We’ve found a new church in Philadelphia
It was a rough going six weeks of church shopping that consisted of tears, ranting, bad music, and somebody coughing on the communion bread. But we finally found a congregation where we feel at home. A small Mennonite fellowship in West Philly.
My brother asked me how far the buggy ride from our house was.
It’s a progressive Mennonite church, which means the big difference (as far as I can tell) between this congregation and the United Methodist Church I grew up in is the Mennonites practice adult baptisms and active pacifism. Mostly we feel excited because it’s a very friendly congregation and the singing… it’s a little known fact that to be a Mennonite you must have a voice like angle wings.
One of the things we appreciate about the congregation is, while there is a very capable pastor, she regularly gives up the reigns to the congregation. Members lead worship, communion, music, prayer, and often times preach. In the six weeks we’ve gone there we’ve heard the actual minister preach twice. I love the cooperative, community feel.
One week the speaker was a member, Drick Boyd, author of the book entitled: White Allies in the Struggle for Racial Justice. I went home immediately and bought a copy, and highly recommend you do the same. Boyd’s book is groundbreaking as it demonstrates white allies have few roles models in how to be helpful and tells the story of 18 people who challenged the status quo and fought for racial equality. His hope is it will give white allies path’s to follow in
During the church service Boyd encouraged us to confront our own racist beliefs, to really be mindful of our thoughts and actions over the next few weeks. Through that challenge I’ve come to a horrible conclusion.
Darren and I just moved to a predominately black neighborhood, struggling towards gentrification but not quite getting there. Our first two nights in our new home our car was broken into and vandalized. One (black) neighbor picked up our groceries we had delivered because the neighborhood kids were eying the package. Our first day a little kid rolled up to us on his big wheel… not a tricycle but a BIG WHEEL and said with remarkable confidence “give me your money.” At one point Darren and I both commented that living in Philadelphia is making us racist.
Or is it?
I think maybe Philadelphia is exacerbating a mistrust I already have deep down in my soul. An ugly small seed I want to pretend doesn’t exist.
As the great philosopher Avenue Q pointed out to us “Everybody is a little bit racist, it’s true”. Racism is prevalent in each of us regardless of skin color. The predisposition to trust somebody of our own experience and skin tone over another is ingrained in us. It kept our ancestors safe.
But our ancestors also routinely died in childbirth. As my mother is fond of saying, when you know better you do better. Racism worked for our ancestors… but we can no longer pretend it works for us. Confronting that racist part in each of us and praying for a change in an integral part of making humanity whole.
So. I’m a racist. Now what?
I’ll admit I’ve struggled with the Black Lives Matter movement. I’ve appreciated the awareness it has brought, but I think the names of all the movements (Black Lives Matter, All Lives Matter, and Blue Lives Matter) are inherently divisive.
Don’t get me wrong, I agree with the sentiment behind each of them. Yes… all lives are important. Agreed, we need to protect our boys in blue. Absolutely, the black community needs particular help in America. The phrase “Black Lives Matter” has perpetually twinged at me as something that is true, but I don’t like. As I was working to organize my thoughts and feeling on Black Lives vs All Lives I decided the Black Lives Matter movement is like a couple who has multiple children. They love, support and want all their children to succeed, but one day something horrible and unspeakable happens. Their middle daughter is sexually assaulted on the way to school. Now she’s having nightmares, she’s acting out, and she’s afraid to be alone. The family, at that moment, puts a little extra care and resources into the girl. They will probably pay a little extra money so she can go to therapy. They focus on what she needs, and everybody sacrifices for her. It doesn’t mean that the other two kids aren’t important. It doesn’t mean that they don’t have problems or deserve resources and assistance it just means until the girl is back to the point of being healthy she needs a little more.
The thing is, this should just be understood in the family. Sally and her parents shouldn’t have to stand with signs that say “Sally’s life matters!” and their other children shouldn’t have to feel like because Sally’s life matters their life does not. But in our society Sally feels like her life doesn’t matter. She feels like she’s not getting the resources she needs to thrive and be an active and productive part of the family. So, Sally uses drastic words to get attention.
Black Lives Matter… your voice has been heard. I think even the most oblivious white person has heard Black Lives Matter’s message, whether or not they agree. It’s also getting to be point where it is almost satirical when slogans like Clown Lives Matter becomes a thing. I think it’s time to ditch the shocking and satirical and begin to look for ways to unite.
So. Much. Easier. Said. Than. Done. What does uniting even look like in this weird “post civil rights” era of ours?
I think it’s time to get uncomfortable.
Boyd helped me to embrace the fact that I was born into white privileged. It doesn’t mean I haven’t worked hard for what I have, but I was born with white skin a condition that simply does help me in many situations. There’s a part of me that feels guilty for that, but I can’t help my skin color any more than anybody else. While my life and skin are not something to apologized for, the time has come to feel a little uncomfortable in my skin.
Several times in the Christian New Testament there are passages referencing a believer being ‘poured out’. This refers not to changing everything about who you are, but instead being open to letting go of some ideas so new ones can flood in. Changing our ideas is a part of life, it’s a part of spirituality, it’s a part of growth. Jesus regularly showed us the other is not something to be feared but rather revered.
Being mindful of my uncomfortable thoughts surrounding the other has lead to some surprising revelations. After church Darren and I sat at our new favorite brew pub enjoying lunch. I told him I was feeling very convicted by the sermon. Especially to reach out in our neighborhood and talk to the people, even the teenagers, around us instead of mumbling “excuse me” and pulling our dog Olga closer to me when I walk her in the morning. We talked about how uncomfortable that was going to be and how much resistance I was probably going to find.
While we were talking across the restaurant a non profit group was setting up a table seeking support for Cambodia. There was a moment when we both realized there was something inside of us that was more inclined to help Cambodia than we were to talk to people in our own neighborhood.
As we reflected on this feeling we realized it was because giving money or clothes to an organization that helped Cambodia didn’t require us to actually engage with anybody. It wasn’t scary. It didn’t require us to get to know the people who have broken into our cars, vandalized our property, and stolen from us.
Ending racism, sexism, any hateism, really, begins with getting to know the people who are being marginalized. It is so hard to hate a group of people you know. Jesus’ choice to break break with sinners, prostitutes, people of different social class, foreigners wasn’t an accident. It was an intentional choice to be present in the life of others. To learn from them, to work with them, to build a kingdom of heaven with them.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Keeping Lao Tzu’s words in mind this week I spoke to our “neighborhood watch.” I’ve called him that since we moved in because he knows everybody and everything that happens down to exactly which kids broke into our car. We stood outside on a crisp fall morning and he told me about the rising property taxes in the neighborhood as the line for city center was moved from eight blocks away from us to two blocks past us. We talked of section 8 housing and his frustration with the teenagers in the neighborhood. He told me of the war vet in our neighborhood who the teenagers are afraid of because the war left him wounded enough that he won’t put up with their nonsense. As we ended our conversation he smiled at me and said “stop by and talk anytime.”
A single step to build a relationship with somebody different from myself. A single step to understand the complicated dynamics in the world I’ve found myself in. A step that ended in a feeling of warmth and gratitude to be a part of such a complicated neighborhood. Not all my encounters will be like that. There will be pain as I muck through the path of building relationships. But the calling of those who believe in God isn’t to be comfortable. It is to build the kingdom of God one brick at a time.
Drick Boyd closed his sermon with words I won’t soon forget. He reminded us that being an ally is a deeply spiritual experience. It forces us to contend with our own inadequacies, it challenges us be close to the people who Jesus chose to be present with. Being an ally changes us, it challenges us, and brings us one step closer to the kingdom.
If you want to hear Drick Boyd’s full sermon visit http://www.wpmf.org/sermons/