After a long day with troubled teens, I listen to the winds howl and allow myself to feel the anxiety that burns in my gut. I live in St. Louis, Missouri and this is November 11, 2014. I am keenly aware that I am living in a historical moment.
Each of us has our own story as we come into this important moment. My context is my story. A white woman, a city-dweller, a retired minister, a teacher of troubled teens, a married-to-a-woman woman, a mother of children both white and black who are now out of the nest… and safe, for today.
Once upon a time I had a bully (and literal) pulpit in suburban St. Louis. In addition to a weekly audience, I was a regular contributor of op-eds for the Post-Dispatch, did interviews with the likes of Keith Olbermann and Charlie Rose, was featured in a River Front Times cover story, and worked alongside change activists in our community. Now I have none of those titles or platforms or audiences. The loss of this old life is understood in new ways this week.
After more than 20 years in the business (church work), I cashed in my chips six years ago and got honest with myself, my family and my church about what was real in my heart and body. I had scrupulously followed the rules of marriage for two decades, but to do so I had denied my truest self. Telling my truth, however, was costly. At first everyone (in my family and my church), good liberals all, said the right things but immediately there was a distancing. It was almost imperceptible and denied when’er I queried. Slowly but undeniably fissures became apparent and as my new life unfolded with incredible beauty (and it is oh, so precious), my old life evaporated before my eyes.
A house, the baby books, holidays with family… these were the first things I noticed missing. But soon it was undeniable that the big stuff was in play, even my professional life. The things that matter are won and lost not in courts or with martial law but with innuendo and nuance. When the proverbial delivered a clear message, I walked away. But the lessons are yet to be unpacked.
For the past year I have worked as a teacher with troubled kids, my former life experiences invaluable but unseen. So much of what is important in this world lies just out of view.
From this still unfamiliar vantage I listened to the news when Michael Brown was gunned down on a hot summer day, stunned and silent. From the safety of my home, I watched in horror as the tanks rolled in and the dogs barred their teeth. I felt paralyzed, as I suspect most well intentioned white folk do. Evil rests on the default of silence.
It was several weeks later, in late September, when a call went out across social media: white folks needed in Ferguson. With the nest cleared and the school year started, my wife and ventured out from our home and spent an evening on the street in Ferguson. We were stunned by the compassion, inclusive welcome and safety we encountered. We were inspired by the hope that was so palpable. And we came back, again and again.
Freed from the glare and the responsibility of professional church life, my wife and I have spent now countless evenings standing with protestors in Ferguson, Clayton and on Shaw. We’ve held signs, marched for miles, and chanted until we were hoarse. And we have seen things. We have heard things. We have been changed.
As I sift through the emotions that collide as we await the grand jury announcement, I am aware that my grief tumbles together and new light shines on old shards. What I experienced in leaving church was the culmination of micro aggressions, no one of which could have pushed me into abhorring a profession and community that I had loved so deeply. Micro aggressions are tricky because they are typically unseen by the casual observer and not life threatening in isolation. But what we fail to honor is that the wounds carry poison and that each repeated insult adds to the toxic soup. Eventually careers, even beloved ones, come to an end.
In the streets of Ferguson, I am forced to acknowledge that the stakes are yet higher. Micro aggressions are fed by “false Western binaries” (Starsky Wilson) that water the toxic soil of racist and homophobic cultures. Standing across from the Ferguson Police Department, I am face to face with the very struggle for survival. I am unable to unsee the pain.
School teacher by day and protestor by night, I begin to see what is hidden in plain sight. The twist of a narrative, the embellishment of one (not the other) side of a story. The subtle but undeniably pernicious play to fear-based stereotypes. And the incredible miserable lie that it is. What we have encountered on the street is powerful, is love, is a quest for justice the likes of which I have never seen nor even dared hope. This is the seed of just revolution that if watered with care and love could be so much more.
I am terrified and yet hopeful. The militarization of the police incites the very violence they claim to abhor, and I am fearful. The rush on guns stores by private (white) citizens in legion, and I am fearful. Young black men, the ones whom I privileged to stand with, express a fatalism that takes my breath. The mothers have called for the “wailing women” (Traci Blackmon), determined that they will stand in the streets until the blood stops flowing. And I will stand with them, praying and hoping and standing so that the story of justice is written on our hearts and in our history books.
Yet as I reach for my pen, I realize that my audience is gone. That the very gift of freedom that allows me to stand in the street, to see and understand, is at the same time the loss of the privilege to help craft the narrative. And now I see: a catch 22, the taproot of oppression.