Archive for the ‘Social Justice’ Category

I am a protestor. This is the second post in a three part series outlining my thinking and position as it relates to racial injustice in our society and lamenting racial divisions within the Church. In observance of today’s Holiday set apart to honor Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy, and in conjunction with the annual Zannette Lewis Environmental and Social Justice Poetry Slam in New Haven, Part Two is an artistic response to the racial disparity infecting our country.

You can read Part One: Listening to Dr. King here.

 

In early December 2014, in the days following the news that that there would be no indictments in either Ferguson or New York after the losses of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, my friend Erika Stanley, a strong black woman and committed servant of Christ, put out a call. Erika asked anyone interested to join her in writing a collaborative poem on “the recent events that have divided this country.” Erika was clear we need not be poets, just folks willing to use their voice.

Eight of us connected through Erika, of varying age, gender and race collaborated to join the protest with our words. Erika then did some incredible work to merge and edit our individual poems into a unified effort, exemplifying the Gospel in action.

Below is our poem, with some brief introductory thoughts from Ms. Stanley.

“I was (and still am) sickened by the disgusting comments being made on social media in the days and week after Mike Brown and Eric Garner’s murders. My only encouragement came from people who were actively speaking out about the injustice in a productive and meaningful way. Yes, this about color. Yes, this is about right and wrong. Yes, this is about how we can do better as a country when African American men as disproportionately jailed (often wrongfully) and murdered by police. I am a descendant of many hard working, God fearing black men. My father is a black man and my brother is a black man so the ignorance swirling around these deaths aren’t about theories for me, they have so much to do with my life and the men I love the most.

Civil disobedience and freedom of speech against social injustice were critical pieces of the civil rights movement… As a poet, I knew I wanted to pen my observations and feelings despite the difficulty I had in doing so. That’s when I made an open call to my Facebook friends to join me in a poetic protest. I had no idea who would respond, I just felt obligated to create a space for others to think, feel and write; I welcomed anyone to mourn, grieve and purge themselves through words.”

 

We are a discrimiNation

 

Under the whip

Grew an industry, the new empire

Tobacco the cash crop, but no cash

Shared by sharecroppers.

 

Corporate persons’ interest

Protected by beat coppers –

 

Ironic we kill black men for stealing—

selling cigarettes

Excuse me sir, I believe those were already paid for

When you rode the non-existent coattails

Of our slave beholden brethren

For surely you can see we stole their coats,

Their rights, their boots

The boots you now ask them to pull themselves up by

Forgetting the forceful boost we once received

And still benefit from

Those straps never arrived for them

Placed on back order until the laces got twisted

Into ropes suspending strange fruits from Southern trees

 

What does it mean?

 

The fourth of July

“My country tis of thee

Dry land of inequity

Of thee I scream

Land where my brothers die

Land where black mothers cry

Praying from every graveside

Let freedom ring!”

 

Mislabel black as thy enemy

Are we free to live?

Old stories fall away

History being made by all of us now.

Can you feel it?  Can you feel this change in the air?

I know you do. Some of you are lashing out,

Some of you are finding your voice, some of you

are stepping back, some of you are stepping up.

Change is scary, uncomfortable. You are part of this

Your actions, too.

No matter how much you may not want to be part of this

you are.

 

We want a new normal. 

 

That’s the murmur of the mothers talking

low at the table nearby,

the shock of the big nothing that happened

after Eric Garner’s death,

this is nothing new to them, it’s a common tragedy.

it’s a paragraph in an afternoon talk

they watch their sons play with the castle

on the carpeted library’s floor.

 

Where do we go from here?

“We the people” demand true freedom and equality.

Streets, bridges, and highway fills

city to city ’til we reach Capitol Hill

 

No, we are not where we should be

 

but we will get there.

 

Hold on, we will get there.

 

 

written by: Erika K. Stanley, Shonrael Lanier, Lance Errol Moo, Da’trelle Snell, Jennifer Jones, Susan Clarkson Moorehead, Jessica Martinez and Joshua Fisher

 

I am a protestor. This is the first in a three part series outlining my thinking and position as it relates to racial injustice in our society and lamenting racial divisions within the Church. In observance of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday last Thursday (1/15) and this weekend’s observance of the Holiday set apart in honor of his legacy, Part One highlights Dr. King’s own words from a half century ago that still ring loudly in their call for freedom today.

I wrote these words for everyone who struggles in their youth, who won’t accept deception instead of what is truth. It seems we lose the game before we even start to play. Who made these rules? We’re so confused, easily led astray.

Sometimes it seems, we’ll touch that dream, but things come slow or not at all. And the ones on top, won’t make it stop, So convinced that they might fall.

Lauryn Hill “Everything is Everything” (1998)

On September 1, 1958, writing from New York City, Martin Luther King Jr. publishes “My Pilgrimage to Nonviolence” in the September issue of Fellowship, an abbreviated version of chapter six of his book Stride Toward Freedom. Citing Jesus in Luke chapter 4, Dr. King writes, “The Christian ought always to be challenged by any protest against unfair treatment of the poor, for Christianity is itself such a protest, nowhere expressed more eloquently than in Jesus’s words: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord.’”

The Reverend continues, expanding on his long held deep concerns about the gap between superfluous wealth and abject poverty. Dr. King notes, “Capitalism is always in danger of inspiring men to be more concerned about making a living than making a life.” These words would be exponentially prophetic, especially highlighted by the needless death of Eric Garner over sales of loose cigarettes in Staten Island, New York on July 17, 2014 in which we became aware that the situation had escalated to one in which capitalism is now more concerned about protecting a living than taking a life.

Four and a half years later, on April 16, 1963, amidst an eight-day incarceration in Birmingham, Alabama for engaging in direct nonviolent protest, Martin Luther King Jr. pens an eloquent defense of work being done to advance Civil Rights and a stinging critique of the critical clergy who have failed to support the movement.

Dr. King gives the benefit of good will to his fellow clergy, but explains that their charges fall outside of the Biblical mission of Shalom, saying, “I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

Dr. King’s appeal here lays the moral and ethical stare decisis for those listening to the Sprit’s prophetic voice to become involved in addressing injustice where they are able.

In his treatise from Birmingham, Dr. King expounds on the value of nonviolent protest explaining that the intent of such direct action is to create opportunity for negotiation, “to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”

Is it possible that this is what theology looks like?

He continues, “privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily… We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.”

For Christ followers, especially those like me who enjoy asymmetrical power and unmerited privilege in our culture based on gender and race inequality, the challenge is to look to Jesus’ example of a King voluntarily stepping down from His throne and to ask myself if I am willing to pay the same severe price of such a costly interruption.

Mug shot of Martin Luther King Jr. (1963) "One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”

“One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

After outlining a multitude of the inhuman offenses of the racism which he suffered, Dr. King makes a plea that, “when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”– then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait… One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”

Our brother and hero in the faith then shares his broken optimism lamenting the racial divisions in God’s church, “I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action.”

“When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.

In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.

In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.”

The temptation is to say that things have changed; that Dr. King’s “Dream” was eventually realized and that a post-racial society has been achieved over the course of the last half-century. That simple academic knowledge of the Bible is we need to make things right. This would make me feel better. Allow me to discount the narratives that do not fit my worldview. But if we are willing to listen to our brothers and sisters of color, to hear the minority report, we find an entirely different story altogether.

Is it possible, as comedian Chris Rock recently pointed out to Frank Rich of New York Magazine, “When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before. So, to say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. There’s been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years.”

Is it possible some of us just discounted the above statement because it came from a comedian and used that as an excuse not to hear the experiences and wisdom that could be gleaned from hearing a black man out?

Regardless of what you have come to believe about the character of Michael Brown following the tragic untimely end to his young life, are we willing to hear the anger and distrust of the Ferguson community? Even if it costs us something?

After a sixth bullet struck Michael Brown he fell facedown onto the double-yellow lines of Canfield Drive. Mr. Brown’s blood began to run in a small river down the pitched road. His body lay prostrate in forced submission to the police where he remained, at least partially uncovered and in view of neighborhood residents and onlookers for four and a half hours. In the aftermath, a 21 year old Ferguson resident, Alexis Torregrossa, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “They shot a black man, and they left his body in the street to let you all know this could be you. To set an example, that’s how I see it.”

Do we have ears to hear Ms. Torregrossa? If so, we must acknowledge that we have more work to do. Work that starts with listening, not to why all lives matter, but to how and why for so long the lives of black people have been placed at such a grave discount.

Are we willing to listen?

Jan 2015 New Yorker Cover

“We were just kids just living in wide-eyed innocence, minivan floor like a tenement. We were just kids who believed in more than just dreams, in more than just justified ends to a means” – Switchfoot “Who We Are”

We wanted to help. We did not know what we were doing. We changed the world.

In early 2006, during months a Southern Californian would refer to as Spring, but in Montana the ice is just starting to thaw, I read something that would change my life. The Facebook was limited to college students and prompted status updates (Joshua Fisher is…), so if I recall correctly, it was a post on Shanley Deignan’s Xanga site. There was mention of an organization that had made its way through Nashville advocating on behalf of orphaned children in Uganda. Children in danger of being forcibly conscripted into a guerrilla army comprised largely of child soldiers. I looked up the group online and discovered they had been founded by three kids in their early 20s and had set up their headquarters in El Cajon, CA, the city where I was born.

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Walking from Missoula Valley Church to the Courthouse in Downtown Missoula for the Global Night Commute in solidarity with the children of Northern Uganda (April 29, 2006)

I felt reborn in outrage at the plight of these children and responsible to help both them and my fellow San Diegans in the battle. With that sum of knowledge I found myself dialing the fledgling offices of Invisible Children and asking what we could do to help in Missoula.

I learned that Northern Uganda was in the trenches of a 20 year ongoing war that had left nearly two million people left internally displaced, nearly 60,000 of whom were living in absolute poverty in housing camps. Key to the country’s conflict was rebel Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) comprised of and sustained by kidnapped children, forced to commit terrible acts of violence or have these same acts carried out on them and their families.

By 2006, an estimated 400,000 children nationwide, referred to as “night commuters”, were walking from their rural villages into city centers each night in order to sleep in groups, hoping to avoid the fate of the 25,000 children abducted before them. With a quarter of all Northern Ugandan children over the age of 10 with at least one deceased parent, the kids had banded together for self-preservation. Invisible Children co-founders Jason Russell, Laren Poole, and Bobby Bailey had discovered these children on a 2003 trip hoping to make a documentary on the conflict in the Sudan. Instead they turned their lenses toward this true, untold story in hope of making a positive change.

Armed with a rough cut of their documentary, a non-profit was birthed with a goal of providing resources to the “invisible children” of the world, to inspire and empower the “young and young at heart in the developing world.” A three pronged approach of objectives was formed, to build a grassroots awareness of the war in Northern Uganda and the children it was affecting, to empower individuals stateside to engage in direct action and finally to provide aid on the ground in Uganda.

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Jaime, Lana and Katie get prepped for the Global Night Commute (GNC)

Action step number one would be to “lay down for what we believe in” by participating in a Global Night Commute. Rain or shine, on April 29, 2006, people were asked to both empathize and make a statement of unity with the children of Northern Uganda by walking in groups to their respective downtowns throughout the United States to sleep overnight and peacefully advocate for the end of the war. Late to the game, this gave us in Missoula approximately one month to plan, organize and execute the event. I was put in touch with I.C. National Tour staffer Genevieve Luippold who could have easily told me that Missoula wasn’t a high priority for engagement or participation, but instead matched my enthusiasm and offered full support in getting Invisible Children on the ground in Montana.

In order to gain approval to use the Missoula Courthouse grounds for an overnight peace demonstration, City Officials informed me we would need the approval signatures of the city’s Police Chief, Fire Marshall, City Attorney, County Commissioner as well as the Transportation/Engineering Department and the Maintenance Department’s Facilities Manager. Undaunted and assisted by the relatively small size of the city, I gained all the signatures over the course of a one week period.

We got permission from the Missoula Valley Church to screen the documentary film twice before the 29th and eventually also facilitated a screening on the University of Montana campus. We ordered t-shirts and bracelets to fundraise and set up a church-wide tag sale, which netted approximately $1,400 in to support the organization and sponsor education for the kids in Northern Uganda. I sent out a press release, made a local appearance on the evening news, and made sure our event information was available on the internet. We made signs, put up posters, rented port-a-potties.

It was a whirlwind. With all the wisdom of my 23 years, I had not even viewed the actual film myself until four days prior to our first screening and two weeks before the Global Night Commute. Taking 21 units in my final college semester and working a part-time job as an Afterschool Program Director for the Boys and Girls Club didn’t leave time for much. Adding the responsibility of coordinating an event of this magnitude wasn’t well advised.

I was stressed out and the stress carried over into my relationship with my wife. Jaime was willing to help to a larger extent, for this to be a joint work, and I had not yet learned how to relinquish control over my what I considered my projects.

I got some pushback from church members who were uncomfortable with the idea of the church organizing a social justice event or screening a film with moments deemed questionable.

I received tough questions I did not know how to answer and pretended to be more knowledgeable than I was, fooling no one. I still recall trying to navigate in a public forum how my support for possible U.S. troop involvement in Uganda differed from my opposition to the U.S. military intervention in Iraq.

But throughout the process we did our best to help. We were encouraged. We grew.

The conversation between Jaime and I about how to balance responsibility and ask for help is one we continue to this day raising four children and being pulled in many different directions simultaneously between family, work, social and church responsibilities.

Where my knowledge of the situation faltered I did research and also learned an important lesson that it is okay and often preferable to admit I don’t have all the answers.

For every brother or sister who was skeptical of our commitment to peacefully demonstrate, I was pleasantly surprised by many more who stepped completely out of their comfort zone to offer support and show up. Even more, I was thrilled to meet the cohort of folks who were eager to show solidarity and lend their support for the cause in the face of their antipathy for the church. I learned when the church expands out of the building to meet needs in the community, whether local or global, new faces who will not approach stained glass stand ready to side with the values of God’s Kingdom.

Missoula, MT Global Night Commute (April 29, 2006) at the Missoula County Courthouse

Missoula, MT Global Night Commute participants (April 29, 2006) at the Missoula County Courthouse

Over 100 people showed up, from as far away as Edmonton in Alberta, to our Global Night Commute in Missoula to offer encouragement, write letters to lawmakers, pray on the hour for the children, share in each other’s company under streetlights and eventually get drenched in our sleeping bags overnight.

I will never forget Lana (McCrary) Miller on the morning of April 30, shivering after little sleep, covered in cold Montana spring rain, saturated sleeping bag in hand, smiling.

We were smiling because Invisible Children had provided us an opportunity to put our faith into action, to start being the change we wished to see. It was an opportunity relished and capitalized on by many, but especially by 20-somethings over the course of a decade of work.

After Jaime and I relocated to Connecticut we remained active in Invisible Children’s work highlighted by participation in another overnight commute in 2009. The Rescue in New York City resulted in Jaime (five months pregnant with Shepard), myself and 19 month old Clara sleeping outdoors with friends, family and strangers in Brooklyn Bridge Park raising awareness for the continued troubles of our Ugandan friends.

Via continued advocacy efforts such as Give Peace a Tri, the #Kony2012 Campaign and the Fourth Estate Conference, a 92% reduction in LRA killings has been achieved in the last three years. 1.8 million displaced people have returned to their communities. 2,659 people abducted by the LRA have returned to their families since 2010. 11 Ugandan schools have been rebuilt and more than 6,000 Ugandan scholarships awarded. Two bills were passed in Congress and signed into law contributing to the peace movement.

Invisible Children's The Rescue in Brooklyn Bridge Park (April 2009)

Invisible Children’s The Rescue in Brooklyn Bridge Park (April 2009) with Karen, Chantelle, Garrett, Jaime and Clara

With so much achieved, as of December 31 2014, Invisible Children has officially closed down their media and movement offices. The focus of all remaining resources and future raised funds will be on only the most essential programs in order to complete the mission of liberating every captive man, woman and child from the LRA.

At the beginning we envisioned a full-length feature film to be released by the end of 2006 and a quick end to Kony, the LRA and the need for night commuting. We spoke of expanding the organization to help all invisible children across the globe. We encountered adversity, personally and organizationally, but all hardships only strengthened the foundation for continued advocacy for the thousands of us who learned alongside each other.

Sometimes our visions do not come to fruition. But in the end, we realize that dreams bigger than ourselves are always worth pursuing. That even if we never reach our initial desired ends, perhaps we plant seeds along the way, means of accomplishing much more.

Thank you Invisible Children. Thank you for your willingness to help. Thank you for inviting our assistance. Thank you for changing the world.

 

Wisdom says the fears of the wicked will all come true, as will the hopes of the godly (Proverbs 10:24). During occasions of disaster and tragedy such as have impacted us on the East Coast recently, it feels as if this promise of a reconciled future is far off or perhaps will never be fulfilled. In this season of Advent we have found waiting difficult.

Our recent storms have begged us to consider our foundation. The Statue of Liberty, tempest tost in the New York Harbor by Hurricane Sandy, survived with her recently refurbished crown intact but her footing unsure due to the destruction of much of Liberty Island’s infrastructure. It appears the base on which Lady Liberty stands is crumbling and we all feel it. Liberty herself has joined in our tension filled anticipation, looking out maternally over a devastated region. We attempt to take solace at this time in remembering another Mother awaiting a Savior.

Sandy followed on the heels of Hurricane Irene. These sisters of devastation swept homes into the sea, capsized businesses, knocked out lights, crippled public transportation and claimed lives. Their forceful winds and waves of destruction laid bare a power crisis leaving at least 8 million of us in the dark, some for weeks, while provoking deeper questions of the meaning of power.

Inevitably, an uproar of attention and assistance follows when people who are used to being in power lose it. In the aftermath of the storms, neighbors expressed concern for each other who had lost their power. Utility company crews worked through the night to restore power. Electricians arrived from across the country for the benefit of the powerless. In real time we observed the connection between power and resources in our culture. And when any who are in trouble are embraced with love and helping hands it awakens hope and gratitude.

Sandy Hook memorial 12-14-12Here in Connecticut, Sandy may have spared us the difficulty experienced by those in New York and New Jersey, but we are the epicenter of pain this week after losing 27 lives in the second deadliest school shooting in our nation’s history. With 20 of the victims lost children ages 6 and 7, no sense will be made of this tragedy. No understanding of motive or gun-control debates will bring them back to celebrate Christmas with their families. Their wrapped gifts under the tree will remain forever unopened. We can only hold each other and our heads in mourning, crying out to God on behalf of their innocent blood spilt, for their parents’ unspeakable grief. We attempt to take comfort in remembering another Father in anguish over His innocent Son murdered. We pray again that the hopes of the Godly are realized and that our waiting is not in vain.

Today heartfelt prayers and gestures of support are overflowing for those directly affected by the catastrophe at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Rightfully so. Let us not forget each of these little souls stolen from us as well as the teachers and staff who courageously served them on a daily basis before being forced to make the ultimate sacrifice of a friend. Kind words and acts of love directed toward Newtown recreate faith in the goodness of humanity. Yet we know the people of Newtown, Connecticut are not the only ones hurting in our country.

If we have eyes to see, other innocent victims come into view, souls somehow considered more tolerable casualties. Their executions carried out at a slower pace, but alarmingly steady. Not simultaneously and with no media fanfare. Rarely are the continually oppressed recipients of such widespread goodwill and generosity. Somehow viewed as acceptable victims, they are not aware they too have a voice, frequently occupied with more basic needs such as simply surviving off limited finances and inadequate education. Standing up for one’s rights often takes a backseat to drowning out harsh realities through self-injurious actions which can lead to generational imprisonment. We ask who is intent on restoring power and equality of opportunity and justice to these brothers and sisters?

These acceptable victims include our people of all ages who are continually losing their lives in the senseless violence occurring in our inner cities. For over a decade and a half, Sacred Heart Church in Camden, New Jersey has held a remembrance service on the last Sunday of the liturgical year to honor those murdered in their neighborhoods and offer comfort to their families. This year Sacred Heart read aloud the names of an unfathomable 63 human beings murdered between November 2011 and November 2012. Greater than one a week in a city of only 77,000 residents. The vast majority from gun violence, but not all. In September, a six year old boy named Dominick Andujar had his throat slashed when he tried to come to the rescue of his older sister who was being sexually assaulted. Days prior in August, a two year old boy named Zahree Thomas was decapitated, his head found in a freezer.

It may be because these stories are too hard to for us to hear that they are not more widely circulated and that we are not more adamantly outraged and driven to action. But Sandy Hook has proven this untrue, leaving us to wonder why we have normalized the tragedies occurring in Camden, the poorest per capita city in the United States. In part, our collective despair for Connecticut or Colorado seems to be a communal lamentation for the loss of the “safe place” in our culture realizing that Sandy Hook could have been the neighborhood school our kids attend or Century 16 in Aurora the local movie theater we frequent. We want to shield our own children from danger and harm and now realize that we cannot guarantee their safety. We have not understood that in failing to see ourselves in places like Camden, we have created a false narrative of us versus them. We have forgotten Dr.King’s proclamation that “whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly”, ignoring the nightmares experienced by our brethren, now shocked when evil has attacked here as well.

We are afraid yes. But now is not the time to shrink back from our public places or rush to homeschool all of our children. If we run away from evil, it will find us. Neither can we escalate the myth of redemptive violence or its hateful rhetoric looking for a scapegoat. We must confront evil in sacrificial love as many of the teachers did in this latest tragedy, saving the lives of students as a result. We remember a Parent who willingly entered into our distress and in so doing lost His Son, and believe this is the Way forward, that good can overcome evil.

We now grieve our loss of those whom the world was not worthy at Sandy Hook Elementary. But let us grieve all our lost sons and daughters and their dreams massacred. Let us support each other through these storms, physical and mental, regardless of geography and access to power. Let us continue to wait together expectantly and actively for the Prince of Peace, hoping that in finality our chains will lay broken at our feet and that our tired, poor and huddled masses will one day breathe free on solid ground. In our fear and brokenness we trust that the fears of the wicked will all come true, as will the hopes of the godly. Thank you for your continued prayers.

Today, February 19, 2012, marks the 70th anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 which resulted in the displacement of nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans into internment camps in the wake of Pearl Harbor. Roosevelt’s order declared, “the successful prosecution of the war requires every possible protection against espionage and against sabotage to national-defense material, national-defense premises, and national-defense utilities.”

Authority was then given to Lieutenant General John L. Dewitt who lied to the public and reported that Japanese-Americans were involved in sabotage and espionage despite having no evidence to back these claims. Sound familiar?

"All Japanese persons, both alien and non-alien, will be evacuated from the above area (San Francisco) by 1:00 o'clock noon, Tuesday April 7, 1942"

In April 1943, Dewitt testified before a House of Representatives Naval Affairs Subcommittee, saying, “I don’t want any of them (persons of Japanese ancestry) here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty. The west coast contains too many vital installations essential to the defense of the country to allow any Japanese on this coast. … The danger of the Japanese was, and is now-if they are permitted to come back-espionage and sabotage. It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty.”

Attorney General Francis Biddle and many in the Justice Department, on the backing of the actual intelligence gathered and the principles of the U.S. Constitution, strongly opposed the evacuation and imprisonment of American citizens, regardless of their ancestry. However the western United States (encompassing California, Washington. Oregon, Montana, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and the then Territory of Alaska) was declared to be under the authority of the military’s Western Defense Command. “War Relocation Camps” were prisons created to incarcerate thousands of Japanese Americans until Order 9066 was rescinded two years later in 1944 and the last of the camps closed after four years in 1946.

Forty-six years after Roosevelt’s order, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 which apologized for the “grave injustice” done to both Japanese American citizens and permanent residents during the 1940s. The act authorized reparation payments to be made, which would total $1.6 billion over an 11 year period, and noted the internment of Japanese Americans was “motivated largely by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”

The attacks on Pearl Harbor certainly could not be condoned, but neither could our shameful response to imprison innocent American citizens out of fear. While self-preservation dynamics have played on repeat in U.S. foreign and domestic policy over the last century often resulting in tragic consequences, my intent here is not to dwell on our national sin. Instead, this history lesson is an occasion to look at the man in the mirror. What is it about fear that so often trumps my own sound judgment? Perhaps more importantly, am I to be held responsible for my actions in response to being wronged?

In 2005, some dear friends and mentors in Montana invited Jaime and I to participate in a marriage class using Dr. Emerson Eggerichs’ “Love and Respect” curriculum. To this day I have not seen a better exegesis of the practicalities of the Biblical definition of marriage. One of Emerson’s phrases that stuck in my head is “Our response is our responsibility.” In speaking of his wife, Emerson says “Sarah doesn’t cause me to be the way I am. She reveals the way I am.” He expounds by noting that a grain of sand in a human eye may ultimately lead to infection and loss of vision, while the same grain of sand in an oyster can lead to secretion and then a pearl. Eggerichs points out that the speck of sand in both instances is only an irritant that “reveals the inner properties” of both the eye and the oyster. Adversity cannot force us to behave in a certain way, it can only test and then reveal who we already are in that moment. To further illustrate the point, Eggerichs notes that a rose crushed underfoot reveals a pleasant aroma, whereas pressure applied to a skunk yields a much different result. When times get tough, are you a rose or a skunk? Too often, when the inner properties of my personality and soul are revealed under pressure, no one is mistaking me for a fragrant flower.

In three days, Ash Wednesday will usher in the season of Lent and offer a period of reflection and repentance. Forty days of intentionally preparing for Christ’s death and resurrection. In both small and large opportunities created by adversity, I wish to be a pleasing aroma to the Lord. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to dedicate the upcoming 40 days to welcoming difficulties and making my enemies my teachers.

What can we give up that has been pathetically playing the role of God in our lives? What can we engage in, that can increase our discipline and love, such that we refuse to be the cause of “grave injustice”? Lord, help us to relinquish self-preservation, to welcome sacrifice, and to remember that “One cannot be just a bystander, for a bystander cannot be just.”

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.

Last Friday evening, the Department of Children and Families honored Adolescent Social Work visionary Ralph Zona for his 36 years of service to the State of Connecticut and his work with over 600 youth from the city of New Haven. The Department has made many well publicized mistakes over the years, but Ralph’s life of dedication and sacrifice for our teens and their resulting success is an example of the work that is done far more often but rarely appreciated.  Ralph has always been outspoken about the flaws and failures of the bureaucratic system, but never let that system interfere with his tireless advocacy for his kids. For that he deserves to be recognized.

Born and raised in the Greater New Haven area, Ralph began his social work career in 1975 at what was then the Department of Children and Youth Services in New Haven. He was promptly assigned a now unthinkable 122 cases of foster care children over the age of 12 who were placed in foster homes and group homes across the state. Ralph recognized that many of the adolescent youth in foster care were not being adequately prepared for their transition into independent living and in 1978 decided to create the first Life Skills classes for the teens out of the New Haven office. The program evolved into Community Based Life Skills, a statewide service that has become a cornerstone of the DCF Independent Living program and the DCF Adolescent Policy. A policy that Ralph actually had a large hand in creating and that was originally drafted with adolescent youth present. This was to ensure that the real experts, the kids themselves, were involved in the process and able to provide a clue to those of us who only work in the world they live in.

Ralph noted that much of his success can be contributed to thinking outside of the box or at times in his words “outside of the planet.” Ralph’s good friend and Adolescent Services co-conspirator Bill Pinto noted that Ralph was “never afraid to send 7 billion letters to anyone who would open them” to seek support for their unconventional ideas. Among those who did consistently respond to Ralph’s letters over the years to serve the orphans of our society were UConn men’s basketball coach Jim Calhoun and NFL Hall-of-Famer Joe Namath. Ralph’s “crazy’ ideas manifested in his long time coordination of the ConnectiKids Golf Tournament which raises money for kids in foster care. He created Big Brother and Big Sister programs which matched young men and women in congregate care settings to mentors from the Yale University football team and Albertus Magnus College. In the early 1980s, Ralph began organizing Holiday parties for foster children and helped arrange Statewide Youth Conferences into the 1990s.

But above all else, Ralph’s legacy will be the Department’s emphasis on post secondary education for our youth. While other adolescent workers were just trying to survive along with their kids, Ralph was a trailblazer that preached the importance of higher education to his teens as a ticket to a better life and the end of generational poverty. Ralph ran statewide college fairs and advocated that his kids dream big and work hard. With Ralph’s help, kids on his case load graduated from Yale, Harvard, the Berkeley School of Music and nearly every public university in the state of Connecticut.

The highlight of Ralph’s retirement celebration was the return of one of his former foster care youth, Crystal Astrachan, who spoke about Ralph’s substantial influence in her life and offered some words of advice to the rest of the social workers in the room. Crystal is herself a 2004 graduate of Yale University and currently a Manager of Business Development at Connecticut-based TicketNetwork, one of the fastest growing companies in the nation. As Crystal began to tell her story and of her appreciation for Ralph, her eyes welled up with tears and she could only continue with a hug of strength and support from a friend and fellow ex-DCF youth who also formerly worked with Ralph and who is now a domestic violence victim advocate.

Crystal collected herself and spoke about how she was hesitant to get to know Ralph after being let down by so many adults in the past, but that she slowly learned to trust him when it became evident that Ralph actually cared about her well-being and that his involvement in her life was more than just a job. Ralph was there to see her graduate from Yale in 2004 and as a token of her appreciation Crystal shared the secrets of Ralph’s incredible success as a social worker, which serve as a lesson for us all.

I’d like to thank Crystal for sharing the text of her speech with me and for her permission to use her words here. Here’s what she believes set Ralph apart:

Ralph was there for us. He was not interested in using us to advance his career or get recognition for his work.  He genuinely cared about our development and success. Our happiness and achievements were his profits.  I’ve learned that this quality in people is rare.

Ralph was happy. Because Ralph was fulfilled in the act of his work, he did not expect to receive any personal benefits from his clients. This was comforting, since I had grown up seeing adults use their children for their own benefits and also had been a victim to this type of treatment myself.

Ralph was professional while still being human. He did not lean on us for emotional support or treat us like his friends or colleagues. He let me see that he was a real person with a life outside of work. He always told me about his wife and children and what they were up to.  His openness made me feel as if he were just a regular person – not just a DCF employee.

Ralph works with integrity. He is honest, reliable, consistent, and never made a promise that he did not keep.  Through Ralph’s actions, I learned that he was someone I could trust.

My dreams were always within reach with Ralph. During high school, I realized that I had an adventurous side and sought opportunities to combine travel with education and service. Ralph never made me feel that I was asking for too much. It would have been really easy to tell me that he could not get me the funding or approval to go to Mexico to study Spanish or to go to Honduras to volunteer. But Ralph knew that my passions for international travel, service, and education were important to me and he supported my goals.

Ralph did not sweat the small stuff. As an adolescent, I did some stupid stuff, but he kept perspective and knew that hiccups here and there are normal parts of development.

Ralph fostered independence. He was able to see that I made good decisions for myself and was there to guide, rather than tell me exactly what I was supposed to do.

Crystal continued by saying, “I believe that every foster care child has the potential to make their life better while in (care). Like all other children, they need support, guidance, and encouragement.  I consulted with my friends who lived with me (in foster care) and others who were in foster care. We are all in our late 20s and early 30s today. We got in touch with our adolescent selves, and, in our teenage voices, we wanted to tell you what we need from our social workers.” She then presented a list of seven needs of youth in foster care which could easily serve as the defacto “Manual for Working with Teens.” Again I express my gratitude to Crystal for sharing, here’s what the former foster youth collectively advised:

1.       Give to us without expecting anything in return, we may be too hurt and angry to express appreciation when you are helping us, but trust that one day we will remember that we had someone who gave to us this way.

2.       Help us feel that your job as a social worker is more than just a job for you.  Call us just to say hello.  Return our calls so that we don’t feel forgotten.  Be happy to see us. Be proud of us.  Make us laugh.   

3.       Never tell us how to feel about our situations today or how we should deal with the pain from our past. Let us be sad sometimes. Understand when we withdraw or act out.

4.       Give us room to mess up and make mistakes, for our mistakes are simply opportunities to learn and grow. Teach us how to forgive by forgiving us.

5.       Don’t make us feel as if we are a burden.  Show us that our presence is a gift.  Teach us that we, like all other children, deserve to be cared about and treated well. Before we (came into foster care), we may have learned through the actions, lack of action, or words of other adults that we are not worthy of attention, love, and caring – and that our needs should never be made a priority. Show us that this is not true through your actions, which will help us to make good decisions about the people we choose to have in our lives.

6.       Challenge us.  Ask us these questions: “What are your dreams? What is your purpose? What are your talents? How can you utilize your talents to help others?” Let us know that you are there to help us reach our goals and we will feel empowered.

 7.       Don’t just help us with our “self-esteem”. Help us with our “other-esteem,” which is how we feel about and relate to others. Help us understand how we are needed in our communities and our worlds to make a difference and how purposeful our gifts can be. This will help us to heal and fulfill our desires for interconnectedness and community that we long for. You, social workers, have this gift. Share it with us.

After Crystal finished her speech, it was now us social workers with the tears welling up in our eyes. I hope her words will be taken to heart and wanted to share them here to inspire all of us in social services, in teaching, in childcare, and those of us who are parents as we try to encourage the kids in our lives to find success, happiness and community.

Ralph addressed us as well after Crystal’s speech and humbly attempted to summarize his career in social work. He noted that in his nearly four decades of experience, it seemed 40 percent of kids in care will not find success in the system not matter how good their social worker is, the trauma they have experienced is simply too great. He also reported that it seems 40 percent of the kids will find success no matter how bad their social workers attempt to screw them up or get in their way, they are just too resilient. Which leaves 20 percent on the fence that we have a chance to make a difference with. Ralph said he believes that if over half of this 20 percent can also find success, then a social worker can be confident they did well and hoped his overall success rate was over 50 percent. If Ralph was in need of any validation of a job well done, he only had to look out on the sea of appreciative faces including family, co-workers and former youth, all of us inspired to follow in his footsteps. Thank you Ralph and best wishes as you begin a new Chapter.