A Place at the Table

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Our song of the day during worship this morning’s service was A Place At the Table. After a week of tough news in the United States, it was both healing and challenging to sing lyricist Shirley Elena Murray’s refrain: “God will delight when we are creators of justice and joy.”

Normally, hymns are hardly my favorite part of worship. I observe them politely while remaining essentially unmoved. But today’s featured song forced a bit of self-reflection that went a little something like this:

Sometimes, I feel stymied by the vast quantity of issues humanity has yet to surmount or, in some cases, even acknowledge. I feel helpless. I feel hopeless. I cling to the sour conviction that I am vastly under-qualified to  address personal and institutionalized prejudice against “others” (take your pick as to how we define those others at any particular moment).

But discouraging though my perceived helplessness may be, I suspect it’s actually the more pleasing alternative. What if I’m not helpless? What if, instead, I am paralyzed by fear?

Sure, I make parenting and personal decisions that I’d like to think have a positive impact on the world. But I could be doing more. What stops me? Fear. If I stand up as a stronger advocate for victims of injustice, some people may disapprove of my words and actions. Worse, some of the disapproval may come from people I care about. I don’t want to discover bigotry and/or ignorance in my loved ones. And I certainly don’t want to discover it in myself.

But my blind spots are there, whether I acknowledge them or not. I’m a product of my gender, my sexual orientation, my race, my class, my region, and my educational background. I have privileges I don’t even realize. There are ideas and realities to which I’ve never been exposed–either because they’re entirely outside my realm of experience, or because I haven’t been paying very good attention.

How can I be an advocate if I’m not an expert? How can I be an ally without co-opting or corrupting more authentic voices?

Beyond cultural issues, there are the usual human factors to consider. I can be cowardly, self-involved, and egotistical. I’m not always a good listener. And sometimes, I get so worried about causing or feeling discomfort that I avoid the difficult conversations and uphold a shameful silence.

“I’ll be more helpful when I have more time,” I tell myself. “I’ll contribute when I have more money, more knowledge, more patience, and more talent.”

Enough.

Today I’m admitting that I’ll never be perfect, and there will never be a perfect time to grow my own skills as an advocate or ally. But that doesn’t matter. My shortcomings are no excuse for holding back. Imperfect efforts are better than inaction.

The odds are that I won’t singlehandedly cause an amazing and newsworthy shift on behalf of human rights. But you know what? I don’t have to make headlines. I don’t have to be a visionary leader. I can be a courageous follower. I can join all the other humble people quietly building a more compassionate culture.

That’s the world I want to live in, the one Shirley Elena Murray describes in her hymn: “For everyone born, a place at the table, to live without fear, and simply to be. To work, to speak out, to witness and worship, for everyone born the right to be free.”

 

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