All my childhood and up into my teens, I lived in a family with a profound commitment to the kinds of church settings that are deeply concerned with saving people's souls. Until my parents joined a church with slightly less dramatic overtones, I was treated on a regular basis as far back as I can remember to a steady diet of mind-bendingly emotional appeals known as "altar calls." If you grew up Episcopalian or Catholic, you may have no idea what I'm talking about. But if you've ever sat (or stood--sometimes interminably) through a really full-tilt boogie altar call, just the mention of the term will bring back a graphic memory. If you've experienced as many of them as I have, you may have mixed feelings about the memory: the backdrop of organ music intended to stir the hapless sinners, the singing of hymns about coming home (verse after verse, over and over), the bowed heads of an entire congregation, and the pleading entreaties of a preacher or evangelist who would often come down from the pulpit, mopping his brow with a big white handkerchief, to stand in front of the listeners and meet the men, women, and children who stumble, weeping, down the aisle.
I was an altar call retread. My parents were at best, horrifyingly critical, and at worst, criminal in the various types of attention they showed me and my four younger brothers and sisters. They did the best they could, I know, given the nightmare childhoods they survived themselves. And I don't fault them any more. Hell, the more people I meet and the more students I have, the more I'm not sure anybody in the U.S. had an Ozzie and Harriet family life. But regardless of the factors involved, I was more easily moved than the average kid--or maybe I just needed to be comforted--but over those years before I could opt out of the church-going (which I largely did at my earliest opportunity), I "went down the aisle" like someone who was trying to make the Guinness Book of World Records. I was seeking redemption from my sin, my wrongdoings, my badness (whatever I perceived that to be at the age of ten). I was trying to get my soul saved.
This is not a minor issue for one spoon-fed hell-fire and brimstone from birth (I guess it was) and suffering enough in this life to be infinitely sure that I did not want to suffer for eternity, as well. I didn't want to leave any stone unturned or run the risk of accidently forgetting to confess a "sin" that might cost me my mansion in Heaven.
By the time I left home, however, I was more ambivilent about the process and, will just have to trust that the multiple times I answered the call as a child did the trick because my spiritual development has taken on a different tone these days. And I think of my soul in terms less likely to be savable with a quick trip down the aisle on a Sunday evening and more likely to require some day-to-day effort on my part.
Now, I don't mean to disparage anyone's practice of religion, but most of these posts just kind of write themselves with me along for the ride (and to punch the letters on the keyboard). Besides, I'm given to long introductions sometimes and when I thought about the topic I'm about to discuss, this is just the way it began.
I am a sociologist. Which makes it sound a little like I'm introducing myself at a twelve-step group: "My name is Changeseeker and I'm a sociologist." But I'm not only a sociologist. And it could be (and I'm sure would be, by many sociologist's standards) that I'm not primarily a sociologist. A sociologist is a scholar, right? A highly trained individual committed to publishing their research in peer-reviewed scientific journals. A person with a broader view than the average. A person who takes things everybody already knows and puts them into language nobody can understand. And that isn't me. I am highly trained, no question about that. And I have a broader view--some people think too broad. But while I never turn off my radar and I suck observations out of the air everywhere I go and while I've finished one book and am simultaneously working on three others even as we speak, I'm not one of those "objective" social scientists who works so hard at not having a perspective, they miss noticing that they already have one.
And sometimes that confuses folks. So I think I should probably set the record straight.
To do so, I will first have to write a little bit about William Lloyd Garrison. Garrison was born in Massachusetts in the early 1800's, and according to Wikipedia, was an abolitionist, journalist, and social reformer. Garrison had my skin tone, but he was early and utterly committed to the abolition of slavery and across the board justice for people of color. When he established his own newspaper, The Liberator, at the age of 26, Garrison wrote, referring to his stance against slavery:
"I am aware that many object to the severity of my language, but is there not cause for severity? I will be harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire to sound a moderate alarm...but urge me not to use moderation on a cause like the present...I am in earnest--I will not equivocate--I will not excuse--I will not retreat a single inch--AND I WILL BE HEARD."
Four years later, he was very nearly lynched in the streets of Massachusetts, and after he was arrested to protect him from the mob, he wrote on the wall of his jail cell:
Wm Lloyd Garrison was put into this cell Wednesday afternoon, October 21, 1835, to save him from the violence of a 'respectable and influential' mob, who sought to destroy him for preaching the abominable and dangerous doctrine that 'all men are created equal.'"
For twenty more years, Garrison continued his war on the immorality and injustice of White supremacy, with little support. But eventually he developed enough of a following that more than 3000 people in Framingham, Massachusetts, cheered him on at a 4th of July celebration when he burned a copy of the Declaration of Independence as a protest against the peculiar institution he had fought for so long.
Ultimately, speaking at a celebration honoring the passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (which officially freed all slaves in 1865), Garrison was received by a standing ovation that lasted several minutes and then he said: "I am unspeakably happy to believe that the great mass of my countrymen are now heartily disposed to admit that I have not acted the part of a madman, fanatic, incendiary or traitor." It must have been a satisfying moment for Garrison. How could he have imagined that 141 years later, I would still be seen by many as a nut case for saying nothing more than that White supremacy is an unnatural, unmitigated attack on the dignity of human beings everywhere, regardless of their skin tone? Can you imagine what would happen if I burned a copy of the Declaration of Independence a week from Tuesday? They'd send me to Guantanamo, if I lived through the riot.
How sad for the memory of Garrison. How his memory drives me on! But I'm not committed because I'm trying to save Black folks, any more than Garrison was. I am, like all my spiritual forbears, simply trying to save my soul. And convinced that it takes more than a prayer and a promise to do so.
See, the bottom line is that I believe my mission in life (yes) is to grow spiritually and be useful. Growing spiritually, you'll note, comes first in that sentence. And to the best of my understanding so far, if I grow spiritually, I'll be useful. So I'm not trying to beat out anybody else and win (whatever that would look like). I'm not trying to fix anything per se and most certainly not the entire world system--all on my lonesome. I am simply doing my little part, whatever that is at a given moment, to move myself in a more healthy, more responsible, more conscious direction, recognizing that others may or may not fully appreciate my process or even, God help us, their own.
My teaching, my books, my speaking, my counseling, my meditation, my conversation, my swimming laps--whatever I do is about that process for me and I'm just following my gut and seeing where it leads. That's the reason I tend not to argue. What would be the point? I'm not trying to force my will on anybody else. I'm just telling the truth, like Garrison, loudly and without apology. We all have our little roles to play. I'm playing mine.