In this season of All Souls, my parents have been on my heart. It’s been 57 years now since they signed the membership book for this congregation. They started coming in the wake of the events of Selma, which we’ve been discussing in worship and in our White Lies discussion series. They tried some things at that point in their lives to fight racism, under the auspices of our congregation, partnering with Jesse Jackson’s Operation Breadbasket, and with the Community Renewal Society (CRS). They connected through a CRS program with a black family and began to bring their son, John, out to spend time with us on holidays and weekends.
Later, though – after we’d moved to Libertyville for my dad’s job with Abbott – they continued to bring John for visits, but they let go of ties to black organizations. While they had begun with an organizational, systemic mindset toward anti-racist work, they now fell back to an inter-personal approach. They supported my cross-racial friendships and helped me to navigate some challenging norms and mindsets among my peers. They helped me to understand that color-blindness was not the goal, in spite of what my classmates might say – that tolerance was not sufficient, and that differences should be celebrated. These were good things, of course, but without institutional involvement and support (our new church in Deerfield wasn’t quite on the same page with this work), my parents relied too much on their own limited resources – and when they adopted my sister, Terry (we were both age 10), they barely even acknowledged the fact (even privately with me) that she was bi-racial, that we were now an inter-racial family. I know their silence stemmed from sensitivity – a wish not to re-open old wounds related to Terry’s parentage and ancestry. Still, I don’t think this silence helped her navigate what we could all see and never spoke of. It’s been years now since Terry and I last spoke, and I often wonder with sadness how we might have better been a supportive family to her – and consider how things might have been different for all of us if they had had the benefit of participating in a church discussion group to help the consider these issues. Maybe it could have helped expand their thinking, to everyone’s benefit.
In connection with our White Lies series (and not for the first time), I’ve had occasion to view Jay Smooth’s TedX talk about what he calls the “dental hygiene” approach to anti-racism (an expansion on his earlier vlog about how to tell someone they sound racist, which I used to share annually with my college students). Smooth’s later talk has also been a great gift to my thinking, in that it begins from acknowledging that race can be a super hard thing to talk about, and that it’s important that we talk about it anyway. Smooth identifies as both black and bi-racial – and he talks about this identity mix, with nuance and humor and apparent ease (though my hunch is that this is hard-won), as a reason for his frequent attention to conversations about race. It occurs to me that part of why I love his work so is that I wish my family had had the opportunity to bear this hygienic model in mind as we learned how to be with one another – that my sister had had his easy, non-anxious presentation as a model for her own identity formation. There was plenty of plaque in our teeth, sadly; I wish we’d better learned how to gently point it out to one another, and how to receive such information with grace, so that we could get to the business of brushing.
I learned a great deal at the LREDA (Liberal Religious Educators’) fall conference this past month – information I’m eager to share with all of you as I can. But perhaps my greatest lesson took the form of a black elder of our faith movement quietly approaching me to alert me that I had failed to acknowledge an important antecedent to a program I was promoting. My immediate response was, “Oh right! I should correct that error!” – and I got back up and did so. And her grateful acknowledgment to me was both gracious and connecting. It only occurred to me later how different this exchange would have been if my initial response had been defensive, and I was grateful to have learned some things along the way – from Jay Smooth and many other brilliant teachers, many part of our faith movement – that helped prepare me for that moment.
My parents were good, well-intentioned people, but they were not saints. Fortunately, in this season of All Souls, I’m reminded that they didn’t need to be – that none of us need to be – saints. Flawed humans though we are, we are all worthy of divine love, embraced by the holiness of all that is and cannot be lost. Our task – for the sixteen of us in the discussion series, and all of us in our congregation and broader faith movement – is not to encourage one another to perfection, thank goodness, but to spiritual growth. May we learn to say “ouch” and “I’m sorry,” and know that our error does not put us outside the bounds of love.
Amen and blessed be. ~ Mary