By Chude Allen and Rachel Stoltzfus
On June 9, 1964 I stood in front of the pews of an Episcopal church in a small town in Pennsylvania. I was about to go to Mississippi to be a freedom school teacher as part of what is now called Freedom Summer. I asked the parishioners for donations and their prayers.
When I was in Mississippi I wrote my parents that when I returned I wanted to speak again in the church, that I believed God would speak through me. My minister, however, would not allow me to speak during a service, only in the parish hall at an evening educational. Today is only the second time ever I have spoken during worship. Of course Spirit does not only appear in places of worship, but there was and is a power that comes when we join together in acknowledgement of something greater than ourselves.
That morning in June I spoke at the eight o’clock service and again, at eleven, about my experience as an exchange student at Spelman College, a black women’s college in Atlanta, Georgia. I went south brimming over with life and energy. I was rejected as a northern, white do-gooder.
I learned what it meant to be the object of hostility and suspicion, I told the parishioners. I knew what it meant to feel alone. I knew what it meant to walk across campus, afraid to smile because I feared rejection… to feel inadequate as a person. And what it meant to wish my skin was a different color so that I would be accepted for me and so that I would not have to feel guilt every time a white man committed an injustice.
But I also learned what it meant to have real friends. … And somewhere along the way I learned how to forgive – to forgive not just others but myself.
I want to talk this morning about that experience at Spelman and in the freedom movement in Atlanta. Until I went south, I hadn’t grasped the full meaning of my heritage. I’d been taught to be proud of where I’d come from and what my ancestors had done. But in Atlanta, I became ashamed.
I was ashamed of being connected to racist white men and women and to their meanness, greed and violence. I was ashamed of the silence on the part of so-called good white people. And I was ashamed of my incredible ignorance about my own people and my arrogance in thinking ours was a culture others should emulate. At Spelman I was forced to confront who I was. That included recognizing the ways racism and privilege had warped me.
Vincent Harding, whom I was privileged to meet and hear speak, said in his long interview with your pastor, Joanna, You’re not always just looking at the enemy or the enemy structures or the enemy politics. At every moment you’re looking at yourself and asking who you are… I think that when nonviolent resistance is at its best it’s living that double life of struggle within and struggle outside.
That was profoundly true for me. I have the letters I sent home to my parents. In them I see reflected the two aspects of being in the freedom movement. I wrote about what I was learning about our society and what I was learning about myself.
Over the years I have developed a respect for this young woman who was trying to make sense out of her experience as a white student learning about racism. I am incredibly grateful to the southern freedom movement that required facing oneself as well as challenging laws and customs. I felt as if I’d been tempered by fire. I looked up the word tempered and was surprised to discover one meaning includes being made flexible. I can see how apt that is. I had become more elastic in my perspective, able to see from the bottom up, not just the top down. But at the time I thought in terms of having impurities burned away.
And where was God as I suffered the pains of learning the truth about racism as it manifested in me and in society? Over and over again I lost my sense of God’s love and felt bereft. Alone. Yet when I couldn’t touch God’s love, I could find it in the Movement. By the time I made the decision to go to Mississippi, I knew that God wanted me to go and would be with me.
I want to share a poem I wrote about my experience of a mass meeting.
For Justice and For Love
(For the young woman I once was)
I stand in the balcony of the church,
which is filled with people singing.
Mine is one of a few white faces
scattered around the church.
Yet, at this moment
I am not conscious of being white.
My attention is on the spirit,
the feelings of hope and courage
that are building
in this predominantly black crowd
as everyone sings.
My heart is opening to a palpable,
collective cry for a world of love and justice.
I have been told all my life
that I cannot sing.
But the thin brown-skinned man
at the front of the church
has told the audience,
“If you can’t reach the note,
and I am singing
Oh, freedom! at the top of my lungs.
The singing ends.
The group quiets and sits down.
I sit with the others.
A woman moves to the pulpit
and begins to speak.
She has dark brown skin
and seems to be a few years older than I.
Her voice is strong
and her words impassioned.
Everyone is focused
on what she has to say.
It is hot in the church.
People wave paper fans
in front of their faces,
cardboard rectangles with a picture
of a white-looking Jesus on one side.
Jesus has shoulder length wavy brown hair.
He is holding a lamb.
The background is brown.
Throughout the church
brown colored fans wave,
as if on a breeze.
I reach toward the pew in front of me
and lift out a cardboard fan from the rack.
The other side has a drawing of a building
and the address and telephone number
of a black funeral home in segregated Atlanta.
I wave the fan in front of my face,
but I am not used to using a fan
and it distracts me
from what the woman is saying.
Putting the fan back in its holder,
I settle into the pew.
My shoulders touch those
of the students sitting next to me.
Perspiration trickles down my sides.
I smell hair preparations and sweat.
Here in the balcony of this church
listening to the speaker,
I know God is present.
I feel Him in my heart and in the room.
God is love and love fills this great space.
Faces glow with this love.
People’s edges disappear.
I feel a unity, a oneness,
and know it is good
and beyond good.
Every fiber of my being knows
this openness of self, this surrender
to God who is love,
is what it means to be fully human.
I am neither white nor not white.
The people around me
are neither black nor not black.
We are all beautiful.
We are all children of God.
In this moment I am not afraid
of beatings or death.
Should my body be killed,
my spirit will live on
in the bones and marrow of the people here,
even as they will live forever within me.
I am determined to fight
for justice and for love.
It’s an honor to be able to speak and reflect this MLK weekend. It’s a time to give praise and honor to those that have fought so hard for us to have equal civil rights. MLK had such a deep passion and commitment towards peacemaking and justice. Today I want to specifically focus on grounding myself in those same values but look at what that means to carry that out in 2019.
As a Black American in 2019 it is CRUCIAL, it is life and death, that I know my rights.
- I have the right to a attorney.
- I have the rights to a fair trial.
- I have the right to vote.
- I have the right to public education.
- I have the right to use the public facilities.
- I have the right to challenge authorities.
I wonder often what my ancestors would say about the times now? I wonder what James Baldwin would write? His words from 1955 continue to ring true today: “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”
I wonder how MLK would continue the commitment of peace and justice in 2019? Lebron James said recently “No matter how much money you have, no matter how famous you are, no matter how many people admire you, being black in America is — it’s tough, and we got a long way to go for us as a society and for us as African-Americans until we feel equal in America.” I think Baldwin and Dr. King would both agree with Lebron James that this country still has a long way to go toward racial justice.
I think everyone with a commitment to justice eventually hits a tipping point. In the definition of tipping point its: the point at which a series of small changes or incidents becomes significant enough to cause a larger, more important change.
For me, it was multiple tipping points:
- Tamir Rice
- Trayvon Martin
- Eric Garner
- Michael Brown
- And Sandra Bland
May their souls rest in peace.
I am a sister. I am 27 almost 28. Sandra Bland was 28. Sandra bland believed in justice. She had a purpose to stop injustice against blacks. Sandra bland had a family and nieces and nephews that she loved, just as I do. Sandra Bland also knew her rights. She knew that radical peacemaking was to know your rights and to stand up for yourself, and not back down to authorities. And not back down when the system tells you no. Sandra Bland was a fighter. Sandra Bland was a reflection of a modern day Ella Baker. And the system killed her and told her family and friends that it was suicide.
Out of the five names stated above no officers were convicted. Three of the families received settlements. And Sandra Bland’s case was dropped and the office ended up being re-hired. These tipping points required me to do real soul searching and reconnecting with my own spirituality. I began to question how I could still have faith while witnessing the failure of the criminal justice system. It hurt my soul.
So it’s important to replace and to refill myself with soulful things. I do that by not letting my voice be silent even if I’m scared, by not letting others intimidate, by reading, dancing, singing, worshiping, and engaging in communities with those of the same background and most importantly those of different backgrounds.
Working in the field of social work, but in particular housing, it is critical that I not only recharge my soul but at the same time keep fighting against injustices on behalf of homeless families. In the world of housing, more and more, we are seeing clients be discriminated against due to race. This dynamic has always been a part of our history. The prime example would be red-lining. It has been an essential part of our work to learn how to challenge powerful business owners and landlords on their biases of low income folks.
These owners and landlords are just one example of how everyday myself, my team, and our clients, have to cross lines and collaborate with those drastically different from us, in terms of perspective and overall view of humans. What do you do when you are trying to convince a landlord to rent to a low-income homeless family during the housing crisis, and the landlord proceeds to ask you questions about race, relationship background of the family, questions around their economic status. I have had to learn to empower myself to not shy away from difficult conversations. To be able to reflect back to those with different views then me. To challenge with “Is all of that information really needed if our agency is confidently saying we feel they can afford this unit and monthly rent?”
For me, that is one clear way to live out Dr. King’s dream, by accepting and loving all men and women equally and fighting alongside those who are not experiencing equality. And in 2019, that means every once in awhile unplugging your headphones, making eye contact with people, and having conversations with those who come from different walks of life.
It also means challenging and changing unjust laws and policies as Dr. King modeled. As Dr. King stated in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail “One has not only a legal, but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”
As Mennonites who are committed to peacemaking and justice it is imperative that we are calling out the ongoing injustices that Black people face in America. We know that in our history most white Mennonites were not in support of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement. They were comfortable in the racist status quo of this country. Mennonites must not repeat that history. What might be our calling along these lines, both in how we relate to each other across lines of difference and how we work for justice in the world?
To wrap up, for me, losing Sandra Bland is how I imagine some of my elders felt when MLK was taken away from them all to soon. But their values are not lost. And I am grateful for this weekend for a time to reflect on that and remember those fighters that have paved the way. For me what peacemaking and justice work looks like in 2019 is simply not forgetting their names.
Simply remembering so that history does not repeat itself.
Simply remembering because we are family.
Simply remembering as we create the world we need.
Say her name
Say her name
Say her name
Say her name, say her name, say her name, say her name.