August 30, 2020
We don’t know her name – Meg reminded us last week. We don’t know the name of this desperate mother, forced to set her child adrift on the fickle currents of chance.
We don’t know her name, either, this privileged princess who one day went for a walk along the riverbank; who was confronted with a choice – the kind of choice that may well have determined the kind of person she would become. She may have given the child his name – Moses – yet she remains nameless still.
We may not know their names, but we do know the name of the young girl who connected them; the sister of that little baby in the basket: her name is Miriam.
Our Scripture reading today is basically the same as last week’s service, but I’d like to zero in on the role of Miriam in this text. So listen again
When his mother could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river.
His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.
The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him. “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said. Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” 8 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. 9 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it.
So – here’s a little history lesson…or reminder if you…lived through it.
In the summer of 1961 interstate travel had been desegregated but the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee – known as “Snick” (SNCC) – decided to put it to the test. Inter-racial groups of students steeped in non-violent resistance rode Greyhound buses into the deep south where they were met with violent resistance from angry white mobs.
The goal was to confront deep racial prejudice and illuminate it for the world to see, to the point that the Federal Government would have to intervene. Attorney General Robert Kennedy did just that by sending federal marshals to protect a gathering of nearly 1000 supporters who were besieged inside the First Baptist Church of Montgomery Alabama.
A month afterward, Robert Kennedy invited a broad base of Civil Rights activists, including senior leaders of SNCC, to Washington DC. Kennedy pitched the idea of the Voter Education Project. In short, Attorney General Kennedy sought to re-direct the energies of the Civil Rights movement from the confrontational, headline-grabbing tactics of the Freedom Riders to the quieter, presumably “safer” work of voter registration. Not long afterwards, The Voter Education Project commenced its work in the southern states – focusing particularly on communities where the vote had been systematically denied to people of color.
There were likely political motives at play, but I accept that Robert Kennedy was genuinely invested in the expansion of Civil Rights in this nation. I trust that his heart was in that work.
One could argue that what he didn’t understand was how the quieter, less-media-interesting work of voter registration actually exposed Civil Rights workers to violence that far surpassed anything the freedom riders experienced – and that is saying something. The Attorney General could not foresee how the crowds that beat the Freedom Riders on camera would turn far more deadly when those cameras were out of sight.
This isn’t me passing judgment on people of good faith seeking solutions to an impossible situation some 60 years ago. It’s simply one illustration to remind us that sometimes our best intentions aren’t enough. Kennedy thought he was being kind, thought he was protecting people, but he didn’t know the full story. It takes more than kindness to make a difference.
Pharaoh’s daughter strikes me as a kind person. Recognizing that this is a contraband Hebrew baby in the makeshift boat, she takes pity on him in spite of all the reasons not to. Her pity alone could be construed as a lack of loyalty to Egypt. That she actually takes him out of the water is treason.
But for all of her kindness and compassion, when I imagine this scene in my head I see her looking down at that basket and the baby inside but she’s stuck on pause; paralyzed with inaction; struck by compassion but completely unsure what to do with that feeling. She knows something is out of joint in the world when babies come floating down the river untended. But she doesn’t have the first clue how to make it better.
That is, until Miriam shows up on the scene.
Miriam steps forward at the right moment and she offers the right counsel. She tells this princess how to combine that compassion with her privilege and offer some practical help. “What we have here is a baby and first things first, that baby needs to nurse. I know just the person for the job!”
Some may see Miriam acting shrewdly here, reuniting her family and fooling Pharaoh’s daughter into paying for it.
But I’m less convinced that the Princess is getting duped here. When I imagine this scene, I see the Princess nodding at Miriam with a wink and a grin. I see the beginning of a partnership that weds the compassion and the obvious means of the Privileged with the insider knowledge of the oppressed.
Sometimes, when you want to help, the first thing you need to do is gather the right partners.
In this world, I rarely see moments when lone heroes make much difference. Change happens through partnerships; through coalitions who dig deep and muster enough determination to see it through.
I’ve been heartened to see such a partnership slowly developing right here in our midst.
Ask any parent, student or teacher you know how they feel about virtual schooling and they’ll probably tell you something along the lines of “It’s certainly not ideal but we’re trying to make it work.” Now when I say “we’re making it work,” this is what I mean.
My children receive all of the technology and the instruction from their teachers at Northside Elementary School, which is excellent. AND they get 15 hours a week with an educational specialist that is there to ensure they keep up with the work and gain whatever ground they ought to be gaining at this point in their schooling.
The only word I have for that is privilege. Because I have the resources to ensure it, my children will get to keep pace in a year in which the school system has one arm tied behind its back.
It is also true that we live in a community that has one of the largest achievement gaps between white students and students of color nation-wide. What is going to happen to the children who do not share in that privilege and who do not have those resources? Remote learning may be what we are in for this year, but that achievement gap is only going to grow wider.
Now I know that UPC cares about this gap. It was one of the core issues you named in the 2018 mission study that became essential reading for me last year. You wrote: “Several community leaders have suggested that while we (Being Chapel Hill-ians) in this academic environment are quick to identify social problem and discuss possible solutions with intellectual vigor, many of us in the community have been unwilling to devote the actual energy, time and resources necessary to crafting or enacting solutions to such systemic problems.” That line struck me between the eyes a year ago and frankly it haunts me still.
It haunts me because I recognize it as the same paralysis I feel, the same paralysis that I see in our text today. I don’t know about you, but at times I do feel a bit like that privileged princess standing on the banks of the Nile, filled with compassion for this child but not sure how to help; desperately in need of the right partner to help me find the path.
Because of the anti-racism work this clergy group engaged in over the summer, we came into the orbit of a group of women who have become our partners. Danita, Diane, Lorie, Bonita and Courtney are black mothers and educators in our community who have graciously helped us understand the complexity of this achievement gap. We have affectionately dubbed them The Justice League.
Because of these relationships, we are forging a partnership between our faith communities, the School System, the YMCA and of course with the Justice League. The fruit of this partnership is a scholastic center that will be housed across the street at University Methodist Church. The scholastic center is a model developed by the YMCA to give children a place to gather safely to receive educational support during the school day while the parents work.
What makes this particular scholastic center different is that it will specifically target African-American students who are at greater risk of falling in to that achievement gap. The students will be identified in concert with the District and the staff will be selected in conversation with the Justice League to ensure we get specialists with the right cultural proficiency to support these children.
The YMCA supplies the structure.
The Justice League ensures we get the right staff.
The District suggests some students and provides food and transportation.
The Churches provide space and funding to scholarship students.
And all of this is in consultation with a public health specialist advising us how to keep the entire enterprise as safe as possible.
You may have questions, for that reason I have included a brief write up in this Sunday’s email laying out the details as they stand today. The panned launch date for this scholastic center I September 14th, and as you know, thins have a way of changing rapidly in these COVID-defined days.
And yet next week Your Session will be so bold as to ask for you to support this endeavor. We’re still working out details for the total cost and for what resources we already have in our budget, but in worship next week I will ask for you to enter into this partnership as well.
I can make peace with my privilege. It’s not something I can simply cast aside just because it makes me uncomfortable. I think, like Pharaoh’s daughter, the only thing we can do is find the right partners to help us draw as many babies out of the water as possible.
And chances are future generations will not remember our names, either, but by God’s grace the Chapel Hill we leave behind will be one in which boys and girls can learn and grow and achieve no matter the color of their skin. That’s enough to hold on to for today. Amen.