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Welcoming the Stranger in Rural America: Nurturing Cultures of Connection

What does racial justice look like in predominantly white, rural communities?

(Co-authored by Samantha Gupta and AJ Bush)

From the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, to the contentious presidential election of 2016, the legacy and present day realities of race and racism in the USA have reached an even broader, national focus.

While there have been organized responses to these issues in many urban areas, rural communities have been disconnected from such movements. For many — including community activists, pastors, scholars, and concerned citizens — 2016 was a “wake up call” to this reality as brightly colored electoral maps created visual representations of a “rural”/”urban” divide.

Yet, we know that these electoral maps oversimplify the complexity of the people and the lives in every community– and in every state– and know that rural and working class white people have an important role in organizing for more just, more safe, and more inclusive communities. Informed by this belief, the following questions have emerged in dialogue between pastors and organizers in urban and rural communities:

What do inclusive and just movements look like in rural communities– across history and today?

How do white folks in rural and working class communities understand their lives and struggles as related to racial justice?

What kinds of spaces and shared experiences can be created that help support the consciousness, dialogue, and action of white community in building a more just, more safe, more inclusive world in partnership with people of color in their towns– supporting the power, health, and well-being of all?

experience
“Welcoming the Stranger” featured contemplative practices, group activities, and testimonies from community members of color.

Rural Race Dialogues: “Welcoming the Stranger”

Engaged by these questions, AJ Bush, a United Methodist Pastor in Gillette, WY invited colleague Samantha Gupta, a Unitarian Universalist community organizer and scholar of white identity from Los Angeles, California, to imagine what might be possible in her rural church.

During her time as pastor in a rural Wyoming congregation, Bush personally saw a need to engage church members and people in the community in conversations about “difference” and “otherness” — whether that be immigration, race, or religion. Sensing a disconnect from experiences and language of difference in rural contexts and many racial justice curriculums, Bush became interested in finding ways to create space for dialogue around these issues.

Combining their passions, Bush and Gupta held the first “Rural Race Dialogue” event on Dec. 4th, 2016 in Gillette, Wyoming.

The event was a public event, hosted by Bush’s church and entitled “Welcoming the Stranger: The Stories We Share.” The short, initial program was designed to nurture skills for openness and curiosity through the practices of self-reflexivity, self-compassion, and direct experience with difference. Self-compassion for one’s own experiences and identities, Bush and Gupta sense, is a bridge to compassionate curiosity, dialogue, and risk-taking for the “Other.” The audience focused on “regular folks in the pews” who sense the issues of exclusion and disconnection in their community, but feel unfamiliar (and even uncomfortable) with how to engage racial justice issues and take next steps.

There were three key movements during this introductory event:

  • Contemplative, compassion practices that centered people on their natural capacity for care and curiosity (informed by Gupta’s experience as a facilitator in The Center for Engaged Compassion at Claremont School of Theology ).
  • Group activity that simulated the experience of white ethnic European immigration and assimilation to the United States in the 1800 and 1900’s. In this simulation, each participant was assigned to family groups, given information about the prejudice their family faced upon arriving in the US due to their ethnic identities, and the difficult choices they are forced to make (and identity they are forced to give up) to survive. The activity was designed by Clare Fox as part of the Alliance of White Anti-Racists Everywhere-Los Angeles (AWARE-LA) as part of their annual “Unmasking Whiteness Institute” offered in California each summer.  Bush and Gupta adapted the activity to include specific histories and testimonies of European immigrant experiences in the Wyoming context.
  • A facilitated dialogue and reflection on the simulation experience, bridging white ethnic European histories of immigration to current, local and state-based stories of immigration by people of color. This component featured videos and testimonies of neighbors in their community who have recently immigrated or who represent a different racial/ethnic identity.

 

Nearly 30 participants joined the first "Rural Race Dialogue" event in Gillette, WY
Nearly 30 participants joined the first “Rural Race Dialogue” event in Gillette, WY

Feedback

Through this experience, participants were able to connect with their own family history and the experience of their family as “the other” as a bridge of empathy and curiosity with the experience of immigrants and those “Othered” in their community today. It also built empathy for such experiences, as participants could now relate to the loss and struggle of assimilation in their own family. In the words of one participant, “I begin to see that (our) identity had to be given up to avoid prejudice.”

In feedback, participants described renewed curiosity for the experiences of their own families (“This event made me wonder more about my grandparent’s experience when they came to the United States”), as well as for immigrant families in their town– reporting that they wished they had “more time” to hear more stories of local issues and imagine “possible action plans.”

Other participants appreciated the time to be in community with other people in their town who are also willing to engage difficult issues in new ways: “I appreciated getting people together face-to-face in a safe, respectful environment and being guided through a non-judgmental exercise,” one participant wrote. “This helped us focus on loss(es) as a way of feeling empathy for the stranger.”

Bush and Gupta imagine this series of activities to be supportive to church leaders who would like to engage their congregations on racial justice and identity, and need ways to begin the conversation with congregants. For Bush, her congregation plans to facilitate a book study on race and identity development as a next step to mobilizing more congregants in local organizing efforts in partnership with communities impacted by local hate crimes.

gupta-bush
Chaplain Samantha Gupta and Rev. AJ Bush

Next Steps

Cultivating curiosity and compassion for self and other are important skills for healing/bridging the divide between and within rural and urban experiences of difference, race, immigration. For Gupta and Bush, this work is important as we strive to establish justice, mercy, and beloved community within our world. The two plan to continue doing this work in rural areas, and are interested in engaging with other churches/communities in the Midwest on these kinds of conversations/events. They are willing to travel and consult.

If you are interested in more information about these types of dialogues in your community, email ruralracedialogue [at] gmail [dot] com. 

RELATED PRESS and LINKS:

Special thanks to AWARE-LA, Dara Silverman, and J. Audrey for their support of this project, mentorship, and encouragement.

Wading in the Waters at Standing Rock

Reflections on a journey in support of indigenous community action, after church call draws some 500 clergy as “protective witnesses”

Samantha-at-Standing-Rock_small.jpg11/13/16

Two weeks ago, I woke up in a tent in North Dakota.

At 6 a.m., the only light that visible poured in from across the Missouri River, a set of mega floodlights illuminating the ongoing construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).

Less than a quarter mile away from me, a 70-year-old elder sat near the central fire and coaxed us awake into an amplified microphone that echoed through the fog and across the camp.

“Wake up… wake up! The Black Snake is creeping across the river! Sun Dancers! Pipe carriers, smudge your pipes! Christians, dust off your Bibles! The water is warm. We are here for a purpose!”

By 9 a.m., I was gathered alongside over 500 clergy from across the United States, representing over 20 different faith traditions. Surrounding us and continuing their day of work, recuperation, and prayer, people at the camp numbered in the thousands.

We circled around the fire in our sacred clothing—robes, stoles, albs, protest-prayer signs—and observed, as representatives of our faith traditions stood alongside several indigenous elders from the #NoDAPL camp. Each of the represented traditions had repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery in their denominations, and read aloud from those repudiations into the microphone ringing over the camp. (Written by Pope Alexander VI in 1493, the Doctrine of Discovery formalized into writing a set of patterns of domination that became the basis by which European monarchies claimed lands and resources of indigenous peoples. Ultimately, land was deemed “unoccupied” if it was not settled by Christians. The doctrine has been cited in court decisions as recently as 2005.)

After their statements, a copy of the Doctrine in the original Latin was given to the elders, and then burned in an abalone shell among the ring of people near the central fire.

Each of the 500 of us were smudged with sage by local community leaders as we made our way along the road to Backwater Bridge where police waited, in long lines inside cars, and watched us from roads and hilltops. The bridge was the location where, one week prior, 141 indigenous and ally Water Protectors were arrested by militarized police in riot gear.

We wept, we raged, we prayed, we sang as police helicopters flew overhead, snipers watched from hillsides, and the Missouri River wound its way over the horizon.

“Wade in the water!” we sang, each of us holding the other. “God’s gonna trouble the water!”

Sedona-Unitarian-image_small.jpgIt was only one week prior to that moment that Father John Floberg—a man who has served for 25 years as the supervising priest of the Episcopal churches of Standing Rock—put out an email to several clergy networks, calling upon clergy of all faith traditions to come to North Dakota and serve as “protective witnesses” with the Water Protectors.

He had only expected 100 of us to respond.

Father John was also clear: The actions of we 500 witnesses would reflect on the Standing Rock Sioux and their allies, long after we left. He and the elders who stood beside him asked for four things of all of us: “that you remain prayerful, peaceful, nonviolent, and lawful.” And most of all, that we return to our communities and call upon our people to join this protective resistance.

Standing near the fire in my stole that morning, an elder from the camp approached me and expressed that our presence was a welcome pause in the recent escalations of violence, a chance for the community to regroup. He shared that he hoped we would carry prayers that the community of leaders at Standing Rock maintain their spiritual structure as they are continually battered, instigated, and even infiltrated by DAPL security or police forces. As clergy wandered the camp, police presence was minimized for the day—with fewer helicopters, airplanes, and drones. Some expressed how this was a welcome pause in the ongoing assault of the senses and the spirit.

For others whom I didn’t speak to our presence, I suspect, was complicated, if not painful and enraging—particularly as representatives of religions that have undergirded, if not outright orchestrated, native genocide. Alongside the stories I’ve heard before arriving, I have personally experienced the ways white, non-native visitors occupy space at the microphones, or take up resources without return or regard. As white folks, we have so much work to do to “call each other in” as white people, to unlearn entitlement and domination, and to learn new patterns of relationship that generate life and honor the sovereignty of that life. This shows up in the ways we reach for microphones, to the ways we use policies to grab resources for profit. This is an urgent task.

It is urgent because Standing Rock is not only a specific struggle in North Dakota—Standing Rock is everywhere we are. It demands of us, particularly as community psychologists: Where do you come from? Whose land do you occupy, whose land do you call home? Who were your people? And who are your people now? Perhaps, in the time of Trump, we might add: What life and whose life experience have you disregarded, and what are your relational obligations for restoration?

It’s personal, it’s communal, it’s ecological, it’s economic, it’s political, it’s ancestral, and it is work that requires us to be where we are, right now. Be with one another, right now. Practice accountable relationship, particularly with the indigenous communities where we live, right now. Not as a task to complete, but as vocation—as in vocare, that sacred call—that we are responsive to for the rest of our lives.

As a community psychologist and a theologian, I understand that our role is to make visible that web of relationships and issues that connects each to all, such that this sacred web becomes actionable and our role within it becomes strategic, intentional, resilient, and restorative.

Will we take up our role?

Take Action

What is needed at Standing Rock: Please visit their websites to know what they are asking for. They need ongoing financial support as they prepare for winter (portable restrooms and trash services alone cost $1,500 per day), advocacy/direct action at local, state, national, and corporate levels, and bodies—especially humble bodies capable of listening and learning, with offerings for healing, feeding, building, and the ability to be arrested.

What is needed everywhere: knowing whose land we are on, honoring the treaties where we are (all treaties made with US government have been broken), anti-racism and public recognition of the positionalities we carry (especially for those of us who hold identities as white settlers, we can turn to national organizations such as SURJ to turn this idea into embodied practice), repatriation of land and resources, funding Indigenous-led movements, a move away from entitlement to deep and humble permission and learning, centering the voices of indigenous community psychologists in our field, and an actionable awareness and reverence of where the sources of our life come from (our food, water, power, people). For more on these ideas, visit the Standing Rock Solidarity Network resources.

As community psychologists in the field, in non-profits, and in academic institutions, we are uniquely positioned to bring embodied awareness to the patterns of “discovery” and colonization that have informed our lives and our field, to learn in community and model the life-generating alternatives, and to put our bodies on the line to bring that alternative into reality.

May we respond to such a sacred and necessary call.

This post has been featured in the following places:

  • Society for Community Research and Action “Personal Stories”
    Read more here.
  • UU Young Adults for Climate Justice. Read more here.

International Conference on Community Psychology: South Africa Summaries

In late May, I was a participant in the 2016 International Conference on Community Psychology in Durban, South Africa. This year’s theme was “Global Dialogues on Critical Knowledges, Liberation and Community.” I will be publishing a few blogs on the experience, this one highlighting my presentations at the conference.  Future posts will highlight other contributing scholar-activists and notes from presentations I attended.

Interested folks can also check out the video made by the conference organizers, highlighting the keynotes and key themes that emerged:

My Presentations:

I made three presentations at the conference. I give BIG thanks to the mentors, professors, family, friends, colleagues, and cosmos– all of whom have initiated, contributed to and helped further these ideas. Heartfelt thanks.

  1. Decolonizing Reconciliation Processes for Historical Harms: A Dialogue for Action
This image represented on a poster of "expressions of community psychology."
This image represented on a poster of “expressions of community psychology.”

This presentation emerged from my experience as part of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR-USA) delegation to Japan at the invitation of the Japanese Fellowship of Reconciliation (JFOR) in recognition of the 70th commemorations of the use of atomic weapons. The question being asked here is, “how do we mobilize across racial, ethnic, and class communities to create consensus around processes of reconciliation… especially if those events happened before our lifetime?” As intergenerational communities seek to do repair for historical wrongdoing, psychological cultural-workers must also negotiate their current diverse positionality in contemporary and historical webs of violence as the basis for reconciliation.

In other words, when a hibakusha (Japanese term for “bomb survivor”) begins their testimony of the bombing by imagining their place and their ancestor’s place in relationship to the harms cause by Japanese imperialism on Korean, Chinese, Pilipino… even USA… citizens, they are locating themselves in a web of relationships. Many Hibakusha use this awareness as the beginning of their testimony.

In the case of our FOR delegation, we realized that if we were to do similarly—if each of our delegation members “located themselves” in the web of relationships (positionality) as racialized, gendered, economically-informed beings, particularly around issues of racialized militarization in the USA, we would each be led to different ways of responding to the people in front of us, even if our intention (reconciliation and healing) was the same and our sense of wrongdoing about the use of nuclear weapons was the same.

Social location—naming and claiming our relationships and differences—matters in reconciliatory work.

Why is this important?

  • It challenges the belief that reconciliation requires a coherent consensus of a history, an individual or an organization. In fact, it relies on us emphasizing the differences, contradictions and complexities in order to and as part of really get to the interconnectedness.
  • It also decenters the overemphasis that can occur to “find the similarities” when doing difficult relational work.
  • In our experience in dialogue with Japanese activists, the most impactful experience was our willingness to share our ancestral and present locations and speak from that experience.
  • Reconciliation is not about a fantasy future of unity or an imaginary past “before” the rupture—rather, it involves standing in our particularity in order to accurately imagine and/or re-member the threads that connect us. In the words of Watkins and Lorenz (2001), it is about gathering around the “rupture” to see what new possibilities may be emerging.

II. Life in the Rupture: Towards an Eco-Psychological Sense of Community (EPSOC)

My second presentation focuses on some of the ideas within the field of community psychology itself.

“Psychological Sense of Community (PSOC)” is a model of measurement that has been described as a “lynch-pin” that holds the field of community psychology together. It has been used as a tool by community psychologists to determine the aspects of community that create the feeling of community, roughly grouped into (1) membership, (2) influence, (3) integration and fulfillment of needs, and (4) shared emotional connection (McMillan and Chavis 1986).

While PSOC has led to innovations in analysis and measurement in efforts to replicate what exactly makes community “work,” there have also been critics that name that the ways PSOC breaks down component parts of community might not capture the essential quality of an experience of community that we are all working hard to identify and move towards. For example, communities with a higher level of homogeneity (for example, the KKK), will likely score higher on PSOC than a community with more racial and ethnic diversity (which may be labeled a “disordered” community by these measurements and by some measurers). In response to these kinds of critiques, McMillan acknowledged that PSOC will never quite capture the “spirit” of what the we are really talking about—and, further, that PSOC “is a theory to describe reality, not a theory to prescribe reality” (2011).

However, for community psychologists who value interrupting and disrupting systems of power and domination that are part of our described reality, we may be seeking to measure and move towards a different kind of PSOC—something that does guide us towards nourishing and sustaining communities that honor and engage differences and interrupt oppressive power dynamics.

'Transforming the urban edge’ illustration by Paul Kearsley from the Urban Permaculture Guide 始まる新しい生き方 and the 2016 Permaculture Calendar
‘Transforming the urban edge’ illustration by Paul Kearsley from the Urban Permaculture Guide 始まる新しい生き方 and the 2016 Permaculture Calendar

I think Hughey and Speer (2002) move us closer to the “spirit” in their use of network and systems analysis to demonstrate that actually healthy environments require “individuals and groups to develop and exercise features of social networks that function to position themselves at the boundaries of networks” (p.74). Here, boundaries and edges are opportunities—opportunities to access different kinds of resources, build resilience, and generate the changes that allow for communities to survive. By bringing their language into dialogue with PSOC, we can challenge metaphors and models that value or prioritize “orderly,” linear, homogenous, progressive and cohesive patterns—we can create measurements that value the seemingly disordered, the diverse, the creative and the boundary-crossings that make life evolutionary. This is a language often used to describe aspects of ecological systems—a system that requires the edges, the chaotic and the adaptive in order to survive and thrive.

With guidance from these critiques and some support from depth and liberation psychology (Watkins and Lorenz 2001), here is where we might imagine an “Eco-Psychological Sense of Community (EPSOC).” These contributions to the language of PSOC suggest that there is something beyond the component parts of being an individual as part of a cohesive system—even hinting that the fantasy of a cohesive system (and “orderly” communities) is not a universal reality at all, nor would its measurement and duplication make meaning out of the diverse locations and experiences where healthy community happens.

Perhaps “E” stands for “Eco” or perhaps “E” stands of “Edge”—no matter what, it means we engage the way our measurements maintain rather than interrupt systems of power and domination.

Why is this important?

  • PSOC as a measurement model may not go far enough in (a) the decolonial project of deconstructing the fantasy of a unified, progressive self or community nor (b) sufficiently valuing the rupture of that fantasy (and the role of conflict) as a sign of life within a social system as an ecological system.
  • We need to acknowledge the implicit values of our “measurement tools” in our field—and re-imagine what we are really looking for as signs of health and vitality that support us in interrupting status quo power dynamics.
  • Community psychologists should be looking for edges as a sign of health and well-being—edges are where our vitality, creativity, and resilience emerge.

III. Eve, Adam, Snake and the Garden of the Global North: Decolonizing Theologies Through Theatre

Photo by G. Zhuang
Photo by G. Zhuang

This presentation was an “Innovative Presentation”—a part of the conference that allotted me a ninety-minute session to use theatre, story and movement to engage issues of coloniality in theology.

 

This presentation might be captured in a pseudo-mathematical equation:

(Scriptural exegesis of Genesis II) + (Anti-Racism) + (Bibliodrama) + (Academic and faith-based interrogation of borders, walls, and border-crossing) + (Theatre of the Oppressed techniques) = The Real Story of Eve, Adam, Snake and Tree

I relied on writing from Rev. Rebecca Parker’s essay, “Not Somewhere Else But Here: The Struggle for Racial Justice as a Struggle to Inhabit My Country” from Soul Work: Anti-Racist Theologies in Dialogue. Parker imagines the ways that the story of “The Fall” in Genesis II acts in support of white privilege in that it describes a relationship with God where to know one’s self as capable of both “good” and “evil” is to lose one’s relationship with God—to stay obedient, innocent and pure is to stay in relationship with God. Yet, in the work of anti-racism, we need white people who are able to see ourselves and our history more clearly and more honestly.

Parker’s writings are supported by Chicana scholar-activist Gloria Anzaldua’s work on the seven stages of conocimiento from “Now let us shift… the path of conocimiento… inner work, public acts”—a coming into consciousness that requires the bridge-builders, the in-between walkers, that are willing to have reality torn apart and brought back together in new, more life-giving and more generative ways. She writes, “According to Jung, if you hold opposites long enough without taking sides a new identity emerges. As you make your way through life, nepantla itself becomes the place you live in most of the time— home” (p. 548). We need the tearing apart of what isn’t working as part of creating something new.

Anzaldua’s imagining of the border as something to bridge makes for an interesting dialogue partner with Wendy Brown’s Walled States, Waning Sovereignty. The wall around Eden and the wall through the southwest deserts of the USA are a form of “psychic insulation,” maintaining USA fantasies of purity, innocence and goodness—keeping the privileged and abundant lives of those within it without a horizon worth questioning and the people beyond it as invading, marauding, evil force to be stopped (Brown, p. 120-121). This, embodied in the Judeo-Christian story of Adam and Eve, becomes a theological value. While Brown does not go so far to make the theological connection that Anzaldua makes in her first movement towards consciousness, both are seeking a bridge over the wall—and Parker’s Eve is alongside them.

"FLAG" questions from Frank Rogers, Practicing Compassion (2014)
“FLAG” questions from Frank Rogers, Practicing Compassion (2014)

Bibliodrama and Theatre of the Oppressed techniques (Peter Pitzele 1997 and Augusto Boal 1993) give us a way to engage this story as both problematic and potentially generative.

 

Methodologies: Sharing a new version of the story generated from my time in seminary that imagines Eve, Snake and Adam as escaping the garden to go beyond the wall—with the possibility that there had been people on the other side of the wall along—is the starting point for our embodied play using character embodiment, followed by character interviewing in dyads, and an “empty chair” technique to imagine the characters who are part of our story. Each person in the workshop takes an empty chair, embodying the character with a pose. We then imagine the internal longings associated with that character to understand more clearly what they may be trying to tell us and make those statements to one another out loud.

Having told this new version of the story in different contexts, sharing it in the South African/international community psychology context led to important conclusions and realizations:

  • It was an important revelation to interrogate the wall in the Garden of Eden: what is this wall? Who is outside the wall? Who built the wall? Who does the wall serve? What would the wall say to us now as we deal with issues of borders and walls in our communities?
  • Workshop participants longed for a more equitable relationship between Eve and Adam—even in my own re-telling, my story chooses to center the story on Eve as agent of social change as an anti-dote to the dominant narrative that tends to degrade her being. Still, what would be a more satisfying relationship between the two?
  • One workshop participant who expressed a “resistance” to changing the story, acknowledged that in his role as “the fruit,” he felt a strange and unexpected longing to be eaten. How might we activate and animate the “non-human” creatures and beings in the garden and what might they tell us? What voices have been left out by our over-emphasis on human voice?

I look forward to bringing this story and workshop methodology to other communities as dialogue partners in re-imagining this story—clearly, there is much more to be said by many more of us.

The next ICCP conference will be held in Chile in 2018. 

Tools for Allies: From “microagression” to “microresistance”

Wanted to share this incredible resource from Inside Higher Education, offered up by Kerry Ann Rockquemore, president of the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity.

How do we show up when a hurtful situation so often lends itself to freezing? So much emerges: the feeling of the offense, the desire to say “the right” thing, the fear of relational or social fallout.

Not only is it hard to observe a microaggression– it is also hard to figure out how to respond in ways that both honor the target of the aggression and “call in” the aggressor into right relationship. This is difficult to do effectively without the conversation (1) forcing the target of the aggression to “teach” or “take on” the work of fixing the situation or (2) centering the group’s attention on the hurt feelings or defensiveness of the aggressor.

In light of that, I found this article and these materials (including a video of a panel on microaggressions and microresistance!) helpful. 

Some highlights from their post:

“Try Moving From Reacting to Resistance”

Learning about microaggressions has allowed you to see previously unrecognized hostility in your department’s environment. Right now, the way you understand your role in these interactions is “reacting to microaggressions.”

What would happen if you reframed your role? Instead of defensively reacting, what if you saw yourself as engaging in “microresistance”? In other words, instead of reacting to an individual’s bad behavior, what if you proactively worked toward an equitable environment for everyone in your department?

I don’t know how this sits with you, but I love this reframing of my own behavior. When I understand myself as actively engaging in microresistance, it has a different energy than reacting to microaggressions. It keeps me focused on the structural nature of the problem.

In other words, it’s not just one person acting like an asshole; what’s occurring in everyday interactions is a continual manifestation of privilege. As such, my words and actions matter to the higher-level goals of equity and inclusion. Microresistance empowers me and makes me feel that my daily choices contribute to the overall climate in which I’m embedded.

“Practice “Opening the Front Door””

Ganote, Cheung and Souza taught us a technique called “opening the front door” (OTFD) as a first step to engage in microresistance in the kinds of contexts you’ve described (such as faculty meetings, hallway conversations and informal gatherings). It’s quite simple:

  • Observe: Describe clearly and succinctly what you see happening.

  • Think: State what you think about it.

  • Feel: Express your feelings about the situation.

  • Desire: Assert what you would like to happen.

A Prayer for Cities

A pastoral prayer inspired by the work of Urban Partners Los Angeles, a ministry of the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles, prepared for worship at UULA on April 19, 2015.

withoutcracks

Pastoral Prayer for Cities, for Los Angeles
By Samantha Gupta

Spirit of Cities,
We are gathered in your concrete
 And wood
  And dust
   And asphalt
    in worship and in gratitude.
You who are worthy of our loving attention,
Hear us.

We gather in sorrow for what aches and moans
 Beneath the weight of sky scrapers,
  Bank buildings, pay checks,
   Food trucks, dandelions in the cracks of cement.
    Crushed beneath the weight,
Sometimes the shadows of these too-tall-trees
leaves us wandering if we are seen at all,
if any light will come.
See us.

In times of shadow, we gather around this chalice
with reverence for those who make themselves known.
  Graffiti prophets tagging story and name to wall
  refusing to go quietly.
  And corner prophets singing praises to a God
  they know who might see them.
  And the mothers and fathers and children who live each day
  wondering if the day will come where life moves with a greater gentleness.
And the lives of the women and men
who sat in these rooms, responsive to what they heard outside them.
Guide us.

Spirit of Cities,
  Spirit of Life,
   Lady of Los Angeles,
Open our ears that we may hear more deeply the sounds of these streets,
Our eyes that we may see more clearly the stories of these faces,
Our hearts that we may respond from a place of connection
The connection that we may know in our bones, whispering:
We belonging to these people,
            We belong to this place.

Spirit of Life, of Cities,
Teach us how to be at home, and how to be a guest in the homes of others.
Right here. Right Now.
Amen.

Tools for Allies: #BlackLivesMatter

So many incredible writings by friends, colleagues and beloved strangers about how allies can be connected to the work of #BlackLivesMatter. I wanted to add some of these things here with links– hope this is a resource that keeps growing, would love to receive what other people find.

Writings, Resources and Tools from Across the Web:

From the Standing on the Side of Love (SSL) Campaign, a Ferguson Conversation Guide (Script) helping guide facilitators in a faith-based, principle-rooted approach to the difficult conversations about race and racism. If your community is talking about “now is the time to listen,” use this tool to help you get started– don’t make listening happen in isolation. Listening in isolation isn’t listening.

Challenge the “theological cop-out” of changing #BlackLivesMatter to #AllLivesMatter. Check out Rev. Dan Schatz compassionate, compelling and deliciously direct response to a community letter asking him to take down his sign. I read this incredible response in the SSL newsletter with article written by Rev. Mykal Slack listing ways for allies to address the national conversation of race and racism in their communities. 

An excerpt from Rev. Slack’s newsletter for SSL:

So my hope, going forward, is that we can all commit to doing a few things:

Acknowledge the discomfort. Acknowledging and understanding the ways in which racial disparities play out in our homes, schools, workplaces, and especially our churches is hard. It just is, and remaining silent about it won’t make it any less uncomfortable.

Listen actively. Most often, we can only see beyond our own lens not by talking, but by listening. Putting ourselves in positions to hear the stories of people who are most deeply impacted by racial disparities will grow our heart and head muscles, and at this moment in our nation’s history, we can’t afford not to listen or grow.

Understand the significance of #blacklivesmatter. Shifting the focus to #alllivesmatter erases the realities of systemic racism and, in order to deal with that problem, we have to be willing to face it head on. Rev. Daniel S. Schatz’s excellent response to a community member who requested that he take down the “Black Lives Matter” signage posted outside the BuxMont Unitarian Universalist Fellowship is most instructive and really well done.

Widen the circle. We cannot adequately address these issues within the confines of our own understanding. We have to go out and build relationships that can broaden our viewpoints, whether that’s by offering deeper learning within our own faith communities or by partnering with other communities and organizations who care about these issues. And however we widen the circle, we must do so giving primary voice to people of color in shaping the nature of the conversation and the collaboration.

Timothy Murphy of Progressive Christians Uniting’s response to the hashtag #AllLivesMatter as a “theological cop-out.” This article was featured in Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE-LA) newsletter and I thought it was so good it should be quoted here:

“Right now the United States is reverberating with the shouts of voices and the steps of marchers demanding justice for unarmed Black citizens killed by police officers. If you use Twitter, you may have seen the hashtag: #BlackLivesMatter. It is carried on signs and declared in chants. I’ve got a theological newsflash for you: this proclamation is the gospel.

“Good news only can be declared in light of a problem. And the problem is that in far too many instances, our society’s actions reveal that Black lives don’t matter. Extrajudicial killings, police harassment, and intimidation of Black people is a this-worldly anti-gospel. #BlackLivesMatter offers itself as a succinct, holy antidote.

“Some people are put off by such specificity – don’t all lives matter? Isn’t all life sacred? The result is the counter-hashtag popping up everywhere as a critique: #AllLivesMatter. It tries to universalize the answer. While it is a “true” statement, it is also completely irrelevant and contributes nothing as a response to Black oppression. It actually obscures the problem. It forgets that the gospel always addresses concrete problems. The problem is not that everyone is a target of the police; hands are not reaching for weapons when persons like myself, a white man, interact with them. #AllLivesMatter drains the specificity out of the good news. A generic gospel is no gospel at all.”

CLUE-LA’s newsletter also featured writings from Rabbi Aryeh Cohen, author of Justice in the City and board member of hte organization. Read his “Lament for Eric Garner” for your next community prayer.

From my own community, Rev. Rick Hoyt of First Unitarian Los Angeles wrote a compelling response from Los Angeles. You can read more of his writings on his blog here or check out the faith community’s response at their Facebook here. The response below is excerpted from the church Facebook page:

“… What we do know, is that what really lies at the foundation of our anger and sadness, is not the circumstances of Michael Brown and Darren Wilson. But the accumulated circumstances of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. And the circumstances of Ezell Ford, a mentally ill, unarmed black man shot by police in South LA this summer. And the circumstances of Amadou Diallo shot 19 times because New York City police officers mistook his wallet for a gun. And the circumstances of Oscar Grant killed at Fruitvale Station in Oakland when he was on the ground with his hands behind his back being subdued by other officers.

“Because what really lies at the foundation of our anger and sadness is not even the white cops and the black men, not the police abuse and the unarmed citizens, but an entire culture of racial fear and prejudice and guilt.

“Our anger is not about Darren Wilson, whether he personally is a tragic or a culpable figure. Our anger is not about Ferguson. Our anger is not about police procedures, and Grand Juries and the facts of this case.

“Our anger is that we have inherited a culture that is founded on the unequal treatment of human beings based on the color of their skin. And that unwanted inheritance is constantly re-made and perpetuated unwittingly by our every action. We participate in that hateful legacy through our choices of where we live, were we work, who we socialize with, where we spend our money, and what we say, and who we vote for, and where we give our attention.

“This is what Christian theologians call “Original Sin” – a spiritually unhealthy life cirumstance that we are born into rather than choose for ourselves. The evil inheritance of racial fear and prejudice is so built-in to our institutions and systems and structures that when we notice it we are instantly overwhelmed by our inability to change its course and so we mostly choose not to notice it but nevertheless keep on re-making it, day after day. And some days, horrifically some one person like Michael Brown gets crushed beneath it, and every day, just as horrifically but more quietly, an entire community of people gets crushed beneath it.

“We feel guilty, so we soothe our pain by blaming others. We feel prejudice and justify it with myths and stories. We feel fear and make ourselves brave with guns….”

Read more of his response by going here Post by First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles.

Stay tuned for more, or share your own ally and spiritual activist tools. Will continue adding to this or blogging more specific pages of resources as I find writings that can assist spiritual activists with language, prayer, conversation and action tools to address communities of privilege with the grief work and transformation work needed to take real action– to risk their comfort, security and ideology in the creation of a world where the idea that #BlackLivesMatter is an obvious, embodied reality.
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