Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #166. First published in the St. Cloud Times online Apr. 29, 2021; in print May 2

Inflection point. Watershed. Crossroad. Metaphors proliferate as we try to speak accurately about what the conviction of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd means.

Everybody – around the world – recognized a seismic shift. Where does it register on the social, cultural, political, religious Richter scale?

The answer was stated succinctly, eloquently, and pointedly by Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who oversaw the prosecution. “I would not call today’s verdict ‘justice,’” he said, “because justice implies true restoration. But it is accountability, which is the first step towards justice. And now the cause of justice is in your hands. And when I say your hands, I mean the hands of the people of the United States.”

Yes, there is work for police chiefs and review boards and city councils and attorneys general and state and federal legislators to do, but it is up to all of us to call them – and each other – to account. If we don’t, we’ll be confirming those Black writers who say that after so long, even with this striking verdict, they remain skeptical that anything much will change.

Ellison celebrated those who just happened to be walking by the corner of Chicago and 38th: “A bouquet of humanity, old, young, men and women, black and white.” What did they do? “They stopped and they raised their voices because they knew that what they were seeing was wrong.”

Death – of George Floyd and of all the others whose names we must say and keep saying – has waked me up. In recent months I have been startled and embarrassed as I’ve learned that scholars and journalists have been writing for decades about systemic racism in America and I didn’t pay attention. I knew racism wasn’t just a matter of my individual attitudes – though I still figured I could say “I’m not a racist” with a straight face.

But the extent to which I, as white, and a male into the bargain, am a beneficiary of four centuries of public and private affirmative action on behalf of people like me – it just didn’t register. I could see things were “wrong.” I was oblivious to how deep the wrong is embedded in the world I inhabit and how thoroughly I am enmeshed in a web of racial distortion.

I am grateful to be waking up here, in the greater St. Cloud area. I’ve cited this aphorism often – it never grows old: “Big enough to make a difference, small enough to make it work.”  The phrase was coined seven years ago by Pastor James Alberts II, a community leader we would be fortunate to have at any time, and especially now.

He was among those who provided the initial inspiration for the Community Leaders Committed to Creating Place Equity ad that appeared with 70 signatures in the St. Cloud Times the third weekend in April, following the death of Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center.

“Another African American male has lost his life.” Fact. “Many of us are in pain, many of us are conflicted, many of us are angry, many of us are tired.” Facts.

And what emerges from these facts? “Together we remain committed to securing a deeper understanding of the problem and creating solutions that lift us all.” To lift up, you first have to go deep – “despite the discomfort it might cause. We have done much, but we know it is not enough.”

The ad names two commitments.

First, for each of us to create safe spaces in our home, our workplace, our place of worship, for brave conversations to push against the ugliness of racism and build stronger relationships with those who join us. If the conversations are going to be brave, which they must if they’re to go beyond “Minnesota Nice,” the spaces have to be safe.

Second, a comprehensive list of place-based equity and anti-racist interventions in this area will be drawn up and communicated. I suspect that the amount of “sustained work of meaningful change [that] is occurring right now in our area” will come as a surprise to you, but that’s not a resting place. The next step is “to find the gaps in the current and/or planned offerings and strategize solutions to fill those gaps.” And the opening: “We will welcome feedback.”

I especially appreciate the conclusion, because it both encourages and supports my staying awake: “This is our community! We have all the talent and expertise needed to bring about and sustain substantive change for our children and families. … We are dedicated to the success of all in OUR COMMUNITY and we commit to the work of making it happen.”

“I say your hands.” Attorney General Ellison was speaking to us. There’s evidence we’re listening. It’s a start. “The work of making it happen” – that’s the test.