Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou’s Open Letter to Black Clergy

ferguson vigil

It comes via ‘Finding Our Way to the Altar of Activism’. I hope that it moves you half as much as it does me.  My friend hfcMofo and I had been discussing black ministers advising families of killed by police urging citizens to ‘calm down, let the system work’, sometimes even to ‘stop the protests’ and even negotiating with police.  We share love for Rev. Sekou, and this morning she sent me this link.  In it, he reproaches  black clergy ‘respectability politics’, bless his heart.

“Advent is upon us as we await the coming of the world’s most famous Palestinian—Jesus of Nazareth. In this time that’s dedicated to a poor child born to an unwed mother, my conscience has forced my hand to the page.

The disdain for protest within our blessed community has troubled my spirit to point that I cannot sleep. It is with great trepidation that I write you as your son—heavy-hearted and ashamed.

Having been baptized into the faith at 15, my formative years were shaped by the best of the black preaching tradition. In pure awe, I watched you hold congregations in the palm of your hand with rhetorical flourishes, giving a beat-down people strength to live another day. Your words helped to re-constitute an assaulted black self—with respectability, dignity and self-determination.

I studied how you mounted the sacred desk. The way that you ‘took and walked’ a text was a dissertation in performance and homiletical studies. I took avid notes. Elegant mothers wearing peacock hats, disciplined ushers, dignified deacons in white gloves who served communion with military precision, talked back to you. In what W.E.B Du Bois named “the Frenzy,” the gathered responded: “Yes Sir,” “Go ‘head, Doc,” and my personal favorite—“You in the book.”

With the turn of a phrase, your homilies could turn despair into hope. After you had cooled anxieties—stirring souls with Holy Ghost fire—we would retire to your offices where pictures of Martin Luther King adorned the walls. I so wanted to be like you.

The winds of history and happenstance have carried me around the world. From the West Coast, I witnessed an unflinching youth-led resistance in the face of state terror. After spending the summer struggling to write a book about Dr. King and his relevance to this moment, God called me home. I got on a plane and flew back in time. When I arrived on Thursday, August 14, 2014, West Florissant was an occupied territory. It looked and felt like Watts, Birmingham and Palestine all at once, and I did not see you. Your absence made my presence suspicious. A clergy collar has come to signify cowardice—a scarlet letter deserving rebuke.

Expletive after expletive was hurled not only at me but at our entire class—and rightfully so. When you did show up you were often late and often wrong. Night after night, clergy told protestors to go home or ‘negotiated’ with police to no avail. Most then got into pulpits on Sunday morning and demonized the young folks in the streets. Sanctified folks could be seen passing out salvation tracks while teargas bellowed in the night air and youthful bodies bore the brunt of state violence.

As this year comes to a close, you have not fared much better. The terrorist attack on Mother Emmanuel AME, and the anti-Muslim venom spewed by a leading presidential candidate, revealed a simple truth— Christianity remains a barrier not a bridge.

Attacks on black churches are a tried and true tactic of the enemies of black freedom. This violent strategy is based on the belief that the our churches support black resistance against state violence. Even the most hardened young black activists mourned the bloodshed in a holy space that serves to help and hold an often-broken people.

Sermons and sonnets saturated with grace offered little solace to a terrorized people. Our hearts grieved. We were compelled to forgive the terrorist who unleashed a massacre in Mother Emmanuel. The greatest sermon preached this year was not preached in a sanctuary or by a wannabe Martin Luther King. While the President sermonized about cheap grace, a daughter of the church climbed a flagpole and took down the American swastika. Like Mary and Elizabeth, Bree Newsome proclaimed that our salvation—wrapped in swaddling clothes—is here in our hands.

As an ordained clergyperson nurtured in the bosom of the black church, I am all too familiar with the way in which we tend to spiritualize the material suffering of black people. Just as religious leaders of old encouraged their parishioners to pay tithes, adhere to strict religious observations, and obey the state, so it is now.

To stand with police and politicians that demean and defame our community is not only shameful, it is heretical. You have touched and agreed with those who believe our youth are fit for the cross. At the same age when Jesus was lost in Egypt, we lost Tamir Rice. Rather than lifting up their cries for justice, you have rebuked the young—telling young folks to pull up their pants.

There is something unbearable about the way you say to young folks as they are slain in the street that “they need to get saved” or “they need Jesus.” I dare say, respectfully, that your conception of Jesus and salvation is wrong.

For two millennia, one of the undisputed orthodoxies of Christianity is that God became flesh in the person of Jesus. God chose to become flesh in the body of an unwed teenage mother among an unimportant people in an unimportant part of world under occupation. Jesus would become what his (step)father was—a carpenter, but not in our modern sense of the word. Your savior and mine—Jesus, God in the flesh—was not a skilled craftsman, but a handyman. This handyman was “crucified for us under Pontius Pilate”.

The life of those in first-century Palestine was one of degradation, filled with hunger and poverty and state oppression. Crucifixion was a grueling death reserved for insurrectionists—those who dared to defy the Roman Empire. The Roman centurions who arrested Jesus and pierced him in his side were brutal agents of the state, like the modern-day police forces.

The Roman state killed Jesus after a smear campaign and a kangaroo trial with the blessing of an apostate religious leadership who had turned the house of God into a den of robbers and thieves. The cross—the punctuation mark to our preaching—is an instrument of state violence. If salvation came to us as the child of a single mother from a place that was not known for anything good, does that not bear a striking similarity to so many of the youth we denigrate now?

The streets of resistance are teeming with young folks who “fit the description” of Jesus. America, like Rome, is an Empire. Ferguson has become America’s Nazareth—communities struggling to make a dollar out of fifteen cents, mustering up enough courage to resist the Empire. When the church defends state agents against the oppressed, we betray the essential truth of the gospel, in which a poor and over-policed person defeated the Empire.

Perhaps, there is an even greater contradiction. It has been the work of the very people that you so frequently reject that are at the center of this movement—women. From Minneapolis to Mizzou, young black women are troubling the waters. Women clergy—whom many of you will not allow to darken the steps of your pulpit—have consistently been in the streets. These sister-preachers stand in the gap between the gates of heaven and hell for our tattooed and golden-toothed youth. The Ferguson effect—forged in the streets, not the sanctuary—has set the nation on fire.

say her name

Moreover, it is a movement led and informed by queer black women, many single mothers. They embodied Jesus—while clergy send them to hell Sunday after Sunday. In kind, the holiest place in St. Louis City is not a church but rather a coffeehouse on the corner of Grand and Arsenal—where a white lesbian and her children feed the hungry, visit the sick, clothe the naked and give refuge to a movement that you closed your doors to.

And through all of this, I am ashamed on most days to call myself a preacher.

Nevertheless, I beg your forgiveness for the harshness of my words and sanctimonious tone. I am angry, frustrated and undone. To be sure, I am no angel and given to the profane. If it were not for the grace of God, there go I. Of course, if you are more concerned with profanity than the profane conditions our people live in there is something morally wrong with us all.

I chose to go to the streets because I could hear my neighbor crying, “I can’t breathe” and I was saved.

I pray that you too will find your way to the altar of activism.

I call on you to open your doors to the tear-gassed, disrespected neighbors that you might be saved too. They are possessed by a fire that burns but does not consume—a holy impatience is in their eyes and feet. This same fire gave birth to the best of the black church, and the waters of respectability cannot put it out. For it was a queer son of the black holiness church –James Baldwin – who reminded us that God gave Moses a rainbow sign: no more water but fire now.

May this season be greeted with your willingness to come to the streets—taste and see—the new things that God is doing in the Earth. As it was then it is now, wise men bring gifts of reverence to poor children born to nothing because they are our salvation.

Your son,
Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou

Well, Well, Well, Night is a-fallin’,
Spirit is a-movin’ all over this land…

God said a fire, not a flood next time.

Feel This! Sekou “I Can’t Breathe!” Memphis, TN, First Congregational Church, Memphis TN. January 17, 2015

Rev. Sekou on Social Justice as a Spiritual Discipline, Oct. 6, 2014

10 responses to “Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou’s Open Letter to Black Clergy

  1. Rest in Power, amadou diallo. and fuck the police and billy bratton.

    in LaLaLand:

    December 18, 2015 ‘How Slaves Built American Capitalism’ by garikai chengu

    Make the most of this’: Obama commutes sentences of 95 prisoners in 1 day, pardons 2 more

    Leonard Peltier was not one of them, of course.

    I am everyone
    who ever died
    without a voice
    or a prayer
    or a hope
    or a chance…
    everyone who ever suffered
    for being an Indian,
    for being human,
    for being indigenous,
    for being free,
    for being Other,
    for being committed…

    I am every one of them.
    Every single one.
    Even you.

    I am everyone.

    This poem was originally published in Prison Writings: My Life is My Sun Dance by Leonard Peltier (U.S. Prisoner #89637-132).

  2. “black lives matter. and police lives matter.” ugh. the new bisho-prick or whatever of the episcopal church. the head dude. could you say any more nothing?

    • christ (so to speak). it’s like dubya tryin’ to define ‘sovereignty’ (as in first americans). almost a tautology, yes? yes, he dude gets an A+ in respectability politics. ‘we don’t wanna offend anyone, yanno? sure, there are some problems…’

      it’s so good that are preachers of the black prophetic fire tradition like rev sekou. and sad that brother cornell says that bernie sanders is one of them now. jeezum crow.

      • yep. respectability. i’m involved in a little episcopo church in wash. d.c. tales of the silly boo-zhwa-zee. there’s a massive development project underway in DCSW (by far the smallest of the 4 quadrants making up WDC, and bordering the Potomac River) where there is still a bit of public/low rent housing. all that will be gone when the new luxury hotel, condos, and new soccer stadium go up. all these churches in DCSW signed up w/the developers b/c they’ll get new church bldgs out of it. really disgusting listening to how they rationalized this: “but we advocated for a certain % of ‘below market rate’ housing.” WWJD, in frickin deed. my own little gaggle of NPR-listenin’ obama’-lurvin, identity politicos are involved in this large co-op group whose objective is to fanagle cheaper prices/rates out of utitlity providers, etc. Now given what’s going on in Detroit (& Baltimore, too), Flint, MI, etc., given how every person except the rich struggle mightily to pay their utilities, why are all these churches and other civic & non-profit orgs going to utility providers begging for a handout? why aren’t they (actually, we) organizing a massive boycott instead? “On X date in the future, every one of these institutions and many individual members & allies have all committed to STOP PAYING UTILITIES” in order to crush the state-enabled monopoly of utility providers? or try to?

        a tall order, i know. much easier to capitulate to developers or go w/your $1.50 off coupons to the electric co. which, b/c we are so damn respectable, we begged out of them in the first place. we can all do a lot of good in our new buildings, right? trying to appeal to the new urban elite moving into all the luxury condos around. oh, but the developer has committed to hiring 10% of the construction crew from DCSW natives. well, give them a Bill Clinton Initiative Prize for Caring.

        anyway, in the interest of not being long-winded…later

        • ah, the smoothness of gentrification marches on. i’m so sorry to say that no matter how many times i rinse my eyes in cold water, i can’t see the words. please, i need to beg off until tomorrow. it seems you have quite a story to tell in your neck of the woods.

          peace to you, jason, and try to dream of a better world.

        • the boycott’s an interesting idea, jason, but as i remember it, tens of thousands of detroit residents had their water shut off when i) rates were raised and many couldn’t afford them, and ii) boatloas of absentee landlords failed to pay the water bills that were supposedly part of their rents.

          flint water and high lead levels in chirren due to the fact that the city didn’t actually treat the water in the *temporary* source is pure d criminal malfeasance. the new/old source is back up, but as citizens say: the damage has been done’. banana republic bullshit abounds in this exceptional land.

          we’ve been watching ‘the tudors’ series, so church corruption, greed, and hypocrisy are only too familiar a story.

          the sheriffs killing that poor soul, you mean? holy shit, yes. loads more ‘deaths in custody’ in the past few weeks, but this one makes me think violent thoughts. a 14-year-old kid, for chrissakes.

          ongoing protests over the murder of #jamar clark, too. (the background)

          you never commented on rev sekou’s letter, though. or did you between the lines in your comments, perhaps?

  3. that keegan clip. holy shit. disturbing doesn’t cover it.

  4. this happened in july 2012, and we were all sickened past sanity over it, but this new and clearer video was finally released by the aclu michigan. given mr. hall’s mama has provided such poignant context, i’m embedding it.

    Saginaw, MI — The gruesome dashcam video of a summary execution of a mentally ill man by police has been released to the public this week.
    The video shows six police officers, in firing squad fashion, execute mentally ill, Milton Hall, in broad daylight in a Saginaw parking lot.
    Hall was several meters away from the closest police officer when the shots began. He posed very little threat to the officers as he was armed with a small pocket knife and could have easily been brought down with a taser.
    Six Saginaw police officers fired 47 times at the 49-year-old Hall, striking him 11 times. Police claim Hall acted aggressively, according to then-Saginaw County Prosecutor Michael D. Thomas.

    updated with: The Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Michigan and the FBI announced their joint decision on Feb. 25.
    “After a thorough investigation, federal authorities have determined that this tragic event does not present sufficient evidence of willful misconduct to lead to a federal criminal prosecution of the police officers involved,” a news release stated.” and our loving embrace, milton.

    • again, what can one say about the M. Hall video? i told one of my buds on facespace, after posting the Stephen’s-Aguilar vid above, that worrying about ISIS is a complete & total ethical distraction. not even getting into the how’s & why’s of ISIS, worrying about stuff on the other side of the planet that one only knows anything about thru the controlled spectacle of violence on the boobtube about which one can personally do exactly nothing is precisely what they want us to do, not notice the morally-equivalent activity going on constantly in our neighborhoods, prisons, etc.

      anyway, yes to all you said about flint, detroit, etc. that’s why i mentioned it. i have no idea whether any of my tho’ts about boycotts would have any effective. Just trying to think of something that doesn’t involve patting ourselves on the backs for our complete surrender.

      “i chose to go to the streets because I could hear my neighbor crying, “I can’t breathe” and I was saved.” preach it!

      “The streets of resistance are teeming with young folks…” half of youth globally ages 16-24 are engaged in neither work or education of any kind. it’s almost that bad in the US. all these kids need something to do since capitalist efficiency has no use for them at the prime of life. burning down capitalism, putting the ax to the root, might have some appeal.

  5. rev sekou singing that song just knocked me over, and with such a pure voice, yes? i just told our son on the phone that i’d send this to him, and asked if i could borrow his kente cloth stole he left here until he wanted it.

    and i’d reminded him of exactly why the phrase black live matter was necessary: they, and indun lives…never have mattered since plymouth rock. well, except as capitalist commodities, of course.

    wasn’t milton hall’s mama elegantly eloquent? i wanted to kiss her, seriously; i hope she has found some measure of peace by now, but i srsly can’t imagine it.

    fuck the police, and fuck capitalism, not just ‘its excesses’. thanks, jason.

    on edit, cuz slow brain: the enemy is within; yes. but O, those bright and shiny objects out yonder…

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