Rev. Michael Blair "A Christian Response to Racism" | Episode Transcript
Karen Pascal: Hello, I’m Karen Pascal. I’m the Executive Director of the Henri Nouwen Society. Welcome to a new episode of Henri Nouwen: Now and Then. Our goal at the Henri Nouwen Society is to extend the rich spiritual legacy of Henri Nouwen to audiences right around the world. Each week, we endeavor to bring you a new interview with someone who’s been deeply influenced by the writings of Henri Nouwen or perhaps even a recording of Henri himself. Because we’re new to the world of podcasts, taking time to give us a review or a thumbs up or even share this episode will mean a great deal to us and allow us to reach more people around the world with meaningful and hopefully deeply spiritual content that continually reminds us of Henri’s writings, his encouragement and of course, the reminder that we are God’s beloved.
So with that said, let me take a moment to introduce my guest. You’re in for a treat. The Reverend Michael Blair has just been appointed as the General Secretary of the United Church of Canada. The United Church of Canada is the largest Protestant denomination in Canada, ministering to more than 2 million people in about 3,000 congregations. Michael, it’s a very new role for you; you officially begin November 1st. What is your vision for the church that you are bringing at this moment?
Rev. Michael Blair: Thanks Karen for the opportunity to have this conversation. I think two things are part of what informs my imagination as I think about the church moving forward. I think the first one is for reconnection to what I call the commons. That the church begins to re-build partnerships and work with others outside of the bounds of the building and certainly I think in these days with COVID, we are being encouraged and nudged to find new ways of being church. So I think that’s one piece to both model, but also invite the church to consider how it may rebuild connections to the community in which it finds itself. And I think the second piece for me is a renewed sense –an idea that has caught my attention for quite a while is this notion which says it is not that the church of God has a mission in the world, but the God of mission has a church in the world. And so for me, it’s helping the church to be in a listening space to discover what God is up to in the world and where God is inviting God’s church to engage in the world. So those are two things I would say off the bat, that are what I’m bringing into this particular role at this particular time.
Karen: I love that you immediately use the word imagination, because when I was doing a little bit of work ahead of time, I came across a couple of quotes from you that I just loved in answer to why do you do what you do? You said, “I love to help people expand their imagination”, and you added, “in order to change somebody’s behavior, you have to change their imagination.” And I just found that so significant. Clearly there’s something wonderfully creative in that.
Michael: Yeah. And in fact, the quote comes from Paul Ricourt, the French philosopher. He was the one who proposed the notion that in order to change a person’s behavior, you must first change their imagination. And I think in many ways we sometimes get stuck because we can’t see what we can’t see. And so I think a critical piece of engaging is to help people expand their imagination. You know, when I think about the particular moment of time we’re in especially around issues of anti-black racism, I remember a time when within the context of both society and the church an interracial marriage was not seen as a possibility. But as people’s imagination broadened it’s a non-starter in many ways, in many contexts today, right? People wouldn’t think twice about an interracial marriage. So, being able– and I think in the ministry of Jesus that’s what Jesus did was to kind of enable. I think the parables are ways of expanding the imagination of the disciples and those who are hearing Jesus. So I think that became a critical part of the ministry of Jesus as stories and stories are one of the ways in which we help to shape imagination.
Karen: I found it interesting. I went back over your story and it would be nice for people to know the roots of where you’ve come from. Your journey started back in Jamaica. You were born in Jamaica and you were part of the Anglican church there –which would be the Episcopalian church in the States. And then you were ordained in the Convention Baptist church and now in the United Church. You’ve been all over. Tell us just a little bit about your own life journey. You bring, obviously, even as you, as we talk, we’re going to be talking about the times we’re living in, and I loved what you’ve just brought up, that it’s important for people to know that you bring the richness of having a black heritage from Jamaica. So tell us a bit about your story.
Michael: So, as you say I was born in Jamaica, raised as you mentioned in the Anglican church, what should be the Episcopal church in the U. S.; was nurtured in a Pentecostal tradition. So already you can see a shift in terms of kind of shape and liturgy. And I think the Anglican liturgy is something that I find lots of energy and resonance and power in. But my formative experiences in the Pentecostal tradition where my faith became more and more kind of personalized my faith that came personalizing and fairly dynamic. I sensed a strong call into ministry and had the opportunity because my family was migrating to come to Canada to study, came with the particular desire to be trained and to go back to Jamaica to be engaged in ministry.
During my training, my initial days, I was involved with the fellowship at this church here in Canada. And I finished my training at Ontario Bible College, which is now Tyndale College and Seminary and then went on to– because I felt the need to be able to offer a kind of counseling component to my ministry –university to do a degree in psychology. And I should back up and just say, you know, I wasn’t aware that I was a black person in a sense until I came into the Canadian context and my skin color became an issue. When I finished at university and wanted to engage in ministry, the congregation, the Fellowship Baptist church which I was a part of at the time when I was exploring with them the opportunity to engage in ministry, was told that there was no place for me in the leadership in the church because of the color of my skin, that there was no room. And that was a traumatic experience for me because it was the first time I’d ever experienced the blatant racism that was right in my face. And I went through a whole host of circumstances, had conversation with the leadership in the Convention Baptist church at the time, and just experienced a whole different welcome. And in that context from the structure of the church, there didn’t seem to be any particular issue with the color of my skin. When I started after I finished seminary and I went to Wycliffe College at Toronto School of Theology when I finished seminary and was exploring opportunities for ministry, I recognized again that although at some level my skin color was not an issue for the denomination in the minds of many folks and in the minds of the leadership at that time, I could only serve a black congregation. So as I was looking for opportunities, they were only focusing on black congregations. And in some ways felt that that’s probably a better fit for me than any place else. Thankfully, I was called to Walmer Road Baptist Church at the time. And in that space was a fairly multicultural community and it gave me an opportunity to minister to the whole people of God, not only to people who look like me. And when I left there and went to another congregation again, experienced significant racism.
There was one person in particular who was in church every Sunday morning, but didn’t want to have anything to do with me. And I discovered that part of her issue was that I was a black man. She just could not cope with the idea of somebody being black.
So I served in a number of congregations and the idea of my skin color was a scene. My life got complicated and how I ended up in the United Church in some ways was that I had been kind of struggling all those years around my sexual identity in the last congregation. So the first congregation I served with the Baptist Convention was Walmer Road Baptist Church. I left and went to a number of congregations and came back to Walmer. And during my Walmer days started getting sick. And every time I would end up in the Emergency I was told they couldn’t find what was happening to me. And I finally recognized that there was actually something going on.
And I remember going to see a psychiatrist and saying to him I want to live, I’m tired of dying and I have a secret. And so through that process I worked through owning my identity and coming out as a gay man. And that ended my ministry within the Baptist life. There was no place for me. And it was the irony, I felt welcome and accepted around my racial identity, but didn’t feel welcome around my sexual identity. And I ended up working in a social justice ministry in Regent Park, which was at that time, one of the poorer neighborhoods in Toronto. And through my experience of working there I came into touch with the United Church and both felt that in terms of my faith journey and in terms of my identity, this was a place for me. And so it’s been home, I’d say, for the last 15 years.
Karen: What a journey, what a journey. I’ve often heard that the most segregated hour in America is Sunday morning at 11 o’clock. And obviously you lived through that. But you’ve also lived through a level of the deepest personal rejection, could the two go together? Because I know we talked about this before, I have a feeling that through that part of your very difficult time and coming out that you found the writings of Henri Nouwen to be really helpful.
Michael: Yeah. And I mean, they were in many ways so I think I’ll just say that Nouwen’s writing comes back to the final thing: imagination. Nouwen’s writing allowed me to frame an approach to ministry. I think he impacted my imagination around a ministry in two or three ways. One of which you know. He tells the story of being a chaplain on a ship and discovered that he was useless. And, that notion of being ministry around being useless was something that helped me in terms of my own sense of ministry. How do I come alongside people in my ministry in a way that again, allowed me to live with a certain level of freedom in that I couldn’t fix everything, but I could be present? And that notion of presence was a big help for me. Nouwen kind of shaped my spirituality.
So for years I would do silent retreats and just spend some time deepening my space of understanding the depth of God’s love for me. And in some ways it was a gift, but it was also part of the struggle because on one level I was trying to absorb this notion that God loves me deeply. And yet there was this sense that I have the secret and could God love that part of me. And that was a real struggle. But I think the liberation for me, and part of my journey, was my ability to say to my psychiatrist, I want to live, I’m tired of dying. When I read about his struggle with his identity and recognized that here was a person who knew the depth of God’s love, was able to influence people in that space and yet struggled with that and that in some ways that struggle was part of his gift of what he had to offer, it provided for me a liberation to say, ‘God doesn’t condemn me for my sexual identity’. So how do I learn to live into that space? So that became a part of my journey and story.
And the other piece, I think the way Nouwen has influenced me: I was taken –and this is just broad stroke — taken by the fact that whenever he traveled, he would always take somebody from the community with him. And again, there is that notion of how we do ministry in partnership together. And we don’t speak for the other, but we create space for the other. That’s also been something that shaped my imagination around ministry.
Karen: Oh, that’s really lovely. You’re absolutely right. It’s interesting because Henri had an inner struggle there’s no two ways about it. Those who knew him, knew him well and knew that part was a struggle with his sexuality. I think that which I know of him was that he made a choice that he would keep his vows of celibacy because his priesthood was very important to him. And so he, from what I know, didn’t choose to come out and be known as ‘the gay priest’. And I think that whole reason was because he felt he had something so rich to give that it would get in the way of him being able to give it. And that was really at the depths of it was his knowing that who he was, was God’s beloved, that God loved the real Henri.
And in essence, he knew that was the richest thing he’d found. And we often say, you know, as we start this broadcast, we say our desire’s to give that out to the world; that you might know that you’re a beloved child of God, that you might know that with certainty. I was so excited when I called you. I was asking for an interview because I really wanted to hear what you had to say about this particular time, where we’re seeing, we’re wanting to respond in a bold and good way to what’s happening with a longing for social justice, a longing that black lives matter. But then I got the good news that here you were, I thought you were about to retire, and instead you were coming into this new position. And I just recall you saying I’m sure when you came out you thought there wouldn’t be any place for you to minister and God has certainly opened doors for you. It’s just incredible.
Michael: Yeah. And I’m very grateful. And I think in many ways the truths that I think Henri discovered of being comfortable in God’s love, I think has been a lesson, you know, ever since I came out. I can share a couple of stories which in some ways have brought me to today. When I first came out, I received a call from somebody. And because I had some dealing with the person around the church I ignored the machine. I didn’t pick up the phone. And a couple of weeks later, the person phoned back again and I did not take the phone up. So I called the church and I said, this person is trying to get hold of me you know because of the connection with the church you need to be in touch with them and let them know the situation that I’m no longer at the church.
And at the time I hadn’t even put two and two together that he was calling me at a home number which was a new number. And I didn’t put that together. And he called back a third time and I picked up and we chatted and he said a mutual friend of ours had told him about what had happened with the church. And he said to me, I don’t want you to be out there alone. He says, I know how difficult this journey is and I don’t want you to be out there alone. And so if you’re open to it I’d be willing to have coffee with you once a week and just be somebody who’d accompany you through this time. And you know, it was just this gift. And I received it as God’s saying, ‘now that you’ve gotten to this space where you can own who you are, you need to know that I’m not abandoning you.’
And so for almost eight months, I met with this person every week for coffee until I was able to find employment and begin to nudge myself forward and then he disappeared out of my life. And every attempt to be in touch he just said, ‘I was needed for a time’. So I look at that and I see God kept reminding me that he had not abandoned me. God had not abandoned me. God still loved and cared for me. And he made it very tangible in this person kind of walking alongside of me. And I think as I look back, particularly since 2001, I see these moments where God has said, ‘I’m still in your court, right? I’ve not abandoned you. And the call to ministry is still this, I haven’t taken away my call’. And so those two things: you’re not abandoned, I’m still in your court, you’re still deeply loved and I have not taken your call and I’ve had struggles saying, I’m tired you know, let me go.
And God says now, you know, I remember it was when I worked in Regent Park, I was part of a number of community initiatives and community groups. And one of the days I had offered to host one of the meetings in our building, and it hadn’t even occurred to me. I kind of think in the frame you know, we operated at other church buildings and one of the people who worked for the state showed up for the meeting and when they arrived, they stood outside and so I went up to chat and they said two things. I can’t come in and talked about the fact of how they had been hurt and abused by a church community. So, they could not cross the threshold of coming into the building, shared a bit about what this was about. And the second thing he said was, ‘you surprise me because you’re not like’, and that was the first time he discovered that I was an ordained clergy person and he couldn’t get it through so that I was like the other in his mind, you know. So we had a chat and we talked and he eventually did come in for the meeting and through – you know, rediscovered church and became involved for a while with the church community. I’ve lost touch with the person.
But it’s that sense of knowing who you are, knowing that affirmation that God loves you and has not taken away the call, has allowed me to love with a certain kind of freedom. And I think because I’ve lived in that space of freedom, I’ve had opportunities to be supportive and responsive to others and enable others to find their freedom as well. And you know, I think, because I’ve lived in that place of freedom and been enabled and emboldened and whatever language you want to use in terms of engaging in what God’s doing in the world. Right? So I would never have thought of that staff person as somebody to go after around their faith, but just being present with whatever was going on in that person’s life, God was at work. And I came alongside with what God was doing and the opportunity for conversation. So all that is to say, I think that’s what coming into this role is part of that. I think I’ve allowed myself to live into the freedom that I’ve discovered. And because God’s calling is still there and God’s up to something and I’m responding to what God’s up to.
Karen: It’s interesting, you know, you come to that first, the comfort wherewith you’ve been comforted, you’ll comfort others. But the reality is that when you needed the comfort you were probably at the lowest part of your life, and you didn’t know what God could do with it. Clearly in your case, it was so low that you’re in hospital and you had to find a reason to live again. And this is amazing. None of us choose — I think back to the lowest part of my life and I remember arguing with God, ‘If you’re just doing this so I can comfort someone else, I’m not interested, I’m not willing, I’m not willing.’ But what is so wonderful about the comfort that you’re comforted with is that it’s better than you ever envisioned it to be.
God is better than you ever thought. That imagination question that you raised, you know you have to change your imagination and this wonderful God who loves you so much, who calls you his beloved, meets you there in the place where you feel unlovable and loves you back into his kingdom. And I’m so glad that he’s not letting go with a call on your life. I’m sure there’ll be people that this will be particularly meaningful as they listen, or perhaps they know somebody they want to say, have them listen to this podcast. Because to me, it is also just laced with hope, it’s laced with God’s goodness.
It’s funny because way back when we started, I was thinking, okay, well, what am I going to ask you about? I’ll probably ask you, how are you coping with the pandemic? I mean, that’s a global thing. And by the way, our audience is a global audience. It goes right around the world. We get responses from people in Japan and from England and from South Africa and lots from all across North America. Let me first hear, how are you coping with pandemic? How are you coping with COVID?
Michael: In many ways, I think that having gone through the early days when it’s somewhat bleak and uncertain and it’s given me time on one hand. You know, I live in Toronto and know places in Toronto, but I’ve just reconnected with the beauty of the parks in Toronto. And so every day after I shut the computer down, I go for a walk and on the weekends. We’ve been just kind of– my partner and I– just been wandering around the city and walking on trails and in parks and just discovering this is Toronto. And the other thing is that I’m starting to appreciate COVID as a gift, not to diminish the health concerns, but that it’s shown the cracks in our system. And in some ways it just says, it’s just this kind of reality that says, wow, this world isn’t as we think it is – so the crack in the system. And that struggle I think about is the fact that in the early days of COVID the response was shelter in place. Well, what does shelter mean to somebody in Philippines or somebody in India? What does shelter mean for folks who are living on the street? And in some ways we had this kind of one-size-fits-all without thinking through the implication of what it means for different kinds of people. I think it’s highlighted the fact that we can’t go back to the way things are. And I see that as a gift. And in many ways I’m sick and tired of technology in terms of Zoom or Teams or whatever, but it’s allowed for a continuing connection with folks that I find just energizing and life giving. You know, I’m part of a group of folks who are thinking through what it means to be an advocate – Asian group: Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Hong Kong.
And we meet at 5: 30 on a Monday morning. Then I think, Sunday night that I have to be up to be alert for 5:30 on a Monday morning! But the richness of that experience of being in conversation with folks as they struggle to ground themselves and understand how their faith and their lived experience can help shape their ability to advocate. And I come off at eight o’clock when we were done in the morning, I come as high as a kite because there’s been this opportunity. So those are some of the ways in which I’m coping with COVID.
Karen: It’s funny because I have the feeling I think in some ways the, for lack of a better word, the drag of COVID is it’s going on and on and on and on. I mean, probably three months would have been just like, it would have been like a little stop in the journey of my life. But now when I look at it and I go, I think we’re in for a year, maybe more, who knows, you realize it takes that much to grind to a halt on a lot of the things that you just did. You just, it had become so habitual and your life was spinning. And just like you’re describing your walks and your sense of seeing the world that you’re actually living in. I find, for example, I’ve discovered my community. I live in one of those bedroom communities that you get in your car and you go into the office, you drive an hour and then you come back to it. And I knew so few people, and now there isn’t anybody that we don’t pass in a walk that you don’t say hello to. And I love watching, I love getting to know my neighbors because in the isolation suddenly even if it’s just seeing their familiar faces and knowing we all live in this, we’re all in this together it’s been quite meaningful. I’ve found it really rich.
In the midst of a pandemic, we had some terrible things happen that just bought to the fore the reality of racial injustice. We lost George Floyd, we lost Briana Taylor, we lost Ahmaud Arbery and many, many, many more, not just in America, in Canada and countries all around the world. And this has been an amazing time. And I’d just love to hear from you about this. I mean we put it all together as a movement: Black Lives Matter. I find myself, because we’re also in Canada and in North America, I think we also need to say ‘Indigenous Lives Matter’. But having said that, I’d like to hear what you want to say about that and what you believe can come from this. And what have you hoped for? What discourages you?
Michael: You know to start I think again, just when I talked about COVID as being a gift, the events particularly surrounding George Floyd’s death where I think because we had stopped for a while, and even though the kind of noise of the political situation in the US was still at play, our collective global slow down enabled us to see that in a way that finally said to us enough is enough. And there are others in more recent days who have been brutalized by police violence that in some ways skirts through the headlines and hasn’t really kind of drawn our attention. So I think it’s drawn our attention to say, wow, things are worse. And the fact that it’s sparked a global movement to me, is just remarkable.
And the remarkable thing about it is that it’s not leaving the headlines; that it’s shifted thinking in a way that is beginning to, people are beginning to shift. I mean our own institutions here in Canada, CDC is looking at itself, governments are looking at their selves, you know, anti-black racism in the city of Toronto where I live has been ahead of the game in that it had an anti-black racism strategy and action plan that it’s moving into. So I think in one hand, there are people looking at and resources are being put into, to address the kind of systemic nature of the exclusion of racialized individuals, particularly black individuals. And it doesn’t diminish the reality of anti-Asian and anti-indigenous racism. But for a time, we’re kind of saying the reality and experience of black peoples across the globe is an issue that needs to be attended to and folks are trying to figure out. So on one hand, I’m sitting back and I’m just amazed at the fact that the conversation has become the conversation and people are trying to figure it out. My fear is– I’ll talk about my fears, and then my hope– my fear is a couple of things. The church community has been silent. But in a way it breaks my heart that churches haven’t really come out and strongly owned their complicity in racial structures. Churches haven’t come out and said, ‘we understand that our history is a history rooted in colonialism. And our practice of mission over the years has been a practice that has devalued the people we’ve gone to so whether it’s to Africa or India or wherever we’ve labeled folks as heathens. There’s all kinds of language we’ve used about who they are’. And so we haven’t gone. We haven’t been part of -our history is not a history of recognizing the innate value and dignity of people we’ve missionized, right? We start that they’re deficient. And so my fear is that if the church and religious communities don’t begin to respond and publicly, I think, own their complicity, they’re going to miss the boat. And in a way, part of what happens is that in the early days, with the response to Floyd’s death, a number of denominations here in Canada made statements, but as you’ve read their statements, they were reacting to the violence.
You know, they’re talking about being called to peacemaking and all that kind of stuff. And part of me wanted to say, bull crap. You know, the reality is racism exists. You have contributed to it. And just to pause and look at the landscape of who’s given leadership and the likes of many of our religious communities, it’s white male for the most part. So my fear is that lack of adequate response from the faith community. My fear is that many Christian- White Christians are caught up with trying to prove that they’re not racist because they have a perception that this is about individual kind of racist behavior and acts and that they’re individual racists, they’re individuals who perpetuate – but they don’t get the systemic. So they’re gathering in and having book clubs and book study and all that kind of thing. And part of it is trying to fix themselves that they’re not racist, as opposed to saying the kind of structural systemic racism that exists and George Floyd’s death is there and is a power system who feels it has the freedom to murder somebody in broad daylight and to be impugned by that. The kind of systems that are set up, we’re not attending to, we’re trying to fix ourselves rather than look at a kind of systemic challenge in terms of changing behavior like a change in practice and policies and that kind of thing. And again, my fear is that if we get into that space and don’t challenge that space again the shift that needs to happen to bring about a kind of liberative freedom for black folks and people of color will be missed. And we’ll have a whole bunch of people thinking, ‘ain’t I good?’ You know, I did the reading, but they’re not doing the kind of heavy lifting around that.
And I think the third thing I would say, I’m afraid of a level of tokenism in terms of the response. So let’s find people of color and put them in places of leadership. And then we can say we’ve done our thing and not actually do the systemic kind of policy polity work that is necessary. So I think those are my fears.
My hope is that this will be a time of a genuine shift in our mindsets, in understanding the depth of the colonial enterprise. So that we would, – my hope is that every part of the system would begin to understand how colonialism has deprived people across the globe from their full humanity.
And that’s the work we do. So TRC, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, that work was a kind of unveiling in terms of the indigenous reality. And I think we need that kind of unveiling around black lives, around Asian lives, and a commitment to live authentically and in right relations. And the other piece, I think, which is a critical piece, is that we start to think about recreation. What does recreation look like? How are we going to do that and recreation is not all about monies, but there are systemic ways in which we can deal with recreation that will actually make my kids and should I have grandkids, live in a world where as Martin Luther King said, they’re not evaluated by the color of their skin.
Karen: Right. Absolutely. It’s funny as I’m listening to you, I’m thinking for such a time as this, have you come into the kingdom, I was going to say, ‘What’s your vision for leadership?’ And obviously, I mean, the United Church has taken a leading role in the issues of fairness and justice in Canada. But it’s like you’re peeling off the skin and saying, let’s go a lot deeper than that. It can’t just be discussion. It can’t just be a set of ideas. The practices have to change.
Michael: Yeah. It’s interesting that to use an example. So, the United Church of Canada has offered two apologies to the indigenous communities. One apology was with regards to residential schools and one apology was the fact that the colonial kind of notion that we came, we thought we knew better. We didn’t appreciate what you have blah, blah, blah. What’s interesting is that it’s been over 30 years since the first apology was offered. It has not yet been accepted. It’s been acknowledged, it’s been received, but it’s not been accepted. And I think there is something for us to learn in this moment, because I think what the indigenous community, in terms of the life of the United church, was saying to us was ‘Walk the walk’. And if you’ve walked the walk, we will trust the apology. And I think we, all of us as society as a whole and church in particular, we need to walk the walk. If we actually do believe that every human person is of value, of worth, that has innate dignity and is deeply, deeply in a kind of prodigal son kind of way, loved by God, then what does that look like in terms of how we build communities? How aware we are about who is missing from conversation in our spaces, how we don’t make assumptions about people and that kind of thing.
Karen: Reconciliation can only happen when people are treated as equals and seen as equal.
Michael: And there’s a truth telling that’s an important part of that. We’ve got to tell the truth that we have not, in truth, affirmed the basic dignity of all human beings.
Karen: Sometimes I think I find in this place we’ve made such a mess of it how can we ever make it better? And it is an amazing thing. It takes me back to, in a way, your call upon the church to do so much better. We need to be a force for God’s love in the world. That it really astonishes the world with love, astonishes it with the level of kindness and respect that we bring to another human being. I was reading this one quote from a civil rights leader, the wife of Martin Luther King, Coretta Scott King. She said, “Struggle is a never-ending process. Freedom is never really won, you earn it and win it in every generation. We have to own the moment that we are in right now and as best we can prepare our children to be even better at it than we are.”
I think what’s very exciting about the protests that we see right now is the surge, it bursts with young people going, ‘we don’t want to be part of that old way. We want something new.’ And I think that is also exciting. I think that’s what I see in the timing of what’s going on.
I was curious, I was thinking about you. And I was thinking if right now in this moment of time and space and you entering into leadership and well, you already are a leader, you’re not entering into it you’re just being called as to what you are. But if you had the opportunity to sit down with Henri Nouwen what would you want to talk with him about, what are you wrestling with right now? I’m curious what you think he would have to offer.
Michael: That’s a fascinating question. Well, so I think there are probably two things I would want him to — especially in this particular moment — articulate more because in some ways he talks about the love of God in a way that’s very broad and deep and general, but how do you … So a question for me to him would be, ‘So George Floyd’s family has asked you to do the eulogy. What would you say to them? How would you help them? How would you articulate, how do you continue to articulate that kind of deep love that God has in the midst of such a heinous crime that has happened to Floyd?’ So I want to engage him around that because I think in some ways and– before I get to my second point–in some ways a lot of our younger folks and the young folks were in the struggle and the battle for justice and liberation and basically on the streets, marching for Black Lives Matter are afraid of the church. Don’t trust the church. Don’t trust those of us who claim to be part of it. I mean, part of it is they don’t trust institutions and I get that, but there’s a particular discomfort, dis-ease with religious institutions. And so how as leaders in institutions, what would be the point of that kind of conversation about what you would say at Floyd’s eulogy, is the question how we have something very important to offer to every generation and this generation in particular. So how do we reclaim that space with people who are at discomfort with what we represent, how do we get into a conversation past what we represent? Because they can’t see past what we represent.
No matter how powerful it is that we have to offer – how we do that and I think that for me, that’s a critical kind of question. I think Nouwen also didn’t necessarily talk about the church as such. And in this particular time as a leader where the world shifted and COVID in some ways has shifted the world, like there’s no – what we know about space of comfort – even the notion of how we gather is shifting. And I probably want to engage him around the Prodigal. The story of the Prodigal Son as part of one of his latest book, what further themes or messages out of the story of the Prodigal that enables us to live into this kind of new world, the new normal. Because frankly, you know, as I move into this role, what is the church going to look like in a year? The kind of online presence and in person, and it’s going to be a hybrid of that kind of thing. You know, we’ve lived in a world where we believe that having a Facebook page and having you know how many followers on Facebook and Instagram has created community. And what we’re discovering through COVID is that touch really is significant for people. And even the fact that a lot of our younger adults now are open about ignoring all the COVID requirements because that kind of personal touch is important. And so, how do we speak our truth in this new world? And that’s the question how this radical father in the story of the Prodigal offers us some new insights into this new reality. So those are a couple of pieces I would probably have some conversation with him.
Karen: You know, what’s interesting, something in what you said reminded me of the reality, that he had a near-death experience toward the end of his life. They almost thought they would lose him. He had been hit by a car. And, strangely enough — I think that was probably about two years before he died — it changed him dramatically. It almost gave him peace because in the midst of that it was such a profound experience. And from there you hear so much of his talk being about giving our lives as a gift that when we die, our lives are a gift. And I don’t have a right to say this, but I can’t think of a life that’s been given that has more profoundly changed the world right now than George Floyd. I’m crushed because I don’t want to give my child; I ache for that family. And as you said, what would Henri have said at the funeral? Actually, I think funerals are where ministers come into their own. You either have something to say or you don’t and at that moment you don’t want to hear your life is being given for the world, but in some ways I feel like it’s a hinge point that the world can’t turn back from. It’s profound hinge point in our time and we have lived through it.
Michael: Yeah. So they’re, they’re vestiges of the Christ story and so how do you lift that up in a way without the [unclear] and the violence that has happened, but it’s also a transformative moment. And it was interesting. So, you know what it calls me to think about in this moment when I think of the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King being assassinated, and there was a whole movement around that. When I compare the two, Floyd’s death seems to have a more profound kind of global engagement. And maybe because now, as compared to when King was assassinated, there’s a larger sense of a global reality, a larger sense of we’re committed, we’re connected globally. I’m not sure that King’s life and death had that kind of galvanizing global experience, right? I mean, on one hand, Floyd’s life there’s a part which is, this isn’t a U.S. story but it’s become a global story.
Karen: It’s the wounds on the world’s heart. It really is. And it’s how do we tend to that wound without being deeply honest that we had a part in it? Well, I’m excited that God’s brought you into this place of leadership. I know you went through a great valley when you thought that the call on your life was over because that call of who you really, truly were in your sexuality and in the deepest part of your being was not going to be received. But I’m so grateful that God’s called you for this moment, for this time, with this kind of vision, and that you will be speaking to imaginations, helping us look into how to go forward from here. I just pray there’ll be such a blessing on your words and on your actions and there’ll be resources abundant to feed your spirit.
Michael: Thank you.
Karen: It’s been a pleasure to talk with you, Michael. I wish you well.
Michael: It’s great. Thanks, Karen.
Karen: Thank you so much for your time. Folks I just want to thank you for taking time to listen. I hope you came away from this interview with Michael Blair inspired. I certainly was. I love his honesty. He was deep and it was challenging.
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