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If you're new to this blog and want some context for it, read this post from the day I announced my Alzheimer's disease and this post about the day I announced I had lost it. For more info, visit my website with my autobiography and all blog entries in chronological order for easier reading to catch up. There's also a sermon on the spiritual lessons I've learned through this journey through my damaged mind.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Racism in My Community?

Washington DC
This 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.

* Racism re-defined as (often) unconscious, undesired prejudices plus institutional power may not a familiar concept to most people.  I’ve explained it much more fully in my teaching.
** 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.


  1. I was raised to play with both black and white children in a time and place where that was not usual. Yet I notice when one of each decides to become a couple. Thank you for including the link to your teaching thus helping me understand myself better.

  2. I grew up next to Ft. Carson, Colorado. My friends were half black and half Korean, half Japanese and half Mexican, african american and German, Chinese and Hawaiian. All kinds of mixtures, great food and wonderful people. So I have never really understood people and racism. One time I read that there is a huge amount of genetic material to make the difference between blue eyed and brown eyed. But skin color is covered by a single gene for melanin. I am more similar to an african american girl with brown eyes than I am a caucasian with blue eyes.

    I think doctors (and this is a good thing) spend so much time on details, knowledge, and liability that they become really structured in their job. As time being retired goes by, I think most people begin to relax and enjoy their retirement finally. My favorite doctor, a GP for many years retired to Aspen, Colorado. He's an ER doc two days a week and he skis the rest of the time. He puts his doctor hat on twice a week. The rest of the time he relaxes, skis, travels and enjoys his time off. Doctors get onto the medical escalator and they don't get off of it very well. Now that you are retired, you are able to relax a bit more. I think its great. We should enjoy our life. I remember a hospice patient telling me "I had to find out I was dying before I could truly live." After my embolism last fall, I have enjoyed sunsets, sunrises, relaxing on the patio, treasuring a lot of things I used to take for granted.

  3. David,
    You might be interested in the book I wrote 'Is Life One Big Goodbye' Homeless Woman's survival story. I was in a Homeless Shelter owned and run by 'whites'. At times me being the only white person among 80 plus women and children residents.
    After your post, I thought of my eight months in the shelter and what I learned. Notice, I use the word learned.
    My feeling is so many white folks don't have any idea what black folks go through, unless they live with them.
    Just a thought.
    Hope you're doing well with Alzheimer's/Dementia or maybe non of it.
    my best,
    Rose Lamatt

    1. Thanks, Rose. I agree with you about us white folks having any idea what black folks go through. I've been in inner-city Washington for over thirty years, working (first as a doctor, then in other roles) with impoverished African Americans. Having listened to hundreds of stories, I have some intellectual knowledge of what black folk go through, but in no way do I have any real idea of their experience; I don't think I can.

  4. Anonymous7/14/2014

    It's always 'heartwarming' when someone takes a complex topic and is able to cut through it to essentials as your presentation has done. Two of the most frustrating statements I hear are "But I'm not a racist"--unfortunately not being aware of 'white privileges'; and "Slavery has been over for a long time." By your emphasizing "... like all white institutions in the United States, racism permeates our structures while our unconscious prejudices make change difficult" " you help to call attention to all of us about our 'own' thinking and context within which we are doing it. Wonderful. Hope it gets published somewhere else as well! Peace, Sodium

  5. Thank you for a beautiful explanation of a sensitive topic. I will save your teaching from the Eight Day website to use as a resource!


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