• Why the White Dude Crossed the Tracks

    Back when I did prison ministry, we used to have this crazy old white dude who would come in to talk with the boys. He had a ministry working with gangs on the streets of Chicago. He had occasionally even managed to bring high up people representing large, dangerous gangs together to reach agreements which would reduce the levels of conflict, and therefore the levels of violence between them.

    Youth for Christ, a national organization which includes Campus Life, City Life, and Juvenile Justice Mission, provided funding for his ministry by employing him between 1982 through 2008. Which is a really long, long time to be a youth minister. Most burnout within their first decade.

    At the time I was involved with prison ministry, crime had just reached a 20 year high, and the problem was most acute in urban areas like Chicago with high density, segregated housing. There were some places that police avoided patrolling out of fear of being targeted by violence, so his ability to develop relationships and gain trust among the gangs was the subject of a lot of interest.

    He was invited to speak to kids in prisons all over Northern Illinois and served as a youth chaplain for the Cook County Sheriff’s department. He made sure that at every step along the path a vulnerable kid was taking, he was there to tell them about Christ’s love.

    The man’s name was Gordon and he looked like a comedy version of a used car sales man. Wore ill fitting and mismatched business clothes. Had a BAD comb over. He was in his late fifties when I met him. But I was 18 at the time, so he could have been my grandpa. If my grandpa were a used car sales man in the early 80s. Gordon had a way of talking that was slightly disjointed, but jokey enough that he kept his audience engaged. He came off as a bit of a fool, really.

    But it was all very deliberate. Continue reading

  • I See Rich People. They Talk to Me. . .

    The mouse on my computer broke. So now I’m back to writing on my kindle. Which is a marvelous bit of technology, but it has all sorts of quirks which can easily double the time it takes for me to do a post. And the spacebar for the keyboard is gimpy. But since I don’t even have money to replace the mouse, I’ll just have to limp along the best I can.

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately that when I finally break free of all these obstacles, I’ll astound everyone. It’s like I’ve been trying to play the game wearing weights. If I could just get free and have a fully functioning computer, a good internet connection and a few hours a day without children, well, you just won’t believe what I can do.

    As I was contemplating the rather unpleasant task of writing on my kindle (something I did exclusively for at least six months), it occurred to me that this is why we hear so much more from rich people than anyone else. If you’re rich, you can grab a few hours which you would otherwise have spent playing Sugar Crush and write something thoughtful on your nice computer without any real delays or impediments. Or maybe you’re more of a take my Macbook to Starbucks to write sort of writer.

    But when you’re not rich, you have to type out the word six because the six key doesn’t work any more. And putting in a hyperlink requires the sort of planning skills normally reserved for major military operations. It’s like driving one of those cars that you have to roll down the window to open the door. Everything’s just much more work when you don’t have access to resources.

    And having crappy, unreliable technology is a first world problem. Imagine what it took for those women in Nigeria to get the world’s attention when their girls were taken! It’s really no mystery as to why people who are powerful and influential are usually white American men. It’s not that every white American man has resources. It’s just that nearly everyone who has resources is a white American man. Having resources removes so many obstacles that what is impossible for other people is possible for them. And that is a big part of our problem.

    Having resources doesn’t necessarily make the path to sucess a clear and easy one. You still have to work harder and be smarter and overcome more than everyone else in order to acheive great things. I mean, Paris Hilton’s family says she works very hard and I believe them. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if she puts in sixty hour work weeks. The thing is that my husband has put in sixty hour work weeks pretty routinely for nearly 20 years. And we can’t even afford to buy a mouse.

    (The first person to ask why I don’t get a job wins the chance to find me a job with hours that work for our family, arrange the care of our kids by someone who is able to provide high caliber, on demand tutoring, counseling, and training in the ways of the world customized to each child’s needs, obtain transportation, clothing, housekeeping, cooking and taxi services to make that all happen. Good luck. Let me know when you get that all worked out.)

    Aside from being bullshit, the connection between who has the existing resources and who gets seen and heard and rewarded is more sinister than we realize. You know the proverbial “they” we always hear about? The ones who tell us what other people think of us and what’s normal and what’s a problem and what’s expected of us and what failure looks like? Sometimes people will joke and say, “who is this ‘they’ you keep talking about?” Well, the answer to that is simple. Continue reading

  • All About Pain: The Toughness Fallacy

    I don’t know what the weather is like where you are, but it’s cold, rainy and windy here by me so I’ll use that as my excuse for being a Debbie Downer here. Cuz we’re going to talk about pain today. Then again, if you are the sort of person who only wants to read about unicorns making skittles droppings, you probably aren’t reading my blog. So just another day here in The Upside Down World.

    It seems to me that when Christians talk about pain they talk about it either very existentially, “why does God allow suffering?”, or we talk about it very personally, “let me tell you my story about being in pain”. We start from the assumption that pain is a valid, important topic, but even our most sincere efforts to address pain from either an existential or personal perspective tend to fall short. When they do, we almost always turn to attempting to minimize or dismiss other people’s pain. And let’s not even talk about the nonsense that comes out of our mouths when we try to moralize about pain or the behavior of people in pain!

    In order to do better, we need a better understanding of what pain is, how it works, why it matters. Which includes getting rid of several dangerous misconceptions about pain. Even people who are personally familiar with suffering tend to believe a lot of false, unhelpful things about pain. Nearly all of us internalize our culture’s prejudices, erroneous assumption and ignorance about suffering and when life goes south, these internalized ideas just make things worse.

    Obviously, this is a subject which could be a book, but you’ll just have to make do with a few blog posts. And I’m not even going to put them in the right order, so nya!

    Anyhow, I wanted to start today by addressing probably the most common misconception about pain. That is once you’ve been in serious pain, additional pain will not affect you as much. You will have gotten used to it. Continue reading

  • Black and White Drug Dealers in America

    Late last Saturday night, my husband and some friends were driving home when there was an accident a ways ahead of them. A piece of debris from the accident punctured the gas tank of our family’s only vehicle. Which, of course, we had used our last pennies to pay off the day before. Because, of course.

    On the upside, one of my husband’s friends has stepped up and is driving him to and from the bus stop while they work on replacing the damaged gas tank. He took my husband to buy the replacement, brought over the tools needed and has spent at least 6 hours so far on our cold, filthy garage floor helping my husband remove the damaged tank. Obviously, he’s a very good friend.

    However, about 15 years ago, he was our town drug dealer. He sold everything, but particularly cocaine and meth. And he had become a meth user himself. He says that the first time he tried meth, he felt so good that he thought, “this is what I want to do with the rest of my life.” Big ambitions.

    He was still in high school at the time and one day, just a few months short of his 18th birthday, he was caught on school grounds with a large quantity of drugs and cash in his car. At this point, his fate was in the hands of the county prosecutor.

    There were enough drugs and cash in the car that it was obvious he was the source of a lot of the drugs being used in the area. And he had been found with them on school property, during school hours. He was close enough to his 18th birthday to be charged as an adult with multiple felonies and sent away for a long time. In fact, the DA and the local police would be able to make some real political hay with the case. Plus could hold a press conference with the drugs and cash laid out on a table, announcing that they had just taken out a major player in the local drug trade. Continue reading

  • Colonizing Cities for White American Jesus

    No one likes to think of themselves as racist or prejudiced. Even the KKK denies being a racist organization. Which for some people just affirms the deeply held idea that there’s something wrong with people of color. If there wasn’t something wrong with them, people of color wouldn’t have so many problems now that racism isn’t a problem. How can racism be to blame when there are no more racists among us?

    Of course, racism and the residual effects of centuries of being raped, robbed and pillaged continue to be an issue. If we’d ever like to get to the day when there really are no racists among us, we need white people to be a lot less clueless. Like, for example, we need for this to become unthinkable, particularly for Christians:

    When I asked the white pastor of a large suburban multi-campus church to . . . reflect on whether he has earned the right to do ministry among the oppressed, he responded by saying, “Obviously, the pastors [of color] that are already in the community aren’t more qualified to minister in that neighborhood than I am. If they were, they’d have made a bigger impact by now. They’ve had their chance. Now it’s mine.”

    Or this:

    One older African-American pastor said he’s heard chilling reports of meetings, in which representatives from many of the suburban churches have gathered around a map of the city and marked each church’s “territory,” as if Buffalo was theirs to divvy up. The indigenous leaders were not invited to these meetings, nor have they been contacted by these churches. It’s as if they don’t exist, their churches don’t exist, and their expertise doesn’t exist.

    Those quotes come from a really excellent article by Christina Cleveland called “Urban Church Planting Plantations” which ought to be required reading for every suburban pastor. And for you too. It’s super good.

    I had heard talk of urban church planting and knew that most such church plants fail miserably. Often they become money holes for the church supporting them. Even relatively successful ones find that instead of ministering directly to poor, struggling communities, they are attracting a crowd that doesn’t actually live in the area the church is supposed to be ministering to.

    In fact, the last church our family was seriously involved in was an urban church plant supported by a large, predominantly white denomination. They had a long history of working for racial reconciliation and so did better than most. They hired African American pastors and ministers who were at least somewhat familiar with the community. They were even paying for additional education and training to bring the pastors up to the denomination’s standards. But at the same time, we were driving 40 minutes each way to get there. Urban ministry is much harder than Pastor “It’s my turn” thinks.

    Continue reading

  • least_of_these

    The Least Have the Answers

    Back when I was pregnant with my oldest son, I wound up without a place to live. The counselor at the crisis pregnancy center which was helping me navigate this time reluctantly referred me to a homeless shelter/half-way house for single moms as a last resort. She didn’t come right out and say it, but my sense was that she was none too impressed with the way the program there was run.

    And she was right. In the year and a half that I lived there, not one of the women who went through the program was able to move from the shelter into independent living. They were all either kicked out or ended up moving into another unstable setting to get away. When I asked the social worker who we met with regularly, she could only think of one former resident who had moved on to independent living after her time there. And that was because she had scored a section 8 voucher. Given that the stated goal of the program was to move single moms from homelessness to independent living, this was kind of a big deal.

    A few months after I moved in, the leadership of the program announced that they were re-hauling the program and the house rules women had to abide by. They asked us to write down any suggestions we had for how to make the program more effective and our lives better. Me being me, I wrote a very long, thoughtful list of changes that I thought would help, complete with explanations.

    Several months later, the board of the organization put out the new rules. Of all the suggestions I and other women in the program had made, just one was adopted; we would now be allowed to have Christmas trees. Not only were none of our suggestions adopted, but the new rules actually moved in the opposite direction of what we had said would be helpful to us.

    After the new rules were implemented, women cycled in and out of the program faster than before. I was eventually kicked out for taking on a second job without discussing it with the social worker. My now-husband arranged for me and our son to sleep on a his friend’s pull-out sofa for a few months while I tried to find someplace safe that would rent someone under the age of 25 with bad credit. I had never met the woman before I showed up with my bags and kid.

    The people who ran the program, when asked about their lack of success in reaching their stated goal, would sigh and say it just shows how hard it is to work with people who wind up in trouble. Frankly, if your program is unable to help a compliant, college educated young woman from an upper-middle class background, who doesn’t party, has worked continually since age 10 and has never been in trouble with the law to get on her feet, it’s safe to say that your program doesn’t work.

    The reason I’m sharing this story is to illustrate why it is we as a society cannot solve the problems we face. The problem with this program was the same problem that nearly all programs meant to help those in need have. It was designed and run by successful people according to their experiences and assumptions about how the world works. And that’s why that program didn’t work and why most government social programs don’t work and even why so many schools don’t work.

    We have this tendency to think that if we want something fixed, we should listen to people who are successful. It makes a certain sense. If you’ve succeeded, then you know how to succeed and can share the answers with others who would like to succeed.

    However, before I became a homeless, single mom or got involved with the man from a bad family who is now my husband, I came from a family of 2%ers. My dad and his three siblings all have masters degrees. His dad was trained at Harvard by the Army during WWII and went on to be president of a company. Two of my mom’s siblings are multi-millionaires. So, I was born, bred and raised among successful people.

    I’ve seen people at both the top and at the bottom, up close and personal. And I have a secret for you; if you want answers for how to help people who are struggling and failing, don’t ask successful people. Ask the people who are struggling and failing.

    The answers which successful people have for how to overcome adversity are the same answers that everyone has. They don’t have anything unique to offer in that respect. They also don’t have any real understanding of the problems people face.

    In fact, I can say from experience, when you are successful it’s hard to grasp that there really are problems. It’s hard to understand why what made you successful won’t work for everyone else. From the vantage point of the sort of person who makes rules, starts programs and runs things, the problem must be with the people – they just aren’t willing to do it right.

    People on the bottom have answers that people on the top don’t. They know why people aren’t doing it right. They know what the obstacles to doing it right are. They know the obstacles people face even when they are doing it right. They know what people need in order to overcome those obstacles. In fact, if you look at the few social programs which are working, nearly all of them are run by people from the bottom.

    Of course, we humans aren’t in the habit of listening to people at the bottom. They are losers, failures, suspect. What do they know about how to suceed? If they were so smart, they wouldn’t be in a position of needing help, right?

    The governing board of the shelter I was at didn’t listen to any of the opinions of the women living there in good part because they didn’t trust us. They were like multi-millionaire lawmakers who are reluctant to build a safety net, lest people lose the drive to support themselves. They thought our goal was to avoid being responsible and disciplined and saw it as their job to force responsibility and discipline on us. They couldn’t imagine that we might understand our problems better than they did. They were sucessful people with families and homes. We had failed at life before we had even started. Clearly, they knew better than we did.

    This is a common problem; even when people at the bottom can make their concerns and ideas heard, we don’t trust them enough to listen. We look for any excuse to ignore, discount and disagree. We refuse to consider that perhaps the people at the bottom are able to see things that people at the top don’t. We refuse to believe that the world is so hostile or the odds so stacked. And frankly, we often refuse to listen to people at the bottom because the problems they point to seem too large and intractible to be solved.

    The thing is that while successful people rarely understand what the problems are, successful people often have skill sets, networks and experience that people at the bottom don’t have. And those things can be incredibly valuable. Someone at the bottom often knows just what needs to be done to help people, but lacks the skills, networks and experience to make that happen. So it’s not that successful people don’t have anything to offer.

    We all know that Jesus said that his followers were to serve those in need and to consider the last to be first and the first to be last. Usually, we see this as a call to alleviate suffering, show compassion and grow in love. Which is certainly true. But I also think that these teachings are a bit of a trail of crumbs he left for us as well. That he knew the answers to the problems we face would be found among the least and not the greatest. Besides, Jesus said that what we do for the least of these, we are also doing for him. Might Jesus who says if we love him, we will listen to his words, also expect us to listen to, learn from and take seriously what the least have to say? It is very much how his upside down Kingdom works, no?

  • black faces 1224_s31

    Stuff I Appreciate About Black Folks

    Hey – want to watch me stick a fork in an electric outlet? ‘Cuz that’s pretty much the same thing as being a white person who talks about black folks, right? Or at least some would have you think so. But I’m going to do it, because African Americans are forever getting dumped on in our society and are rarely called out for all the things that are great about them.

    Now, before I get started, allow me to provide proper cover for myself. For those not in the know, I’m married to a black man. I have 5 mixed race kids and two African American stepsons. So if nothing else, my “I have black friends” creds are actually solid. (I’ve written more about my experience with race here and you can learn more about my $.99 ebook on race in American here.) Of course, there is as much variety among black folks as among any other group of people. I’ve known sweet, shy, reserved black women and loud, sassy, confrontational black women. Macho black men and nerdy black men. And the things I’m going to list here aren’t universal. There are always people who go against the grain. But as a general rule, these are things which I have observed to be common among black folk I have known that are not nearly as prevalent among the white folks I have known.

    Of course, every positive trait has a dark side when pushed to far. My goal isn’t to idealize African Americans, but like I said, we continually dump on black folks and discuss problems in the black community. For this post, I’m just focusing on things which I personally appreciate about black folks I have known. So having properly covered my ass, here goes:

    1. They respond to your problems with grace and understanding.

    Probably because black folks have had to deal with so many really serious, awful problems for so long, they aren’t particularly phased by your problems. Usually they’ve heard or seen it all before – and worse. And if your life is going to hell because you did something wrong, well, the black folks I’ve known probably disapprove of your dumb choices as much as anyone else. But they also know that you’re the one who is going to have to live with the consequences of your dumb choices, so there’s really no point in piling on. Better to help you move forward than waste time berating you much less exacerbate the problem by turning you out. In my experience, if your life goes all to shit, you’re much better off going to your black friends or a black church for support than to your average middle class white person or church. Continue reading

  • race

    The American Race and Race

    Gather ’round, folks. Auntie Becky is going to tell you a story. A metaphor really, about race in America. And about the American Dream.

    Imagine for a moment, a long relay race where for generations it has been considered acceptable and in some cases even required to break the limbs of a one group of people trying to run the race. The people thought this was OK. After all, it wasn’t long ago that this group of people had been used as horses to pull everyone else’s carts around the track. At least they were free of that back-breaking work. Now, they just had to contend with some needed cobbling. To keep the race running smoothly. Make sure the people who have been running the race so diligently for generations don’t lose any hard-earned ground. Anyone who resists the “in group’s” right to break bones is killed, so that keeps everything on an even keel. Not a bad system, really.

    Of course, people with broken bones do not do very well in the race. Pretty quickly there are people lying all over the place with broken bones and deformities from past breaks which were never set properly. Many people in that group will simply stop trying to participate in the race. Maybe even set up little shanty towns around the track to do the best that they can outside of the race. The more ambitious set up little lemonade stands along the track and play music for the people running by to keep themselves out of the darkest, scariest parts of the shanty towns. A few are fast enough to elude those who would break their bones, but these would be few and far between. The track is littered with those who tried to be one of the fastest few but got caught. Their broken bones and mutilated corpses remind the out group not to try to hard or rebel against the natural order of things.

    Now, let’s say that after a very long time, once most of the people who are able to run the race are pretty well ahead, that people start to come to their senses and decide that it is wrong to break the limbs of the out group. So they ban limb breaking. From that point forward, a person’s success or failure in the race will depend on their efforts and abilities. Continue reading

  • white-and-black-preschool-girls1

    Do You Think I Should Send This?

    Dear Bertha*,

    I am writing to let you know that my daughter mentioned to me today that on several occasions now your daughter Suzi-Q has made derogatory comments to her regarding her half-black heritage. The poor thing even tried claiming that you had told her that you didn’t like black people too. I knew you would want to know about this right away so you can talk to Suzi-Q about not repeating every ridiculous thing she hears some ill-bred child on the playground saying. And of course, we wouldn’t want other, more credulous people to catch wind of her claim that you don’t like black people. I’m sure that she’ll never repeat such nonsense again once she understands that people will assume she is being raised by repugnant trailer-park trash who doesn’t deserve to breathe the air that the Good Lord provides us. I mean, obviously I’ve known perfectly fine people who live in trailer parks and it’s completely possible for scummy filth to reside in a lovely home like your own. But you know how people can be with their ridiculous stereo-typing and absurd assumptions based on the shallowest of pretenses. We’ll just have to hope Suzi-Q’s unfortunate statements haven’t gotten back to anyone else and harmed your family’s good standing in the community. Continue reading

  • Privilege

    The Real Reason the Term “White Privilege” Needs to Die

    Want to start a fight? Put an honest white person and an honest person of color in a room together and tell them to discuss white privilege. “White privilege” is one of those phrases that means two totally different things to most white people and most people of color. Outside of colleges and and multi-cultural training seminars it is a complete conversation stopper that does nothing to illuminate anything and everything to sow seeds of enmity between races. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it’s a phrase that should be abandoned altogether.

    “Now, wait a minute, Rebecca,” I can hear some of you saying, “you’re a white person married to an African American. You’ve even written a book which is enormously sympathetic to the perspectives and experiences of African Americans and quite critical of whites inability/unwillingness to deal with those perspectives and experiences. How can you speak so negatively of ‘white privilege’? Isn’t it just a reality?”

    And that’s just it. If I as an extraordinarily sympathetic white person who can offer hundreds of examples of the ways that racism has affected my husband – who is just one man! – hear the phrase “white privilege” and get my hackles raised, then clearly there’s a problem. And frankly, I really don’t think that the problem is with me. The problem is with the language involved. Continue reading