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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Culture & Race, Restoration & Reconciliation

Dear white man:

I guess you and I have some difficult things to talk about.

Sometimes, I say things that might make you squirm a little.  And other times, they seem to make you downright angry. Yours is a story of dominance, of disrespecting and denying others’ rights and conquering those who are inconvenient to you.   I know you well, and imagine that it can’t be easy to carry such a heavy load on your shoulders.  You are not alone in your burden.  Indeed, others from a variety of cultures and races and histories have told this story sometimes even more brutally than you.

But sadly, you have told it too.  Even if others have their faults, this fact does not shift the blame from your shoulders to theirs.

However, this story alone is far too simple a tale. I would be grossly mistaken to suggest you are all the same.  You are as varied as the whole world wide, and you have also been very good.  

You have been my brother and my father and my grandfather, loving me fiercely and caring for those around you with wisdom and gentleness.  You have been Dietrich Bonhofer, William Wilberforce, and Abraham Lincoln, advocates and defenders of justice, fighting to right the world’s wrongs.  You have been Dr. Paul Brand, Graham Staines, and Shane Claiborne, offering your lives as a sacrifice to pursue healing for the world’s brokenness.  You have been Henri Nouwen, Phillip Yancey, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and N.T. Wright, thinkers and writers who have blown new life into my faith and kept me from walking away when so many others in it looked so damn crazy.  You have been countless friends and colleagues and mentors who simply do not fit the stereotype that is portrayed of you.

I am so deeply sorry that you must carry this burden simply due to the color of your skin.  Perhaps this experience will help you better understand the feelings of many who have suffered at your hands simply because of the color of their skin.

I do not say this because I hate you, or because I’m angry or arrogant or have a chip on my shoulder that needs fixed.  

I say it because I need you, because the world needs you.  

These days, things are growing ever more complex and we need every voice available to speak for what is heals and restores and unites. Even with all your historical baggage and brokenness, we need you.  Even with your current tales of greed and violence and corruption and misuse of power, we need you.  All the people who fall under tales of your oppression – the women, the people with skin colors and cultures different than yours – we still need you.

You are not useless.

You are not throw-away.

Your scars, prominent as they may be, do not leave you without hope.

But we need you to be something different than what the broad strokes that both history and modern culture paint.  We don’t need you to deny your burden, or to be angry when we notice its impact on our lives.  We don’t need you to be defensive, and try to shift the blame onto someone else. We don’t need you to pretend we don’t exist because you don’t know any other way to respond to our voices asking you to change your ways.

What we need is your voice, not to speak for us, but to speak with us.

We need your minds, not to override our thoughts, but to listen and collaborate with us.

We need your hearts, to love us deeply, and to care about the pain of the burden we must carry.

We need your confidence, not to overpower us, but to care with us, to work for goodness and fight for justice.

We need your courage, not because we don’t have it or yours is stronger, but because great courage in the hands of power changes the course of history.

We need your respect, to view us as more than mere bodies to satisfy your desires and your lusts.

We need your legs to stand with us as we pursue a world that is better for our children, one that loves peace and prevents violence.

We need your ears to listen for and include the voices of everyone, not just your cronies or the people you most easily understand.

We need your vulnerability, to walk through the guilt that overwhelms and into the understanding that gives us all life.

We are human, too, equal in every way to you. We are capable and competent, eager and interested.  We need you to acknowledge this, to humbly loosen your grip on the power you hold and actively create ways to share it with us, too.

Please, walk with us – not ahead or over top of us – but simply and humbly alongside us, as partners and companions.  We need each other.  These burden are much too heavy for any of us to carry alone.

Much love,

Jody

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Culture & Race, Restoration & Reconciliation

That time when white people talked about being white

So my humble little post When white people don’t know they’re being white apparently hit quite a nerve.  It had roughly 14,000 hits in 24 hours and became a space of rich discussion on a usually very-quiet-blog.  At the publishing of this post, it’s had close to 40,000 views and almost 100 comments.  What hit me by the post’s high response was the need that people have to discuss this issue, and the thirst many have to understand it better.  (Well, there were a few trolls whose comments never saw the light of day who made me question this, but the vast majority of the comments were genuine, thoughtful and honest).

Emotions expressed in the comment section ranged from gratefulness to relief to anger to hopelessness.  In my experience, there aren’t many safe places to discuss race and privilege for white people, especially if we’re in a place of feeling wounded, scared or threatened.  Already in a protection mode, we tend to say things from this space that can be hurtful to others who may or may not have it any more figured out than us.  Regardless of the emotion, what I heard echoing most strongly behind many people’s responses was an unnerving, hesitant question, “Can white people do anything right?”

I hear this, and I know it is a hard question to ask.  We shuffle our collective guilt from blame to anger to defensiveness to silence.  No one likes failure and our collective history of domination is a painful one for everyone – not just the people we have dominated.  But it certainly is not the only picture in history.  Sadly, the stories that often get the most airtime aren’t the ones of what actually works. We are far more intrigued to ooh and ahh as things fall apart than to cheer them on as they are being built.

Whenever I enter a cemetery in a Sri Lankan church, I am struck by how many British people are buried there – missionaries from the turn of the 20th century who gave up everything – even their own lives and the lives of their own families – for a call greater than their own.  My father-in-law, a doctor, speaks gratefully for the many Christians who established hospitals and built schools in South Asia.  Did these very missionaries impart colonial ideas upon the Sri Lankan peoples?  Probably, but this was not their only story.  My husband’s family speaks fondly of Reverend Good (his real name, I promise), an Irishman who pastored their church for many years.  The first word they use to describe him is always humble, the second, appropriately, is good.  They speak of how he listened when there was conflict, how he cared for others, and how he didn’t think more highly of himself than anyone else.

Where are more stories about such good people who come from majority backgrounds?  How do we find them?  How do tell them?  How do we make them our own stories?  Where do we look when we need hope and examples of people who have led the way toward a genuine posture of humility toward and respect for others? 

Given that the focus of my initial post was on what white people do that doesn’t create positive race relations, I thought it may also be helpful to create a space for others to share what does work in race relations – from all sides. The Bible calls us, after all, to be rooted first in the good news of reconciliation, not division.

I urge people of all backgrounds to comment here – the more perspectives that contribute, the more we learn from each other.  Please include descriptions of and/or links to projects you know of, historical role models, suggestions of books or movies, websites, TedTalks or even YouTube videos that offer insight to this conversation.  Perhaps your stories are double edged – one side that worked, one side that failed.  That’s reality too.  I’d love to hear more hard-but-good kind of stories that show how we grow and learn together.

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Comment policy: Ranting, rude, or ridiculous posts will be deleted, so don’t bother wasting your time here.  Please proceed to someone else’s site, or better yet, take some time to think about what you want to express and how to say it in a respectful way.  If you need it spelled out even more plainly, here you go:  Don’t be an ass.  This is a place for thoughtful, productive discussion, not hotheadedness and knee jerk reactions.  While I will not filter out disagreement, I do insist that we offer it with respect for one another’s God-given humanity.  And, please stick to the topic of this post.  If you have general comments about race, feel free to share them on this post instead.

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Belief, Culture & Race, Restoration & Reconciliation

When light shines on the ashes

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There was a fire in the mountains close to our house last week.  The smoke clouds billowed both beautiful and haunting overhead, and we all held our breaths as we watched the helicopters dash back and forth over our neighborhood.  It’s an unnerving reality that comes along with copious blue skies and rare days of rain here in southern California.

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I posted a heavy hearted passion here in this space several days ago, and it’s created all sorts of difficult and good conversation.

Like a wildfire, the charred remains that we’re fumbling through leave my soul a little bare. But the potential for new growth makes my mind run wild.

It was an unusual gloomy morning when I drove to work yesterday.  I rounded a corner to look up and see that the only ray of sun boldly breaking through the clouds was beaming down on that burnt part of the mountain.

“That’s pretty,” I thought, and turned the corner.

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This morning, burdened and deep in thought, I once again saw the same scene at the same corner.

Cloudy sky.

Burnt mountain.

Ray of sun shining down brightly on the ash-covered part of the mountain.

Apparently I hadn’t gotten the message the first time.

“Don’t forget: I see the ashes,” my heart heard that still, small voice.  “I will shine my light on the burnt places too.”

My soul sighed, my grip loosened, and I grinned, grateful for the small reminder that it’s not my job to rebuild what has been destroyed, only to look for where the light shines.

Families, Children & Marriage, Restoration & Reconciliation

Intercultural Marriage: a Model of Reconciliation

Given the high interest to my last post, I thought it relevant to  repost a slightly updated version of an oldie-but-goodie that I published years ago on Burnside Writers Collective (they *still* have the wrong byline on the post after repeated requests for a correction, grr…) as well as here on my blog.  It explains more specifics of the many things I’ve learned along my path toward cultural humility.  

“Many waters cannot quench love,” I pondered Solomon’s words sitting on a dusty porch in West Africa, the afternoon downpour pounding on the tin roof over my head. “But they certainly do a good job trying to drown it.”

My boyfriend was spending the summer at his parent’s home in Sri Lanka while I was teaching English in Burkina Faso. At that time, there was little access to phone lines or email, so our only form of communication was the relentlessly slow exchange of letters. From the beginning, we had both sensed a unique kinship between us in spite of our cultural backgrounds.  However, we also realized that such a relationship carried many complexities, and that our cross-continental lives would not combine easily. When our respective summers ended, we reunited for the fall semester, somewhat unsure of our future together.

“You remind me of a Sri Lankan girl,” he told me one day, raising his deep eyes to meet mine. I had no idea what a Sri Lankan girl was like, but I was thrilled. Obviously, he connected deeply to something in me, regardless of my cornfield upbringing and blond hair. From the first day we met, I sensed an eerily similar reflection of myself in him. There were moments, of course, when we weren’t sure how to connect – meeting our families, interacting with hometown friends, navigating the chasms between third-world realities and first-world luxuries. While these cultural differences were a significant part of our relationship, our similarities ultimately prevailed. Nearly four years later, we married in a joyful ceremony, surrounded by family and friends from around the world.

Guide me, oh thou great Jehovah. These words sung at our wedding reflect our desire to follow God’s guidance in the steep task of uniting contrasting worlds.  We entered the world of intercultural marriage as pilgrims in a barren land, knowing few role-models who had attained such unity across cultural boundaries. Together over 13 years now, we’ve moved from coast to coast, have two children and love journeying together through life.

While comparatively few are called to such an intimate cross-cultural partnership, all Christians have a responsibility to seek reconciliation across barriers. In an increasingly diverse society, our ability to establish unity across cultural boundaries is rapidly becoming a key factor in the strength of the church.  Because we practice these skills daily, I have found lessons I’ve learned from our relationship to be a microcosm for cross-cultural relations at large.

Here are some skills we find useful in seeking unity across our own cultural differences:

Pay attention, be intentional

Sri Lanka is half way around the world from the U.S.  At times, it feels very far away.  Being so far removed from our lives, it is easy to fall into an “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” mentality with this part of my husband’s life.  This has, at times, caused division between us because an essential part of his personhood lies neglected.  Therefore, it is essential to pay close attention to the Sri Lankan part of him, and to seek to incorporate it in our daily lives.  We both read the news and follow current events on a regular basis. Our home is filled with reminders of Sri Lanka, from batik wall hangings to photos of sari-clad relatives.  We visit Sri Lanka as often as we can afford, prioritizing this over other vacation options, even when inconvenient or complicated.  We try to maintain regular contact with my husband’s family through phone calls, email, and pictures.

In the same way, many live in isolated communities and interact little with other cultures. People in these communities can make intentional efforts to consider differing perspectives by reading books or watching films, as well as by traveling to places where they interact across cultures.  Just as I must intentionally seek to pay attention to my husband’s culture, so can people pay attention to cultures outside their own as an effort toward unity.  As current events, dialogue, and perspectives from other cultures are encountered, a broader way of thinking and interacting with others naturally develops.

Share honestly, listen carefully

Romance, while breath-taking, is not particularly characterized by honesty. As the passionate romance of our relationship has settled into a committed, deeper love, we have shared many moments of intense honesty. At times, it is simpler to avoid such conversations, for we each have our own interpretation of “normal” and fear looking ignorant or prejudiced. However, this kind of honesty brings about true compromise, and ultimately, inner change.

Having grown up in a wealthy, stable, and efficient country, I have struggled with certain aspects of Sri Lanka’s developing and conflict-filled environment.  My husband has experienced these aspects as “normal” for much of his life.  Because these perspectives form an integral part of our core-beings, we feel strongly vulnerable when sharing our fears. This fear creates a reluctance to relinquish my expectations of order, cleanliness, and safety, causing me to shut out a cherished part of my husband’s life.

In a similar vain, he has experienced certain “looks”, discomfort, and ignorance when interacting with people from my home. While I hold deep affinity for my home, it is helpful to separate from my personal attachments in order to hear his emotions. In doing this, I listen without defense, letting him process his feelings honestly.

Ultimately, honesty between cultures is not about being right or wrong. It’s about listening and considering another’s experience without defense or justification. In order to create a safe place for trustworthy relationships, people need to feel they will be heard when sharing honestly.

Be salad, not soup

The idea of a “melting pot” denies the individual characteristics that exist within cultures. A mixed salad is a more accurate comparison, as it contains various ingredients that compose one dish, yet retains unique qualities rather than dissolving everything into the majority flavor. Likewise, in our marriage, we attempt to value the individuality of each other’s cultures.

One way we love each other is by knowing about each other’s homes. For example, my husband knows things about my small hometown that only “insiders” know. He knows where the locals eat a hot breakfast, and the names of high school basketball players. Because he pays attention to my cultural background, I sense a deep love for who I am and where I come from. In the same way, I don a shalwar kameez (a traditional Sri Lankan dress) every so often, can cook a mean curry, and enjoy building relationships with his family and friends. Each trip to his home – no matter how many mosquitos involved – increases my understanding of who my husband is.

When the majority culture blindly expects others to follow their lead without knowledge of other perspectives, they subtly send the message, “You are not important to me. Your importance is to make me comfortable.” Loving across cultures means that both sides release their grip on familiarity in order to experience deeper flavors of diversity.

While many waters could not quench our love, their rough waves have certainly smoothed our rough edges. In all of these ways, we embrace our own culture while keeping our arms open to the other. Guided by our great Jehovah each step of the way, we find deep richness in loving across cultural boundaries. Our hope remains that the church will deepen in its ability to love across such boundaries as well.

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Restoration & Reconciliation

When white people don’t know they’re being white

It’s been an interesting week in the realm of race relations, with many Asians Americans challenging Rick Warren on an offensive Facebook post featuring a picture of  the Chinese Red Guard.  (You can read even more detail on Kathy Khang’s blog).  The aftermath of comments reflected confusion from some, wondering how people could be ‘so easily offended’, suggesting they needed thicker skin or more forgiving hearts.

Inside, I ached.

This is no new conversation to me – the ignorant assumptions, the christian-stifling-language-that-really-just-wants-you-to-shut-up-and-let-them-stay-uninformed.   This is nothing new to my ears.  Over the years, I have sat with many hearts aching – even those of my own family – over the ignorantly belittling comments of others.

Something must change.  This ever familiar sentiment sunk to the pit of my stomach as I watched the week’s events unfold.  While I was grateful to hear Rick’s eventual apology, the whole situation highlighted a common occurrence between the majority and minority experience that, in my observation, most white people don’t understand.

In case you’re white and starting to feel defensive, please know that I’m white, too.  I’m hoping this detail lowers defenses, for the concern I’m addressing in this post is to “my people”, more specifically to white Christians in the American church.  I’m concerned because I know firsthand how good-hearted and well-intentioned their actions often are, and how often they do not understand the impact of their intent.  I speak first as someone who has been there, who has made the ignorant comment, asked the stupid question, made the racist assumption and feared offending by opening my mouth.  I speak second as the only white person in my household for well over a decade now who has had the great fortune to see through others’ eyes on a daily basis.

When the Rick Warren news came around, I was already chewing on the power dynamics of both race and gender represented in this video that was making the rounds on my FB feed:

It left me conflicted, for I could clearly see the surface intent of the creators to rightly showcase the beauty of the world God has created, but I was also deeply distraught by what it left unsaid.   This opening shot* can communicate two quite contradictory messages:

chris tomlin with poor kids

God cares for the poor, and so do Christians. 

vs.

Hipster white guys have more going for them than slum dwellers.

This is sometimes called the “white savior” mentality; and it is far too prevalent and accepted in the American evangelical church. Without words, it communicates that the white people are better, smarter, more capable to hold the power strings.  It is one of the tragedies built by the empire of colonialism that none of us want to face.

We didn’t do it, right?  

That’s not our story.  

My family didn’t own slaves.

But we still benefit.  The system is set up for us, and gives us power without us even having to ask for it.  

We can be white without even knowing we’re white.  

To be fair, the church is not alone in it’s message-giving.  Hollywood also loves to tell white savior stories rather than those stories from within cultures that represent strength unattached to the people group in power.  And don’t even get me started on the news media’s portrayal of race…

I could give example after example of ignorant cultural and racial blunders in the church, but for the white hands who hold the historical and institutional power, it basically boils down to this:  We want to say that everything that happens in church is about Jesus, but it’s simply not.  There’s a whole lot of culture and power and history and social structure in there as well.  Until we acknowledge how these realities shape our thinking, we’re going nowhere.

We say we want to be a ‘church of many nations’, and cheer on videos like the ones above, but sometimes our arrogance, ignorance, and unwillingness to listen communicate that we really view ‘the nations’ as our minions, not our partners.  In other words, they exist to make us look good.

  • Put the black guy on stage to read the MLK Day prayer = I care about civil rights.
  • Take pictures of all 6 minorities in our institution to display prominently in our publications = We support diversity, but may or may not support you, especially if you say things contradictory to what we already know we know.
  • Sing white hipster music in Spanish = you, too, can be just like me, even in your language!
  • Host an international event with yummy food and cool ethnic clothing = awesome, but this is only the top layer of who people are.  Do we want to know the complex depths of people’s realities or are we satisfied to simply skim the surface that looks all happy-happy-joy-joy?
  • Send brochures with hungry-looking poor children = Give us your money.  We know you feel guilty.

I know, I know.  It all sounds a little harsh, right?  I’ve been right there with you, defending myself, confident that my intentions are pure.  However, regardless of our intentions in these endeavors, the fact stands that the impact of our actions can be isolating and downright hurtful to people of color. White people – especially the leaders of the church – need to start acknowledging this and listening to it with utmost seriousness.  This conversation cannot be one-way.  If we do not listen to the voices that courageously share their truth with us, we are breaking the very body we so sincerely wish to build.  

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“Cultural competency” is a popular term these days, and while I appreciate the sentiment of the phrase, I’ve been feeling terribly inept culturally.  When it comes to race relations, failure is simply inevitable.  I recently mistook an Iranian student for an Egyptian and suspected immediately that I’d offended him.  I hadn’t meant to – I’d really just confused him with another student – but I couldn’t take my words back either, and didn’t know enough about Middle Eastern culture to know how offensive my assumption truly was.  After stumbling a little trying to retract my words, I fell back not on competence, but humility, “I’m sorry,” I admitted. “I didn’t know. Please forgive my mistake.”

A colleague recently introduced me to the term “Cultural humility” and I instantly connected to it, for even with all my practice being married cross-culturally, earning a degree in multicultural education, speaking several languages, traveling on 4 continents, and spending my days with immigrants from around the world, I often feel culturally incompetent.  I only speak two languages fluently, not six like some of my students.  I grew up in a monocultural cornfield and have had to work to learn anything I know about the rest of the world, which is still not really enough.  I have always lived in my country of birth, and don’t have near the depth of experience or insight about cultural adjustment that the world’s resilient immigrants know.

Culturally, I am far from competent.

But cultural humility?  This makes sense to me.

Instead of “Get over it”, cultural humility responds, “I don’t understand.  Can you help me understand more deeply?”

Instead of some variation of “quit whining”, cultural humility responds, “I’m so sorry this hurts you. How can I walk alongside you in this?”

Instead of reading only the white megachurch types, cultural humility also seeks wisdom from the pages of leaders from a wide variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

Instead of “Why do you keep causing problems?”, cultural humility responds, “I’m sorry I keep hurting you. It seems like I’m missing something big.  How would you recommend I start to better understand your experience?”

Instead of keeping quiet because you don’t know, cultural humility clumsily admits, “I’m a little embarrassed I don’t know much about your background. I don’t even know how to ask you questions about it, but I really would love to learn more.” (God bless the dear man who actually said this to my husband.)

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While all of this might sound a lot like an us-vs-them scenario, I want you, my white brothers and sisters, to know that it does not have to be.  While I have never lived in a different skin, I fiercely love those who do – their very DNA runs through my veins.  I share my perspective here from a bridge between worlds, longing to see those on both sides listen to and love each other so much better than we currently do.

When white people don’t recognize how our position of cultural dominance influences us – when we don’t know that we’re being white – we can be like bulls in a china shop, throwing everything in our wake askew without even realizing what we’ve done. For us, this understanding begins with learning a perspective of cultural humility and seeking to understand another’s experience without judgment.  May more of us boldly begin to walk on this long and winding path.

(And just for the record, I kinda like white hipster music.)

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Updates

*10/2 Update:

Some readers have rightfully informed me that the man in screenshot I posted is actually Indian.  I promise I didn’t purposely provide my own example of how to make assumptions and cultural mistakes, but it does allow me to practice what I already preached:  we all make mistakes in this dialogue.  Please forgive me for mine.

I could replace the picture with plenty of others with the same sentiment, but I’ll leave it for a few reasons. First, I think it’s a valuable example of fallibility in this conversation (even if it is at my own expense). In addition, I still maintain that the problem this video highlights is one we need to address at large. I also question other subtle messages in the video and would like to continue dialoging about the messages it communicates to have a white man leading the song of the world, once again.

10/4 Update:

An amended version of this post was published on The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation, & Culture this afternoon.  It corrects the erroneous assumption regarding the picture in this post.

Comment Policy

Ranting, rude, or ridiculous posts will be deleted, so don’t bother wasting your time here.  Please proceed to someone else’s site, or better yet, take some time to think about what you want to express and how to say it in a respectful way.  If you need it spelled out even more plainly, here you go:  Don’t be an ass.  This is a place for thoughtful, productive discussion, not hotheadedness and knee jerk reactions.  While I will not filter out disagreement, I do insist that we offer it with respect for one another’s God-given humanity.

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Belief, Restoration & Reconciliation, Spiritual Formation

Living with purpose: Welcoming the stranger

The practice of ‘Welcoming strangers’ has been a part of my heart for as long as I can remember.  Somewhere early on, Matthew 25’s call to see Jesus in the faces of strangers took root deeply in my heart.

If I’d grown up in suburban Los Angeles where I now live as an adult, I suppose it would be normal for my childhood best friends to have come from all over the world.  This was not the case, however, in small town Indiana.  Yet from my youngest years, I was drawn to people who were outside of the mainstream.  From kindergarten on, some of my best buddies were Mexican, Swedish, and Finnish.  In high school, my friends used to tease me that they’d likely all marry local boys and I’d marry someone from halfway around the world.  No one was particularly surprised when I married a man from Sri Lanka.

It wasn’t only immigrants who caught my attention.  I would cringe in high school when I saw the cool kids torture the uncool kids.  Sometimes, I’d leave my friends at lunch to sit with the ‘reject’ because it saddened me to see them alone.  In church, my eyes look first for who doesn’t fit, rather than who does. I ache when I hear stories of people of all backgrounds who feel ostracized for their differences and long to find ways to help them feel heard.

Welcoming the stranger plays out in my life today as I guide students through the crazy-land of the English language and American culture, as I teach my children to bring in those around them, even as I pray for the same homeless man I see regularly around town. When my heart sings to take freshly baked banana bread for the new Chinese family down the street whose daughter has made friends with mine, I know I am walking the path laid specifically for me.

Having spent the last year being the ‘new kid’, I recently watched my daughter develop her own ability to welcome strangers.  This year, she came home delighted to learn that the previously mentioned Chinese neighbor girl was in the class just next door to hers.  When another friend didn’t want to play with the new girl at recess, my daughter looked at her straight-faced and responded, “We were both new last year, so we know what it’s like.  I won’t leave her out.  She needs friends,” and stood her ground while her friend walked away to play with someone else.  My mama-heart soared to hear her practice the joy of welcoming strangers.

Identifying my life purposes has come slowly over time as I pondered stories that stuck with me and captured my heart.  I learned to pay attention when I felt strong emotion over a situation or cared deeply enough to get involved.  While I often walk imperfectly in  my attempts to speak for the unheard, care for the tenderhearted, or welcome the stranger, knowing these purposes has been a primary means through which I seek to faithfully live a purpose-full life.

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Belief, Restoration & Reconciliation, Spiritual Formation

Living with purpose: Caring for the tender-hearted

I’m reflecting this week on my own process of living with purpose.  In my first post, I wrote about speaking for the unheard.  In this post, I’ll explore how caring for the tenderhearted emerged as another life purpose for me.  I’ve loved how this is remarkably transferrable between contexts, for I’ve learned that nearly everyone is tender-hearted, or vulnerable, in some way or another.

When I was younger, I thought caring for the tenderhearted looked ‘edgy’, and impressed everyone around you.  As I matured, I began to see that often caring for the tenderhearted was the bland story rather than the exciting one.

A young mother, I found myself caring for the tenderhearted, stumbling to form a new identity as a mother and care for precious new life, screaming toddlers, and curious preschoolers.

As an urban middle school teacher, I cared for the tenderhearted by working with adolescents navigating the reality of both their hormones and the harshness of the streets they called home.

Caring for the tenderhearted meant sitting with my mentally failing grandfather, helping him plant a seed in a flower pot and decorating it with stickers that spelled the name he no longer knew.  It meant sharing tears with my grandmother when he couldn’t remember our names either.

When I taught at the university, I often walked alongside students attempting to fit the pieces of their life together for the first time.  Their questions echoed the tenderness of their hearts, “Why is my family broken?  How do I heal from my loss?  Where is my faith?  How do I make sense of the world on my own?”

My current work with immigrant language learners gives me frequent opportunities to care for the tenderhearted.  Learning a new language is especially humbling for adults who have once been competent communicators.  Simple actions like encouraging mistakes, listening carefully, or speaking slowly expand and challenge my understanding of how to care for people in vulnerable situations.

On some days, I find myself the tenderhearted one.  At times, I have found myself bruised from years of racial and cultural isolation, struggling to find understand my purpose in a new context, or lost in a sea of sleeplessness and diapers.  In these moments, I’m grateful that my purpose includes caring for myself with a deep breath, a cup of tea, a good book, a wise counselor or a long chat with an old friend.

In conversations big and small, regardless of personalities or politics or personal histories, everyone has a tenderness somewhere deep down.  Small town life helped me see understand this idea in a way that the city cannot.  We were all smooshed flat on microscope slides; so you could barely have diarrhea without someone overhearing it at the pharmacy.  Because my path repeatedly crossed the same stories, I was often forced to remember that people are multi-dimensional.  The guy who yells more than he listens at work could very well be far kinder to the gas station attendant than I have ever been.  The teddy-bear sweater wearing women that I assume I couldn’t possibly have anything in common with has a gift for hospitality that I would do well to learn from.  The neighbor who won’t ever look me in the eye has a backstory I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

Living to care for the tender-hearted reminds me of God’s unconditional love for us.  It humbles me – one whose weakest spiritual gift is service – to step out of myself and toward others whether or not they can offer me anything at all.

Related Posts

Belief, Restoration & Reconciliation, Spiritual Formation

Living with purpose: Speaking for the unheard

purposefull lifeOne of the most transformative books in my life has been Jan Johnson’s Living a Purpose-full Life.  I came across it in my twenties – a decade that often lacks clarity, direction, and purpose – and have read it multiple times over the years.  One of the most helpful themes that emerged for me was the idea that our life purpose transcends our life’s current situation.  Johnson suggests that knowing our God-planted purposes helps us to discern direction in unclear times and make decisions when we feel in the dark.

Feeling isolated from a combination of staying home with small children and living in a tiny rural town, this was a relieving idea to me.  I had just finished a degree in Multicultural/Multilngual Education, and we moved to an area that, to quote one principal, was “99.9% white.”  I was also discovering that staying home full-time with toddlers might very well push me over the edge of sanity.  Utilizing my professional training, the prospects of living out specific goals in my new context appeared bleak.

As I worked through many of the questions and practices in Johnson’s book over the years, however, I identified three primary purposes that can flourish within any context that have guided me ever since:

  • Speaking for the unheard
  • Welcoming the stranger
  • Caring for the tenderhearted

These are purposes I can live out regardless of my life’s situations.  They help me decide when to say yes and when to say no, how to pursue jobs, and even how to spend my money.  Over the next few posts, I thought I’d unpack how these purposes have emerged, and what they mean to me.

Speaking for the unheard emerged as one overarching purpose for my life.  My initial phrase for this idea was being a voice for the voiceless, but over time, I grew uncomfortable with the term voiceless, for so many of the people I knew had very real and valuable voices.  The larger issue was that they were not being heard by those who held the channels of power.  While in no way do I consider my voice more worthy than others, I am quite cognizant of the privilege that my education, citizenship, economic class, and race carry, and the access this gives me to power.  As a result, it is important to me to use these privileges for others’ benefit rather than my own.  It is in this spirit that I use my voice to “speak for the unheard”.

Over the years, speaking for the unheard has played out in a variety of ways:

  • In the isolation of the midwestern cornfields, speaking for the unheard meant listening to those who often didn’t fit in the mainstream and pursuing avenues for others to hear their stories.  It meant persevering when I felt like giving up, and weeping with those who wept when no one else would listen.
  • Teaching for several years in an urban context gave me a glimpse into a world that still shapes how I advocate for the public good through actions like my voting record and professional pursuits.
  • Being bilingual continually allows me to apply my purpose quite literally with those who don’t know English.  Teaching English as a second language does this as well.
  • Another literal application came in caring for my babies who needed me to attend to their voice and respond.  While it sometimes felt their voice was a bit *too* loud (especially at 2 am on a cold winter’s night), attending to their needs taught me how to think of someone besides myself one step at a time.
  • We regularly fund microloans on Kiva.org to give voice to those seeking to improve the world around them in order to empower voices of global entrepreneurs that our world needs to hear more from.
  • Rather than shopping at corporations that often underpay the workers who make the products, I try to frequent thrift stores like Goodwill who channel my money into restorative efforts for those in need like job training or community projects.

City or cornfield, home or abroad, I walk in purpose to speak for the unheard.  Ironically, sometimes this means that I only listen – listen to stories of the oppressed, tales of the broken, or small victories that no one else will ever hear.  And sometimes it means I speak, even if I must stand against the mainstream, quivering in my boots, challenging those who hold the power to see beyond their own two feet.  Daily, it means that I pray for guidance in the next step, both speaking and listening to the One for whom no voice is left unheard.

Related Posts

Restoration & Reconciliation, Social & Political Issues, Spiritual Formation

all the little stories

“Teacher,” she caught me in the hallway where I teach English as Second language to adult immigrants. “Can you help me today?  I need make phone call and my English no is good.  Can you make call for me?”

“Of course,” I told her, wondering what the phone call was about.  “Find me after class.”

After class, I learned more of her story.  An Egyptian asylee, she needed to call the immigration office to check on the status of her husband and son’s paperwork to join her here in America.  They’d been separated for a year – her in the US with their two-year-old son and her husband in Egypt with the five-year-old.

“He tell me I need to call very soon,” she grinned coyly. “You know men.  The children are hard for them sometimes.”

We chatted while waiting on hold for the government agent to answer.  She explained that she was a Christian asylee, that her husband had sent her to the US ahead of him because of high persecution of Coptic Christians in their region.

Then she apologized, “I’m so sorry to take your time, teacher.”

“It’s no problem,” I assured her.  Imagining myself in her shoes, I was struggling to maintain my composure.  There’s usually so little I can do to help in such situations that I was grateful to be able to help through something as simple as a phone call.

The government was predictably slow, so we chatted more about her life, her family, how to survive two-year-old drama.  An agent answered, but the details were complicated, so we had to call another number.  She apologized again.

“Really – it’s no problem,” I explained.  “I like to learn about immigration laws. This is interesting for me. I don’t mind.”

Still no answer on the other end of the phone.

“You know,” she said soberly. “This is a very sad day for your country. I so sad for America.”

I remembered the windows of my apartment shaking when the plane hit the Pentagon only minutes from our home 12 years ago.  “Yes,” I responded in equal seriousness. “It was a very sad day. I was scared.”

“Sad for all the world, teacher.  I remember still.  I cannot believe when I see the plane hit the building on TV.  I so sad for America.”

We recalled our reactions and shock, agreeing that 9/11 had forever changed the world we both knew.  The conversation shifted to middle eastern politics, the tragedy in Syria, Obama, the accuracy of news media and all sorts of topics far beyond my knowledge and her language capacity.  We agreed that war is terrible and that it’s often difficult to tell who’s right or wrong.  Finally, we both ran out of words and the conversation grew silent except for the bad telephone-hold music.

“You like this music, teacher?” she asked.

“Not really,” we both chuckled.

“I’m so sorry this take long time,” she apologized again.

“Really, it’s ok,” I responded, this time meeting her eyes.  “I’m a Christian, too.  We’re family.  I will help you.”

“Yes,” her shoulders relaxed in relief and her eyes lit up.  “We follow Jesus together.  We are family.”

“Do you have anyone here who can help you?” I inquired gently.

“No, teacher, I’m alone here,” she paused and added, “But Jesus – Jesus is here with me too.  He help me very much.”

It was a holy moment, a little story shared by two mother-hearts who understood.

The immigration agent never answered the phone.  We ran out of time to wait and parted ways to pick up our children.

9/11 has lingered quietly in my soul all day.  I didn’t bring it up at all in my class of so many cultures, languages, and religions mostly because I didn’t know what to say, how to speak of such complex tragedy in simple words among such diversity, but the gift of this unexpected interaction pushed that unspeakable day back to the forefront of my mind.

As I drove to my kids’ school, grateful for simple freedoms of togetherness and safety, I reflected on the hard, sad stories of this day – stories of unimaginable loss and painful separation.  With the Egyptian mother’s voice echoing in my heart, I realized slowly that such stories tell themselves every day, albeit on a much smaller scale.

All the little stories. 

They matter.

I could probably write a glimmer-of-hope stories like this almost every week, stories where hope sneaks in to overshadow despair, but I don’t always notice them.

we scatter light

“We scatter light”,  the motto of a Christian school in a predominately Buddhist country where my mother-in-law used to be principal, these words have been randomly inserting themselves into recent moments, whispering me toward small acts of kindness like letting people go in front of me in line, chatting with a store clerk, and today, waiting on hold to help out a mother longing to hold her child again.  The light might not always shine brightly in the face of the darkest moments, but scattered about, it may offer a much-needed glimpse of hope at just the right time.

Families, Children & Marriage, Restoration & Reconciliation, Social & Political Issues

9/11, Jesus, and patriotism: My kids’ take on it all

When I picked my kids up from school yesterday, they were a bit amiss about the 9/11 ceremony at their school.  Apparently, everyone had cheered when the leader referenced killing ‘bad guys’ in Afghanistan.  I listened quietly to their conversation with each other, processing what had happened.

“I didn’t clap,” my daughter protested.  “I mean, it’s not like Americans are good all the time. We do bad things too.”

“Yeah,” my son added. “And children there affected by all this and they didn’t even do anything to deserve it. How would we feel if we were them?”

“I don’t understand why everyone cheered about killing someone else,” the chatter continued as they attempted to understand the perspectives they’d seen.

“I just kept thinking about Priyan Baapa,” my daughter commented, referring to her great uncle whose office had been in the World Trade Center, but who had left the building early that fateful day to pick up Starbucks on the way to a meeting.

They mutually agreed that the whole state of the world is unfortunate, that America isn’t above or below any of them, and that while we fix some problems in the world, we also create an equal number of them.

Out of a seeming nowhere, they determined a solution.  “It’s the church,” my daughter mused. “They’re the ones who can help fix all this.”

Now, if we talked about the church like this on a regular basis, I’d have seen this one having been coming.  But sadly, conversations in our house reflect deep disappointment with and brokenness over the church as much as they do over the hope its potential holds.  But even at 9, her little heart intuitively senses that, for as much as the governments try, they have it all messed up, and that more answers lie at the feet of Jesus than at the foot of the flag.

She gets it, that kid.  Perhaps more than her skeptic-of-a-mama.  One comment at a time, she’s building my faith that kingdom of God might actually be a part of the plan to bring peace on earth.

Families, Children & Marriage, Restoration & Reconciliation

Practicing grace in intercultural relationships

But what we can do, as flawed as we are, is still see God in other people, and do our best to help them find their own grace. – Barack Obama

Grace is a tricky subject…a whole lot more elusive than patience.  It’s a gift, something undeserved that gives us freedom to be as we are, while still pushing us beyond the wallowing of the current moment. Continuing the series from A Longer View of Intercultural Marriage, today I’ll reflect more deeply on ways to practice grace in intercultural relationships:  

With those who don’t understand

It still makes me shudder to remember the day years a sweet, kind woman I enjoyed chatting with at work referred to my children as ‘half-breeds’.  I swallowed hard in that moment, wondering if I’d heard her correctly.  As she continued talking, she clearly had no idea how offensive her terminology had been to me.  She was speaking so effusively of them – how beautiful she finds biracial children, how she’s always found mixed race children stunning.  Clearly, her words weren’t meant to offend.  Being a single mom who’d spent her whole life in rural Indiana, she’d had no opportunity to interact with an outside world to understand how offensive her words were to me (frankly, I think it would have horrified her to know how offended I was).  By filtering her words through grace, I was more able to accept them for what they were: affirming words from a kind person.

Perhaps closer to home are family or friends who give well-intentioned advice about how we should approach our choices about relationships or child-rearing across cultures.  When this happens in my life, I must remind myself that while my loved ones do mean well, they simply don’t understand.  (And for that matter, may not be able to.  There are many scenarios I don’t currently have the ability understand like raising a disabled child or being a single parent.)

With those who *think* they understand

For me, this skill is harder than any of the rest combined.  It’s one thing when people admit ignorance, and a wholly different impact when they assume expertise without having it.  I’m sure most people have at least one person like this somewhere in their  corner of the world, so I’ll just leave the specific examples to the imagination.  One helpful skill I learned from author Jan Johnson when dealing with difficult people like this is to pray that God would show me a person’s heart. This helps me to remember that they are fallible and broken just like me, and that perhaps they, too, make a mistake or two every once in a while. Continue reading “Practicing grace in intercultural relationships”

Restoration & Reconciliation

Commencement

We stood
under a blistering sun,
reflecting on older days,
contemplating new beginnings.

Do you see?
her eyes brimmed with hope.
He’s good!
her zeal showed no signs of slowing.
He’s GOOD!
her braids bounced joyfully with the rest of her body
To YOU!

Not at all spiritual niceties,
these were words spoken
from deep knowing,
from messy sharing of lives.
She has walked much
of this shadowed road before us
and has seen
the fears, the angst, the unknown
juggled with the healing, the growth, the obedience.

Eyes and heart brimming,
I could simply grin my agreement with her,
understanding anew that
sometimes His goodness points us first
toward redemption of what was broken
before it leads us to the place of goodness
we dreamt for ourselves.

Families, Children & Marriage, Restoration & Reconciliation

A long(er) view of intercultural marriage

Hiding from the rain under a tiny umbrella, my boyfriend of barely a month and I were making our way to class. We couldn’t see anything but the inside of the umbrella and our own two feet.  In the midst of a conversation about the future of our relationship, I reflected how this was what much of our relationship felt like – all we could see was the very next step. It was a simple statement, but a lesson that we have been learning ever since that day.

I’ve been reading some blogs of others in South Asian intercultural marriages here and there, and one particular post took me back to that time when my husband and I were working out the ifs of what it would look like to spend our lives together.  The question of loving each other wasn’t the problem – it was more the question of being able to commit to working out life together permanently. There was a lot of angst, questioning, talking, praying, reading.  After a long four years, we decided to take the plunge.

We’re now well over ten years in – past the questions of if to be together and well into the actual hows.  As we worked through the initial surface differences (i.e. food, race, dialect), we found ourselves in uncharted territory regarding where to go after the books we’d read stopped.  Living in a non-diverse area of the country, we found ourselves feeling isolated because of choices we made in relation to our bicultural-ness and unsure of how to connect to others without our experience.  Our hearts ached from the lack of frequency with which our children would interact with both families because of distance.  We grow weary of always being different, of still feeling like we’re navigating this boat alone.  In spite of these realities, we also know deeper levels of commitment and love than we could have even imagined when before we married.  Our friendship has grown and stretched us into more compassionate and humble people.  We wouldn’t dream of trading what we have for a simpler, more straightforward life, but we readily admit it hasn’t been an easy road. Continue reading “A long(er) view of intercultural marriage”