Rita’s Story

It’s time to listen. Evansville Living has and always will be a platform to celebrate the good things about our city, but right now the best use of our platform is to amplify the voices that can speak directly to the black experience in our country, city, and community. Over the coming days, we will be giving our platform over to several community members who will share their experiences so that we can learn and grow together. Our role, and what we’re also asking of you, is simply to listen.

My husband and I transferred to Evansville in December 2007 from Georgia for work. I had re-entered the communication industry, leaving behind a career in social services. Even though we had no family in the area and had never heard of Evansville, the location change was an opportunity for career advancement. On our first day in the city, an apartment manager said, “We really haven’t had you people live in our community before, but times are changing, I guess.” A fear fell over me. I was already anxious about the new city and now was nervous about how two new black employees would be received at our new job location.

The next day at a local restaurant, as the only other black couple was leaving, they paused at our table. The man put his hand on my husband’s shoulder, and the woman stood next to me. “It will be OK,” she said quietly but with authority. We gave each other the “I see your black person” nod and they left. What was understood did not need to be explained. I settled in my heart our new home was not welcoming to black people. I told myself to be prepared for racist comments and actions but not let them change my love of people nor my desire for social justice.

Over time, we had many experiences that did not need explanation. During a birthday party for a coworker, a grandfather pulled us aside. “I’ve always liked coloreds,” he said. “I never had an issue with them, and they were always nice people. If you ever have a problem, let me know. I won’t stand for coloreds to be hurt because I can tell y’all are nice people, too.” The humiliation on the face of our friend, and his family, was palpable. We were the first black people to be invited to their family gatherings. I knew our response carried weight. I considered his age and intention before putting my hand out to shake his. He pulled me in for a hug.

As an ordained minister, finding a church home was imperative. I wanted to find another “safe place,” so we visited all the black churches we could find. I met a lady, who was also a transplant to the city, during one of my visits. She invited me to Church of the Harvest (COTH). I told her I had researched the church, but it was not a black church. She told me to give it a try, and I did.

During my first service, so many of my stereotypes were challenged. It was my first experience worshipping with white people, outside of a Black History program. The music, style of worship, and order of service were different. However, the spirit was the same. I felt the presence of God, the peace of God, and the conviction of God. My husband and I decided to stay at COTH, because the messages being preached were more important than the safe place we thought we needed. I worshipped through my fears, discomfort, and even my stereotypes.

In the past 10 years at COTH, we gained a family. We’ve had many difficult conversations with the understanding we are called to the ministry of reconciliation. We have been asked why we prefer sweet potato pie over pumpkin pie, why we continue to have anxiety when being pulled over by the police, and why the sight of my son wearing a black hoodie causes me to immediately go into a prayer of protection. I have asked why people put raisins in potato salad, the history of the KKK, why the West Side and East Side are divided, and why there are so many more police at Bosse games than Memorial games.

I have unconditional love for my COTH family and am keenly aware this season of uncovering systemic racism is difficult for most of us. I know some are being challenged by my social media history lessons and my declaration that Black Lives Matter. As I travel to rallies and protests to speak and/or participate, I am constantly praying I keep the unity of the Spirit with the peace that binds us. When the news continues to highlight the looting instead of the injustice, when I receive texts berating me as a racist, and when I am disappointed with the lack of support from people I thought I could count on, I allow myself to grieve. I allow myself to weep. I allow myself to mourn.

I once heard an elderly woman at a church declare, “Lord, we are tired of crying. Lord, we are tired of fighting. Lord, we are tired of praying to be seen. Just take me home, Lord, for this land cannot be my home.” In the last 90 days, I have understood that pain as never before. However, my prayer ended differently. “Lord, we are tired of crying. We are tired of fighting. We are tired of praying to be seen. Give me strength for this battle, Lord, for this land is also my home.”

Rita Prior is the board vice president of the AIDS Resource Group, student ministry director of the Church of the Harvest, and lead solutionist/founder of Risk Living, a personal life coaching service.

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