My father was an idealistic husband and seminarian in the 1960’s, reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer and marching in Memphis. Our apartment living room, where my brother and I made forts with the sofa cushions during the day, was the frequent scene of late night strategy meetings and bull sessions for my dad and his classmates. Some of them were trained in non-violent civil disobedience at the Highlander Folk School, down the road in Monteagle. Most of them had young families. All of them were expected to represent a denomination that defined the Establishment and blessed many social conventions.
We lived in the Jim Crow south, and according to my dad, the Episcopal Church in too many places represented the world as it had always been, instead of how it someday could be. Racism was a given. Black people and poor people and Jews and women were expected to know their place. Injustices might be preached about on Sundays, but real change was slow and threatening throughout most weeks. By 1968, preserving the status quo had become toxic for my father, and it ultimately overwhelmed him. He left the church that year and had trouble finding meaningful work for the rest of his life.
I thought about my dad this weekend when Heather Heyer was killed in Charlottesville and as marchers raised flags intended to intimidate the very people that my father and his classmates sought to support. He’d be sad and angry and confused, I imagine. Have we made any real progress, he’d wonder. I believe the United States has changed for the better in the last 50 years—thank goodness the laws on the books are more just—but hatred and fear still rule too many hearts. Bigotry continues to pervert our nation’s ideals. Wherever it is spoken or acted upon, racism still warps us. And where is the voice of the church?
It speaks when people of faith rise in the face of any notion of racial supremacy and offer this courageous truth: prejudice is a crutch, violence is a sin, and every human being of any color, caste, or creed is a beloved child of God. Nothing can separate us from God’s love—not height, nor depth, not powers nor demons—so surely we cannot stand by or withdraw our love when groups or individuals are made to feel less than because of the way God has made them. Each of us is broken, for certain, but we cannot follow the voices of our lesser selves or make peace with any form of hatred, whether it lives within us or outside of us. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, yes? What happened in Virginia last week could have happened around the corner.
My dad lost his faith, but he taught me what I know about faithfulness. Baltimore needs what our minds and hands and hearts can give.