African American boys church

Priceless Blessings…

Little boys in church shirts

Eating church candy
Squirming in church pews —
The sweetest of God’s blessings 
for the church.
Little boys falling asleep,
Nudging each other before Momma sees
Laughing, squirming, bright shining stars
Straight from God’s own canvas.
The sweetest blessings to the church.

African American boys African American men beloved community Joseph juvenile justice

If Joseph Dreams….

The Flight Into Egypt, Matthew 2:13
“Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child to destroy him. Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod….” Matthew 2: 13,14, 15a
When there was a public, credible and sustained threat made against the life of the baby Jesus, an Angel of the Lord visited Joseph in a dream and gave him a plan to secure the child’s safety.  Obediently, and probably very grateful for the vision, Joseph arose and followed the inspired plan.  By doing so, Joseph made a world of difference for all of us — for history, for eternity, for generations to come. 
Today, there is a public, credible and sustained threat made against the very lives of poor children of color.
  • Though no children should be targeted, arrested and incarcerated the way we seem to be doing, Black children in New York city are 32 times more likely to be incarcerated than White children.
  • Children of color, primarily African-American and Latino youth, make up 95% of the young people entering the city’s detention facilities; children are routinely charged with nonviolent offenses, including misdemeanors and technical offenses.
  • Children who live in South Jamaica, East New York, Bedford Stuyvesant, Harlem, Tremont, University Heights, Brownsville, Eastchester, Morris Heights, Saint George, East Harlem, Soundview, Bedford Park, the South Bronx and Far Rockaway — live most profoundly under the perverse rule of the spirit of Herod.   These communities have the highest rates of detention, the highest levels of poverty, poor housing and under-performing schools — and they desperately need Joseph to step forward with a dream and a plan.

 Joseph went to great lengths to protect Jesus and Mary.  When it became clear to him what Herod planned, Joseph did what he had to do to secure a refuge for his family against sure death.  He was not put off by the questions surrounding Jesus’ paternity, despite the community gossip.  Jesus was the child he claimed, and so he dreamed and acted.

There is a great deal of “good reform” happening in New York’s juvenile justice system.  I’m glad about it. But, I’m not satisfied.  System reform is necessary but certainly not enough because our children are endangered not just by broken child-serving systems (education, child welfare, access to health care, community and faith institutions) that routinely eat them alive and then dump them into the juvenile justice system. The world is broken and fallen — and a broken and fallen world chews up vulnerable people because it has no investment in a future worth considering. 

The fate of children in a broken world seems sealed by the loss of “The Joseph” who dreams, acts and protects.

Where is Joseph?

  • Some Josephs have fled the community without child and mother.
  • Some Josephs are physically present, but overwhelmed, lonely, disconnected, under-employed, unemployed…and gratefully sleep a dreamless sleep or battle with nightmares.
  • Some Josephs themselves are battered by oppression and caught up in the revolving doors of penal institutions, mental health centers, substance abuse clinics and homeless shelters.
  • Still other Josephs are absorbed in self and caught up in the power of immediate gratification fed by a media machine the likes of which we have never seen before.

Yet, in spite of this — and because of the grace of God,  there are still some incredible Josephs among us — men who stand tall in the community for their own children, and who stand for other children, who like Joseph’s Jesus, are not the children of their loins.  It seems as if the winds of the world are always against them. They struggle to make their voices heard above the din of rhetoric, but even more so, they struggle to hold on to dreams in a world which still does not value a Black man’s dream.

You won’t find their stories or witnesses reported by the media, but they are there.
You won’t find them receiving big awards from community groups, but children are surviving who otherwise would not because of them.
You won’t find their names inscribed on buildings, but everyday they struggle against the Devil himself so that children can find safe passage from home to school and back again.

My prayer is that these Josephs will be supported, encouraged to dream, empowered to act on their dreams and that they will be strengthened to put their plans into action.  My prayer is that God will raise a new generation of Community Josephs — men who will fearlessly claim and protect the children, the Jesus, in their neighborhoods.

We need Josephs who will not be swayed by community or media gossip about the worthiness of our own children. We need Josephs who will refute the spirit of Maury Povich with the declaration — “I may not be the father, but these are the children I claim and I will protect them.”
This world is not a friend to children, to poor people, to vulnerable people.  It does what it does — chews them up and spits them out.  But, the world has always done that and we should not be surprised.
Here’s what we also know:  Joseph makes a difference.

Joseph makes the difference.

He stands between Herod on the warpath and the child who will grow up to bless us.

Herod slaughtered a generation of little boys.  That’s what Herods do. We must work to seize the power of Herod. We must work to eliminate Herod’s power to systematically snuff out a generation of vulnerable children via broken, failing systems.

there is nothing more dangerous to the powers of the world if Joseph dreams…  

If Joseph dreams, there will be no stopping him!

“God, You are the giver of dreams.  You are the inspiration for freedom. 
We cannot be free if our Josephs, if our fathers, can’t dream. 
Where they are tired, give them sabbath rest.  
Where they are discouraged, speak into their hearts. 
Where they are lonely and disconnected, 
help them to find a community of Jesus Friends. 
Where they are battered by the storms of the world, 
give them shelter and the assurance that storms don’t last, You do. 
God, send Your Holy Spirit and lift up a new generation
of Community Josephs.  
African American boys beloved community children peace

God Has Heard

14So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. 15When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. 16Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. 17And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. 18Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” 19Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink. 20God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. 21He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.

Genesis 21: 14 – 21 (NRSV)

Abraham, Sarah….and Hagar.

The names and stories we are most familiar with are the ones surrounding the legendary Abraham and Sarah. Abraham was faithful. Sarah gave birth well into her advanced years. Both were hospitable to traveling strangers.

But Hagar has a story, too. Out of her story comes her son — Ishmael. This is the Ishmael who was abandoned by his faithful father, Abraham and forced to flee with his mother because of the complaints of Sarah.

There is so much to unpack in the intertwining of the lives of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar. I’ll leave that for another day because today, I’m thinking about Ishmael: boys who are just out there with the promise of death hovering so immanently over them that loved ones turn away. They can’t bear to stick around to witness “what the end will be.”

You can insert in this story the name of so many little boys and so many little girls — children who are caught up in the crazy drama of the lives of the adults around them. For the sake of our sanity and because of the truth of our faith, we know that God hears them.

The question here, however, is not about God — it is about us.

Do we hear?

Is there some cool refreshing “water” we can offer?

And, do we have the guts to transform the wildernesses into which the Ishmael’s of the world are thrust into beloved communities where no child is forced to walk alone, and where no child languishes under the bushes of a lonely tree?

This scripture haunts my sleep. I will return to it again and again, I suppose, until my ultimate questions are answered.

God was with Ishmael, the scripture says, and he became an expert with the bow. Granted, he needed a bow in the wilderness. Children still need “bows” today to fight for their survival. Their wilderness enemies are not Ishmael’s wild beasts, but the wild beasts of low aim, low expectations, poor health, educational disparities, institutional racism, poverty, hopelessness and adult hypocrisy.

How do we arm them with “bows” to fight these enemies?

And, how do we help them to see the difference between the kind of fighting that always produces victims — and the Isaiah 2:4 kind of fight: the fight for the justice that produces peace brought about by swords beaten into plowshares, spears turned into pruning hooks, and courage to put down the studies of war and pick up the hopeful work of peace and bridge-building?

God has heard, for sure.

God needs adults to stop stop pushing children under the trees of bureaucracy, apathy and lack of vision. God needs us to stop being so distant and emotionally removed.

We’ve got work to do — the work of arming our children with a different kind of bow because the wilderness of still ripe with beasts.

advanced placement courses African American boys Brooklyn education

Not Genetic, It’s Systemic

In talking about the fact that more black boys receive GED’s from prison than graduate from college, educational consultant and author Jawanzaa Kunjufu says, “It’s not genetic, its systemic.”

Consider this: One predominantly African American high school in Brooklyn has managed to get 85% of its graduating class on the track for college. The principal of this school is an African American male educator with deep ties to the community. He and his staff are frequently still at school at 8:00 PM in the evenings — working to create the kind of school community where all kids are recognized, affirmed, challenged and given a solid education. We know that one of the best indicators that a black male will go to college and do well is whether he has had Advanced Placement courses in high school. This school had 10 such classes for its students.

Because of recent education budget cuts, this school also had to cut its Advanced Placement classes.

In the same community, we have “suspension programs” where students who have been suspended from school go during the course of their suspension. Teachers who lead these programs are often frustrated because a student can come in on the first day of the school year, the 30th day, the 50th day — any day. In fact students trickle into the class throughout the year. How is this “class” to be taught? How effective are suspension programs in getting students back into the classrooms where they can best be taught? Is that even one of the goals of the program?

I have many questions about whether we are serving the best interests of our children in suspension programs. Many, many questions. Are they receiving counseling? Are their families receiving support? Is there a plan for their future? Is there even a plan to get them back into the classroom successfully?

Our system will guarantee funding for a suspension program with all of its inherent questions. Our system will not guarantee funding for an Advanced Placement program in poor black communities, even though it answers one of the most pressing questions of our time: how do we prepare more African American boys for college?

Kunjufu is right. It’s not genetic, it’s systemic.

African American boys, Latino boys, poor children — they are the collatoral damage of budget cutting exercises. At the end of the day, a dollar is saved. Yet, another child loses. We lose. The future loses.

Proverbs 22:6 (KJV) says, “train up a child in the way he should go; when he is old, he will not depart from it.” Eugene Peterson’s The Message Translation of Proverbs 22:6 says, “point your kids kids in the right direction – when they are old, they won’t be lost. What our systems are doing (unintentionally and blindly) is training and pointing children toward prison. Is that where we want them to go?

To educate yourself about this issue — go to the Children’s Defense Fund’s website and read about the Children’s Defense Fund’s Cradle to Prison Pipeline(R) Campaign.