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.