How My Friend Woke Up

With every mention of the change in her apartment complex, the sly skirting of any true honest words like African-Americans or black people, choosing rather to imply that things were “just going downhill,” I had cringed and sought to find a path towards understanding. For months she had shared the concerns of many white’s with limited exposure to actual people of color and excess involvement with internet sites and biased news, societal depictions of bad guys in black so pervasive she didn’t even realize her perceptions were tainted. I wondered aloud if these kids she worried were doing drugs had shown evidence of that or were just skateboarding like the other boys? The little ones who played without supervision, how much did she watch her child outside, how much did any of the other parents? Blessedly her boy played, shared snacks and raced about the parking lot with all of the kids, regardless of skin color, more interested in Pokemon battles and squirt gun fights where he is almost always the one who gets shot because he loves to fall down dramatically.

“I was wrong,” she said to me yesterday. Huge important words that we all must be willing to say, to speak out loud to another person who will hear us and not let us go peacefully back into our ignorance but say yes, child you were and now lets go forward, one more step. The horrific events of Charlottesville and the aftermath of a leader who cannot find a unifying message of condemnation for hate to bring hope and healing has at the very least brought this young woman further along on her own journey. She told me that she worried when she let her child go outside, what could happen when he played with these children of other colors. She didn’t mean to be racist, but her own history of substance abuse was adding prejudice, coloring and distorting who the bad guys were. Missing the irony that she herself had once been the very person she now feared, she fell into the us vs. them trap. No more, she vowed. She asked for ways to gain more information, she wanted some way for a mom at home to be active yet safe. Her big steps in attitude gave me the hope the president failed to provide.

“I know now that while I feared for my son to go outside, they fear everyday. They are probably afraid of me!! They fear everywhere. I was afraid of them, they are always afraid, wondering what could happen to their children at school, on the bus, who might say something or do something. My God, that is horrible!” I listened, I cried, I offered support as she shed her own hate like the robes and shields and white hoods we have all worn to some extent. White privilege allows us to choose when to get into the battle, when to go back home to our safe neighborhoods and schools and return to our lives, until the next rally or vigil or sense that the violence might be reaching into our spaces. After all, how many of us were truly outraged when Philando Castile was killed? Was it the loss of Eric Garner? Michael Brown? Freddie Gray? Laquan McDonald? Alton Sterling? My God, wasn’t the killing of Tamir Rice enough to wake us? Yet no, it required the streets to be crawling with proud young men spewing hate, unfurling flags of bigotry and taking the life of a young white woman, threatening a synagogue, for America to grasp the horror that has permeated communities of color for decades. Still, collective awakening from comfortable illusions means we are now joining with our sisters and brothers, tagging in with sheepish faces knowing we hold guilt and our own shame and yet must act or accept more of the same, an unconscionable choice. What grace we are given, those of us who come so late to the game, and yet still we are invited in, we have to come in, we hold the power of privilege. So I listened and shared books and action steps and carried this newly woken friend along as she wept her shame into the phone.

Accepting our role in voting for a man who was supposed to bring jobs but instead has wrought divisions and fear, facing exactly what it means to be free, the responsibility required of us all to ensure that very freedom reaches everyone within our borders, regardless of color or ethnicity or gender or who we love, we are waking up, one white American at a time. Integrated apartment complexes where children of all colors swap a Jigglypuff for a Pikachu and race on bikes long into a summer evening, where the only hoods worn are those of batman and spiderman as shouts of little boys fill the air, this is how we ensure a different future.  And phone calls to someone who hears us say we were wrong, this is the first step. Many steps will follow, but we have to begin with this brave honest self-evaluation. Our future depends on it.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

 MARTIN NIEMÖLLER

Unfurl

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.