I thought we’d made it through another season. A snowless winter, early greening and the unseasonably warm wind in February and March fooled me. But April came and for a month the progression into summer was put on hold. The lengthening days and the birdsong reminded me that it wasn’t exactly winter, but it sure didn’t feel like spring. April was something all its own this year. Something to endure.
In April I thought a lot about racism. Not racism in the news but racism in my family. I thought about the hateful comments I heard from an uncle at my father’s funeral. I thought about the racial slurs I grew up with. I thought about the story of my dad and his brothers one time running off a Hispanic family enjoying a public park on a Sunday afternoon after church.
That was a long time ago. And the racism is no longer so blatant.
Now it’s a little more hidden. It’s got a new vocabulary—thugs, illegals, Islamists. And it’s got new targets—liberals, gays, atheists. It’s veiled by politics and end-times theology, the purpose of which is to keep humans categorized and separated into those who are worthy and those who are not. The way we look down on others has shifted over time, but I wouldn’t say that the problem is gone.
There is a deep shame for being born into racism. I once used racist terminology. I once told off-color jokes. I wish it weren’t true and that I could undo my past. I will always be trying to wash myself clean of it, but the memory of my ignorance still clings to me. All I can do is admit that I was a part of the problem, ask for forgiveness and try to make amends. Since I see the wrong ways of my past, am I somehow immune from divisive thinking? No, not now and not ever. No one is immune. We are all capable of great and terrible things.
The family I was born into is also a family of Pentecostals.
In April I read about William Seymour, the black, one-eyed son of slaves from Louisiana who led the Azusa Street Revival in Southern California and who was essentially responsible for spreading Pentecostalism around the globe. He believed in love and inclusiveness. He believed that God did not favor one gender over the other. He believed that God’s love revealed itself most powerfully when people from different races came together in worship. He did not exclude other religions from the spiritual movement that he led and he did not take credit for its growth or the way it transformed people. He believed that the Holy Spirit was moving and his job was to make sure that human designed divisions—race relations, gender hierarchies and economic standing—did not get in the way of God’s work.
I’d never heard of William Seymour until this month. I’d certainly never heard that the origins of the Pentecostal movement were so tied to the notion of equality. I think that somewhere in the line of my family’s Pentecostalism, something went terribly wrong.
While I was enduring April, while I was cursing the late-season snow and reading about religion and philosophy and contemplating my family’s history of racism, a friend across town lost her son. He was eighteen years old. The sad and shocking news pulled me right out of the heady place I’d been inhabiting and brought me back to the here and now.
Basically, I was hit with the most basic truth. We all love and we all feel pain. As long as we’re alive, there is no escaping these basic things. We can spend our lives constructing borders, terminology, political parties, religions, philosophies, economic divisions—every manner of barrier we can think of to keep us focused on our differences, but we’ll never be separate. We are bound by our human experience, which, when it comes down to it, is all we really know.
We love our children. We suffer excruciating pain when we lose them. Is there any category of people for whom this is not true? Was there ever a time in human history when this wasn’t the case? Will this ever change in the future? No. I don’t think it will.
I have spent most of my adult life trying to reconcile my religious upbringing with who I am now. I am left with more questions in regards to spirituality than answers. But I find solace in humanity. I know that sounds crazy, but it’s true.
6 thoughts on “Mayday”
Thanks for this! Our learning never ends, does it?
Hi Teresa….you really hit the nail on the head with the one kind of pain that’s universal, the loss of a child. It’s what has me siding with the mother of the black boys killed by the cops every time. I share a similar childhood experience…..racism mixed with evangelical fundamentalism. What a strange combination on first thought, because we somehow believe that life is black and white (not in the literal sense!), right or wrong, good or bad, but actually it’s gray and mushed up and not clear at all…..nothing is. Christian dogma teaches us otherwise. How wonderful to be free of that. Thanks for your wonderful piece. Lora
“I have spent most of my adult life trying to reconcile my religious upbringing with who I am now. I am left with more questions in regards to spirituality than answers. But I find solace in humanity. I know that sounds crazy, but it’s true.”
Part of what prompted me to write this piece was an article I read a while back that was in response to someone stating that they were tired of hearing about black oppression. In the article the author (I don’t remember who it was) said that as long as the oppressors don’t admit to their wrong-doing, then it’s always going to be a lopsided narrative. We will start to believe the oppressed and view them differently only when we hear the stories of those who did the harm–FROM those who did the harm. I also took a memoir writing class a couple of years ago and the instructor said that in writing it’s easiest to make yourself out to be a hero or a victim when in fact we are all complicit. We all have played a part in the story turning out the way it’s turned out. This changed the way I look at almost everything. What part did I play? How did I contribute to the mess? It’s easy to sweep the bad things our families (I’m talking collectively here) have done under the rug and just say “but we’ve changed!” or “it wasn’t me!” or “it was a different time!” It’s much harder and much more embarrassing to say, “I used racial slurs.” or “My family directly hurt other people with their actions.” And hardest of all is to admit that it all isn’t all in the past tense–that it’s still going on.
I think part of making great strides toward unity is to acknowledge that we hurt each other–sometimes on purpose and sometimes completely unwittingly. Although my blog post is honest, I can see now that some of the things I left out of it need to be said. My biggest omission (in my view) is that I told a negative story about something my dad was involved in over fifty years ago. I did not tell the counter story to that, and in a nutshell it is this: My dad changed. One of the greatest loves of his life was the love he had for his grandchildren. The few that I’d say he was closest to happen to be black.
My writing is always an attempt at considering some sort of quandary that’s been on my mind. Its purpose is to challenge my own thinking and possibly someone else’s. I don’t always get it right the first time. But I promise I will always try to make it better.
Racism slides under the radar these days in most insidious ways, it seems to me. My oldest brother is married to a woman half Lakota Sioux yet he rails about “that black man in the white house who is the worst president this country has ever seen!” I participate by saying nothing. I listen and refuse to enter into his rant. There is no oxygen in our conversation when he gets going in his elder years. It puzzles me because I’ve always experienced him as loving and caring yet President Obama has only disrespect from my brother. Why? He has dark skin, so does his wife, but different dark. Totally irrational.
I forgot to sign my name in the previous post.