Friday, March 6, 2015

Community is Difficult--But It's Also Godly

"Of course they matter!"

I turned to look at the older white man in the Subaru who had stopped at the side of the street in front of our church--and who also didn't seem to have any qualms about hollering at a total stranger.

I was hanging up the second banner in front of our church that read "Black Lives Matter Equally."  The first one blew away--I think--because I only secured it with zip ties and we had a really windy day last week.  I can't be sure that someone didn't come and take it down, but I'm choosing to believe the best about our neighborhood.  (In case you don't know about why we chose to hang up the banner, read here.)

Before I could say anything to the stranger, he went on.

"They only matter when they're shot by a white police officer!"

My mind was a little slow in catching on to his point, but I said, "I don't think so."

He went on, "My son told me that when that that guy was shot in Ferguson there were fifteen other blacks that got shot--all by other blacks.  That's the problem."

I gave him a confused wave as he drove off, because I was still trying to understand the point he was making.  I took him to be making the same argument I've heard a lot of white people making; which seems to be: "Black people kill each other all the time and black people don't seem to care or are unable to stop because they are too ignorant or too barbaric to do otherwise.  Black people want to blame the police when the fault is their own.  They bring it on themselves."

If I had been quicker, I could have told him that plenty of black people I know care a whole lot about black-on-black violence AND about police bias against black people. Both problems are bad problems and protesting one of them doesn't mean one doesn't care about the other.  Besides, how can the problem of black-on-black crime be dealt with unless you have police forces that respect people of all races equally?

I also could have asked the man if he had even one black friend.

Alas, his drive-by opinion didn't allow me time to formulate any of those retorts.

I wonder how that man would define community?

On the first Sunday of Lent, I preached about the temptation of Jesus in Mark's Gospel.  Unlike in Matthew and Luke, Mark mentions the temptation only in one verse and it doesn't seem like Jesus struggled very much in Mark's version.  In fact, as you may recall, in Mark Jesus doesn't have any trouble at all with the forces of evil.  Jesus casts out demons like we swat mosquitoes.  Similarly Jesus has no problem with controlling nature either.  He can still storms and heal the sick.  Yet when it comes to people, Mark's Jesus has a lot of problems.  Barely any of them do what he tells them to do.  Jesus can tell everyone and everything what to do except for other people.  

I may not have power over evil forces or over the forces of nature, but I can relate to having problems with other people.  Some days free will seems overrated.  We humans sure make a mess of things, and I wonder if God ever has second thoughts about giving us the freedom to screw things up so badly and to harm one another so deeply.

My belief is that God gave us free will, because real relationships must be free and God really wants real relationships with us.  In fact, as I stated in my sermon, it is in God's very nature to create community.  Part of the reason I hold on to the idea of the Trinity, even though I pastor a church full of agnostics, Unitarians and people who just like to disagree with historic Christian doctrine on principle, is because it helps explain the question of free will and why God created us in the first place.  God--whether you want to use the historic and sexist language of the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) or not--having one essence but three beings IS community.  Community is God.  The divine community just overflows and creates more community.  Relationship creates more relationships.

The problem with relationships, however, is that ones that are truly free are also at times really difficult.  If you see yourself as a part of a community that includes but goes beyond your own family, friendships and neighborhood, then you have to do the hard work of caring about the well-being of others who are not like you at all.  Community means that the mistreatment of black people by law enforcement should matter to other people, even white people who may understand little to nothing of the black experience.  

Furthermore, if you really see yourself as a part of a divine community that is meant to embrace all people, then you have to see a connection between yourself and people with whom you may disagree--say, people who feel free to shout bigoted opinions out their car windows.

If I had to do it over again and was quicker witted--and better in touch with God's community, maybe I could have offered the stranger in front of our church something other than a confused wave or a clever comeback.  Maybe the better thing would have been to invite him to come to our church, share in worship, experience a faith community trying to see itself as connected to God's wider community and maybe dare to join in himself.

I know that outcome was probably unlikely, but if it is true that God is community and calls all of us into community with one another and with God, then perhaps such unlikely outcomes are possible.        

Grace and Peace


Recommended Reading 3-5-15 Edition

Each week (more or less) I send out an e-mail to my congregation with my thoughts including stuff I've read over the past week that I want to pass along.  I haven't put my lists up on the blog in a good while so here are some that go back a ways, but if you missed them, they are still worth reading, clicking on, listening to or watching.

Stuff I've Referenced in Sermons
Recommended Reading/Listening

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

What Will I Say When I'm Asked About the Banner?

A few Sundays ago during our church's annual business meeting, we approved a budget, agreed upon some goals for our church in the near future and debated putting a banner in our church building's front yard reading "Black Lives Matter."  It was a civil and respectful conversation and in the end we voted to display a banner that reads "Black Lives Matter Equally."  The vote wasn't entirely unanimous.  I think some who voted against it wanted to keep it reading "Black Lives Matter," since that's what protesters of police brutality across the country have said.  Some others may have voted against it for other reasons I don't know.  Yet, to my knowledge everyone walked out feeling that his or her voice was heard and the discussion was worthwhile for our church.
Based on what people told me, everyone agreed that black lives do matter and that racism continues to pervade our culture, including our criminal justice system and law enforcement.  The chief concern I heard--a valid one in my opinion--is that the debate over the slogan in the media has been framed--like it or not--in such a way that many people hear "black lives matter" as saying "police lives don't matter."  I think that is a completely false understanding of what protesters have been saying--other than the few who are violent extremists and who do not represent the overwhelming majority of people protesting police brutality towards black people.  Yet, no matter what I think there is a media industry that chooses to propagate either/or controversies.  
So, we debated whether our banner should read "All Lives Matter" or "Black Lives Matter and so do Police Lives" or other variations.  We settled on adding the word "equally" to the "Black Lives Matter" slogan.  I'm not sure if that defies misinterpretation--no matter what you try to communicate, some will choose to misinterpret your message and others will misunderstand it.  I believe, however, that our congregation voted to display the banner, because not saying anything about the deaths of black people is unacceptable.  We are a largely white church that claims to be a "Peace With Justice" church, so we cannot be quiet if we wish to live out our identity.
I will be surprised if we don't get a negative reaction from some people.  I expect some church members who have neighbors who know what church they go to may get questions as well.  When UCC churches in New York hung banners they received hostile phone calls and other harassment.  I hope we won't get such a response, but we are in a largely white area of KC, so I have to prepare for such a possibility.  
Both here and at my previous church, I've received threatening phone calls and nasty letters when I or the church has been public about supporting LGBT equality.  On those occasions, I took a certain pride in knowing we were getting under the skin of some homophobic people.  I always feel like you aren't following Jesus unless you are making at least a few folks mad because you are standing up for oppressed people.  If we get negative blowback from this banner, I will most likely take similar pride in threatening some folks' white privilege.
When I'm asked by people who actually are willing to engage in a real conversation, here is what I'm going to say:
1.  Our church believes all lives matter, but based upon what's happening in our culture right now it seems as if black lives matter less than white ones.  Every day across our country new names are added to the list of young black men (and sometimes women) killed by police officers.  The frequency of these shootings of black men seem to be in contrast to how white men are treated.  For example, in August a black man with an air rifle at a Walmart was shot and killed by police, but in December two white men who shot pellet guns at each other and customers in a Walmart were arrested without incident. Recently, a white man in north KC chased his wife out of their house with a rifle then shot her and was pointing his gun at neighbors.  Police showed up just before he killed his wife.  Despite orders to put down his gun, he raised it at officers.  They shot him but not fatally.  If he had been black, would he have survived that encounter?
2.  Racism is not something that we as a country ended fifty years ago during the Civil Rights Era; it remains today.  Despite living in the "Age of Obama" our nation's long history of oppression towards African Americans did not just disappear.  As Ta-Nehisi Coates says in his excellent article "The Case for Reparations:"
"Two hundred fifty years of slavery.  Ninety years of Jim Crow.  Sixty years of separate but equal.  Thirty-Five years of racist housing policy.  Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America can never be whole."
3.  All lives do matter, at least to any person who claims to be moral, but saying those words does not make them a reality.  Scholar Judith Butler puts it this way:
"When we are taking about racism, and anti-black racism in the United States, we have to remember that under slavery black lives were considered only a fraction of a human life, so the prevailing way of valuing lives assumed that some lives mattered more, were more human, more worthy, more deserving of life and freedom, where freedom meant minimally the freedom to move and thrive without being subjected to coercive force. But when and where did black lives ever really get free of coercive force? One reason the chant "Black Lives Matter" is so important is that it states the obvious but the obvious has not yet been historically realized. So it is a statement of outrage and a demand for equality, for the right to live free of constraint, but also a chant that links the history of slavery, of debt peonage, segregation, and a prison system geared toward the containment, neutralization and degradation of black lives, but also a police system that more and more easily and often can take away a black life in a flash all because some officer perceives a threat."
4.  No, our church does NOT believe all police are racists.  A very small percentage of police today would meet a textbook definition of racist.  Our society asks police to do dangerous and horribly difficult jobs in exchange for little if any thanks.  Our church is grateful for the job police do for our community.  Yet, police officers are human and are raised in the same culture we are raised in--one that remains permeated with racism.  Sure, we've come a long way since the days of Bull Connor sicking dogs on children in 1963 Birmingham, but racist stereotypes remain a reality in our culture.  Every white person who is honest will admit to racist attitudes, and when put in a situation where instinct overcomes reason people with racist attitudes may very well act upon them--even police officers.
5.  Hanging this banner is about more than police brutality towards African Americans.  Sadly, Missouri once again leads the nation in its rate of black homicides.  Many of those deaths are happening within a few miles from our church building.  By saying black lives matter equally, we are also speaking out against poor schools, poverty, a culture of violence, crime, a gun industry that profits from criminal demand for handguns and so many more factors that feed the number of black people dying in our city.
6.  We are a largely white church in an historically white part of our city--an area that until such practices were outlawed excluded African Americans.  A banner does not erase history nor does it make up for past racism, but it is a start.  It is an expression of solidarity with African Americans and a positive statement that their lives do matter despite evidence to the contrary.  Hopefully our banner will be matched with our actions and relationships that live out that solidarity.
Grace and Peace

Recommended Reading 1-30-15 edition

Each week (more or less) I send out an e-mail to my congregation with my thoughts including stuff I've read over the past week that I want to pass along.  I haven't put my lists up on the blog in a good while so here are some that go back a ways, but if you missed them, they are still worth reading, clicking on, listening to or watching.

Recommended Reading from 1-30-15:

In case you missed it, here's the article in The Kansas City Star where I and four other Kansas Citians are interviewed about our thoughts on race after Ferguson.  The web version of the article has video of each of us containing material not present in the print version.

CCCUCC is  featured prominently in this week's issue of Ink Magazine in an article about weddings.  It includes a wedding this summer that I officiated at our church.  If you click on the pictures you will some good ones of our church.  Our wedding coordinator, Rick Truman, deserves credit for all his work at the weddings that take place at our church.

CCCUCC's Seminarian Bethany Meier has written two blog posts on the web site of her seminary, Central Baptist Theological Seminary, about developing her skill as a preacher.  In them, she writes about her experience preaching at our church.  Here's the first one and here's the second one.  You can also listen on-line to the sermon she gave this past Sunday on the church web site.

Recommended Reading

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Recommended Reading: 12-20-14 Edition

Each week (more or less) I send out an e-mail to my congregation with my thoughts including stuff I've read over the past week that I want to pass along.  I haven't put my lists up on the blog in a good while so here are some that go back a ways, but if you missed them, they are still worth reading, clicking on, listening to or watching.

 Recommended Reading from 12-20-14:
  • "One Sentence that Pastors and Church Staff Hate to Hear"--so very true!
  • Test your Bible knowledge with "7 Common Misconceptions About the Hebrew Bible" 
  • I always think it is worth noting when I actually agree with something David Brooks writes, so here's one I agree with (mostly).  He writes that police unions are a barrier to police reform and protestors must stay the course if they want things to really change in our nation's law enforcement.  (His other comments about unions in general I'm not so sure about.)
  • Have you heard the term "White Privilege" or had it said about you?  What does the term really mean?  Here are some thoughtful ways to consider the subject--including the idea that what we are talking about is really "Black Exclusion."
  • Last weekend was the two year anniversary of the killing of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  This "Open Letter" from a teacher describes how things have gotten worse for school children not better since the massacre.
  • You may think you're not racist, but science says you are--me too.  Check out the data here. 
  • More science that proves you and I are not as open-minded as we think.
  • Like millions of listeners, I've been captivated with the weekly podcast Serial, which reports over 12 episodes about a 1999 murder of a teenager in Baltimore and the conviction of her ex-boyfriend of the murder.  Although the podcast didn't provide an answer of who really committed the murder, it did provide a powerful examination of the failures of our criminal justice system.  
 Recommended Reading from 12-13-14:
  • I attended a "Pray-In" that was described eloquently by Dr. Molly Marshal, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary here in KC in this essay: "Why not a 'Pray-In': We Aim to Transform Those Things Which Appear to Broken to Fix."
  • I don't know whether to laugh or cry, about Texas governor Rick Perry justifying the poverty in his state with the words of Jesus: "The poor you will always have with you.". When Jesus said, said these words (Matthew 26:11, Mark 14:7, John 12:8) he was talking to his disciples who were rejecting the woman who anointed him prior to his death. They criticized her for anointing him with costly perfume rather than giving money to the poor. Jesus' point was that they did not understand his death was imminent and was a necessary part of his ministry. His point was NOT that we are relieved of caring for the poor as individuals or a society. (If you don't believe me read the Sermon on the Mount and his parables) It's not a prediction OR maybe it is and Jesus knew that there would always be politicians who would use religion to justify bad politics that oppress the poor and profit the rich. Either way these words of Jesus are not a justification for people--especially Christian people--to be apathetic towards poverty. Ugh!
  •  If you think all the protests about racism and police brutality are misguided, because neither Michael Brown nor Eric Garner were innocent angels, think again.  Charles Blow has an excellent essay about why the "Perfect Victim" argument ignores the context of racism in our culture.
  • Zach Phelps-Roper--grandson of Fred Phelps--is the latest defector from Westboro Baptist Church.  I found this article about his life post-Westboro to be a fascinating read.  
  • Two weeks ago in my sermon, I mentioned an op-ed by Frank Bruni in the New York Times about the lack of empathy in coach class on planes these days serving as a microcosm of the lack of empathy in our society.  Here's a link to that op-ed.
  • The United Church of Christ response to the Torture Report.  
  • There's been a fatal school shooting every five weeks sine the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School two years ago--including one in metro KC.  
  • Three weeks ago a gunman shot up downtown Austin, TX.  It turns out he was part of a Christian extremist group like many such "lone gunmen."  Why doesn't the media call them "Christian terrorists" the same way they use the term "Muslim terrorist?"
Recommended Reading from 11-26-14:
Recommended Reading from 11-8-14

Grace Even When the Sewer Backs Up

This week the sewage line at our house backed up.  It was pretty gross and our basement smelled pretty foul, but it could have been so much worse.

I realize that it's strange to be thankful when your sewer line backs up, and it's not like the smelly event was something we wanted to happen, but like I said, it could have been so much worse.

Just a day earlier, I woke up with a sensation I don't normally have--thankfulness.  I usually have to work at being thankful; it doesn't come naturally to me.  Yet, I woke up with the feeling that I was thankful I had a nice house to live in--one with plenty of problems, but overall a nice one.  As I said, thankfulness is not the feeling I usually wake up with; normally I'm cursing the alarm and confused about what day it is.  Still, I found myself considering the many people who don't have the blessing of a place to live in and I felt thankful.

(Maybe I've just been hearing too much of Band Aid's "Do They Know It's Christmas" in heavy rotation on the radio station playing Christmas music.  Cue Bono singing, "Tonight thank God it's them instead of you!")

The day after this mysterious bout of thankfulness, Jen calls me at work to inform me that she and my younger son went downstairs to the basement for something only to discover a sight and smell that was grosser than gross.  That was the bad news, but the good news is that we were able to get a plumber and his wonderful auger out to our house first thing the next morning.  The young man with the auger was amazingly knowledgeable about sewer lines--I found out more than I ever wanted to know about human waste disposal, tree roots entering clay sewage lines and remedies for said invasive tree roots.  More good news--our sewer line wasn't broken and in need of a multi-thousand dollar repair but rather the augering (is that a word?) took care of the problem.  Even more good news--they were running a special and the bill was $75 lower than normal (is December a slow month for sewage backups?).   

Yes, the clean up involved lots of steps I would rather not describe in detail along with a tremendous amount of bleach, but after changing the diapers of two kids and housebreaking multiple dogs, we weren't strangers to this kind of work--not really.

Jen and I discussed how much worse things could have been.  This could have happened on Christmas Day.  It could have happened the day after Christmas when my mother-in-law arrives to stay with us for a week.  It could have happened when we were out of town.  It could have happened any number of times with much more inconvenient scenarios.  As I've already said, it could have been much more expensive.  Since our knowledge of sewer systems is pretty limited, we would have probably accepted whatever our friend with the auger told us.  He could have charged us way more and we would probably not have questioned him.  Thank you God for honest plumbers!!!!!

At a different time in my life--okay at many, many different times in my life--I would have only seen the negative in this situation.  I would have used the backed up sewer as an excuse to back up the sewer in my mind and spew all sorts of nastiness  on anyone unfortunate enough to be stuck listening to me.  I would have fed the part of me who likes to feel like a victim and play games of "who has it worse?" when in reality so many people have it worse than me.  Instead--with a lot of help from my wife--I was thankful.

In theological terms, we call moments like this grace.  They are moments of grace, because when they occur God gives us the insight to recognize our own blessings and to live for a while within that knowledge.  I believe it is more than merely looking on the bright side of things, but instead it is a divine gift that we learn to accept or we don't.  The more we do accept such instances of grace the better people we are--the more thankful we are, the less selfish, the more humble and the less narcissistic.

Don't get me wrong, it's not like I live in such moments of grace all the time.  This morning Jen and I sat at our kitchen table splitting a banana.  The banana was new and not quite ripe.  I opened my mouth and out came, "Bananas!  They're either too ripe or not ripe enough!"  My wife responded, "Oh yeah, it's a terrible thing to have enough fresh fruit to eat every day.  Shut up and eat your banana."  Somewhere in the distance I heard my mother saying something about starving children in India. . .  

Grace and Peace


Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A White Pastor's Letter to His White Church About Ferguson

As always, I'm proud to be your minister.  I'm proud for many reasons, but especially for the fact that you encourage me to speak my mind to you.  You don't always agree with me--nor should you--but you never censor me.  For that fact I am grateful, especially as I offer my thoughts to you about the events on the other side of our state in Ferguson, MO.

Do you ever wonder about the name of our church?  I do.  Often.  We are called Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ, because we were simply Country Club Congregational Church before our denomination, the United Church of Christ took its present form in 1957.  (Apparently no one was bothered back then by a really long church name.)  Originally we were Country Club Congregational Church formed in the 1920's when real estate developer J.C. Nichols created the "Country Club District" in what was then one of the first suburbs of Kansas City.  

We have much to thank J.C. Nichols for in Kansas City in terms of beautiful neighborhoods.  Our own church sits on its beautiful position at the confluence of West 65th Street and Linden Street, because Nichols designed the neighborhood of Armor Hills and decided it would be pretty to have a church there.  He was right.  Even though his "Country Club District" had no country club in its boundaries, the name spoke to an aspiring middle class with dreams of living like those who enjoyed such luxuries.  

There was a ugly side to the "Country Club District," however, since only white people could live in it.  The original covenants for neighborhoods like Armor Hills had racial exclusions that stated, "none of the lots hereby restricted may be conveyed, to, used, owned, nor occupied by Negroes as owners or tenants."  (I've been told the covenants still contain the language, because removing it would entail exorbitant legal costs.  Such restrictive zoning was outlawed long ago anyway.)  This "country club" was only open to whites.  (Read more about J.C. Nichols restrictive racial covenants and their effect upon housing nationwide here.)  

Do you ever wonder where the expressions "East of Troost" and "West of Troost" come from?  They come from the era of segregation in Kansas City.  Troost Avenue was the dividing line.  Through the decades of desegregation, Civil Rights, the collapse of the Kansas City, Missouri schools and more the language of "East of Troost/West of Troost" survives.  I'm told by some older African Americans who are native to Kansas City that they still don't feel comfortable coming to Brookside.  

The words "Country Club" in our church name have a history--a history that has an ugly side to it.  I share this bit of history with you to point out that our city's racist past affects our present in ways we may not even realize.  

We are an overwhelmingly white church in a neighborhood that within our church's lifetime excluded all African American people.  We literally bear the history of racism in our church name.  We claim to be a "Peace with Justice" church, and if we really mean that, we should learn a lesson from the history of our church's name: we walk around every day not realizing how the history of racism affects our present.

The history of racism has a lot to do with what has gone on in the last few months in Ferguson.  If you think African Americans in St. Louis are just upset about Michael Brown, then you need to learn a bit about St. Louis history.   The tensions surrounding race in Ferguson and other "inner suburbs" in St. Louis County are the result of what economist Richard Rothstein calls "a century of discriminatory policies at the local, state and federal level."  Zoning and housing policies systematically limited where blacks could live and suppressed real estate values of property they were allowed to own.  The wealth generated over generations by whites due to increased property values was not shared by blacks.  The net result is generational black poverty.  Rothstein says:

"As we know from a lot of recent research, intergenerational income mobility in this country is quite low. If you're born into a low-income family, the chances are very, very great that you yourself will have a low income. We don't have nearly the kind of mobility that is mythical in this country.

"So after a century of policies which denied African-Americans access to jobs that pay decent wages, the likelihood is that their children and their children's children will still be paying the price for those policies that held their parents and grandparents behind for so long."

Ferguson's more recent history shows a disturbing disparity between how it treats its black and white citizens.  A recent Washington Post article detailed how the small municipalities in St. Louis County--like Ferguson--have their own municipal courts and derive as much as 40% of their annual budgets from citations and court costs largely from low-income black residents.  Mother Jones Magazine recently laid out some of the disturbing facts about Ferguson's city government and police tactics:
  • In a town that is 60% black, the mayor and police chief are white and there is only one black member of city council and only one black member of the school board.
  • In 2013 in Ferguson, 486 black people were arrested while only 36 white people were arrested.
  • In 2013 in Ferguson, 92% of searches and 86% of car stops involved blacks.
  • Despite the fact that police stops are of black people, white people stopped in Ferguson are more likely to have contraband (1 in 3 whites, 1 in 5 blacks).  
Combine Ferguson's lousy history when it comes to race with nationwide statistics on how blacks are treated by law enforcement and a disturbing picture emerges.
  • From 2009-20013 "black people were about four times as likely to die in custody or while being arrested than whites."    (source: Mother Jones)
  • Another study says that blacks are "21 times" more likely to be shot dead by police than whites.  (source: ProPublica)
The death of Michael Brown at the hands of a white police officer was merely the spark that ignited a powder keg of localized and national racism.  This is why questions of whether or not Michael Brown was a thug or a good young man miss the larger point.  This is why the differing witness accounts of the struggle between officer Wilson and Michael Brown miss the bigger picture.  This is why the media's focus upon looting and arson rather than the hundreds and thousands of peaceful activists in and around Ferguson ignores the real story.  Ferguson is only the local eruption of a nationwide anger over how African Americans feel about being the targets of a long history of oppression--oppression that continues today.

If you need more convincing about the systematic racism in our nation that continues to affect African Americans today, I refer you to the excellent article in The Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates: "The Case for Reparations: Two-hundred fifty years of slavery.  Ninety Years of Jim Crow.  Sixty years of separate but equal.  Thirty-five years of racist housing policy.  Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole." 

We are an overwhelmingly white church that claims to also be a "Peace with Justice" church, so we should be aware of our social location.  The way we view the world may be very different than how African Americans view the world.  A recent article in The Atlantic presented polling about Ferguson demonstrating the dramatic differences in perception between blacks and whites:

More than three-quarters (76 percent) of black respondents say that the shooting is part of a broader pattern, nearly double the number of whites who agree (40 percent). Similarly, a Pew Research Center poll found that overall the country is divided over whether Brown's shooting "raises important issues about race that need to be discussed" (44 percent) or whether "the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves" (40 percent). However, black Americans favor the former statement by a four-to-one margin (80 percent vs. 18 percent) and at more than twice the level of whites (37 percent); among whites, nearly half (47 percent) believe the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves. 

The Atlantic article goes on to explain why this difference in perception exists.  White people "self-segregate" themselves and their social networks are almost entirely made up of white people.  

Overall, the social networks of whites are a remarkable 91 percent white.* White American social networks are only one percent black, one percent Hispanic, one percent Asian or Pacific Islander, one percent mixed race, and one percent other race. In fact, fully three-quarters (75 percent) of whites have entirely white social networks without any minority presence. This level of social-network racial homogeneity among whites is significantly higher than among black Americans (65 percent) or Hispanic Americans (46 percent). 

Given the history of racism in our country (and our city) and given that most of us white people surround ourselves with people with the same experiences as ourselves when it comes to race, how can we claim to understand what is going on in Ferguson?  How can we understand "black rage" if we don't know any black people?  How can we understand the experience of black people with law enforcement and the criminal justice system when we do not have relationships with black people?  How can we talk about Ferguson, when we have not listened first to black people?  

In an effort to listen to African American voices about Ferguson, here are some that I found powerful.

Carol Anderson, associate professor of African American studies and history at Emory University in The Washington Post: 

"When we look back on what happened in Ferguson, Mo., during the summer of 2014, it will be easy to think of it as yet one more episode of black rage ignited by yet another police killing of an unarmed African American male. But that has it precisely backward. What we've actually seen is the latest outbreak of white rage. Sure, it is cloaked in the niceties of law and order, but it is rage nonetheless.

"Protests and looting naturally capture attention. But the real rage smolders in meetings where officials redraw precincts to dilute African American voting strength or seek to slash the government payrolls that have long served as sources of black employment. It goes virtually unnoticed, however, because white rage doesn't have to take to the streets and face rubber bullets to be heard. Instead, white rage carries an aura of respectability and has access to the courts, police, legislatures and governors, who cast its efforts as noble, though they are actually driven by the most ignoble motivations."

Toure, co-host of "The Cycle" on MSNBC in The Washington Post: 

"when there's a black victim involved, the information takes a different and predictable turn: The victim becomes thuggified. This is an easy leap for many minds, given the widespread expectation of black criminality. If you become nervous when you see a young black male approaching on the street, it is not hard to convince you that a kid who was shot was not one of the "good ones," that he was scary and maybe did something to deserve it. Information wars thrive on America's empathy gap - the way some people struggle to see any kinship or shared humanity with strangers who don't look like them. . .

"But when individuals arrive in the court of public opinion, or in a court of law, the burden of being a perfect victim in order to receive justice is impossibly heavy. It doesn't allow for human fallibility. Is there any information from your past that could make you look bad? Any photo that, taken out of context, could portray you as someone you don't recognize?

"Most of us have something in our pasts we would not want revealed. And for black Americans, those facts too often are used to suggest that victims of injustice don't deserve justice, because they weren't some sort of credit to their race. In a nation where police often approach black communities with a dragnet, stopping and frisking everyone, marking as many black men as possible with a record, it would be hard to find a black male who looks like an angel.

"But it doesn't matter whether Brown was an angel. He was young and growing and human, and he made mistakes. That's okay. The real question is not: Was Brown a good kid? The real question is: How are police officers supposed to treat citizens? 

". . .Michael Brown was not perfect. But few of us are. And that does not speak to whether we deserve to die."

Brittney Cooper who teaches gender and women's studies and Africana studies at Rutgers University in

"We are talking about justifiable outrage. Outrage over the unjust taking of the lives of people who look like us. How dare people preach and condescend to these people and tell them not to loot, not to riot?  Yes, those are destructive forms of anger, but frankly I would rather these people take their anger out on property and products rather than on other people.

"No, I don't support looting. But I question a society that always sees the product of the provocation and never the provocation itself. I question a society that values property over black life. But I know that our particular system of law was conceived on the founding premise that black lives are white property. "Possession," the old adage goes, "is nine-tenths of the law."

"But we are the dispossessed. We cannot count on the law to protect us. We cannot count on police not to shoot us down in cold blood. We cannot count on politics to be a productive outlet for our rage. We cannot count on prayer to soothe our raging, ragged souls. . .

"Violence is the effect, not the cause of the concentrated poverty that locks that many poor people up together with no conceivable way out and no productive way to channel their rage at having an existence that is adjacent to the American dream. This kind of social mendacity about the way that racism traumatizes black people individually and collectively is a festering sore, an undiagnosed cancer, a raging infection threatening to overtake every organ in our body politic. . .

"Nothing makes white people more uncomfortable than black anger. But nothing is more threatening to black people on a systemic level than white anger. It won't show up in mass killings. It will show up in overpolicing, mass incarceration, the gutting of the social safety net, and the occasional dead black kid."

Jamelle Boule staff writer for

"More troubling is [Officer Darren] Wilson's physical description of Brown, which sits flush with a century of stereotypes and a bundle of recent research on implicit bias and racial perceptions of pain. In so many words, Wilson describes the "black brute," a stock figure of white supremacist rhetoric in the lynching era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. . .  That image never went away; it lingers in crack-era stories of superpowered addicts and teenaged superpredators, as well as rhetoric around other victims of police brutality. "Jurors in the Rodney King beating trial were warned early on that the black motorist was not on trial," notes a March 29, 1993 wire story on jury deliberations, "Yet they have heard King compared to a 'monster,' a 'Tasmanian devil' and a man with 'hulk-like strength.' "

". . .  Add to this what we know about implicit bias-that most people perceive blacks as more violent and dangerous than other groups-and you have a Darren Wilson narrative that reads like a textbook case of racial projection.

"Indeed, it's worth noting the extent to which Wilson's story echoes George Zimmerman's account of his confrontation with Trayvon Martin. Like Brown, Martin is aggressive; he approaches Zimmerman's SUV, circles it, and threatens him. When he tried to escape, Zimmerman said, Martin punched him in the face, knocked him down, and began beating him on the sidewalk. Like Brown, Martin threatens Zimmerman-"You're gonna die now"-and like Wilson, Zimmerman shoots him, fearing for his life.

"It's the fear that's most striking. Wilson was trained, armed, and empowered with the force of law. At almost any point in his confrontation with Brown, he could have called for backup and won control of the situation. But, he says, he was too gripped with terror to do anything but shoot. The same was true for Zimmerman, and the same was true for Michael Dunn, the man who killed Jordan Davis in a Jacksonville, Florida parking lot.

"Maybe Wilson is telling the truth. Maybe-like Zimmerman and Dunn and all the others-he faced a powerful black "demon" who wouldn't stop and had to be killed. But this would be an incredible coincidence, or more likely, evidence of some terrible, criminal pathology among young black men. Which is to say, I doubt it's true.

"Instead, consider this: Maybe Wilson was an ordinary police officer with all the baggage it carries. Maybe, like many of his peers on the Ferguson police force, he was hard on black teenagers. Maybe, like many Americans, he was a little afraid of them. And maybe all of this-his fear, his bias, and his training-met Michael Brown and combined to create tragedy.

"If so, the lesson of Wilson is that he isn't unique. That his fear is common. And that the same forces that drove Wilson and Brown to confrontation can-and will-drive another Wilson and another Brown to another confrontation with the same deadly results."

And if all these words by African American writers along with those of your white pastor weren't enough, if you think the grand jury that chose not to indict officer Darren Wilson was a fair and transparent process, I encourage you to read the critique of how St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCullough handled the grand jury by this white former public defender.

To sum up, Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ is an overwhelmingly white church with a white minister and together we have a limited perspective on the African American experience.  When we look at the events in Ferguson, we have to do our homework, do a lot of listening and do a lot of praying if we really want to be a "Peace with Justice" church.  We get to decide which parts of our church name are more important to our identity.  Do the words "Church" and "Christ" matter more to our identity than "Country Club?"

Grace and Peace