GRDC News - June 2004
 

The Circle of Our Family

 

By Charlotte Clarke
WOKR Community Affairs Director
Producer "Many Voices, Many Visions"

St. Bernard's Commencement Address

Good evening to you all, Bishop Clark, members of the Board of Trustees, faculty and staff, graduates of St. Bernard's Class of 2004, valued families and friends.

It's an honor and a pleasure to be here with you in this beautiful setting at St. Mary's on this important day of your life, a day ending one chapter and beginning a new one. I know the journey here has been a long one for some of you - long in terms of miles down the thruway and long in terms years of study, as most of you continued to work full time jobs and raise families while pursuing the degrees you are receiving this evening.

I'm so impressed by your accomplishments and the significance of the degrees you have earned: Master of Arts in Theology, Master of Divinity, Graduate Certification Theology, Diocesan Certificate for Designated Ministry. I'm also impressed at the sacrifices you have made in order to continue your education, not to benefit yourself, but to benefit others. You could have gone for an MBA at another graduate school in town and doubled or tripled your salaries, but instead, you chose St. Bernard's with its long tradition of preparing its students to serve by transforming information into knowledge, and refining knowledge into wisdom and compassion.

I know you are a very special group of people and I have wondered what I could possibly have to say that would be of value to you. The one topic I have explored in depth - and explored over a life time - is the topic of diversity. It's a huge topic and I think a very important one as we move into the 21st Century. The National Leadership Conference Education Fund predicted several years ago that the two skills necessary for success in the 21st Century are computer skills and cultural competency. Well, most of us are getting the hang of computers, but I'm not so sure we've mastered the cultural competency piece!

We have only to turn on our television set tonight to see that. We are at war, right now, with a nation whose culture we do not understand. We see soldiers from around our country, and our own community, in a life and death struggle with people of a different nationality, a different ethnic background, a different religion, a different historical context, speaking a different language. How difficult it must be for them, all parties concerned. It's heart breaking to watch the fear and misunderstandings spiral out of control.

What is cultural competency? It's having an understanding of a cultural group that is different form your own. Of recognizing that different does not mean wrong. It is the result of efforts taken to study their history, literature, language, and traditions. Obviously, we can't be culturally competent with every culture in the world, but we can certainly make an effort to do so where it counts most. As a nation, we can educate more of our young people in the world's languages and cultures so that we can act responsibly and wisely as the greatest military and economic power ever seen in human history. Cultural sensitivity and cultural competency are important tools in negotiating peace. If these non-violent tools are missing from the tool box, violence, once again, will be seen as the only way out.

Bringing cultural sensitivity and cultural competency to the community level, we must educate more of our young people about the rich diversity that exists outside of their neighborhoods, which are still divided, pretty much, into black and white school districts fifty years after Brown vs Board of Education made school segregation illegal.

Why do we tend to self segregate? To hang out with those that look, think, talk and act like us? It is human nature to feel uncomfortable - even threatened - by people who are different from us. Most of us tend to react to difference in one of three ways: 1.) deny it 2.) change it (so it is like us ) and 3.) if the first two don't work, destroy it! Fortunately, there is another way to deal with diversity. You can allow it! You can open your heart and mind and arms and embrace it!

That's what I would like to talk to you about tonight. I have found that I can co-exist with people and cultures different from mine and actually benefit from them! In fact, I'm a bigger and better person because there is diversity in my life. We can't change the world (it's taken me along time to come to terms with that fact), but we can change our self. And when we do that, the world also changes in a small but significant way.

My story begins in Portville, New York, a little town in the Southern Tier near St. Bonaventure. Back in the 50's, Portville had about 2000 people total. There were only two blacks that I knew of, a mother and daughter. The girl was two grades a head of me, so I only saw her in the halls and never really knew her. The rest of the folks were pretty much similar. There was a little religious diversity - Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Catholic churches. And a retarded boy that everybody knew and watched out for.

It wasn't until my senior year when we had a foreign exchange student from Germany that I had any inkling, really, that there was a whole other world outside Portville, and more importantly, another whole way of looking at the world! Konrad surprised us with his observations of American life that we all took so for granted. For one thing, he took American history seriously and got the highest mark in our class on the American History Regents exam. (That was little embarrassing.)

He carried an umbrella when it rained. I never saw any boys in my class do that!! He played Junior Varsity football and thought it very different form the fussball that they played in Germany. He said, "In Germany we use sport to build the body up, here you use it to tear the body down." I became fascinated that I was able to see things in a different way through his eyes!

Thanks to Konrad, I went off to college and majored in German. After spending my junior year abroad in Germany, I was hooked on the big, beautiful world. When I returned to Allegheny College, I fell in love with and married a foreign exchange student who went on for graduate work at Cornell University and then got a job with the United Nations. I was thrilled to get back to that larger world again and for the next 13 years lived in developing countries in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Latin America. One of the great things about hanging out in a different culture is that mundane, everyday tasks become an exciting adventure! A simple act, like buying a loaf of break, becomes a proud accomplishment when you're speaking a foreign language.

In diversity circles, we talk about the fish in the water. "How's the water?" we ask the fish. "What water?" the fish replies. The fact is, we swim in our culture much as the fish swims in the water. It's just there. We don't give it much thought. But throw the fish on dry land, it's another story! It's the same thing with us. Immerse yourself in another culture, and you will see your own for the first time!

It makes you wonder, "What would you be like if you had been born in that other culture and were taught other mores, truths, and traditions?" Those of us who speak more than one language have learned that language, itself, is a factor in determining how we view the world.

What I learned from traveling the globe was that there are many, many ways of looking at the same thing…differently. A day in the life of, you name it: a Thai family, a Jordanian family, a Kenyan family, a Brazilian family are all different, but they are also…all the same. It's that relationship between being different and being the same…being separate and being connected…being a part of the whole and being the whole…that has made my diversity walk more than an academic study. For me it has been a lifelong journey and a spiritual path.

Your own spiritual path which has taken you to St. Bernard's offers a perfect example of the complementary nature of unity in diversity. The stained glass windows in your sanctuary are so beautiful. There are so many separate pieces of glass in them, all colors, shapes and sizes, but in the creative hands of the artist, they became much more than the mere sum of their parts, they became an inspiring work of art that feeds the soul and nurtures the spirit.

I see us all as little pieces of stained glass and the Great Creator is making of us his own work of art. He needs us all to be different in order to make his beautiful window. Sometimes, though, I think He might wonder why he gave us free will, since some of us don't want to be part of the window or we don't want to let other pieces of glass be part of the window!

Inclusivity is the lesson we learn from diversity. In order to make diversity fulfill its great promise, there must be a unifying force, one that allows all the parts of the whole their rightful place in the on-going creation of life. That's really what the diversity movement of the 90's was all about. It was about building inclusive workplaces and communities. But it wasn't called the "Inclusivity Movement" it was called the "Diversity Movement"!

Remember back to the 90's when diversity was the big buzz word in business? Companies were trying to get it, value it, manage it, and leverage it, all for a better bottom line? (Of course, legislation had been passed making it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, gender orientation or ability. I'm sure that fact motivated part of their enthusiasm.) But whether for pro-active reasons or reactive reasons, terms like multi-cultural, cross cultural, cultural competency were bandied about in board rooms across the country. Companies created new positions with titles like: "Diversity Manager", "Diversity Officer", Vice President of Diversity Initiatives and Global Supply Chain". There seemed to be a new found perception that cultural diversity was a good thing. So, why did it take us until the 90's to recognize and prize the diversity of our great country?

Well, if we look back to the 50's, we see the roots of the diversity movement in the early civil rights movement. Indeed, three days from now, on May 17th is the 50th Anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education. On that day in 1954, the Supreme Court struck down the "separate but equal" doctrine of American public schools making school segregation no longer legal and allowing "black" children to go to "white" children's schools. In the case of the Brown sisters, although they lived only two blocks from their neighborhood school, they were not allowed in it because it was a white school and they were black. Those two young girls had to walk two miles and pass through a rail road yard to get to their black school. Actually, it always boggles my mind talking about the "black" children, the "white" children and the "Brown" children. Isn't it strange to color code children?

OK. Time now for a short news flash about race. There is only one, the human one. The concept of different races is a faulty one according to the latest genetic research of Dr. Spencer Wells, who wrote the book and produced the PBS special "Journey of Man" tracing the human genome back to its origin. According to research on human genetic make-up, we all go back to one man in Africa about 60,000 years ago. So, the whole idea of "race" is a social construct, and technically - since we all trace our ancestry back to Africa - every person in this country is an African-American regardless of skin color. By the way, did you know that genetically there is a greater difference between a tall man and a short man, than a black man and a white man?

Back to the civil rights movement which was all about the fact that black people were not different from white people and deserved the same rights and privileges. Well, like a wild fire, the righteous energy of the black struggle spread to and re-ignited the women's rights movement, which in turn encouraged the oppressed Native Americans, Hispanic and Latinos, who were followed by the Asians and Pacific Islanders! Each group was inspired and empowered by the others to claim their voice and assert their rights. In 1990 came the ADA, the American Disabilities Act, giving rights to people with disabilities. Sometimes, I think that the reserved parking places for people with disabilities is one of the few signs that the human race is, in fact, making some progress!

Also, in the 90's and continuing into the present, are the voices of gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans-gendered people clamoring to be heard, demanding their rights. All of these movements came to a head in the 90's and with all these voices crying to be heard, it got pretty intense, very exciting and sometimes, quite noisy.

What did they want? What do they still want? Very simple, really. They just want to be part of the family, invited to the party, to sit at the table, to be included in the American dream, which promises in its Declaration of Independence, "That all men (and women!) are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Former Harvard professor Cornell West says America is not just a land mass on the North American continent. It's an idea. It's a work in progress, an experiment in democracy. And as a pluralistic democracy, I believe its diversity is one of America's greatest strengths. In fact, as we enter the 21st Century, the diversity movement of the 90's might be one of the very best preparations we've got for our leadership role in this world, although, we're certainly not there yet.

After 9/11, I don't think any of us underestimates the challenges of living in this increasingly connected, and increasing diverse and discordant world. On the other hand,remember the millennium celebrations? I don't think I was the only one who shed some tears at the incredible sight of the new day dawning around the world from East to West…all the celebrations…people singing in different languages…dancing in different costumes. All the fireworks and festivities! That day we all understood one another and felt super connected. We were one people that day, sharing common ground. It felt like the beginning of a new era. But it wasn't to be, not quite yet.

Let's come back now to our own community. What about diversity in Rochester? What are people doing here to build an inclusive community? Quite a lot really. We are blessed with a lot of cultural diversity here and everybody is eager to share their culture. The indigenous people, the Iroquois or Haudenesaunee, share their culture at Ganondagan outside of Victor all summer long. In fact, tomorrow, May 15th is Community Day, a free day for the public from 10-4 p.m.. Ganondagan is the site of a Seneca town that covered Boughton Hill from 1655 to 1687. It's a New York State Historic Site which has an historic replica of an Iroquois longhouse, a nature trail, a book store and a visitor's center. A visit to Ganondagan is a wonderful way to learn about this region's first cultural group.

This month is also Asian Pacific Islander American Heritage month and there is a film festival going on and two photo exhibits, one this Sunday at Rochester Museum and Science Center and one May 23 at the Memorial Art Gallery. This community is Rochester's fastest growing community with an estimated 20,000 people from some 50 Asian and Pacific Island nations.

Summer is a great time for cultural festivals. In June you have the West Indian Festival with steel drums and Caribbean food. In August the Black community has its Clarissa Street Reunion. If you like jazz and soul food, this is a great festival. It's also a wonderful opportunity to be one of the few whites in a predominantly black setting. This is a great gift in terms of understanding what it must feel like to walk in a "minority's" shoes. There's also the Puerto Rican Festival, East Indian celebrations, Irish and German festivals, Scottish, Italian, Ukrainian, the list goes on.

For me, it's like a smorgasbord, not only of food, but also ideas. Each culture has little gems of culture or wisdom to pass along. From Latino culture I have learned the importance of the circle. Of making sure that everyone has a chance to speak, even though we may be speaking for six hours and not accomplish the goal as quickly as my Northern European linear mode thinking would like! I've learned relationship must not be sacrificed for getting to the goal as quickly as possible.

From African Americans I have learned the admirable quality of patience in the face of persecution and discrimination. I've also learned from the joy and pain expressed through their wonderful spirituals. I go to a black church periodically. The music and eloquent oratory skills of the Black church tradition feed my soul in a special way.

From Native American friends I have learned the Thanksgiving Prayer that is recited at the beginning of all gatherings. What impresses me so is the range of their thankfulness. They give thanks to the sun, the moon, the water, the earth, and all that lives on the earth, from the two-legged to the four-legged, to the winged, the crawling, to the plants and stone people. There is such a profound respect for all living things in that culture. All creation is considered of equal importance. The Lokata have a saying for it: "Mitakuye Oyasin" - we are all related.

The Native Americans also have a wise relationship with time. They make every decision taking into consideration that it will affect seven generations. I've often heard whites complaining about blacks getting affirmative action favors saying the injustices of slavery were back then and this is now. For them 140 years ago is ancient history and has nothing to do with now. Their culture is about speed. They want it fast and they want it now! Whether news media or fast food. They fail to understand the seven generation principle and that the legacy of slavery casts a long, long shadow. External oppression becomes internalized - goes underground so to speak - and people continue to feel oppressed even when the external oppression is removed.

Earlier this week on Wednesday, I was one of several Rochesterians who met with a delegation from the Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. They were here to talk about how Rochester could connect its own rich underground railroad history with that of the Freedom Center by creating a Freedom Station here. After the meeting, Dr. David Anderson of the Rochester/Monroe County Freedom Trail Commission, took us to Mt. Hope Cemetery to the grave of Fredrick Douglass. I will never forget what I witnessed there. The elderly African American historian and senior advisor of the Freedom Center, stood silently in front of the tall granite memorial of his hero, and then bent down with his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands and quietly sobbed. It's very painful to look back at this country's past history and see the injustices that have not yet been fully addressed and which continue to profoundly affect those living today.

But the power is always in the present, so we can lift our eyes to the future and know that every action we take in our lives today will affect the next seven generations to come. This is a powerful teaching our Native American brothers and sisters give us. And there is much we can do!

Rochester offers two outstanding programs if you want to work in the healing of race relations. One program, Moving Beyond Racism, was begun in 1996 by a small group of religious leaders from different faith traditions and is still going on. The program lasts 9 weeks and at the end of it people are asked to commit to an action item. I'd like to share three results with you. Bill Coffee of St. Mary's initiated a prayer vigil for victims of violence in our community. Every time there is a homicide, Bill invites people to bring a flower and join him on the site at noon the day after for prayers. Since most of the city's murders are drug related and take place in the inner city where there is a dangerous concentration of poverty and despair, Bill and other whites have made new friends as they have joined mourners in these predominantly African American neighborhoods.

Another outgrowth of Moving Beyond Racism is the Middle Passage Remembrance Ceremony on the shore of Lake Ontario the second Saturday in June every year. The ceremony honors the millions of enslaved people who died en route to the Americas and whose bodies were tossed into the ocean. This was started by Bob and Cathy Cobbett who went through the Moving Beyond Racism program. They now collaborate with Black community leaders and together they organize this annual event. A third outgrowth of Moving Beyond Racism is the monthly MBR Book Group held at the Pittsford Barnes and Noble bookstore on the first Monday every month. Book selections address a wide variety of racial, ethnic, and diversity topics.

Another unique program is Mayor Johnson's Biracial Partnerships for Community Progress bringing together two people from different races who commit to meeting 16 times over the course of a year for the purpose of making a new friend. This program is unique in that it started with our city's top leaders and change makers and is now in its third year, working its way through businesses, schools, and agencies to the community at large. The long term goal is to offer this powerful experience to thousands of Rochesterians, transforming our city into a national model for healing the wounds of past racism and creating new inclusive communities of the future where all are welcome.

It has been my pleasure to talk to you this evening about a topic I love. I have benefited so much from inviting diversity into my life…diversity of race, ethnicity, creed, age, gender, gender orientation and ability. It has taught me about the world I live in and the cultural lenses through which I see and experience that world. But perhaps most importantly, it has increased my capacity to love. And, as far as I can figure out, that is the purpose of life on earth.

I would like to leave you with three final thoughts about diversity and inclusivity from three enlightened teachers who have inspired my journey. Their words resonate in my heart. First, French priest and paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin who said, "We are not humans having a spiritual experience, we are spirit having a human experience." When I'm confounded by human diversity, I try to remember our true identity and where we come from.

The second teacher is Rumi, a Sufi Muslim holy man, who lived in Persia or modern day Iran, some 800 years ago. His poetry has been on the best sellers list for some time now. His mystical words of universal oneness are in sharp contrast to the violent conflicts among Jew, Christian and Muslim in that biblical region today. He says,

"Out beyond ideas of wrong doing and right doing,
There is a field - I'll meet you there -
When the soul lies down in that grass,
Ideas, language, even the words "each other" don't make any sense"

Finally, the next time you see someone who looks different from you and you would call them "other", remember this wisdom from Mother Teresa, that tiny little figure with the huge heart whom the whole world called "mother". She said, "We draw the circle of our family too small."

Delivered May 14, 2004

 


 

 
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