#BlackLivesMatter and The Legacy of Slavery

Much of what the “Black Lives Matter” movement is doing makes us uncomfortable, particularly those of us who are white. This is as it should be. If we’re comfortable where we are “at”, we won’t move, we won’t improve, we won’t change. If the injustices that exist are to be righted, we must be made uncomfortable. We must be made to see those things which are invisible to us because they’ve “always been that way” – working well for us, and so we ignore them or are unaware that they operate in our favor: that’s the very definition of “structural racism.” Yet, these same structural prejudices that are so deeply intertwined within our society and legal system do not work so favorably for others.

The first slaves arrive in Massachusetts on board the Desire, December 12, 1638.
The first slaves arrive in Massachusetts on board the Desire, December 12, 1638.

We often forget that slavery was everywhere in the US until the early 1800’s, and it was no prettier in Massachusetts, New York, or New Hampshire than it was in Texas, Delaware, or Virginia.

Some of the best known Blacks in U.S. History – such as Sojourner Truth, William Still, and Lucy Terry Prince – were born into slavery in the North, or were transported here as slaves from Africa.  Many of our most famous native sons here in New England (such as John Winthrop, founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony) sanctioned slavery.  Many of the wealthiest families of New England and New York in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries built their fortunes upon the slave trade.  And, we forget that slavery was very much present in places like Massachusetts for over 150 years.  In fact, with the sole exception of Vermont, slavery was not abolished in any Northern State until after the American Revolution, and was not fully abolished from all Northern States until 1865.

Another aspect of oppressive systems, such as slavery – and like any institution or behavior deeply embedded in any society or organization – is that its effects persist long after people even remember that it was there. You see this in how some churches keep on “chewing up” new Ministers, in how corruption keeps on toppling one political figure after another in certain communities, or in why we here in America drive on the right hand side of the road, or why we set the table with the fork on the left.

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Bridging the Gap

AN31491615epa03937969-Pope-Sermon: “Bridging the Gap”
Presented at Payson Park Church, UCC in Belmont, MA
September 8, 2013
Scripture: Luke 7:1-10

It is good to be back among friends, to once again worship with the Christian Community that embraced me as one of their own when I first moved back to New England in 2006. Your love of me brought healing, hope and eventually new love and new life into my life, and I am glad that I have been able to bring my wife and son, the fruits of the love you cultivated in me, here with me today, and I am blessed that you continue to support me in my call to the ministry through your invitation to have me speak here today – and so I extend a deeply felt “Thank You” to Lael, and all of you, for this opportunity.

And it is about embracing the stranger that I wish to speak of today. In today’s world, we see increasingly extreme cases of violence and brutality afflicted by those with power upon those who have little or none. And, our public discourse has degenerated from a dialog for finding common ground for action into a strident battle over whose demagoguery is the most pure and right. The quarrels and injustices grow ever more daunting; and the gaps that separate us seem wider, every time we turn around. All of these are examples of how rejecting those who are different, placing those who are foreign or strange – those not of our “family” – on the other side of a gap that has been opened between us and them.

And once it’s there, no matter whether we created it or others, it seems like there is nothing we can do to bridge that gap; to rebuild relationship and trust once they have been extinguished. We can’t fix it. Change for the better has never seemed so out of reach as it does now. These strife-laden gaps make it all too easy, and reasonable, to retreat into protecting our own turf: responding to differences with others’ by hardening our positions, and demonizing them in return.

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Things Have Changed

Our world is always changing, and yet we hang on to our old traditions and ways of seeing things. This doesn’t always work well, and we often don’t realize it. We just muddle along, often somewhat aware of the changes going on around us, but perhaps not having thought through their full impact. It often takes a challenge to our views and memories for us to fully appreciate what has happened, and how those changes affect us and what we are called to do.

Sermon presented at Centre Congregational Church, UCC (Brattleboro, VT)
June 2, 2013
Scripture: Luke 7:1-10

The Synagogue in Ancient Capernaum
The Synagogue in Ancient Capernaum

As most of you know, my father, Allen Vander Meulen Jr., was once a Minister here.  It’s humbling and a bit surreal to stand here nearly 50 years after his first Sunday here; and I am happy to report that both he and my mother are here today!  Thank you, Rev. McFadden, and all of you, for inviting me to speak here this morning: it is a blessing and an honor.  I am deeply grateful.

My earliest memories are connected with this church.  One of the first, I think, is hearing my Dad’s voice boom out over the congregation during hymns.

You see, he’d stand here and sing as he’d always done in his previous churches.  But, in coming here something was different, something that he did not realize mattered.  Those previous churches had not had one of these [TAP ON MIKE].  So, singing in full volume with his powerful voice had never been an issue before, he’d never had to think about it – and didn’t think about it because the speakers pointed towards the congregation, not towards him – he didn’t hear what we heard.

And I was three years old – I didn’t know any different.  I had no idea that hearing the preacher sing so LOUDLY was not normal, not even at those times when I recalled it decades later.  It had been cemented in my mind as the way things were, life as normal.  My perspective on it was never challenged until a moment of revelation – in my forties, I think – when I finally heard the story of how “Pony” Felch, the church moderator at the time, took my Dad aside one day and said in that wonderful old Vermont accent of his “You know Allen, next time you sing a hymn from the pulpit, take a step back!”

Our world is always changing, and yet we hang on to our old traditions and ways of seeing things.  This doesn’t always work well, and we often don’t realize it.  We just muddle along, often somewhat aware of the changes going on around us, but perhaps not having thought through their full impact.  It often takes a challenge to our views and memories for us to fully appreciate what has happened, and how those changes affect us and what we are called to do.

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The Israeli Palestinian Conflict, A Call for Hope and Healing

Aziz is a warm, thoughtful, energetic man of peace whom I had the pleasure to get to know last year when I had the opportunity to tour Israel and Palestine (through a tourism company he helped establish named MEJDI), and hear the narratives of individuals on both sides of the wall that divides them, a wall not just of concrete and barbed wire, but a wall of shared misperception, mistrust, hate, pain and even greed.  If all that can be shared, why not also share healing and hope?

I urge you to read his words carefully and prayerfully, and hear the heart of a man who, even though a victim of great oppression and injustice in the land of his birth, loves all the peoples in that part of the world and earnestly desires peace and healing for those on both sides of the wall.

Aziz Abu Sarah

Just over a year ago I started filming for a web series produced by National Geographic. My goal was to highlight the conflicting narratives and the different points of view while inspiring hope. As Obama is visiting the region, I no longer believe that he or other leaders will bring an end to this conflict. It must be people who lead the leaders. However, I have found that the majority of Israelis and Palestinians are indifferent and ineffective. Indifference is the greatest enemy to peace and justice. In this series, I try to understand why this conflict is still going on. I try to examine the narratives and perspectives. But most importantly I also explore the effect of interactions between the sides.

This special online 4-part video series, Conflict Zone, follows Aziz Abu Sarah, a cultural educator, a native of Jerusalem, and a National Geographic Emerging Explorer who works in…

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Thoughts on Job

God has a plan for all of creation: it is a comfort to know that I have a part in that plan…

One message of the Hebrew Bible’s book of Job is that God’s view of what our best interests are is based on His perspective, which is universal and all-encompassing; unlike our perspective, which is inherently limited and focused on our personal needs.

We all go through “dark tunnels” from time to time. It’s an unavoidable part of life. In my case, the estrangement from my daughter has been the most heart wrenching.  A separation that I still do not fully understand why or how it happened, and one so complete that I have had no significant knowledge of anything that has been happening in her life for almost four years.  In any such experience, we have an immediate desire to have the situation resolved.  Unfortunately, Job teaches us that God does not think that way.

One thing I’ve learned from this experience is that when these things happen, God always seems to open up new doors for us as a result of it. If the relationship between my daughter and I had not been destroyed, I would still be sacrificing my own needs and life goals in the face of my desire to be the perfect Dad – as I’d been doing since she was born. In fact, I would have been working at it harder than ever.   It was only through losing her that I slowed down enough to realize there were big holes in my own life, and eventually learn what I needed to do to fill them. Because of this I found my wife, who I firmly believe is truly the perfect life companion for me, and also because of this I am now going back to school. None of this would have happened if my daughter was still in the picture, and I would never have worked on what I needed to fulfill my own potential as a person or to pursue my goals and dreams.

Does this mean that I’m glad my daughter is estranged from me? No. But, I’ve come to see that God is using the situation to help me grow and become a better, happier person than I would otherwise have been. If He is doing this for me, then I can be certain he is doing the same for her: He is not worrying about how our relationship was twisted and destroyed.  To God, what matters most is that we each acheive His plan for each of our lives within the context of His Great Plan for all.  This enables me to forgive and forget the fear, misconceptions and perhaps even lies that led to our separation, and enables me to hope that someday she will be able to share in the joy, peace and happiness that is in my life now.  But, even if she never does, he will take care of her, too – just as He has done for me.

Job’s message for me is that God is looking out for our interests, but is doing so in the context of the best interests for all of His Creation, and in the long term.  That is not a terribly comforting thought when you’re in the middle of gutwrenching crisis.  On the other hand, I’d rather have a God that does that, than one that caters to my own personal, immediate needs – or to the personal, immediate needs of others.  God has a plan for all of creation: it is a comfort to know that I have a part in that plan, as does my daughter.

Copyright (c) 2009, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that mentions my name or provides a link back to this site).