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Reflection on Contemplation and Race: A Letter

By Fay C. Acker

When I was a child, I used to sit in the living room in a little alcove formed by the piano and the television, writing letters to God. I gave the letters to my mother, quite sure they would be mailed, received, and read with all my questions: “God, where do you live? What do you do all day?” I had a sense of the love and attention of a Great Someone, listening and caring about me. Today, we’re all writing letters to the Holy One about race.

I grew up in racially segregated Houston, Texas. My large, loving, extended family cocooned the children from the overt effects of racism. Our family dinners and picnics, church family, and the tight knit black community kept us safe. Even the segregated schools sheltered us in many ways. But when I went downtown, I knew something was wrong. I couldn’t sit down in the department store to try on shoes. After a vigorous day of back to school clothes shopping, we couldn’t eat at the downtown restaurants.

I didn’t even think of myself as being an American until I was an exchange student in France while I was in college. While in France, friends and I were walking home from class when we were swept up into a demonstration with students, carrying signs in French that read: “America: Capitalist running dogs.” I gasped. They were talking about America; they were talking about me! In Texas, white people were Americans. I was colored, Negro, black, but in France I was American. What a revelation. I returned to college profoundly changed.

Our nation has been plagued by its racial history. We all have a story of when we became aware of race— intermingled with class, gender, sexuality. Beyond our personal stories are practices and policies that separate the races, marginalize the poor, and discourage growth and fruitfulness of all—sometimes based on race. I know people of different races might say, “I’m sick of talking about race. Let’s move on and get beyond race.” The only problem with that thinking, though, is race is a large elephant in America’s house. That elephant trumpets its existence daily in the way our children are educated, in health care disparities, in housing and banking inequities, in policing, in how we treat each other.

In Deep Is the Hunger, Howard Thurman describes a friend of his who had to perform a selection in her drama class, but each time she began to read it, she had such a “strong emotional reaction” that she cried and couldn’t complete the assignment. Her drama teacher took her aside and told her she had to read the selection even if she cried all the way through if she ever expected to read it without crying. Some things, Thurman says, we have to go through and do; otherwise, we will never be free.

Some people think about contemplation as tucking ourselves away from reality. Others think contemplatives only want to sit in silence for our own personal satisfaction. In Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton describes one thing contemplation is not: “Contemplation is no pain-killer. What a holocaust takes place in this steady burning to ashes of old worn-out words, clichés, slogans, rationalizations.”

As a welcoming, learning community, Shalem encourages people to go deep, to live from the Indwelling Presence of the Divine, which doesn’t segregate or marginalize. That Mystery is open, loving, healing, reconciling us to the Holy One, to ourselves, and to others. Conversations about race can sometimes be challenging, but we are all invited by God to come home to that Presence, to live from that Deep Well of Love, the True Reality.

Shalem is hosting a series of three conversations on Contemplation and Race: February 9 and March 8 from 3-5 pm at the Shalem offices, followed by a dinner gathering in May (TBD). Margaret Benefiel, Shalem’s Executive Director, and I will be facilitating these conversations, and we’re offering you an invitation to participate. We invite you to enter these conversations with a sense that God loves and desires healing and justice for all. Our intention for these gatherings is for all of us to open to the leading of the Spirit, awakening to the Divine. We’ll come to these conversations going through, perhaps with tears,  challenging topics. We’ll listen deeply to the Spirit in ourselves and in each other, open to the “steady burning,” knowing we are, each one, a living epistle, a living letter from God to God. We’re all writing letters.

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