Sunday, November 30, 2008

Bloody but unbowed

"Discrimination is a hellhound that gnaws at Negroes in every waking moment of their lives to remind them that the lie of their inferiority is accepted as truth in the society dominating them." --Martin Luther King, Jr.

Carol Anderson, who was for over 20 years the Rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Beverly Hills, was one of the first women priests ever ordained.  She is a giant in the Christian faith, and her sermons and books are a profound inspiration to people all over the world.  She is also a person who I am extremely fortunate enough to have formed a friendship with over the last couple of decades, and although most people don't know it - she has knee problems.

When you first meet Carol, she seems to be a brilliant, remote and intimidating figure.  She is tall, strong, no-nonsense, and she doesn't seem to like small talk.  As she warms up, though, you learn that she actually has a razor sharp sense of humor and the heart of a true saint.  She doesn't like small talk because she is far, far too busy thinking about ways to save the world.  When you first meet her, you also don't notice the tiny shuffle in her gait or the trouble she has getting up and down stairs, until you know her for a while and walk behind her a few times.  

When Carol went on her annual sabbatical to Scotland every year in August, I used to stay at her house and babysit her sweet, dim-witted and exceedingly obese cats - Bertie and Victoria.  While I was cat-sitting I lived at the Rectory and with each passing year I noticed how the bannister on her staircase got looser and looser and more unsteady.  I knew, as few others did, that it was because Carol leaned on it more and more for support as she made the painful journey each day between the first and second floors of her house.  Carol retired and moved to New York a couple of years ago, and now she lives in an apartment building in Manhattan with an elevator.  Her knees simply could not have stood one more year of going up and down stairs, so excruciating had her pain become, so she retired just in time.

I'd known her for nearly 10 years when she finally told me why her knees were so bad.  Carol is an intensely independent and private person, and she doesn't like to tell stories that sound like a ploy for sympathy.   She told me about what had happened her knees in a very quick, businesslike way, but her voice was soft as she talked, and her eyes never rose from looking at the floor.

When Carol was a young seminary student in the 1960s, she said, she went down south to help with the Civil Rights movement.  She and a group of other students went with priests and activists to help the black community register to vote in accordance with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  Not long after her young, idealistic companions and she arrived in the south, Carol was walking along a rural road with a couple of her fellow workers when a group of white men attacked them. One of the men beat Carol so severely with a baseball bat that he broke both of her knees.

I was so stunned when she revealed this to me that I couldn't say anything but "Oh my God.  I am so sorry.  I am so sorry."  She was not comfortable with that response and simply shrugged it off by saying "Well anyway, that's what happened so - my knees are getting worse." and she made an excuse and rushed off to one of her many, many important meetings.

It took Carol a long time to walk again after she was beaten.  She went on to be ordained as a priest in the late 1960s after a long struggle for women's equality in the church, and she has spent many decades leading others to do the social justice work that is the central driving force in her life.  

People like Carol were beaten, and many of them were murdered, because of a hatred towards blacks that I have never, for one moment of my life, understood.  I grew up in the south and one might think that as a white person I was supposed to have been trained to be a racist from birth, but it just didn't take.  It never, ever made sense to me.  

My friend Michael worked with a woman who said when she was a child in the 60's, a black man was murdered and hung from a bridge.  The man's body was left there for several days as cars, and as the school bus carrying this woman and her classmates to school, passed underneath it.  Growing up in Georgia I heard people - even total strangers - making shocking racist remarks all my life as I wondered how on earth people could hate so much, for no good reason.  People always said "the Civil War was a long time ago.  Let it go.  It's not that way any more.  Blacks have it really good!" and they would get very annoyed when I pointed out that racism is still very recent and very much with us, especially since my own young mother went to segregated schools and I saw first hand (and not just in the south) how hard it was for black people to get a good education in poorer school districts and later, to be fairly considered for jobs.

It's very easy for whites to criticize the black community for this or that, and yet never criticize themselves for keeping blacks down for 300 years.  I've seen the sideways glance and the slight smile of black coworkers and friends when someone says "Well why don't you try doing this…?"  That slight smile and sideways glance says "Yeah, that's very easy for you to say.  You don't know how how hard it really is."  It's the smile of someone up against odds that no white person could ever comprehend.

Maybe it's because I grew up so poor, or because I'm a truly odd person and never felt that I fit in anywhere, but my heart is always with those who are oppressed and disenfranchised.  I want to tell them "I can't ever truly know what it feels like to be you, but I want you to know that I feel for you and I pray for you."

One of Carol's funniest and most effective tactics as the leader of a huge parish was the way she dealt with complainers.  Whenever one of her thousands of parishioners would come to her with a complaint, she would say "Ok - I hereby appoint you as head of the committee to fix that."  That would shut the complainers up very quickly, and it also taught them an invaluable lesson:  If you don't like something, fix it.  

Fixing hatred in our culture is a long, slow process. It involves not only acts of great heroism and sacrifice, but also small acts of stopping ourselves before making a snide racist joke or railing against "those people."  It means ALL our words and our thoughts and our intentions have to be loving towards all people - not just people who look like us.

People who meet Carol Anderson might think that she is a bit aloof and brusque, but they need to stop before judging her exterior.  Carol was savagely beaten and left to die on a rural southern road.  She has suffered horrific trauma and, therefore, she does not easily warm up to people or let them in.  In her own character, she is a living lesson about tolerance.  Never, ever judge a person until you realize fully where they have come from.