Sunday, January 25, 2015

Working Toward A More Just Society

Growing up, I had always learned about the importance of Martin Luther King, Jr. in history class, but because it wasn't something I had experienced personally, it stopped there. With the facts. And statistics. Sure, I completely supported the movement and what it ultimately (though at a high price) accomplished for the equality of all races in this country. However, I had not truly seen firsthand the effects of racial inequality on a community.

Now working and living in Alabama (especially Tuskegee) has given me a new perspective on the civil rights movement and richness of African American history. I have met people who were kids when Tuskegee High School was integrated. I have spoken to pastors, educators, and local entrepreneurs about the changes that have taken place in this historic town since the 1960's, some successes, and others repercussions. 

In those days, Tuskegee was a thriving little city. The university, founded by Booker T. Washington in 1881, attracted top students from all over the country and provided invaluable resources, both academic and financial, to the community. Farmers and business owners, both black and white, prospered and life in the small rural city went on. Tuskegee became well known over the years for distinct personalities such as agricultural scientist George Washington Carver and the famed World War II Tuskegee Airmen. 

After having spent 8 months in Tuskegee, I have heard countless stories about how the city has evolved and the issues it currently faces. Years after integration in 1963 came a period of white flight. When families left, so did local businesses, jobs, and much potential for economic development. The standard of living decreased significantly for those who stayed behind. Whereas in 1960, the population of Tuskegee was quite diverse, it is now 95% African American. The population overall has decreased 20% since 2000. 

Now, 50 years after the Civil Rights Movement, we still have not achieved the goal of equal rights. Inequality, racism, and suffering still exist in our society. While all people have the right to vote, sadly we do not all have the right to a neighborhood safe from crime, a high quality education for our children, or a well-paying job. Poverty is the reality in the darkest corners of our country – whether Tuskegee or our own hometowns.

How is God calling us to address this? MLK Jr.’s answer is service and love. He claims, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: what are you doing for others?” Seeing the movie Selma, I was utterly moved by the way an entire nation came together to protest peacefully, despite the violence they faced from police - for a basic human right. The leaders of the movement didn’t just toss around ideas to achieve voting rights; they did something about it. How far will talking about social problems get us on the road to a more peaceful and just society? At what point will we choose to act?

I have been moved by the tireless dedication of some of the community’s leaders, specifically local pastors, to make Tuskegee a better place to live. Efforts like Stop the Violence Campaign, the Youth Safe Haven program, and ARM’s Sonshine Kids Day Camp have already played a huge part in providing enriching activities for kids. Last May, as part of the Summer Mission Camp experience, we interviewed some community members on the positive aspects of living in Tuskegee. One man said, “I personally am excited for the growth here in this community. I’m pro-Tuskegee.” 

How are you called to address crime, poverty, or racism in your community? Would you consider yourself “pro-(insert town here)”, or even pro-humanity, someone who would advocate for the rights of your people? In Psalm 82:3-4, the Lord calls us to “Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” The battle Martin Luther King, Jr. begun is not yet over. There is much work to be done, both here in the South and nation-wide. Let us prayerfully consider how to move toward a more just society.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

A Covenant Prayer for the New Year

As I walked into church the first Sunday of the new year, I was handed a card with the following words, labeled A Covenant Prayer by John Wesley, 1780. After reading it through together as a congregation, my pastor challenged us to reflect on how God is calling each of us to live out this prayer in 2015. I now share this reflection with you in hopes that you will consider what these words mean for your life.

I am no longer my own, but yours.
Lord, in this year, help me to focus less on myself and more on you. Remind me that I am a child of God, loved by you, and that you gave your life for my freedom from sin. Show me how to serve you in a way that honors you and values others.

Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Redeemer, I pray that you would give me opportunities to act out against injustices, and to refuse to stand by and watch as your people hurt. Put me in challenging situations so that I may be humbled and grow in may faith in you. Let me experience the suffering that Christ underwent on the cross, so that I may know and understand more fully your love.

Let me be put to work for you or set aside for you, praised for you or criticized for you.
Use my talents and privilege, Lord, as you see fit. Mold me into the woman you created me to be. If I lose focus of you, set me on the right path, keep my eyes on Christ. Give me strength to stand up for you when others see trust in you as a weakness.  

Let me be full, let me be empty.
Creator, fill me with a deeper awareness of your love for all of humanity and creation, and a passion to bring your kingdom here on Earth. Empty me of resentment and anger toward those who have hurt me, and of apathy toward systemic oppression.  

Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
Sustainer, bless me with a strong body to serve, a heart that breaks for others, and a mind that conceives new ways of sharing your love. Yet let me be content with loving relationships instead of recognition, essentials instead of material luxury, and food on the table but not excess. 

I freely and fully surrender all things to your glory and service.
Do what you will with my life, God. Guide me in all my decisions, support me in those difficult hours, and rejoice with me in the beautiful moments.

And now God, my Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, you are mine, and I am yours.

So be it. 


Thursday, January 1, 2015

A Fair Price to Pay

I can remember when I was in high school, going to see the new Spider-man 3 movie (the 2007 version with Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst). We were ecstatic, not only to see the movie, which we knew would rock our world, but more importantly because we would get to go to Taco Bell.

Why was this such an occasion? Because in our household, my mother had enacted a ban on Taco Bell, which had been in place for at least the past year. A ban, you say? What for? Taco Bell was not paying its tomato pickers a living wage. A boycott had been organized by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, an advocacy group made up of Florida farm workers (mostly tomato farmers), and had received national attention.

At the time my brother and sister and I could not understand why anyone would want to boycott our favorite fast food place. But now, years wiser, I regret not having respected my mom's ideals. She truly understood the importance of valuing another person's life, and participating in non-violent protest as a way of fighting for what she knew was right. My mother was, and still is, a social activist, and I am proud to say that I am following in her footsteps. 

Many of you have probably heard of the concept of fair trade. Fair trade items are products that are produced through a sustainable line of companies that have passed certain regulations in regards to safe labor practices, providing workers with a living wage, and not using slave labor in the creation of their products. The goal of Fair Trade is to help producers achieve more humane conditions for workers, as well as environmental and economic sustainability. An overwhelming majority of big name brands and industries in the United States do not practice fair trade principles (and sadly, many individuals who are educated about corporate injustices remain indifferent).

For the past few years, as my consumer conscience has grown, and I am continually horrified by the inhumane practices of large corporations in this country, I admit that I have not spoken out enough. Even this meager post about fair trade is such a tiny step to demanding justice, to protesting for the fair treatment of hard-working people, whether American or of other nationalities, who every day are subjected to harsh conditions and wages too low to survive on. It is time to speak out for change. It is time to act.

A few weeks ago, during our quarterly meeting with the other Global Mission Fellows in the Generation Transformation Program, we discussed our responsibility to creation care and how we are called to act out against over-consumption and exploitation. This conversation left me pondering how I could use my small influence to improve the chances for a better, just life for others.

Because of this commitment, and my firm belief that God created each one of us to stand up for human rights, I have decided to take a very small step as my New Year's Resolution for 2015. My declaration is this (and I hope that you will hold me accountable to it):

This year, I resolve to not buy ANY chocolate or coffee that is not certified as Fair Trade.

We all vote with our dollars. My dollar, in this small way at least, will not support companies that exploit the vulnerable and the poor. I realize that in other ways, I will still inadvertently sustain the evil of slavery with my credit card, as I buy that shirt or cellphone. I hope that in the future I can say that I have actively sought out alternatives in these areas as well, but for now, this is my small step. I share my decision with you today, not to brag or boast, but because I wish to encourage you in doing the same, in your own small way. Because, as Mother Teresa famously said, "Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love."

Why decide to buy fair trade, when it's more expensive? I think it is a fair price to pay, for those who pick the coffee beans, for those who process the cocoa, for those who package it all into bags and bars to sell. Will you choose to pay a price that is fair?