We ended the year 2020 at Common Good Collective with a highlight: a conversation with Walter Brueggemann that was deep and nourishing. Of course, turning a page in a calendar has not altered the world he described, nor the way forward in the midst of, well, everything. Walter offered us two conjoined methods forward: for one, liturgy, which is to say, the telling and enactment of stories of pain and possibility; and for two, “organize, organize, organize.” Over the next two months, we will regularly refer back to that conversation, and seek to draw on its riches for the work ahead.
At a crucial precipice, each generation must take up the question Langston Hughes asks in this short poem: can “our hands make the world that’s in our minds”?
“I Awaken The World”
By Langston Hughes
I look at the world
From awakening eyes in a black face—
And this is what I see:
This fenced-off narrow space
Assigned to me.
I look then at the silly walls
Through dark eyes in a dark face—
And this is what I know:
That all these walls oppression builds
Will have to go!
I look at my own body
With eyes no longer blind—
And I see that my own hands can make
The world that’s in my mind.
Then let us hurry, comrades,
The road to find.
“We have been gifted a time of dealing with apocalyptic challenges,” says Fawn R. Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians. An apocalypse can sometimes be a moment of tragedy; it is always a moment of pulling back the veil. Apocalypse shows what is real, what communities “are made of,” so to speak. This report shows the resilience of Native communities in drawing on their innate wisdom.
In reporting on the transformative thinking Native communities are putting into action in these tumultuous times, I heard time and time again: “This is not our first pandemic.” Since the 1500s, when ever-larger numbers of Europeans began arriving in this hemisphere, disasters have come thick and fast for the First Nations, including tens of millions wiped out within a century by continual waves of unfamiliar diseases—measles, influenza, smallpox, typhus, diphtheria, and more. Village after village stood empty. Enduring shock and grief, the survivors relied on ancient lifeways to support them as new trials arose.
Here, three Indigenous communities share heritage ways to live and care for each other that they have refined during this latest pandemic. The aim now, as ever, is ensuring a safe, sustainable future for their people. The plans meet the tests of both time and extreme adversity. Native people have told me so many times it has become a refrain: “We are still here.”
“This hammer’s gonna be the death of me,” John Henry sings in the old American folk song. His will to triumph in the face of impossible odds, outworking the steam drill, was legendary. That determination finally killed him. This in-depth report highlights how good people in great neighborhoods still fail to thrive, sometimes at the cost of their lives, when not backed by good social policy.
The Rev. Dr. Kejuane Artez Bates was a big man with big responsibilities. The arrival of the novel coronavirus in Vidalia, Louisiana, was another burden on a body already breaking under the load. Bates was in his 10th year with the Vidalia Police Department, assigned as a resource officer to the upper elementary school. But with classrooms indefinitely closed, he was back on patrol duty and, like most people in those early days of the pandemic, unprotected by a mask. On Friday, March 20, he was coughing and his nose was bleeding. The next day, he couldn’t get out of bed.
Key moments in history sometimes radically invert the questions humans ask themselves. “Who is my neighbor?” becomes “What kind of neighbor am I?” In the midst of violence done to prop up systems of domination, this moment is a key one to reflect on what kind of neighbor each of us is.
I was raised in a black upper-middle-class neighborhood on the Southeast side of Houston, Texas. At the time, my mother was one of the top black residential realtors in the city. She was an expert in neighborhoods, and many of the houses in my neighborhood were either sold by her or under contract with Bookman-Burley Realties.
MacGregor Terrace was my neighborhood — three-story homes on two acres of land with circular driveways, swimming pools, and fireplaces with brick chimneys. To our right was a couple who were both college professors at Texas Southern University. To our left was a family who owned one of the few black pharmacies in the city. Behind us were more homes owned by doctors, judges, restauranteurs, entrepreneurs, architects, school principals, city councilmen, an Olympic gold medalist named Carl Lewis, and a future multi-platinum, Grammy award-winning recording artist named Beyonce.
These were my neighbors growing up — black people experiencing some level of middle-class comfort despite a legacy of denial by historical racism and segregation in housing that prevented us from accessing the American Dream. For centuries, Blacks were the property, and for decades Blacks were denied the right to own it. MacGregor Terrace is where affluent Blacks in Houston found peace and prosperity in property ownership, even after segregation was no longer the law of the land as whites simply refused to sell to Blacks in certain neighborhoods well into the 1990s.
This is the legacy of my childhood community. Back then, black people didn’t really have the freedom to choose our neighborhoods or our neighbors. Today, we can pretty much move where we can afford — and those who can afford more often leverage that to choose what are classified as safe, family-focused residential communities inhabited by homeowners. Despite this, we still can’t choose our neighbors.
No one can. And the best neighborhoods don’t always translate into the best neighbors.
In the parable of the Good Samaritan, a lawyer poses a question to Jesus: “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus had this funny way of never answering questions directly — always answering a question with another question. He reminds me of many of my professors who used to challenge us to not focus so much on having the right answer but more so on making sure we were asking the right question. The right answer to the wrong question is still the wrong answer.
From this parable, the lawyer determined that the Good Samaritan was the most neighborly to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers, but that still didn’t answer his initial question of “who is my neighbor?” And that’s because I believe it’s the wrong question. Instead, the question the lawyer should have pondered — and the question we should all ask ourselves in the year of our Lord 2020 — is: “What Kind of Neighbor am I?” because it’s the only question we can answer for ourselves.
America is our neighborhood. The wealthiest country in the world, with great diversity of thought and culture. A democracy where “we the people” have equity in our future as a country. It’s a neighborhood that boasts the mightiest military on earth, guaranteeing our safety and security. Our public health infrastructure is the best, and our resources rank us the country most prepared for a pandemic. Opportunity and prosperity abound. U.S. citizens are proud, and immigrants flock to our borders, hoping to share in a piece of the American dream.
And yet, the U.S. has the highest rate of poverty among developed countries. People are vilified for their diverging sociopolitical views in the public square daily. We’re the only democratic Republic on the planet that intentionally makes participating in democracy difficult. In our neighborhood, there are more guns than there are people — and sometimes those sworn to protect and serve us pose the greatest threat. America has the deadliest COVID-19 pandemic in the world, and it’s made worse by our lack of leadership and absence of accountability to our neighbors. And to think: those looking to relocate here risk being locked in a cage and separated from their families.
If the events of this year have taught us anything, it’s that living in the “best” neighborhood doesn’t guarantee that we’ll live amongst the best neighbors. Whether it’s doing something as simple as wearing a mask, or overwhelmingly voting in favor of science, or equality and human rights, or common decency after these values escaped us for four years — we have failed each other as neighbors, especially those who consistently find themselves in ditches on the side of the road.
Our neighborhood is such that the neighbors we’d most expect to aid us in our deepest moments of distress may, in fact, pass us by. Even worse, it may be people in our own families or people who profess a shared faith that, at the very least, asks us to love our neighbors.
Rev. Dr. Stephen Ray, President of Chicago Theological Seminary, explains that, “Evil requires religious people for atrocity to become mundane. It requires people whose habits of life and faith subordinate the material well-being of others to some higher ‘good.’ This is one reason I try hard to never be religious. I fear too greatly that I will come to believe God requires something of me greater than the love and care of my neighbor, particularly when they are the least among us.”
So who is my neighbor? 2020 has proven this to be the wrong question.
A better question that we should all be asking going into 2021 is, “What kind of neighbor am I?” The good news of the parable of the Good Samaritan is that while some people may choose to knock us down, and others choose to step over us, there’s always someone good and noble willing to lift us up, and it might be the least likely suspect. My prayer is that we as people of faith and goodwill are not so religious that we believe God requires something greater of us than the love, care, and uplift of our neighbors, regardless of who they might be.