Monday, October 27, 2014

Bethel Church to show and discuss the movie "Freedom Summer"

Freedom Summer
Bethel Church
201 E. Old Plank Road
Columbia, Missouri 65201
November 1, 2014
5:30 pm

It’s difficult to walk standing tall when each step lands in fear.  Sometimes I wonder how the Freedom Riders travelled on those buses while hate chased from behind.

On Saturday, November 1, Bethel Church will watch the Movie Freedom Summer. Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) organized Freedom Rides in 1961 to test a 1960 Supreme Court decision that segregation of interstate transportation was unconstitutional. The rides were modeled after the 1948 Journey of Reconciliation which tested the 1946 Supreme Court decision Morgan v. Virginia that ruled segregated bus seating unconstitutional.

It started on May 4, 1961 when 13 Freedom Riders – seven black and six white – boarded a Greyhound bus in Washington, D.C. headed to New Orleans, Louisiana.  They hoped to arrive in the Big Easy in time to celebrate the seventh anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision on May 17th.

The first confrontation occurred in Rock Hill, South Carolina on May 12. John Lewis, now a U.S. Congressman, and five others were attacked as they attempted to enter a white-only waiting area. Two days later, a bomb was thrown into the bus after a mob of about 200 surrounded the bus in Anniston, Alabama.  Pictures of the burning bus and bloodied riders appeared in newspapers around the world.

Violence continued in Montgomery where a white mob beat riders with baseball bats and clubs. That night, Martin Luther King, Jr., led a service at the First Baptist Church in Montgomery. As more than one thousand gathered inside the church to support the riders, a riot arose outside forcing the Governor to dispatch the National Guard.

Some riders were arrested for trespassing. As the violence and arrest received international attention, hundreds of new Freedom Riders joined the cause. The mobs and violence did not deflate interest, it intensified the movement.

Some would say that’s old news.  Why show a movie about events that took place over 50 years-ago?

What lessons can be garnered from ruminating the mean ways of those from recent history?  Shouldn’t we lock all of that away and pretend we have drifted from the thoughts of those holding bats and clubs not so long ago?

Even more critical in this conversation is the church showing the movie.  It’s not being shown by a congregation with a majority black membership.  It’s not part of a discussion for Black History Month.  Bethel Church, the congregation where I serve as an Associate Pastor, is showing the movie.

The membership at Bethel is overwhelmingly white.  Besides me, there are only two blacks who attend.  We are a minority within a congregation that works hard to overcome and understand the hate from our recent past.  It’s significant that Bethel Church is willing to address this issue.  Some of them own the hatred and racism within their family.  They have been willing to share their stories with me - a black man wounded by racism.

They are willing to talk about the past. In doing so, they are aware that some of what hurts still attacks the soul of the faith we share.  It’s painful to face, but we have to stare it down and demand that the grip of the past be cast to the gates of Hell.

On this past Sunday, I preached a message about love within the context of hate.  I shared the madness of that dreadful day in Durham, North Carolina when a person called the office of the NAACP and left a voice message threatening to bomb a local church.

Fear settled among the congregation I served.  Members called me demanding that we cancel worship that Sunday.  Some talked about memories of witnessing black men dangling from trees like strange fruit. Some talked about memories of black girls dying in Alabama while people prepared to worship God. Some talked about the glares of white people when they walked in their direction.

Pain and fear settled in like dry bones withered by heat.  I had to decide what to do.  Tears overcame me as I faced my decision – would we cancel service or stand in faith like those Freedom Riders?

My phone rang.

“We want to gather in a circle around the church and pray,” John Friedman, senior rabbi at Judea Reform Congregation in Durham, NC, told me on the night before I faced the fire.  “While you and the congregation worship, we will stand and pray.”

Sunday, I preached about love. I preached about loving the way you desire to be loved.  Love doesn’t judge. Love doesn’t remind people of their mistakes. Love seeks a way to move beyond all form osf division as we seek the emergence of a new way.

Love is standing with those too afraid to stand on their own.  It’s taking risk with those who face hostility because of the prejudices some create.

That’s why Bethel Church is showing and discussing Freedom Summer.  It’s the congregation’s way to own past mistakes while seeking ways to move past the wounds caused by racist ways. 

But maybe, just maybe, there’s another message behind showing Freedom Summer.

Could it be Pastor Bonnie Cassida and the members at Bethel Church are making a statement to me?  Maybe they are saying to me “help us understand your pain.” Could it be their way of affirming my presence in the room and a willingness to fight through everything, no matter how much it hurts, to get to the other side of what it means to be an authentic community?

To that I say yes.

I love you too.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Pennsylvania Governor signs bill aimed at silencing Mumia Abu-Jamal

When you have a voice that travels around the world people will do all they can to stop you from speaking.  Some people don’t take it kindly when a convicted murder delivers a commencement speech.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett has signed a new law to silence Mumia Abu-Jamal. Abu-Jamal was convicted of first-degree murder in the 1981 shooting of a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania police officer. Once known as the voice from death row, Abu-Jamal’s sentence was commuted to life without parole in 2013.

The new law, signed on Tuesday, allows victims of violent crimes to sue the offender for “conduct which perpetuates the continuing effect of the crime on the victim.”

The law was fast-tracked after Abu-Jamal delivered a commencement address at Goddard College in Vermont. Abu-Jamal obtained a bachelor degree from Goddard while behind bars in 1996.  The law allows victims and prosecutors to sue felons in prison or after they have completed their sentence for conduct that the law says “perpetuates the continuing effect of the crime on the victim”.

Corbett said the law is intended to mute the “obscene celebrity” status of convicts like Abu-Jamal, the Associated Press reported. Corbett signed the bill within footsteps of where Daniel Faulkner was killed. Faulkner is the officer Abu-Jamal was convicted of murdering.

“The law was inspired by the excesses and pious hypocrisy of one particular killer,” Corbett said.

Corbett may find it difficult to curb Abu-Jamal’s celebrity status.  The administration and student body at Goddard College embraced his speech for reasons some can’t understand.  They believe in his innocence.  They are moved by his message behind prison walls.  They are inspired by his humility.

None of that will go away.

“Freedom was taken away when he murdered a police officer in the line of duty,” Maureen Faulkner, the widow of Daniel Faulkner, told Fox News. “It seems like our justice system allows murderers to continue to have a voice over the public airwaves and at college commencement. It’s despicable,”

Is that true? Can one forfeit their Constitutional right to freedom of speech by virtue of being incarcerated?  Is that stated in the Constitution, or do we allow for a provision that grants people the right to punish people for garnering support and popularity?

“Essentially, any action by an inmate or former offender that could cause ‘mental anguish’ could be banned by a judge,” Reggie Shuford, Pennsylvania ALCU director, said in a statement to the Associated Press.  “That can’t pass constitutional muster under the First Amendment.”

Administrators at Goddard College aren’t happy that a law was passed due to their acceptance of Abu-Jamal.

“In essence this law is suggesting that people are not capable of making choices about what speech they will listen to and how they will react to that speech,” Samantha Kolber, a spokesperson for Goddard College, told the Patriot-News of Central PA .”That we wonder how libertarians and free-speech conservatives feel about this action, and we also speculate about how far this diminishment of free-speech rights will go.”

Prison Radio has vowed to continue to broadcast Abu-Jamal’s words. 

“Broadcasting Mumia Abu-Jamal's voice is the best antidote to the Right Wing Attack on the First Amendment,”said Noelle Hanrahan, producer of Prison Radio. (Link to interview with Hanrahan:

Hanrahan said Prison Radio has dozens of notable people ready to stand in for and read Abu-Jamal’s work if the District Attorney or Attorney General sues Abu-Jamal

Abu-Jamal has recorded over 3,000 essays, published seven books with two more to be released in 2015. He has three major broadcast and theatrical movies in which he is the subject. His work has been translated in nine languages.  Mumia: Long Distance Revolutionary is currently airing on the STARZ Network.

I doubt if the threat of a lawsuit will stop Mumia Abu-Jamal.  Listen to what he has to say.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Clergy go to jail to protest the death of Michael Brown

[Meg Hegemann, pastor at Wilkes Street United Methodist Church, Columbia, Missouri, challenges a police officer to reprent.]

As fans on both ends of the state cheered for their baseball team to win playoff games, clergy showed up in Ferguson, Missouri with a desire to be arrested. They peacefully and intentionally pressed through the crowd hoping they would be taken to jail.

The St. Louis Cardinals and the Kansas City Royals made the front page, but the real news was at the police station.

A seasoned white minister did his best to break through the line as a police officer yelled at him while pushing the minister with his baton.

“I was instantly scared that the minister would be hit with the baton,” said Katie Jansen Larson, an organizer with Missouri Faith Voices. “My first reaction was to look for a peace-keeper but I quickly realized that a peace-keeper couldn't do anything to stop a police officer from hitting that minister.”

Larson began to wonder how far the officer would go to maintain control.

“And then I began to panic as I thought if he hits the minister will he hit someone else? Will he hit me? I'm not safe. And the police who I always turn to for protection are the ones threatening my safety,” Larson said. “My body told me to run. I didn't run, but I moved much closer to my colleagues and watched their faces for signs of panic.”

42 people were arrested during the Moral Monday protest in front of the St. Louis County Police Department. Monday was part of “Ferguson October” – four days of social action and civil disobedience fueled by the killing of Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, MO.

“We respond to call ourselves to heed and join with the witness to the cry that Michael Brown’s life matters,” said Deb Krause, dean at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis. Krause cancelled all classes at the United Church of Christ seminary to allow students to participate in the protest.

Hundreds gathered in the rain with a willingness to go to jail.  Rev. Cassandra Gould, pastor of Quinn Chapel in Jefferson City, MO, was one of the first clergy to protest the death of Michael Brown. 

“The biggest shift I have witnessed has been on the part of the clergy as many of us realize we have more to learn from the young people than we have to teach them,” Gould said. “Initially what I observed was the natural inclination and well-intended actions of faith leaders that resembled the colonial missionary model, of ‘let us bring you what we have, let us show you what to do in this case.’"

Gould has noticed resistance among clergy to protest in Ferguson.

“This is not due to lack of passion but it is evident we were ill-prepared for this situation,” Gould said. “Yet considering St. Louis, in the words of the young people, ‘has a church on every corner,’ it is evident that the prophetic and sustainable witness that is needed is not for every woman or man of the cloth.

Larson, a white woman, said Monday’s protest taught her an important lesson.

“I realized that this is what some people - specifically most African American men - experience every single day,” Larson said. “We can't change our assumptions or imagine a new way to be together if we don't know each other - if we allow current barriers to exist.”

Eyes closed hoping it will all go away.

Eyes open now. It’s worse than before.

The pain keeps mounting higher as seeds of rage, planted long ago, bear the bitter fruit of hostility.

Welcome to Ferguson, Missouri.

The pain is too deep to cover with simple prayers. It’s been there too long to sing away with lyrics laced with the promise of overcoming someday.  My shovel is too small, and I lack the strength to carry the mud alone.

Help me hold my shovel as I dig deep in search of hope.

Digging fiercely in search of unity.

Can two teams become one?

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Calling in a post-martyr culture

Florida means land of flowers
It was on a Christmas night.
In the state named for the flowers
Men came bearing dynamite
It could not be in Jesus’ name
Beneath the bedroom floor
On Christmas night the killers
Hid the bomb for Harry Moore
                Langston Hughes

 “I have to go to law school for me,” a friend told me after months of reflection. “I have to do it not for others, but because it’s the right thing for me.”

Her words struck a loud chord.  I told her I’ve never been able to make that statement.  Everything I’ve chosen has been for others.  None of it, when it comes to the work I do, has been for me.
I wonder if this is the consequence related to being part of the post Martin Luther King, Jr. generation.  Those who entered ministry after the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Fred Hampton, Harry and Harriette Moore, Malcolm X and King did so out of a deep allegiance to the sacrifices they made.  We entered this work committed to continue what they started, and we did so knowing the costs associated with taking those bold steps.

Ours was no cheap grace with promises of mega-congregations and massive expense packages.  We did it for the people we served.  There was work left undone, and, we believed, God was calling us to finish what the ancestors started.

My friend’s words reminded me of the enormous burden that comes with saying yes.  No, we weren’t carrying crosses that fed an unhealthy martyr complex. We didn’t bring dysfunctional emotional baggage to the work of ministry.  We regarded the calling, and work of ministry, as the continuation of work started long ago. We felt and embraced the pain that stirred revolts led by Gabriel Prosser in Virginia in 1800, Denmark Vesey in Charleston, South Carolina in 1822, and Nat Turner in South Hampton County, Virginia in 1831.

We embraced the model of theologically trained ministers like Henry McNeal Turner, the first southern bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church after the Civil War. Turner was elected to the state legislature in Georgia in 1868.  We took pride in his accomplishments, and sought ways to follow his footsteps.
We did it for the cause. It came out of a sincere commitment to the work behind us and the enormous challenges ahead.  This, we believed, is what it means to be called.  We walked away from more lucrative professions.  The pay in ministry was derisory comparative to other options.  We said yes to the people. 

I say we with the assumption I’m not alone.  When I consider the sacrifices of the men and women who mentor me to this day, I’m reminded of why we do this work.  As I read the emails from Dr. J. Alfred Smith, Sr., who ministered in Oakland, California during the turbulent years of police brutality, I recall what it means to sacrifice.  When I read letters sent to me by Jeremiah Wright, who taught people in Chicago, Illinois to say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud, I’m grateful for the positions he took during extreme ridicule.
This is what it means to serve. It’s about standing for right even when it could result in conflict.  We’re reminded of why we say yes to this work.  Never should it be said we do it because of ourselves.  Our being called means doing it because we are called to make a difference, not because it’s the fastest path to fulfill our personal agenda.

This is my frustration with the work we do.  The calling to serve has been supplanted by the desire to achieve.  Lost in the quest to hear the voices of the least of these, is the personal thirst for achievement.  The calling to transform the world is supplanted with ecclesial political maneuvering essential in remaining planted within positions of power and ceremonial privilege.
Is that a calling, or the ego interfering with a higher purpose?

Or, have the notions regarding calling changed for the generation once removed from the deaths of Evers, Hampton, Harry T. and Harriette Moore, Malcolm and King?
Those are questions worth pondering.

As for me, I’ve never been able to decide based merely on how it impacts just me.
I wish I could, but there’s this thing we call a calling.




Friday, October 3, 2014

Who owns the preaching of the Gospel?

Young Jeezy has decided not to fight the Bishop.

Jeezy has removed “Holy Ghost Remix” from SoundCloud and YouTube after T.D. Jakes threatened to sue for the use of part of his sermon on the track.

Jeezy used Jakes sermon titled “Don’t Let the Chatter Stop you” as the song’s hook.

"... I'm under attack, but I'm still on fire
 I got some chatter, but I'm still on fire
 I got some threat, but I'm still on fire
 I got some liabilities, but I'm still on fire
 If it's not amazing that I'm on fire
 I've been to hell and back, but I'm still on fire."

Jakes responded on Facebook shortly after the song, also featuring Kendrick Lamar, was released.

"SPECIAL NOTICE: The 'Holy Ghost' remix by Jeezy featuring Kendrick Lamar was produced without the knowledge or consent of T.D. Jakes, TDJ Enterprises, Dexterity Music or its associated companies," the Facebook message from T.D. Jakes Ministries reads. "We are taking the necessary legal actions to stop the unauthorized use of T.D. Jakes' intellectual property."

The pending lawsuit against Jeezy raises a set of theological issues related to the usage of the intellectual property of a preacher.  Do assumptions regarding the source of preaching press us into considering potential contradictions in the way we communicate those views in public space?

Legally, the law is on Jeezy’s side.  Using parts of Jakes sermon, even without permission, is considered “fair use” and not an infringement or theft, because Jeezy gave Jakes credit.

Jakes may be offended by the way his work was used in the song.  Or, it could be that Jakes is upset about not receiving a share of the profit.  Each possibility presents a unique set of issues regarding how the words and thoughts of ministers are presented in public space. 

There is a price that comes with being the poster Bishop of the Church.  The glamor that comes with being the leader of a mega-Church movement comes with being staged in public space in ways that may conflict with the image one wishes to present.

"Please Lord forgive him, you know he got that thug in him, we lust for alcohol and we love women. ... Got the seats reclined and I be doin' the most in the back of this Holy Ghost," Jeezy rhymes on the record. 

I’m sure Jakes didn’t like that.

Taking this matter to court exposes a deeper theological issue that deserves consideration. Who owns the Word? When preaching and teaching, can we claim that the message is the intellectual property of the one delivering the message?

Most ministers promote preaching as the inspired Word of God.  The message and movement of worship are ordered by the Holy Spirit.  Preachers and teachers are vessels of God’s work.  Jakes, and most evangelical ministers, contend the Word of God is God’s word.  God is speaking to and through preachers to promote her will.

So, if the message comes from God, how can it be the intellectual property of those who preach? This lawsuit shifts the conversation from preaching as the instrument of God’s work, to preaching as the property of the preacher.  This asserts ownership and recompense for all profits earned from that intellectual property.

This alters the work and message of the Church. Rather than celebrate parts of a sermon being used to impact those who listen to Jeezy and Lamar, Jakes, and his team, fight to preserve their personal brand.  Isn’t the purpose of preaching and teaching to reach those beyond the idiomatic expression of one’s own claims? Shouldn’t Jakes rejoice in the masses of young people glued to his words and impacted in a way that could lead to change?  Isn’t that the purpose of his work?

Or, is it about the profit?  Is it about controlling the brand?  Is it about more than the calling he claims – to teach and preach to all God’s children?

Yes, God owns our preaching. That is unless your name is Bishop T.D. Jakes.