Monday, April 14, 2008

A Water Fountain Dilemma and a Forgiveness Conundrum

Many years ago I had a Mexican-American friend who wrote a poem about his experience during a trip through the South. His poem recounted his experience as a young boy, in the mid-sixties, when much of the South still had “separate but equal” facilities. Except they really weren’t equal.

In his case, he was confronted with a dilemma at a drinking fountain on a hot, humid Southern summer day. There were two fountains, actually, one for “whites only” and one for “coloreds only.” He went to the one for “coloreds” and was promptly shooed away because he wasn’t black. Puzzled, he proceeded to the one for “whites only” only to be brushed away from that one too because he wasn’t white. Like most Mexicans, he was a Mestizo, or mixed Indian and white. He also was a bewildered little boy who only wanted a drink on a hot day and couldn’t get one because of adult bigotry.

Today, I came across this story in Star City Harbinger about the re-dedication of a Native American Episcopalian church in Amherst, Virginia that reminded me of my friend’s tale.
Yesterday, at a tiny Episcopal church of the Monacan Nation, I sat entranced by the warm tones of Jesse Runningbear’s rendition of Amazing Grace on his cherry wood native flute. Runningbear is a member of the Tuscarora Nation of coastal North Carolina. He has traveled this distance to celebrate, with his Monacan brethren of Amherst, Virginia, and an assortment of their admirers, the re-dedication of the Mission church that has held the fragile Monacan tribe together for one hundred years. The cornerstone of the tiny church was laid on April 14, 1908. St. Paul’s Episcopal Mission on Bear Mountain was complemented by a log cabin schoolhouse in 1916, which served as the only source of free education for the Monacan children.

Jean Branham, a full-blooded Monacan and cousin of the current Council Chief, recalled, “School buses would pass us by on the road . . . we weren’t allowed to go to white churches or schools, or even black churches or schools. We went to school at the Mission, but only until 7th grade. After that we had to go to Maryland or somewhere, anywhere but Amherst County.”
Like my Mexican-American friend, the Monacans were on the borderland between white and “colored” and fit no where in the local society. So they had to travel from their home to go to school and even to worship.

The re-dedication of their church is a small triumph for their culture.
According to Reverend Phyllis Hicks, the rector of St. Paul’s/Bear Mountain and the first Monacan to be ordained to the Episcopal priesthood in Virginia history, the clapboard church has “kept the tribe together” over the past one hundred years.

“This church,” Rev. Hicks argues, “has been the focal point of our community.”
“We have experienced a long history of discrimination but I don’t want to emphasize that today. Let’s just say, I’m an Indian girl who grew up in a white man’s world, and we’ve come a long way baby. This church has always been a place where my people have come to feel at peace
But it’s a peace that has come with a price. And a conundrum. The conundrum is that it is part of the Christian tradition to forgive past wrongs. But should they be forgotten? Is that even possible?
In the words of Bishop Heath Light, former Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Virginia, who gave the sermon at the re-dedication service, this celebration is not about forgiving and forgetting but rather remembering and forgiving. The church, he noted, stands as a testimony to the reality that the healing process has begun but is far from complete. Arguing that white Virginians have contributed to the prejudice, discrimination and neglect of the Monacan people in the past as well as the present, Bishop stated, “We have been complicit in your suffering. We must now be cooperative in your healing.”
I suspect forgiveness is a lot like unconditional love, another Christian tenet. To love unconditionally doesn’t mean to blind oneself the faults of the beloved. It is the discipline of loving and accepting the person with all his or her faults. In the same way, you don’t forget when you forgive. You forgive in spite of the remembered hurt. You let it go but that doesn’t make you an amnesiac.

Further, true reconciliation takes more than one party. It’s more than just the aggrieved moving into a position of forgiveness. Real forgiveness also requires real justice and that commands something from those who committed the wrong too. The rest of the SCH post describes the history of discriminatory legislation that harmed the Monacan and other Virginia tribes and ongoing efforts to rectify it.
The Monacan Nation has been officially recognized by the Commonwealth of Virginia, but an organization called VITAL, the Virginia Indian Tribal Alliance for Life, is leading the up-hill battle to secure federal recognition of the Monacans as well as the other indigenous tribes in Virginia, including the Chickahominy, the Upper Mattaponi, the Rappahannock, and the Nansemond Indian Tribes. Dean Branham, a member of the Monacan Tribal Council and vice president of VITAL, is beginning to get frustrated. “We pay a lobbyist about $50,000 a year to work on our behalf. But I’ve got some questions for her.”

Branham is dissatisfied and growing increasingly impatient due to what he considers to be a lack of effort on the part of those who have publicly supported the Monacan effort for federal recognition. “Jim Webb has helped a little. We went to his press release in DC, got photographed and he said he would help our effort. But that was the last we heard from him on it.”

On May 5, 2009, HR 1294, the Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act of 2007, was passed out of the House and received in the Senate where it was read twice and referred to the Committee on Indian Affairs. The Act would make each Tribe and tribal member eligible for any and all services and benefits provided by the federal government to federally recognized Indian tribes. The Act would also prohibit newly recognized native tribes from participating in gambling operations on tribal lands.
It also points out those who have been helpful and those who have not helped at all.
The original bill was sponsored by Virginia Congressman Jim Moran (D) and co-sponsored by Moran’s fellow Virginians the late Jo Ann Davis (R) and Tom Davis (R). Scott (VA-D) and Boucher (VA-D) voted in favor of the resolution, and the bill passed 228-186. Not surprisingly, Eric Cantor (R), Thelma Drake (R), Randy Forbes (R), Bob Goodlatte (R), and Frank Wolf (R) did not vote for the bill citing the possibility that it might encourage the construction of casinos across the Commonwealth. Virgil Goode (R) didn’t even care enough to take a stand and abstained from voting on the measure. Even though the bill contained language prohibiting Virginia tribes from engaging in gambling and both VITAL and the individual tribal councils pledged not to use tribal lands for casinos, Goodlatte and Wolf claimed that gambling would still be possible because the way the Act was drafted would be unlikely to withstand constitutional scrutiny.
To read more about the bill, the rebuttal to Goodlatte and Wolf’s claims, go to the original post on Star City Harbinger. And support the rights and efforts of the Monacan and other Virginia tribes, including their annual fundraising effort, a Pow Wow on May 17. For more information, check the Star City Harbinger and call (434) 946-0389 OR (434) 946-0421 FOR MORE INFORMATION


paul maurice martin said...

Forgiveness, it seems to me, is a complicated matter. Where the two parties remain in contact/relationship, as in your example, it's a different story,from, say, forgiveness of someone who's no longer any part of our lives and who may have no misgivings about the harm they did to us. In the latter kind of situation, reconciliation may be impossible and forgiveness is solely for one's own peace of mind.

AnonymousIsAWoman said...

Very insightful, Paul Maurice Martin.

Forgiveness is really always for our own peace of mind. But true reconciliation, as in this case, requires the justice I spoke about.

I can forgive and move on. But there can't be reconciliation without the other moving into a position of contrition and repentance.

That's even true of God's forgiveness and grace, which are freely given but are blocked without our turning to Him. Catholics have a sacrament known as the Sacrament of Reconciliation, or more commonly known as Confession, which is just about that.

In every faith tradition that I know of, forgiveness and reconciliation involve those very same requirements.

Howling Latina said...

This story reminds me of how remarkable it is that Jed Bush married a Mexican woman in the 70s.

Texas was one of the most racist places I'd ever seen around that time as I well know having lived there from 1971-1975.

Say what you will about George Senior but there's no way Jeb would've courted and married a Mexican woman unless his family had instilled some fairly open-minded sentiments on race.

AnonymousIsAWoman said...

I agree. For whatever else they've done that I've disagreed with, none of them are bigots.

That's not just true when it comes to Hispanics but also blacks and other ethnic and religious minorities.