Considering Privilege

History of Power, Faith in Reconciliation

By: Minnie Steele, St. Mark's Cathedral

Recently, George Thompson, Sr. Warden of Holy Trinity, St. Paul and I traveled to Atlanta as representatives of ECMN.  I felt privileged to have this opportunity to attend the Racial Reconciliation conference that was presented by Dr. Catherine Meeks, Executive Director of The Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing, which serves the entire Episcopal Church. This conference was supported by St. Luke’s and All Saints of the Diocese of Atlanta; these two congregations, located in Midtown Atlanta, served up good food overflowing with southern hospitality in excellent facilities.  We were privileged to run into some old friends there while enjoying an opening dinner provided by St. Luke’s. 

While all were enjoying desert with sweet tea, our compassionate truth-teller, opened the conference.  Dr. Meeks possesses a quiet yet forceful speaking style that is unmistakable in its faithful delivery, exuding the possibility of reconciliation. 

Personally, I was taken aback by the words of our next speaker, who opened by proclaiming that he is a white supremacist.  Actually, I wasn’t expecting to hear those words from anyone at our Episcopal Conference.  His story fascinated me as I became determined to speak to him face to face before this workshop concluded.  My questions: How can you be a white supremacist, who actually believes he is superior to all others, while professing belief in Christianity?  Do you actually believe God Almighty granted that to you and your kin? How did you earn such a privilege? 

Later in small groups and large we reviewed our peculiar American racism and selective history as recorded by the conquers who worshiped power and wealth over truth and righteousness.  Realizing that, as people of faith, we need to listen to each other if we are to actually become the Beloved Community that Jesus is calling us to be. Understanding how this racist hatred can be ingrained in a person from childhood until that person has an epiphany, coming full circle back to Jesus.  We discussed the impact of notable religious figures like Rev. William Barber and impactful distortions by others.  Books and documents were recommended - Best of Enemies, Waking Up White, Just Mercy - we must engage in healing work, our message must be consistent.

After the formal conference ended George and I drove to meet Dr. Meeks and others at The Absalom Jones Episcopal Center for Racial Healing.  It is located across the street from Morehouse College, where George and the icon The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., graduated.  George is very proud of his school!  On the return to our hotel George mentioned stopping at ‘The Varsity’ for a hamburger.  He had mentioned the spot earlier. It had not impressed me as we passed by, but I would soon understand why George wanted to eat there.  He explained that, back in the day, when he was a student at Morehouse, he was not allowed to eat at The Varsity.  That privilege was only afforded to white students; he and other black students were only allowed to serve, clean and cook in this place.  Imagining this popular college hangout as the place where all the students came to be seen, while enjoying a malt and fries, listening to jukebox music, all except the Black kids; I felt George’s pain.   Again, I considered my privilege, as my college days were spent in Minnesota where I was allowed to litigate against a St. Cloud lunch counter for discrimination.  I filed a number of suits against Minnesota bigots whenever ‘Minnesota nice’ wasn’t nice, while George was oppressed by southern Jim Crow laws. 

He was determined to eat at this ‘not so fast’ food place.  Going in we knew the food might not be too great but we were going to exercise our privilege to eat it.  I can recommend the onion rings, sweet tea…really sweet. The hamburger was quite forgettable.  Of course there is no need to go back to our youth to observe the privilege that many of us have that others don’t.   

On a subsequent journey I was stopped by TSA, as a random selection, on my way to Austin, Texas.  The randomness didn’t take long then.  However on my return flight TSA stopped me a second time. I watched in distress as my cell phone nearly fell out of its purse pocket that had been tipped over.  I was lightly scanned and sent on my way.  As I was gathering my things together I noticed my traveling companion was being thoroughly searched; he is an Episcopal priest, The Rev. James Wilson. TSA instructed him not to remove his  belt or shoes prior to being scanned. When he came through the alarm sounded.  He was then instructed to remove his collar, belt, shoes; was throughly patted down, shirt pulled out.  As I observed the extensive search, could not help but wonder ‘is he being singled out because he immigrated to the ‘Land of the Free?’  Did I receive less scrutiny because I’m native-born?  Is that privilege only granted to the chosen?  Can we, who profess our faith believing in the dignity of every human being, bring us back to where we ought to be? 

Where are we being called to be by Jesus? Considering privilege as we strive to become the Beloved Community.