Early on in my ministry in Marblehead, I received a phone call from a young woman who wanted to talk to me about race. She was considering a cross cultural adoption and, as a white woman, had some questions about the complexities and challenges of adopting a child who was African American. At the time, I was President of UU Allies for Racial Equity and had some answers. Together we journeyed through the difficult questions of the disconnect between Marblehead's view as a place that embraced diversity and the reality of its lack of diversity. I shared my own perceptions of that divide. I shared knowledge I had from young people of color who felt targeted in the schools whenever there was a problem, stories of 'extra' attention in shops and by police and of racist comments being hurled from a passing car at a young woman of color and in a different instance, a young boy. Although the instances were far fewer than I knew of in some other communities, so too, was the number of people of color.Our conversation continued and we talked about the complexity of race in our larger culture. What does it mean for a white person to be adopting a child of color? How will this child learn about their story in that larger culture? I will never know if I was helpful in that conversation but I hoped to simply witness that in addition to the very real questions present in all cross-cultural adoptions, there are different realities her child would face. Further, these realities would include some things that might be unfathomable, and perhaps even unbelievable, to her when they arose. I cannot tell you whether this woman decided to adopt or not, or whether the child was or was not African American. I can tell you that since that time, any couple in similar situations have found themselves in an identity group they perhaps did not expect to join. They, like every parent of a child of color in this country, have questions I never asked. Questions like "At what age should I tell my child that if they are stopped by the police, they should put their empty hands out the window first to show clearly that they are unarmed? Should I tell my child to run toward a police officer if they are in trouble or run away or just freeze with their hands in the air? What do I tell them when they get into a tussle in school with mostly-white friends who don't believe they are treated differently? Do I let them see the coverage of deaths like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice? Do I let them see my tears?
And what of us, who are not parents of children of color. One might first say, we are all parents of all children. But, as much as we wish to live in a world in which that plays out in real ways, every moment of every day, most of us will not be tucking in a child tonight and wondering 'is this the moment? Is this the moment that I should tell this beautiful child that his life is in danger? That the world is less safe and less just for him? Last night I told him he was special because of his artwork and creative soul. The night before I told him I loved how his eyelashes felt when he gave me a butterfly kiss on the cheek. And the night before that I called him my special angel for how kind he was to a friend. Is tonight the night I tell him he is special in this other way? Or is age 8 too soon? Age 12 was too late for Tamir Rice, murdered this past week by police who then did not offer any care for four minutes.
We, who are not parents of children of color have difficult questions to wrestle with too. The difference is that while our souls are certainly at stake, our lives are not. My prayer today is that we take the health of our souls seriously but the sake of the lives of all children of color more seriously. My prayer today is that we believe that life and justice are different for people of color in our country. My prayer today is that we resist the voices who cry out 'oh, no, ALL lives matter' and miss the point that our collective reality does not agree. And that we are not distracted by the specifics of any single incident but look at the collective and understand that a policeman shooting a 12-year old playing in a park alone, despite the fact that he was waving a fake gun, is a 12-year old playing in a park alone and he should not have been murdered before they even got out of the car to ask a question! And that we hear the voices that cry out in despair over and over and over and over again that this is not new. My prayer today is that we are not lost in our own assessment of the rioting in Ferguson that violence should not beget violence and recall instead the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. three years after his I Have A Dream speech and two years before he was murdered "I contend that the cry of "black power" is, at bottom, a reaction to the reluctance of white power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality for the Negro. I think that we've got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard."
My prayer is that each of us will find a way to step deeper into our own understandings of the systems of racism at play in our country, in our communities and within our own heads and hearts. That we pledge ourselves anew to the goal of justice for all people and that we begin right now with the recognition that we are far from there for any child for whom tonight might be the night they gaze up from their bed expecting a word of affirmation and a kiss goodnight and instead hear the words "I've decided there is something I need to share ...."
Yours on the Journey,
Rev. Wendy von Zirpolo