Last night I attended my first meeting with one of several small groups of pastors and faith leaders who will spend a year together in prayer and dialogue as part of The King Center’s faith-based initiative: Better Together.
“Better Together unites faith leaders and galvanizes them around racial reconciliation and community transformation (www.kingcenter.org).”
We met last night at Pastor Deb’s church, a beautiful edifice in the struggling neighborhood of Vine City, where gentrification is alive and well. In this historic community, where Bernice King grew up, 80-90% of the land is owned by developers, so most of the people in Vine City are renters, not owners, even though some of them have been there for years.
“Our community is broken,” Pastor Deb said, “and there is something very wrong with a society that has to move something out in order to move something in,” she continued as she explained the displacement of many of her neighbors as the city makes room for a multi-million dollar park to be put in across the street from the church.
In our meeting last night, we learned that it is time for us to start listening to each other, in order to figure out how our differences can make a difference. Our first step as individuals, as a group, a community, a nation; is to acknowledge that the pain of racism is real, pervasive, prevalent and relevant. Sometimes, there is a tendency to not know what to say when faced with another person’s pain.
It is ok to acknowledge pain and not be able to feel someone else’s pain, or the deep impact of particular wounds.
It is not ok to say “I know how you feel,” or “I feel your pain,” when you really probably don’t know exactly what that person’s experience of pain has been because every human being on earth experiences pain differently. It is also not ok to assume that, just because you have not shared in another’s particular experience of pain, their pain is not real or valid.
If someone says they are in pain, their pain is valid.
Saying “I know how you feel,” halts the process of growth through pain and limits my and your abilities to explore that pain and what it means. As Pastor Deb put it, “it’s time to stop affirming something that doesn’t need to be affirmed. Just acknowledge my pain – thereby letting me know you understand it is real – and help me explore what it means for me.”
Racism is a real problem in our country. It doesn’t go away when we don’t talk about it, in fact, silence intensifies and exacerbates the pain that systemic racism has caused and continues to perpetuate, even at times creating more pain.
What we concluded last night was that our own suffering can sometimes blind us to the suffering of others; so taking our cue from Antjie Krog (Country of My Skull), we asked ourselves the questions:
“how do we develop the linguistic ability to hear suffering in its various different languages?” and “what does it mean for us theologically to hear suffering in its many different voices?”
I think it means an ushering in of a branch of Kingdom living, wherein we listen to each other, I mean really listen, without plotting out our response before our fellow human has even finished speaking; an era of choosing love instead of hate, of opting to let go of the way it’s always been to learn a new way. A time in which all lives matter, because black lives matter just as much, first, in thought and in practice.
Such was the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr. And it has become mine, too.
This year, our group will spend a year chiseling away at systemic pain whose roots of fear, bigotry and hate run very deep. I will blog my experience and what I learn as I study and educate myself more on the incendiary issues of race, liberation, integration, desegregation. I may step on some toes in this process.
Thankfully, toes heal, and the beauty of the kingdom of God is our ability as Christians to dialogue in love, agree to disagree when we must, and seek wisdom to discern when it is time to let go and learn a new way.
That’s what I’ll be spending the next year doing: learning. I’m sorry in advance if I step on some toes or ruffle some feathers. But, I’m not sorry enough to back off or back down from my quest to see the Beloved Community realized; to see a day when issues of race are no longer incendiary because equality is more than just an ideal.
I’m thankful for this opportunity to journey with fellow clergy as we learn together and work together to shovel a pathway from apathy to understanding, from disparity to equality, from hate to love.