We’re gathered around a large table in Marty Coleman’s backyard.
Marty Coleman, a long-time peace and justice activist at All Saints Church, now in her 80s, offered to let us use her backyard for our Racial Justice Ministry (COLORS) retreat.
It’s early morning, the sky is overcast, and there’s a chill in the air. But, after a string of hot days, no one’s complaining.
It’s been five weeks since my father died, and the first time life feels back to normal.
It’s peaceful here in Marty’s backyard, and I’m grateful to be sitting here around this table with people I’ve come to love and admire this last year.
We were instructed to come prepared to share our personal goals for the year, and when it’s my turn, I talk about my goal to educate through writing and storytelling.
Claudia Owens Shields, one of the African American members of COLORS, a psychologist who specializes in healing race- related trauma, is the next person to share.
She says that her goal is to understand how segregation happens in the church.
“Martin Luther King said that 11 a.m. on Sunday morning was the most segregated hour in America,” she says. “How does this happen? I want to find out.”
It’s an intriguing question. I watched the video of Martin Luther King talking about this a week ago — when I was preparing to deliver my father’s eulogy.
When we’re on our lunch break, Claudia approaches me.
“What are you writing?” she asks.
I tell her I’ve been working on a memoir about race in America for a couple of years. “Both of my parents were antiracists. My father integrated a church in Chicago in the 50s, and I’m telling that story,” I say.
“Where did you live in Chicago?” she asks.
“On the South Side,” I tell her.
“At what intersection?”
“82nd and Rhodes.”
“I lived at 96th and Langley.”
“Oh, wow, my Grandmother lived on Langley!” I say.
It’s a small world moment.
It turns out that Claudia went to the church, Crerar Memorial Presbyterian Church, where my dad was pastor. And not only that — she knew Lois Fluss, one of my Mom’s closest friends. Lois was the adult I was closest to as a child.
Lois brought us Beaman Gum and other items when we were sick.
She and her husband, unlike my teatotaling parents, were unapologetic about their love for martinis, and “martini,” thanks to Lois, was one of the first words my sister learned to say.
Lois was one of the few white people who stayed in the neighborhood when the “restricted covenants” that kept African Americans out of the neighborhood were no longer enforceable, and the familiar “white flight” followed.
Claudia told me, “I once asked Lois, ’Are you white?’ She said she was blue and green or something.”
Integration didn’t last. Chicago is still one of the most segregated cities in the United States — and the church is all African American, but for one white woman who stayed.
I feel lucky, though, for those few brief years when white people and black people worked together for the common good, and from a common faith.
And I’m amazed that only a week after my father’s memorial service, we are here: two women from the same church, sitting around a common table, breaking bread together, working together to dismantle the racism and privilege that exists in our church and community. And stopping with the others at the table — black, white, and latino — to watch a scarab fly up and through the spaces between the leaves of the wisteria that covers the awning above us ——excited, if overwhelmed, by the work ahead of us.