The Lies That Divide Us: Memphis

“If you inquire into the history of the metropolitan area in which you live, you will probably find ample evidence of how the federal, state, and local governments unconstitutionally used housing policy to create or reinforce segregation in ways that still survive.” ― Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America

Self-segregation is the biggest lie in the United States narrative. The idea perpetuates itself as a myth insisting that there is some truth behind the color lines. Let me be clear, there is not. Segregation, even the group segregation we see in school-age-children, is a direct result of government planning, racist ideas, and capitalist interest. And while uncovering the truth is not a hard task, the policies and documents are available, recovering from centuries of segregation will take time, money, repentance, and direct action. 

The United States government is directly to blame for past and present racial segregation. Post-reconstruction, the policies and practices of the federal government have supported the separation of black and white citizens. “Practices such as redlining, restrictive covenants, and discrimination in the rental and sale of housing not only led to residential segregation by race but also continue to shape Whiteness and frame narratives about what constitutes Blackness.” These practices do not accuse but outright convict the US government of creating a racially stratified society in lieu of its promise of democracy and free-market capitalism. The actions of which have led to generational poverty for some and wealth for others. Furthermore, such actions have negatively impacted the “educational opportunities and life outcomes” of people of color. 

No group aware of such consequences, would intentionally separate itself from the very lifeline of freedom, justice, and the pursuit of happiness. The government’s segregation policies did more than just keep the status quo; it created an even wider chasm between the two races. “The isolation of communities of color from members of the dominant group often means that communities of color [were] subject to more environmental hazards, aggressive policing tactics, under resourced schools, greater stressors that lead to lower life expectancies, as well as the exacerbation of existing chronic health issues, limited life chances and opportunities, and ultimately even greater premature death, relative to Whites.” Hence, while self-segregation was the narrative of myth the government used to enact its policies, federal segregation was the arm that guided some away from the American dream and others closer to it. 

To fully understand the ramifications of the US policies and laws, clarity between defacto and dejure segregation must take place within the American consciousness. Black Americans did not practice tribalism, choosing to separate themselves from white society; white Americans did. In The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, author Richard Rothstein writes that it is, “A common explanation for de facto [natural] segregation is that most black families could not afford to live in predominantly white middle-class communities and still are unable to do so. African American isolation, the argument goes, reflects their low incomes, not de jure [legal] segregation.” However, de facto segregation is a lie, even in incidences where African Americans could afford homes, they were not allowed to purchase them due to racial contract clauses on housing deeds. Rothstein goes on to write, “But we cannot understand the income and wealth gap that persists between African Americans and whites without examining governmental policies that purposely kept black incomes low throughout most of the twentieth century. Once [the] government implemented these policies, economic differences became self-perpetuating.” 

The directions of that economic difference led to an income gap that continues to plague minority communities. Since income from one generation to another rarely jumps substantially, the government policies of the past continue to plague the future. Rothstein continues his argument by stating, “So an account of de jure residential segregation has to include not only how public policy geographically separated African Americans from whites but also how federal and state labor market policies, with undisguised racial intent, depressed African American wages”. Thus de facto arguments such as tribalism and wealth were and are still not valid in any discussion where the segregation seen today was a result of choice. One again, self-segregation among black and whites in the United States is a lie that allows the United States government not to repent and take responsibility for the psychological, economical, and physical depression of black people and other minority people. 

Memphis, Tennessee breaks through the lie of self-segregation. The color lines are apparent in every road made wide and every valley laid low, especially in the area of housing. Seeing Red, A special report by High Grown News in 2019, expounded on how, in Memphis, “housing has been a tool to suppress Black wealth, not grow it.” Housing in Memphis, Tennessee remains deeply rooted in de jure segregation. In Memphis, “the poverty rate for Black Memphians is an estimated 24.5 percent compared to 8.1 for white Memphians. Despite an estimated 13,000 to 15,000 vacant houses in the city, Black homeownership dropped 18 percent from 2005 to 2017, putting Memphis in the top third of declining cities in the U.S.” As stated above, home ownership and generational wealth are tied together. However, the trend declines when government lending practices and bank-issued-mortgages terrorize rathan than assist one the basis of race. This practice of terror was known as redlining. 

Redlining in Memphis created maps where “federal and local governments worked with banking and insurance industries to develop practices and policies that undermined Black wealth at the neighborhood level by gutting investments and concentrating poverty in redlined communities.” To be clear, this practice combined the racist sentiments of private institutions with the power and might of the United States government. The lie is that segregation happened naturally, the truth is that the U.S. government and those in power designed it as such. In the years to come, “Residents in “undesirable” neighborhoods like South and North Memphis saw home values plummet. Builders, developers, business owners and residents with means followed the money to greener neighborhoods. The exodus was used as further evidence redlined neighborhoods were dangerous for investment. It was the beginning of a 90 year cycle meant to maintain white wealth and social superiority.” This cycle created food deserts, opportunity gaps, and poverty maps which still align to past redlined communities. We can say that individuals have choices but what we also have to say is that for some, those choices have been taken away. 

While the majority of white America still believes in the lie, there are great organizations spouting from communities of color and allies directing society towards the truth. MICAH (Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope) is a collection of congregations, organizations, and individuals focused on education, economic, race, and class equity in the city. Memphis Area Legal Services provides civil legal representation to low income families facing mortgage foreclosure, eviction or homelessness. Agape Child and Family Services address the spiritual needs of Memphis families, in addition to their physical needs such as housing. There are many more truths being told in Memphis. Self-segregation may be the lie but questions we must all ask ourselves is, why did we need the lie in the first place. 

 

 

Chris Williams is Mission Immersion Director for Memphis Youth Mission

 

 

 

 

Resources and Citations

Notes:

  • Explaining the lie
    • Source: Race, Residential Segregation, and the Death of Democracy Education and Myth of Postracialism
      • “Since the 1930s, federal housing policies and individual practices increased the spatial separation of whites and blacks. Practices such as redlining, restrictive covenants, and discrimination in the rental and sale of housing not only led to residential segregation by race but also continue to shape Whiteness and frame narratives about what constitutes Blackness.” – 1
      • “Residential segregation is no accident but is one of a host of expected outcomes of a racially stratified social system that was in place concurrent with the founding of the “democracy” of the United States.” – 1
      • “The consequences of this segregation have lasting impacts not only on the financial state of peoples of color but on educational opportunities and life outcomes.”
      • “The isolation of communities of color from members of the dominant group often means that communities of color are subject to more environmental hazards, aggressive policing tactics, underresourced schools, greater stressors that lead to lower life expectancies as well as the exacerbation of existing chronic health issues, limited life chances and opportunities, and ultimately even greater premature death, relative to Whites. Where Black and Brown people and Whites live does not occur by happenstance, nor is it primarily the result of personal or group preferences. “ – 9

 

  • Defacto vs Dejure segregation 
    • Source: The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America
      • A common explanation for de facto segregation is that most black families could not afford to live in predominantly white middle-class communities and still are unable to do so. African American isolation, the argument goes, reflects their low incomes, not de jure segregation. Racial segregation will persist until more African Americans improve their educations and then are able to earn enough to move out of high-poverty neighborhoods. The explanation at first seems valid. But we cannot understand the income and wealth gap that persists between African Americans and whites without examining governmental policies that purposely kept black incomes low throughout most of the twentieth century. Once government implemented these policies, economic differences became self-perpetuating. It is not impossible, but it is rare for Americans, black or white, to have a higher rank in the national income distribution than their parents. Everyone’s standard of living may grow from generation to generation, but an individual’s relative income—how it compares to the incomes of others in the present generation—is remarkably similar to how his or her parents’ incomes compared to others in their generation. So an account of de jure residential segregation has to include not only how public policy geographically separated African Americans from whites but also how federal and state labor market policies, with undisguised racial intent, depressed African American wages. In addition, some and perhaps many local governments taxed African Americans more heavily than whites. The effects of these government actions were compounded because neighborhood segregation itself imposed higher expenses on African American than on white families, even if their wages and tax rates had been identical. The result: smaller disposable incomes and fewer savings for black families, denying them the opportunity to accumulate wealth and contributing to make housing in middle-class communities unaffordable. If government purposely depressed the incomes of African Americans, with the result that they were priced out of mainstream housing markets, then these economic policies are also important parts of the architecture of de jure segregation. – 153-155

 

  • Exploration of Segregation in Memphis
    • Source: https://www.highgroundnews.com/features/SeeingRedlining.aspx
      • “housing has been a tool to suppress Black wealth, not grow it.”
      • “Across the Memphis metro area, the poverty rate for Black Memphians is an estimated 24.5 percent compared to 8.1 for white Memphians. Despite an estimated 13,000 to 15,000 vacant houses in the city, Black homeownership dropped 18 percent from 2005 to 2017, putting Memphis in the top third of declining cities in the U.S.”
      • “Most wealth is built by owning and inheriting property, but centuries of slavery, racism and racist policies have limited Black wealth, incomes and the credit and collateral necessary to access home ownership and the middle class.”
      • “With the maps as a guide, federal and local governments worked with banking and insurance industries to develop practices and policies that undermined Black wealth at the neighborhood level by gutting investments and concentrating poverty in redlined communities.”
      • ““We’ve got to put that on the table and agree that this was not accidental,” said Harrison. “It wasn’t by accident, it wasn’t a byproduct of hodgepodge development. It was intentional, an intentional policy that was implemented holistically.””:
      • “Residents in “undesirable” neighborhoods like South and North Memphis saw home values plummet. Builders, developers, business owners and residents with means followed the money to greener neighborhoods. The exodus was used as further evidence redlined neighborhoods were dangerous for investment. It was the beginning of a 90 year cycle meant to maintain white wealth and social superiority. “The program — the housing program, the urban programs — that this was a part of were very much about making sure white families had access to both public and private sources of capital and cutting neighborhoods of color off from those,”
      • “Anyone can see how these neighborhoods that were redlined corresponds to current poverty rates, corresponds to vacant and abandoned properties, unbanked households, mortgage originations, health determinants, life expectancy,” said Harrison. “Name the social determinant, you’ll see that these areas were denied investment and capital and have been for decades and how that is playing out currently in the social environment of those neighborhoods.”
      • For the remaining 20th century, redlining spread in waves as wealthy and middle class Memphians — most white but many Black — pushed further and further from the center city and lower income families followed, moving north, south and east along Poplar.
      • ““These are evidence of the federal government’s role in this,” said Nelson. “It’s not just the marketplace that causes these great variances in wealth, it’s federal policy that does that.”

 

  • Examples of Resilient organizations
    • Source: 
      • MICHA Memphis
      • Memphis Area Legal Services
      • Agape Child and Family Services

The Lies That Divide Us: Lies of Omission, Our Hidden Histories

Right outside the Raleigh Youth Mission office is Nash Square. It is a green space full of trees nestled in downtown Raleigh.

Photo Credit: Commemorative Landscapes of North Carolina: Josephus Daniels

It’s a great place to eat lunch and rest under the Oak trees which provide ample shade in the summer. Within the park sits an empty cement block – you most likely would not notice it, unless you knew it was there. Up until this summer there was a statue of Josephus Daniels who was an American newspaper editor. In fact his statue faces east where right across the street, the Raleigh News and Observer is located where Daniels worked for many years. He was appointed by US president Woodrow Wilson to serve as Secretary of the Navy during World War I. He became a close friend and supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt and was appointed by Roosevelt to be the Ambassador of Mexico.

So, why remove his statue? 

It turns out Daniels was a fierce white supremacist and segregationist.  Along with others, he was a leading perpetrator of the 1898 Wilmington Massacre. This massacre was directly targeted at Black Americans

The Wilmington Massacre was carried out by white supremacists in Wilmington, North Carolina on November 10, 1898. It is estimated that hundreds of African Americans were killed. A great documentary to watch is Wilmington on Fire.

Daniels believed that, “the greatest folly and crime in U.S. history was giving Negroes the vote.” He and his newspaper championed the white supremacy cause in frequent news reports, vigorously worded editorials, provocative letters, and vicious front page cartoons that called attention to what the newspaper called the horrors of “negro rule.” Daniels headed up the anti black propaganda campaign by arguing that as long as African Americans had any political power, they would block progressive reforms.

He was highly influential in the state legislature’s passage in 1900 of a suffrage amendment that effectively disenfranchised most African Americans in the state, excluding them from the political system for decades until the late 20th century. They were also excluded from juries and subject to legal racial segregation, via the Jim Crow laws. 

History decided that his good acts out weighed his racism and made him out to be a hero. Daniels had a voice, a loud voice, that discriminated against and impoverished many African Americans. History has a way of ignoring the wrongs when it comes to supporting the status quo. This is an example of lies of omission, of hiding histories because they are too insidious. We as Americans like to sweep the bad stuff under the rug. 

As I began to research more about Josephus Daniels, I uncovered other fascinating historical facts about my community. 

It turns out that one of the middle schools in Raleigh was named after Daniels. Along with his statue being removed the name of school was also changed this past summer. The school is now known as Oberlin Middle School. Why the name Oberlin? Right after the emancipation in 1865 – African Americans could own land in the Oberlin area, which at that time was right outside the city limits of Raleigh. This area was named after Oberlin College in Ohio – which was the first school to allow blacks to actually graduate with a degree – some colleges allowed black students to attend, take and pay for classes, but not receive a diploma. Here is some more information on Oberlin Village.  

Photo Credit: Hi-Times Sarah Chew

As I learned more about Daniels Middle School I discovered another story about school segregation. Joe Holt who still lives in Raleigh – shares a story about how his family petitioned the school district which would allow him to attend Daniels Middle School since it was located right across the street from where they lived.  At that time he was taking a bus along with other black students to a school that was across town. The school district kept stalling and therefore he never attended Daniels Middle School. But his family continued the fight as he entered High School. Once again the closest school to where he lived was Broughton High School in Raleigh, but he was not allowed to attend that high school because of the segregation laws.  This is the time frame when Holt’s case finally went to court – in fact it went all the way to the US Supreme Court – which ruled in his favor and awarded him the right to attend Broughton HS – the only problem was that Joe had just finished his freshman year of college.  People still today will say to Joe – “Oh you were the first African American at Broughton or you were the first African American to graduate from Broughton.” He has to tell them – I never went to Broughton.  Once again – history gets distorted, lies of omission of hidden histories reign. We remember the outcome but not the cost to so many African Americans. Here is a video that describes in full detail the story of Joe Holt.  

I did not grow up in the Raleigh area and so I have spent time researching the area. I was surprised to find that it took a lot of time, questions and conversations in order to discover this history, in fact it took talking with African-Americans who grew up in this area to even know these events took place, to even begin my research. The more I uncovered the more I found. When I share this information with most white people who grew up and/or are current students in the Raleigh area – they are surprised to learn about most of these events. 

Which brings us to this fact: that there are lies of omission, truths that are never shared because they are insidious.  They make people who have done a lot of good things, look bad. But we need to know the full truth. We need to realize that all of us have participated in good and poor choices in our lives. We hope that through both – we learn and grow. We need to know the entire story in order to learn and not repeat the same mistakes over and over again. 

In Luke 12: 2-3, we find Jesus saying these words: “2 Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. 3 Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.”

In light of this passage and the hidden histories in Raleigh, consider these questions: 

Have you ever experienced a time when you discovered a truth that was hidden from you? What was that like to discover the truth? 

What happens when we bring what was hidden out into the light? 

Why do you think Jesus shares this information with his followers? How does this bring about the Good News? 

What have you learned from these stories that will help you in searching for the truth about your community? 

Most likely there are stories just like this in your location. We at Youth Mission Co offer a 4-part series that you can do with youth to discover your own hidden histories. 

Youth Mission Co Hidden Histories Series.

Rev. Linda Harding is a Christian (Disciples of Christ) pastor.  She lives in Raleigh and is the Mission Immersion Director of Raleigh Youth Mission.

The Lies That Divide Us

On January 6, 2021 America watched as a crowd of thousands of people participated in a protest that turned into a riot.  That riot included storming the nation’s Capitol building while our elected leaders were still there, working to fulfill their duties to the constitution and to the people that elected them. 

Photo by Pacific Press/Getty Images

Among the rioters storming the Capitol Building were believers in Q Anon, members of The Proud Boys, The Oath Keepers, and other followers of groups who have white supremacist beliefs or who subscribe to wild conspiracy theories.  The nation looked in horror as our fellow citizens trashed the Capitol and sought out elected leaders to abduct.  Many of us responded with confusion and incredulity, not understanding how so many fellow Americans could be duped by what has become known as “the big lie.”  

When I first heard this term, I understood “the big lie” to be the unfounded and clearly debunked claims that the 2020 presidential election had been rigged, and that Trump had actually won by a landslide.  (Even though 60 court cases and even the President’s own Attorney General’s office found no evidence of any wide-spread voter fraud.)

However, what has become clear to my colleagues and me, through listening to the wisdom of many voices, including leaders of color across this nation, is that this lie is just one of a multitude of lies.  These lies have origins that date way before our previous administration.  These are lies that go back hundreds, even thousands of years.  

The “big lie” that the election was stolen was really just the tip of the iceberg of a larger lie—a lie that lots of stuff is being “stolen from us.”  There is the lie that “all these Latinos are sneaking over the border and stealing our jobs.”  There is the lie that “all those people from the inner cities want to come out here and take our guns, take our belongings, take down our monuments, and take away our history.”  All of this talk is, of course, only thinly veiled language for the big “take away.” The real underlying fear is all about the taking of, or diminishing of, the privileges of whiteness.  If there was any doubt about that, this photo of a confederate battle flag being defiantly waved around in our nation’s Capitol makes the point very clear.

Photo by Saul Loeb, AFP Via Getty Images (as printed in the USA Today)

Here’s where there is some little nugget of truth involved.  (Stay with me.)  While it’s clearly not true that all Latin X immigrants want to “take all our jobs” (many immigrants are taking jobs that most white folks just don’t want, like migrant farming, cleaning, and the most brutal of landscaping work), and while promoting common sense gun laws don’t equal “taking all our guns,” there is a clear effort underway to undermine the historical and current caste system in our country that is centered in race.  

That ongoing effort to dismantle white supremacy in America is very real, and is warranted for many reasons, not least of which because the whole concept of race is itself a lie.  Don’t take our word for it.  Listen to the podcast Scene on Radio, Season 2, cohosted by John Biewen and Chenjerai Kumanyika.  Watch the sermon, A Requiem for Ahmaud Arbery, by Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III.  Explore The 1619 Project, a research and journalism effort by the New York Times and written by Nikole Hannah-Jones.  They all tell it quite plainly.  To a large degree, our country was founded with a sinister lie imbedded within it— that there is this thing called “whiteness” that comes with privileges that make it better than “blackness,” or any other race.  

Lies don’t just come out of nowhere for no reason.  A lie gets told because it benefits someone to tell it and to perpetuate it.  As the trainings of the Racial Equity Institute (referenced in the Scene on Radio podcast) make very clear, the origin of the lie of race was started as a means of providing a relative few plantation-owning colonists access to a lot of cheap labor.  This cheap labor meant higher profit margins for them and their huge family businesses.  Poorer whites were then hired as overseers or other types of middle management, instead of being competition for the plantation owners.  Privileges of whiteness were codified into law to keep poor whites loyal, and keep them pitted against people of color.  

An entire Civil War was fought and hundreds of thousands of people died to perpetuate this lie.  Generation upon generation of African-descended people were kidnapped, enslaved, raped, and tortured, all in service to this lie.  All this pain, all this carnage, all this division, was the price paid by so many to make and keep a relatively small number of people really, really wealthy.  It was a price clearly paid by exploiting people of color, but it was also, to one degree or another, a price paid by essentially all of us, no matter what color we are. 

Which leads to yet another lie.  The exposing of this lie is perhaps the most scandalous and threatening of them all in America today.  We at Youth Mission Co have found that exposing this lie is what sometimes gets us called “communist” or “socialist” or “un-American.”  But, here goes…

Woven into the very fabric of our country is a notion… the idea that accumulating lots and lots of wealth is a great and virtuous thing.  In fact, some might say it is considered the ultimate goal of every red-blooded American.  We have convinced ourselves that “greed is good” and that if we just have an open and unfettered playing field, any of us can work hard, compete, and achieve “the American dream” which is typically defined by colossal wealth.  (aka, our “net worth.”)  Why do we do this?  Because we believe that more and more wealth makes us more and more happy. 

This.  Is.  A.  Lie.  

Certainly, the accumulation of some key possessions such as decent housing, food security, etc, give us an important level of stability that makes our lives better.  But the accumulation of massive wealth and the hoarding of resources ends up doing damage to our society, our planet, and ultimately ourselves.  Dr. Cornel West exposes this lie in Restoring Hope: Conversations on the Future of Black America, when he says, “Market moralities and mentalities— fueled by economic imperatives to make a profit at nearly any cost— yield unprecedented levels of loneliness, isolation, and sadness.”  

In the documentary movie I Am, movie producer and director Tom Shadyack, dives into this issue as well.  He sets off on a globe-spanning quest to discover what is wrong with the world and what we can do to fix it.  Shadyack comes to the conclusion that hoarding resources and amassing extreme wealth is ultimately toxic to a society and to the world.  It turns out that more and more wealth doesn’t make you that much more happy.  In fact, it is in many ways a sign of illness.  He contends that living a life of relative simplicity is actually better for everyone, including yourself.  

So, let’s trace this all the way through… a riot (some have called it an insurrection) happened on January 6, 2021 which was based on a lie that an election was stolen, that was heaped on top of the ongoing lies that all kinds of things are being “stolen” from “us white people,” which is based on a lie that our supposed “whiteness” should automatically give us privileges and superiority over others, which is in turn based on a lie that race is even a real biological thing.  All of this was started centuries ago with the original intentions of making a relatively few people really, really rich, which is all motivated by the lie that extreme wealth can actually make us extremely happy.  

That’s a lot of lies.  

It turns out that the Bible, when read and understood outside of the clutches of what civil rights icon Ruby Sales has called white America’s “spiritual malformation,” actually exposes all of this.  Here are a few examples.  

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”    Mark 10:25  (NRSV)

The Parable of the Rich Fool    Luke 12:13-21

The Rich Young Man    Matthew 19:16-22

Blessings and Woes   Luke 6:20-26

“Do not worry about your life…”  Matthew 6:25-34

“For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with so many pains.”  1 Timothy 6:10  (NRSV)

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave nor free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  Galatians 3:28  (NRSV)

There is a whole lot more that could be discussed here.  We could talk about where this delusion that extreme wealth makes us extremely happy comes from.  We could talk about this path the Church has taken that has led to so many Christians to think that these unjust ways of living are all ok. 

But, for the moment, we at Youth Mission Co would like to spend some time exploring this one main idea…  that a major part of Christian mission, especially in this time and in this place, is to expose these lies for what they are.  We believe that Christian mission is today what it has been since the beginning— all about loving God and neighbor, standing with people who are suffering, and preaching the good news of the gospel.  We believe that a big part of Jesus’ good news is that he shows us another way to live besides all these lies and all this division.  His way involves both charity and justice.  It involves humility and boldness.  We believe that homelessness, poverty, food insecurity, disparities in healthcare, education, and incarceration… all these things and much more are the symptoms and byproducts of a series of lies… lies that divide us.

Over the next few weeks we will attempt to do more lie exposing and truth telling.  We will be sharing stories from our mission immersion locations of Asheville, NC, Raleigh, NC, and Memphis, TN— stories that mourn the pain and oppression that is borne of these lies, and the resiliency of those who have fiercely clung to the truth. In our webinar we will dialogue with colleagues and community leaders who are on the front lines of dealing with our individual and collective trauma that come from all the lies.  

We hope that these discussions will inspire you to explore these same issues in your community.  We hope they will inform you and equip you to engage your youth more deeply in Christian mission… a mission for us all to be part of God’s solution to societal injustices… which includes us getting an understanding of how we can stop being part of the problem.  

 

Bill Buchanan is a pastor, husband, father, and Executive Director of Youth Mission Co

Religion and Politics

Most of us have heard the saying: “Never talk about Religion or Politics…”  However, I am learning that if we never talk about religion or politics then we will never get to the root causes of our deepest suffering, and we will fail to be the people we were created by God to be. Now, I don’t mean to imply that religion or politics are the root issues that cause us pain, rather it is the idea that there are “some things” that we should not discuss.

 

In avoiding discussion of these two issues in particular, we end up suppressing the voices of those who want and need the status quo to change.  Think about it; politics and religion play a huge part in how we live our lives – even if we are not interested in politics or religion – many decisions are made for us based on our history and the way that laws have been interpreted in light of religion. The act of choosing not to discuss a topic is an act to keep the status quo – to leave the current policies and beliefs in place, that harm others.  

 

As I have worked with many non-profits over the years – I find that the more I listen to the stories of others, the more I hear the entire story.  Hearing the entire story is difficult because it causes me to dismantle my experiences and preconceived notions about how things work in the world. When I hear the entire story, it causes me to reflect on how I might be contributing to the suffering of others.  For example, when working and serving with folks who are experiencing homelessness – I have discovered that many of these folks are working, that is, they have jobs. However, they make minimum wage – which, in Raleigh, is not enough to secure adequate housing. In fact, one would need to work 125 hours a week at minimum wage in order to afford rent, utilities, transportation; the basics.  In assuming that people experiencing homeless simply need to work, we contribute to the problem of not understanding the real issue. This issue is not about failure to hold a job – the issue is not receiving enough pay that provides a place to live. 

 

I think this is why these discussions are difficult – because we set ourselves on a course; believing that we are headed in the right direction, that we are doing the right thing…at least, the right thing for us.  But when faced with an opposing view that challenges us – we have to take a second look, we might even have to admit, maybe we were wrong, which in turn, causes us to go a different direction. And life is already hard – why make it harder? 

 

But in changing my path – I can change paths for others.  I can make a conscious decision to act in ways that lessen the suffering of others in the world.  As followers of Christ, we are challenged to do just this – to alleviate the suffering of others, to walk in compassion, side by side, with those who are disadvantaged by the way things work currently..  And the best way to do that is to listen to the issues they face and to discuss with them a way to move forward. Many times we will discover that there is an unjust law that gives one group an upper hand or a religious interpretation that causes us to exclude another.  Now you may say; “but we can never make everyone happy” and that is true. But our goal is not to make everyone happy – our goal is to bring redemption, to recognize everyone’s dignity, to include the voices of all people, to reveal the love and light of God to all people.  

 

Here at Raleigh Youth Mission, our goal is to expose the stories of those who are living on the margins that we need to hear, so that we can examine the ways in which we need to change personally and corporately in order that others may be free of their suffering.  At Raleigh Youth Mission we talk about politics in a general way and how we can begin to ask deeper questions, that get the the root of the issue. So rather than asking what is the right thing to do, we ask what is the redemptive thing to do? We answer that question through our religion, by looking to Christ, to see what he did and how he did it and how we can do the same.   

 

 

Let’s face it, Politics and Religion are two uncomfortable topics to discuss, but there are folks in all our communities who are living very uncomfortable lives.  For their sakes, perhaps we need to work through our discomfort and grow in ways that help them and us. 

 

Rev. Linda Harding is the Mission Immersion Director for Raleigh Youth Mission

Why AYM? “You have to get close.”

In his book turned motion picture Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson recalls how his grandmother used to tell him all the time, “You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance… You have to get close.” Bryan took this message to heart; his experience in law school interning with a non-profit working with inmates on death row propelled him into a career of advocacy. 

You have to get close. 

Though I have lived in Asheville since 2002, I am in my second year as the Mission Immersion Director at AYM. Recently I have been thinking a lot about why groups should come to Asheville for a mission experience. In other words, why AYM? Yes, you may know Asheville is a destination city with lots of great hikes, waterfalls as well as great food & music venues. AYM is located right downtown at First Presbyterian Church, and who doesn’t love getting candy at Mast General?! Over the past dozen years we have established relationships with many non-profit partners who are doing great work in the community.  

But while these are all good reasons to consider AYM, I don’t think they get to the heart of the matter. In our mission immersion experiences at AYM, what we attempt to do is offer youth and adults the opportunity to get close to mission in a variety of ways:

  • Getting close to mission looks like circling up to learn about the systemic causes of hunger at Root Cause Farm, and then spending the morning with your hands in the soil harvesting organic produce. 
  • Getting close to mission looks like bringing donated household items for Homeward Bound’s Welcome Home Center, learning about the housing first model, and then sorting them so people who have been chronically homeless can have what they need in their new home. 
  • Getting close to mission means sitting at table with Asheville neighbors at the 12 Baskets Cafe or Haywood Street Congregations’s Downtown  Welcome Table, listening and sharing with those society often labels as “other” or “unclean.” 
  • Getting close to mission means listening to friends like TJ who share about the shame and brokenness surrounding poverty, and how support from community and God is essential in the journey towards a more just society.

As a relatively small-sized city, Asheville is made even smaller by the close relationships between its non-profits and faith communities. When AYM groups participate in the “Walk in their Shoes” experience, it is not unusual to see neighbors we met earlier in the week while we were playing Jenga at the Haywood Street Congregation, or veterans we met at ABCCM’s Veteran’s Restoration Quarters. Such closeness is key not only for the breaking down of stereotypes but for missional transformation– the transformation that happens when we see our mission not so much as “helping others” but rather, that through our encounters with others we are being changed. At AYM our hope is that such transformative moments will happen during your time with us, and that through mission immersion our groups will be equipped to go back to their home context and join in God’s mission of justice and mercy in new and bold ways. 

Rev. Michael Poulos
AYM Mission Immersion Director

 

Shining Through The Cracks

This summer I have been able to work at many agencies across Memphis.  One of my favorites is The Manna House. People in the community can go in the morning to the Manna house and drink coffee, play board games, and maybe take showers or get a new pair of socks. The youth get to connect with people who have lived lives very different than us. Two people I had the pleasure of meeting were Paul and Otis*.

 Paul has always lived in Memphis. After completing his associate’s, he had plans of returning to school for his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. Unfortunately, before this was ever able to happen, Paul lost his job and has been homeless ever since. He keeps journals and books with him, including a bible in which he said he read in its entirety over the course of nine months. 

Otis was very open telling me about how he has struggled with crack addiction for many years now. He clearly recognizes the damage it causes his life. He shared with me that after a drug deal went wrong in his hometown of Little Rock, a church bought him a bus ticket to Memphis so he could escape those who wanted to kill him. He first was incarcerated at the age of 15 and started using hard drugs soon thereafter. 

Memphis has a rich history in the civil rights movement. Naturally, this history seeps into our program. We talk about the roles religious leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference played in desegregation. Many churches at the time supported segregation as they believed in separating “us” from “them.” Although segregation might be a thing of the past, it’s not difficult to see how we might still have an “us” and “them” mindset.

For example, it can be easy to tell stories and advocate for people like Paul while ignoring the “Otises” of society. Someone’s struggles become something we think we can judge as “more” or “less” Christian.  We tend to believe that God exists only in perfection, not the cracks in life. This mindset is easy to fall into, but is the opposite of what we as christians are called to do by many biblical passages such as Proverbs 31:8-9. “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.”  Of course Otis is able to speak, but he doesn’t have the same opportunity to speak to our friends and congregations as we do. While there are struggles the majority of us do not face, we as christians are called to address them in our world.

This is the final week of MYM this summer and I spoke to Otis and Peter at the manna house for the last time. Since I last saw Peter, he picked up a job teaching Sunday school at a church. He prayed with some people at the Manna House and said Otis was one of his good friends. He even gave him some money to go get lunch.

(*Names have been changed for privacy.)

 

Edward Blount is a summer intern at Memphis Youth Mission.  He attends Radford University.

Love and Grace

My favorite passage to use during Bible study with my students is Matthew 20: 1-16, The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. To put it simply, this passage compares the Kingdom (or as I like to think of it, Ecosystem) of Heaven to a landowner and his workers. Early in the morning, the landowner hires several daily workers who agree to the usual daily pay. Then the landowner hires more workers at mid-day, and even more towards the end of the day. When it is time to be paid, the full-day workers are disappointed upon realizing that all workers were paid the same amount. The landowner’s response to their distress at the unfair nature of his payment scale is that he did not short the full day workers of the money they were promised and that he is allowed to do what he wishes with his money.

 

One of my favorite memories happened as I was conducting the Bible study and I felt that, though they were trying, my students were exhausted and completely disengaged from the entire program. After only a couple, painful minutes of slow discussion, I defeatedly asked “Alright.  Does anyone have any questions or comments before we wrap up?” Fully prepared to end the Bible study there, I was pleasantly surprised when one of my students raised her hand and rather timidly stated “I have something to say but it might sound controversial.” She then spoke about Christians’ views of the LGBTQ+ community and said “I don’t understand how you can be a Christian and hate people.” Though her words were simple, her sentiment got me teary as I saw the effects of this student’s faith on her world outlook taking shape.

 

Throughout my life I have been taught to be the type of Christian who loves, and shows love to all of God’s children. Before interning with AYM, that meant donating to coat drives at school, spending afternoons at food banks, and leading groups to plant trees with Trees Atlanta, which are all awesome things, but this passage is about more than just love. It’s about grace. Grace that isn’t deserved.

 

This summer I have seen snippets of some harsh realities of life that often shake both my students and myself up. After each of the occurrences, I muster up whatever strength I have to lead my students in what we at YMCo call a “debrief” to help them understand and interpret what they just saw. For example, if we see someone yelling we discuss how, though their behavior is not okay, all of us have felt that way inside at some point or another, but we have the privilege to go to our homes and be upset in private.

 

The hardest debrief I have led was with a group of students who thought they saw a man using marijuana in one of our agencies, 12 Baskets Café, and could not understand why the agency staff would not kick him out of the restaurant as he no longer “deserved” to be there. I spoke with my students about how, while 12 Baskets does not endorse drug usage, they believe in extending God’s grace to all of our neighbors, especially those who are marginalized and in our eyes don’t “deserve” it. We thought about how giving imperfect people grace is what the Bible all about, which is exactly what 12 Baskets was doing. This discussion took a lot out of me as I felt that my students were attacking this man who I personally felt had done little-to-no wrong, however, as I listened to myself speak about grace, I realized grace was what my students needed from me. I can’t expect them to be perfect any more than I can expect neighbors at our agencies to be perfect, but I must still strive to show them grace

 

The idea that the world should be “fair” is so deeply ingrained in my outlook that it is often difficult for me to practice what I preach and find love in my heart for those who don’t “deserve” it. But the fact is, people are lame. All of us. We all make mistakes and none of us can ever live up to the God who created us with their own breath. However, as The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard tells us, God really doesn’t care if we “deserve” love. Though our individualistic world often pushes the message that if someone is not directly improving your life right now they are not worth loving, God pushes back by demonstrating radical, underserved, and truly amazing grace.

 

In following the essential Christian call to be more like God and make the earth more like Heaven, we must all strive to push past the idea of “deserving” to get to the idea of “loving all” by showing grace to ourselves and all other wretches, no questions asked.

 

Laura Cain is a Summer Intern at Asheville Youth Mission.  She attends Agnes Scott College.

Bringing Worlds Together

The theme for YMCo this summer is “Worlds Apart”. At the beginning of the week we try to explain this theme by taking the youth on an urban walk around the city of Raleigh. We show the youth the different communities that exist right across the street from each other but are “Worlds Apart”. On one street there is a soup kitchen and on the next there are high priced restaurants. There are bus stops and parking garages. There are homes and there are park benches. 

 

This theme was especially impactful for me, a Raleigh native. Though educational and eye opening for the youth–even more for me as I learned about agencies and communities that existed across the street or across town from me that I was now just learning about. “Worlds Apart” couldn’t be more real. I enjoyed learning more about my city, but also felt guilty that parts of the city were so foreign to me.

 

Lately, I’ve been struggling with the hate I’ve witnessed in our world and particularly our country. The way we treat our neighbors, our brothers and sisters is disheartening. Each week that passes as a RYM intern and the more I interact in different “worlds” the more angry I become at the injustices all around.   

 

A quote that hangs up in our RYM office is from Lilla Watson, an indigenous Australian, academic, and activist. It reads, “if you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” It took me a while to understand what this truly meant– at least what it meant to me. 

 

This week the RYM team read a story from an unknown author in our weekly staff devotion. It was about a farmer that grew blue ribbon corn every year. When a reporter interviewed the farmer about his corn the farmer revealed that he shared his best seed corn with his neighbors. When the reporter  asked why he did this, he said, “Why sir, didn’t you know? The wind picks up pollen from the ripening corn and swirls it from field to field. If my neighbors grow inferior corn, cross-pollination will steadily degrade the quality of my corn. If I am to grow good corn, I must help my neighbors grow good corn.”

 

At the end of our walk we show the youth ways that Raleigh has brought “worlds together”. We stop at “A Place at the Table” a restaurant that is a perfect example of this idea. This restaurant has a pay what you can model with a goal of restoring dignity to people. When you order, you are always asked how much you would like to pay. The beautiful part of this restaurant is that it is not a restaurant for a particular community, but rather a restaurant for both a business person and a person who sleeps on the street. This restaurant bursts the bubbles in which we too often isolate ourselves. 

 

The story about the farmer was the missing piece to the “Worlds Apart” theme and Watson’s quote for me. This farmer shows how our well-being is directly related to the well-being and prosperity of others. Watson’s quote became clear to me. We must learn that our liberation is bound up with others solely because we are humans and because we are children of God. When your neighbors don’t have enough food, when they don’t have a place to sleep, when they can’t afford medical care, when they fear for their lives, when they are separated from their loved ones, the whole world hurts. Until we realize that when one human hurts, humanity hurts, we are not living into what the Kingdom of God should be. Instead, God calls us to love our neighbor and our enemy and in order to do this we cannot live in separate worlds. 

 

Anna Grace Thompson is a summer intern at Raleigh Youth Mission.  She attends the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Miracles within Mustard Seeds

On my first night of training for this job, the other interns and I sat awkwardly around a table eating spaghetti as our Executive Director, Bill Buchanan, said something that would stay imprinted  in my brain for the rest of the summer. “This is kingdom of God stuff, y’all” he said with sincerity, while the other interns and I pondered what that really meant. Fast forward to my second summer as an AYM intern, I can say with absolute certainty that the people I’ve met and the agencies I’ve worked with are truly part of that “kingdom of God stuff”.

At the beginning of the summer if you had asked me what I imagined God’s kingdom looked like, I would have told you something that was truly perfect and profound, something that was flawless and impeccable. Surprisingly, I still agree with that statement, but now an explanation is required along with it. 

Haywood Street Congregation is a church in Asheville that was specifically created for people living on the margins. One of their taglines is “Holy Chaos” and that couldn’t be more accurate when describing the experience you’ll have there. On a typical Wednesday afternoon up to five hundred people step foot on Haywood’s campus, possibly to grab a meal at their welcome table, receive a free haircut in their hospitality room, pick up some clothes from their clothing closet they call “God’s Outfitters”, or worship with all different types of people from the Asheville community. The first Wednesday I was there with AYM, the scripture reading was from Matthew 13:31-32:

Jesus presented another parable to them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field; and this is smaller than all other seeds, but when it is full grown, it is larger than the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in the branches.”

Following the reading, the founder of Haywood Street and lead Pastor, Brian Combs, rises to the front and asks the congregation “Alright church, what do we think?” Almost immediately several hands went up, and the discussion commenced. Folks began exploring concepts of what they believed the kingdom of heaven was like, eventually Pastor Brian commenting “Mustard seeds at this time in history were seen as weeds”. He went on to explain that not only were mustard seeds tiny as a seed and tiny as a plant when they grew, but they were also something insignificant and unwanted in the gardening world most of the time. But using the metaphor of a weed for God’s kingdom is on purpose, he reassured. I was puzzled by this notion, but Brian continued, saying that God’s kingdom is and was created by what we would consider the insignificant moments; the imperfect and the underestimated are always the folks that can teach us the most about God’s kingdom. 

My experience this summer with AYM can certainly attest to this concept. I always saw my glimpses into God’s kingdom within the smallest moments; a kid beaming as they gave a popsicle to one of our neighbors experiencing homelessness, or receiving a hug from a gentle stranger after experiencing Bible study with them. This compilation of seemingly insignificant moments with society’s most underestimated people have become some of the most profound and significant moments along my faith journey. I’ve realized this summer that God’s kingdom is built with moments of imperfect perfection— the miracles of life are found within the unsuspecting mustard seeds we encounter everyday. 

 

Katie Flanagan is a summer intern at Asheville Youth Mission She attends the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Finding Your Voice

“10 But Moses said to the Lord, ‘O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.’ 11 Then the Lord said to him, ‘Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? 12 Now go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak.’

-Exodus 4:10-12

If you’ve ever hung around me or my family, you would realize we have no problem talking. The conversation at our dinner table runs at a pace fast enough to scare a stenographer away and my friends often ask me to “repeat that” or “sloooow down”. For me, it’s not the act of speaking that is hard, but the work of using just the right words so that my message isn’t hidden in a pile of useless fluff.

In the verse above you see Moses questioning his own ability to speak, afraid of saying the wrong thing, and in other verses around this he asks for his brother Aaron to speak. Aaron was a great speaker, a strong leader, but not the one that was needed at the time. Many times, we find ourselves in the place of Moses, with a nagging sense of unpreparedness (no matter how much is planned out) or a sense of “not being the right fit”. Sometimes it’s just doing something for the first time, without any form of training wheels to lean on. We feel the need to lean on our own Aaron, those who we see as more skilled and readier than us. But the Lord, who assures Moses here, also assures us. For in each person lies the spark of connection, the ability to have the Lord speak through us.

This advice has spoken strongly to me at one of our partner agencies, St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral. Every Wednesday morning, we take a group there, first to worship with the whole community of the area, with bankers and those experiencing homelessness, all together in one row. After worship we assist in serving a breakfast for all, and then proceed to eat alongside all of our neighbors there. For many youth, I’ve noticed the most transformative and challenging part of working at St. Marys isn’t the serving or the worship. It’s when the service turns from labor-based service (serving food) to connectional and relational service that many youth start to feel a sense of struggle and growth. As soon as they finish serving many come up to me asking for the next task. With most of the serving done at that point I tell them to “make a new friend” or “talk to someone and learn their story”. There is an instant “deer in the headlights” expression on their faces and questions like, “well how do I just go and talk to someone” and “what do you mean ‘learn their story’” pop up. But I remind them of the passage above, as we normally use it as a devotional earlier in the week. They are reminded that simple questions can lead to complex answers, that their voice can be strong, that a smile and conversation can mean just as much as a plate of food.

Many youth “strike out” on their first attempt in talking to someone, sometimes due to nerves, others to the fact that they picked to talk to someone who was still eating. But by the second or third person they talk to you can see the power of relational ministry occurring. You can see stories being told, of future dreams, of children now grown up, of spouses moved on, of both great beauty and great loss. The youth always come back to me, full of information about their new friend they have made and with a newfound confidence carrying them. They have leaned into what Moses was told to do and require no more help from their own Aaron. They are no longer the timid Moses who was startled by a burning bush, but now the Moses who demanded the release of captive Israel, being an advocate.

We end the week with each participant writing down one person or issue they will carry home with them on a shared piece of art. This does two things. First, it lets the participants begin to process what they have experienced. Second, it gives them something to advocate for when they return home, now emboldened to speak out about who they met and establish even better connections to those around them, becoming that advocate.

No one goes into a time of service feeling fully prepared, ready to do everything. But I think we can all be Moses in those situations, ready to speak to what the Lord needs us to do. And if all else fails, a quote from FDR can easily guide, “Be sincere, Be brief, Be seated.”

 

Vance Stiles is a summer intern with Memphis Youth Mission.  He attends the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.