“What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
I’ve always felt comfort taking in this verse from Micah. It is firm yet pliant. Prescriptive yet open to interpretation.
My name is Christian Simpson, and my family has been at Emmanuel for a few years now. As an Episcopalian since birth, this parish was an obvious choice when we purchased a home within walking distance, and our daughter Quinn started attending preschool here. She would be joined the following year by our son Atticus. We gravitated to the number of families with young children like moths to a flame, and have grown increasingly comfortable with the spiritual and educational home Emmanuel has provided for us.
It’s probably best you get to know me because I want to be candid and blunt in an intentional way, so that encountering me might spark a thought, or perhaps even action. Who am I? I am a father, husband, immigrant, African, African-American, graduate of St. Stephen’s, Bucknell University, William & Mary Law School, lawyer, business owner, former basketball player in college and in Europe, lover of Alexandria, and lover of the United States of America. Most importantly for our purposes in this moment, however, is that I’m black and I’m a Christian.
Let’s get the hard things out of the way first. They are facts, and I see them as beyond debate (unless you’re black like me of course!):
- You will never know what it’s like to be black in America: The myriad calculations that I make on a daily basis to judge and adapt to potential reactions to my skin color are so normal to me that I don’t even think about it. Unfortunately, while navigating a pandemic in your family bubble, multiple murders of unarmed black people in the span of a few months tends to put things in stark relief of your relative societal worth.
- America has prospered greatly from racism as an organizing principle: As a business owner I know the monetary value of free labor. On a purely economic basis, I wish I had it. Of course, it’s illegal and immoral, so you get the problem there. But the mentality is powerful also. Think about the woman in Central Park breaking the rules with her dog and knowing that she could use her skin color as a weapon against the black man who confronted her. That mentality of being better than is a nice thing to have in your back pocket, whether you use it or not. I’ve never had it in America, and never will.
- Attempts to move our country closer to its espoused ideals have always been met with resistance: Think about ending slavery and women’s suffrage as ready examples of trying to treat all people equally, and the fierce resistance those movements engendered.
The fact that you will never know what it feels like to be black is a challenge, not an excuse. I don’t want folks wallowing in guilt for accepting unearned benefits of not being black. It would be even worse for people to say, “if I can’t ever know, we’re done here!” That would be useless. No, my preference is that you first do the work to listen without being defensive. Trust me, this is real work.
Have you ever gotten into a disagreement with someone close to you? Have you noticed that the disagreement isn’t resolved when someone “wins?” As Ben Franklin noted, “a man convinced against his will, is of the same opinion still.” Arguments resolve once both parties feel heard and then choose a path forward together. Why is this important? It’s important because when I argue, I stop leading with love. The local pastor at Alfred Street Baptist Church was quoted saying “people look to me to be this God voice in the midst of all this, and sometimes it’s hard for me to find the voice of God when I’m just stuck in black man anger and fear.” I recognized his emotions immediately. It’s paralyzing and scary to be in that space. When do I remember to lead with love? When I corral my own emotions, and listen with everything I have to understand where the other person is. This is NEVER easy, but it is the ONLY thing that actually works.
I love Alexandria, but felt the sting of its racism within the police force when I was in high school. Leaving a party in Old Town with one of my best friends from St. Stephen’s, we were waiting on the sidewalk figuring out what to do next. Surprisingly, two black friends of mine that I had played AAU basketball with for years were walking by. We greeted each other and started talking. Within a few minutes the police showed up. They ignored the strong likelihood of underage drinking at the well to do home. Instead, they focused on me and my basketball friends, quickly putting us up against the squad car and frisking us. My white friend was shocked, and said “he’s with me,” as though validation from a white person would save me from the indignity I was about to experience. I knew better. I asked an officer why he singled us out, and he said we “fit the description” of a call that had just come in. At some point in our lives, almost every young black male has fit the description and been harassed and humiliated by the police. I am no different, and this would not be the only incident.
Why did you join this family at Emmanuel? What has kept you here? I can tell you the precise day we became fully invested in this community. It was the day Father Chuck shared his journey as a gay man. Until then, I saw a sea of white faces who were welcoming on the surface but who knew what attitudes might lurk underneath for my bi-racial family? The people of color in the pews are few and far between, and I longed for the church I grew up in just 10 minutes’ drive away. I know that rector’s strong views on racial justice, had served as Sr. Warden there, and gone from boy to man under that diverse congregation’s supportive watch. Chuck’s very personal testimony changed all that in 20 minutes. Marissa and I were almost giddy when we returned home that Sunday. Any community willing to welcome him for who he was, would be willing to welcome us for who we were.
I believe the reason race is such an intractable problem in our society is because privilege is hard to give up. I know this firsthand. In Liberia, my family name is synonymous with the elite circles of power in the country. My grandfather was Vice President and an Ambassador to the US and UK. My father was the youngest Supreme Court Justice in history and later ran the ruling True Whig party, which meant he decided who was going to be President. Later in life, my dad took an informal role advising then President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson. Privilege provides access and opportunity, things that are of great value and real currency everywhere in the world. That means for the people of privilege in our community, what is the benefit of giving up the privileges they enjoy? In my view, that is where our shared Christian faith can be of value.
Can we concede that this experiment with race as an organizing principle has failed? I hope so. The murder of George Floyd was so callous, and so clearly an affront to who we think we are as human beings, that there was nary a dissenting voice when it came to whether it was right or wrong. In this polarized climate, that is nothing short of miraculous. Nobody argued that what the police officers did was justified. Nobody. The moral imperative to right this wrong has been universal, sparking protests nationwide, but also throughout the world. I believe the universal condemnation is testament to the limits of race as an organizing principle for America, and is also an opportunity that people of faith have been presented with.
I have always believed emotionally and intellectually that the organizing principle of Christianity is love, and love is universal. We are all fearful right now, uncertain of where we are and what might come next. Fear is a powerful driver, basic to our instincts for survival. It also clouds our vision, and keeps us from leading with love. As Christians, we are called to love one another as Christ loved us. That’s hard to do when we are angry, fearful, and unwilling to let go of our privilege. However, if change is what we really and truly want to do in our country, we MUST organize ourselves as Christ taught us, around love. Those with privilege must resolve to do the work of listening without being defensive, so that they might hear and see their fellow human beings as children of God. Love is transcendent. Love is known. Love is available. But we must do the work.
- Christian Simpson, June 2020
The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog