It’s February. It’s Black History Month.
What are you doing in your personal reflections or in your worship life or in your church that honors and elevates the accomplishments of African American individuals who, as quoted in United Church News in 2012, “thought boldly, acted differently, and had the courage to be themselves in the face of any and all adversity”?
A few years ago, I was at a UCC-related institution speaking with some of my colleagues. This particular institution had regular chapel services throughout the year for anyone in the community to attend. In February, each week’s service was dedicated to Black History Month. One colleague told me that she had observed over the years that chapel attendance of the white people in the community dropped to almost zero in February and then picked back up again in March.
I was shocked and I was sad to hear this. I also have never forgotten it. As many of you know, I’m finishing up my Doctor of Ministry Thesis on white privilege, and in particular, on how we get so stuck in our own stories that we think everyone in the world has the same experiences that we do. As a white person, I take for granted that when I go to the store I will find hair and skin products on the shelves that work with my hair and my skin; that when I explain a cultural tradition that is important to me, people will accept it as my story and not pass judgment on it as being something that is “not normal”; that the way I speak or write will not be judged as improper language skill use; that when I go to worship, the worship experience will be what I have come to define as proper worship and if it is a “special month” or a “special service” then it’s ok for me not to go at all because “that’s not worship meant for me.”
I saw the hurt in my colleague’s eyes when she told me that it felt to her as if the white members of the community were giving up chapel so people of color could have a few weeks out of the year to worship the way they wanted to worship and that they would come back in March expecting to take over leading worship again, the “regular” way. The hurt was not just because they didn’t participate but also because they didn’t think the African American community could offer them a worship that would teach them something important or that would have deep spiritual meaning for them as white people. They never questioned whether the students of color felt comfortable in white worship the rest of the year or whether that worship style fed them. But, if those students chose not to show up March through January, the white students would certainly have been offended.
Society is built on a white construct that says “normal” is white, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied, and Christian and anything that is outside that norm is given labels like different or weird or un-welcoming. The elevator speech I would give for my Thesis is that we need to listen to stories and experiences that don’t fit our experience and we need to listen to them without trying to make connections with our own story. As a white person I know that I have often listened to another person’s story, trying to make it fit with what I understand about the world, because, for a long time, I was surrounded by people who share my skin color and the dominant culture’s values. This meant that whenever I met someone who was not white, not heterosexual, not cisgender, or not able-bodied, I would try to make them fit into my reality because I had the privilege of assuming I shouldn’t ever have to feel discomfort. What I was missing was the opportunity that is defined by discomfort—the opportunity to see and experience something that is someone else’s story and reality and experience and culture.
The more we can do this—listen to stories and engage in experiences that are different from our own—the richer our lives become; the wider we are able to open ourselves up to a diverse world; and the better we can see the whole image of God. I have come to understand that when we say humans are made in the image of God, that means something very different from “God is a white man.” Instead, it means that a sliver of every person’s story can be found in the image of God and if we don’t learn and appreciate each and every story, we can never see the wholeness of who God is. The more I remove the blinders that keep me from seeing that, the more I can see the injustices that we put on to others because they don’t fit our social construct or our limited image of who God is. We other them and when we other someone we oppress them and we harm them. And, when we harm them, we are harming God.
To borrow a portion of the saying we love so much in the United Church of Christ, no matter who you are or where you are on this journey of learning and experiencing stories that are different from your own, February is a good time to try something new. Read a book on Black History. See a movie like “The Hate You Give” or “If Beale Street Could Talk.” Worship in a tradition that is different from your typical worship tradition. Attend a service in the African American tradition. Sit down with someone who has very different experiences from your own and listen deeply, without inserting your own story into their story. Try a Spiritual practice that you’ve been intrigued about but too afraid to try because it might make you feel uncomfortable.
There are lots of ways we can honor Black History Month. It’s not a month we want to miss.
Racial Justice Sunday is February 10
The UCC observes Racial Justice Sunday on February 10 this year. Resources, including a special Call to Worship and litany, are available for use. The UCC is committed to being a multi-racial, multi-cultural church where anyone and everyone is welcome and justice is sought for all.