BTSF in chronological order (most recent articles appear first):

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Friday Fruit (10/30/15)

Get free picks of women of color in tech here
On Fridays, BTSF offers links to other discussions about race & Christianity. It's an opportunity for you to read other perspectives, and for me to give props to the many voices leading the way...

Weekly Round Up:

These are some of BTSF's links of interest this week. What are yours?

Feel free to contribute your own links in the comments section, or submit items you feel should be included during the week. Self-promotion is encouraged.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Halloween Costumes

'Tis the season for a reminder...

There are plenty of articles about racially inappropriate costumes, yet every year folks perpetuate appropriationcaricature, and humiliation as Halloween sport. It is annual affliction, so I guess it's worth making the point yet again...

Using a culture, race, or ethnicity as a costume is not appropriate. Ever. 

On Halloween, we get the opportunity to disguise ourselves as something 'other,'something different from normal, something bizarre. That people of color might be one of these costume options is tragic and offensive.

As Lisa Wade notes, Halloween outfits basically come in three flavors: scary, funny, or fantasy. Real cultures shouldn't fit into any of these categories. By using people's identities as costumes, we imply that they are 'not one of us,' or not even fully human, belonging instead to the realm of ghouls and goblins.

In the U.S., we spend the entire year marginalizing people of color, maintaining low visibility on TV, in movies, and in the media, but then suddenly become hyper-interested in 'appreciating culture' for one offensive night (as though dressing as a Hollywood version of what you think a culture is has anything to do with appreciating it).

When we claim that it's all 'good harmless fun,' we reveal our privilege never to have to face the consequences of such stereotypes in our own lives. We reveal the power we hold to dictate who defines 'harmless' and 'fun.' We reveal how loudly our own voices are heard, even as we silence others. We reveal our capacity to imagine fantasy worlds for real cultures, while ignoring the historical baggage that makes us feel uncomfortable.

 Students Teaching About Racism in Society (STARS) at Ohio University began a poster campaign to educate folks about the hurtful nature of racist costumes with the slogan "we're a culture, not a costume." All of the costumes they depict are real, and are perennially reprised. They get big props for concisely and clearly communicating what many of us have been frustrated with for years.

So, before dressing up this year, refer to Austin C. Brown’s guide to finding culture-appropriate costumes. And if you are looking for some clever alternatives, check out Take Back Halloween, and try some new themes this year.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Friday Fruit (10/23/15)

On Fridays, BTSF offers links to other discussions about race & Christianity. It's an opportunity for you to read other perspectives, and for me to give props to the many voices leading the way...

Weekly Round Up:

These are some of BTSF's links of interest this week. What are yours?

Feel free to contribute your own links in the comments section, or submit items you feel should be included during the week. Self-promotion is encouraged.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Injustice in the Ancient Era

Lady justice peaking from behind her blindfold
She's not blind,
but she is white
The following is adapted from an essay by Ashley Garcia, written as a sophomore at The Ohio State University. She reflects on the trials of the Apostle Paul and how it relates to our modern criminal justice system:

The law exists to keep people safe, to protect them from chaos and the degradation of society. When something arises to threaten this system, the offenders are tried in a court of law to decide their fate. However the courts are not always just. 

The book of Acts describes the unfortunate circumstances of the Apostle Paul, and his unjust imprisonment and treatment at the hands the people of Jerusalem. Ironically, the people who should have welcomed Paul’s message with open arms imprisoned him instead. Paul’s case is just one example exemplifying how corrupt and hypocritical the judicial system can become under immoral leadership. Although Paul was a Roman citizen and had full rights to a standard Roman trial, his case was full of illegalities that exuded injustice abundantly, including the lack of a formal presentation of the indictment, and the blatant absence of a randomly selected jury, who would have voted on Paul’s verdict. 

The Romans had set explicit laws in place to avoid injustices such as these, and yet injustice is not so easily removed. “The great question was not in regard to the law, but rather to the administering of the law which depended wholly on the character of the judges” (Roman Trials in Christ’s Day). In essence, one cannot have an uncorrupt system of justice if the leaders of the system are themselves corruptible. This horrid debacle of justice is unfortunately still rampant today. 

MLK in jail
Despite occurring several thousand years ago, Paul’s case is still relatable to more recent events. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, Martin Luther King addresses the main issue within any justice system, that those who are supposed to uphold the laws that form the basis for society, are the very ones who create the chaos of injustice. “But the political leaders consistently refused to engage in good-faith negotiation...certain promises were made…we realized that we were the victims of a broken promise…” 

These broken promises were political moves made by the leaders of the community, moves made not out of reverence for the law, but rather out of fear of losing their false sense of authority.  In a desperate attempt to cling to their tenuous hold on power, political figures are willing to do whatever it takes to keep the people complacent, all to assure their own livelihood.

Just as the political leaders during the Civil Rights Movement sought to appease the white majority in an effort to retain their positions, so too did Roman rulers seek to appease those who wished for Paul’s death by keeping him prisoner. These unethical leaders become so concerned with their fleeting, illusory command, that they forget why they were entrusted with these positions in the first place.  

Of course the fault cannot lie on the leaders alone, for it is ultimately the people who influence their leader’s decisions. Ideally, this picture of democracy is the basis of a reasonable justice system, but in reality it cannot be, for while the individual may be more prone to moral like mindedness, “groups are more immoral than individuals” (King). While this philosophy might come across as pessimistic, it has proven itself true countless times throughout history, including in Paul’s trial. “The next morning some Jews formed a conspiracy and bound themselves with an oath not to eat or drink until they had killed Paul. More than forty men were involved in this plot.” (Acts 23:12-13). Individually, these forty men may not have conspired to murder an innocent man, but together the societal pressures encouraged nothing but unethical pursuits.

It is these types of immoral tendencies that create a populace “more devoted to order than to justice” (King). When justice is willingly sacrificed in exchange for a corrupt order, devoid of all integrity, claims of justice become nothing more than hollow promises.  Yet, even more horrifying than this abuse of power is the fact that these actions are commended by the people. Instead of calling for the upholding of the law, the people are satisfied in their corruption, mistakenly believing it to be true justice.  

When judicial standards fall so low that the acclamation of the oppressors and the degradation of the oppressed are deemed satisfactory, the system has failed in its duty to protect its citizens. Only when the abused are commended “…for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer, and their amazing disciple in the midst of the most inhuman provocation” can the presence of justice be truly known (King).

From the very moment Paul relinquished his wealth and status in becoming a follower of Christ, he was cast from social graces and viewed as inferior to those who once revered him. These people’s veneration rapidly degenerated into a condescending superiority as they became blinded by socioeconomic biases. This reversal of standards is a parallel to modern era white collar crimes which are not held in the same regard as “street crimes.” People of higher socioeconomic status tend to believe the laws do not apply to them because of their class, while those of lower status find themselves the objects of abuse and discrimination, much like Paul. How twisted a world, where felons are praised and innocent men are beaten and destroyed. How can there be any semblance of justice in a world such as this?

Apostle Paul being guarded in jail
This circumstance of corruption within the judicial system is not solely held within a specific region or time frame. As seen with the case of Paul, innocent men can be locked away without any probable cause thanks to fraudulent and shallow officials. The people who seek this kind of justice, like the crowd who planned to have Paul murdered, end up not seeking justice at all, but a crude imitation. 

Unfortunately, the law cannot always be counted upon to protect these victims, as the corruption of the judicial system depends not only on the laws to keep it functioning, but also on the morals of those entrusted to lead it. The law is only as virtuous as its enforcers. At what point does justice become personal vindication? The people are supposed to uphold the law, and in turn the law, theoretically, keeps society functioning smoothly. The law serves to protect the people, but who protects the people from the law?  

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Creation Myths: Christopher Columbus

Wanted Poster for Christopher Columbus

What we now accept as the true history of the United State in reality is comprised of decades of creation myths. After the American revolution, having separated ourselves from the rich history of Europe (and having sneered at this continent's indigenous histories to the point of annihilation), the newly formed United States found itself without a heritage with which to construct its new civilization. We were left without a history, without heroes or cultural icons. And the void needed to be filled.

As a result, we now have a cultural reliance on several sacred stories of our foundation. We revere the country's holy texts, and ritualistically repeat the essential creeds to our children. The stories of Jamestown, the pilgrims, and Plymouth Rock can be piously recalled. Yet none of the modern tales match the actual reality of our past. James Baldwin notes, "what passes for identity in America is a series of myths about one’s heroic ancestors."

Drawing of conquistador: "Let's celebrate Columbus day by walking into someone's house and telling them we live there nowAnd we have made heroes out of our cruelest ancestors, not the least of which was Christopher Columbus. After first encountering the Arawaks, Columbus realized "with 50 men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want." Thus was born America's true founding legacy.

To take advantage of Columbus's 'discovery', Spain declared that "with the help of God, we shall powerfully enter into your country, and shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can, and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of their highnesses; we shall take you, and your wives, and your children, and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them as their highnesses may command; and we shall take away your goods, and shall do you all the mischief and damage that we can, as to vassals who do not obey, and refuse to receive their lord, and resist and contradict him; and we protest that the deaths and losses which shall accrue from this are your fault, and not that of their highnesses, or ours, nor of these cavaliers who come with us."

Pating of conquistadors watching as dogs attack indigenous people
The crimes that followed Columbus's landing set the stage for centuries of abuse and atrocity, the legacy of which continues today. Much of these works were carried out in the name of Christ. Consider that the first English ship to carry enslaved West Africans to the New World was named JesusFor hundreds of people this was the first encounter with God's Son, He that had come to 'set the captives free,'

Book cover: Rethinking ColumbusMany of us already know that the stories we heard in grade school are myths. But white America perpetuates and clings to them anyway. Why? Perhaps we are to afraid look straight into the face of our generational sin. White Americans continue to benefit from our ancestors' actions, and it's time we owned up to the implications.

That Columbus is lauded as a hero is shameful and embarrassing. We need to rethink what stories we tell. Begin by watching this video, and consider who and what we celebrate on Columbus Day:

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Friday Fruit (10/09/15)

Protestors, including clergy and one person with t-shirt that says "This aint yo mama's civil rights movement"
(Rick Wilking/Reuters)
On Fridays, BTSF offers links to other discussions about race & Christianity. It's an opportunity for you to read other perspectives, and for me to give props to the many voices leading the way...

Weekly Round Up:

These are some of BTSF's links of interest this week. What are yours?

Feel free to contribute your own links in the comments section, or submit items you feel should be included during the week. Self-promotion is encouraged.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Life After Prison: How the Church Can Help

Graffiti art: "All In"This is the third in a three-part series on mass incarceration and Christianity’s role in bringing transformation to those affected by it. Previously, we examined the criminal justice and prison policies in the United States that lead to high rates of incarceration, particularly among black and brown men. In addition, we’ve looked at some of the work being done within prison walls to transform lives and communities with the Light of Christ. Here, we will explore life after prison and some creative ways for churches to take the next steps in getting involved with their own communities.

After serving a prison sentence and being released back into the world, one is faced with a wide array of seemingly insurmountable challenges to overcome. Discrimination against the recently released is rampant, and is on top of the racial and economic discrimination one may have faced even before entering prison. Those released from prison often have a hard time finding a job that will pay them a living wage, and they no longer qualify for student loans to help improve their employability. They are often denied safe, affordable housing, and are not allowed live in public housing (even if living with family member that do qualify). They often lose access to food stamps and other government support benefits, just at the very moment they need it most. Friends and family may have turned away, and it can feel like there is nowhere left to go. Could this be where God’s Church is needed most?

Horizon logo with rising sunOver 75% of prisoners released are re-arrested within five years. The first month after release is critical, but recently released citizens often face the same challenges that led them to prison in the first place. As discussed previously, ministries like the Horizon Prison Initiative work closely with men on the inside before they are released, but they also acknowledge that “after paying their debt to society, formerly incarcerated individuals go home. Home to the same circumstances that fostered the environment that led them to prison.”

Horizon’s Chief Operating Officer Jeff Hunsaker suggests that “not everybody’s called to do this work, but on the other hand churches are called to be part of healing community. Churches get real comfortable and don’t see that bigger world we live in.” He laments an attitude that says “I don’t care what happens to them, just keep them away from me,” one that only sees the incarcerated as those deserving of punishment. But Hunsaker notes that “90% come back to your community. What kind of person do you want them to be when they return?”

A Role for the Local Church
The Church can play a critical role in receiving recently released citizens back into their communities. Indeed, we are called to “let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured" (Hebrews 13:1-3).
West Ohio conference/ United Methodist logo of cross and flame 
This is the verse that inspired the West Ohio Conference (WOC) of the United Methodist Church to think intentionally about how its communities in the region could do a better job of receiving returning citizens into their churches. “Transformation is not going to happen if we entrust it to a purely punitive system,” says Deaconess Sue Wolf, “It’s about God’s love and God’s Kingdom. If we can prove it’s true there, then it’s true for all of us, anywhere.”

“A lot of local churches and seminaries are involved in their own individual prison ministries,” acknowledges Harris Tay, Director of Diversity Initiatives at the WOC. But he wondered what a unified effort across the region would look like. Noting the Church’s commitment to hospitality, he says “reentry work should be part of the fabric of what we do.”

So the WOC set out to create the ‘All In Community’ Re-entry Program to address multiple facets of prison ministry within the context of church communities. This program was formed to be intentionally asset-based, acknowledging that the prisoners themselves are assets to the ministry. Thus, the content and curriculums began to form with guidance and partnership of those currently incarcerated, relying on their suggestions rather than on the varying perceptions of those on the outside.

Ultimately, the WOC plans to connect twenty-five churches with re-entering citizens to form relationships and support well before those individuals are released. The hope is to have churches ready to receive wherever prisoners are going. They will create a safety net, a soft landing, for those being released.

Cross through prison bars
The program is designed to be about mutual relationships, understanding that everyone can learn and grow no matter what role they play. While inside prison, participants are required to complete cultural competency training. Thus, participating churches are also required to undergo the same. Kenya Cummings, an intern for Diversity Initiatives at the WOC, says that the churches will need to “lean into some knowledge that the released men will be imparting.”

Indeed, the goal of the partnership is to “transform prisoners, transform prisons, and transform communities.” Thus, volunteers and congregations have much to learn from the prisoners themselves, who have dedicated years to prayer and spiritual discipleship with the time they had on the inside. It’s not about a one-way relationship, but rather a partnership that brings about mutual edification and spiritual growth. Cummings attests that “the men know the Power of God and how it can be at work. They know about transformation. They know if they can be transformed, so can the Church.”

The ‘All In Community’ Re-entry Program will also serve as a hub for community organizing, healing the neighborhoods that are most affected by mass incarceration.  They will employ five Urban Encouragers to act as first-contacts for released citizens and will also serve guides for congregations that are learning how to be good partners.  They will organize within the local community to help restore neighborhoods and to identify assets within the community that can support those being released.

Hands holding a bible through prison barsCummings suggests that churches interested in engaging in re-entry work become “incredibly aware of where their church congregation is located and what they have to offer.” Every church and every community setting is different, with unique needs and assets. “Reentry can never be a carbon copy ministry,” she attests, “you have to look at your church’s assets and passions, and let the ministry emerge from what is currently present.” If volunteers are artists, start an art prison ministry, if they are engaged in legislative issues, she suggests focusing around that. Customizing a church’s prison ministry is key to both its effectiveness and its persistence.

Cummings also suggests churches investigate what programs and resources are already in their local neighborhoods and to them come alongside the ongoing work of the community. “We want to build, not duplicate,” she says.

Overcoming Apprehension with Art
Asked if local congregations have been receptive to the program, Tay observes that “most churches don’t know where they really sit on it,” but that the WOC is willing to invest in the training and development to help with the adjustment. “We’re actually going to walk with you and do the trust building and relationship building to help make it happen.” He notes that many churches affirm a commitment to love and hospitality, but “any church can say it. We have the opportunity to expand and enhance that pledge.”

Barcodes as prison bars (cartoon)
Along these lines, the WOC has created a collaborative for churches engaged in prison ministry to share resources, training, and encouragement with one another. Cummings understands that work like this is rewarding, but challenging: “Folks can get tired in doing the work. They enjoy it, but it becomes tiresome.” Churches starting on the journey may also have concerns. Cummings says they may feel “anxious about what it really looks like…but after talking through fears there’s greater calm.”

To address these needs, Cummings is heading up opportunities for participating churches and volunteers to become rejuvenated. “Art is incredibly healing,” she notes, and she plans to use art to engage with those participating in the ministry collaborative. With a mix of poetry, spoken word, visual art, and storytelling, Cummings hopes to create an environment “for collaborating, not just another burden.” She observes that “as we tell stories and share resources, we experience renewal.”

Tay affirms that “A static meeting may not be the best way to connect with the soul….Performance has always been the voice of movements,” and that churches should be considering how to merge creativity with action. “How do we build trust through the arts?” he asks. He goes on to praise Cummings’s collaborative as “a huge opportunity for those who want to do church differently.”

Cummings anticipates a wide variety of ministries will be able to come together to share the stories and ideas. There will be teams throughout the west Ohio region. “Each team might look really different and I’m excited about that,” says Cummings.
Church for All People logo: cartoon large person (God) embracing smaller persons 
Taking up the Challenge
Hunsaker has a challenge for churches: “What are you here to be and to do?” He says he’s brought Horizon graduates to some churches where they’ve felt uncomfortable and unwelcome. He worries that the decline in attendance that some churches have experienced is because they have “lost touch with why they exist and what their purpose is.” It may be that they profess a value of love and reconciliation, “but how many are actively involved in it?”

Jimmy Cheadle, a Horizon graduate and now an Urban Encourager and Reentry Coordinator with UM Church for All People in Columbus, OH, say the best thing churches can do for the recently released is just welcome them in and create a loving, healthy environment for them.“ But,” he says, “sometimes churches aren’t so good at that.” He has had experiences where he didn’t feel welcome, “You pick up on that, when they keep you at arm’s length. They were nice to us, but they were glad we weren’t coming back next week.”

But Cummings observes that those being released show remarkable bravery and surprising willingness to engage beyond any mutual fear. True, there may be feelings of anxiety, but it is often outweighed by the understanding of what reentry without strong community looks like. They may fear rejection, but Cummings notes that rejection is a reality for them anyway. Part of what the Horizon program offers to the men is the tools and spiritual strength to deal with that rejection on the outside.

Jimmy Cheadle
There are a lot of reasons that a warm, loving welcome doesn’t always happen. Cheadle senses some churches respond out of fear rather than faith. They react by saying things like “What do you mean you’re bringing a criminal here? We have enough of that already.” He says building loving relationships is sometimes three steps forward, two steps back, “and the two steps back takes the wind out of everyone’s sails.” But he urges, “it’s really not so much about what you want to do. It’s about what you’re supposed to do.”

Hunsaker encourages churches to become involved on a relational level, to volunteer and to interact one-on-one with those on the inside. He knows that what your heart will encounter is beyond description and that once you’ve experience it, you’ll be hooked.

First Steps
Jesus himself was put on trial, found guilty, imprisoned, placed on death row, and ultimately subject to capital punishment by the state. If we are to identify with Christ, we are to identify with those who find themselves in similar situations today.

Local churches can play a vital role in God’s plan for transformation. Encourage your congregation to engage in authentic intentional prayer for the incarcerated and for local prisons. Pray for those about to be released and those who have recently reentered their communities. Pray for the renewal of both the imprisoned as well as of the systems and structures that brought them there.

word art with baby footprints: "first steps"Include these prayers in the regular liturgy of your church, perhaps along with other ‘prayers of the people,’ if that is a tradition in your setting. Do not let the incarcerated people of our society be forgotten or left out of our daily prayers, but rather be diligent in lifting them up to God. In doing so, watch as our prisons and neighborhoods are blessed with God’s redemptive.

As prayers continue to be lifted, consider beginning a small group or bible study around the issues of mass incarceration. In partnership with willing correctional institutions, begin to send birthday and Christmas cards to specific inmates. Have all the members of your church sign these cards as part of their Sunday morning routines. Begin to ponder what it would look like for your church to become a sanctuary for recently released citizens.

It is important to engage your congregation early and often around these issues to help increase awareness and compassion. Similarly, it is important that the entire worshiping community remain mindful and prayerful together, not simply leaving it as a specialized interest of a few. Lift up the prisons and those ministering with them as a community, knowing that you are responding to God’s call to remember the incarcerated.

feet in front of the word 'start'
Be prepared for some challenges. The bureaucracy associated with prison ministry can be daunting. So too can be the cultural differences we may experience in prison ministry work. We learn many things about ourselves and our own culture’s assumptions and values when we encounter those different from ourselves. And it is in so doing that we see the face of God.

Isaiah 61:1 says "the Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me, Because the Lord has anointed Me to preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives, And the opening of the prison to those who are bound." What does it mean to take these words seriously? What witness would we bear by living out God’s challenge to walk beside the imprisoned? Imagine how such a commitment might radically transform not only the individuals we help, but also profoundly alter our own lives, our local churches, and indeed entire communities for the glory of Christ. 
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By Their Strange Fruit by Katelin H is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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