I noticed it as I rounded the corner to unlock the front door of the church. A white box next to the stop sign across the street. I gave it no second thought.
A half an hour later, I was saying hello to a life-long parishioner of my parish, and she said, “what’s with that coffin outside?” I paused, taken aback. “Coffin?” I asked, thinking hard. “Oh, you mean that white thing across the street?” “Yes,” she replied, “chained up over there.”
I am white. She is black.
I asked if she was sure it was a coffin and she said, “It sure looks like one, and [another life-long member] asked me about it too.” Overhearing us, another member joined in, “oh, yea, right there across the street. I saw it too.” I responded, “we need to go take a look at it. Right now.”
Off we went, across the street. It was not a coffin. It was an old white chest discarded on the sidewalk. The chain was an iPad cord wrapped around the pole of the stop sign. From a distance it indeed looked like a chain glistening in the rain.
It didn’t really matter that it was just a chest. What mattered was that my people, in my parish, were driving to church and seeing a coffin.
I am white. All three of these life-long members, by which I mean, members who joined this parish as children in the 1940s and 50s, are black. What they saw across from their church was a threat, a threat of violence, a threat of death.
Last week, a local Representative of the State of Oregon, Rep. Bill Post, R-Keizer put the personal contact information of three Portland clergy-persons on a Facebook page. The clergy are Interfaith sponsors of a statewide Ballot Initiative on gun violence. In a video, Rep. Post encouraged his followers to “be hysterical at the right people, and the people are the chief petitioners of this ballot measure… some pastors and a rabbi up in Portland that put this together.” One of these petitioners is the former priest of this parish, a respected member of the Black community in Portland, and a leader among Christians in the State of Oregon. She was baptized in this parish in 1937. She is still a member.
Since Rep. Post shared her personal information on Facebook, she (as well as her co-sponsors) has received many personal emails, comments, and phone calls. This is not an appropriate way to respond to a public, civil petition. In addition, many of the messages were rude, explicitly threatening, and in one case, suggestive of sexual violence.
Let me be clear: a citizen of our state is being harassed for civic engagement, for her willingness to speak out on the issue of guns and violence.
And her family and friends feel threatened. It was just a white chest, but from across the street, it looked like a coffin. For a community all too familiar with threats of violence, it is not difficult to see in that chest yet another threat to one’s life and well-being.
Today I watched a reaction that I, as a white person, would never have, but that is an entirely normal response by a community that has experienced a life-time of racism. It is my privilege not to see threats. It is their reality to know that violence is an ever-present threat. It does not matter that it was just an old chest. It matters that we live in a world of fear and violence where speaking out can cost our lives.
Rep. Post, you are a representative of your constituents, but you also speak for all Oregonians. As a duly elected Representative, it is your responsibility to utilize the appropriate civic process to respond to the participation of fellow citizens. Posting personal information to share on Facebook and encouraging just anyone to make a personal call irresponsible. It is a misuse of your influence as a representative. It is a circumvention of the political process which allows citizens to petition the State, publicly campaign for their beliefs, and then submit their Initiative to a vote of the people.
As a citizen of this state, I would like you to publicly apologize to those citizens whose personal lives you have disrupted, and I would like you to ask your facebook friends and followers to refrain from any further personal contact with the petitioners. As you stated, this petition will be submitted to a vote of the people. Please direct the energy of your constituents to legitimate and informed campaigning activity that is directed to the substance of the petition, not the personal lives of the petitioners.
As a priest in the Church of Jesus Christ, I hope you can recognize the fear that your actions have engendered, fear born out of a world where violence is expected because of the color of one’s skin. Your actions do not affect only the petitioners, but their friends, families, and the communities which love and support them.
Today, as I write this, it is Palm Sunday. It is the beginning of a Holy Week in which Christians all over the world remember that the One who came to speak truth, to live among us as one of us, suffered persecution and death at the hands of a State that was afraid of his persistent, non-violent resistance to the persecution and shaming of the vulnerable.
You do not have to agree with the petitioners to treat them with respect rather than shame, as citizens to engage rather than persecute.
Please, Representative Post, represent the best of our government.
The Rev’d Dr. Maria McDowell
St. Philip the Deacon Episcopal Church
Yes. This was sent as a letter to two local newspapers.