Lessons on Race at Divinity Hall

“First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird

When I was a first year grad student at Harvard Divinity School in the fall of 1989, I lived in the hallowed Divinity Hall on Divinity Avenue. The rooms in Div Hall each had little brass plates with the engraved names of former residents, like Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson gave his famous Divinity School Address in the chapel of Div Hall, which was just next door to the room in which I lived.

Div Hall was an amazingly diverse place, especially for someone like myself, reared in a homogeneous environment in the Boston suburbs and then educated at a small Maine college. Although Harvard Divinity School is known as a bastion of liberalism, that was not quite my experience in Div Hall. On the day I moved in, one of my new neighbors welcomed me to “Jesus Boulevard.” It turned out that I lived close to several Pentecostal students. I became friends with someone whose church affiliation was the Nazarene Church (and shared with me fascinating stories of being scared into good behavior as a child by films about the Rapture). Another friend was a Missouri Synod Lutheran. Not exactly what anyone would describe as “liberal.”

The students in Div Hall shared a large common kitchen in the basement. In that basement, many interesting conversations took place—from mundane gossip to philosophical and theological debates to the sharing of various kinds of information. The kitchen was also a great place to learn about different cultures. A group of us shared cultural experiences through a weekly dinner group. The group included a Buddhist monk (from Vietnam, I think) and my roommate, a woman from China who almost didn’t get to the Div School after what had happened in and around Tiananmen Square the previous spring.

I also learned a great deal about race, and the realities of life for those who looked different from me. I was naïve enough to think that there couldn’t be much in the way of racial problems in the late twentieth century in Cambridge, Mass, stuffed as it was with students from around the globe. But, I heard story after story, especially from the young black men who lived in Divinity Hall.

One of the stories they told was about how difficult it was for them simply to go shopping at places in Harvard Square, like the Harvard Coop, the department and book store in the middle of the Square. They couldn’t go in there without being followed by security. Often, they were also harassed in some way as well.

This, I decided, I could try to see for myself. Whenever I found myself in the Coop, I watched. I especially looked for small groups of black men. Sure enough, if there were two or three black men together, a security guard was never far away. The black men were watched, followed. Once I saw this for myself, I also realized how obvious it was. I just had never noticed.

In late October of that fall, in 1989, a man named Charles Stuart shot (and killed) his pregnant wife in the Mission Hill section of Boston, and then shot himself in the stomach. He blamed the incident on a black man. His story was widely believed.  A massive hunt ensued for the black assailant.  In the kitchen of Div Hall, though, the black students—especially the black men—were immediately suspicious.

Things got tense in that basement kitchen. And, when it turned out that there had been no black assailant, and that Charles Stuart had been the one to shoot and kill his wife and unborn child, one young black man who had been a warm, friendly presence in Div Hall, made the decision to no longer speak to any white people. He came into the kitchen, made his meal, spoke to other black students and then went on his way—no longer warm and friendly, but troubled and serious instead.

In the years since, and certainly now as I contemplate what’s going on in the United States, I’ve been thinking a lot about the shared common kitchen in the basement of Divinity Hall and wondering about the lessons I learned there—and the lessons that we all ought to take more seriously.

One lesson certainly has to do with stepping into another’s skin and walking around, learning a bit about what it means to be and to live as another person does. Considering the perspective of a black man, knowing what it means to live so often under suspicion, feared. Considering the perspective of a police officer, knowing that each day holds danger. Considering the perspective of a parent of an unarmed teen or adult who’s been shot by the police during a traffic stop, grieving deeply for the profound loss.

We live in country with “united” in its title, and yet recent events have shown that we are not united at all. We gather in our groups, with others of similar mind, experience, perspective, assuming that our own perspective, and that of those around us, is universal. We have a hard time with notions of understanding, of even attempting to appreciate the ways of life from another’s perspective.

In this time of unease, distrust, and worry (and the strange, unhelpful manifestations of these responses), we could use a little of Atticus Finch’s advice, and truly and honestly consider another’s perspective, accepting that other people have experiences that are different, and to open ourselves to learning about those other experiences. It’s not always easy to do so, and sometimes it requires a real change in how one looks at the world—including a willingness to see things one doesn’t really want to see—but it’s the only that we can move our way out of the current morass and to discover something hopeful on the other side. It’s not just about taking a little peek in another’s experience, but stepping into their skin, walking around in it, and allowing that new perspective to be a light on the path to understanding.   As the advice goes, we’ll get along a lot better “with all kinds of folks.”  Sounds like something worth the effort.

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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