Surprised and Questions
Passage: Deuteronomy 6:1-9
Date: September 29, 2019
Preacher: Guest Preacher
Guest Preacher: Jackie Farah
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When Gregg and Beth asked me to speak on this fifth Sunday, they specifically requested that I speak about being the white mother for a black son. I said I would need to think about it, pray about it, and especially talk to John. But I anticipated that if John agreed, my answer would be yes. I have this philosophy/belief that when God puts a challenge in your path, you better not say no… although that was my first inclination.
Gregg referred to this as a testimonial—a term that I find rather uncomfortable. So, I did a deep research dive into what it means—that means I did a Wikipedia search.
• In law, testimony is a solemn attestation as to the truth of a matter.I did not really want to be too solemn nor to expect the memories of 40-45 years past would be factual in every detail.
• In religion: a telling of how one became a Christian.
• In literature, “testimonial literature”: giving “evidence or first person accounts of human rights abuses, violence and war, and living under conditions of social oppression.”
• In philosophy, statements that are based on personal experience or personal knowledge.
What I will be sharing is closest to testimony in the philosophical sense—a story based on personal experience or personal knowledge. I called John to get his permission to share our story; he said, “Of course. You’ll be talking about your experience, not mine.” And he is right. I will be telling about some events in his life as I experienced them… through my window on the world, seen through my history, prejudices, hopes, fears, and blind spots. It may have resonance with what John experienced and felt, but it is not his narrative.
What I share will be about one mother and one son—John’s experiences as a black person are not representative of all black people in America. He does not speak for others, as I don’t pretend to be speaking for all moms of black sons. This is my story with pieces of what I have recently learned from John.
I first saw John in a park playground in Eugene, Oregon. I’m standing near the swings, as I recall, and see him toddling across the grass on the hand of the adoption social worker whom we had come to know through our work with her agency. The picture is indelible in my mind—a moving picture. I had a physical sense of love and certainty. It was a thrill—a spiritual experience. I watched this beautiful 18-month-old boy and knew he was my son. In photos from that summer and fall, he is always riding on my hip; I didn’t want to let go of him. Nor did he want to let go of me.
My daughter, Lisa, who is not adopted, was three when John joined our family. The question has been asked why we adopted. It had always been our plan to birth a child and to adopt a child. It was a time when ZPG was in the foreground—that’s Zero Population Growth, if you don’t remember—and much was being made of children who were in need of adoption.
In John’s earliest years, we lived in a supportive university community. It was the early ’70s. We joined a house church, and I helped establish a daycare cooperative. Our neighborhood and activities were diverse and radical. Good town, good life.
When John was about four-and-a-half, something happened that remains a sharp memory. On a sunny day in another park, I was enjoying the sounds of children splashing and laughing in a wading pool. As I visited with a friend and watched John play in the water, I heard the daughter of my friend ask, “Why is he black?” I think it was an encounter I had been waiting for—the explicit “othering” of John by the outside world. I looked first at John, then at the girl. Then everything on the surface continued as before. The episode planted a certain kind of fear in me and a deep desire to protect my son—not just in learning how to cross the street, swim, and refrain from eating something he picked up off the ground, but from the more damaging harm that would come his way. I don’t think John remembers this incident. But it has stuck with me as a turning point, a caution to me that 1) I needed to be more tuned in to our social environment and 2) I needed to do more to build John’s knowledge about and appreciation of his heritage.
Our lives moved on through rough roads and beautiful times. The rough months/years had to do with the end of my marriage, returning to full-time work, and finding good childcare. The beautiful infused the ordinary days and special family times— reading aloud in the evening (The Lord of the Rings was one), taking summer trips, and weekend outings.
The racism around us went under the radar. While I heard from friends about their children of color being victimized in stores and on the street,we did not encounter this, and John says that he doesn’t feel like he experienced racism prior to middle school.
When I took a job in Portland, I moved my family to a suburban area because it was reported to have excellent schools. John’s elementary years held only the usual struggles of a learner who labors with dyslexia and attention-deficient symptoms; teachers were supportive and services available. John’s recollection of that time is riding bikes with friends in the neighborhood and running from one house to another. One situation related to John’s color stands out: In fourth grade, he had a teacher who told me she had never interacted with a black person before. John says that he sensed that,but he also felt her kindness and affection.
We were living in a white world, and by middle school John’s experiences changed. He was finding himself followed by store security in Nordstrom and Meier & Frank. For the first time, a classmate called him the n-word. In telling me about it last week, John said he dismissed it as coming from a messed-up girl; he threw it off.
For my part, I was hit with unexpected racism at a meeting to revise John’s academic plan. The school psychologist protested to me that John was aggressive and dangerous. Wide-eyed and disbelieving, I challenged him. “Have you ever seen John hit anyone?” No, he said, and the teachers agreed. “Has he ever used aggressive language or behavior?” No, they said. It was clear that this white psychologist felt threatened by John’s color. Sickened and outraged, I thought to myself, I’m done with you.
Moving into Portland so John could finish high school at Jefferson placed him in a different world. He formed friendships based on interests and experience among students white and black. I remember him being asked, “Why do you talk white?” (which he is still asked occasionally) and that he seemed to be a bit at sea. But Jefferson had great teachers who went out of their way to provide support and respect. He learned a lot from his classmates of color, and from my perspective, he was more at ease at Jefferson than he had been elsewhere.
John has spent most of his life with a foot in each world—black and white. Overtime he has become more comfortable in the black community. After working in Seattle, Oakland, and New Orleans, he moved to Atlanta, Georgia, about 16 years ago and is truly at home there. He is part of a caring church community where he attends services and volunteers weekly. He has good work opportunities and a house he was able to purchase in a very nice neighborhood. When I asked if he was more comfortable in Atlanta, he was quick to answer, “Oh, yes, absolutely.” He added that he could take more risks and find more opportunities for higher level work.
I asked if he had ever felt himself the victim of outright racism at any time in his life, and he said, “very little.” That surprised me, because I remember such events.
When John and Lisa were in their late teens, we took a family vacation to Victoria, B.C., going via an overnight cruise—quite a treat for us. We were in line to disembark when a Canadian official pulled John into an office. They were not going to let him leave the ship. As Lisa and I watched dumbfounded, they interrogated John. I felt panicked, outraged, alarmed, but mostly terribly heartbroken. The attitude of the officials was harsh and the questioning long in spite of the papers, passports, licenses, photos, and birth certificates that I had with me. The injustice of it and my powerlessness made me cry. I looked around and saw that the only others so detained were a middle-aged couple who were also black.
The most frightening situation, in my opinion, occurred in Atlanta. One evening, I answered the phone to hear John saying that he was being questioned by police who had stopped him as he walked home from work. John stayed on the phone with me while the police checked his ID and quizzed him about where he was coming from and where he was going. I could hear him answering politely. I, on the other hand, was in a state of panic, my heart racing, my mind racing. I’m in Portland, he’s in Atlanta; what can I do? How can I be there with him? All I could do was be a witness…and talk with him—about anything. John sounded calm, but he was actually very afraid. He kept me on the phone until he got inside his apartment and locked the door. It is painful to recall even now.
Last week I came across an article in Sojourner Magazine called “A Spill for my Grandmother.” The author is Andrew Taylor-Troutman, the poet pastor of Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He wrote,“we must stop whitewashing our history…Racism hurts us all…” It hurts us all. Not only my family but all of us who swim in its polluted pond. It feeds fear, distrust, isolation, shame, and anger. It separates us from those whom we could love and be loved by. Last week someone in our congregation was reading the bulletin board about James Wendel Johnson and exclaimed, “How much we all lose by putting up barriers! All these gifts are lost to us.”
What does it mean to John or to me or to you that he is defined by his color? Why does that become the way he is identified and the box that people put him in? And the bigger “whys.” Why would I need to be concerned about John’s vulnerability in everyday situations? Why was he stopped when walking home from work? Why will he lose years of his life because of the stresses of being black in a white-driven society?
We don’t have adequate answers. Is it the history of slavery in the U.S.? Jim Crow? Economic injustice? The getting and holding of power? All of this? I don’t know. What I do know is that being John’s mom is a joy and a blessing. John is a man of grace. He has taught me compassion, an inclination toward listening, an ease of forgiving, and how to let things roll off my back.
I’m grateful to the Neels for asking this of me. I am willing to continue the conversation with any of you who want to raise questions or offer a different perspective. Because of this assignment, I have remembered more, learned more through my long conversations with John, and dug deeper into my own reservoir of feelings and tears. I thank you, and I thank God.