The medium-sized college town in the Northwest where I live could be described as homogenous. It’s a “cookie cutter” kind of place, which is to say there’s not a whole lot of racial diversity. A few years ago I was a part of a gospel choir led by an inspiring African American campus minister who had been raised in East St. Louis, where the cookies were a different color. It took him a year to teach us to sing, sway and clap at the same time. I called it a remedial choir for white folks like me.
I caught most of the news about last Friday’s fatal shootings in the airport as I was on my way to Austin, Texas, just an hour from Dallas. Like most of the people around me, I felt sad and powerless, confused, a little angry and deeply tired about all of it, from mass shootings to racial violence to hate crimes. It felt more poignant somehow as I landed in a community that seemed to have more racial spice than my own.
So on Sunday I started searching for a way to connect with a local Austin black church or a gospel choir the next day. I may have missed it, but nothing jumped out at me. I assumed I was out of luck, so I headed for the hotel pool. The only other people there were an African American couple. In my segregated childhood I wouldn’t have even had the opportunity to share a swimming pool with the black people in my community. It was a few years more before I learned to have conversations that transcend the racial divide. This was several decades ago, and yet images contrasting the past and present popped up in my memory as I slipped into the water.
I asked my pool mates where they were from. Dallas. Much went unsaid as more disturbing images, from the north of our country to the south, crowded into my mind.
“Just a getaway,” they answered. I got it. They knew I had. We began to talk about many of the deep gaps in understanding and fissures of misinformation that lead to the violence of gangs, to fearful police, and to psychotic gun toters.
I told them about all I had learned in my remedial choir, and we all laughed at our fumbling attempts to understand each other.
When they left, the gentleman of the couple turned his head back and said, “Praise Austin. You can find it on the radio.” It seems this local cathedral offers a weekly gospel service called Love. With my limited vision, I hadn’t even known where to look.
My heart landed at home again, a little expanded from the exchange. And I realized I needed to share this experience, which I think has been happening throughout the country this week. None of us can truly get away from the suffering brought by misunderstanding and bigotry, but we CAN have deep, kind conversations in pools and lakes and rivers all around the country this summer. We can let the coolness wash over our fear and mistrust, heal our hearts and bring us clarity; as we continue the difficult work of learning to sing, sway and clap together. This is how the world changes.