Within the last ten days, St. Peter’s has hosted two public conversations. On June 7, our conversation facilitated by a team of brilliant and dedicated panelists focused on race and completed programming related to our parish-wide read of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me. One week later, our nave was filled with folks gathered to be “holy and human” for an interfaith vigil organized by Meckmin, the Charlotte Clergy Coalition for Justice, and others.
As I’ve reflected on these two gatherings which attracted diverse crowds, I realize that one commonality between them is that they reflect the all-too-human challenge of responding to difference: blacks and whites and Latinos; Muslims and LGBTQI and mainline Protestant folk; and the list goes on. As Christians, we can affirm that God makes each of us uniquely – our differences are God-given and ultimately for the building up the the Body of Christ (1 Cor 12). In turn, our Body, the Church, is one of the instruments the Spirit uses for reconciling the whole world with God (Book of Common Prayer, Catechism p. 855, and Genesis 12: 1-3).
But while we can cognitively assent to the idea that diversity is a gift, we have a much harder time behaving that way – just look at how homogenous our natural circles of friends tend to be. Look at where, and whom, we live with. (There are obviously exceptions – proof that we can choose differently – but exceptions nonetheless.) One of the most tragic costs of not valuing difference — of not actively engaging with people who are different from us, of not knowing their stories enough to begin to love them concretely, not abstractly — is ultimately violence. Violence like the horrible massacres that now share anniversaries almost one year apart – Charleston and Orlando — and violence in much subtler forms like generational poverty that correlates along racial lines.
The last couple of years at St. Peter’s, we’ve offered various programs about race and reconciliation. Below are just a few recent observations about the pervasiveness of racism in our local community:
- At the Rite-Aid in Cotswold, a poster of a beautiful, smiling black woman was defaced when someone painted one of the woman’s teeth gold.
- At a recent gathering at a local independent school, a parent casually suggested that the school “buy out” homes of local black neighbors because they complain about school children walking through their yards.
- Noticing at a recent visit to the Urban Ministry Center, which assists neighbors who are homeless, that the large majority of the neighbors are black.
These experiences and observations have opened my eyes to my inherent privilege as a white person, and to signs of social injustice that surround me. I haven’t always seen the world as a systemically unjust place, but I do more and more, especially as I listen to people of color – to their stories, their frustrations, their challenges, and their fears. As the reality has been revealed through these conversations, there is no going back to the land of denial or ignorance. My vision has been altered; rose-colored (or white-filtered) glasses a bit less rosy (a little more aware of the white-filter).
One comment from the June 7 panel on race at St. Peter’s has stuck with me. One panelist, an organizational development consultant and community leader, lamented she had “lost faith in the faith community.” She described a meeting with a pastor of a local prominent black church where she asked why the church hadn’t been more involved with organizing efforts for educational equity in the city. The pastor bluntly responded that no one seems too worried about it – no one is calling his office with concerns.
Of course, I am sure there was more to the conversation and the context of that exchange. But I felt a deep sadness upon hearing it. I hear the pastor’s comment as a sort of resignation to “the way things are”, maybe even numbness, or perhaps a sense of paralysis in the face of entrenched structural patterns that perpetuate socio-economic disparity along racial lines.
As a Christian called to proclaim the Good News, I am always on the lookout for hope, for signs big and small that God’s kingdom is coming, as we ask every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer. I saw hope in the more than 500 people from all walks of life who came together at St. Peter’s to hear thoughtful conversations, and to pray in these last few days. I experience hope whenever we share the Eucharist, celebrating that life comes out of death. I feel hope when I look over the commitments so many of us made last Summer when we came together to process the Charleston Massacre. Some of us made promises to:
- “speak openly and intentionally about racism with my young child;”
- “examine my inactivity on the [issue of race];”
- “pray more for racial understanding;”
- “ask my black friends to identify institutional racism so I can name it.”
And so many more.
There is much hope to be had in these sorrowful days, brothers and sisters, much hope.
–The Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer, 6/17/16