That’s What You Call Racism!

Years ago, my church had a national gathering in Seattle, WA, One of the purposes of the meeting was to discuss and vote on Resolutions regarding the church’s statutes. I looked forward to the event with great anticipation.

One day, sitting at my desk, I had an inspiration for a Resolution, which I felt was from the Holy Spirit. My wife was out of town at the time, visiting her spiritual father. I called her so that we could discuss the fine points of my idea. My Resolution was basically that the church should make an effort to evangelize the African American community, which is greatly underserved in American Orthodoxy. We wrote this up and submitted it as required. I was pleased with the Resolution, thinking it to be a groundbreaking evangelical tool for us.

At the meeting, when my Resolution came up for a vote, it was discussed, as specified in Roberts Rules of Order – pros and cons. I was surprised that many White delegates objected to it in part on the grounds that it was too “exclusive.”  I was shocked, as I thought everyone would say “Good idea! About time!” I was standing to present my  Resolution, and was actually weak in the knees, something that hadn’t happened since maybe the time I was taken to jail, as a youth. Since my early years, I have not considered myself naive, and have always been aware of dissension around me. But this time, I was blindsided. I had an “All Lives Matter” moment. I and other Black people feel that “All Lives Matter’ dismisses the specific needs and the pain of African Americans. Of course, all lives matter – that goes without saying.  After much discussion, the Resolution came up for a vote, and it passed. I sat down at a table with Native Alaskans, who said they were proud of me because I stood up for my people.

That evening, I had dinner with a friend who hadn’t been at the meeting, and when I told him what had happened, he exclaimed, “Now that’s what you call racism!” However, when I thought of those who had objections, many of whom I’d known and truly loved for 30 years or more, I did not see them as racists. Instead, it seemed to me that they were acting upon ideas that weren’t really theirs but were part of a bigoted rhetoric that could be mistaken for notions of “fairness.” So how did this happen? Here’s a story that may shed some light.

My wife and I lived in Atlanta when we were first married, and she helped out with a street ministry. One day, she was asked to drive a homeless man back to where he “stayed.” They wound around a residential neighborhood until he finally directed her to stop at some crumbling steps in front of an overgrown empty lot. As he climbed to the raggedy shrubbery, she heard within a loud, indignant voice: “He lives in the bushes!! He lives in the bushes!!!” This was really surprising. She knew that a few years earlier she might have lived in the bushes herself, so where did all this judgment come from? It was her father’s voice she heard – not hers.

In America now, we have the opportunity to make progress in healing the national wound of racial discrimination. But our efforts (and we must make an effort, regardless) won’t be very effective if we don’t start with ourselves. To uncover the predispositions and attitudes that lie within us, but aren’t really ours, takes a lot of very hard work. St. Ignatii Brianchaninov is quoted as writing, “If you want to be a true, zealous son of the Orthodox Church, you can do so by the fulfillment of the commandments of the Gospel in regard to your neighbor. Do not dare to convict him. Do not dare to teach him. Do not dare to condemn or reproach him. To correct your neighbor in this way is not an act of faith, but of foolish zeal, self-opinion, and pride.” Heeding the Saint’s words is a good starting place for us. 

We must learn to love one another, treat each other with kindness and always listen to what others are truly saying, although they may not be able communicate it in the clearest way. Let’s try to avoid off the cuff reactions. As the poet Leon Russell says, “Listen to the melody, ‘cause the love is in there, hiding.” Having reflected on the event and considered my feelings of betrayal, I was able to leave the dinner with my friend feeling more reconciled with the opponents of my Resolution. May God help us in these difficult times.