Sunday, November 23, 2008

A Witness to Life Moving On

Life is filled with these tremendous ironies. There are times when only distance provides enough context with which to learn the lessons that they provide.

Wyshina Harris was laid to rest on yesterday. Wyshina was a beautiful, generous young lady who was shot and killed on last Saturday on her way to work.

So often, in the black community, we take it on ourselves to remind young African-Americans that all of us - relatives, neighbors, church members - all of us want them to 'make it'. We all want them to be successful. But once they have made it, we want them to know its important to give back. To share their success: their time, their talent and their treasure with those who are trying to make it.

Hardly anyone would think that Wyshina 'made it'. She had gotten out of the Turner Courts public housing development, but she was still a single mother trying to make a life for herself and her two young children. But Wyshina didn't try and wait until she made it to give back. While she was trying to make it, she was trying to take people along with her. She was giving to young people in our After School Academy and she was helping to recreate the community by organizing them to take control of their neighborhoods. That's right - she was morphing into one of those community organizers who had be so derided this past summer.

I went to view her remains Friday and thought about her wonderful spirit and the gift that God had given to all of us in her. I went to the viewing because I wouldn't be able to attend the funeral services. I had committed weeks ago to officiate a wedding of a young man whom I served as pastor for more than 20 years.

"Q" as we call him, is the same age as Wyshina. He overcame some of the anger and bitterness he experienced when his parents divorced, went to college at Texas Tech and received not only his bachelors degree, but two masters degrees. Until the recent DISD layoffs he was giving back as a teacher.

He and his beautiful bride had no idea about Wyshina. They had no idea that while I was presiding over their joyful celebration, several miles away there was another family mourning a tragic loss and the circumstances surrounding it. And the family at the 'homegoing service', had no idea of the proceedings in Grapevine that spoke of hope, new life and a great future.

They were happening at virtually the same time and in a very strange way, I was a part of both of them.

How do you reconcile the two? I don't know. Perhaps you don't, only except to say that there is truth to the cliche that 'Life Goes On'.

There was another thing remarkable about the wedding, that was impressive in this context:

The groom is black. The bride is white.

I think that too is part of the irony. Perhaps it is a harbinger of things to come. Not immediately. But certainly eventually. Perhaps (even though an interracial marriage is no earth shattering phenomenon now), it means a more definitive closing of attitudes and mindsets that made isolated life in Turner Courts a part of Wyshina's reality.

Perhaps the more we see people like 'Q' and his bride, the more we will realize that the joy and love of humanity transcends our petty differences and artificial boundaries. Perhaps it means that life not only 'goes on', but it goes on in glorious and surprising new ways, with glorious and surprising new realities. I don't know about the bride's family, but I do know 'Q' 's family would not have welcomed this wedding 15 years ago.

We don't know the color of Wyshina's murderer. That doesn't matter. Whomever it is, he or she should be brought to justice.

But what I saw yesterday is, for me, slow but sure comfort, that the person who murdered her cannot take away all joy, or make life totally miserable, or a total tragedy.

People of every hue, stripe and background transcended artificially imposed differences to express their love for and celebrate the life of a fallen soldier in the fight to make life better for all of us. People of every hue, stripe and background joined together to celebrate the new life of a new couple.

Tears of sorrow, mingled with tears of joy.

Life inexorably moved on.


Ron Sexton said...

"That's right - she was morphing into one of those community organizers who had be so derided this past summer."

Rev.Britt, you write so true and so beautifully of the short and young lives of Wyshena and "Q". Why did you have throw in just one more sentence -- that only justifies actions that divide Americans?

If you do not honestly know the difference between Wyshena's activism in her neighborhood and the president-elect's in Chicago, please man, get a trusted friend to clarify it for you.

Gerald Britt said...


I'm sorry, evidently its hard for people to get past their preconceived notions of the organizing that Obama did.

For the record: some of the same organizers that trained Obama trained me. I supervise the staff of which Wyshina was a part and passed on that same training to them and exposed them to organizers who received the same training I did.

What Wyshina was doing IS the very heart of community organizing and activism.

You cannot theorize from books, nor engage in conjecture based on uninformed judgement and make a determination of what is going on. You really have to be involved.

So may I suggest you find a trusted friend who actually knows how community organizing works, and get them to clarify it for you.

ron said...

Even so, Gerald, why bring up the
organizing work of Barack Obama? admit the term "community organizer" was derided and therefore a dividing term.

Was not your only purpose to honor Wyshena's social work in the community where she lived and experienced so much of her own pain, and where getting some relief and affirmation by folks in her community and where at the time of her murder she was doing all she could to give back?

During the presidential debates, Community Organizer was used over and over by Barack Obama to exemplify his work worthy of presidential preparation, which Hillary Clinton then derided at every turn in face to to face debates with Barack Obama...and there's a good chance she'll be his sec. of state.

Again: "Why did you have throw in just one more sentence -- that only justifies actions that divide Americans?"

Preconceived notions,theorizing from books and understanding the work of community organizing is not and never was the point...

So why call attention to this past capaign election where "community organizer" became a derisive term and tone used against president-elect Obama by both Hillary, and vice-president elect Biden, the two candidates on the Republican side?

How does that specter honor Wyshena?

Oh. My president-elect did explain how community activism works and he did it so often and so well that, for the purpose I wrote you, I don't feel a need to belabor its meaning.

If you get my meaning.

And one more thing. Who is your preferred audience for "Change the Wind," and what is your purpose? Is it just for people with experience at community organizing? Or do you welcome imput from naive folks?



Gerald Britt said...


To try and answer your question, my goal is in no way to 'honor Wyshina's social work' or to give some kind of witness to the 'affirmation' she received from 'folks in her community'.
Wyshina herself would have recoiled from such an intent.

My goal, as it were, was to highlight the irony of the tragic loss of a triumphal loss, and to bear witness that life's progress is in no way stultified even by personal grief. That life ultimate vindicates the efforts of those who unselfishly give themselves away in the manner that Wyshina did, even though her death can inarguably be described as unfair.

To demean the community organizing that she had tried is to demean her memory and her work. And not just hers, but that of countless others, some professional, others volunteer who work in the shadows to help those who have formerly been voiceless.

Unfortunately you didn't get to see the continued growth of Wyshina as she dealt with and put our neighbors in touch with their City Council member, public officials, Housing Authority officials, learning with them, how to address grievances, and in turn receiving their respect.

Recalling the spector of the derision, is important because I fervently believe that in our country we have to remind one another that real change that impacts the lives of real people starts from the bottom up and not the top down.

Wyshina lived and worked in an area just south of a neighborhood is undergoing millions of dollars of redevelopment because of the community organizing process that she, her colleague, Sylvia and program director Janet had engaged in. So, to be honest, no matter how often my president-elect explains the work of community organizing we must always remind ourselves that what makes our communities and our country work is real substantive citizen engagement.

As for my 'preferred audience' for Change the Wind: people who are willing to engage in serious thinking about subjects. Who have bought into neither the party line, or who are dismissive of the inconsistencies that we see in the politics and cultures which keep communities ensnared in poverty.

I hope that it will attract readers who neither mind being agitated or provoked in their thinking and who in turn will answer thoughtfully and seriously.

So, no, you don't have to have experience in community organizing. But if critique of that work comes from having bought into a uninformed, outdated and totally inaccurate frame of reference then I would trust you don't have a problem with that frame of reference being challenged and corrected. No one is well served by promoting a inaccuracies and untruths expressed in the hopes that they gain traction in the repitition.
Points of view based upon conjecture based on those inaccuracies deserve to be challenged with facts.

Jeremy Gregg said...


I found this to be a remarkably beautiful meditation on an incredibly difficult experience. I did not notice the line that seemed to grab Ron, possibly because I understood that you were trying to place these two stories within a larger context. I read it as your attempt to show how a life like Wyshina's that is taken early should be mourned as much as the life of her peer, Mr. Obama, is celebrated.

Many thanks for the work that you do. This blog is one of the brightest parts of my day whenever I read it.

Larry James said...

Ron, it seems to me that the way in which the work of community organizers was "derided" during the campaign is exactly why Gerald framed Wyshina's life as he did here. I'm not sure there is a higher calling than to be a "community organizer."

ron said...

Rev. Britt, Mrssrs. Gregg and James, I am at your collective mercies as to the interpretation of my views.

Anonymous said...

I am a white DISD male teacher married to a African-American DISD female teacher. Why must we speak of the "Black community" or any "community"? I teach in South Dallas. My student population is 99% black. These are my kids. We are all part of the Dallas community. Let's unite and protect our loved ones against anyone that means us harm. Any loss of innocent life is a crime against humanity. If only we had more community-activists. Change is made at the local level. Let's stop picking each other's sentences apart and unite. We all want our families to be safe...our kids to be successful and happy. When will Dallas become one city, and not a nasty cauldron of racial separation? Let's come together and make this a better place.
Robert Jette (

Gerald Britt said...

Mr. Jette,

You and your wife have my admiration just for being a two teacher family in DISD.

I understand exactly what you're talking about when it comes to the two communities. But the fact is that there are black communities and white communities with distinct histories, cultures and challenges.

The challenge we all have going forward, I believe, is not to erase those distinctions, but to learn that we all have something to contribute to our city and beyond precisely because of the best of those differences.

The American heritage includes all of our histories and to acknowledge that is to acknowledge the greatness and the strength of our country.

Thanks for reading and writing!

Anonymous said...

Rev. Britt,
Thank you for your thoughtful response. I totally agree with you. Our country is a nation of shared experiences...good and bad. I made a huge mistake when I spoke of Black-White cultures coming together. DISD has taught me that we are rapidly becoming 3 disparate cultures....Of course, Texas has had a long history of Hispanic influence, but it seems to be coming to a somewhat angry head. Language, influence, etc...seems to preclude our city/DISD from coming together. I'm sorry to direct the discussion away from Wyshina; that's where the focus of this thread should be. An innocent life lost is deplorable. If there's anything that I can do, please let me know. Thank you for your leadership and thoughtfulness.
robert jette