Flipping the Hero Script

Below is a 3:30 minute VIDEO of this year’s fundraising gala for The Neighbor Project.  It was our first outdoor, casual gala, and so successful it might set the template for future galas.  It set a fundraising record, and probably a record for good times as well, especially with great food from Miriam Camacho’s Taco Maravilla, plus great music from Gerald McClendon, aka The Soulkeeper.  You’ll catch a glimpse of all of it below.

The highlight of it all, though, was the theme and the twist on it.  Called the Bridge Bash, the gala sought to increase The Neighbor Project’s bridges to the community, but more than that, it sought to flip the “hero script.”

Too often when you build bridges to try to help people, you cross them with the sense of rescuing them. You therefore tend to think of yourself as heroes of sorts.  You’re woke.  You’re a social justice warrior.  But wokeness and sjw’s have come in for some pretty hefty criticism lately, and rightfully so.  They’re today’s version of white saviorism, which itself is still playing big.  Helpers who think they’re heroes tend to come in and just take over.  They think it’s their right, and that they know best.

But the Video below features about 1:30 of executive director Rick Guzman’s talk, the part about flipping the script and making those we’re helping, not the helpers, the heroes of the story.  For one thing, seeing them as heroes acknowledges that they’re the ones who will finally turn around not just their own families but their own neighborhoods as well.  As much as The Neighbor Project and its supporters and donors do, the people in those neighborhoods can multiply the effects of donations and hard work much better.  They’re also better in touch with what their neighborhoods really need and what the people there can and want to accomplish.  That last thing, what people want to accomplish, is perhaps the most powerful thing of all.


  The Neighbor Project helps families stabilize their finances, with a goal of putting them on the path to home ownership.  Lack of fair home ownership opportunities is the greatest factor in our nation’s wealth gap and even more so its racial wealth gap.  Go to The Neighbor Project website, and go Here for more on The Neighbor Project on this site.  The best place to gain an overview of The Neighbor Project’s growth and vision is Rick Guzman’s talk at last year’s gala, “Every Person’s God-Given Ability to Contribute.”

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Becoming the Beloved Community: The Workshop

At the Becoming the Beloved Community workshop, calling someone racist is forbidden.

On September 11, 2021, I presented a pilot version of the Becoming the Beloved Community (BBC) workshop, and the VIDEO below shows about 16 minutes of the introduction I did for it, beginning with acknow-ledging the members of the committee I was privileged to lead.  We worked for nearly nine months on the workshop and will work more on it,  refining not only the content but the overall framework.  This includes the setting up of small groups that meet before the workshop and then interact after each workshop segment.  The workshop is about becoming anti-racist and talking to others about racism, but the words “racism” or “anti-racist” aren’t part of the title.  This was our attempt to signal that this workshop takes a deeper look and longer view than what’s usually the case in anti-racism workshops.

This post is part of a series based on ideas in the BBC workshop.  The series’ Lead Post—“Does it matter if I’m a racist”—explains why we need to re-frame our race talk, re-balancing the personal with the systemic, and inviting people into a dialogue by taking the emphasis off calling each other racist.  There’s a video in this Lead Post that further reinforces why the BBC workshop re-frames our race conversation this way.  Calling out individuals because of their racism is what our race conversation usually focuses on.  But that not only shuts off dialog, usually,  but also isn’t as productive as taking a hard look at the systems that underlie, support, and nourish racism, whether it’s individual-, institutional-, or policy-based.  The introduction below tries to establish all this.  What it doesn’t do, however, is emphasize how important sharing our stories with each other is.

Between the workshop’s Introduction and Conclusion, there are three segments, each one beginning with a meditation on Privilege, then a consideration of a Social or Justice Issue, then concluding with those small groups sharing their stories.  The sharing helps to  personalize what’s just been presented.  That’s crucial to this workshop.  We don’t want people coming out of it with “just” head knowledge, but also things felt in the heart.

The pilot went very well—exceedingly so, our committee thought—though some said we were preaching to the choir.  That choir, however, was not just mainly sympathetic. It was also filled with experts—and many of these arrived skeptical.  One attendee is a member of the Anti-Racism Taskforce of the Northern Illinois Conference (NIC) of the United Methodist Church, and one of the conference’s foremost resources and speakers on race.  Afterwards, she said, “I was thinking, Well here’s yet another workshop. Am I just going to be rolling my eyes. But, no, this was different and powerful.”  And the workshop is just one of the components of an array of activities in the NIC meant to take a long, sustainable run at dismantling racism.

At a NIC Lay Convocation in February 2020, just before COVID shut down so much of the world, I spoke on a panel, saying that IF we worked really hard we might see a less racist U.S. in 40 to 100 years.  One of the other panelists, Chris Pierson, black, and a pastor in one of the conference’s larger churches, said that while he respected me, he thought that I was being too optimistic.  Forty years—Yes, that’s being optimistic.  I address that long timeframe in the video below.  Chances are I won’t see that more Beloved Community—a community freer of the -isms and phobias that keep us apart.  But folks 100 years from now.  Maybe.

  Go HERE for a list of workshops and trainings I’ve done, including ones on leadership, writing…and race.  And go to “Noble Sentiments…,” the Lead Post in a series based on the 2020 Lay Convocation I mention above.

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The Cross and the Lynching Tree

The Video below* shows about 8 minutes of what I consider one of the most powerful sermon talks ever: James H. Cone’s meditation joining the brutal death of Jesus on the cross to the brutal deaths of nearly 3500 Blacks lynched in the United States.  Speaking in his distinctive high tenor, Dr. Cone says Christians in America simply cannot understand their identity unless they understand the relationship of Jesus on the cross and Blacks hanging from lynching trees.  Despite being lynched by seemingly good Christian whites—sometimes on church grounds—despite having the Bible used as a weapon to justify slavery, Blacks still clung to Christianity, still sang fervently “Jesus keep me near the cross,” because they felt that if God was with Jesus during his crucifixion, he would be with them in the brutalities they endured.  This faith, says Cone, kept them from going mad while enduring the horrors they did.  “As James Baldwin wrote,” says Cone, “‘Whites discovered the cross by way of the Bible, but Black people discovered the Bible by way of the cross.'”

Leaning on a famous line from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Cone says the cross “has been detached from the ongoing suffering and oppression of human beings, the crucified people of history,” to become “a harmless, non-offensive ornament Christians wear around their necks. Rather than reminding us of the cost of discipleship, it has become a form of cheap grace.”

Cone was born on August 5, 1938, in Fordyce, AK, in 1938, growing up in the racially segregated town of Bearden, Arkansas.  With his family he attended the Macedonia African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, and later an AME community college (Shorter College)  before receiving a B.A. from Philander Smith College in 1958.  He continued on, earning a Bachelor of Divinity degree from Garrett–Evangelical Theological Seminary (1961), and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Northwestern University (1963, 1965).  He returned to Philander Smith College to teach theology before, in 1970, moving to Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where he taught and wrote the rest of his life.  In 1977 he was awarded the distinguished Charles A. Briggs Chair in systematic theology.  His 1969 book Black Theology and Black Power defined the distinctiveness of theology in the black church and marked him as perhaps the greatest advocate of black theology and black liberation theology.  In it’s Preface he wrote, “This book was my initial attempt to identify liberation as the heart of the Christian gospel and blackness as the primary mode of God’s presence. I wanted to speak on behalf of the voiceless black masses in the name of Jesus whose gospel I believed had been greatly distorted by the preaching and the theology of white churches.”

In the 1950’s Malcolm X had proclaimed that Christianity was being taught as a white man’s religion, and while Cone followed Malcolm X’s lead to a degree, he also sought to reclaim Christianity for Black people by emphasizing its historical importance to Black survival, its message of freedom for the oppressed, deliverance from social, economic, and political injustice, and also Jesus’ oneness with suffering people. “Liberation,” he often said and wrote, “is not an afterthought, but the very essence of divine activity.” Before Cone’s Black Theology and Black Power, forms of Black Liberation Theology were, of course, central to the Civil Rights Movement, and shortly after his seminal book theologians like Basil Moore, a Methodist, popularized this theology in southern Africa where it became central in the fight against apartheid.  Shortly before his death in 2018, Dr. Cone was elected to the prestigious Academy of Arts and Sciences in recognition of his long career, which bore fruit not only in the academy but in the everyday lives of suffering people everywhere.  The video below is about as succinct a summary as there is of James Cone’s powerful theology, a theology which means perhaps more now at this particular juncture of American history.  We will never fully and deeply come to terms with the harm of slavery and racism, a harm which continues strongly and often unabated today, until we come to terms with Cone’s message.

* The video below is my slight edit, then slight expansion of a YouTube video posted by Porsche Abraham in April 2020.  I substituted one of Billie Holiday’s versions of “Strange Fruit” at the end.  You can find several full versions of Dr. Cone’s iconic address on YouTube and elsewhere.

♦  This essay is part of a series on the anti-racism workshop “Becoming the Beloved Community.”  Go to the series Lead Post, and go Here for a series of talks and workshops I have led.

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