Bad Food to Good Friends

It should have been the easiest meal I have made for a church dinner, only cooking for 50ish people. It should have been an opportunity to make something with the new spring vegetables and lighter appetites in mind. Delightful salads, an enticing chicken entree, oh the dessert I should have been able to concoct. The hours I would have spent perusing recipes and considering options, then shopping for the best ingredients to fit my budget and then the prep, I love the prep. I so enjoy preparing meals for those I serve at church, a means for me to express my joy in caring for them.  It should have been like this but wasn’t. I was recreating a meal served in prison before we screened the documentary 13th to those expecting a real dinner. Everything was about this meal was wrong, difficult, against how I serve.

About a month ago, our group finished reading ‘The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander and wanted to do something, wanted to take action. We agreed to watch the movie together and invite others to join us, I volunteered to organize the evening with our group leader Suzanne. As she and I met, I wondered with her about serving a meal before, a re-creation of a meal served in prison and she embraced the idea immediately. We knew that we couldn’t tell anyone, they had to be caught off guard to get the full experience, to feel the shock. We did research, printed out information from The Marshall Project that included pictures of real meals served in institutions across the country. Still, as the date drew near, we realized that we were being called to do something incredibly different, something completely outside of ourselves. We were being asked to shut down, not care, do the least, the littlest. It was powerful for us, just in the preparation, we could only pray that it had such an impact on those who dined with us.

I shopped not looking for the finest but the cheapest way to make the least tasty meal, nutrition was not even a factor. We settled on a meal of rice with peas and chicken, beans, two slices of white bread and two pats of butter, a cup of juice and a slice of cake, just like one of the pictures we found.  At each turn, we had to remember not to add seasoning, not to dress it up, no chicken broth in the rice, no homemade icing for the cake. Canned chicken, canned peas. Serving the meal without concern about temperature, trays left on the counter to get cooled, no friendly smiles as my friends walked up with surprised faces. “Juice is on the tray, grab your silverware, eat in the sanctuary.” We handed out only spoons, no knives to spread the cold butter on the white bread, no wheat or fancy loaves cut for these people I usually love through food. I felt awful, I knew they would leave hungry.

Carol, who came to help prepare the meal, and Suzanne were experiencing the same conflict as I, the realization that we were in our church, serving our people and doing so meant we had to be cold.  Normally during one of the meals I prepare for church, I wander about the tables and folks are laughing and talking, joyful sounds fill the sanctuary as communion is shared. This night the tables were quiet and solemn, I don’t know if everyone was rethinking their choice of attending or wondering if I had lost the ability to cook. Before each participant reached our counter to pick up their tray, they passed the table with pictures of real trays that inmates are served, thus I like to think they were in deep thought about what others are experiencing every day in prisons across the country.

We watched the documentary and had little time to process it after, breaking into smaller groups to answer 3 questions before we left for the night. The power of the movie is so great, we could have stayed for hours, we needed more time to hear each other and listen as those who were just learning about mass incarceration for the first time expressed disbelief and outrage. We didn’t have any time to ask about their experience of the meal portion, whether it added to the evening, how they felt receiving that tray. I wonder how their perception of the tray changed from before the movie to after. I trust this group, a very thoughtful collection of friends who care about others, that they were moved by it all.

Saturday evening late, just hours before our screening and cooking and serving, another black child was killed at the hands of a police officer. Jordan Edwards, a 16 year old black child was killed by a police while in a car driving away from a party, for no other reason that I can surmised than that he was black. He joins Amadou Diallo, Manuel Loggins Jr, Ronald Madison, Kendra James, Sean Bell, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Alton Sterling, and hundreds of others. Hundreds, is that number enough to make us act? Too many that we no longer believe it is real? Have we become cold and shutdown our feelings so that we don’t pay attention to the rising numbers of black and brown people who are being arrested and locked away in systematic racial profiling, cold and unfeeling because it doesn’t touch us in our sanctuaries with tasty meals and mostly white faces? So Suzanne and Carol and I did something outrageous and cold and it hurt our souls with the hopes that maybe the souls of those eating and watching might be further damaged just a bit as well. Until we all hurt for those in prison, they will stay there forgotten. Until we all hurt for those who are targeted by a war on drugs that creates profits for a few and decimates communities of the black and brown, we are disappointing our Jesus who asked us to go see Him in prison.

I made the worst meal ever and served it up on little trays to people I love and respect. I am haunted by the silence in the room, the faces of those who collected their food will stay with me. I pray we are all moved by this beginning awareness of social justice that Suzanne is bring to our congregation. I pray that someday those trays are a rarity, that news reports of another child killed after leaving a party are an ugly part of our history. We can all leave such events and grab a pizza on the way home, leaving the horror of the experience if we desire. Or maybe, just maybe, we can let our stomachs rumble and our hearts ache throughout the night as we listen to what God is calling us to do for his vulnerable children. It may mean we have to do really hard things, harder than making a disgusting meal to serve our friends.

 

Can We Be Trusted?

I just finished a book study at church, weeks of being stretched and pulled and pushed into uncomfortable places. This was no ordinary study, no “let’s explore our faith and dig a bit deeper”study. We were led by a member of our staff who has a heart for social justice and was on her 3rd round of teaching the book as we read “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander. What began with a group who was often skeptical ended with a call to arms, a search for ways to become active. This book made a difference, these words changed us all.  A church consisting of almost exclusively white, upper middle-class, highly educated people who love Jesus and had little understanding of white privilege, who knew nothing of the systemic, intentional devastation on the black community that the War on Drugs has created, we gathered each Sunday evening to explore what we had read and challenge what we have been taught. Jesus surely is nodding, saying, “Yes, children, yes. This, see all of my children.”

The premise of the book is that the War on Drugs has targeted black and brown people, criminalizing addiction, creating a profitable industry of prisons, rewarding local police  with federal dollars for every increasing arrests, dismantling 4th Amendment rights, and most of all, selling it all to the American people by creating the image of the black criminal. I won’t debate any of this with you, read the book, Michelle Alexander does an excellent job of backing up her assertions with facts, real facts, not the alternative ones we are being fed these days. I understand if you are skeptical, any of us were at first as well. Incredulous, even. We are educated, remember. How could we have fallen for this? How did we miss this? We are aware, many of us are liberal leaning, we think we are open to seeing racial injustice. We still missed it. We got sucked in and got complacent. We thought having a black president meant things were better. Better is not an indicator, better is relative. Like between contractions, you might feel better but the big ones are coming, it is going to hurt like hell. America, we need to hurt to fix this mess.

As a fifty plus woman, I have been taught to say we don’t see color, that we are striving to be colorblind. Is this familiar? We aren’t supposed to talk about race, that makes us racist. Michelle Alexander says this: “The colorblindness ideal is premised on the notion that we, as society, can never be trusted to see race and treat each other daily fairly or with genuine compassion.” As followers of Jesus, does that not strike a blow? I can’t stop reading that line. We can’t be trusted to SEE each other. I write constantly about my own brokenness and search for grace, about taking off the mask and allowing God to meet me in my vulnerable places. I ask to be seen as a child of God, but I have subscribed to a philosophy that teaches me not to SEE black and brown people.  I am convicted by this line. She goes on to say:”A commitment to color consciousness, by contrast, places FAITH in our capacity as humans to show care and concern for others, even as we are fully cognizant of race and possible racial differences.”  Yes, faith, trust, belief, that we are taught each week in church to see everyone as a child of God, and to behave accordingly. By pretending we don’t see color, we are pretending we don’t see what happens to people of color also. I never would have imagined admitting to my own racism, but I have found that my search for the holy grail of colorblindness has led me to a wicked chalice of racial indifference. This is a horrible admission. I can do nothing but begin today to correct the path and acknowledge that I was wrong.

Ultimately, as a Jesus follower, I am called, we all are called to keep seeking truth, to push away the lies and distortions and help our neighbors get what we have and then share some more. Who is my neighbor though? We have been able to insulate ourselves in our safe suburbs where we find mirror images of ourselves, so easy to love our neighbors. I think Jesus meant something else, was casting a wider net. I know He is asking more of me and I am listening, yes, I am listening. The battles over immigration occurring right now surely are not pleasing our Jesus, are the next wave of prisoners to fill the costly buildings being emptied a bit by softer laws on marijuana use. I can’t unsee what is being sold to me as a safety issue, as a threat to my security. I know now how this goes down, who loses and who wins big. Our Jesus was brown. Would you let Him in to our country, would you fear Him today? Ask yourself why and question where the information is coming from and who stands to gain from teaching us to fear people of color.

This book is not an easy read, is best done in a group with someone to hold you accountable and listen as you struggle. But if you don’t have a group, read it anyway. If you think I am crazy, really read it to prove me wrong. If you are scared to read it because you think I may be right, read it anyway. If you want to make America great again, read this and tell me when it was great for ALL Americans. We have some work to do and it is going to hurt like hell. As it should. People of color have been feeling the pain for far too long. Do you dare join me and the others who have read this book and found a new path towards Jesus that includes dealing with our own leper colonies, our own outcasts, that shows we are held captive, we all are imprisoned by racism? I want to be trusted to see all people and treat them fairly and with genuine compassion. That is my Holy Grail. Will you join me? You have to know up front it is going to hurt.

Bubbles

My Plum and I love to play with bubbles, we make huge ones that float around us, giant rainbow colored orbs that shine with drippy soap as they are carried away on the breeze. Plum chases them, delights in bursting them with his stick or sword or ninja kick. Maybe he is on to something that I have forgotten: bubbles are beautiful but must be broken. I always secretly root for them to escape his reach, bypass the branches, I want them to pass freely into the sky. Sometimes bubbles enclose us, surround us in bands of bright colors reflecting the light, hiding the darkness all around.

The Sunday night book group at church is breaking my heart. I knew going into it that I would be vulnerable, that my heart would be on the line. The seriousness of the topic, how closely it fit my own reality, I knew it was dangerous. Still, I felt called, pushed, to sign my name on the clipboard, I felt prodded to buy the book and say I would join. “The New Jim Crow”  by Michelle Alexander is risky stuff, threatening our happy bubbles, perilous to our long-held beliefs. For those of us well acquainted with the criminal justice system, it is even more painful.

I finished grad school about 25 years ago, I haven’t read serious works since, not full books on social justice by intelligent authors. I read snippets, I follow news. I live life and experience events but have not stayed up on scholarly readings. This is my confessional, where I come clean about my own intelligent ignorance. Much like when my son showed signs of substance abuse but I knew that I had already covered all of those bases, I was too smart to let that happen in my own family, I missed what was in front of me. My knowledge was not sufficient to understand the greater issue, my response was not great enough to halt the problem. My bubble kept me from seeing what was really happening to/with my son, until it all burst, our life snagged on the jagged edges of addiction, destroyed by the criminal justice system once again.

Getting comfortable in our own bubbles is dangerous, as the current national situation can attest. The seriousness of the racial divide is irrefutable, once the bubble of denial is popped, the soul cleansing can begin. I don’t want to know what I am reading, I don’t want to be aware that politicians I have loved are complicit in this current divide. How much soap will it take to clean us all? Will we ever be washed free of this ugliness? I don’t have the answers to fix such a horrific systemic problem but I know the first step is breaking those bubbles, those beautiful alluring floating orbs that can calm my mind and distract me from what is true and what is real. Indeed, blisters are bubbles as well, patches of skin rubbed until the skin reacts angrily. A burn that shows the damage has occurred, attention is required. Bubbles, blisters, mass incarceration, racial caste.  My soul is aching and my memories are fresh. The first step in healing.

Seriousness