As I was following events that unfolded at the University of Missouri (also known as Mizzou), I came across a video that brought the fierceness of the struggle those students have been engaging home to me. The video depicts the non-violent protest launched by a student advocacy group, “Concerned Student 1950,” that interrupted this year’s Mizzou homecoming parade, blocked former-President Wolfe’s car, and disrupted the otherwise celebratory atmosphere of the festivities. The students then proceeded to outline their case against the racist policies of the university, situating their grievances within the larger racial struggle of the University of Missouri system – a system that they point out was built by enslaved black women and men for rich white men and their rich white sons.I looked on in disbelief and horror as the crowd, who apparently couldn’t be bothered to face the difficult narrative of racism, began chanting “M-I-Z, Z-O-U” in an attempt to drown out the litany of racial grievances being exposed by the student activists. I watched angrily as a line of white spectators, more pressed to see a parade than to exhibit even a modicum of compassion for people clearly in pain, attempted to use their bodies to move to the students out of the way so that the parade could continue as planned. After about ten minutes of demonstration, the police finally moved the students out of the street, and I watched tearfully as many of them broke down in tears, unloading the emotional pain they had absorbed in that brief time period. Black pain had been expressed, and for too many it was dismissed, and the parade carried on. To these brave young women and men, absorbing the hate and defiantly facing-down the stony hearts the crowd and the larger American populous, I say “Ashe” (a declaration of power and affirmation). You’re on the right side of history. Later generations will judge that crowd the same way we judge the white woman whose face was twisted with rage as she hurled insults at Elizabeth Eckford as she boldly, if stoically, entered Central High School (Little Rock, Arkansas) in 1957, her true feelings masked behind large sunglasses. Your pain matters. Your demands must be heard. Racism must die. It has no choice. There is no plan B. Racism must be defeated. In the words of Dr. King, we will either learn to live together as brothers or we will die together as fools. Racism and white supremacy in all of its various and sundry forms – from police brutality to unresponsive and disconnected academic institutions – must be dismantled. Your bravery robbed racism of the power to keep us silent. Racism thrives on silent acquiescence, on good people saying nothing, but we will not go quietly into the night. You spoke – for yourselves and for so many others who will not or cannot speak.
Towards the end of their protest, I noticed what appeared to be a group of white students join arms with the black protestors in an apparent act of solidarity. No doubt, to step into that street in order to help the protestors, to eschew white supremacy, and to link arms with the oppressed was an act of bravery. To these students and to white allies everywhere, stuttering and staggering to step out of white supremacy and into community, I say “thank you.” Being a white ally in the fight against racism doesn’t mean dominating the conversation, attempting to be Captain-Save-a-Bro, or proving how your “down with the struggle” by how many times you’ve watched “The Color Purple.” It means showing up and being present, listening and praying, and mourning with those who mourn. It means using the power society grants you merely because of the color of your skin to empower those who are disenfranchised. It means not getting defensive about a conversation about race. It means accepting the reality that racism exists and that it rewards white people merely because of their whiteness while dispossessing people of color merely because they are people of color. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but if we are to move towards wholeness, we must learn to hear inconvenient truths.
One of the things this non-violent demonstration at the University of Missouri revealed is what I suspect to be true for far too many Americans – an unwillingness to be interrupted by the inconvenient truth and ugliness of our racial history. We’d rather not have our parades, our religious services, our civic ceremonies, our political campaigns, our picnics and brunches, or our nightly news interrupted by the rawness of our racial history. Once upon a time many white Americans fled to the carefully-planned, picket-fenced, red-lined suburbs to ignore the hideous problems of race in our country. Now, many are red-lining their consciousnesses. Too many view racism as an evil that must be ignored into obscurity, not vanquished into submission.
The truth is hard, and yet the promise of truth exposed is freedom experienced. But so long as we’re content to hide behind the redlines of lies and denial, none of us will truly be free. We have to be willing to be interrupted if we are to enter into freedom and community.
Jesus himself paid attention to inconvenient interruptions. While he was on his way from Jericho to Jerusalem, a man known only as “Bar Timeaus” (“Son of Timeaus” or “Son of Honor”) began shouting at him. His disciples couldn’t be bothered to listen. They tried to ignore him. He was an inconvenient protestor along the Jericho road and yet Jesus paid attention to him. He knelt down and restored him to honor and community. Any church that bears the name of Jesus must boldly do as Jesus did. Sister Joan Chittister, O.S.B. suggests that hospitality, a buzzword for the church, is a willingness to be interrupted. To be hospitable, to be welcoming, is to subvert our agendas for the ministry and mission of the moment.
There are many places the contemporary church is seeking to go: we’re addressing issues of attendance, influence, history, and mission. We’re asking ourselves who we are in an increasingly secular society. We are seeking to bear witness to the Gospel of God as best we can in a world growing increasingly gospel-poor. And yet, as we seek to ascend the Jericho road on our mission to Jerusalem, I’m wondering what we might pay attention to on the way there. What cries have we ignored? What complaints have we dismissed? What voices have we silenced?
Last week at the 126th Convention of the Diocese of West Missouri, I introduced a resolution that affirms our stance as a Church to pursue the work of countering racism and to repent for the sin of racism which mars the human family of God. Several people voted against it. It passed, and by a wide margin, but each of those red cards (“no” votes) felt like someone hitting me with a sledgehammer. Maybe I shouldn’t have taken it personally, but I did. The concern that this resolution was too narrowly focused, that it was perceived as ignoring all other issues of oppression, felt like erasure and dismissal. I didn’t engage those who voted against the resolution, partially because I couldn’t. I grow weary of having to be the (one) black priest who has to fight to bring up the subject because too many others will ignore it if I don’t. Every now and then I want to be the angry black man who puts my head in the bosom of my ancestors and weeps, who is pissed that it is 2015 and we still have to talk about this, and that I must plead with white people to listen to and validate my pain. When white people get tired of hearing about race, they can opt out of the elective Black or Latino History class or change the channel. When people of color get tired of hearing about race we have no where to go. No place in this country is free of the debilitating and chronic reality of racism. That’s privilege. My best priestly self would’ve reached out to those who voted “no” and engaged them in conversation to build a reconciling and transforming community, and yet my best priestly self is weary under the burden of racism and white supremacy – the lineage of black bodies murdered by law enforcement and warehoused in prisons and the innumerable black girls and boys detained in de facto segregated, low-performing and counted as future prisoners in an egregiously unjust prison-industrial complex. Sometimes I don’t have the energy to have conversation. Sometimes I can’t breathe. And yet my current ministry context necessitates a certain amount of abnegation to embody the priestly ministry to which I have been called. Maybe that’s the price I pay as a black man to occupy the space that I do. That self-denial hurts and feels a lot like lying. And, I can’t help but wonder how many of those who voted against the resolution view the issue of racism as a distraction or detour from the Gospel work of the Church instead of being deeply rooted in the heart of reconciling mission of the church. I wonder how many would have been the disciples, ignoring Bar Timeaus as an inconvenient agitator on the side of the road. I wonder how many people in that room world rather chant “M-I-Z, Z-O-U” than to hear the cries of the oppressed naming their pain in hopes that it would move each of us towards healing.
The work of healing, restoration, and justice is not tidy work. It is messy. This isn’t white-gloved Christianity. This is steel-toed, hazmat suit, hard-hat-required, nursing scrubs kind of work. It involves mud-bricks without straw, rusty chains in forgotten grave yards, spit and dirt, blood and nails, and close encounters with people we’d rather not be bothered with. Following Jesus means we have to get messy because the mission of the church is in the messy places of our lives – individual and collective. Racism itself was created to keep us neatly in our assigned places. God invites each of us into the messiness of the middle in order that we would be healed.
Concerned Student 1950 boldly gave voice to many students of color who have become creatively maladjusted to the subtle, and not so subtle, terrors of racism. They interrupted the regularly scheduled celebration to bring each of us this important news bulletin – racism is not dead, and Mizzou is no longer a safe place for racism to flourish. Take note. Each of us must do the same. We can no longer passively aid and abet racism in our society. Racism must not be allowed any hiding place – neither in our hearts, nor institutions, not structures. It’s work must interrupted if we are to be human.