We asked members of our staff to share what moves them to do justice work. This month Rev. Bentley de Bardelaben reflects on the stress of life and how they can be compounded by acts of racism.
Silence is Golden
Life seems to be moving at such a hurried pace for me that I can barely keep up these days. So many things seek my constant and immediate attention that I have felt the need to burn the candle at both ends. I confess that I am not the greatest at multi-tasking, yet the demands upon my time have been relentless. Working, writing, traveling, preaching, advocating, managing, reading, parenting, tweeting, cooking, and exercising, when do I have time to rest, be still, or actually live life? God, Calgon, Anyone, take me away! What’s a person to do?
My stress is compounded because I’m also an African American male. Sure, I am very aware of the many advantages and privileges that have been given to me throughout my life. But that doesn’t erase the fact that I must constantly self-analyze whether or not a person’s negative action toward me was consciously or unconsciously provoked by my skin color.
Recently, I was driving through a small town on the west coast when I was acutely aware that a Caucasian guy in a very big truck was scowling at me from across the road. I admit I felt some discomfort but immediately brushed off the incident as nothing with which to concern myself. When the very same thing happened with another white guy the next day, I knew that I needed to be extremely mindful of where I was at all times while in that town.
On another occasion, I was walking into a Midwestern suburban office building located in a small business plaza to meet a client when I began to sense that I was being watched. Furthermore, I observed that I was dressed in a suit and tie while most others around me were dressed in casual attire. No big deal right? But I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I was not welcome. All in all, this should be nothing to get bent out of shape over. But if you multiply it over the course of a day, week, month, year, or lifetime, it does wear you down.
In case you may be wondering, I am not the paranoid type. In fact, I’m a very hopeful person. Yet, when I was a diversity trainer I would mention to my audiences that what might seem an out of place reaction to an accidental occurrence between two people of different ethnic backgrounds could actually be the result of a lifetime of compiled accidents compounded by years of steady, streaming unwarranted racism. Therefore, they should try to be mindful that the situation happening before them could be the byproduct of something else.
The way I tend to move through off-putting situations is to quiet my mind and listen to the silence surrounding me. I close my eyes, push back the craziness of my world, take a few deep calming breaths and try to center myself. Fortunately, it works like a charm most of the time. Moreover, a favorite scripture passage which guides me in such difficult times is in 1Kings19. Within this text, the prophet Elijah is being hunted down for execution by Queen Jezebel’s men, so he decides to flee. Exhausted and hungry, he encounters an angel. Elijah bemoans his predicament to the angel who offers empathy and gives him food. Then Elijah falls asleep.
1 Kings 19:7-13a (The Message) “The angel of God came back, shook him awake again, and said, “Get up and eat some more—you’ve got a long journey ahead of you.” He got up, ate and drank his fill, and set out. Nourished by that meal, he walked forty days and nights, all the way to the mountain of God, to Horeb. When he got there, he crawled into a cave and went to sleep. Then the word of God came to him: “So Elijah, what are you doing here?” “I’ve been working my heart out for the God-of-the-Angel-Armies,” said Elijah. “The people of Israel have abandoned your covenant, destroyed the places of worship, and murdered your prophets. I’m the only one left, and now they’re trying to kill me.” Then he was told, “Go, stand on the mountain at attention before God. God will pass by.” A hurricane wind ripped through the mountains and shattered the rocks before God, but God wasn’t to be found in the wind; after the wind an earthquake, but God wasn’t in the earthquake; and after the earthquake fire, but God wasn’t in the fire; and after the fire a gentle and quiet whisper. When Elijah heard the quiet voice, he muffled his face with his great cloak, went to the mouth of the cave, and stood there.”
Life will often be challenging. Although I can’t control the stressors, I am able to recall that God is with me through each offensive occurrence. Trusting in that keeps me anchored and I am able to endure whatever comes my way. Amen.