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Finding My Voice at a Vigil

I attended a Black Lives Matter vigil last week, and as I stood there in the masked crowd, night falling, holding up my candle, reciting names, saying prayers, I felt strange. I couldn’t place the feeling at first. It was like I was watching myself on television -- like I wasn’t really there.

Then it hit me.

I felt like an imposter. Like a hypocrite, a poser, a fake.

But why did I feel that way?

I was there because I wanted to be. Tears rolled down my face as the anecdotes and obituaries were read out. I cared deeply about what was happening, and I wanted to be a part of it.

Why, then, did I feel like a complete outsider?

There is a voice in my head I wrestle with a lot. It’s a voice from my past -- my distant and not so distant past -- that is constantly trying to tell me who I am, what I think, what I believe, and what matters to me.

The problem is, the voice lies.

The voice is actually telling me who IT thinks I should be, what I should think, what I should believe, and what should matter to me. I fight with it all the time. And it was loud that night at the Vigil.

As I reflected on it later, I realized the struggle I felt was on two separate but related fronts. I was wrestling with my own upbringing in two specific areas: Racism and Social Activism.

Let me unpack that for you.

And if you grew up in a conservative Christian environment like I did, I hope you’ll keep reading. Hear me out. See if any of this resonates with you.

Fact #1: As a child/teen raised in the conservative Baptist tradition, I witnessed “systemic racism” at the doctrinal and personal level.

I was eleven years old, in the 6th grade in a small private Christian school in Concord, N.H. It was break time or snack time or something, and the thirteen sixth graders in my class were just hanging around in our classroom. Then Kathleen spoke up, out of the blue. She turned to Rajesh, an Indian student, and said, “You can’t ever have a girlfriend in this school you know.”

Rajesh, who was quiet and shy, looked surprised and embarrassed at being made the center of attention. “Why not?” he asked.

“Because you’re a BLACKIE!” Kathleen replied.

I can still see her face as she said it. She leaned toward him and said the words with sort of an accent. Loudly and emphatically, like an accusation. I was stunned.

Rajesh’s best friend Jonathan spoke up. “He’s not black, he’s Indian. And what are you talking about anyway? What’s that got to do with anything?”

Kathleen pulled her King James Bible out of her desk and turned to 2 Corinthians 6:14. Her pastor had just preached on it, she told us. “Be ye not unequally yoked...” She read the words triumphantly and slammed her Bible shut. She knew she had won. She had a verse. What could we do?

The incident bothered me all day. At home that night, I looked up the verse for myself. I read the whole thing, rather than just the first phrase. “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?”

What a relief! I realized that the verse had nothing to do with race. It was an admonition not to “yoke” yourself with unbelievers, people who did not share your same faith. Well, that made sense. Somehow her pastor had made a mistake. He’d misunderstood. This could all be so easily cleared up. Maybe I could write a letter or something, point this out.

Eleven-year-old girls who write letters to pastors don’t accomplish much, I have learned. I also learned that Kathleen’s church (the fundamentalist Baptist church across town) prohibited interracial dating, as did Bob Jones University, where most families at that church sent their children when they graduated from high school.

Incidentally, this ban on interracial dating was not lifted at BJU until March of 2000. The reason it was finally lifted was political. George W. Bush had spoken on the campus as part of his campaign, and it was looking like BJU’s stance was going to hurt the Republican party, so they announced the change in policy – much to the shock and amazement of their student body.

BJU didn’t even admit black students until the late 1970s, and then the reason was financial. The IRS was threatening their tax-exempt status over their segregation. After fighting the IRS for fourteen years on this point, BJU finally capitulated out of necessity.

Here’s what BJU’s official statement said:

“Though no known antagonism toward minorities or expressions of racism on a personal level have ever been tolerated on our campus, we allowed institutional policies to remain in place that were racially hurtful."

(Sources: Christianity Today, March 1, 2000; Associated Press 11/21/2008)

This is the mistake they made: To think that there could be a separation between “institutional policies” and “racism on a personal level.” How could racist policies at the top of a denomination not trickle down into racist attitudes and actions at the individual level?

They did.

And they do.

Like in my 6th grade classroom, where an ignorant girl repeating what her pastor preached on Sunday made a boy cry at school on Monday.

Fact #2: During all the years I spent in conservative Christian churches, I was systematically and purposefully taught to believe, “None of this matters.”

Social activism of any kind was non-existent in my upbringing. In fact, it was seriously frowned upon.

In my denomination, we were indoctrinated with the idea that all that mattered -- literally ALL -- was sharing the gospel with people and trying to “win their souls.” Any effort devoted to anything else was highly suspect.

Working with the homeless? Helping the poor? That’s the stuff liberals do because they don’t care about people’s souls.

“If you feed the hungry without preaching the gospel to them, they’re just going to go to hell with full stomachs.”

Caring about the environment -- pollution, global warming? Again, that’s for “liberals.”

“It’s all gonna burn anyway.”

“Why would you polish the brass on the Titanic while it’s sinking?”

If you even recycled in your home, it was suspect. Perhaps you were a closet liberal!

The first exposure I can remember having to the Civil Rights movement was the TV miniseries “Separate but Equal” that came out in 1991. I was twenty years old. I watched it with stunned disbelief. I did not realize until then how recently segregation had still been legal in the South. I remember thinking, “This was all happening during my parents’ lifetime! How could this be?” And also, “Why did I never learn about this in high school?”

There were things we were taught, in high school. Like that the black races were descended from Ham, the son of Noah who was cursed for dishonoring his father when he was lying drunk and naked in his tent. All the descendants of Ham were destined for enslavement, we were taught. It was all there in Genesis 9, clearly written in black and white. So, while slavery in America was (of course) a terrible thing, it was also sort of inevitable, right? Because after all, … the Bible.

The belief that whatever is, is somehow God’s will, and there’s nothing we can do to change it runs deep in my background. It is a belief I now reject. But that’s the subject for another blog, another day.

As I watch our cities devolve into chaos and I read the arguments for and against the riots, and I am faced head on with the depth and breadth of racism in this country, I am tempted to say I resent the teachings I was raised with and how they left me so ill-prepared for this world I find myself in. But I don’t want to waste energy resenting anything. I just want to make sure I’m continuing to learn, grow, and change as I am confronted with new information, new ways of seeing things, and a better understanding of the world I live in.

I want to qualify what I'm saying here with an acknowledgment that the denomination I was raised in has made some progress, at least in some parts of the country. There are more community service projects in youth groups, more emphasis on helping the elderly or delivering food baskets around the holidays. There has been some growth, I think, and some change. I want to give credit where it's due.

But it's not enough. And it's not confronting head on the deeply ingrained thinking of people my age and older who, if they have not learned on their own to think differently, are most definitely still part of the problem in our society today.

I want to close with a tribute to my grandmother, who is 98 years old now and has never stopped learning and growing. She has never become outdated or fallen out of step with the times. In fact, she’s put me to shame, being more informed and aware than I am at times.

Case in point:

A couple years ago, my grandma sent me a check for ten dollars for my birthday, just like she always does. But this time, inside was a note asking me to please not spend it at Starbucks. I was confused, so I Googled “Starbucks scandals” just to see what popped up. It turns out, a Starbucks employee somewhere had acted in a racist manner toward a black customer. My grandma wanted to take a stand against that. So, I spent my birthday money elsewhere.

No, we can’t change the world. But we can try. We can do a lot of little things in the hope that they will amount to something.

At the very least, we can pay attention and we can care.

Proud of my kids!

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