Breaking Down the Dividing Wall
Aminah Robinson paints murals of neighborhoods in days gone by.
I saw her installation “Mt Vernon Street” in the art museum of my hometown Cols, OH.
Mt Vernon Street was the heart of the African American community in Columbus from 1900-60.
While the discrimination of Jim Crow continued outside the neighborhood,
the Mt. Vernon area was a tight-knit community where family and commercial life flourished.
The mural details in bright colors and exaggerated expression
the lively characters and places that filled the street:
the green grocer and barber shop
the ice man and rag man who went door to door to sell their wares
the cultural life of the neighborhood, with its theater and churches and community hall.
Aminah calls it a “Memory Map,” and it contains her own memories—
for this is where she grew up.
In 1962, urban planners built I-71, the major highway connecting Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati.
It went right through Mt. Vernon, cutting the neighborhood off from the rest of the city.
The initial impact was that houses and businesses were claimed by eminent domain
and the highway constructed in their place
The long term effect of this highway was that it functioned like a wall
isolating the Black community into a ghetto that eventually became marked not by vitality and community
but by a poorer tax base, poorer schools, higher crime—and when the trash burning power plant went in—
higher rates of pollution.
By the time I went to grade school in the 1970’s, the Mount Vernon neighborhood had a new name:
“The discontinuous area.”
That’s what the school administrators called the East side neighborhood,
where the Black kids were bussed from into my neighborhood for school.
The courts had ordered the bussing because of redlining in the district.
Realtors showed houses matching the color of the skin to the color of the neighborhood.
A realtor even appeared at my front door, telling my parents:
a Black family is moving into the neighborhood… you’d better sell if you know what’s good for you.
You’d think that a highway wouldn’t be a wall.
You can drive right across it, like the busses that brought the kids from Mt Vernon.
But the highway and the neighborhoods were physical manifestations of something much stronger
it’s a wall that keeps people apart, keeps some in power and in wealth, and others not.
The wall is racism.
Most of us would like to think that racism is not much of a factor today.
We had the civil rights movement that ended Jim Crow,
we had Brown v Board of Education that integrated all white schools.
But we still have racially identifiable neighborhoods and schools
and most often, the poorest are in areas where people of color live.
In 2012, median wealth for White families was $122,927
while Black families had an aggregate wealth just $18,181.
Hispanic wealth came in at $33,619.
Housing patterns play a major role in the accumulation of wealth.
A home is the greatest means for the typical American family to pass on wealth
but houses typically increase in value in suburbs dominated by white families
while predominantly minority neighborhoods often decline in housing prices
as families with means move out to ‘a better neighborhood.’
And families that have access to better services, schools, and are surrounded by people seeking the best opportunities typically find better opportunities for their own children,
which will increase the family’s wealth over time.
What we are talking about here is an aspect of what is known as ‘institutional racism.’
It isn’t a personal attack, it isn’t overt
rather a subtle and powerful curtailing of opportunities for some and augmenting them for others.
The definition of racism is Power + Prejudice.
It builds a wall that is hard to get around.
“Jesus is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one
and broken down the dividing wall.”
St Paul and the Ephesian community knew about walls.
For them the walls were between ethnic groups—Jews and Gentiles.
Socially engineered wall, supported by religion and cultural taboos
Jews and non-Jews never shared meals, they didn’t associate
They came from different culture and practices.
The walls made them hostile.
Jews often faced prejudice and could not advance easily in the Roman world.
The Jews of Palestine were considered rebellious, hard to govern—they were always rioting.
And why? because of the walls.
They wanted self determination and opportunity, and saw no way to get it.
When Ferguson and Baltimore burned, my children asked, Why are they destroying their own neighborhood?
I tried to explain the mob mentality, but it was more than that
It was rage at the walls, the seeming futility of changing things after so many years of struggle.
“Jesus is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one
and broken down the dividing wall.”
Into this situation of ethnic tension and historical oppression, Paul makes a bold claim:
Jesus is our peace.
In him, people can grow a new identity beyond group affiliation or status.
In him a new humanity emerges, one where we see ourselves not as separated by high walls,
but united in a common family, in one household.
Jesus breaks down the walls and uses us instead as building materials
Together, as one people, we house God himself—a temple built on the apostles and prophets,
with Jesus Christ himself as the cornerstone.
It is a beautiful image.
And it speaks just as loudly today to our racial and socioeconomic divisions
as it did in St Paul’s day to Jews and Gentiles.
But how do we live into this image of a common family
when Dylann Roof, a member of an ELCA congregation,
could sit in a bible study in an AME church Charleston, and then open fire, killing 9 people,
including two pastors trained at Southern Lutheran Seminary?
How do we believe this image of an end to hostility
when Hartford has just had its 18th homicide of the year, when 2014 saw 19 for a whole year?
How do we believe in walls coming down when Hartford’s North End was cut off from the city
just like Mt Vernon and so many other urban areas in our country,
leaving a lasting legacy of inequality for people of color?
I have to say I don’t really know the answer.
St Paul’s words for me remain a vision of what could be—what should be.
I know that Paul is talking here about what already is in Jesus--
we just haven’t caught up to it.
But I think I may have caught a glimpse of it in a most unlikely place.
Two weeks ago I took my daughter Stephanie to see a performance of a famous YouTube artist
who calls herself Wonder Woman.
She is the child of immigrants from India, and she combines hip hop culture
and second generation stereotypes into a routine that is equal parts comedy, dance, and inspiration.
But for me, the most inspiring thing was being in the midst of the crowd.
It was the most multicultural gathering I think I have ever been to.
Everyone, except for a few scattered parent chaperones, was under the age of 18.
And they looked like America: white kids, Spanish kids, Indian kids, Black kids, Asian kids—
every kind of kid.
It looked like America—but it also looked like the new building that Paul talks about—
dividing walls coming down, and in its place a temple made with stones of every size and shape,
a place where everyone can gather and laugh and sing and dance and shout til their ears ring.
In the wake of the church shooting in Charleston, our national bishop, Elizabeth Eaton
called for a day of mourning and repentance.
We might say that this was an isolated act by a deeply disturbed man. But we know that
is not the whole truth. It is not an isolated event. And even if the shooter was unstable, the
framework upon which he built his vision of race is not. Racism is a fact in American culture… I urge all of us to spend a day in repentance and mourning. And then we need to get to
work. We need to get to work. Each of us and all of us need to examine ourselves, our church and our communities. We need to be honest about the reality of racism within us and around us. We need to talk and we need to listen, but we also need to act. No stereotype or racial slur is justified. Speak out against inequity. Look with newly opened eyes at the many subtle and overt ways that we and our communities see people of color as being of less worth. Above all pray – for insight, for forgiveness, for courage.
I join our Bishop in urging you to study, reflect, and pray.
We have much to learn and much to change.
But we also have St Paul’s vision to guide and Jesus himself to teach us.
Til the dividing walls in us fall, and we ourselves become building material for God’s temple--
a house that is big enough for all people.
Children’s sermon: “Fringe Element”
Inside my walk in closet, I have a little altar set up on top of my dresser.
There I have posted little objects that serve as reminders of the love that surrounds me:
notes from a few friends,
the smooth stone I kept in my pocket to hold onto during a tough time
my number from running the Manchester Road Race
the prayer collages I have made while on retreat.
I call it ‘my shrine to myself’ but it really is place where I see in tangible form God’s love.
Some people have always appreciated something to hold and touch in their faith life.
Many Christians have prayer beads, like the rosary, where you finger a bead for each prayer.
There is a Lutheran rosary, based on memorized prayers like the Apostle’s creed and Lord’s prayer.
Some religions have sacred statues or stones.
Native Americans decorate objects from the natural world for use in religious ceremony.
Conservative and Orthodox Jews wear tzitzit, or tassels, on the fringe of their prayer shawls,
each one tied with a prayer.
Whether the object is a rock, bead, or feather, it is a physical reminder of the sacred’s presence in our world.
In our Gospel lesson today, people want to touch the fringe of Jesus’ cloak.
That’s because the fringe had the tassels, each with a special number of knots that signified religious things:
some had 613 total, the same number as commandments in scripture
some were made up of four knots, signifying the name of God.
The fringe of Jesus’ cloak was a reminder of the power of God—
touching it brought them close to God and closer to trusting in this divine power.
Jesus’ tassled fringe marked him as a faithful Jew, but other things about him didn’t go with that pious view.
Jesus hung out with the wrong crowd—you might call them ‘the fringe element.’
These were the people on the margins
folks excluded from worship because they were ritually unclean
the poor, demon possessed—folks others had given up on.
Jesus was attracted to these fringe folks even as they were attracted to the power of his fringe.
Jesus’ power is made known on the fringes.