Last fall, I attended the DisGrace Conference on racism at Montreat Camp and Conference Center in North Carolina. The conference continues to be on my mind as we enter Holy Week. The conference speakers suggested that Holy Week (especially Good Friday and Holy Saturday) are good days not only to reflect on Jesus’ death, but to also lament all the ways death pervades our lives.
Holy Saturday shouldn’t just be a day to prepare for Easter festivities. The day that Jesus laid dead in the tomb ought to be space in which we open ourselves to the laments of the world around us, to the ways the world is not right – the laments of injustices still being done; the laments of war and violence; the laments of the ongoing evils of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, ableism and any other way we keep our fellow humanity from flourishing.
Through some powerful plenary speakers and worship services, conference attendees felt the lament of lives lost and lives kept down by racism in our nation. At one point, a conference leader asked the (primarily) white crowd not to seek out a person of color to ask for absolution or forgiveness. Instead, we were invited to sit with the pain, rather than trying to fix it or make ourselves feel better.
I keep coming back to this advice. One of my desires this year has been to open myself to authentic conversations with people who have suffered under the racist systems in our country. But, that means opening myself not only to grief, but also to anger – even anger directed at me for being white. My gut response in the face of intense, angry lament is first to get defensive (“I’m not a racist”) – and second, explain away the pain (“Person X didn’t mean to be racist by that comment”), or superficially try to fix it (“I’ll post something on my Facebook page that shows my solidarity with people of color”).
None of these responses get me to a place where I can hear and receive the stories of genuine pain. I can’t walk with someone in their lament if I put up defenses against being wounded by that lament. Can I hold the anger without getting bruised by it? Can I be present to the pain without explaining it away?
I realized recently that it’s not just lament over things like racism to which I’m tempted to put up defenses. It’s also the laments within our congregation – laments that are so common, it’s easy to become numb to them: grieving the death of loved ones, cancer diagnoses, job losses, broken marriages and the list goes on.
A member of the congregation, who is also a close friend, is grieving the recent death of her husband. Because my friend has been open about her grief, it has given me a new window into the pain. She has experienced her grief through anger and is especially angry at the people and institutions who she expected to be present to her and who failed to show up when she needed them. This includes our congregation, of which I am one of the pastors.
It’s been hard not to get defensive when my friend expresses her anger at the community of which I am a leader. It’s hard not to explain away her pain (“Person X didn’t mean to hurt you by _______”). From the reading I’ve done about grief, it’s normal for people to feel disappointed by the friends and communities they expected to be present for them in their pain and who weren’t. We fail our friends and loved ones sometimes – we don’t always care for one another well, especially as hurting souls endure the unending slog of grief or pain.
So, the question for me in this season is: Can I sit with my friend in her anger without trying to fix it or explain it away? Can I lament with her without being bruised by her frustrations with a community I love? The answer in this season is: Yes. It’s not easy, but I hope that sitting with this lament will make me more open to sitting with other laments – including the evil of racism. And my prayer is that when I sit with the lament of racism, it will embolden me to take real (not superficial) steps toward healing and justice in our nation and world.
Rachel Young is the associate pastor of spiritual formation at Clear Lake Presbyterian Church, in Houston, Texas. She is married to Josh, who also serves on staff at Clear Lake Presbyterian as the director of contemporary worship and media.