I have been struggling in these weeks since Mike Brown was killed in Ferguson, MO to find something coherent to say about racism, violence, divided communities, and the gospel. Those of you who follow my social media will laugh at the idea that I struggle with words—after all my facebook and twitter have been awash with articles, blogs, opinions, rants, news stories, etc. I have not been silent—I have lifted up the voices of many, many individuals, amplifying the anger and despair and frustration that has tumbled through my social media connections. I have added my own thoughts to the chorus, and over the last month several people have messaged me, asking if I am ok. The conversation goes something like this: “All you have posted for the last few weeks is about Mike Brown and Ferguson. You haven’t posted a cat picture in weeks. Are you ok?”
It also does not represent my children's perspective, nor my mother's; they think I am funny, but misguided.
Sunday, September 7, 2014
Sunday, September 7, 2014
Sermon by Katie Mulligan
Preached at Lawrence Road Presbyterian Church
The audio for those of you who prefer it. I confess that I still talk too fast, and it exhausted me to listen to it.
I don’t know how to answer that except to say that in these last few weeks it has seemed unthinkable to post cat pictures in the midst of the real grief and anger expressed by people I care deeply for. And since I have been working with black and brown youth in Trenton and Ewing and Lawrenceville these last few years, I have grown fiercely protective of these students, whose lives are more prone to violence from all sources. When I saw the initial reports of Mike Brown’s death on twitter, I knew immediately that this could have been one of our children, one of our students, here in our church. So no, I’m not ok.
There have been 21 homicides this year in Trenton, mostly of black and brown men. I do not know the reason, but in the last month we have had a reprieve. There have been no homicides in Trenton since July (praise God!), and this has given me some space to think and reflect about what we might do as three mostly white churches working with a very mixed group of youth in Ewing, Trenton, and Lawrenceville.
I hope you will hear me all the way through this morning. I beg you for an open heart and an open mind. I am not here this morning to jab at anyone individually about race, racism, white privilege, white supremacy, affluence, politics—none of that. We are who we are, each of us, in this time and place. We come to the table this morning—and we will literally come to Christ’s table in a few moments—with the talents, disabilities, privileges, disadvantages, hopes, disappointments, fears, anger, and love that come out of a hard-lived life. Each of us is a mess of contradictions and intersections (for an explanation of intersectionality, see the work of Dr. Kimberly Crenshaw and the Combahee River Collective).
I am here this morning to say that the death of Mike Brown is not what we wanted for him or for Darren Wilson, who shot him. I know that each of us would have wanted better for both of them. There is a terrible, uncomfortable grief and anger in knowing that we are part of a system that allowed the death of this man to happen. It is so terrible that it is hard to look at it straight on, and even harder to speak of it.
I’m not here this morning to point fingers at any person or to insist that any one person is racist or prejudiced or privileged or whatnot. The shooting death of Mike Brown, while carried out by an individual, Darren Wilson, was almost inevitable, given the political and social climate in Ferguson. Regardless of how a grand jury does or does not indict, regardless of the outcome of this individual case, regardless of any of our personal and individual opinions of what happened between Mike Brown and Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014 when both of their lives were destroyed, and the lives of so many around them were shattered beyond repair, we are living in a time of deep racial tension, inequality, fear and anxiety. It would be easy to say this is just about Mike Brown’s death in Ferguson, MO. It would be easy to shake our northern heads and say this isn’t about New Jersey. “It’s a shame what happened,” we might say.
Two summers ago we had an overnight for youth here in this church. I work primarily with three Presbyterian churches—Ewing, Covenant in Trenton, and this church here in Lawrenceville—but our youth come from whatever church they feel like. Some of our youth don’t have a church home, so we claim them as our own. Every youth that comes through our doors, even just once, we claim them as our youth. They may indeed belong other places, but they also have a home here. Jesus told us to tend his sheep and feed his lambs, so that’s what we do.
At that overnight we had a few new students from Trenton. Young, black, and new to this church at least, I kept losing them in the building. They were curious about everything, and in the course of the night they peeked into every unlocked door on our campus. I would go to count heads and realize 5 kids were missing, and then I’d go wandering through the rooms to find them and bring them back to the group. They were all smiles and mischief—how I love our teenagers!
I went into the kitchen to make cookies for our late night snack, and two of the boys followed me into the kitchen. They were full of questions about the church, full of jokes about life. As I was spooning out cookie dough, we talked about school. I told them I’d go to their graduation when they got there. “What kind of graduation?” they asked. So I said 8th grade, high school, college, whatever. One of them said, “Is this the kind of church that gives out rewards for graduation?” What kind of reward were they thinking about I asked. “Like a dollar or something?” And then he laughed, like he thought it was a silly question.
Well, I told those kids, in your kitchen, that I’d give them $20 when they graduated high school and that I’d throw them a party. We shook on it. I told them I wanted to know them in 10 years—I wanted to know who they were and what they were up to, no matter what it was in 10 years. They didn’t know what to make of that, really. Most jr. high students aren’t thinking 10 years out. I get that. But church, these are our youth—we claim them—and we must be thinking 10 years out.
I took a few kids home the other day, and they pointed out a corner where people get shot sometimes. I guarantee most of you don’t know where that corner is. It’s not a place most people here would agree to live.
We’ve mixed up our youth group and now we have black and brown and white kids coming. We’ve got poor kids and richer kids coming. We’ve got children of house cleaners and children of police officers and children of bankers and children of parents who have no jobs. We’ve got children living in tiny apartments in hard parts of town. We’ve got children living in houses big enough to fit a dozen of those apartments. And everything in between. Ewing, Lawrence, Trenton, Bordentown, Hamilton, Plainsboro, Princeton. We are trying to create a community of youth that includes those who are oppressed and those who are privileged. It’s a complicated mess of people; there are days when this community seems impossible to reconcile. A lot of days when I am sure this isn’t going to work.
Last fall I took 12 students to Camp Johnsonburg. 5 of those students were black and from Trenton. When we walked in the door of this very white space all heads turned. After a few moments of discomfort, one of my students yelled out, “Whatchu looking at? If I see you on the street, you dead!” And then my students burst into laughter and a ripple of anxiety went through the room. It was a funny moment in so many ways. Unintentionally ironic, although I think our Trenton kids learn irony young. The fact is these students will never “just happen” to see each other on the streets. Most likely black and white youth in New Jersey will not attend the same schools with each other either. And our churches are mostly segregated. We have an opportunity in this messy, loud, uncomfortable youth group to step into each other’s spaces that is rarely afforded to us in this life.
What does this have to do with today’s scripture, you ask?
Two weeks ago I received a message from one of our students at the university where I serve as a chaplain. She said she had been told in a staff meeting that I was not returning to campus this fall as chaplain. This was the first I had heard about it. Over summer communications are challenging at a university, so I was a might bit anxious that some administrative decision had been made but not communicated about my status as chaplain. I called my colleague who usually knows what’s going on to see if he had heard anything. He had not. But he said this to me, “Don’t worry. Where you go, I go Naomi.” I was startled by this generous act of solidarity—in one brief sentence he had invoked an entire book of scripture: Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you.
And then he said, “I don’t want to be chaplain without you.”
Where you go, I go.
In that moment I knew that my continued presence as a partner in this work mattered to him deeply. I knew that no matter what ultimately happened with the chaplain position that he would stand with me as friend and colleague. I knew that I was not alone in this, and that there was somebody who would advocate with me and on my behalf. It meant we were in this together. No matter that I am an odd choice for a chaplain—queer, divorced, single mother—he had thrown in his lot with me. What a relief! (It was also a profound relief last week to discover that rumors of my demise as chaplain had been greatly exaggerated, and I returned to campus last Tuesday.)
I want to suggest that Ruth and Naomi (and these words, “Where you go, I go) offer us a way forward as a model of solidarity that goes beyond what we have already done here in our three churches. We have many helping ministries that are good and righteous programs. Dozens of you assist with the English School here, the ID program at Covenant, ministry at Trenton Psychiatric Hospital at Ewing Church—I could go on and on. We have many ways we use our power and privilege to benefit marginalized folks.
But here’s what I learned on August 9 when Mike Brown was shot in Ferguson: for the most part, people of color grieved that boy’s death as if he was their own son, their own cousin, their own brother. They could put themselves in the shoes of Mike Brown’s mother because this was the worst thing they had feared for their own children. Mike Brown’s death was personally, individually, deeply relevant in their lives. And for the most part, white folks grieved Mike Brown’s death as if he was somebody else’s child. Sad, but we don’t have all the facts. It was…distant…in the way that September 11, 2001 was distant to me living in California.
That gives you pause, doesn’t it? Many of you have particular and distinct memories of the morning of September 11, vivid memories of waiting to hear about a loved one or a friend. Many of you lost somebody that day. My closest connection to September 11 was the business partner of my father’s cousin. I’ve met my father’s cousin once. That is, until I moved here and began to meet people who had experienced the destruction of the twin towers first hand. And when you all became my community, my people, the grief of that day took new shape in my heart. Where you go, I go. What you grieve, I will grieve. When you take on a people, you take on their heartache.
There once was a woman named Naomi, who lived in Bethlehem. There was a famine, and so Naomi and her husband took their two sons to live in the country of Moab, where they had heard there was food. In the early days of settling in this foreign country, Naomi’s husband died. Her two sons married Moabite women, and they stayed 10 years. But after all this time, there were no grandchildren, and both Mahlon and Chilion died, leaving Naomi alone in a foreign country with her two daughters-in-law.
No men to lend social or economic protection. No children to cement their ties to a community. Vulnerable, grieving, angry, and afraid, Naomi decided to return to Bethlehem, where at least she would not die alone of starvation and exile. Her daughters-in-law began to return with her.
But Naomi stopped and said to the two women, “Go back, each of you to your mother’s house. Get married again.” They refused to go, both of them at first. And Naomi said, “What are you coming with me for? I have no more sons! Everything has been taken from me. The hand of the Lord is against me. Leave me be. Go home to where you have privilege, possibilities, hope. There is nothing but bitterness where I go.” And Orpah did. She kissed her mother-in-law and went home. It was sensible.
But Ruth would not go. The scripture says she clung to Naomi, and I have the image of a child clinging to her mother’s legs, refusing to go. Like the first day of preschool, and it is time to go, but the child wraps herself around your legs so that you cannot even walk, and wails like you are leaving them for dead. And Naomi, perhaps in a hurry to get going, says, “Come on now child. Your sister has already gone. Go back and your mother will tend to your needs.”
But Ruth would not go. Realigning her allegiances, altering her family ties forever, throwing her lot in with Naomi, Ruth makes this vow: Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people… May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you.
And so Naomi said no more about it and accepted Ruth’s companionship. I wonder sometimes what that journey home must have been like. Naomi was not in a good mood. Her name itself, Naomi, means “Pleasant”, but by the time she returned to Bethlehem she had settled on a new name: “Call me Mara (which means “Bitter”) for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty; why call me Pleasant when the Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”
Can you imagine that walk home? Bitter silence? Mournful tears? A litany of what had been lost? Have you spent much time with people who have lost everything? Could you imagine a several day’s walk with Mike Brown’s mother?
And yet Ruth stayed. And Naomi let her. They returned together to face whatever would come, two childless women bound together by the death of their men. One woman who knew what it was to be a foreign woman in a foreign land. And one woman who would learn it shortly.
There is discomfort here that stretches beyond our day to day challenges. What I am suggesting this morning is that our text calls us to that kind of stressful discomfort in our efforts toward solidarity. We are called by God to throw our lot in with the marginalized, to take on their people as our own—which is a very different thing than making them over to be like us.
I want us to leave here this morning exploring in our hearts what it would mean to take on Mike Brown’s death as the death of one of our own—not a distant, other than us, death, but to mourn his death and the tension and violence between black and white folks in Ferguson as individually, personally meaningful to us. Because that tension, that death, that mourning is reflected clearly in our churches, youth groups, and communities here in and around Trenton. Mike Brown could have been one of our own. Darren Wilson could have been one of our own. Whoever we are, whatever position we hold in this community, the only way through, I believe, is to throw our lot in. Like Ruth, our only way forward is to say “your people will be my people” and to throw ourselves into the lives of the youth who claim our church as their own.
I brought this scripture to the high school youth group on Wednesday, and as we read through it, they were struck by Ruth’s vow to Naomi. “Why would she do that?” they asked. Why indeed? Why would someone willingly step into vulnerability by exiling themselves to a foreign land with someone who could not promise them any future? Why indeed? And some of you here are immigrants yourselves so perhaps you have the answers. We brainstormed a bit with the youth and this is what they came up with:
Maybe Ruth’s family in Moab was awful and she didn’t want to go back
Maybe Ruth liked adventure
Maybe Naomi was the most amazing person on earth and Ruth couldn’t help
Maybe Naomi’s grief was so great, Ruth could not bear to let her go alone
Maybe Ruth’s grief was so great she wasn’t thinking straight
Maybe God told her to go
When speaking with black folks about white privilege and racism, there is often an edge of despair—why would white people deliberately give up any of their privileges to stand in solidarity with black people? This is a question I am asked a lot—most often rhetorically. And the answer is usually that they won’t, that people with power and privilege will hold on to that power and privilege as tightly as they can and as long as they can, until they are forced to relinquish it. This sets us up for a mighty struggle, doesn’t it? And in Ferguson, on August 9, and in the protests and police force in the days after Mike Brown’s death, it seems like that intractable struggle continues on. Why would we, privileged to be so far removed from that event, stand in solidarity with Mike Brown’s people? Why would police officers do it? Why would teachers do it? Why would any of us hold that child as one of ours?
Maybe our own life is marginalized and we don’t want to go back
Maybe we like adventure
Maybe Mike Brown (or someone we know like him) was the most amazing person
on earth and we can’t help ourselves
Maybe Mike Brown’s mother’s grief was so great, we can not bear to let her go
Maybe our own grief is so great we can’t think straight
Maybe God told us to go
It doesn’t matter, really, what your motivation is. The fact is, once you see Mike Brown as one of your own, once you see his people as your people, once you see that everything changes. If you are a teacher, and you see this child as your own, you will see his face in your students. If you are a parent, and you see this child as your own, you will make sure others who remind you of him have school supplies and a safe school to learn in. If you are a police officer, and you see this child as your own, you will remember his face the next time you pull someone over. If you are a neighbor, and you see this child as your own, you will go across the street to make sure that grieving mother has what she needs. If you are a pastor, and you see this child as your own, you will not be silent, because the words will pour out of your being in grief and anger that we have come to this.
And then tomorrow, if we see this child, Mike Brown, and if we see this man, Darren Wilson, as our own, we will find faithful, everyday ways to make sure this doesn’t happen again. Because we want better for the Mike Browns and Darren Wilsons of this world. We want better for ourselves.
What would happen if our three mostly white churches turned to the people of color in our communities and said, Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you.
Well, it would change everything.