There are three friends I remember from Italy. My father was stationed at San Vito and I started kindergarten at the base school. During grade one I walked home with Rosa who was brown, and whose family seemed much more interesting than my own. Rosa’s family spoke Spanish and her older brother, according to Rosa, just stayed home because he felt like it. At sharing time, I stole all of Rosa’s details and brightly relayed that my family spoke Spanish at home. Really? Mrs. O’Brien said, and called my mother. One of many calls during those two years at the base school.
Yolanda was a black girl a year older or younger than me. Our families attended the same church and our mothers got the kids together to play. I admired Yolanda’s hair. Twists and braids. The plastic barrettes shaped like blue cats, green dogs, yellow birds. Hair ties with plastic marbles that click clacked at jumping, running. Yolanda said her mother could braid my hair, and her mother agreed. I sat in a kitchen chair and did not complain at the tugs. I was excited to have hair like Yolanda’s.
Sleep with a kerchief, Yolanda’s mother said. That night I could not sleep. All the tiny plastic barrettes poked my neck and shoulders. Each braid pulled a tight little square of scalp. I unclipped the barrettes and felt terrible. When Yolanda’s mother found out, she laughed. I cannot see her face but I remember her sound was warm.
Jessica was white and in my class at school. She had a parakeet and gave me a packet of smelly markers as a goodbye gift and really, that’s about all I remember of her.
I began second grade in Wisconsin and graduated from a small white town. Small white town: mostly/ predominantly. Diversity existed. An Albanian family moved to my hometown. A black teenager joined my sophomore English class. Our sport conference included a team from Beloit, the nearest city with a black population. Diversity existed: barely/ rarely. But my small American town isn’t different from many places around the world – I now live as the minority in a homogenous culture. I don’t fault a place for lacking diversity.
But populations migrate. I think this is a gift.
When we moved from Italy to Wisconsin, my parents eventually bought a house one town over from my mother’s hometown. I remember her joking that she’d never be local.
When we moved to South America, it was like going home. Maybe my childhood seeded the comfort of being foreign. Maybe I wanted to find another Rosa, another Yolanda after years of Jessicas.
I used to wonder what I’d be like if we’d stayed in Italy, if my father’s service moved us to another country, and another, if I learned alongside kids from Texas, Virginia, Japan. Here is what I am getting at: place is not at fault.
Our hearts. But when our hearts change, won’t our places also change?
All week, a growing tiredness. A necessary heavy spirit. Sisters and brothers, we have sisters and brothers born into an exhaustion made of exclusionary ordinances, inadequate healthcare, unequal and unfair education, voter suppression, racist criminal justice systems, and prejudice coming even from the mouths and hearts of people professing Christ. This ought not be.
Our hearts: we cannot know fully. Ask. And lament. We have much to grieve, and we ought to grieve, and we must accept that the process of this grief is not a season of protest or support but the ongoing work of repentance and restoration. Be a neighbor. Do the work of loving others. Listen. Listen. Listen.
I want to say this too. The American church permits the hijacking of its faith by a political party that does not love the least of these. Too many have been wrongly swayed to think that governments bear little responsibility for people in need. Systemic racism is just that. People do not choose to be born with a knee on their neck. We need social programs, from the government, church or other organizations: we must give food to the hungry, support people suffering addiction, offer literacy programs, and provide housing and healthcare. We must elevate those who are low. Lift. Raise.
The hijacking of our faith. I think this happened thirty years ago when the pro-life stance guaranteed Republican votes. I understand voters for whom the pro-life issue is their single issue. Moral contortion to vote against the least of these and for the least of these at once. What I say to these voters is: vote for the unborn, but live for the born.
Live for the born: sisters and brothers, we have sisters and brothers born into an exhaustion made of exclusionary ordinances, inadequate healthcare, unequal and unfair education, voter suppression, racist criminal justice systems, and prejudice coming even from the mouths and hearts of people professing Christ. This ought not be.
Be a neighbor. Do the work of loving others. Listen. Listen. Listen.