For 20 plus years I have had the unique privilege of leading an urban mission, education, and service program. I cannot overstate the uniqueness of this. After all I am not only white, male, and Mennonite but I am also a Canadian who was raised in small towns throughout the interior of British Columbia. The town I was born in, Ocean Falls B.C., has less than 100 permanent residents. In high school I spent one day studying American history. In many ways I came into my role very naïve. I have spent much of the past 20 years educating myself and being educated about the realities of race, sex, economics, and prejudice. The staff who I get to work with have been at the center of this process.
This week Tonya Powell, DOOR Atlanta City Director, wrote with clarity, wisdom, and grace about one of the most troubling issues we face in America – race. I would like to share with you her thoughts:
I am sick and tired of talking about racism.
I am sick and tired of talking about racism when I serve a God who is love. Lately all the race talks I have had reek of some underlying hatred with no one trying to understand anything. Don't get me wrong, it is almost unbelievable to have a job with an organization that does staff book studies and even hosts meetings where someone who looks like me can freely speak their mind. A job where city directors across the country bravely try to tear down the walls of racism and teach understanding through service work and reflections.
But I am tired of talking about racism when there is so much hatred that I have to respond to.
This week we have over 40 Discover participants. We have had a fun week so far. Tonight I had the opportunity to drive one of our participants back to the church after we finished a service project. It was just the two of us in the car. Our conversation was great. She has such a great spirit and it was awesome just to have her positive energy around. Then her phone buzzed and I noticed her face dropped. I asked if she was ok. She told me she was but she was trying to make plans to meet her aunt and have dinner with her while she was in town. I told her I was happy that she was able to do that. She responded that she wasn't. She continued to tell me how her aunt was prejudiced against people of color. How she knew the dinner would be hard because her aunt would probably say some offensive things about people of color during their dinner. She said she would not even allow her aunt to pick her up from the church because she was afraid of what her aunt may say to the people she saw there. The more she talked the sadder I became. I heard her say most of her family feels this way except for her mom who "taught me to love everybody." I told her so did mine.
I thought she was brave to share all that she had with me, but I wondered how many more of our participants had the same issues. Then I was reminded of how important it is for us to talk about the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr. this week. I am so sick of talking about racism, but tonight we both agreed with our mothers that God is love and we should love everyone!
To know that people who don't even know me hate me because of the color of my skin is my reality.
However, this reality does not make me feel any less.
I love the color of my skin.
I can't help that stereotypes help allow others to look down on me. No, I am not the stereotype of the angry black woman because I am naturally quiet, but when I do speak, I speak my mind. That's not anger, that's confidence. I am not only confident, but I am strong. I have great reasons to be confident and strong. Not only am I the seed of Abraham, but I also am the seed of slaves who endured captivity, a treacherous boat ride, ridicule, and shame. Yet my ancestors survived. I am the seed of a grandfather who, although hated in this country for being a person of color, still had enough dignity to go to another country who hated him even more and defend this country and its citizens of all races in WWII. I am so sick of talking about racism, but if I never talk about it how can I help others to better understand?
There was I time in my life when I wanted others to have heroic thoughts about me because I left the suburbs and moved to the city to make a difference. I no longer think this way. The heroes in my life are the people I work with. Every day they come to work and have to face stereotypes and judgment. Yet they show up, even when they are sick and tired.