The Face of America

The American women’s gymnastics team won first place in the World Gymnastics championships last week in Qatar. These fabulous young women vaulted, tumbled, leaped, and braved death-defying moves to outshine competitors from across the globe. While I often feel like I should raise my arms in victory any Sunday I manage the three steps up to the pulpit without tripping – yes! She stuck the landing! – they perform gravity-defying moves daily.  And they smile while doing it.

Their faces are captivating

When I watch this group of accomplished, determined, strong young women, I feel a sense of hope.

Their gymnastic ability is unparalleled.

They are world champions.

And they are the face of America.

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This team with skin tones of varying hues, with a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds – this is America. The true face of America is a collection of people from a wide variety of backgrounds who come together for a common cause. Our country has never been “white”. When the first immigrants arrived on these shores, they discovered native people who did not look like them.  And that was the beginning – for better or worse – of a new America.  Perhaps America was once racially pure – but that was long before European settlers came to this land.

Our country has a complicated history with race – the displacement and slaughter of Native inhabitants, the brutality and horror of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and the ongoing racism against people of color. Our country continues to struggle with race.

But our gymnastics team demonstrates what is possible. They remind us that people from different backgrounds can work together to make a difference. They set an example of building bridges, of being united, and of finding (or creating) common ground.

Most of us will never cartwheel on a balance beam or fly between uneven bars. But all of us can be inspired by the determination and hard work of this young team and vow to represent our country with the same grace and unity.

Welcome – everyone!

This sign, spotted on the restroom door in a Portsmouth NH restaurant this week,  made me smile. The message of inclusion was clear. Female, male, transgender, bisexual folks, wheelchair users, and yes, even aliens are welcome there.

There is something very simple and heartening about a sign that wants to include everyone. It is the opposite of the hateful messages that appeared in stores and restaurants in the not-so-distant past in our country. Signs that announced “Help wanted. Whites only,” or “No Irish served here.”  Signs that designated particular water fountains, restrooms, or waiting rooms for particular races.

In contrast, this cheery green and black message defines the only threat that we all must combat. That would be germs – no matter how you identify, germs are an equal-opportunity menace. So please – wash your hands. Once that is done, we can stand united (even hand in hand), confident that our shared humanity is more important than any outward distinctions.

What you look like, who you love, how you define yourself – those are all details compared to our shared identity. Child of God, created in God’s image.

We live in a funny world when a sign on a bathroom door can teach a lesson about how to treat one another. Let’s take the hint and offer one another the respect, welcome, and dignity that all of God’s people deserve.

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  Galatians 3:28

God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness”…God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.  Genesis 1: 26-27

No coffee today

Over 8000 Starbucks shops will be closed today. Water will cool, grounds will sit in the filters, creamers and flavors will remain in their bottles, and the mangled and misspelled names will not be written on cups. It is estimated that $12 million in sales will be lost.

Today is a day to learn about racial bias.

Before we jump on the cynical bandwagon to label this as a publicity ploy or as “too little, too late,” let’s congratulate Starbucks on doing something. Too many people and too many organizations – businesses, schools, churches – persist in ignoring rather than engaging the difficult and overwhelming topic of racism.

We came to this place because on May 2, 2018 two African-American men entered a Starbucks and sat down to wait for a friend to discuss a real estate deal. The white manger asked them to leave. When they refused (after sitting for a total of two minutes in a coffee shop where patrons are known to spend hours sitting, reading, conversing, and staring at their computers), the manager 911 as if some kind of emergency was taking place. When the men refused the cops’ request to leave the building, they were arrested.

Starbucks Corporation responded immediately.  The manager was fired, a public apology was given (a real apology, where guilt was admitted and responsibility taken), a $200,000 program for young entrepreneurs was funded, and this day of racial sensitivity training was established.

Is it enough? Of course not. I know that because in the weeks since the Starbucks arrest, there have been several other incidences where people of color have been harassed, challenged, or even arrested while engaging in everyday activities.

  • A white woman called police to report an African American family having a barbeque at a public beach.
  • Three African-American artists being reported while renting an Air B and B in a predominately white neighborhood.
  • The black Yale student taking a nap in a public area of her dorm awoke to find campus police staring down at her after receiving reports of an “intruder”.

It isn’t enough, but it’s something. It’s one step on a very long journey towards awareness and the recognition of a serious, deep-seated problem.

If you don’t happen to be a Starbucks employee, how can you engage in racial sensitivity training? Seek out stories from those who have experienced racial bias. It isn’t hard. The stories are everywhere – read, listen, watch.

If the experiences you hear about are not your experiences – wonder about that. I have never been asked to leave a restaurant, never been pulled over by a police officer for no reason, and never been told that I don’t “fit in” because of my skin color. No one is scared of me or intimidated by me because of how I look.

In order to correct these injustices, I first have to be aware that they exist. I can learn and I can respond. All of these small steps – like an afternoon of racial sensitivity training – can add up to make a difference so that all of God’s children are treated with dignity and respect. Let us begin.

Standing up for Peace

Does standing on a street corner change the world? I wondered that as I stood with about 15 other folks at an intersection in a quiet New England town, population 4,124, with a racial diversity score of about zero.

What was I accomplishing? Was anything achieved?

Maybe not. But two days after the white supremacy rally in Charlottesville VA, I felt the need to do something. And standing with signs that read “Peace” and “End Bigotry” and “Love is louder than hate” helped us bear witness to the powerful vision of hope. It was a way to say “no” to that hate-filled rally.

One man in a truck shook his head and gave us a “thumbs down” signal. I wondered exactly what he was disagreeing with. Peace is not a good idea? Diversity shouldn’t be encouraged? But it was not a place for conversation so I’ll never know what his thoughts were.

Mostly we heard horns honking as drivers smiled and waved or flashed the peace sign. One bicyclist shouted, “Good job!” as he sped past. Several people shouted, “Thank you!” as they drove by.

The world didn’t change on that Monday afternoon. But our voices of hope and determination were heard. A witness to peace, unity and love was given.

I stood up for peace because I didn’t want the marchers in Virginia to have the last word. In our media-saturated world where images of angry torch-bearing racists fill our screens, it’s too easy to believe that their voices were the only ones speaking.

But this ragtag group of women and men, one little girl and a couple of dogs stood together for peace. And that action was repeated in towns and cities across our country. Those gatherings – big and little, at rural intersections and city parks – are a reminder that every action of kindness, love and welcome is important.

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It’s time to do what we can, in big and little ways. In some ways, it’s easy to stand up against obvious hatred like Nazi flag-wielding thugs. It’s clear they are on the wrong side of history and that their message has no place in a fair and equal democracy. They are dangerous and disturbing, but in a loud, in-your-face kind of way.

Subtle forms of racism are more challenging to recognize and rebuke. I hope our street-side gathering also reminds us to be aware and stay attuned to the many ways that too many people are treated differently.

  • One kind word
  • One small protest
  • One refusal to allow hate to have the last word

These actions, taken together, can change the world.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

Got privilege?

The phrase “white privilege” troubles many people. Often an instant response is, “I’m not privileged. I’ve worked hard to get where I am today. Nobody gave me anything.” We equate “privilege” with wealth or entitlement or ease. That, of course, is the trouble with words – they fail to describe what we are attempting to define.

In this case, “privilege” is the ability to participate in an activity without hindrance.

Think of it this way.  What if we substitute the word “white” with another word.

Consider this –

  • My mother is blind. Ordinary daily activities are challenging, from choosing clothes to wear, to safely navigating crowded hallways, or pouring a cup of hot coffee.
  • I, on the other hand, can do things that sighted people do – use my phone, drive a car, find an item that I’ve put down, read the newspaper, or cross the street.
  • I don’t give a lot of thought to those activities because they come easily to me. Mostly, I forget just how blessed I am.
  • We could call it “visual privilege.”

Or how about this:

  • I can walk up and down stairs, squeeze through narrow hallways and doors, and traverse the length of a parking lot or superstore without giving it a thought.
  • My friend who uses a walker because of MS cannot do any of those things. My comfortable ability often makes me oblivious to the challenges she faces daily.
  • I enjoy what might be called “mobility privilege.”

In the same way, I can – without worry – drive through any neighborhood without being pulled over, walk into a store without being followed by a suspicious employee, and walk down the street without anyone challenging my right to be there.

The assumption that I will be treated with at least minimal respect – that is privilege.  It is something I do not particularly notice because it has always been my life experience. But it is something that not everyone enjoys.

Part of my responsibility as a white person is to wonder, explore, and learn about other people’s experiences. I need to notice things that just aren’t fair – like my brown-skinned son always being asked to show his ID when using a credit card while his white-skinned sister isn’t. When I see things like that, I need to speak up.

Perhaps the first step in combatting racism is being aware that it exists and is going on around me all the time. My obligation is to recognize that many aspects of my life are easier simply because of the color of my skin. I have a privilege I didn’t ask for or earn, but it is real. Being aware of that can inspire me to work on building a society that extends courtesy and respect to all of God’s children.

Discovering God’s people

God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…”  Genesis 1:26

When I was a little girl my grandmother traveled around the world on a “tramp steamer.” This relatively inexpensive ship allowed her to spend months crisscrossing the globe while our family enjoyed her travels vicariously. We had a world map mounted on a hallway wall which helped us monitor her movements. Every time a postcard arrived, we would read it eagerly, marveling at the sights and sounds she was experiencing. Then we would carefully and somewhat ceremoniously place a pin in her current location. Soon colorful dots marked her journey from one hemisphere to another.

Every once in a while a package would arrive with a doll or other interesting artifact from her adventures.  This was the beginning of my doll collection; I still treasure the brightly colored costumes that represent the variety of cultures she experienced.

As a child, my goal in life was to be able to add to that collection myself. I looked forward to the day when I would be able to travel and discover new customs, foods, and cultures on my own. My first overseas trip was as a high school summer exchange student to Germany. That was enough to encourage me to travel whenever and wherever I could.  My college junior year abroad (in Germany, again) led to two additional years of living and working in Europe. When I went to seminary, international travel was encouraged so that we could broaden our horizons and our understanding of religions and cultures other than our own. That led to study trips to Costa Rica and Israel.

My dream was to pass my curiosity and love of learning on to my children. We traveled as a family to Bolivia to participate in home-building and education support.   My children have since ventured to places I have not (yet) experienced including Senegal, Japan, Wales, and Spain. I believe it has been a vital part of their education, giving them a broader perspective on the world and on themselves.

The only way to learn about one another – whether across the globe or in our own town – is to experience each other’s world. We need to talk with – and listen to – each other. We live in a nation divided by politics and opinions.  It is imperative that we wonder about each other, ask questions of one another, and carefully consider what the other person is saying.

One way to approach each other is with a holy curiosity. We can ponder – what is it like to be that person?  What has been their life experience? What has formed and shaped them? What do they believe and why?  What can I learn from them?

We will not agree with – or even like – everyone we meet. But if we approach people with the understanding that every one of us is created in the image of God, that might be a place to begin.

The March – my experience

My bad feet survived.

My spirit soared.

It was thrilling to gather on the Mall, looking at our Capitol, surrounded by a vast sea of humanity of every age, color, and description.  I was filled with gratitude for our country which allows and guarantees the right to peaceful assembly.

The March was peaceful and it was powerful.

I never got close to the stage.  I couldn’t hear any of the speakers. But I didn’t need inspirational speeches to tell me about the need. I could hear that in the voices of those who surrounded me. Men and women, gay, straight, and trans.

Young and old.

Experienced marchers and novices.

All joined together to sing and chant their belief that all people are created equal and deserve to be treated with dignity.

I read their message in their signs – some poignant, some angry, many humorous – but all advocating human rights for all of God’s people.

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What was the point?  The point was to stand together.

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These days it is possible to communicate and cooperate across the globe on-line and through social media. But sometimes we need to get out of our homes – and our comfort zones – and come together.

Sometimes we need to stand shoulder to shoulder, side by side, with one another.

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I came back inspired and energized.

I came back realizing I am not alone in my concern about healthcare, the environment, the LGBT community, immigrants, and people of color.

I came back wanting to help save our planet from thoughtless abuse.

I came back determined to work hard on behalf of those who have no voice or are afraid.

I came back encouraged.

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I won’t give up.

And when I need to, I will march again.