Broken Hearts are Messy

August 10, 2015

I’ve said before that change and progress on Big Complex Issues require letting our hearts break.  This is true of stopping climate change; to find our way forward, we need to feel and learn from the heartbreak of looking at our beautiful planet and acknowledging all the damage that has been done.  It’s also true of eradicating racism.  The reality of our history- that this country was built on the bodies of Native Americans and African slaves- is beyond heartbreaking.  The reality of our present is equally difficult to swallow. Yet we must take it in, must be present to this heart-breaking reality, if we are to have a hope of finding our way to wholeness.

Taking it in breaks our hearts, and broken hearts hurt.  Our reluctance to feel pain all too often keeps us from facing reality.  We numb ourselves.  We build homes in denial instead of just using it as it is meant to be used- a way station on our way to deeper acceptance and greater wisdom.

This week, though, we’re being reminded that not only does that necessary heartbreak hurt, it makes a godawful mess.  When we are feeling those difficult feelings, we can’t always access our best and most graceful communication techniques.  We can’t always maintain open minds and hearts when our hearts are in pieces on the ground at our feet.  We can’t always avoid trampling on or rolling over pieces of other people’s hearts when they’re all over the place, like legos after a kindergarten play date.

This is why we need to try to be gentle, kind, and forgiving with friends who are having a hard time on this heartbreak-and-healing journey.  Like the people who are responding with anger and defensiveness to the action at Bernie Sander’s rally in Seattle last week.  Like the people who committed acts of violence in Ferguson last night.  Like me.  Like all of us.

At the same time, we need to hold ourselves and one another accountable; it’s not fair to ask other people to clean up our broken-heart messes.  We need to be patient; if we tidy everything up too quickly, we compromise our ability to learn from the mess.  We need to be aware of privilege, need to remember that the ability to live in denial is a privilege in and of itself.  People who are living in black or brown skin can’t take even short breaks in the imaginary land of “we are a post-racial society.”

No one said it would be easy.  Progress has never been a smooth, straight path.  Can we let the bumps in the road be just bumps- and not turn them into mountains?  Can we let the unexpected twists and turns be part of the adventure, not proof that we don’t know where we’re going?  Can we let the mess be…messy?

The other thing I like to say is that when we let our hearts break, and then heal, they will be bigger and stronger and more resilient.  This has been my experience.  When I’m brave enough to feel the fullness of the grief, despair, and pain, on the other side of the feelings I’ve found peace, acceptance, and a willingness to change.  While my ego longs for tidiness and control, my soul longs for justice, and the only way to get there is to embrace the pain and the messiness of my broken heart.


The work of unravelling racism takes time and happens on many levels.  Justice requires systemic changes to our criminal justice system, symbolic shifts like taking down the Confederate flag, building community coalitions and more.  The unraveling happens on an individual level, as well.  Every time that we kindly but persistently call our racist Uncle so-and-so on outrageous comments, we are doing the work.  Every time we examine our own heart and expand our awareness of the ways racism has shaped us, we are doing the work.

We are making progress these days.  Policies are shifting and hearts are opening.  Sadly, one of the ways we know this is that the backlash has been horrific.  Nine religious leaders were killed at a prayer meeting in Charlestown, SC.  At least seven historically black churches in the South have been set afire.

It’s no coincidence that the black church has borne the brunt of the backlash.  It has historically been a center of resilience and resistance in the black community.  People of faith and people of conscience are called to stand, now, in solidarity and support of these black churches.

Letters of condolence can be mailed to Mother Emmanuel AME church in Charleston (the address is Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, 110 Calhoun St, Charleston, SC 2940).  A fund has been organized to support the rebuilding of the churches that have been burned down (donate online at or send a check to Rebuild the Churches, c/o Christ Church Cathedral, 1210 Locust Street, St. Louis, MO 63103).

Let’s show the world that here in the Palouse, Black Lives Matter.  Let’s work together to unravel racism.  We build the beloved community one act of compassion at a time.

Rev. Elizabeth Stevens, Unitarian Universalist Church of the Palouse

Moscow, ID

After Lamentation

June 19, 2015

My colleague, Ron Robinson, posted on Facebook today that ‘after lamentation’ he feels moved to work on mentoring young the white men and boys in his neighborhood.  While I was impressed by his clarity and transparency, my heart responded, with a great surge, to those two words.  After lamentation…

When something horrible happens…for instance, the shooting of nine innocent people who had gathered to pray…we have an emotional response.  Grief.  Shock.  Horror.  Lamentation is both a corporate and a personal act of expressing those emotions.

Sometimes, I find myself wanting to skip over lamentation, and jump right into problem solving mode.  Sometimes I get stuck in lamentation.  Ron’s words reminded me that lamenting is a necessary stage through which we must pass if we are to arrive at right action.  We grieve, and then we pick ourselves up and we find a way to make the world a better place.

It’s been just over five months since we here in Moscow experienced our own horrible happening.  A young man shot four people, killing three, one of whom was his mother.  You would be hard pressed to find anyone in our little community who wasn’t close to at least one of the victims.  This is one of those cases where I may be a little ‘stuck’ in the lamenting stage.  Grief takes as long as it takes, and I’m still grieving.

However, this latest tragedy has pushed me to start thinking, again, about what needs to come after lamentation.

With regards to the Charleston shooting:

  • Continued focus on racism and discrimination here, in the local community
  • Continued focus on systemic racism in our country
    • self-education (listen, listen, listen– especially to the voices of the oppressed)
    • constructive dialog (help keep white folks I know ‘moving forward’)
    • Be an ally (listen and respond to requests, like that from the NAACP to petition SC government to stop flying the Confederate flag.)
  • Talk about the violence culture, be active in supporting gun control measures

With regards to the shooting in January, the third item, above, plus:

  • Work to increase the number and quality of resources for people with Mental Health issues locally
  • Continue to provide pastoral care for everyone impacted by the shooting.

My current wild and crazy idea is to require not just a criminal background check, but two ‘recommendations’ from family members, clergy, or mental health professionals before anyone is allowed to buy a gun.

I have to be honest…I’ve got a case of lamentation fatigue.  It’s too much.  I figured after Newtown, for sure, we’d have some reasonable legislation passed.  Enough is enough.  As a nation, we need to figure out what steps we might take ‘after lamentation.’

I see a lot of people making the assumption that participating in #BlackLivesMatter protests shows a lack of respect or support for law enforcement personnel.  NYC mayor Bill de Blasio asked that the protests stop until the two officers tragically slain by Ismaaiyl Brinsley are buried.  The Police Union in Cleveland demanded an apology from their football team for wearing t-shirts supportive of the movement.

In less public moments, this dynamic plays out when folks (mostly white folks) respond to comments or postings on the issue by pointing out what a dangerous job it is to be a police officer.  I’ve also seen police officers who attempt to support the movement accused of being ‘traitors.’  This attempt to polarize the issue, to create a ‘for and against,’ confuses me.

Here’s the thing:  to kill an unarmed person is to go against the fundamental instinct to preserve life.  It creates a soul wound.  The refusal of ‘the system’ to hold police officers accountable for this tragic mistake…dare I say, this sin…compounds the wound.  When a human being makes a mistake, the path to healing leads through accepting responsibility to apologizing to restoring relationship.

The kind of people that we want policing us are the kind of people who take their responsibility and their power seriously– the kind of people who would be devastated should their fear drive them to kill someone needlessly.  Any work that we are able to do to address systemic racism and create accountability will ultimately help them, too.  So while- of course- the primary reason to do the work is to prevent tragic deaths from happening in the first place, one also hopes that it will help to protect the integrity and soul-health of law enforcement officers.

No justice. No peace.

November 25, 2014

My Twitter and Facebook feeds are full of thoughtful analysis, rallying cries, beautiful poems and prayers.  They are also full of grief and rage and frustration- as they should be.  Let’s pause and acknowledge what just happened:

A door slammed shut, a door that could have led to a better future.  Unlikely though it may seem, especially in retrospect, the law enforcement community could have used this moment and this momentum to transform themselves.  Prosecutor McCulloch might have done his job, which was to build enough of a case against Darren Wilson to make a trial a viable option.  Had the Grand Jury indicted Darren Wilson, last night could have been the first step on a journey toward greater police accountability, toward an acknowledgement of the pervasive racism in our ‘justice’ system and our nation, toward a peace built together.  It could have been a moment when ‘business as usual’ gave way to new understandings and deeper compassion.

Instead, not only was the verdict a slap in the face to everyone who has dedicated time, money, energy and love to the cause of securing justice for Mike Brown, it was delivered in such a way as to ensure that justifiable rage and grief would overflow into violence.  I am not a conspiracy theorist, but it seems to me that the steps the governor took during the lead-up to the announcement, the choice to announce at night, and the interminable and abusive thirty minutes that Prosecutor McCulloch spent saying things that HAD to have been deliberately chosen to inflame add up to a rather sinister plan to trigger riots and looting.  I am not a violent person, either, but I wanted to punch McCulloch.

Frankly, I wanted to punch President Obama, too.  His plea for a non-violent response felt like pure hypocrisy layered on top of a masterful campaign to turn things ugly.  What I wanted to hear my president say?  “We are horrified at this gross miscarriage of justice.  Rest assured, there will be a full investigation at the Federal level.”  Full stop.

This morning, all of us who care are still reeling.  I feel bruised and battered, and I know that my feelings as a white ally can only reflect a fraction of what people of color are feeling…and their pain is only a fraction of what the people closest to Mike Brown will be living with for the rest of their lives.

I think we need to stay here for a moment; we need to pause in the pain, the confusion, the frustration, the rage at the slammed door, the slap in the face.  We need to gather our strength and our resolve for a time.  Because when the way is shut, there is nothing for it but to turn, and find another way.

I don’t know what that other way might look like. I know it is likely to be a lot more difficult to find and to navigate.  Perhaps in places other than Ferguson, there is still hope that we can ease the door back open.  We can have conversations with police officers where we are.  We can talk about racial profiling and body cameras and anti-oppressive training.  We can serve on police oversight committees, and if such committees don’t exist, we can lobby our municipal governments to form them.

If none of that works, well, I have tremendous faith in the generation of brilliant young leaders of color who showed up in Ferguson.  They will find the new way.  The path will be carved out of hard, unforgiving soil; we have to excavate the depths of this nation’s racist history.  We have to be willing to start with ourselves, to crack open our hearts and dig out the lingering traces of defensiveness and privilege.  I am standing by, pick ax and shovel close to hand.

But for now, a pause, and a rallying cry that has turned into a confession:  No justice.  No peace.

Things I Learned in Ferguson

September 4, 2014

Many people are writing and reporting on the events unfolding in Ferguson, MO. I am tempted to simply list some of the more accurate articles; after all, I am just a white chick who jetted in for the big Labor Day protest and jetted home again once it was over. However, I learned a ton while I was there. By writing about it, I hope to both help myself remember what I learned, and to share these insights with the folks who read my blog.

Lesson One:  Don’t believe what you see on television. I expected to witness chaos, devastation, and drama. Instead, I saw a community coming together to try to address deep systemic issues and individuals trying to get back to their normal lives. The looters got plenty of screen time; meanwhile, we haven’t heard or seen much about the local folks who shut the looters down, and protected local businesses with their bodies. Yes, many people are angry (see below) but things are not out of control. And the folks who restored order were, by and large, the people who live there – not the people with the badges, guns, tear gas and tanks.  

Lesson Two:  The protests in Ferguson are not just about what happened to Michael Brown. They’re not even about the outrageous, out-of-control militarized response to the initial protests.  Protesters are hoping to shine a light on issues that run deep.

I saw a lot of families on the march, mothers who point to the very long list of people of color wrongly profiled and killed by police, and the very short list of officers held accountable for their actions. One woman (a college professor) said, “It basically feels like open season.  If things don’t change, it could be one of my boys that gets killed.”  Another woman, a pastor, shared the story of her son who was shot while handcuffed, the wound on the right side of his skull even though he was left handed. Yet the police insisted it was suicide, and six years later, she still has no answers and no justice.

People invest a lot of energy into trying to prove that these victims were ‘thugs’ or somehow behaved in a way that warranted such a violent and permanent response.  (This ‘thugification’ is, in my book, abusive.  Can’t we let the families mourn?  Imagine losing a loved one and in the midst of your grief, having the entire nation weigh in and judge him.)  Folks on the ground know that it’s not just ‘thugs’ that get killed.  They also know that even victims who ARE involved in drug trade/crime/etc. are theoretically protected by policies and procedures that keep deadly force as a last resort…and they know that those policies and procedures are all too often ignored in real life.  This means that no one is safe, and people are scared for their kids. 

People were talking about The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.  They were pointing out that the US has 6% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prisoners, disproportionately people with brown and black skin. I learned about the specific ways municipalities in St. Louis County persecute and exploit people of color. In Feguson, with a population of just over 21,000 people, the police issued over 32,000 citations, mostly for traffic violations. Fees from traffic violation are the second largest source of income in the city’s budget. Most of these traffic violations are pretty minor- and people of color are, of course, stopped at a disproportionately high rate.  If you happen to be poor, and can’t pay your tickets, the stakes ramp up pretty quickly…higher fees, then warrants for your arrest.  This article in the Washington Post shares a disgustingly typical story:

Michael Brown’s story is one of literally thousands that have systemic racism as their root cause. As tragic as these deaths are, they are just the tip of the iceberg.

Lesson Three:  While the entire black community agrees that these problems exist, different folks have different ideas on how to address them.  Some people seem to distrust not just police and the justice system, but community leaders, churches, and organizations. Others are trying to mobilize political power by encouraging people to vote. Still others propose specific policies (body cameras, independent review of all police homicides) to address specific issues.  It was awkward to watch this tension play out, especially as an ‘outsider.’

Attitudes toward the presence of white folks varied, as well.  Many people expressed gratitude to us for being there, and no one was unpleasant to me personally. However, it was also made clear that there were spaces where white people weren’t welcome. After watching some really unskillful behavior by a couple of folks, I really understand why. It’s so important for people who aspire to being white allies to understand that none of this is about us.  We are not at the center of the struggle, or at the front.  At best, we can be quietly supportive.  We can pray.  We can show up.  

The most valuable thing we can do is to have those difficult conversations with other white folk in our family or our social circle who perhaps aren’t as aware of the effects of systemic racism…so that black folks don’t have to.  We can choose to be learners, always listening and processing and, hopefully, becoming more skillful in our attempts to support the black community and work for justice and compassion within our own community. Then we can pass on what we’ve learned in a caring and compassionate way.

We’re looking at a big, complex problem, and there are no magic bullets or easy solutions. I know that shaming one another doesn’t help.  I know that denial doesn’t help.  I know that white folk tend to be intimidated by black anger, myself included, and yet I also know that black folk have the right to be really angry. It’s not fair to expect people to conform to cultural norms which require calm, rational discourse.  The pain is raw, and so the anger is raw.  

So we can also work on developing our capacity to be present to that rawness.  It doesn’t help to take it personally. It really doesn’t help to reinforce and perpetuate a sick stereotypes of ‘the angry black man’ or ‘the angry black woman.’ Yes, some of the folks I met were angry and upset.  They were also intelligent, insightful, and working really hard to figure out a way forward.  I encourage you to read this account of ‘the Crew’ by Pastor Renita Marie:  

I am still processing the experience, and there are new lessons being offered up almost every day.  Perhaps the most important is this:  

Lesson Four:  Change comes hard, and it takes a long time.  We need to continue to pay attention.  We need to resist the unrelenting push of the news cycle and stay focused.  And…we need to do the work of unraveling racism WHERE WE ARE, with the people we love and serve.  

This is “A Ritual to Read to Each Other” by William Stafford:

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider–
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give–yes or no, or maybe–
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.


When the verdict came in for the George Zimmerman trial last summer (was it just last summer?) I became painfully aware of the way violence perpetrated against unarmed black teenagers taps into deep fear and centuries of pain. Trayvon’s death woke up memories of whip-scarred backs and people hung from trees by white men in white robes. My eyes opened and my heart broke.

Actually, I could write a very long list of other books, articles, trainings, and stories that opened my eyes and broke my heart. (Like this article: and The New Jim Crow.)

Racism is a sickness that runs deep in our society, and I don’t believe any of us can truly be whole until and unless we admit that and find a way to heal it.

After Mike Browne was shot in Ferguson, the reports began streaming in about the police response. I watched video of tanks and tear gas and wounds from rubber bullets, horrified. I chose to pay attention, to keep my eyes open, and let my heart be broken again. It seemed the least I could do.

In the midst of the chaos, there have been moments of hope and optimism. I’m convinced this might be a turning point for us as a nation. There are ways forward that don’t involve killing more black teenagers. The Wall Street Journal (believe it or not) published this article on body cameras: I’ve signed petitions asking for a demilitarization of the police force, as well as outside investigation for police homicides.

But when the police in Ferguson are claiming this is a “Race War” and when they are raiding churches (CHURCHES!) to confiscate Maalox, petitions aren’t enough. The call went out asking clergy to go to Ferguson over Labor Day weekend, and I am moved to answer that call.

Now, normally, when bodies are needed, I don’t consider my body a good candidate. My Lupus limits my energy, and I have a lot of people counting on me. But it shouldn’t just be black bodies on the line. I am hoping that my presence, my middle-aged, white body can somehow make a difference. I know a lot of people who would go if they could; I’ll carry their prayers and well-wishes with me. And I believe it will be powerful and transformative to bring stories of what’s happening in Ferguson back to my congregation.

My understanding of what it means to be human and on a spiritual path involves keeping mind and heart open, and then responding mindfully and with authenticity. I try to walk my path one step at a time, and I try to trust the ‘still small voice,’ even when I am afraid or unsure. The voice is telling me I need to go to Ferguson to stand with the people there who are insisting that black lives matter. Because I believe that black lives matter, too.


Let me begin by confessing:  I didn’t watch any of the coverage of the trial itself.  I guess I felt like the work had been done, the verdict was a foregone conclusion, and it didn’t much matter whether he got Murder 2 or manslaughter; the point had been made.   We may not be able to stop police from stopping young African American men for ‘driving while black,’ but we (meaning people who care about justice) can at least insist that vigilantes who do so and then shoot the young man are held accountable.

The first sign I had that something had gone wrong was seeing people holding a “We Remember Trayvon” sign by the side of the road on my way home from dinner.  I didn’t think much of it.  It was late Saturday night; did juries even deliberate on the weekends?   I actually went for a walk, still ignorant, and didn’t sit down and watch the news until about 9 pm.  Primary emotions:  shock and fear.  Shock that such a thing would happen; fear that it might lead to riots or violence a la Rodney King.

It’s been about forty-eight hours since then, and I’ve read many thoughtful reflections and checked out many powerful memes.  What stands out to me the most is the difference in musical selections.  My Unitarian Universalist friends immediately started sharing Sweet Honey and the Rock’s “Ella’s Song,” with its triumphalist refrain:  “We who believe in freedom shall not rest….until the killing of black men, black mother’s son, is as important as the killing of white men, white mother’s sons.”

Meanwhile, my friend Kelle Brown, a brilliant and dedicated African-American pastor, first posted “Strange Fruit”, complete with images of young black men who had been lynched, burned, or tortured.

  I almost didn’t make it through ‘Strange Fruit’ because the images were so violent and horrible.  But I thought to myself, “watching this is the least I can do.” 

The next day she posted “The Women Gather,” also by Sweet Honey.  I cried all the way through “The Women Gather”, and when it was over, found myself thinking that it was too bad that we don’t wear mourning clothes anymore.

I wanted to go into full mourning, complete black, not just for Trayvon, but for all of the young black and brown men and women through the ages who have been killed because of who they were, where they were, or the color of their skin. 

The questions this raised for me, though, included “Do I even have the right to do that?  Is this my grief?  It sure feels like it is.  But maybe I only have the right to bear witness to the grief within the African American community.  After all, I don’t have to worry that my sons might be shot on their way to the store because of the color of their skin.  I don’t know what it’s like to live with that particular fear.”  I added more tears to the water in the MLK memorial fountain in San Francisco, with the prayer that just as my little grief-drops contributed to the mighty streams of water that are symbolically wearing away the stone of injustice, I might find a way to channel my grief and find some way to be a good ally.

The thing is, I worry that it’s too soon for us white folk to start working for justice in Trayvon Martin’s honor.  It’s not about the verdict.  It’s not even about Trayvon, to some extent.  We need to begin by appropriately grieving literally millions of precious lives cut short.  Only it’s such a huge task, I don’t know where to start. 

The truth is that this country is built not only on those beautiful democratic principles, but also on a mass grave filled with slaves and exploited immigrant workers and violently displaced Native Americans.   It’s not just history, either; our society continues to depend on cheap labor, from the latest wave of immigrants and from young men (mostly men of color) who have been absorbed into the ‘prison-industrial complex.’  In response to this deep and horrifying truth, this sickness at the center of who we are, I can…what?  Buy local?  It just doesn’t feel like enough.

So yes, I believe in freedom, and I will keep on working for justice until every child…and I mean EVERY SINGLE CHILD…grows up safe and loved, from the day they are born until the day they die, ideally at a great old age.   And I will make the best choices I can.  But the question that is burning in me is bigger than that:  what do we do with this vast grief?