This sermon was given at the ECM in Lawrence, KS in April 2015.
Say It Now! Good morning people. In the Disciples of Christ church that I was a pastor of, we practice a tradition called “passing the peace”. It links us with our Abrahamic, Jewish and Muslim siblings who also may greet each other with Shalom or asalaam alaikum. It usually involves a lot of handshaking and hugging like everybody who’s present and can take up to 10 minutes, so I’m just going to give you the shortened version.
When I say, “peace be with you”, you answer back, “and also with you” except when you answer, I don’t want you just to answer me, I want your answer to be for every single individual who is in this room, and every single individual who is not in this room. I want you to answer for everyone that you hope experiences peace, everyone you think might already have enough or too much peace, everyone you’re not sure you want to offer peace to, and even everyone who you might sometimes wish some not so peaceful things to happen to. For true love, as Jesus and Martin Luther King, Jr. might say, is not loving those who love you back, it’s loving those who you don’t even know, and even loving those who hate you. It’s hard I know, but the easiest step is just to answer, “and also with you”. So here we go, “Peace be with you.” That wasn’t so hard was it.
I’d like to begin with a prayer taught to me by my mother. It is the kind of prayer that attempts to call us to be our best selves, something that reaches beyond what we think is possible. It was written by Sweet Honey In The Rock and is titled, simply, The Prayer:
Lord, must I do unto others
Before they do unto me?
Must I arm myself
To protect myself
From harm and injury?
Oh no that is not the lesson
That I learned on my mother's knee
When she told me to
Do unto others only what I'd have them do unto me
I want to mention a few things about who I am and why I’m standing here before you. My first name, the name my parents gave me and purposed me with is Tai Amri, which is Swahili for “the eagle that leads”. I have been reluctantly leading my whole life. In Oakland, while in seminary, I was dubbed Baby Pastor in a church where I was interning for a congregant who happened to be drunk and homeless at the time. She was comparing me to that church’s senior pastor, but the name stuck, because in fact I come from a line of Baby Pastors.
My father, who was also a pastor, literally holds babies in hospital wards in his free time. And for my day job, I work at Raintree Montessori with 2-10 year olds, trying to get them to find joy in writing and taking naps, all the while attempting to love them with my full heart. I was raised as a Quaker in Philadelphia by a spiritually adventurous mother who is a diversity trainer and a grounded father who is a historian. They taught me that all religions, like all people, are created equal and that no voices should be privileged over others. I, and many of my Quaker peers, have taken this perspective to the hilt and consider the Bible to be one version of the truth, as is a Native American ceremony, or Buddhist dharma, or a well-executed atheist denial of G-d. I did go through a 6 year period in my life, starting in high school, where I believed that Jesus was the only way to heaven, but in college I saw the dark, and I loved it. It was in the dark that I saw the truth of all the lies I had been told about myself and my ancestors, and about yourselves and everyone’s ancestors. They weren’t filthy, immoral savages like we’ve been taught. They were survivors, lovers, fighters, intense seekers of justice and the eros of the divine. If you don’t think your ancestors are worthy of respect, then you have been lied to. If you don’t think that we can create a better world than this one, then you are believing the lie that has been fed to us since the time of feudalism. G-d to me is not some dude in a cloud moving chess pieces, it is you and I, creating and moving through this world together. Don’t get me wrong, I am not G-d, WE are G-d, but only in unison. And at any time, if you feel me, you can say, “amen”. In the African Yoruba tradition however, we say, “ashe”. It symbolizes our ability to create reality and means much the same thing as amen, so be it. Try it out. Ashe? Ashe. Lastly, I want to say something about this that I wear, my stoll. To me it symbolizes the burden of the people that I carry. That burden that I speak of, is to stand up for the dignity of all people, not just the ones I like, but also the ones that I struggle, and sometimes fail, not to hate. It does not mean that I speak FOR anyone, it only means that I refuse to degrade anyone. Ashe.
So at this point, if you’re not asking yourself why an African talking Black dude from Philly who was a pastor in Oakland is living in Lawrence, Kansas, then I assure you you are not in the majority. Almost all my friends and family on the coasts ask me, “What, Kansas?” Well, aside from clean air and soil that isn’t all that present in Philly or Oakland, or the many friends and chosen family I have here, one of the main reasons I moved here has to do with why I stand before you today, my love for the ECM, KU’s Ecumenical Campus Ministries.
Almost 10 years ago, soon after I had graduated from college, my bff Mia introduced me to Pastor Thad Holcombe at veggie lunch. It was then that I finally made the decision to go into seminary. It was the first time I had been in a community that was as Christian as it was oriented to social justice, and I wanted to explore the world of progressive Christianity. Oakland and the rest of the Bay Area has a world of progressive Christianity that would amaze anyone, but I never forgot the ECM. I have been to churches in California with choirs of 20+ transfolks and churches dedicated to the music of John Coltrane, but I have never seen anything like the ECM. I dare say I love the ECM more than any church I have ever been a part of and I can’t help but notice how often it is mentioned in the community. There is not an activist in Lawrence whose life has not been touched in some way by the ECM. Just by a show of hands, how many of you have been to the ECM? Now, by a show of hands, how many of you love the ECM? Take a look around you, your love is not alone.
I originally took this gig thinking that I would share with you about the programs of the ECM, in particular the alternative spring break programs to Arizona. However, there is now a far more pressing issue because it looks as if there will not be an alternative spring break this year, in fact it is quite possible that there will not be an ECM. There is a danger that the center of student activism in Lawrence for 110 years will die. I am reminded of the teachings of my activist guru, Grace Lee Boggs, a 99 year old Chinese American who spent her married life with Black radical Jimmy Boggs, who would often remind me and the rest of her students that the Chinese character for crisis was a combination of danger and opportunity. For some of us present, myself included, this crisis feels overwhelming, exhausting and enraging. But as special as the ECM is, it is not special because it is in crisis, in fact so is all the world. Just like the rest of the world, we have an opportunity with our crisis to act out of love, there is also the danger that we will act out of hatred.
As a Quaker, I was taught by my parents to always look for a peaceful solution to conflict. As a Black man I have often struggled with wanting to respond with violence. Growing up on the East Coast I was taught through images and media that Black people, especially men, were inherently dangerous and inherently violent. I swallowed that lie, thinking that there was no justification for this violence, until I looked outside of my narrow box and saw through the lies my teachers and preachers told me. Once I did that, it was all I could do to contain my anger.
Rev. Jill mentioned to me, before this service, about how the title Say It Now, came to her when she saw me speak at a rally for Michael Brown. The panic I experience when I think about young men like Eric Garner being murdered and crying out, “I can’t breathe” is just the most recent mega disaster that has caused me to question why I should act out of love and peace. When I lived in Oakland, I found myself working in the East, in the poorest neighborhood in the city, with elementary school children who had to walk through streets with rival gang members, forced prostitution and corrupt cops. When crack heads would wander onto our playground and street fights would escalate to the point of weaponry, like the day someone shot off an ak47 in the air in front of a house across the street from the school I worked at, I had to admit to myself that if someone came at one of my kids with a gun, I would take a bullet for even the worst behaved, least likeable one. And that if it came to it, I would shoot a gun to protect them.
When I looked into the eyes of a beautiful, brilliant young girl, I had to think about what I would do if I saw a pimp approach her with an enticing money-making opportunity to feed her hungry family. And to this day I can feel my hand squeezing against his throat. When in 2012, cops shot and killed senior in high school Alan Blueford on a street corner because he ran from their drawn weapons, I started to wonder if there was any way other than violence to stop the wrath of the police. And when my 7 year old, Mexican, Salvadoran and Guatemalan children begged me to vote for Obama because they didn’t want their family to get deported, I had fantasies about what I’d like to do about INS buildings.
But then I remember the mother of Emmett Till, the 14 year old Black boy lynched for whistling a white woman in 1955, who after witnessing his battered and bloated body from being pistol whipped, executed at point blank range and submerged at the bottom of a body of water, and being asked doesn’t she hate the men who did this to her son, she responded that she didn’t have time to hate, and went about her work creating a world of justice. I realized that if I gave my life to hatred, who would go about the work of loving the children I want to protect, who would go about the work standing with the exploited and the oppressed, who would go about the work of visioning a better future, who would go about mourning and comforting the families of slaughtered innocents?
I know that I’m not the only one here who wants justice. So I want to invite you to turn to your neighbor, your sister, your brother, and to look into their eyes, and to say it, and to mean it, “We don’t have time to hate.”
Because our fight is against evil systems and not evil people. We don’t have time to hate. Because right here in Lawrence, people are harassed for not having a home. We don’t have time to hate. Because right here in Lawrence, children are living in insect infested apartments. We don’t have time to hate. Because right here in Lawrence, people of color are silently mourning our imprisoned and slaughtered sisters and brothers, we don’t have time to hate. Because right here in Lawrence, homeland security is looking for people to scapegoat. We don’t have time to hate. Because right here in Lawrence, homes are being stolen and flipped for the profit of realtors. We don’t have time to hate. Because right here in Lawrence, gay, lesbian and transfolk are being excluded, bullied and ostracized. We don’t have time to hate. Because if we spend all of our time fighting each other, we won’t have any time to fight injustice.
I beg of you, don’t cry for my justice after I’m already dead, cry for it now. Don’t wait until the ECM is dead to talk about how much you loved it, say it now. When you see your sisters and brothers being mistreated and degraded, at the ECM or in any other part of this world, don’t mourn the fact later, stand up for the fact now. When you see people working against the community, don’t react later, act up now. I may have a different definition of G-d than you do, but if you believe in the power of the people, then we believe in the same thing. Ashe?
Ashe and amen. Peace.