My name is Walter Strawther and I am a married, 46-year-old, African American male. I am the father of two beautiful daughters. I was born and raised in the church. My daddy serves as a deacon at St. Peter’s Fire Baptized Holiness Church in Greenville, SC. We have always lived near the church and my daddy has been the deacon to open the church each Sunday. As a result, we were there each Sunday. The FBH denomination has been and still is one of the most conservative of the Christian denominations. We were once told not to wear any jewelry other than a watch and a wedding band. Women were not allowed to wear pants or serve in leadership positions, let alone pastor a church. Sundays were for resting and visiting after being in church for most of the day. I was taught that homosexuality is sin and that all who practice it are going to Hell. It is difficult to get away from your upbringing. It is difficult, even when you have evidence and experiences to the contrary, to incorporate a new way of thinking into your psyche. This is true of individuals and of organizations.
As I attended Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, I came into contact with people and teachings that challenged my upbringing and what I learned coming up in the FBH church. Some of the challenges to my upbringing were easier for me to accept than others. Homosexuality as a way of being instead of as a choice was and still is one of the most challenging concepts to my understanding of Christianity. I’ve experienced powerful preaching and exemplary examples of love expressed through people who are openly homosexual. These experiences challenge my notion of who God is and who God can use and I am reminded that I am not God. I am reminded that God is so distinctively other from me and any other human being that it is ridiculous to think that we can say definitely how God sees a group of people.
My views on homosexuality and the LGBTQIA community have changed over the last couple of years. Just as the FBH church eventually came around to ordaining women and relaxing some of the more restrictive rules based on a legalistic reading of scripture, I have come to understand that I am in no position to do anything other than what Jesus asked of Peter. Jesus restores Peter by asking him three times, “Do you love me?” When Peter responds in the affirmative, Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.” Jesus does not call us to place restrictions on each other. Jesus does not give any of us the power to determine who is in and who is out. Jesus does not command us to play gatekeeper by developing rules and regulations that we ourselves can’t even keep. Jesus simply asks each one of us, “Do you love me?” If we love Jesus, then our views on the other will change. If we love Jesus, then the death of any person will cause us to grieve. If we love Jesus, our hearts cease to be hearts of stone that accept this sort of violence against any group of people and will becomes hearts of flesh that seek to end suffering and pain in whatever form presented. If we love Jesus, we recognize that we too are sheep in need of feeding and as such we have no authority to label or condemn.
The church is going through an identity crisis. This is nothing new. Throughout the history of the church beginning with the New Testament church in Acts we see a constant struggle over what it means to be the church. This realization is a cause for celebration and a cause for sadness. We can celebrate because we know that the church has survived previous bouts with identity crisis. Indeed, it has often been the case that after a severe crisis the church has flourished and made the greatest impact on society only to sink back into a time of struggle. On the other hand, we are saddened to think that crisis seems to be the essential ingredient to get us to consider Jesus’ question of love. We are further saddened when brothers and sisters who claim Christ as their Lord and Savior deny the love of God to those suffering and being killed. The church is going through an identity crisis but the resolution of this crisis is found in returning to our love for Christ so that we might love each other.
If there is one thing that life teaches, it is that there will be moments of failure and loss. There will be times when you have done everything right –you followed the blueprint for success but you still failed. What do you do when failure is a definite but you know success is in your destiny?
The simple answer is you keep grinding…
2012 to 2014 was some of the hardest years I have every experienced. I went through a health scare, lost home, marriage ended, cars repossessed, and little to no income. Why was this happening to me? I have leadership skills, I managed over 100 million dollars’ worth of assets, I have two masters’ degrees (working on a third), I have trained thousands. My leadership qualities, talents and training speak for themselves.
But, for those 2 years all I seemed to experience was failure and loss. Every time I would get close to a breakthrough, it fell apart. I had job offers rescinded for no reasons. Lucrative opportunities taken off the table for no reason. It just appeared that failure and hard times was the path that was chosen for me. In 2014, I experienced loss in some fashion or another on a weekly basis. Without a place to live, I moved to a seminary campus apartment and I remember one of my neighbors saying to me, “That every day she saw me she thanked God.” She could not believe that one person could take such trauma in such a short period of time without wanting to kill themselves. The truth of the matter is that I thought about it every single day. There were moments, that I would sit in my apartment, wondering what I was going to eat, because I had no money or food. I was thankful that I had a place to stay but still experiencing the feeling of loss and failure.
Then on October 29, 2014, I experience loss at a level that would forever change my life –I got arrested for clerical mistake by the clerk of the court. I had spoken with the clerk of the court about my child support and showed them all the paperwork that detailed every aspect of repayment. She took my paperwork and said that there was no need to come to court because my paperwork addressed all of the issues that they were needing answers too. Well she told me one thing but failed to do any of it and on October 29th, 2014, I was called out of class and arrested on campus. I was in jail for about 2 days but it left a hole in my heart. Here I was and 40 years old and this was my first time in handcuffs or in a courtroom shackled. I was shackled the same way that they would have shackled a murderer or rapist. For the first time in about 20 years, I was embarrassed.
I remember being in that cell with 7 other men and wondering what in the world makes people want to come back to this place. I hated jail –the confinement, the loss of humanity and the lack of freedom. But, some of the young brothers I saw in the jail were as if they were in the confines of home. They slept and ate with smiles upon their faces. For me there was frustration because this appeared to be my culmination of 40 years’ worth of work. After this was cleared up and I was back in the “free world,” I started seeing life through a different lens. I saw how the transition for those coming from jail was so difficult. The understanding of empathy had changed because now I knew what the practical outcome of the New Jim Crow meant in real time. But, there was still the loss and level of failure attached that troubled me. What was the use of trying to be and get better; what sense did more degrees make; why was everything that I was trying failing and failing with a high cost attached to it.
So that night, when I hit rock bottom, I grabbed the 12 pills and started toward my mouth. I had been battling the pain for 3 hours and I lost –hope was a fleeting memory and despair was a present reality. As I started toward my mouth with the pills, my phone vibrated and it was an email from a friend. She said I just felt as if I needed to send you an email to check on you. That email saved my life that day.
It that brief second I lost perspective of what life entails. In that brief moment life appeared to be just endless amounts of sorrow and pain. Failure became an obstacle instead of a ladder for greater success. I was later reminded of something I used to tell everyone one: “I want to make people better than they ever thought they could be.” What I did not realize that through all my failures and loss I was receiving a training that college, seminary or graduate school could never teach me. I was learning how to push past pain. I was learning to never quit and that God was in the midst of the chaos with me.
James Baldwin was told by a reporter that he was born black, poor and gay…How much more disadvantaged can you get? Baldwin response was, “I hit the jackpot. It gave me something to write about.” Failure and loss may give the impression that you have lost but in retrospect you have hit the jackpot because the learning potential is there if we push past the pain.
The tragicomedy played out in life is one filled with constant shifts and triumphs. The price of the ticket to experience the opportunity to explore what it means to come and dwell with us (John1:14) –the incarnation –is one that is a life changing event. There is a real and present danger that resonates within the incarnation though triumphant for the masses, it is potentially deadly for the one called to incarnate.
To live a life where you are called to live out the incarnation, existentially, is a life where service is greater than salary. This prophetic presence speaks of a revolutionary, radical fellowship that invites all to experience the high call of leadership of dying empty. The capacity to understand with extreme levels of empathy that surpasses the superficial and misguided sympathy exists as strange fruit in the life of one who stands with courage. It is the effort to exude courage within a framework that is systematically engineered to destroy those who take a stand. This vocation where theology places you in the center of an incarnational moment en route to an introduction with a revolutionary paideia –the process of educating man/woman into his true form, the real and genuine human nature. Cornel West simplifies it with these words
“..I would just characterize it as moving from the superficial to the substantial, moving from the frivolous to the serious, and then cultivating a self to wrestle with reality and history and mortality and, most importantly, promoting a maturation of the soul.”
The incarnational, paideia experience re-informs thinking and reshapes the narrative. Meaning becomes more subjective in previous places where it materialized as rhetoric. The cost of experience becomes a soul-wrenching testament that speaks through a closed mouth. This theo-tainment of beholding takes a real presence as others begin to perceive how God through the hardship of life refashions the heart. Dr. Martin Luther King encounters this moment while sitting at his kitchen table,
“I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud.”
“The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory.” I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”
“At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: ‘Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”
We all have moments in our lives when the call of God becomes an existential reality. We are part of the sovereign plan that God has orchestrated to produce his will. The method may be extremely chaotic from our vantage point but ultimately it places us in the impetus of what will evidently need.
Over the past year, I have encountered such an experience with God. I have been through some of the lowest times of my life to the point that I contemplated taken my own life. It seemed that everything continued to get worse and worse as the weeks went by. It then culminated with me be arrested for something that I didn’t do and spending some time in jail. That time changed me more than I realized. At the age of 40, I have never been in handcuffs. Yes, I have seen many people go to jail as well as work their way through the judicial system. But until my experience, I could never understand the lingering aftermath of jail until I went. Though I was innocent, I had the experience that reshape my entire narrative.
As I navigated through the murky waters of confusion and pondering the” why me”, I received some good wisdom. My friend, professor and mentor said to me, “Brian, welcome to the fraternity.” He started to unpack a system that has proclivities to place all black men in handcuffs at least once in their lives. His disquieting connections help me make sense out of the senseless. It was doing my incarnational,paideia experience where I had to the chance to see first-hand what injustice looks like from another perspective other than being black. Now, I was black in handcuffs (feet and hands) and was treated as if I was truly the wretched of the earth. As I talk with young brothers –black ,white and Mexican –my heart was troubled at the criminal element that governed their entire mental model. They were comfortable with being incarcerated.
As I laid on the steel bed, I reflected upon Jesus coming and dwelling with us on Earth. I thought that it had to be something special for him to allow himself to be incarnated into a place that was so foreign to him as jail was foreign to me. The ability to display love at such a high order in an unfamiliar place brought a sense of urgency that I have been unable to shake. Being incarnated into that jail made me come to some realization that the church is losing, and losing bad.
This new fraternity is not one that we celebrate but one that we hold with extreme empathy. It is one where the danger of incarnation becomes a burden and our greek letters are…
That is word agape’ which means love…Dr. Martin Luther King articulates agape with these words:
Agape is not weak, passive love. It is love in action. Agape is love seeking to preserve and create community. It is insistence on community even when one seeks to break it. Agape is a willingness to sacrifice in the interest of mutuality. Agape is a willingness to go to any length to restore community.
So as I crossed over a couple of weeks ago, Brian was destroyed and renamed inmate 251456, and resurfaced as one ready to serve. This new fraternity though forged in the fires of shame and embarrassment has transformed and re-established the essence of Sankofa in my life.
Welcome to the fraternity!!!!
Yesterday, I had the opportunity to read one of the great letters/essays ever written, Letter from the Birmingham Jail by Dr. Martin Luther King. Now this was not my first time ever reading this letter but as usual it had a lasting effect upon me. The stark reality that engulfed my thoughts was the seriousness and devotion from which King writes-the tension between sacred calling and civil disobedience vs. human respectability. King denotes how different perspectives has a major impact upon how you see society in general and at-large.
What we find with King’s letter is also a connectedness to a theology that’s usable. He uses his theology to define a movement that changed the landscape of America. Through a Letter from the Birmingham Jail we have the chance to see the in some aspects how the Apostle Paul viewed his surroundings from jail. Though the audience and occasions may have been a bit different the intensity and mood were similar. As we bring it in to the new millennium, we see Public Enemy give us a another perspective as Chuck D shares his letter in Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos. Entrenched in all of this presentations is a look into the lives of folks who were devoted to a call but put in places that tried to stifle their voices. But with tenacity and a fight for justice, they prevailed to freedom and implementation of change.
Dr. King and others in the Civil Rights Movement did not balk at the challenge to change a country. They stayed the course for change and wrestled with their own inequalities. But it was only through the help of others that they were able to attend to the challenges that were before them. It was Bayard Rustin that held the Civil Rights Movement together. He was the glue, he was the great organizer behind the great speeches of King. It was a great Barnabas and Timothy that walked with the Apostle Paul. It was the S1W’s that would come to the aid of a wrongly imprisoned Chuck D. (watched the video Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos)It was a team of folks that would enable great leaders to initiate change.
I do not liken myself to Dr. King but I do see a need to surround myself with great people. It is with the help of others that we build and change societies, communities and cities.
Just my thoughts of the moment…