My Experience in Sacred Ground – Paul Carling

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As a relatively new parishioner at St. Paul’s, I was eager to find ways to spend some in-depth time with small groups of parishioners, and Sacred Ground proved to be the perfect choice!  We started by sharing our own stories and how they intersected with the experience of people of color in our country, and I was blown away by the diversity of backgrounds in the group – rural, urban, Episcopal, evangelical, from monoracial and interracial families, and more.  “What a tremendous resource we are to each other,” was my first thought.  I shared that I had grown up in a low-income housing project in Manhattan at a time when the “projects” were segregated, and ours was designated for Puerto Rican families only.  My Dad, however, firmly believed, like the famous New Yorker cartoon, that “New York” was synonymous with “Manhattan,” and refused to be placed in the “white projects” in Brooklyn or Queens.  So my second language became Spanish, my friends and girlfriends were all Puerto Rican, and I developed a deep love of that culture.  I was active in the Civil Rights movement, and thought I knew a lot.

Then came Sacred Ground and I realized how little I actually knew. Through studying in detail the actual history of people of color in America, rather than either the distortions or in most cases the omissions in most of our childhood history classes, proved to be an incredibly powerful experience for all of us, raising our consciousness, and as Audre Lord, professor and activist reminds us, “Once your consciousness is raised, you can never go back again.”  We literally have begun to see the world in very different ways, and although there is real discomfort in learning the “actual” history of our country, we’ve come to realize that we have all learned profound stereotypes and misperceptions about people who are different from ourselves, stereotypes that affect our behavior, that we react to without thinking.  I remember a story of the beloved Archbishop Desmond Tutu, for example, sitting in an airplane and noticing that the pilot was Black, and feeling all these stereotypes arise about this pilot perhaps not being as experienced or competent as white pilots.  He was ashamed, but sharing this experience in one of his books was a great act of courage and a great gift to the rest of us.  None of us are exempt from racism.  We need places where we can share these experiences without shame, where we can learn new ways of being with the fullness of the Body of Christ. It’s amazing how comfortable we have become talking honestly and openly across differences. 

That’s why I’ve found myself approaching February, Black History month, very differently this year, wondering, “What do we even mean when we say “Black History?”  Whose history? How many Black historians and scholars have written the ‘American History’ that students study today?  Why is so much of that actual history – the parts not in the history books – so completely unfamiliar to so many people like myself at St. Paul’s?  How can we celebrater Black History in a way that breaks open the real history of a people enslaved, disadvantaged in every way after slavery supposedly ended, but in fact just took a different form continued to today, and a people who triumphed and achieved over unbelievable odds?  As a parishioner who loves this community, I look forward to seeing how we will convert our new understanding into action for justice, and how Black History Month will become a more and more vibrant celebration, year after year!

Paul Carling and his wife Cherise Rowan are new parishioners at St. Paul’s

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