Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Dream: One Table for All, All at the Table*

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

4 June 2008: what an amazing day. I could not be more delighted to wake today to the historic news: our nation has finally brought an African American to the table of the presidential electoral process.

All of us who dream of a day in which our nation (and its churches) will finally bring everyone to the table, permit everyone a voice, give everyone a hearing, and give everyone a chance to fulfill his or her destiny, all of us who share Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune’s dream of a participatory democracy that is actually lived in our social and ecclesial institutions and not merely talked about, cannot fail to rejoice today.

This happens to be an important day of memory for me, on which I had already intended to meditate about themes of exclusion and inclusion, of racial justice and justice for LGBT human beings, and of the propensity for those of us who have suffered marginalization to turn around and inflict on others the same kind of injustice we ourselves have suffered.

At a personal level, I am delighted to have my meditation “interrupted” by an announcement that intersects so wonderfully with it on this day of personal remembrance. Life has amazing patterns, if we only stop to notice them: ups and downs, experiences of cruel injustice turned into their opposite through unexpected reversals of injustice.

For those who believe, these patterns make sense as part of a larger framework in which karmic principles govern the ebbing tides of injustice, the surging tides of justice throughout the cosmos. Our sense that there is woven into the very fabric of the cosmos a pattern of death being transformed to life, of radical and unexpected reversals of cruelty and injustice, is rooted in a belief that all life occurs against the backdrop of divine justice. Built into how the universe functions, we find, flow moral currents that eventually expose and thwart perpetrators of injustice, that bring liberation to those to whom the unjust have done injustice. For those who believe, these moral tides move in response to the divine energy of love. The cosmos contains a moral arc that bends always in the direction of justice.

We who believe know that there is never a time when we can sit down and say that everyone has been brought to the table, that our work for liberty and justice for all has ended. We know that we cannot separate those who strive for a place at the table into “good” and “bad” minorities. We know that we cannot play one excluded group against another, such that the rightful claims to justice of, say, people of color and women receive a hearing, while the claims of gay human beings do not.

We know that, even if we ourselves happen to belong to one (or several) of those historically excluded groups, we would place ourselves on the wrong side of the moral arc of the universe if we did not stand in solidarity with all of our brothers and sisters in the struggle for full inclusion at the table of life and the table of the Lord. With Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, we keep working to name each and every group shoved from the table in our own community and churches. We keep striving to bring those groups to our public meetings, so that we can hear their stories and find a place at our capacious table for yet another group whose determined persistence in the face of radical injustice will enrich us, as we set one more place at the table of our churches, our church institutions, and our social structures.

I am thinking through these themes today, as well, in light of a story that has reached into my life and grabbed me in the last several days. This is soul-wrenching story.

It is also a story I am hesitant to tell—in part, because it is not precisely my story (though it is my story, for reasons that will be apparent as I tell it). But it is a story that some of my relatives have actually lived, while I recount it at a distance. I do not want to take a story that more closely involves the lives of others and represent it as my own.

Those who have brought the story to me commission me to tell it, and in that commission is an obligation, one of those callings within a calling that happen to us as we walk along the way of faith and vocational pilgrimage. And in a quite interesting way, this story intersects with the announcement of Mr. Obama’s nomination, as well as with the memories I am mulling over today.

This is a story about which I have already written briefly on this blog. The story began with distant cousins in the upper Midwest contacting me a few years ago. They wanted to share information about our mutual ancestors. The cousins have a wealth of family resources—letters, pictures, Civil War uniforms and weapons. They have opened their family archives to me freely and generously.

Last week, some of these cousins came to visit. I had never met them, and was happy to make their acquaintance. They proved to be interesting, thoughtful, socially engaged—the kind of cousin with whom one is instantly proud to claim kinship.

Prior to meeting my new cousins, as I read the historical documents they shared, I discovered a story totally new to me, one unlike any I had yet documented in my family’s history. The story is a heart-breaking one.

At the same time, it is a story about the triumph of love and persistence in the face of injustice. It also happens to be a story about a family who took very seriously the social teachings of their church, which happens to have been the Methodist Church, and whose lives were profoundly transformed by these church teachings about justice.

Here is the story as I have pieced it together from letters my cousins have shared with me, as well as from their own commentary on their family history. In the 1830s, a white man of a prominent Methodist family divorced his wife, who had abandoned him, and began to live with a free woman of color. This occurred in Mississippi. The man’s siblings and parents lived in Alabama at this time. This new spouse (whom he was never permitted legally to marry) bore him six children, all of whose names appear (along with his new spouse’s name) in his father’s bible. The father is our mutual ancestor.

In the 1840s, the family moved to the new frontier of south Arkansas. They settled in the county in which I myself was raised when my family moved to south Arkansas as I was a boy. This is where I graduated from high school, where my father was a lawyer and where, after my father’s death, my mother worked as a clerk in the courthouse. My father’s parents lived with us and are buried in this county with my father.

I knew nothing of these cousins as I grew up. My mother did not know of them. They descend from a brother of her great-great grandfather. The precise place in which these cousins lived, my father's family also lived when they moved from Louisiana to south Arkansas as he grew up.

As the Civil War approached, the parents made the heart-rending decision to send their three living children to Oberlin, Ohio, a terminus of the Underground Railroad. Letters about the move to Ohio make it clear that the parents believed this step was necessary to protect the children from harm in the period of heightened racial tension preceding the war.

The three children were all teens at the time. Two were very young teens. Letters of their father show him transferring large sums of money to send them, with which they could buy land. He had the money sent through various banks in Baltimore and New York, so that if one transaction failed, another might come through.

From this point forward, the three children never returned home to their parents. They could not do so. Letters indicate that, after the death of their mother, the younger two children were finally able to come back and spend limited time with their father. The oldest son was en route to his father when news of the father’s death reached him about thirty miles from his father’s home.

Despite the physical distance separating the parents and the children, their father wrote a constant stream of affectionate letters to them—as did aunts and uncles in Alabama and Louisiana. The letters speak tenderly of his and their mother’s love for their children, of how their mother sighed for her children, of how her heart was heavy at the thought of not being able to see and embrace them and their children.

When his wife died, the father wrote his daughter in Ohio, telling her that his faith remained strong, but his reason to live had gone. He died within the year. His will stipulated that his land was to go to his youngest son. That son returned to Arkansas to care for the land and was shot in the back while riding horseback there in 1899. In the same week that he was killed, the statewide newspapers report a string of lynchings of black men all across the southern counties of Arkansas.

A black man was blamed for the death of this bi-racial son of a white plantation owner. I do not yet know the fate of this black man, but I suspect he was executed.

From the time that the three children went north, the oldest son quickly relocated to Iowa, where he married a white woman and appears on all censuses as a white man. His descendants lived as white people from that generation forward. The new cousins who have come to visit me are descendants of this son.

The other two siblings remained in Ohio, where the younger son appears on some censuses as white and on others as mulatto. His sister is listed consistently on censuses as a mulatto. Both married white spouses, and their descendants “passed for white,” as the old Southern phrase has it. But they did so with some difficulty—and this is part of the story I have just heard from my newly met cousins, part of what wrenches my soul.

The story my cousins tell me is one of generations-long struggle with racism, even among families that had “crossed over” the racial line after they had gone north. Within the family of the oldest brother, the tradition of mixed racial ancestry had gone underground even for family descendants, who have family tales about a native American ancestor (they identify her as the wife of the plantation owner in Mississippi and Arkansas) who accounted for the features of some descendants.

Within the families of the two other siblings—pictures show those siblings as more identifiably bi-racial than their older brother—the memory of mixed racial ancestry was more alive, and the experience of racism more overt.

The descendants of the oldest brother tell of decisions made by family members for several generations not to have children when they married, for fear of having a “black baby.” Secrets were kept and closely guarded, and often produced turmoil in the family. Despite the treasure trove of documents they have managed to save, the cousins once found their grandfather, near his death, burning whole stacks of old letters and documents.

Their grandfather’s parents once gave him a birthday party. A neighbor child brought him a black doll as a gift. When relatives of the two siblings who had been less successful at “passing” visited, they were asked to sit in the back of the church.

On their recent trip to Arkansas, these cousins went to south Arkansas. They found there an elderly woman who grew up on land adjoining their family’s land. She knew very well the son of the sibling who had inherited the land and been assassinated on it.

As they visited, the elderly lady approached the subject of family history tentatively. She did not know what they knew about their family’s background. She told them, “I don’t want to offend you, but you do know that he was rather dark, don’t you? He lived in California and came back only to check on his property, and we children loved him.”

When the cousins told her they were aware of the mixed racial ancestry of their family, the elderly woman was able to relax a bit. She told them that her understanding had always been that the family had gone north to “cross over.”

Their elderly informant put them in touch with an African-American woman who also remembers the family. This woman, as well as African-American neighbors whom their grandfather visited when he came to Arkansas in the 1960s, told my cousins of the high esteem in which their white ancestor was held in the black community for generations. They indicate that he built a Methodist church for black families living in the community, and often preached in that church. He also bought and set free slaves as often as he was able to do so.

Why care about this story?

How can I not do so? It’s my story—a story from my own family. I am implicated in it by history and genes.

It’s also a story that happened to unfold right in the place in which I was brought up, right under my nose, and I was completely oblivious to it. But it was in that place that I first began to be troubled mightily by racial injustice, as I saw it perpetrated in various ways around me.

It was there that I took fateful steps to leave my family’s church due to its addiction to “the tranquilizing drug of gradualism,” to cite Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech again. It was there that I first learned that when churches talk about justice deferred, what they really stand for is justice denied.

When injustice stares us in the face in the person of a human being knocking at our door and asking for our open heart, open mind, open door sign to mean something, and when we tell that human being to come back for his or her helping of justice later, after we have assured that our table is large enough, what we really proclaim to the world is that our Social Principles are merely words on paper.

What I saw of racial inequality as I grew up—the unpaved roads and tar-paper shacks in black parts of town, the sacks of entrails of fish white folks had caught and cleaned and chucked in ditches in those parts of town, the black boy shot in cold blood by classmates my senior year of high school—turned my stomach. And it turned my stomach even more to find that my church did not wish to address this injustice as long as there was a price to be paid.

My decision to find a church that had at least the appearance of being more inclusive led, on my vocational pilgrimage, to my study of theology—when what I really love is literature, classical languages, the scholar’s life rather than that of the ditches where people struggle with religious ideas and issues. And it led as well to my decision to take a job in an historically black university (HBCU) as I finished graduate school, and was offered both that job and a much more financially alluring (and scholarly-oriented) one at a prestigious “white” university.

Which in turn led to my work at two other HBCUs, where I continued the struggle against racial injustice and continued writing about the need for solidarity between all marginal groups struggling for a place at the table . . . .

So, indeed, the story I have been commissioned to tell is my story, and there is no way to avoid it. Like all divine callings when they intrude inconveniently into our lives, it demands that I respond.

And it makes that demand on my life just as our nation continues the negotiation of treacherous racial currents that have never adequately been dealt with. Overt racism is seeping out of fissures in the underbelly of our culture again, in this election. It is there because it has been there, while we talk about what wonderful strides we have made towards its eradication. The story my cousins tell is a story of persistent racism experienced even by a family identified as white, solely because that family has discernible African blood. The wound of racism will be healed only when we face and lance it—through honest, open exchange in public forums and "safe places" set aside for meaningful encounters to deal with this issue.

This family story also engages me as our nation struggles with an idea that remains exotic to some, including many churchgoers: this is the proposition that gay people, too, deserve full civil rights, even that gay people have human rights. This discussion, in turn, twists around public and ecclesial discussions of racism in our culture today, both because racism and homophobia are both social ills involving human rights claims, and because power centers in church and society have sought adroitly to manipulate resentment against gay persons among racial minorities.

Yesterday, I saw a prominent billboard for a “reformed” Episcopal church in my neighborhood, one I often walk past as I walk my dogs. The billboard provided a website for the church.

I visited it this morning. It contains happy-clappy pictures of African children lined obediently in front of a white Episcopal priest. The picture looks very much like ones I have seen on the state websites of some United Methodist conferences following the last General Conference, places where “good minorities” are played against “bad”ones.

I cannot look at those pictures without visceral repulsion, both at the overt, dishonest playing of one marginal group against another, and at the patronizing colonialist use of black children that these pictures employ. Are the white men who run these churches really oblivious to how they are using “approved” minority groups against “inappropriate” minority groups primarily to assure their continued control of the churches—not out of any real commitment to racial justice or global socioeconomic justice?

Our work continues. As I have noted in previous postings, one of the tragedies of this moment of history—a time when we have no choice except to keep talking about and dealing with misogyny, racism, and homophobia—is the propensity of some churched women of color to pit African-American civil rights against gay civil rights. I have cited some recent news stories about this in previous postings.

This discussion is ongoing, and demands attention—even more so in light of Mr. Obama’s courageous insistence that equality is a moral imperative, and his willingness to challenge homophobia in the African-American faith community. On 22 May, the Los Angeles Times published an article by Richard Faussett entitled “Morehouse College Faces Its Own Bias—Against Gays” (see,0,1504077.story).

This article was followed on 27 May by an article written by Rev. Irene Monroe on the Bilerico Project blog. Rev. Monroe is an African-American minister. She notes that national Pew Foundation studies show support for gay rights dropping in the African-American community, particularly among people of faith (see She notes, “With homophobia running as rampant in historically black colleges and universities as it is in black churches, there are no safe places to openly engage the subject of black sexuality.”

We have work to do, those of us committed to the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and of Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune—a dream of a place for everyone at the table of participatory democracy. I have continued work to do as a theologian, since the claim of the church to embody mercy while it practices injustice and exclusion is an insupportable claim.

And I have work to do as a story that has just reached out and grabbed my soul comes to me at the historic moment of Barack Obama’s clenching of the presidential nomination, underscoring the present unavoidability of discussions of race, homophobia, the role of churches and their institutions in addressing these dynamics.

In light of Mr. Obama’s nomination, if we struggle to create those “safe places” to engage these issues openly, there will come a day when Dr. King’s dream will be fulfilled: a day in which the sons and daughters of former slaves and the daughters and sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood and sisterhood.

*Disclaimer: In writing in this blog about either white or black persons, males or females, black males or white males, black females or white females, churches and church institutions, it is not my intention to embarrass, harass, adversely affect, or work either directly or indirectly to the detriment of any unnamed person, whether black, white, male, or female, or unnamed institution. I write solely as a theologian and scholar seeking continued dialogue about issues of importance to church and society, as my blog profile states. This disclaimer remains in effect for any future postings I may write on this blog.


colkoch said...

I take some satisfaction in the fact it was my little ole state that put Mr. Obama over the top.

Drew Collins said...

You wrote:

Yesterday, I saw a prominent billboard for a "reformed" Episcopal
church in my neighborhood, one I often walk past as I walk my dogs.
The billboard provided a website for the church.

I visited it this morning. It contains happy-clappy pictures of
African children lined obediently in front of a white Episcopal
priest. The picture looks very much like ones I have seen on the state
websites of some United Methodist conferences following the last
General Conference, places where "good minorities" are played against

I cannot look at those pictures without visceral repulsion, both at
the overt, dishonest playing of one marginal group against another,
and at the patronizing colonialist use of black children that these
pictures employ. Are the white men who run these churches really
oblivious to how they are using "approved" minority groups against
"inappropriate" minority groups primarily to assure their continued
control of the churches—not out of any real commitment to racial
justice or global socioeconomic justice? [END QUOTE]

Your reference here was interesting and inacurate -- the church had hosted the Ugandan Orphan Choir and chose to post a picture of it. Not nearly so colonialist as you would present it.

I am a priest in the Reformed Episcopal Church (the correct name of the denomination) in the Diocese of the Southeast. I am white with ancestors in the Carolinas going back many generations including some that owned slaves (that is an historical fact and I provide it for context). I was ordained deacon and priest by a black bishop (now promoted to the Church Triumphant), continue to serve under a black bishop, and for a number of years served as an assitant to a black Rector in a predominately black parish. So much for your argument about white men running things!

Drew Collins said...

By way of follow up, the very fact that you were viscerally repulsed by the picture on the website indicates your own racism as you insisted on seeing blacks and whites, not merely a bunch of Christians.

William D. Lindsey said...

You are absolutely right, Drew. It is impossible to live in American society and not have some taint of racism within oneself. This is all the more true for those of us who are white and were raised (as I was) in an overtly racist society.

The question is, of course, what we intend to do about that. I'm inclined to agree with poet-essayist-novelist Wendell Berry when he argues (in his book Hidden Wound) that we need to do all we can first to understand how and why that wound got inside us, and then figure out how to spend our lives doing something about it.

I'm glad you find your ministry fulfilling as a way of addressing racism. Correct me if I am wrong, but isn't the Archbishop of Canterbury the head of the worldwide Anglican communion? And isn't he Rowan Williams?

William D. Lindsey said...

P.S. Drew, you say that my description of the website picture about which I blogged is inaccurate. I've just revisited the website. For interested readers, it's at

Sorry, but I fail to see anything at all inaccurate in what I described yesterday when I see that picture.

Fr. John+ said...

Dear Sir,

I am Fr. John, the priest in the picture. I am very sorry that you have chosen to take something that was beautiful in the eyes of our Lord and in the life of His Church in Little Rock and twist it to make it something ugly on your blog.

My parish is a very small parish, as you must know if you walk by the building every day. This is a picture of the last large event in the life of our parish - supporting the Ugandan Orphans Choir.

We were thrilled that our small parish was able to support this group of Christian children that all lost their parents to the AIDS epidemic in the Seese Islands of Uganda.

To help them further, the children stayed in the homes of my parishioners over the weekend while they were in Little Rock. We believe they were a blessing to us and we hope we were able to be a blessing to them. They touched our lives with their strong faith in Christ and their celebration of life. It was wonderful to see such a pure and undefiled joy in the lives of these children as they ministered to people in their singing and dancing.

The picture on the website shows the children with their hands over their hearts singing "God Bless America," the offertory hymn they chose for our worship service.

There was film clip on the local television station and an advertisement encouraging the people of Little Rock to come out and help support these children in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette newspaper the day before it happened. We also had numerous posters printed and taped up in places around the neighborhood offering a free lunch (100 pounds of barbecue chicken I personally cooked) to anyone who would come hear them sing after the church service. We did everything we could to get people out to support these children.

Apparently you failed to see the posters or chose not to come hear them sing and give their testimony to the Lord's work in their lives. I'm sorry you missed the event and completely missed the context of the picture.

I guess anyone could imply something about any picture.
However, the picture is simply a picture of beautiful Christian children singing at the last large event at St. Thomas' Church, a small parish in Little Rock.

Nothing was meant to be implied, just that we supported the Ugandan Orphans Choir. That's what the caption under the picture states. This event was a big deal to us!

I am sorry you do not understand the picture and obviously believe it was something ugly. I also feel sorry for anyone who has a mind that thinks in such a manner. I will pray God's mercy upon you, to give you a better mind.

In the future if you write about a picture, you might do some research or call the organization to get the facts straight before writing. That is what responsible people do.

Sincerely in Christ,

Fr. John

William D. Lindsey said...

Thank you for your comment, Fr. John. I know your church well, and have followed the developments within the local Episcopalian-Anglican communion with interest.

I stand by what I noted about the picture on your website. When Christian churches deliberately target gay and lesbian persons while professing concern for other minority groups, something is wrong.

That is the dynamic on which I was commenting in this picture. I related your church's picture to a larger dynamic in the churches, so that if you read my blog, you know that I am not commenting on the history of your particular church, but on a way LGBT persons are being treated by a number of churches today.

The Anglican churches that have left communion with the Episcopal diocese of Little Rock often state that resistance to gay people (or the rights of women) in the church is not central to the impulse to split the church.

From all I know, however, this split within the local church and the worldwide Anglican communion is being fed very much by homophobia.

As my blog has consistently argued, the church cannot proclaim that it wants to address the social sin of racism without also seeking to address the social sin of homophobia.

I stand with that prophetic African bishop, Desmond Tutu, on this issue.

Thank you for all your church is doing to address racism. Do you have local initiatives in that regard, by the way? I will also look forward to hearing more about your church's commitment to bringing all of God's creatures, including gay human beings, to the table.