I live in the city that was once the Confederate capital, Richmond, Virginia. We have a road that runs right smack through the city called Monument Avenue. It is what it sounds like, an avenue that contains monuments, most of which are commemorating personalities and figures of the Confederacy, save for the lone monument commemorating the city’s native son, Arthur Ashe.
Unless you’ve been living in a cave or have quarantined yourself from any news channel like you have COVID-19, you’ve seen our “little” statues in the national (and probably international) news. There is major controversy, debate, and outrage over these monuments and whether or not they deserve a place in public.
Those in favor of the monuments continue to claim that tearing them down is erasing history. In my mind, that is a whole other post altogether. Last time that I checked, history was marked by more than monuments prevalently displayed in very public areas. Museums. Parks. Books. I don’t know, seems there are plenty of ways to preserve history….but I digress.
A few years ago, I attended a conference in Richmond put on by an organization that does great work towards racial reconciliation with action and education. It was a wake-up call for me. I’d had my head in the sand for far too long. I transformed myself into an intellectual sponge and have been reading a lot since then.
It’s been a journey and continues to be such, a process of transformation and change, and learning and unlearning, as a friend so eloquently put it.
I have been privileged to have friends of color and to be invited into spaces where honest dialogue can be had. When I’m in doubt or questioning or genuinely confused, I have been grateful to have friends, colleagues, and mentors whom I can call. I trust them. I respect them. I am blessed to be on a journey with them as guides and teachers.
When I’m uncertain, I become far more quiet than I am used to being. In fact, when I come to a place of uncertainty, people who don’t know me would most likely label me an introvert.
I’ve not always been this way. I’m far from perfect, but I’ve done a LOT of work to get to where I am today. It’s been painful, I’ve screwed up far too often, and I can easily slip back into my own biases and preconceived notions.
Last week, during a conversation at a meeting I was attending, the conversation turned towards current events, specifically protests and demonstrations. As we talked through all that was happening around us, one of my African American colleagues and ministry partners said, “They don’t speak for me.” His words have been reverberating in my head since he said them.
I keep hearing those words over and over in my head as I watch so many people rising up to take a stand, but as one friend described it, it’s a flashpan moment – a big flash and then…….nothing.
I watched a video last week of a time when Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy and head of the Equal Justice Initiative, spoke at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer, spoke as well.
In the course of Keller’s talk, he said that justice always requires sacrifice. I can’t stop thinking of that.
When I put those two deep thoughts together, I keep asking myself what I am sacrificing so that my black and brown brothers and sisters have a voice. If I speak for them, I still maintain control and power, but if I let them speak for themselves, I relinquish power and control to them. If I give them authority, then their voice gets louder and louder, that authority becomes a megaphone for their voice.
I’m not saying that protests and demonstrations aren’t worthwhile, but I am asking the question of what happens when the dust settles and it’s all over? What is left?
Just like the end of the Civil War didn’t stop racism nor did the Emancipation Proclamation, protests and demonstrations won’t either.
Again, please hear what I’m NOT saying here. I am NOT saying that there isn’t a place for protests and demonstrations, but what am I doing ALONG with protesting and demonstrating? Am I getting dirty? Am I sacrificing for justice?
It’s a convicting and vulnerable question to ask if we really let it unpeel us. As much headway as I feel I have personally made, I’ve still got such a long way to go. My own Christian faith tells me that it’s more of a journey than an arrival, a process rather than a destination.
Two dear friends who have been part of my faith community went to a park in Richmond the other day. They had set aside the day for themselves and were enjoying the weather in this park.
While in the park, they met two young African American men. They started a conversation with them, asking them questions, listening, and hearing about how they are feeling in the midst of all that is happening around them. In the words of my friends, “It was a blessing.” At the end of their time together, despite our current pandemic, they shook hands (I’m sure they all disinfected afterwards).
That handshake, to me, represented something so significant and special. Despite the current pandemic, that handshake said, “I see you, I hear you, I value you.”
In my growing experience, I am realizing that it is the slow and deliberate work of relationships that makes the most difference. I can’t change you. You can’t change me. But I can change me and you can change you. Sometimes, when we allow ourselves to be changed, others can see the change and are stirred and moved by it. It’s an evangelism of sorts, it’s bearing witness.
So, I’ll still take part in protests and demonstrations, I’ll still speak up and stand up, but when I hang up my signs and take off my protesting shoes, what am I doing in the regular places of my life to ensure that I am pursuing justice? Am I making sacrifices for justice? If not, I had better ask myself if I really want justice as badly as I say I do.