I wrote this piece when citizens were demonstrating in Ferguson in the wake of the Michael Brown killing. Looking back now, I feel so naive. I believed that change was happening, that finally we would see an end to racial violence. Today, in the midst of nation-wide protests over the murder of George Floyd and countless others — I am feeling hopeful again — hopeful that change is gonna come and that the endless disregard for the lives of black and brown people will be something we talk about in history classes and not see on the news. I know that the God who holds us all — the black, the brown, the white — in the same hand is able to bring peace and reconciliation. I want to be part of that change.
I was sound asleep just a little while ago. Something woke me. I reached down to check on Chester, my Golden Retriever who sleeps on a doggy bed on the floor within arm’s reach. His bed was empty.
I don’t know why I reached under my bed, but that is where I found him. In his six and a half years of life, I have only found Chester under the bed one other time…shortly after our son left for the Army. He could sense our distress then; was he sensing distress now?
I checked my phone. Maybe one of my kids texted in the middle of the night with some sort of emergency…I mean, the dog was under the bed…something was not right in the world.
My news feed told me that once again teargas was used in Ferguson, Missouri. In fact, a ninety-year-old Holocaust survivor was arrested for protesting.
What is happening?
From 2005 to June of this year (2014) I taught in a small Christian high school on the north side of St. Louis — two miles from the QT that was burned down in the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown. At the time, the school had approximately sixty percent African American students and thirty-five percent white students; the remaining five percent were Asian, Hispanic, or otherwise classified.
The North side of St. Louis has a reputation for being violent and racially divided. Some people are afraid to go there. Some people wondered why I taught there.
But in that space — at that intersection of white and black, urban and suburban, conservative and liberal — we had an opportunity.
My students and I were able to discuss issues in my classroom with humor and candor that might not be discussed outside those walls. The school fosters an open dialogue that values Christian unity amid diversity. My students taught me so much about dispelling stereotypes and respecting difference. They changed me forever.
I am not teaching there this year — the year of a violent police shooting — the year that many of my students go home at night to a broken and hurting Ferguson, the year that some of my grads are demonstrating every night, the year that neighboring public schools have closed in response to the violence. I am not there.
Instead, I have started a new chapter in Ann Arbor, MI — which has a reputation for being inclusive, liberal, conscientious. This morning I went to the post office and was jokingly reprimanded by the African American postal worker who didn’t like me calling him ‘sir’. I smilingly explained to him that I had just moved back to Michigan from a place where using ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’ is respectful and expected. He smiled knowingly and we wished each other a great day. Then, I exchanged pleasant conversation with the African American cashier at the grocery store who didn’t need to check my ID when I purchased some wine because it was her ‘job to know’ who to card. My nails were done in a salon staffed exclusively by Asian American women who joked with me and my daughter and exchanged smiles with us. I came home to a campus that houses a small but diverse population that, at least on the surface, seems to be respectful and equitable. I didn’t have a hint of racial tension in my day.
Before I went to bed I checked the news and saw peaceful protests in Ferguson, an upbeat interview with the new chief of police there, a statement from President Obama encouraging open dialogue and peaceful resolution. I wanted to believe we were moving in the right direction — that all would soon be right with the world. I went to sleep with Chester on his doggy bed by my side.
But several hours later, I am aware that all is not right in the world tonight — Chester is hiding under my bed. The dog who follows me everywhere, did not budge when I came to the living room at two in the morning to write. He, like many tonight, is distressed.
I, too, am distressed. This — racism, violence against people of color, inequitable policing, systemic disparity — has gone on too long. People I know and love are hurting, protesting, putting themselves in harm’s way for the sake of change.
Like Job, I “weep for those in trouble.” As I “hope for good, evil comes,” As I “look for light, then comes darkness” (Job 30:25-27).
But even in trouble, even in darkness, God is still God. He is in Ferguson; He is in Ann Arbor. And “He who watches over us will not slumber” (Psalm 121:3). Right now He is keeping watch. I pray that Ferguson, and those that I love there, will one day feel free to sleep in peace.
Resources for learning about/building racial equity:
Teaching Tolerance – free resources for educators “to supplement the curriculum, to inform their practices, and to create civil and inclusive school communities where children are respected, valued and welcome participants.”
Anti-racism Reading List – from Ibram X. Kendi’s
Also, there are many places that could use your donations right now, but I’ll suggest two schools that I am aware of that foster racial dialogues and provide strong educational opportunities of students of color:
Lutheran North, St. Louis, MO – the school mentioned in this post
Elan Academy, New Orleans, LA – an elementary school started by one of my former students, who is also a graduate of Vanderbilt University