A few weeks ago, my dear mother-in-law asked me a question that I had no answer for: in the wake of a tragedy like the shooting deaths of nine persons at Emanuel AME, where do you get the strength to get up and speak at a prayer vigil?
I did not know the answer for myself, nor for anyone else. After I heard the news about the terrible shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, I sat at my desk trying to help compose a statement for the Cabinet. Fitting my mess of emotions into tidy words was like trying to fold my heart in half. At the time, I was still reeling from having to respond to hateful anti-Muslim billboards, which went up in St. Louis about 8 days before the shooting in Charleston. It was easy to despair, to think that our work is in vain. We just did this, I thought, as I tried to help shape a response from the interfaith community that would have any relevance given the scale of the tragedy, and the scabs it had torn off.
People of faith have been on the receiving end of violence many times over, but this one felt personal to me. I’ve had the enormous privilege of working with our Cabinet Chair, Rev. C. Jessel Strong, during his leadership and the two years he spent as Vice Chair. His quiet demeanor and common sense approach have been a match for my working style, and his sense of humor a lift to my spirits many times over. Last year he retired from his role as a Presiding Elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church here in St. Louis, so when he names the nine as his brothers and sisters, he means it. It’s personal to him, and because of my respect for and friendship with him, it’s personal to me. That’s part of my testament that interfaith relationships are important–they bring him events that might seem far away.
But there was another reason this tragedy hit so hard. During the last year, when St. Louis has been a crucial place for the unfolding of dialogue, civic action, unrest and generally heightened activity surrounding our society’s inability to truly leave racism in the past, I have felt hog-tied by the very personal change happening in my own life. In August, when Michael Brown was shot and killed, I was supposed to be on very light duty, during a challenging early pregnancy. Even after the threat to baby subsided, I needed the rest and safety of my home, and I generally stayed home, preparing for baby alongside my also-an-introvert husband Lucas.
In March, by the grace of something I do not understand, Henry was born. A healthy, happy boy, who we’d been waiting to meet for years. I’ve known in my heart that our family would be best served if I continued working, and that my time at Interfaith Partnership needn’t come to a close. So we set up a babysitting routine that includes my generous mother, both me and Lucas taking a day, and backup by a number of close friends. On June 18th, the day that we spent in shock and grieving after the previous night’s terror in Charleston, it was our family friend Kathleen watching Henry, and when I got the news that the Interfaith Partnership staff should head to a prayer vigil at St. Paul AME near my own house, the first thing I did was call Kathleen.
“Pack up the baby,” I said. “We’re all going to a prayer vigil.”
Kathleen is a master of flexibility. As a previous spectacular intern here at IP, she knows that I’m big on allowing the day to take us where it will, and that I’ll often interrupt my own plans to be guided by the Spirit. So in the torrential rain, she and I packed Henry into his car seat and huddled together under an umbrella until we ducked into the sanctuary at St. Paul AME Church. I put Henry in a chest carrier, partly because it’s convenient and partly because I needed him close by.
When it was my turn to speak, I delivered a message from Interfaith Partnership that was in line with the statement we’d written. The gathered crowd was small, it being lunchtime and a quickly-arranged meeting, and people of my generation were largely absent, so I felt more so than ever that I needed to name and claim myself as an ally.
It’s no mistake that Henry is here with me now, I said from the podium. Not a byproduct of not having a sitter today. I went home to get him so I could have him close, but also so I could show everyone here that not only do you have allies in my generation but your children have allies in Henry’s.
Following the vigil, IP released our statement. Multiple other faith groups hosted vigils and gathering opportunities to come together and pray. To grieve.
I wanted to go further though. Through the last year, I’ve felt ashamed at not being able to identify my own place in the anti-racism movement that has really finally emerged post-Ferguson. Finally, though, I’d named it: raising Henry as an ally is not only a reason to miss a rally or a demonstration, but it is a crucial part of a movement that needs real, lasting change. Our next generation needs to grow up with different assumptions and cultural expectations, and as a mother, I’m more able to create that change than anyone else.
There are a number of other new parents in the core of the interfaith movement. I quickly got into dialogue with them about what we can do as parents. I got feedback from a number of new parents and found an enthusiastic partner in Jen Bersdale, the Executive Director of Missouri Health Care For All. The organizations we each work for have an intertwined history but we’ve only met in the last 6 months. Our idea began with the visual of #blacklivesmatter onesies and from there came the notion of a Parents Pledge. Yesterday, June 29th, we launched a Facebook page called Parents Pledge: A Commitment to Raising Allies, where parents can create an intention to bring their children up an intentionally anti-racist members of a new kind of movement.
I hope that any parents–regardless of your children’s age–will take the pledge. Maybe you’re looking toward a future of sending your children to kindergarten and knowing that they’ll share with crayons with any child. Maybe yours are already in college and you’re proud of seeing the years of imparting wisdom and values start to pay off as they create their own place in the world and in the anti-oppression movement. Maybe you’re a grandparent whose children are starting the cycle over already. Or maybe you haven’t yet brought children into your home, but you hope you will some day. Regardless of where you are on your parenting journey, I encourage you to take the Parents Pledge, and join us in naming the raising of children as a critical component of the social justice movement.
And next time someone asks me where I get the strength to respond to a crisis, I will know that the answer is my dear son Henry. I do it for him, because he should do better than we did, be better, and know better.
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