D.L. Mayfield

living in the upside-down kingdom

Filtering by Tag: bryan stevenson

monuments and memorials and me

“The way to write wrongs is to shine the light of truth upon them” --Ida B. Wells, anti-lynching activist


 

So I have been working on a piece for some time now. It all started last December, when I went to Montgomery to meet and hear from Bryan Stevenson with some people from Red Letter Christians. I could not get out of my mind what I saw/heard in Montgomery, and I knew precisely what audience would need to hear this message.

 

This piece turned out to be one of the hardest things I have ever written. Not only because the subject matter is grim, but also because it was a delicate balance of compromise and caveats to get the message in a manner that would reach the people who needed to hear it the most. If you are new to me or my writing (or if you have never met me in real life) then you might not know: I am not good at compromise, at least not at first. I have a lot of emotion, a lot of thoughts, I am always wanting to do good and right by my actual neighbors who have experienced so much oppression, and so sometimes toning down my message or making it palatable can feel like a disservice to the people I love. It is a constant struggle, especially as an Enneagram 1 who so longs to be right and correct. But when it comes to being a white girl writing about race/lynchings/monuments/memorials/evangelical Christians in America--there is simply no way for me to be right. So writing this article over the past seven months was like a spiritual discipline in humiliation and sorrow and grief and fear.

 

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It became important for me to include in this this story both a concrete action and highlight racial terror in the PNW. I was born in northern California and grew up all over the “west”—Alaska and Wyoming and California again, but the majority of my life has now been spent in Oregon. People from this part of the country tend to view themselves as distanced, both by geography and ideology, to the rest of the US, but most particularly the South.

 

So when I researched lynchings in my state I found one on record. That number is small compared to other states and counties (Mississippi has over 580 lynchings on record, for instance) but there is a reason for that: in 1849 the legislature made it a law that “no negro or mulatto may enter into, or reside” in Oregon. The pacific northwest made it clear they didn’t want institutional slavery, but they also didn’t want to live alongside African-Americans. The laws had their intended exclusionary effect—even to this day, less than 2% of Oregon is black (for more on Oregon and our history of racial injustice, read this piece).

 

I knew that I had grown up in a state that had criminalized blackness from the start, and that I needed to do something to acknowledge a history that had been ignored and forgotten, brushed aside as we instead celebrated the “pioneer” spirit while overlooking the pain and trauma of both the original inhabitants (native Americans) and our exclusionary practices towards non-white citizens.

 

Writing this piece was like falling down a rabbit hole of all that I didn’t know. I am not an expert in this field and I don’t pretend to be. What I am is a writer, someone who is interested in things, and I became very, very interested in why so many of us grew up without hearing or understanding the history of lynchings in America. (And lynchings is only a small part of it--there were massacres and lack of civil rights such as voting and education . . . the history of racial injustice seemingly has no end). A few years ago, when it really started to sink in about both the realities of lynchings and the response of white Christian communities to them, it was like a veil had been lifted. But I wasn’t just horrified. I was implicated. Lynchings were not just public executions--they were strategies for terrorizing black people and for uniting white people under a banner of supremacy and “order”. One of the most chilling photographs is one from Marion, Indiana in 1930. How can I not see my own face reflected here?

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(Side note: an artist created a mural of this same cropped portion of the photograph--leaving out the men who were hanging from the tree--and recently there has been activity to take down this mural due to white discomfort. But the artist wanted to portray just how it is that ordinary people are the ones who perpetuate and uphold racial violence in the US. These conversations are continuing, and need to be had--but will not go anywhere until we can face our true history).

 

I’m amazed at the timing of this piece. Last December, when I started writing it in my head, I did not know that we would be having a national conversation about monuments and memorials. But I am glad we are. And more than anything, I pray that we listen to the voices of the people who have been the victims of racial terror, both past and present, and take their lead on this. Bryan Stevenson is a good place to start, but there are so many others out there. I encourage you to find these voices, sit yourself down, and listen for a good long while. Any then, when the Spirit tells you it is time, I implore you to go out to your own community and share all that you have learned.


 

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If you are like me and want to start to re-learn the history of our country, I encourage you to start with the Equal Justice Initiative. Spend some time at their website, learning, looking at pictures. Watch the video for the new memorial (it will give you chills). Consider asking your church to send a group of leaders and lay pastors to travel to Montgomery to visit the new memorial and embark on a spiritual pilgrimage of remembrance and repentance (perhaps forgo a mission trip to Mexico and use your funds for this instead?). And then I encourage you to start looking into the history of racial violence in your own state, city, and county. There are spiritual ramifications to our history, often done in the name of Christ. We will not be able to move forward into repair until we have dealt with this.


 

Other resources:

 

Read Ida B. Wells (my new crush!) who was a pioneer sounding the alarm so many years ago about the horrific violence systematically being perpetuated against black people in this country.

 

Read Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson. This book is incredibly impactful, and is story-driven--making it accessible to most everyone.

 

Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race by Emerson and Smith. Perhaps the most important book that looks at why evangelicals are so segregated and so unwilling to address the systematic factors of racism. I wish everyone would sit down and read this one.

 

The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone. This book might be the most excruciating devotional on the suffering of Christ I have ever experienced--because it is made concrete in the sufferings of our black brothers and sisters in America.

 

Trouble I’ve Seen by Drew G. Hart: This book helps makes connections between our history and the present day experience of people of color in America. A must-read for Christians who want to engage.

 

Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith: I so appreciated this book for helping people walk through the steps of confronting our history (in several different areas) and walking through prayers of confession and repentance.

 

RAAN Network. This is a great place to go if you don’t have real life relationships with Christians of color. I am not reformed, but my faith has been revitalized by the voices I have found here--especially Jemar Tisby, Tyler Burns, and Ekemini Uwan (of the amazing Truth’s Table podcast). There have been multiple discussions about confederate monuments, modern-day lynchings, and more and I cannot encourage you enough to go dive into these resources.




 

Thank you for taking the time to read, prayer, and process these topics. Please share any of your favorite resources in the comments. I know that I still have so much re-learning to do.



 

The Year of the Bully, The Year of the Artist

If I could characterize it, I would say that 2016 was the Year of the Bully. Personally and on a national level this was true for me and mine. If you love all the things that come with oppressive power—perks, privilege, your own empire safely guarded—you probably had a pretty good year. But if you are someone who has suffered at the hands of others, if you are not at the top of any particular ladder, then you know that crushing feeling when you realize it is the one who wants to harm you who once again gets all the power. It was a year where it became crystal clear that our world is oriented towards the abusers. 

When Donald Trump was declared the winner on Nov 8th I could not sleep at night. My own energy already worn thin by life, I suddenly discovered I was down to the dregs of my ability to empathize, and it went to a scary place. I imagined the children sleeping in beds all throughout my neighborhood. I felt their fear, their worry, the way they were grown beyond their years. I saw myself, safe and sound in my house—white, privileged—and I saw everyone around me that I loved be carried off by a wave of hatred. I watched myself remain while everyone else was swept away into suffering. I was paralyzed by grief. In my mind I started prepping for the end of the world.

But as luck (or providence) would have it, I happen to live surrounded by survivors. My neighbors, mostly refugees and immigrants, when they have chosen to share, display a wide range of reactions towards the past year and those upcoming. What they do choose to share is both heartbreaking and inspiring. They will not ever stop putting one foot in front of the other. They push me to do the same.

I’ve been learning from others, as well. People for whom America has never been the promised land. This is the year when the majority of white evangelical Christians were loud and proud about their bullying ways, revealing true natures that I have long tried to apologize for. To save my faith in the wider church my husband and I drank like people dying of thirst from the books and podcasts of people of color. They reclaimed our religious words and infused them with real meaning. Is it possible that the Jesus we have tried so hard to follow really is good news for everyone? Is it possible that God’s kingdom has a place for my neighbors? Is it possible that white supremacy is not God’s dream for the world? These pastors and prophets and poets said yes. Their faith is like diamonds in my eyes, something glorious and true that only comes out of intense pressure and suffering. 

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I got the chance to go to Montgomery for a few days last week and I took it. I paid my own way, but along with a crowd of other people who spend their lives thinking about Jesus and Justice, I got to spend a morning and afternoon at the Equal Justice Initiative, the place where Bryan Stevenson has poured his heart and soul into. Is it a law office or an art gallery or a museum or a halfway house or a living testimony to a history most people would prefer we forget? It is all these things, and more. I was only there for a few hours and I knew: it was kingdom ground. 

If you haven’t read Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy, I urge you to stop now and remedy that (I wrote about it and Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman last year). In Just Mercy, he highlights the dire inequality of the criminal justice system, looking mostly at death row cases in the South. There is a reason Stevenson moved his life and work to Montgomery. As he met and talked with us, he told us just a bit of the history. On the wall behind us in a conference room there were rows after rows of glass jars, filled with soil. They were gorgeous, filling the room with rich tones of red and brown with hints of gold and green. But upon closer inspection, you discover: the soil in each jar is from a specific lynching that happened in Alabama. To stare at that wall, the jars towering above and on either side, knowing this is just one state, these are just the documented ones, this is just the smallest slice in the terrorization of black bodies that has been sown into the very ground of our nation. 

A man came in to talk to us. His name was Anthony Ray Hinton. He was on death row in Alabama for 30 years for a crime he did not commit. He is a lovely man. When he spoke it felt like a testimony in the truest sense of the word. “I wish I could tell you that the state of Alabama made a mistake, but the truth is—they didn’t.” They arrested and tried him on purpose, because he was a poor black man, and they could. Anthony speaks in a gentle voice and tells us funny and sad and poignant stories of how he learned to deal with his life in prison. He told us about how he went away in his mind, how he travelled all over the country, how he came back occasionally to check on his body. He made us all laugh, is the thing, he was and always will be a man with a sharp sense of humor, he made us see how he survived, at what people who are like him have to do to make it out. 

me and Anthony

me and Anthony

Anthony does not hate. Anthony loves God. Anthony bought himself a California King sized bed when he got out but he still can’t sleep in it unless he curls his knees up to his chest, because that is how he had to sleep on his tiny bunk in his 5x7 cell. When Bryan Stevenson came to visit him in prison Anthony said he heard a voice saying “this is God’s best.” Bryan worked and got famous ballistics experts to prove the bullets from the crimes committed did not match the gun found in Anthony’s mothers bedroom. They had to take the case all the way to the Supreme Court since Alabama refused to re-open the case. And finally, finally when they were forced to, they said they no longer saw what they had 30 years ago. And Anthony walked out, he felt rain on his face for the first time in 30 years.

There was so much more I learned in my few days in Montgomery. I hope to share more about it at some point. But what I want to say right now is this: Anthony is God’s best to me, and to you. He is a prophet, revealing the true nature of our systems, how they only work with those who have power. 

Every year for Anthony has been the year of the bully; for so many people I know and love they can say the same. For me it is new, and it tastes sour like betrayal, bitter like fear—and yet, there is something else. Bryan Stevenson, Anthony Ray Hinton, and countless other people I have been listening hard to this year—they all say the same thing: we have to have hope. Faith is easier, said Bryan. You can keep doing what is good just because you know it is right, without ever believing that you will change anything. Having radical hope in the face of extreme injustice is much harder. And yet, it is vital for the days coming.

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If 2016 was the year of the bully then 2017 will be the year of the artist, I think. 2017 will be the year when Matthew 25:40 becomes the watershed verse for those professing to be Christians. “Whatever you have done to the least of these, you have done to me.” 2017 is the year we can change who we are listening to. 2017 is the year we stand up to the bullies. 2017 is the year we look for God’s best exactly where our culture tells us to see the worst. 2017 is the year our faith becomes true, and beautiful, and terrible to those who are in power.

And lastly, it is my hope that 2017 is the year the least of these will lead us, in all ways—through stories and songs and testimonies and Facebook videos—it is the year they will lead us to Christ himself.

 

 

 

 

 

*If you have a moment, I invite you to explore the Equal Justice Initiative's website. It is a treasure trove of information

 

 

 

 

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