Church shopping

(I am posting from the app for the first time. If it turns out well, perhaps I will finally start blogging more…because NYC = so. much. blog fodder.)

So I am a few months into this adventure of finally being HOME. Every inch of my being is overjoyed to be home. Okay, slight lie-my knees and feet hate my guts, but they can deal.

One of the major things that made Grand Rapids never quite feel like “home” was the fact that I was so far left of the mainstream. And yet, I was-and am-still part of the Body of Christ.

(If you are reading this and are not a Christian, trust me when I say that the hardest thing about being a Christian is…other Christians. Particularly the variety that you have to apologize for and distance yourself from on a regular basis.)

I know that I need to find a new church. I need to put roots down, and it’s a natural way to rebuild some of the community that I’ve lost. And this is New York-I have choices.

While I despise the idea of going about the church hunt with such a consumer mentality, the fact is that I have certain criteria.

A focus on social justice is essential. A church full of pacifists would definitely be a plus.

Because I don’t want to be surrounded by people who are still arguing about this, and because I don’t want to have to be afraid of the reaction I will get when I utter the words, “My friend and his husband…”, I also hope to find a church that is “open and affirming” (translation: they don’t hate The Gays).

And then there’s the race thing. I want a church that honors diversity, but that also wrestles with the baggage of racism in a significant way. This may prove to be the most difficult challenge I will face in my search.

I don’t have a problem with an “all-black” church, but I also don’t know if I have the right to choose that solely for my own benefit.

The church I visited today was small-about sixty people in attendance. I don’t necessarily see this as a bad thing. The congregation, however, was almost exclusively black, while the lead pastor (Priest? It was Episcopalian, another factor that did not win me over) was white. And blonde. And young. The choir director was white, and one of the other two pastor-type people (again, not my denomination,  v. confused) was white.

I am fully prepared for people to tell me that I am making too much of it, but the leadership, the “face” of a church, matters. I couldn’t very well walk up to the pastor on the way out, shake her hand, and ask,  “So how do you build accountability towards people of color into your ministry?”

I mean, I guess I *could*, but…

I have so many thoughts about church in black and white, about being diverse as opposed to being intentionally anti-racist. I know that I had something unique at Madison. But for a church here to become my church home, this needs to be a part of the equation.

Stay tuned…

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Resisting arrest

It was maybe ten years ago that I was in my apartment complex’s pool with a friend’s young daughter. She was not a good swimmer at all, and was reluctant to go into the deeper end of the pool without my help. At one point, I can’t remember exactly what we were doing, (I do have a habit, even to this day, of letting kids use my back as a surfboard in the pool. Note to self: just because you’re in the water does NOT mean it is not going to hurt like a @%# later.) but whatever we were doing, she was either on my back or on my shoulders. We crossed over the point between the shallow and the deep end, and in her panic, she was holding on to me more and more tightly, pushing me down underneath the water.

With my head under the water, I could not explain to her that she needed to let go so that I could get my footing and thereby get us both to safety. I have very little understanding of fear of water, having spent my summers swimming in my grandmother’s backyard pool since before I could remember, but I can understand that it must be terrifying. Her panic was palpable, and yet, in order for me to regain control of the situation, I had to wrest her hands away from my grasp.

It was probably a mere 15 seconds, and I don’t really think that we were ever in any serious danger, but it frightened me nonetheless.

My friend’s daughter was like any other human. When faced with an immediate threat, real or perceived, her mind and body reacted, and her only instinct was to stay alive. It’s an instinct all of us have. It’s what keeps people going in the face of almost impossible odds…it’s why we refer to people with cancer as “fighting bravely”…it’s what makes suicide more difficult than people who haven’t been in that place can imagine. We are human, and our instinct is to stay alive.

Which is why I am so, so tired of people saying, “well, if _______” (insert police brutality victim of the week here) “hadn’t been resisting arrest, they wouldn’t have had these problems”.

These words are usually spoken by people who, even if they were in an encounter with the police because they themselves had broken the law, would never have to experience the abject terror that people of color – whether they have or have not done anything wrong – face every time they have an encounter with the cops.

As a white woman, being stopped by the police is an annoyance at best, albeit triggering in terms of my unresolved crap with authority figures. However, I can think of very few situations in which a random (or not-so-random) police stop would leave me fearing for my life.

I don’t know what it feels like to be a person of color in this country. I don’t know what it is to feel some unidentifiable combination of anger and terror at the mere sight of someone in law enforcement. And because I don’t know what that feels like, I am in no position to say what I would or would not do in that situation.

If you know anything about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), you know that it can lead to a state of constant fight-or-flight hyper-alertness. I imagine that living with the trauma of so many difficult encounters with police over time, either in one’s own life or as a witness to this violence, might lead someone to act unpredictably in the face of this threat. It’s not even accurate to say that this is a “perceived” threat, because for too many black and brown Americans, this is a reality borne by experience after experience after experience.

When my friend’s daughter was pushing down on me in that pool, pushing me further into the water, she was not trying to “resist” my instructions, or my efforts to contain her. She was, rather, trying to resist drowning, to somehow keep herself from the threat she was facing. That threat was very real to her in that moment, and so she thrashed and fought back against my efforts to free her hands from my shoulders and flailed and shouted.

She thought she was in immediate danger of dying, and her body reacted. She did what humans do. She fought for her life.

So now imagine that you are facing an immediate threat. Perhaps you are angry, and you don’t watch your words as closely as you should. Like a child talking back to a parent (unsettling image, but the power structure is set up in such a way that I’m often reminded of the children’s book Matilda: “I’m smart, you’re dumb; I’m big, you’re little; I’m right, you’re wrong, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”), you open your mouth, or you move in the wrong direction, and you are suddenly and painfully aware that you have provoked the rage of this authority figure, and you may very well be killed.

Or maybe it’s a case of mistaken identity, and yet you are taken to a police station and repeatedly sodomized and beaten…or maybe you simply grew up in the shadow of incidents like these, both the larger cases that are publicized in the news as well as the ongoing narrative in your own community of confrontations large and small.

If you don’t know what it’s like to live in that world, then you ought not speak of “resisting arrest”.

What they are resisting is death. What they are fighting against is the generations of brutality and fear that are seared into the flesh of this nation’s history. However they are reacting, it is all they can do in that moment. When you have a police officer’s knee in your back, or his gun to your head, it is not the time for calm; it’s the time to figure out how to stay alive.

If you resist, they may kill you. If you don’t resist, they still may kill you. And the definition of “resisting” is ever-broadening and not easily defined. And if you are a young black or brown man in this country, you don’t stand a chance against these changing definitions. You certainly do not have the luxury of trying to guess whether this is the day you will die at the hands of the officer who is approaching you.

They aren’t resisting arrest. They are trying to stay alive.

And they are doing this because this is what humans do.

What if everything you’ve ever been told is wrong?

The churning I am experiencing means that everything I have to say will not fit neatly into a single blog entry. But let me start by saying this:

It’s not about what you think it’s about. Or rather, it’s not that simple. If nothing else, remember that. There is so much going on beneath the surface.

I have so much to say and it pains me so much to say it and it is going to take me a while. But let’s start with this phrase: “Implicit Bias”.

Got a minute? Take one of these tests. Or a few of them. Then ask yourself how you came to believe the things that you believe. The things that you don’t even *know* you believe.

This mess we’re in came from somewhere. We want to believe that we woke up one day with our enlightened, post-racial selves and that we are not carrying the baggage of our nation’s history. And why can’t people just get over it?
A poem by June Jordan, called “Jim Crow: The Sequel” is haunting me these days. It was written roughly in the Clinton era, and I think I came across it in an issue of Essence magazine. Here’s an excerpt:

But for two hundred years this crazy
land the law and the bullets behind the law
continued to affirm the gospel of
God-given White supremacy.
For two hundred years the law and the
bullets behind the law, and the money and
the politics behind the bullets behind the
law affirmed the gospel of
God-given White supremacy/
God-given male-White supremacy.

And neither the Emancipation Proclamation
nor the Civil War nor one constitutional
amendment after another nor one Civil Rights
legislation after another could bring about a
yielding of the followers of that gospel
to the beauty of our human face.

I know that the phrase “white supremacy” will upset some people, but please know that I am not talking about someone with a Klan hood in their closet. In fact, I am not talking about individuals at all. And I think that before I can go further, I will need to define a few things, will need to explain why I label myself a “recovering racist”. As disorganized as my rants may be, I would be so grateful if some of you would be willing to see through that and to join me as I continue to wrestle with these issues.

Of leather belts and broken cutting boards: Why I don’t believe in spanking

***trigger warning***

(This started out as a comment on a Facebook post that shared this article about the difference between black and white styles of parenting. But then I found myself seven or eight paragraphs into it without being anywhere near done, so I decided that this might as well be a blog post…)

I am glad that the article points out the difference in the “why” here. Sooo intrigued by the idea of permissive parenting as white privilege…profound and absolutely true. I get “those looks” when I am out with my black godson in public…it seems that I might be a leeeeeeeettttttttttttllllllllllleeeeeeeeeee tiny bit overly permissive…but I get that children of color, and particularly black children, need to be raised differently. I “get it” enough that I never try to tell them that the police are their “friend”. I know that they can’t afford for me to teach them that lesson.

(My godson was in his second year of Head Start – so maybe four years old?-and he was telling me about a policeman who had visited his class (in what was likely a “policemen are your friends!” and/or teachable moment about safety type of thing) and the first words out of his mouth were, “He didn’t do nothing to us, though”.

Four. years. old. This is the world a black boy’s parents have to raise them in. And Mona ([Cecil] Elijah’s momma) and I disagree sharply about spanking, but I have to admit that he is a really good little boy and I struggle sometimes with how much the threat of physical punishment has shaped that (in a positive way).

BUT I also subbed in a classroom yesterday where a five-year-old, two weeks into her kindergarten career, punched another child in the nose. Children are taught in school that hitting is not okay, that we shouldn’t put our hands on each other in hurtful ways–but then purportedly go home to quite the opposite message. A neighbor of a friend has a girl of maybe 14 watching her younger cousins, third and fourth grade. She was walking around the street yesterday, in broad daylight, with a man’s leather belt, threatening (half in jest, but there was a seriousness underneath it) to handle them if they didn’t get it together.

I was mortified the other day to hear that 75% of Americans think spanking is okay. (This study from 2013 shows the numbers to be even higher.) This was presented as sort of a side note on NPR, and I don’t know if there was any differentiation between “open hand on bottom” and the myriad of other ways that children are disciplined. But it’s not okay to me, and it never will be. I know of a child who was punched in the eye, but because he was pre-verbal, there was no way of proving it. I feel the same way about physical punishment of children that I do about any other form of violence (war, guns, football itself): Those who live by the sword” (or the switch, or the leather belt) “will die by the sword”.

And here’s the thing: I KNOW that this all comes from my own scars. I clearly remember two spankings (white folks’ verbiage?!) I received as a child. I suppose there were more, but maybe not…who knows. One was my mother in a rage, cursing (which I never heard her do) and hitting my bare bottom (it was summer, and I was running around the neighborhood in a bathing suit) with one of my father’s leather belts. This was followed by her telling me to leave the house and not return.

I can’t remember if I was 7 or 8 at the time, but I was either going into or just out of second grade.

The other spanking I remember is from my father, only because it was done reluctantly (my mother had delegated it, since whatever I had done she deemed to have needed a heavier hand). I remember that one because he did it reluctantly. It might have been the only time he ever spanked me. And he did it without being in the rage I saw him in whenever he beat my brother.

I believe that I am scarred emotionally by my own limited memories of being the recipient of that belt, but much worse was what I witnessed in terms of my father’s behavior towards my brother. (My brother who, like me, was adopted. I never saw my oldest brother, their biological child, get hit, but granted, I was six years younger. Maybe he experienced it when he was smaller. I’ve never asked him.)

What I remember of my father, in contrast to his reluctant and almost gentle spanking in my case, was his rage when he beat (and I use the word “beat” because to me, it was more than spanking) my brother. I remember my brother being on the roof of the garage and my father dragging him down (his own parents were there, and I have a vague sense of feeling like he was more angry that my brother was acting up in front of them). I remember walking into the kitchen and seeing a wooden cutting board, broken in half and bloody. My brother, who has a “tough guy” exterior and has been in all kinds of situations in his life, told me not too long ago that he was never in his life as terrified of anything as when there was a bad snowstorm and he had to call our father for help with his paper route. He was maybe 12 at the time. He is 48 years old and he still remembers this as clearly as if it were yesterday.

Part of the difference in our case is that we were not having these experiences in the context of any knowledge or certainty that we were loved. We knew that we were what people in our community called “lucky” to have been adopted. My parents “got” my brother when he was about a year old, after another failed placement. No idea what happened there; I just knew that his bronzed baby shoe was much bigger than mine and my oldest brother’s. What I have learned from my brother, and only in the last dozen years or so, was that when he was younger and misbehaved, my mother would sit him down in the back porch and tell him that they were going to send him back. My father would come home from work, and apparently would join her in shaming him. “We’re going to send you back wearing only a diaper, the way that you were given to us”.

It’s safe to say that both my brother and I came into this family with attachment issues, something that wasn’t talked about in those days. With that said, I am still bewildered by the fact that my parents passed whatever constituted a home study in those days, and wonder often if they ever would have been approved in this day and age. But I digress…

In my early twenties, I would watch young black mothers (on the ferry or the train going into the city) interact with their children. What I saw was something I couldn’t fathom. They would be so harsh and strict with their children, but at the same time, I could tell that they loved them. Five minutes after a scolding, they would smile or laugh at something the child did. I could not reconcile this in my mind. Would I feel differently if I had been spanked as a child by people whose love I was certain of, by parents who didn’t have the threat of “sending me back” to hold over my head? I don’t know.

And I read these words as well, and they resonated with me:

The pernicious, toxic and inescapable lifelong effect of being disciplined physically – either to the point of abuse, or to the point that the distinction between acceptable and unacceptable blurs in your mind – is that you almost have to say you turned out fine, just to redeem the fact of being who you are. That you “turned out fine” is the only way to make sense of having once felt total terror or uncontrollable shaking rage at the sight of one (or both) of the two people expected to care most for you in the world. The thought that you might have ended up relatively OK or perhaps even better without all that fear is almost unbearable: the suffering only doubles if you admit that it truly had no purpose.

The thing I always say is that I (almost) can understand physical punishment if it is separated from rage. But I don’t believe it ever is. I think it’s a rare thing for parents to lash out at their children in a calm manner. with perhaps the exception of Michelle Duggaroh wait. And again, maybe it’s different for children who have some level of confidence that they are loved by their parents-but the above quote seems to prove otherwise (although I don’t know for certain that the author is actually a biological child of his parents).

AND I cannot say this often enough: I get that I don’t know what it is to be raising a black child in this society. But this doesn’t mean that I think that a belt, or a switch, or anything else used against a child (I respect, to some extent, a parent’s right to use an open hand on a bottom, but that’s as far as I can take it), is okay, no matter what color you are. (<—-the recovering racist in me shudders at the use of this phrase, as I know it’s not that simple…but then, in some ways, it really is. I could take this further and talk about the generational PTSD that people of color are dealing with, but like the author of the original article that started this rant, I still don’t think it’s okay.)

A thing people sometimes say to me when they don’t agree with my views on something is “You are just seeing this through your own scars”. Yes I am. That’s because those scars (in my case, more emotional than physical) are still there. I was spanked. And it wasn’t okay.

Apparently 75% of Americans disagree with me. But I’m okay with that. It doesn’t mean that I will ever stop speaking out against what I consider to be child abuse, pure and simple.

A football player’s actions have sparked a heated debate in this case…but lots of kids are living this on a daily basis, and that’s barely in the news. I am speaking out, not because I want this to be about me, but because I need to let it be known that some of us do NOT think it’s okay. Not for any parent, at any time, famous or not.

I don’t know what it’s like to be black in this society, but I certainly know what it’s like to carry the scars of childhood abuse. And I hope that this somehow gives me, white as I am, some credibility in speaking about the subject.

Just showing up

“Maybe I shouldn’t be here.”

The doubts came on almost instantly, brought about, no doubt, by the fact that I wasn’t seeing as many familiar faces as I would have liked or expected to see. (Cue social awkwardness in 3…2…1)

The church was emptier than I had anticipated. Not an aching, slap-in-the-face empty like Marlene’s funeral had been, but my guess would be that there were not more than 200 people present. It didn’t feel like it was enough.

It also felt so disjointed in a way that I don’t think Rick would have wanted it to be. Skot Welch‘s eulogy gave much honor to Rick’s work, but I felt like the message of racial reconciliation was too sanitized overall…as if the message was muted. Dear God, at my funeral I want people to be pounding their fists on the table, shouting against injustice, breaking the uninitiated out of their kum-ba-yah complacency.

(Someone later pointed out to me that this wasn’t Rick’s way…he approached these issues with grace and gentleness…so probably this is my bias. Also, I do need to acknowledge that some people (most normal people?!) would think that this was not the time or the place for such a rant.)

But if others I’d been expecting to see weren’t there, should I really be? I started to doubt myself. I had asked to leave work early so that I could sleep a few extra hours before the funeral. I had struggled to articulate to my boss the relationship I had with this…friend? colleague?  We had worked together, had common passions, spoke the same “language” when it came to issues of white privilege and injustice. But sitting there, alone, I was starting to feel like a fraud.

I’ve long wrestled with the vagaries of funeral rituals. The question I posed once of whether it’s more appropriate for a casual acquaintance to go to the wake* or the funeral itself was never quite resolved, with people landing solidly on either side of the issue. Today’s funeral was one of the type that seems to be more common this days…no separate visitation time, just a time to greet the family in the hour preceding the funeral. I debated whether or not to come and “greet the family”. I’ve never met the family…except for his “brother” and co-host Skot Welch. I came most of all because I wanted to hug Skot, to tell him how very much I ache for him, how I of all people understand how important friends are, and that there is a friend that sticks closer than a brother. If I could do that one thing, perhaps my presence there could be redeemed.

I wrote most of this (up until this point) during the funeral…on my phone. I imagine that the people sitting behind me were glaring at me disapprovingly, thinking I was on Facebook or some such nonsense. How to explain to them–to anyone, really–that I need to write in order to process?

The service was over, right on the hour, and I made my way out of the sanctuary. Skot was standing right near the door, and in my typical rude fashion, I cut in on a conversation he was having to give him a hug and to tell him how sorry I was. I ran into a few other friends, brothers and sisters in this work.  I almost felt redeemed. I was simply showing up. Whether or not I felt I had the “right” to be there, it was done. I had been there.

And hopefully, just showing up was enough.

*I had a friend tell me that calling it a “wake” is antiquated and conjures up images of drunken Irishmen. East Coast friends would disagree, and old habits die hard.