Soul Work

The Rev. Alison Cornish

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Dear Martin –

I am writing this letter to you on the eve of your real birthday of January 15th.

It is one of those wild weather days, with wind and rain and wildly fluctuating temperatures. It is the kind of day that makes it hard to forget that we live in real atmosphere and real time because it so surrounds us, immerses us, in reality. Every moment seems to call to us – “look what’s happening now. Pay attention! You’re about to get wet, or cold, or blown into the next county.” There is nothing benign about the weather today. If you don’t feel the weather today, you’re really asleep at the wheel.

This is weather that makes us pay attention to the world in which we live.

I mention the weather today because there are so many days that frankly I don’t even notice it – it’s just there, with no special presence at all. And thinking about weather in this way made me think about the book I’ve just finished reading, called “Soul Work: Anti-Racist Theologies in Dialogue.” You see, the overwhelming message of this book is this: racism and oppression not only exist, but are so completely a part of our world, our daily lives, as common and ever-present as the air we breathe, the sky that arches above, the earth below our feet. It is, purely and simply, our environment – and, just like an ordinary weather day, we don’t even notice it. One essay after another points to the pervasive character of racism today. Some compare it to an addiction, others to a virus, still others, to a self-perpetuating evil. They bring us sober reminders that those extraordinary moments in the 1960s, those moments dreamed and planned and orchestrated by you and your friends and colleagues and followers – those moments that dismantled the formal segregationist laws of this land – those moments that we have celebrated as victories – did not, could not, end the insidious sin of racism. It is a sad book, a book that speaks more of our failings than our successes, more of our confusion and hurt and anger and guilt than our hopes. But –

We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.

This book began as a “consultation,” a January, 2001 meeting of Unitarian Universalist ministers and theologians who came together to present papers and responses, and to discuss honestly and openly the subject of racism. They came together, the authors say, because it was time to focus on anti-racism “not only as an institutional and structural issue, but also as a spiritual issue.” Why? When the work of tearing down the high structures of racism is so far from complete, why were they not there to plan and strategize and plot, but to “talk?” And why would our Unitarian Universalist leaders, who are well known for supporting just causes with their activism – as when they marched alongside you – why would they come together to talk theology? It turns out one reason to gather to talk was to overcome the deafening silence that has too often been the stock response to the cries of injustice from those who continue to be oppressed. From the silence of white theologians in dismantling institutionalized racism to the silence in the face of “inequity and power relations” to the silence that leads to a culture of invisibility for millions … participants of this consultation maintained “that giving voice to these silences is a part of the religious work of anti-racism.” Thus –

We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.

As you well know, our Unitarian Universalist movement embraces and affirms theological diversity, and the participants in this consultation had to grapple with the matrix of multiple religious sources and ethics, beliefs and actions, personal experiences and pastoral responses. They wanted to explore, for example, the questions “are racism and violence social constructions or aspects of human nature?

What are the tensions and the interconnections between ‘our common humanity,’ and affirming our particular identities? How can we respond with certainty or proclaim ‘the truth’ about racism when we live in a pluralistic world … where racism manifests itself in radically different ways? What does it mean to be a citizen of this country and of the world?” You see the dilemmas we’re facing now. Each and every time we gather we seem to have to re-establish the why and how … of everything. What our language means. Where we come from, and what lenses we look through at the rest of the world.

We are constantly warned against the dangers of oversimplification, and yet the relevant areas under the racism umbrella continue to expand – the authors touch on theology, psychology, and sociology – on individual psyches and institutional structures.

It is no wonder to me, and maybe to you, too, that there is confusion not only in what to do, but where to begin. I think we yearn for a time – even your time – when, at least in hindsight, it seemed clearer, even easier, to know what was the right thing to do. And so –

We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.

One of the messages that this book speaks most loudly is something I think you tried to get those of us of white European descent to understand. It is this – though the world we live in is completely infused with oppressions of all kinds, particularly our long history of white racism, those of us who belong to the dominant group really can pay it no notice while it remains a daily encounter for our brothers and sisters of color. In the words of James Cone:

People of color do not have the luxury of just dealing with racism in church meetings. If that were true, it would not be so bad! No day passes in which blacks don’t have to deal with white supremacy. It is found everywhere – in the churches, in seminaries, at publishing houses, in government, all around the world.

This is the paradox – that these systems of oppression and racism are so completely pervasive, and yet, those of us who are not “of color” are privileged to hardly notice at all. It brings to my mind the slave spiritual that was revived in your days as a civil rights song, “Been in the Storm So Long.” People of color head out into the storm every day, over and over again. But for others of us, we hardly even notice the weather, it looks so completely normal to us. o be so unaware of the everyday inequities that surround us, like ordinary weather. I remember such a moment a few years ago, when I caught myself at the edge of the storm.

It was while I was serving as a chaplain at a large urban hospital in Boston. As part of our training we often wrote a “verbatim” account of a pastoral visit, a description of a particular event in as great detail as we could remember. As part of the process of honing our skills, we shared our work with other chaplains in a small group.

One day I presented a verbatim about my visit with several people – patients and family members – in the waiting room of the radiation therapy unit. I read my work out loud, and everyone made comments. But later that day, while re-reading my work, I was suddenly caught short. In my “observations,” I had noted who was in the room – “an older couple,” “a single woman.” Then, “a tall, elegant black woman.” And later, “a tall and very handsome, well dressed black man.” Then, “another couple, she with legs in braces.” I read it again, in disbelief. Why had I named the skin color of only the black people? Why had I added adjectives, “elegant, handsome, well-dressed” only to the black couple’s description? I tried to recall writing these things … but they had just flowed out of me, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. The truth was this – that couple stood out to me because most of my experiences in that hospital with men and women with black skin had involved orderlies and nurses aids. My blithe assumptions and lack of awareness overwhelmed me. had encountered few black patients. Yet I had met and talked with many white patients, and staff – and never once in a verbatim had I added similar adjectives.

I brought the subject to my supervisor. I was as upset about the fact that my peer group had not called me on my blindness as my own lack of awareness. She commiserated, but expressed no surprise. “Haven’t you noticed it happening time and time again this summer? No one speaks up, they don’t know how.”

Martin, your words in our hymnal come back to haunt me. “There are some things in our social system to which all of us ought to be maladjusted,” you wrote. And yet I see how I – and so many others – have found a way to live in the world, to adapt to so many systems, not noticing the storms raging about us. When will it be that those of us who are so privileged will stand up and say, “I cannot adjust myself to this reality.” Danielle DiBona says it in these words:

Change requires going to and staying in the margins. People of color, oppressed people, do indeed live on the margins. Those of us who refuse to commit violence upon ourselves in the guise of adaptation are at the margin.

When we demand that our story be heard and validated, we are moving to the margin. And for our brothers and sisters who are committed to anti-racism, you must make the journey toward the margin, always fighting the centrifugal force of the dominant culture that will pull you back to the center.

We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.

But the most challenging ideas in this book to me are those that I think would appeal to you, too, Martin, for they call me to an as yet only-dreamed reconciliation – the one within myself, ourselves. These are the authors that ask, why anti-racism? Why do this work? If we are going to be sustained over the long haul, we need to have a deep purpose. Our all-too-common feelings of guilt, accumulations of all the “should’s,” even the loss of relationships we could have with people different from us is probably not enough to do the hard, revolutionary work that is called for. What calls us to this, and what is at stake for us? Their answers suggest that the estrangement from ourselves, the brokenness we experience as human beings as a result of racism and other forms of oppression existing anywhere – this is the healing that must happen along with all the activism we can muster. “What is inside, deep down, real, painful, joyful, guilty, shameful, religious, spiritual, and full of life?” Far from the navel-gazing that I fear from even the most serious Unitarian Universalists, this discussion of separation, of the work of the soul, is what touches me most deeply. Here are words from your time, written by Lillian Smith in 1961, side-by-side with words written 40 years later, in my time, by Rebecca Parker:

Smith says: They who so gravely taught me to split my body from my mind and both from the ‘soul’ taught me also to split my conscience from my acts and Christianity from southern tradition. I learned [white racism] the way all of my southern people learn it: by closing door after door until one’s mind and heart and conscience are blocked off from each other and from reality. Some learned to screen out all except the soft and soothing; others denied even as they saw plainly, and heard … we were blocked from sensible contact with the world we lived in.

Parker says: When I speak of the ignorance created by my education into whiteness, I am speaking of a loss of wholeness within myself and a concomitant segregation and fragmentation of culture that debilitates life for all of us. Who benefits from this fragmentation and alienation? Does anyone? What I know is that I do not benefit from this loss of my senses, this denial of what I have seen and felt … Once I recognize it, this loss disturbs me deeply. It is precisely this loss that makes me a suitable, passive participant in social structures that I abhor.

Again, We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.

Rebecca Parker hands me a question that I can only imagine troubled you all your years: “what has led those who are not serious about racism to not be serious[?]” Her answer: “I would suggest that perhaps the reason lies in the social construction of heartlessness or numbness of feeling … The struggle for racial justice is a struggle to overcome the numbness, alienation, splitting, and absence of consciousness that characterize my life as a white and that enable me to unwittingly, even against my will, continue to replicate life-destroying activities of my society.”

Were you here with us today, you would see that we need these words now more than ever. I have struggled all week, listening to the leaders of our country debate what truly constitutes torture of a human being. I have followed the story of one man about to be put to death in a neighboring state in the revival of a long-dormant death penalty. And from Iraq, and Israel, news of more suicide bombers. “The social construction of heartlessness, the numbness of feeling” is behind headline after headline in our world today. It is as ordinary as the day’s weather. We are not paying attention.

To Martin, on your birthday, we do know that without your vision, courage, ingenuity, power and sacrifice, we would all be living in a far less just world. We have you to thank for much. I would not want you to think that we have stopped dreaming about the beloved community. But if this book has taught me anything, it is that the way forward holds at least as many challenges as the distance we have already come.

So it is with a great sadness in my heart that I understand the truth of Bill Jones’ words:

…Difficult though it may be, we must finally be able to say in the words of one of [your] colleagues, ‘We’ve never buried [you], and we won’t be able to do anything until we do.’ [Your] dream will only become a reality … when black and white Americans can say – and with conviction – ‘King is dead, long live King.’

Finally, we forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.

Closing Words (Margaret Williams Braxton)

Once upon a time I was

Now I am

Some day I will become

Once there was

And now there is

Soon there will be

And some day there surely shall be

Once upon a time we were

Now we are

And some day (Hallelujah!) we shall surely become



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