BlackVoices Preach! Princeton Parker, Nicholas Stuart Richards, and Monique Ruffin

Taken with permission from BlackVoices Preach! January 8, 2012.

Pack Your Bags

by the Rev. Princeton Irvin Parker

As I prepared to move into the University of Southern California this past week, I went through a number of activities and responsibilities so that everything would be taken care of before I start school. The most taxing and fascinating process that occurred was the packing of the materials I needed for my apartment. Many people use the new year as a time to start afresh, and begin new journeys in their lives. Some people become so focused on where they are going that they forget to take necessary items and pieces of their past with them. It would have been foolish of me to just "move in" and not carry any useful materials with me to my new space. Yes there are aspects of our past that we should never return to, but there are certain things that we need to carry with us, so that we can use them to propel us forward as we make new journeys in life.


One of the first things I set out to gather was my wardrobe. I had to decide how I wanted to look, and which articles of clothing I needed to take to look a certain way. I have learned that relationships are very important whenever one starts a new goal or journey, and your appearance will be the key to opening certain relationships. Yes it is important to dress well, but appearance has more to do with persona, and the type of energy one gives off around others. Put on your jacket of kindness. Gird your loins with confidence. Put on your hat of optimism. Walk in shoes of determination, and you will shine as you move into a new place on your journey.

I noticed that when I went to move in, we took everything in boxes, not bags. Perhaps the most important thing to remember, is that we should carry the lessons we learned from the past, not the baggage. We have to carry those experiences, and the knowledge about life and ourselves that we gained from them. We should not however, hold on to the bad feelings that those experiences caused. Baggage causes clutter, and feelings like regret, bitterness, depression, unforgiveness, guilt, worry, and fear are all things that can clutter our life, our mind, and our vision.

Along with clothes, another important step was gathering cleaning materials for my room and bathroom. We gathered cleaning materials with the knowledge that any place that is being occupied WILL get dirty sometimes. We have to start new journeys knowing that because we are human, we are going to make mistakes. We are going to procrastinate, and lose some of the drive we started out with. We are going to sometimes become discourage and give up or lash out, so keep in mind that every so often we will need a "clean up" to get our goals, our minds, our attitudes, and our spirits back on track.

The greatest part of my experience, however, is that even though I will encounter struggles, hardships, an empty refrigerator sometimes, and low balance on the debit card, I'm only 20 minutes from home (and with the way my mother drives, you can cut that time in half). So my final words regarding taking new steps in life are these: Stay close to home. In all of life, there needs to be some person, some place, or some entity that you can call home. Home can be a lifetime friend, or your church, or school choir, or a building around the corner from where you grew up. No matter what home is for you, stay close to it. Life may take us far away in distance, but you control how close you are to home mentally and spiritually. Call loved ones, hold the words of those who are dear to you close to your heart, always keep home in your mind, and keep it as a point of stability in your life, as your circumstances change day to day. Above all things, the God we serve is always a home for us. I enjoy serving a God who wraps me in his arms, and ensures me that He will never fail me, because He loves me too much. He said in Matthew 28:20 "lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world."

As you are embarking on a new journey this year in your life, put on a strong face, stay determined, and trust the God who has all power. Pack your bags, and start your journey, knowing that it will all be worth it when you reach the finish line.

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Traveling to Ethiopia

By the Rev. Nicholas Stuart Richards

Assistant Minister, The Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York and Co-founder & President of The Abyssinian Fund

I started The Abyssinian fund 18 months ago out of my deep love for Africa and its people. The Abyssinian Fund is an organization committed to reducing poverty and creating programs for Ethiopians to better their lives. This past trip to Ethiopia helped to open my eyes to a world very different from my own as I connected with men, women and children who are directly benefiting from the work that we are doing in their village. I am also very grateful for my connection to The Abyssinian Baptist Church whose ministry continues to extend its helping hand beyond Harlem.

Traveling is one of the best ways to experience different cultures and learn new things about the world and yourself. During my 5th trip to Ethiopia, I discovered some insightful new things about my brothers and sisters in Chaffee Jenette. Usually these trips are filled with business meetings and tight schedules but this time I had some free time to get to know the people of Chaffee Jenette. Here is what I learned:

What did the children do during the day? The women?

Children go to school from 8 A.M. - 12noon, Monday through Friday. In the small classrooms there are 60 students per teacher, each leading lessons covering math, English and Earth-science. Most teachers have only a high school education. It's hard to imagine 60 students crowded into one classroom but even harder to believe they attend school for only half-days; this is because there is not enough money to afford teachers for full days. Most school children are male since the majority of young girls spend the day with their mothers making four-hour trips to fetch drinking water. When they do attend class, girls often miss over a week at a time during their menstrual cycle each month since there are no clean bathrooms and adequate sanitation. So the education gap continues between men and women starting from young boys and girls.

What is the process of retrieving water?

In order to get around Chaffee Jenette, you walk. There is no running water. In order to bathe, cook and drink, women and young girls walk for four hours to the nearest spring. They trek through narrow, rocky, un-paved roads and carry yellow, heavy water buckets, called jerrycans, atop their heads. This journey consumes so much of their day that the women don't have much time to do anything else.

Based on a photo of three women sitting around and drinking coffee, do they normally take coffee breaks?

It is very common to see groups of people sitting around and drinking coffee throughout the day. This is similar to our modern coffee breaks except men and women meet separately. Men usually break from their work and women, from their cooking and cleaning. Gossip is shared and coffee is sipped, dark and without sweetener. 

What material are the houses made of? What was the temperature like? What did you sleep on? What time do they wake up to work?

Sleeping there is uncomfortable. At night, I slept on a 6-inch thick mattress, purchased from the corner store, which was placed on the floor. Adjusting to the schedule is even more difficult. Everything revolves around the sun. Because there is no electricity throughout the village all tasks are based around daylight hours, between dawn and dusk. I was the only one stumbling since everyone else was accustomed to getting around using pocket flashlights as their guide.

What, besides farming, are other forms of work?

Besides coffee farming, which is the main profession in Chaffee Jenette, there are also many carpenters, mechanics, barbers and government officers. Auto mechanics are very valuable because with all the rocks and debris on the roads, anyone with a car is sure to accumulate a lot of damage. Many professionals attain their positions without any formal training or schooling; instead, they work as apprentices and learn their skills from elders.

-What was something interesting you learned while in the fields with Demeke and the farmers?

I've been to Ethiopia several times and we have been training farmers for almost a whole year, however this was the first time I saw so many farmers who were my age participating in our training program. It was really satisfying to see young men and women, just like me, who are gaining skills to make their lives better. These young famers have the ability, energy and longevity to pass on their knowledge to friends and family.

Though the quality of life is poor, what was the mood like within the neighborhood?

Most people I met don't consider themselves poor. To some degree, poverty is a matter of perspective. Ethiopians are hardworking and are making the best quality of life for themselves given what they have. No, there isn't modern technology and materials but that's why I am here and The Abyssinian Fund is involved. We help the farmers use what they have, their knowledge of coffee and the land on which to grow it, to make a change

What was dinner like? What time was it served? Did the whole family gather around to prepare and eat together?

Almost all families eat dinner together. The meal consists of some sort of meat stew with injera bread and hot chili powder. To drink, there is water, Coca-Cola or coffee. Coca-Cola is cheaper than water in Chaffee Jenette and is delivered to each home much like milk bottles were delivered to American doorsteps more than 50 years ago. Meals are prepared by the women after the men have gone off to work and the children to school. Like most things, cooking takes a long time. With just one hot plate, each dish must be prepared individually, one at a time. During this process, stories are shared so it is an important time for bringing the family and community together.

Occupy Christian Oppression

By Monique Ruffin

I sat down to pen the first post on the black church's oppression of gay people after an episode of The Rosie Show. Ms. O'Donnell had looked into the camera to tell Rick Perry that his anti-gay campaign commercial was hurting people.

Initially, I intended to write about the Christian churches, and how their leadership so often casts out homosexuals. But contemplating the issue triggered all of my personal experiences growing up in my grandparents' church and seeing its treatment of gay people. As I said in my prior post, as church members, we did not acknowledge the sexuality of gay people, and they dared not be open, expressive gay people. I believed gay people would go to Hell and that they were an abomination to God. But this was problematic because of the love I felt for my gay uncle. He was the funniest and most endearing human being; he went out of his way to make me laugh. He took me to Patti LaBelle concerts and the theater. In my young mind I couldn't reconcile my religious instruction with this very loving experience I had with my closeted uncle. The confusion caused me deep pain and emotional stress. I knew something was off, but I couldn't name it, because it had not been named. I can't image how he felt.

I'm no longer a little girl looking for my cues from parents and church leaders, seeking their approval to determine my worth and that of others. I'm now the mother of a son with Down syndrome, and I know unquestionably that he is looking to me to determine his lovability. Like young gay people who want to feel a sense of belonging, my son desires the same. His presence helps me remember the ostracism and abuse borne by my uncle because he was different, and I do my best to sparkle my eyes and let my son feel the love in me emanating toward him. I did not learn to love in church. It was witnessing the pain of oppression and the exclusion of others that forced me to dig deep within myself for an eternal wellspring of love.

In response to my initial blog, I have had more conversations with Christians than I can count. And in many of them I've heard, "I love gay people, I just don't approve of their lifestyles." Something rises up in me when I hear this. Being gay is not a privilege, like getting to stay out an hour later as a teenager. To say that Christians don't approve of a gay person's lifestyle is to assume that approval is desired or required in order for a person to be gay. When did love have to start asking for approval? Love, by its very nature, is an expression of allowing and acceptance, not approval or control. To love is to allow, surrender, and trust. Today I speak for the little girl I was growing up in church, reading the Bible, loving Jesus, and being taught to disapprove of people due to their sexual orientation or sinful lifestyles. Has it occurred to any Christians that the high rate of suicide and depression among gay teens might be influenced by an experience of disapproval?

Today in many churches all across this nation, we continue to indoctrinate innocent children in the practice of homophobia. These children grow up with a desire to please God, and in doing so they become the Rick Perrys of the world. In his ad he clearly says that there is something wrong with gay people being able to serve openly in the military. This "get to the back of the bus" mentality toward gay people is obsolete and outdated. The work for freedom was started decades ago under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Black people weren't just marching, being jailed, and dying for their own freedom; this freedom belongs to all people.

In the last decade we have witnessed the furtherance of gay people's acceptance in many ways. The Don't Ask Don't Tell policy has been abolished under the leadership of President Obama. The president also ordered the Justice Department to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act. We see greater numbers of openly gay people in our mainstream entertainment, and equal marriage rights have been adopted in several states. But the hearts and minds of Americans do not follow legislation, and many leaders of the predominant religion in this country, Christianity, continue to deny the rights and humanity of gays. While black people still live with the residual effects of racism, gay people still have mountains to traverse. If Christianity is based on the teachings of Christ, it might be time to reconsider its current practices in light of the love, inclusion, and overall intention of Jesus' message.

This is a conversation about the mistreatment of people and the denial of their basic and equal rights due to their sexual orientation. Yes, these experiences manifest in political and social injustices, but the seeds of this mistreatment are in the human heart and the hatred, often subtle, that we share with one another. I simply stand to say I will no longer participate in the dehumanization of gay people. I will be silent no longer. My silence, and yours, regarding the mistreatment of gay people, is the problem. And the solutions are spiritual. They lie in our willingness to take responsibility for our treatment of, and beliefs and feelings about, gay people -- and all people. We are responsible for our thoughts, projections, and actions toward others. When I hear someone like Ms. O'Donnell pleading for an end to hatred, when I witness her vulnerability and pain, I ask myself, "How have I contributed to her suffering?" And when I witness the self-righteousness of a Rick Perry, I look within for my participation in this denial of the value of all people. In our churches we might begin questioning the validity of scripture and how it influences our relationships. If Jesus the Christ is our greatest example of love and life, it's time we begin asking ourselves, "How did Jesus transcend all manner of hatred? How did he love? How did he live?"

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