Can we talk?

The following is yesterday’s column that appeared in Kinston’s FREE PRESS.

Can We Talk?

By Rev. Allen Bingham / Columnist
Published: Friday, December 5, 2014 at 05:31 PM.

In my younger years I was cruising way too fast near the N.C. State University campus and a Raleigh police officer pulled me over for speeding. We discussed my speed and then with some sophomoric smart talk I was able to wiggle out of the ticket. As we parted the officer said “You’d better drive more carefully on ‘my streets’.” That was ironic! Recent news reports revealed that because of the increasing rise in the cost of living, most of Raleigh’s police officers lived in Garner. So I bit my tongue as I thought about the fact this “his streets” were most likely in Garner while “these” streets had been “my streets” for two decades. Both of us failed to see how “we” could live together in the city.

Years later I witnessed a friend of mine being treated as an outsider on another college campus. As we parted company after walking from the Theological School to the Student Center of Drew University a member of the campus security continued to follow him to his dorm. Later in the week I noticed this happening again.

Now my friend Noel was a big man! He was 6-feet 4-inches and must have weighed 275 pounds, but that was not why he was being followed. He was being followed across campus because he was an oddity at Drew. He was not odd because he was a theological student or even that he was a Baptist at a United Methodist seminary. No, Noel was simply a big black man out of place among the mostly white coeds of this small liberal arts college.

I asked Noel how often this occurred and he shrugged as he said “I’m just ‘walking while black’ and this happens constantly. I asked Noel what could be done about this. When he replied, “Nothing,” that made me mad. Noel was (and still is) my friend. He had been elected the president of the predominantly United Methodist theological school student body even though he was a “Baptist.” I made an appointment with the dean of the theological school and then the president of the university. I expressed my outrage that somebody the theological school trusted to represent us in every situation was being treated this way. Then I went to the head of campus security and handed him Noel’s picture, informed him of Noel’s status as a student, and demanded that he tell his team to back off.

Noel was able to walk without being followed by campus security from that point forward, but only on that campus. In the real world he is still subjected to “driving while black” and “walking by black” stops by police officers. And he pastors one of the largest churches in the city where he currently resides.

Recent news events have me bothered one more time as the tension between police officers and the communities they serve are being strained. The strain is rooted in an “us” and “them” mentality. As Marilyn Patrick, director of ICOR, recently reminded me. We have to remember every time we have a conversation with another person that “we” have to talk. “We” can talk, but “us” and “them” can never get together to talk (we only shout!). So I invite you to continue learning how to listen to the other person in the conversation. (Remember that LISTEN split in half and the letters rearranged leads to the spiritual practice of being SILENT). Then I invite you to speak in the first person plural about how “we” are going to mend “our” ways rather then lapse into all to familiar patterns of talking about “us” and “them.” In God’s eyes “them” is “us” when “we” are talking about being God’s children.

Allen Bingham is the Pastor of Queen Street United Methodist Church and can be reached at allen@queenstreetchurch.org.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor

The following is yesterday’s column for The Free Press of Kinston, NC.

Won’t you be my neighbor?

By Allen Bingham, Columnist.

Published: Friday, August 2, 2013 at 20:34 PM.

Forty-six years ago, Fred Rogers stepped through the door of the American psyche, stooped to change into his sneakers, and sang to us “It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor. Would you be mine?  Could you be mine?”

Someone wanted to be a neighbor. Someone wanted to be my friend. I grew up with this invitation increasingly being ignored as we built homes that moved us in a different direction.

In the world of Mr. Rogers’ first neighborhood, most of us parked our cars in the driveway or on the street and walked into our homes. While we walked into our homes, we greeted our neighbors and swapped the news of the neighborhood.

As we added carports and ultimately garages, we saw this ritual transform into folks returning home to their castles and pulling up the drawbridges behind them as they closed the garage door. Being neighbors at that moment moved from being in relationship with each other to living next door to one another.

The transformation was made complete as we moved from front porch conversations with whoever passed down the street to invitation-only backyard barbecues. We chose our friends and tolerated our neighbors as long as they kept the grass cut, the trash can hidden and the noise down when they partied. Some of us lament the mobile phone for leading us into an increasingly self-absorbed world, but we were well on the way long before the first bag phone landed in the American car.

Being a neighbor has always been a vexing question. When Jesus was asked “Who is my neighbor?” he told the parable of the Good Samaritan as found in Luke’s gospel. And as he told the story, he revealed that neighbors are made known in their personal actions in a time of need and not their geographical proximity.

Several weeks ago the trial of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin saw the breakdown in neighborliness on full display. A person who coordinated the community watch did not know his neighbors well enough to know that “the Martin boy from Miami” was visiting his dad for the weekend.

When the screams of the struggle echoed through their backyards, folks called 911, but no one came to break up the fight. And when you kill your neighbor, for whatever cause or defense, the fracture of relationship is severed forever.

The verdict revealed further fractures with our neighbors around the reality of race relations in our country. The “some day” of “we shall overcome” still remains on the horizon.

We can and should talk about the events in Sanford, Fla. I am in conversation with other pastors to shape these conversations together. But here is a problem we need to deal with.

Can you tell me the names of your 10 closest geographical neighbors? Do you know where they work? Do you know their children and if they live at home? Do you know your neighbor?

I confess that I cannot answer all these questions about my neighbors, and I am going to work on that.

So here is your challenge this week. Meet your neighbor, plan a block party and make it an annual event. Help the single mother down the street make a repair on her home. Volunteer with each other at your local school or down at the soup kitchen.

Start asking “Won’t you be my neighbor?” AND BE ONE!

Thoughts About 100 Years of Ministry in Kinston

The following column appeared in the Kinston Free Press one week after Queen Street United Methodist Church celebrated 100 years of ministry at the corner of Queen Street and Peyton Avenue in what is now downtown Kinston, North Carolina. I love being in ministry with saints and sinners of Queen Street and look forward to the challenges of another 100 years of ministry in Kinston.

Column: After 100 Years, Looking Forward or Reminiscing

This past Sunday, Queen Street United Methodist Church marked 100 years since our foremothers and forefathers walked from the corner of Caswell and Independence to the corner of Queen and Peyton to launch a new ministry.

While the move was only two blocks west and four blocks north, it represented a move in keeping with Kinston’s growth. I have been contemplating that move and remembering two heroes of scripture who made a much longer journey — Abraham and Sarah.

Abraham was called by God to leave the comfort of kin and homeland at the age of 90 and invited to “Go West” until God told him to stop. When he “arrived” at God’s spot some years later, God further promised Abraham that his descendants would be more numerous than the stars.

We have to remember that Abraham and Sarah were an ancient (Abraham was 99 and Sarah was 89) and childless couple when this promise was made. Abraham must have felt like a fool. It’s one thing to travel to literally “God only knows where”; it’s quite another to start a family at the age of 100!

The writer of Hebrews sensed that Abraham understood what it was to be a part of the larger human quest. The writer says that as Abraham traveled west he “was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10).

As several institutions in our town turn 100 this year, what would “looking forward to the city” look like in our time? As Kinston rebounds from watching one industry after another leave town and even get dealt the blow of losing our Kinston Indians, are we “looking forward to the city” or just reminiscing? Are we dreaming God-sized dreams of what could be or languishing in stories of what used to be?

As I get older, I find myself leaning into the future with my kids.

I choose indoor plumbing over outhouses, air-conditioning over oscillating fans, iTunes over 45s, the Internet over chain-letters, and pesky mobile phones over shared party lines.

I choose a city that looks to what can be instead of what used to be.

I choose a city where God is the builder and architect and where the citizens seek the prosperity and peace of the city as a whole.

That kind of place will prosper, and my hunch is that her descendants will be like the stars.