Last weekend, people started reaching out to me because they were afraid, and they didn’t want to stay that way. They didn’t want to rage or burn things down; they wanted to find a way to contribute to their community, to help others overcome fear.
So with the help of a PHENOMENALLY gifted intern, the Oakland Peace Center created a resource fair. The goal was simple: to help people feeling a sense of urgency discover that they have a power to make a POSITIVE contribution in their community, that they need not dwell in anxiety and fear but can overcome it by coming together.
The reason I’m writing this is that within four days, we had thirty organizations agree to table and four hundred people attend (in the rain!!!). Check it out!
What this tells me is that people are hungry for positivity, and that people are hungry right now for a sense that they are not alone.
Now, the Oakland Peace Center is made up of forty organizations who are working to create equity as the means of creating peace, so we had a good baseline. But our partners are mostly small, scrappy organizations working to help people at a local level. We wanted folks to connect with them, but we also wanted to provide resources for people looking to get engaged in work we didn’t have covered: advocacy with Muslims, health care access, learning how to intervene when someone is being assaulted (verbally or otherwise), women’s rights, environmental justice. So we needed to reach new organizations as well as new people.
Here’s how we did it:
We listened and we checked in: On the Friday and Saturday after the election I got several messages from people saying “what do I do to engage in protecting people’s healthcare?” or “a lot of people are asking me what they can do to protect immigrants’ (or refugees’ or LGBTQ people’s or Muslims’) rights. Where do I point them?” Then a facebook friend shared an event happening in LA that weekend and asked if anything like that was happening in Oakland. I said no, but it might help me field the questions I was getting. I was at an OPC partners’ retreat so asked them what they thought, then spent another day or so asking organizations what they thought. We began to sense that people were hungry for the opportunity to do something pro-active. Youth were walking out of school; people who had never marched were marching; whole congregations were wearing safety pins so they could express their solidarity with people for whom they feared. We had a sense that this could be meaningful and helpful to the community. In our community, we felt a need to capture the energy of the present moment, so we moved quickly (four days!!!! whew!), but we might do another one in January or February. Another listening we did was during the event: we thought our next event would be more about training people, but what we heard was people wanted another of these resource fairs so that their friends could come and so other organizations could be in the room. So we’re shifting focus from what we thought was best to what the community has told us would be best.
Our message was positive: In both our email blast, our flyers and our facebook messaging, we didn’t focus on hostility or negativity or anxiety. Truthfully, many of us feel those things, and they are valid feelings. But we believe at the Oakland Peace Center that what we are building is even more important than what we are tearing down, even though there are things that need to be torn down in order to build. Our facebook message read “If you feel a drive to do something about the environment, immigrants’ rights, healthcare, Black Lives Matter, indigenous rights, reducing bullying, increasing a culture of peace and inclusion, or any other issues to make this community better, please come to this gathering and learn about the ways you can participate! Whether you are a long time activist or have never attended a rally in your life, your contributions matter!” My sense is that right now, people are feeling negative, powerless and isolated. So our message was positive, reminded people of their power, and reminded them that they were not alone. And the event reinforced those themes.
We Honored Multiple Ways of Creating Positive Change: The other beautiful thing that emerged out of who the Oakland Peace Center is (and which I believe churches and faith communities can create for the same reasons) was that we had multiple dimensions to how people could be engaged. “Get In Where You Fit In” was a slogan our intern Virginia used, and it was true: we had organizations working on policy issues national and local, we had organizations engaged in community service work (who were not afraid of the organizations doing policy work), and we had organizations connecting people to inner peace so that they can take care of themselves in order to take care of others. The OPC is committed to creating peace-filled communities, and we need different policies, and we need people engaged in service and solidarity with each other, and we need people who are able to heal from trauma and find peace within themselves. All of those resources were available, and some of them even got taught right there during the event, like intervention during assault and the basic skills of HeartMath and anti-bullying techniques.
We made sure that as many of the communities potentially impacted by upcoming policy changes were in the room as possible: we reached out to Muslim organizations, disability rights organizations, environmental groups, women’s groups, LGBTQ+ organizations, organizations supporting the Movement for Black Lives, immigration organizations, and so on. There are usually organizations doing both advocacy and social service around these communities in every state in the nation as well as in most major cities.
We created an air of celebration: People who came wanted to experience hope. And part of how hope gets crushed is by replacing joy with fear. So we created a festival atmosphere: popcorn and fun, high energy music, and a kids’ table with children’s books representing both themes of inclusion and justice (which we promoted in advance so people knew it was a family-friendly event). Joy is an underutilized tool of creating justice! We even had a woman who creates justice-oriented children’s coloring resources volunteered at the kids’ table! (Here are some of the pages we provided the children.)
We didn’t create anything new: With any issue we are concerned about, there are folks doing really good work who are underresourced. This is a moment to connect, not necessarily re-invent the wheel.
We created spaces for people to cast vision, share their commitments and offer words of hope. We had poster board where people wrote what they were committing themselves to and what their hopes were. We didn’t create a physical space for grief, although one restorative justice partner gathered people who wanted to really let their feelings out and feel heard, and that was beautiful. One of the organizations, Faith Alliance for a Moral Economy, invited people to cast a vision for a moral economy when people visited their table:
We learned some really inspiring things:
- People were so excited about this that even without asking for them, we ended up with phenomenal volunteers!
- There were a lot of young people who came because they want to become activists. But there were also senior citizens who felt that they could no longer stay uninformed or unengaged. I believe that is true of church folks as well: as OPC intern Virginia White reflected to me after the event, “people have care about these issues but haven’t known how to engage, or didn’t think they should. This is not about convincing people to do something new.” That’s who our event was for, and they came in the rain by the hundreds.
- Some people were puzzled by why we would do something like this until we explained that part of the mission of the OPC is to connect people to each other’s work. And they were also puzzled by the fact that the church (in our case, First Christian Church of Oakland) played a role in this gathering as the folks who created the OPC. What a beautiful moment of puzzlement to help the community realize that the church can and should be engaged in this work of standing with indigenous and Black and LGBTQ+ and environmental and civil liberties organizations. What a teachable moment.
- This event created hope. Let me say it again: at a time people are experiencing fear, we created a space of hope. Participants thanked us, and so did the organizations, some of whom have been in this work for decades and feeling a little out of hope themselves. At our best, isn’t that what the church is supposed to be about? Hope conquering despair, not just in the abstract, but in concrete ways.
- Over and over, people said they felt a sense that there really is a community dedicated to supporting each other. During my introductory announcement, I reminded people that “we need us. We need to have each other’s backs. In the coming days we will need to be able to trust each other, and that happens when we really show up for each other.” So I told them to talk to all of the tablers but also to talk to each other, because we have each other’s backs best when we know each other, and that can start here. And people did. And it was transcendent.
I was asked to share our methodology so others can borrow from it. I decided to write it in a way that I hope churches in particular can borrow from it. It took a lot of time and effort, but it was not difficult logistically to manage. Once our facebook numbers started looking good, some of the organizations that had never heard of us before suddenly thought this would be a great opportunity.
Today is a day that historically acknowledges workers and the struggle for basic human dignity for low-wage workers. Since around 2006, it has particularly lifted up the ways in which immigrant workers deserve greater dignity than our society affords them. In honor of workers, here is an excerpt from chapter two of Pre-Post-Racial America: Spiritual Stories from the Front Lines.
I met Francisca when a handful of religious leaders joined with some workers protesting the Castlewood Golf Club in Pleasanton, California. The management had locked out some workers for not agreeing to a new contract where the workers had to pay all of their own health care (consuming up to 40 percent of some employees’ paychecks) in what the club had described as a record-breaking earnings year. I didn’t learn it until later, but Francisca was the janitor who had found a memo in the new manager’s trash can saying that his primary objective was to shut down the union (which had functioned without any conflict for over twenty years). And fight they did, almost imperiling the future of the club out of management’s belief in their right to not provide health care or fair wages.
What struck me about this campaign was that the union working with them had assumed U.S. citizens would be the most upset and willing to stand up for fair treatment. Instead, it was mostly immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, who stood on the picket line for month after month. “Most of the white people had good positions, like bartender,” Francisca explains. “The only two white people on our side, it was just because they knew better. One day one member told Miss Peggy, ‘You old hog; go home and die.’ We grew a thick skin. We Mexicans put up with everything. I told people I put Vaseline on my face every morning so what they would say will slide off me.”
Most of the workers on the picket line were from the kitchen or served as janitors. They were mostly Latin@. When Francisca reached out to one of the White servers to join their protest of the unfair working conditions, he responded, “With all due respect, what am I going to do there? I’m in front of the members serving them their food. If I join you, they’re going to know who I am. And with all due respect, it’s a bunch of Mexicans and Michael and Peggy.”…
On the picket line one day, a member bicycled by with a stroller attached in back. As they biked by, the toddler stuck its hand out of its fabric enclosure and gave the workers a “thumbs down.” The mother turned around and biked by again, and the toddler stuck out the other hand to do the same thing. I’m partly just impressed by the commitment to biking in such uneven terrain just to get your kid to harass picketers, but Francisca noted that the saddest thing to her was a parent teaching her child to hate because “we were on their land.” (Maybe it’s because I’m an immigrant or maybe it’s because I’m a Christian, but the notion that any of us have the right to claim stolen land as ours more than the people working it is a weird one to me.)
I joined the workers in a three-day fast over Mother’sDay weekend, where they tried to remind club members that many of the workers were mothers or were supporting mothers, and that this protest was taking food out of the protesters stood quietly with flyers about the conflict with management, and a woman came up to another worker, Maria (who had adopted two little children two days before she was locked out of her job; the theme of this weekend was very personal to her) and spat at Maria, “You are TEARING APART FAMILIES!” The woman’s son had refused to eat at the country club for Mother’s Day because of the workers’ protest. Maria had to work really hard to extend Christian love in response (although by then the workers were used to being catcalled and threatened with phone calls to Immigration and jeers to go back to Mexico).
Francisca had to fight the urge to not yell back, “Because, when you go back you need to go back with your head held high. They also called us uneducated and dumb and you don’t know what you’re fighting for. I wanted to be able to show them who had the education. I knew we were going back and I wanted to be able to look people in their eyes and not be ashamed.”
Rev. Dr. Alvin Jackson was the reason I became a Disciple of Christ, and I still consider him my pastor. I remember him, an African American addressing a mixed group of White and Latin@ and Asian people and saying of America, “We may have come over on different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now.” Some of us actually inhabited this land for thousands of years, but most of our forebears came here as slaves or indentured servants, or they came here to establish a better life. Like the Israelites, we came onto others’ land by choice or by force and had to find rules to live by that honored each other and hopefully created a better place for all of us. Like the Israelites, we did better by some people than others, and we did best when we were ruled by hope rather than by fear.
Renowned liberal theologian and Historical Jesus scholar Marcus Borg passed away yesterday at the age f 72. In honor of his life, here is my brief reflection on how his wisdom helped me in my ministry.
I only got to hear renowned theologian Marcus Borg speak once. It was interesting. I was grateful for the chance to reflect on my relationship to the divine through new eyes. But I came across his work after liberation theology had already broken my world apart and connected me to God in ways that would leave me changed forever. I deeply appreciated how he reconnected many of my friends to a relationship with God and the possibility of a relationship with the church, but he wasn’t my guy the way James Cone or Gustavo Gutierrez or Emilie Townes or Kwok Pui Lan were.
Until I heard a story, third hand, about the way he answered a random question at a lecture. And that story allowed me to remain hopefully engaged in the work of congregational transformation for almost a decade. More than any of the countless books I read or courses and workshops I attended, this one story continues to give me hope.
I tell this story almost everywhere I speak on congregational transformation (if I think the audience won’t be hurt by it), because at moments I feel defeated by the church’s struggle to change, I am reminded that of the privilege I have of living in this moment where the church is turning into something phenomenal and powerful, whether I want to be a part of that or not.
I didn’t even hear him say it, and it wasn’t the kind of thing he was famous for saying.
My friend Russ told me that a friend of his went to a Marcus Borg lecture, and someone asked the following question:
“Dr. Borg, what is the future of the church?”
Almost without hesitating, he responded, “Right now, the church is made up of two groups of Christians. There are conventional Christians who go to church because that’s what you do, who were shaped by an era where church was a typical part of the culture. And then there are the intentional Christians, the ones who don’t experience church as the norm but are craving spiritual community and are willing to invest deeply in the relationships and the rituals and the interactions with what is transcendent; they are also driven by the desire to be in deeper relationship with the community around them. In fifty years, all of the conventional Christians will be dead. The church will be much smaller, but it will be much more alive.”
Thank you, Dr. Borg, for giving me the hope necessary to do the work of congregational transformation even when it felt like Jesus himself would have struggled to effect change.
This award was given to me on January 11, 2015 at Lafayette Christian Church during the CCNC-N’s annual MLK service. Following are my remarks upon receiving the award.
I find myself thinking a lot about the previous recipients of this award, because they have all deeply shaped me.
I’m in the land of Pacific School of Religion, and many of you know that PSR’s slogan is, help me with this, “a tradition of boldness.” And that is true. I am in a sea of boldness in this region. But as far as I know, there have only been five graduates of the Disciples Divinity House at the University of Chicago in this region, and … I am the fifth to receive this award, following:
- Carl and Esther Robinson, who lost his parish in the 1960s for refusing to kick a gay youth out of his church’s youth group;
- Robert Lemon, who lost his parish for standing in solidarity with Cesar Chavez and the migrant farm workers’ movement;
- Vy Nguyen, who hasn’t been fired from anything yet, but is leading Week of Compassion and helping us respond to disasters across the globe and here at home;
- and while David Kagiwada is no longer with us, his widow JoAnne received this award, acknowledging her work to make sure that Japanese American internment camp survivors received recompense from our government.
So in the land of the tradition of boldness, I’m grateful to have had the chance to import a little boldness from Chicago.
I am also shaped by other award recipients:
- There is no one who stands with poor people more powerfully and inspiringly than Sandy Perry;
- I have learned much of what it means to participate in civil rights from Clarence Johnson, who was at the March on Washington, but who was also an ardent worker alongside Stokely Carmichael, which is a reminder to us all that radicalism can be held deep within the most humble servants of God;
- Ben Fraticelli was about the work of building multicultural community in Oakland decades before the Oakland Peace Center started its work three years ago; and
- Jim Mitulski, who led us in the chant “Stand Up! Fight Back! Fight AIDS!” buried more bodies than most of us can count, because so few churches in the 1980s were willing to acknowledge the human dignity and divinity of the mostly gay men dying of AIDS.
I am an Asian American who was shaped strongly by Black civil rights: 4th grade was the first time I heard about India in school, when we learned that Dr. King’s commitment to nonviolence was shaped by Mahatma Gandhi’s anti-colonial movement in India. I was hooked; I read every book on Dr. King in the library, and for a long time it was the closest reference point I could find to make sense of my experience as an Asian American in northeast Ohio. (more…)
My chaplain friend Vinson said it best:
But if you haven’t heard the controversy, here’s the basic rundown:
An Oklahoma legislator has decided that the current laws on the books about wearing hoods during crimes are not sufficient. (That law, by the way goes back to the 1920s and was the state’s way of reigning in the violent acts by Klansmen in one of the most racially divided states in the union at the time, with some of the ugliest hate crimes against the Black community.)
State Senator Don Barrington is proposing an additional law that threatens up to a $500 fee for wearing a hoodie (or other covering) to disguise one’s identity: “To wear a mask, hood or covering, which conceals the identity of the wearer during the commission of a crime or for the purpose of coercion, intimidation or harassment; or To intentionally conceal his or her identity in a public place by means of a robe, mask, or other disguise.” You can read a large chunk of the bill here, and you should, if only because a piece of legislation being proposed in 2015 uses the phrase “minstrel troupes” as an acceptable reason for wearing a face covering. (What are you people in Oklahoma doing with your free time? Taking time travel trips back to 1861?)
I am sympathetic to anyone who feels a small sense of despair about humanity at this point.
What’s interesting, though, is that a lot of people have read the bill and believe on its face it is not problematic. (My guess is that they didn’t read far enough to read the phrase “minstrel show,” but…)
And this is what is incredibly complex about issues of race in America today as opposed to 50 years ago. Today, there’s not a whole lot that on its face seems problematic or racist or opposed to free speech.
Our nation’s drug laws do not read racist on their face.
Our criminal justice structure does not read racist on its face.
Our policies for controlling mass demonstrations neither seem racist on their face nor as if they might be seeking to limit freedom of expression.
And yet the way they function in our society functions to hold up systems of oppression that protect White privilege and harm Black communities and communities of color.
I have concerns about the way this law might be implemented. I have concerns that it will be an excuse to target young Black men who are viewed with suspicion. I have concerns it will be used as an excuse to target in particular people of color who are expressing their first amendment rights to stand up against issues like police brutality, because as I read it, the proposed legislation is not just about committing crime (which previous legislation already does) but about people at public demonstrations. Because our whole nation has been trained to assume that young Black men are probably planning to do something dangerous; they just haven’t accomplished it yet. And then we encourage our police to act in our behalf.
But I’m not the only one concerned, and more importantly, I’m not the only one of faith.
A friend of mine made sure I read an article today about the head of our denomination’s Black community (National Convocation) and his role in protesting the hoodie act. And a White Disciples pastor was quoted in the same article as participating in the same action.
On Sunday, January 18, many Oklahoma pastors will don hoodies as they preach from their pulpits to bring attention to this legislation which will be considered the week of Martin Luther King Day.
I reached out to the two pastors from the article, Rev Jesse Jackson (Oklahoma City) and Rev Michael Riggs (Tulsa).
Rev. Jackson was on his way to a funeral, but I asked Rev. Riggs what his faith motivation was for participating in this action. Here was his response:
“By wearing a hoodie in church, Christians demonstrate the radical empathy of Christ with the marginalized and oppressed by standing (or in this case wearing hoodies) in solidarity with them, advocating God’s freedom and justice for all peoples in peace and love. Because hoodies have become associated with social justice movements such as Occupy and BlackLivesMatter, the proposed Oklahoma legislation reaches far beyond criminal activity — it makes for easy criminalization of those who would publicly voice their dissent. Just as Jesus ate with the sinner and tax collector (and others pushed to the margins of society in his time), both hearing their and giving them voice, I believe he would wear a hoodie for and with them. I choose to do the same.”
I don’t know if I have anything to add except Amen.
If you have friends in faith communities in Oklahoma, please share this with them. AND EVERYONE CAN PARTICIPATE IN WEAR-A-HOODIE-TO-CHURCH SUNDAY! What a powerful opportunity to witness and help their state legislature be its best self.
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I am really honored that I got the chance to preach at Cathedral of Hope in Dallas when Jim Mitulski was interim minister there. I got to lead an anti-oppression/anti-racism training filled with 45 of the most amazing folks, and I remain in contact with several of them today.
Cathedral of Hope has done so much to create healing and love in the face of hatred and harm. On MLK weekend a year ago, I got to share a message with an inspiring congregation at the invitation of an inspiring friend and colleague.