Friday, January 29, 2016

Racial Healing in a Small Town

Reconciliation statue at Coventry Cathedral.

This is going to be one of those stories where the names and locations are kept anonymous to protect privacy.  When it comes to racial and religious reconciliation, all too often the most heartfelt stories are also the most confidential.

It is a story that needs to be told, though. I will do my best to share the light and protect all parties.

My travels take me all across the US rural Southeast--to small towns and hollers, cities and hamlets, mountaintops, farms and empty lots. For some reason, my work has not yet taken me to the beach, but I have been to just about every other geographic feature in this region. I digress.

This story takes place in one of those small towns.

Like so many locations in the rural Southeast, this town has had a long and difficult history along racial and religious lines. Many people are eager to move beyond the past they have inherited, even if they are not altogether sure how to do that. However, there is much work to be done and many levels of consciousness where this work still needs to happen.

This is a town with a ministerial association. For those not familiar with the term, this is a group where local ministers from various churches come together for dialogue and shared projects. It was not that long ago that mutual condemnation and shunning were the typical manner that churches from different denominations treated each other, so these ministerial alliances have been a huge force in moving beyond that. Pastors get together to break bread, organize events and discern ways to serve the community together.

It can take a tremendous bravery for folks to be willing to give this a try, especially when the history has been particularly difficult. After generations of misunderstandings and mistreatment--with much of it still a very living memory--folks cross religious, racial and ethnic lines to take the first steps toward fellowship with one another in faith. It takes real vulnerability, because doing this will often bring all those unhealed wounds and misunderstandings right to the surface. It takes faith to even try and an outpouring of grace to succeed, and that is exactly why the church can sometimes be the best way to bring a fractured community together.

Among their activities, this ministerial alliance in question has organized a community-wide Martin Luther King Jr. worship service. It has been going on for over 10 years with tentative but strong involvement from local churches, black, white and Hispanic. In fact, every church in town would participate. It was a growing and well-regarded annual occasion.

All that came to a halt when a very unfortunate incident happened.

After an MLK Jr. worship service a few years ago, the assembled people shared food and fellowship. One of the African-American churches had led the assembly in music that day. During this fellowship, a white person was overheard complaining: "I wish those people wouldn't sing so loud!" Word of this got back to the respective churches, and the African-American church that had sung that day became very upset. They subsequently withdrew from the ministerial alliance and from all such events in town.

It may be difficult to understand the kind of harm such a statement can carry if you do not share the same history of segregation, injustice and persecution. This is why it is so important for communities to listen to each other and respect each others' feelings. Was this an offhanded comment of a single individual? It is easy to fear that perhaps this individual was speaking aloud the hidden thoughts of the larger community. It is easy to understand why a community that had experienced a long history of negativity toward them would not want to re-engage with this kind of negativity again, especially if the veil of politeness was masking a hidden racism that manifested as jokes told behind their backs.

Reconciliation can be a very fragile thing. People are silently wondering--can we trust you? Are we really going to put the past behind us and take real steps forward, or are we just going to keep reliving the past? This is true whether the reconciliation is religious, racial, ethnic or along other lines.

In another anonymous town in another anonymous location, I have seen a Catholic and Pentecostal church develop a robust and warm friendship. They were a model relationship and had many layers of connection over the course of a few years. Nevertheless, this partnership came to a screeching halt when old theological fears flared up and one community became worried about the influence and legitimacy of the other. In still other places, I have seen Hispanics and Muslims go from regular, friendly faces in the community to barely tolerated outsiders as larger cultural trends in American politics have a very real local impact on very real individuals. Islamophobia and anti-immigrant rhetoric, so often bandied about in the media and on talk radio, often turns into real bruises on real people in towns all across this country.

Unity can be so fragile.

Going back to the first small town, all the hard work of building harmony together was suddenly eroded after one unfortunate incidence. This African-American church would no longer participate in activities with the other churches. The ministerial alliance continued with their services, but it was not quite the same. It was like a member of the family was no longer there. It was impossible to say the whole community was coming together when it was not.

Some of the pastors attempted to bridge the divide in the years since then, but the offended church was not interested in rejoining.

Until now.

Just a couple weeks ago, a group of white women from the community decided to go to this African-American church to attend their worship service. As is customary, there was a time for visitors to stand up, introduce themselves and talk about why they decided to attend worship.

They made an announcement. They said they heard there was a terrible insult. They said they were sorry and apologized. They invited this church to come back, saying, "We need you." They invited them to attend the MLK Jr. Day worship scheduled for the following week and join in the service.

The women were not sure what impact this might have had. On the day of the MLK Jr. service, it looked at first like there was no sign of this African-American church returning and participating in the service. However, one woman saw the pastor and some congregations members sitting in the back. After the service, the women approached them and thanked them for coming. The pastor said he appreciated the invitation. He let them know there was not enough time for the whole choir to prepare, but they would do so another time in the future.

It is easy to feel the first steps toward healing have happened.

I was not privy to all the discussion in this community. I do not know what made this church take this step. Perhaps it was a combination of the healing effect of time plus the sum total of other attempts at reconciliation. Nevertheless, this encounter seemed to break the ice.

The power of a public apology is so powerful. These women were able to do what their pastors alone were not. They went out of their way to invite this church back, and their words and actions made it clear--the individual who made that comment does not speak for the whole community.

A public apology is one of the most rarely used tools at our disposal in our culture. We do it even more rarely for actions committed by others in the past. But these women recognized that even though they did not commit this insult, by being part of the community they have a responsibility to make it right.  

I am reminded of the actions of Pope Francis. He goes out of his way on regular occasions to apologize for the actions of some Catholics--or the Catholic Church as a whole--in the past. You can just Google search "Pope Francis apologizes" and you will find a quite a bit of material.

Most recently, Pope Francis apologized for the ways Catholics have treated other Christians throughout history. No, Pope Francis did not personally commit those grievous acts of violence against non-Catholics in previous centuries. But as pope, he along with all faithful Catholics carry the mantle of an inherited tradition. That means inheriting the good as well as the bad. It means a Catholic cannot be proud to stand on the shoulders of the robust intellectual and artistic tradition and the works of mercy of the saints without also living in the tragic legacy of unhealed wounds and tainted riches that have come from dubious sources.

Americans have a difficult time with this. We are quick to be proud of the traditions of our families, our nation and our churches.  We are proud to stand on the shoulders of the noble people who have come before us. However, we distance ourselves from anything negative that comes along with that. Apologies and reparations are widely unpopular in modern US culture.

Whether we personally have committed negative acts directly or not, we as a community always bear responsibility for making it right. It may seem unfair to inherit someone else's mess, but if we are quick to accept the good from our ancestors that means we also have to take ownership of the bad, too. It is a package deal.

There is always a danger in a story like this in portraying the white women as the heroes, which can run the risk of perpetuating a subtle racism rather than overcoming it. However, I think that is a risk worth taking, as long as we proceed with care and sensitivity. Not taking that risk and just doing nothing would be far worse. 

Besides, I don't see this story as one-sided. Both sides of this fracture have taken steps in bravery and vulnerability to work towards reconciliation. I admire people who are willing to do this very difficult but necessary work.  Otherwise, the pain just gets passed down from generation to generation and it never goes away until someone engages with it. Just like Jesus healed through touch, we must also be willing to touch our wounds and the wounds of others for healing to happen. We must proceed gently.  If we err, let's make sure we always err on the side of apologizing too much and giving each other too many chances, rather than too few.  Seventy times seven chances, actually.

Setbacks can bring despair, especially after the hard work of years can seem to evaporate in an instant. But setbacks are to be expected, as the path to reconciliation is rarely a straight line.  Each setback affords us the opportunity to renew our commitment to each other.  A setback can be a fracture or an opportunity for grace.

I suggest we keep this anonymous small town in our thoughts and prayers. They have certainly inspired me.

Let us hope that God continues to bless this work of reconciliation done in Christ's name!

II Corinthians 5:17-20

Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

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