don’t catch fire as you rise

Wax dripped onto my fingers as I gripped a candle in the midst of hundreds. I stood in Washington Square two nights ago, catching snatches of the speakers’ declarations, a litany of “Stand up, fight back”s and “This is what America looks like”s and “No ban, no wall”s. The memory of the press of people at my shoulders bolsters me now as I consider the past few days of controversial Executive Orders and the resulting protests.

It is a complicated day to be an American. It gets even more labyrinthine when you are a woman of color and a Christian. I find myself caught between multiple communities, affirming some words, hesitating with others, all the while trying to be consistent in where I stand. I must contend with the condemnations of the Women’s March that I walked in as well as the constant charges from other Christians to “give Trump a chance” and “wait and see.” I understand their reluctance to judge Trump’s actions–it can be perceived as an exercise of grace for a new leader.

Yet Trump has had more than a year-decades in fact-to demonstrate what kind of man he is and what he values. Words reflect the orientation of the heart, and I take his words seriously, as well as those from the constituents he surrounds himself with, many of whom at the worst have ties with nativist, neo-Nazi, and other discriminatory organizations and at the least offensive are unqualified for their positions of influence.

One hand grips this understanding. Then there is this:

Do I believe in a God big enough to transform Donald Trump’s heart, lead him in paths of wisdom and mercy? Yes. The answer will always be yes, as much as it was for Paul, as much as it was for me. When I align with Michelle Obama’s stance that “When they go low, we go high,” I choose to believe in God’s boundless ability to cultivate love in any person and use their life for good purpose–I refuse to doom them to eternal depravity, and it’s not my role anyway. Out of this, I choose to refrain from attacking Trump’s family, from engaging in aggressive actions against those who voted for him. Even if he doesn’t change, I still choose this. Going high means we don’t get to satisfy our desire to hurt others who have hurt us, no matter how justified it may be, and only God can enable that kind of grace.

I want to do the hard thing: acknowledge the imago dei in others AND hold them accountable for their actions–especially when those actions carry so much weight for communities already facing intense marginalization. There is a way to do both, and that path leads to the Cross. “We have the privilege of loving our enemies,” a friend told me yesterday. “And God’s like ‘You weren’t able to do this before. Not without me.'”

I had never thought about it in that way before. I get the privilege of loving my enemies. Before Christ, there was NO reason to do this–it makes no sense, it feels wrong even. Unfair. That is the Gospel though: the unfairness of Jesus’ sacrifice for us because how dare He choose to love the unlovable. How can I stand before God and reject the humanity of another person He created when I have been reborn through this Gospel?

I think it becomes harder to receive this message when others have co-opted it to silence you and soften the edges of horrific realities. I have witnessed too many white Christians appropriating the grace of the Gospel to dispel the pain of their sisters and brothers of color. I went to a Christian college and felt the sting when me and other black students were criticized for “creating more division” and “being too angry” when we talked about the racial problems on our campus. By the time a blatant incident of racism happened and no one at school could ignore it, the chimes of forgive forgive forgive forgive from our white classmates pricked at calluses built over years of dismissal and apathy.

Looking back on that experience, I’ve realized that the barriers became so thick because I felt like we were being asked to extend a hand, extend trust, extend grace, with no assurance that the other students even acknowledged our pain or would take steps to stand by us in the future. Some of us had been burnt too many times to risk it.

I’m sharing this now because I want to emphasize how hard Jesus’ teaching is when he tells us to love our enemies–and it may not even be our enemies! It could be loving our friends and neighbors and co-workers-and even family-who have committed microaggressions against us, who have offended us with their words spoken out of ignorance, who have perpetuated a passive acceptance of the world as it is because they haven’t seen it for the specific challenges we experience–or have been unwilling to. Where we locate the resistant tension in our hearts when we think of these people in our lives, that is where all the implications of “do good to those who hurt you” becomes a serrated truth, cutting deep.

I get the privilege of loving others when it feels impossible to do so. That is what Christ enables us to live out in our everyday interactions with others, whether that be on Facebook, in the work room, or at the dinner table. But what does this love look like? Does it look like holding hands and smiling at each other, pretending that our houses aren’t burning behind us? Does it mean we wave off Trump and get over it?

Well…no.

There is grave injustice at work in our country, and there are forces actively spurring the flames of disunity and fear. We shouldn’t diminish the wrongness of that. I am furious, and every time I see another Executive Order, I feel like screaming to the sky “Come, Jesus come!” Our church is in a fractious state, our conversations with neighbors brittle with unspoken grievances. We must stand where are and look around; this is where we are starting. Loving each other within this space of tension and uncertainty and breaches of understanding means that we choose to wrestle with the pain, with the current division and still face the Cross together as we do this.

We call out evil when we see it. We humbly challenge each other to consider experiences we aren’t familiar with (I’ve been learning a lot about the experiences of my low-income white sisters and brothers lately). We mourn the pain of others even as we invite them to enter our own. We speak out when we’ve been sinned against and repent when we sin against others, individually and as a community. We say NO to any laws and actions that harm our neighbors. We resist racism and sexism and xenophobia and persecution of any kind that grieves God’s heart. We acknowledge unbalanced power dynamics in our relationships, in our systems, and we dismantle them, guided by those who have been disempowered. That is love that rises to survey the mess and embraces the incisive truth-telling and white-knuckled dialogues that form the foundations for bridges.

Exposing the pain, exhaling it, tangling and untangling it with another person willing to work through it with you, as equals, is one of the most terrifying and healing choices you can make. I had one of these conversations with a friend, a white woman I love dearly, and I’ll never forget what she told me, or the validating balm it was for my grief and outrage:

I’m sorry that in the great gamble of history, for some reason, people who look like me, people with my color skin, came out on top. I don’t know why that is when it could’ve have easily been the other way around. I’m sorry for the ways me and my people have hurt your community. I’m sorry for the ways I’ve oppressed you or silenced you and your community–especially unintentionally…The greatest injustice is that you were made to feel guilty for doing the things to survive, to feel safe…I don’t have a right to your trust. I have to earn it…Will you forgive me?

I did. And she forgave me for all the times I’ve painted her with a broad-brush, dismissed her as another white person I struggled to trust, failed to empathize with the suffering she has seen and experienced in the South. We’ve had a lot more of these conversations in the past year–and it’s hard. It’s confusing and tense and cathartic and vulnerable. We have found communion within burning wreckage and discovered ways to build a friendship that allows us both to rise without blistering.

In some ways it’s easier and harder to do this with a friend–what about with a stranger? Someone on the Internet? That person at church whose politics make you grit your teeth?The politician who makes himself an dart-board for mockery? Can we pursue this type of radical, counter-cultural, Gospel-seeded love with them too? I am asking myself this question now as I struggle between the reflex to pile insult and indignation and the awareness of how my actions testify to Christ whom I claim dwells in me. There is a difference between the righteous outrage that illuminates wrong and the bitter rancor that can warp our vision. We cannot shame and demean another person and face the Cross at the same time. Neither can we go high and still grip stones to throw.

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.

 

re-vision part III

“Love is the voice under all silences, the hope which has no opposite in fear; the strength so strong mere force is feebleness; the truth more first than sun, more last than star…” -E.E. Cummings

The bus arrived in Chicago on a clear morning. I left the Greyhound bus station in a bluster of bouncing feet and flapping arms, throwing my duffle bag over my sore shoulder. Sleep-deprived, red-edged eyes latched onto the sight of the Willis Tower (I would always know it as the Sears Tower) climbing the barely-lit dawn, pinks and yellows melding on its glass surface.

I couldn’t catch the train for another two hours, so I wandered around the newly awakened streets, only a person or two brushing past me as the rest of the city stood still. My heart quickened its pace, catching up to the feet that propelled my steps off the pavement as if a hidden breeze boosted them. The city waited with me, restraining a dam of restless, twitching energy as I dawdled its streets. I found no relief in finally settling into the cushioned seat on the Metra; my thoughts fluttered and flurried, darting to and from every atomic emotion available. Close. So close.

There was a time I considered returning to Wheaton as a gleeful guarantee. I had envisioned myself as the seasoned alumni with maturity pleating my smiles, sharing stories with younger students and giving them a reason to exhale. I’ve been there, I would say, pride and affection scuffling for dominance in my gaze.

A few months ago, that vision hung tattered, soft edges unraveling.

#ReinstateDocHawk snagged the remaining threads of that vision, picked them apart and wrung them out. It was inevitable: once more Wheaton had faltered, failed to address those marginalized in their midst. Professor Larycia Hawkins, a black tenured female professor on campus, stood up against the Islamophobia in our nation by donning a hijab in solidarity with her brothers and sisters “of the book,” those who share the patriarchs and other aspects of spiritual heritage. I am not here to debate the controversy of that claim. What I witnessed though was a miasma of miscommunication, reactionary actions, and confusion on Wheaton’s part as an institution.

I bore witness to a misstep of power as the administration placed Professor Hawkins on leave with a vague rationale that pointed to her Facebook comments as grounds for evaluation of her job status (polite words for “being fired”), an anomaly considering that various white male professors had made far more controversial remarks with not so disproportionate a response. The administration’s actions put Hawkins’ statement of faith in doubt, and the lack of transparency regarding the process to reinstate her and the aspects of the Community Covenant she apparently undermined resulted in the deepening of the breach between students/faculty of color with their allies and the rest of the college.

Echoes of Chapel Tweets vibrated in my thoughts as I saw the outbreak of Facebook conversations from those who rallied to Hawkins’ defense and carefully tracked the administration’s movements–and the plethora of articles and news specials capitalizing on yet another controversy at Wheaton. Alumni, students, faculty, staff fell at all points on the spectrum and argued the theological implications, but most blatant, most inflamed and still bleeding internally lay the bruise of Wheaton’s community, fractured internally on racial, ethnic, and sexual axes. Some argued that race had little bearing on the Doc Hawk situation; my familiarity with the racial brokenness at Wheaton indicates otherwise.

Students of color, students representing marginalized identities at Wheaton, had prodded the bruises for years, sometimes only to receive a response from the administration that highlighted increased “diversity awareness” campaigns, more diversity themes integrated into the course curriculum, and more diverse chapels. Whatever insight and aid these sincerely-constructed resources offer, they are not enough. They do not adequately address the inequity of power present when a predominantly white college board and predominantly white campus community demonstrates at best blind-spots and at worst inertia when it comes to examining the origins of suffering for students of color on campus.

The grave reality reveals itself when a black student feels like a hosted guest with little access to people in authority who look like them rather than an equal member of their college community. More than mere complaining about feeling “unsafe,” this is systemic marginalization at work in a space cultivated to be a healthy sowing field for young Christian minds. Yet how many students of color have passed four years through Wheaton with this sagging weight of alienation?

Professor Hawkins represented one voice demanding diagnosis of the homogenized bubble Wheaton has become but does not have to be. She drew students to her not only because she preached challenging, visionary truths and embodied them through her thoughtful actions, but also because she defended those who lacked power in Christian spaces to do more than survive, endure. Her departure umbraged the sense of broken trust between Wheaton the institution and the students, faculty, and staff left angered and devastated at the outcome that became a loss for us all.

My first Solidarity chapel wrenched me into labored awareness. Chapel Tweets confused and battered me. #ReinstateDocHawk grieved me. For the long months of the conflict, a wracking sadness clamped my heart, shook it through motions of rage and mourning. I was no longer the freshman lost in a swell of ineffable racial tension or the new alumni bristling in resentment for hurts unspoken. I didn’t know what I was as I prayed over Wheaton, prayed for illumination, justice, and unity.

Shame and hope warred. Shame as everyone from co-workers to news anchors derided the school listed on my resume for its defects. Hope as current students fought to mercifully send flowers to school officials and pray graciously for the administration and students who opposed their views. I struggled to validate the rancor from students who had personally encountered racism, sexism, and homophobia on Wheaton’s soil and ask God to bless President Ryken and Stan Jones in the same prayer. To do one felt like dismissing the gravity of the other, and though I knew logically it wasn’t true, how could I address both?

The depth of my helplessness was a gaping maw as the notifications on my Facebook dash mounted, and I pressed the blue thumb of affirmation, commented rarely, hesitant to take any step beyond grief that could lead me astray. I feared the inferno of my anger, not knowing if it was righteous or wrong, so I quelled the flames and mourned in the ways I could. Lips shredding, exposing raw, stinging skin, I agonized over a way to move from the passive silence of my past to an unapologetic awareness that could act with grace.

When my steps finally took me to the grassy knoll edging Blanchard Lawn this past March, I expected to feel the weight of a spiritual stronghold, a haze of darkness. I waited for a swarming prophetic anger to clench my hands and harden my eyes. I waited for revelation.

My shoulders rose as the heft of my duffle bag dropped to the ground. I stood alone and looked. Like one chilled morning years ago, fog wreathed the lawn and its winding paths, rain indenting the grass in shivering pools. I stood and waited for a sensation–for anything. Maybe for an answer to six years of questions.

I waited through all the four days of my visit to Wheaton for a declaration of war or a cessation of grievances, but none came. Weaving my way through crowds of students in Lower Beamer reminded me of the stark dearth of students of color as once again a familiar self-consciousness tingled along the brown roll of my arms. Yet buoyant chatter swung through the halls, and my eyes marked the students ringing the cafe counters and selling tickets at the long tables below the cafeteria stairs and furrowing their brows over slightly crumpled textbook pages as they sat sequestered in Blanchard Hall’s cushioned chairs and bouncing slightly on their way back from chapel on a sunny morning and huddling together in the OMD to debate the nuances of white privilege and sitting alone with wearied eyes in the crook between classrooms and drooping their way through cafeteria lines with latched lips that resisted the urge to tremble.

My eyes re-mapped Wheaton and saw all of it at once, and I did not recoil.

My survey drew me to one last destination: the birch tree hanging over Blanchard Lawn, bark still stippled with black and white patches and creased like an elderly brow. Steps tapering off into slow, quixotic brushes against the grass, I soon stood beside the tree and faced the verdant expanse of the lawn. Silence gripped invisible ropes cinched between the campus and I, quavering with taut tension. Taking one step closer, I let my body lean into the tree, and the tautness loosened but did not leave. And I breathed.

I breathed and allowed my gaze to linger on the shadows springing onto the grass from sun-washed trees now buckling under the mass of spring leaves. Waves of grass glided past each other as the breeze tugged them back and forth in a pendulum sway. Beneath it, I sensed a pulsing in soft staccatos. Relaxing into the birch’s firm body, eyes opening with clarion sight and ears alert, I heard the heartbeat of the place and listened.

No resounding promises or reassurances, not even an obscure God-voice with hypnotic prophecy. There was only the bewildering, aggravating, captivating reality that I still love Wheaton, not with eyes that look past its beasts to see beauty, but rather see both and choose to love it anyway. I am still invested in its present and its future, still care about its people. The mire of confusion and fear shrunk away, leaving only the one question, the same one driving this trilogy of thought regarding my relationship with Wheaton: How do you love those who have hurt you? 

There are layers of Wheaton to acknowledge: first the institution in its systems of policies and programs and hierarchies of power assuming a place in Christian higher education; then the administration and faculty and staff framing it, steering it; then its students, both as a collective body of differences and the constellation of individuals and relationships. I know so many people who have felt silenced and dismissed and yes, oppressed on these levels. Their stories of pain are real, their anger warranted. Loving Wheaton does not absolve it of the cracks lacerating it to the foundations.

How do I hold the suffering of those students and faculty, the grievous impact of Wheaton’s decisions regarding race, sexuality, and gender, and the everyday microaggressions that index the blight of America’s own racial injustice? Can all this dwell in the same space I allocate to the Wheaton that speaks through my best friends, the honest pursuit of intellectual inquiry permeated by faith, the tear-stained singing in All-School Communion where a community’s love for Jesus resounds?

Out of my return to Wheaton emerged the latest re-envisioning of a community I now realize I have re-envisioned ceaselessly over the years. New conflicts and heartaches transform how I perceive my alma mater, and I am discovering with humbling clarity that the God I once served was a pitiful entity, indentured to my judgments and ultimately unable to restore my love for an imperfect community. I serve a God far greater than that, and His sanctuary houses both grace and righteous rage. There I can challenge an institution, a community still blind to many faults without venom. There I can forgive those who unconsciously hurt me and those who willingly avoided my pain. There I can call out injustices Wheaton perpetuates through inaction and ignorance, not because I’m some superior being, but because I am a member of its family, of our family. 

Christina Cleveland declared that we challenge the lines of “us versus them” when we recognize that we belong to each other. To my Wheaton family: You belong to me, and I belong to you through bonds reinforced by blood–Christ’s blood. As family, we keep each other accountable because our sight requires constant re-vision. We require each other to see clearly. There is too much at stake: the testimonies of Christian communities before the eyes of the world, and the lives struggling to make it through college without leaving disillusioned and damaged.

Even now I struggle to put these feelings into words because part of me still feels justified in fulminating about Wheaton’s sins. There is also so much I cannot voice because those are not my stories to tell; I speak only for how I interact with and view Wheaton. This is the love story ongoing, one blog post spilling into three because in delving into my thoughts about Wheaton, I needed to examine where I’ve gone wrong in engaging with my and others’ pain…and also where critique is not only unavoidable but vital.

My love for Wheaton is not trite. It is not couched in delicate aphorisms. I have waged war to keep loving Wheaton, and God in His mercy brings me daily to the space where the Cross stands, where a love without conditions, extricated from human limits, abides.