She tells of the year she turned eight when they got a new house boy named Fide. “The only thing my mother taught about him was that his family was very poor… When I wouldn’t finish my food, my mother would say, ‘Finish your food. Don’t you know that people like Fides’ family have nothing.’ So I had enormous pity. One Saturday we went to his village to visit. His mother showed us a beautifully patterned basket his brother had made… I was startled. It never occurred to me that anyone in his family could actually make something. All I heard about them was how poor they were, so it had become impossible for me to see them as anything but poor. Poverty was my Single Story of them.
This memory came back to her when, at nineteen, she left Nigeria to attend a university in the U.S. “My American roommate was shocked by me. She asked me how I had learned to speak English so well and was confused when I said Nigeria had English as its official language. She asked if she could listen, to what she called my tribal music, and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Miriah Carey. She assumed I did not know how to use a stove.
What struck me was that she had felt sorry for me even before she saw me… My roommate had a single story about Africans… In this single story there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way - no possibility of feelings more complex than pity - no possibility of connection as human equals”.
She ends her TED Talk with a story of how she came to realize she was just as guilty of projecting a single story on others. “A few years ago I visited Mexico from the U.S.. The political climate in the U.S. at the time was tense. There were debates going on about immigration, and as often happens in America, immigration became synonymous with Mexicans. There were endless stories of Mexicans as people who were fleecing the health care system, sneaking across the border, being arrested …
I remember walking around on my first day in Guadalajara, watching the people going to work, having tea in the market place, laughing. I remember first feeling slightly surprised. Then I was overwhelmed with shame. I realized that I had been so immersed in the media coverage of Mexicans that they had become one thing in my mind, the abject immigrant. I had bought into the single story of Mexicans … That is how to create a single story. Show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.”
What insight she has to share. Think about this: how many groups of people, because of their skin color, religion, country of origin, political affiliation, economic status, physical or mental abilities, sexual orientation or gender identity, have been reduced to a single story in this country?
We do it, again and again, without even being aware that we are doing it.
Our Holy Scriptures begin in Genesis 1 with the first story of creation (There were more than one if you look carefully). God creates the world as we know it over six days, ending with the following passage:
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness;… So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them,”Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it;… And it was so. God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. (Genesis 1:26a, 27-28a, 31a)
I’ve often quoted this passage when confronted by someone with homophobic tendencies:
“Do you believe we’re all created in God’s image?”
“Then that means all of us - God blessed all of us and pronounced us good.”
That belief rings hollow if not matched by our actions. Donna Hicks writes in her book Dignity “At the core of our being human is our desire for dignity.” It’s our birthright. Each of us wants others to be seen beyond our exterior to that spark of God that lies within us, what God called “good.”
But our very humanness gets in the way. As part of our Lenten series todays theme is “Reject Racism / Embrace Diversity.” None of us would ever want to be called a racist. But racism rears its ugly head in many different forms. Let’s read together the description of racism I printed on the front of our bulletins. It comes from our Conversations on Race.
RACISM is racial prejudice plus power. Racism is the intentional or unintentional use of power to isolate, separate and exploit others. This use of power is based on a belief in superior origin, identity of supposed racial characteristics. Racism confers certain privileges on and defends the dominant group, which in turn sustains and perpetuates racism. Both consciously and unconsciously, racism is enforced and maintained by the legal, cultural, religious, education, economic, political and military institutions of societies. Racism is more than just a personal attitude. It is the institutionalized form of that attitude … it is both overt and covert.
The class some of us took this year spoke of racism in four different realms, starting with the personal. It encompasses our values, beliefs, attitudes and feelings. It’s expressed when we fear people coming into our country who are different than us in some way, in the stereotypes we place on them and the prejudice that follows.
It carries over into the inter-personal realm when we act on those fears, prejudices and stereotypes through conscious and unconscious behaviors, expressed as discrimination, condescension, verbal and physical abuse. Look no further than the treatment of African Americans by police in well publicized accounts over the past couple of years.
Then we move into the Cultural Realm. Think about what groups do you value as right, true, beautiful, normal and worthy of your time and attention? Cultural racism is manifest when the cultural values of the dominant racial group are considered the only acceptable values. White supremacists are the most extreme examples. There was an big article in the Globe yesterday on how they’re trying to infiltrate our college campuses. But think about how often our images of Christ are of a white, sometimes blond and blue eyed man.
And last is the Institutional Realm, which moves into the policies, practices, rules and procedures that intentionally or unintentionally grant unearned privileges to white people and disadvantage people of color. Renee Graham this week in her Globe article entitled “Yes Boston, You are Racist” quoted a BU study that “showed that residents in the predominately white Back Bay have a life expectancy of 90 Years. In Roxbury, a few miles away, with a large black population, that expectancy drops to 59 years. We have to ask ourselves why that is.
Jim Wallis, in Sojourners this month reminds us that “The United States was founded on the original sin of white supremacy, which declared that some people were less human than others; the nation was built on the kidnapping and enslavement of Africans and the displacement of Native Americans.” We still have not eradicated those sins. We’re adding to them now more than ever.
Jesus, filled with God’s Spirit, recognized that spirit in others. He built bridges instead of walls. He taught by example, inviting a hated tax collector to follow him,. He ate and drank with people of ill repute, made a hated Samaritan into the hero of one of his parables, cured untouchable lepers, entered into conversation with a Samaritan woman, asking for a cup of water, all of which was strictly forbidden. In acknowledging the dignity in each person, reaching out with justice and compassion, he overrode the rules of the day, laid aside the cultural barriers. He showed us that we cannot remain silent while others suffer from racism and exclusion. We too must lead by example.
In Matthew 22:34-40
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’
Someone asked me recently “Who are our neighbors?” Jesus was asked that same question and responded with the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Our neighbors are families fleeing violence in their war torn countries in search of a safe home.
Our neighbors are Jewish members of synagogues who receive bomb threats and have their cemeteries defaced.
Our neighbors are transgender teens afraid to use the bathroom at school.
Our neighbors are undocumented families finding shelter in sanctuary churches.
Our neighbors are young black teens harassed by police for walking in the street.
Our neighbors are women wearing hijabs verbally accosted on buses.
Our neighbors are Muslims detained at the airport because of where they came from or what religion they practice.
These are our neighbors, the ones God made in God’s image, the ones Jesus instructed us to love, not at a distance, but up close and personal, not with empty words alone, but standing in solidarity with, caring for, supporting, fighting for their rights, embracing them with open arms.
This is what we are called to do, as individuals, and as the Eliot Church.
Pope Francis, in addressing the US Congress during his visit here told our legislators: “You are the face of its people, their representative. You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics. A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk. … You are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.”
If only they could hear his message during these troubling times. But this message is not only for our legislators. It is for us. We are designing a banner to hang in front of the church stating our embrace of diversity. Leadership Council has just started the process, which you will be invited into, to consider how we might help another church in Newton if they vote to become a sanctuary church. We are about to begin our home dinners with members of the Turkish Cultural Center, and some of their members may join us for our Easter service. I am proud to be the pastor of a church that rejects racism and embraces diversity. Let us continue to walk in Jesus’ footsteps, as we work to make this country more compassionate, more accepting, and more just for all its people.