A Sermon by the Rev. Barbara Mraz
June 28, 2020
In the name of God who calls us to connection and correction.
I’m drowning in a sea of virtual words: words about the virus, words about race, words on MPR in the car, words on Facebook and emails, words in online newspapers, words in books words from the church…. Sometimes I feel like Austrian Emperor Joseph felt about a new opera by a young composer named Mozart in the movie (ignore the subtitles), “Amadeus.”
Too many notes? I don’t think that’s possible. Too many words: yes.
What makes it all so strange is that so few of these words are spoken in person. The isolation and distancing is taking a toll on communication. Few of us feel really heard. George Bernard Shaw: “The greatest illusion about communication is that it happened.”
Many of the words I’m hearing now are trying to convince white people to change our minds, our behavior, our attitudes towards race in America. There are old ideas to root out, histories to correct, prejudices to unmask, all in “the fierce urgency of now,” as King said.
As a white person I feel overwhelmed, I feel convicted, and I want to change, to learn, to connect, to correct. I’m afraid of making a mistake and giving offense, scared I’ll lose my footing on this uneven ground, paralyzed by too many virtual words.
However, these words from today‘s Epistle to the Romans written 1900 years ago, could not be more succinct, timely, and prophetic: “So what advantage did you get, then, from the things of which you are now ashamed?”
Are there advantages you received for which you are now “ashamed?” We could all give a list, but does shame motivate—or just create defensiveness and hurt? The learning curve for whites now is appropriately steep, but becoming an instant activist to dismantle racist programs is not where some of us can start.
In today’s short Gospel, the word “welcome” appears seven times. We welcome people, of course, but are also called to welcome new ideas that challenge our minds and connect to our hearts. I suggest that a form of “welcome” can be to offer your own vulnerability, with the hope that it will lead to connection and then correction.
So I want to back up for a minute and look at some of the underpinnings of change. I’m going to tell you about three things that happened to me which taught me about race, myself, other people, and the vulnerability that can lead to connection.
First: At The Blake School, I did several speeches for the faculty and student body and so was approached by the Director of Diversity, an elegant, Eastern black woman, and asked to be the keynote and wrap-up speaker at a national diversity conference she was organizing to be held at a conference center in Chaska, probably about 2005. Why me? Not sure.
When I arrived at the conference, I realized that 80% of those there were not white. Time to revise the opening speech, cut out the stupid Garrison Keillor jokes about Scandinavian farmers that seemed totally wrong in this context, and build the speech around my fairly recent awareness that I have a race, and am not some central body around which other, lesser planets revolve.
It went okay, given the fact that the only other time I had been in a room with predominantly people of color was 1969 when I was one of only four white people at an Ike and Tina Turner concert at the old Mpls. Auditorium. It was fabulous, but this was before all the accounts came out about Ike’s abuse of Tina. So often the suffering of women is crouching right beneath the issue of race in America.
We were told that one of the five nights we were at the conference, we would participate in a University of Minnesota simulation of the Underground Railroad. We wouldn’t know which night ahead of time or what it would involve.
So, three nights into the conference, about nine o’clock as we were about to head to our rooms, the directive came to get ready to go. Wear long pants – there are mosquitoes. Wear a hat if you have one. Don’t, for heaven’s sake, bring a purse,
Feeling it was kind of a lark at this point, our band of about thirty set off in the moonlight and walked into the dense woods as directed. We soon sobered up as our two “conductors “told to us to move it, hurry up, as we climbed down hillsides, slipping, sliding, hanging on to tree branches, falling. There was no light except the moon and the leaders’ two lanterns.
Then “Run! “yelled our leader as the sound of dogs barking closed in on us. We ran, truly afraid and disoriented now, then finally were signaled to stop and rest.
But soon—“The water, get in the water. Crouch down. The slavecatchers aren’t far back!” And we got into the water, as I wondered how deep is this anyway? Isn’t it the Mississippi? The mosquitoes buzzed in our faces as we heard the whisper: “Crouch down. Wait. Don’t even breathe.”
At this point, something happened to me, I guess you’d call it a panic attack now. I muttered, “I can’t do this…I can’t do this.” My pulse was pounding, my mouth dry, I was dizzy, thought I would faint.
“You have to. We can’t leave you behind. “
Two tall African-American men came up to me, each grabbing an arm. “We’ve got you. We’re going.” And they pushed me through the last section of our journey, until we looked up and saw the brightly-lit conference center above on the hill
It was embarrassing to be white and a failure at the Underground Railroad. Talk about an example of white fragility.
Did I appropriate this black historical experience wrongly? Maybe. But I was invited and I wanted to learn, and I was able to use that experience in my wrap-up speech to illustrate what I had learned race, humility and grace. We were able to laugh about it later, at my expense. Even forced vulnerability can lead to genuine connections.
Two: Back in the day, I was having lunch after church at Fabulous Fern’s restaurant on Selby with some friends. Three beautiful black women walked in and sat down at a table nearby. They were gorgeous, impeccably-dressed, having a great time, and I was mesmerized by their appearance and their energy.
So, not believing I was doing it as I did it, before leaving I walked over to their table and said, “I hope this isn’t inappropriate but I have to tell you that you are all just so lovely sitting here…” Pause. Then they began laughing, thanking me, and said they were all sisters (as relatives). They said they had been in the Guthrie production of “Crowns,” a term referring to the hats black women would wear to church.
Then one said, “Honey, you don’t look that great.”
And then I found myself confessing that because of a recent divorce (boohoo) I was conscious (sniff sniff) of women out together having fun and they were so inspiring—and I really had to go.
They said, “No, pull up a chair and sit down.” They were all talking now.
“Honey, he’s just taking out your trash.”
“Girlfriend, you’re going to be fine. Sit down…”
“I can’t I have to go – my friends over there” and it killed me to leave, but as I did one grabbed my hand, looked into my eyes and said, “Girlfriend, you’re free.” Which proved to be correct.
In her book, The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd writes,
“Once in a while, in a brief timeout; the boxing bell rings and you go to your corner, where somebody dabs mercy on your beat-up life.”
Critics would say that I made a mistake here in making it all about me and my pain (yes, white fragility). But this was about gender first and race secondly and finding common ground in a heartbeat as so often happens with women. It was about leaving your table, risking vulnerability and making a connection.
Third example: written last fall. I shop at the Midway Target. I like the diversity there. Statistically, there is more crime than say, in Highland: purse-snatching, shoplifting, panhandling, even robbery. However, I keep my head up and my eyes open, watch my purse, and lock it in the car before unloading groceries into the trunk.
So, I had to return this darned thing I decided I hated. It was a tea cart, of all things. It didn’t fit in the trunk but I managed to wedge it into the back seat of my Honda and then quickly slam the door shut.
So, I drive to Target and I can’t get it out of the back seat. I yank on it, I push it, I move stuff, I say, “Are you freaking kidding me?” several times.
I try forcing the front seat forward and ultimately the stupid thing gets stuck partway out the door. I’m wondering who to call, what to do. when an older black man with bushy hair and a baseball hat comes up to me smiling and says, “I’m going to help you.”
“Just a minute here,” I’m thinking, since I’m wondering if this is a trick or a con or if he would demand to be paid, or snatch my purse off the front seat. At that moment he was “the other” — black and male and I was white and female and it was Midway.
Before I could say anything, he started working on the tea cart. He asked me to go around to the other side and push it towards him. Walking around the car, I said, “I’m too fat to get through here.”
A conversation starts: “You’re not fat. My wife’s always saying that. I’m fat. I’m fat. None of you is fat.”
His name, I learned, was Walter and after fifteen minutes or so of really hard work, the stupid tea cart was out.
“God is good, “he said. “Now I need a hug.”
There was a brief hug and I told him I could not thank him enough and … he smiled, did a little nod, waved and went into the store.
Let me confess my unintentional but embedded racism here. I saw the man coming towards me as a threat because of his color and gender and because of where I was, but what I learned from Walter was the importance of confidence in helping another person, such as a black man stepping up to help a white woman who didn’t ask for it. My vulnerability led to a connection, no matter how short-lived.
Using the Parable of the Good Samaritan as an example, the British priest Sam Wells writes, ”This is not a moralistic tale that affirms us as energetic and resourceful benefactors of the neglected needy in our neighborhoods and communities. You’re not their benefactor. You’re not the answer to their prayer. They’re the answer to yours.” In all three examples I gave you, this was the case.
These are some of the stories of what I learned from my black teachers who all cared for me. The key word here is stories, shared experience, to add to the scandalous, unearthed histories that should sicken us all.
The common denominator for my stories has been vulnerability. What do we share with each other? A phrase I love is his: “What is most personal is most universal.” Or as Susan Moss says, “Deepest to the heart, widest to the world.”
Maybe there will be guides to help you in your panic by a river, soul mates to be found in a restaurant, a Walter to help you in the parking lot somewhere. Maybe there is a connection to be made. Maybe we will reach out our hands with more confidence. The great irony of these times is that just as we need to draw closer, physically, we must stay farther apart. But we can talk to each other, those safely within range.
In her acceptance for the Nobel Prize for Literature, Toni Morrison said that at some point, it is sharing our stories that will save us: “Stop thinking about saving your face. Think of our lives and tell us your particularized world. … Tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light….”
At the end of her speech she talks about some children telling a story to an old black woman they at first made fun of but have come to love: “(We will tell you) about a wagonload of slaves, how they sang so softly their breath was indistinguishable from the falling snow. How they knew from the hunch of the nearest shoulder that the next stop would be their last. How …… they thought of heat, then sun. Lifting their faces as though it was there for the taking.
“They stop at an inn. The driver and his mate go in with the lamp leaving them humming in the dark. The horse’s void steams into the snow beneath its hooves and its hiss and melt are the envy of the freezing slaves.
“The inn door opens: a girl and a boy step away from its light. They climb into the wagon bed. The boy will have a gun in three years, but now he carries a lamp and a jug of warm cider. They pass it from mouth to mouth. The girl offers bread, pieces of meat and something more: a glance into the eyes of the one she serves. One helping for each man, two for each woman. And a look. They look back. The next stop will be their last. But not this one. This one is warmed.”
Jesus calls us to be hospitable, to offer welcome, a cup of cold water on a hot day, a swig of warm cider on a cold one.
I think one task for white people now is to offer our vulnerability, our ignorance, an awareness of our privilege, along with the prayer that this will give us an authentic basis for the actions that must follow, the corrections our country so desperately needs.
Amadeus. With Tom Hulce and F. Murray Abraham, 1984,
Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Lives of Bees, 2000.
Toni Morrison, Nobel Lecture, December 7, 1993