In June, I went to my first General Assembly, which is the annual membership meeting o the Unitarian Universalist Association. It was a electric experience. I thought to myself, after so many years of identifying as an atheist, I really am part of a religion. A very particular type of religion with certain basic tenets and and a wide amount of choice. This revelation comes after meeting with a dear friend recently who discovered the very same thing. The Unitarian Universalists lack a lot of things tat hold churches together. There is no fear of going to hell. In fact that was one of the things that drew the Universalists together. If there is no fear of eternal damnation, how do you hold people together?
I found in this gathering a lot of what holds us together. It is love. We have people who pray. We have people who are recovering from traditional Christianity. My friend is healing herself after having been part of a very strict cult similar to the Seventh Day Adventists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. And, as the joke goes, “there are a lot of atheists who haven’t kicked the religion habit.”
One of my favorite hymns includes a line “even to question, truly, is an answer.” Going to General Assembly exposed me to a wide variety of African-Americans. I saw people who were part of a walkout many years ago when the church lost thousands of African-American members over its failure to follow through on a commitment it had made to them. I saw people the the Black Lives Matter to Unitarian Universalists and the Diverse Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Ministries. In my upcoming blogs I will describe some of these experiences in great detail. There is always more to the story.
Nor was I cooked and eaten by hungry people. What I was asked how our Black lives matter meeting went, that was my response. One and one half days have passed and I am still alive. We have begun the trip and are fairly civilized. The group includes people who are fairly active in matters of racial justice and me. For me, racial justice lately has been the ability to earn a living without fear of eviction and having the same benefits as my co-workers. For people who don’t know, being a peer support specialist is my fourth or fifth career and it is the one the has lasted the longest. I have been a librarian, a cooperative developer, a grant writer and a day care worker. Since those other careers faded away, one can conclude that either I was not especially skilled or I am better suited for what I am doing now. These jobs sometimes paid decent money but unfortunately did not last more than a few years.
Peer support has often been a low paying career in which I had to fight to earn a living wage. I am wearing the first pair of glasses ever bought with company provided vision benefits. Either my previous jobs didn’t have vision benefits or I didn’t use them. Making my life matter meant a lot of pain and struggle to survive. There was also a lot of acting out and fairly embarrassing behavior that ruined relationships. My current life is the most stable I have felt for a long time.
I now feel as though I have something to offer such as the value of my experience. I know what it means to feel ashamed that you need to depend on your family for support well into adulthood. I know about having your payroll check bounce. I know what bad and good employers are like. These are all things I bring to the struggle to making black lives matter in Milwaukee. I was the only African-American at the table for our first meeting at the First Unitarian Society, a situation I hope to change. I hope to venture out and become a part of some of the struggles my fellow members have been involved with and make a difference. I will share my vision, now that it is clear what I can see.
In the ideal world we would begin like the picture above and keep seeking out a wide variety of people to be in our lives. I have talked about Patricia Raybon’s book My First White Friend which centered on her experience as a child of integration and the change that came over her when a young white girl started talking with her. Raybon continued to experience isolation as an adult. After a career in journalism, she began teaching at a mostly white state university in Colorado. There she met and quickly married her husband, a very light skinned African-American.
In her classrooms, she was surrounded by a sea of white faces. But I did not get the sense that she was talking white her white co-workers either faculty or other staff. How where they responding to her? Did they think she was too angry? Did they tell funny stories?
The idea of reaching out across the life span made me get back in touch with my best friend during a turbulent time in my life when I was underemployed and wondering what to do. We both ended up going back to school to become librarians. I sent her a message reminding her never to underestimate the power that friendship can have. She didn’t show me the answers but with her help I was able to find my way.
Now in my mid 60’s I am hoping not to end up like one of the characters from I’m Not Rappaport. Ossie Davis, the African American old man was stuck there on a park bench with an irascible, foul tempered old white man, played by Walter Matthau. It was an entertaining movie but it would not be a life I would choose. Let’s have a nice tossed salad of people in our lives.
When I returned to the website of the First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee I saw information about events that the church made been organizing around the issue of Black Lives Matter. And so I felt more motivated. And I went for a walk. I had read that everything political starts with a personal choice. There was a movie on PBS by a man who lost his father to diabetes and his father was around my age. My heart skips a beat when I hear that people in my age group are dying from preventable diseases. The best way I can act as if I believe my my matters is my taking care of it.
Today I am proud to say I met my fitness goals. I am taking good care of the body my parents gave me. Almost as important, I sent a text message to a dear friend whose support helped me through a difficult time in my life. I said never underestimate the power of friendship. Patricia Raybon talked about the need for interracial friendships. I think this is something we need throughout our lives. We must maintain empathy for people who look and speak differently from ourselves.
It is true that we share different parts of ourselves with the people we meet. At the all black office where I am located most of the time, I talk with them about the Fondy Market a place where we can meet positive people including those who look like us. This is important because unfortunately in mental health, we are often dealing with people who are at their worst. That is why we need their help.
At the church I am a quirky older man who pops in once in a blue moon.
But what am I to you and why are you reading me?
After I wrote a blog post earlier this afternoon I happened to see a few pictures that interested me. I saw a picture of the police chief, whose name is Brown, and discovered his nice dark complexion, the same as mine. When I checked some other pictures of Dallas police comforting people I saw the same thin. That if twisted young Micah Johnson had wanted to start a race war, he had come to the wrong place. Maybe. When I was growing up, my friends and I spoke of the police as an army of occupation. I never recall seeing a black or brown person wearing a badge of any sort. There were no black teachers in the white high school I attended.
In the past few fear, African Americans have gained some positions of power and authority. Mayors, governors and lo and behold, our two term president. I would be interested in knowing how the criminal justice system has changed in Dallas with Chief Brown. For change to take place, we need to evolve from an army of occupation to a family of cooperation. What do the statistics tell us?
Patricia Raybon devoted a chapter to the trauma she experienced when her father, when her father fought and won a battle to build a house in a previously all white section of a suburb of Denver. She was exposed to hatred and ridicule by strangers simply because she was a very dark skinned girl. In school, she was shunned and even ignored by teachers who ignored her protests that her name was Patricia and called her Pat instead.
In the lunchroom a student flung peaches on her hair, which the teacher ignored. It was a time when she almost felt like becoming invisible. But she couldn’t go talk to her father because he was fighting his own battles. H had provided what he thought was best for his family which was a solid roof over their heads in a good neighborhood. It was her job to figure it out.
And suddenly a solution appeared. A blond haired girl named Kerry Monroe said hello one day. And slowly Patricia turned from an object of ridicule to be avoided into a girl with desires, hopes and dreams. She spent a lot of time with Kerry in a normalizing process. After a while, however, she made friends with other students and even became popular. Later on, she regretted moving on from Kerry and even sought her out. How many of you have been in this situation where you were the Kerry Monroe and sought out the black student in your room?
I found myself in similar circumstances in the 1960s and discovered my own version of Kerry Monroe, a friend with whom I listened to the Beatles, the BBC Radio and tried to figure it out. And similarly, I moved on and found a crowd that shared interests with me. I wonder how many people are finding that these same dynamics of racial ridicule and being treated as the other apply to us as adults. How many of us seek out friendships with people who look or sound different from ourselves.
How comfortable are we with people from racial and ethnic backgrounds outside of our own? Because of de facto segregation, we can still live a lot of our lives in a world of our own making away from Asians, Africans, Whites and others we wish to shun. Or we can live intentionally in a rich mosaic in our own and other people’s cultures It is a choice we are free to make because we had our first interracial friendship.
Today I picked up a book Waking up White by Debby Irving. It seems to be the perfect companion to My First White Friend by Patricia Raybon. Patricia was the daughter of a government worker and a veteran fighting against segregation and racism. Debby Irving was born in 1960 the daughter of a privileged New England family who almost never was forced to think about race. Whereas Patricia is very dark and confronts the question of racism and color consciousness among African-Americans. To help lighten the load I also picked up some quick reading Walter Mosley novels. Mosley discusses race while his characters solve mysteries and try not to be killed.
It is impossible to imagine how white and isolated from reality Debby Irving was in her WASP world. She described it as being something out of 1960s television show, Father Knows Best where dad commuted to work, nothing controversial was ever discussed and they rarely if ever saw African Americans or other people of color. It wasn’t that they were overly racist, they just never saw us.
Her story is one of self discovery and coming to grips with the idea she was unprepared for the real world. Perhaps some of white white readers have been in the position of Debby and can relate to her experience.