Monday, July 30, 2012

Racism Culture in the Polk County Sheriff's Office?

Well Sheriff Grady, it happened again today…

Another police officer spoke very candidly with me about the benefits of racial profiling. I was visiting your jail with several others to let you know we are not going to allow you to continue putting juveniles in adult jail, but that will have to be covered in another article. Just know that we aren’t going away until our children are safe.

After expressing my concern over racial profiling, the officer responded: 

“Racial profiling happens because it works. When I see that Hispanic teenager driving the Jaguar, I pull him over because chances are, he has stolen the car. 80% of the time I am right. I ask him for his papers and find out he is here illegally. They get pulled over because they look like they are guilty. Just like a guy walking around a store with baggy pants… if they don’t want to be followed, they shouldn’t look so guilty.”

Here’s the thing. I have their names, but I’m not interested in taking down individual officers when it is becoming more and more clear to me that this is a culture of racism in your force. Let me be clear, I’m not saying all of your officers are racist. I know many who serve with the highest integrity and are just as appalled as I that members of their team are acting more like Ku Klux Klansmen than Polk County Sheriff Deputies.

I’m going to protect their identities because I want more deputies to come forward. If you are a police officer and wish to speak anonymously about racial profiling, please speak up. I will meet you in person, you can send me an email, or you can comment below.

It is time for the culture of racism to be exposed so that it can be diagnosed and treated. Sheriff, if you aren’t going to take leadership in preventing the illegal actions of your officers, then I will have to keep writing these letters until someone listens.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Same Sex Partner Benefits in Lakeland, an Open Letter to City Commissioner Howard Wiggs

Dear Howard,

I understand the City Commission has just finished a study report concerning benefits for same-sex partners. I don't know where you stand on this important issue, but as a Lakeland citizen and someone who respects you a lot, I thought you might be interested in my convictions.

As I have grown in my understanding of Scripture, theology, and especially my relationships with others, it has become clear to me on my journey that homosexual practice within a committed monogamous relationship is part of God's beautiful creation. I was proud over and over again during my time in ministry at First UMC that I was part of a church that went out of its way to show hospitality to the LGBT community. As I listened to story after story of members who had spent their lives being shunned from families and churches, only to find a home of love, grace, and acceptance in our church, I cried tears mixed with pain and joy with my new friends. I think its great that FUMC has LGBT persons on staff, on important committees and serving in worship each week, affirming that FUMC is a place that values the gifts God has given all people. I'll never forget how many church members spontaneously stood in support with parents who identify as lesbians when we baptized their daughter. That is what the church should look like!

I am similarly proud of our City and County government. I have listened to many stories of LGBT individuals, some open and some still hidden, and shed tears with them as well. The LGBT community is part of the backbone of Lakeland and I am proud that on the whole, our community has moved past the partisan ideologies that made us more divided than a town that offers liberty and justice for all.  One individual that has shared their story with me is in the Polk County Sheriff's Office. I know that if he felt comfortable giving a public voice to the need for equal rights for he and his partner, he would be more vocal.  So many I know in Lakeland that serve faithfully on all levels of our government, churches and schools sadly still feel like they have to remain in the closet to protect their jobs.  

This is why I believe so passionately that it is time for Lakeland to take this important step of offering same-sex partner benefits. Not only is it the right thing to do, it will give space for those who faithfully give their lives to making Lakeland a better place to come out in the open as who they were created to be. I can't imagine giving my life to something and having to lie about who God has made me to be. Can you imagine that?

From the little I know of you in the interactions we had over the past few years, I know that even if you do disagree with the idea of domestic partnerships, you will want to do the right thing by supporting this measure to provide equal rights for the people of Lakeland. Equality has always been the right side of history to be on, and I would be proud of our city and the commission if we led the way in Polk County as Orlando, Tampa, and St. Petersburg have led the way for Central Florida. I know this will be a tough decision for you, and just wanted you to know that I am praying for you. I trust that in the end you will vote the way you know is right and I will continue to support you no matter which way you vote.

If you would like, I would be happy to meet with you to listen to your perspective. If we disagree, I don't wish to argue, but learn how we might understand each other. Thank you for your faithful service!


Rev. Andy Oliver

An Open Letter to Sheriff Grady Judd

Dear Sheriff Grady Judd:

Following church last Sunday, my lunch conversation took a disturbing turn. The Polk County Sheriff Deputy sitting at my table started talking about all the “illegals who are ruining Polk County.” Then grinning, he said “My favorite thing to do is spend time on patrol in those parts of town where ‘those people’ hang out. I just wait for them to look like they are breaking a law and then I get to catch me a Mexican.” The words took me back to stories told about another world in the 1920s-1960s when that phrase could have been "catch me a nigger".

I am a believer in really listening to people’s stories before casting judgment. I learned enough in this brief conversation at lunch to safely say this deputy values racial profiling and even employs it in his job—specifically looking for ways to “catch” someone who looks Mexican. “Catch me a Mexican” sounds like someone hunting an animal. This is racism from one in our police force who is charged with protecting the very people he has already convicted in his mind. That might even be putting it nicely since by his rhetoric, I’m not even sure he considers Latinos to be people.

I understand this might be an extreme example of an individual, and certainly does not speak for the integrity of the Polk County Sheriff’s office as a whole. However, the question needs to be asked…  Is this just the perverse perspective of an individual or is there an anti-Latino culture that pervades the Polk County Sheriff’s Office?

Stories of injustice like this come out of Arizona. Sherriff Joe Arpaio holds the record for the most law suits against a sheriff. (Sheriff Judd, you are in second place.) Sherriff Arpaio took the stand yesterday to face Latinos who are accusing him of racial profiling, including launching immigration sweeps based on complaints about “dark skinned people”, targeting Latino areas by seeking out traffic offenders, and pulling over Latinos without probable cause. The Justice Department has filed a broader case against the sheriff and his department. I wonder if this is a sign of lawsuits to come to Polk County?

I have spent significant time recently listening to stories of Latino persons in Polk County—many undocumented. Their stories are powerful and not unlike the stories of immigrants found in the family trees of every person in Polk County. They are part of the fabric of society and are people who are increasingly coming out of the shadows to make a real difference in our community for all who are marginalized. I have been inspired by their life stories, and deeply saddened by their stories of being targeted by Polk County Sheriff Officers.

Many times, the racist actions of some of your officers affect children most of all; Latino children who live in fear of law enforcement because their parents are often victims of racial profiling. As you know, the cooperation of the community is essential for law enforcement and this behavior does not do anything to help foster a trusting relationship between Latinos and the Polk County Police.

Sheriff Judd, based on the personal testimony of many, I believe there is a pervasive culture that promotes racial profiling in your department. I applaud you for the statement on your Web site that calls profiling unacceptable. I assume this policy is part of officer training. But, like any policy, it is only as powerful as it is practiced. You can dismiss the stories of many as merely perception (like you do on your Web site) or you could take time to listen, build trust, and make relationships. I wonder, if people of privilege were making complaints in masse, would you dismiss their testimony too as "anecdotal".

What are you actively doing to change this culture? Will you meet with others and myself who are currently organizing to protest the treatment by your deputies? How will you make it safe again for those who face the injustice of your officers who are trying to “catch them a Mexican”? What are you doing to build relationships in the Latino community? I know you must train your officers to technically stay on the right side of the law, but I wonder, will future generations judge them to be on the right side of history...


Rev. Andy Oliver

Friday, July 20, 2012

Guest Article: Why I'm Leaving the United Methodist Church (by Artie Van Why)

Today I have the privilege of featuring a guest post from the amazingly talented Artie Van Why, a current member of the United Methodist Church who is choosing to parts ways with a church to which he has been loyal. A bit about Artie from his Website... following Asbury College in KY, Artie moved to New York City. His stage performances include Jesus in 'Godspell' and Snoopy in 'You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown'. In June of 2001, his office moved across the street from the World Trade Center. He reported to work as usual on the morning of September 11th. Artie began writing about his experience on 9/11 and the weeks that followed. Artie wrote and produced a staged reading in New York City of a play called 'That Day in September'. The reading made its debut to a sold-out crowd and was presented in many other venues. Artie now lives in Lancaster County, PA. In June 2006, Artie self-published the book version of That Day in September. Artie speaks publicly whenever given the opportunity, and his script is available for production.

If you would like to share your story on my Website, please email me at


I was raised a Methodist and have been a loyal member of my current UM church, but I am leaving the denomination. I am leaving because I’m gay and I’ve finally had enough of the denomination’s pretense of welcoming the gay community.

It’s time someone called the denomination on its blatant doublespeak, so I will gladly step up to the plate.

“Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.” is the denomination’s seemingly ingenuous welcoming catch phrase. However, when it comes to the gay community the denomination's heart, mind and door is only open to us if we play by their rules.

The “rule book” for the denomination is its Book of Discipline (which includes, among other things, the church’s doctrine, theology and social principals). In the Book’s section on homosexuality it says that “all persons are individuals of sacred worth” (which, I would assume, includes gay individuals). Even so, it appears a gay person’s sacred worth really isn’t worth that much.

We are welcome to sit in the pews of UM churches. We just aren’t allowed to preach from their pulpits. Well, we can; but only if we don’t acknowledge or, as the Book of Discipline puts it, “self-avow” that we are “practicing” our homosexuality.

I bristle at the misuse of that word in referring to gay people. When do you ever hear anything about heterosexuals practicing their straightness?

I wish the denomination would just come out and say what they really mean. They don’t want gay people having sex.

A celibate gay person = good. An unchaste gay person = bad.

What the denomination fails to recognize is that in telling us we can’t “practice” (or be) who we are, they are telling us that we can never have romantic love in our lives; forgetting that love is more than just sex. There are the emotional, mental and spiritual intimacies two people in love develop. The memories made; the joys and sorrows shared.

I want to ask the denomination, if I were to commit my life to another man and if we were to live together for 30 years; for better or for worse, in sickness and in health and never, ever once made love would we be considered non-practicing homosexuals? Would we be okay in the UM Church’s eyes? Or does the denomination’s definition of practice include those above mentioned gifts a loving relationship brings beyond just the physical? Are we being told that we are not allowed to love or be loved? That we don’t deserve it?

The United Methodist Church will gladly accept our tithes and offerings yet they reject our relationships and legal marriages.

According to the Book of Discipline, the denomination “insist[s] that all persons, regardless of age, gender, marital status, or sexual orientation, are entitled to have their human and civil rights ensured.” Why, then, isn’t the United Methodist Church at the forefront of defending our civil (not religious) right of marriage equality?

The UMC can’t have it both ways. They are either for us or against us. Doesn’t the Bible say something about those being neither hot nor cold but lukewarm being spit out?

The denomination’s campaign of open hearts, open minds and open doors is deceptive and hypocritical; nothing more than a marketing ploy. Perhaps the following would be a more honest appraisal of the United Methodist Church.

Closed Hearts to the hurt inflicted on gay men and women by not affirming their relationships or their right to marriage.

Closed Minds to the very thought that God might bless and sanction loving, committed gay relationships.

Closed Doors to gay families that wish to be validated, respected and assured they are equal to "traditional" families.

The UMC says “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” I think the way the denomination treats its gay members is just as incompatible. So, I am taking my leave and will find a church that won’t mind me “practicing” my gayness.

-Artie Van Why, Lancaster, PA