NOTE: I use "racial" identification only as is needed to deepen the discussion. All the names are pseudonyms. Some details have been modified or left out to protect people. None of the participants were patients or residents in any facility.
This past week, I facilitated a current events discussion with a diverse group of men and women who were age 70 and older. Of course, one of the items of discussion was Michael Brown and the events of Ferguson, MO. The discussion caused me to reflect differently on this week's Torah portion. In the moment, I translated the beginning of Deuteronomy 16.20 as "Justice, justice you shall follow".
As people expressed their feelings, thoughts, and absolute confusion, August, a white male, started getting physically tense, then burst into tears. I looked to Rachel, his wife and sitting on his right, and Richard, a Black male friend sitting on his left. I understood from their nods and their pats on his pack that he just needed a few moment. So, I said to the group, "Let's just hold August with our thoughts; let him know he's safe and can share with us if he wants." Rachel asked if I would sing something. I chose a niggun (wordless melody) and those who new it joined me.
As we finished, August caught my eye and nodded. In the silence, August softly said, "I am so sorry. So very, sorry." He looked up at Richard and around the room at the gathering of people he knew and many people he did not know. He did not hurry as he spoke or as he took in his surroundings. He shared pieces of his story growing up in the south, some of what he had been taught about Black people "anybody who wasn't White and Christian - Protestant!" He admitted that he "didn't have much regard for women until I met my wife. She made it clear that if I wanted to be with her, I was going to have to change my ways."
"Thank G!D he did!"
We all chuckled, then August continued. "For a long-time, I held onto those beliefs. Sometimes, they still creep in, if I'm not careful. If I don't stop and say 'wait a minute! What's really going on here? What am I missing?" He closed by saying that seeing the police in Ferguson brought him back to the worst of times; the things he had done or watched and hadn't stop. "I'm a different man. That's why I feel so much shame." He couldn't believe that it was still happening; couldn't face that it wouldn't change before he died. "Are we ever going to learn?"
After a few moments, a Black woman rose and said. "August, no White man or woman has ever apologized to me for anything." She went on to speak of the stress of living with racism, the familiarity that White people assume with her, including assuming that she is "stupid, ignorant or both!"
And, so it went around the room, one person at time, moved to share their story about grappling with the way others perceive them, the ways in which they do not know how to fit in, and the helplessness, anger and fear that can accompany such situations. Age, gender, race, culture, sexual orientation, "not knowing what it means to be White," faith - it was all there.. Though we ran over our time, no one left until everyone who wanted to had a chance to speak. When, that time came and there was no time left to do anything more than wrap-up. I spoke about Shofetim and how the Hebrew word "tirdof," most often translated as "pursue" can also mean "follow"; that maybe in this much more complex world it is a better translation because it speaks to individual as well as collective justice and collective as well as individual responsibility.
"What we did here today, by listening to one another without judgement or recrimination, was to poke some big holes in some of what divides us so that we can better see one another as another human being with a story to tell, a lesson to teach, a heart that's been wounded, an apology to give or receive. I offer the possibility that in seeing each other beyond our assumptions, we heal ourselves as well as each other. We see much more how we are alike even as we maintain our beautiful rainbow of differences." Knowing they expected one more song, I sang "Wonderful World" and was so happy that they joined me.
Follow justice - not just pursue it. By following justice, you may discover that some solutions lay in hearts of people willing to share their stories AND hear the stories of others. Healing may be seen by some as a poor substitute for justice. However, when justice is not even a speck of light at the end of a long, curvy tunnel, healing may be the balm that makes waiting possible.
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