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Contemplatives and Racial Justice: What is Ours to Do?

Rose Mary Dougherty, in her days leading groups at Shalem, had a favorite parable she came back to often. With her charming Irish smile, she would ask: “Why do the antelope walk side by side in the jungle?” And after letting that settle for a short moment, she would answer: “So they can blow the dust from each other’s eyes.”

The murder of George Floyd and the reawakening to America’s history of racism and culture of white domination has stirred up a ton of dust for me. A candlelight demonstration in my community invited me to “say their names.” Much to the amazement of many whites like me, there is no end to the list of Black and other people of color killed by the police or white attackers. Saying their names—one at a time, out loud—sent chills up and down my spine. George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery, Botham Jean, Rodolfo Rodriguez, Rayshard Brooks, and countless others.

In my morning centering prayer, I sat and waited for answers to the question: “What is mine to do about racial injustice in America?” I recalled often the voice of an African-American friend encouraging me to stay engaged in the fight for racial justice. She reminded me she stayed in the fight so her grandchildren would not have the same fight. She asked me what kind of world I wanted for my grandchildren. I now have two multi-racial grandchildren and can see firsthand how different the lives of their parents are from my children who are married to other whites.

As I sat in prayer and talked with friends, I became clear that the most important thing for me was to not to go numb. Fear and discomfort often lead me to do nothing, to hope whatever it is will go away and leave me alone. Race and racism won’t go away if I and other white contemplatives sit this one out.

As a person who loves ideas and is a tad compulsive by nature, quiet time can yield many ideas. These I have come to learn are not the guiding of the Big Spirit but rather fantasies of the ego.

So I listen some more. And repeatedly I am reminded to do the next right loving thing with as much love as I can muster. On the topic of racial justice, this means accepting discomfort and being more direct than is my nature. Racism is not subtle. People die, are sent to prison, live lives of depression and poverty because of inequities. I can’t make all that go away.

What I can do is to do what the Quakers do, what we do in group spiritual direction. I can do what Rose Mary taught us to do in her writing about discernment. I can sit in my daily quiet time and with groups listening to the Holy One, and with community groups committed to working for justice, and ask what is the next right thing. And I can do it, regardless of how comfortable I am.

For me, today, that is to use my writing to speak up about how we need each other for love to reign and racism to die. I can show up in my home community of Greenbelt and be part of efforts to make our community fairer and more equitable. I can contribute financially to campaigns that are committed to racial justice. And I can keep listening for God’s guidance as to what is mine to do.

In sharing Rose Mary’s story with a Jesuit friend, he replied: “Yes, and we need light and compassion to see beyond the dust.”

As we each sit and listen, and have occasion to have our dust blown around, where does the light of the Divine, the Holy One, lead us to more compassion, more learning and more action for racial equity and justice in our world?

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John H Stanfield
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John H Stanfield

I appreciate Brother Thomas’s reaching out.I wish all contemplatives regardless of our hues and ancestries will do the same.For most of us no matter the sides of the racial lines we fall we tend to be helpless when it comes to being transparent about our deep senses of privileged superiority or inferiority which inhibits us from doing authentic spiritual reflections regarding our selves and as we strive to co-journey with others. It creates a massive contradiction between who and what we actually are as we journey onward.What saddens me the most about the protests sparked by the murder of George… Read more »

Sandy Smyth
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I believe self examination or watching our own reactions. concerning racial bias is a good place to start. By that I mean, when someone in conversation makes a biased statement, challenge the person with a question.as to why they feel that way. Then ask them what would love have you say or do.

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[…] blog was first published on Shalem’s Friday Blog Post on July 17, […]