Archive | June 2018

We Are All Each Other’s Children

We are all each other’s children. There are two components to that statement. One component is that each one of us is a child. The other component is that every child is our child. We are all each other’s children.

First, each one of us is a child. No matter our age, we still have a child within us. We are most aware of that fact when we are overcome with joy and laughter, when we are lonely or afraid, and when we bury the people who raised us. Second, every child is our child. We have a responsibility to care for and to nurture each other. It is not always our responsibility under the law, but it is always our responsibility as human beings.

A few years ago, I went to South Korea as part of a ministry team. The primary reason for our trip was to assist with a Vacation Bible School program. I was blessed in many ways by spending time in South Korea and one of those ways relates to this post. The church was relatively large by American standards and had numerous activities occurring in addition to a large Vacation Bible School program. Every day the building was buzzing with students of all ages, teachers, translators and room assistants, kitchen and maintenance volunteers, members preparing for the regular Sunday worship services, and paid church staff. As for the VBS kids, they were everywhere, sitting in classrooms and on the floor during morning worship services, walking and gathering in the hallways, singing in the praise band and sleeping in sheltering arms. They did not have on identifying wristbands. There were no guiding ropes around their waists. There were no huge name placards on their backs.

After one or two days, I gave up on trying to connect any one child to her biological parent. It was a fruitless and unnecessary enterprise, for every child in that building belonged to everyone else. If a child cried, fell, tugged on someone for food or water, or was being picked on by another child, she was immediately attended to by an older child, a teenager, or an adult. I was blessed by what I observed in that church and saddened by what I had observed in many American churches. Our focus in the United States on so-called child safety has unnecessarily increased the risk of any of us caring for children in the ways in which our hearts guide us. It has caused us to teach our children through our words and our actions that there are good people and bad people, when in truth, every human is born good and every one of us can succumb to sin and evil at any given moment. It has caused us to teach our children that security comes from laws, restrictions, and barriers instead of from inclusion, openness, and love.

We have become a society that neglects our responsibility to every child, that neglects our responsibility to each other as human beings. Our current immigration battle is a prime example of our neglect. I say battle, not discussion or debate, because a battle is what this has become. I say neglect because there’s way too much focus on laws and on which government policies led us to this point. There’s too much back and forth about why we care for one group of children and not for another group of children. If we are not to neglect our children, if we are not to neglect each other, our focus must be on caring for all children. Our focus must be on comforting, supporting, and loving every child.

Yes, there are children who are American citizens who are without their parents due to their parents’ abandonment, military service, imprisonment, or death. Yes, there are children who are American citizens who are without adequate shelter, food, or clothing. Yes, we have a responsibility to each of those children AND we have a responsibility to the children at our southern border, regardless of which side of the border they are on. We have a responsibility as part of the human race to all of the children at the border, including the toddlers and teenagers from Latin America and the parents and other adults fleeing persecution or simply seeking to build a better life for themselves and their families. We have a responsibility to every child, including the border patrol agents, immigration lawyers, social workers, journalists, cooks, bus drivers, and any other person who is in the midst of the cruelty that is occurring. What must the child in each of them be feeling? What must the children in them be remembering from their early years or fearing for their futures? What heartache and grief do they take home to their families?

We must resist the temptation to pit one group of children against another group, to become more and more suspicious and less trusting, to limit our interactions and our sense of responsibility to people like us, whatever that means, and to judge who is good and worthy and who is bad and unworthy. The temptation is great because we think that if we do those things, we will be safe and secure. We think we can avoid whatever risk being open to, vulnerable to, and responsible for others might bring. In reality, we cannot live and avoid risk. We cannot be safe and secure as long as our fellow humans are not safe and secure. We cannot be fully human until we are willing to embrace the child in us and the child in others. We cannot be fully human until we risk being responsible both to and for each other.

When we live as the human beings we are created to be, we recognize the child that rests in each of us, a child in need of love, of kindness, of laughter, and of human touch. When we live as the human beings we are created to be, we are grateful for the child within us, the child that reminds us of our vulnerability and of each other’s vulnerability. When we live as the human beings we are created to be, we speak and act with an awareness that we are all each other’s children. We accept and cherish the responsibility to care for each other and to protect each other, not only other Americans but all people. When it comes to immigration or to any issue that confronts us, may we remember the child in each of us. May we remember that every child is our child. May we remember that we are all each other’s children.
Amani.

The Wall We Need

Recently, I spoke of the importance of language and of how as a nation, we have lessened its importance as we promoted math and science. I spoke of how this was not a choice we needed to make as we could promote both areas. I also noted that I am an English major not a math major. I don’t pretend to quote detailed statistics. That’s not the way I try to understand the world around me. Thus, I state up front that I have done no mathematical research on what I am about to say. This is just my educated guess regarding the question of what as a nation, we could do with 25 billion dollars. One thing we could do is provide transportation (by bus, or even plane if we’re good bargainers) for every unemployed American citizen who will take a job picking produce in the Southwest, working in chicken plants in the Southeast, or washing dishes and similar tasks in New York or Chicago. My educated guess is that a few American citizens would take the offer but that the vast majority would not, even if we threw in housing.

Another thing we could do, which I would prefer personally, is to use the 25 billion dollars to pay for trade school and community college for unemployed citizens whose jobs, like those in coal mines and steel factories, are gone, are not coming back due primarily to automation, and who would be willing to try something new. We also would let them know we realize how difficult this may be and we would offer to help with child care, transportation, etc. through our federal, state, and local governments, our faith communities, and our individual efforts. We would have enough left over to provide basic services for people who are seeking to make a new life here. That would include public education and health services, especially if we have 25 billion dollars plus the money we are spending on immigration officers throughout the country, border patrols, and internment camps.

Yes, there are American citizens who are hurting. There always have been. There is simply a difference in whose hurt we choose to see at any given time and whose hurt we seek to heal. I invite each of you to turn off the televisions, I-Phones, Facebook, and other social media for even one night and think about and, for those of faith, pray about, what the immigration battle is really about. For I submit to you that it is about three main things that it always has been about since the birth of our nation. It’s about greed. It’s about power. It’s about fear.

First, it’s about greed. And no, I am not making this all about class. I have financially wealthy friends, financially impoverished friends, and friends in that dying breed called the middle class. This is about our greed as Americans. We believe we are entitled to more than whatever it is we possess and that bigger is always better. We need more land and more money for bigger houses, bigger cars, bigger buildings, more expansive highways, and yes, fellow Christians, bigger and more elaborate worship spaces. This is a wealthy nation and it is not because of the mental abilities, physical labor, or any other contributions of any one generation, one gender, one race or one nationality. Every person who has ever been born here, brought here, or moved here has contributed something of value to this nation and not one person who has ever been born here, brought here, or moved here survived, much less thrived, without assistance, assistance of other individuals and assistance of governments. And remember that we never have a problem opening our borders to bring in people who will do the work we are not skilled to do or do not want to do from indentured Europeans to enslaved Africans to today’s so-called illegal immigrants. Then when the work is done, we want them to either leave or assimilate into the so-called American culture, which translates as one race, one faith, and one way of believing and living for all. I could speak on a personal level of the psychological damage that does to a person who does not fit into any one of those categories, but that is a story for another day.

Which brings us to immigration problem number two. It’s about power. It’s about who will control the economy and means of production, about who will control the government, and about who will control the American narrative. One Latin-American theologian often says something we should all remember in times like these. He says that the roads on which people are coming to the United States from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and other Latin American countries are the same roads we built going in. Our government, our corporations, and our citizens have no problem going into other people’s lands, whether they ask us to or not. This is when it becomes about narrative. Our entries abroad are not invasions or infestations. Oh no, our entries are to bring democracy, economic growth, and culture to others as if people around the world did not have any culture before there was a nation called the United States of America. In fact, in many cases, including Native American communities, they had cultures in which their communities, not only individuals, were responsible for caring for children and the elderly; in which animals were only killed for necessities, like food, not for sport; and in which the land was seen as a gift to all, a gift to be nourished, rested, and planted with crops suitable for the soil and the climate.

I guess that’s what made them weak and vulnerable to our invasions and those of nations with similar narratives. Community, compassion, nourishing and nurturing, and even rest are not the characteristics valued and applauded in those narratives. If you’re thinking, well, we’ll get there, but first we need to have a strong economy, secure borders, and peace for American citizens in our own nation, our own communities. Unfortunately, if that is the roadmap, we’ll never get there. We’ll never get to see or to experience the main characteristics, the characteristics that sustain and nourish all. We’ll never to get to live into the main characteristics of our Constitution and of every major faith tradition. For my fellow Christians, I invite you to try out the theory on Sunday. Go to your home church and/or local church and as soon as any of the main characteristics is mentioned in a greeting, a prayer, a hymn, or a sermon, get up and leave. Okay, La Ronda, I get your point, but it’s just not the world we live in. That brings us to the last immigration problem, fear.

It’s about fear, fear of change, fear of difference, fear that somehow someone is going to take something that we believe belongs to us. Here are some things to consider during the evening’s respite from television or social media. First, change can never be stopped. Some change we have no choice over and for change that is within our control, the only options are to fight it or embrace it. To fight it, including fighting it by trying to ignore it, only brings more fear and misery to all involved. If we instead choose to use our energies and our resources to embrace it and learn how to implement its benefits for all, we will be a better nation for having done so. Second, difference is good. What is the point of all the fascination with DNA tests, ancestry charts, and even world travel if not to learn about and embrace differences of heritage and experience the good that every culture has to offer. There have always been people in this country who feed off the fear of difference. Their goals being what we’ve already discussed, greed and power. To be a better nation, we must not overcome difference. We must overcome fear.

The vast majority of individuals at our southern border only want what every one of us wants deep in our souls, to be valued, to be respected, and to be loved. The real terrorists and gang members are not the helpless individuals we are incarcerating at the border and in cities across the country. The real terrorists and gang members are powerful enough and well-connected enough to come and go as they please. Or they are our fellow citizens, whether they strap on colored bandanas and guns, wear dirty pillowcases on their heads while burning crosses at night, or sit in boardrooms lining their expensive suits with the profits from building and leasing facilities to imprison traumatized children and their desperate parents.

Which brings me back to walls. I woke up this morning thinking about a wall. It wasn’t the 25-billion-dollar wall being touted as a savior for our nation but a wall in Jerusalem. It’s called the Western Wall or the Wailing Wall. It’s all that remains of the wall that surrounded the Temple Mount in ancient Jerusalem. There are some people who go to that wall to pray for a Messiah or for the return of Israel to its military and religious might during the days of King David and King Solomon. Those are not the people who entered my thoughts this morning. Who I thought of are the people who go to the Wailing Wall to pray for loved ones who have passed or who are in trouble, to pray for the healing of their nation, or to pray for forgiveness and for God’s mercy on us all. For those are the prayers that rest in my heart at this time. I pray for loved ones whose toil over generations helped to build this nation. I pray for loved ones and for my fellow citizens who are overcome by fear and despair, politics and division. I pray for the families that we as a nation have torn apart and who may never be reunited again on this earth. I pray for God’s forgiveness for anything that I have said or done or failed to do or say that has in any way contributed to or made me complicit in our government’s actions. I pray that our nation does not experience the enveloping nightmare that I and many others foresee. Yes, Great Spirit, I need a wall. We as a nation need a wall – a wailing wall. Amani.

On This Day

This is one of those days when I still cannot decide. What was the spirit that led me to leave my bed and venture into the world on this Father’s Day? At first, I thought it was God. After deciding I would hibernate for the weekend, I had received a text on Friday to read a scripture passage this Sunday. Of course, I said yes. I love to be a worship “leader” whatever that means. I love to read scripture aloud. And for better or worse, I love to please. It must be the Great Spirit, I said as I responded “yes” on Friday and as I made my journey to worship today. The reading went okay but everything else before and after seemed to go wrong, not in a major way but with small signals. By midday, I wondered, “What spirit had this been?”

After worship, I made my way to lunch ahead of the rest of my lunch group for the day. I could not meet and greet or do the cocktail party type chit-chat. I needed to leave, to find a space to let go of the hurt and anger and despair. As I parked at the lunch venue, backing in near a modest incline, an individual standing on the sidewalk below assisted me with the ordinary stop and go hand motions. When I exited my car and thanked him, I realized that he was an elderly man and a Vietnam War veteran (thanks to the words on his baseball cap). We chatted briefly and for some reason, his words cheered me. Only a few words about people each of us knew who fought in Vietnam and about being childless on Father’s Day were shared but those words were heartfelt, I believe, on both sides.

After chatting with a few other people at the restaurant before and after meeting my lunch group, I journeyed home, hardly able to hold back the tears. I made it in, let the tears flow, and then began to wonder what motivated this mood. Was it limited to another Father’s Day without my father and without my uncle, who had raised me like a father? Was it the sadness of sitting “alone” in worship in the midst of a room full of people? Was it the ongoing struggle of going to any worship service and not using the gifts I have been given and yet knowing that those gifts do not fit within a “traditional” or even “contemporary” worship structure? Was it the current political climate, a feeling of being trapped between worlds with so many people I care for seeing the world so differently, thanks in part to different media outlets and different social connections? Was it the feeling that no matter how much I researched the world that lay beyond these borders and how much I hurt, I am stuck, stuck between the land of my birth and the hatred and venom that spews forth with reckless abandon within it and venues abroad that each have their attributes and their detriments when compared to what has always been home? How can I, as an African-American female, well-educated and having received so many gifts from family and friends, describe the despair that overtakes me at this moment? Only if you have had or are having similar feelings about life, about country, about vocation, not occupation or career, but vocation, or about the earthly loss of family and friends can you truly understand.

I have the luxury on this day to go to bed in comfort, in good health, and with an awareness that there are many tomorrows in which any minute may bring positive changes within myself, within those I love, and within the country that is my home. The fear which arose to the surface this day is that those positive changes within the United States may not occur. In the midst of that fear, I still believe that each of us is called to do what we can to move our country forward in ways that show our compassion for all, regardless of ethnicity, gender, socio-economic background, or citizenship status. My prayer this evening is simply that each of you will open your hearts to feel and to understand where we are as a people, to for a moment let yourself take in with all of your senses the cruelty, the intolerance, the mistrust, the fear, and the hatred that has become so pervasive among us. My prayer is that we each speak and act with the awareness that we are not invincible as a nation, that we, like so many nations and empires before us may be permanently divided or destroyed as a people. My prayer is that each of us will find ways to surrender to openness, to hope, and to a justice that values and cherishes every life. May we allow ourselves to be guided by the loving, vulnerable, and embracing Spirit that rests within each of us and that I believe yearns for us to be so much more as a people than we are on this day. Amani.

The Language of Faith

We have become a nation that ignores language. This is thanks in part to text messaging, corporate names and logos with intentionally misspelled words, and the unnecessary promoting of science and math over English and liberal arts as if we could not promote the sciences and the liberal arts. The only times we seem to pay attention to language are when it’s time to write a college essay, craft a wedding invitation, or engage in a political correctness battle. Only then do we give our words the thought they deserve. Remember the old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me?” It is true that words will not break our bones, but they can break our hearts. They can break our spirits. Words can hurt us, wound us, and scar us. We remember the playground taunts from elementary school. We remember the words of family or friends that made us feel unworthy or unloved, the words of teachers or colleagues that made us feel stupid or destined for failure, and yes, the words of clergy or church members that made us feel sinful or like a perpetual outsider.

Words also uplift and inspire us. We remember the written and spoken words of encouragement, praise, and comfort from teachers and supervisors, coaches and clergy. We know how good we feel inside when we find the right words to express at the right time for a friend or a complete stranger who is grieving or simply having a bad day. As people of faith, the words of our scripture, hymns, and worship liturgy can bind us together or rip us apart. As Americans, we learn of the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution which gives us the freedom of speech. We are guaranteed the right to speak and write in order to express our opinions, to protest, to worship, and to put words to our feelings and desires. In theory, any person can say almost anything at any time as long as it does not cause a riot. I say in theory because each of us places limits on the words we use with certain people and in certain contexts in order to avoid conflict, reprimands, or hurting others.

Let’s take, for example, the f-word. I have friends who view the use of that word as offensive and some who even view its use as sinful. I have other friends who use it as often and as easily as they would say heck or forget you. As for me, I have no problem using the f-word but it’s not a word that comes to mind on a regular basis. Do I have a right to use the word? Most certainly. Should I use it without concern for the beliefs or feelings of the person who will hear it? Most certainly not. I try to base my use of the word on context and particularity, on how I believe the hearer or reader will feel when I use it. When my perceptions are wrong, I am thankful when the person trusts me enough to share her feelings and the reasons behind those feelings. Even then, I may not completely understand and I may unintentionally use the word again. I am human. I don’t know everything or how everyone will interpret or feel about what I say. All I can do is to try to express myself in ways that fit the time and the audience and most importantly, that cause the least harm and do the most good.

Here’s another example. Having lived in the southern part of the U.S. for several years, I have become comfortable using the word “hon.” “Thank you, hon.” “That’s okay, hon.” I say it to women, men, people younger than I am and people older than I am. It is simply a way to show affection or to soften the impact of certain statements. One day when I was serving as a chaplain, a colleague asked me if I realized how often I used the word. She noted that I had used it in our conversation several times that morning alone. She also cautioned me that there were people in the hospital who got extremely offended by the word. “Really?” I said. Then, she shared a story of someone having called a doctor hon and how the doctor went on a rant because she believed she was being disrespected. Initially, I thought to myself, “This is ridiculous,” especially after I learned that it was a female doctor who said it to another female doctor.” Then over time, as I tried to limit my usage of the word and thought about its use in different contexts, I came to the conclusion that it was okay to call someone hon but that I should be sensitive to the context. Is this someone who I know well or someone who also uses the word? If not, how did they react when I used the word. Body language says a great deal. If the word slips out and I’m not sure of the reaction, I will let the person know I meant no harm or that I use the word indiscriminately, and I will apologize if it was offensive to the person.

If you’re saying right now, “Well, that’s too burdensome. People are too sensitive these days. You can’t say anything without someone getting offended and overreacting. It has gotten to the place where I can’t even tell a joke or sing a song with certain words without someone having a problem with it. Just f it, I’ll say what I want!” And hear me say, that is certainly your right. Hear me also say that until we all are willing to take the time and make the effort to monitor our own language at the same level or greater than we monitor our actions, we will never be the free, uplifting, and harmonious nation we say we want to be and that we can be. This also requires taking the time to listen to other people’s concerns and reasons for reacting the way they do. If we are being asked why the words are offensive or why they’re offensive if person x says them but not if person y does, it means erring on the side of believing that the other party is sincere and wants to learn or engage in a constructive manner, not that they are being sarcastic or mean-spirited or that they are intentionally uninformed.

All that said, I put forth our recent debate over Roseanne’s tweet and the cancellation of her show. My initial reaction was to approve of the show’s cancellation and the more I learned of other comments Roseanne has made, the more I applauded the network’s decision. Then I started reading statements from people who questioned why Roseanne’s show was cancelled when the shows of certain talk show hosts and other comedians was not. “That’s different,” I said to each example given. Then God poked me and asked, “How is it different? Are you just having a knee-jerk reaction or have you actually thought about the examples being given?” So I began to think about it and I continue to do so, not just about Roseanne, but about our use of language on a daily basis.

First, I think about context. Life does not provide clear answers of right and wrong. Maybe that would make life easier but it’s a moot point. Context matters. For example, the comedian Dave Chappelle did a skit years ago in which he brought forth the lunacy of Jim Crow laws. I believe he called it a shit-in instead of a sit-in. He filmed the skit like a documentary with himself as an elderly factory worker recalling a day in the Jim Crow south when he desperately needed to use the bathroom and the “colored” bathroom was on the other end of the factory. He took a chance on using the whites only bathroom only to find himself sitting on the toilet with a shouting police officer and an attacking German shepherd at the bathroom stall door. There were many people who found the skit offensive and chastised Chappelle for what they viewed as making fun of the Civil Rights movement. I believe he said the intensity of hostile feedback was one of the reasons he took a long break from public life. I, however, thought the skit was hysterical as it did point out how ludicrous those laws were. It also could pique the interest of people who were not familiar with that period of our history or of its effects on the daily lives of African-Americans. In my opinion and in this context, the skit was not one that would require chastising Chappelle or taking his show off the air. Even if we personally did not agree with how the skit was presented, this was a comedian and an African-American addressing a political, racial, and moral issue that still effects us as a nation.

Second, there is history, the person’s history, the history of television, and our nation’s history. Unlike Dave Chappelle, Roseanne was not commenting on her ethnic group and she has a history of making racist and otherwise offensive comments against African-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Muslim-Americans, and others. She has done so as Roseanne the celebrity, as Roseanne a human being. Unlike Carroll O’Connor, for example, who played the racist and sexist Archie Bunker and used his celebrity to speak out against such behavior, Roseanne has used her popularity to give racist words a larger platform. We could add to her history the extremist political and social statements she has made on both the extreme right and the extreme left.

Television for decades has joined in affirming sexism, ageism, religious discrimination, homophobia, and racism. People of color were rarely seen and when portrayed were portrayed in demeaning ways. Even as I watch documentaries today on World War II, I am reminded of how people of color have been discounted. As I watch the footage of soldiers in the field, being transported in ships across the Atlantic, or celebrating at the end of the war, I think of my own father and three uncles who served on foreign soil during World War II, who served honorably, and who served in a segregated military. Where is the footage of the soldiers who looked like them? There is some, but it is rare. The small and the large screens that depict our lives and provide our entertainment have a lot of making up to do. So should ABC and other entertainment entities watch Roseanne’s behavior more closely than that of many other entertainers? Yes. Both her history and the history of the entertainment industry warrant it. Should the show have been cancelled? In my opinion, no, even if it continued for a certain time period or indefinitely without Roseanne. Possibly the incident could have been used within the show as a way to educate and to prompt fruitful discussions.

Lastly, the role of our nation’s history. If we live in the United States, we live in a nation infected with racism. Unlike many of my family members and other African-American friends, it has taken me decades to be able to own that fact. I have never wanted to own it because it hurts. It wounds and it wounds in ways that can never be healed. Even with all of my education and all the advantages my family has given me, even though this is the country of my birth, and even though this is a country for which generations of my family have worked, fought, and died, I will never be treated equally, not as an equal to a white female and certainly not to a white male. I am reminded of that fact every time I look for a house or an apartment, every time I apply for a job, and even every time I think of going to a new doctor or a new church. My parents’ generation risked physical, financial, and emotional injury by doing any of those things. My generation has faced less of the physical risk, but the wounding attitudes and words still abound. At times, they have caused me to discount my own worth as a human being, to dislike the physical characteristics that God graciously gave me, and to discount and disparage people of my own race.

Roseanne’s comparison of an African-American female to an ape was more than a political commentary or an inappropriate joke about appearance or a protest against political correctness. For better or worse, her comment came with her history, the entertainment industry’s history, and our nation’s history. For African-Americans, it came with a history of being compared to apes as an insult to our intelligence and our humanity, not only by the entertainment industry but by the so-called science of the day, science that found it perfectly acceptable to experiment on African-Americans without concern and without consent. If as Americans, we are to be one nation under God, each of us must take the time to learn about our history, the good, the bad, and the ugly. We must own that history and deal with it, not once but continuously. For racism is like a cancer. It can be hard to detect. It can be mistaken for other diseases. If we have symptoms of it, we may try to ignore them for we know that treating the disease may drain our bodies, our minds, and our finances. Once cancer is detected and even after it is in remission, it must be monitored for the rest of a person’s earthly life. If it is not, it can return and spread throughout a person’s body before showing any obvious signs. And yes, it can be lethal. The same is true of racism and racist words affirm racist beliefs and behavior.

Each of us, regardless of ethnicity or social prominence, must expend the energy to think before we speak, to listen and seek to understand when another person takes offense at what we say, and to communicate in constructive, not destructive, ways. As Christians, we have committed to viewing every person as a child of God and to loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. When we are tempted to believe that other people are being too sensitive or that words don’t matter, we need to recall a time when someone said something that was hurtful to us. Regardless of whether we called their attention to it, whether they intended to hurt us or not, or whether others would or would not have taken offense, the hurt was real. The wounds are real. May we learn from that hurt and remember the effect words can have. As we hear and read the words of people who have chosen to be in public forums, may we be mindful of context and history and hold them accountable. May each of us seek to fill our daily discourse with words that heal, inspire, educate, and transform for the better. May we do so not because it is politically correct and not because any person or any social standard requires us to do so, but because as human beings traveling on this journey together, we desire to do so.

Amani,

La Ronda