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The Messiness of Microaggressions

1 Corinthians 12:12, 26 NRSV

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

 

The author

The author

Hey there, friend. I have news: we are all a mess, and you are messy, too.

I feel called to tell you that because I love you, and I love the people with whom you come in contact.

While we may know each other well, marginally, or not at all, the fact that you were willing to click on this link and at least start reading this think piece means that I can trust you with a bit of truth. I am guessing that something intrigued you to mentally and spiritually lean in towards a topic that most of the world would still choose to turn away from, minimize, or utterly deny.

With that in mind, I am going to assume the very best in you; I am going to trust you with my truth. Because, as we see being played out in government (45, I am looking at you), the media, and in the comment section of almost any page online, communication has no worth without an explicitly expressed value of trust.

Along those lines, let’s establish our starting place, friends. I am assuming that you and I have a shared value for what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. named the Beloved Community. That is, the kind of community that respects the intrinsic worth of all members of humanity. The King Center writes, within the beloved community “racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood.”

If this is not your shared stance on humanity, please feel free to exit this article because it will be a waste of your time, and probably only offend you. Honestly, I love you enough to let you be who you are. If the work of edifying the beloved community of humanity is not your shtick, then this is conversation is not for you.

I will give you a few seconds to go if you need to: 3… 2… 1…

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Friend, Move Up Higher

Wedding banquet placecards

I can’t remember which member of the search committee said it. But I definitely remember their words: “Now that you are moving to Portland, no more Starbucks.”  And it’s true. There are so many locally owned coffee shops in Portland…  But I have to confess. I still love Starbucks. Starbucks was my first job. They were the first ones to offer me health insurance. And their coffee is just so good. I can’t help it. I love Starbucks.

Of course, there are problems with this love. There are things that I really don’t like about them. I don’t like that Starbucks destroys local businesses. I don’t like that each and every store looks exactly the same. I don’t like that they don’t even attempt to provide a living wage to the coffee pickers.

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Becoming a Sanctuary Church

“Immigrants and Refugees Welcome.” In resistance to the Executive Order banning refugees from seven majority Muslim countries and discriminating against Muslims, those have been the words on our sermon boards on both sides of our church. Until the Executive ban is fully rescinded, until ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is no longer directed to raid immigrant homes in our community, and until DACA (Delayed Action for Childhood Arrivals) candidates no longer live in fear of unfair deportation, that sign will continue to hang prominently in front of the church I serve: The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington DC. As Christians seeking after God’s justice and because of our physical positioning — just four blocks east of the White House — we feel a deep calling to stand up as a Sanctuary Church.

Last spring Kathy Doan, a ruling elder at The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church and a longtime advocate for the immigrant community, and Maricelly Malave, Co-Founder of Sanctuary DMV (District Maryland Virginia), met with me to share an evolving need for churches and communities to join the New Sanctuary Movement. They shared the history of this ancient practice for temples, churches, and even whole cities to declare themselves as a place of refuge for people accused of crimes in which they feared unfair retribution. They shared that churches in the U.S. first provided sanctuary as part of the Underground Railroad, helping slaves pass to freedom during the Civil War. In the 1970s, when refugees from the civil wars in Central America came to the United States seeking shelter, the U.S. government did not recognize them as political refugees seeking asylum. Many were deported and faced death squads on their return. In response to this dire situation, the Sanctuary Movement was formed. At its peak, there were over 500 member congregations. In 1986, the Sanctuary Movement won the inclusion of Central America as part of our immigration laws.

Starting the summer of 2014, we started seeing the return of the humanitarian crisis with thousands of unaccompanied minors fleeing violence and forced gang participation in Central America seeking safely in the United States. Moreover, eleven million undocumented persons are living in the United States, many of whom have lived here for more than ten years. These members of our community — these friends, family members and neighbors — are all at risk of deportation. Read more

chalkboard with mathematical equations on it

Bricks Without Straw: Hidden Figures, Young Clergy Women, and Intersectionality

chalkboard with mathematical equations on itI have been excited to see Hidden Figures for months. The trailer gave me deeply satisfied laughter, hope, and inspiration. The poster gave me goosebumps. I knew I was going to love this movie from the moment I learned that it existed. It exceeded my expectations.

Hidden Figures tells the story of Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), one of the finest mathematicians (called “computers”) in the history of NASA. Her parents advocated for her to have appropriate education for her mathematical brilliance. Through hard work and a supportive family, Katherine belonged to a team of black female computers, referred to as the West Computing Group, resourcing the space program.

By Johnson’s side were Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), who functioned as the supervisor for the West Computing Group, and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), a budding NASA engineer. America’s race to space depended largely on the mathematical and scientific work of Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson. Not only were these women solving some of the most complex mathematical and scientific problems of their time, but they were doing it while juggling racism, sexism, and classism (all while in high heels).

There are many points of genius in the movie, and its Academy Award nomination for Best Picture is well-deserved. One of the most significant is its subtle pedagogy. The movie appeals to a wide demographic of viewers: fans of its actors, space enthusiasts, nostalgists, movie lovers, music lovers, women, audiences of color, teachers, etc. Whatever brings you to the theater will not begin to scratch the surface of what you’ll gain from this movie.

Hidden Figures demonstrates the complexity of racism and racial reconciliation. The movie opens with potential police brutality and the delicate balance between good citizenship and accepting oppression. Though religion is not a major theme of the movie, the characters attend the same church, which is the center of their community. Mr. Johnson’s military career success points to the anticipated double victory of freedom abroad and at home for black soldiers during the world wars, and the importance of affirming black male leadership in integrated public arenas. Segregation looms large in signage, work accommodations, and access to public places like libraries and court houses.

As a former engineer, I appreciated the way the movie depicted women’s second class citizenship. Leaders referred to mixed groups of staff as “gentlemen” or “you guys,” and told them to call their wives. Though they are among the leading minds in the country, the women of NASA are often assumed to be clerical staff or housekeepers, treated as expendable workers. In spite of putting in long hours doing demanding intellectual work, dress codes stipulated that they should wear dresses and heels. While some of the women had supportive helpers at home (largely other women), others began a second shift of domestic responsibilities even while defending their right to work. Many women in the movie, white and black, performed duties beyond the scope of their job responsibilities, without additional recognition or compensation, and without avenues for requesting advancement.

The movie honestly depicts the third and fourth class citizenship of black women. Read more

a child crying

A Message to the Margins: An Election Lamentation and Call to Action

a child crying

Tears

The United States of America has elected Donald Trump its next president. It’s sinking in as I type that.

We (the royal “we”) elected Donald Trump, a beloved child of the Most High God.

We elected a man who has painted immigrants, migrants, and refugees with the broad brushes of “rapist,” “drug dealer,” and “terrorist.” He has used ableist language in his stump speeches. He has generalized African-American communities as “hell.” He has called for Third-Reich-like treatment of Muslims in America. He has bragged about sexually assaulting women, even as a married man. He has called women vile names, insulted their natural bodily processes, and rated them based on how attractive he finds them (or not). He has eschewed the common gesture of transparency to the American people by refusing to release his tax returns. He has incited violence among his supporters by promising to pay their legal fees should they be arrested for assaulting anyone who protests at his rallies. He has been incendiary toward the LGBTQ community, people of color, Muslims, immigrants — you name the community, and he’s insulted them.

He is, again, a beloved child of God.

Yet, instead of categorically rebuking his behavior at the polls, we rewarded it: with the presidency. Read more

The author’s sons, Isaac and Micah

A Prayer for My Sons

The author’s sons, Isaac and Micah

The author’s sons, Isaac and Micah

A Prayer for My Sons:

God, protect them.
Protect them from ignorance of their privilege and the advantages they will have as white men.
Protect them from entitlement.
Protect them from being indoctrinated into a system of white, male violence against women and against people of color.
Protect them from the temptation to stay silent and complicit when they witness injustice.
Protect them from the illusion that we live in a post-racial society of equality and justice.
Protect them from insular living that might threaten their empathy or release them from righteous anger when any of your children are hurt or in need. Read more

#Baltimore: Reflections from a White, Feminist, Queer Freedom Fighter

Protesters in Baltimore

Protesters in Baltimore

I didn’t give it a second thought. Of course I would join my co-pastors and other folks from the Slate Project* in marching for justice for Freddie Gray. It was Saturday April 25th. People had been peacefully marching in protest throughout Baltimore all week. I was glad to have this opportunity to join them, to finally show up and move my feet and stand in solidarity with a movement that I believe in.

Social justice activism has been an important part of my faith since I was first introduced to liberation theology in college. In seminary, when I studied the social gospel and the civil rights movement, my theology became even more firmly rooted in the notion that Jesus came to set all people free from all forms of oppression. This is what I preach from the pulpit. This is what I teach in my parishes. But the experience of picking up a sign and marching with hundreds of other people to embody this gospel message would be a way to show what I believe with my life.

I considered my role in this movement to be an “ally.” I have been involved in the movement for equal civil rights for the LGBTQ community, but I am a part of that community. I am not a member of the black community. The experience of marching in Baltimore felt different and posed different challenges. Marching together with many different groups – each with its own agenda, ideology, and purpose in being there – was complicated. Sure, everyone would say, “At the end of the day we are all here for the same reason,” and then something about justice for Freddie Gray and an end to the systematic oppression of black people (if not in so many words). It felt good to be united together under those goals. But as we moved together down the streets of Baltimore, there were times I could not bring myself to join the voice of the crowd. “All night, all day, we will fight for Freddie Gray!” I thought to myself, “Will I? Will I fight for Freddie Gray?” “All night, all day, we will nonviolently resist for Freddie Gray!” just does not have the same ring to it. I began to wonder about how it would actually play out, to have all these different groups coming together. Could we unite around a common mission? Could we put aside our differences and stand together as one, while still authentically being who we were and not giving up our identities?

I wondered about my role in this struggle. On Monday night, as reports came in that police were facing off with protesters at Penn & North, I had several thoughts. “I should go,” I thought. “I should see if any of my pastor friends want to go and try to diffuse the escalation.” But I wondered if my presence—a young, white woman in a collar—would actually have that effect. The clergy who showed up and stood between the police and protesters were African American men. They were able to walk into that space and immediately receive the needed respect, authority, and assumption of shared experience to be accepted by the protestors, most of whom were also African American men, and by the predominantly male police force.

It became painfully obvious that I did not have already established relationships with the people or the clergy in the African American communities that were on the ground in this movement. I went to meetings. In some, I was overwhelmed by the atmosphere of sexism, particularly in the attitudes of the male clergy. I showed up to partner in the fight against oppression based on race. I did not expect those leading the fight to turn around and then discriminate against another group of people based on gender.

Later in the week, I went to meetings held by the newly formed Baltimore United and led by folks from Fellowship of Reconciliation. These meetings were smaller and much more diverse. The folks running these meetings did not hold up one or two particular leaders. They did not name men as the only “warriors” fit to be on the “front lines.” These meetings were run by men, women, queer, cis, young and old. At these meetings, it was clear we were all in this together. These were my people.

At one of these meetings, the Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, a fellow with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, said that they don’t need white folks to show up and be allies. Allies can duck in and out of the movement, because this is not their struggle. He said, “We don’t need allies. We need freedom fighters.” That is when I decided to stop considering myself an ally. This fight must be my fight. These children must be our children. This struggle must be our struggle. We must be one people, fighting for all our freedom.

We do not have the luxury to focus on one kind of oppression at a time. Sexism; heterosexism; racism; ageism; discrimination based on socioeconomic status, education, background, or criminal history – they are all interrelated. God calls us all to work for the liberation of all God’s people. Each of us has a role to play. I know that because of who I am, there are roles I can play in this movement and roles I cannot play. This is true for all of us. And this is the beauty of the diversity that God has created. We are not meant to play all the same roles; we are not meant to do all the same things. We are meant to discover our callings in relationship with one another and then help each other become the people God has created us to be.

We also must celebrate and lift up each role and not overly exalt any one person or group, nor denigrate any one person or group. This movement in Baltimore is made up of networks of hundreds of leaders and many, many people, who all are doing important and necessary work. We must discern together what our roles are and then play them boldly and with courage. For as we already know, God can and will use us all to transform the world.

 

On SCOTUS, PPACA, and Other Acronyms

I was wearing a hospital gown and trying to ignore the stirrups I would soon be placing my feet into when I found out about the Supreme Court’s health care decision. I found out about it by text (3 texts, actually) before I heard about it through the news. My boss (the head of a middle judicatory) texted, “Health care law affirmed! Hallelujah!” A seminary friend texted “Court rules 5-4 in Obama’s favor!” And my favorite text was the text from a Missionary Baptist colleague of mine in Oakland who wrote, “Yeah don’t you love it when the right thing prevails? Now let’s get single payer health care!”

I love that third one because I think of it as the “already but not yet” text. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or PPACA (nicknamed “Obamacare” by critics before people actually knew what the content would be), includes a few provisions you’ve probably already heard about. It allows young adults to stay on their parents’ insurance until they’re 26. It expands generic drug options. It increases the income level for people to qualify for Medicaid. By the year 2020, it seeks to eliminate the “Medicare gap.” It eventually eliminates pre-existing conditions as a reason people can’t get insurance. It eliminates spending caps by insurance companies, so that people will get as much care as they need in a year. It requires companies of over 50 people to provide health care to their full-time employees. And it requires people to purchase insurance starting in a couple of years. (The argument here is that if all barriers to accessing health care are removed, people need to participate in the health care system—otherwise people would only get health coverage once they got sick, breaking down the system that relies on people paying in when they don’t need services so that there are resources when people DO need services.)

So what would Jesus think about health care? As a pastor and preacher, what might I say about this from the pulpit? I live in a city with twice the national unemployment rate (and in some neighborhoods, that rate can reach 45%). I thought this would cause me to become more strident in the way I understand politics, justice and God. And yet, it often complicates my analysis, because there turn out to be more “least, last and lost” folks than I used to track. Perhaps that’s why the theological lens of the already and the not yet matters so much to me: there’s never a moment when we can solely dwell in the “We have arrived; God is here; we are delivered,” because simultaneously, we have sisters and brothers longing for and praying for deliverance. And even health care becomes an already-not-yet moment for me in this community.

So while my initial instinct was to dance around in my paper gown in the doctor’s office (which might have proved awkward had my doctor walked in right then), my enthusiasm has been tempered. I find myself caught between two stories which represent the already and the not yet of the PPACA. The first is a story a friend of mine posted on facebook.  A woman was in DC walking down the street when she heard a scream, and turned around to see a young woman jumping up and down with utter joy. “The Supreme Court upheld the health care legislation!” she shouted. “Did you work hard to get that legislation passed?” the passerby asked, trying to understand the level of enthusiasm. “No,” responded the young woman; “I just have lupus.” Already, there is hope for people with pre-existing conditions who could not get access to health care. The other story is shorter. “How are you feeling about the health care verdict,” I asked an activist friend of mine the day the news rolled out. “Eh,” she responded. When prompted, she said, “I’m just tired of liberals conveniently ignoring the people whose needs won’t get met. Today’s decision doesn’t provide health care to a single undocumented person, to a single Dream Act youth.”

Not yet have we created a system where the people who do the hardest work in our country, and without whom our economy would grind to a halt[1]cannot get the health care they need, even though migrant farm workers (exposed to high levels of pesticide) have high rates of cancer and day laborers are often placed in dangerous work environments that risk their wellbeing on a regular basis. In Oakland, I know of one organization, Street Level Health, that does not require some form of identification for the purpose of medical care, and they are not allowed to receive state or federal funds for that reason. I received the news of the Supreme Court decision while sitting in a paper gown in my OB-GYN’s office at Kaiser. When I checked in that day, I was told that since my annual cancer screening was preventative, I didn’t have a co-pay. (That’s part of the PPACA.) I have health care because my part-time job at the middle judicatory knew I needed it and made sure that was part of my contract, since my church can’t afford to cover me.

I already have much for which to be grateful. I’m better off than a lot of friends (and congregants and colleagues) whose health insurance is praying to God that they don’t get sick, because their jobs don’t or can’t provide the same insurance that I get, or because a pre-existing condition stops them from accessing affordable insurance. And I am so grateful to my Missionary Baptist colleague for allowing me to celebrate the already on behalf of my brothers and sisters whose lives will be safer and healthier and less fearful. (“Yeah don’t you love it when the right thing prevails?”) And I am even more grateful to him for reminding me of the not yet. (“Now let’s get single payer health care!”) What would Jesus think? I suspect he would think, “I am here not for the well but for the sick.” And he would promptly turn his attention to his brothers and sisters living in the not yet.


[1] if you don’t believe me, look at Alabama, whose anti-immigrant legislation last year resulted in 60% of their crops rotting on the vine due to labor scarcity: http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/alabama-law-drives-out-illegal-immigrants-but-also-has-unexpected-consequences/2012/06/17/gJQA3Rm0jV_story.html

Sandhya Jha is co-pastor at First Christian Church of Oakland, where she successfully convinced her congregation to give their building over to a collective of grassroots peace and justice organizations known as the Oakland Peace Center. While she dreams of creating a community based in the south African principle of Ubuntu or interdependence, her actual dreams this last week have all been about armed combat, Xena-style. Sandhya has dual master degrees in Divinity and Public Policy from the University of Chicago, and is ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).