The Myth of Street Smarts versus Book Smarts

Delivered June 13, 2014, at Disciples Divinity House at the University of Chicago annual Convocation.

I looked, and a hand was stretched out to me, and a written scroll was in it. He spread it before me; it had writing on the front and on the back, and written on it were words of lamentation and mourning and woe. He said to me, O mortal, eat what is offered to you; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel. So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat. He said to me, Mortal, eat this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it. Then I ate it; and in my mouth it was as sweet as honey.

–Ezekiel 2:9-3:3

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

–Matthew 13:44-46



They say we lose our greats in threes, and that has certainly been true this month: we have lost Vincent Harding, heroic leader of the civil rights movement; we have lost the great poet Maya Angelou and we have lost Yuri Kochiyama, Asian American activist, Black Power leader and survivor of the American concentration camps. (more…)

“That’s why I don’t watch the news,” #notallmen and the global protection of rape culture

He was for real the sweetest guy I’ve ever met. I had opened up my home to a couple of people coming to Oakland for a conference for activists. We totally bonded over finding a space to create our own identities rather than the identities the world tried to impose on us. He told me about driving across country giving hugs and raising people’s vibrations, and I’ve lived in California long enough I did not roll my eyes once, not even when he wasn’t looking.

He talked about how he lived in a progressive White community because he felt less constrained by their expectations of him to be a particular thing than when he functioned within the Black community. This, as you can imagine, made my brain hurt, but I’m getting better at honoring individuals’ life experiences and self-understandings. I did, however, mention that it can be meaningful to be connected to one’s cultural heritage as a way of staying grounded and connected with one’s people.

“I don’t want to be connected to my people,” he said. His parents were from Haiti and there were things about Haitian culture he held in deep contempt–the way people worked systems and expected things from family members just because they were family and what he saw as a lack of hustle, and lack of respect for him creating his own identity instead of being who they wanted him to be.

“Why would I want to be connected to that culture?” he asked.

“Listen, all culture’s got its unhealthy aspects,” I said, meaning to arc back around to the idea that his embrace of progressive White culture also had incredibly unhealthy aspects as well as it not actually being his. Instead I added, probably unhelpfully, “I mean, the culture that I root myself in let a girl get gang raped on the back of a bus.”

“See,” he said, feeling he had proven his point, “this is why I don’t watch the news.”


The cost of being reasonable: reflections on why the whole church didn’t preach about Michael Dunn and Jordan Davis

I have some really smart friends. I have friends who are powerful leaders and facilitators and great thinkers. I have friends from all across the nation (and a few around the globe). I have friends of a fair few religious backgrounds, from Atheist to Zoroastrian. And I have friends from a whole lot of different racial and ethnic backgrounds.

One of the cool things about all of my friends is that they know when to hold loosely to an issue for the sake of discussion and when to hold fast because an issue is more than an issue; it’s a matter of life and death.

The challenge is, not all of my friends see that line between holding loosely and holding fast in exactly the same place.

I was struck by this on Saturday night, when the Michael Dunn verdict rolled out.

There was very little middle ground for me. I had friends offering perspective: Michael Dunn will not walk out of prison if he gets the sixty years he was given for attempted murder of the three passengers in Jordan Davis’s car. What he did was awful, but he will face decades of punishment.

I didn’t have that in me, because the jury couldn’t declare him guilty for the actual murder he committed, shooting Jordan Davis for playing music too loudly, or actually for being Black. (In the court case, he claimed that Davis threatened him and had a gun. No gun was found; there is no clear evidence that he was threatened.) I was furious. I was aching. I was unreasonable.

Let me be clear; I wasn’t totally unreasonable. I did not start a bar fight like I did in Orlando after Trayvon Martin’s murderer went free. (And even then, it was just a bar argument. At a Red Lobster. With a Black man. That my friend interrupted.)

I was only unreasonable enough to express gratitude for the clergy who were lifting up this tragedy in their sermons the next day and expressing mild contempt for those that didn’t bother to. Yup–I played the shame game, shamelessly. I saw that moment as a moment to hold fast, not loose.


I want to pause and note how grateful I am that I have colleagues and friends from other cultures who want to listen to my reflections about what it means to be South Asian in America, particularly after 9/11. I’m grateful for colleagues and friends who have taken great interest in looking at the history of the API (Asian Pacific Islander) community in America and in modern day discrimination issues and immigration policies. Similarly, I’m grateful when men want to know what it’s like to be a woman, to deal with patriarchy and fear and objectification and how they can be more aware of that in their own lives but also in advocating for better systems and structures for all women.

Similarly, since I want to be a part of the realm of God where all are equal, I work hard (and fail and keep trying) to stay in conversation with friends from different lived experiences than mine. I need to know their experiences and to think about those experiences as part of a larger narrative that affects culture and policy and institutions and personal interactions. It’s a lot of work, but it’s important to me as a member of the realm of God (or, as I sometimes refer to it in non-religious settings, “the movement”).

Movements only really move, I believe, when the people with a little power actually know the people with less power well enough to recognize their humanity in tangible ways, enough to risk their minimal power to stand in solidarity. Most great struggles in the past 100 years that have succeeded have been nonviolent. Most of those nonviolent struggles have succeeded because of solidarity work (by people with a little power within the country or abroad). As a person of faith, I believe that this is because we only truly thrive as a whole community when we recognize one another’s gifts and humanity fully. And if you’ll forgive me for being a little philosophical here, any movement that involves hate for anyone else will find that its self-love is too stunted to be truly empowering.


Part of why the importance of this verdict was on my radar is that a good friend of mine posted a picture on Monday of her adorable toddler in his sister’s lap, pointing out a window, with the comment, “This is my son, pointing out a person he wants to mug. #dangerousblackkids #laughsoyoudon’tcry”. Also, my favorite columnist wrote a very brief reflection on why he was done having the conversation about Black on Black crime while grieving this verdict. Also, my friends of all races were processing grief and rage in equal measures to a case that did not use the Stand Your Ground law but represented the culture of it so effectively.


I mentioned earlier that I believe movements only thrive with deep solidarity. I also mentioned that I saw the verdict regarding Michael Dunn as a moment to hold fast rather than loose. And I also said that we only thrive as community when we recognize one another’s humanity fully. I would add now, we are only truly building the Beloved Community when we stand up for one another’s humanity in the fact of others diminishing that humanity. Dr. Martin Luther King was famous for writing a book called Why We Can’t Wait, and also in his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail. He was responding to good liberal White pastors telling him that the rigor of his efforts were “unwise and untimely.”

I recently asked a clergy colleague why, while he actually preached about Jordan Davis, he let people know they should feel no obligation to do so. (He also made a comment about my denomination, in its culture of “You’re only on God’s side if you agree with me” around these types of issues, as a “non-prophet denomination.”) To his mind, he shared, liberals and conservatives don’t talk across the aisles of the sanctuary. Activists get into a tailspin of being more self-righteous than thou, communicating in ways that are insensitive and don’t allow for real dialogue. He noted that a pastoral approach, or a chaplain approach, was actually more prophetic. What I appreciate is that my colleague’s commitment is to helping the community go deep together, honoring all voices and experiences instead of relying on slogans and shaming and calling that social justice ministry.


And I want to go there with him, because I am very aware of how shrill and sanctimonious the left can get, even if we feel justified about it because we think we’re being beaten up by the right (who feel exactly the same way). Except that the chaplain approach isn’t more prophetic. It is probably, in many moments, more effective. The prophets (at least the ones who made it into the Bible) weren’t all that effective. They followed their consciences and alienated whole nations a lot of the time. And as many of you know, I spend far more time on healthy process (sacred conversation) than my more outcome-driven colleagues think is wise. So clearly I think there is a time and place for a chaplain approach to justice issues, and that time is most of that time and that place is everywhere.

But there’s a cost to being reasonable all the time, I think. There’s a cost to saying it’s okay not to talk about the fact that our judicial system could not stake the claim that an innocent Black youth’s life was taken illegally. There is a cost to not making into an act of mourning in every church worship service that the parents of a dead son had to console the parents of another dead son on what would have been that second son’s nineteenth birthday.

This is not just a cost to Black people; this is a cost to the whole church in America. Any of us who have deep relationships with people in the Black community know that to be Black in America means having to fear for your son’s life on multiple fronts. And there might be congregations in this nation where people don’t have those relationships and therefore don’t know this. They may not know that the verdict on Saturday was further confirmation that young Black men’s lives do not have value akin to White men’s lives. But if we are really, as a church, going to build the beloved community, and we think it is unwise and untimely to grieve too publicly too soon, then we should proclaim publicly that building the beloved community is itself unwise and untimely. (I am making the logical leap that if you didn’t talk about this on Sunday, it’s because you don’t have a lot of deep relationships with Black people. This may very well be untrue. I also am not sure I care.)

Michael Dunn is in prison encouraging people to take up arms against Black people who scare them, whether those Black people have done anything to them or not. The church’s lack of commitment to and practice of cross-racial relationships at a deep level has contributed to that story even being reported. And the church’s lack of commitment to building the beloved community (which includes standing up for the equal humanity of all people) has contributed to people saying “What a racist” while sometimes being scared of Black people themselves and often not seeing their fate connected with that of Black people. (I recognize that this is complicated by the fact that people of color see racism systemically while White people see racism as individual acts. I know that is often true. I just don’t care.)

There are countless moments to hold loosely to the issues so we can have meaningful connections. There are countless moments to be reasonable. There are countless moments to be compassionate to one another’s limitations.

But my friends had to make jokes about their children being a threat to America when all they are is children. My friends who are faithful followers of Christ raising their children to be the same. My sisters and brothers. Your sisters and brothers. Our blood. Our family were told their lives don’t count for much. Our nephew’s killer was not held responsible for his death.

If we believe in the realm of God where all of God’s children are equally treasured, this Sunday wasn’t a time to hold loosely. It was a time to hold fast, because this wasn’t about politics; it was about human dignity. Sunday was a time to hold fast. And if that didn’t happen, it continues to be a time to hold fast. You have to preach to and pray with and worship within your context. And our context is America. And in America our Black men’s lives are under fire. And if we want to build the beloved community, we’ve got to show up and roll up our sleeves, or let’s not claim the beloved community is what we want.

In America right now it is not reasonable to have hard conversations across race. In American right now it is not reasonable to grieve publicly when most of a congregation doesn’t understand what it is grieving. There is a cost to being reasonable. The cost of being reasonable is real and authentic relationship. The cost of being reasonable is not being invited to the funeral because you never really knew your nephew. The cost of being reasonable is not knowing the next nephew, and being a part of stopping the cycle that might kill him, too.

God is not reasonable. I believe now is the time to join God.

What if Oakland is one of the thin places?*

*thin places: a Celtic term for those places where the division between earth and heaven collapse, where we can contemplate and experience the divine in the midst of our lived experiences.

This is Oakland.

and so is this.




I went to college in Baltimore, and some of my friends still live there. My friends see my Type A self not picking up a surf board and ask me why I haven’t moved back to the east coast where I clearly belong. “I love Oakland, man,” I explain. “Oakland’s like Baltimore. But with hope.”


I know people who go back generations on this soil and I know people like me who have been here a decade or less all talking about how there is just something about Oakland. I’ve lived in cities with stores for tourists to buy souvenir t-shirts; Chicago locals will wear Cubs or (preferably–it’s class warfare out there and I know where I stand) White Sox caps and shirts, but they’re not the ones buying the Chicago Fire Department t-shirts at the gift shop in Sears Tower. On the flip side, I have yet to convince a visitor to buy an Oaklandish shirt; it’s fools like me shelling out more than our paychecks can withstand to show some Town Love. (Or locally grown Real Oakland hoodies.)

Now the people I hang with are usually also quick to say we’re killing each other in the streets and there are actually two Oaklands, rich and poor (but even moreso gentrifiers who don’t care about those who were here before them and longtime residents), one of which doesn’t care about the other and the other of which doesn’t know how to love itself all that well. Which is why 40 organizations connect with each other and stand with each other in our shared work for peace, healing and justice through the Oakland Peace Center–there’s too much to do to do it alone.

But even when we are skeptical of city leadership, when we are not sure the police department’s relationship to its citizens will ever be healed, when we don’t know what will stop babies from killing babies, we have a sense not just of the resilience of the city but of its creative energy. This land has generated visionary artists and radical movement leaders. This is the land of Julia Morgan and Gertrude Stein, of Fred Korematsu and Richard Aoki, of Huey Newton and Angela Davis (not to mention John Lee Hooker and MC Hammer). In Oakland, we may feel like no one is going to make things better but us, but we also really believe we will be the ones to make things better. (Those who don’t believe it don’t stay very long.)


The other day I remembered a trip I made to the Scottish island of Iona about four years ago. Iona is described as a thin place: “Heaven and earth, the Celtic saying goes, are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter,” says one article.

Thin places connect us with the Divine, which is to say, they challenge us to be our best selves. A lot of people think thin places have to be remote, and Iona sure is. Some people think they have to be meditative and quiet and peaceful. But that’s not really true. Transformation rarely involves the luxury of peace and quiet. Don’t get me wrong–lack of access to food and the constant low-grade fear of violence do not make for transformation either. I am not romanticizing Oakland as being without its profound and sometimes overwhelming brokenness. But I believe we’ve actually created some thickness in a thin place.


I can take a bus from Fruitvale station and end up in a redwood forest, far away from the highway sounds always outside my apartment windows. And I’m very aware in those moments I’m in a thin place where I can listen to God or have conversations with a friend that go so much deeper than they would go anywhere else.

But I can also sit on the free shuttle downtown on my ride home and listen to a tale of abuse and survival and being constantly silenced and loving God but not trusting God if I actually bother to make eye contact with the schizophrenic woman in front of me who starts out our ride cursing and deriding me in the third person but thanking me for affirming her when she gets off the bus eight blocks later, without me saying more than three words.

And I can listen to the lived experiences of the young poets I sometimes get to work with who have faced the worst of what this city has to offer, and because of their own resilience and a few other visionary Oaklanders who had their backs, they’re hustling and also giving back and mentoring the next generation of kids growing up in their neighborhoods.

And I can sing and pray and shout and protest with deeply faithful people for the transformation of our city’s approach to jobs, and over months of people putting their bodies on the line and working out struggles with each other and stopping just short of throwing punches in planning meetings, see how a plan got passed but also relationships got built and hope got restored and people’s vision got much much bigger than the policy we are currently implementing.


There are plenty of places that do not feel thin to me when I walk the streets of Oakland. But I think we’ve made them thick with growing wealth disparity that “hollows out the soul.” I think we’ve made them thick with the loss of watching out for our neighborhood’s kids as if they’re our own. I think we’ve made them thick with the concentration of poverty and drug use and prostitution and sex slavery that dehumanizes the people affected by such devastating issues.


I think the palpable spiritual power of our forebears in this community is not an accident. Oakland has given the world some of its greatest visionaries and poets and changemakers because it is sacred ground, because it is a thin place. I see that in the redwoods and in the urban farming that is reconnecting longtime residents to their own land. I see it in the deep compassion of Belinda and Keasha with Project Darries and Marilyn Washington with the Khadafy Foundation as they stand with people in deepest grief and work to prevent the violence that leads to such grief. I see it in all of the partners at the Oakland Peace Center, all of whom are making Oakland a more obviously thin place.

I also think it’s no accident that so many of the most inspiring people and organizations I work with are practical or radical, but they have a profoundly compassionate and spiritual edge to their work. I believe there is more blending of the spiritual and the community-transforming in social service and advocacy and culture shift work in Oakland than anywhere else in America. Even most of my friends who hate religion keep articulating spiritual commitments in their work and vision without even realizing. I think they can’t help it–it’s in the thin air we breathe here.

I look forward to the day when all of us recognize what is sacred about this ground, what is sacred about us as we walk this ground, and what is sacred about the others sharing this land with us. Then I think this whole city will have the feeling of an Iona, of a thin place. It won’t be an easier place to live, but it will be a place where we can feel the transformation take root.

Sunset at world famous thin place Iona

Sunset over less-famous thin place Oakland


Police Militarization Makes Us Less Safe: Why I Oppose Urban Shield

“Because we deserve better,” I said to every West Oakland resident I encountered. The 87-year-old lifetime resident and the 30-something hipster alike nodded sagely and said, “that’s right.”

I was canvassing with my clergy colleagues, handing out flyers seeking information on the shooting of 23-month-old Hiram Lawrence, Jr. It was late November, 2011.

Since then, 16 more people under the age of 18 have been killed in Oakland.


My friends and colleagues who prioritize security concerns in Oakland note that the first people who will tell you we need more police on the streets are regular citizens and residents in west and east Oakland. And if you’ve talked to a lot of long-time residents, you’ll find that, with some nuance, that’s pretty true.


My friends and colleagues who prioritize civil rights will note that the people who are most frequently unfairly targeted by the police are also regular citizens and residents of west and east Oakland. They point out that the relationship between community and police is broken almost beyond repair, so that the people who need police protection the most also have the least reason to trust the police. And if you’ve talked to a lot of long-time residents, you’ll find that, with some nuance, that’s pretty true.


Tomorrow, October 25, the Oakland City Marriott will again play host to a program called Urban Shield. A combination of anti-terrorism training and gun show on steroids, County Sherriff Greg Ahern established Urban Shield in 2007 as a means of cashing in on federal funding for anti-terrorism efforts. Bay Area police will be trained by and with security forces from Bahrain, Israel and China, and they will see the latest in munitions and armored cars and drones.


If we are a city that is a war zone, some of my friends argue, we need for our protection crew to be armed for battle. And they are not alone. The War on Terror has moved police departments nationwide towards a strategy of militarization as they seek to make us safe in a scary time, to protect us against terrorists and gang members and suburban anarchists alike.


I am tired of watching babies, little girls, teenagers fall victim to violence in our community. So why would I oppose a program like Urban Shield?


Finding home (or, A million different Occupies)

I attended my very first Occupy the Hood meeting tonight.

It’s not like I was unaware of the movement–my co-pastor and I expressed enthusiasm and concern about Occupy Oakland almost simultaneously almost from the beginning, and when we read this article in October, we were pretty sure this was where we belonged.

But then we (or at least I) got caught up in the ups and downs of the Occupy Oakland ocean–joy at the experience of thousands of people filling the streets for the November action, horror at the mistreatment of protesters, disappointment as the movement became more about a particular space than about people in this community who barely have a passing connection to City Hall, dismay at the disregard by organizers for the stated needs of laborers prior to the port shutdown in December, rage at the outright illegal actions of the Oakland Police Department on January 28 followed by almost equal rage at the remarkable number of arrestees who did not place their single experience of police brutality in the context of decades of a broken police system that misuses great cops and perpetuates a longtime gap between cops and community. (more…)