Wednesday, December 30, 2015

2015 Lowlights: Reflections On A Not So Very Good Year

The highlight reels of 2015 are everywhere. I’m watching my friends and family put together a “best of 2015” via pictures, videos, and song. And I am reliving their lives right along with them…babies and marriages and graduations and books and cross-country moves and all the things that make up life. It moves me to tears when I know the full story behind some of the images: the health threat of the now healthy infant; the setbacks that didn’t deter graduation; the marriage crisis that resulted in an even stronger union. The images may reflect the “happy” end result, but the stories behind the images are much more complicated.

2015 was not a good year for me. If I put together a highlight reel, it would showcase disappointment, rejection, loss, failure, betrayal, and grief. This year, my losses outweighed my gains and my sorrows outnumbered my joys. And I have to give myself permission to say this, raised as I was in a tradition that taught me to “count my blessings” but to ignore my pain. I fully acknowledge that every day brings something for which we can be grateful: food on the table; good health; shelter from the cold; or just the reality that we are alive one more day. But there are seasons of despair and grief…there are seasons in which we lament, as in Zechariah 13, that we have been “wounded in the house of a friend” and betrayed by those we love most.

As the year closes, I’m learning not to rush past this pain so that I can present a rosier view of my life. I don’t want to choose the images that only present me at my best or during my highs, when I know that the “lows” also make me who I am. The tears I have shed this year, even this very week, are a part of my essence. This year, I have truly doubted God’s love for me. I have cursed and raged against situations outside my control. I have allowed anger and unforgiveness to linger in my heart. The smiling selfie on all my social media pages and websites has more often been a façade than the truth. Moments of genuine joy, moments of feeling loved and cherished, have been few and far between. And yet…

I have witnessed the sunrise almost every morning of this year and I have sat in the peaceful stillness of the dawn, when all things feel possible. I have written words and spoken truths that I hope have encouraged others. I have loved others fiercely, even when my own cup was empty or that love was not returned. I have tried…and even when I failed, I have tried again. And maybe that is simply all any of us can do.

There is a vulnerability in admitting your lowlights, since we are taught to always put our best selves forward. We are taught to take a million selfies until we capture the perfect one that we wouldn’t mind sharing with the world – the perfect lighting, the perfect smile, the perfect pose, and the perfect backdrop all illuminating our “best side.” But maybe we should share that imperfect picture: the one where we look tired, or our bad side is showing, or our hair is a mess, or our smile is absent. Because if we shared those imperfect images of ourselves more often, someone else might know that he or she is not alone. You are not alone. Even when our images reflect the reality of disappointment and despair, we are still made in the likeness of God. 

©Yolanda Pierce

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Mary's Baby: Life Under Penalty of Death

For Christians celebrating the Christmas season, our eyes are fixed upon the Christ child, the tiny babe who is the incarnation of the Holy God. There is perhaps no more iconographic image in all of Christendom than that of the nativity scene: Mary tenderly holding the infant Jesus, while Joseph tenderly watches over them both. American culture particularly loves and worships the idea of babies, so the image of Mary and her infant child evokes deep feelings of religious devotion and pathos.

But while our country loves the abstract idea of an infant, we fail to truly deal with the realities of what it takes to raise a child into adulthood, especially for those already on the margins, like Mary's precious baby boy. We love cute babies, but not sustained conversation regarding the food, clothing, shelter, care, education, and sacrifices needed to rear that child from infancy to adulthood. I think that many of us embrace the Christmas story because it is about a baby and the iconic image of a tender infant in his mother’s arms. I wonder if we would embrace the Christmas story if we truly understood that it is as much about death as it is about life?

Until very recently, with the advent of modern medicine, there was a significantly high possibility that mother or child, or even both, would die in childbirth. And in many countries, this is still the case. There are far too many places, even in the United States, with high rates of infant mortality and/or mothers who die or experiencing life-altering complications after giving birth. Mary, a pregnant teenage girl, would have known of women who died while giving birth, perhaps even someone within her own family.

When the angel greets Mary with news of her impending pregnancy, he tells her to “fear not.” I wonder if Christians take seriously all of the fears that Mary may have had in light of this news. Was this news a death penalty as much as it was a proclamation of life? Will our Christmas carols sing of Mary's fears? Fear of being ostracized or even put to death because of her pregnancy; afraid of the pain and travail of childbirth; fear that her friends and families wouldn’t believe or support her; fear that neither she nor her child would even survive his birth. 

Unless we are ready to sit with death, we are not prepared to fully embrace the message of the birth of Christ. Jesus is a child born to die and his mother is a girl chosen to risk her very life to bring him into the world. There is no Christmas story without the shedding of Mary’s blood, the tearing of her tissues, and the breaking of her body, so that the Savior could be born.

This Christmas season, I am thinking about death and broken bodies. I am thinking about Sandra Bland’s death in a lonely jail cell; I am thinking about the 13 known victims of a police rapist; I am thinking about Tamir Rice’s family spending yet another holiday without him. I am thinking about Freddie Gray and Miriam Carey and Trayvon Martin and Tanisha Anderson and Mike Brown…and the list of so many others. It is Christmas and I am sitting with violent and brutal death in a way that seems more appropriate to the Easter Season than the Advent Season.

But maybe that’s what we need to do for Christmas. The same Mary who tenderly cradles the infant Jesus is the Mary of all the famous pietà images: the sorrowful mother holding the dead body of her crucified son. Did Mary cradle the infant Jesus and think to herself: “I am holding a child who is destined to die?”  

This Christmas, I am holding in prayer the countless black and brown mothers who will cradle their precious children on Christmas morning, wondering if their son or daughter will one day be a hashtag…destined to die before their time at the hands of extrajudicial violence. I am grieving with families for whom there have been no tidings of comfort and joy. I am mourning with those for whom race or social caste creates life under a penalty of death. And in the true spirit of the Advent season, I simply work and wait for justice. And even when justice has been long delayed, I will not lose hope in my belief that God is still with us.

©Yolanda Pierce

Friday, November 6, 2015

The Good Samaritan I: Battered, Broken, Bruised

The parable of the Good Samaritan is a biblical narrative that we love to deploy as evidence of our self-righteousness. The story is simple: a traveler is stripped, beaten, and left half dead on the side of the road. Two men come upon the man but refuse to help him. A third man, the “good Samaritan,” helps the injured traveler, despite the animosity that existed between the ethnic group of the Samaritan and that of the injured traveler. The moral of the story is that we must be like the Samaritan, willing to help others in their time of need, willing to see the “stranger” or the despised person as our neighbor.

But the Good Samaritan story deeply troubles me as I interpret it for our own time and context. Because too many of us imagine that we are the Good Samaritan and not enough of us imagine that we are the battered, bruised, and broken traveler on the side of the road.

There are 13 African American women in Oklahoma City who were sexually assaulted, raped, and abused by someone in authority, someone in whom the public places its trust. These women were specifically targeted because they were among the most vulnerable of our society: they were poor black women. Some had a history of drug addiction; some were former sex workers; one was only a teenage girl. They were specifically targeted because they were among the untouchable: who would care if these women were left battered on the side of the road? Who would care if these “outcasts” and sex workers and drug addicts were broken and bruised? After all, our society has proven again and again that black women and girls are among the despised and disposable people of our nation – their lives and the crimes committed against them often don’t warrant a mere mention on the evening news.

The trial of the Oklahoma City police officer charged with these horrendous crimes began on Monday, November 2nd. The accused has benefited from tremendous privilege since August 2014, when he was officially charged with these crimes. Once arrested, he was released on bail and was able to enjoy the comfort of his home while awaiting trial  despite being charged with 36 crimes including first-degree rape, sexual assault, indecent exposure, stalking, and burglary. He violated the terms of his house arrest once, but was still able to return home instead of occupying a jail cell. He subsequently violated the terms of his house arrest a second time. Now, over a year later, he is finally facing a jury for his crimes against 13 Black women. The jury consists of 8 white men and 4 white women.

I wonder if these 12 men and women can imagine what it feels like to be among the despised of the nation? I wonder if these 12 men and women have ever experienced life on the side of the road, among the marginalized and the dispossessed? Because if we are to take the Good Samaritan story seriously for our times, instead of a stranger coming to the rescue of an injured traveler, he’d more likely interrogate and demonize the traveler about the brutal injuries she sustained…

What were doing walking down the street by yourself? Because good women don’t travel by themselves.
Why were you wearing that outfit while traveling on this road? Because good women know that the clothes they wear make a difference in whether they are raped.
Did you smoke any weed or drink any alcohol before getting on the road? Because good women know that anyone who drinks or smokes deserves to be assaulted.
I heard you were a sex worker, is that why you were by yourself on this road? Because good women know that sex workers can’t actually ever say no.
Why didn’t you immediately call for help or report your injuries if someone actually did assault you on the side of the road? Because good women wouldn’t fear being arrested or going to jail even if her batterer is a police officer.

We live in a world that fails to help the battered and the bruised, because we are too busy blaming them for being battered and bruised. We live in a world that fails to help the most vulnerable, because we are too busy blaming them for being on the margins. We live in the world in that fails to prosecute the crimes of the privileged and rich and powerful, because we assume that they are telling the truth and that their victims are liars.

Imagine that you are the broken one on the side of the road and instead of being helped, you are being interrogated about what you must have done for someone else to harm you, assault you, rape you, and break you. Imagine that instead of lending a hand to help you up from your pain, a legal system puts you on trial for your injuries and allows the assailant to enjoy the comforts of home. Because for far too many Black women, this is the reality of the story of the Good Samaritan: encountering “neighbors” who blame and demonize instead of neighbors who help you to your feet.

For the next month, as we hear the painful stories these Black women have to tell about their assaults, I pray that they will be treated as real neighbors: that we will listen to them; love them; believe them; and help to heal their wounds.

© Yolanda Pierce

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Not A Ragdoll

I collect black rag dolls. Some of them have been generous gifts from students who know I love them. Most have been finds at yard sales or flea markets from the United States to Ghana. My most precious one is the ragdoll my grandmother made when I was just a child. I remember still my wonder and awe that a few scraps of fabric could become an actual doll. Just like the ones at the store, Grandma? Just wait and see, little one….

Over the years I have sewn my fair share of black rag dolls. And I have gifted quite a few to small visitors to my home, whose chubby little hands close possessively around a new precious friend they don’t want to let go. None of these dolls, I assure their mothers, are valuable. They are just cherished by someone who remembers with love those brown hands that stitched together both the pieces of my life as well as my very first doll.

This week, when I watched the brutal assault of a young black girl in her Spring Valley High School classroom by a South Carolina police officer, I was left stunned and speechless. The girl is placed in a chokehold; flipped over while still in her chair; and then flung across the room, slamming into a wall. It is not only the escalating violence of the scene which makes it horrific to watch, but the physical ease at which this man, who can allegedly squat a whopping 940 pounds and bench press at least 600 pounds, throws this young girl across her classroom. Yes, he flings her like a ragdoll.

I thought about my collection of dolls that have been loved and cherished; dolls that have been handled with care by two generations of black girls. Ragdolls are not rigid; they made with stuffing and are pliable, flexible, and can withstand the “enthusiastic” love of children. But a teenage girl is not a ragdoll. She does not deserve to be brutalized, tossed, and flung as if she is an inanimate object without a spine. She does not deserve to be treated as if her precious internal organs and bones can easily withstand the force of a chokehold and a chair flip. She does not deserve to be assaulted, humiliated, battered, and broken…for any reason, by anyone.

Immediately after the video of this terrible crime went viral, people responded by asking: “what did she do?” The first questions I heard asked about the incident included: “what happened before the video of the assault started,” or “what did she do to bring this on herself,” or “what trouble was she in that brought the police to the classroom?” If your first response to this video is about what this young girl did, rather than the brutality and violence of the white police officer who harmed her, you have been steeped in white supremacist thinking.  If you are more concerned with whether she “obeyed” or “complied,” than you are with an almost 300lb. man tossing a child across the room, you have been steeped in white supremacist thinking.

White supremacy assumes that if you are being beaten and abused, you must have done something to warrant the punishment…just wait until we find out about her past and that will prove the police officer was right to assault her. White supremacy finds this child immediately guilty of some unknown crime simply because of the presence of a brutalizing authority…the police would not be there if she hadn’t wasn’t a problem case. White supremacy assumes that authority is always rightful, always to be obeyed, always to be heeded…if she had just done what he asked, he wouldn’t have to hurt her.

But when you are courageous enough to cast aside the shackles of white supremacist thinking, you discover that the punishment does not always fit the “crime,” and that far too many communities at the margins are overpoliced and still left underprotected. When you abandon white supremacist thinking, you learn that black girls face disproportionately more punishment in schools not because they commit more violations, but because blackness is automatically seen and labeled as a threat. And if you are willing to free your mind of white supremacist thinking, you learn that obedience to “authority” may not only fail to protect you, but it may make you even more subject to abuse, brutality, and violence.

I have no way to reach out to the child in this video. And what is even more disturbing are all those other black and brown girls whose abuse is never recorded and remains unknown; those whose violent confrontations with “authority” never go viral. But I want to wrap all of them in warm and loving hands and let me know that there is nothing they could have done to warrant being treated like this. I want our nation to care enough about black and brown girls that we find it absolutely unacceptable and unconscionable for them to be treated worse than animals. I want all the people who claim to be pro-life to care about the lives of black and brown girls who are catching hell right now, right here. I want us to cast aside white supremacist thinking so that instead of asking, “what did she do wrong,” we ask each other “how can we prevent this from ever happening again?” May God humble us enough to ask how can we stitch together the pieces of lives we have so painfully wronged.

©Yolanda Pierce