The Washing of My Feet

 

Last fall I was invited to a women’s gathering at a church right around the corner from my home. This church is intentionally pressing into the unity of the Church, across ethnic and economic divisions, and I knew the women at this gathering would be coming not only from the Austin neighborhood (my neighborhood) but also from surrounding suburbs. I would see African American, white, and Latina faces, and the leadership team would reflect this diversity as well.

The theme of the morning was service, and the leaders put flesh on this theme. They served every woman there. I rushed in late, and while one leader gave up her seat so I could have a spot at a table, another brought me breakfast, and still another got me coffee and orange juice. I was almost overwhelmed by their service,.

After some fellowship with table mates and a sermon about our call to servanthood, one of the leaders stepped to the podium. “We’ve been praying about this gathering for a long time,” she said, “and we asked God to show us how we could best serve you. We felt led to wash feet as an act of service.”

Ah, foot washing! I’d never encountered it till I was a college student and I went to a Grace Brethren church that practiced it as part of their communion service. Since then, I’ve participated in foot washing in several contexts, but I’d never just had my feet washed. I’d always washed another’s as well. Foot washing always has an uncomfortable element to it (which is good, I think), but this felt particularly strange because I would be receiving only, not giving, and I’m not exactly great at that.

The other women and I pulled off shoes and stripped off socks. I brushed lint away from my heels and curled my toes into the carpet. I stared at my feet.

Leaders began coming to the tables, kneeling before the seated women.

Suddenly a leader was in front of me.

She, an African American leader was in front of me, a white woman.

I am very often aware of my whiteness, on a number of levels. I live in a neighborhood in which whites are only 2% of the population. When I walk or drive down my street, I often get second looks. Though I wouldn’t say I’m completely relaxed with this, I see it as being good for me.

But this: an African American woman in front of me; kneeling in front of me; about to wash my feet…

I instinctively pulled my feet back. Tears began streaming down my face.

And I don’t know what she was processing, but tears started streaming down her face as well. Still, she pushed the bowl of water toward me and held out her hands.

And I put my feet into them. And we cried together. And she washed my feet.

When she finished, we both stood and embraced. I was close to sobbing.

This next week, as part of the Maundy Thursday service of Holy Week, in which we celebrate Jesus’ last night with his disciples, we here in Cornerstone Parish will wash each other’s feet. We are a parish of multiple congregations. Our congregations span economic levels, ethnic divides, educational levels… I don’t know whose feet I will wash. I don’t know who will wash my feet. There will be, no matter what, uncomfortable moments.

And it will be strange.

And that is good.

Because we all, brothers and sisters in Christ, are called to love each other in ways that let the outside world know we follow Christ. We are called to serve each other in ways that run counter-cultural to the world around us.

And though this service and love should reach far, far beyond foot washing, the foot washing itself is a wonderful start. It’s a reminder and a call into depths of love only possible in and through Christ.

Two tables

Pete was trying to learn how to talk with them, but it was difficult even to understand their different ways of eating, their strange foods. He still had to mask his shudders at what he sometimes found on his plate, had to bite his tongue at the questions that rose instantly to his mind. He still thought of them as smelling odd; the scents that rose from their clothing and skin were unfamiliar.

Most of all, though, he just had to get over the fact that he was sitting arm by arm with them. Was this really the way it was supposed to be? His mind still circled round and round the barriers that had always existed between his people and these people—were they supposed to sit at the same table? Share meals together? Come together in complete equality—not as the “haves” and “have-nots”—but as the equally grace-given? As brothers? As family?

He often watched his friend interact with them. How did he seem so natural? Was he not struggling with the same thoughts? His friend had adopted some of their mannerisms; he seemed to enjoy their food; he laughed at jokes that were not quite kosher. He accepted their hugs; he hugged them back.

He seemed comfortable in ways Pete could not understand. For Pete, the questions still circled. He fought the impulse to sit apart, to surround himself with those who felt familiar to him, who shared a common tradition, culture, codes—both written and unwritten. Yet he kept being surprised by joy. In the midst of meals and gatherings that felt awkward and fumbling, he felt sudden flashes of joy, a joy beyond and above the sense of belonging he’d always had with his own people. It was a joy outside himself, and the joy didn’t bring ease and comfort. Even in the moments of greatest joy he felt himself longing for conversation in which he knew the right things to say, in which the other person knew the right things as well. He longed to have a meal with people who shared his cultural codes. He ached for an evening of storytelling that made sense to him, an evening in which he understood each person’s point of view, an evening in which any differences were simple ones, arising out of a shared culture.

Here, with this group of mixed backgrounds, he had to watch his quick tongue; he had to swallow his pride and ask pardon—often—when he unknowingly stepped on toes; he had to learn to see from others’ perspectives. His sense of humor felt squashed; they didn’t understand his jokes. He didn’t understand theirs. He often felt as if he were stumbling around in the dark. It was hard—it was work! And he wondered if it wouldn’t be best to just keep some separation, just a little?

But again, that Joy, that unmistakable Joy! Could this really be what God wanted? This uncomfortable mixing?

This night one of the men was in the middle of telling a story—a story of his growing up years. Pete had to smooth his face to hide the shock at what the man was describing. Such shameful actions, so much profanity! So different from his own carefully guided upbringing! Did this man have no understanding of decency? Was there no order to the relationships in his family?

Suddenly the door opened.

Pete felt the blood rush to his face. He sprang to his feet and stepped away from the table. He slowed his breathing and calmed his features and then looked at the men who had just entered the room. He took in their clothing and read their faces.

They recognized him. They knew his name. Pete took another step away from the table.

Pete watched as the men’s gazes slid across the table, the food on it, the men and women around it. The men nodded and smiled at several people, but Pete knew what they were thinking. There was such a mix of emotion in his own heart—sorrow, frustration, shame—but there was also relief. He knew what they were thinking. He could identify with them. They spoke the same unspoken language.

A woman at the table asked if they all wanted to squeeze in. “We can make room,” she said, but one of the men shook his head. “There are too many of us. We would crowd you too much.” Pete saw the face of the one who’d offered space, and he swallowed. He could read that face, too, now.

The men were now looking at him. Pete felt himself slide away from the table even further, till he was almost against the wall. He stepped toward the men. “Come this way,” he told them. “We’ll find a quiet table where we can talk.”

~~~~

It wasn’t what he’d hoped for. Oh, the food was familiar and the conversation was comfortable and easy. He knew what to say and what to do.

But something wasn’t right.

He pushed this knowledge down, tried to pull up the sense of belonging he should be feeling. He reminded himself that these were his people. This was what he’d been missing.

And then the door of this room, too, opened.

Paul stood in the doorway, his eyes wide.

“What are you doing here? Why aren’t you out there with the others? This is not right!”

Paul was in Peter’s face now, his finger nearly touching Peter’s nose. “You know, Peter. You know! This—” Paul waved his arm, gesturing toward the large room where Peter had been sitting not so long before and then back to the table where Peter now sat. “—this is not where you should be! We are one family now; one body; one people; one Church! You are wrong to separate yourself from them.”

           adapted from Galatians 2:11-14 

          For commentary on this passage, read “The Conflict at Antioch” on Bible Gateway.

O God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Savior, the Prince of Peace: Give us grace seriously to lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions; take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatever else may hinder us from godly union and concord; that, as there is but one Body and one Spirit, one hope of our calling, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, so we may be all of one heart and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and charity, and may with one mind and one mouth glorify thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. A Prayer for the Unity of the Church (the Book of Common Prayer)

Treasured sons

PJ's preschool picIs lament possible without identification? We white mothers must come to the point of understanding that we cannot say, “This could happen to my son—for no good reason—through no fault of his own—through no action of his own,” and really mean it, BUT nearly every African American mother CAN, and with these words a little surge of real terror spikes in her heart.

That is an example of white privilege.

I know it is, because as a white mother of a black son, I have a hard time really believing those words. Though I know my son’s risk factors are high (he is black, very dark-skinned in fact, and he has pronounced ADHD and high impulsivity), I don’t have the history that makes his danger REAL to me. I don’t have the from-birth distrust of a system, of a majority group that sees me as inferior (though they don’t come right out and say so). My skin doesn’t ripple with a subtle prickle of fear when I see a man in uniform. Even though I am truly “in the shoes” of other African American mothers, my white privilege keeps them loose in the day-to-day. They’re not pinching my every step.

I remember, several years ago, driving through rural Indiana with a Latina friend. As we approached one city-limits sign, I remarked, off-hand, casual, “This is a pretty town, but it was a KKK hotbed until just a few years ago. It’s more hidden now, but it’s still here.”

Her response was immediate, and it wasn’t just emotional. Her breathing quickened; her face went pale, and she was unable to relax until we were miles into the country on the other side. I couldn’t identify, but I “got it.” She’s experienced “difference” her entire life. And I, except for when travelling in Africa (and the “difference” I experienced there brought, for the most part, privilege), have not.

This morning I woke early. We are preparing for a move to one of those very neighborhoods where the other mothers in it live everyday with this fear for their children, where I, too, will experience it more, simply because of location. Because of this upcoming move, our house looks like a picked-over junk shop. It is at the stage when everything formerly “in”—cupboards, closets, drawers—is out, and all knickknacks are off shelves and ledges, revealing hidden dust.

Late last night I moved the verse plaque from the windowsill above my kitchen sink. Behind the plaque I found a picture of my black son taken several years ago when he was in preschool. At some point I’d tucked it behind the plaque and forgotten about it.

This morning, up before anyone else, I read updates on the shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. I cried. I prayed. Then I went to the sink to fix myself some tea. And there was the smiling face of my beautiful son, like a treasured photo of a lost loved one, placed in a spot where one sees it several times a day.

And for one moment, the shoes tightened, hard, and I remembered the words I’d read just a few minutes earlier in one of the news reports. Philando Castile’s mother, speaking to a group of African Americans mourning the death of her child, told them, “This could be your son.”

If one is truly to grieve, lament, repent, this is what we must understand.

The Body, Broken and Whole

I have a short story up on The Redbud Post. It’s titled “The Body, Broken and Whole.”  Here’s an excerpt. If you want to read the whole thing, just click on the link above.

Ming moved down the line of Eucharist ministers, her pastoral robes swaying gently each time she stopped. “The body of Christ, broken for you,” she said, pressing bread into the outstretched hands of the minister in front of her. Another pastor followed behind her, carrying the cup, the two of them serving communion to the ministers so the ministers could then serve the rest of the congregation. At the far end of the line, Leah dropped her head and stared at her hands. One laid over the other, they formed the shape of a cross, ready to receive the bread, but without realizing, she’d pulled them close against her stomach. She noticed her fingers were curled, ready to close tight, ready to refuse the offering.

“Leah?”

Her head jerked up. Ming’s face was next to her own, and Leah could read concern in Ming’s dark eyes, in the expression on her almond-brown face.

Leah’s hands clenched shut. “I can’t, Ming,” she whispered. “I can’t take Communion.”

Ming looked at her a moment longer. Then she slid her arm around Leah’s shoulders and led her away from the others. Inside the small prayer room off the sanctuary, Ming nudged Leah into a chair, and then sat in one herself, pulling it close enough their knees almost touched.

“What is wrong?” Even after years in the U.S., faint traces of accent from her childhood in Cambodia still colored Ming’s voice.

Leah couldn’t meet her eyes. “I got angry with Bree this morning.”

Ming waited. When Leah didn’t say more, she asked, “What happened?”

Leah swallowed. “It was all little things. She didn’t do her homework from two nights ago, took some gum from my purse without asking, left clothes all over her room, and then, when she was supposed to be getting ready for church this morning…” How could she tell Ming what she had said?

The rest is at the Redbud Post. And while you’re there, check out some of the pieces by other Redbud writers–there’s some fantastic stuff! 

A family, a people

Small Carolina town

Throwback general store

Both my boys looking at the comics

Side by side

Yet the sharp “What’chu doin’, boy?”

Is not directed at the two,

Just the one,

My child with dark skin.

Years before,

Sitting in a crowded Ugandan church

Watching his tiny self

Dance in the aisles,

I wondered,

What are we doing—

Giving him a family

But displacing him from a people?

When he was small, our conversations about race

Were easy.

He called himself chocolate,

The rest of us vanilla,

In high summer, I became

Milky coffee.

Now, though, they are harder.

How to explain to him,

To his sisters and brother,

That the odds facing them

Are not exactly equal?

That what we’ve told them—

Human is human. Period.—

Is not a reality out there

And King’s dream

Is still a dream.

And underneath all this,

Even now,

the question haunts me:

We’ve become a family

But what about his people?

~~~~

I thought this post could use a little lift. This was a fun, impromptu moment in Target when PJ saw this awesome Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle jacket!

I thought this post could use a little lift. This was a fun, impromptu moment in Target when PJ saw this awesome Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle jacket!

Our fourth child was born in Uganda. His mother died of AIDS; his father was estranged and never met him till we began the adoption process. In many miraculous ways God made it very clear that we were to adopt our son. But even as I worked in Africa to get legal guardianship, I wondered about the issues he would face growing up as an African child in a white family, in a predominately white area, in a country where the color of your skin still determines a lot. Racial reconciliation takes on a whole new level of importance when you have a child who is a different race. When I read about the horrifically high numbers of African American men in prison; when I learn that five times the number of African American babies are aborted compared to white babies; when I hear that an African American college professor in the town just two over from mine has been stopped by police more than 20 times in the last couple years just so they could “see what

I couldn't resist posting this one, too!

I couldn’t resist posting this one, too!

he was up to”… I think, “This is what’s facing my son,” and I ask God how I am meant to draw attention to this injustice, how I am meant to fight it—both for my own son and the sons and daughters of other women.

And under all this, I still fear the effects on my son of growing up without a community that looks like him.

“Just like me”–seeking greater understanding, unity, and love

Sometimes you've got to get really close to see the beauty.

Up close, you get to see incredible beauty.

Someone recently told me about a young member of our military who shared with his mother some of the trauma he’d experienced on deployment. One time he was told to clear a building. He entered a room and discovered a man with a gun. The man moved to shoot, but the soldier was faster, and the man was killed. “We found his wife and children hiding in another room,” the young soldier told his mother.

She saw his distress and tried to reassure him, “Sweetheart, you didn’t want to kill him. It was kill or be killed. You’re not at fault.”
But he didn’t want to debate fault. “Mom, he was just like me. His wife and kids, just like me. They’re not any different.”
I don’t share that story to make any judgment on our armed forces or its members. (I’m not even making a statement on our police forces and their members, other than to say this: all our police need to have the same attitude as that young man; it should rank as a requirement well above a person’s ability to handle a weapon. I’m very thankful for the many police officers who DO have that attitude, who treat people—no matter the color of their skin or their background—with dignity and respect, but we cannot excuse those who do not).
I share that story to make this personal: I need that attitude. I need it with those in my neighborhood who look different than I or parent differently or work different kinds of jobs; I need it with the wealthy moms at my kids’ private school; I need it with the members of my own household.
But I need it, too, with those whose lives or perspectives seem so different as to be polar opposite mine.
butterflyI work with an organization that reaches out to women involved in the adult entertainment industry. Some of these women have been trafficked, but not all. The leader of our organization is adamant that we don’t make a distinction. Here’s her point: We know—through both statistics and stories—that the vast majority of the women we reach out to have really good reasons for doing what they do. When we look at their backgrounds, we think, “Yes, I can see why this looks like a viable option to them—or their only option.”
But what if that’s not the issue? What if a woman is simply involved in adult entertainment because she makes more at it than she would at another job? Does that mean I’m allowed to say, “That’s some messed-up, sinful thinking!” and write that woman off?
I don’t think so. In fact, I’m beginning to see that it’s not my right to know why a woman is in the life; it’s her decision to tell me or not, and if she does, it’s not my business to form any sort of judgment based on what she tells me. I can’t even say, “But for the grace of God, that could be me” because that still sets me apart. It makes me different. It implies they didn’t receive grace; that there was some reason I “got grace” and they didn’t. It sets up and subtly reinforces a difference between us.
I need to see and know—deep, deep down—that woman is just like me in all the ways that really matter. I’m human; she’s human. I’m broken and bent by sin; so is she. I need a Savior; she does, too.
When I talk and text with women who are in a life that looks so very different from mine, this is what I want to remember. This is what I want them to know: you and me, we’re alike in all the ways that matter.
I’ve found it interesting that the more I work with the issue of adult entertainment, the less inclined I am to write about it. Every statistic, every story, every generalization is becoming more personal for me. The women our team members talk with, text with, hang out with, pray with, eat with—they’re not statistics; they’re women.
I rarely write in-depth about my family members on this blog, and when I do, I generally don’t use their names. I don’t want them to become an example or a generalization or even simply a character. I want to protect them; I want to maintain their dignity. I want them to own the rights to their own stories.
That’s how I’m beginning to feel—and not just think—about the women I meet who are in the industry. I need to maintain their dignity as people, and they need to tell their own stories.
I’m winding through several points in this blog post to get to a final one: though I don’t write much here on the impact of the adult entertainment industry on women and on our culture or on the issue of racial reconciliation (one that is very personal for my family), that doesn’t mean I don’t care passionately about them. I’ve felt convicted of late that I don’t share this passion enough through my blog. So, even though right now I don’t plan to do more personal writing on these issues, I would like each week or so to share something I’ve encountered about these and/or other issues. The perspectives of the authors/speakers may be very different than mine or yours, but I am praying that as we read and listen, we will be able to let go of our fears of “different”; that we will empathize and step into the shoes of others; that we will be drawn into greater understanding, greater unity, and greater love.