Sometimes a film screening can feel like a worship service.

Rosenwald schools film photoJonathan and I shared that experience last evening, at the Old Greenbelt Theater screening of Rosenwald, the new documentary about the legendary (but not all that well known) 19th and 20th Century philanthropist, Julius Rosenwald of Chicago.

If you are an African American of a certain age, you may well know about Rosenwald Schools, either because you attended one yourself, or your mama or daddy did, or someone in your family did, or perhaps even was a teacher in one of the more than 5,300 schools built between 1913 and 1932.

Rosenwald School in Louisiana

A Rosenwald School in Louisiana

Many of us probably know about Carnegie libraries, built all over the country, and we are grateful. But the Rosenwald Schools were not, strictly speaking, for the entire country (although our entire nation benefited from them). Instead, they were to provide education for African American youngsters in Southern States where schools to serve the Black population’s youth, particularly in rural areas, were either non-existent or in such deplorable condition as to be almost, if not truly, useless.

Rosenwald, who rose from being the child of first-generation Jewish German immigrants to become the leader of Sears, Roebuck & Company, seems an unlikely benefactor. However, even a keen businessman, as surely Rosenwald was, can have or develop a social conscience.

Julius Rosenwald

Julius Rosenwald was, according to many, an informal, approachable man, whom many called, simply, JR.

According to the film, Rosenwald was influenced to engage in philanthropy directly engaging the needs of the African American community by several factors. First, he was acutely aware of pogroms against Jews in Russia and Eastern Europe. Second, he read Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington, and connected what he learned about Washington’s struggles, and those of other Blacks, with the anti-Semitism of Europe. He was aided in this by Rabbi Emil Hirsch, the widely acclaimed reform rabbi of Chicago’s Sinai Congregation. Rabbi Hirsch preached widely and continually on the Jewish obligation of tikkun olam, to heal the world, and especially of people with much to do much to promote that healing.

Finally, there is the undeniable influence of Booker T. Washington, who became a friend and mentor. Rosenwald served on the Board of Trustees at Tuskegee Institute and responded favorably to Washington’s request that he build a YMCA for “colored young men.” Rosenwald provided challenge funds to build the first one, in Chicago, and then went on to provide the impetus and initial funding for 26 others around the nation.

Booker T Washington

Booker T. Washington

Then came the schools–first a half-dozen near Tuskegee and then more and then more until the South, especially the rural south, was dotted with them. If you want to see the schools in your part of the South, click here for a link to an online database.

The number of schools is undeniably impressive, but so is the list of African American leaders and others who were students in them. Add to that list the names of eminent African American artists–musicians, writers, painters and sculptors–who received important, sometimes life-saving, grants from the Rosenwald Fund. Two well-known African Americans, both students at the school in their area–Julian Bond and Maya Angelou–speaking extensively on film on what Rosenwald did.

Rosenwald Schools map

Map showing 5,295 schools completed by July 1, 1931

Rosenwald did more than any other white man in the first 40 years of the 20th Century to help the African American community get itself ready to topple Jim Crow and move assertively forward to press the case for full civil rights. Yes, he had more money than almost everyone else, and he gave it generously.

But he did something else. He only gave what we would call challenge grants. He promised to pay one-third of the cost of building a school if the local African American community came up with a third, and got the white community (often the State Department of Education, as well as local benefactors) to contribute one-third. This empowered the local Black community to come together to build and maintain its own school, which usually became not only the school but also the community center.

In this way, his philanthropy was of the best kind–helping people meet an immediate need as well as helping them build something more, pride in themselves and organization for the future, a better future.

Charleston massacre

Praying outside Emanuel AME Church in Charleston

I urge you to see this film wherever you can (check here for a list of upcoming showings) and watch for it on DVD. The filmmaker, Aviva Kempner, wants to be sure this is seen all over the nation–and certainly in schools and other community venues. She has done a superb job–it is a lively, entertaining, and hugely informative film, bringing together many strands of history from Rosenwald’s youth in Springfield, Illinois all the way to his death in 1932 and the work of the fund beyond. We really see the sweep of his vision.

If you do not come away from your viewing with a desire to go out and do something for civil rights (still imperiled in our nation), or for some other deeply cherished cause to heal the world, then I fear for your sanity, your serenity, your heart, even your soul.

See this film. Be inspired by JR. And do likewise, heal the world in your own way.

Most people, and I certainly include myself in this, express opinions based on social customs with which we have become comfortable–even believing that these customs have some very deep roots in human, and even divinely ordered, morality.

Racism works like that, to be sure. We grow up with prejudice which seems natural because in our families and/or community or society at large it was just the norm, often unstated but clearly present.

But this is not limited to racism.

desnudas Times SquareThere is considerable controversy these days in New York over some women who are displaying their breasts in Times Square. Controversy may be too weak a term for some; many express outrage. Topless women threatens Western civilization!

Never mind that the state’s highest court said long ago that laws forbidding women to go topless in public but allow men do so amounts to discrimination based on sex (and thus is unconstitutional). But that does not stop parts of the local media and the Police Commissioner from threatening all sorts of actions to stop the outrage. Even Mayor Blasio is doing some foaming at the mouth about it.

Rudy GiulaniAnd speaking of New York, did you hear about former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani going to his local precinct to complain about a homeless man living on his street? When he told of doing so, he called the time when people lived on the streets and did not use bathrooms inside “the dark ages.” That did not cause him to reflect on how difficult it must be for homeless people. Instead, he said, of his time as Mayor, “You chase ’em and you chase ’em and you chase ’em and you chase ’em, and they either get the treatment that they need or you chase ’em out of the city.”

I have different sensibilities. Frankly, I would rather spend time with some of the homeless people I have known than with the Mayor. I lived in New York during much of his mayoralty, and it was often ugly–but not so much because of homeless people (rampant homelessness is ugly for its victims, yes, but not in the same way for the rest of us). I called him Mayor Bully-ani, because of the way he went after people who offended his sensibility.

seeking human kindness -- homeless manI do not deny that homelessness is unpleasant when we encounter it, but does that mean we take out our discomfort on those who suffer. Instead, we find ways to help.

And those women in Times Square? Who are they hurting? In fact, who would it hurt if women could be bare-chested in public, just like men?

Much of the body shame aimed at women is enforced by these sorts of prohibitions. And what is truly distressing is that the very act of hiding body parts can actually increase interest in them. So the act of denial leads to fetishes.

What men used to have to wear

What men used to have to wear

Hiding women’s breasts goes back to those dark ages spoken about by Mayor Giuliani, and earlier, when women were property of men; women were homebound creatures and their menfolk–husbands and fathers–did not want breasts, symbols of fertility, to be displayed.

And did you know this? It was not until 1936 that it was legal in New York State for men to bare their nipples? That trend seems to have taken off and become “normal.”

desnudas Times Square man painting womanMaybe someday it will be so for women.

It will undoubtedly take longer to change attitudes toward homeless people. But we could start by making sure that being homeless is not viewed as a crime–the same way women baring breasts is not a crime.

The election of Barack Obama, and his re-election, caused some to think the United States had moved to a new level of racial justice and harmony (well, harmony anyway).

The recent bout of killings in all parts of the nation, the reminder that although things are much better in New Orleans poor Black residents still face daunting odds in getting their lives back (and when the storm struck 10 years ago they were the ones most often the victims of disinterest in their plight), and ugly comments about immigrants and proposals aimed at them, remind us that all is not well in the still-racialized United States.

Friends on Facebook just made me aware of an intriguing map project which marks how segregation still haunts so much of the country.

racial map USA mostlyThe map, created by Dustin Cable at University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, is stunningly comprehensive. Drawing on data from the 2010 U.S. Census, it shows one dot per person, color-coded by race. That’s 308,745,538 dots in all–around 7 GB of visual data. It isn’t the first map to show the country’s ethnic distribution, nor is it the first to show every single citizen, but it is the first to do both, making it the most comprehensive map of race in America ever created.

racial map Sacramento


There has been much work to achieve housing desegregation, but many experts have pointed out that just because a place is less segregated it is not necessarily truly integrated. And as this map project makes clear, some places–California cities may be the best example–are far more integrated than others.

You can check all this out for yourself here.

Detroit in green, Oakland County in blue

Detroit in green, Oakland County in blue

I checked out Detroit, knowing that it is considered by some to be the most segregated city in the nation. I am a native of Michigan–Oakland County to be more precise, the jurisdiction just north of the Detroit city limits. Eight Mile Road dividing the city and the county, was, when I left Michigan in 1981, a racial dividing line. And it still is today! The color contrast on the map–like the color contrast on the ground, is stunning.

Across the southeast United States, where I lived for 12 years in Richmond, still shows much of the historic pattern of the Black Belt, originally labeled because of the rich soil but later so named because of the prepondance of slave-labor plantations.

racial map Black Belt

Black Belt in the Southeast

The good news is that there have been changes. The bad news is that on the whole we remain a nation visually, and viscerally as recent events indicate, divided by race.

The divisions are not accidental. They are the result of long-held ideas, practices and policies. The good news is that means we can change them. The bad news is that so few seem interested in doing so.

Why can’t we still get Congress to overcome the gutting of the Voting Rights Act? Why can’t we get better training for police in dealing with highly emotional encounters between Black people and police? Why is that Black transwomen are still far more vulnerable to attack and murder than white ones (not that either deserve this treatment)? Why is that poverty still impacts the Black community far more than others?

New Orleans

New Orleans

And why can’t the progress in New Orleans be more balanced? Why can’t build a truly multi-racial society?

If you think we have done that, look at these maps.

And then think back to January 1963, when then Governor George Wallace of Alabama made his pledge, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.”  We have made progress, but so far Governor Wallace still has much evidence to support his claim.

The debate about the Iran deal reveals a fundamental divide in our politics.

Here is how I frame the two points of view–and you will have no doubt of where I stand.

gunslingerAre we forever consigned to be macho tough guys, enforcing what we think is right no matter what anyone else thinks?

Or can we take a chance on working with others–in this case Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany–to do something that just might avoid war as well as avoid further nuclear proliferation?

The former is the Netanyahu way, and I must say often the John McCain way, and certainly the way of the current crop of Republican presidential contenders.

President Obama took office, and has held office, during a time of international shifting currents. We are no longer the sole super power, even though we have more military prowess than anyone else. Even so, he has wisely tried to minimize our military George W. Bushengagement around the world, while being unafraid to use our force when it could do something significant. I actually think President George Bush was moving in this direction as well, after the disaster of Iraq and even Afghanistan.

So far as I can tell, not a single Congressional Republican is supporting the Iran treaty deal. Two Senators, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Susan Collins of Maine, were considered undecided. Senator Flake gave in to pressure and announced his No vote. That still leaves Senator Collins. She gets in trouble fairly often for voting her own way, but she may be the only one.

Senator Susan Collins

Senator Susan Collins

There are not many Democrats opposing it, but there are some, including Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the presumed next Majority Leader after the next election. He is a big deal in his caucus, and no one is calling him names, at least in public. But I think it safe to say that any Republican in Congress supporting the treaty will get called a lot of ugly names.

This is distressing. It really has become a partisan struggle.

Actually, I think it has become, once again for some, about President Obama. Too many just can’t stand the idea that he might do some really good, and big, things. They are automatic votes against anything significant that he proposes. That is not, of course, true for all of them, or even for most. But they do comprise a significant body of Republican legislators.

However, that is small potatoes. The bigger issue is how the United States chooses to live with others in the world.

Donald Trump wants to make America great again. He defines that as being Number One–having more marbles than anyone else, having the toughest military, and basically standing astride the world.

His fellow contenders basically agree, except for Senator Paul of Kentucky. But even he is soft-peddling his aversion to intervention in the world.

William McKinleyThis harking back to Reagan, or Eisenhower, or McKinley (and Theodore Roosevelt) to be honest, no longer works. The world is very different. China’s economy can unsettle all the rest of us. Asia as a whole is the new world (again, I suppose we should say). Britain and France need us, but not like they used to, and Germany has shown she will go it alone if necessary.

We cannot bully our way around the globe. We must learn to play well with others.

Ultimately, that will be the way to stop ISIL and the religio/politico fanatics in Teheran and actually save their hated neighbors in Tel Aviv (who too often act like fanatics themselves). As long as we keep insisting on bombing and sending in troops as the way to No Bullying symbolsolve everything, falsely self-identified Islamic extremists will continue to win the recruiting campaign, and the violence will continue recycling.

Grown ups are needed. I thank God every day that we have one in the White House (albeit he can be petulant and distant at times). It seems Merkel of Germany is one, too, and perhaps Hollande of France.

I pray for more, right here in the United States, as well as around the globe.

If you had repented and waited patiently, you’d have been saved; if you had been quiet and trusted me, you’d have found strength. — Isaiah 30:15 (The Inclusive Bible)

Because quiet time no longer existsI remembered this verse, in its more traditional form (In returning and rest shall ye be saved; in quietness and in confidence shall be your strength), as I walked on 7th Avenue in Brooklyn yesterday. The prompt for my memory was this sign (left), an advertisement for Seamless, a food delivery service in New York and Washington, and probably other major markets, too.

BECAUSE QUIET TIME NO LONGER EXISTS . . . could it be true? Do they know something I have missed?

I know it is true in public places. The television blares while I wait for my car to be repaired, and at the airport, alwaysSeamless at bars and even in many restaurants. Even when the sound is turned off, the words of the speakers go skipping across the screen. It is hard not to look.

So often when walking in the park or a woods, someone is playing music. Of course, people (and this includes me more than I want to admit) are always on their cell phones. When not on the phone, many watch television at home for hours. Some people get up in the morning with the radio and it plays all day long.

Egyptian President Mubarak's speach broadcast live on a television set to CNN at Kennedy Airport where terror alerts are back on there highest level. While thousands celebrated in Thalir Square anticipating his speach where rumor had it he was stepping down, the crowd grew angry when he didn't resign. The protests in Cairo fueled by the protests in Tunisia were fuled by social media.

It seems that maybe we are afraid of quiet? Unwilling to allow silence for even a few moments. I am often frustrated in church or other gatherings where the leader invites us to have a moment of silence, and we don’t even get a moment. Before even a real breath, we are told, “Time’s up! On to the next thing.” I think most people are relieved.

Silence, quiet, is challenging of course. We have to sit with ourselves, with our silly thoughts and our scandalous thoughts and what seem like our empty musings.

But how anyone expects to hear the divine, or even wisdom greater than that offered by the media, or how we expect to really hear eachman and woman screaming at each other other in the deepest sense, without turning off, or at least down, the volume (and the constant video pictures), is a mystery to me.

I wonder if our lack of national cohesion is related to all this noise. Clearly, our leaders do not listen to each other. They just talk past the guy or gal on the other side of the aisle.

There is little wisdom because there is so little quiet. How can we learn from nature if we talk over it all the time? How do we learn from our children when we don’t listen to them, when we actually teach them that listening is not worth the bother (go turn on Sesame Street or something, dear…..don’t bother Daddy right now, please).

Isaiah 30-15bI yearn for the strength, the wisdom, that comes from quiet, from waiting for God. I sit for 30 minutes every day, and my great struggle is to be quiet. I don’t speak, of course, but oh my mind always wants to go, flitting from one thing to the next, nursing some obsession, thinking of something I “need” to look up online. But the lack of sound helps, and before the 30 minutes are up, I have achieved some measure of serenity, sanity–not perfect, but better than none at all. I recommend it for everyone.

Now, I am trying to create small patches during my day, a minute or two or even five, where I am quiet again. When I succeed, things are much better. I even discover wisdom and strength.

Imagine that. Old Isaiah was on to something.

In response to my urging white people to publicly share the slogan, “Black Lives Matter,” my friend Julie challenged me to also focus on the wrongs done to native, or indigenous, people in this country.

Trail of Tears Map

I have some awareness already, but she urged me to learn more about some tribes with whom she is familiar, including her own, the Cherokee Nation and in particular the Cherokee tribe in North Carolina. The Cherokees were the victims of the Trail of Tears initiated by President Andrew Jackson to move the native people out of the way for white settlers and gold seekers in the 1830s (from North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama). This was massive relocation of an entire people. Many, of course, died. Nor was this the first, nor last, campaign to end the existence of people who inhabited what became the United States for generations, and more, long, long before the first Europeans arrived. You can learn much more here (I encourage you to be sure to read the soldier’s account).

Just after my dialogue with Julie on Facebook, I heard from another Facebook friend about a 2014 decision by the City Council of Seattle to change the name of Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. More recently, the St. Paul, Minnesota Council did the same.

1492, Christopher Columbus (1446 - 1506) lands on Watling Island and meets the natives, while three of his shipmates erect a cross. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

1492, Christopher Columbus (1446 – 1506) lands on Watling Island and meets the natives, while three of his shipmates erect a cross. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

I admit I do not understand Columbus Day. He was not the first to “discover” the New World (those terms of course already get us on the wrong course–the assumption is that something is only valid when people of European descent say it is so) nor did he stick around to help resolve conflicts between the newcomers and the natives. Further, a place already inhabited by human beings does not need to be “discovered–and certainly it is not new!

The main reason this old traditional day seems to have become a federal holiday was to please Italian-Americans. Columbus was Italian, although of course his expedition was paid for by Spain. Many Italian-Americans are upset at the changes in Seattle and elsewhere as an affront to the history and dignity of their people.

Italian-Americans have contributed greatly to our nation–as have Hungarian-Americans, Czech-Americans, French-Americans, Anglo-Americans, Spanish-Americans, German-Americans, Austrian-Americans, Norwegian-Americans, Swedish-Americans, Danish-Americans, among many other European peoples as well. Does each deserve a national day devoted to their most prominent historical figure in the Americas?

And what of African Americans? Perhaps we need a federal holiday commemorating the name of the first slave imported (read dragged against his or her will) here.

But what really is at issue is whether or not we will continue to celebrate a man who not only did no good for the indigenous people he encountered but actually did harm. Many historians say that Columbus engaged in harmful practices, including the use of violence and slavery, the forced conversion of native peoples to Christianity, and the introduction of a host of new diseases that would have dramatic long-term effects on native people in the Americas. Some basic history can be found here.

Seattle just voted for Indigenous Peoples DayIt is clear that in the history of our nation, Native lives, Native bodies, do not matter. I do not wish to dilute the Black Lives Matter campaign given our shameful heritage and continuing harm to African people in our midst, but we can do something to begin to acknowledge other blood on the collective hands of the United States: we can stop celebrating a man who was a key figure in that bloody history by ending a holiday honoring him. And then we can do the next right thing: we can rename that holiday to honor our indigenous ancestors in this land, acknowledging that we stole their land and drove them to reservations (the ones who survived).

When we have got that right, or perhaps even before, we can re-examine our national actions and decide how we want to provide reparations for our actions that led to the annihilation of so many.

To those who say, “I did not steal their land; my family didn’t either,” I say this: if the land where your family settled when they arrived here was anywhere in what is the continental United States then it is likely they, and thus you, benefit from the removal of indigenous people from their tribal lands. I know I do (more about this at a later date).

There is a lot of blood in the ground upon which we stand. It is time to confess the shame of this heritage by ending the celebration of one of its main actors.

[Note: this follows from a post on January 2, 2015, “God Is not the One Who Needs to Show Up”]

“I awaken to Your love, God.”

That is how I begin my morning meditation.

content young man sitting meditating in comfy chair

Well, actually, first I say “thank you” a few times, then “help me” a few times, then thank you a few more times. That is to remind me where the day comes from, where the blessings have already come from, who can be the most help, and then a few more thank yous for the blessings that are coming later.

But awaken is what I seek to do. I used to begin with “await,” according to the practice of Julian of Norwich, the 12th Century English mystic. But over time I became aware that I need not await. The love is already here. My job is to wake up to it–not just wake up from physical sleep but also to wake up from spiritual sleep and become aware that God’s love has never left, is still here, and remains with me always.

This has implications beyond 30 minutes of morning meditation. Awakening is a day-long enterprise. I can so easily fall asleep in God’s presence, forgetting the gift of love which is not only a spiritual gift, but also, as Teilhard deChardin wrote, “the physical structure of the universe.”

black-men-arguingThis morning, Jonathan and I had a disagreement and it became tense, even a little ugly. It need not have been so, at least on my part. I realized, later than I wish, that I had forgotten the reality of love right here in our home, between and among us, not just our love for each other but the fact–the fact–that we are enveloped in God’s love. How much better, more affirming and life-giving, our exchange could have been had I remembered and acted on that fact.

This love is practical and present, powerful and actually predictable (not in how it will manifest itself but in how we can count on it all the time).

As noted at the beginning, I have written about this before. But I find I keep learning to be more open. Just yesterday, while I was performing a daily task that requires very little of my attention other than a repetitive action I realized I could awaken to God’s love, that in fact, God was in the activity with me. Before this, I had sought all sorts of ways to distract myself.

Turning to God was not a distraction, but actually made the time go far faster and more importantly I felt very positive about the time spent. I actually gained more than the benefit of performing the task (some day I will write more about this).

black men older huggingBut there is more. I still honor Julian in my daily practice, but it is God’s love that I seek. I cherish Presence, but for me God is very specific. God is not only present, God is present in a particular way, loving, and hoping as only God can do that we allow the love in, that we accept it, and that we use it, too.

I will write more in days to come about love, about how it is the most powerful force in the universe, and how if we are truly open to it, everything can change. But of course, the change begins here, with me in my case, with you in yours.

Here’s to waking up! Here’s to the love we find when we do.

It’s okay if you need coffee, but the real deal is love.