Leah and I have had a rich correspondence as we have both tried to grapple from our different social locations with the power of racism in our lives. The grand jury decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown left us both feeling outraged and hamstrung, with the question, what do we do now? And what do we tell our children? Leah has a daughter, Dance (10 years) and two boys, Michael and Gabriel (3 years). I have a daughter, Sylvie (4 years). I asked Leah what she would tell my child, and Leah asked me what I would tell hers.
Kate Foran, November 2014.
Tuesday we posted Leah‘s letter. Today we post Kate’s.
Thank you for showing me your heritage book—the book that you got when you were a baby that tells all about your family. I know that you are soaking all those stories in. They are building your strong bones and they shine through your clear eyes. Those stories will sustain you. Research shows it isn’t so much education or income or wealth that creates resiliency in children—the ability to bounce back in times of trouble—it’s knowing who you are. It’s having a story of where you come from. You are rich with stories.
I also want to affirm what a heritage you have in stories of movement and resistance. Your people are the ones that have struggled for freedom and have called this nation to live up to its professed values. These stories have helped me understand Jesus, and have helped me understand what salvation looks like, and what it is for. Sometimes I despair that this culture of White Supremacy and Domination is hell bent on destruction, but I believe the ongoing witness of the African-American freedom struggle has saved this nation again and again from spiritual death. When I reread that sentence it seems like an awful burden to put on your narrow shoulders, but all I can say is that I want to shoulder that burden with you. We can look to your Elders in that tradition, but also to the youth. You all are making a new way.
In your short life you have probably already encountered different varieties of White people, including the kind that wants to “help.” Your mom has probably already told you all about it, but I think what she says is important, so I’ll quote her now:
“Children in neighborhoods and regions that affluent Christians would identify as under-resourced tend to be informally adopted by those affluent Christians. In many cases the adoption tends to exclude their parents and guardians. The children are picked up on weekends to go to churches that are some 5-20 miles away from home. The children are given opportunities to work in private offices once they reach the legal age to work. The children are fed (spiritually, emotionally, and physically) a diet that is impossible to maintain at home. And lastly their parents are at times not even considered. In Black and Brown neighborhoods in the U.S. many children are experiencing one or both parents being incarcerated, having addictions, chronic mental/physical health issues or all of the above. White Christians need to engage their parents too. What is important particularly for Black and Brown children in this country is that we not serve them up a Jesus that dismisses the institutionalized oppression that they and their families are experiencing today. They need to know a Jesus that detests every form of oppression. White Christians, tell those children the truth about the impact of oppression and how you observe it in their communities.”
We have to be willing to talk about these things, even if it’s uncomfortable. That piece tends to be hard for White people (for as your mom has told me, “Black people are used to being uncomfortable”), but White folks have pretty much engineered the world to avoid it. Don’t silence yourself, and don’t compromise yourself.
It seems like the “controversy” surrounding the death of Michael Brown keeps bringing up questions of authority. Many White people believe that Michael Brown would be alive today if he had submitted to the officer’s authority. That belief is nothing new. People in power have long quoted the Bible, saying, “slaves obey your masters.” People resisting oppression quote the Bible and say “Let my people go.”
Dance, I want to invite you to trust the authority of your own experience. Each person’s experience is only part of the whole truth, but don’t ever let anybody tell you that your own experience isn’t true. I believe reality is relational: it’s the process of people checking their experiences against each other. I promise to try to hear you, and I promise to try to raise a child who can hear you.
All my love,
Leah Burgess has spent 12 years working in the anti-sexual violence movement at the local rape crisis level, at Dartmouth College, and presently as a Victim Advocate on the Sex Offender Supervision Unit in CT. She has consistently been challenged to do this work in ways that engage the intersections of Jesus and institutionalized oppression. She is thankful for the level of transparency exercised in her growing friendship with Kate Foran.
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Kate Foran was formed by the nonviolent resistance and radical hospitality of the Catholic Worker movement, and has been inspired and challenged by other communities of love & struggle (including the Beloved Community Center in North Carolina) whose faith drives their work for social transformation. She serves on the Board of Word and World. She is grateful to Leah Burgess for friendship & for opportunities to practice reconciliation.