Responding to Charleston


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On Sunday we remembered the victims of the acts of terror at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.

We remember that Jesus weeps with us.

We responded, heeding God’s call to be light facing darkness in the world.

We also welcomed Stevon Cook, Executive Director of Mission Bit, who shared his reflections on the fight against racism.

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As The Reverend and Senator Clementa Pinckney led a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, the group included Dylann Storm Roof. This was the passage they studied, from Mark 4:16-20:

“And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. 17But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. 18And others are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, 19but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing. 20And these are the ones sown on the good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.”

Reverend Pinckney’s wife and daughter were waiting in his office, until they heard sounds of the act of terror by Roof.

The Goliath of deep seeded racism is still standing.

We are people of an in-between time. Each Easter we proudly blast trumpets, sing, and proclaim that Jesus is risen. We come to remind each other of a faith in which light overcomes darkness, life overcomes death, and love beats out forces of evil.

So why do we keep having to have the same conversations? We say that Jesus already overcame sin—that which is counter to the will of God, not just as individuals, but as a society—but that the full Kingdom of God has yet to break in.

Long before Jesus walked on Earth, Moses was called to stand up to forces of oppression. Prophets like Micah and Isaiah called out people in power for taking advantage of God’s children behaving as superior beings.

Jesus continued to speak up for those without power as the mighty Roman Empire and even leaders of his own faith treated others as inferior.

God stands with the marginalized.

Our Scripture lesson today is part of the Lectionary. For those newer to church, the Lectionary is part of a three-year cycle of Bible readings designed to unify churches and help us gain exposure to a broad cross section of God’s word.

The story of David and Goliath provides a worthy springboard to let our imagination run wild with possibilities of God giving us strength to overcome challenges.

Over the past three weeks, I had been considering what imagery might best connect with this story. I found many great examples in Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. I considered challenges to closer to home, like searching for an affordable place to live in the Bay Area. Facing addiction or chronic pain or terminal illness. These are very real issues that God cares about and the Holy Spirit guides us through, and are very worthy of prayer and attention.

We face many Goliath situations, but matters of racism and socioeconomic disparity are giants that have not fallen away through the millennia. Yes, people like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela have made strides, but the giant continues to stand.

Even the sacred space of a Bible study at Emanuel AME Church is not immune to darkness, hatred, and terrorism. Dylann Storm Roof was openly accepted into a community for which he held great contempt. A manifesto on a website still being verified by authorities, allegedly written by Roof, stated:

“I chose Charleston because it is most historic city in my state, and at one time had the highest ratio of blacks to Whites [sic] in the country. We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the Internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.”

We can write off Roof as one delusional individual filled with hate, who found inspiration in policies of apartheid. We can point to the Confederate flag in South Carolina or policies that allowed Roof to receive a .45-caliber handgun for his 21st birthday. We can express graciousness and forgiveness as some victims’ families managed to do. We can say other parts of the country and world are messed up and express gratitude for being in San Francisco.

Yet the goliath of institutionalized racism still stands right here.

Listening to a group of African American parents describe their experiences with the public school placement process in San Francisco just one year ago, it was clear to me that the giant was still standing.

Reviewing statistics, only 54 percent of African American male students in the Bay Area graduate from high school. The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation reports that black men over 18 make up only 5.5% of college students, and only 1 in 6 who attend college will receive a degree. The National Center for Victims of Crime provides the alarming statistic that homicide is the leading cause of death of African American youth ages 15-24.

Will we sit on this comfortable hill, walk out of this church and look to our left as we emerge, thanking God for the beauty of the Bay views from Pacific Heights? Or will we look toward Bay View/Hunter’s Point and all around this community, allowing the Holy Spirit to convict us and move us toward action?

Will we allow the shock of Charleston to fade, only to reawaken when the next shooting or bombing or act of brutality strikes?

It is much easier to go on with our lives and avoid the conversation.

In response to Jon Stewart’s joke-free Daily Show response to Charleston, one member of the public said:

“Jon is the one who gives his own people a [expletive] reality check and pulls their head from their [expletive] . . . It’s sad that we need a white man to be heard and for people to accept that we ain’t just making this [expletive] up.”

The giant is still standing.

I chose today’s sermon title before the racially motivated act of terrorism in Charleston because I was excited to tell you about the work of Stevon Cook. Some of you may remember Stevon’s moving talk as tension in Ferguson was boiling over in December. Stevon is a third generation San Franciscan who grew up in low income public housing and went to live with his grandmother at the age of 10 as his parents battled drug and alcohol addiction. He graduated from Williams College—ranked #1 by numerous sources including Forbes. Stevon returned to San Francisco “to put students in the best possible position to pursue higher education.” He served as a Mayor’s City Hall Fellow and very narrowly lost a bid for a seat on the Board of Education. Stevon now serves as Executive Director of Mission Bit, teaching technical coding in public schools. Mission Bit helps teach core computer science concepts and skills used to build web sites and technology applications.

This code is one way to empower people and help bring down the interrelated Goliaths of racism and socioeconomic inequality.

It is my honor to welcome Stevon back to Calvary . . .

Good morning. I have to be honest, I didn’t want to speak; I didn’t want to come today. I was afraid to speak. And I know that’s a bit odd, because I’m a politician. I the past year alone, I’ve probably given at least 1000 speeches. But I was afraid, as a black man, to come here in front of a majority white audience to speak about a tragedy that violates me to the core. It violates the esteem and sanctity that I hold for the house of God and the people of God. And it inflames racial tensions that have reached levels that I have never seen before in my life. So I didn’t want to come speak. But then I thought about the people of Charleston, and the people of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and what it must have been like for them to come to church this morning. And I thought of John – of Rev. Weems – and what a friend and advisor he’s been to me since I’ve stepped into this new leadership role at Mission Bit. I had to show up for AME and I had to show up for Rev. Weems. Even more than that, I had to show up to showcase the strength and power and faith that I have in God. I’ve never been to Charleston, and I don’t know any of the victims, but I grew up attending an all-black church in Hunter’s Point called Olivet Missionary Baptist Church. So when I think of the victims, I can’t help but think of people like Pastor Steven Bailey. When I went to church growing up, after my grandparents took me in, I experienced a lot of trauma at home – I was teased and I had really low self-esteem… Pastor Bailey came up to me one day out of the blue and he said, “Stevon, do you know what your name means?” And I said, “No. No, I don’t know what it means.” He’s like, “Ah man, you got a special name. Your name comes from the ancient Greek Stéfani. It means “crowned one.” You are destined for great things.” So when I think of the victims of Charleston, I think of Pastor Bailey. I also think of my grandmother, who had me in church every day of the week. We would have been at bible study Wednesday night. When I saw the children here, it reminded me – she took in a child that had a lot of issues. And I was constantly rejecting her and what she wanted me to do. She had kind of given up in terms of talking to me and she, for punishment, made me rewrite the entire book of Proverbs. All 30 chapters. So when I think of the victims of Charleston, I think of my grandmother. The church was one of the first places where I was given an affirming view of who I was and what I was capable of. I was disciplined out of love and through the word of God. So when I think of the children of AME, I’m absolutely confident that the people that they lost meant the same to them as Pastor Bailey and my grandmother meant to me as a child. So I didn’t want to speak. But I had to show up – for their sacrifice and the commitment they made to me. As I look forward and look to all of you, I just can’t help but think that we have a responsibility, as a people of God, to ensure that we’re in constant communication and collaboration with our brothers and sisters of different churches to respond in a united way against issues of institutional racism, of white supremacy, of white privilege – a privilege in general. We’re all kind of searching for answers. We may not feel like we have any, but we can show up. No matter how hard it feels. We can show up for one another. We can show up at each other’s churches. And make a real commitment as human beings to ensure we’re relying on our faith to make sure nothing like this happens again. Thank you for letting me fellowship with you this morning. Thank you for putting Rev. Weems in this position to support someone like me as I go on a try to make a change in the world. Thank you.

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