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A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford, delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, September 14, 2014


This summer has been filled with so much, some of it wonderful. But, too much of it marked by hurt. Of all the sadness that is our news right now, the rise of a murderous cult pouring like a plague out of broken Syria into divided Iraq, the spread Ebola in West Africa, and for me particularly those enduring images of the influx of children fleeing the horrors in Central America and running into the arms of American immigration officers, together with those hateful demonstrations against the children, and so much more, so much, a litany of sadness. Of all these what has perhaps most captured my heart, has been the shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, and America's unhealed wound that it has, once again revealed.

In the wake of the shooting of teenager Michael Brown by a police officer, many festering issues have been uncovered. The racial disparity between the overwhelmingly black population of Ferguson, with an equally overwhelmingly white police force, the long simmering anger of the local population at feeling more occupied than policed, and then this sad, sad killing, has led to continuing protests, which flared several times into violence.

The heat is passing, but not the issues it reveals. The militarization of our American police has been noted, lamented, and challenged. The mistreatment of journalists has been raised. And, once again, once again the specter of race in America has returned to haunt us.

It is, I believe and want to acknowledge, difficult, maybe impossible to untangle issues of race from issues of class in all this. Class is something that should not be turned from, particularly today with the hollowing out of our American middle class and the increasing numbers of us in poverty. But while tangled, they are not exactly the same. And, here, now, in this sacred space, I find it critical to look at race.

It is hard. What it all means, and how we should engage, or even the question whether there is an issue to be engaged seems too much to depend on what color you are. And this is a problem. For instance a few weeks ago my spouse Jan posted a note at her Facebook page. It was titled “To a Young Relative Who Shared a Racist Post.” It begins.

“You re-posted a video of two young African-American men fighting on a mostly deserted subway platform. The single onlooker is recording the struggle on his cell phone, while the passengers locked in the subway car look on helplessly. The men are on the floor, and the uppermost assailant has a knife and begins stabbing the other.

The caption on the video reads: 'This man is getting stabbed up and nobody is helping him but everyone is recording it like WTF. But yet black people want to start riots & scream RACIST when a white cop kills a black man but it's ok when a black men kills another black man oh ok'”

The harder questions vanish by moving the pointing finger from perpetrator to victim. “Don't look here, look there.” You don't need to look deep if you simply demonize the victim. Jan addressed the stats. She doesn't and I won't overly dwell on them, but they are important. They reveal things.

“According to Department of Justice statistics, it's true that 93% of black homicide victims are killed by black people. However, 84% of white homicide victims are murdered by other white people. It's interesting to note that white people are more likely to kill family members, especially infants and elders. Victims in sex-related, drug- and gang- and workplace-related murders are more likely to be killed by white people.” Jan then provided a link, which will be available in the online and printed versions of this sermon.

She continued. “Yes, the rate of violence is higher in African-American neighborhoods. And there is research that suggests that poverty is the true breeding ground of violence, since the rates in equally impoverished white neighborhoods are similarly high.” And, again she provided some documentation. I can add in details about how while data is fragmented and hard to pin down, one study in 2007 of ten major metro areas showed a disproportionate number of unarmed African Americans who ended up shot and killed in contacts with the police. Something is going on, and it isn't good.

As Jan said, “I won't dwell upon the facts. Anybody with an internet connection and a desire for the truth can find out the facts. I assume you posted this because you agree with the opinion. (But) Why anyone would say, 'it's ok when a black man kills another black man.' What are we white people really saying when we dismiss the uprising in Ferguson?

“Some might believe that it's an opportunity to loot. Yep, there has been some of that because there are thugs and brutes everywhere. But if the main motivation in Ferguson is the desire to get free loot, why hasn't the uprising dispersed now that citizens are protecting one another's businesses?”

Then Jan drove to the heart of the matter. “I think this belief is at the heart of the words you re-posted: 'African-Americans tolerate a high murder rate because life is cheap in the African-American community. And if they care so little about their community and themselves, why should I care?'

“And it's this belief that I ask you to examine, my dear one. Why do you believe that African-American families find the slaughter of their youth tolerable? Do you really think their parents, siblings, children, friends and neighbors do not grieve? That their hearts do not break? I don't believe for a moment that people in the African-American community hold their children's lives cheap. But when you post a commentary like this one, it seems like maybe you do. Please think about this.”

I believe even those of us who are a bit more sophisticated than our young relative are culpable in this matter of too easily turning away, of finding ways to ignore the issue. But. This is something we do need to attend to. Now, to those of us of color in the congregation today, forgive me, but the words of admonishment and the call is not addressed to you beyond the constant need for all of us to examine our hearts. This is for your sisters and brothers, for those of us grateful you're here, and wanting to join together in the great healing.

I find it absolutely incomprehensible that a significant number of white Americans can deny the whole issue of race in our country, saying it isn't really an issue. It is like those who deny climate change even as the effects of that reality are beginning to become a part of our ordinary weather reporting. People don't see what they don't want to see.

But, even as the consequences of our not engaging climate is making matters worse for many, denying racial issues, and particularly institutional racism, the built into our ordinary lives extra burden of being black in America (and, in differing degree and impact an experience by all racial minorities in our country) as my mother would say, “it's just wrong.” I think of the overwhelming sadness that black parents have to give the “talk” to their children, how to engage the police in their country so they are not brutalized or killed, and it breaks my heart.

As a part of the majority (for the time being) community, I think mostly about what is my responsibility in all this. For one thing, this demands noticing the way things are. It demands seeing how things are stacked against people of color. That shooting of the eighteen year old in Ferguson is symptomatic of something terrible, a cancer in our body politic. I think of the tragic shooting twelve years ago here in Providence, of Cornel Young, an off duty black police officer who was shot and killed by two brother officers, both white, when he ran to assist them during a robbery.

That's race in America.

There are many reasons we not only should do such a deep examination, but must. Not the least that those in the majority today, will not always be in the majority. And grievance has a habit of sticking around.

But more than that, what I believe we are called to in this is something at the heart of who we are as a spiritual community. It is about noticing how deeply we are all of us connected. What is done to anyone is done to you and to me. And out of this, any spirituality calling us to our connectedness becomes at some point a call to action, to justice. We are called, you and me, all of us, to notice, and to respond.

So, how do we do this?

I believe it begins by understanding the realities of privilege. Now seeing white privilege takes nothing away from other realities. There need be and should be no pretending it is not hard for poor white people, again that class thing. But this race thing, where when you're born black it is as if you were given a fifty pound sack of sand to carry around at all times is real, whether we ignore it or not. Actually it is worse. Remember the talk. Remember people are killed because of this. And I would just add being able to ignore it is a symptom of its reality. No one of color can afford the luxury. It is too dangerous.

For the horrors to end it requires that those of us in the majority stop and see, to notice how our culture, which in many ways I love, and love wildly, can and is at the same time poisonous for many of us.

For this country to be a place where women of color are not haunted by fear as their boys go outside to play or work it requires that those of us who are of European descent see what is going on, and, change our hearts.

That path to change is a long one, and more than I can go into here, today. But, the journey begins with a single step.

Stop and notice. Look. Listen.

Our spiritual tradition will show the way.

See how we are all connected.

And the path will become clear. The great healing.

And then.

When a young relative reposts a racist meme, speak up.

Challenge the system. Point to the problem. Declare how it is wrong.

It is both that easy, and just one more step on a long journey.

On a path of love. On the path of love.

And justice.

Our path. The great healing.