Urban Geography, Spiritual Geography

As a senior in high school, I took a class in urban geography with Mr. Cason.

Frankly, it was an excuse to ride around the city in our cars, go to one of the first Chik-Fil-As on the planet, and goof off. That’s what I thought….that was “the deal”, as we would say.

But what happened during that one quarter made a huge impact on me.

I was paired with a fellow senior, Bron Rutkowski. Bron looked like what “Bron” sounded like.

He was a football player from Central Casting, who transferred to Briarwood in East Point from somewhere North….I want to say New Jersey, but I’d be guessing. Bron was incredibly bright, but he was cut from a different piece of cloth. I once found Bron banging his head against the locked locker room door right after we lost a squeaker football game, the last game of the season. Bron was smart enough to leave his helmet on as he was head-banging, so you have to give him that.

Bron wound up going to Rutgers for college, and played ball for the Scarlet Knights. Can you imagine being a sportscaster, getting to say “Tackle by Bron Rutkoski”? Me either.

My other memory of Bron was our sharing a picture in the annual as one of the Senior Superlatives, whatever the hell that meant. In the picture, I was seated next to Margaret Taylor, my long-time friend from Mt. Olive Elementary. She had done a superb job playing Mother Superior in our high school production, Sound of Music. Margaret is one of those childhood friends that you wish you had kept up with through life. I am fortunate to have a few of those.

Also in the picture was Tommy Elder. Legend has it that Tommy and I were both in the nursery together at Oakland City Baptist Church. Our mothers were close friends. Tommy had blond hair and mine, black. He and I would room together in seventh grade on the Safety Patrol trip to Washington D.C. where we ran into some fast women 7th graders from High Point, North Carolina. Discretion dictates that I’ll have to leave the details out. Funny, in chasing down some of this information, I was reminded that Tommy and my senior pictures were side-by-side in the annual. An odd connection that we maintained throughout our lives. He died of cancer a while back. His mother died early with cancer as well which prompted his deep questioning of the nature of this universe. I valued our conversations of depth and his pressing the envelope for answers.

And Bron rounded out the quartet, as we had our pictures taken in the furniture department at Rich’s at Greenbriar. I was in my Fall Muse’s suit that I put on my mom’s charge account…..I was a dangerous man in those days with a charge card at Muse’s……Hickey Freeman was my go-to blazer.

Bron and I took it upon ourselves to do our urban geography project to explore the changing demographics in south Atlanta. There had already begun to be some blacks moving into the Cascade Road area, which was a little north of our stomping ground. Bron and I were bright enough/stupid enough to do some interviewing in the neighborhood on Cascade. What I recall was that there was around 10% of the homes being owned by blacks, in a neighborhood that had been completely white, probably from the time Gen. Sherman drove through on his March to the Sea.

We brilliantly noted that there were a growing number of For Sale signs on the streets. That, my friends, is called “observational skills”, otherwise known as “stating the obvious”.

Bron and I, being naively innocent, decided to knock on doors and interview neighbors who had For Sale signs in their yards in order to ascertain their rationale for selling their homes. What people said can not be written here verbatim, but it expressed a sentiment that was captured in the sociological phrase “white flight”.

This was in the Fall of 1971, and there had begun a migration of white home owners out of South Atlanta to a locale further south, into Fayetteville and Peachtree City. Bron and I scientifically, for high school seniors, determined and projected that the introduction of black families into the white neighborhoods would result in the white families leaving the southside en masse. Bron and I were incredibly brilliant….or did I say that already.

And it happened pretty much as we called it. My neighborhood emptied out pretty quickly, although my folks and Danny Hall’s folks stayed until retirement. Even my white South of God church wound up selling the land and building to a black congregation as the membership dwindled as members moved south.

This whole experience got me thinking about demographics, and trends, and urban areas, and change. It’s amazing to find that high school actually made me think about the world in which I lived. From that point on, I paid attention to the population movements, how and why they changed. I was sensitive, that is, I was mindful of how we live and don’t live together as people.

I had been struck early on in my life by the quote attributed to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King: “The 11:00 hour on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in this country.” The truth of this floored me, as I had a rather innocent view of how my faith had been presented to me. We are all God’s children, I remember the Sunday school line went. But I noticed that we sure as hell did not live together, eat together, and surely not worship together. In fact, my pastor was removed from his position due to his public stances on race, attempting to open up our church to blacks moving into the neighborhood. Some of the deacons weren’t too keen on that. So they made him a Rhodes Scholar, telling him to “hit the road, scholar!” I should have learned the lesson about the nature of church then. Guess I didn’t turn out to be all that brilliant, huh?

In college, I became more sophisticated in my analysis, studying Lyndon Johnson and the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, and notably its effect on Southern politics. I paid particular attention to the Civil Rights movement, and was amazed by the non-violence that seemed to follow the teachings of Jesus, the one I had been told that I should follow and emulate: “Be like Jesus!”, they told me. Why then were some of the Christians that I knew getting so angry and upset by the folks who were calling for rights for all people? To go to school, to vote, to live where they wanted? To be treated with dignity and respect seemed to be a bridge too far.

In seminary, I worked in my contextual ed. classes in the projects, working with black kids who had a tough way to grow up. In my first job in the Episcopal church, I worked with street people, finding them remarkably resilient, but who found it difficult to gain leverage in order to make it out of poverty. Later, I moved to Texas, behind the Pine Curtain, and found a lot of the same attitudes around race, and a divide in terms of where folks lived. And the old insight as to the 11:00 o’clock hour was true there too.

Truth is, that hasn’t changed all that much. While blacks have gained rights, we still are separated in many ways. An old black woman in Tyler, Texas, Miss Velma Mosely, asked me a question privately, not wanting to embarrass me publicly, as I was working hard to make progress in race relations in East Texas. She asked straight up: Dr. Galloway, how many blacks have you had to your house to share a meal? And my answer was embarrassing to my soul. She was talking about my home, and she was right. But my mind also contemplated my house of worship, and the altar/table there. My spiritual geography needed some work.

The issue of race that Bron and I sniffed out innocently some fifty years ago is still in play. This past year, with the shocking images of a knee on a neck of a black man by a white cop brought it into sharp focus again. It sparked a series of protests and marching in the streets of my city and across this country. And we still don’t seem to know how to talk about it, to enter into real dialogue, to learn from one another. We have a long way to go in this country, don’t you think?

This week, we got a verdict that signals police that they can not be careless in how they treat human beings. Cameras are recording these days and you just might wind up on Candid Camera, for all the world to see. Maybe if it’s too heavy a lift for our heart, our phone cameras may drive the change. It may have served notice that will make people think twice next time, but we’ll see. I just felt sad for this particular man, George Floyd, and his family. But there are many more.

Blaming, and feeling guilty doesn’t seem to be enough. We have to think this through. My grandfather who was an Atlanta cop on a black beat was a huge proponent of training. He was called on to be a psychologist, a social worker, a school counselor, an enforcer, and a servant leader….but he was a rare breed who loved people, and who took his faith seriously, particularly as an officer of the law. He was an advocate for training, as was his partner, Chief Herbert Jenkins, who led the way in progressive community policing.

To train our police better, to add persons who can respond mindfully to the myriad of issues that our public servants face on the street. To not allow bad cops to just move on to another jurisdiction, which happens all the time with no national registry. All this troubles me, but I am hoping this past year has taught us something. I am hopeful.

But what troubles me the most is what I find still true in my world. That 11:00 remains the most segregated time in our country. Maybe that’s just the way it is, the way it has been, the way it will always be. I remember that phrase from a Broadway musical, Purlie, as the old white plantation owner, the Captain, tries to ‘splain things to his innocent grandson. The way it HAS to be, the Captain says.

Race remains the number one issue that we still have to work out. Underneath it all, slavery is the original sin of our country, and we, being “good” people, had to come up with a rationale, a theology even, to support our decision to go along with it. You HAVE to buy into white supremacy in order to make your soul go along with the deal. Most folks I know won’t say that publicly, because it’s natively offensive. But, my soul is troubled that the church, us folks who say we believe in a God of love, the Creator of ALL, we just don’t seem to get it, do we? Why do you think that is?

I am now living in a county where Ahmaud Arbery was shot down while he was jogging through a neighborhood, a neighborhood not unlike the one I grew up in, an area just like the one Bron and I studied. But I am no longer innocent, nor am I naive. I know better.

That trial looms in the near future. And I have been moved to see clergy and laity of various races and traditions call for justice, to stand up for the rights of ALL people. But, I still see that 11:00 hour, with marked divisions that make me pause. I pause to think: what can I do? How can I be the change that I want to see happen? This is no academic question, no sociological query. It’s about my very soul.

When I drive around my neighborhood, on my little island, through the streets of Brunswick, in the county of Glynn, what is my way of living out the love I say I want to have for my neighbor? What, in the world, does love look like? I know it’s not simple, but Miss Velma’s question still stings about my spiritual geography. Where and who do you sit down with at the table? I am not liking my answer.

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