Breaking down the walls of us and them

Many Canadians followed the long and dramatic U.S. election campaign, then watched the inauguration of Barack Obama as 44th president of the United States. In this excerpt from a column in The Mennonite (December 2, 2008), Regina Shands Stoltzfus of Elkhart, Ind. reflects on recent American events. Her comments also provide a perspective for “walls” that Canadians face. —Eds.

The waning hours of Nov. 4 found me at my computer, multitasking, trying not to be too nervous about the election results. A little after 11, the election was called. The United States had just elected a black man, Barack Obama, as president. I watched and listened to what I believed would never happen and with millions of people around the world, I cried tears of joy.

Sometime after midnight I went into each of my children’s bedrooms, shaking them awake to tell them the news. I wanted to be the first one they heard it from. For me it will always be an “I remember where I was when” moment. An earlier one comes from my childhood, when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. I remember where I was when I heard the news, and I remember thinking, Why do they hate us so much? I trace the beginning of my double consciousness from those moments. As W.E.B. du Bois described it, the notion of being doubly conscious has to do with being part of and not part of, in the language of his day, “an American, a Negro, two warring ideals in one dark body.” American, yet “other.”

For many of us who know this double consciousness, especially those of my parents’ generation and before, this presidential election represented something many thought they would never see. As a black Christian woman who is a member of a predominantly white denomination, I find my consciousness tripled, even quadrupled. I observe and  participate in events such as a presidential campaign cycle through multiple lenses.

Amnesia

One of the lessons of this campaign for me has been how serious the historical amnesia, at best – or ignorance, at worst – is in our society. One example is the vilification heaped upon black Christians and clergy who ascribe to a theology of black liberation. I expected more visible acts of solidarity from sisters and brothers in church communities around the country. I expected more understanding of how such a theology and tradition of church practice had been shaped by centuries of racial oppression, in part carried out by the systematic disruption and destruction of family and cultural, including religious, systems.

The black church, born out of pain and struggle, has historically been the institution to shelter and nourish black spirituality and provide a home for the campaign for civil rights and justice. The Mennonite church (like other denominations) wrestled with joining the fight for civil rights in the 1960s. Then, as now, there were pastors and leaders and people in Mennonite pews who without hesitation joined that movement because it fit their understanding of the prophets and of Jesus and his teachings. My own faith was nurtured in such a congregation. It taught me about the love of God through word and actions. And while it taught about the dignity and worth of all people and preached our oneness in Christ Jesus, it also celebrated blackness and African-American heritage.

More work

In the days following the election, those who track such things have noted a marked uptick in acts of racist intimidation and violence across the country. There is still much work to do.

Several weeks before the election I heard a person at a church relate a difficult moment during a family gathering in which there was friction over political differences. The person asked for prayer that the family would maintain civility and keep their relationships during the rest of the campaign and once the election was over. And so we prayed.

My prayers continue. For this president, for our nation, for the world. Even though “change” was the mantra of this campaign, I know that one man cannot bring about the kind of changes many believe this world needs. I also know that many people fear the kind of change this new president represents. And many celebrate the very change he represents. Both ends of that spectrum and many places in between are occupied by my sisters and brothers in the church. I pray that we can continue to be church together and do the work God has called us to do in the world. I want to build a church where together we continue to break down the dividing wall between us and them, whatever the us-ness and them-ness represents.

Regina Shands Stoltzfus is co-founder of the Damascus Road Anti-Racism program and has served as a pastor. She is currently a doctoral student at Chicago Theological Seminary and teaches at Goshen College in Elkhart, Ind.

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