Monday, July 6, 2015

Coming home after Charleston by Chelsea Leitcher

I first met Chelsea almost 10 years ago. Earlier this year, I had the amazingly unexpected joy of presenting Chelsea in her ordination and installation (my story here and her story here). Now, I share Chelsea's response to the Charleston shooting.  

Coming home after Charleston by Chelsea Leitcher

My home of San Luis Obispo, California is a long way from Charleston, South Carolina.  It is a medium sized white rural/suburb college town on the California coast.  When I was growing up there was a pervasive assumption that the racial divisions we saw on the TV was not a problem that was an issue here.  As the days after the Charleston shooting passed I became angry. I was angry at the casual racist comments I heard every day by patients at work in “liberal” California.  I was angry at myself; angry that it took moving to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania before I was able to acknowledge the white privilege that allowed me to escape my unhealthy home situation. White privilege made it possible for me to gain the opportunities that allowed me to graduate from college, get jobs easily and escape the situations into which I had been born. 

After high school I left San Luis Obispo to attend college in Irvine, California where I came to know a lot from the Asian-American community who was present there.  While in Seminary, I came to know and learn about challenges faced by the African American community in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; they welcomed me and were the first group who accepted me, California quirks and all.  Recently I was hired as a Hospital Chaplain in Santa Maria, California, close to the town where I grew up.  Upon returning home I quickly realized that my friendships with black people in Pittsburgh and Asian Americans in Irvine had changed the way I saw my home town.

When I was hired I was advised not to live in Santa Maria; commuting was best, I was advised by people who had rarely spent any time in Santa Maria. Why? Because Santa Maria is the exception in my area which is 80-90% white. Santa Maria is the only town in the county which is 70% Hispanic.  The changing demographics have percolated dislike, avoidance and anger in many people. The negativity is sometimes masked by politeness and subtle niceties.   And when racism is blatant it is all too often ignored and tolerated by white people who know it is wrong.  For me, though, it was a slap in the face reminding me of my own ignorance.

The Hispanic community is the major group receiving the pastoral care of my Chaplain ministry and it has been my privilege to do so.  Shortly after the Charleston shootings, I wondered what I could do, a white person living in an area where the African-American community barely makes up 1%. Then, a coworker informed me that the biggest complaint from many white patients in our Hospital our ER is this:  “didn’t want to have to sit in a hospital with all those illegals”.  I hit the floor.  I am not surprised by the statement, since I have heard it many times before.   This time, somehow the timing and naming of it – illegals - made it different.  Previously, each time I heard a seemingly passive complaint, the generalizations were  like knives digging into an already deep wound.  When comments like “illegals” are made they are not made by a person who knows a person’s immigration status.  It is made because that person in brown, because he or she looks different and speaks a different language.  The economy of Santa Maria is based on agriculture and by that fact based on the back breaking work of immigrants many of which we see in our hospital who are all too often are ravaged by cancer, stillbirths and other effects of pesticide exposure.  Although a person’s immigration status may be illegal or undocumented the phrase “illegal” in this context denies the humanity of those whose work continues to benefit the privileged elite. 

We can no longer delude ourselves that racism is a southern problem, or even a black and white problem.  Racially motivated acts of domestic terrorism like the one in Charleston call us not only to respond to Charleston, which we must.  It also calls us to look inward, to look local, and to dare to break the lens that distorts our vision of others and of ourselves.  It is a local problem that we must name, acknowledge, and repent of. Racism exists when we treat one group of people as more human than others.  Racism is a national problem that takes every form.  And until that great moment when  we acknowledge our shared humanity regardless of our immigration status, the language that we speak, how much money we make and the color of our skin whether we are Californians or Americans, we have a long way to go.

Questions for reflection
  1. What do you think divides people in your community?
  2. How often does your church or faith group discuss issues of race?
  3. If someone made a racist statement would you respond or change the subject?
  4. When meeting a new friend what do you look for, what about their appearance or background makes you more inclined to be your friend?
Chelsea Leitcher is a Teaching Elder in the PC(USA) and a Chaplain at Marian Medical Center in Santa Maria, California.  Her ministry focuses on working with those struggling with mental illness, addiction and chronic homelessness.  

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