“I have a dream that my [grand] children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”Martin Luther King, Jr. “I Have a Dream,” Address Delivered at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, 8/28/1963
I admit to shallow understanding. I admit I’m a white bystander. I admit praying for those individuals I’ve seen on television and in social media, anguish twisting their faces. Images of black mothers, wives, family members sobbing, angry; asking for justice for the ones slain unjustly. My heart breaks for them in the moment. I pray for them, hurt for them, and ask Jesus ‘Why?’ for them. Then I move on with my life within a couple of days.
I’ve been sympathetic in the past but now it’s different. It’s personal. My heart grieves. My self-centered heart grieves because I see family members struggling with the pain. I see a future for my grandsons that could, most assuredly will, include the pain of oppression. I want to stop it, as now I’m a white woman with actual skin in the game. I have black family members.
God brought me here. He has placed the recent events in my heart and when something strikes your heart – that’s when most of us are spurred to action, right? God has deposited these injustices at my feet asking the question, ‘What will you do with them?’
In return, I place my heart at his feet and confess my ignorance, my naivety, my indifference.
I grew up listening to stories of the oppression my Italian and Irish ancestors endured. Of the mistreatment, suspicion, and ridicule from police, other authority figures, the local banker, an endless list, really; but also, the daily slights at the corner grocery store, when purchasing a vehicle or simply shopping for a new dress.
My Italian mother married my Irish father. They endured snubs by both families. As a child, I remember hearing my Italian family members comment on the ‘filthy Irish’ and my Irish family cracking jokes about wops and mafia. I didn’t understand then, but I do remember the ache in my heart.
But this isn’t about me any longer. The bite of discrimination as a woman I’ve experienced in my lifetime is fathoms less than what a black person experiences each day. God brought me here through one important, wise, woman in my life, my daughter-in-law, Meka. She is a black woman.
When Meka and my son, Travis began dating it was apparent to me within weeks that she was ‘the one’ for him – maybe before he was even sure – it’s a mom thing. I felt a kinship to Meka. When I mentioned Travis’s new girlfriend and how ecstatic I was over her, I saw a blink of hesitation plus curiosity in the eyes of family and friends when they looked at her photo, realizing she isn’t white. I also witnessed that same hesitation and curiosity pointed toward our white family from Meka’s relatives.
That’s when my eyes were opened. Jesus gently nudged me onto a two-way path. Theirs, a caution based on generations of oppression; ours based on centuries of cloistered unfamiliarity. They feared their beautiful Meka joining our family as much as we feared Travis joining theirs.
In new friendships there is a testing, trust, doubt, give-and-take. Once that trust is confirmed repeatedly through kindness, opinions soften, stereo types shift in the knowing. Learning and growing happens as Jesus leads us to understand the struggles of others.
I’ve heard it said from both sides of the family – ‘I don’t like white people, but I love Travis.’ ‘I don’t generally care for black people, but Tameka is an angel.’ I’m ashamed because I brushed aside the comments with silence or a feeble smile.
Jesus urges us to take bold steps – it’s that simple. God has brought these two children together to help bring understanding to two families. Not the whole world or community – right here at home in each moment of each day. To make every one of us relatable to the humanity of the other. We’re meant to lead by example. We’re meant to live justly moment by moment and then, I believe, forever will take care of itself.
When, I was a toddler in the mid-1960s, my parents owned a restaurant/bar in a tiny town in northern Illinois. Jim’s Place was hosting a band on a winter Saturday night to drum up business in the slow season. My dad was thrilled to add a little excitement to the sleepy one-stop-sign (sign, not light) town.
The band included a young, talented black man as the drummer. The news spread quickly through the white community. Members of a ‘secret group’ stopped by Jim’s Place for a chat. During the tense conversation, these men declared, “We ain’t gonna have no [N-word] in our town.”
My dad, a former Catholic seminarian and Marine Corps drill sergeant didn’t take lightly to being told how to run his business. He responded, “Indeed, the band WILL be performing as often as I like.”
The story goes that my dad was concerned about repercussions because he was Catholic (a targeted group) and because he stood up to the small-minded men and allowed a black man (a targeted group) into his place of business.
Tensions ran high until the band began to play, the curious crowd hesitated for only a few moments and then a party ensued. The evening was successful, the band played to a packed house with no trouble from the earlier visitors.
By way of example I tell this story. It’s not earth-shattering but the retelling of it reinforces my belief, through one of many of my parents’ examples, that every person holds value, that each person is worthy.
My dad often quoted St. Thomas Aquinas, ‘Where do my rights end and yours begin?’ He urged me to keep that in my heart in every situation I’ve encountered. I often add, ‘Where does my heart end and yours begin?’
I’ve had conversations with Meka to learn from her perspective, understand her fears, her anger at the prejudice that has hung over her like a slightly deflated balloon her entire life. She is proud of her immediate family and her heritage despite the injustices. She and Travis are teaching their boys to love and embrace their individual family histories. They are working hard to navigate raising children in a society that often will demand they choose white or black. They are teaching their boys that choosing isn’t an option, most importantly, isn’t necessary.
I cringe thinking of my beautiful Meka heading out to enjoy a jog in our extremely safe small town. She keeps her guard up because the guy down the street displays a Confederate flag in his window.
I cringe to think Meka, her family members and black friends need to be hypervigilant during traffic stops, keeping their hands in plain sight until told to move to retrieve their license and registration.
My heart breaks for my beautiful grandsons that in some future day they’ll feel the sting of ignorance based on the color of their skin or worse, they could be harmed. Or when they are in a group with more than two black people, they’ll be a mob to be feared. White people will cross the street to steer clear.
I cringe for them to see that flash of a disapproving racist look in someone’s eye simply for being who they are.
I cringe, and weep too, when I think of my grandsons moving through this world in fear because they aren’t white like the rest of their classmates. Will the first reaction of teachers, coaches and adults in their lives be distaste and suspicion because of the color of their skin?
How do I help them when an ignorant and cruel individual calls them the N-word?
The answer? I teach them the love that Jesus has for everyone. I teach them that those ignorant people aren’t fortunate enough to know Jesus, but to pray for the small-minded people who say, “Yeah, but …”
Black lives matter but be intelligent enough to know that it’s not at the expense of your white lives. Please remember that Jesus wasn’t white and if you believe he was we need to have another talk.
God has placed me in a position to help influence opinions and thoughts – let’s start that discussion. Let’s not get angry at each other, let’s get active. Let’s work with God to open all eyes to the preciousness of the individual souls that he has placed before us.
Call me what you will – a poser, a joiner, any slang word you’d like. God has placed me where I can make a difference however that looks. To bring the people that enter my life together in understanding, solidarity by eliminating fear for the glory of God.
I’m working to ensure that all children can run free and innocent for their whole lives. I’m working to finally, finally help people see character first and not skin color. Then, as Americans we can turn this country around resurrecting our motto, “Out of Many, One.”