Listening as “Holy Ground” in a time of Black Lives Matter
By Rev. Ellen Quaadgras
Westminster Unitarian Church
October 18, 2020
Story: “Take Off Your Shoes”
One of the greatest adventures stories of all time is a dramatic biblical escape story set over 3000 years ago. It’s called the Exodus and it ends with with a whole nation of people escaping slavery through a miraculous parting of waters at a place called the red sea. [slide of moses] Here’s one painting that shows how that story ends. I’ll leave the telling of the whole of that story for another time. Although, here’s a hint, if you’ve ever been to a Jewish Seder, you’ve heard it!
Today I want to talk about how that story begins. It begins with a man, named Moses, who happens to be a shepherd, which was pretty common back then. So, there he was, living a regular life, doing his regular thing minding his own business when he comes across a bush in the desert. This bush was on fire, so it caught his attention. Actually, it’s not just on fire, it also doesn’t seem to be burning up – which is unusual, so Moses walks closer. Which is when he hears a voice, coming from the bush, speaking to him. Moses, Moses, the voice says. Do not come any closer. It is, Moses concludes, the voice of God. Take off your shoes, this voice says, for you are standing on holy ground.
After these words, this voice then gives Moses a mission – this voice which he listens to, will call him to lead his people out of slavery, which, as just noted, became one of the greatest adventure stories of all time.
But first, here, in this humble beginning, this regular shepherd is simply asked to take off his shoes and deeply listen, for he is standing on holy ground…
We now fast forward 3000 years to a time much like today, in which a son and his mom are having a conversation. While this is not a true story, it could be….
Skit: “Take Off Your Shoes” based on a skit by Louise Marcoux and Rev. Jolie Olivetti
Parent: Did you have fun at Jamal’s house?
Kid: Yeah. We went to a baseball game. We got to sit right behind the dugout. I’ve never sat there before!
Parent: Wow. That sounds really fun. What was your favorite part?
Kid: definitely the moment when Jamal almost caught a foul ball…. He was so close!
But then, after the game, we saw a cop pull someone over and Jamal’s dad said he thinks the police are racist. [pause]
[slowly] But… my friend Lee’s dad is a cop….
Kid: Yeah. And then later, when Jamal and I were hanging out, he told me this whole story about Ms Fleming. You know Ms Fleming at the candy store? He said she watches him with this suspicious look on her face the whole time he’s in there. I just find that hard to believe – she’s always so nice to me.
Kid: yeah. And then Jamal said our teacher, Mr Hanson, doesn’t call on him very much, because Jamal’s Black. But I saw him call on Jamal just last week. I remember very clearly because I had my hand up and wanted him to call on me. So, what he said… It just didn’t make sense to me.
Parent: Then, you know, I think you need to take off your shoes.
Kid: What do you mean, take off my shoes? It’s cold in here.
Parent: If you had a hard time listening to your friend telling you about his experiences, I think you need to take off your shoes. They are getting in the way of you connecting with what he is telling you.
Parent: Remember that story about Moses? When you have your shoes on, you have your everyday mind on, too. Our everyday mind is analytical. It takes in new information, then tests it against your own experiences, seeing if the two match up, and then draws conclusions. We use that kind of mind all the time when we’re learning things, going about our day or getting things done.
Kid: Yeah, I guess that’s the kind of mind I use in school.
Parent: The analytical way of seeing things is very useful. But there is more than one way of looking at things. And the analytical way of looking at things is not always the best way to hear the deeper truths in what someone may be telling you.
Kid: So what way of looking at things would work better?
Parent: Your friend shared some personal stories. You could listen more with your heart than with your mind. You could try to set aside your own experiences and just listen, and believe what he’s telling you is true from his experience.
Kid: What do you mean? Should I ignore what doesn’t make sense to me?
Parent: You could ask yourself: What might the world look like from my friends point of view? Or, I wonder why his experiences are different from mine? Or, You can simply listen, and – maybe not ignore what doesn’t make sense to you but, hold it lightly, move it to the side, like you sometimes do with stringbeans at dinner.
Kid: Hm. Okay. (Pause, considering)
So, when I listen to someone like that, it’s not about comparing his experiences with mine, but instead imagining maybe both can be true? Is that what you’re saying?
Like, maybe Ms Fleming is nice to me but also is not very nice to Jamal? And like, Mr Hanson – just because I happened to notice he called on Jamal last week, maybe it’s also true that most of the time he doesn’t pay as much attention to Jamal as to others?
Parent: Yes, exactly. It’s very possible.
Kid: Yeah. I guess could try listening that way. But do you really want me to take my shoes off? [pauses, great]
Parent: Let’s think about what shoes do. With your shoes off, you can feel things that you can’t feel with your shoes on. With your shoes off, you have to slow down, pay attention, or you’ll step on something that feels uncomfortable.
Kid: Like stepping on a Lego. That really hurts.
Parent: Yeah. You notice things that you wouldn’t notice with your shoes on. Feelings like sadness or anger or compassion. It’s important to slow down and notice the feelings that listening to someone else’s experience can bring up.
Kid: Yeah. I didn’t think about that. I was thinking about whether it made sense to me.
Parent: There’s another thing that happens with shoes off. With your shoes off, you can’t track mud or dirt into the space.
Kid: Oh boy. That reminds me of the time when I made muddy footprints on the carpet by accident.
Parent: Yup. You accidentally brought in all the mess from what you had been doing outside. And that’s true with listening, too. If we rush in with all the “dirt” from our own experiences attached to us — all the ways we see things, and the biases we’ve picked up from living in a world full of bias — all that stuff can get in the way of us seeing life through someone else’s eyes. If we really want to listen, and hear, someone else’s story, it’s important to “brush off the dirt” so it doesn’t track inside and muddy up the space, like someone I know once did. When you take off your shoes, you are making the effort to set aside your own views and biases so you can hear what really happened for them. It makes you ready to receive the gift of opening up your own world, so you can understand more. And also makes you ready to give the gift of your respectful attention, just listening, without judging. And, you might just get the gift of more trust and a better relationship with your friend.
Kid: So what you’re saying is that even though I was uncomfortable with what Jamal was saying, there can be gifts for me and for him when I listen like that?
Kid: And it might be good for our friendship too? (pauses, considering)
Kid: I guess that’s good, then. (pauses)
Can I wear socks, though? The floor is really cold in here.
“Take off your shoes” Moses was told, “for you are standing on holy ground” – It’s a phrase I heard more than once when I was in seminary, learning how to be a minister. When the topic of conversation got personal or tender, then “Take off your shoes, everyone,” our instructor would say – “this is holy ground.”
It was our cue to drop into a different kind of listening. To turn off judgment and analysis, and just be present to the speaker, to… let their words drop into our hearts, so to speak.
It was an invitation to take off your shoes so you can feel this. So you can be present with your whole body. And so you can, yes, tread carefully, maybe even gingerly, so you avoid stepping on something or in something, with this other person who is making themselves vulnerable. So that you don’t bring the mud of your own views into the picture and accidentally mess this up. Instead, just be present.
This story struck me for this time in history because it begins with this fire that catches Moses’ attention. Fire will do that.
There are a lot of fires that have been burning these days. Literal fires out on the west coast, and figurative as well as literal ones, with respect to protests over the treatment of Black people at the hands of police. Fires that are catching our attention, and inviting us in, to listen, and to hear what we may not have fully heard before.
Topics like defunding the police, why it’s being called for, and what that might actually look like.
Topics like reparations, repaying African Americans what was stolen from them, and what that might actually look like
Or just, listening to the pain and urgency of what it’s actually like to be black or indigenous or a person of color in our society right now.
Those of us who identify as white have been on one side of a racial divide for centuries. We actually can’t know what life is like for those who are targeted by it, because we haven’t had their experiences.
I used to believe that segregation ended in the 1960’s but it turns out it’s not true. You can see it right here in RI – many neighborhoods and schools, especially around East Greenwich, consist mostly of people who are white. And many neighborhoods and schools, in other parts of the state, consist largely of people of color.
So, today, for this sermon, I specifically want to address those of us who are white because we lack a certain understanding, a certain kind of lived experience. While many of us may have grown up in communities that were against racism, we didn’t see or experience it. It was not in the water we drank. Not in the air we breathed. If we are white and were raised in mostly white neighborhoods, we did not grow up knowing what racism tastes and feels like. We just can’t know.
So how do white people like me listen, how can we relate, what will it take for us as a congregation to live up to our call to be anti-racist, when so many of us grew up in a segregated world?
I think about the kind of dirt these realities have left on the shoes of many white people.
Like, we might not feel the urgency because we don’t directly feel the pain. So our focus may go elsewhere. It’s hard to keep paying attention to what’s really happening for our siblings of color.
Or we may be more susceptible to narratives that paint people of color in a negative light because we don’t know the whole story. If we aren’t connected to many people of color we don’t hear what they’re thinking and feeling, how they’re hurting, things they love, who they are, we won’t necessarily “get” where they’re coming from or how to make sense of stories on the news.
Or we might buy into narratives like, because there are police officers who are good people (and there are, I know some of them) that the cry about racism in policing must be invalid. We might miss the fact that as an institution, law enforcement has a deep history of racist practice that impacts everyone connected with it.
And…we, who are white, might struggle to see the kinds of micro-aggressions that Jamal was describing to his friend in our skit, because it’s just never happened to us, not like that.
I know that I’ve struggled to see, to hear.
I’m remembering a coffee date with a Black friend who told me about a racist interaction she had with someone we both knew. I found myself doubting her. I heard a voice in my head saying, wait, no, not so and so, they’re one of the good ones. You must have misread their intentions. What she described sounded like just an oversight to me, not racism. I found myself wanted to reassure her. Luckily, I just kept my mouth shut.
Because frankly, when I thought about it later, I bet people of color experience so-called “oversights” all the time. Not to mention they may well have white people like me “reassuring” them about racism, all the time. The fact is, I really can’t know what happened, or what else she experienced with this person or other people that adds up to a very different kind of picture, from the one I have.
My very logical reasoning would have been less than helpful. And, given we do live in different worlds, I am getting more and more clear that my logical reasoning about all kinds of situations that impact people of color, may be less than helpful. Because they’ve probably heard it before, and may not want to explain, yet again, what important piece of the picture I am missing.
In fact, Robin DeAngelo, in a talk on this subject, once suggested that if you are a white person, unless you have engaged in decades of thorough study on the topic of race…. Unless you have dedicated a good part of you life to engaging deeply with the history and the current reality, you don’t get to have an opinion. I know, that sounds a little strong. But I think there’s something to that. My opinions are based on my logic which is based on my experience which is different from those who are impacted by this. If I want to learn something new, I have to listen, and open, and learn.
So there’s this, taking off my opinions, along with my shoes. And just listening. And reading. And learning. And becoming, over time, a better ally, a better friend, a better listener, and opening up my world.
Song: “I am listening” by LEA: https://thisisleamusic.bandcamp.com/track/listening
We all have things to learn. But those of us who are white, we have particular things. Like, about the history of racism, of policing, of slavery, of reconstruction, which was a period right after slavery ended. We have things to learn about the Jim Crow era when it was legal to openly treat people of color worse than white people, and we, most of us, have a lot to learn about how the prison system and law enforcement now work an awful lot like those old laws did, to keep people down, black people in particular.
And I think we are called, though, not just to learn the facts, but to take off our shoes and listen with our whole bodies, imagining what it might have been like, what it is like, growing in empathy, and allowing that to move us, into action.
Because in order to be an effective ally, in order to live into our own anti-racism resolution, we are called, I believe, to do more than learn.
We are called to take action by voting our values, by speaking out when we see something racist happening at work or in our communities, we are called to ally with organizations of color and work with them to make real change. We are called to get to know and support and listen to POC as individuals.
And, white people are called to listen to each other.
If you’re anything like me, you may feel challenged by some of the calls for deep change. I’ve had my own initial reactions. Defund the police, what? Who will keep me safe? Reparations? What? What will that mean? It has been very help helpful to me to have someone to help me talk through my anxieties and contradictory beliefs, to talk through the places I feel challenged or confused or uncertain by what I am learning and hearing.
Not a person of color who has had to explain this too many times already, but I know it’s so helpful to me to have someone just listen, without agreeing or disagreeing or giving their opinion. Just the sharing, helps me get more clarity. It’s like an opportunity to drain my overfull cup, so I can finally see what’s at the bottom. It helps me get to the root of something I may not have been able to see before.
And just as each of us needs to be listened to, I think listening to other white people who seem to be missing something important about how racism works…. I think listening to other white people is a powerful way to participate in the call to be anti-racist. To share the message. I know. It seems contradictory. Shouldn’t we be talking? Explaining? Helping people understand? Well yes, that too. When people can hear it. But sometimes listening is actually, ultimately, just as effective, maybe more so.
Especially when someone has a set of beliefs that are so different from yours, or go so counter to your values, that you just don’t know where to begin. And especially when you remember that sometimes, the more you try to convince someone of something, the more firmly they hold on to the beliefs they already have.
A few weeks ago I shared a story about Hugo Chavez the president of Venezuela whose country was at the brink of civil war and needed help. Before Chavez was able to hear, he needed to talk. A lot. And be listened to. He needed to talk and be listened to by someone with a sympathetic ear. He needed to be listened to for a while before he was finally ready to take in new information, and imagine something outside of his own convictions, fears and concerns. Before he was able to think more clearly and hopefully and consider the needs of other people.
Because when anyone’s cup is full – of fear or confusion, of anger or resentment… even of satisfaction or comfort…. when someone’s cup is full of certainty and opinions and beliefs, they’re not open to hearing us anyway.
But sometimes, if we listen to them, we open up a space – a space where they can hear themselves, maybe even sort through something in themselves as they do. And, we have a chance to learn something about where they are coming from, that might help us understand them, why they believe as they do, maybe even find some common ground.
There’s a quote in the packet for this month that goes something like this: When you find yourself in disagreement, just ask one question: “Will you tell me your story? I’d love to know how you came to this point of view.”
When we open up that kind of space we are doing something different. We’re less likely to raise someone’s defenses. We’re more likely to actually connect with the other person. And create conditions for the kind of fresh thinking I talked about a few weeks ago. For both of you.
And sometimes, after you listen, the other person may be more open to hearing your perspective, and you may be able to state it in a way that makes more sense to them.
The times we are living in are polarizing and difficult. There are leaders trying to widen whatever divides already existed between white people and People of color, and they are also trying to widen divides among white people. They are trying to widen divides among everyone.
Racism – thrives on separation and disconnection. Thrives on disrespect wherever it appears. I believe it grows from a place where people felt disrespected and then pass that on. Racism can only survive in places where someone has lost their sense of connection with what’s true and real about other human beings. Where someone has lost their sense of love for others. Because, I believe, in part because they themselves felt unloved. We can help begin to heal that divide. Simply by listening.
David Augsburger wrote that “Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person they are almost indistinguishable.”
May we, who are white, take of our shoes when we listen to people of color, listen with our bodies hearts and minds.
May we also take of our shoes when we listen to other white people, offering respect, and care, and a chance for them to sort through and maybe take in new ideas and information, just like we are trying to do ourselves.
May we listen to each other, because ultimately, it is love, not logic, that will heal us all.