advent journal: this is bethlehem


By the time most of you read this, Ginger will have received her Christmas present. She will be on a bus headed for Birmingham, Alabama as a part of the 21st Century Freedom Ride, which has been organized by a group here in Durham. They are riding from here to Atlanta and then to Birmingham for two days of retreat and renewal and challenge as they look at race relations in our country today. I found out about it through Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, one of the organizers and a fellow resident here in the Bull City. Tonight, we kicked off the Ride with a mass meeting to address racial profiling that met at St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church in the Walltown neighborhood. Jonathan describes how the meeting and the ride go together:

I’m delighted that my friend and mentor Rev. William Barber has agreed to kick-off this Freedom Ride with a Mass Meeting right here in Walltown to address the problem of racial profiling and the ways it is connected to our present struggle against a new Jim Crow–”the same old hatred,” as Rev. Barber says, “just dressed up in a suit with a business card that says ‘James Crow, Esq.’” For us, this Freedom Ride is growing directly out of the struggle of our neighborhood. (I witnessed police harassment of two young men from Walltown on our streets this week.) It is, we pray, an invitation to grow deeper in the wisdom of those who’ve gone before us and root our efforts in the rich soil of the Freedom Movement. But it is also an opportunity to recognize the many ways that our efforts for God’s new world in this place are tied to the efforts of other neighborhoods and others’ concerns.
Because, as Faulker said, history is never behind us. It’s not even past.
The same powers that King and so many others learned to name in the late 1960′s are still fragmenting communities and dealing death in our world today. And, just as importantly, the same gospel way that King chose to walk–all the way to the cross–is still a way open to us today.
Indeed, it is the only Way.

As I sat in the church tonight, on the cusp of 2013 and the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, I was troubled by the barrage of statistics:

  • African Americans make up 20% of the population of North Carolina but 57% of the prison population;
  • African Americans are pulled over by the police nine times more often than white people;
  • African Americans buy 15% of the cocaine sold in this country but make up 70% of the arrests.

Fifty years on and the work of equality and justice is far from done. When Rev. William Barber, the President of the North Carolina NAACP, stood up to speak, he wound those statistics into the season. “If you’re not challenging injustice,” he said toward the end of his sermon, “you’re not celebrating Christmas.”

He spoke brilliantly about Christmas being an “ugly story” of a poor and pregnant woman in her eighth month being forced to ride across the desert to pay taxes because the king wanted more; a violent story of a king who was willing to profile and kill all of the baby boys because he wanted to hold on to power; a compelling story because it calls us to trust in transformation: “Sometimes,” he said, “the people we look at most suspiciously might be our saviors.” He returned to talking about the challenge of dealing with the injustice in our country embedded in race and poverty and said, “This is Bethlehem. If you’re not challenging injustice, you’re not celebrating Christmas.”

The words bear repeating.

On the bus with Ginger are folks like Vincent Harding, who worked with Martin Luther King and has spent his life celebrating Christmas, and others like David Ramirez who are celebrating for a new generation dealing with immigration issues. Ginger is traveling, on her father’s birthday, back to her hometown where she was born in the downtown Birmingham hospital during the Children’s Crusade, just blocks away from the jail where  Martin wrote his Letter from the Birmingham Jail not even a month before. I expect she will come home with her own sense of transformation.

After the meeting tonight, I realize I have some celebrating of my own to do,even without a bus trip. After all, this is Bethlehem.





  1. Boston is Bethlehem too. So I have just found a new mantra — and challenge — for myself: “If you are not challenging injustice, you’re not celebrating Christmas.” Amen! Thanks Milton!

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