Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Shut it Down? Why I was a part of the Black Friday action at the Galleria

Last Friday, I participated in the “Black Friday” nonviolent direct action at the Galleria. It was incredibly powerful. Several hundred people – black and white, young and old, marching and chanting through one of the region’s most popular malls. Two different times, we participated in a “die-in,” a dramatic method of demonstration to draw attention to the 4 ½ hours Michael Brown’s body lay in the street and also to the fact that black people are four times more likely to die in custody or while being arrested than white people (Source: Mother Jones).

My participation in this demonstration has been controversial. I do not seek controversy but if it can further understanding, I certainly don’t shy away from it. So I want to address some of the extremely valid questions I have received over the past few days so that – agree or disagree – you might better understand why I did what I did, and why I believe it is consistent not only with our Christian beliefs but the mission and values of Christ Church Cathedral.

What was the demonstration about?
The purpose of a demonstration is to get people’s attention. On that level, the purpose of this demonstration was the same as so many of the others have been – to get people to hear the voices of young black and brown women and men that we have been ignoring for too long. To jolt people like me, white people of privilege, out of our complacency by the sheer force of determination and passion.

Because the purpose of demonstrations is to get attention, they are intentionally disruptive, though not violent. Demonstrations might block traffic or clog lanes in a shopping mall. The purpose of the disruption is not to inflict pain but to draw attention to something important or something tragic. To make us stop and notice.

Think of a time in your life where you witnessed something deeply offensive or hurtful. Someone shoving an elderly person on the street or kicking a puppy … or maybe even when your way to the Cathedral has been completely blocked on Sunday morning by a marathon! Our lives have been offended and disrupted so our instant human reaction is to disrupt … to stop people whatever they are doing and say, “Wait! Hey! Did anyone see guy? He just kicked that puppy!” “Everybody call the mayor and tell them not to let the Rock n’ Roll Marathon back in St. Louis” (almost my exact words in an email when I was irate one Sunday not too long ago!) That’s our impulse because in the moment we believe that directing people’s attention to what just happened is more important than letting them go about their business -- and often we are right! That’s the purpose of demonstrations. When we have been injured, offended or disrupted so much that we want people to experience it themselves not as punishment but so they will do something about it.

Of this demonstration, my friend, Pastor Shaun Jones of Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church, captured a big piece of it when he said it was about “affecting the lives of those who think that Mike Brown’s death doesn’t affect them.”

At their best, demonstrations come out of the best of the Judeo-Christian prophetic tradition. They express the pain of a people in a way that holds a mirror up to ourselves and confronts us with our complicity in that pain. They show us that our own complacency and complicity with sin has real consequences for all of us. They also tear down the illusions we create for ourselves that everything is well and help us to see where all is not well … and confront us with our responsibility to use our power to create a better world for all.

Why a mall on Black Friday?
Because it guaranteed us a broad and diverse audience for our message. Also because it provided an opportunity on a day when, more than any other, our attention is focused on things, to direct our attention to people. Jesus doesn’t call us to seek and serve him in things … that would be idolatry. Jesus does call us to seek and serve him in people … particularly those that have been the most abused and neglected.

Aren’t you just hurting the little people … the shop workers and others?
It cannot be argued that there were some hourly wage workers who took home less money on Friday … and that they are among the people who can afford least to lose income. That is not to be celebrated ,and I wish that was not part of the story of what happened the same way I wish that police officers were not pulling incredibly long back-to-back (and more) shifts for the past four months. But it is part of the story. So a few thoughts:

*In the demonstration I participated in, I witnessed a vast majority of the workers supporting the demonstration. Two Macy’s workers (pictured left) even walked off the job and began leading chants. Many, many others gave us thumbs up signs and high-fives.

*There was never a need to shut down stores or, indeed, the entire mall. Yes, shutting down the Galleria was seen as a successful disruption. But there really was no need. The demonstration was 100% nonviolent. We never entered a store or prevented anyone from entering a store. The shutting down of stores and the mall was a fear reaction.

This is a key point. There have been acts of profound violence against property on a couple nights immediately following Michael Brown’s killing and again after the grand jury decision. Those acts are abhorrent, have no place in a nonviolent movement and in fact set the cause of love and justice back considerably. But there is no evidence that any acts of property damage or violence have been committed by the nonviolent young people who have consistently led these demonstrations with integrity and discipline. In fact, on the night Vonderitt Myers was killed in Shaw, they (together with the St. Louis Police and the clergy) actively prevented a situation from becoming tragically violent (for details read my account of that night here  ).

Time and again over the past four months, we as St. Louis have been unable or unwilling to distinguish between the nonviolent demonstrators and the people who on a very limited number of occasions, had their rage boil over into property damage and violence. This inability has actually escalated tensions, not reduced them. There was no risk of property damage or violence. As I participated in the demonstration I invited others to join us, reinforced that there was nothing to fear ... and in fact most of the shoppers I interacted with seemed to understand this. The Galleria could have stayed open.

*The argument “aren’t you just hurting the little people” is the same one that was used during actions like the Montgomery Bus Boycott. “Aren’t you just hurting the bus drivers and the low-income people who need to get to work?” The simple answer is while there is pain and it is regrettable that it is born by the hourly-wage workers, the answer today is the same as it is then, which is there is a greater good at stake. I pray I never take pain caused to others lightly, and I believe we should always ask ourselves what shared sacrifice looks like (And I am open to that conversation). But again, I will point to my personal experience that the number of workers who actively showed their support to what we were doing far outnumbered those who did not react or who indicated disapproval.

Is this appropriate for the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral? Doesn’t this damage your and the Cathedral’s credibility?

I do believe this is appropriate for the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral. As I said on Facebook, You might be surprised to know that going to demonstrations and marching is outside my comfort zone. I really don't relish it. I'm much more comfortable behind the scenes or writing and preaching.

I push this comfort zone in myself because I recognize people need to see white church leaders – including the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral -- out there with the young people who are leading this movement. They are risking so much for the same theological principle we all hold so dear -- that all God's children are beloved and should be treated with honor, dignity and high regard -- the least I can do is stand with them.

I particularly believe it is appropriate for me to be out there as Dean of Christ Church Cathedral because we believe God is calling us to be “A Cathedral for the City.” Our vision statement Chapter is crafting reads:

Christ Church Cathedral is a place where people, all people, can gather to seek God and to be present to each other while being a catalyst for change and growth within the wider community.

That means I don’t have the luxury of just considering the people who show up on Sunday morning for worship. We need to be a Cathedral for all St. Louis. And that means I need to be available to everyone. And Jesus clearly calls us to seek and serve him in those who are most oppressed and cast aside. I need to be out there as Dean of Christ Church Cathedral (and I invite you to join me) because it doesn’t take you showing up at worship for me to consider you part of our flock. Our flock is the city and the region. We are our sisters and brothers’ keeper.

Does this damage my and our credibility with some? With some, it is possible and even probable. But I hope not irreparably. Following Jesus is always about risk and with risk there is usually cost. I hope any credibility lost or relationships damaged can be healed by our willingness to be in loving relationship with anyone and by what I hope will be people’s respect for our integrity. But yes, there may be damage.

There will always be those who will be deeply offended by us taking a stand about anything. We have offended greatly in the past by standing up for our sisters and brothers who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered and by advocating for our sisters and brothers who struggle with poverty and homelessness. Our way is the way of the cross. My main hope is not that we avoid controversy but that I and all of us maintain a posture of humility and avoid the trap of self-righteousness.

What does this have to do with the mission of Christ Church Cathedral?

Our mission statement is:

We seek a deeper relationship with God and each other in Jesus Christ through: Celebrating the sacraments faithfully; Proclaiming the Gospel boldly; Embracing diversity joyfully; Serving all passionately as a Cathedral.

Under “Proclaiming the Gospel boldly,” a strategy that is included in the current draft strategic plan is this:

We will be courageous in our proclamation and advocacy for those in our Cathedral and in our community who experience discrimination in any form. Speaking out for those who experience e discrimination carries risk and requires courage. The Cathedral community both stands behind its members who have the courage to speak out, and recognizes its corporate responsibility to do so as a community of believers.

Our mission, vision, values and strategies are the result of nearly two years of prayerful deliberation. That process is about over as we are now seeking input on this final draft. But I feel confident enough in the work your Chapter has done and how truly it stands in line with both our theological tradition as Episcopal Christians and the specific history of proclamation and advocacy of Christ Church Cathedral to say that actions like the Black Friday demonstration at the Galleria have everything to do with the mission to which Christ calls us.

What are your thoughts?


Bob Hudgins said...

These are effective rejoinders based in a well-developed philosophy. I listened to you on St. Louis Public Radio yesterday and I agreed both with a caller who pointed out problems with religion in the public square and you. From what I've seen in my time out there, the clergy have been a positive force in this movement.

Phoebe McFarllin said...

I congratulate your willingness to move out of your comfort zone to show the love and concern for all people in the midst of such chaos. You were following the task of a priest as stated in the Ordination proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ by word and DEED!

Lisa Fox said...

Michael, thank you for this thoughtful reflection. I support your actions, and am proud of you and the Cathedral.

D Rebecca Dinovo said...

Mike- I am so grateful that you are where you are when you are...by God's grace. Your words are light and grace in a confusing time. I am grateful for your witness and your courage. Thank you, thank you, thank you.