Recently I was asked why I’d enrolled yet again at Casa Latina to study Spanish. Isn’t the fact that we’re neighbors with native Spanish speakers enough of a reason? I do wonder sometimes though. Why am I so committed to this particular dream when it is immensely difficult to really make any progress at age 61 stateside?
A few months ago at the Diocesan College for Congregational Development, I learned of Bennett’s Intercultural Development Continuum. I now realize that much earlier in my life during my impressionable teenage years I appreciated and adapted to a culture different from my own. Moving through the continuum from Denial/Ignorance of differences to Polarization/Fear of differences to Minimization/Masking of differences to Acceptance, Adaptation and Integration took about ten years. Eventually I thrived and as a result throughout my lifetime I’ve had more options as I have associated with a vast variety of people. Now I feel drawn to recreate this movement on the continuum again along with the resulting vibrancy. This time the shift includes learning language as I seek deeper relationships. But first, let me try to explain the origins of my intercultural experiences.
I credit my Dad for the first time my life circumstances plunged from light to dark. As my public elementary school principal and in his own way, a proponent of social justice, he and my mother didn’t consider white flight an option in the mid-60’s when desegregation was the law. Instead I became part of a two percent white minority at school in the South as a 12-year-old. Race had been a phenomenon in my consciousness before then. Besides conversations around the dinner table about which one of us girls would have the school’s first black teachers, consider the photo of my sixth grade class. It includes Heywood, Jan, Sheila and Lee when they were in the minority as black students and making history the year before I did.
I suspect they may have already talked about their experiences though. I never have.
Facing back into the past, let’s drop in on my first day at Chandler Junior High in Richmond, Virginia. There I stood, scared out-of-my-mind and frozen on the school’s front stone steps. I had been bussed across town and was surrounded by hundreds of black kids who also waited for the first bell to ring. I could not imagine walking through this unknown jungle and finishing unscathed. Two years as one of ten whites amongst 500 students meant I heard the slur, “White Girl!” directed at me in every tone of voice. I was also briefly groped when passing in the halls between classes and, if I needed to use the bathroom including during the early months of my period, I took my life in my hands. I have very few positive memories of those bleak years, at least at school.
High school was infinitely more navigable for me. For one thing, the white population increased to about ten percent of the total student body. Tracks existed, meaning the wealthier students—us middle-class white kids as well as the black students whose parents were more educated—were registered into advanced sections of classes. And my high school was closer to home, near my elementary school. Subconsciously I knew I could walk home if I needed to. This helped.
As I look back now I realize that literally the church saved me.
From age six through most of my teen years my family of five spent summers at Camp Hanover, a Presbyterian overnight program for children where my folks served as nurse and assistant director. Summers at camp were blissful for me. Everyone was like me, for one thing, so race was a non-issue. I was untethered (even though I was the tetherball champion for a while), not connected to a counselor because my parents lived on-site. We were outdoors—swimming all afternoon, singing, canoeing, mud-sliding, churning and later slurping homemade ice cream, enjoying field games and craft-making. We checked in three times per day at meals and attended Vespers daily. On a deep elemental level camp, not school, was my “normal” experience throughout my teen years (as if anything could be normal during adolescence). I felt safe where there were fun ways to challenge my body physically as well as learn to pray out-of-doors regularly in community.
When we headed home at the end of the summer, I knew we would continue to tap into church as a family on Sundays. We lived on the north side of Richmond dubbed “the Presbyterian Ghetto” because it included Union Theological Seminary. The few white families who stayed in the public schools during desegregation were those whose fathers studied there. The associated school of Christian education, hosted a rich folk-dance program for teenagers. Clogging, polkas and much laughing ensued at weekly dances. Besides being active in the youth group at our church, my early camp/church memories culminated the summer after high school with a mission trip to Mexico.
Over those six years of junior high and high school I gradually made more and more friends, whites and blacks. Then after my freshman year in college I came back for my last summer in Richmond and chose to lifeguard across town near Chandler at an all-black public swimming pool. I was outdoors and physically-engaged, smelling of coconut sun screen, learning to play Bid Whist in the guard shack between shifts, and guarding young lives with a fun set of peers. I hung out with them after hours too especially with a man named Cliff, smoking weed, dancing at all-black clubs, enjoying acceptance into a culture that was different from mine. When I returned to university life I included African American history in my studies, finding the academic version interesting too.
I now recognize these touches with black race and culture stretching over a decade formed a process toward mutual appreciation and acceptance. Given the easy comfortable breaks that home and church provided, my confidence in myself including my ability to connect across differences was fascinating and felt like Glory for lack of a better word.
And when you touch Glory once, of course you want to touch it again and again and again. I am fortunate to now find myself at St. Mark’s, continuing to gather food for the journey as I have for 30 years. I also worship regularly at Our Lady of Guadalupe Episcopal Church where the bilingual services and deepening friendships encourage me vocationally. Yes, improving my Spanish will lead to mutual acceptance and integration on the intercultural continuum this time with Hispanic folks. In my heart of faith I also know the language of Love is and always will be enough to carry us all.