The Church Search and Other Ramblings of a MAWL (Middle-Aged White Lady) in the City

The Sitch

As many know, we’ve moved to Baltimore City–to the Midtown/Belvedere neighborhood, to be precise (which is hard to be, because we are also plotted as living in the Mount Vernon neighborhood; I thought City neighborhoods had hard lines but I guess not).

Our move downtown was brought on by a number of factors, but I’ll cite just a few. Eric and I both work downtown and were increasingly more involved in downtown activities and issues than in the County. In addition, it seemed an ordained move, in the sense that we both felt pressed to explore this, despite the City’s typical bad press, some of which is of course true and much of which is not.

For years, Eric and I both drove downtown every day to work. Our vista was 83 South and then either Johns Hopkins Hospital (Eric) or the Downtown area (Kathleen). The view wasn’t green, the potholes were more plentiful, and the problems more in-your-face. Despite this, working in the City pulled us to the City.

Craving Difference

We craved something different. There are reasons we can identify for this and some we cannot. One was about seeing difference, learning from difference, and then wanting more of it. While the part of the County we lived in was increasing in racial diversity, it’s just that–increasing, but not what I would call “racially diverse.” We wanted diverse, in more ways than one, but racial diversity was missing from our lives and something we felt we needed more of. It’s no secret–we are white, straight, 50-somethings.

It may need to be said that my revelation that genetically, I was half not-white (if that’s a thing) didn’t change my whiteness. I wanted it to, but it didn’t. By that I mean that I, and society (as far I knew), always identified me as white. DNA be damned, my daughters certainly tell me how white I am on a consistent basis.

Further, having had some real awakening moments hearing preaching by and studying Scripture with people of color, I realized I was seeing less than a full picture. It wasn’t a bad picture (truth: It’s not bad to be white) but it wasn’t a full picture (truth: white is not all there is, and when you live as if is, you are myopic–your vision doesn’t provide the full span of what is real, what is possible, and what is beautiful).

In addition, since college, issues relating to sexual minorities resonated with me. My only act of subversion–if you could even call it that–was to “die” (literally fall down like I was on a movie set) on the steps of Boucke Building at Penn State in protest because gay and lesbian students were being denied funding for club status. I’m sure other sexual minorities were a part of this too–at that time, in the mid 1980s, I didn’t know they existed. You were either gay or lesbian, as far I as knew.  A picture of the “Die-In” ended up in the Daily Collegian, Penn State’s student newspaper. Let’s just say my swim coach was not pleased.

This interest in caring for people who are sexual minorities, especially those who are also part of other historically oppressed groups, has remained with me and found an outlet in association with Baltimore City’s HopeSprings. But for a long time, between college and mid-life, it remained dormant.

The City Call

In addition, after reading about what happens to cities and why, I became bothered by the trend of young, affluent people leaving Baltimore City for the surrounding counties (before you direct a pissed-off tweet at me, know this: I recognize that if you did this, you still did better than I. I never lived in any real city until age 51). This trend harms large cities and, I’d argue, the people who leave as well, a complicated but fascinating topic for a different blog.

In a nutshell, we wanted to be older people who didn’t move to Florida but moved to Baltimore City. So we did.

We searched neighborhoods. In the end, we felt called to one neighborhood in particular and kept coming back to see condos in the same building, where we now live. So we moved in. And we loved it.

And it was white. (And, cue, my daughters’ chuckles).

I didn’t notice this until we were moved in. The streets around our condo seemed so diverse. Hooray! But inside of the building was less so. The myopic part of my white self thought if you move to Baltimore City, you get instant diversity. That’s not completely true.

It is diverse in other ways–certainly we are on the older side for our particular condo and neighborhood. It is also highly diverse in sexual orientation. But racial diversity? At least in our building, not so much.

But these two straight, white people soldier on, myopia be damned.

We decided after some months  that it was appropriate that we worship in the City as well. This was a very hard decision, and frankly I was hoping God wasn’t calling me to leave my beloved suburban church after 18 years and the people who brought me back to faith, showed me what service really is, and taught me Scripture for the first time in my life. This is the place where almost all of my friends were–especially two women who, though younger than me, were and are my spiritual mentors–along with an amazing little boy with whom I spent years going to Mass, who fomented my faith more than anyone outside of God. I love him so and miss him and it makes me cry sometimes. But the tug to worship downtown followed us.

So we made that very, very difficult decision. And we started checking out
City churches.

The Church Search

And they were white.

At every church we tried (and they were not all Catholic), I walked in and said, “Why is it so white here?” Some of them were really trying not to be so white. But as Martin Luther King Jr. said decades ago, Sunday at eleven a.m. is the most segregated hour of the week. I’m here to tell you this: at least in my little world, one I’m trying to expand, imperfect though my efforts are, this is still true.

I sought out more diverse church settings. I sought out churches pastored by people of color. The churches that were “perfect” from my standpoint in terms of racial diversity were not a full-on theological fit for me, though they are a part of the Body of Christ that is vital. I’m not a Catholic that thinks unless you are Catholic you aren’t doing it right.

There are, of course, largely non-white Catholic Churches that I hoped would be a fit. But they were not in my neighborhood, a neighborhood we’d felt called to, and there is something in me that thought twice about the possibility that I was looking to insinuate myself into a church of color. What was that about? Was that good or bad? I still don’t know. (Cue my daughters: “That’s because you are white.”)

In the end, we settled on a church that is a theological fit and is more diverse in a variety of areas than I’ve experienced before. But it is not perfect. The search for the perfect church is probably the biggest waste of Christian time outside of the current favorite, yelling at other Christians on Twitter.

“That’s Some Crazy White People Shit Right There”

And yet, even with a modicum of more diversity in my neighborhood and church than before, I am no finished work in the area of learning about and from differences. Here’s a story that will show you how incomplete I am.

At my recent employer, where I headed up human capital efforts, we planned a Black History Month celebration. The first thing I did was turn all decisions over to a small working group of African-American employees, led by a member of my staff who was a woman of color, now the leader of that department (if you listen closely, you can almost hear my inner self cheering, “Yay, Kathleen, you are a beacon of great leadership!”) This fine group worked hard. They came up with a fabulous program that included testimony, learning, celebration and song. They decided upon showing three movies to get us to a place of discussion–Hidden Figures, The Loving Story (the documentary), and 13th. We eased in with Hidden Figures and yes, boldly, this group decided to end with 13th in hopes of rich discussion.

I learned a lot in this process. First and foremost, I learned that people of color constantly worry and agonize over these kinds of events, mostly about how white people will react. Even in a brief celebration of them, their biggest fear seemed to be, what would white people think? That saddened me greatly.

I also learned another lesson, one that came to me through correction. All was going smoothly, I was really proud of this group, and I was looking forward to our session that would include food and fellowship. The group came up with the menu, and they brought in most of the food, but the entree was going to be purchased. They requested we get Hip Hop Fried Chicken.

Cue the MAWL.

My first reaction was, I thought, about propriety and racial sensitivity. But now I realize, after correction, it was about me.

I stammered in response, and I don’t remember the exact words, but the gist of it was this: “I don’t want to be the white lady who ordered fried chicken for Black History Month.” The group member in charge told me she understood why I might feel that way,  but that this was what they wanted.

And then I asked, “Could we just get chicken wings?”

Blank stares met me.

“Yes,” the group leader in charge of food said to me, “If that’s what you want.”

I thought this was a good compromise. In my white world, chicken wings were suddenly elevated higher than just their tasty, crispy perfection–they were the food of racial harmony! Everyone eats them! With buffalo sauce or grilled or fried. With bleu cheese or ranch. It seemed the perfect compromise! Yay, Kathleen, you woke white lady!

But I didn’t forget the look of bewilderment the group leader gave me as she politely agreed and left my office.

Later, I recounted this story to a friend of color. She looked me in the eye and said, “That’s some crazy white people shit right there.”

And she was right. The group in charge, to which I handed over authority, which had made impeccable decisions the whole way through, had their authority sucked back by this white lady who was afraid to be thought of as racially insensitive (by white people, because, of course, most of the people of color would have already been aware of–and agreed to–the menu).

There was more discussion between this friend and me, related more specifically to my missteps, but what has stuck with me was her first admonition–this was crazy white people shit derailing appropriate agency over a Black History Month celebration.

Ouch. That hurt. But in a good way.

The Take Away

There is none.

That’s not completely true. There is a take away for me. Maybe there is a take away for you too–maybe something written here speaks to you, or lovingly corrects you, or emboldens you to do more. But that’s all supposition on my part.

I can’t fully articulate a well-reasoned take away for the ages, but then, perhaps that is not my damn job. My take way, for me, is that I should continue to try to broaden my lens through which I see and live in the world. I need to be ready for correction when I do it wrongly or insensitively. That correction should be given in love, not on Twitter, but still, correction is needed.

And yes, sometimes love looks like, “That’s some crazy white people shit right there.”

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