This morning I wanted to talk to my dad about all the church burnings of the past week. I wanted to be soothed, but I also wanted some perspective. My father is a "retired" A.M.E minister who grew up in the Deep South. I thought the events of the last few weeks would be familiar territory for him. When I called he didn't pick up, so I decided to check in with my brother instead.
I just stared at his response. What could that possibly mean??? I never got an answer. My brother is a roofer, and he was probably straddling someone's roof at the time. The more I pondered, the more I thought of the recent police shootings, and I wondered if those events scared this particular brother of mine, who could easily be described as a "big, scary, black guy." Tall, very muscular, and VERY dark after a summer of roofing homes and businesses. Even I'd be afraid of him if I met him in a dark alley - that is, if I didn't know I could scare him away by brandishing a bare foot in his face. He hates feet, for whatever reason. My other brother barely looks black at all - he's very light skinned, almost as light as my mother was. But I wouldn't want to meet him in an alley, either - he is small, but muscular, with a temper.
So, this was a prelude to the conversation I had with my father. I was feeling greatly disturbed after reading about the fire at Mt. Zion A.M.E Church in Greeleyville, South Carolina - ironically, the same name of the church where we grew up. At this moment, the authorities believe that lightning probably struck the church, as heavy storms had rolled through and at least 4 lightning strikes were noted in the vicinity. But last night we didn't know this, and what a coincidence for yet another church to be burning!
I finally got a hold of my dad, and the first thing I asked was, "So, what do you think about these church fires?" His answer was simple. "It's nothing new." I wasn't sure what kind of answer I was expecting, but I admit to being a little surprised by his somewhat matter-of-fact, non-emotional response. "This is what it was like back then. We've seen all this before." I was kind of amazed by his rational calmness. He didn't scream and shake his fists at the heavens. He just calmly stated what is, what was, and what may be inevitable and accepted it as a possible reality. I envied that calm. Perhaps it comes with age and experience.
Next question: "Do you think this is the beginning of something?" His answer - "Yes."
Oh. Well, there's a little jump in the stomach. He continued to say that if white people continue to speak out against this, it won't become something bigger - translate: if there is not widespread support for injustice, things will get bad. He said "it used to be" in the south that if you did something people didn't like, you would just disappear. And maybe a little later they would find you hanging in a tree, or they wouldn't find you at all. "I don't think that's going to happen again," he said, "but if it does we're going to have a big problem because people aren't going to stand for it. If white people continue to speak out, then we'll be okay. This is nothing new. This is what it was like back then. I'm not scared, I'm just cautious." Again, that calm, rational tone. I quietly wondered what it felt like like when the "whites" weren't speaking out. He went on to say that some people still aren't willing to accept that things have changed and are continuing to change.
The destruction of churches and places of faith for political reasons or to scare a group of people is not a new phenomenon. History books are ripe with these stories - it's old news. This is just one story in a long line of stories about humanity repeating a sordid, sad story. Sadly, this makes me feel better. This is not about me, my family, my community or the color of my skin. It's about fear, which can lead to hate. Fear of what? Fear of change, destabilization, loss of power/influence, fear of the unknown, and more. As human beings, when we fear the loss of the things we hold most dear - no matter what they are - a primal response takes over. What we do next, of course, is what defines us as people. Hate or love. Help or hurt. Change or... or what?
Next question: "Should we be scared?" My father said, "No, just be cautious. Ben, too." That's The Hubby. Most of you know he's a white guy. It's sad to say that "mixed" couples are still frowned upon by some. I told my dad that I really don't run into any "problems", and that most of the dirty looks and flack I've ever received was from other black people. He wasn't surprised. I asked, "If we've been through so much, why do we treat each other like that?" We talked a little about some issues some younger family members have had. He said, "A lot of these young kids haven't been taught anything about the civil rights movement. They don't understand what's going on. They haven't been through this. They look at white people and think they're the enemy."
We went on for a little while longer before I let him go. I had called because I wanted to be soothed - not today! But I am left with a lot to think about, and a lot to admire about my father and his generation. In much of the news coverage I have seen over the past few weeks, I've noticed a great sea of calm, wisdom, and experience from those aged 60 and over. Many see the signs, and they know what could follow. Many look into the flames of burning buildings, get up the next day, and put on their Sunday best and begin the hard work of forgiveness and rebuilding. Many stare into the faces of people who hate their very existence and don't even flinch. Where does this type of courage and strength come from? I know for many, including my father, it comes from their faith. In conversations about death, I've heard him say on many occasions, "I'm ready" - not because he wants to die, but because he has no fear of it and is confident about what lies ahead. I envy that strength and confidence. And, quite frankly, the vision of watching a group of 60 and 70 year olds stare down the KKK (who is becoming more openly active again) is pretty badass and inspriational, in my opinion.
I ended the conversation to let him get ready for a bible study he was leading - so much for being retired. He holds these in his living room, and I joked with him and said that maybe he should pat everyone down when they came in the door. He laughed hard. I wasn't really kidding all that much, honestly.
What did I learn? We cannot live in fear. We just can't. We have to be ready to face whatever may be in front of us, and be wise enough to learn from the past. And we all have to be willing to change - whether it means learning to love your neighbor, or learning to forgive.