Maybe Heaven is Integrated?
I am the organist for a predominantly white church. My congregation has treated me and my children like family since the beginning, about twenty years ago, offering assistance and genuine love as I dealt with my son’s diagnosis (autism spectrum), the decline and failure of my marriage, and my subsequent issues with getting my kids to and from their activities, never mind my need for childcare during my concerts (when my ex wasn’t available). In short, while I have way too much knowledge about white supremacy to feel entirely comfortable in this world, I’m still a black person who has a lot of white friends and allies.
The pandemic brought a lot of things that were lurking around the edges of our collective consciousness into sharp focus. Not that systemic racism was news to me, but George Floyd’s murder put it in the headlines, and since most people suddenly had fewer ways to spend their leisure time, it became harder for them to ignore. Far too many still try to desperately cling to and promote the sanitized version of history, but the cracks in the seemingly impenetrable myth of meritocracy will never fully be filled. At least I hope not — if I’ve learned nothing else from the last 5 years, “never say never” has become abundantly clear.
I mention the pandemic because it halted one portion of my church job: playing for funerals and memorial services. To be honest, I’ve played so many for people familiar and unknown that the exercise doesn’t faze me at all. I listen to the stories and I’m often uplifted, contemplating these people and perhaps hoping I’m spending my time in ways that will inspire fond remembrance, however, I rarely feel sad. Death is, after all, a part of life; it will take the loss of someone truly close to me to choke me up, at this point.
This slightly clinical perspective has allowed me to notice something about the three memorials I’ve played for since May’s lessened restrictions made such things possible. Each person was beloved, well-respected, a pillar of the community, connected to a wide swath of people, and yet, I’ve been one of maybe two black people in the room. This isn’t because of social distancing; two of these services were (uncomfortably) full. And yet, the uniform whiteness was striking. I can’t say I was able to take in every face, but I didn’t notice people who were visibly BIPOC in any form, other than myself and, as mentioned, maybe one other person. What does this mean?
I’m not implying that this is just a white thing. Just that we really don’t seem to form connections, beyond the superficial, outside our “tribes.” My experience is with three services in one little place in Central PA; larger, more cosmopolitan centers undoubtedly have very integrated funerals. I guess. That said, the people in these less cosmopolitan places are a good chunk of the population. I can’t speak to the variety of opinions and experiences represented by the people at those services, however, the BIPOC experience isn’t easy to access from a distance. Is the lack of connection because we simply don’t care to embrace people who look different, or because we really don’t encounter each other very much, except in passing?
I admit to being very discouraged about the hope of real change, at the moment. We are beyond polarized, and, with a few exceptions, most of us don’t want to hear what those on “the other side” are saying anymore, or rather, we feel we’ve heard it already (even if we didn’t actually listen the first time). I have, however, two small glimmers to share.
First, I recently heard an NPR story about the Marin County and Sausalito school districts joining, after many years of racial segregation. This was the result of contentious Zoom meetings that included a lot of heated discussion. In the end, the board members of the predominantly white district had to admit that separate had never been equal. As a result, this fall the students will be truly integrated. Or at least, that’s what I heard. We’ll see if it actually happens.
Second, it occurred to me that the people whose funerals I played for were all relatively elderly. Will the next wave of funerals, for people who are middle-aged (like me) and those who are younger, show more evidence of inter-tribal contact? I hope so.
None of this would matter if we could truly live our lives in separate equality. Even then, I think we’d be missing something, walled into our little bunkers. There are many ways that human hearts can connect that have nothing to do with race, a construct that elevates the physical far beyond any logical meaning. If we could be separate without “otherizing”…no, never has worked. We’re all on the same planet, and, like it or not, we’re interconnected. Pretending only the people who look like us matter isn’t really an option.
Then again, climate change will kill us all in a few years anyway. So…never mind.