Just Keep Swimming: Pandemic Edition

This is my first blog post since everything has changed. Everything. So where to start? To begin with, today I am not going to talk about the politics of it all. I wanted to lay out the sequence of events so that I can remember them–where I was, what I was doing. Reflections will come later.

In February, we heard the word Wuhan for the first time. I recall Sarah mentioned it in passing, and I remember replying, “Oh, ok, uh-huh,” without stopping what I was doing. Throughout that month and into March, I may or may not have clicked on updates from China that came across my news feed, but since it was not a topic yet related to U.S. politics (my preferred topic), I likely kept scrolling. Then came March.

On March 1, there were 75 confirmed cases in the U.S. On March 9, the day Sarah was to drive to South Florida for a math conference, there were 704. On March 10, we cancelled a cruise we had booked with Sarah’s family and church pals. Then on March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic. By March 12, the day she decided to come home early, the number was 1,697 (https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/us/ ). By the way, COVID-19 is the specific strain of coronavirus (a general group of viruses); to call it the Chinese coronavirus is not only inaccurate, it’s racist. Yep. You may not care for the Chinese government, but those folks over there got sick like us folks over here. See? 

map_cov19

By mid-March–which sounds and feels like a decade ago as I write it–online news sources had special COVID-19 pages/links, where you could see all news updates related to the virus in one place. The 2020 Democratic primary was affected. Super Tuesday was pretty much overshadowed. Candidates and other politicians–including the president, who thrives on rallys–began cancelling. The last Democratic debate–like all late night shows–were held without live audiences. I must admit I approve of the format for debates–for Stephen Colbert, not so much. As early as Saturday, March 7th, Kennesaw State University had begun to develop a “continuity plan” in the event face-to-face classes were suspended. It was essentially a plan for all courses to go online.

Unexpected issues started cropping up, too. For example, what would students do if dorms and dining halls were closed? What about homeless students (and all universities have them)? What about students who did not have computers or notebooks, but only their smartphones? The news channels began to have question and answer programming where viewers sent in questions for experts to answer. We submitted our plan to the university president by March 10th, and then we waited. It truly felt like a calm before the storm, eerie silence and all. By the evening of Friday the 13th, announcements came that public schools and universities would go online the following week. Church services across the country scrambled to find ways to make virtual worship meaningful. This was also the day that everyone in America went to the grocery stores for toilet paper.

Monday, March 16, was the day the stock market had its worst day since 1987. It was also the day we started setting up our home offices. Sarah had worked all weekend preparing to teach three in-person classes completely online–and have office hours virtually. I brought home monitors and books from the office after having one virtual meeting on my laptop. Honestly, I need the 2 monitors so I can do other things during the meeting, like look for social distancing staples online. You know you do it too, which is why it is on one of the 10,000 blog posts called, “Good Virtual Meeting Etiquette.” I have so far had five virtual meetings this week. It got so bad, one group had trouble finding a time–from home during social distancing!–to schedule our next meeting. A well-meaning colleague suggested meeting early–8:30 or 9:00 am–so that people would be free. I told him it was obscene to start that early. Because we are at home does not mean we are always “on,” which he was NOT suggesting. But it’s something to think about.

virtualmeetings

So, it is Friday, March 20, and we are caught up with the basics. I have learned how to change my Zoom background and so far have been at the Grassy Knoll, the White House, Graceland, and inside the Tardis. We have cooked more this week. Sarah has started an outdoor garden–so far with mainly carrot tops from our increased vegetable consumption. My office is a thing of beauty, and I am about to run out of diversionary tactics related to rearranging it. I have so far ventured out twice–both times to the office and thrift shop. I took wipes and sanitizer. I have taken a walk. We are ahead of the laundry. I have read Scripture and Sister Joan Chittister’s take on The Rule of Benedict every morning.

The other pandemic task I worked on this week was connecting. I realized that part of my own continuity plan should include staying in contact with people. As an introvert, it’s saying a lot that I should have that as my concern, but I am aware that I self-isolate enough anyway–imagine when it is mandatory! So, I hit the Facebook and made “Friends” with people from all parts of my life: colleagues, church folks, family, old classmates, scholar friends. I paid attention as people started setting up “Hangouts” and various groups and web meet ups. There have also been plenty of news and blogs encouraging people to take precautions to avoid loneliness, which will be very real as this thing goes along. Speaking of blogging, it’s another way I feel connected, and I’m planning on doing it more. There should be plenty to write about. One thought I had this week, during my containment prep, was how aptly named the blog is, Just Keep Swimming. If it was appropriate up to now, it sure is as we move forward. It is, for me, a hope-full idea: hang on, keep going, do the best you can. That’s the plan, anyway. 

dolphinhope

 

My Sugar Addiction, Day 1

I am gaining my weight back. Again. Like just about every person who has ever battled their weight, I have tried every diet plan imaginable. I’ve taken diet pills–over the counter and prescription–and for awhile I took Alli fat blocking pills, which was the grossest diet plan ever. Google that one. I’ve done Weight Watchers, now WW so you will feel like a winner, thank you, Oprah. It’s still Weight Watchers. I’ve exercised for a solid year; that, along with WW, which works if you work it, resulted in my losing the most weight I ever had in my adult life: 70 pounds. It felt so good! I got a complete new wardrobe and felt young again. I was so encouraged this time when I read that if I could keep it off for 3 years, I could keep it off for good. When it started creeping back after about year two–those crisp white shirts and modern-cut pants started feeling snug (a word of terror for fat people)–I looked that factoid up again. It had said five years, not three. I had weighted 168 for exactly 2 days, and as I creeped back up in the 170s, I told myself that my body wanted me to be in that range. Again, if you’ve ever been a weight warrior, you know the feeling in the pit of my stomach as I watched myself outgrow my clothes. Again.

fat david

My size 10 Levis were the first item to go, then my pants for going out. I donated my cute pinstripe suit after church one Sunday when a guy jokingly–it’s always jokingly, you know, but there’s truth behind it and it hurts like a sucker punch–said “Hey girl, you trying to show off those biceps?” I looked down at curved stripes on too-tight sleeves. Last year, I bought size 16 Levis, telling myself I still had not reached my highest weight–253, so 16 was okay. I was still under 200 pounds. Then came another holiday season.

I don’t even bother making New Year’s resolutions any more. What is the point? It’s always the same: lose some weight. Weight warriors, familiar? Knowing most people gain a few pounds over the holidays, and also knowing I didn’t have any to gain, I was determined to practice portion control. I didn’t gain during the month-long eat fest, but I began to feel my body change beyond the feel of my clothes. I put out of my mind that the size 16 roomy L.L.Bean pants’ waistband was getting snug. (oh no!). I was out of breath in the shower. I developed a candida fungus under my belly fat. Yes, that is so far the most embarrassing thing that I’ve ever felt about my body. Fat can be fluffy if you tell yourself enough. But a seepy, smelly rash made me feel nothing but shame.

This weekend an interview with Molly Carmel popped up on my newsfeed, and led me to her new book, Breaking Up With Sugar: Divorce the Diets, Drop the Pounds, and Live Your Best Life. I had do decide whether to add another weight loss book to my Kindle. I have books on insulin resistance, carbs, and the keto diet, for example. I know the science, and I know the “secrets” of weight loss. If knowledge were enough, wouldn’t we all be thinner and healthy? That, precisely, is Carmel’s point. I ‘m going to call her Molly, since the tone of her book is friendly and encouraging. I’m reading Breaking Up now, and I’m glad I bought it.

sugardownload (1)

Here’s Molly’s About the Author on Amazon: Molly Carmel has made it her life’s mission to help people find a sustainable solution to the battle of obesity and related eating disorders. After battling her own eating disorder for over 20 years and finding no solution in available treatment, she created The Beacon, where she helps clients recover from similar addictions. Carmel received her Bachelor’s in Social Work from Cornell University and her Master’s from Columbia University’s School of Social Work. She has extensive training in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, addiction, and nutrition.

The chapters support the breakup/divorce/find a healthy relationship theme of the book. I’m on Chapter 3, “The Truth About Your Sweetest Love,” where Molly gives a summary of how sugar is in reality “Suicide on the Installment Plan.” I wanted to include her list of sugar’s lethal capacity here: But Sugar also negatively affects every single part of your body. Some of these harmful effects are more well known than others. Eating sugar has been linked to: inflammation, migraine headaches, anxiety, brain fog, trouble sleeping, weakened eyesight, gum disease, heart disease, increased cholesterol, asthma, suppressed immunity, kidney damage, nonalcoholic fatty liver, overworked pancreas, arthritis, osteoporosis, metabolic syndrome, and leptin resistance. There’s even terrifying research showing that Sugar increases the risk of developing certain cancers. And of course, let us not forget Sugar’s piece de resistance, glucose intolerance and diabetis

And yet, knowing all of this and having encountered many of the effects on Molly’s list, I keep right on eating sugar and its evil twin flour anyway. I’m going to keep reading, but I’m open to the idea that I think and behave like an addict when it comes to sugar–and I suspect toward food in general. I looked ahead to see whether Molly had made me a shopping list and a suggested meal plan? She had? Ah ha, I thought, but are they easy or complicated? Maybe they were like keto, a list of foods and meals of stuff I really don’t like (how much butter can I eat?). Nah, Molly included good, whole foods. I felt healthier just reading the foods and plans, which are easy and sustainable. I went through her lists of proteins, fats, carbs and made a grocery list.

I’ve already started the self-doubt talk in my mind. I’ve done this before–so many times. What is different about this time? How long will I be able to eat this food, which I’ll get tired of, won’t I? It’ll take too long to lose this much weight, so what’s the point? But Friday is pizza night! You work so hard, don’t you deserve a reward?  Molly, though, has already thought of this–she describes how she herself heard those same voices. Of everything I’ve read so far, this passage has hit me most profoundly was about how rats respond to excessive Sugar–which Molly capitalizes to remind us that we really are in a relationship. After describing sugar DTs, she writes, What’s more, when the rats withdrawing from Sugar were placed in water, they were less likely to swim or climb out, and more likely to passively float. They had lost their will to survive. I’m going to keep reading, Chapter 4 is “Defining Your Relationship: How Bad Is It Really?” There’s even a quiz. I know already; it’s pretty bad. I have a food addiction. I’ll start from there.

cuterat

 

The Promise of Forgiveness & Reconciliation, part 3

I call this last post The Promise Forgiveness & Reconciliation because I want to end on a hopeful note.

The Mystery of Forgiveness & Reconciliation, part 1

The Limits of Forgiveness & Reconciliation, part 2

I believe it is justifiably hopeful given the theory, theology, and practical parts of the topics. If I were going to teach a Sunday School class, or even present a lesson in a college education class, I would begin by scouring literature and web sites. I would, in the style of Worthington and Lederach, turn to case studies and current events. Much like these blog posts, the organization of a brief curriculum would be somewhat as follows:

  1. Introduction, Definition of Terms, Participant Questions
  2. Deeper Understandings: Contexts, Benefits, Limits
  3. The Scope of Forgiving and Reconciling: Interpersonal, Local, Global
  4. Putting It All Together, Where Do We Go From Here, Revisit Initial Questions

Peace Dove 1

I have included below Revisiting the 10 Practices of Just Peacemaking Theory by David P. Gushee (2019) from EthicsDaily.com. Developed by the late ethicist Glen Stassen. Although the practices reference peacemaking (which I use interchangeably with reconciliation, knowing there are differences) at the global setting, I believe they can be modified to allow us to act upon them locally.

  1. Support nonviolent direct action.
    Nonviolent direct action occurs when citizens confront injustice through peaceful public protests and other resistance strategies, including boycotts and strategic noncooperation. Practiced effectively by Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
  2. Take independent initiatives to reduce threat. 
  3. Use cooperative conflict resolution. These skills train adversaries to see each other as human beings with dignity and legitimate needs rather than as sub-humans whose every negotiating demand is illegitimate just because of how evil they are.
  4. Acknowledge responsibility for conflict and injustice; seek repentance and forgiveness.
  5. Promote democracy, human rights and religious liberty.
  6. Foster just and sustainable economic development. Hungry people easily become desperate and violent, and, when they rebel, their need is at least temporarily exacerbated.
  7. Work with emerging cooperative forces in the international system.It stands to reason that the more nations are involved in these webs of interaction, the less likely they are to make war.
  8. Strengthen the United Nations and international organizations.
  9. Reduce offensive weapons and weapons trade.
  10. Encourage grassroots peacemaking groups and voluntary associations. Everybody needs somebody looking over their shoulders to keep them in check. See the full article here

Peace, justice, dignity, equity, voice, and the resolution of conflict are the basis of reconciliation. What about forgiveness? Psychology Today states, “Forgiveness is the release of resentment or anger.” It does not mean reconciliation–no person or entity has to return to a harmful relationship. “Forgiveness is vitally important for the mental health of those who have been victimized. It propels people forward rather than keeping them emotionally engaged in an injustice or trauma.” It has physical, emotional, and psychological benefits, and has been shown to “elevate mood, enhance optimism, and guard against anger, stress, anxiety, and depression.” Forgiveness and Reconciliation are like a suit: you can wear the jacket and pants separately, but they also go together. Maintaining the distinction acknowledges the offended party (I am avoiding the word victim here). If this complicated process is worked prayerfully and diligently, there are situations where both are possible outcomes. Link to Psychology Today: Forgiveness

peace dove 2

The following is the beginnings of a collection of resources that I will add to over time.

  1. Duke Divinity School: Center for Reconciliation Resources https://divinity.duke.edu/initiatives/cfr/resources
  2. Peace Center for Forgiveness & Reconciliation http://www.choosetoforgive.org/
  3. The Forgiveness Project https://www.theforgivenessproject.com/
  4. Racial Equity Resource Guide http://www.racialequityresourceguide.org/organizations/organizations/sectionFilter/Racial%20Healing
  5. Racial Equity Institute https://www.racialequityinstitute.com/partner-organizations
  6. Reconciliation Ministry (Disciples of Christ) https://reconciliationministry.org/
  7. Conciliation Resources http://www.c-r.org/
  8. Truth and Reconciliation, Commission of Canada http://www.trc.ca/resources.html
  9. Community Tool Box https://ctb.ku.edu/en/table-of-contents/spirituality-and-community-building/forgiveness-and-reconciliation/main
  10. Center for Justice & Reconciliation http://restorativejustice.org/#sthash.i2cZEw7o.dpb
  11. Lederach, J.P. (2014) Reconcile: Conflict Transformation for Ordinary Christians. Virginia: Herald Press.
  12. Jones, G. (1995). Embodying Forgiveness: A Theological Analysis. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
  13. Worthington, E.L. (2001). Forgiving and Reconciling: Bridges to Wholeness and Hope. Illinois: InterVarsity Press.
  14. Walker-Barnes, C. (2019). I Bring the Voices of My People: A Womanist Vision for Racial Reconciliation. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

 

asymmetrical-ethics

The Limits of Forgiveness & Reconciliation, part 2

I have heard horror stories of people in abusive relationships who have sought spiritual advise from their church leaders, only to be told that they should forgive their partners–forgive the verbal, psychological, physical abuse and/or infidelity, for example. They are told to forgive as God forgives (remember the theological model I mentioned in my last post?) The Mystery of Forgiveness & Reconciliation, part 1   People who have escaped relationships of abuse are even sometimes counseled to reconcile. Many years ago, I was divorced, and for years I had recurring nightmares that I was being forced to reconcile with my husband.

Forgiving and reconciling have limits that are dependent upon circumstances and injustice. I learned from my own experience that I forgive so that I can move forward, but nobody–not in dreams or consciousness–can make me reconcile.

Every kind of relationship includes relations of power, privilege, and politics–and these must be acknowledged. In The Politics of Apology and Forgiveness,  Joretta Marshall identifies five connections between power and forgiveness that I think are important. 1. The misuse of power invites power into a relationship. 2. The person who has the power to cause harm does not have equal power to require forgiveness—only to apologize and ask for forgiveness. 3. The giving or receiving of forgiveness, like an apology, cannot be coerced. 4. There is a dance between power and vulnerability in the forgiveness process. 5. Forgiveness emerges through the shifting of power in relationship. Forgiveness has its own subversive power in its potential for transformation.

In The Limits of Forgiveness, Norlock and Rumsey unpack the costs and limits of forgiveness, which are to be found in situations where “radical evil” exists. They argue that social and political recognition, including punishment of offenders and provisions for the economic and physical safety of victims, are requisite conditions” (p. 119). The authors demand that we critically analyze what we ask of those we expect to forgive offenders. What is that about? Forgiveness is fraught with complexity, and the existence of radical evil does not allow us the luxury of taking the process for granted.

I also discovered the book, Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil, by Susan Neiman. This text, which is the kind of reading I do for fun (me = nerd), examines the intentional efforts at “working through the past” by the German people—individually and collectively—in the wake of the Nazi Reich. She argues that the United States—White Southerners, in particular—can learn and take cues from the Germans, although the evil of slavery and Jim Crow is a different kind of evil than Nazism. She explicitly states that this is not a suggestion of comparative suffering or oppression, but one of comparative reconciliation. Thomas Jefferson, the embodiment of questions Americans must ask of ourselves, said, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just and that his mercy cannot last forever.” When I think about forgiveness and reconciliation, radical evil and sin, power and privilege—and how these fit in the Kingdom of God, I tremble too. Germans book

So whether we are talking about relationships at the personal or global level–or anything in between–power relations are maintained and reproduced that are paramount to the nature of the relationship. They also affect the approach, expectations, and limitations in the process of forgiveness and reconciliation. Social categories such as race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, religion, ability, and cultural background also have great bearing on the process, particularly since these categories are socially constructed, fluid, and flexible.

 

On our last day together, our F&R class organized our thinking around F&R on the board (see below). These are our findings:

Forgiveness is…

  • an ongoing process, as illustrated by Jesus’s metaphor of 70 X 7
  • an array of both positive and negative emotions
  • effective in an “I/Thou” relationship, such as that believers have with God
  • Jesus like
  • difficult and takes time
  • requires faith
  • a gift of mercy–to self, God, others
  • an aspiration (most of the time)
  • good for us
  • Note: “unforgiveness” has psychological and biological consequences

Forgiveness is not

  • the same as reconciliation
  • requiring of an apology or repentance
  • enmeshment or codependency
  • cheap or therapeutic
  • just saying “I’m sorry”
  • explicitly Christian
  • always equitable
  • a denial of hurt
  • earned
  • excusing abuse or the perpetrator
  • performative
  • an option
  • transactional
  • a feel good fix

Equity

Reconciliation is…

  • contextual
  • requiring of repentance
  • requiring of truth telling
  • requiring of solidarity, space, and safety
  • interpersonal and intrapersonal
  • often mediated by a third party
  • a process that requires something of the parties
  • an aspirational
  • messy
  • often confrontational
  • dependent upon justice
  • not always possible

Reconciliation is not

  • the same as forgiveness
  • mandatory
  • the same on individual and systemic levels
  • always fast
  • happiness-inducing
  • solidifying
  • without risk
  • agreement
  • a social contract
  • accompanied by compensation or reparation
  • always possible

I will add that reconciliation is part of the peacemaking process. In my next post, I will share 10 Practices of Just Peacemaking Theory from EthicsDaily.com.

Blackboard Outline Forgiveness & Reconcilliation

The Mystery of Forgiveness & Reconciliation, part 1

Growing up, when I thought about forgiveness–which is ever present in a practicing Fundamentalist Christian’s life–I thought first about God so loving the world that he sent Jesus to die on the cross for our sins. For our forgiveness. When I thought of forgiveness apart from the Cross, I thought about Jesus’s quip to Peter about forgiving an offender 70 times 7 (Matt 18:22). I remember calculating it in my mind, which Peter probably also did.

This semester I took a class with Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes, whose new book, I Bring the Voices of My People: A Womanist Vision of Racial Reconciliation, brings Womanist Wisdom “to describe how race and racism work, what reconciliation really looks like, and how faith can help us work toward it” (https://drchanequa.wordpress.com/2019/02/12/my-book-is-coming/). When you stop and think about it, each of those concepts–forgiveness and reconciliation–are huge. So full of meaning and implications that it was and continues to be daunting to me. My classmates and I spent 15 weeks grappling with texts and ideas; now I find it less daunting than profound. What I mean is that it is important to put forgiveness and reconciliation in practice and help others to do so, too. I know it was a good class because we are leaving it with more questions than when we began. Success is often measured by knowing enough to know what you don’t know. Our final project was to create a curriculum on forgiveness and/or reconciliation.

cwb

Dr. Walker-Barnes’s Book

From the time the project was assigned, I began to have trouble with it. I had writer’s block for curriculum development. I realize I still have some sorting out to do with the two-in-one concept, since, as Flannery O’Connor wrote, “I don’t know what I think until I red what I say.” In this post, I will briefly sketch an overview of an introductory segment on the concepts Forgiveness & Reconciliation. Should spaces for dialogue ever come up, here is where I would start.

First, it is important to note that Forgiveness & Reconciliation is a whole field of study with a growing body of literature. Typing in the words, “Forgiveness & Reconciliation” on Amazon, for example, yields 437 results. Type in those same words in Google, and more than twelve million results pop up. To be fair, “forgiveness” and “reconciliation” by themselves are intermingled with results for the pair. I found this to be the case in our class, too. The topics overlap, bleeding into each other, as it were, to the point where it is hard to see where one stops and the other begins. Entangled, jumbled. This is not inappropriate.

Dr. Walker-Barnes organized the course into engaging topics, and you can see the intricate threading throughout: Theologies of Forgiveness; Theologies of Reconciliation; Remembrance & Repentance; Power, Apology, & The Limits of Forgiveness; Trauma, Anger & the Failure of Reconciliation; Reconciliation or Liberation?; Reconciliation as a Spiritual Journey; and Psychological Perspectives on Forgiveness. We read texts by Gregory Jones, Embodying Forgiveness: A Theological Analysis; John Paul Lederach, Reconcile: Conflict Transformation for Ordinary Christians, and Everett Worthington, Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Theory and Application. There was a lot to read and talk about. If I were guiding a book talk on the subject, I would use some of the helpful strategies and models from these texts, developed by peace workers who walk the walk. Dr. Walker-Barnes’ book was published after our class had begun, so we only had a teaser chapter from it. It’s now on my Christmas break reading list!

The semester was spent painstakingly unraveling meanings. Here are some key points.

  1. Christians not only have an obligation to practice forgiveness, we also have a model. God forgives us.
  2. There are distinctions between forgiveness and reconciliation, even though they are a good matched set.
  3. Both forgiveness and reconciliation have important and often frustrating limits. If we know them going in, we will not have our expectations dashed.
  4.  Historically–both within Christianity and without–forgiveness and reconciliation have been abused, misused, oppressive, and suppressive. Survivors of interpersonal and/or systemic trauma/conflict narrate the journey to forgiveness and reconciliation. Survivors remind us of the high stakes involved in forgiveness and reconciliation; their voices are critical  to how we practice.

To further muddle my thinking, you have to consider forgiveness according to its various levels. Are we talking about forgiving another person? Groups of people? A whole country? What about reconciling? Couples reconcile (or don’t). Friends can too. Different cultures can reconcile–like in South Africa. People can be reconciled to God. I have to reconcile within myself. The scope is incredible.

I will end my overview with this: our participation in the divine life, that is, how believers exist in the world, is wrapped up in the tremendous Mystery. The gift and responsibility of forgiveness–and yes, reconciliation, too–are part of that mystery. And it is part of most believers’ theology. For example, while there are many subjects Jesus never mentioned, he was explicit about forgiveness: do it. So, as complicated and perplexing as forgiveness and reconciliation can be, it helps to approach them as sacred process.

Below is a picture of our white board from the last day of class, where we summed up what we had learned. In my next post, I will summarize them in talking points.

Blackboard Outline Forgiveness & Reconcilliation

 

“White Savior Barbie,” Not me!

I really love my seminary, the McAfee School of Theology, Mercer University. Faculty and staff there are committed to issues of justice and spiritual growth. It is also a place where only about 45% of the students are white. I want to support a place like that and more important, learn from the variety of perspectives and experiences of my classmates. It is a place where I can focus on issues important to me, like being a good ally by attending to my white privilege. I am convinced that my anti-racist work as a white Southern academic should also include theological and religious frameworks. I needed to get in touch with my Jesus.

White Savior

White Savior Movie

Part of the institution’s commitment to spiritual formation is the annual faculty, staff, and student weekend retreat, which the founding faculty built into the design of the programs. We just recently had one at the Pinnacle Center in the North Georgia mountains, where we spend two days worshiping together and getting to know one another. We build deeper relationships as classmates at a setting like this, where we pray and take communion together. This year, the dean announced he had been working with friends in Union Point, Georgia, to plan a work day at a historic cemetery near the original location of Mercer University. Here’s what he said:

This summer I learned of a neglected African American cemetery located nearby the Penfield cemetery. I have partnered with African American activists and other leaders to help them with a clean-up effort on October 26. I would very much appreciate it if you would join me as we honor this sacred space and practice remembrance.

He noted that enslaved persons were buried there.

Here is what I wish I had thought: Does it make a difference that the dean is a straight, white, cis-male? Were faculty invited to discuss this topic, welcoming voices from faculty of color? Could groundwork have been laid so that the announcement would have had context for the benefit of the students, most of whom were African American? What is motivating me to want to participate?

What I actually did, though, was volunteer to clean up the cemetery.

A few days later, the dean sent a reminder and included additional information that a filmmaker friend and seminary grad would be filming for a documentary. A few days after that, I learned that a group of African American students had submitted a letter to the dean to express concerns about the project. I have not seen this letter, but the seminary grapevine is real. That was the day I discovered the “Savior Barbie” Instagram account. If you haven’t heard about it, below is a Huff Post article, along with 2 examples of Barbie’s posts.

White Savior Barbie Huff Post

White Savior Barbie

White Savior Barbie pokes fun at people who suffer from “White Savior Complex,” the term used to describe the white Westerners who travel to third world countries and make the entire affair an exercise in self-congratulatory sacrifice. (Huff Post). The account owners, who remain anonymous, point out, “We have both struggled with our own realizations and are definitely not claiming innocence here.” “Barbie Savior, we hope, is an entertaining jumping off point for some very real discussions, debates, and resolves.” It isn’t that there is anything inherently wrong with doing volunteer work to help people. WSB targets the idea that Africa needs saving from itself and white people are the ones who can do it. Barbie Savior is there for a photo op, the ultimate selfie. This kind of thinking supported colonialism, conquest, and slavery. It is white supremacy.

Barbie Savior (@barbiesavior)

White Savior Barbie 3

Let me be clear: I am not suggesting for a minute that the McAfee dean is in error. I have no idea until and unless he discusses it what the process was for bringing this opportunity to the students. For all I know, he brought it to the faculty first for them to unpack together. The letter from students is said to contain references to a diversity strategic plan, which I imagine calls for voice and conversation and inclusion in initiative planning. I have no doubt he is prayerfully and profoundly considering what they have written and will respond appropriately. This is not about him; it is about my own complicity in maintaining racist systems in which the White Savior Complex operates.

So just what was I thinking? My first thought was what a great service project! As a Southern Christian who knows what “Decoration Day” is, I have cleaned old cemeteries for as long as I can remember. My second thought was about the historical significance of the place, for yes, I was in part motivated by it being a very, very old African American cemetery that was the final resting place of former enslaved persons.

My third thought was about my friend Edeltress in Baton Rouge, who had taken me on a detour to her ancestral cemetery one day while we were on a school visit for work. “Do you mind?” she asked me. “It’s been so long since I’ve been here. I was a little girl and my parents brought me.” So we drove to a countryside in Louisiana that I couldn’t find today if I had to. “Here it is,” she said. But looking around, I couldn’t see a graveyard. Just what looked like woods, undergrowth, weeds–way back, about a hundred feet off the side of the road. Edeltress laughed. “Oh, you’re looking for a white cemetery. This is how our cemeteries look.” We tramped around the site, being careful not to step on the graves, and on the way home, she told me stories about her father, who had driven an old broken-down truck so that his white neighbors would not recognize him for a landowner and successful farmer. My people were dangerous. So that is the image I got in my head when the dean asked for volunteers. I thought of paying tribute, in this small way, to my friend.

That is why I am going to acknowledge my white privilege, acknowledge the concerns of my classmates–for they hold us accountable for thinking of and processing these issues before complying–and then go clean up a grave yard. But you won’t see it on Facebook or Twitter. I will not take a selfie with a tombstone. Does this make me admirable? Is this sufficient acknowledgement, or am I assuaging my conscience? Am I asking the right questions? I don’t know, but it gives me something to ponder as I pull weeds.

White Savior Barbie 2

White supremacy can look like skin heads carrying swastikas; it can look like angry white people wearing red hats. It can be masked by well intentioned white people who secretly voted for Trump. And it can be a white seminary student who fails to do the work of problematizing a workday over the graves of enslaved persons. There is another White Savior resource I find relevant here. White Savior: Racism in the American Church (2019). The film “explores the historic relationship between racism and American Christianity, the ongoing segregation of the church in the US, and the complexities of racial reconciliation” (imdb). I recommend it. The film closes with an African American minister from the Bronx discussing being an ally. “Being an ally,” he said, “means asking ‘What do you need? and sometimes that means just shut up and listen.”

At the end of the day, I believe in a place like McAfee. It exemplifies the complexity of racial reconciling and justice. The messiness of it. It is a place where we can make all the mistakes–and there are many–and learn that the sky doesn’t fall when we make them. It is a place where, sometimes, we can just shut up and listen.

My White Privilege: An Unexpected But Unsurprising Glimpse

privilege, white privilege, race, racism

This week I had to check my whiteness two times, first at the ONA Coalition National Gathering and then at the UCC General Synod. The lesson was reinforced for me that, even though I have more than one historically marginalized marker with which I identify (gender and sexuality), that does not mean I am enlightened or evolved in relation to other marginalized populations. It is no fun having to face this in real world situations, but it’s crucial to remember. It also teaches me that in discerning for the ministry, I have a lot to learn. It is God saying, “You’re not there yet.”

The first was during a talk given by a candidate on the slate for a UCC national office. Right after the UMC vote, I had been a little indignant about African delegates being the conservative votes that put the resolution against LGBTQ ordination over the top. Reverend Karen Georgia Thompson pointed out that the African delegates had been heavily lobbied and probably manipulated by conservative (probably Southern) delegates. Of course they had; it created the narrative that benefitted U.S. delegates while reinforcing the stereotype that Black bodies and Black churches were by nature “essentially” conservative. 

The second instance was personal. I had a roommate for Synod, a gifted African American chaplain I’ll call Susan. One night, we went to a late evening reception for Members in Discernment for ordination. It was late, so there weren’t many people in the large Hilton hotel suite. In the corner, engaged in conversation with a conference delegate, sat Reverend Traci Blackmon, a rock star minister, prophet, activist in the UCC. She came on the national scene in helping people from Ferguson, Missouri, respond to the Michael Brown murder in 2014. Naturally, we were both star struck. While helping ourselves to the snacks and wine, Rev. Blackmon walked over and began heating up her leftovers from Maggiano’s. The three of us struck up a conversation about a contentious topic in the last session. She was very gracious and seemed to me to be in the mood to talk. It seemed like she needed to unwind before calling the very long day a night. So the three of us sat down in the living room area of the spacious suite while she ate. Even though it was late, I was energized. Like those cop shows where they have to keep the caller on the line so they can trace the call,  I just wanted her to keep talking. She is a public theological intellectual, and like bell hooks, a treasure.

UCC, United Church of Christ, microaggression, white privilege, general synod, member in discernment

When we got back our room, I was revved up from the experience. “Traci Blackmon had a conversation with us,” I said. “Well,” said Susan, “she had a conversation with you. I think I may have made one statement.” Screeching halt. She was right. I, in my white academic privilege, had manipulated the conversation so that I could “own” an engagement with this person I admired. I knew how to guide conversation, to interview a subject, and that’s what I had done. My new friend was gracious, and to her great credit, she didn’t excuse or deny it to make me feel better. The irony is that throughout the conversation with Rev. Blackmon I kept telling myself that I was humbled to be in her presence. No I wasn’t; I was proud. Humility is what Susan exhibited, yet I was so blinded by my privilege I did not see it.

I am not suggesting Susan did not have voice–she did, and she could have called me out severely as we debriefed. What I realized was that in this space where justice and covenant were sacred ideals to be put into practice by all Christians, I had performed a microaggression from a place of privilege, so I am glad the space is also one of grace and mercy. Although, like the tools of privilege in my invisible backpack, I do not deserve them.

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