Ryan P. Cumming
Whew, what a week! Even for the time, the second week of August 1965 was a whirlwind. On August 6, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act that protected suffrage for Americans of every race. The Act was the result of months of activism, including the actions in Selma and Montgomery, Alabama. But even the joy of the moment could not mask that trouble was brewing out west. A few days later, on August 11, riots erupted in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. As Selma was celebrating, Watts was burning.
Fresh off success in the South, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., headed to California and was shocked by what he witnessed. Many folks today are surprised to learn that King’s reception in Watts was less than enthusiastic. When he spoke, he was greeted with jeers: “Get out of here Dr. King! We don’t want you!” As theologian James Cone has pointed out, not even the Jim Crow South could prepare King for the depth of economic and social racism of Watts.
The trip marked a turning point for King. His message shifted; he started talking less about segregation and more about economic opportunity. What did it matter if a lunch counter served both blacks and whites, if blacks couldn’t afford to eat there? When he was assassinated, you might recall, he was in Memphis, Tenn., campaigning with striking sanitation workers for fair pay, the right to organize, and safer job conditions. King lived fighting racial injustice and died fighting economic injustice, learning in 1965, as his counterpart Malcolm X has pointed out before his death, just how closely the two were connected.
Whew, what a week! As we close in on the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act and the Watts uprising, black churches are burning, videos of racial violence are flooding the airwaves, and a Lutheran racist murdered nine African Americans as they studied the bible in church. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
And yet, the times have changed. Supporters of a racially inclusive vision of the country (and that should be all of us, by the way) eagerly anticipate the (official) removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse following the murders in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. Supporters of marriage equality celebrated the Supreme Court’s decision to protect the right to marry in every state.
You’ve come a long way, baby. But, man, there’s still a long way to go.
Removing a flag is an important step, but it’s just a step. In another Supreme Court decision this past week, the justices upheld a key part of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 that allows advocates to bring claims of discrimination when the effects of a practice are discriminatory. What this means is that discrimination means much more than intent; when practices and policies disproportionately affect racial groups negatively, they are discriminatory.
This may help to address some of the more complex and challenging aspects of racism in the United States.
- Even when they had similar credit scores, people of color are more likely to receive subprime mortgages with prepayment penalties than white borrowers.
- Borrowers of color are also more likely to get turned down for mortgages than white borrowers with similar credit scores.
- The median net worth of white households is nearly 20 times that of black households, due largely to massive disparities in home ownership. (For a very good explanation of how this came to be the case, see here.)
- Young white men with felony convictions are more likely to get called back for job interviews than black men with no criminal history.
- In 2013, more than 25% of African American households and 24 percent of Latino households were food insecure. By contrast, only 11 percent of white, non-Hispanic households were food insecure.
Death-dealing racism wears many faces. Sometimes it looks like a white Lutheran (and, yes, we have to admit this) and sometimes it wears the more subtle but no less destructive mask of economic disenfranchisement and poverty.
The Supreme Court decision protecting rights to marriage will have far-reaching economic effects, protecting (for the first time, in many states) the right of spouses to receive much-needed Social Security benefits and protecting their right to shared assets if one spouse passes away. These are significant consequences that should be celebrated. But the decision leaves much work to be done. Gay and lesbian partners can now legally marry in all 50 states. They can alsolegally be fired because of their sexual orientation in 28 states. In more than half the states in the US, you can legally be evicted or denied housing if you are gay or lesbian.
The situation is even worse for transgender persons. Even fewer states offer workplace and housing protections for those who are transgender. An estimated 20% of transgender persons have unstable housing or are at risk for homelessness. When they do seek help from a shelter, they are often discriminated against, even at shelters that are open to diverse sexual orientations. Gender identity is still stigmatized – at home, in workplaces, in churches, in shelters, and on the streets, where many LGBTQ youth find themselves.
Race, sexual orientation and gender identity intersect with policies and practices at critical points, and hunger and poverty can often be the results.
On June 18, 2015, Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton issued a call to a day of repentance and mourning in the wake of the Charleston church murders. After this day, she wrote, “then we need to get to work.” She urged ELCA Lutherans to be involved: “We need to talk and we need to listen, but we also need to act.”
We do all of this with hope in the resurrected God and awareness of the crucified Christ. Lowering a flag does not enliven a dead body. Ensuring the right to marry for all people does not protect the rights to employment, housing or public accommodations for everyone. We live in the tension of the reign of God that is “already” here but “not yet” here fully. Too often, we get an appetizer of the “already” and gorge ourselves on the “not yet.”
This isn’t about building a perfect world. As Lutherans, we know that the fullness of God’s reign is God’s doing. Nor is this about saving ourselves, as if our works can make us or our world righteous apart from God.
It is not works-righteousness to strive for justice and peace in the world. It is works-righteousness to sit back contented and believe we have done enough. Striving for justice and peace in all the world is part of our baptismal calling. Believing we have striven enough, that lowering a flag or protecting one set of rights has cleared us from addressing the deeper, more entrenched symptoms of sin, is works-righteousness and threatens to undermine our baptismal vocation. God invites us into God’s work of building a community of justice and peace here, now. God is already in the process of inaugurating God’s perfect reign. We have been called to be workers in the vineyard.
There is some to celebrate, there is much to mourn and there is much to do. Addressing the root causes of hunger, a commitment our church has made through ELCA World Hunger, demands the kind of honesty Bishop Eaton asks of us. Despite where we land on various spectrums of politics and faith, we are all invited to share in God’s work of crafting a world in which “justice roll[s] down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).
Regardless of which way we might answer the latest, greatest CNN/Fox News/NBC/Whatever-you-like-media poll, we can at least unite around this as a confession of faith in the Gracious Creator: no one should go hungry in a world of God’s abundance. As our namesake, Martin Luther, once wrote, “we are bound to each other in such a way that no one may forsake the other in his distress but is obliged to assist and help him as he himself would like to be helped” (Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague, 1527).
We do this work not because we can make our world perfect, nor because we are compelled to obey a demanding God. We enter into the hard work of eradicating hunger because we seek God. And when there is suffering – from the direct violence of a shooter or the indirect violence of discriminatory economic practices – I can’t help but recall the response to an execution in Elie Wiesel’s Night: “Where is God? He is there, hanging from the gallows.” We find God on the cross at Calvary, and we find God on the cross today, with those who have been excluded, marginalized and victimized. To fight hunger – authentically, Lutheran-ly – is to feed others and be fed ourselves, by the presence of God among our neighbors.
What Can We Do?
So what do we, as people of God called to anti-hunger ministries do, practically? There will be other suggestions (and I hope they are shared widely), but one step is to listen, as Bishop Eaton urges us. Start a listening campaign in your hunger ministry. If you are unsettled by the racism in Charleston, start listening for subtle and overt signs of racism in your ministry. More than that, listen for ways that your hunger ministry can be anti-racist and part of the broader solution. (For a great article on this, see Rachel Slocum’s article, “Anti-racist Practice and the Work of Community Food Organizations.” If you don’t have a license, the article is still worth the purchase price. Or ask a college student to look it up on a library database.)
Ask the right questions to the right people, too. Many ELCA members are unsupportive of the protection of marriage for all people, yet profess love for LGBTQ neighbors. How is this exemplified in our other ministries? For those who do support marriage equality, what other ways are you allying with the LGBTQ communities to address economic and social inequity?We may be one church under a big tent, but it is a tent in which ALL ought to be fed.
Here are some other questions to ask:
- Are our relief ministries welcoming and inclusive?
- Do my congregation’s or synod’s hunger education programs include education about the intersections of hunger and racism, sexism and heterosexism?
- Are our sustainable development programs – tutoring, job placement and assistance, community gardens, etc. – affirming of persons from diverse backgrounds?
- Does my advocacy include demands for protection of rights to employment, housing and public services for all people, regardless of race, gender identity, sexual orientation and ethnicity?
- In our community organizing, are we listening to and affirming voices that have been often marginalized and silenced in our communities?
- Is our ministry’s leadership diverse? Is there intentional space for a variety of voices to be heard?
- Are our communications not only sensitive to but affirming of diverse identities?
ELCA World Hunger – from the team at the Churchwide organization to the local pantry in a congregation – can be part of the work God is inviting us into by listening and being open to what we hear. The challenges can seem so large, the issues so complex, but anti-hunger ministry is already an entrypoint to doing our part in God’s work of reconciliation and renewal. I hope that we, as a Church “gathered and shaped by the Holy Spirit to be a serving and liberating presence in the world,”take advantage of the opportunity we have to be the community we are called to be.
Maybe this is where we begin as ELCA World Hunger, with a season of listening for ways our Church’s hunger ministries can be enriched by addressing discriminatory practices and policies not as “race problems” or “sex problems” but as what they are – root causes of hunger that create scarcity when there is abundance and exclusion when there is more than enough room at the table.
“Each of us and all of us need to examine ourselves, our church and our communities. We
need to be honest about the reality of racism within us and around us. We need to talk and we
need to listen, but we also need to act. No stereotype or racial slur is justified. Speak out against
inequity. Look with newly opened eyes at the many subtle and overt ways that we and our
communities see people of color as being of less worth. Above all pray – for insight, for
forgiveness, for courage. Kyrie Eleison.” – Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton
Ryan P. Cumming, Ph.D., is program director of hunger education for ELCA World Hunger. He can be reached at Ryan.Cumming@ELCA.org.