I haven’t posted for a while–which you already know if you follow this blog. I’ve been busy moving to North Carolina, falling in love, getting married, and writing what I intend one day to be my book.
I have a story to tell. A story that hovers, sometimes in memories just beyond my reach. The more I try to grasp it, to hold on to it, the more I discover that I do not hold the story. The story holds me.
The facts of my story are simple and easily told: The pastor of a small country church 6 miles west of Wake Forest, NC, on the old Highway 98 to Durham, refuses to yield to the pressure of the deacons to cancel his children’s party in the parsonage. The deacons and other members object not to parties in general, but to this party to which both Black and white friends and classmates have been invited. An hour into the party a blast of buckshot shatters the picture window and sprays the living room wall with 16 or 17 pellets, 7 of which come through the wall into the room where the party is taking place. It is double-aught buckshot, the kind used to hunt deer and other large game, fired from a double-barrel 12-gauge shotgun. No one, by some miracle or chance, is struck by the shot. The next morning, a Sunday, the pastor is asked to resign, and when he refuses, a special business meeting is called after the worship service, and he is summarily fired for being a “disruptive influence in the community.” He and his family are strongly warned to move out of the parsonage as soon as possible. They move into one half of a large old fixer-upper house, offered to them rent-free by a young couple in town, and live there while the pastor completes his last semester of a Master of Divinity degree.
Those are the bare facts of the bare beginning of the story.
The pastor of that country church for 9 months in 1969 was my father. My brother John and I were the children who invited their friends without regard for what color they were. My parents and my friends, both Black and white, are the ones who refused to back down.
This is not my story alone. It is our story.
The community where these events took place is rapidly changing today. The town of Wake Forest, NC, has become a bedroom community for those who work in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area, known as The Research Triangle.
The old road between Wake Forest and Durham is buried beneath the dammed waters of the Neuse River. The Falls Lake Dam was constructed in the early 1980s, built to form a reservoir for Raleigh, and, in the process, creating lakes for sport and recreation. Once a twisting road of sharp curves and steep inclines, NC Highway 98 is now stretched straight and taut between Durham and Wake Forest, lined with cars speeding home or to work. Clusters of grandiose residences with immaculate lawns and high price tags have sprung up like mushrooms to either side of the road.
The parsonage is gone, making way for a cluster of large and expensive houses. The super-sized mini-mansions with their truncated yards and the edited highway together tell a story of progress and prosperity, the kind of story that contractors and developers are eager to tell.
The small brick residence with its shattered window and walls told a story that no one wants to remember. Its absence haunts the shoulder of Stony Hill Road.
There is no way to get to the healing without the reckoning.
The parsonage is gone–but the church is still there.
Just off to the side of Highway 98, set in a field cleared of all trees, Ridgecrest Baptist Church still lifts its tiny, sharply-pointed steeple into the sky as if to pin it in place. In more than 50 years, the sanctuary of the building has not changed: beige panels behind the choir and white walls, beige pews and thick beige carpet to soften the footfall. Beige people, and a bland theology that insists that their only purpose in this world is to win others to Christ so that they won’t go to hell. Once those others are saved, it appears, their sole purpose is to win still more people to Christ, till the church is bursting at the seams, and there is plenty of money in the bank. There is no mention of a world that is suffering from racial strife or war, no desire to move beyond the narrow confines of the community it serves, known as the Harrican.
Ironically, rigid as its attitudinal confines may be, the Harrican (pronounced Hair-a-kin) is an area of indeterminate longitude and latitude. One Wake County sheriff said that, if you ask where the Harricanis, the answer is always “a few miles up the road.” The area got its name from a hurricane that passed through many years ago, maybe decades, maybe a century, and devastated the hardscrabble community of farmers trying to eke a living out of ungracious soil. Many of them gave up on farming and turned to the manufacture of what was called white lightnin’, or corn licker. Moonshine. In a dry county, like Wake County at the time, the Harrican’s claim to fame was that you could always be sure to find a Mason jar of something from a still out in the woods that would take the edge off your pain and the lining off your innards.
The story I have to tell is the story of a group of people, my family and my friends, who stuck their necks out to live as they believed. It is the story of two people of immense integrity, my parents, who grew out of their narrow upbringing as white Southerners and dared to question, not only with their words, but with their lives, the racial inequity that continues to sicken the South. And it is the story of a family who stayed together, braving uncertainty and threat together.
Black people did not create racism. White people did.
But it is more than a personal story. It is a snapshot of the times, as revealed in the microcosm of one North Carolina county at a time when the Ku Klux Klan was at the height of its membership. When Jesse Helms nightly spewed his right-wing hatred and conspiracy theories from the bully pulpit of WRAL-TV. When the schools of North Carolina, 15 years after Brown v Board of Education, finally began to implement integration, but in a way that put the burden squarely on the shoulders of Black people and their children.
It is the story of the failure of a church to live up to to the example of Christ’s Love as evidenced in the life of Jesus—a Love the church members professed to believe in. It is the story of a white church that put the Gospel to a vote, because they were more concerned about their image in the white racist community of the Harrican than about Christ’s commandments to love God and to love your neighbor as you love yourself. It is yet another story, in a long line of stories, about white people hoodwinked into believing that Black people and other people of color were and are the enemy, a threat to their status and worthiness and well-being. It is a testament to the successful separation of Black people and white people by the arbitrary classifications of color and race from others with whom they might, if they drop all that nonsense, find common cause.
It is a story that I almost didn’t tell. Naively reassured by the election and re-election of our first Black president in 2008 and 2012, I, like many other progressive white people, was lured into thinking that “all that” was behind us, that the times had significantly changed, that we were well on our way to an equitable society.
The 2016 election shattered my illusions as surely as buckshot shattered the parsonage window. The four years that followed under a new administration, the senseless murders of Black men and women at the hands of the police and vigilantes, and the January 6 insurrection in Washington, DC, in 2021, convinced me that what has changed is largely window-dressing compared to the deep structural change that is needed. White supremacy has been allowed to maintain its essential structure beneath the surface, waiting for someone to whip out blueprints for new monuments to the “Lost Cause” and issue calls to “Make America Great Again.” As with an invasive plant–say, English ivy–we may remove the leaves, the visible evidence of racism, but we will not eradicate racism until we pull up its roots, all the roots, as well as every last stem, leaving nothing behind that can spring up into new shoots. And even then, we will have to be vigilant.
Events like these affect all of us, regardless of color or race.
This story is both a healing and a reckoning. As part of my own process of personal healing, it is unavoidable and indispensable. Perhaps it may also be a channel of healing to the people of Wake Forest and other communities who recognize themselves and their experiences in it. I fervently hope so, because, whether we recognize it or not, these events affect all of us, regardless of color or race.
However, there is no way to get to the healing without going through the reckoning. Those of us who have been taught to be white can’t expect to get to the healing, without squarely facing and admitting what our ancestors have done—and what we continue to do—to create the mess we are in. Black people did not create racism. White people did. There can be no healing until we white folks stop thinking that we have all the answers, and instead open our ears and minds, and listen deeply to the stories of Black people. Our Black neighbors, whose ancestors were stolen from their homes and lives, brutalized by chattel slavery and other manifestations of whiteness, and who themselves now personally suffer daily assaults on their human rights, their civil rights, and their divine dignity.
Perhaps stories like mine can catalyze change among those of us taught to think of ourselves as white, so that healing can begin.
Whatever else it is, this story is a beginning. And an invitation to begin.
One thought on “Invitation to Begin”
Karen, you have a powerful story to share, and I want to encourage you to PERSIST!