"In the end, we are where we come from."--Peter Gomes

Thursday, August 14, 2014

To Christians Who Care About Ferguson...#GoingThere

Yesterday was busy. I had promised my godson Torian that I would take him to the beach, so we made the hour-long trek to Galveston, along with his mom and his 2-year-old brother Ace; when we got back I let him swim in the pool for a while and then I had to drop his mom at work and meet a friend and make sure Phen knew what to do while watching the boys (this mostly involved "open the door for the pizza guy" and "make sure the games on the iPad are age-appropriate") so I didn't catch up on the loss of sanity in Ferguson until last night around 11.
Ace and I watch Tori fly a kite at the beach.

A friend and I texted and tweeted back and forth about it while I rocked the baby to sleep and kept an eye on the two older boys. Of course I was worried; Julian was out with friends and I sent him a text warning him to be particularly careful in case the police were extra jumpy. Certainly what is happening in Ferguson is big. It just isn't...news. It isn't news to anyone who loves a black boy and has journeyed with him through the world. So here is my response to the pleas from Christians who are asking me via Twitter to be outraged, to be vocal, to be active:

I am tired of outrage. I am tired of despair. I am tired of talking about race to white people who tell me I am suffering from white guilt or have imagined it or don't I know the Lord is color-blind and my goodness, I don't even *see* race myself. 

I am tired of wondering when people will stop thinking this face is charming and start seeing it as menacing.

I am tired of trying to make Phen and Julian feel safe and loved and cared for in a country--no, a world--that insists on treating black lives as less valuable than white ones. It is like trying to make bricks with no straw; it is nearly impossible. Julian has a note he takes with him if he needs to take my car. It says he has my permission to be driving it and has my contact information in case he gets pulled over. He has it because I don't want to end up trying to explain that at a police station at 1 am. My friend Runako said dryly "You've given him traveling papers" and I laughed and then gasped. Traveling papers were what slaves had to have from their masters in order to be off the plantation.

There are a million things I could say about Ferguson, all of which have been said by people who are more eloquent and more vocal than I am. I could point out that if you'd been paying attention, you'd have known about the slaying of Mike Brown almost a week ago. I could say that the police are no more racist than the rest of us, but that this action shouldn't come as a surprise when you give them military-grade weapons with which to act out those prejudices. I could say that the police have been brutalizing black people for decades, they just didn't have such fancy riot gear. I could say that if you think this isn't America, you live in a bubble; this has always been America. I could point out the way black victims are often identified by any misconduct and white perpetrators are often treated as people with great potential who went tragically wrong. I could say that the way we defend Mike Brown by saying things like "he was going to college" as if that made him more valuable, like he deserved to be shot a little less, demonstrates how much we've dehumanized black people: we have to defend their right to exist. I could say I'm worried that this will be another cycle of social media outrage that fizzles when we find something else to fixate on. I could say that all the venting and retweeting and favoriting may make us feel like we're doing something in lieu of actually, you know, DOING something.

I could speak to you of quieter things, too: of teenage boys who are raucous and goofy because that's what teenage boys are like, and the fear that a police officer--or, hell, any citizen with a gun and some fear--won't wait to find out that Phen is great at math and Julian is a brilliant musician, that Phen is reading The Art of War and Julian believes his patronus would be a panther if he ever gets his Hogwarts letter. I could tell you I don't just worry about the boys; I worry about my friend Corregan, he of the Princeton degree and megawatt grin, who is cerebral and compassionate and wildly funny and who, at 6-4 and 200+ pounds, is someone's idea of the bogeyman, and I worry about my friend Runako, who by his own admission "gets stroppy" when his rights are being trampled on, and I worry about my friend Mijha, who refused to watch any news coverage of this because she is tired of caring too much. I could tell you that my pastor--my soft-spoken, gentle-spirited pastor--is the one who taught Phen how to behave when approached by police, how to narrate every movement ("My license is in my wallet, which is in my pocket, so I'm going to reach for it now if that's OK") and be as unthreatening as possible. I could tell you that it's tempting to tell the boys to avoid any protests or demonstrations in hopes of keeping them safe and the gut-wrenching realization that I'd be trading their physical safety for their dignity and self-respect. What kind of person would I be to ask that of them? What kind of young men would they be if they made that trade? I could tell you that 17 years into this life I've chosen, of living and working and worshipping across racial lines, I've learned that the resilience of black people is awe-inspiring, because everything conspires to try to make them smaller and meaner than they were meant to be. I could tell you I'm up at 1 am writing this blog post because Julian isn't home yet, which is fine--he's 19 and it's summer--but I worry until I hear his key in the lock.

So I am tired, because this is not an event, this is just life. And I am embarrassed to admit I am tired because black people do this every day with no choice and no complaint. I could, if I wanted to, walk away from all this. (Well, in theory; in reality, I'd only have about five friends left and I'd have to find a new church, new apartment and new life.) The privilege of being white is that I can choose not to think about race; I can choose not to care. Even if I don't make that choice, it's there; I have options.

Even typing that sentence is laborious because I've said it so many times. This is where I hit the wall. There is a zeal to some in the New Evangelical movement that I admire. I am so pleased that being an evangelical and caring about social justice are no longer mutually exclusive. I am thrilled that we are no longer a wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican Party. I am so glad that there are speakers and blogger and pastors and thinkers who are talking about race and injustice, and they are passionate and zealous and I thank God for them.

But I remember when I was the only one in the room, and I remember when Sojourners was a struggling little outfit that had about 30 subscribers and could barely pay their rent, and being a white Christian who grappled with racial injustice was lonely. I'm a little suspicious of your zeal; I'm afraid it won't last. And if I'm honest, I'm not just tired. I'm angry. I'm angry that so many of you found out about racism yesterday--or six months ago, or a year ago, or five years ago. And I know it's irrational because someone could just as easily say it of me: what's 17 years to someone who's been doing it for 30 or 40? Who lives it in their skin every day? I know that the same questions I roll my eyes at are questions I once asked, and people were kind enough to answer them without any visible eye-rolling. That's how I learned. I owe you that, and I'm failing you.

And I'm failing you if I don't tell you that as exhausting and draining and deeply, deeply sad as this work can be, it is where the Kingdom grows and where God is at work; it is vibrant and meaningful and joyous as well. Fifteen years ago, I landed at City of Refuge Church. That I found it at all is what my charismatic friends would call a "divine appointment."  At the time, it had maybe 60 people.  It didn't have a building; it met in a room at a homeless shelter in Houston's historically black Third Ward neighborhood.  But I had interned at that homeless shelter a few years earlier, and the pastor had been the spiritual life director there.  And this little church, which drew a motley congregation which included the former district attorney of Houston and several former inmates whom he had probably prosecuted, had a bold vision of being a glimpse of the Kingdom of God, a place where believers reached across lines of race and class, where there was enough for everyone and no one went without.  It felt like the home I hadn't known I was looking for.   And while I didn't grow up there, over the next 10 years that church grew me up spiritually.

We didn't always know exactly what we were doing.  No one in multiracial churches does.  That is one of the first things that people who study multiracial churches will tell you: they are too new and too few for anyone to know what makes them work or, more often, not work.  They are an unknown quantity, this wild adventurous leap of faith that dares to imagine that the way things are is not the way they have to be.  We hit all the bumps in the road: the people who left the church because the reality of interracial fellowship was so much harder than the dream; disputes over who would fill leadership roles; conflict over leadership styles and musical styles. It has not been easy. We've all been angry and we've all cried.

But it's where I first experienced palpable grace in for the form of black folks who took a chance on me and loved me when they had no reason to. It's where people extended their trust and I did my best to hold that fragile, precious thing and not break it--and when I did, they offered it again. It's where I learned to listen. It's where I found out that recovering addicts are the wisest people in the world and if you're smart, you'll befriend some, and they'll take care of you when you discover your own brokenness. It's where I sat in a huddle with people ranging from a partner in one of the city's biggest law firms to a woman who lived at the homeless shelter and read Bonhoeffer's "Life Together" as we tried to figure out how to live into the Beloved Community.

I'm tired and angry. I'm also joyous and exhilarated. I'm angry with you for not coming to the table sooner. Today I told Mijha "I know I should be glad they're coming to the party, even if they're late" and Mijha said, "Late?! The plates have been cleared and we're having coffee! We're putting on our coats! Don't bother to show up now!"

I feel mean and hypocritical for feeling that way, but there it is. You're late and I'm angry; I went to a lot of funerals while you were off not knowing that racism and all its attendant evils were killing a lot of the people I loved. I pray to be gracious; I usually fail. Please be patient with me as I try to be patient with you. I'll answer your questions and I'll recommend books and I'll tell my stories; as best I can, I'll point you toward Jesus, who seems to like to hang out with the oppressed and marginalized. I'll assure you that my neighborhood isn't scary, that I prefer it to tonier areas because the parties are better and the people are kinder. I'll remember Fannie Lou Hamer saying the Kingdom of God was like a banquet table, a Sunday-dinner-on-the-grounds, and that there was enough for everyone and everyone was invited, even James Eastland and Ross Barnett, "but they'll have to learn some manners." I'll remind you to bring your manners and your appetite because there's enough for everyone at the welcome table and no one need go without, and I'll celebrate when you show up.

But sometimes I'll wish you'd come sooner. Sometimes I'll resent the way you dominate the conversation. Sometimes I'll roll my eyes at your enthusiasm. I'll know you haven't gotten knocked down yet. I'll worry you won't have the stamina for it and you'll disappear. I'll worry that you'll hurt people who really shouldn't have to take any more pain.

Remind me, when that happens, that I am not vice-Jesus and God is the host of the banquet, not me.

So come join us, but stick around when the attention has moved on from Ferguson. Be prepared for your whole life to feel like Ferguson sometimes. Be prepared for big pain and bigger love.

Julian's home.
Phen's graduation, June 2014.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Dear NALT Christians...We Are ALT

A few weeks ago, a new trend in Christendom lit up my Facebook feed. Christians were going to change the world, stand up for human rights, and defy their image as narrow-minded bigots...by making Youtube videos.

You may take a moment to wipe the tears of hilarity/frustration from your eyes. I had to.

It seems there is a new group on the scene, and they want you to know that when it comes to hating on the gays, they are Not All Like That. That is their catchy acronym: the NALT Christians. Inspired by the It Gets Better Project that Dan Savage and his partner started in 2010 to assure young gay kids that life gets better after high school, this group has so far posted about 75 videos on YouTube assuring the world that, fear not, we're Not All Like That.

What strikes me first is that they entirely missed the point of the "It Gets Better" campaign. What made IGB so powerful was it was a family conversation: older gay folks saying to younger ones, hey, it won't be like this forever. It wasn't gay people saying to everyone else, "Guys, we're totally cool! We pay taxes and join the PTA and curse in traffic just like the rest of you! Honest, we're not what you think we are!" No, they were talking to each other. And if NALT had actually taken Savage's advice, maybe this wouldn't be such an exercise in absurdity either. Savage coined NALT because so many Christians came up to him and said, "You know, we're not all like that." His response? "Don't tell me that, tell Pat Robertson!" Tell all the anti-gay leaders who claim to speak for all Christians. In fact, Savage didn't need to be told not all Christians are like that; his mother was both Christian and supportive of him. He already knew.

Maybe if NALT was a conversation amongst Christians, I'd be more supportive. If it were Christians talking to other Christians about why they believe--biblically, morally, spiritually, because of the presence of Christ and the Spirit--that sexuality is not an obstacle to a relationship with God, then that would be a conversation I'd be interested in taking part in. Instead, it comes across as Christians who want gay people to know that they're the good ones, the cool ones, the ones you can totally hang out with! Please affirm me and my coolness and don't lump me in with the un-trendy Christians who probably live in red states and wear polyester. The harm that is done to you is a shame, gay folks, but I need you to affirm that I am a good person! Because LGBTQ people TOTALLY have nothing else to do but shore up your confidence, NALTies. They don't have bigger issues facing their communities AT ALL. My eyes have rolled so far back into my head I'm not sure they're coming back around.

But snark aside (and it's hard to put aside because this effort is so rich with snarky possibility), I'm bothered by something deeper. I understand wanting to say that Christianity is not a monolith.  There are two billion of us, almost a third of the world's populations; any thinking person shouldn't need to be told that Pentecostals in Uganda are probably different from Catholics in the Philippines or Russian Orthodox in Moscow. I make it a point of assuming that in any group of 2 billion people, there's probably a plurality of opinion on any given topic, but I've always been a maverick. (As a corollary, I also don't assume it's every Muslim's job to convince me they're not in favor of flying planes into buildings or every black guy's job to convince me he's not a criminal.) So let's assume that message still needs to get out there.

I'm all in favor of a good theological fight (I'm fondly recalling a div school professor who referred to me as a "theological pugilist," which I took as the highest of compliments). I think we should have hard discussions and wave our fists and stamp our feet, always in the humble certainty that we may be getting this completely wrong because, let's face it, we usually do.  We can talk about why we disagree, and we can let those who are on the outside of this family argument listening in know that we have differing opinions on this subject.

But I can't help but feel that when they say "we're not all like that," they really mean "because we're better than."

We're better than those Christians who disagree with us--and who, it must be said in the interest of fairness, include a number who are indeed sometimes homophobic and hateful, as well as a number who are earnestly trying their best to be faithful to a complicated text, history and spirit. We're better than those Christians who are Republican, who are not as well-educated, who live someplace we don't like; better than those who think differently, vote differently, believe differently.

Except you're not, and basic Christian theology tells you you're not.  One of the great contributions of Christianity, I believe, is the belief that we are both beautiful and broken, every last one of us. We have the capacity for great goodness and for the depths of evil. So: NALT, you are ALT, because we are ALL ALT. We are all judgmental, we are all hypocritical, we are all petty and hurtful and shaming. We all say ugly things behind other people's backs. We worry that someone getting more means we will have less. We just do. And we can and should fight those impulses, but please don't pretend to me that you're not like me. I know you, because you ARE me. And you're a hot mess too.

Say you disagree, say you think the Christians who condemn homosexuality are wrong and are reading the Bible wrong, say it loud and strong. But don't say you're not like them. You violate the communion of the Church and you deny your own fallible humanity when you do.

And by the way, if you want to know what transformation and grace really look like, you won't see it in a Youtube video, but you might be lucky enough to meet my mom some day. Her best friend since high school--a friendship of close to 50 years now--is a lesbian who has been with her partner for about 35 years, almost as long as my parents have been married. Joan was the only bridesmaid in my parents' wedding. She and my mom used to make teachers cry. On one occasion, Joan pretended she was sick to stay home from school, then called the school pretending to be my grandmother in order to pick my mom up so they could drive to the beach in Joan's convertible.

I don't know when Joan came out to my mom, but I imagine it was gut-wrenching for both of them. We used to tease my mom because she once said, when my sister asked "but what do lesbians DO," "Sweetie, I don't know, I just pretend they're roommates who share recipes." That was probably 20 years ago. I think they had some rocky years in there. They kept talking, though, even when it was just a birthday call or a Christmas card.

Fast-forward several years. Mom went up to Vermont in August  to visit Joan and Suzi, who got married in September after DOMA was overturned. Was she going to the ceremony, I asked? She said she wasn't, because her trip to see them had been arranged before the DOMA ruling came down and it was too late to change her flight. But in the quiet of their house, when just the three of them were there, my mom asked them to say their vows for her.

I cried, standing on a street corner in New York City, when she told me that story. That is so far out of her comfort zone, but she loves Joan and Suzi and she wants them to be happy. She is not theologically convinced that homosexuality is God's plan for human sexuality; but she loves her friend and accepts her fully. And Joan accepts my mom. Suzi mentioned on this trip that my mom was the last person Joan came out to, after she'd come out even to her parents, because she was so afraid of losing my mom's friendship. "Did you think I was that much of a judgmental bitch?" asked my mom, who is known amongst her close friends, and her distant ones, for being a straight shooter. "Oh, Susie, Joan doesn't think that about you at all," Suzi said firmly. "She thinks you're principled. She *admires* that about you."

Tell me that's not grace. I'm a moral pygmy next to Joan and my mom.

It's moved my mom politically a bit; I think she favors civil unions, or at least wouldn't vote to oppose them. She wants Joan and Suzi to be able to make end-of-life decisions for each other.  When my dad said staunchly that he wouldn't go against the Bible and vote for something so unbiblical, my mom said, "Well, you don't know any gay people." Not true, Dad blustered; he has gay acquaintances at work. "Fine," Mom amended; "you don't LOVE any gay people."

And that's the game changer, isn't it? YouTube videos won't change anything. Trying to get a gold star for being NALT won't do it. But getting into the messy incarnational reality of people who aren't like you but who are, actually, exactly like you just might. That's where you'll find the grace and transformation.

That's where you'll find Joan and Susie and Suzi. And those broads are worth knowing.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

An Open Letter to Phen

Phen is 17 now and will start his last year of high school in two weeks. How on earth that happened since he was a lap child about six months ago is a mystery for the ages. As the adage goes, "The days are long, but the years are short." 

I wrote this letter to him after the verdict came back in the Trayvon Martin case, because he was angry and scared and talking about getting a gun. Sigh, 17. I couldn't pull my thoughts together without putting them on paper first--twas always thus--and he is used to getting notes and letters from me. So this was a letter to him, never intended for public consumption.  My friend Rémy believes it should be read by more than Phen, though he is the audience who matters most. But I have succumbed. The letter follows.

Dearest child o’mine,

During the Zimmerman trial, I often found my eyes drifting to two framed photos of you on the bookshelf. In one of them, you are about ten years old. You are asleep in my bed in your soccer jersey, clutching my old teddy bear. You are still wearing the green wristband that meant you had successfully swum the length of the swimming pool and were allowed to go down the big slide. Your top teeth have just come in and your face still has the soft curves of childhood.

Phen, age 10
In the other, taken a few months ago, you are tall and lean, your six-foot frame draped over a chair while you play on your phone. The baby curves have melted away, leaving the angular face of a young man: high, chiseled cheekbones, a strong jaw, clear dark eyes. You’re wearing a hoodie.
Phen, 17
You are 17 in that photo. You are Trayvon Martin’s age.

It is not possible to have observed this case without some measure of emotion, I think. What I want to talk with you about—what I hope this will spark as a series of conversations—is the specific elements in this case, and the bigger sociopolitical issue around it. You are angry. That in itself is rare; you are sometimes petulant, occasionally angst-ridden, but rarely angry. You are actually quite even-tempered. It’s not that I don’t want you to be angry; I want you to be angry about the right things, and to direct it in the right way.

First, the case. The hysteria surrounding it has obscured all nuance, and legal cases rest entirely on nuance. Remember that because of our federalist system, the legal system is different depending on what state you live in. We live in Texas, which means you can get the death penalty for crimes for which other states would only give you a life sentence. Similarly, Florida’s laws are unique unto Florida. Zimmerman claimed self-defense. In most states, someone who claims self-defense must prove that he was indeed under threat. This means the defendant would have to take the stand and the prosecution would have the chance to cross-examine him. In Florida, if a person claims self-defense, the burden is on the prosecution to prove that it was NOT self-defense. It has to prove a negative. The defendant does not have to take the stand. Those cases are virtually unwinnable, which is why the state generally declines to prosecute them.

You have heard the phrase “beyond a reasonable doubt.” That is what the prosecution must prove: that events happened in a particular way beyond a reasonable doubt. It’s a high bar, as it should be. Taking someone’s freedom is a grave thing, so we tilt the system in favor of the defendant: the right to counsel, not to incriminate himself, to have the state prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. It should be hard to convict someone. A liberal justice system rests on the presumption that it is a graver offense to convict an innocent man than to let a guilty one go free. The truth about this case is that there is a lot we don’t now. We don’t know who threw the first punch. We don’t know when Zimmerman pulled his gun. The only person who could have contradicted Zimmerman’s story is dead.

This decision was not the result of a racist jury. It’s not Medgar Evers’ trial replayed 50 years later. It was the illogically logical outcome of Florida’s laws and the way self-defense is defined there.

You may have noticed the prosecution didn’t talk about race. They made some opaque references to “profiling,” but race was not central. Most white people do not now how to talk about race. And we have the privilege of choosing not to if we so choose; we can choose not to think about it at all. When forced, our speech is labored and our tongue sticks to our mouths. Try not to hate us for this. We were taught very early that race was not to be spoken of, that it was far too volatile a topic to be broached. We do not have a vocabulary for it. It is one of our great failings.

Phen in his unfortunate cornrows period, circa 13. But SO CUTE, no?
A lot of people hoped the jury would ignore the law and follow their conscience. It sounds nice, but it’s a dangerous proposition. It’s called jury nullification, and it means the jury chooses to ignore the law. That might sound appealing in a case like this, but the face of jury nullification has far too often been the 1960s civil rights cases in which all the evidence was ignored because a white jury just didn’t believe it was right to convict a white person for killing a black person.

But the specifics of this case are not why you are angry and why I cried. That is a much broader, more complicated, more painful picture.

At its heart is the fact that the justice system has not worked well for black people. That black bodies have not been counted as worthy as white bodies. Our heavy history, particularly in this Southland I love so much and which is the only home you remember, infuses every aspect of our lives and, therefore, of this case. We are a land swimming in blood. It is our original sin. And I use that word intentionally: I want you to know, Phen, as the person who first carried you into a Sunday School room and who cried at your baptism, that our country’s racism is a grave, grave sin, one that should drive us to our knees. It is a sin against you. Don’t ever let anyone call it something less or cheapen it. Zimmerman’s racism—the thoughts and preconceptions that drove him to follow Trayvon, to pursue him, to confront him—was a sin. But so is the socialization that led him to believe that was true without questioning it or perhaps even being aware of it. In the South, we all have bloody hands.

Phen, left, age 6, with brother Cesar, 9.  I CAN'T EVEN.

First time at sleepaway camp. Yes, he labeled himself in the photo.
When you were about 12, the fine-boned features of your adult visage just starting to emerge from your baby face, I talked with you for the first time about growing up. This wasn’t the “your body is changing” speech or “you will start to feel strange new feelings for girls” speech. This was the talk about how you were reaching an age at which people would stop seeing you as a charming little boy and start seeing you as a menace. About how it didn’t matter that your hoodie said “Harvard” on it; they would see a young black man in baggy pants and a hooded sweatshirt and they would not see the young man who excelled at math and played a mean game of chess, whose intricate footwork on the football field was a byproduct of a childhood spent on soccer fields, who still watched cartoons and could deliver a killer line without cracking a smile. Certainly they wouldn’t see what I saw when I looked at you, all your earlier selves, like a Russian nesting doll: the tiny boy who brought his church craft projects to me, the child who wanted to be carried on my hip, who stomped on the sidewalk so his Buzz Lightyear shoes would light up; the first-grader with missing teeth, the sturdy fullback on the soccer team, the kid who slept every night curled up against my back, the 11-year-old sick with a fever who nevertheless leapt barefoot into the backyard when Boston got its first snow and then screamed at the unexpected cold. They wouldn’t see any of that. They would see a potential troublemaker. They would see a menace to society, not the extraordinary gift I know you are.

Phen, in Harvard hoodie on the Wellesley grounds, age 12.
Talking to you about that felt like stealing your innocence. You hadn’t had much experience with injustice at that point. You were in a high-performing school in which all of the students and most of the teachers were black. The white people you knew were friends of mine. Your world had been a pretty friendly, welcoming place.

But it would have been at best naïve and at worst negligent not to let you know that the world will see you differently, judge you differently, because you are black. I needed to be sure you were prepared. I wanted you to know how to deal with the police if you were ever approached by them: be courteous, don’t run, always keep your hands in view. These behaviors are second nature to you now.

What is so terrifying about this case is that it demonstrates that it’s not just the police I have to worry about anymore. Now it’s anyone who might think you look daunting and who might be carrying a concealed weapon—which is to say, anyone. Thirty years ago, Zimmerman would have been convicted simply because he was illegally carrying a weapon, and he would have gotten the stiffest possible sentence because that gun acted as an accelerant in a confrontation that ended in death. Concealed weapon laws didn’t exist. Lax gun laws and laws that encourage people to escalate rather than diffuse a confrontation ensure tragedies like this will happen.

This is worthy of your anger, Phen. This toxic combination produces lynching under another name. Was Zimmerman racist? Probably not in the KKK-sense, but in the sense that almost every white American is racist, of having absorbed on a cellular level the idea that black men are dangerous, I’m sure he was. That in itself is only part of the problem. The fact that he had a gun in his hand and could pursue and act on that impulse, one that he may not even have been consciously aware of himself, is the real problem. That is worth fighting, Phen. That is worth struggling and donating and VOTING (you can register on your 18th birthday).

I don’t want you to hate Zimmerman because I don’t want you to give him the power to warp your character. You are an open, confident, trusting young man. You are trustworthy. You are honest. You give people the benefit of the doubt. You stick up for the underdog. Someone like Zimmerman can’t be allowed to make you less than you are.  In “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (which I know you’ve read, but you should read it often—like Les Miserables and Anna Karenina, you will see something new every time), King talks about watching racism warp his children’s sense of their own worth, damage their character as they learned to hate and distrust. I want to keep that poison away from you. I worry about keeping your body safe, but I worry about your spirit just as much.

My wild child
 With all that said, Phen, know that what I have always said still holds: there are no excuses. Things are not fair; you will encounter obstacles others will never know. It’s not an excuse. Rise up, work tirelessly, live passionately. Much of life is not in your hands, but who you are—you get to choose that.

As I watch you move with feline grace, notice how long and graceful your fingers are, how tall you’ve become, I’m reminded of the Maya Angelou line: “I am the hope and the dream of the slave.” You are indeed. You are also the hope and dream of parents who risked everything to try a new place in the hopes it would be better. And you are the answer to a prayer I wasn’t audacious or imaginative enough to pray when I was 24. You are so wildly, lavishly loved by so many people, and there are no excuses for not being your own marvelous self.

I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always, as long as I’m living, my baby you’ll be.

Christmas Eve service

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

I Love the Smell of Victory in the Morning

As some of you may remember, the World Cup was held in South Africa this past summer. South Africa was justifiably proud of itself for pulling off a major tournament, although perhaps that was only because the expectations were so low; after all, a number of developing nations, including Brazil, Mexico and Argentina, have hosted the tournament successfully. And South Africa is now faced with several stadiums built for the World Cup on which they spent billions of rand and the upkeep of which is likely to be in the millions annually, making it virtually impossible to recoup the cost. The stadiums in Cape Town and Johannesburg may be able to do so; Nelspruit and Mbombela, I think we can agree, are screwed.

But it stirred up a fresh wave of support for the national team, Bafana Bafana ("the boys"), which is good in that sports here tend to break down along racial lines: cricket and rugby are largely followed and supported by whites, and soccer by blacks. But for a brief halcyon moment, everyone rallied behind Bafana, which is nice because you don't have to be here long before you realize that under a thin veneer of courtesy people here actually freaking hate each other, and I'm all for anything that postpones the race wars, if only for a time.

It only took about a week for the bonhomie and good will to wear off and the sniping to start again, but it was nice while it lasted. So people were really excited when they heard Bafana would be playing a match in Cape Town against the US national team. Maybe it would resurrect the World Cup spirit.

But no one was more excited than I was. Because no one likes to win, and on the opponents' turf no less, more than I do. Look, I am all for global citizenry. I am a polite and courteous guest in this country. I try to confine my venting about the postal service, poor internet connections, crime and generally shoddy service to my American friends. I watch rugby; I don't really bother with cricket, it's a less refined version of baseball. I can greet people in Afrikaans and Xhosa. I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to explain to people how the American electoral system works and the phenomenon of Sarah Palin. But I draw the line at sports. You are allowed to be every inch the Ugly American when your team is playing. In fact, it's your patriotic duty. And when you win, you tell everyone to suck it, because we are GLEEFUL winners, we are EXUBERANT winners. It is part of the American charm.

So I readied myself for the game, wishing I had a really obnoxious American T-shirt that said something like "these colors don't run" and listening to Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red White and Blue," which you may remember for the delicate phrasing of this line: "We'll put a boot in your ass, it's the American way." I was a little dicey about our chances, because we were fielding a very inexperienced squad that had only three members of our World Cup team.

Walking to the game was like being swallowed by a bright yellow whale. Yellow (Bafana's color) everywhere you looked; people in jerseys, face paint, wigs, wrapped in the South African flag. And the singing of the South African national anthem, which is in several languages, was truly beautiful. Just as beautiful was the American anthem, with all 15 of us Americans representing in the sea of 51,000. But we stood and put our hands over our hearts and sang and though some of the South Africans looked at us funny, like they weren't sure where we had come from, they were gracious and respectful of the American anthem.

The game itself was not really a promotion for the Beautiful Game. Our team looked young and raw; theirs could string some good passes together but couldn't dominate in the air or in the midfield and couldn't get many shots. And then, in a golden moment less than 10 minutes before the end of the game, a 17-year-old American reserve player who had just been called up from the junior team for this game knocked in a goal from about 7 years out. Oh it was fantastic. And there is something surreal about screaming and shrieking when everyone around you goes quiet. And by surreal, I mean awesome, because they were so cocksure that they were going to win this game. YES WE CAN. UUUU-SSSSS-AAAAAAA. WE ARE SPARTA. I might have yelled all those things in my euphoria whilst jumping up and down in my seat.

I then proceeded to heckle everyone from the dejected passersby on the street to my doorman, because that's the beauty of sport: it is the last arena of sanctioned aggression. Look, I am tired of unreliable internet, of not being able to go places by myself at night, of having my cell phone stolen, of crappy customer service, of spotty postal service, of segregation, of arrogant attitudes about Americans and American culture as they play on their iPhones and wear Levis, of instant coffee. I would like to start fights, but I don't. I just let that game be the catharsis I have needed for three months.


Friday, October 8, 2010

I know, I'm late but I'm here!

I've been in South Africa about six weeks, and am happily settled into my apartment with its pay-as-you-go electricity (seriously, you buy electricity at the 7-11, which I had to do at 7 pm the other night when suddenly all my lights went out and I realized I hadn't checked the meter in a week or so) and capped wireless. That's right, American friends, you pay by the megabyte here. None of your crazy limitless-free-wireless-in-coffeeshops-and-parks nonsense. We're obviously dealing with a finite commodity here and it must be rationed.

Welcome to the Third World.

I'm in Pretoria for the week, although I'm based in Cape Town, and I'm gaining traction on the research, things are good, I'll write more later when I'm not falling asleep.

I like South Africa. This isn't my first trip, it's about my sixth. South Africans always ask me eagerly, "how do you like South Africa?" Honestly, I have never seen a country so desperate for affirmation. That's really what the entire World Cup was about: spending billions of dollars that you'd spend years paying off so the cool kids would come, drink your beer, and like you, at least for a little while. It is panting to be liked, to be cool--even though, as every cool kid knows, the essence of coolness is not caring (or at least acting like you don't care) if you're cool. If a 15-year-old insecure freshman were a country, it would be South Africa.

So I tell them: lovely country, lovely beaches, lovely people. And--here's what I don't tell them--people who are inadvertently hysterical. Like the South African blogger in the US I read the other day who mentioned the foolishness over whether or not Obama was Muslim and said "don't people here understand the concept of reconciliation? Mandela could teach them a thing or two." The irony is too much for me, I rolled around on the floor and wished I could call friends in the States. With all our problems--and I'm the first to admit we have them--we've elected an African-American president; if African-Americans were to form their own country, their economy would be among the top 15 in the world; and yet a WHITE SOUTH AFRICAN, apparently oblivious to the seething anger and disdain I regularly hear voiced by black and Coloured South Africans who tell me with relief that they can talk freely with me because I'm a white American and not a white South African--is going to tell us about reconciliation? Do tell, we eagerly await. Until then we'll go on being the *real* Rainbow Nation (check the demographics, we're way more diverse). Oh, same blogger said Americans don't talk about race as freely as South Africans. Certainly this has everything to do with where you are and who you hang out with, but again--rolling on the floor clutching my sides. I grew up in integrated schools, had African-American teachers and friends from the earliest days, had an African-American mentor professionally, have worked, lived and worshipped in majority-black environments. A generation like that has not yet come of age in SA. Meanwhile South African schools don't really look much different than they did pre-1994, very few people have cross-racial friendships of any depth, and the surface politeness hides the fact that most black people will commute back to the townships in the evening and whites will return to their monochromatic neighborhoods and monochromatic friends. As a black American friend of mine said, "I didn't really appreciate Arkansas until I lived in South Africa." ARKANSAS, Y'ALL. Exactly.

So: I love being in SA, I really do. It's an absolute blast, I love the work I'm doing, I love traveling, I love meeting people and hearing their stories. But the very best part is that I don't have to stay here. Someday I will return to a place where people don't routinely get killed for their cell phone (I called my hostel from the street the other day because I was lost, and the guy said carefully, "you really want to avoid talking on your cell phone on the street"), where books and laptops and cell phones and blenders and software are cheap because that's what happens when your countrymen actually produce things, and where the people at fast food restaurants put enough ice in my cup without me having to send it back three times (which I do, because I'm the Ugly American).

Save me a peppermint mocha from Starbucks, kids, I'll be home for Christmas. (And then back here for another 9 months.)

More later on more substantial things, but really, the reconciliation comment demanded a response, no? I mean we can't just let absurdity go unchallenged, that's how civilization crumbles. That, and inadequate amounts of ice in the Coke. (Seriously, is there a shortage?)

Thursday, July 1, 2010

World Cup Woes

One of the great things about being a country which plays so many sports is that no single sporting disappointment can linger for very long. I was bummed for about 15 minutes when the Celtics lost to the Lakers, but then the World Cup started. Then I was kinda disappointed when the US lost to Ghana, but I didn't actually watch the match--I had a training all day--and anyway Argentina is my pick to win it, plus baseball is in full swing and there was that crazy Wimbledon match and the NBA draft (do we think Lebron James will stay with the Cavaliers? I say yes).

So what is souring the World Cup for me is not the US performance, but the round of commentary on why the US doesn't play "global sports," with the implication that it's because we're arrogant and don't care about the rest of the world. News flash: not being soccer-mad is not the equivalent of pulling out of the UN. Perspective, people, perspective.

It does not help that I regularly read a South African newspaper along with its comment section. I'm going to have to take a break from it, because
I find the kneejerk anti-Americanism and misconceptions to be so exasperating that now I'm grossly overreacting. I realized this about myself the other day when someone said that he was glad to see the English and Americans cry when they lost because they thought they owned the soccer field, and the Americans need to start playing global sports and stop saying they are world champions at sports only we play.

Well. And then I lost my shit.

First of all, of the many places we are arrogant, soccer really isn't one of them. Americans always come in as underdogs, at least in our own heads. But here's the thing: soccer is now the most popular youth sport. We're going to be a force in global soccer very soon. And all the people whining about how Americans won't play their sport may soon have reason to regret when we do. As Time magazine said a couple of weeks ago, "Face it: the US is going to play, watch, market, manage and own your sport sooner or later." We have 300+ million people; we can have soccer be our fifth or sixth most popular sport and still be a top-10 team.

However, let's talk about this whole not-loving-soccer thing. We are hardly unique in this. As writer Matt Iglesias noted, "It’s worth pausing for a moment to note that the USA isn’t really that much of an outlier in terms of its relative lack of enthusiasm for soccer. For example in China the most popular team sport is basketball and there’s tremendous passion for table tennis. The most popular sports in India (and Pakistan and Bangladesh) are cricket and field hockey. I’m told that in Indonesia badminton and tennis are the most popular. In Russia and Canada it’s ice hockey. Which isn’t to deny that many people in those countries may enjoy soccer as well—many Americans like soccer. But 'the world' is not the same as 'Europe and Latin America.' Indeed, I believe the countries I’ve just been naming account for about half the world’s people."

So let's put to rest once and for all the canard that we are the lone nation resisting the siren song of soccer on which all future world peace and interdependence relies.

Secondly, why do other people care what sports we play? Do they know what they sound like? It sounds like a little brother whining "Come plaaaay with me, I wanna plaaaaaay with you." Dude, we're not bothering you, let us play what we want. Why do some people take it as an affront? It seems to speak to an inferiority complex: this strange seething resentment that the superpower doesn't think your sport is so super.

And third, if you honestly still think American sports are exclusively that--American--then you're far more provincial than the Americans you're criticizing. American football is the only American sport that is still uniquely American. Basketball is global. Eastern Europe has some of the best teams, European leagues are popular, and the NBA is packed with international players--German, Slovenian, Serbian, Chinese, Italian, you name it. We still win the Olympics but it's no longer by the 50-point margins it once was, it's a fight, because the rest of the world is catching up, and it's hugely popular. Baseball is less so, but even that is global--Japan, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Venezuela, etc. Cuba has won the Olympics more times than we have. And if basketball is an Olympic sport and cricket isn't, then arguably one is more of a "global sport" than the other.

What gets me is that aside from soccer, the sports people always point to as "global sports"--cricket and rugby--are English sports. This comes back to my theory that most former English colonies don't know how to decolonize themselves and give the middle finger to England, and that part of our success was a very clear and decisive break with the mother country. We don't want your soccer, England; we took your rugby and made American football, and took your cricket and made baseball. (Then we changed how everything is spelled, and just for fun and because we can, we make sure American English is the default setting on computer software that we sell all over the world. Ha.) Other former colonies seem to maintain this weird love-hate adolescent relationship that we just don't have. But those are not global sports, they are English sports, Commonwealth sports. Let's call it what it is.

So clearly I care way more than is normal about what some halfwit said on a message board, and I need a break from South African media to regain my sanity. So, back to the soccer: good luck, Uruguay, represent the Western hemisphere well against Ghana; may the best man win in Brazil v. Netherlands (I think that will be a great match); Paraguay, I'm afraid you're outclasses by Spain but greater upsets have happened; and Argentina, I look forward to the clash with Germany but my money and my heart are with you, Lionel Messi. And I'm going to Austin tomorrow to see aunt and cousins (17-year-old cousin: "Nelson Mandela is like an adorable koala bear." Which a) he kind of is, and b) I was just relieved she knew who Mandela was) and a friend who had a baby a couple of months ago.

It's the first time in four years I'll be in the US for July 4. You will not believe this, fellow Americans, but July 4 is actually *not a holiday* in other countries. I KNOW. MADNESS. So I'm particularly excited to be home to celebrate all of us.

Thursday, May 27, 2010


And it's done.

Master of Divinity degree conferred, May 27 2010.