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Seeing Ourselves as Parts of One Body: An Exercise in Exploring Racism from a Place of Privilege

 

Introduction

 

[1] For the last ten years, I have worked in intentional interim ministry, accepting synodical placement where needed, often far from the inner-city streets of my primary ministry, described below. People in my interim congregations are often surprised to see someone with my background and economic privileges to be as rooted in Black urban life as I have by now come to be.  In the midst of the turmoil of American cities of the past several years, especially since Ferguson, this has caused me great inner turmoil, and has sometimes become a flash point of difficulty in the congregations that I have served.  But it also reveals America’s Church divided:  How could I even pray aloud for the series of unarmed young men being killed for minor traffic offenses, without unwittingly becoming alienated from a congregation that had envisioned my role as disconnected from those issues? (Unfortunately, some churches want nothing to do with any of this!) 

 

[2] This article arose out of that struggle: how to continue to bear witness to something vitally urgent in my ministry in racially isolated settings where many might not imagine they need to consider this kind of ethical reflection?  Many ELCA congregations are essentially racially isolated organizations.  (If 95% of your worship attendance is of one racial/ethnic group, that is isolated, even if those few that make up the other percentage points are important to your life and self-understanding.)[1]

 

[3] Discussion questions are offered for congregational or community use.  My hope is that this effort will be received as a supplement to the efforts out of the office of the ELCA Presiding Bishop’s; another possible next step for congregational use, for the sake of healing and reconciliation.

 

Walking in Fear of the Other

[4] “Don’t look so scared,” the man said to me before I left his porch.  Could he really see my terror on my face?  That was a humiliating thought.  But I was afraid.  I didn’t know my place in his neighborhood, the community of the church I was only recently called to serve.  I wanted to be there, but it was so different from where I had grown up.  I wasn’t used to the poverty, or with being around so many Black people.  He looked me straight in the eye, held my gaze, and told me, in the looking: “You don’t have to be scared here.”

 

[5] The man was already a member of the congregation I was serving, so I trusted him enough to return his gaze.  His directness helped to lead me to the place where I could walk in that neighborhood and know my place there, whether I knew the person in front of me or not.

 

[6] When you are one of the only people of European descent in an African American community, as I was there, there is often a kind of gracious receiving, a way that folks can talk openly around you about the harshness of systemic racism, about the unfairness of “White folk,” and not include you in it. 

 

[7] My two years in that community were a baptism by fire for someone who had been raised in an all-White suburb, but also a gracious experience for me as we stood together in the presence of Almighty God.  I had been raised with privileges because of the color of my skin and my middle class upbringing in ways that I had never needed to examine before.  The people stretched me in ways I didn’t know I needed.  (I was a pastor in their church.  Wasn’t I supposed to be the giver, after all?)

 

[8] Yet the people of Third English Lutheran Church in Baltimore and Pastor Lynell Carter were gentle and gracious with me.  They were genuinely glad for my presence, even as they began to school me about racism – at age 27, an education that was surely long overdue!  They showed me the gospel, as we hear it in the words of the apostle Paul:                                    

…that we who are many

[and can be divided from each other in significant ways]

     are yet one body in Christ,

     and individually

     we are members

     one of another.[2]

 

[9] What I had never learned before that experience was to see and to grasp the fullness of my roles within the body.  I needed to come to understand my fears and my longings, my giving and my receiving.

 

From Fear to Belonging

 

[10] It was an ordinary day.  My youngest was still in a stroller.  We now lived in Philadelphia and were walking down a main near where we lived.  There was lots of foot traffic.

 

[11] My son was slow learning to talk.  That day he was repeating words. It sounded like a kind of litany.  Leaning closer, I heard:  Jim, Lester, Wiry, Swinton, John.  What was he saying?

 

[12] Then I saw that the words tumbled out each time we passed an African American man.  He was noticing, then naming, the men in his life who resembled the ones we passed on the street: Jim, his godfather; Lester, the seminary student at our church; Wiry, the dark-skinned guy with dreads who lived across the street and often stopped to talk about our garden; Swinton and John, ushers at church.

 

[13] It took me a moment to grasp this deeper part:  He was not afraid.

 

[14] The circle of the men he already knew made a place for the ones before him who might yet walk into his life.  We are not born with the fear I once felt as I walked the streets around Third Church when I began my first call. 

 

[15] It was not a simple journey from the first story to the second, spanning fourteen years.  I learned about myself that fear inside projected out on another can make that person look ugly, frightening or violent without ever checking that image against the real person before me.  I learned that systems of power, from which I benefitted, like good schools, good health care, or my father’s VA benefits when he came back from Korea, were not evenly and fairly distributed to all Americans, as I had naturally assumed they were.  I had to examine the teachings of my childhood that anyone can pull him or herself out of poverty, by simply trying harder. 

 

[16] The racial and ethnic isolation with which I was raised still mark me in some ways, even though I have consciously chosen to make my home in predominantly African American urban neighborhoods, in the presence of significant poverty, for the last 35 years.  But we can learn anew in the presence of each other when we see God through the face of Jesus:  We don’t have to be afraid in the presence of each other, of what we will learn about ourselves or come to know about the wider world together.

 

[for]we who are many are one body in Christ,

     and individually we are members one of another. 

 

[17] We are already one body, even when we do not see it or live it.

 

[18] In the 12th chapter of Romans, Paul is repeating a thought he first developed with the Corinthians.  The community he left behind in Corinth tended to divide itself – in the most natural of ways!  From the earliest practice, in Jesus’ last meal with his disciples, the Lord’s Supper was often practiced as part of a common meal.  But an abuse quickly developed in Corinth around the meal itself.  The community devolved into cliques, with the rich eating right away, finding no need to wait to eat for those who were poorer, that is, for laborers and slaves, leading Paul to lament that when they came together it was not really the Lord’s Supper they ate, at all.[3]  “What kind of body is that?” Paul asked them.  But you are the body of Christ, Paul reminds them, and you belong to each other.  That kind of behavior isn’t fitting for you.[4] 

 

[19] These words about the body arise out of difficulty and conflict.  We do not need their reminder or their reprove when things are going well.

 

Understanding the Masks of Fear

[20] A friend I have known for years, who lived for a time in an interracial neighborhood of a large East Coast city where there is a significant African American population, was eager to discuss Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me,[5] when it was first published.  She was startled that what she had always read as anger, especially from African American men, and had thus found frightening, Coates revealed to be fear.  I have since heard several other Caucasian people voice this same reaction to Coates’ work.

 

[21] Coates writes the book as a letter to his 15-year-old son and reflects deeply on fear, like in this passage, following the killing of a Howard University classmate. His friend was driving home one night in Prince Georges County, MD, when police officers who were looking for a crime suspect who looked nothing like him -  except for the color of his skin - shot and killed him as he was about to pull into the driveway of his own home in a residential neighborhood.

 

Now at night, I hold you and a great fear, wide as all our American generations, took me.  Now I personally understood my father and the old mantra – “Either I can beat him or the police.”  I understood it all – the cable wires, the extension cords, the ritual switch.  Black people love their children with a kind of obsession.  You are all we have, and you come to us endangered.  I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed by the streets that America made....  The entire episode took me from fear to rage that burned in me then, animates me now, and will likely leave me on fire for the rest of my days.[6]

 

[22] I know some of the same neighborhoods and others like them, in Baltimore and Philadelphia, which Coates describes.  What surprised me about my friend’s reaction was that, of everything in the book, it was the sections describing African American fear that startled her.  When you know even a couple of Black men well in America today, you will grasp the truth of that fear.  Her not perceiving their fear showed me how deeply divided America is, even among those who live in mixed racial neighborhoods, who also sometimes work with African Americans. 

 

[23] These advances in American life – the movement of people of color in greater numbers into institutions of higher learning, for example, into a wider diversity of employment situations and neighborhoods – are not insignificant.  They can give the appearance of greater mixing and a deeper sharing of people’s lives, and, a greater connection, though, than I have often found to be the case. 

 

[24] Whether we see what we are missing or not, this is a tragedy that deepens, among other ways, with each new life lost at a police officer’s hands, at each retaliation back in violence, whether against the police or in other kinds of havoc.  Not knowing each other more deeply allows fear and distrust to continue to grow unchecked. 

 

Seeing Ourselves as Parts of One Body

 

[25] I have come to appreciate the richness of African American cultural life in a variety of ways.  Here’s one I find especially poignant:  The child in the stroller, Nate, is now in his early 20’s, and has complicated special needs.  When we are together, out and about in the community, a certain conversation repeats itself when we are among people of my own heritage, whether we are among strangers in a supermarket line or among friends or distant cousins who do not know my son well.  If the conversation goes on for 15 minutes, often by then the other person will be trying to figure out what is “wrong” with my son and will be asking me about it.  By that they mean, what are his diagnoses?  How is he classified for school and medically?

 

[26] Unless I am talking with another parent of a special needs child, and then only when we know each other well, this simply does not happen in a Black community.  He is received for who he is.

 

[27] Further, Nate has an amazing musical gift, expressed most often through the keyboard.  He can play almost anything he has heard by ear on a pipe organ, piano or keyboard.  When this happens in a Black community, people respond with amazement and offer encouragement; they make efforts to join in with his music and often comment, unsolicited, that he has a special gift from God. 

 

[28] There can be amazement in White communities, as well, even a wistfulness about his ability to play by ear; but the conversation almost always winds around to the fact that Nate cannot read music, to how limiting this will be for his future musical opportunities, to how hard it would be to fit him in to music as it is done in this or that place. (Their places!)  And indeed, almost always it has been.

 

[29] I love my German and Irish heritage and much of the Lutheran worship traditions in which I was raised.  I don’t believe I need to leave these behind to appreciate what I have only discovered in adulthood by living and working in an African American community.  I know I am richer learning to know two traditions from the inside, to love two communities, each for their own strengths.  And I am grateful beyond measure for the way my son is received as a gift of God in the community where we have chosen to stake our lot, which is predominantly African American – for here he is received as whole, fully formed, valuable in God’s sight.

 

For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body….  If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body.[7] 

 

 

Conclusion: Listening to the Other and Being Honest with Ourselves

 

[30] Racism has been defined as race prejudice with the power to enforce that prejudice within the structure of a community’s common life.[8]  I wonder how our lives as Church might be moved beyond the impasse of division if  people who think of ourselves as White might focus our anti-racism work on learning to listen to ourselves – honestly to listen to our own fears – whether fear of the Other, or fear of losing privileges we have always known – fear that is often projected onto others to make them into something grotesque and unrecognizable. 

 

[31] I wonder how we might find ways to listen and to know the Other from whom we are often isolated and of whom many of us are afraid. Were such work to occupy us, I am convinced we would discover Christ there waiting for us!  And further, that we would be building a bridge of understanding from our side showing ourselves to be conscious of people in our communities who have a very different experience than we have ourselves, but allowing and encouraging us each to be awake to the truth of each other.

 

[for] we who are many are one body in Christ.[9]

 

Janet Peterman is the Interim Pastor of Trinity, Fairview Village, in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania.

 



[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/to-fight-racial-isolation-on-campus-start-with-admissions/2015/12/04/f89d6b8c-995f-11e5-8917-653b65c809eb_story.html?utm_term=.b2fbb5cdcbee Sherrilyn Ifill’s reflection on the experience of racial isolation on college campuses gives a window into our discussion, while also revealing its volatility. I have not seen research about churches, but the range of my pastoral experience has shown me that congregations that have a few active leaders of color, or a few families of color in their active worshiping community, often assume a depth of grappling with racial issues that is deceptive. The churches' welcome is important, for it is not universal. But I have not witnessed that the welcome at that level, into membership and leadership, automatically allows people of color to bring with them into the public sphere of their congregation an open look at the racial dynamics they themselves experience – not until there is a much larger critical mass within the congregation. Hence, I’ve experienced these places as places of dominant culture racial isolation, though for the most part people in these congregations do not see themselves this way. I’ve had experiences that many of them have not had: of witnessing how racial issues are handled in congregations of the same denomination that are more balanced ethnically, rare as those congregations are. Thus the presence of a small percentage of people/leaders who are people of color, in my experience, is illusory in this sense, that by itself it could assure that the most important racial change has already happened. Yet real conversation about racial issues rarely happens. Often, in fact, it gives the illusion of change without providing a safe enough space for talking about real inequities, or to create new hearing and understanding. This mirrors life outside the congregation for people of color whether in campus life, in employment settings or the wider (American) public sphere.

 

[2] See Romans 12:5. All biblical quotations herein unless otherwise indicated are taken from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 

[3] Guenther Bornkamm. Translated by D. M. G. Stalker.  Paul. New York:  Harper & Row, Publishers, 1971.  190-92.

 

[4] See I Corinthians 10:16; 11:17-22.

 

[5] Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015).

 

[6] Ibid., 82-3.

 

[7] I Corinthians 12:13a, 15.

 

[9] Romans 12:5.

 

 

Appendix 1

 

A Resource for Congregations

 

Conversation Questions to Use in an Adult Education or Forum Setting

If your setting allows it, break into small groups of 3-5 participants made up of people with similar racial/ethnic experience for the first set of questions. If separate racial/ethnic groups are not possible, break into small groups by going around the room, counting off 1-4, so that people will be more randomly sorted than the group of associates with whom they arrived and would naturally sit.

 

1.     Talk in a small group with one or two other people of your same racial/ethnic group, if possible, about experiences you have had with someone who is different from you (racially/ethnically, economically) where you have felt afraid. (10 minutes)

2.     As you look back now on specific experience(s) you remember and discussed in #1 above, can you imagine that any of the fear you felt was projected fear, that is, fear you felt inside about another because they belonged to a stereotyped “Other” group, that made you more afraid than the actual situation warranted?  (See paragraphs 1, 17-21 above) (10 minutes)

 

Move into a whole group for the remainder of the discussion.

 

3.     Share some of the conversation of the small groups with the wider group. (10 minutes)

4.     If there are people of more than one racial/ethnic group in your group, after everyone has shared on #1 and 2, reflect together on whether you noticed similarities or differences in what was shared by various racial or ethnic groups present. (10 minutes)

5.     Take a few minutes to scan the article again.  Where do you see evidence of what is called “White Privilege”?  How would you define what that is?  Can you name some examples of White Privilege in your own life?  In the life of your community? (10 minutes)

6.     Name some things in your congregational ministry and community that draw you together across lines of separation or division.  Are there some ways you can imagine deepening relationships across those lines in your place?  Are there challenges you can identify?  What encourages you?



Articles published in the journal reflect the perspectives and thoughts of their authors and not necessarily the theological, ethical, or social stances of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.​




© December/January 2016/7
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 16, Issue 10