I usually leave a satisfying conference with copious notes and a lengthy to do list. Rarely have I left a conference stunned, challenged, changed. The Call and Response Conference was that kind of conference. The conference planners (including Fr. Esau McCaulley, an Anglican priest) called folks together to explore the past, present and future of the Black Church. For three days, African-American leaders, from a wide range of denominations, reflected profoundly on the history and legacy of the Black Church, often through remarkable preaching (insightful, well-crafted, inspiring, aerobic).
As a white person attending a conference planned and presented by African-Americans, I felt like an in-law who was warmly welcomed into someone else's family reunion. The story that this family all shared, the story that gave a sense of identity and cohesion, was not my story. That experience was disorienting.
Through my encounter of the Black Church Family at Call and Response, I came to see that our stories and our experience shape each other. Our stories, like blinders on a horse, determine what we see. They also powerfully influence how we act, and how we interpret the world around us. Our experience, then, either confirms our story or helps us to rewrite it. We say to ourselves after an experience, "See, there's another example of ..." or we say, "That's not what I expected." Experience confirms or challenges our foundational narratives.
As I heard history recounted from a black perspective, I realized how different our formative stories are. It made me wonder, “What is America’s story?” How we finish this writing prompt will reflect and determine much of our experience in America today: "400 years ago, my ancestors...."
- "400 years ago, my ancestors left Europe seeking freedom to worship without coercion and persecution."
- "400 years ago, my ancestors landed at Jamestown in the hold of the first slave ship to land in North America."
- "400 years ago, my ancestors encountered people fleeing religious persecution who believed that they had the right to violently take our land."
These three stories speak such different volumes. Each “American story” determines what we see around us, influences how we act, and shapes how we interpret the actions and motives of others.
For many decades our country has tried to desegregate our schools by fiat. But, we have never integrated our stories. We've reserved Black History for a special month in which we highlight the contribution of inventors, judges, leaders, and activists; and talk about slavery. Why is that not simply history? Why is slavery a black experience? Were the captains of slave ships black? Were the owners of slave ships black? Were the plantation owners who bought slaves black? Isn't slavery, then, white history, too?
What would an integrated story look like? It would need to be true to the experience of all of us, all our communities. That would mean looking squarely at, and appropriately naming, evil acts, and the twisted thinking that justified them. It would need to find its roots in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, as well as in Europe. Its complexity would defy sloganeering. It would be told in a globe’s worth of languages, dialects, and accents.
How can we develop an integrated story? I don’t really know. It would certainly require listening to others until we hear beyond their words; listening until we hear anguish, terror, rage, and stubborn hope; listening until we drop our defenses; listening until we hear about the sin of our ancestors and face the sin in our own hearts.
I’ve just started listening. I want to hear.