Mentally Tough: Mayor Sly James Speaks on his Life of Mediation

Amelia Earhart Memorial Flying Band

Amelia Earhart Memorial Flying Band

The importance of RS is greater than it’s ever been. There has to be some way of addressing people who are so adversely affected by the wage gap, by poverty, by education systems that have not worked to their advantage for a long time ... Without RS, the people of 31st and Troost and the surrounding areas will be a lot worse off.
— Mayor Sly James

You grew up on the East Side of Kansas City in the 1960’s. What were some highs and lows of your early life in the community?
Everybody knew everybody – kids and families were tight. We got together in the street for holidays. Families took care of each other’s kids. We played ball in the park, rode our bikes, and ran free. Our families were the working poor, blue collar people who worked hard. Everyone scraped to get by and worked hard to support their families and one another. There was a strong sense of community. There were some bad dudes, but not many. We knew who caused trouble and had guns and stayed away from them. There was no fear like there is over there today!
A low would be the riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. I was a junior in high school and driving home from a night-time job with three guys. Buildings were burning at 44th and Prospect. We turned the corner at Prospect and ran into the National Guard. The whole sky lit up. We were forced out of the car and onto the ground. That was very scary!
How did your experience in High School shape you?
I was an odd ball in our neighborhood because I went to Bishop Hogan Preparatory Academy. I was the only black student in a Catholic High School that served a predominantly white community. It was different growing up in a neighborhood that was all black and going to a high school that was all white. The experience shaped my thoughts about people and race. It shaped my thoughts about how we interact and treat one another. High school is where I started to become a mediator between two racial cultures. All of these things influenced my thoughts about what I was going to do. I knew I would become a lawyer.
It was interesting from a dating standpoint during the 60’s — who do you take to prom? The girl I really liked I couldn’t ask because she was white. So, do I take the girl from the neighborhood that I don’t really care for?
Eventually I dated a great girl! Her name was Ann and she went to school at Notre Dame de Sion, but we couldn’t be seen in public together. Her father was on the city council at the time. For my junior year prom, my best friend Chip Tate—rhythm guitarist in our band—wore my tuxedo and drove my parents' car to pick Ann up from her house on Ward Parkway. He brought her back to my place, I put my tuxedo on, and I drove Ann to prom. It was just the nature of the beast and what we had to do. Ironically, Notre Dame had their prom the same night and our band was playing the after-party. Ann couldn’t go in with me, so she sat in the car while I played. 
You were the lead singer with Amelia Earhart Memorial Flying Band, an otherwise all white band in the late 60’s. Tell us something about the band’s context. 
Most of the people in the band and the wider group we ran around with were affluent, with the exception of me and one or two others. The civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, and music were the cultural influences of the day. Being on both sides of the civil rights argument meant I was in very separate conversations about central issues. Talking about the Black Panthers with my family around the dinner table was a completely different conversation than the one I had at school the following day. It was a different conversation again than the one I had with the affluent people who hung out with our band. It was cool to be edgy and non-conformist in the 60's and I was certainly a non-conformist.
How did you handle the tensions as a teenager?
At school I didn’t know everybody but everybody knew me because of the color of my skin. I’ve always been outspoken and I’m not timid, so I ended up in leadership positions both in school and outside school. As a leader I was able to set my own agenda somewhat. That helped a lot. I made good grades and worked hard. I left home my senior year to live on my own and drew out the money I’d made to pay my school tuition – school was very important to me. I continued being in the band, that helped too.  

Photo by Tom Morse-Brown

Photo by Tom Morse-Brown

My parents were traditional, relatively poor, black people and extremely suspicious of the white man. Later, they started making money for themselves and became Republicans. The kids in my school and their families were equally suspicious about the black community. They were just not sure they wanted black people in their neighborhood. 
I didn’t really have as much suspicion of white people, neither did I have an immediate acceptance of what black people said about white people. I was accused by my neighborhood of not being black enough and on the other side in the white community, I was way too black. This tension still persists today. 
Who have been your key mentors in life?
Two major people greatly shaped me and meant a great deal to me. The first was my Father. He was a mentor in a very silent and powerful way. Just watching him struggling in life and eventually succeeding, watching him maintain a strong sense of self and his own identity when he succeeded was very powerful. He was a direct and simple man with a lot of character and dignity. 
The other key mentor was the senior partner—Bill Sanders Senior—in the law firm I joined when I first started practicing law. He taught me how to be a professional within the profession that I had chosen. A handshake from him was very important to me. He had a very keen mind and he was somewhat experimental. I remember he took me to trial with him and he turned to me (as we were picking the jury) and said, “You do it”. I’d never done this before, but he let me go on up and bumble and stumble around. He had arranged it with the judge ahead of time. He was a great mentor. When I told him I was leaving the firm, he cried.
Fr. Justin Mathews, Executive Director of Reconciliation Services, suggests that Troost isn’t just a dividing line in our city, it’s a dividing line in our heartsWould you talk about your vision for the future of Troost? 
It matters where you live, what it looks like, and how it feels. Physical changes and development are badly needed for the area. There’s need for infrastructure to attract further development in order to stimulate economic activity and jobs. But at the end of the day the whole concept of Troost, in my opinion, is much more psychological than physical. The psychological has driven the physical. I have hope that the physical development will help drive the psychological. The question is, who is going to be the developer of the psychology of the heart and soul of this area?
This is what you guys at Reconciliation Services are doing. You meet people where they are, as they come to you, in a way that lifts them up, regardless of what side of Troost Avenue they live on. I’m much aware of your trauma focused approach as you interact with people at RS. Trauma doesn’t always mean that you’ve been shot or beaten. Trauma can be atmospheric. You feel it and you’re affected by it! There are very few places in the Troost area where you’ll find an atmosphere permeated with reconciliation and peace. 
The importance of RS is greater than it’s ever been. There has to be some way of addressing people who are so adversely affected by the wage gap, by poverty, by education systems that have not worked to their advantage for a long time. There has been dis-investment, lack of opportunity and, therefore, there is lack of hope. Without RS, the people of 31st and Troost and the surrounding areas will be a lot worse off. If RS can do more than what they currently do the neighborhood will be a lot better off and so will our city at large.
What would be the one thing you’ve learned from your personal life experience that you would like to share with others?
I learned in the Marine Corps that I could pretty much accomplish anything in life that I wanted if I just kept with it. The Marine Corps taught me to be mentally tough. There were many times I wanted to crawl in a hole and quit, but I didn’t. I learned that no matter how bad things look today, if I show up tomorrow they won’t be as bad. I’ve learned to look at what I do have as opposed to what I don’t have. I think that keeps me happier.
A core value of RS is to reveal the strengths of the people around us. How have you tried to see strength and possibility in others?
I try very hard not to accept the visual first impression as being true, in most instances. I believe every individual person has something of value that they can leave you with. I’ve been blessed with the breadth of people I’ve come across in my life in so many different places. When I left home at 16, I was homeless. I remember sleeping on the steps of the Art Gallery in the summer time. There was a bunch of us runaways there who needed a place to crash. Some guy—who initially looked really weird—offered me something to eat. After spending time listening to him I realized that he was very different than what I first thought.
If you spend time with people ... if we will listen and empathize a little bit, a connection can happen. If we give people a chance they are likely to surprise us. I like to think I surprise people!

mental toughness.JPG

This blog is excerpted from an extensive interview on 9-9-16 by Father Justin Mathews, RS Executive Director, and Lyn Morse-Brown of Morse-Brown Creative. Written by Lyn Morse-Brown.

BEYOND THE VOTE: Why you should care about access to IDs

On Nov. 8th, 2016, Missouri joined 17 other states that have put legal restrictions on voting by adding a constitutional amendment requiring government issued photo IDs, in order to vote.

Voting is a critical right for all citizens and legal and reasonable access to voting should be a priority. However, there remains a gap between the law and reality, between the intent and actualization. An ID offers access to a deep well of possibilities for self-sufficiency and dignity and we should care about everyone having access to that. The need for an ID goes beyond being able to vote. It is important for our survival!

Did you know that without an ID you can’t get food assistance, apply for a job or housing, secure healthcare, enroll your kids in school, visit a sick child in the hospital, or even get a library card? Without an ID people are left vulnerable, unable to prove who they are, and are cut-off from privileges, services, and even rights.

In our daily work at 31st and Troost, we have seen first hand the hardship imposed on the poor, the handicapped, and the elderly in trying to obtain an ID. Since our inception in 2005, we have made it a priority to help our clients secure IDs and birth certificates. RS is now one of the largest providers of ID assistance in KC. We know that with an ID, people are able to take those first steps towards self-sufficiency.

A friend told me recently that his elderly mother was facing serious challenges getting access to her elder care and housing. It had been years since his mother needed a driver’s license and no one in the family could find her birth certificate. It took two months and the tenacious advocacy of her adult children to navigate the complex bureaucracy of interstate clerical offices and hospital record archives before she received her birth certificate. Only then was his mother able to obtain a photo ID and the services she so desperately needed.

How does one access and verify their own history and identity if they are born out of state or legally immigrated from a war torn country but don’t understand the language and process? Maybe they don’t know their birth parents, or were raised in foster care and moved excessively. Maybe they lost everything because of fleeing abuse or due to theft, and may not even have an address to receive an ID or birth certificate in the mail. Having a caring and knowledgeable advocate is essential during the process of securing an ID and that is why RS is here.

Last week a man came to RS who desperately wanted to work but didn’t have the ID required to complete a job application. He was referred to RS for help obtaining his ID and stayed for a hot, nutritious meal and to use our RS Internet Café. He had been living out of his car, trying to get his life back on track but when his car was stolen, so was nearly everything he owned, including his ID. He had so much he wanted to be, but without his ID he was trapped.

This year RS launched the “I’D BE Campaign” and has helped over 800 people secure their ID and take their first steps towards self-sufficiency. In 2017, we want to help even more people get their ID and start living a life of stability and dignity. With an ID they have the opportunity to be housed, employed, educated, healthy, and involved. Through the generous support of donors, RS staff is able to evaluate individual needs, work together with clients to navigate the complicated application process, secure additional needed documentation, and provide a voucher to pay for the IDs.

It costs about $25 to pay for an ID. For many of our clients, the cost and the lack of understanding of the process puts that ID just out of their reach. It may only cost $25 for the ID but the support and services RS offers along the way are also vital.

At times our country has revealed itself to be deeply divided over pressing issues such as immigration, economic policy, education, health care, public benefits, and ease of voting. Perhaps where we will find common ground is in working together to ensure that all of our neighbors, especially the poor, can secure the ID they need to access privileges, services, and rights without complication or undue burden. It might be just the right place to start.

Join with us as we continue to advocate for our most vulnerable neighbors. Become a monthly sponsor of the I’D BE Campaign today.


Article by Fr. Justin Mathews, Executive Director of Reconciliation Services.

Happiness is a Little Boy with a Pitcher of Lemonade

“What do you like about going to Reconciliation Services and helping serve the Friday night meal?” I asked my nine-year-old son.

“I like making people smile,” he answered.

Who can resist smiling at a cute little boy with glasses working the room with his lemonade pitcher in hand? Some of the guests at RS have even offered him a few coins or a small tip, to which he always refuses, gratefully.

I have been taking my three sons to serve the Friday night meal for many years. When my oldest son was a baby—he’s 14 now—I would wear him in a carrier on my back so I could help out on Friday nights at RS. 

Now, each of my boys fall into their familiar duties when we arrive to serve. My oldest son likes to run out trays full of plates of food. My middle son bounces between back-of-house food prep and serving plates to guests. And then there is my youngest, my nine-year-old, too small to carry the trays, too distracted to prep the meals, too social to stay in the back. 

In the midst of these bustling Friday night gatherings, my nine-year-old serves with joy and zeal. He fills up pitchers of lemonade as he walks around the first floor dining area. He offers refills. He smiles. And often the mood of the room begins to change. 

RS offers an alternative to the “soup kitchen” model that moves folks through a line as they collect their meal on a tray. Guests arrive for the Friday night meal and find a place to sit around common tables with other friends and neighbors from the community. As they are sitting and enjoying conversation, volunteers serve them dinner. No lines, no balancing trays, but a simple meal served in a dignified way by volunteers who care, like my kids.

I am finding that cultivating a zeal for service and a love of neighbor bears fruit with consistent and persistent work. For me, that means I often take my kids along with me to serve. I can talk about serving others and caring for my neighbor, but I also need to show them what that might look like and they need to have opportunities to practice it. 

I don’t shelter my kids from the challenges of serving others. Sometimes the bus stop outside the RS front door is thick with tension, angry voices, sad faces, and desperate pleas. Sometimes it is a welcoming hub of smiles and hellos. We don’t always know what is waiting when we set out, but if we hesitated because of fear or discomfort, we would also miss the joy. It is good to gather items to give, but the lessons that are born from the giving of oneself, cannot be underestimated. Holding the arm of an elderly homeless man while he takes his seat, seeing the faces of young kids come through the door to have dinner, and hearing the strange murmurings of a mentally ill young woman, remind us that there are real people on the other end of our giving and that our time and attention are our most treasured gifts.

I try not to squelch their joy and zeal. One time my boys wanted to bring their Halloween candy to RS to hand out at the Friday night meal. It was hard to resist the urge to talk them out of doling out their artificial, sugary treats, but I did. As they shared their candy, people smiled and remarked about how generous they were to give up their candy. It may have just been candy, but it was their candy and they wanted to give it away. Why would I say NO to them giving their own stuff away? All of my boys play the piano, each to a varying degree of ability and complexity. Whether it is a clunky attempt at Christmas carols or the opening theme to Star Wars, each time they sit at the old, out-of-tune piano on the first floor of RS they offer up their talents, their joy, for everyone present. I need to allow them the freedom to be joyful and to offer whatever they have to give. 

I want to cultivate a love for people, not merely a habit of serving people. If we merely approach acts of service as part of a checklist for our holiday generosity or a way of fulfilling community service hours for school or club recognition, then we miss out on the deep well of relationship and community that comes from regular involvement in serving others. When I point my children back to the people they are surrounded by, the faces they see each time they are there, I can help them create stronger connections with the people they are serving, not merely the act of serving. They begin putting a name with a face and giving high fives when they enter the building. They become regular participants in the lives of others, not distant benefactors supporting a generic cause.

So whether it’s passing along Halloween treats, playing an off-beat and out-of-tune carol, or walking through the room filling up glasses of lemonade, let loose the joy and zeal of the youth. We have much to learn from them and they have much to offer. 

Article by Jodi Mathews

Give, Do, Be: My Kids Call Me to Action

I remember the first time I really saw homeless people. I was in the backseat of the car riding through downtown San Francisco with my family. As we waited for a stop light to turn green, I pointed out to my Dad all the people just sitting around waiting for the bus.

“Honey, they aren’t waiting for the bus,” he said. “They live there.” My heart sank. The weight of his words were too heavy. I didn’t say anything else about it. I simply cried, quietly.

At the time, we lived in a huge Southern California city. I had seen many families and individuals come to the church where my Dad was a pastor and ask for assistance. People who needed help with utilities, food, gas money to continue on their way, would come through the doors of the church. My Dad would take time and listen and try and discern how to best help. The concept of caring for those in need had always been deeply foundational to my worldview. But it had also been very abstract to me until that day in San Francisco, that drive.

Now I am a mother and my three sons are growing up in a diverse urban community. They are confronted daily with people in need, homelessness, and panhandling.

My kids often see things so simply, so concretely. A few years ago, our Sunday drive to church took us past the same corner each week. There was almost always someone standing and asking for money. The faces changed from week to week but the presence of someone with a cardboard sign had become a familiar sight. When my oldest son started to see that this was a regular encounter he decided to put a cup with change next to his seat in the car. That way when we rolled up to the intersection he could give his coins to whomever happened to be standing there that Sunday. He would reach his little hand out the very back window of our minivan and offer his few coins.

Now our morning and afternoon drive to and from school takes us past several busy intersections where men and women are standing on the corner with their signs in hand. As the weather turned milder, we noticed more folks on more corners. My youngest son is usually the first to ask, “Mom, don't we have anything we can give him?”

Sometimes we do and sometimes we don’t. And when we pass six to eight different folks each day on our commute it can be hard not to become desensitized to the fact that they are even there. Sometimes I’ve found myself rolling up just far enough so the person is out of my periphery. Or, I’ve been tempted to hit the gas and zoom through the yellow light so I won’t have to wait out the next light right next to a smiling sign holder.

These encounters have made for interesting points of conversation and learning for my children and for me. They are a reminder to me that how we respond matters.

In their innocence and curiosity, my kids are the ones that brought to light this need to consider our response to the guy standing on the corner asking for money. Their pleading for me to give something, their questions about why I can’t help, showed me that we needed to do something. We needed to consider ways we could honor the panhandler on the street corner. We needed a plan. Here’s what we came up with:

First, be kind. Sometimes we have something practical to offer and sometimes all we have is a prayer in our hearts and a smile on our faces. Smiles have this amazing ability to diffuse and disarm. When we roll to a stop and there is someone asking for food or money and we have neither to give, we can still honor them with a kind face and a smile. I think it may be worse to be ignored or disdained than to be without money or a home.

Next, we planned ahead to give. When the weather is hot, we keep a small cooler with water bottles inside it to offer folks standing outside. When the weather turns colder, we pack ziploc bags with hand warmers, socks, granola bars, nuts, etc., to hand out. One time, we even put a small chocolate bar in with some winter essentials to give away. I remember the look on one guy’s face when he took the bag and then noticed the chocolate. He smiled and kept waving to us long after I had started driving off. His response warmed our hearts.

Lastly, we planned ahead to serve. Places like Reconciliation Services put in hour after hour, day after day, year after year serving and caring for people in need. Helping serve the Friday night meal, volunteering to help with food pantry, organizing a donation drive or a cleaning project, are practical and meaningful ways for us to care for others. My boys and I try and serve or volunteer at RS regularly, knowing that although we may not always have money or food to give, we can offer our time. We would love you to join us. You will discover that there are many ways to serve!

Having a plan for how to respond, whether through giving, serving, or our kindness, has softened my heart towards the folks I see standing on the corner. I don’t want to ignore or avoid them. That’s why I’ve taken cues from my boys. I want to see the person standing there and strive to honor them, at the very least, with my kindness.

Article by Jodi Mathews

Thank you—together we have achieved incredible things!

As we near the last couple months of 2016, it strikes me how exceptional last year was and so I'm so excited to share all that you made possible!

With the launch of this new website, thousands have joined our cause and subscribed to ‘Venerate’, our compelling bi-monthly e-newsletter. In 2015, your support helped expand Emergency Services staff to include a full-time intake specialist and two new full-time case managers; Self-Sufficiency Services grew too and helped reveal the strengths of our vibrant community by providing group therapy to 62 women and individual therapy to 24 women. We also launched our RS Internet Café, transforming Troost from a dividing line into a gathering place where 687 people found a place to belong while participating in our "digital survival" classes, enjoying coffee, computers and gigabit internet. 

A SnAP Women's Therapy Class with Program Manager Sylvia Goodloe, LMSW pictured top center.

A SnAP Women's Therapy Class with Program Manager Sylvia Goodloe, LMSW pictured top center.

Our economic community building programs connected hundreds to stable income and meaningful work. The Foster Grandparents program mobilized an army of 100 low-income senior citizens who volunteered over 91,000 hours in 30 schools to mentor at-risk children. For the 12th year, RS served as fiscal sponsor for the Troost Festival to foster friendships and dialogue across Troost Avenue. In November, RS Social Ventures, Inc.—a C-Corporation and wholly-owned subsidiary of RS—was established to create new jobs for our community and to enhance our sustainability. 

On behalf of those we serve, thank you for your generosity, prayers and encouragement as you have so faithfully given to support our work! If you'd like to read our 2015 Annual Report in its entirety you can do so here.

Article by Fr. Justin Mathews, Executive Director of Reconciliation Services.

Reconciliation Starts With Me

I knew when she shoved me off the sidewalk into my car that things had gotten out of hand. How did we go from good friends to this? We went to school together. We ran on the same track team. We were even in the same youth group.

She had cut off our friendship unexpectedly and without explanation and now it seemed that she couldn’t stand the sight of me. I was utterly confused. I truly had no idea what I had done or said that caused her to end our friendship so abruptly and painfully.

I remember talking to my Mom about this severed relationship. Why was this former friend being so rude? Why wouldn’t she talk to me? What had I done?

My mom encouraged me to be vulnerable and to be open to this friend, to seek her out and try and understand what I had done. She told me that I may have to be the one to take the first steps to restoring our friendship and that meant I may need to ask this friend’s forgiveness.

It didn’t matter what, if anything, I had done. What mattered was what I would do with the realization that my friend was hurting and angry and, that I may have played some unknown role in that.

I wanted to be reconciled, to have our relationship restored. Was I willing to make the first move?

Reconciliation can be defined as restoring friendly relations, bringing together again, fence-mending. The Greek word for reconciliation is katallasso, which literally means “to change; to restore to favor.” When we effect a change we cause something to happen, we act. But what if there is conflict and tension without the clear understanding of our role in it? What if that conflict and tension goes deeper than a simple offense or act of insensitivity?

Many people in my community and several who come through Reconciliation Services carry the heavy burdens of trauma and injustice. I have found myself in situations where my very presence seemed offensive and produced discomfort. What I represent, what I have, what I don’t have to deal with--may be reminders of another person’s disappointments, disadvantages, and struggles.

Fr. Justin Mathews’ recent insightful and honest article about white privilege garnered many heated remarks from readers, some declaring that “we don’t have to apologize for who we are.” The danger of this attitude can be that when we encounter conflict and offense we inevitably respond by shoring up walls and building a stronger defense of who we are. I’m suggesting that reconciliation requires something different. Reconciliation requires restoration and change, not justification. Reconciliation calls us out from behind those walls and invites us to a place of common ground, to build fences and “to restore favor.”

On our better days, we might readily apologize for something we did that was wrong or something we said that was hurtful. What about asking forgiveness for something we didn’t personally participate in, like redlining, slavery or segregation? Can we stand with those who have been degraded, abused and forgotten, striving to see what they see and feel what they feel? If we are seeking true reconciliation does it really matter whether or not we can pinpoint our specific role in an offense or injustice?

In the Orthodox Christian Church we begin the season of Lent by asking forgiveness of one another. It is a fresh start to a season of deep prayer and contemplation. We literally ask forgiveness of and embrace each member of our church, those we know well and those we don’t. We ask forgiveness of the children and the adults, those we may truly have offended and those whom we know we have not. We do this because we understand that in order to be reconciled to God we must first be reconciled with one another.  We seek to be aware of our role in reconciliation, our struggle to take first steps. For those things known and unknown, realizing that although we may not have wronged the individual standing in front of us, our separation from or offense against anyone hurts our whole community.

“Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see God,” it charges in Hebrews 12:14. Pursuing peace, striving for reconciliation, is hard work. It is an active working to restore favor, not a hope that someday it may come.

I wish I could say that when I tried to talk with my old high school friend about the dissonance between us that she opened her heart, that she wanted reconciliation too. Unfortunately, she remained distant until I left for college. It was a great sadness for me at the time. I learned through that struggle though, that reconciliation is first and foremost my own personal journey towards restoration. We may not know how our heart’s desire for reconciliation will be received, but the best way to find out is to take the first step.

Article by Jodi Mathews

Deconstructing Dominant Narratives as an Act of Veneration

White actors in blackface, depictions of slaves as grotesque beasts, and justifications of the KKK as a peace-keeping institution are among the many controversial features of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 Civil War epic, The Birth of a Nation. The film hit the silver screen as one of Hollywood’s first major motion pictures with an unprecedented budget for its time. A cinematic marvel, it featured some of the earliest uses of panoramic long shots and night photography, as well as impressive large-scale battle scenes and sets. It was a commercial success and was even shown at the White House under President Woodrow Wilson. The film’s impact cannot be underestimated.

For all its innovations, The Birth of a Nation is equally laden with negative racial stereotypes. These stereotypes supported racially prejudiced dominant narratives–commonly held understandings about history or culture that gave preference to the dominant class. The film features white actors in blackface, and depicts black slaves as unruly, savage and subhuman. The film climaxes with a scene depicting an all-white heavenly multitude assembled around a fair-skinned Jesus. Aside from the racist images, the most influential ideas communicated in the film are that the Civil War was not about slavery; black participation in politics created anarchy in government and the KKK used reasonable methods to restore order to the South.

Like today’s entertainment, The Birth of a Nation channelled common interpretations of current events and solidified these ideas in popular culture. Racist conceptions of slave life and inaccurate understandings about the war were perpetuated in both entertainment and historical scholarship, and they have continued into the present day. In fact, I was taught that the Civil War was not about slavery in an American History class I took at a Texas community college. One of my professors once said that the Civil War was one of those rare instances when history was written by the loser (the former Confederacy).

The Birth of a Nation embodies several examples of dominant narratives. The most prominent narrative running throughout the film is the idea that institutional slavery and the establishment of the KKK were justified because blacks are somehow prone to violent behavior and need to be controlled. These are not simply out-dated prejudices, but are still very much alive. Consider the recent attempt to downplay the severity of slavery in response to the First Lady’s comments about the White House having been built by slaves or a recent police video in which an officer voiced the opinion that black people may have “violent tendencies.”  These stereotypes feed dominant narratives that not only omit other voices, but fail to recognize each person as a unique living icon worthy of veneration. In this case, veneration looks like honoring someone by listening to a story that may run counter to popular prejudices or a dominant narrative.

I am guilty of participating in these negative dominant narratives. Some of these narratives I’ve mentioned in my blog, Approaching the Homeless as Icons of Christ or Problems to be Fixed. I often make assumptions about others and create caricatures out of them. When someone asks me for money, I judge their character or assume the worst about their situation. Like The Birth of a Nation, I allow my prejudices to influence my opinions about people and I distance myself because of it. Some of these narratives are rooted in white privilege - social benefits I have not earned yet nevertheless enjoy by virtue of my racial and social background.

Someone recently pointed out to me that while I can choose to not think about race or issues surrounding skin color, people of color do not have that privilege. I can choose to live in a “post-racial society” by surrounding myself with people for whom race is not a significant factor. I can construct a dominant narrative about the world that is free of racial tension. I can choose to close my ears to the experiences of those who have been disenfranchised or who have suffered because of institutional racism, simply because it does not affect me on a personal level. I am working to deconstruct this narrative nearly every day and I need grace to be open enough to listen to the stories of others.

St. Paul instructs his first century multi-cultural church, “Honor one another above yourselves” (Romans 12:9). This is done—as he later says—when we “mourn with those who mourn,” and in my case, when I listen to other narratives.

This year, another film is being released titled The Birth of a Nation. It is set over thirty years before the Civil War and tells the story of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion of 1831. Will this version receive as warm a welcome as the 1915 film? Unlike the original Birth of a Nation, Nat Turner’s story is not one of victory, and it did not result in the permanent liberation of slaves. Turner’s rebellion was bloody, wrought with complicated ethical questions and problems. Will those questions be probed, or will the film catch criticism for glorifying racially-motivated violence and sedition?

I believe the film will be an opportunity to listen to another story, one that runs counter to the dominant narrative. The Birth of a Nation tells a story defending the legitimacy of slavery and racism, and Nat Turner’s story challenges us to look at our history and the conditions of slavery that pushed people to revolution. For me, it will be yet another chance to deconstruct a dominant narrative. It will be an opportunity to mourn with those who have mourned throughout our history. It will be an opportunity to listen.

Further reading:

Redefining Black Film, Mark A. Reid
Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film, Ed Guerrero
“Arts of the Contact Zone,” Mary Louise Pratt
“The Social Construction of Race,” Ian Haney Lopez

Article by Jonathan Reavis

Acknowledging White Privilege: An Act of Veneration

Ed, a middle aged white man from North Carolina, took the microphone and said, “I frequently observe in myself a lot of racism. I flee it by fleeing social media and internet usage ... but it comes up anyway, over and over. It comes up especially when I hear the term ‘white privilege.’ I ask you, how can I combat this?” Giving up the microphone, Ed, sat down. We were both attending the annual St. Moses the Black Brotherhood conference.

I first met Ed a few years ago when he visited my church. He stayed long after others left the sanctuary. Ed loves to polish brass for the churches he visits and he’s meticulous. He even carries with him a kit of soft bristle brushes, homemade paste and scraps of rag. As he polished the furrows of a single candlestick from the altar, he revealed beauty hidden under the wax, the soot and the stain. The vulnerability and thoughtfulness of Ed’s question at the conference was as thoughtful and as revealing as his work on our church brass!

I have thought about that moment at the conference for some time now. What impacted me the most was Ed’s vulnerably in exposing his heart in front of a large group of primarily African American people. Ed broke the silence and took a risk. He began by saying, “I frequently observe in myself a lot of racism.” I remember thinking, “What would our world be like if more of us white people were willing to be this vulnerable?”

Like most white kids raised to be “Midwest nice,” my parents would not tolerate racism in our home. I don’t remember a single instance when my parents spoke in a racist way. In fact, I thought little about racism until about a decade ago when I read an essay by Dr. Peggy McIntosh entitled, “White Privilege: unpacking the invisible knapsack.”  It was then that I began to understand more clearly how racism works and how it relates to me.

Dr. McIntosh writes,

“As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects— white privilege—which puts me at an advantage.”

As a white man I had no problem acknowledging that racism was a real struggle for many. However, I had never considered my participation in the perpetuation of racism by default, by not acknowledging how I benefit from it. Dr. McIntosh helped me to realize that racism is not only individual acts of meanness but an invisible system conferring dominance and preference on my group. This is white privilege!

I benefit from a society that is still entangled in racial bias - a society where my skin color does not put me at a disadvantage. I don’t get tailed by police when I drive through nice neighborhoods in my rusty Ford. I don’t get followed around while I shop. My name on a letter or resume does not provoke questions about my race or intelligence. When people engage me, I am automatically perceived as financially stable.

My white privilege became especially real to me recently. My friend and I both have teenage sons. I’m white and he’s black. I’ve never had to teach my son how to act if police see him playing with a toy gun. He has. I’ve never had to caution my son that people may assume he is up to no good when out with his friends. He has. I’ve never had to explain to my son that no matter how smart he is or how hard he works, he will always be seen as inferior by some people because of his skin color. He has!

Dr. McIntosh writes,

“I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.”

My personal knapsack came with economic, educational, gender and racial privileges. Acknowledging this privilege is not about feeling guilty or disavowing my heritage. Being born a white male doesn’t automatically mean I am a racist! Rather, in acknowledging my white privilege I am choosing to use this privilege to help others who unjustly bear burdens I do not.

St. Paul wrote, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2). To acknowledge my white privilege is to engage the faith that was given by a Savior whose first public sermon began by proclaiming ‘liberty to those who are oppressed' (Luke 4:18). Racism is a heresy, a rejection of the idea that every person is made in God’s image and likeness and worthy of veneration. As a Christian I am compelled by the Gospel to acknowledge racism, to reject its every form, and to repent for it in my life and, where I discover it, in the life of my forefathers.

Ed’s vulnerability at the conference reminded me of things I had read and seen through my work at RS. Breaking silence and taking risks to talk about the impact of racism and white privilege is an act of veneration and love. Like Ed, I desire to be meticulous about cleaning away the wax, the soot and the stain left from the legacy of slavery, racism and segregation on the furrows of my heart. When I acknowledge that I have white privilege it leaves me with the question of, “What do I do with it?” For, “to whom much is given, much is expected" (Luke 12:48).

Article by Fr. Justin Mathews, Executive Director of Reconciliation Services.

Paying Attention is a Form of Veneration

Recently I tried something dangerous with my sons: forging! Fires ablaze, molten hot steel, and heavy hammers wielded by an 11 and 13 year old; not usually a recipe for a successful outing but the Boy Scout troop we are a part of decided to give it a try last weekend. Like the other dads, I was brimming with manly excitement on the day the campout began. I knew nothing of forging but I made a quick study on youtube and purposed to pound out three railroad spike knives and a few great memories with the boys. However, in the process of working on our first project something happened. Through it I learned three valuable lessons about the importance of cultivating my attention rigorously in order to live a life of love and veneration.

After our first few blows against the cold anvil steel, I placed our railroad spike in the flame of the forge to heat up again. I then turned to reposition the tools but by the time I turned back, half of the spike had melted away! One minute we were making a blade worthy of the Dwarfs of the Lonely Mountain, the next all we had was a molten twig like the leftovers from a sparkler on the 4th of July! In an instant I learned that when you are forging, nothing, not one thing, can overtake your attention.  

Cultivate attention to preparation
Here in lies my first lesson. I should have spent more time surveying the setup, prepare the tools, and coordinating roles with my son before we began. The Scripture says in Luke 14:28, “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has what is needed to complete it?” Attention to preparation is an essential part of any work worth undertaking but I was too excited to slow down and prepare properly. Additionally, my son’s excitement to get started was hard to resist. Like a young man with zeal but little knowledge, I thrust the project into the fire before all was prepared and ultimately paid the price. I believe this lesson is as true in forging as it is in my work, my prayer life, and especially in my relationships. 

Cultivate my attention daily and purposefully
You should have seen the disappointment on my son’s face when he realized that the early form of his blade was now only slag in the fire. Slag is what you dig out of the coal ash when you make a mistake like this—molten rock and metal fused into a useless lump. His disappointment lingered almost as long as the oily soot on his cheeks that day. I felt terrible as if somehow I had caused his distress directly. He tried to hide his frustration as he sat on a stump near the forge but would not speak for a long while. Here is where I learned my second lesson: if I do not cultivate my attention daily and purposefully, accidents happen and these can strain the relationships with those I love the most. Now, I can rationalize this accident, size it up against “real trauma” and say it wasn’t my fault, but I know that would be just another distraction. I needed to pay attention to my son’s disappointment and look into my failing, the slag in the bottom of the forge of my own heart, to remind myself of why deep intentionality with my attention is worth the effort.

Cultivate attention to the state of my heart
As my son and I returned to salvage the project the best we could, another problem arose. It kept taking longer to heat the spike and make it pliable. The fire was quickly waning. A more experienced friend taught us why. In forging, slag builds up over time as a natural process of creating and can plug the fan beneath the flames and kill the fire. A good blacksmith, he said, pays attention to the flame and periodically sifts the coals, dredges up the slag, and removes it. 

As I reflected on this later, I remembered that St. Paul wrote about slag in his letter to the Church in Rome when he said, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God...” (Rom 3:23).  Slag builds up in my heart and removing it is critical to keeping the fires of inspiration hot. Simply put, I need to cultivate attention to the state of the flame in the forge of my heart. I know to do this but regularly I let my attention get drawn away by distractions. I know how to remove the slag too. For me this is regular confession to God in quiet reflection daily. I’m embarrassed to admit how difficult it is to make time to do that. In my heart there are projects incomplete, bits of intentions left undone, and parts of prayers dangling mid-sentence—all melted away in moments of distraction. No wonder the fires of inspiration flicker somedays! I am so thankful for learning this third lesson.

My wife has a quote on the chalkboard in our house by Simone Weil, a French philosopher, Christian mystic, and political activist, that says, “Attention is the purest form of generosity.” I appreciate that reminder. Learning to cultivate my attention is a form of charity, veneration and love that takes sacrifice and practice, especially in my work at RS and with my family. 

There are so many exciting projects but without attention to preparation, accidents will happen. There are people who count on me and our RS team daily who are struggling to survive and succeed, and without my cultivating attention daily I will inadvertently disappoint and fail those who I care for the most and finally, I need to lead by example in cultivating attention to my heart and removing the slag to keep the flame burning hot enough to be effective. There is no greater gift I can give myself and those I love than well cultivated attention. 

By the end of the weekend my sons and I had completed three railroad spike knives and polished them to a brilliant shine. We were exhausted but I had learned a lot about an ancient art and the cultivation of my attention as an act of generosity, love, and veneration.

Article by Fr. Justin Mathews, Executive Director of Reconciliation Services.

Veneration as Celebration

As a mother of three boys, I know the power of celebration. It is one of a mother’s many responsibilities, to celebrate. I rejoice in the accomplishments and milestones of my guys. I watch them grow and learn, always looking for moments to celebrate, to venerate. And when the awards don’t come and the race is not won, I still encourage my kids, I still value them, I still celebrate and venerate them.

It is easy to celebrate a child, especially our own. We see such joy, such potential. We may even see our own strengths and influences in those celebratory moments. And in their innocence and humility, children see little shame in seeking praise. So, we readily celebrate small things. We honor the mundane. We venerate them simply because of who they are.

At Reconciliation Services we talk often of the mission to see each person we come in contact with as a unique person created by God and therefore worthy of veneration, celebration, honor. That word honor is synonymous with both venerate and celebrate.

That connection between celebration as veneration was so tangible to me recently.

It was a very active Friday night meal at RS. It was a cheerful energy, the kind that good food and intense conversation can conjure. Sometimes in that crowd there is a quiet celebration waiting to happen. Sometimes I am blessed enough to get to be in on it.

David walked in and greeted me as he often does.

“Do you remember me?” he asked. “Of course I do, David. I haven’t see you in awhile.” He told me he had a birthday recently. “I turned 52,” he said. I congratulated him of course and told him that I, too, recently had a birthday. He pointed out that I share a birthday with his uncle and then he named several people he knew with birthdays near my own. He recalled each person’s age and birthdate.  “You’re really good at remembering dates,” I told him. “Yeah, people say I am pretty good with numbers,” he said.

Then he reached inside his big winter coat and pulled out an envelope. He opened the envelope, which had his name neatly written on the front. “Would you like to sign my birthday card?” he asked. “Of course I would. Thanks for asking.”

David is a tall, quiet man. There is no arrogance in him. He is guileless and simple and gentle. He often wears multiple coats and carries a black leather satchel. You won’t likely see him without his hat on or a hood pulled up over his head. He is poor. He is homeless.

At first, I felt quite sad for him. Had he been carrying that card around for days just hoping someone would know, would ask to sign it? Only, David wasn’t sad. He was smiling, like he always does, and he was excited to see me sign his card. It wasn’t a sorry attempt at pity or attention. David didn’t announce his birthday to the room full of people gathered for the Friday night free meal at Reconciliation Services. Surely we would have sung to him, congratulated him, patted him on the back. He didn’t make his way around the room adding signature after signature to his precious birthday card. He asked me, just me.

David offered me a personal invitation to know him, to celebrate him. He made himself so vulnerable to me and in turn challenged me to be vulnerable too. I don’t like to feel vulnerable. I like my boundaries. I can serve the Friday night meal with a smile and willingly pour cup after cup of lemonade and wipe table after table. I keep moving. I keep doing.

David’s invitation was immediate and profound. It couldn’t be hurried or brushed aside. He cut right through my walls and said, “See me.” Was he an angel sent by God to test me, to prove me? Was it the voice of God Himself, saying, “I invite YOU”? Perhaps.

I’ve never carried around my own birthday card, seeking signatures. But I do long to be known, to be celebrated. David’s openness really challenged me. It brought me back to that place at my very core that longs to be close to God, to welcome his participation, his presence. Being vulnerable with one another makes this closeness possible--closeness with one another and closeness with God. We return to that celebrated state, that place of veneration, where we honor and are very much honored as well.

Can celebration be as simple as signing a homeless man’s birthday card? Yes, it is a good place to begin.

I remember you David. I see you. Thank you for inviting me to celebrate you, to venerate you. And thank you for venerating and celebrating me also.

Article by Jodi Mathews

Reflecting on the Year


Most of us know the pain of falling and bruising or worse, breaking something. Feelings of embarrassment or loss of dignity and vulnerability often follow. In gifting every person who comes to Reconciliation Services with the dignity and respect that we ourselves need when we are hurting, places us on a level playing field with our clients. This is a step forward on the road to our mutual healing. The many practical services that we provide with the generous help of our donors flow from the awareness of our own vulnerability and our desire for love from our fellow human beings. In partnering with us in our mission, you are helping us achieve our vision that those who come to 31st and Troost who have fallen through the cracks find dignity, strength and the solutions they need to build vibrant community together.

This year has been an amazing year of growth for RS in furthering our mission to build community by revealing the strength of those we serve, providing emergency services and promoting self-sufficiency. In 2014 our assets grew by 30%, new revenues by 10% and we helped 2,800 people receive emergency services! To increase our success even further in 2015, continued participation and collaboration between businesses, government bodies, non-governmental organizations and individuals like you is critical.

I want to thank all of our donors for your vital support and belief in our vision. We’ve been on an amazing journey together so far but the best part is just beginning. I look forward to seeing what we achieve in the coming year.

Fr Justin