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M3daas3, part 3 (pronounced 'me-daa-si')

I started applying for jobs in the fall of 2004 because I knew that my time at Yale Divinity School would end upon graduation in May, 2005. By then, I had left Atlanta, settled in New Haven, and was enjoying my time at school. But the reality of securing a position before I graduated wasn’t lost on me.

I checked my email one day and found an email from the Dean of Trinity Cathedral in Columbia, SC. That was very exciting. He interviewed me on the phone, and the next timer I heard from him was when he asked if I would be willing to meet him in New York City. "Sure, why not," I responded, so we scheduled a date and time and I drove to meet with him. After a great interview with the Dean, a great person, I received a job offer and accepted the position without thinking twice about it.

He invited me and my family to visit Columbia. Monique, who was still in Atlanta with our two daughters, drove to Columbia while I flew from up north. We arrived in Columbia at just about the same time. The hospitality given to myself and my family was amazing, the people were great, the service was beautiful, and the food was awesome. We departed Columbia with the satisfaction that I had made the right decision.

It wasn’t until we finally settled down in South Carolina, however, that it became apparent that this may not be the right fit. I didn’t have any issues with anything, especially on the issue of race, because I was simply oblivious to it. One of the real challenges for many Africans who immigrate to the United States is that because we didn’t have to deal with the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow and all the ills that are associated with the dehumanization of African Americans, we simply do not have the language with which to articulate this experience. Not only that, but an African immigrant is inherently oblivious to racism - unless it is blatant.

Based on my experience at All Saints, I erroneously assumed that every Episcopal Church is the same and that every single part of America is the same. People are the same everywhere. Everything is the same. The food is the same. The roads are the same.

Boy was I wrong!

Sundays were huge challenges in my house because Monique wouldn’t come to church, nor would she bring the children to church. Her reason was that the church wasn’t diverse enough. She obviously saw something that I didn’t see at the time - for me, all was well and dandy. I could go to church, be the only African American in a sanctuary of 300-400 people, and be perfectly fine with it. But something about the place made her nauseous.

I didn’t see the absence of African Americans as an issue but for her, it was a big issue. It told her more about the character of the people and the place than anything else she could read about the place. Whenever she raised the issue, I would immediately revert to my African mindset and demand answers as to why it was a big deal for her.

With time, I also grew disillusioned about the community and my place within it. What triggered this disillusionment was a conversation I had with a parishioner I happened to share a row with on a flight to Dallas, TX. I don’t remember his name, but in our chat from Columbia, SC to Dallas Texas, he told me about himself and his time and experience in Columbia.

On that flight, he told me an interesting story - he said, “Manny, I have worshipped at this cathedral since the early 70’s, and have run for Vestry several times, but not once have I been elected. Although I consider myself more capable than some of the people who get elected to the Vestry, I have never been elected.”

I asked him, “What do you think might be the reason?”

This was his response: “I don’t know, but my guess is that it is because I am not from the area.”

“What difference does it make?” I asked in bewilderment.

“It makes a lot of difference. If I am White and I don’t feel accepted within a White community, do you think the same community would be accepting of an African American?”

That was an eye-opener for me. To this Episcopalian from Dallas, Texas - M3daas3.

As I reflected on the conversation with this parishioner, my weekly debate with Monique, and some weird happenings, it became apparent that I didn’t fit into the culture nor was I welcomed as I thought I was. I felt that if even the color of my skin was a turn-off to some, my character and ministry would speak for me. Remember Martin Luther King's words - judged by the content of the character and not the color of the skin.

This feeling was such that it took every joy I had in ministry away from me. My understanding of ministry was to serve, and serving at that church had turned into what I didn’t know could happen in a church.

To remedy my disillusionment with ministry, I turned to law. I studied for the LSAT and applied to law schools. I was accepted into the University Of South Carolina School Of Law. It was a big deal for me because I thought I had figured my way out of the mess in which I found myself.

The cathedral and I separated, and I enrolled in law school. I truly enjoyed law school and the intellectual curiosity that came with it. But soon all of it fizzled out as I wondered about what I was doing in law school. I am a priest and will always be a priest. This isn’t where I belong.

I belong in the house of the Lord.

All through my challenges, there were more than a few people who I credit for keeping me grounded. They looked out for me and showed more than a keen interest in my ministry and life. I still keep in touch with them because they are more than good people. In fact, there were more than enough faithful Christians in that congregation for whom the evil of racism bore no resemblance to who they were. They always treated me with respect and kindness. To all of them, I say M3daas3.

 I have had more than enough time to reflect on this part of my ministry and life story. It simultaneously marked both the highest point and the lowest. The whole experience reminds me of the assurance from the Shepherd's psalm: Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, thou art with me. Thy rod and staff they comfort me.”

The reality is that the valley of the shadow of death is engineered by real people, just as much as the comfort of the rod and the staff is made possible by real people. I give thanks to those who demonstrate how low we can go. But I give greater thanks to those who also demonstrate what it means to lift people up to look beyond themselves. I give thanks to those whose actions remind us about human dignity.

Some of the things that were going on didn't make any sense to me. But I accepted them for what they were. In fact, I didn't ascribe any racial element to them. It wasn't until years later that someone who knew what was going on revealed to me what was going on behind the scenes. That was when things begun to make sense to me.

If I ever learned anything from my experience in South Carolina, it was where I learned about the impact of racism in the church and how destructive it can be. Without that experience, I would have pursued my ministry with the erroneous belief that all is well and dandy, but it is not. I can only imagine the number of people who may still be suffering from the impact of racism within the church.

My faith in God suffered greatly but it bounced back up because I found a great sense of the divine hand at work in all that was happening. I learned that we either learn by wisdom or experience. I didn’t learn by wisdom, and as devastating as the experience was, it provided me an opportunity to look at faith in a different but enriching way. There’s no bad experience if you learn something from it. And for that, I say M3daas3.

Departing from South Carolina brought a huge sense of relief. It felt like turning over a new page. It was a new beginning for me. And for all the possibilities of new beginnings, I say, M3daas3


(M3daas3 means "Thank You" in my native dialect. This thank-you tour of sorts is meant to highlight pivotal moments and people in my life and to give thanks for all those who, by the grace of God, made it happen for me. This is part 3 of a multi-part series (part one is here and part two is here). It turns out that I have more to write than I originally thought!)


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