One year after the shooting of Michael Brown by a Ferguson, MO police officer, my family and I traveled to St. Louis for a weekend get-away. We stayed in a well-maintained and comfortable mid-range-cost hotel a short drive from downtown.
Friday was a quiet day in the hotel pool. My wife and I, our three children, and one other mother with two children were the only patrons. The other mother was interested largely, in using her smart phone while her children swam.
On Saturday, I took my son and two daughters to the pool and found it quite full of swimmers, mostly pre-adolescent girls clearly enjoying themselves. Their accompanying adults stood just outside the indoor pool on the patio, able to observe the children at-play.
I noticed that the mother from the prior day was there with her children and that the mother seemed visibly agitated. I saw her speak to her oldest daughter who left the pool area by the side door and I didn’t think anything of it.
Shortly thereafter, the hotel manager, whom I had met upon check-in, came to the pool and spoke with the adults who were with the group of girls. The woman, whom I assumed was a mother of a child or children in the group, grew angrier by the second.
Here are two important details which I left out: the mother from the prior day and her children were white, and the group of girls and the adults with them were bi-racial and black.
The mother from the group of girls, fuming, walked toward the complainant mother and began to yell at her. The complainant mother sat videotaping the confrontation with her smart phone. I sat poolside watching the confrontation, as my own multiracial family swam in the pool.
The mother from the group of girls told the girls to get out of the pool, and they obeyed, quite confused.
The manager returned a short while later and spoke with me, apologizing for the fracas. I told him that I, and my family, was not bothered in the least bit by the group of girls. I asked him, “Why would I be bothered by children playing together?” He thanked me for my calmness, and went to speak with the complainant mother.
I overheard his apologies, and concessions, and offers to the complainant mother of restitution. Why was it at this point that my own anger was activated?
The complainant mother approached me after her conversation. She apologized for my children’s swimming being disrupted by “those people.” I asked her the same question I asked the manager, “Why would I be bothered by children playing together?” She remarked, “That’s a hell of a way for a mother to behave on her kid’s fucking birthday.” She walked away and returned to her chaise lounger.
After I returned to our room with my kids, I told my wife about what had transpired and that the group of girls was celebrating a birthday. “I should have done more,” I told my wife. “I should have stepped in right when the manager first appeared and butted my nose in and offered myself as a mediator.” I told her that I was going to find the mother from the group of girls, and tell the manager, as well, my own perspective of the events.
When I arrived in the lobby, the group of girls and their accompanying adults were being escorted out of the hotel by police officers. I bypassed the officers and ran up to the mother. “I want to tell you that my kids and I were not bothered in the least bit by your girls playing in the pool.” With tears welling up she said, “Thank you. That made my night better.” As I passed the girls on the way back to the lobby, I said the same to them. “My children and I were at the pool and you girls didn’t bother us at all.” An older girl said, “Thank you.”
I learned from the manager that the group of girls and the adults were celebrating the birthday in one room and that 15 occupants surpassed fire code considerably. He said the police were called because the mother from the group of girls had threatened violence toward the complainant mother.
I expressed my sadness at how things transpired. He remarked at my apparently uncommon calmness in the situation. I told him that I am a pastor and am often required to maintain a non-anxious presence in situations of intense emotional interchanges. “If I had a nickel for every conflict in which I have had to remain calm I could buy three of your hotel coffees.”
Why in the name of all that is holy did I not pastorally butt-in to the conflict early on with my non-anxious presence? Why did I not risk being yelled at? Did I fear that my kids would be made vulnerable or scared if I got involved? Why didn’t I think that acting within the conflict would serve as a model for my kids of a Christ-like response.
I know full well that some of the best work I can do as a white anti-racism ally is to educate other white folks about white privilege and systemic injustice. So, why didn’t I try to educate or at least challenge the complainant mother when she approached me?
I was a chicken. When it came down to it, I did not have the courage or resolve to step in. Next time, Lord, steel my conviction and spur me on.