Listening Space: An authentic conversation on race, tragedy, and healing

As I sat across the table from my friend Caron, each of us nursed a coffee, hers a dark roast, mine a cold brew. And we talked about pain and hope. Pain at recent tragedies affecting the nation – the fatal police shootings of young African-American men that seem to recur with startling regularity, spurring a racial divide that our current politics only seems to widen. But also hope in what Dr. King called “the American dream” – not material prosperity, but the essential promise of equality, freedom, and justice for each and every person in this country.

My friend at the table was Rev. Dr. Caron M. Allen. As we talked quietly in a coffee shop in downtown Colorado Springs a few weeks ago, my heart quickened at the unusual authenticity of this conversation: a thirtysomething white guy and a sixtysomething African-American woman talking honestly, face to face, about race, tragedy, reconciliation, and healing.

I had come to this meeting to listen. I left feeling blessed and encouraged by what Caron shared.

Caron’s resume is an impressive one. She’s the Director of Religious Affairs for the Pikes Peak Chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an Atlanta-based civil rights organization founded by Dr. King and committed to carrying on his legacy of equality and justice through non-violence.

She’s an associate minister at Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church, a diverse, forward-thinking congregation in Colorado Springs rooted in the traditions of the African-American Baptist church.

She was a law enforcement officer for over thirty three years, serving first in Georgia and later in Colorado with the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office.

She’s the author of From Whence They Came, a moving history of the struggles and triumphs of eight generations of her family, beginning with Eular, a slave woman on a Virginia plantation in the 1860s.

And finally, she’s a devoted wife, daughter, granddaughter, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. (Yes, you read that right – Caron is one of six living generations of her family.)

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Henry and Caron Allen

When Caron and I sat down together, my goal wasn’t to do an interview. The conversation for me was a kind of listening space, a place to seek perspective that I don’t have, to learn about struggles I haven’t had to go through.

And maybe this is where reconciliation and healing begin? Not with policies and protests (as important as those are), but with authentic friendship, a willingness to walk alongside our brothers and sisters, to understand their pain so we can understand their hope.

I asked Caron if we could continue our conversation here at two | tablets, and she graciously agreed.

IS: So let me start where maybe it’s hardest to start. Can you talk about recent tragedies affecting African-Americans, from Ferguson to Charleston and beyond, and how those have impacted you and your family?

CA: First off, let me say that I’m so grateful for this conversation, too. It’s in the context of genuine friendship that we can honestly talk about our anxieties, fears, and the state of racial affairs in our country.

The recent killings of African-Americans, especially young men, have revived a fear in the African-American community across this country that we haven’t experienced since the 1950s. Every time our sons or grandsons or nephews or brothers or fathers leave the house, we are fearful they will not return. And what makes this so infuriating is that they’re at risk even if they’re not doing anything wrong.

I have a grandson who is a senior at Arizona State University. He will graduate next year after having attended school on an ROTC scholarship. After graduation he will serve a minimum of six years in the United States Army to fulfill his obligation, but we expect he will make the military a career. He summed up his fear and frustration when he said to me a few weeks ago, “Every time I leave the house, I’m a target.”

As he spoke I began to cry, not just for him or my other grandsons, but for the millions of young American men who have this same anxiety pressed upon them by their involuntary status of being of African descent.

How unfair and tragic! My wonderful grandson, who has done everything his family and country has asked of him (work hard, study hard, obey the law, don’t get into any trouble, respect your neighbor, serve your country), does not feel safe in the country he is preparing to risk his life to defend.  This makes me immensely sad and extremely angry; so angry that it frightened me. I have really had to pray and seek the Lord to address my anger.

IS: As a minister, civil rights leader, and former police officer, you bring a unique perspective to this crisis. What does racial reconciliation and healing look like for our country and for the church? Where do we begin? How do we move forward?

CAI’ve been asking God very similar questions in prayer. I wish I could say I have complete definitive answers from Him, but not yet. One thing I do believe is that reconciliation must begin in the Christian community. We must talk openly and honestly about these issues.

Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC

I believe there is an unreasonable, almost reflexive fear of black men by many white Americans. I don’t know why this is or where it began. But I do know we have to talk candidly about the things that annoy, frustrate, anger, and frighten us about one another. We must have real conversations, whether one-on-one, like you and I did, or in small groups within our churches and communities. We must be prepared to hear things said that we may not like, but listen and receive each other’s perspective as their truth.

And we cannot think this 400-year-old problem will be fixed after one or two conversations. It has taken 400 years to create this racial monster, and it will take some time to slay it. But how long?

We also have to talk frankly about the barriers to reconciliation and healing:  lust and greed and ignorance and fear and denial and anger and racism. And I believe the enemy of the saints, Satan, has used all the aforementioned to promote and perpetuate this evil.

I grew up during the turbulence of the civil rights movement but I was taught by my parents and grandparents to respect and obey the law. I was taught, as a whole, the law is right and good. And when it isn’t fair or equal to all, we must work within the law, the legal system itself to change it and make it fair. That’s why I became a police officer: to serve my community and to do my part to make it fair for all.

IS: In the wake of tragedies in Baton Rouge (Alton Sterling), St. Paul (Philando Castile), and Dallas (five police officers), I can tell you, there were a lot of white people like me who felt both deep sadness and a profound … helplessness. We thought, “We don’t understand why this is happening, but we want to understand.” And we wondered, “What can we do? How can we help?”

CA: First, I believe prayer is the answer. We must seek God for answers and guidance.

Secondly, we need to LOVE one another; love like God loves us. We need to learn to value and respect those who are different than us. This is where I believe as Christians we are falling short. Oftentimes our respect and love is extended only to those who look like us, think like us, and believe like us. I admit I have been guilty of this. We have to own up to our own narrow-mindedness and bigotry.

Now, by loving I don’t mean we agree with everything and everybody. But we acknowledge their essential dignity, the image of God in each person, and the fact that God loves those who are not like me, as much as He loves me.

Third, another thing I believe He is directing us to do is to speak up. What you and others who are like-minded can do is to express out loud, in public, to your families and friends who may disagree, your feelings of helplessness and your need to do something to make things better. Be vocal in all the circles and groups in which you have membership. Speak out against racism in all its ugly forms and against all groups who are victimized by it.

Dr. King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington, Aug. 28, 1963

Finally, don’t become satisfied that you’re not victims. Be grateful that your children are safe from such atrocities but don’t be satisfied, thinking it can never happen to you. Dr. King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Don’t become comfortable, not even in your realization and admission of the wrongness of the injustice. Don’t allow yourself to feel better because you know it’s wrong. What are you prepared to do?

IS: A pastor in Queens, New York who I admire a lot, Rich Villodas, says that “[racial] reconciliation requires regular confession, repentance and forgiveness.” Can you talk about the role of repentance and forgiveness in reconciliation?

CA: I think we first need to talk about conciliation, a first-time coming together. Reconciliation implies we were once together and then torn apart. We, black and white people, have never been together. We have always been enemies because of slavery. This has to be acknowledged and dealt with, person-to-person, friend-to-friend, race-to-race.

I agree with Pastor Villodas on the value of confession, repentance, and forgiveness. Confession means admitting that we’ve done wrong (or neglected to do what’s right). It means acknowledging that the legacy of slavery is still with us. It means owning up to the discrimination, bigotry, and pain that people of color continue to experience in this country.

Repentance and forgiveness have to come from both sides. For white Americans, repentance means understanding and working to correct the systemic injustices that affect millions of African-Americans – in education, employment, criminal justice, and other areas. And African-Americans must repent of their own hatred and anger, and must forgive white America for the wrongs that have been done.

Until we can do that, I fear we are doomed to a continuation of the animosity and violence between us. I don’t say we should forget the past, because those who forget their past are destined to repeat it. But we must forgive the past. We must allow our remembering to compel us to do whatever it takes never to go back to our old way of living.

IS: There’s a lot of talk now about the need for “community policing.” As a former police officer, can you comment on that?

CA: In 2010 I attended a fellowship program at Boston University. Former NYC Police Commissioner William Bratton was one of the speakers, and he said, “The law enforcement agency in a community is in the best possible position to facilitate healing between the law enforcement agency and the community, as it pertains to race.”

I agree. This “healing” begins with an active community policing approach. I believe officers getting out of their vehicles for a short period of time during their tour of duty and engaging the members of the community will facilitate relationship. These informal, positive contacts will help eliminate fear and resentment and will aid in crime solving. Unfortunately, many law enforcement agencies feel it’s too dangerous.

IS: Tell me about the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

CA: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was established under the leadership of Dr. King in 1957 to coordinate the action of protest groups throughout the South. The catalyst for its formation was the Montgomery bus boycott. King invited southern black ministers to the Southern Negro Leaders Conference on Transportation and Nonviolent Integration (later to be renamed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference) at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. The ministers who attended released a manifesto in which they called upon white southerners to ‘‘realize that the treatment of Negroes is a basic spiritual problem.… Far too many have silently stood by.” In addition, they encouraged black Americans ‘‘to seek justice and reject all injustice’’ and to dedicate themselves to the principle of nonviolence ‘‘no matter how great the provocation.”

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PPSCLC President Henry Allen with local law enforcement

SCLC is a now a nationwide organization made up of chapters and affiliates with programs that affect the lives of all Americans: north, south, east and west. Its sphere of influence and interests has become international in scope because the human rights movement transcends national boundaries (www.nationalsclc.org).

The Pikes Peak SCLC was formed by my husband, Henry Allen, in February of this year to fill a void in the community of active civil rights organization. In a press release issued in April, Allen stated, “I am not convinced that this community will have an active, viable, credible, committed civil rights organization without the SCLC and therefore, thousands of people in our community will not have a voice. I believe the SCLC can be that voice.”

IS: During our coffee klatsch, we also talked about the principles of “Kingian Nonviolence” – can you talk about those, too?

CA: Kingian Nonviolence is a philosophy and methodology that provides the knowledge, skills, and motivation necessary for people to pursue peaceful strategies for solving personal and community problems. This approach is critical if the epidemic of violence is to be eradicated. Often mistaken for being simply the absence of, or opposite of violence, Nonviolence is, rather, a systematic framework of both conceptual principles and pragmatic strategies to reduce violence and promote positive peace at the personal, community, national, and global levels.

In recent history, nonviolence has come to be recognized as a significant alternative for students, communities, and whole societies to effectively deal with the conditions they face locally, nationally, and internationally.  During the 20th century, the successful social movements of Gandhi in India and Dr. King in the United States led to the public’s realization of completely new dimensions of nonviolent conflict reconciliation.  This approach does not depend on major material or technological instruments, but utilizes skills and methodologies that people already possess.

I encourage everyone to learn more about the philosophy of Kingian Nonviolence, including the six principles (the “will”) and the six steps (the “skill”). Read more here.

IS: How can people get involved with what SCLC is doing here in the Pikes Peak region?

CA: You can go to our website and join, or call us at (719) 368-6423.

IS: Tell me more about Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church.

CA: I love Emmanuel! It is a place of uninhibited worship and praise. Our services are active and vibrant and the preaching and teaching is firmly rooted in the Word of God. Our Senior Pastor, Cleveland Thompson, is a great man of God who loves people and works to serve our community through the ministry at what we fondly call the “E.” We were founded in 1963 and began our church in the home of one of our founding members. By the grace of God, we now have a north location at 3615 Vickers Drive and a south location at 1 South Walnut. We are predominantly African-American but we are becoming more and more multi-cultural. This is exciting to us that we are able to minister to the entire community. You can learn more about us at www.godiswithus.org.

And come visit us on Sunday! Maybe authentic conversation starts in simply worshiping together the God we love and serve.

embc-2
Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church in Colorado Springs

IS: I’ve read part of From Whence They Came (and I need to finish it!). I hear you’re working on another book?

CA: Yes! Can you tell that I’m a little excited? Actually, my second book is completed. I’m now waiting on guidance from the Holy Spirit as to when to submit it for publication.  Believe me, I’m ready but I don’t believe I have the word from the Lord to move forward yet.

The book is entitled The Pursuit of Excellence: Thriving in the Midst of Life’s Storms.

Pursuing excellence is living in a manner that gives God glory in everything you do, whether it is creating a nurturing environment in your home for your spouse and children, performing your employment, operating in ministry, or building and fostering loving relationships. Excellence is required in everything!

The Pursuit of Excellence (POE) was born out of an eight year period of extreme challenges, disappointments, and failures in my life. The POE began as a single seminar and initially addressed one aspect of my life: thriving in a challenging work environment. It then expanded to address how to thrive in a difficult home and challenging ministry environments, as well as how to prepare for an interview.

Each chapter includes action items and a brief prayer. The action items are things for you to do, steps for you to take, practical application of the Word to your life that will facilitate your pursuit of excellence.

Currently, I am in the planning stages for a conference that’s based on the book. I want to get this information into hands of people who are struggling with the challenges of life. I know the POE will make a difference!


Note: Caron and I plan to continue our conversations. Probably over coffee. Maybe you can join us next time.