Church Shopping Begins: Not White, Gay Friendly, Theologically Past Liberal

Today I find myself at a bend in the river that I didn’t see coming.

Our lives were blessed last week with two very precious daughters ages 9 and 10.  For the past year we’ve been planning, taking classes and filling out paper work to become foster parents. And then we waited. When we got the call that Niah and Nae would be coming to live with us, it happened so suddenly that we are still catching our breath.

For one thing, we assumed that our children would be boys. The initial false-start calls had been about boys, white boys. It is mostly boys that are in the system. When we got the call about girls, we were both surprised and delighted.

For another thing, as is often the case in foster care, the children were forced to move without time to gather their belongings. The move for children means a total loss of everything material, and a scramble for the new family to build a wardrobe and the rudimentary trappings of life.

The most surprising piece for me, however, is how protective I suddenly feel for two young African American girls pulled from a world of extended family and tossed into a sea of well intentioned white folk. Social worker, therapist, school principal, and moms – all white women. Everyone is working together and truly impressive in their intention and commitment, but at the end of the day, we bring what we have and I fear that we’re missing a major piece.

As I stood in line with the girls at one of our family’s favorite haunts, Ted Drewes, I experienced in a new way the almost total whiteness of the crowd.  Reminiscent of my coming out experience, I was nonetheless surprised by the experience of otherness. For me, this is an experience that I sought and for which I prepared, for our girls it is not. I looked into their faces expecting to see delight as we partook of the treasured frozen custard, instead I saw distress and heard, “Can we eat this in the car?”

Safely in the car with my dear one in charge of music, the car rocked with girl power dancing and I knew. We need to find at least one community where faces of color are dominant and strong black women are smiling back into the faces of these precious children. But where? I am theological past liberal, having dispensed with the trinity and holding my own with the Friends (Quakers) probably because there are so few words. I suspect my theological qualms are more problematic even than our two-mom family configuration. Nonetheless, I need to swallow my theological attitude and find a church where we can dance as the children (and spirit) lead us.

I posted my query in Facebook: Need to find: racially diverse (not-white), gay friendly, theologically *very* liberal church in St. Louis. Recommendations?

The answers were heartfelt and precious, but illuminating. Several folk recommended a number of really wonderful United Methodist communities.  I think in every case, the churches are pastored by white clergy and in no case are these clergy allowed to honor our family. UMC clergy who dare to preside at same-gender marriages are actually charged and even dismissed from the ranks. While it is heartening to hear of local communities who stand in welcome, I have no desire to participate in an institution that is struggling to see me as fully human.

One friend pointed out the prophetic nature of the query and I pause to consider. Maybe so.

Or maybe it is time to turn the prism. If what our family needs is a place of gathering not headed by white folk, this white woman needs to stop pushing against the current and flow with the river around this bend.

In fairness, the biblical narrative sounds different when preached from a place of oppression. The story was written by and for oppressed communities as a word of both of hope but also of resistance.  Though I had wearied of the story preached from within the affluence of the ‘burbs, I was moved by it’s power in response to the modern passion of Trayvon Martin. Quite frankly, who we are dramatically changes the words we share, regardless of our intent. And today we need to find a not-white preacher.

The girls told me what clothing they needed and I ran around yesterday to find it. This morning we’ll start the arduous but important journey that so many families have faced: church shopping. We’ll start with a United Church of Christ community led by an African American, there are (I think) three in our metro area.

And I’ll watch the girls feet to see if they dance as I learn to follow.

Kindergarten Lessons – Trauma

The very hardest part of my job is not the kids and not my colleagues. Currently I work with a great team of adults and when in the emotional security of my own home it’s very clear to me that the children are sacred beings truly struggling to process trauma that is beyond their ability to process. The very hardest part of my job is facing the me that comes out when pushed beyond my own ability to cope. It is not a me that I wish to own, not a me that I wish to acknowledge, but is a me that I must face (or choose to deny) daily in this setting. This me brings tears to my eyes… and it is this me that I must come to face, own, and love before she too can find healing and peace.

For seven hours each day, I am in a self-contained classroom with 10 little boys and one other adult. Occasionally we go out together for meals (twice each day), PE (daily) and recess; always we travel together. Occasionally another adult is in our classroom for a short time or takes a child out for special services.  On really good days, I can slip out to the bathroom and turn in daily attendance (usually while the kids are in PE); on bad days I forget to drink water and go home dehydrated, grateful that I didn’t have to pee.  Most of our day is spent in the classroom and most of my time is spent catching flying shoes (and pencils and blocks), restraining children to keep them from pummeling one another, and trying to ignore the constant stream of obscenities that flow from any number of sources.  And on very rare moments, I teach reading and math and science.

I would like to write about the bulk of the day when I actually do feel and practice remarkable patience and genuinely high regard for my students. This is the part of the story that I would like to remember.  While it isn’t my goal to be Michelle Pfeiffer (read: the heroine of “Dangerous Minds”), swooping into the chaotic space to sprinkle love-dust that charms the children into new realities of hopefulness, it is my intention to meet the children where they are and without judgement. My task is simply (monumentally) to offer an educational opportunity for children whose behaviors are so egregious that (already in kindergarten) they have been exiled from the public school system.

The problem is that no one is addressing the cause of the behaviors.

The challenges that my children face are far outside my realm of expertise and control; severe and generational poverty, prolonged patterns of abuse and neglect, trauma of every imaginable sort and many beyond imagining. While I am expected to “modify” behaviors, I have no access or tools to address the causes of the behaviors. Quite frankly, every one of my children has a legitimate cause to tantrum and the louder they scream the more certain I am that they have a will to survive. They will need it. To thwart the lament is to disarm the survival skills that they most certainly need.

Yet in the meantime, the children are gathered together into one room with two adults and they have uncovered and are now trampling on my last tender nerve.

I’ve never been a big believer in imposed consequences, which is probably good because my kids, lacking all manner of impulse control, have already been consequenced out of schools and homes and any sort of normal privilege afforded to children. But what to do when the patience wears thin and one more child pushes one more button?  Consequences may be ineffective but safety is paramount and my need for some degree of control is my Achilles heel.

My job description includes physical prompts and redirections and I’ve been encouraged to be quicker to intervene with negative behaviors even as I’m coached to notice and praise the positive ones. The more “successful” I am in confronting the misdeeds (and literally corralling the room), the more I loathe the person that I see. I would like to tell you that I didn’t yell at Michael on Friday, but what was lacking in volume was present in tone. I would like to tell you that I guided him back to his seat, but when he refused to comply and laughed in my face, dragged might be more fair description. I wasn’t my best self.

Perhaps it is worthy to note the places where my spirit breaks. The constant whine of Charles’ foul-mouthed tantrums that mark the start of each new day, the backward spin of Carlton who’d been making such progress and is now inexplicably falling apart, or the tantrums that accompany Donnell’s almost daily toileting escapades (read: not toilet trained). As I type I realize that there is no one cause, no one Achilles heal, no one place where my spirit needs shoring. The challenge is the enormity and constancy of the barrage.

Dealing with trauma is in itself traumatizing.  Perhaps it is also true to say that the children strip away the mask and lie bare the wounded healer that is at my core. Beneath layers of practiced calm and grounded presence lies a child who is herself very tender, a little girl who has a strong need for order and a fear of chaos. This little girl, though unfamiliar, is fierce.  Much like the little boys that fill my classroom, this little girl within has a strong will to survive. I wonder how much of my adult energy has been spent hiding from her and how different my life might be if I found ways to befriend her.  Already she’s helped me to find more direct patterns of communication and inspired me to experience wonder. But like the little boys in my classroom, she needs to know that the adults are present and providing safe boundaries; without that reassurance, she is in full-scale rebellion herself.

For today, I take a moment to acknowledge that my heart hurts. I rehearse the small strategies that our team identified before leaving for the weekend.  Mostly I consider the upside down truth that in our vulnerability we find strength, in our breaking we find wholeness, in our embrace of the questions we let loose of the answers that keep us trapped.  Knowing this to be true, I know that on the other side of this strange current is a gentle stream.

And I give thanks for the resilient little girl who lives deep within, tantrums and all.