Sunday, June 21, 2015
What do I do now?
Today, I gave the sermon, really a reflection, at my church. I had planned to talk about my loss and grace with my disabilities, but after Wednesday night's shooting, how could I talk about anything else? I have more questions than answers, but here were my mullings from today:
Loss and Grace
Hi—I’m Mary. I’m your substitute sermonist for today. Things for this day have not gone as planned, and they keep changing, so this is the third sermon I’ve written.
Originally, Lori was supposed to deliver our sermon this morning, with Pam and me voicing a sermon that the three of us put together, but Lori got pneumonia again and is back in the hospital, so we will share when she and Pam and I are ready. We are singing the hymns that Lori chose in today’s service. Other than that, you will have to come back another day to hear that sermon and be part of that service.
After Lori returned to the hospital, I said I would be the substitute sermonist. I drafted a sermon about Lori’s and my shared experiences as lesbians and people with disabilities. I wanted to say that we had both been through hard times, and had come to believe that these hard times had brought surprising gifts. I think the people in this church and increasingly in our nation understand that gay lives are not tragic lives, but we both came out to families in a time when there was no cultural embrace, so coming out and coming to believe that God loved us in this way was hard.
The understanding of people with disabilities seems further behind, so I want you to know: our lives have not been tragic because of our disabilities. Lori agrees with me in this. In fact, in some ways those disabilities have been gifts that require us to slow down and be present in the world differently, perhaps more soulfully, than we would be without the disabilities.
Thus, from the darkness of doubt and disability have come gifts. If there is any tragedy, it is in a society that understands those of us with disabilities, those of us who cannot make a living wage in this society, are less than human.
In this second sermon, I shared some of the gifts of living with disabilities and with a clearer sense of the fragility of my life: first, I am more aware that I am not in control and I’m more at peace with that; second, I am more aware of my own limitations in understanding others’ lives; third, I have slowed down and am more present in my life; and finally, in this presence and this humility, I listen more closely to God and the people around me.
So that’s what my second sermon was about: I planned to talk about faith and those times when things have not gone as planned. The experience of things not going as planned seems to be a universal one, also a Biblical one, and perhaps my experiences have given me some insight into the challenges and gifts of things not going as planned. This sermon was about loss and grace.
Today’s liturgy and prayers were built around that theme. I felt I had some expertise in this sermon, some way of seeing the world that differs from many others but might resonate with you nonetheless. However, if you would like to read that sermon, you’ll have to go to my blog, cantduckit.
Why a third sermon? Because I woke up Thursday morning to the news that a white man had murdered nine black people at a Bible study in Charleston, South Carolina. How can I talk about anything else?
But what do I say? This sermon will not have answers. This sermon is really a reflection, a journey through my wondering: what do I do as a white woman in a country that persists in treating some of our citizens as less than human? I hope that this reflection may resonate with you.
In this reflection, I invite you to walk with me through this tangle of thoughts and emotions.
I was born into the crucible of the Civil Rights Movement, in March 1964, in Atlanta, Georgia, in the white wing of the Grady Memorial Hospital. My public school in North Carolina in first grade must have been all white, though I don’t remember noticing. For second grade, busing integrated the schools, and my parents were surprised when my friend Michelle, who was black, showed up for my birthday party. My family was among the first to flee to what my friends called “the boondocks” but would soon be called “the suburbs.”
When I was in high school, I remember a silent protest where African Americans took the seats of those of us—all white and Asian-American—who had been inducted into the school’s service club. I was confused because I had heard that no African Americans had applied. I also remember a lively discussion on a bus ride with my basketball team when whites and African-Americans talked about how we took care of our hair. It had never occurred to me that our lives would differ in this everyday way.
Skip ahead a couple of decades: When my partner Ann and I moved to the mostly black central district 20 years ago, a young black man driving down Martin Luther King, Blvd. stopped, rolled down his window and yelled at us, “Go away! We don’t want you here!” Unsure of whether he was yelling at us because we were lesbians or we were white, we shrugged. What were we to do?
Notice that in each of these scenarios, I was confused: each experience told me that I did not know the world I was living in. In each instance, I did not know what to do.
From my earliest days, I experienced a black and white world. But I had learned that things were changing for the better in the relations between blacks and whites. After all, we could sit together on buses and attend schools together. Some black people became famous and rich. One black man even became president.
I wasn’t entirely naïve. I helped to start a school for students who lived in poverty, many of them students of color, many of them students who had immigrated from violence or grown up in violence in the US. I taught in this school.
I had begun to think that, for better and worse, blacks and whites were beginning to live in the same worlds. Shortly before Obama became president, however, I had brain surgery and began to experience the world differently. In my first six months out of the hospital, I walked with a walker and wore a patch over my left eye. I moved so slowly and tenuously that strangers often asked me if I were okay.
Black people were most often the ones to ask me if I were okay and to offer to help me. One day, as I walked through the park, a black woman with a flatness in her eyes that suggested she was going through chemo, stopped me and asked if she could say a prayer for me. This happened from time to time, and I knew that she would put her hand on me and pray for me right there. I nodded, and she did put a thin hand on me and asked me my name. Then she prayed, “Dear God, be with Mary. Let her know that you are always walking beside her. When she is weary, let her know that you will carry her. Amen.”
I carry that prayer with me.
In this time after brain surgery, I learned that though I walked through the same parks as black people, I had not been invited into their lives in even the most casual ways, and now for the first time I was. The connections felt all the more grace-filled because of the shared history that separated us.
I began to hear Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech differently. Previously, I had focused on the part about little black girls and little black boys holding hands with little white girls and little white boys in sisterhood and brotherhood. This was possible in many places now, indeed something to celebrate. But the essence of the dream, envisioning justice for all of God’s children, began to ring louder for me.
There is still so much injustice, so much violence. I wonder if as a nation we can ever escape the generational trauma of slavery. I want to believe with Martin Luther King that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.
I want to have hope, and yet I feel so much doubt. For a long time, I tried to be the change I wanted to see in the world by teaching in schools with so many children of so many colors.
But then with my disabilities I can’t even do that anymore. “So how do I confront injustice now?” I have wondered. The wondering led me back to a memory of my first visit to Guarjila. In our closing reflections, I asked, “What do we do now?” I expected the answer to be to provide funding for some local project, but as always the people we were visiting surprised me. “Learn about your own country,” they told us.
So now, in learning about racism, I am trying to take their advice: to learn about my own country and about myself.
As part of this learning, I have been participating in a Race and Spirituality Study Group that started from members of this church two years ago. As part of this group, I have been learning about laws and lives in my own country. I have been learning about my own privilege, until now mostly invisible to me, and about deep systems of injustice.
Like Martin Luther King, I want to see a more just world. I believe Jesus wanted that, too. Like Abraham in the Old Testament, I am wandering in a desert, dreaming of a different land, and I do not know if I will ever get there. I do not know—or even suspect—that I will see our country as a land of justice for everyone before I die. I do not even know if I will have the vision of that land: what would it look like? Abraham could see his promised land. Martin Luther King could describe his. I cannot even see the vision clearly. What would justice look like here?
I have come to believe that I am called to be more humble and more faithful than I have been. I try to remember: I am not God. Only God is God. Maybe my tumors have taught me that. The place for me to begin is in understanding myself and the history that is mine and so many others’. The place to begin is in humility and in faith.
I know that the cause is urgent. I’m just not sure what the urgent action should be, especially while I’m so unaware of myself and my culture.
Reading Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow taught me what a letter to Dear White Liberals said to me Saturday morning: “What has happened here in the U.S. [is that] racism and violence against People of Color has been hidden from the average white person and then concealed in the language of bureaucracy so craftily and cunningly that many white folks—and even some People of Color—do not see or hear it.” http://lilywhitemama.com/a-piece-of-the-puzzle/
I am beginning to confront racism in a new way: with awareness. I am doing my best, and I must ask forgiveness if this path is the wrong path to take.
I invite you to join me in this quest for self-knowledge and knowledge about our nation. You might start with reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. (which, by the way, is the only book I’ve ever read that I think every American should read. And I’ve read a lot of books.) If you’re interested in knowing about our study group, let me know. If you have ideas for me that I haven’t thought of, please let me know.
But let’s not continue to let racism reign without taking it on in some way.
As we move forward, I hear again that prayer in the park. This time it’s a prayer for all of us.
“Dear God, [be with us.] Let [us] know that you are always walking beside [us]. When [we are] weary, let [us] know that you will carry [us]. Amen.”