Breaking the Bubble, Breaking the Silence – Jerrod Lowry

Jerrod LowryThis week we celebrated the ministry of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr and those who, like him, understood that they could not be silent in the face of discrimination and injustice. They realized that they had to stand up and say something. They had to do something. Their stance and their action led the country to make progressive steps toward civil rights. There are some who want to argue that in retrospect, the progress of the civil rights movement was insignificant. Nevertheless, progress, no matter how small, is still progress. The fight for justice and equality is not over. The crossing of one mountain often reveals a valley on the other side that must also be traversed. This week, I had a chance to both look back and see the mountain scaled by the Civil Rights Movement and look ahead into a deep, dark, and depressing valley.

On the Friday of the King Holiday weekend, my seven year old came home from school with a disturbing report. We sat around the kitchen table sharing the highlights of our day and my son says “some white people owned brown people during slavery times…and the good white people gave the brown people their last names”. I wanted to jump in and correct him, but I let him finish. As he concludes he tells me this is what he learned in class. Immediately I knew I needed to have a conversation with my son’s teacher. I was hoping that my son misunderstood the teacher’s lesson. Maybe the teacher’s lesson on slavery was misinterpreted by a classmate on the playground spewing the ignorance of parents. Surely my son was not learning in school that owning other human beings is good? Or that last names were given like a gift from a benevolent owner to his/her loyal and loving property?

My wife and I immediately emailed the teacher to set up a conference for clarity. Unfortunately the conversation my wife and I had with the teacher validated our fears. The teacher informed us that the conversation about the enslavement of Africans in America came up as the children tried to understand the timeline of American history. While talking about Martin Luther King Jr., the teacher showed a picture of him delivering his famous speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. “Did MLK live during the time of Abraham Lincoln?” a child asked. The teacher told us this led another child to ask “did all white people hate brown people and own slaves?”. The teacher explained her struggle to redirect the class and the lesson back on Martin Luther King Jr. while answering the questions of her class. Furthermore the teacher informed us that the curriculum did not support a conversation about slavery. The teacher explained to us that she tried to put distance between lifetimes of Lincoln and King. So she tried to explain that there were white people who marched with King and there were white people who worked toward abolition. And then she told the children a story about her family.

Before my wife and me the teacher proudly began to tell the story of her own family, as she had before with her students. She told the kids that her ancestors owned slaves, but they were good to their slaves. “The slaves loved them so much that they took my family’s last name and stayed even after emancipation”, the teacher tells my wife and I. She us that she abhors the practice of slavery. Yet in this story about her family she attempts to make the case that there is something redemptive and honorable about the way her slave owning family treated their slaves. She glowed as she talked about how good and nice they must have been to their property – people they owned. She made it seem as though the institution of slavery was deplorable only in the cases when the slave owners were not good to their slaves. My son did not misunderstand her lesson.

I was stunned and angry. I felt numb and tried my best to control my facial expressions. I thought it best that I kept silent. Clearly this teacher was taught this by family members. This story must have been passed down by generations within this family until it reached the heart of this young woman. It is doubtful that she has reached out to the descendants of the slaves owned by her family to find out if they passed on such a glowing story of her loving, slave owning ancestors. I cannot explain to you how proud and delusional she looked while telling us her family story.

Since she shared her story, we had to share our story with her. My wife encouraged me to speak up. We had to share with her that despite how she feels about her slave owning ancestors it is important to teach the more acceptable history of the dehumanizing institution slavery was and is. We sat with this teacher and told her how slavery and its role in American race relations impacts our lives as an interracial couple. She needed to know that portions of our family, very proud of their slave holding ancestry, do not accept or welcome us or our children to family functions. We did not want to hurt her feelings but we could not allow her to live in a protective bubble without opportunity to see and hear another side of the same story. We had to speak up for our son and his classmates and even for this mis-educated educator.

I believe – I actually hope – that she is just a product of her very white, monochromatic, secluded, suburban Utah life. Had we not chosen to sit at the table with her and speak up about our family reality she would be allowed to go on thinking that slavery was a deplorable institution because some owners were mean. Truth be told, even after our conversation, she may continue to hold her ancestors up as the models for the righteous way to own slaves. At least now, after hearing our story, she has a chance to see another side.

I often find myself sitting at tables as the lone racial ethnic representative or one of few around the table. (I now refer to tables as the symbolic places where discussions are held and decisions made that effect the masses or larger bodies). This has been a reality of mine since high school and exacerbated by living in Utah.

In general I don’t mind being a diverse presence at tables. I’m happy that many of these tables consider it important to have some diverse representation. However, I must constantly remind myself that sitting at the table is not good enough!

I must confess there have been times when I allowed myself to be silent when I should have spoken up. I have muzzled myself, fearing that I may be labeled as an angry black male and then nothing I share, valid or invalid, would be heard. I confess that I have remained silent because I was concerned that I would not be liked and seen as an adversarial presence for sharing my views. I have sat silently holding back angry tears and refusing to even defend myself when I knew I was right.

Silence is not helpful. Silence does not help those absent from the table with experiences and views similar to yours, who only wish your mutual understanding could be shared. Silence does not help those around the table who have not had similar experiences and are merely unaware that another perspective is even possible. Silence does not help those around the table who know and choose to remain ignorant to viewpoints other than their own. And most importantly, remaining silent does not help me. My silence simultaneously belittles and denigrates my experience, knowledge, and this voice that God has given me. As King reminded the clergy of Birmingham in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, silence is tantamount to endorsing the evils of the status quo. You can be in favor of what is happening or you can be opposed. If you don’t cry out “no”, if you say nothing at all, you might as well be screaming “yes” in support of what is already happening.

In the past I have advocated for connection. I really thought all we need to do is to be at the table. Once people get to see and meet those they have not had a chance to interact with, attitudes will change. I now believe that presence at the table and building relationships are important but only if there is an opportunity for mutual and genuine sharing. There must be a chance to share where you are. There must be safe space to hear where I have been. Tell me about your slave owning ancestors, but let me tell you about what slavery and race relations are doing to my family.

Additionally, there must be a chance for all around the table to assess and acknowledge that there are still voices absent from the table. These voices bring different insights and experiences. We should be pro-active and invite those voices to enter the conversation.

To you, who feel alienated from tables of decision and conversation, continue to shout until you are heard. Continue to demand a place at the table. Build tables of your own and dare to welcome all to your own table. Model the inclusion that you are being denied. Do not allow yourself to remain silent. And please do not muzzle yourself.

My seven year old son and I are working on a presentation to share with his class about the slave trade of African peoples in America. We will educate his classmates. We will educate his teacher. And we may even teach ourselves the power of our own voice as we share our story.

I hope this little article reminds us that we must continue to stand up and raise our voices. We must do this for the good of others. We must do this for our children. We must do this for ourselves.

 

Jerrod Lowry is a proud graduate of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary and the pastor of Community of Grace PC(USA) in Sandy, Utah. He is a husband and a father of three, who in his spare time dreams he really had spare time.

12 comments to Breaking the Bubble, Breaking the Silence – Jerrod Lowry

  • Jerrod, I am new to you and to your blog, through a Facebook share. When I saw your name in the tiny FB thumbnail, I thought “what a coincidence”. When I read through the first part of your post, I was convicted to share my thoughts with my pastor friend who shared your post. When I got to the part about silence and the harm it causes, and the healing it does not allow, I knew I needed to reach out to you.

    I am most definitely, though not intentionally, a product of a “very white, monochromatic, secluded, suburban Utah life,” except that I grew up in Alaska, and now live in Oregon. Same adjectives, same situation.

    And my maiden name is Lowery. Different spelling, but as I know from other family members’ genealogical studies, name spellings were often changed between Lowry/Lowery. I also know that there is a history of at least some of our Irish immigrant ancestors owning slaves. It is highly likely that your family name came about because some of my family ancestors owned some of your family ancestors.

    Ugh. Help me out, please. What would you hope for? I don’t even know what the right response would be. Do I apologize, ask for forgiveness, make sure my boys know better (you better BELIEVE they will be reading this), ask for connection? I don’t want to be insincere, I hope I would NEVER believe or say the kinds of things your son’s teacher said, but there has to be better.

    What is the right thing? What is the thing that will help us all make the world better? I want to know, and more than that I want to act. It shouldn’t have to be your responsibility to tell me how, but I’m stumped and don’t want to do the wrong thing. That of course would result in nothing happening, and that’s not right either.

    What do you think? Would love to know.

    • Jerrod B. Lowry

      Let me first say that your response has both touched and moved me. I wanted time to sit and think about your question but I felt like I needed to at least write you to let you know how much this means to me. I am overcome in general by the outpouring of responses to this article but to have one that is so personal as it may relate to my own family history – WOW!

      In all honesty, I don’t know what to say or how to respond. I am glad that you will be sharing this article and your family history with your children. Slavery is a difficult topic and to connect ourselves with it (on either side) is difficult. There are some African Americans that don’t want to talk about it as much as there are American’s of other cultures that don’t want to talk about it or think it’s just water under the bridge. We must share it and talk about it. So again kudos for talking about it with your kids.

      Let me also encourage you to do some digging and family research. I’ve run into the same info about the spelling of Lowry/Lowery. While living in NC I had a chance to meet Native Americans along the NC coast who also shared the last name (with an “e”) and tell tribal stories of protecting runaway slaves. Apparently these runaways married their protectors and the name was shared with descendants.

      If indeed we find out that we have a shared family history then we should connect to talk about reparations. I almost jokingly throw out the term, not because I’m looking for money (my 40 acres and a mule) but because I think the heart of the term is about attempting to repair. If it is the case that we have a shared family history then we should talk to find out how we can repair the divide that slavery and time and shame have put between our families. We should be intentional from then on to do what we can to nurture family connections and bonds all while lifting up and sharing the tragic and painful truths of how our family connected in the first place. Talking about it will be awkward and uncomfortable but healing is often itchy and uncomfortable. And who knows when the healing is complete? Will we (both you and I) ever be healed? What does healing will look like or feel like? There will always be a scar and therefore always a lesson to be remembered and story to be told.

      In many ways we might become pioneers if we decide to do anything. I can’t think of a model or example of any kind that we can use or tweak. Like you I don’t know what to do. Guess this means that most often people find out and do nothing. We certainly have that option. But if we do nothing else, (whether we have a mutual family connection or not) let us model and teach our children a healthy way to live with our past. Let us teach them that the past still lives and affects our present interactions and struggles. You cannot undo what your ancestors may have done. And I cannot change what my ancestors endured. Together we can do our absolute best to change what is taking place now and model for our children that believers are called to pursue justice as we walk humbly with God.

      Thank you for sharing.
      Your brother in Christ,
      J. B. Lowry

      • I was so happy to see your response, and I am responding to the response publicly so folks will know that I would LOVE to follow this up somehow. I am excited by the possibilities, and by the opportunity to have some honest conversation. Maybe my kids can share your son’s presentation? Maybe we can trace back any commonality between our families? Maybe we can attempt reparations by sharing our stories?

        I don’t know the way forward either, but I absolutely want there to be one. Awkward, itchy and uncomfortable don’t bother me, but silence does. Let’s be in touch, and see what we can do!

        Your sister in Christ,
        Tara Lowery R

  • Bill

    Jerrod,
    As a recovering racists my self, and the descendant of slave owning families, I appreciate the fact that I have had folks like you and your father to challenge by thinking. I can only image the number so stupid things I have said over a life time. I take the words of The Brief Statement of Faith to help me. “we violate the image of God in others and ourselves, accept lies as truth, exploit neighbor and nature,”

    May God continue to call us all back to the table of truth and Justice.

    Your friend and Brother,
    Bill Neely

  • Jerrod B. Lowry

    Let me first say that your response has both touched and moved me. I wanted time to sit and think about your question but I felt like I needed to at least write you to let you know how much this means to me. I am overcome in general by the outpouring of responses to this article but to have one that is so personal as it may relate to my own family history – WOW!

    In all honesty, I don’t know what to say or how to respond. I am glad that you will be sharing this article and your family history with your children. Slavery is a difficult topic and to connect ourselves with it (on either side) is difficult. There are some African Americans that don’t want to talk about it as much as there are American’s of other cultures that don’t want to talk about it or think it’s just water under the bridge. We must share it and talk about it. So again kudos for talking about it with your kids.

    Let me also encourage you to do some digging and family research. I’ve run into the same info about the spelling of Lowry/Lowery. While living in NC I had a chance to meet Native Americans along the NC coast who also shared the last name (with an “e”) and tell tribal stories of protecting runaway slaves. Apparently these runaways married their protectors and the name was shared with descendants.

    If indeed we find out that we have a shared family history then we should connect to talk about reparations. I almost jokingly throw out the term, not because I’m looking for money (my 40 acres and a mule) but because I think the heart of the term is about attempting to repair. If it is the case that we have a shared family history then we should talk to find out how we can repair the divide that slavery and time and shame have put between our families. We should be intentional from then on to do what we can to nurture family connections and bonds all while lifting up and sharing the tragic and painful truths of how our family connected in the first place. Talking about it will be awkward and uncomfortable but healing is often itchy and uncomfortable. And who knows when the healing is complete? Will we (both you and I) ever be healed? What does healing will look like or feel like? There will always be a scar and therefore always a lesson to be remembered and story to be told.

    In many ways we might become pioneers if we decide to do anything. I can’t think of a model or example of any kind that we can use or tweak. Like you I don’t know what to do. Guess this means that most often people find out and do nothing. We certainly have that option. But if we do nothing else, (whether we have a mutual family connection or not) let us model and teach our children a healthy way to live with our past. Let us teach them that the past still lives and affects our present interactions and struggles. You cannot undo what your ancestors may have done. And I cannot change what my ancestors endured. Together we can do our absolute best to change what is taking place now and model for our children that believers are called to pursue justice as we walk humbly with God.

    Thank you for sharing.

    Your brother in Christ,
    J. B. Lowry

  • Ted Churn

    Jerrod, thank you for sharing this story. We are so quick to justify the acts of our ancestors and deny the basic truth that God never meant for anyone to ever own another person.
    Miss you here in New Hope
    Ted

    • Jerrod Lowry

      Ted,

      I pray that you and ministry in New Hope are thriving. Please tell my dear friends in New Hope that I said hello. And if you would please share with the beloved saints at St. Paul(Louisburg) that I continue to pray for them.

      Grace and Peace
      JBL

      • Ted Churn

        Will do. Funny story —-I went to Worship at St. Paul’s one Sunday. The elders ran into Felicia Hardy’s office (she is the CLP) and said, ‘The E.P. is here. What did we do wrong?” But it was Felicia’s response that was classic: “I don’t know what you did wrong why don’t you go ask him and find out?”

  • Dear Jerrod,
    Challenging your child’s teacher is never easy. I still remember how angry my son’s kindergarten teacher was with me when I asked her about a classroom book, “Boys are Doctors, Girls are Nurses.” She was defensive, yelled at me, and told me her kids couldn’t read–she just had it there for the pictures. I was so stunned I didn’t know what to say. It didn’t help that I was her pastor.
    I wish I could have responded the kind and gentle way you did; I was too surprised to say anything helpful at all.
    I wish overt sexism and racism didn’t shock me into silence. I just saw the old video “How to Tell Someone They Sound Racist” and found it helpful.
    At a women’s conference 25 year ago, an African American seminarian sitting behind me said in frustration, “I am tired of educating white people.” It is up to white people to educate themselves. I just left an all-white congregation that resented being educated–many thought racism was not a problem any more.
    Safe tables are hard to find. I am finally, finally in a place where despite an almost all-white congregation, the church is eager to educate themselves, and longs to learn how we can change ourselves and end racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia. To that end, I’d like your permission to share your story in a sermon, properly credited. Please let me know.

    May God’s spirit fill you and your family with wisdom and energy for the continuing struggle.
    Peace,
    Susan Barnes
    St. Andrew Presbyterian Church

    • Jerrod Lowry

      Susan,

      I pray the difficulties you faced in the past serve as fuel and inspiration when you receive push-back with your current congregation. Nevertheless, keep fighting the good fight always encouraging us to live faithfully as we pursue paths of justice and equality.

      You certainly have my permission to share my story as long as you promise to preach with passion and power!
      :-)

      Grace and Peace
      JBL

    • Jerrod Lowry

      Susan,

      I would also appreciate if you gave credit to http://www.ecclesio.com for posting my article. Please encourage listeners to read this article and the many other wonderful pieces on the site as well.
      Thanks!