in hopes of a sacred conversation


    There are days my offerings on this blog are fairly finished pieces: I had an idea of where I was going with the piece when I started and was able to make it all come together nicely. Then, there are other days when I trust this space to be a place where I can think out loud, with some editing, and hope for a conversation to see where things might go. This is one of those other days. My experiences in Birmingham have set me thinking and feeling about race and, on a larger scale, about discrimination and the ways we define each other. Here, then, is a work in progress.

    One of the best gifts Ginger ever gave me was a Byzantine Iconography course. I learned, from my marvelous mentor, Chris Gosey, how to write icons as spiritual practice. The point of iconography is as much the process as the product. The paint, for instance, is almost translucent, and required me to go over every line anywhere from twenty-five to forty times for it to be seen as it should. The patience and persistence were part of the prayer and practice.

    I thought about those lines of love that came into view after dedicated repetition as I walked through the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute because I saw in the pictures and words and sounds there that the history of humanity and, more particularly, the history of race in our country show we have been diligent about drawing lines and then going over and over them so decidedly as to make them almost indelible. It is most certainly the way we have taught hatred and prejudice. Go over and over the lines that define our differences – putting up signs, calling names, inflicting violence, paying disparate wages – and you can make darkness come through just as the relining of an icon opens a window to heaven.

    Even as I write these words, I realize how hard it is to communicate how I was affected by my time in the museum without sounding sanctimonious or overly didactic or, well, just too damn emotional, and (not but) I couldn’t get past the intentionality of the violence and discrimination. People went out of their way, expending untold amounts of time and energy, to make sure others didn’t vote or get an education or get paid fairly for their work or get to sit down on a bus, and they did it year after year after year.

    How could we hate so intentionally? How did we learn to let that feel normal?

    In the opening pages of Willa Cather’s wonderful novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop, one priest says to the other, “Where there is great love, there are always great miracles.” What I saw in our history laid out before me was where there is great fear and hatred, there is great damage — and that damage cannot undone by taking down signs and saying, “We’re not prejudiced anymore.” We can’t so easily erase lines marked so indelibly into the fabric or our existence with a couple of quick washes or grand gestures. Perhaps, I hope, they can begin to disappear over time when we paint new strokes, day after day, and offer a new vision – a portrait of love – and, going line over line, redraw our hearts into wholeness.

    In other words, repent.

    Those of us who are white have to come to terms with the life we have come to know and except having been made possible, at least in part, by racial oppression. We are not clean, nor unaffected. I learned this week, for instance, from someone in Durham that officials in our city were planning to use hoses and dogs to stop protests there until the national attention to the events in Birmingham caused them to rethink their approach. They didn’t change their minds; they just didn’t want the negative attention. Boston didn’t integrate their public high schools until the Seventies and still deals with racism embedded deep in its story. The power grid that lets us turn on our lights, our transportation system, and most any industrial convenience we take for granted grew to success relying on the misuse and abuse of the less fortunate in our culture, which in many, many cases meant black workers were the ones put in the most dangerous jobs for the least pay. We may not have brutally abused workers, or supported segregation, or turned hoses on anyone, but we are not blameless; and we cannot be significant agents of healing until we confess we have been carriers of pain simply because of the history that lies in the DNA of our cities and streets and stories, whether North or South or East or West.

    The final hallways of the museum hold stories of civil rights beyond race in America, pointing to Tiananmen Square in Beijing, the Gdansk Shipyard in Poland, the fall of apartheid in South Africa, and then on to relational issues of the day that call us to draw new lines including immigration and equal marriage, both issues that seem to attract the same kind of fear and violence that burned crosses and led lynchings, far too often in Jesus’ name. (My conclusion, not the BCRI’s).

    I watched and listened to self-defined “good Christian people” talk about how fair their discrimination of blacks was during segregation as if the primary points of faith were propriety and profit. I also watched faith in action as young people sat down at lunch counters seeking to leave fresh new lines for others to trace in order to change the picture of what it meant to be an American, and a Christian. Both lines are still there, in both country and church; which ones are we emphasizing?

    I hope that question comes across as something other than rhetorical. When are congregations are predominantly white, we aren’t going to become more racially diverse by telling each other how open we are to nonwhite members and then going on about life as usual. The gays and lesbians in our communities, who have heard from most churches that they are on the wrong side of God’s grace, are not going to come flocking to church because we put out a sign to say we welcome all sinners. The undocumented folks in our communities need churches with Spanish classes and (helpful) lawyers and food pantries. If, as King said, we must choose between nonviolence and nonexistence, then we must open our hearts and minds and doors; inclusion is as nonviolent as it gets.

    Can we be militantly inclusive? It sounds like the kind of paradox of faith that Jesus loved.

    I hope this has been more conversation starter than sermon. Thanks for listening.


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    1. i went to the bcri in ’95. i don’t think it had been open very long, and i was home from texas visiting the fam. as far as i know, none of the fam who live there have ever been. i was blown away by all the images — but by the labeled water fountains on the wall most of all. i don’t remember them from my own childhood — just a vague recollection of being at the zoo as a very young child and told by my mom i was drinking from the wrong fountain. but i happened to view the fountains in the bcri that day with an african american couple who remembered them all too well. i’ll never forget — and wish with all my heart i didn’t have to remember.

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