Memphis, Bridges, and the Baptismal Covenant

A reflection by the Reverend Ben Badgett

It all started for me after Kendall and I had watched two or more hours of news coverage of the July 10 protest on the I-40 bridge in downtown Memphis. It became evident that it was time for me to take a step closer to understanding the condition of my community, particularly for my black neighbors. I decided to attend the Town Hall Meeting at Greater Imani Church. I was glad to learn that some of our staff at Holy Communion (Kenyetta Powell, Cara Modisett and Julie Fike) would also be there, representing our church community.

When I walked into the church, hosts were ushering people up to the balcony for the remaining seating and standing room. Once in the balcony, I was a bit surprised and comforted to find another Episcopal priest.

As I listened to the litany of shouts and calls for order, I struggled, initially, but once I let go of the idea that a distinct structure would prevail, I was able to receive the emotion and expression of the event ­– not unlike viewing Rouault’s Christ in the Suburbs. Yet, sitting on the back row in the balcony what I witnessed was something that I still did not feel a part of – I was on the edge, not in the middle, of the struggle of the room. 

And as the meeting went on, the opportunity to ask questions via index cards came to us sitting in the balcony. And in that moment, I found that perhaps the next small step for me would be to put my voice/question into the conversation of Black Lives Matter/racial reconciliation. I imagined I would hand my card in anonymously and that would be the end of it for me. But I was quite startled when I handed my card back to the representative and she told me to take it down the stairs and get in line behind a microphone. All of a sudden my body got a bit itchy, as I sensed I had gone flush red; I was not going to be anonymous or on the sideline. 

I got out of my chair and walked to the stairs, but I stood there several minutes before I got the courage to go down and get in line. About 10 minutes after I got in line, they asked everyone to get back in their seats. I was relieved to do so, but also, something happened during those ten minutes in line; I found myself in a different place than I did sitting in the balcony. In line I could see the faces of those speaking in the audience and on the stage. I could feel the struggle and frustration in a palpable energy that had all my senses on alert. The tenor of the angry voices and the shifting weight of the restless bodies all around me brought me nearer the center of the pain of my black neighbors and nearer the struggle of our city’s peace officers. This was a very raw place to be. 

As I moved out of line and into a chair, I was invited into conversation by a stranger. He looked to me (perhaps because I was white or because I was in my clergy collar) and wanted to know what I thought. I shared with him how I could feel in a powerful way the struggle that was in the room, the struggle for every voice to be heard, and the struggle to maintain order. My new friend agreed. He also opened my mind up to the reality that the competition for everyone’s voice to be heard in the room stemmed from the fact that everyone in the room’s voice has probably never been heard before or been given space to be heard. He too observed that the cacophony of angry voices was more than just a litany of complaints, it was a true cry for help – an acting out – because no other way has yet to garner the attention that acknowledges the true emotions of the black lives in the community. 

I was and am still most grateful for my 15-minute conversation with him. While I imagined I would be entering deeper into the saga of the event by getting in line with a question, what I found however, was that I entered deeper into the movement by having a conversation with a black man that I did not know. I was able to have the events of the day (and indeed the days, weeks, months, years and generations preceding) interpreted for me from a perspective that was not my own. 

As I sat with him for the rest of the meeting, the message was crystal clear: The voices that have been suppressed can no longer be. He reminded me that it is necessary for the people to express their anger and pain and sadness, if for no other reason than for it to no longer be bottled up. I agree with him, as this notion has deeply Biblical roots. And like him I too, hope that this is only one step of the process, with many more to come. More steps that seek productive solutions, more steps that demonstrate that the struggles of our black neighbors and our police officers are not theirs alone, but they are our entire community’s struggle. 

It all began for me at my baptism 35 years ago, when my parents, godparents and church community promised to raise me within the baptismal covenant. But my conscious entry point into the conversations around Black Lives Matter and racial reconciliation started slowly, about a year ago when I would read the Facebook posts of two of my black friends from seminary. I would feel a spark of compassion, but then immediately find myself frozen and unable to write a response or a post of my own. 

But something happened this past week that took the issues of Black Lives Matter and racial reconciliation from being something on the national news or on Facebook and brought it close to home. As it inevitably would, the protests and marches came to Memphis. And a swell of emotion came flooding out when we all watched the events on the Memphis bridge and the town hall meeting that ensued. 

One side of me was at a loss of what I could do, and the other side of me was begging me to do something. I imagine this place of limbo is a common place many of us find ourselves. Particularly if we do not have a personal experience of receiving racial profiling or unwarranted physical abuse by authorities. We can recognize injustice, but we do not know what our part is in the pursuit of justice. We trust this to others who are specialists or to the system to work it all out. But that, we are finding, does not always work.

In the service of Baptism, the community of the baptized are charged with supporting the each other in their lives of faith. I am grateful for the community that surrounds me every day for the encouragement to enter the conversation more deeply regarding Black Lives Matter and racial reconciliation.

As I write this, I do not know what the future Town Hall Meetings will hold. My hope and prayer is that they will be one more step forward for our entire community. If you are like me, you might be wondering, “what do I do now?” “What one step can I take?”

For a long time, I have been frozen to take any action for fear of doing or saying “the wrong thing.” But because of the community around me (Kendall, Jabriel, Ramelle, Holy Communion parishioners, my unexpected friend and others among the baptized community) I have found that taking one step, small though it may be, is a step that others are willing to take with me.

Published in the August 2016 issue of The Communicator.

Posted by Cara Modisett at 4:15 PM
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