Category Archives: Featured

My Feet Are Planted

“Don’t you think there is another side of the story,” was his opening line, as I pondered the stranger in front of me with puzzlement. My mind scrambled. What story? What other side?

“What do you mean?” I queried, studying the white collar, Caucasian man, a couple decades my elder.

“Well don’t you think there’s other people who have responsibility?”

“What people? And what responsibility?” I asked, trying my best to remain polite and engaged. Whatever code language it was that we were speaking was one that I either never learned or, more likely, had forgotten how to speak from years of disuse and disarming bluntness.

“Well, Michael Brown. Don’t you think he had a responsibility not to charge at a police officer?”

Oh. Michael. Michael, we are still talking about you. I promise we have not forgotten.

Despite the fact that not a day goes by in my life without a mention of the small community outside of St. Louis that brought national attention to the #BlackLivesMatter Movement, I found myself surprised that his line of questioning bent my gaze towards Ferguson.

I was surprised to be questioned about Michael as Baltimore erupted over the killing of Freddie Gray; Chicago demanded answers for the silence surrounding Rekia Boyd‘s homicide; and South Carolina’s old wounds had been laid bare by the murder of Walter Scott.

Part of me wanted to say exactly that. Part of me wanted to simply say “Walter Scott” and walk away, but I knew I could not do that. To direct his attention away from Michael would somehow feel like walking away and leaving Michael lying in the street. But I had taken my shoes off, out of respect, and laid my bare feet against the pavement where Michael’s blood still remains, and I cannot walk away from him now. I will not walk away from him. My feet are planted.

Quickly self correcting, I said instead, “Let’s not get lost in the weeds. You and I could stand here all day and debate whether Michael charged a police officer, but we really have no way of knowing for certain what happened that day in a way that will satisfy both of us. But that is not even the point; the point is that I know that if I charged a police officer, I would not be shot. I could even hit a police officer and I would not be shot.”

He had to agree with me. Seeking to remove my diminutive size from the equation, I pushed the point further.

“And the same is true for you. You know that you could charge a police officer and not be shot.”

My conversation partner could not disagree. The fact that we did not disagree on this point is important. The reason why it is important is not whether or not it is true that I can do what I want to a police officer without being shot; the important detail is that we, as a white man and white woman, believe that it is true that the police will not shoot us. That is what people have called white privilege.

White supremacy, consequently, is the belief that that reality is acceptable. In other words, believing that the police will not shoot me is a part of my reality, regardless of how I feel about that fact. I can cry out to high heaven that it is wrong that I do not have to be cautious around law enforcement while other people do have to be cautious around law enforcement, but it will still be my reality. When, we accept this reality and do not fight against it, however; when we see it as justifiable and acceptable that a black man is more likely to be shot than a white woman, it is then that we have bought into white supremacy. We have accepted the current reality as just. We have become accomplices to a system of white supremacy.

White supremacy does not look like a cryptic figure in a hood. It looks like you and I when we are silent in the face of injustice.

Silence is simply not an option. Our only ethical option is to speak out and act out against a white supremacy system built upon an acceptance, whether active or passive, of white privilege. Our only option is to undermine the very system that seeks, through the offer of benefits and privileges, to purchase our integrity and occupy our souls.

“The point is that we have a real problem in this nation,” I said to him, “that problem lies in the fact that regardless of what Michael did or did not do, the reason he was killed is because he was black.”

Once again, he could not disagree. So we ventured deeper into the footnotes of our minds.

We discussed all the painful history of our nation’s crimes against humanity. The painful reality that it was Christian theologians who, along with European philosophers, created the foundation for our system of slavery, rape and murder. That it was our own beloved Scriptures that were twisted and tortured until the god they squeezed out of its pages could no longer be called love. That it was the words of our own prophets that were wrestled to the ground, bound, whipped, and gagged until they fought their way free and came roaring out like a loosed lion from Sojourner Truth’s throat. That it was the blood of Christ himself that we spilled with every single life we took. That five hundred years of unspeakable cruelty and outright heresy were not going to be undone in the flash of an eye.

That there were theologians who taught that the Indigenous peoples of Africa, the Americas and Australia, were not quite made in the image of God in the same way that the people of Europe were, and thus, it was not murder to kill them. The fact that this encouraged our nation to put in place the 3/5ths compromise, that defined people in bondage as 2/5ths less than a whole person. That this lie, built upon theological heresy, philosophical errancy, and scientific fraud led to a devaluing of life whose repercussions are still felt to this day.

That the fact that the shootings of Rekia Boyd, Walter Scott, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice – are related to this history and not independent of it. That the heresy that many churches taught, that black lives do not matter, is the heresy that we now have a profound responsibility to speak against as clergy.

Once again, he could not disagree. And I loved him for it. It meant there was a chance.

He could admit that his feet belonged planted firmly beside Michael, Eric, Rekia, Walter, Freddie, but would he stand there?

First he tried the ‘use your family as an excuse’ maneuver. “Are you married? Do you have children? Then you wouldn’t understand, it is so much harder when you have others to think about.”

“The question is not whether it’s hard,” I responded, “The question is whether it’s right.”

Yet, there was still one “Hail-Mary” left, the ‘your generation will change things’ maneuver. “I really believe that it is going to be your generation, the Millennials, that will fix this,” he said, making the full turn from active resister to passive ally.

But to be passive and an ally is not a possibility.

“I know you’ve heard people say,” I replied, “that ‘we’ll have to wait until so-and-so dies before we can change the carpet or the organ or the parking.’ Well, my generation does not want to spend our whole life waiting for your generation to die. I don’t want to spend my whole life waiting for you to die. It would be so much better if we could do this work together. Join us; let’s do this together.”

In that moment, he had no maneuvers left, for who wants the world to place their best hope in our own fleeting mortality.

I do not know where his feet will be planted; but I know where my feet are planted.

And they shall not be moved.

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Last Glance

“Agua! Agua, por favor. Para mi bebé,” the young mother boarding the bus pleaded, catching my arm. Not knowing if I would have time, I sprinted across the bus terminal to the vending machines. My friend Jasminne explained that this woman had been unable to obtain water for her infant because she did not have the right bills. Having traveled internationally, I knew well the struggle of figuring out how to use unfamiliar currency. Hurriedly, we dug through our pockets and wallets. “I have it. I have it,” I exclaimed as I slid two crumpled one dollar bills into the hungry mouth of the Aquafina machine. “What button do I push?,” I asked Jasminne in a panic. “Any button! The whole machine is water,” she responded.

Grabbing the bottle that dropped smoothly down the slot, I rushed back across the terminal, and thrust the water into the woman’s hand just before the bus doors slid closed. Our eyes met. My lips formed the words, “Vaya con Dios.” Her lips formed the word, “Gracias,” but it was the eyes that said it all.

It is always the eyes that say the most. Whether I spend two minutes, or twelve hours with a family, it is always that last glance that says the most. Gratitude and sorrow and fear and courage. At the close of a day filled with last glances, I shut my eyes and they are all I can see. Those moments imprinted on my memory; those moments when we say everything that the language barrier and our own guardedness has inhibited.

Days like this are never expected or planned. They start with a rapid succession of phone calls and texts. “Hannah call me back…Hannah call now…Hannah, a group of children came in. There’s a lot of them. Get here as soon as you can.”

When I get a call like that, a few things go through my mind. First, I know that a couple hours ago children, and likely their mothers as well, were released from a nearby detention center in Texas and sent to stay somewhere until their trial and – more than likely – their deportation. Second, I know that they are exhausted, hungry, and just as confused as I would be trying to navigate a public transportation system in a language I do not know. Third, I know that they have a long journey ahead of them and it may be a few days, or longer, before they can get a good night’s sleep. Fourth, I know that they have likely already experienced trauma, possibly even before their arrest and detention; and all measures must be taken to make them feel safe, loved, and respected.

The psychological reality for children who are two years old and four years old is chilling. Even more alarming is the messages being received by the eight year olds, and the twelve year olds, and the fourteen year olds, some of whom have grown up in school in the United States and now are being told they cannot stay. Now they are being told we do not want them. Now they are being told they are not a part of the family after all. In Guatemala, I spent time with some of those who have returned. While they focused on empowering those around them and celebrating their culture, some still carried with them scars inflicted by the nation of my birth: scars similar to a child whose parent refuses to claim them as their own. They loved us, and we cast them out as if we did not know them.

So when the call comes in, I go. I drop everything, and I go. I spread the word to those in my network that we have family in town, and we do not have much time to make them feel welcome. We might have two minutes to sprint for water before the next bus leaves. Or we might have twelve hours to collect supplies for the journey and share meals and laughter and stories.

Sitting across the bus aisle from the woman with the thirsty baby, was another mother with a young daughter. She had arrived on an earlier bus and so her transfer had not been quite so erratic. We had a two hour head start on understanding her situation and her needs. However, even with all that time, as I looked around the room at the other two dozen women and children, I could not gather my mind clearly enough to understand what she was trying to tell me. She kept saying something about “tres dias” and I just nodded politely, unalarmed. (The average length of time that these women and their children will be on buses is two to three days, sometimes four.)

Thank God for Jasminne, who came over and with her profound fluency was able to understand that the woman was worried because her cousin would only let her stay for three days when she arrived; after that time she did not know where she and her daughter would stay.

Thank God for Jordan, who lived in the city she was traveling to and answered his phone immediately. “Pastor Hannah!,” my former church member and current colleague exclaimed. I hurriedly explained the situation and left it in his relentlessly compassionate hands, as I turned my attention back to the other eight mothers traveling that day.

I am rarely that fortunate; often I do not get an answer soon enough, and I do not have the luxury of time. That day, however, Jordan did answer the phone and did have the ability to help. So, as I slipped that bottle of water into her seat mate’s hand, she slipped her name and her cousin’s phone number into mine. I would spend the next couple days praying that that information, along with the picture I had taken of her on my phone, would be enough for Jordan to find her when she arrived on the other side of the country.

The bus departures continued throughout the day, more leaving every couple hours. We organized triage so that we could deal with the needs of families case by case: focusing on the needs of those leaving the soonest first, and working our way to the midnight departure of the final group.

Contacts from throughout Houston came in shifts as they were available throughout the day, bringing what they could. Comfort food from a Honduran restaurant arrived first in the hands of Jasminne. Then a coat in the hands of Marianella. Clothes in the hands of Lupe. Hats and gloves for the snowstorm they were driving into from the hands of Brandi. New clothes for the mother whose clothes did not fit in the hands of Jenny. Resources in the hands of Mia. And one final late night delivery by Elaine to meet the requests of the midnight departure.

As I rushed about, I was pulled to the side by a gruff, Texan man with a baseball cap and boots. “I see you are helping these mothers,” he said. “The thing is, I lost my own wife to a brain aneurysm earlier this year, and it would sure make me feel good to be a part of helping.” With that he slipped a twenty dollar bill into my hand, and I slipped it into the hand of a nursing mother.

I drove across the street to get cheeseburgers for the group, and as I pulled up to the window to pay, the cashier told me that the woman in line ahead of me had already paid my bill. I made eye contact with her in her rear view mirror and mouthed a “Thank you” to accompany that last glance.

Back at the bus station, there was one pair of eyes that remained downcast throughout the day. Probably about fifteen, he was the oldest minor present, and he seemed to feel the weight of it, and the weight of caring for his younger brother and sisters.

As this family climbed on the bus in the late afternoon, I called out softly, “Vaya con Dios,” and the young man’s head whipped around. He made eye contact with me for the first time and the last time; and “Thank you!” were his first and last words to me as he finally raised his head erect and his mother’s eyes welled with tears.

There it was. The last glance. Varied in intensity, but still the same every time. A glance of gratitude mixed with sadness. A dropping of the guard carefully maintained. In that last moment, getting on the bus unhindered and realizing they can trust us; while at the same time realizing they are walking away. Safety found in the moment it ends. Heart wrenching. In that last glance, they release all they’ve been holding back. Tears well in their eyes. Mouths say words I do not always understand.

I do not know what will happen to them, and it breaks my heart every time.

I wonder what they see in our eyes. I hope they see love. I hope they see respect. I hope they see that my eyes reflect the pain in theirs, and commit to carry a little bit of it with me. I hope that solidarity makes their own burden just a little bit lighter.

***************

Two days later, my phone buzzed. It was a text from Jordan. “We found her!!” Jordan had arranged for housing, clothes and support for the woman who did not know where she would live in three days; he had found her at the bus station. For the first time, the last glance would not be the final word.

Traveling mother - on the left in Houston with us. On the right, in Boston when Jordan found her. (Face intentionally not shown.)
Traveling mother – on the left in Houston with us. On the right, in Boston when Jordan found her. (Face intentionally not shown.)