A Time to Listen

black and white handsLast night, I was talking with a colleague and he noted how strange it is that we have so few posts here on what has been happening in Ferguson. As a seminary, we are part of the St. Louis community. We care about our community. Yet, when it comes to Ferguson, there has been a strange silence. Not in prayer on campus but in our public conversations where we reflect on faith and world.

His comment made me think. I didn’t think about why I haven’t posted (I’m not a frequent contributor to begin with). Instead, I thought about how my life has changed recently because of the protests in Ferguson.

When I was in Detroit in the 1980s, I worshiped at a congregation that had a healthy and fruitful integration of Americans of German descent and African Americans. Many of the practices in their life together were drawn from different traditions. I remember worshiping there on Mother’s Day. When you entered the church, you were given a carnation. A red one if your mother was alive and a white one if your mother had died. (I was told that this was an African American tradition, but I don’t know if that is true).

What I found beautiful about the practice was that, during fellowship hour, everyone was able to have conversations about their mother. It wasn’t like Mother’s Day was only real for those who had mothers who were with them at church that morning. Instead, we recognized that we all had mothers and we all had stories about our mothers that we could share – whether they were alive or dead, whether they were with us or not. The conversations at times were hard, a recent death, a broken relationship, but the starting point for the conversation was right there in front of us – a carnation. Red or white. And seeing that flower caused us to talk about things we may not have otherwise talked about that day.

I thought about that experience recently in relation to the events in Ferguson. After the media was covering the protests, I was working out at the gym and suddenly things seemed strange. I was very aware of the color of my skin. Also, I became aware of the skin color of my friends and acquaintances. Working out, we’d normally talk with one another (and I have been talking with some of these friends for years), yet I can’t ever remember having a conversation about our ethnicity. Now, however, it was like someone had given us a carnation when we walked into the gym. You were white or you were black. Ferguson mattered. Not just to the people who lived in Ferguson. Ferguson mattered to all of us, regardless of where we lived. Today, Ferguson made our color obvious and it seemed awkward not to talk about it.

Because of the events in Ferguson, I found myself having conversations. Some have been awkward, others tentative, some exploratory, others emotionally draining . . . but they were real. Real conversations that began to put flesh back on people. In some cases, on people I have known for years but really didn’t see in this way. These conversations are not easy – things are tense around here, as you can imagine – but these conversations are good. To talk is hard . . . but not to talk is even harder.

The events in Ferguson have been tragic, and I have no response I would venture to make at this point. But that, for me, is the point. Right now is not a time for me to speak but to listen. That’s what I am doing. Encountering friends and acquaintances. Seeing the color of our skin and not pretending in some pious way that it doesn’t matter. Recognizing that it does matter. In a real way.

Right now, the ideal of ignoring skin color is no longer ideal. I can’t pretend it doesn’t matter. Instead, what is ideal is to see the color of your skin, to hear your story, to be given a glimpse of your world for a moment so that I might reflect on my own and, in time, we can begin to speak of God’s work in God’s world once again.

The events in Ferguson and the conversations that have followed have put flesh back on people and, once the person I’m talking to has flesh, flesh of a certain color, I find myself beginning to think about what I might venture to say.

For now, however, I’m taking time to listen, trusting that in time, in relationship, there will be the time to speak.

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1 Comment

  1. Nathan Esala September 8, 2014

    I really enjoyed the piece – thank you. Skin color as an analogy for colored carnations is a particularly nice thought. I am reflecting on the connection between the red and white carnations as an intentional ritual for a community with people some of whom have living mothers and some of whom have dead mothers on Mother’s day. And how the pigment of skin has become a similar marker now on the days following the loss of Michael Brown at least for you and probably many others. I am not sure I experienced it the same way, but you are closer to it.

    I read once that “to grieve is a precondition of value.” When someone dies, one response that is very tempting for me in relation to the next of kin is to ignore it, and those who have lost a loved one often express how painful that can be. Skin color and the social experience of ‘race’ and the death of Michael Brown now opens up that ‘same’ awkward feeling for ‘white’ society in relation to ‘black’ society. Similarly it might be tempting to want to ignore the loss and get back to the way it was. Yet, on mother’s day the carnation colors helped ritualize the experience of loss and value the loss even providing a potentially more natural segue to discussion. How might white society better grieve the loss of Michael Brown and assign value to a life now lost? And even assign value to what his death and the death of others represent for black society? Could ritual play a part?

    I am not sure, but thank you for these thoughts and the example of listening to friends with white carnations pinned on their brown skin. To date, I must admit, I have not had such healing discussions. And, perhaps, therein lies a good part of the problem.

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