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!

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genocide memorial sign

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The first week of April…

  • On this day (4/4) in 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, shot on the balcony of a hotel in Memphis.
  • (On this day in 1959, my parents, Gally Brown-Peterside & Elizabeth James were married in a registry office in South London.)
  • On April 7, 3 days from now, the Rwandan genocide began in 1994. It was the Thursday after Easter that year.

Last summer I had the privilege of visiting Rwanda. I was flying from Lagos to Entebbe and since we had to make a stopover in Kigali, I decided to pay a little extra to spend 48 hours there. My main purpose for this was to visit the National Genocide Memorial. I was intrigued by the effort of this nation to remember the terrible events over those 100 days in 1994 when up to a million Rwandans killed each other, many with ordinary garden machetes and clubs. Never before in the history of the world had so many people been murdered in such a short space of time by people who were essentially their neighbors. I wasn’t prepared to see the rows and rows of skulls and bones. I wasn’t prepared to see the walls of remembrance still incomplete and being added to as more names of the deceased become known. I wasn’t prepared for the final exhibit: huge color photos of vibrant, smiling children senselessly murdered, listing their names, ages, exactly how they died, and what they had wanted to become when they “grew up” – the horror, the wasted potential was unimaginable.

However, I think what struck me most were the mass graves, the entombed coffins, and the notations from family members who survived about the significance of having a place to come and grieve and remember. It had never occurred to me that given the brutal way in which loved ones were murdered and the context of genocide, there were often no bodies found, few if any proper burials, and a dearth of resting places to visit on anniversaries. Hardly any sacred physical places to pause, be still in, and remember.

So today, I pause to remember: Dr King’s incredible life and passing and that of the slain Tutsis and Hutus of Rwanda. May their legacies live on. May we never forget.

12angrymen feb2016I came across a chilling piece of data last night while reading last week’s Sunday NY Times (2/14/16) in an article by the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Isabel Wilkerson: according to FBI statistics, an African-American is killed by a white police officer roughly every 3 1/2 days. Not shot, but actually killed.

That statistic –while horrifying — is more credible to me after watching a play this weekend based on the book (not the movie), 12 Angry Men: True Stories of Being a Black Man in America. Using 3 actors who took on different characters, we heard how black men across the country, from New York to Washington, DC to LAX airport to Asheville, NC were stopped by the police on suspicion of “being black” and questioned, harassed, insulted and often beaten. In several instances, the men had their pants and underwear pulled down and were left naked, exposed to the public. For others, they told of feeling the cold butt of a gun on their bodies or seeing an officer place his/her hand on their gun during the encounter.  The men were both young and old, professional and working class, driving and walking. One was a former baseball MVP. Several were on the phone. One was at a playground watching his daughter and her friends playing and was approached because someone had called the police concerned that “a black man was in the park watching kids.”

The common threads in these stories were the fact that the men were black, not doing anything out of the ordinary, and they were approached by the police – who, shall we say, were less than friendly or helpful. The men weren’t angry when the police picked them out, though sometimes, but not always, they became angry during the course of the exchange. And lest you think these were one-off encounters, some of these men had been stopped multiple times.

As I watched this, I couldn’t help but wish the top brass in the NYPD and police departments around the country would spend 90 minutes of their weekend hearing these stories. Would it change the way they lead their police departments? How might it impact the ways they view and use racial profiling? The play’s run ended this weekend, but they’re hoping to raise funds to take it on tour. Perhaps until then, the book could be made mandatory reading for every new class of police officers. How might that spark some provocative conversations and perhaps even some soul searching?

Cringing through the production, I also thought of the psychological impact that such harassment has on all of us: those who are harassed, those who do the harassing (some of whom were women and/or black too), and those of us who love the harassed and/or the harassers. Dr. King reminds us that none of us are free until all of us are free. Furthermore, he warns: “if we succumb to the temptation to use violence…, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and our chief legacy to them will be a never-ending reign of terror.”  That is never more true now in America than it was 50 years ago when he uttered those words.

Lord, have mercy on us.

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)

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?

i lift my eyes to the hills

When I lived in southwestern Uganda for two years, one of the treats of my time there was having a breathtaking view of the Rwenzori Mountains on a daily basis. The Rwenzori’s, also called the mountains of the moon, are higher than the Alps and the Rockies, and can boast of having Africa’s third highest mountain. The waters which originate in these mountains are believed to feed the Nile River. And much of the vegetation and animals which can be found there are found only in this region.

The Rwenzoris, not well known, are quite unique: though they sit on the equator, their tallest peaks are covered in snow. On a clear day in Bundibugyo, when they weren’t shrouded in clouds, I recall seeing a sliver of snow on those peaks in the distance. It used to give me chills!

A recent documentary reveals that the glaciers on those mountains are disappearing quickly, however. If you’re a believer in climate change, or better yet, a skeptic, take a look at this short video.

http://ecowatch.com/2014/11/06/snows-nile-rwenzori-mountains/

Evidence that our planet indeed is getting warmer.