Our hearts and minds are brooding over the tragic slayings last week in Charleston, N.C., what Cornell William Brooks (STH’87, Hon.’15), president of the NAACP, who spoke from Marsh Chapel’s pulpit one month ago, has aptly called “racist terrorism.” We wonder just how to say something that is both honest and hopeful.
We may need such a word after such a week, in which the tides of hurt are swamping our little boat and we fear drowning.
For these nine dear Methodist souls in Charleston, praying in church, died because of a persistent, pervasive racism that covers this land like a flood tide. They died because of a sea of guns, available to anyone, well or ill, well-intended or ill-intended, at any time, without any consequence, financial consequence, to the seller, the procurer, those who profit. These nine died because of an ongoing ignorance about the pervasive, continuing impacts of chattel slavery 150 years ago, impacts measurable in economic, social, educational, and civic life. These nine died because of a fiercely advocated and heavily funded broad agenda to privilege states rights over human rights, gun ownership over human survival, and individual freedom over the common good.
But a gospel reading from earlier this month—Mark’s recounting of Jesus calming the storm—brings us both honesty and hope. The hope is harder to hear and to live. The hope requires of us ears and minds to discipline ourselves, to prepare ourselves with a spiritual discipline against resentment, to train ourselves for the long-distance run, to hope against hope, for hope that is seen is not hope. We hope for what we do not see.
You can lend your voice to that of the man who stilled the water, to that of the man who calmed the sea. You can make a difference.
You can continue to pray, to vote, and to act.
By pray, I do mean daily meditation, including the shouting, actual or metaphorical, of lament in the face of horrific evil. But I also mean the intentional gathering, come Sunday, with others who seek a measure of meaning, belonging, and empowerment. You need the pew fellowship, the breathing community of different others. If, week by week, you only regularly see family, coworkers, or those who share your own interests, you will not meet with difference, which you need in order to grow, and which this great land, full of latent goodness, needs in practice and for practice. But in the pew, you have every prospect of meeting with others who are not relatives, not employees or employers, and not inclined to your own particular enjoyments.
So often, our communal orbits of relationship are with people who are like ourselves. This is like desiring to recite Shakespeare without knowing the alphabet, or diving into calculus without mastering the multiplication tables, or running a marathon without first jogging two miles.
By vote, I do mean election-day ballots. But I also mean the direct engagement with elected officials and others over time that makes a difference. Susan, one of my most beloved and vivacious friends here in Boston, died suddenly of cancer four years ago. One day, we were walking together on the Esplanade. We were talking about gun violence. In the middle of the talk, she pulled out her cell phone and dialed her congressman. She said, in her usual spirited voice, “They know me there. I have them on speed dial.” She poured out the contents of our conversation to some staff person. That may not be your style, or mine, but it was hers, and she voted every day with her time, her energy, and her money. We need to be speaking and listening, in person, by voice, to and with one another, to a degree well and far beyond what we are doing now.
By act, I do mean doing something within your sphere of influence. Several gathered here on Marsh Plaza for a vigil last Friday. A pastor gathered a multifaith service in Medford. You may have decided to attend an AME church one Sunday this summer, to be present, to be in communion. Good. Tell them Dean Hill sent you.
There is a danger of freezing in the face of seemingly intractable difficulties, in the face of seemingly endless, unsolvable contentions. There are 300 hundred million guns across the land. The top 20 percent, economically, of Americans send 84 percent of their children to college. The bottom 20 percent send 8 percent. The average asset value of the majority household in this country is about $110,000 (car, house, savings). The average asset value of the minority household is about $9,000. The number and percentage of young men of color imprisoned, at all levels, are themselves a crime. The agenda of individual rights, like gun possession, and states rights, like denial of health care, has seized control of statehouse after statehouse across the middle of the country. These and other facts of the present can freeze us, if we are not careful.
But life is full of change, even surprising change. In her late 80s, my grandmother had a sign up on her kitchen door. It read, “Do one thing. There. You have done one thing.” I have a voice, and I will use my voice. You do, too. Use it.
The Rev. Robert Allan Hill, dean of Marsh Chapel, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This commentary is adapted from his June 21 sermon at Marsh.
“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at email@example.com. BU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University.