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Violence Matters

The month that my wife and I moved to Chicago, there was a fatal shooting at the end of our block. The shots woke us up.

A few weeks later, there was a fatal shooting across the street from the apartment that hosted our Bible study.

After that, things seemed to quiet down in our little corner of the city. And I got caught up in the stress of life, and for the most part forgot about our early experiences.

But a couple weeks ago, as we rounded the corner heading to Bible study, we were bombarded with blue flashing lights. Half a dozen cop cars, a fire truck, an ambulance, and police tape. When we made it inside our friends’ place, they looked relieved. Multiple gunshots just minutes before. It explained the weird text message they sent: “Be safe.”

In that moment, I experienced some serious nostalgia for my old life of automobile-slavery, settled in the shadow of Los Angeles. And then I had some visceral urges for cul de sacs and SUVs.

I mean, we moved across the country to join a church, not have our life shaken up.

So why a church in Chicago? What’s so wrong with cul de sacs and sunshine? Everything? Nothing? Honestly, I don’t know anymore and I don’t think any of the reasons matter. What matters is we are here; Chicago is our home.

And violence matters to us now, in a way it never really did before.

To be honest it’s still the same numb detachment when I see the numbers on Twitter from a different part of the city: 5 dead in Southside neighborhood over the weekend.

But it’s different when it happens in the neighborhood my kid plays in. It’s different when I look up and see the blue light of a Chicago PD CCTV surveillance camera, and all I can think sometimes is “Jesus.” In the swear sense, and the prayer sense.

And I don’t really know what to do other than pray. And the praying is so hard, because prayer always connects my reality to the reality of others. And my experience is just a small piece of the bigger violence that our world is enduring right now: Ukraine, Gaza, Iraq and Syria. The woman just hung in Iran. And last I read, we’re over 10,000 confirmed cases of Ebola.

While the prayer is painful, it’s what helps me stay rooted.

When I was looking at pictures from the early days of Euromaidan in Ukraine, I remember this Eastern Orthodox priest, in full vestment (plus winter gloves) standing in the gap between angry protesters and riot police, praying for peace.

Standing in the gap between life as it exists and future hope, well that takes faith and belief and grit and a small dose of incurable insanity.

It took me a long time to learn this, but the discipline of prayer isn’t about twisting the arm of a reluctant deity to fix all our problems. It connects us to a bigger reality, even broader than the reality of suffering — the groaning of humans for peace.

I can’t say this for sure, but my hunch is that crazy priest in Ukraine didn’t step out between the fighting because he assumed he could fix everything. He just stepped into a higher truth of human reality, in that moment. In the midst of conflict, he was in the midst of peace.

Peace is bigger and truer than violence, but we need eyes to see it. And we need the solid footing to stand for it.

I’m awake, thanks to a shooting that finally mattered to me. My eyes are open, because now I live outside the numbness of numbers and the coddling of cul de sacs. Now i’m learning how to stand.

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Early Encounters: Respect vs. Ethnocentrism

“Look over there, Elizabeth. Do you see those men?”

“Yes, Daddy. Why are they there? Who are they?” asked a pale-skinned, blue eyed girl of 7 years old, as she gazed toward the group of men congregated near the railroad tracks.

“They’re day laborers. And, I want you to pay close attention to me right now. They are out here, every day, hoping for someone to hire them to work hard, doing manual labor. They’re out here because they love their families and want to provide for them, and they work harder than a lot of people in fancy suits and business clothes.” Then, after a pensive pause, he continued with the tone he only took when giving serious instructions: “Don’t you dare ever look down on them. Some people do because they weren’t born here or have different colored skin. But, that doesn’t matter. What matters is that they work hard because they love their families. So, don’t you ever look down on them, do you hear me?”

“Yes, Daddy.”

Those were the beseeching words of my father who spoke so sincerely, that his almost stern tone conveyed the importance of the matter.

I didn’t know it then, but that moment was my first real experience with the concept of racism, more properly labeled as “ethnocentrism,” and the start of an awareness of different ethnic groups. The respectful words and perspective of ethnic equality which my father impressed upon me that hot, Southern California afternoon, have been emblazoned into my memory ever since.
Now I rejoin you, nearly two decades later, and many experiences later. Since then, my zip codes have had me in California, Alaska, and Texas. I can now differentiate my triad of experiences through the lenses of diversity, and cultural/ethnic perspectives and expectations. For brevity’s sake, we can focus solely through the lens of diversity, using it as a springboard into the powerful impact you can create, should you be blessed enough to live within a diverse population.

Growing up in Southern California (SoCal, per the natives’ colloquialisms) boasted a wealth of ethnic diversity, of which I was blithely oblivious for many years, much like the blessing of my father’s wise words. Not only could one easily find over a dozen different ethnicities in a small radius, there was a very good chance of finding it in your very own neighborhood. Surely, this could promote racism, to have so many differing groups crammed into the same space. Then again, it could promote acceptance, collaboration, and understanding by virtue of people’s general need for social interaction, and the close knit quarters of crowded SoCal cities.

So, what makes the difference? You do. I do. Our parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins, and other relations do. Growing up, ethnic diversity was as common to me as the sun rising and setting, and I was simply happy to have friends. However, what made respect inextricably tied to ethnic diversity was the socialization I received from the aforementioned individuals, along with neighbors and other passersby. It was a daily blessing for my parents to welcome my friends of any culture into our home, and vice versa. It was a jarring blessing to find out (in my teens) that certain extended relatives weren’t present at my earlier birthday parties because they sneered and didn’t want to be around, “the little brown kids,” who were my brother’s and my friends. I had positive and negative experiences connected to diversity, and these experiences offered me a choice: what experiences would I create for others? If you have never before been formally offered that same choice, I offer it to you now. Your daily actions and interactions spring forth from who you believe you are, and who you believe others are. Your daily actions and interactions create experiences for others.

It is an arduous, uphill battle to change another person’s opinion of who s/he is, and who others are to him/her. Likely, you cannot force change through argument. But, you can instead persuade on a daily basis, as you create experiences for that individual. Consider the next seven days to be your personal opportunity to pay close attention to the experiences which you create for others. In the midst of your busy week, be mindful of whether you choose to create a positive, negative, or plainly apathetic experience. Though it often takes work and intentionality, you can choose to create an experience that unarguably leaves the other person feeling respected and valued. And know that as you create positive experiences, there just might be a set of young, impressionable eyes nearby, through which a child imbibes his or her first lesson in human rights and equality from you.

If you are lucky enough to be surrounded by diversity, (and I assert that most of us are), then I must implore you, as my father implored me, “What matters is not skin color or region of birth, but character and work ethic. So, respect people accordingly, creating positive experiences for them, because I don’t want you to ever look down on them, do you hear me?”*

*My father’s words here were paraphrased, to better reflect the full intent of his words, which took me years to understand.

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Divorce: The Injustices Add Insult to Injury

In 2010, I got divorced.

Unfortunately, in modern society this happens all too often, and, while it is a tragedy, it is not an issue of justice. However, there is more to this story. There are two ways, in my experience, that injustice has become a part of many divorces.

The first kind of injustice deals with the nature of love and commitment in society. In modern marriages, either party can file for divorce at any time, with or without warning. He or she can decide suddenly, without explanation or reason, to leave the marriage. Aside from personal choice, there is nothing binding about the commitment of marriage. It can be entered on a whim, and it can be left on one as well.

In a letter addressed to his son Michael, author J. R. R. Tolkien describes the modern idea of love. He describes how, realistically, marriage takes a lot of work and hardship, and he characterizes life as living in a cold world. However, he contrasts this perspective with the Romantic idea of love that he believes most people hold, in which love is something easy and where, if it takes work, it must not be “true love.” This Romantic idea is where people “fall in love” and can just as easily fall out of it. He writes, “One result of that is to make young folk look for a ‘love’ that will keep them always nice and warm in a cold world, without any effort of theirs; and the incurably romantic go on looking even in the squalor of the divorce courts.” As Tolkien explains, people think of love as warm feelings and as something “natural,” not as something that requires hard work. So, while both members of a marriage make a commitment in the beginning, either party can decide to leave if things no longer are going the way he or she expects. This is a problem that, in a lot of ways, our culture has perpetuated.

In my own experience, my ex-wife decided, for reasons unknown, that she was done with the marriage. In the time it took to tell me (one and a half years), she thought she had found something missing in our marriage, each time with someone else. None of those relationships lasted and were finished before our divorce had been finalized. I know that I am an imperfect person, with many faults and mistakes, many of which may have affected my ex-wife’s views on our marriage. While I have made peace with the fact of my divorce, I will always be left with a feeling of injustice. She never told me her reasons, never wanted to discuss the whys of the divorce. I have no idea why we got divorced. What I do know is that, for reasons unknown, my life crumbled and fell apart.

The other type of injustice that our modern day version of divorce allows is financial. While the first has more to do with the emotional or with a partner’s expectations, this one has to do with money. Yet, the two are intertwined.

With only one income in a two person family, money for my ex-wife and I was extremely tight. We often lived paycheck to paycheck, leaving credit cards or students loans unpaid for a couple months at a time, and we relied on our tax returns every April to catch up, only to start the vicious cycle again over the even leaner summer months when I wasn’t teaching. To be able to get through some of those summers, I had to take out personal loans from my credit union and payday loans, sometimes three at a time.

In an effort to make more money, in the long term at least, I went back to school and started a MA degree in English Literature in 2009. Like the tax returns, I took on extra loans as a means of helping us stay afloat, especially with the added costs of school. So, five semesters later when my wife finally told me that she wanted a divorce, we had to go through the arduous process of dividing up everything we had.

How hard could it have been to split up our belongings after only three years of marriage? Well, harder than imagined. In part, that was because I was an emotional wreck while, I suspect, she knew what she wanted and was after. The issue is that during a divorce, two people aren’t only splitting up their physical belongings, like cars, books, and clothing. There are also the assets and debts that have to be split up as well and in as fair and equitable a manner as possible.

According to this article in The Telegraph, it is this period of division which is exactly when divorce proceedings can become unjust. “The poorer party may let contentious matters go and accept compromises simply to keep costs down.” In hindsight, this is exactly what happened in my story.

At the time, it made sense for each of us to leave the marriage with what we entered, as it would be the easiest way to split up our belongings. However, in reality, that meant that she left with all of the assets and property, and I left with a job and all of the debt. Every time that I was unhappy with some aspect of the settlement, her response was something along the lines of, “Fine. I’ll call my parents and get the name of their lawyer, and you’ll need to get one, too. This could take years, if that’s what you want.” As I said, I was barely keeping up with the debt that I had, and I could afford neither the emotional cost of a protracted divorce nor the financial cost of hiring a lawyer over the course of several months. So, I will admit, I would let the matter drop, as I was too exhausted to resist the emotional manipulation. From conversations with friends and family members that have also been divorced, I know that I am not the only one who has been subjected to emotional manipulation. If I know that many people personally, I can only imagine how many people, on a state or national perspective, have to deal with the same problem.

It was only recently, as I was doing research for this post, that I found that this kind of manipulation, and other kinds of divorce-related injustice, is common in the legal proceedings. I found out that it is common for debt and assets to be balanced, so that someone who takes on more of the debt-and I had a lot of it-may also receive more of the assets to balance it out. If I had only known then what I know now, my divorce may have turned out very differently. The poor and women are more likely to give in to manipulation or accept unfair settlements to avoid the potential costs of divorce. Those costs, in America, average between $15,000 and $20,000, which is equal to the price of a year’s tuition at a state school in California, like Cal State Fullerton. Additionally, men tend to become richer after a divorce, while women tend to suffer financially after divorce.

My wife divorced me, and when the dust settled she had a new chance at a new life in a new state, debt free. What did I have? Over $75,000 dollars in debt. For a grand total of 3 years of a marriage, I am saddled with loans that will last a decade or two, if not longer. What happened to me, I must live with; but, there must be someway to to prevent this from happening to others.

There must be some way to make sure that more people know of their rights and duties during divorce. Part of the problem is the lack of easily accessible information about the divorce process. Each state in America has its own divorce laws and regulations. Additionally, it is difficult to make sense of all of the information without a law degree. There are many different options (annulment, separation, and divorce), a lot of confusing forms, and very little free help to make sense of it all. The help that we could find was a “seminar” at the city courthouse, which was essentially a clerk or lawyer with a PowerPoint presentation, who walked through the needed forms and tried to explain what each one required. However, there was no opportunity to have someone check our forms to see if we filled them in correctly, or to have individual help with our specific situation. Essentially, without a lawyer, the divorcing couple has to fill out the forms on their own, make sense of the information as best as they can, and this process can take months, as the court sends the forms back to the people to make corrections or clarifications or sign forms that were missed. I do my own taxes every year, and IRS forms and guides are a walk in the park compared to making sense of divorce legalities.

This brings us back to the high costs of divorce. To get the help to make sense of this process, divorcees need to shell out some serious money. Not everyone has those kinds of resources, and even when they do, the process of divorce is notorious for taking months, if not years. For example, in California, the process takes a minimum of 6 months before the couple is legally divorced, and that is only if the court has accepted the paperwork. The only consistent source of information is only available to those that can afford it. Sometimes, that is neither person in the divorce, or only one of them.

Even when it goes as smoothly as possible, divorce is an ugly process that destroys families and individuals. Americans, and Californians (as much of this is a state issue) must find a way to make sure that emotional and spiritual devastation does not translate into the kind of financial devastation that can last years and decades after the marriage itself has ended. Healing a heart takes long enough as is; mending a broken wallet does not need to be an additional injustice.

– Carpenter, Humphrey, ed. “43 From a letter to Michael Tolkien 6-8 March 1941.” The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1981. 48-54. Print.

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Our Stories Matter

It was a simple statement that didn’t need to be said. Some things are that way. So the after school moment of cleaning up an empty classroom was quietly interrupted with pink hair and youthful seriousness. I paused the music and made eye contact when she said, “I just want to thank you for talking about suicide with us. Nobody else does and it means a lot.”

She left as nonchalantly as she walked in. Quiet. Calm. Collected. A walk tinged with a life that very few will know the struggle of. An understanding that others are also experiencing the same struggles and together there is a fighting chance of surviving.

Innocently is how it all started. At Invisible Children’s “Fourth Estate” conference in the summer of 2013, many non-profit speakers and break-out sessions spread the word about helping others in a variety of life needs. They included Saving Innocence, The Giving Keys, Charity Water (which I love!), International Justice Mission and many others. One particular presenter, fresh off a sabbatical, struck a chord within me. That was how I really began to understand Jamie Tworkowski and his movement “To Write Love On Her Arms”.

According to their mission, “To Write Love on Her Arms is a non-profit movement dedicated to presenting hope and finding help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury, and suicide. TWLOHA exists to encourage, inform, inspire, and also to invest directly into treatment and recovery.”

And I don’t know why it was this year or this time, but when I saw the campaign from TWLOHA for Suicide Prevention Week, I felt compelled to get involved and bought a “kit” complete with wristband, shirt, and posters proclaiming, “No one else can play your part.” And maybe that was the calling, this phrase reminding me of my fortune. My struggles. My ability to work every day with youth who inspire me to be a better person. My appreciation of how difficult others can make our lives by the simple way they look at us, or judge us, or accept us. My knowledge of how intimately affected one can be in the face of mounting pressures, both real and imagined.

Suicide Prevention Week 2014 lasted the first full week of September with Wednesday, September 10 as Suicide Prevention Day. I made many “No one else can play your part” posters and more “No one else can play my part because…” fill in the blank posters for my students. Leading up to the week, I posted the papers and shared with each of my classes that we are here together for a reason and I am thankful they were given the schedule with my name in the slot for their teacher. On September 10, I shared Jamie Tworkowski’s message about life being significant and it ended with my personal message of reaching out to others when we know they need it. Let the suffering souls know that you notice them. That you are there. That you care. That together we can make a difference. And we did.

Now I see my students walk in with binders proclaiming “No one else can play your part.” They’ve written on posters what their part of life contributes to the lives of others. And more than that, I’ve seen those who didn’t think this type of awareness matter see on the faces of their peers that it does. The pain is real. The need is real. The stories are real.

So how do you fill in the answer on a page emblazoned with “No one else can play my part because…”? Mine stated, “…words make me feel alive.” And they do. Always. Because they become the stories. They become understanding. Inspiration. Peace. Bonding. Love. It’s through words that my meaning-making exists and finds sustenance. Mental food. Soul water. When the look between two who know says more than any words could.

This is more than a message, it’s a challenge. Tread lightly with what you say knowing the story of the listener is likely unknown. Stray from judgment. Stray from silence, understanding that our stories are real. They need to be shared. They matter.

Links:
http://twloha.com/
http://invisiblechildren.com/
@jamietworkowski

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It Doesn’t Directly Affect Me, So Why Should I Care? – Apathy and Social Justice

I’ll admit that there was a period in my life when I pretty much avoided the news. It wasn’t because I was too busy or the news was too depressing, though that’s what I would sometimes say out loud. Instead, it was apathy. My mentality was that “those” issues just didn’t affect my life, so they didn’t matter. Wars across the globe, or injustices due to race and class in my own community, “didn’t directly affect me,” and I frankly didn’t really care. If I did happen to take in some news, I would comment on how sad an issue was and then turn off the TV or close the news article and move on with my life. Alternatively, I’d just flip over to the latest hit show and immerse myself in escapism, rather than wrestle with the truth of what I had just taken in. What I’ve learned is that many, if not all of those issues, did directly affect me. I just didn’t know it, or ignored it, or remained ignorant of it, because the way those things affected me were often by privilege. In many cases, I benefited from the injustice toward others (an example for a reader who may doubt this claim: Cheap goods available to me are often produced on the broken backs of sweatshop laborers in other countries). I’ve now come to a place where I’m uncomfortable and even ashamed with the comfort I had in that apathy.

I’m a middle-class, biracial female. I don’t have the full arsenal of privilege that my upper-class, white male friends have, but I will admit that I do hold quite a bit of privilege. Both of my parents and my spouse have college degrees. I am working on a terminal degree at a prestigious institution that essentially comes free to me. I have access to decent healthcare, feel safe most of the time, and even though I have debt, have never truly worried about how bills would be paid. My life has a notable amount of privilege. I could say “those” issues didn’t affect my life because my various sources of social, economic, and cultural capital protected me from being affected by them most of the time.

In all honesty, I truly believe there are folks who are simply unaware of their privilege. I hesitate to say “innocent” because I think it’s a responsibility to be aware of what privilege you have and to leverage that privilege to help others whenever possible. However, I know and was a part of systems that do not necessarily make folks aware of their own privilege, but instead simply reproduce the privileged structures from which these individuals came. They remain safely cocooned in that place of privilege and never really understand how privilege comes at the price for someone else.

All of this to say, social justice issues are everyone’s problem. If you are the oppressed, you are fighting a daily battle against injustice. If you are not oppressed, it is important to consider if you are somehow a part of or even an active player in being the oppressor. Even if we are not involved in the oppressive actions, it is our responsibility to consider ways we can use our own privilege to help fight these injustices. How do you spend your money and resources? Who benefits and who suffers as a result of the societal choices you make? How can you use your giftings to help change systems? How are you staying informed so that you can be a part of crucial conversations and use your democratic rights to influence the system? How can you raise awareness in your social circles? Social justice issues are systemic. They exist because those of us with power in the system allow them to be perpetuated. Considering these questions and others along these lines are first steps in changing the systems. It is why we write these letters; it is what we must do to ever see change.

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