What makes a man like Muhammad Ali?

Muhammad Ali Quotes

Muhammad Ali Quotes

In his essay, Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin wrote about a chronic disease he contracted as a young black professional after being refused service at a New Jersey diner. Hearing the racist rationale that, “we don’t serve Negroes here,” Baldwin was overcome with:

“a kind of blind fever, a pounding in the skull and fire in the bowels. Once this disease is contracted one can never be really carefree again, for the fever, without an instant’s warning, can recur at any moment. It can wreck more important things than race relations. There is not a Negro alive who does not have this rage in his blood—one has the choice, merely, of living with it consciously or surrendering to it. As for me, this fever has recurred in me, and does and will until the day I die.”[1]

After Muhammad Ali won a gold medal for the United States in the 1960 Olympic Games, he returned home and was refused service at a “whites only” diner. Enraged, Ali left that diner and hurled his gold medal into a river.

Muhammad Ali is not remembered for his rage. But perhaps he should be. All of the retrospectives I watched after his death focused on his generosity, his playfulness, his poetic trash-talking, his supersized personality, his joy in living. But Muhammad Ali was a fighter, in the ring and out. And I can’t help but think that the rage that Baldwin says lives in every African American, wasn’t the fuel for Ali’s fire.

When asked in an interview what Ali wanted to be remembered for, he responded, “That I never turned my back on my people.” Indeed, Ali was a black activist who in his twenties was not so beloved. He was radical and outspoken—rejecting his “slave name” of Cassius Clay for the name given him upon his conversion to Islam. He refused to be drafted into the Vietnam War, calling it immoral, saying he had nothing against the Vietnamese, and that all the war was about was “kill, kill, kill.” He took this fight all the way to the Supreme Court. History would reveal Ali to be ahead of his time, a man of conviction who was willing to fight indignities and injustices that others were not.

Baldwin referred to his rage as a chronic disease, but this was not to imply it was ill or unwanted. In fact more of us could stand to contract such a disease—or at least a dis-ease with the injustices to which we bear witness. Mohammed Ali’s legacy will best be honored by those who are fueled to fight such injustices and become the champions we so desperately need.

[1] James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son, (Beacon Press, Boston, MA, 1955), pg. 96.

[Feature Image: Joshi Bhavya]

A Reason to Live, Even in February

8485155298_a3633fb0a6_oIt’s hard to love life in February. All I see on my drive to work is the grey sky mixing into the grey snow that melds with the grey cement of the cracked and salt-stained road beneath my wheels. Black branches poke and scratch the sunless sky as I begin to look for color—any sign of color—in a world that feels so bland. I notice the green of the street signs. They pop out to me now that I have tried to see. But their green is a flat green. It is not the green of spring, not the green of that which is new, fresh, alive.  It is 8:20am and in spite of the two cups of coffee I’ve drunk all I want is a nap. My whole self wants to sleep—to close myself off and shut myself down until this cold, dreary, muck of February has passed.

On Ash Wednesday I reminded a Chapel full of people that life is precious—that joy comes in the morning—that we must live as if we are truly alive. Today, though, I see the ash I thumbed onto foreheads everywhere. This dust of death is mixed into the dirty snow piled on the side of the road, smeared on the bark of dormant trees and settling heavy on my heart, making me wonder if all I said was a lie.

Parking my car in front of my office, I decide to sit for a while, to wait in the warmth and enjoy the numbing hum of the engine. I will sit here and wait, I tell myself, until I catch some sign of life—wait for a sign to live again—wait for a reason to believe that all this matters. If I wait here long enough, there has got to be something, something to stoke my life fire. There has got to be something worth getting out of this car.

A black SUV turns onto the road flashing red and blue emergency lights. It may not be the police. It may just be a volunteer firefighter. But it makes me think of the police and of the conversations I’ve been having about our criminal justice system with a few of our minority students. We’ve been reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and studying the issue of mass incarceration.

The night before I sat on an overstuffed couch and listened to three students, one Latina and two African Americans tell me about why they were afraid of the police. Even if you weren’t doing anything, they said, the police were to be avoided. They might stop you, search you, shame you—so you steer clear. The police are not your friends, they said.

This was not my experience. I was taught to trust the police. I was taught to seek out the police if I was lost or hurt as I child. But as I sat and listened to my students—one kept shivering and bouncing her legs, her emotions running so high she couldn’t sit still—I recognized that my experience was not theirs.

Recalling this conversation, I turned the ignition key shutting off my car’s engine and gathered my things to go. My life today might be dreary. I might feel weighed down, maybe even depressed. But my life has never been like that of these minority students. In this insight I found my motivation. What I do with my privilege matters. I can listen. I can come to understand. And then I can help others understand. Thankful for this sign, I began my day determined.


[Feature Image: Pavel P]

Holy Listening with Stephen Colbert

stephen-colbert-1-800I am a fan of Stephen Colbert.  I am even more of a fan after watching his interview with DeRay McKesson, a leader in the Black Lives Matter movement and the new Campaign Zero, this past Monday on The Late Show.  Colbert introduced himself to McKesson as possibly “the whitest person you’ve ever met.”  Then, after a brief discussion of white privilege, Colbert offered to switch seats with McKesson, putting his guest in the role of host.

Throughout this interview and with this simple gesture of switching seats, Stephen Colbert was practicing what I would call “holy listening.”  Holy listening is honoring another by giving him or her our full attention.  It is a practice of recognizing the sacred in others, as well as the dynamics of power and privilege at play between human beings.  I remember reading about how difficult it is for those who are not in a position of power to find a way to be heard.  Hearing these minority voices really depends on the listener coming to the conversation free of his or her own agenda.  It also depends upon the listener being open to the validity of the other person’s experience.  In other words, holy listening is difficult–especially since we are not trained to listen well.  We have been trained to be distracted.  We have been trained to be loud, assertive, and confident.  We have been trained to get our point across.  Rarely are we trained in the art of listening.  But we sure could use more people practicing this fine art.  Stephen Colbert modeled a great way to begin.  Switch seats.  Stop talking.  Honor the person sitting across from you enough to be fully present with him–especially if that person’s human experience is different than your own.



The Hard Work of Welcoming

4344878104_e746795618_oI have three fantastic student interns this year who are learning about the hard work of welcoming. At our college’s Presbyterian House we host a “Dinner and Devotion” program every Sunday that we advertise as “All Students Welcome.” Of course, not all students feel welcome attending a religious and spiritual life program, unless you work hard to let them know that you mean it—that they really are all welcome.

On their own, my student interns have come up with some great ideas about how to welcome people to the Presbyterian House and help students feel comfortable. Read this post, “Getting Comfortable” by my student intern, Angela, to learn more about their great work.

Typically, though, about twenty to thirty students show up at our Presbyterian House each Sunday. My students and I greet everyone at the door as they arrive. We insist on nametags (knowing someone’s name is a crucial step in welcoming) and we never relax as the hosts. We are always circling the group, reaching out to students on the margins, making conversation with those who look uncomfortable, introducing students to other students.

After each program we take time to debrief—to discuss what went well and what we could improve upon. This is when the challenge of “all welcome” becomes abundantly clear because the group we have successfully welcomed to the Presbyterian House is diverse. Predominantly, the students who attend are Christian. But we are also excited to have some non-religious students; students who are questioning; students who are Hindu, Muslim, and Jewish; students who are gay, straight, transgender; students who are conservative, moderate and liberal. It’s an eclectic mix—which offers the potential for great discussions—but also makes the work of welcoming that much more difficult.

Lots of questions arise for us such as: Can our Presbyterian House program be explicitly Christian and yet still be welcoming to students of other religions or no religion? How do we pray without making our non-religious students uncomfortable? What kind of food should we serve given different dietary needs? How do we acknowledge and value the perspective of the three or four minority students without singling them out? Honestly, our questions about how to welcome just lead to more questions—which sometimes lead to feeling overwhelmed by the difficulty and complexity of the task.

I think my understanding of the biblical practice of hospitality has been overly nostalgic. The theme of welcoming the stranger, the foreigner, the alien, runs throughout the bible giving our scriptures a beautiful “all welcome” feel. Never have I stopped to consider, though, that such beautiful hospitality would, practically speaking, be so difficult. But how could it not? Jews were expected to make space for strangers and share limited resources. Jesus and his disciples relied on the cultural expectation of hospitality as they traveled from town to town. With no way to make call-ahead reservations, just imagine what it took to welcome this unexpected crowd of thirteen! Practicing hospitality in biblical times meant practicing inconvenience; it involved some serious self-sacrifice. So I’m sure all sorts of questions arose in the first century too about the difficulty and complexity of this task.

But as my social media feeds blow up with haunting images of the refugee crisis, dismissive statements about the #blacklivesmatter movement, and Donald Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric about Mexican immigrants, I am reminded that these are questions worth asking. Yes, welcoming others is hard work. It’s overwhelming and exhausting. But when I think about the kind of community we are seeking to create at our college’s Presbyterian House, and the kind of hospitality we are teaching our students, I cannot help but wish more would commit themselves to this beautiful, biblical practice. I wish we could hang a sign out on the front door of God’s house saying, “All are Welcomeand then work hard to let every person know that we mean it.


[Feature Image: Nathan]