Damage Report!

Like a lot of congregations, First Christian has been worshipping apart since March. It’s been going okay, though I’m glad I had some skills in video editing before this all hit. I wanted to share with you a sample from last week’s service. The first is a video from the sermon by my friend Rob. The second is yours truly giving the prayer. If you want to see the full video, go over to the church website. I hope it’s good news to your soul.

To the Church at Lake Wobegon

Dear Friends and Family of First Christian Church of St. Paul:

Last week in the immediate aftermath of the killing of George Floyd I decided to go for a walk. We live in North Minneapolis.  It was a nice sunny day, perfect day for a walk.  “Be careful,” my husband Daniel said as I left.

Later that evening, I was chatting with my mother. As we finished our phone call to say goodbye, she asked me to be careful.

Be careful. This has been my reality since I was a kid. My parents were telling me to be careful ever since I was a teen. Growing up in 1980s Michigan, my parents were always concerned about me, not that I was doing something reckless, but because I was a young black man. Even now when I’m 50 years old, some loved one is always telling me to be careful. This is how African American men ( and even African American women) have to live. Black mothers worry when their sons go out with friends. They worry they will get in trouble with the police or worse.

George Floyd was seen as a threat. He had a target on his back on that Memorial Day when he met his end on a Minneapolis street. For far too long, too many African Americans have been viewed not as a fellow human being, but as a threat, worthy of being killed.

Before I go any farther I have to say the following: I believe America is a good nation. I know there are good cops that care about their communities. I know there are good white people. I know that we aren’t living in a time of segregation like my Dad did growing up in Louisiana in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. All of this is true. And yet, a middle-aged black man is dead, again because of the color of his skin.

What’s infuriating is that George Floyd was a gentle giant, a committed Christian who moved to Minneapolis a few years ago from his native Houston in search of a better life, dies at the hand of a cop who had a long history of complaints and for some reason remained on the force. He was engaged to be married and he never got the chance to walk down with his love.

But what is upsetting and frightening is that it could have been me. It could be me. Floyd is only a few years younger than I am. I pray that it never happens, but it is not out of the realm of possibility.

And then there were the riots. Coming from Michigan as I do, you learn about the Detroit riots in 1967. It’s no surprise to African Americans and other people of color that Minnesota is not an idyllic place. Racial disparities are among the highest in the nation. That said, I would have never, ever thought there were going to be riots like what I’ve seen in the past few days. To say that Minneapolis is burning is as weird as saying Lake Woebegon is burning, but it has happened.

So where do we go from here?

That’s the rub. Talking about the problem of race in America is always a challenge because you have those who want to live in denial that there is a problem (and that includes some African Americans) and those that think there are racists under every bed. But I think as Christians what it means is that we live our lives with God’s table at the center. The Restoration Movement which gave birth to the Disciples believes strongly that the Lord’s Table is for everyone. Now when Alexander and Thomas Campbell were making their argument about the communion table they were informed by the internecine battles within the Presbyterian Church. If you didn’t believe the right way, you couldn’t have communion. The Campbells believed it was God, not an interpretation of a creed, that invites us to the table. God wants to be in a relationship with us and God desires that all us be in relationship. So in light of all this, we have to live a life that welcomes everyone into a relationship with each other and God. We have to be communities where people from all walks of life are welcomed, united in Jesus Christ.

Relationship means listening. Listening means being vulnerable. Relationship is rooted in reconcililation. It means living a sacrificial life and opening yourself up to dissonance.White Americans have to be willing to listen even when what you hear goes against what you know or experience. That’s hard to do because we all come with our own experiences and biases. It’s hard to listen to something that doesn’t jive with what you believe. But I think White Americans have to do that because we can’t change until we hear the stories of African Americans that might not be the story you are used to.

But in that relationship there also needs to be grace.  Far too often, having a conversation on race become stilted out of fear that something will be said that is offensive.  The thing is, if we are going to have an honest talk on race we will stumble and say something that might come off as offensive.  It means making mistakes, seeking forgiveness and moving on. It means African Americans should show grace to their white sisters and brothers understanding that we are all sinful and all in need of God’s grace.  The racial reconciliation is messy and that’s okay. It will be messy.

As an African American man, I am honored and blessed to be the lead pastor of this congregation that doesn’t just have diversity as a value, but we live it out. We come from various racial and ethnic backgrounds and yet we are in a relationship with each other. But even here, we have to be willing to listen deeper and make space for grace. Because those unsettling stories are there just below the surface and they need to be brought forth and dealt with.

Second, we have to be involved in the work of reconciliation. Our Presbyterian sisters and brothers wrote in the Confession of 1967, that God’s reconciling love breaks down barriers, the Church is called to fight for reconciliation:

God has created the peoples of the earth to be one universal family. In his reconciling love, God overcomes the barriers between sisters and brothers and breaks down every form of discrimination based on racial or ethnic difference, real or imaginary. The church is called to bring all people98 to recieve and uphold one another as persons in all relationships of life: in employment, housing, education, leisure, marriage, family, church, and the exercise of political rights. Therefore, the church labors for the abolition of all racial discrimination and ministers to those injured by it. Congregations, individuals, or groups of Christians who exclude, dominate, or patronize others , however subtly, resist the Spirit of God and bring contempt on the faith which they profess .

I am reminded of the parable of the Good Samaritan. We’ve heard the story of the man traveling down the road who ends up beaten and left for dead by robbers. Two religious people see this injured man lying at the side of the road and pass him by. For whatever reason, they didn’t stop to offer help. Finally, another man comes by, a Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans didn’t get along, but this man didn’t care about whatever animosities kept them apart. He takes the injured man and places him on his donkey to the nearest inn. He even tells the innkeeper to keep a tab that he would pay back when he swung back that way again. The Samaritan got involved. He could have said this was none of his business and moved on, but he didn’t. He got involved.

The same thing needs to happen now. I said in a sermon four years ago, in the aftermath of Philando Castile’s shooting that the only way these killings of black people by police will stop is when white Christians, white Americans step up. This is not simply a problem for African Americans but it is all of our problems. It’s an American problem and most of all it is a spiritual problem.

The past few days have left me angry and sad. As a community and as a nation, we have a lot of work to do. We need to start talking But I have hope in Christ. I have hope in the Christ that died a horrible death, suffering with humanity and freeing us from the bonds of sin. Ultimately, I have hope because, in Jesus Christ, the evils of racism will never have the last word. Let’s pull up a chair to God’s Table and start talking.

 

In Christ.

Dennis Sanders, Lead Pastor

Blood Cries Out

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When I was 13, I remember going to the credit union with my mother.  Mom was busy talking to one of the tellers while I waited near the door.  I was just kind of keeping to myself not really paying attention to what was happening around me.  Most people who knew me, saw me as someone who was quiet and probably too sensitive emotionally. I wasn’t really a threat to anyone.

Little did I know, someone did think I was a threat. A security guard came up to me and asked what I was doing.  I was a bit surprised and before I could answer, my mother came up and said sternly that I was with her. She learned that the security guard came up to me because another teller was basically scared of me. As we left the credit union, Mom was mad at the teller who saw me as a threat.  She was also a bit upset at me for not being more aware of my surroundings.

I look back at that event and I see how naive I could be.  I had grown up in the years following the civil rights movement of the 60s.  Growing up in mid-Michigan in the 70s and 80s, I grew up not knowing a lot of the open racism that was so rampant in American in the decades before I was born.  My father grew up in Jim Crow-era Louisiana in the 30s, 40s, and 50s.  He knew about how you could be the judge because of your skin.  Because that wasn’t the world I grew up in, I didn’t understand that anyone could see me as something to be feared.

Like many people, I’ve been made aware of the horrific murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25- year old man who was murdered by two white men in Georgia who thought he was a burglar. Greg McMichael and his son Travis saw Arbery running in their neighbor and believed he was fleeing from a crime scene.  The reality is that Arbery was jogging.  Something that the two men should have noticed, but didn’t.  The McMichaels took off in their truck with guns and long story short Ahmaud Arbery was shot and killed.

Now, I truly believe things are better for African Americans than they used to be.  I can do things that my Dad wasn’t able to do because of segregation.  I think our nation is in a better place than it was circa 1955.

But better doesn’t mean perfect.  While the rampant racism that defined the American South for decades has receded, it is still present.  Arbery is part of a long line of African American men that have died at the hands of white Americans in recent years.  The ghost of Jim Crow still haunts America.

In the last day or so, the phrase “blood cries out” got stuck in my head.  That phrase comes from Genesis 4:8-11, the story of the brothers Cain and Abel.  Cain kills Abel and when God asks Cain where is Abel, Cain replies dismissively. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God responds by saying the following:

 “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.

Abel’s blood cried out from the ground. God heard the cry of the victim, Abel, and wanted Cain to face the justice of God.

In the book of Deuteronomy, a law stated that if the body of a person was found in a field and no one knew who killed the person, a group of people determined which city the body was closer to. Representatives would sacrifice an animal as an atonement to God for the sin of murder. It didn’t matter that they themselves didn’t do the crime. What mattered was that it mattered to God. Blood was crying out from the ground and it needed to be answered. Taking this crime seriously meant they cared about life.  If a city refused to do this, it sent a message to God about how they viewed life.

Ahmaud Arbery’s blood cries out from the Georgia soil.  The McMichaels have been charged with murder.  We know that temporal justice is at least beginning.  But what about the justice of God?

I don’t have an answer.  What I do know is that all of us must care.  To ignore this, to avert our eyes, means we don’t hold life as sacred.  To ignore it is to say that the color of one’s skin determines their worth.

Arbery’s killers will face trial, but in a way, we are facing trial as well.  How will we respond to the justice of God who weeps over the blood crying out?

Corporal Punishment, Race and Adrian Peterson

Note: I need to say that this blog post is NOT an endorsement of corporal punishment.  The post is reflecting the some of the more complex emotions on this sensitive issue.

Adrian-Peterson-child-injuryWhen the news first broke about Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson being indicted for physically abusing his child, my “official” belief was that what he he did crossed a line.  Parents can discipline children, but if the photos that have been shown are true, well, this was way beyond a little pat on the butt.

But deep down, I felt an odd feeling- knowing that sooner or later, the issue would move to talking about corporal punishment and what role it should have in parenting if any.

I have to say, that if I ever have children I’m pretty sure I would not spank them.  I just don’t think that this line of punishment works anymore.

That said, when people start talking about how horrible it is to spank children and what horrible parents these people are, I get angry at the those people. Continue reading “Corporal Punishment, Race and Adrian Peterson”

The Prosperity Gospel in Black and White

prosperityLast winter, I wrote a somewhat contrarian blog post on the Prosperity Gospel.  I never did endorse it, but I was trying to talk about the fact that for those on the lower economic margins that happen to think about money, they are more willing to talk about finances and how this relates to their walk with God.

Something today made me think about the Prosperity Gospel again and I noticed something about most of the critics of it:

They’re all white.

Now, I can only make that statement from what I’ve observed.  Maybe there is an African American pastor railing against the Prosperity Gospel.  But there’s something telling that there seems to not be a person of color who obesses over the Prosperity Gospel in ways that whites do.

I think there is a reason for all of this.  I’m not an economist, I’m just a pastor.  But here are some observations that I’ve noticed:

African Americans and Latinos think about money more, especially those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder.  African Americans and to a large extent Latinos tend to be more money insecure than white Americans.  It’s not uncommon for whites to have more in savings and more in terms of wealth that might have been passed down to the next generation.  That is almost never the case when it comes to most persons of color.  Even those who make into the middle class are more insecure because they don’t have wealth built up.  Being African American and married to a white person, I can tell you there are stark differences between our families when it comes to wealth.  So, if you have less, you will be thinking more about how to pay this or that bill which means you think about money a lot.  Now if you are an African American and finances are tight and you hear some preacher talk about prosperity, do you scoff at this?  Probably not.  Why?  Because this pastor understands what you are going through and is preaching a way out- a lifeline.  I think prosperity preaching is bad, but let’s face it; it’s a tempting message for a real reason.

If you are a middle class white person, you are more than likely to have a fair sum of money saved up, or your parents have a good sum that you can borrow.  You also probably have some inheritance of some kind (stock, land, etc.) that you can use.  In short white Americans don’t tend to think so much about money problems.  It’s easy to warn of the dangers of prosperity gospel while you are sitting on financial reserves.

Again, there is a lot that is bad about the Prosperity Gospel.  But that doesn’t mean that prosperity or finances shouldn’t be talked about- especially when money is such a big part of the lives of many persons of color, not because of greed, but because they don’t have much of it and the needs are many.

Ferguson and Everything After

image-453673840In the Summer of 1992, my parents and I went on vacation to Toronto and Niagara Falls.  On the day that we were on the Canadian side, we decided to drive over to Niagara Falls, NY to see the American Falls.  This meant crossing the border back into the United States.  As we cross the bridge spanning the two nations, we stopped at border crossing welcoming us back into the United States.  We ended up with a white border guard that decided to annoy us.  He asked questions in a tone that bothered us.  Dad was getting more and more agitated, having never been treated this way at the border before.  I was at the driver’s wheel and the guard had me get out of the car to show him what was in our trunk.  I was bothered and quite scared.  Of course there was nothing in the trunk other than things one would see in a car on vacation.  Once the guard was satisfied, he let us go on our way, but it took us a while to forget how we were treated by this man.

This was one of the few times I felt harassed by the police.  It was hard not to conclude that the rough treatment we got was because we were African American.

It’s been almost two weeks since Michael Brown was shot dead by a policeman named Darren Wilson in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri.  The death of a young African American by a white policeman is bound to set of a fury of feelings on race in America and the events that happened on August 9 have not disappointed us.  As I said in a recent post, there seems to be a lot of similarities to the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman controversy that took place in 2012.  As I said back then, it’s understandable that African Americans would feel this situation deeply-reminding us of some of our past encounters with white Americans.

This situation could be a time to really have that so-called conversation on race.  But like it was two years ago, everyone seems willing to talk, but no seems willing to listen.

First things first: while there is much to be gained talking about how African American men are immediately seen as threats, or about how law enforcement look at African Americans or about how suburban police forces feel the need to ape the US Army, it’s dangerous to hold Darren Wilson up as public enemy number one.  There is much to talk about, but the actual facts of the case still remain murky.  Maybe Wilson shot Brown in cold blood.  Maybe he shot his gun in the fog of war.  Was Brown doing something that warranted guns being drawn?  The fact is, we don’t have the clear picture yet.  While there might be problems with policing in Ferguson, we don’t know what really happened that Saturday night.  As much as I am tempted to view Brown as innocent and Wilson as guilty, we don’t yet have evidence that proves either way.

Even though the incident is being looked at, that doesn’t mean that some of the greivences that have bubbled up to the surface must be ignored.  African American men in our society have always been looked at with a sense of fear.  I know that’s happened to me.  These days it happening earlier and earlier.  A National Public Radio report from March of this year show black preschoolers were suspended at higher rates that white preschoolers. Some experts call this the “school to prison pipeline” where African American children, especially boys, have run-ins with the law early and frequently.

So where does the church fit in all of this?

I think that the response is mixed.  I think that churches need to be able to be a listening ear and a megaphone about how African American men are viewed in our society.  Sadly, there are still too many people who refuse to understand that while official segregation is gone by the wayside, attitudes still remain.  Related to this, I think the church needs to thoughtfully ask whites what is it about black me that scares them.  Part of the problem is that some people are afraid of black men.  It might be irrational, but I think there needs to be space for that question to be asked and answered, as uncomfortable as it might be.  Maybe when we share we can dispel myths or see what needs to be corrected.

But if the church is going to be an agent of reconciliation, to foster dialogue, we have to be thoughtful when we talk about white privilege and racism.  Most whites don’t see themselves as privileged and having a white liberal Christian chastise his fellow whites, many of who are trying to make ends meet of being privileged, don’t expect that they are going to react with open hearts and minds.  Yes, privilege exists, but pointing this out should lead to solutions not blame. Also, calling whites automatically racist is also not going to work.  White folks think racist and they see some guy who decided ruin his wife’s best bedspread to where while setting fire to a cross.  It’s one thing to say that society still benefits whites, its another to basically say they are the Bull Connor of suburbia.

As the African American pastor of a majority white congregation in the suburbs; I wonder if my odd intersection could lead towards some real conversation about how to heal the divisions between law enforcement and black men.  I don’t know if that’s where God is calling me and I don’t think I’m going to make such a big difference, but then you never know.

I just look forward to the day when incidents such as what happened to Michael Brown will be a distant and unpleasant memory.

Repost: Beyond George Zimmerman (the Ferguson Edition)

I do have something to say about Michael Brown, the police and Ferguson, MO.  But while I’m thinking about what to write, I wanted to share a post I wrote in the days following the verdict acquitting George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin.  Funny how only the names have been changed.

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Ever since the verdict from the George Zimmerman case was made known, I’ve been wondering what I wanted to write about this event. I happened to be down the road from Sanford, Florida in Orlando for the 2013 General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). It was interesting that in the same convention center the NAACP was having its national convention.

I was looking at a post I wrote a year ago about this case and it is fascinating how on target it still is. The words I said back then still make sense:

The recent tragedy concerning Trayvon Martin has a lot of people talking. There’s a lot that one could talk about here: racism, the role of young black males in American society, gun control or lack thereof and so on. I know that it’s common for pastors and even moreso for black pastors to speak out on events like this, but I’m still holding my tounge, unwilling to somehow speak to the moment.

The reason I don’t at this point is because there is so much that is unknown in this case. We have a lot of pieces of what happened between Martin and his alleged shooter, George Zimmerman, but we don’t really have a clear story. While many may think otherwise, the details of this case are still being learned. What seems so obvious might not be…

…we want to try to make the events fit our own templates to further our own agendas. We try to hunt and look for whatever shred of evidence about silly things like Trayvon smoking marijuana and use that to paint him as some crazy thug. We want to use some words said during a 911 call to paint Zimmerman as soon kind of suburban klansman. For some reason, we don’t want to simply wait and see what the facts bear out. No, we already have the “facts” and are ready to fashion stories based on whatever spin we can get from those facts.

I still think in many ways we are trying to spin this story to serve our own ends. Yes, race is still a problem in America, but we don’t need to make this case into a racial melodrama to make that case. As a church leader, I am a bit wary of touching this case because it isn’t such a clear story. Maria Dixon points that out well in her recent blog post on this:

Many churches and church leaders will hold vigils and offer prayers of the people when the inevitable firestorm of racial angst breaks loose. They will ask for calm, write soothing words about reconciliation–when it is their very ineptness at helping all of us deal honestly with difference that has doomed us to failure. Ok, maybe that’s harsh, but then again maybe it isn’t. You see, most mainline denominations have difficulty with discussing race, even amongst themselves. Substituting quotas and tallies of who is speaking for the really hard discussions of inclusion, difference, and the mandates of Christ, the church–particularly those denominations considered most progressive–fears such discussions. The problem is not with only the lighter hue of the pew. The African American church has lived so long in the world and discourse of struggle that it, unlike the church of South Africa, has yet to be able to fully embrace and cultivate a dialogue of racial reconciliation and renewal. So let’s be clear: There is plenty of blame to go around for why cases like Treyvon’s cause such national handwringing and outrage. It’s like my good friend and mentor, Mark Lawrence McPhail–one of the top scholars on race and rhetoric–writes, that no one has clean hands in this racial system.

There is a part of me that thinks I should rail against racism and how this verdict just shows how American society views black men. But the reality is, we really don’t know if George Zimmerman had a racial intent. From the evidence the jury saw they said no. I don’t think we can use this case as a proxy for our continuing struggle concerning race in America because the lines aren’t so clear.

That doesn’t mean that African Americans are silly to feel the way they have. No matter the age, Africa Americans carry a psychic scar, the result of centuries of actual racism. It’s hard to not think about past tragedies where race was involved: Emmet Till or Medgar Evers. African Americans can make a leap of logic because, well, we’ve been here before.

It also don’t mean that conservatives should be crowing the way they have in the wake of the verdict. As someone who is politically right of center and African American, let me tell you something- if you don’t want black people assuming all Republicans are racists, then maybe you want to show a bit of respect and understanding. African Americans might be wrong in jumping to conclusions, but no one can blame us. We are the ones that have lived with a dark history; one that still rears its ugly head. It would behoove white conservatives to at least sit down and listen to African Americans instead of acting like pompous jerks.

It’s high time that America and the church had a real heart to heart on race. But for that to happen, we have to be willing to be vulnerable to each other. African Americans need to be willing to listen to whites share their fears and concerns. Whites need to allow African Americans to share their frustrations on how they are always treated with suspect. I don’t care who is “priviledged” and who is not. I don’t care who feels oppressed. What I do care to see is for blacks and whites and everyone in between to talk to each other, honestly. The church should be the place where this starts.

I don’t know if George Zimmerman is a racist and at some level I don’t really care. What does matter is how we will move forward, how we will learn to live with each other and accept each other warts and all.

A Few Thoughts on Dave Ramsey and Poverty

dave ramseyI don’t follow financial guru Dave Ramsey much.  I’ve heard him a few times on NPR, and I know he’s about offering folks some practical advice on debt and basically how to live financially.  I also know that he blends his faith into his talks on economics.  I think he does a good job with what he does; giving folks some hard truth when it comes to finances.

Ramsey is facing some harsh criticism from some fellow Christians over a recent blog post on his website.  He shared a list from another site entitled “20 Things the Rich Do Every Day.”  Bloggers such as Rachel Held Evans and Morgan Guyton have wrote strong responses to the post, which in turn has led Ramsey to update the post, lobbing some barbs of his own.  I wanted to offer a few insights on my own.

 

First off, I don’t know if this is different for white Americans, but among African Americans it is normal to have a wide range of economic classes in one family.  You can have someone who makes six figures and someone who is on food stamps.  What this means is that African Americans tend to have a better working knowledge of poverty than whites. One of the things I notice among some of the folk I know that are poor is that they do make bad decisions.  Now, I agree with some of the latest studies about how poverty makes people make bad decisions.  That said, such findings should not put us into some kind of economic fatalism.  People need to be aware that their situation can make them do stupid things, but then they have to learn how to go against the temptation.  Of course, lifting people out of poverty should do the trick, but in the immediate present, one has to learn to not make those decisions even when they seem tempting because money is short.

Second, I don’t think this list (which I think I’ve seen before) is putting the poor down.  It simply focuses on a kind of empowerment.  Yes, there are barriers to this.  But that doesn’t mean the poor shouldn’t try.  I find it interesting that Evans takes Ramsey to task for advocating eating healthy when the poor suffer from “food deserts” but ignores the fact that people and groups like First Lady Michelle Obama also advocate for the poor to eat better.  I haven’t seen any blog post condemning Ms. Obama for her advocacy.

Third, poverty is a complex thing.  There are both internal and external factors that cause poverty.  Coming from the post-apocalyspe landscape that is Flint, Michigan, having a major industry in a one-horse town leave can be devastating to that city, resulting in poverty and crime.  But poverty also has roots in bad decisions as well.  Conservatives tend to focus on the latter and not as much on the former.  I think that’s a problem.  But liberals are also at fault on focusing on the external and not the internal.  Both are major drivers of poverty and have to be addressed.  This is not about blaming the poor- it’s about helping the poor live smarter and ultimately lifting them out of poverty.

Fourth, I tend to think that progressive Christians tend to idolize the poor.  We lift up verses talking about God choosing the poor and somehow see this as some sort of sainted state (for others, not for ourselves).  God is on the side of the lowly and that includes the poor.  But I really don’t think God wants the poor to be poor forever.  Poverty is a sin, a sign of the brokeness of humanity.  I think God would like to see the poor prosper and live better than they are now.  Which leads me to my final point:

I think progressive Christians have to come to terms with prosperity.  If you mention the word, prosperity in liberal Christian circles, you are more than likely to hear it as an adjective that comes before the word “gospel.”  We have a vision of slick-haired preachers that come around telling people that God wants them to be rich.  I don’t doubt there are folks like that who distort the gospel.  But don’t we want the poor to prosper, to live better than what they do?  Can prosperity mean something more than “God wants to make you rich?”  Can it mean lifting people from poverty to live lives more whole?  Can it not just relate to consumerism but to something more?

There are just a few things that come to mind.  I’m curious to learn what smarter folks on money and the economy have to say about this.