“The idea that you are reborn anew, without your history, without being dogged by your past, without who you were haunting you and you having to deal with that, is uniquely American. In America, we have difficulty with acknowledging the fact that where we are in a particular moment is irrevocably tied to our past. We have great difficulty in doing that when it challenges us.” (Ta-Nehisi Coates, in a presentation at Loyola University, Chicago)
“On the Day of Atonement you shall sound the trumpet throughout all your land. You shall make the fiftieth year holy, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee to you; and each of you shall return to his own property, and each of you shall return to his family. That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee to you. In it you shall not sow, neither reap that which grows of itself, nor gather from the undressed vines. For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you. You shall eat of its increase out of the field. In this Year of Jubilee each of you shall return to his property.” (Leviticus 25)
Seventeen years ago this past week, Amadou Diallo was killed in a hail of 41 bullets from police guns in the Soundview section of the South Bronx. This teenage African immigrant from Guinea was holding—not a gun—but his wallet as he died in front of his apartment. Bruce Springsteen wrote a song about it, “41 shots…American Skin.” I wrote an editorial about it, which got me in trouble. I said that if Amadou had been my son (one of my sons was Amadou’s age), he would still be alive. I also called on public and religious leaders to admit that we have a racial problem in our community and that we needed the resolve to face it together.
There were plans to boycott my visit to a congregation in Long Island whose membership included many New York City police and their families. I asked the pastor to read a letter to the congregation the week before my visit. I asked them to welcome me as a brother in Christ, as their bishop, and I promised to stay at the coffee hour until the last person said what they had to say to me.
The church was packed. The congregation was incredibly gracious and hospitable, and there was no way around facing the anger. I stayed a long time. I faced people who were hearing me as accusing the police of racism and murder. There were primal screams from police wives whose husbands had been shot.
But we listened and stayed in the conversation. They heard from me that during my twenty years of parish ministry I was a police chaplain, and that the cries of mothers whose children were shot by police were remarkably similar to theirs. I learned that there is no short cut to engaging one another, to facing our history: the world set by white privilege, our disconnect from the day to day experiences of people of color in that world, the legacy of the original sin of slavery in our country, and how it disfigured us all.
The public furor, demonstrations, arrests, the acquittal of those who shot Amadou, the ensuing anger, grief and communal helplessness presaged Fergusen, Sandtown, Charlestown, Chicago today.
Brenda Smith, now Director for faith practices in the ELCA but then a pastor in an African American congregation and community in Queens, looked back on that time and said to me the other day, “We will never get anywhere, we won’t settle this if we don’t see each other’s humanity.” Her community reached out to their local precinct—and had been doing it long before Amadou was shot. They baked and delivered cookies to it after the death of Amadou. We were able to get Attorney General Elliott Spitzer to convene a meeting in her church between police and young African American males being profiled. There is no substitute or short cut from the hard work of bringing people at the table together. Peace and reconciliation is a long game.
Long also, has been our complicity in racism. The ELCA has benefitted institutionally and as individuals from the “plunder” of African Americans and their property in the history of the USA. In the past, and continuing in the present, our members and congregations moved away from African American (and Latino, and poverty stricken) neighborhoods because we did not want to live with the people moving into those neighborhoods. We left the church buildings, the debt, and the upkeep, the deteriorating neighborhoods, the draining of jobs and economic capital. Now gentrification threatens to “plunder” (Coates’ term) anew, the lives and property of African Americans and people in poverty.
Coates calls for “Reparations,” a concept that has been around for a long time. I remember the Young Lords occupying congregations in East Harlem fifty years ago. I agree with the concept, but I fear the perceived guilt tripping is probably a nonstarter in engaging the heart of a mostly white middle class church body—although it would be interesting to probe why that is so.
Proposal: As the ELCA continues to wrestle with issues of racial justice and the results of our own history, we declare Jubilee and reinvest in the ELCA congregations and their communities of color and poverty. A place to begin, in the 96% white ELCA, is to open up space among the 96% to face race in the decisions we make in the light of Law and Gospel. And reinvest in the 4%. Let the first fruits of the Congregational Renewal effort of the Campaign for the ELCA be used to strategically reinvest in congregations from our ELCA ethnic communities in these neighborhoods. Synods, bishops, and their Renewal Tables, in partnership with ELCA ethnic communities, could identify strategic congregations, present and potential leaders, and area strategies.
Since Amadou’s death and continuing through today, I have two convictions. One: we need to open up spaces to hear one another, to face our history, to deepen relationships, so that we can leave our defended spaces, which are shrouded by fear and anxiety, which are too often exacerbated and exploited by our leaders and pundits. And two: we need to integrate into our communal experiences of racial tragedy the narrative of hope, reconciliation and restoration that is let loose in the world through the death and resurrection of Jesus.