These are two big figures in influencing American history. Their contributions through the civil rights movements of the 50s and 60s and ever after, impact America today.
To have lost both of these men in the past 24 hours is heavy.
So I’m thinking today about how I learned about these two men.
It’s interesting, I grew up a white kid in Indiana where we learned about Martin Luther King, Jr., “I have a dream,” and all of those things. But that was it.
Later in High School, we might have learned a little bit about Malcolm X. Then in college, I learned more and more, but it was focused on Martin and Malcolm. Who were often presented as opposites to one another. It wasn’t until graduate school, in seminary, where I was studying to become a pastor, that I learned more depth.
I went to the Iliff School of Theology, in Denver, CO. One of my professors was Dr. Vincent Harding. He was involved in the protests, marches, and was close friend, advisor, and wrote speeches with MLK, Jr. He taught a course called Religion and Social Transformation. I’ll never forget that man. I’ll never forget the experience of sitting there in his classroom. I’ll never forget what I learned from him.
He called these the giants on whose shoulders we stand. These people are the foundation to whom we owe America. As I think about these people who changed the world around them, I remember sitting in that classroom. I was just a white boy from Indiana learning things and watching the PBS series, Eyes on the Prize, which is worth your time to watch. We would watch, read, and discuss books on the civil rights era. As we discussed all these issues Vincent Harding would sit and share his stories.
He’d just drop things like, “Well one night, my wife and I were exhausted, it’d been a long day and many troubling things were in the news. We decided to go out for a walk. A few blocks away we saw a friend of mine who waved us into the house for tea and chat. So my wife and I went in and talked with Martin and Coretta for two or three hours thinking up ideas of how to change things and we’d feel lifted up.”
He’d just casually share a story like that! I remember being awed that his friends ‘Martin and Coretta’ was talking about MLK, Jr.! I realized how close I was to one of the ‘big names’ of history. He never talked about himself much but the more I learned, Dr. Harding was a big figure and a giant as well.
So as I think on the names of people who have moved on to whatever comes next, they gave and gave and gave, until they could give no more, then had a friend help them up and together, gave a little more, and a little more to change America for the better. Now I think about all these people who have taken their turn in this and realize, it’s our turn. We must come together, rise up, and again, remake America for the better Who will lead, where will we go? Who will people call giants 40-50 years from now? Well, us.
They may not know our names, they may not know what exactly we did, or maybe they do. But they’ll know our influence. The long line of marchers, that I’m humbled to be a part of, I’m humbled to be a student of Vincent Harding. Who taught me these names, people, and places.
I also am thinking of my classmates with me, particularly a Black woman named Ruth from Alabama. She was a strong person who taught me a lot. Ruth was the granddaughter of an Alabama sharecropper. And if you didn’t know exactly what that meant, she’d be happy to explain. She would make sure you knew exactly what that meant.
So when I open the newspaper online today and read an obit for John Lewis that began “the son of a sharecropper” I grinned a bit. I remember Ruth’s forceful teaching to those around her what exactly it means to be a son, daughter, grandson, granddaughter of a sharecropper. This is a person one step from enslavement, someone raised by someone who knew the struggle, felt the whip, knew to fight, and the struggle for freedom. And someone cherished that freedom. They taught their children and grandchildren how to fight, how to strategize, and how cherish the thrill of achievements and the riches of a life of freedom.
Ruth was strong like that. And she taught me many things! She’d call out my racism. She helped me work through it. The tense moments would resolve into an understanding of each other I remember one time I went into the library and was ready to borrow some books. I couldn’t find them on the shelf so I went to the desk for assistance. Ruth was waiting there too looking for something. Ok, I’ll wait my turn. The staff was in back looking for something. So I started to chat with Ruth.
In my family, dad jokes have always been a thing. When we went to the library as kids, dad would joke, “Oh, going to steal some books.” We’d laugh and my dad would say that. It became a family joke. I didn’t think anything of it.
So I say to Ruth, “Hi! You here to steal some books too?”
And she stared me down right in the eyes. “Is it because I’m Black you assume I’m here to steal?”
“Oh my God, no. That’s a dumb joke my dad used to say I, never thought about how that would be felt by a Black person before. Thank you. I’m sorry. I’m removing that joke from my vocabulary.”
She gave a start as if she expected something else, then sort of said, “Ok.”
We left it at that until later.
Two, three, four weeks later sometime, we were chatting again and she asked me, “Do you remember in the library awhile back?”
“I fully expected you to get defensive and fight and argue. When you apologized, I didn’t know what to say anymore.”
“I felt it was the right thing to say.”
“It was. Good.”
Ruth and I were not really close friends. But we had a respect for each other to know each other well enough. We’d work through those moments of pain and history like that. I look back at Dr. Vincent Harding, and his class that taught me these kind of things. how to do that. To know the names of people like, C. T. Vivian and John Lewis. So when I saw in the newspaper they’d died, I’d know what America had lost. And I’d know how to act. And I’d know what I’d need to do.
I don’t always do it, I confess. But I know. I’m learning…and I’m working toward it.
These giants whose shoulders I stand on, these giants who raised us up and carried us forward.
I have been appalled by the recent events in my nation and, far from being a complicit silence, I’ve been sitting with my discomfort as a white man and listening first. But, because silence = death, I cannot remain silent forever, or it does become a complicit inaction.
Those of you who know me, know that my seminary education at the Iliff School of Theology in the mid 90s was formative in my understanding of justice, peace, and ‘how to protest effectively.’ It was part of the curriculum and the cornerstone of that curriculum was a course in Religion and Human Transformation taught by Dr. Vincent Harding, a confidant, friend, advisor, and colleague of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. You can get a sense of what it was like to talk with Dr. Harding from this interview with the “On Being” project where he discusses his essay, “Is America Possible?”
Dr. Harding’s influence on my activist-scholar lineage is one of the reasons my two primary responses to everything I bear witness to since March (and before) has been:
1) employing as much liberationist pedagogy in my classrooms that is contextualized with all the trauma aware care I can muster. Eduction is power, wisdom to use it is action.
2) ramping up my involvement with The Poor People’s Campaign through involvement with the Deaf Poor People’s Campaign contingent. The original vision for the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign and the 6 week takeover of the National Mall as Resurrection City was MLK, Jr’s response to the emergence of tactics we are seeing used by the economic elite and the powers of our nation today. Martin was murdered before he could ignite this movement, but Ralph Abernathy and of host of others, including Dr. Harding, saw to it that it came to life. The current movement is a revival as, although advances were made in 1968, things have gotten worse, much more worse, than they were then.
Racism is not “their problem.”
In protesting at the Iliff School of Theology (against the institution’s own racism), I obtained a button that has been part of my ‘protest collection’ ever since. Although I’m not sure where the actual button is after many moves and many marches, the content remains in my head. It simply reads, “Racism is not ‘their problem.'” These were a staple of white students protesting institutional racism at Iliff during my last year under the leadership of students of color. It articulates the fact that racism, white supremacy, and all the attendant evils are, at their root, something white people have made, and white people must work to dismantle. The work of anti-racism cannot be simply on those who bear the burden of the effects. As Black Deaf people are telling us…they’re tired.
After graduating from Iliff and joining the Baltimore Washington Conference of The United Methodist Church, I wore this button (among many others) during a rally in DC that was organized as a part of our Annual Conference meeting. Bishop Felton E. May had chosen “Holy Boldness” as a theme and was pushing us as a body to use our meeting not just for business and worship in a nice hotel, but to get out into the city where we met and do something with our presence. People of color took note of my button and tacitly nodded their understanding. White people were another story entirely. I soon discovered they were reading the button as saying, “Racism isn’t a problem for them,” rather than seeing it as a response to the typical white dismissal of, “Well that’s not my problem.” When I was confronted by some white people at the rally, I clarified the meaning and, on more than one occasion, was chastised for being ‘controversial and divisive’ by bringing up racial differences and assigning responsibility instead of promoting unity and working together.
This is the sort of white liberal racism that leads to things like Amy Cooper, an otherwise textbook white liberal who sees herself as well meaning, to weaponize calling the police on a black man, Michael Cooper, who was simply asking her to leash her dog in the Brambles as was posted all over the park. It’s also the kind of privilege liberal white people, such as myself, have to guard against in times like this and not simply ‘turn away from horrible things’ and keep on going on with our lives. We have to commit to anti-racism anew each time. Our friends who do not enjoy such privileges simply cannot turn away.
Larry Kramer died last week. He was a figure during my time at the Iliff School of Theology too. Although he was miles away in NYC, the ACT UP movement was strong in Denver in the mid-90s as the literal “dying days” of the movement were focused on 1) care of those dying, and 2) overturning Amendment 2. Amendment 2 was a voter referendum that would bar any city or government law designed to specifically protect the rights of LGBTQ people. A confusing ballot wording led to a state Supreme Court ruling that threw out the referendum. But, as the linked article from Westword in 2017 states, those fights are also being refought.
Kramer was a bombastic and fierce fighter for those he loved and lost. Everyone was dying and no one was talking. His benevolent rage, as the New Yorker article linked above puts it, was a hallmark that many misunderstood. He was famous for his unapologetic truth in the public sphere and his fierce connections to people in private relationships…and sometimes he directed both to the same person, as he did with Dr. Anthony Fauci. As I see Dr. Fauci once again navigate a public health crisis under an administration that seems more than fine with the deaths of those who are dying, I can see the dynamics of Kramer’s relationship with him echoing into this pandemic.
Another voice on rage that I value is, Dr. Pamela Lightsey. Her recent post on “Sweet Anger” is unapologetically honest about the value of black rage in this moment. Her follow up post “Where Have We Heard This Before?” is worth reading as well. She writes with a fierce love for her people and community that recognizes that while, yes, a lot of the triggers to violence happening in Minneapolis and other cities are being instigated by white provocateurs, a narrative of the ‘peaceable negro’ does not do service to the raw honest emotional rage that needs to be recognized and expressed.
She’s a friend of mine and someone I worked hard to get the funding to bring to Gallaudet to speak with our community and meet with our students of color. It was worth ALL the wrangling with administrators to find funding and scheduling hassles to see her engage with students during a dinner with the Keeping The Promise program. As we’re friends on Facebook, I read her posts with a sense of wonder at times at her ability to so fiercely love. She can be calling out someone she’s blocked (or tolerated and not blocked) for something they’ve said or done and then in the comments on that post, see someone she’s not seen for awhile and there’s a moment of, “Honey! How are you. I love you all. How are the family and when can we get together?”
Kramer and Lightsey remind me of the role of rage and the kind of rage that is rooted in a fierce love that has grown through a time of deprivation, marginalization, and brutality.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s thoughts on urban rioting from a speech to the American Psychology Association in 1967 point to an understanding of how the evils of systemic poverty, discrimination, and militarization lead to these moments of rage. And that they are less about property and more about prophecy.
While sharing some of my own thoughts and musings here, I do want to recognize something my friend and former student, Victorica Monroe asked her white friends to do on social media– recognize my white privilege.
(p.s. Victorica is one of the most exciting young educators I know. The link above is to her consulting business. If you’re involved with Deaf education in any way from shaping classroom experiences to inviting speakers, give Victorica a click and reach out.)
White privilege looks like this:
I have privilege as a white person because I can do all of these things without thinking twice about it…
White privilege is real. Take a minute to consider a Black person’s experience today. #BlackLivesMatter
This list is far from complete, and far from over.
This is a time where the president of our nation wants to return to the days of Bull Connor and set dogs loose on people and engage in things that past presidents used as a pretext for war such as using the military on citizens of his own country.
This is a time when the police are militarized to the point where their first response to a protest is to line up with all their military gear developed for use in armed combat and chuck tear gas canisters into crowds with no attempt to simply contain and direct the protest along a predetermined path.
This is a time when we can record and disseminate widely what has gone on without being seen for decades and centuries. This is also a time when the same social media tools can sow confusion, turn narrative, and distort meaning that dilutes the the transformational potential of such documentation.
In addition to using my classrooms for liberationist pedagogy, and involvement with The Poor People’s Campaign, I’m seeking to do more of of the things from this 2017 post on what white people can do for racial justice.
I’m also trying to put the words of people of color out there for you to read throughout this post. They’re saying it better than I ever could.
But I do recognize that my own journey from the casual racism of the white world around me growing up to someone making a commitment to anti-racism began in many ways by seeing other white people pointing toward what people of color were saying, then sitting to listen.
So I’ll shush up now and let you read the links.
Oh and…Trevor Noah dropped this recently that’s worth watching and sharing.
As I read social media posts from you, meet with you on Zoom, text back and forth, and connect in all the ways we can during this pandemic, I’m starting to see the collective shock that we’re living through such times wear down and signs some something more that we’re all struggling to do. I’ll name it…
We’re living through a collective trauma. In Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining, Shelly Rambo discusses trauma as “the suffering that does not go away. The study of trauma is the study of what remains. The phenomenon of trauma’s remainder presents challenges to our understanding of what constitute an experiences and, subsequently, what it means to witness an experience.” Our sensible reaction to being in a moment of collective trauma is grief.
That denial that this can possibly be as bad as its being said to be? Grief.
That panicked attempt to help everyone in every way that you possibly can and frustration that such actions are impossible? Grief.
That depression that paralyzes us from being able to act and reach out in even the smallest ways? Grief.
That anger over every little thing being asked of you in this time and every little thing that goes wrong? Grief.
That desire to isolate myself from what’s happening to take care of myself and nagging guilt that I’m putting myself first? Grief.
Those nightmares you’re having that make you wake up at night and feel fearful and lonely? Grief.
You might detect an echo of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s model on stages of grief in this litany of griefs. Yeah. In addition to being the associate professor of religion at Gallaudet University, I’m also an ordained minister in the Baltimore Washington Conference of The United Methodist Church. So I’ve got some training in understanding grief. What I’m not is a licensed therapist or counselor, if you’re finding yourself paralyzed by grief, reach out to one. Engage in the process of therapy, it can really help. It has for me in those moments of my life.
I’m actually reluctant to tell you much about grief and grieving though. Pointing people to particular resources can be tricky because –
Grief is weird.
I can tell you why I think grief is weird though. Grief and trauma are often intensely personal. They force us to look at parts of ourselves and our lives and our world that we’d rather not examine too closely. I think this is what causes many people to overlook that grief is what they’re experiencing. But naming a thing is powerful. It allows us to recognize it and accept the reality of it.
Grief can be many things but it’s a part of our response to traumas. Traumas can be:
The loss of a loved one to a virus,
The loss of one’s daily routine and sense of security,
The loss of one’s daily independence as a college student away from home,
The loss of carefully laid out plans for you and your loved ones’ future,
The loss of trust in the social institutions we rely upon.
The loss of being able to protect those you care about.
If you go looking for help on understanding and managing grief, there’s a ton of resources, research, theories, processes, and ideas out there for you to discover. Far from being a bewildering mess, this is a good thing—because grief is many different things to many different people.
Unfortunately, there’s no one easy way to grieve and respond to trauma.It seems that even in the best of therapeutic relationships with a licensed counselor, grief is something we often muddle through because…we have to find our own way through it.
Grief is weird—its intensely personal.
But, in times like this, grief is also has a public dimension. While paralyzing grief needs to be treated in individual or small group counseling, as a spiritual leader, I’ve come to see one of my roles as someone who is called to help public grieving happen. Dealing with grief as a public health matter can perhaps prevent the spiral into debilitating grief that requires more intense help.
Oddly, one of the things I’ve discovered in 23 years of ordained ministry and 12 years of professional teaching in higher education is that, I seem to be sort of good at figuring out how to grieve. It’s one of the more awkward moments of my life when I’m in a discussion about one’s spiritual gifts and I share, “I’m good at grieving.” In part because, it’s usually something our culture tells us to do in private, or to do and then be done with. Shh. Don’t bring that up. It hurts.
But those of us who grieve know, grief lingers. It changes us. It’s something we have to come to terms with and respect when it rears its head in our lives. Being public about grief and how to do it seems imminently valuable right now. Trauma is that which remains.
One of the internet memes that floats around from time to time that captures a sense of how grief works is the “box with a ball and a button.” Imagine yourself as a box. Inside the box is a button. When the button is pushed, you feel emotional pain. Grief is a ball. At first, the ball is huge and fills the box. The button is always pushed. After awhile we start to figure out how to manage grief and the ball shrinks. But as we move around, the ball can now start to jostle around inside. So when we start going about our lives doing things again, the ball is rattling against that button again. Time can make grief continue to shrink, but it’s still there. The more it shrinks, the more its able to bounce around in that box. When it’s small enough, it can bounce around most of the time without hitting that button. But it’s still there. Every once in awhile it’ll hit that button square on. When we least expect it, it’s there. It hits the button, and we need to take the time to acknowledge the pain, remember the grief is still there, and deal with it.
In this way, grief becomes familiar. Learning to say something like, “Ah, hello again my old friend. While your visit causes me pain, I will sit with you awhile until you’re ready to go again,” becomes a powerful framework for handling grief. Far from being easy, befriending grief as something we can sit with is one of the hardest things we can learn to do. But it’s also one of the most human things we can do. It allows us to understand ourselves, understand each other, and…be more human with one another.
How do we achieve this? Many ways.
For those of us who hold spiritual or religious practices and beliefs, our traditions are often far more rich in ways to grieve that we realize. What is a funeral other than a ritual to acknowledge our mortality and come to terms with what might lie beyond? What is sitting shiva or having a wake but an opportunity to reflect, both individually and collectively, on what a meaningful life should be? Saying prayers for the dead, lighting candles in memory, counting beads as we meditate, feeling the wind around us as we sit on the earth our bodies return to, crying out in anger, agony, and pain, singing songs that transport us from somber sobs to shouting glories. All of these things are imbued with ways to grieve.
For those of us who do not identify with spiritual or religious practices and beliefs. We still find comfort in ritual expression that grounds us and binds us with one another. Sewing quilts that provide a personal expression of those we’ve lost, writing names in stone or on walls lest we forget what we learn in terrible times, reciting names and responding, “PRESENTE!” to recall the continued presence of those who were taken from us, lighting candles, sitting in silence, screaming in anger, listening to a song that changes our mood on endless loop. All these are imbued with ways to grieve.
My friends, as I reflect upon these things I want to suggest one more thing. Do not fear to go public with your grief and be with one another through this process. Help each other grieve. I have those books, songs, and people I turn to in seeking help to grieve as well.
We need stories that help us grieve. Stories that transcend the barriers we erect over differences of belief, practice, politics, culture, and personality. One of my current projects is a response to Laurie Patton’s response in Eboo Patel’s book, Out of Many Faiths: Religious Diversity and the American Promise. Patton, who is the president of Middlebury College and recent past president of the American Academy of Religion, raises an interesting challenge in her chapter title, “Plural America Needs Myths.”
Plural America refers to the reality that our American cultural landscape is diverse in regard to religious, spiritual, non-religious, cultural, and political diversity. As Diana Eck has put it, diversity is a fact, but pluralism is an achievement. Pluralism is something we have to work for in cultivating knowledge and respect across our differences toward a common good. This is the heart of the interfaith movement. To build pluralistic societies that allow people of all stripes to find ways to live together. It’s tough work.
Patton points out that one of the things we need to achieve this goal is myths. Myths here doesn’t mean ‘made up things’ or ‘commonly believed falsehoods’ about something. Myths here mean stories that spark our imagination and call us to construct meaningful ways of understanding who we are as a people and why we should be a people.
Mythologies need not be religious or spiritual either. Public mythologies are often the stuff of civic history. It’s important to interrogate our public mythologies and consider counter stories among them as well though. This is why Patton says we need myths and not just a Myth. Patton is particularly interested in the ‘everyday myths’ that show people bonding together in extraordinary ways that show us that a plural America is possible, even in the midst of partisan rancor.
So one of my interests is in exploring what sort of myths we might tell each other across differences in Deaf communities that illustrate this power of storytelling. As I consider the role of public grieving, I’ll share one story to close this post:
I was a campus minister at Gallaudet University in the fall semester of 2000 when our community was suddenly shook to its core when a 19 year old student was found murdered in his dorm room. This was but the start of what would become a tumultuous two years of continued crises for our campus, some of which were connected to events of national and global trauma including the events of September 11, 2001. But, at this moment, we didn’t know that. All we knew is that a student had been found murdered in a dorm room on our close knit campus.
The response was incredible. Fear and shock disrupted our ability to think through how to respond to crisis. The president of the university called a town hall to gather the community for information. Campus ministers were asked if one of us could open the gathering with a few words of calm and peace. Those of us who were on campus at the time were somewhat surprised by this request as so often the Office of Campus Ministries has been overlooked as a resource for community support. Yet, it also isn’t terribly surprising. As I mentioned earlier in this post, one of the functions of a spiritual leader is…leading a public response to grief. We were sort of at a loss of what our approach should be though. The staff person relaying the request for this said, “Something like the 23rd Psalm?” and then had to leave to attend to a million other things.
So, we began to discuss what we should do for this. We were somewhat leery about using scripture, particularly scripture commonly used in Christian funerals, as we were well aware of the public nature of this gathering and that many in our campus community have had negative experiences with religion and that this was no time to remember those traumas on top of fresh traumas. In addition, we were, and are, a very diverse community with respect to spirituality and religion.
We raised concern this with the staff person who made the request who acknowledged the difficulty and suggested, “Just make it a Deaf thing. Words that calm fears,” and had to turn their attention to other matters again. This phrase seemed puzzling to me, but a light went off in the eyes of one of the hearing campus ministers who had been on campus a long time. “This is why you need to do it, Kirk. Of those of us who are on campus right now, you’re the Deaf one. It can come from you as a Deaf thing by embodying the spirit of it in ASL from a Deaf person rather than an imposition of a Christian sentiment from a hearing person.”
This still didn’t make entire sense to my head as I was probably just beginning to move from the start of my Deafhood journey to the middle of it as I got comfortable with ASL as a second language and being a Deaf person from a mainstreamed background in a Deaf cultural institution. But…ok then.
I had about 30 minutes to figure out how to make the 23rd Psalm a Deaf thing. I basically tapped on the notion that Psalms are songs, poetry, expression of emotion. Given that ASL has poetic forms and expression, could I translate this Psalm as an ASL poem? ASL is not my first language and in 2000, I still felt far from fluent, particularly when being in a community with a significant number of native ASL speakers and scholars of ASL and Deaf culture. But…I’d give it a try.
Shortly after, I’m giving my rendition of the 23rd Psalm in ASL on stage after greeting everyone and saying, “This is a passage from my spiritual tradition that gives me comfort in times of trouble, I hope it can mean something for you too.” I left the stage of Elstad Auditorium with my heart in my throat feeling unsure about what the reception might be. I was grateful for bright stage lights and dark back walls to look out into rather than the faces in the crowd where all eyes were on me.
It was after a town hall full of emotion, information, worry, care, anger, and fear I began to have people come up to me. A professor of ASL and Deaf studies whom, to that point, I’d never known to address anything with relation to religion or spirituality came hurrying up to me with an urgent look on their face. “Uh oh,” my gut told me. “That was amazing. So beautiful. I’ve never seen the 23rd Psalm mean something like that in ASL before.” A Muslim student came up to me and said, “That isn’t part of my tradition, but it was really peaceful and made me think of things in the Quran that are like that.” A lesbian student came up and said, “I’m not religious and frankly, don’t like religion, but that was beautiful.” A Christian staff member came up to me and said, “I’ve been working here for years and that was the first time I’d seen a university event open with scripture. Thank you.”
This story remains one of the most vivid memories in what would become two years of vivid memories of being a public agent for spiritual needs in a diverse community of spiritual, religious, and non-religious people bound Deaf experiences, ASL, and membership in the Gallaudet community.
It speaks to a power of interfaith engagement across religious, spiritual, and non-religious differences in extraordinary times to be human with one another and bring the resources we all carry from our own ways of being human to bear on being with one another. To grieve is very human. To be able to grieve well is difficult. To be able to grieve together is what gets us through even the most trying times.
I was driving into DC that morning. It was a beautiful morning. The sky so blue. The heat of summer had finally broken. It was early in the semester and the campus ministers were to have our first Tuesday AM meeting. Such an incredible morning I’d left the TV off because who wants noise when there’s such an amazing sky out there.
I’m driving in and US 50 where it turns into town and becomes New York Avenue is in the middle of what must have been a decade long construction project. Traffic is light and while I’m after the bulk of the rush hour, there’s usually more than this. But hey, that blue sky, the cooler air, light traffic, this is a great day.
My pager goes off, it’s one of those ‘two lines of text’ pagers of the time and about all that we deaf folk could get. I pull it out of the holster and look real quick coming down the Baltimore Washington Parkway but have to sort of hurry because my exit for US 50/NY Ave is coming up. TURN ON UR TV. THIS IS BAD. My heart skips a beat. Our campus had two murders happen the year before and the person I’m getting this message from was a graduate student working with campus security. Each semester, it was about three weeks into the semester that it happened. And…we’re about at week three.
Well. I’m on my way in. I guess I’ll find out when I arrive.
I take my exit, round the turn. US 50 drops onto NY Ave at a rise and there’s a brief moment when you’re a bit higher than the city before you drop down into the bowl. On a clear day, you can see across the city. There was an amazing blue sky that morning.
Then a brown cloud rises up way across the horizon.
I actually remember rationally thinking through, “Is this it? Nuclear bomb? Should I turn around and head out? Ok, if it’s nuclear, I’m already dead. If it’s not, there’s a bona fide crisis and the campus needs the campus ministers who can get there, i’m going in. Besides, with the construction, I’d have to go wrong way on this side of the road to turn around, I probably could without the traffic, but nah.” All this in the span of the few seconds it took waiting to see if it would mushroom up and have a ring and then realizing, “Oh, wait. right. No flash. Probably not nuclear.” The things we grew up learning after seeing The Day After on TV.
I get to campus. The Catholic campus minister is there and glad to see me because he knows I have a small TV in my office to use for showing VHS tapes of ASL bible verses. I’ve got no antennae but we rig a paper clip wrapped to a wire coat hanger that’s twisted to a metal window frame and get a signal. He’s telling me what’s happened and we get the signal and no sooner tune in and…the South Tower collapses. We’re silent. Stunned. I finally am able to say…I saw a brown cloud over the Virginia side of the city…
There’s a slight panic between us. They break in with news on the Pentagon.
Gallaudet at the time had a high number of international students. Being the only university in the world designed entirely for Deaf students, we attracted people from everywhere. The student government wanted to do a vigil that Friday evening with candles and an open stage for people to share their thoughts. Administration was super nervous about the idea of an open stage. During the murders the year before, things that were ‘open stage’ tended to get high strung and out of control as emotions soared and tempers flared for various reasons.
Students were adamant about the open stage, so… the plan was, two large tables with large black cloths on both sides of the platform outside that were way too big for the number of candles for people to pick up. I and a staff person were at one table, two others at the other table, if hate speech began, we were to pull up the cloth and cover the stage. The visual equivalent of “cutting the mic.” We were ready for the worst.
We didn’t need it.
First speaker up…”I’m from Belfast, I grew up with bombs happening in the streets around us and people marching through the streets every summer. You’ll be ok…”
“I’m a Muslim from West Bank, my girlfriend is Jewish from Jerusalem. We met at the deaf school because they didn’t have separate schools for us deaf like they do for the hearing. Our families can’t know we’re in love. We grew up with …”
“I’m from Somalia, my family fled with …”
“I’m from Liberia, I grew up in a camp in Ghana…”
Yeah, there were a couple of US students who stood up and talked about the strength and pride of America, including one distraught student from NYC who had just learned her family was OK that morning.
But it was the world comforting us, and the world welcoming us to the reality of their world of uncertainty.
As much as I remember 9.11, I’ll remember 9.14 even more. I miss the feeling of that evening after the fear took over again and our international students began to feel more and more uncomfortable and have more and more trouble being able to get the visas and entry into the US to study here.
I woke up this mornin’ with my mind, stayed on freedom…
Today I had the privilege of exercising my right to freedom of expression once more. It’s one of the perks of living in DC that there’s always opportunities like this whatever your political, social, or religious stripes may be.
Today’s march was a gathering of ministers from all faiths to remember, recommit, and call others to the dream that Martin Luther King, Jr. shared in this city 54 years ago. The 1000 Ministers March for Justice. (Although I’m pretty sure we got way more than 1000!) We’re still dreaming and we’re still marching for that dream and that we’re still seeing the same tired rhetoric of White supremacy in response is wearying.
But today I march.
I march like an Iliff grad.
My M.Div was from the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, CO. I had the honor of studying under a wide range of scholar/activists including Dr. Vincent Harding who taught Religion and Human Transformation. Dr. Harding quickly became a role model for me as we shared a contemplative spirituality that undergirded a strong commitment to social justice rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ. In his typically unassuming way, Dr. Harding would often say things like, “We were all trying to think of what we should do next and my wife and I would walk down to Martin and Coretta’s for tea to talk things over.” It’d be a beat or two before this young white man who grew up in Indiana to realize he was talking about Martin Luther King, Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, on a first name friend basis. Dr. Harding was a direct link to a history I grew up thinking of as something “in the past” or a time that was “over” in American history. Because of Dr. Harding, I learned it is far from over. I march today, as I’m sure many others do, because I sat at his feet, learning from his wisdom and pain, and learned to march with it.
Dr. Harding’s class was a late afternoon class for me and at the end of a very busy day that quarter. I’d arrive weary but ready to sit and watch the PBS documentary, Eyes on the Prize, then engage in discussion. At some point, my inner musician started absorbing the songs of the marches in the documentary and I’d arrive for class humming, “I woke up this mornin’ with my mind, stayed on freedom,” with a weary tone. It never failed to make Vincent get a wry knowing grin on his face. Because I’d wore about it in his class, Dr. Harding knew I had regular running battles to ensure I got ASL interpreters for my classes. The ADA was new, Iliff had never had a Deaf student before, and the person in charge of accommodations was a half time administrator who also was in charge of all diversity issues. It was the standard early 90s institutional intertia mess (another march we’re still marching.)
So as I got up today to come march, you know what song came into my head,
I woke up this morning with my mind, stayed on freedom…
I went to the BU School of Theology for my Ph.D. in Practical Theology somewhat as a fluke. I had applied for the program under the Religious Studies Division as they were a Ph.D. program at the time and the Practical Theology program was a Th.D. I wasn’t sure if the Th.D. would make me as marketable as a scholar looking for a teaching appointment as many people have never heard of Th.D. and mix it up with D.Min., which is a doctorate program aimed at practice of ministry rather than a degree focused on scholarship and teaching. However, when they got my application, I was told, “I think what you want to do at the nexus between the church, community, and theology fits the Practical Theology program better.” So I was accepted into that program instead. Along the way, the Th.D. program converted to a Ph.D. program as the concerns about marketability were on their minds too. There was no real difference in the curriculum at the switch as the same focus on academic research and lived experience was maintained.
On the way through that program, I’d walk past reminders of the best of what Practical Theology could be. A window for Anna Howard Shaw, one of the first women to graduate from the BU School of Theology, reminded me that being a pioneer was tough work. Whether it was her childhood on the frontier in Michigan preaching to trees or having to support herself with work through her theological education while her male peers were fully funded, she persisted and became a national leader for women’s rights.
BU was also a place where I found less inspiring reminders of other ongoing struggles. Because he was a wealthy benefactor of many things in Boston, including BU, Alexander Graham Bell has a memorial window in the BU chapel. His wealth came largely from the Volta prize for the invention of the telephone. But his fame/infamy was largely built on his public efforts to meddle with the education of Deaf people by banning the use of signed language and forcing students to speak and use whatever hearing or speech reading they may have had. This oralist approach has been a disaster that we’re still feeling as Deaf people’s educational opportunities are significantly less than hearing peers. Bell was also a founding member of the American Eugenics Society as he advocated to prevent deaf people from marrying and having children because of what he viewed as our “defective genes” despite his own research showing that a vast majority of Deaf people are not deaf because of genetics. The enshrinement of eugenics is, of course, something that found its most terrifying expression in the Nazi “final solution” leading to the systematic murder of millions of Jews, Roma, LGBTQ people, Jehovah Witnesses, people with disabilities, and political prisoners.
Seeing that window as I walked into the chapel for my matriculation service as a new student dredged up a lot of feelings and trepidation. It was the reason I decided I would not be attending chapel services in that building again and a chief reason in opting not to participate in hooding and graduation ceremonies for my Ph.D. I had already defended and gotten my degree months before as I defended after the previous year’s deadline for graduation so by the time it came time for the ceremony, the charm had worn off. Also, my family was celebrating my niece’s graduation from high school that day and it seemed a better use of my time!
I march like a Gallaudet professor.
I marched knowing I stood on the shoulders of giants of the past but also that, as a teacher at Gallaudet University, I’m also building a foundation for future marchers. One of my colleagues at Gallaudet University, Dr. Teresa Blankmeyer Burke, posted this on her Facebook page this morning as we all geared up for the first day of classes in a new academic year,
It never gets old, this first day of school! These days, my excitement comes from the incredible privilege of having a job where in some small way, I get to support people who have made a choice to transform their lives through higher education.
On this day, I always remember deaf people who, by accident of time and place, never had the opportunity to acquire language, and deaf people who did fully acquire language, but who had the bad luck to be born in a place with very limited opportunities — did you know there are countries where sign language interpreters are not professionally trained and where the indigenous sign language isn’t even documented? Countries where there are few (if any) public resources for deaf education, hearing aids, cochlear implants, or assistive technology? Where there is no CART captioning or people trained to provide this service? Imagine trying to get an education in such a place! And now, think of the opportunities that a place like Gallaudet University offers as a bilingual educational institution of higher education.
Each term, I have a few international students who have travelled far to come to Gallaudet University. These students have learned our languages of instruction, ASL and English as third and fourth languages (sometimes fifth and sixth languages!). Our international Gallaudet University alumni have historically done great things when they have returned to serve their home deaf communities. On this first day of school, I worry that the chill of the current climate deters smart, committed, hard-working international deaf students from coming to Gallaudet University — the only liberal arts university in the WORLD with a bilingual mission serving deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing students. I worry that current trends in visa issuance here in the U.S. may have profound and lasting effects on deaf people’s lives throughout the world in years to come.
As always, on this first day of school I am humbled and thrilled to be a part of my students’ intellectual journeys — it is truly an honor and a privilege. Special thanks to Jane Hurst and Jane K. Fernandes for taking a chance on hiring me so many years ago.
Reading that while heading out to the march let me connect what I’m doing in the morning, marching for justice, with what I’m doing in the afternoon, teaching ethics in a way I haven’t felt so connected since sitting in Dr. Harding’s classroom. Having just helped organize the 4th Global Methodist Missions Conference of the Deaf earlier this month, I saw first hand the amazing spirit that explodes when we gather Deaf people from around the world. I also experienced the frustration of not being able to get everyone together as our visitors from Zimbabwe found their entry visas denied twice despite all the letters of invitation, support, financial assistance to apply for visas and travel, etc. we had put together. So as I get ready to greet a new semester and a new sea of faces in my classes this year, I’m reminded of where I come from on my personal and intellectual journey and I’m humbled to be a part of the journeys I see unfolding before me. It’s a great thrill to know I’ve got two former students now in seminary programs and a third preparing to enter a program soon. It’s also a thrill to see many other former students doing fantastic things like The Daily Moth, Cordoba Magazine, and scattering around the nation and globe with knowledge about interfaith and non-religious understanding and engagement they worked their way to in a classroom with me.
I’ve just returned from another trip to Africa. I was with 10 other people from around the US working with deaf communities and schools in Zimbabwe and Kenya. This was my fifth time to Kenya, fifth time to Zimbabwe, and second trip where we visited both nations in one trip. Like previous encounters, the experiences I had were exhausting, exhilarating, frustrating, and inspiring all at once.
We were there over the Fourth of July again this time. Some of the team missed the usual displays of patriotism that come with being an American on the Fourth of July and joined in with those from another mission team on the small farm training center where we were staying to sing some songs and mark the holiday. While I don’t begrudge their enjoyment, I didn’t really feel an urge to join in. This lack of urge isn’t a sense of shame about being an American, but more a discomfort with the usual commercialized jingoistic type of patriotism that usually accompanies the Fourth of July.
My discomfort takes some explaining.
As a young boy, I loved going to the fireworks. Fort Wayne, Indiana had a fantastic show every year and people drove from all around to park in the Memorial Coliseum parking lot to watch them. My family would make a day of it and pack a lunch and dinner in the cooler then head out to find a good parking spot. Usually, we’d clear out the van dad used for work and have the room for my sister and I to invite a couple of friends to join us for the day. After finding a parking spot, we’d haul the cooler out into Johnny Appleseed Park and find a shady spot to eat. From there, it was an extravaganza of exploring the area, activities, and running into people we knew from school or church all day. By sunset, we’d be in our lawn chairs by the van and enjoy bright flashes and thudding booms of the fireworks as we said, “Ooh…Ahh!” along with everyone else. Then we’d head home for some blissful sleep after tending to the inevitable sunburn and mosquito bites.
So, for me, it was less a ritual of patriotism and more a really fun day with family and friends that ended with some visual and sonic delights. It was less about exalting America’s virtues and more about enjoying some Midwestern Americana. I was, and am, fully aware of the sacrifices made and the struggles endured to establish and maintain the freedom to enjoy that Midwestern Americana, and grateful for them. But the experience of those freedoms was the focus, not their defense with jingoistic patriotic rhetoric.
When I was 13, the US decided to invade a tiny island named Grenada in the Caribbean. I was just becoming more fully aware of the dynamics of international conflicts and US intervention at the time. This invasion was justified by President Reagan as a defense of American values of democracy against Communist Cuba’s building of an airstrip and a cache of weapons being stockpiled on the island. While the decision to invade Grenada was not related to a previous bombing incident in Beirut that destroyed a US Marine barracks killing most everyone inside, the patriotic flag waving fervor that accompanied the announcement of our invasion of Grenada was intended to erase the sense of military and national ‘weakness’ that was part of the national rhetoric after the Beirut bombing.
Being a geography kid, I looked up the location of the island on my maps and globe. All I could think was that we were sending a huge military force to squash a tiny island. It hardly seemed fair.
Then in 1986, Reagan ordered a bombing of Libya in retaliation for their suspected support of terrorists who bombed a disco club in Berlin earlier that year. While the international diplomatic community largely spoke against Reagan’s swift decision to resort to dropping bombs, the general American response where I lived was, “Go USA! Bomb those [racist invective]! USA! USA!” Often yelled with the same patriotic fervor used to cheer on the 1984 US Olympians in Los Angeles.
I realized with a sense of dread that we were cheering the dropping of explosives and killing of people the same way we’d cheer on a sporting event. I just couldn’t stomach it. It was then I fully understood that the “bombs bursting in air” in our National Anthem were not fireworks, but actual instruments of war and death. And I realized that our National Anthem ends with a question mark not a period. It’s less a patriotic display of triumphant nationalism and a fervent prayer of desperate hope.
It was in college that I discovered the Paul Simon song American Tune which seemed to somehow convey my conflicted feelings about enjoying and appreciating what America means and provides while grapping with the incongruities of celebrating a country that continued to thrive on racism, sexism, nationalistic violence, and all the other things that were pressing on my mind in the early 90s as we watched in horror as South Central LA burned after the verdict acquitting police officers who had savagely beaten Rodney King. As a sociology major, I had learned and discussed enough in classes to understand the reasons South Central was such a powder keg to begin with and how increased police repression in the midst of desperation would ignite such a situation.
These issues have not resolved themselves in our nation and so this conflicted appreciation and revulsion of cheering on America continues for me and weighs heavily on my mind each Fourth of July.
So Simon’s lyrics ring true to me when I’m overseas on the Fourth of July.
Many’s the time I’ve been mistaken
And many times confused
Yes, and I’ve often felt forsaken
And certainly misused
But I’m all right, I’m all right
I’m just weary to my bones
Still, you don’t expect to be
Bright and bon vivant
So far away from home, so far away from home.
Being in Zimbabwe and Kenya as a white deaf man was somewhat more difficult for me than I expected the first time I went over and although I’m more aware and ready for it now, it remains a struggle. Despite the ways that I encounter marginalization, misunderstanding, and discrimination in the US, the strength of white and male privilege in our society often mitigates the worst of the effects on my sense of self and well being. Coupled with my general ability to hear reasonably well in some situations if I’m using my hearing aids and my ability to speak clearly, there’s a lot of privilege conferred upon me in relation to my hearing loss most of the time as well when compared to the experiences of most deaf people. Add to that my high level of education and command of English that fuel my ability to be articulate in explaining and defending my alterity as a deaf person to others and my life in America, while not entirely without struggle, goes pretty smoothly most of the time.
In Zimbabwe and Kenya, much of that security is stripped away by being in a society that is much less aware of the abilities of deaf people to achieve high levels of education and leadership skills. While speaking English is still a prized privilege in these countries, the prevalence and preference for mother tongues means there’s more Shona, Kimeru, and Swahili being spoken and when English is spoken, it’s often done with unfamiliar accents that make it harder for me to decipher. My relatively high and rather uncommonly good ability to lipread English is mostly useless. While losing the privileges that lead to a somewhat charmed life as a deaf person in the US is not necessarily a bad thing, it’s a bewildering and frustrating experience. It certainly has made me aware of the dynamics of privilege, power, and oppression in new ways.
So, coupled with my reflections on being American, I often look at my country in somewhat different ways than many of the white hearing folks I grew up with and people much like them. Paul Simon comes to the fore again with,
And I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered
I don’t have a friend who feels at ease
I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered
or driven to its knees
But it’s all right, it’s all right
For we’ve lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road we’re traveling on
I wonder what’s gone wrong
I can’t help it, I wonder what’s gone wrong.
But it’s the last stanza that drives it home for me;
We come on the ship they call the Mayflower
We come on the ship that sailed the moon
We come in the age’s most uncertain hour
and sing an American tune
But it’s all right, it’s all right
You can’t be forever blessed
Still, tomorrow’s going to be another working day
And I’m trying to get some rest
That’s all, I’m trying to get some rest.
I’d heard about the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile while checking the news in Nairobi after being ‘off the grid’ in areas where wifi wasn’t readily available to me and I’d been too busy working with the deaf adults and children who were under all sorts of pressures of their own that make their lives less difficult if not desperate.
And I just wanted to get some rest in the morning as we trundled into the Nairobi Airport to begin our journey home. I was tired and looking forward to coming home on a plane they called KQ100 and connecting to UA123. But dominating every television was the news of the shooting of police officers in Dallas that was live and breaking at the time. Lorne Ahrens, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, and Brent Thompson died that day and several others injured. Also in the days just before I left for this trip, I’d attended three separate vigils for the forty-nine people killed at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.
Pressure pushing down on me
Pressing down on you
No man ask for
That brings a building down
Splits a family in two
Puts people on streets.
The classic Queen anthem Under Pressure often comes to mind when I’m dealing with the pressures of systemic violence, oppression, and marginalization that make racism, sexism, homophobia, and audism so destructive to human lives. Sometimes it’s my own experience with the pressures of being marginalized. More often it’s dealing with the struggle to work against the conferral of privilege on my own life that comes at the cost of harming others. And always, it’s the heartbreak of seeing good people and good friends suffering the effects of such systemic violence to the point that we’re taking to the streets to protest and make the pain visible in a cry to call our country to change.
It’s the terror of knowing
What the world is about
Watching some good friends
‘Let me out’
Pray tomorrow gets me higher
Pressure on people
people on streets.
It seems all too much to deal with given how tired I feel, but what can I do but join in?
Chipping around – kick my brains around the floor
These are the days it never rains but it pours.
Turned away from it all like a blind man
Sat on a fence but it don’t work
Keep coming up with love
But it’s so slashed and torn
Why – why – why?
And as I reconnect with my friends, I find laughter and hope in the midst of anguish and despair. And once again, Freddie Mercury’s closing lyrics to Under Pressure ring out a truth that we often forget.
Can’t we give ourselves one more chance
Why can’t we give love that one more chance
Why can’t we give love give love give love give love
Give love give love give love give love give love
Because love’s such an old fashioned word
And love dares you to care for
The people on the edge of the night
And love dares you to change our way of
Caring about ourselves
This is our last dance
This is our last dance
This is ourselves
We can forget to love. To love our God who made us all with all our heart, all our being, and all our mind. And to love our neighbor as ourselves. (Matthew 26:36-40). For these are the greatest commandments. As Freddie Mercury reminds us, love transforms us. It is a challenge to our self-centeredness that causes is to overlook the suffering of others. It dares us to care for people on the edges of our society whether we are comfortable with them or not. It changes the way we are about ourselves and our world. This is our last dance. Each eruption of this systemic violence is a new ‘last chance’ to get it right. This urgency to love inverts the pressure from pushing down on me and pressing down on you. Instead we join together in love and push back at the systems.
This often means being under pressure from systemic violence while being pushed by pressure to change such systems – an uncomfortable place to be! But again, the pressure pushing against such systems is love. It’s allowing that love to transform myself and my experience that makes this pressure bearable. Rather than being something that destroys my soul, it becomes something that uplifts it as I connect with others. It doesn’t end the systemic violence, that’s work yet to be done, but it mitigates the soul crushing effects systemic violence creates that leads to desperation and desperate acts.
And for that, I thank the God who gave me life and all my friends and family who have nurtured that life and taught me to love as I write these heavy thoughts in the wee hours of the night in the USA as my body still thinks it’s in Africa where the mid-morning sun is shining on those I have recently reconnected with in love.