Can we talk?
About Michael Brown?
About Eric Gardner?
About Tamir Rice?
About Rafael Ramos?
About Wenjian Liu?
Can we talk…
About I can’t breathe?
About white privilege?
Can we talk, even if talking about any of this or all of this is hard?
While it was a wonderful holiday, (I love Advent and Christmas.)
It was also difficult and challenging and heartbreaking l as I followed the headlines in the news and the protests in the streets. And, as I tried to make sense of senseless violence and watched in anguish the news of the two police officers who were shot and killed as they sat in their patrol car. But, for as difficult as all that was and is, all that was out there. A bit at arms length. In the news, but not on the street where I live.
But, closer to home, similar tensions were pushing their way back towards the surface of our lives, as well. A diversity conference proposed by the Superintendent of the Bedford Central Schools has turned into a firestorm of angry rhetoric both in the paper and at school board meetings with accusations of race baiting on one side and racism on the other. And because I have lived here long enough and have been involved in the community in a number of ways including serving on the school board, I have been caught up in that tension and the debate that continues to swirl around us.
Can we talk?
As a place to start I thought I would share with you two pieces I wrote this fall about what was happening. The first is about what was happening locally which I shared at a school board meeting. The second is about what was happening out there which I wrote about in my blog. First, what I said to the school board.
I appreciate the comments of those who have spoken up asking questions about the workshop Dr. Hochman had proposed. But alongside that I hear the voice of Paul Briggs, who until this past August, was pastor at Antioch Baptist Church in Bedford Hills who shared with me and others the times and the situations when, in this community, he had experienced uncomfortable situations because he was a black man. He also shared with us how the children and young people in his congregation, at times, continue to be bullied by racial slurs. And, I find myself challenged by the comments of my daughter-in-law who is Latino, born and raised in Puerto Rico, when she tells me what it sometimes feels like to her when she comes to visit. While neither of those is my experience, I love and trust my daughter-in-law and have the deepest respect for Paul Briggs and so take seriously their experience and their insights.
Doesn’t the reality of these two different and divergent perspectives at least prompt the question about whether or not the type of conversation Dr. Hochman suggested might be important. We may discover that the issue is not so much racism, but more about economics or perceived social status. I honestly do not know. What I do know is that whatever it is or however we describe it is a part of the fabric of our community.
If major companies and corporations in our area and across the country can undertake similar conversations about diversity because they know if they do better in this area they will do better as a company and increase sales or make more of a profit; And, if police departments in our community and in the county can undertake conversations about diversity because they know if they do better in this area our citizens and communities will be safer; Maybe the same is true for our schools. That if we have this conversation we will do a better job educating our children. And, if we believe that an educated citizenry is beneficial for our country and if we believe the motto of the Bedford Central Schools of “Every Single Student. Every Single Day.” then we have the responsibility to do what we can so we can do the best for all our students.
Maybe the process Dr. Hochman used was flawed.
Maybe the organization he recommended is not the right one for us.
Maybe there needs to be a broader coalition of organizations who work together to put something like this together. I don’t know. But, as someone who has lived and worked and been involved in our communities for a long time, I think the conversation is important.
And later in the fall, in response to the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Gardner, but before Officers Ramos and Lui were shot and killed, I wrote this on my blog. The title is the hashtag #blacklivesmatter.
Let’s be honest.
If #blacklivesmatter is only about cops or primarily about cops we have missed the boat. And, created a convenient foil which allows us to point a finger and to deflect responsibility. If we are serious about what we say and that #blacklivesmatter we need to be talking not just about cops and the legal system, but also about why we refuse to adequately fund a struggling education system which fails so many students. And why we allow our mental health system to be decimated to the point where there are so many who are in such obvious need of care living on the street or sub-standard conditions. And why there is a lack of jobs with pay sufficient enough to sustain a household and why wages which, dollar for dollar, are less now than they were 20 years ago.
We need to be talking about what is happening, sometimes just below the surface, in our communities, and in our churches and in our synagogues and in our mosques. We need to talk about our own behavior and our own prejudices and who we are as a nation. This is in no way meant to minimize the tragedy of the deaths which have occurred or to downplay the heartbreak of their families who lost loved ones. Or to say that, if inappropriate actions were taken by law enforcement officers, those who took those actions should not be held responsible.
Are their bad cops?
I am sure there are.
Just as there are bad politicians and bad teachers and bad pastors and bad business leaders. But, I am sure that most of the men and women who wake up each morning and put on their uniforms and go to work, leave their homes wanting to do a good job and to make a difference in the communities they serve. Just as I am sure the very same thing is true for most teachers and most pastors and most business men and women.
Yes they do.
But, if we are serious about this, let’s be honest about what the real picture looks like.
There are systemic issues which play a role in what happened that need to be talked about and changed. And there are personal responsibility issues that play a role in what happened which also need to be addressed. Together they are a gordian knot that will only ever be unraveled if they are unraveled together and if we accept our responsibility and do it together.
So where is this all going?
Those of you who know me at all or who have been a part of Bedford Presbyterian Church for any length of time know that if it is of real concern out there, I believe it deserves to be talked about in here where we can put the headlines in the news alongside the values of our faith and ask what our response might be. For better or worse,I take seriously the challenge and council of the renowned theologian Karl Barth who said preachers are to step into the pulpit with the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other. Over the years we have talked with each other about a number of challenging and painful topics – homosexuality, whether or not we should be going to war, health care, gun violence and our response to the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Some of those conversations we have done well. Some not so well. In some of those conversations helpful and healing comments have been made. In others, there were comments which were harmful and hurtful. But, we tried, which is one of the things I am most proud of about this congregation. About all of you.
Race continues to be an issue in both our country and our communities. While we have come along way from where we were as I watched parts of Pittsburgh burn after Martin Luther King was assassinated, we still have work to do. I wish I was smart enough or wise enough to know exactly how to go about it, but I don’t. The only thing I know to do is to try. To begin the conversation and to see where it leads. And so, as your pastor, I will do just that.
Here is what has been planned.
I have invited Kym McNair, the Associate Pastor at Antioch Baptist Church in Bedford Hills to be our guest preacher on three Sundays over the next several months. The first Sunday she will preach is January 25th. I have asked her to preach for us as she would on any other Sunday for any other congregation. But following worship on each of the Sundays she is here she will gather in the Chapel Room with any of us who are interested and lead us in a conversation about race.
Looking back, I realize I have known Kym for most of her life mostly because I know her mother who, for many years, worked closely with Christa Kuusisto to address any number of needs in our community. More recently, I have gotten to know Kym through the work of the Westchester Youth Alliance and the No. Westchester Interfaith Clergy and through her participation in the Community Thanksgiving Service which we hosted this year. I included in our bulletins this morning a portion of Kym’s bio so you can begin to get a sense of who she is, as well.
If anyone is in Christ…The Apostle reminds us.
There is neither Jew or Greek;
Slave or free;
Male or female.
And, we would add…
Gay or straight.
Asian or African.
Black or white.
Not because we should ever forget who we are and where we came from, but because in God’s grand dream we are to be sisters and brothers to one another. Responsible to and for one another. And, as People of Faith we are to do our part…do what we can to bring God’s Kingdom close.
Can we talk?