Friday, February 1, 2013

Start from the place where you are.*

      Earlier this week, the University of Denver was privileged to host Tom DeWolf and Sharon Morgan, authors of Gather at the Table:  The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slaver and a Son of the Slave Trade.**  Tom and Sharon spent time in classrooms, lunchrooms, and community halls.  They spoke compellingly about a journey they had undertaken.  They had met at a conference on justice and peace building.  They learned quickly that Tom was descended from the largest slave-trading family in American history, and that Sharon was the descendent of slaves.
      After some fits and starts, they decided that, in order to advance the reconciliation of their own traumas of being heirs of the slave trade, as well as to help the American people come to grips with, and begin to reconcile itself with, its past, they needed to spend weeks traveling from Rhode Island to Mississippi to Oklahoma to Virginia to Illinois. They learned from one another things that they would never have imagined; they learned a bit about how to see through the other's eyes. Their story, and their presentation, is gripping, and sparked many questions, comments and critiques.
      One question I heard several times in private was something like, "It's great that they can travel together for weeks to write this book, to have the time to be able to do so.  And it's a great cause they're addressing.  But I don't have those kinds of resources, and, truth to tell, not being an heir to slaves or slave-holders, it's not really my issue.  So what can I do?"  'Tis a wonderful question in general. And, in Tom and Sharon's last "event" at DU, an open lunchtime conversation, that question was directed at them.  I was certainly curious to see how they might answer.
       Their basic answer was "Start where you are.  Do what you can do, with the justice issue that grips you."  Certainly they were interested in advancing racial reconciliation, but they also both know that that is not the only important matter before us.  Even that large issue has many compelling sub-issues, from issues of the over-representation of blacks in America's prisons, to inadequate resources for inner-city schools, to (unstated, but no less effective) color-bars in corporate America. Any of those, plus a multitude of other problems demand attention and resources.
       So, their answer was one that wouldn't let the audience off the hook.  It was a challenge to all of us to engage with the many and various problems that face us, and to do something.  It was a summons to engage someone of different background or ideology in respectful conversation, to learn from one another, and to seek a way forward.  Even though, as we learned, Tom and Sharon's own journey was not without disagreement, they were able to model a different way of encounter, and, in the process give a bit of hope.
       The challenge, or summons, remains to all of us:  "Start from the place where you are. Address your passion, your concern. Find a discussion partner with whom you may initially differ. Seek common cause. And work together to achieve it."  Among Christians, that might be called "bringing in the realm of God." For Jews, tikkun olam, or "healing the world." For just about every religious tradition, it's a sacred endeavor, for the place of true encounter with the other is often a place of true holiness.



* A clear "tip o' the hat" to Michael Stipe and R.E.M.'s song "Stand".
** Beacon Press, 2012

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