When I first saw the signs, I was a little puzzled. BLM. Why were people carrying Bureau of Land Management signs at a protest rally?
Then I had the “doh” moment. Being from Alaska, I saw the initials BLM a lot. But outside of Alaska, at this time in our history, BLM means something entirely different. Black Lives Matter.
I have written in other posts that for years when I heard Black Lives Matter, internally I thought to myself, All lives matter. Living in Medford, where Blacks make up a minuscule part of the population, I didn’t think about Black Lives a lot. I thought about the people in my congregation, and the various unhoused people we serve. I thought about friends and acquaintances.
I believed, deep in my heart, that all people did matter, and to single out one group created a partiality that did not need to exist. I did not embrace Black Lives Matter because I felt, as Dr. King stated, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and Black Lives Matter seemed to focus just on injustice in one place. God loved all people and wants justice for all people, and injustice is not just a Black issue.
Then came the murder of George Forbes, and somehow all those arguments began to look like a justification for ignoring an incredible injustice in our country. Suddenly I realized Black Lives Matter.
I say “suddenly” but in fact this had been brewing in my head for a while. It started with Rick’s death.
Rick was one of the unhoused people who were attached to our church. He did not attend services, but I was his pastor. I visited him when he was in rehab, I gave him money for smokes,I took him to the hospital when he had a bad encounter with his neighbors or with the police, and I considered him to be a friend. He was getting ready to try rehab again, when he was found dead on the street.
We insisting on doing his funeral right. We got an organist (our church is known for its wonderful organ) instead of getting a cheaper piano player. I dressed up as I would for any funeral. I wanted the people who would attend, most of them unhoused, to feel like we were throwing out the red carpet for him.
And in my remarks, I wanted the people attending to know that God had a special love for them. But there was a problem. Along with the people from the streets, many of my parishioners would be attending as well. And I did not want them thinking that God did not love them. I was going to talk about God’s preferential option for the poor, but I would be preaching that message to some of my parishioners, who were fairly well off. I did not want to upset them. (Yes, pastors do think about such things.)
And I came up with a way to do it. I talked about Diner Theology. If you have ever been to a diner, you know what this is. The waitress comes around, and if your coffee cup is empty, they will fill it for you. (The best one’s will say, “Can I freshen that up for you, hon?”) Now imagine a diner where the waitress went around ignoring the empty cups, and filling those that were already full. One person at the table has coffee cups that overfloweth, and some have perpetually empty cups. And I told the people assembled for the service, “When your cup is empty, God comes around and says, “Can I freshen that up for you, hon?” God does fill full cups, nor does God ignore empty cups. And I listed how many people there had empty cups. Living on the streets, struggling to cut out a patch of turf that was safe from the police, and safe from predators. Having a mental health system that totally failed them. Not having a decent place to use the bathroom. Being ignored by the people who walk past you. God fills that empty cup with love.
I don’t know why I didn’t see it at the time, but that is exactly the rational for Black Lives Matter
Black Lives Matter
I wanted to say, “All lives matter,” but the hard truth was that statement is a lie.
My life matters. I knew that from my birth. I mattered to my parents, to my teachers, and to the various churches that hired me over the years. No one has to tell me that my life matters. I was born with that knowledge and almost every encounter I had reinforced that in my life. I walk into room after room of people who dress like me, speak like me, who are educated like me, and who share many of the experiences I have. Even some of my unhoused friends call me “sir.” When I pay attention to them, it means something because I matter. Very few times in my life have I ever encountered the kind of situation that made me feel like I didn’t matter. Very few. When I get pulled over by the police, they call me “sir.” When I shop in a store, I am always treated as someone who matters.
But I know this is not so for Black people in America. While respect is freely given to me, they often have to fight for it. Or worse yet, learn to live without it. White people need to say “Black Lives Matter,” because it needs to be heard, and because we need to say it. We need to say those words, thoughtfully and deliberately. We need to understand the point of privilege we have, as well as the price of that privilege. We need to hear the stories that too often go unheard, the stories about what it is like to be Black in America.We need to let people know that their stories matter because their lives matter. I am a minister and stories are my lifeblood. The stories of Abraham, and Moses, and David and Daniel, and Jesus, and Peter, and Paul. The stories of my parishioners, stories about their joys and their concerns. My sermons are full of stories.
But my well is impoverished if I do not also include the stories of oppression that goes on, unseen, around me every day. My well of stories is tainted if it only includes stories of privilege and not the stories of the people who have fight to be seen, who have to fight for the right to matter.
The fact is, the stories I have were almost all written by white people. Even my understanding of the Bible was formed by white interpretors who were writing for an audience that is almost all white. Where are the stories of Asia, Africa, and Latin America? Where were the stories of the oppressed people who live in my own city? I went through my bookshelves, looking for works by people of color. Excepting works of Buddhism, most of which were written by Americans, I have very, very few. (For perspective, I have more than a thousand books.) I have exactly three books written by Black theologians or social commentators.
And I never noticed that. I tend to buy books that confirm my own biases, and that make me more secure in the world I inhabit. Breaking out of that is very hard to do, and I am thankful for the people who lovingly pointed that out to me, and who challenged me to broaden my horizons. If you at my book shelf you can see that I don’t think that Black writers matter.
Slowly my world is getting bigger.
Coming out of the closet
In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. King wrote, “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” I have to admit that my understanding of Black issues is pretty shallow. How can I say that God loves all people when I am ignorant of many of the people God loves? How can I preach the Gospel, Good News, if I am unaware of what kind of Good News the Black community needs to hear and to experience?
So I am coming out of the closet.
Black Lives Matter.