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.

MRC Max feb2016

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.

 

The details came out in pieces. First I learned that a young woman in an elite public high school in Manhattan had taken her life. She was a junior (15 or 16 perhaps?) and the inciting incident appeared to have been that a teacher caught her cheating on an exam. The press had vilified the teacher, publishing both her name and showing her photo. The girl apologized, left a note on her exam, ostensibly went to the bathroom, and disappeared from the school. She made her way to the edge of the Hudson River and waded into it fully clothed until she disappeared. She didn’t know how to swim, nor did the fisherman who watched her, in horror.

During the meeting where I heard about this tragedy, a woman who is the school’s PTA president got a text and quietly slipped out. The girl’s body had washed up the day before on the river bank 5 days after she disappeared. Family members were gathering for the funeral at that very hour. The PTA prez had gone to represent the parents, unsure if any other parents or teachers would attend.

At the end of the meeting, I learned more. The young woman was a Muslim so I thought she was from the middle East. Then I heard she was an African, though it wasn’t clear what her country of origin was. Knowing she was a fellow African, I felt a profound sadness for her family and community. I wondered what sorts of struggles this young woman had had as an immigrant or in having immigrant parents.

Later that afternoon, I couldn’t help myself. I sought out on-line stories about the incident to find out more. As soon as I saw the girl’s name in print, my heart lurched.

She had a Yoruba name which meant, to me, she wasn’t just an African. She was a Nigerian.

Though brilliant and probably destined for great things – she’d expressed a desire to become a doctor – and her classmates described her as witty and athletic, it seems she’d had a troubled past. There were reports from neighbors of loud arguments with her mother and another time when she apparently disappeared for 3 days. I wondered what other warning signs there might have been that were ignored, or more likely misunderstood, by those closest to her. I considered whether her fragile mind had been made more vulnerable given the sad state Nigeria is in right now and the backdrop of knowing several hundred high school girls had not been kept safe within the boundaries of their school compound. Or was there such intense pressure to succeed, up and out of the South Bronx neighborhood where her family lived, that added additional psychological weight to the struggles she was already wrestling with? We’ll never know.

This terribly sad event made me think of this encouraging piece written by public health physician Ike Anya that came out in Granta a couple of years ago: People Don’t Get Depressed in Nigeria, http://www.granta.com/New-Writing/People-Dont-Get-Depressed-in-Nigeria.

Nigerians, like people from anywhere else, despite what we might wish to think, aren’t exempt from the demons of mental health, regardless of where we happen to live. In fact to be living in Nigeria right now might contribute to higher levels of mental health dysfunction, given the extreme levels of stress and the damage being done to the national psyche, from the lack of leadership and the terror of Boko Haram’s tactics.

I grieve for this young woman’s lost life, for her parents, for her classmates and teachers, and for her extended Nigerian community. I pray her tragic ending will not have been in vain.

Monday April 7 was the 20th anniversary of the start of the genocide in Rwanda in which 800,000 were killed over a period of just 3 months. I was living in NYC then, and I’m ashamed to admit that I don’t recall the start of this terrible event. It was only in retrospect, when it was all over, and a nation’s psyche had been shattered that I began to take on board the size and scope and depth of this tragedy by watching films and reading books about what had taken place.

Recently I’ve been re-reading Emmanuel Katangole’s biting expose about that time, Mirror to the Church, with colleagues in a book club at the office.  In Mirror, Katangole reminds us that “the nightly news in every American homes displayed images of the bodies that were being destroyed in Rwanda. But most Americans were more interested in the O.J. Simpson trial in the spring of 1994” (p. 38). Nicole Brown Simpson was murdered on June 12, so this statement isn’t 100% accurate. We weren’t watching the trial – that came the following year – but by the time the genocide was fully underway, we were easily distracted by the details of Brown Simpson’s death and the accusations swirling around her celebrity husband as her killer.

I had a deja vu moment of a similar scenario when on Monday I went online to try to find a story I’d heard several days before about a Senegalese peacekeeper who’d saved literally hundreds of lives during the genocide. On the BBC, when I clicked on news about Africa, I was immediately met with a large photo of Oscar Pistorius with his face buried in his hands:  another celebrity athlete on trial for murdering his blonde beautiful girlfriend. And we are mesmerized. This too is a tragic, terrible situation but why should it beg for more attention than recalling the deaths of hundreds of thousands ordinary Rwandans?

Fortunately, I was able to eventually find the story of the Mbaye Diagne and it was even more impressive, heart-rending, and redemptive than I’d recalled.

Read it here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/special/2014/newsspec_6954/index.html  and be encouraged that in the midst of that terrible madness, courage and sacrifice reigned alongside the mayhem.

And yes, let’s remember differently this time. Let’s not be seduced by the razzle dazzle of celebrity.

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This trip to Newcastle was quite unexpected and pulled together in just a few days. I’d been wanting to visit Auntie P for some time now, ever since I learned she’d got married for the first time late in life and was now caring for her frail husband. But I couldn’t quite figure out how to get myself to Northern Ireland because other travel plans always seemed to take priority. Then, about 3 weeks ago, when I learned my cousin G was planning a celebration for his 50th wedding anniversary (!), and the event was to be in Newcastle – even though he and his wife live in Rathfriland some miles away – I realized I could see Auntie P and celebrate with G. And this being the year I’ll turn 50, it seemed a fitting way to be a bit extravagant, by connecting with old friends and family. As if it was meant to be, I  was able to find a direct flight from Newark to Belfast, especially since I didn’t want to risk getting stuck in an airport somewhere, given the unusually cold and snowy winter we’ve been having.

 In the few days I spent in Newcastle, I was able to share 3 meals and another evening having tea with Auntie P and her husband of 10 years, Dr. G. They both worked for the same mission agency and knew of each other in their university days at Queen’s in Belfast, but G was a little older. He spent most of his years in Nigeria at a 32 bed hospital in Unguru, in the northeast, 5 miles south of the border with Niger. He married a British nurse some years older than him, had 3 children, and returned to Northern Ireland in the early seventies. After many years at home in general practice and only after his first wife died, did he and Auntie P connect in a romantic way.

 I didn’t manage to nail down the specifics re: their courtship but Auntie P was engaged at 76 and married at 77!  Dr. G is delightful. Though with limited eye sight now – he has macular degeneration – and is hard of hearing – he’s managing without hearing aids until an appointment in early March, he regaled me with stories of his days in Nigeria, including a time when he removed a 44 pound tumor from a woman’s abdomen! She left the hospital 10 days later, dancing, and looking 20 years younger.

 What an incredibly special treat it was to spend time with them, meet their care givers – Auntie P has several delightful women who rotate in through the day to help her with her husband – and hear about the rich, full lives they’ve lived. That alone was well worth the trip across the Atlantic, even if I hadn’t also had the great fun of being @ G’s Golden Wedding Anniversary dinner.