Friday, December 12, 2008

A Guadalupe Day Meditation: Holding on to Revolutionary Hope in the Face of Oppression

Strange day. I’ve been reviewing some of my old journals, something I never do, because I simply don’t have time to look back. And what I discover as I look back, especially in the journals, sometimes saddens me. Repeated patterns. Repeated mistakes. The unyielding path of struggle against oppressors whose faces shift, but whose methods of oppressing are boringly predictable—the banality of evil.

Reading my journal for December ’03, I’m reminded that I was in New Orleans on the day of Our Lady of Guadalupe that year. My nephew Luke and niece Kate were both at Loyola, and needed help packing for the end of the semester and moving back. Luke, who had spent the previous academic year and summer in India, had come down suddenly in the fall semester ’03 with a serious liver ailment that alarmed us all.

Fortunately, an insistent doctor who refused to let the big men in the hospital bully her into going with a cancer diagnosis found and treated the infection. But Luke was weak and needing assistance as the semester ended, so I went down to help. And to visit an elderly friend with whom I’d lost touch, who died shortly after Katrina uprooted her a few years after that.

My journal reminds me of the turmoil in Steve’s and my work lives at the time. The president of the university, who had presented herself as our friend up until that period, had suddenly turned on us, shut us out, hired a provost whom she immediately set against us. The provost hounded me, in particular, and it never escaped my attention that in doing so, she was simply following the orders of the president, who refused to meet with either Steve or me, though we both held positions of responsibility in the college that required such meetings, if we were to do our jobs and if the college’s work was to get done.

The provost’s persistent line of attack was to isolate and humiliate me in cabinet meetings. Steve was the only other non-African American member of the cabinet. To make it easier for her to hound me, and to draw attention to my singularity as a white person on the cabinet, she dismissed him from the meetings and focused on me—unrelentingly, viciously, spewing out one lie after another about my performance. As she did so, she would turn to an African-American man next to her and ask for his support—as if I were a threat to her as a white male. As this went on, it was exceedingly painful to witness the collusion of everyone else on the cabinet, of people I had once thought of as friends, of people who have to have known the injustice they were supporting by colluding.

I quickly learned to say nothing at all in these meetings. I just sat and listened, head down. Praying, actually. Prior to the meeting, I would xerox psalms that helped remind me who was ultimately in charge, who casts down oppressors and protects the oppressed. I would read the lines of these psalms over and over as the new provost hounded and hounded and lied and lied.

Not only did she constantly play the race card as she dealt with me, she was overtly and bitterly homophobic. Her first action on arriving at the college was to target and fire two openly gay employees. The president’s disdain for Steve and me had everything to do with our having questioned her about why these employees had been targeted, and about her commitment to justice for gay folks. It was when we raised such questions that she went on the warpath against us.

The president commanded (through the provost) that we meet with the provost and “sort out the gay thing.” When we did so, the provost informed us that only African Americans experience oppression, that her suffering as a black woman surpassed anything we could ever describe as white gay men, and that we had easy and protected lives. When I told her that we did not even have an assured right to visit each other in the hospital if one of us became sick, she expressed astonishment.

Though she was a Ph.D., with a degree from an ivy-league university, she knew nothing at all of how lack of legal protections she took for granted as a black woman made our lives hellacious. We had learned about the oppression she endured as a black woman, and we were determined to help her overturn that oppression. She did not intend to learn about the oppression we endured,as gay men. She did not intend to assist us in overturning that oppression.

When I went to New Orleans to assist my niece and nephew, I did so heavy of heart, because of these experiences of profound oppression in the workplace. As I left for New Orleans, the president sent me an email, accusing me of going there to collude with one of the gay men she had encouraged the provost to fire. He happened to be in New Orleans the same weekend I went there. I had no clue at all he was to be there, and was astonished to receive an email accusing me of meeting him and plotting against her.

I replied to the email with a detailed outline of my schedule and a reminder that New Orleans was a large city and two people from the same town could be there at the same time without ever seeing each other. The president’s response was to forward me a copy of an email she had sent the new provost about me, accusing me of being a treacherous person who entrapped people—accusing me, in other words, of precisely what she herself was doing to Steve and me.

After I returned, in the new year, I wrote the following in my journal on the 15th of January. These reflections are my attempt to puzzle out the significance of a dream I had had the night before:

The deep well of strength of female ancestors. I’m pointed to those roots—to the silent, deep, watching and listening, the speaking out of strength, the knowing when to say, Enough! I felt my mother’s hovering presence all night in these dreams, telling me it will be all right.

With TR, it’s a specifically maternal trauma: her treatment is a casting out into the cold by a mother figure. Her ability to turn love on and off matches that of my mother.

Her intent to have her way and get what she wants, regardless of the consequences to anyone, is phenomenal and ruthless. People become little pawns in her games, and I’m smarting from re-learning that: I’ve always known it.

Yet a good lesson to re-learn. I owe her nothing. I can respect her willingness to struggle a bit with her conscience as she throws us away for the provost. But I’m going to stand aside now, silent, watching, and will see this relationship with the provost unravel. And then where will TKR be, with no friends left? Meanwhile, we watch for other avenues to open.

Interestingly enough, I find I have marked this section of my journal by inserting into it a little prayer card of Our Lady of Guadalupe, from the Guadalupe Healing Foundation in New Mexico, something I had gotten on a trip to New Mexico when my youngest nephew Patrick graduated from high school in El Paso, and my brother Philip took us all to New Mexico to celebrate Patrick’s achievement.

And so it happened, as I anticipated: on the 4th of February, I find I wrote that I had a strong sense that things were breaking up, a change was in the air. The following day, Steve and I got a call from the president—her first contact with either of us in almost two months—telling us she had grown concerned (only now?!) at the racist, humiliating treatment the provost was dishing out to us, after she saw the provost light into Steve on campus one day, lying about him and unmasking herself in the process.

The president had decided, in her ever-shifting psychological universe, that the provost now wanted her job and was colluding with others to unseat her. I write,

A nexus of ugly power is breaking up. But such times are dangerous. One cannot count on what will happen. Deep prayer is called for. As I sit awake in my chair far too early today, I beg Jesus to come into the stillness—of this house, this night, my life.

I write, too, that I expected the provost to continue her harassment, to continue going to the president to try to poison her further against me—“But I am, as my students say, so beyond her. She’s hardly a flyspeck at the end of a telescope for me emotionally.”

By the 28th, the provost had been fired after she had been accused of plagiarizing materials in an important faculty document, and the president sought to mend the relationship she had broken with Steve and me. I write on that date that the psalms had daily reminded me that the snares the provost laid for me, the slanders she spread about me, would be her own eventual undoing.

Why, given all we learned from these experiences, did we then turn around and accept that president’s invitation to continue working with her, several years down the road? We did so because we are fools, I imagine.

But we did so, as well, because, in making that invitation, the president told us outright that she had learned a valuable lesson in that experience with the provost and at other points when she suddenly turned on us out of the blue. She promised never to treat us this way again.

And she broke that promise within weeks after our arrival at the new job—after we had indebted ourselves in ways that continue to make our lives a hard struggle economically, even now. We believed the promise. We believed that people have the ability to learn and to change. We believed in the fidelity of a friend, in the essential goodness at the core of human beings.

We also believed we were called to continue serving in an underprivileged community, on an HBCU campus. And we let that trust in vocation carry us along, to another painful experience.

Is this what life is all about in the end—opening oneself up to possibilities, so that one can be slapped down, again and again? It does sometimes feel that way. But the alternative seems even more dismal to me: to close oneself off, to stop hoping and believing, to become just a hard clenched fist ready to hit out at anyone and everyone, because life doesn’t go one’s way.

There really is no choice, is there? Except the choice to go on living, and as one does so, to try to make the best decisions possible in an imperfect world. Decisions guided by love and grace, by a commitment to build a better world insofar as one can do that.

If we let the experience of repeated oppression dictate to us how to make those decisions—if we give in to the experience of oppression and stop hoping, dreaming, believing—then it seems to me we succeed in making ourselves what our oppressors want us to be. Living as if we, too, have a place in the world, a contribution to make: that is the most radical thing we can do in the face of oppression.

I'd like to think this is part of what Mary treasured in her heart as she raised her child. She knew that the baby she bore and the boy she nurtured to manhood would meet a gruesome end, as he invited everyone to the reign of God he saw arriving in history. But she persisted in hoping, despite what she knew: she hoped because she knew that God casts the mighty down from their thrones and lifts up the lowly, sends the rich away empty-handed while feeding the poor.

Mary's Magnificat is a song-summary of the gospel proclamation that God embraces the whole world with love, and with a preferential love for those most in need of God's redemptive presence. And it is a song that those shoved from the table may sing with clearer voice than those doing the shoving.

Who needs the gospel, after all, more than those whom the world tries to convince that the table and its bread are only for the deserving? Who knows how to tell the gospel story better than those who, like Mary, hunger and thirst for a place at the table for everyone—for people of color, who have long been shoved from the table, for women, who have been asked to wait the table without sitting at it, and, yes, for gay men and gay women, too?