I Let Go of My Accumulations

Patty Wudel

July 22, 2018

Thank you for inviting me back to share something real with you that is close to my heart.

In the past months I have read and re-read two books by young African-American Christian leaders. Drew Hart’s Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism; and Austin Channing Brown’s Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness.  And since reading Professor George Yancy’s incredible love letter, “Dear White America,” published in the New York Times about three years ago, I have returned to it often and more so in recent months, and searched my soul.

Drew Hart and Austin Channing Brown both write about being young, gifted, African-American Christian activists and leaders working or studying in white, liberal, Christian churches and universities. Professor Yancy writes to white people with tough love and invites us to have the courage to engage our racism honestly, to let ourselves be vulnerable and look into the “disagreeable mirror” he holds up for us, so we can actually finally see how we nice white people are complicit with systemic and institutional power and privilege and the suffering it brings on African-American people. And change. Learn to change.

Looking at me, do you see me as a nice, white, liberal, middle-aged Christian woman? Of course you do. Unless you’ve been on the other side of my temper: then, to you, I’m not so nice. But I’m still white, progressive, middle aged, and I identify as Christian.

Many of you know that for half of my life, the love of my life has been Joseph’s House—the extended community of mostly homeless men and women who come there, sometimes to die, sometimes to recover their health and live again—and my colleagues; staff and volunteers who are transformed by their relationships with those they come to know at Joseph’s House. 

I am blessed with work and purpose that asks more love of me than I have to give, and I am blessed by grace which, every day, extends past where my love and insight, patience and courage ends, allowing me to reach and comfort, encourage and heal those in the Joseph’s House community who “are leaning out for love and they will lean that way forever”… as Leonard Cohen once sang in his beautiful song.

I have not had to go anywhere else to be challenged to grow in the ways that matter most to me: in reciprocal relationships with people I wouldn’t meet anywhere else, in greater self-awareness, in courage and compassion; to grow through deep challenges that humble me and make me very uncomfortable and invite me to take another risk for love, another risk for meaningful freedom.  I am taking such a risk with you, this morning.

For many years Joseph’s House was literally my whole world. I was like a mother who lived only for her family. And then my world suddenly got much bigger when I learned that my world view, my understanding of race and white supremacy was so different from that of my close African-American colleagues. I knew I had to learn more about their world views. For that I had to go beyond Joseph’s House where my colleagues, people of color, had rarely ever spoken of race or racism in my presence.

Grace, acting through David Hilfiker, extended her hand beyond where I knew to go when he introduced me to a group of African-American and white people of faith who were meeting to understand race and dismantle racism: Harold Vines and Mike Hopkins, Stephanie Harding, Wendy Dorsey, Fred Taylor, Reverend Art Brown, Dawn Longenecker and Jean Marcus, Steve and Karen Mohr, and other courageous people who were coming together to meet race, face-to-face and open to healing—at Friends of Jesus church.

Now my beloved world of Joseph’s House is sheltered under the wider umbrella of the work and purpose of “healing from racisms,” as Milagros Phillips puts it. 

It’s under that wider umbrella at Friends of Jesus that I am becoming more aware of the places where my mind is still stuck in the world view that comes with my European ancestry and with the privileges of my so-called white skin. Here’s what I mean: In Friends of Jesus we are reading Austin Channing Brown’s book. It hits close to home for me because I lead an institution that I could describe as progressive, white (our leaders and professional staff are and have been, mostly white) and for many of us, deeply Christian. Channing Brown writes about the ways she is misunderstood, invisible to and exhausted by working with white, progressive, Christian people.

I think of the times I have tried to recruit African-American nurses to Joseph’s House—nurses I know quite well from their years of hospice rounds to their patients. With several of those nurses I feel mutual friendliness and affection. I, who have loved Joseph’s House so much and so long; I, who think of it as one of the wonders of the world; I, who in the past was perplexed when those nurses declined to accept to work at Joseph’s House even with our generous benefits and competitive pay scale; I was perplexed when they didn’t really explain when I asked them why. Thanks to Austin Channing, now I think I understand better.   

The white nurses and I would have wanted the African-American nurse to fit in with our cultural way of being because we believe it is, dare I say, “the best way.” It’s hard to put in words, but there is a particular way of interaction that we white women at Joseph’s House cultivate and value. We believe “our way” deeply serves our residents and also our own intentional spiritual growth.

Now I understand that the African-American nurses I approached might rightly have anticipated that the Joseph’s House culture of community and care could have been exhausting for them.

Why? Because in addition to being expected to fit into our white, progressive, contemplative nursing culture, it would be exhausting to be hyper-visible in the role of the new, only African-American nurse and anticipate that one’s real needs would be mostly invisible to one’s white colleagues.

Why? Because it would be exhausting to be the person to point out our team’s problematic unconscious racist thinking, actions and statements and still avoid becoming bitter or cynical. 

Why? Because it’s exhausting to stay open in an organization and learn new skills without taking in the cultural expectations of personality, interests and talents, spiritual practices and faith expressions that are most valued according to whiteness at Joseph’s House. Christian and contemplative female whiteness.

Channing Brown goes so far as to say that it can be dangerous for Black women to attempt to carve out a space for themselves in places that haven’t examined the prevailing assumptions of white culture. The danger is ever-present, she says, of letting whiteness walk off with her joy, her peace, her sense of dignity and self-love. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Togetherness across racial lines, she says, doesn’t have to mean the uplifting of whiteness and harming of Blackness.

Let me read you this short passage from Drew Hart. Remember he writes about his own experience of racism at Christian college.

Referring to his experience of racism in the company of nice, friendly, Christian students, he writes:

Those experiences would forever change how I interacted within homogeneous white Christian spaces. The ongoing racial prejudice on campus was more persistent and life-draining than anything I had seen in my life. Nothing, including the black church I had grown up in, had prepared me for white Christian community. I was becoming cynical and at times very bitter about the church and its racism. I sometimes shared my experiences with white students on campus, but most did not take my words very seriously. I had to deeply recalibrate my social networks based on these experiences just so I could make it through. Each little cut, on its own, was insubstantial. But by the end of my time in college, I found myself with a thousand paper cuts that hurt like hell.

 Today, thanks to the particular culture of Friends of Jesus, that encourages inquiry and self-awareness about race and the consequences of white privilege, I ask myself, “How can I grow?  How can I change? How can those of us who are white and in leadership at Joseph’s House change so that at least we, the leadership team, will become a body eager to name unconscious white racist thinking, celebrate Blackness and in a world still governed by systems of racial oppression, learn to live another way? Am I willing to act to try to change the racist system I have some influence in? Can I/will we change and also be “ourselves”?

This is a lot of thinking. Sometimes Mike Hopkins at Friends of Jesus says to me, “Patty, you’re thinking too much. Feel.”

The thing about thinking is that it is a striving for something that is precious to me. I have a lot invested in changing from a mostly nice person living from a mostly unconscious white superiority complex, to becoming more whole, owning more of the truth and becoming a much more free person in a meaningful way. But Mike at Friends of Jesus is very wise. My thinking is not adequate. It is not enough. I need to let go. Let go of my ego that is working so hard to stay in control of who I’m striving to become.  So, grace again.

I did not know Claude Ford except to recognize who he was if I saw him at the Festival Center. But it happened that I found the program for Claude’s funeral in my hands. Turning the pages I surrendered spontaneously to a poem there by Howard Thurman.

These days I take out my much-creased copy of Thurman’s poem, I Let Go of My Accumulations, when I feel the effort and stress of my ego striving to do this necessary thinking and learning and understanding—on its own ego terms—alone. Thurman’s poem helps me to put my creaturely self in perspective and to choose differently: To want very much, and then to let go, as best I can. I would like to speak this poem for you.

I Let Go of My Accumulations

My ego is like a fortress.
I have built its walls
stone by stone
to hold out the invasion
of the Love of God.

But I have stayed here long
enough. There is light,
over the barriers, Oh my God.
The darkness of my house
forgive
and overtake my soul.

I relax the barriers.
I abandon all that I think I am.
All I hope to be.
All that I believe I possess.

I let go of the past,
I withdraw my grasping hand
From the future, and in the great silence of this moment,
I alertly rest my soul.

As the sea gull lays in the wind current,
So I lay into the spirit of God,
My dearest human relationships,
My most precious dreams.
I surrender to His care all that I have called my own.

I give back
All my favorite things
Which I withhold in my storehouse.
I let go.

I give myself unto thee
Oh my God.

Amen.                                         

---     Howard Thurman