“Racial Justice and Koinonia Fellowship: What’s Love (and Kindness) Got to Do with It?”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
9 February, 2020
Holy Habit of Fellowship, Week 6
Acts 2:5-12, 43-47
Romans 12:2-5, 9-13, 21

Today, UCC congregations everywhere are observing Racial Justice Sunday.  I’m proud to represent a denomination that has always been on the front edge of justice issues, taking seriously the word of God in Micah 6:8: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Not that this is easy.  The human inclination is to appreciate, support, and advocate for those similar to who we believe ourselves to be, or those we wish we were more like.  And to ignore (or worse, actively diminish) the lives and reality of those who don’t conform to our preferences.  But as we’re learning by delving into the Holy Habit of Koinonia – of spiritual fellow-ship, of trust-building and covenant-keeping and mutuality – ignoring and diminishing, while pretty easy to do, are not practices in keeping with the work of Christ-like love.

As members of the same body, we’ve heard several times across the past few weeks, we have a duty to honor each part – and especially those that are not being cared for well.  As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it…”  Everyone knows what happens to a body when a pain is ignored or denied at length.  It’s destructive to the entire body.  More often than not, the reason for ignoring pain is fear: fear that comfortable habits will need to change.  Fear that the necessary change will require sacrifice.  Fear about what the disclosure and acknowledgement of that pain might say about the person or body and their vulnerability more generally.  For many people, it’s just easier to avoid, ignore, or deny the reality than it is to face the truth, even if the truth ultimately is liberating.

On the first and third Tuesdays of the month from 9–10 a.m., I often participate in an interfaith prayer vigil called the “Jericho Walk” outside the Norris Cotton Federal Building in Manchester.  That is where immigrants and asylum-seekers in New Hampshire report to meet with immigration officers and judges, to learn whether they will be granted permission to remain, or be deported.  On those days, some 30-50 of us from NH communities of faith (it’s open to anyone who wishes to participate) march and pray, carrying signs that bear witness to our solidarity with those whose lives and wellbeing are under serious threat; those who are often misrepresented by media and political figures, whose personal stories are not invited, listened to, or honored.

I do this because of Jesus’ words, his example, and his call to align my life with the marginalized and the rejected; because of his instruction that we must welcome and show hospitality to the stranger; his exhortation that we should care for, visit, and encourage those who are imprisoned; and his mandate that we must love one another as he has loved us.

At first, I was a little nervous.  Sometimes, people shout hateful things at us as we peacefully walk; they express real hostility.  It’s not unthinkable that an unhealthy person could get violent toward our group and our witness; as Jesus discovered, human beings invested in entrenched systems of power often feel deeply threatened by people who align themselves with the powerless, who demonstrate lovingkindness for the “outsider”.

After this past Tuesday’s vigil, two colleagues talked about their visit in January with more than three dozen other clergy to the U.S.-Mexico border, with an organization called Faith in Action.  Rev. John Gregory-Davis, co-pastor at the Meriden Congregational Church, vividly shared about his experience of sitting in a courtroom, watching brown-skinned people who were not violent, who had no prior criminal records, but whose wrists were nonetheless in handcuffs, and who were shackled together 6 or 8 at a time by chains at their waists and around their ankles as they stood before the judge.  He told us about one woman, who sobbed as she begged the judge to tell her where her children were, and the judge said he had no idea and he couldn’t find out.  Her anguished lawyer later told the clergy group that there was minimal chance that even she (the lawyer) could find out where that woman’s children were.  It would entail somehow stumbling upon the right person with the right information in a massive and broken system.  And even if she did find that person, they would not be allowed to reunite mother and children; they could only have someone tell the children that their mother was okay.

“It was excruciating to sit there quietly,” Pastor John said, “because we had been instructed to remain silent and on ‘good behavior’ if we hoped to observe what’s going on.  But to remain silent in the face of this perversion of justice was simultaneously soul-crushing and an absolute outrage.  I wondered whether the people in chains might have thought we were complicit in this—a bunch of us just watching their proceedings, doing nothing for all they knew.  Maybe they thought we were all just a bunch of voyeurs making sure they got sent back to the hell they were trying to escape. We had to sit there, listening to wrenching stories, and watch the inhumanity of what happens every single day there, group after group after group of these suffering human beings shuffling through in chains, as if this is somehow normal or acceptable.”

“[S]o we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. (The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Romans 12:5.)    Love is patient.  Love is kind.”  (Again, the apostle Paul, in his First letter to the Corinthians 13:4.)

I do not think that Paul, when he said “love is patient”, meant that love just passively waits for things to get better.  I think he was referring to a perseverant determination to focus on what’s right.  Like when a parent patiently deals with a child’s bad behavior – not by ignoring it, but by persistently trying different methods to guide the child to the truth of goodness, all the while refusing to become violent or vindictive, even when the behavior is hurtful or disrespectful.

Last month in The Christian Century magazine, a book entitled Where Goodness Still Grows was excerpted.  The author, Amy Peterson, had attended a writer’s conference.  At the end of the conference, they were invited to pray with a partner and exchange something like ‘star words’ as blessings to encourage and stay with them.  The word she received was ‘kind.’[1]

“My immediate reaction to the word was distaste,” she confesses.  “It was as if I’d been given a Thomas Kinkade painting when I wanted a Picasso.”  She recalled how, at a childhood summer camp, the children were given beads that represented something about them.  She hoped to get a bead symbolizing brave, or wise, or funny.  Instead, she got the orange ‘kindness’ bead.  “Kindness was the bead that you gave the girl you didn’t know, the girl who didn’t cause any problems, the girl who didn’t do anything memorable, the doormat who faded politely into the background as others hurried over her,” she lamented.

But shortly after that writer’s conference, Ms. Peterson started reading Janice Soskice’s The Kindness of God, where she discovered that “[i]n Middle English … the words ‘kind’ and ‘kin’ were the same – to say that Christ is ‘our kinde Lord’ is not to say that Christ is tender and gentle … but to say that he is kin—our kind.”  Amy realized, “To be kind meant to be kin. … God’s kindness meant precisely that God became my kin–Jesus, my brother…”  (Affirming John’s gospel: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us…” John 1:14)

“But,” she continues, “what did that mean for the people around me?  I was happy to be the sister of Christ but less than thrilled to admit kinship with all humanity; that would make me related to that guy wearing too much cologne at the soccer game, the kid who hit my kid at recess, the woman flirting with my husband in the park, the racist troll I blocked on Twitter … I would prefer not to call these people my siblings…to say I’m not that kind of person.  But, in fact, I am exactly that kind: we are kin.  [Which means] then, practicing kindness requires, at minimum, a willingness to see the image of God in, and to find a point of honest connection with, every person.”

As she did further research into the etymology of the words kind and kindness, Peterson discovered that, “According to the Oxford English Dictionary, in Old English kyndnes meant … in legal documents, a right to a title or piece of land based on inheritance. … In Old English, the upper classes had more kindness – more land, more inheritance – than the lower.”

Around the same time, she happened to read an article about the impact of receiving a financial inheritance (in Old English, a kyndnes).  Researchers from the Heller Institute at Brandeis University had hoped to show that a college degree could be the solution to the wealth gap between black and white families.  Instead, they discovered that education made little difference at all.

“What did make a difference?  Family inheritance; intergenerational transfer of wealth. ‘Among college-educated black families, about 13 percent get an inheritance of more than $10,000, as opposed to about 41 percent of white, college-educated families. … The average amount is also drastically different: more than $150,000 for white family inheritances versus less than $40,000 for black family inheritances.  What this means … is that ‘black families, even college-educated black families, rarely get a ‘transformative asset,’ a chunk of money that enables you to pay off student loans, purchase a house, or move to a better neighborhood to send your kids to a better school.  For white families, that’s much more common.”

“That trickle-down across generations of white families has a real effect.  ‘The thing about wealth is that it’s sticky,’ [one of the researchers quipped], ‘once you have it, it really sticks with the family.’  It puts people onto a much better trajectory.  And the way wealth is distributed is replicated in each successive generation.  When we think about wealth, often we think about our individual standing,” Peterson observes, “but it’s so strongly linked to what’s happening in family networks.”

Then she turns reflective: “I have tended to think my success, such as it is, is born of my hard work.  But reading [this] study woke me up.”  She acknowledged the benefit of inheritances she’d personally received.  “Of course,” she agreed, “my grandparents themselves worked hard for the money they left me, but they – and their grandparents and their grandparents – worked within a system rigged in their favor.  The wealth my grandparents shared with me is money that was accumulated within a structure that favored white people over indigenous people or black people.  But I don’t think about this often: it’s easy to remain blind to structural injustice when the injustice bends in your favor and when you’re working hard for your success anyway. … And while I can be grateful for what I’ve been given, I have to acknowledge that this matters.”

“For a very long time,” she points out, “unkindness was written into our very laws and conventions.  White Americans refused to recognize kinship with indigenous people and slaves.  White men left their assets only to some of their children: the ones born of their white wives, not the ones born of their slaves. While of course we have always been kin, our bloodlines mixing and mingling from the very beginning, our customs and our laws for most of our nation’s history ignored that truth, and so inheritances stayed divided by color lines.  … Even once we realize this history, it’s easy to pretend that it’s only history – that it doesn’t affect our lives now.”

“The failure of white people [generations ago] to see the image of God in their black and Native American brothers and sisters is the unkindness on which our nation was built.  It’s an unkindness that has been financially profitable, and because of that white people have often remained conveniently blind to it.”

“Kindness,” Peterson summarizes, “has little do with being blandly nice, being the right kind of person, someone who won’t cause any trouble by asking inconvenient questions, someone who willingly accepts the status quo and fills her place in society without troubling the waters.  Kindness is, instead, about seeing the image of God in everyone, outsiders and insiders, and learning to love our kin in ways that don’t oppress others.  Kindness sometimes means breaking boundaries of bloodlines to become family and being willing to have porous borders.  Kindness may require the redistribution of wealth as a part of justice.  To have this sort of kindness requires real strength.”

In a post to the UCC website, our denomination’s Minister for Racial Justice, the Rev. Velda Love, made this observation: “Very few Christian churches are leading bold and courageous conversations, engaging in direct social activism and participating in civil disobedience as a way to bring attention to and disrupt racist systems and structures.”  Then she issued this challenge: “The ongoing impact of racism and xenophobia in contemporary society requires Christians to commit to a lifelong journey of restoration and repair among God’s people impacted by individual and systemic oppression and marginalization.”  She invited UCC members and churches “to be on the journey as a witness and transformative presence with God’s beloved, inclusive global community.”   I hope and pray that as part of our deepening understanding of Holy Habits, and as we think about Building and Living Our Vision as a congregation, we might embrace that challenge with God’s help.  Amen.

[1] Christian Century, “Kindness to Whom?”, 29 January 2020, p. 29-31.  All references and quotes that follow are from this same article.

© 2020 The Congregational Church of Hollis, UCC