This sermon/storytelling by Elizabeth Schell was shared in small pieces throughout the service. Elizabeth began the service with a giant backpack on her back that she eventually takes off and “unpacks” during her storytelling.
Some people do a lot of travelling in the summer…my son’s going to 3 different camps. Luckily, I love to pack. When we were kids, my grandmother instructed my sister and I in how to best pack for a trip—not so much what to bring, but how to fold or roll or generally fit whatever you wanted to take into whatever vessel you had to squeeze it in. I am known in my family for being the Master Packer—the one who can fit … it …. in! So I brought my baggage with me this morning.
The older we get, the more STUFF we have. Both literal…and emotional. Moving helps pare down the literal stuff. Anytime you have to stop and fit it all in a truck or fit it into a smaller home….well, it makes you question what you’re holding on to, right? Kind of like emptying closets in Sandburg Hall…. But what about the emotional stuff? What helps us with that? What helps us winnow that down? We carry it around with us everywhere. We feel its weight. But we don’t much like unpacking it.
It’s like when you’re moving and you pull out all the boxes you have of stuff from college or some other formative period. You go through it. You remember stuff. You realize you might have remembered some stuff wrong. You see some of it in a new light. You throw a bunch of it away. Or recycle what you can.
I’ve been doing a lot of unpacking lately. Emotional baggage unpacking, I mean. Especially since taking the Building Bridges class last winter. This is a workshop they do here in Asheville over 6 weeks that helps participants understand racism better: the history of racism in Asheville; the way systemic and institutional racism works; and our individual relationships to racism.
We’ve all got just a little bit of baggage in this area, right? Well, it’s about time we start dusting some of it off or change is never going to really happen ’cause we’re still carrying all this crap around. I’m going to unpack a bit of my personal baggage with you today. (take off backpack & open) ‘Cause I know this is a safe place and I can do that, right? I promise I won’t unpack anything too embarassing….well, maybe. Rubber chicken?! What’s that doing in here?….
The Irish tune they just sung to is also known as “If Ever You Were Mine” and it’s one of my favorites. It reminds me of something I’ve got in here. somewhere… Ah, behold, the Family Tree project. We all have a few unfinished projects, right?
The majority of students in my 1980s Los Angeles magnet jr. high classroom were first and second generation: Vietnamese. Korean. Japanese. Russian. Iranian. Indian. Israeli. Mexican. L.A.’s attempt at integration. It was a very rich and diverse education. But the richness and the diversity did not much include people of African descent. We were told to research our family trees and trace our family’s immigration to the U.S.. I don’t think the teacher expected the project to take too much time.Go home and talk to your parents or grandparents. You should be able to get the whole story.
I found out that my family came from Ireland, Scotland, Germany, & France. There were definitely many people who were running away from something bad or perhaps running to something good. Depends on which American tale you like to tell. But all these nations and cultures of origin were so far back in the family tree, there certainly was no living memory of them, let alone much recorded memory. I pieced together what I could. From researching and interviewing many family members, I found out a strand of my family came on the second boat to Jamestown.
My family’s been here a long time. As the only redhead in a sea of blondes, I found myself wanting to claim my Irish heritage. My grandmother had visited there. She said the Callahans (her people) had come from Cork. But many, many generations ago. I liked the Irish postcards in her album: Of fiddlers and dancers. Of green fields and stone walls. Of lots of pale faced, freckled, redheads like me. Something about these images beckoned to me. I wanted to say “I’m an Irish American.” But it just seemed pretty hollow. Mostly, I just felt bland.
The family tree I turned in went back more than 12 generations. It was definitely a lot more than my teacher asked for. I got an A+. But I was not satisfied. Where did I come from? I would visit my friends at their homes where other languages were spoken. Where there were beautiful colors, images, food, music…so many things that were foreign and enticing to me. But what was my culture? Most of my extended family was in Georgia, where my parents and grandparents were from. We’d visit there almost every summer, but somehow it never felt like a “coming home” but more like an alien visitation. Especially as I got older.
When I was little, these visits to the south weren’t too bad. I’d play with old toys in the suffocation of my grandparents’ sealed up air conditioned rooms. But sometimes we’d venture out onto the screen porch. We’d have watermelon eating contests. Uncle Bob would barbecue somethin. Uncle Freeman would fry trout and call me “Libby” with his pipe in his mouth. We’d have to get all starched and washed and ruffled up when we went to church (which never seemed necessary at our Methodist church back in L.A.). Maybe this was my culture. I definitely liked the food part. Starched and ruffled part, not so much.
Then I discovered there was a little girl next door I could play with. Her name was Crystal and we were the same age. And like me, she liked to lay under the hanging laundry and watch it blow in the wind. And she liked to crawl under shady bushes and stare at pill bugs, too. And she liked watermelon. I bet she could win the watermelon eating contest! But when I tried to bring Crystal onto my grandmother’s screened-in porch, I was sternly told to wash up and Crystal was sent away.
A lot of angry under-the-breath words were said between my parents and my grandparents that night. I didn’t understand any of it. Something about how “Crystal may be a Cole, but she was still colored, and it just wasn’t right her getting uppity and playin’ with Elizabeth that way.” I don’t think my parents agreed, but this was not their territory. This was the land they had fled. The land with issues they didn’t know how to address. I didn’t know any of that then. All I knew is that I had done something wrong. I had done something displeasing that sweet voiced Grandmother didn’t like.
We left the next day to visit other relatives and then on to home and other things so I never got to play with Crystal again. Seems like my grandparents visited us in California the following summer and then they moved. They moved from that wonderful big rambly house in Cascade Heights with all the acres in back. They’d lived through a major fire there and fully renovated. My mother and her sister had lived there through high school, college, and weddings.
And now they were moving. Because the neighborhood had “gone black.” It was one thing to have the Cole family next door (yeah, that’s Nat King Cole’s daughter Natalie and her family, including sweet little Crystal), but when Hank Aaron’s family moved in and all these other rich black families followed…. well that was just too much for my white… southern… grandparents.
I think I was 12 or so when I learned all this. And suddenly my eyes started to open a bit more. I started seeing black and white. But, to be honest, I had probably already been “seeing” it for some time. I think a part of me was introduced to “black” and therefore “white” that day on my grandmother’s porch. And my white shame grew.
White shame is something UU theologian Thandeka talks about in her book, “Learning to be White.” She challenges white people to think back to their first experience of knowing they were “white” which inevitably occurred the moment they learned that someone was “black.” Our caregiver’s negative response teaches us 2 things:
- in order to keep the love and care of my family I must reject this person;
- rejecting this person doesn’t feel right, but I have to do it.
So just as our internalized racism is built, so is our white shame. Because we didn’t start out as “white” just as the other child didn’t start out as “black.” We were just babies with feelings processing the world around us and we responded with delight or fear to everything and everyone around us based on how they made us feel or how they responded to us. We are not born racist; we learn it.
White Shame, Thandeka concludes, exists in Euro-Americans because “the persons who ostensibly loved and respected them the most actually abused them and justified it in the name of race, money, and God.”
This is simplifying hugely her argument. But basically: the majority of people that came to America, came in chains. Both Africans and Europeans. Half and possibly as many as ⅔ of all white colonial immigrants arrived as indentured servants. The 1% truly existed then. Perhaps only 0.5%. The land owners.
To keep their power in a land of Native Americans and African slaves and European servants— they had to lay down the law—you had to know that if you crossed them you would be whipped, separated from your family, lynched. You had to stay in line. Which meant that to rise above your present circumstances (always the promise of America!) you had to do things that went against your moral compass. Even if you felt sympathy for someone, you had to curb that sympathy if you wanted to keep your job or any kind of standing you might enjoy in the community. Or maybe even with your life. And THIS— this clarifying who was “in” — and therefore “white” and who was “out”— and therefore “black” —became THE way of insuring the success of your family, your community, your self. And it is shameful. And we need to unpack this shame.
As we come to our time of Meditation, we pause and breathe into these bodies—these bodies that carry us and all our joys and sorrows, all our baggage gathered up and lugged about, packed and hidden away.
Take a moment, silently, within yourself, to consider some of that baggage.
For those who are considered “white” in this room, when did you first know you were white?
For those who are considered “other” than white in this room, when did you first know you were not white?
What were those experiences like? How did they make you feel about yourself? About the person who made you claim this identity? What shame or baggage do you carry because of these identities?
I invite you now to bring some of what you carry, inspired by these questions, or whatever you walked in with this morning—whether it be joy or sorrow, confusion, wonderment, or shame.
Bring it forward and lift it up in silence in this space by the lighting of a candle from our chalice fire
and know, that all of us here, are with youin both your joy and in your sorrow.
Candlelighting & Music “Hard Times”
We can learn, especially I think as we get older, the benefit of packing lighter. Traveling lighter. When I traveled in Great Britain after college, I learned to winnow down what I needed to what I could carry on my back. When huge portions of your traveling includes walking on stony roads or squeezing yourself onto crowded buses or trains, you want your baggage to be as light as possible.
But no matter how light you pack, you never want to forget your passport. Your ID. This is my first passport. From when I was 23 and I did my first big traveling…to Ireland and Scotland! with a wistful thought that maybe I’d find a bit of myself. Maybe.
During these travels, I worked in Edinburgh w/Volunteers for Peace. I lived with 10 other volunteers—all young adults from various countries—we slept on the floor of a local women’s center and staffed a summer program for children in Edinburgh.
We shared our small stipend in common for food and we all had pretty different ideas of what good affordable food meant. With Italian, French, Scottish, Irish, American, and German volunteers, not all of whom could speak much english, day to day communicating and “getting along” was hard even before we arrived at the school location of the youth program.
I learned a lot that summer. And I’m still learning from the experience. But in unexpected ways. That summer I became good friends with a young man from Ireland. After the program was over I visited him at his home in southern Ireland. Even until recently, the narrative I’ve given our friendship has been “oh, Jim (or Seamus, his Irish name), he was this sweet Irish lad who was totally gay, but unwilling to admit it. He’d smoke ‘fags’ (as they call cigarettes in Ireland) while I snickered. But he’d never admit his sexual orientation. Of course I was the enlightened American college grad who tried to help him come ‘out.’”
Though I was a good friend and supporter—an ally of sorts, I really had no idea the depth of pain and struggle this young man was facing. As a privileged, white, hetero”normal” cis-woman, how could I? But I didn’t see it that way. I was sympathetic and supportive, but couldn’t for the life of me understand why he didn’t just proclaim who he was and get on with it.
Because it’s not that easy. It’s not easy at all. To get “on” with it.
I reconnected recently with my Irish friend via Facebook. He’s been out for many years now and is a therapist, helping young people and adults face many struggles ….. Our FB relationship is pretty surface so I have no idea what his coming out experience was finally really like. I wasn’t there. Because “coming out” is not a singular summer epiphany— not something that can be done in one dramatic cinematic proclamation.
I imagine it’s more of a day in, day out, long haul, painful, forever on a spectrum type experience. One can be “out” in one place and time, but not elsewhere. It depends on what is safe. It depends on what’s at stake. It depends on who you are willing to offend or hurt or expunge from your life. And Ireland in the 1990s—there weren’t that many safe spaces for gay people then. Nor really in the U.S. either. My privilege of acceptable sexuality made me blind to the struggles he faced, which included huge cultural and religious layers.
Over the past couple years, as our 2 countries have wrestled with marriage equality and general acceptance, my friend Jim and I have shared about high and low points in our respective countries. I don’t think either of us ever dreamed that it would be HIS country that would first grant equal marriage and related rights to its gay citizens. Thankfully we weren’t too far behind! It’s just MARRIAGE now, people! Not gay marriage—that was a game we used to play (some sadly are still playing it). Marriage is marriage! Love is love!
I don’t often feel patriotic enough to fly the US flag (bring out flag from baggage), but this weekend I did. After 9-11 living in NYC with all the flag waving, we felt really uncomfortable with it. The flags felt less like symbols of patriotism and more like signals of hate and fear towards our Muslim brothers and sisters.
Our family sewed this flag and took it to President Barack Obama’s first inauguration because that was a moment of such deep patriotism for us. I think a little bit of my white shame was healed in the campaigning and voting and then the gathering on the Mall that cold morning.
I love these 2 flags. The rainbow one (pull out flag)—we proudly display in our store downtown. We know that it lets our LGBTQ brothers and sisters know they are welcome. But what flag can we put up to let our African American brothers & sisters know they are welcome? I know what flag NOT to put up.
We still have a long way to go. For LGBTQ rights. And all our so-called “non-white” brothers and sisters who have been waiting FAR too long for true and lasting inclusion and citizenship.
So don’t forget your ID, people. You may need it to vote. But also, you need to keep checking who you are and not just the stats printed on a government-issued page. But WHO you are, within. The Good and the bad. Including your blinders, your ignorance, your privilege.
When I was in college, my mom & dad joined a United Methodist congregation in northern California that was determined to become a welcoming space for its gay members.
My reserved, straight-laced, engineering dad was quiet at first. As treasurer, he could see the financial impact of this mission. Good pledgers were leaving over the welcoming stance. My dad was first to admit that he always voted based on how it impacted his finances. But something about this congregation was changing him. He and my mom had become good friends with an older lesbian couple. One of them had become quite ill and was hospitalized. And her partner kept being denied the right to visit and advocate for her loved one. As my dad watched his friends struggle in this way….Something in him broke. Like a levy, I imagine, a flood of feelings he’d held tightly closed away.
As a kid growing up outside Atlanta, he’d been put in military academy because of his parents’ fear over the possibility of school integration. At Georgia Tech, in his Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, he’d been aparty to the rejection of an African American pledge that he’d actually wanted the fraternity to welcome. He and my mother did not participate in the civil rights movement, but moved right after getting married— to New Orleans, then Arizona, and finally California.
My dad had remained silent. He had not spoken out against his parents or his church or his community. He admitted that sometimes he felt uncomfortable about things he witnessed, even things he did, and that sometimes he realized he didn’t even see what was going on. But as he witnessed the struggles of his new friends and as members of his United Methodist church spoke up about their love for one another and their desire to be recognized in the church and, even more so, by their government—with visitation rights and adoption rights and marriage rights…. I think my dad realized he might be able to redeem himself a bit.
And so, even though it really wasn’t that popular in the 1990s, especially among his engineering buddies, he started expressing his opinion. Expressing his support. He even started voting Democrat. It was a real and unexpected joy for he and I to be able to share what our respective faith communities were doing in the fight.
It was around this time that Susie Biggs died. And I wonder now how her death might have contributed to his need for redemption. I’d always heard my father speak fondly of Susie. As a kid I thought she must be an aunt or some other family member. And, from an emotional point of view for my dad, she was. But she wasn’t. Not at all. She was my father’s family cook and maid. She took care of my dad. Mothered him most likely in ways his mother never did since she worked full time. Her daughter came to my grandmother’s funeral. I think it was the first time my dad realized “his” Susie had her own children. Children whose needs had to be met on top of those of my father and his family.
I don’t think he ever fully processed his relationship to Susie. I really wish he’d been able to participate in a workshop like Building Bridges before he died. I think there was so much he really wanted to work through about growing up in the Jim Crow south. But, for him, speaking up and stepping out for gay rights within his faith denomination and country was a healing process.
I wish he were here for this moment in our history—for the celebration of marriage equality. For this frank conversation we are beginning and very much needing to have in this country about race. I wonder where he’d be with the rise (at least in visibility) of police brutality. With the Black Lives Matter movement. With the murders last month in South Carolina, church burnings that barely make it into the news, the debate about the Confederate flag… I wish I could talk to him about these things.
[pull out briefcase from baggage] No wonder everything’s so crammed tight in here: there’s baggage IN my baggage! Actually this is a briefcase. My grandpa Schell’s briefcase (that’s my dad’s dad). He was a lawyer in Atlanta.
He died before I was born but I always loved to hear stories about him. In pictures, he looked like Alfred Hitchcock. Bald pate. Giant belly. He wore a white suit to my parents’ wedding where all the other men wore black. To cause trouble. His interest in the law began with an interest in debate. Grandpa Sid’s love for debate came in High School. He was a bad egg, my grandmother used to say. Failing all his classes. Always in trouble.
One day during detention he was sitting in the back of the school auditorium writing “lines” while his teacher led the debate team on stage. He kept heckling the students and criticizing their debate skills. His frustrated (and I think a bit bemused) teacher finally told him to “come down and show them how it should be done (if he was so smart)”, assuming he’d fail. He didn’t. He was great at it. Turned his life around. Became captain of the debate team. Put himself through law school.
As a kid, I always imagined him as an Atticus Finch type lawyer. You know, Scout’s dad from To Kill a Mockingbird? Representing people even if they couldn’t pay. That’s how my grandmother got most of her pretty antique furniture—as in-kind payment from divorce cases. Supposedly in the early years of my grandfather’s practice many a meal at the Schell table was bolstered by in-kind payments of potatoes and the like from African American clients who couldn’t otherwise pay for his representation. Atticus Finch.
But families, like history, are never so… simple. See, not long before he died, Grandpa Schell was appointed a judgeship in Georgia. A very high office to achieve for a poor misbehavin boy from Kentucky. But Governor Lester Maddox handpicked my grandfather for the position. Because Grandpa had been one of his lawyers in 1964 when Lester Maddox owned the Pickrick Restaurant that refused to serve non-white customers. Refused while wielding an axe handle at any who tried to oppose him. Yes, my grandfather defended the arch segregationist Lester Maddox. And this is his briefcase.
My dad fled the south. Fled his father and expectations of following in his footsteps. I’ve carried this briefcase—literally—since HIgh School when I absconded with it for a theatrical prop. We were doing To Kill a Mockingbird and I was the costume designer. It made a perfect briefcase for Atticus Finch. I’ve quietly carried it with me all these years, trying to hold on to the Atticus Finch memory—and not the other ones.
But I pulled it out and took it to Building Bridges earlier this year to help tell the story of my grandpa’s role in the Lester Maddox case. My family’s part, a not so proud one, in the civil rights movement. It’s a piece of my white guilt. But it was—literally and emotionally—my dad’s baggage first. Expectations of his father—of him and he of his father—both disappointed.
Sometimes we carry baggage that is not even our own. But it becomes ours. I mean, should I keep carrying it? What can I let go of? What is actually helpful? What do I want to pass on to my son? Honestly, I don’t know. But I’m trying to unpack it and see what meaning I can find. See what progress I can make. Within me. I really hope I can begin to let go of some of it. Leave it by the side of the road. Make my baggage lighter so I can actually get some stuff done.
On the Friday evening after the Supreme court ruling on marriage, many of us gathered downtown near the Vance monument. We waved rainbow and US flags, sang, cheered, and cried. A giant step had been taken towards equality for LGBTQ Americans—for our children and generations to come. Hopefully they will know far less pain and suffering when it comes to who they love or how they identify or express themselves. But as we stood in the shadow of the Vance monument, one of many tributes to famous white men of the Confederacy in this town—just blocks from the YMI and a former thriving African American community destroyed by redlining and other discriminatory, POST Jim Crow institutionalized racism—as we stood there, I noticed a little memorial candle laid at the base of the Vance monument—with a card listing the names of those slain at the Charleston AME church. And I think of the 8 churches burned since then.
All this joy. And all this sorrow.
Claim your baggage, people. We got work to do.