Share Your Stories, Remove Your Masks: Old First E-pistle 03.27.15

“You think your pain and you heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.” –James Baldwin

During POWER’s most recent leadership assembly, I was asked to give a brief testimony on my experience during our Sacred Conversations on Race house meetings. The point that I made was that Sacred Conversations on Race create a space where we it is safe to remove the racialized masks and shields that the world forces us to wear. These masks and shields are heavy and block our ability to see God in each other. Removing them gives us the easy yoke which Christ spoke of. For this reason, it is important that we continue to actively create spaces to share our stories and experiences around race and racism.

With Sacred Conversations on Race there is an expectation that folk will be vulnerable and courageous with what they say. These conversations aren’t supposed to be easy, but what I’ve noticed is that the ways in which they can be difficult vary greatly. For some, the conversation might be difficult because they don’t think they can substantively contribute. Others might fear hurting someone in the room that they care about by exposing their own racism. Still others, in discussing race, might have to return to a trauma or shame that has been long since repressed. Nonetheless, these obstacles, while varied, are not beyond to reach of God’s redemptive, reconciling, and transformative love.

I’ve listened to folk older than I share about their experiences growing up in the segregated south (and north), and striving in spite of discrimination. I’ve heard stories of folk who allowed the lie of inferiority to penetrate their psyche and debilitate their growth. I’ve heard stories of discovery and bewilderment, like the one about Margaret R’s slave-catcher great grandfather that she shared with us few weeks ago [link]. Although the events are decades and even centuries apart for each other and the present, our stories transcend place and time.

Here at Old First, we’re blessed with so much age-diversity. On our Sacred Conversations on Race planning committee we have folk in their 20s and folk in their 80s. Bringing together people with such varied life experiences gives our conversations a depth that would otherwise be absent. It is unusual for older folk to share stories of tragedy and shame with younger folk. Growing up my father never talked about the ways in which he experienced racism; he never talked about times when he was racially profiled, exploited for cheap labor, paid less, passed over for promotion, and consistently dismissed and relegated to mediocrity at best. I knew why my father didn’t tell me these stories: he was embarrassed and didn’t want his children to associate him with humiliation.

Now that I’m older, I wish he did share even those stories with me. When older people share their stories with younger folks during Sacred Conversations on Race, the simplistic, dominant narratives that young people are taught get confronted with the complexity and contradiction of authentic lived experience. We share stories during Sacred Conversations on Race in order to expose historical lies with light of love. And in doing so we blur the temporal lines drawn by age, allowing all of us, young and old, to equally share in the pain and triumph of a struggle that unites us all with eternity.

This weekend is Palm Sunday, the day in which Christians celebrate Christ’s triumphant entrance into Jerusalem. As we near the end of our Lenten season focusing on race, let us allow Christ’s light and love to triumphantly enter into the darkness of our shame, removing our masks and shields once and for all.


Michael J.