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A few years ago my husband, small daughter and I packed up our bags in Portland and drove across the country to the exotic Midwest. There, we planted ourselves in the most diverse neighborhood in all of America, soaking up the differences while striving for commonalities. Our new neighborhood has a rich history of African-American and Native-American populations, and it is also a space where wave after wave of immigrants and refugees crash on the shores a decade or two after the wars in their own countries caused them to seek asylum.
We were thrilled as only white people can be, gentrifiers in every sense of the word, experiencing the benefits of diverse culture and cheap rent while having no knowledge or experience in the systemic injustices that governed the lives of many of our new neighbors. While we had lived in low-income housing before, we still managed to view it all as a bit of a lark, an “experiment” in downward mobility.
But things change when you start to allow the experience of your neighbors to shape you, instead of the other way around.
We started to see how things that were easy for us were fraught with complications for many of our neighbors: obtaining fair housing, experiencing limited interactions with the police (who were always respectful to us), having easy access to fair-wage jobs, and enjoying a much lower propensity to be caught (and charged) for minor civil infractions. For a while, we were unable to comprehend what we were seeing and experiencing as bystanders in a divided America. Eventually, the weight of the truth started to settle on our shoulders, calling us to a grief that we never knew was in us, a form of lament that threatened to overwhelm us if we let it.
And one day, it did.
“There is nothing so unpopular as for the crucified God to be made a present reality through faith. It alienates alienated men, who have come to terms with their alienation.” | Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God
The day our neighbor came over and watched my husband and I pour our spirits out was a day that forever changed me. Grieved and imprisoned in our own wounds, the persistent lies we were fed and nurtured, the histories that we swallowed whole, the sins as old as time, we pleaded with him to help us understand.
There was a black boy who died and the person who killed him was let go. Our neighbor stayed for coffee and let us talk, and then he said: You have the luxury of being surprised. Nobody else around here is. In his astounding kindness, my neighbor stayed and talked with us, patient and sorrowful, his weariness more harrowing to my soul than I could begin to understand. That one sentence — You have the luxury of being surprised — will stay with me the rest of my life, a testament to a privilege I no longer want.
It has taken many years, many relationships, cringe-worthy questions and blustering self-righteousness to get to the place that I am today, a place which is still far from where I want to be. My choice of neighborhoods is just the tip of me trying to scale the large mountains of alienation that are inside of me. I feel far from the people in Ferguson, but not as far as I was a few years ago; I feel like I see the wounds of Christ bright red in front of me, but I am still not able to feel them.
“For in fact the world is erupting around us, Christ is very often offering us the scars in his side. What we call doubt is often simply dullness of mind and spirit, not the absence of faith at all, but faith latent in the lives we are not quite living, God dormant in the world to which we are not quite giving our best selves.” | Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss
That people prefer themselves and all others like them is no surprise to any of us, but I am consistently taken aback at how often we refute that our systems might have the exact same kind of problem. Being the minority where I work and live and play has opened my eyes to the way the systems (political and religious) are intrinsically for me. This never bothered me before, until I realized what the converse of that equation is: those systems are actively against others.
That realization alone is enough to stop me. As a Christian, I am conditioned to see the words sin and repentance and judgement swim before my eyes. But this time, the words are infused with new meaning. True repentance, I was always taught, involves turning away from myself and turning toward God. Pleasingly religious and ethereal, these words for me now look almost unbearably practical. It has meant turning toward the ones who are being shut out.
It is this: moving in, listening, reading books. Putting myself in a position to be wrong, to be silent, to be chastised, to be extended forgiveness, to withhold judgement, to invite understanding. I thought the cost would be steep, but it has turned out the opposite. The struggle to convince myself and others around that we were not, in fact, prejudiced people living in a very un-equal country — this is what has caused my soul enormous pain and distance from Christ himself.
And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” Luke 5:31
Because Christ came to suffer with us, and he has no use for people who brightly and loudly exclaim that they indeed are well, that there is no need for radical transformation, no need for someone to save us from the seeds of white supremacy that have been sowed in us from the beginning. So in order to edge nearer to a God who is present in suffering, I had to lay down my mantel of being well. I had to, in the words of a beautiful poet, “start cleaning my house.”
Make no mistake, I am scrubbed raw and bare and I feel the impending panic of how often this process will need to be repeated. But the freedom — the absolute and utter bounty of staring our alienation in the face and telling it to go to hell — is something I will never give up again.
What has and is happening in Ferguson (which is a picture of what is happening all throughout our country) is a warning to all of us who find ourselves as the benefiters of a stratified country. The more we declare that we are well, the farther we will drift from Christ. And he is the only one with the words of life. He is the one offering us his own scars, pleading with us to look at our own.
For further reading on this topic, I recommend these posts: “The Cross and the Molotov Cocktail” by Christena Cleveland “Black Bodies, White Souls” by Austin Channing Brown This comprehensive look at Ferguson and the Michael Brown story And follow Antonio French on Twitter