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Sabbath Day: Haunting Harlem

June 26, 2015


For several months now my Thursday sabbath post has been a capstone to a week of reading literature from a different countries. Though I had intended to read two short novels and a short story collection from India this week, there was neither time for fun reading nor did it seem appropriate for my attention to have been anywhere but on my own country and our present crisis. The terrorist act in Charleston, South Carolina provoked grief and anger that had to be woven into last Sunday’s worship and further prompted a community vigil and march for justice. I was humbled to be asked to pray for the communities of faith in Charleston, White Plains and our country.

Last Thursday was also the release of Laudato Si’ (Praised Be) by Pope Francis. This was highly anticipated by those of us anxiously anticipating the UN Climate Conference in November, as it underscores the imperative morality of action to prevent catastrophic change. This included spending part of last Thursday calling my representative in congress to ensure that she vote against fast-track authority for the Trans-Pacific Partnership which will likely undermine any national efforts to combat climate change. The joy of receiving the Pope’s letter was overshadowed by the immediate need to act and by what the murders in Charleston revealed about the stubborn legacy of racism in our country.

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My week found it’s focus on Monday, in Harlem. My long time colleague, the Rev. Daniel Izquierdo, was in New York this week to speak with Presbyterians about U.S./Cuban relations in the present moment. I first met Daniel in 1996 when he was the pastor of the Igelsia Presbyterian y Reformed de Cuba in San Antonio de los Banos in Cuba. It was the first eight trips I would make to Cuba as part of a church partnership with my then congregation. Daniel has since served as moderator of the denomination an ambassador to the World Council of Churches and World Alliance of Reformed Churches in Geneva. He is currently serving a congregation in Luyano and teaching at the seminary in Matanzas. In any case, I met up with my good friend Daniel in Harlem on Monday. It was the first time we have sat face to face in over four years.


As I had business on the Upper West Side later in the day, I remained in Harlem after our visit in order to have lunch and spend a few hours reading Laudato Si’. Throughout the document we are reminded that the “issues” which confront us are deeply interrelated and require concerted action: “We are faced not with two separate crisis, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.”

Author James Baldwin is shown on a Harlem street in New York City, June 3, 1963.  (AP Photo/stf)

Author James Baldwin is shown on a Harlem street in New York City, June 3, 1963. (AP Photo/stf)

When I got home I pulled from my shelf James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963). It seemed the right book to accompany my reflections this week, particularly its unsparing indictment of “whiteness.’ My wife Noelle published a reflection on the first essay this morning, and I share her words here:

In “My Dungeon Shook:  Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation,” James Baldwin wrote

“And this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it…But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent.  It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”

This letter, published as part of “The Fire Next Time,” was a clarion call to our nation and to white Americans in particular to refuse the myth of innocence which allows injustice and racism to flourish in the very sinews of our society.  We stand today 53 years after he penned those words, still struggling with their mantle and mourning the devastation of our inaction or failed efforts. Baldwin ends the letter urging his nephew to love his “countrymen” writing, “that we with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.”

Many things have indeed changed since Baldwin’s jeremiad was published.  With farther yet to go on this urgent journey, Baldwin invites us to explore what does it means to love?  What does it means to receive love? What does love show us about ourselves?  And how does love free us for new life?

To which I can only add an Amen.

May we, “the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others – … handful that we are …, end the racial nightmare and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything [and here I hear the refrain from the People’s Climate March: “The change everything, we need everyone”], the fulfillment of that prophecy, recreated from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!” (James Baldwin, 1963).


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