“Tonight I had angel pageant practice and Jeff Lewis of all people is one of the shepherds! I wear a real keen outfit except that tonight it was ten times too long. If I stand up straight I have more of a figure. The dress is real low.”
—Janet’s journal entry, December 11, 1962
It was an honor to be the Angel in the Christmas pageant. In 1962 when I was 14, I was the chosen one. There were not many rituals in the Unitarian Church when I was growing up, but the annual pageant was one of them. And I loved it — the church winter-dark, hushed but full of people, the pulpit removed to make room for the simple scene — the manger below and the star shining at the top of the arch high above. All waiting for the magical story to unfold. Despite my teenage preoccupation with boys and my fairly non-existent “figure,” being the Angel would touch me unexpectedly.
When my family moved to Burlington, Vermont, we finally found a church community that suited my parents’ liberal religious views. In Sunday school, according to my diary of 1959, we talked about “What is a good friend?” and “paying compliments, thinking, listening and hearing.” I remember one day Mrs. Lohman, the Sunday school teacher, asked us to raise our hands if we loved ourselves. Disconcerted, I looked around. Was it good to love yourself? Wasn’t that selfish? I did kind of like myself, I realized, somewhat guiltily. After all, what other “me” was there? Almost no one raised their hands. I can’t remember if I got mine all the way up before Mrs. Lohman said that loving ourselves was important. It was okay!
Rita Shimmin, co-founder of the UNtraining and one of my most profound mentors, challenges each of us to “love yourself so much that this love changes the world.” The basis for anti-oppression work is our basic goodness as human beings. Not a moral good/bad, but the natural goodness of being alive, having heart, being able to feel our world, whether in suffering or joy.
I call this blog (and my book) “Good Little White Girl.” Why? Partly it’s a play on the idea of “Good White Person” — an identity many of us white liberal and progressive people hold about ourselves. (Another version is “Good Anti-racist Ally.”) There is a difference between this and the openness and unconditioned quality of our basic human goodness. We have something at stake. We want people of color to realize that we are not like those Bad Racist people. We act super-friendly when we are introduced to them. We find ourselves smiling until our faces hurt. We laugh, even when things aren’t particularly humorous. Or perhaps we get withdrawn and stiff to make sure we don’t say anything harmful or ignorant. Or we say something that lets them know we Get It about white privilege, institutionalized racism, and the history of oppression. We might feel just a tiny bit smug about how cool we are to have friends of color.
I’ve done all these things, and I’ve come to realize they don’t fool anybody, really. They arise out of a clash, a cognitive dissonance between conscious, heartfelt intentions and beliefs and the unconscious social conditioning of growing up in a white-dominated world. Like my teenage self wrestling with internalized images about who I had to be for boys to like me, all of us inherit race-based images of who we and others are supposed to be. Unitarians have their own flavor of being Good White People. But then there is the other kind of “goodness,” the kind that touches us, surprises us, moves us when we least expect it. So, returning to the Angel story:
The church is full of people. I stand in the back, the white filmy costume adjusted now to fit me. I’m not wearing my glasses, so everything feels a bit fuzzy around the edges. Ahead of me the star casts its light on the empty tableau, like another world. I slowly walk toward it, a bit self-conscious at first, but then carried along by the haunting a cappella melody of “From Heaven High, O Angels, Come” (“Susani, susani, susani”). Climbing the steps to the platform above the manger, I take the Angel’s place under the star. From the shadows, Mary and Joseph emerge with the baby. I raise my arms in welcome as they take their places. Looking up and out, I suddenly feel the huge darkness beyond the circle of light, the mystery.
The shepherds come forward. They are no longer just people I know, but, yes, Shepherds who watched over their flocks by night, who saw a star and followed it. As I reach out to welcome them, my heart seems to expand, the gesture infused with gentleness and power. My body feels strangely empty and full at the same time. The Three Wise Men, one by one in stately splendor step into the light, offering their gifts. The Angel’s blessing flows out of me as if of its own accord into the big space. The tableau is complete.
Young candle-lighters come up the aisles, tipping long brass tapers to small white candles each person in the congregation holds. Light spreads through the room. Then the organ sounds deep opening chords. That’s the signal. Everyone raises their candles and “Joy to the World!” bursts forth. The Angel opens her arms up and out like wings, silent and still, radiating peace.
The experience of the pageant disappeared from my conscious mind. My journal entries in the days following were filled with reports of which boys said hi to me and how lonely I felt at my grandparents’ house at Christmas. Many years later, a friend of my mother’s who was in the choir with her, said, “I remember when you were the Angel in the Christmas Pageant. You looked so beautiful, serene, I don’t know….like the Mona Lisa.” It came back to me then. That moment of grace, of simplicity. Of goodness beyond the story of Me. Perhaps a taste of love that changes the world.
May you all be touched by that deep place where light and darkness meet and dance in the mystery of solstice.