Epicenter Ferguson (A Poet-Preacher Collaboration)

A Letter to My Unborn Black Son

Christopher D. Sims

pregnant bellyDear son, African American warrior, 
Reincarnation of the people of the

Sudan. I hope you understand why
I am writing you this letter. And 
hopefully, by the time you read it
Race relations in America are a lot
better than what they are now. You 
will understand why I will beg you
not to wear a hoodie when you leave
our home. You will understand why
I ask you to be careful outside these
doors.

 

Maybe your best friends will be named
Trayvon and Michael. And they will be the
namesakes of the young men who died
because of indifference, and because of
hate. Dear son, I know you will relate.
Because I will have read the Autobiography
of Malcolm X to you while you were in
your mother’s womb. You will come into
this life knowing that black youth and men
are doomed in America.

 

Son, I hate to scare ya, but your ancestors
were taken from the shores of Africa. They
snatched ya great great great great grandparents
and brought them here. Took away our language
and culture, and in black women and men 
instilled fear. Son I want you to know the truth
of this place here.

 

Dear son, your skin will be the reason why
they call you nigger, why cops will pull up
to your car with their fingers shaking on the
trigger. Ask Trayvon and Michael. They will
tell you what happened to the people they were
named after. They will tell you tales of hell,
each with a sad, sad chapter. 

 

Black boys and men are being killed and 

We are being treated like we don’t matter. 

Like we don’t even matter.

 

Son, I am preparing you for a world that
focuses on race, that moves at an unhealthy pace,
Where your mother and other black women
like her are disgraced. There are people who
will want you to increase the prison population.
They will start early in your education. Son, this
is all truth, and it’s all real. You will learn when
I read to you what happened to Emmett Till. 

 

I’ll stop here now son, don’t want you to be scared. 

I write this letter to you because I want you to
come into this world informed and prepared.

Not So Rank Speculation

Rev. Joshua M. Pawelek

GriefLast weekend I heard multiple rumors that the St. Louis County Grand Jury considering whether or not to indict White Ferguson, MO police Officer, Darren Wilson for the fatal August 9th shooting of an unarmed Black teenager, Michael Brown, was about to deliver its decision and that it would likely not indict Officer Wilson. Maybe you heard those rumors too. I tend to think the Grand Jury will indict Officer Wilson, but I understand why so many people believe rumors to the contrary. On Monday the Prosecuting Attorney, Robert McCulloch, called the rumors “rank speculation.” I think there are more sensitive words than “rank” to use in a situation like this. I’ve always used “rank” to describe the smell of my socks after a long run. I hope that isn’t what McCulloch meant.

When a community that has witnessed the broad-daylight killing of one of its own sons at the hands of a police officer begins to speculate that the Grand Jury’s decision is coming at any moment and that the decision will go in the officer’s favor, such speculation doesn’t strike me as “rank.” After months of living with the bitter, painful memories of that day and yearning desperately for some kind of closure—hopefully a closure that feels like justice—it isn’t rank speculation. It’s grief. It’s part of the grieving process.

When a community that is still reeling from many complicated nights of mayhem in the wake of that shooting—including the deployment by police of an astounding array of military equipment (which has understandably shocked the nation), further police violence, apparent civil rights violations, and violent reactions from some community members, including looting and rioting, though some understand it as resistance and uprising—when that community begins to speculate that the Grand Jury’s decision is coming at any moment and that the decision will go in the officer’s favor, it doesn’t strike me as “rank.” It’s a community-wide expression of anxiety and fear. Are we about to plunge into that same chaos again? Is there any way to prevent that?

Yes, there is. When a coalition of more than fifty organizations—the Don’t Shoot Coalition—holds a press conference to ask police and government officials to agree to rules of engagement for the days and weeks following the Grand Jury’s announcement, such as 48 hours advanced notice of the decision so that they can adequately prepare people for productive, nonviolent protests; such as a demilitarized police presence—no armored vehicles, rubber bullets, rifles, tear gas or riot gear—so that people won’t be provoked into reactive violence; such as respect for safe houses and churches in the midst of protests; such as respect for reporters and legal observers who aren’t part of the protests but who need to be there in order to do their jobs—I don’t think there’s anything “rank” about it. I think the request for rules of engagement displays deeply thoughtful, principled community organizing and a calm attempt to communicate to authorities how they can minimize violence and mayhem.

When a community—and all the people across the country who feel connected and sympathetic to it—all the people across the country who stand in solidarity with it—all the people across the country and across the planet who know the history of American racism, who’ve seen young Black men murdered again and again, who’ve waited for countless Grand Jury decisions, who know this legal pattern intimately—this finding that the young, dead Black man is somehow responsible for his own death and the person who pulled the trigger, often multiple times, was justified in doing so—I don’t think it’s rank speculation when that community names its belief that the decision is coming soon and it will go in the shooter’s favor. We might call it cynical speculation. We might call it despairing speculation. Why might call it speculation marked by a pervasive mistrust of the justice system. But what I think it reveals at its deepest level is a profound experience of betrayal. America betrays young Black and Brown men. It says to them, as it does to all American children, that they can be anything they want to be, but then fails to address social, economic and legal structures that result not only in second class citizenship, not only in a loss of worth and dignity, but far too often in loss of life.

Just because an act is legal doesn’t make it moral. If anything is “rank” in this story it’s the gap so many Black and Brown communities experience between what is legal and what is moral. The Grand Jury may determine that Officer Wilson was legally justified in shooting Michael Brown at least six times—but that won’t mean he acted morally. It won’t mean that the institutions that trained and authorized him have acted morally. It certainly won’t mean Michael Brown deserved to die. Remember, slavery was legal. Segregation was legal. Countless Indian wars were legal. The Trail of Tears was legal. Japanese internment camps were legal. Voter suppression was legal, and there are many who contend the Supreme Court has made it legal once again by gutting significant portions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The War on Drugs is legal. Mass incarceration is legal. None of it, in my view, met or meets any criteria for moral. As long as that gap between the legal and the moral exists when it comes to the lives of young Black and Brown men, America will continue down the path of betrayal: communities will continue to grieve, to weep, to mistrust, to rage, to struggle in poverty, to struggle against injustice: and poets will continue to write letters of warning to their children, born and unborn.

 I feel called, I feel Unitarian Universalism is called, I feel people of faith in general are called, and I feel Americans are called, today, to close the gap between what is legal and what is moral when it comes to the lives of young Black and Brown men. The nation’s focus is on whether or not the Grand Jury indicts Officer Wilson. But whether they do or don’t, that gap will remain. Can I be a minister, can we be a congregation, can we be part of a larger UU faith, can we be part of an America that looks beyond the outcome of the Grand Jury’s proceedings and works to dismantle the system that ultimately led to the death of Michael Brown and the ruined lives of so many other young people? I have faith that we can.

On Being: Reborn

Christopher D. Sims

breathingArt, the art of expression, through my poetry
Allows me to breathe, to breathe, to breathe.

And what I conceive is the truth, the truth,
the truth. 

This art form helps me become reborn, reborn,
reborn. I reach the highest of highs when I
perform. My world, your world, my world, your
world, is transformed, transformed. 

As I contemplate on what I create, I’ve connected
even more to who I am, what I am, my faith, my
faith. 

It’s a spiritual connection. I am trying to reach
perfection. It’s a spiritual connection. I am trying
to reach perfection. Perfection. What a blessing! 

I am testing the waters. I am swimming in sound.
I am dealing with something that is so profound.
Profound. Profound. Profound. 

It’s like John Coltrane with his tenor sax. It’s
like Miles Davis with his horn. It’s like Thelonious

Monk with his piano. The words have to flow, to flow,
to flow, to flow. Of energy and electricity of the third

degree I am letting go.

 

This is a pilgrimage on the page, a poet on a stage,
an angry man finding peace within his rage. A caged
bird being freed through words, through words, through
words.

 

Preferred is the pen. I write hip-hop rhymes and poetic
hymns. Poetic hymns.

 

The spiritual release makes me want to clasp my hands
in prayer form. I am reborn. I perform. I am reborn. I
perform. I am reborn. I perform. I am reborn from

 

The clutches of poverty; the many dreams deferred;

Martin Luther King Jr’s dream hasn’t come true;
In the ghettos in urban communities, we still sing the blues;
The Ebola news on National Public Radio;
What happened to Eric Garner and Michael Brown;
I stopped watching television to drown out the sounds
I stopped watching television to drown out the sounds.

 

I am reborn through my nieces’ and nephews’ smiles;
I am reborn through a blend of activism and Unitarian
Universalism; I am reborn through universal love, the
hugs of friends and strangers; I am reborn through collectives
of people fighting for justice, because it is still Just Us!

And faith is at the very core of my rebirth – from my
poetical ministry to meeting and marching for Earth.
Faith helps me put this all into perspective. Faith pushes
me forward, faith helps me think of a better future, faith
wraps its arms around me and lets me know everything
is going to be all right. Faith is in everything that I say,
and in everything that I write. Faith is in everything that
I say, and in everything that I write. 

I am reborn, I have found my indigenous soul
Maintaining balance, remaining disciplined and in
control. I am reborn. I perform. I am reborn. I perform.

May We Have Faith

Rev. Joshua M. Pawelek

UU WorldAs many of you know, I serve on the board of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association. Along with the boards of the Unitarian Universalist Association and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, our board has moved the location of its March, 2015 meeting to Birmingham, AL in order to be present during the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches. Those marches were a pivotal moment for the Civil Rights movement. As images of police and civilian violence against marchers appeared on countless televisions across the nation, they helped generate massive public support for passage of the Voting Rights Act.

Those marches were also pivotal for what was then a very young Unitarian Universalist Association, as hundreds of UU clergy and lay-people heeded Martin Luther King’s call to join the marchers. Two of those UUs—the Rev. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo—were murdered during the marches. For more insight into the significance of Selma to Unitarian Universalism, I commend to you the Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed’s new book, Selma Awakening: How the Civil Rights Movement Tested and Changed Unitarian Universalisma section of which appears in the Winter issue of UU World Magazine. I feel excited, honored, privileged and blessed to have the opportunity to be present in Alabama 50 years later.

A number of people have said—in a variety of ways—“That’s all well and good, but why aren’t you meeting in Ferguson?” I understand the question. For indeed, Ferguson has become the symbolic epicenter of American racism. What Selma became in the late winter of 1965, Ferguson has become in the summer and autumn of 2014. Indeed, the title of the cover story for that Winter issue of UU World is “Selma Then, Ferguson Now.”

If the St. Louis County Grand Jury decides not to indict Officer Wilson—and possibly even if it decides to indict—there will be a call for clergy from across the nation to travel to Ferguson. I plan to do everything in my power to go to there when the call comes, as do many of my colleagues. The reason for going is not only to bear witness to this particular decision, but to bear witness to the plight of young Black and Brown men in the United States of America. Not just police shootings, not just the gang shootings, not just the daily grind of urban street violence, but the criminalization of too many Black and Brown men, the mass incarceration of too many Black and Brown men, the unemployment of too many Black and Brown men, the failure to educate too many Black and Brown men. As Unitarian Universalist Association President, the Rev. Peter Morales, said after the shooting, “Ferguson is not about Ferguson. It is about the systematic dehumanizing of people all over America.” This reminds me of Dr. King’s assertion that “the struggle in Selma is for the survival of democracy everywhere in our land.”[1]

Though Ferguson is the symbolic epicenter of American racism today, and though we need to pay attention to what is happening there, we also need to pay attention to the same dynamics as they manifest here, where we are, where we have a more immediate capacity to work for change. We need to pay attention to violence here, mass incarceration here, failing schools here, achievement gaps here, wealth gaps here, environmental racism here. Ferguson is not about Ferguson. It’s about all of us, about every American, about the health of our democracy, about fairness for all, justice for all, compassion for all, love for all.

Chris Sims offered us his new poem, “On Being: Reborn.” It’s a poem about knowing himself, finding his voice through his artistry, finding the sacred through his artistry, and then living in response to it, living in a way that brings more fairness, more justice, more compassion, more love into the world. He calls this faith.

My prayer for each of us is that we may have such faith—that we may know ourselves, find our own voice, find what is sacred to us, and live in response to it. My prayer for each of us is that we may have such faith—faith in ourselves, faith in each other, faith in our congregation, faith our nation, faith in humanity—so that we may wake up to the multifaceted human energy coming out of Ferguson—the pain, the rage, the struggle, the persistence, the community, the humor, the love, the caring, the commitment—so that we may wake up to all of it and channel it into our own efforts to make a difference right here, our own efforts to close that gap between what is legal and what is moral in the lives of young Black and Brown men. My prayer for each of us is that we may have such faith, faith  that we—this congregation, our Unitarian Universalist Association, our state, our nation—will heed the call coming out of Ferguson, MO and give birth, finally, to a more just, fair and loving society.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Quoted in Morrison-Reed, Mark, “Selma’s Challenge,” UU World (Winter, 2014) p. 33.