Monday, July 20, 2020

The Power of a Letter

Long ago, an African American teenager from Troy, Alabama, wrote a letter that would help change his life forever.  His name was John Robert Lewis and the letter was sent to a pastor by the name of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Young Lewis was inspired as he read about what was happening in Montgomery, prompted by the actions of a woman named Rosa Parks. It was the bus boycott led by Dr. King to protest and end racial discrimination in public transportation.  Lewis sent that letter to the civil rights leader, hoping that the pivotal events occurring in Montgomery could be replicated in Troy.

Dr. King not only wrote back to this 18-year-old, but he included in the letter a roundtrip bus ticket to Montgomery and an invitation to come meet him.  Lewis got on that bus, and the rest was history. 

The young man would later become an influential United States Representative from the state of Georgia, often described as a moral leader within the U.S. Congress. But first he learned much from Dr. King and others—including the Rev. James Lawson, a United Methodist leader in the civil rights movement—about how to engage in that justice work through faith-based, strategic nonviolence. He dedicated the rest of his life to this endeavor.

Lewis was the first head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a relentless force of young people who led Freedom Rides and voter education and registration efforts across the South. Thus, he was the youngest face always seen around the table with Dr. King and other civil rights leaders in those black and white pictures of the 1960s. 

He was the last living speaker from the March on Washington in 1963 that culminated with King’s “I Have a Dream” address. He learned and demonstrated first-hand that when people see “something that is not right, not fair and not just, that they have a moral obligation to speak up and speak out.”

Congressman John Lewis went home to be with the Lord last week. The world has gained and lost a great man in him.  As a child he felt a call to the preaching ministry, and he later graduated from a Baptist seminary and Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. But he spent his life preaching justice and equality for all through his actions as a public servant.

His kind of preaching got him arrested over 40 times, and it got him into what he called “good trouble” for the cause of freedom for African Americans and other Americans across this nation. Civil rights for people of color has in many ways been a springboard for the cause of equality and justice for many oppressed people in this country. The benefits continue on and on, as the “arc of the moral universe bends toward justice,” a prophetic phrase made famous by Dr. King.

The story of John Lewis all started with a letter and a bus ticket.  Added to Dr. King’s many attributes was his intentional mentoring of younger people along the way.  King wisely knew that the movement he began needed the next generation to carry on the work.  He took the time to work with this high school graduate from Troy, Alabama.  And John Lewis, in turn, mentored countless young people in his day as well. 

The work of God’s love, equality, justice and empowerment—of nonviolent social action or “good trouble”—is as important now as ever.  Twenty years from now things will look different, largely because of what is happening and what we are learning today. And yet, we can solidify the effectiveness of future strides and ministries as we mentor the ones coming up behind us. 

Who is writing you letters?  Who is curious about your ministry, your justice work and your passion for “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”?  Who can you empower and encourage to learn from you and to continue and develop the work for generations to come? 

The next John Lewis waits for you to answer their letter.

Sources:

  • NPR “StoryCorps” January 17, 2020
  • CBSnews.com August 16, 2017
  • Wikipedia

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Celebrating 30 Years of the ADA

I was serving as a pastor for an all-Deaf congregation when the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) law was signed July 26, 1990.

For my congregation it meant there would be a free relay service for telecommunications. What an incredible thing! A Deaf person could now call a relay operator using their TTY.

This was a telephone device that allowed a Deaf consumer to type words on a keyboard that would appear onscreen for a person with the same device through the phone line. The relay operator would contact a hearing person for the Deaf consumer, who did not have a TTY, and speak vocally for them the words of the Deaf person’s typed TTY message. Then that same operator would type into the TTY the words that the hearing person was speaking back to the Deaf person.

This was part four of the Americans with Disabilities Act: “Telecommunications.” It meant that Deaf people could then make confidential calls to whomever they wanted without having to go through a hearing volunteer (like me) or a hearing family member.

The other benefits I could see from the ADA included more access to paid sign language interpreters in many places, such as hospitals, doctors’ offices, and state and local museums. Many Deaf people began to have sign language interpreters at their places of work for the first time.

When we went on a bus trip to see “Sight and Sound” in Lancaster, PA, the theater had professional interpreters for the show, and I no longer had to volunteer to interpret, as I had to in the past. Not everything that the ADA envisioned was accomplished, but much good was done.

Improvements in accessibility but employment lags

Through the years, progress continues to be made. More buildings are accessible, employers are making needed accommodations in the workplace, and people with all kinds of disabilities are able to live more independently and contribute to society. Employment is still one of the most difficult areas with the national average of full-time employment for people with disabilities at 36%. This is a “work in process” as are all of our journeys toward equality and human rights

The United Methodist Church affirms the sacred worth of people with disabilities, and in our Social Principles we state that our churches should be accessible and welcoming. We encourage our churches to do Accessibility Audits each year, as well as observe a Disability Awareness Sunday in January.


American Sign Language sign for "Love."

The federal ADA law exempts churches and religious organizations from compliance. Yet, the law of love requires that we not only follow these principles of inclusion and accommodation, but even go the second mile.

On this anniversary of the ADA, please consider the progress that your church has made. Is there some work that still needs to be done in your building to improve accessibility? Remember how very important restrooms are!  Who is left out of your ministry because of your building’s structure?  Who cannot access your video services because of their disability?  What child with autism is not able to come to Sunday School?

Also, consider how you would react if a pastor with a disability was appointed to your church. Would you welcome them and their gifts for ministry or focus on their disability and see them as a liability or a burden? Pastors with disabilities often report disappointing responses when they are introduced to their new church for the first time.

Some churches write letters to the bishop asking for a reconsideration, or ask what they did to “deserve” a pastor with a disability. Surely, the beloved community is better than that. Gifts for ministry are not always found in perfect bodies. The truth is: none of us are perfect and yet God uses everything we are and everything we have for God’s purposes. God’s power is made perfect in weakness (II Corinthians 12:9).


Bishop Johnson, a longtime advocate for people with disabilities (or people who are differently abled) will be featured at An Interfaith Reflection on the ADA: 30 Years Later, sponsored online by the Interfaith Disability Advocacy Collaborative (IDAC), on Wednesday, July 22nd, 12pm – 1pm EST. She will participate in a panel discussion with Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders. The General Board of Church and Society, on which she serves, is a member of the IDAC. To register and receive participant instructions, use this form: https://bit.ly/ADA30years. See the flyer. 

Also, Bishop Johnson recommends, “Theology and Disability Ministry" as “a good resource for disability equality information. It helps with ableism eradication.”

Also see: 
Statement on reopening churches by the United Methodist Association of Ministers with Disabilities


A Litany to Celebrate the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)

For thirty years of being treated like we matter,

We give you thanks O God.

For millions of barriers taken down,

We give you thanks O God.

For the opportunity to have meaningful work,

We give you thank O God.

For a way to get into church buildings so we can worship,

We give you thanks O God.

For accessibility in public spaces and employment

We give you thanks O God.

For accessible tele-communication,

We give you thanks O God.

For no longer being left out of many cultural activities,

We give you thanks O God.

For space to hope and a chance to dream,

We give you thanks O God.

For the opportunity to share in the American dream of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,

We give you thanks of God.

Lord, thirty years ago we had a great start, but we still have a long way to go.

In your mercy, Lord, hear our prayer.

There are still many churches that need physical and attitudinal accessibility

In your mercy, Lord, hear our prayer.

There are still places of employment discrimination, including the church

In your mercy, Lord, hear our prayer.

There are still many lives passed over as “too much trouble”

In your mercy, Lord, hear our prayer.

There are still many who believe that they have done enough

In your mercy, Lord, hear our prayer.

There are still those who do not see our sacred worth, or value us as an essential part society or the Body of Christ

In your mercy, Lord, hear our prayer.

Lord, may these next thirty years bring more open doors, open minds, and open hearts. 

Amen.

(By the Rev. Michael C. Johnson)

 

 


Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Freedom


During this 4th of July weekend, when we celebrate our country’s independence and freedom, it is a good time to ponder what freedom really means.

Freedom is a privilege as well as a responsibility, or it is not freedom at all. One is free to speak but not necessarily to shout “fire” in a crowded room (unless of course, there is a fire). Each of us have freedoms that are a gift from God to be used and not abused or hoarded.

As Christians, we have been given freedom from sin and eternal death, the ultimate greatest freedom of all. We need to use our freedom in Christ for good in this world.

In recent weeks we have been discussing racial reconciliation and the need for things to change in our country with regards to equality for people of color and white people.

Since the founding days of this country oppression and discrimination have been a way of securing wealth and power at the expense of black, brown and indigenous people.

Some people are asking, “What can I do to make a difference?” “How can I change things?” The truth is, everyone can do something to make the principles of freedom a reality for all in this country.

If you have a freedom, share it with someone does not. It is the responsibility of freedom to pass it on out of the abundance of God’s grace, and not out of a sense of scarcity.

Here are some freedoms you can share:

Your voice: Speak out for someone who is being discriminated against.

Your vote: Vote for policies and legislators that work for equality.

Your education: Teach someone who needs your knowledge and experience.

Your wealth: Share with people in poverty. (How much stuff do you need?)

Your heart: Say a word of apology to people you have hurt by exclusion. 

The United Methodist Women have always been on the forefront of the fight for racial equity. For years they have promoted their groundbreaking “Charter for Racial Justice.” Their charter should be posted on the door of every church as our Declaration of Independence from the sin of racism. 

There are many practical suggestions in this charter that we can take to heart and do with our hands. May we be free from attitudes and actions that oppress people. The absolute truth is this: until everyone is free, no one is truly free.

At the July 1 Dismantling Racism: Pressing on to Freedom Town Hall meeting (UMC.org), the Rev. Alfred Day (left), an Elder in the Eastern PA Annual Conference and the General Secretary of Archives and History prayed this prayer:

“Set us free, God of all people, everywhere, from every bond of prejudice and fear. (We honor) the steadfast courage of your servants like Harry Hosier, Richard Allen, Jarena Lee, Absalom Jones, and James Varrick. May we show forth in our lives the reconciling love and true freedom of the children of God, which you have given us in your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever and ever. Amen”*

May this be our prayer this week and always.

*From Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints, Episcopal Church Publishing, 2010 (Adapted for United Methodist use by Rev. Fred Day.)

NOTE: If you missed this important Town Hall today, be sure to watch the recording of it. And also watch the recording of the hour-long “Service of Lament, Repentance, Communion and Commitment” recorded June 24, that puts The United Methodist Church on record as committed to a renewed push against racism.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Juneteenth

I confess that until I became a bishop I had never heard about Juneteenth! My knowledge of African American history was sorely lacking, and I certainly am not the only one.  Here is some background information found in an article from the PBS network’s local WHYY affiliate. (The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.)

On June 19, 1865, the following declaration was made: “The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.  This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.  The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages…”

President Abraham Lincoln had issued The Emancipation Proclamation 2½ years before that on January 1, 1863. This ended slavery in the Confederacy, and in the interim nearly 200,000 Black men had enlisted to fight for the Union Army in the Civil War.

Many slave owners in Mississippi, Louisiana and other points east had been migrating to Texas to escape the Union Army’s reach and they took 150,000 slaves with them.


The June 19, 1865, announcement was read aloud that day to slaves in south Texas by a U.S. Army general. But it did not bring about an instant change for all of the state’s 250,000 former slaves. Many were forced to keep working until the harvest came, and some were not even told. Still others were lynched or shot for exercising their new freedom.

The nation’s Freedmen’s Aid Bureau was further delayed in coming to Texas to help new black citizens adjust to freedom until September of 1865. Yet, despite the confusion, delays, exploitation, violence and even murders they had to endure, the newly freed Black men and women of Texas finally had a date to rally around. Thus began in 1866 the annual celebration of “Juneteenth,” also known as Jubilee Day and Freedom Day.

It was a day to gather family together and teach younger generations about the values of self-sufficiency and pride.  At these events there were religious services, singing, food (always a barbecue pit), games, and rodeos.  Black people gathered near rivers and lakes at first, but eventually they raised enough money to buy their own celebration sites.

In 1979 Texas became the first state to make Juneteenth an official holiday. Since then 41 other states and the District of Columbia have recognized this as a state holiday or holiday observance. Pennsylvania just recognized it in 2019.

Juneteenth is an opportunity not only to celebrate freedom but also to speak out about injustice. Today more than ever we need to speak out against white privilege, racism, law enforcement brutality, mass incarceration, voter suppression, poor educational and health care opportunities, and the continual segregation of our schools and churches.  We all need to stand together to make real changes happen, and we cannot let this moment pass. 

Please pause and celebrate Juneteenth this year. Also, take time to study Black History, and not just in February. There is much to learn that can inform us about what we need to do in the future. Take stock of the progress that has been made, and wisely craft the road ahead. 

I am grateful for all I have learned on my journey as a bishop, thanks to many patient people who have taught me along the way. I still have a long way to go. Please join me on that journey.


Tuesday, June 9, 2020

‘The Signs of the Times’


A Pastoral Letter from Bishop Peggy A. Johnson

I don’t often take to the streets and participate in peaceful protest marches. However, recently I joined with faithful people in a number of communities to physically show support for the “Black Lives Matter” movement. In recent weeks this has captured the imagination of the entire world and is a powerful and Spirit-filled moment like none other.

As your episcopal leader, I wish to begin by echoing the important words of the Council of Bishops recent letter. I confess to the sin of racism and White privilege in my life and vow to renew my baptismal covenant to “resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.” 

I also wish to challenge more of the people called Methodist in the Eastern PA and Peninsula-Delaware annual conferences, the very cradle of Methodism, to take some action.

As I was marching last week in the streets there were various signs and protest cries shouted as we walked along. Together they offer “signs of the times” that can give us some practical “next steps.”

1) Name the Name:

Again and again the marchers named the names of the black people who have most recently been murdered at the hands of law enforcement officers and other assailants: George Floyd, Almaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. Individual lives are important and precious. “We all bleed red” as one protester said. 

All of us are part of the family of humanity under one God. God knows each one of us by name. I challenge my sisters and brothers in the White community to build relationships with Black neighbors. That includes people in your neighboring churches, coworkers and community members. 

I did a survey of my close friends a few years ago, and I could see that they were all White. In recent years I have worked on building personal relationships with people of color and it has opened my eyes to much of what our White supremacist society has inflicted on the families of Black people. Build relationships, listen to hearts and hear the experiences of Black people who have had to endure a thousand pin pricks of discrimination and much, much abuse, grief and sorrow. 

2)  “Black Lives Matter”

Many of the posters, t-shirts and chants at the protest march included these familiar words. Some well-meaning but misinformed White people sometimes try to correct this and say, “All lives matter.” But that is missing the point. To say, “Black lives matter” is a recognition of the fact that for centuries in this country Black lives have been treated as a commodity, as “less than,” as deserving of suspicion, discrimination and disregard by the dominant White culture.

Studying the Word of God from the perspective of God’s favor upon all people is vitally important. Through it we learn what it means to respect the giftedness of the vast diversity of humanity. I encourage churches to gather in intentional Bible studies and prayer meetings to study what God will say to us at this important time. There are many good books that can be discussed on this topic as well. Top on my list right now is How to be Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi.

Also, as the Council of Bishops requests, let us pray at 8:46 every morning and evening, praying for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the length of time of the police officer fatally pressed his knee down on George Floyd’s neck.

3)  “No Justice, No Peace”

This street chant is likely the most difficult but the most important. This calls us to actively engage in dismantling the systems of oppression. This includes, but is not limited to, holding law enforcement accountable, improving economic opportunities, changing the “mass incarceration” prison system, raising the quality of schools, insisting on equal opportunity in housing, working for fairness in health care systems, and decrying voter suppression.

Individually we cannot do everything but each of us can do something. As a connectional United Methodist Church we can do all kinds of networking, programming, political advocacy and education.

I promise in the months to come to work with conference leaders to engage us in these vitally important ministries of justice. Without justice for everyone there is no peace. The truth that White people often fail to see is that justice for all means healing the wounded-ness of racism. Unless everyone is whole and a part of the beloved community, humanity continues to suffer collectively.

We can learn a great deal at a protest march on the streets. However, I urge White people to take to the streets of your hearts and build relationships, prayerfully study the Word of God and other timely resources, and become involved in advocacy. There just might come a day in the future when we will achieve peace with justice.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Invisible Things

Victorian poet Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) wrote a poem titled “Who has Seen the Wind?”* It goes like this:

Who has seen the wind?

Neither I nor you

But when the leaves hang trembling,

The wind is passing through

Who has seen the wind?

Neither you nor I

But when the trees bow down their heads,

The wind is passing by

During this week when we consider the wind and flame that came on the day of Pentecost, it is clear that a mighty wind can do great things, even though it is invisible. The Spirit of God is indeed the most powerful force in all of the universe and beyond, making a strong case that such invisible things are everlasting and are the source of creation.

II Corinthians 4:18 says “The things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.” Hebrews 11:3 notes, “The universe was created by the Word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.”  When we see the beauty of creation and marvel at the power of Jesus’ resurrection and eternal life, we can truly affirm with the poet that though we cannot see it, “the wind is passing by.”

Yet we cannot ignore the other invisible spirits at work in this world.  Ephesians 6:12 reminds us “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”  Just as there is the Holy Spirit, there are invisible powers of evil that cause great sadness and destruction. There’s that kind of wind as well.

As I ponder the recent revelation of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a young, black jogger in Atlanta, and the even more recent murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, the evil spirit of racism is clearly alive and prevalent in this country. In recent years it seems to be increasing at an alarming rate, as we hear about these crimes. There is invisible evil in the hearts and souls of people that gets acted out in violent ways.

Film-maker and United Church of Christ pastor, Rev. Otis Moss III was featured in a recent issue of Religion News Service (May 20, 2019) speaking about this invisible enemy:

“As we are all sheltering in place to recognize the invisible enemy of COVID-19, there is also an invisible enemy that affects our behavior, being racism, privilege, the inability for the heart to be compassionate to people who are different but not deficient.”

Jesus spoke about this when he said, “Out of the heart comes evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.” (Matthew 11:19)

We are all “infected” with sin as we collaborate with the spiritual forces of evil.  It starts in the heart, and then it is lived out in behaviors that wreak havoc in the world.  We so quickly rush to excuse ourselves for our sins and find ways to blame someone else, or try to minimize its influence on our lives. Temptation and the resulting sin is real and is like “a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” (I Peter 5:8).

All sin needs to be opposed with the overcoming power of the Holy Spirit.  In memory of Ahmaud Arbery, whose death took months to uncover, and the recent death of George Floyd, I would like to shine a light on the sin of racism.

Racism, this invisible enemy, is something we need to address for the health and wholeness of all of humanity. It is right here in our hearts, our neighborhoods, and our annual conference. It must be addressed by people who have white privilege. Think about these questions:

Do you consider yourself better than people of color? 

When do you separate yourself from people who are different from you? 

Does your local church reflect the Acts 2 diversity of creation?

Do you support political views that favor the rich and the majority culture? 

Do you make friends only with white people?

Do you support only businesses that are owned by people who look like you?

Do you sit silently when they are making inappropriate racial remarks? 

These are important questions for white people to consider and then do something about.  It is not enough to just think about it if things are ever going to change.

Dismantling racism is a long journey and not something that is “once and done.”  We need to be committed to doing battle with this invisible enemy.  As we do, we build a church and a world where everyone is beloved and cherished, and no one of any race or ethnicity is seen as “less than” or deserving of harm, oppression or death because of the color of their skin.

(*In public domain)

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Everyone Counts

By Bishop Peggy A. Johnson


One of my favorite scripture verses is found in the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: “The parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.” (I Corinthians 12:22)  It is a declaration of a fundamental spiritual truth that every person is important, necessary and worthy of inclusion and honor. 

This “seem to be weaker” qualifier is a human construct.  It is sinful humanity that puts a value judgement on peoples’ worth.  With our bent on pride and bigotry, people are constantly comparing themselves to others. We often size up a person’s importance based on the outward things that are transient or a part of God’s creative design. These things include a person’s gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, nationality, socio-economic class, intelligence, physical ability, education, even personal appearance. 

The Apostle Paul is saying that no one is weaker here. Our “pecking order” of seeming worthiness is nonsense.  God gives to each the gifts, skills and personhood that God chooses. And everyone is necessary for the good of the whole. This is true in the church, and this is also true in our country today.

Where am I going with all of this?  It is time for the 2020 Census.  I hope that by now you have received your Census form and have filled it out and sent it in.  It is important for everyone to do this. 

The U.S. Census is not used to discriminate against people based on their ethnicity, finances, living situations or citizenship status.  But it does quantify the American people by their demographics and location, and it determines the overall “distribution of political power and money.” The government also uses that information to allocate public funds to healthcare, housing and education programs, in addition to government services.” (Philadelphia Tribune, “We Need to be Counted in the 2020 Census,” by Logan James)

Like the Body of Christ, everyone in our country is indispensable. When everyone is counted we all get what we need, and we become more useful participants in society. 

Historically, communities of color are undercounted.  Again, quoting Logan James, “Past surveys have shown that Latinos, African Americans, non-English speakers, non-traditional families, and those with informal living arrangements are the hardest to calculate.  For every community not counted, $100,000 to $200,000 that would have gone toward advancing their economic, political and society position is lost.”

None of us can afford for any of us to be without housing, education, employment, transportation, and a voice in decision-making.  We are all one family in this country; and when some suffer, everyone ultimately suffers.  A valid Census reveals where we can do a better job to help the whole of society.

We must also impress upon younger generations the importance of the Census. It comes only once every 10 years; and 10 years is a long time to wait for better statistics.  

Spelman College, in Atlanta, Georgia, is the oldest private historically black liberal arts college for women in America. In 2000 they began the Spelman College Census Information Center in cooperation with the U.S. Bureau of the Census and a large number of national, regional and local non-profits.

Their objectives are to get the word out about the importance of the Census, to encourage young people to participate, and to use their research to benefit the community and the world. They know that the future can be brighter for everyone when we have an accurate count of our country’s residents.

No one is weaker. Everyone is indispensable. Each one of us counts. So, be sure that you are counted! Take part in the 2020 Census, and encourage others to do so also.