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.”

is brown the newest black?

Black. A basic (my wife, Pontheolla, truly a fashionista from birth, tells me, “a grounding, foundational”) color in the fashion palate; as such, the basis of the formation of many an outfit. Hence, the meaning behind the provocative title of the acclaimed Netflix comedy-drama, Orange Is the New Black, telling the tale of life in a federal minimum-security women’s prison where jumpsuits are prescribed attire and their color, orange, the new black.

Black, however, for me, as an African American, always bears the connotation of race. And, given my life’s experiences and my sense of American history, always brings a flood of memories of the discriminatory deferral, at times, denial of life’s opportunities and, equally, perhaps worse, the disavowal of God-given human dignity. And, as I believe that race and racism remain constant elements of the American “experiment” (for The Declaration of Independence’s promise of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” has yet to be realized by all at all times), discrimination always, on any given day, at any given time, for any other color painfully can be renewed.

“Annalisa”. I wrote about her before (revelación, June 1, 2016), describing her as “an engagingly convivial twenty-something ambitious college student with a thoughtful vision for her future.” In that prior blogpost, I recounted how I was made freshly aware of the insidious nature of my own prejudice. For I had asked Annalisa how she planned to spend that year’s coming Memorial Day, adding (not assuming she would observe), “an American holiday.” I realized and later asked Annalisa’s forgiveness for my sin, for she, Puerto Rican, was, is American.

In short time, Annalisa has become a dear friend. Verily, Pontheolla and I view her as we would a daughter.

Today, upon greeting, Annalisa had a look. One I’ve seen before. Sadly, many times. In my mirror and in too many eyes of too many others. A look of sudden hurt; the sort of which comes from an unexpected encounter. I asked, “Are you alright?” She answered, with welling tears, “I had incident on the street.” A man, pointing at the decal of the Puerto Rican flag on Annalisa’s car, drove up beside her, gesturing wildly, madly uttering derogatory epithets. Even more, she told us that her fiancé, “Victor”, had had a similar confrontation. A man approached him in a threatening manner, making disparaging ethnic references. Still more, she recounted how she and Victor and their families and friends, in the light and shadow of the heightened racially-tinged tenor of these times in America, had begun having intentional conversations about how to respond with calm and care if, when they encountered discrimination.

Pontheolla, Annalisa, and I joined in caring embrace. Pontheolla and I, thanking Annalisa for sharing with us, expressed our sorrow, and, later, when she departed, bade that she “take care and be careful.” This last counsel, I feel, I fear is all too necessary in these times.

facing another way, part 3 of 5

thinkinga personal reflection in anticipation of the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 2017

When I look back to 2016 for epiphanies or revelations of change for others and for myself, among many things, I think about…

Election Day, November 8, and the culmination of a tumultuous, rancorous presidential campaign and the ongoing ramifications, reverberations for America and, I daresay, the world…

I grow more fretful (fearful?) about the incoming administration, which, given Donald Trump’s continuing and consistent airing of his stump-speech rhetoric and his choices for Cabinet and governmental posts, appears to be more politically and socially conservative, indeed, regressive than I find fitting or faithful to our American identity as expressed in our national motto, E pluribus unum.

The rise of nationalism, nativism in the politics of many countries in Europe and America[1] as governments sought to grapple with numerous concerns; prominent among them, the explosion of violent ideological extremism and terrorism, immigration and the migrant crisis of millions of dislocated peoples, and cyber-insecurity and its immediate effects on domestic and economic security…

I wonder whether America, both concerning our presidential administration and we as a people, particularly in regard and response to extremism and terrorism, can and will sharpen the line between justice and vengeance, between increased safety and the loss of our personal liberties, between self-defense and, if vengeance is our course, self-destruction of our national soul’s health.

The continued minority community-law enforcement tensions, heightened by police-involved killings of black men and what seem to be retaliatory shootings of police officers…

I worry that the trust-mistrust of the police, which distinctly divides along racial lines, may be, if not conclusive evidence, then a dreadfully proverbial canary-in-the-coal-mine-warning of America’s yet to be resolved societal and systemic inequality in the respect for human life.

The Bethelehemic experience of birth, bearing the joy of new and innocent life and a renewal of hope for the growth of love, peace, and justice in this world…

I have shared, often through the “miracle” of Facebook, in the wonder of the births of babies of friends around the nation and world. Still, I worry about the world into which these new lives have come; a world where, as I perceive it, hatred often overrides love, war outweighs peace, and inequity outbalances justice.

Illness

I witnessed and walked with others through their bouts with sundry sicknesses from moderate to severe and their rounds of various treatments. Late in the year, I, and later still, my daughter underwent surgeries to correct longstanding conditions. The infirmities of friends and family, and my own brought me face to face afresh with my unhappiness, sometimes, I confess, my bitterness about life’s often sudden and always uncontrollable turns of chance and circumstance and gratitude for the restoration to health whene’er and for whom it came and a commitment to live as well as I can for as long as I can.

Death

I joined with countless others with saddened sentiments of the deaths in 2016 of many notable persons and personalities; the accumulation of their departures seeming to pick of speed in the last months of the year. Most near and dear, Timothy MacBeth Veney, my brother from another mother, died in July. That Tim was Pontheolla’s and my forever “frienily” (a friend who is family) and married to Loretta, also our forever “frienily”, stirred and still stirs sorrow. Yet, given Tim’s especially virtuous love, verily, righteous lust for life, I have come to a higher appreciation for the content of human character of others and my own, a broader attention to crafting and caring for my legacy to the next generation, and a deeper acceptance and less fearful respect for the enduring reality of human mortality.

Continuing to look back, again I ask, what do you see? How have you been changed?

More to come…looking forward

 

Footnote:

[1] Sometimes I think of this development as a Western expression or perhaps reaction to what has been termed, rather misleadingly, I think, as the “Arab Spring” of late 2010 forward; a time when multiple Middle Eastern countries witnessed the advent of citizen demonstrations protesting the way things were and compelling change. What makes Arab Spring a confusing or, at the least, an ambiguous descriptor is that the political transformations largely have been away from an Arab nationalism toward a Muslim identity.

My Dearest Readers…

In the wake of another terror-inspired attack on American soil, I share excerpts of the sermon, The Practice of Peace, A Service of Healing in a Time of Tragedy, that I preached whilst rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Capitol Hill, Washington, DC, on September 16, 2001, the Sunday immediately following 9/11.

As I review and reflect on the words I uttered then, they continue to resonate within me as expressive of what I believe to be God’s way and will in what I perceive to be our increasingly dangerously wildly woolly world – replete, generally I see, with violence of all sorts in all places at all times and, particularly I think, with an American presidential campaign laden with elements of isolationism and nationalism of a prejudicial kind.

At the least, these words bespeak how I strive to live, which, in the truest sense, is always the most I daily can do.

Love, Paul

+

…In our quest for a restoration of wholeness, tensions – those simultaneous, powerful counter pulls and pushes of thought and feeling within society and within our individual selves – abound…

On one side, we yearn to live in a free society “of the people, by the people, for the people”, where one’s words and actions are not overly circumscribed or overtly constrained by law. On another side, in such a society not only are the just and the righteous free, but also the unjust and the unrighteous. And we have been reminded tragically that terrorism is no longer…in some land far away, but daily festers and can flare up on our very doorstep. Hence, we long to feel safe, to be safe, which, if past responses to tragedy are any indication, often requires the imposition of restrictions…on our freedom and perhaps on our privacy…

On one side, we desire to get to “the other side” of our grieving, to reach, once again, that state of normalcy, that sense of personal safety. On another side, we recognize, even now, that when we get there, our senses of normalcy and safety will be illusory. We always are personally vulnerable, our choices notwithstanding, to changing circumstance and uncontrollable chance…

On one side, there are those who, in the midst of crisis, seek the sustaining hand of God with a faith that continues to hope in the constancy of divine care in spite of or even because of all appearances to the contrary. On another side, there are those who have no use for God. If religion, a theological enterprise concerned with the relationship between divinity and humanity, can be seen in any way to have been a trigger for this tragedy, as has been proven in multiple tragedies in human history, then one might fairly ask what good can come out of religion? Indeed, what good is God? Or one may wonder who is this God in whose name such violence is inspired or what is this human hubris that fashions a vengeful face of God?

We search for peace.

Jesus speaks of a peace “not as the world gives.” [1] This is a spiritual peace that points to the end, for it is the peace of eternal salvation, of Jesus’ abiding presence, of an unassailable, inseparable connection between earth and cosmos, humanity and divinity, now and forever. Today, however, I look not to eschatological end times, but rather at our now times, looking for a pathway to this peace.

This peace has nothing to do with the avoidance of trial or the absence of tribulation, but rather with our acknowledgement of our troubles. This peace has nothing to do with our bringing an end to our tensions and a beginning of some sentimental spirit of well-being, but rather with our facing and our wrestling with all that torments us, both from without and from within.

This peace has everything to do with our reaching constantly around the barriers we erect to keep out all that disturbs us, reaching across boundaries of difference…internal and external between our faith and our fears, our hunger for security and our acknowledgement of countless circumstances beyond…our control.  Around barriers and across boundaries racial and cultural, among black, brown, red, white, and yellow and, yes, between America and the Arab world.  Around barriers and across boundaries philosophical and theological, among Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others.

This peace has everything to do with our constant embrace of “the other” beyond tolerance in a bond of mutual acceptance, understanding, and respect, even celebration. This peace has everything to do with a vision of radical diversity and inclusivity…

This is the peace of God that passes all understanding,[2] for it makes no sense to embrace difference, particularly at times of turmoil and tragedy when our human instinct is not diversity and inclusion, but rather seclusion and exclusion.

Is the pathway to this peace comfortable? No. Is it even desirable in accord with our human druthering? No. Yet, in the words of the hymn, this is “the peace of God (that) is no peace, but strife closed in the sod.” Yet, also in the words of that hymn and in the words of our hearts, “let us pray for but one thing — the marvelous peace of God.”[3]

 

Footnotes:

[1] John 14.27

[2] Philippians 4.7

[3] From the hymn, They cast their nets in Galilee, The Hymnal 1982, #661, verse 4.

imaginary conversation about real questions

“Really, Paul, tell me what you think. Do you believe America wages war on black youth?”

That’s what I call a direct question! Put to me by a friend this morning over coffee. We were talking about last evening’s announcement of the St. Louis grand jury’s declination to indict Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson for the August 9 shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager. Brown’s death sparked local community and some regional and nationwide protests, some violent, and confrontations with law enforcement officials. These demonstrations have continued for three months and, last night, took on renewed fervor.

“Really, Paul, do you believe that?”

Looking across the table into my friend’s earnest eyes, I, perhaps oddly, for he is someone I trust, felt compelled to inquire, “Why do you ask?”

Because,” he was quick to answer, “I value your opinion and, well…” he hesitated, “you’re black.”

Somehow I thought that – not so much his first reply, but his second – was it. I, the good friend, and the older, sage black man might debunk some disturbing urban mythology. “May I ask you a question?”

Another one?” he smiled.

I chuckled at his swift repartee; just the sort of reply I might have given. “Yes, another one.”

“Sure.”

“Do you believe America is waging a war on black youth?”

He pursed his lips, clearly perplexed. “Well, I’d like not to think so. That would be a terrible…a tragic thing. But I just don’t know. I’ve followed the story since August. And so many of the people in Ferguson and in other places, along with charges of racial profiling and concerns about policing of minority communities, claim the police are gunning literally for black kids.”

“Which, if true, would make it systemic, not situational.”

“Yes.”

“Which, if true, would make it about America, not one community or neighborhood here or there.”

“Yes.” He leaned forward, clasping his hands tightly together.

I sighed. “I don’t know either. I, like you, would like to believe it’s not so. But I don’t live in Ferguson. I live on Capitol Hill. And I’ve not been in St. Louis for years. And since graduating high school, I’ve never again lived there year-round. Too many racially-charged memories. All that said,” I shook my head, “I just don’t know, but I don’t, I can’t discount the experiences of those who believe it. Something…many things form their perceptions. I also confess I have a built-in racial lens. Eventually, I see everything through that lens. My parents raised my brother and me to know the difference between white and black and that society favors whites. I grew up with that teaching, and, I have to say, it’s served me well. To be aware…to be wary at times, not to be naïve about expecting fairness from individuals and institutions. And what’s sad, very sad to me is that Michael Brown’s parents have to be at least two generations younger than mine and, clearly, they sought to teach their son the same lesson that America isn’t fair…and in Michael’s case not safe, even fatal. So, no matter what you or I believe, we haven’t progressed much as a nation in terms of the disparity of our perceptions across lines of race.”

“So, Paul, where’s the hope?”

“Another good question. Right now, my hope, really, my wishful thinking…my desire in the face of things I can’t control, is that the rioting in Ferguson will end, that there will be no loss of life, that looted businesses can recover. And my hope, my conviction about possibilities, is that the protests will continue for change in the system to address racial profiling, minority policing, and, yes, what we’ve been talking about, which for some is untrue, for others, an open question, and for still others, a living reality…a living hell.”

He nodded. “Then I hope you’re right about all your hopes.”

“Well, here’s another one. That you and I do something.”

“What can I do?”

“Yet another good question, which begs another. Do you wake up in the morning or at any time during the day and think about being white?”

“What does that mean?”

Do you?”

“No, why would I?”

“That’s my point. I wake up every day and within five minutes, if not sooner, I acknowledge to myself that I’m black. It’s something I don’t risk forgetting especially when I step out into the world. And I think for you consciously to see yourself as white is for you to be aware of your American privilege. The opportunities America affords you that…”

You don’t have? C’mon, Paul! You’re not being honest about your privilege.”

“Fair enough. Yes, I do have privileges. I have a good education. A job I enjoy. I’m well-read and well-traveled. I have credit I can use to get things I want. I have a wide circle of friends. I live in relative security. Yes, I am privileged. I also have memories of being denied credit because of where I lived or of being asked a few more questions than seemed obligatory before it was granted, and, in some cases, still denied. And there were jobs I didn’t get because I was black. In more than one case, it was patently obvious. Have you ever felt you were denied employment because you’re white?”

“No, never.”

“Not that that, in and of itself, proves anything, except that, for me, it does, even if only because you’ve never felt or had to feel that way. I have. But more to the point, no matter what advantages I have, I also have little doubt that the Michael Browns of America have less, and that disadvantaged status is rooted…remains rooted in race.”

“So, what you’re saying is that the situation is hopeless.”

“Nope. What I’m hinting at is that more folks who are conscious of the disparities…and let’s broaden it beyond race to class, sex, sexual orientation, age, religion, pick an issue…and who act wherever they are, doing whatever they can, whenever they can, whether individually and, even better, in union with others, to address inequalities not only can make, but also do make a difference.”

“Like I said earlier, I hope you’re right about your hopes.”

election crumbs

I am a 62-year old African American male born and raised in the United States of America. That is my 17-word self-descriptor (or as a friend more succinctly opines, “we black men of a certain age”) that serves as euphemism for my blunter half-as-long self-characterization: I see everything through the lens of race.

To elaborate. In 1952, I was born. In Missouri, via the eponymous Compromise, admitted to the Union in 1820 as a slave state. In St. Louis, home of the Old Courthouse where Dred and Harriet Scott initiated their 1846 lawsuit to obtain their emancipation and, in 1861, the site of the last known slave sale in the city. In 1970 (as I wrote in a previous blog post, looking race in the eye, August 14), “I graduated from high school and from college in 1974, thus coming of age after the Civil Rights Era…and during the Black Power movement.” Somewhere along my life’s course, I came to believe that a nation that formed itself as a union on the economic, political, and social foundation of institutional slavery forever would bear in its body the DNA-strain and in its soul the stain of racism. And – though, yes, I know the meaning of self-fulfilling prophecy and I am aware of the spiritual matter of being preconditioned to see what it is I believe – little in my experience dissuades me from my perception.

The mid-term national, regional, and local elections are over. Republican Congressional and gubernatorial candidates fared well. The Democrats, not so much, save in places like the District of Columbia, where I live, which is an historic Democratic Party stronghold. Muriel Bowser is DC’s mayor-elect, the second woman to hold the post since the inauguration of District home rule.

Throughout the mayoral campaign, the issue, the reality of race was downplayed, as, I think, is de rigueur in circles of enlightened, progressive thinkers. Nevertheless, Ms. Bowser, as all of her predecessors, is African American and her opponents, David Catania and Carol Schwartz are white. Moreover, even a cursory look at DC’s electoral map reveals that Ms. Bowser swept into office by carrying the eastern half of the District, not coincidentally, the locale of predominantly black precincts. The preponderance of votes for her closer competitor, Mr. Catania, came from neighborhoods west of the north-south running 16th Street corridor, for generations a white-black demarcation line. Further, Mr. Catania garnered substantial support in parts of the city considered notably affluent, for example, Capitol Hill and Georgetown, which raises for me the specter of racism’s twin, classism.

Harkening back to another previous blog post (standing somewhere, September 22), I think of Jesus’ encounter with a Canaanite woman who beseeches his aid in healing her daughter. He declines, citing his mission to his own people, saying, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” With the persistence of maternal love, she, challenging the brusque dismissal, replies, “Yes, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

Matt O’Brien, in his Wonkblog post, 1% of voters say economy is “excellent.” Perhaps they are rich?, appearing in this morning’s Washington Post (Section A, page 9), observes that Democrats were pummeled on election day largely because voters are disenchanted with the economy, and this despite a current several month period of stable growth. This widespread discontent can be traced to the quarter century stagnation in take home pay for middle class workers and, I aver, the continuing growing wealth-disparity between whites and blacks. O’Brien writes, “amid all this doom and gloom, the exit polls tell us that 1 percent of Americans actually believe the economy is ‘excellent’.” These are the rich who “command a bigger share of the income pie than…at any time since 1928.”

In response to the Canaanite woman’s bold challenge, Jesus said, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed. Not to stretch this biblical story beyond reasonable shape and sense, it is not difficult for me to make a metaphorical connection between the 1 percent of our American households and the master’s table. And with the elections over – though, yes, attention before and now is turned to the presidential campaigns and Election Day, Tuesday, November 8, 2016 – I pray those in office, in regard to our persistent problems of addressing in helpful, hopeful ways the twin scourges of race and class, will have the spiritual grace of generosity and the gumption of political will to discern how more than crumbs might fall so to be shared with all.