I spent the past week at a church music workshop. The week’s theme was grace, which gained (along with several new humorous definitions from our youth team) new depth of meaning for me.
As we rehearsed our choral music each day, we received the gift of grace, not from God this time, but from a man. Kevin, our choral director and a Black man, stood in front of a room full of middle-aged-and-up White people, and he gave us _his_ music. He gave us a wonderful hymn set in Gospel style by Rollo Dilworth. He even gave us a spiritual arrangement commissioned in memory of his mother. He led us through these songs, along with the other selections for the week, teaching us the nuances of the style and doing his best to infuse into us a little bit of “chocolate” understanding: the rich history and meaning in every word, every note, every syncopated beat. He taught us, without a hint of irony, about the origin of Negro spirituals passed along in the oral tradition and sung unaccompanied out of necessity by slaves in the fields.
When we weren’t singing or attending workshop sessions, Kevin became a newfound friend to many of us. We worshipped together and we broke bread together. We talked, and joked, and laughed for hours.
Then, halfway through the week, the news from Charleston. While our group of church musicians were enjoying fellowship late into the evening, a young White man was invited into fellowship at a Black church. Instead of appreciating the grace he was shown, he murdered nine of the people who had welcomed him.
The next day, Kevin stood before us once again with a smile on his face. He showed love and grace to a room full of White people, many born and raised in the South at a time when he wouldn’t have been allowed to go to the same school, eat at the same table, or use the same restroom as they did. He shared his history with us, he shared similarities and differences between us, and he shared the memory of his mother through his stories about her. I felt truly privileged to take in not only his masterful instruction in choral technique, but also to receive his music, Black music, songs that were born of the cruelty that White people inflicted upon other human beings. Thursday evening at our talent show, we got to see two Black girls, who were part of our youth music camp, perform sacred dance in a style we would probably never see in a White church. They shared with us not only their talents, but also their culture and their spirituality.
Friday morning — Juneteenth, as it happened — we performed our closing concert. As we began Dilworth’s “I Sing Because I’m Happy”, Kevin looked a little worried. Once we got into it, he was smiling. When it ended, he turned to the audience and said, “Now _that_ was a chocolate experience!” I can’t imagine a greater compliment he could have given us at that moment. On our trip home, I learned that the Charleston victims’ families spoke of their forgiveness and God’s grace when facing the man who murdered their loved ones.
The terrible juxtaposition of love and hatred during this week brings me to this: I am sorry.
I apologize for my own unthinking, uncaring words. They were born not from hatred but from ignorance, but that’s a lousy excuse. I apologize for the times I have heard and seen the hateful or ignorant speech and actions of others but have remained silent. I apologize for my part in creating a world where a White person can grow up thinking that the sort of hatred and violence we saw last week, and in so many other times and places, are OK.
I cannot fix the past, but I can do my part in fixing the future. I will continue working to remedy my ignorance. I will speak up when I see it in other White people. My children will learn that hate is never OK, and that they have the same responsibility to carry that message into the world, to educate themselves, and to speak up against intolerance and ignorance.