How many nonagenarians do we have in the house today? Octagenarians? Any young whippersnapper septuagenarians? Here’s the good news–or maybe it’s bad news. Here’s the news proclaimed from Scripture today: if you’re younger than 99, you’re only getting started. Abram was 99, his bride Sarai, slightly younger, when God called them to “go to a land God would show them.” Yeah. Don’t try to plug that into your GPS.
In addition to the call, God made a promise: more descendants than stars in the night sky. Which sounded great. But when Abram and Sarai started thinking through the logistics, questions arose. How were two nonagenarians going to create a nation?
I wish I could tell you that God’s decision to entrust God’s promise to the two least likely candidates on the planet was an aberration, but, alas, throughout Scripture, our Sovereign consistently selects the least qualified people to help fulfill divine promises. God doesn’t excel in the HR department…which might be God’s very point. Maybe God is trying to tell us that God’s promises will be fulfilled…no matter who is entrusted to fulfill them.
God’s promises. Does it ever seem like God’s promises get fulfilled more often for some people than for others?
Ty’s testimony this morning was very brave. It’s painful to acknowledge our privilege… to admit that only part of our success is due to our hard work, that much of it is inherited from our ancestors, or can be attributed to our gender, skin color, or sexual orientation.
I was at a gathering this week where Black mothers were processing the big college admissions scandal, women whose children’s hard-earned places in universities have been questioned at every turn…while rich white parents are buying their already-privileged children admittance to ivy-league schools.
At this same gathering, a Black mother told us that on her way to the meeting, she’d received a text from her college-age son, “Mom, I need to talk to you in 10 minutes.” Her first thought was, What has happened to my Black son in the state of Kentucky? His question turned out to be about health insurance, but for 10 minutes, this mother was terrified. By the time she arrived at the meeting, she was so upset, she told us, she had what she called a “runny tummy.” NOT having to live with the constant worry of what the world might do to your child because of the color of that child’s skin? That is white privilege.
Waking up to white privilege is hard. Consciousness of whiteness often leads to guilt. Then shame. Sometimes we respond to shame by doing nothing. Aware of the trauma caused by social systems that benefit us, we begin to think the biggest gift we can offer in the work of racial justice is to sit it out, to leave the work to those who are directly affected by racism.
Other times, shame leads us to overcompensate. We charge in and try to save the day for our black and brown bodied friends…which only reinforces the idea of white saviorhood.
As your pastor, I know I’m supposed to have all the answers, but when it comes to knowing how we can and should work for racial justice? I’m not sure. Doing nothing doesn’t feel right. Neither does swooping in to save the day.
For all I haven’t figured out, this I do know: for those of us who are white, our number one task in the work of racial justice is waking up to our whiteness.
I’ve worked through a lot of things in my life, but I think waking up to my whiteness is by far the hardest. I’ve faced exclusion because of my gender. As a Southern Baptist, I had to work very hard, first, to believe I had a right to be in the pulpit, then, to pursue a path that would lead me to the pulpit. It’s still not uncommon for people to refer to me not as a pastor, but as a woman pastor. I, like many of you, have dealt with all kinds of bias.
But despite all the gender-based bias I have experienced, I must also acknowledge that a lot of what I’ve received in my life has come not through my own effort, but because of the color of my skin. That is hard to admit. If I had a son whose skin was the same color as mine, I wouldn’t give it a second though if he texted to say he needed to talk with me in ten minutes.
The other part of facing my whiteness is the recognition that, though in the interest of justice and in the interest of becoming my best self I must face my whiteness, I will never arrive at some fully enlightened place. I will always be white. I will never know what it means not to be white. I will always carry with me in my melatonin-less skin cells the burden of what my people have done to other people, what my family members have done to other people.
Even amid the difficulty of facing my whiteness, I do have hope for myself and other white people working for racial justice. Remember Abram and Sarai? God seems always to entrust the promise to folks who seem least likely to fulfill it. If God can create a nation out of two nonagenarians, then maybe God can use us white people in the work for racial justice.
The most important racial justice work for white people is waking up to our whiteness. That said, there are some actions we can take that can help in this work. Consider what happened one summer day in 1965 in Forrest City, Arkansas.
Shortly after passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee began registering voters. They’d visit folks in Black neighborhoods, tell them about the new law, then get them to the elections office to sign up.
One day, SNCC volunteer, Si Kahn, approached a front porch where an ancient-looking woman rocked. “‘Good afternoon, Ma’am,” he said. The woman nodded and kept rocking.
“I’m from the Freedom Center,” Si went on. “I wonder if I could talk with you for a minute?” She nodded again and gestured towards a straight-backed chair opposite her. Si sat down. He really wanted to ask how old she was, but it didn’t seem the polite thing to do. The woman must have guessed his question. ‘You know,’ she said, ‘I was born a slave…I was 4 years old when we got freed,” the woman said. Then the woman who had been born a slave reached out to Si. “How can I help you?”
“‘Ma’am, the president of the United States has signed a law saying that everyone has the right to vote.” The woman cut Si off, gently. “I read the papers. Every day. I know.” Si said, “I was hoping you’d go with me to the courthouse to register to vote.” She stopped rocking and leaned forward. “Son,” she said, “I’m 106 years old. I don’t leave my rocking chair.”
Si “was caught between figuring out what year that meant she’d been born and trying to frame a response. All he could come up with was, ‘If you didn’t have to leave your rocking chair, would you register to vote?” It was half a nervous joke; he didn’t know what else to say.
“I would,” she said. “But I don’t ever leave my rocking chair.”
“Si went back to the Forrest City Freedom Center, where he found a number of young Black men. Still in awe at having sat and talked with someone who had been born a slave, Si told them what he’d just seen and heard.”
The Center had recently received a gift of a “brand-new bright yellow four-on-the-floor three-quarter-ton Dodge pickup. One of the young men took the keys from where they hung on a nail by the front door and slid into the cab. Others piled into the back of the truck.
“They drove to the woman’s house and stepped onto the porch. They lifted her, still in her rocking chair, carried her outside, and placed her, chair and all, in the back of the truck.
“With the young men kneeling next to her, each with a hand on the chair to steady it, they drove as slowly as they could, weaving their way through the Black community, up one street and down another: past the churches and the adjacent graveyards, the segregated elementary school and high school, the little grocery stores, Clay’s Funeral Home, and the Freedom Center.
“As word spread, people poured onto their porches, into their yards, to watch as she passed, sitting straight and proud in her chair, in the back of the bright yellow pickup they all recognized on sight. Everyone knew who she was, the eldest member of their community, the woman who had been born a slave–and they knew where she was going.
“When there was no street untraveled, no place in the Black community left to trumpet the news, the young men turned towards the courthouse, parking directly in front of the entrance, where everyone passing by could see them. Then they carried her in that throne up the courthouse steps and into the registrar’s office, so she could register to vote.” (Kahn, Si. Creative Community Organizing, 22-24)
We could talk all day about elections fraud—about Georgia’s Secretary of State overseeing his own election as Governor, about arbitrary voter ID restrictions, about the Senate Majority Leader publicly declaring that he didn’t want more people coming to the polls, about the obscenity of vote harvesting in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional district. Congress’ failure four years ago to renew the Voting Rights Act, as we are seeing, is wreaking havoc on our elections process. The freedom of our fellow country people to vote is dwindling.
We talked last week about how, though we all walk the same streets and traverse the same geography, we inhabit different planets. A lot of what sends us to different planets is legislation. Ensuring life-giving legislation for all our fellow citizens begins with everyone having an equal say in who writes the laws. Until everyone has equal access to the ballot box, we will continue to inhabit different planets.
So…perhaps we have arrived at something even the unlikeliest of candidates for fulfilling God’s promise for racial justice in the world can do: work for free and fair elections. What will that work look like? Join us for Wednesday’s Mercy Walk to the Elections Office. We’ll pray and open our minds and hearts to how God might be leading us in this important work.
Another thing those of us who are waking up to our whiteness can do is imagine what life might be like in someone else’s skin. One of the assignments at a songwriting camp I attended a few years back invited us to do just that. We were to write a song from another person’s perspective. At the time, I was mulling over a quote I recently had read by someone who marched from Selma to Montgomery in March 1965 in support of voting rights. This was two weeks after the first attempt to march ended in violence on the Edmund Pettis Bridge.
Bruce Hartford relates an experience on the last day of the march. “On the right side of the road, all lined up, were these tourist motels. In the lobbies were the black maids, janitors, in their uniforms, and they were just looking. You could see, you could just know, what was going on in their minds—they wanted to come out and join the march, and they were afraid of losing their jobs. Wanted to join, afraid to come out. Suddenly, in one swoop, one rush, they just ran out and joined us. They were liberated. We were all liberated. To me that was the high point. I’ll never forget that—it symbolized everything that was happening.” (Everybody Says Freedom, 201)
For the assignment, I tried to imagine what it felt like to be one of those maids in one of those tourist motels. This is the song that emerged. “Selma”