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Home / Time to face those harder questions

Time to face those harder questions

Donna Kempt is a General Councillor member at the International Centre of the Focolare Movement in Italy. As an African American she shares her perspective on racism.

[New City Magazine – June 2021 pages 4-6]

‘Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced,’
said James A. Baldwin.

I didn’t know George Floyd, but I know the neighbourhood in Houston where he grew up, not so distant from my own. The high school he attended was one of my school’s biggest rivals.

Of course, like most African Americans, I realize that what happened to George Floyd could happen to my brother, to my nephew, and that Breonna Taylor’s experience could easily be my own!

When asked to write this article, I struggled to understand what I could bring to the conversation. I’m not a historian or sociologist, nor do I have an educational degree that would presume a certain ‘expertise’ in anything related to the topic (although I have read an abundance of relevant literature over the years).

The key to unity

I’ve been a member of the Focolare Movement since the early 1980s, attracted by its emphasis on a radical life of the Gospel. I felt that I had finally found a way to coalesce all the divergent pieces of my spiritual and human life as a Christian. I was especially attracted to the call to unity, and Chiara Lubich’s unique perspective on the crucified Christ (the focus on Jesus’ experience of abandonment by God as his greatest suffering).

These two fundamental aspects resounded in me: unity as a deeply rooted desire, based upon my personal and shared cultural experience of division; and Jesus forsaken, in whose experience of ‘abandonment and suffering’ I could find both an explanation to and a resolution of my own and that of all peoples! I was fascinated by the link Chiara made between the two, explaining that it is through embracing Jesus in our suffering, and – in that embrace – finding the strength to go beyond the suffering, that true unity can be achieved.

Ultimately, I decided that to write anything worth reading, it would have to be based precisely on my ‘expertise’ as an African American person, who has completely committed her life to the Focolare’s ideal of unity, reached through suffering. I will try to contextualize my contribution through this lens.

Post September 11 fears

After having lived more than a decade in Canada, I arrived at the Focolare house in New York City a mere three months after the attack on the World Trade Center on 11th September 2001. The first place I was taken to was Ground Zero to see the ruined remains. I was immediately struck by two impressions: the almost sacred silence that enveloped us, and the heat that still emanated from the depths of the hollowed-out ground.

My Focolare friends shared with me their deep sorrow and the varied emotions that had consumed them that day and, to some degree, still did. I understood over the days, weeks and months that followed, that I had to be careful, to ‘walk on tiptoe’ as I helped navigate their pain and at times their fear of further attacks.

Yet how could I describe or even comprehend myself the feeling of almost ‘otherness’ that I had experienced in Canada that September morning (as if those attacks had happened in some remote elsewhere)?

In time, reflecting on it, I understood that perhaps it was a subconscious effect, rooted in my experience as a native-born citizen in a country that makes people like me feel as though we are extraneous to it.

The Patriot Act

I remember my dismay with the increase in profiling of so-called ‘foreign-looking’ people, and with the enactment of the Patriot Act, which broadened the powers of law enforcement agencies, to break and enter or search without consent. I still remember sitting around the dinner table one evening, searching for words to explain my inability to support what seemed to others, at least in that moment, to be justifiable actions.

The risk that these same measures would be used beyond their intended purpose was very obvious to me. But it was not possible to reach a mutual understanding at that moment. We were all afraid, but also separated by the different reasons for our fear.

In choosing to embrace my feeling of abandonment (i.e. being misunderstood), like Jesus, I was able to go beyond how I felt, in order to listen and embrace the pain and fear of my housemates.

Facing up to the wounds of racism

After George Floyd’s death and the subsequent protests, I received numerous messages and emails from Focolare friends with whom I have shared big and small moments of my spiritual journey over the years. Each felt called to express their solidarity or dismay of those events, and a few seemed disheartened by what might appear to also be a setback in the Movement’s efforts towards unity.

For more than 20 years the Focolare has been engaged in a fruitful dialogue with African American Muslims, and we have been successful in being able to share, in an open and constructive way, aspects of Christianity and Islam.

One of my first experiences of this dialogue after arriving in New York was both striking and thought-provoking. I had been asked to MC the programme, and since it was my first time attending such a gathering, I thought it would be appropriate that I introduce myself. As an African American, it seemed logical to me to give expression to that which I had in common with the Muslims: my lived experience of race and how my faith helped me to navigate it.

However, I was quickly made to understand that this was not necessary, ‘because our dialogue is well beyond that.’ Perhaps those who told me this had their reasons.

Yet I couldn’t help but wonder whether we had really been able to get so quickly ‘beyond’ a wound as ugly and uncomfortable as racism.

As a Christian, I know how much I have been nourished through this dialogue over the years, for it has been a true journey of mutual respect and understanding. But I still wonder if we have truly faced the depth of these wounds. Now, precisely because of the strength of the relationships we have built together, perhaps we might be better able to ask those much harder questions.

Difficult conversations

In my over 30 years of life in Focolare communities, I have lived with women from numerous countries – Canada, Argentina, Hong Kong, Brazil, Korea, Portugal, Kenya, Germany, Italy, Columbia, to name a few. Each time I have found myself both enriched by our diversity and reinforced in my experience of what we share.

Often, in conversations with these housemates, we’ve had the gift of sharing about the hard parts of our histories, sometimes even when our two countries were hostile toward each other. There was a mutual desire to learn from and to understand one another’s perspective.

I must confess that I’ve found it more complicated to enter into the wounds of our history with housemates from the United States. I was at times left with the impression that my desire or willingness to talk about the negative aspects of our history somehow diminished all the positive. Yet for me loving this country has always meant embracing all of its history, especially the conflicts within our narratives of slavery and freedom, equality and discrimination.

Subtle racism and unconscious bias

These days talk of systematic racism abounds, and perhaps more people are beginning to understand what it means, and to some degree, the oppression it entails. I look with hope at the protests and the ‘awakening’ of many people. I appreciate the gradual but real actions that some governing bodies are considering as small steps in the right direction.

It’s never going to be easy to confront the nation’s long, deeply rooted and entangled history with race. As we move into these conversations, it would be good to listen to Robin DiAngelo’s warnings in her book White Fragility about not getting stuck in a good/bad binary. Within this vision, ‘racism’ is limited to a conscious, intentional action that is carried out by ‘bad’ people.

This distracts us from the real work to be done to recognize the reality of subtle racism and implicit biases, and to sincerely discern what needs to change in me. As author of the book, How to be Anti-Racist, Ibram X. Kendi recently noted, ‘The heartbeat of racism is denial, and the sound of that heartbeat is “I’m not racist”!’

I think that the concluding words of the Focolare Movement’s Statement on Racial Justice in the U.S. expressed very clear the work that remains: ‘The journey ahead may be arduous. Some of our conversations may be difficult and at times even feel divisive. But we feel this is precisely where the depths of our love call us to travel – into these deep wounds – so that they can be exposed to the healing light and presence of God’s love in us and among us.’

First published by Living City, USA

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By |2021-05-26T09:32:57+00:00May 26th, 2021|NC Articles|0 Comments

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