faith

“I thirst.” The fifth word in the Seven Last Words Good Friday Service at Allen Temple Baptist Church

preached by Sandhya Jha on April 14, 2017:

 

Last summer, I spent a week in Flint, Michigan.

On Sunday, a local pastor invited me to preach.

I don’t know why, with all they are dealing with in Flint, Michigan, that God told me to talk to them about refugees. But that’s who God told me to talk about.

I stood there in a church full of people who had been living six months with the knowledge that their government had put lead into their drinking water and then done virtually nothing about that fact when it came to light, and I talked to them about a man named Willie whom I had just met.

Willie has lived in northern CA for 20 years. A few years ago his sister’s husband was kidnapped in El Salvador; they called him and demanded $5,000 in four days for his release. Willie, who earns very little, could only come up with $500. They killed his brother-in-law. And then Willie’s nephew. Terrified that 3-year-old Stephanie might be next, 13 members of the family escaped, traveling on tops of trains and buses. At the US border they were detained and held in refrigerator containers for 13 days without blankets, where sleeping on the floor would have caused frostbite. Willie found out they were here and gathered money for 13 greyhound tickets so all 14 of them could live in his tiny apartment. Thanks to a faith organization, they have been granted asylum status.

I also told the people at Woodside church in Flint, Michigan about One of the organizations at the Oakland Peace Center, called the Mustard Seed Project. It provides legal assistance to youth seeking refugee status in this country because if they are sent home and refuse to join the gangs and drug cartels there, they will be murdered…or worse. The attorney who runs the Mustard Seed Project came into my office straight from the courtroom one day and said, “Babies. I am literally defending babies in the courtroom. Babies who cannot even speak their own names yet are supposed to defend themselves in our court system.” She had been in court with a toddler that morning, a toddler that the US government needed to defend himself in a court of law to make the case that if he was sent back to Honduras he would be killed.

I told them that the longer I worked at the Oakland Peace Center, the more my understanding of prayer merged with what I had heard Pope Francis say not long ago: You pray for the poor, and then you feed them; that is how prayer works.

I talked about our nation’s need to repent deeply for our policies in central and south America as well as our policies in the Caribbean and throughout Africa, and that part of our prayer of repentance was to act as God would have us act to our refugee brothers and sisters who are fleeing nations whose violence we created for the profit of a handful of people who today profit far more from war than from peace.

And after we had said our amens and given our offerings and sang songs of praise, we went to the fellowship hall. And the adults talked to me about more faithful immigration policies that we could work on together, and the little children played at our feet. And we had cookies arranged carefully on trays by the church mothers, and we drank coffee and lemonade…made from bottled water.

But everything about worship and fellowship time afterwards felt so normal that it was Wednesday before I realized, every person I was talking to, every little child playing at my feet after worship, had likely absorbed so much lead into their systems that they would suffer permanent harm, from irregular brain development to memory loss to uncontrollable tremors that would emerge over time, rendering them ineligible for the work that was already so scarce in that community that had nurtured them and destroyed them in equal measures. All because their government decided to take away their clean water and replace it with dirty water and then decided not to treat it, so that the pipes corroded.

I do not know thirst like my savior knew on the cross that day. I have always had access to water to drink.

I do not know thirst like my savior knew on the cross that day. But Willie’s family did, when they were held in refrigerator containers for 13 days by our government, including that three year old girl, Stephanie. Stephanie knew what it was to thirst and suffer at the hands of a government that did not consider her human but considered her a threat. Just like Jesus her savior knew what it was to thirst and suffer at the hands of a government that did not consider him human but considered him a threat.

Our brothers and sisters in Flint did not know what it was to be thirsty. They had access to jobs, and then they didn’t. They had access to opportunity, and then they didn’t. They had access to a safe and vibrant and thriving community, and then they didn’t. Some of them knew hunger. Many of them knew humiliation. Some of them knew redlining…intimately.

But they always had water.

For three years they did not know that the water they had was poisoning them.

They did not know at first where the rashes came from as they showered. They did not know why their memory was getting worse. They did not know why they experienced tremors that stopped them from being able to work.

They sought water and were given hyssop.

 

It boggles my mind that in his last moments, suffering so, Jesus was still teaching us. The scripture says that he said “I am thirsty” in order to fulfil scripture. The scripture was Psalm 69, in which the psalmist famously states, “They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.”

 

But that psalm was not only about being thirsty. It was about being overwhelmed and hated.

1Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.

2I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.

3I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God.

4More in number than the hairs of my head are those who hate me without cause; many are those who would destroy me, my enemies who accuse me falsely. What I did not steal must I now restore?

Willie’s family had enemies. They had to flee people who extort money from the poor. Their government would not help them. They came to a country that treats foreigners as less than human.

The people of Flint had enemies. Their own government poisoned them slowly for the sake of a few dollars and did as little as possible for them. Many of Flint’s residents were both poor and Black. Their government had treated them as enemies since before they were born.

And Jesus, on the cross, with one phrase passing his cracked, dry lips, “I am thirsty,” spoke a word of solidarity with Willie’s family and the families in Flint, and a word of solidarity for us in a city where police pass around young girls instead of participating in their liberation, where city officials spend more time talking about potholes than about the growing number of homeless people and the diminishing number of Black people.

When Jesus tells the crowd, “I am thirsty,” he hearkens back to the ancestors who had borne so much suffering that they wanted to give up. He let them know that he understood that feeling, that he felt it too. That our Lord and Savior does not condemn our fatigue but feels it with us might be scary to some, but to me it is immensely comforting, as my own South Asian community along with our Arab American brothers and sisters fear attacks in the streets because of our government’s barely veiled threats on Muslim lives in a nation that cannot tell Christian from Muslim from Sikh from Hindu when all they see is Brown. I do not know how to reconcile myself to living in a country where at any point someone could beat up by Indian father or kill him because they hate brown people and pretend it is about religion. Sometimes I am overwhelmed by how many enemies we have. And I know Jesus knows that feeling.

With that simple phrase, “I am thirsty,” Jesus hearkens to the plea of the Psalmist:

Do not hide your face from your servant, for I am in distress—make haste to answer me.

18Draw near to me, redeem me, set me free because of my enemies.

19You know the insults I receive, and my shame and dishonor; my foes are all known to you.

20Insults have broken my heart, so that I am in despair. I looked for pity, but there was none; and for comforters, but I found none.

21They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.

In that barely whispered phrase, “I am thirsty,” Jesus stands with Willie’s family who knew literal thirst but also knew what it meant to thirst for basic human dignity, to thirst for freedom from fear, to thirst for a place where children can grow up. In that plea, “I am thirsty,” Jesus stands with the people of Flint who did not even know they were thirsting for clean water and also for a time when their best and brightest did not have to dedicate all of their energy to campaigns of resistance and fights for basic rights.

When all he can utter, hanging from the cross and suffering, is “I am thirsty,” Jesus stands with the indigenous peoples, the Water Protectors in North Dakota who proclaim “Mni wiconi,” “Water is life” even when their homes are taken from them and their people are arrested for protecting the water for all of us. Jesus, like the psalmist he quotes, thirsts for a time when the world will be made right.

He thirsts for a time when this country is liberated from its founding sins of conquest of land, attempted genocide of indigenous people and the dehumanizing and destructive enslavement of Black people for profit, sins that have not disappeared but have evolved and adapted as only evil can.

Jesus feels the despair creeping in, the seemingly unwinnable fight and lets us know that our despair is reasonable, that our enemies are real.

But he also quotes the psalm because he knows that despair is not the end of the story.

30I will praise the name of God with a song; I will magnify him with thanksgiving.

32Let the oppressed see it and be glad; you who seek God, let your hearts revive.

33For the Lord hears the needy, and does not despise his own that are in bonds.

35For God will save Zion and rebuild the cities of Judah; and his servants shall live there and possess it;

36the children of his servants shall inherit it, and those who love his name shall live in it.

My brothers and sisters, Jesus still thirsts for the prisoners to be freed, for strangers to be welcomed because we were all strangers in Egypt once. Jesus still thirsts for a world where love is love and Black lives matter. Jesus still thirsts for a world where our governments partner with us in building a Beloved Community here on earth, where there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free.

Do you thirst with Jesus?

Do you seek to rid the world of hyssop and replace it with pure, thirst quenching water?

Do you want to build a Beloved Community where all of God’s children are welcome and equal and thriving?

Then in the name of our thirsting Lord and Savior, let us be about God’s work until all of God’s children’s thirst is quenched.

Shut the f*** up

NOTE: I was asked to submit a piece to a powerful advent devotional called #F***ThisS*** and was assigned this title and passage from Matthew. The clergy who launched it feel a sense of urgency in this moment that I also feel, and they have incorporated strong language to convey that urgency much as the prophets in the Hebrew Bible did in the parlance of their own time. The situation in which we find ourselves, with Black and Brown and poor people’s lives and labor treated as disposable or exploitable or turned into commodities to be bought and sold, is far more dire than the language in this piece. That said, for a PG version of this online devotional, seek the hashtag #RendTheHeavens instead. With deep gratitude to the Rev. Tuhina Rasche for inviting me to be part of this.

“SHUT THE F*** UP.”

And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. –Matthew 24:31, NRSV

At Thanksgiving, the Sherwood Forest ring tone kept sounding, as if the horns were calling us to a fox hunt.

It was one person’s text message ringtone, another’s voicemail ringtone, and a third person’s work phone ring tone.

I sat across from a man who voted for Trump because he was tired of corruption, and who wanted to be protected from people who look like my father.

I heard those quiet, awkward comments knowing that a good family friend, a well-educated Hindu woman, voted for Trump for the same reasons, seemingly not concerned that the people threatening the lives of Muslims can’t tell the difference between Sikh, Hindu, Muslim or Christian; they just see Brown.

It seemed like a good reason to sound the alarm.

Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; (1 Kings 9:11-12a, NRSV)

There is so much noise right now.

There is noise about the theater and illegal votes and illegal people and terrorist skittles and protecting people through stop and frisk. Noise about Dick Cheney, Darth Vader and Satan as role models for power. Noise about “economic nationalism” as opposed to “white nationalism.”

Noise that drowns out the murder of William Sims by white supremacists. Noise that drowns out the death threats sent cowardly and anonymously to mosques across the country. Noise that drowns out the barricades being built by police to stop emergency vehicles from entering Sioux territory.

and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. (1 Kings 9:12b-13a)

We need to shut the fuck up.

The trumpets are sounding and we don’t hear them.

God is calling us with trumpets, bugles, and fox hunting horns.

God is calling us with prayerful people standing on sacred ground.

God is calling us through a boycott of injustice.

God is calling us with faithful Muslims inviting into conversation the same people who threaten them and people committing to protect the mosque from attack.

God is calling us with White Supremacists waking up to the harm they are causing and repudiating that harm.

But we can’t hear it or respond to it unless we stop listening to the wind and the earthquake and the fire, the tale told by an idiot signifying nothing.

We can’t hear it as long as we generate more noise.

We may be the elect from the four winds, or we may not. But we have a role to play in these coming days as God ushers in the birth of a baby born under the eyes of a brutal ruler controlled by a foreign empire. And we need to shut out the din around us and shut down the din inside us to hear the trumpets call.

For the sake of God, we need to shut the fuck up.

¡Ya basta! Fasting to end Rape on the Night Shift

I’m in my second day of a five day fast with night janitors for a cause most people don’t even realize is a cause: many immigrant women cleaning buildings across our country live in fear of sexual assault by predatory managers who know they are working alone and need to keep their jobs. It’s stuff so sinister you can picture one of those cartoon villains twisting his moustache as he plans the act. But it is real. It is happening to people who clean buildings we or our family members work in. And finally, despite all the risks, some women stepped forward to speak the truth about their experiences and change things for their sisters.

img_5662I first learned about this hidden crisis during a screening of the Frontline film Rape on the Night Shift a couple of weeks ago at the state building in Oakland. You can watch the whole thing online and I dare you not to cry. What moved me even more than the film, though, was listening to the stories of women who had to find the courage to risk their jobs and means of supporting their families to do what was right for themselves and for other women at risk. What struck me in particular that day was a young woman whose mother is part of the campaign. She said something along the lines of “there are certain things you never expect to talk about with your mother: sex, rape, violence at work.” She then expressed how proud she was of her mother and how proud she was to stand with her. I was deeply moved.

Last week, one of the organizers of the film told me that the workers would be fasting Monday through Friday of this week, demanding that Governor Brown follow his moral compass and sign AB 1978 into law. According to the United Service Workers West,

Female janitors face unique risk of sexual harassment and assault as their jobs often require working alone at night in empty buildings, an epidemic PBS Frontline profiled in “Rape on the Night Shift,” and in a report from UC Berkeley earlier this year: “Perfect Storm: How Supervisors Get Away with Sexually Harassing Workers Who Work Alone at Night.”

AB 1978, the Property Services Worker Protection Act would enhance the Department of Industrial Relations’ authority to prevent assault by requiring employer training and prevention plans, establishing a hotline for victims, and toughening enforcement for employers who leave workers at risk.

As janitor and activist Maria Gonzalez said,

“I was sexually assaulted at work, twice. The employer transferred the supervisor and me to the same building. With nowhere to go, I felt trapped. As survivors, we have stepped out of the shadows to fight back against rape and exploitation, because we know the bosses count on our silence to keep us vulnerable. Ya Basta! We built a movement that can’t be stopped because more and more women are coming forward to support each other and create a safe workplace. Now Governor Brown must do his part and sign AB 1978, because no woman should ever be afraid to go to work.”

I heard stories like this from the women who were fasting when I met them yesterday. One woman was assaulted, took self-defense lessons, fought off her boss with a letter opener when he attacked her again, and was fired for her efforts. Other women were assaulted, forced to do things against their will, and raped. And they said they were glad to be doing this, that they had released their fear, that they were proud to be doing this for the women who follow them into these workplaces. They were excited to be fasting.

There is something about workers fasting that hits me at my core as a person of faith as well as an activist. At a rally yesterday, a labor organizer announced that the workers would be staging a hunger strike.

img_2127But I met the workers. They were fasting. It’s a different thing, which is why I was moved to join them in their fast as soon as I heard they were planning it.

Fasting has strong, ancient roots. Fasting is a critical part of the Christian faith (and Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and Jewish among others) for spiritual as well as sometimes justice reasons. But even when justice is part of it, fasting involves connecting to something bigger than oneself (and in this case praying for divine intervention to evoke right action by our state’s elected leader).

Fasting can be about community, even when it is a solitary practice. Several of the women fasting this week are Catholic, like Governor Brown. I saw some of them holding rosaries as they received a blessing from Rabbi Rothbaum yesterday. I saw some of them reading Catholic devotionals in Spanish. And I heard one of them say “Having religious leaders visit us and pray with us reminds me that we are not just activists. We are tools being used by God to make the world better.” The ten women fasting will be community for each other, and I hope that img_2144knowing I am fasting with them will remind them that there is a larger community supporting them. But most importantly, I hope that their spiritual act will remind their and my governor that our shared ties of faith call us to treat God’s children with deep compassion and dignity, and that our shared faith does not allow evil to continue undisrupted.

When the workers shout “¡Ya basta!” it is a prayer. It is the prayer of our God who will not tolerate sexual violence. And it is God’s own prayer put into action by faithful women, as has happened for millenia: faithful women have put hands and feet to God’s prayers.

I believe the saint Teresa of Avila is saying to the women fasting at the Capitol today, “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

And the workers I met, who have survived sexual violence in the workplace, are serving as Christ’s hands and feet, answering God’s “¡Ya basta!” prayer as loudly as God would wish.

If you live in California, please contact Governor Brown and ask him to sign AB 1978 today to end rape on the night shift: (916) 445-2841.

On choices and Orlando

When I was in eighth grade, I saw a bumper sticker on a car (in Akron, Ohio) that said, “Honk if you support civil rights, religious liberty, gay rights, disability rights, women’s equality…” I turned to my mother and said, “I would honk for the rest of them, but gay rights?” My mother is really smart and so said nothing, knowing I would have to do the math in my head about who deserved rights and who didn’t. Because she had raised me to know that everyone deserves rights and deserves self-determination.

Some folks still talk about homosexuality being a choice. You know what I got to choose every day of my cis-gender heterosexual life? I got to choose whether to acknowledge the basic human dignity of the LGBTQ community as a whole. I got to choose whether to stand with LGBTQ individuals or whether to be silent and therefore participate in violence done to LGBTQ people and the LGBTQ community. Because when I throw the LGBTQ community under the bus (through my words OR through my silence), I’m also doing harm to every individual within the community.

That’s what choice looks like.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe this tragedy is about access to horrifically dangerous weapons. I believe it is about “toxic masculinity.” While I think it has very little to do with Islam or even ISIS, I believe it is about the values cultivated in relationship to craving a role in militarized organizations. Since the instance of gun violence closest to me is connected to two people’s struggle over their sexual identities in relationship to one another, I have no problem believing this might be about the murderer’s internalized hatred unleashing itself on others0cb090198565d4b5fa9c50f5fcfaf2be. And it is about lack of exposure to consistent teaching that God loves all of God’s children and that God never wants to see unmitigated, unrestrained violence against God’s children. For millenia we have failed to teach consistently and strongly that above all things God abhors violence.

But the massacre at Pulse is also about over 100 anti-gay bills in 22 states this year, creating a growing culture of acceptance of contempt for LGBTQ life. And it’s about pastors and politicians preaching hate that creates a culture of bullying and suicide. (More here and here .) And it’s about the ways race and gender identity have been pitted against each other as if there’s only enough tolerance for one, and we might have to choose us versus them…and if you’re both a racial/religious minority and LGBTQ, then there is no room for you. Millions of people helped set the stage for this tragedy. And that’s where my choices matter.

I’m not Orlando. And in all the ways I haven’t fought to reject efforts to legislate against the basic human dignity of LGBTQ people in the past year and for decades, in all the ways I’ve not fought hard enough for LGBTQ incusion in the church, in all the ways I’ve not created space for people to know that they are not bad people for struggling with their sexual or gender identity, I’m the people who let Orlando happen.

A litany on resurrection and Demouria Hogg

At the Wild Goose Festival in Charlotte, NC two weeks ago, I presented a workshop called “Who Killed Demouria Hogg: On race, faith and not seeking the ‘perfect victim.'” I talked about the respectability politics of the church that stops the church from publicly mourning losses that are complicated.

I only know Demouria Hogg through what family shared during the press conference and through news coverage. Colleagues involved in the protests of his death noted that in articles about his death, the fact that he was a good father to his three children came as an afterthought, almost as if it were surprising, since they led with his having violated parole and being found in possession of a firearm, an additional violation of his parole. What strikes me is how during the press conference when Demouria jr’s mother was speaking about him being a good father, Demouria, Jr jumped in and said, “He loved to play basketball.”

photo borrowed from the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization

photo borrowed from the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization

During the discussion part of the workshop, a man said, “I go to a progressive UCC church. We know how to talk about this. Our consciousness is raised. What do we DO as a church?” And a litany poured out of me.

I shared some of that litany at the Disciples of Christ General Assembly on Sunday afternoon during a workshop on my book and the issue of intersectionality, and someone said, “I want to use that litany in church. Can you share it with us?” And I said that it poured out of me due to the spirit, not from a script. He kept looking at me until I said, “but clearly I’ll be writing a blog post recreating it.” So here it is. Please add other suggestions to this litany. I have not addressed them all, but all of them are things almost any church can do.

Demouria Hogg, African American father of 3, age 30, was killed by Oakland police on Saturday morning, June 6, because he could not be woken up while asleep in his car. The church sometimes feels overwhelmed by how to end police brutality. But the church has a role, and the church has a responsibility, and the church has the opportunity to participate in resurrection.

When the church helps its school board provide support for young Black and Brown children instead of expelling them at rates much higher than White children for the same behaviors, when the church disrupts the school-to-prison pipeline,

the church resurrects Demouria Hogg.

When the church works with its police department to address implicit bias on the police force,

the church resurrects Demouria Hogg.

When the church supports mental health services and homeless services instead of outsourcing those issues to the police,

the church resurrects Demouria Hogg.

When the church works with new White community members to build relationships with longtime community members of color rather than calling the police out of fear of their neighbors,

the church resurrects Demouria Hogg.

When the church creates job opportunities and housing for returned citizens / previously incarcerated people whose opportunities are almost nonexistent,

the church resurrects Demouria Hogg.

When the church brings restorative and transformative justice practices into the community so there are alternatives to the culture of retribution that is bound up invisibly but inextricably in racism,

the church resurrects Demouria Hogg. 

When the church unapologetically claims that all lives will matter WHEN Black lives matter,

the church resurrects Demouria Hogg.

When the church, in all of these ways, plays a role in honoring the dignity of Black lives before they are faced with Black deaths,

the church resurrects Demouria Hogg, and in so doing, resurrects the body of Christ.

Amen.

Nonviolence, privilege and grief. Thoughts on South Carolina and a child I love.

Art by Demar Douglas, found on pinterest

Art by Demar Douglas, found on pinterest

This morning I sat down to write a letter to a beloved recent teen in my life, a newly minted thirteen-year-old. We go to protests a lot, and museums where we learn about farm workers and the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement.

This beloved recent teen has been to hell and back, and the amount of resilience that is demanded of her is, to my mind, stupid. By which I really mean unjust. By which I mean I wish I could protect her and it makes me furious that I can’t. And by furious, I mean helpless.

I debated whether to mention the shooting in South Carolina. I debated it because she may not be watching the news these days and I don’t know that it is helpful for her to know about more suffering in the world. Mostly because I don’t want her to have more to be sad about or to be scared of or to hate the world for.

I’ve been reminded recently that it is hard to talk about any issue in a way that speaks to everyone’s lived experience, and when talking about anything related to race, it is that much harder, because we do have the same amount of skin in the game, but the way the game goes does not affect us the same way. (That is, even White people who HATE racism benefit from it, and Black people don’t, and the rest of us have a very complex terrain to navigate.) A great illustration of how privilege and oppression shape our responses to racial issues is that popular Facebook meme about police brutality and Black Lives Matter that reads “Black people are saying ‘STOP KILLING US!’ and White people’s response is ‘But…'”
blackpeople
More recently, though, (more…)

A call to action for the church(es) after #AMEshooting

Generated by  IJG JPEG Library

Generated by IJG JPEG Library

I sat with a lump in my throat as the people around me stood and waved their hands, singing “How Great Is Our God,” because while I believed it to be true, I was not ready to sing it and was both inspired and puzzled by the dozens around me who could not just sing it but feel it. It wasn’t the only internally conflicted moment I had during the local vigil honoring the nine victims killed in an act of terrorism against Black people. And a few of them got me thinking and discussing enough to step out on a limb and speak to White, Black, and immigrant churches about what might be next for us in the wake of this tragedy.

If you read my writing regularly, you’ll know that I try not to instruct communities more on the margins than I, and I try to be compassionate in my suggestions to the White community. You’ll also know my focus is on bringing communities together rather than separating them. But our roles in the coming days of this work to dismantle racism as a whole and specifically the culture and codification of anti-Blackness will mean different things for different communities. So I ask for both grace and accountability as you respond to these reflections and the closest I might ever get to a manifesto:

To White Churches:

When the Black church says, “It could have been any of us,” that doesn’t include you. And it’s important for you to talk about that. At the vigil last night, the AME pastor hosting the vigil said, “so many of us host those prayer groups and bible studies; it could have been any of us.” So often, White people are ashamed to acknowledge explicitly what White privilege looks like. Here’s an easy one: Talk about the fact that you do not have to live in fear of racially motivated hate crimes by random strangers participating in anti-White organizations or fear that you or your children could be assaulted by those who have sworn to serve and protect you, all for the crime of going swimming, whether you live in Texas or Ohio or anywhere between or beyond. White supremacy protects you. You need to break the silence that keeps white supremacy in place. (And don’t even get me started on the argument that this was an attack on Christianity. Manipulative and dangerous irrationale like that is exactly why the Southern Poverty Law Center recently designated Fox News a hate group.)

Remember that your brothers and sisters died in that church this past Wednesday, and ask your congregation how they will honor the deaths of the six sisters and three brothers going forward. These were your brothers and sisters who were part of a church doing work that your church needs to partner in. They were doing God’s work in your behalf: the work of liberating the captive and freeing the prisoner, not just metaphorically but literally. What is your church’s role in partnering in that work so that they do not have to be alone in good doing? In Christ they are as close to you as blood kin; that is what our faith teaches. How will you respond to the race-based killing of your blood kin, and how will you respond to the culture that shaped the murderer to hate and called his hate part of his culture and knew he plotted violence but did not seek to change his heart? Because as Martin Luther King, Jr said of Jimmie Lee Jackson’s murder 50 years ago, the culture of White supremacy killed our nine siblings just as much as the bullets did.

Do not fall prey to the manipulative rhetoric that the church should not be political at a moment like this. The White church is political when it ignores racially motivated hate crimes, when it ignores disparate sentencing for drug offenses, when it ignores mass incarceration, when it turns its head from police brutality in America. The church participates in the politics of White supremacy. It undergirds the politics of anti-Blackness. The political sin of omission is as destructive to lives and souls as the political sin of commission.

To Black Churches:

Editorial addition: A beloved Black clergy friend asked me to make explicit for non-Black people this caveat in case we are not clear that this was my intent: Black people in America walk around everywhere with a target on their back. This was true during slavery, during Jim Crow, and it is true today. Therefore, these are points for reflection with an awareness that the mere act of survival and coming together once or twice a week to love and support each other may be exactly and only what a Black church needs to do to contribute to the movement. With that caveat…

When you say, “It could have been any of us,” pay attention to how that is both true and untrue. Mother Emmanuel AME Church holds a special place of honor in the Black church because of its revolutionary heritage, its commitment to honoring the dignity of Black lives as part of how it lived the gospel. From among many Black churches, on the anniversary of Denmark Vessey’s revolt, a young White supremacist targeted that particular church for attack. None of us should have to live in fear of such an assualt, and there is unquestionably an assault on Black lives in America. But the people at the greatest risk are the people putting their lives on the line for the movement. Last night at the vigil, I did not see the same Black leaders (for the most part) that I have seen in the streets risking arrest and battery and abuse as they fight against police brutality and the stripping away of their civil rights (in Oakland, there is a curfew on gatherings after sundown, but while it was enforced fiercely against nonviolent Black protests, it was not enforced during the impromptu celebration of the Warriors NBA championship win). When the people in the streets and in the strategy meetings are not the same people in the pews, God may have found some new folks to work through, and that is worth paying attention to.

When people say “The Black Church is the only thing that can save America,” no matter how validating it feels, wrestle with how true it is. A Black clergy colleague shared with me as we talked about respectability politics in the church that in Bible study the other day, some of his members started getting high and mighty about gays and lesbians going to hell, and he just sat back, thinking of our mutual shero Alicia Garza and her faithful, powerful, unapologetically queer Black leadership, and he said, “As long as y’all are comfortable being the Pharisees in the scripture, because Jesus was hanging out with exactly the kind of folk you’re always complaining about.” (With profound apologies to any Jewish readers — the church has turned the pharisaical movement into something different than its actual historic role.) Respectability politics has a huge cost to the prophetic legacy of the Black church. And it has a huge cost to the role the Black church will play in saving America. The irony is that the people fighting for change look like the people Jesus hung out with, but they don’t always look like the people the church wants leading at or on behalf of the church.

Honor the legacy of Emmanuel AME in your actions, not just in your words and prayers. That historic church played a role in ending slavery. Rev. Pinckney played a role in standing up against modern day segregation and slavery by serving in political office. That church rose from the ashes when White supremacy burned it to the ground, but it did something that truly threatened White supremacy in order to go through that cycle in the first place. LGBTQ and allied Christians joke, “Live your life so that Westboro Baptist Church will picket your funeral.” In extreme language, at a time when Black lives are threatened daily, would you rather be remembered as martyrs for God’s justice or as victim’s of this nation’s injustice? At the very least, though, how can your church, honoring the legacy of Emmanuel AME, be a threat to White Supremacy?

To Immigrant Churches:

DO NOT OPT OUT. This conversation on its face is so not about us. No one is talking about our role in the shootings or in the conversation about gun control or race. And that is so often the case: we avoid the controversial issues in public, because church is a safe place for us in a world that can be threatening. But church was a safe place for the nine people who were killed on Wednesday, until it wasn’t. Even if we are not being invited into the conversation, even if we would rather not navigate our way through the complicated issues of race where our own role is not always clear, we have an obligation. We have an obligation to understand and share with the rest of our church how Black people in America are treated. It may actually help our churches understand why we get treated the way we do. We have an obligation to honor our Black brothers and sisters in worship on Sunday and to call them brothers and sisters, even though we have also been shaped by the anti-Black culture of America even as we are marginalized also. In fact, honoring them is an important step in shifting our churches’ silence on violence towards Black people, so that we can move towards Christ’s vision of how all of us are equally wonderfully made in the image of God. And it might help us remember that we are wonderfully made in the image of God, also, even though America undermines that teaching. We have an obligation to tell the story of Emmanuel AME, so that we might find strength from their history of courage and faithful resistance to evil and injustice; perhaps we can learn from them how to stand up ourselves against injustice in our adopted land. And we have an obligation to reach out to the Black churches we are connected to, to let them know that we are praying for them and grieving with them, and that as Christians, we are also angry at the sin of racism that took our siblings’ lives. You have no idea how infrequently Black churches hear that message from Asian and Latino churches.

To multicultural churches:

Do not buy into the myth that worshipping together is your contribution to the movement for racial justice. Many multicultural churches are still shaped by dominant culture systems and structures, and multicultural worship often comes at a cost to the people of color who worship there — the cost of getting to be in a space where they can just be themselves without translating themselves into another culture (code switching), or the cost of worshipping in their own language or colloquialisms or their own family foods after worship. They do so willingly. But a multicultural church that is not both brokenhearted and determined to stand up against the culture of racism in America after this shooting, it’s a multicultural church that is not really in touch with God’s vision of the Beloved Community; it is only interested in creating something that makes people feel good…well, makes some people feel good at the expense of others.

To all churches:

Find ways to become “co-conspirators” (as the Dean of American Baptist Seminary of the West said to us last night at the vigil) in ending White supremacy and birminghamthe assault on and commodification of Black lives and Black bodies.

If St. Teresa of Avila is right and Christ has no hands on earth but ours, Christ needs our hands right now, all of our hands, to tear down the White supremacy that really has made us many churches instead of functionally one church. And Christ needs our hands to build up a Beloved Community where all of our gifts are honored, all of our needs are met, none of our bodies are exploited, violated or commodified, and none of us need live in terror or fear because of how God made us.