Puppy Love

Connie

I got the text message at 8:58 on Tuesday morning.

It was from the woman who cuts my hair, because, you know, when you sit in someone’s chair for an hour each month you talk, and we both talk a lot. One of the things she talks about is her two little dogs, and on Tuesday she texted to let me know that she’d had to put one of her little dogs “down.”  She wrote:

“The last few weeks she had been in a lot of pain, not eating and very anxious. It was so difficult to say goodbye to her. I love her so very much…”

I can’t tell you how many times in my work as a pastor someone has told me about losing a pet. They make it clear that their pet was not an animal, but a member of the family. They are grieving, and their grief is as real as any grief there is. Tuesday’s text reminded me of the first time I experienced that kind of grief personally. I talked about it in my Thanksgiving sermon in 2012:

“[My parents must have felt a little guilty about taking me away from the only home I had ever known when we moved to West Virginia, so] on my seventh birthday they took me to a kennel and bought me a puppy.  I wanted a Cocker Spaniel; I had seen one in a book. But the closest thing we could find was a Brittany Spaniel. Instead of golden curls it had brown and white curls, but it was still beautiful. ‘I want that one,’ I said, pointing, and my parents (who must have been feeling more than a little guilty) paid a small fortune so we could take that puppy home.

“I thought a Brittany Spaniel deserved a sophisticated name, so I named her “Constance,” but ended up calling her “Connie.”  That first night we brought her home I wanted her to sleep with me, but since she wasn’t housebroken yet my mom thought it would be a good idea if we kept her shut up for the night in our big pantry.  She put down newspapers all over the floor, and then I came down the stairs dragging my sleeping bag and put it down on top of the newspapers.  I slept right there that night, in the pantry with my puppy, and when I woke up the next morning there were little puppy piles all around me and wet spots on the paper but that’s not what woke me: it was Connie, licking my face with her little pink tongue.

“I was the happiest seven-year-old in the world.”

She learned to follow me wherever I went around the house, out into the back yard, down the street. In fact, I couldn’t get her to stop following me. When she got a little older and a little bigger she would chase the family station wagon down the road as long as she could keep up, with me yelling at her out the window, telling her to go home.  She did that for months, and even when I shut her up inside the back yard fence she seemed to find a way out. One day she chased us all the way down to the highway, swung wide when we turned right, and got hit by a car coming the other way.

She never felt a thing.

Dad scooped up her broken body, loaded it into the back of the station wagon where I was sitting, and as we turned around and headed back toward home to lay that dog to rest I ran my fingers through her soft fur and wiped my tears and my nose on my sleeve.

I was the saddest seven-year-old in the world.

You know how we sometimes say about a relationship that it’s “only puppy love,” because the children who are feeling it are not old enough to experience “real” love? My father-in-law used to say, “Don’t call it puppy love. It’s the most love they’ve ever known.”  So, don’t call it “puppy grief” when someone loses a pet. It may not be the most grief they have ever known, but it is as real as it gets.

I’m saying prayers today for my friend who lost her dog, and for you if you have ever known that particular loss.

It’s as real as it gets.

A Challenge to Our City

David-Bailey heaadshot 3For the third year in a row David Bailey and I would like to challenge the people of Richmond to read a book together during February, and the book we have chosen is White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo.

I (Jim) am the pastor of Richmond’s historic First Baptist Church, founded in 1780.  I (David) am the founder of Arrabon, a non-profit devoted to the work of reconciliation. 

You are probably asking the question, “Why should we read White Fragility, a book written by a white person for white people during Black History Month?”

Because of the subtitle: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism. 

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Both of us have found that it can be easier for white people to talk about the progress of black people during Black History Month, but often find it difficult to talk about racism. That’s what drew me (Jim) to the book in the first place.  I had preached three sermons in a row that touched on the subject of racism when one of my parishioners said, “Dr. Somerville, I’ve been really hurt by what you said in those sermons. I’m not a racist!”  

I know this man, and he’s right: he’s not a racist.  But his response to the subject of racism is typical among white people: we take it personally.  I explained that I wasn’t talking about individual racism; I was talking about systemic racism. I said, “You are one of the good guys!  You are one of those people who can help to dismantle the structures of racism that exist in our society and make Richmond a better place!”

But not if we can’t talk about the problem.  

Katy Waldman of The New Yorker writes: “In 2011, Robin DiAngelo coined the term ‘white fragility’ to describe the disbelieving defensiveness that white people exhibit when their ideas about race and racism are challenged— and particularly when they feel implicated in white supremacy. Why, she wondered, did her feedback prompt such resistance, as if the mention of racism were more offensive than the fact or practice of it?  In White Fragility she argues that our largely segregated society is set up to insulate whites from racial discomfort, so that they fall to pieces at the first application of stress—such as, for instance, when someone suggests that ‘flesh-toned’ may not be an appropriate name for a beige crayon.”[1]

You might ask the question, why would a person of color want to read White Fragility

In my work (David), every week a person of color comes to me saying, “I’m exhausted… why don’t [white] people get it? I don’t understand.” Whenever I encourage a person of color to read White Fragility it is empowering to them because light is turned on in a way they can see clearly the depth of the problem. 

“If your definition of a racist is someone who holds conscious dislike of people because of race,” DiAngelo writes, “then I agree that it is offensive for me to suggest that you are racist when I don’t know you,” she writes. “I also agree that if this is your definition of racism, and you are against racism, then you are not racist. Now breathe. I am not using this definition of racism, and I am not saying that you are immoral. If you can remain open as I lay out my argument, it should soon begin to make sense.”[2]

We hope that every Richmonder will accept our challenge to read White Fragility during the month of February.  We believe that if we can all remain open then Robin DiAngelo’s argument will “soon begin to make sense.”  And if it makes sense, we should all be better able to talk about racism in ways that help and heal our beloved city.

White Fragility is available online and at bookstores everywhere.  A limited number of free copies will be available at Richmond’s First Baptist Church (2709 Monument Avenue) beginning February 1.  A panel discussion will be held at the church on Monday, March 2, at 7:00 pm. The event is free and open to the public.  

—Jim Somerville & David M. Bailey

 

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[1] Katy Waldman, The New Yorker, July 23, 2018.
[2] Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility, p. 13.