A reflection on white people in Africa

12645067_905588599561924_3580299704086411379_n

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.

Advertisements

4 Reasons Why Christian Feminists Should Watch the Hunchback of Notre Dame

paris

To say my love for Hunchback of Notre Dame has been deep and abiding would be an understatement. Esmerelda’s face graced my 3rd birthday cake, and my relationship with my Quasimodo finger puppet was unbreakable (until I lost it at my grandparents house sometime around Christmas 1999). HND was my first true pop-culture love.

Some might say it was inappropriate for me to watch as a 3-year-old, but my parents weren’t concerned. Any dark themes or sexual innuendos went waaay over my head until, years later, I revisited the movie at age 16. It was just as beautiful as I remembered, and the movie remains one of my favorites to this day.

Many of my peers shy away from HND, still haunted by memories of mobs and hellfire, but I believe that HND’s themes brought up important conversations ahead of its time. Here’s why HND is a must-watch for Christian feminists everywhere:

1. Nuanced conversations about the church.

Almost the entire movie takes place on the grounds of one of the most famous cathedrals in the world—Notre Dame—and the culture surrounding the church in 19th century Paris. Judge Claude Frollo, the villain, has spent his life praying all the right prayers and is considered “godly” by society’s terms, and yet his actions are motivated ultimately from a place of selfishness, hate and fear. His legalism is ultimately what drives him to the brink of insanity, causing him to attempt to take out Quasimodo and an unconscious Esmerelda.

And yet, even more important than Frollo’s legalism is the frank conversation about the gypsies and their exclusion from the church. In Esmerelda’s God Help the Outcasts, she sings, Yes I know I’m just an outcast/I shouldn’t speak to You/Still I see Your face and wonder/Were You once an outcast too? HND raises the idea of a Jesus that is from the outskirts, a Jesus that considers the outsiders his people and seeks them out in his community. Esmerelda voices her doubt of a faith that excludes minorities, and her sinner’s plea contrasts deeply with the “Pharisees” prayers shown during the song.

 

2. Representation of diverse women and their sexuality.

1245627_1373496533707_full

Okay, “diverse” is a little extreme since there’s really only one female character in this story, but she’s a woman of color and is a member of a people group ostracized by society. That was pretty unusual for ’90s Disney, to say the least. Esmerelda isn’t portrayed as some kind of whore, but she’s also not the innocent virgin with doe eyes (*cough* ARIEL *cough*). She is nuanced. She’s smart and has a great sense of humor, and yet she doesn’t take any handouts. She’s outspoken. She’s sexually confident. To see that in a Disney movie is pretty much unheard of. And yet when Frollo makes sexual advances, the message the writers send is that she was not asking for it. Which leads me to point #3. . .

3. Open conversations on consensual relationships.

vlcsnap-2014-02-05-17h49m26s102

Frollo: You think you’ve outwitted me. But I’m a patient man. And gypsies don’t do well inside stone walls.

*Frollo inhales her hair*

Esmerelda: What are you doing?

Frollo: I was just imagining a rope around that beautiful neck.

Esmerelda: I know what you were imagining.

Frollo: Such a clever witch. So typical of your kind to twist the truth to cloud the mind with unholy thoughts.

It’s pretty subtle, and yet the language is still clearly there. The unwanted sexual approach of a man with more power, a man who has painted her to be the one seducing him. It has all the hallmark signs of rape culture. In his mind she is the one seducing him, rather than the reality—the unwanted advances of a man who doesn’t like to hear “no”.

This would have been such an easy scene to leave out of the story, but I think it portrays something important about both characters: Esmerelda’s temporary helplessness and Frollo’s physical display of dominance over her sends chills down my spine every time.

The misinterpretation of Esmerelda’s sexuality is not unique to Frollo, however; Quasimodo also assumes her warmth towards him is something more. So when Esmerelda chooses the blonde, winsome Phoebus over Quasimodo, his shock and grief are understandable. But he doesn’t try to change her mind. He doesn’t decide he’s going to force her to do whatever he wants. You know what he does? HE ACCEPTS HER “NO”, AND HE MOVES FORWARD WITH HIS LIFE. Quasimodo is the biggest person in this story, because he stomachs the rejection with dignity, choosing to care for both her and Phoebus as their lives are placed in jeopardy. Being the hero doesn’t always mean you get the girl, and Quasimodo ultimately understands that being a nice guy does not make Esmerelda owe him anything.

4. Justice and compassion as important qualities.

hunchback05

Frollo: How dare you defy me?

Esmerelda: You mistreat this poor boy the same way you mistreat my people. You speak of justice, yet you are cruel to those most in need of your help.

Frollo: Silence!

Esmerelda: Justice!

Religious genocide runs rampant in the Parisian community as Frollo searches the city for gypsies. When Esmerelda frees Quasimodo at the Feast of Fools, she speaks up for her people in a crucial setup for the witch hunts that occur later in the movie. She is advocating for her people, for the people who do not have the platform or power to speak up. It is the woman in the story who leads the rest of the characters in caring for those who are less-than. It is she who moves towards reconciliation in the last scene, when Quasimodo is welcomed into the city and finally feels a sense of belonging. Ultimately, Esmerelda is the pivotal character in this story and its messages: it matters to speak up when we are told to remain silent. There is room for all of us. We are all worthy of love and belonging. That is what makes the magic of HND so unique, and so invaluable.

It ends with us: the toxicity of gender roles

DTS_Photography_Movie1

Whether you’re male or female, you received messages growing up about gender. Maybe they were spoken out loud, like being told that “women want love and men want respect”, or maybe they were more subtle, like the way you were supposed to dress or whether your boyfriend had to ask your dad permission to take you on a date. Messages about our manhood or womanhood deeply shape who we perceive ourselves to be and our confidence in our interactions with the opposite gender.

To write this article, I posted a Facebook status asking what messages people received about gender. Here are a few of their responses:

For women:

  • “Don’t be too successful or don’t share your opinions too freely or else you will scare men away.”
  • “I was warned against ever making the first move or pursuing a man; it’s the woman’s role to wait patiently and passively and the man’s to pursue. If you, a woman, go after a guy, you are a slut, and you don’t know how to wait on the Lord. (Also, men don’t like it and won’t date you.) I kissed him first. There were no objections.”
  • “Men want respect; women want affection.” . . . Being told that as a woman I didn’t want to be respected was actually very hurtful (and a little insulting).”
  • “Only guys have strong sexual drives and struggle with sexual sin.”

For men:

  • “You should have more friends who are boys, otherwise you’ll start acting like a girl.”
  • “‘If you like romcoms, you’re probably gay.’ Good romcoms are pretty amazing. Sue me.”
  • “Always beware of sexual sin, which amounted to, be afraid of the woman you love at all times. I have since chilled out after realizing that being afraid of my girlfriend wasn’t loving to her or to me and was no way to live.”
  • “The idea that young men and women can’t be friends seems to have led at least a few young men in my life to be completely unable to have a female friend without either developing romantic feelings for her, or developing delusions about said friend having romantic feelings for him.”

You or I may not have experienced all of these messages, but they all have one thing in common: the restrictive boxes that exist around gender in our Christian community hurt more people than they help. When we tighten our grip on definitions of manhood and womanhood, we make people who deserve to belong in society—a 30-something single, a full-time working mom, a guy who doesn’t like sports—feel like untouchables instead of equally valuable members of our church community.

The only party that benefits from suffocating gender roles is the fear inside of all of us; fear that society will change if we relinquish the rules we’ve clung to for hundreds of years.

And these messages are passed down from generation, to generation, to generation. Do you know how they’re being spread? By the generation that came before them. You’d think we would learn, having been wounded by the same messages, but somehow we keep repeating them instead of nipping them at the bud.

It needs to end with us. Let’s make this the last generation that ever has to deal with that crap, because it really doesn’t do anything to positively benefit society. Why inflict the same pain on your future kid that you experienced now? I am convinced that in order for the next generation to be better off than we are, we must intentionally work to rewrite the narratives that we receive—if we don’t, we will unintentionally pass them on. Because apathy is not a neutral attitude; it positively benefits the structures that already exist in society.

And maybe, one day, we will wake up in a world that has taken another step toward loving others better.

Breaking up with my future husband

DeathtoStock_London1

Dear future husband,

I started writing to you when I was 12 years old.

I had never been boy crazy or interested in dating at my age, but I was fascinated by the future. I always dreamed of college, of moving into a tiny studio apartment in New York after graduation, of graduate school.

And I dreamed of you.

I wondered what you looked like, whether you were short or tall, whether your voice was light and cheerful or deep and rumbling. Whether you and I would like the same TV shows, whether or not we would fight, whether or not you were saving yourself for me.

I was always saving myself for you.

I didn’t know better, really. I was handed books like I Kissed Dating Goodbye and When God Writes Your Love Story, telling me I should write you letters and knit you scarves whenever I felt the urge to date someone. Because if there was anything worse than not saving your body, it was failing to save your heart.

“Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life,” I was always told. So I obediently tucked away my letters, listened to Rebecca St. James and dreamed about how one day you and I would be together forever.

Somewhere between the driver’s tests and college applications, I started to get impatient. I tried to project you on each boy I met, wondering does it fit? Is he you? But each time I was disappointed. And when I went off to college I put you on the shelf, vowing that you would come along after graduation, in the real world.

And then I met him.

He sits with me when I’m weary. Sometimes he has things to say, and sometimes I have things to say, but when we don’t we sit in companionable silence, just grateful to be near each other. He does silence so well—it fits him like a comfortable sweater. He is the most loyal and caring person I know.

But he’s not you. And I know why.

Because you’re not real.

You’re a figment of my imagination. A straw man built for me to believe in. You don’t actually exist. You’re too good to be true, and a sweet fantasy is no substitute for the rich bittersweetness of reality. You, a one-dimensional trojan horse, cannot bear the weight of who I am. You were created to keep me obsessed, to keep me hesitant and second-guessing and I’m done with you.

 

I don’t miss you.

I pulled out the journal the other day. The one written for you. I thought it would be sweet and meaningful, and it wasn’t at all. It felt hollow, and kind of embarrassing. I couldn’t believe how much time I’d devoted to a person who doesn’t actually exist, instead of loving people who actually do exist.

I wish I hadn’t feared giving my heart away, because that’s not even possible. There is no heartbreak that hasn’t been worth the pain; no lost love that hasn’t been wisdom gained.

 

This is the last letter I’m writing you.

I don’t ever plan on writing you again.

I’m respecting myself and others enough to know that perfection is not a fair standard to hold. So if settling is accepting that people are broken and messy but still worthy of love and connection and belonging, I guess that’s what I am.

 

But I don’t mind. I actually kinda like it here on the ground.

3 Ways to Be Counter-Cultural

DeathtoStock_Medium4

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.

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.

When our opinions no longer matter: LGBT and loving others well

556cbb02378caf0d670e5f10_caitlyn-jenner-july-2015-vf-02

The internet has pretty much been in an uproar for the last few days over the news about Caitlyn Jenner, previously known as the famous Olympian Bruce Jenner, and her transformation and introduction into the public eye as a woman. I have seen opinions ranging from “YOU GO GIRL! Werk it!” to “Bruce will never be a woman. He is sick and needs serious psychological attention” and everything in between.

We sure like our opinions, don’t we? And more than that, we like to voice our opinions loud and clear for the rest of the world to hear them.

I used to have opinions about people who identified as LGBT. It was actually a topic I felt pretty strongly about. But then I had a friend come out to me for the first time. And I read the story of a young man who was raised an Evangelical Christian and was thrown out of his home when he came out to his parents as gay. And I read from my friend Ben Moberg about what it’s like to be a gay Christian. I learned that 1 out of every 4 kids who identify as transgender will attempt suicide at some point during their lifetime. Although LGBT youth make up only 10% of minors in the U.S., they represent 20% of homeless youth.

LGB youth are 8.4 times more likely to attempt suicide if they come from highly rejecting families.

And when I put faces to those numbers, my sweet friends being thrown out into the streets when they needed love and loyalty the most, changed me.

Those statistics are not okay.

The fact that we choose our opinions over saving livesis not okay.

What are we doing? What the hell are we thinking, that being right matters more than being kind. We are majorly missing the point, friends. If we haven’t figured it out by now, it doesn’t actually matter whether we think it’s right or wrong, because kids are coming out anyway and gender changes are still happening and they’re still going to, regardless of our personal convictions.

Because, while the Bible is gray about sexuality, the Bible has never been gray about love.

Love is not a gray area. There are no exceptions. No one off-limits. And we don’t have to agree with the life choices of someone in order to be their friend. (If you are only friends with people who agree with you, you are missing out on a much richer life.)

I don’t know what you believe, friend. But I hope you can set them aside sometimes to recognize that the world is much bigger than the lens you see it through.

Your opinions will not save you. Only God can do that.

Caitlyn Jenner is brave because she, of all people—a previous Olympian—knows that we don’t know how to accept people who operate outside of the norm. She knew there would be hate and there would be judgment, even from her own family. She chose to make a space for herself anyway. And I deeply respect that.

It’s time to stop the witch hunt, and it’s time to stop whining that we’re so persecuted that we’re actually expected to treat everyone fairly. It’s time to acknowledge that we have not loved others well. It’s time to acknowledge that we are beginners, not experts on this topic, and to start from ground zero and go up from there.

It’s time to listen, and it’s time to humanize those we don’t agree with. Otherwise we are no better.