Monday, May 1, 2017

The Language of the Unheard

I want to live so densely. lush. and slow in the next few years, that a year becomes ten years, and my past becomes only a page in the book of my life.
Nayyirah Waheed

Ojai, CA

This month delivered two important commemorations: the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "Time to Break the Silence" speech denouncing the war in Vietnam (April 4) and the 25th anniversary of the "L.A. Riots" (April 29).  We joined our sending organization Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries in the participation of two formal gatherings the first week in April with pastors and community organizers in L.A.  We attended an event at an old black Baptist church in Watts called "Acting in the Spirit of Dr. King: Now Is Our Time to Break Silence." Portions of the speech were read and a panel of leaders talked about the relevancy of King's words today.  We sang James Weldon Johnson's "Lift Every Voice and Sing," the so-called "Black National Anthem," a song Tom first heard before the last college basketball game he ever played (at L.A. Southwest Community College, just a few miles from where we sang in Watts).  The service was a beautiful culmination to the daily Lenten devotional Tom had been organizing for the RadicalDiscipleship.Net blog that he and Lydia Wylie-Kellermann have been curating the last three years.

On Friday and Saturday of that week, we helped staff "Commemorating the 25th Anniversary of the L.A. Uprising," co-organized by BCM and a group called ReconciliAsian, led by Sue and Hyun Hur, a Korean-American couple who pastor a church in Upland. This was, in many ways, a soul-deepening event, with plenty of time given for a range of story-telling from diverse leaders (black, Latina, Asian and white), bearing witness to what they were doing and seeing during those violent days in the aftermath of the acquittal of three police officers in the Rodney King beating trial.

Most of the analysis that I (Tom) remember from back in 1992 (as a high school senior, in that strange time just weeks after winning a CIF basketball championship and weeks before graduating) had racial overtones of "thuggish" black men "looting" stores and "burning down their own neighborhoods" while "hyper-vigilant" Korean business owners protected their stores on rooftops with rifles. The event a few weeks ago in Koreatown was powerful because it got to the roots of this social unrest.  Dr. King described a riot as "the language of the unheard." It is worth quoting a bit more from a speech he gave in Detroit ("The Other America") just three weeks before his assassination:

But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention.

The truth of the matter is that black and brown Americans have continued to endure injustice and oppression at the hands of police brutality, mass incarceration, housing, transportation and economic policies that have crippled any hope of having the same opportunities that we had growing up in what King called "the sunlight of opportunity" in Orange County.  The real history (that still affects the present) is that in 1930, city leaders boasted that L.A. was "the whitest, most Protestant city in America."  Black folks were not allowed to live north of Adams Blvd.  Latinos were banned from living west of the L.A. River.

As professor Young Lee Hertig said on the first night of this event, "the real perpetrator is always invisible."  Police caught on film brutalizing and/or fatalizing young black men walk. Banks charge skyrocketing interest rates for mortgages to black and brown families. Schools, largely funded by property taxes, are under-resourced. Jobs are few and prisons are aplenty. Voting rights and political representation are constrained.  The media suffers a vacuum, giving very little time to the perspectives of poor and oppressed people.   The roots of the riot (and all other "violent" acts) are not personal or cultural. They are political and economic.

Ten days ago, we drove down to L.A. to join an interfaith gathering, marching through the streets to protest ramped-up deportations.  We congregated in the street in front of Metro Detention Center, where ICE vans are parked in an underground garage.  We could hear dozens of undocumented folks knocking on the windows of their cells in the tower high above us.  Thirty-five religious leaders and community organizers got arrested in a sacred act of civil disobedience.  Photo below: our friend Grecia Reyes-Lopez (in red shirt), an organizer for Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, just minutes before arrest.

We are in Ojai for four more weeks and then we'll be returning to Detroit for the summer to re-connect and work with old friends in the city.  This weekend, we are hosting a MarriageStrong group for three couples in the area:  eight sessions in less than forty-eight hours!  It's intense, vulnerable, authentic and always life-giving for us.  Photo below: our Easter Sunday service in the backyard of Sarah, Adella and Erynn's, friends from the Abundant Table Farm Project.


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