A White Christian Wrestles With Race

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In my Catholic elementary school, there were three minorities, all Hispanic.

I lived in the country, and my neighbors were white. All of them.

My teachers emphasized repeatedly and strongly that skin color was irrelevant in the eyes of God. I remember singing “What Color is God’s Skin?” (this version) in music class. But as I’ve said before, it’s a different thing to believe something in the abstract than it is to put it into practice. I always believed in equality. But for a long time, I failed to admit that inequality is still a real thing.

This summer while I was in Cincinnati for the pastoral music convention, my roommate and I took a couple hours off to walk down to the riverfront and visit the National Underground Railroad museum. What I hadn’t realized before that trip was that when you’re on the riverbank in Cincinnati, you are standing in free country looking at slave country. It gave an entirely new significance to those beautiful old homes across the river.

I said in that last post that I have been wrestling with race my entire adolescence and especially in adulthood. What does that mean, exactly? It means wrestling with unacknowledged attitudes, the essential segregation of my life, the knowledge that I should be trying to bridge those barriers, the introvert’s dread of doing so, the assumptions I don’t even know I’ve made, the “here’s how the world works” factors I take for granted that I assume must be the same for everyone, and especially, the slowly-dawning, horrifying realization that that last is not true at all.

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This structure is the center of the museum. It’s a building where slaves were held between legs of their journey or before sale. We were watching videos and reading signs alongside an African American family, and both my friend and I felt the same need to apologize. We didn’t do it. But we felt the compulsion. I know many people don’t buy into the “reparations” idea, but it’s hard not to feel the weight of your own privileged skin color, hard not to wonder if you would have had the courage to stand up for justice, when you’re face to face with this building.

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In the past few years I have had the incredible privilege of getting to know a handful of families who immigrated from Africa. I love these people. They constantly amaze me with the strength of their faith and their community, their generosity and openness. They have enriched my life and opened my heart in so many ways.

And all the questions of race, profiling, neo-Nazis, violence, police brutality–everything in the news seems so much more frightening to me now that I have entered into relationship with people who are really impacted by these issues.

Because let’s face it: it’s not going to impact me or my kids. Not directly, anyway. And it would be all too easy to sit back and say, “It’s sad, but what am I supposed to do about it? I don’t support neo-Nazis, so none of this is really my problem.”

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This painting, representing lives lost on the crossing from Africa to America, still brings tears to my eyes.

But it is our problem. Because even those of us who don’t want to believe or admit it have spent our entire lives benefiting from being white in a white-controlled world. None of us like to be challenged to examine our assumptions and the biases we don’t even recognize in our attitudes, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

And if there are still enough white supremacists in our midst to populate a rally that can turn violent, then we as whites have failed in our responsibility as Christian parents to form our children. We have settled into our mostly-segregated, comfortable worlds and not forged relationships across racial lines for ourselves and our children. We have turned a blind eye to Christ in the face of people whose skin color is different than our own—not for any malicious reason, but because it’s awkward and hard.

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Smart phone camera. What can I say? But I didn’t delete the photo, and I include it here because even for me, a white woman, walking into the room and facing this costume felt like a sucker punch. It’s not okay for us to pretend we have no role and no responsibility in improving the world. Too much evil has been done in the name of preserving “white supremacy.” If we don’t stand up against what is being done in our name, we’re enabling the problem.

But wrestling with things that are awkward and hard is the way of the Cross. It’s the only way we become better—as individuals, as a Church, as a world. Pretending racism doesn’t exist—in the world, yes, but even in ourselves—is simply unacceptable. This is part of our duty as Christian disciples. And frankly, given the state of our country, I think it ought to be considered among the most important duties we have right now.

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When My Life Is Good, But So Many Others’ Lives…Aren’t.

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Photo by KOREA.NET, via Flickr

Photo by KOREA.NET, via Flickr

I dreamed last night that I met Pope Francis. Well, not so much met as happened to be standing right there when he blew by, laughing and carrying, of all things, a part of a broken toilet that needed to be thrown away. I was supposed to be meeting up with a friend from grad school to attend a concert. And I was supposed to be meeting up with my family, too. But I couldn’t find either one, so I was standing at the back of a long, grand church and clerics were processing out, and suddenly there he was: the pope, wearing jeans and a blue t-shirt, covered with a black plastic hair cutting wrap and hurrying by with a big smile and a carefree laugh and an utter lack of concern about dignity.

And I woke up so happy.

Lately I haven’t felt like I could deal with the news, so I’ve been ignoring it. But I knew I couldn’t go on like that forever. All of us who thought, “At least it’ll be over after the election” were totally wrong. I’m beginning to realize we’re entering a time of ongoing struggle for identity in our country. Me and conflict don’t get on well. (Is that grammatically correct? Whatever. I’m supposed to be writing off the cuff this year.) Interpersonal conflict, internal conflict, philosophical and moral conflict—the situation in our country now involves every blessed one.

It’s hard to recognize how good my life is—despite my propensity for complaining—and how, in contrast, many people are suddenly facing situations I can’t even imagine. People who did everything right and are still being penalized for their ethnicity.

I’ve been growing more conscious in recent months of race and wrestling with how to get past the hurdles that separate us. I made a new friend last week who spent a long time talking with me about it, and who affirmed my ability to bridge those gaps, at least on a person to person level.

But since I came home from the composers’ forum last week, I have re-entered the news cycle and found my joy in the immense blessings of my life taking a beating. It feels insensitive to share my joy with my friends when so many people are suffering from upheaval and a fear I can’t begin to comprehend, because my life is so far removed from it.

How can I focus on how great my life is when Jewish community centers are getting systematic bomb threats? When so many people have to tiptoe through their days, knowing people are going to put the worst spin on everything they say or do because their skin is brown instead of white? (This is not made up, by the way, as much as the white community would like to brush it off. People I know and care about have told me about it personally. Just because we don’t have a common frame of reference to comprehend it doesn’t mean it’s not real.)

And then there’s this: at a basketball game on Saturday night, my five-year-old saw two men in uniforms and said, “Mommy, there are police officers.” “Would you like to go meet them?” I asked, and he said, “No. I’m afraid they’ll shoot me.” Of course, he’s also afraid of Truman the Tiger, so maybe I shouldn’t overreact to that comment. Still, what future are we preparing, if this is what our communal actions are teaching the next generation?

How does a Christian respond to the suffering of others? I share your sorrow, all of you out there stuck in situations dire and bleak and getting more so by the day. But I know I can’t possibly feel it as keenly as you do. Nor do I know what to do next. I have no faith at all in politics, and even at a personal level, how do we engage in productive dialogue when so many people only hurl fallacies, biases and out-of-context facts at each other across the great abyss?

Pope Francis’ presence in my dream—the joy, the humility, and above all the fact that he had clearly been fixing a toilet—a symbol of small and practical, un-flashy things—was a signal to me of hope. A reminder that my job isn’t to impact political systems but to be the hands and feet of Christ, person to person, and trust God to put me where I need to be.

No Easy Answers

Syrian refugees: A Christian’s Responsibility

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Friday afternoon, Nicholas sulked and glowered and procrastinated and found a dozen ways to avoid having to–gasp–clean the bathroom sinks.

Image by CAFOD Photo Library, via Flickr

At last I snapped at him to think about the children who were crossing the sea in an inner tube in November and sleeping in the woods because it was too dangerous for them to stay in their homes, and then think about whether he really had any reason to be feeling put-upon.

I never heard another complaint.

In the past week, there has been an awful lot of hysteria around the topic of Syrian refugees, and I decided that my #smallthingsgreatlove act for today would be to take a stand.

To begin with, there’s this graphic:

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With a thoughtful article accompanying it from the Washington Post.

And another, addressing the accusation that the whole line of argument is a non-sequitur.

No matter what we do, we will never…never…never be totally secure. It doesn’t exist, people. It just doesn’t. We can’t live in fear. Nor can we close our eyes and pretend we don’t have a responsibility as the Body of Christ, to the body of Christ.

Because THIS is what we are ignoring.

It seems to me, from my limited grasp of the world and its history, that we in the United States have always been insulated from the problems of our fellow human beings by virtue of those two ponds separating us from Europe, Asia, and Africa. It’s too easy for us to view things as “Not My Problem.” That as long as Those People and the terrorists who must surely be hiding within their ranks aren’t within the borders of the U.S., nothing bad will ever happen to us, and as for everyone else? Well, it’s a shame, but again, Not My Problem.

I get it–I really do. The fear of having our safe corner rendered as unsettled the rest of the world is understandable. But safety is too easy to elevate to the status of idol, and for those who profess to follow Christ, that is, as I frequently tell my kids: NOT OKAY.

Now, I’m well aware that my little blog post is unlikely to change anyone’s mind on whether refugees should or shouldn’t be allowed into our spacious, but insular, corner of the globe. But look, we have very little say on that issue, anyway. That decision is made at the federal level. The entire discussion is a distraction from the real issue, which is this:

If we claim to be Christians, we have a responsibility to act.

This is Thanksgiving week–a time for us to stop and look around and recognize the incredible bounty that surrounds us. That bounty is not ours by some divine, inalienable right. Our very blessing involves a responsibility to use wisely what have been given to help ease the suffering of others. (Remember that parable about the talents?)

So here are just a handful of the ways I’ve seen posted by which ordinary people can make a difference.

This week I learned of Samaritan’s Purse, an international aid organization, through this video shared on Facebook:

Samaritan’s Purse is here.

Travel community Trekaroo says:

Start your all your Amazon shopping from Trekaroo’s Amazon Affiliate Link. Regardless of what you buy on Amazon and Trekaroo will donating 50% of all our Amazon commissions to Syrian Refugee Relief  with World Vision through Dec 31, 2015

If you’d rather skip the middleman, here’s the link to WorldVision (our family has donated through WorldVision before, which means it passed my husband’s rigorous criteria for charities).

Travel-with-kids writer Amy Whitley lays out the reasons why she won’t let fear govern her life.

This woman started a campaign to provide baby carriers to refugees. And to piggyback on that, they now do more than just baby carriers.

And I will close with this: The World is Scary As Hell. Love Anyway.