Riding with Ghosts on the El

I belong to a Congregational Church that is associated with the United Church of Christ. The U.C.C. is one of those liberal, mainline Protestant denominations for which many evangelicals feel seething contempt. The U.C.C. is different things to different people, however, and operates without a hierarchy of any kind. The differences between congregations can be enormous.

UCC LogoHere in New England, most U.C.C. churches began life as Congregational churches. Some of the congregations are centuries old. Each individual congregation voted on whether to join the U.C.C. when it was forming in the 1950s. As far as I understand the evangelical position, the chief sins of churches like mine are (1) the great majority of us are not biblical literalists and (2) our doors are open to everyone.

If that sounds easy, be assured that it is not. Opening the doors to everyone just about guarantees that you will meet people with whom you disagree, sometimes people whom you dislike. If you harbor prejudices of any kind (race, ethnicity, creed, gender, age, sexual orientation, political persuasion—you know the list) a church like mine will challenge you.

But each U.C.C. church is in some ways unique. Right now, my church is focused on inclusiveness and community outreach and service. Other U.C.C. churches have their own ideas. Some are so different from mine that members of hierarchical denominations have trouble understanding what the U.C.C. really is at its core.

I’ve been thinking about these these things because the U.C.C. has been in the news recently. The Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, of Trinity U.C.C. in Chicago, has been a thorn in Barack Obama’s side as elements of the radical religious right and the progressive secular left joined hands briefly to condemn Rev. Wright and, by association, his former parishioner Sen. Obama. The whole business was so unsavory that, by supreme irony, it proved Rev. Wright’s point: racism is alive and well in this country, whether we want to acknowledge it or not.

Somehow it’s harder to talk about than in the salad days of the civil rights movement. Well-intentioned people of all persuasions like to believe that the era of racism is behind us, and it’s true that many battles have been won. But the ghosts of America’s past remain.

I suspect that most of us know more about these ghosts than we like to admit, but I’ll speak only for myself. I grew up in an all-white town in the whitest state in the nation and went to an overwhelmingly white college. I was a passionate supporter of the civil rights movement, but there wasn’t much going on in Maine.

After college I spent four years in the military where I finally had the opportunity to put my convictions about racial equality into practice, and I did well. Some of my supervisors were white and some were black. The respect I afforded each of them varied, but not along racial lines. When I left the military in 1973, my credentials as a person free of racism were impeccable.

Ghosts, however, are by definition elusive. When they appear, it is impossible not to be surprised. And so it was for me riding the El in Chicago one day in the summer of 1976 when I looked around and suddenly realized that mine was the only white face on the train.

The stab of fear I felt in my gut was irrational, unwarranted, and somehow overpowering.

At one level I understood that everyone on that train was, like me, just trying to get somewhere. And yet. And yet. They were all black. All of them.

The ghosts had taken hold of me, and I was afraid. The received wisdom of my all-white boyhood (“Eeny, meeny, miney, mo…catch a n****r by the toe…”) contained virulent racism that had waited patiently for decades to show itself. My palms were sweating, my heart was pounding, and I sat on the train shaking with fear and humiliation. My wild emotional turmoil soon coalesced into shame, however, as I realized that for years I had talked one set of values and lived another.

When I got off the train, I began the real work of freeing myself from racism. I’ve come a long way since 1976, far enough in fact that I will never again make the easy claim that I have left behind every trace of that old received wisdom.

My U.C.C. church is almost exclusively white. Rev. Wright’s is almost exclusively black. Our shared motto and goal, “That They May All Be One,” remains within our reach but somehow just beyond our grasp.

3 Replies to “Riding with Ghosts on the El”

  1. I never looked closely at the UCC logo (do you call it a logo when it’s a church? Seems kind of corporate…) before I saw it here blown up. What is with the crown? And something that bears a suspicious resemblance to the sovereign’s orb? Doesn’t seem very New World-y to me.

  2. I’ve had a similar experience on the bus in Denver. I was “The White One.” When I got off and walked down the street to meet my mother at her job in a warehouse district I was the only white face on the street. I think they were more alarmed than I was, but after a few weeks they got used to me.

    Thanks for stopping by my blog. I hope you get the taste of Oklahoma you’re looking for.

  3. Here’s what the U.C.C. site has to say about the logo:

    What does the logo symbolize?

    The symbol of the United Church of Christ comprises a crown, cross and orb enclosed within a double oval bearing the name of the church and the prayer of Jesus, “That they may all be one” (John 17:21). It is based on an ancient Christian symbol called the “Cross of Victory” or the “Cross Triumphant.” The crown symbolizes the sovereignty of Christ. The cross recalls the suffering of Christ—his arms outstretched on the wood of the cross—for the salvation of humanity. The orb, divided into three parts, reminds us of Jesus’ command to be his “witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The verse from Scripture reflects our historic commitment to the restoration of unity among the separated churches of Jesus Christ.

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