“We’re not going to be the only white people there, are we?” I ask as we get out of the car. I’m only half joking.
“Of course not.” I answer myself. “Jeremiah Wright is speaking. The place will be packed.”
“I just hope we can get a seat,” Tom says.
We arrive at Beebe Memorial Cathedral in the Temescal neighborhood of Oakland about 5 minutes before the service starts.
The place is packed. And we are the only white people there. We sit in the balcony, which is empty for the first few minutes of the service but gradually fills in.
The congregation looks fantastic. The lively choir up front is all dressed in purple, and the minister is decked a perfectly tailored suit and shined shoes. It seems like every woman in the place is wearing heels, and every man is wearing a tie; the two of us being notable exceptions. If our skin color didn’t make us stand out, our casual outfits would have.
And I feel a little bit embarrassed, even though people hold my hands and touch my shoulder when they greet me.
The worship, all two hours of it, is moving and powerful. It’s loud, and the bass thumps up from the altar, through the soles of my feet, into my body. I don’t know the songs, but I loosen up my shoulders and let my arms and hands move with the sound anyway. And a young man gets up and performs spoken word about the influence of spiritual leaders. And it is no secret that hip-hop culture rises like steam from the streets of Oakland.
And when Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright gets up to preach, the energy in the place is high. Whenever he says something that resonates, congregants clap or yell or just stand up and move their bodies forward a bit to show their agreement. The whole service feels like choreographed dance. We are like seaweed, swaying together in the waves of emotion.
And this man, whose life and ministry have been torn apart by racial violence and zealous media, preaches about failure. He tells us over and over that Jesus shows up, just when you think you have failed at your marriage, your career, your ministry. In those moments, Jesus shows up.
I read the names of his grandchildren printed in the bulletin. And he doesn’t hold anything back. He talks about the gun violence among young black men in Oakland, the corruption of wealthy preachers in America, the injustice of the execution of Troy Davis, the ugly history of US foreign policy.
And people are on their feet, moving their bodies forward — yes, yes we hear you. This is a story that makes sense to them, a story they also are living.
He tells about a young woman who was able to make it through medical school because her pastor believed in her potential, and I think about the kids I play with on playgrounds across Oakland every day. I think about how fragile and precious is their potential, and how close it is to being buried under the weight of gang violence and drug use. He tells about that same woman writing a letter to that same pastor, that letter arrives at the very moment when the pastor feels he has failed, and I think about cycles of love replacing cycles of injustice.
And we are still seaweed, rocking to the rhythm of the current. I wonder: could we together change the direction of that momentum? Could we reverse the flow of the tide? If we thank each other, and love each other, and forgive each other enough, could we stop every bullet that’s fired before it finds its target? Could we stop the bullet that killed Oscar Grant, or the one that killed a three-year old in her stroller two blocks from a school, or the one that killed an off-duty police officer protecting a homeless man from a beating?
I think of the tiny hands of the children in Oakland’s public schools, with whom I play four-square and jump rope during the week, and I remember that they find needles and dead bodies and weapons on the playgrounds of those same schools. And I feel tears on my cheeks.
The moment of failure is when we most need to open our eyes to Jesus’ presence.
Rev. Wright breaks into song, and the congregation joins in, all of us on our feet. “In the next 60 seconds,” he says, “give God your best worship, right here, right now.” And we do.
Overcome, he is unable to finish his sermon; without a word, he returns to his seat and kneels, his head bowed before God. And we all — as one — hold the space for a moment before moving on with the service, before continuing the dance.
And I realize, at that moment, that I have forgotten to be embarrassed about the color of my skin.
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