Not an Option © Julia Cheng
Peace United Church of Christ, Racial Justice Sunday
February 8, 2009
Last Tuesday, the Duluth Anti-Racism Coalition reviewed a draft of its State of the Race report. With bar graphs and tables the report attempts to capture a snapshot of achievement gaps and racial disparities in our community.
As a congregation we devote one Sunday a year to understanding and dismantling systemic racism. Even that causes discomfort for some members who wonder why we have to go over all this stuff and hear about Anti-Racism Study Dialogue Circles again.
I want to forget about statistics, data and numbers. Let's go with anecdotal evidence and personal stories.
When I was very little, maybe four or five years old, my parents took me shopping in downtown Detroit at the Hudson's department store. I remember seeing another little girl walk by in bright sunshine pouring through revolving glass doors and thinking “I'm glad I'm not her.” Before I was in kindergarten I already knew that if I were black, somehow life would be harsher.
A few years later, second or third grade, because we were still in Michigan, I remember staring into the bathroom mirror, examining the shape of my eyes and the color of my hair. I was hoping to see signs that I was looking more “American.” In the Chinese immigrant community, American was the code word for white. For human. For good person.
A person of color in the Northland is never far from thinking about race. Sometimes economic standing lends a brittle cover of protection. Sometimes the nexus of race and poverty, sexual orientation or disability threatens to crush lives and spirits. A person of color must be vigilant. Do I have a future with this company? Can I move into this neighborhood? Will I survive this encounter with law enforcement? Am I welcome at this church?
For the central sin of the Christian church is its acquiescence to racial injustice. There are honorable exceptions — Quakers made their homes stations on the Underground Railroad to shelter runaways fleeing to Canada, Methodist ministers rode on the earliest freedom rides and marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge beside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But the overall record of the mainstream, established Christian church is sadly one of silent complicity or self-justifying theology.
There were churches in the Southern states throughout the years of slavery and the postwar era of Jim Crow, de jure and de facto segregation. Segregation in their own pews led the new freedmen and women to found the African Methodist Episcopalian denomination and the churches which formed the National Baptist Convention, including Dr. King's first posting, Dexter Avenue Baptist in Montgomery, Alabama. There were churches in California and Oregon where Asian immigrants were burned out, deported or driven from their homes to internment camps. There were churches among homesteads carved from stolen Indian land and marking a trail of tears.
But we don't have to go that far away in time or place. Ten thousand citizens of Duluth joined the mob that lynched Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie on a Tuesday night in June of 1920. I have to wonder, were there 10,000 absences from church the following Sunday?
The Hebrew prophet Micah calls people to service and worship through action, to “love kindness, do justice, walk humbly.” The gospel writers record the words of Christ as “treat others as you would be treated.”
Facing what we know in our hearts, recalling the way a classmate was mocked, a colleague excluded, a neighbor terrorized for moving onto our street, ask yourself, would I trade places with an African American man, an Ojibwe woman, a Vietnamese immigrant? When you witnessed an oppressive act, however subtle, did you keep silent and go along with the crowd because you were afraid to lose your place in the privileged group?
Because if we would truly see with our hearts, our hearts would be broken.
There is a woman here today awaiting the birth of her first grandchild. She knows the child will be biracial. There is a man in this city who weeps because one day his precious granddaughter said to him, I wish I wasn't this color. There are mothers in this sanctuary who lie awake at night wondering, how do I teach my son, this beautiful soul, to navigate a world that disregards his worth and humanity, that reacts to him with suspicion and fear?
Because of love, racism is personal.
Last fall, ten of us from Peace Church went to a training in the cities, conducted by Victor Lewis. Victor had a major role in the race relations documentary The Color of Fear and teaches a method of building bridges between races and cultures based on releasing emotion. We watched Victor work with one man in particular, who had retired from a job where he processed gender discrimination and sexual harassment complaints in a workplace without true commitment to dealing justly with women.
This white-haired, white man cried, and cried hard, as he finally surrendered to empathy for the women he believed he had failed, as he breached a wall around that place in his heart holding sorrow and grief while longing for kindness and justice.
Because of this I have hope. In our recent national celebration it was like we caught a glimpse of heaven, a flash of beloved community in all those images from across the country. My heart is still full with the wonder and memory.
To Trudy, who is 95 this week, you've seen so much. You can give us hope by telling us how far we've come.
To new members joining Peace today, know that the Dismantling Racism Team is more than just a committee. We have pledged ourselves to building relationships across racial and cultural lines, and to confronting the ways racism operates in our lives. The team intentionally works as part of the entire life of the church, including Christian Education, Spiritual Life, and Stewardship. We strive to assist and inspire all parts of our congregation in understanding the ways racism affects each of us and the personal steps we can take to undo it. Perhaps you're here today because you already recognize this.
To our kids, in you we see what the future looks like and why it's so important to do this work. It may be hard to imagine, but someday you'll be moms and dads and godparents. We love you, and it will be our greatest hope and our deepest joy that you hand off a better world than we can leave to you.