A quick Google search defines the word they as a pronoun “referring to two more people previously mentioned or easily defined.” It’s my experience that no one group of people is easily defined but, oh, we still like to try.
We tuck people away into groups of them and those people, defining those groups as different than us. And these labels reduce people to a stereotype that can house hate, fear, and oppression.
Sometimes that little word triggers such anger in me. I see it in my social media feeds almost daily describing how those people act or believe, words laced with venom—words about how one such group of people we inaccurately mis-categorize is out to destroy our country and world. Words describing people I love—my Muslim brothers and sisters. A huge, diverse group of people comprising one-fourth of the population of the world is reduced to a they that others so easily reject, or vilify.
Most people in my daily life claim Islam as their religion since I live in a country where Muslims make up 80% of the population. To see a group of men wearing white prayer caps and flowing robes walking down the street on the way to the mosque is a normal daily occurrence for me. These are my neighbors. For many people that same image would strike fear of the unknown in their heart.
That’s the key—the unknown. We fear what we don’t take the time to know. We just slap a they label on people and think they are so easily defined.
When others don’t recognize the image of God in my Muslim friends, don’t see them as equal to themselves, as someone who has much wisdom to teach them—I want to rage, I want to scream: how can you not see? I can forget that once I was blind too...
I don’t remember your name. I do remember your laughter, your patience when you helped me with my pronunciation of sounds that are difficult for the English-trained tongue.
I never saw you again after our college Arabic class ended but the look in your eyes has remained with me all these years—the fear and sorrow I saw there when your entire existence was reduced to stereotypes. I realized the distance between you and me was greater than I had imagined. It was September 12, 2001, and on that day the only thing people saw when they looked at you was the headscarf you wore. It’s still the only thing many probably see. But I saw you.
You were the friend of a friend and I could only speak to you through her translating. When I first saw you, we all looked the same under our colorful headscarves and baltos, the long, black dressed that covered our clothing. Over tiny cups of strong coffee, we were able to remove all that kept us hidden from the eyes of men on the streets. I laughed to find you in jeans and a tank top underneath, surprised at how young you looked though already a bride.
Years later, I still kept the small piece of knitting you gave me in the curio cabinet in my bedroom. I would touch the woven white and blue yarn and breathe a prayer for you. I would remember your story and the ancient smell of incense in your home. You were the second wife to a man you rarely saw, living a few apartments away from his first wife. You handed me a pile of knit pieces to choose from, evidence of just how much time you spent alone. The distance between us is many miles and I don’t know if your house in the war-torn Yemeni capital is even still standing. But I remember you.
You made me feel your home was mine. Every time I visited, you had a gift for me. Sometimes you would open your jewelry box and let me choose a bangle. I remember the way your voice would rise with as much passion when we talked about the Egyptian TV dramas you used to act in as when we discussed the differences in the Qur’an and Bible.
You shared all you had with me. You let me see your pain and you carried mine. You cried when we told you we were moving back to America. When you became our landlady, we had nothing in common. We were from different nations, religions, and generations. But I called you friend. I still think of you when your teal and red bracelets clink on my wrists...
Hers was the first familiar face I saw in the sea of unknown that was the airport atrium. Standing back on the soil of my “home” for the first time in a year, I felt uprooted. A week before, my friend only existed as a voice over the phone while I ached for community I hadn’t been able to build yet in my new life in South Asia. America felt like another reality altogether as change pulled me further away.
But a family crisis had yanked me up by my transplanted roots, and there I stood again. Home yet not home. My husband and children stayed behind 8,500 miles away, and my heart was torn between two continents.
I expected to feel out of place after the prolonged absence and adjustment to a new normal. Yet in the smiling face of the friend who had known the depths of my wandering heart for twenty-three years, I felt like no time had passed at all. We became friends over bus rides to band competitions and passing notes in biology class. We saw each other through crushes and crushed hearts, marriage and divorce, chronic illness, and now two international moves. We had shared a house and shared over half our lives.
I had imagined our connection dissolving with time and distance as I complained that I had no friends in my new home. I focused on what I didn’t have and forgot what I did have because it lingered out of sight. Yet there she was with a caramel macchiato she knew to be my favorite in hand. She was a visual reminder that friendship is not erased by time apart and not changed by miles traveled.
When I walked into the ICU waiting room where my whole family was gathered, she quietly melted into the background. She let me cry with my sister, whose husband had just undergone a second emergency surgery for the aneurism that had prompted my unplanned trip around the world. I felt ashamed at my own lack of willingness to be inconvenienced for others when her husband didn’t complain that it was 2am before we pulled into my parents’ driveway.
I was reminded of so much more than the strength of a childhood friendship in those days. Every time she showed up over those two weeks, I was surprised when I shouldn’t have been. Where else but in the everyday needs of life should we expect Christ to show up?...
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Every day I stand and watch this intersection of four roads that is such a symbolic intersection of all of life. I look out over my current little corner of the world through a smudged floor-to-ceiling window. From the time I pull back the paisley curtain, blinking at the light pouring in my room, to the time I watch the moon rise over the concrete skyline, I find my way back here several times just to notice.
It’s a place where beauty and chaos meet; they mingle like the rickshaws and cars that push each other around the crossroads in their back and forth dance. The lush coconut palms stand in contrast to the fading, cracked sidewalks. The rising sun glints off windows of the high-rise across the street and the tin roof of the slums beneath it. In the morning the nuns shuffle past to the counseling center they run down the street, their white habits and white shoes standing out against the black street. In the evening crowds of men return from the mosque after the last Call to Prayer has sounded for the night. I love the way this place isn’t afraid of paradox.
In the Western world we tend to see life in dichotomies. We live in a world of either/or. Right or wrong. Blessings or curses. Suffering or healing. Of God or of the world. For most of my early life, I didn’t know that life existed in the grey areas. No one told me there was room for a world of both/and. I couldn’t believe we could carry both faith and doubt, knowing and unknowing...
“No one is excused from the conversation. Instead of hate, we choose subversive joy and indefatigable faith. We hope for another way, for new paths forward, for healing truly to come to our land.” – Cara Meredith
For a long while I’ve excused myself from the conversation on racial justice in America. It’s not my place, I said as a white woman. I don’t want to overstep my bounds.
Living in the Middle East and South Asia, I involved myself in learning from my Muslim neighbors. Working in non-profits coming alongside local workers who are leading the way in issues of poverty, slavery, women’s rights, education—these were my chosen conversations. I spent my time immersed in the needs of the majority world, so I excused myself from taking a look in my back yard.
For the last year I have lived outside of the US and watched from afar as old divisions grow wider and discussions grow hotter and more hateful. And this feels like my life as a whole—watching from afar, not truly engaging.
But I have been watching. I’ve quietly widened my social media circles, the books I am reading, and the news sources I am taking in. I’ve written for a couple years for a magazine whose primary demographic is women of color and I have poured over the articles by the other writers, wanting to know. Wanting to listen.
Cara Meredith is one of those voices I’ve been hearing at the periphery of my life for the past few years, nudging me—telling me just silently watching isn’t enough. We met through common online writing circles and I’ve watched her journey and growth as a smart, engaging woman who is leveraging her voice and experience to call us all into new depths.
You see, Cara is married to a man whose father who had a pivotal role in the civil rights movement. She is a white woman who has chosen to walk into the conversation of race, not just out of love for her husband and sons, but because she has seen that it is her journey too. I knew all this when I read her new book The Color of Life: A Journey Toward Love and Racial Justice. I was ready to listen some more, to hear her story. What I didn’t expect was to see that it is my story, too.
I read her book in large gulps, enraptured. I was taken in by her personal story but then I was hooked by the history as well. As Meredith fell in love with her husband, she learned about the legacy of his father. I couldn’t believe I’d never heard the full story of this incredible man, James Meredith. Maybe his life was a blip on the radar of black history month, but his was never a story that I’d truly known before. I was ashamed of this.
“For too long I refused to let myself see history’s one-sided affair, listening to and learning from the stories of my past, stories told from the point of view of the oppressor,” says Meredith. These words echoed in my heart for weeks.
At the same time I was reading in The Very Good Gospel the account of a racial reconciliation pilgrimage Lisa Sharon Harper had taken part in. One of their stops was in Dahlonega, Georgia where the American government began passing laws in 1828 to strip the Cherokee of their land when gold was discovered in the north Georgia mountains. This led the way to the removal of “nearly forty-six thousand Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek, Choctaw, and Seminole men, women and children. The illegal deportation cleared twenty-five million acres of land for white settlement, mining, and ultimately slavery.” I vacationed regularly in these very mountains as a child where some of my ancestors lived (and I know that some of my forefathers were, indeed, slaveholders). This was another story I’d never been told yet this is part of my history, my story.
As I thought about what I would say about The Color of Life, I knew it had to be my story. Another reason I’ve stayed out of the conversation is a common excuse: fear. What if I say something offensive? What if I make everything worse for people who have already been so wounded? But really, it is self-preservation. What if I am embarrassed? What if my own bias and ignorance shows?
Like Cara Meredith bravely told her family’s story and how she has journeyed closer toward reconciliation because she realized her place in the bigger picture, all of us have a place here in this story of our shared humanity. I hope I can find a place next to people like Meredith who say “I cry out against the chains of oppression because although we are equal in our status in human beings, we have not all been found equal in the eyes of society and in the eyes of each other.” All of us need to do what we can to understand our history…and our way forward toward truly seeing the image of God in all people.
If you aren’t sure where you fit in this conversation, if you aren’t sure why all this talk about race right now even matters—read The Color of Life. Meredith weaves theology and history into a compelling story with the humility and compassion of a mother struggling how to understand how racism will impact her own sons. This book is a place to start and especially if you are a white brother or sister, I hope it is a start indeed. We have a long way to go and we can only do it together.
Where do you consider yourself in the conversations happening today around racial justice? Where would you like to be? What obstacles do you need to overcome to get there? What motivates you to dive deeper?
How have stories you have heard shaped your views of racism? Do you feel you need to shift or broaden the narratives you are taking in?