Tag Archives: violence

Race and Justice: What’s the Answer?

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I don’t know the answer. Why are we here again—another man dead needlessly, more violence and pain in the aftermath?

I lived through the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and ‘60s, which were supposed to lead to our growing out of these problems. But that hasn’t happened.

Sixty years later, our country is still being convulsed by incidents related to the racial divide. Will we ever overcome this?

I remember one of my first up-close lessons in overt racism. I was 15, in a train station in West Texas one day, when I went to get a drink of water at the public fountain. Just as I bent over the fountain, I noticed a sign above it that said “Colored.” Across the room there was an identical fountain with a sign that said, “White.” What? We were supposed to drink from different fountains because our skin was a different shade? That was silly and irrational. I ignored the sign in front of me and drank.

Just one small incident? Yes–but at 15 it pushed me in the right direction. I may have been lucky that one of the local cowboys did not see me. Some of them took that racial divide very seriously. But I did not care. I had been taught differently.

Part of my family’s roots are deep in the old South. My mother’s mother was born in Louisiana in 1894 on what had been a slave plantation just 30 years earlier. Grandma and Grandpa freely used what we now politely call the “N word.” It was wrong, of course. Any kind of pejorative labeling of people is always wrong, and this word is especially ugly and damaging. It was something they had learned growing up in their time. But we can make a mistake when we judge people of the past by the standards of 2020. That kind of ugliness was not in their hearts.

My widowed mother and I lived with Grandma and Grandpa when I was a little boy because Mom had to work outside the home and she and my grandparents also ran a business together. When I was five, we were all in a car accident, and my mother and grandmother almost didn’t survive. Their recovery was difficult. A year or so later, Grandpa hired Rosa, an African American woman, to help Grandma around the house. I can remember complaining to Grandma once about Rosa, who had tattled on me to my mother. Grandma sat me down and gave me to understand in no uncertain terms that Rosa had my best interests at heart and I jolly well better treat her with the same respect I gave to any adult woman around me. Rosa, she told me, was a child of God just like me, and Rosa was precious to Him. Grandma had learned important truths about God’s love from an African American woman who helped rear her back on that old plantation in Louisiana. From that woman, Grandma gained a faith that her own mother was not able to share, and it sustained my grandmother for many years as she grew up. Later, Grandma shared it with me. I owe some of my early lessons in faith to a kind and generous black woman I never knew.

My grandfather, as a plumbing contractor, hired white, black, or Latino men, and if they gave him a good day’s work for their pay, he kept hiring them. He valued them for their contribution, not their skin color. I never heard him judge others by skin color. He spoke of them as human beings with problems and needs similar to his own.

By their behavior, my mother’s parents taught me more about the value of people, regardless of skin color, than any schoolteacher.

Once, Grandma and I had a talk about the Civil War and the end of slavery. The anger she felt about that conflict had to do with the way the people in the South were treated after the Civil War. Hypocritical northern conquerors, she said, were equally guilty of racism.

Current incidents indicate that racial problems are not confined to one section of the country.

Half a lifetime ago, I had the opportunity to travel throughout the South with a performing group of young Native Americans, Polynesians, and Latinos. Toward the end of their show, which featured music and dance from their own cultures, there was a moment in which a narrator made this point: We are not actually black or white, but we are all the multi-colored hues of Mother Earth. We are all children of the same God. And then the show closed with a song well-known to children in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: “I Am a Child of God.” That song never failed to move some in the audience to tears.

Twenty-five years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Ghana on a work assignment. The people I met there were so friendly and kind that I forgot there was any difference in our skin color. They were simply my brothers and sisters in the faith. I saw African American families from the United States vacationing in Ghana much as I might visit the land of my ancestors in Europe. Though they undoubtedly enjoyed the culture in Ghana, those families didn’t seem more at home in Africa than I. One man I saw in the hotel restaurant kept calling back home to Detroit to check on how his business was doing. It struck me that even though my ancestors came from England and his from Africa, we were both natives of the same North American country.

It is a country in which we still need to learn to live together in peace.

In my lifetime, I have had a couple of friends who were policemen. They were fine men, dedicated to keeping peace in our community, and they were paid far too little for putting their lives on the line to do it. Unfortunately, there are police officers who are not like them. I can’t imagine either of those men ever kneeling on someone’s neck while he pleads, “I can’t breathe.” We need to find ways to weed out people who would do that, and any who do it need to answer for their crimes.

African Americans have every right to protest the ongoing depredation against people of color. I believe the rest of us need to be careful not to rush to judgment when protests go bad. Peaceful protestors may not be responsible for the incitement, and the violence might not be entirely race-related. News footage of rioting in my city seemed to show a lot of white faces—perhaps more than people of color. It would be interesting to know who those people were and what was their stake in confrontations with the police.

Yesterday I read a clear, compelling article by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar about what African Americans are feeling when they are driven to protest. As an individual, I wish I knew how to contribute to the resolution of racial conflict. I fear that because I enjoy “white privilege”—a term with which I am not comfortable, even though I recognize its truth—my contributions might not be welcome. But I am willing to try.

White people who automatically feel uncomfortable when they see people of color around them need to get over it, especially if they call themselves Christians and hope to get into heaven. In my faith we are taught that Christ “inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; . . . and all are alike unto God” (Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi 26:33).

Any of us who might get into heaven are likely to find that many of our neighbors there grew up on earth as people of color—African Americans, Polynesians, Hispanics, Asians. If we cannot greet them as brother and sisters, “alike unto God,” then we won’t be comfortable in heaven.

 

 

 

Where Is safety? Where Is Peace?

Just when I think fear is making me exaggerate the dangers of this place, something happens to change my mind.

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Walking in the embassy district.

Two weeks ago, two friends of ours, another missionary couple, were working in their offices across the city when they heard a series of explosions outside. Fireworks, they thought. It happens all the time. But when they were ready to leave, they learned that three women had been shot down in the street just outside the gates of the church building where their offices are located. Gang violence, the police said. Somehow gang violence seems to involve women a lot more in Guatemala than it usually does where we live in the United States.

I haven’t written in my blog for a while. I think I have been avoiding it, because every time I tried to think of something to write about, this came to mind. I didn’t want to write about it. I try to keep things uplifting in my posts. But maybe there is a lesson to be learned in confronting my feelings.

There is no denying that Guatemala is a dangerous place. Statistics, we have been told, show that Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala are the most dangerous countries in the world for violent crime. Killings are frequent, cruel, and malicious, often blatantly sending a message to someone. Drug gangs seem to have no fear of the police. Robbery is a fact of life in many areas, and robbers don’t hesitate to hurt or kill victims who resist. And the traffic here still amazes me and raises my blood pressure every day because of its dangers. I shudder when I see father, mother, and one or two children on a motorcycle weaving through traffic. I fear driving at night, hoping not to run onto someone—literally—on a motorcycle without headlights.

It takes conscious effort not to let fear rule your actions here.

Sometimes it helps to step back and change my point of view. I am a news junkie, because news was my career, and so I check the headlines from home every day. In tonight’s headlines there are stories about two men charged with murdering another over a drug debt, another armed robbery at a credit union, a woman killed while trying to run through freeway traffic, a family seeking justice because of a loved one killed in a hit-and-run accident, four women forced into prostitution. It’s not that we are completely safe at home in the United States either. Our neighborhood has changed over the 29 years we have had a home there, and now we sometimes hear of gang crime nibbling around the edges of it.

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Apartment buildings in our neighborhood.

It helps also to be grateful for what we have here. Last spring the local municipality staged a concert in the street in front of our apartment building. The government wanted to demonstrate that there was indeed a zone in the city where it could safely be done. Sister S. and I go walking every morning in the embassy district a couple of blocks east of here. It is a gated community with guards at the entrance and in front of many of the houses. People come from all over the surrounding areas to walk, jog, or ride. (One biker comes with his companion/guard pacing him on a motorcycle.)

We have the opportunity to enjoy many wonderful things here. Last night we saw a performance of The Nutcracker in the beautiful, comfortable, and architecturally intriguing national theater. Hundreds of people came to watch a skilled ballet corps and enjoy Tchaikovsky’s music. I haven’t seen a better job anywhere else—and the tickets cost us about $2.75 apiece. It was a very enjoyable experience, one that could not be had for that price at home. We have seen so many beautiful places in Guatemala. The drive from Quetzaltenango, up in the mountains, down to Retalhuleu, on the coastal plain, reminds me of the road to Hana on Maui.

Today I was discussing my feelings about the dangers here with someone I respect who reminded me that we cannot live as prisoners; we must simply trust in the Lord and be careful. He is right.

Sister S. and I never go to work the same way twice. We try not to look wealthy or conspicuous. (That isn’t easy when we are obviously North American and a high percentage of the men are about the same height as her.) We keep alert to what is going on around us. We never follow closely in traffic, and if we have to brake suddenly, we hope the driver behind has also been paying attention so we won’t get rear-ended—again.

We’ve found prayer essential to this aspect of daily life. We pray for protection every day before going out. We know it helps—we have seen it—and we are grateful. We are grateful enough that we are also getting good at thankful prayers when we come home safely once again.