Duncan Hilton is one of four participants in the Collegeville Institute’s Emerging Writers program. The emerging writers will have articles on Bearings Online every other month for the 2020-2021 year while receiving mentorship by Michael McGregor.
On the day that Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, I taught my last Zoom class on Ignatian discernment at the Episcopal parish in Brattleboro, Vermont, where my tenure as an assistant priest was ending. On the day in early June when young people of color led a protest against police brutality in Brattleboro, my fiancée Bethany and I drove a U-Haul 35 miles north and unpacked moving boxes at my deceased grandmother Katie’s 1830s farmstead, Haven Hill. As we unpacked the clouds blazed pink above the farmhouse, chicken coop and dairy barn, beyond the pasture and woods of the upper field, and over the Green Mountains. On Sunday when the interfaith clergy group in Brattleboro organized a prayer vigil in town, in the hours between morning and evening church sessions on Zoom, I had a choice: either double-dig garden beds at Haven Hill or drive almost two hours round-trip to the vigil. I chose to dig. But worry accompanied me to the garden: “Can I care for this piece of land and be committed to racial justice?”
I didn’t doubt my call to live at Haven Hill. I had made my best efforts at Ignatian discernment in order to move there. In fact, I had been attempting the move ever since my first job out of college, but at every juncture something drew me away. At 24, I was working with people with disabilities on a farm in Ireland when the thought came to me: “Maybe I could do something similar at Haven Hill.” However, divinity school drew me to Boston instead. At 30, a chance to learn community organizing through a Latino voter registration campaign drew me to Arizona. At 36, a church position drew me to Brattleboro. Bethany and I met there last summer and visited Haven Hill in the fall for a family cleanup day after a long-time renter finally left. Afterward Bethany shared through tears her startling affection for the farmhouse, and we had our first conversation about building a life together. We felt excitement and vulnerability a few months later when we reached out to my extended family about renting the property. We wanted to explore putting down roots among aunts and uncles and cousins, and making the place a haven not only for our family but for people with disabilities. We wanted to explore tending the soil that my grandmother tended, at the base of the hill where we spread her ashes and where ours might also be spread one day. The family said Yes. The time was finally right.
We wanted to explore putting down roots among extended family, and making the place a haven for people with disabilities.
Although I didn’t doubt my call to Haven Hill, I did doubt whether I could dedicate time to the place without losing connection to the organizing work and communities I cherished. I knew that others had been thinking about and living into questions about racial justice and caring for the land for years. I also saw that some back-to-the-land folks were joining the conversation about reparations more publicly for the first time. Andy Shaver, a friend and farmer at Haven Farm in North Carolina asked on social media: “How can our new venture’s (relatively tiny) participation in the marketplace contribute to racial healing and justice? What partnerships will come that enable sharing our land/resources in ways that have a multiplying effect for the Good?” I knew that I wasn’t the only one asking these types of questions, but what were the answers for me in this new place?
As a white Christian looking for concrete answers I turned to Tears We Cannot Stop: a Sermon to White America by the Baptist minister and Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson. The final chapter invites white people into a litany of actions: reparations at the local and individual level, educating oneself about Black life and culture, white people schooling white friends and family about racism, and participating in protests and rallies. I realized that I could act on all of Dyson’s suggestions from Haven Hill. In fact, in the few days it took me to read Dyson’s book, I discovered that there were ongoing protests and rallies in a nearby town, smaller but closer than Brattleboro. I realized that I was not at risk of getting disconnected from social justice movements; I was just new to the neighborhood.
The final chapter invites white people into a litany of actions: reparations at the local and individual level, educating oneself about Black life and culture, white people schooling white friends and family about racism, and participating in protests and rallies.
More importantly, I realized that I was asking the wrong set of questions. Dyson writes at the end of his book: “[White people] must grapple with how your participation isn’t just to aid Black and brown folk, though that is indeed admirable. It is also to fulfill your sense of destiny.” Dyson goes on to quote Jim Wallis, theologian and founder of Sojourners: “I want to say white Christians have been separated from God by the idolatry of whiteness. So we’re not in this to help somebody else. We’re in this for our own souls.” I realized that underlying my questions about loving a rural place and doing social justice work was my assumption that the work only involved aiding Black and brown folks, and a fear that I was choosing a garden with a nice view over that commitment. But what if I listened to Wallis and Dyson and started asking a different set of questions: “How can I heal from the idolatry of whiteness that has separated me from God and fulfill my sense of destiny in this place? What does it look like to do social justice for the sake of my own soul, as well as others?”
My soul wants to walk to the upper field to stand in the tall grass where we released my grandmother Katie’s ashes. It wants to listen to the songbirds who nest there and to ask my Uncle Jon about learning to hay the field so that the birds still have tall grass to nest in after Jon one day has been released there, too. My soul wants to drive to the local library and read about the Abenakis who lived on the hill long before my family. It wants to learn about the broken treaties or acts of violence that are also part of this soil, and to ask, with my family, what repairs we can make in order to live in right relationship to this place. My soul wants to heal from isolation, to meet the people in this area who are already protesting for racial justice and to join them. My soul wants to keep digging in the garden, and to trust that the time in the soil is not an obstacle to social justice, but rather a source from which my commitment can grow.
How can I heal from the idolatry of whiteness that has separated me from God and fulfill my sense of destiny in this place? What does it look like to do social justice for the sake of my own soul, as well as others?