I acknowledge up-front that I have the privilege of stepping into a bubble when I want to. I’m a white woman, of the kind-and-round-faced variety who generally speaking doesn’t make waves when I walk into unfamiliar spaces. I often remind someone who doesn’t know me of someone they’ve met before. People tend to talk to me; apparently, I don’t seem threatening or unapproachable. My exterior presentation makes it easy for me to slip into places and seem like I belong, so people tend to open up to me. That, added to my social worker sensibilities, means that I end up having many conversations with many people in spite of my inner longing to introversion.
So, it has been that way this summer in my visits to churches where I haven’t worshipped before: always talking with people, always a sense of welcome, always some new information shared with me, always something to learn. During these summer months, I am taking some time to visit churches that I haven’t been to before, paying attention to the ways in which people gather and how they worship together. It’s very relaxed; I have no agenda because I’m not church-shopping or checking out someone who may be looking for a new call, nor am I looking for a call myself. I will be happily rejoining the parish I serve as seminarian in the Fall, and I am prayerfully aware of my ongoing connection to the parish sponsoring me as I prepare for ordained ministry. There are beautiful, wonderful people in both those spaces who pray for me, as I pray for them every week. It will be good to see all of them again soon, since both places feel like home. But for now, I am intentionally wandering, learning, being church with people in different spaces and different ways and appreciating what I learn.
I expect the good in people, especially in a space of radical love. Even though that hasn’t always been my experience with organized religion, it is nevertheless what I expect churches to be.
Today, I was at a church that I won’t name. The space was beautiful, inviting and signs of welcome were everywhere. The clergy were kind, the people were friendly. Everyone was well dressed, but not so much that those coming in felt put off. There were hymns and prayers, and talk of recent mission trips for the youth. It could be any well-respected church in a suburb near you, working hard at being a place that regular members love to come to and where newcomers feel welcomed. And, to their credit, I did feel welcomed.
I was standing in the aisle after the service, waiting to say hello to the clergy and making small talk with the friendly older couple I had been sitting with (I had taken “their pew” but instead of being fussy or moving they introduced themselves by saying, “how nice to meet you…I’m glad you’ll be sharing our pew with us!”) This honesty endeared me, so I was sharing a little bit about myself and making general small talk with them. A woman just behind us was chatting with someone else about her grand-children and I overheard her mentioning that her grand-son was going to be a senior at a particular high school, which happens to be the school my daughter is about to attend in the Fall. I was very excited to hear this, especially in a suburban church about a public, city school. I turned and said, “I’m sorry to interrupt, I’m just visiting and happened to overhear you, but my daughter is going to be starting as a freshman at that school in the Fall. How has your grand-son enjoyed it?!”
Let me interrupt with the fact that I’m really excited about this school, as is my daughter. We happily live in the city by choice, and the school being discussed is a public, specialty school which is both highly rated and located in what many people would call, “a sketchy neighborhood.” It has a 99% college acceptance rate and students graduate with millions of dollars in scholarships, collectively. Its published admission policy is to hold 70% of spaces for students from socio-economic and racial minority backgrounds. Every student enrolled has been tested, interviewed, and has agreed to academic rigor mixed with extensive community service requirements. Incidentally, I live very close to this “sketchy neighborhood” and I am thrilled that my daughter was accepted to this school.
What happened next seems small, but it is huge because it is so pervasively ever-present. The woman who had never met me took my arm, pulled close to me and said, “He’s done well considering the circumstances but, you know dear, our kind is outnumbered there.”
My heart sank. No, it didn’t sink. It broke. Again, and again, and again like it breaks every time I realize for the thousandth time that racism is alive and real, and that in our perpetuated privilege of separating ourselves from the “other,” we are encouraging it to thrive.
In retrospect, I wish I would have been bolder. I’m kicking myself for a hundred really good come-backs that I only thought about after the fact. But as a complete stranger, I opted for what seemed like a safe middle ground. As if I didn’t hear the intent of her remark I said, “Well, what I love about it so far is that the principal seems to be an exceptional leader who sets a priority on building an inclusive community that appreciates every student’s strengths.” I thought maybe that would be a hint about my value alignment, since the principal is a highly regarded community leader who is a person of color. But no, she went on; “Well, I will say that he keeps all those kids under control, which likely keeps them out of jail.”
I felt like I might throw up. At this point I was just relieved to be nearing the exit. I shook the clergy’s hand and did a quick introduction of myself as a visiting seminarian, then headed out the nearest door as quickly as I could. I passed the lemonade and cookies and all the middle-class, white children playing on the pretty church playground while their families chatted together. The safety of the protective layer of whiteness felt overwhelming. I sat in my car with tear-filled eyes, not just at the blatant racism but at my own privilege and lack of courage. I looked at the clock and wished I still had time to get to one of the incredible, vibrant parishes I have attended recently where, when I was the person who looked different than everyone else, all I received was love and welcome. Real welcome, not conditional. I’m fairly sure I would not have been so lovingly treated at my visit today if my pale face were of a different hue.
I am embarrassed by the injustice and hypocrisy that are painted on me, a layer of privileged whiteness that I cannot scrub off. “I don’t want to be one of you!” I yelled as I drove out the tree-lined driveway and headed back into the city. And I know, not every person in that space may have felt the same way. But somehow, it was perfectly fine to express to a perfect stranger the seemingly sacred space of being in the ethnic “in crowd.” Truthfully, I am broken-hearted because racial distrust and disrespect are as much engrained in that woman’s life as it is in my own blindness to the privilege I have to easily walk in to somewhere and be perceived immediately as “one of us” whether I want to be or not. I should have said more. I should be a better advocate than I am. I shouldn’t have run away without addressing the elephant in the room. I am pitifully, painfully human.
White friends, we have to do better.
Why on earth, in 2017, are we still unable to recognize the pain we create by depersonalization of people of color? Today it was one woman’s racist, classist assumptions spoken to me as “one of us” that rose the ugly head of racism at the end of a service of Holy Eucharist, the coming together of the Body of Christ…which, in case anyone is confused about it, is not white and privileged. It is broken, reconstituted and comprised of all of us. All of us. Racial exclusion is the exact opposite of how Christ lived and taught.
And let me not seem to be pointing a finger at any one person or parish…that is not the point here. Is it any less racist when people move to suburbs for “better schools” or we fight changes in school zoning to keep “our kids” in the best location? Or when we selectively choose spaces to worship, play, or socialize that are filled with people who look just like us? And for me…I am really excited for my daughter’s high school but what would I have done if she wasn’t accepted there and was heading to our zoned high school? And why would I feel the way that I feel about that? From where do my assumptions emerge? How much privilege am I willing to give up to be sure that every person has an equal playing field? I have to own that and all of the layers of privilege and guilt that come along with it. Children…human beings who deserve to learn well and be loved…are in every school. Human beings are in every neighborhood. The racism, depersonalization and oppression of human beings in the United States has led to structures of perpetuated poverty, class conflict, and couched (as well as blatant) racism that keep us from having to honestly check our assumptions and our privilege. What do we gain from this? What are we willing to give up to break this cycle?
These are hard questions, friends. They are guilt-inducing and we avoid them like the plague and tune in to Netflix and binge-watch something else instead. But these questions and our white privilege and guilt are not the same as having to fear for our lives, having to fear arrest by profiling, having to face dehumanization and discrimination that people of color in the United States experience every day.
Every. Single. Day.
Today was a wake up call for me. Friends, it’s not OK to be racist. Not in church, not in “polite society” and not hiding in the bubble of our own privilege. Oppression includes these subtle (but no less real) incidents of passive racism and white protectionism. If I call you out (or “in”) on it, it is because I need to hear it myself and not because I’m making an example of you. I need to feel it, say it, confront it, change it. We all do.
Repentance has to come before there is any hope of reconciliation.
Forgive me. Forgive us. We have missed the mark, again. So, we commit, again:
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving
your neighbor as yourself?
I will, with God’s help.
Will you strive for justice and peace among all
people, and respect the dignity of every human
I will, with God’s help.
–from the Baptismal Covenant, Book of Common Prayer (1979)
Yes, I will, with God’s help.