Shedding historical baggage

April 27, 2012 - 2:00am -- Living City

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A remarkable coincidence Such a powerful moment That historic day in Harlem The Pact
lives on
Wherever we are in the world, we are together One pact,
one people
A meeting of global impact

After living with the deep wounds of racism, that day in Harlem brought healing

By Mary C. Young

I grew up in Chicago amid a climate of racism during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, before the civil rights laws were enacted. Even if you thought in the depths of your being that you were not a racist, you drank in racism just listening to comments from around the dinner table, experiences of life, i.e., changing neighborhoods — middle-class, white neighborhoods becoming black slums — with homes being fire-bombed if a black family moved in.

My dad was the nightshift supervisor for a number of black employees, some of whom would make phone threats to my mother. I remember when the phone calls would come and my mom would scream into the phone, “Noooo…”

One day, when I was in high school and was taking the bus to school, a young black woman who was very pregnant got on the bus. There was an empty seat next to me. Whites and blacks never sat next to each other on the bus, so I got up and gave her the whole seat. The white people on the bus spat on me for doing that. This was during my formative years and shows the racial atmosphere I grew up in.

A short time later I met the Focolare Movement and moved to New York. It was 1965, and for the first time in my 25 years I saw blacks and whites walking down the street talking to one another. It was eye opening to say the least.

I had many conversations about race relations with Rosalyn Richardson, an African-American married focolarina whose son Anton and I became best friends. My deep-seated and unconscious mindset was definitely changing, but I always seemed to experience a certain distrust when in the company of African-Americans. I noticed this did not occur with other white people who were not American, and so I just thought it was our historical baggage, and we could not do too much about it.

I sincerely felt, because of the spirituality of unity that I was trying to live, that I was ready to give my life for every neighbor I encountered, regardless of color.

Then came May 1997 and the meeting in Harlem at the Malcolm Shabazz Mosque, where Imam W. D. Mohammed had invited Chiara Lubich to speak to his followers. My experience was so profound that it is hard to put it into words. Coming from my background, always feeling a certain diffidence when among African-Americans, on that day for the first time I felt a complete oneness among us. It was the experience of “on earth as it is in heaven.” We truly were family, where mutual love and respect for one another were not just words or ideas, but reality.

The sense of unity and peace was tangible and changed me forever. It made me understand that if this unity could happen here, where the deep wounds of racism are still felt, why not everywhere? That is why I can say it was a miracle that healed something in me.