I told you in my last post that I was honored and humbled to begin my ordained ministry at St. James Church in Charleston, West Virginia--a nearly all Black church. Besides me, Bern, my pregnant wife and Bea Weaver, who was married to a Black man, there were no other white people in the congregation. (Irony of Ironies, Bea was a domestic who cleaned the houses of many of the Black members of St. James!)
Since I worked for St. James, I decided to join the Black Ministerial Association and went to their meetings on a regular basis. Being the only white (and non-Baptist or Methodist) member of the group, they taught me many things. I believe my experience as a white priest in a Black community was much gentler and more gracious than the experience of a Black priest in a white community would have been. I've never talked to a Black Minister of a white Church except for a wonderful Episcopal priest from Philadelphia. He told me that he had been the interim priest for a suburban congregation on the Main Line--very affluent and liberal. But when the time came to call a Rector and he offered his name to the calling committee, one of the members told him in private: "Paul, we admire and respect you greatly...but we have daughters...."
Paul Washington was one of the most competent and accomplished priests in the Episcopal Church, but when it came time for a congregation in a wealthy, mostly progressive suburb to choose a Rector, he was ruled out, as a Black man, because they didn't trust a Black man around their daughters.
There were 'daughters' aplenty at St. James in Charleston. The demographics were terribly skewed--about a dozen or more teenage girls and only one teenage boy. And none of the Black parents of those lovely girls distrusted me because I was White. And that has nothing to do with the indisputable fact that most clergy sexual abuse is by White pastors of whatever denomination. What that had to do with is that those Black Folks were much more accepting of a White priest than any White congregation anywhere, I believe, would be accepting of a Black priest.
My five years at St. James--where both our children were born and baptized--was a post-graduate education in Race. I was at first astonished and then embarrassed and ashamed about how little--how pitifully little--I understood the Black experience.
Given, St. James was an anomaly: many of the members were faculty or administrators at West Virginia State College in Institute. I would often get up to preach to the 50 or 60 folks in the congregation and realize at least half of them had either Ph.D's or Master's degrees. Though West Virgina State was a state school, it had, in the past, had a reputation in the Black Community close to Grambling and Howard. These were sophisticated and cultured folks by any measure. And they taught me, interestingly enough, how to be White in a non-White world.
I remember being at a Sorority Dance (Sororities and Fraternities were valuable social outlets for middleclass Black folks) and seeing my friend and parishioner, John's wife, dancing with a White Journalism professor at WVSC. "Why aren't you dancing with Charlotte?" I asked John. And he replied, tersely, "I don't dance, don't like fried chicken and don't eat watermelon."
I came to learn that for Black people, Black stereotypes weren't simply 'stereotypes', they were 'indictments': rules White Folks made to keep Black Folks 'in their place'.
Ben Gray, Senior Warden for most of the time I was Vicar of St. James, taught me a painful lesson one day after we went to lunch at the Black VFW restaurant. When we came out there was a parade downtown for some holiday. We watched it for a while. Then Ben said to me, "Jim, you know how we are different?"
Well, I had a hundred answers, but not the one he had in mind.
Ben had been a colonel in WWII, one of the highest ranking Black officers. He'd also worked for the Post Office and the the Veteran's Administration. He had 3 (count 'em!) federal pensions in his retirement. He and his wife were both very light skinned and he once confessed to me that when they traveled in the south in years gone by, he'd had a turban in the trunk of his car. Wearing that and faking an accent, he and Mary could stay in motels that didn't allow Blacks. Imagine a colonel in the Army having to do that to have a good night's sleep....
"When you hear a band coming," Ben told me solemnly, like a monk teaching a novice, "you can decide you like the band from the sound, even before it turns the corner and you can see it....." He paused for a moment, knowing he was about to give me pain. "But I have to see the band, Jim," he told me, looking straight into my eyes, "I have to see a black or brown face in the band before I can like it."
We listened to a band around the corner for a while. "Do you see how that makes us different?" Ben asked me gently.
And I did. And it hurt. And it taught me something about being White that I'd never known before, never even considered, never dreamed of.
Being White means living in a bubble where 'being white' never comes to mind. While 'being Black' was something else altogether, something I couldn't imagine, couldn't comprehend, couldn't even dream of.
But I loved Ben and I knew he'd shared great wisdom with me. And though I couldn't 'be Black', he'd taught me a better way to 'be White'.
What a gift.
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