Sunday, February 28, 2016

#ZipCodeMatters, Sadly

Shared community at 5846 Gregory, the heart of DOOR Hollywood Dwell 
On the way to church last Sunday, my oldest daughter, 6, asked me, "Daddy, what's the number to call the police?"

"That's 911, and it calls for help, which could be for firefighters, paramedics, or the cops."

"Do they come right away when you call them?"

Well now: I explained to her that when we called 911 when I had a health scare* last year, the paramedics came within a few minutes.  My wife called from the zip code 91403.  And I asked her if she remembered the situation a month later at La Casa de la Comunidad at 5846 Gregory Ave., 90038.  She did, and she remembered how long it took for help to come.

5846 Gregory is located in a predominantly Latino immigrant neighborhood.  It's where the Dwellers of DOOR Hollywood live, and where multiple times a week they engage in communal living with their neighbors, mostly youth.  Sometimes homework is done, sometimes stories are shared, sometimes games are played, sometimes meals are had.  On this particular night, my daughters and I were spending time with everyone, when one of our Dwellers, Sara, comes bounding on the front porch with a mother from the community.

"Help, everyone!  Her daughter is missing, and she's worried she might be in terrible danger.  She called the police but that was about a half-hour ago."

The Dwellers and I moved out to the sidewalk, as a Dwell alumni was there to help watch the children hanging out at the house, my daughters included.

The mother was, obviously, very distressed.  I spoke with her, and learned that, yes, she had indeed called the cops but she did not have much hope they would show.  About an hour earlier, her teenage daughter had left a message that someone was trying to hurt her, and she might just hurt herself instead.

We asked her family to give us a photo, sent it amongst our cell phones, texted everyone we knew in the neighborhood.  We organized in pairs and, with the family and other neighbors, started going up and down the block.

And suddenly, a moment of the Holy Spirit: I remembered something a local Anglo fireman friend had told a group of us at DOOR a few years earlier.  Too often on the dispatch, he was always sickened to hear the unofficial codes that were used to identify situations in lower-income areas.  In particular, he told us of one from the 90038 neighborhood: the "Hysterical Latino Woman."  If a call came through from a Hysterical Latino Woman, he told us, the "protocol" was always delay, to "let her calm down some."  Sometimes that meant they would literally just sit there, not moving at all.  Sometimes, they would drive the long way around.  The very long way around.

So, we tried something, as we felt that we could really use some professional help here.  Molly, another Dweller, herself also Anglo, and I decided to each call 911 from our cell phones.  We reported the same thing using our actual names.

The cops came within 3 minutes.  36 minutes after her mother had called, understandably hysterical, this was her daughter for God's sake!  3 minutes after I called.  2 minutes after Molly called.

Go ahead, tell me it was circumstantial.  Go ahead, tell me that there's no way to prove any systemic or personal racism was occurring.  And you would probably be right: there is no way for me to prove it.  But: when you're standing right next to people in their real pain and walking alongside them in their heart-pounding panic, you know because they know and altogether, the truth is clear.

Our Koreatown family.
My wife and I spent the first few years of our marriage living in a Mexican part of Koreatown.  Cyndy, Kevin, Nicole, Rafael, Kiara and their parents told us that calling 911 was never the first thing that came to their minds.  It was too frustrating and could actually be dangerous.  If someone needed medical attention, you went and knocked on a neighbor's door to borrow their car and you got to the hospital as quick as you could.

Which is what the mother of this story had done.   Thankfully, her daughter was found within the hour, and she was alive and unharmed.  The community and the police collaboratively sought and succeeded.  As I believe it should be.  Why did it require our white voices to spur that into action?

And, unprompted, my daughter asked me on our ride to church this full year later: why didn't the police help sooner?  And, like always with questions of justice, we have committed to telling our kids the truth.

"Even though Jesus is clear, that all lives matter equally to God, there are many people who believe that some people are worth more and some people are worth less."

It's the ugliest truth about humanity I know.  It's the crime of Whiteousness.

Emma and Cecilia
We know many mothers in the 90038 zip code near La Casa and many mothers know us.  I dare you to tell me that Emma's life is less valuable than Darcie's, the mother of my children.  Emma who sells tamales to neighbors to raise her three children and has cooked thousands of meals for DOOR Hollywood Discover groups.   Emma, who immediately after her best friend Cecilia was killed in a horrible car accident at 5:30 one morning on her way to work by a drunk driver on their way home from a club, took on caring for four additional children, especially while Cecilia's husband healed from his broken ribs.  I dare you tell me that Cecilia's life didn't matter enough to merit a response whenever she may have called out for help, while she was raising four amazing children.

Or Yolanda.  Or Lydia.  Or Rosy.  Or Sylvia.  Or Becky.  Or Gladys.  Or Mercedes.  Or....... I dare you.  If you tell me something about tax dollars and property values and response times and safety for the officers, I may hear you, but I won't be listening.    Especially if you are talking from the point of view of someone several steps removed.  Or several zip codes away.

Hold someone else as they shake with fear and anger, listen to them tell you why they don't trust law enforcement or emergency services.  I definitely respect the idea that officers must worry about the safety of themselves and their teams.  But intentional delay?  Logic would have it that the longer you wait to provide help, the more escalated the individual would become.  So don't tell me that "waiting for her to cool down" is about safety.  It's about a stratified value of human life.  It's about racism.  And we must expose it, lament it, confess it, and repent it.  God help us.


Check out another brief take on Zip Code inequality by Marvin Wadlow Jr.  above.

* I had accidentally ingested a dessert made with pot, and it launched a full-on panic attack that felt like dying, all in all a hilarious, White-privilege-laced story for another time.

Cyndy holding our daughter, years ago
Yolanda, holding our youngest, after dropping off donations.

Which child is more valuable?  Ask that from God's point of view, ask that from a politician's point of view.

Erykah Badu and D'Angelo in 2000

Tomorrow is February 29, a bonus day in this Black History Month, even though it's still the shortest month of the year.  (Not to mention that Black History should be so much more embedded in US History...)

I've given quite so much love and gratitude to Tori Amos recently, it might look like I'm a little crazy.  (That might be said, but few have moved me to act and write like her.)  (Oh, and I am crazy, I hope in a good way.)

Of those few, Erykah Badu's Mama's Gun and D'Angelo's Voodoo, both released in the year 2000, were the soundtrack to my life after Y2K didn't shut us all down.  Interestingly, in 1999 Tori Amos put out an album that really did not resonate with me as a whole, so my ears were seeking.

These two albums were like a brother and sister taking turns in my Oldsmobile Alero CD slot.  They got me to and from work, Fannie C. Williams Middle School in New Orleans Upper 9th ward.  They taught me how to hear black people, how to hear from black people, and how to pay attention to life around me.  My students were also making me mix tapes, (my Alero actually had that slot too!) of Juvenile, Destiny's Child, DMX, the 504 Boyz, and their own personal free-styling.

But it's these two that really taught me how to be loved by my new New Orleans' community.

Happy Leap Day.  Take a leap back and check the full albums out if you don't know them before Black History Month is in your rear view mirror.  Stay in touch @matthewjschmitt

And without any further ado,
check out verses of D'Angelo and Badu

From Penitentiary Philosophy (above)
Oh why can't we get along and
Take all the funky tones
And make up a funky song
That be bangin on and on
Make me mad when I see ya sad
With the same look ya momma had
But ya can't win when your will is weak
But ya get out ya seat
Oh why Why Why world
Do you want me to be so mad
So mad yeah - Badu
I remember when I went
With Momma to the Washateria
Remember how I felt the day
I first started my period
Remember there in school one day
I learned I was inferior
Water in my cereal - Badu

Bag Lady (below) 
Let it go, let it go, let it go, let it go
Ooh, ooh
Girl you don't need it
I betcha love can make it better - Badu

From Playa Playa (above)
We came here to rip sXXX
Strip U of your clout
Later 4 all y' all HATERS
We gon' turn this motha' out
If U came to ball u gonna lose it all
We don' t plan 2 stop
Til U bounce off the wall
Til U bouncin off the wall- D'Angelo

From Devil's Pie
Who am I to justify
All the evil in our eye
When I myself feel the high
From all that I despise

Behind the jail or in the grave
I have to lay in this bed I made
If I die before I wake
I Hope the lord dont' hesitate
2 get 2 heaven done been through hell
Tell my peeps all is well
All them fools whose soul's 4 sale
Sitting next to the Jezebel - D'Angelo
If you wanna come on down 2 the front
baby yo it's cool everybody fakin the funk
i'ma put u in school, take a lesson from adolescence 2 man
I got the music and the instruments use em as my weapons at hand
everybody on the floor if u listening 2 me
clap your hands stomp your feet
I just wanna put u down (yeah)
I just want ya all 2 get down (yeah)
everybody come get down 2 the chicken grease (yeah) - D'Angelo

Africa (left)
Africa is my descent
and here I'm far from home
I dwell within a land that's meant
meant for many men not my tone

The blood of god is my defense
let it drop down 2 my seed
showers 2 your innocense
2 protect U for all eternity
and with this wood I beat this drum
and we won't see defeat - D'Angelo

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Friday, February 26, 2016

Wake Up!

 This is the text of a homily I delivered as part of a Lenten series at Hollywood Presbyterian Church on Wednesday, March 2nd, 2016 at 7pm in Wylie Chapel.  

And you can link to the full series, multiple preachers, here: FPCH LISTEN ONLINE.  

Matthew 26:36-46, The Message: Then Jesus went with them to a garden called Gethsemane and told his disciples, “Stay here while I go over there and pray.” Taking along Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he plunged into an agonizing sorrow. Then he said, “This sorrow is crushing my life out. Stay here and keep vigil with me.”

Going a little ahead, he fell on his face, praying, “My Father, if there is any way, get me out of this. But please, not what I want. You, what do you want?”

When he came back to his disciples, he found them sound asleep. He said to Peter, “Can’t you stick it out with me a single hour? Stay alert; be in prayer so you don’t wander into temptation without even knowing you’re in danger. There is a part of you that is eager, ready for anything in God. But there’s another part that’s as lazy as an old dog sleeping by the fire.”

He then left them a second time. Again he prayed, “My Father, if there is no other way than this, drinking this cup to the dregs, I’m ready. Do it your way.”

When he came back, he again found them sound asleep. They simply couldn’t keep their eyes open. This time he let them sleep on, and went back a third time to pray, going over the same ground one last time. When he came back the next time, he said, “Are you going to sleep on and make a night of it? My time is up, the Son of Man is about to be handed over to the hands of sinners. Get up! Let’s get going! My betrayer is here.”

A week and a half ago, Pastor Dan Baumgartner opened up about his childhood love for the legendary Batman and Robin of black and white TV.  Full confession, I loved that show too, though I benefitted from syndicated reruns a decade or so later.  The modern network TNT claims that “they know drama,” and if that’s the case, they must have learned it from our original hero, the storytelling Word of God himself.  I mean, check out this cliffhanger:  My betrayer is here!  Spoiler alert: next week’s episode, if we followed this text, would involve some overzealous police brutality, a kiss of death, an actual riot, an ear sliced off and being miraculously put back on, that is if we turned to Luke’s version, or treatment, as we call it in Hollywood.  I can think of few other moments in Scripture where the drama is so heart-poundingly intense, such an intersection of divinity and humanity, with dialogue much like an actual script.  In the universe of Christianity, the Garden of Gethsemane is like a big bang.  This is really good television!
            But: this is real, we hang our faith upon the truth of this drama.  And I think even Reality TV has been touched: Jesus coming down from high and experiencing what it feels like to be human.  CBS’s show Undercover Boss, where a CEO poses as an entry-level employee and gets to know the company from the ground up through serving alongside workers and sharing lunch together in break-rooms, was the most popular new show in any TV genre in 2010, and has remained strong for the past 6 years.  I believe the gospel to be the most important story in history, and our very souls, whether we claim to follow Jesus or not, have been imprinted by God to know that trust is best built through empathy, through walking alongside people in their real lives, both the challenges and the triumphs, and that trust is absolutely necessary for forgiveness or reconciliation to ever be possible.
            So what can we learn from sitting, hopefully not sleeping, in the Garden of Gethsemane tonight? 
            First and foremost, we come alongside Jesus in his agony.  Even though we know what’s to come, this just pounds with suspense.  A long, terrible sleepless night for him.  Not once, but three times, Jesus pleads with God to find another way.  Could there be a brilliantly creative way to fulfill the Scriptures, achieve the reconciliation and forgiveness from sins, but not have to endure the vicious torture and literal hell that was on its way?  Ambar, one of DOOR Hollywood’s current Dwellers and service workers at our Lord’s Lighthouse puts it best in a devotional she authored: “Jesus completely understood because he himself went through a moment of deep suffering in asking for this cup to pass from him. It’s as if Jesus was saying, “Dad, Father, please, is there really no other way to do this?  Come on, please think of something else.  Pleeeeeeeeease!”  Of course, each of those times, Jesus moves into yielding to the will of God.  
But let’s pause here.  There is something that can be lost when we just read through the text, and its one of the particular ways, as Professor David Taylor at Fuller taught us, that art, in this case, acting out a scene, could maybe help.  Remember, this is going on all night, and perhaps there is a longer passage of time than the “period [space] [space]” between Jesus’ pleas and his acceptance of God’s will as we read it.  So, imagine this possibility:
            -“My Father, if there is any way, may this cup be taken from me!”
[Walk away from podium, express agony, heavy sighs, pull at hair and face, sit on floor, then, with resignation and peace: ]
            -“But no, please, not what I want.  Your Will be done.” [return]

            Something else is going on here, too, and that is Jesus wrestling with feeling humanly alone because his disciples, his friends, couldn’t remain awake with him.  He was looking to them in a similar way that, I imagine, a person sentenced on Death Row looks to a pastor on that long last night.   But they keep falling asleep.

            I think, then, that the two questions we should ask ourselves tonight are: what cup might God be asking me to faithfully drink from, despite how uncomfortable and frightening it might be?  And, how are we prone to falling asleep in the midst of what Jesus is doing right around us?

            Many of you know me as the outgoing director of DOOR Hollywood, part of a faith-based network of cities that provides opportunities for service, learning, and leadership development within the urban context.  We host and shepherd individual volunteers and mission trip groups for a weekend to a year.  Part of this work has involved traveling to ecumenical gatherings around the country for networking and promoting our mission.  Just one year ago, almost to the date, I sat down with Robin McCants in a coffee shop in Detroit’s Mexicantown.  Robin is an assistant to a Bishop in the Evangelical Lutheran Church.  She is working on bridging some of the racial divides amidst neighborhoods and church communities that still exist along 8-mile road, the border of Detroit and Southfield, the suburb in which I grew up.  Now, one good thing about a foot of snow while you cozy up in a coffee shop is that you settle into some good, long, warm conversation.  I shared with Robin the Table Setting curriculum that Marvin Wadlow Jr. and I were developing at that time, of building respectful “color-brave” instead of “color-blind” dialogues amidst Evangelicals and secular college students as a stepping-stone towards racial reconciliation.   I shared how we believe that service and mission falls flat if you just do the work without reflecting on the systemic issues surrounding the needs.  We ask our participants: why are the majority of people on Skid Row African-American?  Is there a link between the cradle to school to prison pipeline that leads to homelessness, life sentences, early death, and the ongoing lack of equity in this country?  And why should the Church care?  Robin asked me how I had come to care, and I shared testimonies of myself being cared for by Black, Latino, and Asian folks living in lower income areas.  In more ways than one these past 20 years, people of color have saved my life.
            And then Robin interrupted me and asked, “so, why am I not reading your book, why are you not writing more of this down?” 
            I smiled, and said that DOOR and raising two daughters with Darcie keeps me pretty busy.  Which is true, but not the whole truth.  I was scared.  It’s not really about a book, per se, but if I actually care about working on justice for the people who have given so much of their best to me, it demands that I speak boldly and often to people in power, to speak fearlessly to brothers and sisters who look like me but do not want to be asked to make any changes whatsoever.  DOOR has taught me to lead discussions and ask good questions, but surely God, you can’t be asking me to step out into the unknown and start criticizing our Anglo-fears of diversity, especially from within the Church?  So I hid Robin’s question deep in my heart.   Sometimes, over the past year, it would choke me awake in the middle of the night.  Often, my waking even woke up Darcie.

            All last summer, Marvin and I, along with our Discerners, local Latino, African-American, Anglo and biracial teens who we hire to help lead discussions with our short-term visiting mission teams, what we call a Discover group, worked to ask these tough questions, some of which we borrowed from Dwight Radcliffe, (left) Pastor Joel’s friend who just spoke at the Men’s Breakfast on Saturday.  Why does God ask us to serve?  Why is Jesus’ reply to “who is my neighbor” a scandalous story of the “dirty” Samaritan who risks his life to save the life of a Jew?  Why should modern Christians talk about racial injustice and diversity matters in the midst of volunteering and mission work? 
On our closing night one particular week, a very hot scene erupted between the visiting group leaders and me.  To set the visual imagery: there were ten Discerners, our board member and regular speaker Toni White, Marvin, myself, and ten high school students from the east coast with their three adult leaders, all of European/Anglo descent, crammed into a living room meant for a family of four.
            I was discussing a linkage between Paul’s description of diverse table setting in Romans 14 and the parable of the Samaritan.
            The male group leader, from the other side of the galaxy, loudly mutters through gritted teeth, “Matthew, you have five minutes and then we are done.”
            “Yes, you have said the word ‘race’ more than you’ve said the word ‘Jesus.’”
            “But I’m literally reading a parable of Jesus to bring it into modern cont-’”
            “We have never felt so accused in our entire lives!” the group leader’s wife shouts.
            “Accused of what?”
            “Of being called racists!”  My fears had completely been made manifest.
But immediately is also a moment of miracle.  Here is the beloved and diverse community of God in full-fledged glory.  Here is where I received support in my time of need, where our team was very much not asleep.
            Kevyn, a Discerner about 20 years old, voice tentative but still strong, eases in and says, “excuse me, Matthew and Marvin have never called anyone racist, and neither have any of us.  But let me share something with you.  I’m sorry you feel accused, but as a young Latino male, I feel accused of being a thief every single time I go to buy anything at the 7-Eleven at the end of my street.  I am watched and suspected and it hurts everytime.  So, I guess what I’m saying is, welcome.  Welcome to my world.”
            Time stopped, people inhaled sharply, and then, like the rush of cool ocean air through Malibu Canyon, the Spirit came to life in a big collective exhale and drove out my fear.  The evening was in fact, not done.  Our Discerners took the teenage Discover guests outside on the patio and just talked and laughed and played their favorite YouTube videos together.  Toni, a naturally gifted mediator, worked on a discussion between all of us adult leaders.  Confessions were made, fears were spoken, tears were shed, and the evening ended in a prayer circle, everyone rejoined.  A glimpse of God’s ultimate reconciliation, and even though all was not fully well, it was hopeful.
And yet, even still, for a few months I wanted You, God, to take this cup from me.  I still just wanted personal peace: Jesus, go do your God thing, let me get some sleep.  The girls are gonna be awake soon.

But increasingly, the stories gathered around me like a warm blanket, stories of how God has formed me.  Me: a young white man mentored and taught, fired and teased and hired by people of color.  Me: the guy who lost his vegetarianism in New Orleans because black families invited me over and made me a special pot of gumbo with “no meat” (which, in the South, can still mean there’s chicken, shrimp, fish, crawfish).  This guy: who watched another student giggle when he mispronounced Phở at the Vietnamese restaurant owned by her parents.  And also the stories that boil my blood, like growing up when I heard neighbors say they'd move if a black family crossed the boundary of 8 mile into our suburb.  And they did.  And I heard family friends saying: awwww, black boys are so cute as babies, but then….sensing even as a teenager that the way the white speaker never had to finish her sentence; the way my white imagination was supposed to fill in the unspoken space with something monstrous; I think this attitude has done more damage and killed more young black and brown men than any cop baton or bullet ever will.  God formed me through Levi’s guidance, the man with no possibility for parole, the man who loved Jesus more than anyone I’d ever met.  Levi asked 19 year old me to make sure his story, and those of his brothers behind bars, got told more truthfully.  And ever since that day, I have felt like I imagine Onesimus may have felt towards Paul: I am Levi’s servant, he is my first true brother in Christ.  Rest in Peace, dear man, I pray that your soul is cuttin’ up a rug and laughing that big, deep belly laugh with Jesus right now.
Okay God.  Okay.  When I got Pastor Dan’s email that this was to be the text I would reflect on, it woke me up.  I finally started writing, directly writing, the stories I’ve been carrying and how many people who look like me are just not getting a well-rounded story of our modern day Samaritans, especially if their only context is the news.  I believe this to be my cup: to walk the fine line of racial reconciliation by celebrating the many lessons I’ve learned over dinners and prayer-vigils with people who don’t have the inherent privileges that come with being white.  It also means I must be very careful, to not speak FOR people of color, but to trust that when my friends have told me they are tired of being accused of playing the “race-card” when they have shared real-life pain to people who look like me, that I have been formed to use my voice to carve space and build patient bridges, especially in Christian circles.   Right now, this writing is in a blog form, and it is not against white people, but it does take aim at the idea that white Christians shouldn’t talk about race because it is somehow rude or irrelevant or someone else’s problem.

Because the way I am really coming to see it, this is Christ’s mission.   Of course, he came to overcome sin, both Systemic Sin as well as each of our personal sins.  Racism, in both its overt and subtle forms, certainly fits into both of those sin categories.  After reminding us to Love God with all we have, Jesus said we must love our neighbors.  And our neighbors, by his definition, are not just the people we group ourselves around, but the ones down the way, on the other side of town.  God loves diversity, calls it good in the creation of the world. And therefore, human diversity, not tokenism but authentic diversity developed with love and patience and spending time together, must matter deeply.  Not just as a politically correct, pie-in-the-sky, liberal, bleeding heart thing.  But as a Biblically correct, New Jerusalem-minded, God-honoring, blood of Christ thing.  
            So will I be the betrayer at the end of our episode?  Or will I be like the sleepy ones who are either too exhausted or too afraid to actually be what Jesus is asking me to be?  Meanwhile, the story that starts in a garden, has a pivotal moment in this garden of Gethsemane we are in tonight, will lead to another garden in the center of the City in Revelation 21.  This is the City where all peoples will walk in together, bringing the glory and honor of each nation into God’s reconciled and re-created City, the ultimate and perfectly diverse Beloved Community.
            My sisters and brothers, how is Jesus asking you to awaken this Lenten season?  What cup is God asking you to drink from?  Confronting racial injustice may not be your call, but to be dismissive of its importance is to fail to fully appreciate the way God has created humans, and to lament how we humans have broken ourselves over differences.  In this divine diversity, God may be forming you to tend to another vital role within Kingdom work, and maybe you’re like me, maybe you’ve been wishing God would find someone else to do it.   But if it wakes you up at night, keeps you up some nights, I urge you to pay attention.  I urge you to pray.  And the very good news is this: even when we don’t think we can, especially when we don’t think we can, God stays awake for us.  The Spirit of God is with us through every night, through every battle, and deeply wants to celebrate with us.  I’m starting to dream of an infinite block party with enchiladas and collard greens and kimchi and gumbo and apple pie and phở while bands play music that miraculously harmonizes Hip-Hop with Mariachi with Gamelan with Rock and Roll with the Anthems of every Angel.  Can you hear it, can you taste it, can you feel the rhythm of all of us there, you, me, Jesus?  There, worshiping God in the City that will never have to sleep.

May it be so, and may we see glimpses of it even now.  - @matthewjschmitt

The song Wake Up, by John Legend, Melanie Fiona, The Roots, and Common was playing on the day I received the text.  It just seemed divine.  Watch the video above.

And, Tori Amos' song America, about "the other America," is so fitting here too.  Will we wake from our rest? This is not official, but a fan put this together with lyrics and Diane Arbus photos, it's pretty well done:

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

America, by André Henry

Oh America, America, if you're who you claim to be: the land of good and brotherhood, why are you excluding me? - André Henry

(This is a friend from Fuller Theological Seminary.  This song stopped me in my tracks today.  May it bless you and convict you.)  @matthewjschmitt

Monday, February 22, 2016

How Tori Amos Primed Me for Dismantling Whiteousness, and that Native American Lives Matter

Backstage in 1998 after a Cleveland, OH show
Anyone who knows me also knows that I learned how to play piano, how to really play from my soul, by studying the catalog of Tori Amos.  And Tori has often shared that, at least in terms of her left-hand, she studied the catalog of Stevie Wonder.  Unfortunately, my left-hand has never quite achieved the Wonder-filled status of hers, but I'm content that my cloud of musical mentors involves the two of them, amongst many others.

Like the true Toriphile geek-nerd that I am, I came across a photo of her original demo tape, and the address that is visible in the photo is presumably her first Hollywood apartment.  It's literally around the corner from the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, where I work and serve as the piano player on a huge concert grand Steinway most Sundays at 11am.  I'm often asked to play a piano reflection before or after the sermon, and more than once, I've channeled a lick from an Amos original.  Seriously people, that little apartment is the equivalent of Graceland to an Elvis fan.  To think, 30 years later, those pieces would be musically engaging Christians during moments of prayer just a block from where they were born.
Photo from Undented via YesSaid

Tori Amos is well known for her stark and strong vulnerability; for the way her hauntingly a cappella song Me and a Gun literally launched a revolution (see RAINN) in dismantling the blaming demonization of female rape victims, even though the radio stations had no idea what to do with it as her first single.  She has nodded to the mothers of modern musical feminism like Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush and has carved out even more space for Alanis Morissette, Fiona Apple, Regina Spektor and male artists like myself.  She has fearlessly called out the hypocrisies of the Church and our government, but always in a way that is exceedingly fair.  Whenever she goes after the evil in another, her albums offer ample moments of holding the mirror on herself.   Think, "I can't believe you're leaving 'cause me and Charles Manson like the same ice cream."  It's a tragically wicked sense of humor she employs, but it always comes around to make a point about, well, justice.  We are all capable of good and evil.  If you're going to criticize the speck of dust in your neighbor's eye, first check out the plank in your own.  Tori Amos sings about Jesus, both directly and through inference, more than many of the top Christian artists.

Rehearsing with the Geroso Brothers Band at FPCH, after hours
I was 16 when I first started spinning Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink in my suburban bedroom.  When the song "God," came on, the Catholic in me cringed and felt like I ought to skip from Pretty Good Year right onto Past the Mission (I hadn't learned to appreciate Bells For Her yet).  But then I learned, because the internet-as-encyclopedia was coming of age along with me, that God isn't really about our Creator, but rather about all the so-called Christian leaders who like to play god, who like power and who love to be worshipped, driving around with their "nine-irons, just in case."  If you have trouble picturing this, maybe this will help

But what Rolling Stone and Spin and MTV News never seemed to pay much mind to was how much Tori Amos takes on the issue of racial injustice.  And furthermore, in line with the mission of this blog, Tori Amos has always been Dismantling Whiteousness since she regrouped after Y Kant Tori Read.  From the indigenous chorale chants on Little Earthquakes of "give me life, give me pain, give me myself again," to her unique "Cherokee Edition" of Home on the Range where she bitterly asks, "America, who discovered your ass?"  Tori's critique of America's Original Sin has been constant and significant.

Most fans know this well: Tori's father is a Methodist Pastor with staunch Scottish ancestry while her mother brings two Eastern Cherokee bloodlines together.  This naturally created quite a juxtaposition in her upbringing.  One set of grandparents fiercely expected her to assume a subordinate role, as was the common Christian attitude towards women in the 60s and 70s (and, unfortunately for many, is still the case today.)  Her other grandparents taught through stories of ancestors, especially her "Poppa," values like strength, courage, respect for the land and respect for finding her own voice.  Myra Ellen Amos, her birth name, was uniquely positioned, and uniquely gifted, to stand in the crossroads and pay attention.  I am so very grateful that she started writing her observations into lyrics and songs that never leave me.

So let's dive into her battle with the status quo's mission to silence and subdue, that overly proud Whiteousness which she often, and rightfully, attaches to American Christian-ism (the warping of a true walk behind Jesus):

Her sixth studio album, Scarlet's Walk, may be the best representation of this mixed upbringing alongside observations of the United States freshly after the attacks on 9/11.  It has been championed by Native American activism groups since its release.  Part of the creation of the album involved a road-map (included in the liner notes), with each of the 18 songs corresponding to a different region of the country.  Tori studied the musical traditions of the land's original people, and together with Matt Chamberlain as her percussionist, a man with Native American heritage himself, they built rhythm sections for each song that paid homage to the indigenous styles of the region.  It's a metaphor of her entire career, building songs out of the forgotten stories, the severed narratives, and the folks who've been conquered and silenced by dominating power structures and people.  Right there in the actual beats, the subtle but undeniable pulse of her ancestors.

From the title track: 

a guest up until 
you announced 
you had moved in 
"what do you plan to do with all your freedom?" 
the new sheriff said, 
quite proud of his badge 
"you must admit the land is now in good hands" 
yes, time will tell that
you just lift your lamp
I will follow her on her path
Scarlet's Walk through the violets...

Leading right into "Virginia"

so hundreds of years go by
(the red road carved up by sharp knife)
she's a girl out working her trade
and she loses a little each day
to ghetto pimps and presidents
who try and arouse her turquoise serpents
she can't recall what they represent
and when you ask, she won't know

Virginia, the personified woman of native origin who can't remember her name, the tragedy of assimilation wiping out culture.  She is a commodity, she is interesting and used for someone else's profit, but she can't even remember why she matters.  It's chillingly tragic, but look at the way dominant culture loves "ethnic" music until someone like Beyonce reminds us she's actually African-American (see earlier post.)  And Scarlet is the woman who does remember, who lights the way for Tori, and for any of us who will listen.  This new authority, the sheriff, was a guest until he stole the land.  But Tori reminds us that the stories are still alive, even if we have to dig to find them, and sitting around the fire on level ground will always, always matter.

--Listen for two minutes to Tori explain the power of a sole native activist who came to her after a show, literally inspiring the journey of the Scarlet's Walk project.  The woman came with tears, a tomahawk, and compassion.  It's a breathtaking lesson on greed being confronted with the hope of actual reconciliation.

Earlier on the record in Sweet Sangria (right), she links the struggles of the natives to our modern day neighbors crossing our southern borders.  Today, I was on a hike in the Hollywood Hills, contemplating how this land was originally Mexico.....

before sundown the mexicans leave san antone 
the car will then drop him at the border 
the breaking point 
i know your people have suffered 
time and time again 
but what about i ask you now 
the innocents on both sides 
give me a bloodless road 
tell me why does someone have to lose?

Tori Amos lifts the secrets, the untold stories, the ugly alternative American history into the limelight.  She's been dismantling the dominant narratives for years, especially the ones that hurt everyone but White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Men.  She's been encouraging all who've been silenced to speak up, to gather around and share.   I found myself wondering about Cornflake Girl again, even though she describes it as a song pondering the way women betray one another, could her "hangin' with the Raisin Girls" instead of the dry and stale Cornflakes be a poke at Whiteousness that does not value diversity?

And Happy Anniversary Tori Amos and Mark Hawley! (I realized that it was today as I researched elements for this blog).  You are my favorite musical power couple....and thank you for your commitment to unearthing that which has been shamefully hidden.  I hope to carry that torch in this blog.

I'll close the blog with a collection of Amos' lyrics that continue to dismantle the story of white supremacy and what people of color have had to put up with in order to survive in this country:

I knew he was looking for some Indian blood.
Found a little in you, found a little in me
we may be on this road but
we're just imposters in this country, you know

Mama got shit, she loved a brown man, so she built a bridge in the Sheriff's bed.  
She'd do anything to save her man.

Jamaica, do you know what I have done?  Mary M weaving on 
said what you want is in the blood, Senators.

We laughed in the faces of kings, never afraid to burn.

I dreamed I dreamed I dreamed I loved a black boy, 
my daddy would scream.

Our father of Corporate Greed, you absolve Corporate Thieves.

You know that I'm drowning, put on your raincoat again 
cause even the sun's got a price on it.

You don't need a spaceship, they don't know you've already lived
 on the other side of the galaxy.

The Indian is told the cowboy is his friend.

Hey, there's a new Jerusalem! Hey, you built on rock that's on sand!  For now you have hijacked the Son, last time I checked he came to the light the lamp for everyone!

Plant another seed of hate in a trusting virgin gun.

Because we all lay down to sleep through the Now.
And if we all lay down, 
She'll be waiting for us where the rivers cross
Once we wake from our rest.
"All the best," the Other America

Will we wake from our rest?  Will we wake up and listen to these voices?  I pray we do, soon.  There's so much us Anglos have to learn and unlearn and relearn.

-Peace, love, and rock and roll,
Matthew, follow the dialogue on Twitter here

Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Tragedy of Whiteousness for White People

"We need to generate greater cultural awareness of the way white-supremacist thinking operates in our daily lives.  We need to hear from the individuals who know, because they have lived anti-racist lives, what everyone can do to decolonize their minds, to maintain awareness, change behavior, and create beloved community." -bell hooks, Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope

For 20 years now as an adult, but probably even longer, I have been being formed by attempting to live the anti-racist life that bell hooks mentions, in thought, word, and deed.  My testimony of following Jesus attests to the clear reality that friendships with children of God who look different than me, who sometimes even understand God differently than me, has literally saved my life, time and time again.  Salvation for me looks like the Beloved Community, trusting that God designed it this way and living into it as best as I can, now and forevermore.

And I don't think I'm being myopic here, focused on one "issue" of being a Christian.  (That issue being race-relations and the embedded injustices when those relations do not start from level ground.)  I believe this is the issue when it comes to how we relate to the family of God's children here on Earth: loving our neighbors as ourselves.  The Rev. Dr. Shanta Premawardhana shared his perspective at a DOOR National Meeting once, and it has blessed me all these years.  He reminded us that the story of God and humanity starts in a garden, but it ends, or I should say, moves towards and continues eternally, in a beautiful and diverse city:

The nations will walk in its light and earth's kings bring in their splendor.  Its gates will never be shut by day, and there won't be any night.  They'll bring the glory and honor of the nations into the City." Revelation 21:24-26, The Message

But before we get to a glimpse of that party, let me confess to you: Native, Black, Latino and Vietnamese people have literally redirected my life in ways that I strongly believe, saved me.  I believe God intervened through them, and it helped me to understand the beauty, truth, and hope of Revelation.  Now, I am learning to listen to a broader range of my Asian and Pacific Islander brothers and sisters, too.  I'm here, because I've been loved by a beloved community of Native, Black, "woken-up" Anglos, Latino, and Vietnamese people.

Whiteousness.  It hurts and kills white people too.  It is a tragedy that needs to be dismantled.

Highly suggest you view the demographics of your towns, too. Click here.
I grew up in Beverly Hills, Michigan, a few miles north of Detroit.  The genius developers over at the Cooper Center have created The Racial Dot Map (left).  Green dots represent Black people, blue represents White.  Notice the stark line between green and blue in Detroit: that's 8 mile Road.  Now, Beverly Hills is right at the tip-top edge of areas that Black folks live, but north of my hometown, you see it is blue.  And then it stays blue.  I grew up around mostly white neighbors, many of whom said, "the minute a black family moves into this neighborhood, we are moving out."  And they did.  Thankfully, my parents did not subscribe to such notions, and even did the unthinkable by taking their children into downtown Detroit for more than just Tiger's games.  We went to concerts, art shows, festivals from time to time, my favorite restaurant being the Mexican family-owned Xochimilco's.  This was my first saving grace, my parent's decision to not be as afraid as their neighbors were with crossing 8 mile. 

Let's fly over the great plains to Denver, more specifically, Littleton, Colorado, where I spent many summers because of family who relocated there in the late eighties.  I remember when it was being developed: it was, and still is, this beautiful foothill-surrounded enclave with white-picket fenced homes.  The cutest prairie dogs dot the undeveloped landscape, and as they were my favorite zoo animals, I just thought that was awesome.   It was the imagery of the American Dream, and I myself dreamed of moving there.  Until April 20, 1999.  

Columbine High School -  Getty Images Published 12/7/2012
Most Anglos remember where we were that fateful day.  My cousins were thankfully still too young to be in high school, but their neighbors were not so lucky.  How this could happen in this perfect little community, I remember the headlines gasping, was beyond comprehension.  Unless, little "safe" enclaves are actually more problematic than perfect.

Littleton, Colorado is, as of the 2010 census, 94.1% White, as is much of suburban Denver.  A few years back, Toni White and I were flown to speak at a church there on the topics of compassion and reconciliation.  It was a wonderful conference, and our hosts were lovely.  After one session, Toni and I recognized that some people needed one-on-one time to process further, so we set up shop in a small classroom.  Within ten minutes, a church staffer came in to say that we had to find somewhere else because the regular Friday night teen suicide prevention ministry would need the room shortly.

The regular teen suicide prevention ministry.  Grateful that they are taking that so seriously, but it struck me as utterly tragic.  The need must be so strong that a weekly ministry has been established.  This, in the image of the American Dream.  This, 15 years after the massacre that shook White America to our cores.  What is going wrong?

Diversity matters.  Not just as a politically correct, pie-in-the-sky, liberal, bleeding heart thing.  But as a Biblically correct, New Jerusalem-minded, God-honoring, blood of Christ thing.  Authentic diversity has given me my first taste of God's saving power being remembered through His people.  

You've heard a bit about Levi.  (See Post 1 and Post 2).  Forever, when I read the book of Philemon, I see Levi as Paul, asking me, as Onesimus, to carry the Gospel from that Detroit-area prison.  The good news is that God loves all people, even someone convicted of murder and even someone who was still grasping for a sense of conviction in his life.  I consider myself a servant of Levi, and it shapes me and my understanding of Jesus.

Former Teachers at Fannie C. Williams Middle School in New Orleans East
Levi told me to be a teacher, which led to joining Teach For America, and that took me to New Orleans East in the Upper 9th Ward.  I am a person who struggles with anxiety and depression, most especially when I experience failure.  Any first year teacher will tell you that failure either becomes their best platform to grow or the dominant reason they quit before year two.  A community of mostly black teachers surrounded me and encouraged me, and when they felt me strengthening, started to rib and tease me.  I didn't know how to really laugh until my friends in New Orleans taught me how to not take myself so seriously.  And being invited to homes of my students, being fed gumbo and homemade beignets, being teased by my Vietnamese students at my pronunciation of the word Phở... I can guarantee that this was the beginning of my recovery from Whiteousness.

When Marvin Wadlow Jr. and I were developing the racial reconciliation curriculum for DOOR Hollywood, we had some hot moments.   There's the infamous time we were on the phone together, me walking to the bus, he standing on his porch half-dressed, cussing each other out.   I even stepped into an alley to not disturb the folks on the sidewalk and wound up accidentally waking up a man living homelessly.  "Hey buddy, people are trying to sleep over here!"

But Marvin and I committed to staying at the table together through that fight, and much fruit has come from that.  One of the many things I've learned from him is that we need to honor the gifts of our cultures.  European-descended folks, in general, tend to be planners and convinced that they can solve any issue if they have enough preparation.  African-descended folks, in general (and maybe this is because of forced acculturation here in the US), tend to have a stronger appreciation of improvisation, reading the audience, and making a call in the present context.  Another way of saying this is that white people value being on time, and black people understand that the best part of the party is at the end, so being late isn't that concerning and is actually preferable.

For this anxiety prone white male, learning to relax and listen after having prepared the best I can; learning to have my sh#t together on one hand, but to be open to what comes, to be attentive to the nudging of the Holy Spirit, to laugh off failure; well, all of this has saved me.   No, let me say it again.  It has saved my life, and it has made life more worth living.  Can I get an amen?

I have watched people I grew up with succumb to depression and suicide attempts and successes.  I have witnessed and felt the pressure of being "whiteous," being proud and perfect and powerful, being so spotless and on-point that you can never have a day off.  I have watched this destroy sanity and peace of mind.  And I believe it is because it doesn't honor the diversity of the Kingdom God has designed.  It believes white and white-mindedness is best, it is a form of white-supremacy, and it is not what it means to follow Jesus.

Earlier this month, I had the honor of hearing Brittany Packnett, co-founder of Campaign Zero, "preach." It was a session on Civil Rights, but it felt like church to me and I shared that with her afterwards.  She preached on how much she loves her black skin, her hair, the way she and her family talk, the way she and her family worship, the way she and her family dance.  She is preaching against the Whiteousness that dominates little Pecola Breedlove in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye.   And, speaking to white people who feel "guilty" with their power and wish they didn't have to, Brittany said we must learn to love ourselves, too.  If we love ourselves again, love our blonde hair and blue-green eyes, love our heritage and our stories, then we might be able to handle others loving themselves.  We can more fully appreciate #BlackLivesMatter.  We can own that we have a wild and wonderful Creator who made thousands of species of butterflies that we recognize as beautiful and purpose-filled in the world.  Why do we have such a hard time with skin and hair tones?  What did Jesus die for other than to reconcile humanity to God, and brothers and sisters with one another?  What other than to undo the disobedience of Adam and Eve and the murderous jealousy of Cain towards Abel? To mend and re-create that which has been broken.

Oh, and one more thing.  Peanut Butter has saved my life, too.  My daughters full well know that when I'm "hangry," hand me a spoon and some organic peanut butter.  Thanks George Washington Carver for thinking that one up.  Phew!

DOOR Hollywood board, 2015.  Marvin on my left, Toni in white.  Manny
and KC are the Co-Chairs and often speak with groups too, Candi in the beige
coat is a great planner who also reminds me about self-care, Dawn in the orange
shirt is really helping our church to learn about Non-Toxic Charity, and Robert
on my right, gave me the bell hooks book!
So let's live into the design God always intended.  Let's let ourselves be loved by ourselves and people who look different than ourselves.  Let's love people who are different than us.  White folks, please click on the links throughout this post and learn, listen, and then go to the other side of town and actually get to know some new neighbors.  Let's live towards the Beloved Community by starting the party here on Earth in this lifetime.

Can I get a witness?

Click here to keep up with this discussion on Twitter

I had the honor of speaking alongside these fine Teach For America folks in a Diversity Matters campaign. Jacqulyn Eun Sun Whang, Rachelle McClendon-Alexander, Rudy Acosta, and Dr. Irma McLaurin  See it here.

Local Discerner Arthur clowning with a traveling Discover group leader at First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood.

DOOR Hollywood Discern Team in 2012: Dorian, Romeo, Odalys, Kelli, Arthur, Britney, and Christian.

July 17, 2005.  Our flower girls Cyndy and Nicole, with another friend Ashley, were our neighbors in Koreatown whose parents fed Darcie and I far more than the enchiladas and tamales they cooked.

July 16, 2005.  The day before our wedding.  Tina and Travis finally meet, two of my mentors and friends.  Tina took me in when I lost a job in LA, and let me write songs out of her garage while I took care of her horse.  Travis called me out on my self-pity and pointed out the damaging nature of white-privilege, with love.  He was, and is, my Best Man.