When I was a child, maybe eight or nine years old, my mom called a Brazilian nut a “nigger toe.” I remember bursting into tears as she explained that she meant no harm; that’s what it was called in her home growing up. I wasn’t sure why I cried, I just knew that what she had said was wrong and the word was fueled with hate. I didn’t know what to do other than to tell her that what she said was wrong and she shouldn’t say it again. She cried, too.
I was a freshman in high school on September 11, 2001. We were all excused from school, and I went home and watched the planes hit the towers over and over until after a few hours, I felt desensitized. When President Bush declared a “war on terror,” I remember bursting into tears. I wasn’t sure why I cried, I just knew that what he had said was wrong and those words were fueled with hate. I didn’t know what to do other than to tell people that what he was doing was wrong and we shouldn’t be at war. I assume he did not cry.
I was 23 when my fiancé told me he thought someone he met was “cool, for a lesbian.” I asked him repeatedly what he meant by that, to which he responded that he didn’t know, he just knew most lesbians were butch, tried to be dudes, and weren’t cool. I remember bursting into tears. I wasn’t sure why I cried, I just knew that what he had said was wrong and those words were fueled with hate. I didn’t know what to do other than to tell him that what he said was wrong and he shouldn’t say it again. We broke up as I came out, and we both cried.
My formational experience has taught me that I don’t need to know something is wrong for any reason other than my gut tells me it is. I believe in visceral emotion, and I believe it has brought me to become the person I am today. I know that I strive to be a changemaker, and even though I don’t know what that means yet, I know I’m on my way.
I opened the autobiography of Anne Braden and read a brief synopsis on her life. I thought to myself, “This woman sounds incredible. I wonder if Pastor Joe has heard of her.” Joe is the pastor at my church, First United Methodist Church-Boulder. I emailed him asking if he would like to meet to talk about her, and he responded quickly with the following:
Hi Allison —
I would love to do this. Also — Anne Braden was a friend of mine and my mentor as a white anti-racist. I stayed in her home many times. When do we start?
I screamed with delight. Only my luck could allow me something that was so golden! I wanted to know everything – not so much about Joe and Anne and their communication, but what Joe learned about the white anti-racist movement and what inspired him to take the steps he did and led him to where he now is today.
The first thing Joe said about Anne was that her house had fleas; she had animals there that weren’t exactly the cleanest and she wanted everyone to stay. He then said “Don’t take that as a reflection of her character, though!” and laughed. I enjoyed that he could look back on trying times with a smile.
Joe was influenced quickly in Chicago working with a student organization in the 60’s with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a young pastor. He worked with the Committee to Eliminate Institutional Racism under the General Board of Discipleship. He also joined the Racial Justice Working Group ministry under the National Council of Churches, and the Programme to Combat Racism under the World Council of Churches. Associating and aligning himself with these programs was dangerous in the same way it was dangerous for Anne Braden. These were progressive, some say too progressive. They verged on Communism and were risky business for a privileged white male. For Joe, he believed that for himself and for the church, they were both at their best when joined in strength with groups of the racially oppressed.
Joe had many moments where he knew that he needed to do something, but he wasn’t sure if he was in the right place. A turning point for him was when he met with two indigenous groups: a group of Japanese indigenous people who were turned away and pushed north from their land and a group of Peruvian indigenous people. Even though they spoke completely different languages and were cross-culturally so different, Joe brought them together and encouraged discussion. The two groups found that they had the same planting rituals, and formed a partnership and eternal bond in ways they didn’t plan on from that. That was his eye-opening moment. That was when he knew he was a changemaker.
Joe had a life similar to Anne Braden’s – he was a white person that didn’t come from an incredibly poor family. He had an education. He knew that these things set him apart from the African-American community that he wanted so much to help and change. He was met with struggles that differed from Braden’s, though. In the 80’s, he was working as a pastor in a black community, but in a predominantly white church. He worked for rights and equality of African-Americans there, and when the first black candidate for mayor stepped up, Joe publicly endorsed him. His opponent was a white incumbent who had been in office for two terms, and the man’s father was the mayor before that. The black mayor won despite backlash from the white community and from many in Joe’s church. Through Joe’s endorsement, he joined the mayor’s board. Upon “very little” research, Joe found out that cities were selling water cheaper to white communities with wealth than to up-and-coming black communities. Joe immediately got the word out as far as he could. After that, for six months, Joe and his family received 24-hour surveillance from off-duty African-American police officers surrounding his home because his life and his family’s life were in danger because of the whistleblowing. There were attempts to burn down his home and his wife was incessantly harassed by police officers nearly every time she drove her car around town – being pulled over and cited for anything they could come up with just to get her name in the books. Eventually, the bishop had to move him and his family for fear of their safety.
It leaves me wondering – what would I do to work for a cause? Joe saw that he could “climb the ladder” so to speak at his job, and decided it was better pay and opportunity for him if he attempted to become a bishop. He did what he thought was right, but when it came time to vote, Joe’s name was nowhere as an option. He found out that the church saw him as a “troublemaker” because of the organizations that he aligned himself with, and Joe couldn’t see anything farther from the truth. Instead, at that moment that he found out he wasn’t in the running for a bishop position, as he crossed a street in Indianapolis, he decided that he would allow the three oppressed groups that he believed needed the most help – women, the LGBT community, and African-Americans – to decide what his use on this planet would be. His stance hasn’t changed ever since.
For Joe and for Anne Braden, it seems they chose to become pawns for the surrounding communities that needed them. Joe sees himself not as a leader, but as “always present at the table.” He wants to be a vessel, as I believe Anne very much was, for change. He does not need to be a face or lead a front; rather, he’ll do the grunt work and focus on the groundwork necessary for change.
I was 25 when I first entered graduate school for a Master of Arts in Social Change. I entered as a struggling (financially, emotionally, and spiritually) student who had a thirst for knowledge and a need for change. I tried to explain why I was coming to the program to anyone who would listen, but couldn’t find the words. I remember bursting into tears. I wasn’t sure why, I just knew that what the world had to offer wasn’t enough and too many things were fueled with hate. I didn’t know what to do other than tell people I was a social changemaker. I stopped crying (eventually) and started to do something about it, and I haven’t looked back.