Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Bloody Sunday: The Work of Remembrance

There is no one singular way to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the event known as “Bloody Sunday.”  How should we remember the life of Jimmie Lee Jackson, the African American Baptist deacon whose death during a peaceful protest, at the hands of an Alabama state trooper, spurred the events of Bloody Sunday? How should we recognize the hundreds of marchers in Selma on March 7, 1965, who attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge and instead encountered troopers and police officers who shot them with teargas and beat them with billy clubs? How should we honor a civil rights activist like James Reeb, the Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston and Princeton Theological Seminary alumnus, who had come to Selma to march and who was beaten and killed for his support of civil rights? How should we commemorate the unnamed and unknown, the foot soldiers of a movement whose sacrifices history does not recall, those who marched, rallied, prayed, and petitioned for rights they would not even live long enough to experience?

We must approach this work of remembering, recognizing, honoring and commemorating an event like Bloody Sunday unencumbered by nostalgia and with both hope and sorrow at our present and future moments. We need to remember the fullness of the story and the complicated and messy context of any struggle for human rights. Plaques and monuments are not enough to interrogate the history and legacy of racial injustice in this country. As a Christian community, the memory of events like Bloody Sunday need to abide within the inner recesses of our souls.

Remember… organizing for the Selma to Montgomery March took place at the Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma, led in part by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and with the leadership of both clergy and laity. But we cannot suffer under the illusion that all churches, or even many churches supported the goals of the Civil Rights Movement. Many Christians, black and white, Northern and Southern, felt that the struggle for equality, desegregation, and voting rights was too political, too radical of a cause for the Christian church. Many churches and pastors remained silent; some voiced their support for continuing segregation, Jim and Jane Crow, and policies of “separate but equal.” And yet, other churches and pastors dared to speak courageously and risk pulpits, positions, and lives for justice and righteousness. When we remember Bloody Sunday, we are challenged to think about whether our faith is bold enough and strong enough to affirm that all are made in God’s image and are equally precious in God’s sight.

Remember… Bloody Sunday wasn’t an isolated event, even during the 1960’s. While most civil rights protestors and activists embraced a practice of non-violence, they faced horrific bodily violence from police dogs, water hoses, tear gas, billy clubs, church bombings, lynchings, beatings, and mass arrests. The violence faced by the Selma to Montgomery marchers was televised; accounts and photographs appeared in almost every major newspaper immediately after the events. The country had documentary evidence of the brutality endured by peaceful protestors. And while this particular footage and other iconic images of the Civil Rights Movement propelled the cause forward, the work for justice continued even when the cameras were not rolling and the photographers were not shooting. When we remember Bloody Sunday, we are challenged to believe and honor the stories of those at the margins, those living on the underside of history whose suffering often goes unrecognized and invalidated.

Remember… Bloody Sunday is not an aberration in this country’s racial history. Barely two days before the 50th Anniversary March in Selma, the Department of Justice released a report detailing civil rights abuses experience by African Americans in Ferguson, Missouri. The report gave a glimpse into the unchecked institutional racism in this small community, still reeling from the August 9, 2014 shooting death of unarmed African American teenager, Michael Brown. The juxtaposition of these two events should startle us: the nation commemorated 50 years since Bloody Sunday and the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, while simultaneously receiving a report of systemic racism and Civil Rights violations being faced in 2015, at the hands of state officials. When we remember Bloody Sunday, we are challenged to think about how much work we still need to do in order to heal the wounds of segregation and racism.

In our churches, we gather periodically at the communion table to remember the work of Christ: his life, his death, his resurrection, and his promises to us. The sacrament that is at the heart of our faith is to remember the pain of the crucifixion even as we rest in the blessed hope of Christ’s return. This “memory” work provides a model for how we can commemorate events like Bloody Sunday: excavating the details of the past, so that we know the fullness of the story; lamenting and mourning the pain endured and the sacrifices made; and praying, hoping, and working for a more just present and future. When we remember, we literally make the past present again; we give life and flesh to our history with implications for our future. In remembering Bloody Sunday, we honor James Reeb and Jimmie Lee Jackson and Amelia Boynton and John Lewis and Diane Nash and countless others - but we don’t rest upon their labors. There is too much work yet to be done.

© Yolanda Pierce

Thursday, February 12, 2015

A Valentine for the Black Church

Dear Black Church,

Your arms were the first to hold me after my parents, and your sanctuary was the first outing allowed after my birth. I still live with the memories of babies being passed from church mother to church mother, knowing that there were loved in the place that was a second home.

You nurtured me during my childhood, in Sunday school, during youth retreats, and tarry services. Somehow, while I was not even aware, the songs, traditions, liturgies, testimonies and stories of your presence became entrenched within me.  To this day, there are hymns that I can sing, scripture I can quote, pieces of sermons that I can remember implanted deep into my memory - all before I could even read or write.

You baptized me and taught me the way of holiness. You helped me to understand the seriousness of my faith and my commitment to love God and my neighbor. Your words both disciplined me, but also discipled me. I knew the fear and trembling that accompanies the righteous and fervent prayer of the saints.

In the arms of two Black churches in Brooklyn, one Baptist and one COGIC, I was loved by an extended family, and raised to seek after God’s heart. Images of people who looked just like me adorned the walls. As a child, I knew a Black Jesus, who was well acquainted with sorrow and suffering. Each Sunday, I was surrounded by the black and white portraits of church founders and church mothers, stern-looking deacons and smiling pastors’ wives. I saw me, my very own self, from the pulpit and in the pews. Even the smiling family on the church fan donated by the local funeral home stared back at me, reflecting back my brown face.

I am the proud daughter of the Black church and its traditions and foundations shaped me. The Black church sent me to college and graduate school; stayed with me through my first years of teaching and is even now with me as I navigate life as a tenured professor. When I am traveling or lecturing or somehow cannot be in a service on Sunday morning, I still feel incomplete, knowing that I need a chance, at least once a week, to sit in the presence with the saints.

I am the proud daughter of the Black church, whose fiery sermons, songs of lament, sacraments, and rituals have provided me with both comfort and catharsis. The Black church encouraged me to pursue my own vocational calling, because it had equipped me to hear the voice of God, to know when God was speaking into my life. The Black church helped me to know God for myself, and the God I serve today belongs not to my mother or father, but is my very own.

I, dear Black church, am your beloved daughter. But because I love you, I reserve the right, as James Baldwin reminds us, to relentlessly critique that which I so love.

I cannot love the way you wound your daughters and sons, silencing and shaming those who exist at the margins of an already marginalized community. I cannot love the predatory pastors, morally bankrupt theology, and hypocrisy which pervade both the storefronts and the megachurches. I cannot love the patriarchy and the hierarchy which negates God’s insistence that we are all fearfully and wonderfully made.  I cannot love the version of prosperity gospel that leaves the pastor wealthy and its membership struggling to eat. I cannot love the version of biblical interpretation which only concerns itself with personal sin while structural oppression is killing us. I cannot love the church which tells young men to pull up their pants and young girls to lengthen their skirts while simultaneously ignoring the hell they are catching merely trying to survive. I cannot love the church which fails to challenge injustice out of deference to the white gaze. I cannot love the church which is more invested in being a social club than serving the least and the lost. I cannot love a church which has forgotten the very history of resistance upon which it was founded and built.

And so my challenge, in this love letter, is to sit in the tension of a tradition that I love and continues to give me so much, even as I refuse to support the ways in which that very same tradition wounds and destroys.

I love the sights, sounds, praise, and worship of the Black church. I love the comfort, sanctuary, and joy she gives.  I love the preachers whose rhetorical skills, biblical exegesis, and delivery are unrivaled anywhere. I love the rock solid foundation upon which you were built. I love your social justice activism and your defiance of white supremacy. I love all the ways that you have sustained Black people, all over the world. But in my love, I can reject that which does harm simply because the most important lesson that the Black Church taught me was how to love myself.

I am your daughter, with eyes wide open…

Yolanda Pierce

© Yolanda Pierce

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Longing For A Feast

A beloved colleague gave me a Christmas cactus last year, knowing I have a green thumb and that I love having plants and flowers in my office. I did my research and figured out everything I needed to do to ensure that there would be flowers blooming in time for the Christmas season. The leaves of my cactus were green and bright and the soil was the right consistency. I looked forward to the beautiful flowers the cactus would produce; a way to brighten up my office in winter. Despite my best efforts, there were no blooms by the end of the semester. I even snuck away to my office the day after Christmas just to check and see. But there was nothing to see...just beautiful green leaves and healthy soil, but no Christmas blooms.

I understood it was just a plant. I understood that nature works on her own time frame and not by an arbitrary date on the calendar. But at that moment, the plant felt like a metaphor for my life: healthy, planted in good soil, but waiting and waiting for something special to bloom. A Christmas cactus can survive all kinds of adverse conditions, but it takes something special for it to thrive enough to produce flowers. I knew all about being in survival mode, but lacking that "something special" to feel as if I were thriving and blooming where I was planted.

There is a tension between the gratitude you feel to simply survive life's trials and storms, even as you still long for a state in which you can thrive. You can count your blessings, name them one by one...even as you enumerate unfulfilled dreams and wishes. You can be grateful for all you have in life...even as you pray for a life exceedingly and abundantly beyond what you dare to hope. You can appreciate the simple gift of bread and water...even as you long for a feast. And so I am sitting with the first lesson of the new year: giving myself permission to long for a feast; to long for abundance; to long to thrive instead of survive. I give myself permission to dare to ask for a riot of blooms and not just healthy leaves.

I returned to the office this week for the first time of the new year and noticed one lone bloom among the many stalks of green on my Christmas cactus. It may be the only flower this year, or one among many. Only time will tell. But I took this picture to remind myself to hope, to long, to wish, to dream, to desire. And as I minister to people throughout the year, I will be sure to ask them: what are you longing for, but dare not name, for fear that your dream will never bloom?

© Yolanda Pierce

Monday, December 8, 2014

If Advent Is Real...

It is during the Advent season when we pause in the Christian calendar to celebrate the birth of the soon-coming Savior. I love this moment in the liturgical cycle, because our hearts and thoughts are with Mary, the unwed, teenage girl chosen to give birth to the Christ child. I cannot understand Advent apart from Mary’s story: did she experience joyous expectation at the news of her pregnancy?  Did she fear the social ostracism connected to her unwed and pregnant state?  Did she lie awake at night and wonder about the path her child would walk? How did Mary deal with the daily dance between an all-consuming love for her child and an all-consuming fear of the world into which her child would be born?

This Advent, I am thinking about the mother of Tamir Rice, Samaria Rice. My thoughts keep recalling her 12 year old son, killed by a police officer less than two seconds after encounter; her frantic 14 year old daughter, handcuffed and placed in the back of the police car as she wails over her brother’s body; and Samaria Rice, as she herself is threatened with arrest when she arrives at the scene of her child’s killing. And I wonder, what would it mean for Christians to take the Advent story seriously?

If Advent is real to us, then the unwed teenage mother or the homeless veteran or the crack addict or the prostitute or the otherwise “undesirable person” in our society is often the one chosen as the bearer of God’s grace and mercy.

If Advent is real to us, then prophets like John the Baptist are being born, to declare that a new day approaches. But we ignore them because we don't believe that prophets can arise from a Ferguson or a Cleveland. We don't expect that our prophets will wear sagging pants and be armed with cell phone cameras.

If Advent is real to us, then we must acknowledge Mary as a mother who knew that the birth of her son came along with a warrant for his death. And so we grieve with all the mothers of black and brown children, who must give their children lessons about death before they even have a chance to live.

If Advent is real to us, then we celebrate the miracle of the season: the miracle that something good came out of Nazareth; that a Savior was born among the least and the lowly; that the greatest revolutionary the world has ever known came from the most humble of origins. And it should give us pause to think about who Tamir Rice or Aiyana Jones or Mike Brown or Renisha McBride may have been if they had simply been allowed to live.

If Advent is real to us, our hearts would break in grief at the image of Samaria Rice, or any parent anywhere, cradling the lifeless body of his or her child on a cold street; grieving a death at the hands of those who are supposed to protect and serve. Perhaps every time we send a Christmas card, with an image of Mary’s protective and loving embrace of the Christ child, we will be reminded that Tamir Rice was also someone’s beloved child.

© Yolanda Pierce