By Lindsay Airey. Originally published in the Detroit Catholic Worker paper On the Edge. Lindsay is a marriage & family therapist, radical disciple, and recovering AlAnon member, living and working alongside her husband Tom, the Larkins St. Community, and St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. Her activist work has been focused with We The People of Detroit, organizing around the ongoing water struggle.
“T’was grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.” -John Newton, Amazing Grace
If not for grace, I could never meaningfully engage the inner work of healing and repenting from white supremacy. This “taught my heart to fear” kind of grace is what compels me into this work. It is also what keeps me in it. Perhaps understood most deeply by recovering addicts and abusers, this “amazing” grace is foreign to the distorted, cheap & enabling grace vended on the daily at your local mainstream, white-dominated, suburban and affluent Christian church. Meanwhile, on the outer fringes of the (c)hristian tradition, this slave-trader-turned-abolitionist kind of grace may be the penultimate anti-white supremacist/anti-racist “program” we Christians have uniquely to offer the struggle for racial equity and reconciliation in America.
Tonight, I find myself pondering the words of a fellow white outsider to Detroit, struggling to fend off the vicious demons of cynicism and despair that oft hang over this city. This morning, my friend had claimed defensively, “I’m not going to feel guilty.” He was referring to the vibe he gets from fellow (largely white) activists in the city any time he discloses his place of employment – the frown or raised eye brow he receives suggesting he, a white male outsider, should know better than to contribute to the colonizing forces currently dividing and conquering Detroit like a Monopoly board.
I feel for him. In more ways than I’d like to admit, I am him. Meanwhile, I flash back to the beautiful, strong, tired, vibrant, long-suffering & audaciously defiant faces of the giants I had the honor of sitting with at the Annual National Lawyer’s Guild Dinner the night before. These faces, being honored that night as the “unsung (s)heroes” in Detroit’s water struggle, fill me with a deep anguish in the grimaced face of unapologetic white male privilege. These black women, themselves long-time Detroiters living below the poverty line, are tirelessly and courageously holding it down for black and brown sisters & brothers, children & elderly, disabled & single-mothers, all being systematically targeted for displacement by means of brutal water shut-off, foreclosure and eviction.
Witnessing first hand the plight of many of those suffering and surviving resiliently in the face of this city’s systematic perpetration and abandonment at every level, how can I not wrestle with the race and class privilege and oppression I carry in my own flesh? After all, my friend and I may have to make a living, but our options are never limited by our race or class, and surely, our backs are not up against the wall (even if capitalism’s unrealistic and oppressive demands may trick us into feeling this from time to time).
In the face of brutal, subtle and systematic oppression from government & corporate interests dividing the spoils of a “bankrupt” city, the unsung (s)heroes mentioned above have embraced me and have opened wide the arms of invitation to work together in solidarity and resistance to these colonizing forces. They do this with miraculous grace and determination, even in the face of the horror that is the systematic and deliberate whitewashing of downtown and “midtown,” where a class of folk that look conspicuously like myself (young, white, “creative” entrepeneurs from outside the city) are being invited in droves by the powers that be to displace poor people of color, long-time Detroiters who have “stayed and paid.”
So where does this leave white allies? During this Lenten season, I am reminded of at least three widespread temptations that stalk us as we venture into the wilderness to wrestle with the white supremacy empire has so deeply possessed and malformed us by: (1) awkward, paralyzing & deafening silence, (2) captivation by white hero/shero myths where we gallop into “the ghetto” with a first-aid kit of band-aids to place on the deeply festering wounds caused by our nation’s long history of race-and-class-driven oppression, or (3) fleeing quietly back into the suburban myth that keeps all this injustice invisible, bubbling just below the surface, a shame-driven, white-knuckling and compulsive denial.
Of the three, I am most familiar with the life-stealing power suburbia has over those who perpetuate and participate in its destructive myth, the painful isolation resulting from all the numbing, hiding, anxious striving, hoarding and all variety of addictions used to survive its dehumanizing terrain. In my own upbringing, this sinister disconnection from the cries of the poor turned out to preserve and pile up privileges, material possessions and illusions of security, at the same time that it went about robbing my soul of its vital connection to what is Real.
So then, if cheap grace will not free us from our bondage, let alone bring healing to the “sins of the father” we white people carry deep within our colonizer bones, then how are we to find the true, life-saving, downward-mobilizing, privilege-owning-&-sacrificing kind of grace, preserved faithfully at the fringes of our more than 3,000-year-old prophetic tradition? The same grace that, after wrestling imperial demons in the wilderness, Jesus emerged proclaiming more than 2,000 years ago? The long-neglected work of racial reconciliation in America demands that we look, and keep looking, until we find.
Tonight, I acknowledge I am in a process. I confess that my condemnation and dismissal of fellow white would-be allies often stems from my desperate attempts not to be identified with those people: the sweet, but thoroughly racist grandma; the rabidly angry, Fox News-watching uncle; the well-meaning and hip, yet ignorant white gentrifier. In my own vain striving to be the “perfect” ally, I distance myself from identifying with the oppressor. I fool myself into thinking I am not them. I foolishly try to erase my own guilt through this destructive purist approach.
This deep emotional shame cues me to the reality that this work cannot be done only in our heads, nor in isolation—two prominent ways we white people have been raised to prefer it. Personally, I am learning that if I am going to find a sustainable and loving Path for this lifelong process of recovery from white supremacy, then it will need to be one that is both deeply personal & self-reflective, as well as thoroughly communal & accountable.
My first winter in Detroit has brought up much wrestling with my own imperial demons. I have often thought how much easier it would be to just keep doing the “outer” work of justice. But the Movement here, led wisely and fiercely by unsung s/heroes of color, refuses to let me stay complicit in the demonic legacy of white supremacy & oppression that stalks my every move. As Beloved Detroit takes me down the path of being confronted with and healing from white supremacy, the journey feels less like a “should” and more like the only road to personal liberation.
Indeed, the promise of liberation and reconciliation awaits us along this gently demanding path. It is an invitation to a whole new world, built by those willing to embrace and engage the work of un-learning a cheap grace and re-learning an amazing grace. This requires nothing less than a whole new way of living and moving and being with each other. This is a way which means justice for all. This is a way which means white people lay down our privilege and power, and people of color take it back up. This is a way which means innocent and precious black men, marked as public enemy number one from the time they come out of their mothers’ wombs, are no longer unaccountably hunted down in the streets. This is a way in which white supremacy no longer dictates the terms, casts the die, and hoards the spoils.
As the #BlackLivesMatter Movement continues to catch fire, it is for us white folk to follow and, as my Pastor Bill Wylie-Kellermann often prods, to “throw in.” It may not be the Movement we have been building, he reflects, but in God’s infinite wisdom, it is the Movement we most need. It may even be the only Movement, I would venture to say, with the fierce moral urgency and soul enough to save us at this late stage in the game of human civilization.
Will white allies join in meaningful solidarity work, connecting the dots before it’s too late? And will we white Christians find faith communities of nurture, grace and accountability to face into the responsibility of righting our wrongs, making amends, and risking giving up our privilege wherever and whenever we find we have it? This is the work of doing justice in our time. It is deeply personal and it is nothing less than the call to discipleship.
Tonight, my mind is chanting what I first heard on Noel Night marching with Detroiters all over the Cass Corridor early this winter: “It is our duty to fight. It is our duty to win. We must love each other. And protect each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
Let us heed this call. Let us get on with the joyous and holy work of loving each other and loosing the chains of white supremacy. Let us sing of a grace so amazing that it overwhelmed a slave ship captain. We have nothing to lose but our fear.
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