Dear Grace Church Family,
Last night the Episcopal Churches in Jersey City (aka JCAM) held the first in a series of three meetings to discuss Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. The book offers a stunning summary of the history of institutional racism in the United States. It begins with Jim Crow Laws enacted after the Reconstruction period in the South and goes through the national War on Drugs which led to our current sky rocketing incarceration rates. Even though the percentage of drug users among whites and people of color is relatively the same, low income people of color are convicted for drug crimes much more frequently than whites. Even though the vast majority of these convictions are for non-violent offenses, after serving time, former prisoners’ access to employment and housing becomes extremely limited and their voting rights are taken away. Alexander points to the national shift from the overt racism of Jim Crow to the professed cultural color blindness that makes discussing today’s institutionalized racism through incarceration taboo.
Reading this book alone in my room had the effect on me that boiling water has on spaghetti. I’d swim around on top of it for a few minutes, absorbing, then quickly grow limp or turn into paste. While the question, “What can I do about this huge problem?” swirled in my head unanswered, I felt as useful as snow boots in Nevada.
At the book group meeting on Wednesday, every person of color had a story about facing racism. A member of one vestry told the story of her son being put in the back of a police car and being told to point out the drug dealers even though there was no evidence to suspect that he was involved with drugs or knew any of the people on the street. Another woman told the story of her husband being stopped and frisked for no apparent reason while yet another woman’s husband was taken to a police precinct under the suspicion that he had stolen his own car. The list went on and it was clear everyone who shared had too many stories to be able to share them all.
You’d think that if Michelle Alexander’s book was overwhelming that hearing personal stories from our church family about facing racism, usually alone, would be just as overwhelming if not more so. But strangely, their stories anchored me and I was reminded about how powerful listening really is. Instead of scrambling fruitlessly to find the big answer I found something small, human shaped and true that bound everyone at the table closer.
A life time ago I was a campus minister at Stevens Institute of Technology. There was a Roman Catholic priest on campus too, who took me under his wing, invited me to participate in weekly mass and even lead Bible study with his student group. This was when Rosemary and I were preparing to get married at our church, long before that was legal. I couldn’t imagine not inviting my Roman Catholic mentor to the celebration. So risking his shock and dismay by coming out to him, I did just that.
Rose and I got married. Instead of a license that gave us access to legal rights as a couple, we had a certificate signed by the hundred and twenty six people who came, including the Roman Catholic priest from Stevens. He came to the celebration in his collar. His courage humbled me.
A group of students approached me on behalf of an Evangelical group on campus. They’d heard I was gay, told me that my life was incompatible with the Gospel and that I was an unwholesome representative of the Christian faith. They told me I should leave campus. I stayed but I was miserable.
I remember my own priest walking with me up to my office at Stevens for no good reason except that it was all he could do. How was he going to protect me from a demanding, homophobic student group? Of course he couldn’t. But he was there. He bore witness to my pain and loved me.
Even now I draw strength from these memories.
Listening to each other’s stories, bearing witness to each other’s pain, and walking together are powerful. If you want to try it, a good place to start is reading Michelle Alexander’s book and coming to the next meeting. Maybe you’ll leave with a little more strength to be a sign of God’s healing love in a hurting world.