Reflections From The Clergy | Embracing change

DENISE CLARK-JONES

DENISE CLARK-JONES

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. – Eccl. 3:1-13

Recently, I came back from a visit to Scotland, which is a pilgrimage for Presbyterian pastors like myself.

Presbyterianism was founded in Scotland by the Reformation pastor, John Knox. One line of my family came to this country in the third great wave of Scottish immigration in the late 1700’s. Their reasons for immigration were the same as contemporary immigrants to the U.S. They were politically and socially oppressed and economically disadvantaged by those in power. For these immigrants it was the English that made their life a misery.

There are more people of Scottish ancestry in the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand than in Scotland today.

You will not find many Scots emigrating from Scotland now. Western Europe has changed for the better since the mass migration to the U.S. in the 18th and 19th centuries. Now the majority of immigrants to the U.S. are not from Western Europe but from the rest of the world; and, most of them have black or brown skin. Out of fear of losing all the privileges the Western European immigrants created for themselves, a segment of the white population is desperately trying to return to a time before non-whites began asking for equal rights and opportunities — the same rights the Western European immigrants came to this country to attain.

My journey to Scotland began in New York City where one of my daughters lives. Every time I visit NYC I am amazed by the wonderful diversity of the population. The Statue of Liberty stands out in the skyline. A plaque bears the words from a poem by Emma Lazarus celebrating this country’s position in the world as a place people came to better their lives: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” In NYC, I look all around me and see a city teeming with people of diverse ethnicities. It is a vibrant city with unsurpassed cultural resources.

At this moment our country faces change politically and socially. Some would like it to return to the mid-1950s, to a way of life that seems more simple at a distance, but which, when carefully examined had just as much change and turmoil as our own time. Others are ready to embrace change and look forward with excitement to what might be. I have to admit I am one of those who believes change is inevitable: therefore, we must look to find ways to make change positive for all – not just ourselves. I believe, as the story of Father Abraham attests, that God blesses us to be a blessing to others.

The American Bible Society reports that there are 365 verses in the Bible that read, essentially, “Do not fear.” That’s one reminder for every day of the year. Howard Thurman, 20th century theologian, philosopher and civil rights activist observed: “He who fears is literally delivered to destruction.” White Americans have a long history of people of color-phobia. The methods employed to thwart their freedom and opportunities have been to control, contain and weaken. With “whiteness” seen as the “gold standard” of communities, laws and ordinances have been put in place to protect white privilege.

In thinking about the state of world affairs today, I suspect that at the bottom of all our fears and dread is the inevitable fact of change. Change is part of life. Without it, we are not truly alive. From one day to the next, we change personally, socially, politically and physically. Without change there is no progress; and, without progress there is no life. When we stop growing, we begin to die. The prophet Isaiah warned the Israelites: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isa.43: 18-19)

A number of years ago, my husband was invited to consider a job in Miami. Now, if any place in America has experienced change, it is South Florida. From a sleepy community, far from the mainstream of America, it suddenly changed forever in 1959, when the Castro regime overtook Cuba, and thousands of refugees poured into the port of Miami. They were given special status by the government since they were fleeing communism. This was back in the day when communism was a dirty word and communists, especially the Russians, were our archenemies. My husband’s host during this interview was a native of Miami, who watched this transformation of Miami into places like ‘Little Cuba’ and South Beach and numerous other ethnically diverse areas. Natives and immigrants eventually began to mix and make friends with one another, and in a few years, a rich culture of US/Cubans became a major force in the area. My husband asked, “How do you deal with so much change? So many new customs? Speaking Spanish as well as English?” The answer was as simple as it was profound: “Without change … there is no life! This place is so much more exciting, interesting, and yes, sometimes more dangerous, but it is well worth it when you look at the creative mixture of cultures we now enjoy!”

In my experience, this attitude toward change and the mixture of new cultures with our own is our salvation. We need to stop glorifying the old days, which were often not the “good” old days and embrace the new. To find a way in a city such as Peoria where various cultures do not mix — to become one people. We need to find a new way. Controlling, containing and disenfranchising people we fear because they have a different skin tone does not create a greater Peoria or “make America great again.” We need to find a way that embraces all, and celebrates the richness of each in learning to become one people — black, white, Latino, Asian — living together as Americans and Peorians. We need to elect leaders and representatives who will strive to serve all, not just our own petty fears and grievances. We need to elect representatives who will embrace change rather than preserve the status quo that maintains wealth and inequalities.

Keeping others out of America, or our zip code, defeats the vision and promise of America. It’s time for us to give up our ego that says, “I am good and you are not,” and live the American challenge to be one people, united, caring for one another and living as would be pleasing to Almighty God.

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