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Rest in love Tamir Rice

Acting in Faith  |  By Tai Amri Spann Wilson, Jan 14, 2016
Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice.

Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was fatally shot by police on November 23, 2014.

Photo: AFSC

This is a sermon I preached on January 3 in Topeka. It was an experience. Let me just say that Kansas is still bleeding. I didn’t expect to be preaching at a church that Westboro Baptist pickets, mostly for their open and affirming status. But it reminded me of the deep wounds around the slavery divide in this state that still linger in ideology. The comment after church by one of the parishioners that my sermon was the most depressing she’d ever heard and that I should have said more good things about cops since there was law enforcement in the congregation made me second guess myself. That was until I realized why I had invited friends and loved ones in the first place. They all looked into my eyes and reminded me of my purpose and all of the prayers of friends and family around the nation gave me the strength I needed to preach my sermon. I hope you don’t find it too depressing, but it’s a commemoration to a 12 year old, so it’s not supposed to be happy, it’s supposed to be inspiring. And I hope you realize that I love all people and that our fight is not against the cops, or the right wing or Republicans, it’s against oppression of all peoples. But I’ll let you decide for yourself what you see. Peace and love.

Happy New Year! As we come out of the Christmas season I see, spiritually, reason to celebrate. It was said that in the birth of Jesus, the Divine became human so that humans could become divine. I also know, for some, the time of Christmas can be difficult. It can remind us of the good and the bad from our pasts, it can remind us of how petty and materialistic we have become, and it can remind us of how ridiculous and sometimes scary religious zealots can be.

But for me, Christmas has always meant time with family and loved ones, the joy of sharing and receiving gifts, and eating some seriously good grub. And on a spiritual level, it reminds me that even in the dead of winter, when things are at their coldest and darkest and sometimes most depressing, there is a light, a little child is born, a mother nurses and swaddles him, and an anxious young man plots how he is going to be the greatest father he can be. It is a beautiful story told again and again, yet somehow the happy moments are so very brief.

After that child is born, after the parents get their bearings, they receive news more disastrous than can even be imagined, their precious baby boy is a target for the government, they want him dead, and the only way to save him is to go on the run, and to leave all of his peers behind to be slaughtered, assassinated, in their second year of life. We are often taught that the Greatest Story Ever Told has the most tragic ending, but truly, it was tragic from the very beginning. It begins with the genocide of innocent baby boys. I’d like to think that Jesus, the one who reached out to young people when others were trying to shoo them away, was aware of the tragic circumstances of his birth, and was all the more sensitive to children because of it. This is something that Jesus and I have in common, we tend to think that young people matter.

AFSC youth empowerment march in Baltimore (Bryan Vana - AFSC)

That’s one of the reasons I got my nickname, Baby Pastor. So let me tell you about this Baby Pastor that stands before you. When I was a student minister in Oakland, California, I was showing some classmates the church where I was an intern and we ran into one of the homeless who was living on our steps. She said, in a slightly drunken drawl, that there was a pastor of the church, but that I was the baby pastor. My classmates laughed and the name stuck after everyone around me realized the combination of my cheeky sense of humor and the fire that I had in honoring and protecting the lives of young people. Even after I became the pastor of that church, I spent the majority of my time taking care of youth in an after school program in East Oakland, notorious for its poverty, gun violence and forced prostitution.

This passion for the lives of the young is one of the reasons I chose to attend seminary at Pacific School of Religion, because I knew the poor care that religious leaders took of my soul during my youth, and I wanted to learn how to provide spaces where young people could question themselves and their traditions without persecution. I believe that the most important lesson I learned in seminary was that in every passage in the Bible, and indeed in every moment in history, there are interpretations of liberation and interpretations of oppression. This is an idea that has never left me.

Another important fact of me that you may have noticed, is that I am a Black man. I used to think that this was an insignificant characteristic, being a Christian who believed in no divisions, but it does mean something. It means I have an experience and know something of necessity. I do not know everything about what it means to be Black. I have not experienced everything that every Black person has experienced. But I do know what it’s like to have to fight to see my beauty through all of the ugly ways Black boys and men are portrayed in this society, and I know what it is to feel hatred and experience oppression from others for no other reason than the color of my skin combined with my gender expression.

Reclaim MLK march in Oakland, CA 2015 (Daniel Arauz - Creative Commons)

Why is this relevant to a sermon in a church of G-d?* Because the church of G-d has often been seen as being indifferent to issues of racism and the livelihoods of the young after they have been born. In my church in Manhattan, KS, every time we post a sign that says Black Lives Matter, it gets torn down. The other day someone came into the church to question why we thought it necessary to hold an anti-racism training on MLK Weekend, because we’re a church, and churches aren’t supposed to care about racism. Something in that story is missing.

This is the time of Christmas, a celebration of the joy of birth, with mangers and animals and wise men who are sometimes ⅓ darkskinned. We “fa-la-la-la-la” and wear bright colors and then party like it’s 1999, or we sit sadly because we wish for a happier time or those Christmases that are portrayed in movies and television. But always central is that precious baby Jesus, or that big screen tv that you want for Christmas, depending on your mood. That’s what we reach for. To retell the story, even though they didn’t reach the inn, the baby was born healthy anyway.

Why is it that we forget to ask the question, what happened after the birth? A little family, too poor to afford shelter during labor, has a baby boy. A powerless child under the boot of an empire. An empire so afraid of losing their power that they go to the hometown of this child and kill every Jewish baby boy under the age of two. An act so murderous, so despicable, that the family of Jesus has to become refugees in the country of Egypt. Why don’t we hear this part of the story?

Protest for Jamar Clark in November 2015 - (Fibonacci Blue - Creative Commons)

Because it’s just a legend, mythological, perhaps. Or perhaps it’s because in an Empire of millions, the story of the murder of 20 possible boys in a town of 1,000 just wasn’t really that important. Perhaps it was because they were Jews, and how many millions of stories of murdered Jews have we not heard? But this is the Christmas story, this is the whole story, and what happens when we forget to tell the whole story? We continue to play it out, not knowing how to protect the world from oppression.

When we don’t tell the whole story we forget that Jesus lived in the world of Palestine and Syria, that he was on the run from the authorities, that he experienced a political assassination through crucifixion, so public it exceeded our own country’s lynchings. We forget that Jesus was marked by the color of his skin and the names in his prayers. We forget to tell our whole stories or even to ask about the details.

Instead, the stories we are told are, “A black person with a gun was shot and killed by the police in Cleveland.” This fits into the story that what police do is use their power and authority to protect the public from violence. What happens when we fill in the details? When we find out that Ohio is an open carry state, when we find out that the Black person was a 12-year-old named Tamir Rice, when we find out that the gun was a toy, when we find out that the cops shot him within 2 seconds of exiting their car, when we find out that one of the police officers who shot him failed the police academy because he was emotionally unstable. What happens when all these facts are given and we find out that the Grand Jury still decided to acquit the officers? What happens is that the world starts to look a little bit more like an Empire, and I start to question if it’s better for our young to flee to Egypt rather than face genocide.

Black Lives Matter protest in Minneapolis in December calling for the release of police video showing the murder of Jamar Clark and an independent investigation (Fibonacci Blue - Creative Commons)

Part of my story as the Baby Pastor is that I get to bounce children on my knee to make them smile, I get to tell them it’s o.k. when they fall, I get to laugh when they make bad jokes, I get to squeeze them when they need a hug. The other part of my story is that as a person of color, I know that children are often times targets of violence, and that children of color will need certain information to keep them alive and to keep them sane. I’d think that since the time of Jesus we’d learn that it is barbaric to murder children, I’d think that since the time of Emmett Till we’d learn that there is no reason that a child should be tortured and murdered, especially not for the crime of whistling at a white woman.

But I find myself searching for the words that will keep young people of color safe. If you put your hands up they won’t hurt you? Mike Brown. If you stay behind these gates you’ll be safe? Trayvon Martin. If you surrender the weapon you’re playing with they’ll see it wasn’t real and let you keep playing? Tamir Rice. Don’t worry if they take you into custody, you’ll be fine, I’ll just come pick you up? Sandra Bland. If the police jump out with guns blazing, run if you want to live? Alan Blueford.

I’d like to say that girls don’t experience police violence, but I know it’s not true. I know that at any moment the life of people of color can be snuffed out, and what can I do about it? I’m not sure if you’ve noticed but there are a number of people out there who do not want Black people, especially Black boys and men, to survive, and a number of those people carry guns, some with badges. I’d like to tell you it’s getting better, but it’s not. It’s getting worse, far worse. Herod has it out for us, and even though the spotlight is on his genocidal ways, the deaths keep mounting.

Protest at the GOP debate in Milwaukee, WI (Joe Brusky - Creative Commons)

So when we continue on with the Jesus story, we have our Christmas, and then we have the story of Jesus having to flee as a baby because the government wants him dead, but Jesus returns. I’m going to assume there were good moments, I’m going to assume it because Jesus tries to spread those good moments to others, even the young, and it makes me think that he must have had some good young moments and he wants all young people to have those moments.

But I must assume something else, something that transpired between him and his father Joseph around the time that he was deciding whether or not it was time for him and his family to return to Israel. Before that day came, Joseph would have to have a talk with his little boy, his sweet little boy. He would have to look him in the eyes and say, “Son, I love you, I’m with you, I’m your father and you’re my son and I’m proud of you. You are good and strong. We are going back to Israel. It’s where you were born, it’s where your people were born, it is a holy land, but there are people there who will not see you as holy. They will want to hurt you. They will want to destroy you and your culture. You have to watch out for these people, or you will die a horrible death.”

I know that Joseph would have to have some conversation like this with Jesus, because you can see it, when he performs a miracle, when he forgives sins, he says, “Tell no one,” he flees before they can find him, and string him up. Because he’s a Jew who subverts their authority by his mere existence.

Seattle Black Friday protest (Scott Lum - Creative Commons)

This is the story that I hold in my heart as Baby Pastor. You see, as Baby Pastor, my work is to love the youth. How beautiful it would be if all loving them meant that I got to make them happy all the time. But that’s not the whole story. The whole story of loving youth means that at some point in their development I have to tell them that young people in this country are murdered for nothing. I don’t mean I have to because G-d told me to, or because I can’t keep it in, or because it excites me to tell it. No, it tortures me to. I have to because I want them to live.

When I was in Oakland, teaching young people, the news told me a story. It told me that a young Black man had shot at the police on a street corner, striking one of them in the foot, and so they killed him. But his mother told me the whole story which was later corroborated by an investigation. Alan Blueford was 17, about to graduate from high school. He stood on a street corner when the cops came out of their cars with their guns drawn. He ran, they shot at him, one police officer shooting himself in the foot. When they caught him he screamed, “I didn’t do anything,” and they shot him in the back as he lay on his stomach. No indictment.

This was blocks from the school I worked at. If I didn’t tell my youth the whole story, all they would know is that people in their neighborhoods hate and fear the cops. They wouldn’t know why or if it was justified. But most importantly, they wouldn’t know that there is more than just hatred and guns pointed at them just for being – they wouldn’t know that people love them just for being.

Reclaim MLK march in Oakland, CA 2015 (Daniel Arauz - Creative Commons)

I am Baby Pastor, but soon I will also become father Joseph, and I will get to hold my very own baby Jesus or baby Mary. I can’t wait for that joy that exceeds any big wheel that I always wanted for Christmas.

But it’s not the whole story. The whole story is that I’m afraid of having the talk. Not the sex talk. I’m fine with that. I mean the talk where I have to explain that someone might hate them for the color of their skin. I mean the talk where I have to figure out what to do with the fact that I don’t want anything bad to happen to them, but it might, and I’ll be powerless to stop it. I’ve seen too many fathers and mothers crying over their dead children whose murderers get exonerated to believe otherwise.

One of the main reasons I moved to Kansas from Oakland was because I knew I wanted a family one day, and I didn’t want my child to be another police murder. But there is not a state in this country where the police don’t murder. I’m not just talking about the murder of young gang bangers. It’s the murder of the innocent, the mentally disabled, the schizophrenic, the suicidal, grandmothers, bystanders. But I refuse to let that be the end of the story. They must know that love is stronger than hate. They must know it because we must live it.

AFSC Friend of a Friend Healing Justice cookout and clothing drive in West Baltimore (Bryan Vana - AFSC)

That’s why I say to you all Happy New Year. Because the New Year means that we don’t just get to start over, we have to start over, and this requires the opposite of forgetting what happened before and starting with a clean slate. Rather it requires that we hold what has happened before in our hearts. On New Years of 2009 I was in Oakland. I didn’t see Oscar Grant, father of a little girl, get shot in the back and killed on a BART Train platform while he was laying on his belly handcuffed. But I felt the city seethe and burn. I felt the sting of tears flood the city afterwards.

And here we are in 2016, the first year that a tally has been kept of police murders. 1,138? And our government doesn’t even keep count? That means we have to. We have to tell the whole story. Tell the story of Tamir Rice, of Sandra Bland, of Michael Brown, of Alan Blueford, of Oscar Grant. Tell the whole story. Don’t skip the part that they were unarmed, that they were people, that they were beautiful. Tell the whole story of Jesus. Not just the pretty baby, but the murder of infants, the hiding in the shadows, the oppression. And don’t just think that these stories need to be told to the targeted and the oppressed.

For one thing, if Black people are the only ones to raise their voices when a Black person is murdered, the police will never stop murdering us. If women are the only ones who march when women are being raped, sexual violence will never end. If trans folk are the only ones who commemorate the murder of a trans person, trans people will keep getting killed. In the world of the Empire, at some point all of us can be a Roman oppressor, and all of us can be Jesus of Nazareth. If the Romans had stood up for Jesus and against the oppressive governmental disgust of crucified lynchings, then maybe Jesus might not have been murdered. In any given situation we can use our power and our bodies to stop a lynching. And why should we? Because young lives matter.

At some point every person of color must confront their fear and figure out what they will do with it. And at some point every person of color who has or knows a child of color must figure out how they will help that child survive racism. I refuse to let my unborn child live their lives in the crosshairs of racism. I need you all to refuse with me, to not allow this world to crucify another Jesus. If you will do this with me, say amen.

Read Part II of Tai Amri's sermon on his blog, 400 Years In Babylon.

*Many use this alternate spelling of God to honor the Jewish understanding of YHWH and to acknowledge the indescribable nature of the divine. A short blog post on the subject.

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About the Author

Tai Amri Spann-Wilson is a preschool teacher and youth minister in Lawrence, Kansas. He has deep roots in Philadelphia and among Quakers, ignites a fire in those around him with his messages about radical change, the edges of poverty, racism, spiritual depth and transformation, and the remarkable grace of humanity. He has a degree from the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics and studied theology at the Pacific School of Religion. He served as a co-pastor of a Disciples of Christ Church in Oakland, California for two years during the height of the Occupy Movement.

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