my heart is hard, my prayers are cold

My eyes are dry, my faith is old
My heart is hard, my prayers are cold
And I know how I ought to be
Alive to You and dead to me – Keith Green

49 people died over a week ago in a brutal shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. 53 people were injured in the attack that has circulated around our Facebook dashes and news outlets. It has re-ignited furor over the lack of gun reforms in the United States and has exacerbated anxieties regarding Islamic terrorism–relevant or not to this particular attack. Many have offered their opinions about the significance of this event, the most deadly shooting to date within the U.S. Many more have offered their prayers.

The coverage has already begun to fade into the ether of infamy as the media jumps to document the next crisis (looking at you UK).

A sense of deja’vu arises in times like these: a tragedy occurs, and out of the shock and heartbreak come the pointed fingers as everyone asks, “How could this happen? How could this happen in America?” So much focus has been fixed on the presumed Islamic connections to this attack; it has become all too easy for Americans to blame horrific events on an external group, an outside threat we can hold accountable.

We have become blind to the poison rife within our borders that results in blood. Others do not have the luxury of ignorance when Orlando represents another bookmark in an overarching narrative of rejection, alienation, and violence. The trending hashtags disappear…yet the community affected remembers.

The 49 human lives killed last week identified along the spectrum of LGBTQ identities and were predominantly people of color. No matter the soundbites popularized in the news, do not forget this crucial fact: this was a hate crime. Not an Islamic terrorist attack, not a mentally-ill person who slipped under the radar (the go-to scapegoat). This attack intentionally targeted one of the most vulnerable populations in the U.S: queer people of color.

Prayers are easy condolences to extend during tragedy. As a follower of Christ, I believe they channel great power to shape our reality and invoke the power of God in the darkest places. But there is a disturbing trend within mainstream American Christian communities that our prayers function as arms to reach out to those hurting, but our feet remain planted where we have always been. We become sign posts pointing to the suffering but unwilling to touch them. Prayer transforms into an exercise of safety, a spiritual discipline that allows us to feel empathetic and loving while expending the least amount of effort and honest reflection.

Church, we must ask ourselves if we only show up to love our LGBTQ family when they are dead. Sermons preach to “love the sinner, hate the sin,” but we are in danger of becoming so overly conscious of “hating the sin” that we render ourselves inert. I have witnessed too many insular Christian communities that pander to the principle of love and mercy for all yet fail to protect those most at risk in our country.

An estimated 40% of homeless teens identify as LGBT, many of which were kicked out of religious households (46% rejected based on sexual orientation).

In 2013, 20% of hate crimes targeted LGBT persons–and those were only the crimes reported.

Trans individuals and minorities are the most at risk for homicide and harassment. 

LGBT youth are 4 times more likely to commit suicide.

Nearly one-fifth of students in in NYC public schools have been physically assaulted because of their sexual orientation.

These bullet points only scrape the surface. To members of the LGBTQ community, these realities are nothing new. They don’t need reminders of the lived-experiences these statistics represent; it surrounds them each day as they step into spaces that could signify life or death for them.

For those of us outside of the LGBTQ community, we need to stare at these facts and not avert our eyes. Orlando happened because LGBTQ persons are not safe in our country, and many of the attitudes within our church communities contribute to that toxic environment. Just a few weeks ago, a 20-year old trans woman was burned in her car in New Orleans. The flames Westboro Baptist Church promises for people like her were forced upon her that day, leaving her trapped in a metal death cage. More trans persons have been killed so far this year than all of 2013 combined. In this country, well-meaning Christians deliberate over the increasing persecution of Christians in America. We are called names. Gay and trans people are shot and burned.

I held back from writing this post for days because I didn’t know what to say. I agonized over whether I should just be silent and let the voices of my LGBTQ family speak for themselves–that should be the priority. But I also realized that does not give me permission to check out. Being silent would do a greater injustice to not only the 49 people murdered, but to the hundreds of LGBTQ persons being marginalized every day.

Our churches have been far too silent on this subject for too long. I have been silent too long. I remember lesbian friends in elementary school who were bullied, people I was too scared to stand up for, friends now who grieve lost lives that could be their own. When gay, lesbian, and trans persons are being beaten and left for dead, where are our Samaritans? Have we forgotten that our prayers to Christ must also translate to being the hands and feet of Christ?

Words come easily enough when it’s the time to condemn LGBTQ persons and talk about their sin. On the other hand, it’s not as if compassion is absent in our churches, for most people can reach a consensus that discrimination, murder, and harassment are evil. There are also Christians who genuinely care about the LGBTQ community but don’t know how to engage it. But let us all take responsibility for our inaction.

We are too afraid of diluting our Gospel, of being seen as appeasers who “approve of the lifestyle” that we have forgotten how to empathize with others and love them with our presence. We justify our distance with theological treatises while people are suffering, and that is wrong. When an LGBTQ person shares their story, that is not our moment to castigate them inwardly while outwardly offering platitudes of “loving the neighbor.” Where is the love for them when they are alive? We send missionaries around the world to minister to the lost but will not step outside of our sanctuaries to spend time with the LGBTQ teens wandering homeless in our own cities. We should be ashamed that we have allowed so much suffering to go unrecognized in our faith communities.

I wish I could count the number of stories I’ve heard of LGBTQ persons who left the church because they experienced an isolating alienation there. Instead of existing as spaces where all people are welcome, invited to meet Jesus and learn about His love for them, our churches erect barriers with our rhetoric of anxiety and judgment. There are conversations about sexual identity we avoid on reflex, parroting news headlines as our meager contribution to the crucial dialogues others are having. Gay people are treated as special sinners, dwelling in certain neighborhoods and clubs and street corners where Christians dare not enter willingly. Partnering with any organization that affirms gay marriage is a no-no because as we know, we can’t serve the poor alongside gay people–it compromises our beliefs!

We may have the token gay co-worker or neighbor, but is our contact with those different from us validated only within the boundaries of our conditions and comfort level?

Our primary call is to love God and love our neighbors, but all too often we approach our neighbors when we feel safe to, such as times of tragedy when prayers seem fitting. But between the headlines, where are our voices? Where is our advocacy for the least of these? Are we marching against discrimination in the workplace? Are we petitioning for visitation rights for LGBTQ persons in hospitals? Are we condemning homophobic slurs and sexual harassment and holding each other accountable to that?

Some are, but not enough. Our cities on a hill shine dimly, lost in the fog of our apathy. While we debate and puzzle over interpretations of Scripture, people are dying. Our deepest convictions, the love seeded in us because of our Savior, blazes into promise when we serve them. Love is action, not sentiment endowed at crowded funerals. Love is sitting with those bleeding. Love is being a home to the homeless. Love is listening to the story of your gay neighbor and regarding it as a privilege to hear that story, not an opportunity to covert them straight.

I am tired of my own passivity regarding my LGBTQ family, family not because I identify as LGBTQ, but because we share the same Father and bear that image. That image is being desecrated in this country, and we cannot condone that anymore. Our hearts should be breaking for the sheer invisibility of the trauma LGBTQ persons experience; since we have failed to see their pain, they seek spaces where their humanity is affirmed, whether pride parades or community groups or nightclubs.

Our inaction will condemn us if we do nothing in the face of suffering. We do not need to consult a person’s theological stance or their sexual orientation in order to seek friendship with them or defend them from persecution. We testify to the abundance and all-encompassing power of God’s love when we risk the ire of our peers to pry our feet from the ground and huddle close to the marginalized in our midst. They are not our “gay friends,” tools to testify to our gracious loving selves. They are our family, and what hurts them should pierce each of our souls.

Laying down our lives for our family requires sacrifice. Sacrifice of ego, sacrifice of social safety nets, sacrifice of comfort to enter into communion, not with taboos, but with people. We have nothing to fear when we look to God to steer our actions, so why fear drawing near to the LGBTQ community when we have all confidence that this is what we are commanded to do? We talk of this amazing Jesus who invited everyone to his table, broke bread with them and befriended them, yet we get biblical amnesia when it comes to those whom we welcome into our company. The pursuit of truth is not mutually exclusive from communing with those deemed undesirable by our society; in fact, it is illuminated by our relationships with them.

We can no longer love out of moral convenience. It is time to take risks for the benefit of others and leave our comfort zones. Let’s set a new paradigm for how love is lived:

Challenge homophobic language and actions in the church, in your friend groups.

Enter into LGBTQ spaces when invited and be engaged with those there.

Listen before making assumptions about a person’s story–people are souls we have the privilege to interact with, not salvation projects.

Advocate for civil rights for LGBTQ persons. We are held accountable when they are threatened.

Go beyond sympathy. Be quick to listen and slow to speak, following God’s leading for when to speak and how.

Embody the Gospel through your friendships.

Our country is thirsty for the embodied testimonies of those who have known God’s mercy and thus pursue others boldly, ungripped by fear. Read the facts again and again. Wake up. Pray for those identifying as LGBTQ who are alive right now and ask them what they need. Then show up.

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.

This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him. And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him,and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us. – 1 John 3:16-24 

the flesh to my bones

I’m tired of seeing the suffering black body.

The TV screen blinks off, taking with it the image of yet another poor African child staring at me with wide, hollowed eyes. The melancholic instrumental in the background fades, and I am left counting how many infomercials, news stories, and movie trailers I’d seen that week featuring black people in pain. I lose count and give up.

Growing up, I perked up whenever I saw a black or brown person on my screen. With hungry eyes, I tracked their presence, noting their gestures and shifts in expression like a good budding media critic (I used to read movie reviews for fun). I internally harvested each word from their lips and reaped a satisfied feeling of affirmation with each full line. My carefully maintained stores held the Lando Calrissians, the Storms, the Ravens and Tia and Tamera Mowrys on Disney Channel, the Keesha Franklins and Susie Carmichaels on Saturday morning cartoons, and every Will Smith character of the late 90s and early 2000s.

From a young age, I taught myself to find those who looked like me because, for some reason I didn’t understand, we were missing. I saw my Caribbean family, and the black and brown people at my church, and the residents of my abuela’s South Bronx neighborhood….and I saw that all these people were missing from my screen. The movies reigning at the box office and the TV shows garnering acclaim felt empty of their particular wit and wisdom. Later I would question why each major comedy or drama seemed to adhere to an invisible quota of one person of color per ensemble (two if they were especially progressive). When I was eight, I just saw the empty spaces and wondered.

The years have brought change, no doubt about that. When we have shows like black-ish and Empire and How to Get Away With Murder that have become must-see TV and rising stars like the remarkable Lupita Nyong’o and John Boyega and Michael B. Jordan, it’s easy to believe the leaps in representation and celebrate that. Independent producers such as Netflix and Hulu now produce their own content with increasingly diverse casts, extricated from the expectations of cable networks, and there is a new generation of social media-savvy youth keeping media producers accountable by pointing out problematic racial tropes and portrayals. The soil for equity is richer for these changes.

Outwardly, the conventional skin of our screens has darkened. However, beneath it perpetuate other disturbing trends and deeper gaps lying unacknowledged. While there have been increases in the number of characters of color in media, according to a 2015 UCLA diversity report:

73.1% of the actors in the 100 top-grossing films of 2014 were white

Film studio heads were 94% white and 100% male in 2013

Television studio heads were 86% white and 55% male in 2013

Minority film writers were underrepresented by 3 to 1 in 2013

More than half (51%) of moviegoers were minorities in 2013

2016 has seen only incremental changes. With the #OscarsSoWhite controversy that brewed this year, highlighting the industry-wide racial disparities in media, and more articles pointing out the high volume of minority ticket-buyers as well as the predominantly white nature of film and TV agencies, “diversity” in media is once more a hot topic. When minorities comprise roughly 40% of the U.S. population, with numbers steadily increasingly, these statistics point to a stagnation at odds with the demographic trends of the country. Where you are seeing minorities, particularly black peoples: “ethnic-targeted” films produced by directors of color, independent films, and sitcoms. Where you see black people recognized in mainstream spaces: when they are suffering.

Out of the 88 years of its existence, the Academy Awards has awarded 14 black men and women for their film roles. That number rises to 32 when you include awards for producing, best picture, writing, music, and sound mixing (the latter two of which actually represent 37% of the awards). 95% of nominations up to this point have gone to white actors and actresses. Black individuals were nominated for roles spanning from historical figures such as Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela, musicians (Dreamgirls and Ray), soldiers (Glory), and slaves or servants (Gone With the Wind, The Help, 12 Years a Slave). More disheartening was the overwhelming number of nominations given for roles that fit into what has become an all-too-familiar narrative of black people fighting against adversity or mired in destitute and violent situations (Hotel Rwanda, Monster’s Ball, Precious, The Color Purple, Captain Philips, Blood Diamond).

These performances deserve praise. The men and women populating them are exceptional. What bothers me is that stories with black people in them receive praise often within the particular bounds of a narrative of suffering. Our streets are presented as crumbling, our children as sullen and silent, our women as beleaguered and broken. We are framed amidst a context of waning, either necessitating a coded white savior or some other inspirational means of fighting the Villainous Ensemble of Slavery, Racism, Poverty, and Prejudice, often represented by white characters meant to be the blatantly immoral antagonists (only mean people are racist after all). We are the ones positioned as lower from the outset, requiring deliverance and the audience’s tears.

In many ways, this reflects a reality where black Americans are still underrepresented among professionals and over-represented among the incarcerated. Racism and the pervasive impact of past imperialism and current corporate exploitation continue to foment poverty and division on a global scale. We are still positioned as lower, and the media we watch reminds us of that everyday.

I hesitantly scroll past the slavery documentaries on Netflix and leave a powerful performance of the play Eclipsed with a heart anchored in grief and guilt. I know these stories matter, that people are suffering, and I must wake up daily to that reality…but I am also in a thwarted position as a black American. My American privilege may protect me from the unrestricted rape and grisly warfare of other places, but my black marginalization carves paths that signify fewer opportunities for me-despite my status as a college-educated woman-and it reminds me that I am susceptible to racial violence and discrimination. My body in the the land of the free awakens in confinement. 

I am weary of these realities being outlined as the crux of my story and the stories of black people. I read about them and write about them and learn more about them because there are lives at stake besides my own, but that is a hovering cognizance that will not leave me. I don’t need Academy Awards to remind me that racism is evil, and my veins contain more than just the assurance of marginalization. I thrift shop at Goodwill, spin poetry while bouncing to Motown tunes in Central Park, screw up a final paper in procrastinated glory, sway to bachata on crowded streets, binge on Netflix, memorize Star Wars facts and elven genealogies, rant for hours with friends about singleness, pinch my extending curves with sighs, practice curly hair conditioning after consulting YouTube, blubber when I watch The Sound of Music.

The vibrancy of these details, these nuances, collected in a life not solely defined by a trampled experience needs to be inhaled to refresh our visions of black people of all socioeconomic classes and countries and colors. These details transform a stereotype into a breathing person with a distinct story. They offer the complexity of being thoroughly seen rather than pitied. They give flesh to the bones of our tropesWhy doesn’t mainstream media allow black people to be organic beings rather than skeletal frames. Our scripts run with suffering or slapstick, sorrow or sass. 

As British blogger Nikesh Shukla puts it: “I realized that white people think that people of color only have ethnic experiences and not universal experiences.” His declaration suggests that people of color are asked to resonate with white superhero gangs like the Avengers, with freedom-fighter Katniss, with the countless interchangeable leads in Nicholas Sparks love stories, but when stories of people of color emerge, they are relegated to the niche market. Our superheroes and freedom-fighters and romantics are apparently not relatable. Our stories are drenched in our otherness and therefore reserved only for people who inhabit our skins.

While there should always be a space for media oriented towards people of color, that is not mutually exclusive from white people taking the time to seek out, watch, and affirm black people in media. Just because it’s a story I can relate to better as a black woman doesn’t excuse a white media consumer to avoid films that feature predominantly black casts, dismissing them as “black films” and thus unnecessary to include in their personal canon. Though our specific experiences of race and color inevitably shape us, we are not built of archetypes like LEGO blocks. We are human and resonant yet unique and diverse in our laughter and weeping–and we should all be seen. I’m thankful for the good black films nourished in the niche market, for the black writers and producers fighting to bring our stories to the screen. But we shouldn’t settle for nesting in the niche; we should take wing to the heights.

The state of blackness in media represents a stringent tension because I need to know of black suffering, especially the types I have never experienced. I need media like Eclipsed to remind me of what goes on outside of my neighborhood, and my heart needs to be broken over what God already grieves for. I may be tired of the suffering black body, but I can never afford to avoid suffering black people, not because “they’re my age” or any resonating feature that brings them close to my experience, but simply because they are human beings that demand my acknowledgment and merit dignity in accordance to the ways their Creator formed them.

At the same time, we can acknowledge black suffering without romanticizing it or conferring it as the only definition of black life. Black stories transcend the impetus to white guilt and the assumption of progessivism. We can put my father on the screen. My friends. My church members. My co-workers. Not to be mocked, not to be side-kicks or servants, but to display the complicated, detailed brilliance of themselves. To afford the privilege of being realized as dimensional beings with mistakes, wounds, quirks, and little triumphs rather than quotas to fill or tokens to appease audiences of color.

I need to see what wanes, but when I wax like the moon and cradle shadows in my craters, I want you to see all of it.

 

 

scaling heights, finding home

“¿Cuáles son tus esperanzas y sueños por ti mismo? ¿Para tus niños?”

“Espero poder ir a la Universidad y que mis hijos seguirán aprendiendo e ir a la escuela por lo que hacen la mayoría de oportunidades aquí…”

Her eyes honed in on mine as she spoke of her hopes and dreams for herself and her children, unwavering gaze carrying the conviction of her words. The kids were running around the padded front area of the public school where my church had set up its first community health fair, and I was conducting interviews to start collecting some of the stories of residents in the Washington Heights area. I met the gaze of the person sitting before me, a middle-aged Ecuadorian woman whose persistent feet had crossed borders and whose round fingers had crafted this vision of a new future for her family. She talked about the high rents in the neighborhood, the difficulty of helping your children with their homework when you yourself never finished high school. Pulling through the haze of merengue blaring in the background, I leaned closer to her, and her story seeped in.

Listening to her story and those of others reminded me of when I feared the Heights. Not a paralyzing sort of fear, but a self-conscious discomfort that made my heart race as I stumbled through the crowds on a heady summer day. It was my first time traveling alone in the area, a black Latina preteen from the fenced suburbs outside of the city. My usual companion-my abuela-was on an errand, but she waved me onward to take on the bustling streets of Washington Heights, so with lips pressed tight in a tangle of nerves and determination…I did.

My steps studded with apologies as I bumped into mothers gripping chattering children with both hands and men with shades yelling Spanish into the phones pressed to their ear. I tried to tiptoe around the garbage strewn on the street and lowered my eyes, fixating on the feet on those who passed me rather than faces that might hold only danger. Vendors pressed towards me from both sides, shaking gold chains in my face and pointing to greasy pastelitos being drawn hot from the oil. I felt swarmed.

Heat leaving sweaty trails on my burning skin, I started to panic. Nothing was home, only vaguely familiar like a song you’ve heard once and could tolerably dance to if forced. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t spent time in a Dominican neighborhood before, but being stuck in the middle of one alone and without a tether to grip brought old worries to the surface. Weren’t these the kinds of places the news radio kept going on about being dangerous? The word of choice for my friends and I in the suburbs would have been “sketchy.” This was definitely sketchy, I thought as I saw a hand reaching towards my purse (was it real or imagined?). Suddenly the images of threatening brown men with leering faces seemed all too present, and I found my hand flapping for a taxi. I exhaled only when I stepped inside my abuela’s apartment, and the street sounds dissipated.

I cringe now when I think of the relief I once felt in leaving the Heights, concluding that I had been rescued from the risks it posed. Neighborhoods like that were places to stop by when visiting Abuela, not places to linger in without a native escort. I was no native, crippled with stilted Spanish and intimidated when unfamiliar brown bodies loomed over my own brown self. My rational self sensed these people would never hurt me; the self steeped in Rush Limbaugh and fearful gazes at the day laborers that stalked the sidewalks of my neighborhood feared them. I could count my Latino friends on one hand and was stalwartly convinced illegal immigrants were breaking the law and that was that.

Fear prickled my consciousness because these people were not Known to me. Despite being Dominican and brown and black, I saw them as the distant Other and penned them in my mind as such. Relying on the news and the conversations swirling around my peers, I decided who These People were and how close I could be to them. This was partly out of insecurity because I did not feel like an authentic Latina–I could not belong to them, no matter my family bloodlines. It was also a way for me to protect myself in a world where I was conscious of my skin color and the traits attached to others who shared it.

Criminals. Thugs. Leeches. Aliens.

The most terrifying part of this attitude is what results when it manifests in a group of people. When a group shares a collective fear of the Other and exchanges reasons to justify distancing themselves from it (yes, it), whether based on a handful of headlines or hearsay, the lines are dug, dividing communities, countries, churches. The Other no longer belongs to our common humanity; instead it is the invader to send back, the threat to barricade out.

Fear materializes out of the void where no relationships exist. It feeds on the theoretical, the disconnected statistics thrown into a debate, the single story extracted out of a neighborhood, a people, bloated with condemnations and anxieties. It makes us believe that our daily life exists in a blissful vacuum, detached from gang warfare and mothers on welfare and violent urban kids ruining our nation. We allow the exceptions to take shelter under our roofs, the ones who “make it out,” the articulate black friend in our church or the college-educated Mexican neighbor who worked her way up like a good American. We tether ourselves to the perceived singularities as our threads to the communities they represent fray.

It is much easier to judge a group of people when your ties to them are tenuous. The moment they become feet and hands that harm instead of faces that can smile and crumple in grief like yours do, that is the moment you can rationalize dismissing their protests and shouts and petitions. The reasons they are there, the motivations for their anger and weeping will no longer matter once we have decided they do not belong to us.

I needed to hear the story of the Ecuadorian mother who graciously took the time to sit with me. I was not entitled to the narrative of her life in all its details, but in seeking her out, it was a step towards knowing her, and knowing one small piece of Washington Heights. These stories puncture the bubble of privilege and ignorance that have shielded me from the things she has experienced, myths and truths meeting in the air between us and ready to sort through.

Es una bendición that God continues to humble me with the constant reminder that I do not get to decide whom I belong to. As a follower of Christ and someone aiming to reflect his radical hospitality and love, I don’t get to choose to exclude my fellow Latinos, my Muslim neighbors, from my home. It’s not even my home–it’s His. The nexus of friendships and life-ties that form my world must encompass not only all those He places in my proximity, but also those outside of it who necessitate my prayers and my presence as they struggle for equity and recognition and justice.

The fear that reflexively rejects others is not of God. Neither is the type of anxiety that compels us to draw the familiar close and reinforce walls to keep the Other away from us. We can stack political arguments and cite recent events to rationalize our distance, but when we can’t even acknowledge the humanity of those we reject, we disparage the Imago Dei imprinted on those very peoples we reduce to They and Them. Our statistics and arguments ring hollow when we are uninformed and unaquainted with the lived experiences of others. 

The dividing wall of hostility has already been broken. Intentional acts to move towards each other’s experiences, without defensiveness, without assumptions, startles us into the realization that our stories are already interconnected. The Other takes on a name, changes my conversations, alters my vote. I invite them to inform me, I educate myself about their experiences, and I bring them to my dinner table.

Far from the foreign streets I once walked, Washington Heights soon becomes another home because the people I now love live there.