Archive for the ‘prejudice’ Category

Conflicted

September 23, 2011

After we left our church, we decided to visit another nearby church. Our attention had been caught by banners proclaiming that the church was in the middle of a series on poverty, so we took our social-justice selves and bruised egos on in through the door.

The service was…eh. The music was painful, and the well-meaning sermon was somewhat lacking in a call to thought or action. But the people were friendly. Even if there was a dearth of young families, no one seemed to mind my daughter’s wiggles.

A few days later, we received a letter in the mail. The new church was hosting something of a prospective member brunch, and we were invited by name.

At this point, I must admit, I was struggling. And grieving. Despite the fact that we had spent more than two years at our old church, despite the fact that I had been in the choir, despite the fact that one of my business partners was a member, despite the fact that it had felt like home…not one single person had called to talk to us. Not my business partner. Not a fellow choir member. Not the head of the children’s ministry.

It was as if we had never been there. As if no one even noticed that we were gone.

I was crushed.

But part of me still wanted to go back.

Why? Michael asked. Why do you want to go back, after how they treated us? When here we have a letter inviting us BY NAME to return to a new church? Why?

The answer, of course, is complicated.

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The Awkward Phase

May 17, 2011

We decided to find a new church in the fall. I wanted to let the pastor and congregation know why we had left, but hadn’t yet figured out the best way to do it. The pastor had only been installed a few weeks previously, and I really didn’t know him at all. Besides, I’m not very good at telling uncomfortable personal truths face-to-face.

I thought a letter would be best. Or maybe an article for the semi-monthly church newsletter. Something.

Before I had a chance to decide, the church called me. Rather, the church secretary–who periodically checked in to see if we were ready to officially join the congregation–called. “We’re welcoming new members in a few weeks,” she began. “I know you weren’t interested before, but we would love to have you if you want to join.”

And I was caught. What could I say? The thought of lying crossed my mind, but I didn’t really want to. But neither did I really want to tell her everything that had happened, because–among other reasons–that would mean crying. Again.

The silence lengthened. “Well…” I began, the high pitch of my voice betraying my emotions. “We’re not really going to church there anymore.”

“You aren’t? Why not?”

Slowly the story came out. About my noisy daughter and the reactions of people around us. About the man who said my child did not belong in church. The secretary is a very sympathetic woman and was much disturbed by what I had to say. She asked if I would tell the pastor, and I reluctantly agreed.

“We don’t all feel that way about kids in church,” she said before transferring me.

With the pastor listening, I hashed through it all again, my stomach tight, my face wet with tears. And he couldn’t say that the people who had rejected us were a minority, because he was new and barely knew anyone at the church. But he did say that they were wrong, and that it bothered him, and that he would address it.

He asked if we would be back at church; I said I didn’t know. I asked that they not call us, that he would know our decision by our presence–or lack thereof–at church.

Getting over it

November 19, 2010

I have been attending the same church for, oh, about three years. It’s a biggish church, but not huge. It’s close to our home. I know people there. The theology espoused aligns fairly well with my own, which is to say that the preaching tends to encourage me in the acts I already feel I should do (and challenges me in ways I need to be challenged).

Sometime last year, when we had a generous and loving interim pastor, it started to feel like home. The feeling sort of snuck up on me, as I have spent a great deal of my life seeking a church home, without a lot of success. Plus, the idea of a church “home” is still somewhat alien to my sweetheart, although he understands how important it is to me.

Anyway, I decided it was time to stop standing on the sidelines of the church. I have gifts, and I knew God wanted me to use them. So, as an initial step, I joined the choir. The Bean started to go to children’s church (which unfortunately happens during the worship service). As part of a larger group, M, Bean and I visited home-bound church members. We didn’t exactly throw ourselves into every activity the church has to offer, but it was a start.

As time passed, I made friends in the choir. At the end of each rehearsal, we shared our joys and sorrows, and we prayed for each other. We supported one another, bolstered one another, hugged one another. It was a strong group before I joined, but I felt very welcome.

In the summer, however, the choir takes a break. Last summer, my family traveled a lot, so we weren’t around every Sunday. In the meantime, my little Pumpkin grew bigger, more vociferous and more active. Those Sundays when we were at church, I held her in my lap when she started to get wiggly.

Then came the fall. Choir started up again. The first Sunday we sang in church, Pumpkin did not behave like an angel. She behaved like a tired, cranky one-year-old who did not want to sit still and be quiet and who did not understand why her momma wasn’t there to cuddle her. In short, she cried. M took her out of the sanctuary several times–one occasion lasting nearly the entire sermon.

I was mortified, but more than that, I felt sorry for my little girl. When the choir walked back down the aisle, Pumpkin nearly launched herself onto the floor in an effort to get to me. I left the group to hold her and comfort her.

A few moments later, when the service had completely ended, I became aware of some angry words coming from a few pews ahead of me. A furious older man was addressing my husband. I did not hear the entire tirade, but the gist of it was that my daughter did not belong in the sanctuary during worship.

My daughter was not welcome in the church.

My baby was not welcome.

I sat in my choir robe and rocked Pumpkin, but inside I felt as if I were falling. Alternating waves of anger and sadness washed over me. I wanted to hand the baby off to my husband and confront the man. I wanted to remind him that Jesus asked for the little children to come to him. I wanted to ask him why he chose to sit next to a small child if he could not deal with some restlessness. I wanted to hand him the laminated note that resides in each pew to remind people of WHY kids need to be in church. I wondered how many other people felt the way he did. I wanted to cry.

Instead, I rocked my baby and held everything in. Two well-meaning women came over to comfort us and remind me that the church does have a nursery.

Yes, the church has a nursery. But call me crazy; I think kids belong in church. I could list off a dozen reasons, but that isn’t the point. The point is, it’s my choice. Mine and my husband’s. And we have chosen to keep her in the service.

We sit near the back for an easy escape, should one be necessary. We bring toys and snacks and pacifiers. We do what we can to make our kids’ presence tolerable for other churchgoers.

Apparently, that wasn’t enough. When we left church, I exploded. I spent the next three days trying to deal with my anger. M was furious, too, and not inclined to forgive. We debated the merits of leaving the church, but I wasn’t comfortable with that. Perhaps the man been in a bad mood for some unrelated reason. Perhaps he regretted what he had said. I had to find out.

Wednesday was choir rehearsal, and the man whose words had begun this upheaval would be there. I was nervous, but I went. Afterward, I headed outside to confront him, but he ducked out in a hurry.

The following Sunday, we were running late. M and the girls dropped me off so I could get into my robe. While I was hurrying through the vestibule, a woman said to me, “Got your kids in the nursery this morning?”

Not hello. Not good morning. Not nice to see you. Because obviously all of those sentiments were secondary to keeping my girls out of the sanctuary.

I was livid, and I could think of nothing else as I donned my robe, as I walked to the front of the church, as I sat and tried to turn my thoughts to God.

The service began. M and the girls were in the usual pew in the  back. Five minutes later, as usual, Bean and the other school-age kids left for children’s church. A man stood to read scripture, and with a jolt, I realized it was the man who had been so mean to us. Not only was he in the choir, he was a church leader!

I had hardly had a chance to deal with that surprise when Pumpkin began to wail. M picked her up and walked out of the sanctuary and straight on out of the church. I began to cry.

The sermon began. It was Christian Education Sunday. Our new pastor preached about how important it was to teach kids about God. He extolled the efforts of the children’s ministry. I looked around and began to count. How many kids were in the sanctuary, anyway? Exactly one, and he is thirteen years old.

I cried some more. I prayed. I hoped that M and Pumpkin would come back. They didn’t.

The choir stood and sang an anthem. I don’t even remember its name; I sang with tears running down my face. The service ended. I walked to the back of the church with the rest of the choir. A church meeting was beginning, but I gathered the bags and jackets M had left behind. I walked to the choir room and put away my robe. Still crying, I set out to find the Bean.

I found her in a basement classroom, still finishing up children’s church. I took her outside to look for M and Pumpkin, but they were not in sight. We went back inside and made our way to the fellowship hall. They were not there, but I did find three teenagers who had opted to nap rather than attend worship. Obviously the Christian education was working like a charm.

Finally someone stepped in from the patio door and asked if I was Holly. Someone had told her my husband and daughter were sleeping under a tree beside the parking lot. With tears still on my face, I walked past the choir director and his family and headed out to find my own.

We found them. We left. And we decided to start looking for a new church.

Kids and race

May 19, 2010

So I just read this:

Kids’ test answers on race brings mother to tears

Here’s what I think:

My extended family is multiracial, and I didn’t have a clear conception of “race” until I was at least nine or ten. We didn’t really talk about race, so I thought that those relatives who are not white were just…like that. Their skin color was a part of them, and I didn’t associate it with another, larger group of people. I only associated it with them.

I think the main reason that kids have responses like those in the study is because most people associate with people who look like them. Most white people hang out with white people. Black people gravitate toward black people. (Yes, these are generalizations. Bear with me.) So kids don’t usually KNOW people with skin color different from their own, and people naturally fear that which is unknown and different. It isn’t that kids are necessarily racist (although some do inherit biases), but that they differentiate between what is familiar and unfamiliar.

That being said, there is the contingent of black kids who associated positive values with white people. I think this, too, relates to what they know. Barack Obama notwithstanding, there are not a lot of positive black role models. At two different schools I know, minority kids make up most of the student body, but most of the staff is white. And black people as a group are still dealing with a racial self-esteem issue that goes back to slavery.

What I’m getting at is this: if you’re worried that your five-year-old has a racial bias, don’t try to talk to them about race relations. They won’t understand a word of it. Instead, broaden your circle. Get to know people who are different from you, and let your child do the same. SHOW your child that each person is himself or herself, and differences in hue don’t mean a thing.

Actions speak louder than words, right?

The two faces of Hope

December 11, 2009

“For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.” Romans 8:24-25

In eleven days, my daughter is supposed to have surgery to remove two small branchial cleft remnants on her face. Immediately afterward, before she wakes, she have a bone conduction hearing test to determine whether and to what extent her right ear works.

I am consumed with worry.

I am not, however, worried about her hearing. At least, not today. Today I am more-or-less at peace with her ear. Whatever will be, will be. And I have known many people who thrive with partial or total deafness, so even if her ear is completely nonfunctional, I know she will be fine.

I am worried about the general anesthesia she will undergo as part of the procedure. I am worried that she won’t wake up from the anesthesia–1 in 250,000 people don’t, and the risk is higher in infants. I am worried that we’re taking an enormous risk for a mostly cosmetic procedure, since the hearing test can be done with a much milder (but still general) sedation.

The doctors tell me that this isn’t just cosmetic, that there is a chance of infection or other problems with the remnants. And we should do it now, while she’s young, to minimize scarring. But I still can’t shake the feeling that the doctors are influenced by traditional ideas of beauty. Or, failing that, just expectations of how people “should” look.

My daughter is adorable. She has two little bumps on her face, but they are just bumps. Who cares if she has bumps on the edge of her face?

Here is where I admit that I am a hypocrite. I don’t want to care about physical beauty, but I do. Because I know that the wider world does, and I don’t want my daughter to feel inferior because she has bumps on her face. After surgery, her face will be different. No bumps.

I want to teach my girls that it is what is on the inside that counts. I want them to know that real beauty cannot be seen with the eyes. If I make a decision to alter Hope’s appearance, will they believe me?

Flummoxed

May 21, 2009

Last weekend, I met a girl who grew up near the Indian Reservation where I used to work. I should note right up front that she is white, and other than that I know very little about her. She was pleasant and perfectly cordial, and she is a college graduate. She had also had a fair bit to drink while sitting in the summery sun.

Anyway, I don’t remember how we got to this point in the conversation, but she said that, from what she’d heard, Indians had stolen a lot more from white people than vice versa. This drew me up short. Surely anyone who has the slightest concept of American history knows that, by and large, the whites of this country have screwed Indians every chance they get. Surely in this day and age, everyone knows this. Surely.

She then extemporized about locking her car doors anytime she had to drive through the reservation, and about driving all the way out of town before pulling over for a cop’s flashing lights. This was when she mentioned the reservation by name, drawing my attention to how very ludicrous her notions were.

My husband entered the conversation next, putting my thoughts into words. (This is one of the things I love about being married to him. Constant ally!) He pointed out in his jokey way that, among non-Indians living around reservations, there is a lot of bad feeling toward Indians. It’s probably hard to grow up in a bigoted area without absorbing some of that fear, no matter how irrational.

It is a sad fact of life that populations who live in close proximity often suffer from mutual fear and hatred. It’s hard to be objective about the person who lives next door and plays his music until 3 a.m. (or smokes so much that it leaks into your home–believe me, I know that of which I speak). Which is why Jesus said to love your NEIGHBOR. Your neighbor is the hardest person to love.

I told the girl that I had worked on that reservation for four years, and I had never had any trouble (aside from the crazy AmeriCorps guy, but I hardly count him–mentally unstable folks can be found in every race). I had never heard of anyone boarding up their windows when they were going out of town for a long weekend. No one had ever stolen anything from me, or slashed my tires, or threatened me. In fact, when I grazed a parked car with my bumper, the owner was so surprised I left a note that he called just to set my mind at ease. He could have asked for money. He did not.

I won’t say that my experiences there were ideal. Reservation life is very different from the way I grew up, and I suffered quite a bit of culture shock. Many acts that are taboo (or illegal) in my world are accepted there. There is a lot of substance abuse and a huge lack of personal responsibility, especially on the part of the young.

I was also saddened by the attitudes I encountered. Many people mistrusted me because I am (mostly) white, and they could never truly accept that I was not trying to take anything from them. But, like the girl at the party, they are the products of their environment–how can I expect them to look past my skin when white people have been the source of so many torments to them?

I can’t, I suppose, but I still hoped they would. It is possible.

I met a lot of wonderful people on the reservation. M, whose generosity is leaps and bounds beyond anyone else I’ve ever known. N, who gave me a chance to prove myself and made a family of our office. S, who put aside his prejudices day after day to let me learn at his feet. V, who believed in me. E, who showed me what true commitment means.

These people (and many more) did look past my skin color. They cared about me. They stood up for me. And they cried with me when we said goodbye. I can’t stand for them to be maligned, just because they are Indian.

I don’t understand why a fresh-faced white girl would choose to speak so blithely about her prejudices to total strangers at a party. Did she expect us to share them? I doubt I’ll ever see her again, and even if I did, this is a question I have never felt able to ask. A pity.