Friday, February 20, 2009

Tribute to a real man

Today marks the 10th anniversary of the passing of the Rev. Dr. James Kelly Jr. The name might mean little or nothing to you, but part of the reason I'm writing this is because of him.

In his not quite 79 years of life he was a pastor, civil rights advocate, counselor, college administrator and very much a stand-up guy with the number of degrees he earned approaching double figures, including two doctorates. He ended his active career in 1985 as the dean of the school of education at my college alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh; he was the first African-American to serve in that capacity.

One other thing -- just after that, he married my mother. And that relationship proved good for both of us in the long run.

For openers, after she retired in 1994, they traveled all over the world -- England, Ireland, Thailand, even Africa. During their married life he did all the cooking. He introduced her to his circle of friends, who represented many of the movers and shakers in Pittsburgh of all races, and did quite a bit of entertaining. He took care of her quite well, which was an issue after she left my father due to his alcoholism and abuse. He also readily welcomed my brother and me into the family; he referred to me as his "main man." I don't think he realized that I needed to hear that. Or maybe he did and I didn't realize it.

Yet, from what I could tell, he never took pride in his status; rather, he regularly used his authority to help others, occasionally waiving tuition for students who were having financial problems. I was one of those he helped, pulling strings to get me back in school after I flunked out in 1983. And believe me, I appreciated it -- by the time I finally graduated in 1997 I regularly made the Dean's List. Even though his own health was failing, he was determined to get to the arena to see me wear that cap and gown, and when we got back home that afternoon he had me put on one of his academic robes. (I think he was trying to drop some hints.)

However, it was only after reading John Eldredge's "The Way of the Wild Heart" did I understand his essence. The book refers to the numerous stages of a man's life -- "Beloved Son," "Cowboy/Ranger," "Warrior," "King" and "Sage," and Eldredge mentioned that he had met very, very few sages. I can tell you that "Doc" was one of those, according to the book, because he came across as a man who always knew who he was and what he was about and was willing to share that with others. Eldredge also said that the influence of a sage should increase in his final years; folks are still talking about my stepdad.

Of course we all miss him, and now that he's gone I am more than proud to represent part of his ongoing legacy. Several years ago Mom gave me his Pitt watch as a birthday present, knowing that I would appreciate it.

But the most precious piece of jewelry I own is the ring I wear on the fourth finger of my right hand; at his viewing the former dean of the university's evening school came to pay his respects (he had signed off on the papers allowing me back into school) and I shook his hand -- and then showed it to him. He responded, "None of the people I've helped out has ever left me down!" -- telling him that "Doc" had judged my character correctly. And that's why I appreciate him so much; he believed in me to an extent that he was willing to stake his position to see me go somewhere in life. I would hope that, were I in his shoes, I would do some of the same things.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Republican Party's 'Reagan problem'

You are probably aware that the Republican National Committee has selected Michael Steele, former lieutenant governor of Maryland, as its new chairman, the first African-American to hold that post. Arguably, part of his job description will be to attract fellow blacks to the party.

If that's their goal, they're wasting their time -- because the GOP's problem is that it got to where it was by alienating black voters. Specifically, its heart and soul, even though he is now dead, is keeping blacks out because, thanks to its notorious "Southern strategy," the right-wing policies it supported and he championed have done nothing but turn blacks against it.

"He," of course, is the 40th President of the United States, Ronald Wilson Reagan, who is still revered in the Republican Party and the conservative movement but absolutely hated in the African-American community. Bet you didn't know that last fact. That's the problem, because conservatives don't even talk to black activists and leaders -- they simply want to neutralize, denigrate or destroy them.

And Reagan, as much as any political figure, was responsible for that polarization. Consider these facts:

-- Reagan ignored the civil-rights movement and, upon the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and while governor of California, was quoted in a Boston Globe editorial as calling the movement “a great tragedy that began when we began compromising with law and order, and people started choosing which laws they’d break,” never mind that King broke the law only reluctantly when all other options were exhausted.

-- During his 1976 campaign for president, Reagan constantly referred to "welfare queens driving Cadillacs," his audience knowing full well whom he was referring to -- blacks.

-- Reagan kicked off his 1980 campaign in Neshoba County, Miss., where three civil-rights workers were found murdered 16 years previously, and announced that he favored "states rights" -- indicating to white racists, "I'm on your side."

-- During that same campaign, a leader in the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia endorsed Reagan, saying that "the Republican campaign could have been written by a Klansman."

-- When in office, Reagan cut government programs for college grants and job training -- cuts that disproportionately hurt African Americans. (We often forget that demonstrations in major cities resulted.) As a result, the poverty rate actually went up.

-- Reagan, through his attorney general William French Smith, tried to weaken the Voting Rights Act because it "discriminated against the South." (Never mind that's where the problems were.)

-- Reagan appointed Clarence Thomas to head the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission -- ostensibly to weaken it by changing the rules to favor the employer over the employee.

-- Reagan, using the excuse of the Cold War, consistently opposed sanctions on South Africa's apartheid regime and substituted an ineffective policy of "constructive engagement."

-- Even as he signed the legislation establishing King's birthday as a national holiday, Reagan replied to his political ally Jesse Helms, who voted against it on the grounds that King was a Communist, “We’ll know in about 35 years, won’t we?”, referring to FBI files supposedly "proving" his Communist activity -- indicating that he believed that nonsense.

Amazingly, Reagan won 14 percent of the black vote in 1980s. (He wouldn't get that today, for sure.)

Anyway, an op-ed published upon his death in the New Pittsburgh Courier was titled "Reagan made racism respectable." I don't think Reagan was himself a racist -- you have to care to be a racist and Reagan didn't -- but I have no doubt that he, more than anyone, caused the GOP to maintain racist strategies to remain in power.

However, that has come back to bite them. In late 2002, then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, while attending a 100th birthday party for fellow Sen. Strom Thurmond, said that had Thurmond, who had run for president in 1948 as a "Dixiecrat," won, "we wouldn't have had all these problems" -- an oblique reference to desegregation. That remark cost him his leadership post (but only temporarily and only when other conservatives went ballistic first).

Don't think, however, this is merely about racist attitudes. As I mentioned, conservatives, thanks in large part to Reagan, have pursued policies that turned blacks against them, a situation they don't intend to face. They made a big stink about Sen. Robert Byrd's inadvertent use of the "N-word" and his former Klan membership, ignoring that he has changed his views in that time -- even voting for the King holiday -- and apologized immediately for that slur. (Byrd, of course, is a Democrat and was thus labeled a hypocritical "liberal.")

And even in the few times when the Republican Party ran black candidates they didn't get much support, from blacks or anyone else. Steele himself was badly beaten while running in 2006 for the U.S. Senate, as did Ken Blackwell in Ohio and former Steelers receiver Lynn Swann here in Pennsylvania when they sought to become governors. The GOP electorate's general disdain for blacks has come to a point where some black Republicans -- most notably commentator Armstrong Williams and former Tulsa congressman J.C. Watts -- said during last year's campaign they were considering voting for Barack Obama for president.

Bottom line, the Republican Party, if it's serious about attracting black voters, will need to repudiate much of its platform. But to do that it will also need to repudiate Reagan as well -- and I don't see that happening.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Kissing dating goodbye? Not so fast

I recently had reason to remember the controversial book "I Kissed Dating Goodbye" by Joshua Harris, which I had received it as a gift a number of years ago. I was reminded why I had issues with it.

I think I understand what he was trying to say -- that people don't exist for our selfish purposes and we ought not to use them. But he wrote from the perspective of a very sheltered Christian upbringing with a strong family and church community that met his emotional needs, and thus the book doesn't speak to probably most Christian singles, which is to whom it was "sold."

Take me, for example. I'm a convert that didn't come from a Christian home and thus didn't have that kind of backup. My late father was an alcoholic and control freak who, in retrospect, never wanted me to leave home for reasons I won't get into here. I bring that up because I made a commitment to Christ due to the dysfunction in my family, specifically my mother's threat to leave him (and she would eventually make good on it).

However, I learned that people, especially men, who come from that kind of background are often shunted aside. In the fellowship I attended at a large secular university, the "strong" guys (most of whom came from Christian families) were chased by the girls and the weak guys were ignored. On top of that, I knew of at least six people who had attempted suicide (fortunately, none succeeded). Thus, Harris' "audience" has little connection the real world -- it assumes a context that many of us cannot relate to.

A sequel, "Boy Meets Girl," that I paged through a number of years ago deepened my feelings of alienation. It focuses on a fantasy I had years ago -- asking the father of a "prospect" for the right to court his daughter. (I had that opportunity only once, and though he was OK with it she wasn't interested.) Besides, I've never met the fathers of the women I've dated; indeed, in only one case were any of them even living! And at my age, pushing 50, it's more likely that I will end up with someone who was "single again" and thus no longer under Dad's authority.

And then -- what about those occasions where people could use an escort? I never went to my high school prom and often had trouble getting dates for fraternity formals because in many cases the girls I asked often were so focused on "Will this result in marriage?" to a point that, even if they had gone they wouldn't have enjoyed the evening. That's not fellowship.

Bottom line, most Christians, especially if they don't find someone before graduating college, do need to date, in large part because in the working world you don't have the time to "hang out." Not even a church, or even a singles ministry, offers that kind of bonding. Men especially need the opportunity to take women out so that they can learn to "take responsibility," and men learn to do things generally by actually doing them.

Since last year I've been privileged to develop a somewhat healthy relationship with a woman friend of nearly five years. I actually asked her on a date the second time I saw her but she resisted for a number of legitimate reasons; only a year-and-a-half ago did she finally say yes. It's worked out well; she has more responsibility than I at work and church, so when we go out together every few months I make it a point to take care of everything. Call it "dating" if you will, even though neither of us believes we'll be married -- at least to each other -- but it's mutually beneficial. And isn't that what Christian relationships should be about?

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The theology of delight

I learned something recently. God likes me.

That may sound a tad silly or sacrilegious, especially for someone like me who comes from the Reformed school of Christianity where God is so utterly holy and not to be trifled with.

While that is certainly true, listening to Dr. Charles Stanley this week has given me a understanding of God that I had heard before but had never sunk in. The word he uses is "delight." He was, of course, speaking specifically of "[delighting] in the LORD" (Psalm 37:4), but after some thought I realized that it goes the other way as well.

To get a sense of it, I went back to my relationships with a number of friends -- primarily female, of course -- whose company I enjoy. Simply put, whenever I see or hear from them I "light up" -- a hug, phone call or e-mail from any of them will completely make my day. In the fall a friend whom I spent a lot of time with in 2004 and 2005 but whom I had not seen or heard from in months unexpectedly showed up in church, hoping to run into me; we spent that afternoon at a harvest festival. Two years earlier while attending another fall festival, she was admiring some roses that had been carved out of balsa wood. I asked her, "Do you want one?"

I didn't buy her that rose because I wanted anything in return; I simply was willing to pay for the privilege of her presence. It's something she naturally brings out of me.

I think that's what the Scripture means when it says, in too many places to mention here, to "delight in the LORD" -- yes, He wants (and is owed) our worship but also to be enjoyed as well. And when you have that type of relationship, serving Him becomes not a chore but an honor. Indeed, a story I heard from a former coworker who is an Orthodox Jew gave the impression that the person involved was excited over a potential opportunity to obey God.

But you can't delight in the LORD unless you've experienced that yourself, and in fact He first demonstrates His delight in us. Zephaniah 3:17 reads as follows: "The LORD your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing." John Eldredge, in "The Way of the Wild Heart," says that God seemed to be "in love" with him; while I think it overstates the case (I'm certainly not in love with my friends), there's an energy you receive when you know someone likes you.

Two jazz tunes come to mind: "Pure Delight" by guitarist Larry Carlton and "You Make Me Smile" by saxophonist Dave Koz. They remind me not so much how I should feel about God but how He feels about me.