Category Archives: Justice

Tornillo: The Turning of the Screw

Tornillo. In Spanish it means screw – as in turning the screw – as in taking something bad and making it worse. That is exactly what has happened in this place.

Tonight I stood before the closed gate to the Tornillo-Guadelupe Port of Entry, beyond which sits the newly populated “tent cities” for children separated from their parents. I took it all in and struggled to find words. My colleague from University of Arizona, Juan Ortiz, had brought me there, weaving through the pitch blackness and utter isolation that lies east of El Paso, Texas. We drove as far as they would allow, and then I got out and walked the rest of the way while Juan kept watch. I’m a white woman in a clergy collar: my risk is infinitely less.

It was so dark. It was so isolated. I imagined that must be how the children held beyond this gate must feel. I imagined the tears that wet some of their pillows, like the Rio Grande winding through El Paso.

We are horrified. Finally. Why did it take us so long? Separating children from their parents is not new, but here it is – in Tornillo – that we find the turning of the screw. The point beyond which we cannot tolerate the pain. Dear God, I plead, let us not tolerate the pain. Let us not get used to it. Let us not rationalize and find comfort once again, while others are tortured. Torment us.

Throughout our history, this is what we have done when we have wanted to break the spirit of a people. What are we trying to do now, if not that? We seek to break the Spirit. To break apart families, to break hearts, perhaps in ways that can never be repaired.

Let me take a moment to be clear about what I mean when I say “we.” I mean the powers that be, and all of us that are not on the receiving end of their abuse but are merely mentally tortured by their constantly escalating atrocities. We who will not be the ones whose children are taken. We who cannot imagine a cause for our arrest, rather than dreading it’s arrival constantly. We who do nothing. Let us not be that we.

Let us step away from that “we” and into another. Let us resist. Let us embrace discomfort. Let us refuse to be silent.

The thing that I want us to remember is that while these conditions are horrible for children, there are no conditions into which we can place them that will diminish the horror, trauma, abuse and damage that you inflict upon a child when you separate them from a parent who loves them and is willing to risk their lives for that child. The separation itself is the horror.

Yet, that separation already happens when a family arrives together to seek asylum – a human right – and one parent is taken and held. That separation happens when a parent is deported away from their children.

That separation happens in our mind when we create a narrative where the child is a victim and the parent is a criminal, when in reality their parent is all too often their savior. We have already separated parent from child mentally, before we separated them physically. We have already placed them in separate categories, before we placed them in separate cages.

To end this, it will not be sufficient to end their physical separation. We must also tear down the walls that we have constructed between parent and child in our minds. Until we do that, we will remain complicit. It is our mental divide that has led to their physical one.

Let us bring them back together in our minds, so that we can bring them back together in the flesh.

Below is a portion of the El Paso mural by Francisco Delgado and Juan Ortiz.

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At least there was a baby to clothe…

Searching through the racks of baby clothes at Factory 2 U, only one thought was running through my mind: thank God they are together. The thought of the alternative made my stomach contort itself into knots. Five days earlier, I had knelt on the ground on the Mexico side of the Deconcini Port of Entry, pushing a small red car back and forth between this baby’s brother and I, while she laughed and built up the courage to crawl closer. They were halfway through what would be 11 days of waiting outside in the summer heat, with temperatures well over 100 degrees, hoping that their name would be called one morning and they would have a chance to go through that doorway into the United States and begin their plea. Next to them, five sick children – siblings – slept with limbs entwined on the ground in the heat and dust.

I had driven down that morning with my friends Gretchen and Kat, wanting to see for ourselves where the people were who usually filled the cots in our refugios. Hundreds of people stretched out from the doorway into the United States, all the way back to the small tables of wares and men offering taxis that welcome newcomers to Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. 

A man with a stethoscope slung over his shoulders, Panchito, walked the line, checking on the needs of those seeking asylum. Volunteers from Kino Border Initiative fed them, while Voices From the Border carried in water and clothes. Each day, only 5-12 people were being permitted through that doorway into the United States, the same one that I could walk through with such ease. 

When we did walk back through that doorway, only one of us with a passport but all of us with blonde hair, I spoke to the mother in the best Spanish I could manage. I tried to tell her that we would be waiting and praying on the other side; that we would have a place for them; that we wanted them; that they were welcome. I tried to hide the fear behind my eyes, knowing what our government had given itself the right to do. Knowing that some families do not make it to us; that some families are torn apart and sent to separate facilities, just as families throughout history’s cruelest moments have been sorted left and right. 

I did not know if I’d ever see her again. I prayed I would. The only families they send to our refugio are the ones where at least one parent has been permitted to stay with the children.

Five days later, when I unexpectedly saw her face, holding her baby and calling to me, I was overjoyed. With all the hundreds of families that we see each week, this week has felt different. For the first time, we were taking joy in something as small as no one having arbitrarily decided to tear this woman’s baby from her arms. This was a level of cruelty that I had not imagined we would have to face. This was a relief that I did not think I would ever have the necessity to feel.

I carried that relief with me as we dug through bins of clothes, searching for a clean shirt for her 18 month old, and came up with nothing. At least there was a baby here to clothe, I told myself.

Ten minutes later, standing alone in front of racks of baby clothes at Factory 2 U, I sorted through tshirts trying to find even a single one without Minnie Mouse or a white Disney Princess on it. At least there was a baby to put in that Minnie Mouse t-shirt, I told myself.

As an aunt of five with a sixth due any day, I am well versed in the skills of playing back-up and indulgent aunt. I am well versed in what it means to be family.  I am well versed in trying my best when I am not sure what to do… There are so many moments now when I am not sure what to do. 

Pulling down a fuzzy baby blanket from the wall, I thought of the two children who had spent the past month living under my roof, leaving drawings on my fridge, taking naps with my dog, watching telenovelas on my television, falling asleep in my arms. Once again, a spasm rocked my gut at the thought that they too could have been separated from both their parents instead of just their father. Just their father. As if a gaping hole in your heart that keeps you awake all night crying, and in bed all day sleeping could be captured by the word “Just.” Is this what we have come to? That we must give thanks that only one parent has been taken?

I am so tired of giving thanks for small mercies, with the knowledge ever pressing on my mind of the great cruelties that have been escaped, that hang ever threatening over our heads from my own government. I can do these little things. I can lessen the pain for those that cross my path. I can put warm socks on the cold feet of babies, and smiles on the faces of children too young to understand the truths that are causing their parents to despair. Yet, these are such small things, and this cruelty, this complacency, this occupation of our community is so vast. 

At least there is a baby to clothe, I tell myself. At least the baby wasn’t strapped into a car seat with dozens of other children in a converted prison bus, screaming as they are transported away from their parents. 

At least there was a baby to clothe.

Has it really come to this?

Somewhere, a Christian man or woman sits behind a computer, typing comments onto every post they can find. Not even understanding the laws themselves,* they are saying that these desperate families, these children, these mothers, should not have broken the law and deserve what they get. 

Whose law? 

While these parents and children stand accused by us of breaking the law of man, we stand guilty of breaking the law of God. We sort them left and right, mothers to one side, children to the other; yet, God has sorting to do as well.

“Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’  And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:41-46)

Somewhere, a five year old child is crying out for their mother. They are tired. They are traumatized. They live their lives in fear 24 hours a day. They do not understand what the people around them are saying. Perhaps they are being held in an institution like Southwest Key where the staff speaks Spanish or English, but not Portuguese or K’iche’ or Q’eqchi’ or Kaqchikel or whichever language their mother uses to soothe them. Perhaps they have a video translation device that talks to them and translates the staff’s orders. Let go of your siblings. Be quiet. Behave.  Every day that passes, every tear that falls, was the choice of our government, and was a part of a system financially dependent upon keeping its beds full of children who are kept from getting tucked in by their papa with a good night kiss.

Here we stand, where the rest of the nation makes our decisions for us, and a Federal force occupies our streets, and we are relieved simply to see a baby still in her mother’s arms. 

You can organize. You can talk to your neighbors. You can petition. You can donate. You can call. You can write. You can refuse to let our elected officials rest until these children are resting back in their parents arms.

Stop. Family. Separation. Now. 

*For more information on how the United States Government is breaking it’s own laws read about American Baptist Churches v. Thornburgh and the screening process that we are bound to apply for credible fear and reasonable fear.

Grief on Both Sides of the Border this Mother’s Day

On May 10th, the Thursday before Mother’s Day, Mothers from throughout the United States plan to converge on the Capitol for #STAND, a Day of Action organized to demand legislation and reforms that would address the police brutality experienced by their loved ones.

As they gather at the center of the nation’s power, thousands of miles away, here in the borderlands, their cry will echo from the lips of a mother who shares their pain.

In Mexico, Thursday will be Mother’s Day itself, and the mother of José Antonio Elena Rodriguez will walk the final steps he took in life, just as she has done on the 10th of every month since he was murdered by Border Patrol in 2012.

A mere seven months after the murder of 17 year-old Trayvon Martin rocked the nation, the October 2012 murder of 16 year-old José Antonio Elena Rodriguez shook its furthest territories. Their deaths proved that even a Border is insufficient to protect Black and Brown teenagers from the racialized violence that stalks our streets.

With piercing irony, it became clear that the Border Wall erected to keep the sons and daughters of Mexican mothers out of the United States could not protect them from the police brutality they would encounter here. As 16 year-old José Antonio stood in the Mexican streets of Nogales, Sonora, where the road dipped 20 feet below the wall, Officer Lonnie Swartz put his gun through an opening in that wall and fired 16 bullets – one for every year of José Antonio’s brief life. After 3 bullets, José was facedown on the ground, as Swartz fired 13 more bullets at his motionless back.

It is impossible not to think of the 20 bullets fired at Stephon Clark’s back in California. The 8 bullets fired at the back of Walter Scott in South Carolina. The brutalized body of Joe Campos Torres, dumped into the Bayou in 1977 by Houston police.

They say they want to build this wall to protect us, but those on the other side are the ones needing protection from us. We left slats in the Wall not big enough for a body to squeeze through to our side, but – like any fortress – wide enough to let our bullets pass through to theirs.

Like Trayvon, José Antonio longed to be a pilot when he grew up. As Trayvon toured Opa-Locka Airport in Florida, dreaming of the day when he would pilot one of the planes, about 2,300 miles to his west in Sonora, Mexico, José Antonio was sharing the same dream. Achieving that dream, for José Antonio, involved plans to join the military and make his mother proud.

Those dreams were cut short as Border Patrol Officer Lonnie Swartz gunned José Antonio down in the quiet streets of his own hometown, aiming from where he stood safely above on the US side and raining down a hail of bullets on the child below.

In 2012, just as life was beginning, like Trayvon, José Antonio was rendered powerless to tell his own story, portrayed as a threat by his own killer, and dehumanized in court.

Nearly six years later, his mother had to cross through the Nogales Port of Entry, past the Border Patrol Officers, and into the country where they killed her son. She came hoping for justice, only to sit in a courtroom in Tucson, Arizona and hear her a jury of US citizens find her son’s killer not guilty of second degree murder.

As mothers who share her pain walk the streets of our nation’s Capitol this Thursday, José Antonio’s supporters will surround his mother at the Border in Mexico in the spot where he lay face-down as bullets ripped through his body from above. They will carry grief and outrage, but also the hope and prayer that United States Prosecutors will send a message about the value of their lives by choosing to begin a retrial in the case of his killer, Officer Lonnie Swartz.

Preach the Disruptive Gospel

A word for my clergy colleagues: We do not have to decide whether or not we will be “political.” We simply have to wake up each morning and answer the same question we have every other day of our careers, be it 10 years or 50 years: will I preach the Gospel today?

If that Gospel critiques the Powers, it will not be by your choice: it will be by the choice of those Powers who have positioned themselves in opposition to the Gospel of love, compassion, and kenosis. Our task and responsibility has not changed, it has merely become harder. You bear the task of saying what is and is not Christ-like; that is not a political agenda, it is a spiritual responsibility. Our message cannot be compromised, merely because others have colonized and appropriated its name. The church has been sold right out from under it’s shepherds, will you stand by as the wolves advance?

You bear the task of saying what is and is not Christ-like; that is not a political agenda, it is a spiritual responsibility.

The scriptures tell us, “Preach the Gospel, in season and out of season.” Yet, today and for many days to come, we will wake up in a nation in which the Gospel is most decidedly out of season.

You may be tempted to miss this fact, because it will appear that Christianity is in season. You will wake up each day in a nation where Christians elected the President, and where Christians feel more safe than any other religion (despite the fact that we will claim we are under attack). You will wake up in a nation where Christians fail to recognize that the people whose deportations they applaud are members of the same flock.

Do not allow this to distract you. There is an irreconcilable difference between the Institution of Christianity being in power and the Gospel being in season. If greed, prejudice and exclusion are in fashion, then the Gospel is out of fashion. We serve a Christ of “kenosis”, of self-emptying, of choosing love over power, of seeking solidarity over security.

We serve a Christ of “kenosis”, of self-emptying, of choosing love over power, of seeking solidarity over security.

In a context where the ‘Gospel’ is for sale to the highest bidder, you will have to choose: will I sell the ‘Gospel’, or will I preach the Gospel? Choosing to preach the Gospel is what makes us pastors, not a stole, a robe, a piece of paper, or the seat of honor at the prayer breakfast. Never choose any of those things over the Gospel.

It is entirely possible, dear friends, that the more the Institution of Christianity is in season, the more the Gospel will be out of season. Every day, then, your responsibility to preach it will grow heavier. You will be called political if you preach it, you will be called a traitor as Bonhoeffer, King, Grimke, Sojourner Truth and Jesus were. You will find that the doors of friends and colleagues do not open to you anymore. It may cost you your job, it may cost you your life to preach the Gospel to a nation where the Institution of Christianity holds the keys to power. The greatest threat to a coopted Christianity is the Gospel itself, this is always the case when religious and political power becomes aligned.

So, as you wake up each day, keep your mind set on one thing: will I preach the Gospel today? Will I speak up against cruelty and racism and sexism today? Will I lift up the women about to be stoned? Will I protect the widow and orphan? Will I welcome the immigrant, visit the prisoner, confront the Pharisee? Do not worry whether it will sound political, disruptive, or divisive. Worry over whether it is the Gospel. If it is the Gospel, then preach it. Preach it with love, but preach it. Preach it. Preach it. Preach it.

May our lives be a holy sacrifice, however long or short they be.
May every day begin with, “Yes.” May every day begin with Love.

Link to Resources

*Originally shared with friends on January 9th, 2017, posted here on January 9th, 2018, upon hearing that convicted racial profiler Joe Arpaio will run for Senate in the state of Arizona. 

 

When We Cannot Say Her Name

On the Sonora, Mexico side of the border wall running through Nogales, I bent over to pick up a white cross from the dust. “Girl, 18, Mexico,” it read. Two words and a number, all that was left of a life cut short by this desert whose dangers we make light of as “a dry heat.” A few yards away musicians played for the crowd assembled on both sides of the wall, a community of people intersected by the rusty metal slats that unnaturally divide our life here in the Sonoran desert. These bars that seek to diminish our humanity on both sides as men in Michigan and Iowa and Washington debate the contours of our lives. Who comes, who goes. Who stays, who leaves. You would not dare to ask a person which of their arms they would like to keep, but here we stand under the daily threat of our communal body being hacked, vital limb from vital limb. They threaten to take from us those people that we cannot live without, and expect that we will accept it heads bowed low.

I looked down at the cross in my hand and felt the weight of it wash over me. For the past two years of my life, I have fought to make the world #SayHerName #SandraBland from the moment that those words left her sisters lips at the pulpit of Hope AME in July of 2015. Thousands of hours, of miles, of images posted from the jail where she died. Relentless, consuming, determination that she would not be silenced. Hundreds of videos covering the progress of the case, and documenting the activity of the police. We said her name and it drew out with it others: Natasha McKenna. Renisha McBride. Yvette Smith. Rekia Boyd. Gynnya McMillen.

I looked down at the cross in my hand and realized that we could not draw out her name from that wood anymore than we could from the sand and dust that had cradled her. I could not scratch behind the paint to unearth it. I could not cut into the wood. I could not claw the truth out of the sand.

How do we find justice for her when we cannot even Say Her Name?*

Girl, 18, Mexico. Unidentified. Unknown.

As is the tradition of the School of the Americas Watch, the crosses were picked up and the names read one by one. 147 deaths in our Sonoran desert this year alone; 147 that were found at least. Driving through our border lands, it is easy to see how some could disappear without even two words and a number to mark their passing. Each name was read, as the crosses were lifted, and voices raised to answer “Presente.”

The School of the Americas was opened by the U.S. Military in the Panama Canal Zone in 1946 and trained Latin American soldiers in assassination, interrogation, and psychological tactics to control the politics of the region and quell uprisings of the people. It’s graduates include Manuel Noriega, Leopoldo Galtieri, and Hugo Banzer Suarez. In 1980, soldiers trained at the School of the Americas were involved in the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero as he celebrated Mass. Four years later, in 1984, Panama was able to rid themselves of the School, but it re-opened in Fort Benning, Georgia the same year. In 2000, the school ‘closed’ only to reopen the next year and rebrand itself as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. As citizens of the United States engage in uproar over Russian meddling in our elections, we stand in a nation that has indulged in a rich tradition of interference in other nations’ governance.

I looked down at the cross in my hand with the realization of what I held. This tool of execution. This archaic electric chair. This noose. This pyre. This needle. This wall. This cross. The thousands of ways we have killed people by the power of the State. The thousands of ways we have continued to miss the whole point of it all. Adorning our walls and necks with an instrument of death, forgetting it’s implications for those that we kill, embedding it with jewels and filagree and flowers. Compromising the Gospel as it fits our needs, our prejudices, and our economic goals. Slathering the name of Jesus like butter over burnt toast, attempting to cover up the burning.

I looked down at the cross in my hand and realized how much of Christianity remains unconverted. We seek and speak and vote to banish Jesus from our company. As the arbiters of condemnation, we speak with Paul’s words, challenging people about whether they are ‘saved,’ without lining up our own lives agains the measure of Jesus words and example to discover where we stand.

“I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was an immigrant and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in detention and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or an immigrant or naked or sick or in detention, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

We have Christians walking around bold, condemning people to their left and right without taking an honest inventory of the unrelenting cruelty that pervades their life both in word and in deed, stripping them of any claim to the name of Jesus even as they use that name to rain down judgment on their neighbor.

Girl, 18, Mexico. Unidentified. Unknown.

Jesus was there when she said the same words that he spoke as he died: I thirst.

Where were we as she lay dying? Where were we as he lay dying?

Girl, 18, Mexico.

How do we find justice for her when we cannot even Say Her Name?

Still without a name, we can know that the same system of white supremacy that killed Sandra, by one means or another, took down Girl, 18, Mexico as well. This system that teaches us to fear one another. This system that criminalizes and dehumanizes people of color. This system that targets the most vulnerable for elimination by the power of Empire.

What can we give her in death that we did not give her in life? We can tear down the system that took both their lives. We can tear down the system that this cross in my hand represents, this symbol of state violence, this symbol of the powerful intimidating the people into fear. Leaving Jesus on the cross to intimidate those who would rise up against the Romans. Leaving Michael Brown in the streets of Ferguson. Leaving Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez in the streets of Nogales. Leaving Sandra Brand unchecked in her cell. Leaving Girl, 18, Mexico to pass from recognition under the heat of the Sonoran sun.

We can educate ourselves to understand that we have caused the very flow of humanity that we seek to impede. We can spend 5 minutes researching our own nation’s abuses of others’ democracies for every 1 minute that we spend outraged over Russia’s abuse of ours.

We can start by tearing down that Wall. We can start by understanding that Jesus is not on our side of it. Like a spear, the wall has pierced his body, separating blood from water, limb from limb.

In this, our desert, he pleads through the rusty slats that pierced his side once more, “I thirst.”

His name? “Girl, 18, Mexico.” Say it.

…just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me… 

 

*This week, as we honor Transgender Day of Remembrance, it is important to remember as we engage in the movement to Say Her Name it’s roots in the erasure of transgender women of color as media outlets and family members would misgender and misname transgender women of color in death, doing further violence to them and leading to the push to Say Her Name. 

 

Good Men, Me Too, and the Rise of Nazism

At 5:07 am this Friday, October 20, the Nazi who attacked me in Houston back in January was booked into a jail in Alachua County, Florida. He was charged with attempted homicide in the first degree. His bail was set at one million dollars. He and two other Nazis had shot at protestors speaking up against White Supremacy when Richard Spencer came to their University of Florida campus this week.

I call William Fears a Nazi, because William Fears does not like being called a Nazi. He prefers to be called a White Nationalist, because he told me he believes the plans of Nazis are weak and small compared to what he has in store. I’m sure he also knows that there are plenty of “good, God-Fearing men” that do not want to be associated with the Nazis that their granddaddies fought, but are begrudgingly content to be associated with the White Nationalist, Alt-Right that won their party the Presidency.

In January of 2017, with the childish and snide smirk of a 5 year old who has just put a whoopee cushion on his teacher’s chair, William stood next to men, women and children holding welcome signs at the Harris International Airport. We were waiting for the release of University of Houston students who had gotten their travel interrupted by Trump’s ban, and he thought it was wonderfully clever of him to hold a Nazi poster up amongst their words of love.

William looked like a baby who has just messed his diaper, as he smirked slightly and looked back and forth, waiting to see who would be the first to notice his stench. He and his brother were trying to get someone to fight with him so they could film themselves getting punched and send it to Fox News. They wanted to do it for Big Daddy Trump: create some fake news to make his lies look real, so that people sitting comfortable on their sofas in suburbia would be afraid of us and continue to sit silently when the violence against us and eventually, he hopes, the killings begin.

Unfortunately for William, the optics did not turn out the way that he was hoping. I asked him to stay away from the Muslim women and children, happily chanting their words of welcome. I asked him if he was a White Supremacist or a Nazi, hoping to distract him from them, knowing that it might offend him. It did offend him, but not as I had thought it would. He told me that Nazis and White Supremacists were weak, that they did not go far enough. That the Alt-Right would have to push them further.

He then he told me that women were inferior and not worth engaging in conversation, so he did not have to talk to me. Without thinking it through, I did something that could have cost me my life.  I turned my back to him and informed him that we did not need to engage in discussion, but that I was not going to let him near those children either.

As much as William had wanted to get his “liberals punching Nazis” video clip for Fox News, and there was a man standing right there ready to do it, to have a woman turn her back to him seemed to be too much. Suddenly I was being violently shoved from behind as he lay hands on me. The Virgin Mary with Jesus stitched into my clergy stole by the nuns of Marianhill Monastery in South Africa whipped back and forth, until another woman with baby in arms pulled him off of me, as a cry of “He’s got a knife!” went up.

The police officers took him off without searching him for the knife and he went to creep around the parking garage, waiting for another woman to harass. Advocates spoke to City Council about him, but it came to nothing.

Good Men did not want to be associated with his behavior, but they did not want to confront him either.

So, as I’m still blessed with a life and a voice, here’s what I need from our nation’s self-described Good Men, specifically those who bear the hue that William Fears prefers:

I need you to stop telling me from your armchair that you are one of the Good Men, and start showing me.

I am not asking you to punch a Nazi so you can feel like a man either, that is exactly what he is desperately longing for you to do. We cannot give this petulant child his way. Instead, I need you to start talking to William Fears. I need you to visit him in prison. I need you to find his 12 year-old self at your local school and mentor him. I need you to talk to your son about what he is reading on the internet, and teach him to listen to women rather then feel entitled to our gratitude and silence. I need you to understand that you can never lay a hand on a woman, and still be a part of the problem. I need you to step up and take responsibility.

When I say we have a problem, when I say Me Too, and you respond by saying that “there are good men out there” and you “don’t know what made me so mad at men” then what you are saying is that you do not actually hear me. What you are saying, just like William Fears did, is that I am not worth hearing. What you are saying, just like William Fears did, is that you do not have to listen to me. If you want to change the world that William Fears is trying to create, then teach your sons the opposite. Show them what it looks like to change in response to the voices of women.

Do not strive to keep the focus on yourself as one of the Good Men, without realizing that continually centering our national narrative on the irreproachability of the Good Men is exactly what is at the root of this whole White Supremacist system.

All that William Fears is doing is taking the Good Man’s fear of critique to the extreme. Listening to all the complaints of Good Men not getting their due, and spinning it into a philosophy of what he will do to return the world to the kind of place where they do. He is not the opposite of the Good Man philosophy; he is the extreme of it.

The same culture that makes the rise of Nazism possible in this nation is the one that tells you that you are a Good Man and that you do not have to listen to me. That raises young, white men to believe that it is their role to protect me and treat me like a lady, as long as I do not step out of line.

Meanwhile, here I stand, face to face with William Fears, unafraid of the wounds to come, while you sit on the sidelines waiting to use those very wounds to silence me. Waiting to rub salt in by telling me that you too do not have anything to learn from me; by telling me I am irrational; by telling me “I don’t know who made you so angry baby.” Pitying yourself for the way that women do not act like ladies anymore, while I stand here with a knife at my back.

The very system that puts me in danger, claims to protect me. It silences me by telling me to be grateful that Good Men want to treat me like a lady, while simultaneously using protecting my body as a justification for violence against others. The same culture that makes the rise of Nazism possible in this nation is the one in which the penultimate “Good Man”, retired General John F. Kelly, can get on television and reminisce about the days when women were treated with dignity and honor while simultaneously dehumanizing a Black woman because Black women are not who he is talking about.

Why should we be suprised? The narrative of Good Men in our nation was built by men who regularly assaulted Black women in the slave quarters, and Indigenous women on the plains, and then came back to bed to snuggle up with their white wife, relying on her to say he is a Good Man. The Good Man counted on us to make it possible for him to get up and do it again the next day. Our affirmation of his goodness made him feel confident to stand before God on Sunday without a care in the world. Don’t you think that broke something within us? Don’t you think we, all of us, need to be healed? Don’t you think it is time for a new story? Don’t you think you should stop relying on white women to tell you that you are a Good Man? Clearly, we have been lying to you for centuries, anyway. Maybe we should all start listening more to Black women like Representative Frederica Wilson if we want to get to know ourselves better.

Try this: Stand up from the leather office chair behind your pastoral desk. Stand up from the armchair where you are reminiscing about the good old days when I stayed in my place. Stand up and go find William Fears, wherever he is in your community. It may be awkward, it may be hard, it may even be dangerous. Yet, if I can do it, so can you. We need you to do it now, because when William Fears was a little boy, you taught him in so many ways that he did not have to listen to me. Now he has taken it to the extreme and is ready to kill to prove you right. It is time for you to show him he is wrong.

My friends at the airport were good people, precisely because they would never expect me to call them Good Men. Precisely because they would not have presumed to tell me what to do with my body or whether I could place it in harm’s way. Precisely because they were not about to disrespect my non-violence by punching him, but they were not going to let him stick a knife in me either. We were in it together.

Maybe all of us could stop worrying about who are the Bad Men and the Good Men, and all of us try together to be good people instead. That is not a title to be either earned or demanded, rather it is a life to be lived.

Do not insist on maintaining the role of a bystander in the struggle we face.

Do not try to change the topic to the fact that you do not feel like your goodness is acknowledged, in order to avoid acknowledging and facing our righteous indignation.

Do not tell me you are a Good Man, show me you are a good person.

 

64 Hours for Sandra Bland: The First Night

“You’re going to be arrested tomorrow,” my neighbor said to me solemnly.

Sitting on the front stoop of his house, the street was silent. The laughter and mariachi music from the birthday party down the block had long since morphed into a pile of tables and chairs awaiting pick-up. Only a few neighborhood dogs walking their patrol kept us company as we huddled over my iPhone, watching DeRay McKesson’s Periscope lifestream from Baton Rouge. All of a sudden the shot tilted sideways as DeRay’s phone fell to the ground and an officer seemed to tackle and arrest him. With countless people watching around the country, we were filled with outrage. He had just pointed down to the road lines to show he was not walking in the street or breaking any laws.

Only 250 miles away in Texas, we were preparing for an action of our own. It was Saturday night; the next morning, a Sunday morning, would be July 10th. Exactly a year earlier, on a Friday afternoon, Sandra Bland had been arrested. In preparation, we had worked on all kinds of plans for arts events to make people in the surrounding cities say her name. Yet, as the date had approached, it had became clear that we still needed the same thing that we had needed a year ago: Action in Waller County.

So many days of 2015, 80 in fact, we had sat in front of the jail where Sandra had died, and every day I had prayed that it would make some difference, not only in the communal struggle, but some difference in her personal struggle. I had stood at the back wall of that jail, where she had spent her last days, and prayed that somehow in her last moments she would have some peace. I prayed that somehow she would know we would hear her. I prayed that somehow she would know we would come.

All of the ways Sandra Bland was being remembered had created a sledgehammer strong enough to break through the walls of deception; an ax strong enough to cut through the roots that dug into fear, allowing only silence to grow. Yet, the blow still needed a place to land. It became clear what we needed to do.

For every hour that Sandra Bland spent in custody in 2015, we would be there in 2016.

At the time of her arrest, we would have the powerful voices of women like Aerio, Blanca, Rayla, Kayenne Nebula, Jasminne Mendez speaking from the spot under that tree where Encinia threw her down. We would show them she could not be silenced.

From the scene of her false arrest, we would go to the scene of her false incarceration, and every hour that she was there we would be there. Personally, I knew that I was called to be there the full 64 hours that she spent there: whether that be outside of the jail or inside of a cell. We had not been there with her in 2015, we would be there for her every moment in 2016.

We had prepared. No wine for a month in advance. No caffeine for two weeks in advance. No television or videos for a week in advance. We knew that those 64 hours had the potential to be just as dangerous and physically grueling as the 80 days before.

Then the eve of the action arrived, and there we sat, watching DeRay be arrested just a few hours drive away, for seemingly no reason at all.

On the night before our 64 hours was to begin, we knew we had the right to freedom of speech and freedom to practice religion. Yet, as DeRay’s phone fell to the ground, the reality was more plain than ever that rights were conditional in this nation.

As we watched the lifestream of DeRay being taken away, my neighbor said out loud the concern that everyone around me had only been saying in whispers: “You’re going to be arrested tomorrow. Things are changing. They are cracking down. Trying to send a message.”

A single tear slid down my face. I could not let it linger. Wiping it away, I measured my words out carefully: “What do I need to know?”

He told me what to expect If I was arrested in Waller County. How it would be different from being arrested in a city with news cameras present. What they would do to me as a part of an arrest and booking procedure. What they would do to me. What they could do to me. What they might do. What they would want to do to me after a year of rising tensions between us. He told me that in this nation it did not matter any more if you were resisting in a non-violent manner; resistance, regardless of the manner, was what they wanted crushed. I informed those who planned to be there – Joshua, Mirissa, Jeremy, Lena – not to interfere if they tried to take me, I asked them to promise to step back, remain peaceful, and stay out of custody themselves.

At 4:30 pm on July 10, we gathered at the scene of Sandra’s arrest in front of Hope AME in Prairie View, Texas, just a couple blocks outside of the gates of Prairie View A&M University. Two officers sat in a car across the street watching as dozens of poets, local residents, children, and Prairie View students came to the scene of Sandra’s arrest to show the community that Sandy still speaks. Setting up a microphone the first voice heard was that of Mirissa Tucker, a Prairie View A&M senior, followed by Linda Clark-Nwoke, one of the sorority chapter advisors during Sandra Bland’s tenure at PVAMU. Then the poets begin to speak their truth on the microphone, and the singers sang theirs out.

Close to the end, some students from Join the Movement at PVAMU came forward and Joshua Muhammad took the microphone to share some of the successes they had seen that year and some of their goals for the coming year. Those of us headed to the jail invited those at the Speak Out to join us for a service of Holy Communion at the jail if they chose and we slipped away to follow the road down to where Encinia had taken Sandra.

Upon arriving at the jail, we began to prepare the elements for Communion, using a chalice and paten given to me by Pastor Mireya Ottaviano; Hawaiian sweet bread, the favorite of Methodists like Sandra and myself; and the first of 6 cans of grape juice that we would need if made it through the full 64 hours.

Others began to arrive, and we were uncertain of what would happen when the Jail realized our intention to stay. Just then, two of the more senior local activists surprised us by pulling into the parking lot unexpectedly and radically transformed the atmosphere. DeWayne and Hai began setting up chairs for us, gained consent from the Jail to plug into their electricity for our phones, and made it clear to the Sheriff that the local community was watching, and that he did not want the audience to become larger than that.

Within moments we were live-streaming the first of what would be 6 services of Holy Communion, each one becoming progressively longer and more fully developed until by the third day we were having full on church in the parking lot of a jail.

Yet, that night we did not know all that would lay ahead as we projected Sandra’s videos on the wall and made the community see her face and hear her voice throughout the three nights and two days.

That night, we simply gathered, as 13 friends had done 2,000 years before, not know what would happen next. We gathered and we said the words from the Methodist liturgy, slightly adapted for the occasion.

Merciful God,

we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart.

We have failed to be an obedient church.

We have not done your will,

we have broken your law,

we have rebelled against your love,

we have not loved our neighbors,

and we have not heard the cry of the needy. 

We have not heard the cry of Black Lives Matter.

Forgive us, we pray.

Free us for joyful obedience,

      through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.