Freddie Gray: Another Disturbing Case of Our Broken Justice System

With last week being the Republican National Convention, and this, the week of the Democratic National Convention, the news cycle has been saturated with politics, politics, politics. Now, for a political news junkie, like myself, I usually enjoy reading all the articles, watching the different convention speeches, and listening to the dialogue of the various pundits on CNN. I know that I probably watch it too much, but I like to stay informed, and have as good of a grasp on all the issues of the Presidential campaign race as I possibly can.

This morning, while I was at work, I was listening to NPR, trying to catch up on what happened during the DNC last night. After some talk of the convention, the host briefly turned away from the constant political reporting, and talked about the decision of Baltimore’s State Attorney Marilyn Mosby to formally drop all charges against the three remaining officers who were involved in the Freddie Gray case.

For those of you who haven’t heard of Freddie Gray, or don’t remember, he was the young Black man from Baltimore who was arrested for running from the cops, thrown in the back of a police van, (without being buckled in, mind you) and he ended up being transported to the hospital where he died a week later of a severed spinal cord. The medical coroner ruled Freddie Gray’s death a homicide. The language here is important. The coroner didn’t call it a tragic accident. Or an unfortunate tragedy. He deliberately chose the term homicide because that is what the medical evidence showed upon examining Freddie Gray’s cause of death. The definition of a homicide is: “The deliberate and unlawful killing of one person by another; murder.”

When the world learned of his death at the hands of Baltimore police officers, many people were rightfully outraged. The Black Lives Matter movement helped organize protests in cities around the country. I remember watching the news last year when the story first broke. I was heartbroken and angered at yet another Black life needlessly lost at the hands of the police. I remember asking the same questions that always seem to come up when these situations keep happening.

How many more lives must be taken wrongfully? When will the killings stop? Why can’t so many in our country see we have a problem with the killing of unarmed Black men at the hands of police? When will our justice system be fixed? How many more protests need to take place before people start listening?

I remember watching Marilyn Mosby’s press conference when she charged the six officers with the killing of Freddie Gray. I was definitely surprised that such intense charges were brought against the officers involved, and that they were brought so quickly. In that moment I was hopeful that maybe this time would be different. Maybe this time, justice might actually be served.

Sadly, and predictably, that was not the case.

Over the next year, three of the officers were tried in court.

Trial #1: Declared a mistrial due to a hung jury. Therefore the officer was not able to be charged for a crime.

Trial #2: The officer was acquitted on all charges. Verdict: Not guilty.

Trial #3: The officer was acquitted on all charges. Verdict: Not guilty.

After three straight defeats in court, with no officers convicted of killing Freddie Gray, it was looking more and more like all the officers would be acquitted.

And that brings us back to today, where we learned that Marilyn Mosby did in fact, drop the charges against the three remaining officers. Each of the six officers were exonerated. They were free. They could resume their daily lives. They could be reunited with their families and friends. Not only were they free, but they were alive. None of these things were true about Freddie Gray.

Freddie Gray was not free. He could not resume his daily life. He was not reunited with his family and friends. Freddie Gray was killed. His life ended on a day when it should not have been.

I sat there stunned. A familiar knot formed in my stomach, the same knot that always forms when I stop and think about a horrific injustice. The juxtaposition of the officers and Freddie Gray was too disturbingly real.

The more I thought about the case throughout the day today, the more my heart broke over the injustice that occurred.

How could a medical coroner rule Freddie Gray’s death a homicide, and not ONE person was convicted or held accountable for his death? 

The more I tried to wrap my head around the fact that no one was convicted, the more angry I became.

I reworked out the facts of the case in my mind, trying desperately to see if I was the one missing something here:

The medical coroner ruled Freddie Gray’s death a homicide. A homicide!! That means that he was killed intentionally, deliberately, unlawfully. There was evidence that the police did not put Gray’s seat belt on in the back of the van, therefore during the drive to the station, Gray, who had his hands cuffed behind his back, was thrown around like a rag doll. These are what the Baltimore Police Department call “rough rides,” where they intentionally do not seat-belt people while they drive them very roughly in to the police station. The goal of these rides being to “rough up” these “thugs, criminals, villains, etc” before they throw them in jail. The city of Baltimore has paid millions and millions of dollars to families in settlements of the unjust treatment of these rough rides.

Even with all of this evidence, all of these damning facts, and the systemic pattern of unethical, borderline criminal, behavior by the Baltimore Police Department, that still wasn’t enough to convict a single soul. That isn’t justice. It shouldn’t be acceptable. It shouldn’t even be considered human.

My heart weeps for the Gray family, who learned today that not one officer was convicted in the murder of their son. I can’t even begin to imagine the terrible pain and hurt they are feeling at the lack of justice.

My heart weeps for the Black community across America, who received even more evidence of a criminal justice system that continues to fail them. A criminal justice system where police officers are always, “Innocent until proven guilty,” but they are rarely given the benefit of the doubt.

My heart weeps for Black parents who struggle to find the words to explain to their sons and daughters why the men who killed Freddie Gray were set free. Who have to explain to their children that it doesn’t even matter if they fully comply with officers like in the case of Philando Castile, they could still be killed by the law enforcement officers who are sworn to protect them.

My heart weeps for a nation that continues to be divided on issues of race and policing in America. For a nation that can’t seem to figure out if we even have a problem with racial profiling among police, no matter how many times we witness it with our very own eyes.

Even though today was a day of mourning, pain, and injustice, it is still a day of hope.

Hope for a nation that will be strong enough to walk along the road to racial healing.

Hope for a justice system that can be dramatically and radically changed in order to provide equity and justice for all.

Hope for my people to begin to listen to our Black brothers and sisters as they explain their experiences of pain and injustice in this country.

Hope that that evil will never win in the end.

Hope that “Love Trumps Hate.”

 

 

The progression of a movement: How the LGBT movement is part of God’s larger story.

To some, yesterday might have just seemed like a normal Sunday afternoon. I was in Indianapolis visiting my fiancé, Anna, and we had just spent the weekend exploring the city. It was incredibly hot, and even more humid, which I tend to expect in the Midwest in the month of June. But yesterday was anything but normal. The exact date of yesterday was June 26, 2016: one year to the day of the Supreme Court’s decision ruling that gay marriage was legal in ALL 50 states.

Yesterday was a day for celebration! A celebration of the basic human right to get married to the person that you love. The LGBT Pride Parades in Chicago and New York City both took place on this one year anniversary of tremendous progress for our nation. Today, as I sit and reflect on the fact that only one year and two days ago, a mere 367 days, it was actually legal for a city or county clerk to deny the marriage license of two men or two women trying to get married is an incredibly sobering thought. It is even more sobering within the context of the massacre at the Orlando Pulse gay nightclub. To see a day that is supposed to be filled with so much joy and celebration have a dark cloud of fear and anger cast over it is truly tragic.

Over the past couple of weeks, I have witnessed a myriad of responses to the Orlando shooting, ranging from disgusting and hateful, to beautiful and unifying. And if these opposing words don’t do justice to just how polarized our nation is, then listening to the responses by politicians on the left and right certainly will. Most of the arguments have gone something like this:

“The reason for the Orlando massacre was all about radical Islamic terrorism.” –Basically any conservative pundit, politician, or talk-show host. 

“The reason for the Orlando massacre was all about the lack of gun control in our nation.” –Basically any liberal pundit, politician, or talk-show host.”

Now before you undoubtedly make up your mind about which camp is “right” based on your strongly held political convictions, please take a moment and consider the fact that both of these arguments have completely skipped over the victims of this terrible, terrible tragedy. This wasn’t just any nightclub that was attacked by a maniac armed with an assault rifle and a handgun. Pulse nightclub is a gay nightclub. A safe-haven for so many members of the LGBT community, who often don’t have any other spaces to feel completely free to be exactly who they are. Pulse nightclub was supposed to be a refuge from the hateful rhetoric often faced at the hands of bigots, Churches, and a staggering amount of “everyday Americans.” The worst part of this tragedy is that it ripped that safety away.

As Anna and I were doing some devotions and reading the Bible together last night in her apartment, we started talking about Christianity and homosexuality. You know, one of those easy, cut and dry topics in the Bible. *See that my sarcasm flag is raised here just to clear up any potential confusion. As we talked about our experiences, thoughts, and beliefs, I thought back to a conversation I had with my parents about another controversial topic discussed thoroughly in the Church: women in leadership roles. I was asking them about how our church, Mars Hill, had addressed that issue when it arose so many years ago when I was too young to understand.

My parents told me that Rob Bell, our pastor at the time, did a series of sermons on this topic, and it was definitely controversial for plenty in our congregation. Apparently there were a substantial number of members who just couldn’t get down with his idea that women in the Church can have leadership roles. My parents explained to me that Rob Bell taught that the story of the Bible was a story about movement. That Jesus was someone who came to Earth to die for the sins of the world and start a movement. That’s why so many disciples took up the call and followed him. He was an extremely radical leader for that time period, and the pharisees took note of that, and hated him for what they perceived as “false teaching,” “too radical,” or even “un-lawful.” 

The movement of Jesus was revolutionary. It was meant to be a movement, not an official religion. Jesus invited his followers to join him on his mission to heal the sick, comfort the downtrodden, provide justice for the marginalized, turn the other cheek when faced with violence, and love our neighbors as ourselves. Jesus’ movement was subversive to the culture. It still is subversive.

Anna and I started talking about other movements throughout history. What about the movement to end slavery in America? That movement had many prominent members of the Church leading it, like Frederick Douglass, who was both abolitionist and preacher. Might we say that the movement of abolishing slavery was part of Jesus’ movement? The movement to end slavery brought freedom to slaves who were literally owned and treated horrendously at the hands of our White ancestors. I strongly believe that Jesus’ movement progressed forward as it should have in this moment. Another step forward in the grand story of God’s love setting people free from oppression.

How about the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s? Wasn’t one of the most famous leaders of that movement a pastor born in the state of Georgia whose name, Martin Luther King Jr., is now written in our nation’s history books forever? Martin Luther King Jr. fully understood that the fight for Civil Rights was a part of the movement of Jesus. Martin Luther King Jr.’s calling was to work on bringing further justice, human rights, civil rights, dignity, and freedom to the most historically marginalized group of people in our country’s existence. Again, I would argue that this was the progress of Jesus’ movement, continuing on the path to radically changing the world through the love and grace of God.

And here we are in 2016. One year removed from the ruling that allowed gay marriage equality in our nation. I believe as Christians, it is time to ask ourselves, Is this progress part of Jesus’ movement? 

So many of the Evangelical leaders of the far Christian right have bemoaned this movement as the sinful, secular culture trying to take a hold of our Godly country. Pastors are preaching that Christians must not get sucked down with the evils of secular culture telling us that gay marriage is okay, when it is clearly a sin. Often these beliefs are thrown around while using the classic, In the world, but not of it phrase. It’s usually at times like these when I desperately want Merry from Lord of the Rings to pop up and ask, “But you’re part of this world, aren’t you??” like he so eloquently questions in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. 

We as Christians are a part of this world. We always have been. And part of Jesus’ movement was to encourage us to work every day to bring Heaven to Earth in any way we can. To take care of the marginalized, heal the sick, and bring justice to the oppressed, like he did over 2,000 years ago.

What if this secular movement of accepting and celebrating gay marriage and love isn’t as secular as we thought? What if it is precisely part of Jesus’ and God’s greater movement of progress that has been unfolding for centuries? What if we stopped worrying about being in this world, and not of it, but instead started listening to the movement of Jesus that very well could be whispering this is the next step to take?

Maybe we as Christians can step up alongside “secular culture” and help to bring grace, love, and peace to those who are constantly marginalized in the LGBT community. What kind of world would that be?  I believe that would be a world where we advanced the very idea of reconciling all things that Jesus proclaimed his movement is about.

 

Education Policy: Where names and stories are often forgotten.

If you live in Michigan, or have been paying attention to our capital city of Lansing, the Detroit Public School (DPS) crisis, and the state of public education in our nation in general, you might have heard about what just happened late last night in the Senate and House of Representatives of Michigan. I realized that it has been a year since my last blog post, and I truly feel like this issue is important enough for me to write about. As those of you who are close to me know, I am extremely passionate about fighting for social justice, and will be starting my student teaching in inner city Chicago this upcoming August. This DPS legislation that was just passed greatly impacts the type of communities that I will be teaching in a few short months from now. I cannot and will not remain silent and apathetic, because this legislation affects how I teach, and MOST importantly, the students and families that I will be teaching.

There have been dozens of articles written already about the two policies that were at the heart of this rigorous, and at times, vitriolic debate. One of the most objectively, and factually written articles that I have found so far is this Detroit News article that explains the difference between the House plan that was strongly backed by Republicans, and the Senate drafted bipartisan bill that was originally voted on: Detroit Free Press Article. Basically there was a bipartisan bill that was supported by the Mayor, and both Senate Republicans and Democrats, that helped give Detroit Public Schools the money they needed, and still allowed for local control over their school system. The House rejected that bill, and then House Republicans redrafted a new bill which didn’t have bipartisan support and got rid of the Detroit Education Commission that would have overseen both charter schools and public schools. It also included language that punished administrators and teachers who participated in sickouts.

So now you should have the context and backdrop of the intense policy battle that has played out over the last week or so. Last night I sat on my couch as I watched the live updates from Lansing on my Twitter timeline. I kept reading disputing stories of what was happening on the Senate floor. Senators, Representatives, policy-makers, lobbyists, business leaders, unions, teachers. Everyone had an opinion of how this deal should be done.

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Pretty intense, right?

Damn.

These are grown-ups. Reduced to petty remarks, throwing shade, hurling insults, and angry rhetoric. And don’t think that I’m just trying to put this on all “these other people.” You might not have noticed at first glance, but if you look a little closer in my pictures, you will discover that even I found myself pulled into the online Twitter-verse to try and make my voice heard. Looking at these pictures now, I think it’s a perfect example of how easy it is to get wrapped up into an idea that you know (*feel*) is right, and to shut out anyone else who could have a different point of view.

At the end of all the debates and voting in Lansing, the decision was made to move forward with the House Republicans’ bill. I was crushed. Heartbroken. Angry. Dismayed. You name it, I felt it.

It wasn’t until I was outside pulling weeds this afternoon that I remembered one very, very important group of people who seemed to be forgotten in all of this craziness. The students and their families. I thought about how so many Detroit families were probably up just as late as I was, watching in their living rooms, wondering what would happen to their children because of these bills. These are parents who want the absolute best for their children, and for them to receive a quality education so they can have a good life once they leave home. I thought about how most of what I saw on Twitter last night was lobbyists and politicians shouting at one another, exclaiming their plan was the right one. People crunching numbers, throwing around millions of dollar amounts, passionately delivering speeches of what’s best for the families of Detroit, casting final votes.

Do any of these lobbyists know the names and stories of the students in DPS? Do any of these politicians? Do they know the story of the eleventh grade boy whose dad left him when he was young, and so he has to take care of his mother by working multiple jobs outside of school? Do they know the story of the tenth grade girl who is pregnant, but is still continuing to come to school to further her education for her future baby? As I am writing these questions, tears are actually welling up in my eyes, because I know these students. I know their names. I helped teach them geometry at Lansing Eastern High School, and at Lansing Everett High School last year. They made me laugh by sharing their wonderful and unique experiences with me. They caused me to get frustrated when they wouldn’t work, or roamed the halls instead of coming to class. Most importantly, they astonished me with their courage and persistence through so much adversity.

All of the students in Detroit Public Schools have a story. Every single one of them. They all have names and faces. They are not just numbers to be crunched in a bailout budget. I believe that is something that only teachers can truly understand. Lobbyists and politicians don’t fully understand that. They might get bits and pieces, but they will never experience what it truly means to be a teacher who loves their students. Who empathizes with their pain. Who get to be invited into their journey as they grow and learn. Who fights to protect them from harm. This is why teaching, I believe in my heart, is one of the most important and rewarding jobs in this country.

If there is something that can be taken away from you reading this post, I hope and pray that you might see how important it is to always remember the names and stories of the students and families that education policy impacts. This is why excellent and compassionate teachers should be more involved in education policy at the local and state level. In my future career as an educator, I have a strong desire to be both a teacher and have a direct impact on education policy, and more specifically for urban education policy. I haven’t quite figured out yet exactly how I can physically make this work, but hey, I’m only 22 years old…so I’ve got plenty of time left on this earth to give.

 

 

 

LGBT Rights, The Church, and the Importance of Timing

It’s been a few weeks since the Supreme Court decision to make gay marriage legal across all 50 states. With this being such a huge decision, and massive change in our country, some of you might be wondering how this change has affected my life. I mean, such a wide scale court case has to have changed something in my life right? Well, let’s see… I’m still working in my summer job at a factory. I still love to eat cereal at literally any time, day or night. I’m still attracted to women, and continue to date my wonderful girlfriend Anna (Thank goodness this decision didn’t turn every American into a homosexual, whew). I’m still a very strong Christian, and am desiring to follow Jesus’ life and teachings as examples of living the best kind of life. So I guess you could say, in fact, NOTHING has changed in my life since this decision.

Since this decision, I’ve seen so many Facebook posts, Tweets, blogs, and heard all sorts of conversations about how this has drastically changed our nation, and apparently, their lives. I’ve heard a range of statements from ultra conservatives like Ted Cruz calling this, “Some of the darkest 24 hours in our nation’s history” to “What’s next? Are people gonna be allowed to marry their dogs??” I wonder if Mr. Cruz was around during the day that a self-proclaimed White Supremacist went into a church and murdered 9 black church members participating in a bible study? To me, that day feels quite a bit darker for our nation than any  court decision. And come on people with the whole “marrying dogs” thing…let’s please remember what logical fallacies are, and try our very best not to use them.

I apologize if that last paragraph seemed like a rant to you, I guess I’m just tired and annoyed of ludicrous and illogical reactions  that seem to occur when topics like this one are discussed. Now that I have all of that bit out-of-the-way, I would like to dive into more of the heart of what this week’s blog post is actually about. As you might have figured out after my first two posts, I enjoy connecting social justice topics with personal aspects of my life experiences. I find that it is a very meaningful way to connect on more of a personal and deeper level the complex and frustrating issues that are social justice. Hopefully this particular story that I am going to share will have an impact, and cause you to maybe consider some things about your own life and the journey that you are on.

When I was about 13 or 14 years old, I remember watching a movie with my family one evening. We love to watch movies as a family together; it’s something we have always done. I don’t remember what movie we were watching, but everything else about that moment I do remember vividly. There was a particular scene in the movie where two male characters began kissing. I remember my mom gasping, “Oh my goodness” and my dad quickly fast forwarded through the scene. That was it. Nothing else. No talking with us kids about what just happened. No discussion about what we had witnessed (even though it was fairly obvious to me). Zero. Zilch. Nada.

In one moment, one not-so-subtle action, my 13-year-old teenage brain learned everything I needed to know about what it means to be a homosexual. This experience caused me to put together that homosexuality was bad, wrong, disgusting, abnormal, gross, something that shouldn’t even be witnessed, and basically any other negative connotation you could think of. My parents never discussed this with me or my siblings. I think maybe they thought if they just skipped over it fast enough we wouldn’t have to experience it.

For my middle school years and most of high school, I had very few encounters with homosexuality, and even fewer with people who identified as such. As much as truly breaks my heart to admit, I know that I held animosity and judgment towards the homosexual community. I wasn’t necessarily outright homophobic, since people in conservative Hudsonville didn’t exactly talk about these things, but I definitely was judgmental and weirded out by anyone or anything related to the LGBT community. Hudsonville is a very religious community if you’ve never visited or heard about it. One of the most religious communities in West Michigan actually. For many Christians, homosexuality is something that is either on the DL (down low) or something to be condemned harshly.

Interestingly, my judgment and animosity and weird feelings about homosexuality had nothing to do with religion. Oh, I’m sure if I was talking to someone about how I felt, I would use language like, “Well God says it’s a sin, so I think it’s wrong” or “I still love them as people, just not the sin they are committing”. Yes, this last statement is identical to the ever-classic “Love the sinner, hate the sin” that so many Christians love to use. But deep down, I was just masking my real feelings toward homosexuals through “Niceties” and “Jesus talk”. I wasn’t willing to let people know how I actually felt, and I honestly wasn’t even willing to be honest with myself about my feelings. This was an incredibly damaging viewpoint on homosexuality, and absolutely one that wasn’t God-centered. Jesus would never have thought like that. In fact, in this, I was exactly like the Pharisees who he called out for judging the speck in another’s eye while having a plank in their own.

It wasn’t until I neared the end of my high school career, and even more so when I got to Michigan State, that some of my feelings about homosexuals were brought up and challenged. My teaching class on diversity and discrimination in American society had a huge impact on learning about the oppression that the LGBT community faces daily. My heart for justice broke when I realized that I was in fact the oppressor when it came to homosexuality. And not just a passive, silent observer either. I had true animosity and discrimination in my heart. Not only was my class helpful in opening my eyes to my vies on homosexuality, but also friendships that I began to develop as well.

This, like many of these things, started slowly, growing gradually, and then it grew faster and faster. I went from knowing of gay people, to having acquaintances who were LGBT, to having wonderful and beautiful friendships with members of the LGBT community. Through talking with them about classes, sports, friends, work, and hearing personal stories of what it was like to be a member of an oppressed minority in today’s society, my heart began to evolve and change. I truly thank God for putting those people in my life, for both their friendship, as well as their impact on my views towards the LGBT community. I know that God put those people in my life for a reason. He knew that my heart wasn’t fully open to giving love and kindness to ALL people, and that was never his desire for any member of his Church. Through my relationships with these beautiful and wonderful friends, I truly have experienced the love and grace of God and it has forever changed my heart. Because at the end of the day, no matter how hard we as humans try ourselves, only God is in the business of changing and evolving hearts.

This is why when I heard the news of the Supreme Court decision, I was extremely excited. I was excited as a social justice warrior that the LGBT community was granted the right to have the same benefits of marriage in this country. I was excited as a Christian because I believe that Jesus was (and still is) always one to fight for the oppressed. He is in the business of bringing justice, love, grace, to the oppressed (and even the oppressors). And if he’s in that business, then I believe that Christians should absolutely be in that business too.

Right after the decision, I saw way too many Facebook posts about how this nation is “Going to Hell” and has “Turned its back on God”, yadda, yadda, yadda. I don’t believe that these posts are exactly loving, and definitely don’t do a good job of portraying what I believe to be God’s character. I also saw plenty of posts that went something like “I just wanted to let you know that I still love you, and God loves you, but what you’re doing is wrong.”  Now, I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing to say at all. I know these are coming from a place of desiring to show God’s love, while still not accepting what they view as a sin. I still cringed when I saw these posts because they showed, what I believe, a poor choice in timing. There is a time for everything, and there is definitely a time for the Church to discuss its stance on homosexuality, but I don’t believe that immediately after a landmark court decision that granted the LGBT community the right to get married is showing good discretion. It doesn’t matter how well-intentioned it might be, this kind of stuff can cause people to view Christians as close-minded, bigots, etc.

What if instead of immediately condemning the decision, claiming an attack on religious liberty, or proclaiming our nation has forsaken God, Christians were able to first exclaim how joyous they were for the human and civil right that was just bestowed on millions of people? How crazy would that be? How unexpected would that be? Wouldn’t that cause people to pause, to say “Huh”? To be pleasantly surprised? What if in doing that, we actually showed the love of Jesus by caring for the oppressed? I believe it would definitely cause the non-Christian culture to at least take notice. Maybe some might even think, “Wow. That’s kind of a cool thing they have going on over there. Maybe I should check it out sometime.”

I believe that when Christians point the message to the Gospel, and to Jesus, instead of bickering with each other, or the rest of the world about all of these theological stances, we are in fact spreading the “Good News” that Jesus talked about. It’s really, really Good News. Not, “Well that’s sort of good news, but I don’t know about all of that other crap they keep screaming about.” It’s just Good News. God’s love and mercy that he sent his son Jesus Christ to die for the sins of the entire world. That kind of unaltered, simple but powerful, sweeping Good News.

About two weeks ago, my parents texted me a picture when they were in Seattle visiting friends. The message below it said, “At the Pride Parade in Seattle”. I will admit at first that I was a little surprised. So I asked, “Did you just happen to be there when it was happening, or did you know about it and actively choose to go down there?” My dad replied, “We knew about it.” Ok. So my parents chose, on purpose, to attend a Gay Pride parade. I was very intrigued, and definitely excited to hear about their experience.

When I FaceTimed them later that day we talked more about the experience in detail. They talked about how they wanted to attend to see some of what it was like, to go outside of their comfort zone, and want to experience something they thought would be meaningful. It was amazing to hear about what they thought of it, and how they actually enjoyed some of the parade. These were my same parents who had fast-forwarded through a kissing scene between two men, and avoided talking with us about homosexuality. I shared with them how proud of them I was, for being willing to go outside of their comfort zone, and for how thankful I was for the fact that they were keeping their hearts open to the possibility of change as well.

I think that my story, as well as my parents’, is an extraordinary testament to the mysterious and wonderful ways in which God can change and shape our hearts. I know that my views towards homosexuality and seeking justice for the LGBT community are not because of me working really hard to “get better” on my own, but rather God taking an active role in changing my heart through the people in my life and my experiences. It’s a testament to God’s love. Which is why I find it very appropriate that the hashtag in support of the Supreme Court ruling was #LoveWins.

It’s true. In the end, God’s love always wins.

Always.

White Solidarity: Yes, white people can (and should) seek social justice.

“Ok, so a white woman who calls herself a black woman, a racist white supremacist, and a confederate flag all walk into a bar…”

While this might sound like the beginning of some strange joke, and I did intentionally phrase it like one, what has happened in our country over these last two weeks is certainly anything but a joke. It seems like things are going from bad, to worse, to downright ugly. In one corner we have Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who “Blackfaced” for over a decade and lied to everyone about her true identity. In another corner we have a horrifically racist, violent, despicable human being (and someone who raises the question: Does he even deserve to be considered human?) Finally, in the other corner we have a symbol of racism, white supremacy, and deep hatred that has been in use since the Civil War, and that flag is flown proudly over some of our state capitol buildings.

There has been, and will continue to be, conversations, heated debates, and arguments over racism and racial injustice in America. I think it’s important for us to realize that situations of injustice such as these three examples above are not new circumstances. Things like this have been happening since the birth of our nation, and even before that. Racism isn’t a new thing. We are just hearing about it more, largely in part because of our social media driven age, as well as the hard work that social justice activists have been doing to shed light on these issues.

In this blog post, I will attempt to explain how we, especially as white people, can join in the fight for social justice, and learn how to raise our voices in solidarity with our black brothers and sisters. I will also try to explain why it’s so important that we don’t just leave the social justice fight to the “other people”. We cannot continue to sit by silently on the sidelines. It’s time for us to get up off the comfortable bench, walk out onto the field, and put our bodies on the line. We are most certainly going to be hit, knocked down, and even fumble the ball at times, but we aren’t out there to be perfect. We are out there to work with our team to “win the game”. To defeat racism and bigotry. To instill justice. To rediscover our humanity.

My own journey of discovering ways in which I can act in solidarity as a white man has been a fast paced ride with plenty of bumps along the way. White solidarity isn’t an easy thing to figure out. It’s kind of messy. It takes intentional thinking, asking lots of questions, and most of all, a willing heart and a listening ear. The last piece about listening is incredibly important, and something that many white social justice warriors forget to do. Since I, as a white man, haven’t exactly experienced first hand racial discrimination, I need to be listening to those who have.

One of the most influential and impactful experiences which helped me develop even more as a social justice ally was the Black Power Rally that I attended during my junior year at Michigan State University. This event has been at MSU for over 40 years, and it’s hosted by the Black Student Alliance and other African American groups at the university. I heard about it through some friends and also through my Urban Educators Cohort. I thought it might be an awesome event for me to go to, and I knew I had to figure out a way to make it work in my schedule. Even though I was excited about being able to attend this event, I would be lying if there wasn’t a small part of me that questioned if I, a white person, should go (or even was allowed to go) to an event like this. It’s incredibly important to me to be authentic in everything I do in life, and I value how positive real authenticity can be when people show it. Somewhere inside of me wondered if I could be authentic and go to a black power rally.

What would people think? Would they judge me there? Would I be the only white person there? Would they take me seriously? Do they know that I care deeply about social justice issues?

Even though I questioned whether I should go or not, I knew that this was partially just fear of being the “other” for once. If I went to a black power rally, I would absolutely not be in the racial majority. Most of my life has been filled with people who look like me. My comfortable, West Michigan, white suburbia life. This was going to push me outside of my comfort zone. It was going to be a challenge. But I knew that I was craving a challenge. I desired to have things “shaken up”. Once I made up my mind that I was definitely going, I asked some friends if we could all go together. There were seven of us in our group, three white, four black. I’m pretty sure the three white people in our group were about 60% of the white population at the event. You don’t exactly have to be good at math to know that that’s not a whole lot of white people.

The Black Power Rally was absolutely amazing. So many thought-provoking skits, powerful poetry, expressive dances, and incredible speakers. The keynote speaker was Marc Lamont Hill, who is an African American academic, journalist, author, activist, and frequent guest on CNN. His speech was very moving, and I truly felt inspired to work even harder to fight for racial justice. He talked about “The day after” and what we as people do after something big happens, whether it’s good or bad. He called all of us to never lose that spirit of fighting for justice for all those who are marginalized, and to constantly ask ourselves what else we can give.

There was one moment in particular during the Black Power Rally that I can still picture vividly in my mind. During one of the speeches, I don’t really remember if it was Marc Lamont Hill or one of the student keynote speakers, the presenter raised his fist in the air, making the symbol of the Black Power movement, and called on the audience to do the same. This came right after some very impassioned words about fighting for justice always and bringing change to our broken country that still deals with institutional racism today. I could see that everyone in the audience was raising their fists, and I knew that I wanted to raise mine too. I knew deep in my heart that I agreed with everything he was saying, and that I was just as passionate for justice as everyone else in that room.

Again, my impulse and desire to always seem authentic made me hesitate briefly before I raised my fist. Some of the same type of questions entered my mind. Is it wrong if I make this gesture? Am I allowed to? Will they think I’m just trying to fit in? Do they know that I actually believe in this stuff? These thoughts show that I obviously care what people think about me, and that’s something that I’m continuing to struggle through and work on to this day.

It was during this moment of slight hesitation, of not being quite sure of what I should do next, that one of my friends who was with me at the event, Rebekka (who is black) looked over and saw me starting to raise my fist awkwardly. And I’m guessing it looked plenty awkward, probably even slightly comical. Rebekka smiled and said to me, “Yeah, Tim. You raise that fist up high!” There it was. An invitation. This was her inviting me into a space of solidarity with her, and with her people. It was her accepting that I believed in fighting for justice, and she was reminding me that I was allowed to express that. I smiled back and fully extended my arm into the air, making the Black Power fist fully, authentically, and for the first time. I knew that this would be a defining moment for me in my journey of becoming a social justice warrior, and looking back on it now, it is even more obvious.

That’s the thing about white solidarity. Sometimes it can seem awkward. We don’t always know what to say, or what to do. I think it’s wise of white people to seek to be authentic in their actions and words, and to think consciously about how we show up in these spaces of social justice. It’s even wiser for us to be listening and following the lead of black and brown people who are already activists and social justice warriors. They are the ones who have had first hand experiences with being discriminated against because of their skin color.

The other reason why white solidarity matters is because it’s not just up to people of color to fight for the justice they deserve and need. Every time we talk about issues of racism, discrimination, slavery, Jim Crow, we shouldn’t only be asking what black people think of it. Us whites have the authority to speak out against such things too. Admittedly, the experience of a white social justice warrior will look different than that of a black social justice warrior. But that difference is not something to be mourned, but rather celebrated. It adds to the beauty of people of different backgrounds, skin color, experiences, and beliefs working together to seek justice for the marginalized.

So I challenge you to stand up in solidarity with the social justice cause. Speak out against the white supremacist hate groups that are still in existence in our society today. Call for the removal of the Confederate flag because it represents racism and hatred, both in history, as well as today. Don’t fall into the trap of labeling Dylann Roof “mentally ill”, but rather acknowledge this was a terrible individual whose actions were racist and evil. Seek to understand why it’s wrong that Rachel Dolezal “Blackfaced” and masqueraded herself as a black woman for years. Understand why that is incredibly hurtful to a group of people who don’t have the luxury and privilege of choosing what identity that “feel like” being that day.

Proclaim Black Lives Matter, and don’t even think of pulling that “All Lives Matter” bullshit. Remember as someone so brilliantly pointed out on twitter, “You wouldn’t walk into a fundraiser for cancer research and proclaim that other diseases kill people too”. I challenge you to join protest marches, if you have the opportunity to, calling for racial justice to be put into our “Justice System”. Keep having conversations with family, friends, coworkers, heck, even strangers, about how we can work together to improve our broken country to be a more equitable place for ALL to live.

Raise up that fist high. It’s ok. Believe it. Own it. Live it.

I know I do.

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Privilege: Moving from guilt to action

Privilege. How can such a simple word create such a vast spectrum of reactions and emotions? Reactions to this word can range from denial of its existence, all the way to accepting its presence in every aspect of society today. Some hear the word privilege and begin immediately shifting in discomfort. Some just roll their eyes, putting on their best, “Here we go again…” face. Others are intrigued, but unsure exactly what privilege really means. And even others still hear the word and have a thousand questions. “Is it good? Is it bad? Who has it? Should I feel guilty for having it? Can I fix it? Can people just chill out about privilege?”

In this, my first blog post, I will attempt to explain what I believe privilege is, what it means to have it, and how those who have it can use it to be a positive force for change. If you have made it to the second paragraph, then I would assume that you are either, a) interested in hearing what I have to say on the subject of privilege, b) are chomping at the bit to prove me how wrong and delusional I am, or c) one of my family members or close friends who feel like they are required to humor me by reading this. Whichever option you might be, I would like to thank you for taking the time to consider what I have to say with an open mind and heart, and I hope that you might discover something new and fresh.

During my freshman year at Michigan State, my favorite class was without a doubt my teacher education course. It was meant to be an introduction to diversity in urban learning environments, and we discussed social justice issues including racism, sexism, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, classism, ageism, and ableism. My professor, Dr. Dorinda Carter, was an incredible teacher of these principles, and she was able to use many personal experiences to explain the complexities of some of these topics in more tangible ways. One activity that Dr. Carter had our class complete was a “Privilege Walk”. Now being a white kid from Hudsonville, (which may just be one of the whitest towns in Michigan), I of course had never heard of such a walk. Even though I had never heard of a “Privilege Walk” before, I knew this wasn’t the type of physical exercise walking, but rather an exercise of the mind, heart, and even soul.

My professor had our class line up outside in a horizontal line standing shoulder to shoulder. Dr. Carter explained to us that this “line” represented the “American Dream”. Before the exercise, we were all starting from the same place. Next, she explained that she would read a series of statements, where we would either take a step forward or step backward if the statement applied to us. She explained that these steps were to simulate our privilege in society, and they signified how easy it was for us to attain the “American Dream”.  Some of the statements included, “Take a step forward if you had parents who went to college. Take a step backward if someone in your family was a victim of gang violence. Take a step forward if you are white. Take a step backward if store clerks watch you closely when you shop. Take a step forward if English is your first language, etc.” As difficult as it might be to fathom, I ended up taking a fair amount of steps forward. Actually, scratch, more than a fair amount. It seemed as if I was taking two steps forward for every one step back my classmates were taking.

Each step forward sent another twinge of guilt through my gut. So many thoughts and questions began to spin round and round in my mind. How come I’m taking so many steps forward? Who wrote these statements? Why did they pick these things? Do my classmates notice I’m near the front? What does this have to do with privilege?

After the statements ended, Dr. Carter told all of us to look around at where we stood in relation to our classmates. I noticed not only was I near the front, I was in THE very front. Yes, every other member of my class was behind me. She told us that this was a snapshot of our privilege in society. That those near the front had a lot of privilege, and those near the back didn’t have as much. Dr. Carter reminded us where the original line of the American Dream was, and told us how some are beyond the point of the American Dream because of their privilege, and others are behind it. Those in front of the line have a much easier time achieving the American Dream. She explained that they might not even have to work very hard to reach it. Meanwhile, those behind the line had to work harder than most to even begin to think about reaching the American Dream.

This exercise was extremely eye-opening for me, and even somewhat shocking. I had never considered myself to be so privileged. I mean, growing up I knew that my family was pretty well off. We had a big house, with a nice yard, and even a pool. My dad had, and still has, a great job, my parents are still married, and they were even able to help me pay for half of my college. All of these things I considered blessings, but never privileges. Now it certainly is a blessing to grow up in a safe, secure, loving environment, and I am very thankful to both my parents for providing me with that childhood. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being grateful for having been provided with so much.

The issue for me was that I never understood or saw how some of these great things in my life were a direct result of my privilege. Specifically, my privilege as a white, male, upper class, Christian, straight, able-bodied individual. I’m literally the dominant group in almost every category of privilege there is. Many would say I’ve hit the proverbial “Privilege Jackpot”. Even if I wanted to deny and dispute that belief, which I don’t, I wouldn’t exactly have much of a compelling argument. My strongest claim against having privilege in society might be something along the lines of, “Well…it’s not my fault, I didn’t choose this life,” or, “I’m just really thankful that I have been so blessed in my life.” Interestingly enough, both of these two statements are very true. Obviously, as a baby I wasn’t floating around in the sky searching for the perfect parents to raise me who might give me the best life possible. I had as much choice in being born as I do in controlling the ridiculous and always changing weather in Michigan. And of course some of the things in my life that have happened are definitely blessings. It would be naive to say otherwise. The problem is that these statements still don’t address or admit my privilege of being in a dominant group for all of the socially constructed categories.

What does being “blessed” have to do with not being racially profiled by police officers based on the color of my skin? What does being “blessed” have to do with attending an affluent school with tons of resources and opportunities provided to me? Or having standardized tests written by people who look like me, talk like me, and share some of my similar experiences? These are specific privileges I have for being white in America today. The whole system of our country is set up to benefit someone like me. The Founding Fathers of our nation stated in the constitution that it was the right of free white men to own land. Well, I’m a free white man last time I checked…so I guess the original dads of my country were looking out for me from the get-go. Thanks pops, I love you too.

As white people, and especially white males, we have to be honest with ourselves about the privileges we receive for being who we are in today’s world. There doesn’t have to be any guilt involved though. How could I feel guilty about something if I had zero choice in the matter? In fact, as my professor Dr. Carter told me when I mentioned having this exact guilt, “There’s nothing to be guilty about Tim. Actually, that guilt can be harmful and distract you from working hard to change the system and make it more equitable for those who are marginalized.” Her words definitely resonated with me, and it completely changed my outlook on the privilege I have as a white male.

I don’t have to be guilty. It’s not my fault. BUT, there IS absolutely work I can, and I would even argue, need, to do to fix this broken system. I can use my privilege to work alongside marginalized groups, and advocate for equity and justice for them. I can proclaim “Black Lives Matter” and lend my voice to the cries for police officers to be brought to justice in the killings of unarmed African Americans. I can educate people on the racial injustices that Black and Brown people face every day in this country. When I am a teacher in the future I can use my privilege as a white male to work with my students to help them navigate around barriers and obstacles that they might face. I can use my privilege to be an advocate for equal pay for women. I can use my privilege to be an ally for the LGBT community and support their full civil rights to be given to them by the government.

I think it’s extremely important that as white people, we realize that we do have privilege in this society. I’ve talked to many different people who don’t believe it’s a privilege to be white in America today. Every time they hear the words “white” and “privilege”, they automatically get defensive and angry. They will use the “Oh that was only in the past” or ” Well I certainly don’t feel very privileged” or even “But Black people get free welfare and Affirmative action so they are the ones who are privileged”. The last statement usually makes me want to laugh out loud whenever someone tries to use that as an argument that it’s better to be Black than white in America today. I’m guessing that these people haven’t been watching the news recently, as more and more stories are coming to light about the killing of unarmed African Americans by white police officers. They also probably have never been racially profiled by a police officer before, or know what it’s like to have racist language and derogatory terms used towards them daily.

As white Americans, we will never know what it’s like to be Black in America today. Tim Wise, a white anti-racist educator and speaker, (and personally, one of my favorite speakers) talks about how maybe we should stop focusing on what it is like to be Black in America, but instead focus on what it means to be white. This means that we must address the areas in which we are privileged in society, and have an understanding of the kinds of impact that can have. As uncomfortable as that might sound, and believe me, at first it is uncomfortable, thinking of racism in terms of white privilege is a very powerful and eye-opening experience. It leads to new conversations. New thoughts. New ideas. Un-learning. Learning. This perspective can help us begin the journey to becoming a social justice advocate. And I believe that more importantly, it can lead us to be more considerate, caring, and compassionate people.

My privilege has given me a powerful voice, and I never want to take that for granted. I have the desire to use my privilege in ways to fix this broken system of institutional racism, classism, sexism, and countless other injustices. Our world is hurting, and frankly it has been since the beginning of time. No, I’m not a hero for choosing to use my power and privilege for good, nor does that mean I’m more noble and righteous that other people. I believe that it’s my duty to combat these injustices with whatever power and impact I can have. I know that deep within my heart and soul I am craving for justice for everyone. It’s why I get so angry over any injustice I see. I think it’s high time I started living fully and using my gifts and privileges to make a change, one small baby step at a time. And I encourage everyone else who can think of ways in which they can use their privileges to do the same.