Acts 1:15-17, 21-26 † Psalm 1 † 1 John 5:9-13 † John 17:6-9
You may have heard the rather startling news that the US is the only developed country in which maternal mortality is actually going up rather than down. With all our scientific advances in health care, women are dying in childbirth at an increasing rate. At the same time, infant mortality remains a significant problem. The US has dropped to 32nd among the 35 wealthiest countries when it comes to the rate of infant deaths in childbirth. There is an important, and startling caveat to all this, though. These numbers are not trending across the board. Both of these rates are driven by what is going on with black women and babies.
Black women are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes as white women, and black infants are more than twice as likely to die as white babies—this disparity is actually wider than it was in 1850, 15 years before the end of slavery.[i]
Let that sink in, for a moment. In comparison to other cohorts, the divide in the experience of quality of care in childbirth is wider now that it was when black women and their children were considered property. And the problem is so significant among black women and babies that it drives up the entire US rate for both statistics.[ii]
I was thinking about this because The Poor People’s campaign is kicking off this Monday, and the emphasis this first week, on the heels of Mother’s Day, after all, is children, women, and people with disabilities in poverty. If you have not paid attention to the Poor People’s Campaign, I hope you will take some time to educate yourself about it, which you can do at the website poorpeoplescampaign.org.
The campaign is a continuation of what Martin Luther King, Jr. inaugurated prior to his assassination. In December of 1967, Dr. King announced a plan to bring together poor people from across the country for a new march on Washington to demand better jobs, better homes, better education. This campaign, then is an intentional moral revival of the nonviolent work of the 1960s uniting people across the country to “challenge the evils of systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, [and] ecological devastation.”[iii]
One of the biggest challenges behind many of our social problems, of course, is that we look to inaccurate, and even intentionally false data to support our biased assumptions, so it is important to give ourselves to real facts.
When it comes, for example, to infant and maternal mortality, research has clarified what is behind these startlingly incongruent rates. It is not because black women do not take care of themselves. It is not because they are not getting adequate pre-natal care either because they do not have access or because they are somehow more irresponsible than any other mother. When pre-natal care is equal, black women still have small and pre-term babies. It also doesn’t have to do with education. In fact, a black woman with an advanced degree is more likely to lose her baby or die in delivery than a white woman with less than an eighth-grade education.[iv] It also doesn’t have anything to do with genetic differences.
Simply put, something about growing up as a black woman in America is bad for your baby’s birth weight and threatening to her survival. It isn’t poverty. It isn’t irresponsibility. It isn’t inherited. It is the lived experience of being a black woman in America. It is the result of systemic racism. A sea of research over the last few decades has clearly indicated that these disparities are directly attributable to bias and to toxic psychological stress experienced as a result of systemic racism. A recent article in the New York Times Magazine spells it out for us:
For black women in America, an inescapable atmosphere of societal and systemic racism can create a kind of toxic physiological stress, resulting in conditions — including hypertension and pre-eclampsia — that lead directly to higher rates of infant and maternal death. And that societal racism is further expressed in a pervasive, longstanding racial bias in health care — including the dismissal of legitimate concerns and symptoms — that can help explain poor birth outcomes even in the case of black women with the most advantages.[v]
In other words, it is solvable, even as it goes to the very heart of who we are, the morality of our culture, and our willingness to give ourselves to a larger sense that we belong together, that we are responsible for one another. It is, for we who consider ourselves followers of Jesus, a matter of living out our faith.
That’s what these texts for today are talking about. Jesus’ prayer in John is confusing, and it creates challenges because of language that seems to limit the God who so loved the world, really the cosmos so much that, as Eugene Peterson’s translation The Message translates it, God moved into the neighborhood.
When Jesus says he and his followers are not of the world, but in it, I suspect it is fair to say that we understand ourselves to be committed to a different set of values, a different code that what is generally held in our broader culture, that is built on this idea that we belong to each other, that we are our brothers and sisters keepers, that our well-being is tied up in the well-being of others, and that as long as black women and their children are at risk, or poor people are at risk, or our siblings with disabilities are at risk, then we all are at risk.
We will see this more next week in the story of Pentecost, when the glory of God, which before had fallen in the form of fire from heaven onto the temple, now descends on all people. All people! Not just Jews, but Gentiles, people from throughout the world. Insiders and outsiders, poor and rich, slave and free alike.
“Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me,” Jesus prays, “so that they may be one, as we are one.”[vi] We are not of the world, Jesus suggests. But we belong to the world and its well-being. We are different. We practice a different code, a different set of commitments that refuses to imagine we are not committed to its well-being.
There’s a beautiful spoken word piece by a poet named Joseph Solomon. It is a Mother’s Day piece, but I think it illustrates this broader love beautifully, even as it takes seriously the unique dangers that people of black and brown skin face disproportionately. It speaks to the deep sense of belonging and responsibility that falls in direct line with the truth of Jesus’ life and the Poor People’s Campaign. It was inspired by his experience at an airport. Have a look.
“I was the son she hadn’t met yet… This vicarious love is an old family recipe, Solomon says, “passed down like an ancient recipe… something heavy… Call it a generational blessing or burden. Faithful family tree branches. And they be whispering to each other. Waving them ‘keep them safe’ prayers to God at night for you.”
You see, the other thing that we know without a doubt, is that Christianity was born in adversity, and its truest forms thrive there. We who have so much, who worry about so little, we can learn from this. And we can join it. Be a part. And find in our renewed commitment to black moms and their babies, in our courageous commitment to those who are poor and pushed to the margins, in our carefully practiced lives that believe in every moment and every action that we belong to each other—we can find what makes for our own life, our own renewal, our own salvation as well.
Thanks be to God.
[i] Linda Villarosa, “Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis.” April 11, 2018 in The New York Times. Retrieved on May 11, 2018 from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/11/magazine/black-mothers-babies-death-maternal-mortality.html.
[ii] See Michael Barbaro’s “The Daily” Podcast “A Life-or-Death Crisis for Black Mothers”. This statistic is cited at 10:30 in the podcast. Retrieved on May 11, 2018 from: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/11/podcasts/the-daily/mortality-black-mothers-babies.html?rref=collection%2Fbyline%2Fmichael-barbaro&action=click&contentCollection=undefined®ion=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=1&pgtype=collection.
[iii] See https://www.poorpeoplescampaign.org/.
[iv] See Michael Barbaro’s “The Daily” Podcast “A Life-or-Death Crisis for Black Mothers”. This statistic is cited at 11:00 in the podcast. Retrieved on May 11, 2018 from: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/11/podcasts/the-daily/mortality-black-mothers-babies.html?rref=collection%2Fbyline%2Fmichael-barbaro&action=click&contentCollection=undefined®ion=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=1&pgtype=collection.
[v] Linda Villarosa, “Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis.” April 11, 2018 in The New York Times. Retrieved on May 11, 2018 from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/11/magazine/black-mothers-babies-death-maternal-mortality.html.
[vi] John 17:1b.
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