Monthly Archives: August 2010

Oscar Grant: Murder as Accident

Last January I was in Berkeley taking an urban ministry class entitled “Refuge in the City” with Bishop Yvette Flunder.  Earlier that month, January 1st in fact, Oscar Grant, an unarmed 22 year-old African American man, was shot in the back by a transit officer on the platform of a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station.  Video capturing the shooting showed Grant subdued by numerous officers, lying facedown on the platform, when he was shot by the officer above him.

Public outrage, protests, and rioting occurred in Oakland in the aftermath of the released cell phone footage captured by at least one passenger on board of a stopped train as the incident played itself out the nearby platform.

Was this lethal use of force a tragic accident or a brutal abuse of police power?  The question still lingers.

The way it comes across in the video it’s pretty hard to image a justifiable circumstance for shooting this young man.  However, footage can be deceiving, especially grainy, cell phone footage.  The officer, Johannes Mehserle, claimed that Grant was struggling and reaching into his pocket so he fired his .40 caliber pistol which he mistook for his stungun.  BART transit officers carry two firearm shaped weapons: the pistol on the right side of their body and a X26 Taser on the left side.  Defense for officer Mehserle claimed that he never received adequate training with the taser while the prosecution highlighted how different the actions of pulling the gun versus pulling the taser would have been.

40 Caliber Pistol & X26 Taser

40 Caliber Pistol & X26 Taser

When I talked to friends back home no one had heard of the shooting.  I was shocked at the lack of coverage in the national news, especially in the face of substantial riots in Oakland.  Flash forward to this July.  The transit officer has just been convicted of involuntary manslaughter – not murder.  The outrage in Oakland is back and so is the lack of coverage… and when the media does cover the story they focus on the symptoms of rioting and looting rather than the injustice which caused them.

While it is shameful to use justifiable outrage and protests as an excuse for rioting and looting, it is just as shameful to use the rioting as a smoke screen for a frank and honest civic discussion of this incident and the verdict.  Something was horribly wrong about this story back in January of 2009 and something is still horribly wrong in August of 2010.

Reaction to Verdict of Johannes Mehserle

People React to the Verdict on July 2, 2010

If the media remains committed to its usual subterfuge and avoidance of critical engagement with vital issues of our day, something must be done.  Is there another forum we can foster where this public discourse can happen?  I suggest that we both hold our media accountable to its vocation as a source of news, dialogue, and thoughtful discernment as well as begin work to create our own forums and open spaces for these lifebloods of democracy.  Democracy itself might just be in the balance.

Jail Killer CopsHere is a New America Media article wrestling with the taser vs. pistol defense and a brief write-up (and link to the aforementioned video) from Mother Jones that doesn’t seem interested in mincing words when one of the words is murder.

Also, here is a podcast that discusses the incident and repercussions in depth and addresses the racial undertow that makes these set of events possible.  The podcast is hosted by a wonderful and fiery author, cultural analyst, poet, essayist, and activist Ewuare Osayande.

Collaborative Planning and the Body of Christ

National Planning Committee

A Meeting of the 2011 National Planning Committee

Can Christians work together in a truly equitable and collaborative manner across boundaries like denomination, race, gender, geography, political and theological viewpoints?  If asked before becoming involved with the planning for the Congress on Urban Ministry I would have easily replied: not likely.  Not only is our culture becoming more polarized but we also seem less and less able to engage in reasoned, open dialogue.  Maybe it is our stunted ability to truly listen or perhaps a reflexive tendency to see the world in black & white but whatever the cause, our ability to reconcile differences, to understand differing viewpoints, and to compromise seems under real threat.  Need evidence?  Watch five minutes of a panel “discussing” an issue on the nightly news.

What is stunning then is that dialogue and listening and compromise and mutual understanding do still happen.  Overall, my acclimatization to working at SCUPE has been minor as they come from a similar prophetic, justice orientated, contextual, and thus, open paradigm.  One significant place where I have been challenged is to see that a part of  being truly open is creating space for the other.  Collaboration, partnership, and conspiring (literally breathing together) become possible only when our stance of being open to the other is authentic… and authentic openness means that we must purposefully be closed ourselves (usually this involves closing, specifically, the mouth).

The rewards of this process are numerous.  As someone who would rather conspire only with those of a similar mind I have come to see how this can in fact be limiting.  Having a diversity of perspectives, emphasis-es, and experiences at the planning table for the 2011 Congress on Urban Ministry has meant that we have been taken to unexpected places and found unexpected connections between concepts, paradigms, and practices which we initially considered disparate.

In another sense, this model of planning is essential because it directs the focus and agenda of a church, denomination, or, in this case SCUPE upon a wealth of needs and assets.  Is there a better way to understand the city than as collections of communities that contain both needs and assets?  If a gathering is to step away from the top-down, expert-driven, conference mentality it must allow for the a variety and diversity of voices to be heard.  As we plan for the 2011 Congress I am proud to become a part of a 30-plus year tradition of striving across differences towards the Kingdom of God.

They city is an astounding place of differences rubbing elbows, quite literally, in confined areas.  In a globalizing world in which the world is both getting incredibly small and, most theorists argue, increasingly localized: How would urban ministry be different if we saw our mission in the city as one of creating open spaces where different people groups and ideologies and expressions of life could come together?  What if urban ministers saw their charge as being radically open to the other?  What if we took seriously Paul’s words that the church now is the body of Christ and that this body knows no divisions or boundaries?  I’d like to think that the sort of “getting along” this might inspire might not be just for the kindergarten playground…

Summer Discoveries in Chicago

Holy Family Lutheran Church in Chicago, IL

Hosting out-of-town ministry tour groups has become one of my side-lines here in Chicago.  While ministry tours involve a good bit of scheduling and patience, they also provide me with great discoveries!  I get to see how God and his people are meeting the needs of many Chicagoans.  Here’s a sample of my “discoveries” during summer 2010.

  • The Greater Chicago Food Depository distributes food items to more than 650 pantries, soup kitchens and shelters serving 678,000 people. From its enormous warehouse on Chicago’s southwest side, the Food Depository distributed enough food last year to serve 135,000 meals every day!
  • While some local churches have closed or moved away, Chicago’s Holy Family Lutheran Church continues to carry on a heroic ministry in the city’s former Cabrini Green Community. Rev. Leslie Hunter, youth director and assistant minister at Holy Family Church, carries on an intensive ministry through preaching, teaching, community involvement and spoken-word poetry.
  • When 25 teenagers and sponsors are hungry in the middle of a busy day of urban discovery, there’s no food better than the “dogs and polish” at Jim’s Original Hot Dogs on Maxwell Street (actual location is 1250 S. Union Avenue, but who’s counting street numbers!) You get the most and best dogs and fries in Chicago for $3.50!

    Roger Johnson

  • Chicago’s Lawndale Christian Health Center provides optometric, dental, fitness and general medical care for over 119,000 patients each year at three sites in the city’s Lawndale neighborhood.  Lawndale Health Center maintains a staff of over 50 healthcare personnel who provide the comprehensive, quality care.
  • Breakthrough Urban Ministries conducts an intensive array of ministries in Chicago’s challenging East Garfield Park Community. Founded in the 1990’s by Dr. Arloa Sutter (, Breakthrough is now serving men, women and children in areas of job training and readiness, tutoring, child care, food distribution, Christian counseling and Bible studies.  Their two west side shelters meet housing needs for nearly 1,000 Chicagoans annually.

Want to be surprised by what God is doing in your city, or your neighborhood?  If so, don’t hesitate to get in touch with me at: roger(at)  I can lead or go along for the ride.  Chances are that I’ll be able to suggest a few good places for you and your group to start!

– Roger Johnson
Church Relations Coordinator, SCUPE

Lore and Forgetting: the Congress on Urban Ministry

Dr. Cornel West speaking at 1994 Congress

Dr. Cornel West speaking at 1994 Congress

Whenever I have the chance I burn through a quick hour in the file cabinet room here at SCUPE.  It’s amazing what one learns from the artifacts someone, at some point, decided should be saved.

Lately, I have been rifling through old files and photo albums over the course of the past few months uncovering a history of the Congress that has been, it seems, all but forgotten.  Over 34 years and (once March of 2011 is here) 16 gatherings is a lot of time to form your own lore.  SCUPE’s Congress on Urban Ministry certainly has compiled its fair share of lore but, for a large national event, I am also surprised about how well of a kept-secret it is.  Well, I think that should change.  It is time that this collaborative, inter-denominational, prophetic gathering gets its just dues.

1994 SCUPE Congress on Urban Ministry

Jim Forbes, Yvonne Delk, unknown, Dave Frenchak, Cecil Williams, And Mary Nelson at 1994 Congress

Over the course of the next couple weeks I’ll share some of the lore I’ve been able to uncover and perhaps we’ll get insight into how the 2011 Congress can continue to be an impact-full gathering as we address the violence in our cities, in the way we live together, and in the way we think.

Just today I stumbled across these goals that had been lifted up at past Congress gatherings.  Even though I haven’t seen this list before today it is my guess that I would have been able to guess some of these just from being involved in the visioning here at SCUPE and with the Co-chairs and through the collaborative planning process with the National Planning Committee.

Mission for SCUPE Congress on Urban MinistryThe Mission of the Congress on Urban Ministry:

  1. To inspire both new and experienced Urban Ministry practitioners, to celebrate their calls and accomplishments, and to challenge them spiritually and professionally.
  2. To teach and learn we will seek ways to create redemptive communities, release prophetic imagination, and engage in justice, reconciliation and restoration
  3. To teach and learn best Urban Ministry practices, to collaborate and envision breakthrough initiatives, and to study and dialogue about the deeper issues affecting communities.
  4. To network practitioners and national leaders for information exchange, for fellowship, and to sharpen the skills needed to transform communities.

Congress Podcast

Episode two of the SCUPE Congress podcast is up for your listening pleasure!

SCUPE Congress Podcast – Jim Perkinson – Art & Faith in a Culture of Violence

We’re extremely excited about this audio exploration as it is as specific as it is far-reaching.  Listen in as we grab the intellectual coat-tails of poet-theologian Jim Perkinson and hang on for dear life.  Ah, the places we’ll go!  The result is a illuminating romp through the often unmapped, but intricately woven, terrain of art and faith… of culture and religion… of spirituality and materiality.

Jim Perkinson

Art & Faith in a Culture of Violence.

In this episode we celebrate the potency of art in a culture of violence and the peacemaking possibilities of faith as we talk with poet-theologian and author of White Theology: Outing Supremacy in Modernity, Jim Perkinson.  We hear spoken word poetry from Jim and a number of other contemporary luminaries including Saul Williams, Billy Collins, and Quincy Troupe.

You can visit the SCUPE podcast library for descriptions and downloadable audio of past podcasts.

Next month we’ll hear from SCUPE President and founding director Dave Frenchak on imagination, prophetic preaching, and the role of hope in theology and the life of the community.

Dr. Cornel West

The esteemed Dr. Cornel West has been making a deluge of media appearances in the past weeks and has been raising the level of discourse around President Barack Obama, issues of race and justice, and the future of this country.  He is earning his reputation as one of the moral voices of conscience in America.

Even as a self-proclaimed fan of Cornel West I have not been able to keep up with the man so, half as a note to myself and half as a public service announcement, I offer here links to video, audio, or text from some of Dr. West’s resent appearances.  If there are more noteworthy appearances that I have missed please feel free to link to them below.

Cornel West on the Ed Show on MSNBC (video) – 8/4/10

Cornel West on NPR’s Talk of the Nation (audio and transcript) – 8/2/10

Cornel West on Face the Nation (video) – 7/25/10

Cornel West at West Virginia University (brief excerpt) – 4/2/10

Cornel West on Race-Talk (audio and transcript) – 2/23/10

New York Times article on Cornel West – 1/22/10

Unfortunately, Violence is not just a Chicago Problem

Chicago And Minneapolis skylines

I have really come to love Chicago, that endlessly bustling city next to an endlessly stretching lake, but I do have to admit more than the occasional pang of longing for the city I grew up in.  Minneapolis and St. Paul are like toddler cousins compared to Chicago but they do share some great commonalities with their diverse and expansive fields of art, cuisine, music, and a distinctly Midwestern urban beauty.  Unfortunately, these cities also share a struggle with violence that is becoming increasingly common in American cities of all sizes and localities.

Just this past weekend my parents passed on a letter to the editor from the laudable Minneapolis rag the Star Tribune.  I can’t help but feel that the experience of this European sums up a perspective that we Americans may be too close to see.  Something about our history and culture has tied us too closely with guns to really have an accurate perspective on their influence in our lives.  Perhaps it is time to lay aside some of our American self-confidence and give a patient ear to the perspective of countries that have very little problems with hand-gun homicides.  Are we really that afraid of what we’ll hear that we refuse to listen?

Here is a clipping of the letter to the editor from July 30th, Star Tribune: