That’s what I’ve been telling people, preaching about. The message is in invitation to stay awake and pay attention to the dynamics of white supremacy and racism that are all around us all the time. Those of us who are white can easily lose track and slip back into that little bubble of privilege that is so much more comfortable for us. Remember, I have intoned again and again, people of color can’t just turn it off. It’s there with them all the time. Arrested for driving while black. Searched for flying while Arab. Followed, harassed, arrested. Stay woke I tell myself. But too often I don’t.
I attended the year anniversary remembrance of the shootings at Emannuel AME in Charleston held at Allen AME Church in the middle of June. As a small group of us sat in the entryway of the church, we looked at the Wall, a space graced by an installation of art glass that remembers those who died and those who survived that shooting. There is only one word easily visible from a distance: “Forgive.” Pastor Anthony Steele invited us to say the pledge of allegiance and a young woman sang the Star Spangled Banner. They claimed the dream of an America of freedom and tolerance and justice. And then an activist rose in righteousness to remind us that we need to be in the streets demanding that America, working for it. She reminded us of the names of the dead, and the beaten and the lost. Too many of them. Too many of them.
But it’s not just those black lives that matter that slide from our view. Just weeks ago Brock Turner was giving a 6 month sentence for sexual assault of an unconscious woman, his father calling the event ‘20 minutes of action’. Uncounted women – and men – across the country were traumatized again hearing a story too much like their own all over the news. Friends let me know that they were struggling because of the news. A group of women I chat with on Facebook was overwhelmed with survivor stories. One after another we read and typed the useless words of care and love and hope and healing, but the pain was too present, too complicated. So many had remained silent, hidden. The ignition switch of the easy sentence broke open the topic.
Stay woke? It’s another place where shame and fear silence us, where it’s easier to forget that it’s going on around us, on our college campuses, in workplaces, and in homes, too. The numbers, when we pause to look at them, are heartbreaking. Fifty-nine percent of rapes go unreported as close as anyone can tell. For colleges, it’s likely even higher, perhaps as high as 95%. What would happen if we could stay woke to this constant threat of sexual violence that is among us? Can we stay woke? Or are we falling back into that cozy bubble where it doesn’t come to mind?
Stay woke. Just keep trying to Stay Woke.
Orlando. Suddenly we remembered the long history of violence and death that has followed the LGBTQ community. That is, those of us who can forget that the reality is present and persistent. Brown bodies, Latinix bodies and friends and allies killed and terrorized. So much lost, too many lives, safety and comfort again attacked. It is even hard to find words enough for the grief and the outrage to be adequately expressed.
And here I am: white, middle class, cis-gender and straight, heartbroken again and wanting to slip back to before when I didn’t remember and it was easier to believe that we had fixed it, or at least made it better for our LGBTQ family.
More vigils during which we are all asked to Stay Woke. Don’t go back to sleep.
At our General Assembly in Columbus, the Reverend Gail Seavey presented the Berry Street Essay, a lecture series which has continued since William Ellery Channing founded it in 1820. It was suspended for only one year during WW II, and may well be the longest continuing lecture series in the US. Each year a UU minister is invited to speak to a topic of interest and concern for our larger movement. This year Rev. Seavey opened the topic of clergy misconduct in “If Our Secrets Define Us.”
From her experience of over 25 years serving in ministry, she has served and been associated with at least 5 congregations that have had to recover from some kind of misconduct, most of it sexual. She named names of misconducting colleagues. With permission she named some survivors and told their stories about the culture and institution (the Unitarian Universalist Association) that silenced them. Many colleagues were again reeling from the impact of what was revealed. As in so many of these circumstance, much of it was an open secret, truth that we told in corners and small conversations. We didn’t even know that there might be something we could do, even just speaking it aloud.
It takes so much energy and will and openness to Stay Woke. Many friends – and me, too – are experiencing the overwhelm of so many events strung together in a few weeks. So much pain. So much to fix in the world that we’ll never get enough of it done. The death and the violence and hatred that are at the heart of so much of it are hard to see. Staying Woke means opening our hearts to all this hurt, all this pain, all this brokenness and the too often the inevitable truth that we will not see the work accomplished in our lives. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words come back to me all the time:
This is the work we’re given to do. One of the challenges of our open and affirming, free faith is to build our awareness of our interconnections and to respond to what we find, what we experience. Part of the blessing of community is that we can grow from each other’s wisdom and struggle, we can offer our insights to another, learn from another who differs in perspective. But I acknowledge that it is hard work.
Authenticity is the prize we win by continuing along in the work. Growing capacity to embrace what is and to give into the world what is needed. Joining our small lives into something bigger and more powerful to effect some kind of change is the promise of our gathering.
Let us give thanks, then, for this difficult road and seek to embrace it and especially – especially – these fellow travelers and good companions.