My second conversion: how I started caring about racial justice


December 2014. The one holding the “M” is yours truly.

I am thirteen years old.

Before this point in my life, I have had little to no experience with people who are not white. I am vaguely aware they exist, but in my white bubble of Chicago suburbia, black and latino people live in cities fifteen miles away, where people break into gas stations and wearing your hat sideways is a gang sign. I have never had a friend or acquaintance who was not white.

I have talked my parents into joining a volunteer foster care program, where we receive children from 0-18 years old whose parents only want to give them up temporarily without losing legal custody. I have always wanted a younger sibling, and I see this as my opportunity to have the experience.

Our first placement is a four-year-old boy and a one-year-old girl. They are siblings, and speak very little English. Their mother is an immigrant from Mexico. We have them for one week before we return them to their mother, who lives in a trailer park in the southwest side of Chicago. After we drop them off, my mother cries the whole way home.

I am fifteen years old.

By now we are on our second placement, a beautiful little boy who would live with us on and off for the next four years. His laugh is deep like an old man with a beer belly, and he has thigh rolls the size of donuts. He loves bananas and dancing. He is the third of five children. When I tell some friends this, one says, “Hasn’t she ever heard of birth control?” And the others murmur in agreement. I know this is wrong, but I don’t know why, so I don’t correct her.

I am seventeen years old.

I have recently discovered feminism, and the more I learn about continued injustices in the U.S. towards women, the more angry I feel. I fall in love with Maya Angelou. I hear about the death of Trayvon Martin in an echo, the whispering of mothers as they sew costumes for the musical I am in, discussions overheard at sleepovers between parents of friends.

“Break my heart for what breaks yours” becomes my daily whisper to God, a plea. I have no idea what I am asking for.

I am nineteen years old.

I am starting my sophomore year of college when I see my Facebook newsfeed flooded with news of Michael Brown and Tamir Rice. I don’t know what to say. I see photos of men with their hands up in front of police, who are wearing helmets and holding shields, armed for battle. I go on Twitter and see story after story of attacks, tears, bruises. People of color are screaming to be heard. I realize that I cannot call myself a Christian if I look away.

So I start reading. It begins with a google search, “what white people need to know about race”, and expands to essays by Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Malcolm X. I follow new people on Twitter: Austin Channing, Luvvie Ajayi, A’Driane Nieves, Broderick Greer, Kathy Khang. I am in a class titled “History of the Modern Civil Rights Movement”, and I learn about the names that made the Civil Rights Movement possible—Fannie Lou Hamer, Medgar Evers, Ella Baker. I photograph a Black Lives Matter protest in Indianapolis so I can attend without fear of judgment. Everyone chants as we walk, but I walk in silence, too afraid to say the words—”no justice, no peace.” I am there with two of my friends, and we look at each other and think in unison—we must bring this back to our community.

So we hold up our sign at Silent Night that says “Black Lives Matter”. And in that moment, I am convinced that we are doing God-honoring work in our community.

Author and social psychologist Christena Cleveland once called this discovery for Christians a “second conversion“. It is our eyes being opened, the scales falling from our eyes, a realization of what we’ve done and what we’ve been a part of.

We do not need to rescue people of color from racism—we must rescue ourselves from the sin we are trapped in. We are poisoned by the generational sin we are bound by. By freeing ourselves, we free those who are wounded by us.

I don’t have a great vision for a country that will look different—I only have an imagination for how my life can look different. And I try to practice the discipline of continuity—that what I believe affects how I live—as much as I can. I cannot change the world but, piece by piece, I can be a good steward of the gifts God has laid before me.

I am twenty-two years old.

I ask a professor to tell his story about growing up in Apartheid South Africa. And then I realize that we need each other’s stories, so that we can learn from one another’s experiences. So we can learn why it’s so important not to repeat the past. So we can have examples of how to climb out of our pitfalls.

And so I decide it’s time to tell my story.


3 Ways to Be Counter-Cultural


Christians are kind of obsessed with being counter-cultural, yes? Especially in the wake of some heavy news. And the most common reaction seems to be, “We need to be more different from our culture now than ever before!”

Something about this approach always rubs me the wrong way. And it’s not because I think America’s non-Christian culture is perfect or better. But if being counter-cultural is the goal, I think we’re missing the point.

There’s some problems with this mentality. For one thing, it’s basically saying that if we do the opposite of what everyone else is doing (homeschool vs. public school, no tattoos vs. tattoos, not engage with secular art vs. enjoy secular art, etc), we’ll automatically be more like God. AKA, secular American culture is doing everything wrong.

I see the ideology behind that…but I think it’s flawed. Because even if someone isn’t a Christian, they’re still made in the image of God, and that makes them capable of good things. Secular culture is not the enemy.

But there are some ways we need to be counter-cultural that we’re not. Ways that Christians are actually not even paying attention to, because we’re so focused on the obvious surface stuff instead of the issues layered underneath.

So instead of focusing on being against a bunch of stuff, why don’t we focus on…

1. Being actively pro-vulnerability and anti-shame.

I so badly wish this was a given. But we (Christians) are just like our culture: promotion of having your life together, and shaming yourself as a form of punishment.

I don’t know a single person who hasn’t experienced shame at the hands of the Church. Whether it’s shame over not feeling “Christian” enough, or not reading their Bible enough, or not looking “transformed” enough, or being shamed by an authority figure for being too attractive or not attractive enough…we inflict a lot of shame. And we teach Christian kids that it’s deserved. And so they learn to shame themselves.

What a great opportunity to be counter-cultural! Why don’t we cultivate an attitude of vulnerability with one another, teaching kids that you can make mistakes but they don’t make you bad, and not using fear-mongering or humiliation as a way to keep people following God’s commands? What if we taught from a place of desire for meaning instead of a fear of straying from the rules? This is literally as counter-cultural as it gets. It is empowering, instead of paralyzing. It is strengthening, instead of tearing down.

As Brené Brown says, “The greatest casualties of a scarcity culture are our willingness to own our vulnerabilities and our ability to engage with the world from a place of worthiness.”

2. Promoting engagement in our world.

However you may do it, we’re all looking for ways to disengage with real life. For some it’s addiction, alcoholism, workaholism, sex, “pleasure” (still not sure what that means to be honest), Netflix binges, etc.

For others, it’s “we are not of this world”. It’s Christian escapism. It’s constantly dwelling on Heaven instead of recognizing our responsibility for Earth. It’s dwelling on the soul with a disregard for the physical body.

We have to show up. Even when it’s painful. We cannot stop reading the news just because it hurts. We cannot donate money to Africa to placate our ignorance about what occurs daily in America. We cannot spend money on Bibles in Syria that could have been used to feed a child for another day. God calls us to a life of awareness. When someone is at the bottom of the social totem pole, they deserve our ears first.

We have to slow down. Even when we don’t know how to go for a 10 minute walk alone, without our cell phone or music playing. Some of us live at such a fast pace (read: me) that we can’t even sit in the car without the radio playing. I am physically incapable of sitting in complete and total silence, doing nothing, for more than 5 minutes at a time. I feel weird when I’m sitting at my computer and my TV is not playing in the background.

We are all running away from something. The real world is so hard to bear. That’s why we have to face it together.

3. Stop talking and start listening (OR vice versa).

Our world is constantly shouting at the top of its lungs. Always. Whether it’s social media or real life, we don’t listen well in either capacity. We don’t listen well as a society.

But this is a special direction: it’s not for every Christian. It’s for every Christian leader who has ever had a platform; every white Christian man who has been asked for his opinion on issues varying from racism to birth control; for every person who feels that “servant leader” is a goal they can aspire to without being ignored.

But for some Christians, to be a servant leader would merely be a rug for people to walk on. Another way to become invisible. For black Christian women, to be told to become a servant leader is a joke. A servant leader is a calling for someone who is given authority, not someone who has to fight for a rung on the ladder.

Have you always had the opportunity to be heard? Maybe you should give it up for a while. Ask some people who are less valued to guest post on your blog, or make good use of the retweet. Ask a woman to preach at your church. To the girl who always gets interrupted when she’s talking with your group of friends, make sure you give her space.

Have you been fighting for a voice but no one will listen? Don’t stop now. Don’t let people tell you to sit down, because it’s their turn to sit down, not yours. Thank you, and keep going. Your stories need to be told. We need your narratives to alter a Church that has a history of hushing voices that are somehow different. So please, don’t stop, because without you we have no hope of a Church that will ever look different than it does today.