Listen to Rev. Starsky Wilson’s keynote address, January 17th, 2016
“We give praise to our God, and we thank God for the opportunity to be here with you on the day devoted to all of the leaders who put us together. We thank God for the opportunity and occasion to share, and to be here in community with each and every one of you. It is good for us to be here, Amen? It is good for us to be here.
I want to thank those beloved disciples of St. John’s Church, the Beloved Community, who came out today. You spent a long day, and now you get to hear your pastor again. Some folk don’t want to hear your pastor the first time, but you came out, some of you walked in the cold and then hung around after a cup of hot cocoa in order to hear your pastor, so thank you very much for your support, and really for your work and really your commitment to God’s movement in the world.
I want to invite your attention for a moment to the Scripture, to the 58th Chapter of Isaiah. I’ll read for you here in the ninth through the twelfth verses, where we might reflect together on this theme we have been given to “Get Woke and Stay Woke.” Here in the 58th chapter of Isaiah, the ninth through the twelfth verse, we can find these words:
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’ If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, and the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then shall your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.
And the Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your needs in parched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in. Isaiah 58: 9-12
This is the Word of the Lord, I do believe it to be true, the grass withers and the flower thereof shall fade away, but the Word of our Lord shall last forever.
For the time that we have, we use for a topic: Get Woke, Stay Woke.
On the last Sunday that he graced this earth, Dr. King stood at the National Cathedral and he used for his topic Remaining Awake through the Great Revolution. He referenced then the story of Rip Van Winkle, as he started his sermon. He reminded the folk that people think about the fact that Rip Van Winkle slept for 20 years, but they miss the fact that there was a picture on the wall that when he went to sleep he found himself under a King of England and when he woke up he saw a picture of George Washington. The note, of course, was that while he was sleeping, not just that it was a long time, but rather it was the fact that while he was sleeping a whole lot of things changed around him. While he was sleeping there was the fight of a great revolution. While he was sleeping there was an adjustment in society. While he was sleeping there was a great revolution that happened politically and all the world changed around him.
I’ve come to suggest today that there are some things that have happened over the course of the last generation or two, since we have lost Dr. King, that happened, perhaps, while we have been sleeping.
While you were sleeping state-sponsored terror has been executed against poor people, black people, and young people from Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson, to Rekia Boyd in Chicago, to Freddie Gray in Baltimore, to Tamir Rice in Cleveland, to Eric Garner on Staten Island, and Andre Hamilton in Milwaukee, while we were sleeping.
Militarized mass police violence included tear gas, rubber bullets, wooden bullets, pepper spray, canisters as long as your forearm, tactical vehicles … reminiscent of tanks all pointed at and used upon the very good citizens who paid for them with their tax dollars and authorized the officers to use them in order to protect and serve, while we were sleeping.
Imaginary lines were drawn between the accredited school districts like the one that Michael Brown was shot in and the unaccredited school districts like the one he graduated from in order to keep certain percentages of black students in one place, allowing the geographic argument for why and how you lack investment in their educational outcomes, while we were sleeping. This came to best characterize the relationship between young millennials and the church; because of fashion, tradition, tragedy, and sexuality. While we were sleeping.
The Department of Justice reported that 95% of people in the city stopped for “manner of walking in the street” – or jay walking – were black. 100% of those who had police dogs released on them had skin twice kissed by God’s sun. While we were sleeping 51% of all children in American public schools became eligible for free and reduced lunch. While we were sleeping one in five children in America grew up in poverty. While we were sleeping, two in five black children found themselves in poverty.
While we were sleeping, Jonathan Butler had to risk his life on a hunger strike and students had to block cars, and athletes had to risk scholarship to lift the foot of oppression that was on their necks, put there by the taxpayers of Missouri.
While we were sleeping there was a 53% rise of poverty in St. Louis county between 2000 and 2013, matching what the Brookings institution has described as the suburbanization of poverty in America. While we were sleeping, all of this happened to our communities.
I know someone is wondering how we got so quickly to these issues from one to the other; police violence to education and economics. So I would just let you know one thing we have learned–if we have learned nothing–from the thousands of hours that members of this community put into the Ferguson Commission report is “this is that” and “that is this”.
While we were sleeping, our community slipped away from being on the precipice of getting a glimpse of the beloved community that King preached about.
Perhaps now it’s time to wake up and face the day in which we live.
Perhaps the time is gone for us to be able to sleep comfortably in our enclaves of implicit bias, within our neighborhoods, where we need not see diversity. Perhaps the day is done when we could sleep through this great and radical change in our society, where the best articulations of the American dream have become yet a nightmare for some. Perhaps it’s time for us to wake up and to face the day. And as people of faith, I’m going to suggest to us: we can’t just face the day as it is.We can’t face the day with defeatism or fatalism; rather, we are still called to trust. Still called to believe, still called to pray, still called to praise, still called to preach, still called to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the goodness of our God.
There are some people who are much healthier than I in the room, who may be able to note that there are some difficult things that could happen if you are so … tired that you just sit around and fall asleep. If I could testify, I’ll tell you that there are some times in these difficult nightmarish times when the stress of the situation, and facing the situation honestly and earnestly, living in the midst of it rather than running to comfortable places, because your hair has turned a little greyer, so much so that you gotta cut it real low. Dr. Higgins, it’ll cause your suits to fit a little tighter in the center regions – now I don’t know about anybody else.
Extreme places when you face this day – take it for what it is, rather than escaping into your own opportunity to consider something else. If you take it seriously, it will make you want to give up and give in. Fatalism in this day can obscure your outlook on a life even with the Lord. And though we have all been sleeping we are called to wake up and face the day. But how do you face a day like the days we’ve seen since Ferguson?
Now I get a little timid because I feel like I ought to apologize. I’ve been in these civic circles where it’s passe now to even say “Ferguson”, it’s “didn’t we deal with that?” “I mean, we had a commission! Aren’t we done with that? We had some conversations? Didn’t we do our Ferguson thing? When we went down to the neighborhoods and took toiletries to the children, didn’t we do our Ferguson thing?” “When we allowed such and such a person to preach in our pulpit? Or to speak in our communities, didn’t we do our Ferguson thing?”
These responses suggest that we have not quite faced the day. Perhaps it’s helpful for us to consider that there have been difficult days like this before. There is an 8th century prophet who faced difficult days. This 8th century prophet named Isaiah had to wrestle with questions like these, wrestling between themes of desolation and hope, considering the Syrian exile in 1st Isaiah, the Babylonian exile in 3rd Isaiah, knowing that he lived amongst a people without a place, and he had to wonder whether we are being faithful to our God. Why would this happen to us? We served, we confessed, we’ve been converted, we’ve been immersed! Why would this happen to us? How can we face this day faithfully? What does it mean to stay woke?
I would suggest to you that if you will face this day appropriately, if you will face this day faithfully, then you will pursue King’s vision of beloved community.
Now, I’m not one of those who thinks this is an easy thing. I like the fact that the text gives some suggestion. As I consider the beloved community I don’t consider it [as] happy-go-lucky, this opportunity for people to sing “Kumbayah” and get along once a year. I wrestle with what it means to be a multi-cultural, multi-racial community of peace and justice, with love as the governing ethic. I wrestle with what it means to live out what Josiah Royce lived, what King tried to vision America into. I wrestle with the reality that there are privileges caught up in this thing and there’s more than just a concept when you try to work it out in a community. I better show up and know what my stuff is.
Oh, it’s easy to just show up and talk about it once a year. But try actually giving yourself over and into a multi-cultural church environment where you’re committed to stay somewhere. And they don’t sing like you sing. They’re a little too quiet when you preach or a little too loud on them tambourines.
King offered this vision of a beloved community, a vision deeply rooted in his understanding of what it meant to be the ekklesia of God: it is deeply rooted in the idea of what it means to have vision, and to have promise, and to anticipate a Promised Land filled with milk and honey. It is directly connected to this opportunity to anticipate a new Jerusalem coming where all the tribes of Israel will have the opportunity to come together and to be re-established in covenant with their God. King’s dream was deeply rooted in his theological understanding of what it means to be God’s child. I believe that we should celebrate this vision in ecumenical and interfaith settings, but we must not separate someone from who they are and who they were. Dr. King was a minister. He can’t be anything today that he never was then.
How do we face this day? How might we pursue beloved community? I’m glad you asked, I’ll give these things and go to my seat: First of all, the text suggests that we’ve got to reconcile relationships–tell your neighbor “reconcile relationships.” The text says, “remove the yoke from among you. The pointing of the finger and the speaking of evil.” Can I say it this way: remove the bonds of oppression! Stop the… in-fighting between folks. In the face of this day, keeping faith within and stewarding the faith – which is expressed without – requires us to get our relationships right; individually and ecclesiastically. Somebody say, “Get right church!” and let’s go home.
Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics discusses three phases of reconciliation: the world’s reconciliation to God, persons being reconciled to persons, and human beings reconciliation within themselves. Getting our relationships right requires affirming that all humanity was made in the image and likeness of God.
Unfortunately racism, sexism, and extreme capitalism have eroded our understanding of humanity and caused us to treat one another as objects. Objects that can be used and put away, objects that are to be spat upon and discarded, objects that can be shot, choked, tasered and beaten with impunity; particularly when these subhuman objects are young, black, brown, and poor.
This is what our friends Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi and Alicia Garza – the co-creators of the BLM Network – attempt to help us [understand] in many ways: Black Lives Matter is a basic affirmation of the Imago Dei.
A statement that the image and likeness of God is on Renisha McBride
The image and likeness of God is on Oscar Grant
The image and likeness of God is on Trayvon Martin
The image and likeness of God is on John Crawford
And if we accept it, the hashtag becomes an important input to the reworking
of a theological anthropology that everybody is GOD’s somebody.
We won’t reach reconciliation without appropriate human affirmation.
Now I’ve got to say this now, I’ve been slow to use this term “reconciliation” as I co-chaired the commission. I’ve been slow because there have been so many that have been so quick!
Quick to jump to reconciliation without affirming inclusion.
Quick to jump to reconciliation while skipping over equity.
Quick to jump to reconciliation without seeing your brother and your sister as equal before the eyes of God.
And we can’t get to reconciliation, because reconciliation happens between equals.
If we’re going to face this day, if we’re going to wake up and face this day, stay woke forever, we’ve got to reconcile relationships.
But then we’ve also got to sacrifice ourselves in service. The text says, “offer your food to the hungry”…. I’m sorry, I said it wrong; “offer YOUR food to the hungry!”
Not, “offer the cans in the back of the pantry that you didn’t really want no way.
Not “offer the shirts in the back of the closet that you ain’t wearing no way.”
Not “offer the excess and the extra” but that which is essential to your life. Offer YOUR food.
Beloved community requires that we must love one another, it requires that we must center others. There was a movie some time ago, and there was this guy in the movie, I think it was Morris Chestnutt, you know one of these mediocre looking kind of guys. You know. He was kind of a player kinda dude. And the test, ultimately, that his mother told the young lady that he was dating [was]: “if he really loves you then he’ll give you the last bite of his food. When he’s really hungry, and he knows you’re hungry, and he’d really like it, but if he’ll give you that which he would have taken for himself? Then he really loves you.”
This is the question we must ask about our brothers and our sisters; what am I willing to sacrifice for those? This is more than systematic service provision or convenient charitable contributions. This is more than the annual drive. This is going out of our way, calling for the life changing sacrifice. This is what planted the church.
Curtiss DeYoung and Dr. Allan Boesak write in Radical Reconciliation that one of the marks of the early church was socio-economic diversity, which came by the renunciation of privilege by people who had Roman citizenship. People who decided that they believed so much in Jesus, that they would relinquish and renounce their status and take up status not just with, but under the leadership of marginalized, former Jewish people. They would take up and be tutored by and apprenticed by people who the world said shouldn’t have a voice anywhere.
Are we willing to walk away from the privileges that have buttressed us, from the movement, the privileges that have buttressed us in America, the things that have propped us up, in order to not just be with, but to take up leadership under? Because if we are, we are worthy of the church’s tradition, because that’s what birthed the church.
Sacrifice self in service; then finally (and I’m almost done):
First, we’ve got to get our relationships right, we’ve got to reconcile our relationships.
Then, we’ve got to sacrifice self in service.
Then finally, we’ve got to promote public policy for parity.
Right here, it says, “satisfy the needs of the afflicted.”
Personal pietism will not repair the breach.
Relational or racial reconciliation will not restore streets to live in.
Social services, even coordinated wraparound services, will not build a community
Satisfying the needs of the afflicted with their diverse categories, and their diffuse interests, and their disparate life outcomes, require promoting public policy for parity among people.
Try as hard as you might, you can’t feed all the poor. You can’t educate every child. You can’t put every elderly person in a caring place to live out their last days. You can’t assure each person access to their choice of healthcare, but there are some systems, structures, policies, and legislative actions that can expand your impact and extend equity to marginalized communities, so it is our obligation to advocate, organize, push, prop, and provoke action to ensure equality for all God’s children. This is how we order our society, and the answer to our societal order is in our laws, and our ordinances, and in our regulations; yes we serve Jesus, we’re also called to work for justice.
This is not a specialized ministry; this is the substance of ministry. Social justice is not a ministry gift; it is a ministry giver. Beloved community calls the Christian, it calls all people of faith, to work for policy change. Why, why must I face this day? Why must I get out of bed? Why can’t I keep pressing snooze? Because God uses days like Ferguson to form and fortify our faith. We pursue beloved community in the face and facts of these days like Ferguson. God uses these days to form and fortify our faith.
How do we know that? Well, because we’re not the first ones to face these kinds of things. Our guide, our leader, our Savior, our brother, faced days like this. And he woke up and he decided to stay woke. Military style occupation and Roman soldiers as the predecessor to the police state in black neighborhoods, Jesus faced the day.
With Herod -the public ruler of the Jews – predating the inactive, ineffective HNICs in our community, Jesus faced the day.
With elite priests of the temple in bed with the Roman establishment, very similar to the establishment church in bed with establishment politics, Jesus faced the day.
With extreme poverty preying against people who lived on basic subsistence, Jesus faced the day.
With unfair tax obstructions leading to increased debt, reflective of poverty taxes in our time, like the lack of access to healthy foods, overticketing for driving while black, the higher gas prices in the hood, Jesus faced the day.
With rampant crime, which included social banditry and looting as an expression of social uprising–I’m just reading the Bible–Jesus faced the day.
With the marginalization of his people, because they didn’t speak like, act like, or represent like the Roman establishment, Jesus faced the day.
And Jesus faced the day because he knew that God can use days like this to wake us up and to keep us woke, but as Isaiah teaches us, it is an “if-then” proposition. This is what the text suggests: if you remove the yoke from among you, then your light shall rise up in the dark, if you stop the pointing of the finger then your gloom shall be like the noonday, if you cease the speaking of evil, then the Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places and make your bones strong. If you offer your food to the hungry, then you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never fail. If you satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt, then you shall raise up the foundations of many generations, then you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
The question is, now that you are awake, will you be committed to stay woke?
About our speakers
The Reverend Starsky D. Wilson is a pastor, philanthropist and activist pursuing God’s vision of community marked by justice, peace and love. He is president & CEO of Deaconess Foundation, pastor of Saint John’s Church (The Beloved Community) and co-chair of the Ferguson Commission.
Deaconess is a faith-based grant making organization devoted to making child well-being a civic priority in the St. Louis region. From a corpus of approximately $60 million, the foundation has invested more than $75 million to advance its mission in the area. Starsky’s leadership has birthed a dynamic community capacity building model, aligning policy advocacy, organizing and community engagement with grantmaking.
Through Saint John’s, Wilson has led congregational activism on myriad issues, including youth violence prevention, Medicaid expansion, public school accreditation, voter mobilization, capping payday lending and raising the minimum wage, while more than quadrupling worship attendance and annual giving. There he established The Beloved Community Conference to resource local social justice ministries and Sojourner’s Truth: A Celebration of Preaching Women.
In 2014, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon appointed Rev. Wilson co-chair of the Ferguson Commission, a group of sixteen citizens empowered to study the underlying conditions and make public policy recommendations to help the region progress through issues exposed by the tragic death of Michael Brown, Jr. On September 14, 2015 they released the ground-breaking ‘Forward Through Ferguson: A Path Toward Racial Equity” Report, calling for sweeping changes in policing, the courts, child well-being and economic mobility.
Starsky serves national boards for Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, the United Church of Christ Cornerstone Fund, Chicago Theological Seminary, the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference and the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy and regional ones for the United Way, Gateway YMCA, FOCUS-St. Louis, Teach for America-St. Louis and the Mayor’s Commission on Children, Youth and Families, where he co-chaired the Regional Youth Violence Prevention Task Force.
Under his leadership, the Urban League Young Professionals established St. Louis’ Young Blacks Give Back initiative which has provided thousands of community service hours to local non-profits over the last twelve years.
Starsky earned a bachelor of arts in political science from Xavier University of Louisiana, master of divinity from Eden Theological Seminary and is currently pursuing the doctor of ministry degree from Duke University’s Divinity School. A member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc. and Eta Boule of Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity, Starsky is married to Dr. LaToya Smith Wilson, a dentist at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. They are raising four children in the city of St. Louis.
In recent years, Rev. Wilson’s leadership has been honored with numerous awards including:
• 2015 National Urban League Young Professionals Lifetime Achievement Award
• 2015 St. Louis Business Journal Diverse Business Leaders Award
• 2015 Mathews-Dickey Boys’ and Girls’ Club Bill Martiz Memorial Award
• 2015 Family Resource Center Pott Foundation Child Advocacy Award
• 2015 St. Louis Business Journal “40 Under 40” Award
• 2014 Xavier University “40 Under 40” Young Alumni Award
• 2013 St. Louis Children’s Hospital Community Advocate of the Year Award
• 2013 Urban League Young Professionals Civic Engagement and Social Justice Award
• 2012 St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council Open Door Award
• 2012 YMCA of Greater St. Louis Human Dignity Award
The Reverend Traci Blackmon’s life assignment is to advance God’s agenda in the earth through servant leadership that encourages and empowers people to live their faith. She is thankful to live out this calling as the proud Pastor and Teacher of Christ at the King United Church of Christ in Florissant, Missouri.
Initially ordained in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Rev. Blackmon served in various capacities of ministry for 9 years, prior to becoming the 18th installed and first woman pastor in the 159 year history of Christ The King United Church of Christ.
As a licensed Registered Nurse with over 35 years experience in health care, Rev. Blackmon serves the community in a variety of professional positions as well. She recently held the position of Coordinator of faith-based initiatives for BJC HealthCare and serves on several boards and health initiatives that target the advancement and empowerment of underserved women and children.
She currently serves as the Executive Minister of Justice and Witness for the UCC.
Rev. Bum Yong Kim is the planting pastor of Outpour Evangelical Covenant Church. He has a personal call to Biblical social justice and racial reconciliation found in cross-cultural ministry. He and his wife of seventeen years are raising three children in a bi-racial home.