By Ron Swain Convener, Courageous Conversations of Georgetown
Since moving to Texas 20 years ago, I have learned about Juneteenth. Born in Georgia and learning there the history of American slavery, the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation – January 1, 1863 – I did not know about June 19, 1865 (known as Juneteenth). As I have come to know more about this day and its significance in Texas, I too, celebrate Juneteenth – African American Independence Day. It is a day to acknowledge and celebrate freedom from slavery in America.
While physical slavery was abolished, I am sad to say that the deeply embedded mental, emotional and spiritual slavery continues for many persons in our nation even today. This mental, emotional and spiritual slavery historically has been maintained and sustained through public policies and practices at the local, state and national levels. In effect, these policies perpetuate racism.
Consider the housing policies that segregated African Americans into areas of cities and towns that were dumping grounds for garbage and sites of industrial smoke stacks that created unhealthy living conditions for these residents. As a consequence of the housing policies, the segregated public schools for African Americans, were likewise poorly constructed and educational materials were handed down from the white schools on the other side of town.
The recently popular film, “The Best of Enemies,” illustrates the impact of the segregated schools and the movement to desegregate the public schools in Durham, North Carolina in 1971.
Today, although public schools are legally desegregated, there seem to be policies and practices, including bullying, that prevent some students, especially students of color, from achieving their full, positive potential.
Thus, the struggle for freedom continues.
As we celebrate Juneteenth 2019, I encourage all of us to work towards the full mental, emotional and spiritual liberation of those descendants of African American men and women who were freed from physical slavery on June 19, 1865. And, I invite you to join us to work to end the oppression of all marginalized communities so that we all may enjoy the fruits of freedom.
Michael O.D. Brown Jr. (May 20, 1996 – August 9, 2014) graduated from Normandy High School in St. Louis County eight days before his death, completing an alternative education program. At the time of his death, he was 18 years old, 6 ft 4 in (1.93 m) tall, and weighed 292 lb (132 kg). He was an amateur musician who posted his songs on the popular music-sharing site Soundcloud under the handle “Big’Mike”. He was two days from starting a training program for heating and air conditioning repair at Vatterott College technical school.
May 20 would have been Michael Brown’s 22nd birthday. Michael Brown was killed on Aug. 9, 2014. Michael’s death was my signal from God to invite about 20 members from faith communities in Georgetown to gather and consider the possibility that a similar violent incident could occur in any city, town or community in America, even Georgetown, Texas.
Is there something that we, faith leaders, can do to prevent such a tragedy from happening in our city? Our solution is what we today know as “Courageous Conversations” about race in Georgetown.
Over the past five years, there have been numerous conversations, book studies, workshops and other activities to address the question: Is it possible to have a respectful, civil conversation about the difficult issue of race?
The issue of race in America is complicated and complex. It is fatiguing. It is often heart-breaking. However, early on, the individuals who gathered and started Courageous Conversations developed Vision and Mission Statements. We agreed that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s philosophy of Nonviolent Social Change would guide our work. The spirit of LOVE (agape), the unconditional concern for the well-being of others undergirds our efforts. This is not easy work. There are times of disagreements and conflict, yet LOVE endures.
Yet for me, Michael was a ‘beloved child of God.’
As we enter the summer months of 2019, I ask the question: Are there any children like Michael Brown in Georgetown today?
The description of Michael at the beginning gives his age, educational background, physical characteristics, musical talent and immediate plans. The description says nothing about his family background or experiences as a youth. I suspect Michael’s family loved and valued him. No doubt, they were concerned about his well-being. His violent death was triggered by his theft of a package of cigars.
Yet for me, Michael was a ‘beloved child of God.’
Are there youth with similar characteristics as Michael? Can we, in Georgetown, create the type of community and environment where ALL of our youth can have high, positive aspirations for themselves and their futures, without resorting to criminal activity and behavior?
What about summer employment for high school juniors and seniors? What about internships in local government or businesses? What about science camps, vacation bible schools and other engaging activities for the younger ones? Many of these already exist. Let’s encourage our youth to engage in these positive activities this summer.
Especially during these summer months, let’s “Surround Our Children (Youth) with LOVE.” Let’s listen to what they are saying. Let’s inspire them to pursue high, positive aspirations. Let’s be positive role models for them. Let’s show them that we care—that we LOVE them.
— Dr. Ron Swain, Convener, Courageous Conversations Georgetown
April 4th is the anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was in Memphis, TN to lead a peaceful, nonviolent protest in support of the sanitation workers who wanted better working conditions and more pay. (1968, sanitation workers made and average of $1.75 per hour.) It is sadly ironic that this prophet of peace and nonviolence was the victim of gun violence.
Dr. King had a vision of the “Beloved Community,” where poverty and hunger would not be tolerated because the core values of human decency and human respect will not allow them. The concept of the “Beloved Community” for Dr. King was deeply rooted in his understanding of the “Kingdom of God” that Jesus Christ taught and lived. Like Christ, Dr. King found himself on the side of the marginalized, the outsiders, the “other.”
Like Christ, always his method was nonviolence, in thoughts, words and deeds. Although, obviously not perfect in his aim for nonviolence, he constantly pursued it as a way of life. Dr. King’s philosophy of nonviolence emphasized ‘love in action.’ This ‘love in action’ is grounded in the agape concept of love, the selfless concern for the well-being of others. Agape stretches across the human-constructed barriers of race, religion, ethnicity, language, culture, class, etc., to persistently strive for the well-being of others.
Recently, I was reminded of this agape while viewing the film “The Best of Enemies” which is based on true events in Durham, NC in 1971. The two heroes of the story, Ann Atwater, an African American community activist, and C.P. Ellis, the president of the local KKK chapter, became friends after discovering the inherent worth and value of each other as human beings. I strongly encourage you to see this film.
The friendship between Ann and C.P. was born out of a series of deep and profound ‘love in action’ transformative incidents. Those incidents are closely connected to Dr. King’s Principles of Nonviolence.
Over the coming months, I invite you, my beloved friends; let’s recommit ourselves to these principles. Each month, I will remind us of these principles. Principle One: Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people. It is active nonviolent resistance to evil. It is aggressive spiritually, mentally and emotionally. We must resist violent thoughts, words and deeds in order to create the “Beloved Community.” Let us diligently strive to become instruments of “love in action.” Let us persevere with hope for the future!
I currently attend Southwestern University and am approaching the end of my senior year.
I have been a part of Courageous Conversations for 30 days and in those 30 days I have learned that the organization is filled with such kindhearted, devoted, and diverse people.
Courageous Conversations includes people from a variety of different backgrounds including different races, religious beliefs, and economic status. Courageous Conversations mission states: “To promote a culture of justice and compassion in Georgetown for people of all races, and economic, religious and ethnic identities.”
One would think that having such different people come together to discuss difficult topics would cause more harm than help but from what I have seen that is not the case. Difficult topics such as race are often discussed openly and freely at the team meetings.
A respectful dialogue is always at the center of every discussion with the intent to learn from one another and to teach one another. I have learned that compassion and understanding are important when discussing differing views.
Being a student at Southwestern University I have been secluded within the bubble that is my campus. I have never fully been immersed in the Georgetown community and since joining Courageous Conversations I have met wonderful new people, I have been made aware of specific issues within the community, and I have developed a sense of awareness for the world and the people around me. Courageous Conversations vision is as follows: “Georgetown: A beloved community of compassion characterized by cross-cultural communication, collaboration, celebration and courage.” I personally think that if the Georgetown community embraces Courageous Conversations and everything that the organization has to offer that eventually we can come together to make this vision a reality.
One of the most interesting aspects of doing anti-racism work is finding out from my fellow white friends what brought them to this seemingly Quixotic endeavor. Rarely is the story linear; usually it is complicated.
I grew up in a family where I heard the “n” word used constantly by my maternal grandparents. My great, great grandparents enslaved people – they bought and sold men, women and children and likely worked them from sunup to sundown and whipped them because that was acceptable if the help got uppity.
In recent years when I’ve raised questions about this heritage, I’ve been assured by my mother and others in the family that my great, great grandfather, who fought in the Civil War to maintain the right to own people, was “one of the good slaveowners.”
I cannot reconcile how owning another human being and controlling every aspect of his/her life can be “good.”
In addition to that background, I attended Tascosa High School in Amarillo, Texas in the mid 1970s. When I entered Tascosa and when desegregation was beginning in that Panhandle city, the school mascot was Johnny Reb, the school song was “Dixie” and the Stars and Bars flew on a flagpole outside the school and was waved by cheerleaders during sporting events. The image you see above is from our yearbook.
The parents of black students who were bused across Amarillo objected to their kids having to walk past the ROTC kids raising a Confederate flag as their children disembarked from buses. They also didn’t think it right that their children had to walk into the school commons where a mural of Johnny Reb greeted them. They also found the school song and mascot offensive.
Because I was fortunate enough to serve as a page at the Texas Capitol the second semester of my sophomore year, I missed a great deal of the tension and anxiety that occurred in my high school that spring. Letters from my friends detailed friction and fights between those who wanted to change and those who preferred to maintain the status quo.
After all, they were just celebrating southern heritage. What is the harm in that?
School board and school officials were forced to “allow” African American students who would have been leaders in their then-shuttered high school to serve on student council and as cheerleaders.
All that contributed to festering tensions and invisible lines drawn down the hallways where black students walked on one side and white students on the other. While classrooms were desegregated; the cafeteria and social activities were not.
At our 40th high school reunion last year, I was not surprised that only one African American graduate showed up, And, he didn’t stay long.
High school years are rarely fondly remembered. To have been a black student at Tascosa during that time must have been extraordinarily difficult.
Those memories faded over the years as I went off to college and started a career and family. We lived in the Houston area for 11 years before moving to Georgetown in 1995. The lack of diversity when we first moved here was quite stark after working in an international and cosmopolitan city during the oil boom.
The more I learned, the more I realized how insidious and invasive the problem is. As a CASA volunteer, I saw how families of color and their children were treated differently by the Child Protection System, the educational and medical systems.
After nearly 60 years, the scales finally fell from my eyes. I cannot unsee what I have seen or unknow what I now know.
As a person of faith, I am called to follow the teachings of my faith, which is to love, care for and treat every person as children of our creator regardless of faith, gender, race, socioeconomic status and sexual orientation
And, I feel compelled to work to call out and dismantle systems of institutionalized racism whenever and wherever I see it. I may have limited impact on what happens at the national or state levels. But, I can work to transform Georgetown and Williamson County so they are more inclusive communities, welcoming to all who come.
I invite you to get actively involved in this movement known as Courageous Conversations of Georgetown.
Recently, a good friend of mine, who is Hispanic, gave a prayer following our conversation about homeless neighbors of all races in Georgetown.
He used the words, “God, give us eyes to see what you see and give us the heart to feel the pain and suffering of others …”
Earlier in the day, another friend who is African American, shared with me that several days earlier she noticed a white woman, who works at a local retail store, asleep in an automobile. A few days later, my friend saw this same lady asleep in the vehicle.
This friend told me she felt compelled to approach the woman and inquire about her situation. This store employee was homeless. My friend was moved with compassion and went out of her way to find a room for the woman and is now working to find her a more permanent residence.
Who am I? I am a “beloved’ child of God. I am created in the image and likeness of God. When I am my ‘true self,’ I am unconditionally concerned for the wellbeing of others, their health, their safety and their physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being.
Why? Because they, too, are ‘beloved’ children of God. In fact, they are my brothers and sisters. Even, if they do not know their father or don’t acknowledge their father, they are still his ‘beloved sons and daughters.’ And so, I believe this about every human being. I believe that God loves each and every one of God’s children equally.
What’s in my heart? The heart is at the very ‘core’ of our being. From the heart, flows our actions and our words. The heart of God is ‘love.’ Love (agape) is the essence, indeed the very being of God. Love– the self-giving, unconditional concern for the well-being of others– is the core of who God is. God, fill my heart with your love.
How, then, do I live in this ‘beloved community?’ Love for others is my highest aspiration, for in loving others, I show my love for God. I aspire to see each brother and sister with the eyes of God and feel for each one with the heart of God. We are all God’s children and all means ALL.
Amid the racial turmoil and violence following the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, a group of individuals from various faith communities in Georgetown began meeting to explore the possibilities of engaging in civil, respectful dialogue about the difficult issue of race.
Over several months of meetings and research, we landed on what we call Courageous Conversations about race. We studied several dialogue methods and community building strategies.
One dialogue method that captured our attention is The Red Bench, a program of Interfaith Action of Central Texas (iACT). “The Red Bench is an on-going dialogue program designed to address the most pressing needs of our time: improving interfaith understanding and civil discourse in our society. “
iACT granted our Courageous Conversations group permission to use The Red Bench method, including their dialogue script, the talking stone and their Conversations Agreement. Let me share the ‘Guidelines for a Great Conversation’ from the Conversations Agreement:
Open-mindedness: listen to and respect all points of view Acceptance: suspend judgment as best you can Curiosity: seek to understand rather than persuade; we are not here to “fix one another” Discovery: question old assumptions, look for new insights Sincerity: speak your truth, from your heart, about what has personal meaning to you Brevity: go for honesty and depth but don’s go on and on
On May 30, 2017, I joined a group at the Unity Church of the Hills in Austin for a Red Bench conversation on the topic: Courage.
What a wonderful experience! I was greeted in the parking lot by a trustee of the Unity Church who at one time lived in the Research Triangle Park area of North Carolina, where Chrystle and I lived most of our married life.
After dinner, the four rounds of the conversation began. First, we introduced ourselves and told what motivated us to attend. Next, we shared definitions of courage. A list of quotations about courage prompted intense personal stories of courage displayed and of courage avoided. It became quite clear and was a major ‘takeaway’ for me, that courage is a matter of self-awareness, but perhaps more importantly, a willingness to take action in light of that awareness.
The Courageous Conversations movement in Georgetown has a vision of creating “A beloved community of compassion characterized by cross-cultural communication, collaboration, celebration and courage.”
Yes, we aim to raise personal and community awareness of the racism and its impact on all of us. More importantly, we aim to take action in light of that awareness. Our actions are based on the philosophy and principles of non-violence, which is grounded in agape (compassionate love for humankind) as described by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In the ‘Beloved Community’ racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. If this ‘beloved community’ is to become a reality in Georgetown, can we begin by having a courageous conversation?
These questions were raised in a recent Courageous Conversation gathering.
If one defines racism as the attitudes, practices and policies that subject a group of people, based on their race, to be deemed inferior to another race, then racism is evil, unjust and oppressive.
Racism is contrary to the Great Commandment, which calls God’s beloved children to “love God with all their heart, mind, body and soul; and to love their neighbor as they love themselves.” These two commandments are cited by Jesus in Matthew 22:35-40 and Mark 12:28-34.
According to Wikipedia, “These two commandments are paraphrases taken from the Old Testament and are commonly seen as important to Jewish and Christian ethics.” Love in this context is agape, which embraces a universal, unconditional love that transcends and serves regardless of circumstances―love that values, respects and seeks the well being of the other. Perhaps one of the clearest examples of agape is the story of the Good Samaritan found in Luke 10:25-37.
Per Wikipedia, “Agape is considered to be the love originating from God for humankind. Cf. Matt 3:17, Mark 10:21. In the New Testament, it refers to the covenant love of God for humans, as well as the human reciprocal love for God; the term necessarily extends to the love of one’s fellow man. The word is not limited for religious use; agape can extend to sub-divine beings. The notion of agape has been examined as to traditions, whether Christian or other world religions, religious ethics and science.”
Another standard of this attitude and practice is called the “golden rule”―do to others as you want them to do to you (considered a summary of the Torah and an ethical code in Islam). Both in thought and in deed, racism seems contradictory to these two standards of human behavior and interaction.
So this brings me to Principle Three of Nonviolence: “Nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice not people. Nonviolence recognizes that evildoers are also victims and are not evil people. The nonviolent resister seeks to defeat evil not people.”
Practicing Principle Three is one of the true challenges for members of the “Beloved Community.” It is not easy to separate “evil thoughts” and “evil actions” from the “evil doer.” But we MUST!
Thank you for your commitment and efforts to create the “beloved community” in Georgetown.
We often talk about how much our work in building Beloved Community is based on relationship, and how a willingness to do anti-racism work requires a commitment to proximity, to “getting close” to problems, situations and people.
Many of us feel blessed by the bonds developed in the course of learning hard truths, sharing terrible burdens, and forging plans of action. But we also have encountered the challenges that are part of all human relationships, at times feeling as frustrated with our companions in this work as we do with the opposition to our efforts.
It is tempting to feel our movement is faltering, that we cannot waste time and effort in working through differences when there is so much work to be done in dealing with those who do not yet share our conviction to “undo” racism.
But we cannot tackle racism, one of the most intractable of human problems, without stirring up deeply-held feelings. Managing our frustration with one another and our despair with the steepness of the hill we are trying to climb is not a small part of our work.
Now we are engaged with the tasks of Steps Three and Four, having come far enough into the process to have encountered the emotional toll and spiritual challenges that accompany this work. This is where we need to put our hearts and minds to considering the nuts and bolts of the task of living out the principles we espouse.
And we find that our work can be as much with ourselves and with each other as it is with those who oppose us.
Just repeating the steps on the road map will not suffice, and we find we need concrete instruction on walking through conflicts with our integrity and love remaining intact.
Perhaps the whites among us, unaccustomed to not getting our own way, struggle with this more than people of color as we have come to expect the world to yield to our wishes.
In any case, we all need help in learning HOW to do what we know we need to do.
To that end, our Core Group is exploring concrete steps we can take. A conflict-resolution model will be examined within the group and we look forward to reporting outcomes and lessons learned to our wider community.
Chair, Cultural and Historical Accuracy Learning/Action Group
On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made the ultimate sacrifice of giving his life for the cause of justice and freedom for all people in America and around the world. He often described his aim as the creation of the “beloved community.”
Dr. King had traveled to Memphis, Tenn., to seek just wages for the garbage collectors of that city. Although he had earned a PhD., the highest educational attainment one can achieve, and although his profession afforded him recognition in the middle socioeconomic class of America, Dr. King did not consider himself too high above his neighbors to walk alongside “the least of these.”
What lessons can we learn from this man of God?
First, we learn that his focus was justice for ALL people.
Second, we learn that his purpose was to do God’s will—to create the “beloved community.”
Third, we learn that he had a plan based on the “Six Principles of Nonviolence” and the “Six Steps for Nonviolent Social Change.”
Fourth, we learn from him the virtue of patience—he marched, he strategized. He was not satisfied with short-term achievements; he was looking for long-term creation of the “beloved community.”
Fifth, we learn from his persistence. He kept coming back, even until his death. The evening before his assassination, he delivered the speech in which he stated, “I have been to the mountaintop and I have seen the promised land (the beloved community.) I may not get there with you, but one day we as a people will get there!”
I pray that we who are committed to the Courageous Conversations movement will learn and apply these lessons from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.