the walking dead 

“There’s really no such thing as ‘the voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” – Arundhati Roy 

“We walk with targets on our backs,” cried a Black woman from the stark letters of a New York Times article. Her words dragged me out of my time, brought me back to that place two years ago when I was on my way to see the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center and found myself in a protest instead. Eric Garner’s trial was going on, and dozens of people massed on the sidewalk, barred from the plaza by metal gates locked together. Maneuvering my body through the crowd, I tried to move forward, but too many bodies pressed against me, anchoring me in place. Cardboard signs grazed through the puffed layers of my jacket so I felt each time they were thrust into the sky, screaming “STOP KILLING US!” and “SAY THEIR NAMES!” in red and black ink.

My breath arrested, any plan to see the tree dropped from my thoughts when I saw the rows of SWAT police officers lined up in front of us. They were padded and armed, some with transparent shields at their sides like a recreation of the medieval jousts I used to go to as a kid. But this was no game, and I was no child. Instead I stood, heart thudding against my chest as the protesters shook the metal barricade. As it rattled, the cacophony of shouting found form, met in sync as the people began to chant “BLACK LIVES MATTER” again and again and again until the hoarseness of their voices chafed at the air. I joined them.

We stood there for hours as the snow fell around us like ashes. The distant strains of “All I Want For Christmas” circled us, set an alien perimeter that separated our block of chaos from the carefully orchestrated holiday celebration only a few streets away.

I will never forget the words of the middle-aged black woman who stood in front of me. In the pause between breaths, she lifted her head, curls tipped by frost, and her voice rang out like a prophet:

They’re here to protect the tree, an inanimate object, but they don’t protect us. The tree is dead, and they’re here to protect the tree, but they don’t protect us who are alive.

Other voices soon joined her in what became a searing sermon on the coldest night in November. Here are some of their words:

“There’s the blue wall of silence!” – Black Man

“Thank God I’m white so I don’t have to deal with the stuff half of the people here do!”-White Man

“We know you are good people. Don’t protect the bad ones.” – Black Man

Do you have to instruct your child how to not get murdered on his way to school? We’re not supposed to fear you? He should respect you!… The change has to start with you Officer–it starts from within. Put your batons down. We are here to have a conversation. We are not here to hurt you. You broke the public trust. Look us in the eye–don’t look down.” – Black Woman

I wish I knew your names.

Once, I was too hesitant to speak about these things. Whispered admonitions laid the foundation for my fear: Don’t rock the boat. Be constructive. Don’t be too harsh. Don’t be too angry. Show grace. I suspect many people of color who enter majority-white spaces know this mantra all too well. This is how we assimilate and avoid the dismissive label of “angry minority.”But as I have said before, there is a difference between grace and accommodation, and I can no longer accommodate the comfort and slowness to react of many white Americans when my people are being shot. I didn’t always call them my people, mixed and mixed-up and afraid to say I belonged, afraid that I didn’t count, but that doesn’t matter anymore. What matters, as black people have been declaring for decades before the #hashtag, are black lives, and the fact that in this country-and globally-they are not as valued as other lives.

What does it mean when a black man, a black woman, a black child cannot drive home, walk from the store, go up the stairs, enjoy a playground without being framed as a threat? We may not have signs that say Whites Only or Blacks Only in our stores and bathrooms anymore, but that doesn’t mean this world belongs any more to Black people than it used to. Racism has crafted insidious new ways of fortifying itself in our nation, and by convincing white people that its symptoms (urban poverty, gang warfare, substance abuse, high incarceration rates, unjust police shootings, mental illness) root itself in black culture and personal choice, white people have the freedom to avoid confronting the systemic and historical elements of the problem.

One of the most dangerous tools of racism is its ability to render an entire people blind to the consequences of their actions–both accumulated and present. This blindness shrouds the truth: you benefit from political and economic policies that position people like you on top. It’s not a matter of being white and rich or white and poor, even though the intersectional dimensions of a person’s experience add complexity to the conversation; it’s a matter of being White, and how being White will never equate to a death sentence. Yet from Columbus’ documentation of “savages” to the writings of Rudyard Kipling to the depiction of slaves to the lynching of black men accused of harming white women to the rhetorical warfare around the thuggification of black men, society has taught us to approach non-white peoples with caution. The words will never be spoken by moderate white people (that’s for those racists over there), but the truth comes out in the reflex to pull the trigger.

Years of racist imagery and coded language have constructed the schema that black people are dangerous, the schema internalized in the minds of white people born into the noxious fumes of racism…and in the minds of black people conditioned into the belief that we are inherently deficient. Racism is part of the daily reality for ALL people, but those blinded from that truth cannot understand its breadth. When a police shooting happens, the news channels will tell the police officer’s story first because this is deemed the rational, objective approach to the case. The shades tucked within their reasoning, however, point to the underlying belief that black people are less trustworthy, less capable of discerning reality because of our “emotions,” and less stable than a white voice of authority. We are assumed to be in the wrong until we somehow do enough to liberate ourselves from white expectations.

My time working in a public elementary school in the South Bronx made it vividly clear that starting even from preschool, black children are expected to be loud, belligerent, unmotivated, and aggressive. The reasons for their behavior are rarely examined in depth, and often too late to stem the tide of high school dropouts, disillusionment, and violence. Those who make it out of the heart of darkness will be tolerated; they will be the Exceptional Ones advertised on college brochures and human interest stories, but they will always be, consciously, Black.

We are feared. The lightness of my skin becomes my buffer, as does my educated status and socioeconomic background; but when I step out of my apartment, I remain Black in the eyes of my nation–even when it assures me that it sees no color. As a friend recently pointed out, we are “political bodies.” Our skin bears meanings and wars within the melanin. The relief I know in my safe spaces evaporates when I walk out Black and in danger, and I haven’t even experienced half the things my other black friends and neighbors have. But we see the headlines and hear it on the streets. I see it in the eyes of the black boys I teach and walk past in my neighborhood. We share this tragic kinship in knowing that this long-engineered fear turns the guns of police officers towards darker skin–our skin.

We are not given the benefit of the doubt. There are arguments to be proven, data to be supplied, eyewitnesses to be interrogated, the usual black commentators to drag out to console White America about the latest shooting. Black children pay the price when their mothers warn them not to wear hoodies when evening light falls. They play with their toys, wrapped in a wariness that any moment they may be asked to raise their hands so they will look less like a criminal.

We are hidden away when we are inconvenient. The prison cells spill over with our bodies. We are shouted down, placated down with sweet smiles when our ways of challenging racism make white people feel uncomfortable. When we are enough of a disruption, we are carted away in cuffs.

706. That is how many fatal police shootings we have witnessed in 2016 so far. This does not even include all those cases that go unreported, or my Latino, indigenous, and other ethnic minority brothers and sisters harmed through excessive and aggressive policing. And I am angry that the year is not over because I can expect more of my people to die.

I wrote in a previous post about the weariness people of color experience when constantly exposed to the suffering of their racial or ethnic community. We are traumatized, and we need our churches and non-black friends to come around us, pray for us, stand with us. There are times the world asks us to bear the pain politely and quietly–and we can’t. Our threshold is breached, and still many white people have the temerity to ask more from us when our ancestors were shipped on the waves of imperialism and slavery with empty hands and chained ankles.The chains clang loudly still, and we play no race cards idly–again, this is no game.

Why must black and brown people heft the weight of responding well to the horrific reality of injustice when they are traumatized? Why are we not allowed to be vulnerable, cracked open and grief-wracked?

I hurt when I see the gravity of what is happening to black and brown people reduced to “issues” or “difficult questions” or “conflicts.” This is racism. Let’s not shy away from the term or from the labels “white people” and “black people” because this is the language we have inherited, and we must take ownership of it in order to dismantle their power over our communities, our relationships. We are fractured. So many people have pointed out the inequities, documented the histories, and spoken to the economic, political, and social complexities, and yet as a nation we remain stagnant in our movement towards justice.

Numbness sets in some days when I hear of another shooting or scroll through the news. Bile on my tongue and a leaden heart other days. A churning anger today. Why are my people being hurt in this way? When will it end? The Lord hears our cries for deliverance, sees the blood dripping from bullet wounds where bodies lie on the street–when is a change gonna come?

We are the the walking dead, and yet we are not voiceless. Who will hear us? Who will help us bury our own and save the ones still breathing?

My eyes fail from weeping, 

I am in torment within,

my heart is poured out on the ground

because my people are destroyed,

because children and infants faint

in the streets of the city.

Lamentations 2:11

when the fences fall, who will be trampled?

Safety is the womb. Warm, enclosed, suspended in liquid that forms a cushioned shield against the world outside. The infant sleeps, undisturbed, their still-forming body waiting for birth. Once born, the battle will begin. They will no longer be defended on all sides; they must cope with a hostile environment where there is no assurance of security. The ties to comfort are tenuous.

Once born, we are expected to grow up, realize that we are no longer safe, and adjust accordingly. Baby-proofed homes, plastic fences, child-leashes, tightly-held hands, and pointed warnings from our parents instill in us a guarded posture towards the world so we will never take any relative safety for granted. We will watch for danger at street corners and hesitate before strangers.

Safety is never a sealed aspect of our lives, and yet we crave returning to a space where discomfort and tension were warded off and we were not conscious of what could hurt us. But as we get older, safety also takes on nuances unpondered before as we are exposed to people different from ourselves and see that their vision of safety deviates from ours. The complications arise as we must then ask ourselves, If everyone wants to be safe and our ideas of safety differ, how do we proceed? How do we inhabit the same space without it being toxic for some and sheltered for others? 

The topic of space spaces has flared up in conversations on college campuses, pitting student versus administration, student versus student. With the University of Chicago’s recent declaration that it is not a “safe space,” other colleges and universities have followed suit, arguing that the pressure to transform the college campus into a safe space contradicts values of free speech and intellectual freedom. Administrators claim that safe spaces coddle students instead of encouraging them to engage in constructive dialogue that will challenge their ideas. If education is a stretching process that refines students’ worldviews and shapes them to be critical thinkers, investing an inordinate amount of effort to make students feel comfortable cannot further this aim.

Those who align with this thinking have a point–students’ lives should not be absent of tension. To engage with the pressing issues of our time (racial injustice, global inequity, sex trafficking, indigenous rights, LGBTQ discrimination), students must be equipped to confront tension, whether it is found between different communities, between the nuances of complex ideas, or present as their unique set of experiences and identities is exposed to that of others. Discomfort is inevitable when students delve into the realm of histories and ideas and heartaches that construct our broken world, and challenging them to feel that ache and grow through it results in better learners and humbler change agents.

There is a difference, however, between discomfort and alienation. What bothers me about how this safe spaces debate has played out is the tone of conversation towards the students advocating for safe spaces. The press releases and university articles and presidential memos appear almost as an exercise in condescension as they stamp their refusal of safe spaces in defiance of their opponents–the students. The common parlance of these official statements is telling: students aren’t to be “coddled.” Students are being “whiny” and “demanding.” Students’ self-preserving actions will lead to school-wide “censorship.” Students need a “reality check.” Students want a “bubble” or a “cocoon.”

The languaging in opposition to safe spaces assumes that students do not understand the goal of higher education, that they do not understand how free speech in America works. The arguments used also assume that what students are asking for is an absolution of tension: they won’t be forced to engage with anything that makes them uncomfortable. Thus it is the administration’s burden to protect students from themselves and rescue them from their naivete before this next generation of students become spineless, politically-correct lemmings.

Are there circumstances where the necessary tension of free speech has been threatened? Of course. I don’t think schools should always bend to the pressure to ban certain people from speaking or presenting there. I also don’t think cultivating safe spaces equates to never having difficult conversations about hot topics. A student’s reflex should not be to retreat from the room whenever it gets heated. Neither are colleges intended to make everybody happy. We are imperfect human beings, our society fraught with fractions and factions, and contending with that reality brings frustration and hurt. College, like the world outside it, will never be entirely safe.

Nevertheless, recognizing the wrecked state of our world should not lead to exacerbating it, good intentions aside. What opponents of safe spaces often neglect to acknowledge is the original purpose of safe spaces, and the lack of empathy sharpens the sting. The Washington Post article “The New Language of Protest” outlines the new wave of student activism that has emerged in recent years, providing student perspectives on this social justice movement. In the same vein as the anti-war protests of the ’60s and student sit-ins during the Civil Rights Movement, students are creating new frameworks and methods to interact with social problems. These students’ stories yield a wealth of insight regarding the opposite side of the debate centered on safe spaces.

In response to the accusation of being “coddled,” one student pointed out:

So you’re really cool with the fact that one in five students are sexually assaulted, one in three people who have faced sexual assault have PTSD, students all over the country are saying their campuses are racist. Is that cool? That makes me coddled, for thinking that’s a problem?

Another student concluded:

I think that somebody who says that has had very little experience in not being in a safe space.

These students’ comments suggest that safe spaces are a response to the painful realities already acknowledged; the students advocating for them are already familiar with tension as their daily bread. Many of the students desiring safe spaces represent marginalized identities in our nation: ethnic and racial minorities, queer individuals, women. To argue that they want to remain in a bubble misunderstands their experiences as people who already eat the fruits of a spoiled society.

Much as people malign Wikipedia, it provides an apt summary:

In educational institutions, safe-space (or safe space), safer-space, and positive space originally were terms used to indicate that a teacher, educational institution or student body does not tolerate anti-LGBT violence, harassment or hate speech, thereby creating a safe place for all lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students.[2] The term safe space has been extended to refer to a space for individuals who are marginalized to come together to communicate regarding their experiences with marginalization, typically on a university campus.[

Safe spaces are areas set aside for discourse that protect students vulnerable to rhetorical and physical actions that index their position of lesser power in our country. Instead of vacuuming out the tension, safe spaces intend to provide places where students can process the tensions they already experience without being exposed to further trauma. For example, I’ve been a part of spaces that were composed solely of black students sharing their stories and feelings around racism. For once, we didn’t need to be fully conscious of our difference, of our skins; we could just be and process life together. There was safety in that kinship, in that freedom to talk and not have to police our tone such as many of us do outside of those spaces.

I’ve also been in mixed-race spaces like a classroom where certain community guidelines were set so when the conversation became heated or something offensive was said, there was clear direction given by the teacher in how to engage it. Those measures made that learning space safe by acknowledging who was in the room and ensuring that no one group held more power than another in the exchange of ideas. That space defied the patterns of our mainstream society by pointing to the power differentials and making efforts to support the people with targeted identities in the room.

Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens, former administrators at NYU, provide another caveat to the discussion with their argument for “brave spaces” that encourage risk while allowing for the “authentic engagement with issues of identity, oppression, power, and privilege.” Within brave spaces, white and other privileged expectations of safety are dismantled and are replaced with a call for vulnerability and courage as students grapple with difficult dialogues with their peers of diverse backgrounds and life experiences.

There is much to be commended with this posture as it avoids the paternalism that can arise from administrators seeking to create safe spaces for marginalized students. Arao and Clemens’ assertion that generic ground rules inhibit participant engagement and provide an illusion of civility rather than a space for truthful and contentious engagement with tough issues illuminates the flaws within the “safe space” approach. They argue for a space collectively created where honesty is the aim and the intention as much as the impact of people’s words are evaluated and processed together.

The push for “brave spaces” addresses the obstacles that prevent meaningful dialogues from taking place in higher education settings. As Arao and Clemens put it:

We question the degree to which safety is an appropriate or reasonable expectation for any honest dialogue about social justice…. We argue that authentic learning about social justice often requires the very qualities of risk, difficulty, and controversy that are defined as incompatible with safety.

However, I don’t think “brave spaces” goes far enough in acknowledging the cost of these conversations for students with marginalized identities and experiences. Arao and Clemens highlight the extra burden these students bear in conversations that refer to their oppression, but they don’t offer much guidance for these students in terms of what to do with that pain. These students often feel alienated, like guests on their campuses when they encounter the markers that privilege whiteness, maleness and other identities as standard. They are to reflect on the tension and gain insight from it as their peers wake up to the realities of the -isms and -ias. This is all well and good, but where is the support for these students when actions go beyond the realm of merely offensive and are, in fact, undermining their dignity and worth?

I find that when I am attacked enough in the same area, my skin calluses in that place so I don’t have to experience the pain constantly. I developed a callus after years of people labeling me “exotic” and rifling through my curls without permission. I smiled and retreated to spaces with people who just got it when I ranted my story with trembling hands. Students with experiences of being the Other, whatever that may be, develop defense mechanisms that help them cope with the equivalent battering ram of comments, images, and physical actions that reinforce the idea that in this country, they don’t fully belong. We live with being undesirable and learn to navigate a society with white privilege as its axis. That’s why safe spaces were born–because we are reminded that 90% of the space we inhabit in America doesn’t belong to us. From its beginnings of slavery, exploited labor, and discriminatory economic practices, this country was not designed to cultivate our flourishing.

When the emotional and physical hazards are a daily reality, where do young people find spaces where their stories are validated and their understanding of their own oppression is taken seriously? The classroom, the college campus should be such a space that challenges and expands their worldview without further denigrating their humanity or diminishing the profound impact of their experiences. They shouldn’t be asked to fill the roles of educator, martyr, student, defender of their people, and apologist the moment they step onto campus. They should not be asked to apologize for their victimization and chastised for challenging it.

Instead of wrestling with the definition of what safety looks like, educators and administrators and students must ask: What is unsafety? What does it mean to be unsafe in a way that threatens someone’s livelihood rather than merely their ego or fence of privilege? Students of color, LGBTQ students, Muslim students, students with mental illnesses, immigrant students can tell you what unsafety looks like–and it goes beyond callous comments in the classroom and bad Halloween parties. It’s walking into the world with a shield up to ward off the inevitable while knowing that beneath your feet, the machinery of your country is set against you. The news headlines remind you of that everyday.

Instead of safe spaces, brave spaces, I challenge us to pursue accountable spaces. I challenge colleges and universities to construct learning environments that fully acknowledge their unequal power dynamics and exercise transparency and humility in engaging them. Beyond taking ownership for one administrator’s racist speech or one problematic student event, schools must take ownership of their student body and institution as a space that replicates the unjust systems and patterns of behavior of our present society but should seek to transcend it. For instance, instead of placing all the burden on black students to politely deal with the racist imperfections of their peers, administrators and educators should actively defend these students and acknowledge when problematic attitudes and actions cause harm.

Instead of acting as the patronizing liberators for supposedly oversensitive students, people in positions of power should re-evaluate how their actions promote anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-xenophobia. I think everyone can agree that spaces of intellectual freedom are vital to the life of the university; intellectual freedom without accountability, however, only creates stagnant thinkers detached from the lived experiences of others and how their lives are interconnected with them. Literacy in the work of demolishing systems of injustice requires our realization that when one member of the body hurts, the whole body suffers.

Students must also take ownership of the challenge to create spaces of accountability where they mutually contribute to each other’s learning experience (similar to the collectivism Arao and Clemens suggested). They must take responsibility of their words and actions and realize that when they err, when they do something that hurts someone more vulnerable than they, they will have to answer for that and learn from it. Rather than blanket censorship or the totalitarian-esque environment detractors argue will result, accountable spaces acknowledge the tension, embrace the controversy and difficulty, but they go one step further by actively defending the most vulnerable in the community.

In practice, accountable spaces require a direct challenge to injustice. Student activism is doing the work that administrators should already be championing. When these members come together and respond to the question How is our school unsafe?, it encourages a fluid dialogue about how wrongful words and actions should be addressed. Together, they ascertain the needs of their community, see the vulnerable among them, and fertilize the ground for a environment that does not take racist and other oppressive behaviors lightly. There are ideologies and words that are inherently harmful and others whose harm is dependent on context. Those directly affected should lead the way in processing injustice as a community and deciding how to respond.

This does not mean that any person who errs in this area will be cast out or demonized; in fact, it adds weight to each person’s actions while simultaneously providing resources so they can process the impact of their actions and become more informed, more thoughtful, more kind. The school remains a space of learning rather than policing, but with the caveat that the dignity of all its members is upheld, both individually and systemically. Grace and justice are elevated in equal measure, enabled by the belief that God created us to be reconciled to one another. If our neighbor is unsafe and we are estranged from understanding why, something foundational must change.

All too often, preference is given to the white strain of intellectualism and rationality that asserts itself as the basis for educational institutions. This preference is not seen as white–it is invisible but treated as the norm. The emotionally-charged, pain-charged stories from the marginalized members of a school community are not approached with the same deference. A black student is not trusted when she shares about a microaggression in class; instead, she is asked to give proof and offer herself up to be cross-examined. She is approached with the assumption of being in the wrong. This is a microcosm for what happens in the university at large.

Students are protesting the injustices they experience and observe within their school environment and are asking the administration for a response. As a mentor of mine pointed out, “The opposite of invisibility is not visibility, but freedom.” Students are not asking for further constraints upon the exchange of ideas within the university; they want the freedom to inhabit the university space as an equal, no matter what the world outside it relegates them to. They want the freedom to craft a world better than the one they were steeped in, space by space.

The dialogue on safe spaces continues, and it provides no easy answers, only an invitation into a realm of complexity and humility. My hope is that our primary concern is for the marginalized peoples that safe spaces, accountable spaces protect, rather than the enshrined value of intellectual freedom. They have more at stake in this conversation. As we strive for accountability to them as we collaborate in learning, discourse that builds up people and innovation that heals communities will blossom.


I estimate that I’ve saved $11 a day on my MetroCard by walking this summer. It started out as an impulse (It’s only a few blocks–I should just walk) and turned into a daily practice where I am no longer startled when I look up and see a green sign declaring that I’ve arrived on Christopher Street when I know I started at 86th Street. I now average 15,000 steps a day.

Not all of us can imagine walking long distances with gusto. I was raised on period dramas where I pictured myself as Elizabeth Bennet treading over stretches of British countryside to call on neighbors. Walking felt like a good fit for someone who enjoys being outside, inhaling the fresh air, and meandering through nature.

Walking felt natural until I challenged myself to walk block after block on a sun-scorched sidewalk in New York City. After the first 15, my shoulders were ribboned with red stripes as my bag dug into them. Sweat slid down my legs, and the air seemed to cling to my throat, thick and unable to escape. I realized that walking is not always fun; when you commit to walking miles out of necessity, it can feel downright torturous.

I like to walk, like settling into the methodical rotations of my feet meeting the ground with steady rhythm. I walked to my summer job at IHOP when I was a teenager, and I walked around every inch of my college campus. Now I calculate my steps as I cross boroughs, and the first time I walked over 50 blocks, I felt it. Every jolt of my foot against the concrete charted a pathway of weariness rather than leisure–but I kept going.

As much as my feet ache when I pace myself through the length of unending avenues, the altered vision it gives me is unparalleled.

By walking, I see the neighborhood. My eyes and ears catch the details I would have missed if I was whizzing past in a car or stuck in a fortified metal box underground. On the ground level, everything is realized in lucid detail, made HD. I suddenly see the pile of leather dress shoes tossed on a bench and wonder whom they belong to. Crumpled newspaper pages and empty beer bottles and cigarette butts compose the mosaic of the sidewalk. A man with a stained overcoat rocks himself against the fence of Fort Tryon Park, a cardboard sign with rain-dripped letters set beside him. A brother and sister splash with flailing brown arms under the water that arcs from an uncapped fire hydrant, water flooding the street. The clink of dominoes melds with the chirps of birds and the distant strains of bachata as I walk through the 190s.

I see the neighborhoods change. I step under bridges and cross crowded streets and watch where white becomes brown, where penthouses and gourmet coffee shops become graffitied apartment complexes and legal and immigration offices on every corner.

When you walk long distances in a city, everything becomes personal. The skip from train to train or train to workplace doesn’t allow you the time to inhabit the rhythms of your environment or imbibe the sights your eyes draw in. But when you’ve been in the same neighborhood for over an hour, some of it belongs to you because the echo of your steps joins the clamor, the symphony of noise in the place–now you’re part of it. You will not forget that block of organic produce vendors you turned, that woman with pink leggings and a suit jacket selling necklaces whom you walked past, that clenching of your stomach when you saw an old man begging for coins with streams of Godblessyous. You, the outsider, get a glimpse of a million other worlds and find yourself lingering.

Poverty, privilege; gentrification, community; racism, multicultural equity escape the boundary of ideological labels and take human form as your steps lead you in absorbing your environment and probing its innumerable meanings. But it’s a privilege in itself to walk through a neighborhood and understand that you don’t need to stay. You will keep going, leave those people behind in the stories you don’t know. You will miss the tears punctuating that strain of conversation you caught, the life-changing movement under-girding the expression you glanced on that woman’s face. What if you walked back?

New York City presents the temptation to look straight ahead and orient yourself to your destination with laser-focused efficiency. It’s easy to miss what is going on around you when you’re absorbed in the mapping of destinations and relevant persons and necessary stops that comprise your life. What enters the circumference of space around your body, what you allow to matter, relies upon your vision–what you allow yourself to see.

The challenge lies in the choice to lift your eyes, turn your head, and slow your steps, take them further. Once we have seen something outside of our usual sphere of experience, God asks us to respond to that stimulus or else risk continuing forward, heavy with unanswered questions and unexplained grief. What will we carry as we walk ahead, and will we ever return to that geographic place and mental space and remember those we left behind?

I think of those intrepid people who made El Camino Del Inmigrante last week. They answered the challenge of 150 miles from Tijuana, Mexico to Los Angeles (location of this year’s Christian Community Development Association conference) and trailed the steps of immigrants who face intense injustice both within this country and on a global scale. As a friend of mine and activist who made that journey put it:

Many of us share the same story of immigration, but we have become detached from it. It is only in stepping into the story of immigration that we will be able to understand the complicated issue of immigration in our country.

It is time that we examine our hands. It is time that we examine the blood that runs through our veins. It is time that we ask ourselves how our ancestors had to suffer in order for us to be alive. By turning inward, we can begin to understand how we fit into the greater narrative of America, and thus, how we can further shape it.

Jenny Medrano

Jenny and so many others embraced sore shoulders and aching feet and the sacrifice of days spent with dusty road stretching before them to inhabit the experiences of their neighbors for what amounts to a brief step in time.  Their commitment, however, to the people who grapple with the daily realities of immigration reflects a lifetime posture–a Gospel posture. They chose to linger in a geographic space that allowed them to draw close to suffering people, whether they were familiar with those experiences or not. Rather than idle wanderings or a routine Point A to Point B trajectory, their steps made known hundreds of neglected histories so others like me could catch that vision of the realities they already see. 

Immigrants are easy targets in this country. They are labeled invaders and leeches and those who are undocumented are condemned with little endeavor to truly understand what steps took them here. I have observed that many White Americans especially are quick to judge, slow to walking the long, aching stretch of another’s story, allowing the dust and refuse to touch them. The walk is far more painful than people imagine, and far more complicated than expected when the sun sears your skin and freedom appears as a mirage, unattainable because of where and how you were born.

What if more of us took seriously the challenge to go beyond “walking in another’s shoes” to walk in our shoes, with our feet, alongside our neighbors? For instance, for those without direct family ties to recent immigrants, you may never fully know the intimate experience of the struggles they encounter. Nevertheless, by tracing their journey with your own two feet, acknowledging your history, your position on the map of this world, you can commit yourself to the transformation of your reality and compassionate engagement with others who need your advocacy. We leave our self-absorbed circle of experience and look around us, fixing on the details of other people’s stories and allowing them to matter to us. We stop walking past. We walk back, through our past, through our ignorance, through our preconceptions, to meet others on the road.

I say “walking in our own shoes with our neighbors” rather than “walking in another’s shoes” because the former avoids the reflex to think that just because we’ve heard the tough stories and cry over them like we do over Netflix documentaries, we are absolved from taking a further active role in challenging injustice. Walking is not a paternalistic exercise that allows us to lament the pain of others from a distance, comfortably stagnant in our usual commute. It should pull us closer to the communities that we were not born into–it should remind us that they belong to us. If compassion is “suffering with” another person, then our walks should take us out of our routines and in step with others as they make the journeys they must to survive. When our feet feel the ache after a day, knowing they have walked miles and developed calluses, our hearts widen to accommodate more love and grace for our friends and neighbors than we ever thought possible.

What does walking look like practically? (hint: it doesn’t mean we all have to buy Fitbits and get our steps in). Walking alongside others in the pursuit of their welfare necessitates embracing their pain and validating it. It involves us educating ourselves about the issues facing the poor, the marginalized, the immigrant and asking God what is our role to play in engaging them. It requires incarnating Christ by intentionally building friendships with those different from ourselves and being willing to sacrifice our comfort so their needs are met. It demands moving our embodied selves in step with our neighbors and doing life with them.

I challenge myself to keep walking when the sun is out, the heat rises, and the sweat pools on my brow. I challenge myself to walk when it rains. I will not walk only when the world is conveniently temperate or glazed in twilight–that would be too late. El tiempo para caminar es hoy, siempre hoy para que no cometemos el error de creer que vivimos en un mundo de asíntotas, donde nuestros caminos individuales nunca cruzar. Cuando dolores de los pies de una parte de nuestro Cuerpo, debemos todos sienten el dolor y avanzar hacia ellos y con ellos. No existe mayor privilegio y amor que camina con tu vecino más allá del espejismo, hacia la libertad.

The time to walk is today, always today so that we do not make the mistake of believing that we live in a world of asymptotes, our individual paths never crossing. When the feet of one part of our Body aches, we should all feel the pain and move towards them and with them. There is no greater privilege and love than walking with your neighbor past the mirage, towards freedom.