An Open Letter to President Mark Schlissel

Mark Schlissel

Yesterday, I delivered a letter to President Mark Schlissel at the University of Michigan. I have been asked to make that letter public and willfully am doing so here. In this letter, I speak only for myself as an individual, but I do hope that these words will additionally amplify the voices and leadership of Black students at the University of Michigan.

On Wednesday night, Black students held a protest and engaged in conversation with President Mark Schlissel, demanding that he take tangible actions to secure their safety on campus. Here in Ann Arbor and at the University of Michigan, Black students have experienced an increasing number of racist incidents over these last few years. Just this last Sunday, two additional incidents took place. They were devastating:

Racial Slurs Written on Dorm Door Name Tags
Racist Graffiti in Support of Dylan Roof Found on Ann Arbor Mural

President Schlissel did not put out a response until Thursday, the day after the protest and conversation.

I want to talk about two particular moments on Wednesday night, when Black students courageously used their voices to hold the university accountable. These moments demonstrate that the university’s response has been woefully and dangerously inadequate.

At one point in the conversation, a Black student asked, “What happens when this is not a sharpie [about the dorm doors] but a knife? What then?” Fifteen minutes later, we all left the building and a white man assaulted Black students. That incident and my first-hand account of it is what this Letter to the President is about.

And this moment will forever stand out to me too. In fact, it invites all of us to put a tremendous amount of pressure on the University of Michigan: On Wednesday night, a Black student said to President Mark Schlissel, “You and I have been here four years now, right?” Then, after listing just a few of the racist incidents involving discrimination, graffiti, flyers, and even death threats via email, he asked President Schlissel, “In those four years, how many people have been caught and held responsible?”

President Schlissel said two words I will never, ever forget:

“No one.”

In light of these needs, I offer this letter. This letter mentions details of the violence initiated, unleashed, and threatened by a white man after the protest. It also mentions some related topics that are quite challenging. For these reasons, I want to issue a content warning before sharing the letter.

CW: Anti-Black, Racist Violence; White Supremacy; Gun Violence; Racial Epithets; Dylan Roof

You have my permission and invitation to share this letter.

Letter to President Mark Schlissel

To President Mark Schlissel:

My name is the Rev. Renée Roederer. I am a Community Chaplain in Ann Arbor and a member of the community at Canterbury House at the University of Michigan. I am writing you today to give you an account of a troubling moment of violence that took place last night immediately after the collective protest and conversation at the Union.

Last night, MLive reported a story with the headline, “Umich protest over racist incidents ends with fight near Michigan Union.” While this headline and framing of the story may give an impression that tempers simply flared and multiple people broke out into a fist fight, as a first-hand witness, I can tell you that there was one, sole instigator of this violence.

Most crucially for this letter, however, I am writing to let you know that this man made a direct threat in conversation with me. This was heard only by me and those nearby, and thus, was not reported in the MLive story. For the protection of Black students and the wider campus community, it is crucial for me to share this information with you. Here is an account of what happened:

When we left the Union, I joined a number of white students and community members who lined the sides of the crosswalks and blocked traffic so that Black students and students of color could cross safely on those crosswalks. After standing there for a couple of minutes, a white man in a red shirt (the man who was arrested and pictured in the MLive story) approached me and the person directly to my left. Presumably, he stepped away from a car on the street, though I did not see where he came from. It is possible he emerged from the crowd.

He began to yell at us, saying that we needed to move. “You need to move!” he said a couple of times. I tried to deescalate the situation and calmly said, “It will be okay. This will only last about five minutes.”

He continued to be irate, and at one point, he said his wife was in labor. I could tell from his body language that this was not true, nor what his anger was about.

Again, I kept my voice calm and tried to deescalate again.

What he said next was quite serious, and it is my primary reason for contacting you today. His next statement to me was,

“Do you want me to come back here and bring a group of people with guns?”

In this letter, I want to speak to you about this directly because this threat was spoken to me directly. The people closest to me also heard his threatening question. Since this was heard only by a few in the nearby area, it was not reported by any of the news sources, and I am doubtful that this statement was relayed to the police officers who arrested him a few minutes later.

After making this statement, a Black student behind me yelled to the man, “Turn around!” In the moment, I did not understand what that student said, but I have since seen a video that begins with his comment.

Then white man in the red shirt then said, “Shut the f*** up, N—–! I’m not talking to you!” Quite quickly, multiple people put their bodies between the white man in the red shirt and the Black student. Several people pushed the white man in the red shirt to get him to retreat. Then the white man in the red shirt began throwing punches in the direction of multiple Black students.

At this point, the fight then moved a bit farther away from where I was standing, so I did not see all the aspects of the violence. But not long after, we all saw this man being escorted away by the police. I was grateful to see this happen.

“Do you want me to come back here and bring a group of people with guns”?

President Schlissel, I believe it is absolutely imperative that we address this man’s threat with utmost seriousness. White supremacist threats and direct violence are escalating on the University of Michigan campus, in very real part, because no one has been caught and held responsible for an array of cases we all know about, involving racist threats, messaging, graffiti, and violence. The national climate additionally creates conditions for such an escalation.

I am not an alarmist, but one of my consistent fears is that we will not make adequate collective changes to safety and campus climate until an event of direct violence has occurred. We have to make tangible safety a top priority so that direct violence does not continue on this campus as it did last night.

So this is what I ask you to do:

1)  Learn the name of the white man in the red shirt.

There is certainly an arrest record. This man made a direct threat to do violence to students on the campus you lead with expressed willingness to bring a group of others with guns.

2) Assign someone on your staff to follow this man’s social media accounts.

Do not assign this task to the Campus Police only. Stay aware as much as you can of this man’s whereabouts. Check in regularly with the person(s) who are following along.

3)  Recognize that threats like these are precisely why students are not safe on campus.

In addition to the threat of what this man could do in the future, in the moment, he used the most dehumanizing epithet of our racist history and acted violently in a direct way. This is already dangerous and devastating to the student body.

4)  Demonstrate to students that you take this seriously and are making it a major priority.

I am not sure if you aware of how passive your voice and posture sounds to Black students and students of color. I also felt the impact of your tone last night. I cannot assess your intent in these conversations, but I do want to speak to you honestly about the impact. I am also willing to speak to you about this directly.

5) Most importantly, provide material resources for creating and implementing lasting solutions in conversation with Black students.

Over the last few years, Black student organizations have created lists of demands and tangible suggestions for actions.

Finally, I do want to reiterate that these threats are escalating in their frequency and intensity. I was especially shaken on Sunday when posters of Dylan Roof’s face were placed on campus and a mural on Liberty was defaced with the words, “Free Dylan Roof. I hate N—–s.”

I know people personally who were directly impacted in the violence and loss of human lives at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston. When people invoke the image and violent history of a white supremacist terrorist, it is quite possible that others will be emboldened by that invocation. We must do everything we can to impede such an outcome. This is not just about words, horrific though they are, written “with a sharpie.” This is an escalation that is potentially marking our campus for direct violence.

Please take immediate, direct action.

I am available to speak with you. Most importantly, as you know, a powerful set of Black students are emboldened to lead and discuss how to change the campus climate with you.

I thank you for taking the time to read my letter.

Rev. Renée Roederer

One Pause Changes Everything

comma

I really love this poem by Brian Shivers. I thought I would share it with you today.

One Pause Changes Everything (A Poem)

No one cares.
No,
one cares.

No one sees me.
No,
one sees me.

No one hears me.
No,
one hears me.

No one accepts me.
No,
one accepts me.

No one loves me.
No,
one loves me.

— bshivers

Brian Shivers is currently the Senior Associate Pastor for Spiritual Life at Second Presbyterian Church, Indianapolis, IN. He has been at Second in various roles since the summer of 1990. 

He loves sharing life with Jennifer, partner for over 30 years, and Allison, their amazing 19 year old daughter. They are honored that a chocolate lab, named Latte, and a tuxedo cat, Bella, allow them to live in their home.

Names

[I found this image here].

Recently, I had the opportunity to hear some folks encourage a particular person, and I noticed that something kept happening quite naturally. Instead of simply saying, 

“We’re with you. . . We believe in you. . . We know you can do this. . .”

they also kept adding the person’s name:

“We’re with you, [Name]. . . We believe in [Name]. . . We know you can do this, [Name].”

Throughout all of this, I was reminded of how powerful names can be. In the context of expressing love, gratitude, or encouragement, names themselves can be words of deep affection.

After I had already been pondering this, in a different context, a friend said that she wanted to hear her name more. She felt like people hadn’t said her name as often lately, a name she shares with a relative she lost years ago.

Perhaps somewhere within us, we are all longing to be addressed by name. This sacred process of speaking and hearing names comes from a place of being known and honored as the ones we are. We are seen and cared for in all our particularities.

When addressing others with love, gratitude, and encouragement, I’m going to start speaking names much more often and much more intentionally.

Renee Roederer 

Love Your Neighbor


When asked, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus answered, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Love God

– and – 

Love Neighbor

There are many Christians that go out of their way to try to convince others that God is real and worth loving. But what happens when those same Christians hold a concept of God that isn’t very loving? An ‘understanding’ of God doesn’t inspire love of neighbors? A view of God that even tolerates or promotes the exclusion, harm, and abuse of neighbors?

It makes me wonder. . . 

Rather than starting with some heady, propositional-theology concept of God – even one authentically to be loved –

What if we just love our neighbors?

What if we make a radical, joyful commitment to care for our neighbors’ wellbeing, celebrate our neighbors’ worth, and live in empathy and justice?

Of course, some would say that we can’t really even understand or practice love, care, celebration, empathy, or justice apart God’s revelation.

But since God’s revelation is always incarnational, we will undoubtedly discover love, care, celebration, empathy, and justice in the presence of our neighbors.

Maybe we if start with love for neighbor, we’ll actually discover a loving God.

Renee Roederer

The Sacred Otherwise

swirl

Every single thing that happens is born of particularity.

The largest things and the smallest things, alike —
who we know and love,
what routines we’ve developed,
how we’re partnered,
what our daily work looks like,
even what we’ve had for breakfast —
these may not have happened at all, except very particular factors lined up.

He showed up at a meeting.

A conversation brought synergy.

She asked me for a favor.

We missed the plane.

A job ad suddenly came into view.

I got fed up.

Someone told them they were really good at this.

A new question emerged in her mind.

Every bit of this is particularity. Most of life has an “it wouldn’t have happened this way, except” attached. I love to think about this.

And here’s a Real Mystery:

At times, we might sit back and marvel that some the best gifts of our lives,
the very best people and opportunities for whom we feel an immense amount of gratitude, might not have come into being in the way they have, and may not even exist!
except for the fact that we experienced a major life detour —
at times, one we would have never chosen, and one we may not have wanted at all.

We might look at these people, opportunities, and life rhythms as expressions of
The Sacred Otherwise.

Yes!
The Sacred Otherwise. . .

Without the detour —
the interruption,
the disruption,
the loss,
the departure,
the frustration —
we wouldn’t have had these other experiences.

Plan B, C, D, ad infinitum are very holy, because they are expressions of life that might not have existed at all. This is true with most things, in fact.

They are the Sacred Otherwise.

This doesn’t mean that the detours, interruptions, disruptions, losses, departures, and frustrations were gifts in and of themselves. In fact, they might still ache somewhere within us.

But even then, even there,
The Sacred Otherwise is born of particularity.

And so we marvel.

Renee Roederer

 

Choose That Which is Choosing You

Moon

If you close your eyes and awaken your awareness,

If you inhale deeply and let that breath fill every part of your being,

If you allow yourself to sit with the Question —
really and truly, as if you were taking it out for tea,
it will inhabit you,
it will enliven you,
it will call you by name,
and you will know what I’m talking about.

You will be familiar with the Question,
because it keeps making itself familiar to you.

It is that Question that keeps rising again
inside your being,
like an enormous, beckoning moon,
and the mysterious tide She consistently summons.

Yes, listen.
Stand on the shore of the horizon
and welcome the Question revealed in the waves
of
longing
lingering
dreaming.

. . . that Idea that keeps returning,
. . . that Love that keeps emerging,
. . . that Path that keeps arriving,

Listen. . .
In the swell of waves,
Ah, there it is –
Won’t you?

It sounds for you –
Won’t you?

Hear it resound and expand –
Won’t you choose that which is choosing you?

Renee Roederer

 

 

Well, Bless Your Heart, Son of Spinach

Among our neighbors in the backyard, is a groundhog. His name is Son of Spinach (at least to us, anyway).

We don’t see him everyday, but he has a den nearby, so from time to time, he shows up in our backyard. And to say something both true and alliterative, Son of Spinach is so overly skittish. At the smallest noise, he runs away to hide, sometimes under our deck. This quality feels like an endearing, funny, sad combo.

Today, Son of Spinach was feasting himself on grass quite out-in-the-open in our backyard this morning. And when I made a slight sound to unlock our screen door, he ran for cover under the deck. I found myself wondering, how long will he stay down there? How much recoup time is necessary for the popping sound of a lock? How long will it be before he feels safe again?

Then, I thought of us – that is, we humans. We hide and recoup too. Sometimes, we need alone time or sustained opportunities for self and community care.

But other times, we just doubt ourselves.

When it comes to the second, I hope we know there’s a whole out-in-the-open living opportunity for us.

Renee Roederer