What we don’t know

“Becky, we think you don’t know what’s been happening in your home when you aren’t there.”

Sharon, my neighbor, told me this story with deep sadness and after apologizing for not having told me sooner, while also apologizing for “stepping in where maybe I don’t belong–maybe this is none of my business…

…The other day the boys came in the house from your house and went into Jon’s (her son) room. It was Jon and Jake (another middle-school kid who hung around our neighborhood once in a while) and Adam (my son).” She said, “I was putting away laundry out in the hall and Jon’s door was open a little. I heard Adam say, “My Dad hates me!” and the way he said it was just heart-breaking. And then Jake said, “I know, man. My dad hates me, too.” And Jon said, “Shut-up Jake! You don’t know what you’re talking about. Your dad doesn’t hate you, he’s just being a dad. Adam’s dad really does hate him.”

Sharon, wagging her head and looking at me with sorrow in her eyes said, “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner.”

Sharon was right. I didn’t know what was happening in my home when I wasn’t there. That day, once I knew, I knew I needed to act. I needed to change things. I needed to protect my sons. I needed to stop thinking I was able to hold everything together and I was the only one being harmed by my husband’s anger. Once I knew his anger wasn’t being directed only at me but at the kids too, my responsibility to the kids was clear.

I don’t beat myself up about not knowing. None of us know what we don’t know until we know it.

Sometimes we think we know because we know something else. But seriously, we can’t know what we don’t know until we know it.

I have a friend who didn’t know her husband was sexually abusing their daughter. She didn’t know until she did know. I have a friend who didn’t know his wife had been carrying on an affair for years. He didn’t know until he did know. I have a pastor friend who didn’t know the administrative assistant was embezzling money. She didn’t know until she did know.

I didn’t know what was happening in my home when I wasn’t there because what was happening when I was there was different than what was happening when I wasn’t, and because my boys didn’t tell me  and because I didn’t even think to ask (even though maybe I should have).

Jake thought he knew what Adam was going through because he thought it was the same thing he was experiencing at home. But then Jon set him straight with the charming candor of fourteen year old boys, “Shut-up, Jake! You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Today I’ve been thinking most of us who are white people need someone with Jon’s candor right about now. “Shut-up! You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Before we weigh-in against athletes taking a knee in prayerful protest we might be wise to acknowledge we don’t know what we don’t know about being dark-skinned in this country because we don’t have dark skin. The only way we can possibly begin to know what we don’t know is by paying attention, listening, and turning off our preconceived notions about how much we think we know. We need to be humble enough to listen when our neighbors tell us what they’ve seen and experienced even if what they tell us makes us uncomfortable and means that we need to change things because now we do know.

Maybe there are a whole lot of us who don’t know what’s happening to our neighbors here in the home of the brave and the land of the free. Maybe it’s time to hold off on knee-jerk reactions and to be very quiet instead to listen well to those who, with sorrow in their eyes and truth on their tongues, tell us what they know, so we can begin to know it, too.

Maybe, when we really listen, we’ll be moved to bend our knees in contrition, to say, I didn’t know until I knew but now I do. And then, arm in arm we can stand up and begin to do what’s right together.

 

Not a story, but a prayer

Tomorrow’s pastoral prayer:

Oh God,

It’s beautiful here.

Here in this place, filled with light and your grace-

filled with our friends, filled with love and hope and peace.

It’s beautiful here.

Here in this place, calm our minds that race…

that race…

race..

race.

Racism, and an arms race, on our minds

but at arm’s length–

We want to keep these things away, away from beautiful here.

But here, in the middle of your house is your table

where each of us dines by and in your grace.

Where Paul the apostle reminds us to see, to know the body broken for us,

in us, around us, beyond us.

When one member of the body hurts, anywhere, here or there or further still…

All of us hurt.

When one is denied justice

All are denied justice.

Around this table in this beautiful place, we are one with each other

and all of your children across space and race and time.

God forgive every kernel of hate,

every inkling of superiority,

every smidgen of preemptive settling of a score–

the seed of every single human war.

In us, and in those who lead, break through hard heads and hard hearts

and let the humility of Christ’s arms opened wide in non-violence

and Bravest Love

guide, them and us, through these tumultuous times

to sweet and holy peace where racism, and war–among all evils–cease.

Comfort those who mourn. Comfort we who mourn, May we comfort those who mourn

and may we speak love where there is hate

and wisdom when there is folly

and prophetic truth when there are lies

In the name of Jesus Christ who taught us to pray…

Amen.

What Rubs Off?

“Becky’s had more interracial experience than any of the rest of us.” There were thirteen of us, all white, all straight except one gay man, sitting around the table in the bar and grill last night. I still go back to Lincoln, 50 miles from here, where we used to live and where my husband Mike still works, for a book club. The core group are friends of Mike’s since his college days in the early ‘70’s. Last night we discussed Jodi Picoult’s Great Small Things. The book was a great conversation starter about racism. For several of our friends one scene in the book had been a real, “ah-ha” experience. Mostly “liberals” we all think of ourselves as fairly enlightened. But in reading this book several saw their white privilege for the first time.

Driving home I replayed the conversations in my mind and I pondered that thing about me having “more interracial experience.” I grew up in an integrated neighborhood in Omaha. I know now that wasn’t the norm. But, growing up, it was normal for me. When I was ten there were seven 10 and 11 year old girls in our little enclave. Five of us were white, two of us were black. My elementary school was integrated, but not very. Jr. High and High School were more so. My ballet classes had two black students, my church was all white. College and Seminary was about the same. Always I had some black classmates and friends, but I was never in the minority. Fast forward to my ordination day.

My parents had a party after worship to celebrate with friends and out of town guests. I was in the back yard and Daddy brought his portable phone–all the rage in new technology–to me. I distinctly remember standing on the upper terrace of the back yard in my pretty red cotton dress with a wide cut-work embroidered collar. My great uncle, who had moved away several years earlier was calling to congratulate me on my ordination. After the congratulations he said, “but what I don’t understand is why you’re going to go off to Africa now to work with those darkies. It will be a complete waste of your time and your talent. They can’t learn anything, anyway.”

Too dumbfounded to say anything intelligent, the happy elation of my ordination day sunk like a popped balloon. I said, “Uncle Lyman, I’ve got to go now. Thank you for calling.” I hung up the phone, and numb, took it to Dad. “I didn’t know Uncle Lyman’s a racist.” “He’s been one all his life.” my dad said.

Eight months later I was in Kenya en route to work in Zaire through the Division of Overseas Ministry of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) after language school in France. Outside of Nairobi, a delegation of six of us missionaries and our mission executive from DOM were taking part in a celebration in a rural community. The community had come together across many tribal and religious differences to build a bakery to create jobs and income for the people, and with that income they had built a school for their children. With our denomination’s help, they put a roof on the school.

The celebration of the roofing was held in a hot meadow near the bakery and school out in the middle of nowhere. Four or five distinct groups from the community were there besides us. We were seated in a U shape. We, the honored international guests, all had chairs. Many people were sitting on the ground. Children from the school were seated across from us on benches from the school house. The celebration went on a very, very long time before there were speeches and an exchange of gifts. Each church represented arrived at the gathering in ceremonial processions. One group jumped as if they were on pogo-sticks. One group ran forward ululating and then retreated, forward ululating, coming a little closer, before retreating again. It took a couple of hours for everyone to be in place and the formalities to begin. Did I mention we were in Kenya? Did I mention it was really, really hot?  Did I mention the little children?

Across from us, the children, waiting to sing for the celebration, sat patiently. One little one was about two years old. She kept her eyes on us. I’m sure we were the first white people she had ever seen. The older kids kept whispering to her. She’d turn to listen to them and then turn and look at us. The woman sitting next to me put her hand out in a “come here” gesture to the little one. The older children nudged her, pushed her a little, and cajoled her to “go.” We heard under and around their giggles the words, “mondele, mondele” “white, white.”

Eventually the littlest chorister found her courage and made it all the way across the base of the “U” and stopped five feet back from my welcoming friend. Then with a deep breath and split second motion, the little one swept forward, reached our her beautiful ebony baby hand and swiped the white, white hand of my colleague. She immediately checked to see if any of the white had rubbed off before she high-tailed it back to the safety of her friends who greeted her with gales of laughter.

That’s the story that came back to me on my drive home from Lincoln last night. All day today I’ve been thinking about it. That curious little one. Those ornery older children putting her up to such shenanigans. The pure pleasure of seeing beautiful children being inquisitive children like all children everywhere. Their hi-jinx and playful delight understood in any culture.

Where did my uncle pick-up his racism? Daddy told me others in his family were racist, too. How did that not rub off on my father? What is it that rubs off of me? When I encounter others, do they experience joy and grace and welcome and acceptance? When I reach out my white hands, what am I offering? How do we learn our shared humanity? How do we move past black and white and become a community? How do we meet hand in hand to move forward together?

Reading books that help us climb inside other people’s stories is a start. Even better is making ways to be together, to listen, to rub elbows, to clasp hands, to exchange hugs, to dance with joy and sing each other’s songs, to learn and to celebrate what we can do so much better together than we can do apart.

What rubs off?