Bustin’ Out All Over

Wednesday was a gift, wasn’t it?

Blue skies, sunshine, and 64 degrees (maybe more where you live).

When I “checked in” on Facebook LIVE at 9:00 that’s what everybody was talking about. “What a beautiful day!” “It’s going to be a great day!” “Try to get outside today!”

I did try to get outside. I tried to get out every chance I got. And every time I did the warmth and sunshine made me feel more hopeful, more optimistic. I began to feel like this endless pandemic might actually come to an end. I began to think we could come back to church again, and go out to eat again, and spend time with friends again. Every person I passed as I walked through the neighborhood seemed to be in an exceptionally good mood.

It wasn’t just the warmth or the sunshine; it was the promise of spring. I told Christy on one of those walks, “You can almost hear the ground thawing and the air smells, what’s the word? fecund.” That was only a guess, but it turned out to be a good one. When I looked it up later I found that fecund means “producing or capable of producing an abundance of offspring or new growth.” Yes. That’s how the air smelled: Fecund. 

I remember counseling with a woman once in DC who was depressed. It was February, and a cold February at that. She sat in my office on a gray day and wept until she had used up all the tissues in the box I had given her. Finally I said, “Do you know that apartment building just up Massachusetts Avenue, the Boston House?” She nodded. It was right around the corner from the church. “Well, every spring there are a thousand tulips in front of that building. It’s one of the most beautiful, colorful sights in the city. And right now those tulip bulbs are down in that frozen ground. But when it gets a little warmer, when we get a little rain and sunshine, those bulbs are going to start pushing up their slender green stalks until they break through the ground. And then they’re going to keep on pushing upward, toward the sun, until those fat buds burst into bloom, until those silky petals unfurl, until all you can see is tulips everywhere. Maybe right now your heart is like one of those tulip bulbs, frozen in the ground, but spring is coming, and everything’s going to change.” A few months later she reported back that I had been right, that she was now engaged, and springtime was “bustin’ out all over”!

That’s how I felt on Wednesday: hopeful, optimistic, as if everything were about to change. I know I may not feel that way when I have to slog through another wet, cold, gray day, but it doesn’t change the fact that spring is coming.

I hope you feel it, too. 

Jim

A Challenge to Our City

For the fourth year in a row, David M. Bailey and I are challenging the citizens of Greater Richmond to a city-wide book read during Black History Month.

This year’s book is Caste: the Origins of Our Discontents, by Isabel Wilkerson. Caste is an Oprah’s Book Club selection, hailed by Ms. Winfrey as “Required reading for all of humanity.”

Journalist Dwight Garner writes, “Wilkerson has written a book that largely avoids the word ‘racism,’ yet stares it down with more humanity and rigor than all but a few in our literature.” Author Tracy Kidder adds, “Ms. Wilkerson has provided a renewed way of understanding America’s longest, fiercest trouble in all its complexity. Her book leaves me both grateful and hopeful. I gulped it down.”

I read Caste during the tumultuous summer of 2020 and discovered in its pages a new way to think about racism and its effect on all Americans. I began to recommend it to friends and church members and heard what I so often hear when the “R” word comes up: “Oh, but Dr. Somerville… I’m not a racist!”

No? Then prove it.

Read Caste during the month of February. Read it with an open mind and learn from it. Walk a mile in Isabel Wilkerson’s shoes, and then on Monday, March 1, at 7:00 pm, join us for a Zoom discussion and tell us what you’ve learned.*

David Bailey adds:

Because of my vocation and calling I read at least one to two dozen books on race and ethnicity a year. Caste is a book that is in a category of its own in greatness!

There is a saying, “I don’t know who discovered water, but it wasn’t fish.” In Caste, Isabel Wilkerson does an amazing job of doing the difficult task of describing the “water” that has shaped our society. 

I agree with Auntie Oprah and say that “this should be a required reading for all of humanity.” This book will help us see what we are up against in our city and our country as a whole. The insight we gain from reading this book will help us have better conversations as we move towards meaningful action in doing our part in making our city and country better today and for the next generation. 

Please read and join us for the Zoom discussion on March 1.* 

_________________________
Jim Somerville is Pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church. David M. Bailey is the Founder and Executive Director of Arrabon, a Richmond non-profit devoted to the work of reconciliation.

*Caste is available at Amazon.com and at bookstores everywhere. You can register for the Zoom book discussion on March 1 at fbcrichmond.org

Are you “Microaggressive”?

In recent weeks people have been asking me what they can do about racial injustice. Here’s one thing: we (white people) can become aware of our microaggressions and avoid them. What are microaggressions? Take a look at these examples cited by Beverly Daniel Tatum, a psychologist and former Spelman College president, in a recent CNN article by Kristen Rogers:

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“You’re so well spoken/articulate” or “You don’t sound black.” This remark sounds like a compliment, but it’s offensive to a lot of black people because they usually don’t have to be that articulate for someone to say that to them, Tatum said. When a white person says it, it usually implies they wouldn’t expect to hear coherence from a black person. The black person didn’t fit the white person’s offensive stereotype, so the white person complimented them for not fitting the mold.

“Don’t blame me. I never owned slaves.” This statement assumes that racism ended with the conclusion of the US Civil War, Tatum said, when really it has continued in new forms. Read “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stephenson or “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander to learn more about modern slavery, racism and how white people still benefit from discrimination.

“White privilege doesn’t exist.” Differences in racial privilege occur on a personal basis, too. White privilege also means not having to worry about whether your hairstyle will cost you a job or even an interview. It’s not having to worry if someone is following you around a store because they think you might steal something because of your skin color.

“All lives matter.” Yes, all lives matter, but in this context it’s black lives that are not being treated with respect, Tatum said. Hence the Black Lives Matter movement. Those who say “all lives matter” may be interpreting “only black lives matter,” which isn’t the case. The latter phrase means “black lives matter, too.” So when someone says “all lives matter” without acknowledging the movement, they’re ignoring the anti-black racism that there are so many examples of regarding police interactions, Tatum said.

“I’m not racist; I have a black friend.” People who say this might be equating racism with prejudice, Tatum said. Prejudice is an attitude based on stereotypes. Racism entails the policies and practices that perpetrate notions of white superiority and inferiority of people of color.  You may not harbor racial prejudice or hate in your heart, but ties with black people don’t keep you from engaging in discriminatory behavior and/or failing to challenge racist practices.

“Can I touch your hair?” Curiosity is OK, but crossing boundaries is not. The question may not be intentionally offensive, but it can make a black person feel as if she’s an animal on display — since you likely wouldn’t ask that of any other race. It also continues the antiquated idea of black people as “other” or scientific novelty.

“We’re all one human race/big happy family.” This statement seeks to alleviate racism or complaints of it. The phrase is biologically correct given genetic similarities. But in terms of social interactions, we don’t behave as if we were all one race, Tatum said.

“I’m colorblind; I don’t care if you’re white, black, yellow, green or purple.” The intention is inclusive, but people of color are saying their color and identity matter and affect how they experience the world. Saying this is offensive because it could imply you aren’t listening to or don’t care about what other groups of people are telling you.

Clutching your purse or dodging while passing a black man. This behavior implies that black men are dangerous. It’s based on a fear that responds to a stereotype that categorizes black men as threats.

Reading this list of microaggressions, maybe you’ll think, “Aren’t they being oversensitive?” If they were isolated incidents, maybe. However, microaggressions are so common “that it’s like death by a thousand cuts,” Tatum said. “Research has shown that microaggressions do contribute to increased blood pressure, physical reactions [and] lower feelings of well-being.”

They wear people down, and they need to be taken seriously.

 

—Kristen Rogers, CNN, June 4, 2020

 

Church in a Time of Quarantine

Trying to think outside the box–that big box on the corner we call the “church,” that is.

Church just happened

“Greet one another with a holy kiss,” Paul wrote.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, but not in a time of global pandemic, when we are being asked to practice “social distancing” as a way of “flattening the curve.” So how do you “do” church when you can’t get together, when you can’t hug or shake hands or share a holy kiss? Church leaders are having to figure this out, and they’re having to do it quickly.

Many of my colleagues in ministry called off church as usual last Sunday and some tried preaching in empty sanctuaries while an associate held an iPhone and streamed the sermon through Facebook Live (with more or less success).

It wasn’t church, but it was something.

My pet project, A Sermon for Every Sunday, was not created with a global pandemic in mind, but it could have been. One of…

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Why Is It So Hard?

I spent a lot of time on last Monday night’s panel discussion. Along with my friend David Bailey I challenged the city to read the book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism. I had read the book and loved it. I thought, “If we could learn to talk about racism we might actually be able to do something about it.” So David and I challenged the city to read it and then come to a panel discussion on Monday, March 2.

Panel Discussion White FragilityI put the panel together, and I must say: I got lucky. The people I invited said yes, and the people I invited were the best and most knowledgeable people I could find.[i] My opening question was this: “Why is it so hard for white people to talk about racism?”  The answer came in a lot of different forms, but it might best be summed up like this: White people have learned (mostly through the Civil Rights Movement) that racism is a bad thing and racists are bad people. If you suggest to white people that their words or deeds might be perceived as racist, they often become very defensive, because they assume that you are accusing them of being racists. They know racists are bad people, and they do not believe themselves to be bad people.

In other words, white people are “fragile” when it comes to this subject.

The problem with racism, however, is that it is more than an individual thing. It is systemic. It is built into the structures of our society. To use just one example: a white high-school dropout typically earns more money than an African-American with a college degree.[ii] That person might say, “I don’t care how racist you are, personally; just pay me as much as you pay white college graduates.” So, we white people fret about how we are perceived in the black community while the black community struggles with inequity, segregation, substandard education, and crushing poverty.

I’ve been trying to write from my heart lately, and not my head, and I know I’ve just written a lot of things that sound “heady,” but I want to assure you: this is a heart issue for me. It’s not because I “have a lot of black friends” or because my father “marched in the Civil Rights movement.” It’s because I believe—with all my heart—that every human being is made in the image of God. We’ve got to see that image in others. We’ve got to celebrate it. And we’ve got to speak up when we see or hear someone putting others down. This short video, above, makes that as clear as anything I’ve seen, and if you’ve read this far maybe you’ll take another three minutes and forty-eight seconds to watch it. If you don’t have time, I hope you will remember that I see the image of God in you,

And I celebrate it.

Jim.

 

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[i] David Bailey was there, who runs Arrabon, a non-profit devoted to racial reconciliation; Sheryl Johnson was there, who co-chairs the “Pledge to End Racism” campaign in Richmond; Tiffany Jana was there, who runs a consulting firm specializing in workplace diversity; Rabbi Michael Knopf was there, an outspoken champion for social justice; and Corey Walker was there, an academic who has taught at some of the finest schools in the country.

 

[ii] “Education is not the Great Equalizer” (https://rollingout.com/2017/08/13/average-white-high-school-dropout-earns-more-than-black-college-grad/).