Sewing Seeds of Peace & Justice

Rally 7.10.16-crowd

I have always drawn the line at public demonstrations. Writing letters to editors or legislators, signing petitions, calling representatives, even publishing blogs & the occasional tweet – those   reasonable, genteel efforts in behalf of justice – have satisfied my self-righteousness self-image just fine. Marching, picketing, that sort of in-your-face activity I have happily left to other more courageous friends.

Rally 7.10.16-G.L.

But now? Mass shootings, killings of seemingly innocent African Americans by police, sniper killings of police “in retaliation”? A dangerously polarized country facing a presidential choice between the two most unpopular candidates in history – one a widely mistrusted history-making woman and the other a scary narcissist egomaniac (IMHO)? No peace, little justice.

What can you do?

Rally 7.10.16-Do Justice

When a couple of guys who have become unlikely close friends decide to put together a rally on the steps of City Hall, you show up. One leads a mostly white, fairly traditional Presbyterian church in an upscale neighborhood, the other leads an African American Pentecostal congregation in a depressed area across town. Within a few days, at the end of a week that saw the shooting of an African American man in Minnesota and the killing of five policemen in Dallas, the two friends arranged an event to argue for sanity:

FAITH COMMUNITIES UNITED FOR JUSTICE AND PEACE. Nothing big, nothing political, nothing advertised as changing the world. A chance, though, for people from across the spectrums of race, politics and religion to show up and share their hope for a better world. For this writer, and strangers of assorted skin colors and garb (yarmulkes, hoodies, religious robes, flip flops) it was a chance to stand shoulder to shoulder, sign to sign, and catch one’s breath after recent weeks of tragedy and horror.

Rally 7.10.16-David Chiu

One of the ministers in attendance, who happens also to be a professionally trained singer, warmed up the crowd (which grew incrementally as the hour progressed) with a group sing-along to an old spiritual: I feel like going on. Though trials mount on every hand, I feel like going on.

An Asian American legislator told the crowd he had brought along his 4-month-old son. He and his wife have just bought a home in the depressed area. “so that my son can grow up,” he said, “with Black and Latino friends. I hope they will all be judged by their character.”

An interfaith leader quoted Martin Luther King, Jr’s phrase, “Returning violence for violence multiples violence.” He argued for turning this trend around – and drew applause when he said, “We need to support gun laws.”

A tall, young African American man holding an orange sign that read “LOVE & PEACE” spoke of his own father being shot by a policeman when the son was 16.

Rally 7.10.16-2 signs

 

A public official told of an incident several days earlier in which an armed man had been talked down from a threatening situation, “and no one was injured or killed.”

A rabbi quoted a Jewish prayer from Deuteronomy, “Justice, justice shall you pursue . . .”

One of the leaders of a Muslim organization that promotes interfaith cooperation and understanding spoke of the message of peace which is central to Islam.

Signs were waved – they carried words and phrases like: Walk Humbly. All Lives Matter. Light Overcomes Darkness. – and – Imagine all the people living life in peace.

Rally 7.10.16-Keith

 

When the crowd disbursed, stepping out of the shadow of the City Hall steps and back into the summer sunshine, there was a demonstrable sense of light overcoming darkness. The word is that rallies and demonstrations for peace were taking place across the country on the same day. Out of them all, perhaps, will emerge a few seeds of justice and compassion to push back against the anger and hostility that has claimed every news cycle of recent months.

Because, as another widely quoted saying also heard from the rally lectern goes, You have to give them something to hope for.

Do Lives Matter? Or just guns?

Vigil with Chiu
California Assemblymember David Chiu, whose district includes The Bayview, speaks to Vigil participants

Candles lit, holding signs that read SPREAD LOVE, NOT VIOLENCE or COMMUNITIES AGAINST GUN VIOLENCE the group stood waiting to start. But nearly half of those expected were missing. It seems there had been a shooting several blocks away. One dead. A lot of police involved, traffic blocked.

 

The vigil to protest gun violence, delayed by gun violence, eventually got underway.

This was on a recent wintry night in San Francisco, when a group from Grace Tabernacle Community Church in the city’s Bayview-Hunter’s Point neighborhood gathered for one of the regular vigils they have long held in memory of those killed by gunfire. It is a long list. The Bayview holds the unenviable record of having the most deaths and injuries from gun violence – by a large margin – of any area of San Francisco. It would be almost impossible to find anyone in the community who has not lost a family member, friend or acquaintance to gunfire; yet it is still home to generations of good people who continue to work for a better, even gun-free future.

Joining the Grace Tabernacle vigil group were a number of friends from Calvary Presbyterian church in the city’s Pacific Heights neighborhood, an affluent community which holds the unenviable record of having the city’s highest suicide rate. Some by gunshot.

Once the latecomers made it past the scene of the latest shooting, the group walked candles-aloft to a nearby corner where a young man had been killed not long ago. A collection of burned-out candles in colorful holders, some now broken, surrounded the parking meter at the spotVigil memorial.1 where he had fallen; the police had given up on it and let the site remain as a memorial. His name was Otis. No one knows who shot him; possibly he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Grace Tabernacle’s Bishop Jackson said a prayer and the group slowly moved on.

Occasionally they sang. (This Little Light of Mine . . . We Shall Overcome.) The wind repeatedly blew out candles, but there always seemed to be a flame somewhere. One candle-holder said to another, as she re-lit her candle by his, “I was shot in the shoulder on that corner a block away.”

The day after the vigil, Liberty University president Jerry Falwell, Jr., presumably confident that no troubled person would ever be a student at Liberty, urged his students to arm themselves.

Also on that day the Senate once again failed to pass gun control measures, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s bill that would have prevented people on terrorist watch lists from being able to buy guns with which to commit terror.

Several days later, some who had attended the vigil heard John Weems, at Calvary Presbyterian, address the issue of gun violence. Weems had been part of the vigil, and made a biblically appropriate metaphor of the candles being blown out by the wind, but constantly re-ignited. Darkness, he said, cannot overcome the light.

At the end of his sermon Weems lifted a stack of 8 x 10 sheets about three inches thick, and a few helpers distributed them among the congregation. There were 353 sheets listing the date, location and number of people killed or wounded in each of the mass shootings (four or more killed or wounded) in the U.S. this year according to the only-in-America website shootingtracker.com. Another 45 sheets bore the names of the known 2015 victims of gun violence in San Francisco, the city named for a compassionate saint.

Gun collage

It would be impossible to know how many firearms are in private hands in this country, but it’s safe to say at least a few hundred million. Some of them – “assault weapons,” “semi-automatic rifles,” “sporting guns” by whatever name you choose – can kill more people faster than others; any of them can kill or maim. A wide range of weapons were used for the 353 mass shootings of 2015; all of them succeeded in wounding or killing human beings. The three sheets left to this distributor read:

DURHAM, N.C.; 8/21/2015. WOUNDED: 8. DEAD: 0

ROSWELL, N.M.; 8/21/2015. WOUNDED: 1. DEAD: 3

CINCINNATI, OH; 8/21/2015. WOUNDED: 5. DEAD: 2

It’s hard not to think about how much darkness might be prevented by having a few less guns in the U.S. Those who know that darkness best continue to light candles . . . and hope.

candles

 

 

 

On Being Instruments of Peace

dove of peaceWatching the families of people killed at Charleston’s Emanuel A.M.E. Church repeatedly declare their forgiveness of shooter Dylann Roof was, for many including this writer, somewhat surreal. Seriously? Set aside the rage, grief, unbelief, and go straight to forgiveness?

For some faith traditions, that is indeed possible.

Also possible is the response for good coming out of Roof’s act for evil: removal of an emblem – the Confederate flag I recall seeing on some of my ancestors’ gravestones – from public spaces, and serious confrontation of the racism firmly embedded in U.S. culture. Not just the south, not just in police forces, not just in politics; in the U.S. culture.

One small part of the attempt to confront, and hopefully address, those issues in one small piece of the culture began recently when John Weems, pastor of mainline (if hardly traditional) Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, got to talking with Bishop Ernest Jackson, pastor of Grace Tabernacle Community Church across town in San Francisco’s largely African American Bayview-Hunter’s Point neighborhood. This conversation led to a group of mostly white Calvary members leaving their 10 AM Sunday service early to join the 11 AM worshippers at Grace Tabernacle. (We were saved from embarrassing Caucasian-ness by one tall African American and one third-generation Chinese American.)

Calvary’s Minister of Spiritual Care Victor Floyd was preaching before the group set out – on a day the long openly gay Floyd said he never thought he’d live to see – and admonished the group that worshipping with Pentecostals would mean staid Presbyterians (the Frozen Chosen, we are commonly called) would have to raise their arms above the level of their waists.

Well, who knew?

Grace Tabernacle dancer
Grace Tabernacle dancers

The incredibly gracious Pentecostals greeted the chosen-frozen Presbyterians with exuberance. And a forgiveness for our frozen-ness that would probably be understood only by people like the survivors of the Charleston massacre.

“Forgiving is not forgetting,” Bishop Jackson said. “We have little control over what we remember or what we forget.” But he reminded the uniquely mixed group that it is wise to remember “the wrong that harbors no malice.”

There was a great deal of praise music – hands waving, or for the more frozen, clapping, higher than the level of one’s waist. There was some extraordinary dancing by three costumed young Grace Tabernacle women. There was talk about the burden of unforgiveness. And there were parting words of the sort that will bring exactly the change and reconciliation Dylann Roof (for whose immortal soul a lot of great Americans are praying) sought to prevent.

“Thank you,” said John Weems, “for helping us thaw out.”

“We must disconnect,” said Ernest Jackson, “from hatred and racism.

“We are instruments of peace.”

One can only hope.

 

And God said……….

Creation of the Sun and Moon by Michelangelo, ...
Creation of the Sun and Moon by Michelangelo, face detail of God. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A friend’s 3-year-old, I recently read on Facebook, concludes her mealtime/bedtime prayers with “Ah, man.” Her mom thinks it’s rather endearing. I think the kid may be onto something. I just have a feeling that God/Allah/Jehovah/Whomever (and I am quick to admit I believe quite deeply in the one who said we should love one another) is somewhere in cyberspace shaking Her head and saying, “Ah, man.”

I mean, look at the messes we’ve gotten into because somebody knew what God said. You can start with the crusades, but it would be just as easy to start earlier. In any event, today is an exemplary peril.

Take Egypt, for example (since it’s too painful to start with the U.S.) In the August 26th New York Times, David Kirkpatrick and Mayy El Sheikh report on the Egyptian military’s latest move, enlisting Muslim scholars to persuade soldiers and policemen that it’s their religious duty to kill their friends and neighbors who are supporting the recently deposed President Morsi. Why? Because God said to. On the side of the military in this is a televangelist (the U.S., it turns out doesn’t have a corner on televangelists) Amr Khaled who is out there assuring the troops, “You, you conscript in the Egyptian military, you are performing a task for God Almighty!” Ah, man. I have long since lost track of what whose god is telling whom in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and assorted African countries. In China no one seems to be listening to the Buddha, although it was indeed distressing when the monks got angry in Myanmar.

Closer to home, the troubles I am most often confronting these days have to do with what several groups presumably listening to the same (as in, Jesus) God believe that god is saying. “Life begins at conception. Abortion is murder.” What that correct? Or did She actually say, “All you children are made in my image. You may control your own bodies.” Who knows?

Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone would quit believing he or she knows exactly what God is saying and started listening instead for the voice of god? I have no theological training, but I’d be willing to bet God isn’t saying “Now remember, abortion is murder.” Or even, “Get out there and perform this task of killing your friends and neighbors.” More likely, She’s somewhere in the ethernet saying, “Ah, man. Could you try to get along?”

The Oakland you didn't see on TV

[youtubevid id=”0MNcWUX5oU4″]You may have read the reports of how few of the vandals in Oakland CA last week came from Oakland. But what you may not have read about (or seen) were the peaceful folks who also gathered to encourage both protest and peace.

There was after-dark violence in Oakland, contained within a fairly small area, following the involuntary manslaughter verdict of transit officer Johannes Mehserle in the death of Oscar Grant, reported on TV news across the country. Oakland takes a lot of guff. There were rallies in support of Mehserle, and gatherings in remembrance of Grant, and worries because many wanted a murder conviction. Following the verdict, a crowd estimated at fewer than 1,000 gathered downtown for a peaceful demonstration of their dissatisfaction with the verdict. A small group of about 100, after the sun went down, turned to vandalism and looting. There were 78 arrests; three-quarters of those arrested were not from Oakland. It’s a sadly familiar story, especially in the way it was reported; what was reported was far from the whole story.

Interestingly, right in the middle of the troubled block is the headquarters of an organization called Not In Our Town (NIOT). “We thought it was important to set the record straight,” the NIOT folks said in an e-mail today, “by filming the encouraging community response taking place right outside our door. Here are the young people of Oakland expressing their love of this city, and their commitment to keeping the peace, no matter their reaction to the verdict.”

NIOT is a national movement that “encourages and connects people who are responding to hate and building more inclusive communities.” On their home page is a U.S. map featuring recent hate incidents (red dots) and recent anti-hate action (green dots.) The green dots outnumber the red dots, which is a heartening development to recognize, although the red dots tend to get better press.

This space is a certified member of NIOT. This space is regularly fingered as a Pollyanna. But the active (as opposed to the certified, who are often wimps) NIOT people are not Pollyannas, but courageous and simultaneously gentle souls. Check them out. You may want a NIOT in your town.

JFK Counsel Ted Sorensen keeps the dream — and image — alive

Ted Sorensen, special counsel and adviser to John F. Kennedy before and during the Kennedy administration, told a packed house at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club last night that his old friend of Camelot days should be remembered as “a man of peace.”

“The biggest misperception of John F. Kennedy,” Sorensen said in response to an audience question, “is that he was essentially a Cold War hero.  That’s from the familiar paragraph at the beginning of his inaugural address, ‘…that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.'”

More important, Kennedy’s old friend said, are the words toward the end of that address in which he reached out a hand to (the nation’s then-#1 opponent) Russia seeking peace — “a request: that both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction”; movement toward arms control —“let both sides, for the first time, formulate serious and precise proposals for the inspection and control of arms”; and scientific collaboration — “together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce.”

Sorensen, whose earlier book Kennedy: the Classic Biography was on bestseller lists for months, was promoting a current memoir, Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History, and was appearing in a program sponsored by the humanitarian nonprofit Roots of Peace. Much of the newer book focuses on his years with JFK, beginning with an interview at the age of 24, fresh out of the University of Nebraska law school. When he asked then-senator Kennedy what he would want him to do if hired, Sorensen recalls, he was given a long list of proposed meetings  with powerful figures and the task of “crafting a legislative program for the economic revival of New England, and I thought that was pretty tall cotton.”

Sorensen, who is acknowledged as author of most of Kennedy’s speeches (though not the inaugural), said the President was unjustly criticized for not writing his own. In those days before press secretaries, communication staffers and speechwriting committees, he said, “it was always a collaborative effort” between the two men. “My office was right down the hall from his in the West Wing, and it was just the President and me. Only the President revised and corrected.”

Kennedy, Sorensen said, resisted advice to send combat troops into Vietnam and bombers into North Vietnam, and to use force in other parts of Indochina. “Thank goodness I learned from the Bay of Pigs,” he quoted JFK as saying; “otherwise I’d have listened to (that) advice.”

But as to Kennedy’s assurance, in a 1963 speech, that “the world knows America will never start a war,” Sorensen said, “that was then… I’m not so sure about now.”

In response to an audience question about what he missed the most, Sorensen said he would want the world to remember that Kennedy began to lay the foundation for peace, through such programs as aid to education, civil rights programs and the Peace Corps, and was a man of peace. “I miss having a friend like that in the White House.”