Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Malignant Whiteousness, by Donna Lillian Givins

Today's words come from Donna Lillian Givins, CEO of The Eastside Community Network in Detroit, and a new friend.  It originally appeared on the Thinkofone blog here:

Jesus commands us to love our enemies but what is love without understanding? Here is my attempt to understand the evil unveiled under the Chump aka Twitler aka Cheetolini, but never President because he is never presidential.

Malignant whiteousness is the damaged offspring of malignant narcissism inbred with righteousness and white supremacy. Whiteousness is a disease of distorted reality, of miseducation and misinformation and an aggressive denial of a threatening reality that all men are created equal. And women are equal to men. Like all malignancies, whiteousness spreads and it kills.

Consider, for example, the malignant Whiteous alt-right movement of college-age and young adult white men who gather in online forums under the banner of Pepe the frog. Bred to be masters of the universe, they enter college at an immediate disadvantage to immigrant African and Asian and other brown students who prepare with precision, ace entrance exams and set every college-curve. They are educated alongside a growing cadre of the descendants of people their ancestors enslaved, who – freed from the shackles of Jim Crow oppression, illiteracy and poverty – assimilate comfortably into college and careers. And they are equalled or bested by women at every front – academically, socially, politically. Women, it seems, have reproductive choice, economic power and social identities independent of their menfolk.

And so some whiteous men recede into righteous anger and resentment and enter into a fantasy world of white male triumphalism, replete with Pepe the Frog and nostalgic dreams of days-gone-by when women were powerless, Black people were subservient, and Asian ambitions were colonized. Math and science have been mastered by immigrant Browns and Blacks and, therefore, neither sciences or maths are trusted or respected fields. History is damning in its detail of past atrocities, hypocrisies, and worldwide oppression. Truth is, therefore, a lie.

According to the Whiteous, America must be restored to the haven of privileged white maleness. Black people must be subdued, immigrants must be detained and deported and women, robbed of reproductive choice, must be returned to dependency on the goodwill of men. These beliefs are malignant because many people, wishing for a simpler past, grab pieces of these dreams without considering the whole problem they represent. They are dangerous because white supremacy is so ingrained in our national psyche and toxic maleness is so familiar that others unknowingly imbibe these lies without forethought or intent. They taste familiar. And they are deadly because the angered whiteous are violent and destructive and the people they target will not submit without a fight.

I had a few friends who were favorite children growing up. These children were always the most admired, most supported, most rescued members of the family. On the one hand, the favored child was coddled and protected and the less favored child had to work harder for basic needs and supports. On the other hand, the favored child was more fragile, more in need of constant praise and adulation. The favored child developed into a narcissist believing with religious fervor in his own superiority and blaming every piece of evidence to the contrary on a biased and disloyal world.

The less favored child was both strong and resilient unless s/he was abused or seriously neglected, which caused a host of other problems. This child learned at an early age to never depend on the world or other people for his physical or emotional needs; never to accept what the world had to say about him. He learned to make a way out of no way; to bury his emotional needs so deep that no one could dislodge them, sometimes not even himself or his wife or his children. Those who succeeded, learned to work twice as hard to get half as far. Those who failed learned to expect nothing, hope for nothing, and they learned how to handle having nothing – not prosperity, not peace, and — all too often — not life itself.

Whiteous white people are those without a system for preserving healthy self worth; their worth is predicated on their superiority over others of lesser status. When my favored-child friends left home and were confronted with a real world that granted them no sense of specialness, many of them struggled and others found other ways to create a sense of self-importance. They became bullies or workplace sharks or abusive spouses.

Whiteous whites are now living in a world where a Black man ascended to the presidency, brown people are dominating scientific and technical fields (hence anti-science), and other brown people are posing a threat to the preservation of their international privilege. And so we endure the backlash of hateful resentment – how dare you, how dare we, how dare the world question their divinity.

They use proof of Black men broken by racism as evidence of Black inferiority. They use proof of American birthright of immigrant non-acceptance. They use proof of a God they forsake in every other way, as evidence of the evils of birth control and abortion.

Malignant Whiteousness is evil and its danger must be confronted through resistance to the thinking, behavior, and actions of the Whiteous.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Mexicans, Blacks, Whites, Suburbs, and Hoods

Rudy and Celah of Grace And Two Fingers, a show where "a Mexican and Black guy from the hood in Los Angeles talk about what Jesus has done and is doing," invited me & Marvin on their podcast with the question "why do Black and White people fight so much?"  This blossomed into a rich and funny conversation about the intersections of faith, racism, "Whiteousness," Jesus and the humor that can be found in the tensions when we keep coming back to the tables.

Take an hour and dig in, you won't be sorry.

+Matthew John Schmitt - The Table Setters

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Detroit. Challenge. Circuitry.

Garlin Gilchrist III speaking about his bid for
City Clerk at Lauren Hood's SpeakEasy
So, I wanted to write a stellar blogpost about the challenges of Detroit that I've come to see, now living here for a year.  I want to write a whole piece about over-privilege and arrogance and delusion and racism and the profitability, both economically and politically, of negative stereotyping of brown-skinned people and how that is the real reason Detroit looks like it does, but can't quite find an entry point.  Possibly here....did those of you who live in the suburbs know that in the 1950s onward, before Civil Rights legislation put an end to it, that white families, and only white families, were encouraged to move to the suburbs because the government provided all kinds of financial subsidies making loans easier to access and the ability to own a large suburban home more affordable than renting in the city?

(But, again, only if you were white, very clearly, written into the laws.  Talk about how big government has supported and created economic gains for some people, and their descendants, who currently lash out at government assistance for people who are financially struggling.  Do they know that their ability to amass such a comfortable living, and for some, the ability to go far beyond that, was sparked by a massive welfare program that literally created suburbia?)

However, this blog keeps urging me to get personal, to be vulnerable and honest.  Authentic.  And to reflect, once again, on my need to dismantle some of my own Whiteousness.

Last week I was inducted into the 6th Team of the Challenge Detroit Fellows.  It was an immersive week learning about critical work being done by awesome networks of people in Detroit, and a week of learning how the history I alluded to above creates a particularly complicated set of obstacles for moving forward.  But one thing kept nagging me all week:

I feel too old for this.

I admit, I looked around the room at the Millennials and kept feeling like, "I should be elsewhere, I should be further along than this, why can't we get The Table Setters to jump to the next level yet?"  Though the Challenge Detroit staff reassured me that every year there are people in their late 30s and some who already have kids, it would seem that this particular year, I'm that guy.  I'm the only one who's married, the only one with kids.  It didn't help when one of the presenters, who I've known this year from other networking, asked me, "aren't you too old for Challenge Detroit?"  And of course, a peppering of comments in sessions like, "you all are too young to remember VHS tapes," etc.

But then, on our final day, Maggie DeSantis, founder of Building the Engine of Community Development in Detroit, kept explaining her lifelong journey through advocacy and community engagement as "circuitous."  There was no real map to get to where she's at.

Circuitous.  Circuitry.  Connections and energy flow and repair and rewiring and restoring and reminders.  My fuses have been a bit blown out from the past year.

A few days earlier, we had done a high ropes challenge as a team.  With my climbing partner, Jasmine, we were supposed to get ourselves up a hanging ladder made for a giant.  The rungs were too far apart to reach without working together.  We were about 2/3 of the way up and feeling like giving up (both of us enjoyed a gratuitous use of the word "motherf***er uttered in harsh whispers only the two of us could hear.)  And Arnesha, from down below, called up to me, "go Matt, you're a dad, you can do anything!"  She literally flipped and recharged the phrase that I had been muttering internally (ugh, you're the old dad), to a statement of respect and empowerment.

A resurgence of energy infused me, and Jasmine and I made it to the top.  Jasmine literally pulled me up to the final rung and then we both grabbed the top of the platform.

Maggie DeSantis described her circuitous route, and I started remembering something, something I've known for decades now, something I was in danger of forgetting.  In the Prison Creative Arts Project, we used to engage in this activity called "Cops In The Head," which was part of Augusto Boal's Theater of the Oppressed.  One person was to imagine all the people who've spoken into their lives, positively and negatively, and then assign those people to be characterized by the rest of the group.  The person would explain the roles: like a coach who had encouraged; a grandmother who was always mean and judgmental, etc.  The person would walk through this group, gauntlet-style, and the negative people would shout discouragement while the positive people would whisper closely in your ear to help you get through the staged turmoil.  Everyone always cried, even the biggest muscled men I worked with years ago on the inside.

Here I was feeling too old, feeling like I had somehow failed to achieve "what I'd been supposed to have achieved by now."  But Maggie got me thinking about cops in my head, and the voices of guidance and love, too.

I was succumbing to my own Whiteousness.  I won't name names (so don't ask), but there have been suburban neighbors and even family members who ask questions that deeply imply, or outright state, that I'm not yet good enough, stirring up the overwhelming narrative of where a man, and definitely a white man, should be at this state in his life....

But voices like Arnesha's cut through that last week. I'm a dad.  She doesn't know this, but my first month as a dad was horrible, and it set a precedent of insecurity that still haunts me today.  I've worked hard to redeem that, and the joy of being the person who delivered our second child is something that, even as I type this, nearly brings tears to my eyes.  And so I remembered, that all along the way, it has been primarily African American folks, mostly women, who've offered me the most reminders of my worth and my capabilities.  (Remember Matthew, you wrote this not too long ago: To the Black Women Who Loved the Death out of Me.)  It was the black mothers and aunties in New Orleans who first addressed my debilitating perfectionism with love, grace, and humor.  It was Latinas in Los Angeles who fed us and allowed us to be part of their families' lives that taught me what it really means to take care of a family, despite great odds and daily fears.  It's important to note that almost all of these women love and follow Jesus, too.

This past year has been monumental, with all "the feels" (a new phrase I'm learning from my Millennial peers.)  We've had great blessings: housing and neighbors and a diverse school community and outreach to us.  We've almost let the stress of not finding jobs to tear our marriage apart.  I'm not saying that lightly.

On the job front, though, I also needed to confront some of my expectations and internal pressures based on the privileges I've been brought up with.  It is clear to me that I've been created to build bridges between racial, socio-economic, and interreligious divisions we've allowed to fester in our country for far too long.  I am passionate about deconstructing narratives that have favored abusive rises to power on the backs of others.  In our country, that is White Supremacy.  Period. Full Stop.  Given that sense of call on my life, my job journey just may well be "circuitous."

I recently had the privilege, yes privilege, of being a co-panelist with the brilliant Dennis Talbert, and he helped to break apart the buzzword of "white privilege."  It comes down to how many opportunities are laid out in front of you.  Opportunities to get jobs, opportunities to get invited to attend life changing events, opportunities to exist in a way that is less about mere survival and more about moments of really thriving.  I've had more opportunities laid out before me than most of the students I've had the privilege of teaching.  I would say it also comes down to how many chances you get if you make a mistake, which I suppose is also another way of saying, "how many opportunities will you be granted to prove your worthiness and goodness in society."

I applied to all kinds of non-profit jobs, ministry roles, community engagement and development roles throughout these past 12 months while driving for Lyft (a specific opportunity available to me because I have the privilege of owning a car) and working as a part-time teacher evaluator.  Not once, but several times, I knew I was a top choice as I was called in for several final interviews.  But I didn't get the jobs, and I was becoming increasingly heartbroken and fearful.  As a finalist, I was invested in who actually got those jobs, and 90% of them went to black men and women who had lived in Detroit proper their entire lives, or at least much longer than myself.

And this is right.  I can hear some of you, (in fact, some of you have said it directly), but isn't that reverse racism?  Isn't that discriminating against you because you're white?  Do you know that, sadly, most of the jobs in the city today are held by white people from the suburbs?  Maybe you don't care about that, but those of us who are fighting for justice and equity in the level of opportunities have to accept the fact that it means that if we are successful, white men like myself might have to learn a bit of something that people of color have had to have, in abundance, for decades: patience.   Patience, and of course, just a fraction of the patience that's been endured by people who look different than myself.  And, for the person who asked me if this was reverse racism, did it ever occur to you that I may not have been as qualified as the people who got the jobs?  Even if all things were equal in terms of qualifications,  I stand fully supportive of the fact that my non-profit directing experience in LA was seen as less preferable than a person who has worked hard alongside their parents to endure the lack of jobs in Detroit all these years.  That certainly offers them an edge on my experience.  If we are both wanting to work to create more job opportunities for Detroiters to work in Detroit, especially the communities of color who've been shut out of too many roles for too many years, my lack of being hired makes sense.  It is just.

But this year also meant I had to keep experiencing rejection.  Which is always hard, especially for a perfectionism-prone mindset like mine.  I've woken up hearing the voices: what's wrong with you, why can't you find a job, you should've done this instead of that, you should've.....and then Teen HYPE called a few months ago offering me a job alongside becoming a Challenge Detroit Fellow.  I'll write more about Teen HYPE in the future, but for now, it's been an honor to step into a program that celebrates the youth of Detroit by confronting barriers and building bridges.  And I heard Levi's voice from years ago inside Western Wayne Correctional Facility, encouraging me to help tell the full and honest stories.

Last week, the team of fellows were invited to attend Detroit Homecoming.  It was, again, all the feels.  Exciting, infuriating, confusing, inspiring, exhausting, and fun.  And humbling, for me.  Because here I was coming off a week of feeling old and, full disclosure, a little arrogantly "above" all these younger folks in my cohort.  Detroit Homecoming was very well attended, it was noisy and abuzz with energy the entire time.  Though we weren't supposed to do this, and even got in a little bit of hot water afterwards, the team of fellows began to send group messages to each other during upsetting moments of presentations; during moments where someone didn't understand a policy being described, to celebrate the Diva-tastic moments of Mary Wilson. It was bonding.  It was informative.  It was sneaky, sure, but I wouldn't trade it in.  We were all helping each other to stay engaged and up to speed with what was going on, especially during a two day period where we had very limited time to reflect and process.

I felt part of the team.  I felt cared for.  I noticed others weighing in and questioning and supporting and challenging one another.  Eric and Monti taught me about the United Nations' 17 Sustainable Development Goals.  I learned phrases I had always wondered at the meaning.  Summar helped out by taking my daughters to the stadium bathroom at the Tigers' game.  I felt like this is going to be an important step in my circuitous path. 

So here I am, the guy who preaches to appreciate all kinds of diversity and the blessings and challenges that arise from that, the guy who says you've got to push through the awkward discomfort and even the offensiveness sometimes to discover our mutual value....I had to relearn that Millenials are incredible and sometimes when they (and me) are on our phones we aren't less engaged: we're super engaged and working through this. ( But, of course: we should not be on our phones in intimate neighborhood meetings when people are expressing their hopes and dreams!)

I am looking forward to working with this team all year.  I hope that my experiences have something to offer, and yes, even my age.  But I can already sense that I have much to learn on the road ahead from these effervescent and deep thinking people in their twenties.  The energy is palpable.

Circuitry.  A circuitous route, but a valid one nonetheless, as Maggie reminded me.  I can't wait to keep plugging in, networking, finding how to best use our energy and ideas to really celebrate what has been going well in Detroit despite great obstacles, and how we can move forward together.  Racially, generationally, socio-economically, and amidst the variety of our belief systems and backgrounds.  We all have something to offer, we truly all do.  Less factions, and more interconnected, intersectional, ebb and flow of energy and ideas and hope.

+Matthew John Schmitt - The Table Setters

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

It's Not About Guilt, It's About Hope.

Charlottesville.  The United States of America.  2017.  What follows is a collection of some of my Facebook posting, along with some friends who inspire me, in the after swirl. 

In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ. - Galatians 3:28, The Message

"We are not born with prejudices, they are made for us by someone who wants break us into small (and conquerable) groups."

If a politician or a pastor doesn't call out the hatred of #WhitePower, maybe we should ask, might it be serving them?

We know what fascism is. We know what racism is. We must resist and we must wake up.

(The clip above is from an anti-fascism film made by the US Government in 1943 called "Don't Be A Sucker.")
August 12, 2017 

Dear European-American Christians: I take this moment to remind you that following Jesus and claiming Christianity are two very different things. Jesus called out the religious elite of his day for being in collusion with political and economic power as opposed to trusting the truth of God.

If your church does not make reference to the hatred on display last night and today, if someone tells you it is just the "fringe" of the Republican party, be very suspicious. #UniteTheRightRally is meant to divide and conquer.

If you're happy that your church doesn't bring it up, I implore you to read Isaiah. Read Jeremiah. Read any one of the four Gospels from start to finish. Take notes. Pay attention to how the leaders and kings lead and how they are confronted. Pay attention to who Jesus singles out as the protagonists in His lessons and the antagonists. Pay attention to the overall arc of justice that plays out.

I'm going to say it: 45 is a golden calf. Made by the white people, made for the white people, made as a substitute for God. We are witnessing a worship of a golden calf. 

Reddit user Reagente created this map.
Awaken. There is hope in the Bible. It's real to me and it's being cheapened by politically powerful white America to a sickening degree. Jesus invited us all to the table. None of us are over or under welcomed, and none of us deserve it any more than another. #BlackLivesMatter was a reflective response to the dominant #OnlyWhiteLivesMatter reality we've been subjected to since this country's founding. As Andre Henry says: there is not room for argument here. You either accept that reality or you live in delusions.
Please, now, open your eyes and your ears and your hearts. I pray for the Holy Spirit to guide us all.

August 13, 2017

(I stepped back and listened this day.  Here's the best of what I found.) 
The incredible poet and activist, Diane Ujiiye

I called this the post of the century.  Seriously, hilarious and chillingly spot on.  

Follow Donna Givens, Executive Director of the Eastside Community Network in Detroit, Here.

Follow Pastor Mike McBride, Director of People Improving Communities through Organizing, Here

August 14, 2017
Seriously, super stress-relieving.
The passive and excuse-laden comfortability with the ongoing legal, social, and nationally supported systems of White Supremacy, both the overt and riotous, as well as the more insidious and hidden daily aggressions from well meaning white people (like myself, I admit), makes me want to knock shit over today. Thank God I've still got Angry Birds on my phone.

How in the hell do we move past this with integrity, equity, and effective consequences? How do I, as a Jesus-follower, contain my anger and find love for my current enemies to "heap burning coals" upon their passivity and reveal that God meant what he said when he challenged us to love our neighbors, and that heaven will be hard to get into if we are spiritually diluted by our privileges here on earth? People: I believe this tension is what it's all about. Do we trust God enough to actually love and fight for our neighbors?

August 15, 2017

To be clear:

I am not against white people. I am against white dominance, and anything that seeks to support white dominance as "all-powerful" or "most preferable" is deeply problematic. I actually grieve for white people who are consumed by maintaining "whiteness." I have seen this destroy more white people than I can bear to mention. It has caused me depression and anxiety. I believe it is because it was never God's intent for any one group to believe themselves better than any other. This is not about guilt. It's about hope.

Yes white people have had to work hard. I've never denied that. But why is it so challenging to accept what I've seen, from years of teaching in European, African, Asian, and Latino-American school contexts: the kids I've taught with browner skin have had to work much harder to achieve similar levels of success, than their lighter skinned peers. I am not making that up, it is real and it is a problem. Why is that so hard to accept and so tempting to dismiss as "emotionality," or "playing the race card," or whatever else has been said to discredit what those of us who've crossed boundaries know to be true?

I lament the fear of "the other." I believe when Jesus challenged us to trust God and love all our neighbors, he meant that. In my life, I have found that learning from people in races and cultures and socio-economic classes other than the one I was born into has given me an ever-clearer picture of the kingdom of God. The diversity helps to paint a fuller rendering of how amazing God is. So I strive to learn more, and I trust the experiences of first hand stories more than news stories framed and reframed for profit and ratings.

I may be using social media more than is healthy at times, but social media, for me, is a way to generate dialogue that is hard to have on a daily basis. Of course, it's easy to get stuck in a loop, so we all must encourage one another to take these important conversations into our face to face interactions. We don't have a precedent for how to best use this medium, so we are all learning as we go.

I believe people do change, when confronted with the right stories in the right contexts. I've also seen great hope in my family and my friends. I mean, isn't that what the entire walk with Jesus is meant to be? A place to continually move your life more and more in line with His? If we don't believe people can change, then it's a pretty shallow Gospel.

I make mistakes all the time. Some kind old friends recently pointed that out to me. I've been guilty of trying to save all the poor black kids and I've gotten my ass handed to me over a warm cup of Gumbo. I've engaged in fights that should've ended in more prayer and walking away. I've been called the "white devil" as well as "racist against white people." But let me assure you, these are not the worst things that can happen. These are survivable.

What is not okay to me: turning a blind eye to actual suffering, especially when doing so out of convenience or uncomfortability. True, we can't fight every battle and it would be arrogant to think otherwise. But I've been deeply troubled by the lack of concern for the ongoing systems that support one group's pursuit of life and liberty over another's, especially from within the Church when there are ample passages decrying economic structures of oppression. I feel we must stand strong. Whiteness is the problem with race, whiteness invented the current structure of racial hierarchy in this country, and it works hard to support itself. It wants to rule economically, morally, and culturally. It is the distraction that I feel called to stand against. It is not the only problem we Christians are expected to combat, but it's the one I feel God asking me to focus on, through how I was made and how life has shaped me along the way.  (Original post, with comments, here.)

With love, hope, and peace by peace,

Come along side our work at The Table Setters.  We'll pass the gumbo.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Take "Our" Country Back

Fulfill the promise of [45] and take "our" country back, says David Duke today..... 

Who do you know he means when he's using "we" and "our" and "America?" It doesn't look like our America. I'm using our in a different way...

This is nothing new, this is as old and as American as apple pie. And, those of us who see the country as more than just a white man's promised land need to speak up, need to resist, need to fight back.

Sometimes, when I use the term #Whiteousness, I am talking about the subtle ways people defer to #Whiteness being preferable, being the standard to measure against, and that white people have all the best ideas for everything...

But sometimes, I'm talking about this. This is the KKK proudly not wearing their masks. They feel like they don't have to hide, because they have a government that is allowing them to gain momentum again.

It all needs to be dismantled. Now. And I call on the churches to wake the hell up and stop signing off, either vocally or silently, on this kind of power and this kind of Hitleresque Voldermorting taking center stage again.

Stand up. Post right. Argue against. Make friends in the midst of the struggle. March if you have legs. Donate to other movements if you have money. Take risks against racism. Sit down and block the way of elitism. We need to do all the things.

#Charlottesville #DismantlingWhiteousness #BlackLivesMatter

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Until I Prayed With My Legs: Frederick Douglass, 1857-2017.

A new video by #TheTableSetters:

While it is frustrating, tragically so, to recognize that the prophetic words of Frederick Douglass from 1857 still resonate today when it comes to racial justice, we are choosing to see it as a light and an encouragement.  We know that faith without actions is dead, just as actions without faith are often lacking in wisdom.  We are better when we learn from one another.

The video opens with a promo we did with Ambar.  Unfortunately, the patchy wi-fi of East Detroit renders Matthew’s portions a bit choppy, but that’s a story of systemic injustice for another day...

+Matthew John Schmitt - The Table Setters

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Words, Truly, Matter.

 Take a look at the words of this advertisement in Detroit from 1942:

Help the White People To keep this district WHITE.  MEN NEEDED to KEEP OUR LINES SOLID.  Come to Nevada and Fenlon Sunday and Monday.  WE NEED HELP.  Don't be YELLOW, come out.  We Need Every WHITE MAN.  We want our girls to walk on the street, not raped.

Let those words sink in.   What does it conjure up in your mind?  I am particularly disturbed by the end lines (beyond the grammatical error), first digging in the "cowardice color" that was also slapped on Asian-Americans, but the notion that if we don't hold our lines, that our little girls would be certainly raped by non-white people is fear mongering at it's finest.  It has informed our impressions of black men, it has informed the way we police, it has informed the dominant narrative of America: black men are out to get us white folks on every level.  This is deeply rooted.  And these were commonplace words back then, so it should not be a huge surprise to realize that the original covenants of the suburbs of Detroit very directly did not allow any person with brown skin to purchase or move into homes north of 8 mile.  That was the law.

Some laws are meant to be challenged, and I believe we have a moral obligation to break unjust laws when they further oppress people who are already all too used to oppression....

Today, Darcie, Ruby and I had the distinct pleasure of visiting the Detroit Historical Museum's revealing of their retrospective on the unrest that occurred in Detroit 50 years ago next month.  I was most touched by the opening framework of how much words matter, how it included an interactive display where guests could alter the words of a news report.  You could describe the event as a "riot," an "uprising," a "rebellion;" and you could frame the crowds as "demonstrators," "troublemakers," "looters"... Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie teaches us that the story of our country, when told from the point of view of native people's, would change the "white settlers" into "invaders."  How you describe the events that took place in 1967 here in our city will probably indicate what neighborhood you come from than you may realize.  Have you ever spent time hearing about 1967 from the eyes of people who were living in Detroit?  Have you ever spent time hearing about 1967 from people whose stores were destroyed?  Have you ever listened to the deep anger of people who've been told, time and time again, that the bank would not loan them money to fix their roof because the repairs alone would cost more than their house, south of 8 mile, was worth?  This exhibit gives you an opportunity to start having those conversations with other visitors as well.

I've been contemplating word choice quite a bit lately, particularly as it relates to the role of parents in their children's education.  I've heard, so often, "the trouble with these kids' learning is that the parents just don't care."  I heard that in New Orleans, and I'm hearing that here about Detroit Public Schools.  Just. Don't. Care.  It's not accurate, and it's framed in a negative hopelessness.  What I learned, both in New Orleans and from our neighbors here in Detroit, is a much more complicated expression of what care means.  I am a parent who has the ability to be flexible with my schedule.  That allows me to show up for events at school, parent-teacher conferences, meetings with other parents.  Many of the parents of the students I taught had been working at the new Wal-Mart in New Orleans East.  Wal-Mart is notorious for problems with time-off, and many parents told me their managers threatened to fire them if they even asked for 2 hours to attend a school function.  The problem may be that, in a society that begrudges progress towards living wages, parents are not available to be as involved in their kids' education, which we know plays a huge role.  But saying that they "don't care," is a word choice that has a damaging rippling effect.  Imagine you are working two minimum wage jobs to express care for your family, because unemployment will not feed them, and your child hears a teacher or another parent talk about how parents who aren't involved "don't care."  Would your child start to question how much you love them?  Would that impact how they respond to you at home?   That is a much harder narrative to work with, sure, but in my experience much closer to reality.

Almost never reported, but 30% of the people
involved in looting were white.
So, now, being at a school that is racially and socio-economically diverse, here in a city with a very painful story of injustice and anger boiling over, I am on guard.  I have heard statements made by otherwise well-meaning white people that have an edge of condemnation and judgment.  I have heard statements made about people on the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum that they don't know how to prepare their kids properly for school.  Words can build up, or words can tear down.  Words can set the tone for how whole groups of people are understood.

What kinds of words do you use to describe people who are different than you, and why?  What kind of words do you use to describe people you don't agree with, and why?  What kinds of ways do you think your grasp of reality is sound, while another's is off base, and why?

I have found that learning to listen, and listen again, to people who have experienced less privilege than myself gives me a more balanced view of reality.  And that takes time, and that takes effort, but those of us who have the privilege to find flexibility in our schedule, finding space to do things we choose to do, ought to reach out more and more to those people who live daily lives of what they have to do to get by.

There is never any guarantee that you will find compassion and understanding for those who've had to live with less freedom than yourself.  But I know this: if you never try, if you never sit at a table with someone and ask questions that seek to understand and not judge, you never will.  The words you use to describe the people on the other side of the tracks, the people who have a different faith tradition than you, the people who voted differently than you, the people you pass by everyday when you drive across town, those words will remain static and, most likely, lifelessly negative.

Suburban Detroiters: go see this exhibit.  It's free.  Listen, talk to other people who are there.  Imagine why it's important to consider a new perspective on racial justice, on systemically unfair practices and policies in our city, on a design that was made to hurt people with brown skin.  Imagine what it's like to be always blamed for your city's explosions.  Consider the immensity of what led to this boiling over: it is not that black people are inherently more dangerous.  Remember that the British once referred to American revolutionaries as rioters and looters, too (and the Natives called them invaders).  White people, we are not the moral standard by any stretch of the imagination.  We've just controlled the framing of the story, and the words, for far too long.  It's time to listen and reach out, more and more.

Words kill, words give life;
they’re either poison or fruit—you choose.
 Proverbs 18:21, The Message
Choose your words wisely, and I would say, if you are accustomed to framing some people in negative terms all the time, that might be the first group of people you ought to listen to....

Peace by peace,

+Matthew John Schmitt - The Table Setters


Tuesday, June 6, 2017

One City. For All of Us.

"If you believe in rebuilding a city where everyone is welcomed, and those who've stayed are valued and protected, we're happy to have you." - Mike Duggan, Mayor of Detroit, 2017

Last week, Mike Duggan, the current mayor of Detroit gave a keynote address at the Mackinac Policy Conference that, frankly, is a lesson for the entire country on how redlining, borne out of blatant racial discrimination, has been the cause of Detroit's decline and lingering tensions between races.  Duggan lays out how the design of the suburbs in the 1940s and 1950s was a "conscious federal decision."  Hmm, a new layer of #DismantlingWhiteousness: recognizing that most suburbs were created, specifically and intentionally, only for people of European descent.  And there were laws in place to keep it that way.  Mind you, this was not just Detroit, this was nationwide.

Duggan says that any developer who plans to push existing Detroit residents
out to move new people in will not receive tax breaks from the city. 
So if you live in the suburbs of Detroit, if you believe Coleman Young was to blame, if you believe that the longterm residents have "let the city go," you simply must take 40 minutes and watch this.  Duggan also goes on to lay out the guiding principals of Detroit's revitalization, and it is clear that it is informed by taking a hard look at the racism of the past, how that racism decimated black businesses and communities, and a vision to truly create one city, for all of us.  The report is exciting, and though I'm still learning from our neighbors how this is all playing out on the ground, especially as it relates to affordable housing remaining throughout revitalizing neighborhoods, it's good to know that our mayor is thinking so deeply and holistically about all of this.  It's good to know that he envisions a city where people of all backgrounds, people of various socio-economic levels, immigrants and longterm African-American residents and folks moving back, like us, can live and work together.  He's urging all of us to take a closer look as well, because it can be different.

Now, this is where I think the work we are doing at The Table Setters is critical, because just making sure people all live together doesn't automatically assume everyone knows how to get along.  There is deep rooted pain, deep rooted suspicions, deep rooted fears that don't just magically go away.  However, the chances are much greater, especially if the high-density, walkable neighborhoods continue to become a reality, here.  If we are in each other's daily lives more often, we are more likely to break down barriers or misunderstanding.  But still, care must be taken and strategies must be in place to facilitate good relationship building in the wake of all the dividing and conquering we've come from.

Seriously, House of Cards is exciting, but watch this.  There has been real scandal right in your own front yards, and though I'm still learning about the politics of this mayor and how he operates, it's exciting to see his color bravery at play: owning the mistakes of the past and how they have caused the problems we have today, and setting a vision that looks decisively different.  Honestly, this is the kind of city I want to live in.  I'm glad we moved here.

+Matthew John Schmitt - The Table Setters

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

We Love Detroit, by Charlotte, age 7

A few months ago, my daughter Charlotte said:  "Dada, I want to make a video about Detroit for the Table Setters."

My favorite part of this was that she started writing in her notebook about all the people she wanted to interview so there could be older and younger people, strangers, people who've lived in Detroit for a long time and people who are new, and she said, "I know, I know, I'll definitely talk to people who look like us and people who don't look like us."

She decided to ask people what they like about our new city, because even at 7, she's noticed that people tend to say many negative things about Detroit.  Marvin helped her think like a director and an editor, and of course, we helped her learn how to use the iMovie program.  She asked me to compose the music, and was very clear about how it should sound.  She chose the titles and imagery, and I helped her find some photos to enhance the stories people were sharing.

Obviously, I'm proud of her, but I also think it's important to note that our kids, (not just my kids, but all kids) can handle thinking about narratives and community and diversity even in grade school.  In fact, most of the divisive mindsets people carry around with them originate at early ages.

Without further ado:

Marvin loves to do behind the scenes kind of extra footage, so we did this as a little promo.  Of course, we did it on a Friday right after school, she was hungry, and you can see the weekend jubilation setting in.  :)

Thanks for watching, and any comments you leave for Charlotte will be shared with the producer!

If you're interested in supporting more work like this, please donate to our non-profit on GoFundMe:

Peace by peace,

Monday, May 8, 2017

Displacement and Gathering

The lovely Hartshorn hosts.
It's been 11 months since we displaced ourselves from Los Angeles to Detroit.  But yesterday, I got to come back to Hollywood, thanks to an incredible exhibit called "Displacement and Gathering" at First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood which featured a live artistic performance of a Table Setters gathering around a table to discuss race, politics, the idolization of all things white.  We talked about what we might learn from other cultures, other perspectives, and other people with whom we might expect to disagree with, be afraid of, be opposed to meeting.  We talked about why God created diversity to begin with, if it wasn't to learn how to appreciate God's love for beauty in variety.

Marvin's All-American photos and videos with quotes by Frederick Douglass and Andre Henry were featured alongside original artwork by Hyung-in Kim, Maria Fee, Anne Baumgartner, Andrea Kraybill, Brian Fee. I want to let you have a glimpse of that work below.
For me, personally, I felt "gathered," after being displaced.  I was invited to play piano again during the worship service.  I was invited to dinner with old friends.  I got to hang out with the old team of Discerners from the Gregory avenue neighborhood, kids I knew since they were kids, and now they are all hovering around 21.  It was great to be gathered back.  But I also thought of how many people get displaced and are never able to return to glimpses of home.  I think of Native Americans pushed off their land.  I think of people living homelessly in Hollywood who get shuffled along, especially during the Oscars, every year.  I think of warriors snatched out of their homelands to come build a country for white men.  I think of refugees fleeing impossible situations, either economically or politically, to do right by their families, to survive.

I think of all the many people in Detroit who've been told their house is not worth the cost it would take to fix the roof, so they just have to slowly let the water seep in.  I think of what it might mean for us to turn back that tide.  I think of what it might take.  I pray to God we have the strength and courage to dismantle the walls that divide us, and I think Whiteousness has always been one of the most formidable.  Like the forcefield blocking entrance to the planet with all the secret codes in Rogue One.....

This week: we moved into a new house.  Another displacement and re-gathering.  We are trying to buy this house, but are facing challenges because, like many of our neighbors, it is not being valued as high as the seller is hoping to sell it.  What is value, and who decides?  The nature of this post is understandably scattered and questioning, which I think fits well alongside the artwork to follow.  Let it speak to you too.

What if we could allow everyone to be considered, "white?" Of course, i think that would be a terrible idea, as whiteness is the problem.  But, what if we could truly understand each person as a beloved child of God, as beautiful as God intended?

But first, listen to the incredible Diane Ujiiye deliver an opening prayer of sorts through spoken word:

Displacement and Gathering

"Remembering for Refugees" by Hyung-in Kim: the interlacing strands were produced in art workshops. In these educational venues the artist directed participants in the shared activity of braiding bands as a pedagogical tool to raise awareness of cultural diversity and to build empathy. Her project also commemorates the 25th Anniversary of the LA Riots.

"Pourous Wall" by Maria Fee: a wall is erected as a barrier: it can contain, or it can keep things at bay. Boundaries are necessary to create distinction. Yet when a wall is impenetrable, how can relationships occur between what's inside and outside? When a wall is too high, how can the strange draw nearer to become more familiar?

"Alienation" by Brian Fee: to exist is to struggle. In attempt to elevate the self, someone else may be pushed away. This brings about a double alienation: the one who is cast off, and the offender left alone.

"Gather and Embrace" by Anne Baumgartner: welcome can function in many ways, both literal and symbolic. Through words, expressions, and physical space, God utilizes the particularity of place to gather the many in order to embrace them. How can we create room for each other and also the Holy Spirit?

"Interwoven" by Andrea Kraybill: the multi-layered bands installed above the church's entrance, found near the intersection of two streets, further speaks of hospitality. It provides an alluring invitation for passersby to enter into a meditative space for renewal and refreshment.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

#DetroitStories from The Studio Detroit, April 21, 2017

Last night, I had the honor to share the stage with some incredible storytellers at The Studio Detroit.  It was supposed to be about redemption, which is a huge word, but I think we often experience redemption in small ways, person to person, when we take off our masks and really look at each other's humanity.  

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Heartbeat in the Heartland: #TheTableSetters in Indiana and Illinois

Spring has arrived now.

Will we blossom once again?

Healing could happen.

I'm writing from Carmel, Indiana as we are concluding our time with leadership of The Synod of Lincoln Trails, the Presbyterians of Illinois and Indiana. It has been such an encouraging moment of togetherness, while the rest of the country is celebrating or pointing fingers over the future of healthcare. Thursday, we spent time with brave pink-skinned people in a community center of Olney, Illinois, where our new friend, Beau Brown, serves as a Presbyterian pastor. From there, we met with a slightly more diverse group (some African and Asian Americans, some with Native heritage, some with biracial children and grandchildren) of Presbyterian leaders in Carmel, Indiana, just outside Indianapolis. Our friend Beau was then installed as the new moderator for the Synod of Lincoln Trails, and he is passionate about working towards moments of racial healing from his corner of Christianity.

We talked about the pain that exists, the feelings of animosity that are deeply held, when we've been hurt by someone from another race. While these are personal examples, like the black bully I had in middle school (who later apologized and meant it!), they matter. Of course, my pain on this level is relative to the pain that my friends of color experience, because I only have a handful of personal pain stories. Marvin has luggage, as he calls it, involving both personal stories of being intentionally hurt, alongside the everyday ache that systemic racism causes.

And it wasn't a time of presenting solutions. But a time to hold in each other's pain. These steps matter, and are often overlooked to jumpstart towards solutions.

Trust is needed. And trust takes time, repeated positive experiences, to build. Then, and only then, when we know we have each other's backs, or more pointedly, when people of color know that white people aren't going to cut and run when the going gets tough, only then can we start to dream up anything close to solutions.

Thank you brave souls of Olney and Lincoln Trails. You have encouraged us and we hope to set more tables with you and your communities soon.

Peace by peace,