Sunday, June 17, 2018

Stories from the Kingdom

A reflection on Mark 4: 26-34 at Swiss UCC in New Glarus


“The Kingdom of God is as if…”

“With what can we compare the Kingdom of God or what parable can we use for it?”

When you hear the words “Kingdom of God,” do you think of heaven?

And when you think of heaven, what does it look like? A field where seeds are growing? A hearty shrub that grew from a tiny mustard seed?

When Lloyd and Marvin started talking about heaven in their ice fishing shanty, they gave it a distinctive Wisconsin feel. They are the characters in the play Guys on Ice, a delightful and insightful look into the lives of two vintage Wisconsinites. And that ice shanty is a refreshing image on a morning like this.

LLOYD - Marvin, do you think there’s ice fishing in heaven?

MARVIN - I don’t know, Lloyd. ..Well, why the heck not? I mean, heaven is the other side of the fence from hell. And if hell is all flames and that,  then heaven must be cold – like Wisconsin.  So there’s ice fishing.

LLOYD -- Yeah, I think you got your logic just right there.

MARVIN -- And there’s 50 pound perch. No limit.

LLOYD -- Yeah, and all the lakes are beer.

MARVIN -- Yeah, yeah and all the beer is Leinies. (Or maybe for today, Spotted Cow)

LLOYD -- And 40 pounds overweight is skinny.
MARVIN -- Yeah, yeah and there’s no accordions.

LLOYD -- Yeah, and the Illinois toll booths – they give you money.

MARVIN -- Yeah, yeah, and no one dies, they just go to Algoma for the weekend.

LLOYD – Yeah, and Jesus meets them there wearing a green and gold snowmobile suit.

MARVIN --Yeah, and he looks just like Aaron Rogers.

LLOYD -- Marvin, every day, every day is Packer Sunday.

MARVIN -- …. Dat would be heaven.

OK, I’m not sure that’s exactly what heaven is like. Or what the Kingdom of God is like. And when Jesus was telling his parables – those stories that are intended to give us more insights to ponder than definitive answers – I’m not sure he was talking about someplace in the great beyond that we don’t find until after we die – or until we go to Algoma. 

Remember that line in the prayer Jesus taught his followers – “your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” The Kingdom of God is not far away in the future. 

The Gospel according to Mark begins with John the Baptist telling the crowds, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent, andbelieve in the good news.”  

In the Gospel according to Luke, the Pharisees – some of the Jewish leaders – ask Jesus when the Kingdom of God will come. He told them, “The Kingdom of God is in your midst.”

Not far away. Right here. Right now. The seeds are growing. The mustard bush holds the nests of the birds.  It’s not like a mighty cedar on top of a mountain, a majestic place far away. It’s a weedy shrub that spreads out and gives shelter to birds. 

It’s not a place inside a castle or nestled in the clouds. It’s the space where we are in relationship with God -- and where we live as if that makes a difference in our lives and the lives of those around us.

“The Kingdom of God is as if…”

It’s as if actress Diane Keaton showed up at your restaurant. Well, not your restaurant, exactly. It’s a restaurant in Los Angeles called Homegirl Café. It’s a project of Homeboy Industries, an effort started in the early 1990s by Jesuit priest Greg Boyle and others in the Los Angeles area trying to find ways to deal with the rise in gang violence. They thought jobs and education might provide more long-term hope than arrest and incarceration.

One of the industries was this café. And one day, Diane Keaton and a friend came in for lunch. Their waitress, Glenda, large and tattooed, had just finished a long stint in a California state prison. Glenda takes Keaton’s order, then suddenly something dawns on her.

“Wait a minute. I feel like I know you. Like…maybe we’ve met.”

Keaton surely has experienced this before and deflects the question with humility. “Oh…I suppose…I have one of those faces…that people think they’ve seen before.”

And then the light went on for Glenda.

“No…wait…I know.  We were locked up together!”

Greg Boyle called that “kinship” – an Oscar-winning actress and a waitress with attitude bonding over a lunch order.

“Exactly what God had in mind,” writes Boyle. “It would seem that Jesus wants this to be about us and our willingness, eventually, to connect with each other.”

Some contemporary religious thinkers like to use the word “kin-dom” instead of “kingdom.” I don’t think that flows off the tongue or into the mind easily, but I appreciate the point. The kingdom is where we see each other as kin, even when things do not always go smoothly.

If you are working with gang members, like Fr. Greg does, you are working with people who are often sworn enemies of each other. 

One October night, Fr. Greg was walking toward the Homeboy Bakery – another one of the enterprises – when he saw three teenage girls holding on to a chain-link fence near the bakery and giggling uncontrollably. He could hear the sound of some folk music from Columbia. And then he saw the focus of the girls’ attention. 

As he writes, “Big old Danny, one of our bakers, is dancing a raucous cumbia with tiny Carlitos, another baker, both from rival gangs, arm in arm, in their white bakery uniforms, covered in flour, swirling each other to these girls’ endless delight.”

Later in his book, Barking to the ChoirFr. Greg writes: “The ground beneath of our feet is the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land. It’s not around the corner. It isthe corner. Kinship is not a reward at the end. It’s here, it’s now, it’s at hand and within our reach. And this moment is the only one available to us.”

Two more quick Homeboy stories involving bakers.

Beto was talking with Fr. Greg in the parking lot, his white uniform covered with stains and dough at the end of a long workday. Out of the blue, Beto says, “Finally, I have brought honor to my father.”

Yes, this is a good story for Father’s Day.

Beto tells Fr. Greg how when his father would gather with his friends and they’d ask where Beto was, he’d often have to say that his son was in jail. “But now,’ Beto said, his face beaming, “he looks forward to the gathering with friends. He waits for the question, just so he can say, ‘Beto is a baker.’ ”

Lorenzo also worked at the Homeboy Bakery and was telling Fr. Greg about his car breaking down over the weekend in the middle of nowhere. He called some of his homies – former friends from the gang – and after five calls, he had been turned down by every one of them. You know – “I’m in the middle of something, I can’t go,” or “I’m really busy. Sorry.”

Finally, Lorenzo called Manny, who worked in the bakery with him. As Lorenzo explained to Fr. Greg, there was no one in the bakery who was a bigger enemy than Manny and his friends. But Lorenzo was getting desperate, so he called Manny. And then he had this to say:

“You know what my worst enemy said to me when I called him? He said, ‘On my way.’ ”

Is this what the Kingdom of God looks like?

One more story, this one from Luther Smith, Jr., a theology professor at Emory University in Atlanta. He was in Madison recently and talked about a phrase made popular by Martin Luther King, Jr. – “the Beloved Community.” It’s a phrase that evokes the idea of the Kingdom of God that we’ve been considering this morning.

The Beloved Community is not some romanticized place, Smith said. He compared it to a visit he made to a homeless shelter in North Carolina.

“It’s the homeless,” he observed, “with all the aromas you get from people who have been living on the street. And some obvious signs of mental illness that of course occur with many people living on the street.”

But there were also clothing racks neatly organized, an area where folks could navigate their disability benefits, artwork and poetry by homeless people on the walls, places to get acupuncture or massage therapy, tables in the dining room covered with linen tablecloths and china plates where bankers and retired people were serving multiple helpings of food. 

“I felt that I had entered the realm of God,” Smith said. “This was for me an experience of beloved community. Were there people still there addicted to drugs? Yes…Do some of the homeless speak rough to one another? Yes. Are some of them probably not as thankful  as they should be for this expression of care? Probably yes.”

Then he explained: “I would say that if we found ourselves requiring an understanding of the beloved community stripped of these dimensions of life, we’re always going to be disappointed in the picture of beloved community.”

“The Kingdom of God is as if…”

It’s as if when you are at the bedside of a loved one who is dying, you can feel the love and support of friends with you in that moment.

It’s as if when you are facing surgery, you go in knowing that not only is God going in with you, but that folks will be there when you come out to help with your recovery.

It’s as if when children are separated from their parents after a harrowing journey, there are people tending to their needs and advocating for their future.

It’s as if when someone is fleeing from violence in their home, there is safe place to go and protection and support as they rebuild their lives.

It’s as if in all the mess of life, we discover that we are not alone. God’s vision of what that kingdom should be transforms us and those we encounter along the way.

“With what can we compare the Kingdom of God?”

To scattered seeds and to a feisty waitress, to a hearty bush and to bakers who embrace their enemies, to a beloved community in the midst of a homeless shelter, to any place where we experience God’s love through the love of those around us.

The Kingdom of God, the Beloved Community is here for us today. Let us rejoice and be glad.

Amen.









Thursday, April 5, 2018

Being white in a colorful world

I was just about 19 years old, a freshman in college, on the night Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered – April 4, 1968.

I was in a Catholic seminary near Green Bay, Wisconsin as the news began to spread through the building. We gathered around the TV in the commons area where only five days earlier, we had watched President Lyndon Johnson announce that he would not seek a second term as president. That was stunning news. This was horrific news.

I knew about the Civil Rights Movement, of course, and I knew of the work of King. But it was something far away from my everyday life. From that night on, however, King’s words and actions became more and more central to my search for my place in a world far more colorful – and far more turbulent – than what I had experienced up to that time.

King’s life, his message, his courage, his faith in God and his faith in the still-unfulfilled promises of America have been touchstones in my life in the 50 years since then. This anniversary of his assassination offers me a chance to look back in a very personal way about my own journey from a small, very white city in northeastern Wisconsin to this day in what is a majority white city that is part of a very multi-colored world.

Marinette when I was growing up was a city of about 14,000 nestled on the shore of the Menominee River that formed the border with Michigan. The diversity there at the time involved religion – Catholic and Protestant with a smattering of Jews – and ethnic heritage – German, French, Irish and Polish were the identifiers for the four Catholic churches in town.  If there was anyone in either Marinette or it sister city across the river – Menominee, Mich. – who was not white, I never saw them.

But here’s an interesting story I learned much later in life. These lands were once the part of the Menominee tribal lands. The tribal origin story is set right here, where the Menominee River empties into Green Bay. It was there, according to the story, that a great bear emerged from underground and began traveling up the river where it was transformed into the first Menominee man.

We did not hear that story when I was growing up, but there was another fascinating connection to the Menominee tribe, which had lived in the area along the Menominee River in the 1600 and 1700s. In 1823, a Menominee woman who became known as Queen Marinette arrived with her white husband, a fur trader. Over the decades she was a go-between for the tribe in its dealing with the white settlers. The city was named after her.

Then there is the personal connection. Her trading post was essentially on the land where my parents’ house stood during the first three years of my life. There is a monument to her there.   But I don’t think I ever met any of the tribal members who were so much a part of this land.

That began to change a bit when I was in high school. For my sophomore, junior and senior years, I attended Sacred Heart Seminary in Oneida, Wisconsin. The seminary was located on the land of the Oneida tribe (the building is now the Oneida tribal headquarters) and when we ventured off campus, we would encounter tribal members at the convenience store they ran. But the students and faculty at the seminary – all white.

During the summer of 1966 – between my junior and senior high school years – I volunteered to work with what was called the Migrant Ministry in Oconto, where migrant workers mostly from the Brownsville area of Texas came every summer to pick cucumbers for the Bond Pickle Company. My job was to work with the kids during their day-time schooling and recreation. As I got to know some of the kids, I thought it would be fun to bring a few of them the 23 miles north to my home city of Marinette, to play in a park there, to see a little bit more of the world.

There are a variety of reasons why that might have been a bad idea, but the objection that sticks with me is the one that came from my mother, one of the most gracious persons in the world. She did not want me to bring these Latino kids to our home, asking, “What would the neighbors think?” I was puzzled, appalled, angry. But it was her house, so we went to the park.

During the four summers I worked with migrants in Oconto, I moved from the guy who took the kids out to play to someone who helped communicate the issues around migrant labor, housing, education and such to the wider Oconto community through newspaper columns and a radio broadcast. As I grew to understand the societal issues around migrant labor, it became part of my academic study later at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and in a variety of other venues.

Meanwhile, at the seminary there was a growing awareness of the movement for civil rights occurring around the nation, especially in those places where priests and nuns were involved. And because King had built alliances across religious traditions, we were aware of his role in all of this.

We were especially aware of the work of Fr. James Groppi, a white Catholic priest in Milwaukee who was an assistant pastor at St. Boniface Parish, lived in slum housing and served as an advisor to the NAACP Youth Council. Later, he would lead a series of open housing marches in Milwaukee and lead welfare mothers to Madison to protest cuts in welfare benefits. Before all that, in October of 1966, he came to the seminary with seven members of the Youth Council so all of them could talk to us about civil rights, education and the role of the church. I was a reporter for the school newspaper at the time and it’s possible I wrote the story, although there is no byline on it.

“When Christ walked the earth some 2,000 years ago,” Groppi told us, “he was concerned with the people who were hungry, with the people who were oppressed. Christ was a civil rights worker.”

In addition to beginning to weave Groppi’s message into my own understanding of Jesus, this was probably the first time I had any kind of meaningful engagement with people who were black.

By the time I entered my college years at the seminary in the fall of 1967 (I was there for my freshman and sophomore years), one of the faculty members was connecting us to the wider world in many ways, including a trip to Chicago in 1968 before King’s assassination. We went to take in one of the Saturday morning Operation Breadbasket gatherings with Rev. Jesse Jackson (and, on the day we were there, Cesar Chavez, the organizer of Latino farmworkers, was also there). This was essentially a combination worship service and political rally with stunning music from the band and choir led by Ben Branch (the musician King was speaking to moments before he was shot, asking him to play “Precious Lord” – here’s a link to Ben Branch’s version).

Needless to say, the little group of seminarians in the crowd was a distinct minority of white faces. It was a foretaste of an experience I would have a few months later.

A month after King was killed, the school newspaper devoted a half page to his words of wisdom, including this quote from his speech when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964: “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.”

My desire to learn more about the work of King, the urgency of finding a path to racial justice, my understanding of what followers of Jesus were being called to – these all intensified. I heard about a program at a place called Friendship House in Chicago and signed up for the week-long interracial experience that they offered. At the heart of the program was the white attendees living with black families in Chicago, giving us a chance to have a glimpse of the black experience. It was an experience that had an incredible impact on me.

I was sleeping in the basement at the home of this middle-aged black couple, eating grits for breakfast and then walking through a virtually all-black neighborhood to catch the bus that would take me to Friendship House on the south side. I was very aware of how different I was from everyone else. But as the week went on, I was less and less conscious of that on my walk to the bus. That feeling of being different had become at least a little bit familiar.

The family I lived with was friendly, but not too talkative. I felt ill at ease as a stranger in their house.  I had arrived on a Sunday. On Wednesday, the family I was staying with took me next door to meet the neighbors. We sat around the living room having a beer. They asked me what  I had been doing. I told them about the various speakers we had heard over the past few days – a black Chicago police sergeant who talked about the racism he saw and experienced on the force; Saul Alinksy, the community organizer who was a huge figure in  Chicago; a priest who worked in black neighborhoods.

Then the woman we were visiting began to tell me about being black in a white society. The intensity of her feelings was overwhelming, softened only by occasional assurances that I shouldn’t take this personally. I don’t remember any of the words she said, only the heat of her anger. It my first experience facing black rage in a very personal way. It shook me, for sure, but also opened my eyes to one slice of the reality of being black in America.

We ended the week at Operation Breadbasket, my second visit within a few months. After the morning program, those of us in the Friendship House group met with Rev. Jackson. This was just two months after he had stood on the hotel balcony in Memphis as King was dying from the bullet wound. This was a more subdued Jackson than the one speaking from the stage or often seen in public. He tried to convey to us the need for the work for racial justice to continue.

By the time I turned 20, despite coming from such a white city and attending such a white seminary, I had been in some contact with African Americans, Latinos and Oneida tribal members. More than contact, actually. I had felt welcomed across the lines that seemed to divide so much of our country. That at least gave me some confidence to begin engaging people from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds. Next stop – UW-Madison.

Wisconsin’s major university was not all that much more diverse than the rest of the state, but it was at the center of social justice movements in the late 1960s. The winter before I came to campus in August of 1969 as a junior, black students at UW led a strike that pushed the administration to create a Department of African American studies.

One of the first demonstrations that I encountered in Madison was the welfare rights march from Milwaukee to Madison, led by Fr. Groppi. The marchers took over the State Assembly chambers during the first day and then demonstrators, including me, ringed the Capitol for the next several days.

One evening, I wound up helping Sylvester, a 46-year old black man who was part of the leadership, collect bail money from the crowd. We came across another man Sylvester was pretty sure was collecting money for his own purposes. He tried to persuade him to bring the money to the office. The man responded by pulling a .38 pistol out of his lightweight yellow jacket. “You accusin’ me of being a thief,” he said to Sylvester. “Get out of here before I shoot you.” My inclination was to get out of there, but Sylvester had other ideas. “Go ahead and shoot,” he replied as I’m sure my eyes were as wide as saucers. “I know I’m right and you know I’m right and I don’t mind dyin’.” After a few tense moments of silence, the man put the gun back in his jacket and they both walked into the office to deposit the bail money. I started to breathe again.

It was a powerful moment on several levels, including the power of an active non-violent response to a threat. For me, it was also a lesson that this black man from Milwaukee would be my protector.

Campus life went on – classes, protests, girlfriends. I was more involved in the peace movement than the racial justice movement over the next few years, but I was still encountering people from many different backgrounds. I started writing for The Daily Cardinal, a student newspaper, and wrote a series about U.S. and Wisconsin companies investing in apartheid South Africa and the efforts to push for divestment. Then it was on to The Capital Times, first as a reporter covering politics in the state and city, then in 1975, covering education in the city. That’s when I was again encountering issues of race.

In 1976, I wrote a four-part series on racial issues in the Madison public schools. The first story was headlined: “Minorities Isolated Within Schools.” At that point, 95 percent of the students in the Madison public schools were white. (Today – in 2018 – 44 percent are white.)  Some of the quotes from that series have an awfully familiar ring 40 years later. Richard Buchanan, the school district’s human relations director, he saw “minority students in Madison miseducated in a system with the best educational opportunities in the country.”

One of the ways the school district responded was to require that all teachers take a 10-hour human relations course in an effort to help the mostly white teachers learn about the racial, ethnic and cultural differences among their students. I attended one of the courses along with 39 teachers, which not only sharpened some aspects of my own racial awareness but also allowed me to encounter the sparks that can fly when a mostly white crowd tries to talk about race and ethnicity. In one exercise, small clusters tried to list stereotypes attached to various racial and ethnic groups. Then resource people from those groups entered into the discussion and as the session wore on, the conversations got hotter. Participants said they thought the resource people were acting as though the teachers themselves held the stereotypes they had brainstormed. By the end of the 10 hours, teachers gave the whole experience a lackluster review.

(One point of personal pride about this series: it received a Special Citation from the Education Writers Association in 1976 for investigative reporting.)

But another story in that series planted the seed of what would become a joint project between The Capital Times and the school district more than a decade later. Marlene Cummings, a curriculum specialist for the Madison schools Human Relations Department, went from classroom to classroom in Madison’s elementary school to help children learn how to respect one another’s differences.

The project that Marlene Cummings’ classes inspired became known as “Celebrate Difference.” It was not limited to the schools and it actually began at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1987. I became the point person at The Capital Times to extend its reach to the wider community and then, a year later, to engage 92 teachers and 1,300 students in 32 Madison schools in exploring the values of diversity. Clearly, three decades later, this project did not solve all the issues either in the community or society. But it did provide a framework for education and experiences around the issues of a multi-cultural society.

My part of it began with an editorial I wrote for The Capital Times on Feb. 3, 1988, inviting our readers to join the Celebrate Difference project begun by UW-Madison Dean of Students Mary Rouse and campus religious leaders to create a more positive atmosphere on campus in the midst of racial tensions there. Nearly 3,000 people on campus signed the pledge to celebrate differences and confront racism and prejudice.

The editorial said that the newspaper was adopting this “to accentuate the value in moving out of the protective cocoons of sameness and to highlight the excitement in discovering the new horizons of diversity.” It acknowledged that “this effort focuses more on attitudes than actions” and that it itself, it would not create jobs, end poverty or stop housing discrimination.

Over the next several months, some 750 people responded to the Cap Times’ invitation.  The project also sparked an internal examination at the newspaper about the lack of diversity on our staff and the way we cover stories in the community. We hired trainers to come in to work with our staff and then invited community leaders to come to a staff meeting to share their perceptions with us.

Then schools began using it, so late in 1988, we launched an effort to have students write about their own thoughts on diversity and their experiences with it in their own lives. In February of 1989, the Cap Times published a special 24-page insert with many of the students’ comments. It turned out to be an inspiring presentation from the kids about how they viewed the world in which they were growing up. And it provided a vehicle for many teachers to engage their students in discussions about the diversity in their classrooms and in their community.

When the whole project came to a conclusion, I wrote a column about it that appeared in the Sunday Wisconsin State Journal. I wrote about how I tried to use the Celebrate Difference project to expand my own cultural horizons. Indeed, over the course of that year, I formed relationships with a wide variety of community leaders that continued through the years.

In that column, I referred back to my all-white upbringing and concluded: “Celebrate Difference means that I can celebrate my own heritage – my German ancestry, my white skin, my Catholic beliefs, my masculinity, my marriage – without diminishing the heritage of others. It means that I can reach out beyond that personal heritage and celebrate with others at a black gospel festival or a Hispanic fiesta. It means I can learn from the stories of a Menominee Indian or a Hmong refugee.”  I had also been keeping a journal during that year delving into my thoughts and experiences with race in a way I never had before.

All of this was happening as race was playing out in many different ways in the Madison area.

One was the presidential campaign of Rev. Jesse Jackson. He was a credible candidate in the Wisconsin primary, even though this was a predominantly white state. (He ultimately came in second with 28 percent of the vote.) 

I was the editorial page editor at the Cap Times and was involved in interviewing several of the candidates, including Jackson. I then wrote our endorsement of Jackson, saying that he “more than any other presidential candidate on the ballot this year, embodies the pain of those struggling to make it in the America of the 1980s and the hope of those anticipating the America of the 1990s.” We made the case for him based on his movement, his message and the man, saying he represented “the kind of vision, the kind of leader who could point this nation in the direction we believe it needs to go.” It was not to be, of course, but I am proud to have been able to articulate that vision.

In the city of Madison, meanwhile, more and more African-Americans were finding this city a refuge from the streets of Chicago and Milwaukee and other troubled communities. Most of them simply sought a better life for themselves and their children. Others came to continue the exploitation of those seeking a better life. Madison began to react more and more strongly – and negatively – to its growing diversity.

I had a chance at the end of 1989 to be the responder to a talk UW-Madison Chancellor Donna Shalala gave to the Madison Literary Club about the problems facing America’s cities. I talked about the tendency for Madison to engage in “drawbridge politics” – let’s protect our nice little enclave by not letting others in. I suggested we might look as the people moving to our city as “urban refugees,” not all that different from the other groups of refugees who have settled here. I expanded on that in a column in the Sunday Wisconsin State Journal: “All of these groups rely on the generosity of folks in this area to help them make a transition in their lives.” I argued that over time, these refugees could “bring new strength and new vitality to this community.”

I was writing quite a bit about issues of race during this stretch, both in editorials and in columns. There were headlines on my columns like “Racial politics make divisive problems worse” and “Race, poverty create stark images.”  I tried in many ways to focus my writing on these issues.

I had a chance in October of 1989 to spend an extraordinary weekend at what was then called St. Benedict Center (now Holy Wisdom Monastery) with Rosemarie and Vincent Harding, veterans of the Civil Rights Movement, friends and counselors to Dr. King, theologians and spiritual guides. There were about 40 of us there from all over the country. Among the many insights they offered that weekend: “The biggest challenge facing our country is learning to be a multiracial society.” Clearly, that challenge remains.

One aspect of such a challenge is how folks in the media deal with issues of race. During the Celebrate Difference project, the Cap Times did some staff training around these issues, but we were hardly the only media outlet in this new-rich city. So in the late 1990s and into the 2000s, I was part of a group that convened periodic race and media forums, bringing together news people from a variety of outlets with representatives of the black community. These were often uncomfortable as we heard the many ways we were failing an important segment of our community. A lack of diversity on our staffs, an over-emphasis on negative stories involving people of color, a lack of positive news, disconnection from the daily lives of black residents, a historic distrust of white media by black folks. Once again, we opened some new channels of communication, but the problems linger.

While I was working on issues in Madison, I was also part of the leadership of an organization then known as the National Conference of Editorial Writers.  One of our initiatives shared with the National Association of Black Journalists was to give an annual Ida B. Wells award for someone in the field of journalism who was making our profession more open to the nation’s diversity. (The original curator of the award was Sam Adams, a veteran black journalist who taught one of the first courses – Hunger in America – that I took when I began at UW In 1969.) We also ran an annual Minority Writers Seminar in Nashville to help open the doors to opinion writing for journalists of color around the nation.

During that stretch, I wrote my own reflections in 2005 on race and media, focusing specifically on the Cap Times, where I was now the managing editor, the second highest spot in the newsroom. I knew that over 40 years, the Cap Times had hired perhaps eight black journalists. We had worked with the Simpson Street Free Press to nurture young writers, we had provided internship opportunities for high school students, we had a partnership with our neighbors at Wright Middle School, the Evjue Foundation (which donated the paper’s profits to the community) funded an annual minority journalism scholarship at the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communications. I had brought in my friend Dori Maynard to do another newsroom training on race.

But still, as I looked through three months worth of papers in 2005, trying to see them as if I were a person of color, I wrote that “I did not find much that I could identify with…The overall impression I got was that this was a publication written by and for white folks.” I’ll leave aside the complications around recruiting, around the demographics of news consumers in Madison, the pressures of time and staff and breaking news and simply acknowledge that by the mid-2000s, when I had risen far up in the leadership at the paper, there were still huge gaps in our efforts to reach beyond our traditional white readership.

This was a time when I was also in the midst of changing careers, going from journalism to ministry. One of the opportunities that created for me is to engage around issues of race and religion and in the process, establish new relationships with people connected with growing black church world in Madison.

A place where I began to experience that was as part of the Martin Luther King Community Choir, directed by Leotha and Tamera Stanley of Mt. Zion Baptist Church. The choir sings each year for the Madison/Dane County King celebration in January, but as part of that weekend, it also sings at an ecumenical church service honoring King’s life. That event tends to get a smaller number of choir members, so one year, there were only two of us basses there and we had one very exposed line – which we blew. And the crowd cheered us on and encouraged us and I got a wonderful taste of how a black church in a way that is both joyful and caring can carry those who stumble, even if only on a line of music.

One of the places where my work in journalism and ministry overlapped involved the Cap Times and Rev. Alex Gee, pastor of Fountain of Life. I got to know Alex in the mid-2000s when I wrote a story about books that he and his sister Lilada had published delving into some of the hard parts of their lives. We stayed in touch after that. Occasionally I would go to worship at Fountain of Life and one Sunday he preached at Memorial United Church of Christ where I was the pastor.

In the fall of 2013 when Alex was feeling very frustrated with the way he had been treated as a black man in Madison – a black man who was also a professional and a non-profit leader and a pastor – he asked me to brainstorm with him how he might tell his story. I connected him with Paul Fanlund, the executive editor of the Cap Times out of that came an essay called “Justified Anger: Madison is failing its African-American Community” that launched a movement for racial justice in Madison.
Since then, I have been part of the Black History for a New Day class put on by Justified Anger and continue to work with Pastor Alex on writing projects.

While at Memorial, I formed a partnership with Pastor Colier McNair of Zion City Church, seeking ways to connect our two congregations which in many ways were mirror images – mostly black Pentecostal and mostly white mainstream Protestant. My relationship with Colier and his wife, Myra, and members of the congregation grew stronger than did the connections between the two congregations, but it was a worthwhile effort.

Now my wife, Ellen, and I have joined in a Bible study led by Pastor (and Judge) Everett Mitchell at Christ the Solid Rock church, which is offering us new connections. One of the important pieces of that for me is I am meeting people outside the normal civic and religious circles that I travel in.

I have had a chance over the years to visit some of the places that tied together my experiences – the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, including the Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was shot; Ebeneezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where King grew up and often preached, as well as his home down the street and the gravesite where he and his wife, Coretta Scott King, are buried; the King Memorial in Washington, D.C, ; the new National Museum of African American Culture and History in Washington, D.C.

I have had the chance to hear some of the great black preachers at the Festival of Homiletics over the years – Otis Moss III, Luke Powery, Yvette Flunder among them.

Not that I have got this whole race relations thing figured out. When I start to feel like I have somehow gotten past my own biases, I remember the day a black man drove up to Memorial and I saw him walking from his car toward church. I figured he was just another person stopping by to seek some financial assistance. Turns out, he was a business guy who needed directions to his next appointment.

But that was just a personal preconception – call it an implicit bias – coming through. But there was a second instance where my own privileged status allowed me and most of the folks I hang out with to totally miss one of the great racial divides in Madison.

Kaleem Caire, then the director of the Greater Madison Area Urban League, had proposed a public school that would serve black boys and girls called Madison Prep. There was heated debate involving the school board, the teachers’ union, members of the black community and some in the white community, culminating in an emotion-laden six hour meeting when many black folks explained in painful detail the way the Madison schools had failed them and their children. After it was over, I got this Facebook message from a friend on the school board, Lucy Mathiak: “Hi Phil, I'm curious about the relative silence of the clergy (other than some of the African American clergy) on the debate over Madison Prep, race, and public education.”

Here's part of my reply: “At least in the circles of clergy I run with, it never even came up as a point of discussion. I suspect that's in part because our congregations tend to be predominantly white and there is less of a personal sense of urgency about the outcomes for African American students in the schools. While there is a generalized sense of the need for 'something' to be done, people don't feel the same stake in it as families with African American students do. At the congregation I serve in Fitchburg, I have not heard any talk about Madison Prep at all.”

Of course, that became the basis for a column in the Cap Times in February of 2013, but still, much of my work around racial issues in recent years has been as an individual rather than working with church communities. (I am, however, becoming one of the point people for the regional United Church of Christ congregations as they explore race over the coming year.)

So clearly there is more work for me to do to, in Vincent Harding’s words, learning how to live in a multi-racial society. I have been fortunate – indeed privileged in many senses of that word – to have amazing opportunities and good friends to accompany me on this journey. Because of the role I had at the newspaper and then as a minister who had wide exposure to people in the community, I had chances other white folks don’t easily have to cross some of the boundaries that exist in our society. Those opportunities have so greatly enhanced my life.  But I worry that they have only made a small difference in the divisions that still exist in so many aspects of our community, of our nation. So the struggle goes on.

As I remembered Dr. King’s death 50 years ago, I came across words from his youngest child, Bernice, who told The Guardian news site in words she learned from her mother: “Struggle is a never-ending process, freedom is never really won – you earn it and win it in every generation.”

My struggle – and the struggle of the nation – continues with the hope embodied by Dr. King that one day America will live up to its promise and that followers of Jesus will help lead the way. The march towards the Beloved Community goes on.