Ponder – Why am I scared?

The image of the snakes illustrates my thoughts. The picture shows a snake I encountered on a hiking path at Camp Friedenswald this summer. The first image is the actual photo. The second photo illustrates what my mind saw (a big, more threatening snake). I think it is only fair to tell you, the snake did not bother me at all. It held its ground. I, on the other hand, got a running start and leaped over the snake. Silly, I know, but I fear snakes.

As I was preparing for a speaking engagement at a local Mennonite Church, I was confronted with some of those deep-seated fears and anxieties we often don’t realize we have until we are faced with them. I was to speak at the church’s family camp outing at a local State Park. The park is only 25 miles from my home, but I had never been there. I had heard of it, but never had reasons to visit. So, I thought it would be good for me to visit the State Park and sit in that space for a while to allow the Spirit to show me what direction I should go for the gathering. This is a typical way I prepare for sermons, so I thought nothing of it.

I toured the park, asked the staff questions, and admired its splendor. It is a beautiful park. I thought about maybe having my family gather there for our family reunion next summer. A very positive and uplifting experience. As I began to leave the park, I noticed some changes in my thoughts and awareness.

As I was pulling out of the park, several trucks with large campers attached were pulling in. My first thought, I wonder how long they are planning to stay? Then I pull off into the street heading back to the highway and noticed 4 or 5 pick-up trucks one right after the other. Maybe only one had a flag on it, but I noticed my anxieties rising about where I was. I quickly began to think whether my family knew where I was. I began wondering about who uses the park and how would they feel about me being there.

Camping, hiking, etc. are not typical activities for African Americans, especially here in the Midwest. I remember when Oprah tried to encourage African Americans to visit the national parks. She sparked our curiosity, but I don’t think attendance amongst my community rose much. I believe it has much to do with our anxieties about safety, welcome, and not knowing much about nature and the animals who call it home.

I know my fear and anxiety are irrational, but they have deep roots. My fears about being harmed in rural areas of our country come from a history of lynching and torture of black bodies who found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. African Americans have learned over the centuries that we are not welcomed in many spaces. That our very presence in some areas invite a hatred that is deeply embedded in racism. Our community has internalized those traumas associated with that history and we find it hard to shake. This is what led to my experience of fear even when there was no immediate threat.

I relaxed when I was back in a more populated area. But the emotional experiences are still there, leaving me to ponder, why am I scared?

Ponder: Lamenting “Guilty”

I can’t celebrate. I can’t find peace in Derek Chauvin’s guilty verdict because I am never happy to see anyone go to prison. Prison is a horrible place. Yes, Chauvin must pay for his horrific crime, but his conviction only reminds me of the men and women—especially those I know—tortured in our prison system.

Derek Chauvin is about to face great hardship. Prisons in the United States are not designed to rehabilitate but to punish, and they offer only a handful of outcomes. It might well be that, for his own safety, Derek will need to remain in coffin-like isolation for years. Or guards will turn their backs as other inmates inhumanely punish him. Or a hate group will suck him in, never allowing him to deal with the pain he caused. Or Derek will commit suicide. How is this something to celebrate?

These grim consequences of imprisonment have been Black people’s reality for centuries, yet most of us refuse to see our nation’s prison system for the dangerous and evil establishment that it is. There is no justice in America’s prisons—only punishment, revenge, and death.

The system that funneled George Floyd into a life of poverty and drug use is the same one that shaped Derek Chauvin into an authority abusing his power—killing another human being—while fellow officers stood by. Why do we evade responsibility for this calamity? It is our system too.

Punishing Derek Chauvin is not the only answer to the loss of George Floyd’s life. While it’s easy for us to point the finger at him and cathartic to watch his conviction, we can never forget that there are thousands of Derek’s patrolling our streets every day. There are myriad George Floyds about to suffer and die by their hands. Until we address the issues that collided on May 23, 2020, we will never truly achieve a more just justice system.

George Floyd’s death opened our eyes to the racial injustices in our country; our penal system’s violence and inhumanity should do the same. Many of the recent cases in the limelight have involved Black and Latino men logically fleeing and resisting arrest. They know that law enforcement could destroy their lives in an instant, without a fair trial. George Floyd and Daunte Wright were rightly afraid.

I wish I did not care what happens to Derek Chauvin in prison, but I do. I wish I could say he deserves what’s coming to him, but I can’t. Derek and his family will never know what George Floyd experienced before and during his arrest, but they are about to get an up-close and personal look at why people of color fear imprisonment. We who uphold the penal system must not close our eyes. We have a moral obligation to consider Derek and his family and the pain they endure.

I’ve experienced trauma with the penal system that makes me lament anyone being sent to prison. Whenever I learn of a crime, my heart and mind shift to the perpetrator because I know that our punitive response will harm or even destroy that person. We are no better than the criminal when we feed our need to punish. Why don’t we focus on enabling Derek to recognize that he made a big mistake, confess, and demonstrate that he is truly sorry? Our system doesn’t allow for this. Instead, accused individuals must minimize what they have done to protect themselves from laws, policies, and practices focused on harmful retribution. 

We must transform our way of dealing with crime to shift our focus from retribution to redemptive and restorative justice. I pray for the day when I’ll be able to celebrate a guilty verdict because of good reason to believe it will lead to shalom.

Celebrate: Women

It’s women’s history month, and the Discovery Channel is featuring a series called Genius Aretha, about the phenomenal Aretha Franklin. The story shows not only her genius but the extraordinary hurdles she overcame and the family that helped her clear them. It’s a beautiful testament to the Black family and our complicating challenges.

I talk often about growing up in a Black community where the men often caused the women more harm than good. As a child, I struggled to love my father and many other men in my life because of their blatant disrespect for women. I didn’t understand why so many women remained in torturous relationships. I vowed never to let any man have that kind of power over me. By this stage in my life, my mother had rejected my father’s philandering and was raising us children alone. She was a militant Black woman akin to Angela Davis. She spoke truth to power and strived to empower her daughters to reach high and far. I am thankful for that today.

The Aretha story reminds me of the many hills and valleys women go through in the course of one life. Though the elder women in my life struggled under many chains of oppression, they pushed the next generation to break those chains before being constrained by them too. So, when one of the younger generations stumbled, our elders felt a tremendous blow to their legacy.

I remember when I told my mother I was pregnant at 16. Disappointed and concerned, she sighed deeply and simply said, “Cyneatha.” I was the one with potential, the one who would get out from under the dark cloud of our circumstances. I was the one the family knew was going to make something of herself. Then, so close to the finish line, I got pregnant. After the initial shock, my family rallied around me, as Aretha’s family did for her, and prepared for a baby. I now see how blessed I was through it all, but my choices led to a decade of valleys.

CeCe Winans song “Alabaster Box” is my anthem. It reminds me of what I have been through and how giving all to Jesus is my only means of survival. You should listen to this powerful song about Mary and her costly jar of perfume poured out on Jesus’ head. My jar, too, is extremely expensive. It has been poured out far more times than I care to admit.

What price have you paid to be a woman, daughter, wife, mother, teacher, lover, friend? In the dark days, have you stumbled your way to Jesus? Read Mark 14:3-9 and notice how Mary forged on to Jesus despite much criticism. That is what it means to be a woman: pushing forward no matter what.

To all the women I admire—from the great Aretha Franklin, Shirley Chisolm, Angela Davis, and Mother Teresa to my close and most adored friends including Pat Plude, Nekeisha Alayna Alexis, Jenny Moffett, and my big sister Vicky Scott—I am grateful for knowing even a small part of who God has created you to be. Your light and your dark places too guide me. As women, we grow stronger in the powerful cloud of sisters around us.

Affirm: Asian American Solidarity

Recent videos of people harming elderly Asian Americans break my heart. I try to make sense of them and feel ashamed as an African American. While I know that not only African Americans have been targeting Asian Americans, seeing people with my skin color harming anyone—especially senior citizens—is soul-crushing. I sense gravity in this moment that I don’t yet fully understand.

I remember being told months ago of the hate being directed at Asian Americans. I stated how sad it was to hear, said a quick prayer for the Asian community, imagined appropriate governmental responses, and then moved on. I didn’t give the issue space in my heart, soul, and mind.

My response was wrong. I did exactly what many people do when they hear about horrors being committed against African Americans: say a quick prayer and follow up with excuses to blame someone else for the problem.

The recent violence against Asian American senior citizens shows me how I too have fallen into my culture’s typical response to right and wrong. Instead of standing up for the vulnerable, I have followed our society’s pattern of viewing the issue as someone else’s problem; worrying about how it might affect me personally; and then trying not to get involved.

When I speak out about issues facing African Americans and this nation, I am quick to tell White Americans they must act; they cannot sit comfortably on the sidelines. I recognize that this holds true for me as well. Whether it’s a hate crime against Asian Americans or any other group, I am called to voice the wrong—better said, the many wrongs—that these incidents against bring to light. It is shameful that individuals are being victimized for their racial identity. It is shameful that elderly persons’ physical vulnerability is being exploited. It is shameful that so many in our society have deemed the elderly unworthy of our attention.

I, like many, want to figure out why these crimes are happening. In particular, why are African Americans targeting Asian Americans? Is it the loss of family values, poverty, hunger, unemployment, poor education, or the new coronavirus?

Any of these systemic problems may be contributing to the recent aggressions against Asian Americans, but before we continue to investigate and look for explanations, we must first and foremost condemn the wrongs committed and find ways to protect those being victimized. When George Floyd was murdered in May 2020, our nation in its great diversity stood in solidarity against the wrong. That same collective response must be seen now when another group is being victimized. All of us need to stand alongside neighbors when their trials come, advocating for justice and lending a helping hand.

Today I purchased Encyclopedia of Minorities in American Politics: Volume 1, African Americans and Asian Americans (American Political Landscape Series) by Jeffrey D. Schultz. It’s my first honest step in trying to understand the plight and history of Asian Americans. If you have suggestions on books or movies I should read or watch, please email them to me.

To the Asian American community: We see your beauty and your strength. We stand against all hate and racism toward you.  

Affirm: The Lowly Boast

This past weekend I lost four family members—none to COVID but simply age and health issues. At one of the three funerals I attended, God spoke to me through a sister, a woman I grew up with. She told me she has been richly blessed because God has brought her through many things in the past year. She blessed me with her story.

This woman who self-identifies as blessed told me that her husband left her, she lost her job, and she lived for months in her storage shed. When she could no longer pay for the storage unit, a friend let her stay with her a few nights until she got into a local group home.

God has been good to her, she told me. God has seen her through. She is blessed.

My encounter with this woman’s story shocked me out of the protective shell I’ve been cowering in. These past few months I have found it hard to write. I haven’t sent out blog posts. I haven’t written articles. I struggle to be positive and hopeful in the midst of the pandemic and racial tension. In my isolation and lack of travel, I’ve missed hanging out with other women across the country. It’s been a bummer, and I thought I had it bad.

My conversation with this woman opened my eyes to blessing. To help the organization stay afloat, I cut my hours—but I did not lose my job. I have a home. My family has been okay financially through the pandemic. Even as we lost three of our matriarchs, I have welcomed three grandbabies since March. God has been good to me.

We followers of Jesus are told that, somehow, all of this amounts to joy:

“My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing. . . . Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the field; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same way with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away” (James 1:2-4, 9-11).

As I try now to dwell on the positives—as evasive as they may be—I consider this: we as a people are more aware. Instead of being too busy to simply be with one another, we are longing to be in the presence of others. Instead of ignoring those in need, we are confronted with the scale of it. We can no longer ignore the unemployed; we and those we love are increasingly among their ranks. The rich are being brought low.

No matter how these months have treated us, let’s remember the many families who have lost their homes or are unable to pay utility bills. Remember communities of color battling the virus physically and economically. Remember women enduring domestic violence and seniors unable to hug their loved ones. Remember those in poverty whose state of well-being goes from bad to worse. Let us pray that those who suffer will be raised up so that they might boast. 

I thank God for my conversation last weekend with the women who unknowingly humbled me, reminding me that I am rich, and I must boast when I am brought low. When I am low, I must boast when I am raised up. As hard as this pandemic and racially divisive time in our history, I am blessed. I will praise God.