Running Water and Justice: Will I continue to stand by the shore?

On Monday morning I meant to wake up early and go for a run, and I did wake up early, but then I had to strip the sheets off my two boys' beds, and pick toys up off the floor, and stand on the stool to get the Honey Nut Cheerios and pour them into a bowl for my 4-year-old son's breakfast.

By now it wasn't so early anymore, but I already had my shorts and running shoes on, so I yelled something about why was everyone up already, and my husband yelled back that my podcast was too loud, and I burst out the door, past the floor covered in cardboard, marking off the work site where our bathroom tub had developed a leak and now the whole room, the whole house, the whole world - was in chaos.

I'm not a good runner but that morning I had to run away, as if I could outrun the coronavirus, the construction, the mounting sense that everything I'd formerly believed was being called into question - including my sense of myself and my ability to believe that I was good.

Our plumbing went awry; the toilet didn't flush, and the stinking waste built up - not only in our 1950s-built bathroom but in our world, the stinking refuse of white privilege and white supremacy and racism and redlined neighborhoods and the graph of the stock market, jutting up like a steep mountain, mirroring the graph next to it, the rate of Covid infection and deaths in black and brown and poor American neighborhoods and towns.

The racism that had surrounded my white American world, made plain to me in school, taught to me in history class, lived in white churches and on white sports teams, and now the videotaped murder of George Floyd, by the Minneapolis Police, four miles away. He was unarmed. He couldn't breathe. They didn't care. Racism had lodged itself in my white body, stuck there. I couldn't flush it out.

I could point out racism plainly everywhere else, here in our "nice" progressive city: the diversity initiatives and trainings that masked the racist jokes and epithets; the way white people created white spaces and then thought it was so neat when a Black person or two was invited in, provided they didn't stand out too much, didn't talk too loud, didn't make anyone too uncomfortable. I'd spent much of my life making sure that the people around me were comfortable, especially white men. I still do. I didn't worry enough about the fact that my attention to their comfort was squelching God's drive to justice. I didn't worry enough about the ways I made Black men and women uncomfortable - worse, made them feel rejected and isolated - when I privileged white peoples' comfort, especially white men.

When white people scorned Colin Kaepernick for kneeling at the anthem, I explained his gesture to a white Evangelical audience. I sought out Black preachers to give sermons at the mostly white churches where I preached. I read books that taught me about Black culture; I had a 2Pac cassette tape; my first story for Sports Illustrated addressed inequities and injustices faced by primarily Black college athletes who were exploited and used by athletic programs, and then thrown out when their eligibility expired.

After George Floyd's death, I checked in with some of my Black friends and family members. I wrote and preached about racism. I attended protest marches.

The last two paragraphs I can explain only as a futile effort to exonerate myself, to say "I am not like them; I am different," and then fade my own racism into the background, like a lot of white people do when we post something Trump did or something about white supremacists and say how awful it is, and we get lots of likes and retweets. Am I OK? Let's talk about something else again.

See what I did? Isn't it great? I'm an ally, right?

Look at him, don't look at me. I'm not ready to look at myself.

And then I walk slowly backwards. We pray again for peace.

I'm not a liberal. Quit saying that.
I have to write and speak so that people can hear it.
You shouldn't shame people. 

I return to the box where it's safe. I've tiptoed out before. Last time I got a couple of threatening emails. That was it. It was enough. I went back where I belonged. I took my son to school. I did yoga. I did what I could. The world moved on.

Another video. Another Black person dead.

Photos of coronavirus-stricken lungs.

Ventilators stacked on top of each other.

They would not save America's breath.

The desperate voice in Ramah, Rachel weeping for her children, Black American mothers sound an alarm. It dulls into a faint cry, miles away. One of those sounds you know you can hear but you don't know what it is. A scream. A lament. A bell tolls. Someone was dying.

Make it stop.

 So white people sought to end the noise, the fires, the looting, the aftereffects of systematic genocide and injustice and mayhem and a weaponized movement of white supremacy and anarchy. This corporate statement. That panel discussion. The rawness of George Floyd's murder had to be made palatable.

Last week, just two weeks after George Floyd's murder in the city where I live, I felt it all building up inside of me. I'd read, I'd learned, I'd written, I'd preached. I'd explained what our City Council meant by defunding the police. I'd tried to amplify the voices of Black speakers, writers, pastors, and theologians who had taught me a great deal.

At the same time, with one foot in the white moderate world where I'd spent most of my life, I felt the backlash boiling up. I remembered all the police officers I knew. I remembered how hard it was to talk about this stuff. The angry emails. The uncomfortable conversations.

My hopefulness and resolve started to weaken. I felt the fragility set in.

A man had died, but this angry phone message? That could not stand.

I tried to write again, but it was cowardly. A Black colleague of mine read it and saw right through it. She told me how I'd taken Black pain and made it about whiteness; took their story and made it mine, like so many things white people have claimed in this land that never belonged to us. I didn't publish the piece.

For the next several days, when I woke in the night or paused in the day, I found myself taking a racial inventory of my life. The time I was selected for sportswriting groups exclusively for women and people of color, and how it was one of the only times when I had teachers who weren't white, and how I responded. The writing group I was in that intimidated me, how I felt like the Black women in the group were so much more outspoken and braver than I was, and I didn't realize that we would talk so much about race, and I felt out of my depth, and then I counted the people in the group and it was nearly even among white and black students. The time my sister-in-law, who is Black, came to visit, and commented on the Black Lives Matter signs in the neighborhood, and I handled it awkwardly. I remembered talking about work with friends of mine, and a company we referred to as a slave ship - not cringing until afterwards. In the moment laughing it off. It didn't hurt us. It barely made us uncomfortable, embarrassed, briefly lifted a veil we preferred to stay behind.

I have been so invested in appearances, in acceptance by the dominant white male culture.

I have recognized my own lack of power, as a white woman, and I've sought access to power in the hands of white men, many of whom have enriched my life and given me opportunities.

In return, I too often offered silence in the face of injustice, promising myself that I would write about it later.


I'm running again, that Monday morning. Hot air chokes my lungs. I pretend it doesn't affect my breath. A police car doesn't stop me and ask about a burglary. I don't get shot at for running. I don't die. People wave. They nod. No one asks where I live or where I'm from.

I come to the edge of the lake, part of a chain of lakes in Minneapolis named by the indigenous tribes who paddled canoes and built homes here and were forced out of their land by white people and had their children taken away and sent to boarding schools where they were abused, and who are now killed by the police at a higher rate than any other ethnic group in America. White people renamed the lake next to this one for former Vice President and South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun, who owned enslaved people and was a staunch defender of slavery. When I heard about the movement to change the name of the lake back to its indigenous name, I thought it was fine. In my head I usually still called it Lake Calhoun, because symbols of injustice and racism are so commonplace for white people that they've become part of the landscape, details in a busy life.

Here at the edge of Lake Harriet, named for the wife of a white American soldier who rode west to battle and kill indigenous people, the water is still. I look down at its ripples and see only a mirror. It feels like I'm lying in a bathtub and all the water is running out slowly, leaving me naked and exposed for all the world to see.

As the waters of Harriet and Calhoun run together, reflecting and obscuring the sunlight high above, a toxic stew of green and brown algae rises to the surface. White America's racism can no longer hide behind grainy photos of hooded men in Alabama. The smell can no longer be covered up. The sickness is killing too many to go unnoticed. The deniers are marked by their strong stench. The long reign of injustice is nearing its bloody end, as the souls of the dead rise up before us and separate the sheep from the goats.

Beneath the toxic sludge is clear, fresh lake water. The vestiges of melted ice. It streams over my hands. We are eternally washing our hands. The soiled waters just make us sicker.

Underneath is living water. Justice.

In the words of the esteemed Rev. Dr. William Barber II: "There is too much death in the land. ... Accepting unnatural and unnecessary death is no longer an option. The nation should have never accepted it," paraphrase mine.

Barber preached these words on Sunday, June 14, at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. He listed fact after terrible fact about the unnatural and unnecessary death and murder of Black people in America.

Barber was right. He told the truth. He dived into the toxic sludge at the top of the lake. Unlike me he did not stand, afraid, next to the surface, smelling the stench but afraid to dive in, because of what I'd leave behind at the shore of Harriet and Calhoun. The toxic privilege that put its knee on another's neck: by telling the truth about it could I stand my clear reflection in the waters below?

Barber wasn't done. He kept preaching. The Bible opened itself before him. He started in Amos 5, God's disgust at American Christians' avoidance of seeking justice, the ways we scorned justice by trying to prove our righteousness with expensive, beautiful church buildings and financial offerings and the rise of "Christian" political power.

Barber, carrying the weight of the too often deadly and fraught Black experience in America, dived into the sludge, and underneath the sludge, the toxic waters of Harriet and Calhoun gave way to the clear waters of Bde Make Ska and Bde Unma.

Here was the living water. I'd been afraid to jump heedlessly into the sludge, to admit the hold that racism held not over America generally but over me personally, and how I'd benefited from it and blinded myself to it, treading water fearfully in the tainted waters of Harriet and Calhoun.

Barber was ending his sermon: "It may look like death is winning," he told a nation buckling under coronavirus and police brutality and economic warfare and hate. "... but the water rushed in."

I turn away from the lake. I'm ready to run again, but this time I am no longer running away from myself, away from the truth, but running toward a more just and honest American future, despite how it might make white people feel, despite how it might make me feel.

Another song begins to play in my earphones.

Where Justice rolls down like a mighty water ... (Amos 5:24)

It's an obscure worship song I used to belt out with my friend Sonya at a conservative Baptist Bible Camp in the Minnesota Northwoods. We'd sing it in the morning at chapel after playing a game at night called Persecution where we pretended to be Roman soldiers and early Christians.

It was the kind of place where young Evangelicals are taught to march for life, wear purity rings, and participate in conservative Christian culture, exclusively. Even today in 2020, its statement of faith declares marriage is only between one male and one female.

In that place I first sang these words of Amos that would impel Rev. Barber to preach rejection of American white Christian supremacy and seek the living water of racial justice, economic justice, and the dignity of each individual human life.

Despite all white Christians in America have done to postpone God's justice, to soften it or smooth it or make it palatable to ears weaned on racism, the water of God's justice is crashing down anyway. God took these words from my fundamentalist Bible Camp and used them to remind me that the water of justice is rolling down, across my city, across my country, crashing into interstates and farms and little cities and towns and down the boulevards and alleyways of America's greatest cities, toppling Confederate monuments and rewriting elementary school textbooks.

Too often I have tried to dam the water of justice, to take its power for myself.

I want to follow Rev. Barber through the sludge and into the mighty ever-flowing stream. I fear I am still standing at the edge of Lake Harriet, afraid to see my reflection in the waters of justice.

It rolls down anyway, and soon I will have to choose: will I continue to stand still and drown in Harriet and Calhoun, or will I jump into the fast-moving current of Bde Maka Ska and Bde Unma, wash away my sin and shame, and swim toward justice and a better America?

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