leadership

Still Hovering

Still Hovering 1500 900 Corey Leak

By now it’s no secret that I believe institutional racism is a thing. I’ve lost friends over my beliefs that whiteness is the root cause of that racism, and I’m honestly unbothered by the loss. All of the people I admire most throughout history lost friends, followers, and associates over their convictions. I will never have the impact of Jesus, Paul, or Dr. King, but I feel allied with them whenever another person decides that my beliefs about a racially just society are too far gone for them to continue to journey with me.

Like many of my friends who write, organize, create art, or speak out about racial equality and justice, I started out believing my voice was moderate. I never thought anything I was saying was radical or polarizing. Everyone I know using their influence to bring about change in the area of race is stating the truth about their own experiences and the facts about America’s history of racism. That’s why people’s reactions to the truth are often puzzling to me. Mostly I’m taken aback because very frequently the dissenters, detractors, and critics of racial justice work are Christians.

I’m not the only one disturbed by that. People have asked me on a few different occasions about how I can keep a faith associated with chaos like…

  • Slave owners removing pages from the Bible to ensure that their black slaves wouldn’t get any ideas about how God feels about liberation.
  • American Nationalism leading to phrases like

“I kneel for the cross, but I stand for the flag”   

  • White Evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell Jr, Franklin Graham, Paula White, and Jon MacArthur making it demonstratively clear that racism is not an issue that Christians should concern themselves with. It’s a distraction from the real issues that Christians should be concerned about like abortion and human sexuality.

There is no sugar coating that the above list is ugly. There is also no denying that people believing themselves to be agents of God have been behind some of the most egregious human rights abuses throughout history. Evil has dressed up as good. Racism has hidden behind a cross draped in an American flag. Christianity has come dangerously close to being the religion of white men – white men who build their churches to pander to white women and leave a few pews open for POC so that no one can claim their churches aren’t diverse.

I still believe in the God of the Bible. In large part because of one of the opening lines of the most famous poem ever written.

After the Hebrew people’s liberation from slavery, they would need to establish their own identity which in antiquity meant telling the story of how the world and man came to be. Ancient tribes told stories of how the world was made. They would share these stories around campfires and teach them to their children. Origin stories were popular. In some ways, it helped tribes define their identity and define the character of whatever god (s) they worshiped. The Hebrew creation story is not so much about the exact details of how God made the world, but about how ancient Hebrews viewed God and human beings relationship to that God.

Scholars believe that the authors of the book we call Genesis (aka B’resheet) wrote it after God rescued the Hebrew people from Egyptian oppression. The poem explaining “the beginning” in Genesis 1 2, and 3 is primarily influenced by what they experienced during their liberation from slavery. It’s no wonder Genesis 2 describes a Divine Being hovering over a chaotic mess from the start of the story. The Hebrew people introduce their God alongside chaos, and that God is not chased off by it. The Hebrew Deity speaks into it.

Perhaps it’s that image of God that keeps me believing despite the messiness of the Christian faith over the years. A story inspired by 400 years of slavery gave us our first glimpse of God. Black people in America should all be able to shout a resounding amen to a story like that!

I believe God is always working, always speaking, and still hovering near chaos. I no longer expect that God eliminates all of life’s messiness. I think Divinity and chaos are found together throughout human history. That’s probably what the liberated, no longer enslaved, Hebrew people saw, understood, and experienced. Throughout their writings of history, poetry, and law they were in and out of exile – always facing turmoil and pain. Many times they blamed God in their books and many times they wrote that God blamed them, but through it all, they continued to believe in the God they saw present next to and inside all of the chaos. I choose to believe in the same God.

America is a strange place for black people. Often church can be even more bizarre. My faith doesn’t rest in America becoming more racially just. I do hope, pray, and work alongside many great activists and leaders for it to be. I don’t believe white evangelical pastors across America will all in unison turn from all forms of white supremacy and racism. I hope and pray that I’m wrong. Even if I’m not, I find myself able to smile at the beauty of a God hovering near the chaos getting ready to speak. Somehow that brings me great comfort and helps me look past the ugliness to trust God’s plan.

 

The Emperor’s Clothes

The Emperor’s Clothes 800 533 Corey Leak

I grew up believing that I shouldn’t give money to homeless people. At a young age, someone told me that homeless people were a bad investment. “They’ll go by drugs or booze with the money,” they said. I carried that posture into adulthood until the last few years when my attitude towards the marginalized changed. I began feeling like I based distrusting the poor on a capitalistic belief that poor people are lazy or immoral.

If America rewards hard work, discipline, and ingenuity, then how could a person who is homeless not be getting what they deserve? I hope that sentence disturbed you. It does me. Now when I give to people in need, I do so because the act of helping someone in need is virtuous. It fills the world with good to help another human being that’s facing dire living conditions. The act alone is its own reward. If a person is faking homelessness or desperation, that’s on them. I would rather err on the side of being taken advantage of by a con artist willing to brave the cold or burning sun than to walk past someone who is in legitimate need. However, if I gave a person money to buy food only to find out an hour later that they did buy Jack Daniels with the money, that would create an issue for me.

All of us care about how people and organizations use charitable donations. Whether it’s the homeless person whose cup we drop a five dollar bill in or the offering bucket we drop offerings into, we care. That’s why no one can stop talking about the Instagram account that has pastors hiding sneakers in their closets and friends debating the ethics of non-profit spending. Preachers in Sneakers has started a National conversation, and I’m thrilled we’re having it.

Last week one of my kids asked me if I’d seen Drake’s video of him showing off his MILLION DOLLAR outfit. I hadn’t. When I watched the video of him telling a room full of people and the camera what he was wearing and how much it costs, I became a hater. I’ll admit it. I was. I wasn’t a hater because I don’t think people should have nice things or because I don’t believe Drake works hard. I was a hater because for an instant I thought “I contribute to that”.

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I buy Drake’s music, and I’m a fan. I’ve often found myself conflicted when I listen to rappers brag about their cars, houses, “ice,” and money when most of their audience will never have the extravagance they do. It feels gross to me when I think about that fact. I’ve been bothered when I saw kids living in severe poverty quoting rap lyrics about a lifestyle so far removed from theirs it’s likely they will never attain it. Something in me hates to see Emperors strutting around while the poor suffer.

I’ve been reluctant to write about my beliefs when it comes to celebrity pastors featured on the Preachers in Sneakers Instagram account because I couldn’t quite get to the bottom of what bothered me. This morning it dawned on me. It’s not about the sneakers or the extravagant lifestyle. It’s about faith leaders looking like emperors among the poor.

When Jesus rode into Jerusalem in what was described by the gospel writers as a kingly processional, he was riding a donkey instead of a horse. Emperors rode into cities on horses in glorious processionals designed to announce their greatness and divinity. They were dressed in the finest materials, riding the most beautiful horses, surrounded by decadence and glamour. Jesus did the opposite. He entered a town of which he was, in fact, king with the style and flare of…

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The writers of Jesus story go out of their way to show their readers that Jesus was not like the emperor.

The reason this conversation about preacher’s extravagant possessions is so polarizing is that we don’t have a precedent for such lifestyles in the writings pastors are supposed to be experts at teaching. We have no indication from scriptures that Jesus, Paul, Peter, James or John were living extravagantly. They also didn’t live in America in 2019. Today a pastor can sell books, appear on tv, and get into any number of wealth building endeavors that can reward their work with stacks of cash in addition to their duties as clergy.

The founders of the early Christian communities nor the people in them never had opportunities to get rich from their faith. They were outcasts in society. Paul wasn’t getting rich off the letters he wrote to churches. Peter didn’t receive honorariums for speaking. Today the Christian faith community is different. We deeply value great communicators, and those who have perfected their craft can leverage that into all kinds of wealth building opportunities both in and outside of the church. That’s a far cry from how things were when the Christian faith began, but that’s not the only way things are different now.

The early followers of Jesus had “no poor among them” because they shared everything and lived communally. That’s not how we live today. We are all participating in the American dream – trying to get all we can while we can, and sharing some of what we get. The ethical conversation about what is excessive spending for a faith leader doesn’t have much doctrinal basis on which to start the discussion for most of us. The examples in the Bible of religious life are of poor and oppressed people huddled up together for survival, while we are all pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps to make something of ourselves individually.

In essence, the conversation about the morality of fancy shoes and clothes on a preacher boils down to which version of Christianity you subscribe to. The one whose doctrine says living righteously means enjoying blessings beyond your wildest dreams or the one that says following Jesus is a gruesome road of sacrifice and suffering. Maybe you’re somewhere in between with what you believe, but those are the far extremes that drive the conversation.

I don’t believe it’s unethical for clergy to have nice things, go on vacations, or enjoy a nice meal from time to time. Nor do I think it’s sinful for a pastor to have a nice pair of sneakers on when they preach. I do feel tension when I see pastors dressed and behaving like emperors. When their chariots cost 200k, their garments cost thousands of dollars, their feet are shod with 5 and 6 thousand dollar Yeezys, and they still pass offering buckets around their churches that poor people, widows, and orphans drop dollars in, we have reached a moral dilemma that is worthy of us pausing and discussing.

Far be it from me to tell another human being what to do with their cash. I know my brothers and sisters of the cloth work very hard, and dedicate their lives to serving people. I’m also sure that they give a ton of money and resources away. I’m not anyone’s judge. We all have a role to play in the world.  I only hope that we are always helping the people, and not inviting the people to help us live like emperors.

 

 

The “N” Word We Need to Use More Often

The “N” Word We Need to Use More Often 960 413 Corey Leak

I once gave a talk about how circles are better than squares. It was a 9-minute speech with racial undertones.  In the talk, I used the n-word a couple of different times. I knew that it had the potential to make the room uncomfortable. I was sharing this talk in an environment of mostly white people, but it was the best way to get the point across I was trying to make. A few days after I gave the talk, I got some feedback from a 60-year-old white man who said that I shouldn’t use that word because it made him uncomfortable. It was bizarre for me, a black man, to hear that the n-word made a white man uncomfortable, but I understood what he intended to communicate. The word is hard to hear because it has such a loaded history. I get it. I know why we avoid using it in mixed company. It’s a complicated word with a long and arduous past.

But. There is another n-word that we seem to avoid these days that shouldn’t elicit visceral responses, but it often does –  unlike the word used to degrade blacks, this word shocks and offends in other ways. No one re-coils when they hear or see this word, but people react when it’s brought to bear on a conversation featuring strong opinions.

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Try suggesting that taking an innocent life is tragic and women should have the right to choose in the same sentence and you’ll see pretty quickly that some people can’t handle the n-word. We live in a time where people are so convinced of their own righteous beliefs that they make little to no room for opinions that veer from their own even slightly. The mob mentality is strong these days. We are herded into tribal thinking before we have a chance to form our own opinions. People tend to parade gray areas as black or white, and if we don’t accept them as such, we can find ourselves without a tribe. This is especially true for those of us who subscribe to a religion.

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These days religion too often boils down to taking sides. “The only opinion there is to be had is the one that I hold based on my interpretation of the sacred texts or traditions.” Sure, no one would say that out loud. (At least I hope not) But, you can feel this kind of posture being taken by people the moment you suggest that there is another way to interpret the belief they hold so sacred.

Religious people believe that being open-handed with beliefs is tantamount to blasphemy or heresy and warn against leading people astray or getting too close to fires of hell. God’s judgment is always looming with people like that. God is an agent of vengeance looking on angrily as human beings struggle to understand the meaning and work through the pain of life. How tragic is this view of God? How sad is it that for people who have found meaning for their own lives through religious practice and beliefs, that they are so unwilling to allow space for people to think and reason for themselves outside of the limited scope of their self-righteous opinions.

We have reduced too many of our social conversations down to binary beliefs. Complicated issues like gender, race, sex, and women’s health are far too NUANCED for the dogmatic mind to engage in. If you’re already entirely convinced that what you believe is all there is to know about a subject, don’t join a dialog. There is no point. You waste your time and the time of the people you’re engaging in conversation with when your opinion is already the final authority on the issue.

We need more people willing to allow for NUANCE on issues. Because human beings have so many varied experiences and ideas about life, it’s impossible to move forward when there are only two options to choose. “Believe this, or you’re wrong” will never move us forward as humans. Only NUANCED thinking and willingness to enter into dialog with the possibility that my view isn’t complete without the opinions of others will.

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NUANCE makes it possible to believe in the validity of multiple arguments and ideas. When I embrace NUANCE, new facts, discoveries, or experiences aren’t adversarial to me. Instead, further details about something I’m passionate about add to and enhance my thoughts and feelings. I welcome the experience of others. I appreciate new studies and ideas because they provide new insights to factor.

If you’re a person who struggles with allowing for NUANCE, Here are a few things that can help you.

  1. Seek out someone you respect who has a different take on an issue than you do. Perhaps even the complete opposite opinion than yours. If you’re having trouble thinking of someone, that’s a bigger problem. Seek help immediately. 
  2. Listen to the stories of people with life experience for something you have passionate views, but no experience.
  3. Educate yourself through books, blogs, podcasts, or articles. The more you educate yourself, the less dogmatic your opinions become. 

If you put these three things into practice, you’ll see how much bigger the world is, and you’ll find a new appreciation for other experiences, thoughts, and ideas.

After my conversation about how much I used the n-word in my speech, I started to feel like a white man being uncomfortable with me using it to drive home a point about the ugliness of division was his problem, not mine. The same is true for those offended by NUANCED opinions. It’s not your problem when someone is disturbed by your ability to recognize the validity of multiple points of view. It’s theirs.

 

4 Reasons Your Church Should Acknowledge MLK Day

4 Reasons Your Church Should Acknowledge MLK Day 1280 720 Corey Leak

MLK Day is a federal holiday. It is a day set aside to remember the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. It’s a day that has been met with resistance since it was proposed as a holiday in 1968. It took until 2000 for the holiday to be recognized as a federal holiday by every state in America. Utah is the last state to accept it.

Churches have been even slower to acknowledge MLK Day as a holiday worth mentioning during Sunday gatherings. Many churches in America that recognize Independence Day, Veterans Day, Memorial Day, Thanksgiving, Valentines Day and Halloween have failed to recognize this federal holiday that was established to help us remember that all men are created equal. Perhaps many clergies don’t recognize the opportunity MLK weekend creates for sharing the gospel or perhaps it’s deemed a holiday for only black churches to celebrate. Whatever the reason, not taking time out to significantly honor the memory of Dr. King is a missed opportunity. Here are 4 reasons clergy should make significant space in the weekend programming for remembering Dr. King.

1. Dr. King was a pastor. 

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MLK Day is a federal holiday that pauses the Nation to remember a man of the cloth and the work he did. People of all ethnicities, creeds, religions, and beliefs remember a Christian pastor’s message to America that all human beings are God’s children and equal. Every year black and non-black clergy have the opportunity to reaffirm that message and the pastor who preached it. Dr. King is in the great cloud of witnesses watching us who are still here carrying the message of liberation and freedom forward. He is a brother to ever faith leader who sacrifices, leads and gives of themselves for their congregants.

2. It deeply matters to the black people attending your church.

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I recently heard a story from a friend who took over a church a few years ago. In the first year of being a lead pastor, they asked the production team to make sure there was a moment in service to acknowledge Dr. King. The church had never done it before. After the first weekend service where they did it, a black woman came up to my friend with tears in her eyes and said: “For the first time in ten years this feels like my church.”

In multi-cultural or predominantly white congregations black people are often sacrificing the cultural experiences of their communities in order to belong to such churches. There are a number of reasons black folks chose not to attend a “black church” such as proximity, relationships, seeking more structured programming or teaching style. Whatever the reason they chose to attend churches where they are the minority, they are still aware each and every week that they are the minority. Hearing the lead pastor affirm the importance of equality from the stage can go a long way toward making black folks feel like they belong.

3. The work is not done.

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I don’t think I need to tell anyone reading this that reconciliation is an ongoing issue. There is still so much work to be done for us to truly be reconciled to one another. Racism is pervasive and difficult to recognize because of its pervasiveness. The more we take time as communities of faith to wrestle with principles of inclusion and unity, the more we will see areas we need to repent, change and grow. Serious work takes serious time to do. MLK Day is a natural opportunity to stand on the shoulders of people who have gone before us in that work. We can take a fresh look at the sermons preached by Dr. King and evaluate ourselves to see how well we’re doing at loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.

4. Jesus preached the same message.

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If you read about Jesus from the gospel writer Luke’s perspective you will find a significant emphasis put on the liberation of the poor and oppressed people of the world. From Mary’s Song, Jesus reading of Isaiah in Luke 4, to the Sermon on the Mount, you find a message of good news to the poor and oppressed. The work of the Messiah was to liberate the people of Israel from the things that held them captive. We tend to reduce this message to merely spiritual concerns in our Western reading of scripture, but for the people living during the time of Jesus and the people reading his story in the first century, the expectation was that there would be physical liberation as well. Luke records Jesus saying “blessed are the hungry for they will be filled”. Luke doesn’t write “Hunger and thirst for righteousness” as Matthew does. He also doesn’t record Jesus saying “in spirit” after Jesus says “blessed are the poor”.

Jesus was concerned with social issues that affected human beings on earth not just in heaven. It’s that message that Dr. King picked up and preached to us over 50 years ago. When a preacher examines the words of Dr. King and shares them with their congregation, they are not sharing a message that is other than the gospel but announcing that the Kingdom of God is indeed here and now.

 

For some of you that have done videos, slides, or special songs in the past, I’d challenge you to consider taking a step further and devoting all or part of your sermon to sharing something significant about Dr. King.

Having worked for several larger churches I know that most times teaching calendars and sermon series are planned months in advance. If you’re a part of a church leadership team that hasn’t planned for MLK weekend, I understand it can be difficult to pivot last minute. To those of you wrestling with that tension after reading this, I’ll offer two suggestions.

  1. Plan for it next year. Add MLK Day to your teaching calendar so that you don’t miss the opportunity again.
  2. Consider pivoting this week. Chances are you’ve pivoted before with less notice. Your team survived and you likely didn’t regret making the last minute change.

We encourage sharing by clicking on any of the sharable tabs below. Feel free to leave a comment below as well. Thanks for reading.

Jesus’ Peaceful Demonstration

Jesus’ Peaceful Demonstration 685 522 Corey Leak

 

There is an extremely popular story that the gospel writer John shares in the 8th chapter of his biography of Jesus. It’s a story that takes place on the heels of a weeklong Jewish festival. It was here that a woman caught sleeping with a man who wasn’t her husband was dragged by religious leaders to the feet of Jesus for judgement. Hopefully, you’re thinking: doesn’t it take two to tango? This woman was thrown in the dirt and publicly accused of a crime! Where is her “partner in crime” – the man?!?!?! John is a brilliant story teller. His writing has created a great tension between justice and injustice. The woman is guilty of a crime by 1st century Jewish standards, but is her treatment by these Jewish leaders just? Does their callous disregard for her humanity and blatant double standard negate the legitimacy of her criminal actions? After all, 1st century law favored men over women. How would Jesus, the hero of John’s story, respond?

 

The Scene

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As I stated above, this story takes place on the tail end of a Jewish festival. This was the last of their Fall feasts, and Jewish people from all over would gather in the town of Judea. They gathered to pray that the Winter months would bring rain for the harvest so that they wouldn’t starve in the Spring. It was a time for piety by day and feasting and celebration by night. Jewish people would spend the night in tents for the weeklong festival.  There was music, dancing and probably a few instances of too much wine leading to other mischief. The religious leaders at this festival spent some of their time teaching the Holy Scriptures, specifically writings about YHWH’s promises to sustain their crops, like in the 17th chapter of the prophet Jeremiah’s book. I imagine it to be kind of like church camp. Anyone who has ever been to a youth camp knows that over a week’s time, you can expect to find at least one or two teenage couples who wander off together for a time of close fellowship in the woods. It was no different for these adults feasting and camping together. Someone was bound to wind up laying down in a tent they shouldn’t have been in. It probably wasn’t hard for these religious leaders to find a pawn to use in their latest attempt to pit the revolutionary Jewish Rabbi, Jesus, against traditional Jewish law.

 

The Confrontation

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According to John, Jesus didn’t make a grand appearance at the festival. He showed up a little late, and didn’t start teaching until midway through it. He was the most popular and infamous Rabbi of his time, so his presence caused quite a stir. The crowd wondered if he was a good man or a deceiving false prophet. The religious leaders wanted to find an excuse to turn all of the people against him, and put him to death. I’m sure one or more of the religious ruling class had the brilliant idea that if they could juxtapose Jesus’ teachings against Jewish law and order, they could turn the masses against him. As the festival was coming to an end, Jesus was teaching from the Torah to a large crowd of people, when religious leaders forced a walk of shame upon a woman and embarrassed her in front of her friends, family and community.

In order to witness his response, they told Jesus in front of this crowd that she was caught sleeping with a man who wasn’t her husband, stated what the law demanded be done to a woman such as her (execution by stoning) and then asked him what he thought should be done. Would this holy revolutionary, teacher of Jewish law and advocate for YHWH’s righteousness condemn this woman to death as the law demanded despite her tears, sadness, and shame? Again, we the readers, are pressed to see a dilemma. There is a tension between what is morally just and what is legally just. The debate being had about whether Jesus was a good man or a false prophet would be decided by how he chose to respond to this broken woman laying face down in the dust. The trap is set. Law has demands. Humanity has demands. Jesus is set in the middle of the two. Which side would he take? What would he say?

 

The Response

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In John’s story Jesus doesn’t respond with words. He doesn’t immediately fire off arguments about interpretation of law or how wrong it is to use a human as a political weapon. He stoops down to write in the dust. He silently protests the violation of this woman’s human right to dignity. Then after his demonstration, he stands up and confronts the woman’s accusers. They asked Jesus a legal question. He responded with a human question of his own. He didn’t phrase it as a question, but it was a question none the less. Jesus said: Any of you who is without sin, cast the first stone. Which is to ask, which one of you has the human right to violate hers? There is another interesting tidbit about Jesus writing in the dust that the original readers of John’s biography would’ve known. As I mentioned earlier, Jeremiah 17 was one of the ancient writings that talked about God providing for the Jewish people. That chapter was likely one that these religious leaders would’ve been teaching that week. Well, Jeremiah also wrote in that same chapter these words: Those who leave You will be written in the dust because they have abandoned ADONAI. 

What happened after Jesus kneels to protest, stood to make a statement and knelt down again? The religious proponents of “law and order” all turned and left. Could it be that Jesus’ silent demonstration showed them that by shaming this woman and stripping her of her dignity, they had abandoned the God who gave them the law to begin with?

I suppose it’s always been within our nature to put law, symbolism or ideology before human rights. It seems that Jesus believed the opposite. Everything written about Jesus presents him attempting to teach humanity that our obligation to one another is greater than our obligation to law. Love, equality and justice are greater than Nationalism, law or order. If a person or a group of persons is being denied basic human rights, then we as people are responsible to object and to act to restore justice to those people. Sometimes objections are demonstrations that interrupt or impose on our sensibilities, but so be it.

From a legal perspective, the right thing for Jesus to have done would’ve been to stone that woman. He didn’t. He ignored what was “legal” for the sake of what was just. Today we have people ignoring what is seen by some society as the patriotic thing to do in order to bring light to injustices suffered by human beings who live in our Nation. Many of the same people who celebrate that Jesus bent down to demonstrate grace and justice, throw stones at the young men who are making a similar demonstration for the justice and dignity of a people long denied either. Time has found Jesus on the right side of history. I imagine time will do the same for the young men standing/kneeling for human rights today.

 

What is an “acceptable” way to demonstrate for change in society?

3 Things I’ve Learned This Week From John Gray’s White House Visit

3 Things I’ve Learned This Week From John Gray’s White House Visit 1100 619 Corey Leak

I try to avoid heaping criticism on other human beings. Especially those in the public eye. It takes a degree of courage to put out content for public consumption, whether that be speaking, writing, or performing. You put yourself in harm’s way of harsh criticism from people who neither have your gumption nor ability to do the thing you’re doing. From that perspective I have empathy for the black and brown faith leaders that attended the White House earlier this week to speak with the President. Ninety-nine percent of the people reading this will never get the invite these men and women received, and especially will not receive the back-lash that they (especially John Gray) have received. That being said, as a black faith leader, I do have some thoughts that I felt I’d be remiss in not sharing on this platform. These are three things I’ve learned from the meeting, the backlash, and the responses after.

1. Community leaders have a high moral responsibility to speak for the voiceless.

I have on two separate occasions, from two different black pastors heard the notion that the clergy who attended the White House meeting failed to honor their moral obligation to speak truth to power even at the risk of arrest or expulsion from the meeting. Jamal Bryant, a friend of John Gray asked “why didn’t any of you get arrested” [to speak up for your community]? The lament of other black pastors, some of which declined the invitation, was that the pastors in the room failed to speak – other than to laud undo praises on President Trump as the most “pro-black” President of our lifetime.

Here is a transcript of the meeting. It was a round robin of “thank you’s” with very little mention of prison reform at all, let alone substantive policy changes. In that regard I can understand the disappointment people have shared. There had been a previous meeting to discuss actual policy, but in this meeting, there was no such discussion. It seems that the pastors in this room were lured into a fruitless circus of publicity. I have no reason to believe that their intentions weren’t pure in attending, but intentions won’t restore the trust of the people who are disappointed that their leaders, who had the opportunity to speak for them, did not. Regardless of what side of the aisle you draw your beliefs from, it cannot be denied that an overwhelming majority of black and brown people have felt disenfranchised by this administration. The black and brown leaders in that room said to represent those people failed to give true witness to their voices. I’m not suggesting the burden of speaking truth to power is easy. My point is that it’s not, which is why it’s the first lesson I’ve learned from following this story.

2. The line you’re looking for is “my bad”.

John Gray made a statement to his church on Wednesday night saying that he went to speak for the voiceless. The transcripts of the meeting say differently. John told his church on Wednesday that he was not going to be making any other statements or doing any interviews about what happened. The next day he was on CNN talking to Don Lemon about it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GEf51hJZRs4

In the interview with Lemon when John was asked if he could go back and do it all over again, he paused and said “I would under different circumstances”. So, did you go because God said go, or because you believed the circumstances would allow you to do some good? Sometimes when trying to defend something that appears indefensible, it’s probably best not to defend it at all. When we are conflicted about a decision we’ve made our defense is often confusing and contradictory. Conflicted is exaclty how I would describe John’s posture in this interview and throughout the fall out from the White House meeting. The answer of a man who is convinced that he did the right thing is “Yes! If God told me to go back I would”. That’s not the answer John gave, which leads me to believe he’s feeling some remorse over attending in the wake of all of the backlash. If that is indeed the case, then share that. We are all human and subject to believing one thing before all the facts are in. In this polarized period of American history, we need leaders who are willing to say: “I was wrong”. There is no need to double down on bad decisions, policies, or ideas, and we should all be willing to grant forgiveness for our fellow humans who are subject to errors of judgment when they ask for it.

3. If your partner has red flags – listen.  

I’ve been married for almost 20 years. It’s embarrassing how many of those years I was guilty of disregarding my wife’s counsel to me in the name of patriarchy. John Gray said in a statement following the meeting that his wife advised that his attendance would likely not go well for him. However, John said that he had heard from God and had to obey. This 3rd lesson is more of a reinforcement of something I’ve been attempting to get better at. I’m learning that when I pray about a decision and arrive at what I believe is the best course of action, but my wife doesn’t have the same peace about moving forward, I have a tie. I’m in no way saying that my wife and God are equal. I am however saying that I’m a human being who is subject to misreading what I believe God is saying to me, and my wife is an equal partner in the decisions we make in our home. Her red flags should always be considered, as I believe Pastor Gray did with his wife’s reluctance. Watching how this has all played out for John has reminded me of the tremendous value of having people in my circle that I trust to tell me the truth when I find myself believing God is saying one thing, and my wife is saying another. Their perspective can mean the difference between success or failure for my endeavors. Human beings have done terrible things in the name of God, and not one of us is divine enough to interpret His will alone.

I think it needs to be said that John Gray is one of the most influential pastors in the country, and that he bears the burden of that influence. By all accounts he’s a great man to his family, friends, and his church. I believe that the other leaders in that room are also great people. I have no issue with POC attending the White House to discuss policy and give witness to the experience of black and brown people in America. However, in this instance, arguing that we should sit down with people we disagree with is a straw man and mischaracterizes the objection of black and brown people who are let down by this gathering.

It’s easy to write or talk about what we would do in their shoes, but only those who have sat in that room know the weight of having that kind of opportunity and pressure. I confess. I do not. My intention is to share my thoughts about something that many of us have been talking about this week. John and the other faith leaders who attended that meeting will no doubt go on and do great things in their community. I hope that no irreparable damage has been done to their relationships with their communities, and I hope that the people in their communities who are disappointed in how they were misrepresented will be given the opportunity to sit with their community leaders and share their feelings.

Please share your comments below.

 

 

MLK50

MLK50 1024 512 Corey Leak

It’s been FIFTY YEARS since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King on that now infamous balcony in Memphis, TN. Speculation as to why he was murdered runs along a wide spectrum of theories. James Earl Ray has been deemed responsible for Dr. King’s murder, but it’s no easier to hold one man responsible for his death as it is to hold one man responsible for the execution of Jesus of Nazareth. Many people were likely involved in what happened on April 4th, 1968. In the months preceding his death, Dr. King was wire tapped by the FBI, received death threats, and was radicalized by the media (who had once been his allies). It is nearly impossible to identify one person or institution responsible for what happened, but it’s not hard to find a similar story of another revolutionary who’s story parallels Dr King’s. We need only to look at the stories of Jesus’ life shared by the gospel writers of the Bible.

Jesus came on the scene at a time when Roman imperialism created unjust class systems that caused civil unrest among the people of his day. He like King, was deemed a radical by the people of His day. His ideas and declarations were not popular among people with power and privilege, but wildly popular among the poor and needy. Jesus’ message frightened the powerful elite because it was moving the poor to the front of the line in a culture that was built to remind those without power or wealth that they weren’t rich or powerful. The “Kingdom of Heaven” is a system of governance that isn’t ruled by human power, but by God himself as it’s ruler. God, who created all people in His image, doesn’t discriminate based on gender, race, status, or influence. A Kingdom ruled by God would, according to Jesus, elevate the destitute and bring down the oppressive rich and powerful.

This is a message that Dr. King brought forward during the last years of his life. He began to be outspoken about government that favored the rich at the expense of the poor. The reason he was in Memphis to begin with was to fight for better pay for poor sanitation workers. Dr. King came to see that many of the people below the poverty line in America weren’t all minorities, but many white people fell beneath that line as well. He identified that economic discrimination was as big an advisory to justice as racial discrimination. He devoted his later years to fighting for a government that redistributed wealth and power equally for all Americans. A just system of governance would in essence elevate the poor and bring down the oppressive rich and powerful.

People with privilege, power, and wealth have historically been reluctant to make space for more people to share in that wealth and power. As Jesus’ message about the Kingdom of God gained steam, those with power plotted to kill the message and the messenger. They ultimately did kill the messenger, but the message can never be killed because it came from the Creator. Jesus carried forward the message of YHWH that was established thousands of years before He lived. Moses (before Jesus) shared instructions from God about justice, peace, and love in society. Jesus moved that way of living forward in a time that resisted the idea of equal justice for all.

Thousands of years later Dr. King found himself fighting for the same fair and just system as Jesus. King fought for the justice, peace, and love that God told Moses to establish as values for His people. He became a beacon of hope for the poor and oppressed, and as his movement gained steam, those with power…

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Once again, a messenger was killed, but the message lived on.

Today we remember the death of MLK days after we remembered the death and resurrection of Jesus. We remember why both men were executed. Both fought for the weak against the strong. Both had a picture of a system of governance that made space for the impoverished to have the same human rights as the wealthy. Both men believed that if it cost them their lives to move the message forward to the next generation, they would willingly give their lives. We all respect that kind of courage and fortitude. We all want to be on the right side of history, so I’ll leave you with two questions.

How can you move the message of Jesus and Dr. King forward today?

Are you willing to move it forward even if it cost you?

A Problem to Solve | Part 1 | (Space at the Table)

A Problem to Solve | Part 1 | (Space at the Table) 2000 970 Corey Leak

Years ago I learned that everything rises and falls on leadership. Whether it’s the law of the lid, or the idea of the leadership umbrella, the principle remains the same – leadership drives culture. Culture drives habits, and habits drive who you are as an organization. These principles make who you have sitting at your leadership table of vital importance.

“The 3Cs” is a great formula to determine whether someone is fit for a leadership table. Competency can be seen on a resume, and character through conversations with mutual acquaintances and reference checks. Chemistry is harder to determine.

It is virtually impossible to know purely on first impressions who could grow to have long term chemistry with you. The kind of chemistry it takes to trust the instincts of a leader takes a substantial amount of time to develop. It’s hard work, and it’s even harder when trying to develop that chemistry across race and gender. Perhaps that’s why in so many churches and  denominations across America the “leadership” is overwhelmingly white and male. I will not presume to speak for women, but I can share from the perspective of an African American male who has served in ministry in predominantly white environments for almost twenty years.

Some time ago I started hearing several lead pastors express the sentiment that they aimed to surround themselves with people they wanted to “do life with”. That’s certainly an understandable tendency. We all want to surround ourselves with people who bring us joy. One unintended consequence of that desire in the American church is that too often the people who bring joy to white male pastors are other white males. I’ve seen far too many photos of church boards,  church leadership teams, and denominational presbyteries where people of color nor women are represented. I see this as a very real problem that the American church can no longer afford to treat as a manageable tension.

To address this issue requires acknowledging that a lack of diversity at the decision making table is in fact a problem. White male leaders within organizations have to reject the inclination to deem the exclusion of minority voices as an acceptable organizational practice. To quote a good friend of mine “it doesn’t have to be this way”.

Leaders have to wrestle with what it means to welcome female and minority voices to speak. Historically, leaders and churches that are looking to be more diverse look for minority or female singers to put on stage. When people of color or women are seen speaking or leading worship it can send a message to weekend attenders that diversity is a value of that church. While that is an important message, that practice is incomplete. It’s window dressing. That narrative does not tell the full story of whether or not people of color or women are given a platform to influence the decisions  that determine the course of the organization or church. When an organization is looking for diversity, some questions must be asked. Do we want minority faces or do we want minority culture? What happens when a person of color on our leadership team sympathizes with their culture and becomes vocal about it? How will we handle the fact that black people typically feel a sense of responsibility for their culture? These are the types of questions that white leaders have to wrestle with before engaging in the hiring of minority leaders.

A lead pastor interested in welcoming diversity into their organization has to be prepared to develop minority leaders. The finish line for an organization is not hiring a person of color, but developing them into a leading voice within the organization. If that end result is not in view the goal of diversity will prove to be elusive as the inevitable struggle for chemistry emerges and cultural barriers arise.

It’s 2018. We are less than sixty years removed from black people in America being legally considered equal citizens for the first time.Schools, restaurants, and yes, even churches were all segregated and therefore people of color are relatively new to attending churches with white people let alone working in them. Church leaders today, whose ancestors excluded black people from their churches, would do well to wrestle with whether or not they should feel a sense of responsibility to work toward reconciliation in light of that exclusion. In Luke 11:47-48 we see some hard words from Jesus about building on the sins of previous generations. That passage is worth examining to discover how it applies to America’s history with race and how we can move forward together.

Living in the Bay Area of San Francisco I’ve had the opportunity to meet people from and visit places like Google, Facebook, Apple, and GoFundMe. I once had a conversation with an African American who worked in Silicon Valley who talked about how very few black people worked at some of these organizations. In fact he told me that you could fit all the African American’s who work at Facebook and Google on one large airplane. The two companies employ almost 100 thousand people.

A week later I visited the campus of Google to have lunch with a friend who had recently been hired there. At lunch I found it remarkable how many ethnicities were represented on the campus, but also how few black people worked there.  I referenced the conversation I had a week prior, and we talked about some of the factors that lead to the small amount of black people working at google. It’s not good hiring practices to hire unqualified people solely to fill a quota. It’s a bad practice for Google, and it’s a bad practice for churches. However, I was blown away by what my friend told me Google was doing to be proactive to solve the issue of qualified candidates coming out of minority communities. He told me that Google was working hard to engage in minority communities before a potential engineer ever walked through the door, as well as influencing the cultural and systemic biases that prevent minorities from applying. For an example of how Google has done this click here.  This is what it looks like for an organization to see a problem and be proactive to solve it. Sometimes the best thing we can do about the past is to secure the future.

Leadership is responsible for the message organizations send to the world, and if the church is going to send the right message to the world about equality and equity then church leaders have to look at themselves in the mirror and do the hard work of examining their own hearts for racial and gender biases. After that, look around your leadership table and be honest about what you see. Who have you made space for at the table?