Kwanzaa Learnings for People of White Privilege

As a man with White privilege I feel anxiety about offering any comments about a celebration of African/African American history, culture, and wisdom. I do not intend to appropriate the spiritual traditions of other people. However, as I told a friend, “It is not my heritage, but oh my, the wisdom is so powerful, so needed.” 

A bit of personal history is in order. One of the things that happened when I was the pastor of Metropolitan Community Church of Richmond VA that really makes me proud, is our decision to observe Kwanzaa on the Sunday immediately following Christmas. I do not know for sure which year we began, but I know that by 2007 (I had been pastor since 2003) the local paper ran a story with pictures about our observance.  We had purchased a kinara, a beautiful carved wood holder for the seven candles, as well as the required green, red and black candles (I don’t think I had ever seen, let alone purchased, a black candle before this). 

I was moved to promote this because I was acutely aware that this congregation of 80 people was overwhelmingly white-identified—in a city in which African Americans constituted a majority of the population (of course, the suburban counties were very different!). I admit that my reasoning included appealing to African Americans, especially LGBTQ people, to check out our congregation. This was not the first time White-dominated institutions used Kwanzaa as a marketing ploy (Hallmark cards come to mind). At any rate, I have come to appreciate Kwanzaa over the years, although I admit I have not always actively observed it. With this post, I am committing to active year-round engagement. 

Dr. Maulana Karenga

One of the seven principles of Kwanzaa is Kujichagulia, self-determination. Dr. Maulana Karenga, the creator of Kwanzaa, said that he wanted to give Black people an opportunity to celebrate themselves and their history, not as a subset of or exception to other holidays, but their own self-designed, self-actuating celebration and foundation for personal and communal life, to define and name themselves, as well as to create and speak for themselves. 

That is why I think Kwanzaa is so vital. It can help people with White privilege come to grips with the reality that Black people, as is true of Indigenous, Brown and other people, have not only a vibrant self-defined culture but are agents in their own well-being. It is essential that we with White privilege massively change the ways we have set up, and continue to set up, the world to deny that. 

All of us, and each of us, who benefit from unearned White privilege need to get our collective knee off the backs of BIPoC people, but we also need to realize that even though we continue to victimize them they already have their own dignity, their own values, their own history. That dignity, those values, and that history are a powerful testament to the vibrancy of the human spirit from which we can learn much.  

We, all of us, need the wisdom that is collected and celebrated in Kwanzaa.  People with White privilege could learn so much from the peoples we have devalued, abused, slaughtered—and continue doing that today. At the same time, we who benefit from unearned privilege need to be careful in our own observance of Kwanzaa to avoid bleaching it (an example of bleaching is what is done each January to the life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., removing all the edges of his words and work that might upset us, so he becomes a faint caricature of the giant he was and still is). 

I have already mentioned Kujichagulia, self-determination. Let’s look at the other six. 

Umoja (Unity)—To strive for and to maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race. 

Unity is so missing in our nation today, and really around the globe. Let the coming year be one that helps all people come together. A vital way people with White privilege can contribute to this is to give up some of that privilege, and work to eliminate it entirely. We can’t keep clinging to ideas and practices of superiority over others if we really want unity.

Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility)To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems and to solve them together.  

Collective work and responsibility is in short supply these days, especially with the number of people who continue to deny the reality of COVID-19, not to mention the Climate Emergency and the continuing scourge of White supremacy, and engage in behavior which endangers not only them but the rest of us, too. You know who you are and you can change if you care enough about the well-being of all. And the rest of us can promote this change.

Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics)—To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together. 

Cooperative Economics seems foreign to our capitalistic, monopolistic society. Imagine, encouraging everyone to use their gifts to build their own dreams in ways to benefit all. One small way I am trying to encourage this is to buy as little as possible from the online giants and give my patronage to local and smaller companies and especially to those owned and operated by BIPoC people. 

Nia (Purpose)—To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness. 

Purpose as an expression of collective focus seems foreign to the deep strain, the dominance, of individualism in the United States. This principle raises up the truth of the beauty, wisdom, and power of African cultures so often belittled and degraded by Western supremacist views. That needs to change, of course, and frankly people of White privilege also must think and work to draw upon parts of our heritage that call us to more universal values and behaviors. 

Kuumba (Creativity)—To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it. 

Creativity is an aspiration to contribute our fullest potential to the well-being of all. This is not motivated by profit and power for a few but by an awareness of our own innate and developed gifts, and a desire to use those gifts to bless, serve the world. There are people of privilege engaging in philanthropy but this is more than that; this is giving our whole selves, and continually stretching ourselves, to create a better world for all. 

Imani (Faith)—To believe with all our hearts in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle. 

Faith speaks to the fundamental human need to believe in each other. In the context of African and African American history, this is a reclaiming of the beauty and power of the various cultures and movements of the people. For White privileged people, this needs to be understood as a challenge to us to affirm the dignity and value of all people, AND to ongoing critical conversation and action that challenges and changes the people, attitudes, and practices that create and maintain hierarchies of value denying the dignity and value of others. Frankly, I, we, have much work to do in this! 

In case you hadn’t noticed, at the heart of Kwanzaa is community, communal living. May this new year be a time where more and more of us live in ways that acknowledge the truth that we all—of every nation, color, racial identity, religion, language, sexuality, gender, age, tribe, education, economic status, as well as all the non-human creatures of this world—are in this together. 

Indeed, the lessons of Kwanzaa tell us we people of White privilege must change. We can share in celebrations of this special time created and led by others, but if we do not show up to work on our own transformation we are only engaging in making ourselves look and feel good.  

We’ve got a year to show some progress. Let us get to it. 

If you want to learn more, you can visit https://www.officialkwanzaawebsite.org and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kwanzaa

Note: As always, I invite you replies as an opportunity for us to continue the conversation. The best way to share in the conversation not with me but with others is to use the comment option on this page. You also can sign up to become a subscriber to this blog. I would be so glad of your continuing participation in the dialogue. 

Chanukah: A Reminder to Resist

Chanukah began last evening at our house with the lighting of the first candle and the singing of

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tsivanu l’hadlik ner shel Chanukah.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to kindle the Chanukah lights.

Tonight is Shabbat, and Jonathan and I will sing the above as well as 

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat.

Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to kindle the light of Shabbat.

Every other evening we pray before dinner in the kitchen–first with our beloved Standard Poodle, Cocoa—prayers for the world and our loved ones, giving thanks, whatever we feel called to share—and then on non-Shabbat nights we conclude that by singing 

Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu melech ha’olam hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.

You will notice that the root of each prayer is identical. I really appreciate that, because each time I am reminded of the centrality of God in my life, indeed all life (at least as I believe). 

I am a lifelong Christian, a queer theologian guided by my ever-evolving sense of what being a follower of Jesus calls me to be and to do, AND I am also blessed to be connected to the ancient and contemporary Jewish roots of that faith. Let me be clear, I can’t help but come to Judaism with my Christian heritage and life, but I also come to this beautiful faith for its own truth and wisdom. To put it simply, I am doubly blessed. 

Actually, the blessing is rooted in my 23-year marriage to the love of my life, Jonathan, a Jewish man who helped and helps me engage with Judaism more than simply coming to love what was called in my childhood, and even in seminary, the Old Testament, the text truly known as the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh. He has helped me appreciate Jewish ritual and music and worship and values so now I want to participate more and more in it. I also am educated about the many Jewish spiritual texts by our rabbi and Jewish writers and scholars, which enriches my understanding and appreciation and grows and deepens my faith. 

Another way to appreciate this shift is that I am repeatedly reminded that God, the God of my understanding, is larger than any one faith, any one religious or spiritual system. So blessings abound. 

Tonight, at 6 p.m., Jonathan and I will join our community and Rabbi Joseph Berman online at the New Synagogue Project (newsynagogueproject.org) for lighting the Shabbat candles and the candles for the second night of Chanukah. I am honored to be a member along with Jonathan. 

Then, on Sunday, I will join my community at Metropolitan Community Church of Washington, D.C. (mccdc.com) for worship at 11 a.m. The pastor, Rev. Dwayne Johnson will be preaching on “The Gift of Wilderness.” That congregation and our pastors are a huge blessing in my life, too. 

Then, at 3 p.m. that same day, I will join online the local community of Jewish Voice for Peace (https://jvpdc.org/jvp-dc)for a Chanukah party/celebration. Our special guest will be a young, gifted writer, Massoud Hayoun, author of When We Were Arabs: A Jewish Family’s Forgotten History. It is a splendid book of story and cultural/religious insight. 

Jewish Voice for Peace is a national organization working for justice and liberation for the people of Palestine. Both Jonathan and I are members. Most members are Jewish, but I am far from the only Christian involved. It is a wonderful movement. We began our involvement with the cause while still living in Richmond, VA (where I pastored the local MCC church) through Richmonders for Peace in Israel-Palestine. When we moved to the D.C. area in 2015, we joined JVP Metro DC. 

I connect all this to Chanukah because, although it is not a High Holy time like Passover, Rosh Hashanah, or Yom Kippur—and is often thought of as more for kids than adults (many view the contemporary focus on Chanukah as primarily a response to the dominance of Christmas in our culture)—I also understand Chanukah as a symbol and encouragement of resistance, resistance to oppression, injustice, and the failure to care for each other and the world.

I want to quote extensively from Rabbi Brent Rosen’s recent piece about Chanukah [the name of his blog, Shalom Rav, refers to an evening blessing of Abundant Peace]. He writes, 

Chanukah, of course, is based upon the story of the Maccabees, the small group of Jews who successfully liberated themselves from the oppressive reign of the Seleucid Empire in 167 BCE. The legacy of this story, however, is a complex one because the Jewish struggle against religious persecution took place within the context of a bloody and destructive Jewish civil war. In contemporary times, the meaning of Chanukah has become even more complicated given its proximity to Christmas, subjecting it to the uniquely American religion of unmitigated commercialism.

Beyond all these complications, I’d argue that the essence of Chanukah is the theme of resistance. At its core, the Chanukah story commemorates the victorious resistance of the people over the power and might of empire. On a deeper level, we might say that the festival celebrates the spiritual strength of our resistance to an often harsh and unyielding world.

You can read his entire article, which focuses on how we can resist Covid-19 through mutual aid, at https://rabbibrant.com/2020/12/10/Chanukah-is-about-resistance-lets-resist-this-covid-spike-through-mutual-aid/. Whatever your faith or lack thereof, I encourage you to read it and ponder your own ways of resistance, not only to Covid-19 but also to the other viruses infecting our world (including White supremacy/racism, militarism, the climate crisis, inequality and inequities of all sorts, and rampant capitalist exploitation). 

It may be the season to be jolly and joyous, as we are told—and it is also the season to resist, to work together to create the world God (however you understand God or the Universe or what/whomever) really means for us to have and be, not just you and me but every single body, human and non-human. 

So I say, “Chag Sameach” (pronounced “hahg sah-mae’-ahk) and/or “Chanukah Sameach”, or simply Happy Holidays or Happy Chanukah! 

And may the resistance be strong, resilient, and joyous.  

 

Still Haunted

NOTE: Despite the title, this is not a Halloween fantasy but a recognition of a real-life haunting that continues to this very day and shows few, if any, signs of ending. 

I have removed images that were shown earlier, to avoid triggering readers. 

A dear friend told me about her high blood pressure during the past weeks and months—a response to nightmares she is experiencing. The nightmares include her being beaten, even shot, “because of the color of my skin.” She said a recurring one involves Walking While Black, being shot for walking down the street. 

It is for me a powerful reminder of the power of White Supremacy to keep BIPOC people on edge, off-center, always having to be aware of everything going on around them, to take extra precautions to be safe wherever they are, whatever they are doing. 

Even more, it is a powerful statement about what all that watching and being prepared for the next bad thing, every moment of every day, can do to people’s psyche, their sense of well-being, their mental health, and indeed their physical health. BIPOC people are so very aware of being expected to not precipitate what Robin DiAngelo calls “white fragility”—the form of bullying used by White people to maintain dominance, to keep people of color in line and “in their place.”

My friend is a Black woman in her 60s, now retired, with a long record of distinguished accomplishment in her profession as well as continuing engagement in working for social change. She is a well-known, greatly admired leader in our local community. She would seem to have everything going for her, and yet she is experiencing dangerously high blood pressure due to a lifetime spent coping with the insidious nature of White supremacy. 

Another friend speaks of “adaptive behavior” that she and other Black people (and other racially marginalized people) have learned to do to survive, expressed through self-denial and self-silencing (swallowing feelings, looking past hurts and insults, avoiding disagreements, etc.) piling up over years of stifling oneself. Small wonder people have nightmares.

None of what has happened in recent years to Black people surprises either of them, nor does it surprise any other Black people………or Indigenous or other People of Color. But all of it takes a toll on their well-being. This is the seemingly “non-violent,” quiet, side of White supremacy—it is not available for video recording and replay, it is not a dramatic moment like a shooting or a lynching or White supremacist demonstration. 

But it is violence. Social violence. State-sponsored or at least state-allowed violence—just think of the differentials for health outcomes not only in the Pandemic but all the time between White people and BIPOC people. And it is only quiet in the sense that our White supremacist social structure ignores it, pretends it does not exist. 

And it is violence enacted by individuals. Most White people don’t know our own complicity in everyday attitudes, interactions, and practices that perpetuate and even encourage the violence. 

This is why Ta NaHesi-Coates, in his powerful 2014 article in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations,” speaks about the time after the passage of the 13th Amendment and Reconstruction, and indeed all that has followed, down to and including our own time. 

Now we have half-stepped away from our long centuries of despoilment, promising, “Never again.” But still we are haunted. It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us. 

[If you have not read his piece, here is a link so you can read it now,

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/  …..vital reading for us all.]

“But still we are haunted.” 

That is my friend, but it is not limited to her. Nor is this haunting solely attributable to overtly racist, White supremacist people, or even to a President who denies the realities of American history and belittles those who keep bringing it up. 

The long and short of it, my fellow White Americans, is that we have so much to do because we have so much to answer for. We must engage in ongoing, probing self-examination, looking intently in the mirror of our souls, our minds, to be willing to root out our unconscious obedience to racist social rules of which we have remained blissfully unaware. We must become conscious about what is unconscious and challenge it, we must to dare to see what we were trained not to see and begin to share it with others, and we must confess and repent and figure out what we can do to repair at least some of the harm we have caused. 

For example, without asking a BIPOC friend to educate you (an old trick designed to keep the focus off us and on them, to help us feel good about ourselves for asking) you might ask them to tell you of something that happened to them with a White person recently that caused them to feel devalued, hurt, anxious, or angry, perhaps all of the above. Then watch your own reaction honestly and analyze all your feelings, certainly expressing your concern for them but really being open to the full range of your feelings. Let their testimony simmer in you and see where you go. And if you don’t have such a friend to ask, that is a wake-up call. 

Until we as White people realize, really realize, with the spoken word artist Guante that “white supremacy is not the shark in the water, it is the water (see below),” until we acknowledge how much harm has been caused, and how we continue to maintain it ourselves, until we can hear people like my friend and not become defensive, until someone we know tells us of their pain and we seek to learn more and to check in with other BIPOC friends, until we confess our complicity in this sin and start changing our attitudes, our behaviors, our words, our hearts and minds, the haunting will continue.

Let’s work, with each other and within ourselves, to end our participation in the haunting.

And if you aren’t familiar with the impact of racism on mental and physical health, here are links to two articles that provide some good information. 

https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/racism-in-care-leads-to-health-disparities-doctors-and-other-experts-say-as-they-push-for-change/2020/07/10/a1a1e40a-bb9e-11ea-80b9-40ece9a701dc_story.html 

https://mhanational.org/racism-and-mental-health 

 You can hear Guante speak the truth in this 3.5 minute video:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RDSEHfxXLhI&feature=youtu.be&fbclid=IwAR2-of-33eg8MhXN96m7VqsYzzfOJ1WQEqWyenS9tL8f_HBNi-gh89u6T8E

Thriving for All, Part 1

Recently, I published a post about the Four Necessities—water, food, shelter and community, and health care (both physical and mental). These four are the basic necessities for all human beings/bodies to survive (see https://thenakedtheologian.org/2020/07/28/the-four-necessities/ )

Of course, each of us needs more—freedom to think and act for ourselves, to believe what we believe, to feel empowered to be our best selves rather than confined by the straitjackets of social expectation, oppression, invisibility and silence. 

But without the full functioning of our bodies it is extraordinarily difficult, even impossible to go beyond survival to thriving. 

What do I mean by thrive? This is far more than survival, important as that is. And shamefully, not every one in the world has enough water and food to even survive at the most minimal level. And the root of this reality lies not with those with too little but with the rest of us who refuse to create change that serves all. 

Thus, I am writing about these four necessities in order to propose an new ethic for our world—namely that rather than creating and relying on systems which provide some with more than enough to thrive while others struggle and too many barely survive, and too many of those don’t—to one in which our universal goal and practice is for all to thrive.

At this point, I am working on a definition of thrive. But there are a variety of synonyms: flourish, prosper, grow vigorously, develop well, burgeon, bloom, blossom, do well, advance, make strides, succeed, shoot up, boom, profit, expand, go well, grow rich. 

I don’t know if everyone can grow rich, at least in terms of money. But I do believe everyone can grow rich in experience, in achievement, in meaning, in love, in joy, in caring. I do believe that everyone can become their best selves, to be and to do what they are called to be and do, to be their true selves. 

I am proposing a clear systemic shift in the world, a profound reordering, restructuring, how each of us and all of us approach our own well-being—namely to accept, and live by, a new ethic which says that my well-being is very much dependent on the well-being of others, indeed of all others. What I believe, in an echo of Dr. King about freedom, is that none of us can truly thrive unless all are thriving.

This is a clear repudiation of capitalist views of “getting ahead” and the American idea of rugged individualism. It contradicts the social Darwinism doctrine of survival of the fittest (which in our world so often defines the fittest as those who are rich, white, male, already privileged). 

It is not that each of us is not an individual but rather that our ability to actuate our own bodies, character, potential is directly linked to, dependent on, the ability of all others to be able to do the same. 

I can hear someone say that surely Michael Bloomberg or Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg do not need any of the rest of to do all they want to do whenever and wherever they want to do it. There is truth in that. 

And yet, even they depend on the ability of people to buy what they sell, to access their products, to entertain their ideas and their schemes to further build and burnish their empires. 

But more than that, do they not depend on the constant uprising and inflow of talented people to maintain and grow their economic and social engines? 

How many Einsteins. how many Edisons, how many Kings and Mandelas and Wells and Obamas, how many Domingos and Sills and Picassos and Kahlos, how many Morrisons and Baldwins and Lordes and Faulkners, how many Curies and Salks and Barnards, how many Platos and Arendts, Rawls, de Beauvoirs and Foucaults—how many of the very people we always need are we losing when people not only die of thirst and hunger and absence of protection of their bodies and their minds but also when more of them lose hope that they will ever be able to rise above the misery and limitations of their life situations even if they survive?

Which one of the malnourished children we see in pictures not only from so-called Third World countries but even our own might be the genius, the leader, the inventor, the artisan, the performer that will transform the world. How many of the parents we see in such pictures with eyes pleading for someone, anyone, to help them and their families could create whole new understandings of how we can all live better lives?

I raise these questions as a way for us to think that no matter our own level of privilege, our own ability to thrive, we are diminished by what others are unable to do because what they need is kept from them. I encourage you to think about your own interests, your profession and work, your community, and ponder who/what is missing. 

In my next installment I will discuss how I came to this view via the workings of what we call nature, or the natural world. 

Dark(?) Times

Friends and others lament these “dark times,” meaning for them one or all of these: the ugliness of Trumpism and our politics in general; and the scourges of four Pandemics— Covid-19, racism and White supremacy,  economic despair and devastation for too many even before the virus struck, and a burgeoning climate crisis. 

I share this lament, but not the negative value associated with the this usage of “dark.”

Why is the devil so often portrayed as black/dark?

As one who feels at home in the dark, the phrase “dark times” troubles me. There is so much that is good about darkness—whether it be darker-pigmented people or the underland where fungi and other creatures deepen and extend life in the soil or even the overland beauty of leafless trees in winter against the night sky. Or what about the things we learn as the result of “being in the dark” and the feeling of revelation, sometimes even elation, when we see what we had missed before? 

I experience darkness as almost always a gift, a break from the light pollution to which we are exposed every day. For example, there is more than enough light created by our neighbors and us in our small court of co-op homes as we leave our porch lights on at night to discourage criminals from breaking in. We also  live across the street from city hall, the community center, and the library, which are overlaid with light each night. 

When I go outside at 5:00 or 5:30 a.m. to meditate and pray, all this light, not to mention the noise of twin-interstate highways and a local parkway that meet just outside our town, reduce the number and brightness of stars visible in the sky and compete with the chorus of cicadas.

Why is Jesus so often portrayed as white, non-Semitic?

Often it feels to me life is an unending contest where light keeps trying to overcome, even erase, dark. And light wins all the time—a system of light supremacy to which our society is addicted. Why can’t we accept, and celebrate, the reality that there is life, good life, in darkness, and that we can learn from its multitude of gifts?

White racism, White Supremacy, is a good place to start. Despite the beauty, strength and resilience of darker-skinned people even in the most ugly times, Western Civilization insists on the primacy of Euro-American positive valuation of light and the negative valuation of dark. 

In the United States, we connect White Supremacy with the subjugation and domination of African peoples. And yet, coupled with an Enlightenment mindset—namely the value of the rational over the mystical, the scientific over the intuitive and artistic, and the valorization of the individual (often to pursue their own interests over the well-being of community), White Supremacy supports and sustains the subjugation and domination of other groups as well. 

For example, Arab learning—at one time the zenith of mathematical and scientific reasoning and knowledge in the world—was discounted to justify Christian crusades against Muslim people. That same strain of Christian imperialism and the belief that Western (northern European) ideas, culture and systems are the apex of human achievement unite in capitalism and colonialism to undergird and justify the conquest of indigenous people in the Americas as well as the importation and breeding of slaves for the profit of their owners. 

A central method of the capitalist/settler colonialism drive to subdue and own land and all it contains is to label the wisdom and practices of indigenous people as primitive, without value in the modern world. Thus, today we can see not only how African Americans and Spanish-speaking peoples from Latin America continue to be oppressed, but also how the Middle East, other than Israel, is viewed as backward, and even nations and peoples further east are the victims of negativity.  

Further, this intersecting series of belief systems produce the subjugation of nature, degradation and elimination of species, and denial of what is happening in the Climate Crisis. As Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, non-indigenous people are trained to devalue the teaching of nature.

In short, “we” have created a worldview that highlights only some parts of reality and casts the rest into the dark—not listening to BIPOC people (Black Indigenous People of Color); not paying attention to that which makes life possible for all, namely the earth and all its parts; and refusing to build a world in which all have what they need to thrive (rather than some having far more than they need and too many not having even enough to survive).

Thus, I believe we must begin the practice of Endarkenment, to value not only things that appear dark but also the wisdom we have cast into the dark. In future posts, I will discuss this concept but suffice it to say at this point that I believe if we continue to refuse to acknowledge and accept and even celebrate the equal partnership of dark and light, we, and certainly our children and grandchildren and their children, are doomed. 

These are not “dark times.” They are times of pain, fear, anxiety, injustice, and crisis—and thus times of challenge and opportunity to radically change our ways to save us all. 

Time to Begin

 

Many of my friends know of my love affair with James Baldwin (no we did not have sex and sadly I never met him), that began in my ministry studies and continued with my doctoral dissertation, “Bearing Witness to the Dark: Resources for Anti-White-Supremacist, Pro-Same-Sexes, Pro-Feminist Theologizing in Queer Modes” (1999). 

Baldwin and the womanist warrior poet and essayist Audre Lorde were my inspiration and interrogators in that project. At that time, in the 90s, I had read and re-read everything Baldwin ever published or was written about him. And since, I have stayed abreast of texts and interviews and the like that were not available then as well as books and articles and films focused on him. 

So none of them will be surprised that I am extolling the wisdom and power of a new book that focuses on Baldwin and his relevance for our own time. The book is Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Lessons for Our Own by Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.  It is a valuable resource in our time, and especially for those who are considered or consider themselves White. The title is taken from a passage in Baldwin’s novel, Just Above My Head (perhaps my favorite Baldwin novel despite many negative reviews): 

Not everything is lost. Responsibility cannot be lost, it can only be abdicated. If one refuses abdication, one begins again.

Glaude is the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University and also the author of Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul. But his treatment of Baldwin and Baldwin’s importance for us today is no dry academic treatise. 

Glaude not only discusses Baldwin expertly but also channels Baldwin in our own moment. The liveliness of his writing and the personal experiences and observations he shares bring the already powerful witness of Baldwin’s observations and writing to a new level, a new depth, from which we can draw sustenance and challenge and courage today. Indeed, Glaude draws upon Baldwin’s view, espressed in an interview conducted by Julius Lester, of what it means to be a writer, namely “to bear witness. . . . to what life is—does—and to speak for people who cannot speak. That you are simply a kind of conduit.”

For me, one of the most important lessons from the book is Glaude’s rendering of what he calls “after times.” He takes the phrase from Whitman who wrote about the time after the Civil War when the echoes of slavery and civil war remained in view in contrast to Reconstruction coming into view even as it was highly contested and ultimately undone.

Drawing on Baldwin’s powerful 1972 book, No Name in the Street, Glaude takes us through what he calls Baldwin’s personal after times.  In that works, Baldwin recounts the despair and anger he and so many others felt after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., especially when White America turned away from the struggle for justice (ultimately making King into an icon who was no longer challenging us).  Baldwin called it “the lie,” the denial of White people about white supremacy and our central role in sustaining its dominating power in our society. 

Glaude relates that to our own day, with the after time that is the age of Trump—the turning away, indeed undoing, the hope engendered by the Obama election, just as it was evident to Baldwin after the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcom X, and King, into the 70s and 80s, as it is clear from what happened after Reconstruction with the rise of Jim Crow, lynching, etc. 

Thus, he says that Trump is not a new phenomenon but rather the latest manifestation of backlash against forces of change, hanging on to the idea of America as “an identity that white people will protect at any cost.”

Telling the the truth of the history and current reality of White supremacy

In the final chapter of the book, Glaude discusses his visit to the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama built by the Equal Justice Institute. He is deeply moved by the exhibits witnessing to the ugly history of American White Supremacy and by the memorials to hundreds of lynchings of Black people all over this country in the latter 19th and early 20th Centuries. He notices a quote on the side of the Legacy Museum from Maya Angelou, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” 

Glaude concludes that “what we need is a third American founding,” to try again to achieve what the Founders thought they were doing in the Revolution and the Constitution, and then what others thought they were doing in Reconstruction after the Civil War, to undo what horrors had been done until then—and then the after times of that took us back so we still rely on and glorify the first incomplete founding, despite the horrors that permeate everything to this day. 

Glaude writes, “We need an America where ‘becoming white’ is no longer the price of the ticket. Instead, we should set out to imagine the country in the full light of its diversity and with an honest recognition of our sins.” Or as Baldwin would say, it is time to do our first works over. 

To do your first works over means to reexamine everything. Go back to where you started, or as far back as you can, examine all of it, travel your road again and tell the truth about it.

It’s time, America, that we, and especially White America, stopped looking into the distorted mirrors of our alleged greatness, uniqueness, our special call, and spent serious time and effort to look at the true mirror of ourselves as it is revealed by so much that is fundamentally wrong. We must overcome the repeating practice of ignoring the foundation and finally choose  to allow ourselves to see what we have become, a country that pretends to be a democracy, and nation of equals, while acting on the deeply ingrained belief in the superiority of White people.

Glaude does not offer a plan to do this, but it is clear the timetable he sees is to get started now (it is one minute to midnight). A good place to begin is reading this book. But then what? What will you do? What will I do? What can we do together, and what must we do individually?

I know I will keep reading and writing (a book I have started to read is White Too Long:The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity by Robert P. Jones). And I will keep writing about my exploration of White Supremacy and my own complicity in it, knowing that for me writing is how I become more honest. 

But I need others. I need you because none of us can do this alone. And as we journey we need to welcome BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Color) calling us out when they feel the need to do so (but not asking them to teach us yet again what they have been telling us for centuries). 

Please offer your own thoughts and let’s begin and continue a dialogue. 

Keep It Moving

“Hope is not magic; hope is work.”

Can we dream of a better, a new, a peaceful, a just, world, and if so, how do we make the dream into reality?

A book and an Op-Ed have given me some answers to those always timely questions.

The book is On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope (Viking 2018) by Deray McKesson and the Op-Ed, from the New York Times of  September 21, 2018, is “We Are Not the Resistance” by Michelle Alexander. 

Each has a distinct perspective and agenda—McKesson reflecting on his experience of being a lead organizer in Ferguson MO protests and then helping form #Black Lives Matter, and Wallace, in a much shorter space, talking about how the term “resistance” is being misused and is damaging efforts to create desperately needed social change. 

On the Other Side of FreedomFor me, however, they converge in offering real life ideas and strategies for that change. And they each share truths and history about how those struggling for freedom, work for justice and wholeness in the world help bring about real change.

Let me begin with Wallace. Her powerful essay is classic Wallace (author of the enormously insightful and life-changing book about mass incarceration, The New Jim Crow, in that here she again uses history to show it is being ignored, misused and repeated. 

A basic observation is that throughout U.S. history, the struggle that has created change is the work of oppressed and disadvantaged people to achieve justice, e.g., African Americans to end slavery and Jim Crow and gain freedom, workers seeking fair wages, reasonable hours, decent workplace conditions, and dignity, women seeking voting rights and an end to rape culture, etc. (none of these yet won, of course).  That is the course of history, she says. The resistance has come from the powerful, the propertied, the privileged. In that sense, she writes, 

Resistance is a reactive state of mind. While it can be necessary for survival and to prevent catastrophic harm, it can also tempt us to set our sights too low and to restrict our field of vision to the next election cycle, leading us to forget our ultimate purpose and place in history. The disorienting nature of Trump’s presidency has already managed to obscure what should be an obvious fact: Viewed from the broad sweep of history, Donald Trump is the resistance. We are not.

We are not the resistance photoWhen I read her piece I was buoyed up. It makes so much sense. Those who are trying to take us back to some imagined golden time (“fake news”) are the ones reacting to, and resisting, the flow of history which has, here and elsewhere, pushed the world to new levels of justice, dignity, equality, and inclusion (even as there is so far yet to go).

We owe it to those on whose shoulders we stand who worked and sacrificed and died for more justice, more peace, more shalom to continue the march, even as we know many of the privileged and the powerful will resist. 

And yet, of course, that means we who want that more have work to do. As former Attorney General Eric Holder cautioned several years ago, commenting on Dr. King’s memorable statement about the moral universe, “the arc bends toward justice, but it only bends toward justice because people pull it towards justice. It doesn’t happen on its own.” 

In slightly more than 200 pages, Deray McKesson—using the experience of creating with others a movement in Ferguson,  his own personal history, and the dogged and ongoing pursuit by him and others of information about how white supremacy works in this country—gives us both information about right now that we need and how we can go about using what we learn to create real and deep and lasting change. 

Deray McKesson
Deray McKesson

I learned a lot from this book—about the current realities of police violence against people of color, wisdom of how complicated coalitions are, and the importance of hope and faith (for him, as for others, including questions about whether God is in the struggle any more), as well as important perspectives on organizing and not being quiet—and I encourage all to read it. It is very readable, life on every page, and hope laced throughout. 

I want to focus here on McKesson’s thoughts on hope. I have long said I am a hopeful person, a person who does not lose hope even in the midst of great challenges. But after reading this book I think I have been rather passive about hope, seeing it as an attitude, a perspective on life—good things, yes, but not enough. 

“Hope is not magic,” he writes, “hope is work.” I saw this in his person when I heard him speak at George Washington University recently—he is a deeply engaged and engaging human being. I felt him reaching out to us, yearning for us to join the struggle. 

He observes that many Black folks, and undoubtedly other marginalized and oppressed people, feel it is unfair to require them to carry the burden of hope in the face of huge obstacles to liberation and justice.  I have heard this said along the way in struggles for LGBTQ equality as well. 

“To this I say that the absence of hope, not its presence, is burden for people of color. If anything, blackness is a testament of hope: a people born in and of resistance, pushing against a tide meant to destroy, resting in a belief that this world is not the only one that can be.” (I remember the magisterial collection of writings of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., A Testament of Hope, edited by the late extraordinary scholar James M. Washington). 

McKesson says that faith is the burden that gets misnamed as hope. Faith is our choice. Whether we have faith or not is a decision to make—and it can be difficult if not impossible when we struggle and we see others struggle only to be crushed by the dominating powers. He says his faith wavers at times, and I know this to be true for me. 

But then he says what caused me to stand up and cheer in recognition of a fundamental truth:

I think that in some ways the hope of black people is the fuel for this nation; that it is the creativity and ingenuity of a people who have had every reason to choose resignation but have not that fuels both the culture and cadence of this American life. 

Amen. A truth of black lives and women’s lives, queer lives, disabled lives, elderly lives, youthful lives. 

Michelle Wallace

So we have work to do. We have to protest—surely protesting is the work of hope. And we have to keep nurturing and expanding the vision of what a world of justice and joy—a work we have yet to see in the flesh—will be. The world we want, the world we seek, the world to which all are entitled. 

I go forward with renewed and stronger courage, and faith, grounded in hope. Read this book, read the essay by Michelle Wallace, and let us join the march forward. 

When Do I Use My White Voice?

“This language regime is, it seems to me, one of the great powers of white supremacy and colonialism . . . .”

cropped-cropped-robin-head-crop-from-j-wayne-higgs.jpgI have been reading about a new film, “Sorry to Bother You,” and I intend to see it as soon as I can.

I was drawn to it by an article in The Washington Post, “With an Accent on Whiteness: The Tricky Art of Code-switching or Changing Your Dialect to Fit Your Audience.”   It is not that I, a born and bred WASP, have not added a drawl (though still definitely revealing my Midwestern white upper-middle class, highly educated roots) to try to charm church members in Richmond, VA on Sunday mornings or other audiences as I traveled the length and breadth of that state seeking to build support for LGBT rights and marriage equality. I suspect many do versions of that at one time or another.

Sorry to bother youHowever, the article, and this film, are examining and demonstrating something outside my experience, namely the pressure Black people experience, especially in business and professional settings where white people predominate (and are the customers), to adopt a “white voice.” The film focuses on how this works in telemarketing.

In another article in The Post, it is revealed that the filmmaker, Boots Riley, drawing on his own experience in telemarketing, sees the film as a serious indictment of capitalism—how the Western economic system uses the need and desire for money to shape (and warp) people, at least on the surface, into people they are not.

Our economic system and white supremacy are deeply entwined, and have been so for centuries, certainly beginning with slavery as well as genocide towards Native peoples.

This all fits rather neatly with a book I am reading, Epistemologies of the South: Justice Against Epistemicide, by the distinguished social theorist, sociologist, and legal scholar Boaventura de Sousa Santos. It is a very dense book, and I am only a small way into it, and will undoubtedly write more about it later. I am indebted to my friend and colleague, Rev. Dr. E. Francisco Danielsen-Morales, for leading me to it.

The book is about undermining Northern/Western ways of thinking and speaking and theorizing (hence his use of “epistemology,” the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope), and allowing Southern/Eastern voices to be heard, and to shape and change and even overcome and displace, Western methodologies of thinking, speaking and theorizing. However, I am already finding it helpful in thinking about internal social conflict in the United States.

Epistemologies of the SouthAs  I read the two Post articles about the film, I was reminded, so very clearly, of three basic ideas the author of the book says are key. I quote from the first paragraph of the Preface:

First, the understanding of the world by far exceeds the Western understanding of the world. Second, there is no global justice without global cognitive justice. Third, the emancipatory transformations in the world may follow grammar and scripts other than those developed by Western-centric critical theory, and such diversity should be valorized.

In other words, as I read Santos, the virtual exclusion, in most (overwhelmingly I think) social systems and ways of thinking in the United States, and in the one-third world of mostly the north, of non-Western experience and wisdom leads to a paucity of real-world life, knowledge, and wisdom. In other words, we, most of us, live in a dream world constructed by powers, economic and political to be sure, designed to keep us in line.

I feel as if my eyes are being opened by this film and by this book, and I will not, I hope, ever again be the same. That is a big claim, especially when I have not even yet seen the film or finished more than the first pages which lead to the introduction! But, I already sense a shift in me.

use your white voiceFor one thing, despite years of study of and writing about white supremacy, I never had thought seriously until now that I speak in a white voice. Of course I do; I don’t know any other, I was not exposed to any other as I gained language skills as a child and an adolescent.  By the time I was a college student  and seminarian I certainly had heard other speech patterns belonging to other people and groups, but by this time I was firmly ensconced in my white roots.

This language regime is, it seems to me, one of the great powers of white supremacy and colonialism because it affects not only my/our speaking and writing but even more deeply our thinking and acting in many ways.  If I, we, as white people can’t (and refuse to) hear it or see it, it is hard to think it especially if you are rewarded, as we are, for our ignorance and limitations.  In the film, the Black protagonist, Cassius Green (portrayed by Lakeith Stanfield), is well rewarded for using his white voice.

As the film and book claim, capitalism, so deeply ingrained in the Western economic and social, indeed political, epistemology, rewards us, those like me who do not realize we have choices as well as those who know there are other choices but who seek to gain by adhering to the norm through social acceptance and potential mobility, and just cold, hard cash (or at least the promise of it).

I also realize that something as basic as grammar is a form of social regulation, setting standards for what is acceptable writing and speech. Grammar is not neutral, in that we, at least many of us and certainly me in my formative years, were taught that saying some words or using certain language patterns marked us as uneducated or uncouth or ignorant or all of the above. There are patterns of social class indoctrination in all this.

The neighbor boy
from a poor family talked a lot,
always violating at least one rule.
My mother said it was sad
that he will grow up being devalued.
Such a nice boy, she said.
(from a draft poem, White Voice)

However, until reading about the film and opening Santos’ book I had not thought much, if anything, about racialized grammar. I don’t remember any of the very few Black people in my growing up who spoke like that white neighbor boy, or even some other way. They all used good grammar.

I remember Mrs. Kendrick, our cleaning lady, responding to offers of a second helping at lunch with words I still cherish and sometimes use, “No thank you, I’ve had a  great plenty!” Her number and case of nouns and verbs always matched. Her son, who worked a time for my father, spoke quite eloquently.

James Baldwin 1And then there are James Baldwin and Dr. King and Maya Angelou, and Malcolm X, too, who said hard things but always used “good English” (and the first two, at least, more eloquently than most white people).

But would most of us have listened if they had not?

Perhaps that is the nub of this. If you, Black person (or LatinX, too) want us to take you seriously, you’d better use proper white English. Save your other voice, your more authentic voice, for talking to your nonwhite friends.

To be sure, we white folks inherited this system, but we still enforce it—by any means necessary, Malcolm might say.

It’s time to change, to undermine the racist, class-bound, and gender enforcing power of language.

More in future posts about some options.

Unlocking the Trap–Part 2 (or Scraping off the Paint)

If we are to understand our history, first we must know it.

The essential is to know how to see . . .

But this . . .

This calls for deep study,

Learning how to unlearn . . .

I try to get rid of what I learned,

I try to forget the way I was taught to remember,

And to scrape off the paint they used to cover my senses.

–Alberto Caeiro

 

I am, like every other human being, a creature of many parts—body, mind, spirit, ethics, priorities, wisdom, knowledge, and more. How they fit together to make me a functioning person is often a working of personal and social forces in my history and my present.

St. Joseph Mercy Hospital Ann Arbor
St. Joseph Mercy Hospital Ann Arbor today

I was born at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on October 10, 1946. Given the identities of my parents, I was a white baby. I still am.

I don’t mean to be funny. Instead, what I am reflecting is that some things about us do not change.

But context carries enormous power to shape those facts and thus our identities. My earliest context was a small, rural community, Milford, 40 miles northwest of Detroit. Everyone was white.

Well, almost everyone. There were two Black families living about three miles outside of town.  I did not know this until I was seven years old, when my parents moved us from town to the country less than a mile from these families. I only knew one of them for a while, because my mother hired her to clean our home once each week. My father had known the family for many years, beginning with his time of serving as Superintendent of Schools.

Milford MI map with Detroit etcA few years later, I became more acquainted with the other family, whose two daughters were a couple of years ahead of me in school. We belonged to the same 4-H Club, and they and I, along with another white male, formed a square dancing demonstration team.

I really enjoyed doing this. We had a good time, at least I know I did. There was one discordant note however. On occasion I was asked, as was my fellow white team member, how it felt to dance with “colored” girls (some said “Negro”).  I was so unaware the first time it happened, I said, “Why do you ask that?”

The answer referred to how “those people” smell different from “us.” I could only respond that I did not notice any difference—I said something like this: “We all sweat as we dance and we just laugh about it.”

4-H pledge cloverLooking back sixty or so years, I now see that none of the adults in charge of my development—my parents, school, and church– had prepared me in any way to know, let alone understand, racial dynamics. I had not been raised in a home with overt racial prejudice—in fact my father spoke up a couple of times to contest anti-Black remarks by others in our community and among family friends. There is one exception to this:  my father bore strong prejudice against Native Americans (he had lived in Montana for ten years and claimed to know all about them).  But I did not know this until years later.

I speak of these things, as also I recently wrote about racialized experiences within my MCC faith tradition (see previous post  “Unlock the Trap—Part 1”), to begin a process for unlearning what I was taught, to begin to “scrape off the paint . . .  used to cover my senses.“  I write in response to James Baldwin’s powerful insight that “White people are trapped in a history they do not understand.”

If we are to understand our history, first we must know it. We have to scrape the paint off it, examine myths, remove our blinders and whatever else has hidden it from us. We must take it out and examine it, turn it over, look at the underside, dig deep into our personhood to find the landmarks, the formative experiences and feelings. We need to examine our own personal history, and we also need to know the history of our faith community, society and world.

So what is our history in Metropolitan Community Churches?

white people what will we do to overcome our legacy of violence carw orgI address that question to anyone interested in creating a new church, a self-reforming church, a new movement grounded in resistance to institutional racism in our own community and in the world.  I address that question to all people in our movement, whatever their own personal and institutional racialized history.

Some people already know their personal and institutional history in this regard very well. Racial prejudice and institutional racism are part of their everyday lives, in church and out.  They don’t have to dig very hard to have plenty to share.

But what about the rest of us, the people like me formed in a white dominant environment, trained not to see the pain and anger of people of color, conditioned from the beginning to walk through our days “to not see color,” empowered to ignore anything that challenged our racial worldview. Indeed, for many of us, probably most, nearly all, we never even knew we had a racial worldview. It was the other people who had race. We did not. That is the most effective enforcement mechanism of white supremacy and white privilege.

 

That justice is a blind goddess

Is a thing to which we black are wise

Her bandage hides two festering sores

That once perhaps were eyes.

–Langston Hughes, “Justice”  in The Panther & the Lash

What I am proposing is that we, whoever we are as people who want to facilitate change in ourselves as well as our church, society, and world, begin sharing some stories—personal as I have done above (and I have many more, and I bet you have a goodly number, too, if you let yourself dig deeply), church (as I did earlier), society and world.

Sharing these stories is a form of confession, without which repentance and reparations are impossible.  I hope some readers will write here on the blog where comments are solicited. Whatever you share in this spirit I will approve for publication so others can see the comments too. If that is too much for you at this moment, feel free to write me personally at RevDrRobin@comcast.net

ihughej001p1
Langston Hughes

Either way, I hope we can begin. And I hope at some point this could grow into a larger dialogue through either or both online and in person oral sharing.

I admit this is a small start, but I do not know where else to begin other than with my own history and my own commitment to creating change in this moment and beyond.

I close with how I opened the previous post, reminding us of the hope and determination of James Baldwin—that we too might contribute to ending the racial nightmare in which we participate.

“If we- and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others- do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.” 

― James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

Unlock the Trap–Part 1

 

“If we- and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others- do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world” 

― James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

Note to the reader: This is the first installment in what I hope will become some queer theological conversation, aimed most specifically at the faith community I love, Metropolitan Community Churches, but also available and helpful to any persons or people who seek wholeness and justice for all. I begin with some story, and then in subsequent posts will move to some analysis and theology. I invite your response at any time. 

I came into Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) in 2001, in my middle 50s, through MCC New York. I appreciated the racial, sexual, and gender diversity of the congregation and the focus on social justice in preaching and mission. Rev. Pat Bumgardner rarely missed, and still rarely misses, an opportunity to connect biblical readings with contemporary events and our spiritual and ethical responsibilities, including racial justice.

MetropolitanCommunityChurch New York
MCC New York

But in retrospect I realize that dialogue about white racism, privilege, and supremacy, was not part of congregational life. I don’t mean Rev. Pat and Rev. Kristen Klein-Cechittini, the pastoral leadership during my time at MCCNY, failed to preach about it (they certainly did), but rather that we did not have facilitated, ongoing, intentional conversations within the congregation.

Please understand I am not engaging in after-the-fact criticism of them or other leaders, who did and do so much to promote justice (and may have done much to promote dialogue after I left in 2003), but rather to reflect on why even progressive congregations and leaders so often fail to engage this topic, especially in sustained dialogue, that is so central to the social fabric of the United States. And I wish to hold myself accountable for my participation in this failure.

When I came to MCCNY I had completed a Ph.D. in Theology at Disrupting white supremacy from withinUnion Theological Seminary in the City of New York. My doctoral work and dissertation were focused on the theological value, beauty and power of darkness, especially in the writings of James Baldwin and Audre Lord. I had learned a lot about white supremacy, privilege and racism, and was actively engaged with two other colleagues in theology and ethics on a book of essays, Disrupting White Supremacy from Within: White People on What We Need To Do.

But I did not apply any of that to my life in the church, even when I became the Director of Adult Christian Education.

In 2003, I was elected pastor of MCC Richmond, Virginia. The city proper has a very significant African-American population, approximately 60% in 2000. The suburban counties around Richmond were far more white, 20% non-white, or even less depending on the jurisdiction.

Among other things, the Search Committee and Board charged me with diversifying the congregation. When I arrived there was one person of color, an Afro-Caribbean woman, in regular attendance.

MCC Richmond exterior
MCC Richmond

I included racial analysis in my sermons, made a vow to myself to include each week a quotation by, or reference to, a person of color, and I laid plans for observing Kwanzaa right after Christmas. That first year, all but one of the readers in that service were people of European descent.  One young African American man who had started coming with his white husband shared in the readings. We put kente cloth on the communion table.

I do not know if those steps, which I continued for the remainder of my time as pastor, had anything to do with slowly rising African American attendance at worship and the gradual inclusion of African American members in leadership. What I believe jump started that trend more than anything was that several transgender African American women, some would say “divas,” started attending church.

Their presence was visible—they did not shy away from being very much noticed. When one, who was widely known as a performer in the community, was murdered and I was asked by her mother to offer the eulogy and our church to host what became a standing room only funeral, there was a noticeable uptick in attendance and involvement. The death was tragic and awful, but it did open some doors for others.

I prevailed on some of our white leadership to join me for the post-funeral repast in the neighborhood, usually avoided by white people as an unfriendly and dangerous area, where she had lived and been shot. That opened the eyes of some of them—they discovered that these neighbors were good people and that they need not be so fearful.

Those changes did not necessarily alter the reality that most white members did not socialize outside church events with Black people, or have close African American friends. In fact, a reality I discovered during my candidacy to become pastor—namely that white people danced at one gay club and Black people at another, and the white people did not even know the name or location of the other venue—continued to be the norm until I left the pastorate in 2013.  There were individual exceptions, but they were few.

Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology at Virginia Union Unversity

I knew the name and location of that club (although I do not remember it now) but I never visited it, never even asked any parishioners or others about it. I decided at one point to seek connection with African American clergy but after a couple of less than satisfactory forays I did not persist. I did try to build some connection with the dean and faculty of the seminary at Virginia Union University, an historically Black institution.  But I did not put much energy into it, mostly attending an event from time to time. And other than members and leaders of the church, I did not seek out African American friends.

What I am hoping to discern and convey in this personal history are the dynamics at work in me, in the congregation, and possibly in those in the African American community to whom I reached out. I do this not merely as an historical enterprise but also as a way to better understand how white supremacy/racism/privilege worked, and works yet, in my life–so I can live now in ways that diminish their power.  As a queer theologian, I think stories, actual lived experiences and bodies, are vehicles for creating understanding and change.

As Baldwin said elsewhere, “White people are trapped in a history they do not understand.” It is possible that my story here may also help other white people in the MCC movement, and in other contexts, to examine their own stories and unpack the dynamics at work in them—in order for all of us to do more concrete, effective work to overcome the power of white supremacy, to dismantle the trap, in our church and our world.

In my next post here, I will offer some reflection on this history, sharing what I see as some of the underlying power and privilege dynamics at work. In the meantime, I invite you to ponder these observations and to reflect on your own stories—as part of beginning to understand the history in which we are trapped and to learn how to break free of it and change ourselves and the world.