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After the Mountaintop

This was presented by Laura Knightly to the congregation on January 18th, 2015, as part of our MLK Sunday.

I truly do believe Dr. King when he - in this last sermon - says that he had been to the mountaintop and seen the Promised Land. It’s encouraging to catch the vision of someone like Dr. King; someone to look up to who gives you something to look out toward. But what I love about Dr. King is that after having been to the top, and having seen this view, he came back down, and started making it a reality on solid ground.

It seems a natural step, of course, but when you think about it, how often do we hear the praises of coming down a mountain ever sung? We hear of the triumph of the human spirit while summiting Mount Everest, but who ever cheers for the bit about climbing back down again? The only reference that comes to mind is the Stevie Nick’s song, “Landslide,” but from the sounds of it, even she didn’t come back down willingly.

As Dr. King said,

It's all right to talk about "long white robes over yonder," in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here. It's all right to talk about "streets flowing with milk and honey," but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can't eat three square meals a day. It's all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God's preachers must talk about the New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.

Well, that’s certainly less glamorous, but, it’s quite obvious with current events that there’s still lots of this type of work to do.

When I was asked to share some words here today, I was asked how I am an ally in this kind of work. I hope it’s not rude of me to say, but I’m sort of tiring of that language. I’m weary of buzzwords. Every time I hear the phrase “white privilege,” my stomach clamps up.

OK, that’s just me being overly dramatic. But that type of language - and its permeation across all platforms of social media - make me feel a bit like Bob Wiley, the loveable hypochondriac portrayed by Bill Murray in the movie, What About Bob? Bob had a preferred trick for assuring himself that he didn’t have a serious health condition, and that was to fake the symptoms.

“If I fake it," he says, "then I don’t have it!”

That’s sort of how I feel when I begin to approach the issue of race in a way that is 90% intentions-oriented, stuck in an intellectual web, lacking in action. It has come to the point where I feel trapped on top of the mountain. It’s not that I don’t believe in white privilege as an important part of race issues in America today, or don’t accept it as part of my identity. It’s just that I want to get down off the mountain and start working on things already.

I frame things in my mind in this way: rather than thinking of myself as an ally, I think of myself as a fellow human being. I intentionally live in areas where the realities of others become part of my life. I have learned that it is impossible for me to experience certain realities in the same way a person of color does, and I’ve had to accept that as out of my control. What is within my control is maintaining an awareness of these realities instead of hiding away at the top of the mountain, cultivating an illusion of distance. I find that proximity helps a lot. It puts me in a community without my having to fake it, Bob Wiley style. It puts me in a position to help once I’m aware of an issue.

My experience as a foster parent thus far has taught me that there are very few moments in this work of radical alignment with others that feel rewarding (especially when the others are a feisty two-year-old, her complicated biological family and a veritable circus of social workers, attorneys and lawyers). It’s hard to know what the right actions are, and it’s impossible to ignore the fundamental tragedies and failures that led to this arrangement in the first place. It’s difficult to talk about the work of foster parenting without feeling boastful, but what I mean to say is that once I learned of the existence of the foster care system, I felt a sense of responsibility that prompted me into action. Foster parenting has wrung me dry, but I can’t regret following awareness with action. I think everyone has an issue they’re aware of and feel passionate about, and have to wonder what the world would be like if everyone followed it with action.

I have found that distancing myself from social media activism (or as some call it, “slacktivism”) has increased my presence and rootedness in my real-life community. It has turned my vision away from the view of the end-goal and put it back on the long, winding road to get there. To be honest, I feel that we are caught in an age of awareness, which sounds like a good thing except that it ultimately leads to one very crowded mountaintop.

I’m moved emotionally and physically by the words of Dr. King when he puts forth the question reframed by the Good Samaritan who doesn't ask, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?“ but instead asks, "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”

I’m convicted when Dr. King says, “We must develop a dangerous unselfishness.”

I keep the view of the Promised Land in my mind’s eye. And I start climbing down.


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