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Hot Movie Takes Monday – ‘Mississippi Masala’


 

 

Hot Movie Takes Monday – “Mississippi Masala”

©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

 

Over the weekend I revisited one of my favorite films from the early 1990s – Mira Nair’s “Mississippi Masala.” I remembered it as one of the richest cross cultural dramas of that or any era and upon re-watching it on YouTube my impressions from then have been confirmed.

The story concerns an Indian family exiled from Uganda during Idi Amin’s reign of terror. They were forced to leave everything they owned and loved in terms of home, The patriarch of the family was born and raised in Uganda and lived there his entire life, building a life and career that made him feel at one with a nation his people had been brought to by the British to build railways. Though his ancestral roots are not of that continent, he identifies as African first, Indian second. The family ends up in Mississippi, owning and operating a motel and a liquor store. The patriarch, Jay, and his wife are the parents of an only child, Meena, who was a little girl when her left Uganda as refugees. When we meet her again she is a lovely, single 24 year old woman and still devoted daughter but strains under her parents’ overprotectiveness and their insisting she adhere to strict traditions concerning matrimonial matches and such. Those traditions aren’t such a good fit in America.

Also weighing heavily on Meena is the burden her father carries from being torn from his homeland. He can’t let that severing go. For years he’s petitioned the Ugandan government for a hearing to plead his case for his property and assets to be restored. He is a haunted figure. Part of what haunts him is the way he rebuked his black Ugandan friend from childhood, Okelo, when Amin’s military police rounded up foreigners for arrest, torture, deportation. Okelo is a devoted family friend who is like a brother to Jay and a grandfather to Meena. When Jay is arrested for making anti-Amiin remarks in a broadcast TV interview, Okelo bribes officials to free him. He tries to convince Jay that there is no future for him in Uganda anymore. Okelo tells him, “Africa is for black Africans.” He says it not out of malice but love. Jay is deeply hurt. He can’t accept this new reality but he realizes he and his family have no choice but to flee if they are to remain alive. Jay leaves without saying goodbye to Okelo. Meena sees and feels her father’s bitter anger and her beloved Okelo’s broken heart.

 

 

Grown-up Meena, played by Sarita Choudhury, lives with her parents in a diverse Mississippi town where they are the minority. A meet-cute accident brings together Meena and a young African-American man, Demetrius, played by Denzel Washington. He’s a devoted son who owns his own carpet cleaning business. He’s immediately attracted to Meena but at first he pays attention to her to get back at his ex, who’s in town and intent on belittling him. But things progress to the point where he and Meena spark the start of a real relationship. She meets his family and is embraced by them. Then the prejudice her extended family and community feels for blacks gets in the way and things get messy. As it always is with race, there are misunderstandings, assumptions and fears that cause rifts. Meena’s father is reminded of his own close-mindedness – that Indians in Africa wouldn’t allow their children to marry blacks. Demetrius and his circle must confront their own racist thinking.

Everyone in this film has their own wounds and stones of racism to deal with. No one is immune. No one gets off the hook. We’re all complicit. We all have something to learn from each other. It’s what we do with race that matters.

The theme of being strangers in homelands runs rife through the film. Just as African-Americans in Mississippi were enslaved and disenfranchised and often cut off from their African heritage, Indian exiles like Meena’s family are strangers wherever they go and distant from their own ancestral homeland of India.

Meena finally asserts her independence and her father finally gets his hearing. His bittersweet return to Uganda fills him with regret and longing, ironically enough, for America, which he realizes has indeed become his new home. The simple, sublime ending finds Jay in a street market where residents of the new Uganda revel in music and dance that are a mix of African and Western influences. As he watches the joy of a people no longer living in oppression, a black infant held by a man touches his face and Jay ends up holding the boy close to him, feeling the warmth and tenderness of unconditional love and trust.

 

 

 

There’s a great montage sequence near the end where the diverse currents of India, the American Deep South and Africa converge in images that some hot harmonica blues cover. By the end, the movie seems to tell us that home is a matter of the heart and identity is a state of mind and none of it need keep us apart if we don’t let it.

I saw the film when it first came out and though it spoke to me I was still a decade away from being in my first interracial relationship. I was already very curious about the possibilities of such a relationship and I was also acutely attuned to racial stereotypes and prejudices because of where and how I grew up. Seeing the film again today, as a 15 year veteran of mixed race couplings and a 21 year veteran of writing about race, it has even more resonance than before. And having visited Uganda in 2015 I now have a whole new personal connection to the film because of having been to that place so integral to the story.

This was the second movie by Nair I saw. The first, “Salaam Bombay,” was a hit on the festival circuit and that’s where I saw it – an outdoor screening at the Telluride Film Festival. Years later I saw another of her features, “Monsoon Wedding.” I still need to catch up with two of her most acclaimed later films, “The Perez Family” and “The Namesake.”

Watch the “Mississippi Masala” trailer at:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kSrPYziDGW8
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On Being Human: Choosing Interracial

December 9, 2016 Leave a comment

On Being Human: Choosing Interracial

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

As one half of an interracial couple living in the racialized America of the Black Lives Matter movement and the presidential election, more than a few thoughts find expression here.

What does it mean to be in an interracial relationship in 2016 America?

What extra responsibilities or burdens, if any. does this reality carry?

Is our being together a political statement in and of itself?

How are we perceived by whites and blacks? Does it really matter to people?

As a couple, do we-should we care what people think about us in this way?

Is there a natural kinship or fraternity between black-white couples?

Have there been real-life awkward Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? or Something New or Guess Who? moments to our yoking? If so, how did we handle them?

If you find yourself in an interracial relationship, how have you handled these things?

Call us what you will:
Halfies
Mixed
Biracial
Blended

She’s black. I’m white.

But what do our skin colors actually say about us as a pair, as a union – about our couple-hood?

Why might some view us as traitors to our own kind for having “gone to the other side”?

Did she and I purposely, intentionally go looking for this combo?
Are we fetishizing being with someone from another race?

Or, at the end of the day, are we simply two people who found each other and fell in love and one just happened to be black and the other white?

Is it ever that simple when it comes to race in this country?
What are your experiences and thoughts regarding this?

 

 

 

How might we have invited trouble by getting together?
What price have we paid, if any, for our choice in partners?
Have we lost friends, have we alienated family?
How does race come up in our relationship as an issue or topic?
How might our opposite identifications sometimes create tension or misunderstanding? How has it worked out for you?

How can we possibly be defined by our skin color when we are the collection of a lifetime of experiences, even though those experiences come through the prism of our race?

How can we ever get beyond the words, the symbols, the cultural taboos and the historical-psychic weights that attach to being black and white in America?

If you’re not down with the whole interracial thing, why does it bother you? What does it threaten that you hold dear?

How do these questions and concerns take on added steam with Trump in office?

Are she and I modern day pioneers pushing the shaded boundaries of love? Or is this so routine now that it’s no big deal?
Unless maybe it happens to you or to a loved one, huh?

Where do black-white couples fit within the context of Black Lives Matter? What is our role in the growing multicultural scheme of things? Is this about to be a cold season for interracial couples, biracial children and multicultural families or will we help lead the way to this nation’s racial healing?

As you can see, this post isn’t about answers, it’s about questions – questions that only she and I can answer for ourselves and questions that only you as readers and observers can answer for yourselves.

Besides, the knowing is in the asking.

Color-blind love: Five interracial couples share their stories

February 6, 2014 8 comments

UPDATE:
This report from The Wrap describes a 2016 fall movie release with an interracial love story for the ages and the history books:

‘Loving’ Tops Indie Box Office, Poised for Awards Season

Directed by Jeff Nichols (“Mud,” “Midnight Special”), the film stars Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, Nick Kroll, Michael Shannon and Marton Csokas. It follows the relationship of Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving, who were arrested and sentenced to prison in Virginia in 1958 for violating interracial marriage laws and later sued the state.

“The story is obviously very timely with the election …” said Lisa Bunnell, president of distribution at Focus, who also cited exit polling in the nineties across diverse audience segments, playing equally well among men and women.

It has a strong 89 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and expands to 45 theaters next weekend, including Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. and Toronto.

The movie is also timed for a holiday season roll-out, as well as awards season. “We’re getting it ready for Oscar season,” Bunnell told TheWrap on Sunday.

The film’s opening is in line with past awards darling “The Theory of Everything,” which opened the same weekend in 2014 with a per screen average of $41,753.

The Reader Feb. 13-19, 2014

If you’ve noticed I write a lot about race, you’re right.  That is to say I do revisit the subject in various ways in assorted stories, though truthfully race makes up a very small percentage of what I write about.  But there are reasons why I keep returning to the topic and some of them are very personal to me.  The following  cover story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about interracial relationships will appear in that newspaper’s Valentine’s issue.  Why interracial relationships?  Well, I’ve been in three in a 14-year period.  Each with an African-American woman.  The first of these was of long duration, 12-plus years.  She died in October 2012.  The next was of very short duration.  The most recent is with my girlfriend of six months.  We intend to get married one day.  My interest in dating interracially can be traced in part to my growing up experience.  I was raised in a northeast Omaha neighborhood that was almost entirely white until I was 10 or 12.  I was born in 1958 and it wasn’t until the late 1960s that blacks could get homes as far “west” as 42nd Street in North Omaha because of restrictive covenants and red lining tactics.  We lived at 42nd and Maple.  As the landmark TV series All in the Family became a sensation in the very early 1970s my older brothers and I used to joke that our father was our family’s own Archie Bunker.  It was an exaggeration to call him that but he definitely had some bigoted attitudes.  For proof that God has a sense of humor the first black family on the block moved on one side of us, the second black family on the block moved on the other side of us, and for good measure a single black woman moved across the street.  My father and mother got along famously with our black neighbors.  My brothers were too old to be playmates or friends with the black neighbor kids but I wasn’t and so I spent a fair amount of time over their homes as they did over my home playing Army Man, ping pong, pool, and just exploring the neighborhood.  My folks and the black adults next door to us and the black woman across from us enjoyed amiable, cordial, even warm relationships.  While this was playing out on my home turf I had a very different experience when visiting my Italian-American and Polish-American relatives in South Omaha.  Many of them said racist things, freely using the “n” word and criticizing my parents for staying put as our neighborhood became increasingly integrated and within a few years predominantly black.  My uncles and aunts said things like, “How can you live with those people?  Why don’t you move?”  But my folks didn’t feel right joining the white flight bandwagon.  My mom actually worried about the message that would send to our black neighbors, who by the late ’70s were all around us.

By the time I became a journalist in the mid to late 1980s I had personally observed the transformation of my neighborhood from virtually all-white to nearly all-black.  I would remain in that neighborhood, in the house I grew up in, until 2005, my parents having long since moved out.  I saw a lot of things play out in The Hood that gave me a certain appreciation for and understanding of African-American life from a social justice, sociological, cultural, anthropological perspective.  By the mid 1990s I had begun interviewing and profiling African-Americans and reporting on black subjects, past and present, and that work began giving me additional perspective.  I’ve filed a few hundred stories by now related to various aspects of black culture.  It doesn’t make me an expert, but I am an interested and careful observer and I hope my work synthesises some of the complex history, issues, and context that inform these subjects.  My work in this area led me to develop many sources, acquaintances, and friends among blacks, male and female, young and old, from all walks of life.  I’ve long admired black women and I’ve found many attractive but I never acted on that interest or impulse until I was 42.  My first interracial dating experience ended up being a long-term committed relationship with a wonderful woman named Joslen whom I met at the same American Red Cross job we worked.  Twelve-plus years with her afforded me my most intimate window yet into Black America.  She passed away far too young at age 53.  I’m still very close with her family.  The next relationship only lasted four months but it gave me an intense immersion into the life of a talented singer, devout Christian, and outstanding mother.  Her name was Carole.  My current relationship, though only six months old, is quite serious and shows every indication of being for keeps.  Pam is a writer, photographer, mixed media artist, and community activist-advocate with a strong faith life.   She’s the mother of two adult children.  Through her I’m obviously getting a whole new exposure to the  journey of a woman who happens to be black and it’s only enriching me even more.  Of course, in the vast majority of my time spent with these partners race didn’t-doesn’t enter the picture.  We engaged-engage as a couple, as man and woman, as distinct personalities with both shared and divergent interests, not as racial tokens or archetypes.

Though the following story is not about me or my interracial datiing history, my background with regards to intermixing inevitably, inescapably infuses what I write and how I write about it.  I did quite intentionally choose to make black-white couples the focus of my piece because that has been my own lived experience in relationships these past 14 years.  Besides, the black-white dynamic is the core racial dynamic in America and I feel at least that any examination of racial relations, and in this case racial mixing, needs to begin and end there, even though I fully recognize there are many other interracial pairings beyond this that could very well and should be examined.  But I’m just one writer and this is just one story.  I chose to write this article because it’s closest to my heart and head.  Someone else will have to write that other story.

 

Color-blind love: Five interracial couples share their stories

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Two bodies in the mirror:
one’s me, the other’s you,
with two far different cultures
some say will bring just strife.
A DIFFERENT SHADE OF LOVING,
a different color of life.

Valentine’s Day is a reminder that though love comes naturally, it’s not without obstacles.

Given America’s apartheid legacy, interracial romance has historically been taboo, scandalous or confined to back-door liaisons. As recently as 1967 Southern anti-miscegenation laws criminalized having intimate relations with or marrying someone of another race.

If you think America’s beyond all this, consider that a Louisiana justice of the peace denied an interracial couple a marriage license in 2009. A Cheerios commercial depicting a black-white couple and their biracial child elicited complaints in 2013. Interracial love portrayals are still rare enough to make news. Hollywood treatments range from treacly (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?) to melodramatic (Monster’s Ball) to sophomoric (Guess Who?) to banal (Something New).

Whether your interracial poster couple is Kim and Kanye or newly elected New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio with his black wife and their biracial children high profile images such as these reinforce the emerging mosaic. The phenomenon is real, not hype. In 2012 the Pew Research Center found interracial marriages in the U.S. reached a record 4.8 million or an all-time high of 8.4 percent of all U.S. marriages. More recent Pew studies find broad acceptance of interracial coupling among all major racial-ethnic groups and the increase of biracial children blurring color lines as never before.

This organic movement is a result of individuals pairing off according to the law of attraction, not social constraints.

 

 

Newly elected New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio and family

 

 

Even when mixing risked not just gossip or indignation but danger and imprisonment, it still went on. Some couples openly defied convention and ostracism. Some challenged race laws in court. It seems human heart desires trump artificial efforts to keep different persuasions apart.

There’s also the intrigue of exploring the other side. Online adult sites promote interracial hookups that range from romantic dates to one-night-stands to paid sexual encounters.

When it comes to amour, anecdotal currents say race is not a driving factor for mixed couples though it can be for those around them.

 

Five metro couples, all variations of black-white twosomes, recently shared their stories. None of the individuals involved went looking for a partner of another race, it just happened. While their relationships are not racialized, race is an undeniable factor in their lived experience.

Emily Pearce and Travis Mountain are 30-somethings who each dated interracially before getting together. He has two children from previous relationships, including a son whose mother is white. Emily, a fitness instructor and elementary school vocal instructor and Travis, a U.S. Marine veteran, personal trainer and rapper, are parents of a girl, Rebel Mountain.

They’re keenly aware being interracial matters to some.

“I do think it makes a difference to people,” Emily says. “I don’t think we’ll ever live in a post-racial world, honestly. Neither of us thinks of us as being in an interracial relationship but other people do, and it does bother me.”

“As far as interracial couples, like it or not it’s something popular now,” says Travis, aka Aso. “It’s just more accepted. If people do have a problem with it it’s more just kept to themselves.”

Not always.

“It does get thrown in your face ,” Emily says. “If you go somewhere    without a lot of diversity you do get looks.”

She says at some schools she’s taught at black women staffers became unfriendly when they discovered she was dating Travis.

“They treated me differently. They were nasty to me.”

“Her dating me has opened her eyes about how differently she’s treated by dating somebody that’s black,” Travis says. “Black women hate to see ‘a good black man’ date a white woman because they look at it like you’re taking that black man away from our community but I don’t look at it that way.

“People want to put you in a category and it’s so stupid.”

The two hail from widely divergent backgrounds. She’s from an intact middle class family in Enid, Oklahoma. He was the only male in a single mother-headed home in North Omaha projects. She says her educator parents brought her up to be color-blind and never had an issue with her dating outside her race. He says the matriarchs of his family disapproved of interracial dating but didn’t have a problem when he did it. Each feels accepted by the other’s family.

“It’s like homosexuality – you can have a problem with it if you want to but what happens if it’s your brother or your kid? So be careful what you’re really hating because it might just happen to you,” says Travis.

“Neither of us set out to be in an interracial relationship, we just liked each other and we really balance each other out and I think it is because of the totally different experiences we have,” says Emily.

Dell and Lena Gines are another 30-something couple. They too faced little family resistance. She’s white and he’s the product of interracial parents. Together 23 years, Dell and Lena have five children. They feel America’s moved forward on race but has far to go.

Lena, a fitness instructor, says Dell’s parents have “shared some of their struggles and we definitely didn’t have to go through the same struggles. I think their generation kind of paved the way a little bit. It’s come so much further from even when we were dating. Seeing that progress is encouraging but it’s very slow.”

“It’s going to take more time,” says Dell, senior community development director with the Omaha Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. “I’ve never met somebody that’s past the race thing but I know people who are comfortable with interracial relationships while acknowledging the race thing. I do think we’re more aware of race and are more willing to recognize people can get together and function in relationships regardless of race.”

Dell grew up in multicultural northeast Omaha, where he says he came up with “tons of mixed kids.” Self-identifyng as black, he and his biracial friends dated both black and white girls.

“It was a normal thing.”

Lena didn’t grow up around people of color. Her first interracial dating experience was with Dell, whom she took for Middle Eastern. When she discovered he was black, she says, “I didn’t think it was that big of a deal.”

For them, it’s never been about race. “We fit and that was it,” she says.

Dell says, “I think it’s very important to note our similarities outweigh our differences.”

“I didn’t even think about the racial thing until he came to my family’s Christmas party, where everybody else was white and I was like, ‘Oh, this looks different.’ Then he took me to an African-American church and it was like reversed,” says Lena.

 

 

 

The couple intentionally reside in North O for the diversity it exposes their biracial children to.

One of the few times someone confronted her about being with a black man was when a woman at a hair salon called Lena a n_____-lover.

“It took me by surprise,” she says. “That’s when it kind of became real. I didn’t have any friends, black or white, who had any issues with it, but I had other black women say things to me like, ‘You’re taking one of ours’ and ‘Why don’t you leave him to us?'”

Dell says racial baiting is “past the tipping point” now that interracial relationships are trending up, adding. “East of 72nd it’s such a common sight. Maybe if I lived out west I would have a different experience. You’re rarely going to hear it from black guys anyway. You’re much more likely to hear it from black girls. I’ve never had anybody actually come up to me and challenge or question me on that. I would dare anybody to say anything about it to my face.”

He believes intermixing will create a new racial narrative in America.

“You’re going to have kids like me or my children identifying along lines that aren’t so clear anymore. It’s going to change the way people look at race and ethnicity. It has to. Once you can get past identifying people as a class or a group and you identify them as individuals then it’s hard to keep gross intolerance in play.

“The rise of interracial relationships is going to force change because it means families that probably haven’t intermixed now have to. When you meet people on that basis then you begin to see things other than ethnicity or race.”

Ron and Twany Dotzler make their 33-year mixed marriage and large rainbow family – they’re parents to 14  – a living symbol of inclusion and tolerance through their Abide Network and Bridge Church.

The mid-50ish couple met at now defunct Tarkio (Mo.) College, where both played basketball. He came from insular all-white rural Iowa. He was naive about his own prejudice and the plight of Black Americans. She came from an almost exclusively black Washington D.C. neighborhood and the discrimination her family endured made them wary of whites. Twany says she once couldn’t conceive of being with a white man because “I just couldn’t see what two people from different backgrounds would have in common.”

 

 

The Dotzlers, Twany and Ron (holding baby), 5th and 6th from left, back row

 

 

When they got together in the early 1980s his family had no problem with his choice of mate but many residents of his hometown did.

“A lot of people were outraged. A big uproar.”

Twany’s family opposed their union. It took time, but acceptance came.

Each partner also had to work on their own racial hangups, especially when they began having children.

The family’s encountered welcome and disdain. The first few years the Dotzlers were married they lived in Broken Bow, Neb. They moved to the burbs, where Ron says, “Everybody seemed to accept us.” After entering the ministry the pair committed themselves to mission work. North Omaha became their calling. Racial incidents began happening.

“We were at a restaurant in Fort Calhoun and this guy at the bar yells, ‘Hey, you n––––r, yeah, you n––––r, get out of here.’ At a church picnic one of my kids goes to kick a ball and another kid kicks it and says, ‘Aw, go get it n––––r.”

When the couple applied to have their kids attend a small Washington County school local residents turned out en mass at a school board meeting to oppose their admission.

“Other families had been accepted. Our family had been rejected. We were denied access to the school,” Ron says.

“That was a real blow,” Twany says. “They didn’t want us to come.”

Overturning fear-based perceptions is what the Dotzlers do through Abide sponsored home renovation projects, neighborhood cleanups and justice journeys that bring diverse people together.

“I think that’s why I love what we do,” says Twany. “We can be a bridge to expose people to those differences, to people who may not think like you do, act like you do, look like you do, yet if you can just be intentional about getting to know them through relationships you’ll see what we do have in common and what we can do together.

“It’s all relational – seeing a person different from you and being able to value them right where they’re at. We’ve been getting people together to build relationships, to break down those denominational walls, those racial walls, those economic walls, for a long time. When you have to be together for a long period of time you learn some things about yourself and about others.”

Somehow some folks are threatened
by what we represent,
Although to make a statement
was never our intent.

 

 

Michael and Cassandra Beacom

 

 

When Michael and Cassandra Beacom began dating in the ’80s he was not only a newbie at interracial romance but to people of color having grown up in white-centric Keystone and attending white Catholic schools. Moving with her father’s Union Pacific job, she was exposed to both integrated and segregated environs. She dated mostly black guys in college, though a white boyfriend did propose marriage.

The Beacoms fell head over heels upon first meeting at a party. When they became a couple not everybody approved.

“The girl that introduced us was not thrilled with us being together,” Cassandra, says, “so you find out who your friends are or at least their viewpoints anyway.”

“Some friends said we support you, we’re behind you all the way,” Michael says, “and some others cut and ran or had their thing about it.”

He says her parents were cool but while his folks liked her as his friend they were “definitely not prepared” for him to have a black girlfriend.

“They said horrendous, horrible, evil, terrible things, to the point where I understood I would have to be saying goodbye to my family.”

Nothing negative was said to her, an administrative assistant with the Omaha Public Schools, only to Michael, a senior agent at PayPal.

“They gave him all the grief, they didn’t give me the grief,” says Cassandra, who adds she only found out much later the extent of his family’s unease.

Rather than cause a scene, the couple eloped and kept their marriage secret. Michael says, “I was terrified.” When Cassandra got pregnant with their first child, the family embraced her. The big wedding the couple put off was finally held. She and her late father-in-law became close and she’s tight today with her mother-in-law.

Their biggest hurdles with race have been with institutions. They say racist assumptions forced their son into foster care before a court intervened. That separation trauma still hurts. As do double standards that have seen her treated one way because she’s black and him another way because he’s white. Then there’s the times people assumed they couldn’t possibly be a couple.

 

 

 Tim Shew and Brigitte McQueen Shew

 

 

Union for Contemporary Art founder-executive director Brigitte McQueen Shew upsets expectations in northeast Omaha. Not only is she a mix of African-American and Iranian-Chaldean, she’s married to a younger white man, chef Tim Shew.

“I have run-ins with people who say I’m not black enough to understand the African-American crisis. I do feel because of my work here, my advocacy for North Omaha and the fact I live in this community there’s an element of surprise when people realize my husband is not African-American. This is nonsense. Could we stop doing this to each other?”

The couple’s experience differs from that of her parents, whose extended families wanted nothing to do with Brigitte and her siblings.

“We were the yellow kids with funny hair. We were different and were always treated as such.”

She says she’s glad things have progressed to where she and Tim don’t have to go through what her interracial parents “went through in the ’60s,” adding, “It’s interesting how much of a non-issue that factor is in our relationship.”

Brigitte, who grew up in Detroit, dated interracially from the jump.

“Race is not a criteria. It’s not something I think about, it’s more about personality and who the person is than what color they might be,” she says. “With my mom it never mattered. I had moments with my siblings where it was like, ‘Why is it you always seem to be dating white guys?’

It wasn’t an issue, it was more of an observation. I don’t think anybody would say that if you were dating someone who was blonde or brunette. I realize not everybody has that sort of blindness to it.”

Tim, who grew up in west Omaha, was curious about brown girls but never did anything about it until Brigitte. Their families have always been fine about their relationship. She says the only time her race has come up with them was at a birthday party for one of his nephews.

“I made a chocolate cake. We were all at the table and I was sitting across from this sweet little boy who said, ‘Why are you the same color as the cake?’ Some people were really embarrassed and Tim’s brother totally defused things with, ‘I’m glad somebody finally asked that question, I’ve been wondering that since you started coming around.’ It was just this perfect moment.”

The Shews plan to have children one day. Though aware biracial kids can have a tough time they take solace in the fact their families and friends don’t hold the prejudices earlier generations did.

“I’m excited for our child to be part of the family we’ve created,” she says. “It’s a brilliant thing.”

We sense their eyes upon us:
the glance, the stare, the gaze.
Some puzzled, some condemning,
some burn with inner rage.
With but a few accepting,
some hurl the jagged knife.
A DIFFERENT SHADE OF LOVING,
a different color of life.

Lyrics are from “A Different Shade of Loving” by Mick Terry.

Two blended houses of worship desegregate Sunday: Episcopal Church of the Resurrection and New Life Presbyterian are houses undivided

August 30, 2010 3 comments

This story is personal.  I occasionally attend an Episcopal church in north Omaha that was formed by a merger of two previous churches, one with an all-black congregation and one with an all-white congregation.  This blending had its ups and downs at first but the church has survived and a couple decades later it is a model of multicultural, interracial harmony. It’s called Church of the Resurrection.  A similar story resulted in the formation of New Life, a blending of two north Omaha Presbyterian congregations, one white and one black, and like Church of the Resurrection it remains an intact interracial house of worship.  The reason I attend Church of the Resurrection is that my girlfriend and her mother attend there.  The people are warm and welcoming to newcomers.  I am Catholic and I have never felt out of place there or pressured to be something I’m not.  When I discovered the history behind the church I knew I would one day want to write about how it came into being, and that’s what prompted the article here.  The piece originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com).

 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Martin Luther King Jr. scornfully observed that 11 o’clock Sunday morning “is the most segregated hour in this nation.” His indictment rings as true today in worship places as 50 years ago.

Organized, affiliated Christian churches are historically houses divided regardless of location or denomination. Witness Omaha, where defacto segregation is reinforced by geographic racial lines. With rare exceptions whites and blacks exclusively attend their own churches. That’s true even when a white congregation and black congregation of the same religious organizationare within close proximity.

The difficulty of achieving a racially mixed congregation is evident by the story of Augustana Lutheran Church in Omaha. The documentary A Time for Burning portrayed the upset that even timid attempts at interracial outreach caused within white Augustana in the mid-1960s. The film and a CBS news special about it elicited national discussion. The congregation underwent a self-study to examine their hearts. Augustana responsed to its neighborhood’s increasing African-American presence through outreach programs. Despite all this, the church has had little or no success in attracting black members. Why that should be so there and at many other churches is hard to answer without looking at the past.

Given America’s racial history, whites could always attend black churches without repercussions. Few did. Blacks attending white churches were made to feel unwelcome. Manifestations of this exclusion were designated inner-city Catholic, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist churches set aside for blacks.

Anymore, it’s not about being banned, barred or shunned. There’s more inclusion today. Chalk it up to enlightenment or political correctness. Of course, anything smacking of racism may generate a lawsuit or a YouTube-Facebook-Twitter campaign. Independent, nondenominational churches are most likely to be mixed. Without a compelling reason to integrate, most churches remain segregated because it’s easier to remain in their comfort zone.

Circumstances can lead two racially-defined, old-line churches to unite as one. It happens when they fall on hard times. Rather than move or close, they merge. Often, these unions fail. Even when they work, it’s by no means a smooth ride. Two successful Omaha inner-city blendings are Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, 3004 Belvedere Blvd., and New Life Presbyterian Church, 4060 Pratt Street.

Each was a marriage of convenience. When all white St. John’s and all black St. Philip the Deacon faced declining rolls in the ‘70s, members reviewed options and elected merger. It took effect in 1986 with Resurrection, housed in the former St. John’s building. The same scenario happened with Fairview and Calvin Memorial, only nominally white Fairview was already integrated and predominantly black Calvin resulted from a previous merger between black Hillside and white Bethany churches. New Life opened in 1991 in the former Fairview building. Calvin was one of two black churches that tried fellowship with Augustana.

By all accounts, New Life and Resurrection make multicultural diversity work. Challenges remain: each has only about 100 active members whose average is 60-plus; few members live in their church neighborhoods; the neighborhoods are rife with poverty and violence; physical plant needs persist; short budgets are stretched thin. But the journey of each church is a lesson in how we can heal the racial divide.

Sisters Johnice Orduna and Nola Jeanpierre share a unique perspective on both churches. Orduna, a licensed minister, attended Resurrection in the ‘90s and now serves as “a supply preacher” at New Life until a permanent pastor’s found. Jeanpierre grew up at Calvin, she experienced the birth of New Life, where she’s a member, and she’s now Resurrection’s choir director.

“I think the folks at New Life and Resurrection have made the decision, ‘We’re going to be here and we’re going to be together doing this regardless, and we’ll work through whatever it takes.’ If more congregations would do that then we wouldn’t have these rifts,” said Orduna. “We’ve gotta get past this business of Sunday being the most segregated day of the week. I think we have been convinced by society we can’t do it any differently, and it’s just not true. But we have to be intentional and we have to learn to respect that culturally we’re going to want to do some things differently, and that’s OK. I mean, it’s wonderful.”

 

 

 

Church of the Resurrection

 

 

 

A merger doesn’t just happen. “It’s a process,” said Orduna. “You have to be intentional, you have to be diligent, you have to commit.”

Member Pat Tooles said New Life “overturns the myth African-Americans and whites can’t worship together because they have two different worship styles.” Presbyterians, white or black, favor a sedate service light on emotional displays and heavy on orderly structure, although there’s some call-and-response at New Life.

Whether at the pulpit, in the pews, working on the building and grounds or breaking bread together, the people at New Life and Resurrection say they see how they are more alike than different. They view their differences as gifts not threats. They embrace their diversity as enriching, even branding their faith communities that way. Resurrection describes itself “…a culturally diverse family united in God’s love.” New Life’s mission statement begins, “We believe we are called to be a congregation of diverse backgrounds, ages and races…”

“I just think we have so much every day all the time to learn from each other,” said Orduna. “Sure, there are tiffs, but they’re not gamebreakers.”

Lesley Dean grew up in St. Philip’s at 26th and Binney. Her parents were active members. She moved away and once returned was “heartbroken” her beloved home parish was no more. In her absence the merger happened, She liked what she found at Resurrection.

“I immediately felt comfortable there. I felt like this was the next step of St. Philip’s, especially because of the blending of the two congregations. It just seemed natural. I think one of the things that made me be able to accept it and to go with the flow is because I lived in San Francisco for 20 years, so I had already experienced different cultures coming together and getting along. That wasn’t anything thing new to me. I thought it was great actually.”

She wasn’t there for the merger but knows it wasn’t all roses.

“I don’t think it was anything instantaneous,” she said. “That blending did not come along easily. It took a lot of work from my parents and all the other elders that came before me. They just worked very hard to build a sense of trust amongst the rest of the congregation. And I just think they all learned from that — from the bickering and whatever else was going on. When I came back it was just like, What was all that for? — let’s just start anew, we’re all human beings, we all deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. They just kind of formed that alliance. Then the generations that came after, like me, have just taken it a step further.”

Deacon Juanita Johnson was there. Coming from St. Philip’s, she confirmed Resurrection’s first years saw conflict. Disputes arose over the racial composition of lay leadership roles. Any hint of favoritism took on a racial slant.

“At that time it was very important to keep everything racially balanced because there were people from St. Philip’s that weren’t completely on board with the merger,” she said, adding the same was true with some from St. John’s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There was also resentment from St. Philip folks over sacrificing their building for the move to St. John’s.

A black splinter group alleged racism against Resurrection’s first rector, Rev. John Nelson, who was white, and against the local Episcopal diocese’s all-white administration. A national consultant was brought in to get people talking. Some folks left — black and white — but the core remained. New membersof both races joined.

“The people that stayed wanted it to work,” said Johnson, whose experience told her it could. As a University of Nebraska-Lincoln student in the late ‘40s she and fellow black students were denied admittance to campus dormitories. They resided instead at International House, where they lived harmoniously with students from Europe, Asia, et cetera. She also did interracial outreach while a Fisk University student in Nashville, Tenn. with students from nearby white colleges.

“I had that background, so I knew it could work.”

Resurrection’s long past how many blacks-whites serve on the vestry. Those things work themselves out. St. Philip’s took a sense of ownership by incorporating elements from their old church, such as stained glass windows and candles, into the Resurrection sanctuary. A more vital music liturgy of gospel, spirituals, even jazz, was introduced. A popular fish fry St. Philip’s held was adopted.

Tim and Cheri Oelke got married at St. John’s. They left long before the merger.  Then they visited Resurrection and were hooked by the “inspirational” black hymns. The couple are the last St. John’s members left there. For Cheri, the spirit of the place is not an edifice, an icon or an event. “It’s not in the building as much as it is the people. I think the reason we want it to work now is that we all care about each other, and if we do it in this building or if we have to do it in another building we want to worship together. Bonds have been formed, friendships have been formed, and we feel like we’re all a family.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Helping ease the transition were shared Lenten worship services and other events St John’s and St. Philip’s hosted prior to merging. Still, old habits die hard.

“For a long time it was just the two churches worshiping at the same time in the same building but still two identities,” said Resurrection’s new rector, Rev. Jason Emerson, who previously served as an intern and curate there. Tim Oelke said, “It’s the Church of the Resurrection now, it’s not St. John’s. St. John’s was certainly special but that’s in the past.”

New Life’s tribulations were similar. Former Fairview member Janet Decker recalls a meeting where Bernard Grice voiced Calvin’s concerns. “He got up and said he hoped we didn’t do the same thing the whites did at Bethany, which was disappear.” She said Fairview’s integrated ranks avoided that. “We had only one family who decided not to continue to come — absolutely everyone else stayed. We didn’t have this feeling of giving up a thing. We were gaining. We knew if we were going to survive we needed to merge. We’re very comfortable with each other.”

Change was more traumatic at Calvin, not due to race but turf. “There were a lot of hard feelings. It was like giving up our church,” said Nola Jeanpierre. Calvin members like she and Michael Maroney did abandon their beautiful building at 24th and Wirt. “It was not an easy or smooth transition inside Calvin. There was a lot of contention in terms of how Calvin was actually dissolved,” said Maroney. “In hindsight, it probably went the way it had to go.” Those wounds healed.

Just as Resurrection eased into things pre-merger, New Life did. Joint worship services and soup suppers were held at Calvin and other events at Fairview “so the two congregations could be together and people could kind of get to know each other,” said Rick Rudiger, who belonged to Fairview. “You kind of have that courtship time. If you try to force it, you’ll probably fail.”

Carolyn Grice, whose father Bernard was a leader at Calvin, served with Rudiger on the merger committee. “We met weekly to start ironing out stuff. It pretty much started from scratch — what is it we want to see and then how are we going to get there. We had lots of disagreements but we’re all friends now,” said Grice. Rudiger said people tended to draw lines along Fairview or Calvin. “You had to reinforce it all the time of who we are — we’re New Life now, so let’s move on. Change is hard for everybody. Some accept it. For some it’s very difficult. The way you have to deal with change is you do things a little at a time.”

Jeanpierre said it’s imperative to “come in open-minded and ready to work together and not to exclude anyone, not to remove anyone from a post or role. You’re talking about a marriage, about one family meeting the in-laws and basically trying to make everything work for both in-laws, so that the family as a whole and on both sides can come together and find a common ground.”

After a few interims New Life’s first full-time pastor helped solidify things. “We had a strong female minister who kind of got us turned around and really focused on becoming New Life,” said Rudiger. “I would say overall we really have grown strong. I don’t think there’s too much thought even of what Fairview used to do or what Calvin used to do — it’s what’s New Life’s doing.”

Decker said there’s appreciation for what each faith community contributed. “There’s a lot of things we do now because that’s what they brought with them (from Calvin).” That includes spirituals. On a more practical level, she said, “they brought the numbers (more members) and we had the place.”

Ruth York, who came over from Calvin, said “those of us that have seen it through have been through quite a bit, financially and so forth,  but we’ve stayed strong and stuck together like a family, and we’re stronger for it.”

Just as New Life is on its second generation, Resurrection is, too. Lesley Dean feels a legacy calling.

“I have really worked hard to make sure some of the traditions of St. Philip’s continue on, like our Black History month celebration and the fish fry named after my dad. Myself and some others have tried to make sure our African-American culture was not lost in the merger. We still needed an identity and the St. John’s people were willing to embrace that.”

Dean said sensitivity makes all the difference.

“That’s how people get along. Ignorance is I believe why we have so much discrimination and racism in society because people don’t take the time to learn about each other. I just really feel Church of the Resurrection is a family. We are accepting and welcoming of every one and there’s a genuineness to that acceptance — it’s not just for show or not just for money.”

Richard Artison and his wife were St. Philip’s members and then moved away for his career. Once back, they went church shopping before settling on Resurrection.

“We’ve been to some churches that were very cold and impersonal and you feel like a number and we’ve gone to churches where nobody would speak to us. Just got ignored. This church has a lot of warmth and a lot of love. We like it,” he said.

Emerson’s proud his church is so inviting.

“The least worry I ever have at this congregation is that somebody new will walk through the door and not get spoken to. That just does not happen. They’re going to get spoken to. They’re going to get greeted, they’re going to get welcomed and I don’t have to do anything to make that happen. Other congregations, you have to work at that, it’s not as ingrained in their nature. It’s a problem in Episcopal churches churchwide, and that’s not the case here.”

He said Resurrection’s open mat, Sunday social hour/lunch and ministries targeting the underserved — including an after-school program, an emergency pantry, a transitional living site — reflect the church’s origins.

“I firmly believe this congregation’s history has led them uniquely to a high level of hospitality and I don’t know mean they just put on a good food spread, which they do. That attitude, that desire, that passion for outreach and justice comes from the two churches melding and the level of hospitality they had to practice to each other to come together and become one parish.”

He said Resurrection’s reputation for tolerance is why it’s a player in the Tri-Faith Initiative for a shared Episcopal-Jewish-Muslim campus.

Dean senses Resurrection’s come a long way in the eyes of a diocese that’s been slow to accept it. “For the longest time we felt they looked down on us, they didn’t want to participate in any activities we were doing, basically because we’re in north Omaha and the media portrays north Omaha as this horrible place. Our congregation has fought really hard to change that image, and it’s working. Some of the other diocesan churches are now participating in some of our ministries, so that’s a good feeling. We’ve got a lot further to go, but it’s a beginning.”

New Life’s at-risk kids mentoring program continues the legacy of the two socially conscious churches preceding it. Fairview ran Head Start and Project Embrace prpgrams. Calvin was active in youth job/leadership training and civil rights.

Orduna said the unity embodied by New Life and Resurrection “has the possibility to create a strong, trustworthy identity that could really be powerful force in bringing this whole neighborhood back to God.” Artison said, “I think church is the one place where we should come together. I think we’re an example for others.” Decker said churches that resist diversity “don’t know what they’re missing.”

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