I offered this reflection on systemic racism at First Community Church UMC, Medford, MA, August 16, 2015.
Bishop Yvette Flunder tells a story, about a fire. It was a fire in an apartment building. The building was in one of those poor urban neighborhoods, a place where the Fire Department would not respond unless they had a police escort. If they had responded immediately, the building might have been saved. However, in the time it took for them to get the police escort with them, and navigate through city traffic, the fire had grown so large that the building could not be saved. Fortunately, no lives were lost; however, dozens of people were suddenly left homeless, without any of their worldly possessions except the clothes on their backs.
The TV crews of the city had responded, as well. Inevitably, a reporter approached one of the (now former) building residents, an elderly African-American woman, and asked her on camera for her reaction. The elderly woman looked at her and said, “Well. Somethin’ have happened. And somethin has got to be did.”
The old woman was not referring to the cause of the fire. What “have happened” was that it had taken too long for fire department to arrive and preserve her home. Exactly what “has got to be did”… is still a very open question.
For the past two and a half years, our country has engaged an intense public discourse about something that has happened too often, centering on the deaths of unarmed men of African descent, mostly young and mostly by gunfire, at the hands of police. And just eight weeks ago, on June 17, nine African American church people were murdered in cold blood by a young white man whom they had welcomed into their Bible study. It begins to look as though the lives of black people do not matter – to the police, or to some white people in general. 150 years have passed since the Emancipation Proclamation; 50 years have passed since that Bloody Sunday on the Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama; but still, something has got to be done. But what?
The root issue, I believe, is that systemic racism is still alive and well. Please bear with me for a moment. I invite you to think back and remember: when was the first time you learned about racial distinctions?
One day in the late 1950s, when I was four or five years old, I came along when my mother went out to vote. Our polling place was about four blocks away, on the other side of 30th Street in South Omaha, at an AME Zion church. It was a new experience for me. I saw a room full of nicely dressed African American women, wearing the same mid-calf length skirts that my Mom was wearing, and I noticed a black girl who seemed to be about my age. I started to approach her to make friends, but she immediately retreated to her Mom, clinging to her mom’s leg as if to wrap herself in that long skirt. I figured that meant no, thank you.
On the way home, I asked my Mom, how come we didn’t go to that church since it was so much closer to our house? Mom replied, “That is a church for colored people. They have their church, and we have ours.” It was only many years later that it occurred to me: she could have said, “That is a Protestant church, and we are Catholics.” But she didn’t.
Racism is operating when the divisions between us based on color seem to be natural and normal. Systemic racism is operating when police officers approach young black men with initial suspicion, but approach young white men with initial politeness. And for many of us of a certain age, systemic racism is something we learned with our mother’s milk, for good or for ill. Confession is good for the soul; if I am honest, I have to admit that I was brought up to assume that African-American men were dangerous, and every time I see a black student on my college’s campus, I have to recognize and check the impulse to see if she or he is an intruder, rather than someone who belongs. I try not to be racist, but it takes deliberate effort. It’s ingrained that deep.
The way out, I believe, is precisely to notice those prejudices and then move beyond them.
In today’s Gospel reading, we hear of an interaction between Jesus and a “Canaanite” woman. Jesus is headed toward the coast, either through or around non-Jewish territory, when this Gentile woman pleads with him to heal her daughter. At first Jesus ignores her. The disciples say, hey, she’s still yelling at you, and Jesus merely says, I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. Finally the woman plunks herself down into Jesus’ path and pleads for healing.
Jesus’ first response is to refuse, and he actually insults this woman as he refuses. It is not right, Jesus says, to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs. But this woman who has been called a “dog” is ready with a snappy comeback of her own. Yes, SIR, she says, but even dogs get to lick up the crumbs that fall from the table.
Jesus doesn’t have an argument that can beat her. I believe Jesus really did get “busted” here, brought face-to-face with his own prejudices and called on his sense of superiority on account of being a faithful Israelite. I also admire the woman who does not let go of her own sense of self-worth, who does not internalize the inferiority that Jesus ascribes to her, who finally wins what she needs when Jesus says, You have great faith. It is done. Ultimately, both Jesus and this (unnamed) woman acknowledge that she has a human need and he has the power to meet it.
A group of Catholic nuns, which group I’ve forgotten, once shared the following prayer: God, give us the courage to begin tasks that will take longer than our lives. Dismantling and healing American racism is surely one of those tasks. I suggest three small steps towards its completion: to notice racism; to open our hearts to others’ needs; to join in solidarity to work towards justice.
To start, we need only open our eyes and notice. What about racism in America do I take for granted? Is it really true? We can try to imagine how someone on a different side of this, or any other color line, sees the world. Last June, Sanctuary UCC in West Medford, in cooperation with the Medford Clergy Association, held the first of what we hope will be many conversations on racism and on automatic privilege or the lack thereof. Pastor Tony and I will be sure to keep you informed as these conversations develop.
Second, we can open our hearts to the distress of others. If my colleague fears for the safety of her two biracial, brown-skinned sons, that isn’t just her concern. It is my concern as well. When my colleagues are stopped in traffic by the police for no apparent reason, or what we call Driving While Black, whether it is in Texas or in Boston, it is not their black problem, it is also my problem. I am also outraged. I also want something to be done.
Finally, we can act as allies in working for change. Something has to be done, and it will require those of us who are whitefolks to be part of the challenge and part of the answer. It may be something as simple as calling out racism when we see it. The young man who murdered the Charleston nine believed the tired old lie that African-Americans hate white people, that they will kill the men and rape the women. This is the same lie that the KuKluxKlan spread a hundred and fifty years ago, and it needs to be silenced. We can correct that lie, and other untruths, when we hear them.
One of the best-known students from my alma mater, the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, also never even graduated. Fifty years ago this Thursday, a very white Episcopalian seminary student from New Hampshire, Jonathan Myrick Daniels, found himself walking out of a small Alabama jail with a few other people. They had spent four days in jail after having protested the discriminatory practices of some local business. It being August, and awfully hot outside, they set out to do something very reasonable – to stop at a corner store for a cold drink. They were met at the door by a man with a shotgun, who warned them to leave or be shot. When the gunman pointed his gun at the black teenage girl in the group, Jon placed his body between the shotgun blast and the young woman, and was killed.
I had the honor of meeting that young woman, Ruby Sales, this spring, at a conference heard in Jonathan Daniels’ honor. She still works for civil rights and equality. The Episcopal Church in the US honors Jon Daniels, along with others who were murdered in the civil rights movement, as a martyr. The task that they began in the 1960s still needs completion. Who will do it?
Nobody if not us.
Last June, I brought a prayer of commitment to Medford’s interfaith vigil commemorating the Charleston Nine. Will you join me in that prayer?
Spirit of love, Holy One, God of many names and none at all: we recognize your presence in this assembly. We gather as neighbors if not yet friends: afraid, outraged, horrified; yet drawn together by compassion and hope.
May our broken hearts remain open to each other. May our tired spirits wake yet again to each other. May we deepen the ties that bring us together today, ever ready to listen twice and speak once. May we speak frankly and yet respectfully. Let fear yield to confidence; let compassion deepen into solidarity; let outrage ripen into action.
May we be filled with courage, insight, and understanding: to recognize and turn away from those flaws in our nation’s legacy that perpetuate injustice. Give us new strength: to admit that this nation’s prosperity, both South and North, was largely built upon the labor of enslaved people; to question the attitude that prosperity is a sign of divine favor, and to acknowledge that this attitude continues to enshrine violence against some of us.
Lead us to celebrate and honor each one’s uniqueness in appearance and culture. Move us to resist the temptation to treat difference as “otherness”, to treat the “other” as “less human,” to even seek to destroy the “other” as if that would solve all of our problems.
Revive our spirits. Revive our faith communities: that we may rebuke those who would preach white supremacy in your name, who propose violence in your name; who regard fairness of complexion as a sign of your favor; who uphold economic injustice as your will.
Revive our spirits. Revive our faith communities: revive the goodness of our hearts; teach us to acknowledge the ways in which many of us have automatic privilege that others do not; empower us to extend the same privileges to all.
Revive our spirits. Revive our faith communities: that we might strive for that kin-dom in which each person is valued and no person is left out; and we give you permission to use us to make that kin-dom a reality.
We pray in the name of all that is holy and in all your many names. And let the people say, AMEN.
© 2015 The Rev. Dr. Joan M. Saniuk