Talk about discrimination

lestinnocentbloodJust because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

I talk with youth workers all the time about inclusion. Inclusion is woven into our very jargon when we speak of the gospel being for everyone. What we say officially however does not always match functionally.

As Ferguson has permeated the news, conversations of racism have risen again. A tragic reason, and long overdue, but the conversations are needed. What I am hearing from many young (african american, asian, hispanic, native american and white) leaders is that they know racism exists but that it is not their battle or that they just don’t see it. I couldn’t make this up. As I proceed to name a few places where I see it with them, it is as if a veil is being lifted. And then the floodgate is opened. Frustration or anger often follows. They begin to realize that they had be so socialized to see something as “normal” that they didn’t even see it as discrimination.

I hear this same comment when I bring up including people with disabilities. “Oh, yes, that is important but we don’t have anyone with a disability in our youth group / church / school / community”.

I hear this same comment when talking about including women in leadership. “Oh, we don’t have any women who are interested / qualified / called”.

And again when I talk about the gospel and those with different gender or sex orientations. “Oh yes, that is a huge issue in The church, but not my church. We don’t have anyone identifying / struggling / living with any of those issues.”

Inclusion demands that we talk, openly about all of these possibilities. Inclusion demands that we talk long before we know someone with a disability or can identify racism. You will do it imperfectly, do it anyway. You will make mistakes, do it anyway. You will receive pushback, do it anyway.

One of my very favorite books is “Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed” by Philip Hallie. It is the story of a small village named Le Chambon in France during the Holocaust. In this village, conversations of peace making, of the gospel’s inclusion for all had been taking place for 400 years. Long before they knew that they would be put to the test, long before they dreamed they may have a chance to extend life to anyone…Jewish refugees and Nazi soldiers…they talked about inclusion. It will blow your mind to see what a difference their deep seeded beliefs made when faced with a real life situation.

We are late to the party. We don’t have the luxury of 400 years of history shaping us to push hard for inclusion of all, to work for peace, to fight discrimination for a variety of people. To be imitators of Jesus inviting all to the table with welcoming arms.

Late to the party however still means that the party is going on. It’s not over and indeed, in this case I would argue better late than never.

What we do have is a choice of how to respond today. Our junior high and high school students see issues of discrimination every day. It is a part of the fabric of their lives. It’s time we adults figure out how to better model what God actually intended. It is time we learn to navigate the waters of discrimination on a variety of fronts so that all may know Jesus actually brought good news for everyone.


the race museum


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


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- (great blog to follow!). This is what I wrote,

“… 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.

Theology of Hair

Snapshot 5:28:13 8:00 AM

I thought I was giving a compliment several years ago when I received not a thank you in return but a lecture. I learned that good isn’t always, well good…I told one of my friends her hair looked good that day. She quickly let me know that there is not such thing as good or bad hair and I needed to find new vocabulary.

As a woman who has rather distinctly unruly hair and I have more bad hair days than not, I was unaware of the implications of the term “good”. I long for good hair days when I don’t have that distinct halo effect from my slightly coarse but frizzy hair. Anyone who really knows me knows that I wear a scarf almost every day, not because I am so fashionable, but it keeps my crazy hair somewhat in place. At one point in time the girls whom I served in ministry asked me when I walked in that day what had happened, waved their hands over their heads and said “I thought you were supposed to have ‘good’ hair”? So much for any thoughts of beauty let alone basic self esteem that day!

What I learned was that there was a long standing conversation in the African American community regarding the desire to have “good” hair and “good” hair was seen as mainstream white hair- straight and lighter in hue. The corollary was of course that dark, curly hair was bad. That the very way God had created these girls and women was somehow less than the ideal. This was a message sent subtly through media and the world and at times not so subtly by those close to them.

I began having this conversation with my friend Kim who is a hairdresser. It just so happens that she is opening her very own shoppe. She’s been doing hair for a long time and was blessed with one owner passing everything on to her…chairs, supplies, client list and all. She wants it to be a place where women come to be blessed and reminded of how beautiful they are and can be. Her niche is “natural hair” though she can do weaves and extensions, she loves working with hair as God created it.

We talked of Theology and Hair, of being created in God’s image and being told by the world you needed to straighten, lighten or make hair look other than natural in some way. For some time now there has been a move back to natural and even that brings a theological and political conversation.

Thanks to former student and now friend M.H. for pointing me to Melissa Harris Perry as she offers some great insight into this conversation with a panel of women.

How Black Hair Matters

For those of us who care about ministry, ministry to all, we have to know that there are things we just don’t know. This is a great way to catch a glimpse into this conversation and another way to talk about Imago Dei.

p.s. I am acutely aware that I am the last person who should be writing this post…but as the conversation keeps coming up in my world I wanted to at least put the conversation out there.

i love the little boys

…even when they try to rob me, I love little boys; Standing on any corner in any hood in any city in the world, the little boys go about their business dreaming and scheming, bending and pretending. One late afternoon I stood on a corner waiting for a taxi to take me to the airport. The city had a busy buzz as cars, trucks and buses zipped by. I had my luggage and a laptop bag where I kept my wallet and keys. I decided to open my bag and within moments of going into the bag to take a few dollars from my wallet it was as if little boys suddenly appeared from nowhere. There they were. Six of them, no more than 12-14 years old, swarming around me; In and out. It dawned on me that my little boys saw me flash my cash and they were going to try to rob me. Calculating their moves, silently figuring out who would grab what, and in which direction they would flee. How quickly would they snatch my money, my wallet, laptop, or all of it, and get out of sight? But I saw them, and I looked in their shiny faces with a stern and hopeful expectation. I see You. I wanted them to see me seeing them. And with a look, they fled and ran the other way. Humanity acknowledged. Plan foiled.

Seeing and reflecting something hopeful. Black history month is upon us again, and it’s a month when boys and girls, men and women see and hear more positive and affirming images and stories of Black Americans than all year long. Really, the rest of the year is bleak. The images black kids consistently see of black people in the media remain narrow, limiting, and even harmful to their psyches and overall development. Thugs, thieves, drug addicts, athletes, rappers.

Young people project as far as they can see and require good mirrors that reflect back to them what they can become. Models, images, reflections matter. Until the full complex range of limitless possibilities are presented to my little boys, some of them will continue believing the lie that their lot in life is to steal, kill and destroy. It is not. I for one will reflect something better back to them. Their humanity and boundless beauty created in the same image as God cuz God loves the little boys too.

Guest Post- To be Young, Gifted and Black… in Waco

Much could be said and I could repost all of her words but seeing Sharyl Loeung’s blog offers the impact needed. She is a former student of mine turned friend and fellow Christian longing for something better. She has worked in cross cultural settings for more than a decade and is an advocate for those often not seen nor heard. She works in a school where she sees inequality far too often and in this post she grapples mightily with the other side of knowing teens who make the nightly news and the incessant racism that accompanies this. Check it out!

Emmett Till. Trayvon Martin. Jordan Davis.

… and others whose names we don’t know. “This is no country for young black men.”

Seventeen year old Jordan Davis and his friends were sitting in the car of one of their fathers, and they were playing loud music. Teenagers do that sometimes, but if you’re young, black, and male, you can be killed for listening to loud music, or for wearing a hoodie while walking home at night, or for commenting that a girl is pretty. Once again America has no love for young black males.

“Citing the gruesome murder of Emmett Till in the 1950s, Melissa Harris-Perry said that one thing has remained the same over generations of American history: ‘No presumption of innocence for young black men, no benefit of the doubt. Guilt not determined by what they did or said but presumed to be inherent in their very being. They need not wield a weapon to pose a threat because if you are a young black man, you are threat enough.’ ”         Click and Listen here:  Melissa-Harris-Perry Mourns Jordan-Davis

Lord, Lord, Lord. Like Marvin said, “what’s going on?” Same ol, same ol. God’s gonna judge you America.



The challenge from God’s people (and not the good kind of challenge)

I received a facebook message recently from a young woman who was in the youth group where I served just a few years ago. She was asking for some kind of hope that her faith wasn’t in vain. She was asking how she may follow God faithfully when she felt like she had so few examples of faithfulness. She saw family members serving in church leadership roles who wouldn’t even acknowledge their own family in the name of “God told him to focus on his faith and ministry.” She became involved in the campus ministry at her college and when she needed to get a job to stay in school, the campus ministry leader pulled her aside and said she had her priorities out of line and that she could no longer be in any leadership position if she couldn’t fully commit and wouldn’t be invited to the ministry conference. She began dating a young man who was also a person of color, just not her same color so there was concern from family and friends as she was no longer in high school and there was the potential for things to turn serious. These comments came from the same people who raised her and nurtured her to have a diverse community and to believe God created all people in His image.

So what’s a girl to do when it’s not the “world” around you raising questions and doubts but the very community that is supposed to nurture one another’s faith? I have asked this question more times than I could count. The irony for me has been that it is often the hopes of the world outside the church that reminds me of all Christ has called us to be and do.

I’ve been thinking, reading and writing on identity a lot lately. My colleague and friend Reggie Blount pointed me toward the writings of W.E. Du Bois and his thoughts on double consciousness. Du Bois’ position was focused around the two “voices” African Americans heard at the turn of the last century but the principle applies in many settings. And while this notion of double consciousness is present in many writings and thinkers, Du Bois offers a particularly clear take on how this impacts identity.  It is the notion that as we seek to determine our own identity, we have more than one voice that has spoken into our lives and these voices compete for prominence and influence.

My two colleagues and friends on this blog share my interest in identity. We speak often of how to have an integrated identity, one where race, age, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, ability and disability are all welcome at the table integrated with one another, not functioning in isolation or as compartmentalized elements to be brought out only when appropriate.

I think of the message I received from my young friend asking how she may follow God faithfully and realize what she is really asking is who am I as one trying to follow God? Is it possible for anyone to be who they truly are AND be a follower of Jesus? Is it possible to have this God following part of my life be integrated when so many of the examples I see around me are fractured and function in isolation at best?

Her question was much less about God than about why God’s people seem to act like God doesn’t impact them at all. Her question was about how she can choose a different path and live an integrated life where the double (and at times triple or quadruple) consciousness gives way to an integrated whole where she may become the young woman God created her to be.


“Tupac is Alive”

“Tupac is alive and living in Cuba.”  “Oh yea, ok.” It was fun catching up with an old friend from high school the other day and even funnier when he mentioned Tupac being alive and living in South America. Mike and I recently found each other via Facebook and then talked on the phone trying to speed up and fill in the years of our lives. Time flies. He was the one who taught me to appreciate sound and actually gave me my first audio receiver, tape deck and turntable. Mike had been updating his equipment so gave me the old stuff. Mike taught me about building an audio system piece by piece. He said that was better than buying a pre-packaged component set from one manufacturer. For crisp quality sound you should buy your turntable from the best turntable-maker, your receiver from the best receiver maker, and so on. It was the 80s and I messed around with DJaying skating parties, talent shows and camp carnivals.

Mike Hall was a music lover, always buying the latest albums as soon as they were released and inviting me to come over and listen. He may have been the first person to let me hear a CD when CDs began taking the place of vinyl. But before that we experienced the early days of rap. The Sugar Hill Gang released Rapper’s Delight in 1979 and it became a commercial success helping to spawn a new cultural phenomena called hip-hop.

Mike’s comment about Tupac took me back to South Africa some yrs. earlier. I was there as a guest teacher in a jr. college when a nearby South African jr. high school asked me to come give a talk in chapel. I went, said a few motivational things, “God bless you,” “be all you can be,” etc. amen. After my prayer a student raised his hand and asked “Is Tupac still alive?” I smiled, “no, I don’t think so.” It was odd since my talk had nothing to do with rap, hip-hop, Tupac, or even music. His question came from nowhere.

Over the years I’ve pondered the fascination with Tupac Shakur and the desire for him to still walk among us. The rapper-prophet had indeed touched the nerve of a generation of marginalized and hurting youth. He knew their pain and put words to it. There was something different about this rapper. His lyrics were deeply spiritual, filled with passion, outrage and audacity. They were also filled with yearnings for God. Tupac was flawed. He was scrappy.  And he was obsessed with God and justice.

Michael Eric Dyson* writes about a memorial service for Tupac held in Washington, DC where Rev. Willie Wilson eulogized the slain rapper for the mourning youth in his community. Wilson said “hip-hop artists in many instances are the preachers of their generation, preaching a message which, too often, those who have been given the charge to preach prophetic words to the people have not given. The Tupac’s of the world have responded and in many instances reflected… that scripture that comes to mind: ‘if you don’t speak out, then the rocks will cry out.’”  Tupac was their preacher, preaching a message that was relevant to their everyday realities. Perhaps that’s a glimpse into why many refuse to believe the rapper is gone; insisting he still walks among us.

Students in my hip-hop class often roll their eyes and sigh loudly when I use the word “prophet” to describe the slain rapper. Perhaps they wonder how this black urban thug could possibly be a mouthpiece for God. His life and faith didn’t remotely resemble theirs. And perhaps that’s the point. “Tupac” is still alive… and he’s living in Cuba, the favela, shantytown and ghetto.   *(M.E.Dyson wrote Holler if you hear me: searching for Tupac Shakur, Basic Civitas books, 2001)

Both Indian AND Christian

Breathtaking is the only word I have to describe the wedding we attended this past Saturday. The bride and groom are two dear people who took God seriously when they were taught that God is a God of second chances. They each immigrated from India years ago. Their relationship started in friendship far from home and now continues in marriage. They joined together in the presence of their adult children, family, friends and church friends who assume the position of family. It was a beautiful intersection of Indian culture and Christian faith.

There are many things I could talk about from this wedding…the colors were electric, the food was mouthwatering and it was definitely a celebration! Scripture was read in English and Marathi. Songs were sung, dances danced late into the night! All were welcome, young and old alike, those dressed in Saris and those in more western attire. It was a snapshot of what I am convinced heaven must be like.

It also made me think of a question raised by the bride’s daughter years ago. She was in junior high and she was introducing me to the caramel macchiato with extra caramel for my first time. Over this decadent drink she told me that she was struggling to figure out who she was supposed to be. When she was at church or school her friends commented that she was not “Indian” enough because she did not fit the stereotypes they held. When she was in India or with her Indian community here in the states, people would comment that she wasn’t Christian enough. She was frustrated and worn out bouncing around trying to be the exact Indian Christian everyone expected her to be and feeling like she was letting everyone down.

That one conversation was a turning point for me in ministry. I still talk a lot about Jesus but I talk about the particularity in which He created each of us. I changed my teaching to encourage future youth workers and ministers to not shy away from issues of culture and not just when addressing racism (though that is certainly important! Another post another time.) I am still trying to figure out what this means in light of a multicultural world. I am convinced more than over that the healthiest thing to do is to talk about culture and to do so in an intergenational way so that we are passing on not only faith but faith as it intersects with culture.

I’ll be meeting with this young woman a little later today. We touched base at the wedding and are continuing our conversation of eight years now. How do we be both faithful Christians and faithful to the cultures in which we have been raised? This is the question that still challenges and encourages me to dig deeper in my understanding of how we are made in God’s image.