SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2011       Personal Memory Ethnographies

Isaiah Grissum

The Power of Difference

One Sunday morning, in the spring of 2011, I woke up and went to church with my family as usual, but there was an unusual vibe about this specific Sunday. My father being the Pastor came in the sanctuary from his office substantially late, the ceremony programs were nowhere to be found. There was an invisible force in the atmosphere that had everyone in the sanctuary uneasy, but little did we know that the proverbial elephant hadn’t yet made its grand entrance into the room. By the time my father had come into the sanctuary to make his address to the congregation every soul in the room was in a quiet chaos. My father seemed to be making his usual address until he threw a major league type curve at the congregation, announcing that we, the congregation, would be closing the church doors for the day to go fellowship with an all-white church on the other side of town. Complete silence filled the room of our predominantly black congregation for a long few seconds. We all received the information, were shocked, came out of shock in that same three second span, put on our holy facades, smiled and all pretended to joyfully abandon our comfort zone and go fellowship with our white brothers and sisters on the other side of town.

While sitting in the car, making our way to the other church, my mind was at last getting a grip on what kind of day it was going to be. Although I knew I was going to be uncomfortable, having been affiliated with the church and situations like this my whole twenty year old life, I and my brothers and sisters knew all of the external tricks to pull out the bag to hide internal discomfort. We arrived at the church. The first one to spot us was the Youth Pastor from the white church. When he noticed who we were, his eyes glazed as if he had seen a ghost. He clearly was shocked to see us, but like we all had done before leaving our church, he came out of his moment of shock rather quickly and greeted us like a true brother in the Lord…

It was as if I could actually see what he was thinking; his non-verbal cues gave away every bit of what he was thinking like an oblivious younger sibling would... Wow these people are so bold it’s weird. I don’t have a problem with minorities or anything of that nature, we all have agreed to civil rights; but c’mon let us have our Sunday mornings people. He couldn’t have made his feelings more obvious. Nevertheless he escorted us all into the sanctuary to see all the rest of our white brothers and sisters. Before we entered the sanctuary with not one slight bit of reluctance… I’m glad to get them off my hands, but is it right for me to feel this way? Why do I feel so uncomfortable with these people, when I am supposed to have the love of God in my very being; the love that recognizes no skin color, personality, and causes me to treat everyone the same… Aha! It must be my environment, or is it? I better get in there before they notice that something is up. We heard a lot of noise and commotion before we entered the church coming from the inside, but when we walked in the entire white congregation expressed their own moment of shock. They were in worse shock than we were, but by human accommodation we did not see one frown. Everyone had a smile on their face. I turned around to see if the Youth Pastor had entered with us, but he was not behind us. I was sure he was attempting to gather his composure outside.

Walking into this environment suddenly made us all aware of the cool temperature in the building, or maybe it was the fraudulent atmosphere that evoked a sense of discomfort. Our congregation had overstepped a boundary that was not to be crossed by minorities, but no one knew that this boundary crossing was the cause of our communal discomfort. From 1990-2010 several events that took place in the United States that potentially could have shaped the context for our racial interaction. A few recent events had been heavily influential on the Arizona racial context: immigration laws permitting racial profiling, McCain losing his campaign to Obama, and earlier The Martin Luther King holiday controversy, and the Tucson school reform. These events had awoken the monster of racial difference in Arizona once again, and again they soured the flavor of the soup from the melting pot. The effects of these phenomena were palpable in this setting, in which our minority congregation had interrupted the family-like gathering of the predominately white congregation.

As the service began there were certain external indicators that alerted us that we were not welcome. On many occasions I have experienced uncomfortable encounters due to diversity and ethnicity, but these cues were unmistakable. The music volume was very low and timid throughout the service. Because I am a musician, I knew that whenever I play at the volume that the musicians were playing that day, I am either uncomfortable with the style of music, unsure of how to play a specific song, or simply do not feel like playing. The musicians consciously played without purpose; subconsciously they played with absolute meaning and purpose. The chilly music accompanied the icy cold temperature and set everyone fearfully shivering, both physically and mentally, in stark counterpoint to the 115 degrees outdoor swelter. The sanctuary’s serenity was stranger by forced good will. Every part of the service was rushed, its tempo reflected how badly everybody wanted the act to end; the only thing that constrained us all was faith.

While the Senior Pastor was giving his address, my gaze strayed to the Youth Pastor to hear him think again… I’m hoping that our minority brothers and sisters aren’t noticing our massive flaws. I can tell that everyone is trying their best, but Sister Betsy can do a better job… (Sigh) I must say his inner dialogue did give me an avenue to focus on to make the service go by faster. When once he noticed me focusing on him, I quickly turned my head to look at the offering plates on the table in the front of the sanctuary. The song and dance had gone on long enough. The service needed to end, so that everyone could go back to where they belonged.

It is often posed that racial difference should be accepted and any distressful feelings that are evoked by it will eventually dissipate. This Sunday morning experience opened my eyes to reality as it is. Society has finely crafted subconscious allegiances of each individual to persons of his or her own race. There have been time periods where we have made progress to eliminating this societal foundation, but macro society affects micro society, and racial events cause persons to feel protective of their race whether they are aware of it or not. This reality affects settings across the board; including the religious setting I witnessed first-hand. This force is real, but initially intangible, which allows most to believe that it is becoming non-existent or that it never existed at all. However in the proper setting it will rear its ugly head and provoke the paralysis of fear. That is the Power of Difference.

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