Sunday, January 24, 2016

On Self-Doubt, and the White Saviour Phenomenon: Reflections at MLK Week.

Our son Seth at Disneyland, 2012

When I am in Kentucky, I am working on a project to gather and make public the stories of the people of color in a small town. In order to do this, I'm working hand-in-hand with a woman who grew up in the African American community, and who is deeply entwined in their history. She asked me to work with her. In my mind, and in my heart, I know that I am using the skills I have gleaned as a minister, as a writer, and as a spiritual director, to be present with people, to draw out and treasure their tales, and to bring them cohesively into what I pray will be a narrative that is both an agent of change and an agent of healing for a still-marginalized and very much oppressed minority.

This is in addition to the work that the interim congregation I am serving in New Jersey has done by posting a Black Lives Matter sign, and starting a partnership/lecture series with a Black United Methodist congregation in Atlantic City. So, many of my waking hours are devoted to the issues of Black Lives, which have become, in my eyes, the issues of the day.

Residents of Atlantic City & Atlantic County share stories on Black Lives
Why did I put the white guy in the center!? 

But I perpetually question my own motives. What part of this is about me, and my need to feel useful, to feel that somehow I am doing something to stand against the forces of racism and discrimination that still exist across this land? Worst of all, do I fall into the category of the "white Saviour?"

During the week before the MLK holiday, I was at home in Kentucky, and when there, I often attend the town's AME Zion chapel. The pastor, a woman, has agreed to collaborate in the project, as well as to allow the photographer I've asked to potentially work with us to take some photos during a service. I have felt both blessed and somewhat surprised at their welcome for me. Let's just say that were I a person of color in a small town that felt as if it were about 1975 today, I'd question the motives of a white woman coming in from outside to "write a book or a documentary.." Enough said.

"Oh, NO! I am centering myself. " (White savior anxiety)

Last time I went there, I spoke with a woman from the community I'd known for a few years, and met her son, who is 11. On the way to school the next day, I mentioned to Seth, who, because of his Autism, doesn't get a lot of play dates, that maybe the two could play together sometime. At first he thought I was talking about the congregation I am serving in New Jersey. No, I said, the African American church we went to. To which he responded: I thought Martin Luther King fixed that a long time ago. I stammered something, and he added: What? Did the white people forget?

Indeed the correct answer here is "Yes. The white people did forget." And that includes those of us, liberals and progressives, who, whether because of our preoccupation with other matters or, and I will freely admit that I fall into this category, because of our fear of being looked upon with mistrust and even scorn, of being seen as or even actually being  that "white savior"  mentioned in articles like this one from Huffington Post  or this one, from the Atlantic, just quietly stepped away from working on matters of racism.
Second attack on sign. Since this one, it was painted over again.

The reality is that some of us dedicated our ministry to anti-racism decades ago. We are not looking to be "saviors" or to win awards. We are compelled to join the struggle because to do otherwise would be to live a life of such compromise that we would feel, especially now, that a new Civil Rights movement has begun in full bloom, utterly hypocritical.

Unified Black Students of Stockton Rally November 2015.

James W. Perkinson, in White Theology: Outing Supremacy in Modernity, argues persuasively and eloquently that white solidarity must be born of not only conviction but of pedagogy and struggle. He also states that white solidarity, to be genuine, must be embodied in what he calls "the sacrament of a post white vocation.." a kind of Baptism. For white people, the functional equivalent of such a "baptismal" reprogramming is a life-long self-discipline and self-confrontation in the existential schools of racial encounter, inculcating a different habit of perception, able to see and feel the significance of the entire system of supremacy that bears down with such intransigent weight...Before there can be cognition of a new possibility, there is need for a newly felt consternation inside "the problem." The problem is a code of absolute differentiation habituated deep inside the white body that requires sustained confrontation and interior work.  (Perkinson, 245)

So, while I have to check in with my colleagues who are also active in this movement, while I need to examine my own motives and my own actions, I also need to trust my heart, stay true to my convictions. I need to listen to and read the voices that affirm my passion. In fact, I should have done that long ago.
My great grandmother, Mora Lake Patton. Cherokee Indian. I think of her sometimes. She died in childbirth.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Terrorisms We All Face and the the Privilege we Take for Granted

My great-grandfather & three daughters, after the death in childbirth of his wife & son

I have tried to imagine the pain and daily stress of living as a person of color in this country. I do so not to suggest that I, a white, educated, middle to upper middle class heterosexual woman, really can identify with that pain, but because I want to understand as deeply as I can, if even infinitesimally, what it is like to be marginalized, and then to say to myself: Multiply this by the thousands. Now you have the experience of a person of color. Multiply this by a lifetime.

I don’t know whether it is helpful/right/or wrong for me to think about this. I only know that it has given me a window into my own experiences and how they affected me, how I did/did not handle them, how they have continued to play a part in my worldview.

My mother, Marjorie P. Cain 1916-1960

I would say that my first experience of being marginalized was having a mother who died suddenly when I was five. In our small, rural school, this was something that did not happen. Rather than being embraced in some way by the community, our family (which by virtue of my father’s isolation and refusal to discuss her death) was undoubtedly the subject of gossip and whispers. I can recall a schoolmate saying, “My mom said your mother died because she was crazy.” Because we were forbidden to talk about her, I had no place to take this. My response to the unnamed grief and felt judgment and fear of my peers (I see now) was to “feel sick” and go, almost daily, to the school nurse with vague symptoms until my father hauled me off to the doctor so that he could pronounce that there was Nothing Wrong with me so I would stop faking it.
As a young girl, with step brothers.

Later, I was teased for things like having a slight  lisp, walking with my feet turned out, but these seem minor. I suspect nearly everyone is ostracized in this way. The pointing out of these “flaws” actually motivated me to work on them until they were (almost) unnoticeable. If anything, I became more of an insider, part of the group that marginalized the “other” during most of the rest of my school years. I wouldn’t say I was a “Mean Girl,” but I sure didn’t step up and speak out when others were being shunned or treated hurtfully.

Teenage me, insecure.

In my first marriage, I accepted the role of a stay-at-home wife and mom. Although I had a degree, and a strong will, I sat through jokes, comments, and slights made by men who, gathered together and consuming alcohol, were supposed to be “funny” but were demeaning to women in general, and to those present in particular. I stayed quiet while my husband openly “checked out” and flirted with other women. I worked in restaurants where women were treated like objects to be groped in the kitchen by cooks and even managers. It barely crossed my mind that any of these things were other than typical male behavior that had to be endured.
The church, an attraction for terrorists.

Now, having been a minister for twenty years, I have witnessed and listened to tales of members of congregations treating ministers horribly. These people have been willing to use tactics that are so similar to those of terrorists that it is alarming. Indeed, I am not the first person to use the phrase “terrorists in the church.” Vague and indirect threats, surveillance, manipulation, secret meetings, misinformation, and much more have led to ministers’ resignations, terminations, upheaval in congregations, lack of trust in our community, dire financial and professional consequences, and yes.. I would argue, suicide and early death. Because ministers care about the other people in the congregation, as well as their own future, they often leave without pointing fingers, and the terrorism continues. This occurs across denominations. So, yes, there have been times when, as a clergy person, I have felt like a marginalized person, a person with no power, no agency, unable to express the truth or to be believed.

Nonetheless, I grew up and understood the issues surrounding my mother's untimely death and gleaned ways to cope. I was able to leave the marriage in which I felt demeaned and diminished, although I know that many women still bear this fate. And, although I faced the terrorism of antagonists in the church on numerous occasions, I gleaned tools to endure them, and I knew that ultimately I could leave ministry if I must.

It was not until, after adopting our son Seth, an autistic child who is now ten, that I experienced a fraction of what a person of color might. Because his disability is visible to others, because it is something he will always live with, and because there are so many stereotypes and misconceptions about Autism and ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorders) I have experienced, and witnessed him experience, judgment, cruelty, shunning, inequity, dismissal, and assumptions of every stripe from strangers and church members and even "family." It was in this arena that I finally glimpsed, perhaps, an iota of what a person of color must feel. Anger, rage, indignation, and even fury at the insensitivity and downright cruelty of human beings. And yet, I have also realized that I have been less compassionate than I ought to have been before Seth became a part of my life. Besides being a treasure, he has taught me innumerable lessons.
Seth & his teacher 2015

Now. All of this aside, I walk into the world each day with a freedom, a passport, a red carpet, and open doors.. all because of one thing. The color of my skin. But from this time on, I do not take that for granted.

For every privilege I accept, for everything that I have been given for free, including the benefit of the doubt, I will stand up for, fight for, argue for, the rights and freedoms of a person of color. It’s the least I can do.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Black Lives: Thoughts on Black Friday

This time last year, our thoughts had already turned to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and the shootings of unarmed African American men by police. A month later, at our Christmas-time service, we placed a black infant doll in the crèche and named him Every Mother’s Son in honor and remembrance of Michael Brown. A few months later, our Anti-Racism Task Force began meeting, and started to explore the ways in which we could best 1) overcome our own White Privilege; 2) Work against white supremacy and white privilege around us; and 3) combat racism by working together with the African American community by showing up, standing up, and speaking out.
How incredibly blessed we have been! Click here for our journey so far.

I truly want to raise up a hymn of praise for the individuals who have entered my life this year, walking into the rooms of my heart like warriors of love and justice into closed-off chambers that had laid unexplored for decades. Parts of me that were filled with shame and despair, old wounds from my own past, my complacency, my complicity, and, yes, my own racism. And other places that had not given up hope for change, but that had really consigned myself to believe that, as passionate as I felt about the struggle for justice and equity for my sisters and brothers of color, as much as I felt my own call to ministry was to help along that struggle, perhaps I was not to be the one to do so.

First of those for whom I am so grateful today is the Task Force at the UU of South Jersey Shore congregation, about 12-14 folks who have met monthly and who have been steadfast, courageous, and incontrovertible. It was they who decided to post our “Black Lives Matter” sign, they who planned and hosted a vigil after the massacre in Charleston, they who re-installed our sign after it was defaced, then repaired and returned it a month later; they who have worn their “Black Lives Matter” buttons and explained, patiently, over and over, why “All Lives Matter” is not an appropriate response. Just this week, while I have been in Kentucky, the sign was attacked again, and these folks held an impromptu meeting, got ahold of a carpenter, and had the sign back up, all before I heard about the damage!

Next are the community members who showed up as we began to reach out to the African American community, and who have steadfastly remained our allies: Kaleem Shabazz, now a Councilman in Atlantic City; Perry Mays; AC Prosecutor James McClain; NAACP President Olivia Caldwell; and many others. Their words and actions have been of inestimable value. Attending the dedication of our sign; coming to services when we were under heavy fire on Facebook and elsewhere, feeling very real fear; and sending letters to us and to the Press in support of our efforts… what blessings they have been!

Then there are the Core members of the Planning Team for our year-long series, Black Lives Matter: Beyond the Slogan. We have dreams for this gathering, but it is also a walk of faith. So many people have asked what are the goals, and what the results will be.. but truly, that depends upon the people who show up, and the people who stay at the table.  Like any grassroots organization, the true value, purpose and vision will not be carved out at the outset, but will be eked out by the participants who engage. We have a great Core Team,  and it will grow: Joshua, Marte’, Shelee, William, Carolyn, Princess, Chivonne, Brielle, Blake and others who step in & out, as well as the dozen or so organizations who have committed to sponsor in some way… Each individual brings unique passion, talents, skills, and commitment. As we could not have known a year ago that this will exist, we have no idea what fruits will be borne one year from now. But we know if we do nothing, then nothing will occur.

Here's one ministry: Repent, Inc.

And another: Luminary Rising!

Finally, I place all of these individuals on my Jewel Tree, as each of you have taught me lessons of humility, hope, justice, faith, and courage. But I have to raise my colleague, someone I did not know even six months ago, to a special place, because he has surely been a hero in my eyes. Rev. William Williams, of Asbury United Methodist is actually the person from whom the idea of the forums (now known as events) first emanated. Even though he is just a year or two older than my oldest son, he has wisdom and dedication that I believe will guide him through a ministry career of courage and fortitude. I feel so blessed to know him at this foundational stage. I have to remind myself that Dr. King was this age when he led a whole movement! It is hard to imagine my life before I knew him, and knowing him, as well as all of the other young people on this team, helps me face each day and each painful truth with conviction. He does this hard work and so much more, while being a devoted husband and father of 3 very young children.

Atlantic City is a unique and challenging place to undertake a ministry of overcoming racism.
The hopes of the disenfranchised (who are the majority of residents) have been trodden upon for so long that they have virtually no  trust in authority, confidence in the future, faith in leadership, patience, or ability to withstand empty rhetoric. A brief over-view of history can explain that. In our first session, I learned that AC, once 60% Black, has declined to 40%; that decent paying casino jobs routinely go to out-of-town workers while AC unemployment remains at very high levels. 

·       AC is third highest city for prostitution
·       AC is #1 city for male prostitution.
There is something obscene about hearing and seeing Donald Trump rail against immigrants, make overtly racist statements, and rake in thousands of followers, while his massive casino (now closed) dominates the skyline over decaying housing and gentrified neighborhoods that still force people of color out.

The purpose of our events, in my mind, is singular: it’s to #tellthetruth . When the truth is told (and believed, things change.

So may it be.