A couple of weeks ago my Reconstructionist rabbis met for their annual confab -- this time in New Orleans. Being in that powerful and challenged city meant a lot of conversation, both planned and spontaneous, about race, class and privilege. This itself was quite a privilege.
One of our speakers was Lance Hill, a historian at Tulane University and an incredibly impressive activist and thinker about race, class and privilege as they play out in his own city. He talked to us about the massive flight from New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and about the much smaller return of former residents to their home city. The well-to-do of New Orleans either lived on higher ground and didn’t need to leave in the first place, or they could afford to return and rebuild their homes and lives fairly quickly. By contrast, many of the poorest people have not been able to return. And it is the way of politics that once you have left a place, even fleeing for your life, even if it was your home for generations, you lose your say in what happens there. So the more affluent returnees have begun making the policies that suit them. They quickly made massive changes in the public school system, began advocating for not rebuilding in poorer areas and so on. Hill described these post-Katrina planning decisions and the race and class agenda that he feels underlies them -- to make New Orleans a “smaller” -- i.e. whiter and richer -- city than it was. In one of the commentaries Hill regularly posts on-line, he writes: The problem is how we have defined “neighbor” or, in its modern form, “community.” All the myriad city and neighborhood planning commissions that convened in New Orleans after Katrina had one thing in common: they defined community as only the fortunate few who had made it back to the city. Suddenly nearly 350,000 people, 80% of whom were African American, ceased to be neighbors. The displaced and their needs became invisible in the planning process. It was as if the ship had gone down and those who escaped by life boat never bothered to return to search for survivors.
(June 6,2006 -- www.southerninstitute.info/commentaries)
Hill made more or less the same point in his talk to us rabbis. Then he offered what to me was a remarkably resonant statement. He talked about the word “trust.” I don’t have his exact words here, unfortunately, and so I won’t be able to write them here as eloquently as he spoke them. But essentially he said that trust is not a blind belief in something or someone. Trust is the assurance that someone will look after your interests if you are not present to look after them yourself. He said that real community should involve this kind of trust. You should know that your neighbors have your interests at heart, along with their own, even if for some reason you can‘t speak up for yourself.
Being trustworthy in this sense doesn’t mean that someone needs to do my will instead of their own -- but that they need to consider my needs, give regard to my voice, include me in the conversation, even if I am not able to do this for myself.
Hill advocates that communities -- meaning, in his context, residents of cities and towns and the like -- make explicit covenants that, should there be disasters which cause people to flee their homes, those people will continue to have a vote in their home community, even if they can’t return right away.
Any of us might ask ourselves: if, God forbid, we had to dash away in the night, who around us would continue to look after our possessions? Our jobs? Our rights? Our values? Who would continue to speak from our perspective? Who would do what they could to insure that we could return to a life that would again be hospitable to us?
We can ask that question writ large, as Lance Hill does, and we can also ask it from a much more intimate perspective.
In our mussar class this week, we are focusing on the middah (trait) of sh’tikah, of keeping quiet. So I have asked myself what makes me talk when I really shouldn’t. What is it that makes me be unwilling to let go of a point once I’ve made it once? What makes me raise my voice, talk faster, interrupt? Once I thought about it awhile, I realized that, for me, a lot of this comes down to a matter of trust. I don’t need to repeat myself if I trust people to listen to me the first time. I don’t need to interrupt if I trust that I will get a chance to speak my part. So much of my own poor behavior in this department comes down to lack of trust in the people around me.
People learn early whether to be trusting or mistrustful -- and very often early experience gets translated to whole new sets of relationships and community, over and over throughout life. I may out-talk you not because I have any reason to doubt that you personally can be trusted to give me my moment, but because I learned long before not to assume that I would be listened to.
But trust or mistrust is not just a habit learned in childhood that we superimpose on our adult relationships. We are constantly learning to trust -- or not to trust -- the people we make our lives with. This month Mickey and I will celebrate our seventeenth wedding anniversary. And, as I think about these years, I see how trust grows slowly over time, gets deeper and steadier. You can’t just decide to trust someone. Or maybe you can. But it might not be very wise. We learn who we can trust, to what degree, with which aspects of what is important to us. It is a blessing of inestimable value to have a mate, family members, friends and community that you know will hold your interests to heart even if you are not there to look after them yourself. And it is an equal blessing -- and challenge -- for us to be trustworthy.
Who do we trust? Who should we trust? Who should trust us? And what does it take from each of us to strengthen those bonds of assurance that allow us to feel safe with each other in the world?
© Rabbi Margaret Holub 2010
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