I think about race a lot. Not in the hopeless, self- defeating, all is lost and woe is me because “the white man’s foot is on my neck”, “this happened because I am black” kind of a way. But, I think about race a lot when it comes to the practice of the Christian faith and the restrictions that we allow race to place on the challenges it calls us to as disciples of Jesus Christ. This week, I am at the Chautauqua Institution, a guest of the Department of Religion through its New Clergy Program and unfortunately race has made its presence known despite our attempts to hide it behind superficial dialogue and painted on smiles.
There seems to be no rest in the quest for a race-less life and my hopes that this would be a time of retreat and rejuvenation are all but lost as I seek to now create space wherein I can heal the wounds that my brushes with racism have caused. I thought to myself, “Was a personal experience of racism in the fine print of the orientation packet?” Certainly, this was not in the brochure or mentioned in the PBS special that initially sparked my interest in Chautauqua. THIS is not what I signed on for.
I came for the collegiality, the sermons and lectures not for the stares of those persons called Chautauquans that ask, “How did you get in here?”, whose families have vacationed here for generations and are not used to persons of my social coloring being present on the grounds for the experience of worship, intellectual discussion and spiritual reflection but instead, to assist in their leisure. Last year, an African American clergywoman was approached twice and asked if she were a part of the help. Sunday evening, the spouse of an African American clergy woman was practically groped in public as a European American woman rubbed his face and said, “I love this skin,” that God had told her to invade his space and his person to inform him that she “had nothing against this skin,” that she “loved all brown people.” Yesterday, an Asian American clergy woman shared that a European American woman passed by her and mentioned that she “had never seen so many Asians.” Even I have had an experience wherein at 5 feet 3 inches tall and 120 pounds, I became invisible. It seems that race is also a magician and can make human beings disappear. This is a weeklong program and it’s only Tuesday. I am afraid to consider where the incidents might go from here. What will race’s next trick be?
I say often that our belief in race makes us bad Christians and compromises our faith in Jesus Christ. Sadly, even for some pastors, when it comes to race and the choice to accept racism as a manner of relating to others, they are often unable to practice what they preach. But, how can the pastor love God whom s/he has never seen but hate her/his neighbor whom s/he sees everyday and secretly attempts to avoid? Often, we preach from passages of Scripture but if persons were able to look at the footnotes or endnotes of our lives, they would find written in fine print disclaimers in cases of race: as long as there are not too many; as long as I am the leader; as long as they are only here for the day. I feel that our allegiance to race often prevents the work of the Holy Spirit and the furthering of the ministry of Jesus Christ, that Jesus could do more for us, to us and through us if we would put down race and pick up His cross.
And tonight, I am left wondering about our public pronouncements of the need for multi-cultural inclusion and the Church’s call to social justice. It sounds good. It makes us feel good. It looks good on paper but is there an unspoken disclaimer, an invisible asterisk to note that this hope is for a limited time only, not available in all of the Church’s locations or at least not possible all of the time? Since I began writing this post this morning, we, the fellows of the New Clergy Program, have been informed that, among other things, the leadership of the Chautauqua Institution would like to have a week devoted solely to dialogue around white privilege. It seems to me that the magic show is over for race and the miraculous has begun. God is beginning to make the fine print disappear.