The Deep Sleep of Racial Oblivion: One Pastor’s Sin of Omission

December 23, 2014

The Rev. Bonnie A. Perry
All Saints' Episcopal Church, Chicago
Advent 1, November 30, 2014

Much these days seems to be whirling, spinning, loosening and unhinging. Perhaps, just perhaps, that unhinging that coming apart is not all bad. 

For me, a white woman, living in a largely white section of the city, serving and leading a mostly white congregation it has occurred to me that I have long considered the topic of race as optional. As someone who has typically only had positive interactions with police and law enforcement, I see them as friends and colleagues. Mike, Todd, Sue, Ray, the off-duty Chicago cops we have hired to be with us and our neighbors on Tuesday evenings at our congregation’s community kitchen and food pantry. You say cop, and I see Todd, fixing our vacuum and then plugging it in and helping to clean the parish hall floor after a Tuesday evening dinner. You say cop, I see Sue helping someone down the stairs with his grocery cart.

That is my experience.  What has come home to me again, as it did 20 years ago during the Rodney King riots, is that my experience is not universal. For people who are white it might be. Or it might not be. What I am seeing, ever so slowly, and painfully is that to be white and to be black, to be middle-aged and female or a black young male are two very different propositions in this country.  I know that I am not saying anything new or revelatory.  Except for this, I wake to this awareness and it jolts me, disturbs and distresses me. And then I put it away. For it is not an awareness I need to survive, without even thinking I move away from the internal dis-ease it causes me.

Setting aside of my awareness is a sin. It is my sin. I have had this awareness several times and each time I have paused for a moment and then shifted it from my mainstream activities and vision. That willing side-stepping is a sin of omission I am able to commit because I have a privilege and standing that was granted to me the day I was born with pale, freckled skin. Because that privilege has always been with me, it easy for me not to notice it, much along the lines of mindlessly filling my tea kettle with water each morning. I do not notice that the water just flows.  Ironically, I only notice the flowing water, when for some reason it does not come forth from the faucet. And so, I confess to you my sin, my repetitive sin of omission.

My repetitive sin of knowing that race matters, racism exists, systemic racism is lodged in many of our most cherished national, local, and ecclesiastical institutions, and I confess to you that I have done little to nothing to address it.  That is my sin.

The Irish poet, William Butler Yeats’ piece, “The Second Coming,” has been on my mind. He writes, 

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

I too find myself on the edge of the ever turning, widening gyre. I too find myself on the edge. Clinging to the side, because it seems so tumultuous closer in. Yet as a Christian, as a person who claims faith, I cannot let go of either my hopes or my convictions of how our world shall be. 

I am called to move to the center. Any of us really who are people are faith are called to be at the center of this conversation and resulting action. Many of you, I know, through your lives, your work, your family, your friends, your faith, are already at the center. I’d like to join you. I want to enter into this conversation and transformation. I no longer want to live in perplexed, privileged perpetuity as I hear of the death of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin. Twenty years ago I woke up with Rodney King, then I went back to sleep. And little changed. I’m not sleeping anymore. What I say to myself, I say to us all: Keep awake.

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