Unexpected Kindness

Misery violently took over my night, pushed sleep aside and sent me rushing to the bathroom. The initial relief was short lived and I soon found myself fumbling in the darkness, desperate for the antibiotics the Traveler’s Clinic had sent with me. I gulped down the first giant tablet, determined to be ready for travel by morning. We had a full day planned, including a visit to a hostel for young girls, shopping and then dinner at a friend’s house before returning to our guest house in Dhaka. Yet, morning still found me pasted to my bed, stomach swirling in unreasonable circles. Relief that no one else had caught the same bug and the reality of our next day’s flight out of Dhaka propelled me out of bed, grateful for friends to help me pack up. This was not the way I wanted to say goodbye to Mymensingh, one of my favorite cities on earth, eyes squinted tightly shut to block out the light and hands grasping a plastic bag just in case. As we left the city behind and headed towards Dhaka, we canceled all other plans for the day and I laid back in my seat and willed myself to survive the journey.

It was awful, I’m not gonna lie. Many roads in this densely populated nation feel like a loop in Mario Cart, only there are a million other drivers racing down the same road and the precipices are real. Our driver, Ramjan, who had been nothing but a gentleman since we left Dhaka, was now doing his best to maneuver his way home. It wasn’t long before I found myself squatting on the side of the road, upheaving the remains of my stomach. Ramjan hovered beside me, full of concern, telling my friend to hold my hand and pull my hair back. He even took a long look at my vomit to try to figure out what I had eaten that was causing my insides to have such a mutiny. When I was finished, he motioned for me to hold out my hands so he could pour water into them. He showed me how to rinse out my mouth and wash my face. As I squatted in the dirt by the side of the road and cupped my hands to accept his gift of water, I felt the Divine tapping me on the shoulder and I knew I was taking in a holy sacrament. I saw my Creator mirrored so beautifully in the face of our Muslim driver who shared his water with this tired and sick American woman. Something inside came unglued and it’s a wonder I made it back into the van instead of catapulting down the embankment.

Here is the painful truth – if Ramjan were in my country, he would most likely be arrested or put on a watch list simply based on his appearance and yet he welcomed me,  the stranger. He played the role of protector and host. He was the one who gently taught the first time visitors in our group how to eat with their fingers. In a country where clean drinking water is a commodity, he shared his with me. Dang, he didn’t even avert his eyes from my vomit! It’s the Ramjans that make the world a better, kinder place. In my home country, we tend to judge people like him because of the way they look or the religion they follow. Instead of sharing our water, we build higher walls so those still desperate to come must cross in the desert south of the border, some dying of thirst on the way. We deny place to those who have lost everything because we are afraid they will take something from us. Yet, no matter how high or long we build our walls, how many refugees and asylum seekers we turn away under the pretext of our own safety, we are the ones who lose the most. By diminishing the created, we push away the Creator and Christ is turned away once again.

Photos courtesy of Adrienne Gerber Photography and Liga Mullins.

Glimpses of Truth

I had one of those eye-opening moments on the way to work this morning. An African American woman was approaching cars in front of me as I waited at a red light. I immediately assumed she was asking for money and was weighing what my response would be if she made it to my car before the light changed. As I continued to observe, I realized she was most likely asking for directions instead. My initial assumption was unkind and untrue and I recognized, in that moment, my own implicit bias guiding my actions.

The next thing I observed shook me deeply. As she approached each vehicle, she held her hands in the air to display that she was not a threat. Who asks for help with their hands in the air? What kind of nation are we if people seeking assistance feel the need to put their hands up to display that they are not a threat? It would be very difficult for me to be convinced that racism doesn’t exist here, or that hatred and bigotry are a thing of the past! Try putting both hands in the air the next time you need someone to help you. No one chooses to do this because it is fun; they do it for their own safety.

I saw inequality and injustice played out in front of my eyes, right here in my city today. To the brave woman at the intersection today, I’m sorry I made assumptions about you. You must have been terrified, and I’m sorry for being a part of the system that has given you reason to fear. You are braver than I. Thank you for unknowingly helping me to unpack just a little bit more of my own bias.

Photo courtesy of Adrienne Gerber Photography.

A Different Reality

The whirlwind of January’s blizzard and winter trade shows are finally behind us. I sit, staring at our snow-covered deck, trying to wrap my mind around the fact that next week I will be walking around Bangladesh in my sandals. Here the bare tree branches reach out under a grey expanse but there I will soak up sunshine under a clear blue sky, walk on green grass, smell fresh flowers, sip cups of cha, slap mosquitoes and revel in the warm welcome that only Bangladeshis know how to give. A complete different reality is only a mere 20+ hours plane ride away. A few friends will be traveling with me and we’ve had a many conversations about what it will be like. I’ve tried to prepare them for a different reality, which has been a fairly straightforward task because they all assume that life in another country will be completely different from their “normal”.

But what about my neighbor who immigrated from Germany and still speaks with an accent? What about my other neighbors who are a mixed race couple? Or the Latino family up the alley? Or the single mom at my church? Or the black kids playing basketball at the YMCA after school with my son? Or the queer people I love and care about. Do I assume that their reality is or should be the same as mine? Because the more I listen, the more I learn that right here, in my own back yard, the reality of others is as different from mine as Bangladesh is from America. That is why I have no right to form judgements about or give answers to those who I perceive as “other”. I have absolutely no right to tell them how they should react to the hurdles they face.

My reality as a white American straight female is filled with privilege, choices and status that many people I know do not have. Inside my soul, there is a chair, and I have sat myself down quietly, on that chair. I am listening. Too long have I spoken out of my own reality and placed my own expectations on others. Perhaps in listening I will learn. And if I learn, perhaps I will begin to change and grace will meet us both.

Reasons to Vote

Weary, so weary. Stories of injustice clog my ears. My tears turn to lead as I hang my head and wonder how we got here, to a place where beautiful souls are gunned down in a place of worship, where cries of greatness have turned into building walls and ripping children from parents. A place where protecting the life of the unborn is more important than caring for those who already breathe in the air we share, where we incarcerate African Americans at a much higher rate than “white” Americans for the same offense. Where thousands in my city are not registered to vote, convinced that their voice would not make a difference. Where women are squashed like unwanted bugs and choose to stay silent because they are not believed, where abusers are protected and victims are shamed.

So I am not going to vote in hopes that some greatness will find us. The greatness is already here; we have just shut it down and hidden it in a box or a cage or a cell. The greatness we seek is best seen in the least of these. So I am going to vote for the sake of these –

  • For the woman on the other side of the wall who ran to keep her children safe from gang-lords. For the boy who works the night shift then goes to school all day to care for his family because of what ICE has done in my city. For the families in hiding, though for years have been trying to be legal like me, whose hard working tax dollars benefit everyone but themselves and now they wonder where their next meal will come from.
  • For the families in my district who cannot own homes or borrow a dime to improve their spaces. This ensures that property values and taxes stay low, so low that not enough goes to fund the schools and their children are fought instead of taught by teachers who exhausted and under-equipped.
  • For the African Americans unjustly incarcerated who line the cells of private prisons while the owners line their pockets with billions. For the black bodies laying on the ground through no fault of their own, silently screaming for us to take note. For the daughters of the woman who remembers her uncle being tarred and feathered and hung from a tree for just being who he was. For the same woman whose last words to her daughters were, “Don’t ever stop.”

I will not stop. I will remember these and I will vote for their sake.

 

Columbus Day – To Celebrate or Lament?

In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, but he certainly did not discover America. Instead, he landed on one of the Bahama Islands. For months, he went from island to island, searching for the gold and riches that he had promised to the Spanish Monarchy in return for funding his journey. One of his ships was wrecked off the coast of what we now know as Haiti, forcing him to leave some of his men there when he returned to Spain with only a handful of gold and six indigenous people as slaves, who were paraded up and down the streets of Spain.

He returned to Haiti on his second voyage and discovered the makeshift settlement in ruins and all the men he had left there murdered by angry locals for raping their women. On this voyage he captured 500 Native Americans and sent them to Spain as repayment to the monarchy for their investment.  While Queen Isabella was horrified and sent many of them back to the Caribbean, insisting they were Spanish subjects and not slaves, Columbus continued to capture locals and is said to have enslaved 5,000 of them. In addition to this, he and his men forced them to convert to Catholicism or be burned at the stake. He also ate so much of their food that a famine was created, forced them to dig in mines to search for gold, and introduced European diseases that wiped many of them out. In less than 20 years, the population had decreased by more than 50%.

Guacanagari, one of the five kings of the island at the time, who had also showed kindness to Columbus when his ship had wrecked, is quoted to have said the following before escaping the genocide Columbus was responsible for –

“I’d rather eternally burn in hell, than to go to a heaven where I would find people of your kinds”

These words haunt me and I find no celebration in my heart for the destruction and carnage this man is responsible for. Today, I honor the brave men and women who were the first to discover and settle this land. Women and men who gave their lives being kind to those who came after them in greed and stole this land, nearly wiping them out and calling it a great victory. I lament on this ground stained with the blood of millions who once lived here and truly cared for her. If history teaches us anything at all, it should be that, once again, those who were taken advantage of are the true heroes.

Today, I honor them.

The Divide

Imagine you’re standing on the street corner and a young man comes running up to you with blood running down his face, screaming and crying because of some trauma he just endured. Would you sit him down and school him in the proper way of asking for help or would you call 911 and start screaming a bit yourself, trying to get help for the person in need?

Schooling someone in the proper way of asking for help shows that you care more about the way things look than about the raw and very real pain of the individual in front of you.
It is time we stop telling black people the proper way to ask for help. Do you think another way of protesting would be better? Please keep that thought to yourself. It is not helpful. You may think you have good intentions but it makes you look heartless and creates a bigger divide between us as people.

Let’s not be more concerned about appearances than about the reality.

Let’s be a part of a solution, not the divide.

In Memory

 

Today is Memorial Day in the United States. Banks, schools and government offices are closed. Parades have marched the streets of our cities. Families gather for a picnic or meet at the cemetery to leave flowers on the graves of loved ones.  For many, it is a day of honoring those who gave their lives for this country. For others, it’s just a day to sleep in and hang out with friends over juicy burgers and potato salad.

As a young girl in a long line of Conscientious Objectors who refused to pick up weapons in times of war, I  personally knew no one who had died in the line of duty. It was pretty much a day of picnics for me. As an adult, however, I’ve come to realize that today is not a picnic.

May 30, 1868 was the first official Memorial Day. It was originally called Decoration Day, and was set aside as a time to decorate the graves of those who had died in the war with flowers.

Three years after the end of the Civil War, we decided to decorate the graves of those who died in the war between us. The war between the North and the South. The war that threatened the collapse of an empire. The war that turned brother against brother, that was really about keeping the South in the Union and protecting an economy built on the backs of slaves than it was about freeing those slaves. This did not begin as a day to honor soldiers who died “over there” but, rather, the ones who died here.

But there is another version, an unofficial version, of how Memorial Day started. David W. Blight, a Yale historian, has found a list of commemorations initiated by freed Black Americans. The largest took place on May 1,1865, less than a month after the end of the war, when more than 10,000 of them gathered to dig up a mass grave of what had been hundreds of Union prisoners. These Black Americans dug up the bones that represented their freedom and lovingly gave them each a proper burial and built a fence around the new cemetery. Then they marched, lamented, honored, and sang with crosses, flowers, wreaths and anthems.

Later, the South hushed the voices of the Black Community and made the day about the reconciliation and sacrifices of White America, completely leaving out the voices of Black America. Mississippi,  South Carolina, and Alabama each have their own days to celebrate Confederate Memorial Day as State Holidays, in addition to the National Memorial Day.

153 years after the end of the Civil War and we are still fighting each other, still shushing the voices of Black America, still making things about us.

I’m going to fire up my grill soon and throw on the burgers. Then I’m going to sit my boys down and tell them about some pretty brave folks who dug up a mass grave, and honored the bones of those who had suffered for their freedom.

Isn’t it time we stop making everything about us?

Isn’t it time we stop telling Black America what patriotism looks like?

 

 

Rootless

On the other side of the world, in a space roughly 7.3 square miles of what was once a forest in the hills of Bangladesh, 700,000 Rohingya refugees huddle under tarps in makeshift homes. They have lost everything once – homes, jobs, possessions, family members, dignity, country – and now, with the storm season starting and the monsoon closing in, they risk losing all again.The tree roots that once held together the clay-like soil, preventing massive landslides, are now gone, leaving the refugees rootless in more ways than one.

While Rohingya refugees have resided in Bangladesh for many years, this group has been pouring in since the ethnic cleansing began in full force by the Burmese Military last August. Among them, an uncounted number of women are quietly preparing to give birth as a result of being raped by soldiers before they fled the country. Pramila Patten, the UN’s special envoy on Sexual Violence views these rapes as a weapon of genocide, a “calculated tool of terror”. Nearly nine months since many of these women have crossed the border, aid agencies are preparing not only for a spike in births, but also for babies abandoned by traumatized mothers who simply do not have the physical nor emotional resources to care for another child.

Last week the UN Security Council sent a delegation to observe the situation first hand and it was no surprise when the report came back that the situation was “overwhelming.” The council visited Myanmar for the first time since the genocide began and traveled to the region where the Rohingya refugees had fled from. Earlier reports from the area, as well as  satellite images show that  many of the villages have been completely burned and bulldozed; homes, cemeteries, mosques, trees, landmarks, everything wiped away. Additionally the Myanmar parliament has approved a $15m budget to build a wall along the Myanmar/Bangladesh border, where the refugees crossed over into Bangladesh.

Of the 500,000 Rohingya who stayed behind in Myanmar, at least 130,000 are being held in  camps where their freedom is greatly restricted and the conditions are appalling.

A fierce anger is stirring in me today. What is wrong with humanity that we spend millions of dollars on walls instead of acknowledging atrocities and doing the real work of healing the gaping wounds? Who do we think we are that we can confine a people group to a specific, tiny piece of volatile land, keeping the best for ourselves? What gives us the right to limit the basic human rights of others –  access to food and water, health care, education including college visits, equal pay, police protection, citizenship, and a country to call our home?

I can’t find it in me to be angry at the Burmese people today. They are simply following our footsteps. From English Colonizers to the Germans in World War II to the United States of America where we continue to live on stolen land and benefit daily from an economy built on the backs of slaves. How many villages have we bulldozed, physically or metaphorically, wiping away the history of an ethnic group and rewriting it to make ourselves look better? How many ethnic conflicts around the globe have we perpetuated because our government has funded one side or the other for our own political interests? How many bodies have bled out on the sidewalks and forests of this country because of racial hate more than anything else? Why are we so afraid of people who are different from ourselves?

I see blood on the hands of the Burmese yes, but I also see it on my own people’s hands. As a citizen of this country, I have to own it. I am part of a nation that has systematically chosen which people group should be treated the best and which others should be treated as less than human. It’s written into the founding documents of our nation and has been fleshed out in courtrooms across the nation.

The silent cries of the Rohinga women wrap around my heart like tender vines, mirroring the cries of pain caused by my own nation and my heart remembers and bleeds and spends itself because only a heart that spends itself like currency is strong enough to push back against injustice.

Prickly Privilege

Two handmade crochet fairy dolls, one black and one white.

If the word Privilege causes you to prickle, especially when combined with the word “white” here are a few things you may want to think about.

This year all three of our boys had spring break during a different week. I only took off work for one of them. I drove 425 miles with my son to see his new baby cousin and to hang out with the bigger cousins.

He had hours of alone time with mom, which he rarely gets.

…several fast food meals, which he rarely gets.

…a trip to the aquarium.

…countless basketball games with his cousin.

…late night TV with his uncle to watch his favorite team play.

His brothers had to fend for themselves over their spring breaks. No special treatment for them.

He realized it was a special.

He was grateful for it.

He did nothing more than his brothers to deserve this trip.

He didn’t rub it in their faces.

This is privilege. If his brothers would have pointed out to him that he had a week of privileges, he probably would have simply agreed with them. He wouldn’t have felt that they were insulting him or that something was wrong with him. He would have owned it.

Here are some ways I see I am privileged:

  • I can set my cruise to 9 miles over the speed limit and not worry too much about being pulled over.
  • I can take my nieces and nephew into a museum on my sister-in-law’s pass and not be asked for id or bag check.
  • I can trace my ancestry back to the shores of other countries.
  • I can walk into the movies or any store with a very large purse and not once am asked to open it for inspection, not once am I followed around.
  • I own 51% of a small business in a country where white women still make less than white men and women of color make even less. See more here.
  • I had an educational opportunity to complete high school in 3 years.
  • I have incredible credit rates and was able to take out a mortgage during a time we had virtually no income.

These are just a few examples of ways I have come to realize I am privileged. I didn’t earn them. I’m not a bad person for having them. I see, though, that the playing ground is not level and many others do not have these same privileges.

Michael Harriot breaks it down as not being an insult nor an accusation but rather a measurable gap. You can read his article here.

I own my privileges. I am very grateful for them. And where possible, I will use my privileges to work towards leveling the playing ground for all.

The Home of the Brave

The world feels heavy as the sky drops tears that drip and pool around my feet as if there is no end to the grief, no place large enough to hold it, so it sits and waits. I, too, sit and wait, grieving for seventeen lives gone too soon. All around me, I hear voices rising, arguing over the why and the what needs to happen next. What if everyone were a little bit right? What if the heart of the matter goes so much deeper? What if it’s really a heart matter that more guns, officers, and concerned citizens cannot change?

We show that we are a fragile people when we insist on more protection and build bigger walls to keep out those we see as a threat to our own happiness and security. But, what if the very actions we take to protect ourselves actually help to grow terrorists within our midst? What if by forgetting to be brave and loving to those who are “other”, we are actually giving tools to the next generation to hate those who are different from us? What if the answer to hate and fear was not walls or more guns but being brave? To be brave is to walk into fear because of love for something so much greater than being safe. Brave doesn’t make refugees sit in camps for 26 years when we have more than enough resources to create a home for them. Brave sits next to LGBTQ individuals and listens to their stories. Brave buys sandwiches and coffee instead of guns, shares blankets and coats instead of hate mail. Brave admits that we have a problem, that we collectively  benefit from an economy built on cruelty – first to the 10+ Million who walked this land long before we set foot here, taking their homes and their lives. Secondly to the sons and daughters of Africa, ripped from home, beaten, raped, and worked to death: treated as disposable people to build a thriving empire of cotton, sugar, tobacco and railways. Brave teaches what the history books omit – the horror of the Jim Crow South after the Civil War, the Great Migration and all that came thereafter.

Brave does not panic and shoot unarmed people of color. It does not relegate First Nations people to tiny corners of this wide land and strip them of dignity. Brave does not sit in a neighborhood where everyone looks the same, has the same income level and drives the same kind of cars.

Brave does not play it safe. It goes to where love is needed the most. It cannot help it because love is the magnet that pulls brave forward.

Perhaps the problem is that we forgot what it means to be brave. Perhaps we forgot those outrageous ancient words that whisper still through time and space.

If you live by a weapon, you will die by a weapon.

What if we taught the next generation to be brave by walking bravely ourselves? What if we had the courage to cross racial, religious, economic and any of those other lines we ourselves have invented?

What if we built bridges instead of walls and led the next generation across them?

What if we were that brave?