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  • Reverend James Squire

The Disinherited

Updated: Sep 28, 2021

Vicki and I are now taking a zoom course on racism. There is an advantage to taking a course with others because those exchanges are, at times, more important than the required readings. I have taught two courses on racism and diversity with two experts in the field, Courtney Portlock and Walidah Justice. Courtney had expertise in the use of the N word and why it is such a terrible insult to black people. It was originally condemned because it was sometimes the last word that a black person heard before they were lynched.

I am reading, Jesus and the Disinherited, for the course which is a classic in the field of racism written by the scholar, Howard Thurman, who died in 1981. As I always do, I will combine his thinking with my own experience. I believe that anytime you are in a course, you should own it with the question, “What does this have to do with me?”

Thurman recalls that he has asked a number of young people what they wanted. When he asked young Americans what they wanted, they responded with the usual responses, a toy or something else that they could use for enjoyment. When he asked a Korean child what she wanted, she replied with, “Freedom from Japan.” She felt disinherited.

If we lived during Jesus’ time, the question in the heart of the Jewish people was: “Should we resist or join the Romans? If you resisted them as the zealots did you were in peril but you had your integrity. You also did not have a sense of security. If you joined the Roman culture, you lost your self-esteem and identity, but you could live with a sense of security.

Herein lies the dilemma and it relates to any groups that feel they are in an insecure place in life. Of course, Thurman’s specific reference is to the disinherited is Black America.

But there is another group who feels this way as well. I asked a former student, Night Shyamalan the filmmaker, to address our community in chapel about the most pressing challenge that a young person faces. He made a statement that I always remember as it has helped me to understand adolescents and disinherited groups. He said, “You, young people are trying to do two things at once, You, want to stand out and blend in at the same time.” When I followed that chapel address with an ethics class and asked if they felt this was true, every hand was up. Knight struck a chord that rang true.

What does this have to do with us today? As indicated, it is certainly descriptive of the experience of young people. It would also be true of a person or group who feels disinherited. Thurman would say that it is still true of Black America today. It is also true of you and me. We too feel at times when “we are out of our element” that we want to stand out in a positive way but also blend in with the group of people with whom we are engaged or recognized for our personal history.

During Jesus’ day if the Jewish people blended in too much, they thought they lost their integrity, and if they didn’t it would be particularly painful to them as they would have no power or recognition. When I was a student at Berkeley at Yale, I became friends with a fellow student who was a nationally recognized distance runner who attended Wesleyan, an elite university. He was a white kid from Harlem. I was from a working- class town. We had something called field education where you went to a church on a Sunday morning and became part of the clergy staff. The goal was to put you in community that was the opposite of where you grew up.

When my fellow students rushed to the assignment board, they were thrilled that they were sent to inner city or working-class communities. After all it was the sixties, and that is where everyone thought that “the action was.” When my friend and I saw our assignment, we didn’t know what to say. We had not heard of the town. It was Darien, Connecticut. Darien is an affluent community. My friend and I had a fantastic experience with the people in a very large Episcopal Church.

I had my own bias for I always assumed that the title of a book was true that The Rich Are Different by Susan Howatch. What I learned firsthand was that they aren’t. They were just like my friend and me. We blended in and stood out, which made for some humorous moments that would be grist for Trevor Noah’s comedy routines. During one lunch with the family of a member of the parish, we were asked a question, “We love your sermons and you are doing a great job teaching our young people, where did you prep?” The first thing that I could think of to say was, I went to the Alan Wood School (the name of the steel mill where I worked to pay for college).” My friend just smiled at me. Her response was, “I don’t know that one, but it must be great. (Compared to what) This would be similar to saying to a black person, “You speak well. (Compared to what).”

In racism and classism studies these statements are called microaggressions where someone makes a comment to you and is well intentioned but doesn’t realize that they have offended you at the same time.

My point is that sometimes, like for teenagers and Black America, it is tricky to stand out and blend in at the same time.

When I am teaching counseling at schools as well as in my ethics class as kids love to have tools to help their peers, I share the following way to help another person who has come to you. When you are the helper, view the person you are helping as though you had eye glasses on. One lens evaluates their self-esteem. The other lens evaluates if they feel as though they belong. Keep in mind that we are always trying to stand out and blend in. Ask yourself the question of the self-esteem of the person you are helping and whether the person feels that they belong.

For years the gay community has kept their identity secret to blend in, but at the same time feeling that “if they only knew…” which eats away at their self-esteem which causes them to leave part of themselves outside the door of truly belonging with others. That is changing.

The disinherited takes many forms. You, the reader, need to raise those questions for there may be some part of you that tears you down or some part of you that doesn’t feel that you can’t bring all of you into your group. There is that question to the Korean girl, “What do you really want?” You still must answer that question as you move from standing out and blending in. No one wants to feel disinherited.

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