Mother Emmanuel and our Broken Bodies

Before he began killing them, the young white supremacist accepted the hospitality of those gathered for the prayer meeting at Mother Emanuel in Charleston. Forty-eight hours later, our multiracial church made the annual trip north to Wisconsin for our retreat. That first night, a time usually reserved for laughter and the silly games characteristic of church retreats, was somber. We sat in a circle, led to speak our anger and grief.

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Credit: Susan Broman

On Sunday, before returning home, we prayed a litany for the slain: Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Susie Jackson, Myra Thompson, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lance, and Daniel Simmons. And then our testimonies: What is God saying? The anger is still strong, the dangerous vulnerability palpable: Are Black bodies held sacred nowhere in this obscene land?

We stood, the two pastors, to lead the communion liturgy. Her Black body and my White one behind the bread and wine. We recited the same confessions and affirmations we do each month, more slowly this time, as though wondering about the strangeness of crucifixion words in a world that kills, always. I picked up the bread and Pastor Michelle began the familiar words. “Is not the bread we beak a participation in the body of Christ?” She stopped then, the words caught in her throat. I held the bread, looking into the faces of my family – Korean, African American, Mexican, White, Chinese, Filipino – as we wept, the pause growing long and heavy and, with its silence, true. And then, quietly, “Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.”

Today, eighteen months after his massacre, Mother Emmanuel’s guest has been sentenced to die. The anger and grief remain, undiminished by another killing. So do the questions.

White People Get Cold Too

Credit: Chicago Daily News, 1911.
Credit: Chicago Daily News, 1911.

“I thought white people didn’t get cold.” The young elementary school student directed his observation to his bemused principal while looking skeptically at my down jacket. I assured him that I definitely get cold and that I needed a warm jacket just like he did to stay warm through Chicago’s cold winters. I was smiling as I drove away from his school, tickled by his innocent assumption that my lighter skin color somehow kept me warmer than did his darker hue. The student’s school and neighborhood are predominately black and while I don’t know the origins of his hypothesis it also wasn’t that surprising. I could imagine my younger self saying something similar.

My son had joined me for this school visit so my first thought as we drove home was about him- how thankful I am for the diverse community to which he belongs. His church, school, neighborhood, and friendships make it hard to hold blind assumptions about others, no matter how innocent the assumptions might be. He will, I pray, grow up within environments that make plain the gifts of cultural uniqueness and the countless commonalities shared between individuals.

A second thought followed and it wasn’t nearly as hopeful.

The isolating cultural dynamics that caused the student to wrongly assume that my race kept me warm are at work elsewhere with much costlier effects. A 2013 Associated Press poll found that racial prejudice had increased during the previous two years. The poll showed that 56% of Americans hold implicit anti-black attitudes while 57% hold anti-hispanic attitudes. Political polarization and implicit segregation contribute to a culture where, contrary to what many believe, prejudice and stereotypes are gaining ground. And unlike the harmless assumption about my insulating skin color, the biases toward black and brown people have devastating implications. One’s likelihood of being stopped by law enforcement, imprisoned, turned away from available housing, denied promotion, or sold shoddy financial instruments are all tied to one’s race. Not my race, by the way. In all of the previous examples my race (and gender) make it unlikely that I will experience any of this ugliness. (See the Ta-Nehisi Coates article I recently linked to for links to many of these examples and check out the This American Life story about housing discrimination.)

The student’s social location led him to assume wrongly, but harmlessly, that white people don’t get cold. The social location of many other people – older and more influential – can lead to equally wrong but far more harmful assumptions about brown and black people. Assumptions that work their way into media norms, policing policy, and a nation’s collective subconscious.

Diversity is no panacea nor is it a guarantor against injustice. However, those of us with the choice to live in relative segregation must acknowledge that our decisions are about more than preference or comfort. A child’s assumption about my light skin’s protective properties is one thing. Colluding with forces that malign and marginalize is something else entirely.

Interfaith Dialogue

Not long ago I mentioned my upcoming participation on an interfaith panel at a local university and asked for your opinions on what I might say about Christianity.  The event seemed to go well; about seventy students turned out to hear representatives of atheism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity speak briefly about our faith traditions.

After brief introductions we were each asked to respond to a series of questions.  I’ll share the questions here along with summaries of my responses.  What might have you said differently in similar circumstances?

What is a general overview of Christianity?

It was challenging to give a fair representation of the whole of Christianity in less than five minutes!  I first said that, given the global nature of my faith, I was the worst person to represent Christianity.  People who know these things are now saying that a young, non-white, woman from the global south is the best representation of the religion.  I then acknowledge the many, many differences within Christianity and pointed to the person of Jesus as the primary unifying reality across traditions and denominations.  I pointed out- graciously, I hope- that unlike some of the other panelists, I represented people who believe the fundamental problems of the world cannot be made right by humanity.  Rescue must come from elsewhere, and Christians believe that rescue has come in Jesus.

What are the differences within Christianity?

Again, how to represent my diverse Christian family succinctly?  I gave a brief overview of the historic Christian divisions (schisms) and acknowledged the theological differences among many Christians.  I then made this claim: All Christianity is local. In other words, many of the historic and ongoing differences among Christians have been shaped by the cultures these very different people inhabit.  By way of example I noted the history of the many African American churches that surround the university where the panel took place.  As those historically outside of mainstream American culture and shaped by experiences of disenfranchisement and oppression, these churches will often look and sound quite different than their white cousins.  Theological conviction is one reason for the differences within Christianity but is is certainly not the only reason.

What is the Christian view of the afterlife?

On this question the atheist, the Muslim Imam, and I were the most succinct; each of us had a certain belief in the reality or non-reality of an afterlife.  I said that in Jesus we have the template for what to expect after death, a bodily resurrection into physical, eternal life.  Christians believe that God embodies love which include both justice and mercy.  Justice must be served- and here I gave an example of my own implication in the sin that must be judgedand has been served through the death and resurrection of the Son of God.  As a Christian I understand the cross as the merciful acceptance into eternal relationship with God.  A loving God is one who is able to hold both justice and mercy simultaneously.

It was interesting that the Imam, who followed me on this question, directly referenced my answer in his own.

What does it mean to be created in the image of God?

This question came from the audience in response to something I’d said earlier.  I responded that humanity was and is created in God’s image, meant to reflect something of God to the world.  I referenced two implications of this belief.  First, that this image has been cracked and can only be repaired through restoration that comes from outside ourselves.  Second, that we are meant to live within a community that collectively reflects the presence of God to the world.

If memory serves, that was the trajectory of the evening.  The organizers thought it went well and the students I spoke with afterward seemed to appreciate the discussion.  As a Christian, it is my hope that the evening provokes further questions about Jesus.

What would you have added?

“Actualy, we’re Korean!”

Leslie is a friend who, along with her family, has been very generous to our family over the past few years.  She agreed to let me post the following story which she originally shared on her Facebook page.  I share it here with no commentary except to express my gratitude to Leslie and other friends whose stories help me understand a little more what the world feels like from another’s perspective.
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“Hey, you’re Chinese!”

Our family of four had just left the house on our way to dinner.  Four young white boys were strolling leisurely down the alley.  As our car slowly approached, they made barely enough room for us to drive by.  As we did, one said loudly, “Hey, you’re Chinese!”  While my husband Mike kept driving forward, I immediately rolled down my window and replied, “No, actually, we’re Korean!”  Then one of the boys took the ball he was holding and threw it towards our car.  We were too far forward and his arm was too weak to place the ball anywhere near us, but the intent was clear.  While Mike kept driving forward, I tried to roll down my window, look back, even tried to get out of the car, etc.  Ball retrieved and thrown again.  I was ticked.  Mike calmly kept driving only stopping once briefly in response to my, “STOP!”  Mike: “Why?  What are you going to do?”  Me: “I don’t know, but I can’t just NOT do anything.  Maybe teach them some manners or see where they live or try to find the parents?”  Mike kept driving.  I kept being ticked.

What to do in that situation?  They were probably only 8 to 10 years old.  Being a quarter of a century older and wiser didn’t seem to affect my reaction.  In fact, as we continued driving, I had to fight back tears and even say to myself, Think happy thoughts. Instead, I thought of first grade in West Virginia when some kid called me Chinese.  My friend, Ellen Wheeler, was so mad she told the teacher, Mrs. Morrison, who was navigating how to handle this situation since I was probably the first Asian kid she taught.  Even some 6 year olds, like sweet Ellen did, know better.  But then again, many do not.  I thought again of 2nd grade when a cute 3rd grader’s friend also called me Chinese and made the usual “ching chong” sounds.  I have a bad memory, but these and many others are burned in my old, forgetful head with much clarity.

My darling children will be teased, hurt, made to feel less than, and there is absolutely nothing I can do.

It’s not just that the incident unearthed childhood wounds.  I could say that last night’s sleep deprivation was making me emotional to an extreme today.  It’s more likely the fact that my precious and impressionable 5 year old and my adorable and mimicking almost 3 year old were in the back seat to witness it all.  Poor Ethan had to hear another mom speech about ignorance, people making mistakes/poor decisions, how you are not to throw things at people no matter what, do not tease, etc.  But what might be most responsible for the tears and allowing prepubescent kids to upset me so much was the fact that I know it is inevitable that my darling children will be teased, hurt, made to feel less than, and there is absolutely nothing I can do about that fact.  I cannot protect them from the cruelty of life.  I will not be able to stand in front of them and take every bullet of pain no matter how much I would want to or how hard I try.  All I can do is love them and give them the tools to wear their own bullet-proof vest or the means to heal from those shots that eventually penetrate, because they will.  And they will sting, hurt and wound.

Ignorance is everywhere, in the hills of West Virginia and the streets of Chicago.  Human nature as well.  But I do believe that being where we are (the city, a diverse church, our neighborhood school) will provide opportunities to broaden our children’s horizons so that hopefully they will not be the kids who throw stones.  Earlier this same day, I had the privilege of helping to shower a mother-to-be.  The room was filled with friends and family of different races who touchingly shared the beauty of Anna and the fortune of her son who will no doubt be raised in abundant love.  I cried happy tears in celebration of who she is and who her biracial child will grow up to be under such direction and care.  It was a stark contrast to what I experienced just a few hours later.

Black hair and small dark brown eyes are just as lovely as blonde hair or black skin.

We continued on to Cho Sun Ok, ate a delicious Korean dinner, and were surrounded by a room busting of Asians.  The boys gobbled down mandoo, chadolgui, and little Connor even ate several bites of the spicy kimchi bokumbap.  For some reason, seeing him inhale kimchi made me so proud.  Good food and ice cream for dessert helped diffuse the anger.  Those kids in the alley are probably decent kids.  Contrary to my desire to label them as bad, ignorant, and even sheltered rich white boys, they are probably not.  After all, I’ve seen my “perfect” children tease and make poor decisions, too.  Instead, I have to remind myself that there is very little to separate us in the mistakes that we make.  Instead, I threw in one more mom speech before bedtime about how God created us differently and those differences are not to be objects of ridicule but rather beauty, that black hair and small dark brown eyes are just as lovely as blonde hair or black skin.  I’m thankful that Ethan and Connor do and will have friends of all kinds, races, socio-economic statuses, languages, etc.  I’m also thankful that I’m married to a calm, rational man who can counter my urges to get out of the car and whoop some ass.

Common Threads

In the almost 12 years we’ve been married, Maggie has had quite a few different jobs.  Each of these jobs and their incomes has benefited us significantly; in the early days  hers was the primary income while I was in graduate school.  Income hasn’t been the only benefit from Maggie’s assortment of jobs: she regularly brought home books for me while at Christianity Today; I was introduced to the realities of suburban poverty and those serving the hidden poor through her case management at Outreach Community Ministries; these days we are eating very well as a result of all Maggie is learning at her two part-time cooking jobs at The Chopping Block and Common Threads.

Teaching about culture and cuisine before beginning to cook.

Last Wednesday I joined Maggie’s team of volunteers and helped with the cooking class she teaches as a Chef Instructor for Common Threads.  Her eager class is made up of Chicago Public School students from a South Side elementary school. There are a lot of smart people working to support CPS students in Chicago and it seems like Common Threads is doing their small part to contribute to these students’ success.

Some final thoughts from the chef after enjoying a homemade meal.

Each week the students in Maggie’s class learn a few things about a different country and then cook a healthy meal from that country.  And they really cook: knives, flames, the whole deal.  At the end of the semester the students receive a cookbook of all of the recipes they’ve cooked.

Seeing Maggie in her element- teaching, cooking, organizing -was a gift and I’m glad to know she gets to work a job like this.  I’m also glad to know that these students have such a terrific chef instructor!

thanks for making chicago feel like home

IMG_3339This photo was taken on May 10, 2008, the day of our move from Glen Ellyn to Chicago, a move that has highlighted the difference 25 miles can make.  The median income of our former suburb was almost $75,000 while our new neighborhood, Logan Square, sits just above $36,000.  Another noticeable change: Glen Ellyn is 87% White while Logan Square is predominately Hispanic.

Despite these differences, much about our lives remains the same.  We still take walks around our neighborhood, though we are now three and the walks include a stroller.  And we still enjoy hosting people in our home and eating summertime dinners in the backyard.

Our year in the city has been fantastic.  Not always good or easy of course, but definitely a wonderful experience and one we look forward to continuing.  It will still be a while before we can claim Chicago as our own, but after one year we’re beginning to get a taste of the city being  home.

At some point I’d like to reflect on this past year in more detail.  I’ve moved enough times in my 31 years to know that it’s often the first year or so of being in a new place that allows for some of the most interesting observations.  Being an outsider has plenty of drawbacks but it does allow a unique perspective.

For now I’d like to simply thank those who have helped Chicago begin to feel like home.  We’ve shared meals in friends’ homes, had enthusiastic help unloading our moving truck, been taken to favorite restaurants, been immensely supported through Eliot’s adoption, hung out with neighbors in the backyard, and been welcomed into an amazing church family.  For all of these things and much more, thank you.

what adoption is showing me about good friday

img_54761Late last week we received our Foster Home license from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.  In order to adopt a child in Illinois we have to be licensed as foster parents, so it was pretty significant to get this piece of paper in the mail.  The main criteria for this license was the completion of our home study.  We’d heard from a few people that the home study can be fairly challenging as the social worker asks about issues related to family and marriage.  Someone told us their home study process was like having a stranger hang out in their bedroom!  This certainly wasn’t our experience at all.  Either we had a super kind social worker or we’re just used to being introspective about the kinds of things he asked about.  Regardless, the home study shouldn’t deter anyone from considering adoption.

We arrived at this late stage of the adoption process quicker than most because it seemed we may be a good fit with a particular birth mother.  Because we want to completely respect this mother and the complex and sensitive decisions she is making, I’ve not been at liberty to share much about this situation on the blog.  And that’s how it needs to stay for now.

Here’s what I can share: Waiting is hard!  As we have thought, prayed, and talked about this baby we have continually been reminded of our powerlessness.  There is nothing we can do except to wait for this birth mother, or another birth mother in the future, to make some difficult decisions.  We’re aware that our anxiety must pale in comparison to those mothers who are choosing adoption.  Even so, it’s been hard to know how to experience these past few weeks as the emotions we’re feeling are many.

Interestingly enough, this season of waiting and wondering has coincided almost perfectly with Lent.  It’s felt enormously appropriate to experience this process during a time of fasting and reflection.  And now it’s Good Friday and I’m anticipating Easter Sunday more viscerally than ever.  Reading through the crucifixion accounts in the Gospels this week, it’s been surprisingly easy to feel something of the loss and confusion experienced by Jesus’ friends and family at his death.  I too am ready for resolution.

Whether or not you share my faith in the resurrected Jesus, I wish you an Easter weekend filled with genuine and beautiful hope.  Adoption is teaching me a lot about that too!  Happy Easter.