Poem for Inauguration Day: Let America Be America Again

Today I am grateful for President Barrack Obama last eight years of leading our country. He did many good things to strengthen our country, but as the leader of a military superpower, many lives were needlessly lost due to the ever-increasing military industrial complex. Under his watch, this continued to grow and further erode our morals as a nation. I knew that President Obama was never going to be my savior, but I had hope that he would do more to stem the tide of militarism.

Yet today I have no words to describe my feelings about our new President Donald Trump. My feelings are frustration, sadness, and fear. For the most part, it is not feelings about my own safety and security. Instead I am frustrated, sad, and fearful for my friends of color, my transgender friends, my friends who are one doctor bill away from bankruptcy (if the Affordable Care Act is repealed and not replaced with another law that protects people with pre-existing conditions) and my friends all across the world who suffer from my country’s idolatry of our military industrial complex, where more killing equal more profits.

I am left with Langston Hughes’ desire to make America be America Again. A desire of us to live up to the ideals that the founders had back in the 1700s of what America could become. I reject the notion of “Make America Great Again” but it has never been great for many Americans. But we should continue to strive to live up to lofty ideals by us redeeming America, as Hughes write at the end of his poem:

We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

This is just as important now as it was in the mid 1930s when Hughes wrote this poem. We should have been working on this a long time ago, but today is the day we need to start.

Here is the full poem:

Let America Be America Again
by Langston Hughes, 1902 – 1967

langston-hughes-1

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark? 
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free?  Not me?
Surely not me?  The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

 

Overcoming Hate with Patience

A version of this sermon was preached by me at Spring Friends Meeting on December 11, 2016.

– Greg

Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.

– James 5:7-10

After first reading this passage, I was like “Really, be patient for the Lord to come! How can I be patient when the world seems like it is crumbling down all around me? What about the people of color being unjustly gunned down in the streets by the people who are supposed to protect them? What about my Muslim friends who are scared about whether or not they will be able to worship in this country under Trump? What about my undocumented friends who want to stay in this country because they cannot go home or this is only home they have really have known? How can I be patient with all of this going on around me?” After this first reading, this passage seemed to be utterly useless to be preached this Advent season as we are about to have President-elect Trump inaugurated in just over a month.

Ultimately I was drawn back to this passage with the farming metaphor. In the last month I have often been outside pacing my backyard thinking about what is this world coming. As I look around my backyard and the neighbors’ backyard. I see garden beds sitting still and fallow waiting for the Spring crops to be planted, squirrels busily collecting acorns before winter sets in, birds looking for scraps to eat, my compost piles steaming in order to help provide nutrients for our garden next Spring. I realize that even though my lens on the world look pretty bleak, because of recent events, the natural world continues on. New life will spring up in my backyard, no matter who is President. In the same way God will still be with us in the Springtime too, no matter who is the President.

Then on Friday, my friend Mark posted a quote on Facebook from the esteemed Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman: “No prophet ever sees things under the aspect of eternity. It is always partisan theology, always for the moment, always for the concrete community, satisfied to see only a piece of it all and to speak out of that at the risk of contradicting the rest of it.” I thought back to the last part of the passage from James’ epistle: “As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.”

If we look back on the prophets, we find many examples of prophets standing up for justice in the face of injustice and suffering. For example, Old Testament prophets, Amos and Micah, spoke against corrupt rulers in Israel and Judah, respectively. These rulers took advantage of the downtrodden and the poomicah-6-8r for their own gain. This is not the way of the Lord both prophets argue. Instead, in Micah 6:8, we hear that the Lord requires of us “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

For these reasons, I do not see this passage from James as actively promoting passivity as I initially thought. This is definitely not the time for passivity. I know a lot of people are trying to figure out what to do to oppose the draconian proposals that Trump has already offered.  James has a good response for us all. In raising up against the new regime, we need to reflect that our works are not done out of hate for others, including those in power, no matter how evil their deeds may seem, but instead coming from love and rooted in justice.

Let’s remember that the ultimate prophet of Christianity, Jesus said, in Mark 12:30-31, “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

My wise friend, Margaret, who pastors New Garden Friends Meeting once remarked that there are actually three commands in this passage. 1. Love God 2. Love your neighbor and 3. Love yourself. Without the third command, you cannot love your neighbor or even love God with your whole self. I have been thinking about the third part. Sometimes loving myself is the toughest command of the three of them. But if we are to ever love God and love our neighbor, we need to possess that love within ourselves before we can give it out to God or others.

For me this means all our neighbors, not the ones we like. It means loving our neighbors who are ok with having Muslims being registered or ok with gay marriages being nullified. Loving our neighbors does not mean agreeing or condoning all their actions. We can love our neighbors while vehemently disagreeing with them. We can still work for justice so that all of our neighbors are treated with dignity because we are all children of God. All of our neighbors have a piece of the Light within them and we should work for a more just world that recognizes that. Hopefully along the way our neighbors will recognize that others they hate do have that same Light within them as they themselves do.

Friends, in this time of Advent, the season when we are awaiting the miracle to happen in a stable in Bethlehem, we need to keep building the Kingdom of God. It may seem dark, but the Light is coming. We need to keep working for justice, working with the oppressed so that we are free. This work would have still needed to be done under Hillary Clinton if she had won the electoral college, as it has been needed to be done under President Obama. Yes, it may be harder now, but I am also sure that we are up to this task.

Just as we try to be patient waiting for the baby Jesus to be born in a manger in the back of an inn in Bethlehem, we need to be patient and continue to work like the prophets did before us, slowly building the Kingdom of God here on Earth, despite all the odds.

Just as the Romans did not have the last word on Jesus, the politicians in Washington will not have the last words, Love will ultimately win and we need to work together to make the Kingdom of God here on Earth a reality, no matter who is in the White House.

Post Election Thoughts

I have been thinking for a while about what to write and say. I am still shocked, mad, and sad just as I was 24 hours ago. Overall, I am not particularly worried about myself being a white cis straight man, but Trump mocking the reporter with a disabilities brings up painful memories of being bullied for my disability in school and the continued ableism I face every single day of my life.

No, instead, I am scared for others. I am scared for my infant daughter. What kind of world are Jenn and I raising her in? Is it fair to her? I am worried about my LGTQIA+ friends, particularly queer people of color. I wonder about if my Muslim friends will ever feel safe for Friday prayers in a Trump America. I think about the refugee families my Quaker meeting sponsors and think about if they will face persecution yet again. And the refugee families around the world waiting on whether the US will welcome them with open arms or close the doors to them completely.

At the same time, I wonder how much of this would still be true in a Hillary Clinton presidency. I am ready to continue to fight for peace and justice in my community, my nation, and the world, no matter who controls the Presidency and Congress. I am ready to fight for a USA that I want to live in, not give up the country to hate and fear.

Here I turned to probably one of my favorite poems that was in:

Silver­‐Lined Heart

I’m for reckless abandon
and spontaneous celebrations of nothing at all,
like the twin flutes I kept in the trunk of my car
in a box labeled Emergency Champagne Glasses!

Raise an unexpected glass to long, cold winters
and sweet hot summers and the beautiful confusion of the times in between.
To the unexpected drenching rain that leaves you soaking
wet and smiling breathless;

Here’s to the soul‐expanding power of the universally
optimistic simplicity of the beautiful.

See, things you hate, things you despise,
multinational corporations and lies that politicians tell,
injustices that make you mad as hell,
that’s all well and good.
And as far as writing poems goes,
I guess you should.
It just might be a poem that gets Mumia released,
brings an end to terrorism or peace in the middle east.

But as far as what soothes me, what inspires and moves me,
honesty behooves me to tell you your rage doesn’t move me.
See, like the darkest of clouds my heart has a silver lining,
which does not harken to the loudest whining,
but beats and stirs and grows ever more
when I learn of the things you’re actually for.

That’s why I’m for best friends, long drives, and smiles,
nothing but the sound of thinking for miles.
For the unconditional love of dogs:
may we learn the lessons of their love by heart.
For therapy when you need it,
and poetry when you need it.
And the wisdom to know the difference.

I’m for hard work, and homework,
and chapter tests, and cumulative exams,
and yearly science fairs, and pop quizzes
when you least expect them just to keep everybody honest.
For love and the fragile human heart,
may it always heal stronger than it was before.
For walks in the woods, and the for the woods themselves,
by which I mean the trees. Definitely for the trees.
Window seats, and locally brewed beer,
and love letters written by hand with fountain pens:
I’m for all of these.

For Galway Kinnell, and Rufus Wainright,
and Mos Def, and the Indigo Girls,
and getting closer to fine each and every day.

For the integrity it takes not to lightly suffer fools.
For God, and faith, and prayers, but not in public schools.

I’m for evolution more than revolution
unless you’re offering some kind of solution.
Isn’t that how we got the Consitution?

For charm and charisma and style
without being a self­‐important prig.
For chivalry and being a gentleman at the risk of being called a male chauvinist pig.

I’m for crushes not acted upon, for admiration from afar,
for intense sessions of self love,
especially if they make you a nicer person.

I’m for the courage it takes to volunteer, to say “yes,” “I believe in this,” and “I will.”
For the bright side, the glass half full, the silver lining,
and the optimists who consider darkness just a different kind of shining.

I’m for what can be achieved more than for what i would want in an ideal world.
I’m for working every day to make the world a better place
and not complaining about how it isn’t

So don’t waste my time and your curses on verses
about what you are against, despise, and abhor.
Tell me what inspires you, what fulfills and fires you,
put your gaddamn pen to paper and tell me what you’re for!

In 2004, after the re-election of George W. Bush, I was introduced to this poem by a friend. To overcome our frustration and sadness with that election, a group of us wrote about what we were for to deal with the outcome of that election.

Now twelve years later, after another disappointing election, I want to again focus on what I am for, rather than define myself by what I oppose:

I am for smiles from my baby and kisses from my wife in the morning
I am for working in community, learning to undo racism in my daily life and working alongside other white people to do this work.
I am for patronizing local bookstores, farmer markets, local restaurants and breweries, and keeping my money in my community
I am for good books, working out and other self-care practices to keep me ready for this ongoing struggle
I am for learning more from marginalized communities about how to be a better accomplice
I am for showing up for people of color.
I am for getting into nature and basking in the beauty of the outdoors, exploring creation whenever I can.
I am for continuing this fight without burning out.

What inspires you? What fulfills you? What fires you up? We need to be on fire to continue dismantling the oppressive systems at work in this country. This work will have needed to be done no matter who is in the White House. What has you going? How will you keep fighting these next four years?

Birthday Poem & Queries about Dismantling Oppression

For the third year in a row, I want to share a poem with you all for my birthday.

A Small Needful Fact
Ross Gay

Is that Eric Garner worked
for some time for the Parks and Rec.
Horticultural Department, which means,
perhaps, that with his very large hands,
perhaps, in all likelihood,
he put gently into the earth
some plants which, most likely,
some of them, in all likelihood,
continue to grow, continue
to do what such plants do, like house
and feed small and necessary creatures,
like being pleasant to touch and smell,
like converting sunlight
into food, like making it easier
for us to breathe.

For the last several years, I have been working on understanding racism and the ways I benefit and how I uphold structures of oppression, especially racism. This is hard work and I constantly continue to make mistakes.

In this ongoing work, I have learned that while dismantling systems and structures of oppressions, I need to also think about how to create new structures and new systems that work to center the experiences of the oppressed. We, the oppressed and oppressed, need new models of how to be truly free from systemic oppression.

In thinking about this new growth, this poem reminds me that the fruits of our labor may outlive us and continue to subvert the power structures for a long time. As the poem points out, even through the state unjustly took away Eric’s breath, his own handiwork might still be helping others to breathe and thrive to this very day.

As a Christian, that is what encourages me about the Cross, death and the state did not have the final word. Jesus rose again to give freedom to the oppressed.

Here are some queries:

  • How are you working to understand how systemic oppression affects your life?
  • How are you working to be free?
  • Where are you seeing new growth in your daily lives that subverts these oppressed structures?

I am interested in reading your responses. They would be great gifts to me on my birthday.

Becoming Visible: Quaker Outreach at Colleges

Last week I traveled up to Boone, North Carolina to assist the SPICE (Acronym for core Quaker testimonies: Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, & Equality) Quaker student group at Appalachian State University with their table at the Student Involvement Fair. These fairs are quite common at college campuses at the beginning of the school year and each club and/or student group can have a table to introduce fellow students to who they are.

IMG_20160815_145740677As a religious club, the SPICE club was in the same room with all the other religious clubs
on campuses. We were next to the Presbyterian/Episcopal club, and near other denominational campus ministries, like the United Methodist Wesley Foundation and Catholic Campus Ministry They were also at least half a dozen parachurch groups, like Cru, formerly known as Campus Crusade for Christ. There were a lot of variety for students to choose from. I am glad Quakers appear as one of the options.

During the fair the SPICE group had a cardboard display about their group and they had printed stickers with their name on it and wrote on the back their meeting time for the semester. (Their meeting time changes each semester dependinIMG_20160815_150928812 (1)g on the class schedules of the members.) I brought with me a life-size Quaker Man from my meeting, First Friends Meeting of Greensboro, and some chocolates to give out.

Throughout the event, we gave out chocolates and stickers to App students. We asked people if they had heard of Quakers or if they were interested in being involved with a faith community based on simplicity, peace, integrity, community, and equality. By the end of the event, we had a list of 12 student names and contact information and had given out all of the SPICE stickers.

IMG_20160815_145712035

Joe & Harriet wtih Quaker Man

Now, the SPICE group leadership, made up of Ellen, Harriet, and Joe, are reaching out to these students and planning some great events for this upcoming semester. I am working with them this year to help their efforts to reach out to the larger campus community at Appalachian State and to help plan events

Just imagine if Quakers were on more college campuses, what if we were able to reach a dozen students each year on, say, 25 campuses. What impact would that cause on students’ lives? What impact would that have on the future of the Religious Society of Friends? We have a powerful message to share about a faith centered on peace and community. This message to share that needs to be shared alongside other ministry groups on college campuses. Students are indeed eager to hear it! We need to become visible on these campuses!

As I wrote earlier in the summer, I am currently working on setting up a network of Quaker campus ministries at non-Quaker higher education institutions to support students like Ellen, Harriet, and Joe, in developing Quaker groups on their campuses. These groups help to sustain Quaker students in their faith journey during college. I welcome any support in helping to identify:

  • Quaker students you know at non Quaker institutions
  • Quaker student group at non Quaker institutions
  • Quakers who have a leading to work with college students

If you can help or want to get involved in any way, please fill out this form or contact me at gregwoodsquaker@gmail.com

 

A Response to Trump: Tribune of Poor White People

Several liberal friends have recently posted the article Trump: Tribune of Poor White People, which is an interview by Rod Dreher had with JD Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy.51G93vyEl5L

When I read it, I wanted to like the article and wanted to gleam some great insights. But at the end of the article, I was not at all impressed by the commentary that lacked nuance and made broad generalizations that were entirely based on anecdotal evidence and not supported by actual hard facts.

Here are my thoughts on the interview:

1. Yes some liberals at Yale can be elitists, like the ones that Vance talked about in the interview. Yet, if Vance want to speak against broad assumptions of a group of people, the he should not make broad assumptions of another group of people. Yes, there is classism at Ivy League schools, but a majority of the liberals in the US do not go to Ivy League schools. Anecdotal evidence is just that, anecdotal.

2. Another anecdotal evidence that the interviewer Dreher and JD Vance seemed to affirm is a friend of Dreher’s seeing Trump signs all over West Virginia. If you look at results from the primary election in WV, Trump was indeed the top vote getter overall, but more people voted in the Democrat primary (roughly 30,000 more) with Sanders and Clinton getting 60,000 more votes combined than Trump. In some of the southern countries where I have traveled through and is pretty rural, Sanders captured more votes than Trump, so it wasn’t just big cities, like Charleston, voting overwhelming for Democrats to skew the voter turnout.

3. This leads to a point my friend Vonn New made on Facebook. This whole interview is based on the theory that poor working whites are the majority of Trump base. This theory is debunked by Nate Silver of 538. In his article, Silver shows that Trump supporters have a median household income $16,000 higher than the national average. Also Silvers has a breakdown of voters and their median household income. Silver doesn’t show data for West Virgina, but he does have data from Ohio where Vance is from. In Ohio, Trump primary voters had an median household income of $64K, $13K higher than average for Ohio and 5K and 2K higher shutterstock_3218677341-554x380than Clinton and Sanders’ voters respectively.

 

Even the woman pictured with a Trump hat (shown right) at the top of the article is a multi-millionaire herself, according to someone who wrote Dreher after he initially posted the interview. Also notice that in the same post-script Dreher writes about using the photo because it is one he could find quickly “of a normal-looking person at a Trump rally, up close.” So… let’s talk about elitism…

4. Vance’s overall point, besides liberals are elitists, seems to be that liberals are too concerned about structural barriers, that the conversation to help the people in Appalachia needs to be about personal responsibility. Besides this being a common trope that liberals want to take care of people so it lets people be lazy, Vance does agree himself that barriers are very much real.

As a liberal, I see these programs as leveling the playing field so that people from Appalachia can have more of a chance to go to college as their peers in suburban Washington DC have, not as a way for people to be lazy. Liberals tend to have platforms that support a strong public education. Public education helped Vance to go to Ohio State University, which led to him then going to Yale Law and having to deal with the liberal elitists there. Vance himself benefited from liberals wanting to and working to break down structural barriers, but he does not seem to acknowledge this at all. Meanwhile, conservatives across the country are currently actively working to defund public education at all levels that would prevent poor students like Vance from ever being able to attend a great state college like OSU.

5. Obama came from a middle class background and was raised at one point by a single mother and her parents. Insinuating that he is an out-of-touch elitist is an empty attack that shows there is no substance to the underlying argument.

6. Coal is a dying industry, not only because of liberals’ evil regulations, but because it is a finite natural resource. Also, strip mining is literally destroying the state and causing floods like never seen before. Instead of propping up an industry whose top executives have shown little to no regard for their workers’ lives (eg Don Blankenship), let’s actually start figuring out new industries and jobs for people in Appalachia.

Overall, this interview does show a much-needed conversation about class among white people. One that I was looking for when I opened the article. Yet instead, this conversation is obscured by useless political attacks, substitution of hard facts in favor of anecdotal evidence, and overgeneralization of complex issues facing poor white people in Appalachia and beyond.

Some Thoughts on Brock Turner

TW: Rape, White Privilege, Rape Culture

By Greg

I am beyond outrage about the lenient sentence that Brock Turner received

brockturner

Brock Turner

for the rape of an unconscious woman. (Also outraged that he wasn’t actually found guilty of rape. No, those charges were dropped before trial.)

I want the victim to receive justice. It is egregious that Brock Turner has yet to admit that he violated the victim even after being found guilty “of assault with intent to commit rape of an intoxicated woman, sexually penetrating an intoxicated person with a foreign object and sexually penetrating an unconscious person with a foreign object.

In her statement at sentencing, the victim said: “You do not get to pretend that there were no red flags. You have been convicted of violating me, intentionally, forcibly, sexually, with malicious intent, and all you can admit to is consuming alcohol. Do not talk about the sad way your life was upturned because alcohol made you do bad things. Figure out how to take responsibility for your own conduct.” (Please read her whole statement if you haven’t)

As a father-to-be with no idea of the sex of the baby, I am terrified of the current rape culture that I would be bringing up my daughter or son. Despite my best efforts to educate her/him otherwise, this culture will teach her she is to be blamed if she is ever assaulted or will teach my son that consent doesn’t really matter and will excuse him if he does ever rape someone.

I want revenge for the victim. Part of me wants to lock him up forever, especially as Shaun King pointed out yesterday in the NY Daily News, there are people of color in jail for ten years for nonviolent crimes, like selling weed. White privilege as rape culture has influenced this case in many ways.  This revenge side of me wants Brock to be locked up for a very long time to make a point that our justice system will finally start holding young privileged white males accountable for their crimes.

At the same time, this revenge side of me disturbs me. Because I know better. The current prison system is corrupt for many reasons and is focused on retribution, rather than restorative justice that will rehabilitate the offender and help with the healing process of the victim. Also if one young white privileged rapist gets a very long sentence, this does not change a very corrupt and unjust system that overwhelmingly discriminate against people of color.

I don’t know how to reconcile these positions of wanting justice and revenge to be served on one hand, while knowing that prison will probably not rehabilitate Brock Turner or probably facilitate further healing for the victim. Either way I know he needs more than six months in jail. But what is the “more”?

Lastly as a Quaker in ministry, I want to see the Light of God within Brock and find ways to grieve that he doesn’t understand the evil he did to his victim. I will hold him in the Light that he may one day realize the evil he has done. I do find it much easier to find the Light of God within the victim, but my theology asks that I sees the Light of God within everyone, no matter what evil they done, because they are still God’s creation. But I am having trouble with this as well.