Extend your Hand

How curious that Florida pastor Terry Jones has received so much attention over the past several weeks.  What does it say about our country that if you want to grab the headlines, all you have to do is make outlandish threats, display ignorance, and stereotype those who are different than you are?

Terry Jones, head of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, believes that Islam is evil and said that God was calling him and his small, independent church to burn copies of the Quran on Sept. 11, the 9th anniversary of 9-11.  On Friday Jones canceled his plans, claiming that the Muslim cleric who wants to build an Islamic center near Ground Zero agreed to move the location away from the site.

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, however, issued a statement saying that there had been no such agreement.  “I am glad that Pastor Jones has decided not to burn any Qurans.  However, I have not spoken to Pastor Jones…  We are not going to toy with our religion or any other.  Nor are we here to barter.  We are here to extend our hand to build peace and harmony.”  

It’s outrageous that a religious fanatic with 50 followers can capture the world’s attention.  The original plans of Pastor Jones to burn the Quran are not of Christ, who always advocated the way of love.  Yet we also know how dangerous Jones’ remarks were, considering our country’s long history of racism and fear-mongering, tensions over the proposed Islamic center, and ongoing violence in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Last Thursday I had the opportunity to visit the traveling exhibit of Ferris State University’s Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia.  The exhibit was sponsored by Cascade Engineering, one of our country’s most socially conscious and innovative businesses.  Led by Fred Keller, a member of First UMC, Grand Rapids, Cascade Engineering has taken intentional steps to become an anti-racist company.  All new employees hired at Cascade Engineering are required to go through training around appropriate and inappropriate behavior concerning race.  They must also participate in a hands-on “diversity theater,” where actors role play situations involving racism.  In addition, every leader at Cascade Engineering must attend the Institute for the Healing of Racism in Grand Rapids. 

The graphic nature of the Jim Crow exhibit took my breath away.  Having lived a fairly sheltered life, I can’t even imagine the kind of prejudice, hatred, and humiliation that others have experienced because they were deemed “inferior.”  The Jim Crow laws were state and local regulations in the United States passed between 1876 and 1965.  These laws enacted racial segregation in all public facilities, as African Americans were supposedly “separate but equal.”  The result was institutionalized racism, with the systematizing of social, educational, and economic disadvantages.   

While the primary focus of the exhibit was on racism against African-Americans, there were other items related to discrimination in our country against women, Jews, Poles, Japanese, Chinese, immigrants, and homosexuals.  Although most of the artifacts date from the early to mid-20th century, it’s amazing how many racial, ethnic, and religious groups are still caricatured today in ways that many of us are not even sensitive enough to recognize.  A few pieces stood out:

  • A T-shirt purchased from an Internet site in 2006, which says, “Some people are alive simply because it’s illegal to kill them.”
  • A sign dating from the 1950’s: “No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs”
  • A Quaker Oats Aunt Jemima pancake mix (which I have in my cupboard), depicting a friendly black woman who perpetuates a racial stereotype by being “glad to serve” and “happy to be a slave” 
  • “Official Running Nigger Target:”  click here to see the target and read commentary
  • A quote from Ralph Ellison’s 1986 book, Going to the Territory, “The ultimate goal of lynching is that of achieving ritual purification through destroying the lynchers’ identification with the basic humanity of their victims.  Hence their deafness to cries of pain, their stoniness before the sight and stench of burning flesh.”

Walter Brame, President and CEO of the Grand Rapids Urban League, spoke at an exhibit reception about negative caricatures of others that become so embedded in our psyche that we take them for granted.  We make assumptions about people based on what they look like or what we hear from others without even realizing it.  A prime example is the persistent rumor, fanned by endlessly forwarded emails, that President Barack Obama is not a Christian.  According to an August 2010 poll of the Pew Research Centre, 18% of Americans believe that President Obama is a Muslim.  Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, pastor of the 14,000 member Windsor Village United Methodist Church in Houston, has said, “Never in modern history has a president said, ‘I am a Christian,’ and others said, ‘No, you’re not.’  It’s stupid and an insult to him.”  Once we are labeled, it’s very difficult to dispel the myths.

Fred Keller stressed in his remarks that there is a deep hunger for racial healing in our country and that business can lead the way.  Hiring a diverse work force and creating a safe environment where people can talk about tough issues fosters creativity and innovation, which is good for business and better serves customers.  Keller is convinced that when businesses are true to their values and extend a hand, it has a positive impact on our culture. 

Why are we still talking about race, homosexuality, sexism, and religious differences in our country?  It doesn’t go away, does it?  We’re still talking because these issues cut to the core of what it means to be a human being.  As long as people dehumanize, caricature, stereotype, and hate those who are different, we have work to do.  As long as the privileges accorded to some are denied to others, we have miles to go.  As long as injustice and oppression exist anywhere in our world, those of us who call ourselves disciples of Jesus Christ are required to speak out.   

How do we address these issues?  By talking and acting differently one person at a time, one story at a time, one incident at a time.  Healing the heart of our world is a process of continual improvement.  John Wesley called it going on to perfection.  Christian theology calls it sanctification.  One of the speakers last Thursday compared racism to an onion.  Because racism is so complex, healing necessitates peeling back one layer at a time, gradually seeking understanding and increasing self-awareness.  The journey is more important than the destination. 

I am convinced that we are making progress.  A great sign of hope is the new 5 year $75 million racial equity initiative by the Kellogg Foundation right here in West Michigan.  Called America Healing, this initiative “is the foundation’s next bold commitment toward honoring the mistakes of the past and addressing the structural racism that persists in America today.”  The Kellogg Foundation has already extended a hand to 119 organizations around the country, who have received $14.6 million in grants.

Businesses and non-profit organizations are being proactive in working toward racial equality.  But where is the church?  Have we lost our identification with the basic humanity of all people?  Are we, too, deaf to cries of pain and stony before the sight and stench of burning flesh?

  • Where is the voice of the church in the issues of racism and bigotry? 
  • Why is the church lagging behind instead of being out in front? 
  • Why do too many of us remain silent?

Here are a few suggestions for pastors and churches as we respond to the call of Christ to work for the day when all of God’s children the world over have equal opportunities to become who God created them to be.

  • Look at yourself first: how do you consciously or unconsciously contribute to racism?
  • Seek out opportunities to dialogue with those of a different religion, race, culture, gender, or sexual orientation
  • Preach, teach, and model that differences do not have to lead to hatred or division but can enrich our communities through the sharing of common values
  • Partner with local businesses, schools, and non-profit organizations to offer workshops on racism 
  • Initiate a relationship with an ethnic church, synagogue, or mosque in your area.
  • Offer classes or book studies on issues that tend to divide

Terry Jones is not news.  The Jim Crow exhibit is news!  Cascade Engineering is news!  The Kellogg Foundation is news!  The sensitive and compassionate dialogue around the proposed cultural center near Ground Zero is news!  Jesus’ insistence that we treat all people with respect and dignity is news!  What is one thing that YOU can do to extend your hand to build peace and harmony?

Blessings, Laurie

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