To the editor:
Over the past 12 months, I’ve been diagnosed with and treated for breast cancer. I owe the survival of my body and spirit to many people, including the medical team at New England Cancer Specialists, the counselors and programs at the Dempsey Center in Lewiston, and the many friends and family members who stepped in to ease the sadness – and the work – that cancer thrusts upon its survivors. In short, I’ve received nothing but encouraging, compassionate support from everyone who heard about my diagnosis.
Here’s what did not happen during my year-long medical and emotional crisis:
When I needed to grieve about having breast cancer, nobody said, “Other types of cancer matter, too.”
As I dragged myself to chemotherapy, radiation, and other endless medical appointments, no one in the waiting room said, “All diseases matter.”
When my family – upset by my suffering – leaned on their own friends for support, none of those friends said, “Everyone else’s problems matter, too.”
Nobody said these things – indeed, no decent person would say these things to someone invested in their own survival, or the survival of someone they love. People who are in pain and in crisis demand witness, compassion, and empathy. When someone’s fighting for their survival, it’s insensitive at best (and, at worst, condescendingly hurtful) to suggest that their pain is insignificant.
This is not a letter about breast cancer. It’s a letter about dismantling racism.
For the past month, I’ve taken part in ongoing anti-racism vigils in Newcastle because I believe that our country’s collective, unexamined legacy of systemic racism has reached a crisis point: people of color are grieving and enraged as they watch their communities being devastated by violence, brutality, the harsh judgment of double standards, and white indifference to it all. As a religious leader who believes that we’re all in this together, and all responsible for the common good, I stand vigil each Monday because I’m invested in the survival of a community under attack.
A few of our signs say “Black Lives Matter.” During every vigil, a handful of drivers slow down (always, with visible anger) to shout, “All lives matter.” Do we interpret a breast cancer awareness license plate as proclaiming that only breast cancer matters? Would we chastise a woman wearing a breast cancer awareness T-shirt by reminding her that “all diseases matter?” No: we understand these emblems as representing the personal, and perhaps painful, toll taken by a crisis affecting only some people, yet worthy of being witnessed by the whole.
Similarly, our signs do not mean “Only Black Lives Matter.” “Black Lives Matter” means that right now, people of color (everywhere, including Maine) are not valued, protected, or supported the way white people are. Our signs mean that racism is very much alive and present in Midcoast Maine, but ignoring that racism will not ease the tension in our communities. Our signs mean that only when black (or, for that matter, immigrant and refugee) lives matter will all lives, in fact, matter.
Our vigil will continue on Mondays, and we welcome all who choose to join us. If you can’t spend an hour with us, we’re grateful for supportive waves, honks, and thumbs-up as you drive past. (We’ve also gotten an eyeful of how many of you drive through town while texting. Here’s a win-win: putting the phone away will make things safer for everyone, and make it easier to wave at us!)
Rev. Erika Hewitt