Black Lives Matter

When I heard the news that nine people had been murdered in Charleston, SC, last week, I was riding the bus home. As I sat next to strangers, I was overwhelmed with grief. At our Sunday morning service, we a spent a moment in silence after the name of each person was called and their picture shown on the wall. Taking in those beautiful faces, knowing that they are no longer here with us, I felt the loss again.

It is time for us to say “No more.” No more violence, no more fear, no more refusing to see the value and beauty in every person in this world.

What can one person do? I am surely not the only one who has asked this question. I am surely not the only one who has felt too small in the face of so much. Perhaps I cannot change the world, but I must change myself–and that is no small thing. When I skirt around the edges of despair at just how huge this problem is in our country, I keep coming back to LOVE. We have got to breathe through our fear, our despair, our anger–whatever it may be for each of us–and see with the eyes of love.

Last month, Natasha Ria El-Scari spoke at CSL about living the Science of Mind principles in the face of racism. One of the many things she shared that touched me was her story of being shoved by a white man at the gym where she was exercising. He had clearly gone out of his way to do it. She followed him and asked him why he had. At first, he denied having done anything. She held firm and calmly replied that it was clear that he had, and she asked again what had led him to behave that way. He finally apologized and she accepted it. To us Natasha said that she was aware that there are two acceptable ways for a black person to address racist acts–one is to pretend it didn’t happen and the other is to go into a rage. Neither works for her. If she remains silent, she becomes complicit with the act of racism. If she responds with rage, she is dismissed. Either way, the behavior itself remains unchallenged. Her approach, instead, is to “get all up in people’s faces with love.”

Speaking up has always been my struggle. I have not known how to address things that felt wrong to me. Stuck between two choices–fly into blaming, shaming, righteous mode; or remain silent–I have not spoken. I feel in the turmoil of my soul that my silence–our silence–makes it possible for horrendous acts of violence against black people to continue unchallenged.

Natasha offered a very clear alternate path. Love wants to speak through me. I may not feel that I have the power to change the world, but I can open my mouth. I can set my fingers to write when my throat won’t loose the words inside me. I can let Love speak through me. Doing so will change the world.

The Porcupine of Truth

The Porcupine of Truth by Bill Konigsberg. Published by Arthur A. Levine Books, 2015.

How could you not pick up a book called The Porcupine of Truth? The title led me to the inside flap — boy meets lesbian — which led me to the first chapter. There I found writing that engaged me just as much as the premise of the book.

A summer of exile from New York became an adventure on a number of levels for Carson Smith. Carson, facile of verbiage — except in the presence of beautiful young women — finally manages to speak to one. It turns out not exactly to be the adventure he was hoping for, but . . .

It all began with Aisha offering Carson a tour of the Billings, Montana zoo where his mother had just dropped him. She was headed to his father’s house to get things organized for their summer visit with the dying man. Neither of them had seen him in the 14 years since they left when Carson was 3.

Turns out that Aisha is not only a lesbian, she is newly homeless – kicked out by her father. She joins Carson in his basement room, and as the two of them are trying to bring some order to the space, they discover a carton of letters from his grandfather who had abandoned his own family when Carson’s father was 17. Most of the letters are unreadable due to water damage, but the one they can read leads them to believe that Carson’s grandfather may still be alive — and that the abandonment story in his father’s head may not be accurate. They grab the one clue available to them as to where he might have gone when he left Billings and they hit the road.

It isn’t long before the trip becomes three parallel journeys: the physical trek; an exploration of messy human relationships, how they form, and what they require those in them to become; and a journey into faith and spiritual meaning. I wasn’t expecting all that and was delighted to discover just how rich this story is.

In many ways, The Porcupine of Truth reflects my own story. It is interesting to me how often books seem to find me when I need them. In this instance, I have been working through the whole concept of privilege, and how it is so ingrained in us that we don’t notice it when it’s our own. Ever since I went to hear the two talks at CSL last month about racism and transphobia, I’ve been roiling around in my mind about my own privilege and how I can make an impact for change around a world that is too small for too many of us to fit into. How do I balance not making myself smaller than I am — which I have done all my life — while recognizing that this world does try (really hard and viciously sometimes) to make a lot of people smaller than they are. How do I not take advantage of privilege I am afforded as a matter of course because I am white, petite, aligned in my gender expression (mostly anyway — a little androgynous, but definitely a female in a female-gendered body)?

Is that even the right question? Maybe it’s less about giving something up than it is ensuring that everyone else be afforded the same “privilege” . . . because they are perfect expressions of God, exactly as they are. I’m still working all that out, and Porcupine has given me more fodder for doing so.

I loved both the main characters in this story, and my heart was touched by the people they met along the way as well as the people they came home to. For all that I make it sound like an earnest book, in truth it is funny as well as heart warming and real. Carson is kind of an ass a good deal of the time. He doesn’t seem to get that it’s not all about him. Even his gesture of giving a gift to Aisha in the form of leading her to a group of gay kids morphs into a petulant fit on his part when she actually wants to hang out with them. Yet Aisha and Carson don’t toss each other out despite their very human reactions. The book is a lovely exploration of the developing of friendship, of the healing of painful family relations, and of the belief in something bigger to help make sense of it all.

Bearing Witness

I watched Bryan Stevenson’s 2012 TED Talk, We Need to Talk About an Injustice over the weekend. I consider myself to be a fairly aware white woman, but Stevenson pointed out a number of things about the experience of black people in this country that I simply have not fathomed.

For instance, Stevenson notes that terrorism did not come to this country with 9-11, [or even the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City]. It existed for years before slavery was abolished and for years after–when a black man could be lynched for simply failing to move off the sidewalk if a white man or woman was on it. I know that it was not safe for black people if white people took exception. I know that it still isn’t. Yet the disconnect between my thinking and my understanding is undeniable.

Stevenson gave voice to what I have not been able to articulate in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin and countless other black men and boys. We have created a society of fear that justifies anything that happens to those we fear. White people for the most part don’t question it–if we are even aware enough of all of the atrocities perpetrated on people of color to question it.

In his talk, Stevenson said, “we have in this country this dynamic where we really don’t like to talk about our problems. We don’t like to talk about our history. And because of that, we really haven’t understood what it’s meant to do the things we’ve done historically. . . . We have a hard time talking about race, and I believe it’s because we are unwilling to commit ourselves to a process of truth and reconciliation. In South Africa, people understood that we couldn’t overcome apartheid without a commitment to truth and reconciliation. In Rwanda, even after the genocide, there was this commitment, but in this country we haven’t done that.”

When I have been deeply upset about some way I have been treated, there is one response that evaporates my anger or pain, my holding a person out as if they don’t matter to me. It’s not an apology, which so often come without any real meaning. Apologies are often offered as a way to get away from uncomfortable feelings and back to equilibrium in the relationship between two or more people. To be honest, I have often not even involved the other person in my truth and reconciliation process for fear that the bonds between us would not be strong enough to hold me in my hurt. In an attempt to preserve some degree of relationship, I have tried to do all the work myself–and in the end lost the friendship anyway because it could not hold up under the accumulated weight of my feelings.

However, when I have been met by a heart willing to feel the pain that has been touched in me, my feelings of pain and anger have evaporated. Not diminished slowly, evaporated. When I have been able to look a friend in the eye; when they have found the courage to tell me that this thing that I did confused or angered or hurt them; when I feel the pain that I have caused and own that I did not act with integrity or courage, I have felt the anger/distrust/pain evaporate and trust renew and deepen.

It takes courage to see ourselves capable of harming another. It takes courage to see how we have contributed indirectly to the harming of another through our ignorance, through our unacknowledged history, through the privilege we are afforded by an unjust society that values “us” over “them.” Stevenson states that we cannot be “fully human until we pay attention to suffering, to poverty, to exclusion, to unfairness, to injustice.” He is aware of the challenge in paying attention to these things. It will break our hearts to do it, but reconnecting our hearts to our minds will heal our world. It may be the only thing that can.