In my last post, I wrote about Bryan Stevenson and the incredible work of the Equal Justice Initiative. Six weeks later, on May 20, Grace & Race, the Center for Faith & Work, and Hope for New York – all of which are connected to Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City – collaborated to host Bryan Stevenson who appeared on stage along with our Senior Pastor, Tim Keller for the very first time. Prior to meeting backstage before the event, these two heavy hitters had never met. In the first half of the evening, each of these powerful speakers gave a rousing talk, available below in the first video. Following that, I moderated a question and answer time, including questions texted in by the audience, available on the second video.

Both are New York Times best selling authors and are now nationally and internationally known for the work they do. In the case of Stevenson, his life’s work has been dedicated to providing legal representation for those on death row, successfully advocating for relief for children tried and convicted as adults, and more recently, leading the charge to mark the sites of every location where a person was lynched in this country. Known for his gifted preaching, Keller, is also the founding president of City to City which has started 300 churches flung across six continents.

Interestingly, both men began their respective organizations 27 years ago with humble beginnings: Keller moved to New York City, which had more crime and far less wealth than it currently does, from the suburbs of Philadelphia to start a church with the least churched demographic: young urban professionals. Stevenson started his organization in Alabama, thinking he would be there for a few years and then relocate to Atlanta but has ended up making Montgomery his home, despite the sacrifices that decision has entailed. This common thread of being committed to the same vision for 25 plus years, signifying a long obedience in the same direction, is how I opened my conversation with both of them: what has sustained their hope over these long years? Stevenson has seen tangible successes in his work and when that fails him, he remembers those whose shoulders he stands on and that keeps him going. For Keller, he’s expected God to bring change through his life’s work because of his belief in the power of the gospel and even when he has doubts, he’s confident that justice will win in the end.

We covered a wide range of topics that evening. Among them: the role of the church when it comes to issues of justice specifically as they relate to mass incarceration and race, the importance of truth and reconciliation in creating a new narrative about the treatment of people of color in this country, and why we need to have a sense of urgency around these issues. For coverage of the whole evening, take a look at these videos, and be prepared, at moments, to be moved, outraged, challenged, and convicted.

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On Tuesday night, I had the honor of attending the annual benefit in New York for the Equal Justice Initiative, EJI.org  with friends from work. Based in Montgomery, AL with offices that occupy a former warehouse for slaves, EJI exists to fight for people wrongly accused and serving life sentences (including those convicted as minors). EJI also seeks to broaden the conversation about race and injustice in this country. Among other projects, EJI has done extensive research to document the 4,000+ names of all those lynched in 12 southern states between 1877 (the end of Reconstruction) and 1950. Their vision is to help the US remember these terrible acts of violence as a way of bringing about healing, truth and ultimately reconciliation. They have begun to place markers at a few of the sites where lynchings occurred with a goal of placing one at every site. They are also in the early stages of creating a national memorial in Montgomery to honor these victims of racial terror.

EJI was founded 27 years ago by public interest attorney and MacArthur award recipient, Bryan Stevenson. Since the publication of Stevenson’s book,  Just Mercy, in 2014, the work of EJI, the untold stories of terror, and the connection of this legacy to contemporary manifestations of racism has been catapulted to a national stage.

To describe the event on April 5 as moving would be a huge understatement. Multiple times I found myself choking up, overwhelmed by the stories we heard, humbled by the vision and efforts of one man who has committed his life to seeking justice for those who’ve been unjustly treated and condemned. (It’s a tangible example of seeing that which is more than one could ask or imagine….) To kick off the evening, Kathleen Battle gave a stirring performance singing several spirituals, followed by Serena and Juliana Wong who thrilled us with a violin and piano duet. Throughout the night, there were numerous short videos show casing EJI’s work and vision.  At the end, Stevenson gave a short talk thanking us for already contributing to the work of EJI and encouraging us to give further so as to make the national memorial a reality. His deep humility and repeated words of appreciation were striking.

The highlight for me was hearing from Anthony Ray Hinton who spent 30 years on death row – most of it in a 5′ x 7′ cell – for a crime he didn’t commit. (Let that sink in for a moment: that’s 3 years longer than Nelson Mandela served…) During those years, he watched 53 men walk past his cell to be executed. Hinton has just celebrated his first year of freedom which came after more than 12 years of litigation. Not bitter or angry, he exuded a deep sense of peace and joy. Explaining his rationale for forgiveness, he said: “I’ve not forgiven them for them, but I’ve forgiven them for me.” Hinton has now committed his life to sharing his story and doing what he to can to confront the injustice of wrongful incarceration.

As if Hinton’s story and posture weren’t convicting enough, Stevenson followed that by explaining to us that Lester Bailey, Hinton’s best friend, had visited him in prison every week for all of those 30 years…. (That would be over 1560 weeks in a row!) If that isn’t a picture of a long obedience in the same direction, I don’t know what is. I’m convinced that this friend’s faithfulness, besides the dogged persistence of Stevenson and his legal team, is a key reason why Hinton survived that terrible ordeal as well as he seems to have. And that support emboldened him to come out determined to make his remaining years count for the sake of others.

Bailey’s exemplary commitment to his incarcerated friend reminds us that there’s no underestimating the power of community, friendship, and taking the long view… It’s a visual demonstration of clinging to hope and living by the conviction of things not seen.

The other honoree that evening was 107  (!) year old, Mrs. Maimie Kirkland, a lynching survivor born in Ellisville, Mississippi and now living in Buffalo,  NY. Last year, 100 years after her father fled for his life with his wife and children, she returned to the house where she grew up, after vowing she would never go back there. The other man, John Harfield, targeted for lynching along with her father, also fled in 1915, but when he returned to Ellisville, he was subsequently lynched in full view of a large crowd. The work of EJI ensures his death won’t be forgotten and a marker will be placed where he was murdered. By God’s grace, Mrs. Kirkland’s family includes children, grand-children, great grand-children and great, great grand-children. Another take on a long view. Another (very) long life well lived.

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On a related note, I’m involved with the Grace & Race group at Redeemer Presbyterian Church and we’re hosting Bryan Stevenson & Tim Keller on Friday, May 20 @ 7.30pm. If you live in New York City, I would urge you to get your tickets soon. We expect it to be a sold out event. Register here. It promises to be an engaging and convicting evening; it may even alter your life’s calling!

wiley college logoDr. Thomas Winston Cole, Sr. changed the course of my father’s life. In the early 1950’s, he took a chance by offering a Nigerian high school graduate of King’s College, Lagos, a scholarship to Wiley College in Marshall, TX, where Dr. Cole was the registrar. Wiley was a relatively small African-American university (<1500 students) which had ties to the Methodist Church. Though my father didn’t stay at Wiley College long enough to graduate from there, he did stay long enough to appear in two of the Wiley Wildcats yearbooks, which graced the shelves of our living room in Jos, Nigeria when I was growing up.

My father spoke fondly of Dr. Cole and repeatedly told us the story of how this man’s kindness gave him the rare opportunity to attend university in the States. I knew that Dr. Cole had gone onto become President of Wiley and then moved to the University of Florida where he was the third highest ranking administrator (and the first African-American), with a position in Academic Affairs and as University Ombudsman. However, there were many things about Dr. Cole I was not aware of – and perhaps neither was my father – until I recently discovered a lengthy interview with him on line.

Dr. Cole had attended Wiley himself and graduated in 1934. He claimed the highlight of his time there was serving on the debate team led by Melvin B. Tolson. Tolson’s debate team excelled, despite the climate of Jim Crow, winning the national championship in 1935, a story captured in the 2007 movie,  The Great Debaters, in which Denzel Washington starred as Mr. Tolson. (Prior to this film, apart from Papa, I’d never heard anyone speak of Wiley nor met anyone who’d heard of it.) After graduation, despite a degree in the natural sciences, Dr. Cole became a principal which subsequently propelled him into a higher education career. In 1950, he returned to Wiley, first as registrar and later as dean of the college. While working he managed to obtain a MSc in Educational Administration from the Univ of Wisconsin and then completed a doctorate in education at the University of Texas, the first African-American to do so. In 1958, he became the 10th President of Wiley and at the time he was installed, he became the first alumni and the first non-minister to be President. While at Wiley as the chief executive of a historically black college & university (HBCU), Dr. Cole heard Dr. King give his ‘I have a dream speech’ in Washington. He stayed at Wiley until the early 1970s, dramatically increasing student enrollment, raising $100 million in funds for the fledgling university, and overseeing the construction of a number of buildings. Today, a library is named there in his honor.

dr cole library wileyPhoto credit: Wiley College

Long after he’d moved on to study at other colleges in the US, Papa stayed in touch with Dr. Cole, faithfully sending him a Christmas card every December. He also talked often about his dream of flying Dr. Cole out to Nigeria as a way to say thank you. And more than 25 years after they first met, he actually did this. To show his appreciation for Dr. Cole’s generosity to him all those years before, Papa invited Dr. Cole and his wife Eva to visit Nigeria. He put them up in their own chalet in arguably the poshest hotel in town, showed them around, and even hosted a cocktail party for them to meet other Nigerian friends and colleagues. I believe it was Dr. Cole’s only visit to Africa and he never  forgot it. In the interview I came across recently, this is what Dr. Cole shared:

 As president of Wiley College, I had a few gifted African students… We had several African students on our campus; they were all on scholarship.  Since I have been in Florida, one of the students who is a barrister, a lawyer, now in Nigeria, invited me to come over at his expense to visit his home country, Africa, because I was responsible for his education.  In fact, he included my wife [in the trip] to Africa.  We went at his expense.  We brought back several things from Africa.  That is what made me think about it (p36).

I recall the Coles’ trip to Jos back in 1979. They were an elegant and gracious couple. Though I was only an adolescent, I wish I’d been able to realize how significant this visit was and more importantly what a tremendous influence Dr. Cole had had on so many lives and not just my father’s.

Forget the great debaters, Dr. Cole was a great educator.

I love most sports. And I love sports movies though I don’t find myself going to movies much anymore. However, 10 days ago, when I heard that ‘Concussion’ was about a Nigerian pathologist, Dr. Bennet Omalu, (played by Will Smith – who never did sound anything like a Nigerian/couldn’t Hollywood have cast an actor with Nigerian roots in this role??) who identifies a degenerative brain disease, now known as CTE – chronic traumatic encephalopathy, that is linked to the death of a growing number of football players, I decided this was one movie I should make the effort to see.

I’m so glad I did, though on this Superbowl Sunday, I feel even more conflicted than ever about this national sport. It’s similar to the way I felt after watching ‘Supersize Me’: I can never walk past a McDonalds again without thinking long and hard about how awful that food (eaten in great excess) can be for us…

It turns out I no longer have a working TV and have not been invited to any Superbowl parties, so my coverage of the big game will be limited to the NYTimes and my local radio station, WNYC (tomorrow morning to hear the results). If I was a real die-hard, I suppose I could follow the game on line somewhere play- by-play. Still, I realize I’m actually glad that I’m free from watching the many collisions that will no doubt accompany tonight’s game.

Yes, there is beauty and grace in this sport too, and the thrill of competition, and the challenge of strategy in advancing the ball down the field through passing & dodging & tackling & catching. But it would be hard to enjoy all this without also thinking about the billion dollar entity that football has become. The 30 second ads alone cost a staggering $5 million, that’s $166,666 per second (source: NYTimes, Sports section 2/7/16, p1). Yikes! It would also be difficult to set aside the reaction of the NFL organization to Dr. Omalu’s discovery and how as an organization, they sought to undermine his findings and set up a questionable Commission to cover up what they had long known. There is a staggering amount of money tied to power in this business: According to Forbes, as reported in Sept 2015, the average NFL team is worth $2 billion, up 38% from the previous year.

So tonight as the nation gathers around TV screens to celebrate the 50th Super Bowl, let’s not forget that as the hits pile up and concussions ensue, we may also be witnessing the acceleration of one or more of those athletes’ brains degenerating. CTE can only be confirmed posthumously but let’s not be naive about the fact that it has its antecedents in events such as these which we so readily glorify.

 

 

arthur ashe wimbeldon1975 tony triolo sports illusArthur Ashe died 23 years ago today at the age of 49. If he were still alive, he’d be 72. The cause of death was pneumonia, an opportunistic infection his immune system developed, ravaged by the HIV virus. He received HIV from a blood transfusion that he was given during heart surgery in the early 1980s. This was in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, before all donated blood was carefully screened for HIV and well before there were medications that could enable people (at least in those in the West)  to live full lives treating AIDS as a manageable, chronic infection.

Arthur was my first real hero. I learned to play tennis @ the age of 15 in Nigeria when a Nigerian coach approached the PE teacher at our American school offered to teach tennis to anyone who was interested. I was one of three who stepped forward to learn. To this day, and despite a chronically injured body, playing tennis remains one of my great joys and passions. I grew up knowing that Arthur was the first (and so far only) black man to win Wimbledon (1975) beating Jimmy Connors for the first and only time in his career which was a huge upset. He also won the US Open (1968) and the Australian Open (1972). On the court, he was known to have a fiery serve-and-volley game (sadly, all but gone among today’s players).  As the only black player at the time in an all white country club sport and growing up in segregated Richmond, he learned from a young age to conduct himself both on and off the court with the utmost integrity and respect. The likes of Zina Garrison, James Blake, Mal Washington, Venus and Serena Williams, Madison Keys – and the list goes on – stand on the shoulders of Arthur.

I never had the privilege of seeing Arthur play tennis. He retired over a decade before I came to the US. But on one occasion, I did see Arthur up close. I was at the Wimbledon Women’s final in 1990, sharing a single ticket with a friend. I watched the first set: Zina Garrison lost that one 4-6 to Martina Navratilova, and then I came out of Centre Court to give my ticket to my friend so he could go in to watch the second set. Arthur was milling around outside. Of course I recognized him, looked at him, and he looked at me, but that was it. I didn’t know at the time he was living with HIV and that he had less than three years to live. I wish I’d had the courage to shake his hand and thank him for all that he’d contributed to tennis, but I was too shy (and frankly dumbstruck) to seize the moment. I didn’t have the presence of mind to think of anything to say, so I kept moving and that opportunity passed.

Arthur was far more than an outstanding tennis player who made history. He was also a scholar (compiling a 3 volume work on the history of African American athletes called ‘A Hard Road to Glory’); a writer (he was just finishing his memoir ‘Days of Grace’ when he passed away so it was published posthumously; an activist (demonstrated against apartheid and got arrested for protesting the treatment of Haitian immigrants); a non-conformist (the first black man to be given a visa to play in a tennis tournament in apartheid South Africa), a mentor (founded what is now called the National Junior Tennis League to introduce city kids to tennis and the skills to that go along with being a upright citizen of your community); a philanthropist (he started the Arthur Ashe AIDS Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS to contribute to research that would limit the impact of this disease); and a recruiter (he plucked Yannick Noah from the tennis courts of Cameroon who later became the second black man  – after Arthur –  to win a Grand Slam, the French Open in 1983). He was also a father (he died when his daughter was 6, sadly, just as his mother had passed away when he was 6), husband (married to the esteemed photographer Jeanne Moutousamy), friend, widely respected colleague, and beloved son of Richmond, VA. Thousands filed past his open casket when he lay in state there for two days before his funeral on Feb 10 and 5,000 were thought to attend the memorial service @ Cathedral St John the Divine on Friday the 13th.

I was one of them. There was a snow storm that day and the city was shrouded in a blanket of thick, wet flakes. I remember being cold inside that Cathedral; large old churches like that are notoriously difficult to heat. But I was warmed by the love and affection countless friends and colleagues had for Arthur and how well, it seemed, he’d lived his all too short life. Billie Jean King had been a commentator with him @ Wimbledon and she wore a purple blazer – one of the Wimbledon colors – in solidarity with him. His best friend and lawyer, Donald Dell, told us how Arthur was as a solid a person away from the publicity as his celebrity status  had led us to believe. I was always impressed that Arthur used his platform to speak (and act) out against injustice and for those less fortunate than he. He remained a man with simple tastes, understated to the end, but his legacy as a Renaissance man lives on and for that I am grateful.

Hallelujah Arthur Ashe, hallelujah! (Courtesy of Andrew Young who married Arthur and Jeanne. This is how he concluded his Eulogy @ Arthur’s funeral)

(Photo credit: Tony Triolo/Sports Illustrated)

ocean grove jan2013 #3January 6th, is called the Day of Epiphany in the Christian calendar. It is marked by the visit of the magi in search of the baby Jesus. Matthew tells us that magi came from the east to Jerusalem looking for the king of the Jews. They had seen his star and had come to worship him. The star was a sign which led them first to Herod and subsequently to Jesus himself. They saw something unusual and different and it provoked them to take action, to go on a lengthy journey, not knowing where it would lead them or what it would mean for them. But nonetheless, upon recognizing the sign, they took off.

The Shepherds were the first to hear of the birth of Jesus on a dark night that probably seemed no different than any other. When angels lit up the sky and shared news of the birth of the Savior of the world, they too were given a sign: They would find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. Despite being terrified, they went to see if what the angels had told them was in deed true.

God frequently gives us signs which prompt and nudge us out of our current situations and into experiences and deeper understandings of who he is and what he’s calling us to do. If you are anything like me, you are usually too distracted to notice the signs, to recognize them as such, to pay attention to what they might signify, or to act on them. It’s like when I get the flu: my throat begins to tickle, my nose runs more than usual, fatigue begins to creep in – all indications that my body’s immune system is becoming compromised – but usually, I don’t pay too much attention or make any significant changes to the rhythm of my days, until my throat is raging, my sinuses rebel in earnest and my body weakens further, demanding rest (and perhaps flu medicine). The signs were there all along but I ignored them until I couldn’t do so any more. And then I was knocked flat on my back.

As the start of this new year, I wonder what sign(s) God might be inviting you to see in your life right now. Are you strung out and weary from a holiday season that was too full of busy-ness with little time to slow down and reflect on it’s true meaning and implications? Do you need to make a significant change –let go of an unhealthy relationship, release a deeply buried grudge or hurt, transition out of a job that is violating your soul, build margins into your schedule that allow you to have moments of quiet and rest, take up something new that breathes life into you and stirs your passions? Or perhaps you’re already aware of the sign(s) but what to do about the fears and paralysis that interfere with you taking action?

Let the life-changing journey of the Magi encourage you. They didn’t travel alone. They weren’t in a hurry. They asked for help along the way. They kept following the star. And when they found the baby, they were overjoyed.  Open your eyes, look for the sign(s), start moving, take others with you, be willing to go slowly, don’t be afraid to ask for help, and wait for the joy!

 

 

A month from today, Nigerians will go to the polls to elect a President for a 5 year term. For a nation that has been independent from Britain for almost 55 years – and with much of it’s checkered past littered with military heads of state, a national “democratic” election (supposedly – that remains to be seen) is hardly an insignificant event.

However, what gives me pause before any votes are even cast is that the current President, Goodluck Jonathan, has been chosen by his party, the PDP, to be their presidential candidate once again. This is despite the fact that his leadership has been appalling, non-existent, ineffective, and embarrassing, at least as far as his response to the situation with Boko Haram is concerned. Attacks throughout the northeast of the country but extending as far south as the capital city of Abuja have taken thousands of lives and left entire villages decimated and destroyed since the insurgency began in 2002. There is minimal accountability: these deaths go unreported – often due to the risk of violence required to get near to the sites of the crimes – let alone investigated, so the perpetrators take life without impunity. They know they can get away with it.

Rather than be contained, the situation appears to be escalating and there is minimal evidence that the government at the state or national level has the will or the courage or the impetus to contain the violence. (Nigerians I’ve talked to – both those who live there and abroad – are convinced that some very high up in the government are benefiting greatly from this insurgency. Hence, the lack of motivation to mobilize the resources necessary to tackle it. As long as the oil money keeps flowing, those in power will continue to ignore the crisis that is building.)

That Goodluck Jonathan would issue a statement condemning the attacks in Paris last week (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/13/goodluck-jonathan-boko-ha_n_6464928.html) and yet make no statement whatsoever regarding what may be the worst attack by Boko Haram so far, days earlier on Jan 3 (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-30794829) is disheartening at best, and pathetic at worst. And of course, despite the worldwide outrage at the abduction of 200+ girls from Chibok last spring, nothing more has been heard about the whereabouts of the girls except those who escaped of their own accord. Or what the government is doing to try to investigate this kidnapping and bring to justice those behind this attack.

How can we expect others to believe that Nigerian lives matter, when the man elected to lead his nation is unable to communicate that message to his people, let alone marshall the type of response needed to tackle this desperate situation? Over and over again, bombs are detonated (the latest one by a 10 year old girl), villages are attacked and burned, throats are slit (literally) and there is silence from Aso Rock, the Presidential Villa.

Who will stand for us?