Thursday, October 12, 2017

Something Lurking in the Gym

Last Saturday I almost came to blows with an African American dad while I watched my white grandson play pick-up basketball. I have written before about how race sometimes “lurks” in our interactions. This race-laden incident threatened to steal the joy and spirit of our regular Saturday mornings at the gym.

Some context: Every Saturday morning when my white wife, Laura; my white grandson, Damon; and I walk into Coleman Community Center, I am reminded of the history told to me by Doug Williams. Doug is a white administrator at a local state university. Years ago when I was out of work he agreed to meet with me for an informational interview. He ended up granting me way more than the 20 minutes I asked for.

Doug talked about growing up in the 1960s. He had graduated from Glencliff High School the year before the all-white school was forced to integrate. Doug told me about the time in his high school years that he received a phone call at home. His mother answered the call and hailed him to the corded phone in the kitchen. When Doug arrived in the kitchen, Mom, with her hand over the phone, whispered, “He says it’s Leroy.”

“Okay,” Doug said.
“Who’s Leroy?”
“I’ve told you about Leroy. We play basketball together.”
“Is he… a Negro?”
“You never told me he was a Negro.”
“I didn’t know it mattered.”

Doug told me that during the segregated Glencliff/Coleman community of youth, the only place black teens and white teens interacted was in the gym at Coleman Community Center. The center was the place that Doug regularly played basketball with black guys.

The Glencliff/Coleman community has grown much more multicultural in more recent years. Glencliff High is an international center. Coleman Community Center also reflects that diversity…except in the gym.

When Laura, Damon and I arrive at the center on Saturday mornings, we observe a predictable scene in the gym. There are often single players each claiming one of the six goals, while being trained by a dad or a personal trainer. Players and trainers are all black.

Damon and I usually find an open goal and play one-on-one before others arrive, especially if Akam, the Kurdish eighth grader, hasn’t arrived yet. We might get in a game of two-on-two or three-on-three before the high schoolers and young men arrive. It varies week to week, most Saturdays, except for Damon and Akam, all of the gym-dwellers are African American.

Damon has earned the respect of all of the players. The boys have fun. There are the usual disputes about who knocked the ball out or whether someone was fouled. Most of the time the offender knows he is wrong, and sometimes laughter ensues. Disputes are resolved quickly; everyone just wants to get back to playing. And when the games are over, there are fist-bumps and high-fives all around and promises of “See you next week.”

Last week I was watching the boys play five-on-five. I looked up and saw a familiar African American dad, who had been coming with his son the past three weeks. In those weeks I had struck up conversations with him. We had recognized each other because I had taught his eighth grade son when the boy was a sweet first grader.

On this day I tapped the dad on the shoulder and said, “Hey.” He barely looked at me and grunted. A few minutes later he turned to me and started badmouthing Damon under the guise of “coaching.” The smirk on his face betrayed his real meaning. While his son strutted and taunted on the court, I decided to return (grand)parental fire (because I am such a calm and gracious guy). I commented on his son’s “attitude” on the court.

So it was ON. This dad is a big guy, and he thought (I assume) that if he abruptly moved closer to me while spewing, I would be intimidated. He didn’t know that I am both too old and too young to be intimidated. After a heated exchange of words, I eventually walked out of the gym.

When I came back with a calmer demeanor, the dad just started talking smack every time his son came up with a good play or Damon missed a shot. I was sitting behind and away from said dad, so he had to turn around to keep making his comments. I finally asked him to stop talking to me. He asserted his right to say whatever he wanted to. My loving wife encouraged me several times to not engage him at all.

The game ended, and his victorious son unleashed this lengthy angry taunt into the gym. It was unlike anything we’ve seen in the weeks we have been playing light-hearted Saturday morning pick-up basketball. Ignoring my wise wife, I turned to the dad and said, “That’s the attitude I’m talking about.” I honestly don’t remember what else transpired before we were up in each other’s faces, but a shouting match ensued.  And management came. I took another walk.

While outside I spoke to another African American dad, whom we had befriended in earlier weeks. One week he had asked Damon to play one-on-one offense so that his son could work on his defense. On this Saturday, I asked this dad if he had witnessed the scene I had just caused. He hadn’t. I apologized for it anyway. Then he said, “You know, in days like these it is disappointing when we start at EACH OTHER like this. It’s enough to have to deal with that treatment in general society. You would think that at least WE could keep it together.” He meant, of course “we black folk.” It was lament, not criticism.

The rest of the of the conversation was typical. We talked more about our boys and their basketball experiences. Then, newly calm, I returned to the gym.

The “my boy/your boy” conversation is one I have had with dozens of parents. Three weeks ago I launched into that conversation with Dad #1.  But whenever I complimented his kid, he criticized Damon.

So why was this dad all focused on Damon? He made no comments about any other kid out there. And in three weeks he and his son had become increasingly anti-social, and the son had become increasingly angry on the court. Aside from Damon’s obvious talent, I can think of only one reason he was singled out for this constant criticism. It was something lurking.

By the middle of the first five-on-five game last week, Damon didn’t want to play anymore, but, as he told his Meemaw, “I wasn’t gonna go out like that.”  He finished the game, and his team handily won the next game. Still Damon was disturbed.

I own my part in the drama. The following week the whole scenario occupied a lot of my thought life. I first apologized to Damon and then tried to encourage him, “We can’t let them steal the joy of our Saturday mornings. We do this for fun. Don’t let them take this from us.” But I had no idea how I could instruct my own emotions before the next Saturday. I did pray. I did consider whether we should show up at all. I did think of what I wanted to say to reconcile with this dad, but it would all be built on how wrong HE was. And I had already committed to a wise woman that I would not speak to the man at all.

I did go over the past three weeks in my mind trying to figure out what went wrong before I had decided to “return fire.” And why was I so inconsolable after the incident?

I think the discomfort was based in something more than immediate. It drew on the historical romance I had been told about Coleman/Glencliff. It was the sense that this place of peace, this place of community against the cultural odds, was being turned into a place of conflict. And the battle was engaged against me and my grandson for no respectable reason.

By week’s end, my emotional energy had dissipated and I had pictured for myself how I would act. First, I would get back out on the court myself. No-one can take the game too seriously when I am on the court.

As it turned out dad and son didn’t show. I don’t think anyone spoke of them or of our incident. But there was a palpable relief hanging in the air. The boys were lighter than usual. They played hard, but they laughed as hard as they played. And there were fist-bumps and high-fives.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Charlottesville Reflections: Ancient Thoughts about Equality, Relationship and Community

Add An officer patrols in front of a recent KKK rally in Charlottesville, Va. Jill Mumie 

There’s an uncomfortable verse in the Bible that says,

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.”—Luke 14:26

The literal meaning of this verse is “If you want to follow Jesus, you must hate people, especially your own family (not to mention yourself)."

But the original meaning was probably more like, “If you want to follow Jesus, your love for Jesus should be so great all other ‘loves’ diminish to hatred in comparison.”

A verse in the biblical book of Galatians deserves the same treatment.

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” –Galatians 3:28

Taken literally, this verse sounds like “All distinctions totally disappear ‘in Christ Jesus.’ We can’t tell men from women; we can’t see ethnic differences, and we can’t discern the difference between a worker and their supervisor. Everyone is exactly the same.”

But the original meaning was probably more along the lines of “Equality, relationship and community ‘in Christ’ diminish the distinctions among those groups.” The differences don’t disappear, they simply hold different meaning.

In the aftermath of Charlottesville, two stances concern me. The first is the one that disturbs many Americans: that stance that says some Americans are inherently superior to others. That view flies directly in the face of this Galatians passage.

The second disturbing stance is the one that says, “There is only one race: the human race.” Semantics around the word “race” aside, this view is unhelpful in the current conversation. It is supported by that misguided, literal reading of Galatians 3:28.

In my TEDxAntioch talk, I make the statement “Race is not real, but race does matter.” I support my assertion about race’s non-existence with scientific discoveries about the nature of “race.” We could substitute misreadings of biblical passages to make the same case. But in either situation, the non-existence of race is irrelevant because “race” continues to exist in our lived realities. Charlottesville proves as much.

Race continues to matter in American society. And we continue to have opportunities to enter into the discomfort to address the difficulties. We need only the will.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Post-Election Blues, Vintage 2008

Like others, I have been accused of over-reacting to the Presidential election results. Some have tried to call me back to 2008 and 2012 to be reminded of how I then was telling people “Get over it! You lost; accept it! Stop whining. You need to chill!" 

I don’t remember expressing those sentiments, but my memory sucks. Fortunately I have an actual record written days after the 2008 election. I don’t think I actually published this anywhere. But here it is.

For the record, the extended conversation I report below took place in our small Baptist church’s only adult Sunday School class the Sunday after the election. I was the teacher, as I had been for the past 10 years. I was also the white congregation’s only black member. Here is my record from that week in 2008:

“I am sad. I have been wondering about my friends who did not vote for Barack Obama. How were they feeling about the outcome of the election?

Some of my McCain supporter friends have rejoiced with me because of our friendship or because of the historical significance. At church one person changed her perspective just because she learned that I once knew and now trust the President-elect. She started to see the President-elect differently even though she did not vote for him. Another sister expressed that she was both “excited and a little fearful.” Another McCain supporter called me to say that she is open to whatever is coming and that she hopes I’m right about how this President will serve the US.

I expected these sorts of responses. I also expected disappointment, maybe bordering on despair or despondency. I have felt this myself after many an election when my candidate (Republican, Democrat or independent) has not won.

I wasn’t expecting the reaction I got from another group of Christian friends. Against Laura’s advice I decided to ask this group: “Regardless of how you voted, how are you feeling about the outcome of the election?"

These people have known about my high school friendship with Barack Obama since before he announced his candidacy. They have also known about my passionate support for him, although as a group we haven’t directly discussed politics.

When I asked the question, Laura answered immediately. Others were more reluctant, but just as I was about to move into Bible Study, people started speaking up. There were a few moments of insight or compassion or possible hope, but this was not the tenor of the conversation. When they finally spoke, they started expressing great anger and intense cynicism.

One person, having heard Oprah say, “Hope won,” replied, “No, hate won!” Other people characterized the President–elect as a heartless baby killer. The “socialist” label came up. One person said he was surprised that Obama apologized to Nancy Reagan for an off-handed séance comment. He said that the apology showed humility, something he hadn’t seen from Obama the whole campaign(!). Some were angry that 97% of black people voted for him (ignoring the fact that this is roughly the same percentage of blacks who support ANY Democratic candidate). Several people said that it didn't really matter who we voted for or who won since God is the one who determines the leaders of the nations, but they were not happy with the outcome.

Someone eventually asked me about my feelings. They said they could tell that I felt hopeful. I told them that I also felt proud, partly because here is our first black President--and he's not just any black guy. He's a man of ability and integrity. I was proud partly because he was my friend, partly because he was from Hawaii like me, but mostly because it is the first time I was truly excited about what this President could do for America. I also said that I feel disappointed that my brothers and sisters are feeling this kind of anger and cynicism at the prospect of their brother in the Lord becoming President. One very intelligent, godly man said, "What's George Bush, chopped liver?" I refrained from reminding him that George Bush wasn't in this election.

Not wanting to get defensive, I did say that they (the whole class) were misinformed about Obama’s abortion sentiments. When someone came back at me with the horrors of abortion, I reminded them that I am pro-life. I am in agreement with them on abortion. I do not agree with them regarding Barack Obama's abortion sentiments.

I eventually reminded them that a President is not a king. He does not have all authority. And he has only 4-8 years to do whatever he plans to do. They all plan to "support" him because they are loyal Americans and because Christians are supposed to support their leaders. I told them that I am praying that the new President will earn their respect.

It saddens me to see the President-elect through the eyes of these brothers and sisters. They see him as lacking humility. They believe that he wants to see babies die, that he promotes decadence, and that he is a socialist. And they are afraid of what he wants to do to America.

Some of them were cynical--intensely cynical. They said they were initially afraid, but were reminded that God chooses who the leaders are. The cynical ones were questioning whether voting matters and whether who is elected matters.

I saw an anger and almost hatred that I've never seen in these my beloved brothers and sisters. Despite the surprise, I had invited it. And while it was not pleasant, I don't regret the question.”