On February 20th, the day the Episcopal Church remembers the prophetic witness of Frederick Douglass, I was with several of my colleagues at a gathering of clergy considered “new” to positions in the diocese, while our bishop and other colleagues were at the cathedral for the “Blessing of the Journalists.” It was one of those times in which it was hard to focus on where you were and why, because so much of you longed to be in another place. Being who we are, a few of us named this longing.
The colleague hosting our gathering named it beautifully in our shared prayer. He read from Douglass’ “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” and invited us to share our thoughts. Being people who regularly speak the things they think, i.e. a group of preachers, the conversation was full and rich with layers of shared understanding and unique experience. As I listened, I was drawn deeper and deeper into one phrase from Douglass’ writing: ” I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July!” (pp. 4-5)
Perhaps because I was still being drawn deeper to that prayerful and reflective place in which my ponderings and wonderings reside, I was not yet ready to to speak to that which I was thinking, at least not in a fully formed kind of way. And being someone who sometimes thinks out loud, and trusting my colleagues to hold that gently, I gave voice to the pull from Douglass’ words. Although I don’t remember exactly what I said, I know it began being about the impact of experience on one’s perspective. And it was then that I knew the musing was about vision and how to envision a shared dream or future. As I sat looking at my friend and colleague, I heard myself saying, “We can’t see the same things because when you look at me you see something different than I see when I look at you, and that limits us. And I think it is more so the more focused we become because then we fail to see the people and things we know are around us.”
Now, this is not, as they say, rocket science. It is not a groundbreaking insight. Heck, it is not even something I was learning for the first time! I know and have known for longer than I can remember that we are shaped by our experiences and that our experiences shape our perspectives. Yet in that moment, sitting in a chapel, looking a friend and colleague in the eye as we engaged in faith-filled conversation about the grievous sin of slavery while reflecting upon the words of a former slave, something felt different. It felt as if the holy and sacred work is in the reminder that to envision a future in which God’s dream is realized it is necessary that we stand side-by-side looking in the same direction, allowing our tears to wash away the barriers to understanding that what is behind us and past, as well as what is beside us and now, is not the same.