The American Stew
July 16, 2019
Someone said to me that America shouldn't aspire to be a melting pot; we should be proud of the fact that we are a stew of people who all have unique flavors, that when put together, achieve a more sophisticated flavor profile. It struck me that I had never considered it this way in all of my passionate debating for the rights of people to keep their culture once they land in the States.
So often, people expect that immigrants should assimilate, or Americanize, if they want to fit in, but what is the American culture if not a great mess of every other culture around the world dumped into one big pot. Sure, some of it melds together when two families from different backgrounds become one, but at the end of the day, someone born and raised in Metro Atlanta and someone who was born in a refugee camp in Thailand now living in Louisville have wildly different life experiences and that should be celebrated.
Let's be brutally honest for a moment. I'm whiter than Casper the Friendly Ghost. I grew up in a school cluster that by the time I graduated was pretty diverse. I grew up outside the homogenous blob of people that share a hive mind. I had to pay attention to other view points to be respected. From the outside, it would seem that I am a model for embracing cultural differences and continuing to learn about them. There is always something new to learn, and I love celebrating the differences between the culture I was raised in and the cultures of my friends.
I heard about and learned about racism in school, but my friends and I didn't talk about it actively happening in our community. Of course people made ugly remarks and made choices that made my skin crawl, but as a general rule, I never confronted our countries blatant race problems because I was sheltered and secure in a town that (for the most part) celebrates its differences. I idealistically thought we were the lucky ones who had evolved past the days of Jim Crow and ugly asides. I regret not talking to them more about the systematic racism that plagues our country and the ways it was felt by them.
The reality is, I don't feel the negative effects of racism in the same way and I never will— no matter how in tune I try to be with the politics of it or how many friends I have that don't look like me. As much as I want to believe there is an "Us" where we all hold hands and sing Kumbaya, it's ignorant to ignore the "Them" vs. "I" issues we face every day. If I get pulled over, my fear is about telling my mom I got a ticket. When I go to the airport, I don't add-in extra time to be randomly selected during my security check.
The reality is, even though I often claimed to be a crusader of social justice, I missed the subtle, yet blatant, acts of hatred taking place right under my nose until I was the recipient of it by association. I thought because I was blessed to grow up in a majority minority atmosphere that I would be prepared to work with sweet children seek refuge from foreign wars. I was right. I am prepared to love and care for these kids. Every child has their own unique personality and the children I’m learning with are no different. Being at CHBC has opened doors in my heart that I didn't know existed; I have fallen in love with working with the Karen refugees. There's a learning curve to every child, but I was ready for that. What I wasn't prepared for was the way other people who see skin color first and children last if at all would look at me and speak to me for hugging them and loving them. I'm still not, and and I never want to be used to it.
When we were on our way to camp, a horrible storm came up. The vans stopped at a rural exit in the middle of Kentucky to avoid the rain, the kids got out to use the bathroom, and I went in with them. When I walked through the door, the cashier snarled at me and said, "If those people touch anything, I want you to know this is a stand-your-ground state." I was horrified by his blatant hatred of children he didn’t know based solely on the color of their skin. At the risk of sounding like an out of touch white girl who foolishly believed racism was behind us, I was astounded he felt empowered enough to say a thing like that. When I had some time to think about it undisturbed, I realized it wasn't so much that I was in shock that it had happened but disappointed that we as Christians haven't overwhelmed and changed the social mores that all that kind of behavior to continue. It's ugly. It's hateful. Most importantly it doesn't represent the values of Jesus Christ.
I had never so directly been confronted with that kind of malice. It always seemed a step or two removed from me because I benefit from white privilege. I never condoned it; I spoke out against it, but nevertheless I had blinders on to what was happening right in front of me. I put a space between people who make comments like the one directed at my eight, nine, and ten-year-olds and myself because it is easier to chastise others than to recognize my own complicity. For that I apologize. There was a log in my eye, and now that it's been removed, I have a lot of healing to do.
As the weeks have gone by since that original confrontation, I have tried to teach those same kids about taking Jesus into the world with them and loving their neighbors. It's seemed superficial because I haven't actively done the same. There is nothing I can teach them about caring for the least of these they haven’t already experienced first hand. They know all about taking care of the stranger. They readily do this for me but as our encounter at the gas station proved, this country has not readily done it for them.
When we talked about segregation at camp, the kids had intimate knowledge of being persecuted for who they are. Some of the older kids and teenagers have spoken up about being scared and worried about the current state of our nation. They lift up prayer requests about not being sent back to Burma. Youth joke about harboring their friends if ICE shows up but this is a mask they hide behind. They are scared of losing their friends and being forced to go back to a place they escaped from. And here I am, giving a children's sermon about the Good Samaritan.
We like to make that parable about us. We like to believe that because we love Jesus we are prepared to be the Good Samaritan in any situation. We go on mission trips, we give money to homeless people, and we may even volunteer at a soup kitchen or a shelter. But, as Jason reminded me and everyone in his sermon on Sunday, it takes more than one act to form a relationship and truly help someone. The Samaritan man didn't just take the Jew off the road, he came back and made sure he was being cared for.
I've gone half way. I've made friendships, and I've listened to the views of all kinds of people. I hug, and I love on everyone. I'm the first person to show up during times of grief and in times of celebration with a casserole. I thought I was doing a great job of taking Jesus into the world with me, but here I am learning with open eyes and ears about worries I never had to face growing up. It's time I take the second step and follow up and ask how to help rather than just jumping in and believing I know exactly how to fix a problem I've never experienced.
I think the Church needs to take that second step too. No one person is an expert on all things. There is no shame in not fully understanding an issue. Ask. Someone has experienced it first-hand. Listen. Others know what must be done. Support them, and do what you can without getting in the way. Know your place in every movement. I'm not talking from a soapbox, I'm talking to myself and hoping others might hear what I've learned.
Mr. Rogers taught kids—myself included—for decades about what it means to be a good neighbor. It's time we stop quoting him on social media for likes and to get a pat on the back. It's time we stop patting ourselves on the back for going half way. It's time we stand up and decide that it's time to be a good neighbor who keeps coming back until the wall that divides our neighborhoods from their neighborhoods is a distant memory. The journey getting there will be beautifully chaotic as we learn how to coexist and blend with one another while still retaining our uniqueness. The perfect American Stew.