A Sunday In DC
In early May I made an unplanned visit to a black church in DC – a full six weeks before the Charleston murders. This is the story of what happened that day.
The weekend before my reading in the Listen To Your Mother show in Baltimore, a few of us went down to DC to support our fellow LTYM readers and to witness their stories being shared at the National Geographic building. The background to this part of the story is the savage murder of Freddie Gray in late April by Baltimore police officers and the days of protest, uprising and additional police brutality that followed.
Anyway, I arrived for the LTYM DC show quite a bit earlier than everyone else and it was a gorgeous day, so I decided to do some walking in the neighborhood while I waited. As I walked down M St, NW, I heard the sounds of a gospel choir pouring out of the doors of a church and into the warm, sweet, spring air. An impressive gothic revival edifice towered above me and I noticed a sign in the small patch of grass in the front lawn. Metropolitan AME Church. I stopped at the wrought iron gate separating me from what was happening inside and I listened to more from the choir. I let the good news, the praise, the optimism wash over me until the juxtaposition of that joy coming from inside the church and the ongoing circumstances of such pain and injustice outside, most recently in Baltimore, began to unsettle and confuse me. Suddenly, a man who had been standing inside the gate asked if he could help me. I didn’t know what to say, so I just told him the truth. I told him I was walking in the neighborhood while waiting for some friends and I was enjoying the sounds of the church choir. He opened the gate and suggested I go inside, so I did. I walked up the front steps and stood there a minute, listening, feeling out of place, feeling like I was intruding, unsure if I should stay, but not wanting to leave either. An older church lady was sitting right inside the door and gestured for me to join her. I went to her side and she greeted me with a warm, “Good morning”. She, too, asked if she could help me and I told her the same thing I’d told the man outside, she welcomed me and we began a conversation.
I learned that Metropolitan AME Church is the oldest AME church in Washington, DC, founded in 1838. The church is shrouded in history with noteworthy visiting speakers such as Frederick Douglas, a regular attendee whose funeral was also held there in 1895, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Mary McLeod Bethune, Eleanor Roosevelt, Hubert Humphrey, and Mordecai Johnson. The building itself is on the National Register of Historic Places. She asked if I was familiar with the AME church and I told her yes, a little, as I’d had a supervisor back in the late 80’s who’d belonged to a big AME church in Baltimore. My boss had talked about it often, it was an integral part of her life, but I’d never visited. We talked a bit more about the structure and the history of the church, what it still represents in the black community, and then she asked if I attended a place of worship. I told her about the faith in which I’d been raised and how I’d left it for complicated reasons. I told her for all intents and purposes, I’d been without a church home for 9 years. “But I still love Jesus”, I made certain to say, I’m not sure why. She told me the service would soon be ending, and encouraged me to climb the grand staircase to see the sanctuary and to greet the pastor if I wanted. I hesitated and then she took me by the hand and walked with me up the stairs, the choir’s last shouts of praise beckoning.
Pastor William Lamar, IV was giving his closing remarks by the time we reached the top. The church lady and I stood together over to the side, listening. I looked around the vast sanctuary filled with hundreds of worshippers sitting in rows of shiny wooden pews and anchored by the pipe organ and choir loft. There it was again, that unmistakable sense of joy – or something – in the room. I was the only white person there. It was a strange feeling. Not one I’m used to experiencing. As the service ended, people started to line up to greet Pastor Lamar, a tradition very familiar to me as we’d done the same in my former church. The church lady encouraged me to get in line, to greet the pastor. I was reticent, I didn’t want to cause discomfort. Or maybe the truth is I was the increasingly uncomfortable one. Or both. I don’t know. She took me by the hand and placed me in the line behind a few of the congregants. I stayed in the line, but I kept moving back, giving up my position, encouraging church members to move ahead of me, many of them greeting me with smiles or nods. Finally, the last in line, I approached Pastor Lamar and I shook his hand, introducing myself. He greeted me in kind, asked what had brought me to Metropolitan that morning and I told him. He thanked me for coming, encouraged me to come back for a full service sometime, then he asked if there was a prayer he could offer on my behalf. I didn’t expect that at all, I looked down and part of me wanted to run like hell in the opposite direction. Maybe it was my damn church baggage rearing its ugly head. Or maybe something deeper, more confusing.
You’ll be glad to know I didn’t run away, but I did think, whoa, Pastor, I don’t even know how I ended up standing here in front of you, ok? I feel like I want to crawl out of my skin and I’m scared to death I’m going to say something wrong. Or that you’ll know how wrong I am just by looking into my eyes. I was walking along, your choir was singing, your congregants were kind, and now here I am. The truth is I’m sorry I didn’t listen sooner. I’m sorry I’ve been blind. I’m sorry I’ve turned my head away. It’s not ok. The truth is I’m realizing what’s happening in our country isn’t new, this has been the way things have been since the beginning, but I didn’t see it before now. The truth is I’ve been crying on and off for days about Freddie Gray, the uprising in Baltimore, and white supremacy to the point where my husband is worried about me, and I don’t know what to do. I don’t even know what NOT to do to make sure I don’t cause more harm. I want to be part of making things right, but I don’t know how. The truth is I’ve been feeling this terrifying and overwhelming urge to hit the streets, to do what I don’t know, because like I said, I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO. Or maybe I do know but I’m afraid to do it. I most certainly know now that something is terribly wrong. The truth is every time I see a black person this week – stranger, friend, male, female, young, old – I start to cry. AS IF they need my tears. I’ve been remembering all sorts of things – things like a fellow graduate school student, my friend, a young black man, asking me if I was afraid of black men because I flinched as he reached out to wrap a measuring tape around my head in preparation for ordering our graduation caps, our faces inches apart – my anger at him for confronting me with the question and my immediate denial – I’ve been so unglued, so immobilized by my own white shame, projecting all over the place, and I swear I almost walked up to a black man I didn’t know in HomeGoods to embrace him, to apologize or something. Yes. Yes, I did. AS IF I have the right to do such a thing or to invade his space with my bullshit. AS IF an apology from me would somehow change a damn thing for him. I’ve been drowning in my own feelings about this ugly reality you have to live with every single day. The truth is I hurt for all black citizens of this country in a way I never have before and I’m scared for you, I’m scared for us all. I’m scared to put myself at risk. I guess on some level I’m also scared of you, but I don’t know why, and dear God, I don’t want to be. I hate this. I don’t understand how you live with this over and over and over again. And I don’t understand how I can stand my own stench either.
But anyway, all I keep thinking this week is please stay inside until we figure out how to make this stop, please don’t drive, please stay away from the police. My hair stands on end every time I see a police officer pull over a black driver. A few days ago, I even pulled off the highway and circled back around, just in case, because you are in danger. AS IF you didn’t know that.
I know, I’m a MESS. And don’t worry, I didn’t say any of that to Pastor Lamar. Thank God. Still, I’m convinced he saw right through me, this middle-aged white lady standing before him, so obviously without a freaking clue and so obviously in desperate need of SO many of them. I took a deep breath and said, “Will you please pray for me to be a good listener, and also that I might act wisely and courageously on what I hear?” Pastor Lamar took his own deep breath and said, “Ah, so thats why you’re here. Because that’s what I needed to hear this morning. Lets pray.” So he put his hands on my shoulders and we bowed our heads down together and he prayed for us. Amen.
Memories of my visit there have been an especially strong and constant presence since Charleston. The open doors. Stories being lived, stories needing to be heard. The freely given welcome. One I didn’t deserve. The opportunity to see my own reflection in the context of their joy – Joy with a capital J – against a continuous backdrop of the burden and oppression I’m learning more about.
Yes, and what am I going to DO with it?
The importance of interrupting the lie, the fantasy – so I might listen, learn, empathize, and WAKE UP – has smacked me hard across the face. I’ve decided what I can DO is get a clue, do the work. White people’s work. I don’t know exactly what that is yet, but I’m going to find out. I’m pretty sure it has something to do with not drying my tears, but honestly examining them. Not letting my grief paralyze me, but using it to build a bridge for my neighbors to walk over. To create space for them to take what belongs to them. Freedom from fear, for one thing. Freedom to live. And speaking up whenever I see someone trying to block that bridge. It’s time.
I’ve imagined, more than once, the very real possibility that what happened in Charleston could have happened in DC at Metropolitan AME Church, a white stranger walking into a historic black church – not by chance like I did, because let’s face it, I doubt that happens much – to do premeditated harm, simply because of the meaning the black church holds in black communities. The thought of that kind of vulnerability rattles me and yet the national AME leadership has called for their churches to remain open and welcoming, even in the face of what amounts to nothing less than domestic terrorism. Can you believe that? Open doors. Room for all at the table. “God is the strength of my life; of whom – or what – shall I be afraid?” That kind of BRAVERY – in the the face of unspeakable and repeated trauma – strengthens my conviction that we white folks are the ones who need to make this right by letting the TRUTH of the stories of black people – and our own biases – touch and teach and guide us in a new way. It’s our responsibility because we’re the ones who made it wrong and I can’t UNKNOW that. So I’m listening, and in the midst of many missteps, I’m trying to learn what to do – and what not to do. I’m unpacking all sorts of ugly crap in my own head and trying to find other white people with whom to process it. You might be surprised by how hard that is, finding trustworthy white people who want to talk about this. I’m trying to wake up my own little circle of white space, to unsettle it, to make it uncomfortable for us to go on in ways that dismiss the truth of our white privilege. No doubt, I will say and do a good bit of this work wrong, I already have. Still, I’m committed to growing through it. I’ll keep coming back, I won’t quit listening or learning or trying. I won’t give up, I won’t turn my head away again.