Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Crisis of Separation

Advance magazine (Diocese of Chicago)
July, 1963

The Crisis of Separation

By the Rev. Warner C. White
Rector, The Church of the Redeemer, Chicago

When I was asked to attend the funeral of Medgar Evers in Jackson, Miss., last month, I expected to find a small, sleepy, dusty town with a main street of white clapboard stores and lazy hound dogs. Instead I found a bright modern city of 150,000. I found tall brick buildings and up-to-date stores.

Nor is a demonstration-torn and riot- threatened town what I expected it to be. If we read in the headlines “20 Persons Jailed in Jackson Demonstration” we expect to find tense groups of men clustered in the streets, closed stores, and menacing bands of white hoods and Negro freedom marchers; we expect the whole city somehow to be occupied with the demonstrations and tensions. Yet it takes only a few minutes for a dozen teenagers to throw rocks at police and be arrested. It can happen in one street with out anyone being aware of it in the next. Few citizens of Jackson see demonstrations; most just hear about them. It is possible, therefore, for many people in Jackson to live as remote from the problem as any northerner.

In fact, the outstanding note of my trip to Jackson was the absurd contrast between racial crisis and life-as-usual. For example, the other clergy and I who came for the funeral stayed in a down town hotel which never seemed quite real to me. We went on Saturday afternoon, a few hours after the funeral and after a near-riot, to a meeting of the NAACP strategy committee in which plans were being laid to try to prevent bloodshed. The committee was making arrangements to man a sound truck and drive through the Negro area asking people to stay home and refrain from violence; arrangements were also being made for ministers to go around to the bars and poolrooms to keep things calm.

From this meeting, held in a church basement, the men dressed in shirt sleeves because of the heat — it was over 100° — we returned to our air-conditioned hotel with its thick carpets and careful decor, there to find a convention of Rainbow Girls, teenagers in party dresses. Throughout Saturday and Sunday they partied. They ran in and out of each other’s rooms, strewed potato chips and bits of paper up and down the hotel corridors, and giggled. In Jackson we lived in two worlds — the world of racial strife and the world of the Rainbow girls.

But it wasn’t only the Rainbow girls who struck a note of absurdity. Even our church-going on Sunday morning did. We split into pairs to go to the various Episcopal churches in town. The very normality of what we found gave me a sense of unreality. Everything was familiar. The congregation at the early celebration of Holy Communion in Jackson, Mississippi, looks just like the congregation at an early celebration in Chicago or Boston. A new housing development in Jackson and late Morning Prayer are just like housing developments and Morning Prayer anywhere else.

Episcopalians are the same everywhere and in the midst of any situation. We are always well dressed and proper and controlled. But in Jackson, Mississippi, this seems absurd. How can life go on as usual, how can we be as usual on the brink of bloodshed?

There are at least two answers. Some white people in Jackson just don’t know any better. They do not understand the gravity of their situation — ”Our Negroes are happy,” they say; “it’s all the work of outside agitators and a few malcontents.” They do not know what is actually happening and in most cases they are morally confused.

Other white people, those who know better, as a rule feel helpless; they do not see what they can do to prevent bloodshed or to protest effectively against the wrongs of segregation. A Methodist minister of Jackson who had been pastor of his church for 19 years resigned a few days before our trip be cause kneeling-in Negroes had been turned away by ushers the previous Sunday. His resignation was accepted immediately and without dissent. Uncompromising segregationists are in control of Jackson. In such a situation men and women carry on life as usual, whether they understand the situation or not, because they seem able to do nothing else.

I have returned to Chicago with two firm convictions. One is to see to it that I learn a lot about my brothers in Christ, that I find out what is going on in the Negro ghetto, that I try to get other Christians to do the same. The crisis in Jackson is a crisis of separation; one man is separated from another and does not understand him. We must not permit that separation to exist here; we must not only be concerned to help our brother, we must listen to him; we must try to understand one another. To my shame I know little about what it is like to live in the Negro ghettos of Chicago, nor do I know what sorts of steps I can best take to help my brothers in Christ who live there. It is time I found out.

My second conviction is that it is time we Christians began seriously to pray about this matter. Think of the prayers we clergy usually bid on Sunday: “Pray for John Smith who is ill, for Henry who is in personal difficulties, and for the repose of the soul of Mary Jones.” We pray as a rule for the sick, for those in various personal difficulties, and for the dead. Only once in a while do we bid prayers on some matter which concerns us corporately. Our attention is usually confined to the personal lives of parishioners.

It is time the Church as a whole became actively involved in the crises of our time, in the problems which engross us as a society. As a rule our involvement, where it is explicitly Christian, is limited to pronouncements — by pope or council of churches or national council or bishop, or whatever. Here and there small groups of clergy and occasionally of laity take action explicitly as Christians — protesting or picketing or demonstrating or the like. Both of these forms of involvement seem very remote from the ordinary parish church. Our parish churches as a whole — that is to say, the Church as a whole— is in no way involved in such matters.

I am recommending no specific course of action. I am not suggesting that we all become political activists or that we all man picket lines. Those seem to me to he specific callings for specific persons.

What I am suggesting is that we take up the basic element in our corporate Christian calling — that we begin systematically and knowledgeably in our parish churches to pray for one another and for one another’s problems, that we seek to learn who our brothers in Christ are and what wounds are being inflicted upon the Body of Christ in their persons.

A separated, isolated parish church concerned only with its own problems is cut off from the life of the whole Body. Such a parish — and most of our parishes are of that kind — must take steps to bring itself back into communion with the Church. We need not worry at first about action. Appropriate Christian action follows from Christian prayer and Christian communion.

I am starting now to pray regularly for Episcopal clergy of Jackson, and for others in Jackson. I hope that other Christians will do the same, and that we will all let those we pray for know that we are doing so. I should like to see the Christians of Chicago form a Company of Prayer in which we unite our prayers concerning the corporate problems of man, and I will be glad to hear from those who are interested in forming such a Company of Prayer.

Prayer is the necessary foundation of all Christian action. If we seriously intend to act as Christians in the world, then we must seriously and unitedly pray.

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