Friday, September 21, 2007

Groundskeeper Willie Passed Away

No, not this guy. But Willie Slaughter, a man who faithfully served as the janitor of the church that I grew up in, passed away on Tuesday. Quite unlike the infamous Simpsons character, Willie was a very kind man, and I was always glad to see him whenever I'd visit friends and family in Kentucky.

I also have to admit to a certain amount of ambivalence regarding Willie. You see, in our almost-entirely-white-and-middle-class congregation, Willie was a black man, and it didn't take getting to know him long to realize that he was living on very meager income. And our church, being the source of that income, was part of the problem. So while I didn't have any ambivalence about Willie personally, I had a lot of ambivalence regarding my church's part in perpetuating what I can only call a type of systemic racism.

Of course, no one at our church would think of it that way and, to their credit, I do know that our church increased Willie's income in later years, especially as his health began to fail and it became clear(er) that there was a real need. But, still, what does it say about our congregation, who's church building is situated right on the outskirts of downtown Louisville, in the middle of a neighborhood where most of the residents are African-American, that the only (at least, most of the time) African-American person connected to our church was the janitor?

When Willie began to fade more in the past few years, he finally retired, and the role of janitor is now taken by a (white) member of our congregation. On one hand, this does mean that the poor impression we left by having the janitor be our sole representative of African-American culture is no longer present. But, since that means we (probably? I haven't been there in a bit) don't have any African-Americans present in our church that still exists in a predominantly African-American neighborhood, I'm not at all confident that we've really improved much. A church should reflect and serve the population in which it exists, and I'm just not confident that this church does so. Of course, it would hardly be alone in this distinction....

To be fair, I know that this kind of systemic problem is very difficult to address, and I'm sure I didn't do much to help matters, especially since I left the area at about the same time I might have been old enough (or at least, aware enough) to actually take a more proactive position. But at the end of the day, all I can say is: I'll miss you, Willie. I'm sorry that we didn't do better by you. Please forgive us, as I hope that God will forgive us.

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