About Calenthia Dowdy

Calenthia Dowdy (PhD, American University) is a cultural anthropologist and youth ministry educator who focuses on urban youth and culture in the U.S. and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Alongside teaching, speaking and writing on youth, cities, race, gender, and faith, she serves as the director of faith initiatives at a comprehensive community health center that specializes in HIV/AIDS care

In the Streets of My City…

…an elderly woman sleeps nearby the Dunkin Donuts where I stop each morning to get a cup of coffee; a sunburned old man with a scraggly grey beard and tattered clothing greets me at the door of DD asking for change for coffee and a sandwich. Another brown woman sits wrapped in a blanket leaning her back against a trash bin, hand extended, begging. The other aged black man strides and rages, he’s small and wiry, fists raised in the air yelling at someone only he can see. A middle aged white man stands erect, holding up a sign “Lost job. Have 2 kids to feed. Please help.” Every morning as I exit the train I see the same man, the same woman, the same words, “Miss can I have a dollar?” And at 8:30AM one morning while I walked and watched, four men sat in a semi-circle in the underground transportation terminal passing a whiskey bottle between them. One paused, looked at the ground, vomited on the shiny terminal floor and then took another swig. These are the streets of my city. Where I experience daily assaults on my heart, pangs that ache. It just isn’t supposed to be this way. God?

Jesus said the poor will always be with you. And they are. Poor people are everywhere. Even when we don’t see them, they are there. However, the twist to those verses relayed by Matthew, Mark and John was that Jesus told his disciples that they could help the poor whenever they wanted to but at that moment in time the disciples would be wise to follow the lead of a particular woman who was using her precious and pricey perfume to bathed him and prepare him for his burial.

Was this woman poor herself?  If so, where did she get the extravagant perfume?  Why did she use it to wash and anoint Jesus? What did she know that the disciples didn’t know?

While Jesus was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head. Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wagesand the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly. “Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”   Mark 14: 3-9

Theologians ponder this passage and have varying viewpoints but here I see that the poor and marginalized are not looked upon with pity by Jesus. They are viewed compassionately. Women were not central in society and I’m guessing this woman was probably poor; however she also had impact or agency. This woman perhaps intuitively knew that something was going to happen to Jesus. He would die. And she prepared him for that death.  Who is being helped in that moment? I suggest the poor and marginalized know something that others don’t. They prepare, incite, and warn. The desperately poor know a portion of life unknown to others. If we are wise we pay attention, learn, and heed. If we are not wise, we dismiss the poor, and miss someone or something vital. What are we being prepared for, and by whom? Watch and pray for the Kingdom is near.

Music Video “In My City, that’s where God Belongs”

 

White Privilege, Poverty, and Mental Health

Today I’m sharing a GUEST BLOG POST by my friend, Janelle Junkin

by Janelle Junkin, MA, MT-BC

Even as sit down to write, I wonder if what I have to say is even worth saying and then the many faces that I have worked with over the years float through my mind like a tapestry to remind me that their stories are important and need to be told.

This last year has seen an increase in conversation about the issues of mental health in this country, especially related to gun violence. As I listen to these conversations, it became clear that people are having the wrong conversations: the question is not why didn’t “these people” seek help, but, in my opinion, what is happening in our society that is contributing to the mental health needs of our citizens? Once the question is re-formed, the opportunity for real dialogue, change and healing can begin.

Recently, I read Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg about the role of women in business; I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. However, as I read the book, I realized that while I had no problem identifying with her description of women and the struggles we have and the pressures put on us by society, I realized that I am white woman (I did know this before reading the book) and that I am the audience that this book is directed at. So, while it was an excellent read for me, it is lacking in any understanding or acknowledgement that the gender inequality of women goes much deeper for women of color.

As I realized that this book is lacking in the discussion related to women of color, I began to reflect more on the discussion related to mental health and violence and the lack of understanding related to gender and race: we are only discussing mental health, I believe, because it is white men committing the mass acts of violence. Having worked in the mental health field with those in poverty, mostly African American and Hispanic, I know that the conversation about mental health and violence would not be present if it was a person of color committing these atrocities and, I suspect, it would be a wholly different conversation if it were a woman.

Reading the book has re-engaged me in reflecting on poverty, violence and mental health. Inequality has so many faces and manifestations. While I acknowledge that there is gender inequality, I also recognize that there is inequality within gender based upon socio-economic status and race. Conversations about mental health are often tilted, negatively, towards those of lower socio-economic status and race; there seems to be little regard for the mental health concerns, instead it is a condemnation of “those people” and a willingness to label them with a diagnosis. However, the conversation takes a considerably different tone when it is people of a higher socio-economic status and who identify as white; here the conversation is the need for increased assistance for the families and willingness to create some type of dialogue about the role of mental health needs. I have to ask myself about the unintended consequences of such a discrepancy in the understanding and discussion of mental health needs for people of all socio-economic statuses and races. Truly, I believe that this stilted conversations, labeling and lack of understanding contribute to the myriad of mental health needs in this country. Poverty, inequality, violence, and mental health are uncomfortable, often murky conversations that do not tend to have black and white answers. For this reason, so called experts and critics of mental health often seek an easy answer, a way to categorize others without fully understanding or addressing the real issues at hand: fear, poverty, entitlement, and lack of options, lack of education, and lack of support within communities.

Until we, as a nation, are willing to enter into these murky conversations and, truly sit in them, true healing and change is going to difficult to achieve not only in the suburbs, but in our cities and rural communities, too.

Janelle Junkin

Janelle Junkin

Janelle is a board certified music therapist practicing in Philadelphia, PA; she works with children, youth and families. She is currently pursuing her PhD in International Psychology. She is an active member and youth leader at Oxford Circle Mennonite Church.

“For whites (like me): On white kids” by J.Harvey

I’m sharing this post from Living Formations.com. As an instructor of a majority of white students I think this piece is right on target. If you’re a parent or educator of white students this is a must read…

http://livingformations.com/2013/08/06/for-whites-like-me-on-white-kids/

FOR WHITES (LIKE ME): ON WHITE KIDS

Posted by Jennifer Harvey on August 6, 2013

Dear parents of white children,

I vote that we strike the following from our parental lexicon:

  1. “Everybody is equal.”
  2. “We’re all the same underneath our skin.”

I realize this is counterintuitive. But I’m completely serious.

These statements are so abstract they’re mostly meaningless when handed to a seven (or even seventeen) year-old. That’s at best. At worst, they’re empty filler—stand-ins for the actual conversations about race, racial difference and racism we need to be having with our kids.

Sugar when our kids need protein.

Yet, if white college students are to be believed, these statements are standard in many white households.

My students write racial autobiography papers. It’s a pretty straightforward assignment: describe the impact of racial identity in your life—not race generally but your race, significant experiences/teachings/thoughts pertaining to that identity at various life stages. Interview two family members about their experiences of and beliefs about being ‘x.’

(As it turns out, this is a really hard assignment for white students for reasons that are important and revealing. More on that later in this blog series.)

Time and again my white students write that “everybody’s equal” is the “most important” thing their parents taught them about race. Time and again a not insignificant number of them then proceed to describe their present trepidation about a) telling their parents they date interracially; b) bringing home a Latino/a or Black classmate; c) Thanksgiving break when everyone will silently tolerate the family member who makes racist comments; or d) something else that reveals how deeply and clearly these students know this “most important teaching” doesn’t mean a hell of a lot to their actual white experience.

Hmmm.

Few notice the contradiction they have themselves managed to describe in the space of only four pages.

I struggled to make sense of these papers for a long time. Then, Nurture Shock (not a book about race) gave me some help. It reports on social scientists’ studies to figure out why so many white kids have such poor facility in engaging racial difference and challenging racism despite their exposure to (liberalish) white culture’s “everybody’s equal” mantras. Turns out our kids, literally, don’t know what “everybody is equal” means. It’s an empty phrase. A numbed out flourish. (Sugar.)

Meanwhile, they are daily assailed by a relentless barrage of anti-black imagery, Native American stereotypes, slurs against dark-skinned non-native English speakers and on and on.

Our happy equality and shared humanity platitudes just don’t stand a chance. It’s sort of like putting your kid in front of a 30-minute television show. The first 28 minutes show children bullying and generally treating each other like crap. The last two resolve into a nice, moral lesson on kindness. Guess which part of the show kids absorb and imitate? (Another amazing study reported in Nurture Shock.)

Note: this is aside from whatever’s going on in families which have somehow simultaneously taught “we’re all equal” while making clear interracial dating is a no-no. (Eduardo Bonilla-Silva documents something similar among individuals. Liberal, conservative, or moderate, whites interviewed insist they don’t see color only to say something overtly anti-black/brown/etc. mere moments later. Incoherence is, apparently, pervasive in white culture.) But, even if we’re assuredly not the parents who convey negative views of interracial dating, there is urgency here. We must figure out what these findings—Nurture Shock’s and my own—mean for how we talk (and don’t and should talk) to white kids.

I know “everybody’s equal” means “we all deserve to be treated with fairness.” And when we tell kids we’re all the same underneath skin, gender, sexuaity, physical abilities and other differences we’re trying to tell them we share human dignity and worth.

Obviously I believe these things.

But, have you ever actually met a “generic” human? Someone without a race or a gender?

Well, guess what? Neither has your child.

And by the age of three our kids are aware of this fact (even though they don’t yet use adult categories to talk about it). If you don’t believe me, pick up The First R. You will be stunned by what preschool children know and do in regard to race.

Assailed. Everyday.

Platitudes are not enough.

One more “stat.” I read a study some time ago (I now can’t find it now, sorry!) comparing white and Black families. It found that on average African American parents start talking about race with their African American children by age 3. White parents with white kids? Age 13.

Is it any wonder my white students are so racially baffled and behind? That they look like deer in headlights when I tell them we’re going to talk about race in their actual lives? It’s not just the fact of being white, and thus insulated from the negative affects of racism**, that works against their developing aptitude about race and anti-racism. We, their parents, are working against them too!

(**Though I believe white children are deeply harmed as well—in different ways.)

Worse, imagine what happens in my classes when students of color describe their experiences of racism, and their white peers stare at them numbly, repeating: “everybody is equal,” “we’re all the same underneath our skin.” Let’s just say nothing about this exchange inspires robust interracial friendship to develop. Nor does it provide students of color reason to think they’ve found the allies they’ve been hoping for: interested peers prepared to help build a more just racial future.

I vote that we strike. Turns out these aren’t teachings at all.

So, if it’s your four-year-old starting to notice darker skin (which happens when we raise our kids in predominantly white environments), the platitude “we’re all the same underneath” implies they’re noticing something they shouldn’t and insinuates there’s something wrong with darker skin we must need to overlook (meanwhile, your child hears remarks about beautiful blue eyes and blonde hair all the time). How about discussions about and images of the many different beautiful shades of dark skin instead?

If it’s your eight-year-old describing a racially-tinged encounter at school, to respond “everybody’s equal” is to hand her/him a passive belief where active, imaginative, strategic thinking about an empowered action is what she/he needs. “How did you feel when that happened? What do you want to do if it happens again? How can I support you in trying that?”

Unfortunately, I don’t have a list of pat answers on what we should be teaching. But, that’s not a cop out. That, in fact, is the point.

We don’t assume pat answers are adequate for enabling our children to learn to navigate relationships, nutrition, sexuality, religion, emotions, or any other challenging reality. Nor do we leave them alone to figure it out.

We equip ourselves, so we can enable them.

Why should race and racism be any different?

Pat answers may be evidence of how many parents haven’t ourselves developed the very facility we need to help our children build. As a result their questions, observations and experiences launch us into terrain we haven’t learned to navigate. They make us deeply uncomfortable.

But again, we are able and willing to develop facility and work through discomfort in so many areas parenting springs on us. Race is no different.

So try this. Imagine the conversations that may have taken place between parents and their Black or Latino/a children after Trayvon Martin was killed and Zimmerman walked. I’d be willing to bet that pat answers were nowhere in site.

This thought experiment doesn’t give us the content, but it does show us the standard for what caliber of  conversation is required of us. If we want our white children to live in a world with more racial justice than the one we live in now, we need to figure out how to have conversations with them as real, thick, painful, resilient, strategic and authentic as the conversations those parents had to have. So that our kids can help build that world.

As much as we love our kids, we can not only want to figure this out. We can figure it out.

Yours in Search of Robust Protein,

A fellow parent with white kids

 

 

the race museum

myrtle-beach

I’m on the last full day of vacation with family in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. The weather has been superb, bright, sunny, warm ocean waters and no rain… so far. We rented a condo near the beach and are thoroughly enjoying ourselves here in the friendly hospitable south.

Even though my dad was born and raised in South Carolina, it’s not a place I have frequented. He migrated to the east coast when he was 16 in search of work and a wife and hardly ever returned to the south with his newly created family when I was growing up. So, the first time I was here in South Carolina was as an adult about 17 years ago when a friend and I spontaneously decided to drive down to Myrtle Beach to visit other friends who were staying here for the summer. It was the mid-1990s and I fully embraced the pretty beaches, the endless golf courses, swimming pools, water parks and ton of great places to eat.

However, I also recall curious feelings when staring back at a white woman who stared at me as I ordered ice cream in an ice cream parlor. She didn’t seem to care that I saw her staring, I tried smiling but she maintained her stare. I also remember going out to a dance club and meeting a man dressed like a cowboy, donning the boots and hat with jeans and plaid button down shirt. He slithered up beside me, said “howdy” and told me he lived nearby and wanted me to come visit. I kindly declined. He smiled and said “it’s ok honey, you should know, I love me some black women.” He was white. I just nodded, “oh yea?” And the few black people I met who annoyed me when they appeared to defer to white people all the time. Ugh. The only other place I experienced similar feelings was in New Orleans, LA.

That was then. Now it’s 2013 so I figured things could only be better, and they are. However, as I sat in a pancake house near the beach the other morning with my nieces, ages 11 and almost 13, an elderly couple sitting at the booth across from us kept staring at us as if we were objects in a museum. I figured maybe it was my imagination and decided to ignore them. But it was clear; they were staring and didn’t seem to care that we noticed them staring. After we finished our pancakes and went outside one of my nieces asked, “why was that couple staring at us like that?” The 13 year old continued, “I tried to smile at the lady but she didn’t smile back, she just kept staring.” Sigh. How do you explain potentially racist behavior to this generation of youth? They’re millennials, born on the east coast with a host of multi-racial friendships and unfamiliar with some of the blatant racist attitudes that persist in parts of the south. That is not to say that racism does not occur in the northeast, indeed it does, but it’s often less blatant than this dehumanizing staring thing.

After explaining how some white people don’t seem to think black people are quite human so they stare to see what we do, how we do it, and if we’ll fulfill any of their primitive stereotypes of us, I began an anthropological thought. I told them about a series of essays I have my first year anth students read that deal with tourism and village walks, shaping the tourist’s gaze and representing ethnic difference in Nepal, by Arjun Guneratne. The essays are an interesting analysis between foreign tourists visiting Nepal and high caste Nepalese tour guides who appease the foreign (read “western” or “white”) tourist gaze with exotic representations of the Tharus as primitive jungle dwellers who live as if they’re in an earlier time. The tourists look and stare at the so-called primitive people as if they’re in a museum.

Flipping the script I told my nieces that the white people staring at us were primitive people still living life as if they’re in an earlier time. Lets just stare back as if we’re looking at racism inside a museum. It is 2013 isn’t it? I’m just saying.

In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ ~Galatians 3:28-29

talkin’ back: gender by the sea

#sembythesea  Just back from Old Orchard Beach, Maine where I facilitated a session on gender and hip-hop at a seminar-by-the-sea gender studies course. I talked about black feminism and the politics of wreck in hip-hop culture. Queen Latifah’s line, “I bring wreck to those who disrespect me like a dame” from her 1993 U.N.I.T.Y. is used by hip-hop scholar Gwendolyn D. Pough* in her wonderful analysis of the whys and ways black women talk back to black men and society at large through rap and hip-hop. Hip-hop culture was/is male dominated and this breaking of silence for black women was/is revolutionary gender analysis stuff.

The gender course was filled with women (although men are invited, they don’t show up) making the space psychologically and emotionally safe for the women to say and/or write what was really on their minds. Ages 19 through early 20s, young American women and a few international representatives hailing from Ghana, South Africa, and Russia shared the space. Exciting.

However, in a space which is majority white female other things can arise for me. I often tell the peculiar story of the one time I was asked by a very grown white woman in a workshop on race, if it was more important for me to be a woman or to be black. Wow. I’m always both at the same time and one informs the other. I only understand my racial designation (a social construct) as a black woman and only understand my gender designation (another social construct) as a black woman. In other words, I have no real idea what it’s like to be a white woman or a black man. And that’s ok… not a critique, just a fact.

However, Pough’s history lesson, particularly her discussion of black women of the civil rights movement who apparently chose race as most important …for the sake of the black community, U.N.I.T.Y., women stayed in the background and let black men shine as movement leaders and spokespersons. Pough suggests early hip-hop possessed similar cultural learning by women. Let the men shine, stay in the background, let black male voices be heard as representations of the whole community. But this was problematic, especially as the rap game began spewing misogynist lyrics.

In 2004 Pough wrote “women of the hip-hop generation, like the black women who went before them, find themselves in a similar position of trying to navigate a space for themselves in a black-male-dominated public discourse. While we cannot say women of the hip-hop generation hold the same spaces in the public sphere as their foremothers, we can say with some degree of certainty that the way black women of the past navigated the public sphere has had a direct effect on the way black women of the hip-hop generation feel they can move within this sphere. Quite frankly, by the time we reach the hip-hop era, black women have had generations of conditioning to stay in the background while black men claim the limelight. We also have a history of seldom speaking out against black manhood even when it poses a direct threat to black womanhood. We also have, however, glimmers of black female outspokenness that grabs public attention and disrupts the black male dominance of the black public sphere. Examples of these instances surfaced when Michele Wallace wrote Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman and had the nerve to go on TV and defend her ideas; when Ntozake Shange wrote For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide and the play made it all the way to Broadway; when Alice Walker wrote the novel The Color Purple and it was adapted as a feature film; when Terry McMilan wrote the novel Waiting to Exhale and it too was adapted as a feature film. Each of these instances of black female outspokenness was met with tremendous outcry from the black public sphere. They were lambasted by black men and even some black women for portraying negative images of black manhood or showing black men in a negative light. Some people even accused them of the classic ‘airing dirty laundry’ ” (pg. 75 ff).

Sometimes dirty laundry has to be aired if it is to become clean and good smelling again.  Early Hip-hop’s fixation on identity, community, and place is ideally the locale for truth-telling, love and healing to occur. So as a woman who happens to be black or a black person who happens to be a woman, I’m down with bringing wreck wherever and whenever necessary, if it’s done to bring U.N.I.T.Y. to an otherwise fragmented scene.

*Pough, Gwendolyn D. Check It While I Wreck It: Black womanhood, hip-hop, and the public sphere (2004)

 

black.woman.proud

My friend Rev. Marty Troyer, pastor of Houston Mennonite Church asked me to write a guest post at his blog for a series he’s doing on Self-Differentiation and the connection between Identity, Community and Mission- blog.chron.com/thepeacepastor (great blog to follow!). This is what I wrote, http://blog.chron.com/thepeacepastor/2013/06/black-woman-proud-part-3-in-a-series-on-identity-community-and-mission/

“… and dear God, help us focus on being united and not divided or divisive.” His words jammed my ears and echoed a few minutes. The prayers of a young white male in a congregation directly after I delivered a sermon which included reflections on my struggles and joys of being a black woman in an all-white church. I remember hearing that several people had problems with my talk, and this guy verbalized his discomfort through prayer. Afterward, I spent days pouring over what I said that sounded divisive. Today, after other similar experiences I’ve come to the conclusion that whenever a woman or person of color states their own reality of being who they are to a white and/or male group it is often heard as being divisive. “Why can’t you just get along and be like the rest of us?” Well, because I can’t.

The fact that I acknowledge the obvious, my blackness and femaleness should not arouse discomfort in others, but at times it does. Perhaps it’s the old “I don’t see color, I don’t see gender” racist, sexist rhetoric that drives the uneasiness. But what’s so wrong with seeing color and gender and even celebrating it in community?!!

As a black woman (see, I did it again) who has chosen to be intentional about engaging in community with Christians who are not necessarily like myself, I have come up against a few walls including the huge Mennonite wall which is a hard one to climb. The temptation to shut up, blend in or become invisible is often with me however I resist that solution because healthy self-differentiation is critical for my own mental and emotional wellbeing and yours too. In 2 Corinthians 12:14-18 we’re reminded “to think about how all this makes you more significant, not less. A body isn’t just a single part blown up into something huge. It’s all the different-but-similar parts arranged and functioning together. If Foot said, ‘I’m not elegant like Hand, embellished with rings; I guess I don’t belong to this body’ would that make it so? If Ear said, ‘I’m not beautiful like Eye, limpid and expressive; I don’t deserve a place on the head’ would you want to remove it from the body? If the body was all eyes, how could it hear? If all ears, how could it smell? As it is, we see that God has carefully placed each part of the body right where God wanted it.” We are a beautiful effective whole when I am who I am and you are who you are, together.

Desiring to please others by diminishing myself and muting my stories and life experiences for the sake of the group is harmful. And so as I happily engage the theology, songs, food and culture of the larger white group I also share my own without shame, without apology.

Marty’s working definition of Self-Differentiation- having the capacity to claim and embrace what is so for me (my beliefs, feelings, emotions, experiences, story, etc…) in the face of pressure to conform while remaining fully engaged with my community. It’s neither fight nor flight, but a third way of being myself in community and encouraging others to embrace the same freedom. Clarity of Identity and authentic Community lead to faithful Mission.

The alternative I fear, for me as a black woman is shamed identity, 2nd and 3rd class citizenship, and inauthentic mission of the church. A frequent reminder of lines from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) stalk me, “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.”

I will not be invisible.

aging weekend warriors

I watched some old guys play baseball a couple Saturdays ago. It was a beautiful sunny day, clear skies and easy breezes as I sat on the bleachers and watched and listened, partly for the enjoyment of the game and being outdoors; and partly wearing my baseballanthropologist hat. People watching is great fun.

The players were all over the age of 45 as this was the 45+ senior men’s community baseball club. Most of them had been lovers of the game from childhood having played since their own little league days. Another spectator was sitting near me on the bleachers. He was 52 years old and his 15 year old son sat next to him. The dad bragged about his son’s baseball achievements. The boy sat quietly. His father had been invited to play for one of the teams we were watching that day.

The players began by buttoning and lacing up, stretching, throwing balls, catching, swinging bats, and jogging around the bases. A few of them un-wrapped pink bubble gum and stuck it into their mouths. Chewing gum was apparently part of the baseball ritual. I smiled as I overheard one of the guys tell another player about one of his teammates, “he’s 60 years old and can run those bases really well.” “I just had knee replacement surgery man; we’ll see how it goes.”

As the aging weekend warriors played I noticed they did things for each other. When one of the older men was tired and didn’t feel he could run the bases, another player who wasn’t as tired ran for him. The old guy would swing his bat, hit the ball and the slightly younger or less tired teammate ran the bases in his place. Several complained of cramps or aches but they helped each other out.

Watching this game gave practical meaning to bible verses about being strong when another is weak, and accepting strength from our friend when we ourselves are weak. It also reminded me of ways a body works together and compensates for members who may be struggling at any given time. Sometimes we need a sister or brother to run for us because we’re just too tired to do it ourselves. We drop our ball and rest for a while, and stand up to bat again when our energy is replenished. There was lots of good embodied theology on that baseball field of aging weekend warriors.

19

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

At 19 a typical American male might be witnessed yelling at the screen of a video game, washing the old car he’s quite proud of, playing sports, falling asleep in class at a college somewhere, looking for girls to …, and working hard at a fast food restaurant. Chechen born American naturalized citizen Dzhokhar Tsarnaev may have done all those things, but he also allegedly took part in helping his older brother carry out an act of terrorism in the fatal bombing of strangers at the Boston Marathon a week ago. Dzhokhar has been described as a quiet, kind, and friendly, boxing enthusiast. His elder brother described as more outgoing, extrovert, friendly.

As I was watched and listened to too much news yesterday, reporters and “experts” gave their take on what could possibly cause an apparently “good kid” by all accounts go bad, I began to feel tired and weary. All the speculation, the waiting, the talk game, the hyper-news spectacle, it was too much. The TV kept flashing the young man’s face, he looked innocent… whatever innocent looks like. His brother, 26 year old Tamerlan Tsarnaev was dead by now, leaving his younger sibling to fend for himself. Whose idea was it to bomb, and why?

After a day of intense waiting behind barricades, cheers suddenly broke from the crowd which signaled that Dzhokhar had been captured. He had been hiding in the stern of a boat parked in the back of someone’s home. The kid was in bad condition, bleeding, apparently shot, and taken to a hospital for care. Authorities want to assure he stays alive. They want answers. We all want answers. What would make seemingly average and content young people (so they say) do something so terrible to people who had not hurt them? There are always clues.

It’s all speculation at this point until and if the surviving young man decides to speak. But their father who resides in his home country of Chechnya, said via phone that his sons are not responsible for this act, his sons are good boys and not involved in violence or terrorism of any sort. He said they liked living in America and were happy there. He insisted the American authorities must be mistaken in accusing his sons of this heinous act.  Their uncle, on the other hand, living in the U.S. said he’s ashamed of what the boys had done, calling them “losers” saying “they had not been able to settle themselves thereby hating everyone who did.”

And of course there are the words from the elder brother who is noted as having said he didn’t have one American friend, he just didn’t understand them (Americans).

I don’t know these young men and I don’t know the answers. Perhaps all that will unfold for us over the next few days and weeks. However, after twenty years of youth ministry work and training, one thing I think I know by now and that is, a young person, particularly a 19 year old male who may feel displaced, with a fragile sense, a distorted sense, or no sense of communal belonging, nurture and support, all of which helps create and seal a sense of identity and purpose… in the worst case scenario, even a “good kid” is capable of almost anything.

 

joining the holy sisterhood

Every ten years or so I consider looking into joining the sisterhood, ya know, the nunnery. No, I didn’t grow up Catholic, have never been Catholic, didn’t even attend Catholic school. I do however respect much of the witness and ministry of sisters around the globe. Like most organizations in the world, the sisters do the real work, they’re on the front lines, active and present in neighborhoods with the poorest of the poor, healing hurts, righting wrongs, and mending brokenness. Imagine living in community with in a diverse company of women who are all living out what they believe God has called them to do and be in neighborhoods with people everywhere. Sisters can change the world.

When I was in my twenties, I worked in a Catholic Orphanage and spent time up-close with the nuns who were administrators of the place. I remember a couple of sassy, no-nonsense, f-bomb flipping nuns who were not reticent to let you know their thoughts or when they were angry about some injustice that would impact the children in our care. They were righteous sisters.

With the selection of the new pope, I’m attracted once again to the sisters. Pope Francis, whose chosen name derives from Francis of Assisi, a 12th century Italian friar and preacher who left the creaturely comforts of his family background and took a vow to live in poverty with the poor and suffering. Saint Francis of Assisi is known also for his relationship with nature and the environment. He’s said to be one of the first known people to receive stigmata, the actual wounds of the passion of Christ. Today, Pope Francis also makes a choice to identify with the poor of the world. He flaunts simplicity and throws off any signs of opulence in lifestyle. He prefers walking among the people and touching the people vs. reigning above and apart from the people. This Passion Week, in an act of reverence, the Pope lay on the floor of St. Peter’s Basilica during Good Friday’s Mass at the Vatican. Yesterday, Maundy Thursday the Pope kissed and washed the feet of young offenders at a youth detention center during the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. This Pontiff’s humility and commitment to the poor has apparently always been evident even before his rise to the high calling of Pope. Those who knew him before, tell stories of his everyday simplicity, living in a small home, cooking his own meals, riding public buses and walking in the neighborhood.

Yes, yes, I know, there are concerns about this Pope’s extreme conservatism in other realms, particularly LGBTQ issues. Notwithstanding, his commitment to the least of these is commendable. So I have decided to revisit my desire to join the sisters, taking my own vow of poverty, living, being, and doing, in community. At this point in my life I don’t feel like I’m losing out or missing anything. There’s no huge social sacrifice to make. My own husband, my own children, my own home and car? My students think I’m already a nun. As a matter of fact, maybe I really did miss my calling. I like what I see unraveling in this re-branding of Roman Catholicism via the new Francis. I just hope it’s not too late for me. Hey sisters, wait up! Here I come!

 

 

Happy Easter friends! And Happy April 1st (April Fools) ~ all due respect to the holy sisterhood but I’m joking about joining, I’ll probably never join the real nunnery and you probably wouldn’t even want me      images

soldiers on the hill

Today I was remembering this, and I offer no compulsory happy ending and not much of an analysis. It’s just a story.

One of the first times I entered a shantytown was in South Africa, and then again in Rio de Janeiro, and since then I’ve entered many more. In those spaces blatant structural violence is like a slap in the face. To be clear, I grew up around and even played as a child in lots of American ghettos on the east coast but there was something visually different on this international level. I remember a tropically warm October day in Rio de Janeiro. I was staying in a beautiful hotel at the corner where Copacabana met Ipanema. A Brazilian friend who ran an NGO inside favelas in Rio took me on a tour to see the work he was doing. We were in his car with the windows rolled down and the sun shining brightly. We sped past pretty beaches where pretty people lay under the sun. We went down highways and up narrow roads as the scenery began to change, roads began to crumble, and the structure of homes began to look homemade.  Finally, the car slowed down and rolled toward a favela entrance. I could see off in the distance that there were two young men holding what looked like long sticks. As we drove closer I realized those long sticks were actually rifles, AK-47’s, and the young men were actually teenage boys no more than 16 years old. As the boy “soldiers” walked toward our car, my friend demanded we make sure the windows were still all rolled down because they were tinted which always looked suspicious. The boys holding the rifles needed to be able to see who was inside the vehicle. I checked my window. The two youngsters walked to each side of the car, waving their rifles, and then stuck their heads fully inside to see. “I’m taking my American friend inside to see the place” my friend said as the boys peeked inside the car windows. They smiled warmly. I was nervous. They let us enter and as we drove inside slowly and I noticed another boy about 15 years old tucking a handgun into the back of his shorts. Another boy holding a rifle started talking to a girl who held a baby in her arms. The baby’s head was uncomfortably near the nose of the rifle, as if danger was not eminent. She rocked her baby and talked to the boy soldier. I asked my friend, “they all have guns but they look like nice boys, would they really shoot us?” His firm and quick response, “you better believe it!”

You better believe it. I’ll never forget that day or his response. It was like driving through a movie, but it was all too real.