The Pedagogy of Place: The Whisper of the Wind

DSC00079By Tommy Airey, the final post in a series about how we learn from our location about what is truly Divine
In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.
Toni Morrison

Immediately, he made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side…
Mark 6:45

The wind is deceptive in Detroit. When it is at your back, you forget it’s even there. On the bike, on my way to the church, the electronic marquee at the Prince Valley Supermercado registers 25 degrees. I doubt it. I’m traveling fast and I’m working up a sweat. But at the end of the work day, trekking west back to the block, I have a stubborn epiphany, once again, that the wind was there all along. Now it’s 40 out, but the wind is blustering my face off, cracking my lips into a pot pie crust. It’s virtually impossible to complete the journey without cussing. A lot.

Pastor Bill says Detroit wind is a metaphor for white privilege. When everything’s going your way, you don’t even notice the little things that got you there. The wind that locks you into cruise control on Michigan Avenue is inevitably blasting someone else’s face, struggling to pedal the other direction. None of this registers if you’re driving a climate-controlled SUV.

The wind, then, is more like Spirit: inspiring for a few, demonic for the rest. It’s more like Breath: for those alive & thriving, taken for granted. It’s more like a Whisper: only those who risk getting intimate can hear it.

Black people in this city have been getting an arctic blast for a century-and-a-half. It’s easy, though, for white folks in Metro Detroit (“the suburbs”) and in gentrifying clusters of corporate and inherited wealth in the city, to schlep off the wind in their sails sales and claim colorblind indifference. After all, Dr. King marched right here in this watershed 50 years ago, leading to impressive Civil Rights legislative victories. And we have a black President now. Right?

What middle class white folks like me have been trained to not see, though, is the unexamined wind chill factor that continues to zero in on people of color (90% of the population) in Detroit:

-massive job loss
-pay cuts
-slashed pensions
-skyrocketing medical bills
-bloated heating bills
-the highest water rates in the state,
-predatory lending
-property taxes over inflated
-auto insurance more than double that of the suburbs,
-abysmal schools
-pitiful public transportation
-meager access to nutritious food
-a continuation of de facto systemic racism—especially with job interviews, bank loans and the criminal justice system.

Add to all of this, the vicious water shut-offs imposed by the city over the past year—for residents who are more than $150 or 2 months behind on their payments. Then sprinkle on about 40,000 tax foreclosures to the mix this year—100,000 Detroiters gettin’ eviction notices for failure to keep up with the bill, many of them bludgeoned by interest rates higher than a credit card.

When Dr. King came to suburban Gross Pointe, just across the eastern border of Detroit, he exposed his mostly white audience to “the Other America” which he described had “a daily ugliness about it that transforms the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair.” His speech, given just 3 weeks before his murder in Memphis, was rudely interrupted twice by white protestors spewing their disgust. King listened, and then lamented that “large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”

King was right back then and, I’m convinced, he would be utterly distraught if he saw what I see on my bike explorations and water deliveries in Detroit today.
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus takes his disciples to “the other side” of the lake (4:35ff). Not once, but twice (6:45ff). They journeyed to Gentile territory, confronted with people who look different, talk different, eat different, worship different. Today, we might say the other side of the tracks. In Detroit: the other side of 8 Mile. The disciples barely survived a stormy sea on their trek to the country of the Gerasenes where they came upon a man possessed by the Spirit of imperial violence (“Legion”).

The first trip to “the other side” was so traumatic, that Jesus had to force his disciples into the boat the second time around. The message of this Gospel episode is clear: following Jesus’ Way requires a commitment to justice and humanity for those on “the other side,” not tranquility and the status quo for our own tribe (see this for more biblical animation on race & class).
The mystery and majesty of the natural ways and means of our respective watersheds beckon us to stay alert to what is all around us. As we learn the art of paying attention, the complex, camouflaged issues of class and race inevitably appear on our Radar—in ways that will shock us out of our sleep-walking into a Divine Solidarity. When we notice, we can no longer say “not us.”

For those of us with fair skin, there is a Whisper in the wind, calling us to “the other side” to cast out our own demons of entitlement while we commit ourselves to the task of removing the imperial boot from the necks of those with a darker hue. Whatever it means “to get saved,” it surely must mean this.

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