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Conversations on race with teens and college students

Conversations on race with teens and college students
The Rev. Cathy Rafferty Quinn

Being grounded at home throughout this pandemic period presented St. Elizabeth’s, Ridgewood as a community with an unexpected opportunity to connect with teens and college students in our parish – who might otherwise be too consumed with extracurricular activities, yet who with time on their hands have chosen to step up with courage – and engage in tough conversations about issues of race in America.

We give thanks for the adults through whose labor of love these conversations were so thoughtfully prepared: Ivana Gaillard, Sandy Sullivan, Catherine Olivo, Peter Angelica, Jr., Frettra deSilva, and the Rev. Sharon Hausman – all have invested generously their time, care and wisdom into this project. Their devotion to tackling this tender topic of race in America, for building awareness and making space for tough talking to take place safely, and for helping our children navigate the public conversation from a perspective of their faith, is a great blessing to our community.

Public figures and civil servants like the late John Lewis, Bryan Stevenson and James Baldwin (soon to be joined by women’s voices like Toni Morrison, Nikki Giovanni, and Anna Deavere Smith) have served as role models, not only for caring and courageous conversation, but for living fully the lives God created us to live. In the words of St. Paul, they model being “imitators of Christ”. They depict for us a clarity of vocation, conviction about what God is calling forth from us, in tangible, inspiring ways.

Issues of racial injustice touch Ridgewood in painful ways that have, even recently, been glossed over and ignored. That our young people refuse to accept such inattentiveness encourages me deeply. So does the blessing of having in our midst the bright leadership (and vocational clarity) of Peter Angelica, Jr. whose recent experience with civil rights law, as well as studying ethics and morality at Yale, and prior experience teaching confirmation classes here at St. Elizabeth’s, as well as his particular gifts for moderating challenging conversations, are all blessings to us at St. Elizabeth’s, and to the wider church.

In our first conversation, we reflected on the movie, Just Mercy. Our second conversation revolved around the HBO documentary True Justice, also focusing on the work of Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative. This past week Peter introduced our teens to the work of James Baldwin.

A guideline for these conversations that Peter presented: “Expect and accept non-closure.” In other words, recognize that in conversations about race, resolution may be elusive; our work is to develop awareness in a long and ongoing conversation about racial injustice in America.

Accepting and expecting non-closure seems to be a theme of our learning through experience these days, thanks in particular to the unpredictability in this pandemic. In many Zoom conversations this summer I found myself making the sign of a “dangling question mark” across the screen. Ironically, this unexpected experience of accepting ambiguity represents a strange silver lining of this time.

Listen, watch, wait and see – lessons for these times. Those who pray for patience receive ample opportunities to practice it; perhaps more than ever before, opportunities to exercise uncertainty muscles. Toning these muscles readies us to navigate tough conversations with patience and grace.

And on the flip side, there are actions of consequence that flow from the listening and interior work taking place within each participant in these ongoing conversations.

The Rev. Sharon Hausman joined us for our conversation on race with teens and college students on Thursday evening, September 17 at 7pm. For that gathering, Sharon led us in an exercise on brainstorming on creative imagery evoked by association between the senses and the words “privilege” and “dignity.” The group together came up with the content for the two poems that follow, which Sharon ordered into beautiful art, reflective of our time together.

The following prayer was a creation for our July gathering.

O Christ, you spoke up when it was dangerous; you challenged and got in the way; you know what it is to stand when those around you watch for you to fall. You loved those who hated you and had patience with those who kept missing the points you made. You showed us how to stay in conversation. Bless and sanctify our ongoing conversation.

Open our ears, focus our hearing and thinking and speaking together on truth and reconciliation with compassion. Guide the streams of our thoughts to flow together into rivers of living water that draw us deeper into an awareness of your love, gushing up to eternal life.

Help us see clearly what you would have us see, hear what you would have us hear, say what you would have us say. Feed us with holy nourishment; guide us away from ingesting what would impede our respect for the dignity of every human being.

Help us, when we are tired, tired, tired to be brave, brave, brave. Lift us when we need lifting, and help us see and seize opportunities to do the same for others in their time of need. Show us how to love one another, today, and always.

All for the glory of God. Amen.

Poems by the Rev. Sharon Hausman and the Teens and College Students of St. Elizabeth’s Church


Privilege sounds like children yelling and talking as they play outdoors.
It sounds like crickets and silence.

Privilege smells like a new car,
like grass when it’s first cut,
like waves at the ocean when you’re on vacation.

Privilege smells – and tastes – like your favorite meal.
It tastes like things you don’t really like –
bleu cheese, truffles, licorice and caviar –
but eat because others say you should like them.

Privilege tastes like maple-sugar candy and real maple syrup.

Privilege looks clean.
It looks like schools in suburban neighborhoods,
nice clothing,
pressed shirts.

Privilege is seeing people who look like you.

Privilege feels warm, secure, safe and comfortable.
There’s nothing to worry about.
It’s relaxed – even lackadaisical.

Privilege feels like putting on a new, clean, cushy pair of sneakers.

Privilege is naive,
living in a bubble where you don’t know what others are going through
and don’t have to think about it.

Privilege feels like the capacity to choose.


Dignity feels like receiving a gift you’ve always wanted.

Dignity feels hot, fierce and empowering.
It is the anger and frustration
of fighting to achieve one’s right to live and be treated the same.

Dignity looks like someone carrying herself with grace.

Dignity looks like receiving a medal or giving a speech.
It is opposing basketball players crashing to the floor
and helping each other back to their feet.

It is people marching in protest
and children carrying Black Lives Matter signs.

It is Nelson Mandela walking into Robben Island prison.

It is members of the Armed Forces,
fighting with dignity.

Dignity smells like a basketball court,
like the sweat of honest effort.

Dignity sounds like applause and chanting,
like “please,” “thank you,”
“I appreciate you,”
“You are a blessing.”

It sounds like heart-rate monitors and the bustle of a hospital tending to the dying.
It sounds like someone calling you to come downstairs:
“We are looking forward to your company at the table.”

Dignity is a food everyone shares and enjoys.

Dignity tastes like Communion.