Category Archives: Community

Two Cities-One Heart: An Appeal to Listen to El Paso (with Juan Ortiz)

They say that El Paso/Juarez are two cities with one heart. While the rest of the nation views Juarez only through the eyes of the media, folks here look across the wall with affection towards the homes of people they love. Here in Southern Arizona, where people who grew up on the border call it Ambos Nogales, we can understand that. As dialogue and debate rages throughout the nation about what should be done along the border, those who actually live here have continued quietly and tirelessly laboring to make things better. This is how they have always lived. Knowing and living the cruelty of a people occupied by the Federal Government. Seeing and loving their family on both sides of the border. Being forgotten and overlooked by those that see this as a line on a map rather than a community.

Even now, as the home of their heart is suddenly a trending topic of trauma and dialogue and debate, they still find themselves often forgotten, ignored, and left out of the conversations that they should have been invited into decades ago. The reality of la Frontera is that there are people who have been living here and have been working for justice here all their lives, and they cannot be ignored any longer by those of us who say they want to make things better. We should know that the solutions to a community’s biggest dilemmas come from within that community. We must listen. It is those who have had boots on the ground for a lifetime, whose blood and sweat and tears have watered this land, some whose ancestors were here long before there was a border, who know what to do.

The time I spent in Tortilla was hot and difficult and dangerous, but what I did not share with you was the time I spent in the evenings. Time listening to and learning from some of the most inspiring people I have ever met. Time learning from women to give birth to a new day. My wish would be that every person who cast their eye towards the border, with a thought to help, would first pause and listen and learn from those doing the work and then summon all their strength and resources to lift up those who are so tired and have been laboring for so very long in these trenches.

The following is an initial attempt to further that conversation. To profile some of the amazing local people and organizations that had such a huge impact on me during my time in El Paso/Juarez and Tornillo.

The majority of what follows, as well as the conclusion to this blog, was written by the my colleague, artist, scholar, activist and University of Arizona doctoral candidate, Juan Ortiz. A Pasean (person from El Paso) whose love for his community runs as strong as the Rio Grande that runs through it and as high as the mountains that rise above the two cities with one heart. 

The Annunciation House in El Paso, whose stated mission is to serve in the Gospel spirit of service and solidarity, and to accompany the migrant, homeless, and economically vulnerable peoples of the border region through hospitality, advocacy, and education. “We place ourselves among these poor so as to live our faith and transform our understanding of what constitutes more just relationships between peoples, countries, and economies.” It houses and provides refuge for refugees, immigrant and the homeless alike through the spirit of service and advocacy. It is deeply rooted in the community and housed in one of our most historical neighborhoods.  https://annunciationhouse.org

The Detained Migrant Solidarity Committee works hand in hand with Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center and the Annunciation house. The partnership allows local organizations to be able to aide immigrants from release to housing and desperately needed legal services. https://dmscelpaso.wixsite.com/dmscelpaso https://www.facebook.com/DMSCElPaso/

They also do the work of a community bail fund, to raise much needed money to bail the most vulnerable of our neighbors out of immigrant detention: https://www.fianzafund.org

Paola Fernandez is a member of the Detained Migrant Solidarity Committee. The DMSC is a citizen-led gathering of people dedicated to raising community funds to then use to release detained mothers in the surrounding Ice detention facilities. Including families and mothers who have been separated from their children. Paola also works in other capacities in the community including with the Catholic Dioceses, El Paso del Sur and Movimiento Cosecha. Paola is one of the many young leaders in El Paso changing the face of activism and advocacy in our town, as well as one of the people bringing her community organizing skills and strength and positive energy to the movement!

Edith Tapia is a native to the El Paso/Juarez region and also a member of the Detained Migrant Solidarity Committee. In addition to her support of detained migrants through their efforts, she also works as a Policy Research Analyst with the Hope Border Institute. In a short amount of time, she has packed in a profound amount of experience supporting, learning from, and advocating for the vulnerable on both sides of the border and throughout the United States. To learn more about the work of the Hope Border Institute: https://www.hopeborder.org

Las Americas is a 25-year-old non-profit on the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas, dedicated to serving the legal needs of the most vulnerable among immigrants: Asylum seekers, battered women and abandoned children. The El Paso port-of-entry sees the second highest number of people crossing into the United States by land, second only to San Diego. El Paso also has three major migrant detention centers in the surrounding areas. Las Americas being one of the most important service providers in the entire borderlands. http://las-americas.org 

Christina Garcia Christi is an El Paso native and has lived here most of her life. She has worked with Las Americas for the past 5 years. Besides her work at Las Americas, Christi is a first generation U.S. citizen, college/university graduate, and professional who is deeply invested in El Paso and in the immigrant rights/human rights community. She is a deeply caring and devoted person who always does her best to accommodate the many requests made of her and the agency during these times of crisis.

Linda Y. Rivas (pictured speaking in banner photo) was born in Mexico and raised in El Paso from the age of 4. Linda attended The University of Texas at El Paso and received a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology with a minor in legal reasoning. She received a Juris Doctor from Loyola College of Law in New Orleans and was a legal intern with the Department of Justice. Linda is a lifelong advocate of human human rights. Linda’s first job as an attorney was as the West Texas VAWA Legal Supervisor at the Paso del Norte Civil Rights Project where she worked in immigration law under the VAWA and U-VISA programs and engaged in domestic violence advocacy. She is currently the managing Attorney at Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center where she is focused on serving detained asylum seekers, a crucial role in what Las Americas does. She is also a new mother and a lead organizer for the El Paso Women’s March.

Melanie Gleason Melanie Gleason is the “Attorney on the Move”, investing her life fully in offering pro-bono support to immigrants along our Southern border. Having worked in southern Arizona for the past year, Melanie has recently moved to El Paso to support immigrants there and to collaborate with Las Americas. A true lawyer for the people, Melanie fit everything she owns into her tiny SmartCar and took the trip from Tucson to El Paso to dive even deeper into the places of greatest need. She is an incredible inspiration and someone who is willing to selfless give everything that she can for others. The daughter of an inner city Clevelander and a Thai immigrant, Melanie brings to all the work that she does her depth and breadth of experience and her sense of urgency and compassion. She is currently almost to her goal to cover the expenses of her work through November. To support her, give here: https://www.mightycause.com/story/Elpasoattorneyonthemove http://www.attorneyonthemove.com

In closing:

El Paso has had a long and proud tradition of immigrant advocacy and social justice practice since the Mexican Revolution up to the Chicano Movement of the 1960’s. As marginalized people living in oppressed conditions, people across the borderlands have come to understand and to demand the recognition of both their people and their city. The tragic events that have unfolded in our community that led to the internment and separation of families has had profound effects on our community. Yet, the community in response has learned come together in solidarity to decide next steps. We as a community are asking folks to consider actions that build the existing community groups, organizations, people and institutions that have and are doing the work and that will be here, far after the national spotlight has subsided.

The organization I belong to Movimiento Cosecha decided instead of committing to a short term direct action, instead to commit to long term relationships within the community and to give the funds raised directly to the community bail fund. A fund that has released many mothers in ICE detention facilities. Movimiento Cosecha is national organization led by directly impacted people fighting for the dignity, respect and permanent protection of all undocumented people in the United States. http://www.lahuelga.com

At the end of the day that is what should take precedence and guide the actions of anyone wanting to ally in this struggle. Potential “Allies” should ask themselves some very important and germane questions: Are the funds we are raising (in the name of the oppressed) directly helping those suffering from those oppressions? What are going to be the lasting consequences of our actions, what will they build? Will they be additive and constructive? Or will they be temporal, reductive, intrusive or destructive?

If you haven’t asked yourself these questions, please do so before you decide to come to a site of great trauma and dehumanization.

 

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Not All Is Lost.

The news today felt like a tidal wave. Like that time I stepped on a yellow-jacket nest and they swarmed me from all sides. Yet, despair could not seem to find a good spot to land on me. I just kept hearing her words: “Not all is lost.”

Driving from El Paso to Tornillo with a woman directly impacted by our cruelty towards immigrants from Central America, she looked around at my car full of white folx and her response was, “Now I know that not all is lost.” 

This week, of all weeks, when it feels like the whole world is crashing down around us, this is the week she decided that not all is lost?

“After the election,” she explained, “everyone was saying such hateful things about us. It felt like nobody loved us. It felt like everyone wanted to get rid of us. But now I see you are all here willing to risk everything with us. Now I know that not all is lost.”

Not all is lost. If she can believe that, then so can I.

Not all is lost, because all it takes to change this is enough of us to get up and actively refuse to let it happen. All it takes is a Rahab living at the wall and shielding the servants of God from the wall patrol that was searching for them. All it takes is a Ruth binding herself in solidarity to a Naomi of another land, refusing to let her walk through struggle and uncertainty alone. All it takes is an Esther, saying, “I will go to the king, though it be against the law, and if I perish, I perish.”

All it takes is one person to say, “You are not alone.”

All it takes is you. You, creating a ripple in your neighborhood, that joins with all the others making ripples in their own, that turns into “justice running down like a river, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” That is what can push back this tide that feels like it will crush us all: you. 

Not all is lost, because we are not alone. If she can believe that, then so can I.

When we arrived at Tornillo, we planned to send up a balloon into the air, with a banner hanging down from it that read, “No estan solos” (You are not alone). We wanted the kids imprisoned in tents at Tornillo to know that there were people that cared about them, and that were fighting for them on the outside. It was simple, it would not have changed the world, but it would have given them hope. It would have reminded them that not all is lost. For us, that was worth the risk. 

Unfortunately the balloon never got up high enough for them to read. A local rancher, who had been encouraged to feel free to engage in vigilantism by CBP, interrupted and eventually pulled a revolver out, waving it around and threatening to shoot down the balloon. 

Despite the fact that he oversaw the alfalfa field next to where the kids were held in tents, where the crop duster had passed over the day before, he believed that all of this was fake news. The control of those who seek to undermine the truth was so strong upon him, that he believed what he heard from the administration on Fox News rather than what he saw with his very own eyes. The pressure from CBP was so great on him that he was waving a revolver around a bunch of people simply holding a big balloon. 

As she stood in front of his gun, her previous words echoed in my mindp1080645.jpg, “You are all here willing to risk everything with us. Now I know that not all is lost.”

Eventually through peaceful dialogue, he was deescalated, and perhaps began to realize how foolish he was being. He put his revolver in his front pocket. But that did not stop him from saying, “Well, I’ll let you do it if you pay me $5,000.” I wondered how much, if anything, CBP was paying him to outsource their intimidation. 

Eventually the balloon was deflated, as were our spirits, and we all went our separate ways. 

Still, not all was lost.

Not all is lost because she is not alone, because we are not alone, because you are not alone. 

As we wanted to tell the kids, “No estan solos.”

We will stand together, and we will stare directly into whatever threats come our way, and we will endure them as a people united. Like Ruth chose Naomi over her country. Like Rahab shielded the spies that climbed over the wall. Like Esther broke the law for a people threatened with obliteration. 

We will love one another and we will tell the truth, no matter how many lies and how much hate come our way. In order to stop atrocity, there just has to be enough people to say no – you are one of those people. We need your “No.”

Today I called my mother, and I told her that for the third time since the election of Donald Trump, I had stood within range of the weapon of a white man who was willing to do harm in his name.

And I do not stand here alone. The truth is that there are already so many people who already stand in the range of harm, regardless of what they do or say, but simply because of who they are. Simply because of the religion they practice. Simply because of the language they speak. Simply because of the country where they were born. Simply because of the color of their skin. Simply because they came desperate for help, and trusting we would aid them rather than kidnap their children. 

I’m not asking you if you will stand with me in the way of harm, I’m asking you if you will join me in standing with those who have no choice in the matter. Those who do not have the privilege of walking away. 

There is someone in your community who is tempted today to believe that all is lost. They cannot avoid the danger and fears they face by simply refusing to “talk politics” or trying not to “make people uncomfortable.” Their reality is discomfort, and there is no escape. They need to see that they are not alone. They need to see that you will stand with them. They need to trust that you will stay. 

Not all is lost. If she can believe that, then so can I. 

“Do not press me to leave you

    or to turn back from following you!

Where you go, I will go;

    where you lodge, I will lodge;

your people shall be my people,

    and your God my God.

Where you die, I will die—

    there will I be buried.

May the Lord do thus and so to me,

    and more as well,

if even death parts me from you!”

Ruth 1:16-17

*Conversation quoted with consent.

Anatomy of An Artifice

As I struggled with the strange aftertaste in my mouth after reading “The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict,” I have been left wondering, should I swallow? I was not sure if this was a sugar coated pill or a spoonful of sugar. I was not sure if I was being given a sweet story to help the medicine of interpersonal learning go down, or if I was receiving some interpersonal lessons to conceal the fact that some very heavy opinions about race relations in the Middle East and the United States were being fed to me surreptitiously. After all, isn’t the best propaganda hidden in plain sight?

Hidden in the midst of it all was the lesson that Palestinians ought to look to Israelis to see how they can bring peace by caring for the needs of the ones that they see as their oppressors, and that African Americans were in the wrong for protesting in outrage in the streets.

In order to know what this was in my mouth, it was very important to know who formed this narrative, regardless of whether they intended consciously to sway people politically or not.

I soon saw that as I was drawn into the story of a Palestinian Arab Muslim, who has experienced oppression, teaching a white man how to treat the people in his life better, what I was actually reading was a group of white men using a fictional story, barely perceptible as such, to teach oppressed people that their suffering was of their own making.

Let me explain.

If you are in any kind of leadership role in the United Methodist Church, it is likely that you have been asked this year to read “The Anatomy of Peace” by The Arbinger Institute. It’s a feel-good read that, during these stressful times for the denomination, gives many of us hope that we can figure this all out. 

It’s feel-good. Real good. Maybe too good?

As the book describes itself:

Yusuf al-Falah, an Arab, and Avi Rozen, a Jew, each lost his father at the hands of the other’s ethnic cousins. The Anatomy of Peace is the story of how they came together, how they help warring parents and children come together, and how we too can find our way out of the struggles that weigh us down.

The weight and authority of the information presented in the book comes from the horrific experiences that these two men have experienced and the way that they have overcome their pain in order to create a progam for youth in Arizona called Camp Moriah. 

The only problem is – these men do not exist. There is not a Dr. Yusuf al-Falah who teaches at Arizona State University. There is not a Camp Moriah in the wilderness near Phoenix.

Technically the authors have themselves covered because there is a sentence in the preface, if you were diligent to read it, that states, “Although some of the stories in this book were inspired by actual events, no character or organization described in this book represents any specific person or organization. In many respects, these characters are each of us.”

Despite this subtly placed disclaimer, however, the clear intention of the book is to get the reader lost in the story and drawn into the characters; and, thereby, to use the experiences of those characters to lend credence and authority to the teachings.

The fact that these people and places do not exist would not be a problem were it not for the people and places that do exist in their place.

When I Googled “Camp Moriah,” what came up on my google map was The Anasazi Foundation, the actual location of the lessons in the book. The Anasazi Foundation in Mesa, Arizona is a Troubled Teen Wilderness Treatment Center near Arizona State University and Phoenix. Its President and CEO, Mike Merchant, writes one of the glowing references for the book at the beginning.

Although founded by Larry Olson and mentee Ezekiel Sanchez, scrolling down past Michael Merchant’s photo on the Anasazi Foundation staff page, and past the two white men who are the Co-Directors, one could perhaps wonder whether this is an all white staff running a Foundation named after an ancient Native American people. Apart from co-Founder Ezekiel Sanchez, it would appear that the Foundation has a Board of Directors also made up entirely of white men.

The Anasazi Foundation, confirms that they are in fact Camp Moriah on their “About” page, “ANASAZI’s preventive efforts—including parenting workshops and community drug awareness/education forums—have inspired two international best-sellers (Leadership and Self-Deception and The Anatomy of Peace).”

So, Camp Moriah does not exist, but the Anasazi Foundation does.

Does that matter?

You tell me. Does it bother you that you were drawn into a story about a Palestinian Muslim and an Israeli Jew who had both experienced trauma and built Camp Moriah in response, with a superfluous amount of information and opinions about Palestinian/Israeli relations, only to find out that that camp is actually directed by a group of white folks with degrees from schools like Brigham Young and Liberty University?

Does it matter to you how things are framed? It matters to me. Especially when the truth and the fiction are so far from one another.

The men in this story, Yusuf al-Falah and Avi Rosen, build authority to speak directly to the experiences of the oppressed because they have experienced oppression and trauma. Why frame it this way when the men who work at the Arbinger Institute and the Anasazi Foundation are so far from that reality?

Why frame work done by white men from Brigham Young University as work done by men who have suffered in the Middle East?

Could it be that we would only listen to critiques of the oppressed if they came from the oppressed themselves? Necessitating, therefore, an act of authorial black-face in order to help us to swallow a philosophy that the oppressed create their own problems by not attending to the needs of the oppressor

Which brings us to the character of Dr. Benjamin Arrig, an African American scholar seemingly at Yale, who at this point you ought to be able to guess is also fictitious. The fictitious Palestinian, Yusuf, watches as “black protestors were being restrained by shield-carrying police who were shooting tear gas toward the crowds.”

As a Palestinian, he feels empathy with the oppressed protestors, until Dr. Arrig teaches him a better way, telling him that both are in the wrong because while the police have the tear gas, the protestors have “the desire for tear gas” (p. 187).

(Would it interest you to know that one of the featured leaders from the Arbinger Institute is “Charles “Chip” Huth, “a Major with the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department. He has 26 years of law enforcement experience, commands KCPD’s Special Operations Division, and is the State of Missouri’s defensive tactics subject matter expert.”)

Therefore, Arrig teaches, “If you see a people of a particular race or culture as objects your view of them is racist, whatever your color or lack of color or your power or lack of power… [The oppressed become the oppressors] Because most who are trying to put an end to injustice only think of the injustices they believe they themselves have suffered. Which means that they are concerned not really with injustice but with themselves. They hide their focus on themselves behind the righteousness of their outward cause” (p. 189).

You may have felt uncomfortable when you read that part, if only subconsciously, but maybe swallowed it down because it was a Black man saying it about other Black people.

But it wasn’t.

Those words, that sound all too much like talking points from a conservative pundit, are exactly that.

WarnerCTerry-clr

You see, the founder of the philosophy presented in Anatomy of Peace is neither Yusuf nor Ben, neither a Palestinian scholar nor an African American scholar but – you guessed it – a white man who teaches at Brigham Young University. While you were picturing a stoic African American gentleman on the green at Yale, the person actually producing this knowledge was probably sitting in an office down in Utah, looking a little bit like this. This is the Founder of the Arbinger Institute, BYU Professor Emeritus, Dr. C. Terry Warner, who did in fact go to Yale, prompting the nod to his alma mater. He built a philosophy that we are responsible for our negative actions and emotions that sometimes leads us to accuse others of oppressing us rather than attending to the needs of those we are accusing. To give some context, up until the year when C. Terry Warren founded the Arbinger Institute at Brigham Young University, the Mormon faith had barred African America men, like the fictional Dr. Arrig, from the ranks of their priesthood. One might wonder if Warner met someone like Dr. Arrig at Yale. If he did, however, one would think to find the credit given to him, if not in this fictional book than it least in the white paper of the Arbinger Institute that explains their philosophical grounding. Unfortunately, in neither the white paper nor the video of the history of philosophy before C. Terry Warner is Arrig found. Only white male philosophers, like Freud, preceded C. Terry Warner in his path to knowledge according to the video.

JimCropWhile Warner’s philosophy is the foundation of these theories and practices, we cannot look to him as the author of the book, although it is his philosophy being taught. The book, abstractly credited to The Arbinger Institute, does in fact have one named author in James Ferrell, the Managing Partner of the Arbinger Institute. And, yes, James also went to Yale… before coming to Brigham Young University.

If you’re interested, these are the faces of the Arbinger Institute.

Screen Shot 2018-05-24 at 2.48.27 AM

Amongst them are, “Charles “Chip” Huth, who as referred to above, “consults for international law enforcement, military, and corporate clients” and Cameron Cozzens, who has “more than two decades of distinguished leadership and operational experience in the Intelligence and Special Operations communities.” You see how the book reads differently when you remove the fictional narrative and see the wizard behind the curtain?

Those who deal in war are teaching us how to create peace.

So, one must ask, what kind of peace is this?

Is it Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s false peace that is the absence of tension, or true peace that is the presence of justice? Is it an approach that affirms those that stand up for justice, or condemns them as blaming others for problems they have created themselves? As Dr. King wrote,

“You assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion?… Isn’t this like condemning Jesus because his unique God consciousness and never ceasing devotion to God’s will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion? We must come to see that, as the federal courts have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber.” (Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)

Why does this book want us to see the robber and the robbed as both bearing a responsibility to fix the theft? It wants us to say “there were good people and bad people on both sides.” When we take all these teachings and critiques of the oppressed out of the mouths of a fictitious Palestinian Arab and a fictitious African American scholar, and place them in their rightful context in the mouths of the white men that truly created them, it becomes quite a different conversation.

Why place this between an Israeli man and a Palestinian man? It may interest you to look at the recommendations at the beginning of the book to see that among them are two Former Director Generals of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Former Chief of Staff of the Prime Minister of Israel. Not a Palestinian in sight.

“It doesn’t matter if you have power,” one of the statements from the fictional Arrig, is something that in actuality only people with extreme power could desire or afford to say.

As lovely as this book is, could it perhaps be the long awaited response from the White Moderates to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s scathing “Letter from A Birmingham Jail”?

*Dedicated to Gwyn, the fictional daughter of Ben Arrig, because you are much more than the caricature of the “Angry Black Woman” stereotype that you were cast as. I am sorry they put words in your mouth. I know, there were no women of color in the room to stick up for you; quite possibly no women at all… I hope this helps.

Thank you to Rev. Dr. Dottie Escobedo-Frank and Pat for being my conversation partners as I wrestled with this.

We Will Not Be Owned: A Response to Roy Moore & Purity Culture

Nausea washed over me when I saw the article in my feed about Pastor Flip Benham’s statement that Roy Moore dated younger women because of their purity. The coded fetishization is something that ought to sicken us all, but for those of us raised in purity culture it bears with it an extra stench.

The heartbreaking stench of a “Vote Trump” sign in front of the home of a friend, father, brother, whom you were taught was supposed to “protect” you from men like Trump.

The stench of Joshua Harris’s apology during the heat of last year’s election to all the women whose lives were damaged by his book, “I Kissed Dating Goodbye”, the Holy Grail of purity culture.

The stench of insincere apologies from unrepentant men who preened on the progressive moral high-ground for decades, while using their power to take from women what they wanted behind the scenes.

Purity: freedom from adulteration or contamination. freedom from anything that debases, contaminates, pollutes.

Freedom. It would be hard to find a more ironic choice of word. 

Purity in reality has been related to women’s status as property. Women, transferred from one man to another. Unsullied. Undamaged. Property. Extra virgin, just like the olive oil. A descriptor of our status and value and worth. Neither “Good” nor “Excellent” would do, our Amazon rating must be “Like New” or the purchase is void.

We strived to keep our wrapping intact, for the purchaser on the other end. We tried to make sure that we were worthy of being “Handled with Care.” Even so, our wrapping could be torn by a bike accident. Or a young ER doctor in Nashville who really wants to get in some practice with a speculum while you are sedated on morphine and cannot say no anymore. Or, for so many of us, a #MeToo moment, a Roy Moore moment, or a #ChurchToo moment.

Then in this historic moment, all is revealed. The evangelical churches that raised us overwhelmingly stand up in support of a man who we have known was a tearer of wrappings since we were kids. He is no stranger to us. We have watched how Trump treated women our whole lives. Our whole lives. Our whole lives. Our whole lives. When the churches we were raised in supported him, it revealed that our whole lives were a lie. We had never been special. We had never been precious. We had always been property. Like a hammer. Like a spoon. Utilitarian. Use us as you may.

Is it any wonder the onslaught of fury and honesty that has been unleashed from women who have been betrayed. Women who have stayed silent because our culture told us that it was we who were at fault if the estimation of our property value was diminished by the unwelcome touch of a heavy hand.

Then a pastor leans up to a microphone in Alabama, and he tears the whole facade down. “He did that because there is something about the purity of a young woman, there is something that is good, that’s true, that’s straight and he looked for that.” He tells us that Roy Moore went for younger women because they were more pure. Translation: Some conservative Christian men fetishize our innocence and fantasize about being the first to get to us. Our purity, they believe, like everything else about us, belongs to them. In their lecherous perversion, they salivate at the innocence of children. They long to unwrap us like a new phone, with no fingerprints or scratches. They do not want to be the second one to get to us.

For we all know the property value drops the moment that you drive the car off the lot.

As a Christian minister, I must confess the role the church has played in this, even while standing in the role of victim more than perpetrator. Yet, is that not the burden that the world places upon women. To both bear the mess, and be the ones to clean it up. We told young women this was about our relationship with God, which it can be. Yet, the earthly consequences we heaped on them when they acted with self-possession, as if their bodies were their own and no one else’s, made it clear that this was much more about earthly powers than heavenly ones. We called them damaged goods. We taught them that male aggression was caused by the length of their shorts. We measured them with rulers when they came to school. Once “sullied,” we told them no one would want them now. At the same time we elevated the very men whose contact supposedly contaminated them. We looked down our nose at them like so many dented cans in the bargain bin, judging can but not denter.

If we really think about it, we never even tried to hide it. For what are “damaged goods” but another way of telling someone they are property. What is “left on the shelf” but another way of saying unpurchased.

I will not be owned.

Sisters, let us not be owned.

You are valuable, just as you are. You are powerful, just as you are.

You are beautiful, even if no one ever tells you. I’m telling you now.

You are brave, look at all that we have born.

We will not be owned.

On Appearing in the Senate Intel Report

When I first saw myself in collar and Sandra Bland pin, front and center of a photo released by Senator Richard Burr, Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, I laughed it off. “Well, I’m part of Russian propaganda, now,” I told my friend as we watched the Houston Astros crush Game 7 of the World Series.

When I took a closer look at what the photo was supposed to portray, however, I became concerned. The photo was not part of the propaganda the Russians had employed, rather it was photos the government had on file of a protest they were describing as one which the Russians planned in an attempt to bring together two volatile groups to fight in the street.

By the next morning, when I awakened to a clip of Jimmy Fallon talking about the thousands of people who had been manipulated to show up for contrasting pro-Muslim and anti-Muslim protests, I began to realize that this was more than a laughing matter. By mid-morning, when receiving messages from friends assuring me that they knew I wasn’t a servant of the Russian state, I was concerned.

Let me set a few things straight.

IslamophobiaFirst of all, no one that I know holding “Peace on Earth” posters and boxes of Arm & Hammer baking soda had come to stand outside the Islamic Dawah Center because of a Facebook event planned by Russia under the premise of claiming to be “United Muslims of America.” Folks were there because of a Facebook event put together by a real, live, Lonestar College student who delivers pizza when he is not studying criminal justice and was wise enough to change from Papa John’s to Pizza Hut before their stocks tanked this week. The event was called “Stop Islamophobia: Defend the Muslim Community.”

And, yes, for those of you who may already have guessed, people brought boxes of Arm & Hammer so that we could make light of the fact that we were standing across the street from men and women with AK-47’s who actually had been brought there by Russia under it’s “Heart of Texas” disguise. We were “armed” too… with baking soda. You have to smile when you can.

What people need to know about the past few years, and let’s just call it decades, in Texas, is that, for some of us, confronting white supremacist hate and violence was as regular a part of our routine as getting our morning coffee. Pre-election, that same group that was summoned by the Russians would show up on regular occasions with their assault rifles and vitriol. They did it in front of the NAACP; they did it in front of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League; they pretty much went anywhere that Hitler would have gone. They may have shown up on May 21, 2016 because the Russians summoned them, but the Russians did not create their racism; the Russians only created one more of many opportunities they had to exhibit it.

“…confronting white supremacist hate and violence was as regular a part of our routine as getting our morning coffee…”

On September 26, 2016, several months after the event that Burr released photos of, and just shy of a month before the election of Donald Trump, a disgruntled attorney wearing a Nazi uniform showed up at a strip mall near the offices of the Anti-Defamation League and opened fire. He injured nine people before being shot by police.

What Senator Richard Burr failed to include in his comments is that standing up against white supremacy in Texas means looking death in the eye every day. To equate those who stand for love, with those who stand for hate, as equal pawns in the hands of the Russians is to do a severe disservice to the truth.

“To equate those who stand for love, with those who stand for hate, as equal pawns in the hands of the Russians is to do a severe disservice to the truth…”

So, let me tell you who was hanging out there across from those assault rifles on May 21, summoned not by the Russians, but by a pizza delivering college student who wanted Muslims to feel safe and loved in our city of Houston.

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Photo by Burnell McCray

Instead of Jimmy Fallon’s thousands, there was probably more like a hundred of us. We were poets, and musicians, and grandmothers and children. There was a hilarious comedian, David, who got on the mic to do a set about flying while being a brown man to lighten the mood. There was a band that often showed up to these kinds of events with brass instruments and drums to keep the atmosphere light-hearted; you don’t want things to get too serious when you are staring at the barrel of a Nazi’s gun. There was a whole crew of Unitarian Universalists in their highly recognizable yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” tshirts. I think it was Amir, one of the most influential poets in Houston, who brought the Arm & Hammer baking soda that cracked me up. There were folks from SURJ, and a sweet older woman who had brought the speaker that the comedian did his set on. I also used it to talk to the folks across the street about Jesus and our calling to love. Surprisingly, they actually stopped their taunts and listened, causing me to wonder if hearing a preacher speak against racism was that rare in their life that it merited curiosity.

We showed up there not to fight with white supremacists, in the street or otherwise; and to be clear, Russia had nothing to do with our presence. The reason we showed up was very simple: our Muslim brothers and sisters were going to be faced with armed men and we did not want them to do it alone. We placed our bodies, as we often did between hate and its object and we spoke love into the space.

In the year that followed, white supremacists became even bolder. With the election of Trump, they made every sidewalk a potential place to encounter their hate. The week after the election, while attending one of the poetry events that Amir curates at Avant Garden, a white man who works for “Hook it Up, Towing” in Houston, Texas began to heckle the Black woman who was performing poetry over the fence of the courtyard with the words, “White Power, Donald Trump Rules! White Power, Donald Trump Rules!” When we came outside the venue and I found him cowering in his black BMW with a license plate reading Euro Power, he threatened us by telling us he had a gun before speeding off into the night. He would continue to be an intimidating presence in the Montrose neighborhood of Houston.

In January, when Trump’s travel ban kept some of our college students trapped at Bush International Airport, I would be physically assaulted by William Fears, a white supremacist who now lies in custody at the Alachua County Jail for attempted homicide of protestors in Florida.

We do not stand against white supremacy because Russia compels us to do so. We stand against white supremacy because our consciences compel us not to leave hate unanswered.

Some took a stand for love because they were Muslim; or assumed to be, because when hate is looking for a place to land, it is not overly picky. Some because they know that violence against one is violence against all. For me, it was because some wise people once said these words:

“If I fall, I’ll fall five feet four inches forward in the fight for freedom.” -Fannie Lou Hamer (beaten to the brink of death by racist jailers, June 9th, 1963)

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” -Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (martyred by white supremacist, April 4, 1968)

“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” -Rev. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (martyred by the Nazis, April 9, 1945)

“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” -Jesus of Nazareth (martyred by the Roman Empire, AD 33)

To Senator Richard Burr, Republican of North Carolina, let’s be careful about creating any appearance that we are equating racists with those who stand against them. History has taught us how easily it is for those who preach peace to find themselves under the heel of the boot.

How many tasers will it take to wake Waller County?

“We were advised by legal counsel to cancel the meeting,” Prairie View City Councilmen Jonathan Randall said to the crowd of students and Prairie View community members crowded around the front door of Prairie View City Hall on October 15 to stand in solidarity with their City Councilman, the Honorable Jonathan Miller. Community members had been told that the City Council would be discussing the arrest of the Honorable Jonathan Miller.
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Yes, that Jonathan Miller. The one who voted to rename the road where she was arrested to Sandra Bland Parkway… twice. The Jonathan Miller who has written letters to Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee to press for answers to what happened to Sandra Bland. The one who was mysteriously tased and arrested in his own front yard by officers who knew him well; officers who told him they knew he was “always making problems” before they tased him.

It was growing tiring to see the same faces show up in this situation as in the arrest and investigation of Sandra Bland. Yes, I am fully aware that in a small town there are not many options for who can erroneously order a City Councilman to be tasered, or who can oversee an investigation of potentially great financial importance. I know there are only six officers in Prairie View and Penny Goodie, who mocked Sandra Bland while she lay in the dirt, had a 1 in 6 chance of being the same officer who would order the Honorable Jonathan Miller to be laid down in the dirt. And I am fully aware that the District Attorney who called Sandra Bland “not a model person” would be the only District Attorney available to oversee the investigation of whether the Honorable Jonathan Miller was honorable or not. I understand it, but understanding it makes it none the less painful.

Moving into the City Council chambers, the crowd filled the seats and began to have their say. The media had been notified by the mayor that the meeting was off and informed not to come, but there was one lingering cameraman and a reporter, as well as a journalist from the LA Times. The purpose of the meeting, without much press present, actually shifted to the community truly listening to one another and dialoguing. Without cameras and microphones, and with the City Councilpersons and Mayor in the back, mostly in street clothes, there was greater transparency amongst residents. It was actually the best environment I have experienced in that room thus far.

One older woman, who asked me not to use her name or face for fear of retaliation, said the following:

Early in the morning, when I am in my bed, and I meditate and think about all the things that have been done, to my brothers and sisters by the police department and they just keep getting away with it. White supremacy is alive and well. And from time to time, I ask myself, what ever happened to the KKK? They used to be known by their white sheets and hoods, you don’t see that anymore. They did not fade into the wide blue yonder. My personal opinion? They did not just disappear. They have, I believe, infiltrated the police department. I believe they have traded in those white sheets and hood for a uniform and a badge and and a gun. And they have infiltrated the good officers. You can’t tell the bad policeman from the good officer. I honestly believe this where they have gone. Because here they can kill and get away with it. They can have their court system pick some more KKK guys, and this is just my opinion. Where did those guys go, who was once known as the KKK. You knew them when they showed up many, many years ago because they wore that distinctive uniform; and I believe they traded that uniform in for a blue uniform, a badge, and a gun.

A young Prairie View student had his say as well:

What if I tell you that the Mayor is also the Fire Chief and he had a Fireman’s Banquet and at that Banquet he honored Sheriff Glenn Smith. Or if I tell you that Waller County is the last county that emancipated slaves, but we don’t celebrate Juneteenth like we should. If I tell you that Sandra Bland was the first black body to be picked up by a white funeral home ever in Waller County. If I tell you that the first President of Prairie View A&M was a former slave of the first President of Texas A&M, then you start reevaluating where are we really? Because the true power is the power that is unseen.

Finally a Prairie View property owner raised the questions on many people’s minds about what the priorities of elected officials were:

How can he be the Mayor of our city, and the mayor of the campus, those two jobs conflict. But he does not receive a payment for being our mayor, he is a volunteer. So in your best assessment, if you had a job that you volunteered for and a job that paid you over six figures, where are your loyalties.

(*I believe he meant the use of the phrase “mayor of campus” metaphorically. Frank Jackson is the Texas A&M Vice Chancellor of Governmental Affairs after a recent promotion.)

The President of the Democrats Club of Waller County made the following remarks:

If I had been in [Jonathan’s] position, I would have considered that assault. I believe that there is no need to lolly gag on this. We need to let Officer Kelly know, we need to thank him for his service up until this point, and we need to let him know that we would be happy to accept his resignation, go ahead and get that notarized, and get that done with.”

We can pray things will move more quickly for Jonathan than they have for Sandra Bland.

95 days have passed since the death of Sandra Bland in the Waller County Jail. 95 days of watching Waller County officials play games to delay or distort information while the family of Sandra Bland suffers without answers. 95 days of watching people change the story to try to make it fit the evidence.

After 95 days of watching and praying, it was comforting to know that there are some people in Waller County who can be honest and transparent with one another. Those people, ultimately, are the Boss of all the rest, for it is the citizens who vote that truly do the hiring and firing of elected officials. In Waller County, as in many parts of the nation, the nature of the democracy is questioned by many after years of watching the political machine work. Yet, in each and every election, the people have a choice whether they will wake up and stop being cogs in a machine.

Today, in Prairie View City Hall, the room was filled with people who had woken up. Perhaps if the machine is to be shut down, it will take an electric surge, the sizzle and flash of a taser. First there was the taser that the white, male Officer, Brian Encinia, used to threaten Sandra Bland and tear her from the safety of her car as Officer Penny Goodie pulled up to watch. Then there was the flash of light as the taser of the white, male Officer, Michael Kelly, drew blood from the back of the Honorable Jonathan Miller at the order of Officer Penny Goodie.

In both cases, officials in Waller County see “nothing to be concerned about” in the treatment of either of these young, African American, Prairie View alumni. It is becoming increasingly evident, however, that they are alone in that opinion.

The Complaint
“How long, Lord, must I call for help,
    but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
    but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
    Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?
Destruction and violence are before me;
    there is strife, and conflict abounds.
Therefore the law is paralyzed,
    and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous,
    so that justice is perverted.” – Habakkuk 1

The Response
“There is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.” – Habakkuk 2

 

Ravens

“Hey, you up?” There’s only one thing that could mean, I think to myself, pulling on my robe: JJ brought me food. She has been doing it ever since she moved in a few months back. Working long hours, and then picking up something to eat on the way home, and bringing something for me as well. At first, I used to tease her that she was trying to fatten me up; but as time has gone on and finances have gotten tighter, I don’t feel amusement any more; I only feel gratitude.

She is a raven to my Elijah; making sure I don’t go to bed hungry.

Come to think of it, ravens have become pretty common around these parts lately. Although unlike Elijah’s story, they don’t swing through with a mouthful of bread. Instead, they take the form of lunches after church; bags of groceries when my car broke down and money got tight; bills at restaurants, intercepted and paid before they could make it from the waitress’ hands to mine; texts from down in our kitchen, letting me know Sim Q is cooking; and, yes, late night hollers of “Hey, you up?”

I can’t help but think of our dinners at the Isaiah House, my heart’s home, where I lived the happiest year of my life with Rebekah and David, Sarah and Tom, Luke and Timothy, Ms. G and Ms. S. We were a whole bunch of strangers become friends become family, which is not too far off from my life these days.

Our meals were the best eating of my life. They were a collision between rice and oil and the vegetables from our garden; occasionally topped off by a cake that Ms. S or Ms. G had gotten from the food bank. We ate vegetarian, except on birthdays, for reasons having to do with finances and stewardship of the earth’s resources (food you grow yourself is free after all).

Although we were not all in agreement on this, and when Ms. G could get her hands on some chicken wings, into the toaster oven they would go. “Hey, you hungry?” she’d whisper to me conspiratorially, slipping me some buffalo-battered deep-fried protein: our little not-so-secret secret.

The two most treasured food memories of my life are as follows: my grandmother’s blueberry pancakes, and Rebekah’s Tomato Pie (made with ingredients from the backyard of the Isaiah House). I will probably never get to eat either of them again, but I will never forget the love that went into making them so much more than food.

That is the way it so often is. Food, as necessary as it is, is so much more than food. It can be a means of showing love, expressing solidarity, and creating community. In the act of sharing food, we take the thing without which we cannot live and we give it to another; as if to say that we do not want to live without one another; as if to say that in sharing what gives us life, we give our lives to one another.

That was what Jesus meant when he picked up a loaf of bread when he was having dinner with his friends. He picked up the loaf in front of him and he broke it into pieces and gave the pieces to the friends sitting around him. As he did it, he said, “This is my body broken for you, do this in remembrance of me.” In doing so, this word made flesh, God made man, did what comes natural to so many people – he used food to send a message about love. He used food to say that he would give his life for them. Only in his case, he meant it literally not figuratively.

Within a matter of hours after they had eaten together, he would be arrested unjustly; he would become a victim of some of the most extreme police brutality in recorded history. Without the rights of a citizen, and because he was an ethnic minority, he would receive no legal representation. He would be given the death penalty and promptly executed by the State.

When he regained his life, his friends would not recognize him. At least not at first. Not until he picked up a loaf of bread, and broke it, and handed it to them.

We find ourselves in the breaking of bread. We learn to see God. We learn to see ourselves. We learn to see others.

That is what we have been doing ever since: handing each other pieces of bread to show that we are family and we give our lives to one another.

When the early Christians began sharing communion, the breaking of bread and sharing of wine, it had a lot more to do with community than ritual. When they gathered and shared food, there were many amongst them that actually needed that food. The act of sharing was more than a tradition, more than a recitation of words, it was a necessity. In feeling their need for food and their need for one another, they recognized their need for the one who had first broken bread for them and told them to share it and told them to do it in remembrance of him. As they sacrificed what they had for one another, they remembered the ultimate sacrifice that he had made for them.

Now, I don’t know about you, but the funny thing is, I have never wanted to be a Solomon with all the wealth in the world. I have always found the story of Elijah to be so much more compelling. A man surviving on pieces of bread, brought to him in the beaks of ravens and later from the hands of widows and orphans. A man who spoke truth to power at the risk of his life, and went where God told him to go without questioning the reason.

Don’t get me wrong, I much prefer to have a reasonably stocked refrigerator, and bank account if we are being honest. Yet, there is something so faith provoking about hearing those words, “Hey, you up?” and knowing that as long as there is bread in this world and people faithful enough to share it, none of us needs to be hungry.

Yet, while there is so much bread, there are still so many that are hungry. All we need is a little more faith. All we need is a little more confidence in the fact that two thousand years ago, when Jesus said, “do this in remembrance of me,” he really meant it. He really meant that if someone puts a loaf of bread in your hands, the most faithful thing you can do with it is share it.

I do not think I am the best at remembering this, but I have a lot of ravens around me and they are teaching me how. It’s hard sometimes; and it’s humbling; and it’s so very beautiful.

It is in the breaking of bread, and in the sharing of bread, that we who are broken become whole.

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Raven... icecream raven to be exact.
Raven… icecream raven to be exact.
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Oh... just dreaming of ravens.
Oh… just feeling grateful for ravens.