We appreciate our collaborative partner, Jeane Vogel, Executive Director, Webster Arts, who hosted this panel discussion in conjunction with “On the Street Where I Live,” a nationally juried exhibit.
Ellie Wharton, General Manager, KWRH-LP, Radio 63119, located at Webster-Rock Hill Ministries
Rev. Wendy Bruner, Pastor Peace United Church of Christ, Webster Groves
Sr. Helena Monahan, CCVI Project Manager, Incarnate Word Foundation
Sr. Helena opened the conversation with a reflection on the emotional connection people have to the concept of “my street.” Traditionally, this phrase has evoked a feeling of comfort, safety, familiarity. “Even after a hard day, I can breathe a sigh of relief when I finally turn on to the street where I live.”
“My street” is different from “my house”. I go to my house to be private, alone, personal. When I am on my street, I am in community. People know one another, look out for one another, and help one another.
Ellie Wharton observed that the exhibit reflects the values of the community from which it emerged. One picture, for example, is of a raggedy old barn. But when you look at it closely, it could be the center of a community. In another neighborhood, this may not be appropriate. We may not understand or relate to the same values, but art helps us see the value in each community.
Wendy Bruner connected the art to different times in her life. The beautiful rural countryside shows where she grew up, and the street where she lived was an unpaved country road. She now spends a good part of her time in Webster on Lockwood. But she lives on a street in North City, a beautiful wide street where she knows her neighbors. She reflected that while sometimes it’s not so safe, most of the time, it is.
Sr. Helena shared that she grew up in what is now the Inner City of St. Louis in the 1950s–at a time when the area changed dramatically. Her neighborhood transformed from a street where children played and were safe to a place where many people no longer felt safe. She asked: “What happens when something occurs to change our street from a place of joy to a place of alienation? What happens when the safety and camaraderie of my street is disturbed?”
Ellie remembered life as a Child in North Webster when everybody knew everybody and what you did; they could tell your pa what you did, and you might be in big trouble. “There was safety because we could count on any neighbor for help, or even to use the bathroom, or have cake.” She reflected that this situation doesn’t exist anymore. Now there are drug dealers visible. You are afraid to speak to the young people let alone call their mother. Many communities have gone through that. She believes that through art and the spoken word, through music, weaving, we can be brought back to the center. That’s why the Webster-Rockhill Ministries art program really makes a difference with the young people. They become more thoughtful. They show pride in what they have done. We really have to work to keep those things in our community
Wendy lives on a one-block street that ends at Hyde Park where there is a racially diverse school. The people know each other, and she feels safe there. “We have three big dogs who are out, and often our back door is open or unlocked. I run at 5 a.m. down Jefferson and mostly I feel completely safe. My husband is African American. One day, I was running and I saw the police drive by. And I remember thinking it was good the police are here because if I trip they would be here. But then I realized that my husband would not have felt safe.”
Both Wendy and Ellie sadly recounted that in both their neighborhoods, people have been recently shot. Audience members shared similar experiences of change in various neighborhoods of St. Louis.
This led Sr. Helena to ask: “What is the responsibility for living in community? Who owns tit and how do we share it? She geared the conversation to the question of fear. She grew up near Page and Martin Luther king, a member of one of the last white families to leave the area. There was nothing to be afraid of. But because people who were different moved in, others became afraid. Fear is really central to what destroys a community. You flee from it. You become hardened and attack back.
Wendy responded that if we create centers of congregation, we are less fearful. “There is a family-owned corner cafe a block away from where I live. Nothing fancy. It turns out that the daughter lives two houses away from us, and this family has created this space around food. And if they aren’t busy, the mom will come and sit with you and get to know you.” She recognized that, “In Webster, one space like that is Garden Café– a locally owned business and a space where people talk with one another. We need to open our spaces.” The United Church of Christ where Wendy is the pastor is open and people can congregate. “If we sit down and get to know each other, we aren’t scared of one another. If someone is unknown to us, we tend to form preconceived ideas. All of us have them.”
Sr. Helena asked why St. Louisans socialize in a segregated manner. She observed that once you know someone as a person, this segregation stops. She recalled a great line in a fun movie called “We Bought a Zoo.” “All it takes is 20 seconds of courage.” We need to take 20 seconds to step out of our self and speak to another person. We don’t do it. And part of it is fear.
Ellie explained that when she goes to the Pancake House at Ladue by herself, she sits at the counter. “I have met the most interesting people. It is hard to have someone sitting next to you at a counter and not communicate with them!”
She continued: “When I went back to Brooklyn in a dense neighborhood, I was saying ‘Hi’ to the people I passed. My sister in law said, ‘What are you doing?’ I responded that I’m from St. Louis and Webster, and that’s what we do! “To her that was a foreign concept–to speak to someone you do not know. It sparks community.”
Sr. Helena asked the gathering to reflect on how we deal with political diversity. The group responded very emotionally to the question!
Wendy reflected on her own Church. “I think about Peace UCC as quite a progressive congregation, At the beginning of every sermon, I try to talk about compassion for everyone you meet every day—even if they don’t want it. We pastors say that no matter who you are, you are welcome here. If we say that we should try to actually do that. “I think if Paul Ryan would walk in on Sunday, what would we do? We would be welcoming. That’s what we are called to do. I work really hard, because it’s hard to be compassionate to everybody. But that’s my job. I think it’s really difficult.
“From where I stand preaching the gospel, I will talk very frankly about those things that have become very divisive in our country. Jesus healed everyone, and so we won’t shy away from talking about universal healthcare. We will welcome you in but we interpret the gospel as everyone has access to healing.”
Ellie shared that from her perspective, church is one of the most divisive parts of culture. Worship can he the most segregated part of our week. It hasn’t changed. It is difficult for us. Even from a religious standpoint, we aren’t able to reconcile race. “I am saddened to see that because the world view of people is what gives us the richness and fullness of life. It is better to live the gospel and live the world than pound it over people’s head. What do we have in common? That’s the first thing I think about when I meet people. You have to get know people. You have to grasp that ‘20 seconds of courage’.”
Sr. Helena spoke personally. “I have to face the violence and prejudice within me before I can heal it. I have to acknowledge it. In the rea of politics my violence can come very close to the surface, but I have to own it and let healing come. If we don’t all start working on this we are going in the wrong direction.”
Wendy recounted that the Black Lives Matter signs at her church have been rather controversial. They have been moved and defaced many times. “We would tend to say things like racism is not an issue for us. And then we see those things happen. Two young men walked by said ‘All lives matter.” And I wish that were true. We have seen those issues in Webster right on Lockwood. I’ve had people suggest we take our signs down. I think we need to acknowledge that here are issues that are right here in our community and things won’t change unless we address the issue of white privilege and supremacy.
“People say it would be so wonderful to have African Americans come to worship. Well then we need to visit a church where people are African American. The idea is people will come to us, not us to them. It is everywhere. We expect people will come to us and take on our way of doing things. And that is why we are segregated. We refuse to give up our concept of supremacy and privilege.
Sr. Helena posed the question: “What are we going to do about our society? We are all responsible. We share responsibilities for” the streets where we live,” for our environment and community. We are all part of many circles. How brave are we to step out and challenge? Not in an ugly way, but challenge nonetheless. To make a difference.
Elle brought the conversation back to” intentional living.” She prays each day that God will place someone in her path that can be a shining example of his love. She reflected on indigenous people who all have the same sense of understanding. They want food for their children and to be healthy. They don’t want to live in fear. The inner city families want the same thing as the families in Wildwood. We want to live in peace, harmony, and love. People are damaged in our culture through no fault of their own. We need to be not so quick to judge and be careful in the words we use with each other. We have to RECONnect. It boils down to intentionality. I intend each day to share the love given to me with others.
The piece that won the best in show is “Nature Reclaims.” It depicts Nature growing over a chimney or an oven—a once useful place for humans. Nature will take back ruins if we reject them. And we have rejected whole areas of our cities.
There is a beautiful painting a young girl of color creating a world that she has designed and dreamed of.. People are trying to design and create that all around us. As you look at it, you wonder if she will ever live in such a world. I think there are many things to look at and reflect.
Wendy centered on a photograph of a boarded up house. “I think of the house right next to mine. It looks exactly like that. One of the things we have to be careful about is recognizing that there are people there, and the neighborhood is not abandoned. We want to be careful that we are not thinking that we can go in there and do something. The people in the neighborhood will shape how it is done. That picture is everywhere in the city of St. Louis. And the city is full of people.”
In summary, Sr. Helena reminded the group that there are people who have not lived in the reality of safety. We are not called to impose our ideal on other people, even when we think our ideal is the right way to go. We are being bombarded by humanity. Only when we talk about it and speak to it can we begin to understand it. It is hard to live in our current reality, but we are very blessed.
Jeane closed the evening with a reflection that it was the anniversary of the death of Nelson Mandela. She reminded the group: “Sharing stories is first step toward reconciliation. The pictures in ‘On the Street Where I Live’ hold 45 stories. The difference between true art and matching slipcovers is the story.” Jeane invited the audience to connect with those stories and to take these stories and rich conversation and share them with the community.