Etched in my memory on a daily basis these days are the Black men who have been killed over the last several months by people whose task it was to protect and serve them. As a black, queer trans-identified male, who is also aware of the violence too often inflicted upon queer and Trans bodies by people in authority, I carry a fear for my own life that is real. If there is any good news in this, it is that I don’t have to shoulder this reality or my fears alone. I have family and friends who love me and understand the broader issues involved, and I can speak plainly about these things at church.
When the grand jury decision in the Michael Brown shooting was announced, community members of First Parish Cambridge rallied. Along with organizing a group to travel together to a protest of that decision the next evening, plans were set in motion to hold a community conversation after worship that Sunday to talk about how folks were feeling and what we could do. Our Senior Minister, Rev. Fred Small, even changed his sermon to address the harsh realities of racism and white supremacy, and the harm that systems of oppression do to all of us.
When we gathered for the conversation, we didn’t get all of our questions answered. That wasn’t the point. The clear and caring facilitation of two of our members, Karin Lin and Susan Leslie, created a safe space to share what had come up for us. Click here to see our Ferguson Conversation Guide. Every person was also willing to listen and be open. What I have said time and again reigned true that afternoon – we will never understand that which we have not been intentional about making room for.
Perhaps more than anything, this conversation (and others that will follow) was a recognition of who and what we value. We have spent centuries reveling in our ability as a nation to excel in science, writing, math and the like. But we’ve spent very little time, all things considered, learning how to talk about race, racial identity and the very real impact racial disparities have on all of our lives. It helped me feel valued that someone thought it important to reframe the course of my Sunday in the aftermath of devastating news that implicates my place in the wider world. Being valued is something we all want, not regardless of, but because of the various identities that make us who we are. Actually recognizing and celebrating the value of every person in community is work that’s worth doing. So my hope, going forward, is that we can all commit to doing a few things:
• Acknowledge the discomfort. Acknowledging and understanding the ways in which racial disparities play out in our homes, schools, workplaces, and especially our churches is hard. It just is, and remaining silent about it won’t make it any less uncomfortable.
• Listen actively. Most often, we can only see beyond our own lens not by talking, but by listening. Putting ourselves in positions to hear the stories of people who are most deeply impacted by racial disparities will grow our heart and head muscles, and at this moment in our nation’s history, we can’t afford not to listen or grow.
• Understand the significance of #blacklivesmatter. Shifting the focus to #alllivesmatter erases the realities of systemic racism and, in order to deal with that problem, we have to be willing to face it head on. Rev. Daniel S. Schatz’s excellent response to a community member who requested that he take down the “Black Lives Matter” signage posted outside the BuxMont Unitarian Universalist Fellowship is most instructive and really well done.
• Widen the circle. We cannot adequately address these issues within the confines of our own understanding. We have to go out and build relationships that can broaden our viewpoints, whether that’s by offering deeper learning within our own faith communities or by partnering with other communities and organizations who care about these issues. And however we widen the circle, we must do so giving primary voice to people of color in shaping the nature of the conversation and the collaboration.
In a moment like this, I am reminded of a song we often sing on Sunday morning. “Just as long as I have breath, I must answer, ‘Yes,’ to life.” (SLT #6) It is true, you know. We must – all of us – precisely for all the reasons why people like Mike Brown and Eric Garner can’t anymore. And in order to do that with integrity, we are called to step more fully into shifting the tides of racial inequity that have plagued this country for generations. We must help carry this torch, in all of our discomfort and uncertainty and with all our hopefulness and a willingness to be challenged and changed. Don’t wait. If not us, who? If not now, when? I’m tired of my people dying. Aren’t you?
Rev. Mykal Slack
P.S. If you plan to attend the National March against Police Brutality in Washington, DC this weekend click here for more details. And if you and/or your congregation have been already been taking action for racial justice in solidarity with Ferguson click here to share.
Rev. Mykal Slack is the Community Life Coordinator at First Parish Cambridge, the Director of Worship for the Sanctuary Boston and the Founder & Lead Organizer of 4LYFE Ministries, an Associated Ministry of Metropolitan Community Churches.