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Blog: Here's what Tom says about that!
Eastern Mennonite University has become the destination of choice for my continuing education in Peace Building. I first came to Harrisonburg, in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, in January 2006 for the first Coming to the Table (CTTT) gathering. I returned this past June for the CTTT course during the Summer Peacebuilding Institute offered each summer at EMU.One of the foundational tenets of Coming to the Table is the recognition that historic slavery in the United States is a significant collective trauma our nation has yet to fully confront and from which we have not healed.
Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience (STAR) began in the aftermath of the events of September 11, 2001; a joint program of Church World Service and the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (CJP) at EMU. STAR brings together people from around the world-from various religious/spiritual traditions as well those with no connection to a faith community-who embrace the challenge of responding to the inevitable traumas of life (both individual and collective). STAR equips leaders and caregivers to address trauma, to help victims of trauma understand and break free from destructive cycles of violence and/or victimhood that may well be passed on to others (including future generations), and to do so in ways that lead to personal and societal transformation.
My classmates this week-more than two dozen of us-work in the fields of medicine, psychology, mediation, restorative justice, social work, pastoral care, human rights, domestic violence, HIV/AIDS education, refugee services, and trauma healing. We’re from all over the United States and Canada as well as Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, the Netherlands, and Ghana. We’ve shared stories with each other about working with traumatized people torn from their homes and families due to wars in Iraq, Nicaragua, and elsewhere. Six of my classmates came here from the Middle East. The stories these six women share about the people they work with shines the light of truth on the brutality of war and the terror that has been visited upon Iraqi people and others in the Middle East.
We’ve shared stories about people who have survived the most horrifying brutality who have found resilience, hope, the ability to forgive, and who have made the choice to break free from trauma and live.
My typed notes from this week run 25 pages long. This brief description of my week will have to suffice for this blog. I encourage anyone who works in any field in which trauma-individual or collective, historic or current-is a factor to explore the classes, seminars, and institutes that are offered by EMU and consider coming here. The experience will enrich your life and your work.
Did you see Douglas Blackmon’s (author of the powerful book I’m currently reading, Slavery by Another Name) October 17 article in the Wall Street Journal titled “Two Families Named McCain?” This is exactly the kind of history–John McCain’s family’s shared history with black descendants of people his ancestors once owned–that led to the creation of the Coming to the Table project a few years ago (which I’ve previously written about in this blog).
Abby Ferber, a professor in the Department of Sociology and Women’s and Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs (who I met at this year’s White Privilege Conference in Springfield, Massachusetts), has written an article for the Huffington Post Blog: “Does it Matter that McCain’s Family Owned Slaves?”
Abby asks important questions that all white folks should ponder if we want to understand history and its impact on our place in the world today.
The issue of race has come up many times–and in various guises–over the past 2 years of presidential politicking (I’ve written about it several times on this blog). This should come as no surprise given the historic nature of Barack Obama’s candidacy. When something truly historic happens for the first time ever a lot of folks honestly don’t know what to say or think. And sometimes they say things that in retrospect make no sense at all.
When Colin Powell endorsed Barack Obama two days ago on Meet the Press Rush Limbaugh announced that Powell’s announcement was about race. The following day I saw Limbaugh on television responding to criticism of his comments by going even further. He said the endorsement was all about race; a black man endorsed another black man because he’s black. Pat Buchanan followed suit.
Here’s a question to ponder: if a white man endorses a white man is it also about race?
Another question: do white people even think about such things?
When we were on our family journey–that became Traces of the Trade and Inheriting the Trade–my cousin Elly said something I’ve never forgotten. We white people don’t think about hardly anything in relation to our “race” because we are “the default color.” I don’t remember what I said to Elly in response, but I sure have thought a lot about her words since then.
I recognize that people like Limbaugh and Buchanan make a living by saying things that gain as much attention as possible. They also want their political views and their side to prevail. I don’t know how they can claim to know what is behind General Powell’s decision. But that’s politics, right?
These words I now write have little to do with politics other than using it as an illustration to encourage readers to dig deeper beneath Limbaugh’s and Buchanan’s words. What role is race playing in the choices that people–of African or European descent–will make in this election? What difference will it make, in terms of racial healing, justice, and equality, whether Obama wins or loses on November 4?
Something truly historic is happening in this election for the first time ever. What matters most isn’t what’s being said by political pundits. It’s what going on in the ever-shifting thoughts of people throughout our nation.
The Redemption of Reason Conference takes place in Chicago, Illinois the weekend of November 6-8. I’ll participate the evening of November 6 in a conversation with the audience following a screening of Traces of the Trade that kicks off this year’s conference. I’ll also be there the morning of November 7 (before traveling to Charlotte, North Carolina for a joint appearance with Juanita Brown at the Coalition of Essential Schools Fall Forum).
We’ll discuss the film, Inheriting the Trade, and Coming to the Table. The purpose of the conference is to explore “the interplay between faith and reason, belief and scholarship.”The tangled web that ties Christianity to historic slavery and the slave trade that winds it way through Inheriting the Trade is a key reason the organizers invited me to participate in the conference. I look forward to a lively conversation.
Any readers of this blog who live in Chicago, or any readers who have friends, family, or colleagues in Chicago, please feel free to spread the word. On Thursday, November 6, I’ll be at the University of Chicago Bookstore (58th & Ellis) from 11:00am to 2:00pm to sign books and talk with everyone who stops by. The screening and discussion takes place that same evening at 7:00pm at Chemistry Lecture Hall-Kent 120. The screening is free and open to the public.
The Episcopal Church of the USA will apologize for its involvement in the institution of slavery tomorrow, October 4, in a Service of Repentance at the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. A story about the service was on the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer today.
At its 2006 General Convention three resolutions were passed to atone for the Church’s role in historic slavery. One of those resolutions called for the Presiding Bishop to lead a national day of repentance and reconciliation. Many bishops told us then–Dain, Constance, Ledlie, Katrina, and I attended the convention–that screening Traces of the Trade there helped many attendees see these issues in a different light and helped win approval of the resolutions.
It is both significant and appropriate that the service will be held at the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, which was founded by Absalom Jones in 1792. Several members of the Traces family will be in attendance.
I was honored to learn that Inheriting the Trade was included among the many books Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori read this summer. She’s currently reading the same book I’m in the midst of: Slavery by Another Name by Douglas Blackmon. I’ll write about Blackmon’s powerful book when I finish it. I agree with her that it is a very important book; one that “every American needs to read, mark, learn and chew on.” I hope these two books were helpful to the Presiding Bishop in her preparations for tomorrow’s service. In the article about the books she’s recently read Jefferts Schori wrote, “When we know where we’ve come from, we may begin to understand the present — our political realities, our challenges and relationships, both internally and with other nations.”
You can read the text of homily delivered at the service in Philadelphia by the presiding bishop, The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, here.
The quote at the beginning of the film Beyond the Gates (originally titled Shooting Dogs) is a Buddhist proverb:
John Hurt, Hugh Dancy, and newcomer Clare-Hope Ashitey (a British actress of Ghanaian descent who is stunning in this, her first film) star in a true story about a European-operated school in Rwanda during the genocide of 1994. The director, Michael Caton-Jones has made films I’ve respected before–Memphis Belle, This Boy’s Life, Rob Roy–but nothing compared to Beyond the Gates.
The calm life at Ecole Technique Officielle erodes when U.N. Peacekeepers arrive to provide protection to students and refugees who come seeking safety from warring factions of Hutus and Tutsis. Hutu militants attacked the school and killed the 2,500 people who were there. The film was shot at the very locations where the violent carnage took place. Victims of the violence were hired to work on the film. I can’t imagine it.
I also can’t imagine the magnitude of what happened in Rwanda beginning in April 1994. 800,000 people were slaughtered in 100 days. That’s 8,000 people per day. All the inhabitants in a city the size of the one I live in would have been wiped out in less than 10 days.
I continue to marvel at humanity’s capacity for inhumanity toward one another. The holocaust of slavery, the holocaust of World War II, the holocaust of Rwanda, and the holocaust of Darfur are harsh reminders that we haven’t learned compassion. We haven’t learned understanding and tolerance. We haven’t learned respect and love. So it is essential that we continue to tell these stories; to continue trying to discover each other’s–and our own–higher and best selves.
This brilliant and sad film ends at a place of hope. I’ll stop here and recommend that you find Beyond the Gates and watch it.
A final quote from the film: