Lingering Lessons

When I was a first year student at Harvard Divinity School, I lived in Divinity Hall on Divinity Avenue in Cambridge, MA. I lived in a room on the second floor, next to the Divinity Hall Chapel, where Ralph Waldo Emerson gave his famous address to the graduating class of 1838, railing against the defects in historical Christianity. The speech was denounced by many, on various sides of the issue.

During my year living in Divinity Hall, we also lived in the midst of moments of heated debate, along with a great deal of the more mundane aspects of a group of people living together and sharing a large, common kitchen in the basement. Divinity Hall was, by far, the most diverse community I have ever been part of for a sustained period of time. By age, race, national origin, politics, sexual orientation, and religion, we were all over the place. I remember when I moved into Divinity Hall, in the fall of 1989, I was welcomed joyously to “Jesus Boulevard” by the woman across the hall. At a school so well-known for its liberal tendencies, I wasn’t expecting to meet such an enthusiastic Pentecostalist. But, there she was and she wasn’t the only one.

My roommate was from China, and arrived barely in time to start fall classes—as it was a mere couple of months after Tiananman Square. I became good friends with a gay man down the hall. His room looked out over the volleyball court used by students from the biology labs, whose buildings formed the remainder of a quadrangle. Jim and I liked to sit in his window on nice, fall days and enjoy the scenery offered to us. I was also good friends with a guy upstairs who yearned for a return of the 1970s, so much so that he often wore leisure suits to weekend parties. And, then there was the Monday night supper club, where about a dozen of us divided into pairs and cooked dinner for each other every week. That group included my roommate, a Buddhist monk from Vietnam, a couple of women from Africa, and a sixty-something year old nun.

Divinity Hall was a fascinating place. It was also, at times, a difficult place. The most enduring lessons I learned while living there involved race. One of the first lessons was hearing about how difficult it was for black men to shop in Harvard Square. These men shared stories about always being followed by security or store staff, especially at The Coop, the venerable Harvard Square department/book store. Finding this a little hard to believe, I started to go out of my way to wander through The Coop on a regular basis and to look for black men who were shopping. Every single time, I noticed a security guard close by, keeping an eye on black shoppers. How had I not noticed that before?

The year I lived in Divinity Hall was also the year of the terrible incident when a white man named Charles Stuart shot and killed his pregnant white wife in the Mission Hill neighborhood of Boston, and blamed it on a black man. It seemed that all of Boston believed the story, and the city erupted in a fury to catch the despicable man who would commit such a heinous crime. The black students who lived in Divinity Hall, though, knew full well that Charles Stuart had lied. And, when it turned out that the one who committed the heinous act was Charles Stuart himself, it felt like all of those black students looked at all of the white students with a mix of rage, anger and pity. How could we not see something that was so crystal clear to them?

I’ve also been thinking about some of the other lessons regarding race that I learned during my years as a student at HDS. One of the most memorable lessons happened in my last year. There was a day planned for a student walk out of classes throughout the University, to protest the low number of black professors among the ranks of teachers at Harvard. On that particular day, I had a once-a-week seminar with the Dean of the Div School. I was uncomfortable about not attending that class, so I went. The Dean took the opportunity to share his frustrations with what seemed to him a meaningless demonstration. Sure, it would feel righteous to those who walked out of class, or did not attend at all, and gathered with others waving signs and chanting for justice. But, what about committing themselves to understanding the complexities of the issues and engaging in the long, difficult work of change? The Dean talked passionately about how hard it was to lure minority faculty members to the Cambridge/Boston area. Who wanted to live in and raise their families in such a racist place (and who can blame them, considering incidents like the Charles Stuart debacle)? The Dean also criticized students who would make such demands, but did nothing to increase the number of minority students seeking advanced degrees, who could eventually teach at the university level. How about improving the educational experiences and realities of young black students, so many of them stuck in miserable and failing inner city school systems? If students at one of the most prestigious universities in the country could not appreciate the complexities of the problem, what hope did we have to deal adequately with what it would really take to pursue justice?

I’ve thought a lot about these lessons over the years, and have found lots of opportunities to bristle when someone sends me a message about a protest or demonstration. It’s not that we shouldn’t stand up publicly to decry what’s happening when injustice is so violently clear, but it takes a whole lot more than a protest march to bring meaningful change, to set our path on the road to justice. That we have experienced wave after wave of widespread protest in recent years, and yet racism remains seemingly untouched, offers a serious and sobering admonition that we need to do a whole lot more than demonstrate.

In this moment, as the country once again erupts over racial injustice, it seems clear enough that we haven’t yet figured out how to deal with the complex issue of race, nor are we able even to agree on its lingering influence or what to do about it. There’s a lot of yelling and demanding as well as a lot of denial. There’s not much in the way of conversation and reflection. There’s not much in the way of seeking understanding, taking a moment to really stand in another’s shoes and walk around a bit.

From a Christian perspective, I find myself drawn to those passages from the Gospels where we are told that Jesus feels compassion, a sense of deep feeling when looking upon the people, seeing their brokenness and waywardness. I assume that Christ is moved to compassion now as well, and those of us who follow him ought to engage in that same sort of compassion, that deep feeling that leads to transformation, of ourselves as well as others.

It begins with listening and paying attention. What sorts of things are happening right in front of us, yet we have difficulty in seeing? It begins, too, with an openness to compassion, a desire to allow ourselves to be moved by the experiences of others, especially those whose life experiences are very different from our own. And, it begins with an appreciation for the complex nature of these issues. We may not be able to unravel all of the tangled strands of racism and white privilege, but we must seek to understand and to act accordingly, not simply in righteous protest, but in all of the small moments that make up our lives.

May this time be different.

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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