Thursday, February 14, 2019

Black History Month Reflection: Tale of Two Postal Workers

On a recent broadcast of “Travel with Rick Steves” (NPR – January 12, 2019) this travel expert interviewed Calvin Alexander Ramsey, who authored a children’s book titled Ruth and the Green Book.  This book explained how African Americans during the time of Jim Crow laws had to depend on a certain guidebook, The Negro Motorist Green Book, to locate restaurants, hotels, stores, gas stations and other services accessible and willing to serve them during their travels on the road.

The Green Book was compiled by Victor Hugo Green, a U.S. postal worker in Bergen County, N.J.  Through his contacts with other postal workers around the country he was able to compile a nationwide directory.  It was published from 1936 to 1966.

According to Ramsey’s radio interview, the distribution of this guidebook was largely supported by the Standard Oil Company and Esso Gas stations, built and owned by John D. Rockefeller, the oil industry magnate. He had connections with the Spelman family of Ohio through his wife, Laura. Her father, the Rev. Harvey Spelman, was an abolitionist instrumental in operating an Underground Railroad stop in the mid-19th century. 

Howard Olver,
Bishop Peggy Johnson’s father
I ponder the life of two postal workers during Black History Month 2019. One of them was my father, who worked for a Post Office in Baltimore, Md., for 30 years.  

I was raised in a typical middle-class, white family during the post WWII, “Baby Boomer” generation.  We went on family vacations in the South every summer, traveling with ease. We always stayed at Howard Johnson motels and ate at Howard Johnson restaurants, and we would be sure to stop at Stuckey’s convenience stores and get pecan roll candy along the way. 

Never once were we denied a hotel room or service at a restaurant. Of course, that was because we were white.  I never thought about this growing up. Never. I just did not see African American people; and I wonder now why I never wondered why.  This is the epitome of white privilege; and I see it now for what it was… and still is.

The other postal worker was Victor Hugo Green (right), whose African American family couldn’t just waltz into the Howard Johnson motel and rent a room.  His family had to pack a lot of unperishable food in their cars when on vacation because they never knew where they would be allowed to buy food on the road.  Sometimes they even had to put an additional can of gasoline in their trunk in case they could not find a gas station that would let them buy fuel.

Green did something about this racist inequity by publishing his practical and life-saving list of accessible services.  How sad that this had to be done and that white society thought that segregation was OK, or like me, never even questioned it. How sad that many in white society missed out on the chance to learn and grow from associating with people from the African American community.  Segregation deprives everyone—everyone—in profound and for some, very painful, ways.

In truth, there is much less racial segregation and discrimination in this country; but we still have a long way to go to eradicate this heinous sin. It starts with white people like me learning everything we can about our history and how an unjust legal system can create and perpetuate racism and classism.

White people have a key role to play in acknowledging that there is something wrong and naming it, especially when everyone in power is white and only white voices are heard around a decision-making table.  White people, like the Spelman family, can give means and influence to even the playing field. 

John D. Rockefeller

Later, John D. Rockefeller went on to give a large bequest to an African American women’s college. It was renamed Spelman College, in honor of his wife and her family’s commitment to racial equity.  

Finally, white people like me need to seek more meaningful and honest, personal relationships with people of color.  As people build relationships and alliances, all of us benefit. Our church, our society and our world will achieve heights of excellence and maturity that we have never before attained.  In doing so, we will get a glimpse of God’s Kingdom—and “kin-dom”—on earth, as God intended it to be.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

The International Year of Indigenous Languages

The United Nations has declared that 2019 is the “International Year of Indigenous Languages.” (Check it out on  Studies have shown the following statistics: There are 7,000 languages spoken worldwide (among 5,000 indigenous cultures), 370 million indigenous people in the world, 90 countries with indigenous communities, and a whopping 2,680 languages that are in danger of extinction. 

Why is this important?  According to the U.N.,“Languages play a crucial role in the daily lives of people, not only as a tool for communication, education, social integration and development, but also as a repository for each person’s unique identity, cultural history, traditions and memory.  But despite their immense value, languages around the world continue to disappear at an alarming rate.” 
Furthermore, the United Nations suggests that “awareness and respect for indigenous languages builds sustainable development, peace, reconciliation, and it is a fundamental human right.”  

Christians surely need to take notice if we profess that we are called to “do justice, love kindness and walk humbly before God.” (Micah 6:8)
As the former pastor of a congregation that used American Sign Language as its primary means of communication, I learned quickly the power of language for an individual’s ability to grow personally and professionally.  The “majority” hearing world largely had the upper hand in decision-making settings. The sign-language-user was often forced to accommodate and take a lesser role in leadership and influence.

The same is true for indigenous people and their languages. There is an inequity issue whenever the majority culture uses its language power to control the minority when it comes to the distribution of benefits and opportunities. “English-only” initiatives are oppressive because they tilt power toward the majority and create a “them” and “us” dynamic. This minimizes the giftedness of all people and negates their unique and empowering languages.
The United Methodist Church’s Social Principles speaks loud and clear about social justice (Paragraph 162 2016 Book of Discipline “The Social Community”).   “We affirm all persons as equally valuable in the sight of God…” it states. “We support the basic rights of all persons to equal access to housing, education, communication, employment, medical care, legal redress for grievances, and physical protection.”     
As the people called Methodist, we should learn about these precious language issues that are a source of empowerment and equality for our sisters and brothers.  Around the United States Native American tribes are teaching their indigenous languages with faithfulness. They yearn for support and affirmation. 

Brett Jackson, a young adult Nanticoke Tribal leader writes: “Tribal language is important to me because it connects me to my ancestors, it teaches me their values and perception of the world, and continuing to use the language is essential to further teach my culture.”  
Kesha Braunskill from the Lenape tribe added: “I feel that tribal language is our link to preserving our culture. It’s as important as the responsibility to pass on knowledge and traditions to each generation.  Language is a part of it all.” 
More information about this can be found on the “Indigenous Language Caucus” website:
Make it your aim to learn a new language this year, maybe an indigenous tribal language, and with it would come a whole new world of culture and community that you have never known before.  Here are a few Native American words for starters:
From the Lenape Tribe of Delaware (permission given by tribal leader Theo Braunskill):
    “A’ho” means “Hello” 
    “Wanishi” means “Thank you”    
From the Nanticoke Tribe of Delaware (permission given by tribal leader Mike Harmon):
    “Gichtishi Manito” means “God or Great Spirit”
    “Eweenetu” means “Peace”
From “Eastern Cherokee Heritage” (permission given by RagghiRain Calentine, chair of the Peninsula Delaware Conference’s Committee on Native CONAM):
    “Osiyo” means “Hello”
    “Oginalli” means “My Friend”
    “Ama” means “Water”
Listen to the beauty of the Cherokee language set to music by logging onto:   This is a translation of the hymn: “There’s Just Something About That Name.” 
RagghiRain Calentine is hopeful. “The Cherokee words are passed on from generation to generation.  Our Native tongue isn’t going to be forgotten or lost. Our ‘Mother Tongue’ is waiting for each one of us to speak our own unique language. This is a gift from the “One and Only.”

Friday, February 1, 2019

Let us Cultivate Roses in St. Louis

By Bishop Peggy A. Johnson
(From a sermon preached at a meeting of the UMC’s Northeastern Jurisdiction College of Bishops and Episcopacy Committee, January 30 ,2019.)
During the May 2016 United Methodist General Conference, held in Portland, Oregon, the Council of Bishops was authorized to create a Special Commission on the Way Forward for our denomination. They were to wrestle with our Book of Discipline’s prohibitions against ordained ministry and marriage for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters—whether to keep, strengthen or remove those prohibitions.
On a Sunday there in Portland’s “City of Roses,” I was invited to preach at a local church and then treated to a tour of the city’s amazing rose gardens. I learned on that spring day that the city had an excellent environment for cultivating roses.  
I am known to be the ultimate “black thumb” of plant growers. Plants just look at me and die. I am the only person who can kill a snake plant; and as a child, I would pay my sister to water my part of the family garden plot. That said, I am fond of lovely flowers that someone else cultivates and grows.  
As in plants, the art of cultivating relationships, even in navigating deep and painful church conversations, is an important art to me and should be to you as well.
In the 1400’s there was a bloody, protracted civil war known as “The War of the Roses.” Two competing, English families—the Yorks, bearing the symbol of a white rose, and the Lancasters, symbolized by a red rose—fought bitterly for control of the British crown for 32 years.  It seems that our denomination’s at times bitter controversy over homosexuality and ministry and has gone on even longer.
Our jurisdictional College of Bishops, our international Council of Bishops, and leaders and parishioners throughout our global church have been discussing and pondering, praying and fasting, and yes, even fretting, as we approach our February 23-26 special, Called Session of General Conference.  
I pray we will cultivate, in our decorum and discourse, some sturdy, beautiful roses in St. Louis, even in the cold of winter. Unfamiliar with the art of cultivating roses, I researched it using Google and found some important, transferable lessons for us:

Earth – balance of acid in the soil

Roses need a proper balance of acid and alkaline in the soil.  There are many kinds of fertilizers designed specifically for roses; and it all comes down to achieving balance.  Since not all soils are the same, the right fertilizer works to enhance what the soil is lacking, so that roses can thrive.
As we lead into this era of the life of the church, we need a balanced respect for all people and their hearts around human sexuality.  Polarization happens when we stop listening and learning from the voices of all. Bishops are called to be bishops to all. So, we must strive to respect all and honor all.
We also seek the balance provided for us by the four values of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral: Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience. What a gift this has been for us in navigating other struggles with acceptance or rejection of leaders based on their gender, race and marital status. The quadrilateral gives us grace to grow spiritually in our understanding of diversity.
Balance is not easy.  It calls us to patiently listen and respect others and to humbly realize that we need both acid and alkaline to be the church that Christ wants us to be.  We need everyone, even those who interpret scripture in different ways from us.
Irrigation – Water  
Roses need water to thrive. Water is the most essential thing for life itself. It is why space explorers are so excited about finding water on Mars.  One can live without food for a long time; but humans die quickly without water. When members of the General Board of Church and Society visited the southwest U.S. border last summer, the Border Patrol told us the first thing that people crossing the Rio Grande into Texas ask when they are picked up is, “Tienes agua?”  “Have you water?”
Fundamental to the Christian faith is the water of our baptism. We all stand in need of the unmerited favor of God that washes away our sins and gives us new life in Christ.  We not only find salvation through the cross of Christ; we also become one with our brothers and sisters: one Lord, one faith, one baptism. We become one body with our many different gifts.
Our unity, no matter our stand on various social issues, is found in our baptism, our oneness in Christ, our shared salvation through the same Lord.  Leading others effectively requires us to “keep the main thing, the main thing.” This is not easy, but it is by far the basic unifying factor for us to stress, teach and preach.  The salvation of the world is our mandate.

Space – air
When landscapers came to plant Rose of Sharon bushes in the front of the parsonage we moved into last year, I noticed there was a great deal of space between the plants.  It looked a bit sparse, I thought. Maybe a cost-saving decision to plant less. Was I ever wrong!
Rose of Sharon bushes grow and spread quickly. Had there been more plants placed closer together, we would have been pulling out some bushes before long. Roses need space to grow and thrive.
In the original call to the Way Forward Commission we bishops asked for as much mission, unity, space, contextualization as possible.  Space, air or gentleness with differences is another key thing our bishops strive to lead into. We are well aware of the differences among us as a global church. Space gives a chance for the Spirit, the breath of God, to move among us. Prayer and the means of grace make space come alive.
How lovely was the letter of the early church after their “General Conference” in Jerusalem, read in Acts 15. The Jewish Christian leaders said to the Gentile Christians that they did not have to be circumcised and follow every letter of the Jewish law.  That space allowed the church to thrive and grow in the Gentile context. This is true wisdom for us today as we strive to maintain unity.
Sun – fire
Obviously, a rose plant needs sun to thrive. The heat of the sun with its photosynthesis nourishment causes a plant to thrive.
In like manner, the church needs the fire of the Holy Spirit sending us into mission: mission among the poor, the neglected, the abused, the flooded, the burned up and burned out, the unemployed, the incarcerated, and the disenfranchised.  Our leadership keeps the main thing the main thing as our faithful “why.” But it also calls the church into greater avenues of outreach, mercy and justice as the “how” and “what” of our faithful works.
My late father, who was a gardener, always said I was not part of his gene pool because of my lack of interest in plants. He used to work in a community garden in the retirement community where he lived. The wonderful thing about this garden was that everyone was in it for the mission of raising vegetables and those savory Maryland tomatoes.
Their methods varied, their backgrounds were diverse; but they would take care of each other’s plots when anyone was away for surgery or vacation or other reasons. Their common mission was the unifying thing.  
Can’t the church of Jesus Christ find the grace to do mission together and work out our differences in other ways?  Leadership can’t do enough of this kind of modeling.
May we cultivate roses in St. Louis: with a healthy balance of spiritual soil; with the living water of our unifying baptismal commitment to Christ; with the freeing air and space for grace that allows for various contexts to coexist; and with the consuming, cleansing fire of our passion for mission.