About a month ago, my better, my parents, and I visited the ancestral homeland in rural Arkansas. A bit of a culture shock for my better half, as a POC and an immigrant, to make her way there, to say the least.
On Sunday, three of us (father, wisely perhaps, stayed in) went to a pentecostal style church with other members of the extended family.
I was kindly warned by other family members (ok, by my mother) and passed on some of those warnings to my better half.
But I didn’t think much of the warnings. I had, after all, been the pentecostal and evangelical churches before. Many times, in fact. Those were all African-American churches, and I didn’t realize how big a difference that would make.
The service itself (a little odd, for someone raised in the Episcopal tradition and presently an imperfect Catholic churchgoer) lacked ritual, but was, instead, twenty minutes of music and nearly two continuous hours of preaching.
Ahh… the preaching.
I give credit to any person who can pontificate (pun intended) for so long, but the content was absolutely horrifying to my own spiritual/religious/faith sensibilities.
The black prophetic tradition that I have encountered, even when talking about things that are wrong in the world, is ultimately, a positive one. Dr. King noted that he might not make it to the mountain, but the focus was not on that, but on the fact that the mountain was there and within reach of humanity.
For this (white) preacher, the focus was on despair and the negative. Yes, the positive (salvation is attainable) was mentioned, but the focus was on the negative. Same content, if you will, but emphasis matters. Oh, does it matter.
For most my time as a Catholic, I’ve had the fortune to have a wonderful sermonizer at the pulpit, in the form of a jovial priest named Father Byrne. Like most priests I have met, he’s a happy guy (based on my small sampling, job satisfaction seems through the roof for people who have taken orders). His sermons often opened with a challenge, but quickly moved to a loud and happily declaimed declaration along the lines of, “But I’ve got good news for you!”
The contrast was stark and, ultimately, horrifying to behold.
My better half luckily skipped the bible study before the service. Luckily, because there probably would have been altercation had the same comments been made while she was there as were made while she wasn’t (and I have to suspect that the person who made the most reprehensible remark lacks the self awareness to have picked up on the fact that saying what she said around a POC would be no less inappropriate, but wildly more personal offensive).
You’re probably wondering what she said, right?
Somehow, racism came up (along with the impending collapse of civilization, which one can’t help but feel they interpreted as ‘white civilization’) and a woman told the group about how her apparently perceptive/prophetic grandfather had, in the 1950s, predicted an eventual race war between white and black.
Now, a little reflection on that story might lead one to ask, what might have been happening in the 1950s to lead a white man in the South to say this?
Could it be a nascent civil rights movement? Could it have been early moves towards integration, like Truman’s integration of the military or the 1954 decision, Brown v Board?
But every seemed quietly acknowledge the woman as having made a valid point of some kind. Or maybe, like me, the rest of the attendees were cowards who said nothing.
I read this conversation between the poet Jenny Zhang and Nate Brown wherein a story is told about teaching a workshop where someone presents a story about several white college students in a mostly white town who encounter a black man who is, in the story, referred to/named as ‘Black.’
The teacher tries to drive the conversation towards some kind of dialogue about that, but no one seemed to get that referring to the only POC in the story by their color as being at all problematic.
That struck me, because I couldn’t help but think back to that moment at bible study… did the woman never stop to think that there might be more to this sixty year old prediction of a race war than mere insight?
And, once again, I call upon the wisdom of this line:
When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.