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Community organizing to end the school-to-jail track

—Ben Kirshner and Ricardo Martinez

The Black Lives Matter movement has galvanized people throughout the US to speak up about systemic racism and the devastating impact of mass incarceration on communities of color. Civil disobedience and mass protest since Ferguson have generated needed media attention to the persistence of American racism. What the national media often overlooks, however, has been the last decade of tireless organizing by students, parents, and community organizers to dismantle the school-to-jail track inside K-12 schools.

PJU-report2015According to the Advancement Project, the school-to-jail track refers to a system in which “out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, and school-based arrests are increasingly used to deal with student misbehavior, especially for minor incidents, and huge numbers of children and youth are pushed out of school and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.” This system became the new normal in the mid-1990s as zero tolerance school policies spread throughout the United States. The impact landed disproportionately on youth of color, mostly African American and Latino. A report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, for example, found that African American youth were six times and Latino youth three times more likely than White youth to be incarcerated for the same offenses.

Padres & Jóvenes Unidos (PJU), a multigenerational and multiracial community organizing group based in the southwest side of Denver, Colorado, became involved in this issue when they saw their membership facing increased criminalization in schools. Since launching its End the School-to-Jail Track campaign in 2005, PJU has seen several of its goals met, including revisions to the Denver Public Schools disciplinary code, passage of a Colorado state law about school safety, and new agreements between police and school districts reducing police presence. New research carried out by PJU is a resource to hold state policymakers accountable for proper implementation. Young people of color have worked on the front lines of this campaign in various capacities—tackling problem analysis, formulating strategy, recruiting members, collecting data, speaking at public events, and communicating with media. The intergenerational structure of Padres & Jóvenes Unidos creates a space where middle and high school students often work side-by-side with young adults and veteran organizers to prepare for meetings and clarify strategy.

PJU’s impact is not limited to its policy achievements, but also in what it means for civic renewal and grassroots democracy. In a social and political context where the participation of regular people—not specialists or lobbyists—in public policy-making is rare, and youth participation is even rarer, the End the School-to-Jail Track campaign offers a bright exception. Students’ experience of engaging in high-stakes encounters with policy makers, including praising them when called for and voicing criticism when necessary, contributes to a culture shift, even if incremental, in which young people are taken seriously in the public square.

2015 has been a year of increased conversation about racial discrimination in policing and the courts. In a development that would not have been possible five years ago, presidential candidates from both major parties are calling for an end to mass incarceration. As the US tries to make collective progress on this issue, it will be important to also address how schools educate and discipline youth. This means not just doing away with racist practices but creating new systems to take their place, such as restorative justice and other forms of discipline that foster healthy relationships and a sense of community in schools. This slow and steady work of institution-building is most likely to have lasting effects if led by groups such as PJU, which are made up of students and parents from the communities that experience the impact of racial profiling in their everyday lives.

Ben Kirshner is Associate Professor of Education at the University of Colorado Boulder and author of Youth Activism in an Era of Education Inequality (NYU Press, 2015).

Ricardo Martinez is Co-Executive Director of Padres & Jóvenes Unidos.

Interview with Rebecca Moore, author of Women in Christian Traditions

9781479829613_FCBelow is a brief interview with Rebecca Moore, Professor of Religious Studies at San Diego State University and author of Women in Christian Traditions (NYU Press, 2015). The book, part of the Press’ new Women in Religions series, examines the roles women have played in the understanding of Christianity. You can read the full interview on San Diego State University website here

Give us a brief overview of what the book is about.

Women in Christian Traditions offers a concise and accessible examination of the roles women have played in the construction and practice of Christian traditions, revealing the enormous debt that this major world religion owes to its female followers. The text provides an overview of the complete sweep of Christian history through the lens of feminist scholarship. It recovers forgotten and obscured moments in church history to help us realize a richer and fuller understanding of Christianity.

What inspired you to write the book?

I was honored to be asked to contribute a volume to a series on women in religions published by New York University Press. I had published a prior book on Christianity, “Voices of Christianity,”  and on Judaism and Christianity, “A Portable God: The Origin of Judaism and Christianity, Rowman & Littlefield.” I have been studying Christian traditions since graduate school, so this was a book that was decades in the making.

I have taught courses on Christianity and on the New Testament here at SDSU and elsewhere for many years. The new spin, however, was to take a feminist approach to explain the history of Christianity, and this required original research on my part. I had incorporated discussions of women church leaders in my classes, but writing an academic book required much more study than I had previously done.

What did you learn from writing this book?

The most valuable thing I learned, and that I hope others will learn, is that women have played a major role in the development of Christianity. I learned of important figures, movements, and ideas that were somewhat unfamiliar. For example, because Protestant church leaders excluded women from participating in male missionary societies in the nineteenth century, women simply created their own missionary societies. They raised money, trained leaders and sent women doctors and educators abroad. I could go on at length about all I learned!

Why should people read this book?

NYU Press required authors in the series to limit their texts to no more than 200 manuscript pages. This means that the book is short and is designed to be reader-friendly. Readers will learn about inspiring women figures who have been largely lost to history because of the way Christianity is generally understood.

Mad Men, Esalen, and spiritual privilege

—Marion Goldman

The online community is still pulsing with speculation about the final close up of Don Draper meditating on the edge of the Pacific at Esalen Institute—where he found bliss or maybe just an idea for another blockbuster ad campaign.

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The writers and set decorators of Mad Men got 1970s Esalen spot on: from the lone outside pay phone at the run-down central Lodge to the dozens of long-haired hippies, former beatniks and spiritual seekers revealing themselves to each other in encounter groups. The images are so accurate that an alternative cyber universe of old Esalen hands has been speculating about how the writers were able to depict the old days so well—and whether the morning meditation leader was supposed to be Zen trailblazer Alan Watts or edgy encounter group leader Will Schutz.

None of these debates matter much to the entrepreneurs who have transformed Esalen from a rustic spiritual retreat to a polished destination resort that serves gourmet meals and offers workshops with themes like ‘capitalism and higher consciousness.’ Soon after the last episode of Mad Men aired, Yahoo Travel published an article promoting a “Don Draper Weekend Getaway” for fortunate consumers who could foot the tab. The rates vary, but on a weekend, a premium single room at Esalen costs $450 per night and the prices go way up for luxurious accommodations overlooking the sea. In a throwback to the old days, there is a ‘hardship policy’—making it possible for up to a dozen people who take weekend workshops to spend ‘only’ about $200 a night to spread out their sleeping bags in meeting rooms that they must vacate between 9:00 in the morning and 11:00 at night.

When Esalen opened its gates in the 1960s, visitors and residents traded work for housing or paid what they could afford. The founding generation believed that everyone was entitled to personal expansion and spiritual awakening through the growing Human Potential Movement. My book, The American Soul Rush chronicles how Esalen changed from being a mystical think tank, sacred retreat and therapeutic community into a wellness spa dedicated to de-stressing affluent customers with challenges at work or in their relationships.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s very different kinds of people drove along Highway 1 to Esalen, hoping to create better lives for themselves and often hoping to repair the world as well. They were spiritually privileged, with the time and resources to select, combine and revise their religious beliefs and personal practices. However, many of them were far from wealthy, because Esalen opened at a time of economic abundance that extended far down into the white middle class and there was widespread faith in unlimited possibilities for every American.

People in small towns and distant cities read long articles about Esalen and human possibilities in Life Magazine, Newsweek and other popular periodicals. Its key encounter group leader briefly became a celebrity when he appeared regularly on the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. And during Esalen’s glory days, movie stars like Natalie Wood, Cary Grant and Steve McQueen regularly drove north from Hollywood to discover more about themselves and to soak in the famous hot springs baths. But once they arrived, they stayed in simple rooms, they were called only by their first names and other workshop participants tried to honor their humanity by treating the stars as if they were just like them.

Esalen was dedicated to opening the gates to personal and spiritual expansion to everyone and it fueled a Soul Rush. It popularized many things that contemporary Americans have added to their lives and can practice almost anywhere: yoga, mindful meditation, holistic health, humanistic psychology and therapeutic massage.

But most people can no longer afford to visit Esalen itself. A leader who left Big Sur to counsel clients in disadvantaged neighborhoods summed up how much the Institute has changed over the decades: “Damn,” she said, “I guess we got gentrified just like everybody else.”

Marion Goldman is Professor of Sociology and Religious Studies at the University of Oregon, and author of The American Soul Rush: Esalen and the Rise of Spiritual Privilege (NYU Press, 2012).

Celebrating Revolutionary Blackness: Haitian Flag Day

—Bertin M. Louis, Jr.

[This post originally appeared on Mark Anthony Neal’s blog, NewBlackMan (in Exile).]

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In communities across the globe, thousands of Haitians celebrate Haitian Flag Day every May 18 at concerts and ceremonies, on the Internet and at festivals and parades. The flag not only reflects pride in Haitian roots but it is the flag of the first black republic in the world. The Haitian flag takes on renewed meaning as an anti-racist symbol of revolutionary blackness and freedom in a continuing time of white supremacy and anti-blackness. Its inception was from the Haitian Revolution (1791-1803).

On May 18, 1803, in the city of Archaie, not far from Haiti’s current capital of Port-au-Prince, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the leader of the blacks and the first leader of an independent Haiti, and Alexandre Pétion, the leader of the mulattoes, agreed on an official flag, with blue and red bands placed vertically. Haitian heroine Catherine Flon, who also served as a military strategist and nurse, sewed Haiti’s first flag. However, the flag was modified on Independence Day (January 1st) when the blue and the red bands were placed horizontally with the blue band on top of the red band. Haiti used the red and blue flag until 1964, when President-for life François “Papa Doc” Duvalier used a vertical black and red flag and added a modified version of the arms of the republic during the Duvalier regime, which lasted from 1971 to 1986. On February 25, 1986, after Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier fled Haiti on an American-charted jet and the Duvalier regime fell apart, the Haitian people in its vast majority requested that the red and blue flag be brought back. The red and blue flag remains the official flag of Haiti.

Haiti was the French colony of Saint-Domingue before the revolution. A 1697 treaty between the French and the Spanish created the colony on the western third of the island of Hispaniola. Saint-Domingue was known as “the pearl of the Antilles” because the industrialization of sugar in the region enriched its French absentee owners and made it one of the most successful sugar colonies in history. The arduous labor required for sugar production resulted in the virtual eradication of the indigenous Taino Arawak population and an average seven-year life span for Africans who were brought against their will. In an area roughly the size of Maryland enslaved Africans produced indigo, tobacco and at one point in history two-fifths of the world’s sugar and almost half of the world’s coffee.

Physical and psychological violence were used to maintain plantation production processes. As sociologist Alex Dupuy writes it was not uncommon for slave masters to “hang a slave by the ears, mutilate a leg, pull teeth out, gash open one’s side and pour melted lard into the incision, or mutilate genital organs. Still others used the torture of live burial, whereby the slave, in the presence of the rest of the slaves who were forced to bear witness, was made to dig his own grave…Women had their sexual parts burned by a smoldering log; others had hot wax splattered over hands, arms, and backs, or boiling cane syrup poured over their heads.” Within this violent and dehumanizing environment, many enslaved Africans resisted and fought against their captors and participated in the most radical revolution of the “Age of Revolution.”

The Haitian Revolution was more radical than the American Revolutionary war (1775-1783) and the French Revolution (1789-1799) because it challenged chattel slavery and racism, the foundation of American and French empires. As the late anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot wrote: “The Haitian Revolution was the ultimate test to the universalist pretensions of both the French and the American revolutions. And they both failed. And they both failed. In 1791, there is no public debate on the record, in France, in England, or in the United States on the right of black slaves to achieve self-determination, and the right to do so by way of armed resistance.” The Haitian Revolution led to the destruction of plantation capitalism on the island where both modern-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic are located.

Through the efforts of black people and the leadership of Toussaint Louverture, British and Spanish forces were defeated and independence from the French colonial master was achieved. The only successful slave revolt in human history resulted in the formation of Haiti as the world’s first black republic, which extended the rights of liberty, brotherhood and equality to black people. Unlike the United States and France, Haiti was the first country to articulate a general principle of common, unqualified equality for all of its citizens regardless of race unlike the United States where only propertied white males had the privilege of full citizenship.

The Haitian Revolution would spawn uprisings among captive Africans throughout the Caribbean and the United States. The revolution also influenced other Western Hemispheric liberation movements. Haitian blogger Pascal Robert observes that Venezuelan military and political leader Simon Bolivar went to Haiti to receive the military assistance and material support from Haiti’s then president Alexandre Petion. Bolivar used those Haitian connections to liberate colonial territories from Spanish rule. The Haitian flag reflects and symbolizes this unique and promising moment for people of African descent – black freedom in a world dominated by white supremacy.

Haitian Flag day celebrations take on renewed meaning when we recall the recent treatment of Haitians in the Western Hemisphere. In February 2015 a young Haitian man was lynched in the Dominican Republic. This lynching occurred at a time where the Dominican state has revoked the citizenship of Haitian-descended Dominicans. Essays from sociologist Regine O. Jackson’s edited volume Geographies of the Haitian Diaspora (Routledge 2011) discusses how Haitians serve as repugnant cultural “others” in Jamaica, Guadeloupe, and Cuba. In Haiti a post-earthquake cholera outbreak introduced by Nepalese soldiers from the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) has claimed 9,000 Haitian lives and affected more than 735,000 people. This preventable tragedy is in addition to earthquake aid that did not go to Haitians but mostly went “to donors’ own civilian and military entities, UN agencies, international NGOs and private contractors.” A recent essay from Latin Correspondent reporter Nathalie Baptiste recognizes anti-Haitian policies in Brazil, Canada, the Dominican Republic and the United States.

While we must attend to the differences in the local histories, varying socioeconomic factors and political situations of each country mentioned, a pattern of alienation, expulsion, elimination, marginalization and stigmatization of Haitians is evident when reviewing recent news and scholarly publications.

Anti-Haitianism is also prevalent in the Bahamas where I conduct anthropological research and where a new immigration policyadversely affected Haitians. A brief anecdote that I discuss in my book My Soul Is in Haiti: Protestantism in the Haitian Diaspora of the Bahamas (NYU Press 2014)”illustrates this fact. Towards the end of ethnographic research in New Providence, I was invited by a Bahamian friend to speak about the importance of education to elementary school children at an afterschool program. The children, who all sat around me in a circle, were black. As I spoke to them about the importance of reading, studying, doing well on tests, and getting help when they encountered difficulties, one girl was struck with a look of astonishment when I mentioned that I was of Haitian descent. After my speech I took the opportunity to ask her why she was so stunned. She replied that I didn’t look Haitian to her but that I looked Bahamian. So I asked her “so what does a Haitian look like?” Replying in Bahamian Creole she and her friends replied that Haitians were “scrubby,” meaning that they have an uneven or mottled dark complexion. They also said of Haitians that “Dey (They) black,” “Dey smell bad” and “Dey look like rat.”

These comments came from children who are of African descent (85 percent of the Bahamas is black) and the darkest black-skinned Bahamian child in that group said that Haitians were “scrubby.” This story from the field reflects the current crisis in Haitian identity in the Western Hemisphere and why it is necessary to celebrate Haitian Flag day as a way to resist the dehumanizing effects of anti-blackness. Anti-blackness is a key component of white supremacy “an historically based, institutionally perpetuated system of exploitation and oppression of continents, nations, and peoples of color by white peoples and nations of the European continent, for the purpose of maintaining and defending a system of wealth, power, and privilege.” In this example, young Bahamian children do the work of white supremacy through their use of anti-Haitian and anti-Black stereotypes.

The stigmatization of Haitians in the Western Hemisphere should alarm other black people because Haitian instability also reflects the current insecurity of blacks around the globe. The deaths of West African migrants in the Mediterranean on their way to Europe, Ethiopian Jews who are encouraged to either leave Israel or be imprisoned, police brutality against blacks in favelas in Brazil, and attacks against African immigrants by black South Africans should remind us of this ongoing crisis, which many people view as normative (i.e. there’s always death and destruction among Africans and in the African Diaspora). But we do not have to look outside of the borders of the United States to understand the deprivation of the humanity of black people. The current #BlackLivesMattermovement against police killings of unarmed black people is another reminder of the disposability of black life in the modern world which continues a pattern of anti-blackness that harkens back to the transatlantic slave trade.

Anti-blackness began with the forced marches of Africans from the interiors of the continent to African coasts where they were sold as chattel and would become the engine that fueled European colonial wealth. It continued during the Middle Passage where white captains tightly packed blacks together on slave ships and threw black bodies into the Atlantic Ocean with the hope that large numbers of human cargo would offset increased deaths. Anti-blackness was codified in the colonies and territories where the legally imposed identity of slave was passed from mother to child and became associated with blackness.

Anti-blackness is prevalent during this contemporary period in the media coverage of the killings of Walter Scott and Eric Garner as corporate news channels show their video-recorded killings at the hands of American law enforcement on a loop and refer to the black youth of Baltimore rebelling against unequal treatment under the law as “thugs.” Anti-blackness is also reflected in the current relations between Haitians and the nations they live in as well as how other countries treat people of African descent.

In closing, the Haitian flag reminds us that white superiority and black inferiority are fallacies and have no basis in biology and that white supremacy can be challenged and defeated as the Haitian Revolution demonstrated. Due to the poor treatment of Haitians throughout the Western Hemisphere we should also understand why Haitians are proud of their heritage and celebrate the anniversary of their flag. But the Haitian flag is also a flag that belongs to people of African descent around the globe, as do other flags. It is one of many symbols that Haitians and other people of African descent should utilize in resistance to the dehumanizing and deadly effects of capitalism, state power and white supremacy on black bodies. Overall, Haitian Flag Day should remind all of us to celebrate revolutionary blackness and to continue to challenge white supremacy in the struggle to create dignified lives for black people worldwide.

Bertin M. Louis, Jr. is the author of My Soul Is in Haiti: Protestantism in the Haitian Diaspora of the Bahamas (NYU Press, 2014) and an Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Africana Studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He is also the creator of #ShamelesslyHaitian, a Twitter event where Haitians express pride and educate others about their history and culture on Haitian Independence Day and Haitian Flag Day. Follow him on Twitter @MySoulIsInHaiti.

Clinton deserves the black vote

—F. Michael Higginbotham

[This article originally appeared in The Baltimore Sun.]

Political pundits have wondered whether Hillary Clinton will enjoy the same enthusiastic support from the African-American community in her presidential bid that President Barack Obama received. Others have wondered whether she deserves it. After her April 29th speech at Columbia University in New York City, there can be no doubt that the answer to both questions is a resounding “Yes!”

hillary-rodham-clintonIn her speech, Ms. Clinton spoke about the protest in Baltimore, expressing concern for Freddie Gray’s family, condemning the violence and calling for its immediate cessation. Most importantly, her wide-ranging discussion of the causes of the turmoil and her proposed solutions demonstrate a deep and thoughtful understanding of long standing racial inequities both in the criminal justice system and in the broader economic and political arenas throughout America.

Ms. Clinton began by recognizing that something is seriously wrong in the current relationships between police and the minority community. She is absolutely right. Relations in Baltimore have been strained for decades due to unnecessarily harsh policing practices and outright race discrimination by the police. Baltimore has paid over $6 million in court judgments and settlements in over 100 lawsuits alleging police brutality since 2011, according to The Baltimore Sun. Ms. Clinton also noted the stark racial disparities that exist in sentencing and incarceration. As Ms. Clinton declared, “African American men are still far more likely to be stopped and searched by police, charged with crimes and sentenced to longer prison terms than are meted out to their white counterparts.”

As one step for dealing with this national problem, Ms. Clinton called for body cameras on every police officer in the nation. This is an excellent start as bad relations have been exacerbated due to a lack of full and complete information on incidents or conflicting testimony where even implausible police officer accounts are accepted as truth. Body cameras are not a cure-all, but they certainly would increase the level and accuracy of information and would likely lead to more indictments and convictions of officers who commit police misconduct. It is hoped that the risk of exposure would also significantly reduce such conduct.

Ms. Clinton’s most important observation, though, was that the issues raised by the death of Freddie Gray, who died from a spinal injury received while in police custody, concern far more than police practices. She explained that a comprehensive approach is desperately needed to address long standing problems. She began by focusing on the long-term significant disparities in unemployment. As Ms. Clinton knows, unemployment among blacks in Baltimore is twice as high as that for whites and, in some neighborhoods for black youth 20-24 years of age, it is three times as high. As Ms. Clinton said, “There is something wrong when more than one out of every three young black men in Baltimore can’t find a job.” It is hardly surprising that almost a quarter of blacks in many Baltimore neighborhoods are living in poverty. Even more alarming, nationally the median net worth of whites is 18 times that of blacks, a wider wealth gap by race than existed in South Africa during apartheid. Freddie Gray’s tragedy then, requires us to finally talk about, as Ms. Clinton said, “what’s needed to provide economic opportunity, better educational chances for young people, more support to families so they can do the best jobs they are capable of doing to help support their own children.”

The speech was not, of course, the first time that Ms. Clinton has addressed issues of racial justice. Last summer, she discussed inequality in the political arena. She focused on racial inequities in voting rights, condemning restrictive voter identification laws and restrictions on early voting and same day registration. She was particularly critical of the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder. In that case, the court invalidated the so-called “pre-clearance” requirement of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which required states with a history of race discrimination in voting to secure federal approval prior to changing election practices. Ms. Clinton noted that the Voting Rights Act is one of the most democratizing pieces of legislation ever passed in the United States, allowing over 800,000 new voters, primarily black voters, to register within four years of its passage. She also knows how easy it is for states to create restrictive practices that have a disproportionate impact on minority voters. Ms. Clinton has rightfully called for a new Voting Rights Act, recognizing that, throughout the nation, voter suppression based on race remains a serious problem.

Hillary Clinton understands not only that black lives matter, but that justice requires fundamental reform in the courts, on the streets and in classrooms, offices and voting booths. That is why, I predict, by Election Day, she will be embraced, with enthusiasm, by the African-American community.

F. Michael Higginbotham is the Joseph Curtis Professor of Law at the University of Baltimore School of Law and author of Ghosts of Jim Crow: Ending Racism in Post-Racial America (NYU Press, 2013).

Entering Lakewood Church

Phillip Luke Sinitiere, author of Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity, will be a featured guest blogger on From the Square leading up to his book’s publication in October! The posts will unveil certain aspects of the project and provide selected snapshots of the making of the book, including his research and the writing process. To kick off the series, below is the opening vignette from the book’s introduction. (Check out his other post on the book’s cover over at Baldblogger!)

9780814723883_FCI am in the upscale business complex of Greenway Plaza, near downtown Houston. After parking my car, I follow the signs directing me to Lakewood Church. Emerging from the dimly lit confines of a parking garage, I join hundreds of people surging to the church’s entrance. In an energetic multiethnic mix, I walk alongside individuals, some of whom are black, others white, still others Latino/a or Asian. Some are talking with one another, while others are silent. Some walk with heads down as if in prayer. I see men wearing their Sunday best, along with women adorned in stunning white and pink hats; others come in jeans, T-shirts, and shorts. I hear the sharp strike of high heels and the flop of sandals. Some carry Bibles as they purposefully walk toward the church. I see Bibles that appear worn and creased, the result of a sustained engagement. I also observe congregants clutching Hope for Today Bible, a resource designed with notes and commentary by Lakewood’s pastors Joel and Victoria Osteen.

Shortly, at Joel’s invitation in the worship service to “lift up your Bibles and say it like you mean it,” congregants will thrust their Bibles into the air and make Lakewood’s famous “This is my Bible” confession. A mantra started by Joel’s father and Lakewood’s founder, John Osteen, in the 1980s, the statement highlights the church’s evangelical fidelity to the Bible and firm conviction about its spiritual power. I also observe a large group of people rolling into the church, some wheeling themselves while others proceed in electric wheelchairs. The leader of this group also ushers in other disabled persons, some with visual impairments, others with Down’s syndrome. Lakewood’s doors open for a diverse array of people.

As I enter the building with the throngs of men, women, and children who pour in for the service, a volunteer with a nametag greets me with a warm smile and “Welcome, God bless you.” I take the bulletin she hands me. I start ascending the stairs into Lakewood Church. Knowing that Lakewood is America’s largest megachurch, welcoming  over 40,000 members and other attendees each week, I feel as if I am in an important place. It pulsates with energy. I also notice symbols of the church’s history on display. I pause halfway up the steps as I encounter a life-size bronze display of Lakewood’s founding couple, John and Dodie Osteen, honoring Lakewood’s fiftieth anniversary. The couple meets visitors with smiles and a Bible held in the air. The base of the bronze statue is in the shape of a heart, symbolic of Lakewood’s old motto, “Oasis of Love.” While John never preached at the Compaq Center, a converted sports arena that became Lakewood’s home in 2005, six years after his death, his likeness, along with that of Dodie, greets visitors as they enter the church he founded. At Lakewood, the past intermingles with the present, while the future is a source of perpetual anticipation.

As I continue to walk up the stairs, to my left people enter and exit the well-stocked bookstore. On the television screen that sits in the middle of a display that contains Joel and Victoria’s teachings I look over to see and hear Joel encouraging a positive mindset in the midst of difficult circumstances. In the bookstore, I browse the most recent books by contemporary Christian teachers such as Joyce Meyer, John MacArthur, Joseph Prince, and John Piper, and a substantial variety of study Bibles and study aids such as theological encyclopedias and Greek dictionaries. The bookstore contains a children’s section and several rows with a variety of Spanish-language resources. I also notice that it sells framed paintings of the Christian artist Thomas Kinkade as well as spiritually themed items like T-shirts, key chains, or bookmarks that can also be found at Christian chain retail stores such as Family Christian, Lifeway, and Mardel. Just outside of the bookstore, families head quickly to register kids for Lakewood’s expansive children’s programs. Other people mill about like tourists, many of them visiting Lakewood for the first time, clearly pausing to take it all in. Things are buzzing at Lakewood Church, but also proceed in an orderly fashion. I notice people with official Lakewood nametags, energetic volunteers with clipboards and walkie-talkies who help the massive operation to run smoothly. Not shy, one volunteer inquires if I am interested in trying out for Lakewood’s choir. Responding to her facial expression and her excitement to recruit volunteers, I return the smile—and politely decline. “God bless you,” the recruiter replies as I continue walking.

I proceed to the worship center, and with many others, I anticipate my entrance into the 16,000-seat sanctuary. There is a palpable sense of expectation, a feeling already cultivated by Joel’s popular television message of self-improvement and salvation on television and published in a handful of New York Times bestsellers. Looking up, I see the ceiling arranged with large square white sheeting to produce a cloud effect, simultaneously reflecting blues, reds, greens, and purples from multicolored spotlights. I begin to get an inkling of the church’s massive size, an architectural expression of Lakewood’s signature place in American Christianity.

I find a seat, and settle into place on the second level on the far left side of the auditorium. Lights bathe the stage in a glittery display as members of Lakewood’s choir, wearing blue robes, find their place in the two choir lofts. The band, arranged on a retractable stage, warms up in front of a massive, bronze globe, an iconic symbol of Lakewood’s historic commitment to missionary endeavors. Announcements for religious education classes and church events along with advertisements for resources available in Lakewood’s bookstore flash across the three large screens that hang above the stage. I notice individuals  in front of the stage and they appear to have security escorts: the Osteen family and other church leaders proceed to their seats. It is nearly time for the service to begin.

The interracial duo of singers Cindy Cruse Ratcliff and Israel Houghton begin the service by leading nearly 16,000 people in musical expressions of adoration toward God and the spiritual meaning of life in Christ. People clap in rhythm with the drums, and sing along as lyrics flash across the large screens. I also notice worshiping bodies sway with the music. The emotional temper of the music produces what appear to be moments of tender introspection; I see people with arms raised and eyes closed, and some with tears streaming. Later, prayer partners meet and pray with those in need. People cry and hug, finding individual spiritual solace among the thousands present in America’s largest congregation.

The service proceeds with an encouraging testimony from Victoria, a period of prayer and tithing, and a twenty-five-minute message from Joel. An altar call with a simple recitation, asking Jesus to reign as Lord of one’s life, starts to draw the morning service to a close. In a final moment of affirmation, Joel asks people to clap if they are better now than when they came in.

Employing positive confession, a historic neopentecostal practice of making verbal affirmations of spiritual significance—and much like his father John did at Lakewood—Joel makes several declarations. Each declaration becomes more intense as Osteen’s voice rises and he bounces tiptoed  as if to push his positive proclamations into every square inch of the auditorium:

“I declare . . . God is breathing on your life, he’s breathing on your dreams, he’s breathing on your finances. . . . God will multiply your talent, multiply your resources, multiply your strength. . . . If you’ll be confident in what God has given you, then I believe and declare you will overcome every obstacle, defeat every enemy, and you will become everything God’s created you to be . . . if you believe it, give the Lord a shout of praise!”

Joel ends the service in prayer, sending intense petitions upward with his face lifted, eyes tightly closed, hands raised, and his body moving as he speaks. He asks God to make the day’s message real in everyday life.

“Lord, draw them by your Spirit, let them feel your love as they’ve never felt it before,” he prays . “A new beginning . . . a fresh new start . . . the road to victory . . . comes from a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”

Now that we’ve entered Lakewood Church, you can find the rest of the story here.

Phillip Luke Sinitiere is Professor of History at the College of Biblical Studies, a multiethnic school located in Houston’s Mahatma Gandhi District. A scholar of American religious history and African American Studies, he is the author or editor of several books including Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace.

Ferguson, race, and the disability politics of the teen brain

In an article published on Somatosphere this week, author Julie Passanante Elman discusses race, disability, and the volatile teen brain. Read an excerpt from the essay below—and be sure check out more from the website’s series, Inhabitable Worlds. 

In February 2014, University of Missouri students made national news when they formed a human wall to protest the Westboro Baptist Church’s presence on their campus. Westboro arrived to denounce Michael Sam, a gay “Mizzou Tiger” who would become the first openly gay NFL player. Mizzou students eagerly donned “Stand with Sam” rainbow buttons and “WE ARE ALL COMOSEXUAL” t-shirts (an homage to “COMO,” or how locals refer to Columbia, MO). The nation turned its collective eye to “The Middle,” a North American region that has been associated (at times, stereotypically, by those on the coasts) with religious conservatism, provincialism, and intolerant attitudes toward cultural difference or sexual non-normativity. Rather than asking “what’s the matter with Kansas?” in frustration, onlookers celebrated Missouri’s anti-homophobic moment of conviction, its investment in creating an “inhabitable world” for queers living outside metronormativity’s coastal enclaves.

While one “Missouri Mike” made his NFL bid, another would never arrive on his campus or attend his first college class. On August 9, 2014 in Ferguson, MO, Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager, was fatally shot by Darren Wilson, a white police officer. His body lay in the street for four hours, as his blood pooled on the asphalt, warmed by the same unyielding Missouri sun that shone on MU’s Francis Quadrangle as students returned in late August. Mizzou students returned to a very different campus. Many of my students were returning from their childhood homes in St. Louis and its neighboring suburbs. Many were from Ferguson. Others were the sons and daughters of St. Louis-area police officers.

In late November, Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency in Ferguson nearly a week before the grand jury decided not to indict Wilson. Politically committed MU students quickly mobilized to support the Ferguson protests. Using the social media handle “MU4Mike,” students organized die-ins in the student center and City Hall and were supported by a variety of faculty, including a Vice Chancellor.

Mizzou’s Facebook page posted photos of the event (including the one above), which incited a variety of hateful responses:

  • “White lives matter too!”
  • “…[B]lack lives appear to matter to everyone but black people…the black community is the one offing themselves in record numbers, not white cops defending themselves from charging aggressors.”
  • “Raise your kids not your hands.”
  • “How stupid. All lives matter. Stop wallowing in self pity [sic]. This was and is not a race issue. Get real.”

Meanwhile, campus police monitored the MU Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center after an anonymous threat to the center (“Let’s burn down the black culture center & give them a taste of their own medicine.”) appeared on YikYak, a mobile, anonymous social media application.

Perhaps no image better encapsulates the abruptness with which Mizzou’s political landscape shifted than this screenshot of Mizzou’s Facebook page:

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Enveloped in hopeful sunlight, an African-American student stands with his hands raised in peaceful protest. He stands in stark contradistinction to racist comments (“Your [sic] a thug bro!!”) as well as a meme of a white father and son pointing, as if to the man in photo, to proclaim, “Look son, a faggot!” Less than ten months after the campus had “Stood with Sam,” entangled racism and homophobia seemed more virulent than ever.

As an MU faculty member, I wanted to contribute my perspective to this special series—first off—to spotlight our students’ courageous (and ongoing) activism to make Mizzou a more inhabitable world for all of its students. As a critical queer/disability studies scholar contemplating Ferguson, I am thinking of the challenging questions posed by queer/disability activist Eli Clare, who invites us to map the sedimentary layers of injustice.

Continue reading on Somatosphere.

Artist as ethnographer: Jason Whitesel on Books Combined

—Jason Whitesel

[This article was originally posted on Books Combined, a collaborative blog launched by our friends at Combined Academic Publishers.]

Growing up, I found the human body an abundant source of artistic inspiration. Painting and drawing was a significant part of my life from grade school on into my early years of graduate school. I did mostly figure drawing and self-portraits  – my favorite artist at the time was Egon Schiele. Certainly my emotional state pulsated through my artwork: yet it was not the inner world of my imagination that I sought to express, but always direct observation of the world around me.

Later, ethnographic research appealed to me for the same reason: it engaged me in direct observation. When I think about the books that first lit my intellectual fire and subsequently shaped my career, they were all ethnographies. I was introduced to ethnography and the sociology of everyday life when I was an undergraduate. For me, they’re a natural fit with the perspective I take in my artwork. Conducting ethnographic research allows me to pay attention to the rich details of things we usually take for granted and help the reader visualize the community/culture I am studying by painting a vivid, “thick description” of it.

Of course, I am not the only one to think of ethnography in terms of artwork. In an undergraduate class on sociological fieldwork, I learned from Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes (1995) by Robert Emerson et al. that fieldworkers, struck by a vivid sensory impression, sketch the social scene, depicting it like a still life, providing detailed imagery from the field. Likewise, when writing my recent book, I consulted John Van Maanen’s Tales of the Field: On Writing Ethnography (1988) in which he speaks of confessional tales of ethnographers being similar to self-portraits, where one tries to show the biases and character flaws the fieldworker brings to the ethnographic table.

Among the ethnographies that I cherish is Marcia Millman’s Such a Pretty Face: Being Fat in America (1980), a social psychologically oriented comparative ethnography of three groups: the National Association to Aid Fat Americans (NAAFA) – now it reads “to Advance Fat Acceptance”; Overeaters Anonymous; and a summer diet camp. The book takes off with the idea that fat is a feminist issue.  It contains autobiographic stories collected through in-depth interviews and thoughtful observations in each of the three organizations, their meetings, pamphlets, and booklets. When I first encountered this book, little did I know that approximately ten years later I would embark on a research project to expand upon this classic, by engaging gay men’s perspectives as they worry about their weight in meaning-laden ways.

Carol Brooks Gardner’s Passing By: Gender and Public Harassment (1995) is another ethnography that had a significant impact on my life. Anytime I have to sit down and start writing up my own work, I pull out the book and thumb through it, feeling certain that inspiration will seep in by osmosis. Gardner, who has been my mentor, studied under Erving Goffman, a professor of Anthropology and Sociology at U Penn. In 1979, in his book Gender Advertisements, Goffman used a micro-sociological approach to decode gender displays in advertising. Gardner applies and extends his concepts to explore unwanted public attention women receive from men on the street and in semi-public places like a department store. Through 506 interviews and five years of public observation in a Midwestern city in the U.S., she documents the various indignities women and other situationally disadvantaged groups are made to suffer and how such experiences erode these groups’ trust in public civility, and wear away at their psyche, constraining the way women engage with and enjoy public places or contributing to their fear thereof.

I can trace my intellectual pedigree to Goffman not only through Carol Gardner, but also through folklorist Amy Shuman, another significant mentor of mine who was also one of Goffman’s students. In graduate school, I took “Folklore Field Methods” and a seminar on “The Rhetoric of Ethnography” with Shuman, who introduced me to Goffman’s ideas about narrative. At the time she was preparing her own book Other People’s Stories: Entitlement Claims and the Critique of Empathy (2010). Through Shuman’s eyes, I began to see Goffman’s work in a different way; it was about how people create themselves through narrative. I came to understand that Goffman was not just interested in the public performance of identity where the self emerges as a series of façades, but also in the ways narrative opens up an avenue for one to make sense of one’s self, no matter how untenable one’s position may be.

As an artist and an ethnographer, I found these books, above all others, to have helped me build bridges between my creative and scholarly ways of seeing the world.

Jason A. Whitesel is a Women’s and Gender Studies Department faculty member at Pace University. His research focuses on gay men’s rigid body image ideal and the resulting intragroup strife among them. His recent book, Fat Gay Men: Girth, Mirth, and the Politics of Stigma (NYU Press, 2014) describes events at Girth & Mirth club gatherings and examines how big gay men use campy-queer behavior to reconfigure and reclaim their sullied images and identities.