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Charleston: a life lesson on bringing empathy to the forefront

Written by Patrick Riccards

Laura Hay |

Photo: A prayer vigil at Morris Brown African Methodist Episcopal Church (image: Wikipedia)

It’s what we teach our children, not what we were taught as children, that matters.

Whenever horrific actions like those that hit Emanuel AME Church last month happen, we immediately turn to determining where we went wrong. As a society, we seek to demonstrate empathy, but often do so without truly understanding how such tragedies affect those who were targeted.

According to a recent Pew Research survey, fewer Americans identify with formal religion than ever before. So when a house of worship, an African Methodist Episcopalian church at that, is attacked, how do we teach what that means, particularly to kids who may have never heard of AME and may rarely visit a church of their own?

Twenty six years ago, I visited an AME church for the first time. My father had just become a university president in an area where nearly 25 percent of the population was African American, but far less than 10 percent of the students attending his new campus were of color. Seeking to build a learning environment that was representative of the community supporting it, one of the first stops was Reverend Lyles’ church.

For a Catholic family largely raised in an Italian-American culture, saying the Mount Zion AME Church was a new experience was a bit of an understatement. But my parents, my sisters, and I were welcomed with open arms. There were hugs and well wishes. There was an incredible service, full of energy and music. And there was even my father, preaching to the assembly.

My father spoke of the importance of equity and community. He spoke of his campus representing both the community and America. He embodied the ability to understand and share the feelings of others, the very definition of empathy. He urged all families to help get their kids on the path to college, and then he would help them succeed once they were there.

I learned later that this was the first time the local college president had attended, and spoken at, the AME church. The first time ever. That was a disturbing fact on its face, made even worse when one learned that that local university had absorbed what was once a historically black college a century prior.

I would be reminded of my first visit to Mount Zion AME when I brought my own family to the Varick Memorial AME Zion Church in New Haven, CT almost 23 years to the day that my father brought us to Mount Zion. I was there to also talk of the importance of equity and community. Speaking on the need for education reform and our shared responsibility to provide a better public education for all kids, particularly black and brown children, I found myself using many of the same words and all of the same passions my father had preached more than two decades prior, demonstrating a similar frame of empathy. (And I found myself frustrated realizing how little we had come in those 20-some years.)

I made several visits to Mount Zion AME, each time made more astounding by Reverend Eldren Morrison and his commitment to his congregants, his community, and society as a whole. He accepted this white, Catholic, Italian-American boy as one of his own. He showed the same love for my white, agnostic descendant-of-a-Declaration-of-Independence-signer wife. And my son and daughter — both adopted from Guatemala — were made to feel part of the Varick family.

When I learned of the shooting at Emanuel AME Church, my thoughts immediately went back to my experiences at Mount Zion and Varick; how someone like me, one so different from most of the congregants, could be welcomed, embraced, and loved unconditionally; how a community that had no reason to trust me would open their doors to pray and celebrate together. And how the actions of no individual, no matter how strongly he may be armed, could never strip the community of their faith and love.

I also thought of how important it was that I brought my own kids to Varick to celebrate, to be part of something different than their own Catholic religion. To help my children see how faith, regardless of organized religion, should bring us together, instead of tear us apart. To understand that there is no one “correct” religion. To appreciate the love and fraternity and community that comes from gathering together to put our shared needs ahead of our individual desires.

As a nation, we seem collectively focused on our differences. Black or white. Male or female. Red or blue. Naturally born or immigrant. Wealth or lack thereof. We are defined by our differences, and relish pointing out how others lack the homogeneity we seem to think we all seek.

But the events like the horrific incident in Charleston should remind us that while we are different, our similarities are what bring us together and ultimately define our great society. That regardless of a flag or an automatic weapon or even a court decision, we have far more in common than we hold in difference.

Together, we should be defined by our love of family and community. Together, we should be defined by our shared belief that education is the great equalizer.

Together, we should be defined by our collective ability to forgive and to learn from the egregious and hateful actions of the past. Together, we should be defined by what we teach our children, not necessarily by what we were taught as children. Together, we should be defined by the positive actions we take and our appreciation for each other, no matter how different.

As children of color, my son and daughter will have a very different life experience than I have had. They will know just as much of the world in which I was raised as they do of the world from which they were adopted. It may be tough for them to be raised with roots in both communities, but it will define who they are as adults and how they raise their own children.

Ultimately, it is my hope that 20 years from now, one of them will be in the well of an AME church, speaking out on the importance of community and equity. It is my hope that they will speak of how far we have come in two decades to tear down the walls and silos of difference in pursuit of identifying the similarities that define us. And it is my hope that they will mean each and every word they speak.

Bio: Patrick Riccards is the Director of Media Relations and Strategy for the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, in Princeton, N.J. He also writes the blog and is the author of The Reformers Are Coming! The Reformers Are Coming! Seeking a New Approach for School Improvement in America, due to be published by Yacker Media in 2015. Patrick is also an Ashoka Empathy Ambassador. He is on Twitter @Eduflack.

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