Law Board Testimony

Here is what I said to the Riley County Law Board (the group that oversees the Riley County Police Department) as a part of the testimony by the Coalition for Equal Justice on Monday, October 16:

On behalf of the Coalition for Equal Justice, I want to thank the Law Board for your patience and willingness to hear what we have to say.

I want to be clear that we do not view Riley County as a Ferguson, Missouri, where police deliberately misused power and the racial imbalance was blatant. What we recognize, though, is that there are patterns deeply woven into American society that increase the probability of arrest and prosecution for people who are black, over that for people who are white. Whatever the source of these patterns, they are wrong and we have a social and moral obligation to raise questions and work to end the biases sown into the fabric of our culture. Racial bias is not entirely the fault of police, but police practices, policies and procedures can either reinforce the pervasive problem or help to remove it.

We don’t believe that racial bias in Riley County is any worse than in the rest of the country; but we cannot assume that it is any better. In fact, the evidence is clear that racial bias in certain drug-related arrests in Riley County is comparable to other states and regions of the country, and cities in Kansas. The problem in America is that if you are black, you are more likely to be arrested. The result is a cycle of unfair assumptions about who is guilty of crimes.

We cannot be satisfied with the national norm in biased policing. Justice, not widespread practice, should be the goal. And what we want is for Riley County to be less discriminatory, less biased and more equal than elsewhere in the country.

We appreciate the acknowledgement by the RCPD that racial bias needs to be addressed. The training on implicit bias that all police receive is a good start. I had the opportunity to attend the training last winter and felt it was helpful. Police officers are trained to treat all people respectfully and to be even-handed in their responses, essentially to follow policy. However, the focus in the training is as much on the implicit bias officers may find against police as it is on examining their own internal – perhaps unrecognized, implicit biases. More is needed to help police officers understand that bias happens here, that there is evidence for that, and to help them address their own, often unconscious, biases to compensate for them. There also need to be procedural measure to help prevent biases from affecting policing. The role of power dynamics in policing situations also needs to be more clearly acknowledged and implicit bias may play out with that. Most people are hesitant in any situation to challenge police judgment, or even to report anything they think may have been unfair.

Let me say a word about our requested remedy. We believe that pretextual traffic and pedestrian stops need to end. These stops for minor traffic violations as pretext when for searching for some other violation, usually drug related, were ruled legal by the 1996 Whren decision by the Supreme Court. Anyone can be stopped in such stops, but they open up the possibility of bias far more than more traditional enforcement does. Research has shown that pretextual stops create greater racial discrepancies in arrests for illegal drug possession. What’s more pretextual stops create distrust of the police, a breeding ground for cynicism and reluctance to cooperate. Those are powerful arguments for eliminating such stops.

There are many other steps that can be taken, including increased training and data-collection, but the single most powerful way to decrease racial bias is through an end to pretextual stops.

That’s why we’re here, to request that change – an end to pretextual traffic and pedestrian stops, as a sign of continued commitment to unbiased law enforcement.

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Jonalu’s Journal – October 2017

In these times of political uproar and justifiable anger and fear, we don’t want to lose track of the need for connection and centering, what I would call a spiritual connection. Why? Because without that, we too easily become lost in drives, emotions, and ego, marooned from our authentic selves and disconnected from the larger world around us.

Often I’ve heard reservations and questions raised about the spiritual. “What does spiritual even mean?” “Spirituality is an escape from the real challenges of life.” “Spirituality is only about afterlife and god, and other concepts I reject.” Those may not be the exact words I’ve heard, but they are the sentiments.

We are working to bring more spirituality into our Sunday morning services and our everyday lives through the Soul Matters themes that we have been using for the last year.

If you belong to one of our Chalice Circles, you know that the materials we use include “Spiritual Exercises” each month. These exercises are unlike what you may associate with as “spiritual.” They don’t involve conventional practices of prayer or meditation. Instead, they invite each of us to consider how the theme plays out in our own lives. They are not intellectual exercises–they include our emotional lives. More than that, they prompt us to make meaning out of our experiences and challenge us to live according to the values we proclaim. That may be the essence of spirituality for Unitarian Universalists.

We each need to make meaning for ourselves because our religion does not spell out the meaning of life. It takes no position on whether or not a god or gods have any influence, or what happens before we are born or after we die. Our religion is a profoundly this-worldly one that says that what happens here and now and is what most matters. And that each person has a responsibility to engage in their present in a thoughtful and ethical way.

Fulfilling those responsibilities requires making meaning and striving to live according to our professed values. So, Unitarian Universalism is an open faith. In some ways we have few requirements–no creeds to recite or endorse, no specific set of spiritual practice. Instead, we have the much harder task of figuring out why we are here and what is the best use of our precious lives.

The best part is we don’t have to do it alone. We have each other to help us sort through the spiritual demand. Let me know if there’s a way I can be helpful in your spiritual journey.

In faith and freedom,    Jonalu

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Support for the Dreamers

This is the letter I sent to The Mercury, on behalf of Manhattan Alliance for Peace and Justice (MAPJ) on September 8. It remains relevant.

To the Editor:

I went to the Wednesday protest at Bosco Plaza of President Trump’s rescission of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. We heard so many dreams in that circle of college students, dreams that could be easily dashed. Under DACA, they were allowed to work and study here, moving with relative ease, assured they would not be deported. Now, with the rescission, anyone under DACA can stay here only until their current permit expires, sometime in the next two years. They cannot leave the country for fear they will not be readmitted. And no one else can apply DACA.

The university has acted quickly and honorably to assure students they will do all they can to support them personally and to work for their safety. However, the university cannot fully protect them. Nor can our city, though as individuals or public officials we can assure them that they are accepted as welcome members of our community. We must continue to offer those assurances.

Nothing can make a real difference, though, unless Congress acts promptly to pass legislation to guarantee that young people brought here by their parents without papers are allowed to continue to work, go to school and serve in the military. We hope that Congress will also offer a path to citizenship for those who were covered by DACA before the rescission and others like them brought to the country as children.

This is not a partisan issue, but an issue of what we are called to be as Americans. Manhattan Alliance for Peace and Justice (MAPJ) feels we are called as Americans to make a commitment to young immigrants. Our political values depict this nation as one of equal opportunity. Our social values of care and concern call us to appreciate the work, the family ties and promise of these dreamers. Our moral values call us to radical hospitality in the wake of discrimination and hostility.

Your editorial of September 6 commended Representative Marshall for his statement of support to the dreamers. Statements, though, are easy. We need to insist that Congress follow up the feel-good statements with real legislation that will secure the protection of the dreamers from fears of deportation and offer them the hope of citizenship.

 

Jonalu Johnstone

MAPJ Board member

 

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Jonalu’s Journal – September 2017

Welcome seems such a simple thing, but when you reflect on it, so many factors–large and small–go into it.

I hope my welcome to all of you–long-time members, new folks, and even those of you who have never stepped into this space–feels genuine and warm.  I know that not everyone is cut out to be a Unitarian Universalist–it’s a path of resistance to many cultural assumptions, a religious home that supports freedom of thought–which means we will not always agree, but we have to find ways to talk.  My hope is that everyone within driving distance of UUFM who is willing to take on the challenges of Unitarian Universalism will feel they are welcome in this congregation.

My welcome, as your minister, matters, but not as much as the larger welcome.  Everyone needs to welcome one another, include one another, and remember one another.  I know that when a task is held by a group rather than an individual, it’s harder.  Truly, though, every member has a responsibility to welcome others, to issue invitations, to offer support and to make friends of acquaintances.  We have some great examples of people in our Fellowship who always introduce themselves to people they do not know, learn about others through caring conversation and connect them with others in the congregation with whom they share interests or life circumstances.  We own this responsibility together.  The Board at its recent Annual Retreat talked about this as “creating a culture of hospitality.”  I invite you to consider how you might participate in that culture.

A particular area the Board wants to address this year is Pride in Space.  We set it as one of our goals this year.  While, with the guidance of the Strategic Planning Committee, we make important decisions about whether we will remain in our current space or expand it, we need to be proud of the space we currently occupy.  This isn’t just the job of the Facilities and Grounds Committees and custodian.  Everyone can pick up trash they see, make sure the stray coffee cup returns to the kitchen, clean up inadvertent spills, and participate in Work Days.  Look around our religious home and notice what needs to be done.  Is it in shape to welcome those who visit us?  If not, let’s shape it up.

If there are ways I can help you–or others–feel more welcome, let me know.  I look forward to learning along with you how we become the most welcoming congregation we can be.

In faith and freedom,    Jonalu

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Countering White Supremacy

photo by Rachel Shivers

Why do we have to denounce something as clearly horrible as Nazism and white supremacy? It ought to be clear. Every person of conscience knows that the ideas they endorse are anathema.

As many of you know, Manhattan Alliance for Peace and Justice sponsored a rally in response to the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, this past weekend. Around 200 people, including lots of UU’s (see the T-shirts?!) gathered in Triangle Park to counter messages of racism and bigotry. Similar rallies took place across the nation. We refuse to cede our country to white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and others whose shrill voices incite hate and fear and whose guns and torches strive to intimidate anyone different from themselves.

Those shrill voices have been beckoned from their hiding places in the dark web by people in power who want to use their racist agenda to promote policies like mass deportations of Central and South Americans (I have seen no clamor for deporting undocumented people from Canada and Ireland, or even the far east), “law and order” directed at communities of color, and reinstatement of white men in the places of power. We need to be honest about the ways that white supremacy is woven into the fabric of this nation, and that many forces — not only neo-Nazis and the alt-right — want to resist the fight to end the hold white supremacy has had on the nation.

The rallying around the statue of Thomas Jefferson illustrates the point. Revered as a “founding father,” his words of equality did not apply to women or African Americans. Like many of our founders, he owned slaves. Our nation, like Jefferson himself, like all of us, has long been torn between its ideals and the desire to dominate and profit from others.

The violent white supremacists of the KKK and their ilk are drawing on a limited part of our American history as justification for their ugly acts. Limited, yes, but a real part of history. A part many of us strive to deny. Faced with people who would affirm that part of history with violence, we have to acknowledge its reality and at the same time, work for the changes that will relegate inequality and injustice to the trash bins of history.

We join hands with others across divisions of race and religion, and even across time to do so. I find some solace in the words of The Rev. Theodore Parker, nineteenth century white abolitionist and Unitarian minister: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

So may it be.

In faith and freedom,

Jonalu

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Jonalu’s Journal — August 2017

When you read this, I will likely be on vacation–headed back to West Virginia to revisit wonderful old haunts from decades ago. What will have changed? I wonder. What will still be the same?

In our memories, our old homes and hangouts never change. Or maybe they do, as our memories are rarely photographic and our minds are often unreliable on details. The house I lived in on Jordan Run Road gets confused with the house I lived in on Fish Hatchery Road. I can’t be sure of the distances to landmarks around town. Yet, I know when I get to Petersburg, I’ll be able to drive to the Dairy Queen and Seneca Rocks, even if I can’t tell you how to get there. Odd, how our minds work with old information.

In many ways, we are the sum of our experiences, but even more we are the sum of our memories of our experiences. Our view of the past may be idealized or romanticized. We may remember only the highlights, the moments of excitement and pleasure. Or we may play the opposite game, and make the past out to be a horrible place to live, and remember only the worst of it.

I’ve found the truth to be more complicated. The best times in our lives had a day or two of boredom or anxiety and the worst times had one supportive friend, a nice day at the beach or a realization that paved the way to a valuable change. I remember that when I compare notes with someone else and find their memories don’t quite jive with my own.

We may be unable to change our past, but we can change the way we interpret and understand that past. It can be a valuable exercise to revisit and see where we are in relation to the person we used to be. We come to understand ourselves better when we make that connection.

I’ll do a bit of that, as I camp in Dolly Sods Wilderness and drive through familiar–but not quite the same–landscapes and towns and I used to know so well.

May you have some quality time before the rush of fall begins to reconnect with yourself and understand a little better.

In faith and freedom,   Jonalu

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Report from General Assembly

I write this month’s column from our General Assembly in New Orleans. We are listening to a diverse panel of people — various ages and racial identities — who all serve on the UUA Board, using their personal stories and experience to explore where we are as an association of congregations at this point in time.

I am surprised, and appreciative of what I am learning. I can’t share all of it here. I will be talking about lessons from GA in worship on August 6.

For now, let me tell you what surprised me. We seem to be shifting to a different kind and quality of conversation. Conversation with depth and honesty. Not posturing. Not arguing. Not reports. Instead, listening deeply to one another. There seems agreement that we are at a moment that could truly transform us — our movement, our congregations, and ourselves, maybe even our world.

And central to success in this transformation is a shift in how we are together — trusting that others, especially those different from ourselves, have truths that we do not know, knowing you know things I do not know. And that we respond to that difference with curiosity. We are replacing single voices — that have most often been of people who are white — with diverse voices.

For instance, the UU Ministers Association held a worship service that instead of a single sermon had 8 different people, each responding to an event within our association this year. Each spoke for two minutes about observations and feelings, then for a minute about needs and requests. The model used was Marshall Rosenberg’s nonviolent communication. Then, we broke into small groups to do the same thing. Multiple, diverse voices instead of a single voice. Deep listening without interruption.

And, now, today, I am seeing the same approach in our General Assembly. Debates are not the best way to discern our true mission and purpose. We are changing. We are learning from the people of color in our midst. We are learning from women and from queer people. I don’t know how this will evolve. No one does. I am excited about the possibilities.

In faith and freedom,

Jonalu

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The Tragedy of the World We Live In

One of the core questions of religion is why bad things happen, especially to good people. We seem to have more and more opportunities to ask that question.

Vans and trucks plowing into people on sidewalks. The shooting of political representatives at a baseball game. A fire in London. The on-going war in Syria. Police not held responsible for shooting innocent black people.

Terrorism, war, injustice.

All this on top of the routine cancer diagnoses, deaths of loved ones, political scandals, broken hearts, all the stuff of life.

We live in a world of tragedy.

******

Simultaneously, we live in a world of wonder and beauty. We cannot ignore either. How, though? How can we hold all this together and manage to stay balanced and rational?

First, we have to recognize that we cannot do everything. We cannot care for every child who has been hurt and abused. We cannot prevent every unnecessary death. We cannot stop every unjust law.

We can acknowledge and know the reality of each of these, though. We can let it in and feel what it stirred up. We can refuse to become jaded and adjusted to a world of tragedy. We can even let ourselves feel helpless, if we don’t let ourselves stay there. We can share our feelings with others and comfort and be comforted. We need to work through the emotional response, because unless we do, our reactions and responses will stay at an emotional level.

Because the next step is to decide where we can focus our own limited, but real, energies. Those energies multiply when we join them with others. Working in concert more than doubles what we can do. Joining voices can be effective.

And, to stay inspired and energized, we have to find those places of beauty and wonder in the world, know them, and try to spread them, squeezing out the unnecessary tragedy. We have to learn to love the world as it is, while trying to make it better every day.

I hope we do some of that as we gather together in our fellowship.

In faith and freedom,

Jonalu

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Beyond Black Lives Matter

Black Lives Matter activists continue to direct our attention towards black people, especially teenagers and young men, being shot by police. The latest story of the acquittal of former Tulsa police officer Betty Shelby for her shooting of Terence Crutcher reinforces the sense that justice will not be done in such cases. By the time you read this, another case, sadly, may have caught our attention. They have become part of the landscape of our lives.

In the meantime, our own religious association (the Unitarian Universalist Association) struggles with more subtle and less violent manifestations of the persistence of racism. Hiring processes brought the issue to light, but it hits every aspect of organizational life. UUA leaders are establishing a Commission on Institutional Change to help make a transition to a new future we cannot yet imagine. They want to use a truth and reconciliation approach to examine the events that led to the recent crisis in the association. Addressing structural racism and issues of equity will take much more, though. Our three interim co-presidents (Rev. Bill Sinkford, Rev. Sofia Bettencourt and Dr. Leon Spencer) had this to say about a recent consultation that helped shape what the Commission on Institutional Change will be and do:

We found ourselves looking for a Universalism that points toward transformation. We engaged this moment as an opportunity to redeem a piece of the history of our faith and to serve as a model of love and justice to the broader world. We focused on questions of power, liberation, leadership, and recentering those pushed to the margins. We unflinchingly questioned cultural habits and norms that hamper us in our yearning to build the Beloved Community. [from a UUA News Alert]

What would it mean to take this approach, this rigorous self-examination, in our own organization, in our own lives? How do we move from being a fellowship centering ourselves to an organization that fully engages with the liberation of people of color, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, and others who find themselves marginalized in our culture? Can we “unflinchingly question cultural habits and norms that hamper us in our yearning to build the Beloved Community”? To fully live out Unitarian Universalist values in the coming years will require demanding personal, interpersonal, and institutional transformative work.

What is your place in it?

In faith and freedom,

Jonalu

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Letter to the Mercury

I have received an amazing amount of positive feedback from the community as well as the fellowship about this letter, published in May 8 Manhattan Mercury, so I am copying the letter here:

The noose found on campus Friday (May 5) disturbs and upsets me, as a Unitarian Universalist minister and as a person. More importantly, the reaction to it feels insufficient and dismissive, especially since it follows recent incidents of anti-Semitic and racist signs posted. Responses that I have seen to the noose came from Jeff Morris, the vice president for communications and marketing. And the response felt like a communications and marketing response, claiming we don’t really know what it means and doesn’t represent K-State.

Please. We know what a noose means. The symbolism comes from the long and shameful history of lynching of black people by mobs. The noose is an assertion of white supremacy, a threat to people of color, and a commonly recognized means of intimidation.

While I don’t encourage overreaction, I do recognize this as a minor form of terrorism, an action deliberately devised to create fear.

Around the country, white supremacists are gaining in courage and numbers. Blatant racism has become more public, and needs a clear and uncompromising response.

We need to hear more. We need to hear that K-State will not tolerate racism. We need to hear that a major focus of the university is protection of its students and staff of color. We need to hear that the values of K-State and our community are decidedly anti-racist, and that racist sentiments whether expressed forthrightly or cowardly are never welcome here.

I, for one, and the congregation I serve, have no patience for such blatant racism in our community.

The Rev. Jonalu Johnstone

UU Fellowship Of Manhattan

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