An all too familiar story

It is a story that sounds all too familiar. Those who were assigned to keep the peace. Those whose job it was to enforce law and order. Those who had power, position and authority, they saw a man. But they didn’t actually see a man, what they saw was a thug. They didn’t need to know the whole story. They didn’t need to know everything that had led up to that moment. All they saw was a thug and so with justice deferred and an unrighteous act, an innocent man is killed. Killed by those who are in charge. Killed by those with power. An innocent man executed by state sponsored violence. His crimes did not warrant a death sentence and yet innocent blood was shed.

A story that sounds too familiar.

From the very beginning he was profiled. Not just him, but his kinfolks as well. Anyone who looked like him was seen as a threat. And so even as a baby, this one who would be called a thug would be profiled. Because of the family he came from. Because of the town he lived in. This is how folks saw him and treated him. He was a target in his own country – a land that never fully belonged to him and his people. From the very beginning his life was at risk. Everything was stacked against him.

A story that sounds too familiar.

This thug, this one who was innocent and killed was the Christ.

Around this time of year it is easy to get caught up in the twinkling lights, the majesty of the story, everything being beautiful, where memories are forged and memories recalled. We gather together. We want to join in Mary’s praise and pondering. We want to be in the magical, mystical moment of Christmas.

But we are drawn always, even when we look to the manger, we are drawn to the cross. We are brought to that place of suffering and pain. Of a world that could not understand the good news of Jesus.

The cross comes, even in our Christmastide, compelling us to not look away. This is not a time to ignore the violence and brokenness. This is not a time to wish away injustice. We cannot just live in a candy cane fantasy. We must see the whole story. We see the places where Christ is crucified again and again by racism, nationalism, nihilism.

We cannot turn away because in the midst of the pain, we find the triumph. There are healers in our midst. There are those that can overcome divisions. There are messengers among us uniting communities. There are prophets today striving for justice. There are glimpses of hope even when it looks like a losing cause. Peace comes to a violent world. These are the places where we witness Emmanuel, God with us.

It is in reconciliation we see God and it is in reparations. It is in grace that we feel God’s presence and in the act of forgiving and being forgiven that Christ is born anew. It is the light in the darkness, it is the city on the hill, it is salt and light, it is shepherds and fishermen. It is not the glory of the extraordinary but the humble and the meek. It is in everyday folk and everyday acts where the walls that divide get chipped away. Where the systems that kill are dismantled. Where a new world is possible

This good news comes to us; as sure as the choir of angels proclaims it.

But we need to place ourselves in the presence of the revelation. And so even on Christmas we are drawn to the cross. Even in this holiday of Joy to the World, we see how desperately the world is hurting and need that joy. We proclaim Christ crucified.

The cross it makes no sense to non-believers. It makes no sense to the world. It makes no sense to glorify this act of violence.

But when we know, when we know how Jesus came, how he has torn down the walls between us. When we see that Jesus has brought us close – those that were near and those that were far off. When we see the healing he has brought and that by his stripes we are healed. When we see that he came to fulfill the Law and establish divine justice. When we praise the Prince of Peace. THEN, then the story of the cross makes sense. Then we can revel in the glory of the death and resurrection, of life and life everlasting.

It sounds so familiar.

And then we know. We know why the twinkling lights are so important. We know why the gospel we have heard year after year still rings true for us and gives us a new message. It is what allows us to go into a cold and unloving world full of violence, profiling, injustice, division and brokenness to say there is one who traveled this path already.

There is one who has bore the sin of a fallen world.

There is one who has come to redeem all the broken places of the world and of our lives.

There is one being born among us over and over and over.

His name is Emmanuel. God is with us.

It is so familiar.

And it is our good news.


Black Solidarity Sunday – 1 year later

Yesterday Facebook reminded me that a year-ago was the national Black Solidarity Sunday. This was organized by historically African-American congregations. It was a remarkable moment that connected Sunday morning sermons with afternoon marches and protests.

Of all the actions and rallies under the banner of Black Lives Matter, this was one of the largest seen in Milwaukee. It was by far the largest moment of participation by faith leaders and clergy. When the pastor, priest, rabbi or imam show up, they usually bring members of their congregations. People that would never shut down a freeway or disrupt a Christmas tree ceremony still found it worthy to stand together in the bitter December winds of downtown Milwaukee. It was a powerful moment.

But was it a moment or a movement? Did the call for action just fade into the holiday season or did it do any good?

The Impact

Any time large numbers are mobilized, leaders take notice. We can’t know for sure if the consistent presence of protesters joined with church-folk impacted what happened 8 days later. When Milwaukee’s District Attorney said he would not press charges in the murder of Dontre Hamilton, the DOJ immediately announced a federal investigation.

We also saw a city-wide effort led by Bishop Walter Harvey of Parklawn Assembly of God and Pastor Matt Erikson of Eastbrook to work toward racial reconciliation. The adoption of the Milwaukee Declaration tells the heart of pastors for things to be different.

Black Solidarity Sunday also reinforced the public cries for racial justice across the country, the need to address disparities in all sectors of society. It gave a choir to preach to.

And yet

And yet, it has had so little systemic impact. The federal investigation of Dontre’s death did not lead to charges. Instead of the long-standing cry for a pattern-and-practice investigation of the Milwaukee Police Department, we now learn the DOJ will do a voluntary, non-binding review of the department. Communities of color are still policed differently. Students of color are failed by a failing education system. Economic investment steers clear of communities of color – unless it is to gentrify the neighborhood. Incarceration. Poverty. Health Disparities.

In my own church fellowship – the whitest in the nation – race and racism permeate the institution. The Church actively works against the stated principles of desiring a more diverse denomination. I doubt most even knew there was a Black Solidarity Sunday last year. And am convinced that had it been preached in every pulpit it would not have been met with simple indifference by active resistance. That is the sin-sick soul of the ELCA.

Other churches – of every ethnic background – preach a feel-good gospel that never engages the prophetic call toward Justice rolling down like waters. I went to a funeral for a victim of gun violence. The preacher talked about the “unfortunate way she died,” but never said the words gun or bullets. Nothing was directly said about the plague of violence in our city. But you better damn well believe the sinners prayer was offered and folks were invited to accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior (language intentional). How are going to save somebody’s soul and not care about the conditions they are living in?

Where do we go

The movement continues. Activists will lead. Mobilized people, led by young people, queer people, people of color, will agitate, disrupt, deconstruction and continue building an alternative community rooted in justice. People of faith will be there – we always are. There will be good, church going folk hanging out with the resisters. Clergy will show up.

But until Black Solidarity is more than a Sunday, until white denominations aren’t afraid of the phrase Black Lives Matter, until a slumbering sanctuary awakens – this civil rights movement will write off faith communities. If you’re in the pews on Sunday, you’ll still see me. But if we’re in the streets on Tuesday, that’s where I’ll be too.

PC: Overpass Light Brigade (probably Joe Brusky)

Why disrupt the tree lighting?

The reaction to a protest at Red Arrow Park, the site of the killing of Dontre Hamilton, during the city/county tree lighting ceremony has folks, especially city leaders, asking “Why?” Why disrupt a family friendly event?

The greater question is why does Milwaukee tolerate a police force that acts unjustly? When even city aldermen and alderwomen, a US representative and a US Senator have called for a patterns and practice review of the way people of color are policed in this city, why do we allow it? Where are our leaders? Where is the federal investigation?

Tonight was about Dontre and about so much more. Many of us that have walked with the Hamilton’s were devastated, even if we weren’t surprised, that there would be no charges brought by the Department of Justice. It has been routine in Milwaukee and across this country to piece out incidents and to look at them in the narrowest of scope to justify police actions. DA Chisholm did not consider the events that began with former Officer Manney’s interactions with Dontre. It was only the exact moment before he shot him 14 times that was evaluated. This tunnel vision never brings justice. Similarly, if you only look at the story of Dontre, the local and federal prosecutors see no case to bring.

But let’s put Dontre in the landscape of Milwaukee. Policing here includes Derek Williams’ death in police custody; illegal strip searches and sexual assaults; the detaining of Patricia Larry, Darius Simmons’ mother, while her baby bled out in the street; a police officer raping a woman calling for help; and racial disparities in arrests. This is a pattern of abuse.

The Department of Justice has dragged its feet in this issue. The pattern of unjust policing continues unchecked. The practices of policing people of color (notice only African Americans were arrested tonight) continue.

The patterns and practices must be disrupted. Business as usual cannot continue. The police instigated this unrest. The mayor and the DOJ are the agitators.

How can the mayor speak of holiday cheer while the city crumbles? How can we watch silently when so many are suffering?

Why disrupt the tree lighting ceremony?

Because Red Arrow Park still cries with the blood of Dontre.

Because the DOJ has still not acted on the request for a Patterns and Practice review of MPD abuses.

Because Mayor Barrett has kept vacant seats on the Fire and Police Commission, the citizen’s oversight panel of MPD.

Because we are still waiting for justice.

Because there is no Merry Christmas for those that have suffered at the hands of the MPD.

Because disruption reminds people what’s going on.

Because protest is the most American thing to do.

Because Milwaukee stands with the movements for justice and peace around the country.

Because most of the families there have had to have “the talk” with their students of color when it comes to interacting with police.

Because direct action shows the city how strong we are, how we can change the systems.

Because this will not be a silent night.

Contact Attorney General Loretta Lynch and the US Attorney General Gregory Haanstad

and tell them the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division should sue the Milwaukee Police Department for their history of racial profiling, searches and seizures without probable cause, the targeting of minority populations for harassment, and excessive use of force. 





U.S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20530-0001

photo credits: C.M. DeSpears

The Call For White Clergy to Preach “Black Lives Matter.”

Of course we are all saddened. Of course we will all pray. The sanctity of a sanctuary has been broken. Fellow workers in the kingdom have been killed. The events in Charleston grieve our hearts.

But beyond grief and prayers, I believe this is a moment to help our congregation connect the dots. If you’ve never uttered “Black Lives Matter” from the pulpit, this is your Sunday. If you’ve wanted to but have been afraid that those words will put up more barriers than bridges, this is your Sunday. If you’ve felt uncomfortable with that phrase because it feels exclusive to white people, this is your Sunday.

In the blood of martyrs are the seeds of faith.

Charleston has martyrs. We don’t have information on the shooting or the shooter right now. But good faithful people and a righteous pastor were killed because they were at church. That church is a historic black church. A congregation of the African Methodist Episcopal tradition. Martyrs killed because their faith told them it was good to study the word together. And for that they lost their lives.

If it never did before in your congregation – or in your heart – be transformed by this with the renewing of your mind:

Black Lives Matter.

These martyrs, their black lives matter.

And if you can claim the power to speak that in the midst of this tragedy, then perhaps our congregations can begin to see events that are twisted by the media not as isolated incidents but as patterns of violence. The names and the hashtags – Trayvon, Mike, Eric, Rekia, Aiyanna, Darius, Dontre – they are a great cloud. To what do they bear witness?

If you are afraid, remember the Lord did not give you spirit of fear but power. Say Black Lives Matter.

If you are unsure of the good news and gospel that would bring to your context, pray on it that God would give you a spirit of revelation and wisdom.

I write this not as a “should.” I see this not as “Law.” Rather in the spirit of exhortation and encouragement I am sharing what God has put on my heart. 

In Peace and Power.

Esther 4:14

Honoring Mothers

This blog originally appeared on Living Lutheran

This Mother’s Day weekend, All Peoples Church (ELCA) spent time honoring mothers, giving flowers, sharing stories, and praying together. But it looked very different than a Sunday morning litany or a sermon theme. All Peoples was a leading partner with the Million Moms March, a gathering of mothers from across the country that have lost children due to police violence and vigilante violence. They came from Milwaukee and New York, Baltimore and St. Louis, Madison and Houston. Organized by Mothers for Justice United, a group led by Maria Hamilton whose son Dontre was shot by Milwaukee police 14 times, the days in Washington DC included advocacy and accompaniment, prayers and protest. Luther Place Memorial Church (ELCA) hosted an advocacy training for those meeting with White House officials. Others went to Capital Hill to meet with Senators and Representatives. Hundreds and hundreds marched to the Department of Justice demanding changes in the ways communities of color are policed. Demands included national record keeping of officer-involved shootings and to stop the militarization of police departments. Mothers petitioned for independent investigations and the same policies that prevent racial profiling at a national level to govern local jurisdictions.

The most powerful moments were the testimonies of the mothers. At John Marshall Park near Judiciary Square, mother after mother told of the death of her child. There were threads that wove through their stories, knitting together common themes. Yet, each story was unique on its own, as unique as the lives lost. The lawn of the park was transformed into holy ground as we were invited to bear witness to these tragic stories.

Religious leaders from across the nation stood in solidarity with the mothers. Rev. Traci Blackmon, a UCC pastor from Ferguson and I opened Saturday with prayers. UU ministers, Episcopal Priests, Lutheran pastors shared in this moment. My congregation sent 5 members to stand with 2 mothers from our church, including Ms. Hamilton. The church was present. People of faith have been engaged all along.

What strikes me about all of this is not the places the church has shown up or the ways it has been supportive. There will always be voices within the Church engaged in this work. What stands out for me is how unique All Peoples and others like it are in our religious landscape. Too often, people of faith want to shift the conversation from #BlackLivesMatter to All Lives Matter. Too often, the stories of police-community violence get dissected into the smallest of nuances, without considering the overarching themes of racial profiling and division that set the backdrop of these situations. We pray for peace without understanding why the cries in the streets declare, “No Justice, No Peace!” Or most often the Church is simply silence.

Our bishop has asked our denomination to have conversations around race. I fear this will fare as well as Starbucks’ #RaceTogether campaign. Starbucks, whose employees profiled Dontre Hamilton calling the police multiple times, including right before the officer that would fatally shoot Dontre arrived on the scene, thought we could have nuanced conversations about race with a barista over a latte. It was dropped after a few days. Is it faring much better in your congregation?

Official language from the ELCA names white privilege as a source of racism, but how often do we see the church engage in a conversation around white supremacy? The seminary from which I graduated saw a declaration of Black Power scribbled over with a White Power declaration – two phrases that evoke very different reactions. Leaders of color speak time and time again of institutional betrayal within our church, though sometimes whispered due to past and ongoing pain. And white colleagues remain silent.

This weekend, mothers refused to be silent. They did not care if the media covered their stories (or twisted them). They did not place their hope in legislative action, executive orders or the blessing of the religious institutions. White structures did not protect their children. White structures would not deliver their justice. Yet, they spoke. They spoke their truth. They spoke with the power of Rhizpa. They cried the tears of Rachel. They hoped with the vision of Esther. They were as bold as the Syrophenician woman.

Members of the Church bore witness. We did not lead, we followed. We did not speak, we listened. I pray more of us can hear the protests and join as protest-ants. I pray the Church can learn to follow so that one day it accompanies these leaders.

24 hours from now

24 hours from now, the commemoration for the one year anniversary of Dontre’s death will be done. The crowds will disperse – back to their homes in every neighborhood of this city and many of the suburbs; or to find some place to talk over with friends what they saw, what they bore witness to, what they participated in. The planners will have lingered at the site, or hauled a few more things to the cars, but by now on their way as well. The overtime shifts for the police officers will be done. The nervousness of city officials will ease for the night.

Milwaukee will continue on. Fans will stream out of the Bradley Center. Bars will serve their drinks. Things will go on.

But 24 hours from now a family that has given so much to this city will not have the commotion of a massive gathering, will not have the buzz of planning or the adrenaline of the moment. They will soon be back in their homes recognizing a year has come and gone. They have given so much to the city and yet the city can never give back the one thing they lack: A son. A brother. A friend.

If you know it or not, Milwaukee is a better city for you – for all of us – because of the Hamiltons. Police will be better trained because of them. Mothers that have lost children stand not alone, but together for comfort, strength and power. Old school activists have been energized by a movement that continues a legacy pushing for racial justice. New school activists are finding out that they have power. Black lives and black wages are tied together. Black and brown coalitions are stronger. Students – at colleges and high schools – are bringing the struggle for justice to campus. Business as usual – for Fire and Police Commissioners, for officers, for elected officials – is put on notice. In a segregated city, a multi-racial movement is being led by strong black voices. Corporations are being confronted specifically on issues of racial profiling. An officer was held to some account by losing his job. The federal government is examining his case.

This is because of the Hamilton family. This is the impact we have made collectively, but that they have led. I am blessed to know them. I am honored to follow them.

They have done this for me, for my children, for our city.

Because of this, tomorrow Milwaukee will not burn. It will not look like Baltimore or Ferguson. Tomorrow will be peaceful. Because tomorrow is about honoring the family. Tomorrow is about remembering Dontre.

Milwaukee is a long way from justice. A summer of direct action and disruption should be anticipated. There will be actions and the movement will continue to grow. Civil disobedience will come.

But 24 hours from now, where will you be? What will you be thinking? “I should have gone.” “I wish I was there.” “I’m still mad at them.” “We need to turn-up like they’re doing across the country.”

Or will you recognize a family in the midst of their own grief continues to give and give for the sake of One Love and a better Milwaukee? Will you recognize that the family that gives to you and to me without needing to be asked, has asked of you only one thing: show up.

24 hours from now, will you say, “I was there. i was part of something beautiful. I gave the greatest gift – to stand with a family that buried their kin to remind them they are not alone. They are never alone.”

Join us tomorrow night: