Faithful Rebel: Anurag Gupta on How to Cure Racism From Within

1404158494I learned about Eric Garner’s death like I learned about Michael Jackson’s: on Twitter. My initial reaction to both was the same, “Is this a joke?” There had been one too many hoaxes declaring the King of Pop dead to accept it. And there had been too many cases involving white officers killing black men to bear another. I placed the heels of my hands hard against my eye sockets and growled to God, “I am so tired of this shit.”

“We’ve been punked, collectively,” says Anurag Gupta, founder and CEO of Be More, a nonprofit start-up whose mission is to cure racism in our lifetime. “We are 99.9% the same,” he argues in my latest Lessons from a Faithful Rebel interview, and yet we’ve been placed in a “color-based human hierarchy.” And here’s the kicker: the hierarchy has spiritual underpinnings as the mythology surrounding angels and demons (good over bad / order over chaos / light over dark) is mapped out onto human bodies. Gupta identifies this categorization as the root of racism, which he defines as “a disease of the mind.” As our conversation unfolds, I begin to wonder, “If the root of racism is found in the mind, does this mean that the cure for racism is within too?”

The short answer: yes. The long answer: watch the interview. We talk about everything from how our brains create automatic biases just by looking at other human beings to why the media we consume is so important to closing the racial empathy gap, especially for the over 75% of white folks who don’t have a single in-the-flesh friendship with a person of color. (Note to holiday movie goers: Ridley Scott’s Exodus might make for a good story but it’s bad for your brain with the leads looking Scandinavian and the thieves, robbers, and servants, you guessed it, Sub-Saharan African.)

It’s not just the brain, though, that will take rewiring. Our souls need rehab too. The vision for Gupta’s Be More takes its inspiration from the words of Martin Luther King, Jr: “Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.” When I ask Gupta, who describes himself as inter-spiritual but worships at a Christian church, what practices help him tend his soul, he lists prayer, Metta meditation, and yoga. Faithful rebels know that activism without contemplation is like exhaling without inhaling – just a bunch of hot air. They know that quantitative change without qualitative change is its own kind of violence.

My practices of contemplation have been varied in the weeks since I heard the news; I heaved. I breathed. I listened. I retweeted the words of L.A. rapper Propaganda whose daughter cried, “Daddy I’m scared for you because when police kill black men they don’t get in trouble.” I gave myself permission to respond here when ready, instead of with the cruel immediacy expected of bloggers.

I figure, if we can’t practice non-violence toward ourselves, what right do we have preaching it to the world?


For more about the history of race in America and how our repeated assault on black bodies is no joke, check out the following books:
- The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois
- Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman
- The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

 

Writer’s Envy: Silence And Other Surprising Invitations of Advent

photo (63)“This is the Lord’s doing.”

These are among my favorite words in Scripture. And not just because they point to faith in something greater than our own doing (and overdoing) but because they strike me as almost accusatory. It’s as if Elizabeth, mother-to-be of a baptist boy, is blaming God for her geriatric blessing. “You did this to me,” she says to God as she looks down at her elephant belly, shaking her head and chortling. “This blessing is all your fault.”

It’s for this reason and more that I’ve fallen in love with the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah, carefully considered in Enuma Okoro’s devotional book, Silence and Other Surprising Invitations of Advent (Upper Room Books, 2012). While most Advent literature focuses on the miraculous action of God in the life of a teenage girl, Okoro turns our attention to two, elderly Jews who like many of us hold within their brittle bones years of unmet desire. It’s no wonder that when an angel of God shows up with news of answered prayer they’re filled with both terror (Zechariah) and joy (Elizabeth). Getting what you want requires no small amount of courage; to lay down your tired narratives, survival strategies, and coping mechanisms; to lay down your past and choose life in the unfolding present. “As we anticipate God made flesh in Christ Jesus,” Okoro writes in the preface, “we dare to relinquish control, to harness our empty life-numbing habits, and to forfeit logic and reason because God often acts outside such boundaries.”

Silence is a masterful blend of scriptural exegesis, personal reflection, and liturgical invitation. Each day of Advent is accompanied by passages of Scripture, a theological reflection from the author, and a brief prayer of presence. At the end of each of the four weeks is a longer, guided meditation for readers to explore questions about their own relationship with longing and a prayerful challenge to live into our “most life-giving selves.”  Resources for church pastors and leaders come at the end of the book in a guide for small groups and liturgies for lighting Advent wreaths. Okoro is a skilled teacher who packs much depth in this slim book.

Perhaps it’s because I know Okoro as a close friend and colleague (Talking Taboo) that her words on the relationship between Elizabeth and Mary are particularly precious. There is a dearth of good, sensible writing on making and finding friends as an adult woman. (Cara Strickland is one of my favorite writers on friendship and the single life; Jonalyn Fincher is a lion in advocating for cross-gender friendships.) My first reading of Silence came during a difficult time with a friend who told me she couldn’t support my upcoming book for reasons that it didn’t edify the body of Christ to make private matters public. Okoro’s conviction that friends are people who “remind us of who we are, who challenge us to live into who we are called to be, and who accept us at every stage of the journey gave me permission to step back from that friendship, spend some time in solitude, and wonder if it was edifying to the Christ-image in me.

“This is the Lord’s doing.” I love these words. So much so that they begin the acknowledgements section of said new book. Anticipating its birth into the world has been an agonizing season of terror and joy (and therapy). Through the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah, I am reminded that to accept the fullness of God’s promises requires time: of silence, of seclusion, of celebration with worthy friends. It requires a belly laugh from time to time too.

Okoro writes, “No one is left to discern God’s life-altering activity alone, to hold God’s promises alone, or to bear the burden of divine blessings without faithful companions, whether human or angelic.”

I count her as both.

A Very Foodie Giveaway

potential giveawayIt makes people happy when you are into food. I know this because I once took a cupcake menu from my favorite bakery in Seattle to a work retreat and during breaks read aloud the different flavors to whoever was sitting next to me. This was (a) a way to assess and make  new friends (Were they a vanilla or a chocolate person? A flavor of the month kind of gal or a classic guy? A friendly vegan?) and (b) a way to get at the things that got them most. Food can do this.

Maybe the way good buttercream hardens to the touch doesn’t get you real animated like it does me. Or maybe the thought of lavender buds in your cake seems like soap in the mouth. What does then, in the words of Mary Oliver, “kill you with delight”? Be specific about it. Be an evangelist for it. We need your delight in the world.

That’s why I’m geeked to participate in a very foodie giveaway with five other talented lady bloggers. Foodies, in my book, are not people with restrained or snobbish taste. Instead, we are like dogs on the hunt for delight, noses to the ground and mouths slopped with drool. We take pictures of our food. We dedicate blogs to our food. We fight with TSA agents over whether frosting is a liquid or a gel and when they say it’s a cream and we aren’t getting through security with 12 oz. of it, we scoop three quarters into the garbage using our bare hands and the bottom edge of a travel-sized shampoo bottle.

One lucky winner will receive a grand prize of over $200 in foodie products and paraphernalia (including a 12 oz. jar of said buttercream.) To enter, click the Rafflecopter link below. The more of us you follow, the more entries you get. It’s a chance for us to share our delight with you. And it’s a chance for you to delight in getting to know us.

Joy to the world.

The Rafflecopter

Click here to enter.

The Prizes

giveaway prizes final(1)

The Bloggers

Cara Meredith is a writer, speaker and musician from the greater San Francisco bay area.  She is passionate about theology and books, her family, meals around the table, and finding Beauty in the most unlikely of places. A seven on the Enneagram, she also can’t help but try to laugh and smile at the ordinary everyday. You can connect with her on her blog, Facebook, and Twitter.

Christie Purifoy earned a PhD in English literature at the University of Chicago before trading the classroom for an old farmhouse and a garden in southeastern Pennsylvania. Her first book is forthcoming from Revell. You can connect with her on her blog, Facebook, and Twitter.

Rachel Marie Stone is a writer living near Philadelphia. In the past eight years, she has lived in four countries and two states, and will gladly tell you about the various kinds of pizza she ate (or didn’t eat) in each place. Her book, Eat With Joy, won the Christianity Today Book Award for Christian Living. You can connect with her further on her blog, Twitter, and Facebook.

Carina is an etsy shop owner, writes when she can, works with Noonday to advocate for women around the world, and loves food. Preparing it, consuming it, sitting together around a table filled with friends and family enjoying it. She lives in Seattle, WA with her five lively children and one awesome husband, and drinks way too much coffee. You can connect with her on her blog, etsy shop, and Instagram (among other places).

Cara Strickland is a writer, editor, and food critic in Spokane, Washington. She writes about singleness, food, feminism, and the way faith intersects life (among other things) on her blog Little Did She Know. Come say hi to her on Twitter or Facebook. She likes making new friends.

When a Commitment Phobe Goes to a Tattoo Parlor

photo (62)“I could see the irony of it: a commitment phobe at a tattoo parlor.”

So begins my guest post at  Little Did She Know, a blog run by the talented Cara Strickland on singleness, friendship, and the de(tales) of our faith.

Now, for the first time in public, I’m sharing the tale of my tattoo, inspired by the new book Pen & Ink: Tattoos and the Stories Behind Them. It’s one of heartbreak and homesickness and learning to belong wherever you are.

I invite you to read the story here.

The Sweet Reward of Prayer

photo (61)I’ve been reading through the Gospel of Matthew for the past few weeks. I was in Numbers for a good long while before that, a wilderness unto itself as far as biblical books go, until I realized I had forgotten all about Jesus. Yes, I had forgotten Jesus. In place of the Gospel, I had invented a sort of spirituality of comfort in which God wanted nothing more for me than my own emotional well-being. I also sensed God wanted me to buy a new light fixture for the dining room.

It sounds ridiculous to me too now, but these things happen when we busy ourselves with the stuff of spirituality and not its source. We forget the kinds of things that come straight from the source’s mouth. This week’s gem? Jesus’s words on prayer: “Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (NRSV, Matthew 6:6)

How easily we stray from these simple instructions. Hanging out with college students at church last week, I learned that Intagram-ing one’s “quiet time” is an actual thing: open bible, coffee mug, and a verse from Scripture are its hallmarks. (I could be accused of taking a similar photo earlier this month but, in my defense, there was a fairly large cheeseboard involved; see above.) It’s easy for me, too, to live a public faith life in which blogging and babbling serve as substitutes for exploring the secret life of my soul and the God who sustains it. To pray alone is, as Jesus taught, its own satisfaction. Alone, there’s no comparison, no preening, no need to exegete some truth nugget for others to mine. Alone, we may not need words at all. Words may make us too tired for the listening.

That’s another thing about public prayer that’s been troubling me: it can snuff out the listening. I wrote recently about how I made the first move on Rush and then waited and prayed and waited for him to make the second. My risk-loving nature often means I act impulsively, without confirmation from friends or God. This is fine for what I call the chocolate or vanilla questions of life, like should I walk to the Redbox machine or watch another episode of How I Met Your Mother? But for the big questions, like should I take on more work or move across the country?, seeking accord with those closest to me becomes a practice of trust and patience. Because I’m the more verbal one in my closest relationships, I can steamroll people with my prayers for them, for me, for us, before ever giving them space to hear from God themselves.

It’s not that there’s no place for public prayer. It’s the vocation of all God’s people to assemble for public worship, celebration, and lament. But when we keep nothing private, nothing sacred, we cheat God of our attention and cheat ourselves of intimacy. It’s like that friend who never wants to do anything one on one; group hang outs can be shiny and fun and even open pathways for new connections. But there’s less time for the depth that happens when there’s only two. We can busy ourselves with the stuff of friendship rather than listening to the friend herself. What is she longing for these days? What is breaking her heart? What is she noticing in us?

A final reflection: A few years after my parents’ divorce, my mom began praying about whether we should move across states to be closer to my dad. She didn’t want to steamroll my brother and me – adolescents at the time – into the decision and so she waited and prayed and waited until Charlie approached her. He wasn’t happy at his new school; could we think about moving? Only if Erin wants to, she said, and counseled him to wait and pray and wait until one day I approached them. I wasn’t happy with my old friends; could we think about moving? As a parent, she had every right to tell us what she wanted for our family. Instead, with time, she waited and prayed and waited until we came to want the same thing.

In doing so, she taught us to want God, prayer’s sweetest reward of all.

Faithful Rebel: Emma Akpan on Women’s Health and Voting for the Lesser of Evils

560991_10101809071213603_93586176_n (1)As a Christian feminist, one of the thorniest topics to weigh in on is the politics of abortion. (I felt an imaginary ulcer coming on  just  preparing this post.) For starters, it often blows up more bridges than it builds – and exposes the ugliest of trolls. Further, as a pro-life woman who votes pro-choice, I’m sure to alienate someone by putting words to my beliefs. The categories themselves prime us for division.

So, is Christianity categorically incompatible with voting pro-choice? Meet Emma Akpan, a reproductive justice advocate, who sits on the board with me of a local nonprofit called the Resource Center for Women and Ministry in the South. Emma recently appeared in a nationally-sponsored ad campaign by Planned Parenthood that targets “anti-women’s health candidates” for limiting access to affordable birth control, preventative cancer screenings, and safe, legal abortions. As a fellow Duke Divinity graduate and member of the African Methodist Episcopal church, Emma isn’t afraid to let her faith shape her politics, even as she is resolute that “your personal beliefs shouldn’t infiltrate the lives of other women.” In our brief interview, I asked Emma more about this distinction and why sometimes you have to vote for the “candidate that’s not going to do the worst.”

I don’t take it lightly when I vote for pro-choice candidates. But I do so when I believe their comprehensive platform on topics such as women’s health, the environment, military spending, and immigration reform is, in my estimation, more “pro-life” than their opposition. While I shared with Emma my hope that the number of abortions would decrease, I also wondered if it was idealistic to think that reversing Roe v. Wade would make this so. Research is complicated on the matter; a representative for the World Health Organization explained, “What we see is that the law does not influence a woman’s decision to have an abortion. If there’s an unplanned pregnancy, it does not matter if the law is restrictive or liberal.” What does matter is decreasing both the number of unwanted pregnancies and the number of unsafe abortions through provisions for better access to contraceptives, qualified medical providers, and financial and social resources for women. The catch is such provisions are most often found in countries with more liberal legal protections. As Emma clarified for me after our interview, “If you’re not supporting legal abortion, then you’re definitely supporting unsafe abortion.”

My biggest “aha” moment of our time together came when Emma lifted up the story of Jesus and the adulterous woman (John 8:1-11) as a provocative example of how Jesus condemns not the actions of the woman but the community leaders who were so quick to judge her. Many women, especially black women, Emma noted off-air, don’t even have access to healthy choices when it comes to health and community services. Individual choices are always informed by the political systems that structure such choices; wherever we fall on the political spectrum, we would do well to consider how Jesus calls to account a broken system (and its leaders) rather than shaming the individual who finds herself a part of it.

*For a more philosophical debate on abortion and legislating “the most pragmatic view of the society we live in” see my friend Jonalyn Fincher’s recent interview with Emily Heist Moss over at Soulation.

Voting in this year’s mid-term elections? Official Election Day is Tuesday, November 4th. Emma offers her advice:

1. Take as many people with you as you can.

2. Look at your judges. (For instance, in North Carolina it was judges who rejected the challenge to the voter I.D. bill and overturned the ban on same sex marriage.)

3. Make sure you vote for somebody.

4. Seek out trusted friends for advice on who to support.

Making Friends with the Dark

IMG_0012I have trouble getting out of bed in winter. It’s dark and cold and my body is stiffer than it was last year. Just this week, I decided to take a bath at 7:00 a.m. to choke the chill out of my bones. A bath. I turned the lights low, pulled the shower curtain taut, and sank into the black water. Carry me home, I prayed.

I have not always been friends with the dark. When I was younger, I had terrible nightmares about what might be lurking in the great unknown – whether the ravine outside my window or the thoughts inside my head. The first blink of morning saved me from myself.

It wasn’t until I studied abroad in Australia that I began longing for the dark. When I first opened the door to my studio apartment in University Village, the stark, white room had a chilling effect on my sanity. Although the sharp, clean angles suggested tranquility, my insides were tangled by homesickness. I spent my days sitting on the toilet, sobbing on the phone, and, most importantly, trying to sleep.

Homesickness begged me to give in and return stateside. After only six weeks, I had lost ten pounds (or four-something kilos) on a diet of  pizza, pasta, and peanut butter sandwiches. A local doctor, whom I had already seen twice since arriving, attributed my nerves to an overactive adrenal gland. As a temporary remedy, she proscribed adrenaline-suppressing pills. As a permanent remedy, she wrote a doctor’s note sanctioning my return to the States for treatment.

At night, I stared wide-eyed at the ceiling and planned my exit – options  included booking the first flight out of Oz or stepping in front of a bus so that my need to leave would be undisputed. But now, now that I finally had permission to leave, I was hesitating. Who or what could possibly be calling me to live in this hell? I had always been told that hell isn’t a pit of fire and brimstone, but rather the emotional state of being separated from God, one’s center, or home. The only thing I felt connected to was my white, hot fear.

One morning, unhinged and unable to sleep in the nascent light, I got out of bed and groped around my desk, looking for answers, voices other than my own to illuminate the way. My fingers brushed the cover of a book that a friend sent – Life of the Beloved by Henri Nouwen. Like a mad woman, I flipped through the cream colored pages, letting my body lead my mind until the words began to rise all by themselves: We have to find the courage to embrace our brokenness, to make our most feared enemy our friend, and to claim it as intimate companion.

I knew then what I had to do.

Surrendering to the dark was my only hope of making peace with the light.

And as it turned out, surrendering to homesickness looked a lot like interior decorating.

Day one, I covered my walls with strips of colored construction paper adorned by scripture verses. Day two, I bought flowers from King Street and arranged them in the only vase I had – an electric water heater jug. Day three: votive candles and a toothbrush holder from Chinatown. Day four: a black and white picture of Aborigine children holding hands from the Glebe flee market. Slowly my white walls became awash with color – images of hope drawing me back to the center of life.

Eight days into my campaign for change, I made one last redecorating attempt: a cheap black sheet and laundry pole from K-Mart. After a few cursed attempts, I wedged the pole between the sides of my window. Next, I picked up the sheet and pulled it outward until it ripped in two.  Breathing hard, I looped the sheet over the laundry pole and pulled it down over the glass until only the edge of light remained. The room was so dark when I finished that I had to feel my way to the bed where finally, blessedly, I collapsed.

Since that time, I’ve relished the reprieve of the dark and the rhythm of surrender it bids me into night after night. How comforting it is to know that life is cyclical, that no season is permanent, that the light will come as sure as God’s mercy. The dark is a kind of mercy, too. We would do well to heed its rhythm as the days grow shorter, and we make friends with our limits. Now is the season of un-doing. Leave your writing un-published. Leave the fields of friendship un-plowed. Leave un-answered the invitation to “good, not great.” Do only what is essential. Plan your strength for spring.

Come Sunday, the dark will come sooner, and I will wake later.