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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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sign on graves

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.

I just returned from a very full 3 weeks of road and air travel that took me to London, Uganda and Kenya. Yesterday as I was about to enter my apartment building in New York with my luggage, a neighbor who held the door open for me seemed relieved to see me. I recognized her but don’t know her personally. She went on to tell me of the Malaysian Airlines jet that had been shot down over Ukraine while I was in the air, killing all 298 on board…

It was a sobering welcome home and yet also an indication of the volatility of the world we live in. There were a number of these reminders during my journey.

The first of which was hearing – a day late on July 4- of the US terrorism alert on the Entebbe Airport in Uganda. I’d come through the airport 4 days before but a colleague I was going to be traveling with had arrived there the previous day. By all accounts, the airport was calm and thankfully, there was no incident.

Several days later, in Bundibugyo, a district in the southwest of Uganda where I lived in 2006-2007, fighting broke out between rival ethnic groups. In fact there were multiple coordinated attacks in the space of a few hours on the afternoon of July 5. Reports suggested up to 80 people were killed, both civilians and uniformed personnel and quickly this remote place was unexpectedly propelled into the international news. The fighting came as close as 8 kilometers from where we were staying and a strike on a trading center much closer was threatened but never occurred. This prompted an evacuation of the mission team we were visiting, cutting short our already brief visit by more than 24 hours. Fortunately we were never in any danger and as non-Ugandans were not targeted, but it made for a dramatic and tense return to a place I used to call home.  Shortly after we drove out, the road was closed once again due to more fighting and the team who’d evacuated remained out of the district for a full week. It seems the tensions have been quelled – at least for now.

Then, in Nairobi for the first time, I heard repeated references to the high crime rate and found myself more concerned than usual about whether and when I moved around with my passport and where my money was stashed. I stayed with friends who placed a heavy chain on a metal grate to their apartment each evening essentially barricading themselves in, even though their building was in a gated compound where 24 hour security guards hovered by a locked gate. Often when we rode around town, the windows were kept up and the AC on though I think this was less to prevent crime and more so we could hear each other speaking above the intensity of the traffic.

Suffice it to say, I’m glad to be back in New York because it’s familiar and it’s home. And the truth of the matter is: God is here – as He is everywhere.  Even when planes get shot out of the sky and groups that have lived side by side struggle over power and land rights, and urban crime makes us feel less secure.

He is in this place.

 

 

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A week ago today in Jos, at a gathering where people were watching the Champion’s League Final, a hotly contested soccer match between Real Madrid and Club Atletico de Madrid, another bomb went off. This time only 3 people were killed. Tragic, but fortunately the loss of life wasn’t significantly greater.

It was the third bomb in Jos in a single week, the first time I recall that ever happening in the town I was born in. Earlier in the week, two bombs about half an hour apart killed 118 people at last report. All attacks are thought to have been committed by Boko Haram, an Islamic fundamentalist group that is creating havoc, primarily in the north of Nigeria. Their attacks are unrelenting and now reported by the BBC to be a daily occurrence: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-27641730.

Next month will signal 15 years since my father, who was born in Jos, also died there. It’s hard to believe so many years have slipped away since then. I still miss him terribly, especially as the anniversary of his passing approaches.

Papa was born in Jos, which is in the geographic center of the country known as the “middle belt”, but had a Fulani mother who was from the northeast, near the border with Cameroon. In his early years as a lawyer, he represented clients from the then North Eastern State and travelled to its capital, the city of Maidugari, multiple times a year. I recall one such trip when he took me with him. Two memories stand out. It was by far the hottest place I’d ever been to and the whirring standing fan in our hotel room did nothing to lull me to sleep. With Papa snoring beside me, I tried to will myself to doze off but I felt like I was in an oven. The other thing I recall about that trip was how fine the sand along the streets was,  similar to that you’d find on a beach. Little did I realize then that the Sahara Dessert was already encroaching southward (and still is).

My father would be absolutely heart-broken at the violence and lack of religious tolerance Boko Haram seem to display. His mother was a Muslim and his father was a Christian from the southern Delta area. (Papa would also be appalled at the lack of leadership from Nigeria’s President, also from the Delta but that’s for another post). Such “mixed” marriages were common and Muslims and Christians co-existed peacefully within the same families.

Boko Haram apparently want to create their own Muslim state across the north of Nigeria and use a system of Islamic law, called sharia. But Nigeria is far too heterogeneous for that. They are waging a “war” they can’t win.

For this reason, I’m glad my father is no longer alive.

This Sunday will mark the 10th anniversary of the tragic events of 9/11/01. My heart has been heavy this past week as I’ve listened to the stories of loss and grief, been reminded of the TV clips of the towers falling, and read articles re-hashing the events of that terrible day.

Anniversaries of grief are often weighty and 9/11 is no different. But this week the residents of Jos, Nigeria (my hometown) have their own anniversary. Its been 10 years since the tension between Muslims and Christians erupted in violent senseless deaths that continue up to the present time. While the world recoiled in horror at the terrorist acts that took place on American soil and President Bush declared Sept 14 a national day of mourning, in Jos people grieved as well:  for those they had lost and for the loss of the peaceful co-existence of people with different religious faiths living side by side and often even in the same family, something that they had enjoyed for generations. Shops and banks had been shut for days with people afraid to venture into the center of the city for fear they would not return home. The spark that caused that first eruption is now hazy in my own memory, blurring into many other uprisings since then.

The word ‘crisis’ is now ubiquitous in and around the Jos plateau. The latest crisis of note – many take place and are never covered by the BBC much less the US media – was the week that Ramadan ended and Eid-el-Fitr was about to be celebrated.

It was Monday August 29 and I was in Jos that day. It was my last day of a 10 day visit to see my family there.  My normally gregarious Uncle returned from town in the early afternoon, agitated, telling us that another crisis had erupted between Muslims going to a mosque in what was largely considered a Christian area. [The city has become segregated by religion in the last decade, like never before.] He had seen people killed and cars defaced. I didn’t want to believe him but couldn’t ignore the intermittent gun fire I could hear – for the first time in my memory – from the front steps of our home (!)

I spent 2 hours sitting on those steps, listening, praying, and  trying to interpret what might be happening from the flow of traffic going past our yard. It thinned and the motorcycle taxis which speed by taking government workers to the Federal Secretariat all but disappeared. Not a good sign.

A few days later, a missionary surgeon who is a connected to friends in Canada confirmed that 85 were injured and 15 people died.

I grieve for the Jos I knew. It is gone, never to return. Instead, as I entered a large church in the center of town for 2 consecutive Sundays, I was scanned with a metal detector and my bag was opened and examined.  For some in this town, the experience of worship is overcast by a shadow of vigilance about security.

As many pause to remember the tragedy of 9/11 in the coming days, may the crises of Jos, Nigeria and the seemingly intractable tension between Christians and Muslims – evident in many places all over the globe – not be ignored or minimized.

Lord, you are the Prince of Peace.

Come quickly, we pray.