One sunny California day many years ago, I took in the bank deposit for my employer and this happened: our local bank’s Merchant Teller was one of the Persian immigrants who came to Southern California after the Iranian Revolution. Farah was well-educated, efficient, beautiful, and always a pleasure to do business with. This day, however, her countenance was stony, her posture fiercely erect, and she was counting bills faster than I’d ever seen anyone who wasn’t a machine, do.
As she finished his transaction, the customer asked her for rolls of quarters and to her polite, “Of course,” he replied, “Yeah, thanks, you’re a nice little bitch.” A slap in the face would not have been as shocking and I was literally struck dumb. Farah got his rolls of coin and thanking him for his business, slid the coins toward him and he walked out, my eyes burning holes in his back but my mouth and brain still unfortunately useless. I am not even sure if I greeted Farah. We did not chat as we usually did.
Maybe it was the hard, bright, Southern California sun that woke me but, as I put my car in reverse I was suddenly shouting, What the fuck…? What the FUCK? WHAT THE FUCK?! I was shaking with rage because I knew if blonde, blue-eyed me had been sitting at the Merchant Teller window, he never would have dared say such a thing. His perception of Farah as Other subjected her to his insults and my silence validated him. Suddenly, I felt my cheeks burning from shame, come to complete the triumvirate with shock and outrage, and I vowed I would never again let something like that pass.
Paul and I are moving to South Carolina with his job and thus I find myself in a racist murderer’s hometown directly following his crime, an hour or so’s drive from the scene.
Here’s the thought that keeps my brain spinning: they welcomed him, this skinny white kid they had probably never before seen. Instead of greeting him with suspicion, they welcomed him with love, for Jesus tells us, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 12:34 – 35, NIV. Actively living their faith they welcomed their killer into the love of their prayer circle and he shot them down because of the color of their skin. He shot them down. At his arraignment the next morning his victim’s families forgave him. A mother left alive in a pool of her fallen son’s blood forgave his killer. I call myself a Christian but Ramsay Bolton would look like an amateur compared to what I would do to anyone who hurt my child.
Sunday, Paul and I went to the local Episcopal church and God, busily raining down grace in Charleston sprinkled some on us, too, for the sermon was honest and brave. After the service, Fr. Mark Abdelnour explained that this was personal for him: he attended seminary with Rev. Pinckney, fondly recalling his rich, sonorous voice and preaching style the rest of them could only envy and respect.
It is clear to me that racism in this country is alive and well, if not always overt. From my vantage point at a highly diverse, 5-A high school, overt racism is fairly old school in ridiculous but firmly held opinions by one race about another. More insidiously, tragically typical comments like this, from one of my former, female student aides who happens to be African-American, “Dark girls just aren’t as pretty as light-skinned girls.” I just don’t know what to do with that, it’s both racist and self-loathing. But it was ever-present, what I think of as internal racism, a darkly disturbing descendant of the whites who relegated anyone with a drop of African blood to slavery. A lot of white people, myself included, have maybe spent the years since the Civil Rights era thinking as long as we don’t practice racism, well, we’re doing our job. But the fact that my new state has a Rebel flag on the grounds of the State Capitol gives the lie of the job complete. Clearly, there is still much work to do, and Christian whites cannot stand idly by saying, Wha? Who, me?
I kept my vow from that sunny afternoon but I feel no pride because it’s not enough. And, I don’t know what that means for me, or any of us, but it’s clear action must be taken, especially for those of us bold enough to call ourselves Christians.
The Episcopal prayer of Confession asks forgiveness “…. for the things we have done, and the things left undone….” My friend Mary Beth posted this excellent sermon from yesterday, by Fr. Curt Norman. As does Fr. Abdelnour, he’s calling us to action. The Civil Rights era is not over, the work is not complete, and it’s not limited to matters of race; Civil Rights for all American citizens is demonstratively still a work in progress.Time to roll up our sleeves, and get to work.