SOCIAL JUSTICE - BLEND AND BLUR

IF ONLY WE ARE BRAVE ENOUGH TO... - AMANDA GORMAN'S POEM

Amanda-Gorman-at-Joe-Biden-inauguration

I am writing two articles for different papers today and I was struggling. Then the amazing Amanda Gorman reached in to all our lives and I have a torrent of possibilities. Someone suggested I do a sermon series. I am conjuring The Gospel According To... Amanda Gorman!

Wasn’t she amazing? The performance itself was so poised and powerful and then the words. Words of hope and healing. Words of the common good and the possibilities therein. “… isn’t broken/Just unfinished”. Nice!

America has had a few tough weeks, many would say years. I remember a conversation in Ohio a year or two before Donald Trump where some were fearing violence, the divisions of red and blue and black and white were so tense.

I think it would be wrong if Amanda Gorman’s poem was so attached to Joe Biden that the 70 million who voted for Donald Trump missed it. Light from any quarter the Reformers advised us. There was lots of light in Amanda Gorman’s poem and for ALL of America to miss that, every nook and corner (and indeed the rest of us) would be very sad.

Tears rolled down my cheeks when she found herself in her own poem. 

 

We the successors of a country and a time

Where a skinny Black girl

descended from slaves and raised by a single mother

can dream of becoming president

only to find herself reciting for one

 

Perfect. Beautiful. Actual.

I left watching the inauguration just about the end of her poem to speak at a Public Meeting in support of the Belfast Multi-Cultural Association. I found myself unrehearsed quoting her almost immediately. Surely that made me one of the first people to quote the poem in a speech. I’ll claim it anyway! Apparently in doing so I quoted from Hamilton. I had no idea but it made me cool with my daughters!

Amanda had used one of my go to verses from the prophets. To hear her quote Micah 4:4 was like my team scoring a goal in a Cup Final. 

 

Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the LORD Almighty has spoken.

 

It is now twenty years since I started taking teams to Africa and Micah 4:4 has become very precious in my theologising of the work we have done in Cape Town and Arua. That I had to quote it in South Belfast brought some reality to the state of our world but it seemed appropriate. Here is God’s will for every human being. Shelter. Security. Vocation. Shalom. I believe it is what Jesus calls me to bring to the world. 

Which leads me to the words that I am using in the articles I am writing. Her ending. Oh the ending. 

 

“There is always light

If only we are brave enough to see it

If only we are brave enough to be it.”

 

Jesus said he was the Light of the World. We need to see it. It takes courage. Even more courage to respond when Jesus looks at us and says “You are the light of the world.”

 

If only…

Brave enough…

To see it…

To be it.

 

Wow! I’m in and I’m not even American!


RACISM ON DONEGALL PASS - SIN AGAINST GOD AND HUMANITY

Racism Donegal pass

There was about a 15 minute period last night when I thought that it was our building on fire. I was tipped off on social media to a fire on Donegall Pass. We took the keys to the former School of Music just this week. The building had been given to the Belfast Education Authority back in the 1930s for use as a school. It had finally been returned.

I was a little relieved when I discovered that it wasn’t the School of Music but my relief was short lived as I realised that what was burning was the old Donegall Pass Presbyterian Church building at the end of the Pass. Donegall Pass Presbyterian joined Fitzroy in the early 70s. We still have members of that Church worshipping with us. To see the roof of that historical church burnt through is heartbreaking.

Yet there is a deeper ache. It would seem that the fire is being seen as a hate crime. This historic building was set on fire deliberately. It was currently being used by the Belfast Multi-Cultural Association (BMCA) with particular emphasis in these difficult times on feeding the community. It is hard to find words to respond to that. Blatant vicious racism in the heart of Belfast. 

We are very aware of racism across the world. Since George Floyd’s murder last May in Minneapolis, Black Lives Matter has being making a mark across America and seeing English soccer players taking the knee before kick off is a weekly, nearly daily reminder of a campaign that needs all our support. Indeed it is hard to believe that over 50 years after the murder of Martin Luther King that this is still an issue.

Surely that is one of humanity’s very worst contemporary sins. Not only the sin of it happening as in the arson attack on a Multi Cultural Centre in Belfast but the sin of how it first began and the sin of how it has never been stamped out across human history.

Racism is a sin against God and humanity. God made humans in his own image and there is a preciousness about every single human being that Jesus revealed in his dying for the world - every nation. The culmination of all things as laid out in Revelation has every nation around God's throne.

Any contrived reading of The Bible that suggests other than this needs highlighted and discarded as the heresy that it is. It has been wonderful to see such action taking place in South Africa and the apology from the Dutch Reformed theologians for their hateful error.

Here in Northern Ireland we haven’t needed other races or colours to sin against God and humanity with our own inhumanity to one another. However our binary divisions have held back work on how we treat other races and welcome them into the fabric of our society.

The 2021 4 Corners Festival has decided that we as a festival can wait no longer.

On Wednesday February 3rd we will be holding an event called Building Breathing Room For Diversity with:

 

Dr Michael Wardlow, former chief commissioner of the Equality Commission will chair split panel discussions with: 

Adriana Morvaiová, chair of the Diversity and Inclusion Council and founder of Appreciating Cultural Exchange (ACE); 

Lori Gatsi-Barnett, chair of Horn of Africa People's Aid Northern Ireland (HAPANI); 

Eileen Chan-Hu, executive director/co-founder of Cultivate Respect, Appreciate Inclusion in Communities in Northern Ireland (CRAICNI); 

Dr Livingstone Thompson, Minister in Charge, the Moravian Church, Belfast

Sheikh Anwar Mady of the Belfast Islamic Centre. 

 

They will address questions such as how the churches here have contributed to the conversation around race and racism; whether race-informed power structures are at play in the churches and what ecclesial inclusion look like. 

Last night’s events in a building with a history linked so closely to Fitzroy highlights the importance of such an evening. Please join us in challenging racism in our city.

 

BOOK HERE https://4cornersfestival.com


PRAYERS FOR OUR CARE FOR CREATION - Rhea Marshall (Fitzroy 15.11.2020)

Care For Creation

These are the prayers from the Fitzroy Sunday Service (on-line) on November 15, 2020, by Rhea Marshall.

 

Our prayers today our focused on the environment.

Please join me in prayers of thanksgiving, repentance and intercession for climate justice.

We start with a moment of thankfulness

In these challenging months,  for the comfort, beauty and joy, so many of us experience in your creation. We thank you God

For our favourite outdoor places, for the beauty of Autumn and fun exploring outdoors. We thank you God.

For how the earth sustains us, providing all that we need: warmth, food and shelter. We thank you God.

Lord you have taught us that repentance is about changing, turning and acting in new ways.  

We can feel overwhelmed when faced with Climate Crisis: [grief at what has been lost, sorrow for the harm we cause, and fear for the future]1.  When we have chosen to run from our feelings: Forgive us Lord.

When we have failed to respond to global warming, species decline, plastic and pollution, climate inequality and poverty, Forgive us Lord.

When we have consumed more than we have put back; when we have been caught up in economic systems and lifestyles which cause destruction; when we have been blind to [privileges gained through the exploitation of others]2 and the Earth: Forgive us Lord

When we have forgotten that we are just a tiny part of creation, and that caring for creation is the same as caring for each other, and caring for ourselves, Forgive us Lord.

We pray for climate justice.

We ask for the courage to change: to be people who strive for [peace over profit, activity over complacency and a greater good over today’s convenience.]3  Lord help us.

We ask for guidance in how we, individually and as a faith community, can bring about climate justice.  In considering our time and resources, our prayers and interactions, and the impact of all our actions. Lord help us. 

We pray for the many conservationists, environmental groups and individuals who work to protect our world.  May we learn from their dedication and experience.  May we come alongside them and support their work where we can.  Lord help us.

We pray for Stormont, where the climate change bill is currently being considered. We pray for the Northern Ireland executive and civil servants.   Give them courage and stamina, to lead us through the monumental cultural and behavioural changes required.  We pray for wisdom in supporting and challenging our governments in tackling the climate emergency.  Lord help us.  

We ask that you unite us all, individuals, our church community, our wider community and our government, in fighting to reduce carbon emissions, consumption levels and inequality. Lord help us.

Lord, remind us of [our love for this beautiful planet that feeds nourishes and sustains us.  Strengthen our love for the whole of humanity in all corners of the world.

Strengthen our desire to protect all of this, for ourselves, for all living beings and for generations to come.]4 In Jesus’s name we pray.  Amen.

 

  1. Ref Melanie Nazareth, p 254 “Time to Act” A resource book by the Christians in Extinction Rebellion spck 2020
  2. Ref Melanie Nazareth, p 256 “Time to Act” 
  3. Ref Fran Pratt, p272 “Time to Act” 
  4. Ref Solemn Intention Statement, Extinction Rebellion.

PRAYER FOR AMERICA ON ELECTION DAY

Statue Of Liberty

I was captured by James K.A. Smith's idea that we are not so much what we believe as what we love. The heart not the mind is a key for all spiritual and social behaviour. Christians have put a great emphasis on the mind (not wrongly) but if the heart is the real driver and is captured by different things then the mind may be well thought through to no avail! 

When we all vote, and it is America's turn today then I fear that our beliefs give way to what our own selfish desires, comforts and securities. I pray that belief and love would line up today...

 

Like the lady in the harbour

Vote for her torch of light

For that brave New Colossus

All the huddled masses in flight

For all the tired and weary

In the darkest part of night

For all that Jesus called blessed

I pray that you do what's right.

 

Don’t vote for what you love

But for what you say you believe

Don’t vote for you yourself alone

But for every soul longing to breathe.


FACTORY OF MAGNIFICENT SOULS - TO CELEBRATE 30 YEARS SINCE NELSON MANDELA'S RELEASE FROM PRISON

Mandela's Cell

Thirty years ago today Nelson Mandela was released from prison. I remember it so well. I had been going out with Janice for only about six months and had no idea how much South Africa and Robben Island would become part of our lives. Yet, I remember on that day as I watched those last steps of the long walk to freedom that something good had happened to the world. I felt that feeling of justice. I wanted more of it.

Ten years later and I was taking students to Cape Town every other year to help build houses on the Townships. A small way to right those apartheid wrongs. We even got to meet FW De Klerk who released Mandela that day back in 1990.

It is hard to find words to describe how much I loved Nelson Mandela. I had the privilege of visiting Robben Island so many time and even got to get into his cell. Those visits to Robben Island were powerfully poignant, like walking on redeemed ground.

I wrote this after one trip and then when Iona asked to use it in a song I wrote another verse during another visit. I think it sums up all that is almost unbelievable about the man's humility, courage and grace. Jo Hogg sings it so well. Today as we celebrate Mandela's release, I send it out in celebration.

 

Thought of you on this island of the leper
Thought of you on this island of the mad
Thought of you on this island of the outcast
Thought of you on this island of the sick and sad

And no one ever asked questions
With marks as sharp as these
They pierced the veins of Jesus
Who was one of the least of these

Thought this island had a tragic holiness
Thought this island had a painful grace
Thought this island had the ugliest history
Thought this island was the most beautiful place

And no one ever gave an answer
With as gentle a word as this
You took the most violent indignation
And you killed it with a political kiss

Thought of you on this island of the limestone and the pain of dust torn eyes
Thought of you on this island of the convict toiling under the bluest skies
Looked upon this island of the reconciled,
And I saw a stone carved cross
Thought of you on this island of redemption,

Closed my eyes and thought about what that freedom had cost

I saw the altar of this world’s cruelty
I saw the stadium of the devils goals
I saw a man duck and weave the most evil punches
I saw a factory of magnificent souls.


CHANGING MY THINKING ABOUT CRIMINALS

Jailkeys

Cape Town made me wide eyed. Oh my, the beauty! Then it opened my eyes. To the ugliness of crime. I had just brought a group of students in. They were robbed. They lost all sense of security. We had to move them fast. 

If I had gotten the hold of the wee urchins who stole clothes and electric devices I would have pulverised them myself before taking them to the police. I was angry. I wanted justice. Vengeance probably.

The next evening, we were at a Ronan Keating concert! I know, not my thing but the students needed a night out and my friend was playing bass guitar! 

Keating didn’t grab too much of my attention but then he sang a cover of Elvis Presley’s In The Ghetto. Elvis didn’t sing many profound potent political songs. In the Ghetto might have been the only one.

That song changed my whole perception of the crime against us. Originally called The Vicious Circle, In the Ghetto does a few things. It rehumanises the criminal. It asks questions about a society that causes the crime. It points the finger at all of us for being blind to this.

A few years later I was talking to my friend Sandi. Sandi was from the Cape Flats and he told me that as a teenager he made a choice to get himself onto an Operation Mobilisation ship because if he had stayed on the townships without education, jobs and hope,  he would have ended up on drugs and in crime, probably in prison.

We can have a lazy response to crime. They deserve all that they get. They get it too easy. Put them in and throw away the key.

I believe this to be wrong in several ways. The dehumanisation of the criminal. Our blindness to the part of our complicity in not doing anything about the social injustice that allows crime to flourish. We also need to remember that almost all our prisoners will one day be back on the streets and those on probation are already in our communities, so a mindset of restoration, rehabilitation and redemption is for the good of everyone.

Of course, for the follower of Jesus this should be obvious. If I was a sportsman in the dressing room before a game, I would listen to all of what the coach says. What they might say first and then the last thing they say before leaving us to go and play might be the most vital advice to remember.

Jesus started and ended his ministry talking about prisoners. Then on the Cross Jesus promised a man sentenced in the courts to be with him in Heaven. Restoration, rehabilitation and redemption are at the heart of Jesus’ Gospel. 

We as Jesus’ followers need to be about that too. Jesus had no desire to leave anyone wallowing in a prison cell. He came to offer everyone “life and life in all its fulness.” (John 10:10).  It therefore seems to me that the Church should be working in close relationship, as individuals and congregations, with the  Northern Ireland Prison Service and the Probation Board for Northern Ireland and others to transform the lives of all of those sentenced in our courts so  that they might eventually become contributors to a City of Grace that they should be benefiting from.  

No one is beyond the influence and redemption of Jesus. As I wrote in a poem awhile back... 

I came across Jesus

Hanging on a cross

Carved in sand on a Spanish beach

His sparkling eyes 

Cut through the night

Like no one was out of his reach.

 

Incredibly and very tragically, as I used this story of Sandi in my speech in Hydebank College and Women's Prison I had no idea that he had been taken seriously ill back in South Africa. By the time I used the story again in my Sunday sermon Sandi had died. He was too young. This goes out in his tribute and with prayers for his wife Zimbini and family. You made your contribution brother. Thank you!


PRISONS AND PRISONERS? A SURMISE.

Prisons

Prisons? How do we see prisons? You might find that, like me, you haven’t thought an awful lot about it. However, if you stop and surmise for a moment like me you might realise how much your view of prisons has been honed by what you have seen through The Troubles and the documentaries since. Prisons are about keeping people inside. For decades they were very dangerous people; heighten the security.

Perhaps, as well as making sure they do not get out, we are all about the punishment. I mean these are criminals. Justice is demanded. Give them bread and water and all this talk about televisions and pool tables… perhaps we do not think that prisons should look like that.

As a follower of Jesus prisons are an irritant. I cannot dismiss them as places to keep people in or be all about punishment. Jesus had a special place for the prisoner. 

That first time that he stood up in the synagogue at Nazareth and open the scroll of Isaiah, right there in the text were the words - “He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners.”

At the end of his life, when he is talking to his disciples about how you can tell who is getting in to the Kingdom and who is not, Jesus tells them that they can do good to him when they do good to the marginalised - “I was in prison and you came to visit me.” 

It is important that we see that at the heart of Jesus ministry, and at the centre of what the Bible reveals to us about the character of God, is redemption. It is not judgement but the transforming power of grace that Jesus came to do and teach us. 

That should change how we see prisons and indeed prisoners. The rehabilitation and indeed redemption of prisoners should be high on our agenda. The reduction of re-offending should be a priority when we pray for a peaceful and prosperous city, as Jeremiah asked us to.

Surely, we should be calling for the building of prisons of grace and praying for the Spirit’s transformative power and that by God’s unmerited love criminals become repentant reborn humans, eventually leaving prison to make positive contributions to society that forgives and sets them free, without stigma. 

On this year’s Prisons Week I am asking how I see prisons and what I am doing about the prisoners that Jesus identified himself with? 


MISSION AS HEARTACHE, TEARS AND GRIEF

Devine

Devine Aswa from Arua, Uganda was a gifted child. He had a clever mind. His English was more fluent than Ugandan children of three times his age. He knew his mind too. Even as a two year old he wanted to be called after the family name rather than his given name. He was a vibrant wee man. Entertaining. Charismatic. Very funny. This past summer particularly he was like our Fitzroy team mascot. With us every day in the school. Loved by all of us.

We heard this week that little Devine had passed away. He was only five years of age. He had been born with heart defect. Not that you would have known from his energy. Even heart surgery in India didn’t end up saving him. 

We in Fitzroy are heartbroken. We dedicated this morning’s service, which was a feedback about our trip this past summer, to him. There were tears. Lots of them.

This is what our partnership in Onialeku is all about. Tears and heartache. 

I had watched for thirty years as churches raised amazing amounts of money for mission and development. It was then sent to a big organisation who took it and did amazing things with it. BUT… there was a lack.

There was a lack of relationship. A lack of mutual sharing. Of mutually sharing our poverty and wealth. Without relationship our giving is easy, one dimensional, impotent and not the God modelled way. 

Relationship is the entire point of God’s design. Eden sees the masterplan. Relationship. The Fall broke up all the original relationships. The New Jerusalem sees the vision of all things restored. With God everything is about things is relationship. 

In between Eden and that new Jerusalem, God came among us in relationship. Emmanuel - God with us. Jesus incarnation, cross, resurrection and ascension were about veils being torn, walls broken down - restored relationship.

In mission we need to be in relationship. We don’t work for so much as being with. We can work for people, without ever knowing anything about those we work for. God’s model is BEING WITH.

This is why I encouraged Fitzroy to get into relationship. I wanted us to send our money to a community that we would be in partnership with. We cannot therefore hide from the poverty that they have to live through. We have to respond to it in our own lives. Also in such partnerships they can pray for us and teach us about our own poverty. Mutual sharing.

This week we mutually share with our Onialeku community the grief of losing our little brother, son, nephew. He is buried with his Grandfather Bishop Isaac Aswa whose death broke our hearts back in 2016. Aswa family be assured of our prayers, our tears, our love, our mutual grief. 

Our consolation is that for 10 days this past July we gave little Devine the time of his life… as he did us… we got to share 10:10 (life in all its fulness) with him!


WAITING ON A MIRACLE IN TIANANMEN SQUARE - 30 Years Since June 4

Tiananmen Sq

There are moments when you make good choices over the song to play. Way back in August 1990 I pressed the play button on the old walkman (remember them) and Bruce Cockburn’s Waiting For A Miracle started throwing images around my head that mingled perfectly and disturbingly with the bombardment of images around me.

Like the ones who've cried
Like the ones who've died
Trying to set the angel in us free
While they're waiting for a miracle.

With my ears and my eyes in harmony to the disharmony, my soul attempted to make sense of my context. I was on Tiananmen Square. It was 16 months since June 4 1989 and the place was haunted by what happened there on that day. I wrote in my journal: -

“Tiananmen Square? All my thoughts on China, before and after I came here, ricocheted around the vast emptiness of this square. I will never forget this hour of my life and I’ll never be able to write down all that I thought in that too short a time.

It seemed so calm, so still, so peaceful and yet I am asking what happened here and what are the few people scattered around me thinking. I can see all these signs of history, the Monument to the People’s Heroes and Mao Mausoleum among them. But what about signs for the future? I watched people sitting, almost reverentially where the students sat the previous year and wondered what they were thinking. Did a loved one come here with a vision of a future and die for that future? The Chinese can so easily in their friendly and gentle disposition hide from us the truth of their hopes and fears.”

I have said it before and will say it again that Cockburn’s travelogue songs are so full of his lyrical genius that you just wish he was with you everywhere you go. Add places of political injustice and even more so. Waiting For A Miracle was written about Nicaragua but it fitted here. Never have I had such a detailed soundtrack to what I was seeing around me. Cockburn’s words could have been written as I attempted to write down my own thoughts: -

“Somewhere out there is a place that's cool
Where peace and balance are the rule
Working toward a future like some kind of mystic jewel
And waiting for a miracle.”

“Peace and balance” is a very Chinese concept. Working for a future and as the next verse suggests, “How come history takes such a long, long time/When you're waiting for a miracle.” A miracle? As I sat on my own, wondering and pondering and writing, Cockburn’s song was as Tolstoy suggested art should be, “Intercourse between human and human.” Cockburn and I were in conversation but more it became a resource for me to be in spiritual intercourse with God also.

And my prayer was that these people, particularly the children who all smiled for a photograph and then moved their heads right on my click, that an interruption of God’s grace would bring a peaceful and balanced future and see the speed of history quicken. Thirty years on... and I remember that hour as vividly as when I was there and Cockburn still converses with me. Still I pray!


MENSTRUAL HYGIENE DAY, FIELDS OF LIFE & MANCHESTER CITY

Hygiene Day Ednar

Today, across the world, is Menstrual Hygiene Day. It will no doubt pass many of us by but it shouldn't. For my friends working in schools with Fields of Life in East Africa this is a major day. 

Something that we in the west find hard to talk about openly is a world justice issue for millions. This summer, like the last two summers, Fitzroy’s Team to Onialeku Primary School will teach a programme called I am Girl which will educate the girls and indeed boys in the school about this very natural process, helping them with their hygiene thus enabling them to not miss school once a month, further aiding their education to take their place in the building of their nation.

Indeed, we believe so much that the girls' education should not be hampered by the natural process of menstruation that we funded a separate washroom for girls so that they could come to school confident that their hygiene could be taken care of.

As the Menstrual Hygiene Day website points out, “More than half of girls lose confidence during puberty with the onset of menstruation marking the lowest point in confidence. One of the key reasons is a lack of information. Education about menstruation changes fear to confidence.”

Poverty is balanced against women. Days like today’s Menstrual Hygiene Day are a contribution to a fairer and more just world. So my Fields Of Life colleagues in Kampala, we stand with you. We will come in a few weeks and work alongside you.

Forgive me for sounding as if this is just an African or Asian issue. It is an issue very much alive closer to home. There is stigma and what is called 'period poverty' right here in the UK and Ireland.

Indeed, three female footballers started the On The Ball Campaign. It is estimated that one in ten girls and young women in the UK are unable to access sanitary products. 

My team Manchester City, often vilified in the media, were one of the first clubs to respond. On The Ball said: "We are thrilled to have Manchester City backing the On The Ball campaign by providing free period products. The Premier League is known worldwide so to have teams like Man City on board with the campaign is excellent and shows that football can be forward-thinking and an effective platform for change."

So, on Menstrual Hygiene Day, let's raise the awareness. Let's help however we can. Onialeku Primary School in Arua, Uganda, we will be showering you with sanitary pads very soon!