Thursday, May 13, 2010

Race and the Emergent Church

So, I'm a little late in letting you all know about this but remember when I wrote about an interview I gave to a couple of reporters?

I have two responses, maybe three: one is to the content of the article, which may or may not be mixed with feedback from my Guatemalan-American friend from church, Jhonathan and finally, some meta talk about the process of being quoted in a major national magazine.

The article on race and the emergent church was published in Sojourners May 2010 edition. You can find the article here under the title, "Is the Emerging Church for Whites Only?" although in the ensuing online conversation, my favorite alternate title was suggested by Eliacin Rosario-Cruz: "Some color is not enough color in the Emerging/Emergent Church."

On that note, let's start here: a characterization of the emergent church as all-white is wrong. My church as an example is about 25% people of color. A picture of a box of uniform white crayons tells members of my church family that they are persona non grata and I will not let anyone do that without challenging them. By setting up a straw man argument that the default is white that needs color added to it, rather than acknowledging the color that already exists, the article disempowers the very people it claims to be advocating for. It disempowers Jhonathan and Noe and Mirari and LaDonna and Nkosi and Andy and Dev by denying that they even exist in the first place and this is happening from a major Christian publication. This assumption put forth in order to write the proof to convince people that Emergence is just an example of privilege self-perpetuating steals my friends' identities as both people of color and emergent, without ever getting to know them.

(By the way, ignorance can't be claimed here. I pointed out this demographic fact about my church to the authors and I introduced them to Alise Barrymore, an African-American pastor of a multi-ethnic emergent church. Although they quoted her, they did not mention that she was a person of color.)

So, I won't participate in the discussion within this incendiary frame. If we can agree to a frame that acknowledges the true starting point of the emergent movement, then I am happy to continue this important conversation and I appreciate Dr. Rah for bringing it to the attention of a larger audience.

My friend from church, Jhonathan, subscribes to Sojourners and when he stumbled across my name in the article, he texted me to see if we could sit down over coffee to talk about it. Before I talked with him, I would have protested Professor Rah's fixation on book contracts and speaking gigs. Many of the online responses point out that a majority of the work being done in the emergent movement is not by the writers and the speakers but by everyday people opening themselves to God to be transformed so that they can do the work of bringing justice to this world. (And many of these folks are people of color.) I often quote my pastor when she said that our church would have more non-white participants when we become the type of people who have more non-white friends.

However, Jhonathan thinks that the amount of attention that article authors focus on systems of oppression such as publishing and conference gigs is appropriate. He spent some time explaining to me that our emergent movement needs to be concerned with how we are perceived. He said that as a person of color, our church feels like home to him but it is also sometimes uncomfortable. He overcomes that discomfort but knows that there are lots of people of color out there who won't make the effort if we just sit back and wait for them. This was eye-opening for me.

The sentiment is echoed in a post by my friend Julie Clawson on power and the church, when she says
I’ve also encountered those that approach power openly [rather than hierarchically] who tell me, “step-up, we’d love to hear your voice.” It took me a long time to actually trust those voices and to take them up on it, mostly because I didn’t fully understand that there were people who truly did hold power in an open hand. I expected there to be hoops to jump through, votes to be taken, and popularity contest to be won, but when it came right down to it, none of that stuff actually existed. I think this is where the emerging conversation is most often misunderstood.

Jhonathan's point is that while Julie overcame her learned helplessness, other women and members of oppressed groups need to see -in authors and conference speakers- that their kind are actually welcome. I'm willing to back down from my earlier thought based on Jhonathan's willingness to challenge me.

So, we have a little bit of a dilemma. We can't just sprout people of color just to make other people of color feel welcome. (But don't forget that there are some there already.) It's actually part of a larger conversation that my church has all the time about how to empower folks to muscle through feeling uncomfortable so that they can welcome others both on a racial level and a regular-old introverted or socially awkward level. We don't have any answers: we just keep praying and experimenting and cheering each other on.

Still, it would be nice to have a toolbox to use for how to make the mechanics of our services more welcoming or how to go out and proactively invite people of color in an authentic way. Someone should edit a book of essays about that, right? If that person is white, he or she should co-edit with a person of color. Even better, all essays should be written in teams that include at least one non-white partner. How cool would that be?

On the topic of the experience of being quoted, I really like being in conversation with Professor Rah -he quoted me in book a couple of years ago, too- but I would not call his article comprehensive of the subject. I was surprised by which parts of the 90-minute interview he left out of the article and when I spoke with other contributors, I found that they too felt like he was pulling quotes that agreed with the point he wanted to make rather than using his research to generate a theory. Christianity Today published an article on race and evangelicalism recently and I thought they did a much better job of representing a variety of viewpoints. They are a more conservative publication.

However, I want to make sure that I point out that Dr. Rah's assistant was meticulous in making sure that the quote they did use accurately represented beliefs I hold and I really appreciate that diligence.

On a final note, I want to draw attention to the response my friend Mike Clawson wrote, entitled, "I Didn't Learn It From White Males" that points out an additional level of the conversation beside who the celebrities are and who the practitioners are: theology. He reminds us that some powerful theology has been developed by people of color and those people are who initiated him on his path to Emergence. This is another reminder that to have the conversation within a frame that claims that the current state of the emergent church is colorless will distract from the picture within. Dr. Rah is right to continue to bring up the issue of race in the emergent church, as well as to push other movements within the Christian movement to do the same. Racial reconciliation is hard and necessary work, with some great voices speaking into the process. I am convinced that the Kingdom of Heaven is totally mixed racially and I don't know how to recreate that here but I believe that if I keep following God and talking with God's children, I'll be able to do my part in mending what has been broken, if only a little.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Yes, Dear

At church this past Sunday, a friend was clearing my place after dinner and when I gave a friendly instruction, he joked, "Yes, dear." We all laughed and he told us all that he had been well-trained by his ex-wife. We laughed a little more and he said, "No, I'm serious, she was like a Howitzer. The only thing I could do was say, 'Yes, dear.'" Then, he walked away and our conversation continued, altered a little by his interjection. Personally, I am always a little uncomfortable laughing at jokes that reinforce those gender stereotypes pf the overbearing wife and the hapless husband. My friend has great comedic timing and I love him, so I do laugh. However, I've shared before how much I fear becoming the Dear of "Yes, dear." These kinds of jokes hit a nerve because I know that I have the power of a Howitzer and I know that out of insecurity, I sometimes bring it to bear on Jacob. So, I told a story to my friends at church to redeem the story of my friend's ex-wife. Who knows, maybe she was just like me? Maybe she feared what would happen if she gave up total control of the influences on her life, even over little things like the food she prepared or the home she kept. So, in empathy for this ex-wife, I told a story about my experience. I told my friends that Jacob and I have been fighting a lot about food lately. I told them that I like good food and Jacob doesn't. (I also have pretty good comedic timing.)

So, I set up the story: On Saturday, I made cookies for our friends' party. I used the Cook's Illustrated recipe for perfect chocolate chip cookies that involves browning the butter and hand-whisking the ingredients. You have to whisk for 30 seconds, then let it sit for 3 minutes and repeat that 3 times. I really played up the labor involved to make the punchline dazzle. I offered a cookie to Jacob hot out of the oven and offered to get him a glass of milk. I warned him that he only got one since the recipe only made 24 cookies and I wanted to make sure there was enough for the party and I didn't want him to be disappointed later when he couldn't have a second. When he said he wasn't ready for a cookie, I was cool with that but because soft, warm cookies are so good, I offered again when the second batch came out and the third batch came out, just in case. The cookies turned out perfectly: crisp on the outside and chewy on the inside, even once they were cool.

An hour or so later, Jacob wandered into the kitchen and ate his cookie. I asked him if it was, indeed, perfect and he agreed that it was good.

"I like them softer, though."

When I explained that they WERE soft because the butter had been melted and the size of the cookies created the perfect tension for rising, he asked if I couldn't have just taken them out of the oven sooner. I am not proud to admit that I went ballistic. I had worked hard on these cookies and he wanted some shitty under-baked mall cookie? Or worse, he wanted something filled with chemicals like super-market Soft Batch?

I shouted. I cried. I crumbled up a cookie with my fists to show him how fucking soft it was, leaving only 21 left for the party.

I told this story to our church friends with a tone of incredulousness at my own overreaction and self-deprecating humor. They roared with laughter in appreciation and horror. They asked how Jacob responded. I said he was perfect: that he held my rigid body and tried to calm me down. That he pointed out that this was probably not about cookies. That he hugged me again. That he kept insisting that he had a right to express a preference while still trying to soothe me. That he never said, "Yes, dear."

I don't like abusing Jacob' patience like this. I fear I am damaging us somehow. And I keep trying to fix it but I keep failing.

I considered stopping the story there. I'll be honest, though, I like to control how other people think of me and I didn't want them to think poorly of me upon further reflection during the car-ride home. Also, a small part of me wanted to be totally honest with these members of my spiritual community.

So, I told them (like I'm telling you) that recently I approached my therapist about this. I admitted that don't like being this person and that I fear that this person will push Jacob away. I want to be a person that makes space for the needs (and preferences) of others. I do not want to be a person who uses her weapons to mold the will of others to my own. As I told Jacob later, he is amazing and this inspires me to try to be amazing, too.

At this point, another friend interrupted and said, "You seem to be the last person I would expect to be in therapy."

I smiled and said, "That's how you know it's working." I have been with the same counselor since my divorce and it has made all the difference. I usually see him twice a month now, but with this new spiritual agenda, we will be seeing each other once a week. He said to me, "This is not going to be fun" and so far, he is right.

When they tell you that marriage is hard work, I think this is what they mean. Are you willing to take the time and the energy to become a new person? Are you willing for the parameters of that new personality to be formed around someone who is not you? It seems like this is the work it takes to have a sustainable marriage. I'm sure it's easier for some couple than it is for Jacob and I and maybe for some couples it's even harder. That's OK.

At a wedding last night, the couple asked my friend to read Khalil Gibran's On Marriage, which encourages a couple to "let there be spaces in your togetherness,/ And let the winds of the heavens dance between you." I absolutely agree with that but at the same time, people with personalities like mine (and maybe other types, too) need to err a little in the other direction and learn how to let their partners get closer, to allow those spaces to become less than arm's length.

After this poem that moved both of us, I leaned over and told Jacob that it was OK that I liked good food and that he didn't. He protested a little, not knowing me well enough yet to know that I was repeating a joke that is not very nice at its core while being emotionally moved in order to remove the venom of the joke. In that moment, it was so clear to me that my love for this man and his love for me was more important than our differing preferences for food. Art often uses juxtapositions of contradictory or unexpected images in order to communicate a message about one or both of the objects. I was immersed in this huge awareness of this bond between us and the juxtaposition of that feeling and my joke communicated that the joke was tiny and ridiculous and NOT TRUE. Unfortunately, since emotions are internal and words are external, I was the only one who received the communication. I smiled at Jacob's protests and apologized and told him I didn't mean it because all he could hear was the repetition of the joke.

Man, is that a microcosm of intimate relationships or what? Every word spoken is surrounded by unseen feelings, layers of associated memories, and sub-conscious sabotage that often makes us say something other than the truth we should be saying. These invisible and inaudible inflections make our speech also unintelligible to people if they need to know any nuance beyond the literal meaning of the words, like the difference between French spoken in France and the patois spoken in the former colonies of France. It is the work of the lifetime to learn enough about another person to truly understand what they are trying to say.

Jacob is worth that effort. In fact, I am excited at the prospect of knowing and being known. I also think the journey will be highly satisfying and, in fact, fun. I will become a different person in order to hear him better. I'm sure that he is changing for me, as well.

There is a Mary Chapin Carpenter song that goes, "It's too much to expect but it's not too much to ask." I think this is exactly the posture we must take toward one another. When I expect him to agree with me and try to manipulate him to do so, I become the Dear in "Yes, dear." If he does the same to me, he becomes a chauvinist. Neither archetype is appealing. However, if Jacob asks me to make space for him in my daily activities such as cooking, I can make the choice to become a person who lets him in and cares for him. This is the type of person I want to be. I am grateful that Jacob continues to inspire me to be that amazing person.