getting out: part II 

Would a white doctor be dragged through the aisle of an airplane for not leaving his seat?

I ask this question not only because it’s timely, but because I’ve asked this question for a hundred different scenarios:

Would a white woman be scolded in this situation, her feelings called paranoid?

Would a white man’s motives have been scrutinized here, his criminal record redlined?

Would a white woman have been protected in this situation?

Would a white man have been given the benefit of the doubt rather than shot?

I am used to seeing black men framed as hulking figures to be feared, the ones you can justify shooting out of fear. I am used to seeing Latinx persons depicted as threats, aliens you can rationalize criminalizing. I am used to seeing mugshots and unflattering photos of Asian, Arab, and indigenous peoples on the news more often than pictures of them smiling or holding their children.

These patterns of representation cannot be attributed solely to individual bias or even prejudiced media outlets. They point to an insidious reality that pervades both our individual and collective experiences: racism as sin. In my previous post, I shared how the personal and institutional dimensions of racism shape the anxieties of many people of color–and the responses of our white brothers and sisters. Racism estranges us from each other because its intent is to sow dissension, distrust, and displacement. It is a very real spiritual force that establishes strongholds around communities, nations so we no longer act as blood-tied brothers and sisters, but as distant relations merely inhabiting church sanctuaries and neighborhood blocks together.

I think of the implications of Easter and feel sadness. The Cross stands in opposition to anything that distances us from the Revelations mural of multi-ethnic, multinational, multilingual, multiracial family worshiping together and celebrating both what distinguishes us and what makes us belong to one another: Jesus’ death for our sins and his defeat of that very same Death. But not only physical death–no, Jesus put to death all things that bar us from the abundant life God designed us for. Racism spits on that vision of freedom and so it must die, and we must die to it.

Some argue that the Christian life should prioritize only personal salvation and avoid distractions like social justice issues that just cause more division and are only “of this world.” We can feed the poor, house the homeless like we ought to, but giving so much attention to “political” issues like race isn’t really as important or necessary on a large scale. Those called into racial reconciliation ministry can do that work, but the rest of us should focus on the spiritual essentials.

A pastor I heard recently responded to this strain of thought by stating: “We talk a lot about what salvation saves us from, but not enough what it saves us for.” He pointed out that while our choice to surrender to Jesus as our Savior saves us from eternal separation from God, it also ushers us into a new reality, a new way of living where we join Him in the restoration of all things. We are in the In-Between, the Here-and-Now, equipped to engage whatever infringes upon God’s coming Kingdom and cultivate cultures, institutions, relationships, and personal practices that reflect His shalom, His harmonious intention for our world.

Scripture draws us to that vision where we are positioned as ministers of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:11-21), people of renewed minds (Romans 12:2), and a community defined by love and sacrifice on behalf of others (Romans 12:9-15). Our salvation and the life that emerges after that choice should bear this kind of fruit if we are aligning with God’s work both within us and around us. This signifies that I have been saved for the kind of work that will contribute to reconciliation between estranged peoples, whether that be on the racial, economic, gender, national, or embodied axes.

So when I notice a consistent difference between how people of color and white people are treated in my country and the opportunities made available to them, I have been saved for confronting it. This doesn’t mean that each of us has to become Social Justice Warriors Inc. and devote ourselves to writing books and lectures on racial reconciliation; however, it does require us to expand our understanding of salvation to include the redemption of our communities and institutions.

We each have a unique combination of experiences, gifts, and relationships that God can use to contest areas of racial brokenness on these levels so we can become known as those people leading the charge in our promotion of just and loving ways of relating to each other rather than “those Christians” who lag behind secular activists already on the front lines. There are opportunities for fruitful partnership with those who also value the equal and dignified treatment of all people, and there are opportunities to represent the God who instructs us to care for the oppressed among us (Isaiah 1:16-17).

Movies like Get Out expose us to the racial brokenness that touches each of our lives–whether we acknowledge it or not. It’s not a black people issue for black people to deal with–it’s a sin issue we must bring before God, repent of, and seek ways of supporting those wounded from it. Relegating it to a controversial topic black people should work out is neither loving nor helpful in building the kind of unity I think we all want to see but rarely exert the sacrificial effort to make possible.

I’ve written many times about the exhaustion that creeps in when you feel like you have to market yourself as safe and consumable for white people who tiptoe around race because there’s a cost to wrestling with racial tensions and insecurities. There’s a cost to entering into the mess of it without the clinical distance sustained by TV screens and blog articles (yes, even this one). It’s a cost many people of color pay each day because we can’t necessarily afford to be detached. You can try to diminish how often you think about racism, try to rationalize it as not a big deal or not affecting you as badly as other people, but your body is always with you. You bring the race card into each space you’re in, not because you want to play the game, but because the world outlined the rules of it without your consent.

This anxiety and hyper-self-consciousness is not of God. They are symptomatic of a sinful world which capitalizes on the differences that, rather than celebrated, are cataloged and used to justify why one group of people should be feared, fenced out, or assimilated and another group should be normalized, standardized, and made neutral. If diversity is a reflection of God’s creative imperative and the fullness of the eternal kingdom to come, the discomfort I sometimes feel within my skin must grieve God.

Maybe you’re a person of color who has never felt this way–and if so, I’m glad for it. I’m glad that you have been welcomed, affirmed, and included in the spaces you have entered. But please don’t take that safety as the rule; it is unfortunately the exception. Don’t let your sense of comfort negate the racial pain other people of color have experienced–listen instead. I can only speak out of my own experience and others’ stories I have had the privilege to share, but the experience of being Othered is a common thread. I write about it in the hopes of resisting my impulse to pretend I’m fine when what I feel is a whole influx of complicated things simultaneously. I can be the Georgina of Get Out, calm and complacent even as tears fight to the surface, and I could be the Chris of the final movie arc-furious, desperate-all at once.

Get Out is a cautionary tale, a reminder that white spaces, whiteness exists and should be examined. But beyond that, it demands us to confront our racial wounds and acknowledge that those wounds are psychological, spiritual, and visceral in nature.

How do we get out this mess? And as the alternative…what are we supposed to be getting into?

So I help out with the kids ministry at my local church, and this Sunday the kids will be learning about how Jesus is our “bridge to God.” Many of us have seen the image of the cross laid horizontal, closing the breach between us and our Heavenly Father.

Image result for the cross as the bridge

Why am I bringing this up? I want us to think about bridges and their purpose. In simple terms, bridges allow what was once distant and separate to draw close. What was once separated doesn’t have to cross-they don’t even have to come that close-but the opportunity is ready and waiting.

The Cross Jesus died upon invites us to draw close to God, but unlike our tendency to hesitate, He doesn’t settle for a tiptoe. He wants to be intrinsic to our lives, part of everything we are and everything we do. He wants the kind of closeness where He can be present in and work through every painful and raw and riddled part of our daily experience as well as our past.

Intimacy is the antidote to distrust, to fear, because intimacy is the fruit of love, and there is no fear in love, not when God is at the foundation.  When you take the time to know me, when I allow myself to be known and have the courage to step closer to you, that fear dissipates. When we mutually surrender our interactions to Jesus, we are equipped to wrestle with strongholds that would otherwise threaten to distance us or incite doubt and resentment. Our communion will not resolve all racism or fix the bone-deep systemic issues, but us struggling together, crying together, learning together builds a resistance that can endure and erode those historic fortresses until they crumble.

If you’re aiming for the “feel-good,” flowery kind of intimacy, this isn’t it. This is the intimacy of the Cross: Blood. Grief. Confusion. Pain. Death. Love. We must get close:

Personally: We must take the time to listen to each other’s experiences without the defensiveness or fear that often freezes conversations about race before they have a change to delve deep. Instead, we allow ourselves to be guided by the Spirit so we can repent of the ways in which we have hurt each other (and may continue to hurt each other–we aren’t perfect!) and forgive what has been done against us. We have to be honest with our friends and neighbors as we build relationships with them, understanding as well that trust is bolstered over time and backed up by consistent actions of love and vulnerability. We each have baggage and scars in this area, and we approach each other with patience that can only be enabled by the One who redeems all things.

Communally: We must take responsibility for the racial sin marring our history as a Church and the sin rooted beneath our neighborhoods. We mourn this history and lay it before God, and we commit ourselves as a community to actively open up spaces for marginalized peoples to speak to us and lead us in efforts towards reconciliation and justice. We commit to engaging the racial tensions within our neighborhoods. We promote the ministries, services, and organizations building bridges through these tensions and we ask God for guidance in what our participation should look like as our love for the people in our proximity grows.

Institutionally: We must take ownership of the power we have been granted, whether that be through privilege of our skin color, our socioeconomic status, our gender, our able-bodiedness, our social connections, our citizenship. These privileges are ours to steward in a way that benefits those whom the laws and institutions of our land disenfranchise. We must demonstrate the willingness to consider what people value outside of our partisan camp and how that may either reflect the heart of Christ or contradict it. We should speak to those things in love, using our voice, our vote, our civic action to challenge injustice when it is exposed and call our leaders and representatives to be accountable to those whom they serve–especially the ones most vulnerable to neglect and oppression.

There are more ways we could draw close to the problem of racial sin, but I want to emphasize that engaging with it on one level isn’t enough because our faith is not restricted to one dimension. Our salvation didn’t just cover the personal–it had ramifications for ALL of these areas–it’s holistic. When Jesus conquered Death, he established a new path for humanity that culminates in the harmonious diversity depicted in Revelations. If that is what our salvation points to, our daily lives must point to that eternal reality as well. So we get out of the mindset that dealing with race is a side-project and we get into the toil of generating a culture here and now that reflects God’s ultimate design for us as a community.

There will be those who will not enter into this process, those who will scorn the grace extended and reject the efforts of those who seek understanding and reconciliation. They may halt conversations out of anxiety, anger, and defensiveness. They may continue to gravely hurt their sisters and brothers of color-as well as their allies-with their actions. I pray for them–the ones I can’t reach. I pray that God will soften their hearts and filter through any distortions in their vision so, someday, they can join me on this journey. Some may never take that step, but the Cross dares me to hope.

As a woman of color, I surrender my anxieties to God and ask that He enables me with the grace and courage to step across color lines and trust white people with my vulnerability and pain. It doesn’t mean I throw pearls before swine or pretend they have no power to hurt me,  but I am open to welcoming them into my struggles and my celebrations. I see the bridge and ask for the courage to cross.

For my white sisters and brothers, I challenge you to meet us (people of color) beyond the halfway point since we are usually the ones expected to stretch far to accommodate you. I invite you to suffer with us as much as you enjoy our cultures and our company. I am not just black, I am not just Latina, and I am not an object upon which to cast your pity or look to for absolution for any guilt or discomfort. Yet God decided to form me this way, knowing the labels that would be fixed to my body, and there is intention in that design. I ask you to take the whole of that rather than the parts you are comfortable with if we are to learn to step forward together into this redemptive work.

What do we do on a larger scale? Imagine if more white people talked about racism with their neighbors, whether that be in the Midwest, the South, or New York City. What if they introduced black voices to them so they wouldn’t seem so threatening? So they could listen? What if we led our nation in repentance for our racial sin and reclaimed our interconnectedness so all could flourish, and not one at the expense of another? What if more people of color were empowered by their church communities, supported by their family to process their wounds and equipped to transform nations in profound ways? What if all Christians were labeled “Social Justice Warriors,” and it was a compliment of the highest regard?

Intimacy is one step, not a whole solution. But it’s a pursuit, and it makes us more than strangers–it makes us family.

I am reminded of this every time I have a conversation with one of my friends who are white. They are never just White Friends. They are my sisters. They’ve seen me at my worst and loved me. We’ve argued and stumbled as we’ve unloaded our struggles with race and have been made better for it.

No friendship is ever without difficulty, and when you add race into the equation, it means a lot of arguments and apologies and explanations and renewed commitments to understand. But I love my friends and their willingness to take this road with me. It’s hard on them too, and they want to listen and help, and my heart cracks open to receive them.

A day after the presidential election, I dragged myself to the highest floor of the student center near me, fighting tears the entire time. Desperate to hear another human voice, I called my friend, a white woman from the Midwest. Phone creased into my ear, fingers trembling, I didn’t even know where to begin, but I started talking. Then I started crying. And it was like she was sitting there beside me on that lonely stairwell as I cried myself out. My heart was heavy from seeing the rise in hate crimes, sensing the division in my country, feeling like my peoples weren’t being listened to–and I felt alone in it. 

She cried with me. And as her voice shook, she told me: “I feel like they’re attacking you, and that hurts me. They’re attacking me too.” Her words are steel in my step. I have people in my life who not only see my pain, but also huddle with me because they recognize it as their pain too. They don’t know the loss I have-and neither have I walked in their shoes-but they tether themselves to the stakes I face personally because God has made it matter to them

And they don’t stop there–I have seen them defend me, advocate for me, and pray for me. They carry my stories and share them. They assess their own hearts and seek God in unlearning bias and expanding their vision. This has been a source of healing for me because my heart has been slammed too many times by the silences of my white brothers and sisters when it comes to addressing racism in my country. People are dying, people are crying out for acknowledgement, and when those cries litter the wind, unheard, it hurts. Yet in the silent stairwell, my friend on the other line, I saw another way.

Movies can show us the either/or side of racial conflict: evil white racists or victimized black people. They don’t always tell the stories of me and my white sisters on another scale entirely, three-layers deep and finding freedom together on the other side of the Cross. We need more of those stories. We need more of that God-enabled intimacy at work among us, healing our land and ourselves. 

 My sisters, white by nature of a society who scripted us in stark colors, stand with me. This is where I see salvation at work: We get in together, and we go deep.

the inaugurating call

We woke today in different frames of mind. Some celebrate. Some weep. Some lack the words to capture the complicated thoughts twisting inside them. I wonder how history will look back on this day. Will it mark the day as anything memorable? Will this day take up a corner in the national tome, only a blip on a grander scale? Will it signal a great quake or a tiny tremor, unworthy of notice by later generations?

But I don’t live 5 years from now, or 15, or 50. I can’t predict how these coming years will benefit or damage us, and neither can I tell you that this will all blow over when I have no assurance it will.

I am present in this moment, and in this moment, I feel grief. Those who boycott the inauguration or speak out against the man coming into office are being told to “get over it.” Through some eyes, to be critical is to denounce our democratic system or exacerbate the divisiveness in our nation. I acknowledge that there is always this danger of demonizing others or lapsing into a sense of self-righteousness when results don’t turn out in the way you expected or desired. I realize that our system as is elected this man, and I support a peaceful transfer of power. I choose not to ignore that reality. Donald Trump is our President.

He is my President, but I will not normalize his words or other actions. I will not affirm the contempt and vilification he has thrown upon my Latinx family, immigrants and daughters and sons of immigrants. I will not say it is okay when he compares Black Lives Matter activists to terrorists and supports further aggressive police measures to “keep order,” even when it may lead to more dead black bodies on the street. I will not get over his dismissal of my LGBTQA friends as they struggled  to be seen, his neglect of my indigenous neighbors when they have fought so hard to gain notice of the abuses they face. I will not stand alongside his consistent demoralization of my sisters of all colors.

John Piper shared a message today that acknowledges the challenges of living under an unqualified leader. I resonate with the words he opens with:

Today we will inaugurate a man to the presidency of the United States who is morally unqualified to be there. This is important to say just now because not to see it and feel it will add to the collapsing vision of leadership that enabled him to be nominated and elected.

Not only that, but if we do not see and feel the nature and weight of this sorrow, we will not know how to pray for his presidency or speak as sojourners and exiles whose pattern of life is defined in heaven, not by the mood of the culture.

I appreciate the attention he gives to the “weight of this sorrow,” the difficulty of knowing how to respond to this presidency when it has aggravated so many existing divisions and grievances. Yet his later point that followers of God have been able to flourish under problematic political regimes echoes the words of my father, who reminded me that, “God allows the rise and fall of good and bad kings.” We see this to be true in the Old Testament when the Israelites experienced slavery, conquest, exile under pharaohs and kings. We see this to be true in the New Testament when the growing numbers of Christ followers were threatened by torture, execution, public humiliation under the law of Roman rulers. We may not understand why, but bad kings are allowed to take power, even as they ultimately fall under the sovereignty of God.

Now, no President can be cataloged as wholly good or bad, but we can acknowledge that with the rise of some leaders comes higher stakes for certain communities. I urge you now to consider who bears the cost of the inauguration today. Who is feeling fear today–who is grieving?

I will not dismiss these concerns as petty or over-sensitive when their weight drags me to the margins where we should all rightfully be. Yes, there has been a measure of bitterness and pettiness on multiple sides, but these do not diminish the legitimate concerns many carry in regards to this incoming administration. People worry about their healthcare, the education of their children, their citizenship status, their ability to walk to the store and not have to see racist or homophobic slurs scrawled on the walls.

I can engage these anxieties yet still point to the eternal reality that Jesus is Lord and, as he declared in John 16:33: “But take heart! I have overcome the world.” Whatever our circumstances are, He transcends them, and He equips us to navigate the difficult periods where we have few clear answers. I lean on that strength now and answer to him as Master.

Jesus is Lord, and we have work to do.

If you voted for Trump, defend and lift up your neighbor, similar and different from yourself.

If you did not vote for Trump, defend and lift up your neighbor, similar and different from yourself.

None of us can claim exemption from the type of empathetic listening, humble heart-wrestling, and perseverant bridge-building the years ahead require of us. We entered the election already divided in so many ways. Do not call for unity unless you are truly willing to answer to what it will ask of you, because as someone once told me, “Be careful of what you pray for, because God will surely answer.”

If you truly seek to be one united family, it will cost you your assumptions. It will cost you your pride. It will cost you your comfort. It will cost you homogeneity and familiarity. It will cost you the satisfaction of hurting those who hurt you. Much must be cast down for a new foundation to be built.

My indigenous sisters and brothers, you have work to do. This work includes allowing God to bring you rest and comfort. Let Jesus reach those deep wounds in your communities and bring healing. Confront the forces that try to shrink you, make you feel forgotten or abandoned. Our Heavenly Father loves you so much, and He hears your cries. Continue to protest the injustices done against you, and know you do not stand alone. Nurture your children and remind them of the beauty and strength and resilience seeded in your stories. Please share your stories. I need to hear them, need to be convicted by your words, and I submit to you now. Challenge the rest of us past silences towards action. Lead us as we untangle our country’s sins and reconcile our peoples.

My black sisters and brothers, we have work to do. Many of you have already been engaged in the rebuilding of your communities. You have reached out to our poor, empowered our children and reminded them of how exceptional and worthy they are. You have engineered more just local and national policies. You have been relentless in making visible what has been invisible to privileged others for too long in our country. Continue that work and do not grow weary of doing good. Pray for our country and allow God to use you in the transformation of our churches, our workplaces, our homes, our streets. When you are tired, rest and know that your anger and sadness are warranted. But do not allow our Enemy to manipulate that anger into resentment and condemnation towards our white brothers and sisters. As believers, we don’t get to write them off and stop talking to them. We are called to draw close, to love, to share, to seek to understand, and to hold them accountable. This is hard work, and other voices may take advantage of our compassion and demand more from us. Some may label us appeasers and warn us that by choosing to love people who have the potential to hurt us, we are weak. But that is not the mercy we have been shown by the Cross, and it is out of the grace given to us that we keep striving to bring the unified Kingdom of Heaven to our soil.

My white sisters and brothers, you have work to do. Many look at the statistics of white evangelicals who voted for Trump and doubt the relevance of the church in its lack of social justice literacy. Some of us people of color have wondered how many of you in the safety of your homes espouse Trump’s beliefs, depicted powerfully in this comic. The hesitation and lack of trust this engenders has hurt our ability to commune together as one family. Now is an opportunity to approach those confused and hurting with gentle hands and compassionate hearts. Listen without seeking to defend your identity as a good person. Ask God what your role is to be in the lives of those oppressed right now, whether that means protesting, deepening friendships, reading books outside your comfort zone, joining efforts that address injustice, or teaching other white people from what you are learning. But do not be silent; do not be still. Out of the grace that has been shown to you, extend that now to those you may not understand right now. I assume nothing of who or what you voted for, but I invite you now to communicate with your choices, your actions how Christians love within the tension, within the adversity, within the existing divisions. Solidarity involves sacrifice. This is a grueling journey, and there are times when you will feel chastised and guilty for being white or hurt and frustrated when you are dismissed as a hater or ignorant when you just want to help others.  You are joining with others who have been in this struggle for far longer, and there will be clashes, but hold firm. You have much to gain when your sisters and brothers of color are finally treated as equals and we eat together at one table. Stake your identity in Christ and not the reputation you can craft and preserve. He loves you, and he will show you the way forward.

My Asian sisters and brothers, you have work to do. Our country may try to whiten you and widen the divide between our communities, but do not submit to that temptation. You are not foreign; you are family. Take ownership of that truth and share your stories. Bring light to the things I don’t see as a black woman. Know that God shaped you and cherishes you. I invite you now to step up and actively join conversations concerning justice–it’s for all of us, and the problems of the most vulnerable of us are ALL of our problems. You have a unique point of view, and we all need to hear it. Please let others’ lives matter to you in the personal made political. Declare that black lives matter to you and practice that. Protect immigrants, whether they speak Spanish or Quechua or Cantonese or Malayan. Our struggles become woven in one thread, and we petition God on behalf of our community, knowing He has created us to belong to each other. Out of the grace you have been shown, reach out to those outside your walls and may your love make them tremble.

My Latinx sisters and brothers, we have work to do. Our communities grow, and we are perceived as a threat in too many spaces; like our Asian neighbors, we are are Othered. But we treasure family, and when we accepted Christ, our family expanded to include thousands of all colors and backgrounds. Let us model that value and be unshakable in our desire to see all people welcomed. We get tired too, and it is tempting to isolate ourselves in our hurt and cling to what we fear to lose, whether that be loved ones, homes, languages. Cling to Christ; He will not forsake you. His love knows no boundaries, no walls and we have the privilege of allowing that love to permeate our interactions with others. We represent so much beautiful diversity, and our country needs exposure to that gift. We can act as curanderas at the cracks and bring paz even as we resist policies and crimes that inflict harm upon the marginalized peoples around us. We may be pulled in many directions, we may pass as many things, but we know where we come from, and we are at home in the arms of our Savior. Out of the grace we have been shown, let us welcome the stranger and make them our family, and may we stop any who dare make them feel less than lovable.

My sisters and brothers made Other, you have work to do. The racial binary was not designed for you, and neither did our Founding Fathers consider you when they created the laws of this land. You have come from many shores, and yet have not been assured a place here. I lament that reality with you. You are ethnic, ambiguous, biracial, mixed, unlabeled by human measure, but God designed you with intention. He will use that inherent resistance to fit into categories to break down barriers. He will use you to reflect His kingdom in its diversity and limitlessness. Loosen your hands so your story can be released into the world, and it will be a tide that sifts out what is broken and soothes seething rifts. Let no one silence you; speak out from where you stand. Mentor and lift up those struggling with their identities and remind them of the worth endowed them by Jesus. Draw out the truth from misconceptions and stereotypes, and make the unknown and alien real and personal for those of us who do not yet know you. Out of the grace you have been shown, take your place as ambassadors and bring about the flourishing of all peoples.

Be encouraged today. Jesus has overcome the world, and He has set aside works for us to do, with patience, with faith, with love. I see you, and I pray for you. I pray for our new President, that he is granted wisdom and compassion. And I pray that we all do the hard work of contending with our racism, our sexism, our pride, our prejudice, our silence, our suffering and inaugurate a season of repentance and reflection in this nation. May the world be changed by what we start today, and may we never falter as God guides our steps.

camino

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. 

scaling heights, finding home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Criminals. Thugs. Leeches. Aliens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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