The Umbrella

by A. Arnold

One chilly, rainy Friday night in February the sense of safety and sanctuary I feel at my church was shaken. I am not writing of the vulnerability to crime the church shares with other locations in this and countless other cities. What happened did not concern my physical safety, but a particular, psychological sense of security. I believe what happened could have happened, does happen, and will continue to happen for some time just about anywhere, sadly.

I was leaving my church after stopping by after work to pick up or drop off some music for a future worship service. It was sufficiently cold that I was wearing my heaviest, down-filled black jacket. It must have become sufficiently rainy that I decided I needed to use my black, automatic umbrella (something I tend to put off doing until the rain is quite bothersome—or threatening to my hair…) A couple perhaps in their 60s was walking toward me, in the opposite direction, on the sidewalk next to the parking lot. They may have been headed for a concert I knew was taking place in the church building that night, or some other event there. I was raising my umbrella slightly and simultaneously opening it by pressing the button on its handle. At that moment, the couple was just a few feet in front of me and facing me. Right as I made my opening motion with the umbrella, the woman gasped, jumped, and grabbed her companion, all at once. My umbrella opened immediately afterward, and I instinctively smiled and said, “hello.” In that moment, I may have sensed something disturbing or strange, but I try to smile and greet people at church. We all continued walking our respective ways, and as we grew farther apart, I heard the woman say to her companion, “I thought she…”

I did not hear or remember clearly what followed. I generally try my best to avoid making assumptions about people I do not know, but I simply cannot help being certain that the woman was saying she thought I had some kind of weapon, which I seemed to be drawing right then. And this thought hurt me so much. It came to me about one minute after our encounter. I am a brown person, and by all appearances, the couple was white. Can opening automatic umbrellas startle people generally? I suppose so. But it was raining. And the woman seemed not to react simply to the motion of the umbrella, but also to what she thought the situation was. I cannot help thinking that there would have been no such scenario in her mind had I not been a brown person. I left what was to be a simple errand involving my church very sad and upset.

I benefited from one of many safe spaces that have developed here at FCCB, when I shared my experience and feelings about it with the Diversity Ministry Team shortly afterward. The members present listened and expressed their sorrow and support for me in my pain and bewilderment. I am grateful for this caring support as well as so many other discussions of identity, welcome and different perspectives that we have shared.

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About communicationsfccb

Phil Porter is the Minister of Art & Communication at First Congregational Church of Berkeley and a member of the Diversity Ministry Team. All members of this ministry team will be contributing to this blog.
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