Confession as Resistance and Solidarity in Bloomington

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An Indiana University student was arrested over the weekend after police say he attacked a Muslim woman, yelling racially charged comments at her and trying to remove her headscarf. Police on Monday did not identify the woman, but said that she had been dining in a Bloomington, Indiana, restaurant’s outdoor seating area Saturday night with her 9-year-old daughter when she was approached by 19-year-old Triceten Bickford. Police said the woman claimed Bickford was yelling things like “white power,” “kill the police” and derogatory statements about black people.

The following are remarks I gave at the Bloomington Against Islamophobia event today.

Good afternoon, my name is Mihee Kim-Kort, and I’m a Presbyterian minister and director of a campus ministry here in town and one of the conveners of Btown Justice. I’m honored to stand with the wider Bloomington community to speak out against Islamophobia.

A major tenet of Protestant faith is the act of confession, both as individuals and as a community. Confession can serve as a means to honestly and genuinely express not only one’s failures – or the failures of a community, but as way to acknowledge and lament the fragility of humanity. In that vein, I want to offer these remarks up in that posture – I am wholly and painfully aware of the ways in which those who profess to follow the Christian faith have failed over and over in not only the areas of tolerance but compassion – we do lip service but when it comes to truly knowing and loving our neighbors we have so much more work in front of us. Moreover, we have also been complicit in perpetuating those value systems – guilty of prejudice and violence towards those who are NON: non-Christian, non-white, non-male, non-hetero, non-normative at so many levels.

In the same way confession acts as a mode for honesty and vulnerability, as a way of interrogation and self-reflexivity, it is a way to proclaim and affirm the realities of the struggle and what it means to cling to hope despite the realities around us. Click To Tweet

As I reflected on the actions of the IU student, I couldn’t help but feel sad for him. He is a symptom and product of white supremacy. It is in the air we breathe and we consume it like food. This is to not excuse him or his actions or justify any of the violence done towards our brothers and sisters but a way to hold us accountable for our own actions and what we are called to do with the words and opportunities before us, too.

I identify as Asian American. My family and I have experienced physical, spiritual and emotional violence. We have received demeaning and disrespectful treatment, we have been used and tokenized and propped up to support white supremacy while being made to feel like an outsider. This is typical of many AAPI. In the eyes of some, Asians in America are, writes Erika Lee, “perpetual foreigners at worst, or probationary Americans at best.” If Asians sometimes remain silent in the face of racism, and if some seem to work unusually hard in the face of this difficult history, it is not because they want to be part of a “model minority” but because they have often had no other choice.

But I believe as one theologian writes that “prophetic grief transforms our sadness into seeking faith-rooted justice for all so we must speak up and repent by dismantling systemic racism within our institutions, churches, communities, families and hearts, and by becoming humble, supportive allies in the #‎BlackLivesMatter movement, accountable to those who suffer most.‬‬” ‬‬As a person who is committed to a faith that is centered around the life of a 1st century Palestinian who from the beginning stood with the marginalized, the rejected and isolated, the non-normative of society, and even himself experienced state-sanctioned violence and execution, because of his life – I believe and confess and affirm that black lives matter. Muslim lives matter.

You’re Not One of Us

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Mark 9: 38-50
John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

I love when people ask me about the kids. People ask “how old are they now?” and “how are they getting along?” and invariably, “how are you still standing?” Desmond and Anna are twins – 4 and a half now, can you believe it? And Ozzie is 2 and a half – it seems the Presbyterian Mission Agency board in particular has watched them – watched me grow up these last almost six years. When people ask me about the kids it’s a way to connect over something ordinary, normal and commonplace, human – we talk about the way kids play and make up games and tell stories and demand apple-pretzels-cheese. All. Day. Long.

It’s a way to feel that I am one of you.

The scripture passage we read together this morning continues a lengthy generative discussion on discipleship and ministry, vocation and call. Earlier in the chapter we have the transfiguration, Jesus starts to talk about his death, the disciples come to Jesus because they need help with casting out a particularly stubborn demon, and Jesus reminds them again who is the greatest in the kingdom by the example of the least of these – a child.

And then, John, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

He was not following us. He was not like us. He was not part of us.  

He was not one of us.

Do you remember that video during the cultural humility training – the ABC News Video with the children responding to different pictures – “20/20” brought together three groups of kids and showed them pictures of two men — one Arab, the other Asian. When we asked the children which man they liked better, over and over, more kids said they preferred “the Chinese guy.” One child preferred the Chinese man “because he looks nicer and he has a smile on.” But both men were smiling. Several children weighed in on the Arab man’s personality, basing their opinions on just seeing his picture. One child said, “I think he’s weird.” Another child said, “He’s like the scary dude.”

Next, “20/20” showed the kids pictures of a black man and white man. This time the pictures were different. Here were some of the comments the kids made about the photo of the black man. One said, “He looks mean.” Another referred to him as “FBI’s Most Wanted.” Another commented, “He looks like he’s a basketball player.” When the white man’s picture was shown, one child said, “He’s nice.” Another said, “I think he’s nice except he might be mad about something.” The boy was probably picking up on something. The photo of a white man was of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. Admittedly, the pictures were a little bit different, but when we asked which man is a criminal, most kids pointed to the black man. When we asked which man was a teacher, most pointed to McVeigh. This is ironic because the black man pictured was Harvard University professor Roland Fryer.

It starts early - all the biases, assumptions, judgments, like Wendy said yesterday, it’s in the air we breathe. They’re not part of us. They’re not us.Click To Tweet

Our words and efforts around inclusion, multiculturalism, and diversity mean very little when we see and still say, he is not one of us. She is not part of us. They’re not us.

The disciples said, “Jesus, we saw someone, casting out demons in your name, but we stopped him because he was not one of us…” Jesus “we saw someone” – our penchant for “we saw someone” needs to be replaced by “we see Jesus.” And in Jesus, we see God. Our God is here. But therein lies the irony of the statement, “We saw someone” because the point is, do you see God? Do you see God in the persons who do deeds in God’s name? More than that, and simply, do you see God in that human being?

Foreigner. Alien. Immigrant. Minority. Outsider. Stranger.

Friends, what does it mean for us that we were once strangers, once foreign and alien, but in God’s radical love, we were brought near? More than that, what does it mean for us that Jesus took on this same foreignness – this status of outsider – to be one of us? To be a part of us?

I blogged a couple of months ago:

I keep hearing that chant – the call and response on the short Vine video posted the day after the anniversary of Michael Brown’s killing. “This is what theology looks like.”

I see them standing huddled together heads down laying hands on each other like it’s an ordination – these demonstrators are being commissioned for something massively important as they shout #blacklivesmatter and #nojusticenopeace anointed with sweat and tears and blood and Spirit and set apart for a holy work in which liturgy is wailing and protest. They are demonstrating resistance in the flesh-and-blood and show us what survival means in its purest form by simply breathing and lamenting together. Hands clutching each other eyes set on the heavenly prize which is the great cloud of witnesses that have gone before them and surround them even now.

This is what theology looks like – this is what faith looks like – this is what love looks like – the way we answer these questions, when “we saw someone” becomes we see Jesus, we see God, in every human being around us – it says who we are and leads us in what we do – with our ministries and with our lives.

It’s not that they become us. We become them, and in doing so we become more like Jesus.Click To Tweet

Isn’t that the ultimate expression of Christian discipleship? To become more like Jesus? 

In the Middle: Wondering and Wandering

I’m devouring books these days like a famished soul that has been lost in a desert wilderness where the only possibility of quenching any thirst comes from the backlit text on my phone. Junot Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her and Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark and Lauren Winner’s Still (a real book, not Kindle) and Amber Haines’ Wild in the Hollow. Books I started a while ago and need to finish, and all the latest – each one somehow about the rawness of being caught in the in-between, whether the middle or darkness, but it all feels like a homesickness and longing. So familiar.

Nobody ever wants to admit that his or her soul is feeling wasted and desolate. That faith feels like a no-man’s land or a ghost town with tumbleweeds rolling through like the cliche Western movie. That feeling or believing or trusting or following is clutching straws that are brittle and fall apart in your hands and slide through your fingers just when you think you have a grasp on something.

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This is what theology looks like.

I keep hearing that chant – the call and response on the short Vine posted the day after the anniversary of Michael Brown’s killing. I see them standing huddled together heads down laying hands on each other like it’s an ordination – these demonstrators are being commissioned for something massively important as they shout #blacklivesmatter and #nojusticenopeace anointed with sweat and tears and blood and Spirit and set apart for a holy work in which liturgy is wailing and protest. They are demonstrating resistence in the flesh-and-blood and show us what survival means in its purest form by simply breathing and lamenting together. Hands clutching each other eyes set on the heavenly prize which is the great cloud of witnesses that have gone before them and surround them even now.

They are where they are supposed to be – these saints, these angels, these ministers of light and love and power.

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I keep thinking about tactics. That the pursuit of justice requires participants and players at all levels of the game. And in all possible spaces and places. There is no one way to do this justice work. We need all hands on deck. Somehow, this shapes my sense of vocation more and more as the urgency towards the goal and theology of #blacklivesmatter becomes more intensely a part of this life. It’s unavoidable. Another shooting. #andregreen What does it mean to embody this theology here, there, wherever I am? What does it mean as a parent? What does it mean as a woman? What does it mean as a clergyperson? What does it mean as an AAPI? To work towards the tangible goals of decreasing police violence and brutality, better housing, employment, and education for all, and dismantling the prison industrial complex. What can I do from where I am? What can the #church do?

I lift up the darkness. I embrace the middle. I articulate the longing for a profound and meaningful transformation that impacts all – and particularly the church – from within – without – and throughout its currents. I do what I can with what is before me wherever I am. With the sacraments of defeat and loss, the liturgy of protest and grief, I hold up to the sky, prop up on my hands and back, those prophets of today whose voices are crying out in the wilderness for #blacklivesmatter #allblacklivesmatter and the call to #sayhername.

Not An Ally: Getting to Work

3378vangoghvine_00000002657I didn’t come into an awareness of my racialized self until late college, and didn’t really engage the issues around it until seminary, and even then wrestled with whether there was a third way beyond the black-white paradigm of racism because it felt like there wasn’t space for me. For my parents. For my siblings and cousins. Stories of picture bridesVincent Chin and the LA Riots haunted me. Where do we fit in? I would often ask myself. We’re not white or black but the whites treat us like we’re black unless we “act” white and the blacks treat us like we’re white unless we “act” black. It wasn’t until the murder of Trayvon Martin that I began to realize that it is undeniably, in Jon Stewart’s words – “black and white.” That anti-black racism is alive and flourishing. 

It took me a while to get there but it’s all a process, right? To realize that it’s not oppression olympics and that there’s no way to compare the impact of antiblack racism and simply, white supremacy. The three pillars of white supremacy are intertwined but separate and distinct – the one thing in common is the notion of white heteropatriarchy and supremacy as the norm. It’s the center. Bottom line. Full stop.

I woke up the morning after the #ameshooting in Charleston to my Facebook and Twitter covered in photos of the terrorist killer and stories about the nine dead and … whining, screaming kids already going at it outside my door. I couldn’t take it. I did my own crying and screaming all the way down to the kitchen trying to get breakfasts and lunches together, trying to get them to stop shoving each other, trying to get them to put clothes and shoes on and get ready for camp.

After I yelled at them for the 518th time to stop hitting, stop pushing, stop crying I stopped and took a breath. I pulled out my laptop and queued up the newscast video from NBC and told them:

“Last night a bad man (Should I have called him a bad man? Should I have called him a white man? Should I have called him a bad white man? A troubled man? An angry man? A mean man?) walked into a church with a gun and shot and killed 9 black people.

It was a church like our church (Should I have compared the church to our church? Should I make any comparisons even for the sake of understanding? I shouldn’t have said like our church) that we go to every Sunday. The people were sitting together praying and reading the Bible and he walked in and killed (I’m not sure they know what kill means? Should I have not brought up guns?) them. Now there are people who won’t see their mommy or daddy or brother or sister or son or daughter anymore (What does this even mean?).”

They were quiet. Commercials about body lotion and luxury cars came on in between videos of the newscast that derailed the conversation. The twins asked questions. Anna asked, “Did the man shoot Jesus?” Desmond said, “Your hair is black.” Anna said, “Is the man going to shoot our church?” Desmond asked, “Can I have pretzels?”

Ugh. Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything?

Eventually, they figure it out, assures Seth, a writer-friend of mine, who shared a story with me about his eldest son asking about the confederate flag, what it is and why it’s all over the South. He basically walked his son through the Civil War. Thinking through the ideological conflicts and what the flag represents even today, the son asked: “The people who still display these flags – aren’t they traitors to the country?” Seth replies, “That’s a really good question, isn’t it?”

This is the work. With my own kids. Even if I have no idea how they’ll respond and what kinds of questions they’ll ask me. Even if it means taking them to protests and demonstrations and have them shout “Black Lives Matter” with me when they don’t totally understand the words. Even if they fall asleep in my arms as we stand in vigil for lives that were lost this past year. Even if we sit in the pews of an unfamiliar church in town to pray for a similar church in Charleston, South Carolina.

We tell them the right stories. We tell them the real stories.Click To Tweet

We show them how we live and love and what we believe by speaking up and pointing out that those flags need to come down. Now. Why? What we say or do or pursue – it matters.

Because part of the work is yes, making space and listening, but now is also the time for so much more as Rev. Tawyna Denise Anderson calls us to in this movement. Now is the time TO SHOW UP (yes, I’m shouting). Now is the time for not cringing and shying away from the “awkwardness” of race conversations, now is the time for calling it EXACTLY WHAT IT IS then talking and questioning, now is the time for the messy work of tearing down and building back up again. As my sister Austin says, “I need you to know those are the only two choices. There is no such thing as neutrality. You are either nurturing love or hate. There is no middle ground, no third way, no alternative.” Austin, Micky, Darnell, Broderick, Denise, Laura, Chanelle, Michelle, Christina, Monica, Bridgett, Mashadi, Nyasha, Grace, Kimm, LeQuita, Tara, Cheni, Erick, Derrick, Kesha, Kwame, LaMont, Jessica – I’m in this with you.

So, right now, for the kids, “it’s the bad man who shot the nine people.” Later maybe it’ll be “the white man who shot and killed nine black people.” Then maybe it’ll be “the white American terrorist who murdered nine black people in a church.” It’s a process for me. It’s a process for them. And by God they will get there, and they will be working right alongside us. And it’s going to be in the church where we learn these stories and perspectives, too.

It is, precisely, because race and racism is a reality, and because of everything that has come out of those constructs are ongoing, that we need to talk, write and catalyze these conversations in order to become aware of the depth of this disease, even as it has infected the church. – Ruth-Aimee Rosario-Belonni

No more talk of allies. We’re hitting the ground running every single day. We’re going to see it and call it out every single day. We’re getting in the trenches with our brothers and sisters every single day. I don’t care if people question my motives or methods, or question my platform, or question my mistakes because fuck, I’m going to make a ton of mistakes a long the way but that’s no excuse, or question my expertise or background or my investment because I’m not black. I don’t have time for that – you’re either in this now or you’re in the way. It starts now every single day whether I’m in college, seminary or the mother of three children who aren’t even five years old.

KEEPING IT REAL: Jon Stewart on Charleston Church Shooting! It’s like Jon Stewart is the only white dude with a name who keeps it real and has the back of the wrong doings happening to black people.

Posted by ROCK-SOLID on Thursday, June 18, 2015

Work Trips and a Camera: Seeing the Other And #SayHerName 

“I cast an objective gaze over myself, discovered my blackness, my ethnic features; deafened by cannibalism, backwardness, fetishism, racial stigmas, slave traders, […] Disoriented, incapable of confronting the Other, the white man, who had no scruples about imprisoning me, I transported myself on that particular day far, very far, from my self, and gave myself up as an object. What did this mean to me? Peeling, stripping my skin, causing a hemorrhage that left congealed black blood all over my body. Yet this reconsideration of myself, this thematization, was not my idea. I wanted simply to be a man among men…” -Frantz Fanon

When we drove up she was standing on the porch looking at us through the rails. 20 of us strangers but familiar in a way – clean tshirts and work pants wearing hats and sunglasses holding water bottles with gloves, but she didn’t back away. Three, maybe four years old, she examined us carefully with unblinking black eyes and fingers in her mouth and soft hair poofed up in a cloud around her little face. Barefoot and shorts slightly too big likely handed down to her. Someone greeted her asking her name.

“Evaline,” she said softly. She went back inside.

***

She came bounding up and threw her elbows down next to me on the high, makeshift table. “Whatcha doing?” she quipped at me like we’d been friends for a long time.

I was looking at my phone taking a break in the shade. Shoulders aching a little from post holing and catching up on putting photos on the Instagram account for the church youth group. She startled me a little – so brazen but fresh and airy, like doors flung open on the first spring day after a dreary winter. I inhaled her light as she swung a hammer blithely  hitting the head into her palm ready to get into something.

“Oh!” I smiled. “You ready to work?” She nodded and beamed at me. “I’m Mihee. What’s your name?” I asked her.

“Makaya,” she said.

“A little girl was looking for you – yelling your name,” I told her. “Yeah, probably Evaline. She’s my cousin,” she waved a hand at me.

And before I could respond she skipped away. I watched her chuckle with someone and later saw her with a fancy camera – borrowed from one of our adults – snapping photos and asking everyone to smile for her.

***

I go back to Frantz Fanon often when reflecting on perspective and blackness – where blackness came from and how it “happened” for him. In Black Skin, White Masks he talks about entering the white world and felt the weight of the “white gaze,” and he experienced his otherness by becoming aware of racial attitudes which up to that point had not existed for him. In his chapter, “The Lived Experience of the Black,” Fanon recounts his experience on a train of being “fixed” by a white other—an other which happened to be a child who had already been habituated to see blacks as defined by the white imagination. As the child’s refrain, “Look! A Negro!,” crescendoed forth and came to a close with a fearful questioning of the “Negro’s” next move, Fanon not only experienced the gaze of the white other, he also began to see himself through the white gaze.

The white gaze. It overpowers and consumes, and it becomes the lens that we all look through to perceive others. We all do it even if we are not white. We all do it even if we don’t want to do it. For some it empowers. For some it oppresses. For some it uses and scapegoats. I’m the scapegoat sometimes – a prop that upholds whiteness.

***

I watched Makaya playing with the younger youth group kids. The three were silly together as typical 11 year olds – giggling and squealing throwing tortilla chips at one another making up games and jokes. She’s tall and lanky – all limbs – short shorts and a tight gray top – hair tied down in two spots and poofed out in the back, she sat down next to an older youth group kid in the trunk of the van with the back door open who smiled at her with her green eyes. Evaline came out to watch and Makaya grabbed her in a big bear hug as she tried to squirm away. Soon they all crammed in sitting across and I couldn’t help it. I pulled my phone out to take a photo of them.

They were cute. Precious. My mind raced through Fanon’s words again and I wondered if my gaze was oppressive? Did they inwardly cringe at my lens pointed straight at them? Did they wonder who I was and who they were as the flash went off? Did they feel safe? I thanked them and had them look at the photo. Both convulsed with glee at their expressions and silliness.

As I looked at them my mind went to McKinney, Texas and DeJarria Becton. I see the video replaying in my mind from the point of view of the one holding the smartphone and realize I can’t fathom the feeling she must have felt as her face was ground into the dirt by the police officer’s foot. I can’t fathom the feeling she must have felt as her air was slowly stolen from her lungs as she cried for her mother. I can’t fathom the fear and resignation and confusion and anger as she lay paralyzed by the weight of this man on top of her, though perhaps a weight that she carries with her in her soul all the time.

But tall and lanky Makaya – young and strong and vulnerable and true. She looks like she knows herself. And I think this is what love and justice looks like – she is near to herself and rooted in her body and mirth and play – and I think of my beautiful black sisters and their daughters – and they all make me see that it is being rooted in your courageous beauty and joy that is the substance of reconciliation, and I imagine all kinds of possibilities when it comes to the kingdom work of resistance and reconciliation and revolution – that it isn’t just huge empires and principalities that need to fall but these moments that are drenched in whiteness and privilege and Christian saviorism – these are the structures that need to fall – these are the subtle and insidious systems that perpetuate the thinking that it is ok to tackle a young girl, draw a gun on young boys, drive by to shoot and kill a child in a park – these moments in front of and behind a camera and sitting in the back of a van where we can clumsily etch and chisel out out space for them to work and play and take photos and tell jokes – for small but eternal connections – not only to each other but to oneself – with the Eucharistic elements of tortilla chips and sweat and where laughter is prayer.

I look at the kids in front of me – all ages, all colors, all equally beautiful, all equally hyper, all equally obnoxious and adolescent, all equally innocent and wonderful and full of life. The light and love streaming from each one is blinding, and I can’t tell the difference but I feel and see it from each one.

Each. One.

***

#sayhername

This is for Aisha, this is for Kashera
This is for Khadijah scared to look up in the mirror
I see the picture clearer thru the stain on the frame
She got a black girl name, she livin black girl pain
This is for Makeba, and for my mamacita
What’s really good, ma? I’ll be your promise-keeper
I see the picture clearer thru the stain on the frame

She got a black girl name, she livin black girl pain
My mama said life would be so hardGrowin up days as a black girl scarred
In so many ways though we’ve come so far
They just know the name they don’t know the pain
So please hold your heads up high
Don’t be ashamed of yourself know I
Will carry it forth til the day I die
They just know the name they don’t know the pain black girl
This is for Beatrice Bertha Benjamin who gave birth to

Tsidi Azeeda for Lavender Hill for Kyalisha
ALTHLONE, Mitchells Plain, Swazi girls I’m reppin for thee
Mannesburg, Guguletu where you’d just be blessed to get thru
For beauty shinin thru like the sun at the highest noon

From the top of the cable car at Table Mountain; I am you
Girls with the skyest blue of eyes and the darkest skinFor Cape Colored allied for realizing we’re African
For all my cousins back home, the strength of mommy’s backbone
The length of which she went for raising, sacrificing her own

The pain of not reflecting the range of our complexionsFor rubber pellet scars on Auntie Elna’s back I march
Fist raised caramel shinin in all our glory
For Mauritius, St, Helena; my blood is a million stories
Winnie for Joan and for Edie, for Norma, Leslie, Ndidi
For Auntie Betty, for Melanie; all the same family
Fiona, Jo Burg, complex of mixed girls

For surviving thru every lie they put into us now
The world is yours and I swear I will stand focused
Black girls, raise up your hands; the world should clap for us
My mama said life would be so hard
Growin up days as a black girl scarred
In so many ways though we’ve come so far
They just know the name they don’t know the pain
So please hold your heads up high

Don’t be ashamed of yourself know I

Will carry it forth til the day I die
They just know the name they don’t know the pain, black girl.

-Talib Kweli