It was a Saturday night in the city. A chill in the air because it was February but not enough to keep people from being out and about. Maybe the city never really sleeps. I don’t know. We hustled against the chill, the sun already setting. Warmth waited behind the heavy wooden doors. My husband…
Last weekend I watched various social media channels in horror as groups of people clashed in Charlottesville, Virginia. I didn’t know about a statue of Robert E. Lee at the time, only that a group bearing torches marched through the city spewing hate and the next day another group mobilized to counter protest. The whole thing was ugly and I cried more than once.
And maybe it was my recent reading of Just Mercy or the week I spent with my niece who does not share my skin color, but I suddenly felt like I could not ignore this any more.
Or maybe it was just time.
I grew up in a predominantly white community in the northern Midwest, and yes, I heard a fair amount of racial slurs. I probably would not have called myself a racist ever but as the years have passed, I’ve discovered that I have biases like anyone else. Even as recently as two weeks ago, we were eating at a Chick-fil-a in Philadelphia and I was taken aback by the all-black team of servers.
Until now I have been mostly an observer of the Black Lives Matter movement, only casually aware of systematic injustice and police bias. For whatever reason, this particular event in Charlottesville fanned an ember in my spirit.
At a vigil in our city on Sunday night, a pastor remarked that this was probably not our first time, that it probably didn’t take Nazis marching through a Virginia city for us to care about racial tension in the United States. Her words made me feel a little bit guilty because that is sort of what happened. Online friends who have been involved in this kind of activism and these kinds of conversations longer than I have assured me that it was better to show up late than never.
Before the vigil, I was compelled to speak up in church. My church that is also predominantly white. After a day of reading calls on Twitter to find a new church if the leaders didn’t denounce the events in Charlottesville, I decided I didn’t need to wait for a leader to do it. I was going to do it myself.
So, I held the microphone with shaky hands and I talked about my niece and how troubling it was to watch events unfold in Charlottesville. As a people of faith, I said that it was our job to say “no” to racism. When the time came to pray and the invitation to kneel at the altar was given, as it is each Sunday, I stood and walked to the front and knelt.
I did it for Charlottesville.
At one time, my faith was mostly talk and little action. Lately, I seem to be swinging in the opposite direction, though I still “talk” plenty about the issues I think people of faith should care about through writing and blogging.
When I started working with refugees last year, it was because I was tired of just writing about an issue. I needed hands-on action. And while that still scares me from time to time–because it’s messy and imperfect and continues to stretch me right out of my area of comfort–it has given my faith layers I didn’t know it was missing.
The more I came into contact with people directly affected by issues being debated online or in political arenas, the more outspoken I became. I called my representative’s office, and I tweeted my senators when I could not get through on the phone. I answered questions and challenged statements online and in person. I said things out loud in groups that I never would have dreamed of voicing 10 years ago, even if I thought the thoughts.
Speaking up and out does not come easy for me and maybe that’s why it is important when it happens. In the hours leading up to church on Sunday, I thought through the words I wanted to say. I rehearsed them in my head. And they still came out differently than I intended. I hesitate to challenge anyone online or offer a different perspective because I don’t like to cause conflict. But sometimes I can’t let something go without trying to show another side of something. It is imperfect and messy. Maybe all good things are.
The day I wrote about silence, a friend asked me if I knew the song “Car Radio” by Twenty One Pilots. I hadn’t heard it so I looked up the lyrics and watched the video and I was moved by the sentiments. She thought I would connect with the message because of what I was learning about silence, and I did.
But I was also encouraged by another stanza in the song:
There’s faith and there’s sleep
We need to pick one please because
Faith is to be awake
And to be awake is for us to think
And for us to think is to be alive
I am often asleep to the important things in life. Sometimes it’s by accident or sheer busyness. Other times it’s by choice.
When it comes to racial reconciliation in the United States, I must confess that for most of my life I have chosen to be asleep because I didn’t feel like it had anything to do with me. That’s painful to put into words where I can see it, but it’s true.
This week, I have chosen be awake because my faith demands it. And because, as the song says, being awake is akin to being alive. I want to be alive, even if I have to feel a lot of hurt in my spirit and soul. It is a small price to pay.
For me, being awake to the suffering of people of color means a lot of small steps in the right direction. I am reading. Asking questions. Learning. Listening. And, when appropriate, speaking.
On any issue of importance, I do not want to speak too soon, though I am sure that I have and I will. I want to learn the balance of speaking and staying silent because I believe there is a time and place for both.
I’m praying for the wisdom to know when to speak up and when to shut up.
And for the courage to do the former and the humility to do the latter.
Okay, so this book needs to come with a warning. Or maybe you can just let this be it: you will be broken, shaken and awakened by reading this book and it will hurt.
Bryan Stevenson writes in the opening pages of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption: “This book is about getting closer to mass incarceration and extreme punishment in America. It is about how easily we condemn people in this country and the injustice we create when we allow fear, anger and distance to shape the way we treat the most vulnerable among us.” (p.13)
I’ve long wanted to read this book and when I did, I found myself so absorbed by the stories that my in-real-life was affected in ways I did not expect. I had trouble sleeping and I was so saddened by the experiences of people who grew up in a different area of the country with a different skin color than me that I spent some days anxious and agitated with the world at large.
Stevenson’s stories of injustice are disturbing at best, maddening at worst, and I was even mad that I could put the book down and walk away for a while when it stirred in me emotions I could not handle. What Stevenson and the folks at EJI have done through the years is nothing short of miracle work, and I applaud their tirelessness.
I’m not sure I will ever forget these words from early in the book:
Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
I mean, what if we lived with that attitude?
At the same time, I’m challenged to be informed about the injustices in our justice system and how much work we have to do. Stevenson’s stories are not all that different than stories we read on social media or in the news today. For whatever reason, his collection of stories and experiences is more shattering to my world view. Maybe that’s the difference a book makes.
I won’t soon forget this book, and I am more convinced than ever that the death penalty is wrong and racism persists in the justice system. As a white woman, I can’t fully understand what it’s like to live with this kind of injustice, but I can continue to increase my awareness of it.
Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book from the publisher. Opinion of the book is my honest one.