SueAnn walks into the fellowship hall, feeling more harried than helpful. She’s worried about her kids getting where they need to go on this Wednesday evening, but she has committed to being here at the church, setting up the serving table with a colorful cover, plates and napkins, coffee and soft drinks, and the all-important homemade chocolate chip cookies. Gerald, the 16-year-old,is at swim practice. 12-year-old Ginny and 10-year-old Lulu are at SueAnn’s friend Tilda’s home where they are supposed to be doing homework. Tilda will bring them to the church at 6:00. Gerald will bring his friend Ray after practice, and Ray’s mom, Lanier, will also meet them at the church. SueAnn has ordered pizza so all the kids can eat before the program at 6:45. They’ll hang out in the youth room while the adults meet.
In the midst of all this calendaring, SueAnn is wondering why she volunteered to set up for this program, why she joined the Mission Committee, why she thought she had time for any of it. When did life get so complicated, anyway?
SueAnn loves what the Mission Committee is about. It’s certainly not her parents’ Mission Committee. SueAnn’s church is all about social justice, and this committee has recently brought in speakers to lead discussions on immigration, refugees, the Affordable Care Act, and reproductive rights. Controversial in this conservative state? Definitely, but this progressive outlook has become part of the congregation’s identity, and it’s the reason SueAnn joined this church a decade ago. Tonight’s theme is race.
After the kids have eaten, the adults, including SueAnn, Tilda, and Lanier, go to the program. SueAnn is glad that Lanier, in particular, is there. SueAnn respects her very much and they’ve become pretty close as they sit at endless swim tournaments next to each other, laughing and telling stories about their kids. Making fun of the helicopter moms.
Near the end of the program, the speaker, a leader in the state NAACP, allows time for questions and comments. Lanier, who is the only African American in the room besides the speaker, stands. SueAnn is sitting next to her, and she can see Lanier’s hands shaking as she speaks. That’s a surprise. Lanier tells about her son Ray, who got his driver’s license about a year ago. Since that time, he has been pulled over by the police nine times. In none of those traffic stops was he charged with anything. She is afraid every time he walks out the door with the car keys that someone will take a dislike to him for no good reason. Ray is a tall, athletic young black man who wears his favorite swim team hoodie everywhere. He drives their fairly new Toyota, and sometimes he has black friends in the car with him. Lanier thinks all these things make him look “suspicious” to some. She glances around the room and her eyes meet SueAnn’s for a millisecond. “How would any of you feel,” asks Lanier, “If your child were subject to being stopped because he was driving a nice car, had friends with him, and was wearing the same clothes he wore to school?” She was met with silence.
“That,” she said, “is white privilege.” And she sat down.
In the story of a man born blind [another great, but lengthy story in John’s gospel that you can read here], those in leadership lose their ability to see what’s right in front of them, even as they are presented with new information about someone else’s experiences. A man has been healed of his blindness, and many witnesses testify to his previous condition. The clear message is that people are designed to grow in our sightedness. We do that by listening to voices different from ours, by taking people into our hearts, by opening our eyes and ears, by creating opportunities to hear from those whose voices have been silenced—sometimes silenced by our own preconceptions. We may all have the tendency to spiritual blindness, but because we retain the image of God we are given many opportunities to learn to see.
After the meeting, SueAnn asked the boys to do the cleanup of the cookies and drink. She wanted to talk to Lanier.
“Why?” asked SueAnn. “Why haven’t you ever told me this?” She was bewildered. Hurt. Ashamed.
“Because it’s not something in your experience,” Lanier said. “I didn’t know if you’d believe me, or tell me it’s not so bad, or think it was all my imagination. I should tell you that it is part of the experience of every black family I know.”
SueAnn said, “And now it’s part of my family’s experience, too. Not directly, of course. But if it’s happening to you, it’s happening to us. After hearing the speaker tonight talk about working together to change the system, I see that I have so much to learn that I’d been blind to. I’m so sorry. I hope you’ll remain my friend and help me to understand your experiences.”
“Of course,” said Lanier. And they gave each other a hug before rounding up all the kids and getting them ready to go home.
We can be born blind and gain more spiritual sight and insight. Or we can choose to remain blinded to the experiences and deaf to the voices of others.
Spiritual vision is something we can learn.
© 2017 Melissa Bane Sevier