“Standing Firm and Digging Deep”
Amos 5:21-24; Galatians 3:23-29
Rev. Dr. Deborah L. Clark
January 14, 2018
We were still in the fog of jet-lag when I finally figured out how to turn on the TV. I happened upon BBC East Africa. “Hey Fran,” I called out. “They’re covering Boston.”
Fran and I had just arrived in Kenya for a three-week vacation. We were a little fuzzy on what day it was. When we saw the news we remembered. It was Saturday, August 19th, the day a group with ties to racist organizations had planned a demonstration on the Boston Common. The weekend before we had witnessed the horrifying display of hatred in Charlottesville. People of faith and good will in the greater Boston area had been doing anti-violence trainings all week to ensure that their counter-protest that Saturday would be peaceful.
It was the lead story on BBC East Africa. More than 40,000 people poured into the streets of Boston that day, saying NO. No to the resurgence of neo-Nazi-ism and hate groups like the KKK. No to racism, anti-semitism and Islamophobia.
We didn’t see it on the news, but we knew hundreds of people had gathered that morning at Old South Church to ground their actions in prayer. We knew there were folks from Edwards Church participating. We hoped they felt our support from halfway around the world.
We are in a time when standing up and saying no to racism is absolutely essential. Charlottesville was a wake-up call. The overt, violent expressions of hatred we associate with a shameful part of our nation’s history are not gone. The groups that believe our country belongs to white people still exist, and the political climate of the last year has empowered them to come out of the shadows. We see signs of this resurgence everywhere–in racial slurs scrawled on students’ doors at Framingham State University, in swastikas appearing on playground equipment, in immigration policies, in profane words spoken by our own president.
Our calling is clear. Amos boldly proclaims that God cares about our rituals only as they inspire us to live out our faith, to let justice roll down like waters. Paul lifts up a vision of a community where the things that bring us together matter more than our differences. On this weekend when we remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we acknowledge that we must continue the work he began. We are called to stand up and say no to hate. We are called to stand with those toward whom hate is directed. We are called to stand firm for justice, for a nation and a world where every person is treated with dignity.
Standing firm is only one part of this calling. The blatant expressions of hate are like the tip of an iceberg, the most visible portion of something much larger. Racism is deep-rooted. It is insidious. A workshop Wider Mission folks attended last year compared it to a poison we have been ingesting for so long we may not realize the damage it is doing. As we stand firm to say no to the resurgence of hate in our nation, we are also called to dig deep, to look at how that poison of racism shapes our own lives and our relationships.
Last year, during Lent, thirteen members of Edwards Church gathered weekly to delve into a White Privilege Curriculum created by the United Church of Christ. It was–and still is–an amazing group of people, honest, open, passionate. The curriculum is challenging. Even the title–White Privilege: Let’s Talk–stirs anxiety.
The curriculum includes personal stories, written by people from diverse backgrounds, about the role race has played in their lives. It also teaches about the societal impact of our nations’s history of racism. I already knew about red-lining–the practice, prevalent through the 1950’s, of realtors refusing to sell homes in certain neighborhoods to black families. I knew something about discriminatory loan practices, in which homeowners in predominantly African-American neighborhoods paid much higher interest rates. I didn’t know that the GI Bill, which enabled so many families after World War II to purchase homes for the first time, specifically excluded farm workers, which meant a large percentage of African-American veterans were ineligible. This curriculum laid out how the discrimination from three generations age affects people today, by calculating the financial implications of home ownership in the 1950s on the net worth of the same families in 2018. It was eye-opening, and helped me understand a statistic the Boston Globe reported recently: in greater Boston, the average net worth of white families is $247,500; for black families, it is $8.
The most valuable part of the curriculum, for me, came at the end, when we were each asked to write our own autobiography through the lens of race. How does race shape our lives? When did we become aware of our own race and the existence of racism?
As I started to write, I remembered things I hadn’t thought of in decades. I remembered the Thompson twins, the two African-American girls in my elementary school. Our church collected used clothes for them. What assumptions did I absorb from our well-intentioned charity? I thought about my high school, which had a little more racial diversity. I don’t remember there being a single African-American in the honors program. I didn’t know then to ask questions about intentional or unintentional bias in the ways students were tracked. I know now that those are very important questions to ask.
This morning I want to share one story from that writing project. I was in college. There was a panel discussion about race, led by African-American students. Someone in the audience asked, “Why do the black students all sit together in the dining hall?” The panelists had a variety of responses. One turned the question back around: “Why do the white students all sit together?” Another offered an invitation, or a challenge–or maybe both: “Why don’t you ever come sit with us?”
A few days later, I did. I got my lunch and sat down at a table with a group of African-American students. I knew a couple folks a little bit from classes; for the most part, though, I didn’t even know their names. It was painfully awkward. They made room for me and were perfectly nice. We all made a few half-hearted attempts at conversation, but no topic took hold. I could feel how my presence short-circuited the easy camaraderie of friends hanging out at lunch.
I ate as quickly as I could, trying not to seem in a hurry to escape. When I eventually made my not-so-graceful exit, I was so relieved. I imagine–though I do not know–that everyone else at that table was relieved as well.
I never tried again. At the time, I wondered what I had done wrong. After having heard the invitation at the program, it had seemed that it would have been even more wrong to keep walking by that table to sit somewhere else. I felt caught between a rock and a hard place, and after my one effort, I did what we often do in those situations: nothing.
With thirty-five years of hindsight, I can see that it wasn’t really about right and wrong, at least not in that moment. The “rock and hard place” feeling was real, a reflection of how our long history of racism erects barriers to meaningful, mutual relationships. It was a small college; what was going on that I hardly knew the names of the anyone at that table? What had gotten in the way, in the two years before this lunch, of our having casual conversations after a thought-provoking class? How did our respective race identities shape our different experiences of the world? How had we been conditioned to distrust each other?
I choose to share that particular story because I believe so strongly in the transformative power of relationships. It is a central principle of our faith. Jesus healed people by touching them. He talked to folks no one else would approach. He brought people together around meals. He also made a lot of people very angry, and in the end, he was crucified for it.
Our faith calls us to build relationships that can begin to transform our society. That visceral memory of a terribly awkward lunch reminds me that it is a long-term project. There are so many barriers. There are the deep-rooted assumptions we make about each other, even when we want to believe we do not see color. There are the assumptions we make about how the world works, assumptions that come from our experiences, often shaped by race. There are the very real differences in the opportunities we have had and the roadblocks we have faced. There is distrust built on a history of betrayal, fear and invisibility.
Amos writes about justice “rolling down like waters.” At that lunch table 35 years ago, in so many places of betrayal and distrust and broken promises still today, justice is blocked by the barriers built by racism. The waters are stagnant.
Amos reminds us that God’s justice yearns to flow. Our job is to let it flow, and to do so we must dismantle the barriers.
We begin to pull them apart when we show up–at a program sponsored by a different church, at a rally, at a concert, at an educational opportunity. We remove a pile of debris when we stand with someone who is being attacked, when we use our voices to say no to expressions of hate, when we keep speaking out after the news cycle has moved on. We create a passageway for the waters of justice when we listen more than we speak, when we do the hard work of examining our own assumptions, when we refuse to be scared off by awkwardness, when we keep trying even when we think we have failed.
God’s justice is ready to flow. God sends us out into the stagnant waters to remove the dams, to create a pathway, to let justice roll down like waters. Let us wade boldly into the waters together, trusting God is with us. Amen.