[King James Bible] Yet they shall be ministers in my sanctuary, having charge at the gates of the house, and ministering to the house: they shall slay the burnt offering and the sacrifice for the people, and they shall stand before them to minister unto them.
Those who were once servants shall have charge of this house.
Starting when I was extremely young… about three… I had this recurring dream for more than a year in which I lived the final two hours of the life of a teenaged girl, from a family of household servants in central pre-industrial England. She died attempting to deliver his forgotten lunch pail to her brother, in the unfamiliar setting of an early iron smelter in Coalbrookdale. When I was asked later (in kindergarten) what I wished to become when I grew up, I replied without hesitation – “A servant.”
I could come to no other conclusion… saw no better or other conceivable place for myself. The mindset of that particular life had been impressed deeply upon her, and hence upon me. Her father and mother were deeply indentured to a wealthier family for their entire lives. As children she and her younger sister moved into their place in the household and were prepared for a lifetime of similar service.
People in the service of others become very good at noticing. They not only notice and comprehend the neglect of their own personal families for the sake of those with the power and prestige, but they also become expert at noticing the nuances which create satisfaction and momentary happiness in those they serve. A good servant, like a good nurse or a good babysitter, is adept at stepping quickly forward to assuage a subtle need.
When I stepped down after several years as the Executive Director of one non-profit, I recommended to my Board that I be replaced by my own Administrative Assistant. Who better to lead? She knew my job second only to myself.
Things likewise have now changed in this great lumbering institution called the United States of America.
Just yesterday, the 20th of January – an elderly black minister moved slowly to the podium and (using cadences on preaching I have come over the years to love) he extolled the multitudes… and there were many multitudes before him… to open their hearts and and minds to a new rhythm of faith. And he asked the privileged whites to release their privilege, and to genuinely share their place with the black, the brown, the red and the yellow persons of this country.
And that time has certainly come to let go of the perks of “white privilege” and any final accompanying illusions of self-importance. (Not that “white privilege” will vanish… white skin and male gender and Protestant/European ancestry will create easy pathways in many American settings regardless of how egalitarian the bearer of such genes might want to be.) But the sea change is upon us all, and those once resigned to be servants shall now have charge of this house.
In sheer numbers we white folks are a slim and ever-slimmer plurality. And as for exemplifying moral authority… well, the last decade has proven without question (if you didn’t know before) that there has been something terribly rotten in our crusty white old-boy Denmark. Corruption. Torture. Fear-mongering, racism and xenophobia. Short-term exploitation of the lowest order in every sector of business and the environment. Mean-spiritedness and classism. A virtual cesspit of venality.
So unless you’ve been standing on your tiptoes in the sewage, yelling at the top of your lungs for the past eight years… in one way or another we all must take responsibility for the way things have become.
Sure there were “bad guys”… badder than we’ve seen in a long time. The foisted-upon-us political, business and social climate of “the Bush years” was not a simple changing of the guard into Republican hands. It was a rising to the top of a self-congratulating hyper-indulgent froth, through every form of chicanery conceivable. As I suggested to the publicists for the Green party at the mid-term elections six years ago – perhaps they might consider using the slogan, “Welcome to Potterville.”
It appears to be well past time to give the keys to the servants of the house. Not just African-Americans, but any of those whose family’s blood and sweat have watered the fields for generations, whose torn hands have built the highways and the buildings (as Elizabeth Alexander so ably pointed out)… those whose humiliations and losses and indenture AND slavery were the cornerstone of this country’s beginning can now ably take their charge, and minister unto the people. Back to the bottom-up basics – “Women and children first.”
This change is not about somehow re-balancing “years of dignified suffering” by chambermaids and waitresses, valets and ditch-diggers.
This change is about paying attention to the human scale, and the human dimension of decisions – and of a population becoming again aware and joyful instead of being stuck in gloomy, mistrustful denial – or blame. We all must become more aware, awake, accepting and alive to one another. The divine has certainly not died among us.
And it is high time now to give the keys to those who have already been stewards of this house, to see how we fare under their already seasoned hands.