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Day 6- Atlanta, public defenders, the justice system and the MLK historic site

Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on March 25, 2019 at 10:00 AM

I was too tired at the end of the trip to write, so here’s the last installment of the blog.


Public defender and the criminal justice system

After a brief visit with Pastor Andrew Rickel, Lutheran-Episcopal campus pastor in Atlanta, who brought coffee and shared about his ministry, we got to hear from Willymena Joseph, a public defender in DeKalb County (part of Atlanta) who previously served in more rural areas of Georgia.

 

Public defenders defend about 85% of all cases brought to trial. As a public defender, there are 2 ways to handle cases given to you: you can follow the constitutional minimum of defense, which assumes that those unable to pay don’t deserve the same level of representation as those who can pay. These defenders often encourage their clients to take plea deals and don’t investigate their cases at all.

 

Then there’s a client-centered approach, where defenders establish a relationship with the client, talk to witnesses, tell their story at trials and give the client all the info they need to make their own decisions in the case. DeKalb County has invested state and county tax dollars in order to train public defenders and has mandated a client-centered approach in all trials. And the Public Defenders Council has pushed to pay public defenders on par with prosecutors to retain qualified persons in this work.


Ms. Joseph says that she sees a lot of cases brought in my over-policing, especially in urban areas with large percentages of African-American residents. But when it comes to prosecuting cases within the criminal justice system, she sees more injustice due to poverty than race. Some of this has to do with the bond system, with those unable to post bond for financial reasons waiting for trials sometimes up to a year, which means a year without the ability to work. She works to get people arrested on minor charges (primarily drug and theft charges) out on bond as quickly as possible as a way to get them back to work and calls family and church members to speak for them in bond hearings. For those not available for bond, she files speedy trial requests to speed up the process of waiting in jail.


Ms. Joseph told us that due to her faith (she was raised in the Pentecostal tradition and went to church every day growing up), she felt she couldn’t personally be a judge, because she couldn’t stand in judgment over another person. “Faith gives you compassion,” she told us and as a follower of Jesus, she can’t look at someone else and not see them as a brother or sister.


So what can we do if we’re not called to work directly in the criminal justice system? “Show up in court. Sit in a trial. Serve on a jury when you’re called up. Hold the powers that be accountable. And work with groups like Gideon’s Promise,” Ms. Joseph told us. https://www.gideonspromise.org/" target="_blank"> Gideon’s Promise trains and support public defenders to work for clients who can’t afford representation as powerfully as those who can.


Martin Luther King National Historic Site


As Pastor Flippin encouraged us, we looked more intently at MLK’s work in 1965-1968, work not talked about as often in our history books. This was when MLK turned from focusing primarily on civil rights to focusing on economic opportunity for disadvantaged communities and spoke against the dangers of militarism. And it was in 1967 that he began the Poor People’s Campaign, a movement resurrected in our time by The Rev. Dr. William Barber.


MLK’s quotes stand on their own and don’t really need any other words:

 

“Laws are passed in a crisis mood after a Birmingham or a Selma, but no substantial fervor survives the formal signing of legislation. The recording of the law in itself is treated as the reality of the reform.”


“A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor -- both black and white -- through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam and I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube.”



“The practical cost of change for the nation up to this point has been cheap. . . There are no expenses, and no taxes are required, for Negroes to share lunch counters, libraries, parks, hotels and other facilities with whites…. The real cost lies ahead. The stiffening of white resistance is a recognition of that fact. . . Jobs are harder and costlier to create than voting rolls. The eradication, of slums housing millions is complex far beyond integrating buses and lunch counters.”

 

Then some of us sat in Martin Luther King’s boyhood church to him speak again about his call to this justice work, a call God gave him that ran counter to his ambition as an academic preacher. And we stood at his grave to see rushing waters that envisioned the time when the prophet Amos said that righteousness would run like an ever-flowing stream. And we read again his principles for non-violence, inspired by Jesus and guided in practical ways by Ghandi, which remind us that nonviolence is “aggressive spiritually, mentally and emotionally.” The purpose of it is not winning against the other side, but the creation of the Beloved Community.

 

Closing Worship

Towson alum, Alicia, who lives in the Atlanta area, stopped by for dinner and shared some stories of our our first Spring Break trip together back in 2011. And she sayed for our closing worship, where we gave thanks for where we had been and for those who had gone before us. And we prayed for the work still to be done. And for our offering, we offered up those things from this trip that we will bring back to the communities we return to. We’ll include some of those thoughts in our final blog post.

 

And some of us ended with a light show at Centennial Park, and photos with the Olympic rings before the 12 hour trip home the next day.



Day 5- Atlanta, HIV and how we engage the power that be

Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on March 21, 2019 at 9:05 AM

AID Atlanta

We left history behind this morning and stepped into the present, meeting with Nicole Roebuck, the Executive Director of AID Atlanta (and, we found out, a Lutheran!) They have been working for 37 years to support people living with HIV/AIDS, educate the community about prevention, and provide STI testing. While in the beginning their work was about helping people die with dignity, now, with medical advances, it is about getting medication and healthcare to help them live a healthy life with HIV/AIDS.


The Atlanta area ranks 5th in the nation in HIV/AIDS infections and therefore receives money from the federal government for prevention and to support folks living with the disease. AID Atlanta runs clinics in the city and in more rural areas since Georgia ranks first in the nation in HIV infection rate. While HIV rates are decreasing nationally, they are increasing in Georgia. And 70% of those living with HIV are African American.

 

High incidence in the area and especially in the African-American community is driven by poverty, racial disparities in healthcare and stigma (about sexual activity outside marriage and homosexuality) that is often both cultural and religious. Especially in rural areas, it’s hard to walk into an AID Atlanta clinic if your whole town will see you do it. Stigma and lack of access to healthcare also drives a higher rate of mother to child transmission, since pregnant women often won’t access pre-natal care due to stigma around pregnancy outside of marriage or thinking they can’t afford it. With medication, we can prevent mother-child transmission.


Georgia, largely driven by a conservative Christian culture, doesn’t have comprehensive sex education in schools, but follows an abstinence-only curriculum. AID Atlanta is only allowed to come and educate in individual classrooms at the request of a teacher and can’t present information to a wider audience in the schools, such as a school assembly.


And most churches (beyond the more progressive ones) are not eager to support their education efforts and to support people with HIV/AIDS. This lack of support is even more common among historically black churches, even though the rate of infection is much higher in the African American community.

 

But we don’t have to agree with the choices people make regarding sexual activity to advocate for them and support their health. We don’t have to agree with people’s actions to want life for them. And encouraging safer sex when people choose to engage in it doesn’t mean we support all sexual activity no matter what. These teachings can be supported alongside our own faith teaching about honoring God’s gift of sexuality. And caring for our brothers and sisters who are most vulnerable is a deep part of who we are always called to be as God’s people.


Merry Mac’s Tea Room


It’s been a long trip. So we switched up our plan for the afternoon and went out for some celebrated southern food at Merry Mac’s. (a treat afforded us by a generous gift from a supporter!!) And over that delicious cornbread and greens and chicken and dumplings and sweet potatoes and mac and cheese and. . . . we talked about how we each got our names and about the places we’re from and enjoyed how good it is to laugh and share as a family made by our week together.


Emmanuel Lutheran, Pastor William Flippin and Do the Right Thing

This afternoon and evening was spent at Emmanuel Lutheran in Southwestern Atlanta. Pastor William Flippin and some folks from Emmanuel hosted us (and treated us to pizza!) and tied in a few more details about the Civil Rights sites that we’d been to so far.

 

And then we switched things up and watched Do the Right Thing together, the 1989 Spike Lee film to talk about racial relations now and our role in that. We talked about representation of people that look like us in our communities, how we deal with power of other groups when we think that may threaten our own, and how our own prejudices, which we may carefully try to hide much of the time, may rise to the surface when we’re pushed.

 

Pastor Flippin and his office assistant Linda talked about Atlanta being described as the “city too busy to hate” but that doesn’t mean that prejudice and discrimination isn’t there, but it’s not as obvious as in rural counties. (And in the state it's obvious, since every single state office is held by a white man!) Linda went to school in a rural county and told us that when the schools were forces to integrate back in the 60s, some counties chose to have girls’ schools and boys’ schools, which seemed to play into their need to protect white women from African American men, which has been a continuing refrain throughout our walk through Civil Rights history.

 

And, driven by the movie, we talked about the tension between Malcolm X’s philosophy of violence when necessary and MLK’s philosophy of non-violence and making decisions about what way we will live and how we will support communities who are hurting and facing injustice. The answers aren’t always clear or easy.

 

Pastor Flippin encouraged us to think about evolution- how we evolve in our thinking about the ways we engage the powers that be. Especially as we head to the MLK historic site today and look at his tactics before 1965 (which we’ve been seeing this week) and his work from 1965 until his death, which focused on economic disparity and militarism.

 

We have a choice in how we are going to evolve. I pray that for people of faith, Jesus may be the one leading that change, rather than our often-warped culture and our own internal prejudices, so that we may evolve beyond our fear of the other and our need to protect our power at all costs. And I pray that, following Jesus, we will also learn to love our neighbors by fighting for their need for justice as seriously as we want to fight for our own.

 

And we ended our day with a free cone at Dairy Queen to celebrate this slightly chilly first day of spring in Atlanta.


Montgomery- Searching for Reconciliation

Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on March 20, 2019 at 1:55 AM

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.- 2 Corinthians 5:18


Jeannie Graetz

We started the day with a visit from Jeannie Graetz, wife of Pastor Robert Graetz. Pastor Graetz was a white pastor in Montgomery during the time of the bus boycotts and relentlessly supported his parishoners. He is too ill to speak to groups anymore at age 90, but Jeannie (a young 89!) cares for him full-time and still speaks to groups quite often.


Pastor Graetz was a “rabble-rouser” in seminary, pushing others to talk about racial relations and when he got sent to Trinity Lutheran in Montgomery, he was told not to start trouble. But, as Jeannie says, “We didn’t start trouble, but we did join it.”


Their neighbor, Rosa Parks, who led an NAACP youth group in the basement of Trinity Lutheran, where Pastor Graetz served. And when she refused to move to the back of the bus, Pastor Graetz went to a mass meeting and became a part of the Montgomery Improvement Association that Dr. King led.


He was the only white leader in the movement and said he was freer to do that since he wasn’t dependent on whites for his salary, since his congregation was African-American. As the one-day planned boycott stretched to over a year, Pastor Graetz drove people and supported the movement. He knew it put him in danger, especially because he was white. And the Klan threatened their children and bombed their home 3 times and the only reason they survived is the last bomb didn’t ignite.

 

She shared about her continued fight for justice, especially for the LGBTQ Community. And her absolute anger at injustice anywhere. There is a joy about Mrs. Graetz that obviously comes from a life immersed in work that matters and a trust in God above all that she has gone through. She and her husband of 67 years have lived their lives working for reconciliation between peoples and communities every way they know how, following their Jesus who entrusted this ministry of reconciliation to us.

 

Freedom Rides Museum

After lunch, we were off to the Freedom Rides Museum to hear about college students and young adults who challenged interstate bus segregation. And we heard the story of Irene Morgan who refused to give up her seat on a Greyhound to a white passenger and won her court case against the bus company. And that, even after laws were passed outlawing segregation in transit, Alabama flat out refused to comply.


And we heard about the early Freedom Riders, young people who signed their last will and testaments before getting on those buses, knowing death was possible. After the first Freedom Rides failed to make it to their destination by bus Diane Nash, a Nashville college student, pushed for the rides to continue. (It was really great to hear about some more of the women involved the movement, who aren’t always lifted up as much!)


This ride included ministerial student Jim Zwerg, the only white participant on the second freedom rides. He knew that, because of his race, he would likely receive the worst beating. As he saw the mobs approach him, he said, “Forgive them for what they’re about to do” echoing the words of Jesus from the cross. And that’s what the words and ministry of Jesus are supposed to do. Not turn us into martyrs unless it is needed, but transform our vision enough that that we can walk into places where Jesus needs us with courage for the sake of our brothers and sisters!

 

It has been heartening to see the names of so many white ministers who have risked harm to be a part of the Civil Rights Movement. These are names to be celebrated and sung. Not at the expense of the African-American leaders, most certainly, but lifted up so that white Christians would learn again what it means to embody Jesus’ call for the sake of others. To remind the community I’m a part of that THIS can be our legacy some day, rather than the discrimination that is a much deeper part of our history as white Christians. Reconciliation of all that is broken in God’s kingdom can be our legacy of working with God to recreate what is.


After this, our students went in different directions to continue the learning in their own way:


State House

Some toured the Alabama State House and saw the statues and murals celebrated in that state. Including the statue (and a mural on the capitol dome) of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy. And murals that exclusively celebrate the white part of Alabama culture- from depicting the conquering of Native Americans and seem to caricature African Americans following slavery were joyful to work at backbreaking labor. These murals were completed in 1930, which was a painful time for anyone not considered white in our country, but these murals are still enshrined in the seat of government without comment in their welcome brochure. What we enshrine we continue to normalize and even celebrate.


Southern Poverty Law Center

Some students headed to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Civil Rights Memorial and were reminded of the continuing civil rights struggle- against continuing racial hatred throughout our world, religious discrimination, and anti-LGBTQ discrimination. And at the end we could add our names to the Wall of Tolerance and commit to being foot soldiers in the continuing march against injustice and hatred.


Bayard Rustin LGBTQ Community Center (and thrift store)

Some of our students needing a break from the heaviness of the trip took off to a thrift store and found themselves at an LGBTQ Community Center named after a Civil Rights leader who was asked to step down from public leadership because he was gay and they worried it would discredit the movement. And they met one of Jeanine Graetz’s daughters who was the director. And they learned about a program the center has to show up and be family to others in whatever situations they need when one’s family of origin doesn’t support you or you don’t have family at all. Being who the Church is called to be, but many times doesn’t live up to.


Fountain where slave auctions used to be held

Other students went to a beautiful fountain in the middle of downtown, which was also the former site of slave auctions. To stand in the place where ancestors were sold and to imagine the terror and disgrace they faced was overwhelming.  And to see it covered with a fountain was a strange experience, both making something beautiful on the site and perhaps trying to erase the pain experienced by our people in that place. 



So many opportunities to think about who we are and who we, as a united community, might become if we take seriously the ministry of reconciliation that is entrusted to us. 

Tonight we drove to Atlanta and a made a new church our home for a few days. And we’ll be ready for 2 more days of the trip!

Day 3- Enslavement, lynching and Mass Incarceration

Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on March 19, 2019 at 2:00 AM

The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration

The Equal Justice Initiative’s museum was overwhelming as it detailed the slave trade (by 1860,Montgomery was the capital of the domestic slave trade in Alabama) and how, after Emancipation, America continued to find new ways to oppress African-Americans.


After Reconstruction fell apart in 1877, Southern police often convicted African-Americans of small offenses (which usually only applied to non-white communities) and then leased them out to work in factories, mines and farms since 13th Amendment allowed for involuntary servitude for incarcerated persons. By 1898, 73% of Alabama state revenue was from convict leasing.


Although convict leasing was outlawed in 1928, African-Americans were still disproportionately imprisoned. And states added segregation laws, adding a whole extra set of reasons to lock up African-Americans, for offenses such as playing checkers with someone of another race. Then, with the War on Drugs, the numbers of those incarcerated increased dramatically. Very vivid accounts of prison life in the museum underscored the terror and hopelessness of being locked up and the dehumanizing treatment of our fellow citizens.

 

As we grieved over the reality of what was done to our African-American siblings, some of us also struggled with the words of those who shared our white skin. We heard white men who justified slavery as God’s intention. Pastors who quoted from our holy scriptures as a tool of oppression and violence.  And senators who defended segregation as a way to protect their "habits, traditions and way of life," as if their way of life was more important than the freedom of their brothers and sisters.   

 

As the museum detailed the reality of lynching as a public spectacle, they lifted up the reality that has shaken me especially this trip- that this system of dehumanization and oppression and violence has psychologically damaged the white persons who take part in it. It has taught us misplaced fear. It has enshrined a way of life created by oppressing others. It has made us think that our skin color, rather than our character and our treatment of others, is something that entitles us. And it has taught us that all of this is normal.  And we can't just shake it off since it's in the air we breathe.  


An African-American woman outside the museum asked one of our white participants, "Why does someone who looks like you come here?"  The answer for me is that this is my history.  This is what has formed me whether I wanted it or not.  And if we're going to begin to repair what is, to change how we live into the future- we first have to look square at our history and what was done in our name. 

 

After the pain of facing our shared past, there was a small room in the museum, bathed in light, with the faces of those who have defied the dominant story and worked to write a new one. It was solace and hope. It was the place where everyone could take a breath.  And it felt somehow safe (even thought life for any of those surrounding us never was).  Because in that place we were surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses and that the evil of the world that we had just witnessed was not all there is.

 

And after that respite, we walked through the last hallway, which asked us the hard questions of “what now?” What should we do as foot soldiers in the movement toward justice and reconciliation? As people who care about inhumane treatment in jails and death sentences for juveniles? What are we, as Christian people, called to do to repent of our churches’ participation in and encouragement of racial injustice? What can we do now to change what will be?

 

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice

There aren’t words to describe the walk through the hanging iron blocks symbolizing the vicious murder of African-Americans- the 4000 people lynched between 1880 and 1940. Brothers and sisters killed so that another person could somehow feel more superior or powerful. Or because those in power were trying to defend their way of life that was built on oppression. It was horrifying to see our national disgrace hanging in front of us. A disgrace that was as close as our backyard, as we read the names of those from Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties in Maryland. 



And it was pwoerful to see the Ida Wells forest- a statue of trees cut down, never allowed to grow.  To know that this is part of the legacy of our American story.  



And it felt like holy ground to have our brothers and sisters named and remembered.  To have them receive the honor taken from them. 



Montgomery Education Foundation

As we were emotionally exhausted and wondering where we go from here, Ms. Ruva Chimedza, Community Programs Coordinator for the Montgomery Education Foundation joined us back at the church.  She helped us understand the public school system in Montgomery, which has the worst performing schools in a state ranked 47th in the nation for education and has recently come under state control in order to help keep their accreditation.   She helped us understand magnet schools, charter schools, and traditional public schools and the tiered system of educational outcomes from them. 


And then came the question, “How do we do better for ALL our children” rather than only looking out for our own? One option in Montgomery is a “conversion charter” where a group will take over a traditional school but allow all the same students to be there. It’s a way of radically reforming what is possible in one place without displacing students most in need of those interventions.


And she also told us about a hopeful program called “Network Nights” where anyone interested in public education- students, parents, community leaders- can come out, talk in small groups about whatever issues they feel need to be discussed. And each night ends with a “Match and Act” where people can bring up the needs they have and find someone else in the room who can meet that need. It doesn’t take much set up- just giving people a venue and a way to solve some of their own problems. And all it takes is people- students, parents and community members- who have hope that something can change and a desire to be an active part of that movement.


Pastor Tiffany Chaney from Gathered by Grace

Pastor Chaney, whose congregation works with Montgomery Education Foundation to support their efforts, is a mission developer (meaning a church planter) who developed Gathered by Grace especially for folks 18-40-ish who need a safe and welcome place to hear the powerful word of grace.  They are doing church a new way with on-ling Bible studies and conversations about real-life topis and what the gospel has to say about them.  It's doing what church has always done- speak grace and empower God's people to follow Jesus' way- in a way that makes sense to the community that gathers. 


And part of that means doing what they can in the communtiy.  Pastor Chaney said, “I believe that the kingdom of Jesus is real.”   That when God gets to working, mighty things like happened in the book of Acts (especially chapter 4) might start happening again- like people sharing their goods and transforming their lives.


Her congregation has a “Life Happens” fund to support others in need of a little help- giving food help to those in rural areas who can’t access food pantries or helping pay funeral expenses for a daughter. And even though they’re far from the largest congregation in Montgomery, they worked to get books into public schools and serve in a support role to the Montgomery Youth Forum. Because the health and well-being of all people matter. And because this is what the church does when it trusts that the kingdom of Jesus is real and breaking in.


This is a story worth defending and living out. The one about grace.  The one about sharing what we have so everyone has what they need.  The one where community members come together to solve problems together and support young people.  This is the gospel heritage to hold onto, the story we get to live into. 

Day 2- Birmingham and seeing how God brought us through

Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on March 18, 2019 at 2:30 AM


What a joy to start the day in worship with our brothers and sisters in Christ at 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham!  This historic church was the site of mass meetings during the Civil Rights movement. It was the staging area and starting point for the Children’s Crusade which turned the tide of sentiment against Birmingham’s policies. And it was the site of a bombing during Sunday school in 1963 which claimed the lives of 4 girls.

But this morning we didn’t go there for the history. We went there to be God’s people today and hear a word from God for us.


The hospitality was warm and welcoming (a church member brought chips and brownies to our van after worship!) and the music was hopeful and powerful. And then Rev. Price gave a powerful sermon about the devil tempting Jesus to prove God’s power by jumping off the roof of the temple and making God catch him with a spectacular display.


Rev. Price said, “If you need proof of God’s presence with you, then all you need to do is press PAUSE and then rewind your life.” So that we can notice all that God has done for us. So that we can realize how God preserved us this far. So that we can see that God has been with us in the past and surely is with us now. And soon after he finished preaching, we all held hands to sing, “There’s a sweet, sweet Spirit in this place. And I know it is the Spirit of the Lord.” Because God had brought us all through and to the place where we were standing. God’s presence had been with us all.

 

And that’s a little of what the afternoon for us was at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. A time to pause our regular lives and look back at those who walked the road before us and made a way for us.


Our students walked from rooms depicting the segregated south right through to the present day. And learned for the for the first time about the Children’s Crusade, where children were strategically used (something they were eager for!) to press for desegregation of public spaces and local businesses. UMBC’s President Hrabowski often talks about what it was like to ignore his parents and take part in the march for justice. To be a part of something larger than himself, something that mattered.

 

Evil caused police to use fire hoses- strong enough to pull bark off trees- against students in the Children’s Crusade. Evil got Birmingham nicknamed, “Bombingham” after the nearly 50 unsolved, racially motivated bombings in the 50s and 60s, including at 16th St. Baptist. Evil made the government threaten to cut off food assistance to those in Mississippi if protests didn’t stop- using every evil they had to wield to hold on to power.


But God brought our ancestors through by embarrassing the evil intentions of those in power. Photographers documented the violence at the Children’s Crusade and it caused outrage which forced Birmingham to integrate. When Alabama banned the NAACP in 1956, so within a week, Rev, Fred Shuttlesworth founded the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights to engage in the same work.  College students encouraged boycots of segregated businesses which reduced sales by close to 15% at the busy Easter season and moved integration closer.  And those churches that were bombed repaired their walls and went right back to worshipping God and fighting for justice. God found a way to bring our ancestors through and God will keep doing it.


On a side note, after seeing so many hateful words in the Civil Rights museum written and spoken by people who share my skin color, I cringed when I saw a pamphlet from the “Concerned White Citizens of Alabama” that called people to “Stand up for Alabama.” But I got to rejoice when I saw that this was a group fighting AGAINST segregation and reminding their fellow white citizens that “Silence is no longer golden.”  It was a messge underscored by our breif visit to the Birmingham jail (just the outside!) where Dr. King penned his famous letter to white clergy who counseled him to wait for justice in the courts rather than demand it through direct action.  The letter where Dr. King reminded them that silence from the powerful is violence to the opressed.  "Silence is no longer golden."



Back to the church

We returned to Messiah Lutheran to the spectacular hospitality of the congregation who cooked dinner for us. And we had a chance to chat with Doris, a member of Messiah who lived in Selma in 1965 and went to the mass meetings and was there for one of the marches. She said that in those meetings there was a sense of hope, that things were finally going to change. Over 50 years since the Voting Rights Act was passed, its harder to feel that same hope that entrenched problems are going to get any better.



Tonight our students were feeling a mix of emotions- pained by all that has been and deeply grateful and humbled by the courage of those who defied unjust systems. And frustrated that it’s taken until now for them to learn their history, since these stories aren’t taught well in our schools. They felt they only got the cleaned- up versions.

 

Tomorrow we head to the new Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration to continue to hear the ugliness of our history so that we might learn to never go back.

Day 1- Selma and why doesn't justice look different?

Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on March 17, 2019 at 1:20 AM

We are extremely grateful for the hospitality of St. Dominic Catholic Church in Kingsport, TN where we slept last night and for Aunt Ruth (aunt of Pastor Ray Ranker of the Lutheran ministry at the University of Maryland) who let us in at 12:30 at night!


After 14 hours of driving over 2 days we are so happy to finally be in Alabama! We began our Civil Rights trip in Selma today. What happened at Selma is actually at the end of the Civil Rights era, but we needed to fit things in as they were open. So we’ll be walking backwards in history this week.  


Lowndes County Interpretive Center (National Park Service)

Our first stop told the story of Lowndes County, which was a center point of the Voting Rights March from Selma to Montgomery. In 1965, it was the poorest county in the nation. 80% of the population was black but they only owned 10% of the land. Many were sharecroppers and scared of losing what little they had and weren’t ready to join the fight for voting rights.


But organizers recognized the need to use this area- notorious for voting rights abuses- to wage this battle. For many of our students, this was their first time learning about Bloody Sunday and how the peaceful marchers were stopped and beaten by police. This was the first time hearing our American stories of the evil done and the bravery of those who refused to let the way things are be the way things would be. 


Our students were shaken by seeing the police’s riot gear and the cattle prods used against human beings. They were haunted by hearing that the beating didn’t stop when they left the bridge, but the violent police officers followed them back to their homes and churches. The news coverage of this event spurred a nation to action- including the Ministers’ March 3 das later and the final march to Montgomery 2 weeks later. And the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed soon after.


But as one of our folks said, “feelings don’t go away because they pass a law. They just come out another way.” And this hatred and discrimination just needed to find another way to come out. So as residents of Lowndes County began to legally register to vote, they found themselves evicted from their homes (because if you didn’t have a home address, you couldn’t register.) And the original organizers raised money to buy land and build Tent Cities to shelter the brave folk who registered to vote, eventually building homes from them. I love it when life keeps fighting back like dandelions growing up in the sidewalk cracks!


Walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to Selma


Our next stop was to walk across that holy bridge. There’s something about being in the place where history happened that matters. To walk those same steps. But then you reach the town of Selma, where people are going about living their lives. And our students struggled as they passed building after building that was empty or boarded up. Streets were nearly deserted. And the hope that they felt after knowing what happened there turned to disillusionment and frustration for what is- a place without a lot of economic opportunity for the residents. It was like walking off a movie set and back into the real world where things are complicated and don’t work out how we think they should.   


Gaining some measure of justice doesn’t always mean that life is transformed. And the question becomes, “why?” And “how can it be different?” And “where do we go from here?”


Brown Chapel AME                

We kept walking through town to Brown Chapel (AME). At a time (1965) when Gov. Wallace made it illegal for African-Americans to hold mass meetings in churches, Brown Chapel risked ignoring that order and becoming a place to organize and the beginning point for the marches in Selma (all 3 of them, including the one that eventually made it to Montgomery.) Our students distinctly felt that we were standing on holy ground, ground that had been a safe space for so many who were a part of the fight for justice.


And there’s holy ground next to the church, too- George Washington Carver Homes, a public housing complex whose residents were crucial to the Civil Rights struggle. They housed and fed organizers and supporters and joined in the marches themselves. The monument next to the Homes celebrated the freedom fighters and included high schoolers, college students, hospital workers, and teachers. So many regular people who were called into a movement that was bigger than themselves. And who risked their safety for it.


Tonight we talked about how the Voting Rights Act was allowed to expire and the danger that still exists from disenfranchisement of voters, particularly voters of color and those living in poverty. And we- all us regular people- need to keep reminding our government of the necessity of making sure all our citizens can vote. There may be a moment- and it may be soon- where all us regular folks are called to be a part of that continuing movement toward justice so that the situations of our brothers and sisters will change. We’ll keep on walking and keeping our eyes and hearts open in the days ahead.


Now we’re settled into Messiah Lutheran in Montgomery and are grateful for the warm welcome, the fresh cookies and lemonade and the carpeted floors and padded pews, which make sleeping so much more easier! Off to Birmingham early tomorrow!

Taking up our crosses leads to life

Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on September 17, 2018 at 11:50 AM

Mark 8:27-38


Who do you say that I am? It’s one of those haunting questions that Jesus says to us. To everyone who follows him. And our answer- the answer in our heart, not the well-polished church speak we can recite, makes all the difference in how we live.


But it’s one of those questions that stops us in our tracks. We’d say he is a good example and someone who points us back to ways of justice and love that God intends. He’s someone who loves well and speaks about God. That’s what the disciples around Jesus say this morning, too- he’s a prophet sent by God.


But that’s not the answer Jesus was looking for. Those things describe what he’s already been doing. Jesus is asking why they are following, what they see in him and how they understand his mission. They are asking who he is for them.


And it’s the brilliant and flawed disciple, Peter who speaks of a truth that he can’t see, but he somehow knows. That Jesus is more than the prophets before. He is the one they’ve always been waiting for. “You are the Messiah, Jesus.” You’re the one we’ve been waiting for. The one that God promised would come to rescue us. Who will set the world right. You are our powerful God come to us.


And I can imagine how proud Jesus was- finally someone understood who he was and what he was doing in the world. And in the joy and truth of that moment , Jesus goes on to speak the rest of his mission- that he will be misunderstood, demonized by the religious elite and eventually killed by the same Romans that Peter thought he would conquer. But even then, life will win out.


Even though he’s the Messiah, he won’t be a vanquishing hero riding in to put the Romans in their place. Not a superhero who can defeat all his enemies and stay unharmed. Jesus says he will suffer for the sake of his people.


And Peter’s whole hope crumbled. He was so happy he finally got the right answer, but Jesus doesn’t seem to understand what it means to TRULY be God’s Messiah. And he objects like a man whose heart is crushed. No, no, Peter says. This isn’t the way. Our God is mighty. Our God wins. Our God makes a way for us. When I said Messiah, I meant the winner. The one who would make us win. The one who would save our lives from all that threatens us.


And isn’t that who we want some days- the one who’s going to knock out all the people perpetrating injustice against our neighbors, to ride in on a horse to save us all. Who’s going to fight all the people who oppose us. No, Jesus, we want you to be a superhero without all this suffering.


But funny thing, Jesus doesn’t take our opinions under advisement or listen to our objections about the way God works in the world. So Jesus tells Peter, “You’ve misunderstood the my work in the world, Peter. You’re desperately trying to protect me from harm and struggle because you’re also trying to protect yourself. It’s human and I understand it. But it’s not the way the kingdom of God works. Because it’s not the way of love. So might and power and keeping myself safe cannot be my way of life. And even more terrifyingly for you, I call my followers to follow me in this way of living.


So Jesus says- I am setting my mind and heart completely on God’s hope and intention for the world. I’m going to follow the path of relentless love for all creation with whole-heartedness and I’m going to suffer the consequences of living like that.


And then Jesus says those words that are so terrifying and misunderstood, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel will save it.”


Jesus lays out an astonishing difficult and beautiful path before all his would-be followers. A path that promises to lead right to the heart of God. And we, like humans often do, have all too often taken those words and totally messed up their meaning.


The church has sometimes used Jesus’ words to justify any hard and painful thing in life as God-imposed suffering or used it as a reason to ignore the suffering of our brothers and sisters. We’ve used these words to justify staying in abusive situations. And those inside and outside the church have even cheapened them, calling annoying bosses or a lack of air conditioning “just our cross to bear.”


And in all that, we’ve misunderstood what the cross is about. Jesus taking up his cross wasn’t a crappy thing that happened when he was out living his life. It was a natural result of preaching about and living out the truth of God’s kingdom in a broken world that wasn’t ready to hear it. The cross was something Jesus willingly took on as the consequence of loving God and humanity relentlessly.


But some of the things we talk about as our crosses are just painful things that happen to us in life. Things that have nothing to do with love. Things like diseases, floods, accidents and abuse. These are things that threaten to destroy us and these are situations that God sometimes works through to change us, but they are not things we choose to take on because of love. They are burdens that we bear, or evils that we fight against, but not crosses that we take up.


Our crosses are what we choose to take on out of obedience of Jesus’ reckless command to love God and love others. Our crosses are fighting for safety on our streets even when it puts us in danger. And carrying God’s message of love to places where people don’t want to hear it. And speaking up when people ignore God’s call for justice. And fighting for those that are forgotten and neglected when it seems like no one is listening.


Taking up our cross means following where God’s love leads us, no matter the cost. It means being ignored or hurt by those we’re called to love, but refusing to stop loving in response. It is to love even though relationships end, love ones die, and people disappoint us. It is to keep speaking peace in a violent world. And it is to accept whatever struggle and the suffering comes as a result of your work.


Taking up our crosses is not martyrdom or seeking out suffering. It’s not smiling though everything that happens to you. It’s not accepting abuse. It is making God’s will your guiding star and God’s promise of healing and peace your surest hope. It’s running after them with such strength that fear doesn’t have a chance to deter you. And accepting the suffering and the consequences of living like this.


Because despite every evidence to the contrary, we are people who have the audacious trust that the cross didn’t just mean suffering. That through some miracle of God’s love, it also brought renewal and resurrection. It showed us the beauty and joy of power of the kingdom of God. And it showed us what abundant life- life completely ordered in God’s way looks like. Taking up the cross is what lead to enduring life for Christ and for us.


So we take up our crosses because it leads to the abundant life Jesus promises. That’s why we act in love toward others no matter how often we’re hurt. It’s why we fight for justice when we’re surrounded by injustice and spread kindness in the midst of evil. Because these are actions that lead to life. These are things that lead straight toward the heart of God and straight toward God’s perfect kingdom.


And Jesus promises that when we live our life drenched in his love and with our minds focused on his justice, we will find life. True and enduring life. The life that matters before God and that matters in our world. For those who lose the path the world makes for them for the sake of following after me, Jesus says, they will find life abundant.


In this life, we will be forced to accept burdens that come into our lives. That’s not something we’re given a choice about as unfair as that reality is. But, we are all invited, called and beckoned to take up our crosses and follow Jesus. To help usher in a new way of being on this earth, to be a part of the transformation of the world even by small steps. And we do not walk this way alone. We go with Jesus making the way before us holding us up when we are weak and loving us even when we fail and run the other way at times. And we go with a community audacious enough to trust that the way of Jesus is the way that leads to life for all of us together.


People of God, we are given a dreadfully hard privilege- to carry our crosses toward life. We are invited to defy the world by taking on struggle that means something. We take up our crosses in the midst of evil as a sign to ourselves and a sign to the world that we are working toward the vision that God has promised will be a reality one day. We walk, limp, drag, or crawl with our crosses as people who trust that Jesus knows the way that leads to life for us and for our world.


Day 6: Hope rippling on our way home

Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on March 23, 2018 at 12:15 AM

We started our day at Rippling Hope- with some folks finishing up building a wall at our house from yesterday They were pretty much beaming with pride when it was done and I understand why- our students built a wall by themselves!


The rest of us helped take down some shelves from Rippling Hope’s former headquarters in a church so they could install it in their new headquarters- a former bank building that was donated to them. (We got to explore the safe and the safety deposit boxes!) And then we cleaned up sticks to keep the bank building property in good shape. It wasn’t glamorous work, but we are helping make the space ready to welcome groups like us when the weather get warmer. And we are helping Carl and his wife Robin welcome others as warmly as they have welcomed us. And that stuff matters.



Carl also shared with us a little more about how crucial Rippling Hope’s work is even in neighborhoods that are stable. Many of the folks in Detroit are long-term homeowners who are elderly. When they pass away, sometimes their homes are left vacant when family doesn’t want to keep them up. Other times family moves in and are often not positive forces in the neighborhood. Once a few houses are left vacant, people are less likely to move into that neighborhood and it can easily turn the tide of the entire community. The small work we do to help keep up homes has ripples we can’t imagine.


And Carl reminded us that just our coming here to hear people’s stories and walk along beside them for awhile brings hope. And reminds people that they are not forgotten. Being neighbors to one another matters. Listening to each other matters. Changing others’ ideas about Detroit matters.



And that’s a good thing to hear as we left this afternoon. These trips are full and exhausting and we’re ready to go home, but they also seem too short to make any difference. They seem too short to hear people’s stories well. They seem too short to matter, sometimes. So it was good to be reminded that the hope we receive and the hope we bring ripples outward.



This afternoon we headed back to Pittsburgh (with some of us stopping at North America’s largest candy store on the way) and got back to the Lutheran University Center, where Pastor Brian and the students fed us and let us join in a service of Holden Evening Prayer.  We heard the words of Jesus that remind us to take up our cross and follow.  And the Lutheran University Center  has a cross that has people sitting inside it and on it. Tonight I imagine the folks we met in Detroit in that cross- that cross that calls us to risk for the sake of love and life.  We didn't meet perfect people, but we met people who are willing to take risks for the life of their city. 


Later our group shared the stories that we will bring back with us this week:


• Making beauty out of discarded items in the Heidelberg Project

• Seeing their story in the folks we met at Church of the Messiah and being inspired by what God is doing there.

• Having their perception of Detroit radically changed and being called to tell that story

• and hopefully return

• The resilience of the people of Detroit and their way of “making a way of out of no way”- taking things on themselves when government and industry doesn’t

 

And we prayed together- with one of our students so excited to have the words to the Lord’s Prayer in front of him so he could finally pray the whole thing with us. And our students lifted up the needs of the world and the names of those we met this week. The ones who feel like family. The ones for whom we thank God. The ones we hope God will keep working through powerfully. 



As we say goodbye to Detroit and head home, we bring part of the hope with us to a place not unlike Detroit. So often this week we talked about the similarities (and differences) between Baltimore and Detroit. So we know that we go back to some of the same problems. But we also go back to some inspiring people who are bringing hope in places that need it. And our job is to seek them out, amplify their work and follow their lead. God’s up to stuff in Baltimore, too. And hopefully God will use us well in that work.

Day 5: Steps made, walls rebuilt, hope riplling through

Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on March 22, 2018 at 12:40 AM

Today we joined in the work of Rippling Hope, an organization created by Carl Zerweck about 8 years ago to mobilize volunteers to do home repair projects. He works with neighborhood associations and block clubs to make this work happen- having these groups distribute applications for repairs. This helps the associations connect with neighbors and allows them some say in which projects get moved forward. They choose about 300 projects each year to accomplish and have groups like ours come to do the work.


Today we worked just outside city limits in Dearborn Heights with Barb and Joe. They have lived in the neighborhood for 25 years, raised their kids there, and obviously love their community. They have begun a neighborhood garden with about 12 raised beds and a butterfly shaped garden and are applying for grants to help make a park across the street for neighborhood kids. And whenever they have a chance, they support work in the neighborhood. And so do their neighbors- 3 different neighbors came to help out as we were replacing a fence around the garden.



Some years ago, there were un-housed folks who were staying on a vacant lot and the police in the area asked the neighborhood for help in getting them housed. Barb knew a neighbor whose mom had passed away still had mom’s house sitting empty. And they asked if they could use it. And he shared the house for free. Just because he can and someone else needs it.


And today we helped, just because we could. We hung drywall in an old house- adapting to the quirks of an old house and the reality of our non-professional selves. It wasn’t perfect, but it was profoundly good. To be given the privilege to serve. To be used well for others. To have a solid wall put up where they wasn’t one. And the young girl who lived in the house thanked us by drawing each of us pictures of a house- knowing that she is thankful for the work being done. This is what it means to be a community- to help when we can and be grateful when we receive the gifts of others. And we are glad that the people God gave us to be in community with happen to be wherever we are.


Some other students helped build a new set of stairs to the basement with the help of Tom, one of the most gracious and patient folks we’ve met. He mentored our students and let them do the work and gave us the opportunity to make the house safer for all the future residents that may live there. And the rest of us cleaned up the yard for the girl to be able to play outside when it gets warmer. And burned up the brush in a bonfire that we were grateful to gather around when it was so cold.



This evening, we had dinner at Carl’s house with Oliver Cole, the president of the Grandmont1 Improvement Association, a local neighborhood association, and his wife Denise, who is active in local politics. Denise- a Detroit native- loves this city with a passion. She has seen it in its hard times and deeply wants to be a part of its rebuilding. And Oliver is someone who is willing to speak hard words to politicians to remind them they are public servants and they need to respond to the needs of the communities they serve. They talked about their frustration with some realities of Detroit politics- where there are too many legacies and too many decisions (like development downtown) are made for folks who don’t make up much of the city.



Oliver talked about his neighborhood- a mix of new arrivals and many elderly folks who have lived in their neighborhood for 50+ years. He talked about the need to do what we can to help them remain in their homes. He talked about the tenacity of folks who continue to live life and plant flowers and raise kids and grandkids even on blocks where only 2 homes are left. These are the real Detroiters for him. These are the hope. And we just need a whole new group of folks to move in and learn from them- learn to make the city again.


After being so immersed in the city for the past 5 days, it feels like we can actually begin to understand some of what makes it tick, some of the joy that people see in it, and can dispel many of the stereotypes of what Detroit is.


These words from the prophet Haggai were the appointed Bible verses for today- “Speak now . . . to the remnant of the people, and say, Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing? Yet now take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear. . . The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former . . .and in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts.” (Haggai 2:1-24)


They are words spoken to a different people in a different time, but they seem like a prayer for Detroit. A reminder that God calls us to work and not to fear. To trust that God’s presence goes beside us when we work for life and for justice. And to believe beyond everything that our God has a habit of brining good in places we don’t think it’s likely.


Tomorrow we will work for our last day, for God is with us and the neighborhood we visit.

Day 4: Life battling back in winter, in art and in belief against the odds

Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on March 21, 2018 at 12:55 AM

The Greening of Detroit is an organization that began as a response to the loss of trees between the 1950s and the 1980s. Now the group works with community groups and block clubs to sponsor tree plantings and create neighborhood gardens and also trains people in landscaping as job preparation. And as their showplace, they maintain a food garden in downtown Detroit to introduce folks to what they do and provide a beautiful place for the city. They also produce food for local food pantries and community feeding programs.


And when it’s 30-some degrees outside, they invite Baltimoreans to help them get that downtown garden ready for the beginning of the growing season. It was a chilly morning to be pulling up old plants, raking leaves, and picking up trash, but many hands make light work. And under the dead plants, our students were delighted to find flowers poking up. Life hidden among the things that were decaying. It was a good reminder as we drive through neighborhoods have been neglected, where people have left, where folks don’t have access to water and other city services- that life still lives there. And it fights back. And part of our job is to take away all that hides it and makes it hard to grow.


Urban gardening has taken off in Detroit because there’s an abundance of vacant land. A city that once had 1.8 million people now has 600,000 so there’s sometimes 2 houses on a block with tons of empty space in between. Which means it’s a perfect place for artists and gardeners to come in and take over. And in a place where services like grocery stores can be few and far between, gardens bring healthy food back to neighborhoods and provide employment for folks.


And then it was off to Church of the Messiah, which calls itself a non-traditional Episcopal church, to chat with Pastor Barry, Dwight and JT. Church of the Messiah gathers around 300 folks for Sunday worship, with about 60% of those folks being black males under 30. It seems pretty obvious that folks come to worship here because the gospel comes alive here.


Pastor Barry’s sermons- which can get a little theatrical and unorthodox at times to make a point, bring the gospel in words that make sense in their lives. Like the time he likened developing a relationship with God to developing a relationship with alcohol or smoking or all that other things that aren’t great at first, but when we stick with them, they become a powerful habit.

(That's Pastor Barry down front)

But as we heard JT and Dwight talk, it was obvious that the gospel comes alive in the way young people are rejoiced in, supported and believed in. They are believed to have potential before they show it, kind of how Jesus loves us even before we possibly deserve it. They do gospel rather than just preach gospel and that seems to have gotten into the bones of Dwight and JT.

JT was having a hard time as a high schooler and soon after coming here, adopted one of the members as his a mentor and father-figure. That’s what he said kept him in school and got him to head to college. And he talked with joy about how this church made Jesus someone he could understand and want to be around, after other church had bored him. The gospel was real- through the people and the Jesus talk that finally made sense.

Dwight changed his life after coming to Church of the Messiah and now runs I AM productions, making videos to tell positive stories in the neighborhood and promotional videos for folks starting up new businesses. He wanted to name his company after something he learned in church, taking the name from the moment that God gave his name to Moses. It was a moment meant to steady Moses and make him strong enough for the work before him.

The video production company is only one business among many- there’s a clothing line, a leather craft shop, a bike shop, a line of ginger drinks and more- all businesses begun at Church of the Messiah thanks to people who believe in the dreams of their young people and throw all their resources at supporting them. “It’s all ministry,” Pastor Barry told us. “The marching band, the bike repair, the video production. It’s all ministry.”

Pastor Barry reminded us that believing in impossible things is a Christian reality. If we can believe in a virgin conceiving a child, we can certainly believe that a young person can start up a bike shop. They believe and they do not fear. This is what the gospel calls us to, above all our objections.


The church also has a Community Development Corporation that owns 213 units of housing and makes sure that it remains at market rates that allow current neighbors to not be priced out of the area when luxury apartments move in (as they are doing now.) They also own 103 other lots in the neighborhood and will only sell them to those who intend to use those lots for the good of the community.

On the way back from Church of the Messiah, we visited the Heidelberg Project- a large public art installation started in 1986 by Tyree Guyton, an artist who had lost 3 brothers to street violence and was devastated by the crime and drug filled street he grew up on. He painted on houses and sidewalks and involved neighborhood kids in making art out of discarded materials. The shoes everywhere symbolize those lost to street violence and the MANY clocks remind us that it’s time to change the reality of the city. It’s been cleaned by the city, opposed by many, been burned by arsonists, and a victim of the elements. But still it’s there. Battered, but still speaking the same message.


And then, since it was the first day of spring, we drove 25 minutes out of our way to get free cones at Dairy Queen. Free is our favorite flavor.


Tonight we had an intense conversation about how we fight against the systems in our world that work against life and flourishing for all people, which has been the question we’ve been working with since Sunday’s sermon. Do you do it by trying to change the government or by changing the people in it? Do you knock the government down all at once (but then what happens to the most vulnerable who need support?) Or do you do it in smaller neighborhood ways like Church of the Messiah and still have to work with government and struggle with it? Is it enough to do something small when the larger system is corrupt?

Jesus obviously calls us to fight against systems that oppose life, that oppose justice, that oppose the dignity of all people. And his cross constantly reminds us that we do that with love, not force, even thought we are so often tempted to do otherwise. But how? And are our small efforts enough? It’s so often our question in the face of so much struggle.

Tonight we ended with Evening Prayer. We prayed for the good being done, the people still suffering, and for Jesus to be in it all. This is our small part tonight. Tomorrow we wake up with another opportunity to do God’s work. Like everyday.



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