Thursday, May 8, 2014

What Can I Do?

The crisis continues as nearly 300 Nigerian schoolgirls, kidnapped from their dorm rooms, remain in the violent hands of a terrorist organization.  While it has been nearly a month, only now is the world grappling with the complexities of these young girls' fate and how to respond.  Our own country is finally asking, "how can we help bring these students safely home?"  But the answer to that question is extremely complex.  Many are calling for American military intervention...but we are also deeply aware of how problematic and imperialistic an armed military response may be.  Some are insisting the Nigerian government do more...but we do so without an awareness of how deeply entrenched this terrorist cell is within Nigeria and how difficult it will be to flush them out.

There are the lone rangers; people insisting that if you gave them a gun and ten minutes, they would free all the girls...despite their lack of knowledge of the geography or terrain or the climate.  There are the diplomats; folks who insist that they could negotiate or talk their way into getting terrorists to release these girls...as if one can reason with unhinged armed terrorists.  And as we continue, as a nation, to consider and discard ways that we can truly help to free these schoolchildren, ordinary folks are simply asking: "what can I do?"

I'm one of those people.  I have no allusions of being able to personally engage in a gun battle and I'm skeptical any time America sends troops into another country.  I recognize and respect Nigeria as a sovereign nation that must handle its own affairs, even as I know their government and military are broken.  So what can I, an American citizen thousands of miles from this conflict, do to help these girls?  How can I help end the violation of human rights in another country, without imposing my own narrow viewpoint?  How can I support my Nigerian brothers and sisters, without silencing their voices and agency?  As I've sat with these questions, I decided that there are things we can all do:

1) Work to create a culture of respect for black girls in America.  There is little value assigned to the lives of black girls in America, as well as globally.  We don't celebrate their beauty and accomplishments; we don't affirm their capacities and abilities.  In our patriarchal and white supremacist society, black girls are often the least and the last.  As a nation, we export our dominant standards of beauty and normativity; we uplift those groups and people that we value and we make them the face of a nation. The world knows that a nation protects and cherishes and defends that which it loves. When we insist on creating a culture of love and respect for black girls in America, we can export that respect throughout the world: we can take a stand and proclaim "black girls matter" everywhere when we make sure that black girls matter in our own backyards.

2) Work to create a safe environment for black girls in America to grow into adulthood.  When we engage in conversations about crime or the prison industrial complex or education, our conversations are driven by what is happening to boys.  And yet, black girls face unprecedented violence, harassment, disproportionate imprisonment rates, abuse, and neglect - much of which is not part of the grand narrative we tell about racism and inequity in this country.  What are we doing to make the lives of black girls safe in America?  What are we doing to make sure that they can safely reach adulthood? While we are grateful that black girls are not being stolen from their dorm rooms in the United States, we cannot remain silent when they are being shot in their living rooms or on front porches.

3) Work to expand resources for black girls in America to thrive and compete in a global market.  Nigeria has one of the most highly educated populations in the world. The schoolchildren kidnapped from their dorms were there to take final exams; most of them had sat for a physics exam prior to their abduction. The socio-economic and racial reality of life in America is that the vast majority of black girls in this country will not attend schools that prepare them for physics or engineering.  And while black girls and women are graduating from high school and college at very high rates, they are still earning far less than white men and white women for the same work.  Black girls are systematically discouraged from pursuing STEM fields; they often don't have mentors or advisors who support their educational dreams; they must contend with the forces of both racism and sexism in their pursuit of an education. When we work to expand education and technological resources for black girls in this country, whole communities are transformed and thrive because of it.

4) Donate time, energy, financial resources to local and global organizations that understand the rights of women and children are human rights.  When girls are subjected to sexual slavery, forced marriage, child marriage, unregulated labor, and denied an education, they are experiencing abuses of their fundamental human rights and they are being stripped of human dignity.  Access to a quality education, reproductive rights, and marriage rights are as crucial to girls thriving as are fresh air, clean water, and nutritious food. We must support those organizations, both in this country and globally, working to ensure that girls have freedom to make choices about their futures.

I believe in a God who loves and cares for the "least of these," a God who is always on the side of the oppressed, a God who calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves, and a God who hears the prayers of the broken...so I will continue to pray.  And while I pray, I will work for the safety and protection of the most vulnerable among us.  What can I do?  I can value, love, protect, nurture, advocate for, fight on behalf of all the black girls in my life and in this country - knowing that their lives matter both here and abroad.  If we want black girls to matter in Nigeria, we have to make sure that black girls matter right here in America.

© Yolanda Pierce

Friday, May 2, 2014

Bring Back Our Daughters

They had returned to the school to sit for a physics exam.  Knowing teenagers, I imagine that among the group, there were those who had studied hard for their final exams and others who were just happy to be back with their friends after the school had closed earlier in the year. Were they all asleep when the terrorists came in the middle of the night?  What were they dreaming about when armed men stormed their dorm rooms?  Were some of them still awake, catching up on the latest news with cherished friends? Were they the first to catch sight of the weapons aimed at them, to hear the angry voices shouting at them?

While forced into waiting vehicles under the cover of darkness, I can only imagine their feelings of terror and anguish: cries for beloved parents and family members...fear for best friends separated during the chaos...the anguish of imaging what is to come.  In a span of moments, over 200 schoolgirls filled with hopes, dreams, laughter, and promise are ripped from the places and people they love.  It has been over two weeks. A few have managed to escape, but the fate of far too many others is being determined at the hands of their abductors.

Despite the language being used by various media outlets, these young girls are not "brides" and they are not being sold into "marriage."  Girls who are kidnapped and forced to convert are not entering into a nuptial contract.  They are prisoners of war being trafficked into human bondage, while the world watches and does very little. Real Nigerian weddings are joyous celebrations, filled with ceremony, ritual, food, and dancing.  Terrorists who kidnap schoolchildren are not eager bridegrooms entering into the joys of marriage; they are criminals exploiting the most vulnerable members of society.

Bring back our daughters...daughters who love to laugh and sing...daughters who still enjoy snuggling on their mothers' laps...daughters who ace their physics exams....daughters who like to gossip and text with their friends late into the night...daughters who dream of college and studying abroad...daughters who have a crush on the neighbors' son...daughters who dance in front of the mirror at home...daughters who love and are beloved.

These Nigerian girls are our daughters; black girls everywhere are our daughters and their lives matter. We are commanded to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, so may we do for these Nigerian children what we would do if 234 girls from Germany or Spain or Ireland were kidnapped from their dorm rooms - turn the world upside down until they are found.

© Yolanda Pierce

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Black Girls Matter

Every day, for the past two weeks, I have been scouring news outlets for more information concerning the Nigerian schoolgirls who were kidnapped from Chibok, Borno State.  The first few days of media coverage were only from international news sources, with wildly varying figures as to the numbers of girls who had been abducted by gunpoint from their school and how many had managed to escape.  Even now, two weeks after this horrific abduction, we still don't know the exact number: but some 150-200 girls were forcibly removed from the safety of their school and their anguished parents continue to search, wait, petition, and demand more information about their daughters.

I've been walking around in a fog trying to figure out why the American news media has been so silent about this act of terrorism.  When 33 Chilean miners were trapped and subsequently rescued, there was 24/7 American coverage of the story, including the "amusing" details of both wives and mistresses showing up to support the trapped miners.  The kidnapping of a 7 year old British girl, while vacationing with her parents in Portugal, is a regular American news item many, many years after her disappearance.  American media regularly covers all manner of international disasters, human interest stories, and news from abroad.  Every local media outlet I've read over the past two weeks has devoted prime space to covering the Britain royal family's tour to Australia, down to the detail of the color of Prince George's socks.

And yet, 200 or more kidnapped schoolgirls from Nigeria barely registers in the American mind.  When I tell people about this act of terrorism and ask them why it hasn't received more coverage, I have inevitably received two responses: a) "this kind of stuff happens all of the time in Africa" or b) "what can we do? Those girls have probably already been sold into slavery or trafficked."  The only think that breaks my heart more than the story of this kidnapping is this level of indifference and disregard for these black girls.  I am left to wonder time and time again: do black girls matter in this world?

Africa, as a continent, has more than its fair share of suffering, but that does not diminish the pain, anguish, and heartbreak experienced by the parents of these 200 or more Nigerian girls.  We cannot become so indifferent to the violence in any country or any community or neighborhood, that we are willing to dismiss the fact that an individual family grieves when a loved one is in pain or killed or kidnapped.  There is a father in Chibok who plans to dance at his daughter's wedding; there is a mother in Chibok who cries as she cooks her daughter's favorite meal.  Their pain is singular and cannot be dismissed because of the collective violence one group or nation may experience.

Secondly, it breaks me to see the easy acceptance on the part of some concerning the possible fate of these girls.  While sex trafficking, forced prostitution, and slavery are all too real, we cannot and should not accept that as inevitable.  Where is the military response in Nigeria against this terrorist group?  Where is the pressure from human rights organizations?  Why isn't there, two weeks after the fact, an accurate count of who is missing?  In other words, are our daughters so disposable that we can merely shrug and count it as a loss when they are violently kidnapped from the safety of their schools?  Are black girls such a cheap commodity that their lives can be quickly erased from the human balance sheet?  We cannot shrug our collective shoulders and simply proclaim "there's nothing we can do."  The forces of evil always win if we yield defeat before even stepping into the fray.

The lives of these young girls matter.  The lives of young black girls matter.  The grief and anguish of these parents is real.  Black pain and suffering is real.  We will be judged for our silence and our indifference to the pain of the "least of these."  Nigeria is our neighbor and these are also our daughters.  Let us not rest until they are safely home.

© Yolanda Pierce

Saturday, April 19, 2014

A Holy and Silent Saturday

In anticipation of a joyous Easter, churches are preparing for one of the busiest Sundays of the year. The parking lots will be filled and the pews will be overflowing. All are looking forward to the triumphant message of Easter morning: "He is risen." For Christians, those words stir something deep within our souls. It is an assurance that death has been defeated, our sins are forgiven, and a price has been paid for our pardon.

It is Holy Week and each day has a precious meaning. On Maundy Thursday, we remember the Last Supper of Jesus and his disciples.  On Good Friday, we turn our focus to the Passion of Christ and the suffering on the Cross. And on Easter Sunday, we declare the victory of the Risen Savior. But we often forget about Holy Saturday. In truth, our Saturday before Easter is a day filled with cooking and shopping. But I would argue that Holy Saturday is perhaps the most important day of this sacred week.

Holy Saturday is the silence of a period which straddles death and life; it is the silence of work done and yet unfinished. That silent and holy Saturday is the space between mourning and rejoicing; it is a time in which death has not yet been defeated, nor can victory be proclaimed. Holy Saturday is a time of doubt and unbelief. It is a time of a descent into hell.

I think most of us spend quite a bit of our time in this liminal space that Holy Saturday represents: struggling with doubt, struggling with hell on earth, and struggling with work insistent and yet unfinished. We live in the space of justice delayed and justice denied. We live in the space of dreams deferred and dreams deterred. We cannot declare defeat, nor can we declare victory. It is a time in which God feels absent or silent.

There is a ritual in services which commemorate Holy Saturday. It involves blowing out candles, extinguishing all the lights of the sanctuary, and then waiting in silence, but with great expectation, for the coming dawn. Sometimes there is an empty coffin present. It is a powerful worship experience to simply sit with death and all of the various representations of death: doubt, fear, loneliness, disbelief, and weariness. You know that the dawn will come, that the lights will be turned back on, and the candles re-lit. But sitting in the silence of Holy Saturday prepares your heart for a resurrection and a rebirth.

Perhaps this is all that faith is: an assurance that even when things are at their dimmest, light will surely come and illuminate the darkness. Even in the silence, a voice can speak words of comfort.  Even in the presence of death, a new circle of life has already begun. There is no triumph without death; there is no victory without the grave. And so, during Holy week and throughout our lives, we wait in the silence and in the stillness to hear the voice that says to us in the midnight hour: "be still and know that I am God." Risen, indeed!

© Yolanda Pierce

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Arrogance and Privilege, Not Just Fear

I've struggled with language to express how my mind is connecting the latest wave of racist murders in our country. The names of Jordan Davis and Renisha McBride and Trayvon Martin keep ringing in my ears...their stories, their families, their potential. People keep describing their murders as part of a culture of fear - fear of black bodies; fear of black teenagers; fear of the "other." And while that is certainly part of the case, I keep thinking that these particular murders, and so many like them, are about the age old issue of black folks daring to step out of place, daring to step outside of the narrow racial boxes in which we are supposed to exist.

How dare this kid walk around this gated community ignoring me?  He's stepped out of his place...he's not supposed to be here.

How dare this woman come knock on my front door?  She's stepped out of her place...she's not supposed to be here.

How dare this boy not turn off his music when I told him it was too loud? He's stepped out of his place...he's supposed to do what I told him.

Underlying these racist murders is an attitude of arrogance and privilege, not just fear.  It is sheer arrogance to assume that because you don't like the volume and genre of someone's music, they are obliged to turn it down. And it is even more arrogant to act from paternalistic motivation, getting a gun to shut down their music because you weren't "going to ask for favors anymore."  Arrogance insists that you teach a "thug" a lesson, instead of common sense that would simply keep it moving when confronted with something you don't like.

We cannot talk about the larger culture's fear of black people and black bodies without talking about the privilege and the arrogance that also accompanies that fear.  It is privilege that causes you to patrol neighborhoods trying to decide who you feel "belongs" and who you feel is an "outsider."  And it is from arrogance and privilege that you dare to question, interrogate, and kill those you deem as outsiders and interlopers, as if somehow you had the right and authority to control the movements of other law-abiding citizens.

The questions that are posed in the killings of Martin, McBride and Davis reveal this arrogance and privilege when you decode the actual subtext of the interrogation:

Question: why wasn't he home at that time of night or what was she doing that late at night? Subtext: black folks should just stay in the house and not dare to walk the streets.

Question: why didn't he just listen when he was asked where he was going or when he was asked to turn down the music? Subtext: black folks have to respond and obey when white folks speak to them.

Question: why was the music so loud or why was she out partying?  Subtext: black teenagers can't behave like other teenagers, who are allowed to live, breathe, and grow even if they make mistakes.

It's important to me to talk about arrogance and privilege, not just fear, because that same arrogance and privilege undergirds the daily racist acts and microagressions people of color experience on a regular basis. We are constantly confronted with the literal and figurative questions of: do you belong here? Are you stepping outside of your place? Are you daring to speak and challenge dominant authority?

Unless we wrestle with the causes and repercussions of racist arrogance and privilege, we will continue to throw our hands up in shock and surprise whenever another unarmed child or teenager is shot by a gun-wielding murderer who was supposedly "in fear of his life."  We need to decode that "fear" for the arrogance and privilege it actually is.

© Yolanda Pierce

Saturday, December 14, 2013

An Advent Reflection on Being Fully Human

I'm glad for all the scholars, pastors, and lay people who can so easily debunk the continuing myth of the whiteness of Jesus.  It's a tired conversation that frustrates me; that in 2013, there are those who call themselves Christians and have no idea about the origins of the Christ in which they believe.  In 2013, there are people who are content to be ignorant about someone they claim is their God and Savior. There is nothing but white supremacy at work when we continue to insist - despite scriptural, archaeological, and historical evidence to the contrary - that a first-century Jewish man, born into an Afro-Asiatic culture, who wandered the desert for his entire ministry, would have pale white skin, blond hair, and blue eyes.

But it is most especially during the Advent season that I am frustrated with our inability to come to terms with the historical, social, and physical context of Jesus. These details matter, if we are Christians who stake our hope on the birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  It matters most profoundly that Emmanuel, God with us, was fully human and fully humane.

The Christ child was born through the messy, bloody, and painful birthing process through which we all made our appearance into the world. The Christ child was nursed at the breast of an unwed teenage mother; she, and perhaps other women, would suckle the precious infant through his first few years of life.  The Christ child would have cried and laughed; played and slept; ate and drank.  In other words, the birth and early life of Jesus was as ordinary and human in its scope, as the birth and early life of any other child born in his time and place.  He was born into a culture, a people, a distinctive ethnic group, a community, a family, a faith system, a setting, and an environment that was utterly contextual and specific.

When we remove the context in which Christ was born, when we try to strip away the ethnicity or faith system or family setting in which he was reared and developed, we strip away the fullness of Christ's humanity. And if there is no humanity with Christ, then there is no hope that any of us, fully human, can ever live and walk as Christ lived and walked.

We can affirm the particularity of the environment into which Christ was born even as we can rejoice in the universality of the message that Christ represents.  And that is the radical message of the gospel: that we can be in relationship with the Divine, without stripping away any of our particularities...we can be exactly as God made us, in the fullness of our racial or ethnic or familial or communal context.  Long before the world knew Jesus as Christ, he was Mary's baby...fully human, though no less divine.

© Yolanda Pierce

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

An Advent Reflection For Those Who Are Afraid

For many Christian communities, the Annunciation - or the visit of the angel Gabriel to Mary - is a cause for celebration.  Mary is told that she will miraculously bear the Christ child; she has been favored and blessed above all others. But I aways pause in the story when the angel attempts to reassure Mary with the words "do not be afraid," or as other translations render it: "fear not."

What if we take seriously the idea that Mary was, in fact, afraid...that the angel's words are not simply ones of mere reassurance but acknowledgement that anyone in this circumstance would be in fear.  Afraid of the unknown angel who appears to her without warning; afraid that she would be ostracized and shunned for being pregnant and unmarried; afraid of the very process whereby she would be "overshadowed" and impregnated.  Mary is not presented with a choice of bearing the Christ child; a decision has already been made on her behalf.  Can we imagine the fear of a young girl, born and reared in the country, greeted by an unknown figure who tells her that she will be the God-bearer?

Before we rush to the celebration of the annunciation, I am reminded of all those who are afraid by the news that greets them; I want to remember all those who live in fear of life circumstances that may not be of their choice.  My thoughts this Advent season are with the 22,000 homeless children in New York, afraid that the shelters will be full and there will be no place for them to sleep.  My thoughts are with the parents whose minimum wage paying jobs can barely cover the bills, afraid that they won't be able to provide food this winter, let alone toys.  My thoughts are with the victims of domestic violence, afraid that the drinking of this festive season will lead to more abuse.

Perhaps God has chosen, even in this story of blessing and favor, to remember those who daily walk with fear: fear of the unknown road; fear of what the future holds; fear of failure; fear of insufficiency for the tasks that lie ahead; fear that basic needs like food, clothing, and shelter can be met.  Yes, Mary was blessed and highly favored.  Yes, Mary received an honor above all young women.  But Mary, fully human, would have known fear, doubt, uncertainty and confusion.  She knew and experienced fear at the blessed event of the Annunciation, just as she would know and experience fear at the Crucifixion.

Our blessed assurance during this Advent season is not that we won't ever be afraid...our blessed assurance is that even in moments of fear, doubt, and uncertainty, we can be bold enough to ask God, "how can this be?"

© Yolanda Pierce