LIKE MANY OF YOU I HAVE BEEN WATCHING THE EVENTS TAKING PLACE IN FERGUSON, MISSOURI AND WONDERING WHETHER COMMON GROUND CAN EVER BE FOUND. I CONFESS THAT EARLY ON THE IMAGES OF ARMORED VEHICLES ,RUBBER BULLETS ALONG WITH TEAR GAS BEING THROWN AT THE POLICE COULD EASILY HAVE BEEN ANY WHERE IN THE MIDDLE EAST. IT WAS NOT THE MIDDLE EAST RATHER IT WAS AN AMERICAN CITY WHERE FIFTY TWO YEARS AGO I SPENT TIME AS A VERY YOUNG PASTOR. FERGUSON WAS 99% CAUCASIAN AT THAT TIME BUT THAT NUMBER IS NOW LESS THAN 25%.
THE LATE REV. DR. CARL DUDLEY AND I BEGAN AN INNOVATIVE AND EXCITING MINISTRY IN ST. LOUIS IN 1963. ONE OF THE SIGNATURE PROGRAMS WE STARTED INVOLVED WHITE MEMBERS OF FIVE SUBURBAN PRESBYTERIAN CHURCHES OF WHICH THE FERGUSON CHURCH AND ITS PASTOR WERE PARTICIPANTS. WITH THE BLESSINGS OF ST. LOUIS PRESBYTERY AND THE FIVE CONGREGATIONS WE INVITED A MINIMUM OF TWO WHITE FAMILIES TO BECOME FULL MEMBERS OF BEREA PRESBYTEERIAN CHURCH WHICH AT THAT TIME WAS AN OLD HISTORIC AFRICAN AMERICAN CONGREGATION. WE WERE MOVING INTO A BRAND NEW SANCTUARY AND EDUCATIONAL BUILDING WHICH HAD BECOME NEWSWORTHY BECAUSE OF A LARGE FISH NET HANGING AT THE CENTER OF THE SANCTUARY. THIS WAS ONE OF SEVERAL CREATIVE IDEAS PASTOR DUDLEY INTRODUCED TO CHURCH ARCHITECTECTURE. FERGUSON PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH WAS ONE OF THE FIRST CONGREGATIONS TO SEND FAMILES TO OUR PROGRAM.
DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR SENT OUT A CALL TO CHURCHES ALL OVER AMERICA TO JOIN HIM IN PEACEFUL NONVIOLENT PROTEST IN THE SOUTH. CARL AND I WERE AMONG SOME OF THE VERY FIRST MINISTERS TO JOIN DR. KING. WE ALSO ENCOURAGED THE WHITE PASTORS OF THE FIVE CONGREGATIONS TO JOIN US IN HEADING SOUTH TO SUPPORT DR. KING. ALL FIVE SENIOR PASTORS IMMEDIATELY SIGNED UP TO GO TO SELMA AND THEY DID SO EVEN THOUGH THEIR CHURCH BOARDS THREATENED TO FIRE THEM IF THEY WENT SOUTH WITH US. I REMEMBER OUR GOING TO FERGUSON THE NIGHT BEFORE WE WERE TO FLY TO SELMA. AT THE END OF DINNER OUR HOST WHO WAS ONE OF THE FAMILIES OF FERGUSON PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH PARTICIPATING IN OUR EXCHANGE PROGRAM SAID TO US: “WE UNFORTUNATELY WILL NOT BE ABLE TO JOIN YOU AND OUR MINISTER ON THE TRIP TO SELMA HOWEVER, WE WANT YOU TO KNOW YOU HAVE OUR SPIRITUAL, FINANCIAL AND PRAYERFUL SUPPORT SHOULD YOU NEED US. DO WHAT YOU BELIEVE IS RIGHT FOR EVERYONE AND KNOW THAT WE HAVE LAWYERS PRIMED TO COME TO ALABAMA SHOULD YOU BE ARRESTED.” FERGUSON PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH BECAME OUR STRONGEST SUPPORTER FOR THE NEXT SEVEN YEARS OF OUR PASTORATE.
THE FERGUSON OF 55 YEARS AGO IS NOT THE FERGUSON WE HAVE SEEN ON THE SCREENS OF TELEVISONS THE PAST TWO WEEKS. THOSE DEMONSTRATING OVER THE SHOOTING DEATH OF MICHAEL BROWN BY A WHITE POLICEMAN COULD CARE LESS ABOUT MY STORY AND I GET THAT. WHAT IS TROUBLING ME IS THE SEEMINGLY LACK OF WHITE MINISTERS AND WHITES IN GENERAL IN THE PROTEST MARCHES. I RAISE THE QUESTION, WHERE ARE THEY? DID THE CIVIL RIGHTS ORGANZATIONS TRY TO REACH OUT TO THEM? IF NOT WHY NOT? WHATEVER IS OR IS NOT NEGOTIATED GOING FORWARD WILL NECESSARILY HAVE TO INCLUDE WHITE PEOPLE. THEY MUST BE AT THE TABLE TO MAKE SURE THEY HEAR THE PLAINTS OF BLACKS AND VICE VERSA. DR. KING WAS ALWAYS OPEN TO SITTING AT THE TABLE WITH THE OPPRESSORS. WHY CAN”T WE? AND I RARELY IF EVER SAW DR. KING ANGRY, WHAT CAN’T WE?
THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT FIFTY YEARS AGO INCLUDED WHITE MINISTERS, WHITE COLLEGE STUDENTS AS WELL AS ORGANIZATIONS LIKE THE NATIONAL CONFERENCE OF CHRISTIANS AND JEWS. WHERE ARE THESE ORGANIZATIONS NOW? WE WERE JOINED TOGETHER ON THE FRONT LINES OF THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT AND THEY WERE SUBJECT TO ARRESTS AND INTIMIDATION AND BRUTALITY AS WE WERE. WHERE ARE THEY NOW? GIVEN THE DEMOGRAPHIC CHANGES RACIALLY AND SOCIAL MANY BLACK PROTESTERS DO NOT LOOK LIKE THE PROTESTERS OF FIFTY YEARS AGO. I BELIEVE THIS CAUSES FEAR AMONG MANY WHITES AND BLACKS WHO IN THEIR OWN WAY HAVE STEREOTYPED AND PROFILED THE NEW GROUP OF PROTESTERS. FIFTY YEARS AGO THE CONFLICTS WERE MORE IN SOUTHERN STATES THAN IN NORTHERN INDUSTRIAL AREAS WE SEE TODAY. WHAT HAS CHANGED?
AS I PREPARED TO PREACH AT A PREDOMINANTLY WHITE CONGREGATION LAST WEEK IN BETHESDA, MD I REALIZED I HAD NOT GOTTEN OVER SOME OF MY OWN PERSONAL ANGER AND OUTRAGE OF THE SHOOTING DEATHS OF MICHAEL AND ERIC BY THE GUNS OF WHITE POLICEMAN. I WAS A REAL MESS UNTIL I RECEIVED TWO EMAILS FROM CLOSE FRIENDS AND COLLEAGUES WHO ENDED THEIR MESSAGE TO ME WITH THESE WORDS: “THERE IS STILL REASON TO CELEBRATE.”IT WAS NOT UNTIL I SAW THESE WORDS IN FRONT OF ME THAT I REALIZED I COULD NOT PREACH A SERMON REFLECTING MY ANGER AND GRIEF AND DISAPPOINTMENT OVER THE SHOOTING DEATHS. I TURNED IMMEDIATELY TO I CORINTHIANS 13 PAUL’S LETTER TO THE CHURCH IN THAT CITY. THE WORDS OF SCRIPTURE SPOKE VOLUMES ABOUT HOW I WAS APPROACHING MY SITUATION IN THE WRONG WAY. IT HAS BEEN SAID THIS PARTICULAR EPISTLE IS THE BEST DEFINITION OF LOVE EVER PRINTED. I ALLOWED PAUL’S WORDS TO TOUCH MY HEAD AND MY HEART AND IT SOON MADE A DIFFERENCE IN MY FEELINGS. I KNEW THERE WAS NO WAY FOR ME NOT TO BE OPEN AND PRAYERFUL IN MY TONE. I HAD TO PROVIDE AN OPENING FOR MYSELF BEFORE I COULD FIND AN OPENING FOR OTHERS. I REMEMBER THE MANY LECTURES AND FOCUS GROUPS DISCUSSING WHETHER OR NOT NONVIOLENCE COULD WORK AS A STRATEGY IN TODAY’S WORLD OF CONFLICTS. WHEN I LEARNED OF THE HORRIFIC DEATH OF JOURNALIST JAMES FOLEY IT CAUSED ME TO WONDER WHETHER NONVIOLENCE COULD EVER BE PRACTICED IN TODAY’S WORLD AND I COULD NOT FIND AN ANSWER. I PERSONALLY AM ALIVE TODAY HAVING PRACTICED NONVIOLENCE DURING MY PARTICIPATION IN MARCHES AND PROTESTS FIFTY YEARS AGO. MY MANYVISITS TO ALABAMA AND GEORGIA WERE FILLED WITH DANGER AND I COULD HAVE BEEN KILLED OR INJURED ON NUMEROUS OCCASIONS BUT I WAS NOT AND I AM GRATEFUL FOR THAT.
I ENCOURAGE EVERYONE TO HEAR AGAIN THE WORDS : NOT BY MIGHT BUT BY MY SPIRIT SAYS THE LORD.” I WILL CONTINUE TO BELIEVE JUSTICE WILL PREVAIL FOR MICHAEL BROWN AND ERIC GARNER AND TRAYVON MARTIN BECAUSE I HAVE MORE FAITH IN WHAT GOD CAN DO FOR AMERICA THAN WHAT AMERICA CAN DO FOR ITSELF. JUSTICE DOES IN FACT ROLL DOWN LIKE A MIGHTY STREAM EACH DAY IN THE LIVES OF PEOPLE ALL OVER THE WORLD. MY HOPE AND MY PRAYER IS THAT ALL OF US MAY FIND WAYS TO ENTER INTO DIALOGUE WITH THOSE WHOSE OPINIONS MAY DIFFER FROM OURS. I BELIEVE GOD PROVIDES OPENINGS FOR US TO ENTER INTO IF WE ONLY WOULD ALLOW OURSELVES TO LISTEN FOR THE CLUES. I HOPE YOU AND I MAY FIND THE STRENGTH AND COURAGE TO BE OURSELVES WITHOUT MAKING IT DIFFICULT FOR OTHERS TO BE THEMSELVES. THERE IS ALWAYS ROOM FOR COMMON GROUND BUT ITS UP TO US TO MAKE IT HAPPEN. THERE IS ENOUGH ROOM AT THE TABLE OF NEGOTIATION AND RECONCILIATION FOR ALL OF US. WHY NOT TAKE THAT FIRST STEP AND BEGIN A DIALOGUE WITH YOUR FRIENDS, YOUR CHILDREN YOUR ADVERSARIES-THE KIND OF DIALOGUE THAT DOES NOT PLACE BLAME RATHER IT BECOMES A DIALOGUE THAT IS OPEN TO CONFESSION. BY DOING SO WE WILL BEGIN TO SEE CHANGE AND JUSTICE WILL PREVAIL IN OUR TIME. AND SO IT IS! DR. PAUL
For the past few weeks my blog page has been under reconstruction. As many of you who know me I am totally in the dark when it comes to technology but thankfully my manager and faithful friend Sue Carlson has once again come to my rescue. Over several days of back and forth conversations with our new site Sue has successfully gotten my blog back on track. She deserves kudos for her efforts on my behalf.
I am mortified by the events taking place around the world and within our own country. My heart breaks upon seeing babies and children being turned back from the borders. Photos of these innocent families with their children clinging to their arms touches my heart deeply. Like many of you I care about these families and I am keenly aware of the intricacies involved with Immigration. There are things you and I do not know about the countries from whence these children and their families come from. I admit that. I support the sentiments of Pope Francis who urges compassion over politics in caring for the children. Immigration continues to be a political football at the expense of thousands of children and their families. Let America be America again for all of them.
You may remember the letter I wrote to my two grandsons after the Zimmerman verdict last year. Trayvon Martin who was murdered was the age of my grandsons. His death could easily have been my own grandsons and your own sons. So imagine my horror when I saw the video coverage of a NYPD cop viciously grabbing Eric Garner by his neck along with other cops dragging him to the ground in a choke hold! Eric called out 11 times that he could not breathe but that was not enough to stop the cruel and brutal murder by a white cop. Most disturbing for me was the comments from Mayor de Blasio and Police Commissioner Bratton who said “race was not a factor” in the death of Mr. Garner. Who do they think they are kidding? Rev. Sharpton got it right when he said “if the mayor’s son (who is black) did not have the last name de Blasio he could surely be a victim of the NYPD. Until America acknowledges racist and racism exists America can never be America again!
It is dangerous to even have a conversation about Israel and its relationship with the Palestinians. News commentators are very careful and cautious with their reporting of the conflict between Hamas and Israel so much so they are careful never to openly criticize Israel. I support the position that Israel has a right to exist. I support the position that Palestinians have the right to exist. However, I do not support the wanton killing of over 1600 Palestinians in Gaza many of whom are innocent women and children, Their homes are shattered as are their lives and it appears to be no end in sight to the violence. Short term cease firings have been violated by both parties fueling even more determination to destroy each other. Both parties are guilty and playing the blame game has not stopped the killing of innocent people. Israeli’s and Palestinians must find common ground upon which they may stand and if they will not nor cannot there is no telling what will be left of them. The U.S. must call Israel to task when they are wrong. The. U.S. must call Hamas to task when they are wrong. What’s so difficult about that? Replenishing weapons to Israel so the bombing and shelling may continue must be questioned. How difficult is that? Hamas continuing to relentlessly drop hundreds of missiles per day on Israel must stop. How difficult is that? I know it is difficult because the conflict between Palestine and Israel has gone on for years and there are bad feelings between them. Killing each other is never an answer. Scripture reminds us that it is “not by might nor power but by my spirit says the Lord.”
Our do nothing House of Representatives is embarrassing, completely unacceptable and downright an abomination. The way both parties are acting spills over into the lives of every American. Unfortunately we are becoming accustomed to dumb and stupid statements from Conservative politicians like Ted Cruz and Paul Ryan and Michelle Bachman to name a few. What is newsworthy about any words spoken from the mouth of Sarah Palin for gods sake? Call out the tea party for who they really are: homophobic, racially insensitive and hell bent on defeating any good thing that President Obama does for our country. Why are we allowing this small band of people destroy our democratic process simply because they cannot accept a black man as POTUS? Congress is just a few hours from leaving for a one month recess and what are they doing? Suing the President for doing his job because they won’t do their job. How dumb is that and most importantly, when with the American people stand up and say “we have had enough.”?
America has serious problems and we need serious and committed people to address them. The do nothing Congress is wreaking havoc upon the psyche of the American people. We say stupid and hurtful things to each other. We treat each other with disdain. We are so afraid to speak truth to power because of how our words will be interpreted or misinterpreted. So, we say nothing and we demand nothing. We are a nation of believers and we are a people who have common sense. Now is the time for us to act out what we believe. I continue to believe we can be better than we are. I continue to believe we can know what is right and good for our nation. I continue to believe that we can learn to live together as sisters and brothers if we only give ourselves a chance. I continue to have faith in the art of lively and helpful debate. I continue to be believe in a higher power that balances the universe we occupy. I continue to believe the Creator has my best interest at heart even in the midst of everything going on in my life and yours. We can be more civil and respectful of one another irrespective of our race, ethnicity, our color our place of origin or our sexuality. We can be better than we are. We do not have to be so negative and we ought to be able to come together to solve our differences. We can learn to live with our differences but we can only do so when we are truthful about what we feel and think. Denial of our having blind spots in never good for any of us. I continue to believe Dr. Howard Thurman’s words: how can I be me without making it difficult for you to be you. Whatever your doing Lord please don’t do it without me. Let me be the one daring to admit my short-comings and my weaknesses. Let me be the one to devote myself to truth telling and to recognizing that it is “me, it is me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.” We only can come this way once in our lives so far as we know so may we find an opening- a pathway to a better understanding of one another. May we find ways to seek forgiveness and to be forgiven. May we walk more by faith than by sight until at last we come together before our Maker who lifts us up and says “well done thy good and faithful servant.”
And so it is!
We are currently updating Rev. Dr. Paul Smith’s blog. Please check back later for content. Peace!