What Does Love Look Like?

My Aunt Doris loved me.

In all the years that I knew her, however, I don’t remember her ever telling me that she loved me. While she was alive, I told her all the time. I’m disgustingly affectionate! I know, I make my own self sick sometimes!

But, I don’t think Aunt Doris ever once actually told me with her lips that she loved me.

Yet, I knew she did.

She was one of those people — straightforward, a little gruff and abrupt around the edges. I often took great pleasure in tormenting her with my shenanigans and practical jokes. I loved getting a rise out of her! She was not to be trifled with and she did not suffer any foolishness, but she did laugh at my silliness.

When I was growing up, my siblings and I called her Elle Excellente – because to her, if it wasn’t excellent, what was the point?

When I was in high school, I brought home a report card that had both A’s and B’s. My mom was, of course, excited and supportive. My Aunt Doris was, of course, devastated and disappointed.

I never will forget the look on My Aunt Doris’ face: you can do better. The truth of the matter was, she was right. I could have done better.

Everything Aunt Doris did for me spoke volumes about how she cared about me. My family had no money, and my mother worked all the time. Still, there was not enough to go around. Yet, somehow when it came time for me to go to college — to be the first one to go off to college — my Aunt Doris pressed a plane ticket into my hand and enough to cover my living expenses for a few months. Every time after that, when it was time to come home for a break and when it was time to go back to school, she would press a plane ticket into my hand and enough money to make it through.

This woman who never finished high school and who survived on disability and social security made it possible for me to get an education. She didn’t talk about it, she just did it. God forbid if I tried to “thank her” for it. She was having none of that. Thanks was in the grades. Thanks was in the accomplishments. Thanks, she said, was in doing something with my life.

What does love look like?

Love looks like Aunt Doris.

You know what? No matter what we look like right now, we all have it within us to look like love, too.

Find a young person who needs some unconditional love.

Show up for them and cheer them on. When they fail, extend your hand to lift them up. When they say, “I can’t” — act like you have plumb lost your mind and threaten to “whop” ’em! (Okay….don’t really hit them….you can’t do that. But you get my point! Don’t suffer defeatist attitudes! Do whatever you have to do to get that young person to just take a chance on themselves.)

With lots of humor, a little sacrifice, a loving presence, boundaries, high expectations, perspective — and God, you really can press love into a young person’s heart.

The thanks will be in what they do with their lives.

“And they’ll know we are Christians by our love,
by our love…
Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

children community God prayer war youth

Do You See This? Are You Listening?

(High school students march around the James R. Thompson Center in downtown Chicago to denounce youth violence. Twenty-two Chicago Public Schools students have been killed since September, including 20 by gun violence. (Tribune photo by Tom Van Dyke / April 1, 2008)

In the last few weeks, school children in Chicago held a rally to call attention to the fact that twenty (22) students have been killed in the past school year alone. They carried signs reading “Don’t shoot. I want to grow up.” Did you see that?

This week, CNN published a story detailing how thousands of children in the United States are being sexually abused in juvenile detention and prisons. Children in the United States….did you hear that?

Today, a child in your own neighborhood –within your own range of sight — will be hurting and afraid to tell someone. There will be no parents around. There will be no trusted adults standing in the gap between them and a major mistake. Will you turn your face away from that?

Above the din of mindless cable television reporting on stuff that just does not matter and well beyond the noise of all the things that serve to distract us from really loving one another, seeing one another — beyond all of that there are these voices that we cannot ignore.

Children cry out by gang-banging, getting suspended, running away, cursing out adults, stealing. They cry out by withdrawing. They cry out by hurting themselves.

“Hurt people hurt people.”

We all are crying out in so many ways. These cries are evident in the statistics that shout the pathologies that are killing our communities. We get so worked up about the statistics, but we are doing nothing more about them wringing our hands in despair, blaming each other, blaming children….and while we are doing all of that, yet another generation falls away from us.

Adults are waging wars all across the world and children are the collateral damage. We are warring and children are dying in Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Mississippi, Florida, California, Bosnia, Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria, Darfur, Palestine….and in our own neighborhoods. Even in our own families.

We are so busy warring, fighting and focused on our own adult navels that we don’t hear these voices.

I love the Dr. Seuss story, “Horton Hears a Who.” In this timeless and incredibly important little story, Horton teaches us that there are so many little souls who stand in danger every day because the big souls just don’t hear them, don’t see them, don’t recognize their person-hood. And as the big souls go on their merry way, living, sucking up life, warring with each other, the unseen and unheard suffer as collateral damage.

Today, take a moment to really listen to what is going on in this world. Open your eyes.

1. Tell the media that you don’t want anymore stories on mindless mess. No more stories about people’s sex lives. No more sensationalized accounts of adult obsessions. Demand to know what is going on in this world in the lives of children. The best way to judge a country is by how well it does by its children and its vulnerable populations. And no “the sky is falling reports” about how all young people are going to hell in a hand basket. They are not. Demand to know where young people are doing well. Demand to know the success stories.

2. Visit your local elected officials and ask them — “how are the children doing?” If their eyes are focused on children, then they will have to be creative about finding real solutions for housing, community violence, jobs creation, education, health…they will have to deal with the real issues of our lives. Tell them that you will be watching what they do to reduce the number of guns on our streets. And then, really watch them. For those who continue to do nothing, who cannot build bridges so that people come together to problem-solve, who cannot seem to focus on why they were elected — kick them out the next “go-round.”

3. Look around your church. Is it place of peace for children? Has your church learned how to advocate for funding for positive youth development programs in your community? Does your church speak out to support your local schools? Are young people welcomed? Is there a class offered on how to be a good parent?

4. Make your voice and your face known at the local police precinct. Enough said.

5. Talk to a young person. Really talk. Communication is a two way street, so when you have said what you want to say, close your mouth and listen. Listen to what children say and what they don’t say. And when they do share something with you, honor their courage and follow through on your word.

6. Educate yourself about the wars that are being fought all around the world. Figure out what the commonalities are. Open your eyes and see for yourself — in every case, we are losing a whole generation of children. In some places they are strapping bombs to their bodies. In other places, they are stepping on bombs as they play. Yet, still in other places, bombs are hurled at them as they sleep at night. The Chicago experience tells us that American youth obviously need a police escort just to go to school because our culture, in the words of Marian Wright Edelman has “a romance with guns.” But, mothers the world over know deeply that a bullet doesn’t love anybody. A bullet is no respecter of persons.

I don’t believe that adults just want to war and fight. Rather, I believe that adults just don’t know how to make peace anymore. We don’t know how to listen. Kurt Bestor wrote a most haunting song some years ago when he was in Yugoslavia. The Bosnians, Serbs and Croatians were killing each other, and beyond all of the violence Bestor searched the faces of children and saw terror. He saw children who just wanted to be children: to play across boundaries, to laugh…to grow up.

Listen: children still just want to be children. They just want to play across boundaries, to laugh and to grow up — in Yugoslavia, Newark, Darfur, New York, Afghanistan, Iraq, Your town, Your Family.

Is anybody searching their faces and listening but God?

The Prayers of the Children
by Kurt Bestor

Can you hear the prayer of the children
on bended knee, in the shadow of an unknown room?
Empty eyes with no more tears to cry
turning heavenward toward the light.

Cryin‘ Jesus help me
to see the mornin‘ light of one more day,
but if I should die before I wake,
I pray my soul to take.

Can you feel the hearts of the children
aching for home, for something of their very own.
Reaching hands with nothing to hold onto
but hope for a better day, a better day.

Cryin‘ Jesus help me
to feel the love again in my own land,
but if unknown roads lead away from home,
give me loving arms, ‘way from harm.

Can you hear the voice of the children
softly pleading for silence in their shattered world?
Angry guns preach a gospel full of hate,
blood of the innocent on their hands.

Cryin‘ Jesus help me
to feel the sun again upon my face?
For when darkness clears, I know you’re near,
bringing peace again.

Dali čǔje te sve dječje molitve?

Can you hear the prayer of the children?

faith Negro Spirituals otherworldly

Raising Otherworldly Youth


The word is so frightening. We could go down the list of all the reasons why the thought of being associated with the word “otherworldly” sends people running for the door. We all know those reasons, enough said.

But I have never been one to allow others to co-opt my faith. No one defines me for me, defines my thinking for me, defines my faith for me — certainly not popular culture, the media or right-wing conservatives. If that were the case, I would have given up being called a “Christian” a long time ago. I never would have embraced being a “youth” when I was young. I would have disassociated myself with what it means to be “American” a long time ago. I would even have n shaken off the terms “African American” and “Black woman” a long, long time ago.

We must teach young people that none of us has the “luxury” of living into someone else’s definition of us. We are all required to think, to work it out, to define ourselves with integrity even if that process involves great struggle. The most dangerous thing in the world, for instance, is the “Christian” whose idea of what it means to be a Christian has been defined by popular culture, talk-show hosts, media, fiction (even good fiction!) — defined by other. At the end of the day, at the end of your life, you will be held accountable for how you define yourself, and your definitions are played out in your daily living.

So, I embrace the word “otherworldly.”

For me, it does not mean:

  • being so heavenly minded that you are no earthly good
  • being so holy that you can’t get your hands dirty with the things of life
  • walking with your head in the clouds, separated from “them”
  • being out of touch with reality and how people live their lives, the challenges they face each day, their hopes, dreams and fears
  • being judgmental, narrow and one-dimensional
  • being holier than thou
  • being without sin!

Being otherworldly is what you end up doing when you throw your WHOLE SELF in to God’s way.

  • It’s having enough courage to not allow the world to determine who you are, whose you are and how far you can go.
  • It’s what you are doing when you give your life to be “conformed to the image Christ…”
  • It’s what you are doing when you heed the call to not be conformed to this world, molded, shaped to this world, but to be illogically transformed out of the molds and shapes this world presses upon you — not by exercising power over someone else, but by the “renewing of your mind.”
  • It’s what you are doing when you stop thinking like the world expects you — yes, YOU in particular — to think; hoping like the world expects you to hope, dreaming within the bounds the world expects you to dream….when you stop “acting” like the world says people like you are supposed to act.
  • It’s what you are doing each day when you live your life saying, “I’m looking for a miracle…let me be a miracle for someone else.”
  • It’s what you are doing when you live your life everyday expecting, looking for, working to bring about communities where the last will be first, and the widows and orphans and those on the margins of society will experience the love of God through you…

That’s what it means to be “otherworldly.”

A new generation needs “otherworldly” faith. It is the only way they are going to grow beyond the narrow expectations that this world has for them. It’s the only way our world is going to survive the next hundred years. We need young, visionary and courageous youth who are bold enough to step out of time; who are bold enough to exchange the world they have inherited with the world that can be.

Our time expects every black boy to end up in Jail or on the Basketball Court.
Our time expects every black girl to end up a poor single mom, to become a Video Girl, or an over-achieving super woman.

Equally, and just as dangerous, our time has narrowly defined and confining expectations for White boys and White girls; Latino boys and Latina girls; Asian boys and Asian girls….

Otherworldly faith is about stepping “out of time” with the world, business as usual, long-held biases and the shackles of low expectation — and “into time” with a God who expects, hopes for and requires so much more from us all.

One of my favorite Negro Spirituals serves as the theological foundation for this incredible exchange of worlds. The slaves understood Jesus to be one who got his hands dirty. He ate with common people, cast outs, and the marginalized. He welcomed women of “questionable character” and poor children into his presence. He was concerned about people’s health, whether they had eaten; not just their spirits. When faced with a blood-hungry mob ready to damn a woman to hell, he wrote his judgment in sand that could be washed away –forever etching into the people’s memory how we all are broken and we all deserve “the second chance.” The way of Jesus represented a world slaves would gladly exchange for the world they faced every day.

Adults who are working with youth are most privileged.

If you are mindful, if you take advantage of the teachable moments, if you learn the art of whispering into their spirits about the call of this “other-world” – you will get to see for yourself, up close, the birth of a new world, a new thing! The prophet Isaiah says,

“Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.

I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

Isaiah 43:18-19

You will get to see young people beginning to shake off the former things and learning to participate with God in the fashioning of a new world.

The best way to get that other-world right now is to live the way of Jesus in this world – right now. Give up this one, and take on “the otherworld.”

In the morning when I rise,
In the morning when I rise,
In the morning when I rise,
Give me Jesus.

Give me Jesus, give me Jesus,
You may have all this world:
Give me Jesus.


children forsaken God Psalms

“I Belong To God”

When those to whom I belong forsake me,
then the Lord will take me up.
Psalm 27:10

I remember the day when I finally understood that I belonged to God.

It was the day when it was clear to me that I belonged to no one else. Not even myself.

To belong to God is an incredible responsibility. I tell my own children when they are expressing doubts about their abilities or when they are on the verge of inappropriate behavior — “Remember, you belong to this family.” It is enough to make us all think and straighten up — even if just for a moment.

When the children with whom you walk begin to doubt their abilities and their value, remind them that they belong to God. They will not get it at first, but hopefully, those words said often enough will become the tape playing in the back of their brains when they get older, when they face mountains…alone.

When they are discouraged.

When they look around and friends are few.

“I belong to God.”

When they have utterly failed at something – they still belong to God.

When they have experienced success…I belong to God.


children youth

But God…

But God knows the way I take
When he has tried me
I shall come forth as gold.
Job 23

For all the things we think we can predict, this much is true. We cannot predict what God will do with a child.

Jesus was born of a young mother. From before his birth, questions swirled about regarding his parentage. Though Joseph married Mary, people still considered Jesus to be a bastard child, an illegitimate child. How can a human being be “illegitimate”? That’s another question for another day.

But the point is — because of his parentage, the circumstances surrounding his birth, etc., not much was expected of Jesus. Yet, 2000 plus years later, people are still committing his words to heart. People are still inspired by his humility. People still believe…

Just goes to show you what God can do with a child. Any child. Anybody anywhere.

God does know the way we take. God knows the pitfalls, the difficulties, the joys, the sorrows. And, God knows how those circumstance serve to shape our personalities, character and potential.

God does try us. Like a mother who places a ball just out of the reach of a toddler so that the toddler will step out and walk, God stretches us and calls us forth. Sometimes, we go forth through painful territory, but…

You shall come forth as gold. Being gold does not mean being shiny and passing for “bling.” Being gold means being valuable. You are incredibly valuable. Your value is not determined by the standards of the world, but by the hope of God.

For those of you who are walking with children, here’s a message to press into their hearts: muster up the strength to walk through adversity because your walk is not solitary; your walk is not in vain. With each difficult step forward you will learn to drop more of the world’s shiny, heavy, burdensome, useless bling and own the courage to accept the value you have in God’s eyes.

Press that into their hearts by showing them how much they are valued.

Fight for all children to live in healthy, violence free communities.
Fight for all children to have comprehensive health and mental health coverage.
Fight for all children to have good schools and quality after school programs.
Fight for all children to have strong, loving and supportive families.

Fight for the gold.


child abuse community justice Nixzmary Brown

Justice for Nixzmary Brown

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire, you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
Isaiah 43: 2

Who is “I”?

Passing through stormy waters, moving through rivers that threaten to overwhelm…walking through fire unscathed and facing down flames unconsumed: “I” promises that because of the presence of “I,” one will not be consumed.

Here is one thing I know from working and loving young people: there are times when they feel so alone. There is nothing you can do or say to mitigate the loneliness. You can’t understand how they feel because while you may have been 15 years old once, you are not 15 years old right now in their context.

Today, the father of little Nixzmary Brown was acquitted of second degree murder. Instead he was convicted of the lesser charge of manslaughter for fatally beating her as punishment.

Nixzmary deserved better.

And by that, I don’t mean that justice wasn’t served because the man who killed her was not convicted of second degree murder. No — justice wasn’t served because the community she lived in let her down. I don’t think anything that could be done to her killer now would be “justice.” Focusing on her killer now means nothing to Nixzmary, who didn’t live past her 7th birthday. Wanting the harshest sentence possible for her killer may make some adults feel better — like we are getting justice for Nixzmary.

But that’s not justice.

It means nothing to other little Nixzmary’s. Her father’s sentence of punishment will not be the thought in another abuser’s mind as he raises his hand to hurt his child. Whatever is done to Nixzmary’s killer will not deter another abusive and ill-equipped parent from killing their own child.

But a community determined to be mindful, watchful, open-eared and open-eyed, ready, and questioning may deter the next killing. A community determined to look children in the eyes, a community populated by people who know how to convey to children that “I am a trusted adult, and you can tell me if someone is hurting you” is the most dangerous community in the world — for abusers. That’s justice for Nixzmary.

No abuser wants to live in a community filled with people who have decided that they will embody “I” and walk with children against fire and storm.

No child abuser wants to face a community that decides it will not leave children to face by themselves the overwhelming flood of the fear of the very adults who, by virtue of blood, are supposed to protect them.

No abuser wants to face a community that decides for itself that the worst thing a child among them should ever have to experience is the inevitable, normal, occasional, adolescent loneliness that comes with the natural course of growing up healthy.

No killer or abuser wants to live among people who say to themselves, “we will never see the righteous forsaken, nor the seed of God begging bread..” as long as we have breath in our bodies…

God is present in the presence of God’s people. Being present for the children in your community is justice.


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.

health sexuality education teen girls

We Need Some Body Sense

Published: March 12, 2008
Rates are particularly high among young African-Americans, according to new federal data.

Here are three things we must do right now:

1. Insist on that young people receive age-appropriate but comprehensive health and sexuality education. The abstinence only education movement has failed miserably and our children are paying high prices.

2. Pull our heads out of the sand. Our children live in an incredibly sexualized culture. If we don’t help them to discern what is going on, help them to navigate through the quagmire, and help them to learn to think before they act, they MAY figure it out on their own, but it also MAY be too late. And they will certainly and rightfully never trust those of us who could have spoken truth to them ever again.

3. Refuse to allow right wing people and left wing people to — and middle-of-the-road-don’t-know-what-they-think-people determine whether our children will learn what they need to learn about keeping their bodies healthy and avoiding unnecessary risks. Stop waiting for permission to teach the young people in your life the clinical facts about reproduction, sexually transmitted diseases, bodily functions, etc.

Finally, maybe black girls are at risk because black women are still at risk? Until Black women become proactive about their own health — and prepare and assign themselves to be the primary sexuality educator for the girls in their lives, our girls will continue to show up on the front pages of newspapers as statistical headlines.

Come on sisters, do you know how to prevent yourself from contracting a sexually transmitted disease?

child abuse children God

My God, My God, Why…..?

A friend sent a newspaper clipping to me last week and it utterly bowled me over. An 11 year old girl in the midwest has given birth to a baby. Apparently, she has been raped by her mother’s “boyfriend.” Family and friends knew of the abuse…and when the police did the DNA testing and determined who the father of the baby was, they did not have far to look: he was still in the mother’s house.

Incredible abandonment.

Incredible cruelty.


I have not yet been able to move from “My God, my God, why….” to “now that this has happened, here is what we shall do.” I’m working on that — but I’m not there yet.

My prayer is an old on…”Lord, I believe…help my unbelief.”

Anything I would write now would be driven by my doubts, my despair over what I read. My prayer is to be a help to people who will be called to walk with this little girl. Pray for those who must step into the gap for her — we all need to move through this moment but first — let’s just face the facts.

Incredible abandonment.

Incredible cruelty.

And it happens everyday to thousands of children in our own midst who often give up on the adults around them, give up on hoping that we will be adults and protect them from the edges.
We have given our children so many reasons to never trust us again. That they do is amazing and a gift from God.

Today — intentionally look into the faces of the children around you.

Look for the signs.

Look into their eyes.

Look at them.

And fix your face so that they will not be afraid to look at you, come to you, trust in you, tell you what’s going on.

My, God, my God….of course, God does know all about this. His own child hung on a cross screaming these exact same words.

The hope for this child, the hope for all of us is that we will come to know that these are not the last words. Despair does not have the last word. Because of what God’s child did on the cross, the last word has to be a word of word of triumph and hope.


Black women God Rachel youth

What are We Doing?

A few years ago, I recieved an invitation to preach for a women’s retreat. I love ministering to women. I love the church. And I appreciate any and every opportunity I get to gather with sisters and “get away.” But there was something about this invitation that just really turned my stomach.

Maybe it was because the invitation came to me about 6 weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana and the Gulf Coast.

Maybe it was because I just couldn’t get the pictures of those children, our children, so incredibly abandoned by the richest country in the world out of my head.

Maybe it was because I knew that the very paper the invitation was printed on cost so much more than what many are willing to give to make a difference in our communities.

I don’t know. That invitation sickened me like none other. And then it hit me: one of the things that structural evil depends on is for women of faith to be preparing for retreats, spa days, getaways and the like. While we are “retreating” our children are being incredibly abandoned. Our retreats don’t even have to be like the much criticized “mega-fest” conferences of which hopefully, many people are sick and tired and done with.

We retreat in little ways every day.

  • Refusing to speak up when a child is being mistreated because “that’s not my child” and “I’m tired.”
  • Refusing to speak up when resources for after school programs, child care, pre-K are scare in our communities.
  • Refusing to speak up and hold our own community institutions accountable for quality and thoughtfulness, not just just cultural competence.
  • Refusing to step in when a young woman is obviously over-tired and overwhelmed and dangerously on the edge of abusing her child.

We have retreated, gone off to focus on “our own.”

Don’t get me wrong. I believe in the power of the retreat. Jesus retreated often. He took a day here, a morning there to get away from the press of the crowd. But his getting away was not about forgetting. He retreated to commune with God and came back with power for the people. When many of us come back from these retreats and conferences, we come back with empty wallets and purses, disembodied praise DVD’s — and no power to do anything that will make the difference for people who are still hungry for a word from God.

So, I did something with that invitation to preach at that women’s retreat that I rarely do if I can help it: I declined. I did my own hair and nails and bought a new pair of pantyhose. And then I spent the weekend just being “present” with the children in my church — affirming those who needed encouragement, buying new toiletries to give to growing young women, providing an ear and a shoulder and transportation home for a grandmother who is raising her children’s children. I also started doing research about how the children and families in my church’s neighborhood experienced life in that neighborhood.

You can’t change what you don’t know…and I want to know.


A Voice in Ramah…not bought; not satisfied and not consoled until all of God’s children, Rachel’s children (Matthew 2:18), my children see abundant, God-filled life.