A Story from our own, Sue Steptoe
With the current unrest and protest going on across this country. I can’t help but think how every black person’s life has been touched by systemic racism or even in-your-face racism.
In 1965, I was living in Little Rick, Arkansas and had a wonderful job as a loan officer at Universal CIT. Had never heard of this loan company. I was interviewed over the phone by a Harold Campbell. He literally hired me on the phone. Let me add that on the telephone many people don’t know my ethnicity. I often surprise people when I show up. I am used to it. I was so excited and the salary was a big increase from secretarial jobs in the past and came with a title: loan processor; me😊
I come in for my first day and there were four white men, including Mr. Campbell who came to the counter after one of the other white men offered to help me, and I identified myself. Mr. Campbell had a puzzled look on his Sheriff Andy face
but extended his hand and welcomed me and introduced me. I don’t remember the names of the men, but the other woman, white, was named Vava ( I think that registered in my head because I learn names by association. Immediately, to me she became Vavaboom).
It was a rocky start but the work was fulfilling. Mr. Campbell started each day with a joke or story about Josiah, the old ni--er and his mule. Usually away from my desk, which was in the back, but near enough for his voice and their laughs to find my ears. This went on for about a month. I finally asked him, privately, if he wouldn’t tell that joke around me because it made me uneasy. His eyes told me he didn’t like my request but he did stop that storytelling around me. Things did change in the office. There was no pretending that I was liked or one of them.
I got pretty good at my job. Even had clients who only wanted to deal with me. Got accounts from a good old boy who had been there much longer than me. He didn’t like me much. One of my best customers was a woman named Ethel Mae Harrington. I couldn’t tell if she was black or white because of her accent. But she lived mine. Mrs. Harrington and I became “friends” and she would call me to talk. She shared recipes and ideas. And family stories. It was nice. She lived in some small town and promised the next time she was in town, she would stop by the office and take me to lunch. I said fine.
About four months later she came into the office and asked for Mrs. Steptoe. Her eyes were fixated on Vava who was not getting out of her chair. I rose and headed for the counter and if you could have seen this woman’s face. Her eyes were stretched to the max and her mouth rested on her generous chin. I identified myself and asked if she was Mrs. Harrington. I even extended my hand to shake hers. She bristled at the idea of touching my hand, snapped her head back and started spewing hate: I do declare. I have been talking to a nigger all this time. She knows about my family and all my information. I will not do business with n---ers. I want to close my account right now. Where is the boss?“ By this time, my mouth is hanging open.
Mr. Campbell was trying to calm the hissy fit having woman to no avail. He literally ordered me to get her file. I did. He closed her file and Mr. Campbell was not pleased especially with me. He called me into his office and interrogated me until I told him my work spoke for itself and until she saw I was black, everything was fine. This was on a Friday, thank God. Saturday I got a special delivery letter from corporate office that said I was fired. Part of me was sad but part of me was happy too.
A funt thing to do when reading scripture is stop and ask yourself, "What other way could this have happened?". The stories in the Gospels are told to less to describe what happened, as to tell why it happened that way. The result gives us a greater sense of who Jesus is. Think about Easter or Pentecost and imagine other ways God could have worked the Resurrection or the coming of the Holy Spirit. See what I mean?
One of my takeways after imagining alternative Resurrection scenes, is to realize how much God treasures everyday life. The morning stillness, the pleasure of clean clothes, healthy bodies, laughter, and all the ingredients of a regular day seem to please God more than a thousand shining castles and glorious coronations. Our small spaces, our simple lives matter to God. Every one of them. Every minute of them. Do they matter to us? Do we give them the respect and honor that is due them? If there ever was an opportunity to treasure the mundane, it's now.
Each one of us, from the stranger we consider most different from us politically or culturally, to the one we know most intimately, is living an everyday life. Our commitment to honoring everyday includes a commitment to ensuring that everyone has their basic needs met. That's why we have our little free food pantry and why we serve meals on Thursdays. That's why we moved our Building's Supervisor into our Parish House. After eleven years of homelessness, now he has the stability he so badly needed. There are so many needs, but there is just today. Today is our chance to savor and share. May we live in that truth each moment of every day as we honor God and give thanks for each of our blessings.
As we move deeper in to this strange and uncertain time, I suspect that you, like me, are a jumble of emotions. I miss my old life. The one where I knew what day it was, and what I was supposed to do that day!
I miss you! I loved seeing our community in person. Whether it was a week night or a Sunday morning. I loved the hugs, laughter, news, and worship time. I miss my pastoral calls to see Maureen and those in hospital or home bound. I suspect you miss seeing your St. Paul's family too.
When God's chosen people, the Israelites, were exiled in Babylon, they mourned for what they had lost. Psalm 137 begins, "By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept." The whole question of the psalm is essentially, how do we do this? How do we sing the Lord's song upon an alien soil? (v 4).
Truth be told, online meeting is alien soil for most of us. Listening to the numbers of COVID-19 infections, being told to stay home, and stay distant, is all alien. The unknown is fearful.
Allow yourself to sit down and weep for what you've lost. There is tremendous anxiety and fear all around us, but we are God's people; grafted into the deep roots of our Jewish ancestors. And know, that while we grieve, and while we ask "how do we do this?" God is already guiding and accompanying us into this new land.
I'm trying to be intentional about feeling the sadness, because it grounds me in reality in a way that fear cannot. Please join me in looking inward at your own heart.. God meets us there, always. Even as God is guiding us toward tomorrow.
In her book, Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, Beverly Daniel Tatum, psychologist and educator (President of Spellman University) offers a great metaphor for how we participate in the -isms that hold some people back and empower others to get ahead. She likens these “systems of advantage” to a moving walkway.
Think about the moving walkway at an airport. The walkway is an electronic, moving sidewalk that moves the people standing or walking on it, regardless of their participation. Those who are not on the walkway move at the speed of their own effort. This is how it is with systems of advantage. Like the moving walkway, they carry those who have the advantage toward the goal (for example, personal wealth and achievement) more easily. Those without access to the walkway may well get to the goal as well, but it will be slower and more arduous.
Here’s an example, people with disabilities are disadvantaged in our culture. They are next to the walkway trying to keep up as best they can. Those who are able-bodied are on the walkway. The system is designed for those who can use stairs, read public notices, hear announcements, use their arms, etc. Some people may be advocating for keeping the disabled from the “mainstream”. But most of us blithely unaware of our advantage, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t benefiting. We’re still on the walkway. Insert agism, sexism, racism, hetero-normativism and you can see the same thing. The systems we’ve created advantage some and disadvantage others.
The only way we can stop moving ahead of our disabled siblings is to get off the walkway - change the systems that advantage us. We can't just turn around and pretend we're just kind hearted people who don't support the advantage becuase, like it or not, we are still moving along and getting the advantage!
Jesus modeled for us what it looks like to actively dismantle systems of privilege. He intentionally hung out with the "wrong people". He actively flipped the tables of those who kept others from entering the temple. How about us?
Here are some questions to reflect on:
Rector's Corner posts written by Pastor Rebecca.