Why our reactions to tragedy matter.

When a mass tragedy occurs, we react. We exhibit compassion, fear, anger, revulsion, confusion, or some unidentifiable emotional cocktail. Strong feelings can move us to act and this is a good thing. Intense emotions can be harnessed for positive actions and God, we need so much positivity right now.

We react most effectively when we feel a connection to trauma and we’re naturally wired to care about the issues which directly affect us. It is how we function best in a community because it fosters the understanding that what impacts one of us impacts all of us.

Take, for example, that I am a straight, cis-gendered woman. Despite this, Orlando broke my heart thinking of my LGBTQ friends and how it could have been one of them at Pulse.

Or how I am a Christian, but when I hear fear-mongering Islamaphobic comments, my heart hurts considering how those words fall on the ears of my Muslim friends.

Or that I am white, but when I hear the skepticism regarding the validity of the Black Lives Matter movement, I am horrified when contrasting this sentiment with the individual stories of fear and systemic racism experienced by my black friends.

And when I read about Nice, France last night, I felt a visceral fear over the safety of my Maman Français, with whom I lived just outside of Nice on a college study abroad- a city and country which has shaped so much of my adulthood.

Each of these mass tragedies moved me to speak up and speak out because I felt connected to them despite all of the ways which, at first glance, would place me separate from those immediately impacted. I have to constantly push myself to seek to understand those around me even though my natural reaction is often to retract inside of the safety of that which I am comfortable. It is hard, emotional work to overcome the apathy which threatens to mute my words and silence my actions.

Friends, we can no longer tolerate apathy in ourselves.

Apathy is at risk of creating more dangerous outcomes than fear and hatred. When we see tragedy replayed and repeated, our inclination is to shrug with the sense of futility in it all and then tune out completely. It is a defense mechanism which we must actively fight to reject.

Danielle, my Maman Français, in Nice upon a return visit to introduce her to Ryan, my husband.

Danielle, my Maman Français, in Nice upon a return visit to introduce her to my husband.

Ideally, individual relationships bring about the most change but they take time and, because of this, the power of first steps cannot be underestimated. We can start by looking up open community events, visiting a museum we may not have otherwise considered visiting on a vacation, reading literature written by authors outside of our race, religion, lifestyle, gender identification, or native country, and considering joining a Facebook group open to those willing to learn. Relationships stem from a genuine desire to listen and understand. First steps, even small ones, matter.

Our hope in the midst of such brokenness is our connection to faces, names, and stories. They move us forward. They bring the macro back to the micro. They refocus our perceived futility. This we can do, WE CAN DO THIS. We must take the small steps, friends, so we may be well equipped to bring light in the midst of darkness.

Listen well.

Read widely.

Extend a hand.

Lend an ear.

Love well.

Reject the apathy.

 

 

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When it’s better to be broken.

Parent-teacher conferences were tonight at my school. I love the chance to talk with my families about their children. I love laughing at the stories and I love sharing our concerns about the child for whom we both care. They, in turn, love hearing about how a teacher enjoys their child and I never have to pretend that I do. (Even the ones who exhaust me in every sense of the word. Even those little crazy babies.)

Sometimes though, once in a while, there are families who break me down. Kids in these families? Their chance at getting out of poverty, out of trauma, out of a life of hardship born of limited choices… it seems bleak at best. The adults in their lives just can’t seem to get themselves together and the weight of that falls so heavy on their kids. Those little humans hold it all but have to act like they don’t and so it comes out as hyperactivity and anger and poor grades which means they leave one stressful situation only to come to school and have to handle an entire other set of rules they can’t seem to get straight.

I try to make my room a safe place. I try to love them well. I try my damnedest to be a shelter. I try to find the upside, to stay positive, to shine light into darkness when my mind wants to sit there, depressed in the corner.

Most times I can manage it.

Tonight, I could not.

I cried after a particularly tough conference. I can’t fix it for this kid, I can’t take away what he’s heard and seen, and I can’t produce for him a parent who is capable of supporting and caring for him the way he so desperately needs. It isn’t in my power; I’m just his teacher. I see him only enough to love him and see his potential, but not enough to actually make those imperative changes for him.

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//School garden–Goldfish pond\\

I know all the pat answers about what a difference a teacher can make. I know all of that. (I even believe it sometimes.) But the children I work with, have worked with for more than a decade? I see the same things year after year after year and it wears on you. I know about trauma; I’ve been around it for a long time now. I see what it does when combined with poverty. You have to beat down the cynicism.

Usually, I can pull myself out. But sometimes, it is good and right to sit in grief for a little while and stop trying to reboot. I will continually stand by my belief that we are worse for the wear when we listen to society’s advice on rushing through grief. Deep sadness is useful for reminding us why it is important to continue to rage and fight and stand up for the change you want to see. It removes calluses and strengthens your resolve and in a job in which you are continually confronted by brokenness, you will not survive if you do not stop to do this work of mourning from time to time.

I’m taking some time to mourn. It is the only way I know to keep going into my classroom everyday, every month, every year and seeing the same scenes replayed- different players, same game.

I try to be positive. I look for the good. But sometimes, you have to be broken anew in order to remember why it is you’ve got to do the unrelenting but necessary work to remain there.

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//Classroom window–class plants bizarre antique store find\\

This is how we fix it.

The world is so very, very broken right now, is it not? People are doing horrible things to one another, saying horrible things to one another, manifesting some form of hell on Earth daily. I don’t think I’d get much push back on that. The human race en masse? We’re not handling life so well lately.

But then there’s also this. There’s most IMPORTANTLY this.

Today, at my school, hundreds of volunteers from a local church swept in and took our lives over for the day. They decorated the entire building in snowy, Christmas beauty. They acted as personal shoppers to our kids as each picked out brand new coats, hats, mittens, boots. They clapped as the little girls spun in front of mirrors, admiring their faux fur hood lined, beaming faces. They guided the crafting of pillows and ornaments, delivered pizza, sang ‘Let it go’ at a concert during lunch. They poured hot chocolate, colored pictures, and pushed on swings.

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They loved my kids so well.

My small, resilient, grieving, exuberant, abused, malnourished, forgiving, imaginative, underprivileged, frustrating, lovable, beautiful kids.

I cried twice on the WAY to work thinking about it, but not as hard as I’m crying now recounting it.

Seven volunteers were specifically assigned to our class for the day. I watched my students hold hands with, get hugs from, laugh with, talk with, color with these people for hours. At the end of the day, I asked each student to share their favorite part of the day. Do you know what virtually every child said? “I liked hanging out with *classroom volunteer’s name*.”

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It caught me off guard, you know? They’d just gotten all of these new winter clothes, coloring books, treats, and prizes from games and the thing they loved most about the day was the PEOPLE. It damn near literally broke my heart into pieces. All of that stuff took second place to someone genuinely caring for them, listening to them, CHOOSING them. It was the best part of my day, listening to one after the other share this out.

However, despite leaving with warmer winter gear, many of my kids still went home to their painful realities. It kills me daily that I can’t fix it for them. New mittens won’t fix it, sparkly garlands won’t fix it, and whatever unimaginable sum of money it cost to put on that kind of amazing production won’t fix it which, on the surface, can feel terribly hopeless.

But,

BUT,

BUT!

For one day, those kids felt kindness from complete strangers. For one day, they didn’t have to work through academics when their minds are drifting to homefront issues. All day, through actions as well as words, they heard: “You are special, you are enjoyable, you are fun to be around, you are smart, you are funny, you are polite, you are important.”

Their realities didn’t change today but, perhaps, by the grace of God and goodness, their mindsets did.

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Do you see what this means for us? It means, (despite the dire need for these actions), no matter how much money we give to charities, how many clothes we donate, no matter how many food drives we support, we actually make the most impact with OURSELVES. When we love others well, when we are present, when we listen, when we make it known we are choosing the presence of another, we are in tiny but powerful ways healing the horrors surrounding us.

Never underestimate the power of your presence and affection for people- familiar or unknown. You, as it happens, are your most valuable influence on the world’s brokenness, one person at a time.

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When all seems broken.

A few nights ago, I got into a Facebook disagreement with a friend of a friend over the Syrian refugee crisis. I took offense to his comments which I found intolerant and ill-informed and we (respectfully) engaged in an exchange which unfortunately culminated in a response which was both chauvinistic and patronizing toward me. I chose to end the discussion there; I’d already said what I wanted to say and nothing gets accomplished when name calling enters in.

I left the conversation feeling hopeless and, frankly, pissed. I am all for the difference in opinions, but this week it’s felt like fear has completely taken over rational thinking in our country which means fear has also trumped the need to back up an opinion with any type of credible source. The prejudice, the racism, the xenophobia has been on high alert and I have been horrifically transfixed by the onslaught of distasteful posts on social media.

So I handled my anger the way I often do: I took to words. I typed a retort I was all ready to post as my status, all ready to tweet. It wasn’t going to be visible to this friend of a friend because I wasn’t responding to him. Yet I still needed an outlet for my feelings of having been belittled and hurt so, in passive-aggressive retaliation, I strung together a collection of words which eloquently put my irritation into prose. I was all ready to post and then…

I couldn’t.

I just couldn’t.

Earlier that night I’d cried to Ryan because some of my 7 year old students are going through some terribly heavy life experiences. I’d cried at the absence of hope and compassion on social media. And I recognized, finger hovering over that ‘post’ button, how I was about to throw my own bitterness out into that mess.

So I let it go. I convinced my little sister, always my defender, to let it go when she texted that she’d seen the exchange and wanted to throw in her own eloquently worded response.

It was so hard. SO HARD. I wanted to put my hurt on display because it seemed like the best way to release the frustration I was feeling. That one flippant comment directed at me had grown to represent the multitudes I was up against and I felt ill equipped to combat them. Words, on the other hand, serve as my sword, my shield, and my salve, and in this instance I wanted to wound in response to the repeated gashes I’d been reading all week. It made me want to hurt out of exasperation and hopelessness.

And yet, in deleting that post, I also felt strangely better. I’d been given the choice to release more bitterness into the atmosphere and I chose not to. Even though I wasn’t aiming my comments directly at someone. Even though my words didn’t seek a response. Even when I didn’t want to and even when I had to convince myself of it again later in the day, I chose to forgive and move up and on. I defended my beliefs, I spoke with respect, and even though it was hard, I CHOSE TO SPEAK LIFE. I had to let the rest go.

So get mad. There are many things worthy of anger right no

Find your voice. Stand up for what you believe in.

Do these things, but do so by speaking words of life into a world filled with death and brokenness. Do so by stopping yourself before your words cease stating your opinion and begin degrading or dehumanizing. When we respond to fear and anger with more of the same, we’re perpetuating a cycle of hopelessness.

I don’t want to perpetuate hopelessness. There’s enough of that going around.

I don’t want to speak more pain into an already hurting world, even if my initial intent is to bring justice. It isn’t bringing justice to speak against intolerance by feeding the same vitriol through my own lips. Deleting that post was difficult and a part of me wishes I’d still posted it, but I’m okay with it. I picked the tougher choice, but it was the right one and for that, in a world swirling with negativity, I’m learning to be okay with covering just a small bit of the hate with grace and peace. I can’t fix it all and I can’t change the mindsets of the masses, but I can choose my words wisely and I’ll go down fighting for the side of grace and peace.

 

It is hard not to feel better about life with a double rainbow, the larger of which actually doubled over on itself and started its color pattern over again. Costco and rainbows. That was my reward for shutting my mouth today...

It is hard not to feel better about life with a double rainbow, the larger of which actually doubled over on itself and started its color pattern over again. Costco and rainbows. That was my reward for shutting my mouth today…

 

A letter to my students.

To my students,

I need you to look at me because I have to tell you something very important. I see you, okay? I’m not talking about your pants that come to your mid-calves because they still button around your skinny middle or the ones that reach your ankles but are rolled 3 times to compensate for the waist of the older sibling from whom you borrowed them. I’m not talking about the unruly hair you’re hiding under that hoodie because your mama hasn’t had the time or the money this week to take you to get your hair done. I’m not talking about the shoes you’re wearing like slippers, breaking those heels down because your toes were crammed up in those things so tight you winced when you walked. And I’m not talking about the times you come to school wearing brand new, tags still attached outfits because your mama just got paid and wanted to make the rest of those outfits up to you.

That’s not what I’m talking about.

I see YOU in there, who you can become. I’m never going to lie to you and tell you I know what it’s like. My daily proximity to you does not give me the right to assume I understand what it means to wake up with the joys, fears, and experiences you wake up to each morning. I will never get it. Let’s get that out of the way right now because the important part is coming up:

I NEED YOU TO FIGHT. (No, not like that.) I need you to fight past all of those hurdles the world has set up for you just because of where you live. I need you to run right through, over, under those things. The world is unfair and you’re going to need to work twice, three times, FOUR times as hard as the kid a school district over. BUT YOU CAN DO THIS. I just know it. Your other teachers? They know it too. That’s why we are on you, all the time, about everything- because we know how much further you have to go to get to the same finish line. You’re going to have to block out what other people say about you and what you can or can’t accomplish. You’re going to have to push through all of those things you see and hear that you shouldn’t have to be exposed to. You’re going to have to wrestle those memories (the ones of the adults in your family worrying over money, over food, over safe places to live) into fuel for your fire to burn up and out of here like a rocket.

The girl who drew the picture of the shelter? She is living in one. Notice the other column? That’s why ALL kids need ALL types of experiences or ALL you know is what you see. While there is certainly nothing wrong with any of the jobs listed, if those are the only ones of which you’re aware, your world is severely limited.

You have so much beauty. So much potential. The world may be uncomfortable with you because truly seeing you makes them rethink how much their talk about the current state of poverty and educational disparities outweighs the actions they’ve actually taken to make change. You’re going to have to trust me when I tell you how desperately you need to focus on your studies now. Yes, even at 6 years old, 7 years old, 8 years old. I need you to understand that this is why I push you so hard. It is because I see you. I believe in you. I know you can do this. You’ve already got so much fight in you, Tiny Thing. We’re gonna focus that and get you anywhere you want to go. The world is your oyster, baby. Kick those legs, muffle out the noise, and take what is yours.

I see you.

You can do this.

Let’s go.

What’s your ONE THING?

I went for a run this weekend and I really wanted to stop about halfway through. Usually, I hear my high school track and cross country coaches mystically yelling at me from across the 16+ year abyss: “Work it up the hills!” and “Keep up the pace!” This wasn’t that. This was me, tired after a long week of medicating a sick cat, disciplining a boundary pushing child, and a commitment immediately following school every day of the week. I wanted to walk for a little bit.

So I did it.

And it was fine!

No it wasn’t.

I hated it and I felt like a failure because I do NOT like to walk when I run, but I made myself do it anyway. I talked myself into it because I’m in my mid-thirties and I’m getting to the point where I no longer want to feel as though I have to do things that don’t make me happy just because I think I should. Or, for that matter, if I SHOULD do everything I want because even when the things I’m doing are amazing, I get overloaded.

I’m tired of feeling overloaded.

I’m tired of feeling like everything’s going to hell if I don’t do things the same way I’ve done them in the past.

I’m tired of feeling like if I don’t do _______ it will make me a crappy teacher/wife/mom/human being.

So, here’s what I decided on that run. Everyday, I’m going to think of ONE THING to say no to. To drop off. To ignore. To let go. On Sunday, I walked for a little bit in the middle of my run. I hated every second of it, but only because I felt like I was failing myself (false)- not because I wanted to start running again because I sure didn’t (truth). What it did do was allow me to take a baby step toward giving myself the freedom to release my self-imposed expectations.

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Screw you dishes. I’m going to listen to my 5 year old talk about the most fantastic purring chalk cat in the history of ever.

The thing is, I’ve had a lot of heavy talks with a lot of beautiful friends recently. We’re doing so much, so often, that we end the day expecting to finally have time to read, to watch a movie, to relax, and we see the clock and realize we’ve worked our way directly into bedtime. It is the reason I’m writing this blog 30 minutes past when I am supposed to be asleep. There was dinner to be made, and a child to be tucked in, and dishes, and clothes, and pets, and… and… and…

So I’m saying no to ONE THING a day. Maybe:

  • leaving the wet clothes in the washer overnight
  • letting the dishes stink up the kitchen sink for one more day
  • shoving my son’s clothes into his drawers instead of folding them all neatly because when he digs through them that business is happening ANYWAY
  • reading one bedtime book to him instead of two or *gasp* not reading at all for a night
  • skipping the floss
  • getting takeout
  • taking Isaac to another program at the library when he’d rather stay home and play a game with us anyway
  • putting off clipping the dog’s toenails for another day because she’s still going to act like a complete idiot on the wood floors even after I do it.

START SMALL! Build up.

I'm choosing cats. Cats trump dirty clothes every time.

I’m choosing cats. Cats trump dirty clothes every time.

I’m consciously telling all of these things, “No,” because choosing to set them aside is empowering whereas trying and not getting to them feels like a failure. I’m choosing to tell myself that all is not lost if I don’t get the chickens fresh water tonight (because it isn’t). The world will not end if I refrain from vacuuming the damn cat hair off of the couch today. Letting these things go does not make me a terrible anything. They are mini-practices for saying no to work or personal commitments I either truly want to do or just feel obligated to do, but shouldn’t be cramming into our already busy schedule. When I have time to read, to run, to do yoga, to write- these are things that make me a better EVERYTHING. I’m choosing just ONE THING a day to refuse because my time is precious and I’m tired of spending it looking in longingly from the outside. I’m saying no. (And I’m learning to be okay with it.)

What’s your ONE THING?

Why Aylan’s shoes should make us rethink everything about humanity.

When the photos of Aylan Kurdi were released, the world reacted in horror. That picture of such a tiny boy face down on a beach put an image to a crisis from which we feel irreparably detached. When my son was 3, he dug deep wells in the sand and, oblivious to the length at which it was possible for water to travel onto land, attempted to dig a crevice to connect his toddler made puddle to its far larger, lake counterpart. Little children were never meant to wash up onto the shores of beaches; they were meant to sit atop damp towels and eat sandy lunches on them.

I just finished Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book, Between the World and Me. At one point in this letter to his son, he writes of viewing the history of slavery:

“I have raised you to respect every human being as singular, and you must extend that same respect into the past. Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It is a particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind is active as your own, whose range of feeling is as vast as your own; who prefers the way the light falls in one particular spot in the woods, who enjoys fishing where the water eddies in a nearby stream, who loves her mother in her own complicated way, thinks her sister talks too loud, has a favorite cousin, a favorite season, who excels at dressmaking and knows, inside herself, that she is as intelligent and capable as anyone.” (emphasis mine)

Coates is not a religious man, but I could pray this in a heartbeat, that we would all see mass injustices as atrocities affecting individuals as opposed to issues that impact, say, “refugees”- a noun which releases all responsibility from the rest of us to see beyond the country, the cities, the villages, the boats, and instead see the homes, the families, the Aylans. I heard another interview in which one man spoke of how Aylan’s shoes impacted him. As a father of little boys, he knew how lovingly he dressed his children in the morning and realized how Aylan’s parents must have velcroed his little shoes that morning with affection and fear, knowing what a hard road lie ahead of them.

When images like the one of Aylan strike our soul, it is because we are forced to look, with a hand on either side of our face, at the appalling individualism which is glazed over as a nameless, faceless, mass. It may be too big to comprehend, but Aylan was tiny. He was only 3 and far from an unidentifiable multitude.

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I’m not the only one who feels ill informed; the first suggestion Google offered was about Syria.

We must educate ourselves, yes, but we must also elbow past the daunting, glaring impossibilities wars pose and see only that there are people suffering, people who pull socks onto the feet of their children, who kiss their spouse goodnight, who have a favorite food, song, book. Over 6 million Syrians have been displaced, which is an incomprehensible number until you imagine trying to count your way, one by one, through those more than 6 million people in order to offer the level of empathy each deserves. More than 6 million individuals with their own stories and triumphs and heartbreaks. Dear God, let us remember to look past the numbers so we may be moved to movement, to opposition, to empathy. We need to be more intentional in seeing individual people in crisis so we are more likely to extend kindness, care, aid. Aylan was a refugee before he drowned; there are millions more waiting for us to show our solidarity, to show we also care about them while they are still alive.

 

Here’s one movement started in the wake of Aylan’s death. Click to find ways you can begin to be more involved and educated. #wewelcomerefugees


Should you be an
emotional like me, or simply feel ill equipped in your knowledge about the war from which he was fleeing, below are some background overviews from a variety of sources to get a crash course.

BBC: What’s happening in Syria?

The Washington Post: 9 questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask (2013 article, but still useful)

BBC: Syria- The Story of Conflict

MercyCorps: Syria: What you need to know about the Syria Crisis

Unilad: This cartoon succinctly explains the background to the Syrian conflict

 

 

On Muslims.

In college, I studied abroad in London. One of our courses required us to locate some landmarks around the city, one of which was London Central Mosque. I’d never been inside a mosque and chose to go inside. I was welcomed kindly by a male greeter who certainly knew I wasn’t there to worship, as I had no clue what I was doing. He helped me find the spot to remove my shoes, gave me a scarf for my head, showed me where to walk up to in order to see inside. All of it was done with an honest welcoming. As I was leaving, he asked if I would like any literature on Islam and, when I said yes, he gave me a booklet on Islam as well as a hard cover Qur’an which I still have a decade later. There was no pressure. There was no appeal for my phone number or email address. There just was a man who loved his faith and wanted to share it. That was it. I’ve had less welcoming first visits to Christian churches and I AM a Christian.

Since that time, I’ve met many Muslims, I’ve got friends who are Muslim, I’ve taught Muslim children, and I’ve visited Egypt where I was also welcomed with open arms. As a Christian, my experience with Muslims has been nothing but positive and accepting despite our differences in faith.

I wish I had the permission to post the pictures of the Egyptians we met so you could see their real faces with their smiles and laughter and daily lives.

I wish I had the permission to post the pictures of the Egyptians we met so you could see their real faces with their smiles and laughter and daily lives.

That being said, it has been painful for me to watch and read the vitriolic commentary on large scale and social media sources regarding the equal treatment of Islamic terrorists and all other Muslims. I am not Muslim any more than I am an African American or adopted or gay, but I love Jesus and I am called to stand up for injustices against those groups and what the media is doing to Muslims is also an injustice. What some Christians are saying about Muslims is an injustice. You don’t have to identify with someone’s race or religion to stand against mistreatment; Jesus teaches this.

I am only one voice and I am not ignorant enough to believe that my one voice is enough to fix an enormous brokenness, but I also don’t want to keep quiet out of feared ineffectiveness. I certainly don’t want to start claiming my faith with all of the disturbing offshoots that somewhere FAR along the line began as Christianity and now promote the marriage of little girls,live in cultish societies, or protest the funerals of people who whom that group views as the very worst of sinners. I also don’t want to define the entire society of white America by the mass murderers, the school shooters, the outspoken racists who happen to also be white. One voice I may be, but with this voice I want to make it clear that I am a Christian and I am white and I vehemently disagree with the hatred flying so free lately under the false veil of patriotism or faith.

There is a powerful piece titled I, Racist, in which the author speaks about institutionalized racism and writes the following for a different story, same plea:

“So I’m asking you to help me. Notice this. Speak up. Don’t let it slide. Don’t stand watching in silence. Help build a world where it never gets to the point where the Samaritan has to see someone bloodied and broken.”

There is always more than one story. Not everyone feels the same, despite how heavily the media would like us to believe. Not all whites are murderers. Not all Christians worship in cults. And not all Muslims are terrorists.

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Teach them to stay open.

A few days ago, an Amber Alert was issued for a little boy from my hometown by the name of Omarion, “Mars” for short. It was a particularly complicated case as he went missing while in the care of his foster family and was autistic and nonverbal. My small, Midwestern town rallied and searched and prayed and, five days later, his body was found in a lake in the city park which had just recently opened following much fanfare and planning.

It was impossible not to follow the case as it unfolded since there were so many posts on my social media feeds: the searches, the leads, the birth mother speaking out, the foster family keeping quiet. It wasn’t long before speculation began arising about who was to blame. Conspiracy theories bounced around and fingers were pointed. When tragedy strikes, we like to identify the root of the issue. Speculation is a natural human response to explaining the unexplainable. I watched and I mulled and I felt uncomfortably conflicted and so I mulled some more until I could put my finger onto why I felt so unsettled about my reaction to this boy’s too short story…

… and then I read this news story recalling his history:

“Omarion wears adult clothes held up by a belt and wears shoes with no soles. Omarion’s teacher provides Omarion clothing that he changes into before class starts in the morning,” court documents in Oakland County said. “Omarion is frequently bullied by his peers due to poor hygiene and for body odor. In the past, school personnel have had to give Omarion sponge baths due to his overwhelming body odor and hygiene.” (Source: Mlive)

At that moment, I realized why I was feeling uncomfortable: Mars’s tragic passing was uncommon, but his life beforehand was not. That description above? That could be detailing normalcy for any number of children living in poverty. I’ve seen it and I teach them and I’m telling you not in condescension but merely as a voice for the voiceless, this is so very disturbingly normal.

photo credit: andré´s converse via photopin (license) (No changes were made)

photo credit: andré´s converse via photopin

  • Shoes 3 sizes too big or too small
  • Pants that look like capris but are really just a younger sibling’s clothes
  • Odors of human or animal feces or urine
  • Lice jumping off heads onto tables
  • Bedbugs hiding in homework
  • Skirts in the dead of winter
  • Shirts worn 5 days in a row
  • Teeth broken in two from poor hygiene and diets
  • (And that list doesn’t even begin to address the homes of mattresses with no sheets, dog shit covered floors, roach infested kitchens…)

I know these things to be true because those are all truths from my own experiences as a teacher. That little boy’s story is shamefully normal. 

Now, lest we begin to jump on the judgement train again (and trust me, I’ve had quite a few therapy sessions revolving around resisting the urge to become completely jaded after years upon years of the same) it would do us all good to leave space for a couple of truths.

First, let us remember to be extremely careful of falling into the trap of the Single Story.

This TED talk absolutely beautifully illustrates this point, but allow me to apply it to this situation.

The foster family: On one hand, Ryan and I definitely made some crazy eyes at each other in our foster care training classes. There are some Crazy (with a capital C) people out there. Listen, they didn’t put this clause in our foster parent handbook because they were afraid someone might do it:

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On the other hand, fostering is hard. Fostering a child with special needs is hard. We don’t have enough foster families as it is and, even if these foster parents are found guilty of negligence, it is important to understand that fostering is deeply complicated in even the best case scenarios.

The birth family: First, it was difficult for me to hear Mars’s birth mother speak out about her missing son because the media was really throwing out the heartbreaking mom story. Single story, friends. Beware the single story. Certainly, definitely, grieve for this mother whose son went missing while under the care of another, but let’s not forget why he was with the other in the first place.

And yet, blame is heavy; let it not rest too heavy on any one individual. As terribly conflicting as it is to accept, when children are taken from unsafe families it should not be equated with that family not loving their child. I’m not offering excuses for atrocities brought upon children. I am offering that we remember not to judge from a Single Story. Some people really suck as parenting and there are a whole host of reasons for why this occurs. Love, (as all of us who understand that any family is complicated), is sometimes just not enough.

Finally, may this serve as a reminder to all of us that we are constantly surrounded by poverty, constantly surrounded by child maltreatment, EVEN WHEN WE DON’T SEE IT. I am  surrounded by it and I still have to fight to truly see because it is so much easier to look away. But we have to look. If you don’t see it in your daily life, I encourage you to find a way to look harder. We aren’t heartless, just overwhelmed, so start small. Talk to a friend who works around poverty. Don’t skip over the journal articles about how poverty impacts children. Talk to a staff member of a school in an area of high poverty. (Remember, it doesn’t just affect urban areas. Poverty impacts rural schools just as often.) Talk to someone who is currently living in poverty.

We don’t have to fix it ourselves. We don’t have to have all the answers. We just need to stay aware. We need to get to the point where we understand that this little boy’s life wasn’t an exception to the rule; get to the point where his history horrifies us because it is yet another example of inequality and not because it is shocking in its originality.

Start small,

Beware the single story,

And keep your eyes open. Teach them to stay open.

 

photo credit: andré´s converse via photopin (license) (

Why white Christians are looking at the black church in America all wrong.

It is probably best to just throw it right out: White Christians need to evaluate the ways in which we view African American Christians.

Now, with that out there in the open, allow me to break things down a bit. Bear in mind, my writings are those of a white, American Christian. If you want to understand more of the experience of being an African American in our country (and you should), I implore you to read words from their voices. Me? I’m talking to you, White America, because from there I can speak with experience.

That being said, permit me to share some truths which have been left out of our nonexistent dialogue about our views of the black church in America. Set aside the stereotypical qualifications you may have already used to tag it in your mind: the worship style, the length, the preaching. Set all of that aside for a moment and try viewing history through a different lens.

Chances are that every February, for Black History Month, you learned in school about the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.? Rosa Parks? You could recite facts about them from memory. As a teacher, I need to admit that we have also been numbed into regurgitating the same facts every year. In the bland retellings, the textbook readings, they lose their power to disturb, to move to action, to cause a rethink of the status quo if we are not diligent about making history fresh each time we teach it. However, one year as I retold the story of the bus boycott, what blindsided me was the unbelievable level of FAITH it took to actually accomplish that boycott. I don’t like waiting for things and despite often going through the motions of praying, I quickly lose faith when I don’t see results. SO quickly. What they knew about that boycott was that it was good, it was right, and that God wanted the same outcome. And so they waited. They waited for 381 days- over a YEAR- for God to answer a prayer they trusted Him to answer. I am humbled to think about how likely I would have been to just say, “Screw it. This isn’t working.” And it would have happened in about 370-ish less days than the 381 they devoted. Such great faith. Why are we not learning about the Montgomery Bus Boycott in our churches?

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Source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain image

Now I need to ask you again to set aside what you’ve learned about our nation’s history of slavery in school. For a minute, think about it in relation to Christianity. For generation after generation, plantation owners horribly misconstrued the Bible to condone slavery. By these same plantation owners, African Americans would have been told lies of the God they also worshiped. And yet, their faith had the strength to see through the blasphemes. They knew God’s character. The God they were taught did not line up with the God they followed and believed in so they rejected the lies. My faith is rocked by the smallest of bumps and I too often swallow what others tell me about God as opposed to deeply knowing Him in a way that substantiates my beliefs. This realization reminds me of how often we are all going through the motions- missing out on a faith that conquers the lies that society feeds us. I want a faith that is that real, too.

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Source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain image

Having said all of that, it still seems as though we whites assume, without ever uttering it to ourselves let alone aloud, that we don’t all really worship the same Jesus. We put churches into boxes labeled ‘US’ and ‘THEM’ and continue to segregate not only our Sunday mornings, but the images in our minds as to what it actually looks like to live as the body of Christ. We forget (Can you forget something you never realize you chose?) overlook Jesus’s teachings that we are all brothers and sisters under the SAME CHRIST, residing under the SAME GRACE AND GODLY AFFECTION. God did not tell us, the white people, to go help ‘the suffering African American people’. He told us, all of us, of every race, to love above all else. We are equal heirs. We should not be moving to stand with our African American brothers and sisters (Christians or not) as a result of having somehow been led to believe that we hold the monopoly on following Christ’s teachings of caring for those in need. (We are not, as it turns out, God’s gift to the suffering peoples of the world.) We should be reacting to their unequal, unjust, and un-Christlike treatment out of the overflow of our hearts because our hearts should break for the things that break His and RIGHT NOW, our hearts ought to be overflowing with despair over the treatment of members of OUR FAMILY, who are all equally loved by a God who did not design us to worship, support, and live divided.

If we truly believe that we, as Christ followers, are to be the hands and feet of God, then for the literal love of God, we should be doing a better job of functioning as one body. There is much that is broken. There is much to restructure. There is much to rethink. God is the best place to start the process and, as it turns out, we both reach out to the same one. IMG_0207