism. We have to get angry about the right thing. As Marlin preached we have to stop making the victims into bad apples and recognize that all our apples are being poisoned by racism, even good cops who shoot unarmed black and brown bodies out of fear. We need to turn our fear of blacks to a fear for blacks. That’s what Black Lives Matter Means. It’s not that all lives don’t matter. But all lives don’t matter until black and brown and red and yellow lives matter as much as white lives matters. It’s not a movement of exceptionalism. It’s a movement for universalism, it’s a movement of the same universal salvation that our forbearers proclaimed but instead of waiting for that salivation in the afterlife, I am calling us to work for that salvation in the present life. I am calling on you all to work together against racism. Now.
So, in order for service to be our law I am calling on us today to do the following:
I am calling on us to take the work that Lara is spearheading seriously. To build bridges that cross borders. To follow her leadership as our newest minister to learn and partner with our Islamic Friends in Bridgeport, because friends if you think the hatred that Donald Trump has unleashed towards Muslims is just about our fear of religious extremism, look again… it’s as much about the racism towards people of middle eastern descent and culture as any other kind of racism we suffer from. Last night I went to hear Bryan Stevenson, the African American death row attorney who has saved hundreds of people from execution for crimes they did not commit. The talk was held in the huge and well-appointed Christ Church in Greenwich. As I looked around at the mostly white audience I thought it strangely ironic that this man would be preaching to those at the heart of our racist system. But after he received a standing ovation I understood that this is exactly where he should be speaking; at the heart of privilege. Because the opposite of poverty is not wealth, its justice. What Bryan said so beautifully is that the first step to ending racism is to get proximate to those affected. Only by being at their side can we undo the fear and anger. The closer we are to despair the sooner we find hope. And only then can we, those of us in privilege, change the narrative.
I am calling on us to learn how we, good well-meaning people that we are, are instruments in a racist system. I am calling on us to participate in our Beloved Conversations next winter that will equip us with the language, the commitment and the humility to be allies with our black and brown sisters and brothers. Very soon David Vita and I will be announcing our partnership with an African American Christian Church in Bridgeport, part of our joining the CCGB. That partnership will be as much about race as it will be about theology, and being humans together.
Finally, I am calling on us to join the BLM movement our denomination joined last year. I am calling on us to place a banner, BLM on Lyons Plains Road. I am asking for your faith. Just as we are about to put a rainbow flag on our sign, I want our aspiration to be white allies out there for all of privileged and white Westport to see.
What does it mean for service to be our law? Yes it starts with loving and nurturing this beloved church. Its starts when we bring food for those of us who are wounded. It starts when we give our significant financial support to our ministry, it starts when we open our doors so that we might become the center of learning and liberation we dream to be.
But then it grows. Service as our law grows when we help to settle refugees in their first apartment as we did again last week. It grows when we stand up to gun violence through vigils and protests. It grows when our Westbridge coalition repairs homes for those who can’t afford it. It grows with our amazing support of the Beardsley School in Bridgeport, with our money, our time spent serving those children, with the dedication of the Anita Pfluger Picture Book Library last week. It grows when you invite someone to church to be healed and encouraged to keep on doing the work we need now more than ever.
But it can grow so much farther. It can grow if we take our place as meaningful allies of color. It can grow so much farther if we stand with our Islamic neighbors who are worried that their mosque will be the next to be fire bombed. Attacks that have escalated from 12 in 2014 to 38 in 2015, more than tripled. It can grow when we have the courage to learn, listen and act in the defense of those who, like the Jews of holocaust Europe, are being targeted by politicians whose campaign is hate.
Service can grow. I remember the first time I really figured out that I was so much a part of the racism that I abhorred. I was delivering turkeys to families in need along with other volunteers. I was getting a little angry that not a one of the families we dropped those turkeys off to said thank you. Finally, I said to one woman who didn’t thank us, sarcastically, “well you are welcome”. Nikkita, the African American social worker that was along with us, pulled me aside. “Pastor” she said, “your privilege is showing. In fact your racism is showing. Why would those who are so poor and so disadvantaged by this society, want to thank you, a white man, and the very symbol of their oppression for a gift that shouldn’t have to take at all. Maybe when you stop looking at your world from the top down and start looking at it from the bottom up you will understand what racism really is.”
I was humbled into silence. She was so right. In so many ways. And here I am, here we are, 25 years later still wondering what’s wrong and what can we do. Let me tell you. You can do a lot. And it’s at the heart of our covenant. Service is not only serving ourselves, its serving those who ask us to help, its serving the world by standing up to the racism when we run across it. To say to the bigot when they tell that joke, “I find that offensive”. That’s what service means.
And, as I will talk about more in October that service may very well be what heals your deepest struggles as well. As James Cone said “Love is the call, but justice is the answer”. Love calls us on, and service is our law.