Thursday, September 25, 2014

Maybe I Have Something to Say...

Ferguson, MO, feels about a million miles away from where I live now. As I have read news from there since last month, I cannot help but feel what seems like an immeasurable distance from what has happened there. This was not always so for me. I grew up not all that far down Interstate 44 from the St. Louis area. My parents both taught in the Ferguson-Florissant school district in the late 60s. They even met and got married at Ferguson UMC, I believe. I know enough of their stories to know that any claims I heard denying racial tension prior to the last two months are not quite accurate.

Still, I don't know a whole lot about Ferguson, MO, now. Most of the people where I live now have never been anywhere near there. Many of them didn't care about Ferguson before August...and honestly, they still don't today. So on Sunday, August 17th, I did not say much about what had happened there. Though we lifted up the people there in prayer, and though I touched briefly on racism as a challenge the church in America faces, I did not make any fiery proclamations from the pulpit that day. I spoke no deeply moving prophetic word. I had friends who posted on Facebook that every pastor’s preaching should have been prophetic that day. And I felt guilty...

In the days and weeks since then, I have wondered what I could say, what I, perhaps, should have said. As a United Methodist minister, I am used to being someone who's "not from around here," and that makes a difference in how and what I preach. It doesn’t mean I don’t want to say something, though…

I have tried to figure out what I do have to say, as I've read and heard more about the Michael Brown story and Ferguson, MO. And what I keep thinking about is another place that feels about a million miles away from here, but is actually quite a bit closer: Knoxville, TN. Specifically, a neighborhood called Mechanicsville. I've been thinking about Mechanicsville because for two years, between graduate programs, I worked there. Every weekday, and sometimes on the weekends, I drove the short distance from the Bearden area (a “suburb” of Knoxville) into Mechanicsville, to a place called the Wesley House Community Center. I wrote lesson plans, hired staff, drove vans to schools, and became part of something this white girl from a small town in central Missouri might scarcely have imagined was possible: a community where we didn't all look alike or get along all the time, but we did what we could to take care of children who needed to be loved and who just needed some of the chances that those kids down the street in Bearden had plenty of. Nothing was perfect there. Some people were suspicious of me, and I could understand why. Lots of times, I or someone else thought maybe I wasn't right for that job. Plenty of times, staff let me down, kids misbehaved, resources were not what I would have liked them to be. It's the story of the inner city. It's the story of people who are all too often holding on with all their might to a few remaining threads of dignity that a broken system begrudgingly affords them only because they are, after all, human. And it's not fair. And I left there knowing that I will still never know what it's like to live that way, no matter how deeply I was pulled into their stories and no matter how much my heart broke for them. My story will never have the tragic circumstances of many of theirs, in large part because of where I was born and what kind of advantages my family had and what I look like, and a host of other circumstances that in many ways boil down to dumb luck.

So why am I writing this? What am I trying to say? Maybe, if you'll allow me to share something that could be offensive, I could sum it up like this: when I started at the Wesley House Community Center, in many ways, the black kids looked a lot alike to me and I didn’t always understand what they were talking about. When I left there, I had more trouble telling the white kids apart than I did the black kids. I know that sounds horrible or ridiculous or just absolutely offensive. What it means to me, though, is that in those two years, children who didn't look a thing like me became my children. People I might otherwise never have met became some of my closest friends. We shared a passion for the children we cared for, if almost nothing else. I also came to understand how deeply ingrained some stereotypes were that I didn’t even realize affected me. I faced parts of me that were uncomfortable, groundless fears and misunderstandings that were easier to rationalize than to admit and let go of. I didn’t leave there perfect, by any means, but I left there changed in ways that I will always cherish.

But this is all not to say in some veiled way, "I have some black friends." That's not really what I'm trying to say at all. What I learned in those two years, among other things, is that believing someone else is part of a "them" made no more sense than denying any part of my own self I might not want someone to notice. As long as there is a "them," we have a problem. No, I will never know what it is to be a person of color in the United States. I acknowledge that. But I do know that as long as someone who doesn't look or act like me is one of "them," whomever "them" is, simply because we are different, then I fail to be faithful to what I know and have experienced of the God who created us all and offers grace and love beyond measure to all people.

I miss Knoxville. I miss the reminders of lessons I learned about difference and perspective and justice...and how I have learned very little of these lessons outside of the inner city, no matter how intelligent or learned or sympathetic I think I am. What happened in Ferguson, MO, is not tragic simply because of its happening. It is tragic because it is not a singular incident. I can’t begin to tell you what I would give for it to be the last of its kind, to know that no one else's child would lie lifeless on a street somewhere, not those I once worked with in Knoxville, not those anywhere else...and to know that no one's child would feel compelled to have taken that life away, in a moment of fear, misunderstanding, passion. We belong to God—all of us. I pray I will continue to learn that, no matter where I am in ministry. And I pray this nation and our world will grow to learn that, even as we continue to wait for God’s redemption of the whole of creation.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Betzy for writing about your own experience and how it has changed the way you see the world, and the hope that you have for the world you see.