A reflection on white people in Africa

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Kigali, Rwanda.

I am standing inside the Rwandan Genocide Memorial. In front of me are photos, telling the stories of genocides that have come before. Stories of Africa that have been long forgotten by the Western world.

Next to me is a young man, only a few years older than me. Rwanda runs through his veins and paints his skin a rich brown. He tells me he does not know whether he is Hutu or Tutsi, because his family is so afraid of the power the knowledge might hold, that the power of seeing difference could rekindle the hatred.

After the Belgians took present-day Rwanda from the Germans at the end of World War I, the previously unified people were divided when the Belgians preferred the Tutsis over the Hutus for having lighter skin. The Tutsis were given the power and weapons to rule. The Hutus overthrew the Tutsis in 1961, but the resentment and tensions that resulted would only continue to rise until they climaxed in 1994, wiping out approximately 800,000 people.

I look back to the wall. In front of me is a painting of the Herero and Nama Genocide. Taking place around 1905, the Germans overpowered the tribes in modern-day Namibia, coming into rule and making the native peoples slave to the desires of the Germans. Approximately 100,000 native people were killed, primarily from starvation and the poison Germans put in their wells.

I glance up at him. His face unreadable. “Europeans have brought a lot of pain to Africa,” I said slowly. “I wonder if Africa would be a less wounded place if we had never come.”

He ponders for a moment. “Even if Europeans had never come, sin would still exist in Africa.”

I nod, and we return to silence once more. But I still wonder, how can you not be furious about what we’ve done? How can you not resent me, coming here like a tourist to learn about the realities you cannot escape? How much blood has been poured out on this soil in the name of developing civilization?

We’ve killed millions of people to bring Western civilization to the new world, and we think we’ve done you a favor.

• • • • • • • • • •

Kampala, Uganda.

Kids walk up to us and drag a finger across our skin, looking to see if the white will wipe off. Some of the neighborhood children run up and hop in our arms unabashedly, while others hang back shyly. For some of the kids, we are the first time they have ever seen white people. Trash lines the streets, in sewers and at the bottom of ditches. Some of the kids do not own a pair of clothes that will cover their entire body.

I am embarrassed. Some of the people in our group are taking pictures of the kids, little strangers whose parents we do not know. This would be illegal in America, I think to myself. I am so haunted by this that I only take one picture, a little girl who hops on Logan’s back like a monkey and clings to him, grinning from ear to ear.

We leave an hour later, piling the 15 of us back into a van to bump down the dirt path back to the main road. I try to remind myself that some people must bear witness to the suffering of the world, that this is my calling, so we can work toward a world where people aren’t forced to live this way. It sounds hollow to my ears.

All I can hear is my heart, whispering poverty for one is a direct result of the abuse of power by someone else. And I know that we are the ones who should be found guilty for our crimes.

• • • • • • • • • •

Jinja, Uganda.

I am visiting my friend Erin. We sit on the porch swing, watching the kids run around the playground. She tells me that a high school group came earlier in the week as a part of their missions trip. Their trip consisted of four days touring Ugandan slums, and four days on a safari.

I know a girl in America who thought Africa was a country.

My lunch does flips in my stomach.

• • • • • • • • • •

Musanze, Rwanda.

I have been asked to give a sermon at a church. I agreed two weeks ago, but as I lay in bed the night before, my mind continues to hamster wheel. Who am I, an American university student, to tell them how to live well in Rwanda? Like I have it figured it out because I was born in America? My privilege tastes bitter in my mouth.

Earlier in the week, Jéan-Baptiste tells me that the Prosperity Gospel runs rampant through Rwanda. Most believe that God has blessed America because we call ourselves a Christian nation.

Every young Rwandan I meet tells me of their plans of coming to America. They ask me if it is easy to live here, and I swallow, not sure how to tell them that it will be so much harder for them than it ever was for me. That they will be forced to prove themselves in ways that I never had to for being American-born and white. I stumble over my words as I try to explain to my 26-year-old bus driver that few people in America will care that he is Rwandan, because he will be black first, African second, Rwandan last.

• • • • • • • • • •

If all I return with is thankfulness for what I have and to “never take what I have for granted”, I will have failed. I knew this before I left.

So instead, the questions I return laden with are much heavier ones: in a restored earth as God intended, what does distribution of wealth look like? How can I, one single individual, make steps toward bringing that vision to earth? What does it look like for me to steward my power well?

These are not questions I will find simple answers for. But I will have failed every person I met on my journey if I don’t try.

• • • • • • • • • •

I closed my sermon with a prayer, and when I finished I opened my eyes and scanned the room. In a moment of conviction, I put away the bullet points and spoke with every ounce of my being.

“I promise you that before I die, I will answer to all of you for how I chose to spend my wealth while I was here on earth.”

I promise that I try to do you justice.

I promise that I will try not to let you down, you who are the very least of these.

Whoever is last shall be first in the kingdom of heaven.

These are the promises I made in that little church in Musanze, Rwanda. These are the promises that I will spend the rest of my life trying to keep.

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Missing in Action: Where Are You, Church? A guest post

June 17, 2015 was just an ordinary Wednesday. When twelve people attended Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church that night, not one had a clue it was their last. They kissed their families goodbye, grabbed their keys and started their engines.

The shots rang out across the nation as the nine fell, the nine to match the Little Rock Nine, nine taking a stand before nine fell. Five more than the bombing of the four little girls at 16th Street Baptist Church in Montgomery in 1963.

Those of us fortunate to have pastors who are sensitive to these things mentioned them in our prayers, said their names one by one, and prayed for strength and courage and kindness. Our country’s president spoke boldly about America and its pain, these chains of racism that still shackle our feet.

America, for the first time in nearly 50 years, is tentatively opening the door to this conversation once more.

And the majority of white churches across America remain silent.

 

Read the rest over here.

I wish I was black: on racial inequality + white guilt

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Hi. My name is Hannah. I am a white, young, middle class woman living in the Midwest. And for the last 6 months I have been wishing I could be black.

Yeah, I recognize that’s a super weird thing to say. You’d think in light of Ferguson no one would envy black people. It’s a dangerous way to be born these days. But as our country becomes increasingly aware of racial tension, I’m wishing I could be black. Because as awful as they have it in our country, I am still just as lazy as ever.

A privileged white person who would rather be oppressed than do the tough work of advocating for equality.

My university hosted our National Student Leadership Conference last weekend, and Christena Cleveland came and spoke about inequality. (If you’ve never read anything by her, make sure you do because she is AMAZING.) It was moving. And even though I’ve learned so much in the last 10 months about race and what privilege is and the current state of our Western culture, I’d rather point fingers and cast blame at the general white population than recognize my own part in allowing privilege to still exist. Because every single white person who doesn’t actively try to end white privilege is participating in its existence. And that knowledge is convicting, and difficult, and HECK NO I don’t want to have to deal with that. I don’t want to be that white girl who won’t stop talking about racial inequality, because why do I even care so much? I’m not black.

But that’s the point. I’m not black. This is not just a problem for black people. Whenever a minority is oppressed, it is the responsibility of the OPPRESSORS to change – not the oppressed. So it’s not a black people problem at all – it’s a white people problem. Race is a white person’s problem, because we’re the ones responsible for changing it.

And shouldn’t we, the People of the Cross, be leading the charge?

This week I had one of the best coffee dates I’ve ever had on our college campus with one of the funniest, most genuine women I know. It’s one of those friendships that has been so long in the making that I apologized for not asking her sooner. I said it so earnestly that she laughed, but we both knew it was true. And we talked about racism and authenticity and silence and choosing to be kind over “nice”.

And I am learning every day what it means to be responsible for my place in this country, this town, among these friends and in this internet world with you, my friend, reading this.

And I hope you ask those questions too: What am I responsible for? In this town? In this community? In this country? In this world? What am I responsible for changing? What am I responsible for giving? And don’t wait until you’re older or married or wealthy to do those things.

Do them now. Because there is an urgency to equality that can’t afford to wait until your life has fallen into neat little rows. Because people will die for this while you have the privilege to wait until you can pay rent. And that’s not really a fair toss-up.

So we who fight for equality will continue to do so until we lay in our graves. And this is the work we take up, the cross we carry, for those who do not have the power that we do. That even though only 13% of the U.S. population is black, they make up 26% of people killed by police in 2014. That the city of Cleveland decided a dead 12-year-old black boy is responsible for his death because he didn’t avoid being shot, and the police force is in blind support of the officers who did it. And so many more that the list would take up an entire blog post by itself.

I hope you’ll fight with me. Thanks for doing that tough work. And I hope we’ll carry each other, when we’re weary and frustrated and discouraged. Because that’s what community is for, after all.

I am Jacob: wrestling with God

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We gathered on Monument Circle in the dripping rain, hoods pulled up over our heads, bright umbrellas popping up like daisies. There was something electric about the atmosphere, buzzing with the passion we all shared for change. You don’t go to a protest if you don’t care about change.

And so we marched. And I found myself listening to their chant, the sound of determination over and over. “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” Was repeated until it branded itself into my mind.

I find myself here, drawn to the passion, still not sure what we’re begging for, but knowing that the pressure will give one way or the other and I know where I want the rocks to land.

–––––

I have found myself inexplicably drawn to different people from the Bible in my life. I have been David fighting his Goliath, Gideon as he doubted his worthiness, Ruth as she laid herself vulnerable before a man she trusted. I have been Peter screaming over the waves, Noah as he prepared for rain, Mary as she treasured up all these things in her heart.

But this season. This season is different.

I have always known what I believed. I have never been one to hang around with uncertainty for very long. I like to know what I want. And for the very first time in my life, the world has been grayer than I have ever known it to be and I don’t know to do. The uncertainty makes me feel shifty and conflicted.

And I think about Jacob. The leader of God’s people. Israel. The man who wrestled with God. He and I, we wrestle with what it all means, with the problem and the solution and the how do we bring change for those who feel unheard? What is the right answer here? What do I do if I’m wrong? And what do I do if we’re right?

I see people on both sides of this fight that I deeply admire. I have seen people I respect up to their ears in bias, and others so heated with the anger of injustice that they couldn’t see straight. And I knew I didn’t fall in either party. I was going to have to pave my own way.

And so I march anyway, even if I’m not sure, because people are hurting and that’s enough. That’s a good reason to support them. I can’t afford to wait until I know it all, because I know the most important thing: black lives are always going to matter.

–––––

We marched with the people, John and Zack and I, until we turned to each other with conviction and John said: we need to go back. We need to be at our university tonight. We need to start this conversation in a place where we can see it through. And Zack and I nodded, knowing our voices were needed most where we were known the best.

And so we went back. And we showed up. And we stood, holding a banner – some of us white, some of us black – proclaiming that black life matters. And no matter what happens with each individual case, no matter who happens to be responsible in Ferguson or Staten Island, black life is always going to matter. Always.

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photo cred (above): Logan Evans