Of life in the still-Christian South (a retired cleric’s occasional reflections)…

A conversation…a confession about race

Two men.

Different as different could be. Save for gender. And age. Both 60-something. And stage of life. Both retired. And, both Episcopalians, religious upbringing.

One. White. An attorney. The child of an old Southern family with roots tracing back to mid-17th century English colonists. His mother, a painter of note and an author. His father, a prominent attorney from a long, generational line of prominent attorneys.

The other. Black. An Episcopal priest. Midwestern born. His mother, an elementary school teacher. His father, a postal clerk.

Two men, largely different as the proverbial day and night, in an unlikely, serendipitous (Spirit-led?) encounter in a quiet corner of a coffee shop of a local bookstore, engaging in an unlikely, serendipitous (Spirit-led?) conversation about race…

A conversation that, once he discovered my vocation, became his chosen opportunity for his confession. “I’ve wanted, I’ve needed to share this with someone for a long time…”

He sat forward, clutching his coffee cup in his hands, first, looking down, averting his gaze, telling me of his formative years. His parents had taught him that his privileged life bore an obligation to care for those who were needy, which, he acknowledged, as he understood their instruction, meant those who were lesser endowed with the material blessings of life, which, he further admitted, meant those who weren’t white. His parents, “Good people,” he quickly asserted, did not teach him that they were “better than other people.”

Still, certain moments in his childhood were indelibly, painfully imprinted on his memory.

His nanny, “a lovely, kind lady”, who cared for him from his earliest days, wasn’t allowed to enter their home through the front door. One morning, he, then at the age of 8, seeing her approach the house and turning, preparing “to go around to the back”, opened the front door, happily welcoming her; an impertinence, his parents made clear, that prompted an unpleasant scene of his being corrected and of her being chastised…

On another occasion, he, accompanied by his nanny, rode the bus downtown. He could not understand why she had to leave him and go to the rear when there were plenty of empty seats in the front. When he asked her, she declined to say more than, “That’s the way it is.” When he later asked his parents, they simply affirmed, “She is right.”

But somehow, even as a child, he knew it wasn’t right. “What is right,” he looked up at me, his lips trembling, yet his voice firm, “is that we’re all equal because God made us that way.”

Then, as best as I can recall, he said something like this: “For a long time, I’ve thought about Jesus on the cross asking his Father to forgive those who were killing him. I finally decided if he, who died for me, could do that, I needed to forgive my parents for their ignorance. But,” he held out his hands to me, “I need to be forgiven for my silence. All these years, I’ve known what was right and I never said or did anything to make it right. I promised God I would do something, whatever I can, but right now I want you to ask God to forgive me. Please.”

Taking his hands, we said the Confession of Sin that Episcopalians pray every Sunday. Then, making the sign of the cross, I pronounced the absolution of sin. Tears rolled down his cheeks. He mouthed a silent, “Thank you,” stood, and departed.

For a while, I sat motionless; moved, stunned by the experience of his transparent honesty, his naked humility, his patent sorrow, and his evident need, and by the swiftness of our entry into the depths of our encounter and the abruptness – yet, in its own way, timeliness – of its end. I do not know whether we will see each other again. It’s doubtful, I think. But, if we do, I will say to him, “Thank you.”

African American History Month – reflection 9, concluding this series

FullSizeRender (1)Celebrating African American History Month by commemorating those who have influenced me most. In this my closing reflection, who more than William John Abernathy (1911-1986) and Clara Lolita Roberts Abernathy (1915-2015), my father and my mother.

The parent-child relationship is fertile ground; capable of producing the grandest outward fruits of ethically-conscious, societally-contributing adults and the greatest inward frustrations, imparting to that next generation long-enduring complexes of guilt and shame and struggles of self-worth. So mixed is the legacy of my formative years.

I am grateful to my parents for the gift of my life. Even on my worst day, I rejoice to be alive in this world.

I am grateful, too, for treasured lessons my parents taught me. Exposing me, in my earliest years, to music and literature, history and science. Exhorting me to apply my gifts toward the development of an inquisitive mind. Sharing their witness of faith in God and in the life of the church so to form my soul in the likeness of love’s virtue. Instilling in me a present consciousness of life’s inequities rooted in discriminations based on color, not character; so to arm me with an awareness that though I dare never assume that the world would treat me with fairness, that was a value I was expected to practice.

Looking back over my 62 years, I now see more clearly what, for so long, I did not comprehend. I understand my father’s bitterness in being denied opportunities because of his race. I understand my mother’s quiescent acceptance of life’s injustices. She was not possessed of the passionate temperament that compelled my grandmother and my aunt toward civic activism. Rather, embracing an inmost spirituality of an abiding trust that God somehow would provide, her soul’s belief was given voice in words like those of James Weldon Johnson:

God of our weary years,

God of our silent tears,

Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;

Thou who has by Thy might led us into the light,

Keep us forever in the path, we pray…

Home life with an angry father and a compliant mother was oft rancorous. As my disposition was, is more akin to that of my grandmother and my aunt and not at all like that of my mother, I, too, understand how, in my customary contesting against my father, I contributed mightily to our domestic unrest.

Still, I am grateful for this, my mixed, at times, mixed up family life into which I was born. For from this mélange of light and shadow, quiet and tempest, goodly, godly counsel and furious passion, I was formed as a person of love and justice – one who lives to share active benevolence and fairness with all, unconditioned by differences of culture, color, or creed, and unconstrained even by my most heartfelt opinions and soul-deep prejudices.