Friday, July 15, 2016
Fear and Spirituality
Wednesday night, thirteen white members of our church’s congregation gathered with our pastor to discuss our country’s violence: Dallas, Orlando, Columbine, Newtown, Ferguson, Afghanistan, and Vietnam were some of the places that arose.
I suspect we were all also thinking about individuals: Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and others. Just last week, two other black men were killed by police: Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Minnesota.
In Wednesday night’s group, we mourned violence and racism and wondered together what to do to move towards change, how to bring peace to ourselves and our world, how to learn from black and brown people—and from each other—about our own racial privileges and the experiences of people of color in our country.
We talked about immigration, war, the police, and gun violence.
As we talked, I remembered an activity with seniors in a school where I last taught, a school for many kids of color, many immigrants to the U.S., and white kids and kids of color living in poverty.
Perhaps you have experienced a belief line like this. I had posted signs along the wall: Disagree Strongly, Disagree, Agree, Agree Strongly. I would read out one of twenty statements, and students would stand under the sign that matched their beliefs. Then students would talk about why they chose to stand where they did, and students could move to another area if they changed their minds. In response to all of the statements but one, students chose responses along the continuum and shared differing perspectives. However, in response to the statement, “I believe the police are there to help me,” every student—all races, the rebels and the goody-goodies, the boys and the girls, the A students and the students who hadn’t passed a high percentage of their classes—gathered silently under the sign, “Strongly disagree.”
I was the only one who spoke this time. Under my breath, I said, “Wow.” I hadn’t suspected that their responses would be so uniform. They were not surprised. They just looked at me, waiting for the next statement.
I grew up a white kid, with parents who had graduated from college, and I always had health care, food, and a house to come home to. The police responded when I called. They were there to help me. Before teaching in this poor school district, I taught in privileged suburban schools. I knew the kids of my youth and the suburban kids I had taught would not have responded as these kids did. We lived in different Americas.
I’m not sure what the students learned from this activity. I can’t even remember what I wanted them to learn. I learned more poignantly than statistics or their individual stories had taught me about how different their lives and mine were.
As my mind returned to the present, Wednesday night’s desultory conversation kept returning to fear, which seemed to be at the center. One person talked about not being afraid, but the others of us talked about our fears: fear of not saying something when we should; fear of saying the wrong thing; people of color’s fear of the police; fear for children; racial fear; fear of violence against women; fear that incites violence; fear of the unknown.
We talked about how dismayed we are by the country’s gun policies, and I thought of a recent classmate, a white veteran of the Iraq War whose gun-rights identity was unusual in the school of social work, where I am now a student. He told me about the way that in Iraq his gun had been his security blanket, about how he had slept with his gun across his chest in Iraq and how some days he had collected the body parts of his companions after they had been killed. He had turned his gun in when he left Iraq, and for three nights he couldn’t sleep at home, so he went to a gun shop to buy a gun. While there, another man who had returned from Iraq on the same flight was also in the store buying a gun.
How can we address that fear when we continue sending so many to war?
Though we talked some Wednesday night about what to do: things we could do to address our own fears and fear in our communities; ways we could educate ourselves and get out of own bubbles; we were mostly just being together with our doubts and uncertainties, confessing our fears and bearing witness to one another’s uncertainty.
Three of us in the discussion have participated in a monthly study group over the last three years. Called “Race and Spirituality,” the group of now seven white women, has been trying to follow the advice of some people of color: you white people need to talk to other white people about racism.
For me, our most powerful experiences have been reading and discussing Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (a non-fiction book about the history of racism in our country, and an argument that current institutional racism repeats the more easily identified racism of the South’s Jim Crow era), reading and discussing Ta-Nehisi Coates’ memoir Between the World and Me (a black father’s letter to his teenage son about living in a racist society), and telling our own stories of racism, stories that included the pain of racism and privilege in our lives and the pain of at times not even recognizing racism until later.
There were answers in neither Wednesday night’s discussion nor the Race and Spirituality study group, but there has been solace in talking together. Is this selfish?
Wednesday night, one of the lay leaders of our congregation told us about her favorite Bible verse: “Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love” (New Living Translation).
I have been thinking about that verse in the context of the documentary film Human. In one interview an adult black male in prison tells the story about learning about love from the mother of the woman and her child that he had murdered. (You can see it here:http://r20.rs6.net/tn.jsp?f=001pb0_8FD0uBIlQidR_KU0nzp9vPt6EEwkfVKp8jsEM0mlfiOv7g7n4DxdZ9_RBj9HYNNfX9Zr4PeOdkgolANp-aVPKJLFIvS8kSYYMf11T83yQhU4vM18zD6hVx9LUPOc9iQbADeLhFhgZAmGXHmt8SX6PARlL0urOVJ0IR-jK5ylKZTbE7lghg==&c=tG6K3eIgdd58pyxetpr-pVLMSVQu6L0XLLDE2PcoFAzzJKsCx9yLdA==&ch=2VlFINBrb_PRgZIxo79tg6iYqfbM_WXOG74wDkE_WahN8RVI9dLbLw)
I think that woman must have had a lot of wisdom, faith and love.
The lack of answers, the need to stay in the question, reminded me one of Rilke’s often-cited letters to a young poet (1903):
… I would like to beg you dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
Rainer Maria Rilke, 1903 in Letters to a Young Poet
I am certainly living in the questions, but I fear that having this sort of patience with myself is immoral. People are dying as I am being patient. I tell myself that I am doing what I can, that I have to remember in humility my own limitations. In this I am reminded of this prayer by Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw (often mistakenly attributed to Oscar Romero):
It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us. . . .
This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest. . . .
This prayer tells me to be patient with myself. But then Marianne Williamson scolds me: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. . . As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” (Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of "A Course in Miracles").
So how do I move forward in this time of so much violence and grief? I do not know. I feel stymied. Befuddled.
The poet Ross Gay finds hope in small contributions to life in this poem about Eric Garner, a black man who was strangled by a policeman in Staten Island, NY in 2014:
A Small Needful Fact
Is that Eric Garner worked
for some time for the Parks and Rec.
Horticultural Department, which means,
perhaps, that with his very large hands,
perhaps, in all likelihood,
he put gently into the earth
some plants which, most likely,
some of them, in all likelihood,
continue to grow, continue
to do what such plants do, like house
and feed small and necessary creatures,
like being pleasant to touch and smell,
like converting sunlight
into food, like making it easier
for us to breathe.
This poem, like so many words and wonderings, brings a kind of peace without answers. Perhaps that’s all I can have for now.