I was on the phone with a multiracial group of faith leaders–Christians, Muslims, Jews, Unitarian Universalists–strategizing about what to do about the Black churches burning in the south.
While all of us were outraged at the fires, while each of us represented networks and institutions fiercely engaged in the work of dismantling racism and white supremacy, this call was prompted by the passion of my friend, Linda Sarsour. She is a Palestinian-American Muslim, a BlackLivesMatter activist, and a straight shooter who minces no words. She had written:
…the 7th Black church is on fire, this time in South Carolina (again). This church was burned down many years ago by the Klu Klux Klan, it is now burning again. Our kind words are nice, our sermons welcomed but it’s not enough. 7 churches in one week, 3 already confirmed arsons. We need to demand action, where’s the President? The rest of the administration, electeds, non-Black Christian leaders?? We must call on increased protection for these churches. Something. We can’t just say it’s horrible, and I am not about to sit back and allow history to repeat itself. Not on my watch. Love to all – We need a plan.
Linda once told me that when slain teen Mike Brown lay baking in the sun for four and a half hours, she knew in her soul that until Black lives matter, no one is free.
Linda is living the sermon I preach in some version every Sunday at Middle Collegiate Church in New York; the one my parents preached to me daily at our kitchen table.
I was 5 years old when I was first called a nigger by a little white girl in my kindergarten class. Lisa and her family had moved to New Hampshire from Mississippi. Though she hurt my heart, she could not break it because my parents would not allow it. They had grown up in Mississippi in crippling Jim Crow, and their children were not about to be crushed by racism, not on their watch. Though they could not by themselves dismantle racist systems, my parents knew first-hand about the power of collective work. My Dad was in Meridian, MS when Freedom Riders came. My mom sang in the church choir with activist Fannie Lou Hamer. Mommy’s Uncle George helped organize voter registration in the Mississippi Delta. My parents modeled a combination of strong faith and political activism as a way of life.
They preached with their words, “You are strong Black children of strong Black parents with strong faith in a God who created everyone equal. You are to love your neighbor as yourself; you are to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” They preached with their lives. Not only a celebration of our African American heritage but a celebration of diversity. They danced to Motown in our living room and played cards at our kitchen table with cool, hip people of every tribe; the same table at which they taught us African American history.
My parent’s core faith is mine. What I did not fully know as a child was the reflexive nature of the command to love neighbor and self. The Greek word “os” connects them. It is an equal sign. Love your neighbor equally as you love yourself. The writer of 1 John takes it a step further and tells us that we cannot love God whom we can’t see and hate our brothers and sisters whom we can.
I know some of you are thinking, “All lives matter.” It is true that every life is sacred. But Chinese young men are not being shot in the street. White churches are not being torched. A Black young man did not walk into a white church and murder people studying the Bible. Racism is at the root of systemic issues in our nation. Police brutality, the cradle to prison pipeline, incarceration rates, economic disparity, under-employment and poverty, housing patterns, wealth and education–these track with race in our nation.
We can’t deny the reality of racism. A recent Pew Research Study shows the median net worth for an average Black family (assets less debt) at $11,000 in 2013. For an average white family that number is $141,900–13 times more. A recent Pew Research Study also shows that Black men were more than six times as likely as white men in 2010 to be incarcerated in federal and state prisons, and local jails.
And, in a racist culture, all of us can have soul injury. As a psychologist I know that racism plagues the oppressor and the oppressed with guilt and shame, and erodes our humanity. We are all traumatized by it, which can lead to binary “us/them” thinking, which exacerbates the issue and sends us back to our siloes of fear and misunderstanding.
When Black lives matter enough for us to focus on dismantling racism, we can create the just society described by Martin Luther King, Jr. We will be judged not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character. The path to what is often called the Beloved Community is the radical love that Jesus and my parents preached. We don’t get there with just warm and fuzzy feelings, though. We need the fiery determination of my friend Linda, whose Muslim faith spurs her activism. No matter how we name our God, we can’t profess to love God and hate our neighbor. The proof of our love of God shows up in the way we love one another. That love requires action.
We need a plan, Linda says. A plan to stand up for those who are being targeted because their bodies are Black. We need a plan in which every person of faith does one thing every day to dismantle racism and the terror it wreaks on Black people, on brown people, on all of us.
If you are wondering what to do, here are three ideas:
1.) Read Toni Morrison’s Beloved with friends, the most diverse crew you can assemble. Listen deeply to the story for the scars and resilience of Black people and let it power your empathy.
2.) Sign and share this petition from Muhiyidin d’Bahaa, a young activist I met when I was in Charleston. Follow #BlackLivesMatter to stay in the conversation.
3.) Participate in a Week of Resistance Against Racism #ThisIsWORR #PropheticGrief July 12-19.Go to www.middlechurch.org to find out how.
4.) The next time you hear a racist comment, the next time you are exposed to a bigoted joke, resist it by calling it what it is.
These might get you started. Follow-me @RevJacquiLewis for more ideas. Linda and I need you in this movement because when Black Lives Matter, all lives will matter and we will all be free.