Friday, January 18, 2013

All are other

This Monday Americas will commemorate civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King championed civil rights for African-Americans and for other excluded people and advocated for full membership in society of all people.

I celebrate Dr. King's commitment to this cause, which is still awaiting fulfillment. I know that we are a better country because of his faithful and courageous witness, which cost him his life. (Of course, countless other people of color--well-known and anonymous, excepting to God--also paid for freedom with their lives.)

In white America, historically, people of color have been treated by many whites as "the Other." And many white Americans have treated the Other--be he or she an African-American or a Spanish-speaker or an Asian person, or a gay or lesbian or transgendered person,  or a woman--as wholly different from white, English-speaking, heterosexual men. Discrimination, prejudice, violence--and more--have been inflicted on the Other, including by written and unwritten laws.

Not to diminish the pain and suffering, the injustice and oppression of the Other in this and every culture, I believe that every one of us is the Other in some way--and here I want to be careful and, I hope, to be sensitive to Others.

I know that my experience of otherness is nothing--nothing--in comparison to Others' experiences.

But I know a little about otherness. In my own way, I am the Other and will always be. In Roman Catholic elementary and high-school, for instance, I was smaller than many of the other boys and was bullied.

My teachers and schools labeled me "slow," and consigned me to the math and reading groups for slow students. We worked in a separate part of the classroom.  In a Roman Catholic boys' high-school, stuck in the second of three tracks, I took "bonehead" English, math, business, and other subjects, while my classmates did Latin, calculus, chemistry, and college preparatory courses. (Thank God, a few kind nuns and priests and adults over the years encouraged me to excel.)

I was the son of an alcoholic father. I dreaded his coming home from work. Many evenings, unless he were on the road because of his sales job, he drank at the kitchen table. Some nights, my sister and I slept with my mother, while my father drank. When he threatened my mother, I took up for her, standing between her and my father, who stood with a drawn fist ready to pummel her. My classmates surely enjoyed different, happier families, I used to imagine.

And then one day, I became the boy from a "broken family," when my mother left my father and divorced him. All of my friends enjoyed whole families. But I was the Other.

Again, my experience of otherness is nothing compared to that of all the millions of African-Americans who suffered and bled and died because of racism--and nothing in comparison of all the Others today who still suffer, bleed, and die.

But my experience of otherness, however comparatively small, has proved valuable to me, if only in making me a little more sensitive to people who suffer because of who they are, how they are made, what they believe.

My Christian faith reminds me daily that God has made every one of us.  Each of us is an original. There will never be another Ken Chumbley; never another you.

And each of us is precious in the eyes of our Divine Creator. When I renew my Baptismal promises, I pledge myself to "respect the dignity of every human being." And I rejoice that I belong to the Episcopal Church, which makes that statement--and acts upon it daily.

Dr. King, a devout follower of Jesus Christ, understood that, with God as our Heavenly Father, we are all brothers and sisters. Each of us is the Other, and in our otherness resides our essential togetherness as members of God's one family.

If, then, God is our Father, and we are His beloved, how can we treat anyone "Otherwise?"

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