Washington DCThis past Sunday morning I offered a teaching in our small Eighth Day Faith Community. We’re a lay-led church and take turns preaching or teaching. I spoke about racism. It’s not that racism, in the usual sense, runs rampant through the church; quite the opposite. Most of us have worked for many years, in non-profits that have served impoverished African Americans within Washington’s inner city, and many of those non-profits were founded by members of our community. But, like all white institutions in the United States, racism permeates our structures while our unconscious prejudices make change difficult.
During the past year or two, a number of us from the community have participated in anti-racism training and have become quite sensitized to the nature of American racism, both personally and in our institutions, including Eighth Day. About ten percent of our fifty-member worshipping community is African American, but our leadership is completely white (and over fifty) and our style of worship is largely white … except for the singing, which has changed dramatically in the past several years, in part as a response to our increased exposure to African American worship and in part because it’s just so much more lively and fun.
As we have struggled with the issue of racism, there have been conflicts within the community that have become heated and, in my opinion, have been creating some potentially serious divisions. On the other hand, I believe that many of those divisions are less real than they appear and are mostly due to different understandings of the meaning of some words we use. It’s not that there aren’t important disagreements among us, but we’ve allowed those disagreements to divide us rather than to help us understand one another and learn from each other. So my intent in teaching was to try to heal some of the division by sharing my perceptions.
I bring all of this up here in this blog because my role in our community has subtly changed over the past two years, in large part due to my original diagnosis of Alzheimer’s and the lingering cognitive decline. I now feel much more emotionally and spiritually bonded to the community. I take real joy in my relationships with others, which was often not the case in my past. As I wrote several weeks ago, I’ve become more comfortable with myself and more accepting of my gifts. I’ve been able to “lead from behind,” which is far more comfortable for me than the painful anxiety I experience with the usual kinds of more direct leadership.
One implication is that the nature my leadership in our community has changed. In becoming more joyful and less intense, I listen more. In developing strong relationships with people, I know more profoundly what is happening in the community. Through our anti-racism training and our small “mission group” that has been exploring racism and trying to educate our various communities, I’ve developed special relationships of real trust with the African Americans in our faith community and others I now connect with. All of this allows me to speak with some authority to both “sides” of the issues and to be trusted by most to seek the common good rather than speak from one perspective or the other.**
I’m sure my role in our community is not only the result of my cognitive decline but also of the many years of my presence and leadership, but, paradoxically, my cognitive decline has strengthened my emotional intelligence and interpersonal connections. Once again I find myself more grateful to my cognitive changes than disappointed by them.
** After the service two different people said I was probably the only person in the community who could have given the teaching. Be that as it may, it does indicate something of my role in our little fellowship.