Tag Archive for social justice

After Chicago: Reflections on Racism, Poverty & Violence

The week after Easter four of us from the WMA Social Justice Commission went to Chicago to an event organized by Bishops United Against Gun Violence. It was a gathering to study the “Unholy Trinity” of racism, poverty and gun violence. My friends will share their reflections and wisdom from those remarkable days here in this blog. I’ll save my thoughts for the last.

Alexizendria Link

I left the conference with a spiritual understanding that garnered the urgency for Church reflection, movement and support for action against injustice in society.  A call for Christians to return to moral leadership and service by partnering with oppressed communities rather than serving ourselves within church communities was highlighted.

The Rev. Julian DeShazier, adjunct professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School and McCormick Theological Seminary and University Church senior pastor reminded us poverty, racism and gun violence are moral issues and the church needs to be a moral voice. He says,

“We have turned our churches into think tanks but not action centers and consider our pastors as theologians rather than community leaders.”

He reminded us the church once represented a moral center in the community and as a result provided a moral compass in our cities and towns.  Now it appears as if the church has shifted to primarily condemning.  The Church condemns racism, injustice, poverty, gun violence, climate issues and etc. but rarely are we physically doing anything in and with oppressed communities.

I believe we need to intellectually revisit, spiritually reflect and physically return to moral leadership while partnering with communities outside our church walls.

Jane G. Tillman

Attending the conference “The Unholy Trinity:  The Intersection of Racism, Poverty, and Gun Violence” in Chicago was an amazing experience of listening, learning, singing, praying, weeping, and marching.  The conference included three contextual bible study sessions which began in a large group led by Dr. Dora Mbuwayesango, a professor of Old Testament and Languages at Hood Theological Seminary.  We then went to small groups each day, to study a selected biblical text, trying to understand the characters in the story, the relationship of the characters to one another and to God, and the role of violence and conflict in the story of God’s people.  Moving from understanding the biblical text within an historical framework, we then explored how the ancient story of God’s people is like the pain we face in our current time with intergroup conflict, violence, murder, child sacrifice, political scheming, and the ongoing sin of racism, violence, and poverty.

The Rt. Rev. Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, Bishop Diocesan of Indianapolis, speaking at the public witness of prayer. Photo: Lee Cheek

I felt fortunate that the facilitator of my bible study group was the Rt. Rev. Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, an African-American-Indian priest, who was attending the conference the week before her ordination and consecration as the Bishop of Indianapolis and the first African American woman to be a diocesan bishop.  There were moments of deep sadness as well, such has when the Rt. Rev. Eugene Sutton announced that the State of Arkansas would execute one of their prisoners that first evening of the conference.  The death penalty is where racism, poverty, gun violence, and state-sanctioned murder all intersect and this was a powerful moment for me.

Lee Cheek

Two common narratives about guns emerged: (1) gun violence is mainly a problem with blacks (2) unrestricted white gun ownership and “stand your ground “is God-ordained.  We were called to challenge these narratives from a faith-based perspective.

The Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas. Photo: Lee Cheek

The Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, canon theologian for the Diocese of Maryland, challenged a mostly white church to give up resting in the comfort of believing that the problem of gun violence lies only within the black urban community. She asked us to get to know their stories and see their humanity. The violence there is a legacy of a system of unjust privilege and penalty.  The inequalities of racism and poverty are something each of us is on the hook for.  Eliminating these systems is “not a work of choice for us but what is necessary to be Christian.”

The Rev. Rob Schenck, an evangelical pastor from Washington, D.C., who was featured in the 2015 documentary, The Armour of Light, declared that unrestricted white gun ownership and violence against what is perceived as threat is “a theological problem” with which many evangelicals struggle. He urged us to build relationships that help them disentangle their theology from the culture of “ferocious autonomy” and individualism.

Lee Cheek, Alexizendria Link and Jane G. Tillman. PHOTO: J.G. Tillman

My thoughts on the “Unholy Trinity” event…

For me, the quote I will remember most came from Rev. Julian DeShazier, pastor at University Chapel and a hip hop artist. He said, “Too many Christian churches have become ‘think tanks’ when they should be ‘action centers’.” I’m challenged and inspired by that line.

Part of being an “action center” is to take our faith to the streets in liturgies of witness. I have shared many times in this blog and in Abundant TIMES about the value and indeed, the necessity of public prayer witness. These are not demonstrations. They are not marches. They are prayer. They are processions. As one speaker put it: “We impoverish ourselves if we limit our symbols and sacraments to just what is possible in the walls of the church.” Liturgy is a strength of the Episcopal Church, so why not take that gift and bring it to the streets? We did that in Chicago.

Photo: Bishop Ian Douglas

Two hundred of us processed through a section of Chicago’s South Side. Drums loudly announced our presence. Bishops wore vestments. Dozens of crosses were carried high.  Banners clearly stated why we were doing this. We sang hymns. We chanted.

People joined us along the way. Some stood and watched. Many took out their cell phones and recorded it. Why? Because the Church was in the streets. We were not a think tank. We were a moving “action center”, witnessing against the Unholy Trinity and witnessing for Jesus mission of mercy, compassion and hope.


We have two precedents: prayer and action.

If we could see one of those “word clouds” of the media coverage of the last couple of months in our new political world, the dominant word would be “unprecedented.”

  • unprecedented use of Twitter by the President-Elect
  • unprecedented responses to criticism
  • unprecedented refusal to hand over tax returns
  • unprecedented attempts at interference in our election by a foreign power
  • unprecedented for Democrats to sit out the Inaugural

What should we do in unprecedented times? We can turn to the “precedented” in our own tradition. Our precedent is for prayer and action.

We will pray “for those in positions of public trust, especially President Trump, that they may serve justice, and promote the dignity and freedom of every person” according to the words of The Book of Common Prayer. That powerful but simple line has Biblical roots. As Presiding Bishop Michael Curry recently reminded us, Psalm 72 urges prayer for the King of Israel that he might rule in the ways of God’s justice, defending “the cause of the poor” and “bringing deliverance to the needy.”

In that same communication to the Church, Bishop Curry tells us that when we pray for Presidents of the United States, “we pray for their leadership in our society and world. We pray that they lead in the ways of justice and truth. We pray that their leadership will serve not partisan interest but the common good.”

In an unprecedented time, we have precedent for praying for our President. I will do that on Inauguration Day and in the days to come.

We also have another precedent. We have the biblical mandate to act justly.  It can be seen in the 2000 calls in the Bible to help the poor, in the command to “welcome the stranger,” in Jesus’ prayer that God’s “will be done on EARTH as it is in heaven,” in Jesus’ respect for women clearly expressed so often in his ministry and in making Mary Magdalene “the apostle to the apostles.”

Our Christian tradition heralds the actions of those who tried to live this biblical imperative for social justice: Frances Perkins, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Jonathan Myrick Daniels, Dorothy Day, Thomas Gallaudet, Vida Dutton Scudder.

Our precedent is for prayer and action.

Christianity is not an abstract idea. The biblical imperative to act justly calls us to see immigrants and refugees as the “stranger” in need of our welcome. It calls us to imagine God’s will for the earth and to make it so. (Here is the letter to the President-Elect from the Bishops of Massachusetts about his choice for the EPA.) We will be acting  justly when we respect the dignity of all persons regardless of race, gender identification, sexual orientation, place of origin, religious beliefs, or economic status. We will be living justly when our streets and schools are safe from gun violence.

Bumper sticker of the Presiding Bishop’s description of the Church (Forward Movement)

As the Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement, we have a big mission. We have to witness to our faith in our families, in our neighborhoods, where we work and in our politics. God be with our President, and God be with those who march in protest this weekend. God will be with us in the struggle to find our way, to speak our piece and act justly for the good of all people.

Dr. Martin Luther King wrote, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

I pray for the courage to witness to our faith in the things that matter. I pray courage for us all.


The time for silence is over.



On December 16, 2012 there was a powerful prayer service held at the Washington National Cathedral in the wake of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The Dean, Gary Hall, preached “Enough is enough. As followers of Jesus, we have the moral obligation to stand for and with the victims and to work to end it. We have tolerated school shootings, mall shootings, theater shootings, sniper shootings, workplace shootings, temple and church shootings, urban neighborhood shootings far too long… The gun lobby is strong but it is no match for the cross lobby.”

On the day after the slaughter in Oregon, as our prayers go out to the victims and their families, it feels like the gun lobby is winning.

According to VOX, yesterday was the latest in 986 mass shootings in the United States since Sandy Hook (a mass shooting is defined as one in which four or more people are shot.)

It feels like the gun lobby is winning.

But we have been here before. After the death of Jesus, it felt like all was lost. The great dream of the Kingdom of God seemed over. Even the Resurrection of Jesus did not restore hope at first. In Mark’s Gospel, after the disciples are told at the empty tomb that Jesus is risen and they should go and tell this good news, they scatter.  “They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid (Mark 16:8).” The Gospel ends there.

We know they overcame their fear at Pentecost and began a movement that went out to all the world. Although our churches throughout history have been (and continue to be) deeply flawed, the Jesus Movement is still the greatest expression of mercy, compassion and hope the world has ever seen.

It feels like the gun lobby is winning.

The Church offers sincere prayer-filled moments of silence for the victims, but the time for silence is over.

Let’s get behind our President who says “there is a gun for roughly every man, woman and child in America. So how can you with a straight face make the argument that more guns make us safer?”


Have you contacted your representatives in Congress?  Have you used your freedom and your faith to move the mountain of indifference?  It’s not too late to make your voice heard.

In Massachusetts we have some of the strictest gun laws in the nation, but we can do better. Ask your elected representatives why the proposal to limit the purchase of guns to “one gun per person per month” was voted down even though that would reduce gun trafficking.

Some studies show that the vast majority of NRA members want universal back ground checks.

If you are an NRA member, why are you being silent on this? Why do you let the Wayne LaPierres of the world speak for you?

I want to believe the gun lobby is no match for the cross lobby, and that people of faith can make a difference. Another moment of silent prayer will not make it so. It’s time to make noise. Proclaim God’s dream of nonviolence. Proclaim it boldly and with endless hope.


We are already deeply immersed in much of this work.



Like so many, I have been inspired by the visit of Pope Francis to the United States. My heart rejoiced to read this statement to Congress:

“A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to ‘dream’ of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton.”


What a great summary of what it means to be a “great” nation. And Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton are two of my personal spiritual heroes. Perhaps, we should follow up with a Quiet Day focusing on the insights of these two saints?

We should follow up on much of what Francis said knowing that we are already deeply immersed in much of that work. Here are two examples.

Welcoming the StrangerThe Bishop of Rome has long been an advocate for the rights of immigrants. The Bishop of Western Massachusetts came here with experience in that area. Our Social Justice Commission issued a document called Welcoming the Stranger: The Church and Immigration on September 21. We chose that date because it is the feastday of St. Matthew – his gospel has the story of Joseph, Mary and Jesus as refugees in Egypt. I invite you to “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” what is written here.  Immigration will continue to be a huge issue in the upcoming Presidential campaign.

Pope Francis took his name because he wants to follow in the way of St. Francis of Assisi who advocated for the poor and who is the patron saint of the environmental movement. With the leadership of our Missioner for Creation Care, The Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, we are addressing climate change in many ways on the diocesan and national level. Margaret spent this week in Washington D.C at numerous events including a meeting with Karen Florini, Deputy Special Envoy for Climate Change at the US State Department. You can learn more about that visit here.

While the Pope was addressing Congress, I was speaking on the steps of City Hall at the Springfield Climate Justice Rally. I quoted the Pope and spoke about how many religious traditions are uniting in efforts to save our planet. VIDEO

westfield farmers market 051


Throughout New England, preachers are being urged to have at least one sermon about climate change in the season from October 4 (St. Francis Day) to Epiphany. “New Awakening- Preaching on Climate Change” is being held in Framingham, Massachusetts on October 20 to provide practical help in creating those sermons. REGISTER


Thank God for Pope Francis and his prophetic words. As Jesus gave us his public policy position in his first sermon in a synagogue in Nazareth: “I have come to bring good news to the poor (Luke 4:16-30).” Pope Francis has given us his public policy position which lines up pretty well with that of Jesus.

May this week be more than a time of inspiration. May it inspire commitment to being the New Creation that God has always envisioned.


After Alabama: a Path of Action for Justice


I have never visited the Holy Land. Friends who have, tell me they never read the Scriptures in the same way again. Even though they knew the stories, being physically present to the sacred places gave them a whole new appreciation. My participation this week in a pilgrimage through Alabama, visiting key places in the Civil Rights Movement, as part of a group sponsored by Episcopal Divinity School,  brought me to a similar new depth of understanding. I was a child during those history making days of the 1960s but I studied that era extensively as an adult. I was especially taken by the story of Jonathan Daniels, the Episcopal seminarian who gave his life in that struggle. Although I never made the commitment he did, I shared his idealism, his hope that Jesus’ dream of the Kingdom of God on earth as in heaven could be realized.


I entered the journey knowing the stories, but hearing the stories where they took place helped them enter my soul. Walking in prayer through Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, where Sheriff Bull Connor had his police attack protesters with vicious dogs and where he had water canons turned on the marchers, gave me a sense of witness to the horrific events, as did entering the 16th Street Baptist Church where a bomb killed four children getting ready for Sunday School. Walking over Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, knowing that “Bloody Sunday” occurred at the end of that walk, was prayer in motion. When I knelt on the ground in Haynesville, where Jonathan was gunned down by Thomas Coleman, taking a bullet intended for 16-year-old Ruby Sales, I felt the spirit of one who had followed Jesus all the way to the cross. Our multidimensional souls allow us to be horrified and inspired at the same time.


There is another Holy Land/Gospel similarity. The Gospels were written about fifty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Most scholars date Mark to around 70 A.D., Matthew and Luke to 80-85, John in the 90’s. The Evangelists wrote to preserve the community’s memory of Jesus and to keep the message and Spirit of Jesus alive and vibrant in a new time. The new time was living the faith without the Temple, which had been destroyed by the Romans in 70. Could it be that we are retelling the Civil Rights stories fifty years later, not just for history’s sake, but so that we might embrace the message of that time – be inspired to work for justice in a new era? Our society does not look like it did in the ’50s and ’60s, just as the Judeo-Christian faith expression did not look like it did in the Temple era – a time in which they expected the imminent return of Christ. The Gospels invited believers to “be” the Body of Christ.  The sacrifices of so many, fifty years ago, did achieve so much. But the work of the Civil Rights Movement is far from done, even though some may have thought it was. The attempt to roll back voting rights, the mass incarceration of black men (The New Jim Crow), income inequality are just a few examples. Bishops Against Gun Violence speak about the “Unholy Trinity” – poverty, racism and guns.

Telling the stories of Jesus and the Prophets has never been viewed as interesting stories from long ago. They are the Living Word because they comfort and challenge us now. They require a response. In the same way, the stories of the Civil Rights Movement ask something of us beyond historical study. They invite us first to an awareness of the reality of the present time, and then to action for a world where Jesus’ mission of mercy, compassion and hope is not reserved for Heaven.

We should not assume the church is answering this challenge.11174553_1622055841339693_634232376384023980_o

A few months ago I was on a panel with Ruby Sales – the woman Tom Coleman aimed the gun at. I was saying the fight against climate change was not making progress because churches were not getting behind it, as they did in the Civil Rights Movement. Ruby leaned in to me and said “the churches failed to lead in the Civil Rights movement.” I heard her but that was not my understanding of history. I grew up with priest mentors who were all about social justice. On this pilgrimage I learned Ruby had the facts and I did not. Far less than 10 per cent of the churches in our country overall and in the South as a region took part in the Civil Rights Movement. We have outstanding saints who acted on their faith – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Jonathan Daniels, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Rosa Parks and thousands of others. As powerful as that witness is, the fact is that most churches sat out the Civil Rights Movement. May we not sit on the sidelines this time. I say that not knowing exactly what that participation looks like, but knowing it begins for me with awareness.

And maybe if you and I can grow in awareness, and hang on to the idealism of Jonathan Daniels who remains forever young, a path of action for justice will be revealed to us in the “beloved community” that Jonathan described in a Bible he gave to friends on Easter Sunday 1965: “We dream of a beloved community in which white men and black men, old men and young men, whole men and sick men, will join hands in the way of the Cross and find there the life broken, shared and renewed for them all, the unspeakable glory of God.”