Tag Archive | Politics

A Prayer for the City

IMG_4923 (800x534)Today, I was asked to offer the opening prayer for the meeting of the City Council of the City of Savannah.  Below is the manuscript for the prayer.  I am grateful to Alderman Julian Miller for inviting me to pray with and for our city’s leaders.

Let us pray…

Holy God, we give you thanks for the opportunity and the responsibility of this gathering today to provide leadership and direction for the work of the city of Savannah.  We give you thanks for each of the people here:  those who cast votes, those who provide staff support, those who bring information and argue points before the Council, and those whose other interest in the work of this council has brought them here.  We give you thanks for those who are confident in their roles here today, and we give you thanks, too, for those who are nervous and unsure if they even belong here.  We give you thanks that you are here, too, as your presence fills your whole creation, pushing us all to do better than we have done before:  to work harder, especially for those who are most vulnerable; to listen more closely, especially to those whose voices have been pushed aside; to show greater grace, especially for those who suffer the most; to seek greater wisdom, especially in these times of ego-driven ideologies and divisive rhetoric.

Pour out your Spirit upon our city, O God, and upon our leaders who are here today.  By your Spirit, give us a vision for this city so we will lift up the poor, we will enfranchise the forgotten, and we will strengthen the victims and affirm the survivors.  Give us vision for this city so neighbors here may empathize with neighbors and commit together to seek the common good.  Give us vision for this city so we will seek our joy together and we will appreciate beauty together and we will foster learning together.  Give us vision, O Lord, and strengthen us as fellow citizens, granting us the gifts of hope, of trust, of faithfulness, and of energy to orient our life together around your vision.

We pray in your holy name. Amen.

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Bent Tree

IMG_4674 B&W (800x533)This morning, I delivered a devotional and invocation for the regular meeting of the Chatham County Commission.  This is the text of my reflections and prayer.

A few weeks ago, I went out on a steamy July morning to be a part of a group of volunteers with the Savannah Tree Foundation.  Our task was to tend the trees which were planted at the intersection of the Truman Parkway and Whitefield Avenue when the Truman Extension project was completed.  I was pleased to see Commissioner Stone among our group of volunteers, too.  As the day became too hot for us to work any more, I was at the southwest corner of the intersection, and I noticed a particular young tree.  This tree had obviously come unmoored from the stake that was supposed to support its thin trunk.  Then, it had been damaged, perhaps by a mower, or maybe by the weather.  Whatever hit it, the tree was bent over at 90 degrees, so that the trunk was parallel to the ground.  As a dutiful volunteer, I reported the damaged tree to the director of the Tree Foundation, Karen Jenkins, who was supervising our group of volunteers.  I expected she would make a note of the damaged tree so she could remember to get someone to come out and remove it.

But that is not what she did.  Instead, she said she had seen that tree, and pointed out that it was still alive.  It had branches growing out of its bent-over trunk which were healthy and leafy.  And the top of the tree had already turned around and started growing heavenward again.  She said that she imagined that someday, people would look at that tree and think it is the most fascinating tree in the whole intersection.

As soon as she said that, I knew what I had done.  I had looked at that tree and only seen it as damaged.  But Karen had looked at it and seen it as a survivor.  She allowed herself to become fascinated by its strength, its endurance, and its ability to right itself and keep on growing toward the light.  She saw its unique potential to contribute to the whole scene, to stand out, specifically because it was not like all the other trees.

I’ve started to wonder since that morning whether I do the same thing to people.  I look at people who don’t conform to my ideas about what is normal, and I see them as damaged.  I pity them, or I dismiss them, or I otherwise try to have them removed.  And I wonder if I need to look instead more often through a lens of compassion, to see how those people who don’t conform are fascinating survivors who have a unique and important contribution they can make.

I don’t know all of the business you commissioners will have before you this morning.  But I do know that, at its root, all of that work has to do with the people who live and work together in our county.  And I hope you will be able to approach your work with the compassion Karen had for that unique, fascinating tree.

Will you pray with me?

Holy God, you are the source of all of life, of all beauty and joy, of all grace and compassion.  We thank you for your presence in our world in all of the ways we see every day:  in the beauty of this part of the world, in the abundance of sunshine and water, of dirt and trees, of opportunities and creative ideas, of care and support shared among neighbors.  I thank you for the people in this room today:  the Commissioners, the staff, the people with business before the Commission, and the observers, and for the enormous resources they represent.

I pray today for this meeting, that everyone here might feel your presence.  I pray that that work which happens here today will show the best of good governance.  I pray that the resources which the people here make decisions about may be used for the good of all citizens, especially those who are poor, vulnerable, and powerless.  I pray that power might be used well, that wisdom might be applied in everything which is discussed, and that compassion and grace will guide the discussion and debate.

Show us your glory, Holy God, and bring us your wisdom and your peace, so that together we may do the work you would have us do, joining with you to bring about your vision of justice, peace, joy, and beauty.  I pray all of this in your holy name.  Amen.

[Note:  I went back to that intersection yesterday to try to get a photo of the tree, and I was disappointed to see it had been removed.  I was disappointed not only because of the loss of yet another tree from our community (click here and here and especially here to see what I think about tree removal).  I was also disappointed because of the loss of what that particular, fascinating tree could have shown us as it grew up.]

Acts of Religious Freedom

IMG_5401 (800x533)Today, as I was sitting on my back patio having lunch, I looked up at the dying live oak tree near the fence.  The tree is in sad shape, as far as trees go.  A few years ago, not long after we moved into the house, we noticed that it seems to have started dying from the top.  We are not sure if lightning hit it or some plague of insects, bacteria, genetic malfunction, or simple old age got to it.  But the ends of the thick trunks are now splintered.  The woodpeckers and flickers have gouged holes in those trunks as they hunt for protein while dropping a shower of shavings to float in the bird bath below.  The lower branches have gradually died, ending up as lichen-covered sticks which fall on our back lawn as gifts for the dog to chew.  But the middle branches of the tree have endured somehow, and what I noticed today was that they are now covered in blossoms.

They called to mind the oak blossoms which covered our live oak trees every spring when I was growing up in Northern California.  Our yard had four large, strong, healthy trees:  two live oaks and two deciduous oaks of some indeterminate variety.  Each year, small strands of green started to form on the trees, then fell to the ground as they turned brown.  The strands had small nobs on them, not much bigger than cracker crumbs, strung like tiny nuggets along a thread, and their color was no different than the stems.  My parents kept calling them blossoms.  That was absurd to me.  I knew what blossoms were.  The lilies in our yard would explode with vibrant reds, yellows, oranges, and whites; the camelias would open their soft, round, pink blooms; the irises would stand tall with their bearded heads of purple; the roses would open their poetry-inspiring buds, and wherever those marvels didn’t show off, there was room for daffodils and tulips and pansies and petunias to fill in.  Those plants all had blossoms to be proud of.  But the mighty oaks, many times bigger in stature and deeper in root than any of those others, only produced those spindly, weak, little threads of green-drying-to-brown crumbs.  I still imagine the other plants and bushes in the yard were laughing at the mighty oak trees when blooming season arrived.

And now, around here, I hesitate to imagine what the magnolias say when the oaks aren’t listening.  But still, sitting on my back patio enjoying my lunch, I realized that the blooms lend a beauty and a grace to still living, yet dying, oak tree.  They are plentiful enough to make a visual impact, and from the distance across the width of my yard, they rustle like curtains in the breeze.  While the color isn’t spectacular, the gold-glowing green freshens up the place a bit while we wait for the trees, bushes, and plants to fill out with their new leaves.

I’ve been thinking a lot today, too, about the “Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act” which is making its way through the Georgia State Legislature this season.  They had to call it the Georgia act because it’s not just the Georgia Legislature considering the bill; variants of this same bill are making their way through a number of state legislatures this year.  The need for this bill, as well as the language of the bill, was conceived by a national organization called the Faith and Freedom Coalition.  Supporters of the bill have come forward with all manner of dramatic language to say that the bill is necessary to protect religious people, who, they allege, are under serious threat of persecution throughout the nation.  Some politicians have been more clear: they are promoting the bill so that private businesses would have legal grounds to refuse to serve people who are LGBTQ.

There are so many thoughts in my mind about this bill and the agenda of those promoting it.  I have my gut reactions:  I am repulsed that we are having a serious conversation about how to codify bigotry, and I am scandalized that some think  religion is a useful tool to do that.  Stepping back from those reactions, though, I also wonder why a business would want to refuse any paying customer (for a great story about that from Idaho, see here); I am afraid that is one of those questions to which I do not really want to hear the answer.  I think about a colleague of mine in Texas, who recently wrote that their version of the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” would nullify a 15-year-old act that was crafted after a broad process involving a wide range of political and religious leaders.  That makes me wonder why our state needs organizers from a national organization representing a narrow segment of the population, which is far from representative of the range of religious perspectives in our state, to set our legislative priorities and to write our legislation for us.  I wonder if there is any way for the cooler heads of more seasoned politicians to prevail in our legislature and governor’s administration, where the conversation is dominated by the voices of radically conservative Republicans.  And I think about my favorite line from one pastor’s testimony against the bill:  “is there a more religiously free people on God’s green earth than Georgia Baptists?”

But I also think about my live oak tree and its blossoms.  I am the pastor of a congregation which I like to describe as radically tolerant.  We have some members who align on many issues with the political right, and some members who align on many issues with the political left.  We have members and friends in our congregation who are gay and lesbian, and we have members who do not support extending marriage, ordination, or other civil and ecclesiastical privileges to people who are LGBTQ.  But we manage to get along most of the time, and more than getting along, we manage to exercise our religious freedoms together.  We pray with and for each other, we visit each other in the hospital, and we bring casseroles when we think someone might need them.  We break bread together, both in the context of worship and in some really great covered dish lunches.  And we serve our community together:  we provide food and housing for homeless people, we tutor children from our local public school, we mentor Boy Scouts, we build ramps for people under Hospice care, and we welcome a whole bunch of different community groups to use our buildings.

Such a tolerant community of people committed to a common ministry and mission seem like my live oak trees.  When I was growing up, such communities were strong and healthy; now, they seem like they are dying because folks seem to prefer to live in enclaves of people who agree with them on controversial issues.  In fact, I have heard supporters of LGBTQ rights talk about their support for bills like the Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act.  Their reasoning goes that they want to be able to easily identify those businesses who do not agree with them so they can stay away.  But if we all retreat into our own enclaves of like-mindedness, when do people who disagree encounter each other?  When does a traditional-marriage bakery owner witness the love-struck excitement of the gay couple who is ordering the cake for their wedding?  When does the progressive activist find out that the local dry cleaner with the faded Romney-Ryan sticker on his bumper proudly displays in his shop the photos and certificates of appreciation from years and years of sponsorships of the youth soccer league?

In this metaphor, the vocal activists like the Faith and Freedom Coalition might be compared to the plants and bushes that produce the bold, brassy lilies, irises, camelias, roses, and all the rest.  They quote Sarah Palin on the front page of their website, and you can’t get much more bold and brassy than that.  I can imagine them, perhaps unfairly, mocking institutions like my congregation, large, old trees with our tiny, plain blossoms of church suppers and after-school tutoring programs.  Our blooms do not command as much attention; they have less splashy color, less noticeable shapes; they are less outspoken, less dramatic, and get far less attention from the politicians or the media.

But our blossoming acts of religious freedom have their own beauty and grace.  They may seem small and spindly, but taken together, they have a significant impact.  And they freshen up the place where we are, filling in when the splashier, more dramatic plants and bushes fail.  Life in a community of radical tolerance is not always easy; some days, I worry that the whole thing is going to fall over dead, becoming nothing more than fodder for the woodpeckers.  But on other days, I notice that even when the breeze starts to blow and our blossoms rustle, they look like a curtain dancing with the wind, and I think such places where religious freedom is enacted are the only hope our culture has.

I hope our representatives will have the good sense to vote no on the Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Update:  So this happened later on Thursday.  Once an anti-discrimination amendment to the bill passed, the supporters no longer supported it.

Eviction: A Little Story of Race and Power

IMG_3069 (800x532)In my first job out of college, I learned who needs to be present to evict someone in the state of Oregon:  a representative of the property owner, a sheriff’s deputy, and a locksmith.  I worked for a non-profit community development organization in inner Northeast Portland which had grown out of a local neighborhood association.  The group wanted to fight blight in their neighborhood as well as preserve the diversity of the community, particularly in terms of race, culture, and social class, as they were starting to see the potential threat of gentrification.  So, part of their strategy was to acquire, renovate, and manage housing at rents that would be affordable for people with low incomes.

About the time I started working there, the organization purchased a building at Northeast 20th and Alberta Streets that had four one-bedroom units.  When we bought the building, one of the units was occupied by a woman who had been a problem for the neighbors.  She had a long police record for using and dealing  illegal drugs in her apartment.  The neighbors complained that there were visitors and noise at all hours, and based on the noise and activity, they suspected that drug dealing was not the only illegal activity going on there.  She had several family members living with her in the one-bedroom unit, which was a violation of the lease.  And she hadn’t paid her rent in several months.  So, as the new property owners, and as an organization whose mission was to improve the neighborhood for the sake of everyone in the community, it fell to us to evict her.

The eviction was scheduled for a Friday afternoon.  That particular Friday afternoon, everyone in the office was going to busy.  The director, who was my boss and had been through this process before, was not available because she had another meeting.  The woman in charge of acquiring and renovating properties did not work on Fridays; neither did the woman who ran our program for women who had graduated from addiction recovery programs.  The bookkeeper wasn’t even available.  So I agreed to be the representative of the property owners at the eviction.

The notices for the eviction went out according to the law.  They had to be delivered in every possible way well in advance of the date to give the tenant a chance to either resolve the issues which were leading to eviction or move out.  Usually, such notices made the situation easy:  when the necessary parties showed up, the apartment was empty.  Then, the sheriff posted their notice, the locksmith changed the lock, and the representative of the property owner handed out the checks and collected the new keys.  But that was not the case that day.  Instead, the woman who was being evicted was still there along with a couple of her friends and several of their children.  She was running around yelling at people as she and the others were frantically tossing clothes, furniture, toys, household items, and other contents of the apartment off of her second-floor balcony into the front yard.  It was quite the sight; it looked like Oliver Twist was going to poke his shy little head around the corner at any moment.  I pulled up and waited in my car for the others to arrive, already feeling a bit apprehensive about the whole situation.

And as the others arrived, though, I became more and more uncomfortable.  The locksmith came up in a pickup, and I saw that he was a white man, like myself.  Then the sheriff’s deputies arrived, two of them, and they were also both beefy, young, white men.  And everyone else there, the woman being evicted as well as her friends and their children, was black.  As our crew of four white men walked up the sidewalk, climbed the stairs, and did our work, my apprehension turned to a horrible, icky feeling.

On one hand, everything going on at the property at NE 20th and Alberta Streets that day was right.  Not only were we following the law, we were doing so in the interest of the whole community.  We were helping the neighborhood, with all the diversity of its residents, accomplish its vision for itself:  a place that was safe and comfortable for all of the people who called that place home.  The problem was not with what we were doing.

The problem was with the way we did it:  four white men, who were agents of the people in power in the situation, invaded a space occupied by black women and children, who had no power in the situation.  The scene evoked the long history of white oppression of blacks in the United States.  The scene reified the stereotypes many people have of what it means to be white and what it means to be black in this country.  The scene played out the fantasies of many people who, explicitly or implicitly, would be just as happy if “those people” were not in their community.  The scene illustrated the truth that the systems under which we all live do not treat people equally, and the scene did not provide a vision for how things could be done differently.  The scene was all wrong, even if everything we were doing was right.

I have been thinking about the scene of the eviction that day as I have watched the news in the past week.  I am not an attorney, and I have not read all of the evidence presented to the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri.  People I trust know more about the laws and the evidence than I do, and based on what they have said in the past few days, I am less and less convinced that the evidence was so inadequate that they could not at least have a trial for Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown (this is one of the better interviews on the topic I have seen).  But even in the days after the prosecutor announced the grand jury’s decision, when I still wondered if it was possible that the grand jury was right, I got that same feeling that I had that day almost 20 years ago at the scene of the eviction. I don’t know if the grand jury was right, but nonetheless, there is plenty wrong with the whole scene.

What would have made the scene of the eviction better?  I went back to my boss the following Monday and told her that, at the very least, we needed to work harder to make sure the people present at the eviction represented the local community.  We did not have any control over which deputies the sheriff’s office would send to an eviction, but the scene would have been better if they represented the diversity of the community they were serving.  We could do business with a locksmith who did not look like me.  But mostly, my boss and I agreed, I did not need to be a part of any more evictions, not because I was unwilling to do work that was uncomfortable, but because, as a white man, I did not need to be in that scene, at least not by myself, because my presence did not support a vision for how things could be done better.

An Open Letter to a General Assembly Commissioner

IMG_3544 (571x800)A member of the congregation I serve was elected to serve as a Ruling Elder Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) this summer.  This is my open letter to her, published here with her permission.

Dear Ruling Elder M,

Over the past few months, as you have applied to serve as the Ruling Elder Commissioner from our Presbytery to the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) next Summer in Detroit, I have been so pleased.  I have been pleased for you:  your election is an affirmation of all the work you do for our Presbytery.  I have been pleased for our congregation:  we will feel even more connected to the larger structures of our church for years to come because you have served.  I have been pleased for our Presbytery:  you have already demonstrated how you will use this work to enhance the connections we have with each other simply by visiting other congregations and introducing yourself as their Commissioner.  And I have been pleased for the Presbyterian Church (USA):  you bring a positive attitude and down-to-earth perspective to the work you will do with the other commissioners.  I believe God is pleased, too, and although God probably has God’s own reasons to be pleased, I like to think that some of them are the same as my reasons.

I was a bit concerned, though, when I learned you were randomly assigned to serve on the Social Justice Issues Committee of the Assembly.  As you now know, that is the committee which will study and make recommendations to the whole Assembly about how to act on overtures and other business related to many social justice issues.  You and the other members of the committee will tackle a dizzying array of subjects:  abortion, homosexual leadership in the Boy Scouts, gun violence, child abuse, poverty, and more.  None of the issues you will have to address are simple, and most of them ignite deeply-held and passionately-expressed arguments on both sides.  Your work will not be easy.

As you prepare for your work, listen to testimony, and participate in committee debates, you are likely to have a range of emotions.  You might find yourself afraid of the implications of some of the stances the Assembly is being asked to take.  You might find yourself frustrated by the work of listening and arguing.  You might find yourself saddened by the tragic situations which the overtures and referrals highlight.  You might find yourself overwhelmed by the enormity of the social problems you have to deal with.  And you might become angry because people disagree with you about how the church should speak to these problems.  All of those feelings are a part of the work you have been called to undertake, and to negotiate that exhausting range of feelings, I hope you will take care of yourself through prayer, long walks, plenty of rest, and conversations with friends and colleagues.  And did I mention prayer?

As I have thought about the work of your committee, though, I hope you will not let yourself dismiss any of the work you are being asked to do as unimportant.  It will be tempting.  Many of the issues you will have to consider do not have any obvious impact on your life or the life of our congregation and presbytery.  Some of the issues might not even seem to be appropriate things for good church people to talk about.  Many of us doubt that those in power listen when the church speaks about these issues.  But if you allow yourself to say your work is unimportant, then you will do yourself and the church a tremendous disservice.

You will do a disservice to yourself because you will make it easy to convince yourself that the work of your committee is a waste of time.  You will start to resent the time you have to be in the committee and at the Assembly, and you will start to long for some excuse to get out of that work.  You will make yourself miserable with that resentment and longing.

But you will also do the church a disservice if you start to think the work is unimportant.  You will foster an attitude which is already prevalent in the culture of the church and which is literally tearing the church apart.  Recently, a large church in California voted to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA).  According to an article from the Religion News Service in the Christian Century magazine, one of the reasons the leaders of the church cited for leaving the denomination is that the Presbytery of which they were a member adopted resolutions on some controversial social justice issues.  The article said that the church leaders “considered the resolutions a distraction from its core mission.”  Instead of engaging in conversation about the issues being raised with their brothers and sisters in their Presbytery, they chose to consider the work unimportant.  And from there, it was easy for that church to sever their relationships with all the rest of us.

The Assembly’s work of responding to the overtures and other requests to take stances and actions on social issues is pastoral work as much as it is anything else.  It is the work of listening to people who are passionate about particular causes.  It is the work of allowing people to tell their stories which have led them to take stances on those issues.  It is the work of affirming those people, their experiences, and their passions as God-given gifts which can help us discover new truth, goodness, and beauty in God’s emerging kingdom.  You will not agree with everything people say about the issues with which your committee will be presented, and you do not have to vote the way the advocates want you to vote.  In fact, that would be impossible; you will discover quickly, if you haven’t already, that the passions run deep and hot in our church on all sides of the issues you will talk about.  Some overtures should be voted down, and some issues should not be acted on.  If your committee is really willing to do the best work, you will be able to get away from the yes-or-no, up-or-down stances you will be asked to take and come up with ways to speak to the social issues before you with a new grace which will bring a greater peace to the church and the world.

But to dismiss the work as unimportant would be to say to the people who are passionate about all sides of the issues that the things which are important to them are irrelevant to you and to the church. That is not what people who are trying to be in relationships say to each other, and it is antithetical to the way Christ commanded his followers to work.  You were with us as we worshiped on Maundy Thursday last month, and you heard me read Christ’s new commandment to his disciples:  “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  People who love each other do not dismiss each other’s passions as unimportant.  In the church, when we are at our best, we may not agree about what stance to take on these issues.  But we seek to understand others’ stances and the experiences and stories which motivate them because the people who hold them are a part of our fellowship, and so the passions which drive those people are a part of our fellowship, too.

Please know that  I will be praying for you while you prepare and serve as a General Assembly Commissioner, and I will encourage the other members of our congregation and Presbytery to pray for you, too.  I will pray for you and your fellow commissioners to have wisdom and compassion, to show good judgment and better grace, and mostly to be open to God’s Holy Spirit to guide you and, through you, the church into whatever future God desires for us.  And I will be praying that you do not become so afraid, frustrated, sad, overwhelmed, angry, or otherwise exhausted by your work that you can’t engage it well.  But especially, I will be praying that you do not allow yourself to dismiss any of the work you are called to do as unimportant.

Peace,

Pastor Eric

The Daffodils at Monticello

IMG_0132 (800x533)“Thomas Jefferson believed in equality for all people.”  I actually read those words out loud to my son last fall.  He was only a month or so into first grade.  His class had already finished their first unit in social studies on Benjamin Franklin and moved on to their second unit, which was on Thomas Jefferson.  Those words were printed on the study sheet which his teacher sent home so the students could prepare for their upcoming test to conclude that unit.  The line under the word “equality” meant that this was one of the facts which our son had to know.  The study sheet was clear:  Thomas Jefferson should unequivocally be associated with the virtue of equality.

My wife and I looked at each other and rolled our eyes.  I might have let a quiet yet exasperated “ugh” slip from my throat.  We both learned to think critically at our liberal arts colleges.  We both have graduate training and spend our professional lives working with religious things.  We recognize hagiography when we see it, whether it is in the curriculum of the church or the curriculum of civic religion.  People deemed important in American history are treated no differently than saints of the Bible and our faith:  the stories told about them are selective.  Their virtues are lifted up, but too often, their flaws are not mentioned.

We know, too, about the problems with putting people on pedestals and calling them saints.  When folks find out what King David did to Bathsheba, not to mention Uriah the Hittite, or when they find out that Mother Teresa’s faith involved intellectual and spiritual wrestling that was never resolved, they find themselves confused, they seek the comfort of denial, and they feel betrayed by the teachers and institutions which taught them so poorly.  Truth can be traumatic, especially when it contradicts stories you have always been told.  And here we were watching, and even participating, as our child was being set up for the trauma of confusion, denial, betrayal, and distrust.  Ugh, indeed.

Since nothing escapes our child, he asked what was wrong, and we told him. We told him that Thomas Jefferson said and did some great things which promoted equality.  But, we explained, Thomas Jefferson also owned people who served him and his plantation as slaves, and we defined slavery as simply and clearly as we could.  Then, we encouraged him to ask his questions, so he did.  Was Thomas Jefferson really a bad guy?  No, but he lived in a time and place that accepted slavery as part of normal life.  Had his teacher lied to him?  No, we said; she was just following the curriculum and getting him ready for the test he had to take.  Was the curriculum dishonest?  Well, maybe not on purpose; some people think that children his age are not able to understand complicated things like slavery.

There was a lot we didn’t cover, but that was enough for that night; he knew how to answer the questions on the test, he knew that we love him and we would be honest with him, and he was not ready for more new information.  And frankly, we were all tired by that time.  He aced the test, and the class has gone on to deal with such figures as Harriet Tubman and Abraham Lincoln in their social studies classes.

But we all remember that conversation, and it has led us to have more conversations about history, about slavery, about fairness, and about truth.  Some time after that conversation, but with it still in our minds, we decided to take a Spring Break trip to Washington, DC, to learn more about the stories he was hearing in school.  And yesterday, as we were on our way home from our trip, we gave our son some choices, and he said he wanted to go to Monticello to learn more about Thomas Jefferson.

We took two guided tours at Monticello.  One was the house tour.  Early on that tour, almost as if she was anticipating what was really on our family’s minds, the guide did an excellent job of explaining Thomas Jefferson’s complicated feelings about slavery.  On one hand she said, raising her right hand palm upward about as high as her shoulder, mimicking the action of an old-fashioned scale, Jefferson admitted in his writings and other communication that slavery was unjust.  On the other hand, she said, raising her left hand in a similar way, he did not see how it could be abolished without destroying the stability of the young country and the prosperity of its (white) citizens.  The tour guide made it clear that her job was not to pass judgment, but only to present information.  Our son stood right in front of her as she spoke.  The other tour we took was called the Slave Tour.  The guide on that tour showed us where the slaves worked and lived on the plantation’s farms.  Although the cabins are long gone, she described the kind of work they did, the age at which they started working, the conditions of their living, and other details of the lives of the enslaved men, women, and children owned by Thomas Jefferson.  She also went into great detail about the story of Sally Hemmings and her children.  She ended her talk by describing a ledger Jefferson wrote assigning a monetary value to each of the people he owned, noting with a special poignancy that a 67-year-old woman was described as having “no value.”  Again, our son was in the front row as she spoke, absorbing the information.

I will leave it to our son to reflect on his feelings as he participated in those tours; it is not my place to speak for him.  And I will not pretend that he understood every bit of information he was given on the tours.  However, I am more certain than ever that, when the curriculum said that “Thomas Jefferson believed in equality for all people,” it not only set my son up for confusion, denial, betrayal, and distrust.  It also showed it does not respect a seven-year-old’s ability to understand something as complex as slavery, and it was unfair in its disrespect.  It was not easy for our family to go through those tours, just like it was not easy to go through the exhibit on the Emancipation Proclamation and the March on Washington at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History the day before.  We had to explain a lot of details.  We had to encourage him to ask questions, and we had to take a break after a while and get some ice cream.

But he got it.  He got that the world cannot be neatly divided into heroes and villains.  He got that people can think something is unfair but have no idea how to stop it.  He got that values and virtues look different now than they did in other times and other places.  He got that it is o.k. that he has complicated feelings and ideas and questions rattling around inside of him.  And I think he even got that, if the curriculum writers are going to tell the story of Thomas Jefferson, they really ought to respect the children and teachers enough to trust them with truth.

The daffodils are blooming right now at Monticello.  I find the shape of daffodils fascinating; instead of blooming upward like daisies, they have those strange cups facing out from their petals, making them look almost like they have faces.  However, their faces rarely look you straight in the eye.  They always seem to have their gazes shifted toward the leaves rustling on the ground around their feet.  When someone doesn’t look you straight in the eye, it is not always because she or he is telling you a lie.  Sometimes, it is because that person knows that the truth is a very complicated thing: that justice is an ideal which is not easily reconciled with reality, that righteousness is like a stream in that it is never static but keeps flowing, and that even heroes can have a hard time reconciling their beliefs with their behaviors.  I took some photos of those daffodils because I thought they would be fitting souvenirs from our day at Monticello, so full of complicated truth.  That, and my son has always liked daffodils.

Paula Deen & the Place Where I Live

IMG_2928 (800x533)Long before Paula Deen opened a restaurant, built an empire, and then chose to answer truthfully when she was asked a specific question in a deposition, the place where I live has been a place where race matters. And I am not just talking about Savannah, the city in which I live. I am also talking more specifically about the place where my house was built a little over a quarter-century ago.  Before my house was there, that place which is now my neighborhood was a part of the Cedar Grove Plantation, where Black slaves and White masters both had roles in the work of growing things on the land. Later, if my guess is right, the land on which I live belonged to the community of Nicholsonboro, a group of people who had been freed from slavery, traveled to the edge of the Vernon River, and then managed to get the owner of the Cedar Grove Plantation to sell them 200 acres of his property. I have written about what I know of the story of that land here and here, if you are interested.

For generations, one’s race mattered a great deal to the people who lived on the land where my home and neighborhood now sit. It determined where you lived, where you worked, where you traveled and whom you traveled with, what you did with your time, and even where you were buried when you shook off this mortal coil. It determined whether or not you were considered someone else’s property. It determined whether you were part of the community, or if you were someone who was just passing through. For a long time before Paula Deen came along, race mattered in the place where I live.

But now, race is a hard thing to talk about. I know a lot of good, kind people who have gotten themselves in trouble at their workplaces, in their neighborhoods, in their churches, and in other important relationships in their lives because they said something about race, and someone took offense. This is, of course, not a phenomenon unique to my current community; the same thing has happened in other communities where I have lived. And it is not something reserved for other people; I, too, have been challenged on my behaviors in relating to the people around me who do not look or act or think like I look and act and think.  Frankly, those challenges have been gifts which have led me to really look at my behaviors as well as my feelings, to understand those forces that have influenced me, and to commit myself to acting better. But those conversations and challenges are always, always awkward for the people involved, the people around them, and the whole community.

So I long to be able to have real conversations about race and about racism. I want to be able to talk about what prejudice is and where it comes from for each of us, what stereotypes are all about, what power is and where it comes from, and what it means to have privilege and to not have privilege. I long to talk about what policy issues like the Supreme Court’s decision on the Voting Rights Act means to different people, even in my state, where the problems addressed in the Voting Rights Act were historically most problematic. A post I saw on Facebook this week identified one problem with the Supreme Court decision: the writer claimed it divorces the concept of equal access from history. So I long to talk about how history, both the history of our state and nation in general and the history of the place where I live, affects the meaning of race and racism in the present. Mostly, I long to talk about what it means to live in a community where not everyone looks, acts, and thinks alike, where some people say things that offend others, and where some people challenge others in ways that help them to productively examine their behaviors and feelings.

And it is clear to me that the whole mess that Paula Deen finds herself in is clearly not the way to have that conversation. Paula Deen admitted to saying a particular word sometime in the past, and that confession has led her to be tarred with the label of “racist.” I am no expert in these matters, but I do know some things. I know that racism is not chiefly about a particular word spoken by a particular person. I know that it would make life a lot easier if racism was really about single words spoken by individual people. If that was true, then I could simply banish those words from my speech, and then I would know for certain that I am not a racist, and I could even begin to believe that racism doesn’t exist outside of the people who use those words. But I know that is not how racism works; I know that racism is about power added to prejudices, and I know that, when you start talking about power, you move beyond any individual’s words and actions into a place where you have to talk about systems, institutions, cultures, and other things that are out of any individual’s control. I know that these conversations are fraught with fear, anger, anxiety, and mostly awkwardness.

I just received a book that was written this year by Bruce Reyes-Chow, who is someone I know, but do not know well. The book is called “‘But I Don’t See You as Asian:’  Curating Conversations About Race.” One of my favorite lines so far in the book speaks to my longing. Bruce says that he wants to talk about race because, “just like that couple who can’t make the time to see a counselor, if we do not tackle our problems head-on, we will condemn ourselves to the building up of resentment, anger, and distrust” (p.24). If you want to read Bruce’s book for yourself, you can find it in various formats on Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

I don’t want resentment, anger, and distrust to affect the relationships in my communities any more than they have to. I want to be challenged in a way that leads me to receive and to give gifts with the people around me. I want to talk about things that matter. I long to have real conversations in my community about race and racism.