Tuesday, October 21, 2014

When and Where I Grieve

The tears started while I was sitting in a Barnes and Noble bookstore and they refused to stop. I gathered my laptop and purse, hurried back to the car, and sat quietly - expecting the flow to cease. But it would not. Tears were in my eyes on the way back home and tears stayed with me throughout the day. I wept while folding the laundry and while trying to decide what to cook for dinner. There is a moment when you grieve that you can no longer make tears - instead, your silent cries are felt in the pit of your stomach or in the wordless moans that escape your mouth.

It is difficult to put into words what triggered this particular moment of grief. All I can explain is that the weight of being black in a world that hates black existence came rushing forward and I could no longer contain my anger, rage, or grief in a series of polite conversations and academic panels. I could no longer form the right words to describe how it feels to wake up in a world where a police officer can brutally assault and rape black women, violate the terms of his bail, and yet again be released from jail a second time since the courts have determined that he poses "no significant threat" while he awaits trial. I no longer had the means for polite discourse when trying to describe how police leaving the dead body of a murdered teen uncovered on the street for over four hours paralleled the worse of the American tradition for lynching. I did not have the right language to express my horror at the multiple deaths of black women whose only "crime" had been to say no to sexual advances. I had no language in response to the horrors of racism and misogyny that greeted me each morning.

Our culture privileges words and texts. If you want to be taken seriously and considered intelligent and rational, you are asked to respond to horrific events with sustained textual or oral analysis. I had been doing my best...writing, when I was asked to write, and speaking and preaching, when asked to do so. I've lectured and written on the historical, theological, racial, and societal implications of several recent events. But while sitting in Barnes and Nobles, my words failed because my words were no longer adequate. Living with terror requires more than just words. Dealing with the realities of the terrorized black body in America requires my entire soul...and my soul wept. The horrors had simply surpassed the ability of my pen to write and so my tears took up where my pen left off.

On that particular morning, my tears were triggered by a rendition of "There is Room at the Cross," playing on my headphones. I thought about all the various meanings of the cross for Christians: a place of atonement and redemption; a place of suffering and shame; a place of lynching and execution; even a place of promise and resurrection. But on that particular morning, the cross represented a place where I was encouraged to grieve. Whatever the cross means in a person's own theology, we know that the family of Jesus and his disciples grieved the death of one whom they loved. We know that tears were shed at the death of a beloved child, a cherished teacher, a dear friend, and a valued leader whose entire existence confounded Roman authority. The cross is a place where there is always more room for the grieving.

The foot of the cross is a place where I can grieve for all the deaths and for all the people that are "ungrievable." And so I grieve for the women whose claims of rape aren't taken seriously because they are sex workers. I grieve for those whose only crime is walking while black or driving while black. I grieve for the mothers and fathers burying their children much too soon. I grieve for women who stay home rather than face street harassment. I grieve for those triggered by the sight of blue lights in their rearview windows. I grieve for parents who have to teach racial life lessons while their children are still toddlers. I grieve for black women whose murdered bodies barely rate a mention during the evening's news. And I grieve for those who do not have a community to support them while they grieve.

At the foot of the cross, or at the site of any of these lynchings, state executions, murders, or injustices, there must be a place to allow the tears to flow and the moans to escape. There must be a place - beyond words or sermons or essays - which allows the body to grieve. Before we can heal the land, repair the breach, or right the wrongs, our souls are crying for a moment to mourn. The grief is both personal and collective as we grieve for our own losses and for the losses of others.  But when and where I grieve, my heart, body, and soul insist that this space, this moment, and this loss must be acknowledged. I grieve because it matters. I grieve because even when my voice is silenced, my tears will tell their own story.

© Yolanda Pierce

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Theological Bankruptcy

In his groundbreaking work, God of the Oppressed, theologian James Cone describes moving to Detroit in the midst of a series of insurrections.  He noted the silence and indifference of white Christians to what was happening in urban centers across America in the late 1960's.  He writes that their lack of response to what was happening in their own nation "was not only humiliating but wrong. It revealed an insensitivity to black pain and suffering but also, and more importantly for my vocation as a theologian, a theological bankruptcy."  Cone's words have never been more prophetic than they are today when faced with the deafening silence of American Christianity in the face of racialized violence.

I charge theological bankruptcy to a Christianity that is silent when unarmed black people are murdered by the state and their killers shielded from punishment.

I charge theological bankruptcy to a Christianity that is silent when black grandmothers are beaten unconscious by law enforcement officers as they seek shelter across a busy highway.

I charge theological bankruptcy to a Christianity that is silent when black teenagers are gunned down like animals, but rushes to promote campaigns against "indecent" music.

I charge theological bankruptcy to a Christianity that is silent about black pain and suffering, but wants to rally to boycott a fictional television show.

I charge theological bankruptcy to a Christianity that is silent when pregnant black women are placed in chokeholds by police, but campaigns outside of abortion clinics to "protect" life.

I charge theological bankruptcy to a Christianity that is silent in the face of urban violence, poverty, and joblessness, but wants to figure out how to plant an urban church from a suburban bubble.

I charge theological bankruptcy to a Christianity that is silent about racial disparities, but keeps singing hymns in which one has to be washed "white as snow."

I charge theological bankruptcy to a Christianity that is silent about racism, white privilege, and white supremacy, but wants to have conferences about doing "multicultural" ministry.

What will your liturgy on Sunday morning say about Renisha McBride?  What sermon will be preached that speaks out for Mike Brown?  What benediction will be pronounced that considers Marlene Pinnock?  Can you "pass the peace" if you only mean peace for your own neighborhood or community?  I believe our theological bankruptcy, our hypocrisy, our lukewarmness, and our indifference is an affront to God.  We are the richest nation in the world with a deeply impoverished theology. How can we claim to love God, whom we have not seen, but fail to love those we have seen: Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Marlene Pinnock, Eric Garner, John Crawford, Aiyana Jones, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Johnathan Ferrell, Miriam Carey, Tyisha Miller...and the list goes on.

© Yolanda Pierce

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Black Jesus

Before I could even view the trailer of Adult Swim's upcoming television series, Black Jesus, I read articles condemning it and protests against it...despite the fact that one full episode had yet to air.  Like many people, I've long awaited Aaron McGruder's return as a producer and was surprised to hear that an entire series would center around the life of a religious figure.  The protest from various Christian groups center on the "blasphemous" depiction of Jesus in the show - a drinking, weed-smoking, black man from Compton who spends his days hanging out on street corners with his boys, involved in all manner of nefarious activities.  Charges of heresy, blasphemy, and sacrilege dominate the critique being leveled at the show.  Groups are calling for the show to be taken off the air, arguing that its level of satire is unacceptable and a mockery to the Christian faith.

But part of me wonders what the protest is really about...is it really about the level of satire that the show displays or is it about a level of woeful ignorance that Christians have about the Bible and the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth?  Frankly, the fact that the targeted demographic of the show (18-40 year olds) is also the group most likely to not attend church makes me want to applaud the show's courage for taking on the topic at all.  As a minister, I would rather 18-40 year olds have something to say about Jesus, even if prompted by a television show, than to completely ignoring the topic. Perhaps the people protesting the loudest are those whose pews are empty, Sunday after Sunday, for failing to find a way to connect the life of the historical Jesus with a younger demographic.

I think part of the protest has to do with the depiction of Jesus as African-American.  Even in satire, there is no room in our culture for anything but a white-washed depiction of Jesus.  Whether on stained glass windows or in the current slew of so-called Christian movies, we are only comfortable when Jesus is white, has blonde hair and blue eyes, and sports six-pack abs.  Our culture is still uncomfortable with the facts about the historical Jesus: a first-century Semitic man; living in the region we now know as Palestine; likely very short in stature; with wooly hair and feet the color of brass; and with no remarkable or attractive features.  We still demand a white Jesus even in our satire...

The Black Jesus of the Adult Swim television show lives in the urban "ghetto," drinks, smokes weed, curses, hangs out with criminals and thugs, freeloads off his friends, engages in illegal activity, all while performing a miracle or two.  It's easy to think that McGruder is simply making a mockery out of the masses of unemployed black men living throughout various urban centers in our country.  But if we are more careful thinkers and if we know our scriptural context well, we know that there are quite a few resemblances between the premise of the show and the historical Jesus of Nazareth:

The Jesus of Nazareth was essentially homeless; he had no where to lay his head.  He, and his disciples, wandered from village to village, dependent upon the kindness of fellow believers to feed, clothe, and shelter them.  The Jesus of Nazareth befriended and consorted with criminals, preferring their company and companionship over the educated elite of his time.  The Jesus of Nazareth dared to defy various laws of his day: refusing to stone a woman; overturning tables at the temple; breaking the rules of the Sabbath; and defying Roman authority.  The Jesus of Nazareth was tried, found guilty, and executed as a criminal.  And interspersed throughout his life, the Jesus of Nazareth fed some folks, healed some folks, told some stories, and performed a few miracles.  With his motley crew of both male and female followers, the Jesus of Nazareth spent far more of his time hanging out on proverbial street corners than he ever did in a religious sanctuary.  The Jesus of Nazareth was fully human, though (for Christians), no less divine because of that humanity.

I have no clue where McGruder's television series will take the character of Black Jesus.  But as a Christian, I am not afraid of varying portraits and depictions of Jesus, even satirical ones.  A genuine belief and relationship with the Jesus of Nazareth, whom Christians claim as Christ and Savior, cannot be shaken by any mere human efforts.  Perhaps the show will actually challenge how we contextualize race, gender, and socio-economic status in our religious conversations.  But maybe the show won't do anything but make some people laugh or other people uncomfortable.  I'm okay with that.  I think I'm much like Flannery O'Connor in my beliefs.  She writes: "a distorted image of Christ is better than no image at all."  I'd rather have the conversation about Black Jesus, fictional and satirical though it may be, than to shut down a dialogue that may include some new voices - voices that haven't found a place of sanctuary in our churches and houses of worship.

(You can listen to my NPR interview about Black Jesus for "All Things Considered" at: http://www.npr.org/programs/all-things-considered/)

© Yolanda Pierce

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Seeking Sanctuary

I've been writing, speaking, and tweeting about Renisha McBride since her death and I woke up this morning with her on my mind, as the trial of her killer continues this week. I've been thinking about how hard it is for black women to find a safe space just to "be" in this world; how hard it is to find a safe place just to be our genuine selves. Home, church, and work can be toxic environments – perhaps even more toxic than the larger society. Where is that space where one can feel loved, affirmed, cherished, protected? Where is that space where one can lay down her defenses and burdens? Where is the place that black women can find sanctuary?

Domestic violence and street harassment against black women are routinely ignored and barely prosecuted. Predators in the pulpit and the streets continue to prey on black women's bodies and psyches.  In the workforce, black women continue to be at the bottom economic rung, despite higher rates of education and training.  Over the course of just one week, I've listened to a black pastor mock the black women in his congregation for their hairstyles; I've heard various celebrities argue that black women bring violence upon themselves; I've experienced the hostility of an institution that does not understand or value the contributions made by black women; and I've mourned as yet another black woman faces state-sanctioned brutality.

When the church you call home mocks you; when the community you live in blames you; when your workplace doesn't value you; when the police won't protect you; and when all forms of public media degrade you...where do you turn for sanctuary?  There are far too many days when I feel that I'm stumbling, drunkenly, through the car wreck that is American culture, seeking a place of shelter...hoping just to find my way home.  My education, profession, status, income, and background do not matter when all the world sees is an angry or threatening or criminal or trespassing black woman.  

Renisha McBride's killer didn't know if she were drunk or sober; if she was an excellent student or a dropout; if she was a criminal or a saint; if she was loved and cherished or the bane of her family's existence.  Her killer, who first claims that he shot her by accident and then later changes his claim to one of self defense, didn't know anything about her, except what his eyes could tell him: a black woman was knocking at his door at 4am.  A black woman, whom the attorney for this murderer argues, "could have been up to no good."  Where is there refuge in the world if before you can utter a single word, you have been judged to be "up to no good?"

I don't have any answers to my questions; I really don't know how to find sanctuary in this troubled world.  I'm grateful for those profound moments of peace and refuge I've experienced in conversations with friends; during meals at my kitchen table; or in the shared laughter and tears of likeminded folks. But far too soon, those moments of refuge are gone and I'm left seeking sanctuary and protection for my weary soul.  Renisha McBride never found that safe space on the last night of her life. I feel called to work on creating those sanctuaries for myself and for all the Renisha McBrides of this world.

© Yolanda Pierce

Thursday, May 8, 2014

What Can I Do?

The crisis continues as nearly 300 Nigerian schoolgirls, kidnapped from their dorm rooms, remain in the violent hands of a terrorist organization.  While it has been nearly a month, only now is the world grappling with the complexities of these young girls' fate and how to respond.  Our own country is finally asking, "how can we help bring these students safely home?"  But the answer to that question is extremely complex.  Many are calling for American military intervention...but we are also deeply aware of how problematic and imperialistic an armed military response may be.  Some are insisting the Nigerian government do more...but we do so without an awareness of how deeply entrenched this terrorist cell is within Nigeria and how difficult it will be to flush them out.

There are the lone rangers; people insisting that if you gave them a gun and ten minutes, they would free all the girls...despite their lack of knowledge of the geography or terrain or the climate.  There are the diplomats; folks who insist that they could negotiate or talk their way into getting terrorists to release these girls...as if one can reason with unhinged armed terrorists.  And as we continue, as a nation, to consider and discard ways that we can truly help to free these schoolchildren, ordinary folks are simply asking: "what can I do?"

I'm one of those people.  I have no allusions of being able to personally engage in a gun battle and I'm skeptical any time America sends troops into another country.  I recognize and respect Nigeria as a sovereign nation that must handle its own affairs, even as I know their government and military are broken.  So what can I, an American citizen thousands of miles from this conflict, do to help these girls?  How can I help end the violation of human rights in another country, without imposing my own narrow viewpoint?  How can I support my Nigerian brothers and sisters, without silencing their voices and agency?  As I've sat with these questions, I decided that there are things we can all do:

1) Work to create a culture of respect for black girls in America.  There is little value assigned to the lives of black girls in America, as well as globally.  We don't celebrate their beauty and accomplishments; we don't affirm their capacities and abilities.  In our patriarchal and white supremacist society, black girls are often the least and the last.  As a nation, we export our dominant standards of beauty and normativity; we uplift those groups and people that we value and we make them the face of a nation. The world knows that a nation protects and cherishes and defends that which it loves. When we insist on creating a culture of love and respect for black girls in America, we can export that respect throughout the world: we can take a stand and proclaim "black girls matter" everywhere when we make sure that black girls matter in our own backyards.

2) Work to create a safe environment for black girls in America to grow into adulthood.  When we engage in conversations about crime or the prison industrial complex or education, our conversations are driven by what is happening to boys.  And yet, black girls face unprecedented violence, harassment, disproportionate imprisonment rates, abuse, and neglect - much of which is not part of the grand narrative we tell about racism and inequity in this country.  What are we doing to make the lives of black girls safe in America?  What are we doing to make sure that they can safely reach adulthood? While we are grateful that black girls are not being stolen from their dorm rooms in the United States, we cannot remain silent when they are being shot in their living rooms or on front porches.

3) Work to expand resources for black girls in America to thrive and compete in a global market.  Nigeria has one of the most highly educated populations in the world. The schoolchildren kidnapped from their dorms were there to take final exams; most of them had sat for a physics exam prior to their abduction. The socio-economic and racial reality of life in America is that the vast majority of black girls in this country will not attend schools that prepare them for physics or engineering.  And while black girls and women are graduating from high school and college at very high rates, they are still earning far less than white men and white women for the same work.  Black girls are systematically discouraged from pursuing STEM fields; they often don't have mentors or advisors who support their educational dreams; they must contend with the forces of both racism and sexism in their pursuit of an education. When we work to expand education and technological resources for black girls in this country, whole communities are transformed and thrive because of it.

4) Donate time, energy, financial resources to local and global organizations that understand the rights of women and children are human rights.  When girls are subjected to sexual slavery, forced marriage, child marriage, unregulated labor, and denied an education, they are experiencing abuses of their fundamental human rights and they are being stripped of human dignity.  Access to a quality education, reproductive rights, and marriage rights are as crucial to girls thriving as are fresh air, clean water, and nutritious food. We must support those organizations, both in this country and globally, working to ensure that girls have freedom to make choices about their futures.

I believe in a God who loves and cares for the "least of these," a God who is always on the side of the oppressed, a God who calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves, and a God who hears the prayers of the broken...so I will continue to pray.  And while I pray, I will work for the safety and protection of the most vulnerable among us.  What can I do?  I can value, love, protect, nurture, advocate for, fight on behalf of all the black girls in my life and in this country - knowing that their lives matter both here and abroad.  If we want black girls to matter in Nigeria, we have to make sure that black girls matter right here in America.

© Yolanda Pierce

Friday, May 2, 2014

Bring Back Our Daughters

They had returned to the school to sit for a physics exam.  Knowing teenagers, I imagine that among the group, there were those who had studied hard for their final exams and others who were just happy to be back with their friends after the school had closed earlier in the year. Were they all asleep when the terrorists came in the middle of the night?  What were they dreaming about when armed men stormed their dorm rooms?  Were some of them still awake, catching up on the latest news with cherished friends? Were they the first to catch sight of the weapons aimed at them, to hear the angry voices shouting at them?

While forced into waiting vehicles under the cover of darkness, I can only imagine their feelings of terror and anguish: cries for beloved parents and family members...fear for best friends separated during the chaos...the anguish of imaging what is to come.  In a span of moments, over 200 schoolgirls filled with hopes, dreams, laughter, and promise are ripped from the places and people they love.  It has been over two weeks. A few have managed to escape, but the fate of far too many others is being determined at the hands of their abductors.

Despite the language being used by various media outlets, these young girls are not "brides" and they are not being sold into "marriage."  Girls who are kidnapped and forced to convert are not entering into a nuptial contract.  They are prisoners of war being trafficked into human bondage, while the world watches and does very little. Real Nigerian weddings are joyous celebrations, filled with ceremony, ritual, food, and dancing.  Terrorists who kidnap schoolchildren are not eager bridegrooms entering into the joys of marriage; they are criminals exploiting the most vulnerable members of society.

Bring back our daughters...daughters who love to laugh and sing...daughters who still enjoy snuggling on their mothers' laps...daughters who ace their physics exams....daughters who like to gossip and text with their friends late into the night...daughters who dream of college and studying abroad...daughters who have a crush on the neighbors' son...daughters who dance in front of the mirror at home...daughters who love and are beloved.

These Nigerian girls are our daughters; black girls everywhere are our daughters and their lives matter. We are commanded to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, so may we do for these Nigerian children what we would do if 234 girls from Germany or Spain or Ireland were kidnapped from their dorm rooms - turn the world upside down until they are found.

© Yolanda Pierce

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Black Girls Matter

Every day, for the past two weeks, I have been scouring news outlets for more information concerning the Nigerian schoolgirls who were kidnapped from Chibok, Borno State.  The first few days of media coverage were only from international news sources, with wildly varying figures as to the numbers of girls who had been abducted by gunpoint from their school and how many had managed to escape.  Even now, two weeks after this horrific abduction, we still don't know the exact number: but some 150-200 girls were forcibly removed from the safety of their school and their anguished parents continue to search, wait, petition, and demand more information about their daughters.

I've been walking around in a fog trying to figure out why the American news media has been so silent about this act of terrorism.  When 33 Chilean miners were trapped and subsequently rescued, there was 24/7 American coverage of the story, including the "amusing" details of both wives and mistresses showing up to support the trapped miners.  The kidnapping of a 7 year old British girl, while vacationing with her parents in Portugal, is a regular American news item many, many years after her disappearance.  American media regularly covers all manner of international disasters, human interest stories, and news from abroad.  Every local media outlet I've read over the past two weeks has devoted prime space to covering the Britain royal family's tour to Australia, down to the detail of the color of Prince George's socks.

And yet, 200 or more kidnapped schoolgirls from Nigeria barely registers in the American mind.  When I tell people about this act of terrorism and ask them why it hasn't received more coverage, I have inevitably received two responses: a) "this kind of stuff happens all of the time in Africa" or b) "what can we do? Those girls have probably already been sold into slavery or trafficked."  The only think that breaks my heart more than the story of this kidnapping is this level of indifference and disregard for these black girls.  I am left to wonder time and time again: do black girls matter in this world?

Africa, as a continent, has more than its fair share of suffering, but that does not diminish the pain, anguish, and heartbreak experienced by the parents of these 200 or more Nigerian girls.  We cannot become so indifferent to the violence in any country or any community or neighborhood, that we are willing to dismiss the fact that an individual family grieves when a loved one is in pain or killed or kidnapped.  There is a father in Chibok who plans to dance at his daughter's wedding; there is a mother in Chibok who cries as she cooks her daughter's favorite meal.  Their pain is singular and cannot be dismissed because of the collective violence one group or nation may experience.

Secondly, it breaks me to see the easy acceptance on the part of some concerning the possible fate of these girls.  While sex trafficking, forced prostitution, and slavery are all too real, we cannot and should not accept that as inevitable.  Where is the military response in Nigeria against this terrorist group?  Where is the pressure from human rights organizations?  Why isn't there, two weeks after the fact, an accurate count of who is missing?  In other words, are our daughters so disposable that we can merely shrug and count it as a loss when they are violently kidnapped from the safety of their schools?  Are black girls such a cheap commodity that their lives can be quickly erased from the human balance sheet?  We cannot shrug our collective shoulders and simply proclaim "there's nothing we can do."  The forces of evil always win if we yield defeat before even stepping into the fray.

The lives of these young girls matter.  The lives of young black girls matter.  The grief and anguish of these parents is real.  Black pain and suffering is real.  We will be judged for our silence and our indifference to the pain of the "least of these."  Nigeria is our neighbor and these are also our daughters.  Let us not rest until they are safely home.

© Yolanda Pierce