In early August the news hit like a ton of bricks. First there was a mass shooting in El Paso, killing 22 people and wounding dozens of others, targeted especially toward Hispanic people. Only hours later came another shooting, this one in Dayton, Ohio, with 9 dead and dozens more injured. As of this writing, I have yet to hear of a definite motive for the Dayton shooting, though some say the shooter was angry that his sister was dating a black man. I went to seminary in Dayton and had been in the very area of town where the shooting happened. These came after a shooting at a festival in Gilroy, California. On top of these tragedies there were the “usual” shootings that took place around the country, with casualties of one or two, no less tragic for the families of those impacted, but less dramatic, so they didn’t make as big of a news story.
A few days later came word of a massive raid by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Mississippi where over 600 people were arrested while at work. Children came home to find their parents gone. You may have seen the interview with the sobbing girl talking about all her father does for her and pleading with authorities to release him. As I watched her and heard the stories, I saw in my mind the faces of the Hispanic children we’d worked with in Reading Explorers this summer. I don’t know their families’ immigration status, but I could imagine those children bereft and frightened should such a thing happen to their families. My heart broke. It was a lot to process. As always, there are many sides to news stories, and I try to slow myself down before making rash judgments. There are so many layers to these stories that it takes time and thought to peel them back.
One common thread I see weaving through these and other events taking place in the world is how we interact with people who differ from us. Words with a lot of power behind them have been bandied about, words like racism or xenophobia. I am not in a position to accuse anyone involved in any of these incidents with anything. I do know that fear of the stranger (xenophobia) and racism are all too real, even in my own life. I can’t do anything about big events that make the news. I can change me.
Regularly I must repent of my own racism. I’m conscious enough of it that I try hard not to let it show, and I know that in my gut I am more suspicious of people who look different from me than I am of those whose skin color is like mine. My suspicion is neither fair nor rational. Just because someone has brown skin, speaks a different language, or comes from another country, does not make them more or less likely to behave in a certain way. All of us are beloved children of God, which makes us siblings together.
I repent of my racism and I also know that it is all too human to fear the unknown. The best way to get over that fear is to meet people who are different from me, to learn their names and their stories, to know them as individuals. Reading Explorers, and last summer Project Transformation, introduced me to families who live right here in the neighborhood of the church, some of whom have brown skin. I know those children. Sometimes they acted up, resisted reading, or balked at an activity. So did the other children in those programs, children with white skin. Most often they cooperated, tried their hardest, and learned new skills. In other words, they were kids, and I was delighted to know them. When I see them and their parents around the neighborhood, I no longer have a tight feeling in my gut. Instead I wave and smile and they smile back.
Almost three years ago, Mill Plain United Methodist Church set the goal to reach out to our neighborhood and to grow in diversity. We have taken some steps toward achieving that goal and continue to work at it. I can’t change the tragedies that have taken place elsewhere, but I want to think we are chipping away at our own racism.