Facing Down Racism

Some years ago I engaged in a radical act of NIMBYism. An act that I am proud of and would happily repeat.

A group of people had moved into our neighbourhood in the South Riverdale area of Toronto and a number of us didn’t want them in our community. We wanted to say in no uncertain terms that these people were not welcome. We told them to get out of town. We said that the likes of these people were not welcome in our backyard!

So we got the churches of the area together and pretty much every other social group who would join us and we marched in front of their house and told them to move. They came out and shook their fists at us and we shouted back at them.

The group to whom we expressed such righteous inhospitality was the Klu Klux Klan.

That’s right, the Klu Klux Klan moved into South Riverdale in the early 80’s. Allied with other white supremacist groups like the Western Guard they were making a stand for the Aryan race and against the immigration of all people of colour into our country. And we were having nothing of it.

Yep, I was feeling pretty good about what we had done. The church had gathered people of like mind, in the context of a principled pluralism that would embrace folks of various political and ideological persuasion, who could all agree that racism had no place in our society.

We were taking a stand against racism.

After marching by the Klan house we then assembled in a nearby park where we had a stage set up for music and speeches. One after another people from these different groups would stand up and attack the Klan, connecting the struggle against white supremacy to a host of other struggles.

“If you are against the Klan, then you must stand against Apartheid in South Africa and support economic sanctions against that racist regime.” Yes, that was certainly true.

“If you are against the Klan, then you must stand for the rights of gays and lesbians and oppose all homophobia.” Well, yes I could see that connection as well.

“If you are against the Klan, then join us in the labour movement protecting the rights of workers.” Okay, I can see that connection as well.

“If you are against the Klan, then the liberation of women must also be at the heart of your social agenda.” Well, yea, oppression is oppression whether based on race or on gender.

“If you are against the Klan, then you must embrace the pro-choice movement.” Hmm … not totally sure of that, but heck this is a pluralist coalition against the Klan and I’m prepared to support the right of those coalition partners in making their point.

And on and on went the speeches, as they do at this sort of protest rally.

But I was getting  a little uncomfortable. Not so much with opinions being expressed that I wasn’t always totally sure of, but more because all the people who had spoken were white folks.

I mean, if this is a ‘ban the Klan’ rally, then don’t you think that we should be hearing some more from the black community?

And then the only black speaker was introduced. I don’t remember her name or the exact name of the church that she came from, but it was something like “Sister Bernadette from the Assemblies of God of the End Times Church of Prophecy” that was just up the street.

That was the black church that I would walk by on a Sunday evening.
That was the church were the gospel music was just rocking out the doors and windows.
That was the church were I wanted to go in but never did because I figured that I was just too white to join in their worship.

And that was the church that I thought would probably have such a wacky theology that once I got past the cool music I wouldn’t be able to abide the preaching anyway.
And as Sister Bernadette was invited to the podium to say a few words, my heart sank.
“Oh no,” I thought, “this is going to be bad.”

This woman was going to get up there and preach the gospel.

And it is going to be embarrassing.|
It is not going to be very intelligent.
It is going to be some fundamentalist rant with an altar call.

And here is what Sister Bernadette said. I can remember every word:

When Jesus came to Caesarea Philippi he asked his disciples,
“Who do men say I am?”
And they replied, “Some say that you are a prophet, others say that you are Elijah.”
“And who do you say I am,” Jesus asked.
“You are the Christ, the Son of God,” Peter replied.
And Jesus said, “The Holy Spirit has revealed this to you, Peter,
and you are the rock on which I build my church,
and the gates of Hell will not prevail against the church of Jesus Christ!”

Then Sister Bernadette looked out on the crowd in that park and proclaimed,

“I’m here to tell you that the Klu Klux Klan are the gates of Hell,
and they will not prevail against the Church of Jesus Christ!”

Sister Bernadette walked off the stage to loud applause and cheers from everyone present.
And I was confronted by a racism that was more pernicious than any threat that the Klan posed to our community.

I was confronted by my own racism.
And my sexism.
And my educational classism.

I was embarrassed because I thought that this woman, this uneducated black woman,
was going to preach the gospel.

And that was exactly what she did.
And doing so she made me see that I was the racist, I was the sexist, I was the elitist.

My self-righteous NIMBYism was uncovered as the sham that it was.

I was telling these racists to get out of my backyard,
while the guy who inhabited the house was himself a racist.

Sister Bernadette preached the gospel, and it was pretty much an altar call.

It was a call to repentance.
It was a call to conversion.
It was a call to confess sin and turn to righteousness.
It was a call to me.

I would do it again.
I would march to ban the Klan.

And I hope that I could do so with more integrity now than I could then.

But there might be another Sister Bernadette waiting in the wings to call me to repentance anew, to call me to face my racism, my sexism, my sense of academic superiority.

I faced down racism that day.
The face was in the mirror.

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian, a retired CRC campus minister, the founder of the Wine Before Breakfast community, and farms with Sylvia Keesmaat at Russet House Farm.He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is cowritten with Sylvia Keesmaat and entitled Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice.

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