Rabbi Sarah Marion
May 29, 2020
“Speak Less, Listen More”
And so many more.
We are witnessing a pandemic within a pandemic.
The last time I wore a face mask on a regular basis, it was the summer of 2013, when I was working as a chaplain intern at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. I spent that summer circulating the hallways of 9 Silver: the medical unit designated for patients with diabetes and kidney disease. Every day, the routine was the same: upon my arrival, I would receive an updated list of the names and conditions of each patient on the floor, and then I would circulate the rooms, one by one – cautiously knocking on doors of patient rooms, trying to discern who was in need of pastoral care.
Every so often, I would come to a door that was firmly shut, with a bright orange sign squarely in the center, containing the cautionary words: “Contact Precaution.” And outside those rooms would be a box of gloves, and a pile of gowns and face masks.
Every time I encountered one of those orange signs – I had to resist the urge to skip that room and go on to the next one. As it was, it felt hard enough to connect with a stranger in a hospital bed – but to try to do so fully masked and gowned – that felt utterly hopeless.
But as time went on, something happened. Without the ability to rely on my words or facial expressions, I ended up strengthening other pastoral muscles. Like what happens when one part of our body becomes injured and unusable, and we start relying on another part of our body, which, in time, becomes stronger in order to compensate for the loss – it felt as if my mouth was incapacitated, and, because of that, other parts of my body had to step in and step up – like my eye contact, my body language, my touch, and my ability to see and listen and simply be present to someone else’s pain.
And so over time, those flimsy blue hospital masks taught me something rather substantial: Sometimes, we say too much. Sometimes, our mouths do more harm than good. Sometimes, healing happens when we speak less, and listen more.
I think – that with the confluence of viruses that are raging in our homes, in our hospitals, and on our streets – that we need those masks now, more than ever.
The COVID-19 virus, the virus that deprives our lungs of air and leaves us unable to breathe – this virus, of course, is new.
But the viruses that have been suffocating black men and women and children for decades – the virus of racism, the virus of white privilege, the virus of a broken criminal justice system in which black children are 5 times more likely than white children to become incarcerated – the virus of disturbing police brutality – these viruses are as old as time.
Viruses upon viruses.
A pandemic within a pandemic.
Perhaps you feel like me, watching the heart wrenching images coming out of Minneapolis and wanting to do more, wanting to do something, but not knowing how, not knowing where to even start, feeling especially paralyzed in the midst of another pandemic, which has left us homebound for the foreseeable future.
Two years ago, before I arrived at Congregation B’nai Israel, I am told that some of the extraordinary members of CONECT – our congregation’s community organizing team – sat down with other local faith-based leaders to begin a conversation about how our congregations could partner together on racial justice efforts. It was at that meeting, I am told, that one of our pastor partners gave the white leaders around the table a humbling revelation: “If you want to help solve the problem,” he offered, “Perhaps, first, go back to your own community. Work to understand your own privilege and your own racism that you unknowingly carry within. Spend some time absorbing yourselves in our stories. Read. Listen. Observe. Reflect. And then, we look forward to welcoming you back to the table.”
Or – in other words – if members of the white community want to help stop this virus…then, first, we need to put on our masks. We need to put on our masks, as a reminder to speak less, and listen more. We need to put on our masks, as a way to strengthen our ability to see and observe and reflect and read and begin to understand.
Although we may not be able to convene or protest right now, there is something that we can do – something that we might have more time for right now, more than ever before. Now, maybe more than ever, we have time to read and we have time to watch and we have time to reflect.
There are so many powerful books and films that are painful and excruciating but so, so important for the white community to grapple with. Books like “How to Be an Anti-Racist” by Ibram X. Kendi; “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson; “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo, or “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander and the film “White Like Me,” both of which our congregation read and watched as part of our “Two Books, Two Movies” racial justice series last year. And so perhaps, as a small step forward, we can all commit to reading or watching one more of these works over the course of this time at home. I also want to add that Jeff Schwartz and Emily Lehrman – our CONECT co-chairs, both have a wealth of knowledge and expertise on resources we can turn to – and if you have not yet been involved with their efforts and would like to participate, I would be glad to connect you with them.
This virus is one that is extraordinarily pervasive and deep. But I continue to believe that each one of us has work to do and each one of us has a role to play. Our work begins by being willing to put that mask on, in the first place. Our work begins by being willing to admit that there is so much about the experience of the black community that we, as white people, still don’t understand…and our work begins by reading books about racial justice not only to ourselves – but, also, to our children and grandchildren, so that they never grow to be afraid of a black teenager walking down the street in a hooded sweatshirt holding a bag of skittles…
The work of ending this awful pandemic first begins in our hearts and in our homes…so that we might then be ready and able to truly look outwards – towards a world, in need of so much healing.