This has been a tough week.
The death of George Floyd has raised the issue of RACE in our country.
I know many of you don’t want to think about it, much less talk about it. RACE.
Some of you are probably stopping your reading right now.
I tried to approach it in a professional way last week, imploring you to practice Ferocious Listening. When we engage others in discussions on race, we have to engage our very best practices of listening. Do we really have the willingness to practice the fine art of listening to the other, particularly when “the other” has different perspective from our own? Most times, we are too busy defending and fortifying our positions rather than really listening.
My history of listening about race goes back a ways. I’ve written about it before. It started with my grandfather, an Atlanta cop, who walked a deep path of faith, who walked his talk of respecting every human being as a child of God, especially those he served. He practiced community policing before it was copyrighted. It was who he was, down in his soul.
I learned it from my pastors who taught about a faith that sought to open our church doors to all people, and those men paid dearly for their stance. Maybe I should have gotten smart and given up on the church early on as a vehicle for justice. But I was blessed/cursed to grow up in Atlanta, where we had this guy, Martin King, who embodied a hope that flowed from a deep connection with Christ. Somehow, he injected me with a notion of the beloved community, and for him, the church was a vehicle of transformation. But they killed him.
I lived through a time of busing at my south Atlanta high school that pretty well followed the narrative of Remember the Titans, although we did not have Denzel as a football coach. We won no state championships, other than golf. We lived through that time, upping our game in our cheers and our marching band, getting a little “soul power” as the Briarwood cheer went. But it did not go perfectly, as real life tends to do. We needed a better script writer.
Throughout my life, I have worked for equality, primarily out of a faith commitment I made a long time ago. It was as vow I formally made. As I grew up, I learned of that value embedded in the founding documents of our country, although the gap between our aspirations and reality were made apparent constantly. I lived in a land bathed in the smoke of a war fighting about those rights, walking on soil where blood was spilled trying to get this issue settled. But Dr. King, and later, the mystic of the freedom movement, Howard Thurman, kept me on the path, true to my vow.
As a young priest, my journey took me surprisingly to Tyler, Texas to become the leader of a historic Episcopal church in the downtown area. When I took the call to Tyler, I was excited to be going to Texas, the land of my McBrayer ancestors, notably my grandmother. She told me of rich, dark earth, lone mesquite trees, longhorn cattle, and lightning storms that would shake your teeth. She had lived in central Texas, nearer Waco…..Texas is a big state!
I was shocked to find Tyler more Southern than Texas, a curious mix of culture. I was very surprised by the lack of race relations as there seemed to be quite a divide between the blacks and whites. The whole process of desegregation that occurred throughout the country seemed to have been slowed by the booming economy, driven by the oil industry, even in the middle of the Depression. People did okay during that societal shift and so a plantation mentality was maintained, with blacks and whites remaining separate, both relatively satisfied by the way things were.
After that same oil industry went bust in the early eighties. the consensual comfort seemed to come to an end. It led to a strain and tension that was apparent to me when I arrived. So, I felt called to work to provide a bridge between the black and white community. And the new add for me was a growing and vibrant Hispanic community that brought their own gifts.
I joined a group of Tylerites who wanted Tyler to rebound from the bust, to grow and diversify economically and culturally, and so we formed a group called Tyler Together. It was a group made up of the old Tyler families along with us “newbies” who brought some ideas about how Tyler might be a better place to live for ALL people, emphasis on “all”.
It involved the revitalization of our downtown, which seemed dead when I arrived. It was the entrepreneurial spirit of a visionary who saw the possibility on that very square, that began the change. That transformation was anchored by the institution of a blues bar named Rick’s, shades of Casablanca. I have to admit that I contributed heavily to the business there, driven by an unholy mix of civic pride, love of the blues and bourbon! But it also involved growing the burgeoning medical community, developing our junior college and a division of the University of Texas, and extending the fine arts of the city. It was a lot of fun to feel the synergy of civic commitment from the native talent in the Rose City. Tyler was the beating heart of East Texas, now providing a healthy flow of energy.
My part of the gig was to chair the Race Relations Task Force. Our intent was to improve the quality of race relations in Tyler and the surrounding area. Our tactic was to hold a series of public gatherings where we would ask people to talk about their experience of race in Tyler.
We began meeting in churches and civic places to invite folks to talk, but just as importantly, to listen. I was surprised to hear stories that spoke honestly to the racism that was experienced by people, in powerful and hurtful ways. We held weekly meetings, with an open mike that invited anyone to speak. As the chair, it was my work to keep some kind of order and to provide some guidance. But the real work was that of the people who came forward and spoke honestly and courageously as to their experience of racism. It represented a new day of honesty and transparency in Tyler , which some folks weren’t happy to see. It was simply not polite or proper to talk about such things. I am grateful to a number of the key civic leaders, some who were members of my parish, who defended me in my work of opening up this dialogue when it was suggested I take the proverbial Midnight Train BACK to Georgia.
It turned out that the Tyler Race Relations Race Relations was a timely addition to the civic landscape, some would say providential. That group provided a critical leverage point as we faced a racial crisis in Tyler, when a black grandmother was mistakenly shot in a botched drug raid by a sheriff’s deputy. This event was the spark that began an increased awareness of the inequity of rights within the community.
The aftermath of that tragedy brought the Texas NAACP to hold their state convention in Tyler, to highlight this inequality. In direct response, there was scheduled a simultaneous march on the Tyler Square by the Ku Klux Klan. You feeling me?
A member of my parish, Russell Watson, my idea of an irascible Texan, who had gone to Georgia Tech, dropped off a copy of John Grisham’s A Time To Kill, advising me to read it. It was too damn close for comfort. Without our work of listening in the community and the progressive community policing policy of our Chief of Police, Larry Robinson, it could have all gone to hell. People boarded up their businesses, some leaving town, but the Saturday of the meeting and march came and went without violence. A good day in my book, though several more train tickets were dropped off at my house. It brought national attention to my town in a good way, emphasizing the spirit of collaboration.
I told you all this history in order to set the table for this particular story. One of my co-laborers in the Task Force was a black woman named Velma Mosely. She was active in the NAACP and was “experienced” which is a code word for old. I am now an “experienced” priest.
Velma had been around the block a few times, and she knew Tyler well. In my book, she was the “mater familias”, the Mother of our community. When she talked, people listened, both blacks and whites. Velma was one of my allies, one that I counted on to know the “word on the street”. She was also a person known in community work as an “influencer”, as she could make things happen with her approval or disapproval. She had “stroke”.
After a particularly rousing Tyler Together Race Relations community meeting, Velma asked if she could speak to me privately. My mama didn’t raise no fool, so I said “yes”.
When we got away from the public and the press, she faced me. She looked me square in the eye, brown eye to brown eye. Velma put her right hand on my left shoulder. I can think of only one other way she could have gotten more of my attention, but she’s a Christian woman. She had my attention.
She began by praising me for the work I had been doing in race relations. She played her “trump” card by saying she rejoiced when she heard the new Episcopal priest was coming from Atlanta, that I knew the “Atlanta way”.
That’s when I got uncomfortable, because I had been around the block a few times too. She was setting me up. So I readied myself, but I never saw it coming.
“You talk and listen to black folks. And you’re good at it. You seem to care. But……”
Damn, here it comes.
“How many black folk have you had in your home? How many have you had over for dinner?”
I paused, and then she jumped in, “That’s too long!” playing off the old Bush Beans commercial.
We both laughed, discharging the electrical tension in the air when the Truth nears.
She was pushing me, landing a strategic punch right to my solar plexus. Was I serious about engaging people who were different than me? Am I really interested in getting with people in their lives and struggles? Was I willing to break bread, share our deepest hopes, dreams, and fears with folks, all folks, all? It was a breakthrough moment for me, delivered by an angel named Velma. And it was more than a lesson in race relations, which I needed. It was about life.
Velma was pushing me in a way no professor had: Are you willing to learn from everyone? Not just from a renowned scholar or expert in whatever field, but everyone who comes in your path?
Now, lately, I would love to have a long conversation with Velma about being able to learn from everyone. My encounter with Velma came before social media, so she didn’t know about trolls. Velma has gone on to join the angels, but her voice still lives in my soul, asking me if I am willing to learn from every person I encounter. I’m trying, I’m trying real hard.
In these days, living in the wake of George Floyd’s death, I have been moved to see blacks and whites walking together in protest to police brutality. The group was mixed, young and old, different races, different orientations, different religions. I was not able to check their financial portfolios. It gave me hope that maybe this may be a tipping point……or maybe not. The Parkland protest is still fresh in my memory, and it accomplished little because of the lobby money and influence. Politics does get in the way of righteousness.
As I am reflecting, I remember the terse reminder that the Sunday 11 o’clock hour is still the most segregated time in our land. We have seen change. I have had a black man serving as my bishop in Atlanta, and a black man serving as the Presiding Bishop in the national Episcopal church. That’s progress, but I don’t want to kid myself. We have a long way to go and the church may be too concerned with its institutional survival to make the wager. Maybe I need to look elsewhere. We’ll see.
I do know that the way forward involves talking and listening. In this season of an election, is that possible beyond the posturing, protecting one’s political interest? I don’t know.
Are we willing to talk, and listen to one another? As Velma would ask, are we willing to break bread together, get to know one another beyond our demographic categories? It’s clearly been too long.
But, can we talk? Will we?