BJC is a trauma center, and I don’t just mean that in an institutional and medical sense that you are where the gunshot and car crash victims get taken. You as BJC are at the center of the traumas of this region. That’s because you are a unique gathering place. In a region that is annually ranked among the top 10 most segregated metropolitan areas in this nation, you as BJC are one of the only places in St. Louis where everyone comes … and where everyone works … and where everyone lays their trauma bare.
You name a demographic in the St. Louis region – race, class, creed, gender, age, sexual orientation – you name it and you will find people across that spectrum on this campus. As patients. As family members. As employees. And all of them – all of US bring our trauma to this place in hope of healing. It is the acute trauma of the unthinkable that has just happened. It is the chronic trauma of microaggressions, harassments and dismissiveness. It is the complex trauma of poverty, sexism and racism.
We could go around this room and every person in here could share our stories of trauma – the trauma we have seen and heard, the trauma of our own lives that rests on our heart this very moment. Now, we’re not going to do that because we would literally be here all day and into the night – but frankly, it wouldn’t be that bad an idea if we did. Because here at BJC, you are a trauma center. And what we know about trauma is this – trauma doesn’t go away on its own. Trauma needs to be named. Trauma needs to be spoken. Trauma needs to be heard. Trauma needs to be felt.
I said I am grateful for the opportunity to speak this morning – and here is why: Because I believe that you as BJC have a unique opportunity. An opportunity to be a place of healing not just of the acute medical traumas that come through your doors but of the deep, chronic and complex traumas of this St. Louis region. The traumas wrought by our deep divides of race and class. The traumas that we as a St. Louis region do not give space to be spoken, to be heard, to be felt – and that until we do, will never, never, ever begin to heal.
In the nearly 50 years since the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s murder, white America has done a brilliant job of the unconscionable. We have taken a radical and revolutionary leader for justice in this nation and through sound byte sanitizing we have transformed him into a harmless champion of an oppressive status quo. We have taken the King who called out the white moderate who “is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”” We have taken the King who in that Letter from a Birmingham Jail called that white moderate “the greatest stumbling block to freedom” and through our “I have a dream” sound-byting we have turned him into an unapologetic champion of that same stumbling block. Turned King’s militant nonviolence into a mandate for black people to stay quiet and in their place. Turned our honoring of King on this day into a salve for our national conscience instead of a conviction that, in his words, “yes, we have come a long, long way, but we have a long, long way to go.”
Like Dr. King, I am a lifelong and unshakable believer in nonviolence. But in the past 18 months an extraordinary group of young people who have risen up in Ferguson and around this region and across this nation have been teaching me the difference between the sanitized King and the genuine revolutionary article – and between the sanitized Jesus and the genuine revolutionary Christ as well. Teaching me the difference between nonviolent and peaceful.
I have been seeing Dr. King with new eyes. And the chant “No justice. No peace. If we don’t get no justice. Then they don’t get no peace.” has become profoundly meaningful and true to me. And it is about trauma. It is about how trauma needs to spoken, and heard and felt. It is about how until we create and hold spaces where that is allowed to happen, we will never heal, we will never have justice, we will never leave Egypt and we will never get to any promised land.
But we in St. Louis don’t do trauma, do we? I mean, unless it's about losing a football team.
We don’t allow that space, do we?
In fact, we here in St. Louis do our level best to suppress and repress and oppress trauma wherever it tries to raise its head, sing its heart and lift its voice.
40 white men carrying automatic weapons can walk down Market Street and the police barely bat an eye. But 25 young black women and men – out every night so the police know not only who they are but absolutely know that they are armed only with signs and their anger and pain get met with riot gear, pepper spray, and tear gas.
In St. Louis, we don’t do trauma. We don’t allow that space.
Last April, on the day before Easter, I took part in what we called a “mourner’s march” in the Central West End less than a mile from here. We invited mothers who had lost their children not just to police violence but to any kind of violence to march with us and to pray and yes, to cry and to wail. We blocked only one lane of traffic on a four-lane road and held intersections for no more than seven minutes at a time. And all the way, the police drove beside us – blocking as much traffic as we were – shouting at us through bullhorns that we were subject to arrest if we didn’t get out of the street.
On a springtime Saturday afternoon, we couldn’t even allow the space for mothers to grieve their dead babies.
Here in St. Louis, we don’t do trauma. We don’t allow that space.
You want to know why young black women and men are in the streets and the shopping malls shouting “shut it down?” because that is exactly what has been done to them when they have tried to speak their trauma. We have shut them down.
And so the King we need to hear today is not some sound byte from an idle dreamer. It is a revolutionary preacher who understood the nature of trauma because he had lived it. He understood that trauma must be spoken and heard and felt – and when that wasn’t allowed there were real and deep and lasting consequences.
On March 14, 1968, less than a month before he was murdered, Dr. King gave a speech in Grosse Point, Michigan called “The Other America.” And he talked about the expressions of trauma that were happening all over the nation. Here is part of what he said:
In the nearly 18 months since Michael Brown was killed and his body lay in the street for four and a half hours, there have been almost no instances of violence on behalf of those protesting – which is testament to the incredible discipline and leadership of the protest movement to continually channel deep rage and pain without crossing the line to violence. You wouldn’t necessarily know this by the saturation media coverage of the property destruction that happened around the flashpoints of Michael Brown’s killing and the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, but it is true.
But what King is saying is that be they the vast majority of protests that are nonviolent or when anger spills out into burning down a Quik Trip we need to pay attention. We need to recognize that be it a protest or a riot, there is an expression of trauma happening that demands our attention.
King says, “I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.”
When that Quik Trip burned in August, 2014 and when other businesses burned three months later how many times did we hear people clucking their tongues and saying “look at what ‘those people’ are doing” – the us and them language is always a tipoff that we’re already running off the rails – “look at what ‘those people’ are doing burning down their own community.”
Instead of asking the simple question: Why?
When incredible young people continue to show up in the streets night after night, week after week, month after month chanting “if we don’t get no justice then they don’t get no peace,” holding die-ins in shopping malls and blocking highways during rush hour how many times did we hear people talk about how tired they were of the protests and how they wish they would just go away.
Instead of asking the simple question: Why?
People don’t just get up in the morning and say, “Hmmm ..I think I’ll burn down a Quik Trip today.” “Hmmm … I think I’ll go stand in the middle of I-70 today during rush hour.”
We only do these things if we are not being heard. And what is it St. Louis has failed to hear? We have failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And we have failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.
And that brings us back into this room – to you as BJC and the incredible opportunity you have as a St. Louis institution that already has a deep commitment to equity and justice. You have taken things like the For the Sake of All report that shows that “residents of zip codes separated by only a few miles have up to an 18-year difference in life expectancy.” and that “Because of considerable residential segregation in St. Louis, many areas with high African American populations are also areas with concentrated poverty and poor health.” You have taken that information and responded by your particular care for impoverished children and families in some of those most deeply impoverished areas through things like your mobile units that reach more than 20,000 children and your free flu shot programs.
You have also committed to your own process of learning and listening through your work with Reena Hajat Carroll and the Diversity Awareness Partnership hosting Listen. Talk. Learn. Events – and if you haven’t had a chance to be a part of one of those, please do so they are absolutely worth your time!
You have done some great things. As Dr. King would say, we have come a long, long way, but we have a long, long way to go. Your opportunity goes far beyond providing a mobile unit where there really should be a first-class hospital and hosting really good two-hour educational sessions about race, class, power and privilege.
Your opportunity goes far beyond that. And it is about trauma.
You are the primary institution in the St. Louis region whose sole mission is healing. And healing is what we need right now. Unfortunately, for most of St. Louis, “healing” means pretending the past 18 months – and the past 400 years that led up to them – didn’t happen and going back to a status quo where those who have power and privilege continue to dig us more deeply into disparity and leave our deepest wounds untreated.
But we know better than that, don’t we?
You are the primary institution in the St. Louis region whose sole mission is healing. And healing is what we need right now. What we need healing from is our trauma and what we know about trauma is you have to feel to heal.
We have to listen deeply to one another. Even with the people already in this room, we have to just be with one another in that deeply uncomfortable and yet even more deeply sacred place of pain and rage. We have to listen to the language of those among us who have gone unheard for far too long. Give space for the pain and for the rage. Not shut it down be it with tear gas or quick pseudo-solutions – but instead lean more deeply into the discomfort of the trauma, sit down in our discomfort, hold one another in it, love one another through it and above all not be afraid to embrace the sacred humanity in it.
You do this as you listen to your patients – not just their physical symptoms but their stories, the tone of their voices and the pain in their heart.
You do this as you listen to one another. As you embrace the diversity of race and class that exists within the employee community here at BJC and use the people you work with every day to learn about life experiences far different from your own … and attend to the trauma in those lives and create spaces for feeling and healing that can be replicated out in the wider community.
You do this by going to the state capitol in Jefferson City and lobbying for things like Medicaid expansion that address the chronic trauma of disparity of access so that everyone can get the kind of health care that has for too long been available only to those privileged of race and class. By going to your corporate partners and demanding an end to food and care deserts and believing Teach for America and mobile medical units are an adequate response to systemic racism run tragically amok in American education and health care.
You do this as you amplify the voices you are hearing so that others beyond these walls can hear them too. When at a party or around the dinner table you hear people talking disparagingly about “those people” you have the courage, with another’s voice and story and trauma on your heart to stand up and say no, let me tell you a different story, let me introduce you to a person, let me share with you a pain, a rage that you might not know is out there but that needs to be spoken, and heard and felt.
You are the primary institution in the St. Louis region whose sole mission is healing. And healing is what we need right now. You are a trauma center. And what we need healing from is our trauma and what we know about trauma is you have to feel to heal.
Here in St. Louis, we don’t do trauma. We don’t allow that space. And that has to change. And that is your opportunity.
You as BJC have been that space for those who walk in these doors – but the opportunity for you is far greater. You have the chance to stand with and amplify the voices of those whose trauma cannot be healed with a pill or an incision. You have the chance to lead, to help us hear the language of the unheard, to gather us not just on this campus but as a region to speak the trauma that needs to be spoken, hear the trauma that needs to be heard and do the feeling that leads to the healing.
What is it St. Louis has failed to hear? We have failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And we have failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.
At BJC, you hear these voices – and if you haven’t you need to listen more closely, because they are right here, right now. And so it is up to you to recommit yourself not only to listening more deeply yourself, but to leading the rest of us in doing the same.