I chose to trust God: that he loved me, that I was capable of loving him, that he wished what was best for me, that he wanted me to be happy, that he wasn’t going to deceive me or allow me to be deceived if I trusted him, and that he wasn’t actively wishing my damnation. I allowed myself to be lifted out of hell instead of insisting I belonged there. And maybe that’s a story that will transform nobody’s life but mine; but mine is enough for me to give thanks for.
Were the safety belts green? It’s how they appear in my memory: thick, smudged green canvas laying tight across my lap, the two ends brought together by a simple metal attachment. I remember it now and the whole thing seems primitive, hinged metal locking into its looped opposite, the whole thing clamped together by pressing down hard against the wooden knob connected to the hinged latch. Was the knob painted red? Was it really made from wood?
You, of course, sat in the pilot’s seat. Through my child’s eyes I see you squirming into place behind the instrument panel and steering yoke of the six-seat Cessna; the two retrofitted metal rods slicing my view through the windshield were reminders about how little room for error there was during those jungle flights. They were made to keep the small cabin from collapsing in a worst case scenario. Your helmet was another obvious hint as was your version of the safety belt. Yours was no more sophisticated – the same green belts and the simplest of closures – but it had the added seriousness of a shoulder harness that hung down from the fuselage above your head, draped over your sweaty t-shirt, before latching together with that same wood and metal closure.
Am I getting the details wrong? Maybe the safety belt was more impressive than I remember. I’m sure it was important; you’d never turn over the engine until everyone was buckled in, the loud metal thunk was audible proof that we were as secure as it is possible to be while bumping around a few thousand feet up in the tropical air inside 3,500 pounds of aluminum dodging thunderstorms while aiming for what can only generously be called a runway- a just-long-enough patch of dirt and grass scraped into a hill, or snaking alongside a river. On every final approach that I can remember, whether craning my neck from the back or next to you peering over the panel full of knobs and gauges, you’d reach up and grab that crash bar, leaning against your shoulder harness as though to feel for its integrity, all while staring at the quickly approaching horizon. The droning engine dropped an octave, you did a sort of subtle shimmy as if to awaken all the senses and then leaned firmly back into your seat, ready to guide your passengers and cargo down for another landing.
It’s been a long time since you squeezed into that stuffy cockpit. I was just beginning high school when we left South America and since then you’ve done a lot of different things but you left flying behind when we returned to the states. I’ve been thinking about those days over the past few months as you approach your ordination. Maybe the thought began because the two seem so distant, unrelated. You’ve been a pastor, officially, for about a decade and now, after the long process determined for both you and me by our denomination, you’re going to make your promises to the church. The nondescript hotel conference hall in Detroit where you’ll be ordained is miles away from those small airplanes loaded with food or patients or mail, lifetimes away from Mom standing in the kitchen describing the rapidly changing weather slowly and clearly in Spanish into the staticky radio as you decided whether to try to make it home to put Anne Marie and me to bed or spend the night in a hammock, beneath mosquito netting and a thatched roof.
It’s different, isn’t it, pastoring? Different from being a pilot I mean, but different from most jobs. Over these years you’ve pastored a young church in Sacramento that met in a gym, in a very small town in the Californian mountains, on a beautiful island in the Pacific Northwest, and now across the river from Manhattan. You’ve pastored across ages, regions, ethnicities, and experiences. I’d say you’ve stuffed a lifetime of ministry into these short years except that you’d already had a lifetime of ministry when you moved into the pastorate. It’s been unpredictable for you as it is for most of us in this strange vocation. Your experience seems to be a reflection of what it means to be a pastor. We deal with the unpredictable, though it’s usually of a variety more mundane than the sudden thunderstorms which scrap flight plans or an emergency call to pick up the critical patient in a remote village.
I could be wrong, but I think you love the quiet, surprising nature of pastoring. You’ve never needed the spotlight and this, I assume, helps you notice the important glimpses of revealed truth that others miss: the passing comment, the lingering after worship, or simply following up on the intuition that something specific has changed in the life of that person. It shouldn’t be so, but I still get surprised by the eclectic crowd that makes its way to your office, to your favorite coffeeshop, to the dinner table to sit and eat with Mom and you where you listen more than you talk so that when your guests return to whatever passes for normal they know they were heard, they know that God hears. This, for sure, is a life saver when the world seems against you.
Before he began killing them, the young white supremacist accepted the hospitality of those gathered for the prayer meeting at Mother Emanuel in Charleston. Forty-eight hours later, our multiracial church made the annual trip north to Wisconsin for our retreat. That first night, a time usually reserved for laughter and the silly games characteristic of church retreats, was somber. We sat in a circle, led to speak our anger and grief.
On Sunday, before returning home, we prayed a litany for the slain: Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Susie Jackson, Myra Thompson, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lance, and Daniel Simmons. And then our testimonies: What is God saying? The anger is still strong, the dangerous vulnerability palpable: Are Black bodies held sacred nowhere in this obscene land?
We stood, the two pastors, to lead the communion liturgy. Her Black body and my White one behind the bread and wine. We recited the same confessions and affirmations we do each month, more slowly this time, as though wondering about the strangeness of crucifixion words in a world that kills, always. I picked up the bread and Pastor Michelle began the familiar words. “Is not the bread we beak a participation in the body of Christ?” She stopped then, the words caught in her throat. I held the bread, looking into the faces of my family – Korean, African American, Mexican, White, Chinese, Filipino – as we wept, the pause growing long and heavy and, with its silence, true. And then, quietly, “Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.”
Today, eighteen months after his massacre, Mother Emmanuel’s guest has been sentenced to die. The anger and grief remain, undiminished by another killing. So do the questions.
“I thought white people didn’t get cold.” The young elementary school student directed his observation to his bemused principal while looking skeptically at my down jacket. I assured him that I definitely get cold and that I needed a warm jacket just like he did to stay warm through Chicago’s cold winters. I was smiling as I drove away from his school, tickled by his innocent assumption that my lighter skin color somehow kept me warmer than did his darker hue. The student’s school and neighborhood are predominately black and while I don’t know the origins of his hypothesis it also wasn’t that surprising. I could imagine my younger self saying something similar.
My son had joined me for this school visit so my first thought as we drove home was about him- how thankful I am for the diverse community to which he belongs. His church, school, neighborhood, and friendships make it hard to hold blind assumptions about others, no matter how innocent the assumptions might be. He will, I pray, grow up within environments that make plain the gifts of cultural uniqueness and the countless commonalities shared between individuals.
A second thought followed and it wasn’t nearly as hopeful.
The isolating cultural dynamics that caused the student to wrongly assume that my race kept me warm are at work elsewhere with much costlier effects. A 2013 Associated Press poll found that racial prejudice had increased during the previous two years. The poll showed that 56% of Americans hold implicit anti-black attitudes while 57% hold anti-hispanic attitudes. Political polarization and implicit segregation contribute to a culture where, contrary to what many believe, prejudice and stereotypes are gaining ground. And unlike the harmless assumption about my insulating skin color, the biases toward black and brown people have devastating implications. One’s likelihood of being stopped by law enforcement, imprisoned, turned away from available housing, denied promotion, or sold shoddy financial instruments are all tied to one’s race. Not my race, by the way. In all of the previous examples my race (and gender) make it unlikely that I will experience any of this ugliness. (See the Ta-Nehisi Coates article I recently linked to for links to many of these examples and check out the This American Life story about housing discrimination.)
The student’s social location led him to assume wrongly, but harmlessly, that white people don’t get cold. The social location of many other people – older and more influential – can lead to equally wrong but far more harmful assumptions about brown and black people. Assumptions that work their way into media norms, policing policy, and a nation’s collective subconscious.
Diversity is no panacea nor is it a guarantor against injustice. However, those of us with the choice to live in relative segregation must acknowledge that our decisions are about more than preference or comfort. A child’s assumption about my light skin’s protective properties is one thing. Colluding with forces that malign and marginalize is something else entirely.
Not long ago I mentioned my upcoming participation on an interfaith panel at a local university and asked for your opinions on what I might say about Christianity. The event seemed to go well; about seventy students turned out to hear representatives of atheism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity speak briefly about our faith traditions.
After brief introductions we were each asked to respond to a series of questions. I’ll share the questions here along with summaries of my responses. What might have you said differently in similar circumstances?
What is a general overview of Christianity?
It was challenging to give a fair representation of the whole of Christianity in less than five minutes! I first said that, given the global nature of my faith, I was the worst person to represent Christianity. People who know these things are now saying that a young, non-white, woman from the global south is the best representation of the religion. I then acknowledge the many, many differences within Christianity and pointed to the person of Jesus as the primary unifying reality across traditions and denominations. I pointed out- graciously, I hope- that unlike some of the other panelists, I represented people who believe the fundamental problems of the world cannot be made right by humanity. Rescue must come from elsewhere, and Christians believe that rescue has come in Jesus.
What are the differences within Christianity?
Again, how to represent my diverse Christian family succinctly? I gave a brief overview of the historic Christian divisions (schisms) and acknowledged the theological differences among many Christians. I then made this claim: All Christianity is local. In other words, many of the historic and ongoing differences among Christians have been shaped by the cultures these very different people inhabit. By way of example I noted the history of the many African American churches that surround the university where the panel took place. As those historically outside of mainstream American culture and shaped by experiences of disenfranchisement and oppression, these churches will often look and sound quite different than their white cousins. Theological conviction is one reason for the differences within Christianity but is is certainly not the only reason.
What is the Christian view of the afterlife?
On this question the atheist, the Muslim Imam, and I were the most succinct; each of us had a certain belief in the reality or non-reality of an afterlife. I said that in Jesus we have the template for what to expect after death, a bodily resurrection into physical, eternal life. Christians believe that God embodies love which include both justice and mercy. Justice must be served- and here I gave an example of my own implication in the sin that must be judged– and has been served through the death and resurrection of the Son of God. As a Christian I understand the cross as the merciful acceptance into eternal relationship with God. A loving God is one who is able to hold both justice and mercy simultaneously.
It was interesting that the Imam, who followed me on this question, directly referenced my answer in his own.
What does it mean to be created in the image of God?
This question came from the audience in response to something I’d said earlier. I responded that humanity was and is created in God’s image, meant to reflect something of God to the world. I referenced two implications of this belief. First, that this image has been cracked and can only be repaired through restoration that comes from outside ourselves. Second, that we are meant to live within a community that collectively reflects the presence of God to the world.
If memory serves, that was the trajectory of the evening. The organizers thought it went well and the students I spoke with afterward seemed to appreciate the discussion. As a Christian, it is my hope that the evening provokes further questions about Jesus.
What would you have added?