We know their names because of the events that took place in Staten Island, Ferguson and Cleveland. Tragedies. Lives of all involved will never be the same and that is most especially true for the families of those whose lives were cut too short.
Everyday we hear about death, accidents, tragedies, BUT our brothers and sisters in the African American communities around our nation are wondering what life is meant to be for them when seemingly unjust deaths occur and through their protests they have made us stop and listen to their pain and their questions.
“We absolutely feel disregarded as human beings,” said the 33-year-old singer Alicia Keys.There is much frustration and many people wondering if indeed Black Lives Matter. Which of course they do! In the light of all that is happening, one Episcopalian put it this way:
“Advent is a time of preparation. Part of this preparation is examining ourselves, our desires and our needs…In light of recent events in Ferguson and around the country…Have some of us fallen asleep to the realities of racism and poverty that many people face? Can we be better? Are we awake?” (Jeremiah Sierra)Indeed, are we awake to see in our world the systemic ways that racism still exists. In a classic study on race, psychologists staged an experiment with two photographs:
They showed people a photograph of two white men fighting, one unarmed and another holding a knife. Then they showed another photograph, this one of a white man with a knife fighting an unarmed African-American man."The overwhelming number of people will actually experience the black man as having the knife because we're more open to the notion of the black man having a knife than a white man," says author Howard Ross. "This is one of the most insidious things about bias. People may absorb these things without knowing them."
When they asked people to identify the man who was armed in the first picture, most people picked the correct one. Yet when they were asked the same question about the second photo, most people -- black and white -- incorrectly said the black man had the knife.
We all have biases. It is part of human nature. But we must be aware when those biases, often unconscious, negatively impact others. Far too often we think of racism solely in terms of the KKK and obvious racial intimidation & slurs and miss the many ways it infects all layers of our society, including the justice system. There is a systemic bias that infects our society today.
So why do I bring this up in Advent?
Our Gospel today tells us of “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: `Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'" John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
John the Baptist, isn’t just some historical figure but one who is standing in our midst today and looking at you and me and the whole of our society. He is standing on our street corners calling us in our time to prepare the way of the Lord. To repent of our sins.
Just as in the days of John the Baptist (and Jesus), there are people feeling disfranchised, feeling as if they do not have part in society, who feel threatened and discriminated against. John invites us to honor the outrage and help change the system, to repent of our sins, those biases that discriminate.
And above all listen. Really listen to what they are saying on our streets. If we are to make the way straight for Jesus, if we are to repent of the racism that is still alive today, we need to listen, to honor the outrage and then reach out in love to those who feel lost in our society, most especially African Americans, and begin to heal what has been broken.
As one person asked online, "Why are my black brothers and sisters in such agony and fury about these decisions? What does their reaction say about their experience of living in our country that I may not fully understand or experience or know?" (from a webpost)I have watched these events unfold as a citizen, as a Priest and as a father of 5 African-American children. Tamir was the same age as Rowan. Michael was the same age as Jared. I fear for my kids. My kids have had racial slurs used against them, I have had things said to me about my children that I know was not said to the white kids. I have tasted that racism against my kids & it is bitter. I want little Norah not to taste such bias, such sin (racism) in her life; I want her days and all my kids to be like the dream of MLK Jr. “I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” We are not there yet my brothers and sisters.
The Rev. Tony Lee, founder and senior pastor of the Community of Hope African Methodist Episcopal Church in Hillcrest Heights, Maryland has been working to help bridge the divides in his community between police and all the citizens there. But he hasn’t done it alone. The Prince George's County Police Chief Mark Magaw has also been working to change the system.We are all in this together. We have work to do. We must listen, honor, and reach out. This Advent we all have work to do to prepare the way of the Lord. To make sure that Black Lives Matter. To dismantle the bias and racism that still exists. And to remember that all our lives are intertwined.
Chief Magaw has attended Hope AME on occasion. After the verdict in Ferguson, he was invited to address the congregation. He said, "We are you, we live here, I've raised my kids here, this entire police department, is a part of you and that's where our strength comes from."
Rev. Lee's church has worked with the police department on prevention and rehabilitation programs, particularly with gang-affiliated youth. The partnership is a testament to the "transformation" Prince George County experienced as part of the departmental overhaul, Rev. Lee said, and should provide a reference for Ferguson and other communities around the country.
To emphasize the partnership between the community and the police department, Rev. Lee invited Chief Magaw and the other officers to pray with him at the altar. He then invited all those who had been incarcerated as well as those who had loved one currently incarcerated to come to the altar. Out of roughly 900 people in one service, Lee said, roughly 40% came forward. (from Huffington Post)
Let us not forget that with each death, we are indeed diminished. In the words of the priest and poet John Donne from 1624 but just as relevant today:
No man is an Iland, intire of itselfe; every manWe are involved in humankind. Let’s stop the bell from tolling. Amen.
is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine;
if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe
is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as
well as if a Manor of thy friends or of thine
owne were; any mans death diminishes me,
because I am involved in Mankinde;
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.
Devotions upon Emergent Occasions