Thursday, April 19, 2018

Good neighbors come in all colors

1968 was a momentous and turbulent year. In April, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. Riots broke out in cities across America. In June, Robert Kennedy was shot in Los Angeles. 

Despite the gains of the Civil Rights movement, resistance to change was fierce, nowhere more so than in the housing market where real estate agents, banks and newspapers were conspiring to maintain segregation. Some neighborhoods had restrictive covenants to ensure that homes could only be sold to whites. Following the passage of the Fair Housing Act, also in 1968, agents would often scare white families into selling by telling them that their neighborhood would become unsafe and their house would lose value if blacks moved in. They would then sell the house at an inflated price to a black family. Realtors profited further as whites fled to the suburbs. This practice was widespread across the country. 

But in a quiet neighborhood in Richmond, Virginia, a small group of determined citizens set out to reverse the trend and create an integrated community that was to become a national model. The Carillon Civic Association (CCA) began 50 years ago in the home of a local white lawyer, Randy Rollins, and his wife, Martha, a businesswoman. After the first blacks bought houses, about a third of the neighborhood left within 18 months. But the CCA founders were determined to show that “good neighbors come in all colors” and actively promoted a diverse community The group included Harold Marsh, whose brother was to become Richmond’s first black mayor. Martha says she knocked on the doors of all 350 homes in the neighborhood. 

The CCA filed complaints about race-based listing of housing ads in the Richmond newspapers and by the summer of 1971, this system had ended. An “Arts in the Park” festival, launched in 1972 as a collaborative neighborhood project, draws well over 100,000 visitors to see the work of artists from all over the United States.

This month, two of those who were attracted to the neighborhood in the early days of integration shared their memories at the CCA annual meeting. At the time, John Moeser and Rutledge Dennis were both professors at Virginia Commonwealth University and both served on the board of Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME), founded in 1971, which successfully sued real estate companies that were practicing discrimination. Moeser is white; Dennis is black. 

Moeser recalled a meeting of CCA officials: “The board wanted to engage in an open discussion about the ‘tipping point.’ A neighborhood could flip when the proportion of African Americans reached a certain level. What gave me such a high regard was the fact that the board wanted to talk about a really difficult question: How many blacks could the neighborhood absorb? It was honest. If I were an African American I would have been indignant, but they were willing to take the risk of being misunderstood. It was a remarkable conversation.”

Dennis called the CCA pioneers “movers and shakers for a new Richmond and a new America.” There was a sense that “we were going to be different, just as Richmond was in the process of being different. (The city elected its first black majority city council in 1977.) We are not going to have white flight.”  He said the creation of John B. Cary elementary school as a model integrated school, where Dennis served as PTA president, and the growth of HOME, as well as the work of the CCA, made him feel "this is my home.” It was “a community in action.”

Integration did not come without its challenges. Mrs. King, a somewhat eccentric elderly white woman, asked Dennis soon after he arrived, “Who bought your house for you?” But, says Dennis, “we became good friends.” White neighbors across the street used to run inside whenever he came outside. “Sometimes I would come outside just to see them run inside!” He recalled with special affection his next-door neighbors with whom he had daily conversations. “The wife gave me advice on how to weed and take care of my yard.”

In 1971, Governor Linwood Holton praised the community for its “extraordinary efforts” in race relations: “It is my sincere belief that what happens in a small Richmond neighborhood with less population than a Manhattan apartment complex, can be of enduring importance to America.” In 2016 the Carillon neighborhood was designated as a national historic district. In making this designation, the Department of Historic Resources was particularly interested in the human story of the neighborhood in working to encourage integration.

My family has lived here since 1980. Our three sons attended John B. Cary elementary school. We know all our neighbors. Crime is virtually unknown. But as Richmond becomes increasingly attractive, house prices in many communities are rising steeply. This may pose a challenge to the economic diversity of which the CCA is rightly proud. We should take to heart Rutledge Dennis's closing words to the annual meeting: "It was a grand experiment; but we have to work to make it work."

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Quiet Time: rediscovering two way prayer

When I first met Rev. Bill Wigmore he was running the largest recovery center in Texas based on the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.  In recent years, Wigmore, who is an Episcopal priest, has been researching the movement’s early methodology to rediscover the lost or forgotten process followed by Dr. Bob and the A.A. pioneers. Foremost among these is what Wigmore describes as two-way prayer – regular quiet times which he says were regarded as even more important than group meetings.

Dr Bob wrote that the alcoholic “must have devotions every morning,” a ‘Quiet Time,’ which includes prayer and some reading from spiritual literature. “Unless this is faithfully followed there is grave danger of backsliding.”

The Oxford Group (later Moral Re-Armament and now Initiatives of Change) provided the founding principles for A.A. Wigmore says that in the late 1930s, when A.A. separated from the Oxford Group, it left behind a number of ideas and a few of the Group’s most effective spiritual practices. Letting go of some of these was deemed necessary at the time, but Bill Wilson later lamented “…something was lost from A.A. when we stopped emphasizing morning meditation.”

Today, various forms of meditation and mindfulness are practiced widely by people of all faith backgrounds as well as those who describe themselves as spiritual but not religious. Brain science is showing the health benefits of such practices. Business schools now incorporate it into their courses, and school teachers are finding that a short period of meditation can improve behavior and learning readiness of children who often come into the classroom distracted or stressed.

However, while many contemporary forms of meditation focus exclusively on the self, the Quiet Time as practiced in many IofC circles, connects us both with our true inner compass, or God, depending on our faith  or cultural tradition, and with other people and practical life.

This may be important in a society which is becoming increasingly self-preoccupied. Ruth Whippman has spent the last few years researching and writing a book about happiness and anxiety in America. In a New York Times commentary she writes, “I’ve noticed that this particular strain of happiness advice – the kind that pitches the search for contentment and an internal personal quest, divorced from other people – has become increasingly common.”  

She notes that spiritual and religious practice is “slowly shifting from a community based endeavor to a private one with silent meditation retreats, mindfulness apps and yoga classes…. ‘self-care’ has become the new going out.” Paradoxically, while we put more and more emphasis on seeking happiness within, Americans are spending less time actually connecting with each other. Yet contrary to popular belief, research shows that happiness comes not so much from within but from our interaction with other people. A healthy introspection is an important part of life, but we have got things out of balance.

Michael Curry, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal church recently told our congregation at St Paul’s Church that “self-centeredness is the most destructive force in the universe.” Richard Rohr writes that prophets and wisdom teachers like Jesus “have passed through a major death to their ego. This is the core meaning of transformation.”  Marcus Borg says that this kind of transformation “leads from a life of anxiety to a life of peace and trust. It leads us from bondage of self-preoccupation to the freedom of self-forgetfulness. It leads from life centered in culture to life centered in God.”

Don’t get me wrong. I am a strong proponent of the right kind of self-care. I work all the time with community activists and we know that burn-out is an occupational hazard. The challenge is to practice disciplined self-care that does not fall into self-absorption. 

I once heard Dr. Paul Campbell, a Canadian physician, describe the Quiet Time as “the highest use of the brain.” Writing down the thoughts that come in silence and sharing them with a trusted friend or sometimes with a circle of friends is another helpful step in discerning what the Spirit may be trying to communicate and in holding ourselves accountable.

In my experience the Quiet Time enables us to accept our true selves and to allow the power of love to permeate our minds and hearts to see ourselves and others in a new light – and then to act. The power of this practice is seen in the practical steps taken by shantytown leaders in Rio de Janeiro and village farmers in India, a politician in Australia, or a business executive in Britain.* For them, and for thousands of others, the Quiet Time not only made them better and happier people but connected them with their neighbors and colleagues, or overcame rivalries and bitter feuds, and led to creative approaches to everyday challenges. 

*See Lean, Bread, Bricks, Belief: Communities in Charge of their Future (Kumarian Press,1995); Father of the House: The Memoirs of Kim. E. Beazley (Freemantle Press/Penguin Books, 2009); Corcoran, Trustbuilding: An Honest Conversation on Race, Reconciliation, and Responsibility (University of Virginia Press 2010)