Why Holder Did Not Have to Come, or Why We March and Protest

September 15, 2014 in Faith Matters, Guest Blog by André Johnson

An Open Letter to James Woods

I read with interest the article by Commercial Appeal’s Wendi Thomas as she informed us of your series of tweets challenging Attorney General Eric Holder to come to Memphis to address the “Kroger racial hate crime.” You further challenge the Attorney General to “do the right thing” by coming to Memphis and to “address the cancer of ALL racism in America.” I guess since Holder went to Ferguson, in your logic, he should come to Memphis.

First, I would like to thank you for your concern. What happened in the Kroger parking lot Saturday night was not only awful, but down right wrong. To beat anyone as the group of youths did to those three people is indeed sad and speaks to how humans can treat other humans with total disregard to their humanity. As a pastor and professor here in Memphis, I too watched the video in disgust as I shook my head as yet another cell phone video captured another violent act. So thank you for your concern. Having someone of your statue and Twitter following advocating on the behalf of us here in the city of Memphis is indeed a good thing to have.

However, I do feel the need to inform you on your position challenging Eric Holder to come to Memphis and “do the right thing.” First, the incident did not constitute a “hate crime.” Now, I know how you came to believe that it did—our friends in the local media, especially television news coverage of the incident, initially framed it that way. They told us how this black mob indiscriminately just singled out unsuspecting white people and like a plague of uncontrolled rage, descended upon them viciously to beat them unmercifully. Just a cursory examination of the comment section of various media outlets and you would think we were readying ourselves for an all out race war.

Upon further inspection however, we discovered that one of the three people beaten that night—indeed the first one was an African American woman who was just getting out of her car to go into Kroger. Again, how would you know that if you only saw news coverage of the poor white Kroger employee who was unmercifully kicked, beaten, and left there at the door of Kroger?

However, Mr. Woods, I do believe your “Holder Challenge” comes from another misinformed place. First, many people, apparently including you, believe that there is some double standard when it comes to racism. This explains why in a recent study, white people actually feel they experience more racism than blacks do. Now, I do not have the time to explain to you the definition of racism. There are plenty of sources available if you really want to understand the insidious nature of racism.

Second, you are also misinformed about something else—on why Holder or officials from the Department of Justice would come and intervene anywhere at all. In short, Mr. Woods, there is no need for Holder to come to Memphis because within an hour there was a press conference held by the Mayor and Police Director to address the crime. Within 48 hours, there were arrests, charges and soon to follow indictments and convictions. In other words, the people we entrusted to handle this situation did just that. There is no need for Holder or any other DOJ official to come to Memphis because the authorities are actually doing their job.

In your attempt however to shame the Attorney General, you did expose something else that many of us have been trying to articulate.  In asking Holder to come to Memphis for the “racial crime,” you do at least acknowledge that there was some “racial crime” in Ferguson. It is good that you at least believe that a white police officer shooting an unarmed black person with his hands up (according to just about every eyewitness) is simply wrong and someone should do something about that.

On this, we agree, but I invite you to ask yourself not to ask why Holder will not come to Memphis, but why did he have to go to Ferguson? Moreover, while you are reflecting, ask yourself why they had to march, why they had to protest, why they had to yell, scream, and holler. Why did the people in Ferguson have to bring attention to the fact that Michael Brown laid on the hot pavement in an apartment complex, shot and dead for four and one half hours after Darren Wilson shot him? If you are honest in your reflections sir, I do believe an answer will come.

I believe you will look back at the “investigation” and see that it really was not an investigation. You will look back and see that there was no police report. You will look back and see that at the time of the writing, the authorities have yet to arrest Darren Wilson. You will look back and see that the officials do not take the citizens who witnessed the shooting and offered testimony seriously. You will look back and see that the entire government of Ferguson was indifferent at best to the plight of the family of Michael Brown. When you do this, then you will begin to understand why Holder had to come and why the DOJ is now conducting a Civil Rights investigation of the entire Ferguson police department.

In closing, I do appreciate your concern about the Kroger incident here in Memphis. We are continuing to have discussions around this incident. I will participate in upcoming vigils on the parking lot of Kroger and conduct forums to address not only this but also other issues and problems germane to Memphis.

However, as the investigation of the Kroger incident concluded, it was not a hate crime or a “racial crime.” It was a crime of youth “wilding out” and doing some great harm. Here in Memphis, our officials acted quickly and made arrests and indictments will soon follow. That did not happen in Ferguson, so we continue to march, protest, and massively resist—trying to get people like you to understand that the system does not work for everyone the same way. Maybe the St. Louis DA will bring charges against Darren Wilson and maybe there will even be an indictment, but until then, see you in the streets. I will even make a sign for you.





Mysteries and Poetry

June 5, 2014 in Faith Matters by Mitzi Minor

My summer entertainment reading is always mystery novels which I’ve loved since meeting the Hardy Boys in 4th grade. Recently I’ve appreciated stories set in a different time period than my own, especially the early 20th century. Watching Downton Abbey made me realize how little I know about those years. Learning some history is more fun in the context of figuring out whodunit. I’m glad for the novels of Barbara Cleverly, Jacqueline Winspear, and Susan E. MacNeal, and I love love love the work of Laurie R. King.

I’m re-reading the poetry of David Whyte for my spiritual journey. Poets spark my imagination and inspire me to reconsider how I see myself or the world or God. I’m sorry our scientific culture usually considers poetry to be only “prettified language,” because anyone who doesn’t read Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver, Rilke, Rumi, William Stafford, Denise Levertov, and David Whyte among many others is missing a wealth of insight and possibility. Last summer I re-read Rumi. This summer is Whyte (“You must learn one thing. The world was made to be free in”). Those interested in turning or returning to poetry might try Roger Housden’s 10 Poems series (10 Poems to Set You Free; 10 Poems to Open Your Heart, etc.). Prepare to be moved!


All Prayers are Sectarian

May 6, 2014 in Faith Matters by Mark Muesse

It is a fallacy to think that there are such things as nonsectarian prayers. Even if “ceremonial” prayers make no mention of the distinctive appellations of particular religions (such as Jesus Christ for Christians, al-Lah for Muslims, or Adonai for Jews), all prayers are addressed to a personal deity, which most English-speakers call “god.” However, not all people—not even all religious people—believe in a personal deity. Hence, not all people—including religious people—pray. Prayers are performed by theists, those who imagine absolute reality to be human-like and amenable to personal appeal. But not all people—including religious people—are theists. Theism is a pervasive form of religious belief, to be sure, but it is not the only form. Thus, to make prayer of any sort acceptable on government-sponsored occasions is to show preference for one form of religious expression to the exclusion of others. And the preferential treatment of any particular religious form—even if that form is as widely held as theism—violates the spirit of the separation of church and state.


Outrage to Go Around

April 30, 2014 in Faith Matters by Mitzi Minor

I want to begin my response to the NBA situation with a salute to business owners and people with financial resources who use their assets to make the world safer, healthier, better educated, and more beautiful. Because the “squeaky wheel gets the grease,” media attention is directed at Sterling’s awful behavior while so many go on doing good with little recognition. I’m sorry that we’re such a culture, so I begin by pointing toward the lovely, creative, and generous folks in our midst and saying to them, “Thank you.”

Then there’s Donald Sterling, the wealthy NBA owner who made despicable racist statements. I appreciate the NBA acting forcefully to communicate how contemptible his words are. Even so, I find myself nearly as outraged at the NBA as at Sterling. NBA people—commissioner, owners, and players—cannot be surprised that Sterling uttered such words. He has made his character clear many times, and all the while the NBA put up with him. Where was NBA outrage before when he was racist, testified to paying younger women for sex (why do we condemn women who sell sex but not the men who buy it?), or discriminated in housing practices? Apparently this time his behavior became too public to be ignored, so, suddenly, the NBA is outraged. Pardon my lack of sympathy.  When people tolerate disgusting behavior, they shouldn’t be surprised when that behavior comes back to bite them

And why did the NBA tolerate his behavior? It surely looks like the league wanted his money. Other NBA owners, business people who make big bucks on sports, even NBA players who want huge salaries were apparently willing to bear Sterling’s loathsome behavior in order to have access to his money. Doesn’t that make the NBA as much a “gold digger” as many people consider his young girlfriend(s) to be?

The NBA needs to be as outraged at itself as it is at Sterling.


Belief is Half the Battle

April 24, 2014 in Faith Matters by Mitzi Minor

One of the things I like most about Memphis and Memphians is that I don’t find a lot of pretentiousness about us. There’s much to love here (beautiful springs, the Civil Rights Museum, our barbecue, Shelby Farms, excellent colleges, Elvis impersonators may show up anywhere anytime, the Orpheum, the Church Health Center, Cooper-Young Festival, great restaurants, knowledgeable basketball fans, Beale Street of course, and on and on). But we also know we’ve got problems that need attention, and we don’t pretend otherwise. We don’t always know what will work (for the city budget, persistent racism, creating an excellent school system, solving poverty and crime and on and on), but we don’t pretend we have no work to do. I find us to be a realistic, hard-working bunch of folks who keep plugging away at the things we need to fix.

Though the saying has become a cliché, it’s still true: the Grizzlies are just like us. There’s a lot to love about the Griz, but there are no superstars, this year not even an All Star. They are a hard-working, realistic bunch who know they must play together, never quit, and get back up when they get knocked down. They face injuries, Calathes’ suspension, highlight plays by the other team’s superstar, and still they keep plugging away at winning playoff games. So, how can we not believe in them? Believing in the Grizzlies and believing in Memphis is the same kind of belief. If the Griz can beat OKC with its glitzy superstar, then we can create good schools for our kids. Maybe it happens this year, maybe it doesn’t. But we believe it will happen. And belief is half the battle.

As a person of faith, I can bear witness that inspiring belief is not easy. The Grizzlies have given us a great gift. So, we give back by pulling so hard for them! Go Griz!!


Balancing Personal Convictions & Public Good

April 10, 2014 in Faith Matters by Mitzi Minor

Our healthcare system is in transition. At present we have the ACA which mandates health insurance for everyone, which is good but also new. Meanwhile, we’ve kept the old vehicle for getting most people their insurance, the employer-provided, “for profit” system. Jesus once said that putting new wine into old wineskins is a really dumb idea. We seem determined to prove him right.

When health insurance is mandated and then provided by employers, what happens when the needs and religious beliefs of employee and employer don’t mesh? As a woman I’m sympathetic to the women who want/need birth control coverage in their health insurance. As a person of faith, I’m sympathetic to those employers who don’t want to be complicit in medical practices which violate their religious beliefs. A just system should not create such conflicts, so our larger concern should be here.

But meanwhile, how should the courts decide this case? As a person of faith, I don’t believe that my religious convictions regarding healthcare should dictate what others can or cannot do about their own healthcare. One consideration: allowing religious convictions to determine health insurance coverage gets tricky. If Hobby Lobby owners can say they won’t pay for certain birth control methods, then what about employers who don’t believe in blood transfusions or consider smoking to be a sin and refuse to pay for lung cancer treatments, etc.? A 2nd consideration: being part of a pluralistic society means we always struggle to balance the public will with personal convictions. For example, my Christian convictions call me to oppose the death penalty, but I am required to pay taxes, some of which are used to prosecute death penalty cases. I have the legal right to protest the death penalty. I do not have the legal right to withhold taxes. So, the struggle of Hobby Lobby owners isn’t unique. It’s new because of the ACA.


Skipping to Work

April 3, 2014 in Faith Matters by Mitzi Minor

One downside to our capitalist, consumer culture is that we’ve reduced so many of life’s decisions down to dollars. So, jobs are about paychecks for rich and poor alike. As a youth minister, I knew rich kids who were forbidden to choose college majors in the area of their hearts’ desire because they “couldn’t make enough money” doing that work. I once heard a man in my home church say he went every day of his life to a job he hated so he could feed his family. Who among us wants a life like that? Poor folks are expected to accept any job that brings a paycheck, no matter how small it is, how demeaning and grinding the work, how badly they might be treated on the job, etc. Personally, I can understand those who choose a few less dollars from a welfare check to avoid such circumstances.

My understanding of the gracious, creative, loving God of Jesus, along with my experience of life, tells me we need to broaden our conversations beyond dollars. We can’t ignore dollars, but we mustn’t stop there. There are other, wider questions we can fruitfully explore. What makes life beautiful and purposeful? What kind of work enables you or me or any of us to become creative contributors to the world around us? What makes a classroom or workplace hum with positive energy? We’ve all seen kids skip down a sidewalk or across a playground. Kids skip when their joy just bubbles up and propels their legs forward, almost dancing. So, maybe THE question to ask, the one that captures all the others, is: What would make any of us (rich, middle class, poor) skip to work?

I’m pretty sure our capitalist, consumer culture isn’t going to lead us to such a question. But our faith communities can. And should.


Julie Bailey new pastor of First Presbyterian

February 26, 2014 in Faith Matters by David Waters

Jullie BaileyRev. Julie Bailey has been named the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Downtown Memphis.

She officially begins March 5 at the traditional joint Ash Wednesday service with First United Methodist Church. Her first Sunday in the pulpit will be March 9.

She succeeds the Rev. C.V. “Bo” Scarborough, who retired last summer.

Bailey also serves as the Presbytery of the Mid-South’s interim director of campus ministries at The University of Memphis.

“Julie is a dynamic preacher and leader, and we are overjoyed that she will be joining us,” says Linda D. Scholl, clerk of the session of the 186-year-old church. “This is certainly a unique and exciting arrangement that we feel will bring us new worship and service opportunities, for which we are known.”

Bailey is a graduate of the University of Mississippi and Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga. Her husband, Davis Bailey, is pastor at Buntyn Presbyterian Church. They have two young daughters.

Julie and Davis previously served as associate pastors at Evergreen Presbyterian Church.

Says Bailey: “When I received the invitation from First Pres, I thought it was too good to be true: I get to pastor a church with a long-standing record of living out its faith in Memphis, while continuing with Presbyterian campus ministries at The University of Memphis. I am overjoyed, humbled, and excited. God never ceases to amaze me. I look forward to working alongside the members of First Pres in this new era of its ministry.”

Established in 1828, First Presbyterian Church has been located at the corner of Poplar at Third since 1834. It is a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Noted for its urban outreach, the church conducts a sit-down Sunday soup kitchen, clothes closet, birth certificate and state voter i.d. programs for the homeless, and provides space for SNAP (food stamps) assistance during the week.

For further information, please contact church administrator Diana Veazey at

901-525-5619,  firstpresmemphis@bellsouth.net


Syrian survivors speak at U of M Tuesday

February 10, 2014 in Faith Matters by David Waters

Three survivors of the poison gas massacres in Syria last summer are scheduled to speak Tuesday at the University of Memphis.

“Voices from Syria” will be held from 5:30-8:30 p.m. in the University Center Ballroom. Refreshments will be served. The free event is being sponsored by the Syrian American Council and the Muslim Student Association of the U of M.

Last August, the Syrian regime attacked civilians with poison gas in two towns near Damascus, killing 1,400 people. Afterward, the regime promised to give up the weapons to avoid a U.S. military strike.



Nina Katz: 1924-2014

February 9, 2014 in Faith Matters by David Waters

jwkatzbw_t607Nina Katz, the Holocaust survivor who became a voice for tolerance, diversity and literacy in Memphis, died Sunday.

Katz was born in 1924 in Poland. In 1939, her parents, grandfather and younger sister were taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp where the perished. She was sent to Oberaltstadt to work in a textile factory in a slave labor camp. She was among 800 survivors to be liberated by Allied troops in 1945.

“Why I survived, I do not know. But I told myself I would carry the message of justice,” Katz told The Commercial Appeal in 2007.

Katz and her husband moved from Israel to Memphis in 1949. She helped to establish the Memphis Literacy Council, co-founded Diversity Memphis, and was the first female chairman of the board for the Memphis chapter of the National Conference of Christians and Jews.

“Her involvement and passion made all of us try harder, appreciate what we had more and realize that one person standing up could make a difference,” said Jim Foreman, longtime executive director of the NCCJ. “Let us all strive to be better in her memory.”

Her funeral will be held at 3 p.m. Sunday at Anshei Sphard Cemetery, 3160 Airways. The family will be sitting Shiva at a later time.