What Eli Heard: A Birthday Sermon

I had lots of trouble preparing the sermon below.  I struggled perhaps because I was trying to do so many things, chief among them being to speak about the scriptures of the day and emphasizing transitions during a landmark time in my life.  I was preaching on my birthday, my 75th birthday. In spots, my delivery is softer and slower than it’s ever been.

The year leading up to 75 was a tough one for me. I remember being as frustrated as I’ve ever been at times, and I often felt like I couldn’t keep up. On the other hand, the year had also been incredibly busy.  We took 10 major trips, worked a lot on race issues, and ended the year doing a kitchen remodel, where I carried in and out of the house 1000 pounds of tile, and laid a tile floor, all the while hearing my brother’s voice saying, “You’re almost 75! You have no business laying a tile floor!”  My wife was there helping all the way, but still I guess there was some excuse for feeling tired out, even old, something I’d rarely thought about before.

Three of the four main lectionary readings for this particular Sunday had to do with momentous transitions.  And I speak about each one, moving backwards through the Bible from the Epistle reading, to the Gospel reading, to the Pslam, and finally to the great 3rd chapter of I Samuel.  The Psalm (139: 1-6) gives us comfort.  In this case, it’s comfort even in the midst of great transitions, because God knows all your thoughts and hems you in, protecting you, from behind and out in front.  Speaking about transitions also made it hard to prepare and deliver this sermon.  I don’t plan to transition out entirely—though you never know, of course. I plan to be as much help as I can for as long as I can, but at 75 you have to be thinking about succession plans. Afterwards, a friend who had watched online texted me, saying, “We often talk about succession but don’t take action. We need to work on that soon because our congregation consists mostly of senior citizens.”  That’s a problem hardly unique to our church, though. (My friend added, “You were awesome.”)

I Samuel, chapter 3, begins stunningly, telling us that in those days the Word of the Lord was rare and there were no visions.  Time for a transition. Eli is the second to last Judge of Israel, and chapter 3 tells of the transition between him and his young charge Samuel, who becomes Israel’s last Judge and first prophet, the one who anoints Israel’s first two kings, Saul and David.  In chapter 3, God calls Samuel three times during the night, and Samuel, thinking it’s Eli that’s calling goes to him the first two times. Eli realizes that its God calling Samuel.  If he calls again, Eli tells Samuel, simply say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.

One of my favorite writers, James Baldwin, has written that one of the greatest things we can do for each other is to bar the way to spiritual ease.  We get comfortable, or busy, or otherwise distracted in life and forget the spirit, or just don’t hear higher callings very much anymore. The famous sentence “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” suggests three questions we can ask each other.  In the short run they’re challenges. In the long run they’re a form of encouragement.  We can encourage each other by asking: Have you asked God to speak to you? Have you asked yourself who you serve? And are you listening to the God who may be speaking to you?  Maybe not speaking in actual words, or course, but reaching you deeply in any of the many ways God can.  And that question about who you serve is crucial, too.  Bob Dylan’s nutty song “Serve Somebody” says that no matter who you are, what you do, where you sleep, what you like to drink, everybody has to serve somebody.  The song’s chorus holds out two choices: “It may be the devil or it may be the lord / But you got to serve somebody.”  In between those two choices there’s a bewildering array of masters, which makes it hard to hear who’s calling you and for what.  Eli—old, tired, blind, and troubled—nonetheless could hear God calling Samuel. He could hear a momentous transition coming.

 Go HERE for a complete list of sermons, like “Pentecost Means No ‘Supremacies,’” “Sacred Doing,” and “Theology and Race.”

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Henry Blake Fuller and the Fuller Award for Lifetime Achievement

This is part of a series on Chicago writers based on introductions in two of my Chicago books, Smokestacks and Skyscrapers (with David Starkey) and Black Writing from Chicago.  The links here take you to two lists comprising all the writers written about.

 

Born to a wealthy Chicago family in 1857, Henry Blake Fuller had a knowledge of and access to the world of successful businessmen and gentleman authors which informs much of his work.  Though some considered Fuller a rather polite writer who shied away from the deepest recesses of the human psyche, his work nonetheless brought a measure of renown to Chicago when its literature was at an early stage.  Moreover, his second novel The Cliff-Dwellers (1893) is probably the first novel ever set in a skyscraper, and certainly one of the first focusing on American urban life.  This novel, as well as 1895’s With the Procession, use Chicago’s explosive growth as their setting and are considered by many to be the earliest examples of American realism.  Even during the days of his own prominence, Theodore Dreiser called With the Procession the first piece of American realism he had encountered and considered it the best of the school.

In his literature, Fuller rebelled against the blatant commercialism of post-Chicago Fire Chicago, questioned the wisdom of upward sprawl, and explored themes of homosexuality in a time when to be so was strictly unacceptable. His boldness and commitment to high literature made him one of, if not the, most important first Chicago writers.  In addition to the two novels mentioned above, Fuller’s other notable works include the story collection Under the Skylight (1901), On the Stairs (1918), and Bertram Cope’s Year (1919).  Fuller also provided friendship and encouragement several other Chicago literary figures, including Hamlin Garlan and Harriet Monroe.  Though he travelled much, he died in his hometown in July 1929, just months before the Great Depression forever transformed the city he found so fascinating.

In our book Smokestacks and Skyscrapers: An Anthology of Chicago Writing, David Starkey and I included a fragment from With the Procession, which concerns merchant David Marshall’s relationship with his three children: Truesdale, the oldest, Jane, the dutiful daughter, and proud, pragmatic Roger.  Though much of the novel is concerned with the nuances of social status, it begins energetically enough with a description of Truesdale’s return to Chicago, a description which reflects the American realism Fuller helped pioneer:  “The grimy lattice-work of the drawbridge swung to slowly,  the steam-tug blackened the dull air and roiled the turbid water as it dragged its schooner on towards the lumber-yard of the South Branch, and a long line of waiting vehicles took up their interrupted course through the smoke and the stench as they filed across the stream into the thick of business beyond….”  Like Truesdale, Fuller came home to Chicago after living abroad with an artistic sensibility and snobbish attitude, and With the Procession seems to gently satirize an earlier, less discerning version of the author himself.

At present I’m on the board of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame (CLHOF).  Its mission is to honor Chicago’s literary past by inducting our literary greats who have passed on into the Hall of Fame, nurture our future by reaching out to youth, and celebrating our greatest living writers with a Lifetime Achievement award named after Henry Blake Fuller.  (You can watch an edit of our most recent Fuller award ceremony celebrating the great novelist and lawyer Scott Turow HERE. I emceed parts of the show.)  The actual award, according to the CLHOF website, is a statuette “based on Hephaestus, the Greek god of the blacksmith’s fire and patron of all craftsmen. According to legend, Hephaestus was the only god who worked, and he was honored for having taught mankind that work is noble and one should excel at their craft.” It’s a fitting symbol for writers working their craft, a craft one of whose earliest practitioners in Chicago was Henry Blake Fuller.

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The Affordable Housing Crisis

Of course we need more affordable housing in the U.S.  In recent studies of the homeless crisis, for example, lack of affordable housing was by far the largest factor driving homelessness—not, as many believe, mental health, poor choices, addictions, etc. But there’s a problem with affordable housing, too, especially when affordable housing becomes an end in itself.  When that happens people can become trapped in cycles of low income and poverty: a supposed cure becomes a mechanism for making it harder to move on. There’s an affordable housing crisis because there’s not enough affordable housing, but the deeper crisis is the way affordable housing is conceived of in the first place.

The VIDEO below shows Rick Guzman’s “visioin cast,” shown at this year’s Neighbor Project (TNP) gala.  Guzman is TNP’s executive director. The Neighbor Project uses affordable housing, but only as a tool to help people move on to eventual home ownership.  In doing this it attacks the root causes of our nation’s incredible and shameful wealth gap, not just its symptoms.

Many years ago a colleague of mine, the sociologist Doug Timmer, opened a conference on urban crises that I helped run by saying, “I’m just crazy enough to believe that the main difference between poor people and not-poor people is that poor people don’t have money.”  More accurately, they don’t have wealth, which is a deeper thing than money. In the U.S, owning a home is the surest way to build wealth and strong ommunities.

Many believe the concept and mechanics of affordable housing are broken. They’re inefficient, for one thing. For example, because TNP just uses affordable housing, one of its affordable housing units can serve five families per decade, while in the usual model of affordable housing one unit might serve just one family per decade, and sometimes just one family for many decades.  It doesn’t help families build wealth so they can move on.   Worse, the standard model of affordable housing builds wealth for the wrong people. Government tax credits finance well over 90% of affordable housing development today. This creates loads of wealth but only for those who already have wealth: namely, big developers and corporate tax credit investors.  Poor people remain at the subsistence level, getting along perhaps but not building assets that will help them move on.  Cycles perpetuate; they don’t get broken. That’s a primary reason poverty is a wheel that just keeps going round and round.

  Go to The Neighbor Project website. Read about and watch executive director Rick Guzman receive the Emerging Leader Award earlier this year.
  Read about our country’s incredible wealth gap, and the relationship between that wealth gap and the ability to own a home.

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Scott Turow’s Lifetime Achievement Award

This past October 5th the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame (CLHOF) held one of its biggest events when it presented novelist/lawyer Scott Turow with the Henry Black Fuller award for Lifetime Achievement.  Held in the Cindy Pritzker Auditorium of the Harold Washington Library, it drew a large and star-studed audience, including Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul and seven luminaries who took the stage to make “the case for Scott Turow.” I was privileged to emcee the beginning and end of the show, and especially delighted to bring my eldest son, Rick, up on stage to present the actual award statue to Scott, whom we have both know for many years.  Below is a 48-minute VIDEO I edited down from the full 96-minute video you can watch on the Hall of Fame’s website or HERE on YouTube.

You would be pressed to find a more articulate set of presenters anywhere, and Scott Turow’s acceptance speech was the most articulate of all—which was no surprise to anyone.  I had to exercise some editorial privilege to include all of my opening remarks, which sought to lay out the whole vision of the CLHOF, all of Christie Heffner’s talk, all of Rick’s presentation comments, and, of course, all of Scott’s speech, which I have watched many times, and will continue to revisit.

The other presentations I edited, but only for the sake of time. I first introduced one of Chicago’s legendary power couples, Donna LaPietra and husband Bill Kurtis. She produced Siskel & Ebert at the Movies, as well as what many believe is one of the greatest newscasts in American History, CBS2 News with Bill Kurtis and Walter Jacobson. She is also an extraordinary civic leader.  I have to return to the word “legendary” to describe Bill Kurtis’ career as a newsman. He continues a vast media presence with the important documentarues turned out by Kurtis Productions, as well as being the voice of NPR’s popular Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.  Jane Hamilton has won many literary awards and twice been an Oprah’s Book Club choice.  Aaron Freeman is a comedian, raconteur, interviewer and an enormous presence on the Chicago cultural scene, perhaps best remembered as the creator of the Star Wars parody “Council Wars,” recounting the Council turmoil following the election of Harold Washington, who appears as Luke Sky Talker.  Christie Heffner—named three times as Fortune‘s Top 100 Most Powerful Women—besides being a CEO contines to crusade for free speech, better government and civil liberties.  Cornelia Grumman won the Pulitzer Prize for her editorials about Illinois’ death penalty. They led to sweeping reform of the state’s prison system. Elizabeth Taylor has chaired five Pulitzer Prize committees and is one of the smartest people I know in the field of literature, Chicago and otherwise.

Which brings us to Scott Turow, who, in many ways needs little introduction. Author of 13 novels, from which three major Hollywood films and one TV series have been made.  Three non-fiction titles, including Ultimate Punishment, his reflections on dealing with the death penalty and being on the commission that led to a moratorium and, finally, abolishment of the practice.  Editor of a couple more volumes, including Guilty As Charged, short stories offering various perspectives on America’s criminal justice system.  Oh, yes, he’s also a famous lawyer.  Lots of pro bono work, including winning the release of a man who spent 11 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.  And there’s that Operation Greylord thing, a wide-ranging investigation and prosecution of judges who did commit crimes. Turow was lead council on that one.

In Ultimate Punishment, Scott surprised Rick Guzman with an acknowledgement, even though Rick, then a recent college grad, was “just” a staffer on the commission which led to the moratorium. Scott also wrote a letter of recommendation for Rick’s application to law school, a letter which, Scott said, would make Rick blush.  “The blood did rush to my head,” said Rick, when I opened a letter of acceptance that also contained a full tuition scholarship.”  As he handed Scott the Fuller Award statue, he said perhaps the most important thing to know about Scott Turow.  “Scott, I am deeply honored and privileged,” he said, “to offer this award to you not only for your extraordinary literary contributions, but also for your extraordinary contribution to humanity, to justice, and for just being one of the great human beings our community has to offer.”

Go to my article about the founding of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame, which will soon be updated with links to articles I’ve written about the CLHOF inductees and Fuller Award winners.

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Take My People With Me: Juneteenth 2023

This post is part of a series on Juneteenth. Go to the series LEAD POST.

The video below shows a few minutes of Aurora, Illinois’ 2023 Juneteenth celebration at MLK Jr. Park.  It’s one of the oldest in the state (at 33 years Rockford’s owns the crown). “It’s been going 22 years,” said Congressman Bill Foster during his annual drop-in. “My smile muscles are almost broken.” “So are mine,” said our luminous emcee, whose name I again didn’t catch but am on a mission to find before next year’s celebration.  The last shot of the video is of him from behind, so you can read his t-shirt: “I’m steal healing b.u.”

Well, he literally was, as he wore a big brace on his left leg, a brace that didn’t stop him dancing all around during his energetic hosting.  The emphasis on healing, though, is symbolic of a larger emphasis growing in importance to the Black community.  One speaker you’ll see urged the crowd to become aware of themselves as a people again. “We’ve lost that,” he said, and in an inventive metaphor asked, “If the bear feeds the bear, does the bear hate the lion?” He was urging Blacks not only to love each other but spend with each other, support each other economically.  That’s what whites do, why not us?

His short talk blended perfectly with the next person on stage, a young lady who did a dramatic dance to Cynthia Erivo’s “Stand Up,” the theme song for Kasi Lemmons’ movie Harriet.  “Look at this,” said our emcee.  “She could have said I’m gonna do some Cardi B.  Instead she’s lifting up Harriet Tubman!”

A few acts later, up come three kids doing the latest dance, until the emcee asks, “Any body else can do this? Come up here!” Suddenly the stage is exploding with dancers.  I said to my daughter-in-law, Desiree, “Doesn’t it make your knees hurt just watching them?”  So this emphasis on supporting each other economically and celebrating the great figures of freedom like Harriet Tubman was, as usual, wrapped in fun, and food, and the market atmosphere of dozens of merchant’s tents, plus the cars and motorcycles that showed up for the parade that would end off the evening.

I’m writing this just as the big parades celebrating pride month are coming to an end, and I’ve been thinking a lot about the lessons the LGBTQ+ community can teach us about keeping the issue of race before the American public.  Though that community is suffering lots of backlash currently, and over 600 bills have been proposed in legislatures nation-wide to curb that community, the LGBTQ+ movement has seemed to turn a corner.  The general American public seems supportive—enthusiastically so in many cases—and ready to advocate for them.  In my church’s JEDI group (Justice-Equity-Diversity-Inclusion), there’s been so much progress on LGBTQ+ issues.  It’s much harder in matters of race.  For all the troubles LGBTQ+ people have suffered, and continue to suffer, it’s just easier for that movement.  There are many reasons for this, I believe. Here are just four: 1) people can inherently relate to sexuality more than race; 2) the bulk of that community—at least the out-front parts—are white; 3) Pride celebrations are just more fun, making the issue of inclusion easier to get behind; and 4) there’s more of a tradition of therapy in that population.  Only in the last 25 years or so has there been a growing, widespread acknowledgment of the mental health crisis—the trauma—caused by racism.*  And racism is woven so deeply into the fabric of American life that it’s hard to get to, and the tasks to change systems are often of gigantic proportions.

But at this year’s Juneteenth celebration in Aurora, I thought that maybe this holiday might be one of the things that helps more and more Americans embrace the fight against racism as much as the celebrations of Pride Month have helped that community.  I’m deep in thought about that, and maybe my hope might someday grow deeper as well.

* See my articles on Joy DeGruy and Resmaa Menakem for more on the rise of therapies to treat the trauma of racism.
Go to the lead post for the anti-racism workshop Becoming the Beloved Community and to the Diversity Training and Teaching main page.

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Healing Racial Trauma

Below is a 6:30 video showing a segment from Lenard McKelvey’s Comedy Central show Tha God’s Honest Truth.  He’s taken the performance name Charlamagne Tha God, which explains the name of his comedy show, which sometimes takes on topics not all that funny, as in the video below. He’s shown with three guests, but the clip I’ve edited down focuses on Resmaa Menakem, author most recently of My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies.  Earlier in the show McKelvey had interviewed two friends, Chico Bean and Ice Wave, about processing their racial trauma, and during the process had become triggered himself. “I thought I was past all that,” he says, and the video below begins just as Menakem says, “I saw it happen,” to which McKelvey just says, “Lord, have mercy.”  “That’s why when we came out I said to you, ‘We’re holding you, brother,’” Menakem says, and then we go on to watch Menakem lead everyone through a practice to help alleviate one aspect of racial trauma.

It’s been only 43 years since the American Psychiatric Association added, in 1980, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD, to its central diagnostic guide, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM for short. This was the third edition, DSM-III, and the addition was controversial.  Today PTSD is accepted virtually throughout society, though it’s also misused, as its central component, trauma, is often attributed—sometimes jokingly, but many times not—to incidents that aren’t really that severe, intense, or injurious physically or emotionally. But who can deny that soldiers in combat or victims of rape haven’t been truly traumatized?

The same goes for victims of racism, though we’re just beginning to admit this to ourselves as a society. It’s taken so long because…well, because our racism blocks our full realization of how traumatic racism has been and continues to be.  Just over a year ago I posted on this site a five-minute video distilling the main ideas behind a 2008 lecture by Joy DeGruy.  As with many things, you have to go back to W.E.B. Dubois for someone who started a discussion pertinent to race, and it’s the same with the recognition of the trauma of racism.  But Joy DeGruy has been a key figure in bringing a growing recognition of race trauma to us today.  She calls it Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome.  You see your children sold off, your sister raped, your husband lynched.  You endure the absolute traumas of this with no mental health intervention whatever.  This goes on for centuries.

“Trauma in a person can appear like personality over time.  Trauma in a family can appear like family traits over time. Trauma in a people can appear like culture over time.”  This is one of Menakem’s key insights, as is the idea of “bracing.”  We walk around waiting for the next shoe to drop.  We brace for it, and this continual “bracedness” turns up the adrenaline, turns up the cortisol, and our bodies suffer because of it.  Menakem’s focus is on the bodily damage racism causes—the body which houses our instincts, our fight-flee-or-freeze reactions.  Racism not only attacks our minds, our emotions, but the very fiber of the bodies we inhabit.  And we all suffer from it, even whites, who are also profoundly damaged by the white supremacy that damages and traumatizes Blacks and other people of color all the time.  The police suffer, too, and much of the brutality they commit—no matter what color they are—comes from the culture of racial trauma that surrounds them.  It surrounds all of us.

I was recently in San Francisco.  I grew up in Hayward, California, just across the Bay.  And because our Pandemic had renewed and intensified anti-Asian hate, had caused the number of violent incidents against Asian Americans to soar across the country, but particularly in California, and particularly in San Francisco, I walked around “braced” all the time.  I felt my mind, my emotions, my body continually “braced,” continually clenched, every moment I was outside.  I was guarding against the possible blow, continually turning to watch reflections in the windows of stores I walked past so I could check who was behind me.  In that hyper-vigilant mode I realized how much of my life I’d spent being braced, though the racial trauma of my life is just barely on the scales of the traumatic.

Go to the Diversity Training and Teaching page and to the LEAD POST for the anti-racism workshop Becoming the Beloved Community, where this article and video are also listed.

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