(Written January 2016.)
I just got home from a rousing three hour service at Miller Chapel AME Church. It was my first time attending an MLK Day service. It’s a holiday that has always felt to me like President’s Day or Labor Day–another Monday off from school in honor of an important figure from the past. Nothing more.
This morning, I sat and soaked in the choirs, the preaching, the “Amens”, the organ, tambourine, drums, and rising room temperature as I watched a people celebrate the legacy of a man who represents still unrealized hopes and dreams.
I watched as the keynote speaker Dr. Pamela Scott-Johnson recounted her experiences as a member of the first de-segregated classes in 1966. I laughed as she told of her mother’s personal strength and dignity. She remembered the family pulling up to a restaurant and being met in the parking lot by a waitress who said, “We don’t serve colored people here.” Her mother replied, “Good! Because we are here for fried chicken.”
Over and over again, Scott-Johnson drove home the importance of the Newberry black community writing their own narrative. She said, “Either you write your story, or someone else will write it for you.” She encouraged her audience to chart their own course, to rehearse their story, to tell it out.
I wasn’t there to be heralded as the white savior of Newberry. I wasn’t there out of pity. I wasn’t there to be patted on the back or to prove how righteous I was compared to the rest of the white community who treat MLK Day like any other day of the week. I wasn’t there to analyze or critique.
I went to listen.
This is my brief exhortation to other white brothers and sisters. We need to spend time listening to the stories of our local black communities. I have lived in Newberry for three and a half years, and I am ashamed to say this morning was the first time I’d ever been fully immersed in Newberry’s large, thriving black community. In my mind, I know that desegregation happened in the 1960s, but it becomes real when I hear stories of black people my parent’s age who actually lived through it.
May we be willing to sit and listen. Sit quietly and experience. Close our mouths and let the black community speak. A good neighbor is one that lends others his ear. May we not merely listen with skepticism, ready to respond or critique. “There is a time to keep silence, and a time to speak” (Ecc. 3:7), and now–more than ever–is a time for us to keep silence and listen.