Seeing Trees

This sermon was originally preached at Tabernacle United Church on April 22, 2001 as a reflection on experiences at the Witness Our Welcome 2000 conference. Versions were subsequently reprinted in the More Light Update and Open Hands magazine (summer 2002). The sermon is updated here to adjust for shifts in my self-understanding, time-passing and for clarity in making it more relevant to a wider audience.

by Chris Paige
Mark 8:22-26 (Psalm 61:1-5)

They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to Jesus and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Can you see anything?” And the man looked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Then Jesus sent him away to his home, saying, “Do not even go into the village.”

Mark 8:22-26

In August 2000, I attended an event called Witness Our Welcome (or WOW 2000). It was a gathering of the “welcoming churches” movement – organized by several of the (predominantly white) Protestant groups that advocate for the inclusion of LGBT people in our churches – including More Light Presbyterians, the Open and Affirming program of the UCC, the Reconciling United Methodists, the Brethren Mennonite Council, and several others. This was the first event of its kind where we gathered across denominational lines in this way. There were over 1000 people attending the program which lasted several days.

My church at the time (Tabernacle United, Philadephia, PA) supported me in going as a representative of the church. In return, I agreed to bring back something about what I learned and experienced there to share.

That’s how I came to write this sermon — though when the church leaders approved my travel support, they probably expected me to come back and talk about homophobia and heterosexism, or maybe the state of the movement for LGBT rights.

I could have done a warm, fuzzy pat-us-on-the-back sermon about that – as that church had a lot to celebrate about lesbian and gay inclusion. I could have done a more challenging, get you moving, there’s work do, let’s fight the good fight sermon. That would be worthwhile in its own way, too.

But it would not have been honest. Not because those themes weren’t a part of my experience at WOW 2000. But because the biggest, most life-changing thing I learned at the WOW conference had to do with racism and white denial.

For the first time in my life, I think I really began to understand how racism has shaped how I am in the world as a white person.

Before that event, I had a lot of experience talking about what it means to be a female-assigned person or a lesbian-identified person or a person of queer experience in a sexually oppressive culture (though talking about being transgender was still pretty new to me at the time). I had wrestled quite a bit with understanding my own experiences of marginalization.

But as a white person in a society built on a foundation of white supremacy, I had had almost no experience talking about what it means to be white.

That’s something about being privileged that’s really different from being marginalized. I hadn’t much noticed my privilege as I was steeped in the experience of being able to take my racial identity for granted most of the time.

When I claim my identity as someone who is marginalized, it can be really empowering – finding my voice, making myself available to be counted, coming out of the silence. But when I talk about being privileged, it can be unsettling and scary in a very different way.

It’s one thing to say that I (or another marginalized person) deserves better. It’s somehow quite different to talk about how I (or another person of privilege) somehow deserves less. Or that we have a responsibility to actively deal with our privilege.

Somehow liberation is just a lot more romantic than accountability.

In the last 45 years, the language of marginalization has increasingly become a part of mainstream white American culture, in ways that it mostly hadn’t been before. In liberal churches, we have come to talk pretty comfortably about the disenfranchised, the poor, the oppressed, prejudice, discrimination, stereotypes, protests, press conferences, movements, civil rights, equality, solidarity, and struggling for justice.

We have even developed odd ways to talk less directly about things by framing them as  “urban issues” or “diversity issues.” There’s quite an extensive vocabulary for talking about marginalization and liberation.

By that summer in 2000, this vocabulary of marginalization was like the village in the Gospel story for me. It was a full of familiar sign posts and I knew pretty well how to navigate those streets

But outside of that comfortable village, it was still quite easy for me to get lost. So when I began to reflect on white privilege instead of just racial oppression, I lost my bearings quite quickly.

I barely had any vocabulary to work with. There was: privilege, responsibility, accountability, guilt. That was about all that I had to work with.

My nice, white, liberal values around racial equality were still present. But when we began to talk about white privilege, I just didn’t know where I was or how to find my way around any more. I knew almost nothing about how racism, white supremacy, and white privilege had impacted or shaped my life, my story, my self image, my view of the world. I just didn’t have the words or the understanding.

Shifting my focus to my own white privilege instead of the racial oppression of others definitely moved me into unfamiliar territory — outside of my usual stomping ground and in need of company and guidance.

But my experience at the WOW conference helped me to make that shift – out of the familiar and into the wilderness where I have found new (to me) understanding.

So, what happened?

On the opening night of the WOW 2000 conference, there was a racial incident during an ice-breaker. It was an incident that most of us – most of us white folks, that is – hardly noticed. No one used the “N” word or any other racial slur. There was no coercive racial segregation. And no physical violence. It was “just” the silence of certain voices being ignored.

I was vaguely aware of it when it happened. Mostly through a sense of discomfort that something was a little out of whack. An awareness of tension in the room. Tension that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Tension that I didn’t quite know how to name or address.

Something inside me wondering about what I was feeling, but it didn’t rise into my consciousness as something that I could or should followup on in any way.

About 36 hours later, on the morning of the third day, a Black young adult named Tolonda took the microphone. Apparently, they had lobbied the organizers hard to get this 5 minutes to express their grief about that first night and the conference so far — and it had taken a day and a half for conference organizers to fit them in. Squeezed them into those distracted minutes between breakfast and morning worship when people are mingling and eating and waking up and arriving late.

In those 5 minutes that the organizers gave over, Tolonda expressed their sense of alienation. They talked about their pain and frustration in attending the conference as one of a handful of people of color, surrounded by a overwhelming majority of white people. And as they expressed their experience, they were actively interrupted and confronted by white people from the audience.

Tolonda proceeded to issue an invitation to further dialogue at a caucus time later that day. I still remember it clearly: “If you understand what I’m talking about then please come to the conversation. If you don’t understand what I’m talking about then please come to the conversation.”

But when Tolonda left the stage, several people followed. This Black young adult was followed by several older white people who wanted to argue with and confront them. These white people wanted to defend themselves and assert their innocence.

Apparently many or most of the people of color attending also followed Tolonda out of the main event space. People of color, who — I suspect — didn’t feel safe or supported or heard by their white siblings and kindred in the “welcoming” movement.

But I didn’t notice any of that.

I didn’t notice them leave. I’d been one of the white people in the crowd clapping for Tolonda. We gave them a standing ovation — in appreciation of their courage… I think.

Or perhaps because we’d been well trained that you clap after seeing a good stage performance. I was more comfortable to react as if it were a performance. So much easier to applaud and *do* something than it would be to sit in the emotional tension and confusion of what had just happened.

It would have been harder to sit in the dissonance and the conflict. The conflict between our own self-understandings as good white liberal church activists and this young adult’s bold assertion of a deep racial divide between and among us.

So, after we clapped, I found my seat, finished the orange juice I’d carried in from breakfast, tried to let go of the discomfort, and directed my attention to the worship leader and the singing of songs.

I wanted to get back to that familiar village where I knew my way around — where I could feel comfortable again.

We sang nice multicultural songs with Hawaiian or Native American words. I can’t remember which anymore, but I knew that it felt good to be back in familiar “diversity” territory and able to breath again — leaving the wilderness of tension and conflict behind.

I certainly didn’t consciously think to myself “Oh good. The people of color have left. Now I can relax and enjoy what I came here for.” But that is what happened.

It was not my intention to disregard or patronize or minimize this fellow young person’s sharing and the experience they were offering for our consideration. But that is what happened.

Later in the day, I listened in the dialogue time that Tolonda invited us to. As a relatively small group of us, listened to each other share their experience of the conference so far, I learned that many if not most of the people of color had left the room after that early morning moment.

Some had spent quite some time in confrontation in the outer hallway, with the white folks who were arguing with their experience – while I was back in the conference hall singing multicultural hymns and feeling comfortable again.

And maybe some others went out and got coffee someplace where they could talk freely, without white arguments, white defenses, and white deflections. Probably while I was sitting in a plenary session nodding my head that, yes, we must fight not only against heterosexism, but also against racism and other forms of oppression.

And maybe some went to their rooms to cry – or scream – or to pack their bags to leave for home. Because I think that’s what I might have wanted to do in their place.

I don’t actually know what they did while I sank back into the oblivion of my white privilege. And I don’t deserve to know.

What changed me was realizing that I didn’t notice.

I couldn’t see it. Wouldn’t see it. Somehow, I’d learned not to see it. And the little bit that I did notice, I sat through in silence.

It was not only a public silence, but a private silence, as I tried not to think about it, tried not to feel about it, tried to somehow put it behind me.

An emotionally charged disconnect over race had occurred and been publicly acknowledged. The acknowledgement of that experience had been resisted, invalidated, patronized, and essentially sent from the room. And I hardly noticed. Even though it was right there in front of me.

Suddenly I was like the blind man in that opening scripture who, in the midst of a healing opportunity, could see the people moving… like trees… but couldn’t make out the details.

I was too confused to fully recognize what was happening and find my way through in a thoughtful and conscious way.

In my lack of comprehension, I remained quiet. I went on with the day’s events without questioning what I had experienced, why it felt awkward, or why I had no framework for understanding it. I just went back to my village, where things were comfortable and familiar.

I was missing something really important. Something that really mattered to me about racial justice was staring me in the face. But I still didn’t get it on my own!

Before that weekend, I didn’t know enough to go looking for Jesus — to go looking for healing. It took someone else’s invitation for the process to begin — and for that gift I remain deeply grateful.

My healing around racism and white supremacy finally began when someone took my hand and walked with me away from my village, away from my comfort zone, and started pointing things out to me — started pointing out the hard realities all around me and between us that I had somehow learned to ignore.

It was confusing. I saw people, no trees, fuzzy trees, trees walking like people…

It took months of self-reflection to grapple with my feelings about the experience that weekend. I wrestled with sadness and grief. For a long time, I still wasn’t sure what all I was seeing from day to day, but I knew that it was uncomfortable and strange. It took a long time for it to begin to feel familiar.

I also came to understand that I needed help.

The hardest thing about being white is that too often we just don’t notice how it matters. My vocabulary for understanding privilege finally started to grow. It began to include words like: Silence, Denial, My best intentions, Silence, Oblivious, Numb, Clinging to my innocence, Silence, Disconnected, Resistance, Silence, Silence, Silence.

But that was the weekend when I began to see my own white privilege and a deep, deep racial divide. It was painful and unnerving to be that far from my comfort zone and aware of such a profound need for healing among people that I loved.

I began to see the things I had learned not to notice — and to feel the things I had learned not to feel. That was a critical beginning.

Racism is still an integral part of my life, clouding and obscuring my vision on a daily basis – preventing me from seeing the world clearly.

But because of the invitation I was given, I started a new journey. A new coming out journey. A journey of breaking silences, in ways that this same LGBT Christian movement had already taught me.

This is a journey of following Jesus out of our familiar villages and into the wilderness where we can experience new things. A journey of relying on God’s grace and our companions on the journey, instead of only our own wisdom. A journey of making a fresh commitment to pursue healing and liberation at every turn.

I’d like to invite you to join me in this journey, too.

In my opinion, the biggest weakness of the LGBT welcoming movement today is the dominance of white privilege within it. I’d like to invite you to become as well educated and outspoken about racism as you are about heterosexism and homophobia.

Racial tension is on the rise in this country. And we need to be able to speak to that reality. I see the people, the fuzzy trees, and they’re moving all around us. They are moving in the national elections, in police violence, and in the growing economic divide.

Tensions are moving like trees as close by as LGBT Christian movement organizations where we still struggle to say what we mean and mean what we say when it comes to race.

We need to come out about racism. We need to find the words to talk about it — about how it looks in the 21st century and about how it looks in our own lives. We need to talk openly and vulnerably with one another, to talk honestly and lovingly with each other. We need to look deep and hard at ourselves.

And if we do, it will change us.

It will definitely take us out of our comfort zones, but that’s where Jesus is waiting for us. May God give us the wisdom and courage to follow.

Amen.

original ©2001,  revised © 2018 by Chris Paige

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