A White Minister Blessed by Race: Old First E-pistle 03.13.15

A White Minister Blessed by Race: Old First E-pistle 03.13.15

I don’t know what to say about race. That’s curious: as it’s played such a big role in my life (and I’m rarely a man of few words). Looking back, I’m left with a series of disparate, though seminal experiences? And a host of people who are dear to me.

Mostly, life itself seems as if it happens to me “by accident.” Sure, at a certain point, I have recognized how certain experiences and values were adding to my life, “a blessing to me,” and I began making decisions that positioned me to have even more such positive experiences, in this case of human multiplicity and diversity (our racial differences being a primary instance thereof).

But as we focus on race and racism this Lent, it is important to be thankful for how race can make our lives richer alongside lamenting how our failures with racism impoverish lives. I see a similar dialectic in our “Faith on Race” bible studies: they insist that God is the creator of one inseparable humanity even as they call us to our unbelievable diversity… a reflection of God’s creativity to be celebrated.

Perhaps less surprising — considering how race and racism are “unfinished business” in the ‘North American experiment’ — my experiences of race often share an “oddness,” though odd in a variety of ways. …I might even prefer to call this aspect of my experience of race “a certain queerness,” but that and my sense that it’s this aspect that is integral to how race often is a blessing may be peculiar to me, or at least say much about me too.

My first remembered awareness of race was my grandmother Caine telling me each time a Black family moved into her Webster Groves, MO. neighborhood. I don’t know if she was telling other people this news, but she was keeping me updated from as early as I can remember (and she died when I was 7). Her reports were like Christmas Eve newsflashes on the radio… of Santa Claus sightings on radar. Black people were getting nearer and nearer. She never referenced race explicity, but even before grade school, I knew what — or who — she was talking about. Her motivation in sharing this news seemed to be about growing concern, But even a a young child, I knew I felt differently.

I don’t know how or why I have encountered and experienced race differently than much of the world I have come from? If I had to put a name or explanation to it, I guess I’d have to say it’s something “religious.’

But as my life has gone on, there emerges a recurring theme. But can I talk about it, share what it means to me without reducing it to “some of my best friends are Black?” I probably can’t…

My best friend from middle school on, eventually the Best Man at my wedding, was African American. None of this, of course, because he was Black. But his race was not incidental, but integral to his identity. With his family, I had my first experiences of what later came to be fairly common for me — being “the only white person in the room.” I was on my way to becoming the “cultural exogamist” that I am. Though Donald and I didn’t look at all alike, people were always mistaking us for each other???

The first man I dated, Stephan, was African – American (actually, he still is African – American!). So, one of my two, adult “serious relationships” was interracial (and the other interreligious?). It would be pretension, but because of him and his continued importance in my life, I’d like to consider my family interracial (as I do consider it Jewish-Christian).

It is perhaps a product of where I have chosen to live my life (a mentor in ministry once challenged that in America integration only happens in very small places on the borders between different communities), but I think that for a white person in my time and place, a disproportionate number of my friends, even my nearest and dearest, are non-white. Someone called me a “race-traitor” once, and I thought it absurd. (And I do have white friends and family who I love very much!) But I have wondered, even worried about the complexion of the company I keep. Not is there something wrong with them, but is there something wrong with me? When I performed Larry’s wedding to Rebecca, it made me smile to find in her another white person with this experience. But most often, they seem to be whites of interracial families…

Curiously then, a new story emerged in my own family, in the last few years, that my great-great grandmother was not white. Previously, I had heard they were both Irish immigrants. But suddenly — why then? …because enough generations had gone by or died? — it came out that only my great-great grandfather was born in Ireland. But he had married a woman here who was either Black or Native American. They lived in what was still Indian territory before the Oklahoma land rush. Records aren’t available to determine much more.

For African American families, having white ancestors is common, whether or not welcome, a sad legacy of slavery and rape. For a white American, it’s simply much rarer to be able to recognize non-white relatives — because most often the offspring of those unions were considered of ‘the other community” or, as in my family’s case, if someone could pass for white (in a complex number of ways), the non-white heritage was eclipsed, forgotten, denied. I don’t think this lost relative changes or explains my life much, as I’m still a white American, but she’s important historically.

Since Union Seminary (described by Professor James Cone as where upwardly mobile Blacks pass downwardly mobile whites!), I have recognized North American racism as a practical allegory and example of what Christians mean by “sin” (my “separation from whom God means me to be, and from others and ultimately from God”). And redemption in its more concrete form always seems well-illustrated in racial reconciliation. Yes, old civil rights era film footage often makes me cry.(Clearly I’m not the only one who has seen the parallels between the Exodus and America!)

Before Old First, the two congregations I served were predominantly Black. I didn’t seek out positions to be the white minister of Black churches. It just happened (or perhaps, more faithfully, God orchestrated it.) I treasure much of what I learned from those experiences. They were where I learned to be a pastor. And East Harlem and Flatbush were where I lived my young adulthood and raised my kids.

I admire the Black Church and its faith, particularly what I might describe as “an incredible reflexive gratitude to God when one’s personal circumstances and people’s history might make other reactions easier to understand!” I can’t quite “do that” in my own soul, but I know I like worshiping sometimes with congregations where most of the worshipers and the church’s history can. I experience something special in what I can only describe as “substitutionary exclamations of ‘Alleluia’ and ‘Amen.'” (Full disclosure here: the two Black congregations I served where absolutely Black churches, but their worship styles did not draw only from Black Church tradition… come on, I was their preacher!)

Two lessons that occur to me from my pastorates at Living Hope and Flatbush-Tompkins Congregational, as I write this:

1) Black people in North America always have to figure out how to navigate situations that are predominantly white; white North Americans can live more insulated lives in more or less all-white worlds. I feel blessed to have been welcomed as a white person to sojourn in situations that were not all-white, but were predominantly Black. They taught me among other things, that my experience of the world is not the only experience, or how everyone experiences the world.

2) Sometimes, as a sign of fondness for and comfort with me, African-Americans have suggested in exuberant exaggeration “You’re really Black.” I do appreciate the embrace and hear them meaning, “We’ll include you as family.” But it makes me sad because I know that race in our world is so much bigger than our personal feelings or the redefinitions we’d like to effect in affection. So I always respond, “Thank you, but perhaps it’s more important to remember that though I’m really white, I have some deep respect and gratitude and love for Black history, culture and people?”

My life and this country’s history have been formed and colored and blessed by Black as well as white… and so many others too. When one begins to become aware of it — despite the ongoing struggles — it gives one a sense of awe… that for me translates into “God must be somewhere in all this…

See you in church,

Michael