On Thursday morning, 50 of us are jammed into a Sunday school room singing chants. Most of the “us” are scholars — elementary school students — for Freedom School. This is the first day of six weeks that will be filled with books. We will read and read and read, and most of the time it will be so much fun that the kids won’t even notice that they are learning.
To get ready for all the excitement, we’re at the point of our morning liturgy where we are singing chants about reading. We are screaming at one another: “Hey, what’s your name, and where’s your book?” Delight fills the air.
We call the morning pep rally “Harambee,” which means “let’s pull together” in Kiswahili. There are few better ways to start a day than in the company of these saints for an early-morning revival meeting. This Thursday is the first day of this summer’s Freedom School session, and we’re falling right back into our beloved routine of pulling together.
But I note in myself something I have never noted before. I’m not fully engaged. I’m glancing over at the door. I feel a little unease creeping into my gut. I should be shouting for joy with these kids, but the previous night’s terror attack at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston is roiling in my head. What is creeping into my gut is a feeling of vulnerability. Some of it is for myself, but it is also for the 40 children I am sharing this space with. One like them had survived the attack the night before only by playing dead. My illusion of safety is shattered.
It has been evident that the United States of America is not a safe space for people of color since July 4, 1776. Before then, this land was not safe for them, it was just not yet called the United States of America. I have known this intellectually for most of my adult life. Figuring it out is no significant achievement. That it took me until age 35 for the reality to set deeply into my body merely means that I am a terrible learner. Every parent of every child at Harambee this morning has known this lesson from the moment of conception.
Being in a church building provides no exception to the rule. Our churches remain segregated by skin color, and those ministering to people of darker colors have always been subject to terrorism. That this clearly perverts the gospel of Jesus Christ has rarely been sufficient cause for ministers in white churches to speak about it. Even rarer has it been for white churches to act in such a way as to create systems of justice and to finally end the insanity of the lie known as “race.” Instead, our brothers and sisters of color learn to cope with fear and with “the silence of good people ringing in their ears.”
At Harambee, another portion of the daily morning liturgy is singing “Something Inside So Strong,” written about apartheid-era South Africa. The rule at Harambee is that you have to belt it out, so every morning comes the full-throated cry, “You can deny me, you can decide to turn your face away, no matter, because there’s something inside so strong, I know that I can make it.” Every morning I hope that the overt message is sinking in with our kids, especially the most difficult ones. To grow up in a society that is stacked against your thriving, and even your survival, means that you develop “something inside so strong” early on. The goal of our singing is only to reinforce that.
The kids are singing for themselves and to encourage one another. Whether the message is sinking in is an important question. But there is another important question for those of us — and by “us” I mean those of us who are white and claim to love our neighbors as ourselves — who want to to see those children flourish: is the message sinking in for us? Do we have something inside strong enough that we can face the demons of racism and root them out? Does the courage exist within us to face down this disease called race that infects our governments, schools, and financial systems, our pools and neighborhoods, our houses and hearts and minds?
We avoid dealing with reality of the racist system we inhabit by jumping to the conclusion that Dylann Roof is “mentally ill.” That may very well be, but we’re not talking about it because we actually care. We incorporate words like “deranged” and “aberration” into the discussion to help us skirt around the issue of the poisonous context that produced and maintains our racial caste system. This allows us to locate ourselves at great remove from anything “racist.” Racism is always someone else’s problem. Here is the plainest thing I can say about that idea: We don’t have time for that.
The sin of racism will not go away easily. In white churches, we have gone for a cheap grace that avoids dealing with the thorny history of white Christianity in America. We have perpetuated racist ideologies by lacking the courage to address our complicity in systems of racial oppression. There is no way into God’s dream that “we all may be one” without doing the work of addressing the legacy of racism that still infects us. This cancer must be dug out from every place it exists, or we will never be healthy.
Every morning those kids keep singing about “something inside so strong.” They call us to find the strength to love. If anything will lead us home to live in peace with one another, it will be love. Not sentimental love, but active love. If you love strong enough, the courage to face the demons of racism won’t be a problem. You’ll relish the fight. If you love with all your heart, you’ll gladly take down a flag that stands for slavery and racial oppression. You’ll find its removal so gratifying that you’ll keep dismantling all the evidence of the plunder for which it stands.
With love, we’ll be patient with ourselves as we unlearn whiteness; we’ll be kinder to our brothers and sisters of every color; we’ll not insist on the old ways of the world, but instead will rejoice in the truth of the gospel. With love we can bear the hard work to come, we can believe in the possibility of liberation, we can hope for God’s dream to be realized, we can endure the long road to freedom.
Love never ends. Now we love only in part, but the day is coming when we shall love fully, just as we shall be fully loved. With a love inside so strong, I know that we can make it.