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And Now a Word from the “White Lady”

Alpha Phi AlphaI recently had the occasion to speak at a prayer breakfast organized by the Philadelphia chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first African American, inter-collegiate, Greek-letter fraternity, founded in 1906. APA has become an important national organization, and this event was to honor the memory of Reverend Canon Thomas Wilson Logan Sr. the oldest serving African-American priest in the Episcopal Church, USA who died last year at the age of 100. The brothers of the Rho chapter were establishing a scholarship fund in honor of Father Logan, as APA has become a philanthropic, as well as service and activism organization.

It was my great honor to be part of the “warm up acts” that preceded the keynote speaker, the Reverend James Forbes, Jr.

Newsweek named Reverend Forbes one of the twelve most effective preachers in the English language, providing just one of many titles, prizes and honorary degrees the minister has collected over a long career. Although my expectations were high, Forbes’ sermon exceeded them. In addition to brilliance, wit and warmth, the man radiated genuine kindness and humility.

Among the pleasures of the morning was getting to hear my colleague Reverend Dr. Wil Gafney of the Lutheran Theological Seminary of Philadelphia give a stirring meditation on the Biblical heroine Deborah. Wil had the good grace to post her words on her blog here and I recommend them to you. That said, you really had to hear Wil’s delivery to fully experience the power of her teaching. I am planning to avail myself of the next opportunity to hear Wil preach.

My own words for the occasion were far from notable. What was memorable for me was the experience of being in a large, very full room, and realizing I was the only white person there. (The only other interfaith invitee was an imam and he was black.) I am used to being a religious minority---the token Jew among a group of Christians---but being a racial minority was an unfamiliar experience. When the speaker before me mentioned the phrase “white lady,” I startled. In just another minute, I would be rising to deliver my words. I don’t think of myself as a “white lady,” but there it was, and there I was.

I realized then the burden of being a token in a society that is, despite claims to the contrary, very far from post-racial. I opened by saying “And now a word from the White Lady.” I added, in a phrase that I don’t believe I have ever used before, having heard it that morning from another speaker, “Lord, have mercy.” Fortunately, the audience laughed with me.

There is always so much to learn. As President Obama said in Jerusalem just last week, it is imperative to try, whenever we possibly can, to see how the world looks from someone else’s eyes.

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