on the other side of empire 

Never an honest word

But that was when I ruled the world – “Viva La Vida,” Coldplay

Greatness. Buzzword of the 2016 election, it casts resplendent visions of either America’s industrious past or its progressive future. Republicans and Democrats alike twist in rhetorical gymnastics to grasp the word that could frame their argument for what America should become. Both sides camber our history to supplement their vision, give hands and feet, wood and grit to the past that will pave the future. The histories taught and remembered breach an ever-widening cavity between the peoples of our nation; it’s a question of memory, and more importantly, what we choose to remember.

In my last blog post, I grieved the lack of a common historical narrative in my country, the lack of a unified embrace of the past in both its achievements and its deficiencies. This election reflects that stark division as it becomes more and more evident how differently Americans understand what our country was and what it is today. Acknowledging that history equates to an assemblage of diverse perspectives funneled to provide illumination upon past events, how do we reconcile the differences when the potential for reconciliation as a nation now teeters on a glacial ledge?

We first point to the elephant and donkey in the room: our assumed greatness is overshadowed by our abuses of power.We do not want to see this, decrying it as a “dark” view of America, harsh and unyielding, but to scale upwards, away from the ledge, we must comprehend the scale of our sins:

Our nation birthed out of the exploitation of indigenous peoples, propping up doctrines of discovery to rationalize genocide and innumerable broken treaties. We called them savages and herded them into the penned scant of land they reside today–and we expect them to prosper there.

Our nation thrived off the theft of human bodies branded inferior because of a racial system calculated to justify the superiority of lighter-skinned peoples. Americans with lighter skin became “White” and accumulated financial and social advantages. Those relegated to “Black” accumulated struggle. Both became peoples socially contrived for estrangement.

Our nation expanded by latching onto the lands settlers coveted, leaving burned plains, buffalo carcasses, and the bodies of those whose ancestors once named the mountains and rivers. The trauma of that history endures.

Our nation built itself by engineering ethnic bodies to construct its railroads and develop its technology and cultivate its fields. Then it marched them to the gates when they were no longer convenient labor.

Our nation set its moral plane by declaring its intention to welcome all “the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” yet it barred those labeled undesirable, our anxiety cataloged from anti-Irish policies to the Chinese Exclusion Act to current anti-refugee sentiments, collective inaction, and Islamophobia.

Now our nation holds sway over nations in the Caribbean and Pacific. Those peoples still cannot vote for the President, a person across the sea whose agenda will shape their own lands–much like the rally of colonies that once railed against a distant King during the first crawls of our country.

Now our nation intervenes in hundreds of Third World countries: setting up and deposing dictators in Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East; turning a blind eye to the exploitative business practices of transnational corporations in South America; installing bases for what some suggest amounts to a global network of militarized overseers.

I stop here because one blog post cannot contain the scope of centuries. I offer a cursory overview only, the introductory monologue to the complex American stories absent from our films and speeches and classrooms.

I also use the pronouns “our” and “we” intentionally, stepping back from the reflex to detach myself from these past events because “my ancestors didn’t do it.” As an American citizen,  I reap the benefits winnowed from these bales of policies and practices. My harvest is complicated by the fact that I am a Black and Latina woman, a daughter of immigrants, but I align myself with these histories in order to take accountability for the spoiled generational yields of my country.

No nation abides in perfection. I do not diagram my nation’s offenses to condemn it to the grave. The United States encompasses its freedoms and opportunities too, virtues that drew my parents here. However, within the political arena, thrust like a shield by gladiators on the convention floor, the word “greatness” all too often obscures the wrongs committed. Whatever political sides we fall on, we must exercise caution so that in our eagerness to proclaim the triumphs of our country, we do not stumble into the same patterns of our American progenitors, seized by ignorance and misplaced pride.

Our nation’s pedestal of power has always borne a cost. Keeping it “great,” making it greater in the ways advertised this election season may require more of the putty of marginalized bodies to cement the bricks. Reggae artist Ziggy Marley once sang: “Don’t know your past, don’t know your future,” and the lyrics ring true for America. Our historical amnesia prevents us from understanding what acts shaped the contours of our national identity…and who we mutilated in the process.

We live in an Empire, a land stoking the fires of conflict because of our very birth. Our rise to power is steeped in the blood of indigenous peoples, black peoples. It is creased into the callouses of Latinx and Asian immigrants. It is sunk in the scarred wallows of the lands we conquered.

In reading the Bible, the rise and fall of empires emerges as a constant theme. We see Egypt, then Babylon, then Rome. Similar descriptors accompany the role of empires in Scripture; they are portrayed as realms where injustice, depravity, and persecution abound. With each ascent of empire comes the portents of their imminent collapse, ridden with crumbling towers and lands laid waste as God rectifies injustice. Liberation theologians touch on this theme, pointing out God’s consistency in overturning oppressive systems and once-lofty kingdoms. The greatness posed by these empires was doomed from the outset because the willful ignorance and inaction of their citizens sustained their decay. If America has forged itself into the new Empire, where then are we headed?

I do not desire to see my country collapse into ruin, its buildings made dust. I live here, my friends and family live here, and I want it to be a place where all peoples have the opportunity and resources to flourish. But as an insider on the other side of empire, I acknowledge how my nation has grieved God in the way it has treated the least of these: the immigrant, the poor, the widowed, the hungry. We have not listened to them when they speak out about their oppression (the sheer number of protests against immigration reform and #BlackLivesMatters points to this failing). We have not mourned their bodies. That inaction has molded our present situation: We are being judged by those we have wronged, and how those wounds throb.

Donald Trump prods the rankled fears of an empire confronted by its own past. The great issues now shaping American discourse spring from the narrative of our particular empire. Every problem is sown from our sordid history, whether it be the dissension centered on issues of racial inequality, the charged discussions around undocumented immigration, the anxieties fixed on ISIS terrorist acts, the weariness over our economic recession. There are reasons why so many white Americans are disillusioned, discouraged, and angry, why they seek leadership that will dispel the hurt and make our nation “great” again.

Through the eyes of many conservative, particularly white Americans, our country is a noble land threatened by outsiders leeching resources and religious extremists demanding American blood. Some of them have seen their own towns and cities emptied of economic promise, have seen headlines of police officers shot and then the juxtaposed images of black people rioting. Moving to reclaim a past vision of American splendor makes sense in this light. People’s anxieties mount when the story behind our nation’s problems feels hidden–or worse, incomplete. Scapegoating the people (usually minorities) that appear to complain and create more problems provides a quick solution to displace the fear. Once  the obstacles are removed, America can be restored to a moral and prosperous land.

But the problem of our nation’s current course is not isolated to conservative Republicans. Many Democrats also capitalize on the yearning for American greatness, contextualized within calls for social reform and economic overhaul. Reform is no evil. Changes in unjust policies should be encouraged to address the needs of disenfranchised peoples; however, I question our national impulse to seek “greatness” when the pursuit of this brand of medication exacerbates our illness. My diagnosis: our Empire, conceived in corrupt policies and sustained by an inoculating stream of romanticized histories, has been sick for a very long time. Now that America is thrashing on the operating table, we are divided in understanding the origins of its disease.

Our nation, mired in racism, xenophobia, and economic disparity, threatened by the ire of countries across the sea, is now being judged by the least of these, the survivors of our empire–and we have been found wanting. How do we respond to the brokenness we have generated? Too many Americans clutch their opinions to their chests, afraid that one word from those hurting will unravel everything they thought true about our country. They are afraid of what knowing the truth will cost them. I empathize with those of us on that journey of waking up to those histories; the process goes beyond disorientation–it is exhausting.

The route to resuscitation, awakening to the raw realities of our nation, can lead to despair. I have agonized over the sheer breadth of my country’s sins, haunted by those still experiencing the impact of those violations–including my own ethnic communities. In those moments, I feel helpless; the shadow of America looms large.

There is another way of waking to a tarnished inheritance: repentance. It is the antidote to moral paralysis, the path of conviction rather than guilt. Repenting as a community for national wrongs committed rips the veil between convenient ideals and harrowing truths and calls us to change, by increments, between conversations, page by page of learning, and in great leaps so we can contribute to others’ welfare. As beneficiaries (and also victims) of this empire, we are in the position to ignite transformation.

When a community commits to the process of repentance, they choose to recognize the tragedy of their past and present acts and look into the faces of those wronged. We acknowledge how our actions-and those of our ancestors-established an abusive cycle of interaction between our peoples, and in humility we pursue justice with them. Part of this process necessitates submitting to the authority of our non-Western neighbors, the colonized and exploited. Other countries have already engaged in Truth and Reconciliation commissions to address national sins and establish new relationships between estranged peoples. Our nation has not–yet.

We must galvanize our local and national leaders to prioritize this movement towards repentance and true reconciliation. The work begins in our own lives, eddying to our churches and neighborhoods. We can re-learn our histories, widen ourselves to accommodate changing paradigms, and then allow them to alter our daily routines and political actions. We can ask better questions and seek truth. Instead of fearing a diversified and browner America, we can open up the spaces of seated power in our country to include non-majority people (people of color, women, those of low socioeconomic status, immigrants) in Congress, in Christian leadership conferences, in films and television without denouncement or self-conscious remarks about it being “PC” or a “liberal agenda.” It is an agenda, but not one that white Americans should fear, nor one staked by liberals. This is a plan for prosperity, a biblical blueprint for restoration so that all lives touched by our country thrive…and it requires our participation.

Counter to what early colonists testified, America is no Promised Land. We are not the great Christian nation struggling to get its bearings–we are broken. However, we can embody a land promising integrity and love in our future actions. Repentance is the trail of tears we must tread, surrendering to the God who will redeem a history of strife so we can radiate the best of our identity: the kaleidoscope of immigrants from every corner of the world and resilient cultures sown from our own soil. Since our nation is great in influence, wealth, and reach, we are in a position to model to the world what it looks like to be great from a position of deference, not to threats or collectives with evil intent, but to our own illusions of superiority.

Just think: what would it look like for our nation to seek forgiveness for rash militarized interventions in the Middle East? What would it look like for America to give reparations for the Black livelihoods forever altered by slavery? What would it look like for our country to acknowledge its broken treaties and restore land to the First Nations? What would it look like for Americans to petition for liberation and political rights for our neighbors living in the conquered territories? What would it look like for us to welcome refugees and immigrants and open our homes to them? If this seems radical to you, maybe your imagination needs renovation.

Won’t laying down power make America weak? If we are this anxious about losing our status as global superpower, maybe we never deserved the power in the first place. Instead of seeking the peaks, we should move towards the valleys where the marginalized peoples crowd. We have much to learn from those we have wronged, and their voices in our histories will inform our future domestic and foreign policies. It does not make us weak to lay down this power of being the loudest and largest in the room; it makes us wise. This does not entail dismissing external threats like ISIS; neither does it diminish the complexity of our economic problems. In contrast, when we cultivate an awareness of where our nation is positioned and why, we can use that knowledge to chart a just course with eyes fully opened.

Progress does not always equal expansion; instead, it can signify letting go of long-fortified privileges to create space for the people who need it most to flourish. Like energy, nothing is lost or destroyed. They gain, and we all become greater for it.

In his convicting work Prophetic Lament, Soong-Chan Rah explains that the book of Lamentations challenges us to “…accept historical reality and to embrace God’s sovereignty over history.” Taking it a step further, he exposes the systems of oppression that the church has participated in and suggests that now is the time for American Christians to “relinquish a historical dominance and embrace a greater mutuality, equality and reciprocity in twenty-first-century world Christianity.” I echo his call that now is the time for Americans to take ownership of our past and reach deeply into it to find the stepping stones to justice and unity. Rather than remaining captive to leaders who blurt quick and antagonistic answers to placate Americans’ fears, we must be willing to take the aching and arduous journey of lament.

Our national debt runs deep, and I encourage each of us to take the time to mourn the events that brought us here. Lament moves into repentance once we see clearly where we’ve gone wrong. Then with open hands we lay our nation before God and seek ways to restore the broken shalom with the nations, with our own peoples, whom we have injured. Our country still grips the power to shape the destinies of other countries; we must learn to steward that power better, lay it down if God wills it. This is how an empire kneels. This is how we become a land of the free.

 

 

the house in flames 

I watched a tree murdered once. Sixteen years old, cowering behind a rocky outcrop, I stood frozen as two teenage boys, stretched tall and wiry, thrust themselves at a spindly shoot of a tree. They shoved their bodies at the trunk, and it swung through the air like a broken pendulum, its limbs flailing, waving for help. Eyes wide, I trembled from the weight of expectation, the overriding thought that I should do something. 

Cracking open, the base split from the tree’s body, and wood splintered and burst into the air. The ground quaked as the body slammed to the ground, leaves thrashing. The boys sauntered away; the forest fell silent. The sound of my locked-up scream whined in my head in an endless loop. Stepping closer to the fallen tree, I brushed my fingers against the grooved bark; shame halted the movement.

That day cemented my understanding that I was not a warrior. My grandmother the Dominican activist fought for unnumbered causes. She has marched and protested and written treatises and demonstrated before crowds–and was jailed for it more than once. My aunt and mother in their own ways assert themselves and trace those matriarchal footprints. But I struggled to question even the most petty of subjects: I couldn’t even advocate for my own paycheck when I received the wrong amount. As for the more dire concerns of the world…I gave them over to the Brave Ones willing and equipped to confront them.

But for those of us fearful of taking action, what is the threshold of threat where we will finally choose take a stand?

My threshold was not breached. It eroded, weathered away by previously buried histories absorbed in Sociology courses, racist comments on forum boards, the littered evidence of multigenerational poverty in the South Bronx, my first visit to a native reservation. And then, shooting by shooting, it was held together only by a vein of trepidation. I could no longer sit passively when the reality of injustice became all too blatant, all too real. Not everyone has the luxury of learning this so late.

When you are exposed to the suffering of others, remaining blind and tucked in the world you once knew becomes a violent act in itself. You must respond or you risk waiting for faces to haunt you each night with should’ves and could’ves looming like the specters of dead oaks. You cannot fix all the problems you see, but the unwillingness to discover your role in movements confronting oppression is a blade that cuts into those vulnerable to those entrenched forms of injustice. They fight and wait for their cause to engender enough attention so their environment alters; removing yourself from assisting the battle ensures more of their losses. There is no safe distance from the fray–only distance.

Sometimes we only act under the perception that the situation affects us directly. Our news coverage and school textbooks are adept in creating “black issues” and “gay issues,” allowing us a free pass to avoid engagement with “issues” that do not pertain to our daily life. We catalogue situations of suffering in abstracted, individualistic terms and expect the relevant communities to get their act together and deal with them. Unless they are stealing our jobs or killing people who look like us, we can relegate the event to the backburner.

With relationship emerges impact: A black friend shares their story about being frisked by police. A Latino co-worker explains feeling positioned like a criminal. A Muslim neighbor receives dirty looks condemning her as an ally to terrorists. Engaging these stories is necessary, but what we fail to realize is that other’s states of marginalization are personal–they have always been personal. We are discouraged by our categorical distance from excavating the connections already founded. We can base our allyship on more than just the tally of our ethnic friends.

The xenophobia experienced by Arab/Middle Eastern peoples connects to my protection as an American justified by unwieldy U.S. interventions in the Middle East. The deaths of black men and women at the hands of fear-triggered police officers relates to a white person’s erasure of cultural identity, caused by the creation of Whiteness as a superior label (see: why cultural appropriation is a thing). The struggles of Latin American immigrants finding work in the U.S. ties to my daily life as a consumer shaped by global economic structures like NAFTA that have exploited their homelands. These are the stories of Us, complicated and taut with tension.

You don’t need to be an intellectual or a historian to know these communal histories; all they do is replace the ones handed to us as children. These communal histories have been lost under the veneer of noble Founding Fathers and frontier-eager pioneers and patriotic soldiers “taking back” land entitled to them (have we apologized to Hawaii or Mexico for that?)…but we can reclaim them. Trees have fallen in forests, their deaths unacknowledged except by those who knew them. We can choose to inhabit those perspectives of history and re-evaluate our national story. The knowledge is ready for access through the stories of our neighbors, the truth already encapsulated in our nation’s primary documents. Filling in the gaps with humility enables us to see the circuitry between our peoples and take responsibility for those within our national sphere and global nexus.

Knowing these stories prevents us from rushing into actions that will harm vulnerable communities as our ignorance will not rationalize their pain. In our current political climate, recognizing the implications of such histories would radically define our policies so the anxiety over the Other would not determine our path forward. If enough people are unwilling to listen, the dominant narrative will remain a glorious American mansion shrunken from the misguided acts of people of color, immigrant peoples, Muslim peoples. If no one challenges this story, our house remains divided.

We are finite of time and capacity, but we must allow God to convict us of what we were once unaware. Once convicted, we act and share what we know with others missing out on the knowledge that could rattle faulty foundations. With access to that knowledge, we allow our eyes to pry open and truly see the house in which we live–and how our neighbors, those we are commanded to love, are suffering within it. The house is wider and more broken than we ever imagined.

When I watched the tree’s murder, I thought the path of activism was the protest march. I thought petitions and shouting and demonstrations were the daring acts I was too hesitant to enter into, and because I didn’t do everything, I failed to help anybody. I grew frustrated with myself until I realized there are varied ways to enter the fray, some simultaneous, all demanding courage. We must only be faithful to that of which we are called each moment, whether podium, protest, or the page. This is not an excuse to exert the least amount of effort or pass the cup to others we perceive as better suited. We each have been given gifts to harness for the benefit of others and people to speak to, whether our own communities or people of different backgrounds–or both.

For myself, the path of the writer can be that of a warrior. With words, I pierce the ground to find my nation’s roots, even as headlines of more evil acts rally in hordes. I write because there is a spiritual battle in my country where truth is trampled in favor of self-preservation. Too many grasp at walls and guns as the first line of defense, not Christ. The enemy capitalizes on the anxieties of white people, whispering that Those People will lead to their destruction, will annihilate their way of life unless expunged. The enemy magnetizes the grief of people of color, finding ways to incite violence and further division out of legitimate hurt. The walls of this house shake under the weight.

In her introduction to The House on Mango Street, Chicana author Sandra Cisneros writes:

We do this [write] because the world we live in is a house on fire, and the people we love are burning in it

Through the scald of flames spreading, the air thick and choking, I write. Wood splinters above me, beams threatening to topple, and I know there are other rooms in this house and people trapped within them. Some already pound on the walls, seeking cracks in the walls and ceiling to draw in unsmoked breath; some find it. But the flames wreath the walls like a hideous crown, a sign of victory for the forces that seek to divide and conquer.

Sandra Cisneros’ words build the infernal house in my head, my consciousness illuminated by fires tended by years of silence. My fear is ever present, my desire to save myself from other’s opinions and rejection, but my love for those trapped transcends it. I write, praying that my words will thrash at the weak points in the structure so people will someday leave freely or hold up the roof long enough so others can escape and find deliverance for those left behind. I cling to the hope that those inside will unite and find a space wide enough for everyone to enter the open air.

My country is a house in flames, and I write so the people I love will not burn.

respite

I learned in a social work course about grief, loss, and bereavement that the stages of grief do not exist. I watched my classmates’ eyes widen as the professor explained with an irreverent toss of hand that there is no slow, steady progression through the realms of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Grief is a river hitting bends and drops; it is an ocean in thrall and then unexpectedly placid. No expectations should be imposed on the grieving process by an outsider-even a social worker-because no one will experience loss in the same way.

This knowledge galled me. I am used to fixing things–the vestiges of my teenage savior-complex coupled with a once insatiable thirst for perfectionism. Asking questions like bullet points and preparing conclusions on lined paper, I bask in the certainty and security of what is known to me, what I can figure out and puzzle solutions to address. People can be understood for anyone with the willingness to listen, and the effects of any problem can fit neatly into a preexisting model.

My practiced patterns fly apart on the night before I’m headed back to the U.S. mainland from vacation abroad, and I see the Alton Sterling video. Until that point, I had avoided seeing videos of any previous police shootings. I see this one, and my heart sinks like lead.

I return to the U.S and the Philando Castile video materializes. Though an inner voice pleads with me to stop looking, I watch news segments where white lawyers and political agents with stone faces try to find some way to justify these men’s deaths. As my Facebook feed becomes an endless sprawl of articles, posts from my friends of color about the racism in this country, posts that vibrate with rage and sorrow, grief in that moment means a simmering anger triggered by every word related to race. Beneath my smiles and daily living routines, I rattle with fury.

Not again. Not again…

Then, suddenly, the overwhelming weight of everything wrong with my country drags me down, down and there are no words, nothing to make it disappear. I’m still on vacation, but I lock myself in a bathroom in a Texas mall and try to stifle the sound of my tears. Afterwards, I crumple toilet paper to rub the evidence away and re-enter the world a composed black woman.

This past week, these past years have awakened me to the reality of what being a black, a Latina woman in this country means. Before, determined to view my surroundings with a brightened lens, I would have downplayed what I see in the news. Surely it’s not as bad as it seems. But I have listened to those far wiser than me and those who have experienced more than me, and I am taking the time to learn my history; I know now that the sepia-tinged  America never existed, and black lives do not matter here in the way our Creator intended them to be valued.

Anger propels me. I must write something–everyone is writing something. Everyone is posting a response, laying out arguments, spilling out the storm inside them. I cannot be silent when I know that injustice will not end with this latest shooting; this story began long ago and there are no brakes in sight as it throttles into the future. But after sharing every post that strikes a chord, ruminating every new headline (then Dallas happens), I am emptied out, hollowed. I am tired.

Psychologists and sociologists have been conducting more research lately on the concept of race-based trauma, where exposure to race-related horrific events and/or discrimination experienced by you or members of your racial/ethnic community result in emotional and psychological stress. NPR labeled it “coping while black,” struggling along the path of resilience when you are constantly battered by the news of yet another example of racism in your country or encountering the markers of racial oppression in your daily life.

The microaggressions pile up, the little rhetorical gestures that subtly invalidate the pain of your community and remind you of your position of inferiority, even if you are a middle class black girl whose family member has never been shot (the they could be speaks louder). Enforced silences bind your throat because no matter how many carefully structured responses you provide, you will inevitably encounter the same questions from a white colleague, friend, or acquaintance another day. You are taught to resign yourself to the perpetual play of question-answer-apology or take shelter in silence. Find a good enough hiding spot and even in predominantly white spaces, maybe no one will seek you.

Some members of the black community call it “Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome,” and they’re not far off. The multigenerational nature of racism in my country is such that the impact is experienced in both invisible and blatant ways now. We may never know what it is like to be in chains, whipped and sold, but we do see sons and daughters incarcerated in record numbers and stripped of the right to vote, get a job, maintain a stable family. We may never know what it is to sit on the back of a bus or use a separate bathroom, but we do see our under-resourced city schools that serve black children, the red lines around “bad neighborhoods,” and we see our community lampooned in the media, made into minstrels for viral videos and sassy baby mamas to incite laughter and wise negro friends to aid white enlightenment. We have inherited generations of unaddressed suffering, and our bodies pulse with the familiar rhythms of it, even when we are young and cannot name it.

There is a spiritual ache that heavies your limbs when you sense the strongholds of division and national blindness that prevent your communities from flourishing. It feels like masochism at times to keep drawing near the articles and and scholarly treatises and news updates and even movies because each is one of a thousand cuts and my heart bleeds.

What is most wearying is the expectation to respond. A race-related event occurs, and the person of color is on-air 24/7, ready to defend themselves and their community or ready to contextualize events to ease the blow for the mainstream. What I think many white people do not grasp is that to be a person of color signifies that you are a public body  in almost every space you inhabit–with the exception of the company of other people within your ethnic/racial community. Outside of that kinship of experience, I am conscious of my skinned walk in the world, and the world has taught me that I will be explaining my skinned life until the Lord’s new kingdom unfolds in fullness.

There are those who complain that as people of color we are “whiny” and “holding ourselves back” by raging against racism so much. There are white people who accuse people of color of “playing the race card.” But this is not a game. We are not trying to manipulate events in our favor or writing about abuses allowed against our communities to garner pity and make white people feel bad. The stakes are death and life, imprisonment and freedom. There are insidious crimes against people of color being committed on American soil; the matrix of privilege and ignorance can only envelop the public for so long.

I can speak, should speak. There are facts to unveil, histories to be re-evaluated–but I am tired. I am sad because so many people, black, white, Latinx, Asian, indigenous, are hurting right now and racism is a demonic stronghold gnawing at my country’s roots. I am angry that the pain of people of color does not merit as much attention on Sunday mornings as the losses of white people. I am in denial that the same police shootings keep happening. I am overjoyed to see the those of the diaspora, black people around the world, chanting “Black Lives Matter” in their cities. I find peace in praying for my broken Church even as the lament ends in tears. I am all these things at once, grief un-staged and shifting form.

Isaiah 40:28-31 provides a vision for the brokenhearted: a God who is relentless when we are weary of doing good and experiencing evil. It reminds me that I don’t have to be strong, even when the impulse to be strong and endure all this sorrow persists. The media, my neighbors are not entitled to my response wrapped in words when words fail me. I can’t avoid what is happening around me (and neither should I), but finding rest does not equate to running away.

So many expectations are placed upon people of color to explain current events and historical realities to those outside of their racial/ethnic communities. We are brought to the stand to defend, justify, ease tensions, deny hate, express condolences and listen to the well-intentioned and passionate rants of white allies. I am inured to creating space for others to rise and feel better even as my wings are clipped.

When numbed by grief and overwhelmed by the injustice made all too real everyday, I encourage my brothers and sisters of color to rest. I tell myself to rest, to take time to breathe for a moment. I take breaks from social media, spend time with my family, spend time alone, spend time with God. I try to make it clear when I cannot talk about the news with white friends. I could write a series of posts decrying racism and calling people to action, but I choose to come to God as my hurting self and ask for relief, trusting that He will reveal for me quiet waters after the shadow of death has touched me. I seek security in the presence of the One who does not falter even when I am weak and beyond words.

I rest when I accept my grief for what it is: ongoing and reflective of God’s heart for the marginalized and oppressed. I am right in feeling this pressure; it is pointing to a spiritual reality of systemic and individual racial sin. The world is not the way He designed it to be, and when I allow myself to process the weight of that, God frees me from the anxiety of conforming to other’s expectations and directs my attention to Him, the one who transcends the atrocity and doggedly redeems it. In this space created for me by Christ, who understands human frailty intimately, I can rage and weep and laugh and wait to re-enter the fray when equipped to do so. The world does not offer people of color enough space to be themselves untethered from explanations, but in the presence of Christ, we have the opportunity to renew our strength in communion with Him and see our pain validated and comforted in every way.

Friends, allies, co-laborers in the Church who are not black: I encourage you be conscious of what you ask of people of color in your conversations and even your efforts towards justice. There are times when I appreciate your intentions but am too tired to thoroughly respond. There are times when the people you care about need your listening ear and quiet presence as well as your consideration when solitude is vital. This is not your moment to prove how great of an ally you are, but rather to grieve with them and be present. Mourn with those who mourn without defensiveness, for there is a time to extrapolate and a time to simply acknowledge black suffering and lay it before God as your loved ones rest.

The causes of grief are not erased. Injustice jaunts through the nation, unconfronted. But between the headlines, I find my haven. The trauma of living black in a broken world that obsesses over analyzing my communities’ losses is not forgotten by Christ; in fact, He pursues the weary ones and gives them what few remember to offer: respite.

Do you not know?
    Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
    the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
    and his understanding no one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary
    and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
    and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord
    will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
    they will run and not grow weary,
    they will walk and not be faint.  Isaiah 40:28-31

Take rest and let no one shame you from choosing to remove yourself from stifling spaces. Immerse in the little things that bring you joy and rejuvenation, and allow God to minister to your soul by providing comfort without anxiety to perform and love without obligation to justify yourself. The world will not fall apart in the pauses where you exhale.