birth pains

I think we are ready for 2016 to be over.

The quick succession of high-profile deaths (Florence Henderson, Muhammad Ali, Prince, Alan Rickman, David Bowie), the mass shootings and weekly reports of unwarranted police brutality, the fallout from the recent election has us stretching out for some invisible remote, fingers thumbing for the fast-forward button.

“Doesn’t it feel like the world is getting worse?” my roommate asked me as we drove through my hometown, the sun’s rays fading on our shoulders. The question hung in the air, heavy from days of red-rimmed headlines and dried tears.

“Maybe…” I answered. “I try not to think about it.”

Try is the word of choice here because I, we feel the strain of how unutterably difficult our world is. Every generation experiences a little of its falling apart and grapples with the question of what to do as we sit watching smoke rise and night fall.

When I think of this year, of the intensification of #BlackLivesMatter and the refugee crisis and increasing Islamophobia and the Pulse nightclub shooting and Standing Rock and the further litany of tragedies and injustices strung along this year’s timeline, I feel the ache Jesus alluded to when he responded to his disciples’ question about “the end of the age”:

And Jesus answered them, “See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.Matthew 24:3-8

Birth pains. I’ve never experienced labor in regards to babies, but I resonate with the kind of labor involved in struggling through daily life in a world wracked with conflict and suffering. The signs Jesus describes…I’ve seen them. I’ve seen such darkness in human hearts–including my own. I’ve sensed the contractions of division within our families, within our communities. Yet where I might view all this as harbingering one colossal downward spiral to the End, Jesus names what I see as…a beginning.

Beginning of what? Jesus encourages his disciples to not be alarmed, but I can’t help but imagine their faces as he told them this, and it’s easy to picture because the same expression has crossed my face. How are you supposed to face all the pain around you, in you, without surrendering to the temptation to hide, build higher walls, and curb your gaze to the little havens you create just to survive?

As humans, we are accustomed to anxiety driving us rather than hope. Anxiety is a familiar frenemy (using contemporary parlance here) that keeps us hyperaware of the flaws in our foundations, dragging us through each day with gritted teeth because the alternatives it poses are too terrifying for us to handle. Hope is reserved for Hallmark cards, the kind that blare out in high-pitched harmonies when opened and get cut off the moment you clamp the pages closed. It’s inevitable, so why prolong the music when it won’t last?

This type of thinking probably sounds melodramatic, fatalistic, forlorn…and you’re right. But I also think that each of us struggles with this deep-knit anxiety over the future that nice words can’t dissolve. Even those of us laboring to make this world better despite the obstacles have these moments where we are just floored by the breadth of suffering around us. We can’t comprehend the amount of pain that slips through the grooves between our fingers; we can’t cup the devastation in our hands and see it all at once.

If this is supposed to be the beginning of birth pains, leading to some great Good, how do we begin to abide in that reality?

My pastor once shared with me a diagram of the Gospel story arc: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation (or Restoration). He explained that each of us views our world and areas of our lives through these lenses at different points. Sometimes we luxuriate in the newness and innocence of what we see and experience; sometimes all we can see is the brokenness around us. Then there is the lens that allows us to acknowledge both the debris and the efforts to build up and out of it. It doesn’t diminish the weight of pain and how complex it is, and neither does it blanket systemic injustices like racism. It offers no pert, simplistic answers to the question of suffering. Instead, the lens of Redemption encompasses a “living hope,” as another pastor recently described, a hope founded on certainty for the future, the assurance of what will come.

For me, I cling to the certainty is that Jesus is Lord, and this incoming Advent season reminds me of that. This is no opiate, nor a velvet-edged platitude. The Jesus story is radical, and it should rattle our routine to the core. Prophecy preceded him, social upheaval followed him, and Death itself died with him. Then from a three-day dawn came the greatest riot our world has ever seen as Jesus rose from the dead and declared that we are a people on the road to restoration. That is our identity–not a global bruise of still-bleeding communities trying to fight evil but doomed to languish, but a people of hope. We are people of a hope renewed daily when we choose to trust Jesus with our individual futures and the Future of our world. The fullness of that restoration has not arrived yet, but the process has begun.

I could allow the lens of the Fall, of everything that is screwed up, to overwhelm my eyes…and sometimes it does. There are depressed and raw, smarting days. But again and again I re-learn how to rest in the truth that God is good–and not only when my circumstances are good. In response to that truth, my sight gravitates towards the healing already in progress, already at work among us. Rather than getting consumed with the question of pain management and pain containment, I find myself enabled by God’s love to both see the good taking place in my environment and do good. The hope ringing in the Jesus story invites me to join in on a movement of renovation greater than any HGTV project could aspire to: We are invited and equipped to participate in no less than the renewal of all things for the good of all.

The aftermath of the election has triggered anxieties about our future. There are so many people I love who are angry, scared, confused, and estranged from those they used to call friend and neighbor. The more I read and watch, the more I hear bleak whispers in my mind coalescing, speaking of a congealed pain at the heart of my nation that cannot be fixed. They tell me, Keep fighting if you want, but if things are this bad now, what can truly change? 

It may feel like this election only points to how broken we are.

A scene comes to mind, one from the Disney movie Zootopia which, rather fittingly, came out this year. Zootopia surprised a lot of us by examining a wide span of issues like xenophobia and prejudice, but I want to highlight one scene that I think sums up the crux of the story. The rabbit police officer Judy Hopps has just thrown her city into frenzy with her thoughtless suggestion that once-predatory animals are biologically-engineered to be savage. She watches her community unravel as fear of the Other takes hold, and animals pit themselves against each other, convinced that this or that group must be the enemy. Not only that, but her prejudice-tinged words hurt her friend, the fox Nick. Overwhelmed by the painful repercussions of her actions, Judy approaches her boss with the intention of resigning her police commission:

Judy Hopps: I came here to make the world a better place, but I think I broke it.

Chief Bogo: Don’t give yourself so much credit, Hopps. The world has always been broken, that’s why we need good cops. Like you.

The words of a heavily-muscled animated bull may seem like a strange place to find wisdom, but I think Bogo’s point merits reflection, especially in these times. The world did not get more broken with Trump’s election to President. The election did not break us. The election revealed what we have been wrestling with as a country all along and heightened the urgency to engage it. No one person can take credit for the space of tension and hurt we inhabit.

But remember, we’re in birth pains–not death pangs! Jesus’ words in Matthew 24 remind us of this reality, and we cannot let ourselves be defeated by the sheer heft of wrongs when they have the potential to galvanize us into actions that contribute to the healing God is already pressing into motion. Healing is at work in our economic system, in our local and national policies, in our racial divisions, and we are to be active participants in it. We are to constantly seek ways to cultivate justice and empathy and community through our relationships, our jobs, and any other use of our time.

However, we don’t just need “good cops.” We need cops braced by this living hope, judges informed by it, teachers inspired by it, activists sustained by it, politicians challenged by it, doctors guided by it, pastors ignited by it, social workers comforted by it, and all of us, ALL OF US living out of it. As Evelyne Reisacher, professor of Islamic Studies and Intercultural Relations at Fuller Theological Seminary, put it: “We are not people of despair. We are hostages of hope.”

The kind of hope based on the certainty Jesus represents, the certainty that God is redeeming our world and delights in us working with Him towards that end, will not fail. As much as we may beg for this year’s ending, we can’t stay in that pleading place. Each of us has work to do, a space we uniquely fill when we see smoke from the world’s wreckage rise to choke us. We tell it Not today. Here we echo TV personality April Daniels’ declaration: “First they came for the Muslims and we said ‘not today motherf****'”. Let us stand in the unrelenting spirit of those words today. We will not allow existent divisions to define the totality of our future. We will not commit to a downward spiral while God gifts us breath in our lungs and hearts with the divine capacity to love against all odds. That is hope with teeth, and let no one wrest us from the future we are building today.

 

i chase the line until it bends

“People are making preparations for Thanksgiving while the North Dakota police are using water cannons and rubber bullets on Native Americans.”

This message braced me yesterday morning on Facebook, and the tension it ignited has not left. For months we’ve been watching the deadlock at Standing Rock between water protectors and the militarized police forces. Now that it is flaring out into disturbing levels of violence, the horror is palpable for those watching from the outside.

I hear people cry out, “It’s 2016! This shouldn’t be happening!” I think this mentality is part of the problem–we assume that we have progressed so much as a society that these blatant displays of discrimination and aggression against marginalized people groups shock us this much. We assume we left this type of atrocity in our past. We were wrong.

Look at the living conditions of many indigenous reservations. Those existed before Standing Rock. Look at the poverty rates and health disparities (more stats here). Those didn’t spike within the last few weeks. Look at the accounts of trauma. There are histories underlying them–and they are harrowing. The past presents the future.

I wrote in an earlier post about our need to collaborate on a common historical narrative for our country because the realities shaping our lenses are so vastly disparate. We’re not all talking from the same starting point, but in moving forward we must prioritize the inclusion of voices that didn’t make it into the foundational narratives of our nation: the voices of those whose rights are being threatened. We must allow them to challenge our understanding of American history and re-work it because they know the ins and outs of their oppression better than the outsiders writing about it.

The images of Standing Rock grip my gaze. The stretched, shivering grief won’t leave. This is happening…and the guilt presses into my shoulders. My ancestors never broke bread with and betrayed the Sioux, the Lakota, the Iroquois, and the other First Nations. But I am an American, and the paths I tread were not always named Washington and Broadway. The government that sets the framework for my daily life uncoiled out of knuckled ambition and promise and innovation…but it was also born of blood–indigenous blood.

What do I do with that? How do I watch Moana and remember afterwards what our country did to many Polynesian peoples–how it colonized Hawaii and deposed her queen? How do I eat Thanksgiving dinner in a warm house when I know water protectors are freezing at Standing Rock as they defend their land?

This is the tension that awakens when the innocence that pieced together Pilgrim hats and feathered Indian bands in elementary school crumples. Our story is not an idyllic table of blended peoples but a war zone reaching for resolution.

When you learn the story of the land, you map it differently. You no longer see Inwood Park but Lenape fields. You no longer see Capitol Hill but a graveyard. You no longer see Mount Rushmore but mountains that once watched its peoples of the Lakota Pahá Sápa, the Black Hills, with faces of stone–not the stony faces of their conquerors.

What do I do with that tension? 

The indigenous peoples of America don’t need my guilt. They don’t need me to make them objects of my pity. They need my prayers. They need my phone calls to my government, my petitions, my paper bills marked with the faces of presidents like Andrew Jackson who forced them into containment zones far from home. I never thought of the strength it takes simply to receive those bills when you know the collective grief that men like Jackson provoked among your people. As a black and Latina woman, I sense some of those vibrations within my own body, but this remains: I will never know what what it is to be an indigenous person.

Thanksgiving is coming, but as an iman pointed out at an inter-faith gathering I recently attended: “We don’t look at Thanksgiving the same way.” Some do not have the luxury of disentangling the theme of gratitude from horrific accounts of genocide and broken treaties.

The passage that comes to mind is Isaiah 24, particularly this part:

The earth mourns and withers;
    the world languishes and withers;
    the highest people of the earth languish.
The earth lies defiled
    under its inhabitants;
for they have transgressed the laws,
    violated the statutes,
    broken the everlasting covenant.
Therefore a curse devours the earth,
    and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt;
therefore the inhabitants of the earth are scorched,
    and few men are left.

The stark scene this part offers us is heartbreaking. Here the Israelites have broken treaty with God, defiled their  land, and their neighbors suffer because of their actions. Jerusalem has been destroyed, and the people are scattered. You would think this apocalyptic vision signifies that the end has come–they are paying the price for injustice.

The book of Isaiah doesn’t end there. There is promise lying in wait within the smoke from the burning wreckage. Undeserved deliverance will come, and joyful songs will the people raise to their Lord. They will rebuild their cities, they will defend the oppressed, the immigrant, the poor. The Messiah will come, and the land will be renewed.

The Gospel message fulfills that promise of restoration for all things broken. The hope offered to Israel is what I pray for my country, that we too will experience and take part in that movement of renewal. We are no chosen land, but we have the choice to align with how God is already moving and rise above the wreckage of our country’s past. Christ has now come, so now we attend to our land. If a pipeline will divide us and poison the waters of our brothers and sisters, we must halt it. If that metal line defies the cries for justice, we must chase it until it bends.

I don’t have the answers–I’m still struggling with the same tensions of many of us non-indigenous folks. I’m a privileged American who could walk away from the struggle, but because I choose not to, I must grapple with twin truths: the suffering and the blessing. There is suffering beneath the veneer of pumpkin spice and gleaning plates piled with turkey. There is also blessing beyond human endeavor and the gratitude that blessing engenders.

I bring these truths, like all things, to my God. The founder of thanksgiving, giver of what things in my life are Good, He is the one I turn to when I can’t make sense of the suffering. He is the one I fix my eyes on during Thanksgiving, and God clarifies my vision so I can better demonstrate how grateful I am to inhabit this Earth with my indigenous brothers and sisters. He planted imago dei in the indigenous peoples who received starving refugees from Europe and fed them. I want my life to evidence the kindness laid out on the table Samoset presided.

As a rabbi explained to me, another lesser-known definition of shalom is, “I see God in you.” This definition intimates both the soul-connections between us and each person’s inherent and equal worth. I see God in these indigenous nations. I see Him through the care and mercy they have shown to those who later took advantage of it. He has not forgotten that example, and He works already to restore their dignity.

The shadow beyond that Thanksgiving feast table remains, like the shadow of the valley of death behind the great feast in Psalms 23. The shadows, past and present, cannot be forgotten, but neither do they define the totality of our lives. We can hold both the mourning of injustice and the morning where we step out of the wallows of our tears and act on behalf of our indigenous neighbors. We will take nothing we have for granted, but instead we will strive to grant others what they need to flourish. If they need security from violence, we will ensure it. If they need shelter, we will offer it. If they need laws that preserve their sacred areas and autonomy, we will rally together to demand them. We can do no less for those we recognize as kindred.

I will sit down with my family on Thursday and cherish my time with them. I will thank God for the food on our table and the faithfulness He has shown us in this past year. And I will leave room at the table for my brothers and sisters of the First Nations because they are my family too. Until they can join me in a land where they are no longer persecuted, my table will lay there, incomplete.

May we walk forward with hope and courage and defend those our Lord loves. I leave you with the vision of restoration from the end of Isaiah…

“Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her,
    all you who love her;
rejoice with her in joy,
    all you who mourn over her;
that you may nurse and be satisfied
    from her consoling breast;
that you may drink deeply with delight
    from her glorious abundance.”

For thus says the Lord:
“Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river,
    and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream;
and you shall nurse, you shall be carried upon her hip,
    and bounced upon her knees.
As one whom his mother comforts,
    so I will comfort you;
    you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.
You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice;
    your bones shall flourish like the grass;
and the hand of the Lord shall be known to his servants,
    and he shall show his indignation against his enemies.” Isaiah 66:10-14


Resources to support those at Standing Rock and other indigenous peoples:

intersections

In relation to yesterday’s post, here and here are the other posts I’ve written about race-related stress and racial trauma. As an added caveat, I think it’s important to remember that the presence of trauma of any kind does not reduce a person’s situation to the oppressor/victim dichotomy our polarized society is so fond of. As I wrote yesterday, there are areas in which I maintain privilege (able-bodiedness, American citizenship, and college-educated status to name a few) that simultaneously interact with the social identities that may undermine my opportunities (i.e. being a woman of color). This intersectionality present in our stories reminds us that each of us has responsibilities to lift up those outside of the communities we either identify with or have been ascribed to.

My nation contains institutions and modes of interaction that do oppress me (examine definitions of “oppression” here), but I don’t view myself solely through the lens of victimhood. Those experiencing suffering directly related to any axis of identity have always had agency–they have never been voiceless. They are limited, yes, by political and social systems that position them with lesser power, but they are the experts of their struggles and the ones with the greatest capacity to guide others in demolishing that which weighs upon them. When you stand at the intersections, model the willingness to submit to the authority of those voices that speak to experiences you have never known. The call to action begins with the invitation to listen.

trauma-informed care

What should I expect from my white friends when I’m broken up about racism?

I mulled over this with a white woman from my church as we sat on a bus stop bench in Washington Heights, smells of the Cubano sandwich clasped in my hands curling into the cold air around us. Shock greeted me when I found myself opening up to her about topics I hadn’t even brought up with my close friends, and it revealed to me just how much I need to talk about this: race and my white friends.  For a few days, I had kept these questions to myself and saturated in articles and ranting, grieving Facebook posts. I found myself messaging and calling my black and Latino friends at every threshold point when I felt overwhelmed; desperate for affirmation that the well of pain I was sinking into was real, I needed the presence of people who just got it. If the well breached open in my heart was pouring out, I simply didn’t have enough buckets in hand to share out so white people could see and understand.

In many ways, I still don’t. People outside of the groups targeted by Trump’s campaign underestimate the breadth of hurt that those vulnerable communities are experiencing, and that the hurt issues from sources far deeper than this recent election. The tears, the protests–even the tongue-in-cheek black memes are symptoms rather than the crux of the matter. The election results tapped into a submerged current of grief and fear that has had little room to surface throughout our history as a nation.

It’s the current of 1492 and Standing Rock. It’s the current of slavery and sharecropping and sundown towns and mass incarceration. It’s the current of the Chinese Exclusion Act and Japanese internment camps. It’s the current of the Mexican-American Wars and Operation Wetback. There have always been walls built to contain and maintain this legacy of suffering. The visible walls planned only mirror those closeted out of convenience.

Grief is not convenient. It doesn’t wait for you to catch up, nor does it fall into any timetable of denial, anger, and acceptance. I realize this as I sit in my office, that same tension churning in my gut, refusing to leave. I’m not the embodiment of the tragedy mask from Greek plays–it’s not like I’m tearing my shirt and weeping every few minutes (bring out the ashes!). I’m not a walking waterfall. But while I laugh, crack jokes, and work like any other day, the emotions and thoughts related to race spring forth in the most unexpected moments, often without any specific trigger. How do I articulate the kind of sorrow that isn’t tied to just one thing but ALL of it, all the horrors and unnameables like cuts bleeding together?

The hurt becomes personal and national when I acknowledge that I am not used to being prioritized. My pain has not been catalogued or considered in policies proposed, nor has my peoples’ suffering garnered consistent actions of solidarity that translate into more than sympathetic reblogged articles and safety pins. There are, of course, people pursuing other avenues of standing with their marginalized neighbors, and I am grateful for those allies; I remain mindful, though, of the lingering hesitation on the part of white allies to step closer to the messiness that is racial pain.

I don’t necessarily blame them. (I don’t really want to deal with it either). I think of the guilt that comes with the realization that your skin buys you safety. I think of the confusion and anxiety hinging conversations with friends of color, the fear of screwing up and being seen as racist. I think of the awkward silences where the “right” words won’t come when the world unravels again after another police shooting. The gap between white and black realities looms large, and if white people haven’t learned how to bridge it, stagnation results, despite the best intentions.

Frustration sets in as I navigate through my expectations of my white friends and whether those expectations are fair or not. When another race-related event turns up, I find myself waiting for them to reach out to me. I don’t need a full conversation or a therapy session with them–just a text asking if I’m okay. I find myself yearning for their acknowledgement that the racism underlying both the daily realities and big, mainstream-worthy headlines affects me in a different way. Then I have to inevitably sort through those thoughts and question if I’m really asking for their recognition of my hurt or for their permission to express it.

What I didn’t realize when I was younger is that interracial friendships require this kind of thinking process. There’s an additional layer of effort needed to foster mutual understanding and empathy. As much as I wish they could be, interracial friendships are not organic or easy because subtle power dynamics and unspoken assumptions weave into those interpersonal interactions. We still have to deal with white privilege in our friend-space. As a person of color, I wonder if I am conditioned to shield my white friends from the visceral way I experience race and reinforce their comfort level instead. Is it a matter of relegating my need for support in this area to secondary status or merely saving it for conversations with friends of color–people I don’t have to explain myself to? It might be both.

Talking about race with white people is draining. Real talk here, and I know my brothers and sisters of color may feel this. Pulling back my smile and explaining how this election is making me re-live the discomfort of being called “exotic” as a kid AND the self-consciousness of being one of 1-2 brown people in a classroom AND the rage at how many black people have been shot by police officers this year AND the anxiety I feel when white colleagues and friends rant about Trump when I’m sitting there on the verge of tears and not knowing how to respond…it’s hard to parse it out. There’s no one-conversation-wonder that can fix this, and I don’t expect my white friends to have all the answers.

I wonder sometimes about that anxiety I’ve heard some of them express about this–whether they fear that one more race crisis will tip me and I’ll finally be just done indulging the white stumbling into racial awareness. However, the problem often is that I love them so much that their absence in times of crisis, their unknowing silences sting. I can’t make considering friends of color during times of racial stress a reflex. I can’t connect the synapses in their brains so they realize: Oh, this horrible racially-charged thing happened. Maybe my black friend needs me. I could reach out and tell them what I need. I usually do. But sometimes I’m all stubborn, wounded will, and I don’t want to. I want to see them make the first move towards me. I’m wretched over wrongs they don’t have to consider daily by virtue of their skin color, and I don’t know how to open their eyes to see me. There are people I call home, but when I am too tired to knock, will they still welcome me in?

As an American community, as the Church, we need to take the trauma of race-related stress more seriously when people of color are hurting around us. It’s not enough to survey the body we are mourning and tell us to pray. It’s not enough to see us protesting and tell us to calm down and move forward. Each person experiences racial stress differently, and our reactions and needs vary. We challenge our white friends and allies to take the time to walk alongside us through the debris so your actions reflect your intentions to love us well.

So if my white friends want to shoulder this race pain with me, what next…?

This week, I attended a training centered on supporting people with disabilities, and it convicted me to educate myself about the privilege I hold as an able-bodied person. I don’t have to think about issues of dependency or transportation or the stigma of mental illness, but I need to exert effort beyond obligation to care for those who do. It’s more than”feeling bad” about other people’s oppression–it’s taking ownership of that oppression for yourself and acknowledging that being part of the pain also involves being part of the struggle to reconcile the brokenness with the vision of shalom, of a restored global community that Jesus offers us.

Pursuing the biblical discipline of caring for our neighbors, in this case, neighbors experiencing racial stress involves daily practice. A million articles exist on how to go about this, but here’s what I can share with my white friends:

  • Check-in with your friends of color and ask them what they need from you. Sometimes…it’s nothing in that moment, but ask anyway.
  • Make space. Sharing your friend’s pain doesn’t equate to you dominating conversations about it. Affirm my struggle without needing to rationalize it.
  • Stop trying to prove yourself. I don’t need to know how “not racist” you are. I love you. You can take responsibility for your thoughts and actions when I tell you they are hurtful without fretting that I’ll stop pursuing our friendship. We are not each other’s race-projects.
  • Educate yourself about my pain. You can’t rely only on my personal anecdotes to examine the systemic racism that compromises the welfare of my communities. Listen to others’ stories, read books, watch documentaries, think to podcasts from preachers with a different skin color than yours.
  • Explore the concept that expressions of racial pain are not a personal attack. There are times when I am angry and frustrated at white people because my communities of color are hurting as a consequence of their collective inaction or ignorance. You don’t need to distance yourself from “being white,” but instead I encourage you to explore the tensions you’re feeling when I say “white people” and why you’re feeling them.
  • Own Whiteness. It’s not about getting paralyzed by guilt over it, but rather understanding how the construct of it shapes our society and causes dissonance between our experiences. Continually re-evaluate your biases, your assumptions, your perceptions of people of color and their experiences, and update your knowledge base so you are equipped to engage with racial injustice and its impact on your loved ones.
  • Get messy. Racism is screwed up, and dismantling the institutions founded on it requires your participation. Go to a Black Lives Matter event. Protest with me. Call local representatives to challenge unjust policies. Defend me and people like me with your white friends and neighbors. Complicate their narrative and how they view my skin.

I can only speak from my experience, but I own my trauma and label it as such. I own that the racial brokenness in my country twists up my emotions, shades my daily life, and that the signs of this reality prod at that open wound. Sometimes it enrages me; sometimes I sprint into activism. Sometimes all I can do to cope with the hurt is laugh at Thanksgiving viral videos and toss banter at my little sister to normalize the ups and downs of it all (us Dominicans are good at that). Each day being black, being Latina will be different, and it’s a comfort to know I have a community around me that strives to affirm that.

I’ve been re-watching classic Star Trek episodes lately, and there is a phrase in the Vulcan language that resonates with me: Tushah nash-veh k’du. I grieve with thee. I feel the solemn weight of those words because they convey a sense of shared loss, a dwelling space centered on the pain and all the redemptive hope and exhausted heart wrapped up in it. In the moments when my emotional capacity to reach out to my white friends dwindles, I desire that space to unload my weariness without feeling pressured to BS it or rush to reassure them. I don’t need their attention to feel whole or even to cement my worth-God reminds me of that-but I want them, I want you (if you’re reading this) in this with me because it’s an inescapable part of my reality.

We want our white friends and allies to inform themselves on our racial trauma and seek resources beyond personal stories so they can also share what they learn to those white people we don’t reach. We still live in a world where their voices hold more credibility than ours in those spaces–and believe me, we will change that. But right now, I need my white friends to acknowledge what I’m experiencing as trauma, something complex and deeply-rooted and manifested in ways even I don’t fully understand. Social worker that I am, I call it trauma-informed care, and I believe God calls us as a Church to model that with brothers and sisters of color and other marginalized communities. 

I won’t always be in a headspace to reach out, but the invitation remains: Sit with me as Job’s friends once did, but not to fix me or say God must have a reason, but sit with me and mourn the rubble and the dead. We will continue to rebuild together when morning comes.

 

 

To my friends who are relieved today

I love how she sums up my own thoughts with such grace and understanding. I don’t think enough people realize that when the physical, emotional, and social safety of the marginalized is threatened, the Gospel mandate is to draw near them.

bridginghope

I love you guys. I know you were afraid. You were afraid that the America you knew was falling apart. Maybe you were really worried about our national debt. Maybe you were worried about the lives of unborn babies. Maybe you were worried that your church would lose its tax-exempt status because it understands marriage as being between one man and one woman. You care about your kids, and you were worried about what liberal Supreme Court justices would do. Maybe you were worried about terrorism. You were scared for your families and your children and the potential influx of Muslim refugees. You were worried about getting and keeping a job, and providing for your family because of immigration. Or maybe you were just worried about having Hillary for president because of those emails.

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tears in the night

I am agonizing over what to say.

I could say I’m in mourning, but what I’m mourning has been burdening my heart for far longer than this election season. The tension knotted in my stomach, the nausea thick in my throat is not new. For years I have grieved for the divided state of my country.

This election highlights the failure to actively listen, the failure to empathically recieve another’s story, and this has crippled interracial dialogues on the interpersonal level and prevented our national discourse from taking ownership of the ugliness beneath the red, white, and blue. Each community feels ignored, invalidated, and we all suffer.

I wish I could say that when I clicked off the news last night, the only sensation residing in my heart was hope. I wish I could say that I didn’t spend the night wracked in tears and desperate prayers–but yes, the results of this election was a stab in the gut.

I felt ashamed of my tears. I thought: I should be focused on the redemptive part of all this. I should get back to work and keep fighting. I should feel perfect peace. When I saw that some people weren’t rattled by the election, I thought that maybe I was wrong in feeling what I feel.

But then I asked myself: Why do we rush people to praise when they are suffering? Why do we demand them to feel better so quickly? Do we really think they’ll be better for it, or are we the ones who will feel better when their pain is not all in our face? The fact that I feel this subconscious, overwhelming pressure to suppress the anguish clawing inside me tells me that as a Church we still haven’t learned how to embrace lament, nor how to mourn with those who mourn. Lament involves engaging with pain in the here-and-now, recognizing that the wrongs strewn across our national landscape connect our past, present, and future and necessitate our confrontation with them. Instead, I see Facebook posts chastising people for “sulking,” “being whiny” when they should clearly just “get over it.” It suggests to me that these people don’t want to deal with my pain, so they wrap it in platitudes.

American Triumphalism shoves us past periods of grief to the grand vision of reconciliation and unity and restoration. We are all one! it declares, then furrows its brow when it notices us standing apart from each other. Why are we still divided? it complains, throwing up its handsWe are divided because we never took the time to fully grieve the losses reaped by a consistent history of compromising the dignity and livelihoods of people of color. Racism spikes the soles of our feet, yet the church in America still wonders why we stumble.

Knowing that, I will not apologize for my ugly tears. I will not apologize for the hollowed-out ache in my stomach, the invisible weight dragging my lips down. No one is entitled to my smiles nor the assurance that I’m okay when I am definitively not.

If the Church that I am a part of truly seeks reconciliation, then we must face the ugly. We must tell the truth to each other and see each other as we are–not only the parts that are palatable. So this is me telling my truth, sharing where I stand.

I feel:

Hurt because for so many years I have defended my white brothers and sisters in Christ. When I observed and experienced racist words and actions, in my head I diminished their impact because I grew up with white people, loved them. I didn’t want to strain my relationships with white friends and neighbors and believe them capable of the ignorant attitudes my black classmates talked about. But when Trump called my people criminals and claimed that black people lived in an inner city hell, when he insinuated that Black Lives Matter were like terrorists threatening the rights of everyday Americans, too many white evangelicals were silent. When I saw that over 81% of white evangelical men voted for Trump, it conveyed the message that I was not worthy of being defended. Trump supporters may not have intended my devaluation, but when the racist and sexist statements of someone aiming to lead your country are met with silence instead of condemnation of any kind, that is the message I internalize: you are taking your America back at my expense.

Conflicted because examining the arguments in support of Trump, the reasons why people voted for him, does not erase the damage. Some of the reasons relate to the depressed economic situation encountered by people in rural areas; some relate to high healthcare costs and the barrage of headlines about homicides by an undocumented immigrant or a illegal drug-runs. Some base themselves on the moral imperative to preserve the unborn and transcend “identity politics” and a defensive PC-culture. I empathize with these concerns and the legitimate anxiety underlying them. I know all too well how infuriating it feels not to be listened to. At the same time, the fear professed by people after Obama’s election is not equivalent to the fear others are experiencing right now. Whether rich or poor, urban or rural, whiteness still maintains a privileged position in America, and when the anxieties of white people dictate the policies of a nation, the people who pay the price, the ones made more vulnerable are black people, Latino people, Asian and and Arab and indigenous people. Acknowledging the valid arguments for a presidential candidate’s rise does not disguise the racism and xenophobia in its foundation. America has a problem with race, and the fact that in election coverage we can’t even say the R-word because we don’t want to see it contributes to the twisting in my gut. I hear that Americans (total) have spoken, but if we’re being honest, which Americans?

Angry because there is no space for my pain. There are so many well-meaning posts laid out to remind me that Jesus is King and the Church is one Body and not to hate on other people. The unintended patronizing tone stings because these words assume that I don’t already know this, that I haven’t already been praying constantly and asking God for the grace to love Donald Trump and reach out to those who voted for him. The words assume that I am consumed in my fervid emotion and unable to see the Gospel in this. Lifting up Jesus as the ultimate leader of my life is not mutually exclusive from being devastated at the idea of Trump having a position of such profound political and social influence. It’s both/and: I cling to hope and believe that God will wash this nation in the revival it needs; I also cry because thousands of people decided that Trump’s vision of America is desirable, and that vision doesn’t appear to include me. You can tell me my worth is in Christ, and yet I can still cry out to my Savior that I feel rejected by the white Christians in my country. If you’ve never felt that kind of betrayal from a community you are supposed to belong to, don’t judge it.

Sad because even though there are better words to capture the depth of what I feel, sad is the easiest to access. I feel sad because I don’t think enough white people understand what the election results mean to the groups Trump has targeted in his agenda this past year. I feel sad because so many people I know are furious and shocked and their reality feels leagues away from the casual “well it’s done now let’s make up” attitudes I see on social media. I feel sad because I am overwhelmed by how big the problems are and how many economic and spiritual and racial dynamics are tangled in them. I am sad because the estrangement between peoples in America cuts more deeply than I can ever express.

Assured that God will redeem what is broken in my country. Even as I cried last night, I felt that alien peace, this sense that the blatant showcasing of disunity we have seen will provoke the radical racial awakening that America needs. I want to be part of that movement to throw off the blindness hampering our movement to intimately relate to each other across color and socioeconomic and gender lines. I want to lift up and cover my brothers and sisters of color and rebuild our communities. I want to learn from and protect the groups I am not a part of–like my Muslim neighbors. I want to refine the voice God has gifted me and speak truth into the spaces where it is most needed. I want to see bridges built.

I was not surprised by the results of this election. I am still heartbroken, and for my white neighbors to reconcile with me, I need you to see that and not look away or tell me I’m not trusting God enough. This is not the time for jokes or calls to be polite. This is not the time for claims of America’s greatness. I love you…and you have hurt me. Both/and.

To my Black and Latina brothers and sisters who may resonate with my pain: Let no one deny you your need to process what you feel. It is not healthy to pretend it doesn’t exist or diminish it so you look okay to the outside world. Let it out. Take time to rest. I am praying for us.

The train pulling away from the Bronx was silent this morning, and I felt a spiritual pall settle over the people seated beside me. America is bleeding, but if we can all finally see it, we can tend to the wounds.

I re-read Psalms 116 on the train, and even as the tears remain a steady, heavy presence, and anger writhes in me like a desperate creature I can’t placate, this passage tells me that my God sees me and will not shame me:

I love the Lord, because he has heard
    my voice and my pleas for mercy.
Because he inclined his ear to me,
    therefore I will call on him as long as I live.
The snares of death encompassed me;
    the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me;
    I suffered distress and anguish.
Then I called on the name of the Lord:
    “O Lord, I pray, deliver my soul!”

Gracious is the Lord, and righteous;
    our God is merciful.
The Lord preserves the simple;
    when I was brought low, he saved me.
Return, O my soul, to your rest;
    for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.

For you have delivered my soul from death,
    my eyes from tears,
    my feet from stumbling;
I will walk before the Lord
    in the land of the living.

I believed, even when I spoke:
    “I am greatly afflicted”;
I said in my alarm,
    “All mankind are liars.”

What shall I render to the Lord
    for all his benefits to me?
I will lift up the cup of salvation
    and call on the name of the Lord,
I will pay my vows to the Lord
    in the presence of all his people.

Precious in the sight of the Lord

    is the death of his saints.
O Lord, I am your servant;
    I am your servant, the son of your maidservant.
    You have loosed my bonds.
I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving
    and call on the name of the Lord.
I will pay my vows to the Lord
    in the presence of all his people,
in the courts of the house of the Lord,
    in your midst, O Jerusalem.
Praise the Lord! 

Psalm 116

 

who are you voting for?

I’m voting for Black Lives Matter.

You won’t see that on a ballot, but faces come to mind when I get up before 6am to drive to the polls. Some of the faces I know; many I do not.

I’ve read articles about how Christians should vote–or NOT vote. I’m not discounting those, or the theology they invoke. But what I think is too often obscured in the steadily polarized debate is this simple truth, and it guides me today:

Therefore, if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. Philippians 2:1-4

The passage goes on to describe Christ’s humility as he made himself a servant, died on the Cross for the world, and was then exalted before all else. He had the choice to grasp the lofty stature he rightly deserved; he chose to lower himself instead. This passage echoes the heart of the greatest commandment: To love God and love our neighbor. To adhere to this, we actively consider not only who is our neighbor, but how do we prioritize their needs.

In contrast, the anxiety of the self has driven conversations around this election. People like Trump rise because of it, speaking to fears regarding the Other and the threats they pose, whether they be Muslims or immigrants or “inner city” black people. Concerns over homeland security and economic stability are warranted, but when they warp into a distrust of the dehumanized Other and distort the nuances of their experiences, the implications are dangerous. The logical culmination of this anxiety: political actions that will surely preserve our own livelihoods, our own prosperity and safety at the expense of the least of these.

Our directive should be to look to the shivering rather than grasping our blankets and wrapping them around our bodies. Who in our country is most vulnerable right now? Who should we be protecting first? 

The answer should not be yourself if you are a person with any privileged identities–race, gender, sexual orientation, citizenship status or otherwise. Privilege does not equate wealth or even physical assets, but it does signify that you have power. You have sway in certain spaces.

For those of us with both privileged  identities and identities that set us on the margins, the most vulnerable can include our own communities. This acknowledgment, however, does not negate our need to consider the neighbors outside of those communities as well and stand by them. I’m a black and Latina woman, and my country’s policies and structures often attempt to rob me and mine of opportunity and dignity, but I am neither powerless nor voiceless. We should not shy away from this power but rather own it, use it, because we mirror our God who not only wields his own power well, but also endows us authority to act justly on Earth.

One insight gleaned from liberation theology is that we serve a God who is indeed political. God cares about the physical and economic circumstances of the people He created.He cares about black neighbors in Flint demanding clean water and white blue collar neighbors struggling to feed their families when factories close. He cares about Lakota neighbors lacking electricity and heat and Latino neighbors being treated as “aliens.” He cares when the ones designated with less power in our country are persecuted. He cares when they are mocked and their struggles dismissed. If we are His hands and feet, we must care for them too, stand in solidarity with our neighbors.

I joined a prayer march on Saturday with my indigenous brothers and sisters, and they reminded me through their stories that we have been appointed stewards. We steward the Earth and its resources, but we also steward our relationships with each other because we recognize that we belong to each other. Created for interdependence, we don’t get the option of apathy. If my neighbor cries out for justice and I fail to hear them, I am not stewarding my connection to them well.

So with my vote, I do my best to position people in power who will also listen to the marginalized communities in my country and advocate for them. I seek senators, representatives, a President, who will dignify them. No one person perfectly embodies this orientation, but I get as close as I can, not fixed solely on party lines but the parity of the ground on which I stand; I want it leveled so those in the valley are lifted up.

I vote for them–for my neighbors. I vote for Standing Rock. I vote for the poor–black and white (the majority of which comprise the population on welfare). I vote for Muslims. I vote for LGBTQ communities facing alienation and violence. I vote for immigrants. 

Then, at last, I vote for myself, my mother beside me, my abuela waiting outside the door. We are the women changing the world with ballot sheets and ballpoint pens.