Black

Religious Groups Focus on Flint's Water Woes

Image via REUTERS/Rebecca Cook/RNS

Catholic Charities is giving out water and food. The Flint Jewish Federation is collecting water and water filters. And the Michigan Muslim Community Council has distributed more than 120,000 bottles of clean water for Flint, Mich. But these faith organizations are also focused on a longer-term goal: to make sure the impoverished city, where President Obama last weekend declared a state of emergency over its poisoned water, is never so neglected again.

From the Archives: July 1987

[W]hen I was in junior high, I decided I wanted to become the first black woman ordained in the Lutheran Church. ... At Wesley I enjoyed being a student again, until one of the black seminarians asked, “How can you be black and be Lutheran?” I didn’t know. I had never thought about it. The Lutheran Church is predominantly white, ethnically German and Scandinavian. It is highly structured and without the display of lively emotions most blacks are used to in their religious experiences. The Lutheran Church was the only church I had ever really known, and yet suddenly I was thrust into an identity crisis that really rocked me. ...

I am still learning who this black woman pastor is. I am still learning how to use who I am as a black person and as a woman to provide a strong witness for the church. I have no doubts that being black and a woman are important and integral to who I am, and yet for me those factors are not the issue in ministry.

The issue is sharing together the sacramental moments of our lives, the times when heaven and earth touch—holy communion, baptism, worship, touching people, and being touched by them when we celebrate joys and huddle together in pain. The issue is that we share a relationship with God and with each other, and it takes many talents and a variety of people to populate our church. 

Laura Griffin was the second black woman to be ordained in the American Lutheran Church.

Image: Mosaic of resurrected Christ,  / Shutterstock ">

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July 2015
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She’s Black, Gay, and Soon You Can Call Her ‘Rabbi’

Photo by Kim Weimer / Staff Photographer Bucks County Courier Times
Sandra Lawson. Photo by Kim Weimer / Staff Photographer Bucks County Courier Times / Sandra Lawson / RNS

Sandra Lawson, a former military police officer turned personal trainer, wasn’t religious about anything, except maybe fitness. She wasn’t looking to convert to Judaism or any other religion.

And she certainly never aspired to be one of the first — if not the first — black, openly lesbian rabbi.

But this spring Lawson finished her fourth year at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College outside Philadelphia with the help of an online GoFundMe campaign. She plans to marry her girlfriend and spend the fall semester in Israel. If all goes according to plan, she will celebrate her ordination in 2018.

The Criminality of Blackness

Dabarti CGI/Shutterstock.com
A core spiritual lie keeps us from seeing what is because we only see what we expect. Dabarti CGI/Shutterstock.coA

There is a moment in John Steinbeck’s classic, East of Eden, when readers witness the transformation of a stereotype into a human being.

Set in Salinas Valley, Calif., around the turn of the 20th century, Samuel Hamilton picks up Lee, his friend's Chinese servant. Lee wears a queue and speaks Pidgin English. Moments after meeting him, Hamilton learns that Lee was born in the U.S. and asks why he still can’t speak English.

Lee’s face and eyes soften and he speaks perfect English, explaining that he speaks Pidgin for the whites in town to understand him. Lee says, “You see what is, where most people see what they expect.”

Did you catch that? Lee plays the role of the foreigner in order to be seen and understood.

Prophet in a Cracker Dress

Nora Howell modeling her dress made of crackers

ONE RECENT WINTER day, Nora Howell stepped out of her house in the Sandtown neighborhood of Baltimore and took a walk down the street. People in the predominantly black community did double takes as this white woman promenaded past them in a sundress made of saltine and oyster crackers. Some stared in disbelief. One man doubled over laughing. In the corner coffee shop, one of the regulars warned Howell not to walk by any homeless people because they might just eat her up.

Later Howell, a community artist and director of the neighborhood Jubilee Arts program, set the video footage taken during her walk to Mister Rogers’ classic refrain, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” The piece, which emerged out of Howell’s ponderings on what it means to be white living in a black neighborhood, became another part of her answer to a call: to use art to address systemic racism and bring about the kingdom of God.

From Race Riots to White Suburbia and Beyond
In 2001, Howell was an eighth grader living in a biracial community in urban Cincinnati. When race riots erupted after a young black man was shot fatally by a white police officer (sound familiar?), her family took to the streets on a prayer walk through the riots. Howell remembers being shocked and terrified, thinking, “Why do we still have race riots? Cincinnati is so far behind the times.”

In the aftermath, Howell talked with peers at school on the reality of racial tensions and observed with curiosity how white and black churches throughout the city responded. She realized race riots weren’t just a relic of the ’60s. “When you lived in a place where different racial groups interacted daily, [racial tensions] could no longer be denied or ignored,” she said.

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Shifting the Frame

“CINEMA IS a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.” With this, Martin Scorsese, one of the greatest living U.S. directors, gives us a simple window to understand the power of cinema. What is in the frame is a choice by the filmmaker, and what is not highlighted is also a choice.

People of color, literally and metaphorically, have struggled to be included in the frame and fought to move from the background to the foreground of the cinematic imagination.

The U.S. cinema, historically, has been the vanguard of stereotypes and the enforcer of our racialized imagination. Our view of women, people of color, and ethnicities define and are expanded by the power of cinema.

D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent film The Birth of a Nation was a revisionist history of the Civil War and Reconstruction that defined the Ku Klux Klan as the hero of the story and used white actors in blackface to frame black people as a threat to white society. This film, while not seen by the majority of filmgoers, set into motion the racial constructs we now view as normative. Black men, for example, have often been viewed in cinematic history as ethically dubious, highly sexualized, violent, or childlike comic characters.

These stereotypes created by the filmmaker’s imagination became, in the minds of many in the U.S., a historical fact. Cinema helped reinforce myths and arbitrary prejudices not based on cultural differences but created to protect economic interests of white Southerners who feared black labor.

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American Jews Say Others Face More Discrimination

pio3 / Shutterstock.com
Commuters on subway on June 28, 2012 in New York City. pio3 / Shutterstock.com

American Jews say they face discrimination in the U.S., but they see Muslims, gays, and blacks facing far more.

This and other findings from the recently released Pew Research Center’s landmark study on Jewish Americans help make the case that Jews — once unwelcome in many a neighborhood, universitym, and golf club — now find themselves an accepted minority.

“While there are still issues, American Jews live in a country where they feel they are full citizens,” said Kenneth Jacobson, deputy national director of the Anti-Defamation League, which was founded in 1913 to combat anti-Semitism.

Coloring in Oppression

THIS SHORT VOLUME by Jacqueline Battalora, a professor of criminal justice at St. Xavier University in Chicago, addresses a very important topic in American history and society: The legal, social, and political invention of the category of “white people” as a privileged group, which defines them as the normative Americans over against others, variously defined as “black,” “colored,” “Indians,” and “mulatto.”

When English settlers founded the New England colonies, they referred to themselves as British. As more people from other countries of Western Europe arrived in the area, they tended to group those they saw as similar to themselves as Christians, Germans, etc.—the term “white” was not used—over against “Negroes,” Indians, and rival colonizers such as the Spanish and French.

The term white was first used in colonial law after Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, during which some African and European indentured servants formed an alliance. Virginia’s colonial leaders responded with a package of laws that created a racial caste of African-descended slaves, distinguished from European servants. These laws decreed that African slaves could not be freed and free Africans could not hold office, serve in the army, or hold European bond laborers. This group was thus disprivileged, in contrast with those of European descent who were defined as “white.”

The term white also soon appeared in Maryland colonial law, forbidding African-descended people from owning weapons and testifying against “whites.” Anti-miscegenation laws also developed, forbidding “white” people from marrying those who were “black” or “Indian,” fining them if they did so and taking away any children from such unions, who were labeled “abominations.” These laws actually only applied to “white” women, since “white” men often had concubines from these forbidden groups without penalty.

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At the Door of the Church

It is not very difficult to understand why there is a black church and a white church in America today, or to realize that this structure will not change in the near future. The religious atmosphere created by the coming together of blacks (who were slaves) and whites (who were masters) tended to negate any possibility of developing the true unity and oneness that scripture proclaims for the church. The agendas of the slaves were vastly different from those of the masters. Unfortunately, conflict over agendas, both stated and unstated, continues to be one of the reasons that blacks and whites do not come together to worship.

'Why Are White People So Mean?'

THE METRO IS crowded today, and the 20-something, well-dressed white man has to stand, one hand holding the bar and the other his smartphone. It’s the end of the day. All the commuters—but one—are turned toward home. The young man’s face, like most of the others, is dulled with exhaustion. No one makes eye contact.

In a seat near the door, one woman sits facing everyone, looking backward. She studies the young man’s face intently, uncomfortably. He shifts. She rearranges the bags at her feet. Her reflection in the window shows an ashy neck above her oversized T-shirt collar. The train hums and clicks through a tunnel. As if in preparation, she takes another sip from the beat-up plastic cup she’s holding.

At last, she raises her voice and asks: “Why are white people so mean?” Boom! The electricity of America’s third rail crackles through the train. Faces fold in like origami or turn blank like a screensaver.

But this was no rhetorical question. When no one answers, she asks again, this time aiming her question at the young man with his phone. A flush creeps up his neck. “You look like you could be a sheriff,” she says to him. “Good and mean. I can see it in your eyes. You got mean eyes.” When he realizes her attention is stuck on him, he replies, “I hope I’m not mean. I try to be good.”

An older man leans in to shhhsh her. “Sister, don’t talk like that here,” as if this was a topic only for the back porches in certain neighborhoods. Everyone was watching—and not watching—America’s racial history play out wildly and uncontrolled, like there was a snake loose on the train.

In the manner of the psalmists, Jeremiah, and Job, this prophetic woman had put forward her lament and accusation into the public square. Laments pierce social and religious facades to expose a fundamental injustice. They engage, as Walter Brueggemann puts it, “the most unbearable questions of faith.”

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