How to Start a Conversation


One of the several highly articulate teens who spoke at last night's meeting

Years ago, I was part of a group of young ministers who met regularly with an experienced minister for mentoring.  I often think back on one conversation we had about pastoral visitation.  All the young ministers knew we should be visiting people in their homes.  Our older parishioners, in particular, seemed to relish the opportunity to have us over for tea and cookies.  But we were starting to dread these visits which could easily last a couple of hours.  It just seemed like all people wanted to do was chat about their grandchildren or gossip about other members of the church or complain about how the congregation had declined since the 19050's.  How could we help these conversations become more personal, more reflective, without being awkward or intrusive?

"That's easy," our mentor told us.  "You can have a significant conversation with anyone in 20 minutes.  You just begin by saying, 'Tell me about your grandmother.'"

I've thought of this advice many, many times over the past 20 years.  For awhile, I did ask a lot of people about their grandmothers and was rewarded with some amazing stories and even a few tears.  But I soon realized the broader principle. Good conversations involve stories.  When we tell stories to each other about people who have influenced us or experiences that have changed us, stories that explain why we have particular commitments or values, something important happens.  We build connections.  We establish trust.  We let each other know that it is okay to be who we are.

I believe in conversations.  So of course I was excited when I saw an announcement on the Howard County Public Schools email newsletter a couple of weeks ago announcing an event entitled, "Voices for Inclusive CommUNITY" co-sponsored by the school system, the Howard County Police Department and the Howard County Office of Human Rights.  Here's how the event was described:

Community members are invited to an evening of dialogue about establishing and strengthening relationships among students, parents, school officials and law enforcement. This event provides opportunities to understand what HCPSS, the Howard County Police Department and the Howard County Office of Human Rights are currently doing, and provide input on building a more inclusive community. The evening will include small roundtable discussions.

When I heard that the "small roundtable discussions" were going to be facilitated by people who had been through the school system's excelled Cultural Proficiency program, I was even more encouraged.  Any event that brings a diverse group of people together (especially people who might not talk to each other easily or frequently) and gives them a chance to speak and be heard by each other is worth the effort.

The event took place last night at Long Reach High School.  It was well attended by school system folks and police officers with about a dozen high school students and a handful of random people from the community such as me.  It wasn't a waste of time, but the conversation was pretty superficial.  Everyone is trying to build an inclusive community even though it isn't always easy.  We need to keep trying.  We need to keep talking.

Then, as we were getting up to leave, one of the police officers at my table told the beginnings of a story.  She talked about the neighborhood in Baltimore where she grew up.  She said a few words about her mother and her brother.  Suddenly, instead of talking about the importance of vulnerability, she was being vulnerable.  The conversation suddenly mattered.

As I was driving home, I thought of a community event I attended at the beginning of the year. PATH organized a series of well-attended events that brought together leaders and members of Christian, Jewish and Muslim congregations in Howard County.  In one of them, we were instructed to find a person in the room who we didn't know and to have a 20 minute conversation based on a couple of questions.  After 20 minutes, we found another person and had the conversation again.  I don't remember the specific questions now, but I remember the conversations I had.  I heard personal stories about how a neighbor of mine has experienced living in our community.  I learned something specific about what they valued and why.  By the end of the conversation, we felt connected to each other.  We weren't strangers anymore.

I wish last night's meeting began where it ended for me.  We need to have one-on-one conversations with people who we don't usually get to talk to--police officers, teenagers, school teachers, people who have a different racial or ethnic background than we do.  We can't just brainstorm ideas about what other people should be doing.  We need to tell each other personal stories about why we do what we do, why we value what we value.  That may sound like it would take forever, but in my experience, you can say a lot in 20 minutes. 


Confessing Other People's Sins


Andrea Lewis and Rosa Kirk-Davidoff discuss the novel "All American Boys" at KC last Sunday

My husband Dan came home from Yom Kippur services last week satisfied.  "There was a real good list of collective sins," he told me.  In addition to the usual list, his rabbi has verbally inserted some additional confessions, appropriate to the time at hand.  But even the list printed in the prayer book seemed on target.  The version in The New Union Prayer Book begins,

For our failures of truth, O Lord, we ask forgiveness.

For passing judgment without knowledge of the facts, and for distorting facts to fit our theories.

For deceiving ourselves and others with half-truths, and for pretending to emotions we do no feel.

For using the sins of others to excuse our own, and for denying responsibility for our own misfortunes.

Inspired by my husband's appreciation for this annual ritual, I suggested a few years back that we include an extended corporate confession in our Ash Wednesday worship at the Kittamaqundi Community.  The planning team was skeptical and made me promise to explain that the confession came from the Jewish prayer book.  They didn't want anyone to take the list too personally.  The following year, the team gently suggested the prayer was way too long.  Wouldn't it be better, someone offered, if we had a period of silence during which people could make their own personal confessions?

No one wants to confess to a crime they did not commit.  For that reason, ritual confessions try to make the sins so general that everyone ends up being personally implicated:  "We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us," the Book of Common Prayer famously reads.  But when we gather together, the point is not only to admit to our personal failings, but also to admit that we are also somehow tied up in the bad actions and ideas of others.

This isn't just a challenge for people leading and participating in religious ritual.  It is also a challenge for any person or group who wants to make the world a better place.  

Consider the problem of racial bias and discrimination.  If we are going to really address these issues, each of us must consider, how am I part of the problem?  What can I take responsibility for?  What commitments can I make personally that might improve the situation? But those questions, while necessary, are never the end of the conversation.  If we are serious in our analysis of the problem, we will end up confessing not only our sins, but also the sins of others.  We recognize that we are part of a sick system, and no matter how good we intend to be, we are implicated in the crimes that system commits.

Last Sunday, a group of us from KC and the neighborhood got together to discuss this year's One Maryland One Book selection, "All American Boys" by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely.  The book begins with a scene in which a young black man is assaulted by a police officer.  The story then continues, in alternating chapters, in the voice of the young man who was assaulted (Rashad) and the voice of another teen (Quinn), a white kid who knows both the black teen and the police officer. Both teens struggle to figure out how to respond.  Some of the people around both kids encourage them to keep their heads down and step back from any kind of protest or statement.  Others encourage them to stand up for what is right--even if it means challenging or possibly antagonizing people who have encouraged and supported them in the past. 

The novel does not resolve all of the questions it raises.  We never hear, for example, what happens to the police officer.  Is he punished for his actions, or does he get away with what he did?  The one thing that is clear by the end of the story is that it is not possible to be a bystander.  When it comes to issues around race and policing, all of us are involved.

That's a challenging topic for any group to discuss, but we managed it last Sunday, in part because an amazing Howard County police officer was in the room.  Sargent Stephanie Wall from the Community Outreach Division read the book and participated in the discussion enthusiastically and completely non-defensively.  She was clear:  there are police officers who do terrible things in this country.  Most police officers do not, but every police officer is implicated in the actions of those who act unjustly or unwisely.  Every single officer, every single police department, needs to commit to healing the damage caused by the history of racial bias in law enforcement.

I left the conversation deeply encouraged--and challenged.  What would it mean for me to acknowledge and to confess the harm done by Christians?  By white people?  By Americans?  How might I do that in a way that doesn't just overwhelm me with guilt but rather energize me to engage more deeply with the healing of the world?


Does Howard County Need an Elected Sheriff?


Now that Howard County's elected sheriff, James Fitzgerald, has finally announced his resignation, there are some important questions facing our community.  The sheriff's behavior, which included racist, sexist and anti-Semitic comments as well as favoritism and intimidation of those who disagreed with him, raises important moral and ethical questions.  How was this man allowed to get away with behavior which would have led to his termination in just about any other job?  That line of questioning will lead, I hope, not only to some honest conversation about racial bias in our county, but also to some organizational and structural questions.

Why do we have a sheriff?  And why is it an elected position?

Our recent experience with Fitzgerald begs both of these questions.  The office of sheriff seems like an artifact from the rural days of Howard County when there weren't municipal police departments. Every news story about Fitzgerald over the past two weeks includes a line like this one from yesterday's story in the Baltimore Sun, reassuring the reader that the sheriff does very little:

The Howard County sheriff's office provides courthouse security, serves warrants, transports prisoners and addresses landlord-tenant disputes. It is not the county's primary law enforcement agency.

The Washington Post says the sheriff's office "acts primarily as an arm of the court system, transporting prisoners and issuing summons."  Aren't these jobs that could be done by the Howard County Police Department?  "Courthouse security" could certainly be handled by a private security company.  Wouldn't that save the county money and simplify the organizational structure of law enforcement?

Organizational structure brings us to the issue of accountability.  The people who support elected sheriffs always trumpet the importance of having a law enforcement official who is "directly accountable" to the people of the community.  Fitzgerald has proved this argument incorrect.  Clearly, he had no sense of accountability to the people of the county.  Those people have been demanding his resignation for weeks.  Over 500 signed an on-line petition.  There have been several demonstrations and many calls, emails and blog posts.  Fitzgerald's only response was to say that he was "humbled". This man seemed to see the sheriff's office as his own private kingdom.  His power was absolute and no one could challenge him, inside or outside of his office.

So who got Fitzgerald to resign?  Elected officials, notably County Councilman Calvin Ball.  Governor Hogan issued a statement condemning Fitzgerald minutes before he resigned--presumably that statement was made privately before it was made in public.  So if the real structure of accountability for the sheriff's office is the County Council, why not change the County charter to make sheriff an appointed position?  The governor will be appointing a new sheriff to serve out the remaining two years of Fitzgerald's term.  I will be interesting to watch what happens.  Maybe accountability--and transparency--will actually improve.

I am hardly an expert in the area of law enforcement agencies, but it took only a couple of Google searches to realize that Howard County is not the only place where sheriffs are controversial and combative figures.  Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Maricopa County, Arizona is the most notorious example. Milwaukee County's Sheriff David Clarke has made a name for himself through frequent Twitter tirades.  But there are lots of smaller stories.  Check out this story from Portsmouth, Virginia where the sheriff has pursued a vendetta against the mayor all year.  Or listen to what Maryland's Wicomico County sheriff, Mike Lewis, had to say about the shooting death of police officers in Dallas this past July.

When there are so many examples of office holders who use their position to spout off, antagonizing large portions of the community they were elected to serve, or to harass citizens or political rivals, the issue is not just the person--it is the position.  Law enforcement officers need clear structures that guarantee accountability and responsibility.  Howard County's experience adds to the evidence that law enforcement agencies work best when, like police departments, they are accountable to some people in particular, not just to "the people" in general.


We Are Part of a Bigger Story



Sometimes, it helps to step back and get a little perspective.  When the anxiety of the present moment starts to feel overwhelming, it helps to put today's dramas into a bigger context.  

There were very few glimmers of insight in last night's presidential candidate's debate.  In the middle of ninety excruciating minutes of accusation and animosity, there was one helpful, constructive comment.  A Muslim American woman named Gorbah Hamed told the candidates that Islamaphobia is on the rise in this country and asked, "how will you help people like me deal with the consequences of being labeled as a threat to the country after the election is over?"  I thought it was the best question of the night, asking the candidates to connect national policy and campaign rhetoric to the lived experience of particular Americans.  The two candidates gave starkly different responses. Donald Trump used the question to imply that Muslims in this country are hiding and protecting terrorists such as those who perpetrated the attack in San Bernadino, CA.  

Hillary Clinton's answer began this way:  "First, we've had Muslims in American since George Washington."  

That one sentence went by in a flash.  I doubt it will receive much comment as the debate is analyzed in the days to come. But I don't want to forget it because it reminded me of the power of the Bigger Picture.  We are, and have always been, a nation composed of people of different religions, people from different cultures and countries of origin.  The American story is, in part, a Muslim story.  

Dan and I saw Part One of Tony Kushner's epic play, "Angels in America" at the Round House Theater in Bethesda on Saturday.  The production marks the 25th anniversary of the play, evocative timing for us.  We were married in my home town of St. Paul, Minnesota, on July 3rd, 1993. Immediately after our wedding we drove to New York so that I could attend a retreat that was required as part of the internship I had that year.  I like to say that I spent my honeymoon alone in a Passionist Monastery, but that's not entirely true.  After the retreat, I met Dan and my maid-of-honor Helena Hedman in New York City.  The highlight of our weekend together was seeing Part One of "Angels in America" at the Walter Kerr theater where it had opened just a couple of months before.

It was one of the most memorable pieces of theater I've ever seen.  The plot revolves around two couples whose lives and relationships are coming apart:  a Morman husband and wife who beginning to acknowledge the husband's homosexuality and a gay couple, one of whom is becoming progressively more sick with AIDS.  But the story does not stay small--the characters include Roy Cohn and Ethel Rosenberg and scenes take place in the world of reality and fantasy, from New York to Antartica. The show is three and a half hours long, culminating in the arrival of an angel who crashes through the roof of the theater and announces, "The great work begins!  The messenger has arrived."

Twenty-five years later, it wasn't that last scene that made the strongest impression on me, but the first.  The show opens with a funeral for the grandmother of Lewis, the partner to the man who is sick with AIDS.  An elderly rabbi (played memorably by Meryl Streep in the 2003 HBO adaptation of the play) gives the eulogy, admitting at the start that he didn't know the deceased personally.  But he continues, saying that he knows the kind of person she was, an immigrant who brought an ancient culture with her when she immigrated to America.  She worked the earth of the Old World "into the bones" of her children and grandchildren.  He concludes, 

You can never make that crossing that she made, for such Great Voyages in this world do not anymore exist. But every day of your lives the miles that voyage between that place and this one you cross. Every day. You understand me? In you that journey is. 

Collapse and chaos threaten to overwhelm the characters in Kushner's play.  Lest we forget, by that point over a million Americans were infected with HIV and effective treatment was still a ways off.  By 1993, the disease had killed almost 150,000 people. But by placing that story into an epic context with visitors from the past and visitors from heaven, Kushner insists that we do more than grieve or rage in response.  We must link our story to the Great Voyages of our ancestors.  We must recognize that we are living out not only our own little dramas, but also the Great Drama of our country, our time.  We understand this chapter better when we understand the ones that came before.

But part of understanding our history is recognizing that our lives also matter.  That was a powerful assertion for a gay man to make in 1993 and it still feels bold today.  I admire Gorbah Hamed and every other Muslim American who will stand up in the presence of these candidates and the rest of us and insist that the story of this election and the story of our country includes the story of their lives.

Does Integration Require Intention?


I think intention is over-rated.  The word certainly has its appeal--an "intentional community" sounds much more important than a community that has come together through luck and circumstance.  I vow, on a fairly regular basis, to be "more intentional" in my prayer life or my relationship with my spouse or or with my eating habits.  This usually means that I'm going to Try Harder to Do Better in these areas.  But I know what happens to all of those good intentions. They don't last long.  Intention is taxing.

I think design is under-rated. I learned this first as the parent of toddlers. I had no idea how to foster in them the intention to (for example) gently handle breakable things.  So I got them plastic plates and cups and put the breakable things out of reach.  I eventually realized I could apply the same principle to managing myself.  If I want to read more, I need to put a book next to my bed and leave my laptop on my desk in my office.  I want to give money to my church so I set up automatic payments from the checking account at the beginning of each month and stop thinking about it completely.  I've worked hard to design my daily routines so that running, praying and writing all happen without a lot of intention on my part.

Maybe that's why I like Columbia, Maryland so much.  Jim Rouse, the developer who planned this community, had all sorts of good intentions about what would happen here.  People of different races and ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds would live together in harmony. People would feel connected to nature and to their neighbor.  Rouse designed the community with these intentions in mind.  Single family homes were built near townhouses and apartments.  Bike paths wound their way through everyone's back yard and opaque fencing was prohibited.  Mail kiosks required everyone to leave their homes to get their mail, increasing the chance that they'd bump into their neighbor and have a chat.  

Jim Rouse required all the developers who built and sold homes in Columbia to sign a non-discrimination agreement (this was before the Fair Housing Act of 1974).  And he directly marketed his development to African-American families in Baltimore.  But he didn't require the residents who moved to Columbia to make any declarations about their intention to help build a mixed, open community.  The design was supposed to take care of that.  People didn't need to have a big commitment to Rouse's vision--they could come to Columbia because they liked the housing stock or the pools or the location or the schools.  They would then find themselves living in a mixed community and would come to value it as they experienced it.

Does that model still work?  Can design sustain integration--or does it need intention?

I've been thinking about that question ever since I attended two talks this past Tuesday by Rob Breymaier, the Executive Director of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center.  On Tuesday evening, Breymaier gave a talk entitled "Sustaining Racial Integration in Housing in Columbia: Exploring the Model of Oak Park, Ill.," sponsored by the Columbia Association.  On Tuesday morning, I got a preview of that conversation at a less formal conversation with Breymaier sponsored by Leadership Howard County as part of their "This Just In" series.  Both talks were well-attended and included lots of questions from the audience.

Oak Park, Illinois, was an almost-completely white community 40 years ago, but nearby neighborhoods Chicago were "turning over" at a rapid rate.  Over the course of just a few years, entirely white neighborhoods would become entirely black due to "block busting" which took advantage of the fears of the white residents of the city after the riots of 1968.  Oak Park decided to respond to these changes with a proactive effort to build an integrated community.  The Housing Center, founded in 1972, was a big piece of that response.  Its focus is rental housing which comprises 40% of Oak Park's total housing stock.  The Housing Center offers free apartment referrals, assistance to property owners and managers, as well as support and training of private realtors.  

Rob Breymaier summed up his work this way:  convincing white people that it is okay to live in racially integrated neighborhoods.  They help people generate the intention they need to help Oak Park remain integrated.

Breymaier was absolutely certain that their work is as necessary now as it was when Oak Park began its effort to integrate.  "Without the Housing Center, Oak Park would remain diverse," he said, "but it wouldn't remain integrated."  He pointed out the example of several other communities that had "re-segregated" after they backed off from their intentional efforts to manage and sustain integration.  "We know that everyone carries implicit racial bias," he said.  "Racial segregation is essentially the manifestation of lots of people's implicit bias."  The good intentions of various individuals do not sustain integrated neighborhoods.

The CA-sponsored talk on Tuesday evening ended on a provocative note.  Breymaier put up an image of Columbia from the Cooper Center's amazing Racial Dot Map:


In these maps, each race is represented by a different color:  blue for white, green for black, red for Asian, yellow for Hispanic, and brown for other races.  Clearly not every neighborhood in Columbia is equally mixed.  Some areas are mostly blue dots (while) and some are mostly green (black) or red (Asian).  If you know Columbia, you will immediately see the neighborhoods with a lot of rental housing--they are the ones with a lot of green dots.  Rental property is almost 35% of all the housing stock in Columbia, I'm told.

So after showing those maps, Breymaier asked the obvious question:  Could Columbia (or Howard County as a whole) benefit from an organization like the Oak Park Housing Center?  Which is to say, if some organization isn't tasked with convincing white people to rent an apartment in Columbia, will we end up with a segregated community? 

I find such an idea bizarre.  There are some really affordable, attractive apartments in Columbia that would give a renter access to all that this community has to offer.  Housing can be really expensive in this area.  Doesn't the market supply enough of an incentive to move here?  

But then I think of some of the community meetings I attended over the past couple of years in Oakland Mills where the Village Board and other neighbors talked about revitalizing our Village Center.  The "implicit bias" was quite explicit.  "Those people" in the nearby rental housing were charged with dragging down our schools and our property values.  The Board's revitalization plan was created with the clear intention of reducing the amount of rental housing--and in Columbia, less rental housing means a less integrated community.  Individuals (notably Reg Avery, a Columbia Association board member) spoke up for the value of integration, but none had an organization behind them.  My husband and I struggled to figure out how to speak up for our values in these conversations.  But who were we to say, "This isn't what Columbia is all about," when most members of the Oakland Mills Village board had lived in Columbia 30 years more than we have?

Maybe Jim Rouse's 50 year old intentions aren't enough to sustain integration in Columbia, especially as we redesign his original plan.  If the design Rouse created is losing its ability to sustain racial integration, then we will have to start generating some clear and positive intention to prevent segregation.  In order to do that, Rob Breymaier is clear.  White people need to talk to other white people about why integration is a community value, and talk about why segregation violates that value.  

Columbia may need that campaign soon.  This year's presidential race shows that our country needs that conversation now.  As a recent article in Washington Monthly put it, "white people who live in segregated white suburban communities are much more alarmed about demographic change (the browning of America) than white people who live and work in pluralistic communities."  Which side are we on?


I Know We Can Do Better


Sometimes, I think this country's conversation about race might be moving forward just a little bit.  

Consider Monday night's presidential debate.  The one part of the 90 minute conversation that I thought was actually worth listening to was the extended conversation about race and criminal justice.  For the first hour of the debate, both candidates were repeating talking points and shedding very little light on the real issues behind their positions.  I found it very hard to watch, especially Donald Trump's repeated interruptions of Hillary Clinton. But then moderator Lester Holt shifted to the last set of questions in the debate which were said to be about "America's direction".  

"Let's start by talking about race," Holt said.  I sat down and listened.

Both candidates saw this question coming, of course, and both had their prepared answers.  There was a surprising amount of agreement between the candidates.  Both said that the violent death rate of young black men in this country is absolutely unacceptable.  Both said that the relationship between the community and the police in many places needs to improve.  And both said that we need to get guns out of the hands of "people who shouldn't have them".  There was a difference of opinion about how to do that, of course, with Trump calling for the expansion of "stop and frisk" policing.

The conversation (if you can call it that) spun around a little, with Trump denying that there with constitutional problems with stop and frisk and Clinton mentioning the "unintended consequences" of criminal justice policies she previously supported:  "systemic racism" and mass incarceration.

Holt then asked the only question that actually surprised me:  "Do you believe that police are implicitly biased against black people?"  Clinton responded, "I think that implicit bias is a problem for everyone, not just police."  She went on to say that it is possible to address this bias with training, and the federal government could do much more to enable police departments who want to improve. 

This strikes me as progress.  Although Hilary Clinton doesn't, as a rule, talk about how her thinking has grown and evolved, clearly she has been listening to the public conversation about race over the past couple of years.  Donald Trump hasn't been listening. The racial bias we all have makes it hard to accurately assess risk which in turn makes it hard to police effectively.  Having explicit conversations about these implicit biases doesn't make implicit bias disappear, but it can help us begin to put some space between our assumptions and our actions. Police need to do that, but so do teachers and shopkeepers and managers and pastors.  

But in some law enforcement departments, bias isn't just implicit.  It is explicit--and tolerated.  According to the Baltimore Sun, the Howard County Office of Human Rights has concluded a year-long investigation of a complaint by Lt. Charles Gable against Howard County Sheriff James Fitzgerald.  The allegations are truly jaw-dropping including:

In several instances, the sheriff used the "n-word," made derogatory comments about women's breasts and called former county executive Ken Ulman "little Kenny Jew Boy."

The report also claims the sheriff said, "The African-American deputies are not too smart, but they get the job done."

Fitzgerald has yet to speak to the press about the report.  In the report, he denied any wrong-doing and explained that he is just "a loud New Yorker".  (Read the full report here.)

Elected officials around the County responded to the report, immediately calling for Fitzgerald's resignation.  Four County Executives issued a joint statement, followed by the County Council and the Howard County Democratic party.  There have been small protests outside of the County court house on Friday night and Monday afternoon and a petition calling for the sheriff's resignation has (as of this writing) has about 300 signatures (I've signed--add your name here).  

But when Fitzgerald leaves, as he inevitably will do, we need to have a deeper conversation.  How did he get away with this kind of behavior for so many years?  This report doesn't describe a single incident of indiscretion.  It doesn't even describe a toxic relationship with a single employee.  This report describes a pattern of behavior that is completely unacceptable in any workplace in this country.  Many people knew about this.  Many people chose not to file a complaint.  Many people decided to laugh it off.

In order to move toward healing the deep wound of racism in this country and this county, we need to say out loud things things that go on inside our heads.  "This is making me uncomfortable."  "I don't think that's funny."  "I have a lot to learn."  "I'm not sure how to respond to this situation." "I need your help." 

Or just, "I know we can do better."

The Muslim Refugees We're Not Talking About


As I'm writing this, President Obama is giving a speech at the beginning of a special summit on the world-wide refugee crisis in advance of the United Nations General Assembly.  He will reportedly "vow to welcome 110,000 [refugees] into the United States next year, a 30 percent increase from 2016."  

Is this an act of bravery on Obama's part?  An act of compassion?

According to Donald Trump Jr., it is an act of foolishness equivalent to gobbling up a bowl of Skittles when you know full well that there are three poisonous ones in the mix.  The Post did a fantastic job debunking that analogy.  I'm still thinking of the Olympic-sized swimming pool (and a half!) filled with Skittles.  But the fear of refugees remains a powerful theme in American life and American politics right now.

Advocates for refugees have worked to counter balance all that fear with calls for compassion.  The Post quotes Chris Boian, the spokesman for the U.N.'s refugee agency saying, "People around the world are frightened by things they see happen, acts by extremists, but it's very important to understand refugees are not the perpetrators of this kind of violence.  They're fleeing that same violence."  Are you scared of ISIS?  So are millions of people living in Syria.  What would you do if you were in their shoes?  How would you want other countries to respond?

These are powerful questions, especially for families like ours whose ancestors came to the United States as refugees from state-sanctioned violence and war.  But these questions ignore the role the United States has played in the creation of the refugee crisis.  This is a complex question when it comes to Syria--there is more than enough blame to go around for the on-going crisis in that country as Ban Ki-moon noted this morning. But the question of responsibility is much less complex when it comes to refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan.

This was the part of the presentation the staff from Lutheran Social Services made at our church last Thursday that caught me by surprise.  Mira Mendick mentioned almost in passing that of the 1,200 refugees their agency settled in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. this year, the majority entered the country with a "Special Immigrant Visa", the program to resettle Iraqi and Afghani men and women who worked for the U.S. military as translators or in other capacities.  These people risked their lives for the United States and are now unable to live safely in their own countries.  But the SIV applicants are screened and vetted right along with everyone else trying to enter this country, and the process can be painfully slow.  Even now, in 2016, we are resettling these people in our country.

In all of the news and commentary about refugees trying to enter the U.S. over the past year or so, I have not heard anything about the SIV program.  In fact, prior to our meeting last Thursday, I had a conversation with members of another church about the difference between the current refugee crisis and the situation of the "boat people" who fled Vietnam in the late 1970's.  Why, someone wondered, was there such a massive, compassionate response to the needs of these people?  The Kittamaqundi Community sponsored a refugee family from Vietnam in the early 80's (a story I just learned last year) and a number of other congregations in Howard County did the same thing.  Why isn't there the same out-pouring of care for today's refugees?

I thought I had an answer.  Americans felt a sense of responsibility towards Vietnamese refugees because of the Vietnam war.  We felt like we had let these people down, abandoned them to our enemies.  We knew that many of these people had assisted Americans.  Others, such as the family my church in St. Paul, Minnesota sponsored, included children fathered by American GIs.  But we have no such sense of responsibility now.  Accepting refugees is no longer a matter of stepping up to fulfill our obligations.  Now it is just a matter of being kind.  And the call to "do the right thing" is hard to hear when you're afraid.

But I was wrong.  At least when it comes to the majority of refugees resettled by Lutheran Social Services in our area this year, we were fulfilling a responsibility.  We created these refugees.  They assisted the United States' military efforts in their countries and their lives were endangered as a consequence.  The suggestion that such people are akin to poisonous candy seems not only baseless but cruel.




A Door Just Opened


I don't know if it registered on the Richter scale, but I think there was a small earthquake in Columbia, Maryland last night.  At least, I felt the earth shake a little.  

We hosted an event last night at our church for everyone who is interested in helping us resettle a refugee family in our community.  We invited Lutheran Social Services (who contract with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services to oversee refugee resettlement in our area) to send a couple of staff to give an overview of their "Good Neighbor" program and answer questions.  We announced the event to our congregation and figured we'd host 30 or so.  

But we are so excited about this project that we couldn't stop talking about it with other people we know.  Some of those people are connected to other congregations in the area.  They brought word of what we're doing back to their leadership or their Missions Boards and the excitement spread.

We planned for 30 last night, but 62 people showed up, including representatives from New Hope Lutheran Church, Abiding Savior Lutheran Church, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbia, Bet Aviv, the Muslim Community Center, Dar Al-Taqua Islamic Center, and Sandy Spring Friends Meeting.  Luckily, we baked a lot of brownies.

There was a real sense of excitement in the room before we even began.  A few minutes after 7:00 pm I stood up and welcomed everyone to the event and to our community.  "There are some prominent voices in our state and in our nation who are saying "NO!" to refugees," I told everyone.  "But we feel compelled by God to respond to the desperate needs of millions of people in a different way.  We want to say YES!  We want to say WELCOME!"  Everyone in the room shouted back, "WELCOME!"  And we were off.

Don Link, the "Caller" of the Seeking Refuge Focus Group at our church spoke first.  He told the group of his struggle over the last year as he learned about the deep suffering of immigrants fleeing the brutal war in Syria. The situation overwhelmed him--the magnitude of the problem and the intensely personal pain that came through photos and stories. But his faith won't let him shut down or walk away when he feels overwhelmed.  Instead, he prayed and listened and in time, discerned that God was calling him to act.

In May, Don stood up in front of our congregation and read a short statement about his call. This kind of thing happens on a fairly regular basis at KC so we have a little ritual for the occasion.  We put a stole on Don and prayed over him.  And then we all considered how God might be calling us to respond to this crisis as well.  Fifteen of us ended up joining Don's team and many others got involved with the first action, collecting materials for "Welcome Kits" that Lutheran Social Services distributes to the hundreds of refugee families they are resettling this year.

After we had been meeting for a couple of months, it became clear that we were ready for the next step:  a "Level One" partnership with LSS, a one-year commitment to a refugee family that includes rent assistance, employment assistance, completely furnishing an apartment, providing help with clothing and food and transportation and all the other things a family might need.  

I don't think I'll ever forget the moment we made that decision.  We knew that it was a huge step for a small church like ours--we figured it would cost us at least $20,000.  But when we said YES to that commitment, we didn't feel overwhelmed at the thought of all.  Our YES released a kind of buzzing energy through our group.  We felt it physically--we practically danced out of the room.

That energy was back last night.  After Don spoke, our guests from Lutheran Social Service gave an overview of the program and did a great job answering our questions for about a half an hour.  Then, Art Spilkia led us in a powerful song which has become a KC favorite: "I Refuse" by Josh Wilson.  

I don't want to live like I don't care
I don't want to say another empty prayer
Oh I refuse to
Sit around and wait for someone else
To do what God has called me to do myself
Oh I could choose
Not to move
But I refuse

And then, Ann Ivester made her pitch.  As we sit in our safe homes, we feel so disconnected from the stories and struggles of refugees on the other side of the world.  We can't imagine what their lives are like.  We have never faced the kinds of decisions they have had to make.  But that sense of disconnection isn't really the whole truth.  After all, every refugee wants his or her children to be safe from harm.  We share this desire with the whole human family.  So tonight, Ann said, when we take a step to help a refugee family, we draw a thread of connection between our lives and theirs.  With this thread, we start re-weaving a fabric that has been torn, the fabric of human community.

And then we passed out pledge cards.

It didn't take long for people to fill them out--and they asked for more to take home to their congregations and friends.  We collected the cards (and the checks that were attached to many of them), prayed over them and wrapped the night up with a rousing chorus of "This Land Is Your Land".

Don counted the checks and pledges as soon as he got home and sent this email to the group:

Great job tonight, everyone!  God is good; God is here.

Quick Tally:

$4,825 checks in hand

$7,750 pledged (includes 1 month rent and $1,500 for mattresses)


$12,575  Wow!

Wow indeed.  Back when I was in college, I took a class called "The Mystical Experience" and read works by the Desert Fathers and Theresa of Avila and many others.  I was fascinated by what they saw and heard and felt.  The power of Divine Presence!  I so wished I could have even a taste of what they experienced.  I wanted to know God first hand--not just read about God and talk about God and think about God.  I had a sense that in order to know God like the mystics do, I would need to retreat to a mountain top or take a long, solo journey on foot.  

Turns out I was wrong.  I just needed to join a community that together says YES to God's call.

P.S.  We still need to raise about $7,500 more to fully fund this project.  Maybe you--like us--want to be a part of a positive response to the worldwide refugee crisis?  Please shoot me an email for more info OR send a check to the Kittamaqundi Community Church with "Seeking Refuge" in the memo line.  Our address is 5410 Leaf Treader Way, Columbia, MD  21044.  Thanks!

Depending on the Kindness of Strangers


A little over a week ago, Dan and I dropped our son Paul off at Dulles Airport, gave him a hug and reminded him one more time to stay safe.  The next day, Paul arrived in Beruit, Lebanon where he will be living and studying for the next three and a half months.  This feels like a big step for him and for me--I've never been separated for this long from any of my kids.  Who will be there for him if he gets into trouble?  Strangers.

Like most people who were paying even a little bit of attention to the news in the 1980's, Beruit brings to mind war, rubble and attacks on Americans.  It took me a while to get these images out of my head when Paul told me that he want to enroll in an intensive Arabic program at the Lebanese American University this fall.  Paul's Arabic teacher recommended the program and his college approved it, so that helped.  Then I found out that I kind of know the family of another student who is enrolled in the program this fall.  That made me feel even better.  I felt like I was stringing together a series of relationships that would help me to connect to where Paul was going. 

But those relationships remain few and tenuous.  If Paul had decided to study in London or Paris or Beijing for a semester, I know I would be flooded with the names of friends-of-friends who live in those cities.  People who would be happy to host Paul for dinner if he was feeling homesick.  People I could call on in the case of emergency.  But I have yet to hear from someone with a good friend from college or a distant cousin living in Lebanon.  

So saying good-bye to Paul was an act of faith--not just in him (and I do have faith in him) or in God (who loves Paul even more than I do) but in total and complete strangers.  If he gets in trouble and needs help, I trust that there will be a person of good will who will help him.

This felt not-quite-right to me until it occurred to me that I'm on the other side of this equation as well.  I'm a stranger who, in a few month's time, will be offering assistance to a family who is traveling to a country where they know absolutely no one.  I'm part of a team who will soon be helping to resettle a refugee family to Howard County, Maryland.

Our congregation has been taking steps in this direction all year.  We've been praying for refugees for several years, even since the thousands of refugees leaving Syria made the world-wide crisis impossible for us to ignore.  But there's a funny thing about prayer--our pleas to God to assist people in trouble often come right back at us.  "I want to help", we sense God responding, "through you." One of our community members, Don Link, stood up in front of our church at the beginning of the year and announced that he couldn't ignore God's call any longer.  He needed to do something to help refugees--and he invited anyone in the community who felt the same call to join him.  Over 20 people responded right away and many others have come alongside the leadership team.  When we began talking to our neighbors in the community and to the leaders of other congregations, we received even more promises to help with funds and other resources.

This past week, as our "Seeking Refuge" team ended its meeting, Don invited us to join him in prayer for the family we are going to welcome.  We don't know who they are yet.  We don't know how many people will be in that family or even what their country of origin will be.  They are complete strangers to us, and we to them.  But we are already connected to them, already looking forward to meeting them, already planning ways we might help them.  

I hope they know that.  I hope they, like me, have faith in the kindness of strangers.

Community and Hope In the Face of 500 Murders


My late mother-in-law, Linda Davidoff, trained me to notice the placement of a story in a newspaper. This morning's story in the Washington Post about the astonishing murder rate in Chicago this year was on the front page, above the fold, top left.  "Pay attention to this!", the Post commanded. 

Needless to say, this story about homicide statistics made the news while just about every single one of those 500 murders went unreported--in the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, or anywhere else.  On average, newspapers in major cities cover only about 10% of the murders that take place in any given year.  That's what prompted L.A. Times reporter Jill Leovy to start the "Homicide Report" blog in 2006 in which she attempted to report on every single murder that took place in the city that year.  That effort led to Leovy's much-acclaimed book, "Ghettoside:  A True Story of Murder in America" which I just finished last weekend.  It was a truly eye-opening book about black-on-black violence and I can't read about what's happening in Chicago without wondering if Leovy's analysis of Los Angeles would apply there.

Leovy builds a thoughtful and nuanced case that comes to a surprising conclusion:  the problem in high-crime urban neighborhoods is not over-enforcement by the police.  The problem is under-enforcement.  

Considering the absurdly high rates of incarceration in this country, that might sound like an strange conclusion.  And Leovy's book came out early in 2015, before the most recent round of stories about police harassment and shootings of African Americans.  But Leovy is adamant that good policing--especially good detective work--is a necessary part of the claim that "Black Lives Matter".  If you don't prosecute a murder, then you are sending a clear message that a person who was killed was worthless.

According to Leovy, in the 13 years prior to the homicide she describes at the opening of her book, just 38% of the 2,677 killings of black men in Los Angeles led to an arrest.  This is a crucial statistic, Leovy argues:  "...history shows us that lawlessness is its own kind of order.  Murder outbreaks, seen this way, are more than just the proliferation of discrete crimes.  They are part of a whole system of interactions determined by the absence of law."  I've thought a lot about community, but I hadn't thought about this--a community will police itself unless it is persuaded to give that power to someone else.

In Chicago, the homicide clearance rate in Chicago for 2016 is 19.3% as of August. Yet no one in any of the stories I've read today about Chicago refers to Leovy's reporting or her conclusions.  The Chicago police superintendent Gary McCarthy offered this analysis:

"It's not a police issue, it's a society issue," Johnson told reporters outside police headquarters after a long weekend that saw 65 people shot, 13 of them fatally.

"Impoverished neighborhoods, people without hope do these kinds of things," he said. "You show me a man that doesn't have hope, I'll show you one that's willing to pick up a gun and do anything with it.

"Those are the issues that's driving this violence. CPD is doing its job," he continued.

But if having no hope leads to violence, what kind of hope makes people consider other options?  Leovy gives a clear--and convincing--response.  People need to hope that the police will arrest, prosecute and convict violent offenders.  While it may well be true that many of the young men in the high-homicide areas lack hope that they will live a long life, they rebuild that hope only when they have enough confidence in the police that they will not try to retaliate for crimes committed against them or their family and friends.  And what's more, all the other people in the affected neighborhoods need to have enough confidence in the police that they are willing to talk to detectives and willing to testify in court.

The Washington Post story said almost nothing about the people who were shot this weekend, but it did report on the many people throughout the city who responded to activist Phillip Jackson's call for a "Community Peace Surge".  There were street festivals and block parties and neighborhood cookouts.  Neighbors challenged each other to leave their houses and to proclaim their commitment to living in peace instead of cowering in fear.  I'm sure these actions created hope.  They helped everyone see that good things are still possible in their neighborhoods.  But their efforts only go went so far.  Things were quiet on Friday and Saturday, but on Sunday 21 people were shot.

Towards the end of her amazing book, Jill Leovy offers this reflection:

The Monster [Leovy's term for the epidemic of murders of young black men] arose from what was meanest and most vicious in human nature.  But the dark swath of misery it had cut across generations of black Americans was a shadow thrown on the wall, a shape magnified many times the size of its source because of a refusal to see the black homicide problem for what it was:  a problem of human suffering caused by the absence of a state monopoly on violence.

The Monster's source was not general perversity of mind in the population that suffered.  It was a weak legal apparatus that had long failed to place black injuries and the loss of black lives at the heart of its response when mobilizing the law, first in the South and later in segregated cities.  The cases didn't get solved, and year after year, assaults piled on upon another, black men got shot up and killed, no one answered for it, and no one really cared much. (pp. 307-8)