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Liberty and Justice for All?

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dr. Paula Sanders on July 14, 2015 at a meeting of the Presbytery of the Twin Cities in Owatonna, MN.  

Liberty and Justice for All?

Good afternoon Moderator Denise Dunbar-Perkins, Executive Presbyter Jeff Japinga and members of Presbytery and guests.

Thank you for inviting me to bring the Word today at our July 2015 presbytery meeting.

Today’s sermon title, “Liberty & Justice for All?” patriotically springing from the rockets’ red glare of  our July Independence Day, begins with the final phrase of the American Pledge of Allegiance, which many of us recited in front of the Star Spangled Banner each morning in grade school. It is always recited in a certain well-worn cadence:

I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

This sentence was originally composed by minister Francis Bellamy in 1892 and formally adopted by Congress as our pledge in 1942[1]. The last change in language came on Flag Day 1954 when the words “under God” were added.  I was born on Flag Day 1957 in the very heart of “America the Beautiful”.


Bellamy wrote this pledge to be recited by school children, and he knew that he had to be very choosy with his words because in 1892 (as well as in the 1950’s), many citizens did not believe in equality for black people or for women.

Today, the Supreme Court says that the pledge can be recited in schools but children cannot be compelled to say it. Still, when I recite the Pledge of Allegiance, I feel a lump in my throat and tears well up.  One Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.  What a glorious ideal! …If only it were true.


Now that we’re grown, we know that all nations are in God’s loving hand, and we know that liberty and justice, in the form of basic human rights, are being fought for at great cost by good people from many nations all around the world.

But what God sent me here to preach about today is in held in my title, “Liberty and justice for all?”  Is the United States of America a place of liberty and justice for all and why does that matter to us as Christians?

Allow me to be specific because I don’t want to surprise anyone, the Word today is concerning white on black racism and how and why we as white people can begin to face it.  I am aware that we have non-white brothers and sisters in the room with us and I trust that nothing I have to say will offend.

I am also aware that there are many other groups who have been treated horribly in “America, God Shed His Grace on Thee”, but that is not where we are going today.  Today, we are going to look right in the face of the sinful racism and system of disadvantage that is experienced by African American people every day in 2015, and whether we as Christians are fulfilling our call to break down the hellish institution that was brought to America by the first settlers in the 1500’s.

I would like to add, here, that this is not “National ‘Beat Up on White People Day’.”  The time for that is over.  It is time for us to put on our big boy & big girl panties, to recognize our country’s deep-seated flaws and take responsibility for fixing them.  Today, we will discover why we as Christians should care enough to, as St. Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the Gospel always – and if you must, use words.”

So let us begin with definitions of race and racism.  We are all aware, I’m sure, that race as a physical reality does not exist.  Race is an artificial social construct.  Humans have decided to socially divide other humans by the color of their skin and to treat them accordingly and we have all over time bought into that game.

Racism, very simply is Prejudice + Power.  Let’s say that together – Prejudice + Power = Racism.  Only the people with the power can be racist or take advantage of systems of unearned privilege.  I often hear, “But my black neighbor hates me because I am white.  Isn’t that racist?”  NO.  By definition in the USA, only the people who have held the power for the past 400 years can be racist, not those who are in every way oppressed

Until we learn differently, we usually think of race at a personal level as in “Me? I’m not a racist! My best friend is black!  I am a Christian!”  But the real problem is systemic racism also known as institutional racism.  About 50 years ago, with adoption of the Civil Rights Act, overt racism was outlawed and became less socially acceptable in most of the country.  But since then a series of laws and policies has created a structural racism that is much more powerful and sinister than personal racism.  Black people who are unable to overcome this morass of hidden racist rules and obstacles are considered by Western European culture as moral failures, unable to “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps”.

Historically, systemic racism has included such practices as “redlining”, the offering of loan funds for houses that were not available to black borrowers.  This system led to the construction of affordable housing “projects”.  Huge areas of blighted neighborhoods in cities like Chicago, Detroit, Gary AND the Twin Cities occurred because housing that was already worn out by previous waves of Irish, Polish, Italian and other immigrants was all that was available to southern blacks moving north in the Great Migration.  In other words, black people did not create “ghettoes”. They inherited slums!

Next came systemic racism in jobs.  Studies show that out of 2 job applicants with identical qualifications, the one with the white sounding name will nearly always be picked for the job.  In fact I know that this can be done because I have done it in reverse.  When I am in a position to hire, I do my best to interview qualified black applicants.  It is relatively easy to tell black from white by names, schools attended, fraternities/sororities, clubs, activities, etc.

From systemic racism in employment, comes a system of inferior education for blacks and other poor people. This is how it works. School funding is based on property taxes.  Since property taxes on those big houses only whites could buy are much higher, schools in white areas are much better funded than those funded by the black people living in projects who are less likely to be selected for jobs.  And the cycle continues.

Thousands of young black men turned out of inferior schools and jobless are snapped up at double the rate of white men into a for-profit mass incarceration system. Many of you have probably heard the statistic that more black men are incarcerated today than were enslaved ten years before the Civil War.  Begun by the War on Drugs, our current prison industrial complex is now maintained by totally legal racial profiling, unfair sentencing laws and police brutality against black citizens.  This brutality did not just begin, it just began to be exposed thanks to social media.

And where, you say, are the women? Some are living the trauma inherent in intergenerational poverty – the tripartide death knell of racism, classism and sexism.  Still, many, many black women are scratching every day, every way they know how, to become educated and climb out of a cesspool not of their own making.

The anger that you see exploding in Ferguson, Baltimore, New York and sometimes here in the Minnesota-nice Twin Cities has been simmering just under the surface for 400 years and it is justified.  And it’s not just the young people, those we would like to call thugs and gang members who are angry.  Their elders, your educated African American friends and colleagues, often wear a mask to keep us all from knowing how they really feel about the indignities heaped daily upon themselves, their children, their ancestors. You should know, there is a great deal of righteous anger simmering beneath the surface[2].

So No, we all do not start on a level playing field.  Not at all.  I see the question posed lately on social media, “Are we post-racial?” Meaning since electing a two-term black president, are we past racism in America? H – E – double hockey sticks – NO we are not post-racial.

Just last week at Kwanzaa, a young man from our 21st Century Academy, a reading enhancement program for middle schoolers in North Minneapolis, came up to one of our administrators and asked to talk.  He mentioned a short story that his group had read called “The Boy who Painted Christ Black” by Harlem Renaissance author John Henrick Clarke.  Our young black scholar said that he sometimes attended a VBS program near his home.  He had mentioned this story, “The Boy Who Painted Christ Black” to his VBS teacher and the woman called him out in front of his otherwise white class, saying very emphatically, No, Sir. Do not bring that up again in this church.  Jesus is white. White do you hear me?”  No, if Katrina and Ferguson and daily life did not tell you so, I am here to tell you we are not post-racial.

We are in a fix, my friends.  A conundrum.  As we would say at my home church in North Minneapolis, we are in a Hot Mess.  Make no mistake, we are in a battle with the forces of evil.  Individual sin turns into corporate evil.

So why should we care …as Presbyterians, as Christians? Why should we care? And more to the point, why should we DO anything about this crisis erupting at OUR moment in Kyros time, God’s time?

Well, here is what Jesus said, in what we know as the Great Commandment:

 “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ ” Matthew 22:36-40 (NRSV)

Loud and clear, love your neighbor as yourself.  NO equivocation.  That means if you think that you and your family should have safe clean housing, so should everyone else. That means if you think you and your teenage son should be able to drive through your neighborhood without being stopped and frisked, so should everyone else.

That means if you think you should have reliable transportation to get to health care that works, so should everyone else. That means that your neighbor should have the same access to the polls that you do.  Loving your neighbor as yourself does not mean just writing a check.  It means taking initiative on their behalf as you would for yourself and your family to secure their basic human rights.

The reality is, White people have to fix this.  Yes, that’s what I said.  White people, not necessarily us, did this, and we have to fix this    If your deceased father caused a great trauma in your family, left some sort of gaping wound amongst his progeny, who has to fix it?  YOU DO. You and your brother and sisters have to fix it.  You have to fix this family sickness so that it does not corrupt future generations. We have to fix this.

We white people have all the power and it may require that we do with a little less in the future.  The oppressor must lift the burden, not the one smashed under the yoke.  Black people cannot fix this.  Blacks and whites cannot even sit in a circle and kumbayah this into harmony.  We, who know that we have enjoyed the advantage in this country for so long, must actively, up close and personally love our neighbor as ourselves.

So how are we to begin this great work?   We want to do something but what?  Again, here is what Jesus told his disciples, who were ordinary people, men AND women just like us:

Then Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the Kingdom of God and to heal.  He said to them, “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money — not even an extra tunic.”             Luke 9:1-5

So what does that mean for us?

That means that as disciples of Jesus Christ, we have POWER AND AUTHORITY over the demon of racism and can cure the disease of intergenerational poverty.  Jesus has infused us with the power and authority to set this mess right.  Don’t take that power lightly.

Jesus sends us out to HEAL,

to lay on healing hands, to express our concern, to hug, to love, to stand with.

And then Jesus tells us how to do it.

He says, take off on this journey with nothing.  And please note, this is a journey.  We must leave our living rooms.   We must leave the confines of church walls.  We keep our ministries inside our church walls where we can control them because we are afraid.  We must go to where the black people are and stick and stay with them there.  We must walk with them in their daily lives.  We must shop with them.  We must ride the bus with them.  We must learn what worries our African American brothers and sisters and ask about their experiences with racial profiling, racist obstacles they have faced in seeking jobs and education.  We cannot do that from our safe enclaves.

And we must leave on this journey empty handed and open-hearted.  Whisper “No staff, no bag, no bread, no money.”  No committee conceived notions of what black communities need.  We must make relationship and LISTEN, listen, listen.  I have been standing next to several African American communities for nearly 40 years and I am still stunned by the depths of degradation and wanton disregard white people have inflicted, are inflicting on black people in this country.  In fact, here’s an instance that comes to mind right now.  Since the first church arson in the south, over a dozen churches have been burnt.  But no one in this presbytery has called the pastors of my home church, Kwanzaa Community Church PCUSA to express concern or to ask how the good folks at Kwanzaa are feeling in any way.  We must step out of our comfort zones.

That should be enough to meditate on for a short while.  Why must we engage in this work? Because we strive to love our neighbor just as we love ourselves.  How will we start the journey?  With open hands and open hearts.

Praise be to God




[2] Most of the historical information in this sermon comes from the book The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson.  Information on mass incarceration comes from Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration.

copyright 2015 Paula J. Sanders

How I Got Over

May 9, 2015

As my grown children and grandchildren swirl around me, taking pictures, introducing themselves to my friends, the African American praise song, “How I Got Over,” runs through my head.  “You know my soul look back and wonder, how I got over.”

I am graduating today with my Doctor of Ministry degree from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago.  I am happy, and so glad to have most of my family with me, but still my mind skips back through the past.  Over a sad, anxious childhood; over struggles as a single parent; over violent, abusive relationships; over years of financial strain.  At the same time, in a flash I remember the warmth of teachers who cared, sisters and friends, moments in the sun with my children and beloved grands.  I feel rather than remember the weight of years and years of reading and studying, usually while working full-time to support my family.  How many times I looked out the kitchen window and longed to be “out there” instead of trapped “in here” writing papers.

But all that is finally over.  For the next little bit I don’t even want to take a crochet class.  I told my daughter-in-law that I planned to spend the summer “letting my soul catch up with my body” a phrase from a sermon delivered years ago.  Upon hearing this, five year old Alexis sat bolt upright in the office chair in which she was spinning, looked me straight in the eye and pronounced, “It’s going to take you a year.  First, your soul has to catch up with your body, which is going to take awhile.  Then your soul needs to heal because it has scratches and nicks on it.”  As she said this, she ran her own little hands up and down her forearms. “After that, your soul can settle down.  After it settles down, you can begin to rest.  It’s going to take you a year.  And then you will be ready.”  With that, my little prophet hopped down from the chair and went on a Barbie doll hunt.

Do I believe this is a message from God?  Yes, because I already really knew it before she said it. It is time for some self-care.  Before embarking on the second half of my life, I have accomplishments to take in and celebrate, but also near-death experiences to process, and losses to grieve.

“You know my soul look back and wonder, how I got over.”

Musings of a Liturgical Textile Artist – Why is God so Good to Me?

I am writing this blog as my wonderful movers, Larry and Tim from Kaba Moving Services, are bringing all my stuff in the front door.  After all my anxiety, they are doing a terrific job, hustling mountains of boxes of sewing supplies out of storage unit and apartment, and into my new duplex.  After almost seven years of sharing space with others, I am finally HOME ALONE again.  I am trying to figure out, why is God so good to me?

My new home has a dream sewing area/sunroom built onto the side of it, right off the kitchen.  This little studio space has a HUGE north facing window and three other windows to bring in the light, light, light.  It is already painted calm, sage green.  It came with a built in sewing surface, shelves, and even a mini-desk for the dollies (granddaughters) who spend the day with Nana.  Why is God so good to me?

In my second bedroom (office), I will have plenty of room to organize my huge stash.  In my spacious living room, I will finally be able to categorize my many, many books.  The very best part is that my landlord is a friend I have known for thirty years.  I am doubly blessed to be settled with my DMin thesis proposal due on March 1!

Why is God so good to me?  Not because of anything I have done, that’s for sure.  It’s because that’s who God is and that’s what grace is.  A related word in Hebrew is hesed, one of my favorite words.  Hesed means abundant, lavish, over the top, overflowing love.  The only being who has ever loved me like that is God.  Right here in my new home, and in Larry and Tim, is just another demonstration of God’s love.  All that’s left to say to that is THANK YOU, LORD!

Don’t forget Lydia’s Hands for new Lenten and Easter clergy stoles.  Custom work always welcome.

Sewing room  Awesome sewing room!

Purple Lenten Clergy Stole
Purple Lenten Clergy Stole

Why is Advent Purple the Color of Waiting?

I went this week to a suburban Minneapolis county government service center to renew my driver’s license.  Yes, my birthday is in June, so what?  As I rounded the curved hallway, I could hear before I could see a young black woman YELLING into the pay phone.  “JOHNNY, I NEED MY PHONE.   YOU KNOW I NEED MY PHONE SO I CAN CALL MY DAUGHTER.   HELLO?  HELLO?  No, he didn’t just hang up on me!”  With a great flourish of the purple scarf she had been waving at Johnny on the phone, she dug into her bags on the floor to look for more quarters.

I had no quarters or I would have given them all to her, as much as I am sure the intrusion of a well-heeled white woman at that point would NOT have been welcome.  I walked past, covering her with a brief prayer.  Breezing through the DMV in fifteen minutes, I was the first through the doors after a two hour statewide computer shut-down.  Purple scarf woman was back on the phone yelling at Johnny as I headed for the exit.

This woman wearing the purple of Advent has been waiting her whole life.  Waiting for faceless computer systems, waiting for someone to tell her how to stay away from men like Johnny, waiting for a place to rest her bags.  I ask God, will she have to go to her grave waiting for some security, some peace, waiting for enough?

So at Advent, we all wait.  We wait for healing for all people suffering violence and isolation.  We wait for those who have more than enough to include those who don’t.  We wait under a dark purple sky, full of a million stars and angels, for Jesus.

advent purple

What Does a Liturgical Artist Do for Fun?

You might think that the last thing that a liturgical textile artist would do for fun is more sewing, but that is exactly what this needle and threader does.  God has called me to volunteer with a group of Latina women at Simpson United Methodist Church in South Minneapolis.

Picture #3

At the beginning of this past summer, I could not speak a lick of Spanish, but the seamstresses are teaching me.  We started out posting on big paper the English and Spanish for many common sewing terms.  Fortunately, all the major pattern companies use both languages on the back of their pattern envelopes!  We are now branching out into simple sentences.  God has always called me to work with those who don’t have it easy in life, and in these days and times, I feel that learning Spanish is important for that work even if I am 56 years old.  Also, it helps the women with their English.  Most of them do not work outside the home and so do not get many chances to practice.  My dream is that I can help some of the mujeres learn enough English to help them advocate for their children in school.

I started this venture figuring that sewing could be taught and learned visually without a lot of language, which has turned out to be mostly true.  I either teach the women skills one-on-one, or they gather around me at the workstation.  I model the activity, they try it, I show them what I forgot to demonstrate the first time, and so we continue.   One of our most perplexing lessons has been on measurements.  Many Americans don’t function all that well with a yard stick and people from Latin America have the added challenge of growing up under the metric system.  The women benefit, however, from a community style of learning where one teaches another which is foreign to we individualistic Americans.

We began our first session this summer with everyone making a bolsa, a small cotton shopping bag.  That way, even if the learner professed previous sewing knowledge, I could assess their level of expertise with that initial project.  From there, the women have chosen their own projects – one working on a dress for herself, another starting a child’s blouse, and a third cutting out a new Aztec dance costume for her daughter.  When I come to a teaching point on a pattern, I call everyone over for a mini-lesson on notches, for example.

Starting this fall, I plan to do an actual demonstration of a skill at the beginning of every class.  This could be installing a zipper or making a machine button hole.  When I have taught sewing previously, I have had a list of competencies for the learner to master in order to earn a certificate “Level One Machine Sewing”, “Level Two Serging”, etc., and I may institute that system this fall.

Another important aspect of our weekly time is that the women intentionally share information regarding local events and family resources.  This serves to break isolation and increase the social and financial capital of each family.  A number of the students seem to be gaining self-esteem and indeed, we have begun to call the class Power Sewing or Coser con Poder!

If you would like to be involved in the fun, there are several ways to participate.  Join us, if you live near.  We meet on Tuesday mornings from 10 a.m. until noon.  We could certainly use more one-on-one sewing coaches and childcare helpers.  Donations of fabric, notions, scissors, etc. are always welcome so that we do not have to spend scarce resources on buying them.  Cub Foods cards are always a great way to help.  It is possible that food insecurity could be a problem at home and we might not be aware so we like to offer our families a snack.  We invite you into our happy little group.

Peace & Hope!

For more information:

Rev. Paula Sanders



Why Am I a Liturgical Textile Artist?

As a minister at the very beginning of writing my dissertation for a doctor of ministry degree, I have been doing a lot of self-reflection lately as I try to decide on a dissertation topic. One question that keeps coming to the fore is, “Why Am I a Liturgical Artist?” It is not really a career that little girls or boys aspire to. How did I get here?

First of all, sewing is one of the few things that I am really good at. I had one home ec class 45 years ago and I’ve been self-taught from there. The more challenging the pattern, the better as far as I am concerned. For five years, I had my own business making clothing for plus-size women. That’s where I taught myself pattern-making and to experiment with wearable art.

As a minister, I have never felt a call to pastoring a church. I do feel a great call towards working with the lost, the least and the locked out, and my first call as a Presbyterian minister was to begin a women’s empowerment group called the Lydia Women’s Empowerment Project in the very “urban” section of north Minneapolis. We worked together on spiritual empowerment, family empowerment, economic empowerment and social change empowerment. I (and many volunteers) taught the women to sew, and we made clergy stoles and church paraments for churches all over the Twin Cities, and even farther. I found that how a woman handles a sewing project is very informative as to how she handles life issues.

Lydia Women's Empowerment Project
Stars of the Lydia Women’s Empowerment Project

When the Lydia Project ended, I decided that I had many more stoles in my heart to make. It seems that my congregation is the pastors, and often their friends and family members, who visit Lydia’s Hands or my Etsy shop online. I love hearing how proud family members are of graduating seminarians. On custom work, I enjoy the collaborative effort of minister and maker together, which often includes a lively theological discussion. I love educating my “congregants” on the finer points of how to wear a stole, liturgical colors, and why my stoles are made the way they are. Just as a pastor prays for his/her flock, I pray for the ministries of those who wear my stoles.

Why am I a liturgical artist? Because I don’t think I could be anything else!

Why Wear a Stole?

During my time in seminary, which ended a mere six years ago, the only instruction that I received regarding the wearing of a liturgical stole was that it signified taking on the mantle (responsibility) of leadership in the church.  While this is very important and significant, it would have been helpful if someone had taken the time to talk to me about appropriate colors, themes, materials, occasions, lengths, seasons, etc. before launching me into the world of ministry.

Consequently, one of the first stoles I made for a beloved mentor was of a beautiful purple fabric, emblazoned with one of my now signature figures, praise dancers sashaying gaily down both panels.  Though this stole was wrong on so many levels (it was summer, not a purple season and praise dancers do not go with the sorrowful themes denoted by purple), my wise elder wore that stole with the pride of a peacock.  He has gone on to glory now, but my gratitude is immense.

Many questions were raised above, but for today, we will stick to the main question: Why wear a stole?  The purpose for any liturgical art should be to help sweep the viewer’s spirit ever closer to God.  Liturgical art is not for decoration, to make the sanctuary look pretty, or so that all the pastors are dressed alike.  The only purpose of stoles, altar cloths, banners, etc. is to help the worshipper focus on God.  Simple as that.  If a stole does not do that, it is not a good stole.

A stole can accomplish this goal through its color or colors, by the meaning of any embellishments, by its level of formality or appropriate informality.  If a stole is garish, or distracting, it is probably not directing those who see it in a prayerful direction.

While the stole is important to those who see it from the congregation side, it is important from the wearer’s side also.  How does it make the wearer feel?  It should have enough weight to remind one of it’s purpose, but not be so heavy as to be onerous.  Natural fibers will be most comfortable.  It should curve comfortably around the neck and hang flat down the front, not riding or slipping to the back.  It should not be to long or too short, hanging about six inches from the floor.  Most of all a stole should help the liturgist get in the Spirit!

Stay tuned for more information on Clerical Stoles and Liturgical Art.


Rev. Paula Sanders