Yesterday after I completed another run on the treadmill in an empty gym, my Apple Watch buzzed with a special notification – the Unity Award in their fitness app. For closing my move ring on my watch for seven days in a row, I was given the Unity Award in recognition of Black History Month. Needless to say, the Unity Award in the Apple Watch is really nothing for anyone to brag about. It has very little to do with Black History and nothing to do with reflecting on the stories of the Black saints who have shaped our lives as a church and as individuals.
That said, it was one more small reminder that we pause in February to bring into focus the stories of Black Americans who have shaped our society for the good down through the years. We have community events that celebrate the achievements of young Black children and youth, and we hear a few chosen stories about the Black people who have made significant contributions to society down through the years. It is a month in which we are invited to reflect on how the history of Black Americans is the history of all Americans. It is a moment in which we, as Christians, are invited to celebrate the lives of the saints of the church who have left an indelible mark on how we walk in our own faith journeys with Christ. It is a month of re-membering the body with a special intention to highlight members of the Body of Christ who also were Black.
As I have thought about Black History Month over the last few days, though, I have been pondering the nature of history and how it is going to be different for each of us because we all have different relationships with people. We have people in our lives that we remember with fondness because of the way that they loved us into being the person we are in the present. We have relationships with people that have and continue to inform the ways that we walk the walk of discipleship. And, of course, they are not simply the big names that we will hear throughout this month. While the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr. and James Baldwin and Thurgood Marshall had deep influence on American society as a whole, I am more interested in the stories of the people we knew and loved as neighbors – as people living in the same community, walking the same streets, and doing their best to find a way through the morass of life.
My own story would begin with a woman named Ida. I have known Ida since I was a child growing up in the Mississippi Delta – a place that was so segregated that a three year old child could not help but notice the differences between the side of town he lived on and the side of town that Ida lived on. It begins with Ida working as our housekeeper, which simply reinforced the negative roles ascribed to Black folk in the Mississippi Delta. It began in that place – a place that fulfills stereotypes and lends itself to caricature. Thankfully, it does not end there.
Instead, it is a story of a woman that I grew to love as a member of my own family. It is the story of the person who was sitting in the kitchen when I came running inside filled with joy because I had just ridden my bicycle without training wheels without any help from someone else. It is the story of sitting in the back seat of her station wagon as she drove me to tennis lessons, baseball practices, and to the library. It is the story of a woman who helped to shape me into the person that I am today, and it is the story of me learning, through relationship, the many manifestations of beauty in God’s creation. It’s the story of learning that we were both caught up in a system that sought to divide us simply over the color of skin – a social system that damaged everyone caught in it because it was more difficult to name the people from whom we received loved if they were of a different race.
The stories from my childhood and the laughter and tears that I shared with Ida will always be a part of who I am, and I am thankful for those stories – for that history. The stories of Black people in America are the stories of America that have remained hidden for too long, and they are the stories that help us to see the places that we, as Christians, can work for justice and peace within our own borders. After all, it is not possible to have peace without justice or without mercy.
Over the course of February, we are going to celebrate a few of the stories of Black people in The Episcopal Church. Beginning on Sunday and continuing every Sunday for the whole month, we will honor the story of one faithful disciple, one saint each week. We will hear the stories of sacrifices made for the good of others; we will hear the commitment of disciples who would not give up on their faith; we will hear stories of faith, of hope, and of love.
Perhaps most importantly, we will have the opportunity to celebrate these stories as exemplars of discipleship and as reminders of who Jesus is calling the Church to be – the risen Body of Christ proclaiming the Good News.