Sitting in the sanctuary of Mary Mother of the Church, the women opened their hearts and let their pain, anger and frustration pour out.
The women were black. Their audience was largely white. As they shared their stories of raising their sons and having "the talk," it was apparent that two worlds had collided right there in church.
The conversation was part of Mother 2 Mother, an initiative of The Ethics Project to increase understanding, reduce police conflicts and heal the racial divide. Mary Mother, located in south St. Louis County, hosted the event May 1 with St. Catherine Laboure in Sappington and St. Margaret Mary Alacoque in Oakville.
Tango Walker, a mother of two sons and three daughters, recalled the first time she had to have "the talk" — a conversation nearly all black parents have with their children about how to interact with the police — with her son.
He and a white classmate had gotten in trouble at school; the white classmate was sent back to class while Walker's son was detained and threatened by police, his mother said. He was 7.
On the day of the conversation at Mary Mother, Walker got a call from her now 22-year-old son. It was time for the talk again. This time, he was stopped by a police officer while he was at his job walking several dogs in a predominantly white neighborhood.
"I have to keep my phone on me, because I could receive a call at any moment," Walker explained. "What do you think a black 22-year-old is going to do in your neighborhood walking three dogs? Who is he going to rob? Whose house is he going to break into walking three dogs? I need you all to help me understand how you all think about my black son, because I'm tired. I'm tired of feeling fearful. I'm tired of not sleeping at night. I'm tired of feeling nauseous when the phone rings."
The emotions were real, and they were raw. The other women sitting alongside Walker shared similar stories. Nadida Martin described how her son died at the hands of a police officer. Marlo Gaines expressed frustration with people who tell her to "get over it" when young, unarmed black men such as Philando Castile and Trayvon Martin were shot to death by law enforcement officers. And Anita Minor worried about how her 12-year-old son with Down syndrome and other black teens or pre-teens with disabilities — sometimes not as visually apparent — will be treated by police.
So where do we start to heal the racial divide? It should start in our own homes, Gaines said.
"We're here on a mission to fix, to change, to make things different," she said. "Have the conversations that are difficult with your family members. When the joke is racist and it's not funny, say something."
Sitting back and remaining silent is no longer an option, she said. "Too many of us are OK with being silent, with saying it doesn't affect me."
Listening to their stories was undoubtedly difficult for the largely white audience, which numbered about 150 people. Some stood up and said they felt attacked. Another person came to the defense of police, saying that anyone who shoots at a police officer deserves to be shot back. (None of the stories the women shared involved someone shooting at law enforcement.) And yet others expressed feeling guilty, and added they wanted to be part of the solution.
Mary Mother parishioner Kim Blackford summed it up when she spoke about having a foot in two worlds. Blackford is white, and has two black sons, a 16- and 19-year-old.
On one hand, she knew the panelists would ruffle some feathers in the way they presented their stories. On the other hand, her experiences raising black sons and her work as a social worker with the St. Louis Crisis Nursery has opened her eyes to the reality of racial injustice.
"White privilege is a real thing ... and that is not a bad thing," she told the group. "It's how you use it. You can use your white privilege in a positive way, and that's what I try to do. I know in our heart that's what we all want to do — to get involved." RELATED ARTICLE(S):Bp. Braxton: Recent incidents add to problems in addressing racial divide