Lower Case Whitneys

            Earlier this week a Christian woman with a beautiful   spirit called me with a question.  She   said, “What is the Church to learn from Whitney?”  I asked her what she meant.  She said, “Well, she grew up in a Christian   home.”  She knew God.  “She had money.”  She was beautiful.  And yet, she was a drug addict.  And now she is dead.  I   have thought about Whitney Houston.    Whitney with a capital W.  We   rooted for her, didn’t we?  We followed   her through her ups and downs, and our hearts broke each time she slipped or   stumbled.  And we trusted that a child   trained up right would eventually return to the way she was brought up.  But Whitney ran out of time.  And some of us are wondering, “Where do   broken hearts go?”  But thinking of   Whitney, I couldn’t help thinking about all the lower case whitneys.  The whitneys who walk the streets of our   towns and cities not knowing where they will lay down at night.  The whitneys who trade sex for money.  The whitneys who have 3 or 4 children   before they’re 25.  The whitney who got   punched by her boyfriend or her husband last night.  While we cry over big Whitney and ask God   why, I hope we will remember there are women all around us in trouble, just   as Whitney was.  Women who “almost had   it all.”  An honor roll girl on her way   to college and then she has a baby. She dreamed of being a doctor and now all   she has is a nightmare life with a baby and no husband. Just a baby   daddy.

Or the woman who’s “saving all her love” for a married man.  Or the whitney who “just wanted to dance with somebody” but got raped instead.  You couldn’t help Whitney with a capital W, but there are thousands of lower case Whitneys right where you live that you can do something about.  All you need is “one moment in time.”  Kevin Costner said at her funeral, that she wondered, “Am I good enough, am I pretty enough, will they like me?”  Whitney with a capital W had the same concerns as all of us lower case whitneys.  And as a Black woman, her insecurities were even greater, for we have always been called ugly and nappy headed and thick lipped and wide nosed.  Just like Whitney, we know the address of Heartbreak Hotel.  And though we might go there, we can’t stay there.  For we have work to do.  Anna Julia Cooper wrote, “Only the Black woman can say, “when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and with suing or special patronage, then and there the whole…race enters with me.”   For those of you who may be unfamiliar with her legacy, Dr. Cooper was the pioneering African American author, educator and social activist who said in the late nineteenth century that the educational, moral and spiritual progress of Black women would be the force for change in Black communities across the nation and the world.   Anna Julia was right.  But that was back in the day when women picked children up for Sunday School.  Before we were so busy.  At the mall.  And the nail shop.  And the Bingo parlor.  And the club. And the gambling boat. On the  phone.  With our man.  Doing  me.  Black women have been the bridge everybody walked across to get to where they needed to go, but somewhere along the way, we decided it is all about “me.”  And  the beloved community suffers.  When we got to sit at the lunch counter at Walgreen’s we thought the struggle was over.  It is not over.  And on this day, I hope we mourn both whitney with a capital W and lower case Whitney.

Luke 6.27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.

32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great.  36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

So today, I pray you will make up in your mind to take the focus off you and what you want and the way you like it and put it on somebody who needs you.  I pray you will decide to help somebody along the way.  Not your family, and not your friends.  The scripture says that anybody can do that.  God doesn’t reward us for helping the folk we love.  God commands that we love the stranger, the sojourner.  You might think you can’t do it, but I say “You don’t know your own strength.”  Help somebody and don’t expect anything back.  Do to others as you would have them do to you.

The songwriter writes, If I can help somebody, as I pass along.   If I can cheer somebody, with a word or song,   If I can show somebody, she is travelling wrong.  Then my living shall not be in vain.  If I can do my duty, as all ought   If I can bring that duty to a world that’s lost.  If I can spread a love message that the Master taught.  Then my living shall not be in vain.

Whitney ran out of time.  My prayer is we will find the time to reclaim the beloved community.

Chronic Pain

My constitutional law professor had a phrase I have appropriated.  After reading a particularly difficult set of facts, before we got to the majority opinion and the dissent, Dean T. Gerald Treece would pause and say, “Now, doesn’t that just hurt your justice bone?”  My justice bone is sensitive.  It aches for the poor and the vulnerable.  It throbs for children who go to school every day, but can’t read by the third grade. It was a  sharp, stabbing pain when I faced the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, for I had to pray for the people who were dispossessed so the Wall could be built.  This justice affliction is complex. It forces me to dig deep; to follow the trails; to sort out truth from lies . . . to locate the roots of injustice. And I’ve certainly been angered by what I’ve seen of oppressive systems.  But I’ve never been bitter.  I’ve held on to hope.  Somehow, I maintained my belief that things would change.  My Mother often cautioned me about my idealism, saying my heart would one day be broken if I refused to see the world as it really is. Mama was right. My heart is broken.

I chose the United Methodist denomination because I fell in love with the Social Principles.  I felt empowered by the Book of Discipline. I was infatuated with a denomination that has the courage to call out racism as a sin. I chose this denomination carefully. No generational pull for me. I was not baptized and confirmed UM.  I had little exposure to UM, although I did note the UM churches in Prairie View and Hempstead, Texas were just as segregated as the Baptists, the Lutherans, the Episcopalians and the Catholics.  I chose UM as a mature woman, convinced I could not remain Baptist because of the oppression against women. So I surveyed denominations.  I established criteria.  I was intentional because I know my justice bone is sensitive.  I know the space in which I live my life.  Look for me at the intersection of race, class, and gender.  I don’t live there by choice.  I live there because at this stage in the evolution of these United States, that is the address available to me.  It is the same place Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and Audre Lorde lived, but I must say it infuriates me that after all the striving, leading, speaking, marching, and writing, I’m still pressed upon and pressed down because of race, class, and gender. And as I look around at my gifted, graceful clergy colleagues, I realize I am not standing here alone. Standing shoulder to shoulder with me are my sisters; some passive and submissive; some bold, loud and proud. What must be understood here is that whether we keep silent or speak out, we are relegated to the same neighborhood.  It is not zoned United Methodist only. I have seen women of color voted out, pushed out, evaluated out, frozen out, and starved out of pulpits by every denomination I know.

My sisters and I approach ministry with joy, so glad to be serving God that it is years before we come to grips with our own marginality. In  the early years, we accept that everyone starts out at the smallest churches, for the least amount of compensation. We are expected to perform miracles.  And we do.  But somehow, the miracles never morph into the plum appointment, just another impossible situation. And you try not to make comparisons, but it is obvious that men with less experience and less ability are being appointed to the larger, more lucrative churches. And if you are African-American, you realize there are multiple tiers in the appointment process, and you are on the bottom tier. And if you are an African-American woman, you are the lowest of the low.  Here is where folk will point to this or that African-American or woman in the hierarchy, as if exceptionalism and tokenism demonstrate fairness. Yet women keep coming, filling the seats at seminaries and sanctuaries; giving ourselves and our money and making miracles happen, because we desire to serve God with all our hearts.  And the Church talks, meets, writes grand sounding words, and appoints commissions. And weeds out troublemakers, and silences those who speak out. It’s enough to make my justice bone ache, and my heart breaks for me and my gifted, glorious sisters.

Ntozake Shange wrote, in For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide . . ., “Being alive and being a woman is all I got, but being colored is a metaphysical dilemma I haven’t conquered yet.”  How about being alive, a woman, a colored woman, and a clergywoman?  All I am certain of at this point is that I make a conscious choice to be vulnerable, even when it hurts. I will not slumber through life, numbed by shopping, sex, religion, Facebook, work or children. I will not deny the pain.  If I deny the pain, how can I remain a truthful woman?  If I deny the pain, I will not fight so that my daughter and her daughter will not find themselves standing in this very same place. I choose to love the beloved community. I choose to trust in a God who is a woman, for I trust that a woman will not forget me and my sisters.  And I choose not to divest myself of my glorious, God-given power.  I stand with Sojourner and Harriet and Zora Neale, and Fannie Lou, and Stacey, and Irie, and Jerrolyn, and Freedom, and Valeta, and so many more.  We will not stop coming.  And I choose not to be silent.  Ever again.

The United Methodist Church recognizes that the sin of racism has been destructive to its unity throughout its history. Racism continues to cause painful division and marginalization. The United Methodist Church shall confront and seek to eliminate racism, whether in organizations or in individuals, in every facet of its life and in society at large. The United Methodist Church shall work collaboratively with others to address concerns that threaten the cause of racial justice at all times and in all places. (Article V, Book of Discipline (2004), ¶5)