All my stories are white

Written by Sharon Hersh
Published on August 07, 2020

Occasionally, I have the privilege of speaking for the National Center for Youth Issues, an organization providing in-service training on values education for public-school teachers. I was invited to speak at a middle school in a suburb of Nashville, Tennessee. I did not research my audience, and so I was a bit shaken when I walked into a room of all African-American teachers. I sensed a red light flashing on the dashboard of my heart, but I ignored it and welcomed everyone cheerfully, “I’m so grateful we get to spend this day together.”

“The whole day?” One younger teacher, with a baseball cap on backward, groaned. The principle glared at him, and the man looked at the floor. I plowed ahead into my standard presentation. I started with some statistics about middle schoolers, told a story of one of my thirteen-year-old clients, and played a song about teenage angst.

One brave teacher raised her hand and asked me if I knew the rap version of the song. I quickly answered, “No” and kept talking. The warning light was starting to make me literally shake as I saw I was losing my audience, but I didn’t know what to do. Shame stalked at the corner of the room, threatening to shrink, silence, and shape me.

Thank God, his Spirit is more powerful than shame. 

The Author who wrote, “The Holy Spirit, God’s gift, does not want you to be afraid of people, but to be wise and strong, and to love them and enjoy being with them” (2 Timothy 1:7, tlb), was writing dialogue into my story, inviting some new characters into its cast. 

After about fifteen minutes of bumbling into my presentation, I stopped. I turned off the PowerPoint presentation, closed my notebook, and acknowledged, “I don’t know what I’m doing here. You probably figured that out. All of my stories are white. My music is white. I don’t know much about your world at all. I do know you are in the trenches. You are these kids’ parents, grandparents, counselors, doctors, coaches, chauffeurs, nutritionists, and teachers. Maybe we can learn something from each other if we just talk.”

The room let out a collective sigh as these unsung heroes started to tell me their stories of feeling left behind in the era of  “no school left behind.” We brainstormed about resiliency and ideas for talking about values in a world where groceries, health care, and overwhelmed parents are priorities. At the end of the day, I thanked the group for teaching me about their world and asked if anyone had anything they wanted to add to the conversation. The man who groaned at the beginning of the day raised his hand. His name is John, and he teaches math and home economics as well as coaching football. I will never forget his request: “Will you pray for us?” I looked at the principal for permission, and she nodded her head.

Before I could pray, another man asked if he could pray too. I fumbled through a prayer, knowing I was on the sacred ground of communal stories of suffering and persevering. My limited experience with diverse communities and my prejudice (oh, how I wince as I write that!) did not prepare me for his prayer. He explained after he prayed that he was reading a book on prayer by Walter Brueggemann and had found a prayer (probably while I was babbling on) that he thought applied to our day. I can still hear his gravelly voice, tinged by a Southern accent:

When the world spins crazy,

spins wild and out of control

spins toward rage and hate and violence . . .

And when we meet you hiddenly,

we find the spin not so unnerving,

because from you the world again has a chance

for life and sense and wholeness.

We pray midst the spinning, not yet unnerved,

but waiting and watching and listening,

for you are the truth that contains all our spin. Amen.

I email back and forth with the principal and both of these teachers, who are still at the school. Their suffering-and-still-hanging-in-there examples are transformative in my days of suffering and looking for hope. David Brooks’s words capture who these new characters have been in my story: “[Their suffering has] a way of exposing the deepest parts of ourselves and reminding us that we’re not the people we thought we were. People in the valley have been broken open. They have been reminded that they are not just the part of themselves that they put on display.”

I know I have so much to learn about racial tension and unity.

Most of my experiences and stories (and songs) are still white, but I am so grateful for those who are willing to put up with me and share their own stories. I am motivated to stretch the tent of my story by the words of Jim Wallis, editor-in-chief of Sojourners: “Confronting the barriers of race, class, culture, and gender was perhaps the major social drama of the New Testament church. Overcoming these divisions was seen as a primary test of spiritual authenticity.”

 

Spiritual authenticity—and the characters who introduce us to it—is a gift of transforming grace.

 

Taken from Belonging: Finding the Way Back to One Another by Sharon Hersh. Copyright © 2020. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries.  

 

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Sharon Hersh

Sharon Hersh is a licensed professional counselor, an adjunct professor in graduate counseling programs, a sought-after speaker, and the author of several books, including the acclaimed The Last Addiction: Why Self Help Is Not Enough, the popular Bravehearts: Unlocking the Courage to Love With Abandon, and the award-winning Mothering Without Guilt. Sharon lives in Lone Tree, Colorado and is finding freedom and adventure in the empty nest years. Sharon’s latest book, Belonging, releases from NavPress in August 2020.

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