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Becoming an Ally

by Dr. Jean Lubke


April 29, 2015

The following is a sermon preached by Dr. Jean Lubke on April 19, 2015 at University Baptist Church in Minnesota.

When you hear the word “ally”, what images come to mind?

Do you think of political and military allies like those in the World Wars? Political allies create pacts of allegiance. If someone threatens your ally, they have, by alliance, threatened you. And you will go to war to defend your ally from their attackers.

Do you think of legislative allies of opposing parties who work together to solve a common problem?

Do you think of Moses, of Ruth, of Mary Magdalen, or of Jesus?

Do you think of water buffalo?

Do you think of yourselves?

The word “ally” has its roots in the Latin verb alligare meaning “to bind.” Synonyms for the verb are to “close ranks” and “pull together.” Webster’s dictionary provides a second definition to the military alliance one. An ally is a person or group who gives help to another person or group. An ally stays with another through difficult times.

Think of the water buffalo, when their herd is threatened, the old, the weak, and the young are put safely in the middle and those with the most strength and power form an outward facing circle around them so no harm can come to the most vulnerable. They are allies.

Moses did not consider himself a speaker, but he became the ally for the freedom of the Israelites against the power of the Egyptian pharaoh.

The Moabite woman Ruth chose to stay with and take care of her elderly mother-in-law Naomi after her husband died rather than returning home and taking another husband. Ruth was Naomi’s ally.

Mary Magdalen stayed with Jesus – through the crucifixion, through the burial, and even afterwards. Others left in pain or disappointment, but she stayed and was a lifelong ally for Jesus.

Jesus was labeled the “friend of sinners.” He invited Matthew and Levi, reviled tax-collectors, to join his group. He helped individuals who were paralyzed and had leprosy. He saved a woman from death by stoning. Jesus was an ally.

Think of your own experiences. When you stopped and helped someone who was not able to help him/herself at the time – you were an ally. When you spoke up for someone who was being picked on or bullied by another – you were an ally. 

When you made sure that someone else’s viewpoint was considered – you were being an ally.

Allies form relational connections between themselves. What happens to one, matters to the others.

It’s easier to be an ally to someone whom you know and love. We have already formed these connecting relationships. 

It’s also easier to be an ally around the “little things” – like helping someone across the street or with packages they can’t carry. There’s a limited amount of risk involved there.

But the justice work of equity and inclusion can be difficult – especially when it is around difficult issues of race and sexuality. And often those who are marginalized and underrepresented feel they are the only ones educating others and fighting the battles of oppression and bias. They need allies.

Comedian Margaret Cho tells the story of an encounter in a parking lot when a woman hollered at her to “go back where you came from!” Margaret Cho countered with, “I was born here!  Where do you want me to go?” It was good for a laugh in her routine, but it was based on a micro-aggression. The statement made was based on the assumption that because of the way she looked, she didn’t belong there.

Micro-aggressions happen regularly to people of color, people with disabilities, the elderly, and women. Columbia professor Derald Sue defines micro-aggressions as “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership.” Micro-aggressions are different from overt expressions of bigotry often because the perpetrator is unaware that their biases are being expressed in their words and actions. They may be unconscious that they are causing harm.

A famous example occurred during the 2008 presidential primaries when Joe Biden described Barak Obama as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” While it may sound like a compliment, it is heard as “He is the exception. Most blacks are ‘unintelligent, inarticulate, dirty, and unattractive.’”

Dr. Joy DeGruy is an acclaimed educator – and she is black. Joy tells the story of going to the grocery store with her 10 –year old daughter and her sister-in-law, who is biracial. Her sister-in-law, who looks white, goes through the checkout line first. The clerk smiles in greeting, chats with her, takes her check in payment, then turns to Joy. She doesn’t smile at Joy, doesn’t chat with her, demands two forms of identification with her check, and then checks the “bad check book.” When questioned by Joy about why she is receiving different treatment, the clerk gets angry and states she’s following store protocol. Her sister-in-law steps in and challenges the clerk exposing the prejudicial treatment. The two elderly white ladies behind Joy, then join in in support for Joy. The sister-in-law was her ally. As one who appeared white, she was able to use her white privilege to challenge the micro-aggression of the clerk.

An African-American principal in one of my school districts was never given credit for his ideas. For years, he would put his ideas out on the table and need to wait for a white colleague to pick up on the idea and re-voice it. Then the white colleague would get credit for the idea.

Individuals in wheelchairs frequently tell stories of sales clerks or restaurant servers asking the able-bodied person accompanying them what THEY want as if they were unable to understand and speak for themselves. Similar micro-aggressions occur against the elderly.

Parents of different race children are asked by strangers “Is the child yours?” Middle-class African-Americans walking through department stores are followed to make sure they are not shoplifting; middle class white Americans are rarely followed.

Micro-aggressions against women occur when men catcall or use put-downs like “that’s women’s work.” Years ago when Neil and I were going to buy a replacement car for me, the salesman handed the keys to Neil and asked him if I knew how to drive a stick shift. When we were buying our first computer (which I was going to use), I asked the questions of the salesman; he answered all of them to Neil. 

A lesbian is told by a man that he thought she was straight because she “looked pretty.” LGBT individuals are denigrated when their spouses or partners are referred to as their “friends” when people know they are married.

The noose found hanging from a tree at Duke University… The University of Oklahoma fraternity and their hate-filled song…

These are relatively basic examples. When they occur every once in a while, you can brush them off. But when they occur regularly, what messages do they send to you about who you are and of what value?

But it is not just the fight of the underrepresented; it is the fight for all of us. We will not close the achievement gap or provide equitable housing and work opportunities for all until we are all liberated from the interpersonal prejudices and systemic inequities.

Systems were designed and created primarily to benefit those who created them – consciously or unconsciously. 

Interstate-94 was built to benefit the workers driving from the suburbs into the downtown areas. It did not benefit the St. Paul Rondo neighborhood whose homes and businesses were taken by imminent domain and whose neighborhood was torn in two. Housing developments were redlined creating areas where realtors showed homes to white families and areas where they showed homes to families of color. Until the 1970’s Edina had a city ordinance which excluded black and Jews from buying houses. South St. Paul’s meat packing plant had an agreement with the city to not permit non-white employees to live in South St. Paul.

Accelerated classes in school have been maintained so that students from families who know how the educational system works can advance at a more rapid pace through the school system than those who don’t know the system, but have the same ability.

System change and those who are marginalized by systemic racism, heterosexism, and other biases need allies to help recognize the motives and consequences under the rhetoric. They need the help of allies to speak up.

And you can be that ally. An ally is anyone who is willing to pay attention – and take action - around the social, economic, and political differences and inequities based on distinctions of race, ethnicity, age, class, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, religious or spiritual identity, or nationality.

Those of you who are male can be allies for women. Those of us who are white can allies for people of color and native peoples. Those of us who are straight can be allies for LGBTQ individuals. Those of us with able bodies can be allies for individuals with disabilities. Those of us with religious beliefs that are more commonly understood can be allies for those who have differing religious beliefs. Everyone can be an ally for someone else.

Edward Everett Hale, the 19th century U.S. author and historian said,“I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something I can do.”

Allies move past the shame and guilt of past and current oppression to understand how their position provides them with privilege, and how they can use their privilege to help educate and fight for equity and inclusion. 

Being an ally is a continuous process of self-reflection and action.

To be an ally - Pay attention. Notice what is happening to you and to others.

To be an ally - Be open to new ideas and commit to ongoing learning about realities which are different from your own.

To be an ally - Share your stories with others and invite them to share their stories with you. Recently I was able to share our stories of being an ally with Lynn Welton and Ross Aalgaard as they were seeking American Baptist ordination. We faced cruel, overt heterosexism from our Minnesota and Iowa brothers and sisters. And eventually, we found a welcoming home with the Rochester Genesee region of New York. I was able to tell our stories to a young gay man who was rejected by his father and his church. He wanted to know how to have conversations about sexual orientation with Christians.

To be an ally - you listen to the lived experiences and stories of others – without discounting or rationalizing the pain and injustice they’ve lived, without providing explanations for the perpetrators.  Resist the temptation to excuse the behavior of the majority as unintentional.

To be an ally - As decisions are being made, ask “whose perspective is not represented among the decision-makers?” and find ways to include them.  Look for those whose views are not being represented and find ways to include multiple perspectives – especially in decisions that will impact others.  If you are at a meeting, look around the room and see who is there – and who isn’t. 

To be an ally - Pay attention to how others are treated – are they interrupted? Are they ignored? Are they scrutinized? Are they treated differently – just because of their identity? If you get a gut feeling that someone was just put down, it was probably a micro-aggression.

To be an ally - Pay attention to the privilege you have – and when and how you use that privilege. 

To be an ally - Be willing to take action and take risks.

However, allies do not charge in just anywhere and anytime. You must assess your situation. Assess the risks – to you and to the individuals you are trying to support. It’s OK to decide that the situation is not the right time for you to confront an individual or a group of people. 

Model the behavior you want from the people you are confronting. If you are wanting respectful interactions, you won’t get them if you are sarcastic, or snide, or arrogant – even though it may be tempting to do so. Listen carefully; tell your own stories, and model calm respectful behavior.

The next time you are in line and notice someone of color is treated differently from you, what will you do?

The next time you are at a restaurant with a person who is differently able and the server directs all conversation to you, what will you do?

The next time a coworker complains about no longer having “Christmas” parties at work, what will you do?

The next time a family member complains about undocumented immigrants or uses a derogatory term, what will you do?

The next time you are walking down the sidewalk and a dark-skinned male wearing a hoodie walks towards you, what will you do?

The next time you are getting on a plane and a woman wearing a hijab sits next to you, what will you do?

Be like Jesus – and be an ally to the underrepresented and the powerless – it’s the right thing to do.


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