Black History Month: Future

If you haven’t read the first two posts in this series, you can find them here and here.

Future

  1. The Universe is a House Party,” by Tracy K. Smith (video)
  2. The Universe: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack,” by Tracy K. Smith
  3. what the cathedral said to the black boy,” by Clint Smith III

The final installment of this series dwells on “future,” likely the least considered time frame when thinking of black history. Afrofuturism is a term that has grown in public awareness, mostly used in arts and academic circles, and centers on this very idea.

Afrofuturism is a bit of a complex concept, but it’s explained well in an episode of This American Life. One of the hosts, Neil Drumming, says: “What I like about Afrofuturism, it just seems very—it’s like this way of talking about black people in a way that’s really hopeful.” Ira Glass follows up later, saying, “[a]nd for so long, in so many imaginings of the future, in so much science fiction, there were no black people at all—which, as Neil points out, makes no sense. He says, you can tell black people are going to make it into the future because they’ve survived so much already over the centuries.” It’s a way of thinking about the future that takes into account the lived history of black people while also being creative and positive about what’s to come.  These themes can be seen in pop culture in blockbuster movies like Black Panther and the work of musicians like Janelle Monae, whose albums often feature characters and narratives set in futuristic, spacey worlds.

This is the definition I will be using for the sake of this reflection—Afrofuturism as a hopeful, imaginative way of thinking about the future for black people. It’s an approach that is not only important for changing the way we as non-black people can think about black futures, but it also challenges us as the church to change how we think about our own future.

Tracy K. Smith is a poet whose work is thoroughly imbued with this imaginative, galaxy-strewn setting. Both poems I’ve included here explore human themes in universal language. In “The Universe is a House Party,” she says:

“We grind lenses to an impossible strength,

Point them toward the future, and dream of beings

We’ll welcome with indefatigable hospitality:

How marvelous you’ve come! We won’t flinch

At the pinprick mouths, the nubbin limbs. We’ll rise,

Gracile, robust. Mi casa es su casa. Never more sincere.

Seeing us, they’ll know exactly what we mean.

Of course, it’s ours. If it’s anyone’s, it’s ours.”

In this poem, she paints a future in which we are of course hospitable to aliens, to those who come from far reaches of the universe, and we are sincere in our welcome of these other beings. In describing this scene, she reveals the stark contrast to today, in which we find it difficult to welcome other humans with distinct differences from our own communities. She imagines a brilliant future in which we aren’t burdened by prejudice and hate, and it challenges us to do the work now so we can reach that starry future.

She is not deluded in this fantastical future—she tells of incredibly strong telescopes built for no other reason than a deep human curiosity of what is out there. Maybe from here, we can get to a place of equally deep hospitality.

Tracy K. Smith said at an event, “Imagining, for me, is an act that allows for a different kind of engaging with things.” As we look toward the future of the Church of the Brethren, we must accept the challenge to engage with issues differently, creatively, and imaginatively.

Smith said in an interview about one of the poems in her book, Life on Mars, “Part of what I’ve been trying to ask myself to do is think, OK, we belong to the history of the centuries that we span, but we’re also part of something enormous. What if we think about our actions as having some bearing upon the history of eternity? What would we change if those were the stakes that we were cognizant of?

This is the way the church needs to think about our future. We need to be cognizant of the stakes—if there’s anything that our faith tells us, is that our actions have bearing on the history of eternity. We need to take our commitment to racial justice, to true hospitality, to telling black stories, to lamenting our broken past, very seriously, because there are high stakes.

Clint Smith’s poem, “what the cathedral said to the black boy,” stands as a goal for the church in the future. The cathedral that he describes is, unfortunately, not what our church has always been for people of color. We want to be a refuge, but we must recognize the ways we have at times caused pain instead. His words should be a call to action for us all: “ain’t we all just trying to be / some type of sanctuary for someone? for every year we are not destroyed / do they not remind us what a miracle / it is to have lasted this long?” As the church, it should be our primary goal to be “some type of sanctuary” for populations that have long been targeted and oppressed.

What are our congregations not saying to the black boy, and how can we better say to them:

“come inside child

rest yourself

it’s okay to want to be held”

Black History Month: Present

If you haven’t read the first post in this series, please read it here first.

“For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14)

Present

  1. Your National Anthem” (2018), by Clint Smith III
  2. litany” (2016), by Mahogany L. Browne

“Your National Anthem,” by Clint Smith III

Both Clint Smith’s and Mahogany Browne’s poems begin with “today.” They immediately place us in the current day, the present, such as the start of a news story that has just occurred. Whether they actually happened today or not, the situations described in each poem still circle around us daily, asking what we as a church can do for justice in this very moment.

For Smith:

“Today, a black man who was once a black boy

like you got down on one of his knees & laid

his helmet on the grass as this country sang

its ode to the promise it never kept”

For Browne:

“today i am a black woman in america

& i am singing a melody ridden lullaby…”

They were written two years apart but, in many ways, coexist in the same space. Smith is thinking about what it means to be a father raising a black child today, and yet, the question of tomorrow is factored into each thought. He says about this poem: “This is part of a series of poems […] thinking through what it means to watch my son discover the world for the first time [and] what it means to watch the world discover him. How [people] who call him adorable now might very well call him dangerous when he’s older.”

Smith spoke at a performance in 2016 about how, when he was in college, he was looking for “work that spoke to the urgency of now,” and how he found this in spoken word poetry. Now as a poet himself, his work definitely speaks to the urgency of now. In “Your National Anthem,” which acts as a letter to his very young son, Smith speaks to this in his reference to Colin Kaepernick’s protest while also speaking to the impending future that presses on his mind as a father.

“I know that you will not always

be a black boy but one day you may be a black man

& you may decide your country hasn’t kept

its promise to you either”

In “litany,” Browne is reflecting on what it looks like to live as “a brown and black & / bew woman dreaming of freedom.” She says, “today, i am a mother, & my country is burning/ and i forget how to flee.” Browne wrote this poem as a response to “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” as sung by Nina Simone.

“I sat with what that meant, years later—when I am still wishing for a certain type of freedom. To think of the time passing but of senseless deaths of black and brown bodies remaining. The poem is mulling all that has changed and all that has not,” Browne says of her work.

This is truly what it means to reflect on the present, today, the current state in which we live. All that has changed and all that has not. The urgency of now.

Today’s movements for racial justice and equity are not separate from the civil rights and abolition movements of the past that we now honor. Yes, today’s movements are tied to politics, but, most fundamentally, they are made up of everyday people who are yearning for freedom, for safety for their children, for trust that their country values their lives.

The 1991 Report of the Committee on Brethren and Black Americans says: “Because racism is built into our way of life, it is extremely difficult to unmask it and honestly face the radical changes that need to be made in ourselves and our institutions if it is to be eradicated. […] Many of us benefit from racist practices, without being direct participants, because of decisions and policies already in place in our religious, economic, and political institutions. The Church of the Brethren has affirmed that war is sin. It is time we acknowledged racism as sin—sin against God and against our neighbors—and mount a concerted effort to combat it.”

What does it mean for the church to speak to the urgency of now, keeping in mind what has and has not changed in all these years?

I don’t have an easy answer, but I do know that if we pat ourselves on the back for holding up lauded figures in black history such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Harriet Tubman, perhaps we should also ask about lesser-known black history that is being written as we speak and what we can do to add our voices to the call for justice in this very moment.

This is not about simply remembering heroes of the past or imagining some potential day in the future that calls us to action. This is about looking at the world around us and asking ourselves how we can support our brothers and sisters—who right now are afraid for their families, yearning for freedom, and demanding justice—in such a time as this.

Moving on, but not letting go?

By Lisa-Marie Mayerle, Brethren Volunteer Service Unit #319

This year, I decided to be a part of Brethren Volunteer Service, and trust me… it was not easy to make that decision. For me, joining BVS meant not knowing where I would end up, which project I would be going to, or how I would be living for the next year. But, it was the best decision I have ever made. Of course I had a lot of insecurities during the process, but in the end I knew that this was my best opportunity to serve for a year, to explore another culture, and to make a difference.

I would say that the worst part of the transition was saying goodbye—leaving everyone I love behind. All my friends and family in Germany would continue their lives without me, but my life would continue on as well. It felt like I needed to move on and let go. So, I left with a face full of tears and a heart full of sadness and happiness mixed together. I knew it was time for a new chapter of my life.

The moment I arrived at my project in Hagerstown, Md., everyone welcomed me with open arms and a big smile on their face. In that exact moment, all my concerns and doubts were gone, and I knew that it was the right decision. I also realized that I had never left someone or something behind. Despite missing Germany, and even though I could not see or hear my family and friends every day, I can remember that they are always with me.

I enjoy every minute at my project and I love to share about it with my loved ones. The people I work with are amazing and support me. I feel like I am a part of a bigger family, and the thought of leaving them one day brings tears to my eyes. Every single minute with the kids, my co-workers, and my friends is precious, and I am so glad that I can be here. I am thankful for this journey and the relationships I am creating.

Learn more about Brethren Volunteer Service or read the most recent issue of The Volunteer at www.brethren.org/bvs. Support the ministry of BVS today at www.brethren.org/give .

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

Black History Month: Past

For the end of Black History Month, I have curated three small collections of poetry, each with an accompanying reflection. The three reflections will dwell on the ideas of “past,” “present,” and “future.” Too often, it seems people and events must be decades old to be documented by the mainstream as “black history.” We must remember that black history is being created today, shaped by the past and informing the future. Looking at black stories from our past, present, and future requires us to think critically about how the church tells its own stories, as well as which stories we deem to be “our own.”

Langston Hughes, April 1942. By Jack Delano.

Past

  1. Frederick Douglass,” by Robert Hayden (1913-1980)
  2. Let America Be America Again,” Langston Hughes (1902-1967)
  3. I saw Emmett Till this week at the grocery store,” Eve L. Ewing (1986-)

We begin with past—the time with the clearest tie to the concept of history—and with Robert Hayden’s “Frederick Douglass.” Hayden’s words are a perfect framing for the way we should approach the past. He asserts that this incredible man, a former slave turned renowned abolitionist, will be honored not by the typical trappings of American remembrance, but instead by “the lives grown out of this life, the lives / fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.”

The past is not some dusty relic to be pulled out of a dark cabinet for a few days each year. It is something that we tell and retell every day, choosing which stories we highlight and the language we use to tell them. The people who make up today’s movements are the “lives grown out of this life,” the flesh on the bones of an idea that was once only a dream.

In Langston Hughes’s famous poem, “Let America Be America Again,” he challenges the narratives America tells about itself—narratives of freedom for all, where dreams are lived out and opportunities are ripe for the taking, if only one does the hard work to snatch them up. Hughes instead repeats the refrain, (America never was America to me.) He not only refers to his own identity as a black man, but also dons the identities of other oppressed peoples, such as Native Americans, farmers, immigrants, and poor. He rewrites the story, not saying that he doesn’t belong in America, but rather that America first and foremost belongs to those who built it.

Brethren openly condemn this dangerous type of American nationalism that ignores injustice and calls for blind obedience. In the 1967 statement “The Church, the State and Christian Citizenship,” Annual Conference asserted: “The church must warn against idolatrous nationalism in foreign affairs and call people to broader horizons of concern. In relation to domestic policy the church will try to help and to protect those who have been deprived of their rightful voice and are neglected or injured in some way.”

Eve Ewing takes a different approach to the past. In her quiet poem set in an ordinary grocery store, she imagines an alternate past in which 14-year-old Emmett Till was not brutally murdered. Instead, he has grown old, become a familiar face in the community, lived a long life. This is a moment of peace for a story that is only one of extreme violence and tragedy.

“How are things going for you,” she asks.

“Oh, it goes, it goes.”

By telling this story, one which was never allowed to happen, she manages to tell Till’s story all the same. His story is one of a young life brutally cut short by men so deeply entrenched in racism that they took the life of an innocent boy. It is the false memory of this ordinary moment in the grocery store, a brief glimpse of warmth, that brings the harsh reality of the past rushing in. She references everything Till’s life and death represent without saying it. “It goes, it goes” suggests the echo that, in fact, it does not.

As Christians, and as people in community, we use stories from the past to help us define who we are. We tell and retell the stories from the Bible to provide the foundation for understanding our identities and the world around us. All three of these poems by black writers ask us questions about which stories from the past we tell and how they inform us now. As we remember black history, perhaps we need to be creative about imagining new ways for the church to tell its stories and grapple with its past.

Life is Difficult in the Maiduguri Camps

The Ekklesiayar Yan’uwa a Nigeria (EYN) Disaster Ministry visited two camps in Maiduguri. Shagari has 48 households and Cherubim & Seraphim has 65 households. The people are crowded into a small compound with 9-13 people sleeping in one 10X10 “tent” right next to the next one. There is often a lack of sufficient food for the camp, medical assistance is minimal, and many children are still not attending any school.

The Disaster Ministry registered the people at these two camps and brought food supplies.

In the town of Dabna in Hong Local Government Area 60 houses were destroyed by the Boko Haram insurgency. The Disaster Ministry was able to put roofs on 27 of these homes. Not everyone can be helped but the church helps choose those who need the most help. Please continue to pray for Nigeria!

Pictures are by EYN Disaster Team

 

More than we can imagine

A theme interpretation written by Chuck Blaisdell for the 2019 One Great Hour of Sharing

“Now to God be the glory, who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).

Imagination.

It may seem like a weak word compared to all the need we see every day in the world. We hear “imagination” and we may think “fantasy” (“Imagine you are on a beach…”), of something that escapes the reality of the world as it is. We hear “imagination” and we wonder if it is truly helpful when some would say we actually need clear-eyed “realism” to address the challenges that we face.

Imagination.

Yet far from being a light or weak thing, far from being an aloof or escapist notion, far from being un-real, imagination is actually among the most powerful engines for change that human beings have! Long ago, the philosopher Aristotle said, “Thinking itself begins in wonder, begins in imagination,” and he was right. Imagination, particularly when fueled by a vision of God’s hopes for all humankind, can keep us energized, seeking to do good, and striving to better the lives of those whom we encounter.

Imagination.

The theme for the 2019 One Great Hour of Sharing is “More than we can imagine!” It is rooted in Ephesians 3:20 and reminds us that we are not alone in our imagining a better world for all of God’s children. Indeed, it is God’s imagination that fuels and empowers ours! You see, God imagines a world where:

  • No one is left to face the wreckage of natural disasters alone.
  • Each person has their daily needs of food and water met.
  • Every individual receives the respect and dignity that they deserve.
  • Families displaced from their homes are able to build new lives.
  • Disciples of all ages grow in faith and share the love of God with others.
  • Pastors and leaders are equipped to care for the needs of their communities.
  • Churches serve as beacons of hope for all to see.
  • AND far more than we could ever ask or imagine!

God also imagines Christians all over the world coming together to help make these things ever more a reality for more and more people.

Our imagination of what could be is founded and grounded in that for which God envisions and hopes. And we can help! Through our gifts of treasure and talent, prayer and presence, we can make this world ever more like the way God would wish it, ever more the way that God would imagine it.

Find this and other worship resources for the 2019 One Great Hour of Sharing at www.brethren.org/oghs or give to the offering today at www.brethren.org/giveoffering .

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

World Order and the Brethren

Ambassadors of Christ

Photo by Glenn Riegel

A reflection by Traci Rabenstein, director of Mission Advancement

“We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors,
as though God were making his appeal through us.”
~2 Corinthians 5:20, NIV

Even though we’ve entered a new year, I still find myself humming Christmas hymns. One chorus in particular has stuck in my mind:  “Go, tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere. Go, tell it on the mountain that Jesus Christ is born!”  The message of the song is simple, but in its simplicity is a strong call to action for the church. It is a call that challenges us to tell everyone about the transformative impact that Jesus Christ has in their lives and in our world. We are challenged to share the good news with all who will hear it, even shouting it from the mountaintops.

In Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth, he calls them to the work of serving as ambassadors of Christ. Prior to verse 20 in chapter 5, Paul mentions that our love for Christ should compel us to no longer see anyone from a “worldly point of view” but, instead, to see each person as a new creation in Christ. “The old has gone, the new is here!” (2nd Corinthians 2:17, NIV). And as “new creations,” we inherently become ambassadors of Christ. We are now called by Jesus to be his messengers.
“Go, tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere!”

In the Old Testament, being an ambassador for the king was a significant responsibility and honor. When ambassadors entered another country, they were treated just as if they were royalty themselves, and not just simply representatives. Being ambassadors today may not be exactly the same, but they still have the responsibility of sharing a message of the one whom they represent. While we may not be thrilled at the idea of being compared to government officials, it is important for us to remember that we represent Jesus and the kingdom of God in a very similar way.

I believe we are on earth at the right time for the right purpose to fulfill God’s greater plan for all people. We are here right now to fulfill God’s will, to speak as “new creations” in Jesus, and to welcome the new creation ordained by  God’s kingdom. Some of us are called to be ambassadors within the communities where we live, work, serve, and worship. Others are ambassadors at the district level, where the message of God can be extended further through the ministries supported by congregations.

Through denominational ministries, staff work diligently on behalf of the larger church to be Christ’s ambassadors, where the message reaches across the United States and out into the world. Through Brethren Volunteer Service and the Office of Global Mission and Service, some are called as missionaries who accompany brothers and sisters to nurture budding churches in places like South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Venezuela. Others witness to God’s message of peace and justice by speaking with local and national representatives with support from the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy. Some hear the call to grow in discipleship or to revitalize and strengthen local ministries, and respond by attending events hosted by Discipleship Ministries. While these examples only scratch the surface of the work coordinated by Church of the Brethren staff, they reveal the importance of serving as Christ’s ambassadors.

Each of us, in our “new form,” have been blessed with gifts and talents that allow us to uniquely represent God where we are. Whether you volunteer your time and talent, pray for our ministries without ceasing, or support the work of the church through financial gifts, you are serving as an ambassador of Christ. Come, let us  “Go, tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere” that Jesus Christ is making all things new.

Learn more about the ministries of the Church of the Brethren at www.brethren.org or support them today at www.brethren.org/give.

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

BCCN: Re-framing Creation Care

by Brethren Creation Care Network

Gus Speth, an environmental law professor, noted a failure of environmental policy to a group of evangelical leaders in 2006:

“I used to think that top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that thirty years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.”

Speth’s confession for a spiritual transformation suggests that the Christian faith has an important contribution to alleviating ecological degradation. Most of humanity has forgotten that nothing in creation is owned – rather, it’s on loan to us from the One who created it all.

Humanity stands at a very crucial point in our history. Instead of being distracted by the politics of the day, humanity needs a metanoia moment (Greek phrase meaning “to turn around”), which requires a change of the heart. We believe Christian hope can inspire this change. It is not a passive hope – waiting for external agencies to bring about what we desire; but rather an active hope – partnering with God to bring about transformation over despair.

The Church of the Brethren has the opportunity to be partners with Jesus in living out his active hope to the world. The Brethren Creation Care Network (BCCN) is our avenue towards a Christ-centered ministry for the healing of creation. We can rise to the challenge of creation care by building a community of support through your energy and talents. Please contact Nathan Hosler to join BCCN at nhosler@brethren.org.

We would also like to highlight an upcoming retreat hosted at Camp Emmaus (Illinois). Outdoor Ministry Association Board members Jonathan Stauffer and Randall Westfall have come to believe that living attuned with God’s creation is essential to our discipleship with Jesus. In recent years, we have rediscovered just how attuned to creation Jesus was. He knew God’s wisdom came from these encounters and sought them out intentionally. He sought the solace of the wilderness, the sea, the mountain, and the garden to regenerate his ministry and mission. Jesus was drawing on a blueprint as old as creation itself.

As a result, Jonathan and Randall have crafted an innovative weekend retreat entitled “Cultivating a Verdant Faith.” Sessions will be held March 8 – 10 at Camp Emmaus in the winter retreat lodge and on trails. By exploring the four directions of eco-discipleship, along with bible study, worship, and group discussions; participants will unearth their relationship with creation in new and profound ways. Ages 18 and up, are invited to unplug and rediscover the eco-blueprint of faith that our Creator gave us.

If you’re interested in registering for this unique spiritual formation experience, please see this brochure. For further questions about the event contact Jonathan and Randall. CEUs will be available through Brethren Academy. (Note: Retreat limited to 25 participants.) They hope to see you at Camp Emmaus in March 2019!

Nigeria Crisis Response helps thousands in 2018

      

Pictured – Medical Assistance, Skills & Business training for widows & orphans, Fertilizer & Seeds, Trauma Healing, Education Assistance, Clean Water Sources, Food Distributions, Special Relief to victims of Fulani Herdsmen, and Home Repairs were all part of the relief effort for 2018. (Pictures provided from 2018 Reports)

19 food distributions were organized for over 2500 families. One woman who received food had been captured by Boko Haram in 2015 and was freed with help from the Nigerian Army in November 2018. She was so appreciative of the food and household items because once freed they had nothing.

6300 people received medical help and screening for Hepatitis B. The medical officer and assistants travel thousands of miles to hold mobile clinics for the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP’s) and this year they embarked on a screening and inoculation program for Hepatitis B.

169 homes were rebuilt costing about $1000 a home. This program is in high demand for all those whose houses were burned by Boko Haram. Only the most needy (about 20 per town) receive the assistance and the recipients must complete the walls before the Disaster Team provides the roofing.

Trauma workshops and counselling have been provided for around 500 people. This trauma awareness includes being able to tell their stories and is going a long way to help overcome the extreme trauma they have incurred. Forgiveness is emphasized and many who participate in a workshop go home and tell others so the healing is spreading.

The level of education in NE Nigeria has deteriorated over the past few years. Some schools were closed, some burned to the ground, and others used to house IDP’s. The Nigeria Crisis Response sponsors a boarding school, several learning centers and has provided school fees for more than 1000 children. Children of the IDP’s and many others still have not been able to go to school and more assistance is needed.

Most people in the NE survive by farming. The Response helped 2500 families  with seeds and fertilizer. This year the distribution was streamlined through the Districts. The District Leader from Mubi said the hardest thing is choosing who will receive the help when so many are in need. With 17 of his district’s 25 churches destroyed, the needs are overwhelming. A Soybean Value Chain project is also being sponsored with help from Global Food Initiative and Illinois Soybean Innovation Lab.

Good water sources are always in demand. The IDP camps all need to provide and maintain a water source. Some wells were destroyed by Boko Haram and other places have never had clean water. The Response provided 11 communities with wells/bore holes, helping thousands of Christian and Muslim households.

Widows and orphans must find ways to support themselves and their families. 5 skill training centers operated in 2018 graduating 269 students. Each student receives the tools necessary to start a business. In addition, 135 widows were give around $100 as start-up capital. Through the EYN Women’s Ministry, workshops have been held, literacy programs put in place and peace groups started. The influence of the women is growing throughout the society.

Numerous other activities were held during the year. Seminars were held for capacity building, the District Leaders received training in Disaster Preparedness, Yola IDP camp was fenced, Shaffa Theological Education by Extension office was repaired, a new vehicle was purchased, special relief efforts were organized for victims of the Fulani herdsmen attacks, 2 Tripartite meetings were held, a Muslim & Christian Peace conference was organized, joint church re-building workcamp were held in Michika, and much more. WHAT A  YEAR!

Please continue to pray for Nigeria.