Previous month:
July 2016
Next month:
October 2016

I Know We Can Do Better


Sometimes, I think this country's conversation about race might be moving forward just a little bit.  

Consider Monday night's presidential debate.  The one part of the 90 minute conversation that I thought was actually worth listening to was the extended conversation about race and criminal justice.  For the first hour of the debate, both candidates were repeating talking points and shedding very little light on the real issues behind their positions.  I found it very hard to watch, especially Donald Trump's repeated interruptions of Hillary Clinton. But then moderator Lester Holt shifted to the last set of questions in the debate which were said to be about "America's direction".  

"Let's start by talking about race," Holt said.  I sat down and listened.

Both candidates saw this question coming, of course, and both had their prepared answers.  There was a surprising amount of agreement between the candidates.  Both said that the violent death rate of young black men in this country is absolutely unacceptable.  Both said that the relationship between the community and the police in many places needs to improve.  And both said that we need to get guns out of the hands of "people who shouldn't have them".  There was a difference of opinion about how to do that, of course, with Trump calling for the expansion of "stop and frisk" policing.

The conversation (if you can call it that) spun around a little, with Trump denying that there with constitutional problems with stop and frisk and Clinton mentioning the "unintended consequences" of criminal justice policies she previously supported:  "systemic racism" and mass incarceration.

Holt then asked the only question that actually surprised me:  "Do you believe that police are implicitly biased against black people?"  Clinton responded, "I think that implicit bias is a problem for everyone, not just police."  She went on to say that it is possible to address this bias with training, and the federal government could do much more to enable police departments who want to improve. 

This strikes me as progress.  Although Hilary Clinton doesn't, as a rule, talk about how her thinking has grown and evolved, clearly she has been listening to the public conversation about race over the past couple of years.  Donald Trump hasn't been listening. The racial bias we all have makes it hard to accurately assess risk which in turn makes it hard to police effectively.  Having explicit conversations about these implicit biases doesn't make implicit bias disappear, but it can help us begin to put some space between our assumptions and our actions. Police need to do that, but so do teachers and shopkeepers and managers and pastors.  

But in some law enforcement departments, bias isn't just implicit.  It is explicit--and tolerated.  According to the Baltimore Sun, the Howard County Office of Human Rights has concluded a year-long investigation of a complaint by Lt. Charles Gable against Howard County Sheriff James Fitzgerald.  The allegations are truly jaw-dropping including:

In several instances, the sheriff used the "n-word," made derogatory comments about women's breasts and called former county executive Ken Ulman "little Kenny Jew Boy."

The report also claims the sheriff said, "The African-American deputies are not too smart, but they get the job done."

Fitzgerald has yet to speak to the press about the report.  In the report, he denied any wrong-doing and explained that he is just "a loud New Yorker".  (Read the full report here.)

Elected officials around the County responded to the report, immediately calling for Fitzgerald's resignation.  Four County Executives issued a joint statement, followed by the County Council and the Howard County Democratic party.  There have been small protests outside of the County court house on Friday night and Monday afternoon and a petition calling for the sheriff's resignation has (as of this writing) has about 300 signatures (I've signed--add your name here).  

But when Fitzgerald leaves, as he inevitably will do, we need to have a deeper conversation.  How did he get away with this kind of behavior for so many years?  This report doesn't describe a single incident of indiscretion.  It doesn't even describe a toxic relationship with a single employee.  This report describes a pattern of behavior that is completely unacceptable in any workplace in this country.  Many people knew about this.  Many people chose not to file a complaint.  Many people decided to laugh it off.

In order to move toward healing the deep wound of racism in this country and this county, we need to say out loud things things that go on inside our heads.  "This is making me uncomfortable."  "I don't think that's funny."  "I have a lot to learn."  "I'm not sure how to respond to this situation." "I need your help." 

Or just, "I know we can do better."

The Muslim Refugees We're Not Talking About


As I'm writing this, President Obama is giving a speech at the beginning of a special summit on the world-wide refugee crisis in advance of the United Nations General Assembly.  He will reportedly "vow to welcome 110,000 [refugees] into the United States next year, a 30 percent increase from 2016."  

Is this an act of bravery on Obama's part?  An act of compassion?

According to Donald Trump Jr., it is an act of foolishness equivalent to gobbling up a bowl of Skittles when you know full well that there are three poisonous ones in the mix.  The Post did a fantastic job debunking that analogy.  I'm still thinking of the Olympic-sized swimming pool (and a half!) filled with Skittles.  But the fear of refugees remains a powerful theme in American life and American politics right now.

Advocates for refugees have worked to counter balance all that fear with calls for compassion.  The Post quotes Chris Boian, the spokesman for the U.N.'s refugee agency saying, "People around the world are frightened by things they see happen, acts by extremists, but it's very important to understand refugees are not the perpetrators of this kind of violence.  They're fleeing that same violence."  Are you scared of ISIS?  So are millions of people living in Syria.  What would you do if you were in their shoes?  How would you want other countries to respond?

These are powerful questions, especially for families like ours whose ancestors came to the United States as refugees from state-sanctioned violence and war.  But these questions ignore the role the United States has played in the creation of the refugee crisis.  This is a complex question when it comes to Syria--there is more than enough blame to go around for the on-going crisis in that country as Ban Ki-moon noted this morning. But the question of responsibility is much less complex when it comes to refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan.

This was the part of the presentation the staff from Lutheran Social Services made at our church last Thursday that caught me by surprise.  Mira Mendick mentioned almost in passing that of the 1,200 refugees their agency settled in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. this year, the majority entered the country with a "Special Immigrant Visa", the program to resettle Iraqi and Afghani men and women who worked for the U.S. military as translators or in other capacities.  These people risked their lives for the United States and are now unable to live safely in their own countries.  But the SIV applicants are screened and vetted right along with everyone else trying to enter this country, and the process can be painfully slow.  Even now, in 2016, we are resettling these people in our country.

In all of the news and commentary about refugees trying to enter the U.S. over the past year or so, I have not heard anything about the SIV program.  In fact, prior to our meeting last Thursday, I had a conversation with members of another church about the difference between the current refugee crisis and the situation of the "boat people" who fled Vietnam in the late 1970's.  Why, someone wondered, was there such a massive, compassionate response to the needs of these people?  The Kittamaqundi Community sponsored a refugee family from Vietnam in the early 80's (a story I just learned last year) and a number of other congregations in Howard County did the same thing.  Why isn't there the same out-pouring of care for today's refugees?

I thought I had an answer.  Americans felt a sense of responsibility towards Vietnamese refugees because of the Vietnam war.  We felt like we had let these people down, abandoned them to our enemies.  We knew that many of these people had assisted Americans.  Others, such as the family my church in St. Paul, Minnesota sponsored, included children fathered by American GIs.  But we have no such sense of responsibility now.  Accepting refugees is no longer a matter of stepping up to fulfill our obligations.  Now it is just a matter of being kind.  And the call to "do the right thing" is hard to hear when you're afraid.

But I was wrong.  At least when it comes to the majority of refugees resettled by Lutheran Social Services in our area this year, we were fulfilling a responsibility.  We created these refugees.  They assisted the United States' military efforts in their countries and their lives were endangered as a consequence.  The suggestion that such people are akin to poisonous candy seems not only baseless but cruel.




A Door Just Opened


I don't know if it registered on the Richter scale, but I think there was a small earthquake in Columbia, Maryland last night.  At least, I felt the earth shake a little.  

We hosted an event last night at our church for everyone who is interested in helping us resettle a refugee family in our community.  We invited Lutheran Social Services (who contract with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services to oversee refugee resettlement in our area) to send a couple of staff to give an overview of their "Good Neighbor" program and answer questions.  We announced the event to our congregation and figured we'd host 30 or so.  

But we are so excited about this project that we couldn't stop talking about it with other people we know.  Some of those people are connected to other congregations in the area.  They brought word of what we're doing back to their leadership or their Missions Boards and the excitement spread.

We planned for 30 last night, but 62 people showed up, including representatives from New Hope Lutheran Church, Abiding Savior Lutheran Church, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbia, Bet Aviv, the Muslim Community Center, Dar Al-Taqua Islamic Center, and Sandy Spring Friends Meeting.  Luckily, we baked a lot of brownies.

There was a real sense of excitement in the room before we even began.  A few minutes after 7:00 pm I stood up and welcomed everyone to the event and to our community.  "There are some prominent voices in our state and in our nation who are saying "NO!" to refugees," I told everyone.  "But we feel compelled by God to respond to the desperate needs of millions of people in a different way.  We want to say YES!  We want to say WELCOME!"  Everyone in the room shouted back, "WELCOME!"  And we were off.

Don Link, the "Caller" of the Seeking Refuge Focus Group at our church spoke first.  He told the group of his struggle over the last year as he learned about the deep suffering of immigrants fleeing the brutal war in Syria. The situation overwhelmed him--the magnitude of the problem and the intensely personal pain that came through photos and stories. But his faith won't let him shut down or walk away when he feels overwhelmed.  Instead, he prayed and listened and in time, discerned that God was calling him to act.

In May, Don stood up in front of our congregation and read a short statement about his call. This kind of thing happens on a fairly regular basis at KC so we have a little ritual for the occasion.  We put a stole on Don and prayed over him.  And then we all considered how God might be calling us to respond to this crisis as well.  Fifteen of us ended up joining Don's team and many others got involved with the first action, collecting materials for "Welcome Kits" that Lutheran Social Services distributes to the hundreds of refugee families they are resettling this year.

After we had been meeting for a couple of months, it became clear that we were ready for the next step:  a "Level One" partnership with LSS, a one-year commitment to a refugee family that includes rent assistance, employment assistance, completely furnishing an apartment, providing help with clothing and food and transportation and all the other things a family might need.  

I don't think I'll ever forget the moment we made that decision.  We knew that it was a huge step for a small church like ours--we figured it would cost us at least $20,000.  But when we said YES to that commitment, we didn't feel overwhelmed at the thought of all.  Our YES released a kind of buzzing energy through our group.  We felt it physically--we practically danced out of the room.

That energy was back last night.  After Don spoke, our guests from Lutheran Social Service gave an overview of the program and did a great job answering our questions for about a half an hour.  Then, Art Spilkia led us in a powerful song which has become a KC favorite: "I Refuse" by Josh Wilson.  

I don't want to live like I don't care
I don't want to say another empty prayer
Oh I refuse to
Sit around and wait for someone else
To do what God has called me to do myself
Oh I could choose
Not to move
But I refuse

And then, Ann Ivester made her pitch.  As we sit in our safe homes, we feel so disconnected from the stories and struggles of refugees on the other side of the world.  We can't imagine what their lives are like.  We have never faced the kinds of decisions they have had to make.  But that sense of disconnection isn't really the whole truth.  After all, every refugee wants his or her children to be safe from harm.  We share this desire with the whole human family.  So tonight, Ann said, when we take a step to help a refugee family, we draw a thread of connection between our lives and theirs.  With this thread, we start re-weaving a fabric that has been torn, the fabric of human community.

And then we passed out pledge cards.

It didn't take long for people to fill them out--and they asked for more to take home to their congregations and friends.  We collected the cards (and the checks that were attached to many of them), prayed over them and wrapped the night up with a rousing chorus of "This Land Is Your Land".

Don counted the checks and pledges as soon as he got home and sent this email to the group:

Great job tonight, everyone!  God is good; God is here.

Quick Tally:

$4,825 checks in hand

$7,750 pledged (includes 1 month rent and $1,500 for mattresses)


$12,575  Wow!

Wow indeed.  Back when I was in college, I took a class called "The Mystical Experience" and read works by the Desert Fathers and Theresa of Avila and many others.  I was fascinated by what they saw and heard and felt.  The power of Divine Presence!  I so wished I could have even a taste of what they experienced.  I wanted to know God first hand--not just read about God and talk about God and think about God.  I had a sense that in order to know God like the mystics do, I would need to retreat to a mountain top or take a long, solo journey on foot.  

Turns out I was wrong.  I just needed to join a community that together says YES to God's call.

P.S.  We still need to raise about $7,500 more to fully fund this project.  Maybe you--like us--want to be a part of a positive response to the worldwide refugee crisis?  Please shoot me an email for more info OR send a check to the Kittamaqundi Community Church with "Seeking Refuge" in the memo line.  Our address is 5410 Leaf Treader Way, Columbia, MD  21044.  Thanks!

Depending on the Kindness of Strangers


A little over a week ago, Dan and I dropped our son Paul off at Dulles Airport, gave him a hug and reminded him one more time to stay safe.  The next day, Paul arrived in Beruit, Lebanon where he will be living and studying for the next three and a half months.  This feels like a big step for him and for me--I've never been separated for this long from any of my kids.  Who will be there for him if he gets into trouble?  Strangers.

Like most people who were paying even a little bit of attention to the news in the 1980's, Beruit brings to mind war, rubble and attacks on Americans.  It took me a while to get these images out of my head when Paul told me that he want to enroll in an intensive Arabic program at the Lebanese American University this fall.  Paul's Arabic teacher recommended the program and his college approved it, so that helped.  Then I found out that I kind of know the family of another student who is enrolled in the program this fall.  That made me feel even better.  I felt like I was stringing together a series of relationships that would help me to connect to where Paul was going. 

But those relationships remain few and tenuous.  If Paul had decided to study in London or Paris or Beijing for a semester, I know I would be flooded with the names of friends-of-friends who live in those cities.  People who would be happy to host Paul for dinner if he was feeling homesick.  People I could call on in the case of emergency.  But I have yet to hear from someone with a good friend from college or a distant cousin living in Lebanon.  

So saying good-bye to Paul was an act of faith--not just in him (and I do have faith in him) or in God (who loves Paul even more than I do) but in total and complete strangers.  If he gets in trouble and needs help, I trust that there will be a person of good will who will help him.

This felt not-quite-right to me until it occurred to me that I'm on the other side of this equation as well.  I'm a stranger who, in a few month's time, will be offering assistance to a family who is traveling to a country where they know absolutely no one.  I'm part of a team who will soon be helping to resettle a refugee family to Howard County, Maryland.

Our congregation has been taking steps in this direction all year.  We've been praying for refugees for several years, even since the thousands of refugees leaving Syria made the world-wide crisis impossible for us to ignore.  But there's a funny thing about prayer--our pleas to God to assist people in trouble often come right back at us.  "I want to help", we sense God responding, "through you." One of our community members, Don Link, stood up in front of our church at the beginning of the year and announced that he couldn't ignore God's call any longer.  He needed to do something to help refugees--and he invited anyone in the community who felt the same call to join him.  Over 20 people responded right away and many others have come alongside the leadership team.  When we began talking to our neighbors in the community and to the leaders of other congregations, we received even more promises to help with funds and other resources.

This past week, as our "Seeking Refuge" team ended its meeting, Don invited us to join him in prayer for the family we are going to welcome.  We don't know who they are yet.  We don't know how many people will be in that family or even what their country of origin will be.  They are complete strangers to us, and we to them.  But we are already connected to them, already looking forward to meeting them, already planning ways we might help them.  

I hope they know that.  I hope they, like me, have faith in the kindness of strangers.

Community and Hope In the Face of 500 Murders


My late mother-in-law, Linda Davidoff, trained me to notice the placement of a story in a newspaper. This morning's story in the Washington Post about the astonishing murder rate in Chicago this year was on the front page, above the fold, top left.  "Pay attention to this!", the Post commanded. 

Needless to say, this story about homicide statistics made the news while just about every single one of those 500 murders went unreported--in the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, or anywhere else.  On average, newspapers in major cities cover only about 10% of the murders that take place in any given year.  That's what prompted L.A. Times reporter Jill Leovy to start the "Homicide Report" blog in 2006 in which she attempted to report on every single murder that took place in the city that year.  That effort led to Leovy's much-acclaimed book, "Ghettoside:  A True Story of Murder in America" which I just finished last weekend.  It was a truly eye-opening book about black-on-black violence and I can't read about what's happening in Chicago without wondering if Leovy's analysis of Los Angeles would apply there.

Leovy builds a thoughtful and nuanced case that comes to a surprising conclusion:  the problem in high-crime urban neighborhoods is not over-enforcement by the police.  The problem is under-enforcement.  

Considering the absurdly high rates of incarceration in this country, that might sound like an strange conclusion.  And Leovy's book came out early in 2015, before the most recent round of stories about police harassment and shootings of African Americans.  But Leovy is adamant that good policing--especially good detective work--is a necessary part of the claim that "Black Lives Matter".  If you don't prosecute a murder, then you are sending a clear message that a person who was killed was worthless.

According to Leovy, in the 13 years prior to the homicide she describes at the opening of her book, just 38% of the 2,677 killings of black men in Los Angeles led to an arrest.  This is a crucial statistic, Leovy argues:  "...history shows us that lawlessness is its own kind of order.  Murder outbreaks, seen this way, are more than just the proliferation of discrete crimes.  They are part of a whole system of interactions determined by the absence of law."  I've thought a lot about community, but I hadn't thought about this--a community will police itself unless it is persuaded to give that power to someone else.

In Chicago, the homicide clearance rate in Chicago for 2016 is 19.3% as of August. Yet no one in any of the stories I've read today about Chicago refers to Leovy's reporting or her conclusions.  The Chicago police superintendent Gary McCarthy offered this analysis:

"It's not a police issue, it's a society issue," Johnson told reporters outside police headquarters after a long weekend that saw 65 people shot, 13 of them fatally.

"Impoverished neighborhoods, people without hope do these kinds of things," he said. "You show me a man that doesn't have hope, I'll show you one that's willing to pick up a gun and do anything with it.

"Those are the issues that's driving this violence. CPD is doing its job," he continued.

But if having no hope leads to violence, what kind of hope makes people consider other options?  Leovy gives a clear--and convincing--response.  People need to hope that the police will arrest, prosecute and convict violent offenders.  While it may well be true that many of the young men in the high-homicide areas lack hope that they will live a long life, they rebuild that hope only when they have enough confidence in the police that they will not try to retaliate for crimes committed against them or their family and friends.  And what's more, all the other people in the affected neighborhoods need to have enough confidence in the police that they are willing to talk to detectives and willing to testify in court.

The Washington Post story said almost nothing about the people who were shot this weekend, but it did report on the many people throughout the city who responded to activist Phillip Jackson's call for a "Community Peace Surge".  There were street festivals and block parties and neighborhood cookouts.  Neighbors challenged each other to leave their houses and to proclaim their commitment to living in peace instead of cowering in fear.  I'm sure these actions created hope.  They helped everyone see that good things are still possible in their neighborhoods.  But their efforts only go went so far.  Things were quiet on Friday and Saturday, but on Sunday 21 people were shot.

Towards the end of her amazing book, Jill Leovy offers this reflection:

The Monster [Leovy's term for the epidemic of murders of young black men] arose from what was meanest and most vicious in human nature.  But the dark swath of misery it had cut across generations of black Americans was a shadow thrown on the wall, a shape magnified many times the size of its source because of a refusal to see the black homicide problem for what it was:  a problem of human suffering caused by the absence of a state monopoly on violence.

The Monster's source was not general perversity of mind in the population that suffered.  It was a weak legal apparatus that had long failed to place black injuries and the loss of black lives at the heart of its response when mobilizing the law, first in the South and later in segregated cities.  The cases didn't get solved, and year after year, assaults piled on upon another, black men got shot up and killed, no one answered for it, and no one really cared much. (pp. 307-8)