I had not ever thought of myself as being racist (or sexist) until last year’s clergy conference when I discovered that – at the very least – I’ve been clueless and out-of-touch with a larger reality for much of my life. I’d always thought of myself as an affable, easy-going, welcoming, friendly and open-minded guy who enjoyed meeting new people, and who only measured people by their words and deeds.
I met Sonia at the University of Oklahoma in January of 1980. She had been born in Italy, grew up in Venezuela, and had family of Italian, Latin American, Native American, and U.S. heritage. When we met in College Algebra she had just moved from Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela to Norman, Oklahoma where her mother’s side of the family was from. I had been working in the oil fields of Oklahoma and Wyoming for the previous year and a half before matriculating at O.U., and the humor of some of my fellow roughnecks was fairly crude and vulgar – nowhere near what we call being “politically correct” nowadays. I loved working in the oil fields, but figured I should finish college before making any lasting career decisions. So I decided to go to O.U. and study Petroleum Engineering so I could become more of an expert in the field. When I got to O.U. I noticed that there were a lot of Iranians who had come over to study in what many believed to be one of the better programs in the country for those interested in the oil industry.
It wasn’t long before I started hearing snarky comments about people from Arabia, and – at the time – I found much of the humor to be funny. Sonia would catch me laughing at the expense of others, or even participating in the humor, and she would tell me that I was being racist. “What,” I exclaimed, “How can I possibly be racist? I’m from New England where we’re all progressive and open-minded. In fact, I lived for five years right outside of Harvard Square - the academic, intellectual, liberal and inclusive sanctuary and hot-bed of the United States. How can I possibly be racist?” (She also told me from time-to-time that I was being sexist too, to which I cried, “Impossible; I’m the only boy in a family with five older sisters; how can I possibly be sexist? I was raised by women.”)
Sonia would say that “white and male” is “the standard” and everything else is considered to be different, less-than, and certainly not equal. And she’d say, “You’ll never get it. You’ll never understand what it’s like to be black, or female, or foreign, or different in any way because you’re white and male, and you had a privileged upbringing. Don’t you see that people of color and women have to figure out how to fit into the white male world if they want to build a life for themselves and get ahead? White and male is the standard; everyone else has to fit in or stay out of the way.” I thought she was over-reacting. I brushed her admonitions aside, and carried on cheerfully believing that I was more genuinely inclusive, welcoming and open-minded than most.
Then we had our 2019 clergy conference down on the Cape. Our first speaker was our Presiding Bishop, the Most Reverend Michael Curry. He was riveting and compelling and captivating in his remarks. Bishop Curry was then followed by our guest speaker for the conference, the Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas who was with us for three days as our keynote speaker. Dr. Douglas serves as both the Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at the Union Theological Seminary in New York and as the Canon Theologian at the Washington National Cathedral. Her Ph.D. is in Systematic Theology.
For three days Dr. Douglas traced the trail of systemic racism and white supremacy in this nation, from its founding through today. She did so like a historian and a scientist, providing only specific data points and factual empirical evidence. She did not try to appeal to our emotions, or to persuade us with impassioned rhetoric; she simply laid out the facts that have occurred over the past 400 years. Everything she said was thoroughly and repeatedly vetted and fact-checked by multiple sources; no rhetoric, just truth. And the conclusion was utterly obvious and heart-breaking: Racism and White Supremacy are alive and well in the United States of America. I called Sonia on the phone and said, “Now I understand why you’ve been saying, ‘You’ll never get it; you’re just too white and male to see.’” I had been offended by Sonia’s implication that I was largely clueless, but she was right. I needed to open my heart, my soul, and my ears in a whole new way. I had to learn how to listen – to truly & deeply listen - all over again.
I drove home from the clergy conference wondering how on earth I could ever deliver the contents of Dr. Douglas’ teachings to the good people of St. Paul’s. How was I going to take 9 hours of incredibly professional and data-driven teachings and bring it to you all? What we learned over the course of those three days could never be fit into an after-church forum, or a series of discussions. What we learned, I believed, would require a professional outside scholar and facilitator to come lead us through a multi-pronged systematic approach that would take months, not weeks – with multiple rounds of teachings and discussions. The statistics she put up on the screen matched us in Lynnfield exactly. We are still living in the inequity, the injustice, and the racial discrimination that has infected this country since it’s infancy. Racism and white supremacy are, in fact, alive and well in Greater Lynnfield; and it’s going to take faith, love, hope, courage, integrity, and basic human decency to talk openly and honestly about it, and to bring this tragic and long-standing pattern to an end.
During the choir’s end-of-the year party at Kwame and Karen’s house last spring I told them about the conference, and I asked them what we could do at St. Paul’s. They both smiled politely and said, “Fr. Rob, we have a long way to go.” My heart sank as I realized the depth of the truth that “white and male” has been our standard all along. What about everyone else? And the hardest part of all is that so many people don’t seem to be open to this conversation at all.
Since the awful murder of George Floyd on May 25th in Minneapolis I’ve been praying mightily for guidance on how best to lead us into – and through – a series of discussions that are long, long overdue. I still don’t know how we’re going to do it; but I know that we must. We must put away the racism (and sexism, and all the “isms”) that infects and divides us. We must try our best to open our eyes and ears in new and different ways. I believe Jesus is talking directly to many in the United States right now when he says, “For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn - and I would heal them.” (Matthew 13:15)
May we now open our hearts, our eyes, and our ears in new and different ways, so that we may be truly available to listen to one another, to hear one another, and to respect one another in the manner in which we’ve all sworn a solemn oath and vow in our Baptismal Covenant:
Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
I will, with God's help.
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
I will, with God's help.
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
I will, with God's help.
I pray that we may all take these covenantal vows deep into our hearts and let God heal us and make us new so that we may finally and truly become One.
As I’ve been in touch with Karen McAlmon these past days, she shared something she’d written with me. I asked her if I could share it with you, and she said yes. Her words appear in the following blog post.
In hope, faith, and love,