House of Deputies

Deputy Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows of the Diocese of Chicago preached this sermon on racial reconciliation and social justice at the Church of St. Paul and the Redeemer on December 14, 2014 (Advent 3B):

jbbAs we continue to process the events of the day--the continued protests over the killing of black men at the hand of police and generally lament the poverty, disease, mudslides, and other disasters these days, this Advent, seem darker than usual.  And I don’t think it’s my mood.  Advent is supposed to be dark—this period when we intentionally look forward to the second coming of Christ with all of the upheaval that comes with it. But this is a bit much. 

We are given scriptural texts specifically chosen for this third Sunday of Advent and though there are nice words in here—rejoice! freedom! Oil of gladness!—I find no comfort. Let’s take a look at this passage from Isaiah. 

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me to preach good news.   At first blush, Isaiah sounds remarkably comforting to us—and we so want to be comforted—all of us.  Isaiah’s message told by the unnamed prophet is “to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion…”

After years spent in exile, after a period of being called back home, after confronting the monumental task of rebuilding a broken and dispersed community of people called Israel, all of the promises that come before in the 60 previous chapters of Isaiah—promises written over many, many years by different prophets—these promises are still being made.  The people still mourn and grieve because there had been no glorious kingdom of God established after the exile as they anticipated. They still needed comfort. And we live now, in a world into which Jesus has already come once—this Jesus who preached on these texts in his first sermon in the Temple and declared that all of these promises were being fulfilled as the listeners heard him.  We hear these words in the light of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in Staten Island, the second anniversary of the massacre of the innocents in Newtown, CT and I’m clear, are you not, that not only do we still want to be comforted—we are still in exile.  We have not yet found our way back. The superhighway that Isaiah spoke about in last Sunday’s passage is like the Eisenhower at the evening rush—going nowhere fast.  We want to cry freedom, we want an end to the mass incarceration of young Black and Latino men, we want the year of jubilee—the year of the Lord’s favor—and we want comfort for those very many who are in mourning.

Being comforted and being comfortable are different things.  Advent time—this time we are in—is not about being comfortable.  Advent is about waiting for Christ’s return, it is about waiting for the consummation of all things when all people, all of creation will be reconciled to each other and to God.  Advent is about finding our way back—home.  It is about loving a God who made a home, here among humanity, in the person of Jesus. So when I’m asked, what “can we do” in the wake of Ferguson and the rest; what can we do, when the protesting is over—all I can say is that it is complicated.  Sure there is advocacy work to be done and policies to change and reforms to effect.  Ultimately, though, the answers to that question—which I believe is aimed at getting at the structural and systemic forces that make institutional and hence, individual racism and privilege so difficult to dismantle—the answers to the question will vary with each of us.  But let me tell you what I’m doing.  It’s a small little thing called “going home.” 

So let me say, by way of confession, that over the past few years I’ve been slowing coming out as a kid from the projects.  I cannot express enough what a big deal that has been for me.  It is an admission that has me examining my own internalized racial oppression, identity, feelings of abandonment—and my own acts of abandoning my community in the name of survival—and I hope ultimately giving me the courage to use what little privilege I have as a multiple-degreed, Ivy-educated black professional to actually do something to make a difference.

At the age of ten my family moved to a housing project in Staten Island—not too far where Eric Garner met his fate. We left Brooklyn and relocated to a place where my own innocence of people of many races and backgrounds living together more or less peacefully was shattered. This was the place where I had to learn to navigate the White adults spitting on me and calling me the N-word as I walked home from school each day and the Black school kids wanting to fight me because I spoke funny and used words they didn’t understand. I hated this place. I took solace in the library and the classroom and dreamed of getting out.  Each night gunshots would ring out on the basketball court below my window as I did my homework. I strategized and dreamt about a different life—frankly, a Park Avenue classic six apartment was the dream. I saved my allowance and later after-school job money so that I’m pretty sure I was the only teenager walking around the projects in a Brooks Brothers navy blue, brass-buttoned blazer.  Success meant getting out and never looking back.  But as it turns out, going back just may be my salvation. 

For me, confronting the pain, violence, and for many, hopelessness of that place is critical in order for me to take all of this talk of racial reconciliation and social justice from an academic exercise that I can study and read about till there’s no tomorrow, to an experience of true compassion, empathy, and solidarity. This is about me amending the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter to #AllBlackLivesMatter. All Black lives—especially, especially, the ones seen as expendable and disposable because of where they live, how they speak, what they wear. I don’t have time to do it, I’m hearing and remembering stories I don’t want to hear or remember. But this little bit of “putting myself back together” and finding wholeness, will be, I pray, a key to me effecting that wholeness that I desire for the whole community. This is about intentionally entering the brokenness to find that actually, those who made it out are not the only survivors.

This is also an exercise in Advent hope. It is about paying attention and believing, in spite of the “evidence,” that in the darkest of days, a light shines forth. From broken and abandoned dreams, hope is birthed. It is about trusting that transformation comes from unexpected places—whether it is the backwater of Nazareth or the housing projects of Staten Island, or the streets of Englewood. In her book The Liturgical Year, Joan Chittister says of Advent, “… this is the season that teaches us to wait for what is beyond the obvious. It trains us to see what is behind the apparent. Advent makes us look for God in all those places we have, until now, ignored.”

I don’t know what “going home” looks like for you. Maybe it is a hard, difficult look at the places that have made you who you are and being curious about it. Maybe it is looking at the place where you live and move and have your being right now, and asking yourself, is this life you’re living and creating, helping to effect the change you desire for the world. Returning home—moving toward wholeness-- is what God most desires for us and the pathway as Isaiah and other prophets make clear, will not always be simple, clear or easy. But each time we go to those places—whether it is a street address or the part of your heart that has been hollowed out by complacency, sorrow, fear, and anguish—each time we go to those places we have to look oh so carefully lest we miss what God is doing in front of our very eyes. 

About a week ago I finally made it over to the Holocaust Museum in Skokie—I pass it all the time but never made it in. I’d been urged by friends from church and the community to check out the exhibit on race. It is a well done exhibit that takes the anthropological approach to reinforce the idea of race as a social construct but that also explains the evolution of physical features that account for the diversity in the human family. It also has what seems to be hours of video of personal testimony from folks speaking of discrimination, bias, and genocidal violence because of racism in this country. The exhibit is a good one but, frankly, didn’t tell me anything I didn’t really already know. It reminded me that what is happening to Black men today is part of a long string of racial atrocities. I left feeling a bit exhausted and a bit resigned that it was ever thus, and ever shall be. After I exited the exhibit I made my way to the gift shop. I thought I might check out the permanent exhibit about the horrors of the Jewish Holocaust but I didn’t want to take in more depressing narratives—I was full up. As I entered the gift shop a man pointed to a table where another, older, White man was siting and he asked me, “Would you like to meet a Holocaust survivor?” So I gave the only answer I could give.  “Of course.  Of course, I do.”