August 11, 2013
The 12th Sunday after Pentecost
Our epistle for today, from Paul’s letter to the Hebrews, starts thus: Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the world of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.
The title of my sermon is Faith is the Assurance of Things Hoped For. It is about my journey into crossing the borders of the racial divide in the United States, and plowing onward, even though I’m not certain of my motives and even though some people might say “What’s the point?”
In the midst of the hoopla and outrage about southern cooking diva, Paula Deen’s past use of the N word, someone sent me a blog post with this title: Why Highlighting Paula Deen’s offensive words are (sic) part of the 21st Century’s sophisticated racial system by Drew Hart.
The greatest threat to black life and existence, is not Paula Deen calling someone [the N word]! Rather, it is the racial domination and the embedded systems in place in our country that offer some citizens of the U.S. access to wealth, comfort, security, and safety at the expense of the welfare of others. It is the segregated and unequal public school systems, the war on young black men (known as the War on Drugs), mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex, the lack of adequate housing and little to no access to affordable jobs. It is the practice of white hegemony and the overwhelming stats pointing to white people receiving and giving preferential treatment for employment regardless of qualifications (while many who have benefited from such a job from their all white networks simultaneously complain about affirmative action’s unfairness)
Does this statement sound extreme to you? I hope not. It resonates with me far more today than it might have ten years ago. Even five years ago, I might have noted that we are moving –imperfectly and jerkily – toward a colorblind society and that that is a good thing. I no longer believe that color-blindness is either the dominant operative racial value of our time – however much recent Supreme Court decisions might suggest otherwise — or, even, necessarily, a desirable end. Pretending to be a colorblind society will keep us from openly and publicly facing into the racism that permeates our institutions and systems; colorblindness tells us, wrongly, that we have achieved racial equality and that failures of certain groups to thrive are due to their own individual shortcomings.
This is my personal story of stepping into the work of anti-racism and racial reconciliation, of actively seeking out interracial situations, of examining my own whiteness, of trying to understand how that whiteness infuses all my interactions in the world and how increasing my own awareness of that might start to make a contribution to ending the structural racism that permeates United States’ society. I say all this with enormous humility; stories of the terror faced by civil rights activists in the 1950s and 1960s and the danger faced by immigrant rights and LGBT activists right now, as well as the daily dangers of living in the United States while black or brown – make me feel like little more than an arm chair “student” of race and white privilege, someone risking nothing. But I am where I am and I will continue to try to grow in my understanding and in my willingness to step out of my comfort zone and put myself on the line.
This sermon is part of my accountability to Seekers for a Growing Edge Fund grant I received in February to attend the Damascus Road See with New Eyes Anti-Racism Analysis training conference in Philadelphia. I am grateful to Mission Support Group for its confidence in me.
I name the beginning of a later adulthood heightened awareness about race as the candidacy of Barack Obama for President in 2008. President Obama is the first candidate I’ve ever voted for enthusiastically. I was ecstatic when he was elected and even when he was reelected, although, I had lots of complaints against him by then.
I was enthusiastic about Obama in part because I thought his life experience was so unusual – his parentage, his upbringing and having to sort out his whiteness and blackness, his living in Indonesia when he was small – so unlike the life experience of most of our presidential candidates and so very right for the 21st century world.
My heart was broken with candidate Obama felt the need to disassociate himself from Jeremiah Wright, a man whose guidance had been so important to him, because Jeremiah Wright’s spoken truth was too inflammatory for a presidential campaign in the United States. But I was grateful for candidate Obama’s speech in Philadelphia inviting the country into a real conversation about race. And I am grateful to Pat Conover for nudging Seekers into such a conversation and for Sandra Miller and Maybelle Bennett, then many others for actually getting the conversations going.
I’m a late bloomer when it comes to matters of race relations. Born in 1944, I am a natural child of the civil rights era, at its peak when I was in college. But I was, sadly, clueless at a Midwestern university that had little campus political activity. I had one experience in Arkansas in 1970 of myself and black and white companions being examined by the police for no other plausible reason than that we were riding in a car together, but no other similar events, none of the drama and risk taking of the civil rights era.
In my early years as a lawyer for low income people in the District of Columbia, most of my clients were African-American – poor and in need of my services for some legal trouble they had – but few of my work colleagues were and I had limited social encounters with people of color.
For the last thirteen years of my formal work life, the head of my office was Alfred Chiplin, an African-American lawyer/ordained minister/musician/poet/all around wonderful person who once had to ask the two white woman in the office to help him hail a cab two blocks from the White House. I consider Chip a good friend and have met his family, been in his home and heard many of his stories of growing up in Mississippi in the treacherous era of Jim Crow and civil rights activity. I value Chip’s friendship and am grateful to have known him for so many years. Still, until fairly recently, my social and professional world has been overwhelmingly white. The world Chip and I inhabited together as Medicare advocates is very white.
The Sacred Conversations on Race and Diversity started me on a more intentional path to increase my friendships with and understanding about people of color and how their lives might be quite different from and similar to mine. I’ve especially valued being welcomed into the homes of Mildred Mitchell, Maybelle Bennett, Kim Jackson and Linda Nunes-Schrag and Bill Drehmann over these years of getting to know each other.
Again my heart was broken, or perhaps broken open, after reading Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness and coming to understand how we are branding forever as criminals and throwing away generations of young men of color in the unrelenting prosecution of the costly and wildly unsuccessful war on drugs. The book propelled me to become part of the New Jim Crow Group4Change, an interracial group that seeks to increase awareness of the racial implications of the War on Drugs.
More recently, a challenging conversation about race with our daughter, Samantha and her Ecuadoran-American spouse, Guille led me to undertake reading in a course syllabus on race and racism that Samantha had given me.
So I was, through various channels, becoming immersed in matters of race.
Meanwhile, I was aware of the increasing racial diversity in Seekers that had come about, not from an affirmative action program on the part of Seekers, but from individuals walking in our front door and becoming part of our community as well as from the children and grandchildren of long-time members. How were we doing, I wondered, in living out our claim of being “Inclusive”? (It’s written on our front window, you know.)
When I read that a goal of the Mennonite-sponsored anti-racism training in Philadelphia was to help church congregations become truly multi-cultural (as distinct from being merely “colorful”), I figured this was a good place for me to be – as a person increasingly curious about such issues, as a Seeker and as a member of the Servant Leadership Team. I was happy to share this experience with Sandra Miller as well as with about ten to twelve members of other Church of the Savior communities, some of whom are present here today.
The experience was difficult and wonderful and it was very important to share it with people of color. I’d not been oblivious to examining my own white privilege, but working with it as “Internalized Racial Superiority”, as the trainers invited us to do, made me realize the need for much deeper work than merely noticing that I can walk into a store and not be followed around as a likely thief. What does it mean to be white? What is white culture, which is so much the “norm” in the U. S. that it is virtually invisible, yet has a great power over the operations of institutions beyond what any laws dictate. That says, in effect, integration is a desirable goal, as long as you do things our way. While many of the exercises at the training were painful and challenging, we also found our common humanity in shared experiences across color boundaries.
We did not, however, come away with the blueprint for “How to make our congregations truly multi-cultural” – a disappointment for me. Rather we left with an awareness of the depth and challenge of the work to be done. Our last exercise was to consider how our congregations were doing with respect to confronting the racism that likely pervades our own churches. For those of us connected with churches in the tradition of Church of the Savior, this exercise raised questions of whether our rigorous requirements and structures for becoming core members – whom we at Seekers call Stewards – or even for joining a mission group have the effect of excluding certain groups of people, not because they don’t have the level of commitment we seek but because their life circumstances preclude their participation at the points deemed “necessary.” And the opposite questions of the extent to which those structures and requirements are so essential to the core values that animate our churches that they cannot be changed without fundamentally changing who we are. These are huge questions with which each of our churches was invited to be wrestling. In essence, the work we were asked to be doing was about challenging barriers to shared power.
Christian churches talk a lot about love, but not much about power. If we claim no need to talk about power because God is in charge and all power belongs to God, we are being tremendously dishonest about the nature of our lives here and now and what God is calling us to do.
My friend Shelley Marcus preached to the Eighth Day Community not long ago about love and power. In her sermon, she quoted Martin Luther King, Jr as follows:
“One of the greatest problems of history is that the concepts of love and power are usually contrasted as polar opposites. Love is identified with a resignation of power and power with a denial of love. . . .What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic.”
At Seekers, we work pretty hard at loving each other. Even though we fail terribly every day, we do make amends; we seek forgiveness and try harder. Personally I don’t think that the ways we love in Seekers are “sentimental and anemic” at all and I truly hope no one else in this room does. But I do wonder how we might do better – what information do we need and from whom to help us see more clearly where we are falling short at sharing power? Where do you think the power lies in Seekers Church? Do you feel powerful? When?
About Being White
When Jason Collins, the Washington Wizards center, announced publicly that he is gay, he made this statement: “I’m a 34-year-old N.B.A. center. I’m black. And I’m gay.” It was pretty clear to me that no white guy making a similar announcement about his sexual orientation would include a statement that he is white.
Whiteness in the United States is not noticed by white people. It is the norm. And yet. . . my whiteness is hugely defining of who I am in ways I neither readily acknowledge nor, for the most part, even understand. It seems to me that if I were asked to choose a few words that would tell people something about my life experience in the United States, those words should include the word “white.”
I am as “white” as a United States citizen can be: I’m a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant with an ancestor who signed the Declaration of Independence. But I probably would not do that – name my whiteness in a description of myself. I think I lack the courage to say something like that out loud. I’m pretty sure I would be perceived not as a person trying to own up to her white privilege and how important it has been to shaping her life, but rather as a white supremacist – an out-loud racist. And goodness knows, we well-meaning white folks don’t want to be perceived as racist because we don’t think we are. Paula Deen and others are held up for shame and ridicule for using the “N” word but, as implied by the blogger I quoted at the outset, most of the public commentary focuses on the individual act and misses the opportunity to look at pervasive and invisible racism – the “vicious power” named in our first hymn – throughout our society.
Sometimes it is difficult for me to not feel extremely bad about being white. I find I can become despondent about my whiteness when I’m reading articles or stories that raise up matters of race and mistreatment or watch films with similar themes. But I think the reading and watching are important. I am trying to work toward a place where I can grieve – both for the harm dominant white culture of which I am a part has caused and continues to cause to people of color as well as for the loss of a strong, positive sense of my own identity as a white woman.Am I a racist? Are all white people racists? I don’t yet understand enough to answer that question; I prefer the words of Shelley Marcus, who describes herself as a broken and beloved child of God living in a racist society.
In any case, the despondency I experience from readings, looking at the news or watching films does not follow me into my daily life interactions with people of color, even though I have many opportunities in those interactions to make terrible mistakes of commission or omission all the time. I find my actual engagement in “crossing borders”, in having an African-American housemate, in participating as part of inter-racial groups very life-giving. Such engagement has become important in my life. Acting on that realization, earlier this summer I joined a second mission group – an interracial group whose call is to racial justice and healing. Each week we hold a safe space for sharing our victories and shortcomings in confronting racism in our daily lives. It was in that group that I was able to confess my lack of courage to speak up when the locksmith who came to change my daughter and son-in-law’s locks after my son-in-law had been robbed at gunpoint – when the white locksmith said knowingly to us white people “Where they black or Hispanic?” – somehow suggesting that all crime in California is committed by people who are black or Hispanic. I was glad I felt safe enough in my mission group to say out loud what had happened and to confess my cowardice. Members of my new mission group are here today and for that I am grateful.
To continue down this path, I need humility, curiosity, courage and a willingness to not become defensive. I also need a lot of help. I need the help of people of color in holding me accountable. And, yes, I do understand that it is not their job to educate me. I need the help of other white people to know that I am not on this journey alone. I have to believe that life is not a zero sum game in which I will lose something important if I lose the advantage that I’ve held for so long. I don’t even know for sure that I am actually ready and willing to give up my privilege, my advantage. But I am stepping forward, one foot in front of the other, one day at a time.
I hope that each of you will have a little curiosity about your own opportunities to challenge racism and that Seekers Church, too, will choose to claim an active role in combatting racism and promoting racial justice – not just in the systems that lead to our horrific rates of incarceration, but in all the institutions of our society, starting with our churches. Perhaps we at Seekers could start by thinking creatively about how to address the unfortunate experiences of Larry Rawlings with some of our building users.
We can’t know where such a journey will take us but we might undertake it with, in the words of Paul’s letter to the Hebrews, a faith that is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.