Lori is an encourager. And, she’s an introvert, like me. I love her. This woman is brilliant. She taught economics at one of the Universities in town. One year, Lori and I went together to the NAACP dinner, and Lori knew way more people that I knew. She was introducing me to everyone — walking me across the room to meet all the important people.
1. What was your experience with race when you were growing up? What did your family teach you about people who were of a different race? What did your church teach? Your friends? Your school?
I grew up near Chappell, NE, 5 ½ miles out on a small wheat farm in the NE panhandle, not far north of Colorado. My father had worked hard for several years to get a consolidated school in town so that his 4 kids wouldn’t have to attend a one-room school house. There were 23 students in my High School graduating class.
Only white people were anywhere in my world, including the few times we were in Lincoln to visit my grandparents. We had a sense that there were ‘immigrants’ and/or Native Americans working in the beet fields, but that was at least 30 miles to the west and I never saw any of them. Race was never a topic of conversation. I am more conscious of class – middle class vs. poor– as a dividing line.
Yet, I grew up hearing phrases like “poor, white trash.” For situations in which someone was struggling with a tough decision, the advisor would say, “Well, you’re free, white, and 21 so you can do what you like.” I had no idea these words were race related until in the ‘80s and later, discussing them with college students, who had never heard them.
It seems likely to me that in my childhood (in the 40’s and 50’s) men were likely telling “jokes” with racial content, but I never heard them, because back then, language that “wasn’t fit for ladies” was always carefully edited in the presence of women and children.
2. From your perspective, can you tell the story of how the congregation has changed (racially, ethnically, culturally) over the past eight years? What does an African-American pastor bring to the congregation that might be unique? What things were easy to adjust to? What things have been more difficult?
Betty Watson brought in the most novel (maybe only to me) element in having a black Pastor, when she added being the chair of the social committee to her already over-loaded life, to help us understand how to celebrate a black pastor – for his birthday, his anniversary with FBCL, Thanksgiving baskets, etc. –which had never been on our radar before, in my previous 30 years with FBCL. Every time, it is a bit of a jolt and I sort of wake up and say to myself, “Oh, we do need to celebrate that.” It has helped me recognize that my own family did very little celebrating. Birthday parties just meant having Grandma and Grandpa come out from town to join us for Sunday dinner, a few presents and you got to pick out the kind of cake you liked best. That still feels normal to me and doing more fills me with vague unease over being extravagant somehow, but I am struggling to put more small celebrations into our family’s lives.
I don’t feel the English speaking congregation has changed much – except to continue shrinking in numbers, as it has for 50 years. We have had several mixed-race couples in our fellowship for a long time.; only one of these couples is still with us. Our expectations for all recent new pastors have been the same: grow the church. In other words, attract new people. At the beginning when Pastor H arrived, we expected a big influx of black families. Some came but very few stayed. It felt puzzling and again disappointing. In my opinion it’s because this conversation we are starting is very challenging, and relatively few people of either race feel called to join in, at this point.
The only thing that has been more difficult to adjust to is the tendency to hear people call out “Amen!” “Pray it brother!” or “Yes, Lord!” Personally I’m neutral on this one – there are only a few voices and they are very quiet.
Maybe we just all needed this eight years together to get to know one another well enough that we could begin to let down our barriers and open up to one another to begin to understand each other as individuals, rather than as tokens of the “other.”
3. What is the benefit of the ICU group? What have you learned about race as a result of being part of this group? What have you learned about yourself? What has surprised you the most, with regard to what you’ve learned about yourself?
Bringing in IDI, and growing it into ICU and opening it up to the whole congregation, has been a turning point and the biggest growth factor for me, in all these eight years. One very significant outcome includes opening the conversation so we focus intentionally on our diversity, rather than just leaving it as the elephant in the room.
Dee, shortly after you arrived in our church, I started praying for you and H to each have your own personal support group, outside FBCL. And I thought all along that for you, that would mean a few black professional women, supporting each other. So I was rather startled when you announced recently that we – the original IDI group– are your support group. And my first reaction was, “Oh my, God – You really short-changed her in the network department – just giving her this motley crew!”
One thing I’ve learned is that even the symbolism of Black pastor of White congregation is very important – for role models – for revising our thinking. NPR’s Tell Me More recently gave this example. When a black medical doctor from Howard showed up, everyone was asking each other “Where’s the new fellow’?” that they were expecting that day, because they made the assumption that the brown face in the operating room was an orderly. The point is that white America starts with no expectations that a black person can be in top positions.
4. Can you tell the story of a turning point in your thoughts about race and the church? What about race and life in America?
My turning point regarding race in America came during my 22 months living in Mexico [1969- 71] (Cuernavaca for 5 months of language school, and Monterrey for teaching Principles of Economics in Spanish one semester, and doing my research on companies for my doctoral dissertation), where I first recognized that I had white privilege. I was still single and lived with five different families.
Regular conversation in Spanish in Mexico contains at least 4 words for skin tones, that are used to distinguish people, ranging from blond to black: la Rubia, la Vuera, la Morena, la Negra. They would vehemently argue that Mexicans “weren’t racists like America” in the ‘ 60’s. However, in the open air markets, venders called out one skin tone lighter than you had, to be polite and entice you to their stall. Or, waiting in line at a bank, rich people, with lighter skins could go to the front and no one else objected. People with light skin felt very proud of it, but it wasn’t talked about.
Different races worshiping together at FBCL has a long history. The original congregation 140+ years ago, started with 13 or 14 people and one was an African-American man, which has always amazed me. But the topic of race was never talked about in words, just like the topic of women in ministry or in the pulpit – was never discussed (from the ‘70’s until just before H arrived).