Jan 28 2014

The Church Must Speak

Ukraine Priest with cross“In the end we remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

     –Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Two months ago an anti-government uprising began throughout the Ukraine. The unrest has brought thousands into the streets. Amidst the burned buses, tear gas, and barricades, a large number of Orthodox priests have assembled, not to protest but to pray. Earlier this month, Ukraine’s government threatened to ban prayer services at the protest but that did not stop the priests from showing up with their robes, crosses, and holy books.

One priest spoke about the proposed ban as being “illegal and immoral.” “Nobody can forbid people to pray,” he said.

I have learned all my life and believe with all my heart that prayer is essential to Christian identity. The church must pray. In my faith tradition we believe that there is power in prayer. We anoint and pray for the sick because we are confident that God has the ability to heal. We pray for the poor and those in need because we identify God as a provider. The Church must pray.

But the Church must also speak.

The church is not only obligated to pray for the sick but also to advocate for access to better healthcare and affordable medicine. The church is not only obligated to pray for the poor but to seek redress from broken systems that lead to poverty. We must speak for a reasonable living wage. We must speak against exploitation and oppression. We must offer both bread and reproach, prayer and action.

The Church is not the church if it is not concerned with the human condition. Neither is the church fit to call itself Christian if it does not reprove the systems, paradigms, and the politics that perpetuate inhuman and immoral conditions.

In his 1967 speech, “A Time to Break the Silence,” Dr. King admittedly discovered that “…the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.” Our moral conscience leaves us no other choice.

If the church’s heart becomes totally poisoned, the autopsy must identify a partial cause of death as “silence.”

Not many understand the importance and difficulty of the church speaking more than Dr. King. Many condemned King for his diatribe against the Vietnam War in his quest to connect Montgomery and Asia. They contended that he was hurting his own cause and that peace and civil rights did not mix. King explained that through conscription (military draft) we were exploiting the poor. “We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia. We told them that they could not solve their problems with Molotov cocktails and rifles yet America is using massive violence to solve their own.”

Over 40 years later these Ukrainian priests find themselves in scenes reminiscent of the civil rights movement. At the threat of being tossed in jail, and while staring down the barrel of guns, they show up, not to protest but to pray. Through their presence these cross-wielding, Bible-toting, robe-wearing holy men speak. Through their defiance and civil disobedience, they speak. Loudly, passionately, and poignantly, they speak. They speak because their moral conscience demands it.

The Christian Church must speak.

Ukraine prayerWhether it is against a corrupt government in the Ukraine that seeks to silence the prayers of the people or corrupt capitalists in the United States that promote profits over and apart from the human condition, the Church must speak. Be it from the steps of the state capitol or from the asylum of the pulpit, the Church must speak. We must both feed the hungry and advocate to change the structures that affect the human condition. The church’s voice is vital for both those offended and those who have committed offense.

There is no magic in the pronoun “my” that gives some people greater value than others, nor is God divided by borders and boundaries. The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and all those who dwell herein. Or, in Dr. King’s words: “We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, and for those it calls “enemy,” for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.”

–Sam White

Sam is a second-year MDiv student at Candler and a student ambassador. A native of Alabama, he earned a bachelor in communication sciences at the University of Alabama.


Nov 19 2013

Keep Going

It was Harriet Tubman who said, Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.”

The road to success is not an easy one. The truth is, the journey to success may be the most confusing and painful journey you have ever taken. People who you thought loved you may leave you. The people who have been assigned to help you may hurt you. People may define you by your situation or present circumstance. But it is the strength, the patience, and the passion of dreamers that propels them beyond their present reality and encourages them to keep going.

It takes courage to dream… it takes courage to keep going and at times it’s not easy.

I especially learned this in my first year at Candler School of Theology as I participated in Contextual Education at Genesis Shelter, a homeless shelter for families with infant children. Each week I observed women who had escaped the stranglehold of domestic abuse, childhood neglect, and societal indifference, to a place of abject poverty and income inequality. Through it all, they persevered and pursued waning dreams with the hope that their children’s lives would be better than their own.

In his poem, “Mother to Son”, Langston Hughes describes a conversation a struggling mom has with her child. She says:

Well, son, I’ll tell you:

Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair

It’s had tacks in it,

And splinters,

And boards torn up,

And places with no carpet on the floor –

Bare.

But all the time

I’se been a-climbin’ on,

And reachin landin’s,

And turnin’ corners,

And sometime goin’ in the dark

Where there ain’t been no light

So boy, don’t you turn back.

Don’t you set down on the steps

‘Cause you finds it kinder hard.

Don’t you fall now –

For I’se still goin’, honey,

Ise still climbin’,

And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

Like the mother in this poem, my mother became my inspiration. I watched my mother keep going. I was 5-years-old when she left my father. We moved into a tiny three-bedroom house in the country. My mom paid $60 for rent. The rooms were so small they looked more like cell blocks than bedrooms. The house was infested with roaches and rodents. We didn’t know how poor we were.

But she kept going.

She had to deal with a failed marriage, and three hungry, growing kids at home. People passing judgment and making assumptions, but she kept going. She worked at night and slept during the day to make sure we had food to eat and a roof over our heads. The road wasn’t easy, but she kept going. There were tacks in it, and splinters, and boards all torn up… But she kept going.

It was her perseverance that gave birth to the dreamer inside of me.

It was her will and tenacity that made me believe I could be the first in my family to graduate from college. It was her bravery and relentlessness that inspired me to go from academic suspension to the dean’s list. It was her faith and prayers that kept me out of jail and away from the wrong crowds.

And now as I navigate this road, this journey to success, I am faced with my own challenges. I am faced with my own splinters, tacks, torn-up boards, and bare floors. I am faced with the challenge of pursuing a dream with little resources. I am faced with the challenge of feeling misunderstood and playing small to accommodate the comfort of others. I am faced with the threat of never measuring up to the standard society has set and the fear of failing; but I cannot turn back. You cannot turn back. You cannot sit down on the steps. You have to keep climbing. You have to keep reaching.

When I feel like I cannot continue, like giving up is the best option, I am encouraged by the women at Genesis, the actions of my mother, and the advice Harriet Tubman spoke to the dreamers. She told those who were trying to escape slavery and make it to freedom:

“If you hear the dogs, keep going. If you see the torches in the woods, keep going. If they’re shouting after you, keep going. Don’t ever stop. Keep going. If you want a taste of freedom, keep going.”

So I encourage every dreamer to keep going.

When others believe they know what’s better for you than you yourself, keep going. When folks use their position and power against you, keep going. When you have to navigate a broken system that fails you at every stop and every turn, keep going. Don’t ever stop. Don’t ever quit. When you have to hide and cry so your kids don’t see it, keep going. Someone’s dream is reliant on your determination.

Keep going.

Don’t allow your dream to die in your current situation. You may have to go alone; you may have to go in the dark – where there is no light. But don’t you stop. You’ve come too far to quit.

Keep going!

This is dedicated to my hero, my inspiration, my mother. I love you with my whole heart.

–Sam White

Sam is a second-year MDiv student at Candler and a student ambassador. A native of Alabama, he earned a bachelor in communication sciences at the University of Alabama.


Sep 3 2013

America’s Great Default

Fearless Dialogue

“Fearless Dialogue” at Candler

Fifty years ago, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. King stated that “America has given the Negro people a bad check; a check that has come back marked insufficient funds…” In many ways, it is true that America has defaulted on its promise to “provide for the common defense and promote the general welfare” (indiscriminately). It can be seen in the disproportionate crime statistics, the staggering graduation and incarceration rates, and the unbelievable poverty statistics that have always existed among races and social classes. It is evident in the underfunded education system that serves as a pipeline to prison for lower class students of color. And it is permanently fixed in the biased and bigoted laws that undergird our entire system. But what does that have to do with Candler, education, and theological formation?

The Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that “Education is an ornament in prosperity and a refuge in adversity,” yet the education experience, much like any other experience, does not exist in a vacuum but is susceptible to the mores and ills of society. The most vivid recollections of my childhood education experience do not occur in a desk filled classroom with textbooks and chalkboards, but on a school bus with peers and classmates who were steeped in culture, bias, and prejudice.

One cool autumn afternoon in 1995, I was a fifth grader riding the bus home from my rural elementary school in Perdido, Alabama. I shared a seat with my friend Less Wilson a young white student who was also in the fifth grade. As we sped down the narrow two-lane country street past pine trees and dirt roads, Less leaned over to me and whispered beneath the raucous chatter, “My uncle has a gun, and he’s a member of the KKK.” I chuckled. Surely Less had failed at an attempt to be humorous but I did not make light of his failure nor of my disapproval, but instead smiled and waited for the subject to change. Then Less asked me if I knew what N.A.A.C.P stood for. As I struggled to remember if “Advancement” came before or after “Association,” Less interjected, “It stands for N*ggers, Apes, Alligators, Coons, and Possums.” I wasn’t laughing anymore. I wasn’t angry, I was hurt. My friend Less had showed me just how he felt about me.

HoodieIn 1997, not long after that bus incident with Less, my mom moved our family even deeper into the rural forest of Alabama to live with my grandmother who had suffered a major stroke. It was on the 45-minute bus ride from school to the small town of Little River, AL that we learned two black churches had been vandalized and burned less than a mile from where we were living. They were churches I knew well and had visited many times with my family. Many family members and friends attended both churches on a regular basis. A Ku Klux Klan rally the previous weekend had sparked racial animus and a group of five young white teens ages 15-20, decided to send a message to the African-American community that conveyed just how they felt about us.

Earlier this summer I was disappointed but not surprised to hear the verdict in a Florida case concerning the death of a 17-year-old black teen. The Florida law was very clear, that at any time during an altercation, if George Zimmerman, the defendant, felt he was in danger of great harm, he was justified to use deadly force against Trayvon Martin, the victim. Although the attorneys did not argue a “Stand Your Ground” defense, the jury was ordered to consider it in their deliberations. While I am concerned about the legitimacy of the law itself, I am more concerned with the stereotypes and pigeonholes that exist which led to this tragedy.

In many instances, society reflects the George Zimmerman case. For many, culture’s forceful and disproportionately callous treatment of brown and black persons is justified because of a perceived fear of danger. We suspend school bus programs to keep certain children out because of fear. We pass intrusive laws such as “stop-and-frisk” that only affect subsets of the population because of fear. We enact discriminatory immigration laws that harass and profile because of fear. The fear is perpetuated because of the stereotype. Trayvon Martin died because one fear provoked another.

Since the age of ten, I have witnessed time and time again, these and other experiences that expose a fraudulent social morality. Trayvon, myself, and many others have demanded payment on America’s worthless check only to be taxed with penalties that burden us with stereotypes and assumptions—penalties that allow only a cadre to narrowly succeed in the shadows of ghettos, poverty, and the threat of deportation—penalties that fill our prisons, empty our schools, and continue to segregate our churches—penalties that demand assimilation, silence, double consciousness, and death.

It wasn’t until my first year of theological education at Candler that I experienced, with great continuity, a small portion of beloved community; or the ability to reside in a metaphorical house whose substructure is love. Whether it is genuine conversation with my white brothers George or Andrew, or lunch with my Korean brothers Jayesung and Sang Hyun, chapel rehearsal with my Black, African, or White Sisters Alisha, Shelia, or Allison, laughter filled moments with my African American brothers Shannon and Lawrence, or fellowship with my many brothers and sisters of the LGBT community, there are no penalties.

While we are not perfect, the communities we have forged here at Candler give us hope. Perpetual fear is dispossessed by meaningful discourse and the dispensation of intentional love. Each day that we strive to create this community we are sending a clear message: “We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt… so we have come to cash this check—a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”

–Sam White

Sam is a second-year MDiv student at Candler and a member of the Student Ambassador team for 2013-14. A native of Alabama, he earned a bachelor in communication sciences at the University of Alabama. Sam is a preacher and worship leader who hopes to purse a PhD in Sociology of Social Movements and Race and Ethnicity.