Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church

This year’s celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday on January 14 was a very special occasion for Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.[1] We welcomed the pastors and members of our local partner congregations, Liberty Community Church and Grace-Trinity Community Church, to hear the sermon by Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II , the highest official (Stated Clerk) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) denomination.[2] The Biblical passages for the day were 1 Samuel 3:1-10 and John 1: 43-51.

After the worship service, we explored the spaces in our new addition whose front exterior is shown in this photograph.

The following is a summary of this historic day by the church’s communications consultant, Kathy Graves, with the first photograph by Westminster member, Tom Northenscold, and the other two by Rev. Brennan Blue.[3]

The Worship Service

“A celebratory, soulful group of musicians from Westminster and its partner [congregations] welcomed people to worship. . . [followed by a reminder from] Tim Hart-Andersen, senior pastor at Westminster. . .: ‘Today is just the beginning. Many of us have worked long and hard to get to this moment, but our vision of a parking lot has grown into a vision for transforming our presence in the city. Our work is ahead of us.’”[4]

Alika Galloway, co-pastor of Liberty, Minnesota’s only primarily African-American PC(USA) congregation, shared the successes of her church’s 21st Century Academy, a rigorous after-school and summer academic program partially funded by [Westminster’s] Open Doors Open Futures. Daniel Vigilante, pastor of Grace-Trinity, described the support his congregation received from Westminster’s campaign. Five years ago, the congregation had expected to close because of dwindling numbers and resources when Westminster and Grace-Trinity formed a unique partnership. Today, Grace-Trinity is thriving and nearly self-supporting.”

“Rev. J. Herbert Nelson II [in the  photograph to the left] spoke [in his sermon] of the need to ‘get real about those being left behind.’ He urged the congregation to listen to what God is calling them to be, especially in the beautiful new spaces created by Open Doors Open Futures. “’Be consumed not with the love of this building but by a love of this community,’ he told worshippers. ‘Use this space wisely. You have much and have already used it for the glory of God. Take it and do a whole lot more. Let the world know you are standing firm.’”

“Worship concluded with [a call-and-response reading of the unique] “Litany for a New Day,” which offered these words [by everyone in the congregation]: ‘We hope this is where new life happens, where friendships are made and children are loved, where hands serve and prophetic voices are nurtured out of silence, where good news is proclaimed in a broken world and radical hospitality is our daily practice, where you, O God, are worshipped and another generation experiences resurrection.’”

The Reception

“Following worship, the congregation cut the ribbons’ on the expansion, which were actually handcrafted banners created by [Rev.] Beth Hart-Andersen from textiles donated by Westminster members and which were carried down the Trinity Staircase of the new space by Westminster youth as shown in the photograph to the right.

“Drummers [then] led a procession of nearly 1,100 people out into the new wing and down the four-story “Trinity Staircase” (and adjacent elevators) into the new 300-stall underground parking garage. Outside temperatures below zero led to a brisk and festive blessing of the garage.’

“As the youth group sang “Amazing Grace,’ they made their way back up to the first floor to inaugurate Westminster Hall with the premiere of composer Tom Trenney’s ‘I Will Make a Way,’ a setting of Isaiah 43:19, commissioned by Westminster for the occasion. Tesfa Wondemagegnehu, Westminster’s director of choral ministries, led the Westminster Choir in a performance that showed off the magnificent acoustics of the space as shown in this photograph.[5]

“’The new hall will allow the church to diversify its worship offerings as well as fulfill long-unmet needs for community meetings and congregational celebrations. ‘Westminster Hall is the heart of the new first floor expansion,’ said Hart-Andersen. ‘It will allow us to worship in a new key. The city is right here,’ he said, gesturing to a full-length wall of glass overlooking Westminster Plaza on Nicollet Mall. ‘We can see the city and it can see us.’”

“The hall comfortably accommodates up to 400 people. State-of-the art lighting and acoustics allow for a wide array of programming. Sunlight passes through a tree-like canopy overhead, speaking to passages in scripture that reference the power and symbolism of nature and life’s cycles.”

James Dayton, the lead architect, thanked the congregation for its steadfast support of the project. ‘My firm does this work every day, but you don’t,’ he said. ‘You had to learn a whole set of skills. And you did. This building makes manifest the faith of this congregation. Thank you for allowing us to be part of this.’”

“’Westminster is a church open to creative new ways to serve and engage the city,’ said Hart-Andersen. ‘This new wing gives us the tools to do that: easy access, multi-use space, enhanced technology, inspired green design, and much more.’” (A subsequent post will discuss how that new space will be used.)

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[1] The live stream of the service is on the church website, and the bulletin for the service should soon be there as well..

[2]  Rev. Nelson is the son, grandson, and nephew of Presbyterian pastors and the first African- American to lead the denomination, which has a 300-year history in the U.S. As Stated Clerk his duties include interpreting assembly actions, representing the church on various denominational and ecumenical councils, witnessing on behalf of the church to social justice

[3] Graves, Westminster Presbyterian Church opens doors on expansion to historic downtown Minneapolis building, Presbyterian Outlook (Jan. 19, 2018); Powell, Westminster Presbyterian to serve as a cornerstone of justice, Presbyterian Mission (Jan. 17, 2018).

[4] The musicians were Sam Reeves, Jr., pianist and Liberty Church’s  Minister of Music; Brian “Snowman” Powers, a Louisiana-bred saxophonist, composer and music producer; and Chris Koza, a singer-songwriter-guitarist and member of Grace-Trinity Community Church.

[5] The Westminster Choir also was joined by the church’s Global Choir (in which this blogger sings bass), and Youth Choir while the children’s Choristers danced for a performance of “Bonse Aba,” a beautiful traditional Zambian anthem, whose native language words translate in English as, “All that sing have the right to be called the children of God.

 

The Tragic Extinguishment of the Eloquence of Robert F. Kennedy

Robert F. Kennedy

Most Americans remember or know about Robert F. Kennedy or “RFK” (1925-1968): brother to U.S. President John F. Kennedy, U.S. Attorney General in his brother’s administration, U.S. Senator from New York, candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968, and assassinated by Sirhan Bishara Sirhan  on June 6, 1968, at a Los Angeles hotel campaign event.

Less generally remembered or known was RFK’s eloquence, undoubtedly aided by his speechwriters: Adam Walinsky Richard Goodwin and Allard Lowenstein.[1]

One prominent example of Kennedy’s eloquence occurred on April 4, 1968, immediately after the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Speaking to a campaign crowd in Indianapolis, Indiana, Kennedy shocked everyone by announcing the news of the assassination and then went on to refer to his own grief at the 1963 assassination of his brother, President John F. Kennedy. Robert added, “My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote: ‘Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’”[2]

Kennedy that night went on to say, “What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black. . . . Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: ‘to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.’”

The next day in Cleveland, Ohio, Kennedy spoke against the “mindless menace of violence in America which again stains our land and every one of our lives.” He added, “Yet we know what we must do. It is to achieve justice among our fellow citizens. . . . We must admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men and learn to find our own advancement in the search for advancement of others. . . . We must admit in ourselves that our own children’s future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge.”[3]

Two other examples of his eloquence were inscribed on Kennedy’s memorial  in Virginia’s Arlington National Cemetery:

  • “It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others or strikes out against injustice he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest wall of oppression and resistance.” (University of Cape Town, South Africa, June 6, 1966)
  • “Some men see things as they are and ask ‘Why?’ I dream things that never were and ask, ‘Why not?'” (1968)

Yet others were included in the previously mentioned June 6, 1966, speech at the University of Cape Town. They all seem, to this observer, to be indirect references to Jesus’ injunction “to love God with all your heart, mind and soul and your neighbor as yourself” and to the Christian notion of vocation.[4] They are the following:

  • First is the danger of futility; the belief there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills — against misery and ignorance, injustice and violence. Yet many of the world’s great movements, of thought and action, have flowed from the work of a single man. A young monk began the Protestant reformation, a young general extended an empire from Macedonia to the borders of the earth, and a young woman reclaimed the territory of France. It was a young Italian explorer who discovered the New World, and 32-year-old Thomas Jefferson who proclaimed that all men are created equal. “Give me a place to stand,” said Archimedes, “and I will move the world.” These men moved the world, and so can we all.” (Emphasis added.)
  • Let no one be discouraged by the belief there is nothing one person can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills, misery, ignorance, and violence. Few will have the greatness to bend history, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. And in the total of all those acts will be written the history of a generation.” (Emphasis added.)
  • Every time we turn our heads the other way when we see the law flouted, when we tolerate what we know to be wrong, when we close our eyes and ears to the corrupt because we are too busy or too frightened, when we fail to speak up and speak out, we strike a blow against freedom and decency and justice.” (Emphasis added.)
  • “Few men are willing to brave the disapproval of their peers, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change.” (Emphasis added.)

Conclusion

I weep again at our loss of this inspiring, eloquent and passionate man. How I wish he were still here and our president so that we did not have to listen to the constant falsehoods and drivel from the man who now ineptly occupies that office.

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[1] Larry Tye, Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon at 373 (Random House; New York, 2016).

[2] Edwin O. Guthman & C. Richard Allen (eds.), RFK: Collected Speeches at 355-58 (Viking; New York, 1993). See Aeschylus on Suffering and Wisdom, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 10, 2014).

[3] Guthman & Allen at 358-62.

[4] Tye at 410-12; Guthman & Allen at 231-46. See Another Perspective on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, dwkcommentaries.com (July 27, 2017).

The Improper Use of Senate Rule XIX To Stop Senator Warren from Speaking

As has been widely reported, the U.S. Senate Majority Leader, Senator Mitch McConnell (Rep., KY), on February 7 asserted an objection to the remarks of Senator Elizabeth Warren (Dem., MA) and the objection was sustained by the presiding officer, Senator Steve Dawes (Rep., MT), and by the entire Senate, 49-43. As a result, Senator Warren was prevented from making any further remarks.

This occurred during the Senate’s consideration of whether to confirm the nomination of Jeff Sessions to be Attorney General when Senator Warren was reading a 1986 letter from Coretta Scott King, the widow of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., complaining about Session as a U.S. attorney for allegedly “using the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black Americans.”

The asserted basis for the objection by McConnell was Senate Rule XIX, which states, “No Senator, in debate, shall “directly or indirectly, by any form of words impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.”

This Rule rarely has been used since its adoption in 1902 after a fist-fight on the Senate floor between two senators over whether the Senate would approve a U.S. treaty to annex the Philippines. Its use by McConnell has been criticized widely as impolitic and sexual discrimination as the Rule has not been used to stop male senators from doing the same thing the next day and from previously making many derogatory remarks on the floor about other senators.

The Rule, closely and properly read, does not apply to this situation for at least two reasons.

First, the Rule refers to “conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator,” and here Warren was referring to Sessions’ conduct as a U.S. attorney before he became a senator.

Second, and more importantly, the matter under consideration was whether the Senate should confirm Sessions to be the next Attorney General and, therefore, whether he had the skills, background and character to hold this important office. Hence, his entire life was relevant on at least the character issue, and the opinion of an important U.S. citizen (Mrs. King) on his conduct as a U.S. attorney around 1986 is directly relevant to the issue of confirmation. Indeed, so is the senatorial record of  any senator who is undergoing Senate review as a cabinet nominee like Senator Sessions.

As a result, Senator McConnell should apologize to Senator Warren and the entire U.S. Senate for this improper use of Rule XIX.

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U.S. Senate, Rule XIX; Berman, A Brief History of the Senate Rule That Silenced Elizabeth Warren, Atlantic Magazine (Feb. 8, 2017);; Flegenheimer, Republican Senators Vote to Formerly Silence Elizabeth Warren, N.Y. Times (Feb. 7, 2017); Lichtblau & Flegenheimer, Jeff Sessions Confirmed as Attorney General, Capping Legal Battle, N.Y. Times (Feb. 8, 2017).

President Obama’s Challenging Commencement Address at Howard University

On May 7 President Barack Obama delivered a fascinating and challenging commencement address at Washington, D.C.’s Howard University for over 2,100 graduates with bachelor, masters, Ph.D. and professional degrees and an audience of over 25,000.[1] Below are photographs of President Obama during his address and of the graduates and audience at Howard.

Obama at Howard

cmmencement-banner

 

 

 

Although the primary addresses for the speech were the predominantly African-American Howard graduates and audience, it also is a message for every U.S. citizen and others. The following extensive excerpts of that speech will be used in a subsequent post to evaluate two prominent contemporary African-American men—Bryan Stevenson and Ta-Nehisi Coates.

The President’s Address[2]

Commendation of Howard University

Not surprisingly Obama opened with commendation of Howard University, a federally chartered, private, doctoral university, classified as a high research activity institution. With an enrollment of more than 10,000 students, its undergraduate, graduate, professional and joint degree programs span more than 120 areas of study within 13 schools and colleges.

“The Freedman’s Bureau,” he said, “established Howard [in 1867] just four years after the Emancipation Proclamation; just two years after the Civil War came to an end.  They created this university with a vision — a vision of uplift; a vision for an America where our fates would be determined not by our race, gender, religion or creed, but where we would be free — in every sense — to pursue our individual and collective dreams.”

“It is that spirit that’s made Howard a centerpiece of African-American intellectual life and a central part of our larger American story.  This institution has been the home of many firsts:  The first black Nobel Peace Prize winner [Ralph Bunche].  The first black Supreme Court justice [Thurgood Marshall]. But its mission has been to ensure those firsts were not the last.  Countless scholars, professionals, artists, and leaders from every field received their training here.  The generations of men and women who walked through this yard helped reform our government, cure disease, grow a black middle class, advance civil rights, shape our culture.  The seeds of change — for all Americans — were sown here.”

Comparison of 1983 and 2016

“America is a better place today than it was when I graduated from college [1983]. “

“I tell you all this because it’s important to note progress.  Because to deny how far we’ve come would do a disservice to the cause of justice, to the legions of foot soldiers; to not only the incredibly accomplished individuals who have already been mentioned, but your mothers and your dads, and grandparents and great grandparents, who marched and toiled and suffered and overcame to make this day possible.  I tell you this not to lull you into complacency, but to spur you into action — because there’s still so much more work to do, so many more miles to travel.”

“We’ve got a justice gap when too many black boys and girls pass through a pipeline from underfunded schools to overcrowded jails.  This is one area where things have gotten worse.  When I was in college, about half a million people in America were behind bars.  Today, there are about 2.2 million.  Black men are about six times likelier to be in prison right now than white men.”

Charge to the Graduating Class 

Obama then delivered a long, three-point charge to the graduating class.

“First , . . . be confident in your heritage.  Be confident in your blackness.  One of the great changes that’s occurred in our country since I was your age is the realization there’s no one way to be black. . . . There’s no straitjacket, there’s no constraints, there’s no litmus test for authenticity.”

“You can write a book that wins the National Book Award, or you can write the new run of “Black Panther.”  Or, like one of your alumni, Ta-Nehisi Coates, you can go ahead and just do both.  You can create your own style, set your own standard of beauty, embrace your own sexuality.”

“Second, even as we each embrace our own beautiful, unique, and valid versions of our blackness, remember the tie that does bind us as African-Americans — and that is our particular awareness of injustice and unfairness and struggle.  That means we cannot sleepwalk through life.  We cannot be ignorant of history. We can’t meet the world with a sense of entitlement.  We can’t walk by a homeless man without asking why a society as wealthy as ours allows that state of affairs to occur. We can’t just lock up a low-level dealer without asking why this boy, barely out of childhood, felt he had no other options.  We have cousins and uncles and brothers and sisters who we remember were just as smart and just as talented as we were, but somehow got ground down by structures that are unfair and unjust.”

“And that means we have to not only question the world as it is, and stand up for those African-Americans who haven’t been so lucky — because, yes, you’ve worked hard, but you’ve also been lucky. . . . People who have been successful and don’t realize they’ve been lucky.  That God may have blessed them; it wasn’t nothing you did.  So don’t have an attitude.  But we must expand our moral imaginations to understand and empathize with all people who are struggling, not just black folks who are struggling — the refugee, the immigrant, the rural poor, the transgender person, and yes, the middle-aged white guy who you may think has all the advantages, but over the last several decades has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change, and feels powerless to stop it.”

[Three]. “You have to go through life with more than just passion for change; you need a strategy. . . .Not just awareness, but action.  Not just hashtags, but votes.”

“[C]hange requires more than righteous anger.  It requires a program, and it requires organizing.  . . . I’m so proud of the new guard of black civil rights leaders who understand this.  It’s thanks in large part to the activism of young people like many of you, from Black Twitter to Black Lives Matter, that America’s eyes have been opened — white, black, Democrat, Republican — to the real problems, for example, in our criminal justice system.”

“But to bring about structural change, lasting change, awareness is not enough.  It requires changes in law, changes in custom. . . . Passion is vital, but you’ve got to have a strategy.”

“And your plan better include voting — not just some of the time, but all the time.  It is absolutely true that 50 years after the Voting Rights Act, there are still too many barriers in this country to vote.  There are too many people trying to erect new barriers to voting.  This is the only advanced democracy on Earth that goes out of its way to make it difficult for people to vote.  And there’s a reason for that.  There’s a legacy to that.”

“Even if we dismantled every barrier to voting, that alone would not change the fact that America has some of the lowest voting rates in the free world. . . . [J]ust vote.  It’s math.  If you have more votes than the other guy, you get to do what you want. It’s not that complicated.”

“And you don’t have excuses.   You don’t have to guess the number of jellybeans in a jar or bubbles on a bar of soap to register to vote.  You don’t have to risk your life to cast a ballot.  Other people already did that for you. Your grandparents, your great grandparents might be here today if they were working on it.  What’s your excuse?  When we don’t vote, we give away our power, disenfranchise ourselves — right when we need to use the power that we have; right when we need your power to stop others from taking away the vote and rights of those more vulnerable than you are — the elderly and the poor, the formerly incarcerated trying to earn their second chance.”

“So you got to vote all the time, not just when it’s cool, not just when it’s time to elect a President, not just when you’re inspired.  It’s your duty. . . .   That’s how we change our politics — by electing people at every level who are representative of and accountable to us.  It is not that complicated.  Don’t make it complicated.”

And finally, change requires more than just speaking out — it requires listening, as well.  In particular, it requires listening to those with whom you disagree, and being prepared to compromise.”

“[Y]ou need allies in a democracy.  That’s just the way it is.  It can be frustrating and it can be slow.  But history teaches us that the alternative to democracy is always worse.  That’s not just true in this country. . . . Go to any country where the give and take of democracy has been repealed by one-party rule, and I will show you a country that does not work.”

“And democracy requires compromise, even when you are 100 percent right.  This is hard to explain sometimes.  You can be completely right, and you still are going to have to engage folks who disagree with you.  If you think that the only way forward is to be as uncompromising as possible, you will feel good about yourself, you will enjoy a certain moral purity, but you’re not going to get what you want.  And if you don’t get what you want long enough, you will eventually think the whole system is rigged.  And that will lead to more cynicism, and less participation, and a downward spiral of more injustice and more anger and more despair.  And that’s never been the source of our progress.  That’s how we cheat ourselves of progress.”

“But . . . [those who participated in the political process] made things better.  And you know what, I will take better every time.  I always tell my staff — better is good, because you consolidate your gains and then you move on to the next fight from a stronger position.”

“Another Howard alum, Zora Neale Hurston, once said: ‘Nothing that God ever made is the same thing to more than one person.’  Think about that.  That’s why our democracy gives us a process designed for us to settle our disputes with argument and ideas and votes instead of violence and simple majority rule.”

“Engage.  If the other side has a point, learn from them.  If they’re wrong, rebut them.  Teach them.  Beat them on the battlefield of ideas.  And you might as well start practicing now, because one thing I can guarantee you — you will have to deal with ignorance, hatred, racism, foolishness, trifling folks. I promise you, you will have to deal with all that at every stage of your life.  That may not seem fair, but life has never been completely fair.  Nobody promised you a crystal stair.  And if you want to make life fair, then you’ve got to start with the world as it is.”

“James Baldwin once wrote, ‘Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.’”

“Graduates, each of us is only here because someone else faced down challenges for us.  We are only who we are because someone else struggled and sacrificed for us. . . . [T]hat is the story of America.  A story whispered by slaves in the cotton fields, the song of marchers in Selma, the dream of a King in the shadow of Lincoln.  The prayer of immigrants who set out for a new world.  The roar of women demanding the vote.  The rallying cry of workers who built America.  And the GIs who bled overseas for our freedom.”

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[1] Holston, Obama Embodies Blackness, Confidence, Hope at Howard University’s 148th Commencement, The Hilltop (May 7, 2016).

[2] White House, Remarks by the President at Howard University Commencement Ceremony (May 7, 2016).