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I flew into JFK 26 years ago this month from London with 2 suitcases. Tonight I fly out of JFK and back to London. I take another 2 suitcases (+ 22 boxes that are on a ship somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic).

I leave behind a varied and rich tapestry of friends and neighbors. Incredibly, some of these dear people I’ve known for practically all of my time here, others for a decade or more, and then others I’ve only known a few months. Many friendships were formed and deepened through my tenure at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, first as a timid church goer 18 years ago, and more recently as a staff member for the past 8 years. Others developed in the different tennis leagues I played hard in and those folks generally didn’t know anything about the work I did and it didn’t matter. And with others, relationships developed at Uptown Writers and in the writing groups I joined as we critiqued each others’ pieces and encouraged one another with our craft.

I will deeply miss this web of extraordinary people who I’ve had the honor and privilege of knowing & walking beside.( But am so grateful for the world-wide web and the wonders of technology that will allow many connections to continue, albeit in new forms.)

There are other significant losses too.

I’m grieving having to leave my apartment – though grateful for new friends who will be moving in here. I’ll miss living in my building with the 24 hour security guards, a crew of hard-working folks who don’t make a whole lot of money but who always made me feel welcome especially at the end of weary days. I’ll miss the neighbors on my floor, particularly 90-year-old P. She and I wept together last night as we said goodbye and she articulated what I didn’t have the courage to say: “I’m sad because may not see you again.” Perhaps not in this life, I reminded her, but in the next one, where God is waiting for us both. I’m sad that daily walks in the spectacular Ft Tryon Park won’t be possible anymore. And I’m already missing Redeemer’s worship services, and the incredible classical concerts we’d hear following the benediction every Sunday morning with some of the most accomplished musicians this city has to offer.

Yes I’ve been extraordinarily blessed here in this city that never sleeps. I have found places and spaces of deep rest here over the last quarter century and for that I am eternally grateful. As I result, I leave this city a little wiser (and with a head of grey hair to show for it!), but more humble, more joyful, more hopeful, and more courageous. And with a deep sense of how Loved I am.

I’m moving to live with my mother for the final stages of her life to show her how loved she is. She is hugely excited –a confirmation that this time has fully come.

So long New York. A new adventure across the sea beckons.

May God be with you ’til we meet again.

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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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I first encountered Clive Staples Lewis at the age of 9. In 4th grade at the American missionary school I attended in Nigeria, our teacher, Miss P (all single women were really called Miss in those days) who was from New Zealand, began reading The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe to us every afternoon from 3:00-3:15. Just before we were dismissed for the day, as we listened to this story, we were whisked through an inviting door into an imaginary world bursting with possibility and hope. However, joy and contentment were being held captive in a land that was “always winter, never Christmas,” until Aslan, a Christ-like figure, broke the white witch’s spell and restored Narnia to its glory days. After we finished this first story, Miss P went on to expose us to the rest of the 6 books in the Narnia Chronicles, the only children’s books that CS Lewis ever published.

These stories began for me a life long fascination with Lewis. I became not only concerned with what he wrote but more importantly for me was discovering who he was, how he’d lived, and what were the events – and who were the significant people – that had shaped him. I learned Lewis was from Northern Ireland, called himself Jack from a young age which stuck, grew up in Belfast in a loving home, lost his mother at age 10, and was then sent away to an English board school in the aftermath of his father’s debilitating grief.  He went on to become a brilliant student at Oxford, a scholar of Medieval and Renaissance Literature, and a professor at both Oxford and then Cambridge. Along the way, his views on God underwent a gradual but radical shift. As he repeatedly learned that more and more friends and colleagues at Oxford whom he respected for their sharp intellect were also people of faith, he underwent a process from being a staunch atheist to believing that there was a God, to eventually encountering the God of the Bible in a personal way. Much to his surprise and dare I say even horror, he became in his own words the “most reluctant convert in all of England.” He died on November 22, 1963, the same day that JFK was assassinated which meant that the US President’s death overshadowed that of Lewis.

Now, the Fellowship fo the Performing Arts, has put together a stellar one actor production of Lewis’ journey to faith, starring Max McLean. Aptly called “Most Reluctant Convert,” virtually  of the words in the 90 minute single act drama come from Lewis’ own writings and letters. (As he became more well-known, he received hundreds of hand-written letters to which he replied to each one – by hand.) I saw this show several weeks ago while it was still in development and was incredibly moved at how persistently God appears to have pursued Lewis. Regardless of what you personally believe, Seeing this show is worth insight into that process alone. There’s a run of Most Reluctant Convert in Washington, DC, from April 20 – May 8. Check it out if you get the chance! And if you’re not in DC, pick up an autobiography of Lewis from your local library, or one of his many non-fiction books, and discover this genius for yourself.

 

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.

cherie color 14feb2016Yesterday, I took my friend Cherie to lunch at the local diner. I first met Cherie 3 or 4 years ago when she began to appear on the benches in the mezzanine level of my subway station. One morning I sat down beside her and instead of dropping a dollar into her palm, I decided to offer her a conversation. Over a few weeks, we became “subway buddies.” She’d comment on my clothes, I’d ask how she was doing, and from time to time, I offered her food I was carrying — until one day after leaving her with the remains of my (very spicy) Thai dinner, she let me know very defiantly that she no longer wanted my leftover food. Fair enough. From then on, I occasionally gave her money but mostly just smiled, chatted, and even shook her hand at times, being mindful that folks with no home rarely experience physical touch. Cherie tends to disappear in the spring, summer, and fall, and several winters ago, she dropped out of sight all together. Late last year, she re-appeared, in the same spot where I first met her.

Recently I began to think about trying to get to know her a bit better by having a meal with her. On Saturday night, as I was heading out for the evening, I gave her $5 and encouraged her to get some soup. It was the coldest day of the year and I was concerned for her, and wondered what she planned to do to keep warm in the sub terrain of the station. I should have known better. The hot soup idea seemed intriguing but I could tell she had no intention of going to a diner. And since she had nowhere else to go, she planned to stay right there on her bench. I shuddered thinking about that, but as I ran for my train, I decided that if she was there when I came home from church the next day, I’d invite her to lunch.

When I asked her, she immediately shot back, “What’s the occasion?” Without hesitating, I said, “It’s Valentine’s Day.” She put her just-lit cigarette out, grabbed her bag, and declared, “OK, let’s go.”

We settled ourselves into a corner table @ the Hudson View Diner. She chose french toast, scrambled eggs, bacon and cheese. I had a farmer’s omelette with home fries. At first I asked her questions about her family and learned a few interesting facts: she was born in Cypress Hills, Queens, the 4th of 8 children; she doesn’t get along with her mother who now lives in East New York; her father’s birthday is Feb 15 (today); and she has a 37-year-old son who has a restaurant in Harlem which we talked about going to check out. “On me,” she insisted, “On me.” But she didn’t seem to want to continue making conversation so I stopped the questions and we ate the rest of our meal in silence.

When she was done, she looked around and said, “It’s really cozy in here. If I had a job and worked in here, it’s so cozy, I’d just want to go to sleep.” We laughed about that. She also thanked me heartily for lunch. After she’d ordered a second cup of coffee – as much to warm her up as to heat up her hands I suspect – we headed back out into the frigid afternoon. She tried unsuccessfully at two stores to buy loose filter cigarettes (“lucies”), and then I walked down back into the subway with her. She was heading to 42nd street to take care of something there — I couldn’t quite catch what and gave up after asking her 3 times. As I swiped her in, she slid up toward the turnstile, turned and kissed me (!), and then hurried off to catch her train.

Still stunned by her affection, I walked 10 brisk blocks home, musing about my most unexpected valentine’s day gift…

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)