Tuesday, August 15, 2017

the children.

Last August I found myself in a conversation about race and skin color with my five year old. We were reading the children's book "The Skin You Live In", marveling at the many ways to be beautiful.  He asked why there are so many different colors of people. Probably because we have a very creative God who knows how to make beauty lots of different ways. We are all holy and worthy of the same love because we all look like God. 

I was so tempted to stop here, only describing the palate of color and not the weaponized brushes we've used to paint evil and division, the many ways we've always been at war with God's own image. But it was high time. If I protect my son from the truth about racism because I think he's too young, that's my privilege copping out. Every black and brown baby heading to Kindergarten would already know something about racism because their families don't have the luxury of putting it off.

Do you think God has a favorite color of skin? I asked him. He looked confused and answered quickly, No, God loves us all the same. We're all God's favorite. 

I hesitated and then I pushed, just like the devil likes to push. I know, I know. We're all equal and stuff. But there's probably a winner, right? One color that is more special and powerful than the others? I mean, someone has to come in first place. He looked down at his pale hands and thought about it for some time.

I don't know. He waited for me to answer my own question so he wouldn't need to say it out loud, but I didn't. We sat in silence until he finally whispered in a soft, disappointed voice, Probably the light skinned people? 

Maybe I'm a terrible mother for playing this mind game with my own child, but I wasn't the first. The world had already whispered these lies to my sweet, honest, fooled five year old. And now I had an opening to tell him the truth.

It is only one way to begin the conversation. I'll admit up front that it is flawed and far from comprehensive, but this moment planted deep trust in our relationship that keeps welcoming his observations and questions about racism a year later.  If you know you need to tell the children, but you don't know where to start, I offer the first leg of our journey as a place to begin.


When God created humankind long ago, they were formed from the earth in Africa. Their skin was dark and they didn't wear any clothes to hide their beautiful bodies. God looked at them and declared them "very good". God took good care of them on the days they listened and followed directions, but also on the days they hid and broke the rules. 
You've heard Mom and Dad say, There's nothing you can do to make me love you any more or any less than I already do. We learned to love you like this from God's love. 

Time went on and more and more people covered the earth. They spread out all over the world finding deserts, forests, mountains, oceans and fields. As they got further apart, they started speaking different languages, eating different foods, and their bodies were born in lots of different shades, all beautiful and unique. Every single one looked like God.
And then, once everyone was spread out over the whole earth, light skinned people decided to lie about God's love. They wanted there to be a winner. They were okay with everyone being special as long as they were special special. And so they set out to conquer and control. They tried to make themselves the most important and more powerful by treating dark skinned people like unimportant and weak people - or by treating them like they weren't people at all. 

Explorers from Europe were sent to learn about the world discover new lands. They built big boats and brought weapons. They sailed all of the oceans, assuming that whatever they found would be theirs. Most of the places they found already had beautiful people living there, but the explorers focused on their differences and told them that their skin, language, food, and culture was wrong.
The white people brought germs that made the people who already lived there sick. They used their weapons to make people move off the land and killed the people who tried to stay. They threatened Native Americans into signing agreements they couldn't read and didn't understand. The United States made more than 400 promises in writing to Native Americans and broke every single one of them. 
We invented a holiday called Thanksgiving to pretend that everyone got along, but most of the white explorers from Europe took advantage of the Native Americans. They compared them to wild animals instead of seeing them as people God loves. The Native Americans were brave in defending their culture. They fought for freedom, family, and the right to be themselves - the same things that are important to us today. Why didn't we let those things be important to them, too? 
38 Dakota men hanged in Mankato, MN in 1862.
As Minnesotans, it's important for us to learn about the U.S. - Dakota War in the 1860s. Minnesota had just become a state and, after breaking several promises to the Dakota people, Minnesota's settlers wanted to take even more land and freedom away from Native Americans. Most Dakota people were captured and kept in a concentration camp prison at Fort Snelling. Families were split up and many died because they were sleeping in tents outside in the winter without enough food or supplies. 
This is especially heartbreaking because Fort Snelling is built on land where the Minnesota River and Mississippi River meet, sacred territory for the Dakota people that is part of their creation story. While the history books you'll study in school rarely mention Native Americans after 1900, they are not history. They are not over and gone. They are people and miracles and they are still here, an important part of our present day. Do you think we, as white Americans, can learn their stories and listen to their ideas for a future that respects their lives and land? 
 Explorers were also arriving in Africa, where they met people with rich culture very different from their own. There the white people tricked and bribed black people into fighting and selling each other. They kidnapped black people and took them all the way across the ocean to sell as slaves.  
African men and women were packed into slave ships. They had to lie down right next to each other and couldn't stand up to go to the bathroom or get something to eat. When they got to America, they were sold like animals and farming equipment to people who had a lot of work to do.
Slaves were like prisoners who couldn't go to school or leave the land they worked. Sometimes they had to wear chains or were abused by the white people who owned them and they didn't get paid for their hard work. They had to ask permission to get married and sometimes got married in secret so they didn't get in trouble for loving their family.
The white people told black and brown people that their religions were dumb and wrong and made them worship Jesus. But all of their pictures of Jesus looked like the white people who were helping the lie about God's love. White people wanted to imagine that Jesus looked like them, but Jesus was actually brown-skinned man.
This lie grew all over the world for a really, really long time. Families were broken apart. People weren't allowed to be their beautiful selves. White people got used to hurting black and brown people. They did it for so long that they learned to forget and ignore the truth about God's love, and would teach their kids the lie too. Other white people didn't teach their kids anything at all, but kids are smart and figured out that white people were the ones in charge who got to make laws, vote for leaders, and make the most money, so it was easy to believe that they were better than everyone else.
The United States fought other countries and native people for more land, convinced that we were doing the world a favor by making other people forget their own cultures and act like white Christian Americans instead. 

 When the Civil War ended in 1865 slavery was suddenly against the law, but that didn't change the way white people felt about black people. They still wanted to be more important and, since they had more money, power, and education, they were convinced that black and white people should stay separate from each other. 

Black veterans did not receive the same benefits as white veterans. Most colleges didn't accept black students. Many neighborhoods wouldn't let black people live there. Cities tore down black neighborhoods, businesses, and houses to build highways. And so we pretended that black people were free and everything was fair for a long time. It was kind of a new lie, kind of the same old lie.
During World War 2, America became suspicious of Asian Americans because we were fighting against Japan. Many people were sent to prisons because they looked Japanese or because they had family members living in Asia. These people lost their businesses, homes, and families while they were locked up simply because white people were afraid and judging people because of their skin color.
We have been part of this lie for a long, long time. No wonder you thought there might be a winner! We have created a system in our country and the world that works hard to keep white people feeling more important and more powerful than everyone else. This lie has helped people who look like you and me for a very long time and it has hurt people with other skin colors for just as long.
We are living in one of many moments when the truth is starting to sneak out. It's getting louder than the lie. And this makes some people who need the lie feel scared and mad. You'll hear them saying, That's not fair! But I think they mean, I don't like how it feels to not get things my way all the time. Sounds like you fighting with your sisters about who's first or how much or what wins, right? We're good at noticing when something is unfair or unlikable, but rarely notice when things are going our way and making it easier for us.
So it's our job to remind each other about the truth of God's love. It's our job to learn our whole history, not just from the groups in charge, but also from the groups who get hurt or silenced. We need to practice saying sorry, even if it happened before we were born. We need to listen to people who feel sad, tired, or angry about the lie and then try to imagine how they feel. 
And when you meet someone who looks different than you do, begin by finding things you have in common. Then look for things that make them interesting, unique, and beautiful. Different doesn't have to be scary and your way isn't the best way. Try making space for a lot of right ways and you might learn something wonderful.

Your light skin gives you a lot of power in this life, little one. But it's not because God loves you more or because you deserve it more than your neighbor. It's because so much of our history is an evil twisting of God's love and it takes brave people and a long time to untwist it. You can either use your power to help the lie or to tell the truth about God's love. Telling the truth is really hard work. Lots of grown ups like me are just getting started, so we'll practice together.

Like I said, flawed and far from comprehensive. But it's where we started and now we can't be stopped.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

shopping.

I've been watching people church shop every Sunday for 11 years.
So we'll call this "easily inspired fiction". 


You notice
the parking signs for visitors
the pollinator-friendly gardens
baskets half filled for the food pantry
the paint chipping on the widow sills
the silk flowers on the bathroom counter.

It matters,
the space that greets you 
while you stomp snow from your feet
or you move your sunglasses from your eyes atop your head.
Do need to navigate hallways and offices
or are you thrust nervously into a narrow narthex?

The hunt is on.

The people notice you
with affection, warmth, and curiosity
or desperation, skepticism, and fatigue
or not at all.

Writing in a dusty guestbook
would be like signing up for spam mail.
The edge of your sticky name tag
begins to curl, appalled by your shirt.
You considered writing, 
"Settle down, we're just visiting"
or a pseudonym. 

Your children are sized up
the nursery is eagerly suggested
while they cling to your leg.

The pew does its best to corral your family 
into meeting the palpable expectations 
of this crowd. 

They will tolerate wiggles and whispers, 
but crayons drop and Cheerios crunch
and echo tragically
while someone half asleep 
mumbles obscure scripture passages.
Your first cold glares and nervous smiles 
come before the sermon
and now you are sweaty.

You are having trouble recalling why 
you dared to come.

Duty.
Healing.
Guilt.
Hope.
Tradition.
Longing.

There are good reasons to stay away
from the broken and beleaguered church
of your past and their present.
These grow louder in your mind
when you realize you are behind in the bulletin
and your youngest needs a diaper change.

You are still figuring out how the sacrament is served
and if you are welcome
and if your children are welcome
when an usher asks if you are coming up.

He seems more concerned 
about the timing of the music
and a break in the line
than helping you find belonging 
on the way to the table.

And while you hustle self consciously,
his wife reminds him sweetly
that he would have had all day for 
arthritic knees or a buzzing hearing aid.

Startled and swayed, he squats down
to offer each of your children a high five 
as they pass by.
One brings a picture up front,
a colorful offering
another skips and waves 
until people smile 
breaking formation long enough
to answer your question:

They are hurting like you.
You are welcome like them.
We are all breaking and mending. 

You leave before coffee,
no welcome card or signature
and just a few bucks in the plate.
This was enough, 
perhaps more than you had to give.

But you are not empty.
There was a morsel and a sip
and the promise of people and places,
futile and fertile efforts out there.