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I woke up this morning

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 march like a Boston University School of Theology grad.

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 the alma mater of Martin Luther King, Jr. as well. He got a Ph.D. in his time as he embodied the melding of academics  with social justice in our ongoing march for the rights of African-Americans in the Civil Rights movement and all people who found themselves stuck at the bottom of the economic ladder with no way to climb in the Poor People’s Campaign.

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.

This year is off to a great start.

Because today, I marched.

 

 

 

some jet lagged thoughts on returning home

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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.

Sigh…welcome home.

Pressure pushing down on me

Pressing down on you

No man ask for

Under pressure

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

Screaming

‘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

Under pressure

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.