Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Memphis and Shelby County - From "Us" and "Them" to "We"

Some acknowledgments and qualifiers on the front end.

I've served in the city of Memphis for most of my appointed ministry.

I'm a graduate of Memphis City Schools.  W.W. Herenton's name is on my high school diploma.

I first moved to Memphis in 1979.  I was 15.  I lived in Fox Meadows when that was still a very well established predominantly white, middle class community.  I attended and graduated from Wooddale, which was at that time probably 70%-30%, white/black.  African American kids were bused into Wooddale from the Bethel Grove and Orange Mound parts of town.

From what I've seen (strangely enough through Facebook) of folks with whom I attended high school, both white and black, it is clear to me that quality of education we enjoyed at Wooddale was very good.

I lived and worked in Whitehaven from 1983-1987.  The demographic shift was in full effect by that time for those who could afford to uproot and move to Mississippi, Germantown or Collierville, which was still at that time pretty much a sleepy little bedroom community.

I moved back to Memphis in 1992--back into the same community I lived in while in high school, Fox Meadows.  Over the five and a half years of ministry there, the demographic shift was on....reminding me very much of Whitehaven only ten years earlier.  The pressures of serving what was once a "community church" that found the elements of community eroding provided profound challenges to determining what it means to be the church.

It is among the ongoing issues and questions of theological identity for any church in a transitional community. The United Methodist Church in Memphis has had and continues to struggle to find good answers to some of the tough questions such transitions raise.  Visionary leadership and prophetic witness are among the attributes notably lacking in the face of the struggle to find meaning.

In 2001, I returned to Memphis/Shelby County.  Lived in Germantown, worked in Midtown.  Lots of reasons for that which we determined as a family was the best choice at that time in our lives.  And yes, where our kids went to school was among those reasons.

I served in Midtown for 8 years in a place at the crossroads of wealth and abject poverty.  Because Midtown had already transitioned many years before,  I was there as new life emerged.  What some called renaissance (myself among them), others called gentrification.

In 2009, my appointed service shifted back into the county, now serving in Cordova, a community not unlike how I remember Fox Meadows in the late 70's.  It is a community impacted deeply by the downturn in the housing market and the economic crisis of the past couple of years.

In each phase of my life in Memphis/Shelby County, there is always the undercurrent of certain "givens" that frame policy.  While race is chief among them, it does not stand alone.  The place where race, crime, economics and education meet--that's the thing that's always in the room with any conversation of citizens of Memphis/Shelby County about Memphis/Shelby County.  This amalgum of issues long predates my life here, and while the ways we talk about it may be shrouded in more carefully chosen language, it's still alive and well.

Now, how does any of this qualify me to say anything about the status of our city and county, and the school systems that work within each?

I don't know, maybe nothing.  Except that I've seen the biases of people who live in certain parts of the city/county toward those who don't.  There's plenty folks who live in the county who are pretty certain that if you live in the city, especially deep into the city it's pretty certain that you'll be robbed, raped or shot.

And I know plenty folks who live in Midtown who believe that if you live outside the 240 loop...heck, if you live east of Highland that you're a part of the evil system that perpetuates the divide of the city/county and that no one who lives "out there" (me included) can say anything about what could/should be done.  "Sell out" is often a label placed on us folk.

The divide perpetuated by our biases and fears does not make for the best witness of "the city of good abode." It is bias based upon every demographic and pejorative stereotype of "the other" that each can conjure about the other. Some of those biases are not without credence. Abuses of power, leadership that has been at times negligent at the least, and perhaps corrupt at most do not inspire confidence.  Boss Crump may be long gone as a man, but the remnants of how he manipulated and controlled everything lingers still.  That said, our biases provide cover to excuse our behaviors.  And they absolutely prevent us from looking at new ways of being community.

But here's what I know deep within--
We can argue about how and why, but the time to come together as one in the city/county is here.

This will not be easy to do.  I expect it to be among the most difficult things Memphis/Shelby County will have done in its history.  I suspect things will likely get worse before they get better, But it is the right thing.  As a man of faith, I believe it to be the most faithful thing.

It will need to happen for economic reasons, if for no other.
It will need to happen to position our region for growth.
Maybe it will even unify us in ways we've never considered.

Nashville, Louisville, Indianapolis...they seemed to figure it out.

Why can't we?

As I write this the Memphis City School Board has upheld its previous decision to surrender its charter and thus fall under the mantle of the Shelby County School System.

The fears, the biases and prejudices are flying fast and furious at each other about each other.

The "citizen of Memphis" side of me wants to see Memphis City School be better than it is.  I want to see excellence from teachers and students and efficiency in how the system is governed.  I want to see the Memphis City Schools perform like...well, the Shelby County Schools.  I want to be able to watch a meeting of the MCS Board and not wonder "what the hell are they doing?" If I'm a parent of a child in MCS, and I couldn't stay up all night in the optional school line, why wouldn't I want the school my kid goes to performing like the schools I see "out there?"

The MCS teachers and administrators that I know are masters at their craft.  They are very talented people doing amazing work.  And yet even the best of talent when operating in a system that seems to be dysfunctional have to feel they are swimming upstream against the current..always.

As a "citizen of Shelby County" and a parent of three in SCS, I look at the implications of a consolidated district and it can't help but give me pause.  What does it mean?  What does it do to my kids?  Does it do anything?  Does it negatively impact the education my kids are getting now?  In short, what does it do to me and mine?  It's a question that rises naturally in us when there is a potential change.  But the better part of me want MCS to be better, too.  And I want to be able to observe the leadership of the SCS Board operate address the issues without feeling like there's something else they're really trying to do without actually saying it.  Our community is better, safer, more productive when all of our schools excel.

There comes a time in our lives when we have to begin to think about the implication of choices and decisions and work with "the other" to find a new reality to frame our future.  I have to wonder...are we the answer we've been waiting for to long held unresolved issues?  Is it for such a time as this that our community moves from too many policies based on old notions toward something new?

As it was when I served in Midtown, and now in Cordova, our churches celebrates its relationship with a school.  It is one of support, care and sponsorship.  The role of the church in community seeks the best for our children.  It is one of the ways in which our village raises up our future leaders.

What lessons will they learn from us through this?

No, I have no expectations that this is something with easy answers.  But I have trust in two of our leaders.  I trust A.C. Wharton and Mark Luttrell.  I think they are both very good men and represent the best of what our city/county has produced.

Whatever happens with the schools...whatever happens in matters of government--we have to stop this us/them dynamic.  It does not bring about the best in any of us.

It's time to move to "we."

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Sticks and Stones Break Bones---Words Do, Too

vi·o·lence noun \ˈvī-lən(t)s, ˈvī-ə-\
Definition of VIOLENCE
1  a : exertion of physical force so as to injure or abuse (as in warfare effecting illegal entry into a house)b : an instance of violent treatment or procedure
2  : injury by or as if by distortion, infringement, or profanation: outrage
3 a : intense, turbulent, or furious and often destructive action or force
b : vehement feeling or expression : fervor; also : an instance of such action or feeling
c : a clashing or jarring quality : discordance (from

I'm not sure there's anything more narcissistic than to ascribe blame for catastrophic events. We all do it. Something awful happens and we want to know why. What makes it narcissistic is that the blame we place gladly is always elsewhere...usually on the diametrically opposite pole of where we are in life or the world view we hold thereby propping ourselves up as the paragons of virtue, truth and supreme importance while "they" are the embodiment of evil, corruption and that which must be purged lest the Republic fall. Whether or not the blame is real or imagined, when we do such a thing we enjoy the presumably safe cover of taking easy shots at those whose positions we abhor.

And when that happens we perpetuate the violence--just of another sort.

It's happened too much since last weekend.  It's easy.  It's petty.  It's tacky.

So self absorbed is the media about how a mentally ill person did what he did from which connections are drawn based on what one hopes is the reason rather than what really is (something which may never be known), that shattered bodies are not even  yet cold before we skew what is ultimately important about a tragic situation.

He's a Commie.  He's a Nazi.  He's a liberal.  He's a conservative.  He's influenced by cross hairs on a map.  He's influenced by the moon.  Who's knows?  It's Sarah Palin's fault.  It's not Sarah Palin's fault.  And today the term "blood libel" was used--which does not help.  I wonder if she knew what that meant historically when she said it.  My hope is she didn't. Because if she did, the cycle of violence continues.  

To have this tit for tat argument now bespeaks the larger issue.  There's murder in Tuscon, but look at me!!!!

Everybody, SHUT UP!

We do violence of another kind if, for now, we do anything but offer prayers of comfort and support for the grieving, and prayers for healing and wholeness for the injured.  If, for right now, our focus is more on a blame placing "why" than it is celebrating the profound courage of those who rose up and ended this murderous spree before more bullets could fly then we are revealing our true intent, and it is not noble.

But there's a conversation that must be had...someday, and soon.  While not drawing a causal relationship between what occurred in Tuscon and the ways in which differing sides speak to their constituents about others ---anyone who honestly thinks our lack of civility in matters of public discourse has nothing to do with heightened tensions isn't listening.  Speak "violence" enough, be it overt or coded and muted, how then can we be surprised when violence comes (as it does everyday all over the place) and causal relationships are not sought? 

We're better than this.  At least I think we are.  Well, I hope we are.

We all grew up with that old saying "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me."  Sticks and stones do break bones, and despite our protestations to the contrary, words can break bones, too - just not always directly.

Words can inspire, yes.
Words can provoke, of course.
But words can incite, too.

Is speaking violence even when we don't mean it the best way to communicate a point?
Is constant hyperbole the best persuasive tool to shape hearts and lives, or does it, if left unchecked merely stoke the lesser angels of our nature?

Too often, chronic hyperbolic speech masks the weakness of the point one is trying to make.  And yet once said, we must live with the consequences of what hyperbole brings. Some of us can take it, measure it and contextualize it on the spot, thus, governing our reaction to it. And for some of us hyperbole so inflames us that we're guided by fear of what we'll lose if something dramatic isn't done right here and right now.  We can't process it.  It is what it is and our reaction is framed out of blind zeal rather than considered thought.

If I were to ever wonder how I sound with the words I speak and the manner in which I speak them, I've only to listen to my children instinctively regurgitate what I've conditioned them to say because they heard it first from my mouth.  Some of those words make me proud. Many make me cringe.

One of the great challenges of the journey for those of us on the Way is to match holy words with holy actions.  We are to match the language of love with love's actions in a broken world.  We are to match belief in forgiveness and justice with mercy from a loving God to be lived out in right relationships with those around us, especially those alien to us.  Whoever "other" is for you - that's your measuring stick.  Don't believe me?  Read the Gospels.

What words are you saying now?  Do they speak "violence?"
Dare we speak the language of a revolution based on love?

And let's be clear what we mean by "love."  It is the love of God that transforms the world. Sometimes that transformation means that our words confront the principalities and powers whose actions and/or inactions have propagated a violence against those whose lives have been determined to have less value than others.  But words that confront, from this standpoint, are prophetic words that bespeak the heart of God whose most earnest desire is for us "to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly."  Those words are revolutionary because they call us to be the living expression of God's love through Jesus in what we say and do.

I'm going to try something for the next month and I'm inviting you to be a part of it, too.  I want you to be very conscious about what you say and how you say it toward those whose positions you have the most problem. And right now in our country to say nothing of our City and County, there's polarizing issues aplenty.  Seek to avoid the language of violence.  Seek to avoid dehumanizing "the other."  Let your love for the One you call Lord guide your words and actions more than those seeking to incite.

If words matched with actions can break bones, maybe they can heal, too.

I believe they can.

Friday, January 07, 2011

If a Little Sabbath Time Is Good.....

First, a confession.

I've never taken a sabbatical.

Never taken renewal leave. Been under appointment since 1987.

I share that not as a source of pride, really more one of shame.

Because the truest part of that confession is that I'm jealous of those who do.

I covet (yes, covet, bordering on resent) the circumstances that allow my colleagues to do what I can't see myself doing.

How do I pay for it?

How can I leave my family with the burden of tending to the business of our living while I'm away -

How? It's so unfair to Kristy to leave her with that.

I've never had a question about the "why?" of the equation. My head knows the value of sabbath time. My soul has known its value in slight doses...dribbles here and there.

I took some sabbath time this week. Upon the invitation of my old pal, Ed, I traveled down to his place in south west Florida. My agenda was simple....nothing. Just be.

Ed was host, captain, cook, counselor.

Having had him in my home over the years since I was 8, no Jeffords had ever been to his place.

When he was at Covenant with me this September, our time together outside of the concerts and worship experiences was of the typical sort with dinner and conversation. He talked about his Florida home, on Manasota Key. He talked about "retreats" he's hosted when people he's worked with over the years are invited to come and share in some time way.

"You look like you could use one, Johnny." "You come down, I'll give you some date options. If you say 'no' to more than two or three options, I won't ask anymore."

Couldn't do the first was right before Israel. But the second one, I was on it.

So I spent Monday-Thursday of this week with The Grateful Ed. We sailed, listened to good music on the boat, talked about a lot of stuff. I went with him to a gig. Manned his table and sold his wares. I shared the current mix of The Travelling Cokesburys CD (soon to be released), which he liked but wanted to mix himself and sing on it with us. We jumped in at Eddie Boy Bay (sub 60 degree water - didn't stay long).

I don't want to overstate how wonderful the experience was...but it was really, really good.

I've left to go to plenty of things before...but usually always continuing education in nature. Conferences, workshops and the like. Most all of them have at least some part that's really good, and most all of them have a goodly part that's a big waste of time.

But that's not what this was.

No agenda, but to tack across Lemon Bay as the wind guided (and the weather was glorious).

No agenda, but to walk down the beach.

No agenda but to go to favorite eateries and sample the local cuisine.

No agenda but to watch the sunset and be glad.

I don't know if I could stand that everyday (I wonder). Holy Scriptures don't suggest everyday be like that. But the Hebrew Bible does talk about taking one day in seven to cease from just be still and know God.

That "commandment" is not for God's benefit, it's for ours.

And I was benefited mightily by an old of friend mine being a friend in ways I never expected, or deserved...

Isn't that what they call "Grace?"