It has been a tough football season for the Oakland Raiders who have managed only 1 win this season and play the 49ers today. Regular church goers likely missed the Raiders 52 point loss last week as the game had a 10:00am start. But if you watched the news you may have seen a clip taken on that day—from the pre-game player introductions where five of the Raiders opponents—5 Rams players came out of the tunnel from the locker room with their hands up in the air in a gesture that many immediately recognized. In the words of a Boston globe editorial it was a pose that “was both haunting and familiar.” The players imitated the “Hands up, don’t shoot” posture and mantra used by many of the protesters who have gathered in Ferguson, Missouri, in the wake of the grand Jury decision not to indict the white police officer (Darren Wilson) involved in the deadly shooting of Michael Brown who was black.
The mixed reaction to the Rams players protest—highlights the complexity of venturing into the public arena—even if one’s intention is good—to actually succeed in improving dialogue and the effort to promote positive change. For the players part: they live in the St. Louis area, are familiar with the suburb of Ferguson, and know something about how a black person can be treated differently across much of our society. On the other hand it is clear that the conflicting interpretations of how the events unfolded in Furgenson are rooted in experiences of race that differ greatly—and lead to very different conclusions.
The events are further complicated by the fact that any case that rises to national prominence is complicated by the fact that the exact circumstances—rarely provide a perfect, unambiguous, case study. And so it is difficult to build trust, and move a conversation constructively forward where there are basic differences over facts and perceived motivations.
I am often frustrated by how difficult it seems for us—as a community and as a country to enter into any meaningful dialogue about race that has the potential to heal wounds and build bridges to a better future. I gained an insight into just how difficult it is to judge matters concerning race one day almost 20 years ago when I went out to lunch with a newly ordained clergy colleague. John Thompson Quartey graduated from General Seminary in NYC four years after me. I first met John when he served as Seminarian at the parish where I was the assistant. John’s family came to the United States from Ghana and John grew up in the city of Newark. I was one of John’s sponsors at his ordination to the priesthood and he was one of the few black clergy in the Diocese of Newark.
On that day we had lunch, I traveled to Ridgewood, NJ to meet him. Together we walked to a middle eastern restaurant and from the moment that we were seated—I could see that John was becoming increasingly agitated. We had barely sat down and he abruptly called the waiter over, and from my perspective, uncharacteristically used a rude manner to send him away to go get
some pita and hummus—“and bring it right away” John added. While John was still fuming he mumbled that “he better not charge me for this.” This was so unlike my experience of John that I asked him what was wrong. John went on to describe that when he came here last time as someone else’s guest—they were seated, welcomed, and were promptly provided with pita and hummus on the house. And it was in that instance that I realized—what I would have dismissed as simply inconsistent service, a difference in the temperament and capabilities of the wait staff—John interpreted as being intentionally slighted on the basis of his race; And I suddenly realized how difficult it must for a person of color to discern those cases where a lower level of treatment and courtesy is intentional and rooted in prejudice—from those instances where the situation is simply a case of general indifference and incompetence—measured out equally regardless of gender, race or any other difference. During my lifetime I have observed many cases of obvious prejudice; but with John I reached a new level of awareness as to just how pernicious and destructive are the effects of racism.
On this second Sunday of Advent we encounter John the Baptist calling people to a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of their sins. It is interesting to note that John is speaking broadly to religious people. To a people well acquainted with the law. Who know how they are supposed to act and treat others. They knew the requirement to care for widows and orphans. The laws to treat others fairly, the law to welcome the stranger—a law that is written with the admonition “for remember the people of Israel were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” And yet in the time of John the Baptist there were significant divisions between the religious factions within Judaism. Divisions between Jews, Samaritans and foreigners. Divisions that spoke of prejudice. Actions that worked to deny the full humanity of groups defined as other. And so we can note that our modern struggles with race and differences have been with us for a long time.
One could argue that the first two significant and tangible actions taken by the Episcopal Church to make progress in the area of race reconciliation took place in 1794 and 1795. Those are the years when Absalom Jones and his African American church in Philadelphia were admitted as a congregation to the Episcopal Church (1794), followed by Jones’s ordination as a Deacon in our Church in (1795). Ten years later, in the year 1805 Absalom Jones became the first black priest of our church. In the first year of his ministry his parish—St. Thomas Church grew to over 500 members. In his preaching Jones denounced slavery and worked on behalf of the oppressed and distressed. The inclusion and witness of Absalom Jones within our own tradition reminds us of the important role that our Church can accomplish in our day—not merely as a voice of reconciliation, but also as an engaged community active and dedicated towards advancing the recognition and full inclusion of all people in our society.
Meaningful contact and the establishment of relationships that cut across racial divides is an important aspect of promoting racial harmony. And In most parts of our country free and open conversations about race are hindered by a lack of proximity and contact between different racial groups. One does not have to travel far to notice rather significant divisions that occur simply as a result of geography and economic class. Some of you are lucky to work in places that are well integrated, where healthy contact and interchange across race occurs on a daily basis. But for many of us simple geography, and even our own traditions, work to separate us from one another. It was Martin Luther King Jr. who ironically observed that “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.”
I suspect that the actions of the five St. Louis Rams players were motivated by a desire
to demonstrate empathy not just for the family that lost a son—but for those who feel frustrated and to some extent excluded from the larger society. This morning I would like to open a conversation and mention three tangible things that our congregation might consider doing to promote and advance racial reconciliation.
The first is the possibility of participating in one of the six week reading and reflection groups that are being organized by The Urban Peace Collaboration within our Diocese this upcoming January and February. The Urban Peace Collaboration has selected the book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander as a starting point for discussions about where we are with regard to race by looking through the prism of our criminal Justice system. These discussion groups would represent an intentional effort for all involved to arrive at a deeper level of appreciation and understanding of a complex and disturbing issue.
The second event and conversation that you might consider, is participating in all or part of the three day conference sponsored by Trinity Church Wall Street titled “Creating Common Good.” The Trinity Institute Conference takes place January 22nd-24th and features: Princeton Professor Cornel West, Barbara Ehrenreich [pronounced—Erin-reick] (Author of nickel & Dimed), Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich and The Most Reverend Justin Welby, the current Archbishop of Canterbury. As a Diocese and Parish within the Episcopal Church, we have the possibility of participating remotely in this conference dedicated to social justice—and addressing the issues surrounding pervasive and chronic economic inequality. The conference hopes to provide practical tools for communities to make tangible economic changes.
The third possibility for action is to reach out within our own diocese and to participate with me in the yearly Absalom Jones Celebration Service. This year St. Cyprian’s church in San Francisco will be hosting the service on Saturday February 9th at 11:00am. The preacher will be The Rev. Dr. Kwasi Thornell, who served as National president of The Union of Black Episcopalians with Bishop Marc Andrus celebrating. This service has the potential to bring together people separated by the hour on Sundays mentioned by Dr. King
In surveying the news of the past few weeks perhaps you have often felt the crushing weight of problems that feel like they will never be solved—and the hopelessness of simply being a spectator. I wonder if John the Baptist had those same feelings? If he did, John got over them when he went out into the world and announced that a time of change was coming—and urged people to take action.
I can think of no better way to conclude this collection of thoughts this morning than to read the collect assigned for the feast day of Absalom Jones. Let us Pray: Set us free, heavenly Father, from every bond of prejudice and fear; that, honoring the steadfast courage of your servant Absalom Jones, we may show forth in our lives the reconciling love and true freedom of the children of God, which you have given us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Sermon preached by The Reverend Eric Kimball Hinds at The Episcopal Church of Saint Matthew, San Mateo, California on 7 December 2014, The Second Sunday of Advent, Year B. Lessons: Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:18.