Guest post: 8.2 Miles from Mutuality

by Rev. Nathan Detering

(First Parish church, Sherborn, MA, delivered October , 2014)

Guest post:    8.2 Miles from Mutuality

“We are caught in an escapable network of mutuality,

Tied in a single garment of destiny. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice


How many of us have heard the words before, just by show of hands?  MLK spoke them at the Christmas Eve service of Ebenezer Baptist Church on December 24, 1967. Three months later he would be dead.  If you’re like me, what happens with profound, powerful quotes like this is that they lose some of their profoundness over time, so that they become stripped a bit of their context and domesticated, we might say suburbanized, from their original power to rattle us.

What King meant to say, speaking to a primarily African-American congregation, was that my fate depends on your fate, and your fate depends on my fate – In other words, there is no true segregation, and peace will only come when we act as though that were true. Which is actually quite annoying, this being caught up with one another.

Says the Very Rev. Alan Jones, an esteemed Episcopal priest I was lucky enough to hear preach at Chautauqua Institute this summer:

The most annoying morality in religion is that I cannot be me without you,

And you cannot be you without me!”

And that’s annoying because the you referred to here is not the person just like you, who reminds you of your lovely self, but the you that drives 15 miles over the speed limit down your street, Or the anonymous you that discarded the dunkin donuts clear cup Inside the Styrofoam cup, still half-full of days old iced-coffee, In middle of the woods where you take your morning walk, Or the you whose religious beliefs leave you running screaming from the room, or the you you have nothing in common with…thank God…becausemof what they think about guns or gay rights or black people or white people or women or gays or democrats or republicans or Americans or Christians or UU’s or Muslims.

Who do you want to get rid of? Alan Jones asked me this summer in his sermon.

From whom do you want to flee?

And now I will leave a moment for us to fill in the blank for ourselves_____________.

Have someone in mind?

Isn’t it annoying, or worse, that this mutuality that King speaks of includes them, too?

Isn’t it annoying that if we believe in heaven, and if we believe we deserve to get there, that God will say to us: well, Nathan, but where are the others?

Isn’t it annoying that all of us, said Alan Jones to me this summer,

As future dead people, are enrolled in a school of love,

But that more often than not you and I are asleep in this school,

All comfortable in our cliques, and that we need the urgency

Of love to wake us up from the culture with its celebrated private religions

That say that I’m saved, I’m heaven-ish, and the rest of the world can go to hell.”

I hate that the morality of our UU religion says that I need to wake up and remember I am caught – notice the word, as in I would rather being doing something else – in an inescapable network of mutuality with people whose experience is not my own.

You ever feel that, too? Are you with me?

All of which was a nice, if discomforting, message to wrestle with in the abstract this summer – there for a week at Chautauqua Institutet surrounded by people just like me, appreciative of the beautiful homes, the edification of the lectures and sermons, the shimmering lake, the sunsets on the water, the feeling of comfort, Hey look! There’s even a Starbucks here!

Two weeks later my phone rings. #314 area code tells me:  The call is from St. Louis where I grew up.

“Hey dad, how’s it goin’?”

You seen the news about that kid being shot and now the riots?

All hell is breaking loose here!

Yep, just saw it. How close it that from home?

Too close! He says. Too close!

So, geography first. According to Google Maps, Ferguson, Mo is 8.2 miles north from my childhood home – 23 minutes if you take I70 north and get off a West Florissant Ave, and 30 minutes if you take the ‘scenic route’ across Delmar Boulevard, and go north on Midland Ave. for 6 miles until you cross into Ferguson town lines.

The entire time I was growing up I had never in my life been to Ferguson or its surrounding communities, all referred to in my neighborhood, and among family and friends simply as “North, often with the qualifier:    ‘it can be rough up North, don’t go up North,

Stay on the busier streets if you need go North…; lock your doors when you go North.

And even though I had never been there to form my own opinion, I said the same kinds of things growing up. I am sure of it.

Everyone I knew did.

And in order to understand why we talked that way, now we need to talk about race.

And yes, I know its beautiful outside, and that after a hard summer of news there is a heaviness to the world that we understandably seek sanctuary from. But stay with me, because if we’re going to bless the world, as we did earlier, we need to know what we’re blessing.

These are the facts: in the city that incubated Josephine Baker and Arthur Ashe, Chuck Berry and Tina Turner; Miles Davis and Lou Brock and others, the dream of an integrated, multi-racial society in my hometown is largely just that, a dream. Because 50 years after the civil rights movement triumphed, and black families used their new-found freedom to move from the city to nicer areas of the suburbs, like Ferguson, white neighbors fled one by one, carload by carload, year by year, decade by decade, south across Delmar Blvd.:

The street that is one block north from where I grew up, one block from where my parents are sipping coffee as I speak.

The result is that Delmar Blvd forms a demarcation line known to all. North of it, 98% of the population is black (medium income, $18,000); To the south, 73% is white (with a medium income of $50,000).

Growing up, this segregation meant a few things for me and my siblings:

Enrolled in a Catholic elementary school that was, of course, south of Delmar, I never had any classmates of color.

My sister, adopted from Vietnam, was for several years the only non-white person in the entire eight grades.

Given the absence of black people in my middle-class neighborhood, and the daily dish of news stories and back yard BBQ, references of crime and poverty in the North, I made the link, unconscious, between black people and crime that I didn’t start to truly confront until I was a minority myself as a white Peace Corps volunteer.

Growing up this way also meant that the only connection I ever had to police was of the friendly wave I would get from the private security detail that patrolled my neighborhood, and the only trouble I ever got in was when the officer wagged his finger at me for pulling a wheelie on bicycle into the quiet street.

Michael Brown grew up 8.2 miles from my bedroom window.

But his experiences, his neighborhood, his relationship to the cops, his dreams, his realities, his mistakes, were as foreign to me as if he had lived in Fallujah.

In this way you could say I lived 8.2 miles away from mutuality with Michael.

8.2 miles from his world being caught up in my world.

8.2 miles from his experience of being black being caught up in my experience of being white.

8.2 miles (and now many hundreds of miles) from his death being caught up with my life.

I don’t know what’s harder for me to admit as a white minister serving an almost completely white congregation:  That I often get stuck trying to figure out what steps to take to help us “lean in” to our mutuality with people different than us, because the problems feel so vast and it can feel like we’re so small, or that I (and we) live in such a world where we could do nothing and feel as though life for us is still pretty good.

All of which is tough stuff, yes? I feel us sinking in the pews.

You’re asking: where’s the good news?

This week I added a byline to my email from St. Francis:

“Always preach the good news. When necessary, use words!”

Well, ok Francis, ok.

And I think my good news starts with inviting you to go on a journey

We all know the best parts of school are always those field trips.

Right? On a bus. Away from the classroom. Away from the tests and the feeling that we have to be right all the time. Which as true for growing our souls in church As it is for growing our intellects at school.

This fall, and four this spring – that will help us wrestle together with the questions of race and class together. Notice that I say together – because I have as much to learn as you do, and my ministry is all about standing with you in mutuality, and not standing apart from you, as if ministers are somehow different or privileged or holier than thou when it comes to narrowing that 8.2 mile mutuality gap between me and us and folks like Michael.

A second part of this journey is to join me in finding ways to reframe some of our justice work, particularly activities like our mission trips To New Orleans (coming up in November), our housing of homeless families like we did this week, Our serving meals at the Salvation Army in Framingham, and our annual youth trip into Boston in the winter to St.Paul’s where we spend a night and a day with some of the city’s homeless population.

Typically in relatively wealthy suburban congregations like this one, the frame of mind and spirit we have always used is our relative wealth requires/obligates us to share/help with those who are less fortunate than ourselves. This is the charity model, and, my friends, there is nothing wrong with it; it has inspired good work.

The problem is that this model is that it doesn’t really address the learning we have to do – it allows us to swoop into New Orleans, for example, and put up some dry wall, and feel pretty good about ourselves, without asking us to explore how and why poverty in that city often cuts across racial lines, and that the most affected folks by that hurricane all those years ago were black.

So the journey I am inviting us to go on is one that asks less:

What do I have to give, because I am so blessed? and instead asks:

What do I have to learn from the experience of these folks,

Because often my skin color and my zip code keep me gapped

From feeling a mutuality with these folks?

Are you with me? Not what do I have to give, but what can I learn? This question is one reason why I think I need to personally keep going to New Orleans all these years later, because the people there have things to teach me.

Third journey – sometimes with these huge issues – race, class, climate change – we get stalled because we think that as an individual we can do nothing.  And you know what – you’re right. One person can’t do much.

So the third part of our journey is a request to stop being an individual. Join with others. Take my. class. Join a march.

Get involved here in the justice work of the church. Make quiltsf or cancer patients. Serve meals in Framingham. Help out at the fundraising fair next Saturday for our rebuilding work, of which

Don’t succumb to the hubris that all is up to you.

And finally, our final portion of the journey,

Sit quietly with me in the car in the passenger seat,

A car-load of 10year-old girls in the backseats behind us

As we come back from an early evening summer shopping trip to

Shopper’s World,

All of them from Holliston, all of them white,

And listen to them as we crawl through Framingham Center,

It thump-thumping as it sometimes can,

Black, brown and white people in the sidewalks,

Salvation Army there on the left with a crowd of folks

Waiting to get in,

Portuguese mixing with English mixing a bit with Spanish.

It’s hot, so our windows are rolled down.

“It’s so loud here!” says one.

“We don’t come this way,” says another.

It’s a little scary,” says another.

Can you roll up the windows?” says another.

“Why is it different here?” Says another.

“There’s a Brazilian girl in my class,” says another.

“Oh yeah, I know her,” says another.

“Are we close to Holliston?, says another.

1.2 miles, I say.

Why is it so different here?”

Why is it different?

So different?

We are caught in an escapable network of mutuality,

Tied in a single garment of destiny.”

As I drive, as you sit next to me, I realize that the less I pretend otherwise, the less I ignore those girls’ questions, the more I confess they are my questions, too, the better our souls will be.