I’m preaching today, back from two weeks of vacation. I admit I felt a little relieved last week that I wasn’t preaching, because I was feeling like I would have had to preach about Michael Brown. Little did I know what this week had in store. So now, as a White pastor in a 99% (or more) White community, I’ll be preaching about race and White privilege and violence and offering crumbs to the dogs.
I don’t feel adequate. I did lots of anti-racism work in college, even starting a program called “Courageous Conversations” to create a space for our community to talk about issues surrounding race and “diversity,” since it seemed to me that the only people talking about it were the students of color and those in the LGBT group, and I knew these issues affected everyone. Yet I still had work to do. When I moved to NYC after college, I plopped myself smack in the middle of Harlem, 129th and Lenox, and had no awareness that by doing so I became not a pioneer or a hero (which are, of course, privileged and biased assumptions anyway), but a part of the gentrification of that neighborhood. Yet, still, I noticed that my co-workers and friends downtown were shocked that I lived where I did and wasn’t afraid to walk home alone from the 125th Street A line station at 2am (well, not any more afraid than I’d be walking by myself at that time of night in most areas of any city, anyway). I often noted that I would be the only White person left on my train after 116th Street. Sometimes, I felt proud of that fact. Sometimes, I felt dismayed. Most times, I just observed and accepted it as how things were.
I moved west to Morningside Heights for seminary, technically still geographically part of Harlem, but culturally completely gentrified and taken over by Columbia University. I was aware of some racial tension in my seminary, but it was mostly outside the realm of my experience and not something I paid too much attention to. I was too busy wrestling with my own sense of call and theoretical issues of justice to focus on what was right in front of me.
My first call was to a church full of middle-to-upper class, highly-educated, mostly White people in a wealthy suburb of a not-wealthy city. I lived in the city, but in the most comfortable part, full of old Victorian houses that weren’t falling apart and had nice lawns and neat gardens and mostly educated White folks living in them. I moved further away from anti-racism work, focusing more on sexuality as my parish went through a process of discernment about being a welcoming and affirming congregation. I brought my son, whose biological father is Black, home, and some of those forgotten race issues came back to the surface. He started playing basketball with a group of kids from the city, mostly kids of color, coached by two Black men. I knew it was something to connect him to the Black community, but also knew I was letting my own privilege drive my parenting. I ignored it.
Now we live in a rural area which is very, very white, and I struggle with that. I am not providing my child with exposure to much diversity at all, except some socio-economic and class differences (we’re mostly white, but range from highly educated wealthy folks who own multiple homes to people living on the edge, struggling with poverty and hunger and drop-outs, and everything in between). And now I have two White step-children, who are very sheltered in regards to race but who now have a Black brother for whom the world looks very different. Yet we don’t really talk about it. E jokes about his Black-ness sometimes, but I think for him that just means his slightly urban vibe, wearing basketball jerseys and socks with his sandals.
The other day he off-handedly said something, a response to something I’d said, and then said that equality had come with the end of the Civil War (which they studied last year).
I was dumbfounded.
First of all, even if that wasn’t what was taught–and I loved his teacher and respect her and I doubt she said anything of the kind–how did that come through in sub-text? Secondly, WHOA my kid needs to know more history. He knows who MLK, Jr. is. What did he think that fight was for? And when did he think it happened? (Well, ok–he thought the band I’d scream at like girls scream for Justin Bieber was the Beatles. So maybe his sense of time is skewed).
Thirdly, and most importantly, I felt like a complete failure as a trans-racial mom. It is not the school’s responsibility to educate my child about this stuff–because they won’t.
My child could end up like Michael Brown, and he needs to know that. And so does my congregation. And not just because it’s personal, but because that is the fear of every parent of a black child in this country, and most white people don’t get it. They think it’s just making everything about race. They think Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin and every other Black person (mostly men or boys) who has been killed unjustly whose name is quickly forgotten if it was ever even known–each is an isolated incident. They think it’s not their problem. They think that racism ended in the 60s. They wonder why we have to keep bringing it up, why we can’t just all get along, hold hands and share a Coke and sing Kumbayah.
It is not. It is systemic. It is rampant. It needs to stop. And White people need to be part of the solution. And that includes the White church. We have the privilege of ignoring these issues, if we want. We can stay comfortable and pretend we don’t know–or, in fact, actually remain ignorant, not even needing to pretend. I could preach on Isaiah this morning, about God’s house being a house of prayer for all people, welcoming the foreigners and people who want to do things differently than how they’ve always been done, like I had planned.
I could. That privilege comes with my skin color, culture, and community. I doubt many people would notice if Ferguson was not mentioned this morning.
But. I have a calling, a responsibility, to preach truth in love, to push people to examine their lives in the light of God’s justice and love for all people, to not hide behind my own discomfort and uncertainty with my ability to address this issue responsibly and appropriately and well.
And so this morning I’ll preach–without notes, in keeping with my sermon “theme” for the summer–and pray fervently for the intervention of the Holy Spirit as I tackle these hard things, as I urge people to stop and listen to the cries of those around them, begging for what we already have. As I listen, too.
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