Tuesday, May 16, 2017

My (Inadequate) Thoughts on Race In America

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)

On June fourth the Church celebrates one of her six principal festivals, the Day of Pentecost. This is the celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit to the early Christians. It is a day when the boundaries of the ancient world were cast down, and God gave His holy Word to all people regardless of nationality or ethnicity. Annually we read the story of this glorious event from the book of Acts (Acts 2:1-21). As this is a day commemorating God’s radical act of inclusivity, I thought this would be a good opportunity for me to discuss a subject which was the focus of our 2017 Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod Assembly—the touchy subject of race relations in America.

Yes, I admit this is a scary subject for many of us, myself included. It was difficult to hear at the recent Assembly that, in spite of the ELCA’s vaunted efforts at inclusivity and welcome, we still remain the most Caucasian denomination in the United States. My parish, Faith Lutheran of Northeast Philadelphia, reflects the neighborhood: working-class white folks. Our community remains mostly homogenous and there doesn’t seem to be much pressing need to integrate; nevertheless, I can’t help but feel that something still needs to be said, and that our assumptions still need to be challenged.

I am personally uncomfortable with the issue of race, and I question whether a white boy like myself—raised in a mostly white community—has any right to express an opinion on the matter. That vile, hate-filled word beginning with “N”—a word I refuse to speak and will not suffer to be spoken in my presence—was routinely used around my family dinner table when I was a child. It was used by the parents whom I loved, and who took me to Sunday School and taught me to pray.

I was fortunate, I believe, to have grown up in the 1960’s and to have had this early indoctrination counteracted by the witness of Dr. King and the efforts of a progressive public school education. It was not, however, until I was in my late 20’s and teaching in the Los Angeles public schools that I really understood the privilege of being white in this country. When I was ten years old, my father lost his job to an industry-wide lay-off. For a time we lived on public assistance. We always believed that, somehow, our fortunes would return and the American dream would be realized. The non-white children I taught in LA, whose families had lived for generations in poverty and on public assistance, had no such hope. For them, public housing, drugs, and gangs were the only reality. My family remained “middle class” because of our address and skin color, not because of our resources. I recognized that what separates “broke” from true poverty is the absence of hope.

The biggest take-away I received from the 2017 SEPA Assembly was a discussion of how African Americans have been routinely treated by police and the criminal justice system, and how official government policy in housing created segregated ghettos in our nation. It seems only right and proper that people of good will and moral scruples should do our part to redress these injustices. It is incumbent upon us to hold government accountable for the wrongs of the past, and to insist on electing representatives who will work for police accountability, reform of criminal sentencing, affirmative action in hiring, and will do all possible to promote industry and opportunity in areas blighted by segregation and poverty.

It’s also imperative that we all examine our preconceptions about those who share a different heritage and experience from our own. I recall a party I attended when I was an undergraduate. It was thrown by an African American friend. One of my host’s cousins, a perfectly charming and beautiful young woman, approached me and asked me to dance. I remember how my brain seemed to go into slow motion as I gradually figured out that there was nothing at all wrong with dancing with a black girl—even though it was something which my parents would never have done or even countenanced. Today, I see young people in inter-racial relationships all the time. They seem to recognize that we all share a basic humanity, but I have to constantly keep scanning my Baby Boomer brain for the viruses and default settings of my childhood.

At Faith we have a great opportunity to push our thinking forward a bit. Our partnership with the Beersheba Seventh Day Adventist Fellowship, a congregation sharing our worship space made up of Haitian Americans, might offer us a chance to get to know and appreciate people of a vastly different culture and experience. I hope that sometime in the near future we can share a fellowship meal with our African American and African Caribbean brothers and sisters and learn to see some things from their perspective.

My own reluctance to deal with racial issues always comes from knowing that I will never see our society through the eyes of non-white Americans. I will never know internally the fears or feel the frustrations and the multiple petty indignities suffered from those who live with the consequences of racial injustice. To be honest, I actually fear my own ignorance. It is never far from my mind, when meeting a person of color, that terrible things were done to people who look like that human being by people who look like me. It seems almost blasphemous for me to speculate or comment on the sacred pain of those who live with the burdens of our American past. I fear walking in my dirty feet through their sacred space. The best I can do is acknowledge my own ineptness, and hope that my African American, Hispanic, Asian, LGBT, etc. brothers and sisters will receive my inadequate efforts with patient forgiveness.

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