Going to Church for Gwen Ifill

Tonight I went to church. This is not a sentence that comes naturally from me, as I am a non-observant, non-believing Jew. I’m not a proselytizing atheist, but I’m a committed one. But tonight I went to church and found meaning there. The church was Metropolitan A.M.E, which was celebrating the life of one of its members, Gwen Ifill. Gwen Ifill was a star of American print and television journalism. I was moved to go to her church tonight in honor of her cousin, Sherrilyn Ifill a star in the legal world, now President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. This is a great organization with an illustrious history and record of fighting for civil liberties and justice. I do not know Sherrilyn, but from following her on Twitter, I knew she was gutted by the death of her cousin Gwen. I did not know Gwen Ifill personally but she was one of those glass ceiling breakers who informed my  consciousness growing up.

The celebration of Gwen’s life tonight was bustling, many people attending, various friends, family, and colleagues of hers telling stories of their experiences with her. There were some well-known people in the pews and among the speakers but most of the other attendees were not people I recognized. The crowd included men and women, whites and blacks and browns. But the largest subgroup definitely was African-American American women, Gwen’s friends, colleagues, mentees and, perhaps, some like me, who just turned out to honor Gwen Ifill or somebody in her family.

I’m a white woman, and I count African-American women among my friends, my students, my colleagues, my fellow political activists. But I rarely attend an event where there are significantly more African-American women present than any other demographic group. As I sat in Gwen Ifill’s church, listening to African-American women commemorate her, in companionship with African-American women also listening to her, I felt and grateful for the opportunity to share in the occasion. I was also found myself glad to be on the periphery, definitely welcomed but certainly not central at all to the event. I was gladdened by this because I finally had an opportunity to enact my gratefulness to my African-American sisters who fight the good fight. I share the fight with them, but I know that too often too many African-American women do not feel that their stature within the struggle is recognized or valued sufficiently by white women. At church tonight, I could live my recognition and respect for Gwen Ifill, Sherrilyn Ifill, and the eloquent, gracious African-American women also there.

As we buckle down to resist, oppose, and contend with Trump and the Republican Congress, we are going to be in a fight for justice, for civil society, for equality, and for one another, especially those of us who people like Steve Bannon and Jeff Sessions would happily oppress and subordinate. To have a chance of winning will require that we grow the bonds between us and that will require constant mutual respect and, where earned, admiration. We will have to express those sentiments. We will have to be kind to one another. That is what will sustain us when we are tired, afraid, anxious. Having bonds will make it clear who we will celebrate with when celebration is won.

Tonight, the congregation at Metropolitan A.M.E. opened their doors. Members ushered me in, made me welcome. Gwen Ifill and her life gave me an opportunity to show respect and admiration. Sherrilyn Ifill’s legal leadership and willingness to make known her personal grief moved me to attend an event I probably would not have otherwise. Friends, family, and colleagues of Gwen’s allowed me to sit among them and hear their fond remembrances. Tonight, I went to church and being there let me feel and show things I could not have precisely felt or shown any other place.

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Going to Church for Gwen Ifill