"Let your light so shine before the people, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven." (Matthew: 5:16)
In a time of a global pandemic that has killed almost 200,000 Americans, civil unrest in the streets, and an economy in tatters, I have been blessed with the opportunity to share my thoughts with you during this unique time in history. I decided to contribute to this blog in the form of a personal letter to each of you.
A little about my background: I work at the leading edge of Black Liberation Theology of Disability. I have masters in social work from Binghamton University and a masters of divinity from Union Theological Seminary. I identify as an African living in America, specifically Washington DC, and I recently became a minister as I pursue my doctorate. Many blacks are told we need to work twice as hard for half as much. This is especially true for people like me who have disabilities. For example, one of my disabilities is called aphasia—literally this means "speechlessness." But you will understand my problem easier if you think about times when a word was on the tip of your tongue but you couldn't make your mouth say it. In my case, I may face this problem once every 20 sentences. I know the words I want to say, but getting my mouth to do what my brain wants has taken years of rehabilitation. Making myself understood—or failing to do so—has been a lifelong challenge, so I relish opportunities to share my perspective.
As I see it, there are two pandemics engulfing my nation. More Americans are dying from COVID-19 than in almost any other industrialized nation. Some countries—including our friends in Europe—are now telling Americans we are not wanted due to our mismanagement of the crisis. Even parts of Mexico are now forbidding Americans from freely traveling. Denial by some leaders has certainly allowed the pandemic to fester. And that makes sense, as denial—a state of mind wherein one refuses to identify the problem before their eyes—is what has allowed the second pandemic I referred to—injustice—to fester in America since its founding.
Even 50 years after President Lyndon Johnson signed landmark civil rights legislation, the racism virus shows it has the ability to morph and adapt to the times with incredible shrewdness. Only with the advent of cellphone videos capturing coldblooded murder, did more white citizens polled find it harder to deny the disproportionate amount of violence committed by police against people of color. As this is more and more exposed, it may be that America is on the cusp of a new consensus for a new era of the civil rights movement.
We still have a ways to go. One in four people behind bars around the world is in America, and it is common knowledge that African-Americans, while 13 percent of the American population, are 34 percent of the prison population (whites comprise 29 percent). However, certain incidents—especially the execution of George Floyd In Minneapolis by a policeman who choked him to death by kneeling on his neck—instigated something unprecedented. Thousands—including conservative white politicians—have been marching under the slogan that Black Lives Matter. Americans are waking up not only to injustice, but the concept of systemic racism. For the first time since the Black Lives Matter movement started, a strong majority of white Americans polled agree that systemic racism is a major problem. America has seen protests in 100 cities, despite, or maybe because of edicts asking citizens to shelter in place. Protesters include people of all colors and ages—with a special boost from the young. Only time will tell if this renewed attention to the conditions of black life will lead to true allyship and commitment.
The pandemics are part of a strange—but potentially helpful—confluence of events. And while we may lack leadership in how we handle COVID-19, America, it seems, has reached a new crescendo of righteous outrage against the virus of injustice. And while I would never belittle all the progress we've made, hopefully history is accelerating and Americans will seize the opportunity to look at themselves and their own attitudes not just towards the dispossessed but how the dispossessed are treated by the country's institutions. In its own way, the coronavirus puts the other virus—systemic racism—into stark relief.
In the early 1990s, I got to meet Kwame Ture, who was better known at Stokely Carmichael, an organizer in the civil rights movement in the US and the worldwide Pan African movement. Reflecting on the 1960s, Ture said, "We were mobilized, not organized." Indeed, the civil rights movement of the 1960s was anything but monolithic. Competing factions abounded. There was the question of nonviolence versus personal defense. There was the question of how and if to align with likeminded people who weren't black (such as women and those against the war in Vietnam) fighting their own revolutions.
And yet, while I am describing conflicts that have rent the fabric of American society, as a minister I know I am called to take a larger view. The organization that Ture called for is where the church could be crucial—but it has to look, regularly, at itself. For example, when marching with the Black Lives Matter movement, how comfortable can someone like myself be if other marchers have prejudged me based on my disability? This problem is both in the movement and in the church. The hypocrisy is alarming, demoralizing, and omnipresent, which is why I must speak out on this issue in good faith and with a clear conscience. I have witnessed this specific prejudice in so-called civil rights leaders and people of the cloth. I'm not sure the church can take a leading role in the new movement until it cleans its own house.
As a minister of the Gospel, the "good news" offered by Jesus Christ in the New Testament, I wonder, during this time of global crisis: "Are Christians taking Jesus's message of how to treat the marginalized to heart?" He is asking us to do more than give anonymously to charity. He is asking us to interact personally with the dispossessed so we might see, not just their humanity, but ourselves in them. And to go a step further, may we all see the Christ—the divine spark—in all of us, even in those who are not Christian, and those who can't see it in themselves.