Restoration & Reconciliation, The-best-ones

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall stand between

 

A demonstrator protesting the shooting death of Alton Sterling is detained by law enforcement near the headquarters of the Baton Rouge Police Department in Baton Rouge, Louisiana
 

A demonstrator protesting the shooting death of Alton Sterling is detained by law enforcement near the headquarters of the Baton Rouge Police Department in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, U.S. July 9, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY – RTSH3XR

 

 

Over the past several years, society at large has descended into staunchly divided battlelines. As I’ve stepped back to distance from the clamor, I’ve found myself looking for the people who are standing between. Truth be told, I’m not currently one of them. The current nature of public discourse makes it hard for me to see a middle ground with a leader whose actions threaten the peace of those I love and serve on a daily basis.

When it’s tempting to give up hope altogether, I think back to the stories I’ve heard of faith leaders on the front lines of peacemaking. Beneath the headlines of police brutality against African Americans were faith leaders in the African American church absorbing pain by creating spaces for lament, protest, grief, modeling hope, faith, and love in real time. I am struck by the strength in their hope for tomorrow, by the boldness of their grief, and by the fortitude of their perseverance.

But the sorrow sinks deep as I watch the white church make minimal response to such injustice, stirring longing, passion, and anger within. I pause to remember the white people I know who do care and act on this conviction to console my angst over those who don’t:

  • My youth pastor challenged me to grapple with the realities of racism nearly twenty-five years ago at our very-white-church. He pursues these same conversations with white teenagers in his youth group to this day.
  • A history professor in college dedicated a significant portion of his scholarly endeavors to developing and leading civil rights tours for faculty from a conservative Christian college in the Midwest. His steady and informed presentation of realities never experienced or understood by these faculty provided another narrative for their understanding of the racial history of our country.
  • A pastor of an urban church in Chicago first taught me that it was more important to be honest than perfect. She has lived most of her life advocating for the poor and racial understanding in the church. Her lifelong example models humility and servanthood.

Compiling seasonal “best-ones” articles from my various social media feeds, I find a string of exasperated voices reflecting the reality that equality is no easy battle. My sorrow is comforted by the memory of these bridge-builders as their example shifts my heartsick disgust toward listening to those who attempt to reconcile both ‘sides of the aisle’. In that spirit, I’d like to share a few of the most insightful resources that are guiding me through the current murky waters of Trump’s America:

Phil Vischer PodcastCreator of the popular children’s program Veggie Tales, Phil Vischer spends his podcast exploring the current state of the American church with author Skye Jethani. It is perhaps the most thoughtful Christian podcast I’ve heard, at times leaving me in tears. The episode ‘Does Christian Media Stunt Christian Growth‘ is the most accurate assessment of the white American evangelical church I have ever heard, and helped clarify a lot of the current cultural chaos we’re experiencing.

 

Manwar Ali: Inside the Mind of a Former Radical Jihadist. This TedTalk explores the influences behind radical religion. Manwar drew striking parallels to the dangers of all forms of religious extremism—not just Islam.

 

Sharon Brous: It’s time to reclaim religion. A Jewish rabbi, Sharon refuses to accept the narrative of religion as divisive and marginalizing, advocating instead that religions can instead use our shared values to foster peace, hope, and interconnectedness.

 

Megan Phelps-Roper: I grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church: Here’s Why I Left. Megan shares how her interactions on Twitter influenced her change in worldview and shares lessons remarkably applicable to our increasingly polarized society.

 

We need to talk about an injustice by Bryan Stevenson. Bryan’s call for ‘just mercy’ in society provides a model of perseverance and integrity. In his book, he suggests that Christians, like Jesus who stopped the pharisees from stoning the adulterous woman, are stonecatchers.

“There is no such thing as being a Christian and not being a stone catcher,” he says. “But that is exhausting. You’re not going to catch them all. And it hurts. If it doesn’t make you sad to have to do that, then you don’t understand what it means to be engaged in an act of faith….But if you have the right relationship to it, it is less of a burden, finally, than a blessing. It makes you feel stronger.”

The Grand Unraveling by Robynn Bliss.

It takes a prophetic imagination to see the Kingdom beyond and past and outside the borders of the country. It takes a sacred vision to imagine a country so radically different that we wouldn’t recognize if but for the scant shades of blue, white and red worked under the tapestry of red and yellow; black and white. It takes hope to see past the present desolation to the promise of full redemption and restoration.

Election Reflections: Bridging the Gap by Phil Yancey. Yancey explores the three biggest losses of this election: civility, religion, and truth.

Why I Left White Nationalism by Derek Black. Former leader of a popular white nationalist movement, Derek shares how friendships with people willing to dialog about his difference influenced him to abandon his supremacist views.

Have you found other bridge-building resources that are giving you perspective on how to foster civility and respect? Feel free to share them in the comments below.

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Restoration & Reconciliation, Social & Political Issues

A lament for the LGBT & Muslim communities in the aftermath of Orlando

May peace be upon us all..jpg

The headlines jolted us awake early this morning.

Twenty dead.

Then at least fifty; the deadliest mass shooting in the US to date.

My heart sank as I realized that the LGBT & Muslim communities would feel the strongest impact of the headlines. For everyone in these communities, I lament.

For those in the LGBT community who feel the intense personal attack of this action, the fear this confirms yet again for your safety in public settings, I mourn with you. For the wounds this rips wide open as the judgmental voices attempt to diminish your inherent value, I ache with you.  For the tears you shed as you watch the headlines unfold in devastating proportions, I weep with you.

My Facebook feed reminds me that I do not stand alone in solidarity with the LGBT community today. However, what is noticeably missing is support for the many Muslims for whom this shooting will instantly create guilt-by-association. As such, I express lament for these communities as well.

For the many faithful and peaceful Muslims who are as enraged by the horrors of ISIS as the rest of the world, I mourn that we allow such acts to also unquestionably define who you are. For those who seek to live out their faith with sincerity and devotion, I ache when I hear the entirety of 1.6 billion people folded into an extremist sliver. For the mothers who love their children as much as I love mine and the fathers who seek to teach them well, I weep that this may give you pause to wonder if others will love and teach them as you do.

As the world stands with you in mourning, know that we long for peace with you today, weep for the evil that should not be, and hear the deep pain that it creates in your hearts. May peace be upon us all.

 

Culture & Race, Restoration & Reconciliation

The problem with over-spiritualizing racism

In the children’s classic Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, an African-American mother attempts to explain the harshness of 1930s Southern racism to her young daughter, Cassie. After offering a brief history of slavery, she describes the historical relationship between white Christian slaveowners and African-American slaves:

“They also said that slavery was good for us because it taught us to be good Christians – like the white people…  But they didn’t teach us Christianity to save our souls, but to teach us obedience. They were afraid of slave revolts and they wanted us to learn the Bible’s teachings about slaves being loyal to their masters.”

It saddens me to think of how slowly some things change. When race comes up in conversations among white Christians, it’s not uncommon to hear responses along these lines:

“This isn’t a race issue. It’s a sin issue.”

“We all belong to one family in Christ. Why can’t we just all get along?”

“We need to be focusing on unity. The topic of racism is too divisive.”

While these responses aren’t exactly what Cassie’s mama encountered from the White-Folk almost a century ago, they still carry whispers of the same sentiments. When we make the above statements, history reinforces that they’re likely to make a wildly different impact than their original intent:

“Quit giving us a hard time. We’re not bad people.”

“It only matters to me that I feel comfortable. If you have a problem, you need to keep it to yourself.”

“Unity is about conforming to the majority. If you don’t fit the majority, you don’t matter.”

Ouch, right? It hurts, I know.

But wait – let’s not allow the pain of this reality to shut the door on it so white people can sneak away from the conversation once again. Let’s press pause on the “unity” button for just a minute. We need to do some sustained reflection on the causes of the “disunity” first.

Thankfully, overt racism is no longer acceptable in much of the country. What makes this change especially challenging, though, is that it leaves white people with the impression that racism no longer exists. As a result, many white Christians begin the race conversation by dismissing racial pain with the hammer of spiritual language. Throwing Bible verses to cover up the realities of racism is essentially the Christianized version of “Shut-the-sam-hell-up. I don’t want to hear what you have to say.”

When the history of race relations in our country includes a story of whites converting blacks for the purpose of subservience, it’s essential to be very, very careful not to use spiritual language to silence pleas to be heard.

So, what do we do instead? 

A Bible verse doesn’t become Christian until it’s actually lived out. It’s the living of these verses that creates deep change, not merely the speaking of them. Phillipians 2 provides an excellent model of humility for white people engaging the race conversation. Let’s consider what this language might look like in everyday actions:

  • Be tender and compassionate = Listen to, learn from, accept, and affirm the shared experiences of people of color. Mourn over the challenges they express and listen closely to the reasons behind their pain.
  • Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit = seek to understand the realities of a racially privileged system without worrying about feeling ‘blamed’. Sometimes white people get stuck in the conversation because “my family didn’t own slaves.” That’s not the point – acknowledging the bigger picture of systemic injustice is.
  • Value others above yourselves = fill your lives with their stories. Watch movies on the civil rights movement. Read books about its leaders. Move out of comfort zones into a place that feels unsettling. Pause to consider what life might look like through someone else’s eyes. (30 Days of Race is a great place to start this process.)
  • Don’t consider equality something to be used to your own advantage = look for ways to pursue equity over equality so that all people might have better access to privileges that the majority holds. Engage concepts like white privilege and cultural appropriation as a means of valuing and respecting others.
  • Take on the humble nature of a servant = Listen, listen, listen, listen, and then listen some more. When we speak before we understand, too many words grow heavy in the hearts of those with whom we share. Find ways to learn about the perplexing parts of race relations that don’t exacerbate people of color who have borne our ignorance for centuries.

All of these are helpful steps toward meaningful racial reconciliation, but for the (literal) love of God, please stop silencing the voices of people of color through the use of Christian words. It doesn’t cultivate change. It merely silences long-ignored voices, fosters anger, and destroys the very peace Jesus came to bring.

Restoration & Reconciliation, Social & Political Issues

What I wish we’d remember a little louder on 9/11

I’m usually fairly quiet on 9/11 as it’s a day that holds a lot of memories. We lived 5 minutes from the Pentagon at the time and the plane crash shook the windows of our small apartment right along with my personal sense of stability. A family member worked in the WTC and we spent the entire morning awaiting his phone call. Thankfully, it came and we breathed deep sighs of relief.

Over the years, 9/11 has become a day where we honor the ones who ran toward rather than running away. When all of human instinct screams to protect itself, those brave souls did not. They were heroes in the truest sense of the world, and none of us will ever forget their sacrifice.  I hear a lot of references to this idea that Fred Rogers encapsulates so well:

Screen Shot 2014-09-11 at 9.12.35 PM

While so much of me resonates with these words and the value they place on so many who sacrificed that day, I also find myself feeling a lingering hole in the dialog about who matters when 9/11 rolls around.

“My dad says that all Muslims are bad,” a boy in my son’s third grade class shared this week. It’s become a norm – this alienating story of the West vs. the Middle East. Media stereotypes from both sides have flown for over a decade, and now, as I honor the heroes, I also mourn the victims that have been born from the political rubble of 9/11.

As a kid from the 80s, I saw the exact same story play out with the Russians. I remember distinctly thinking that Russians were evil, dangerous, and scary and that Nancy Reagan was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen (which of course meant that Reagan’s policies had to be right…).

Like so many today, I missed the critical reality that people are distinct from political agendas. In his song, Russians, Sting captures the hole I feel every 9/11:

We share the same biology
Regardless of ideology
What might save us, me, and you
Is if the Russians love their children too*

In my heart today, I hold all of those mothers on the other side – Russian, Iraqi, Saudi, Afghani – who love their children too, who hold them in their arms at night, tears brimming over what the world has come to. I picture the fathers tickling little ones, teaching them simplicities of daily life and the hope for a better world. I remember stories of widows like Susan Retik and Patty Quigley – women who lost their husbands that day and now fight for the plight of Afghan widows.

They are heroes, too, all the ones who love their children. May our remembrance of them honor the hope they offer to the world.

swirl *Listen to the whole song here:


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Education, Families, Children & Marriage, Restoration & Reconciliation

A new season

Every so often in life, I run across these lines from T.S. Eliot’s poem The Four Quartets:

And the end of all our exploring
will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time.
– T.S. Eliot

Since I’ve lived through a lot of ‘new’, the sentiment always catches me off guard when it proves itself true and I find myself in a familiar place that I’m rediscovering all over again. Such is this next season of life for me.

I started my career teaching in an urban middle school, then a suburban high school and finally a rural elementary school before settling in higher education as a teacher trainer. After a decade of working in higher education, however, I’ve recently rejoined the K-12 system. Working in the academic world was delightful for its intellectual stimulation and scheduling flexibility, but when I was ready to pursue full time work again, its limitations exasperated me and I realized it might be time for a change.

So this week, I found myself once again standing before well over 150 adolescents, donning both my intimidating-but-warm-teacher-face and the-comfiest-shoes-I-own, watching them bumble over themselves as they explore who they are for the first time. While it was nowhere near the quiet-office and peaceful-space the contemplative in me hoped for, it was not at all unknown to me. In fact, it was a little like coming home.

It will most-certainly be a shift for me. I will be teaching Spanish at an arts-based charter school in a town known more for its rough edges than its shiny ones. Yet after only a few days with these students, I am reminded afresh than even in broken places, there is often softness hiding between the cracks. I see it in the passion of teachers serving as role models for growing minds. I see it in the quiet boy in the corner, both unsure and eager at the same time. I see it in the eager chatterbox-of-a-girl, testing limits, exploring options, expressing curiosities. I hope for it when I glimpse hardness in the eyes of a young man whose softness seems to have been buried long ago. I see it in the presence of parents as they wait alongside their nervous new students.

As I watched the events of Ferguson unfold this past week, I realized with great sorrow that once again, these stories will reflect ‘my kids’ – faces so often portrayed and perceived inaccurately in the public sphere. Tears brimmed over the realities that young black men face as I remembered the faces of so many former students who broke the stereotypes society created, and it made me grateful for the opportunity to relearn these lessons all over again.

While I know parts of me will long for the quieter corner of the academic world (and an occasional place to sit down!), I am exceedingly grateful that this job allows me to live out my life-purposes of caring for the tenderhearted, welcoming the stranger, and listening to the unheard through this next season. I also see a theme arising in my life of smoothing rough places that I’m looking forward to exploring more.

As a result, I’ve also determined my season of speaking is shifting to one of listening which will likely mean that this blog will fall largely silent. While I love the time I’ve had to write here this year, my time and energy will more likely be spent focused more intensely on leaning into new realities. It has indeed been a pleasure to interact with so many of you in this virtual sphere, but for now I’ll be spending most of my time in the place where my career first began that taught me so much about living between worlds in the first place.

swirl

If you’re new here and would like to read more, feel free to explore some of my more popular posts on race relations, culture, faith, and family.

Restoration & Reconciliation

The world needs more places like this

If you haven’t heard of Jill’s House, this is a must-watch. I went to college with the couple featured in this video, and their story and the purpose this organization serves is so heartbreakingly beautiful and redemptive that I had to share.

Enjoy, learn, grab some tissues, and consider how to involve yourself in such meaningful work.

Belief, Restoration & Reconciliation

A skeptic falls off her soap box

dillardWhile ultimately my faith sits at the feet of Christ, the steps that got me there were ‘friends’ who took the time to sort out their faith on paper: Phil Yancey, Cornel West, Frederick Buechner, CS Lewis, Anne Lamott, NT Wright.  My heart holds Annie Dillard in a special little corner though, for she was the one who broke the final straw of my resistance to faith.

In her essay The Book of Luke, Annie Dillard captured my reconversion perfectly.  To this day, I cannot read it with dry eyes.  She draws her observations on Luke to a close by describing how it ends with the disciples enthusiastically ‘praising and blessing God,’ moving the fledging church forward.  A skeptic reading her words, I rejoiced at her unexpected critique of the developments that followed Christ’s crucifixion:

“What a pity, that so hard on the heels of Christ come the Christians.  There is no breather.  The disciples turn into early Christians between one rushed verse and another.  What a dismaying pity, that here come the Christians already, flawed to the core, full of wild ideas and hurried self-importance.

Internally, I cheered her on, “Yeah! Those Christians…crazy, arrogant, obsessed.”  She continued her rant:

For who can believe in the Christians?  They are, we know by hindsight, suddenly not at all peripheral.  They set out immediately to take over the world, and they pretty much did it.  They converted emperors, raised armies, lined their pockets with real money, and did evil things large and small, in century after century, including this one.  They are smug and busy, just like us, and who could believe in them?  They are not innocent, they are not shepherds and fishermen in rustic period costume, they are men and women just like us, in polyester.  Who could believe salvation is for these rogues?  That God is for these rogues.

I’d now climbed right up on my own soapbox behind Annie, fully entrenched in my private choruses of “You go, girl!”  She’d hit the nail on the head.  These rogues – they were crazy.  They converted unethically, didn’t think about anything critically, and threw their Bibles around carelessly defending their narrow-minded political causes.

But then – unexpectedly – she inserted the words

Unless, of course – 

I paused my internal pep rally and furrowed my brow, feeling the winds shift slightly,

Unless Christ’s washing the disciples’ feet, their dirty toes, means what it could, possibly, mean: that it is all right to be human. That God knows we are human, and full of evil, all of us, and we are his people anyway, and the sheep of his pasture.

Tears brimmed. I was human, wasn’t I?  I was not merely brain or body or achievement-after-achievement.  Sometimes I stumbled and didn’t know how to get back up.  Sometimes I failed to love those who I claimed I would give my life for.  Sometimes I failed to love myself.

She wasn’t just talking about them; she was talking about me, too.  The breeze shifted again and I read on:

Unless those colorful scamps and scalawags who populate Jesus’ parables were just as evil as we are, and evil in the same lazy, cowardly, and scheming ways. Unless those pure disicples themselves and those watercolor women – who so disconcertingly turned themselves into The Christians overnight – were complex and selfish humans also, who lived in the material world, and whose errors and evils were not pretty but ugly, and had real consequences.  If they were just like us, then Christ’s words to them are addressed to us, in full and merciful knowledge – and we are lost.  There is no place to hide.

We are lost.  There is no place to hide.

Those last words, they undid me permanently for they exposed the truth that every one of us tries to hide from our humanity with our adherence to traditions or non-traditions or skepticisms or fanaticisms.  Plain and simple, we’re not all that different from one another when you strip us straight-down to our skivvies. Underneath the masks we don, we’re all just broken, bumbling, and beautiful creatures, a-little-found and a whole-lot-lost, sitting broken and bare at the feet of the One who made us, whether we know it or not.

Culture & Race, Restoration & Reconciliation, Spiritual Formation

Rethinking how we speak about American blessings

“We’re so blessed to live in this country.”

I cringe a little when I hear a statement along these lines, wondering about the sentiments that lie beneath the actual words.  I usually hear people respond this way in response to conversations about difficult realities like poverty or hunger or lack of sanitation or war.

Statements like this unsettle me for a variety of reasons.  When people say, “We’re blessed to live in the US,” sometimes I hear an assumption of superiority behind their words that portrays an attitude of we’re-so-much-better-than-those-poor-folks-in-the-poor-world.  It makes me wonder if focusing on our assumed ‘blessings’ of comfort, prosperity and sanitation allows us to numb out the feelings of horror, responsibility, and generosity we might feel if we actually let those realities of global poverty sink in.

Another reason these words unsettle me is because they passively imply that those in other countries aren’t equally blessed to live where they live. There’s a sense that we live in the promised land, and those poor folks – well, sucks to be them, eh?  On one level, I follow the idea that a developed and civil society is a more comfortable environment to live in.  Cleanliness, prosperity, order, and efficiency are good ideals that benefit society as a whole.  However, they certainly aren’t the only qualities by which the value of a place should be judged.

While I know a lot of people who’ve sacrificed immensely to move to the US, I also know quite a few who would never want to live here.  They don’t hate it, it’s just not home.  They feel blessed to live in their homes, with their food and their loved ones and their dirty streets and inefficient systems. They’re also horrified by our violence, materialism, sexual ethics, and isolation from each other.

A friend of my husband’s from Sri Lanka who’d lived in Singapore for several years recently told him, “Everything there is soooo clean and efficient and productive, sometimes you just need to get out to get a break or you go crazy.”  I chuckled when I heard this, for at the time, I was in Sri Lanka missing those very qualities about my American home.  Sometimes, it’s all about what you’re used to.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my homeland.  It’s taken nearly three decades, but I can even say that I love living here (California has helped this process quite a lot).  Driving across the country a few years ago gave me a whole new appreciation for its vastness, diversity, and beauty.  I love that the freedom here allows for a global mosaic like Los Angeles.  I love the sense of community the lingers in my heart from my small Midwestern home town.  I love the hustle and bustle of New York City, and the never-ending quietness of Kansas.  It really is a unique, diverse, and beautiful country.  

But there are a lot of such places around the world that people call home.  From the outside, we might perceive some of these places as destitute or hopeless, but this is not their only story.  I spent a summer once in Burkina Faso, one of the poorest countries in the world at that time.  The capital city, Ouagadougou, had two paved roads.  Disease and hunger were rampant.  At first glance, the people were destitute.  But then I looked again.

I saw old women with their heads wrapped in vibrant scarves dancing down the church aisles to give away the little money they had.

I saw bright eyes, curious to learn, fascinated by color, eager to smile at passersby.

I saw people sharing meals with each other, spending long hours together, warmed by each others’ presence.

I saw a generous hospitality that gave up beds, welcomed strangers, and cared for the sick and the poor.

I saw eager minds, grateful for the opportunity to learn and hopeful for the gift of an education.

There was so much good there that I would have never seen from a picture in a magazine of a bloated baby with flies in her eyes.  While their good didn’t look like my good, it was still very real.  They were blessed beyond measure, and I had so much to learn from them.  

When we hear about the hard-things-of-the-world, what would happen if we refocused our response away from our own comfort, safety and prosperity?

  • Issues of poverty seem so devastating, are there ways I could help alleviate it with the resources I have access to?
  • So many people go without, how could I simplify so I have more resources to share?
  • While it may look like a desperate situation, what is the strength of the people in it?  How can I learn from them rather than pity them?
  • If I live in comfort, are there people near me who don’t?  Do I see them?  How might they perceive the country I say I’m blessed to live in?

If we ask these questions first in our hearts, maybe our words would start to change too. Instead of responding that I’m so blessed to live in the US, maybe we’ll start saying, I love my home, and I have much to learn about how to see the blessings in the rest of the world.    And while we’re talking about it, maybe we’ll actually start doing it as well.

Let’s brainstorm new ways of speaking about where and how we live that honors the whole world, not just the US or the West. Have you found words/ways to do this?  I’d love to learn from how others speak about such things.  

Also, be sure to check out this post from Communicating Across BoundariesThe Problem with Blessing, to ponder the idea of blessing even further.  

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Restoration & Reconciliation, Spiritual Formation

Remembering the human in the age of digital mud-slinging

remember the human

“Words are, in my not so humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic, capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it.” – Albus Dumbledore

I knew a man once who grew up watching his alcoholic father beat the life out of his mother.  A friend whispered to me that, as a little boy, he would run to her house in tears to hide, afraid of his own home.  Over the years, the violence hardened him.  By the time I knew him, he was no different than his father, filled only with rage and alcohol. Sadly, I watched his children repeat his boyhood story of hiding their tears in neighbors’ homes.

Before I learned about the pain of his childhood, it was easy to label this man idiot and asshole and abuser.  While his rage scared me, I also knew different.  Though he appeared a violent and ruthless man, I could not help but also see a teary, scared little boy hiding from his father in a neighbor’s house.  This one fact changed the way I thought about, prayed for, and responded to him.

Sometimes, I muse that there are corners of the North American church that reflect the life of an alcoholic like this man.  We come from so many places and perspectives and experiences.  We have different needs and hurts and hopes and dreams that shape how we understand The Story God left for us.  For some, the Bible has proved no better than an abusive father, having been used to beat us down and send us hiding in neighbor’s houses, tears streaming down our hearts.  For others, it has been the authority of life, a testament to be revered,  followed-to-a-T and never challenged.  Still for others, it has been a life-changing, restorative and hope-filled new way.

As I participate in the conversation emerging in our digitized world, I’ve observed that social media has become a great venue for our alcoholic traits to rear their ugly heads.  From the safety of our computer screens, we rant and rage, accuse and deny, promise and fail, stereotype and namecall.

Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians 1 haunt me every time I smugly disdain or praise the public voices who I find either ridiculous or brilliant.  We might as well just substitute new names for our Big Fight: “One of you says, “I follow John Piper”; another, “I follow Rob Bell”; another, “I follow Joyce Meyer”; still another, “I follow Jesus.”

His words haunt me primarily because I do this very thing. Paul is talking about me.

[Gulp.]

I recover quickly from my conviction because, let’s face it, folks: some people are wrong.

There are racist people out there, people who are prejudiced and mean-spirited and divisive, all in the name of Jesus.  There are people who preach that following Jesus will make you rich.  There are people who put on a good show just for the money and the fame, using Jesus like a trick-or-treat costume to reach the ranks of the kid-with-the-most-candy.  There are people who preach a beautiful grace from the pulpit but can’t manage to apply an ounce of it to one single person in their life.

I judge them, flinging my mental rants at them because I don’t want them messing up the life-giving message of the gospel that Jesus came to save us at our worst.

The very-sticky-problem is that the very people I deem ‘wrong’ may well think the same of me.  So we polarize, mudsling, stake our ground, call for schisms, and tweet and post our disagreements with furor.  It is perhaps one of the most complexly sad sights of the American protestant church today.

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One of the most potent lessons that living between worlds has taught me is that people have many sides.  As I’ve lived among both rural and urban poor,  wealthy coastal elites, perseverant immigrants, powerful politicians, awe-inspiring performers, stodgy academics, consumeristic metropolitans, shallow surbanites and simple minded small-town folk, I’ve rarely seen any of them live up completely to the stereotype their namecallers hold them to.  The media shouts that red-states-hate-blue states and vice versa, but the story that we’re slower to remember is that everyone – regardless of ideology – loves, wants to love or be loved.

In the age of opinions becoming digital sound bytes, it has become far too easy to fling our anger at each other and forget that we are humans, not screens.  “The person-who-disagrees-with-me deserves my wrath because he is WRONG,” we chant.

I get it.  I’ve been on the receiving end of threatening phone calls, of bigoted teenagers in pick-up-trucks, of name-calling and assumption making.  It wounds.  It infuriates. It keeps me awake at night.  It sends me running to my neighbor’s house in tears. But as much as my gut reacts otherwise, it is not the way of Jesus, even when “they” are wrong.  

Father, forgive them, he said as they took his very life.  Seventy times seven, he’d told his followers.

Turn the other cheek.

If someone wants your shirt, give him your coat as well.

I nearly walked away from Jesus once, but one of the primary things that drew me back was learning more about the ‘other way’ of which Jesus speaks.

Love your enemies.  Pray for those who persecute you.  

Don’t do your righteous acts for others to see.

If possible, live peaceably with all men.  

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Whenever I hear people from one region of the country disparage the ‘crazies’ in another region, I find myself getting strangely defensive regarding traits that drive me equally crazy, You don’t understand, I want to explain. They’re more than just red and blue, conservative and liberal.  They’re humans, just like you. In the words of my witty Grandpa John, “Everyone puts their pants on one leg at a time.”

We are one in the spirit, we like to sing but struggle to live.  I recently heard Michelle Bloom, a singer-songwriter, point out how we often overlook the words at the end of the second verse, We will work with each other, we will work side by side. And we’ll guard each man’s dignity and save each man’s pride.

As we navigate this topsy turvy path of our new digital world, let’s practice a new way of talking to and about each other as we stumble along the path toward unity.  When we remember the human behind the screen, we echo the very words of Jesus as we seek to protect every man’s dignity.  While this does not mean we will all come to the same conclusions, it does mean that we commit to walk alongside one another in our humanity with respect for the God-given dignity of all our fellow sojourners, not just the ones with whom we agree.

Further Reading

Culture & Race, Restoration & Reconciliation

Dealing with anger in race relations

As I’ve participated both publicly and privately in the race dialogue over the years, one of the most difficult aspects I’ve navigated is the role of anger in race relations.  It’s not hard to see – the comments section of race-related articles demonstrate well the heated presence of anger in race relations.  For those seeking to walk the path toward deeper cultural understanding, understanding the roots of racial anger is an area that we can’t afford to dismiss.  As a white person, I’ve been surprised to encounter my own battles with anger and race, and I share from that experience here.

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My first teaching job was in an historic black school in a Midwestern city, and it was a crash course in understanding dynamics of urban settings, race, and poverty.  Being brand new to the professional world, it is highly probable that my youthfulness translated into a white-savioresque attitude à la Dangerous Minds, even though I didn’t consciously enter with this perspective.  In spite of my intentions, I encountered two quite contrasting responses to my naïveté.

The first was from an African-American teacher next door who railed angrily into me one day for something I’d done that irked her.  I don’t remember a word of what she actually said to me, but I clearly remember returning to my classroom in tears, feeling crushed by her anger and assumptions regarding my white ignorance.  I’d tried to seek her insight out on previous (failed) attempts, and now she’d shut me down for good.  From that point on, our relationship was one of icy glares and cold shoulders.

The other response was from another African-American teacher who kindly took me under her wing.  She showered me with hugs as she gently taught me the basics of African-American history and urban culture.  She took kids home with her when they needed a mama and brought them breakfast at school when they were hungry.  All the kids knew that you went to her classroom first if you needed some extra love and I followed their lead frequently.

While Loving Teacher’s response felt better than Angry Teacher’s harshness toward me, both reactions taught me vital lessons in the world of race relations.  Nearly fifteen years later, I cringe at my youthful self with a grateful nod to the lesson Angry Teacher taught me.  After I got past the initial sting of the Angry Teacher’s reaction (which, I might sheepishly add, took years), I began to contemplate why she may have responded the way she did.   She’d lived down the street from these kids and their parents and their pastors for longer than I’d been alive, and she knew a reality that I didn’t.

As I’ve reflected on it over the years, I’d guess that her anger spewed on me that day stemmed more from the continued systemic racial injustice that she navigated on a daily basis rather than from my specific actions.  My young white skin and curiosity simply represented the cycle of systemic injustice that had reeked havoc on her home, and it (understandably) made her angry with me.  For all the good I hoped to do in that context, it forced me to acknowledge that she was the one with the lasting influence and that I was simply an observer passing through.

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I have often heard people of color express a similar anger toward the inequitable system that keeps racism alive and kicking, but living with my non-white family in a majority white setting made my experience with anger and race take a new turn.  The longer we lived there, the harder it was for me to assume good-intentions when the bad-actions were so obvious.  Over time, I grew angry with white-people myself.

I was angry that ‘my people’ wouldn’t embrace my family like they did people who fit into their pretty-little-cornfield-box.  I was angry they didn’t care enough about the world-outside to understand people from it.  I was angry they clammed up and smiled when they didn’t understand something rather than just admit it outright.  I was angry they dismissed others’ perspectives with Christian platitudes just to ‘keep the peace’.

Over the years, I’ve asked people I hold in great esteem how they’ve managed to keep going through the anger that inevitably comes with interracial relationships.  I’ve had more than one day year when I’ve shut down on the whole thing.  The last bout nearly did me in completely.  But then, the air came as we surfaced somewhere near Los Angeles gasping for breath.  We sat quietly vibrating in the shadow of the mountains and on the edge of the sea for over a year.  

Little by little, I leaned on the wisdom from people ahead of me on this path to sort out the pieces of my anger over our experience in a land that did not understand its impact on those who were different within its borders.  Since everyone processes these things differently, I’ll recap a few things I’ve been learning about processing racial anger along the way.  

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It’s ok to be angry.  The nice Christian Midwesterner in me would disagree with this statement, but I’ve learned that denying anger only makes it sink deeper.  Bringing it to light it in an appropriate time and place helps to shed light on what’s my responsibility and what’s not. In the process of walking with my anger, I’m also learning to distinguish between a productive anger that produces fruit and a vomiting anger just explodes  ickiness over everyone.

Expressing anger is both cultural and individual.  Personally, I rarely yell and scream when I’m angry. Instead, I grow very quiet.  This happens to work great in my home culture where many shut down and numb out upon screaming-and-yelling.  You can imagine my shock, however, to encounter people who ‘yelled’ at each other only to start a hugfest and productive conversation a few moments later.  Everyone subscribes to unspoken personal and cultural rules regarding the expression of anger, but few of us follow the same exact ones.  Letting go of my need to apply my internal rules to the rest of the world helps me to listen better when I encounter an anger expressed differently from my own.

Jesus is not a band-aid.  It’s human nature to want a quick fix, but also equally human for that fix to be complex and layered.  Sticking Jesus on the massive history of racial and systemic injustice doesn’t heal anything, it only makes Jesus look inadequate and small.  While I’m a firm believer that walking with Jesus in our moments can give us the ability to walk alongside one another’s pain, it’s not the same as understanding others’ stories by listening to them with our ears and our hearts and our lives.  To say that ‘the only solution is Jesus‘ implies that we don’t need to do anything but piously open our bibles and sing hymns and everything will get better.  One only need to read the history books to see that this isn’t true.

Injustice is painful. I’ve occasionally caught myself whining, “Why me?” in response to our difficulties.  But when I live in light of a global reality, I find that the more appropriate question is, “Why not me?”  What better lesson for the middle-class-white-girl-with-an-education to learn?  My privilege sneaks up on me so subtly that I hardly notice it, and coming face-to-face with injustice gives me a stark reality check on what the majority of the world faces every day.  The quicker I accept this pain, the more humbly I learn to walk in it.

Forgiveness takes time.  A former African-American pastor of mine recommended that I walk in the way of Jesus by following His words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” – even when “they” likely know what they’re doing because it still shows a better way.  Another guide gave me permission to take time away to be imperfect and angry for awhile.  When people hold those you love at arms’ length, it hurts, and I needed some private time and space to grieve this loss.

Savor the good moments.  While the overarching flavor of our racial and cultural isolation was bitter, there were all sorts of sweet-and-holy moments, and plenty of individual people who, in spite of the prevailing environment, embraced us open-armed in their homes and their hearts. Pausing to sit with these gentle memories softens the anger and refocuses me toward grace and goodness.

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These days, when I sit with a person of color, listening to them express the conflict of being the only one, wonder if they were chosen for their skill or their skin color, or sigh at the incredulous ignorance of a white leader’s words, what I hear first is pain, even when it sounds like anger.  I hear sadness over what hasn’t changed and grief over the white majority’s lack of understanding of their inherent privilege and power.   I hear weariness over walking the same path time and again, wondering if change will ever happen, if the majority will ever really care enough to understand.

I am, however, only one small voice and two small ears.  What I say and hear is only a piece of the story.  Like Loving Teacher and Angry Teacher, everyone processes the brokenness of our racial history differently, and each voice tells a story we need to hear – even the angry ones.

I’d love it if you shared your voice, too. We all have much to learn about this difficult topic. What does your story say?  How do you walk along the path of anger in race relations?  

Related Posts

Culture & Race, Restoration & Reconciliation

When even Jesus is white

“Mama,” she ran toward me through the sand, “something really funny just happened.”

We were relaxing at the local murky-pond-called-a-lake on a quiet summer day.  “Really?” I grinned at her, eager for the humor of a five-year-old. “What was so funny?”

“Some kid just asked me if I was from China!!!” she sounded shocked.  “Why would anyone think I was from China!?  Isn’t that funny?!?”

“Yeah, honey,” I smiled, covering the ache inside. “That’s just crazy.”

She shrugged her shoulders and skipped back to the beach, oblivious to her mama’s sinking shoulders.  We’d lived as one of the only biracial families in our small-town cornfield for several years at that point, and I was wearing thin on the lack of awareness we ran into around every corner.  My margins to tolerate the monocultural masses were shrinking, and their ignorance had worn me thin.

I know, I know.  But they’re just kids.  They don’t mean any harm, right?

But what about the friend who whispered to me that no one would play with her black son at recess?  What about the teachers who wouldn’t do a damn thing about his isolation, claiming he was just ‘quiet’? Or the time another friend’s daughter was called a ‘burnt hot dog’?  What about the teenagers who had run my brown husband and white self off the road, sticking their heads out of the truck with angry shouts?  Or the time my husband confronted another group of teenagers who were harassing an African American just walking down the street?  What about the threatening phone call that woke us up in the dead of the night?

Maybe they didn’t mean harm, but maybe they did.  All I knew for certain was that I had no ability to tell the difference, and I didn’t much like having to choose.

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My sweet daughter climbed into the van after preschool later that year and dissolved into tears, “Why am I the only brown kid, mama?”

Unwisely, I attempted a rational explanation and she shut me down cold. “No, mama!  Everyone is America is white! Everyone except me.”

It was clear she just needed to vent so I listened for awhile and then reattempted my explanation, “Not everyone is white, sweetie.  Think of your uncle and your cousin and all of Thaatha’s family and-”

Furious, she interrupted me, “NO, mama!  Everyone is white except me.  I’m the only brown kid.  Even Jesus is white!”

She might as well have stuck a knife through my heart.  Those blasted colonialist publishers who had to go and make Jesus look just like them – they were fully responsible for my child feeling on the outs.  I collected myself and told her that actually, Jesus wasn’t white, and that the people who painted the pictures of Him got a little too focused on themselves and didn’t think about how Jesus really looked.  “He probably looked much more like you,” I told her in an attempt to soothe her angst.

Even at five, my intuitive daughter knew what it felt like to live at the margins.  Sometimes she chuckled at it and called it silly; but other times it made her crumble to pieces.

Since we left the cornfields, I’ve had my own moments of chuckling and crumbling before God, asking why we had to endure cultural isolation for so long, why my daughter had to live those hard questions at such a young age, and why we felt so isolated in a place that so many (white) people loved to call home.

For now, there are no clear answers, other than knowing that Jesus lived in the margins, too. And when He asked my husband and I to walk this path of living between worlds, he promised to walk with us through it, threatening phone calls and all.  That doesn’t mean we’ll always know how, or do it flawlessly, or be responsible to fix it; but it does mean that when the bitterness creeps in, we exhale, “Father, forgive them…” and await the slow restoration of our hearts from the breaking days of the cornfields.

What I’m learning from those marginal years is that if we don’t know healing in our own crumbled moments, we won’t ever see the beautiful sights of the healed ones.  For racial healing to run deep in our stubbornly shallow world, it must be led by the wounded healers who love one another fiercely and forgivingly, willing to wade through the murky waters of the margins.

Related Posts

Families, Children & Marriage, Restoration & Reconciliation

Recovering from graduate school atrophy

PhD.  

Piled high and Deep.

Pure hell and Destruction.

Penniless, helpless and Determined.

Permanent head Damage.

Prepared for a happy Death.

Whatever those darn little letters mean, they sure take a whole lot out of a body.  Don’t get me wrong, when less than one percent of the world gets a college education,  I am keenly aware of – and amazingly grateful for – the incredible opportunity it is to even enter this realm of education.  My hubby spent four years in a full-time PhD program on top of working full time and helping raise our spirited toddlers.  He’s a pretty remarkable guy with an intense work ethic, and I’m still impressed he managed to finish alive and in tact.

But it took a heckuva lot out of us.

By the time he finished, his mind had grown large, but the rest of his body could barely keep itself upright.  We drug ourselves to the finish line and when it was over, just sat there staring at each other for awhile.  We didn’t even have the energy to cheer we were so tired.  It was, in all senses, a paradox of atrophy and growth. While we grew strong in some areas, we weakened in others.  Most days were push-through-and-make-it-out-alive instead of breathe-deep-and-relish-the-moment.  

We’re now a good year and a half post-PhD, and finally feel like we’re coming out of the fog.  I thought it would feel better as soon as he finished, and in a way, it did, but we still spent nearly a year just taking deep breaths.  We visited the beach, climbed the mountains, even went to Disneyland.  We went on walks, took the kids to parks, watched movies.  The oxygen felt good; a body needs oxygen.

But the second year out, we’re learning we not only need oxygen, but muscles.  With the level of intensity the program required of us both (him on the work front and me on the home front), we’ve discovered that the muscles we need for real life have atrophied a little. This year, we’re building muscles.  We’re sitting together more, drinking coffee slowly, chatting about what makes us tick, watching a TV show together, attempting to resolve the pesky disagreements and unite on the big deals.  We’re learning to look each other in the eye again, not just pass by on our way to do something, and to slow down and rest, laugh, and see each other.

In a way, it’s a gift to the middle-years-rat-race of raising a family and making a life together.  What marriage doesn’t face atrophy at some point?  In a lifetime together, muscles are bound to get tired, even if a PhD program isn’t involved.  I have friends raising sick children, battling addictions, navigating crazy families, holding intense jobs, nursing childhood wounds.  With the occasional taste of these realities I’ve known myself, I can attest that they’re not for the weak, and a body needs some pretty strong muscles to hold up.  But sometimes, the muscles, strong that they are, still get tired and give way.

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, I read, and I wonder what it means in today’s realities of noise and technology and traffic jams.  And then I remember what it meant to me as we plodded through those hard years…

Come to me, you who just lost your temper with your wild little ones, turn on Sesame Street for the crazies and sit yourself on the couch for take a deep, long breath.  You need oxygen.  

Come to me, you who haven’t seen your husband for a week, who just bit his head off when you did because you’re tired and lonely and worn thin.  Let the tears fall on the pages of my Words.  I hear them.  

Come to me, you who white knuckle your way through to stay strong.  It’s ok – you don’t need to be.  Take a nap along with the wild ones; I will give you rest.

Come to me, you who don’t know how to survive the masses who just don’t get what it means for your multi-colored family to be different in a sea of sameness.  You may feel alone, but you are not.  I am with you.

Come to me, you who were scheming to move east.  In spite of your great protests, I will send you west, and there, I will breathe life back into your souls, rebuild your muscles, make you strong again.  It may feel far and foreign  but you will find me there amidst the palms and the foothills. Lean into the home I’m creating for you.

Come to me, you who feel torn apart and tired and distant from each other.  I will rejoin you, restore you, rebuild you.  Though your mountains be shaken and your hills be removed, my love for you is not shaken, nor my covenant to walk with you removed.

One of the most beautiful paths we have walked, recovery sings its calming melody, reminding me that we aren’t the ones who held ourselves together through hard years. It regrows in us one-moment-at-a-time a quiet strength that always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Related Posts

Restoration & Reconciliation, Spiritual Formation

When the shell cracks

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

Sometimes, there are stories without answers, stories that, try as we might, leave us perplexed, longing for resolution but seeing no possible path toward it.  In their shadow, we feel vulnerable, forced to acknowledge the frailty we live with as humans.

Some of us prefer to think we’re strong, so we coat ourselves with shields like perfectionism, control, achievements and agendas.  Others of us are paralyzed with fear, so we drag our feet, hoping that if we don’t move too far no one will notice our sloth (or the hours we waste on Facebook).  Regardless of the disguise, when the answerless stories show themselves, we grasp at straws, shaken out of our own worlds and into another’s.

Some college friends’ children are dying of a incurable genetic disease.  They were born seemingly healthy children, but developmental delays in their toddler years led to the discovery that they had an incurable and fatal genetic order called Sanfilippo syndrome. I catch glimpses on a screen from afar as they share of simple joys of the moment, appreciation of the days they share with their children now, and tears roll down my cheeks when the grief over their devastating life circumstances slips out.  Their situation has rendered them far more vulnerable than most of us will ever be, and one beauty in how they walk through their life is that they share it with others, one small step at a time.

A sister-friend recently battled a relapse of an eating disorder.  I had walked with her through it once before, and let me tell you, it was no spring picnic to stumble through it again, for me or for her.  She’s a fighter, for sure, but there were moments when the disease got the best of her and ripped the days out from beneath her feet.  On those days, I would glance at the sky with my lifelong whisper of ‘why’?  But other days, the desperation of her honesty stopped me in my tracks, reminding me of the power of vulnerability to clean out even the deepest crevices within.

I, too, have known my own moments of devastation, of coming to grips with a different kind of story than those of my friends above, but filled with the same humpty-dumpty crash of breaking and falling to pieces.  In fact, I know many who carry their own such stories, perhaps less tragic than my friends above, but still very real.  Rarely do we share such stories aloud with each other.  Instead, we tuck them away in a little corner deep down inside, leaving them quietly hidden.

In brokenness, there can be great loneliness, for who understands the unique terrain of the rocky paths we each walk?  For this, I listen carefully when my friends risk the vulnerability to share from their broken places.  I don’t understand what it means for children to live in wheelchairs, or to starve myself so that I can feel safe.  My friends’ willingness to share more than just the happy parts of their stories gives me a sensitivity to the parts of others’ paths that I have never navigated myself.

I don’t know if I always respond to such paths ‘right’ or well, but because of their vulnerability, I am compelled to give it a try when I might have otherwise avoided it. We walk only in our own shoes; and we know only the depths of our own stories. Sometimes we are like the king’s men, fumbling because we don’t know how to pick up the fragile who have fallen down and cracked. So we distance ourselves, fearing that we’ll somehow break them into even more pieces when we don’t know how to ‘put them back together’. The question staring everyone in the face is what if they can’t be put together again, or at least, right now?

But what if we’re asking the wrong question?  Instead of putting back each other back together, what if we just walk alongside, listen to, embrace-as-we-are?

Here, there is no easy answer, no triumphant victory, no miraculous intervention.  This brokenness is the daily grind. We wait, longing for healing, not knowing when, or even if, it will ever come. As we wait, walking alongside others or, perhaps even sharing our own broken selves, something more emerges.

It is a beautiful story of hope written by a father for his children.

It is a marker on a white board.

It is a slowly but steadily healing heart, drowned in tears and awakened by the hunger within.

It is the surfacing of the quiet, deep down moments that we share for our own healing, and for others’ to remember they are not alone.

“All his life long, wherever Jesus looked, he saw the world not in terms simply of its brokenness,” wrote Frederick Buechner, “but in terms of the ultimate mystery of God’s presence buried in it like a treasure buried in a field.”

A friend of mine who lost his firstborn son at age one calls them God Fingerprints, the little moments that steal our breath and remind us that we do not walk alone.  Mysterious and buried in the midst of the days of pain, we must keep our eyes peeled lest we miss them, but they are nonetheless there, touching so many little moments around us.

For even if all we feel is broken, we are far more than our brokenness.  Right there smack dab in the middle of our foreheads is a screaming loud fingerprint that shouts, “YOU ARE MINE!  The brokenness is not yet healed, but it is already redeemed.”

It began first with the day of the ashes, and then reached out a hand toward us from an empty tomb.

“Out of your vulnerabilities will come your strength,” mused Freud.

The God Fingerprint said it something like this, “For when you are weak, then I am strong.”

Immanuel, they called this strong One. God with us.  We wear His ashes on our foreheads proclaiming our hope in the power of Life even when our shoulders sag under its heavy weight.  And when a great fall leaves us feeling cracked beyond repair, Immanuel walks alongside, giving us a strength we never knew we had.

Meet the McNeils

If you’d like to learn more about the friends I mentioned above, you can read more on their blog, Exploring Holland.  Matt, their father has also written an excellent children’s book called The Strange Tale of Ben Beesley to process his grief over his children’s diagnosis.  All proceeds from the book go the MPS Society to search for a cure to Sanfilippo Syndrome.

Related Posts

Restoration & Reconciliation, Social & Political Issues

Seeking the good of our neighbors

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“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful.  “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up.   Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.  I Corinthians 10:23

I once consulted at a school district in a rural Midwestern town that had seen its Latino population grow from roughly 5% in the spring to almost 30% in the fall.  The community was struggling with the rapid transition to say the least.  One man whispered to me that the local mayor had just won his election on the informal slogan, “Get ’em out of here,” and while everyone in the community surely wasn’t this hostile to their new neighbors, many were scrambling to understand and find effective ways to welcome the newcomers to their community.

In The Middle of Everywhere: Helping Refugees Enter the American Community, Mary Pipher details a similar experience in the process of a community coming to grips with its change in Lincoln, Nebraska.  In her observation of the shift occurring in many parts of our country, she poses some important questions about our ever-changing identity:

“Who are we when we don’t have a hometown, when we don’t know our neighbors or our kin?  Who are we when we don’t know the history of our land or the names of common plants or birds in our area? Or when our stories come from television sets instead of grandparents or village storytellers?  Who are we in a world where the universal language is, to quote Pico Iyer, ‘french fries’?

The french fry questions linger in my heart as I spend my days with the perseverant immigrants, in part because I know so well the quaint simplicity of hometowns and quiet cornfields.  While both immigrants and hometowns have their own measures of beauty and goodness, I often wonder how these worlds I live between will manage to sort each other out.

Why don’t they just go back where they came from?  I hear echo through the cornfields, as if any of the rest of us (minus the blessed Native Americans) did this very thing.  For better or for worse, immigration is the story of our country. It is the story of my great-grandparents crossing an ocean from Sweden and finding a big field under a cloudy sky to call home.  It is the story of my in-laws resettling in a new land both to serve in underserved areas and to provide their children with education and opportunity.  It is the story of my students who love the freedom and diversity of this country enough to make themselves an actual part of it. If we “just send them back”, we deny a significant part of our story.

They should just learn English, I hear more echoes. But they are, I want to shout back.  I watch them struggle to grasp a crazy-hard language, hear their mistakes, see their attempts and perseverance.  If we native speakers had to learn our complicated, many layered language, we would surely be slower to criticize.  Don’t believe me?  Read this and this and this and this and this.  Every immigrant I’ve ever met wants to learn English, knows it will increase their ability to be a part of this country, but they also are just like the rest of us – they have jobs and children and histories and all-sorts-of-complicated-realities that slow down the language learning process.

All illegal immigrants do is commit crime, I hear.  We don’t want those kind of people in our country.  And I wonder why the few bad eggs suddenly define the masses.  US Citizens have quite a few of our own bad eggs to speak of, like the continued existence of the KKK, the Minutemen, the abortion bombers, the horribly mean churches, but they are hopefully few and far between, certainly not defining the vast majority of us.  If we allow exceptions for ourselves, why don’t we apply the same parameters to others as well?

“We think the world apart,” wrote Parker Palmer. “What would it be like to think the world together?” Or, to put it another way, how do we spend our efforts welcoming the stranger and telling this story well rather than stomping around pretending we own the place?  Palmer’s question leaves me dreaming with Mary Pipher about how we might embrace the role of cultural brokers for the newcomers in our midst rather than playing cultural guards of something that doesn’t really belong to us anyway.

As an English language teacher, the role of cultural broker is naturally built into my profession.  We spend our days, the motley mix of us from so many countries and languages, taking a stab at understanding each other.  We share a love of food and laughter, a passion for children and celebration, a hope for peace and restoration.  The Mexican students shake their heads over the increasing drug wars in their homeland.  The Middle Eastern Christians’ eyes reflect both deep joy in Jesus and resounding sadness over the reality of persecution for following him.   The Chinese students echo a quiet focus and steadfastness to pursue excellence and value community.  We think the world together, learning these things slowly from each other, opening our eyes to realities far from our own.  But the ESL classroom isn’t the only place where such learning occurs.

From rural to urban, coast to cornfield, immigrants are now living in nearly every community of the US.  While the actual numbers of immigrants are the highest in traditional states like New York, California, and Florida, the immigration growth rate is actually highest in the south and midwest, places where monoculturalism used to be the norm, where french fries (and occasionally donuts) still speak a universal language. If we want to think the world together, we must seriously consider if our communities will receive newcomers with open arms or if we will just squeeze our eyes tight and hope they go away.

If we pay attention, the church has the basis to lead the way on this one.  The issue of immigration reform in America is every bit as much an issue of human life as abortion, child slavery, and family values.  It is not about Republican or Democratic allegiances, but about families and children and hope and morality.  Given its global reputation of self-centeredness and cultural arrogance, I haven’t always liked the US much, but the immigrants are convincing me day-by-day what a unique potential this land offers, and it makes me want to be part of the solution that helps it live up to its potential.

So maybe you’re thinking, it’s easy for her, she gets paid to spend her days with the immigrants.  But me?  I don’t know any.  What can I possibly do?  I’ve got a few ideas for you:

  • Read.  I’ve listed two books below – Welcoming the Stranger and The Middle of Everywhere – that are by far some of the best I’ve ever read on any topic, let alone immigration.  They will open your eyes to the realities of the issue, and give you insight into the lives and strength of immigrants here in the US and how we might receive them with arms open.
  • Watch.  If you’re not a reader, movies can be a great way to understand the immigrant experience and see life through another’s eyes.  Some of my favorite movies about immigrant life are My Family, The Namesake, Bend it like Beckham, and My Big Fat Greek Wedding.  You can find even more recommendations of movies here and follow the news here.
  • Contact elected officials to urge them to support immigration reform.  The system is outdated and broken and is in desperate need of fixing.  You can learn more details and find ways to contact your representatives on sites like Evangelical Immigration Table and Church World Service.
  • Welcome your neighbor.  Keep your eyes open for newcomers in your community.  When you meet them, don’t just gawk at an ‘exotic’ being, offer a handshake and smile.  Look for ways to befriend them and find out what needs they might have.  One of the best examples I’ve seen of a church doing this is an outreach ESL program at Faith International Church in Indianapolis, Indiana.  When a few members of the church realized the apartment complex across the street had a small group of immigrants, they reached out and offered to teach them English.  Over the years, the program grew from a small group to two hundred students and a whole slew of volunteers teaching, babysitting, and welcoming the newcomers in their community.
  • Partner with organizations.  There are usually government or social service organizations in communities to help refugees settle in a new land.  World Relief, Catholic Charities, and Church World Service run such agencies in many places and are always in need of volunteers to teach English or sponsor new families.
  • Look for ways to provide employment opportunities.  I worked with the CEO of a factory in a very rural community who had hired a large population of Burmese people to work in his textile plant.  He then contacted me about offering English classes because he wanted his employees to have the opportunity to learn English while they worked for him.  It was a win-win situation because he cared well for his employees and they, in gratefulness for his value of them, were very committed to their employer.
  • Live with them.  Matt Soerens, the author of Welcoming the Stranger, developed an interest in immigration initially because he lived in an apartment complex called Parkside which was home to a high number of immigrant families.  When the city of Glen Ellyn wanted to redevelop the apartment complex, many raised their voices and knowledge of the system to protest the decision to displace an established community.  In addition to the residents, the larger community showed up as well, asking the council to allow them to keep their home.  And the council said yes.  They raised their voices together – the citizens and the immigrants – and they won.  This is literally seeking the good of our neighbors.  You can read the whole remarkable story here.

Our world is indeed changing, but it is no new story.  It is one that has been told throughout ages.  The question is how ours will be told.  Will it be a story of closed eyes, cold shoulders and us-vs-them rhetoric or will it be one of neighbors looking out for each other, of welcoming strangers and caring for the very world in our midst?  In our actions, may we live as people who are helpful and who build up those around us, regardless of the similarities we share or the differences we don’t fully understand.

When the village storytellers gather to remember us, let them not retell the oft-repeated story of violence and division, but instead let us leave them with stories of building communities, seeking understanding, and learning from each other.  Let them tell the story of us loving our neighbors.

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Further Reading

Culture & Race, Restoration & Reconciliation, Social & Political Issues

Call me hope

Stephanie posted this video in her reflective post The State of Western Missions, Talking Donkeys, and a Video and it was so good it warranted its very own post.  This is a video produced by the organization MamaHope for their Stop the Pity: Unlock the Potential project.  I love how their videos challenge the portrayal perceptions of Africans.  

Seriously. You’ve gotta watch every single one.

They’ll capture your imagination and challenge your stereotypes.  You’ll walk away a little more thoughtful.

When I spent a summer in Burkina Faso, I lived with a Burkinabe family and saw this very strength.  Their home was full of such warmth, hospitality, generosity and relationship. Walking alongside their lives made me feel that if anyone should be pitied, it is the Westerners who live such disconnected, self-centered and fragmented lives. There, in one of the poorest countries in the world, I learned not how to barely survive, but how to really live.

Make time for each other.

Listen carefully.

Help out a neighbor.

Respect the elderly.

Don’t live life too quickly.

Dance your offering down the aisle.

Dance your head off to Michael Jackson.

(There was a lot of dancing, and even my frozen-chosen-little-former-baptist self couldn’t help but shake a hip every so often.)

But then again, no one is perfect.  

Sometimes, there was too much chasing the wind, and the deep levels of poverty, colonization, and tribalism also created complex and difficult realities.  It certainly wasn’t all pretty.

Maybe we all just have a lot to learn from each other.

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