Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Drawing Hope From Hate: Thoughts on Charlottesville

Meet Marvin Strombo, pictured right. In 1944, Strombo was a U.S. Marine fighting in Saipan when he took a calligraphy-covered silk flag from the pocket of a fallen enemy soldier. Allied troops frequently took these flags from the bodies of their enemies as souvenirs.

For years, that flag hung in Strombo's home in a glass-fronted gun cabinet. In 2012, through a chain of events, Strombo was connected to a non-profit organization called the Obon Society. This humanitarian group works to provide opportunities for reconciliation by helping return Japanese battlefield souvenirs, taken during WWII, to the families of fallen soldiers. With their help, Strombo learned that the flag he had taken all those years ago belonged to Yasue Sadao.

Strombo also learned that Yasue's surviving siblings had questions about how and where their brother had died. Most Japanese families never learned details of how their loved ones died or ever received their remains, enabling them to properly grieve. So Strombo did something remarkable.

At age 93, he traveled 10,000 miles to return the flag and provide answers to the family of his former enemy. This courageous act had the power to bring about reconciliation of former enemies and help a family find healing from the pain of their past. You can read this powerful story in its entirety here.

As I've processed the hate-filled and tragic events of last weekend, I've felt something odd: Hope. For the first time in a long time, I feel hopeful that we are going to get the opportunity to forge reconciliation across barriers that have been in place for decades - just as Marvin Strombo has done. It's hard to look hate in the face and not feel compelled to change it.

Please don't hear me discounting the pain and anger that many are feeling - those feelings are fully justified and right. I've surely wrestled through a lot of what others are feeling over the last 16 years as a wife to an African-American man and mother to five brown-skinned children (and in all honesty, I've probably handled it less gracefully than many of you are doing right now).

The reason I feel hopeful in the midst of this hate and tragedy is that I see Charlottesville as a turning point. It feels like we've been going back and forth for years about whether the U.S. still truly has a problem with racism. Different sides have different perspectives based on their own life experiences.

When we feel sick and don't know what's wrong, we seek a diagnosis. Last weekend felt like a diagnosis. And once you get a diagnosis you can get started with treatment. Charlottesville showed us all that America does indeed have a problem with racism. Now that we can all agree that there is a problem, we can begin working on creating solutions to the problem together.

Reconciliation is a difficult and courageous journey that always comes with a cost, but I think it's time to take action in order to move our country forward. We can't pass this broken legacy on to our children without at least attempting to set some things right while we're still here. Maybe we won't travel 10,000 miles like Marvin Strombo did, but it's time to start taking some steps to set some things right.

I have a lot of thoughts on solutions and strategies moving forward and I'm working on a follow-up blog post to keep this one from getting any longer. However, if you live locally, we are hoping to facilitate a few first steps this coming weekend.

My husband and I are making ourselves available to pray and continue dialogue. If you're around Saturday morning, we will be praying from 7:30-8:30 and staying around to talk from 8:30-9:30 in downtown Staunton (Location TBD). We will also be available on Sunday morning from 7:30-8:30 at Staunton Hardees (also downtown) and at 9 my husband will be speaking at Staunton Alliance Church on what the church can do practically to enact change.

I know these are only small steps, but my prayer is that this is only the beginning of lasting change in our city and beyond. Hope to see you there!

Saturday, March 18, 2017

No More WIC Cheese: A call to my Christian family

I've had these song lyrics stuck in my head the last few days. 

"Born sinner, the opposite of a winner. Remember when I used to eat WIC cheese for dinner." - Thi'sl 

Some of you may be familiar with my story or you may have read a previous post I wrote to my oldest daughter Telijah. God allowed me to endure some difficult years that have given me a window into the struggles of some of the most disadvantaged in our communities. The song lyrics above have been stuck in my head because I, too, remember eating WIC cheese for dinner. 

I've been working through some tough emotions these last few days after learning that our current administration made a move to cut funding for the Community Development Block Grant. This grant funds programs like WIC (supplemental nutrition for pregnant women, infants and children), Meals on Wheels, school nutrition programs and after-school care. Hopefully you'll hear my heart and know I'm not looking to enter into the current social media feud over politics. I am simply hoping this post might compel my Christian friends to action and perhaps serve as a way to help my friends who have never had need of programs like WIC or welfare to put a face on this issue. My face.

As a young single-mother, I fought to break free from the bondage of the welfare system. This meant working over 40 hours weekly at a job that didn't pay a living wage. It meant refusing to take a social worker's advice to quit my job and return to full public assistance when I couldn't pay my heating bill. It meant depending on help from others - like a supervisor who generously helped me pay for childcare or a friend who paid to have my car fixed when the heater core went bad in the dead of winter. It also meant taking advantage of programs like WIC to purchase healthy foods when I couldn't afford to buy any without the food stamps I once depended on. There were many nights that those WIC cheese sandwiches kept us from going to bed hungry. 

I understand the need to regulate and even cut government spending and I'm fully in agreement with that. I believe our welfare system is a broken system in desperate need of reform. I also believe that poverty and aging are complex issues that can't be fixed by a government or grants. However, cutting funding to these programs would be detrimental to individuals and families in our communities who need help the most. This Block Grant serves as a safety net and without it our impoverished and elderly neighbors are left to free-fall if nothing is done in its place. 

As a Christian, I don't place my hope in our government to care for the impoverished and elderly. Because of passages like Proverbs 31:8-9, Isaiah 1:17 and Luke 10:25-37, I believe followers of Jesus Christ have a call to do more than pay taxes and show up at church on Sunday. Jesus asks us to mimic what He modeled in the Incarnation by getting personally involved in the lives of others. That doesn't mean He's calling us to die, but He is calling us to get involved. Jesus calls His followers to personally sacrifice for the flourishing of others. Our pastor says this is the definition of love.

It feels as if we have come to a crossroads of sorts. If these families and individuals - who Jesus describes as our neighbors - may be left without food and vital support then perhaps this is an opportunity for us. I don't pretend to have all the answers, but I do want to encourage us to spend time in prayer asking God what He's calling each of us to do to see our neighbors flourish. Some of these neighbors will be in our churches and thankfully we can surround them with support within that family. However, others will be in our communities without the support of a church family. Who will catch them if their safety-net is removed?

Perhaps God will call you to rally around your neighbors by donating to some of these groups who will be losing their funding. Maybe He will ask you to find ways to individually support people you know who will be affected. Perhaps He will even ask you to lead the charge in your church or community. I have had the privilege of seeing our church rally around specific areas of need in our city like young families, foster care and adoption and supporting public schools. It's a beautiful thing to see the local expression of the church coming together the way God intended. 

I've had the honor of a front-row seat to see a community unite in various ways to support teenage mothers and their children. I've also seen collective support across our country for ministries working to fight against human trafficking, homelessness and many other great causes. It is my prayer that in a similar manner, Christ's church in our country will come together to care for those who will find themselves in need if this Block Grant is cut. This is a great opportunity to love our neighbors. May we rise to the challenge.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Wrestling Through Last Week: A Letter To My Friends

Dear American friends,

I'm so grateful that God has allowed me the gift of a diverse group of people I call friends. I find culture and ethnicity beautiful. I love trying new foods and learning new cultural customs. I love to travel and see similarities and differences in varying geographical locations and peoples. However, because of these diverse relationships and experiences, I feel extremely torn by where we find ourselves as a nation. I wish I could gather you all together in my living room for a talk. A talk that ends like this:


Since we're not at a place where we can meet in the middle just yet, I wrote each of you a letter. I pray you will take time to hear my heart and then join me in working towards the middle so we can all hug and pray for concilation in the near future. This is not the legacy or reality any of us want to leave for our children. 

To my white friends, will you please help me say that black lives do matter? #BlackLivesMatter became a hashtag and subsequently a movement because my black friends were trying to express that they didn't feel like others believed that.

They were never trying to say that other lives don't matter and it was never meant to equate to police lives don't matter. My friends just wanted to hear from us that their lives matter. And guess what? They're still waiting to hear us say it with both words and actions.

What if we told a black co-worker or neighbor how sad we felt when watching the video of a 4-year-old comforting her distraught mother after witnessing the shooting death of her father? What if we told them that it was heartbreaking to see another black life ended...without waiting for all the "facts" of the case?

The world around my brown-skinned friends is screaming that their lives don't have the same value or worth as ours. This is a voice they have heard for hundreds of years and its sting hasn't diminished with time. We may not ever understand what it's like to live in brown skin, but can we listen to their experiences and seek to learn from them? Can we do this without having to justify with "facts" or point out areas of brokenness in their culture?

 I have seen first-hand the different treatment and limited opportunities for my friends with brown skin. I know that systemic injustice is a real thing. I see that my mere birth and cultural heritage (privileges I didn't get to choose) put me in a starting place that my friends of color have to fight to reach. THIS IS WRONG. We need to affirm that non-white lives matter equally by standing with our brothers and sisters in solidarity and by using our platforms of privilege to push for change and equality.

Dr. King said, "The time is always right to do what is right." Friends, it's time to do what is right. What would happen if, instead of arguing or defending, we simply listened and wept? I believe healing would happen and dividing walls would fall. Let's build bridges for change. (**If you're feeling tempted to argue any of these points, I'd refer you to a great book by Michelle Alexander called The New Jim Crow. If you'd like to dialogue about it, I'd love the opportunity to do so AFTER you've read that book.**)

To my black friends, your brown skin and culture is beautiful and your lives DO matter. I hate to do this because I know you feel exhausted, but I need to ask you for a favor. Can you be gracious with us as we figure this out? This is not another stall tactic, but a genuine request for grace. Some of us are really trying to figure out what it looks like to stand with you and we need your help with this.

Many of my white friends have expressed wanting to speak out in your support but have held back for fear of offending or hurting you further. They are also trying to navigate what it looks like to grieve Alton Sterling and Philando Castile while also grieving the police officers who were senselessly murdered in Dallas. Many of my white friends and family just don't know what it's like to be brown. Can you help us understand? Can you help me initiate meeting in the middle and would you be willing to share your stories?

I know your voice has been silenced in the past, but your stories need to be heard. I want to help with that. Can we meet to pray together and formulate plans of action as brothers and sisters of one race with different ethnic and cultural backgrounds?

I need to address one more thing. I know some of you are ready to dismiss the way of non-violence and fight for equality and justice another way. My heart breaks as I see you posting about it on social media. Please don't go this route. I know you are tired of waiting. I am too. Let's link arms and take up non-violent measures to see change come. It's the better way. I'm grateful for what having a brown husband, children and friends has taught me and I'm doing everything I can to gather people to listen to you and stand with you. Your lives matter to the God who made you in his beautiful image and they matter to me. Please know, I weep with you and I stand with you. Change is coming.

To my friends in law enforcement, thank you for what you do. I know you feel like you're under attack and rightfully so. I want you to know that I value the work that good police officers are doing and I'm grateful to spouses and children who sacrifice so much to support their loved ones in this line of work.

You have a difficult and often thankless job. My conversations over the last year with LEO's and wives of officers have helped me see how hard all of this is for you. I know some of you want to quit because you feel unappreciated and villainized. Please hear my sincere "thank you" and my plea to continue working to keep us safe and to bring people who harm citizens and communities to justice.

We need you for society to function and we want your help. Can we work together to build bridges in our community and to get you better resources to do your jobs well? I have seen heartwarming stories of standout officers and have met at least two in our community who have gone above and beyond to care for and fight for justice for people of color (along with all citizens). I want to commend the officers who are putting themselves in harm's way to make a difference. Please don't let the protests make you want to quit. We need good officers like you. You are the key to community engagement and healing. Let's work together to build stronger community relationships that would lead to less polarization and more unity on both sides. 

To my Christian friends, we have work to do. We are a group of people united across cultural, ethnic and socioeconomic lines by a common faith, yet we still segregate ourselves on Sunday mornings. If unity could happen anywhere, it should be with us. We are content with being the black church and the white church when we are called to be THE church. This breaks my heart. Christ has already done the work of reconciliation between man and God and in our relationships with one another.

Why do we allow cultural preferences to divide us and refuse to walk in the finished work of Christ? Will it be hard? Yes. Will the work of concilation be messy? Of course. But it's worth it. Let's take the lead in the unifying of our nation and be the beautiful, multicultural church God made us to be. Let's do what Jesus asked of us...love our neighbors as ourselves. Can we start by meeting to pray about all of this? Prayer will be the foundation of the change we desire. Your house or mine?

I want to leave you with two great resources as you pray about your next steps. First, there is a movement that started this year called The AND Campaign. This group was founded by urban Christian leaders that are taking action similar to the #BlackLivesMatter movement but from a gospel-centered perspective. I encourage you to check them out at this link and support them with your time, talents and treasures: http://theandcampaign.com/#campaignhome. Second, here's a video by DA Horton that would be a great starting point for our conversation and time of prayer. It would mean a lot to me if you'd take time to watch this and let me know when you want to meet to start praying: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KIZThiaXyy.

To all my friends, "slacktivism" accomplishes nothing. Screaming at one another behind computer screens only serves to further divide us. I don't know about you, but I feel exhausted from watching the news and arguments on my social media feeds. Let's turn everything off and just love one another. We don't need a national platform to be part of change (although if you have that, I'd love to talk to you). We simply need to reach out to our neighbors who look or live differently from us and start a friendship. It's harder to stereotype when your life experiences have taught you otherwise. It's so much harder to polarize when you can put a face on an issue. Mother Teresa said, "If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other." Let's try to remember that and work to love our neighbors, especially those who are different from us, like they belong to us.

Let's start the conversation, friends, and then let's move from talking to doing. There is much work to do, but change is possible. We cannot stay where we are. I look forward to hearing from you.

Grace and peace,


Saturday, July 9, 2016

#AltonSterling, #PhilandoCastile, #Dallas: Where Do We Go From Here?

I've been wrestling through a lot of emotions lately. I find it helpful sometimes to share those emotions with others through this blog. I've been trying to compose something for a few days, but have been having trouble.

On July 5th, I wanted to write about the value of black life - a topic I have shared about before - but it was hard to find the words to describe the feelings I felt after watching the shocking video of Alton Sterling being shot. It literally took my breath away.

On July 6th, after watching a second horrific video of a police officer shooting of a black male in front if his 4-year-old daughter and girlfriend, I wanted to write again but just couldn't put words to my emotions.

On July 7th, I watched in horror as news unfolded about the brutal murder of police officers in Dallas. Again, I had no words. Anything I could have said at those times was already being shared by people far more eloquent than me anyway.

Yesterday, as I drove home from a meeting, I passed a man standing on a corner holding a cardboard sign. It simply said "Practice non-violence." As I rolled past and read it, I couldn't figure out how to respond. I didn't feel like a thumbs-up or wave could convey my understanding and agreement. I, too, wanted the violence to stop and had been feeling like I just had to do something. But what? I was thinking about it as I drove the remaining blocks home.

As I pulled onto our street, a young African American male was walking down the sidewalk. As he walked, he was rapping along with whatever was in his earbuds with much emotion using correlating hand gestures (not an uncommon sight in our neighborhood). Then, the strangest thing happened. I felt the urge to stop my vehicle right there and get out and just give him a big hug. Now, for those of you who might be worried...I didn't do it. Not because I didn't want to, but because I thought he might think I was crazy. I'm sure that's what I would have felt if some random lady jumped out of her car and blindsided me with a hug for no reason.

As I parked and he walked on down the street, I just sat and cried. I desperately wanted that young man to know I wasn't afraid of his blackness. I wanted him to see that this white lady saw him as a young man made in God's beautiful image and not as a threat. I felt compelled to show him that white people aren't all the same and not all of us view him through a lens of fear or hatred. I wanted him to know that I, too, was grieving the loss of more precious black lives. But how could I convey that to a stranger?

I've also thought a lot about the people I know in law enforcement. I haven't always lived my life on the right side of the law. As a juvenile and young adult, I had some negative experiences with law enforcement and it has taken me years and relationships with real people to see that LEO's are people too. I know not all of them are the same and for all the officers who have racist ideas or who wield their power in an unjust way, there are many other officers who are working tirelessly to help their communities and keep people of all ethnicities and backgrounds safe. I know my old friends and many people in my neighborhood don't share this point of view, but I'm grateful for what those relationships have taught me. I want my friends in the law enforcement community to know that I am heartbroken at what happened in Dallas and what we're starting to see in other states. Their lives are also made in God's image and precious and I do appreciate the great work that so many officers risk their lives to do each day.

These relationships I've been privileged to have with people in both groups have given me a different and maybe unique perspective. It's harder for me to polarize- or separate people into stereotypical groups- because I have been gifted with real relationships with real people. So as I think about where to go from here, I want to leave you with an idea and an opportunity if you are local.

1. Relationships are the key to coming together as one. So, while I wouldn't recommend jumping out of your car to hug strangers, I would recommend engaging people different from ourselves in meaningful dialogue and friendships. Maybe it starts with an intentional warm smile or conversation with a stranger. Maybe it looks like inviting a co-worker with a different cultural background over for dinner. Maybe it looks like some of the beautiful acts of kindness I've read about in the news like the African American man giving Dallas police officers cold drinks while they worked or people who are not African American standing alongside black friends and neighbors demanding change (even if the injustice they see doesn't impact them directly). Can we each go out of our way to disarm one another with love? Can we each make it a priority to intentionally engage someone who looks or thinks differently from us? Whether we do it with a kind word or action, a listening ear or peaceful protest, can we just come together and do something?

2. If you live in our community, I have an opportunity for you to do just that. It's super short notice, but Chris and I will be at the Hardees in downtown Staunton at 9 in the morning. We are praying that some of you will make an effort to meet with us there to start this conversation. I would love to see that conversation move from Hardees to a larger venue where we can invite more people in to dialogue and find a middle ground with us. We're also inviting people to join us at our church afterward. I personally believe that the church has a message that can unite us regardless of our ethnic or cultural backgrounds and want to be part of change that begins within the church. You are invited to come and begin that process with us.

We are just two people from two culturally different backgrounds, but we (like that wonderful man with the cardboard sign) feel like we have to do something. Change happens when people are uncomfortable enough with where things are to take action to move to a different reality. I think we can at least agree that we are all hurting and grieving the unnecessary loss of precious lives in our country this week and something must change. Together, we have the power to make that happen. I hope you will join us.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Thank you, little girl: A letter to my "unplanned" child

I never could have imagined as I flipped through the pages of that fetal development book how you would impact my life. I still remember the shock and fear I felt when I learned I was pregnant. Some feelings and memories don't fade with time. I also remember the determination I gained when I learned that you had a beating heart and were a living being. The advice of others to end your life fell on deaf ears after that day in the university library.

I didn't have a plan, but I knew that you were my child and I would fight for you. I didn't always get it all right, but God has carried us through. I never would have imagined myself where I am today and a lot of that change I owe to you. You changed me, little girl, and I am grateful that you did. Becoming a mother forced me to grow up and take responsibility for not only your life but my own.

Some said I was throwing away my future by dropping out of college to become a mother. It's true, my decision to keep you did cost me a college education and did change my future, but that other future was never mine anyway. Being your mom is worth far more than anything I lost in this process. This journey has taught me more than I could ever learn from a professor or book. It wasn't a loss, but a gain.

So I'm writing this on your seventeenth birthday to say thank you, sweet girl. Thank you for interrupting the life I thought I wanted, to give me the life I was made for. Our struggle not only birthed a baby but a determination that other young moms wouldn't have to walk the same road I did. God wrote you into my story to teach me that I couldn't do life on my own, but desperately needed his help. Don't ever believe for a minute that you were an accident. He planned you all along.

As I reflect on the struggles and joys, I want you to know that it was all worth it. Every struggle and every perceived loss. I don't have any regrets in my decision. You are more than I could have ever asked for and I am so proud of the woman you are becoming. I'm grateful that God pens our stories far more beautifully than we ever could. I'm enjoying watching him write yours. Love you, Mama

Friday, December 12, 2014

Broken Pieces: Thoughts on suffering on the anniversary of a friend's death.

A wise woman told me this week that "the broken pieces of our story is where the light shines through."

Fourteen years ago, today, my life and worldview were smashed into pieces by the tragic murder of a friend. The English language is devoid of words to describe that experience (and several other things I have faced in the years since), but this anniversary I feel prompted to share some thoughts about it.

Life is a teacher. We can choose to ignore her or to learn from her. Here are some things that life and suffering have taught me over the years:

  1. You will make it through. In times of deep suffering and struggle in my life, I have questioned whether I was strong enough to survive. It's pretty evident by the fact that I'm writing this that I did. The reality, though, is that I wasn't strong enough to survive those things. God carried me through them and sent people to care for me when I was unable to care for myself. He is our strength in our times of weakness. 
  2. You are not alone. One thing that has remained constant in very different scenarios of suffering in my life is the presence of God. He truly is near to the brokenhearted. I have never felt closer to Him than in times of suffering and pain. That fellowship is the thing that has carried me through experiences that no human being can comfort. 
  3. God can use your pain to help others. I love John Piper's book and often used quote, "Don't waste your life." When he had cancer, he wrote another book called "Don't Waste Your Cancer." In that same line of thinking, I don't want to waste my pain. One of the beautiful things about our suffering is that God can use it as a platform from which to speak into the hearts of other hurting people. That has brought me great comfort as I look back over the painful parts of my story. God loves to use us in His work in the lives of other broken people like ourselves. Our pain doesn't have to be wasted. 
  4. Suffering is part of the sanctification process for Christians. No book could ever teach me what I've learned from seasons of suffering. In the end, it has made me who I am today. As much as I didn't want to go through any of it, I know I am better for it and closer to God because of it. In many ways, it has solidified my theology. As Christians, our hearts long to be more like Jesus. As hard as it is to say, we become more like Him and know Him more intimately as we enter into suffering as He did.
  5. Jesus came to make an end to our suffering. This is something I cling to when I can't understand why God is allowing suffering in my life or the lives of people I love. A good God can't look on suffering and turn His back. We see Jesus in John 11, weeping at the death of his friend Lazarus. Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God, so we know how God responds to suffering from Jesus' response. This life passes in the blink of an eye but there is an eternity waiting where those who put their hope in Jesus' finished work on the cross can rest in the promise of Revelation 21:4. A day is coming where He will wipe every tear and make the wrong things right. 
I hope this post will be an encouragement to someone who is suffering. You can make it through whatever you're facing and your suffering has a purpose. God really does use the broken pieces of our story for ourselves and for those around us. Even if you are not able to see that today, I pray He will bring you to that place.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Tears, anger, and prayers for change: My thoughts on Ferguson

Tonight I sit by my sweet, brown-skinned boy as he sleeps and just cry. Not one of those nice, controlled cries, but a weeping that comes from deep within your soul that you cannot describe with words. I used to try to fight my tears, but you can't hold that type of emotion inside and be healthy.

As deep as my emotions are running, I cannot imagine the type of grieving that Michael Brown's mother is doing tonight. I cannot conceive of the fact that a group of mothers are weeping in unison with her because they understand her pain. It leads my mind to Jeremiah 31:15. There is no comforting a mother in this. 

Everything in me wants to wake my boy from his sleep just to tell him that he matters. I feel desperate to remind him that his skin doesn't define who he is. I want to tell him again that he is made in the image of God and has value and worth despite what is communicated to him by the world around him. I just sit and hold him and weep as I listen to him breathe.

My tears feel hot, but not hotter than my face has become, and I realize that I am angry. I want to scream at the injustice of the world we live in. I want to fight against anyone who would dare to call my boy a "thug" or "monkey" (words I have read in the media recently to describe brown-skinned boys like him). I want to yell that he wants to be a scientist or engineer, not a drug dealer. I want to rage at the thought of women clutching their purses at the sight of him. He is not a threat, he's my child. I want to make people understand that he is a human being. Just like every young man pictured above. But I can't.

I feel helpless. I know my anger won't change anything and my attempts to justify my views are futile. I pray that this post will escape the sight of those who feel the need to contend "facts" or recklessly throw out words like "race card" as if they would have an audience with me because of my white skin. Honestly, I'm all argued out and having to pray really hard not to be bitter or hateful.

I wish there were some easy answer, but if there were then change would have come already. The type of change we need isn't fueled by anger like the looting and burning in Ferguson and most of it happens outside of the view of news cameras. It begins with talks like the one that happened in my living room shortly after Michael Brown was killed. You can read more about that talk here.

I'm praying tonight that many more of those talks will be happening in the days to come - especially in the context of the church. I know I'm powerless to change things, but I can pray and do what I can to be part of the solution. If not, we'll just be back in this same place in a matter of months. And I cannot just sit here and wait for that day to come.