Humbled in D.C. by Religion and Race

This past week I was in Washington, D.C. to work with a colleague at the United Methodist General Commission on Religion and Race as we were writing legislation in preparation for the 2016 General Conference. We were incorporating GCORR’s ministry model into its legislative mandates: Intercultural Competency, Institutional Equity, and Vital Conversations about Faith & Race. Too many things in the news demand that we excel at all three.

We finished our work a little early one afternoon so I decided to walk down behind the Capitol and check out some museums. I especially wanted to go to the National Holocaust Museum. I was breath-taken by the solemnity and horror of what I felt and experienced. Walking through the railcar that transported people to death camps was worse than chilling. Seeing the thousands upon thousands of shoes taken from people about to be murdered was overwhelming. Not a soul in the place spoke louder than a whisper, if that. Holocaust survivors were present with tattooed arms. The visit really put my work with the Commission on Religion and Race into perspective. We must say “Never Again!” to all genocide, racism, and murderous atrocities. The Islamic State must be stopped from beheading people. Russia must retreat from Ukraine’s sovereign borders. Christians in Iraq, Nigeria, and China must be protected from persecution.

We must all do our part, wherever we are, to stop heinous acts that take the lives of the unborn, the elderly, the Roma, and not to forget those innocent Hispanic children at our borders or those African-Americans who have been profiled and targeted. Indeed, Ferguson, Missouri is a tragic reminder of the U.S.’ racial history and a microcosm of the genocidal acts that have been perpetuated across the planet. Turks tried to wipe out Armenians in the early 20th century; Nazis tried to kill all the Jews; and the evidence of hatred goes all the way back to Cain killing Abel. We can say “that” would never happen in our community, but sadly it does every time I look over my shoulder and profile the people around me as I get in my car. When does careful vigilance cross the line into profiling?

We don’t want to call it discrimination or racism but we really do cling to what our differences are as human beings. Being unique is cause for celebration most of the time – until you’re the only one who thinks differently or doesn’t look like the majority. What a challenge for the church! We believe and preach Colossians 3:11 and Galatians 3:26-28 that in summary say that, in Christ: skin color, gender, and social status don’t matter – what matters is Jesus! Unfortunately, however, churches are mostly homogeneous like-minded clubs of similar people. Even with the rich diversity of the United Methodist Church, one of the most diverse denominations in the world, we are 92% white in the U.S. and 60% white worldwide. How do we create community when we would rather separate into different ethnicities? It begs the question of whether it is in our DNA to be prejudiced and want to be with own kind.

In D.C. I also went into the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian. Talk about mistreated. I was hoping to find a T-Shirt that said, “Fighting Terrorism Since 1492,” but I didn’t. It was a somber place to me. If the majority of this country doesn’t “get it” about the Washington NFL team that has a nickname that American Indians NEVER call themselves, then we’re in serious trouble. I am even more offended by the Cleveland Indians mascot “Chief Wahoo” whose cartoon-like features are blatantly insulting.

 I have other questions in the wake of Ferguson, Missouri.  I wonder why most persons of color assume the police have an agenda of targeting them, and why most persons who are white trust the cops. I’m torn, too. I want to believe that the authorities are just doing their job, aren’t racial profilers, and want to keep the peace. Unfortunately, our experiences differ when it comes to the color of our skins, the neighborhoods we’re from, and the accent of our voices.

People assume Southerners are ignorant because we speak a drawling version of Elizabethan English. Others assume Yankees are rude and impatient with their fast clipped dialects. Why do we assume that Asian kids are better at math, black kids are better at sports like basketball and football, and white kids are football linemen, the occasional tight end, fullback, or quarterback and little else?  Why in the world do we somehow think that Latino/Hispanic persons have a corner on the landscaping market? Are these facts, or are we racists of sorts?

We have turned the American melting pot into a salad bowl where we do our best to keep the tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and lettuce separated. With that kind of attitude we don’t need to wonder why Ferguson, Missouri happened, Wounded Knee, or the Holocaust. Look at the facts and know that out of nearly 3 million people incarcerated in the U.S. 38% are African-American and that 1 in 3 African-American males will be imprisoned at some point in their lives. What makes these stats even more disturbing is that African-Americans only make up 13% of the U.S. population. Why is there such a high rate of incarceration? Is it due to a lack of opportunity? Are African-Americans somehow ill-equipped by nature or nurture to break the cycle of poverty? Is it because of the lack of a male presence in families? Is it institutional racism?

By the way Hispanics are 17% of the U.S. population and 21% of the prison population. Asians are around 5% of the U.S. population and 2.5% of that of prisons. Whites comprise 78% of the population and 35% of prison inmates. What are we to make of all this when thinking about Ferguson, Missouri and the museums on Constitution Avenue in D.C.? Have you ever heard of the phrase “white privilege?”

Privileged or not, the U.S. is made up of all kinds of people from all kinds of places and I am not ignorant of the fact that there are millions of white people who are poor and marginalized, too.  The bottom-line for me is that we must take individual and corporate responsibility for the ways that we treat people. We must look critically at systemic causes of poverty, discrimination, and racism. There is no easy answer to any of the questions raised. We live in a complex world where people learn early to discriminate between themselves and others. Maybe God had it right in becoming flesh in Jesus, a Jew from the Middle East – not African, not European, Not Asian – from right in the middle of all humankind. Jesus ably represents all of us, and gave us the words to combat racism and genocide in Matthew 7:12, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Holocaust Museum



Holy Week and Defining Moments

Some things just aren’t forgotten. Certain events, situations, or circumstances have such an impact on us that they are cosmic in scope. They become defining moments for us as individuals and as societies. These events are HUGE! These events become defining moments precisely because they hit each of us in personal visceral way. They may have affected everybody, but we know exactly where we were when they happened. Some of these events would have to include: Black Tuesday when the stock market crashed and started the Great Depression; the attack on Pearl Harbor that awakened the US to WWII; the bombing of Nagasaki that ended WWII but started nuclear anxiety; the assassination of JFK; the Shuttle explosions; Columbine; and, of course, 9/11.

Personal reaction is certainly a factor in measuring the scope of a disaster, but what makes the difference between a national crisis and something that isn’t is in the way the crisis transcends ethnicity and personal agendas. Crimes against humanity affect everyone. It should bother us all that the Holocaust happened and that racism still hounds people of color. Shouldn’t MLK’s death be included in the list of defining moments? Sensitivity to an event’s ripple effect makes one painfully aware that some things have not been taken as seriously as others.

For instance, Columbus Day celebrations for Italians mean something quite different to Native Americans. Defining moments for Native peoples might include the Trail of Tears, Chief Joseph’s capture, The Battle of the Little Big Horn, and the massacres at Wounded Knee on December 29, 1890 and February 28, 1973. The most infamous atrocity against Native Americans for United Methodists is the Sand Creek Massacre led by former Methodist minister, Col. John Chivington, on November 29, 1864.

So how do defining moments for Native Americans and others take on a larger cosmic dimension? There are some things that seem to affect only a few people but nonetheless are a crime against all of us. Is this awareness what separates a mere tragedy from a national or world tragedy? What makes for a defining moment is wrapped up in the extent of the event’s shock waves. In other words, if enough people feel the pain, we all feel it to a certain degree. Everybody, regardless of race, religion, or nationality, feels gut-punched when something like this happens. The broad emotional scope of certain events typically cuts across societal boundaries.

You may have seen the videotape done by the two brothers from France as the World Trade Center attack was unfolding. As the camera was moving down the street toward the tower complex did you notice the kaleidoscope of humanity? Different languages, different races, and different nationalities were united in fear and confusion. The war on terrorism reminds me of the movie, “Independence Day,” a patriotic sci-fi flick about all humanity, led, of course, by the USA, to seek common survival against extraterrestrial foes. It is chock full of the personal and cosmic dimensions of both pain and heroism.

True defining moments are both personal and cosmic. They dictate a personal and a common response. If individuals shirked their duty there would be no national or international resolve. Defining moments begin with individuals before they become group-think. If there were no brave individuals like Clarke Bynum fighting off a would-be hijacker, New York firefighters, or Flight 93 heroes willing to say, “Let’s roll!” then the world wouldn’t be as galvanized as it is against terrorism. Individuals cement common resolve that hopefully will expand last year’s Arab Spring to Syria, etc.

Palm Sunday was a solemn defining moment for fickle crowds that erupted into terrible cosmic consequences and the second most cosmic-impacting event happened on Good Friday, a day that was good for everyone but Jesus. The foremost defining moment, of course, is Easter! The disciples had to individually believe that Jesus was alive before Christianity had a chance to become a cosmos changing movement. Each of their individual defining moments snowballed into a salvific plan for the universe. My hope for Holy Week is that we will be so changed personally by Christ that the cosmos will yet feel its powerful impact. May this week be the defining moment for one and all!

Lent: A Longer Look

We have heard it said that confession is good for the soul. Maybe so, but what if your declaration of guilt causes things to go from bad to worse? Picture yourself on a beach where there are hundreds of people and you happen to notice that some of the people are quite attractive. Would it be productive to go confess to someone that you’ve been ogling them? I dare say it would probably get you into more trouble. Lenten season is a time for confession that leads to new life, not worse life. Lenten sacrifice is to keep us out of trouble and not cause more. Of course, there are those times when we MUST confess our sins however painful that may be. To tell or not to tell takes a lot of discernment.

That’s one of the reasons why we call the 40 days before Easter (not counting Sundays) Lent. The word Lent comes from lencten, an Old English word from which we derive the word lengthen. Lent’s purpose is to cause us to take a long look at ourselves, our motivations and our actions. Lenten season comes when the days begin to lengthen. So should our spiritual introspection. How serious do we take sin? To confess or not? I daresay that I remember a joke about telling it all and someone replying, “I don’t believe I would have told that!” How much should we own up to people? What do we just tell God? I’m afraid there’s no one right answer. It depends, doesn’t it?  But this is what Lent is for: It makes me seriously ponder the meaning and effects of sin.

One of the Holy Spirit’s tasks is to convict us of sin. Scripture also says that the only “unpardonable sin” is the sin against the Holy Spirit, whatever that means. The “unpardonable sin,” being largely undefined, actually keeps me more honest. Someone once told me if I ever worried about whether I had commited it then I most assuredly hadn’t. Those who have commited it are so cold to the Holy Spirit they don’t even notice. If your conscience still bothers you then there’s hope! A wise American Indian elder put it this way: “The Holy Spirit is like a pointy diamond-shaped object in a Christian’s heart. Whenever he or she does something wrong, the diamond turns and it hurts. If we keep doing things wrong over and over again the diamond wears down our insides and after awhile it doesn’t hurt anymore. That’s when we have committed the ‘unpardonable sin.'” An interesting thought whether true or not. No matter what, I know that we better take sin seriously. Spiritual half-measures will not produce good fruit.

Lent needs to be an all-in endeavor for it to make a real difference. Maybe you’ve heard of the conversation between a father and his 10-year-old son. It illustrates the problem of Lenten half-measures. The father was attempting to explain to his young son the necessity of giving something up for Lent. In fact, the father told the boy exactly what he should give up: candy. The boy questioned his Dad’s strictness and wondered what good it would do. To which the father replied, “It will improve your character. You’ll be a better person on Easter Sunday if you give up candy during Lent. After all, your mother and I have given up liquor for Lent.” The boy then said, “That’s funny Dad. I saw you and Mom having a drink before dinner last night.” The father replied, “That was wine, son. What we gave up was hard liquor.” The boy countered, “Oh, that’s good, then all I need to give up for Lent is hard candy.”

Half measured spirituality isn’t adequate any time of year and especially so during Lent. This season’s discipline is a clarion call to get past being half-Christian or “Almost Christian,” in John Wesley’s vernacular. There are things we need to give up, and some things we need to take up, especially the cross. A worthy observance of Lent means a a real change of life, the ending of one kind of life and the start of a Holy Spirit empowerd new one. What I mean can be summed up in the story of the man who thanked the preacher profusely after a worship service, “Reverend, Reverend, what you said today in your sermon was exactly what I needed to hear. Thank you very, very much. It was so helpful. It revolutionized my life. Thank you, thank you!” The pastor was quite pleased that his words had helped so much, but he didn’t think the sermon was that great. He asked the man, “What exactly was it that helped so much?”

Without any hesitation the man answered, “Well, you began your sermon by saying that you wanted to talk to us about two things this morning, and then in the middle you said, ‘That completes the first part of what I wanted to tell you and now it’s time I moved on to the second part of my sermon.’ It was at that exact moment that I realized I had come to the end of the first part of my life, and it was high time that I got on to the second part. Thank you, Reverend,” he said as he left the church, “Thank you, very much.”

Hopefully this Lent will be a time for us to say, “Thanks be to God! Thanks for helping me let go of the past and start fresh.  Thanks for helping me stop unproductive destructive behaviors and thanks for helping me start a new life of forgiveness and possibility! Thanks for your Holy Spirit’s work in my life.” I pray this Lent will be the real deal for all of us this year!

Throw Your Life Away: Be a Potter!


My good friend and father of a master potter, Willie Teague, blessed me this past weekend with the gift of a book with the simple inscription, “I saw this and thought of you. Peace, Willie.” The book’s title is The Soulwork of Clay: A Hands-on Approach to Spirituality. The author is Marjorey Zoet Bankson. It speaks to my head and heart. It is wonderful. It articulates long unexpressed feelings I have about clay and my heritage.

Many of you know about my Edgefield County, SC roots, American-Indian and clay-loving forebears. Some of you know that I love giving things away, a habit that I thought was a legacy of my parents, and they are deeply on my mind these past days. Daddy died 10 years ago this week and Mother’s birthday is July 20 and has been dead 17 years. But, they’re alive you see! Not just in God’s embrace, but in their loving family’s actions. Especially as I think of American-Indian Give-Away’s, potlatches.

I never tied the two together, but it’s in my brothers and my DNA to give things away. You may want to read Thom Whitewolf-Fasset’s Giving Our Hearts Away to better understand the concept that the one who gives away the most is in harmony with all creation. At potlatches and give-aways at funerals, graduations, birthdays, etc. families give things away not receive them. It brings honor to be a giver. Anyway, I come from a long line of givers and maybe it’s the Indian in us. Every Christmas I give each of my clergy a pottery gift that I’ve made. I make pots for all of the cabinet and everyone in the UM Center. Every year it’s a different theme, and last year I also made jewelry for all the women by doing glass fusing and using my kiln.

But, back to clay and the kinetic dance that I feel from my fingers to my very soul. Throwing clay and shaping a vessel stirs my spirit. I’m too often a guy who seems to be living in and out of his head instead of being in touch with feelings. Well, feeling clay reconnects my mind and spirit. It grounds me and gives me joy. Marjorey Bankson puts it this way, “Now as the ecological crisis looms in many forms, I feel a new urgency for finding ways that we can rediscover how much we love the earth itself. I believe this is the path for recovering our humanity, our sense of community with each other, and communion with all living things, especially air and water. While some people go on a vision quest or a wilderness journey to reclaim this elemental sense of connection, I believe that working with clay can do the same thing at home.” Amen.

It makes me think of how each of us is made in God’s image and create from the dust/mud of the earth. Clay-throwing brings together earth, wind, water, and fire. It is as whole an experience of being/acting in God’s image as I can imagine. The excitement as I write these words is indicative of the sheer pleasure of it, and it reminds me how much Jesus takes pleasure incarnationally in the mud of our lives. I can see him laughing as He works with us, kneading, loving, warming up the clay of our lives; opening us up to grace in the spinning of our lives; baptizing us with the Spirit’s water taking the friction out of our existence; shaping us into a useful vessel; trimming away the excess we don’t need; decorating us in unique ways; allowing the wind to blow on us preparing us for the fire of the kiln; glazing us with beauty to make us strong and vibrant.

Well, I thank Willie for the book and this respite in a hectic day to imagine myself back at the district parsonage at my wheel shaping a tall jug and sgrafittoing a SC palmetto on the side of a leatherhard piece. Examples of the end result of my work are seen in the photo above. The therapy, the reunion of body and spirit. It is good. It’s even better to give it away!