Sacred Soil

This is what privilege looks like
July 31, 2013, 6:01 pm
Filed under: Weeds

We’re a one-car family, though we do occasionally aspire to guzzle more gas. I’d like to say we’re frugal, Eco-conscious people, but the reality is that we just can’t afford another car. So, on the days when we need a second car, I find my way to the local car rental place. They know me well in the office, greeting me with a friendly handshake. They always ask how I’m doing. I feel comfortable there, especially now that they know better than to try to up-sell me.

A few months ago, I rented a car and headed on over to the the West side of Chicago for a few church supplies. When I came back out to the car, a police officer was hovering over the vehicle, ready to write a ticket. I quickly looked around, examining all the signs. I saw nothing wrong. Confused and anxious, I approached her and asked what was going on.

She was gentle and kind, noting that the registration on the vehicle had expired. She then walked to the front of the vehicle and noticed that the car was designated as a rental. She pointed at the sticker and said, “Here, this car is a rental, so the registration is not your responsibility. Hand this off to the agency and they’ll take care of it.”

I was relieved, though annoyed. This isn’t the first time I’ve rented a car with an expired registration. Now, I’ve learned to check that before leaving the lot. The company paid for the ticket, apologized, and gave me a discount on the rental.

A month or two later, back at the rental agency, I was sitting in the office waiting. I don’t quite remember why. Rental offices often involve a lot of waiting. While I sat playing with my phone, an African American woman was pacing the floor. She was agitated, worried about her schedule, wondering how long it would take the office to have a new car ready for her. She mentioned that she needed to get a new car because the car she’d rented had an expired registration.

I commiserated. “Oh, how frustrating. I’ve been there,” I told her. And then she told me the story of how it came to be that she found out about the expired registration. And then I realized, I hadn’t been there at all. I had been in the land where white skin means these things, though frustrating, are easily resolved. All it cost me was 5 minutes and a smile. It wasn’t so easy for her.

She was on the same side of town when a police officer discovered her registration expired. He then asked for the rental papers, which she had accidentally left at home. Apparently, he didn’t bother to look at the “rental” sticker, or if he had, it didn’t matter to him. He told her, “We’ve seen a lot of thefts in this area, so I need to see those papers.” My police officer never even thought to suggest such a thing to me.

And then, rather than take her to her home, where she could produce the papers, they took her to the police station where they held her for three hours. Three hours. How long does it take to call the rental office? Run by her home? How long does it take to show someone a little dignity?

What cost me 5 minutes, cost her 3 hours and a huge dose of humiliation. And then she had to return the car and get a new one.

She was mad. I’d have been mad too. She had a right to be very angry, but the young men in the office couldn’t look her in the eye. They couldn’t bring themselves to say, “I’m sorry.” They merely took the ticket and walked around her as if she were a bomb that might explode if you showed an ounce of kindness.

As they prepared to go out to the new car, she asked, “Is the sticker updated on this one?” The young man said, “Yes” with a a huff, incredulous that she’d asked. Then they both stepped outside to the car for the closing rituals. Two minutes later, he was back inside, searching for the new sticker. Apparently, she was right to ask.

When I was talking with this woman, I got the sense that this sort of thing felt “normal” to her. I suppose my experience felt “normal” to me as well. I expected that the officer would be nice, that the rental place would apologize, that my time would be valued. She expected the opposite.

This is what privilege looks like. This is what happens when the world assumes that just because I’m white that I’m not going to steal a car. The world assumes that I require an apology when I’m wronged. They assume I am entitled to a discount. I don’t think that any of these folks intended to mistreat this woman–but by responding to their implicit assumptions about who she was, and what she deserved, what should have been an apology for a careless mistake, turned into an opportunity to deny her dignity and respect.

Hearing, in the Biblical Sense
July 16, 2013, 5:44 pm
Filed under: Weeds

The past few weeks, the news has been difficult. I’ve felt strong emotional responses, but every word I have to say seems inadequate. Yet that’s just how these things go. To speak is to risk saying the wrong thing, being misunderstood, being overzealous, being too real, to add too much to the cacophony of all the others who feel they’ve got to say something too. But, in the end, I’ve decided that silence would be worse. It would be collusion, denial, abdication. And, on the balance, it seems more worthwhile to risk myself than to deny the other.

Here’s what I know: on this Tuesday afternoon in July, white folks can let racism slide. We can let the realities of Travon Martin’s too-short life slip into the background. We can lay aside the Supreme Court’s verdict on the voting rights act. We can wonder, “maybe this really isn’t about race?” We can go on with our lives as if nothing has changed. We will now resume our regularly scheduled life– we may even indulge in the wish that the news might move on to something else.

It will. Very soon. Before we know it, the airwaves will be silenced, filled with the news of a royal baby, or the next natural disaster, or congress failing to govern, again. The media has already determined there is no will to fix the voting rights act, no will to repeal the “stand your ground laws.” And so, soon enough, we will stop hearing about it.

Saturday morning, hours before the jury rendered their decision on George Zimmerman, a group from our church gathered together to learn the art of the one-to-one conversation. This is a community organizing principle started through the work of Saul Alinsky, a Chicago activist who organized communities to make their lives better. As we gathered, I know that most of the folks entered with a feeling of trepidation. Why would we do this? What’s our goal here? Do you really expect us to go out and do this?

A one-to-one is a natural, yet uncommon conversation, wherein we learn the passions, values, and motivations of the other. The goal is to listen and hear– not in a passive way, as if the other person were merely data, but doing our best to hear in the way that our God hears. Throughout scripture, when we learn that God has heard us things change. Radically. Hagar and Ishmael are rescued in the desert, the Israelites are freed from slavery, and the Isrealites are given manna as they wander toward Canaan. Through this listening, lives are changed, possibilities created, and hope is born.

One of our group worried about these meetings, wondering if they were merely self-serving. She asked, isn’t it manipulative to go out into the world seeking others stories for our own purpose? And she’s right—that is manipulative (and often my main worry about the art of community organizing). But, that’s also not really listening and hearing. Rather, we go out to hear these stories as a way to understand the heartbreak and the joy of our community, to respond to these things with all the human compassion we can muster. We go out, so that we can understand how God is at work amongst us, and where God is calling us next.

I wanted to do this project for a few reasons. First, I’m fairly convinced that this is a necessary skill for the viability of the church. We’ve got to be deeply connected to our community if we are going to have any integrity about our understanding of the Gospel. In most places, this is the work of the pastor. Indeed, many of my friends and colleagues spend their days doing these meetings. I do them too. But, I’m trying an experiment here, hoping that this can become the work of the church, rather than the work of the pastor. I am inspired by the vision of a church that cares so passionately for its community that it longs to hear the stories those who live here… that is, hearing, in the biblical sense.

Secondly, I am tired of programs that long to bring folks in the doors. If I’m honest, the truth is, I can’t stand them. There are certainly exceptions, but too often churches develop these long lists of programs and events that are completely divorced from real hearing & listening. We divide our programs into mission and fellowship, or (when separated from biblical hearing) we do fixing and fun. I suppose I’m all for fun, but I am curious about a church that exists just for the fun if its members– is that really church? And, what business do we have creating programs to fix others when we do not know the heartbreak and joy of our community? What business do we have in fixing others if we cannot really hear others?

Wouldn’t it be beautiful to be a part of a church known for compassionate listening and meaningful action? Wouldn’t it be beautiful to really be the extended body of Christ, a community that rejoices when one member rejoices, and a community that mourns when one member mourns.

We have days like that. We do. This church we’ve got is amazing. But, I am convinced we can do more. We’re called to do more. And it’s weeks like last week that prove this. The fact that we continue on, business as usual, while mothers again are compelled to have “the talk” with their young sons—that talk where they advise on how not to get shot by someone who may fear them. We continue on, business as usual, while state after state limits voting rights of the poor and people of color, simply because they can. It is as if our ears have closed, shut off from the cries of our neighbors.

It is time that we listen. It is time that we hear, in the biblical sense. And I don’t mean in a get-to-it-when-you-can sort of way. I mean this with all the urgency I can muster.

If I could beg of you one thing, I’d ask that you take some time this week to listen to the voices of people of color, listen to their rage and their pain and their hope and their joy. Listen and hear and let their stories rub against the reality you live, the reality you think you know. Don’t fix it, explain it, rationalize it, or even understand it. Hold it as real, and whole, the cherished gift of story.

And then, after you’ve listened, let’s talk. Let’s figure out how we really hear, together.


Here are a few places to start:

Finding Your Roots: John Lewis & Cory Booker. A great way to hear the story of the voting rights act and the people who fought for it.

Becoming Trustworthy White Allies. It starts with doing our own work.

Life is never so simple as black, white, straight, gay. I do so appreciate the beautiful work at Black Girl Dangerous and the ways they name the joy and pain of life in words beyond expectation.

We make assumptions about others without even knowing it. And then, we have this way of denying that we do it, or making excuses for that reality. Part of our work is to get real about this. Taking the Harvard Implicit response test is one way to start getting real.