In Search of a "Beloved Community"

Posted: August 16, 2005 in Everything

Recently, there has been a big flap at my alma mater over the casting of a Caucasian student to play the lead role in the homecoming musical, Aida. Aida is the story of a Nubian princess, and some folks–both at the university and in the community–did not appreciate the casting. Also, some in the theatre department have been personally defamed by the over-zealous media over the casting decision. (For more information see The Abilene Reporter News) The registration is free.)

I love Abilene Christian University, I loved my experience there, I was nurtured deeply by my professors in the Bible Department, the Graduate School of Theology and my connection with the good people at the Highland Church of Christ, particularly the preaching of Mike Cope–where I attended while in college. Currently, I serve on ACU’s Alumni Advisory Board and though there’s not a lot of extra money around our house, we manage to make our annual donation to the school.

It is obvious to me, though I don’t even live in Abilene, that some good people have been hurt in all this. At the same time, I must admit, that as an African-American, I have always felt a subtle sub-text of racism at ACU. Now, I don’t for a minute think the current situation is racist. There are too many people whom I respect who speak well of the parties involved for me to believe the people involved are racist. At the same time, this casting decision has stirred deep passion and anxiety in me and I’m not sure why.

Is it because I felt racism while in school and feel it in our churches? Or is it because ACU was so slow to accept blacks as students? Is it because churches of Christ essentially have two fellowship (if not three); black and white and Hispanic? Could it be that as an African American who ministers in predominately white churches that during every interview I’ve ever had some church member has asked the church leadership if I would be able to “relate” and had questions about what kind of “people” I would attract to the church? Is it because as a college student I had impeccable references, grades, and experience but could not get internships? I even had churches give me back my resume at the end interviews–a phenomenon that NEVER happened to my white friends! Could it be that as a teenager people in my youth group consistently made fun of minorities and disrespected black culture?

I’m not sure where the stir of emotion has come from. I saw “Fiddler on the Roof” at ACU and I assume the cast wasn’t all Jewish. I saw “Oliver” too, and Oliver was played by a girl. And truthfully, “Nubian”–which is the race of Aida–does not always, necessarily mean “Black”.

For some reason, this feels different though. Maybe because the nail of racism against blacks is still being hammered in contemporary culture and the church. The great sin of America has been its institutional exclusion of blacks and when occasions like this arise it feels like more of the same.

And that’s the point where me and so many of my white friends part. They always want to argue the facts–like those I mentioned about “Fiddler”. Facts are great, but they don’t always tell the whole story. Imagine “Fiddler” being staged in Germany shortly after WWII, while there were still some Nazi’s around (by “Nazi’s” I don’t mean people at ACU, but rather some people in the culture who still hold certain views). How might they respond then about casting non Jews? I can’t be certain, but they might be offended at being excluded from the telling of part of their story and culture.

Perhaps there is a difference in the way we should treat, and talk about, a wound that is still fresh (and in some places a wound that is being inflicted)? Or maybe I’m just over-sensitive? The truth is, we (churches, universities, and church leaders) need to talk about this a lot more and a lot more openly, a lot more honestly.

I wish I had an answer…

Advertisements
Comments
  1. Mike says:

    Very helpful words, brother. I’ve just left a note on my blog asking people to come read this. Thanks, Mike

  2. J-Wild says:

    You might not have “answers” but you certainly have a way of expressing the underlying tension this has created. Thank you, and I think the observations you make in paragraph 4 all play a big role in the feelings that you and many others have had with regard to what has happened.

    I believe it’s important to note that people of good intentions and pure hearts can inadvertandly create situations where feelings of prejudice, racism, and inequality come to the surface. I loved your comment about your friends who want to argue “facts,” but largely miss out on the emotions and feelings of issues dealing with race.

    People who have in their history generations that were systematically oppressed because of their skin color and culture have to be tremendously gracious and forgiving in order for there to be healing. BUT healing cannot happen unless those whose history is that of being opressors become deliberately inclusive, sensitive, and purposeful in their interactions with people who have been oppressed. What many people don’t understand is that just because systematic government sanctioned racism isn’t a reality anymore, doesn’t mean all things are equal.

    To me that’s what this whole ACU episode has exposed. It’s not good enough to have a color-blind policy to casting in this situation. It seems to me part of the whole reason to do a play like Aida is to be deliberate and purposeful in highlighting diversity not being indifferent to it. When you remove the diversity aspect it looks as though you didn’t value it in the first place. I can see that as being very hurtful.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts, they have been powerful to me.

  3. Serena Voss says:

    Sean,

    Thanks for daring to put words to your feelings and for asking some really tough questions.

  4. Little Light says:

    Sean, here are my ramblings on your post.

    I appreciate your comments and I pretty much agree with everything you said (and while I didn’t love ACU, being that it was a predominantly white school, most of my friends there were white).

    You’ve made a great point that the situation isn’t just about facts and people spend too much time measuring what they perceive to be fair or not fair (equality isn’t necessarily treating everyone the same). People also forget how relatively recent everything occured – if we’re thinking in generations rather than years, we can understand that very little time has passed since overt injustice was acceptable by the government and society.

    This situation brought up a lot of forgotten emotions I had about college as well – racism did exist at ACU in the early 90s – maybe not institutional racism, overt racism or even a predominance of racism, but it was there (the arguments about the civil war I was drawn into for instance – silly Yankee – I thought he was talking about Vietnam when he started his sentence with “things would have been different if we’d won the war”).

    (And one thing that hasn’t been mentioned in this argument is the overt racism I witnessed against Mexicans while I was there – don’t know if it has changed, but I found it pretty disturbing at the time.)

    It’s generally helpful if people make a point of befriending people of other cultures/races before jumping to conclusions on anything. That’s a first step that a lot of people haven’t really tried.

  5. Cole says:

    Sean, I think your posting is very deep and thoughful. And, though I don’t know you, I feel that I must claim the posiiton of the white friend (and brother) with whom you part ways. Let me explain. You wrote:

    >>Imagine “Fiddler” being staged in Germany shortly after WWII, while there were still some Nazi’s around …. How might they respond then about casting non Jews? I can’t be certain, but they might be offended at being excluded from the telling of part of their story and culture.>>

    Well, if I were Jewish in this context, I would be appalled if I were chosen to play the lead when I was clearly NOT the most qualified in an educational context with a history of color-blind, sex-blind, age-blind, and economic staus-blind casting. I would then feel condescended to and appeased, and that would upset me more than anything.

    As one writer pointed out in the Abilene Reporter-News, that, too, is a type of racism.

  6. Sean says:

    Cole,

    I hope you never have to find out what you’d be offended by–especially if a system exist that intrinsically has kept people like you from being the most qualified; a system where you’d had to be twice as good to get half the credit.

    There is so much more going on here than who has the most talent. There is so much our fellowship needs to do before we come close to be color-blind, sex-blind, age-blind, and economic-status blind. That is a world that doesn’t exist. And guess what, you’ve already benefitted from not being the most qualified at something. I hope you’re not too offended.

  7. Cole says:

    Hold on, Sean; you don’t know me; you don’t know what I’ve qualified for or who I’ve been compared with or how I’ve prepared for my contest or what I’ve done. Are you really ready to say that I’ve benefitted for things I’m not qualified for MERELY because I’m white? Or, have I misunderstood what you’re implying?

  8. J-Wild says:

    Barry Switzer is attributed with a quote that has helped me in thinking about my life and the opportunities I have had compared with other people. He said:

    “Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple.”

    Because of my economic status, family structure, gender, and color of my skin I have more opportunities at the start of my life than a lot of people. Certainly the majority of people as far as the world is concerned.

    I believe it is imperative for me to understand that if I have any hope of being racially, economically, or socially just. I believe I am called to that as a Christian and human being.

  9. Deb says:

    Sean, thanks for voicing some thoughts and feelings that as Christians we do not always get to hear out in the open. Nor, unfortunately, do we have much honest dialogue. ACU, for all it’s focus on wanting to send others out into the world, has not done as much as it can to help in this, except to send ‘others’ back. Oh, yeah, the ‘fact’ on that one is it sends out lots of white missionaries, I was one. But our thinking is considered too liberal so foreign countries are the best place for our kind to graduate to.

    For all the wonders of the Theatre Dept (and I love its ethos and leadership), there will be some moments in its life when it will make mistakes, albeit honest ones. Honest mistakes are many times the most painful ones to make and repair. I believe its leadership with Adam at the helm does investigate the human journeys in culture and global thinking almost as deeply as the ACU Missions Dept does, which is a good thing. They genuinely care so much for the students that come to learn and be nurtured. I am just so sorry what happened this year had to upset so many.

    That said, I remember only one instance where I felt like the African-American students were being patronised in the theatre department. It was during a rehearsal for Big River, one of the first Homecoming musicals that boasted more African-American students in some major roles than any other in the history of the ACU theatre department. Everyone was so excited, because the African-American enrolment was up for the first time in a long time, and they really wanted to make this work. A musical had been chosen ‘to embrace’ this good fortune. Some might call that stereotyping, but I digress … During a rehearsal, a couple of the black female students who could sing like nobody’s business were singing through their number, at this stage trying to fit their vocal interpretations to the characters they were portraying. They were stopped by one of the white musical directors who, in an attempt to draw out more of a black gospel sound, said: ‘That sounds great, girlfriend. But can you give it more, ummm, you know – more of that thang you all do so well?’ Well, I thought I was going to just die then and there! The black male student who was playing Big Jim and I looked at each other, ducked our heads and rolled our eyes, we could not believe it. The poor girls looked at each other, sheepishly embarrassed and a bit incredulous, like, what are they talking about? What thang is it we’re supposed to be doing? Well. What was wanted was more of the melismatic, soulful style of singing, where the singer starts at the top note on a loaded vowel and cascades down and around the musical waterfall until coming to rest on the most sublime of deep rich tones.

    I must admit, rather ashamedly, that we white folk sometimes think we know ‘how to relate’ with terms of endearment like girlfriend when actually we just make plain fools of ourselves. That comes from not having frequent friendships with brothers and sisters of colour, or others of different ethnicities. Our milk hasn’t been the only homogenised item in our lives. We regress to the ‘token’ stage of acceptance out of comfort and not a little ignorance. It’s great to have a token representation of ethnicity sprinkled within our homogenous communities because it makes us feel like we’re treating all peoples equally to some degree. ACU and the community on The Hill and in the big Abilene churches are still mainly homogenous in design. To be fair, probably not on purpose but spontaneously (yeah, right). But the administration feels better, because they are trying to draw students ‘from other cultures’ to come study’ at ACU. It beefs up the Parade of Flags on Commencement Day, and supports the Kleenex Foundation. They are so busy pointing out the bulging numbers in enrolment of the ethnic mix for recruiting purposes that they forget to do a temperature check with those diverse people they have employed to sort out the ‘new lot’ and get to know them as deeply as other students, whose parents might have senior church or corporate positions, or a swollen bank account. It does look fine for the diversity count. But the goal and/or agreements are for these students not to stick around when they’ve accomplished so much, but to return to work within their own society, where they will fit in a lot better. At the end of the day tokens are just so much loose change.

    How, when, and if the Church will ever learn to change its homogenous design and become truly integrated with diversity I do not know. I am female, white, and still single into my forties. Three of the interviews I have experienced for ministry jobs with the Church involved the church leadership and search committee members being concerned that I might just be harbouring a deep secret as a lesbian. All because I had never married or given birth. So they just knew that I would not be able to ‘relate’ to parents, because I had never been one myself; or understand married couples who needed care and love. And God forbid she’s a Women’s Libber! Different perspectives are not viewed as gifts from God. I have had white single male friends who never married who were turned down for senior-preaching positions because, surely, there must be something terrible wrong with them, or some reason they are so picky! The Church is highly uncomfortable with integrating single adults, no matter if they’re male or female. Add shades of colour and different accents into the mix, and Oh, my! What do we do??? It really gets itself into a bind, and we’re not talking about ‘Bless Be the Tie that Binds’ kinda theology.

    Goodness gracious me, everybody has to argue over the ties! Let me know when you pick the right one, Sean.

    Until then, blessings in the One who doesn’t care … He was single, had an accent, and was probably full of colour.

  10. KentF says:

    Sean,
    Very, very glad I found your blog – now firmly secured in my favorites.

    Your post brings some degree of frustration and anger out within me at the continued “worldly” view so many of our institutions continue to exhibit. Reflecting, I suppose, a fallen and woefully sinful world.

    Why must the borderline wealthy to unbelievably wealthy white males be the ones to make all the decisions regarding a “Christian” institution? While that has changed somewhat over the past 30 years, the change has been at glacier speed – not to “offend” any contributors. That is probably my primary frustration.

    In the end I hope/pray the Aida incident will be a blessing and also a reality check for all involved.

  11. Matt Elliott says:

    Thoughtful, gutsy post, Sean. Glad Mike passed along this link. It was great meeting you at Emergent back in May, by the way!

  12. Sean says:

    Cole,

    Thanks for writing. You’re right, I don’t know you. What I meant was that people–likely by nature–rarely, if ever, advance or promote based solely on objective qualifications. If that were the case, then no one would ever have a face-to-face job interview. HR departments would look at paper qualifications and hire someone. Churches bring in ministry candidates to meet the congregation, get a feel for their personality, ethos, etc…Because qualifications never tell the entire story! Plus, there is an assumption that the most qualified person is always the best choice. In the Aida case, that may be true. But living any length of time will teach us that the most qualified is not always the best choice. In addition, what “qualified” means is extremely subjective. As Deb points out, in our churches a single person is not qualified for ministry in some congregations. Now is that a legitimate qualification? To some yes, to some no. I think we need to be careful about throwing around “qualifications” because “qualified” means different things to different people.

    That’s what is at the heart of so much of this Aida thing. You might say someone is not qualified because she cannot competently sing the part. That’s fair. Someone else might say a white student is not qualified because she could not (based on race) convincingly–to some–play the part.

    My point is this: Qualifications vary from person to person and group to group and our world doesn’t spin on the axis of qualifications.

    I think if most of us realized the blessings and opportunities presented to us that we weren’t qualified for, we would be extremely humbled–not appalled!

    After all, Jesus chose 12 guys with terrible resumes for the job–but I think they did pretty good!

  13. CL says:

    Thanks for sharing you heart in this post. I enjoy reading your blog and appreciate everything written here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s