It was a rainy-yet-warm weekday morning. A pretrial motion was being heard in the Glynn County Courthouse in the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. Not knowing what else to do, a few of us clergy people went to offer support, prayers and to bear witness to whatever would be. I put on my tallis, my prayer shawl, to signal that I belonged there and that I was safe. I also wore it to settle my nerves. Because I was not sure if indeed, I really did belong. As a White woman not born to this community, as a Jew and a Rabbi, was I an outsider?
I spent that morning walking around and introduced myself; Hello, I am Rachael, and I am the rabbi here. Where are you from? What I wanted to ask was, what compelled you to be here today? But wasn’t it obvious? A young man with all the potential of a life not-yet-lived had been chased down and killed in the street for being Black. An injustice had been committed. And, a wondering; Will the people of this county rise to the occasion?
I learned that morning that everyone approached that space with uncertainty.
As Glynn Clergy for Equity, a newly formed organization dedicated to combatting “disequity” in our community, navigated how to manifest our mission, commanding this space of uncertain-belonging has become of critical importance. As the trial loomed, as the pain of what happened settled in, I heard many times “I don’t know what to do or where to go to show support.” As clergy we recognized the need to have a place to go, to show up. For many it was the courthouse and the prayer vigils our county clergy organized throughout the months of both the state and then federal trials. For some it was sending in prayers to post on a prayer flag we raised. For some it was attending the Equity Dinners our group has been hosting for the last year and a half.
We saw how the idea that “I don’t belong” is a cornerstone of the systems which create and maintain inequality. When Ahmaud Arbery went out for a run that fateful February day, it was the idea that “someone who looked like him” didn’t belong poking around an unfinished house that made him a target. Someone like him didn’t belong in a particular neighborhood. I live in Brunswick. When I first moved here a decade ago, I was warned to be careful walking around certain neighborhoods. There were places, I was told, I didn’t belong.
I reject the idea of Black neighborhoods and White neighborhoods, places of poverty and places of wealth. I have long ignored these messages that the color of one’s skin-color, gender, religion, or any identity determine where anyone can or cannot go. So, I was walking through these neighborhoods, passing time with my young child on an early pandemic morning, as we have often done. Like a sucker punch to the gut, I could see. I had known all along we had a belonging problem. We had a racism problem, a segregation problem. That the killing of Ahmaud Arbery was an extension of the segregation of people, of access, of care that was plain before me. Whatever walks I had taken or ideas I had refused, we had not yet done enough to truly belong to one another.
Because if we truly belonged to one another, we would not leave parts of our community living in conditions which other parts of our community would find absolutely unacceptable. We wouldn’t make some people send their kids to schools which cannot provide for their students. We wouldn’t even set up a system where academic access was tied to housing like we do. Because these systems allow us to disavow one another. I don’t belong to or in that neighborhood. This is not my problem.
There are so many moments which stay with me from the experiences around the trial for the men who murdered Ahmaud Arbery. At that first gray-dayed, pretrial motion, an older White man emerged from the crowd and took to the courthouse steps. He turned to face those assembled and we could see his t-shirt said “Sons of the Confederacy.” He opened his mouth to speak and was swiftly escorted away. A small gathering of young Black men followed after him. I felt scared of what would happen next. As I examine my fear, I see my own bias. I was so sure these men would do harm, I stepped up to one man I had earlier met at the front of the group. Please don’t. Just let him go. He looked at me. No, he said. It isn’t like that. We want to talk to him. I stepped back, uncertain. The small group of young Black men surrounded the older White man. And they began to speak. We love you. We love you. We love you. Was all they said.
We all belong. I have heard from many White friends and strangers alike; I didn’t go to the courthouse because I didn’t know what to say. I wasn’t sure if I belonged. And I was so afraid I would make a mistake that I just didn’t go. As one of many who faced that discomfort, those fears, and showed up anyway, I learned that it is better to show up, awkward and uncomfortable and even “do it wrong” than to not be there at all.
One last story. In the middle of the state trial, one hot and sunshiney fall day, a White, St. Simon’s Island friend joined me on the expanse of lush, green courthouse lawn with those gathered for one of the many quiet days of the trial. We were talking with several of the courthouse regulars. All people who are Black. She bravely said, My friends don’t know what to do, how to help. What do I tell other White people who want to engage but do not know how? Ms. Annie Polite, a fixture of the courthouse lawn at 90-plus years old, not quite five feet and certainly not more than 90 pounds, pulled herself up using the arms of her wheeled walker, pointed an arthritic, gnarled finger at my friend and I and said, You tell them to get down here and join the fight. Ms. Polite died a few months ago and I consider it one of the highest honors of my life to have known her.
What gives me hope is that the message of belonging can grow and flourish here. While the trials are no longer in the news, what happened here is still emblazoned on each one of us. The hatred and exclusion which chased Ahmaud Arbery down a sleepy neighborhood street still lived here. And yet, the the tender shoots of belonging to one another have been planted. May we all continue to nurture the seeds of change which echo forth from Satilla Shores on Feb. 23, 2020: This is no us and them. There is only us and us.