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Senior Correspondent

As an Introverted Intuitive Feeling Perceiver, I almost never think about anything first; I feel my way into events that befall me until my thinking gets into gear. “Befall”: that verb tells you how and what I think about change. The image that goes along with “change” for me is the elephant in the flouncy skirt leaping off the high dive into a bucket of water. But baby needs shoes, as the saying goes, and so my head pushes me from behind and helps me to recall all the other times I’ve jumped and survived to tell the story.

My professional life was spent largely in institutions that change suddenly without much regard for the people at the bottom. The new pastor closes the school, the Catholic hospital becomes a “for-profit,” a new Pharaoh comes to town. Further, I developed a reputation as the “Mikey” of my profession. Someone would get a dab of money and the germ of an idea, but would lack the will or stamina to put it together. Fortunately, the Pharaohs and the opportunities often arrived at the same time, thank God. My family never went hungry, and I gradually learned to live with my anxiety about diving.

But tonight, I was listening to my favorite podcast, Bitter Southerner (“Believing in a Different South”), as I did the dishes after supper. The guests were Congressman John Lewis and a young journalist; together, they created the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize. Although he has been fiery when situations demanded it, tonight, Congressman Lewis used his front porch voice to reflect on how his life has taken the shape it has. He was studying for the ministry when he read Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in which King muses sadly that the greatest obstacle in the struggle was the complacent inaction of clergy and other church leaders. The young journalist related reading his deceased father’s sermons from that era, noticing the truth of King’s observation. 

I swallowed hard. Roman Catholic (therefore unordained) women as I am, those are nevertheless my people. And this was the weekend of a perfect storm. I put down my dish towel, dried my hands, and went to my computer to Google King’s letter. Before I had a chance to read it, a friend sent me Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article, “The First White President” (The Atlantic, October 2017). Before I closed my computer, I got a Netflix note: “Based on your viewing history, we think you would enjoy … “The Last Black Man in San Francisco.” But first, I watched several hours of the Los Angeles riot. 

And then, this morning, I found a note slipped under my door by a good friend who is struggling with her husband’s dissent into Alzheimer’s. She, too, has been watching the news. Both of us are adoptive parents of children of color. Her black son died of a drug overdose, leaving an infant daughter whom they left retirement to rear. My dark-skinned Cambodian son still blames me for placing him in psychiatric hospitals and group homes where the primary population happened to be African-American. I foster-parented a 14-year-old dark skinned Caucasian girl, pregnant by a black boy; her parents were afraid that one or both of them would be lynched in their home town. I know well “the talk,” and the futility of trying to prepare my children for danger and discrimination.

So given all this, here’s what I think about change. (I avoid the word “know” in this context as a note to myself to be open to a speck of hope somewhere.) I despair of change ever happening in this country. I am heartsick that the dreams and hopes of generations continue to be so far out of reach. From the beginning, America was built on the bodies of the conquered, and we seem to have no awareness of the depth of rage we’ve created, and no concrete sustained will to deal with it except by subjugation. 

When I was teaching at Duke, a young boy who had for all intents and purposes been reared by kindly security officers on campus where he hung around, was convicted for the third time of some relatively minor crime. But in a “three strikes” state, he was facing a life sentence in prison, and was immediately transported across state. On the way, he managed to overpower the driver of the police cruiser, stole his gun, and headed back to the only home he knew, Duke campus. He occupied the chaplaincy offices for several hours before a police sharpshooter shot across the parking lot and street, through a window and down the hallway, striking the young man in the head. I stood with the boy’s family in the ER as the blood-soaked gurney arrived. I can still hear their screams and feel their loss.

Now, tonight, I have so little patience for book groups and polite study projects. I wish Rodeo Drive had burned to the ground. What right do the rich have to a Whole Foods market when whole blocks in Los Angeles are designated “food deserts”? What right does the CEO of a healthcare system have to a salary that would have kept a failing Mississippi hospital for black patients going for another three months?

What I know about change is that it always threatens the status quo, whether the subject is an internal change of my heart or change in a society where I have failed. And so tonight, I will wearily don my tutu and head once more to the high dive.

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