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Looking for More Than An Ally

An excerpt from my recently published book

The Night is Long but Light Comes in the Morning, Meditations on Racial Healing

If you were dying, who would you prefer to be accompanying you, an ally or

a fellow pilgrim?

A fellow pilgrim is one who holds you in their heart and shares your pain and joy to the very best of their ability, no matter what it requires. This person is willing to walk a mile or two in the shoes of others in an effort to understand the lenses through which they see the world. The fellow pilgrim's commitment is to hold to the difficult, regardless of what it cost to do so. There is no thought of vacating the relationship because it is clearly a connection at the soul level that will not be broken by external circumstances that might cause inconvenience.

The ally is quite a bit different. Those who enter into this space have decided to unite with those in some type of struggle for a variety of reasons and will basically stay present to the particular portion of the struggle that called them into it, but there is rarely soul deep commitment that is grounded in the kind of empathy that is needed to help create the space for sustainable racial healing.

While it is difficult to know the exact process that a person follows to arrive at a particular place in their life, clearly the process to arrive at the decision to be an ally instead of a fellow pilgrim is vastly different. It seems to me that becoming an ally is more grounded in the energy of transaction than transformation. The whites who have come to realize that racism has not only injured black and brown people, but whites as well find themselves becoming aware of their personal need for healing. In these cases of whites developing this deep sense of consciousness, they can begin to see that the work is not simply about standing with a person of color in a protest or an effort to achieve a particular justice making goal, but in getting well themselves.

The deep understanding of shared sickness when it comes to racism is the first step in the process of becoming a fellow pilgrim. The great pilgrim, Howard Thurman declares that “when we are giving to others, it is important to understand that we are working to get ourselves out of prison.” (25) It is difficult to come to that understanding before we allow ourselves to realize that we are not any better off than those to whom we offer our assistance. Thus, recognizing our shared impoverishment in all of the ways that human beings can be impoverished helps us to know that even though we have a few more economic resources than those to whom we offer assistance, there are numerous other ways that we share being impoverished. Therefore, as we embrace that reality which generous giving helps us to do, we can begin the journey toward liberation and healing.

When it comes to racism, too many whites find it difficult to see how racism has injured them. Their involvement in racial healing work is purely outer directed toward people of color who are deemed to be the only victims of this horrid system. But the truth is that every person on the planet is injured by racism. It causes separation from other humans on the planet in a way that makes it quite difficult to see the face of God in one another and that results in psychic and spiritual injury. It is true that whites have to open their heads and hearts in ways that are also painful in order to enter into the arena as fellow pilgrims. It requires being willing to let go of privilege and many of the benefits of being white in the world. It means becoming more interested in being well than in being white.

In order for whites to become fellow pilgrims, people of color have to be willing to allow them to enter into that space with them and this is not always the case nor is it ever easy. It is difficult for many people of color to imagine themselves being truly connected to a white person because of the shared history that we have and the ways in which that history continues to shape the present. There is not much evidence to convince them that being vulnerable enough to take off their shoes to allow a white person to experience what the journey is truly like for them is worth the risks involved.

When I went to Pepperdine University in 1968 as a young black woman who was not convinced that she would survive college or living in Los Angeles, I met four white people who taught me the difference between a fellow pilgrim and an ally. These folks were student life personnel at the University, and they were prepared to go many extra miles with me and other students of color. This was during the era of student protest and efforts to hold institutions accountable for their behavior. It was refreshing to find whites who were honest and who did not seem to think that I needed to be anybody except who I was. They were accepting of me, and they extended many acts of kindness toward me. I had never met or known any white people like them.

I had no background with whites that could have helped me to understand these folks. They were white, but they were consistently the same every time I had any type of interactions with them. They made it clear in multiple ways that my wellbeing mattered to them, but this was not a case of selecting me as the “designated negro” to receive their graciousness, they were caring toward everyone, and they were willing to stand up for any and all of us who were trying to stand up for our rights as humans living in brown and black bodies. They demonstrated love as described in 1Corinthians 13, but I did not realize that at the time because I was not able to think about race in relation to myself at that time in the ways that I have come to understand that part of my journey now. On most days, I was simply trying to survive classes, work and engaging with my family. Reflection about them and their way of being later in life affirmed them as people who were not simply stepping in and out of racial justice arenas when it was convenient and proclaiming that some ways of treating people was not acceptable to them, they stayed faithful. They remained supporters and mentors for more than fifty years and they never wavered from being totally committed to wanting my life to be the best that it could be and to standing against racism wherever they found it. They were fellow pilgrims; these were folks that I want in the room with me on my day of dying.

Do you have fellow pilgrims on the journey with you? What does the pilgrimage look like to you? Are you aspiring to be a pilgrim or an ally?

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