Archive for the ‘Redemption’ Category

When Hurricane Irene stormed the East Coast three weeks ago, she caused major flooding and power outages from the Outer Banks to New England, cementing her status as the storm of a generation. Her fury blew into Connecticut on the last Saturday night in August and maintained a stranglehold of fear and awe through Sunday morning. She lost her hurricane classification upon landfall, but try telling that to the folks in East Haven whose homes were swept into the sea with the storm surge. While Connecticut missed the worst of Irene, which spun west of her initial forecast, approximately 840,000 people were left without electricity in our state alone. Many of our neighbors continued to be without power for nearly a week, some in the state still had no electricity or running water after two weeks.

Fortunately, our household did not lose electricity and we were able to facilitate a home church service during the storm for those who were willing to brave the strong winds, torrential rain and downed trees. Including one tree in our backyard which could have done some serious damage to the house had it fallen in the opposite direction. This video taken just down the street shows how close we came to losing our power.

 

But in the hours and days following Irene, as the damage was surveyed it became apparent that Irene would not be labeled primarily a wind or water event, but a power crisis. My place of employment located on the New Haven coast sustained significant water damage and power outages, forcing us out of our workspace for nearly three days before cleanup crews and generators allowed us to return. School openings were delayed for days as the electricity could not be quickly restored. Food went bad, perishable items had to be stored in coolers packed with ice, and folks took cold showers if their water was running at all.

Having not lost our electricity, our home felt an island with a unique vantage point, a hill from which it was possible to observe Irene’s impact without much feeling it. This came as somewhat of a convenient disappointment, convenient in that our own hot showers were uninterrupted, disappointing to my wife who was secretly hoping for a chance to hone some post-apocalyptic survival skills. But viewing the crisis from within the eye of the storm allowed the societal concept of power to rise to the forefront of my thought.

Growing up in Southern California, I am no stranger to power outages, blackouts and rolling brownouts as our electric grid was often ill-prepared for hot weather and the resulting energy consumption. However, I couldn’t help but notice during the aftermath of Irene how frequently the term “power” was used as a euphemism for electricity.

There were outcries for the restoration of power. Voices united in an attempt to get their power back. Neighbors expressed concern for each other, especially the elderly and disabled, who had lost their power. Radio stations changed their programming to air simulcasts of the evening news for the benefit of the powerless. Utility company crews worked through the night to restore power. Electricians arrived from across the nation to get power back into the right hands. Power. Power. Power.

While electricity and utility resources are certainly indicators of measurable power, the overuse of the word caused me to think about the real connection between power and resources in our country. It has been said that those who control their resources control their destiny. But how often do we collectively stop to think about how our resources are being allocated? Or perhaps how these resources, this power, is being attained or who it is being stolen from? Is it possible that our manifest destiny is just a winner’s take on highway robbery?

I am writing this as a white man cognizant of the irony and tension in those questions. I am also a white man with Cherokee blood running through my veins, the same blood that was spilled on a Trail of Tears nearly two centuries ago. The inhumanity my forefathers impressed on others, the institutional racism that persists from which I benefit daily, can only persist so long before in a very real sense it becomes a part of you. I may be 90 percent oppressor, but also10 percent oppressed. And so from within this internal conflict and for this tithe of my bloodline I will question. I will speak.

Undoubtedly, there is an uproar of attention and assistance when people who are used to being in power lose it. Fine. However, the poor and oppressed are not aware they can speak up because they have never held power. Never been allowed to taste it. Their voice can rarely be unified as they are too occupied with survival or are drowning out their harsh reality through poor decisions that create a cyclical environment, a generational imprisonment. Who speaks on behalf of these brother and sisters?

Whose voices cried out for the powerless in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina? Who among us is united on behalf of the youth in our failing schools that are more segregated today than they were a half century ago? Who is expressing outrage at the maltreatment of our elderly and the lack of access for the disabled, at times other than immediately following a hurricane? How do we go about changing our social programming and services to benefit the powerless rather than simply sustain bureaucracy? Who stays up through the night praying on behalf of the disproportionate number of people of color who are murdered in our inner-cities and sentenced to inordinate prison sentences for first time drug offenses? Perhaps we need not to worry about getting the power back into the right hands, but acknowledging that we all have a hand in distributing power and that we need to take care of each other.

Why?

After all, there are many of privilege who would now claim that equal rights have been achieved. That the playing field has been evened. That we even have a black President as proof.

An answer in short. One third of black males born today in the United States are projected to become incarcerated during their lifetime. Forty-eight percent of black males are growing up without a father in their household. Eighty-six percent of black fourth graders in our country read below grade level and 58 percent are functionally illiterate. In the Spring of 2011, only 15 percent of Connecticut black youth met proficiency goals on the standardized math and science tests compared to 60 percent of white youth. By 2050, half the population of the United States will be comprised of people of color, yet 90 percent of our lawyers and 80 percent of our law students are white. We still have a problem.

Elizabeth Eckford walks alone to join Carlotta Walls and the rest of the Little Rock Nine to integrate Arkansas' Central High in 1957, three years after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision

On September 16, 2011, I was privileged to attend a symposium on “Educational Disparity and Minority Youth” hosted by the Quinnipiac School of Law and Yale Law School. Present was Carlotta Walls Lanier, of the Little Rock Nine who first integrated the Arkansas school system in 1957 amidst threats of being hanged by a hateful mob. Hearing her first person account while taking in her grace and dignity made tears of justice want to roll down my cheeks.

Susan Taylor of of the National CARES Mentoring Movement and former editor-in-chief of Essence Magazine was also present and noted “we have lost our way, we have lost our minds, and we need to admit that.” Ms. Taylor stated that at age 65 she wishes she could rest, but that she will not so long as “the village is on fire and our children are in dream-crushing pain.” She poignantly asked, “What are our ministers doing? What are our churches preaching?”

I pray that we can preach Jesus in our actions above our rhetoric or expressed values. You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly (Romans 5:6). This should give us the courage to be good news for the poor, to proclaim freedom and forgiveness to the imprisoned, and to restore sight to the blind. As the good folks at The Village Nation preach in Northridge, CA, when asked “Am I my brother’s keeper?,” our answer must be “Yes we are.” We must stand up for the powerless, because they are our brothers and sisters, their blood is our blood. Their pain is our pain.

One can disagree if they wish. Some will continue to keep their politics in a vice-grip. But consider Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s words:

“Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg. Yes, no matter how right the wall may be and how wrong the egg, I will stand with the egg. Someone else will have to decide what is right and what is wrong; perhaps time or history will decide. But If there were a novelist who, for whatever reason, wrote works standing with the wall, of what value would such works be?”

This sounds like the Gospel to me. Why the news of Jesus Christ is good, why God’s works holds value. For He too stands with the egg and not the wall. I pray that this truth can produce within us a stranglehold of fear and awe such that the strength of our resulting unified action and service can be compared to a hurricane force; a force bent on restoring power to those without.

In the fall of 2001, I encountered Jesuit priest Father Greg Boyle for the first time and am ashamed to admit I was not impressed. Father Boyle was speaking as part of the Pepperdine University convocation series and told how founded the nonprofit Homeboy Industries in inner city Los Angeles, the largest gang intervention and re-entry program in the country. He talked about serving gang involved youth with criminal records by inviting them from criminality into community and creating employment opportunities for them in a bakery and silk screen shop. Father Boyle, better known as “Father G” in his neighborhood of Boyle Heights, reported from the front lines how the light was stepping into the darkness, but I could not comprehend it.

Under Father Greg Boyle's guidance, former gang members and prison inmates find work, community and healing at Homeboy Industries in inner city Los Angeles

“Nothing stops a bullet like a job,” is the Homeboy mantra. “Jobs, not jail,” Boyle said of his social justice entrepreneurial endeavor. But in recounting his interactions with the gang members, Father Boyle also cursed up a storm, speaking like the young people he was working with and arguing that doing so had been an effective means of building rapport. Only 18 years old and in fierce protection of my heirloom faith, I could not see past his riling rhetoric to the incredible significance of his work pulling kids out of gang violence through love. I appreciated that young men and women were giving up gang allegiances to work side by side in reconciliation, but I did not understand why Father Boyle would “stoop to their level” by speaking so profanely. I felt his message was lost in translation. I was a Protestant who didn’t cuss, he was a Catholic who did. It seemed a bridge too far. Never mind that this man was practicing much of what he was preaching and that I was just a child attempting to play Border Patrol on behalf of the church.

I didn’t begin to understand what Father Boyle was about until God placed me in the gang neighborhoods of South Central Los Angeles almost immediately thereafter. Many students find work study jobs on campus, mine brought me on weekends to Raymond Street, a boundary line separating the Crip and Blood neighborhoods in South Central. I’m certain the only reason they entrusted the job to an 18 year old first semester freshman is because everybody else had already said no.

But it was in South Central that for the first time I witnessed injustice in person and was given eyes to see. It was on Raymond Street that for the first time, someone I knew was murdered; a 14 year old whose death attracted no outrage or even a raised eyebrow from society. It was in these streets that I realized you can’t pull yourself up by your boot straps if you weren’t given boots. Perhaps my greatest realization was acknowledging that had I grown up in the neighborhood I was working in, I would have chosen a life of gangs and drugs and that it could have been my body in the outline at the end of the taped off street. God created all men equal we say, but we sure don’t act accordingly.

A decade has now passed since those first Pepperdine days, and wouldn’t you know it, I again encountered Father Greg Boyle this week. Only instead of walking away upset this time, I felt privileged to listen to a humble servant summarize rather succinctly and eloquently what has taken me ten years to begin to learn and process.

Boyle was interviewed, along with two former gang members and current Homeboy employees, by Tom Ashbrook for the NPR’s “On Point” which aired on Monday May 16, 2011. Ashbrook asked Father Boyle about changes he would like to see in society and here’s how he responded:

“Well, I think in the end it’s about creating a community of kinship, such that God in fact might recognize it. So, there’s an idea that’s taken root in the world, it’s at the root of all that’s wrong with it, and the idea is this, that there just might be lives out there that matter less than other lives. And how do we together stand against that idea? And, so, what I think Homeboy seeks to do is to stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop.”

Boyle continued, “In the end if we want justice and we want peace, those things can’t happen without an undergirding sense of kinship where we recognize that it’s an illusion when we talk about them. There’s just us. And you want to seek to bridge anything that separates us or creates the distance. Once you have kinship, you can get to justice and you can get to peace. But if you think there’s an us and a them, we’ve got too far to go. And so that’s the task, the task is to remember that we belong to each other.”

Father G ended by expounding on Acts 2:43 where “awe came upon everyone” upon the founding of the church. “In the end, (awe) is the opposite of judgment, you know? We seek a compassion that can stand in awe at what Loretta and Robin (the former gang members alongside him) have had to carry, rather than stand in judgment at how they carried it. And so the measure of our compassion really lies not in our service of people, but in our willingness to see ourselves in kinship with folks who are different. And who have had to carry more than I ever was asked to carry. And I grew up just like them in the gang capital of the world. But because I grew up in a certain part of town with two wonderful parents, a trauma free childhood, and wonderful siblings, and opportunities and education, that doesn’t make me morally superior to Loretta and Robin. Quite the opposite. I stand in awe at what they had to carry. And awe came upon everyone. That’s sort of the measure of the quality of our communal life it seems to me, when we can move from judgment to awe.”

Amen.

A lot can change in a decade, thank God. Father Boyle joked that during the first ten years of his gang ministry that times were so turbulent he considered changing the after hours voice mail to say, “Thank you for calling Homeboy Industries, your bomb threat is important to us.” Thankfully, over the past ten years, the organization no longer receives death threats or hate mail and Homeboy Industries stands as a beacon of proof that things can improve, even if hope is built slowly and incrementally.

This sentiment is echoed in “Follow Me to Freedom”, a collaborative effort between civil rights leader John Perkins and modern day prophet Shane Claiborne. In the book, Shane records his first meeting with Mr. Perkins when he shared his frustration that after three years of ministry in North Philadelphia, things did not seem to be improving much. Claiborne writes, “John looked me dead in the eye and, with the gentleness of a father, plainly and sincerely explained the way things work: ‘Oh, Shane, you’ll start to see some things change. You’ll start to see signs of transformation – in about 10 years. Or maybe 12.’ And he didn’t flinch… I gulped… yet somehow I knew he spoke the truth, and it gave me hope.” Now ten years after that first conversation, The Simple Way and other New Monastic communities are providing hope to all of us by pointing to the possibility of another world.

I’m not sure where I’ll be ten years from now, but I am extremely grateful for where God has faithfully led me over the past decade. From Pepperdine and the neighborhoods of South Central, to an amazing woman I am blessed to call my wife and a great adventure in the Big Sky Country of Montana, to this present time in the Northeast enjoying our three beautiful children and preparing to live intentionally in community and plotting a missional church plant on God’s time.

The progress will continue to be slow and incremental I’m sure, but we will continue to pray that we can be led by the Spirit. In the words of Homeboy employee Loretta Andrews, we must not “fear to change.” When we allow change to occur by God’s hand, I believe He will lead us across the bridges of racism, classism, poverty and injustice until we come to a fuller understanding that there really is no them, only us, despite differences in our upbringings, cultures, and language. Jaime and I look forward to committing to a community long term and perhaps a decade from now, we too will be able to say that awe has come upon us.

Michael Vick is an episode of ‘This American Life’ waiting to be produced. It seems everyone has a take on Vick, from the vehement critics he earned with his despicable off-the-field killing and torturing of dogs for which he served prison time to the adoring fans who have forgiven Vick as he has resurrected his professional football career in a way that has the phoenix considering retirement. Amidst persistent controversy and criticism, the remarkable comeback of Mike Vick unveiled its latest chapter on Sunday December 10, 2010 in a contest that appeared to be more a microcosm of his life’s journey than simply another game.

I was following the Philadelphia Eagles-New York Giants game this past Sunday while running at the gym, paying particularly close attention to the performance of the Eagles’ Quarterback, who doubles as the quarterback on my little brother Eric’s fantasy football team. Eric and I were competing in cyberspace to determine which of our fantasy teams would be in competition of the “Daddy Pants” league finals this Sunday, with the first points of our annual brotherly competition at stake. I won’t go into details, but the competition is a big deal, so I was pleased to see that Vick, who has been playing out of his mind this season, was performing at a very pedestrian rate throwing for only one touchdown and accumulating less than one hundred yards passing as the fourth quarter got underway. With Philadelphia down 31-10 with less than eight minutes to play, I headed home from the gym, confident that if Eric’s team should out-fantasize my own, it would certainly not be due to the exploits of Number 7.

Of course, upon checking the update of our fantasy football battle, Vick had somehow accumulated an insane 99 points during my drive home resulting in a 38-31 Eagles’ Vick-tory and the demise of my fantasy team. The Eagles scored a mind-boggling four touchdowns in the final eight minutes to overtake the Giants and sole possession of first place in the NFC East with two games to play, while making a strong case that the first two letters in MVP stand for Michael Vick. I should have been shocked, but it seems extraordinary occurrences are commonplace for Mr. Vick these days.

Just over a month ago on November 15, 2010, Vick set an NFL record by accounting for five first half touchdowns against the Washington Redskins in front of a national audience on Monday Night Football en route to six touchdowns in three quarters and a 59-28 demolition of Washington. The performance was so dominant that it inspired 11 time national sportswriter of the year Rick Reilly to dedicate his weekly ESPN column to the headline that is Michael Vick.

In his article entitled “Time to Forgive Vick Is Here”, Reilly argued Vick paid a reasonable the price for his crimes against animals by serving 18 months in the notorious Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary which could easily have cost him his entire career. Reilly didn’t make the case that Vick’s delinquency should be forgotten, but did ask what more could justifiably be asked of him:

“The man is contrite. He is humbled. He is chastened. He has already given 24 speeches for the Humane Society. He has dismissed his old friends, has even run from them when they show up. What else is he supposed to do? Move into a dog kennel himself?”

The article piqued my interest when Reilly mentioned Vick would be using his off-day the following week to travel to Hillhouse High School in New Haven, Connecticut to talk about the evils of dog fighting. As a social worker in New Haven, I am often in the city’s schools dealing with emergent crises, but over the past year I have walked the halls of Hillhouse so often I feel like an honorary staffer.

From fellow El Capitan alum Kevin McAdam playing with Vick first at Virginia Tech and then with the Atlanta Falcons and then our Chargers nearly selecting Vick with the first pick in the 2001 NFL draft (which they traded to Atlanta for receiver Tim Dwight and draft picks that became LaDainian Tomlinson, Tay Cody and Reche Caldwell), I often felt Vick’s story was just a step away from intersecting with my own, even if only insignificantly. So I found significance in his plans to be present at Hillhouse and found my way into the school’s auditorium on November 23, 2010 in hopes of discerning whether the talented performer’s repentance act was genuine or just an attempt at a career makeover.

New Haven advertises itself with the slogan, “It all happens here,” but for a day it didn’t seem like such an exaggeration as both Vick and Bill Cosby were in town to speak to students. The Hillhouse kids didn’t seem to mind much that they were missing out on Cosby as they were brimming with energy and weren’t paying much attention to either Assistant Principal Ms. G or Principal Carolina’s appeals to quiet down. I made my way through the packed crowd and found a seat among the soon-to-be state champion Hillhouse High School varsity football team, less than a 40 yard dash from the stage prepared for Vick.

Principal Carolina announced he would bring Vick out and the excitement reached a fever pitch. With no Vick in sight, students began to give themselves whiplash with every preemptive shrill of excitement, believing the quarterback was capable of entering the room like a ninja, stealthily from any direction (ironically the Giants looked as if they shared this belief on Sunday in their attempts to tackle Vick in the 4th quarter). Screams started to accompany any athletic black male who entered the auditorium looking for one of the last seats as we appeared well on our way toward a fire code violation.

Vick entered stage right and the crowd erupted, but not as loud as I expected as it appeared some kids had already lost their voices and others had stoically convinced themselves that after five minutes of false alarms, they would no longer be punked, even when Vick actually showed up. The applause was generous and without any hint of dog lovers voicing their disapproval. I wondered if Vick’s reception would have been colder had he shown up in the suburbs or if he hadn’t recently ascended back to the level of NFL star quarterback.

Vick’s earrings glistened in the spotlight and he flashed his celebrity smile. He was dressed in a solid gray pullover, dark jeans and black tennis shoes worn in the style of 2015 Marty McFly.

Accompanying Vick was Wayne Pacelle, a Hillhouse graduate, current President/CEO of the Humane Society of the United States and second fiddle in the eyes of the kids. Pacelle began by noting the Humane Society’s goal of stopping animal cruelty in all its forms and noted he and Vick were present to bring awareness to the Society’s End Dog Fighting Campaign which has already made stops in Chicago, Charlotte, Washington D.C., Baltimore and Philadelphia. Pacelle presented as thoughtful and well educated, but realized people had not flocked to see him and sat down after commending Vick for getting up at 6:00 am on his day off to take a train from Philadelphia to New Haven, and stating that the star athlete is not mandated by the conditions of his Probation to perform any community service in the form of public speaking.

In contrast to Pacelle, Vick did not project himself as a polished public speaker nor an intellectual, but he did appear genuine as he began his story. Introduced to dog fighting at the age of eight, Vick claimed he he never considered dog fighting to be inhumane and admitted both that he was unwilling to listen to the advice of those who told him it was wrong and that he had not cared about potential consequences of his involvement. Vick then confirmed the adage that ‘no criminal expects to be caught’ when he acknowledged that the gravity of his orchestration of dog fighting rings didn’t register with him until he was arrested and convicted.

Vick appeared to be at his most vulnerable when he admitted to repeatedly lying to his mother when she questioned him about whether he was involved in dog fighting. Vick’s mother did not find out the truth about her son until he was arrested, breaking her heart. Vick, who had signed the richest contract in NFL history in 2001, filed for bankruptcy in 2008 while serving his prison sentence and told the students, “When I was sitting in a prison cell, I wanted to give up, I really did.”

Vick made known that his nation-wide school campaign against dog fighting is part of his attempt to help more dogs than he has harmed and sternly warned that as a result of his conviction “all the laws have changed” and “if you fight dogs, you’ll serve a prison sentence.”

It turns out it actually was Vick who approached the Humane Society with the idea making amends through speaking to kids in an attempt to eradicate dog fighting, perhaps lending some credence to his answer to a student question that he feels he can best demonstrate his rehabilitation by owning and caring for a dog after his probation expires. Vick said his daughter sees people on a daily basis with dogs in their condo complex and asks him if she can get a dog too. Vick looked pained when he recounted that he can’t currently get a dog for his kids due to his “ill-advised actions.”

Vick reported, “I think I’m being used by God” and advised those gathered to “always believe that you got to keep God first.” He continued, “(God is) the only reason, the only reason, that I’m standing here today.” He almost appeared to laugh and professed, “Some of the things I’m doing now, playing at the level I’m playing, I don’t know how I’m doing them.” I’m not sure any of us know how Michael Vick is doing the things he is doing, but it wouldn’t be far-fetched to view his story in light of Biblical redemption narratives or its metaphors about rising on wings of Eagles.

Vick has overcome giant obstacles in his Joseph-like rise from prison to stardom. To put things in perspective, the man who was incarcerated just 18 months ago is currently the NFL’s leading vote getter for the 2011 Pro Bowl (well ahead of the likes of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning), guaranteeing that even if it’s not always sunny in Philadelphia this season, Vick will be able to bask in the Hawaii sun come late January. After Sunday’s victory over the Giants of New York, Vick gave credit to his teammates and again thanked God for the opportunity to participate in one of the “greatest comebacks of my career.” At this rate, Vick’s return to prominence may well someday be considered one of the greatest comebacks of any career. And while many remain unconvinced, I’ll count myself among the believers in Michael Vick.