Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Tis’ the Season for Equality. Poverty & Education

An estimated 16 million children live in poverty in the U.S of A. And Mr. Gene Marks, the author of a December 12, 2011 Forbes article entitled “If I were a Poor Black Kid,” would like to convince us that the solution to this problem, especially for black children in poverty is to alleviate their own ignorance. He begins and ends his article by citing President Obama’s December 6, 2011 Kansas City Speech on the economy in which he addressed inequality in America.  Marks speaks through both sides of his mouth: 
President Obama was right in his speech last week.  The division between rich and poor is a national problem.  But the biggest challenge we face isn’t inequality.   It’s ignorance.  So many kids from West Philadelphia don’t even know these opportunities exist for them.  Many come from single-parent families whose mom or dad (or in many cases their grand mom) is working two jobs to survive and are just (understandably) too plain tired to do anything else in the few short hours they’re home.  Many have teachers who are overburdened and too stressed to find the time to help every kid that needs it.  Many of these kids don’t have the brains to figure this out themselves – like my kids.  Except that my kids are just lucky enough to have parents and a well-funded school system around to push them in the right direction….Technology can help these kids.  But only if the kids want to be helped.  Yes, there is much inequality.  But the opportunity is still there in this country for those that are smart enough to go for it.
 Where do I start debunking the bunk? Mr. Marks places the burden for the children’s own education on the children themselves, regardless of age. He would make it his number one priority, as “a poor black kid,” to “read sufficiently” (sufficiently for what?). Reading literacy, which Mr. Marks rightly places a high premium on to become a good student and achieving success, must occur early in a child’s education. Reading basics begin in kindergarten and first grade. Mr. Marks states that the big challenge poor children face is not inequality but ignorance.  Whose ignorance? It is the children’s ignorance according to Mr. Marks.  All poor black children’s parents are busy or overburdened, so the children must assume the burden of correcting their own ignorance and thereby transcending inequality.  When technology is not as readily or equally available in the schools poor black children attend as it is in the schools middle and upper class white children attend, we are talking about inequality, Mr. Marks.
Mr. Marks writes, “I believe that everyone in this country has a chance to succeed.” But I believe the point is to provide, as much as possible, a level playing field so that everyone in this country has the same chance at succeeding in this country.  I don’t believe it will ever be completely level.  We cannot force people to be fair nor can we erase racism from people’s hearts and minds. But we can do our best to put into place school systems that are more equal in terms of quality of teachers, teacher’s pay, facilities, books, and equipment. If our urban schools where most poor children attend are suffering because of white and black flight and consequent loss of tax dollars, then we need to find a way to replace those dollars. 
“It takes brains. It takes hard work,” Marks argues. I am assuming that by brains he means access to quality education, since he does admit that his children are no more capable than poor black children. Indeed, unless a child suffers from a physical challenge, all children are capable of excelling; none are born with brains inferior to others because of race, socio-economic status, gender or ethnicity.  But what may be hard for Marks’ children may be extremely difficult (and in some cases impossible) for another child who has a parent whose spirit or will has been broken by the system and thus unable to motivate her child. Children whose teachers and peers may tell him or her that he/she is not capable of achieving with no one to buffer such venomous emotional attacks may find it impossible to motivate themselves to succeed.  I once tutored a homeless child (third grader) who was bright and did not know it.  When I tried to help him with his homework, he told me that he was not capable of doing his schoolwork.  I asked why not. He said because my teacher told me so.  I told him he could do it; that he was smart and capable.  I saw him light up, try, and complete his homework.  I don’t know what happened to him once that program was over. I don’t know whether he was able to keep that light burning or if that same teacher or another snuffed his little light out like a wick in an old kerosene lamp. We underestimate the power of motivation. Very few children are self-motivated.  Children need parents, teachers, significant others in their lives to spark the light of motivation. 
Mr. Marks further writes, “If I was a poor black kid I would first and most importantly work to make sure I got the best grades possible. I would make it my #1 priority to be able to read sufficiently.   I wouldn’t care if I was a student at the worst public middle school in the worst inner city.” Mr. Marks’s repeated use of the phrase “if I were a poor black kid” made be dizzy almost ad nauseam.  As he stated at the outset of his article, he is not a poor black kid; he is a middle aged white man with a middle class background unable to stand, sit, squat, or tip toe in the shoes of a poor black kid.  Poor black and other minority or white children may very well be living a homeless existence either on the streets or in a shelter, their parent(s) could be addicted to drugs or be physically or emotionally ill; these children could be suffering from sleep deprivation, hunger, teasing and/or bullying by peers and adults because of their circumstances, etc. And the best grades most may possibly achieve under such circumstances may be failing grades. Even middle or upper class children who do not have the added burden of poverty may make failing grades due to emotional trauma or bullying (by peers or adults).
In Mr. Mark’s mind, a black child in poverty would transcend all the obstacles in his poverty stricken, inadequate, racist, biased world so that we would not need to talk about equality, alleviating poverty, racism, etc.  All those things are not at issue if the child chooses to “pull himself up by his bootstraps.”  No matter the age or circumstances of the poor black child, he can be his own superman or superwoman.   Mr. Marks can easily afford to not “care if I was a student in the worst public middle school in the worst inner city” because he is not, nor are his children; they are far from it. And he is unable to even imagine it.  “Even the worst have their best,“ Marks argues.  And sometimes the best of the worst is just across the railroad tracks or down the street.  Remember Kelly Williams-Bolar, the black Ohio woman, who was arrested for enrolling her children in a better school district wanting more opportunities for her children? Obviously, even with the help of a caring and capable parent, the best was not to be an option among the worst. 
He goes on to say that “the very best students, even at the worst schools, have more opportunities.” My mother spent a lot of time in and out of hospitals, dealing with chronic joint pain. After about the time I was in 3rd of 4th grade she was no longer able to actively participate in my education.  Before her illnesses, she was a PTA (Parent Teacher Association) mom. In junior high and high school I achieved very good grades, often being on the honor roll. I did not want to go to college out of high school even though I was college material because I wanted to get a job to help out my mother and to enjoy some financial independence.  My guidance counselors (those people Mr. Marks speaks so highly of, and I’m sure some are worthy of his praise) never presented me with alternative options. They never told me that maybe I might change my mind about college and therefore may need to take algebra and a language in preparation for college. Teachers, guidance counselors, administrators etc can be racially, socio-economically, and otherwise biased against children and act upon those biases to withhold options even when they are available, Mr. Marks. Mr. Mark’s has no idea of what the “best of the worst” might be.   He seems to be pushing some version of the “survival of the fittest” for poor black children. According to Mr. Marks, “It takes a special kind of kid to succeed.” 
“If you do poorly in school, particularly in a lousy school, you’re severely limiting the limited opportunities you have,” argues Mr. Marks.  Tell a poor child something he or she does not sense or know. This is a good reason to make sure that poor children do not have to attend lousy schools, that is, to bring about equality, Mr. Marks.  No child should have to attend a lousy school.  When I think of lousy schools, I think of shortages of books, unmotivated and/or poorly trained or equipped teachers, poor facilities and an atmosphere that does not promote or encourage learning. So are we to leave our poor minority and white children in such poor environments and just push a survival of the fittest mentality?  God forbid!
Further Mr. Marks writes “I would use the technology available to me as a student.  I know a few school teachers and they tell me that many inner city parents usually have or can afford cheap computers and internet service nowadays.” I would love to know who are these “few school teachers” from whom Mr. Marks derived his uninformed gossip; now this is real ignorance. Really, Mr. Marks? I made a decent salary and I have sometimes considered turning my Internet service off and using the internet at my job.  In fact, when the gas prices skyrocketed to over four dollars, I briefly turned off my Internet service to save money and tried using the computers at the nearby Novi public library now and then. Too often, I arrived at the library and not one computer was free; older adults looking for jobs occupied all.  Poor kids are supposed to go to libraries, other schools, or locate an online outlet and purchase a computer for themselves (or their parents are to do so).  Mr. Marks has no idea what it means to live in poverty. People who live in poverty, as I did growing up, might not possess a quarter for bus fare, a credit or debt card to make purchases online (let alone the cost of the computer), a car or the money to purchase gas for the car, etc. And did Mr. Marks miss the news about the many libraries that have closed during the recent economic recession?  In some children’s situations, Mr. Marks is asking children to do the impossible despite his assertion that, “It’s hard, but it is not impossible.” And while I believe in God and that all things are possible with God.  Even God used another human being to turn an impossible or inconceivable situation into a reality, namely the incarnation of God’s son through the Virgin Mary’s womb.  And you might say that Mary called what God did equality and some might call it a total reversal, an upset of the status quo: “[God] has put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree. And he has filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away,” Luke 1:52-53. God works through human beings to create possibilities for other human beings. We who believe in the power of God cannot sit by and watch as poverty swallows up our children and allow ignorance to be their strongest, loudest, and deadliest advocate.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Prayer by Maya Angelou

Father, Mother, God
Thank you for your presence
during the hard and mean days.
For then we have you to lean upon.

Thank you for your presence
during the bright and sunny days,
for then we can share that which we have 
with those who have less.

And thank you for your presence
during the Holy Days, for then we are able
to celebrate you and our families
and our friends.

For those who have no voice,
we ask you to speak.

For those who feel unworthy, 
we ask you to pour your love out
in waterfalls of tenderness.

For those who live in pain,
we ask you to bathe them
in the river of your healing.

For those who are lonely, we ask
you to keep them company.

For those who are depressed,
we ask you to shower upon them
the light of hope.

Dear Creator, You, the borderless
sea of substance, we ask you to give to all the
world that which we need most--Peace.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

More Reflections Written During My Stay at Incarnation Monastery

Monday, October 26, 2009

Listening to the sound of a train's whistle crescendo as it races through town and a bird sounding like a bad imitation of a crying baby drowns out more familiar melodies of chirping birds. But the winds just listen, like me, this beautiful sunny, baby-blue sky morning--listening for God. Wondering what God will say to me today.

Beauty and wisdom can be found up or down; up and down.  As I stopped to rest on my hike back to the monastery, I looked down.  And there among the Berkeley greenery I saw a gray rock (painted it seemed) with clusters of three-leaf clovers growing around one side out of the dark rich soil.  The three-leaf clover is a cultural symbol of luck; and one doubles one’s luck if among them one discovers a four-leaf variety.  “Between a rock and a hard place” (in this case the cement sidewalk) this felicitous and iconic plant grows and thrives. If it can do so “between a rock and a hard place,” surely we can too because God is our rock, our refuge, and a very present help in times of trouble. 

I wondered to what extent one could detect the changing of the seasons in California.  The weather, of course, turns a bit chillier; although it has been pretty warm most of my days here.  But the maple tree lives here as in the mid-west and east. Geography makes no difference. Whether she is planted in Ohio or California, in the Fall her locks turn butterscotch, burnt orange, pomegranate red, and they fall from her head leaving behind bald branches.  But in the spring, as in the east, she will again don a full head of healthy lush hair.  This late October day in fall, her discarded leaves lay a carpet on the ground and become crisp beneath my California feet.  Geography makes no difference for other things as well.  An African American woman sporting a natural hair style always elicits some stares as well as interesting and crazy comments, even from other black women.  This happens from coast to coast.  How beautiful are the falling leaves and the confident black woman with the natural do from east to west. God designed both.

Thursday, October 29
I had a final lunch with my cousin buddy.  I’m glad we had the time together to reconnect.  We ate at an Italian fast food restaurant around the corner from his job.  He had chicken primavera and I had vegetables and spaghetti – it was very good.  My Italian lessons are paying off.  Early into my lessons I noticed the close similarities between Latin and Italian—many of the verbs and nouns are the same. One of the menu items at the restaurant read “Frutti di Mare.”  I remembered “mare” as the Latin word for “sea.”  The description was shrimp, mussels and other shellfish – “fruit of the sea.”  Languages open up a side of the world that otherwise would be closed to us.

My cousin gave me a parting present of a post-card magnet of Oakland.  He collects them.  I presume the one he purchased while we were at Jack London’s square replaced the one he gave me among the collection that covers his green refrigerator.  I purchased a pair of hiking shoes from Buddy’s store with a 40% discount as a relative.  They are very comfortable and I’m looking forward to wearing them in Naples....

This evening I felt a little sad about leaving Berkeley and the monastery.  This place has grown on me; it is beautiful; it has become a part of me.

Father M knocked on my door last evening to say good-bye.  We had a short conversation, and I discovered that he is a doctoral student at the Graduate Theological Union – in his second year.  He primarily takes courses at the Jesuit School.  I discovered he is not a Camaldolese monk, like others, but a Benedictine monk; they are related, however.

Friday, October 30

I set the alarm on my cell phone for 6:20 am so that I could attend my last laud and vesper service with the monks.  Today, as a result of my conversation with Father M last evening, I paid closer attention to the hymnal.  It contains songs and prayers, but most of the litanies are taken directly from the Bible—primarily it seems from the Psalms and the prophetic books.  Today the readings were of Psalms 100 and 51.  After Father T read from the Gospel, we entered into a few minutes of contemplative silence.  Father A prayed for me—my future as I leave this place.  It warmed my soul.  It is always nice to have someone prayer for you.  My mother prayed for all of her children.  When she could not sleep at night, she would sit on the side of the bed.  And I remember asking her what she was doing—she said praying for her children.  I hope to get to the point that when I cannot sleep instead of laying there like a blank slate allowing any and all thoughts to parade through my mind, that I will take the opportunity to connect with God in the silence of my body’s discontent.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Third Excerpt from my Stay at Incarnation Monastery

Sunday, October 18.

Missed the morning service with the Monks. ...Took the short cut from the Monastery again. (Paced myself better going back up; but that last block was a female dog!) Decided I would find the restaurant that posted their menu on a chalkboard out front advertising a fried trout dinner with mango salsa for $14.95.  Thought I found it; but instead something great found me.  It turns out that during the day the restaurant donates space to CharityFocus, which runs the Karma Kitchen.  This group takes over the restaurant on Sunday afternoons and serves Indian food on a pay-it-forward basis.  Once you’ve eaten, you receive a bill for $0 and an envelope in which you can place any amount of money or no money, depending on your ability to pay or not.  The idea is that your meal has already been paid for by the previous patron(s), and any money you place in your envelope helps pay for the next person’s meal.  Great idea!  And the food was great.  I had a little bit of everything on the menu—it was limited, but good.  And limited is relative when you think of half the children around the world who subsist on a grain of rice or come one step closer to starving to death.  The mango lassi was the best I had tasted in a long while.

Because I was dining alone, I sat at what became a community table.  What happened next proved providential. Within a few minutes one of the volunteers asked if I minded if a young lady joined me.  I looked up and there stood a young African American woman, Amber, in about her early 30s. None of us (the volunteer, Amber, and myself) were California natives.  The volunteer had only left England a week earlier; Amber, my table mate, was only three years out of New Orleans having survive hurricane Katrina.  Amber said a therapist told her she had post-traumatic distress disorder as a result of Katrina. But the good news was she could also experience post-traumatic stress recovery.  She was majoring in neurology and music.  We talked about meditation, among other things; how we must be comfortable with letting the mind wander, not yielding to the temptation to reign in our thoughts before we can fully identify what our mind is thinking. Made perfect sense to me. What made my encounter and conversation with Amber so providential was the conversation I had with my friend Sheila the day before. Sheila and I had discussed meditation. How did she understand meditation? How do we control our minds that are so proned to wander...?

Tuesday, October 21, 2009

I can’t seem to stay out of the book stores.  I’m drawn to them like ants to bread crumbs.  As I browsed the clearance section of [name’s] book store, an African American man came in to sell some books to the store.  This book store buys and sells books and keeps no inventory of what books are on its shelves—I know, because I asked.  The man selling his books wore light pink soiled pants and talked very loudly, but not obnoxiously so.  He was very gregarious and had no inhibitions about speaking to anyone in the store—even me.  He provoked my first laugh of the day—don’t even remember what he said now—but I remember how good it felt to laugh.  The man also shared that a store nearby had a special of two bottles of wine for one and he was going there to take advantage of it.  As he left he shouted something else at me, don’t remember it either; just know it made me laugh.  This man was obviously not as well off, financially, as others in the store at that moment—but his soul was happy and that happiness spilled over—no, it oozed out upon those he encountered.  I think he said something like life is too short to be sad about anything.  Yet, many of us are mad about any and everything and that madness spills over into the lives of those we meet.

While I was in the store I purchased three more books—two were clearance books that I got for $1.00 each and one was $6.98.  One of the clearance books is about meditation.  The first few pages have already been helpful.  Meditation is about “being.”  Being present in the moment.

I am learning to pace myself better as I return up the mountainside.  I am so accustomed to walking quickly that it is difficult to slow down. Today I achieved a slower more rhythmic pace.  Upon reflection, I tend to operate on the premise, consciously and unconsciously, in everything I do, that it is better to tackle unpleasant tasks quickly and get them out of the way.   This modus operandi does not work when climbing steep mountains; it just makes you more afraid they might kill you! lol

Still taking the “short cut” back up the mountain—the last leg before reaching the cement stair case is the worst.  So I called my friend and colleague Sheila again, thinking this would be a good time to discuss a theological issue concerning women and beauty that was asked of me earlier via email.  Although the conversation took my mind off the climb making it less painful—I even walked part of it backwards—the effect on my sweat glands was the same—I was drenched again.  I wonder when will my body stop reacting in this way.

At sunset today, about 6:30, I witnessed, in a matter of seconds, the San Francisco fog slithering across the Berkeley sky like an opaque monster; covered everything; detroyed my view of the bay from my room. Things change quickly, but God has so wonderfully constructed us that our bodies, our minds, our spirits and souls can adjust, if we so desire and choose.

On thing that never changes in every city and college town, whether it is Harvard square in Cambridge, Mass or Berkeley, CA the home of the UnivCal Berkeley campus, people are homeless.  With some their homeless status is evidenced by the overloaded carts that prop them up and store all their earthly possessions—their mobile homes without walls or floors or ceiling.  ...As Christians or ethical people who believe in God or a higher power, we should adjust to meet the needs of our fellow human beings—should we not?

Friday, October 21, 2011

Second Excerpt from my Stay at Incarnation Monastery, Berkeley, CA

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The day started out cloudy, and I wasn’t sure whether I’d be forced to fast again since I was not going to walk down the mountain in the heavy rain.  But the sun marched through the clouds, and the temperature rose to a comfortable 65 degrees.  After some reading, I put on my tennis shoes and walked down the mountain to find something to eat. (Don't know which was worse on my knees & legs, going down or coming back up; both could be painful!). When I reached a level terrain, I stopped at the first restaurant I saw on the opposite side of Shattuck called “Crepevine.”  It offered a wonderful selection of healthy foods. I chose the grilled salmon with avocado on wheat bread with a salad and potatoes – very good. After lunch, I decided to venture on toward the University of California at Berkeley, past the Bart train station and almost to Bancroft.  My cousin Buddy works at Bancroft and Telegraph.  I would meet him for lunch on the coming Friday.  Walking back toward the monastery, I decided to sit and drink a café moca at a small coffee shop and mentally prepare myself for the steep, sweaty trek back up the mountain.

...When I got back I changed my sweaty clothes to attended the evening vespers service again at 5 pm.  Father A led out this time wearing the green stole over his cream colored robe.  It seems the officiating monk for the evening wears the green stole; the monks alternated officiating over the service.  But Father T always led the chanting and litany.  Perhaps this is because he is the senior monk.  I prayed when I entered the sanctuary for God’s Spirit to move upon my heart and in the room.  God is always willing to move upon us like God's Spirit moved upon the face of the deep in Genesis, hovering over the waters.  God never disappoints in this regard.  Several words transformed me in that moment.  Father Matthew read, “my soul waits for God in silence.”  Wow… every time I thought of it, God’s spirit touched my soul so that it overflowed and tears poured out through the opening of my eyes.  Those words touched a place in me, unexpectedly.  I had been alone reading the word, silently and aloud, praying, seeking for a word from God.  Sometimes it’s all about the silence, not the words of scripture or the melody of a song, but that space in time not manufactured, not fabricated, but just permitted to be.  Another word from Father A about the gospel parable of the wheat and the tares also fed my soul that evening.  Most interpreters read that parable as a dichotomy between us and them or as a caveat not to become, or to beware lest one become, the tares. Father Andrew noted that the tares and the wheat are found within each of us.  Something we need never forget.  Powerful!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

J Lo Interviewing Marian Wright Edelman

Here is a video of J Lo Interviewing Marian Wright Edelman, Esq., Founder and President of Children's Defense Fund, author of number books, first African American Woman to pass the Mississippi Bar, 2000 Recipient of Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Opening Plenary Speaker at the Living in Full Empowerment, Inc. 2012 Inaugural Women's Conference in the Detroit Metro Area, July 26-29, 2012.

Marian Wright Edelman interview

The inaugural 2012 L.I.F.E. Women’s Conference aims to help women across socio-economic, ethnic, religious, racial backgrounds to turn their dreams and/or visions into concrete realities. We aim to help women to be informed, make good decisions, be creative, be courageous, & to contribute to their own well-being and the betterment of our communities. Some workshops assist women in exploring their creativity and learning new skills in songwriting, cake decorating, and website building. We will also address issues of sexual violence, chronic disease prevention, self-care, contemporary significance of lynching narratives, spiritual formation, resources for caring with loved ones with disabilities, finances, and other significant topics. Employment,counseling and other referral services will be available during the conference. ***200 FREE REGISTRATIONS RESERVED FOR WOMEN HOUSED IN LOCAL DETROIT WOMEN’S SHELTERS** Check out our website: . Or go to the Eventbrite registration site:

Thursday, September 22, 2011

"Strange Fruit" Still Hangs in US "Trees"

Troy Davis, Jr. the African American man who was put to death by the authorities of the State of Georgia last night, September 21, 2011, is a reminder that “strange fruit” still hangs from trees, south, north, east and west. Despite lack of DNA evidence, contradictory and retracted eyewitness testimony, and a possible known trigger man, they hung him high. I believe heinous crimes such as cold-blooded murder and rape deserve serious justice; but not eye for an eye, capital punishment justice. I believe in investing
Troy Davis, Jr. Killed, 9/21/11 in Georgia
in rehabilitation and not the herding of people and children into facilities like branded cattle. That said, I admit I could be consumed by anger and pain and my wounds still raw or convinced that the evidence is other than it is, if my loved one(s) were the victims of a horrendous crime. So the criminal justice system should work as objectively and fairly as possible when I as the victim’s family may be incapable of doing so.  We need to be willing to rethink and tweak or abolish systems that are inhumane and unfair. Justice codified or legislated in the socio-historical context of 1844 should necessarily be re-examined. 
Electric Chair at Ohio Pen
Ohio Pen
Dale Johnston, former death row inmate in Ohio
The Ohio Penitentiary, also known as the Ohio State Penitentiary, or less formally, the Ohio Pen or State Pen, was a prison operated from 1834-1983. As a child, teenager, young adult, I could walk to the Ohio Pen in Columbus from where I lived on the other side of the railroad tracks. As elementary school children,  we had a field trip to the Ohio Pen when the ominous electric housed there was still in use. Some field trip!  When I look back it was like being on the scene of a SciFi set. I can remember the huge, old, stalwart, dirty gray building that I passed by every time I road the Fifth Avenue bus.  I never forgot what I saw in that building – the electric chair where they electrocuted human beings until they breathed their last. I remember a very large steel contraption of a chair with leather straps.    So when I visited the Ohio Pen, someone's son, brother, father had not so long ago sat in that chair and someone's son, brother, father was scheduled to die. Somehow I equated the closing of the Ohio Pen with the abolition of the death penalty in Ohio.  Somehow I forgot they were still operating under the system of an eye for and eye in Ohio.  I forgot about the transition from electric chair to lethal injection.  As of August 26, 2011, there are a total of 150 inmates on death row in Ohio: 149 men, 1 woman (74 African American men; 68 Caucasian men; 4 Hispanic men; 1 Native Americans; 2 Arab American; 1 Caucasian female).  On March 15, 2011, Ohio legislators introduced a bill to abolish the death penalty in Ohio. Among those who spoke in favor of the bill were Dale Johnston, an Air force veteran and exonerated former death row inmate, and Ohioans to Stop Executions (people across party lines).  In 1982 Dale Johnston’s  daughter and her boyfriend were murdered and their bodies dismembered. Dale was the only person the police considered as a suspect. Numerous violations of Dale’s rights occurred during the investigation and trial.  Still, he was sentenced to death in 1984. “He believes the state expected his attorneys to abandon him once his initial trial was over. But they stood by him, promising to eventually win his exoneration. ‘I never thought I would be convicted of a crime I did not do,’ he says.  ‘I was sure once all the evidence was presented, it would be clear that I was innocent and could then get back home and the police would get on with the investigation of the kids’ death.  I could not believe my ears when the judges said ‘guilty.’ Even with all the rule violations, the phony evidence and the prosecutorial misconduct, there was nothing presented to gain a conviction.’ He remained on Ohio’s death row for more than five years and was incarcerated for more than seven years. The Ohio Supreme Court overturned Dale’s conviction in 1988 because the prosecution withheld exculpatory evidence from the defense and because one witness had been hypnotized. The state later dropped all charges against him. He was released in 1990.”  In Georgia, Troy Davis was not so lucky as Johnston or others who have been exonerated or pardoned. Unfortunately, until we abolish capital punishment everywhere, more people who are not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and/or innocent will die for crimes they did not commit, not to mention the years of their lives lost imprisoned.
            DNA testing has saved a number of people convicted of crimes. The first DNA exoneration took place in 1989. Exonerations have been won in 34 states.  Since 2000, there have been 206 exonerations. Seventeen (17) of the 273 people exonerated through DNA served time on death row.  The average length of time served by exonerees is 13 years.  Currently, it seems to me that the death penalty or capital punishment operates like a firing squad. We line people up and we shoot.  It is okay if we accidentally put one or two innocent people in the line up as long the rest are guilty. Or God forbid that in some peoples’ minds it doesn’t matter as long as somebody (and that somebody has historically been somebody black or otherwise undesirable by the majority) pays for the crime. If a person on death row has a criminal record, some people reason that he has "blood on his hands" anyway. And therefore they didn't consider killing him such a great loss. A kind of since-we-got-you-here logic, we might as well. I wonder if this was the case with Davis and what it means for justice, second chances, and the value of a life lived imperfectly ending up in the wrong hands?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Was Jesus a Christian, African American, Republican or Something Else?

We'd all like to make Jesus (and God) in our image versus seeking to understand and striving to walk in, imitate the image of Jesus and/or God. I do believe the significant point was the humanity of Jesus. One of my students once responded to a question on a quiz that asked about Jesus’ ethnicity with the answer that Jesus was African American. Don’t laugh. In fact that answer is no more far-fetched than the notion, implicitly and explicitly propagated by some, that Jesus was a (Evangelical or otherwise) Christian. In fact, her answer may be closer to the truth.  I often tell my students that Jesus was not a Christian (I was so glad to hear this spoken so publicly by the author of The Shack [a popular book read by so many Christians; must admit I've not read it] William Paul Young the other night at an Ashland Theological Seminary event in Detroit at Hope United Methodist Church). Jesus was Jewish (ethnically and religiously); he lived on the earth, in the eastern Mediterraenean, as a Jewish man. He lived long before the birth of Christianity, although Christians like to connect (retroject) the birth of Christianity back to the actual birth of Jesus before the common era (BC/BCE).  As a universal institutionalized religion, Christianity emerged hundreds of years later. There is no testimony in the New Testament that Jesus came to create a new religion or a religious institution centered on himself. Jesus, in all four Gospels, came to be “God with us,” “among us,”  “the (present and future) Basileia (trans. Kingdom) of God, and/or to glorify God. (Yes, Matthew’s Gospel does seem to say that an assembly/gathering (ekklesia) of believers was established around Peter’s name [Matthew 16:18]; but we do know that different assemblies (ekklesiai) existed in Jerusalem and Antioch and other places from the Acts of the Apostles. And this is not too much different than the assemblies that met in Jewish houses of prayer (proseuchae) and/or synagogues).  Jesus practiced the Jewish rituals and observed the Holy and feast days from birth to the grave (first through his parents and lastly through devout Jews).

Jesus was considerably, I believe, more theocentric than Christianity tends to be.  Humanity was created in the image of God. Jesus bore the image of God as the son of God (however, we understand the “image of God”). In John’s Gospel (and elsewhere like Philippians), Jesus sometimes appears to be subordinate to God. At other times, God and Jesus are said to be one and/or at least so close that only Jesus is entrusted with certain information, secrets, or mysteries (the middleperson between God and the rest of creation). Jew was Jewish, theocentric, and never evangelized for the not yet established Christian Church.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Coming Out Part 5: “Virginity and Scars”

Through my counseling sessions with Dr. W, I began to take control of my life rather than relinquishing it to my deceased abuser and the abuse. But one ongoing psychological and moral struggle I experience stemmed from the church and society’s teachings about virginity. Women and children (and men) have been taught and believe in the metanarrative or over-arching story or myth that the protection of one’s virginity is paramount to one’s moral value and validity as a Christian. Of course, historically and still today such virginal morality is expected more from females than from males. Persons who embrace the virginity metanarrative and are sexually abused can experience a split within their moral selves. Although, many children (if not all) experiment with their sexuality, children who are victims of sexual abuse may experiment with greater frequency or may do so even earlier than their peers since their sexuality has been unnaturally, prematurely, and violently aroused. Sexually abused children may look back on sexual experimentation with greater sense of guilt. 
Recollection of childhood sexual experimentation coupled with heighted feelings of guilt create or contribute to an even greater degree of moral dissonance (conflict) in light of the virginity metanarrative.  The virginity metanarrative does not take into consideration, generally, how a female “loses her virginity” (as if virginity is money which one has been instructed to hold for someone else; maybe the equivalent when we think of bride price and dowry). If she loses her virginity, she cannot retrieve it. Although some churches preach/teach that one can become a “spiritual virgin” by confession, repentance and renewal. Yet, the virginity narrative primarily claims that a female loses her virginity when she has sexual intercourse for the first time (penetration of vagina by male penis). Supposedly, when a female loses her virginity by having sexual intercourse with a male for the first time, the hymen is broken and some bleeding is expected. But we now know that the hymen can be broken during any vigorous or strenuous exercise and that not all women bleed when engaged in sexual intercourse for the first time.  In the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, a virgin was expected to bleed on the wedding sheets. If there was no blood, the assumption was that she was not a virgin. The consequences of not being able to prove the virgin of one’s daughter on her wedding night were fatal. I can only imagine the many animals whose blood was shed in an effort to provide proof of a daughter’s virginity. The father would be left to take care his daughter for the rest of his life rather than selling her to her future husband for a bride price. (E.g. Deuteronomy 22:13-30)
            The point I am making is that the notion or myth of virginity (see Jessica Valenti’s The Virginity Myth) has caused women and girls a lot of psychological and moral distress, which is magnified in the case of sexually abused women. How do I come to terms with the moral necessity to claim my virginity in light of my childhood sexual abuse and its aftermath?  How do I understand myself sexually when I’ve been taught to understand myself, my sexuality in the context of the virginity narrative? A woman is either a virgin or she is not. And if she is not a virgin, what are the alternatives? Whore? Used goods? And how does such an understanding psychologically impact women when their sexuality is inextricably linked with their morality by the institutions (churches) they believe to provide the authoritative hermeneutical (interpretative) moral barometer or yardstick for their lives?
            This has been a long struggle for me. And to free myself from the oppressive, heavy hand of the virginity metanarrative, I have had to debunk, debrief, and detox from this harmful teaching. Who, I asked in an earlier post, benefits from the notion of virginity? My friend Steve Clayborn replied on that post, “men!”  And he is correct.  I, of course, do not advocate for “promiscuity” (which may mean different things to different folks), but I encourage responsibility and the valuing of one’s body as a gift from God.  But the female body has been treated as a gift from God to be used as men please within the realm of societal norms. And societal norms have not favored the protection of females and historically certainly not black females.  While I value my sexuality as a gift from God, categories like “virgin,” “whore,” “prostitute,” etc. that label women in relation to men are not helpful or hopeful.
Why is it that although Jesus declared that the greatest commands are that we love God and love our fellow human beings, some of us have sought to de-center those commands and replace them teachings about women’s sexuality (and now gay and lesbian sexuality)?  Often at the heart of such teachings is control of bodies and/or fear of losing control of bodies (one’s own and that of others).  Labels imposed by others that define us are oppressive. When our lives fail to meet the expectations of the label, we are subjected to verbal, psychological, moral, and physical violence.  And sometimes the violence is inherent within the labeling and we don’t recognize it.  The virginity narrative has left many females (and males) frustrated, scarred, and hopeless.
            Virginity also does not allow for a woman to be a sexy or sexual being. If you are too sexy or sexual, then you deserve to have (or contributed to) your sexuality being forcefully taken from you.  The molester and/or rapist could not help him (or her) self but succumbed to your “feminine wiles.”  As a victim of childhood sexual abuse, I felt I had done something wrong to warrant the kind of attention and abuse I received from my grandfather. The scar I carried (and still struggle with) is an uneasiness (to say the least) with my own sexiness or sexuality. I am not comfortable with too much attention.  And in the past I have not been comfortable with other women who wear low cut blouses or skirts above the knee (not minis). I had associated such clothing with loose women (and I’m not talking about mini skirts or deeply cut tops). This is a continual struggle for me  – becoming comfortable with being sexy and a woman of God. But I have and I am making strides. I used to be very uncomfortable with the deep cleavage my niece would show when we would go on vacation together. It was all I could do not to cover her up. Interestingly, when we went on vacation together this year, her cleavage was mostly covered with tub tops and I wore a sexy, strappy, fitted black dress that she said I looked good in. The bikini I still wear a little conflictedly.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

"Rosa" by Rita Dove

How she sat there,
the time right inside a place
so wrong it was ready.

That trim name with
its dream of a bench
to rest on. Her sensible coat.

Doing nothing was the doing:
the clean flame of her gaze
carved by a camera flash.

How she stood up
when they bent down to retrieve
her purse. That courtesy.

--Rita Dove from her book of poetry On the Bus with Rosa Parks

Monday, August 8, 2011

Reflections from my time at Incarnation Monastery in Berkeley, CA

Monday, October 12, 2009
After a brief tour of my small room, the kitchenette, the bathroom, and a limited viewing of the upstairs including the chapel (which has a breath-taking view of the San Francisco Bay -- I could sit and stare out that window all day.), I asked Father Thomas how to get to the nearest restaurant; I was famished.  He told me to walk three blocks down La Loma, turn right on Cedar and go all the way to Shattuck.  I would find restaurants and grocery stores.  “It is quite a walk, but I do it, and you look like you could do it,” he said.  Oh, Jesus, I thought, but I must eat.  I can do this; other people do it; I saw some teenagers walking down the mountain.  If they can do it; if he can do it, I can do it.  I took off my boots and put on my tennis shoes and headed down the mountainside.  I walked three long blocks straight down hill.  I caught a vision of Cedar Street ahead on my right, imagining that the down-hill climb would end at Cedar Street, but it did not.  I was careful not to ruin my knees as I walked down, down, down hill.  On the way down I decided to call a friend on my cell – I needed to reach out to another reality and take my mind off the task before me.  The ground did not level until I reached Shattuck.  I settled for the first restaurant I came to --  a Thai restaurant at the corner. I told my phone buddy that I was stopping here because I’m hungry and need to reserve my strength to go back up mountain. I was too tired to explore my options.  

The meal was pretty good.  The waitress was friendly.  I asked her how far the graduate theological union was from the restaurant and how to get to the Bart train.  She said I could walk, but the bus would also take me there.  The bus information provided some relief, but there was always that trek up and down the mountain to Shattuck.  I left the restaurant and went across the street to the grocery store to pick up some items and then headed back up to the monastery.  The walk was worse than I had imagined.  Walking up a steep mountain does not compare to 40 minutes on the tread mill in cross country mode; nor does it compare to jogging around my apartment complex.  I called another friend on the way up to talk and take my mind off the climb; didn’t help.  When I got to La Loma, I had to hang up the phone because I realized I needed even the energy it took to hold the phone to my ear to make it back up the mountain without passing out.  When I reached the monastery, my white turtleneck shirt was soaking wet with sweat and my hair had reverted to unruly curls.  I knew this would not become a daily routine; I would be fasting and contemplating more than I had anticipated.

I laid down to rest my feet and body; I set my alarm on my cell phone to rise up at 4:30 pm so that I could attend the 5pm vespers service.  I was looking forward to being in the chapel with the beautiful view of the San Francisco Bay.  As I reached the top of the stairs, Father Thomas was coming out of a room to my right decked in an off white clergy robe.  It’s interesting how a professional robe hides so much more than the human form; but something of the person disappears as well.  I said hello and followed him into the chapel where four women (three young Latinas and one older Caucasian) and a male were already sitting. He had removed his shoes.  The women were sitting in one section and the man in another.  I don’t know why but I took a seat in the same row as the male visitor. Maybe I didn’t want to reinforce the gender divide in the room.  Father Thomas greeted one young lady and gave her instructions as to how the service would proceed.  This, living in/worshipping in a monastery of Camaldolese contemplative male urban monks, was all new to me.  I heard him say we would pray, sing, and meditate for 20 minutes.  Father Thomas then approached the middle-aged white male and told him to do the Gospel reading.  The singing was more like chanting.  We read a litany responsively.  Father Thomas read with the women, and I read with the one male.  When it was time for the meditation, Father Thomas sat Indian-style on the floor, careful to cover himself with his robe.  He placed a bowl and a brass item in front of himself and took a stick in his hand and rang the brass item like a bell—three times.  The tinkling sound of the bell marked the beginning of meditation and it would again be used to mark the end of the meditation.  It was a struggle to keep my mind on “Jesus” and God’s goodness despite the many times I have sung “I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on Jesus.” [What does it mean anyway, “to keep your mind on stayed on Jesus.” Does it mean no other thought should enter my mind? Don’t think so. The mind sometimes has a mind of its own. Disciplining the mind is the work of a life time.] It is difficult to engage in spiritual contemplation when there is so much to distract us.  I had nothing here to distract me; well unless you count the newness of it all; the otherness of it all --the heightened awareness of my otherness and their otherness.  In the end I was proud of myself.  I believe I mediated on things spiritual more than I wondered about the “cares of the world.”  I’ll get better at this; I once was.  But this was different.

During the litany, I wondered if I was doing it all wrong and imagined Father Thomas gently rebuking me for being out of order.  But when the service ended, there was no rebuke, no greetings, and no conversation. Everyone disappeared – me down the stairs, the young women out the front door; and the older woman, possibly a nun, Father Thomas and the man stayed behind, I think. 


I began reading a little book I purchased while at Harvard in September called The Other by Ryszard Kapuscinski.  And it reminded me of the first time I read Durkheim and other sociologists and anthropologists encountering their use of terms like “primitive” or “the savage” and how it disturbed me.  Nevertheless, Kapuscinski reminds his readers that it was Malinowski who said a good anthropologist must live with the other people she wishes to describe and write about.  And, of course, I thought of me, right now, at Incarnation. I chose to be here because I wanted to experience and learn something new or foreign to me.  Hummm.  I did not plan to write about my journey here, but Kapuscinski nudged me in this direction. 

Monday, July 18, 2011

An' be-fo' I'd be a slave. I'll be buried in my grave; An' go home to my Lord an' be free: The Bible and Slavery? God and Slavery?

For the second time in about six months I’ve been asked about the Holcolm Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) [first appeared in full in 2004 – height of politicization of religious right?] and the translators’ insistence on translating doulos as slave in the New Testament and never as servant. Promotional materials state that the HCSB was created for accuracy. Given examples of its accuracy are the translation of Yahweh instead of LORD and slave instead of servant (for the Greek word doulos). I don’t know the motives of the HCSB translators. Certainly, doulos does mean slave and should not be sanitized. Perhaps, in the matter of doulos, the impact (if not the intent) could be to attribute sacred status to slavery; maybe the multiplied appearances of the word slave (doulos [masculine]/doule [feminine]) in the NT will encourage HCSB readers to understand slavery and the owning of slaves as something not so bad but in fact good, a reminder of a sacred southern past [HCSB is promoted by Lifeway which provides resources for the Southern Baptist Convention]. Interestingly, last week Michelle Bachmann and other tea party conservatives signed a pledge that stated that black families were better off during slavery than under Prez. Obama! [Of course black families during slavery were separated from their spouses and children while they raised the master’s children; black men were forced to breed and black women to be raped and bred, etc etc.]


Some people in fact determine the appropriateness of behaviors, rituals, relationships etc. by whether or not they simply appear in the Bible, never entertaining or critiquing the implications of God inserting God’s self into a messy and fallible world. Roman society was one of many slaveholding societies. As the Romans (like other empires before and after them) expanded and conquered, they enslaved conquered peoples. A Roman citizen could not be enslaved. Like all slaveholding societies, slaves were socially uprooted, considered property, and a slaveholder/master could do with his or her slave as he or she pleased. Slavery is cruel and inhumane wherever it is found.  Whether it is rehearsed in a play or a novel, remembered in the history books, or (re)inscribed in sacred writings such as the Qur’an, the Hebrew Bible, or the Christian Testaments, it is evil and should be detested. Why should we loath modern-day slavery and not be repulsed by slavery in the Bible?  We can desensitize ourselves to evil and injustice when we fail to realize that “Justice denied anywhere diminishes justice everywhere,” as Martin Luther King Jr. stated. Why do we think it appropriate that God be compared to a slave master who owns slaves and punishes them severely when they do not conduct themselves in the ways expected of good slaves?