I think we knew that posting a sign that read Black Lives Matter on the road in front of our church's property was a big decision. We prepared for months, explaining it to the congregation through various venues. I preached on it numerous times.
We had a ceremony on Sunday, August 23, to dedicate the sign. It was a beautiful day, and a beautiful ceremony. Singing. Holding hands. Tears.
Some things happened that day that I suspect will remain in my memory for the rest of my days. When I told the minister of the nearest AME congregation about our decision to post the sign, she said that she would come, and support us. As it turned out, those friends who came from St. Paul AME were not the only persons of color who showed up. We do have, now 4 families and individuals who are African American.. they were there, and brought family, and a Community Organizer from Atlantic City came, bringing a Black minister. Another minister we had met in our community work showed up too, just as the ceremony was ending.
But it was actually a few unplanned things that stand out for me: first, one of our members offered to sing. She sang, "A Change is Gonna Come," and that was how we opened the service. Her singing was radiant. It brought everyone into the shared space, hearts and minds. Then, I had asked our Board President, Art Wexler, to say a few words. Art is a recently retired administrator of a Community College. He is quiet and unassuming, but wise and direct. He started to speak, and then he said, "One more thing: Michael Brown's life.. mattered. Freddie Gray's life.. mattered. Eric Garner's life mattered." He mentioned a few others. But then he continued, "Emmett Till's life mattered. Medgar Evars' life mattered. These killings we have seen this year are abominations.." During his words, I heard the softly whispered chorus of "Yes," and "Amen," from the Black attendees. That's when tears filled my eyes. But it was not until hours later, driving home, that the full impact of what Art had dne with those few words hit me, and I shook with sobs. He had been, in a sense saying the Jewish prayer of mourning, the Kaddish, and raising the importance of these deaths (ehich until that moment hadn't been mentioned that day) to the same level as those historic, history-making ones. You see, Art grew up in a Jewish household, but he also attended an historically black college, so even though he is quiet, and reitiring, he has a wealth of thought, and just the right words. I can only begin to imagine how hearing those words from a white male in a position of power must have felt to our guests. Words.
These people were with us because we have been building relationships. We have started to attend walks in Atlantic City organized by the Police Department; we have been helping at a food bank, also in Atlantic City; and we sent flowers to St. Paul AME after the murders in Charleston.
But creating relationships where trust and goodwill are present takes time, effort and wisdom. I feel as if my own preconceptions are being challenged every day. Talking with police officers, especially officers who are persons of color, about their work, the dangers, the decisions they have to make, how they feel about the Black Lives Matter movement, is a bit scary but so important.
Each time I leave Atlantic City, I feel as if I am being born to some entirely new understanding of my life, my world, my childhood, and my past. The words, "Atlantic City" meant nothing to me except "boardwalk," "Miss America," and, later, "casinos." Although I lived a bit over an hour away, I probably went to Atlantic City three times. But I didn't go to the city. It never even crossed my mind that here is a place, a residence, a city inhabited primarily by people of color.
map showing racial makeup of Jersey shore area, including Atlantic City
Green area is AC (Black residents) Blue =white residents
People who went there to work in hotels, casinos, and in many cases were born there because their parents worked there. There are schools, neighborhoods, gangs, and lots of children. There is hunger, joy, addiction, beauty, love, and renewal. These are my fellow citizens of New Jersey. I love getting to meet them at the food bank, and exhanging a few words. These words, I feel, are like gems. It matters what I say. Many times, they brighten my day even more than I do theirs. They are survivors. They matter.
You don't have to go far inland to find some of the most virulent hate groups this land has to offer. Right here in South Jersey. Indeed. I was told, the week before we posted the sign, that a "convoy" of these trucks had driven through the towns near our church, including the one we are located in. SPLC (Southern Poverty Law Center) lists 18 hate groups in New Jersey, far more than in Kentucky. I took this picture of two in Manahawkin, near Long Beach Island. What I continue to contemplate every day is the distance I am traversing, short in miles, and yet light years in experience, opportunity, economy, accessibilty, I have taken for granted. This is white privilege. By posting the banner, by wearing the pin, or the wristband, by doing the work of building relationships, I am unlearning white privilege. And there are moments when I simply can not believe it. What it takes to maintain this.
Here's a death threat one of my colleagues recieved on our Facebook page. These people are out there. As soon as the story of our banner and the dedication appeared in the Atlantic City Press, we were bombarded with posts attacking us for the banner. Many of them just said, "All Lives Matter" over and over. But many were far worse, cursing our church, calling us racist, cop-haters, evil, and lots of other things. They've begun to simmer down, but I feel certain that this war of words is going on everywhere, all over the Internet, and that very few people are being convinced either way. I also recognize that many of these people are women. They are angry and vile, and I can't help thinking of the women who stood out in front at the Civil Rights protests, their faces contorted with hate:
After a while, I decided to find out where these people lived. They live all over the country (by the way, almost none in the South, but some in Texas), but only 1 or 2 in New Jersey. This was so helpful. It made me realize that while our immediate neighbors might be the KKK members or the Confederate flag truck-people, they weren't the ones on Facebook. Maybe they will just chalk our sign up to another thing those liberals are doing, and leave us alone.
But some members of our congregation don't agree. They feel we need to ramp up our security, and that is happening. Three words. Three little words that should be self-evident. I look ahead and wonder, what will our children say about this time? "Why did people attack others for saying 'Black Lives Matter?' " "Was it that bad?"
Well, yes, it is that bad. That's why we have to say it, and go on saying it, despite the threats, the taunts, the vile, ugly attacks. Because the opposite of Black Lives Matter is not "All lives matter." It is "Black lives don't matter." That is being shown to us in countless ways. And attacks on the sign, and on the words, are one more way.