Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Words and Worlds Part Two: Safety

I am writing this on the 52nd anniversary of the bombing of the Birmingham Baptist Church, an atrocity in which four little girls were murdered. The horror of this crime reverberated across the nation, and still does. While in Birmingham last Spring, for the 50th anniversary of the march on Selma. I took our son Seth to see the church, the memorials, and the park dedicated to the children of the Civil Rights movement. Seth understood, and was moved to caress and sit with the statues of the girls, especially the one who shares my name: Cynthia.

May we never forget

We didn't mention them, or the anniversary, in our service this past Sunday, however; in fact, I'd vowed not to mention anything related to the Black Lives Matter movement. Why? It had caused, as of Sunday, two members of the congregation so much distress that they felt the need to take a leave of absence. Not that they opposed the sentiment. They simply felt that we had exposed ourselves to far too much danger and risk without adequate safety and security in place, something they had lobbied for since the new and beautiful facility was constructed in a wooded site partly obstructed from view. It had become clear that the stress occasioned by the online attacks, threats, and now this departure, albeit temporary, of beloved members, had set everyone on edge.

My mind and heart was, I knew, in a different place. To me, the risk was a calculated one, and small: after all, the church's liberal stances were well known, and it had stood, undisturbed, for 7 years. And UU churches, nearly a thousand of them, functioned all over the country without incident. The one shooting that had occurred, in Tennessee, could have happened anywhere. A bitter ex-husband, who hated the liberals because his wife had gone there, came in one Sunday, determined to enact revenge. There was no way anyone could have prepared for or predicted that.

What I saw, and had witnessed, in my interviews, my reading, and my conversations, was that African Americans lived every day with the heightened level of threat that we had experienced for approximately two weeks. I saw this as a kind of opportunity to examine our white privilege.
But to have said so this Sunday, after this couple announced their leave, would have been a bad move.

It was Water Gathering Sunday. People bring waters collected from the places they've traveled that year. I did manage to mention that we ought not celebrate these moments without an acknowledgment that so many on this earth exist without water, or with contaminated water, and this year, in particular, refugees are being drowned trying to reach safe shores. Even here, we are being faced with the realities of drought on our West Coast. In reality, the Water Communion has become less and less meaningful to me, a rather inward-looking ritual that points to our utter lack of awareness of our privilege. But, I digress.

So, that same week, that issues about the safety of our building really came to a climax. with a Board meeting, followed by other special meetings, a large budget request, and many action items to improve our security (not only because of the sign, but because they were always needed, and the sign issues brought them to light), I could not help seeing the irony as I corresponded with a new member of our congregation.

Aaron & Stephanie's kids w/ kids from the AME congregation at our dedication

His name is Aaron. He and his family have attended regularly, and joined the Anti-Racism Task Force. One of the things his wife told me is how frightened their kids have been that he or another Black male in their family will be killed by police, since they have seen and heard the news this past year. So, on the Sunday after our sign was defaced and then re-hung, Aaron and Stephanie had offered to teach the kids about the Black Lives Matter movement. Of course, they didn't know that it would be painted over with white paint by the time Sunday came. Here's Aaron & Stephanie.

I was home in Kentucky that Sunday, and had to do all my connecting by phone and email, but while on the way back, I met with my Interim mentor in West Virginia. I was telling her about the sign, and the vandalism, and our decision to return it to the roadside with the vandalism. I then read Aaron's emails to her, and she was very moved. She asked me if she could include them in her sermon, so I asked Aaron for permission to share: 

Hi everybody,

 First off,  this is a very bittersweet moment for me personally.  It's great to see so many of us coming together for this cause but at the same time,  we're still coming together to fight a fight that has been started in this 60's,  civil rights. 

One thing that bothers me is how the word "black" automatically means the "black" race when it's deep than that.  The "black power movement" was a movement that focused on giving "power" to the oppressed people. The "blacks only" sign also applied to any and all POC (people of color).  I'm not the founder of "Black Lives Matter" but I feel it's the same concept.  

Teaching the kids Sunday really opened my eyes to how many people are affected by racism,  not just people of color.  The fact that KIDS are being threatened for who they want to hang out with makes sick.  It showed me that POC are not the only ones going through this nightmare. 

We only hear in the media the extreme cases of police misconduct.  But we don't here about the countless times of harassment that POC endure from law enforcement and the community daily. Where's the governors?  Mayors?  Judges?  Lawyers? How can we reach out to them and get them involved?  Reaching out to Stockton and even ACCC is a GREAT idea.  The more people we can get involved the better. 

 Later, he writes.....
I can't thank you enough.  Your words means so much to me and the acceptance I feel for me and my family from the congregation is nothing short of amazing.  How ever I can help/contribute I am more than willing.  This is very new to me so I'm trying my best not to "vent" but for so long it seems my concerns for this community (Atlantic County) falls on deaf ears.  I've been close to a lot of people in the "streets". Growing up between Atlantic City and Pleasantville for most of my life,  I've seen the good and bad from the residents and law enforcement.  With that being said,  the only time I've ever had a gun pulled on me was by a police officer,  on several occasions. Me being unarmed of course,  getting of the SCHOOL bus,  coming home from playing basketball all day,  and even jogging home from the gym were the times I've encountered this situation to name a few (it's happened a few more times)  all to be told "I fit the description". Again,  I can't thank you and the congregation enough for welcoming me and my family and making us feel at peace outside of our home.

I look forward to helping anyway I can.Thanks again,


 It was only then, upon re-reading, that I saw their import: Aaron had told me that it was only in our church that he and his family could feel peace outside their home.. could feel, in other words. safe.

So we have this collision of worlds. People who think we are in great danger because we have posted a sign supporting Black Lives Matter.. and people who feel, finally, a haven. 

To be continued.