I've lived in white suburbia most of my life, and over the years I've had only a handful of friends who aren't white. I'd like that to change.
A few years ago I sang with a group that typically offers week-long festivals of classical choral music. This year they were offering a gospel week. I felt drawn to it but wondered how good it could be, because the other times I'd attended, almost everyone was white. I thought it would be artificial to have a primarily white chorus singing gospel music. But the conductor had a good reputation, and I decided to try it.
As it turned out, about a third of the group was African-American. The festival had gotten the word out, and experienced gospels singers had come.
The music seemed simple, but we festival veterans quickly saw that there was more to gospel than singing. Swaying and clapping were as fundamental to the spirit and message as the words and music. Many of us needed remedial training. Clapping on the off beat was no small trick. A woman stood up front for us to watch and follow. Sometimes our patient, determined director actually knelt in front of us and picked up and moved our feet. It was easy to feel like an utter klutz. But it was a lot of fun. And the spirit made me feel really alive.
One day I saw a woman on the lawn reading a book. I'd noticed her at rehearsal. She had a particularly spirited rhythm and a nice smile. I wondered if she could help me. Shyly, I asked her if she'd give me some tips. Her warm smile spurred me on, and I stood in front of her and strutted my stuff.
"Well, how do I look?"
"You look cool!" she said.
I still don't know whether that was truthful or compassionate. But it made my day. Perhaps my week.
But something bigger than learning to sway was happening as the week progressed. My eyes were opening to a whole segment of society I'd missed. I knew that racism, prejudice, discrimination, were wrong. We're all God's children, right? But all of a sudden my training to be "color blind" didn't cut it anymore. It was time to appreciate, to celebrate the color, not ignore it. All of a sudden my world was bigger, more beautiful - and more colorful.
I had a lot to learn. Why did I always sit with white people in the festival's dining hall? And why, one lunchtime when some friends and I put our things down to reserve a table, did the African-American woman, who'd also put her things there, leave when she came back and found us there? So many times I replayed that scene in my head. How hard would it have been to say, "Why don't you stay and join us?" Instead, she left, and found a friendlier table, I'm sure. Closer to home, why did I always find an empty seat next to a white person on the subway? Without even realizing it, I was living my own brand of "separate but equal."
When I got back home I read a few books by African-Americans, trying to understand more about their heritage. Then I started a new job that happened to put me working closely with an African-American woman. She was wonderful - honest, yet compassionate with my naivete and ignorance. We went to her daughter's grade-school concert. The children of every color singing together moved me deeply. It was a pro-mise for the world.
For some time I'd believed that God's creation includes infinite variety. I now wondered if this had anything to do with skin color. I believe that what God creates aren't physical bodies but spiritual identities with distinct individualities, because God is infinite Spirit. But just as physical things can represent spiritual ideas, does the vast variety of skin color hint at something about God's amazing creation? Just as we see divine beauty in so many things - from mountains to a smile - perhaps skin color also represents the infinite diversity of God's creation.
Recently I discovered that some of the statements Mary Baker Eddy, the Founder of Christian Science, made about color may shed important light on this whole question. For example, she wrote, "Beauty is a thing of life, which dwells forever in the eternal Mind and reflects the charms of His goodness in expression, form, outline, and color" ("Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures," pg. 247).
I'm still searching for what it all means. Meanwhile, I'm trying to get rid of anything in my life that separates and divides God's creation.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society