Climate of Fear and Our Church

February 3, 2016

From Minnie Steele, St. Mark's:

For me, the experience of Trinity Institute 2016: Listen for a Change - Sacred Conversations for Racial Justice began on the ride from LaGuardia Airport to the hotel on the island of Manhattan; as I was enjoying the landscape, I was a bit startled as we approached a gathering of NYPD vehicles and the very visible presence of men in military fatigues holding large assault weapons. “What’s up with that?” I asked the driver, as I tuned my ear to hear this young man from Bangladesh. His response was, “Random stop Miss, random stop – it happens all the time, you get used to it.” “’You get used to it’ …Is that how it is and what it will be?” We get used to living with fear and hatred. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon in New York City as we drove near the Hudson River toward our downtown destination; I looked out at the water where the Statue of Liberty proudly extends her torch, as I mourned the loss of what I recalled as a more hopeful, innocent, and peaceful time.

I thought myself clever to leave early for the opening Eucharist at Trinity Wall Street; I wished to explore more fully the beauty and history of that sacred space. On the short walk there, I noticed the wind was picking up and I was dismayed to find a rotund security guard at the entrance announcing in a clipped Jamaican accent, “Doors open at 6 o’clock, no one in until 6 o’clock!” I was pulling the hood of my down coat up over my head as a powerful wind blew down Wall Street, pressing ever so strongly against my back. I listened to young people in line playing a guessing game, when suddenly I heard a familiar voice behind me, feeling a sense of excitement from those assembled, I turned to face our Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church, The Most Reverend Michael B. Curry. I was so very privileged to greet him there. Later, the colorful security guard announced, “The church will open soon,” gruffly warning, “Now people, NO PUSHING OR SHOVING GOING INTO THE CHURCH!” Smiling to myself I thought, “Don’t think I ever heard that one before.”

In the sanctuary we were invited to “Listen for a Change” – to hard truth and Good News; to the voices of the oppressed, past and present; to one another as experiences are shared and relationships deepened; and to the still, small voice that unfalteringly speaks freedom and redemption. The strong voices of Stephen Salters and Melanie DeMore gathered us together in vocal praise to the Lord. Trinity’s Children’s Choir led us in hymns, and to no one’s surprise our Presiding Bishop delivered a powerful, insightful, and encouraging sermon, urging us forward with the courage to wake up, listen, and change the world.

After the Eucharist, we received the keynote address, Eavesdropping on America’s Conversation on Race, from Michele Norris (Journalist and former host of NPR’s broadcast, All Things Considered). She stressed the importance of listening, examining the United States in a very particular way. She has turned the term “race card” on its head with her “Race Card Project.” We all need to become aware of our own bias; we need to be willing to hear the things we don’t want to hear.

What is Race, Anyway?
Science tells us that race has no basis in biology or genetics. I encourage you to see the “RACE: Are We So Different?” exhibit produced by the American Anthropological Association that is currently showing at the Science Museum of Minnesota. It will bring into sharp focus the ways in which we are all related and is most worthy of your time.

Listening is an act of courage; we are called to invest in our communities and to stay at the table answering questions that may be uncomfortable. Looking at our difficult past can help inform us about the present. History tells us that our land knows well the ways of genocide, slavery, internment camps, xenophobia, bigotry, and the racism that continues to kill us all. It killed yesterday and continues to kill today. The white supremacy construct imbedded in our nation must be exposed for what it is and excised with all deliberate speed. How do we as Christians and as Episcopalians answer to the hatred and fear that is being so blatantly promoted across this land today? Can we hear what Jesus calls us to do? Are we awake and listening?

There was no shortage of notable panelists and speakers at this year’s Trinity Institute. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times offered an overwhelming list of statistical information. We were reminded of the way our society’s systems developed to perpetuate inequality from distinguished professors Dr. Emilie M. Townes (Dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School), Dr. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (Professor and Chair of the Sociology Department at Duke University), The Rev. Dr. T. James Kodera (Professor of Religion at Wellesley College), Dr. Victor Rios (Professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara), and The Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas (Professor and Director of the Religion Program at Goucher College), who spoke eloquently about her book Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God. Janine Tinsley-Roe (former Missioner for Native American Ministries for the Episcopal Church) gave us the meaning of the name Manhattan; the indigenous people named it “Island of many hills” and she welcomed us all to the Territory.

Our face-to-face small reflection groups were where our real work took place; where we determined how to proceed and defined how we would do it. I was befriended by a group of college students from Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia. We viewed a wonderful documentary film that featured 12 teenagers from New York City who came together for an entire school year to talk about race and privilege.

Surviving the New York City Blizzard of 2016, I sloughed through the city streets to visit the National September 11 Memorial & Museum with two friends who hail from Florence, Alabama. As we looked at the names etched in the memorial stone, one of them said, “Look at the names, they are from all over the world, all of humanity died here.” Reflecting on that, I’m reminded of the greed and hatred that has destroyed so many lives. Still, I see hope for the future in the determination and courage of our young people to speak truth to power; my new friends from Shenandoah University are informed and ready to take action, they have faith and hope. I encourage you also to become informed, wake up, and do what God is calling you to do.