Normally, I write on behalf of my family — today, I write as myself, Virginia Lee Fortunato (formerly Belt), a white woman who lives in a dominantly black neighborhood. I want to tell you my story, how I got here.
As I sit to write, I identify my audience as white women. If my intended audience was different or larger, this post would be different. Race relations are complex and I need to bring my audience down small in my mind to be able to even write at all.
If I was including white men in my audience, I’d have a different message. Your suicide rates are the highest in our country and as someone who has suffered depression and faced suicidal thoughts, I want you to know I see you — you are hurting.
If I saw my audience as the black community or other minority groups, my message would be different. If we sat for 500 hours over a thousand cups of coffee, I’d never be able to understand your pain. Thank you for trusting my insanely imperfect self with your stories and friendship. I have to trust I am doing my best with the knowledge I have today. Tomorrow, I will have new knowledge and I pray I will do better.
A little over 4 years ago, I received new knowledge about race. Sitting at lunch with a dear friend, I asked her, as a black woman, if she’d be willing to talk to me about race. I told her I didn’t know where to begin and I was nervous but I wanted to start the conversation if she was willing to have it. She became my safe place to have this dialogue and as powerful as that convo was, it was only the beginning. The part of the conversation I remember most vividly was when she asked “how can white people see all this (racial injustice) in the news and not care?” I asked her what she meant. She began to tell me what she saw in her social media feed and I was blown away. Pretty much open mouthed I said, I don’t see any of that. All I see are puppies and white people with their babies.
Growing up in the south, I knew social injustice existed. It was there. It was a “thing”, but my brain spent very little time thinking about it. After that conversation with my friend, the wheels started turning a bit more.
On a business trip soon after, I was sitting in an airport with a co-worker and dear friend. I had a similar “hey, I’d really like to talk about this, if you’re willing to discuss” convo. As a black man, the stories he began to tell me about his experiences blew me away. What REALLY blew me off my rocker was to learn how he had to raise and what he had to teach to his teenage son. The hard conversations about how his son will be treated if he’s around the wrong crowd at the wrong time and how he has to behave with law enforcement.
Soon after, the book, Just Mercy landed in my lap. It opened my eyes in a big way to the racial injustice in our justice system. The book’s backdrop is the streets of Atlanta and the state of Alabama. At the time I read the book, I was living in Atlanta and was only two years out of living in Alabama, having spent 8 years there for college. This was happening in “my backyard” and I agreed, it was not okay.
I didn’t do much after that. I was in the middle of a whirlwind romance to the man of my dreams and honestly, I didn’t have the mental space for anything but surviving that year of craziness.
Four days after our wedding, we moved into East Point, GA for Lukas’ job. For those of you unfamiliar with the area, East Point is near the Atlanta Airport and has a demographic make up as follows:
We moved into that community and quickly realized we wanted to stay. We were, thankfully, coached not be the “white hero” and worked really hard not to be. We got to know people and truly fell in love with the community. Especially after getting plugged into a church: Tri-Cities Church. I write more in depth about those first few months in this blog post. A quote from that post: “I wanted to learn. I wanted to be less ignorant. I had no idea how long I’d get to live in East Point but I knew that every day I wanted to get smarter and wiser and more open-minded.”
God moved us out of East Point four months later. I’m going to pretend most of you know this part of the story so I’ll fast forward. If you don’t, the highlights are here in a couple posts:
After traveling the country and settling back in Atlanta, we found home to be 30 minutes away from East Point. YES, God had made a way for us to be back at Tri-Cities Church and I wasn’t scoffing at that awesomeness but still, our hearts were split. We longed to be in East Point but with Lukas’ job on the north side of Atlanta, we knew we had to bloom where we were planted. We continued to attend church on Sundays but due to the hour + commute to the area during rush hour traffic, no “off-Sunday” activities were an option. It’s hard to stay connected on a several times a month connection and it’s hard to be invested with an inconsistent connection.
Through the early part of of 2019, I was bumping through life, adjusting to being a new mom as well as riding the emotional wave of interviews for Lukas’ potential new job. He prayed and fasted over what this next chapter of our lives could be with the theme “Lord, put me where you can get the most out of me.” Morning after morning I listened as he sang out these lyrics from “I’ll Just Say Yes“:
And there is peace when I say yes
I might not see it now but You save the best
For all who trust You and obey
There is an answer no more delay
I’ll just say yes
Yes Lord, yes Lord, my life is Yours
The same month Lukas received his job offer (yay!), I was diagnosed with postpartum depression. The lease on our apartment was up and we were faced with a decision. His new office was on the south side of Atlanta, we could live in East Point and he’d have an easy commute. Do we put our money where our mouth has been and move back?
One Saturday afternoon we went driving around looking at some of the rental options for East Point. On that drive, we went through some neighborhoods we weren’t comfortable in. We had a lot of processing to do — God, is this where you want us to live? We pulled into a parking lot at one point to feed the baby and reach out to our pastor — where should we live in East Point???? Here Tabby and Daddy are “riding clean” together while we waited to hear back.
He told us of a couple in our church who were selling their home. SELLING. Nah, nah, we aren’t going to B-U-Y a house. We just want to rent for a few years. Isn’t there a quote out there that says “if you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans”. Four months later, we were moving furniture into our purchased East Point address home. Our primary reason was we wanted to put a stake in the ground on doing life in close community with the people of Tri-Cities Church.
And the primary reason we attend Tri-Cities church is because we believe the Kingdom of heaven is diverse and therefore, the people we worship and do life with have to be diverse, as well.
I never blogged about our move because as part of my wellness plan for healing from depression, I have been on sabbatical since last summer. This sabbatical included being off social media and intentionally pulling away from a lot of the world. My world has been small, which has protected my mind and allowed it to heal in ways I don’t think would have been possible if I hadn’t made those big changes. It’s not forever, but it is my right now. Needless to say, I’ve been pretty protected and uninformed from a lot of what’s gone on in the news.
Thankfully, I have friends and family who keep me up to date on stuff I need to pay attention to, like Ahmaud Arbery, who attended my rival high school. Finding out about his death, allowed me to get rocked from my sabbatical world and engage a bit with the bigger world again. I was insanely protective about what I Googled and searched for but after familiarizing myself with the basics, I knew I had two action items: the first, to text my safe-to-discuss-race friend and tell her I was paying attention and my heart was broken. The second was to sign a petition for the facts of the case to be reviewed. Within 48 hours of those actions I took, the news exploded with Ahmaud’s story and I added a third step, which was to reach out to the women in my church (we have a multi-racial community) and let them know three things: I was paying attention, I was pissed and I cared.
Fast forward a few weeks and I’d heard the name George Floyd but knew very little. Friday morning, one of our pastor’s sent out proposed wording for an email to send to the church acknowledging the events of the past few days. A few hours later, while stopped at a redlight a few minutes from my house, a woman started screaming at me. Her words were muffled due to my windows being rolled up but I caught her gist in the phrase “go back to your own neighborhood b****!” I started praying. Praying for her heart and especially for my own. For me to stay soft despite the pain I was feeling.
Saturday morning Lukas came in from the gym to tell me Atlanta had been ripped apart when peaceful protests turned violent. I Googled for 2.5 seconds enough to see pictures of this city I swore I would never live in, yet have grown to love fiercely. I walked around to the other side of the couch and hit my knees. I cried out for our city, our nation, I wept solid tears with a broken heart. Racial reconciliation seems too far away. Jesus, come.
Looking back, between Saturday around noon and the week following, I saw myself through the grief cycle.
As someone who’s ridden this grief train many times for many types of grief, I’m all too comfortable with the process. What fascinates me is that no matter how many times I ride this rollercoaster of loss, I can’t identify I’m in it. It’s only after I pull into the light a bit, I see ohhhhh, YES, that was grief.
This post with the above words, is one I started only five days after the Atlanta riots and now, a few weeks later, I can see when I sat to write, I was in the “Dialogue and Bargaining” phase of the grief process. Writing this post was my desire to tell my story.
Since writing the beginning of this post, I have spent a lot of time having conversations about race, researching racial reconciliation resources, and seeking God’s guidance in what my role will be.
Three years ago, Lukas and I put a stake in a ground that we wanted to be a part of racial reconciliation. We had very little knowledge of what that phrase meant, and honestly, are still bumbling and fumbling our way through figuring it out. That’s as much as I’ll say about him, since I said I’ll focus on my own story in this post.
I spoke in my marching on Atlanta post about how insanely easy it is for me to forget. I learned racial injustice was “still a thing” four years ago and then I forgot. We moved into East Point, and still, I forgot. I get reminded when something breaks through headlines in such a way I’m faced with it, and then I forget, again. It’s a privilege to get to forget. As a white woman, that is my privilege. My black sisters don’t get to do that. They don’t get to forget.
This time I don’t want to forget. Not forgetting is a charge I believe the Lord has given my heart, one I believe, if I don’t follow, will cause me to be in direct disobedience of who He has created me to be. A charge I will only be able to accomplish with His blessing and grace.
All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation…
2 Corinthians 5:18
Lukas’ 2019 battle cry of “just say yes” brought us into East Point as home owning residents. There’s not a doubt I my mind we have work to do. I’ll be honest, in the beginning I thought that work was me doing things for others. What I’m learning is there is, indeed, SO MUCH WORK TO DO… on my own heart. Lord willing, I’ll be doing this work for many decades to come.