Sarah Sanderson "Breaking the Legacy of Legalized Hate"| 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 society is to extend the rich, spiritual legacy of Henri Nouwen to audiences around the world. We invite you to share these podcasts and our free, daily meditations with your friends and family. Through them, we can continue to introduce new audiences to the writings and the teachings of Henri Nouwen, and we can remind each listener that they’re a beloved child of God.
Today, I want to introduce you to Sarah Sanderson. Sarah has written a very important book called The Place We Make. The subtitle of this book says so much: Breaking the Legacy of Legalized Hate. In this book, Sarah, a white woman, wrestles with racism, privilege, and faith. Sarah was born in Oregon and returned there eight years ago. The Place We Make is a thoughtful investigation into the incredible, true story of a Black man convicted and exiled under the Oregon Exclusion Law in 1851. Sarah discovered in her research that she’s a descendant of the two men who assisted in the exile of Jacob Vanderpool.
Sarah Sanderson, welcome to Henri Nouwen, Now and Then.
Sarah Sanderson: Thank you so much. It’s great to be here.
Karen Pascal: Tell us about your book. I can give little capsules, but I want to hear from you the story on this book. Why did you write it and what did you find?
Sarah Sanderson: The motivation to write the book really came when I moved back to Oregon. As you mentioned in the introduction, I was born here. I left when I was very small, moved away again, and the first thing I noticed when I came back to Oregon was how white it was. How many white people are here compared to other places I’d lived. I’d lived in Minneapolis and New Jersey and Chicago and there are much more diverse populations in those cities. And then when I came to Oregon, I noticed there’s just not as many Black people here. And I wondered why that was. And I happened to mention it to my brother, and he said, “Sarah, didn’t you know? There’s a history of anti-Black exclusion laws in Oregon.”
And I didn’t. I had been born here, some of my schooling was here, but I had no idea that Oregon was the only state to join the Union with an anti-Black exclusion law on its books.
And so, that sent me researching. I just wanted to know more. And I came across this name, Jacob Vanderpool, and it jumped out at me, maybe because, I thought maybe this is a story small enough for me to wrap my hands around. You know, sometimes racism feels so big; it’s just hundreds of years and all over the globe, and it’s like, what could we possibly do about it? But this one name jumped out at me. Maybe it was the leading of the Holy Spirit, but I just thought, “I’ve got to know more.”
And as I researched, I discovered that my own family members had participated in the trial, and stood by and silently done nothing at the expulsion of this man from this state, 172 years ago. And when I found that out, then I realized why I’d felt this nudge to research this story, because it was my story. It was my own family and my own people’s legacy. And then, I had to ask myself, “Well, what do I want to do about that?”
Karen Pascal: I found it fascinating in your book, right near the beginning: In your introduction, you tell people, “You have to know I’m a Christian.”
Why was that an important kind of caveat put forward in this?
Sarah Sanderson: Well, for a few reasons. One thing, I knew I was going to have to talk about Jesus, because I couldn’t have approached this without knowing Jesus. There was so much fear and shame I felt in coming to this topic at all. And I know I couldn’t have done it without Jesus and Jesus’ love – knowing that I was forgiven.
And so, I wanted to warn people, like, “Hey, if you’re coming to this thinking this is just a history, I want you to know I’m coming with this person holding my hand. So, don’t be surprised if his name comes up every once in a while.”
And then also, I just think it’s important for Christians to start talking about these things. We don’t have a great track record. So much of the evils of white supremacy have been done by Christians in the name of Christ. And so, and I think for many of us in the white church, it’s difficult to know how to get into that, how to talk about that. We feel afraid, or we’re not sure what to say. So, I just wanted to lead by example, not by the example of, “I’ve got this all figured out,” but by the example of, “You know what? If you’re a Christian and you don’t know what to say, well, I don’t either. But let’s go together.”
Karen Pascal: I loved that about your book. I actually just loved it, because I felt like you caught me right where I am. And that was so valuable. It was interesting. I mean, it’s so funny; when I read a book, I’m always thinking about who am I going to give this to. You know? And luckily, I have some friends in Oregon, and they’re already getting the book.
But it’s much bigger than that. It’s much bigger. And that’s what I really appreciated. I realized we don’t know how to talk at this point, we don’t know how to be part of the healing process that is before us, the reconciliation processes before us. I’m up in Canada, and this is very much a reality in Canada, as well – racism, very much so. And probably is even more underlined here, because we’ve just been celebrating [our National Day for Truth and Reconciliation]. Our indigenous rights are so important, and we’re trying to figure out: How do we make it right?
Did you find yourself going, “Do I have a right to write this book,” when you’re white, when you’re a white person?
Sarah Sanderson: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, that was a huge part of my fear going into this. Are people going to say, “She should have stayed in her lane”? Or, “This is not your story to tell.” Just tons of fear around that. And I was so grateful to be met by different Black people, indigenous people along the story as I was researching, and I felt like I was sort of bringing that question: “Is it okay that I’m doing this?” And they said, “Yes, yes. It’s okay to tell your story.” And I appreciated that response. And I think that, the way I felt about watching the conversation, especially in 2020 after George Floyd’s murder, I felt like there were lots of people of color saying, “This is what’s happening and this is what’s happening, and this is what’s wrong, and this is what’s wrong.”
And I didn’t see a lot of white people stepping up and saying, “Yes, you’re right.” And so, that was kind of just what I wanted to say, was, “Yes, you’re right.” As a white person. “You’re right. You’re right. I want to acknowledge it.” But I appreciate what you said about the work you’re doing in Canada, because I do feel that every place has their own history. And part of what I wanted to do also was just to set an example of, “here’s how I found out more about my history, and here’s how it’s leading me into action.” And I do hope that people all over the world will take an example of looking at their own, specific histories.
Karen Pascal: Very much so. Very much so. And it’s easy. I thought you were so sensitive in realizing that for some, you feel a sense of, “Where can I begin and what do I do with this?” And I so appreciated – my goodness, you’re a gifted researcher! This is like a wonderful puzzle, to read this book, because it’s layer upon layer upon layer of discovery, of revelation. And then, you finally get to the place where you can lay it out and go, “wow.”
And I think people who have wanted to do their own personal histories, their family histories, and discover did they come on the Mayflower? Did they come on some boat that landed them in the southern United States as a slave? They want to know their history. I appreciated that as you peeled away the layers, that you were uncompromisingly honest about what was there, about what you found.
And some of the ache that we can all feel with what we find, we can look and say, wow, that whole manifest destiny, that whole business, that we somehow think somebody gave us the right to come and take land from people. Oh, my goodness.
But now we are faced with how do we go forward from where we are today? And I find that you’re thinking in a very deep and meaningful way about that. What is your sense, what would you want people to take from this book?
Sarah Sanderson: Thank you for those kind words. I did feel like I was on a journey with the Holy Spirit, leading me to uncover these things and to find things in the past and things in my own heart. And I’ve discovered, even after the book has come out, that I’m still on the journey of figuring out how God would have me respond to my situation and my history. And I think part of it is simply acknowledging the past, right? All of us can acknowledge our own, find out what it is, and bear witness to the past, whether that’s the history of our family, or our club, or our church, or our city, or our community. I mean, there’s something there for us to uncover and acknowledge, and then to ask the question: “Well, where does all of this show up in my own heart?”
I feel like there’s so much fear of white guilt. You know, we don’t want to make other people feel guilty, or some people are afraid that if we talk about this, it’ll make them feel guilty. And so, I don’t want to point any fingers at anybody else. But I wanted to be really clear in the book about what I found when I looked at myself, and how have the lies of white supremacy that have been zooming around me my entire life, how have they landed in me and where do I need to uncover that? So, I hope to offer an example to people who are ready to ask those questions of themselves. And then, I do think there are specific action steps that will unfold as we do the work of finding out, okay, what was it here?
Then it becomes a little bit easier to figure out what the next step is, when you’re talking about something local or something in your family or your place. One of the things I talk about in the book was that I found out about a spot just – I mean, I’m pointing behind me, because it’s like three blocks away from where I’m sitting. I found this map that said that it’s an American Indian burial ground, and it’s three blocks from here. And right now, there’s no marker at that spot, that there are human remains under our feet. And so, I’m meeting with the mayor this week, actually, the mayor of my little town, to say, “Hey, could we put up a marker?” So, that’s just a very small thing, but it comes from knowing my history better. So.
Karen Pascal: Now, one of the things that you mentioned early on, in fact your publicist mentioned, that Henri Nouwen was very important to you. I’m curious how Henri Nouwen weaves his way into your life. And you told me a little bit about that story, but tell our audience. How has Henri helped you through this journey?
Sarah Sanderson: Yeah. So, I met Henri Nouwen years before I’d ever heard of Jacob Vanderpool. And I would really say that Henri Nouwen’s thought prepared me, made me who I needed to be, to be ready to go on this journey with Jacob Vanderpool.
So, 12 years ago, I went through a very difficult year. I was 33, and some people call it your Jesus year. And it really was a year of intense pain, and it involved bringing up some childhood wounds – just a really, really difficult year. And at the end of that year, I was at a church service. My church would have a service right before Christmas that they called the Dark Night of the Soul service. It was kind of keyed to winter solstice, and for people who weren’t feeling all bubbly and joyful and happy about the holidays.
So, I went to this service and our associate pastor, Betsy Wynn, read a piece out of Henri Nouwen’s The Inner Voice of Love. Go into the Place of Your Pain was the essay that she read. And I had read Henri Nouwen before, but that essay on that night was exactly what I needed to hear. I mean, I just felt like it just looked into my soul. I felt so seen through everything that I’d been through that previous year. And so, I bought myself a copy of the book, and for a decade, I kept it on my bedside table, and I just kept returning to different little essays. You know, they’re so small, these little jewels in this book, but the thoughts that are in here taught me so much about trusting that Jesus is real, that he’s here, that he can meet me in my pain, that he holds me in love.
And then, when it came time to write this book, I discovered that I had taken one problem to Henri Nouwen and found out that he was fitting me to face an entirely different problem. So, going to the place of your pain: I went to the place of my childhood pain with Henri Nouwen, and then I discovered that I was ready to go into a different kind of pain, because I think that the pain of racism is a collective pain, you know, for white people. I think we don’t know how to face all of the things that our ancestors have done. It’s so much pain for people who were oppressed by white supremacy, but it’s also pain for people who have this legacy of oppression, as oppressors, you know? And we don’t know how to go into it. So, I think Henri Nouwen really helped me to know it’s okay to go towards the pain, because Jesus is going to hold you in love. So.
Karen Pascal: I find that the other word that comes to mind is the word shame. Shame. And that can so rule us. It’s really interesting. But Henri’s ability to be so honest about things like that gives us a vocabulary, gives us permission to begin to look at things through that lens. I found it was really interesting, too, to see, and this takes me back to your thing about sharing with people that you were Christian. And it had three points about that, but the third one was pretty profound in that you talked about the fact that if you didn’t know a God of forgiveness, you don’t know if you could’ve done this book. So, tell me a bit about that.
Sarah Sanderson: Yeah, yeah. Well, it’s true. I think that one reason why, here in the United States, we see all these states that are passing laws that say, “We’re not going to look at this. We’re going to take all the African-American studies programs out of our schools. We’re going to take these standards out of our schools.”
I think that that’s a spiritual problem. I think the root of it is shame – that we’re ashamed of this history, and so we don’t think we can look at it. And I felt it, certainly; shame about what my family had done, about my own little bits of implicit bias that popped up every once in a while, and I didn’t know what to do with it.
And I do think that Henri Nouwen’s continual assurance that we can go towards the place of our pain and shame, because Jesus loves us all the way in it, and through it and out the other side. It was what enabled me to do that work, because I just don’t think that as a society, we know how to talk about this kind of thing. You know, we think that people are either horrible and should be – I hate the word “canceled.” It’s become such a . . . But, you know, that’s all we know how to do with people, is cancel them if they’re bad or idolize them if they’re good. And to say, no, actually, Jesus allows us to be really clear-eyed about the sin. Like, it’s not that it’s okay; it is evil. But we’re still loved, and so, we can walk through it to get to the other side.
Karen Pascal: And I think something that’s really critical in all of this is the statement that we are part of, as we awaken and feel that freedom to look at it, to be part of making a difference, even though we’re clumsy. I remember feeling this way about the indigenous issues here in Canada, and feeling somehow that I was behind, that this had happened on my watch. I was behind. And then I thought, well, what can I do to catch up?
You start reading and you start saying, “What can I do? How can I be part of making it better? This happened on my watch, and that’s my shame. But if it happened on my watch, and I still have a bit of watch to go, and so what can I do?”
I loved what I read in here that there was a quote in here by James Baldwin. May I read it and then get your comments on it? “White people are, in effect, still trapped in a history that they do not understand. And until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.”
How do you think your book is going to help us understand that history and then be released from it? I’m curious.
Sarah Sanderson: Well, I think just acknowledging and going all the way in, you know? I talk in the book about empathy. Can we empathize with the people who’ve been so hurt? You know, not just knowing that it happened, but I think sometimes when something is too big or too hard or too painful, we kind of hold it at arm’s length. It’s like, yeah, that happened, but I don’t have the room in my heart to imaginatively feel what it meant, what it means.
So, I think that the first thing that we need to do as white people is, as James Baldwin says, to understand it. And I think it’s not just an intellectual knowing what happened, but it’s an empathetic [knowing]. Can we begin to try to listen to people’s stories in such a way that we start to know what it would’ve felt, what it does feel like? What does it feel like to walk through this world with a different color skin than what we have? And what is that experience? And then, how do we be released from it? I mean, I think we can only be released like James Baldwin says. We can’t be released from it until we begin to repair it. But we can’t start to repair it until we understand it, until we feel it.
Karen Pascal: It’s interesting, because I think words that scare people are words like reparations. To be quite honest, we need to decide if we’re going to go forward in a healthy way. And we need to hear that word and understand. Why does that apply to us? It doesn’t apply just to my neighbor; it applies to me. There are all sorts of things that we need to start, and I would like to see our churches return to being the places that talk about this, that really talk about it. That really say, how can we be a source of light for everybody that got wounded, especially those that were wounded by wrongs that we’ve committed, wrongs that we allowed, wrongs that we turned away from and didn’t choose to see.
So, it’s an interesting time in America, as a whole. I mean, it’s a kind of scary time, obviously, to see such divisions. And I know from experience now, there’ll be people that will respond to this conversation and go, “Oh, you’re kind of shoving your opinion down our throat.”
I think it’s God’s opinion. I really do. God is a fair, loving God, and we believe that. And that’s what we love about it. Because he loves everyone, and we need to restore that justice and balance, in a way that begins to say, “I can see I was wrong,” instead of seeing I was right. You know? Those are part of the things that are going to have to happen.
Sarah Sanderson: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, look at how many times, I mean, when you read through the book of Isaiah, how many times is God described as a God of justice and righteousness? I mean, what does God care about? God cares about how his people treat the widow and the orphan and the foreigner and the marginalized. If we’re going to take the Bible seriously at all, we have to take seriously God’s call to be agents of healing and love in our communities. And this is a major source of wounding that we’ve got to take care of. It’s definitely the inner voice of love.
And it’s interesting, too, how this one book kind of. . . in many of these essays, I’ve put the dates of when I read it, and really it hit home to me. And another interesting little Henri Nouwen story with regard to this book is that on May 21st, 2021, I wrote that date on, Seek a New Spirituality. And that was the month that I finished writing this book proposal. And very shortly after that, it got picked up. And that essay is all about discovering your vocation. And I underlined that day, I underlined “Trust that you, too, have a unique vocation that is worth claiming and living out faithfully.”
And so, I felt sort of blessed by Henri Nouwen into this new work of like, “Okay, this book proposal’s going out into the world, I’m afraid, but here we go.” And so really, Henri Nouwen met me in my place of deep, personal pain and then kind of sent me out into this new vocation. And I feel his presence with me, so I’m grateful for it.
Karen Pascal: Oh, that’s lovely. That is just lovely. Well, you know something, I want to recommend your book. I want people to pick it up and read it, because it’s a gracious, wonderful, challenging, honest look at where we are today. I mean, you don’t sweep anything under the carpet. But in the midst of it, I sense you feel God’s love, which is so important. And sometimes, that’s the hardest thing when we feel shame, feel kind of connected to a wrong. How do we feel God’s love? But God is this God that calls us all beloved. And I think that’s so very important as we become a resource of light and of kindness and of a new possibility. I think it’s important that we know the love of God, and it drenches us, and then we can drench others with it. I think that’s important.
Sarah Sanderson: It’s the only way. I mean, our hearts are not love factories, right? We can’t just make love and push it into the world. We can only receive it and channel it. So, yes, we can’t love others until we know, until we receive love from God.
Karen Pascal: That’s lovely. Sarah, I thank you so much for the hard work that went into writing this book. When I read it, I could feel that hard work went into it and a complete dedication that took you down a trail that you didn’t even know where you were heading. And you end up there and you go, “Okay, what do I do with this? My ancestors were part of this. Part of me, part of my history’s here.”
I think Jacob Vanderpool is a movie in the making, to be quite honest, because you look at it and you go, “Okay, maybe it’s time for Oregon to relive that story and decide how do we look different. And the rest of us, how do we look different?”
Thank you so much for sharing with me, and I would encourage that everyone get The Place We Make: Breaking the Legacy of Legalized Hate. It’s a beautiful book. I will say this: Sarah is an incredible researcher, but she’s also a beautiful writer. And it’s always good to read a book that you go, “This is beautifully written.” So, thank you very much, Sarah. Appreciate it.
Sarah Sanderson: Thank you so much, Karen. It’s been such a joy to speak with you.
Karen Pascal: Thank you all for listening to our conversation today. You will find links in the show notes of this podcast for Sarah Sanderson’s book, The Place We Make. I can highly recommend this book. It’s honest, insightful, wonderfully researched, and beautifully written.
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