About a dozen of us were seated in a circle in a small classroom waiting for the first afternoon class in the Racial Reconciliation pre-conference to begin. The panel was comprised of prominent Christian bloggers/twitter enthusiasts of varying backgrounds and ethnicities: Eugene Cho, blogger and pastor of a cool-sounding church in Seattle; Mickey Jones, “creative extremist for love” and Director of Training and Program Development at Transform Network (a ministry devoted to reconciliation); and Benjamin L. Corey, blogger at Formerly Fundie. The topic was “how to have a civil conversation online” and I was pretty excited about it, firstly because Hannah and I were with our people here. We get this world. I’ve also had a really difficult time navigating my place in discussions about race and privilege as a white woman with mostly white friends, particularly on facebook, so I hoped to get some constructive feedback.
The moderator asked general questions about how to deal with trolls and speak truth online without coming off as arrogant. When he opened up the floor for questions, I timidly raised my hand and asked the question that’s been plaguing me for months: “How do I speak for the marginalized without making it about me? Where does my voice fit into the discussion and should it be there at all?” A helpful attendee recommended that I follow leaders within the black activist community on twitter so that I can gain some insight before speaking up. For whatever reason, it hadn’t dawned on me that the internet makes it possible to expand my narrow and segregated community to something bigger, and more fruitful. Eugene Cho nuanced the conversation by saying that he thinks everyone has a role to play here and that speaking up in solidarity with those who are already sharing their stories is important because it helps frame the discussion for those you have the direct power to influence (like facebook friends and family members). He told me not to be afraid! And I realized then that it was fear of getting called out for doing activism wrong that kept me from doing anything at all. It was one of those otherwise normal pieces of advice that came at the right time; it stuck with me through the rest of the weekend.
The rest of the afternoon was interesting enough but uneventful. In the spirit of not being afraid of speaking truth, however, I have to tell you that I learned more about trafficking from the Racial Reconciliation track than I did from the Human Trafficking morning sessions. And the reason is simple: when there are diverse voices in the room ready to tell their stories and reconcile their histories, transformation happens. When people are faced with acknowledging “the other” as part of their community, they listen more and talk less. “Those persecuted people over there” aren’t powerless or voiceless. We don’t need to go to conferences on the other side of the world and speak on their behalf. We need them in the room!
The fun begins…
The Justice Conference started with a bang. In fact, I was so wound up when we got home Friday night I barely slept. The main conference sessions took place in the beautiful Romanesque-meets-Art Nouveau concert hall of Auditorium Theatre. The worship team started us off with a song from my traveling teen worship band days (seriously, though, we went on tour!), which made me incredibly nostalgic for some good contemporary worship music. Then spoken word poet, Malcolm London, performed his piece, A Praise for Black Women (and I was fangirling because I’m obsessed with the Chicago spoken word scene) before welcoming Dr. Cornel West to the stage.
I’ve mostly heard West’s name in the context of controversy, but I’d never heard him speak, so I was blown away by the eloquence and power behind his words (lots of quotable quotes, too). He said that we can’t do justice work without acknowledging suffering head on, without understanding how life is always wrapped up in death: “When you’re talking about love, you’re talking about death, ’cause love is learning how to die.” I’m on a lifelong journey to come to terms with mortality because I’m convinced it must be done if we’re to fully appreciate life and serve others. West’s talk brought that concept of fear back into my mind. We have to stop fearing death if we’re to love fully. On the topic of racial reconciliation, he said: “People always come up to me and ask if they can be an ally. We don’t want allies! When you’re a follower of Jesus, you don’t ask for permission to be a force for good!”
The night ended with some good ol’ David Crowder (I saw him in concert twice as a teenager), a popular worship artist in the early 2000s (and apparently still popular?). He’s gotten a little blue-grassy since the last time I saw him and he ended the night with some old timey hymns with banjo and fiddle. It was amazing.
There is always a cost to justice. This is why Jesus tells us to take up our cross.
Ah, Saturday. I knew the trouble would come eventually. Saturday was a long, exhausting day spent cooped up in the theatre. With 21 speakers presenting on Saturday alone, you can imagine it was a lot to take in. Things started off great with Eugene Cho urging us not to “seek justice unjustly” by seeing people as projects and thereby dehumanizing them (Amen!). On the topic of God moving mountains, he said: “You and I, we might be the mountain God wants to move.”
But then we got Bob Goff cheerily talking about executing witch doctors in Uganda and educating “the enemy” with only a Bible and a copy of his Christian memoir (gag! Hannah and I gave each other some looks during this session) and a panel full of women talking about poor people who have no voice and crying and telling us all to be the “Esther Generation” (seriously, though, when’s the last time you read Esther?). Admittedly, I was probably looking for things to get upset about during the women’s panel. I have a hard time seeing women behaving in traditionally feminine ways within the context of Evangelicalism, because I worry they’re just reinforcing harmful stereotypes. I should give them the benefit of the doubt.
Jonathan Merritt (he follows me on twitter!) came up and spoke about nurturing virtues as part of the justice-seeking journey: to seek to understand instead of seeking to be understood, empathy, and diversity as a way of creating a higher consciousness around hard topics. His topic led up to the highlight of the day: The Racial Reconciliation panel comprised of Gabriel Salguero, National Latino Evangelical Coalition President; Dr. Soong-Chan Rah, professor at North Park Theological Seminary; Dr. Arloa Sutter, founder of Breakthrough Urban Ministries in Chicago; Reverend Tracy Blackmon, pastor in Ferguson; and Pastor Michael McBride, national director of the LIVE FREE campaign.
These guys were hilarious. I think everyone was a bit nervous that the mostly white audience would be a tough crowd, but they did a great job of defining privilege and sharing their stories in a way that was accessible to all. Several important points were made here, I think, from “Segregation is a church problem” to “Privilege is to declare that the God in someone else is less than the God who lives in me.” One panelist pointed out that one of the easiest places to see privilege is in what we define as “normal.” For instance, theology done by white men is simply called “theology” while theology done by people of color is called “black theology” or “liberation theology.” The final point – and one that needed to be said in this crowd in particular – was “Don’t say you’re going to go save Africans when you don’t even know an African American in the United States.”
The unexpected lesson
Hannah and I were pretty worn out by mid-afternoon and skipped some of the afternoon sessions. We had met up with Anna, a member of the Ethical Blogger Network, at lunchtime and decided to head to the touristy part of town for a pizza dinner. Well, the pizza took awhile, so Anna headed back to the last session of the night and Hannah asked if we could give some pizza to a homeless person we’d just passed at a street corner. I reluctantly agreed; I’d had a lot of unfavorable and awkward conversations with homeless people in my college town and I was wary of approaching someone at random like this.
We asked him if he wanted a few slices of our pizza and he told us he was lactose intolerant. His name was Ryan and he was reading a novel about Judaism. The sign propped up in front of him had a list of necessities – like a weekly train pass – and explained that he had grown up in foster care. He couldn’t have been older than 19. We ended up sitting down and having a very normal conversation with him for 5 or so minutes. He told us he’d tried to find a job, but no one would give him one since he didn’t have an address. He told us it was hard and uncomfortable, especially in the winter. Then we shook hands and left.
Basically, the miracle in all this is that we just saw each other. We were people being people together and that wasn’t nothing. And that theme came back to me again. Fear – irrational fear – had almost kept me from making a normal connection with someone. There would have been no repercussions (outside of some awkwardness), but I was still too afraid to approach. I felt ashamed for myself, but I also got hit in the face with injustice in real time for the first time all weekend. This is why justice work matters. Because kids like Ryan age out of foster care and end up on the street.
So I’m trying not to be afraid. I started the trip feeling awkward and unlike myself and I ended it the same way. But so much of the story is in its interpretation and I was starting to learn how to live in awkwardness. Seeing people, building communities, trying to meet people’s needs, asking for help: it’s all awkward! But you know what? There’s no sense fearing awkward. The Justice Conference, as it turns out, was meant for me and I think I’m ready now to throw off that terrible, scratchy wool cloak of fear and start running toward a more just world.