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 Law of Kindness

It didn’t seem strange, at first, to see this young family ahead of me in line when I went to drop my son off at camp for the week. They stood huddled together, quietly waiting, but then when they reached the front of the line, they quietly requested a place to take a shower. While other children excitedly checked in and called out greetings to long lost friends, the silence of these children and their parents suddenly spoke volumes to me and in their beautiful, brown faces I read an unwritten story and it broke me a little more. What does it feel like to live life on the run, with no home, no place of safety to tuck your little ones into at night, no place to wash the dust of your journey off your weary body? How devastating it must be to have your adopted home become unsafe, unfamiliar and possibly dangerous.

By the time I got my son settled in to his cabin, the family was gone. I realized I had gone on through the line, expecting someone else to do the right thing, the kind thing, thinking up all the reasons why I couldn’t, why I didn’t just offer my home to them to freshen up in. I needed to get my son settled in. I didn’t have enough seat belts in my car. I lived a distance away and they probably wanted to stay in the area. I desperately needed some down time. As I went over my list of “reasons” on the long, quiet ride home, I only felt regret. I felt as if the Christ-child had knocked on my door and I had shut it in his face.

Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.

So I am writing to myself, as much or more than to anyone else. Something in my bones is grieving, like some ancient DNA that remembers the loss of home, of children, of family. 300 years ago it was not uncommon for Mennonite parents to have their children taken away from them, while they were put into prison for refusing to change their faith. It was next to impossible for them to own land. They were heavily taxed based upon their faith and often hunted down like animals. They were deported, branded (literally) and sometimes sold as slaves,  yet they illegally returned again and again to the places they called home. My ancestors became wandering immigrants, leaving Switzerland and living wherever it seemed safer – France, Germany and eventually finally finding passage to the United States of America.

Recent events have made me keenly aware that I am the descendant of immigrants and that awareness has helped me to step into their stories. And when you are on the inside of someone’s story, well, things just feel a whole lot different.

So today I’m asking all those other descendants of immigrants, especially  those who came here because home was no longer safe, I’m asking you to please stop looking into this story as if you were an outsider, because you are not. Anabaptists, this story especially  belongs to you. You would not be alive today if your ancestors had not broken laws and run away with your great-great-great-great-great-great grandma in their arms. They broke laws so that you could be here today, so how can we be so hard on those who are breaking laws so that their children have a chance of growing up in safety? I’m not talking about criminals who are trying to come in, but the thousands of ordinary, hard-working folks who are running from unsafe situations in their home countries. We have become experts at justifying our existence while denying others theirs. When does it become right for the descendants of immigrants to decide no other immigrants can come here and experience what we have? When did it become right to uphold man-made laws that break the ancient and holy laws of kindness? Our ancestors broke all kinds of laws so that we can be here today but let me tell you what law they did not break – the law of kindness. They fed their enemies. Literally. And remember the iconic story of the guy escaping who heard his oppressor fall into the icy water? He went back, helped him out and saved his life, even though he was caught and put to death anyway. This is our heritage, to love God first with every bit of our being, and then to love our neighbors so much that we are willing to take risks for them.

Remember our heritage, search out our roots. What would our life be like today if unjust laws had never been broken on our behalf?

 

 

 

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?

 

 

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?

 

Leaving “Whitopia” Behind

 

During a recent trade show, one of our buyers stopped by our booth to put an order together and told me how much she appreciated the cover model we had chosen for our catalog this year. The customers that walk through her door love the Pebble Pixie Rattles, whose variety of skin tones mirror their own. She told me that America isn’t a white country anymore, and she’s right. In fact, 2042 is said to be the year when whites will be a minority in this country. The landscape of us is changing.

Does that scare you or excite you?

As a descendant of immigrants who came here to escape terrible discrimination and death because of their faith, (read more from that post here) I dream of this land being a place where people of all backgrounds can find sanctuary and freedom.

My ancestors were of Western European descent (“white”). They boarded a ship and found sanctuary in this country during the time when Africans were forced to board the slave ships and live out a hellish existence in this country.

I struggle to wrap my mind around it. The disparity of the two experiences epitomizes white privilege.

I thought, in my naive, sheltered, rural “white girl” reality, that when slavery was abolished in 1865, it and all of the injustices associated with it truly ended. I understand now, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

One of my earliest waking moments was when I participated in a Privilege Walk done by Mennonite Central Committee. As a stay-at-home mom with no college degree, I was not surprised to be near the back of the room when the exercise ended. What shocked me was that behind me was a black mom, who worked full time and had a college degree. I was crying by the end of it, shaken out of my comfortable white bubble, while she matter-of-factly said, “This is how it has always been.”

Nearly a decade later, I’m still listening, learning and re-educating myself on the painful realities that make up the history of this land and contribute more than we can imagine to current realities.

Books like The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson are teaching me about the migration of nearly 6 million people from 1915 to 1970, fleeing slave-like conditions and unspeakable brutality in the south, who made their way north and west to begin new lives. Yet, even in these new places, they struggled dearly, often forced to do the most menial work for a fraction of what their white counterparts made, forced to live in segregated and over-crowded sections of the cities where they had to pay double for half the space. As a result, both parents had to work, leaving the children to fend for themselves.

Today people of color are often blamed for the drug and crime problems of these cities. But what if their ancestors had been treated with equality from the start? What if they had had fair and equal pay? What if they could have lived anywhere and done anything within their skill power? What if they could have afforded one parent to stay home and care for the kids? What if equal access to education had been made available?
I listened to a Ted Talk today on Whitopia, by Rich Benjamin on his journey as a black man through the whitest towns in America. A couple of quotes stood out to me.

It’s possible for people to be in Whitopia, not for racist reasons, though it has racist outcomes.

America is as residentially and educationally segregated today as it was in 1970.

This hits me hard.

I look at the beautiful face of Kahiniwalla’s 2017 Catalog cover model, and I get all soft inside. I see what will become a strong woman of color who is not left in the back of the room, but is leading the way to a new era. We can choose to embrace 2042 today.

If we treat minorities the way we wish to be treated, we will have nothing to fear when we become the minority.

Grieving…

GrievingThere is a grief going on. A deep, visceral grief that hangs heavy on my shoulders as I stumble through my days. It hauntingly echos in my soul while I rest in the night. Like a child shrouded in her father’s winter coat, I cannot shake it off if I try. This heaviness surrounds and runs deep within my being. A groaning has found me and I try to give it words so those around me can hear it too but when I groan I meet with arguments as if this were something that we could even begin to solve on paper or in dialog on the internet.

I groan because all around me, world wide, I see fear. Some, running with nothing but the clothes on their backs as their city burns behind them, fear pounding in their legs and screaming in their lungs. Others afraid to run through the pouring rain because an officer who sees his dark skin may in fear draw his weapon and assume he is running from the scene of a crime instead of home from the train station. Women and girls with shaking knees, taking abuse one more night, guttural screams held silent by a stronger fear of exposing the truth. Or fear that causes a father to buy a weapon to keep his family safe but that safety is fleeting, a cruel trick accidentally taking the life of his child who knew no fear but now knows no life. Fear like a monster patrolling our borders and slamming our doors in the faces of those who only come because the fear of staying behind is greater than the fear of a strange country with unwelcoming faces.

Eight generations back, my people came to this land because they wanted to live their faith in a land that was free and safe and kind. My people, who were once considered the left or third wing of the Protestant Reformation, who advocated freedom of conscience and insisted that no government had the right to decide the religion of its people, were weary of being hunted down like animals. Thousands chose death rather than change their faith or violently resist. Heavily taxed because of their faith and discriminated against, they found that owning land was next to impossible. The seller could legally change his mind at any time and take the land back if the buyer were a Mennonite in an early form of institutionalized prejudice. The early 1700s found a thousand of these emigrants a week fleeing Germany for London, where they hoped to find passage to America. Many were so destitute that they arrived with little more than the clothes on their backs, much less money for sea passage. By the fall of 1709, there were 13,000 refugees in London. The British government was overwhelmed and disgusted and began to turn them back. The  persecution of my people is described as bloody and severe.

300 years later I find similar scenes being reenacted. Unfortunately many of my people have forgotten. Once it was our ancestors, helplessly standing as refugees in the streets of London, surrounded by a staring, jeering crowd. All my people wanted was to start over in a new land. When they finally did get that chance, they dug in and worked hard. They were honest. Quiet. Sincere. They changed the face of this land for the better. They taught their children to work, to pray, to be kind and, most of all, to love their enemies and live a life of peace.

How did we get to this crippling state of fear, where descendants of these brave immigrants are voicing their approval of turning back other immigrants, running for their lives? An entire group of people, judged because of the faith or the nation they belong to. Fear takes the actions of a few and shouts vehemently that they are indeed the actions of the many, without giving the many a chance.

My people came here from Switzerland and Germany because they believed that no government should decide the religion of its people. Faith, they believed, is a personal choice.  If the choices of a few within a group make everyone from that group a terrorist, we would all be terrorists. History is ripe with examples of “Christians” who have committed acts of terror and yet we refuse to be labeled as terrorists – so why do we in turn do it with those of other faiths or races?

I would rather risk opening my door to a “possible” terrorist and die in an effort to live a life of love than live in fear behind a closed door while thousands suffer alone.

I understand if you are not at that place. I wasn’t always at this place myself. The thing that changed me was getting to know Muslims that so many are still afraid of. I’ve written much about these experiences and you can read my reflections on 9/11, experienced while living in a Muslim country here.

Today I grieve but I also remember. I honor those who eight generations back, crossed the ocean so I could have a voice in a land of freedom. I honor those who welcomed me when I was a stranger, who called me family even though I represented what they feared most. I honor those who risked becoming my friend even though their extremists say I am the enemy. I honor those who, like me, feel a stirring in their souls, a remembrance that they too were once a radical wing of a reformation. I grieve, but this grief is not the the last word.

 

 

Loss and Restitution

White demonstrator at a Canton, Ohio Black Lives Matter Protest

White demonstrator at a Canton, Ohio Black Lives Matter Protest

As this new wave of violence sweeps across our nation, I find myself caught somewhere between anger, grief and disbelief. Nearly every day another shooting incident becomes news headlines and I think, “Oh my God, the world has gone mad!”

Walking along the park trail this morning, taking in the lush green of summer and the gentle rippling of the stream, while the smell of a dead animal hung heavy in the air, I thought to myself, “this is life.” Good, bad, beautiful, ugly. Life and death dancing in circles around us, each calling out to us to join in their dance.

I don’t know about you, but I have had enough of this violence and death. I am unashamedly a pacifist because I choose to literally follow Jesus’ words to love our enemies and that those who live by the sword will die by the sword. I struggle to find one incident in either current day events or history, where violence has truly solved anything. I beg you to show me because I’m not seeing it.

My son tells me that World War II began as a result of the shame the Germans endured during World War I. More than 50 million lives were lost that second time around.

Consider the Civil War in our own country. Yes, it ended slavery in our nation . . . sort of . . . yet it did little to change hearts. Today the descendants of slaves still struggle to thrive in a world where they don’t feel wanted or equal. Those who ruled them still exercise their white privilege yet wash their hands of the current mess we are in.

Dignity was stolen from an entire color of people. When I study the words of God, I find that when something is stolen, to make restitution, we are to repay two to seven times the amount that was stolen. After the war, instead of being given equal dignity, blacks still had to ride in the back of the bus, drink from separate fountains, eat in different restaurants, and pretty much live as second-class citizens with limited opportunities. All this, in a land where we claim that all are created equal.

While outwardly those specific circumstances have changed, the dignity of equality still remains a missing ingredient.

In his letter to the next president, Marc H. Morial the CEO of the National Urban League aptly points out that: “Since 2006, the United States has spent nearly $50 billion rebuilding Afghanistan through the Afghanistan Infrastructure Rehabilitation Program. The Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2008, infused the nation’s faltering financial institutions with investments of more than $400 billion. Whether we call it “recovery,” “rehabilitation” or “relief,” it is time for America to demonstrate that very same commitment to our own struggling urban families and communities. The necessity is as powerful and compelling as it was for Europe, Afghanistan or Wall Street.” I wholeheartedly agree with Morial that it is a bit duplicitous of us not to right the wrongs at home before we start “saving” the rest of the world.

About a year ago, I read the book River Rising by Athol Dickson. It drew gut-wrenching sobs out of me as my heart began to really see what had been lost, and is still being lost today.

How can we begin to pay back that minimum of double what was stolen? Can we have the decency to stop being offended when our black brothers and sisters demonstrate to us that there is still a problem?

Paying back double is the least that we as a nation could do, but first we have to acknowledge the depth and breadth of their loss.