Of Prayers, Protests, and the Body

Just before 7 p.m on July 7, as protesters gathered in Belo Garden Park, in Dallas, Texas, I settled onto a hard wooden seat in the choir stall of St. John’s Abbey Church in Collegeville, Minnesota. As they chanted “enough is enough,” we chanted Psalm 59: “You have been a refuge in the day of my distress.” As they shouted, we sat in silence. As they marched, we bowed.

I imagine everyone was praying, in our own ways. At the church, we prayed in formal style, a monk beseeching God, the congregation responding: “Lord, hear our prayer.” One monk prayed for “Philando Castille and his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds.” I wondered if Philando and Diamond were members of this church. I wondered what had happened, that they merited the prayers of this holy community.

I had no idea that just eighty miles away from where I sat, Philando had been killed by a police officer the night before.

On retreat at a writing workshop, I had not been keeping up with the news. I had no idea that just eighty miles away from where I sat, Philando had been killed by a police officer the night before. No idea that Diamond had somehow had the presence of mind to begin recording the incident even as her boyfriend sat bleeding beside her. I had no idea, but I prayed for Philando and Diamond: “Lord, hear our prayer.”

As peaceful yet angry people continued to gather and chant and march in Denver, I recited the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, they will be done on earth.” I received the blessing. I watched the men in black robes file out of their seats, bow to the cross, and head back to their mysterious—though likely mundane—monkish lives.

Later that night, I was drinking and laughing with my friends when the gunshots rang out on the streets of Dallas. Were we talking about church politics, or bad dates, or our cute dogs when the first police officer died? And then the second. And the third. And the fourth. And the fifth.

I slept well that night, but some of my friends at the retreat did not. One woman had a frantic text from a friend whose husband is a police officer in Dallas—whose husband was at the protest and hadn’t come home yet—whose husband, she thankfully learned later, was not physically harmed in the attack. One man from Nigeria received an early morning call from his sister. His family heard about the black man shot in Minnesota and they were worried, because he was a black man—in Minnesota. “Come home to Nigeria where it is safe,” his sister begged him.

It is a strange experience, to be on retreat while the world is falling apart. I did read some news stories, but not deeply. I did skim Facebook, but I didn’t participate in the conversations—not the important ones. Because I wanted my week away.

It is a strange experience, to be on retreat while the world is falling apart. I did read some news stories, but not deeply. I did skim Facebook, but I didn’t participate in the conversations—not the important ones. Because I wanted my week away. Even as people were dying, I wanted to walk by the lake, enjoy the beautiful gardens, gaze at the stained glass windows, listen to the breezes and the birds. And I did all of these things, but with an underlying consciousness that my space, the peace of my moment, was far from the reality of many.

Being on retreat during these events heightened the struggle I feel in the face of any national or international tragedy: What is the appropriate response? Or rather, the good response? How do I acknowledge and honor the pain of strangers? How do I live into the truth that we are all connected to each other? How do I maintain my own sanity and fulfill my ongoing obligations while still giving time and energy to address what is happening in the world?

Being on retreat during these events heightened the struggle I feel in the face of any national or international tragedy: What is the appropriate response? Or rather, the good response?

I care about the hurting people. I care about the injustices in the world. I want to speak and act against racism and homophobia and gun violence. I want to write powerful words and preach prophetic sermons and pray faithful prayers. And I want to watch Netflix. And I need to have supper ready by five because my daughter has gymnastics tonight.

I generally end up doing all of these things. I write and preach and pray and watch Netflix and make dinner. Though I increasingly recognize that not needing to worry about my nineteen-year-old son being shot by police is a luxury parents of black boys don’t have. And my ease makes me uneasy.

I want to speak and act against racism and homophobia and gun violence. I want to write powerful words and preach prophetic sermons and pray faithful prayers. And I want to watch Netflix.

Paul, the New Testament missionary/writer, and I have something of a love/hate relationship. One of his concepts I love is the metaphor of church as a body. “The body is not made up of one part but of many . . . If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?” (1 Corinthians 12:14,17) This metaphor helps sustain me when I struggle with what to do, when I feel guilty that I’m not doing enough.

Paul specifically applies this metaphor to the church, but I consider its application to community more broadly. We are a body with each other—across the country and around the world. This may sound a little cheesy, and if you’re of a certain age you might have an image of swaying pop stars singing “We are the world” and be tempted to roll your eyes.

Go ahead and get the eye rolling out of your system. Then consider the implications of the metaphor. Being a body means that we are connected—head to toe connected. If you stub your toe, the message courses along your nerves all the way up to your brain. If you injure an eye, it makes your hands and arms less precise because it messes with your depth perception. An inner ear infection can make you tip over. . . . You get the idea. All connected.

Being a body means that we are connected—head to toe connected. If you stub your toe, the message courses along your nerves all the way up to your brain.

At a basic level, this connection means that what is harmful to some is, ultimately, harmful to all. As Martin Luther King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” When we say, “Black lives matter,” it is not a denial that other lives also matter. It is a claim that black lives are not being properly valued; and in failing to value black lives, we harm the quality of life for everyone. I do not want to live in a society where anyone of any race gets abused or shot by police for having a toy gun or reaching for his ID or asking to see a search warrant or being a little grumpy when they get pulled over for failing to signal a lane change. As Paul reminds us, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26).

I do not want to live in a society where anyone of any race gets abused or shot by police for having a toy gun or reaching for his ID or asking to see a search warrant or being a little grumpy when they get pulled over for failing to signal a lane change.

In addition to telling us why we should work for justice—because we are all connected—this metaphor also gives us insight into how we can continue to do the work of justice. The eye focuses on seeing. The stomach digests the food. The legs hold us up and move us forward. And we each do the work that is in front of us to do, while trusting that other parts of the body are doing the work that is in front of them to do. “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another” (Romans 12:4-5).

I teach my children and preach to my congregation and write my columns. Others research the criminal justice system and police brutality and traffic stops. Others organize rallies and gather people on social media and in real life. Others promote legislation that will address the systemic racism in our country. Others work from within police departments to change police policies and procedures. The work being done is as varied as the people doing it.

A body works best when the eyes do the seeing and the stomachs the digesting and the legs the walking. Movements for justice work best when we each do what we are given to do. When we do it well. And when we cheer on others who are doing the work they have been given to do.

A body works best when the eyes do the seeing and the stomachs the digesting and the legs the walking. Movements for justice work best when we each do what we are given to do.

This is a comfort to me. Because there is so much I am not doing. There is so much I cannot do. And some things that, if I’m honest, I don’t want to do.

This body metaphor is a comfort to me because I was praying with a bunch of monks while people were marching in the streets insisting that Black Lives Matter. I need to trust that my contemplation and prayers, conversations and tears, are also part of the work that must be done.

top photo by Will H McMahan on Unsplash

Today’s Headlines

You’ve seen me before. I boarded your bus last week, in the afternoon.

I was the one wearing round black headphones around my neck like a DJ; I was the one in the slouchy red shorts and the too-large white Nike tennis shoes. I was the black one. My two friends and I crowded into the back of the bus, laughing, loud, because school had ended for the day and we are fourteen and it was only 3 p.m. You glanced back at me, annoyed, because you wanted to read the day’s headlines about Charlottesville in peace, and I was singing Beyonce in falsetto, my two friends in hysterics.

When the white man, age fifty-one, shouted from his seat in front of you, “Shut up, N____!” you bowed your head.

When my friends shouted back to defend me, when the white man lunged for us, when the white man threw his first punch at my black face, you closed your eyes and faced forward.

You’ve talked to me before. Last night in Starbucks, you sat waiting for a friend to meet you for mochas and an hour or two of catching up, and you noticed me at the next table bent over a thick biology textbook, a pen in my hand. Maybe ordinarily you would not have interrupted me, but I looked so young and earnest, and — well — I had brown skin and long glossy black hair. As a student, I surprised you. You wondered if I had been adopted.

“What are you studying?” you wanted to know, though the front cover of my textbook told you clearly.

“I’m in the pre-med program at UCD,” I told you, and then I bowed my head to return to mitosis and osmosis.

“Where are you from?”

“Here,” I said, because I have lived in Denver since my parents brought me here at age five. We waded across the slow-moving Rio Grande on a night so dark I could not see my mother, though I held her hand tightly. My father lifted me up and over a fence that tore at my clothes, and for long minutes I stood in Los Estados Unidos all alone while he helped my mother, who was pregnant with my baby brother. The crickets sounded the same in America as they had in Mexico, and the dusty road my family walked into the outskirts of El Paso, where my uncle waited for us, could have been a road anywhere, too.

“But where are you really from?”

I could have told you I have DACA status, that I emerged from the shadows with hope that I could study thick textbooks in coffee shops like any other American. I could have pointed to today’s headline about Trump ending the DACA program; I could have told you that, if I get deported to Mexico, I will walk into a country I do not know except in dreams and into a language I speak, pero mis sueños son en ingles.

Instead, I said, “I’m from here,” and I turned back to my studying.

You’ve needed my help before. At Chicago O’Hare one morning last month, you passed me pulling a wheeled black carry-on behind you, your turquoise faux leather purse slung across your chest. You looked weary: dark circles sagged beneath your eyes, you walked slowly, your mouth hung slack. I stood beside my duffle reading the day’s headlines in The Chicago Tribune.

“Excuse me, sir,” you said, “I don’t mean to bother you. Do you know if there’s a place to get breakfast nearby?”

I folded my newspaper under one arm and surveyed the area. I was on my way home to Iowa from Afghanistan after two years of duty. The moment I’d landed in New York several hours before, I had rushed to the first McDonalds I could find to buy myself a bacon, egg, and cheese biscuit, hash browns, black coffee. Every bite tasted as perfectly greasy and salty as I had remembered. Watching me, people grinned knowingly. The tall slender young man in Army fatigues wolfing down McDonalds deserved this real American food. An old white-haired woman tucked a ten-dollar bill into my pocket. “Thank you for serving us, son,” she said. I used the ten dollars to buy another breakfast.

Now you looked at me with the same mix of respect and awe, the same belief that of all the people in this airport, I was trustworthy because I wore a U.S. Army uniform.

I caught sight of a Caribou Coffee stand. “I’ll walk you there,” I said, and I offered you my arm, because young men in uniform do that for older women. You took it gratefully, leaning on it. You told me as we walked that your mother had just died, that you were so tired.

Would you have leaned on my arm if you had known you leaned on the arm of a man born into a body identified as female? Would you have trusted me so much if you had known that I served for two years in Afghanistan praying my commander would keep my secret for me? Today’s headlines told me Trump will ban transgender soldiers from the military. I am so tired.

“Thank you, young man,” you said in front of Caribou Coffee. I bowed my head to you, and then I turned on my heel. My mother waited in Cedar Rapids to embrace her son.

You’ve watched me on TV before. It was late at night, and you turned on the TV because you couldn’t sleep, and the BBC was running a documentary on North Korea. You decided to watch because your grandfather fought in Korea in the 1950s, and you realized you knew nothing at all about that war. You learned that your grandfather and the other U.S. troops fought to defend South Korea from the Soviet-supported North Korea, that North Korea’s invasion was the first official action of the Cold War. You learned that the UN forces almost lost. You learned that the fighting ended with an armistice and the creation of the Korean Demilitarized Zone, but that technically the two sides are still at war. You wished you had asked your grandfather more questions.

The documentary includes shaky footage of people interviewed on the South Korean side of the DMZ. There I am: a young man with short, well-groomed black hair, a white button-down shirt open at the collar, a shy smile. I surprise you. I speak English well, and I look directly into the camera, telling the BBC reporter that the world must not forget Korea. I do not say “South Korea.” My grandmother and father live in the north still, I say. My great-grandfather fought in the Fatherland Liberation War in the 1950s, I say.

On the bottom of the screen, the day’s headlines scrolled. North Korea has just successfully tested a hydrogen bomb, and the UN is discussing strict sanctions. Trump says he will not rule out a military response. You paused the documentary and stared at a photograph of the DMZ: sky blue buildings, green grass, razor wire looping along a fence edge, a soldier standing guard over a rectangle of empty stone.

Briefly, you wonder if your grandfather ever looked into the eyes of my great-grandfather.

Then you turn off the TV.

I know you. You do not have to read the day’s headlines. You can camp for an entire weekend in the woods, blissfully free from any notifications, and return home rejuvenated. You can do this because they do not attack you or your children on public buses or in the street because of your skin color — you are white. You can avoid the day’s headlines because they do not threaten to deport you to the country in which you were born — your ancestors safely arrived in America, legally or illegally, one hundred and fifty years ago. You can ignore the news because they do not brandish pitchforks outside your door, crying “Monster!” — in your skirts, you safely live as the sex into which you were born. You can refuse to hear today’s latest announcements because they do not cavalierly suggest the annihilation of your homeland — you live in the United States.

And so you imagine you can close your eyes, drink your Starbucks mocha, turn off your phone and the TV and the computer. You imagine today’s headlines, terrible as they are, do not apply to you.

But you’ve seen me. You’ve talked to me. You’ve needed my help. You’ve watched me on TV. And someday, they will come for you.

And in that moment, you will pray that someone else has paid attention, that someone else is brave enough to speak — to act — to stand — for you.

Here’s what you can do today:

  • read the newspaper, every day (especially papers like The Guardian, which give an outside-U.S. perspective)
  • donate to an immigrant rights group to support DACA students (I donate to Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition)
  • donate to the ACLU, LambdaLegal, Human Rights Campaign, and other organizations that support the rights of all people, including transgender people who wish to serve in the military
  • oppose ANY form of racism and ANY organization that supports or spreads the ideas of white supremacy
  • call your senator and insist that the U.S. work with the UN on North Korea through careful diplomacy, not military action
  • refuse to be silent — Trump’s support (even passive) of white supremacists, his discontinuation of DACA, his ban on transgender people in the military, his aggressive stance on North Korea, and many, many other of his actions are wrong — and will hurt us all

top photo by Megha Ajith on Unsplash

Anger Is Energy

Solange Knowles may be Beyoncé’s younger sister, but that doesn’t mean she’s content to stay shadowed in a corner.

Yes, Solange may not be a household brand, but I can’t help but think that she prefers it this way. This level of celebrity allows Solange to directly critique anti-blackness and white supremacy in America without the fear of public backlash that could destroy her pop culture bankability.

Beyoncé, who rarely gives interviews, may not take a publicly vocalized stance on issues of social justice, but she often makes her support known through financial support. Earlier this year, Queen Bey and husband Jay Z donated $1.5 million to the Black Lives Matter movement, in addition to other civil rights organizations. In the beginning of the summer, she gave around $82,000 from her Formation World Tour to assist the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. People may criticize Beyoncé for not literally speaking out in a blunt, unapologetic way like the actor Jesse Williams is prone to do. However, this has never been a part of Beyoncé’s handling of her image as an entertainer or member of pop culture royalty.

In the case of Solange, she utilizes social media in a form that her older sister avoids. Her Twitter and Instagram, along with her website, Saint Heron, routinely confront racism and the country’s impulse to uphold white privilege.

In the case of Solange, she utilizes social media in a form that her older sister avoids. Her Twitter and Instagram, along with her website, Saint Heron, routinely confront racism and the country’s impulse to uphold white privilege.

I can only wish that I’d grown up with someone like Solange as a public figure who is so insistent on protecting Black girls and women. On her Twitter, Solange recounted an unpleasant and highly uncomfortable concert experience in New Orleans. Solange, her husband, and her eleven-year-old son, Julez, attended a Kraftwerk concert at the Orpheum Theater. The audience at the electronica concert was not diverse: Solange noted that the overwhelming majority of patrons were white. When Solange danced to a song, a group of white women told her to sit down. Solange refused, and the women threw a lime at her.

To be Black in white spaces means that you are suddenly blessed and cursed with hyperawareness…

To the naive reader, this story may seem nothing more than an unfortunate incident to be chalked up to rude and drunk concert attendees. For Black girls and women who understand what Solange meant by the term “white spaces,” it’s affirmation of a long-known truth.

To be Black in white spaces means that you are suddenly blessed and cursed with hyperawareness, injected with the X-Men ability to interpret not just outright racism but malevolence cloaked in a cloudy layer of passive aggression and microaggressions. To be Black in white spaces means that you are both the designated ambassador of your entire race and no one at all, invisible, with an interchangeable face. In an essay titled “And Do You Belong? I Do” and posted on Saint Heron, Solange elaborated on her Tweets. She wrote:

It usually does not include “please.” It does not include “will you.” It does not include “would you mind,” for you must not even be worth wasting their mouths forming these respectable words. Although, you usually see them used seconds before or after you.

You don’t feel that most of the people in these incidents do not like black people, but simply are a product of their white supremacy and are exercising it on you without caution, care, or thought.

Many times the tone just simply says, “I do not feel you belong here.”

Anti-blackness is not solely relegated to overtly hostile or malicious displays of bigotry. There are numerous ways to make someone feel as though they don’t belong, as though their safety has been compromised. Later on in her essay, Solange wrote, “You constantly see the media having a hard time contextualizing black women and men as victims every day, even when it means losing their own lives….You realize that you never called these women racists, but people will continuously put those words in your mouth.”

White people who have deluded themselves into believing that they are progressive liberals often tout the phrase, “I don’t see color.” They frequently follow up with something along the lines of, “I don’t care if you’re black or white or green or blue,” ironically disproving their point, as they classify minority status as akin to alien foreignness. I didn’t grow up in the South, but that doesn’t mean I’m a stranger to racism, and to feeling like my blackness, my “Otherness,” doesn’t fit into my very white surroundings. The institution of whiteness ruled that my identity wasn’t authentic enough, that my blackness was dependent upon adhering to a narrow vision of blackness as defined by the white gaze. Boys who I deemed the love of my life have accused me of being too sensitive, of imagining things, of seeing fire where there isn’t smoke. That’s the clever trick of white privilege: the combination of willful ignorance and lack of lived experience imagines equality where it does not exist.

That’s the clever trick of white privilege: the combination of willful ignorance and lack of lived experience imagines equality where it does not exist.

I don’t believe that silence is a beneficial defense mechanism. In a society where being Black is punishable by death, silence only aids white supremacy. Solange recognizes that silence does not encourage change. She also realizes that she can use her public platform to connect with other Black girls and women and make them feel less isolated and alone.

Solange recently interviewed actress Amandla Stenberg for the February 2016 issue of Teen Vogue and spoke to that feeling of unquantifiable kinship between Black girls. She noted, “There’s a secret language shared among black girls who are destined to climb mountains and cross rivers in a world that tells us to belong to the valleys that surround us. You learn it very young, and although it has no words, you hear it clearly.” Knowing this language has made it possible for women to produce safe spaces in the midst of uninhabitable land. It’s a sense of higher consciousness, the look that transpired between the only other Black woman and me in my graduate school writing class, the exchange that prompted me to grab the open seat next to her. A feeling of anchoring myself. It is less a shared code of pain than it is a show of solidarity.

Anger is often viewed as destructive. Solange challenges that idea, arguing that anger can be a healthy, even necessary response to unfathomable atrocities ranging from the physical to the emotional and mental.

Anger is often viewed as destructive. Solange challenges that idea, arguing that anger can be a healthy, even necessary response to unfathomable atrocities ranging from the physical to the emotional and mental. While Beyoncé seems to filter her frustrations through subversive tactics that are primarily based on a nonpersonal, business-first sensibility, Solange participates in racial politics via personal reflection.

The media may deem Solange “crazy” for speaking out, as is often the case when Black people refuse to be complicit in racially motivated abuse. Solange is not exposing anything new or revolutionary, but her comments are viewed as such due to America’s legacy of deep denial. In the closing part of her essay, Solange remarks, “We belong. We belong. We belong. We built this.” Anger is testament to this mantra, a reminder that blackness is not validated by trauma.

top photo: flickr / neon tommy