Communities of Hope: A Sermon On Trayvon Martin, Race and Privilege

Iris
Iris de Leon-Hartshorn is director of transformative peacemaking for Mennonite Church USA

[This sermon was orginally shared at The Femonite on August 1, 2013, a blog facilitated by Hannah Heinzekehr.]

Today we have a guest post from one of my co-workers, Iris de Leon-Hartshorn. Iris  was born in Laredo, Texas and raised in Port Hueneme, California in a very diverse environment.  She is Mestizo. Iris is the eldest of four daughters.  Iris is married to Leo Hartshorn, now a retired pastor.  They have three adult children and raising their only grandson.  Portland, Oregon is where Iris now resides with her husband and grandson. She is a graduate of Eastern Mennonite University with a MA in Conflict Transformation from the Center of Justice and Peacebuilding.  She presently works for Mennonite Church USA as Director of Transformative Peacemaking.  Her foci are immigration, anti-racism and intercultural competency and women in leadership. This piece was originally offered as a sermon at Portland Mennonite Church, and I am so grateful that Iris was willing to share it on The Femonite blog, too. 

At age six, Andres was taught to always have a receipt in his pocket whenever he bought anything, even a stick of gum, so that when he was asked if he paid for the item, he had proof that he did.  He continues this practice even as an adult.   At age 9, Andres realized people would follow him and his mother while shopping and asked his mom, “Why is the man following us?”  Sadly, the mother replied, “They are following us because they think we will steal something.” His mother had to explain racial profiling and how it is used in stores to target people by the color of their skin.  His mother also had to teach him what to do when he is confronted by police. Not if, but when.  He was taught to keep his hands to the side and never argue or raise his voice to the police, and that his life was dependent on his behavior towards the police, not the police’s behavior.

At age fourteen, while entering a 7-11 store with two other Latinos to buy some snacks, the sales clerk called the police to report that three Latino youth had just entered the store and they might be part of a gang.  When these three youth walked out, after paying for their snacks, they were surrounded by six police cars and police with weapons drawn.  By the time the news reached me, his mother, and I made it down to the store, I found my fourteen-year-old son sitting on the curb with his head drawn down and crying.  When I confronted the police, I was told it was none of my business and he was free to leave, with no apology.

People of color live with the reality that their lives are worthless.  The message is clear that the life of a “white” person is above all others.  Protection of “whiteness” is a priority in our society. 

When the Trayvon Martin verdict came in, Mennonite Church USA communications staff called and asked what I wanted to say about it. My response was, “I have nothing to say. I am numb, tired and angry, but I am not surprised.”  To be honest, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to touch this subject this morning.  It is painful but we must find a way to talk about this as a community of faith.

So why did the black and brown communities become so outraged when the verdict was read?  Well, if you deal with the above reality day in and day out and see your children hurt, humiliated and disregarded, there is resentment and frustration that builds up.  It’s not a matter of this one verdict. It is the reality of the day in and day out experiences of many communities of color. The verdict becomes the slug hammer on top of the day-to-day experiences.

In the gospel story from Luke 9, Jesus and his disciples begin to enter a Samaritan village where they are not too welcomed due to the long-standing hatred between the Jews and Samaritans.  Jews often referred to the Samaritans as dogs.  The Samaritans saw Mount Gerizim as the center of worship and not Jerusalem, where Jesus was headed. From their religious perspective, they did not support Jesus’ decision to go to Jerusalem.

We know that the Samaritans were seen as “outcasts” during the time of Jesus.  But in the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus shows the Samaritan to be caring and compassionate.  We also know that Jesus met a Samaritan woman at the well and spoke with her.

This divide between the Jews and Samaritans was already at least 550 years old and a lot of hate had built up during those years between the full-blooded Jews and their mixed-marriage cousins.  The fact that the disciples felt justified in asking if Jesus wanted them to call down fire from heaven and destroy the village shows there was no regard for the life of a Samaritan. Imagine what it may have been like for a young Samaritan to walk down the street of Jerusalem at night.  Would he have felt safe?  Probably not.  While in Jerusalem a few years ago, I felt the hatred of Jews toward Palestinians as Palestinians tried walking through a caged walkway while trash was being hurled at them.  I saw Palestinian school children dodging stones being thrown at them while walking home from school when they had to walk through a Jewish neighborhood.  So it is not hard for me to imagine how a Samaritan youth may have been treated after a 550 year old conflict, compared to the 65 year old conflict between Palestinians and Jews.  The disdain for the Samaritans must have been immense.  I am not saying there were no strong negative feeling on the other side, but what group had the ultimate power to legalize and/or legitimize their responses?

Just think about the idea that anyone would think it would be okay to destroy a group of people.  But we know this has been the case throughout history.  We just have to look back at the genocide of millions of indigenous people of the Americas.  Would it be hard for you to believe that lives of specifically brown and black young men are being systemically destroyed right now here in the United States through systemic racism, and reinforced by our “War on Drugs” policies and laws like “Stand your Ground” and even Jury Selection practices?

So how do these manifestations of racism connect or do they?  Racism is a political and social construct in our society.  In Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, she talks about how this happens over and over again.  She says,

Any candid observer of American racial history must acknowledge that is racism is highly adaptable.  The rules and reasons the political system employs to enforce status relations of any kind, including racial hierarchy, evolve and change as they are challenged.  The valiant efforts to abolish slavery and Jim Crow and to achieve greater racial equality have brought about significant changes in the legal framework of American society – new “rules of the game,” so to speak.  These new rules have been justified by new rhetoric, new language, and a new social consensus, while producing many of the same results.  This dynamic, which legal scholar Reva Siegel has dubbed “preservation through transformation,” is the process through which white privilege is maintained, though the rules and rhetoric change.

In practical terms, the “War on Drugs” policies targeted communities of color, even though the majority of drug users are white. Laws that once protected people from unlawful searches were quietly stripped away, and the practice of profiling youth of color was never challenged by the dominant culture, mainly white.  The Sentencing Project states that:

More than 60% of the people in prison are now racial and ethnic minorities. For Black males in their thirties, 1 in every 10 is in prison or jail on any given day. These trends have been intensified by the disproportionate impact of the “war on drugs,” in which two-thirds of all persons in prison for drug offenses are people of color.

So a stigma is set up that reflects on black and brown youth, even though the reality is that the highest drug use is among white young men.

Our policies, laws and practices have reinforced a cultural perspective of seeing people, especially youth of color, as suspect even if they are just walking down the street. They are not safe even in public spaces.

Pam Nath wrote a very good piece in The Mennonite as a guest blogger, entitled, Groanings Too Deep for Words: The Zimmerman Verdict and the Dividing Wall between Us.  She, as a white woman, speaks to the silence from the church on the Trayvon-Zimmerman case and the inability of white people to hear what marginalized people are saying.  But I was also intrigued with the right on analysis of what she terms “mixed race spaces” which in part speaks to the day to day experiences I spoke of earlier.  Pam says:

Mixed race spaces are dangerous for black people and other marginalized people. White people have trouble imagining this is true because it doesn’t fit our self-image—we see ourselves as nice people. But these spaces are dangerous due to the threat of physical violence, they are dangerous due to the constant and chronic racial micro aggressions that people of color are subject to, and they are dangerous to the psyche because these spaces too often demand that people of color mute or silence their voices as the price for peaceful coexistence.

In the last two weeks since the verdict, many people on the news have shared analyzed  it.  One of the more talked about analysis is the issue of jury selection.  Various legal commentators shared that as soon as the jury was selected, they knew what the verdict would be.  Out of the six jurors, five were white and one was Puerto Rican.  We now also know the one woman of color was the last holdout. Legal commentators said she did not have a chance to influence with a 5-to-1 makeup of the jurors.  In her book, Michelle Alexander talks about the history of juror selection and the implicit racism in the system.  She gives some unbelievable examples of why some potential black jurors are rejected, and cites a law that says that the reason does not need to make sense or be questioned no matter how absurd it is. 

Many bloggers and people of color have commented on how silent the church has been after the verdict.  When the church is silent, the church sides with the existing state of affairs.  In Luke, Jesus did not keep silent. He immediately rebuked the disciples. Now it doesn’t say what he told the disciples but we do know he did not like what they were proposing.  Let’s be clear that Jesus also struggled a bit and had to be reminded by a Samaritan woman that “even dogs get the crumbs of their master.”

So what is the answer to systemic racism?  There is no one answer and individuals can’t do it alone.  It will take faith communities to be that city on a hill.  One of the ways Mennonite Church USA is working on this with congregations and conferences is by building communities of hope, a process of telling our story and constructing a new story that speaks to the context we are living in as “the church,” and asking the question: What is Jesus calling us to be?

Communities of Hope serve as a refuge for those who have been outcast.  We are called to connect with the so called “other”, not as a service project or someone we minister to, but as someone who becomes a part of our congregation.  Communities of Hope speak the prophetic word, but more importantly live out the prophetic word daily. 

"The Beloved Community"
“The Beloved Community”

Christian Peacemakers in Jerusalem walk children back and forth to school who are at high risk of being stoned. They provide some safety for these children and they put their own safety on the line.

Another example of living out the prophetic word is an interfaith community in Houston that responds to gun violence in their city, once a month holding a prayer vigil where a shooting took place and praying for the victim, the perpetrator, their families and their communities.  It brings notice to the many deaths too often overlooked in our society and brings a consciousness that it affects an entire community.

What would prophetic acts of stopping violence against people who are targeted because of the color of their skin look like?  What does the church have to offer?   What kind of partnerships should we be seeking in our own communities?

Many Mennonite congregations find it difficult to engage with people of color in their own communities.  Many churches have partnerships with congregations in the global south and find that those relationships help them become inter-cultural, while they stay disengaged in the African-American, Latino, Asian, and Native American communities right in their own cities.  I am not against global south relationships with congregations.  As a matter of fact, I serve on the Executive Committee for Mennonite World Conference and think they can be valuable.  But at times, I find these relationships a bit troubling if congregations continue to stay segregated and not engaged with people of color in their own home communities. This disengagement then makes it easier to ignore how other groups in our communities are being affected by policies and laws that perpetuate systemic racism.

Vincent Harding
Dr. Vincent Harding

Vincent Harding wrote the following:

Thank you very much for the courage, compassion and faithfulness that you expressed in your loving encouraging words to the church and to the world. As you may know The Mennonite Church – – in many of its manifestations – – has been a powerful part of my own history. And it was that important connection that led me to feel grateful for what you decided to share. (I can only imagine what some of the dissenting responses were that came your way.) Again, thank you for taking the risks and responsibility. Our children, especially our children, all of our children needed your words and your example.

 Please continue strong, dear fellow-travelers in the Way. As you surely know, you are not alone. Let’s continue in search for the Beloved Community – it is also seeking us.

~Vincent

Vincent has always held to the vision of the Beloved Community referred to in the book of John.  A community that represents what God call us to do, which is joining God in the reconciling of a broken world to the Creator of all things.  This is an awesome undertaking for the church today.

When we see disparity we must act, when we see privilege used at the expense of someone else we must speak out, when we see hate we must respond in love, when we encounter “the other” we must see the face of Jesus, when we see conflict we must find ways to build peace, when we see violence we must response non-violently and when we feel alone we know we are not, that the God of all creation is with us along with other faithful followers.

The world needs communities of hope.  We need courageous people to speak out and to find ways to show an alternative community: one that shows love, compassion and courage.  Someday I hope to see that children no longer have to be taught that, because of the color of the skin, they must be ready to prove they are not thieves; that they are not dangerous just because they are walking down the street in a hoodie or entering a convenience store with some friends; and that they don’t have to learn how to respond when confronted by the police because their life depends on it.  I hope for the day when millions of parents don’t have to worry when their youth go out with friends whether they will return safely because they are being judged by the color of their skin. For the day when youth of color can feel that their lives have the same worth as a white youth in the eyes of our society.

I believe the church is called to provide that hope.  The church can no longer keep silent on matters of misuse of power, privilege, disparity, hate and violence.  If the church is to be relevant in our world today, the church must become courageous in the communities they are in and they must become communities of hope that offer refuge, hope and compassion to all who enter in.

May there be more light and truth to break forth from God’s Holy Word. Amen

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One thought on “Communities of Hope: A Sermon On Trayvon Martin, Race and Privilege

  1. Wish my father had lived to see this one ~ M. Morrow-Farrell, Philadelphia, PA.

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