Nonviolence as a Weapon

“Nonviolence is a weapon of the strong.” – Mahatma Ghandi

After years cloistered in church life, talking and reading and preaching about nonviolence, I find myself pushed to the limits (and beyond) of my pacifist ideals.

By day I work with troubled children, many of whom seek exterior physical boundaries to feel safe. By night I am with protest family facing off with police who are the face of white supremacy’s defense in America.

Whereas during the first half of my life I clung to a belief in nonviolence in fear and loathing of violence, I find myself at strange peace with the violence that is now in my face.

frontline faceoff SLMPDIn recent months, at school and on the streets, I’ve been verbally assaulted and physically accosted by both children and grown men. (Curiously only boys and men, always white; which is itself a worthy place to reflect.) I’ve also been threatened by militarized police in riot gear, tear gassed and pepper sprayed, and handcuffed and hauled off to jail. In a strange twist of fate, violence has become part of my daily life.

And I will admit that I have considered the option. I’ve toyed with the potential of violence to quell the children’s drama and the seed the revolution. To my horror, I have found myself contemplating an eye for an eye.

The protests have been remarkably nonviolent. In the six months since Michael Brown was murdered, I’ve been on the streets for five and I’ve witnessed remarkable militant nonviolent action. Yes, there is this one white guy (or is it two?) that occasionally appears in our midst and throws water bottles at the police; it’s happened on at least three occasions and *every* time he is stopped and challenged by someone in the protest family. And while there was certainly much destruction following the non indictment announcement, I’ve heard nothing that even remotely connects that night’s fires with protestor activity. In fact it was the militarized squashing of protestors on S. Florrisant that preceded the fires on West Florrisant. Considering the sheer number of hours and volume of feet, the movement has been an awe inspiring feat of nonviolent resistance.

After an LEO (law enforcement) rally where I had been verbally accosted by white supremacists, I was feeling particularly over the nonviolent approach. A wise woman pulled me aside and said, “Don’t let them take your peace.” She is a grandmother, she has lost a son to police violence, and she took the time to school and comfort me. She is wise and I am grateful.End Mass Incarceration March

Nonviolent militant action is rooted not in fear of violence or naiveté but rather in a position of strength. Rev. Osagyefo Seku names it the place of “deep abiding love” and I believe him. When a child is threatening me, my response can come not from fear but from a grounded (not candy coated) place of steely (and abiding) love. When a police officer is shaking his baton at me, I own the fear that is real but simultaneously note the ground that holds me and find my strength therein. When an angry white man pulls back his arm to punch, I feel my vulnerability but look full into his face as his arm falls slack.

B93U8ZECMAEazj0.jpg-largeOf course happy endings are not ours, not yet, maybe not ever. The truth is that many in the movement have been physically and emotionally wounded, deeply, already.  Just this week we’ve witnessed arrests for using sidewalk chalk at the Ferguson PD and during a #TransLivesMatter march in the CWE (moving *immediately* to the sidewalk when asked). Nonviolence is no panacea, no protection from the storm.  For this I grieve, and deeply. All the more I am filled with gratitude for the witness that has been offered by the hundreds, thousands, of protest family (across the country) who have practiced direct and militant nonviolent action in pursuit of justice.

Watching the incredible strength of the movement, I see Ghandi’s truth. Nonviolence is a weapon, our weapon. And it is a weapon of the strong.


Another Straight White Man

By week’s end, I was queasy in stomach as well as heart, cold and clammy. The parallel dramas in my life (struggling teens by day, facing off with the police state at night) had reached a crescendo this week.

Monday night’s chalking, my contribution…

I laid on the couch and missed the *fabulous* activist action at the Mayor’s Mardi Gras Ball. I love the creativity of the movement!

This morning I awake slowly and take stock of the world. I let the cats out into the cold February morning, I read the NYT headlines, I scan the FB world. I realize that I am feeling out of step, particularly as I process the news of the UCC’s new president.

My present life, empty nesting with a precious wife and a job teaching math with troubled teens, is a dramatic shift from the ‘married-to-a-man with kids while pastoring a suburban church life’ that I had for literally decades. Much of the transition unfolded with grace and dignity, but the parts that didn’t still haunt me. I am reminded of the snake shedding an entire body of skin, and the burn that happens when skin that is not lose is torn off prematurely, by accident or intent. There are wounds, some that simply are still very deep. So I sit in awareness of the pain, doing my best to drop the story line and allow the pain to move through.

What I am aware of this precious Saturday morning is the shift of my FB feed. Once my FB world was local church members and friends and potential members, with a few clergy and a family members to round it out. FB was a place where I groomed an image, a tool used for crafting a story of community, for building church. All of that is different now. Many of my friends and acquaintances from the movement are the voices that wake me in the morning, reminding me that ‪#‎BlackLivesMatter‬ isn’t just a weekend poster but a daily plea for life. No longer a hypothetical, I see a little boy (14 years old) who was chalking with me in the Ferguson PD on Monday night now charged with felony assault as he ran in terror from police that were clearly out of control.

A firefighter and a CO from Ferguson assist officers to arrest a 14 year old … for using sidewalk chalk!

This nightmare, the one where children are snatched and lives are destroyed with impunity, is not one from which a mother of black sons ever wakes. This is terror, home grown in America.

Meanwhile the remanent FB world from my old life is dancing with glee about the new UCC president. I know him, I have deep respect for him, I would love to talk with him again. But while all I read all of the congratulatory posts and listen to the prideful back slapping, I can’t let go of the fact that ONCE AGAIN we’ve chosen a straight white man to lead a denomination that wants to be known as progressive. There is NOTHING progressive about the demographic. To be sure, this particular man has been a consistent ally for the LGBTQ community and I suspect the same can and will be said for his alliance across lines of race. But the implication that the most “qualified” candidate is (once again) straight and white and male reinforces the very white supremacist structure that the denomination claims to abhor. Perhaps I should have been less surprised when the conference minster, serving our area when I sought counsel 2 1/2 years ago, suggested that I leave the denomination. Maybe he was right.

A church worthy of our support is not silent as the ‪#‎newjimcrow‬devastates the lives of black men and women and children. The prison industrial complex, that includes the insane municipal court system so endemic to our St. Louis area communities, is a dragon that isn’t even hidden; it is fed with our tax dollars and protected as many ‘good white folk’ work in and around the system. Quite frankly, as I work in a ‘therapeutic day treatment’ school, I’m aware that I too am a cog in the system. So a church worthy of our support is one that helps us name this evil and stand in opposition, not another institution that attempts to put lipstick on the pig, asks us to be nice, and woos us with promises of justice in a mythic neverland. A church worthy of our support embodies intersectionality, reflects the justice that we would seek, and holds the bar for justice and compassion higher than simply what is culturally acceptable.B9c90VYCAAATqw8.jpg-large

It is the dissonance between the promise of the church and the harsh reality of the institution that hold my heart and mind captive as I struggle to make sense of the world that has come into view.

Could it be that in this very dissonance the sacred dances?

NYPD’s Gift for the New Year: Non-Action

Today I am grateful for NYPDs unintended gift of non-action as I ponder the incredible excesses we’ve encountered with law enforcement in recent weeks.

On every step of the way leading up to the non-indictment announcements and (more so) afterwards, the ones with uniforms and the charge of “keeping the peace” have been the instigators of violent action. After the (police) violence, the mainstream media reports share stories that suggest the object of the violence is the perpetrator. To be sure the protests have been disruptive; there may be individual protestors who have misstepped, but the actions have been and continue to be militant, direct, and non-violent.

The pattern is painfully predictable. Always there are guns and chemical weapons and batons, always in the hands of the ‘peace keepers’ who are facing off with a crowd of unarmed civilians. WalMart Thanksgiving 2

…On the night of the no-bill announcement in Ferguson, a mother’s wails were still in the air and McCulloch still droning on the speaker when the uniformed officers were replaced with fully weaponized riot gear teams. The physical declaration of war we witnessed still stops my breath.

…The absurdity was vivid as we 50 of us stood with candles in prayer at the basilica on Christmas Eve while 70 fully weaponized riot-gear-clad soldiers behind us to guard … what? ‘War toys for the Prince of Peace’ was no longer a peacenik taunt but a virtual reality in a city gone mad.

…On NYE, the “storm” at the SLMP was only a “storm” because some of the officers were trying to pull people in the doors while other officers where pushing people out (read: pushing and shoving by police, NOT protestors). As I reflect on the event (having both lived it and watched the videos), I am appalled not by the citizens trying to (lawfully) enter a public building but by the total disarray and subsequent aggression of the officers. Yes, it was a mess; but whose?

…As I stood in the street later that afternoon, linked with a group of unarmed women, we watched a swarm of now armored soldiers march towards us. Armed to the teeth (quite literally) because a group of civilians (12 women, 6 men) were standing in a line on an otherwise quiet city street. We sat down, making clear our non-threatening posture. frontline faceoff SLMPDThey continued to advance, some beating their batons, others caressing their sticks. Macabre. We laid down. They walked over us, surrounded us, but their weapons were so ridiculously over powering that they could do nothing. Other officers, less militarized, moved in to arrest us.

…The offense with which we were charged on NYE was city infraction (‘impeding’ traffic), essentially a parking ticket. But in a breach of routine protocol we were not only handcuffed, arrested, and taken downtown, we were fully printed (mug shots and all) and kept on 24 hour holds (some of us had family who were able to get us out after 10 hours with@$150). Even the staff admitted that it was a confusing stray from standard procedure. Why?

Tragically, what I’ve experienced in these recent weeks may be new to me but is business as usual for millions of Americans. In other words, if you have skin privilege (I do), these excesses in law enforcement are new and perhaps unbelievable. Tragically what I, as a protester, have encountered is what millions of Black and Brown skinned Americans have been experiencing on a daily basis now for decades. For people with skin privilege, like me, this is the season to listen.

More than a decade ago, the writers of “The Wire” attempted to draw our attention to the atrocity of the “drug war” and the systemic criminalization of the poor (and people of color); in The New Jim Crow (, Michelle Alexander offers a painfully clear analysis. With public policy and tax dollars, we have instituted a “whole damn system, guilty as sin” that is, quite simply, codified white supremacy.

The atrocities in “law enforcement” that I’ve witnessed in these weeks trouble my sleep but steel my resolve. My protest is not about bad/good cops (I know many ‘good’ ones), but about a system that is fundamentally flawed, a system that is built on a faulty foundation that must be exposed before it can be safely rebuilt.

As we enter this new year, this is a time to follow the (albeit unintended) lead of the NYPD. This is the season to pause and listen, really listen, to the cries of the people.

New Year, New Resolve

A New Year’s kiss with my dear one at the elevator leaving the St. Louis City Jail was the most precious moment of the evening, with the sight of adult-children posting bail a close runner up. Not quite sure how we reached such a dramatic conclusion from an otherwise ordinary day, I pause to recount the order of events.

Early in the day we had joined up with a march at the Old Courthouse in St. Louis (remember: Dred Scott) that culminated at the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department (SLMPD). The action included a group inside the SLMPD that was serving a symbolic eviction notice with very real (and quite reasonable) demands for justice. The planned action included a 4 1/2 hour ‘occupation’ (sit in).

at the door SLMPD

Denied access to a public building during business hours.

As the marchers reached the police headquarters we discovered the doors (to the public building) were locked. At some point the doors appeared to open and several of us attempted to enter; simultaneously those on the inside were (quite literally) being pushed outside and the two groups met at the doorway. If there was clear direction, I didn’t hear it. If there was an officer in charge, it was not apparent. What was clear was that I was in a place in between and I practiced breathing. At some point I became aware that an officer had thrown my dear one out of the front doorway and I saw her land sprawled on the sidewalk. As I was taking that in, I felt myself airborne and landed on top of her. Another young woman landed on me, and another on her. Before we had managed to get up from the pile we heard screams, “pepper spray!”. Keeping our backs to the officers, we scrambled up and ran.  When I turned around, I saw an officer who still had his can pointed at the crowd and I saw him spray (again) in a wide arc. I spun around and (thankfully) caught the spray on my backside. Others were not so lucky. Medics scrambled as people fell to the ground crying out in agony. As water and milk of magnesia was poured into people’s eyes, it became apparent that the unannounced and indiscriminate spray hit protestors and reporters alike. It was an ugly way to begin the day.

(Note: The is a restraining order currently in effect banning the police from using chemical weapons on protestors without clear warning and reasonable time to vacate. Neither were offered.)

The action was intended to share 4 1/2 hours of occupation, in remembrance of the 4 1/2 hours that Mike Brown was left lying on the street. As people recovered from the spray, the action continued with the crowd gathered in front of the police department for several hours, singing, dancing, strategizing, and eating pizza. When we began to shiver, the cold-weather chant began: “Brr, it’s cold out here. There must be oppression in the atmosphere!” It was a time of connections and centering with the police blocking the roads on either side of the gathering.

frontline at SLMPD

The guys in riot gear were advancing, the unarmed women linked arms.

Near the end of the time, we got word that scores of police in riot gear were headed toward the location. Once again SWAT style commandos were being sent to face off with unarmed civilians. Why? The event had been clearly announced as a 4 1/2 hour event, it was coming to a close, and there was absolutely no inappropriate or disturbing behaviors. Admittedly I was more than a bit annoyed having already been man-handled by the police and pepper sprayed, and I wasn’t in the mood to cower. So I chose to stay, and pray.

frontline faceoff SLMPD

As the armed militia approached, the unarmed women sat down.

The scene is macabre as the riot gear line approaches peaceful protestors who are literally lying in the street. Their shields are ridiculously useless and all they can do is step over the bodies. The excesses of their violence has rendered them impotent. One by one the protestors in the street are rolled over, handcuffed, and placed in the awaiting police wagons by more sensibly clad officers. 12 women and 6 men were arrested in this sweep. And so it was that our New Year’s Eve celebration at the St. Louis City Jail began.

This was not my first foray in jail doing civil disobedience, but my prior experiences had been decades ago and with a police force that was not the object of the protests. These are tense times and civil disobedience in this context is much more dangerous on many levels. Although the charge (“impeding”) is a city infraction, we were held on 24 hour holds, fully mugged and printed, and given every opportunity to be searched, scolded, and humiliated. Dehydration was real, but so too was the camaraderie. As several hours passed, the 12 women shared laughter and stories and occasionally burst out in song.

Women who hold the line and share jail-cell solidarity. Love.

When the shift changed late in the evening, the new guard introduced herself by letting us know that if we weren’t quiet she would “spray us”; after a particularly artful song pleading for more toilet paper (raucous and fun), the warden came in threatened us with a 48 hour hold. Then they split the group, taking several of the women to an undisclosed location.

It was nearing midnight when an officer came to get my dear one and I. Hours earlier he had told us that someone had posted our bail and so ours was a hopeful walk from the cell. Soon we began the gauntlet of the out-processing which is long and also intentionally intimidating. At the stroke of midnight, we were standing on the free side of the door waiting for the elevator. Relieved, empowered, humbled, humored, and very much in love. (Her story here.)

As we came out of the elevator, we passed through the jail support folk who had spent their New Year’s Eve working to get everyone out. This is an incredibly important group in the movement that are always in need in both money and volunteers. As we went around one more corner, our eldest and her dear hubbie met us with hugs and love and laughter.

The New Year begins with family. Family of origin and families of choice. And it is very good.



Charity – A Resentment

I have a resentment around charity.

No doubt my resentment gets feed by my own selfishness and bah humbug tendencies, but there is also a fundamental flaw in our Christmas passion for the “neediest”.

My resentment is awkward because I work for a non-profit that is all about charity (our kids have already been showered with stuff). I spent my career in church work (more charity!) and we even had a brief foray into foster parenting this year with (yep) more charity. I am a professional charity-promoter. But I resent it nonetheless.

Early on in my career, I spent a season working with people who are homeless and I saw just enough to know that charity for Americans is like like alcohol for the person depressed. There is just enough medicinal value to keep us hooked but not only is alcohol no cure for depression, the alcohol actually exacerbates the disease and makes true healing impossible.

When it comes to charity in America, the ones addicted are not those most vulnerable. Tragically the true addict of charity is privilege. Privilege feasts at the trough of charity. The message that permeates that season is that we (those of us with privilege to do so) will reap benefit by giving. We will feel good when we (discover who much we have and) help those in need. We will feel affirmed in our goodness and reinforce the distinction between the haves and the have-nots.

The posture of charity is fraught with power dynamics which allude to the isms in our culture that we’ve recently been on the streets to out. Racism and classism intertwine to create a toxic field of poverty that produces juicy opportunities for charity. Families denied justice will gratefully accept bags with a smile, but the exchange is one more bit of violence, one more loss of dignity, one more message that black lives and/or poor lives do not matter in our society.

While every one wants to see children happy on Christmas, children don’t need plastic crap on December 25.

And parents know. They know that what their children need are safe homes where parents do not live in fear of incarceration or worse; children need parents or caregivers who have living wage jobs, children need schools that are fairly and adequately funded, children need consistent access to fresh and healthy food. And so do their parents.

What children really need is racism exposed, with the coconspirators of classism and patriarchy laid bare. What children need is a fundamental shift in the economic framework so that we don’t have 15 million hunger children in America, so that a full 22% of our children aren’t living in poverty. It’s time for Scrooge to have a wake up call.

In the meantime, we are invited, encouraged, even at times shamed into participating in ‘charitable’ activities. We settle for giving a child one day of glee in lieu of a lifetime of justice. And we are invited to feel good about ourselves for doing so.

This year, this year especially, I am over it.
10338295_10200089791123413_8853887642514281247_n‪#‎shutitdown‬ ‪#‎ICantBreathe‬ ‪#‎BlackLivesMatter‬

(Note: I am aware that this is a Christian/Christmas specific message. I do not know how or if it translates for other winter holidays. I am a Christian minister, so I speak what I know about our winter holiday.)

The Genesis of Violence… and the alternative, or no

Last night I stood with my candle in the cold November rain and witnessed the precipice.

As I stood with my refused-to-be-lit candle in the windy wetness, the sign that I held was filmed by no less than a dozen news cameras. Some of the reporters tried to initiate conversation, a few asked permission to take pictures, others simply took the liberty. The sign that I carry (made for me by my dear one) is an old slogan that is timeless, simple and yet powerful in its challenge: “No justice, no peace. Know justice, know peace.” While I desperately wish for the message to be heard, I have learned to be distrustful of strangers with cameras. I am silent while the lights flash.

In the absence of justice, we take to the streets and disturb the peace. We do so intentionally, prayerfully, and peacefully. But make no mistake: the goal is to disrupt the status quo. While low hanging fruit may be found simply in drawing awareness to the injustice, I would be disingenuous not to cede the ultimate goal of making the present state so uncomfortable that changes necessary for justice become preferable. The way things are may at least appear to be comfortable for many of us, especially the most of us that are white. Hidden in plain sight, however, is the terrifying truth that we are living in the backdrop of an American horror story. (Read) And if one dares to face this truth, one is forever changed.

My wife and I have been on the sidewalk in Ferguson enough now to know many names and faces, to share hugs and solidarity. We’ve also been to many quality trainings offered by organizers who’ve sought professional leadership to ensure that the movement is grounded in a sustainable tradition of non violent direction action. And we’ve been to church, more times in the last month than in the prior 12 put together. In the varying venues, we discover what should be obvious but is rarely spoken. While the movement may be expressed as a singular cry for justice, the parts are as many and varied as the individuals involved. In every single venue and with every person I encounter, the goal has been to secure a just peace. No one wants more bloodshed.  Indeed, “we are praying with our feet until there is no more blood on our streets.” (Rev. Traci Blackmann) In this much, our purpose is clear.

What is also clear is that as the town-criers for justice continue their plea, those bent on violence and those profiting from it continue to up the ante. Last night there was a small group of protestors dancing (literally, playfully) in the street. Rather than having a conversation with the few that are in the street, an unseen and muffled voice booms an unintelligible warning. I can infer that the voice is coming from the police station and I check that my feet are on the (theoretically legal) sidewalk. But I am left to wonder about the mode of communication which further dehumanizes the encounter. Thankfully we were spared the ridiculously unnecessary riot gear parade that has become common place at this intersection. Meanwhile the fear mongering has reached such an epic proportion that press from literally around the world have filled the sidewalks where we otherwise would have room to (lawfully) gather. The press is so legion that they begin to out number the criers, and so intent on finding a story that they begin to create one with their presence.

This morning I chanced to read one of the many hundreds of worthy articles written about the coming violence in (and indeed all around) Ferguson. Written by Heather Ann Thompson for the Huffington Post, the article (Violence in Post-Verdict Ferguson) describes historic protests and the bloodbaths that they became. Most importantly, as a historian she looks at where the peaceful protests took deadly turns.

“So, let us now be crystal clear: In none of these now-infamous protests were the protestors responsible for the extraordinary pain and injury that so many people suffered in them. In fact, in every one of these iconic protests, violence was caused by, and was in fact guaranteed by, local, state and federal officials who made the disastrous decision to prepare for, and then respond to, these episodes of popular sovereignty with ugly force.”

Thompson looks at the military-style escalation with the preemptive call of the National Guard and the tanks rolling into Ferguson and she warns:

These are the decisions and actions — historically and today — that turn otherwise peaceful protests volatile, dangerous and violent.

Thompson’s historical analysis mirrors what I see in real-time and makes sense of the knot that has made a home in the pit of my stomach. The anxiety I feel is real and even reasonable. I am watching the horror story morph into a nightmare beyond imagining.

Increasingly I have witnessed in real-time what Thompson chronicles in history. While protestors are committed to non-violence, when we stand in confrontation with violent systems we are burned by the very violence we abhor. The Rev. Rebecca Ragland could be the poster child for peaceful protester; she’s an Episcopal priest, exceedingly gentle, suburban mom, white and even pretty! But the police plucked her from the crowd on Wednesday night and dragged her through the streets, quite literally. (Read)  And not all of us are photogenic, nor should we be expected to be. We are not a perfect people nor a monolithic movement. This is real life and it’s messy. Crowds develop mentalities which are not always helpful, especially crowds pushed to the brink of sanity by zealous hordes of both police and media.  The instinct to wait out the storm at home is a self preservation instinct which is both understandable and not unwarranted.

As I sit in the morning light, holding the angst with fingers on the keyboard, I consider my options.

To stay the course is to stand with those who stand with Mike Brown. To stand in the street as the tensions mount, to stand alongside those who are sick and tired of being sick and tired; sick and tired of being sick and tired while being confronted by a militarized police, a blood thirsty media, and just enough agitators (of all persuasions) to incite disaster. To stay the course is to be willing to witness, to be touched by, and to be changed for good by the reality that is American life for those without white privilege. 

And in that final sentence I realize that my choice is made. I cannot unsee, I cannot unhear. The violence began long before the protestors took to the streets, long before Mike Brown became the name that awoke resistance. The violence is systemic and insidious. Those who perpetuate violence will lay it at the feet of those who resist, suggest that if only we had stayed quiet we wouldn’t not have to be violently subdued, but I cannot allow the lies to guide my steps.

So tonight, like so many nights before, I will put on another layer of warm clothing and head to Ferguson. First stop tonight will be prayer with allies at Greater St. Marks (6pm).

A “mass die in” for justice; mine is the red hat and scarf.



In Wait… November 11, 2014

After a long day with troubled teens, I listen to the winds howl and allow myself to feel the anxiety that burns in my gut. I live in St. Louis, Missouri and this is November 11, 2014. I am keenly aware that I am living in a historical moment.

Each of us has our own story as we come into this important moment. My context is my story. A white woman, a city-dweller, a retired minister, a teacher of troubled teens, a married-to-a-woman woman, a mother of children both white and black who are now out of the nest… and safe, for today.

Once upon a time I had a bully (and literal) pulpit in suburban St. Louis. In addition to a weekly audience, I was a regular contributor of op-eds for the Post-Dispatch, did interviews with the likes of Keith Olbermann and Charlie Rose, was featured in a River Front Times cover story, and worked alongside change activists in our community. Now I have none of those titles or platforms or audiences. The loss of this old life is understood in new ways this week.

After more than 20 years in the business (church work), I cashed in my chips six years ago and got honest with myself, my family and my church about what was real in my heart and body. I had scrupulously followed the rules of marriage for two decades, but to do so I had denied my truest self. Telling my truth, however, was costly. At first everyone (in my family and my church), good liberals all, said the right things but immediately there was a distancing. It was almost imperceptible and denied when’er I queried. Slowly but undeniably fissures became apparent and as my new life unfolded with incredible beauty (and it is oh, so precious), my old life evaporated before my eyes.

A house, the baby books, holidays with family… these were the first things I noticed missing. But soon it was undeniable that the big stuff was in play, even my professional life. The things that matter are won and lost not in courts or with martial law but with innuendo and nuance. When the proverbial delivered a clear message, I walked away. But the lessons are yet to be unpacked.

For the past year I have worked as a teacher with troubled kids, my former life experiences invaluable but unseen. So much of what is important in this world lies just out of view.

From this still unfamiliar vantage I listened to the news when Michael Brown was gunned down on a hot summer day, stunned and silent.  From the safety of my home, I watched in horror as the tanks rolled in and the dogs barred their teeth. I felt paralyzed, as I suspect most well intentioned white folk do. Evil rests on the default of silence.

It was several weeks later, in late September, when a call went out across social media: white folks needed in Ferguson. With the nest cleared and the school year started, my wife and ventured out from our home and spent an evening on the street in Ferguson. We were stunned by the compassion, inclusive welcome and safety we encountered. We were inspired by the hope that was so palpable. And we came back, again and again.

Freed from the glare and the responsibility of professional church life, my wife and I have spent now countless evenings standing with protestors in Ferguson, Clayton and on Shaw. We’ve held signs, marched for miles, and chanted until we were hoarse. And we have seen things. We have heard things. We have been changed.

As I sift through the emotions that collide as we await the grand jury announcement, I am aware that my grief tumbles together and new light shines on old shards.   What I experienced in leaving church was the culmination of micro aggressions, no one of which could have pushed me into abhorring a profession and community that I had loved so deeply. Micro aggressions are tricky because they are typically unseen by the casual observer and not life threatening in isolation. But what we fail to honor is that the wounds carry poison and that each repeated insult adds to the toxic soup. Eventually careers, even beloved ones, come to an end.

In the streets of Ferguson, I am forced to acknowledge that the stakes are yet higher. Micro aggressions are fed by “false Western binaries” (Starsky Wilson) that water the toxic soil of racist and homophobic cultures. Standing across from the Ferguson Police Department, I am face to face with the very struggle for survival. I am unable to unsee the pain.

Leadership (MAU)

School teacher by day and protestor by night, I begin to see what is hidden in plain sight. The twist of a narrative, the embellishment of one (not the other) side of a story. The subtle but undeniably pernicious play to fear-based stereotypes. And the incredible miserable lie that it is. What we have encountered on the street is powerful, is love, is a quest for justice the likes of which I have never seen nor even dared hope. This is the seed of just revolution that if watered with care and love could be so much more.

Stand Off

I am terrified and yet hopeful. The militarization of the police incites the very violence they claim to abhor, and I am fearful. The rush on guns stores by private (white) citizens in legion, and I am fearful. Young black men, the ones whom I privileged to stand with, express a fatalism that takes my breath. The mothers have called for the “wailing women” (Traci Blackmon), determined that they will stand in the streets until the blood stops flowing. And I will stand with them, praying and hoping and standing so that the story of justice is written on our hearts and in our history books.

Yet as I reach for my pen, I realize that my audience is gone. That the very gift of freedom that allows me to stand in the street, to see and understand, is at the same time the loss of the privilege to help craft the narrative. And now I see: a catch 22, the taproot of oppression.

Math is Worksheets… said only one student ever

He came to class on the first day where I introduced our “interactive notebooks” for math. Half way through my introduction, he interrupted to (loudly) announce that math is worksheets, not “those notebooks”. He walked out, muttering “math is worksheets, worksheets in a folder!”. (Note: Whatever name this student’s mother gave him is irrelevant to the story, in this story and in my heart he shall forever be known as “Sheets”.)

On the second day, I presented Sheets with a folder of worksheets and he sat at the edge of the room, hugging the pages of neatly ordered addition and subtraction. Half way through the class he began to complain (loudly and relentlessly) about the noise. At some point one ought see the irony in yelling about noise, but this student did not. He left the class and, quite literally, has not returned.

My supervisor and colleagues have all had advice and, to the best of my knowledge, I have tried all of the suggestions. Last week was something of a break through, Sheets sat in the hallway at a desk near my classroom and held the blue folder of worksheets. He did exactly 6.5 subtraction problems in five days (all done on day #1), the remainder of every class period spent (loudly) complaining about the noise and my ridiculous (to his mind) notion that he should be learning about fractions with the rest of the class. He does not do fractions, he explained, math is addition and subtraction. I tried to point out the shared pizza dilemma if we avoid fractions, but he was steely in his resolve. He is an adult, after all, and he knows what he does (and doesn’t) need. Maybe so.

Sheets is, after all, right about the noise. Even when he is far down the hallway and his rant not a part of the cacophony, this particular mix of teens has a ridiculously high degree of oppositional energy. This week the class will be doing very abbreviated daily work, spending the bulk of the class time playing cards (Monday, Wednesday), working in Khan Academy (iPads on Tuesday, Thursday) and (our favorite!) Farkle (Friday).  I’m not sure if I’m caving to the pressure of the group that resists instruction or being respectfully responsive.

To be fair, all of my classes have balked at my expectations as the year began and there’s been a process of mutual compromise. I am thrilled that most of my students are actually seeing and (to a degree) interacting with grade level material. In one class one student proudly asked if his notebook was his to keep after the class was over, yes! (Ok, maybe he was trying to curry favor… if so, it worked.) In another class a student giggled with glee as we played a logic game.

I have lots of reasons to feel success in this second first-year of teaching, but 6th hour is not one of them.

This class has yet to become a class. For 45 minutes every day I have a tiny room filled with 7 (not counting Sheets) antagonized and antagonistic teen boys. (Do you have any idea how many times I trip over their feet in 45 minutes?)

As week #7 begins, I raise the flag of surrender.

So Common Core, I bid you adieu. For the next week (and as many weeks as it might take), I am simply going to play games with my 6th hour class. I say “simply” but I have few illusions about the ease of even this task. Still, it is a focused and worthy goal; somewhat in terms of mathematics but more significantly in social value. My goal is to learn to like this group, to make my peace with their quirks, to find enjoyment in the daily interchange.

Ok, that’s clearly too lofty. If I expect a moment of Pollyanna bliss I might as well stick with the impossible Common Core.

Perhaps a more attainable goal will be to make it through one day at a time without thinking felonious thoughts. That would be success. And a subsequent goal might be to make it through one day without complaining about this challenging group. These are goals that belong to me, these are responsible adult goals. And maybe if I start with baby steps, nirvana will meet me on the other side (or not).

Meanwhile Sheets is in the wind. I wonder when, if ever, he will come back. Perhaps the more important question is what kind of community will await him when (and if) he does. While he is gone, we will work on becoming a community worthy of one another. I am suspicious that if we achieve this, we might also bring peace to the warring nations. But we all have to start somewhere with the candle that we have. Tomorrow I will light mine.


Microcosms of Community Dysfunction

While the world watched in horror last week as the streets of Ferguson were militarized, I was living a microcosm of a broken system that purports to be about social service. Somewhere, as a society, we have gone horribly wrong. Yet as I lived my tiny slice of life amidst the wider community drama, I find myself ever more perplexed.

Our story is that we became foster parents in April for two young girls, ages (now) 10 and 11. Prior to their placement with us, the girls had lived in a series of homes with relatives, never with biological parent, and always in extreme poverty. Growing up in the economic underbelly of our social structure, the girls were well acquainted with hunger, abuse, and neglect. Expectations around family rituals (meals, bedtime, bath time) were anathema; an indication of privilege not extended to every child in America. Highly skilled in manipulation and hopelessly delayed in academics, the girls had attended a new school every year and sometimes more than one; last year they attended three, this year they will begin their second as the second week of school begins.

To say that we had to navigate difficult behaviors would be an understatement, but my wife is a veteran 6th grade teacher (now working with troubled teens) and well equipped for the task. She was home for a couple of months (thanks to veteran teacher status) and was full-time mommy adding structure and rewards as needed. We had many difficult days, endless trips to doctors, and detailed reports to write. But as the girls packed their stuff yesterday, they carried their prized scooters, earned with good behavior, proudly to their case manager’s car.

Our time with the girls ended last night, one week shy of a four-month tour. By all accounts too soon except maybe not soon enough. For the remainder of our days we will likely process the lessons learned and unlearned. The girls’ challenges were, always, the small part of our challenge. And lest you read nothing else you should hear that everyone with whom we worked was a well-intentioned so-called liberal white woman. Like me. So what could go so terribly wrong?

From the beginning there was a struggle. And in the beginning we understood the trouble to be, appropriately, about transition. The girls had been taken from school on a Monday morning, told that they would never return home (an aunt’s home was their most recent home), and dropped into our lives with (literally) only the shirts on their backs. The move itself was nothing short of traumatic. Previously having lived in exclusively African-American homes and with extreme poverty, they were now expected to thrive in the glare of privileged white women: mothers, social workers, teachers, principal, counselor. All of us good peeps, not one of us poor, not one of us black, not one of us a terrified child. What they had was each other and in their relationship they brought what they knew, dysfunction.

Tragically the adults didn’t remember the cardinal rule of parenting: don’t eat your own teammates. Fostering is a team with parents, social workers, counselor and even a DJO. While my dear one and I grew closer (much) in the midst of parenting these young girls, the team as whole didn’t fare so well. First there was talk of our being (or not being) a good match as parents for the girls. Then  there was talk of the counselor being (or not being) a good fit. Then it was back to pointing fingers at us, the foster parents; apparently the supervisor also took a swipe at the case manager. For our part, we were indignant. Volunteering our home, our hearts, our lives and (yes) our expertise, we were not well suited to the innuendos and outright rudeness of those that (literally) attempted to distinguish themselves from us using the word “professional”. (Even as I type, my anger rises.) Ironically my wife and I, as individuals let alone in combination, had more experience and education than those claiming to be “professional”.  And so hubris lobbed and houses tumbled, ultimately a power play was made and the girls were moved from our home to a “more culturally appropriate” home (quote from the case manager to the child).

Also true is that the girls need more care than we will be able to provide during the school year. As teachers, both of us now, we cannot provide good supervision for children who are suspended and already in their first mont with us one was suspended. After their placement we learned that the other had also already been suspended once. Given the history of suspensions and the behaviors during the summer, we could only expect suspensions to become more frequent. While the decision to move the girls was not ours, and a product of “tension in the team” (quote from the case manager’s supervisor), we did not contest the decision. In part worn down from the adult struggle, we also knew the needed level of care was not sustainable in our home.

What I witnessed in the team decision meeting, however, was deeply troubling. White women, all of us (with one white man observer and one African-American dad via phone conference), talking nonsense about what African-American girls need. The case manager suggested that the girls needed to be in a black home because the elder child deeply missed her family (as if all black folks are from the same family!), that ours was a white home (completely dismissing our African-American daughter who has been a key presence in the girls’ lives with us), and suggesting that our home was “too restrictive” because we didn’t “let the girls have space to fight it out” (dismissing the real issue that their fights invariably escalated until one or the other was injured). Perhaps most shocking were direct lies made from “professional” staff, but most troubling were comments that belied an utter failure to understand the issues with which the children are really struggling.

Our experience with the system is one very small sampling, but it played out as I watched the news this week in silent horror. Michael Brown gunned down with his hands held high. Tear gas and rubber bullets sprayed as people prayed with their feet. Character assassinations used to trump sharing of relevant information. My heart sick with what passes for “public safety”, I found the same elusive in my home. Following the decision on Monday to move the girls, drama was in high gear at home and violence the only tool they had to express their rage. On Tuesday evening I had planned to attend a forum in Ferguson but the school bus was three hours late (yes, we are in a chronically underfunded school district), the social workers were sitting in our living room waiting for the girls and making racially insensitive comments, and when we were finally all home and the social workers gone, the elder child went into a rage and physically attacked first her sister and then my wife. I watched helplessly as my wife covered her face and attempted to get away from the raging child.  Thankfully now on the other side, I am left to hold the shards in sad wonderment.

Perhaps one small take away truth is the essential value of humility. We do not know what we do not know. This acknowledgement of what is unknown and openness to learning was missing from our Monday meeting, it was missing too from the police officer’s encounter with Michael Brown, it was missing again when the Ferguson Police Chief Jackson reignited rage by obfuscating the release of the officer’s name with footage of a cigar box theft. If at any point the adults had paused to listen, the outcomes would have been different.

With so much that we cannot change, this one small piece we can. We can own the story that is our own and in so doing acknowledge all the rest that is not and by definition unknowable. What we know is always a small microcosm of the whole, and (tragically) often a misleading piece. At the end of the day, I do not know what is best for the girls that came into our lives and I have every reason to believe that they will be well cared for and loved in their new home. My serenity rests in my humility, letting go of my need to control, to know, to dictate. As I find windows of peace this morning at my desk, I pray for this same humility to find root in our wider community.

Today I tune my ears to those who’ve been denied justice and who are now refusing to make peace. I cannot help but believe that the truth we need for this important crossroad lies not in my experience but rather in my openness to the voices of others whose experiences may be different from mine.


Kindergarten Lessons – Body Fluids

Let’s talk about pee.

While no one in their right mind would ever choose this topic, no rendering of this escapade with the children could be complete without at least one chapter devoted to the topic. Pee is a part of the human experience and for little ones too often publicly so.  In my classroom of 10, six have peed on my classroom floor (and a couple of more on the playground). Perhaps the abundance of pee is reflective of age (6-8 year olds), perhaps the severe emotional disturbances facing these kids, most likely the steady flow is a combination. Whatever the reasons, I have been well acquainted with body fluids (of all types) this year.

And here’s what I know: it hasn’t killed me, at least not yet.

On the almost-last day of the semester, Tyler pooped in his pants and strutted naked (and poop-smeared) while I attempted to direct him to first wiping and then washing (neither very successful). On the last day of the semester, Tyler got in a verbal altercation with a peer and, as it escalated, he dropped his drawers, grabbed his junk and… (miracle of miracles) he didn’t pee.

Here’s the second thing I know: mercy lives and laughter is healing.

There are a million reasons that a child might pee (or worse) on a classroom floor but I suspect Occam was right. The most likely reason is the simplest: they can. There are few things a child can control and where they leave their bodily fluids is one. As a teacher I can control how I respond, but I don’t get to control the direction of the flow. Like it or not, in this one I am powerless.

Sure, I try bribes. One of my new little guys, Ralph, naps every afternoon and pees at the end of every nap. For a couple of days he was interested in the little cars I promised and actually chose to wake up dry and collect his toy.  Even now I cherish the sweet smile he shared with his hand-held out as he reported: “I didn’t use it on myself.” He was super proud of the first car he earned and (the very next day) the second; but by the third day, choice trumped persuasion. Perhaps in time the rewards will trump the power play, but until then it’s to my advantage to keep a cool head and a bottle of order eliminating disinfectant.

Powerlessness is an essential human experience that none of us can ultimately avoid. We come into, and then out of, this world in a state of dependence. Childhood is fraught with vulnerability and in our adulthood the myth of self-sufficiency sets us up to fail every time. But powerlessness becomes blinding cruelty when children are neglected and, worse, abused. The enormity of the emotional pain suffered by some children is mind numbing and (quite literally) crazy making. And in the face of this powerlessness, some children make the one choice they can: where to pee.

On the one hand, I wish that I could find it in my heart to cheer the modicum of response-ability demonstrated as a child engages in such willful behavior. But let’s be real, sewer systems weren’t designed to hold rose-water and I know that the very storyline of this post is, well, disgusting. What the kids and I both know: pee stinks.

Tragically, for the most vulnerable of children, life does too.