A Conversation about Race

Today’s scripture readings:
Exodus 19:2-8a
Psalm 100
Romans 5:1-8
Matthew 9:35 – 10

Today’s service was an online broadcast as worship in our sanctuary has been suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As this Gospel lesson begins, Jesus is confronted with crowds of people who Matthew describes as “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Jesus realizes the need is too great for any one person alone, even him, and he commissions his disciples to take up his mission. He tells them their job is to do what he has been doing: Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. He tells them the work will be uncomfortable and controversial, and that some people will welcome them and others will want to chase them out of town. But he says the most important thing is just to get started, and to keep going, not to be distracted be detractors or held up by those who would stand in their way. He even promises them that God will give them the words when they don’t know what to say.

Today Jesus is enlisting us to join him in his mission. We are being called to cleanse our society of racism, and cast out the demons of white supremacy. What Jesus says to his disciples back then remains true for us today: the work will be uncomfortable, and we won’t always be warmly received. But Jesus says, don’t get distracted, don’t get knocked off course. Get started, and then, just keep going. Trust that God will give you what you need.

We’ve been in this place too many times before, grieving the needless killing of another black man. This time has got to be different. So I’m trying something different today. I’m feeling nervous and uncomfortable, but maybe that means I’m on the right track.

I asked Marissa Hagan to join me for this. Marissa wrote to the pastors earlier this week to share some of her story and I thought all of us needed to hear from her today. Marissa and her husband Nick and baby Nora joined Gloria Dei in 2018, and I think especially fondly of Marissa and Nora because I baptized both of them on my own baptism anniversary—April 8, 2018. We’re baptism buddies.

Thanks, Marissa, for being part of this today. Tell us a little bit about you and your family.

Hi, I’m Marissa Hagan. Some of you guys know me. I was born in Saint Paul in the late 80s. I grew up in a household with my white mother, my black father, and my brother. Me and my brother are both obviously biracial, but his skin color is a lot darker than mine is. When I was eight and my brother was 10 years old we moved to the suburbs from the city.

So when was the first time you and your brother remember realizing that your skin color was different and that that made a difference somehow?

Well for me it was immediately upon our arrival to the suburbs. Me and my brother started to notice that everybody had the same skin color there and we didn’t, and they pointed out our differences right away. The kids teased me about my curly hair and my freckles, but they teased my brother about his skin color, choosing one particularly hurtful word to describe him. I think we all know what that word is. Although for my brother, that wasn’t the first time he had heard that word. When he was five years old a white child called him by that name. But for me it was the first time I’d ever heard that word. And although neither of us really knew what it meant, we could feel the hate coming off of it. So we went home and asked our parents and they explained racism to us for the first time.

How did that continue to play out for your and your brother as you got older?

Well I think because my skin is lighter, I was able to, over time, just be another kid. I stopped being the new kid, I stopped getting teased. I was able to be embraced by this white community. I started to get invites to birthday parties and sleepovers. Little notes would fall out of my locker, but although my brother did get notes that fell out of his locker, they said things like, “Go home.” “We don’t want you here.” “Go back where you came from.” “You’re an n-word.” All these type of sinister notes. So I guess the real thing is that I was able to become a part of the community. Although my brother’s intelligence is far superior to mine, he was never embraced as anything but a black kid.

So what has been the ongoing impact of all of that on you and on your brother?

I mean I think that the way that our adult lives turned out is a pretty clear representation of how different our journey has been. As I stated, I had these empowering moments of graduating from high school with honors and going off to college, and even though my brother was smart, he ended up dropping out of high school. He had multiple encounters with law enforcement and he is currently seeking help for mental health issues like PTSD, depression, and anxiety because of the traumas he suffered through his lifetime.

So often I think that white people want to believe that what’s really behind all the racial disparities that we hear about is like, “Well, black kids grow up in broken homes,” or, “They grow up in poverty,” or, “They didn’t go to good schools.” But what I’m hearing from your story is that you grew up in the same household as your brother. You and your brother had the same parents, went to the same schools, had the same social circles, and despite all of that, just because you turned out lighter and he turned out darker, you’ve had these vastly different life experiences. Which to me just highlights that racism is real. This is blatant racism at work in your lives.

So this gospel lesson that we read today has Jesus calling his disciples to go out and be part of his mission to cast out demons and bring about healing. How do you think we can all be part of cleansing our society of white supremacy and healing our communities today?

Well that’s a big question. I wish I had an answer that could solve all of the racism in the world but I don’t.

I think that right now we find ourselves just asking all the wrong questions, which is preventing us from finding the answers to the right question, which is, “What is the problem here?” If I’m not a racist, I don’t know anyone who’s racist, then how is racism still so prevalent in our world? And I think asking ourselves the question, we recognize there’s a problem here, we need to ask, “What is that problem?”

I think that the only way to create real change is for everyone to stand together in this mission. I think that it’s going to be much more difficult to get to the place of togetherness that we need to be at as long as we stand divided by a lack of understanding one another. I think it’s important with what’s going on in our state right now that we ask ourselves, “Why would the Minneapolis community want to defund their police department?” And I think that the answer is pretty simple. They want what we all want. They want a better education for their children. They want more mental health and social service programs. They want to stop funding the institution that not only fails to serve and protect them but perpetually traumatizes their community.

I saw the video that we all saw of George Floyd’s last moments with us on this earth, and as I watched him take his last breath at the hands of one man while the people with the power to save him stood silently and did nothing, I was reminded that all that evil needs to triumph is for good people to stand and do nothing. And I think we’re at a point now where the evils of racism are on our doorstep and we need every good person to stand up and do something, to say, “No more.”

I think that some of the ways that we can help is, first, understand what is going on. Ask ourselves, “What is the problem?” Find out what’s happening in Minneapolis and find ways to help them support their efforts towards a solution.

I think we need to put signs in our yards that’s say, “Justice for George Floyd.” Because we need to remind our neighbors that, in our communities, we will not let this message be silenced, and that the most important thing is for us to show our black communities that we stand by them as they fight for justice and equality. That we stand with them in that fight and show a sense of togetherness that they are not alone. There are good people who are willing to step up and say, “No more.”

That’s really powerful. And I heard you talk about seeking understanding, and I hope that part of what we’ve accomplished here today is at least helping a little bit achieve some sort of understanding by having heard your story and a little bit about your brother’s story, to understand one another better. I know our racial justice committee has invited the whole congregation to read a book together this summer called “Dialogues on: Race,” which, especially in a time of the pandemic and social distancing, maybe reading together is a way that we can seek understanding. I’ll post information here in the chat window about that so people can learn more about it.

Marissa, thank you so much for being part of this today.

I’m grateful that I was able to have this opportunity to speak out and be heard and hopefully effect some change in a positive way in our world. Thank you for that.

Of course. Why don’t we close with a prayer. Let us pray.

Save us, O God, from ourselves;
from racism often cloaked in pious words;
from the machinations of white supremacyhidden in calls for civility;
from microaggressions thinly veiled in arrogance;
from apologies when they don’t give way to action;
from forgiveness without facing the truth;
from reconciliation without reparation.
Grateful for the long arc that bends toward justice, we pray:
Grant us wisdom.
Give us courage for the facing of these days;
by the power of the Spirit,
all for the sake of the kingdom that we share in Christ Jesus.

Adapted from the “Prayer for Racial Justice” found in Prayers, Litanies, and Laments for the Commemoration of the Emanuel Nine, copyright © 2020 Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

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