I don’t write much about my work. Not because there are not fabulous, hilarious and heartbreaking stories at school. I could write something worthy every day. But by definition and law, the students own their stories, and like the decades of counseling clients and pastoral conversations, their stories stay in my heart until time erases most of them.
But this summer no one is untouched by the ugliness of the overt racism and white supremacy in our streets, our newsfeeds, and in our government.
After the election last year, especially in January I noticed an uptick of boldness of the dark side of the Force in our school. Mostly misogyny. But with swift attention it seemed to quiet.
This August I find myself wondering if the Hitler Youth are going to show up in September. When I looked at the video of Charlottesville, what bothered me most was how many young men were in the pictures. Not much older than my flock.
So, I am thinking about being ready. Ready personally. Ready professionally. To deal with the evils of racism and White supremacy in whatever form I can identify it. I do not judge the thoughts, philosophies or tactics of others fighting evil. I might engage them, but I do not judge them. I was heartened to see Antifa and Pacifist clergy facing danger together. It will take everyone to survive this. All I can do is contextualize the fight to my own life, heart, mind and situation. So I am getting ready.
Personally. Daily questions. Am I patrolling my own thoughts words and deeds for the constant and absolutely culturally pandemic toxins that cause me to cling to my privilege or disadvantage our employees and students of color? Am I owning these thoughts, words and behaviors and rooting them out? For me this is spiritual. I work at all times in all places for a once, and ever, brown-skinned Palestinian Jew. I don’t ask What Would He Do? I ask What Is He Doing? Here, now. I try and do that thing. He never does racist bullshit. He never protects privilege. He sees, listens to, and gives voice to the oppressed. He also never gives up on anyone.
Professionally. I work at a school where the16-21-year-old student body is majority underclass. With a high percentage of trauma survivors. A high percentage with mental health issues. Higher than the general population in gay, queer, trans. Our student body is about 60% white, 30% Hispanic and 10% other. Our school is a voluntary program on a community college campus. I have a college diversity policy that is clear and bold, and the administration above me will back me up in the enforcement of it. I am in charge of discipline for 250 young adults. I have a lot of latitude. I can send them home to change their shirt. I can release them from the program in a moment if I think it is warranted.
But my goal is not to get rid of my overtly racist students. I have had a few. I have been lucky to have dealt with them one at a time. They are young, and I refuse to give up on them just yet. Here is what I have done, and will always try and do. (All of this presumes no physical violence, or direct threats of violence – which always warrant dismissal)
1- Protect the direct victim if there is one. I start by accepting their testimony. And they get to be pissed off, and they get a pass on words they used in their own defense. Then I protect the school environment by at least temporarily removing the offender. I act as swiftly as I can. This is one of those rare times that I have no problem walking into a class and publicly removing someone. It is a small school. This is noticed.
2 – Then clarity. I use my voice. To say No, nope, and in no way. To one and all. With the offender - conversation - but strong, and in the end hierarchical, conversation. This is where I use all the privilege I can muster. And whatever personal and spiritual power that has been put into me. If they don’t accept this and the restrictions it will place upon them, they will be gone. They get mad, but I have yet to lose one at this point.
3- If they accept the discipline put in place, then we continue the conversation. I Affirm their personhood, and treat them with respect that they are not dishing out. Why? Because I want, even for a moment, to separate their personhood from their ideas and behaviors. This would be the first step they would need to take to become ex-fascists. I tell them that I want them in my school and that I want them to graduate. If they accept this from me, I am winning.
4- I try not to kick them out. If the victim does not want to sit with them in class, then the offender gets moved. I may move them from the high school to the GED program. But if I dismiss them, they use that to fuel their delusional persecution story. If I keep them, then for every hour, for each day, that they bring their personhood through the door to try and pass Algebra class, and at least stifle their racism at the door, they are living in the liminal space that makes at least possible, their salvation.
Sometimes I am just not very mindful. I am particularly awful about the gas tank. My coupe is in some ways lacking bells and whistles, which I like; but it doesn’t nag you about the gas, which can be dicey. Sure, there’s a light if you want to look at it, but if you wanted to look at that, you would see the gauge, now wouldn’t you? And as I said, mindful – not always so much. I often end up with a quart or so of juice and a big-thirst engine.
So the other day I was out on the freeway when something made me look, and then look for the nearest exit. I pulled into the very first opportunity – pert near dry.
Here in Oregon we don’t pump our own gas – it’s the law, which makes for regular conversations with strangers. The boomer getting ready to quench my thirst seemed a wee bit distracted. When he had to ask twice about my octane preference, he apologized. “We’re having a little problem with the customers behind you. – sorry”
I looked. Two young black men in a beater. A red-headed pump boy waving his hands at them and calling into the store on his radio. I set the parking brake and got out of the coupe.
I asked my guy. “They having trouble paying for their gas?”
“I don’t know – they said something racial to the kid, and he’s pissed.”
I looked deeper. The two men in the car were agitated and yelling at each other. I stepped over the hose going into my tank and walked to my trunk. A managerial woman came out of the mini-mart and waved off the young pumper, who asked her if he should call the police. “Not yet.” She gets down by their window and is saying that 10 bucks won’t cover the 30-dollar tab. Ginger pumper is writing down their plate and getting out his cell. I walk up with my card out and said to the manager, “I’d be happy to pay their tab.” She stares at me – “Seriously?” I look at, and listen to, the guys in the car who are still yelling at each other - in KISWAHILI. "Um, yes, be my pleasure."
“Jambo, Somali, then?”
“What? Yes.” I have their attention.
“The prophet Jesus, peace be upon him, would like to buy your gas today, is that ok?”
While the relieved manager ran my card, we chatted; the driver had said “Fill it with ten dollars" , and pump guy had only been mindful of the first words. The Somalis now had a full tank and exactly ten bucks between them. The fellow riding shotgun was advising that they drive off having paid what they had promised. The driver thought this might be a bad idea. I told them I would go their bail, but that a better tactic in the future would be to give the money they had to the pumper up front. And not use the word ‘fill’. Shotgun thought that paying first was not a good idea, as then there would be no reason for the pumper not to pocket the bill and give them no gas. Good African sense. We settled on show the money for clarity, and give it over when you got the gas. We discussed the inadvisability of driving off, as they could be chased or found.
I got my receipt for their gas and mine, and wished them well.
They thanked me in both languages and faiths. We shook hands”
“Please, I must know your name” said the driver. I leaned in.
“I am Madame Moto-Muzungu de Bujumbura. Amani. Go with God.”
And two laughing Somalis drove off shaking their heads.
The manager said – “That was the best mom talk I have heard in a long time.”
And maybe it was, because the Mother’s Union is an international organization. Or maybe it was white savior complex, ‘cause I can come down with that on occasion, Or just burning some cheap privilege. Or maybe I invented Gas-Splaining. I don’t know. What it felt like was Luck – my unbelievably consistent luck. Why should I be so privileged, to get to be useful, so often? If I was any good at taking care of my car, I would not have been there.
The red-headed kid looked at me and looked at my pretty red sportscar and said “Must be nice to be rich and able to throw money away.” Oh, son. I don’t actually have much money to throw away, but I am rich – when I remember how rich I am.
Boomer pumper opened my car door and said “Have a good evening, ma'am.”
I said “I always do.” Whenever I pay attention.
I was a protestant kid in a Catholic/Jewish neighborhood. I am not sure how I got my opinions of nuns, but my opinions were all second hand stereotypes. Mostly fearful - rulers were mentioned.
As an adult Quaker in Oregon, I became a pastoral counselor in a clinical setting. I had a seminary degree, but I was not completely satisfied with how I had been trained to walk in the liminal land where mental health and spirituality crossed.
I heard that the Sisters at the Queen of Angels monastery in Mt Angel had a two year Spiritual Direction program. I decided to investigate. I rode a 2 year old Rocinante out to be interviewed by the head of the program. A previous prioress of the Benedictine Sisters, Antoinette Traeger. I did not know what to expect. Apparently neither did she, because she enjoyed - for years - the telling of the morning that I rode up and she looked out her window and watched me shake my hair out, peel my leathers and try to look presentable. She said she didn't think that this was her apointment until I actually walked into her office.
What I remember was the very famous twinkle in her blue eyes. The easy smile. The ready welcome.
We became friends. She blew all my preconceived notions of the vocational religious.She delighted in blasting stereotypes - it was a habit we shared.
P: Antoinette, do you ever regret the celibate life? Do you ever wish you could have fallen in love?
A: Oh, Peggy, If you don't marry any of them. You call fall in love with so many more of them!
A: (in SD class) And of course, every has immediate access to God at all times.
P: No intermediary required?
A: Of course not.
P: Then can you please explain why you have one of the priests come down from the hill to do the bread and wine thing every day?
A: (Sigh) Well, If we didn't let him do that, he wouldn't feel very special, now would he?
I was staying over for a retreat - I went to Mass
A: Peggy, you know you are welcome at the Table, don't you?
P: Antoinette, you know I don't believe what you do about what's on that table.
A: Still welcome, dear.
P: If Father knew, he might not welcome me.
A: What Father doesn't know won't hurt him. The Host... might do you some good...
P: Sr. the restaurant in town has a beer called Ale Mary! What do you think of that?
A: My nephews own that restaurant. I am sure the Blessed Mother enjoys the wit! I do.
I disappointed her. I think I have disappointed all my mentors at some point or another. After Spiritual direction training, I started the discipline of a monthly overnight retreat with a spiritual director. I didn't choose Sr. Antoinette. I chose Sr. Jo Morton. I think I hurt her feelings. But I knew I could not work with her because I knew that I thought so much of her, and so craved her good opinion of me, that I knew I would lie to her, or at least spin.
She left the planet this week. I cannot imagine how many lives she changed. She walked around with so much wisdom and joy, that it did not take much time or effort for her to alter your path for the better. For me it was a permanent course correction.
Till we meet again.
Do Something - Do anything!
It is just all so blasted heartbreaking - infuriating - overwhelming.
Human caused disaster and mayhem. Injustice - systemic and particular. Worse following bad.
Words do fail. But we cannot be inactive. We cannot afford inaction.
If every appalled human takes a single daily action towards kindness, towards justice, the sea will change, it has to. This I believe.
Here is one thing I saw humans do this week.
This was a local gathering called coffee with a cop. It felt intrusive to take more than one picture, so this doesn't show even a quarter of the space, or the people of color, or the old biker gang guys, of the little children. There were probably 30 citizens and 20 cops. The cops were buying. They do this here in Salem once a month, always in a different neighborhood. They did an extra one this month after, Baton Rouge (the first time - save us!), Minneapolis and Dallas. Two hours of ask anything, say anything, but let's just be people for a little bit. I went because I wanted to see someone in particular, and just because it was the only thing I could think of to do. I saw a black, female pastor there. She said they members of the dept meet monthly with the pastors of the three black churches in Salem. I said I was glad of that. While I was waiting to get a chance to greet the man I was looking for, I talked with an officer. He did a lot of listening. I told him about my position working with marginalized students. How worried I was about them this summer. We agreed that it was not right that young people, especially boys of color, could not exercise their God-given right to be stupid and adolescent without very high risk. We both acknowledged that we had been stupid and adolescent and gotten away with it because of our age and privilege. I wanted to talk to him about my neuro-atypical kids, and how they don't react the way we think they should, and how they do not read people right. I worry about them a lot. God help my neuro-atypical kids of color. The Cop asked some really good questions and seemed genuinely interested. I called him to a high standard of human behavior in his work. Mostly though, we were just human together. Then I cut him loose to go talk to some actual adolescents.
Then I found this guy.
I just wanted to see Dave because he is presently my favorite cop. He is a pragmatic optimist. He has a sense of humor. He wears integrity like he wears the uniform. I believe in him. We commiserated a bit. We enjoyed the surrounding event. We hoped it would help. We both knew it might not be anywhere close to enough, but it was what we could do today. I told him that I pray for him, he thanked me for that.
Tomorrow I will have to think of something else to do.
Do something to humanize your potential enemy today. Do Justice. Do kindness. Do Mercy. Walk humbly. Speak up. Support the people on the front-lines of Peace and Justice. Reject fear. Examine your own thoughts and feelings. Call yourself to a higher standard of humanity. Do something, do anything. It is our only hope.