Before I was a white woman…

The news of the day is Trump voters feeling betrayed and I awoke pondering patriarchy and the destructive social (and economic) systems with which we unwittingly make pacts.

That Trump voters are experiencing broken promises is really no surprise. Hierarchical dehumanizing systems are constructed with human carnage at their very foundation. The human ego has an unparalleled elasticity that enables us to construct, and indeed escape to, alternative realities where we find ourselves superior and our concerns central. So long as we are compelled with belief, we will march in lock step off the cliff. Indeed, we are now doing so.

Lest we miss the hook, I would suggest that we look much closer to home. As a woman who actively resists the white patriarchal capitalist machine, I was surprised to discover that I’d raised a son who didn’t. Equally I have been surprised to discover how patriarchy functions, post divorce, in my extended family of origin. I type these words and would love to rant, but the real concern is not the persistence of patriarchy but rather the surprise of the one who claims to resist.

Despite my commitment to the politics, despite my work in the institution of church, and dogged work on theological language and imagery, the bottom line is that I lived in, fed on, and profited from an institution built by the white patriarchal capitalist system. I was in it. My children were washed in the waters not only of the mythic blood of Jesus but the brick and mortar church, and all that comes with it. While I talked about the waters of Mary’s womb and the land flowing with milk and honey, I also knew how to soften challenge with a smile, how to defer in speech and posture, how to survive and (yes) prosper in the patriarchy. No doubt my children learned from both the explicit and implicit messages, and too the duplicity.

I survived. Quite well, in fact. Until I dared to believe that I deserved something different, something more, something apart from the patriarchy. As I stepped away and claimed my truth, an absolutely predictable unraveling began. Likewise predictable was my surprise.

Because we always think that somehow we are special. That the crushing weight of the machine will give us a pass. That our years of allegiance and toil have given us particular grace. That we are, whatever definition we give to the “we” and the “us”, included and privileged in a system of patronage. That we are, well, individuals.

Particularly toxic in the American mythology is the promise of individualism. This promise is the hook to our ego that will make a poor white coal miner in Kentucky vote for Donald Trump, believing that rage focused on the other will provide blessing to us, that we (whomever the we are) are somehow different, special, deserving. This hook is what makes a starry eyed young mom believe that she can raise a son in the cesspool of patriarchy and not have him grow up and look down; that her teaching, her love, her sacrifice (and no) will transcend. This misguided notion of singular superiority, this ego, is what drives us to drink and shop and sex and watch our minds into oblivion because truly the ego can never be sated.

Salvation isn’t in the ego. It will never have enough.

And our surprise is indicative only of our misplaced trust.

Wherein lies our hope? Perhaps the unlikely promise accredited to Jesus that even the blade of grass has value; not in isolation, not as an individual, but as an integral part of the whole. So too the feather on the bird, the grain of sand, the ant, and me. Neither greater nor lesser, but one amongst many. At one with, atonement. Radically inclusive not as we bring them to our table, but as we step away from the table and sit amongst creation feeling the ground beneath our feet and rediscovering ourselves in the eyes of our neighbor.

http://www.catherineshafer.com/capes.html

Sometimes when I am in a sacred circle of queer folk, I catch a glimpse of who I was before I was a white woman in America.

And we, together, are very good.

 

 

Still Preaching, No Longer Nice

Once upon a time I was a 20-something seminary graduate working with men who were homeless in Phoenix. Senior Bush was president and Senator Kennedy was still preening as an advocate for the downtrodden. I was driving to work and Kennedy was on the radio talking about the importance of a minimum wage that was sustainable and the concession that the wage would apply only to employees after a predetermined training period. I was livid and began yelling at the radio.

The dates have changed but the conversation is the same.

At the time, I knew how grotesque and misleading the conversation. I knew that those MOST vulnerable were those working day labor, those who slept in flop houses and (yep) shelters. Day laborers are “new hires” every single day with no chance of ever getting anything above the most minimum of the minimum wage. In other words, the words were simply that: words. Empty, meaningless, help absolutely no one who was hungry and homeless words. With a new theology degree, a belief that I had some “call” from a higher power, and eyes on the street, I commenced to spend nearly a quarter century preaching about justice.

Fast forward: nothing improved in this nation. In fact we are going backwards at a clip that is simply mind numbing and utterly terrifying. The already frayed and failing safety nets, fundamental to survival in an laissez faire capitalist society, are now simply being removed. This week the current president unveiled his budget plan which cuts after school programs (and meals) for children and Meals on Wheels for seniors. Like, really?

So I spend my early morning penning an article connecting a local shooting with its root cause (hunger) and find myself on FB in a war of words with a privileged white man defending the shooting because he works at a really great food pantry in the area. Um, yeah. His thesis is that because there is at least one bountiful food pantry, no one has an excuse to be hungry.  As if hunger ever demanded an excuse. As if standing in line for a charitable handout is ever a positive experience. As if the bag of discarded groceries is ever the same quality and choice as the bag one would choose.

Can we talk about the food at the pantries, for just a moment? Can we talk about the day-old bread, the yogurt at (or beyond) code date, the scarcity of meat, and the labor intensive bags of (unseasoned) rice? Can we talk about the presumption of food storage options, the presumption of utilities to power stoves and refrigerators? Can we talk about the questionnaires, the ID requirements, the carefully documented visits? All of these are important conversations, but not mine today.

Bottom line: We need food pantries. And we need to share out of our own pantry. But neither are a substitute for justice and our charitable contributions do not not ease the guilt of our intransigent involvement in an economy that quite literally robs food from the mouths of children so that the uber wealthy can eat caviar. Judgment of the one who heads to the nearest supermarket to pick up dinner with a gun (plentiful) instead of a credit card (denied) is misplaced. Judgment belongs with the denial of access to basic life necessities and the proliferation of fire arms, not with guy who went in search of dinner.

But here’s the rub: if we dare to see the problem in it’s enormity and our (white folk) complicity, we quickly become paralyzed. If we see pitiful folk not able to help themselves, we can muster charity, feel good about ourselves, and believe that we’ve staved off hunger for another day. If we dare to see the inequity of the distribution, the fundamental injustice, and the desperate state of things, we are justifiably fearful. If we consider our own abundance (as white folk) in tandem, we cannot help but feel the sting of shame. And if we’re not feeling it, we’re not seeing it.

Now, what to do.

I really believed, as only a 20-something can, that I could preach us out of this sinful place. And trust me, I preached good and long and hard. While I do believe that what ails us as a nation, the original sin that manifests in such grotesque mischaracterizations of justice, is at its root a spiritual problem, churches are (ironically but essentially) unable to address this tap root. By their very definition, churches exist to comfort folk and insofar as they trouble the waters funding and stability are quickly lost. If we are ever to address the root, we (white folk) are gonna be troubled. Very. Even as I preached my heart out (quite literally), I always smiled and tried my best to keep a polite and palatable coating on the most pointed of messages. Always end with a word of hope, always end with something sweet.

This morning as I considered the death of man accused of taking food from a nearby grocery, I am no longer beholden to the church and find myself not very nice. Spicey would be the best face, down right antagonistic is probably closer. But the hunger that I saw as a young woman has intensified in America and is currently reaching catastrophic levels. And this even before the latest budget proposals cut even more safety nets.

So if you come on my page preening about your work at the food pantry, expect pushback. Trust me, my sharp tongue is about as good as it’s gonna get on this road to hell.

If it ain’t justice, I’m not buying.
#resist
#StormTheBastille

 

 

 

Hunger in America

Last night in St. Louis a man went to his local Aldi store and never came home. Apparently he was attempting to leave the store with food for which he hadn’t paid. A security guard tried to stop him. The man showed a gun and tried to leave, the security guard persisted and then fired a gun. The man is dead.

The investigation and report will center around the guns.

Unfortunately the conversation won’t be about the proliferation of guns. That’s a conversation we need to have. If EITHER the man or the security guard had been without one, there would be no blood on the pavement. No, we won’t talk about the militarization of the police and now even the armed rent-a-cop services. Instead we will talk about the he-said-she-said of who showed and/or pulled whose first. Quite frankly, in the heated moment that ended in bloodshed, with testosterone and adrenalin racing, the finer points are all but lost. Now it’s just a blame game.

But I’m still back at the alleged crime.

This wasn’t a hold up. This wasn’t a break in. This was a man trying to get food to eat. One witness said that it was “meat” and I found myself wondering if that makes any difference. Is it a larger offense to steal a steak than a loaf of bread? Would the guard have been less likely to persist if the man had taken Ramen?

Where my heart is stuck in my throat is the bitter truth that MANY people in America are HUNGRY today. With inadequate (and sometimes no) money to buy groceries, even at Aldi.

And do we really want to live in a world in which the consequence for stealing* dinner is death?

(*I use the word stealing hesitantly because fundamentally I believe that the fruit of the earth belongs to the creatures of the earth. Theft is when the oligarchs hoard the food and dispense it in limited supply while the people starve. I would contend that the food belongs to the people. But that’s another story for another day.)

In the opening scene of Disney’s Aladdin there is a chase between a hungry youth who’s taken a loaf of bread from a vendor (without payment) and an enforcer who is destined to destroy the youth. Watching the scene with my babies (20 years ago?), I was still in the negligent-naivete that our community was free from that brutality, that we were somehow enlightened. (White supremacy much?) The cruelty in the film was for me palpable and at odds with the upbeat music, but I consciously took solace in my ignorant ideas.

Recent life experiences have disabused me of the naiveté. I know that hunger is all too real, and for people whom I love. I know that the state (in any number of costumes) is ready to pounce at the slightest misstep to shed blood and/or fill for-profit prison beds (21st century slavery). I didn’t need last night’s horror to prove the point.

I awake this morning and write about it, though, for any who still might be sleeping. The hunger stirring in this land isn’t hypothetical and it’s not relegated to philosophical discussions of liberation. People are hungry.

Excuses are just that.
#StormTheBastille
#resist

Allegiance Beyond the Institution

Every morning I stand in a classroom with middle school children as a voice drones over the loudspeaker telling us to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. Every morning I make a choice.

A young girl puts her hand over heart while reciting the “Pledge of Allegiance” in class.

While I stand with the others, daily I resist as my arms hang limp at my sides and my mouth remains closed. Early in ministry I was gifted with this clarity: I pledge allegiance to no nation-state, my allegiance is always, only, to God.

Over the decades the names I use to describe the object of my allegiance have shifted, so too my understanding of how to be in service. What is constant is an awareness that I answer, always and ultimately, to a power that is beyond my knowing. As I stand in resistance these days, I do so with substantial privilege but without the shield of church.  To serve an unseen deity behind the banner of an institution is one thing, to claim this same devotion and duty apart from institutional sanction feels at points both vulnerable and exhilarating.

To whom or what does my allegiance now lie?

Last month was fifth consecutive February spent in prayerful discernment of call outside the church. It began as fitful as every other, but ended this time with precious clarity and release. In truth, part of me never expected my leave-taking to be permanent. The public me was clear and strong and steady; this church gig has been a good and faithful road, and it is finished. This me requested (and received, kinda – but that’s another story) official retirement from the church. Yet there was a very real part of me that was storming off the metaphorical playground, wishing and hoping and praying that I would be invited back. As I prayed through the drab days of February for the fifth time, I considered potential avenues for coming back. Starting a church seemed the most compelling; but I also logged onto the denominational site and began completing my paperwork to job search. Simultaneously there was push back from the universe in ways I could not ignore. Ultimately the truth (that I’d carried all along) was again clear: it is finished. My allegiance is neither to nation-state nor institution.

But where then does my allegiance play out?

One of February’s gifts was serendipitous conversations with friends rooted in my childhood and an emotional journey back to adolescence and the moment of call. I found myself reliving the moment that I identified in evangelical circles as my “born again” experience, but it was more an experience of transcendence. I was in my car, the sun was setting, and in that moment a clarity, a certainty. I knew that I belonged to the rhythm itself, to the movement of the setting sun, to life. Yes. Yes to God and all of the trappings that came with the yes in American Christianity.

Tragically the yes came with patriarchy and white supremacy and capitalist nonsense that left me making a big salary and feeling broke, married to a man when I really longed to be with women, and drinking bottles of wine to keep all of the lies spinning in unison. Now as I peel back the years and the layers, the yes is still very clear. Ironically, or perhaps predictably, I discover that the trappings actually functioned to mute the call and hijack my allegiance. All these miles and years and necessary dramas later, the call itself is as clear and strong as it was that day nearly forty years ago. And my answer is still an unequivocal yes.

But called to whom?

The call is to community, to our neighborhood, to the earth itself. The church to which I am called is the community, cyber and embodied and work and leisure. The church is the world, our neighborhood, our circle of friends.  My allegiance is to this earth and the holiness of this moment and the passion for justice that burns bright even now. Freed from budgets and buildings and committees and institutional politics, my work is clear. To see and tend and nurture and celebrate that which is holy, here, now. To offer prophetic witness to that which is just, to find and share courage in this era of latent evil unleashed. To live this ordinary life bearing witness to that which is extraordinary.

My pledge of allegiance is always, only, to life’s longing for itself. Distant as the farthest star and yet closer than my next breath. And it is very good.

 

 

 

FB Hiatus

Earlier this week I had to suddenly and unceremoniously unplug from Facebook. (Troll drama, long story.) Today is day three and, while the withdrawal was not as fierce as expected, I find myself not yet experiencing the promised freedom. Truth be told, I’ll be ready to log back on this weekend. But for today, I am here. In the slow lane.

Serendipitously, over the weekend I had made the commitment to return to this page and blogging. What I had forgotten is that the addicting quality of FB is that you can spend 5 minutes or 50. Blogging takes more time, more commitment; FB will suck in your entire life but also allows for an infinite number of drive-bys. And on school mornings when I’m on the rush, I have just about 5 minutes.

Knowing that the quality of writing improves with time to both consider and edit, I find myself wondering if the quality of content similarly suffers in the  endless cycling of social media. I suspect that depth of thought is often shy in my quick morning jots. On the other hand, there is a candor when one has slight time to waver.

My Facebook posting has earned real friends, genuine critics, and a whole lot of head shaking. Curiously, or not so, most of the white men from my old church life have fallen away; my feed these days is genuinely racially diverse and largely queer friendly. I’m struck that the undoctored stream of consciousness has created a space quite different from the one that kept me cloistered (and perhaps uninformed) while serving the church. As I continue to understand call from this side of the door, I wonder if Facebook is for me church or addiction or both.

This morning I have a late start at school and time to complete and edit (briefly) a thought in this space. What I don’t have is a stream of others doing the same, simultaneously sharpening my thought and smoothing the edge. Blogging is a solitary writing exercise. Invaluable, distinct. But I miss the community that both inspires, cheers, and holds accountable.

In this strange new world we’ve entered, I suspect we will need both-and.

[Note: My dear one just gave the all clear to log back onto Facebook. And I think I just might.]

888 votes shy of change

Tishaura Jones with Lyda Krewson, St. Louis Public Radio

Yesterday I had the privilege of voting for a candidate that I truly wanted to see win, a candidate who shared (at least verbally) values that I cherish, a candidate who (though human) demonstrates leadership that I can get behind.

And she lost. By 888 votes.

Which in most ways of measuring was a historic win.

This is racist St. Louis and the race was for the Democratic ticket in the mayoral race. The city is legendary for racism and this was a race between a white woman and a Black woman – and three Black men (plus a couple on either side who had names on the ballot but no campaigns). There were four viable and actively campaigning Black folk and one white woman. Odds had it that the white woman was an easy win. And though she did, at the end of the night, win… it was a narrow victory and an important lesson.

Not everyone in St. Louis wants the status quo.
Not even every white person wants the Delmar Divide.

In fact there are lots of us, across lines of race and class and whatever other barrier one might erect, that recognize in Tishaura Jones a bold and visionary kind of leadership rooted in racial equity that we can get behind. That we *want* to get behind.

While Lyda Krewson got the narrow victory and the party endorsement, she does not have the will of the people. In fact she received only 32% of the votes within her own party. A technical win, but a clear message. We are ready for change.

When Less is More

Sometimes less is more.
Sometimes one is enough.
Sometimes the still small voice beckons from deep within.

And this too is very good.

The morning is quiet and I ponder what can be heard when the pace slows. I see the tree still barren even as the earth warms. I hear the rhythm of the washing machine as it cleans up the mess. I notice the anxiety that pops up from the still small space.

This anxiety is part of who I am. It is the energy that makes one drink too many and the bottle not enough. It is the insecurity that makes small talk painful. It is the frightened child who wants to be perfect, and perfectly quiet. This anxiety matters, so I listen this morning.

The world is scary now. In truth it has always been thus. The color of my skin and the situation of my birthing provided privilege that largely shielded me from the most potent portals of evil. But the seed, that fragile place deep inside me that is prey for the tap roots of evil, this is not eradicated with privilege. In fact it is nursed and nourished in places of privilege, my insecurity is the necessary hook for “imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy” (bell hooks) to thrive. And thrive it has.

The urgency of this time is clear, all hands on deck. Yet never have I felt more impotent than as I face the gravity of the evil that confronts us today. In that sentence I see the role that whiteness plays. Once upon a time, when I saw so much less but held the microphone, I felt powerful. Letting go of the microphone, I see so much more but now feel the powerlessness. Discovered, if one dares, is a place of humility, a recognition of limits; perhaps this can be a heart and mind more open to faithful next steps.

Prayer Vigil in Ferguson. Photo by dcarson@post-dispatch.com

Pausing to honor the breath, allowing the anxiety to release, the next right step that is mine will emerge. One tiny step at a time. For the tide to come, each molecule of water must yield to the movement of the whole. Yielding is perhaps the most important work of all.

Relinquishing that which has provided a faux sense of power (uniform, title, microphone, standing), allowing myself to feel the impotence and yet still breathe, this is the call. Here I discover, again and again, a power beyond my own in which I can trust with that scared little monster deep inside. Here she can finally come out and (wtf took so long!) grow up. Here there is healing and, god willing, release from the snares.

Feet firmly planted, anxiety acknowledged, let the footed prayers commence.

Returning to the Water

When I left the church, I was gifted with a story. The story was of a child leaving her beloved playground and heading, alone, toward the river. The metaphor was rich and one that has continued to unfold with new meaning over time. Not surprisingly I have avoided the two most salient pieces: river, alone.

In fairness, all I had known for all of my adult life was church. It was my family, my social circle, my profession, my meal ticket. Church was life. And walking away from church was the most painful (and graceless) thing I have ever done in my life.

A year ago, a dear friend challenged me to start a new church. I held the call, felt it’s familiarity. For a full year I have looked at this call, prayed, talked with others, wondered aloud, started, faltered, prayed more. Recently I met with another friend who suggest that I spend a month in prayer (the infamous 40 days). I fancied Nehemiah’s writing of the vision and imagined that I would emerge with my own.

As the 40 days came round and I found myself still empty handed I felt cheated. And then I saw what was sitting inside me all along. The story. The story given to me, almost five years ago now, was the story of leaving the playground and heading to the river alone.  Not building a new playground. Not replacing my old cohort with a new one. But going to the river, the source itself, by myself.

As I look back over the past four years, I realize that I left the playground and at times ventured to the edge of the water. Most of the time, though, I have sat in the woods and sulked. Transitions suck. Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise. Holding the challenge from my friends pushed me from lethargy; either build a new playground or return to the story. The more I avoided the story, the more I worked on a new playground, the more befuddled I felt.

What I knew to be true as I first left the playground is that the playground is faux. The river and the forest that surrounds it comes from the earth itself, it is real and sustainable. And harsh. People die. The evil that we wonder about and script on the playground plays out with harsh abandon at the river’s edge. Also true is the intoxicating power of fresh air. The source of life itself is nowhere more apparent than at the water’s edge.

As I gulped in this fresh air, I began to see that as religion functions to interpret experience of the sacred it unwittingly provides a veil. Life lived far from the playground is unveiled, there is slight protection from the elements. PTSD is real for those who pray with their feet. The lure of the playground, it’s safety and conformity, is understandable.

But the river beckons.

What I know to be true as I stand against the rough bark of the tree is that I can’t go back and, at long last, I think I am ready to go forward. My life is now is here, at the river’s edge. Without benefit of clergy, liturgy, institution, or external validation save the sound of the creation itself. This is my call, this is my truth.

And I feel as if the weight of the world has been lifted from my shoulders.
Maybe because it has.

Hillary: white lady to white lady

Dear Hillary,

We’re both nice white ladies, liberals who love the Children’s Defense Fund. When a friend suggest that I address you directly, I was hesitant. But after watching (a video of) the speech you shared in our community yesterday, I feel like we need to talk.

You spent a fair amount of your words talking as a Christian white woman, invoking scriptural images and using theologically potent concepts. As a white lady Christian pastor, I appreciated the attempt but also felt the chaff.

Jesus’ teaching does include the infamous “70×7” forgiveness challenge, and it is also true that many deeply devout Black Christians offered words of forgiveness in the throes of grief after the massacre at Emanual AME. But when you or I, white women, pick up those words and hold them up as an expectation to a people bent over with sorrow, there is no balm. In fact, the taking and using of those words and images is an appropriation which serves to salt the very wound you would bandage.

images-1

Quite frankly, as white women, even as white women who’s mother’s knew hard times, we don’t get to pretend that we understand what a Black mother’s grief looks like. We just don’t. We don’t know and it is the essence of erasure to pretend that we do.

And because we cannot understand the pain and the loss that confronts Black women in America on a daily basis, we cannot stand in judgement. To nod approvingly, as you did so graciously, is no less judgmental than a scowl of disapproval; the offense of judgement isn’t simply to be found wanting, the offense is in the assumption of power and privilege by the one offering judgement. You assumed a seat of power and privilege as you favorably judged the actions of the grieving community in Charleston. Witness to the insult was that though you had much support during the speech, no one clapped as you heaped praise on the forgivers; the room silently waited as you heaped insult on injury.

 

Much has already been written by Black women that I trust about the failed rush to forgiveness. While spiritual warriors are often able to detangle themselves from revenge, Jesus also suggested that we are to be not only as gentle as doves but also as wise as serpents. True forgiveness is a process which takes time and one that requires accountability, forgiveness is not a blank slate and a new beginning.

Desmond Tutu offered the prayer that you echoed with your “love is stronger than hate” phrase. He is also an architect of South Africa’s powerful Truth and Reconciliation work. When we do our homework, we learn that this work could not be done until Apartheid was over. The new Jim Crow is not yet over, any rush to forgiveness in America is premature. The other key piece we learn from Tutu’s work is that reconciliation comes only with the speaking of truth; for this too we wait.

Clearly you meant well. You are a politician with ambition, you are also a nice white lady, a liberal like me with good intentions. I understand, all to well, what you meant. But your message failed, and it was, for many of us, deeply offensive. I write in hopes that as nice white ladies, we might learn from one another because, quite literally, Black lives are on the line, now.

Most sincerely,

#BlackLivesMatter
#whitefolkwork

 

white mothers, we need to talk…

#‎EricHarris‬
when human lives are reduced to hashtags,
every mother’s heart should weep
every mother’s womb should convulse.

but some mother’s son
was on the other side of the hashtag
pulling the trigger
cursing the dying man’s last breath
pounding his skull into the pavement
as life left his body.

and this is the problem for a mother’s soul:
not which side are you on,
no,
for mother’s are always on the side of life
complicated and messy, yes, but
life.

but what is life when you have to ask
where you will find your son;
was your son the hashtag
or the one creating the hashtag,
the one with position and power
or the one crying out.

because we raise our sons,
we all do,
to rise to their greatest heights;
but what then do we do
when their heights are positions of power
with weapons
in the machinery of the ‪#‎newjimcrow‬?
do we love them less?
or do we shield our heart from the hashtags?

and in that moment
that Sophie’s choice
that impossible place
white supremacy triumphs
and our souls begin their descent
into hell.

white mothers of white sons,
we must talk.
‪#‎whitefolkwork‬
‪#‎BlackLivesMatter‬