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Reflections on the train: Racism and being an ally

Greg Allen Pickett


Every morning when I ride the MARTA train to the church where I work in Atlanta, I sit or stand next to black people. Oftentimes, I am the only white guy on the train. (For a history on the systemic and institutionalized racism that persists to this day in the city of Atlanta that has led to this reality, you can click here.)

Last week, our country convulsed from the untimely deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, both precious children of God. I have been wracked with many emotions. But as I made my morning commute, I realized that what I am feeling must pale in comparison to what my black sisters and brothers are feeling. So for the past week, I wore my clerical collar on my train ride and I asked my fellow riders how they were feeling; this is what I learned.

They are sad. I sat next to a middle-aged man last Thursday and asked him, “How are you doing today?” He began to weep and shared with me the all-encompassing sadness he felt over the events of the week. He told me that while he hasn’t lost a family member to violence, he has had family members treated unfairly by the “justice system” including rough handling and unjustly long incarceration. He told me how sad he was that the “system” treated Alton and Philando as less than human. We wept together and prayed together.

They are scared. I stood next to a young black man on the train this morning and asked him, “How are you doing today?” He told me that he is consciously changing the routes where he walks and drives to avoid neighborhoods where he might be “out of place” and “targeted” by police. He is scared for himself and scared for his friends and family members. He also shared a story of unfair treatment by the justice system when he was detained for simply being black in a neighborhood where he wasn’t welcome. He told me the pretense for his detention was that there had been a crime committed by someone who “fits his description.” He is scared for his safety. We prayed together.

They are fearful. I sat next to a mother who is scared for her sons. We took two seats next to each other and I looked at her and said, “How are you doing today?” She immediately choked up and shared with me the fullness of her fear for the safety of her sons and her nephews. She asked me if I thought that their lives were less valuable than other lives. Of course the answer to that question is no, but our society is infected with the systemic sin of racism, so while I may be able to answer “no” on a personal level, the institutions, systems and structures that make up our society have a different answer. And that answer made my new acquaintance fearful and sad. We cried together and prayed together.

They are angry. I stood next to a black woman for part of my commute and asked her, “How are you doing today?” She responded, “How do you think I am doing?” Her response got a few knowing nods and glances from other passengers. I said, “I’m sorry.” She said, “For what?” I paused for a moment and replied, “For the systems of racism in our country that devalue humans and make the Black Lives Matter movement necessary.” She looked at me and said, “Thank you.” And then we talked and she told me how angry she was at how our country was collectively responding to the clearly different treatment of people under the law. We talked about mass incarceration and disparate sentencing. She shared with me that her brother had received a 10-year sentence for a drug offense, and a white guy she knew received a 2-year sentence for the exact same offense. I apologized again. I missed my stop to hear her story and told her how grateful I was that she shared with me.

They are hopeful. This was the biggest surprise for me. I am feeling hopeless in the midst of everything, yet as I was talking and praying with my sisters and brothers on the train, they expressed hope that things will get better. And they expressed hope that God is present, even in the midst of all of this injustice, and that God is actively at work, redeeming and reconciling. I was reminded that God is God and we are not.

What did I learn from this experience? Most days when I get on the train, I keep my head down. I usually read a book. Ironically, for the past six months, I have been reading books about race in the U.S. including Jim Wallis’ “America’s Original Sin,” Ian Haney Lopez’s “Dog Whistle Politics” and Ta Neshi Coates’ “Between the World and Me.” (I commend these books to anyone who is trying to understand what is happening in our country.) But with my nose buried in a book, I have not connected with the people around me, the very people who are impacted by the sin I am reading about.

I learned that to be an ally, I need to close my mouth and listen, really listen, and pay attention to the world around me.

I also learned that I need to hand over the mic, the bullhorn, the pulpit, the Facebook status and the blog post. My role as an ally is to help amplify the voices that would otherwise not be heard. I need to leverage my privilege is to not just “hear the voices of people long silenced,” but I need to actively build a platform for those voices to be heard.

I learned that it isn’t about me. While I may be wracked with emotion, I can never fully understand the plight and the feelings of my black sisters and brothers. I will strive to live with empathy and compassion, but I need to know that as a white person, I can never fully understand the experience of being black in this country.

And I learned that it is about me. I can’t forget that I am part of the very structures that are causing this injustice. I don’t get to escape being complicit in the systemic sin of racism in our country and our institutions. And I need to do my own wrestling with racism. I need to ask myself why I don’t often make eye contact on the train, or why I hold a little too tightly to my backpack, or why I live in Decatur and not other parts of Atlanta.

I learned that I need to put myself in the situations that make me uncomfortable. I need to interact with people who are different from me. I need to look up from my book, make eye contact, ask authentic questions and be prepared for authentic answers, answers that may challenge me and make me uncomfortable. It is in that discomfort that I begin to grow.

I learned about the power of prayer. I learned how to pray from my sisters and brothers on the train that I prayed with. I learned that even in the midst of profound darkness, there can be hope and light.

I keep coming back to the Brief Statement of Faith, adopted by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in 1983. I preached on it for Pentecost Sunday, and these words continue to ring in my head. May the Holy Spirit continue to move among us, making its presence known:

In a broken and fearful world
the Spirit gives us courage
to pray without ceasing,
to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior,
to unmask idolatries in Church and culture,
to hear the voices of peoples long silenced,
and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.

Greg Allen Pickett 2GREG ALLEN-PICKETT serves as the director of global mission at First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta. Prior to coming to FPC, Greg was the general manager for Presbyterian World Mission of the PC(USA). Greg has an amazing partner in ministry in his wife, Jessica, and a gregarious and compassionate daughter in elementary school, along with a ridiculous lab-beagle mix dog named Luna.