Lissie Baker – Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School
I have a confession to make: I’m a crier. To quote Kristen Bell: “If I’m not between a 3 and a 7 on the emotional scale, I’m crying.” If I’m too happy, I’m going to cry. If I’m too sad, I’m going to cry.
So as you can imagine, these final weeks together at Grace-on-the-Hill have oscillated between both – happy and sad. I’ve gotten an extra year in my hometown to learn about myself, to experience Richmond more deeply, and to give back in meaningful and lasting ways. Now, poised at the edge of my nest, I’m in that awkward emotional limbo: writers affectionately refer to it as nostalgia, and movies display it as ‘bittersweet’ reminiscence, and I experience it as a kind of gut-wrenching and tear-inducing anxiety making me want to run away and hide under a blanket. No one’s under here! No need to deal with these feelings. Let’s pretend like they’re not happening, that’s waaaay easier. Every few days, my feelings start to rear their ugly head, and it’s getting harder and harder to deny them space to come out.
This came to a head when we went to visit the Valentine Museum during our weekly formation time. I was pretty pumped. I don’t think I’ve been but once before that, and being an American history lover, learning more deeply about my hometown was a really enriching experience. We strolled around the sun-lit room gazing at artifacts, pictures and portraits of local leaders, a delightfully antiquated and politically-incorrect statue of an American Indian chief, and countless details of Richmond’s history. On the far right side of the room, I found myself looking at two paintings overlooking the James, specifically of great view near Rocketts Landing. One was contemporary, with skyscrapers and smokestacks jutting over the water, silhouetted by the 95 Bridge. The other was a period piece from what must have been the early nineteenth century: wooden boats lined piers along the banks of the river, small factories and buildings peeked out over trees on the horizon, and a smoky haze fell above the houses in the distance. Next to these paintings were maps – maps of the very real redistribution and concentration of poverty that took place in the 1950’s, and of the intentional dissolution black neighborhoods that occurred in Richmond. All of a sudden, I felt those feelings starting to well up, prickling behind the corners of my eyes.
I love Virginia. I love the James River, the cool green parks by its banks, the mountains and countryside of the Shenandoah Valley, the back roads of the Northern Neck, and the sunset on my family’s back porch. Yet returning to my hometown has brought clarity and a depth of understanding to my childhood, and of what I want for my future. Richmond is the city that birthed me, that birthed one of the greatest cities in the South and, simultaneously, a history of racial segregation, violence, hurt, and injustice. It is the city where I grew up, white and middle-class, and returned from college to pop my ‘West-End bubble’ and see at how segregated our city still is. Please don’t misunderstand me – Richmond will always be my home, will always have my heart, and will always house so many safe memories of my childhood. Moreover, this year has been spent in abundant blessings working at Anna Julia Cooper. I’ve been lucky enough to take part in writing Richmond’s history and learning more deeply of the reconciliation that must continue here. But now, I’m ready to go.
My mom tells my brother and I that we “need to leave in order to earn the right to come back”. I’m ready to leave, but I wouldn’t be so prepared without my year here. Grace-on-the-Hill focuses on what we call ‘theology of place’ – where is God calling us to be, right where we are? – and I wouldn’t have understood what Richmond left within me without returning. As an adolescent and teenager, I sensed the wall between the neighborhoods and people with whom I grew up and the greater reality of Richmond’s poverty. Without coming home, how else could I fully recognize Richmond’s perpetuated segregation and struggles to reconcile its painful past? How else would I have popped that bubble, have looked behind the thin curtain of ignorance that shelters so many of us? And how would I have discovered my passion for helping people – my students, their families, and their community?
Yes, I am ready; but because I came home, I am ever more ready to become the person the God’s blessed me to be. I am ready to take what Richmond gave me into the world, and to continue the works I’ve started here.