Dear President Obama, Turn The Grief-Bearing Ship Around

The Wall, Sasabe, fence and barrier

 

In a different form, this article originally appeared in the Mobile Press Register, 2011. Altered, it appeared in Patheos.com, August 29, 2014.

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithforward/2014/08/an-open-letter-to-president-obama-and-members-of-the-united-state-congress-turn-the-grief-bearing-ship-around/

Dear President Obama and Members of Congress,

I am a Baptist Minister to the Community. My ministry focuses on the production of a migrant justice documentary, narrated by Martin Sheen, called The Second Cooler. I first felt called to make the documentary because I was heartbroken for the families, especially the mothers, whose children died under the blazing Arizona sun as they were trying to cross the heavily militarized border into the United States.

Through a terrible twist of fate, I joined them in grief.

On the night of April 17, 2009, my sixteen year old daughter, Leigh Anna, and her precious boyfriend were killed by a drunk driver in Huntsville. The car exploded on impact and Leigh Anna’s tiny body was consumed by flames. The driver was an undocumented migrant from Mexico.

My family and I lost a lot that night. A daughter, an only sister, a granddaughter, the son-in-law we might have had, grandchildren, an aunt, cousins. And on that fiery night we became one of the broken families with broken hearts and broken dreams.

One of my favorite memories of Leigh Anna was the day, about two years before her death, when she went with me to Athens. The Ku Klux Klan was holding an anti-immigrant protest. We went to participate in a counter-protest. I remember her holding a neon-yellow sign, as big as she was, that had one word written on it in big, black letters: LOVE.

I have my memories, but I grieve and I grieve and I grieve.

There is nothing special about my grief. It is no different from that of the young mother in Huntsville whose infant was suffocated by an anxious coyote in that treacherous southwestern desert. Or the grandparents of other children who have died of the brutal cold there, alone and scared. Or of the children whose fathers have been snatched from them and put into deportation. Or the mothers now making plans for someone else to take their children if they should be deported.

And I am reminded of Mary, prostrate with grief at the foot of her crucified son.

I am reminded that recklessness does not belong only to drunk drivers. Or to police officers engaged in high-speed chases.

Recklessness also belongs to the powers, princes, and potentates who wash their hands of the grieving people they accept as the collateral damage of their policies and programs. Who wash their hands of the broken families, broken hearts, and broken dreams.

And as I think long thoughts about Leigh Anna and that reckless night, I recall that I worship the God who said, “No!” to Pharaoh and his recklessness. The God who said, “No!” to Nebuchadnezzar and his recklessness. The God who said “No!” to Caesar and his recklessness.

I worship the God of the Exodus, the God of protection for those in fiery furnaces, the God of Resurrection. The God who takes sides with the broken families, broken hearts, and broken dreams. The God who defies expectations and delights in dramatic reversals.

I remember Saul on the road to Damascus who heard a voice saying, Saul, “Why do you persecute me?” And he encountered himself in that profound moment and Saul became Paul, announcing the reality of the God who had effected the dramatic reversal, the dramatic “No!” to Caesar, the dramatic Resurrection.

And I recall John Newton, steering his deadly ship filled with desperate, grieving human beings bound for slavery. And that in an unexpected moment John Newton encountered himself on that alien sea, encountered his own recklessness, turned around his ship with its cargo of broken families, broken hearts, and broken dreams unsold, and wrote those endlessly beautiful words, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.”

President Obama and members of the United States Congress, in the days and weeks ahead, the political talk and strategizing about “comprehensive immigration reform” will resume. In its guise as the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, “reform” is a deadly ship, a ship filled with nothing but more broken families, more broken hearts, and more broken dreams.

But I believe you already know this. In your efforts to further militarize our southwestern border with this package, carelessly disregarding the more migrants who are sure to lose their lives there, you already know you are being reckless with other people’s lives. In your effort to extend the system of indentured servitude duplicitously called the Guest Worker Program, you already know you are being reckless with other people’s lives. In your effort to push all undocumented people into the deportation system under the guise of a “path to citizenship”, you already know you are being reckless with other people’s lives.

I am asking you to encounter yourselves as did Paul and John Newton and turn this deadly grief-bearing ship around. I am asking you to reject political calculating with other people’s lives and begin working for justice.

 

Selma: Does Ava DuVernay Tell Truth to Power?

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This article originally appeared in the Raven Review, February 5, 2015.

There is much to like about Ava DuVernay’s film, Selma. It is a long overdue movie about Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it is undeniably powerful, exceedingly well acted, and gorgeously shot. As a ticket buyer, I liked it very much.

Selma, however, is being hailed as a movie which tells truth to Power. My question is whether it succeeds in that respect.

This is important to consider. Princes and potentates are not the only locations of Power – audiences are, too. The audience for Selma will to some extent determine how America’s future plays out.
In an interview with Tavis Smiley, DuVernay revealed she does not like historical dramas. That comes through. Her portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson is careless, as Bill Moyers and others have said, presenting LBJ as both condescending to MLK and wanting to “go slow” on voting rights. DuVernay dismisses complaints in “Rolling Stone” saying she “wasn’t interested in making a white-savior movie”.

The year prior to Selma, LBJ had capitalized quickly on President John F. Kennedy’s assassination to push through a stalled Civil Rights Act. When challenged to go slow, he shot back, “Well, what the hell’s the Presidency for?” After Selma, he announced before television cameras that he intended to enact a Voting Rights bill. Invoking the Movement’s anthem, he leaned in emphatically and said, “we SHALL overcome!” It was electrifying. With that well-understood reference, Johnson had announced not only that he intended to achieve voting rights, but that he intended to dismantle the South’s entire caste system. That scene in Selma, which should have been riveting, is flat. Watching it, I was baffled as to DuVernay’s intention.

Accurately conveying who LBJ was does not imply making him into a white savior. Had she wanted to create a story centering on LBJ and MLK about failed v. successful moral authority, DuVernay could have shifted the focus of the movie to Vietnam. It was in Southeast Asia that LBJ constructed his moral downfall. It was there where MLK emerged as America’s full-blown prophetic voice. But DuVernay chose Selma and it was not in Selma that LBJ faltered. DuVernay opened wide the door to LBJ. She had an obligation to tell truth to the Power that is her audience about him.

I grew up in Albany, Georgia and Birmingham, Alabama, two places which in the movie provide back drops to Selma. My parents were civil rights activists there. In the movie, Mrs. King is shown listening to an anonymous phone caller threatening the lives of her children. My mother, too, received those calls. I can imagine that Johnson, the most famous “race traitor” of the day, was well aware that hidden racist crackpots might have them in the crosshairs of their well-oiled rifles. Yet, he and his family, as did my and other families, persisted in plain view of those hidden crackpots. Does she tell truth about Southern whites who were allies in the struggle, often at palpable social and personal risk, to the Power that is her audience? In my opinion she does not.

When JFK was assassinated, his brains blown out over his wife’s exquisite pink suit, the children in my 7th grade classroom erupted in foot-stomping cheers: “the nigger-lover is dead!!” The day after MLK was assassinated, a neighbor in “Bombingham”, where we lived then, joked to my father: “Did you hear they got the man who killed King? Got him for shootin’ coon out of season!!”.

These things happened in Selma, too, but we don’t see them in the movie. The wide, wretched sociopathy that turns otherwise decent people into momentary degenerates who delight in murder does not come through. DuVernay does not successfully convey the long unbending stretch of injustice which humiliated so many thousands at the hands of these momentary degenerates and that made a battle on the Edmund Pettus Bridge all but inevitable. She does not convey this truth about the era to the Power that is her audience.

DuVernay told Jon Stewart that she had wanted to “deconstruct’ and humanize King. She took the easiest route – exposing his infidelities. Infidelities which are none of our business. Using characters and issues she introduced, there were other ways to go.

Emphasizing King’s failure in Albany would have been one. King bailed out of Albany’s jail after two days. Having entered Albany bearing the derogatory sobriquet “De Lawd” for never having participated in a Freedom Ride, he lost stature among Movement people there. More intriguing is the reason why King and the Movement failed there: Albany’s Sheriff Laurie Pritchett out-Gandhied King. The story of King being schooled in the tactics of non-violence by a small town racist Southern sheriff could have humanized him indeed.

DuVernay could have edited out Coretta King who serves primarily to convey King’s infidelities. In the remaining female-less space DuVernay could have emphasized Diane Nash, Viola Liuzzo, or Nina Simone, all of whom received a nod in the movie.

Simone, for example, in “Mississippi Goddam” caustically sang about being told over and over to “go slow.” DuVernay could have humanized King by depicting him as the Movement’s Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth saw him: as a “go slow” man. DuVernay may have succeeded in humanizing King by exposing his infidelities, but she failed in telling truth to the Power that is her audience about King’s sometimes uneasy place within the Movement itself.

I want to emphasize that I liked Selma very much. I hope everyone will go to see it. I also hope that those who think it has achieved greatness in terms of telling truth to Power will reflect upon the issues I and others have raised.

Ellin Jimmerson

Rev. Ellin Jimmerson has a Ph.D. in 20th Century US cultural and intellectual history. She is the director of a migrant justice documentary, The Second Cooler, narrated by Martin Sheen.

 

Peterson Toscano

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“Falling for Ebed Melech”

Text: “Ebed-melech the Ethiopian, a eunuch in the king’s house, heard that they had put Jeremiah into the cistern. The king happened to be sitting at the Benjamin Gate, So Ebed-melech left the king’s house and spoke to the king,“My lord king, these men have acted wickedly in all they did to the prophet Jeremiah by throwing him into the cistern to die there of hunger, for there is no bread left in the city.” Then the king commanded Ebed-melech the Ethiopian, “Take three men with you from here, and pull the prophet Jeremiah up from the cistern before he dies.”— Jeremiah 38:7-10

Excerpt: “When I finally came to my senses and came out gay, I refused to toss out the Baby Jesus and the Bible with the anti-LGBTQ bathwater. I began to discover Bible characters routinely left out of the abridged versions of Bible stories preached from the pulpit. It was through this creative dialogue with the Bible that I fell hard for eunuchs.”

Bio Peterson Toscano uses storytelling to promote justice and equality. Through original performance lectures, Peterson opens up discussions about lgbtq issues, privilege, the Bible, justice, and climate change. He created the performance lecture Transfigurations—Transgressing Gender in the Bible, which unearths gender non-conforming Bible characters. His personal essays about his experiences with conversion therapy have appeared in the Gay and Lesbian Review, Liturgy Magazine, and Huffington Post. He contributed to the Lambda Award winning anthology, Gender Outlaws—The Next Generation. Together with artist Joey Hartman-Dow, he has created the illustrated story, The Amazing Adventures of the Afterbirth of Jesus. A self-described Quirky, Queer Quaker, Peterson speaks at universities, conferences, and in the media. As the host of Citizens’ Climate Radio and the curator of ClimateStew.com, he draws on storytelling and comedy to present climate change as a human rights issues. His climate change presentations reveal the interconnectedness of power, privilege, justice, polar bears, and coffee beans. These include his performance lectures, Everything is Connected—An evening of stories, most weird, many true and Climate Change—What’s Faith Got to Do, Got to Do with It? He lives in Central Pennsylvania with his partner, Glen Retief. www.petersontoscano.com

Invitation to a dying Church to free itself. John Dorhauer

“An entire reformation was birthed when the Bible was given to the common worshiper. It’s amazing what the Spirit will do when she is not withheld from those who need her most. In Rainbow in the Word, Ellin Jimmerson invites a dying Church to free itself from the constraints of its long-held homophobia and exposes it to the biblical insights of today’s most marginalized voices. New life will emerge on the other side of this.” — JohnCDorhauer, General Minister and President, United Church of Christ.

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Highly recommended! Brian D. McLaren

“In the debate about the place of LGBTQ persons in Christian churches, often only the voices of straight, white theologians are heard. Rainbow in the Word introduces us to the beautiful voices of LGBTQ persons themselves, people who, against all odds, have kept the faith and who can speak for themselves. No conversation about these courageous and articulate Christians should take place without their own voices being heard. Highly recommended!” — Brian D. McLaren, author of The Great Spiritual Migration

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Our sexual identity is not a liability. Jamie Arpin-Ricci

“When so many conversations around LGBTQ people in the church centers around debating our legitimacy, Rainbow in the Word reminds us that our sexual identity is not a liability to be defended but an essential contribution to the Church’s understanding of Scripture and of God. This unique book invites us into richer hues and brighter colors as we encounter the Creator whose divine image is reflected in us all.” — Jamie Arpin-Ricci, author of The Cost of Community

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Viki Matson

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“Foreword”

Excerpt: “Rainbow in the Word includes the marks and memories of LGBTQ peoples’ struggles, particularly as the struggle involves the Bible. Some writers reflect on a particular text, wondering if there are ways to understand it that reveal a liberating rather than a punishing God. Others identify with a particular character in the Bible, diving deeply into their story to unearth what might be hidden or neglected. Some speak of the ways they have been injured by Scripture, while othersspeak of being freed by it. Additionally, within these pages you will find genres as disparate as those contained within the Bible itself: narrative, confession, poetry, biography, and calls to action.”

Prof. Viki Matson is the Director of Field Education and Assistant Professor of the Practice of Ministry at Vanderbilt Divinity School. Prior to coming to Vanderbilt, she served as Chaplain at St. Thomas Hospital in Nashville, TN. Prof. Matson hold as BS in Religion from Phillips University in Enid, OK (1977) a Master of Divinity (with distinction) from Phillips Theological Seminary in Enid, OK (1982). Additionally, she has completed a residency year in Clinical Pastoral Education and has done graduate study in Ethics. Prof. Matson’s professional interests and expertise include theological reflection on practice, the global dimensions of theological education, and the capacities needed for religious leaders in our times. Prof. Matson is ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). She is currently a Member-at-Large on the Steering Comittee for the Association of Theological Field Education.

Can’t wait to share with gay friends! Bravo!

An interesting thing happened to me this week. I met a young man who is down on his luck. We were talking and in our conversation he said to me that he always thought that to say “Be normal” was such a negative thing. He said, “I think we should say be natural”. It really struck home with me.
Then I started reading Rainbow in the Word and the title of an article in it, “The Non-Normative Jesus”, made me think back on this conversation.
I am enjoying the book immensely and can’t wait to either buy one for or share with a couple of my gay friends. Bravo!  — Lauren Knox

 

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Interrogates our assumptions about Queer People. Highly recommended.

“Ellin Sterne Jimmerson is an ordained clergywoman, a film-maker, and a prophet who has spent most of her life asking hard questions and seeking nuanced answers that take the Gospels seriously. Anyone who offers Dr. Jimmerson a facile answer walks away in tatters—her love of the Scriptures and their implications for how we treat each other won’t allow for platitudes and memorized answers. Her Rainbow in the Word: LGBTQ Christians’ Biblical Memoirs interrogates our assumptions about Queer People and their approaches to the very texts that have many times been used as a weapon against them. The bravery that these writers show in their willingness to undergo this task and their answers to Jimmerson’s hard questions should inspire all of us who love the Christian Scriptures. There are works from several genres here: apologetics, confession, poetry, autobiography—all with a strongly personal hermeneutic that draws the reader into a deeply wounded yet joyous approach to our shared heritage. I highly recommend this for any mature reader—but especially for those who are seeking to answer the hard questions about how our love of the Scriptures fits together with our understanding of sexuality, gender, and identity.” —Pamela Hosey Long, Seminarian, Alabama Integrated Ministry School of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama, Montgomery.

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One amazing read! Darren J. N. Middleton

” ‘Life stories can remake today’s theology” James Wm. McClendon, Jr. once said, and in this movingly penned, intellectually diverse, and spiritually transformative volume of story-theology, Ellin Jimmerson and her contributors show us how. Rainbow in the Word offers earthbound models of Christian desire for transcendent meaning, which is no small accomplishment. This book’s wisdom has been forged on life’s tough anvil, yet each tale in it will endure, branded by the ability to take theology in some unexpectedly new directions. One amazing read!” —— Darren J. N. Middleton, Texas Christian University

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