Wednesday, July 24, 2013

One out of the Two

River Oaks is the poster child of white privilege for many in Houston. River Oaks is a neighborhood with concentrated wealth of an order that most human beings have never experienced. It is a powerhouse of pretty houses and oil money, manicured lawns and luxury cars, forming one of the wealthiest zip codes in the country. Within the broader imagination of many Houstonians, River Oaks is the very image of whiteness and nice things, a symbol of the preferential option of the white. Now, in reality, most of the residents of River Oaks are kind and generous people, the kind of folks who use their wealth as a force for good. I know a few of these fine people and consider them my friends. However, it is the racial imagination that matters here, the symbols that persons associate with whiteness and niceness, blackness and badness. For many of the non-white and non-wealthy in Houston, River Oaks is synonymous with whiteness and inequality, and in general the injustices that oppress minorities and the poor.

Many in Houston imagine River Oaks to be the kind of place where Travyon Martin was killed.

Two competing groups strategically chose River Oaks for opposing protests last Sunday, July 21st. The Houston leaders of the New Black Panther Party chose the neighborhood for a protest in support of Trayvon Martin and against racial profiling. Their goal was to march through a busy commercial area of the neighborhood, a place where white people buy nice things, and proceed to march through a residential area where those white people live in big houses. Now, a handful of Houstonians upset with the protest formed a counter group in response and named it River Oaks Stand Your Ground. They chose the Confederate flag as an emblem for their website. They promised to meet their opponents on the streets of Houston and ‘stand their ground’ with picketed signs, chants, and rally cries of their own. The stage was set for a pro-Zimmerman vs. pro-Martin battle, a contest that promised to be racially charged, loud and crude, and without much hope for hand-shaking.

When Justin announced on Sunday morning that he would attend the protest on the sidelines in prayer, I knew I had to join him. I wanted to see how the Church could respond to protests taken to the streets. Even more, I wanted to learn how a pastor could function in an environment of verbal violence and hurt feelings. Our pastor for bilingual ministries at the church, Mireya, and two other Duke interns, Brandi and Michelle, promised to join us.

We gathered at the battleground and prayed. Ranks had been formed with the only ammunition available, words, armed to the teeth. Police on horseback held the opposing armies at bay. I stood agape and gawked at the total lack of peace. I looked at the crowds gathered there in River Oaks, assembling on the battlefield for what must be called racial combat, breathed in a sigh of lament and wondered, ‘how did it all come to this?’

The pro-Zimmerman group gathered on one side of the street at the corner of a busy intersection. They wove American flags in the air. They carried signs that bore an oft-forgotten quote from the movie Forrest Gump: ‘Sorry I had to interrupt your Black Panther Party.’ Other signs read ‘You (the other protesters) are the racists,’ ‘Come and take it’ (Remember the Alamo?), ‘Don’t beat up a neighborhood watchman MMA-style,’ and ‘If Zimmerman is white then Obama is white.’ The River Oaks Stand Your Ground group was a collection of angry white people who were upset about accusations of racial profiling in the Zimmerman-Martin case and the fact that non-white people were disgruntled about it.

On the other side of the street, marching down the sidewalk opposite to the Stand Your Ground group, was a much, much larger assembly under the banner of Trayvon Martin. They carried signs that read, ‘Racial profiling is f*ckin wrong’ and ‘No Justice, No Peace.’ Many wore hoodies like the one Travyon Martin was wearing when he was killed. Others carried pictures of Trayvon. There were about three times as many Trayvon supporters as there were Zimmerman supporters, and the prior were much louder. They were not afraid to flip the bird to their opponents across the street. They marched through the busy intersection where the other group was gathered and into a residential area with big fancy houses. The pro-Zimmerman group followed and tried to shout even louder over their rivals.

Before me was the visible reality of division. A white group and a black group were yelling at each other across the street, not thirty feet away from one another. Their physical division embodied their ideological division. They stood on opposing sidewalks as a city street bisected them; asphalt was the line of demarcation between two warring parties. The street served as a wedge that drove these people even farther apart from one another, like one protruding island that divides the sea. They hurled insults and racial slurs over the poor people stuck in traffic. There was zero sense of unity in this dual protest, only division, sad and stark under the hot Houston sun, marching along to the beats of two different drums. A total lack of peace.

My good buddy Paul the epistle writer had a few things to say about reconciliation. My favorite is this one, as found in Ephesians: “For He Himself is our peace who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility […] His purpose was to create in Himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace.”

One out of the two. That is Jesus’s firm resolve. We shall rejoice with Him at the peace therein when the two becomes one.

Protests are the great de-blanketings of the dirt we try to cover up. In the 1960’s we passed historic amendments and resolutions to ensure equality and justice for all. Yet we pretended that words on paper would mask the feelings of our hearts. All of us, every single one, harbors racism in our hearts and we try everyday to hide it. We hide behind fake smiles and eloquent speech. We suppress what we think and feel in fear of what would happen if we were to speak honestly. Protests are sources of truth-telling about what is really on our hearts. They rip off our precious blankets to reveal the dirt that has been there all along. Protests are shocking and chaotic because they are one of few places in our lives where we tell the real truth; they confront us with the dirty things all of us know to be true but would rather not talk about. The first step to peace-making, and therefore reconciliation, is to speak the truth that lies in the dirt of our hearts. 

We prayed there on the streets of Houston as chaos swarmed around us, but now I offer up a different prayer. I pray that truth-telling will happen around one table and not two sidewalks. I pray that open-hearted, frank conversation happens around a table where all are invited. I pray that opposing parties will look past the dividing wall and consider what real reconciliation looks like. I pray for the next step, that we may sheath our picket signs and sit together around a table of truth-telling.

And we shall rejoice with Him at the peace therein when the two becomes one.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Cheetos and Bible

We sat in Justin’s car devouring delicious chocolate chip cookies and sipping sweet mint lemonade. Justin had bought us a mid-afternoon snack on our way to the Juvenile Detention Center in downtown Houston. Justin loves to drive his interns around the city, definitely because he is the only one adept enough with Houston traffic to navigate the streets, but also because he wants to raise as us as ‘community doctors’ who know the area in they live and practice. He chauffeurs us, feeds us delectable goodies, mentors us about the ins and outs of ministry. Justin is not just wise; he is hospitable, on a scale rarely seen in American Christians. Hospitality is something you feel around him. It is one of his spiritual gifts. He makes you feel at home.

The three of us, Justin, another Duke Divinity intern named Michelle, and myself were on our way to make a pastoral visit in the Detention Center. Justin debriefed us in the car. The young man we were to about to meet, who for now we may call Adam, was 16-years-young and a member of a gang in one of the hoods of Houston. Justin did not know Adam’s crime, but he had been told that Adam was ‘certified.’ Certification is reserved for child offenders of violent crimes. When the district judge places an adolescent in detention and ‘certifies’ them, it means that the youth may be charged as an adult when their court date finally arrives. Until then, they are kids in cages waiting in the Detention Center for their big day in court, hoping beyond hope for months on end, dreading and praying for the one day that will decide their fate. We in the church just hope that the judge will not hammer the last nail in that child’s childhood. I guess we were going to visit Adam that day to hope alongside him.

Gangs organize in the parts of Houston that are most forgotten. They surround our youth with alternative communities of second identity and brotherly support. They are a family in places where ‘family’ is a jaded word, harkening to memories of fathers long gone and siblings shot dead in the streets. Adam is a young man with a sickeningly familiar story. Crime is the pastime of his adopted family, an outlet for their anger toward a world that has abandoned them, a way for them to say, “we’re still here.”

Justin parked his car outside the Detention Center and we climbed the steps toward the front door (what if we practiced justice in the small places rather than the high places?). We walked through the metal detector and checked in at the visitors’ desk. We passed through the doors leading to the visitation rooms, which are small enclosed spaces with plastic, dull-edged table and chairs, with windows for walls so that the security guards can supervise the visitors and the visited. This was my first time in any type of prison, much less a jail for the young. I remember feeling uncomfortable with how sterile and colorless everything was. Life does not thrive in places like this. It suffocates.

Now, before we entered our designated visitation room, Justin stopped at a vending machine and bought our new friend some spicy Cheetos. I guess Justin figured that some small change could buy Adam a few minutes worth of respite from the rest of his gloomy world. Justin carried something else with him into the visitation room: a Bible printed in Spanish. Oh, did I forget to mention? Our friend is a member of a Hispanic gang and requested that we bring a Bible to him.

The guards brought Adam into the small room and I instantly thought, ‘what a nice kid!’ He shook our hands and greeted us with ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am.’ He was timid at first, probably wondering why two white people and a black pastor were the ones visiting him today. But soon, thanks to Justin’s never failing ability to make you feel at home, Adam opened up to us and shared more about himself. This was his fifth time in prison (remember: he is sixteen). He was arrested for armed robbery. He does not want his younger brother to make the same mistakes he has. He loves the Bible. He even pressed me about my Bible courses at Duke. I shared with him some bits of wisdom from Romans and James and he ate it up. He even asked us, ‘what wisdom do you have for me today?’ We left that one up to Justin.

He munched on his spicy Cheetos and gleefully opened his new Bible. As our time together drew to an end, I realized that these two gifts served as tangible pieces of hope for Adam. He was a young man finding himself in the world, discovering the possibility of a new life outside of a gang mentality, and all he needed was to get out of this miserable place to start anew. Cheetos and Bible. That is all Adam needed to have hope for the rest of the day. And maybe, just maybe, he needed us to hang out with him, too.

Jesus obligates us to five tasks lest we stand in shame before Him. We are called to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the prisoner. Certainly a common theme in these Kingdom agendas is love. Jesus bids us to love those without love and those who cannot love us in return.

But another oft-neglected theme in Jesus’ commandments is hospitality. Jesus welcomed the poor and the oppressed, the marginalized and the forgotten. He even invited them to dinner. And when the poor felt too ashamed to enter the King’s household, he sent messengers out to the people and met them where they were. He opened his arms wide and hugged the untouchable. He created spaces of hospitality that transcended our sinful markers of stigma and class. Jesus knew that genuine love requires radical hospitality. Indeed, to love the stranger and the prisoner is to practice the art of hospitality. Jesus the Savior is also the Master Host: He teaches us how to invite the poor and forgotten into spaces of love so that the soul might feel its worth.

As much as hospitality is about love, it is also about hope. Indeed, hospitality is the servant of hope. When Jesus was suffering on the cross, He strained his neck and looked over his shoulder to the one suffering beside him and said, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Even on the cross Jesus practices hospitality. With outstretched arms He welcomed the man beside him into the beautiful beyond. But this time, Jesus the Host offers the crucified a taste of hope. His warm word of welcome was a message of hope to the dying in despair. Hospitality given to the sick, the dying, and the prisoner is a gift of hope that brightens their darkness. Hospitality creates spaces of hope away from the dark shadows. When we lay a table for the forgotten and welcome them without price, we invite them into spaces where they are free from darkness and free to hope.

For Adam, spicy Cheetos and a new Bible were enough hope for him. Justin knew that simple gifts, things like cookies and lemonade and even snacks out of the vending machine, can set a table that Jesus is pleased to host.

Just as we were leaving the table and wishing Adam well, the security guards who were keeping watch outside confiscated Adam’s new Bible because it had not passed through the appropriate channels for gifts to prisoners. I almost drowned in the horrid irony. The guards were forbidding the new Bible because it was potentially dangerous material. I knew the guards were doing their jobs, and I knew that Adam knew that, too. Still, I watched evil strike in front of my very eyes.

Evil wants to stop hospitality at all costs. When our hospitality to the oppressed and forgotten is extinguished, the evil in this world grows a little stronger and holds a little tighter onto the hearts that need hope the most. But when a welcome embrace finds eager arms, if a simple gift meets thankful hands, if the poor and the prisoner feel the love of the visitor, then hope bursts forth into this broken world and offers us a taste of God’s dream from creation. Discipleship means nothing less than setting tables that Jesus would be pleased to host. Let hope follow our love, and our love reflect the inviting heart of God.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

"Let me tell you something in your ear!"

A few weeks ago my church hosted its annual Vacation Bible School.  Two things usually happen whenever I assist with a VBS: first, I am reminded that God calls very special people to children’s ministry and I am NOT one of them; and second, I see children speak the most profound truths of our Christian faith. 

There were two times that week where I was moved to tears as I watched these kids learn and sing about God.  Much to my chagrin I was recruited to assist with the music for the week.  In typical church fashion, if the music minister hears you are a singer or play an instrument you will be conscripted to share your talents with the church… no matter how many times you say no.  Such was my fate as a singer.  In spite of my reluctance I am now quite glad I helped with music, because God showed up during a music lesson with the third and second grade students!  We were practicing a song called “Children of the World” where the kids sing about how Alleluia is the only word that sounds the same in every language.  I could feel God’s presence as the kids sang the refrain of Alleluia over and over again.  The other teacher and I had tears in our eyes as we ushered the kids out of the room after the song.  We looked at each other and knew we had just experienced the purest, most genuine form of worship.  I pray those kids had some idea of what they were part of that morning!

The second moment happened Friday morning as we got the kids in the sanctuary for the closing concert.  I sat with the four year olds and tried to help their teachers keep them from wandering around the pews.  Next to me were two especially squirmy kids.  The little girl wanted to sit closer to the little boy, and he resisted her advances by saying, “snap out of it!”  This is obviously a phrase he picked up at home or on T.V.  After this went back and forth for a couple of minutes, the little girl was hurt that the little boy did not reciprocate her affections.  Then the little boy said, “Let me tell you something in your ear!”  She leaned in and he loudly whispered to her, “God is love.”  You can have all of the trendy t-shirts, fun games, high-tech videos, and delicious snacks at VBS you want; but they do not mean anything if the kids walk away without knowing that God is love!  Too often we get wrapped up in the entertainment value of worship that we miss the point.  We are here to give praise, honor, and glory to the God who created the universe and loves us.  In return, we are to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.  Alleluia!