It’s been two weeks since the horrific shootings at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, and we’re hearing a lot about Unknown Standing with Mother Emanuel. There are inspiring speeches, demonstrations of community solidarity, outpourings of outrage, grief, and support to the community. I pray we have at last turned a corner in our violent history, but experience tells me we have a fragile peace.
Our good intentions so easily get swept away by the whirlwinds of everyday lives, responsibilities, and private crises. Perhaps we succumb to the emotion of the moment without understanding the promises we’re making. Perhaps we’re just indulging in righteous indignation. In any case, we’ve been here before. I am old enough to remember the Freedom Rides, Rosa Parks, the March on Washington, Selma, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and of course, the historic election of our first African-American President. But I also remember too many rally calls to re-dedicate our wounded nation to racial equality, peace, and justice in the aftermath of yet another act of racial violence.
Over the period of 1963 to present, there have been 45 riots over 23 states involving African-Americans in the United States–nine from 2001 to present. To name a few: Watts (1965), “The Long Hot Summer of 1967 (nine states), Rodney King (1991), and of course Ferguson (2015). And yesterday in Charlotte, NC, Briar Creek Baptist Church was struck by an arsonist. Its parishioners are predominately African-American, and once more a hate crime investigation is underway.
No matter your views on any of these tragic incidents, we are clearly doing something wrong. Hordes of solutions have been proposed and implemented with varying success: legislation, government programs, church programs, peace marches, and no doubt these efforts have averted some of the violence. But clearly, there is no simple solution. Trite as it sounds, I believe that enduring change among people happens one person at a time. Slowly, but it happens.
I have learned much about race relationships, and many other things, from my grandchildren. The youngest, JJ, started first grade in a new school that enrolls children from over 50 zip codes in the Houston area. After his first day, he remarked warily, “I don’t know, Mom, there are a lot of strangers there!” She reassured him they would soon be friends. And they were.
Perhaps it’s learned, perhaps wired behavior, but whatever the origin, we are wary of strangers. And rightly so; after all, we teach our children about “stranger-danger.” But there’s another kind of “stranger danger”–the danger of blaming strangers for our troubles when we have no understanding of theirs. We all do it; I’d like to think mostly unconsciously. But the “strangers” we need to befriend are not the guy walking toward us at night in the long overcoat, or the teenager cutting us off on the freeway, but the people in our daily lives. The woman at the auto parts store, the guy at the pizza parlor, the high school student at the dry cleaner, the checker in the grocery line, the postman, and yes, the unwary telemarketer who interrupts our dinner by doing her job.
When our communities were small and everyone looked pretty much the same, we accepted each other, often grudgingly, for who we were. We had to, we depended on each other. Attacks on each other were rare and almost always localized to a few people with some sort of private feud. Now most of us live in cities where hundreds of anonymous faces encounter us on the street, in cars, busses, and airplanes. Unless we have school-age children, most of us know only a few of our neighbors. We may recognize familiar faces on our daily commute or in coffee shops for years yet never speak to each other. Instead we are mesmerized by our electronic devices, oblivious of those around us. More and more of our “friends” are on social media.
It’s not enough. We need community. If we befriend that neighbor who looks a little different, we may reconsider reporting him to the neighborhood association for weeds in his lawn. Maybe we’ll find out he’s caring for his critically ill wife. Perhaps if we learn about the trials of the working mom from the harried checker in the grocery line we might start contributing to, or even working at, the local food bank. If we communicate in Spanglish with the lady at the laundry, perhaps we will both improve our language skills and come to know each other as neighbors and not competitors. At least the efforts will make someone’s day a little brighter. However we do it, we need more friends and fewer “strangers” in our lives.
For centuries Southern women have been the cornerstones of the family. These strong women held their families together through enduring hardships and stood for justice at no small cost to themselves. They were our role models. And the values they passed to us are our gifts to our children and their children. I believe it is my responsibility to my children and grandchildren to live out my commitment to justice, not just in the aftermath of tragedy, but in my daily encounters with those around me. If I do nothing, my grandchildren can only conclude it was unimportant to me, and if I have any influence on them, by example, not worthy of their time. I have no illusion that community building will stop racial violence, but I do believe that, one person at a time, we can build communities that make a difference.
Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, founded in 1816, is the oldest African Methodist Episcopal church in the Southern United States. The original church was burned down by in 1822 by white supremacists and rebuilt in 1865. Her pulpit has hosted such luminaries as Booker T Washington, Martin Luther King, Coretta King, and most recently Barak Obama. She has survived an earthquake and a hurricane and severe structural damage due to lack of funds for repair. But She is still standing. The question is: Are we?
[Photo credit to Michael Bowman]
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