One of the things I get to do as a Pastor is be on the board for the SUNY Albany Protestant Campus Ministry. I’m not sure I always feel “adult enough” to be on any sort of board of directors, but if I had a first board to pick from, this would be the sort. We meet monthly at the Interfaith center on campus, and our meetings are followed by “Food and Faith,” where a different congregation each week provides a home-cooked meal for the college students and then leads a sacred conversation or evening devotion. This semester the campus minister has begun gathering students and speakers for a monthly “Justice and Java,” at Professor Java’s Coffee Sanctuary in Albany. This week the conversation was about Black Lives Matter, and we had three speakers, including a member of the Labor-Religion Coalition, Rev. Dr. Roxanne Booth, who is also on the board, and one of the students who grew up in Africa and first encountered racism as an international student here in the States.
So this week I went to that presentation and listened while white and black students and adults shared their of racism, of micro-agressions (like being followed by security while shopping, no matter how you dress and speak), of hopes for the future. One student, barely twenty years old, said she doubted we would be any better at race relations in her lifetime, though she hoped we could learn something. One of the nearly-retired clergy pointed out that we are still basically where we were during the civil rights movement when it comes to race relations. Consider, he said, the white pastors who told MLK, Jr., that the movement just needed to wait, slow down, calm down. We talked about aggression and communication and how hard it is to be mix-race when even within families colorism (valuing lighter skin tones above darker ones) becomes a point of conflict.
And what I heard there in that conversation was freedom, and safety, and pain, and honest sharing of stories without fear of judgment. When we take one another seriously, and believe the stories people tell about their experiences, that’s when healing and reconciliation and justice can begin to build. Just as we welcomed the stories and experiences of addicts and their families last month, though we all have different levels of experience with Heroin, some no exposure at all. What’s important is that we believe one another’s experiences, that we hold one another’s stories as sacred.
Consider it from the point of view of any oppression. Consider, for example, a woman who is catcalled repeatedly, or constantly told to ‘smile,’ who may have been harassed and now finds any sort of flirtatious attention unwelcome and uncomfortable. Do we take her word for it and stop telling her to smile, or do we tell her to lighten up and learn how to take a compliment?
The next day I sat at Whittier for awhile and watched the nurses and the patients and wondered about their lives before that place. Where did the man in the orange hat come from before he started walking up and down those hallways telling the nurses it was time to milk the cows? What about the woman in blue who looks to be no more than 65 and pages through the magazines in the afternoons? What was her life like before? How little we know about each other when we only trust what we see and assume at first blush! It’s only sad if we continue to think they’re only what we see right now in front of us. Aren’t you more complicated than the job you did or didn’t get to do today?
Take a look at a life you think you know, and delve a bit more deeply into it. Perhaps it’s the story of your spouse, your parent, your child, your neighbor, or even your self. Scripture is full of contradictions, and so are we, made in the image of God. Listen for the minority voices that have no advocate and consider how life, like ecosystems, is made richer by diversity. Remember, too, that you are also somebody’s idea of strange and different. Isn’t it wonderful?