Let’s Stop Calling Ourselves Minorities

A version of this post was originally published in 2014 in The Root.com

minorities3It’s hard to believe, but it has already been four years (July 2012) when babies born of parents of color in the U.S. overtook births of white babies. What this means, according to demographers, is that by the year 2040, or thereabouts, there will be no majority race in the U.S. Blacks now make up about 13 percent of the population, while those hailing from the Spanish-speaking former New World colonies make up approximately 17 percent, and growing. Asians, both south and east, Middle-easterners and the cohort of mixed or “other” are also on the rise.

So why do we insist on using the word “minority” to speak of people of color, as a synonym for nonwhite? Growing up in the 70s and 80s, “minority” became an easy shorthand; an all-inclusive way to designate those who are not Caucasian. Since historically, this country has been overwhelmingly white (as much as 70 percent and more) it made its own kind of sense, and it was also easier than saying the mouthful “people of color,” or more daunting, calling each racial/ethnic group by name.

For some time now, I have sworn off using the term at all, and have tried to persuade others that the term is one whose time has passed. With the news of the nonwhite babies becoming a majority of births three years ago, I noticed such awkward constructions in the media as “majority minority.” Talk about oxymorons!

I believe that words have power to influence our thoughts and our thoughts influence our actions. If we cling to outdated and identity-sapping self-descripters, we forever regard ourselves as powerless.

So let’s take a look at how Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines minority: It reads:

: a number or amount that is less than half of a total;

: the group that is the smaller part of a larger group;

: a group of people who are different from the larger group in a country, area, etc., in some way (such as race or religion)

That last definition is the one we are dealing with here; but think of the other definitions: minority is something that is less than half of a total. It is the smaller part of a group.

As long as we use the term as a synonym for the myriad people of color, we are, I believe consigning those people to lesser status and a smaller role, in short to powerlessness.

When you hear the word majority, on the other hand, it denotes power. The majority vote wins in elections. The majority opinion is sometimes able to silence the less popular. Speaking of the majority race makes it seem like a behemoth; something as immovable and inevitable as a mountain range.

But racial power is not inevitable; it is the result of various historical forces. What will happen when our country becomes a nation of fractured ethnic and racial groups, with no one group in the majority? Doesn’t it make sense to begin to speak of racial groups using their proper name, i.e., black, white, Asian, Middle-Eastern, Latino and Latina?

Recently, I read in the New York Times that Middle-Eastern immigrants would like a designated box on the census form. Currently, they must check white or other, and many of them do not feel white, nor are they treated as if they were. You have to wonder how the white bloc of citizens is over-counted due to quirks of the census like this. Same with Hispanics. They are also able to check a box declaring their race, black, white, or a combination. However, the same article noted that Hispanics, when given the option of choosing a race, overwhelmingly check white, despite the fact that few Hispanics from the New World have a typically Caucasian phenotype. Again, the white “majority” bloc is falsely expanded.

I was watching a movie in the Fast and Furious franchise the other day, noting how diverse the cast is. There are several blacks. A few whites, both men and women. An Asian man. Several Hispanics. Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson and Vin Diesel face fight during one scene. My first thought, looking at the two men, is that I have seen the future, and the future will look a lot like them. More and more Americans are balking at the strictures of claiming one race at all: Diesel is reportedly black and white; Johnson is Polynesian and black. I am seeing more young people who belong to the nebulous “mixed-race group,” who see no reason to deny any part of their heritage.

In light of such trends, will there come a day when the census drops racial labeling altogether?

Maybe. But in the meantime, can a majority of us agree to stop using the belittling and power-robbing synonym “minority” for that blossoming, growing, expanding group of multi-racial and varied-race Americans?

 

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The Story in My DNA

Like many African Americans, I grew up not knowing where I came from. There was no “old country” for us. Obviously, I knew that most slaves were brought from Central and West Africa. I heard family stories about being part Native American – that the Seminole Indians had helped slaves escape from their masters by sheltering them within their tribe. That my grandfather’s mother was half Cherokee, part Scotch-Irish, as well as African. Her long black hair and high cheekbones in the one photo I saw of her bore this out.

For a while, these stories were enough. I believed that I would only really find out, if ever, in the afterlife.

When I was 29, I moved from New York City to Argyle, N.Y., a small upstate farming town that had been settled by Scots. Since Fergusons were on the original patent, I was often asked, while interviewing people by phone as a local reporter, if I was one of the Argyle Fergusons, and I would laugh, and say no, and explain that I was African American, not Scottish.

Cameroon girl(Cameroonian girl, stock photo)

A few years ago, at a National Association for Black Journalists conference, the company African Ancestry was doing free DNA analyses for some of the attendees as a promotion. I sat transfixed as the African ancestry of various people was teased out; and listened with amazement at how the person displayed some similar traits as their ancestral land … for example, a gift with textiles.

After that, I became more curious about my ancestry. As the one of the few black people in Argyle, I always wondered why I felt so at home there. Walking into the school auditorium to cover the town’s high school graduation, and seeing all of the McKernons, Liddles, Campbells, McWhorters, felt familiar and natural.

I took a selfie one day lying on my couch and spent minutes studying it intently. The sun was in my eyes, so one eye came out a light brownish gray, the other a dark brown. My skin was caramel brown with yellow undertones. My nose was African. My lips were full. My cheekbones high. I looked at the selfie intently. Who was I? What ancestors contributed to my unique look?

I finally decided to do it … I sent in a sample of my saliva to Ancestry.com.

The directions were easy. Spit up to a certain designated level. Snap the cap with preservative on the test tube. Shake. Seal. Deliver in the self-addressed envelope. Create a portal on the Ancestry web site. Wait.

Finally, they were there. The pie chart that held the mystery of my ancestry.

I had a cousin who had taken the test before me. Her results had come back that she was only 1 percent Native American. Skip Gates, of Harvard University and of the PBS series Finding Your Roots, had written that for most African Americans, Native American ancestry was almost entirely absent. There hadn’t been many opportunities for slaves to mingle with Native Americans outside of a few states like Oklahoma, along the Trail of Tears. His research had shown that most of those light brown people with high cheekbones and long black hair were an admixture of African and European.

I was not surprised that my results bore this out. 71 percent African (including 2 percent North African); 28 percent European and a mere one percent Native American.

The ancestry was so straightforward, it was almost a letdown. African and European. We knew all about the forced sex on Southern plantations; so that was no surprise.

But I still was happy to know more about my ancestors than I ever had. The majority of my DNA was from Cameroon. Cameroon was named by Portuguese, who found that a major waterway teemed with shrimp; therefore they called it Rio dos Camarões or Shrimp River. Facing the Atlantic, it was one of the first places Africans were enslaved. I wondered if my love of the ocean and for seafood was encoded in my DNA. I now know that my family has been in this country from slavery’s early days in the 1600s or early 1700s, since we are descended from some of the first peoples brought from the African continent. Therefore, despite the persistent and resurgent racism in the U.S., I have always, proudly and firmly, felt very American.

Twenty-two percent was Great Britain, which in Ancestry.com’s breakdown, meant England, Scotland and Wales. Because of the family lore about Scottish ancestry, I assume that ancestry was Scottish. Could that explain why I had always felt at home in a land settled by Scots?

The Argyle Scots had been brought to upstate New York to become a buffer between the French and Indians and English settlers. A Capt. Laughlin Campbell was the man who sailed his compatriots to New York. First, though, he brought the South Carolina Fergusons over. My family is rooted in South Carolina. So although I wasn’t descended from the Argyle Fergusons, I was undoubtedly related to them by way of Capt. McLaughlin Campbell.

Next was Ghana (15 percent) Senegal (10 percent) and Benin, 9 percent. I had a high-school friend whose mother had always said I looked Ghanaian and my younger sister’s been told she resembles the nomadic Fulani, who originated in North Africa and peopled many West African nations. So it came as confirmation to discover our North African ancestry. I remember two Senegalese French teachers in high school, whom many of our classmates swooned over. I always used to say that Senegalese men were the best looking men in Africa. Perhaps it’s because something in my DNA recognized something of my ancestors in their faces?

Finally, Benin, the land where the beautiful bronze heads originated. These were master craftsman, artists, among the best on the African continent. My mother, aunt and grandfather were all skilled artists. As well as an aunt on my father’s side. Coincidence?

Although nothing materially changes when you know your ancestry, somehow it ameliorates part of the mystery of who you are and where you came from. Just because of a little bit of spit in a test tube, I now know at least part of the story of my forebears – as told by my DNA.

This story originally appeared in the Huffington Post: Black Voices. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/hope-ferguson/the-story-in-my-dna_b_10008126.html

Happiness is a Season

Wedding dress

The summer of 1997, the summer that Princess Di was killed in a car crash, I was nearing 40 years old. The big 4-0, the year of dread, especially if you had never taken that walk down the aisle. I remember the hot stillness of that August day, sitting on my lawn, hidden by boysenberry bushes, pondering the untimely death of the beautiful Diana, and writing in my journal: “I am nearly 40 years old, and nobody loves me.”

Like many little girls, I had dreamed of the white wedding. The beautiful gown. The flowers. The jittery groom waiting at the altar, an uncontrollable smile breaking out on his handsome face. I had had literal dreams of marriage: Dreams in which I was all dressed for the wedding, but missing my shoes. Was that God’s way of telling me I was almost, but not quite ready?

Years before, I had met the man whom I considered the love of my life. A fellow transplanted New Yorker, he was a handsome artist with a studio facing an Adirondack lake. We had met on a blind date; for me it had been love at first sight. We’d had a whirlwind courtship, and then he’d disappeared.

I remember praying ceaselessly that he would return. Once or twice he did, but would inevitably disappear again, with letters laden with apologies. I would sometimes see the beloved himself, walking down Broadway, felt hat sitting jauntily on his black curls, shoulder to shoulder with another woman. Once I saw him enter a store across the street and followed him in, where we briefly greeted each other. But despite my hopes of re-igniting the relationship, nothing came of it.

Until one March day when I arrived home to hear his voice on my answering machine. It was 8 years after our initial date. “I have so much to tell you,” he’d said.

He’d married, separated, and was now struggling to raise a young infant daughter by himself. He needed help. I was 42 years old and I was finally going to be a wife and mother!

Five months later I was single again, due to his verbal abuse. I had found the opportunity to escape after a bad argument, when he stormed out of the house.

I remember standing in the living room, looking up at the ceiling and asking God: “Does this mean I can leave?”

My ex’s gun had been confiscated after a particularly ugly fight with his former wife. That was the day he was to get his gun back. God’s timing was perfect!

The exhilaration didn’t last long. Depression and questions followed. Why God? Why did you allow this to happen? Have I not been faithful? Am I not a good enough Christian? Do you really care about me? Where is my happy ending?

As the years piled up, the pain did diminish some. I realized that God had given me quail, as he had the children of Israel who grew tired of manna and demanded meat. I had prayed, bargained, wheedled until I got what I wanted, and it had turned to ashes in my mouth.

I was now nearing 50 and still alone. I had the occasional crush, but no doors seemed to open in terms of the fulfillment of marriage. I had already grieved the empty arms of not having a child; would I now also be alone for life?

I pondered “these strange ashes,” as Elisabeth Elliot called it; what remains of a dream when the fire and the smoke have cleared.

Yet I have come to believe firmly that, if you are one of the 51 percent of American women over 18 without a spouse (or one of 70 percent of black women) and you sincerely desire a husband and do not feel “called to be single,” then God may yet “give you the desires of your heart.”

But there are lessons to be learned in the waiting.

Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:33)

Was I truly seeking God with all my heart, all my soul, all my strength – or was my true goal a man? (Deut. 6:5-9) God asks us to put him above all our hopes, dreams and desires. God knows that only when we make His desires our desires and His will our will, will he be able to give us those godly desires of our hearts – and that includes husbands.

Rejoice with Those Who Rejoice (Romans 12:15)

I attended many bridal showers, weddings and baby showers as a single. Would I be able to rejoice with those who rejoiced? Celebrate their happiness as if it’s my own? Or will I, as one friend did, boycott a friend’s wedding because it was just too painful to attend? Sometimes we need to grit our teeth and do the hard thing; for we do reap what we sow. As we partake in the joy of our friends and relatives, we are sowing the seeds of their rejoicing with us.

And remember, in God’s economy, there is no scarcity. It’s not as if when someone gets something we want, there’s nothing left for us. So sow seeds of support, love and happiness and they’ll surely come back to you.

Don’t let a root of bitterness spring up … (Hebrews 12:15)

“See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.” (Hebrews 12:15)

Was I bitter? Did my disappointment, and what I saw as delays – and seeing other people’s blessings get me down? Sure. But by will, I needed to release that bitterness. Bitterness can stop God’s blessings faster than a thunderstorm can ruin a picnic. If I wanted God to fill my cup, I needed make sure I was holding up a clean cup of gratitude and praise, and not one filled with the bitter dregs of anger, envy and discouragement.

Delight Yourself in the Lord (Psalm 37:4)

I needed to fill this season of singleness being busy about God’s business while I waited. God knew I desired motherhood. There were always little ones, especially little girls, who needed “other-mothers.” Although they had moms, I found that little girls desire love outside the family circle, and a Sunday school teacher is often the recipient of that lavish love. Meantime, I was blessed with support from other women, especially in the church. God promises to set the lonely in families. If you are lonely pray that God will set you in a family while you wait.

Pray!

Psalm 38:9 says, “All my longings lie open before you, O Lord; my sighing is not hidden from you.” God sees, as he told Hagar when she ran away from her mistress and was wandering in the wilderness with her son. He knows your longings; he placed them there. As long as you’re alive, God can change your circumstances in one instant, no matter how long it takes.

How can I be so sure?

On July 26, 2009, I walked into church to see an unexpected crowd of young and middle-aged men. As I took my customary seat, by myself, I flipped over the bulletin to see that we were hosting Teen Challenge, a faith-based drug and alcohol recovery ministry. Downstairs, during fellowship time, Judy, my pastor’s wife, asked Karen, the worship leader, and me to go and make small talk with two young men seated alone on the far end of the room. Before I could make it across the room, a tall, handsome middle-aged man stepped into my path and introduced himself to me. My pastor ended up inviting my friend, Lydia, and me to stay for the luncheon, where I learned that he was on the staff of the ministry. This week, on my 58th birthday, I bought my wedding dress.

Three years before I met him, I had gone to the anniversary celebration of my former pastor’s new church. The minister opened the altar for prayer after the service. As he prayed down the line he had a “word of knowledge” or encouragement for each person. When he came to me, he began to pray exuberantly, but then he paused, and his voice became serious. “You have been waiting for something for a long time, and it seems like God has forgotten you. But God wants you to know He has not forgotten you; he has his hook in somebody, and he’s reeling him in.”

My fiancé accepted the Lord within a year of that prayer. God prepared him, then he reeled him in. Right in my path, by the way.

I have learned that just as singleness is a season, happiness is a season as well. Since God works in and amongst people, sometimes we have to wait, not because of anything we have done or not done, but because God’s love is putting something together that is “greater than we can hope or imagine.”

A version of this story originally appeared in Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics column: http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2015/october/grief-happiness-and-hope-of-late-in-life-singleness.html

Breaking the Code

Obama cool black manPoor President Obama, he just can’t catch a break. Looking strained and weary, he had to interrupt his Martha’s Vineyard vacation and return to Washington because the world seemed aflame with problems both at home and abroad.

His entire second term has been characterized by Congressional gridlock and immigration woes. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took shots at his foreign policy in the media, and he’s been criticized by African Americans for not attending to problems in the inner-city, the type of which boiled over recently in Ferguson, MO.

It’s not that the president doesn’t try. Before African-American audiences, he will assume an air of familiarity that some have found patronizing. About Republicans planning a lawsuit against him, he says they should stop “hatin’ all the time.” Before his last election, he told members of the Congressional Black Caucus (reportedly switching to a preacher’s cadence) to take off their “bedroom slippers and start marching.” He even recently complimented his White House pastry chef by saying his pies were so delicious, “I don’t know what he does – whether he puts crack in them.”

What?

That was my reaction until I realized that yet again, our president was “code-switching.” Saying something has crack in it is like saying it’s crazy good. (With two teens in the house, Obama has a ready resource for the latest slang.)

In a recent piece in The Daily Beast, columnist John McWhorter argued that such relatability was requisite for the presidency today, noting that George W. Bush was often criticized for his Texan swagger.

Many groups code-switch. Italians, Jews, Puerto-Ricans, Mexicans. We all have “in-group lingo;” something that lets us feel we’re members of the inner circle.

I remember when my then-16 year old nephew, Christian, came back from vacation in California, sounding as if he’d grown up on the mean streets East Palo Alto, despite having been born and schooled (and often on the high-honor roll) in rural upstate New York. Now 24, he said, “I think code-switching is necessary to smoothly transverse through different groups. Growing up out there I did not learn what we typically consider ‘urban code.’ Coming to California was my first introduction, and I definitely wanted to speak the code at first just to fit in. I mean, I have regularly spoken in urban code for the last 8 years. But at the same time, I realized what my grandmother meant when she said that people perceive you a certain way when you look and speak a certain way. So around sophomore year of college, I realized it could be beneficial to be able to do both at any time.”

In a TED talk, spoken word poet Jamila Lyiscott riffed easily between urban, Caribbean and standard English, telling her audience she was “tri-lingual.”

Black ministers are often masters of the code-switch. My pastor, the Rev. Arnold Byrd III, a young African-American minister, can easily go from standard English on his job in sales with a major cable company, to language designed to connect with the congregation in his predominantly black church on Sundays. He says he follows the example of Jesus, who used things his listeners could understand – fishing and farming – to explain the Kingdom of Heaven. “Peter was a businessman; he owned his own fishing business. So when Jesus told Peter, ‘I will make you a fisher of men,’ Peter understood where he was coming from because he uses something Peter could relate to.”

With the news dominated again by the killing of a young, unarmed black man in Ferguson, even in the comments section of Christianity Today, we see that black and white Christians seemingly talk a different language. One can see how, if people only hung around with others who shared their views, both on and off-line, deadly misunderstandings could occur when we confront one another in real life.

This shouldn’t be so.

My pastor says that Mark 12:30-31, the famous scripture that tells us to love God with our heart soul, and mind and our neighbor as ourselves, is crucial. “In everything about me I am going to show God I love him, which means his ways trump my beliefs, my thoughts or how I perceive a thing,” he told me.

As Paul writes in Ephesians, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility … that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end. (Ephesians 2:13-18 RSV)

As believers we should be masters of the ultimate “code-switch.” After all, we not only are citizens of various nations, but we are citizens of heaven. We should be conversant not only in the language dictated by our differing cultures, but in the language given to us by the Lord Jesus Christ: “Love one another as I have loved you.”

A version of this story originally appeared in Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics column in August 2014: http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2014/august/code-switching-for-kingdom.html

 

 

Waiting for Lucia: What a Puppy Taught Me About Waiting

I knew her name before I had ever met her. Luci, short for Lucia, which means light.

Lucia couch

Lucia, at 7 months, sitting on couch

My fiancé, who then was living in New York City, had been discussing getting another dog, just for him. I had taken trips to the local humane society to look at puppies several times, even once taking my older dog, Neptune, to see how he would respond to a puppy.

Sometimes only adult dogs, mostly pit bulls, were available. But in the spring, puppies were plentiful. One local shelter allowed you to view and reserve potential pets online, and when you got to the shelter, you had first dibs on that particular animal. One day, I reserved a truly cute roly-poly dog, female, some type of mix, I don’t remember of what.

Neptune and I drove over on a sunny Saturday to check her out. The dog had a soft, fuzzy gray and brown down coat; was beautiful, healthy, playful, everything a puppy should be, but there was something missing. We had no connection. Even Neptune was indifferent to her. A little girl and her father were second in line to visit the puppy, and I told them she was all theirs.

Then there was the pure white pit bull female, Blanca, that I met while sitting on a coffeehouse patio having lunch with a friend. Two workers from the local animal shelter were having lunch there also, Blanca in tow. Blanca came over and nuzzled me for a few minutes. Her little wide face with a mottled pink nose was so innocent and open that I put aside my fear of pit bulls. I vacillated a few days about putting in an application for Blanca. By the time I made up my mind, and drove to the shelter on my lunch break, someone else had adopted her.

Four years ago, my neighbors had a litter of puppies, border collie – Australian shepherd mixes. There were five puppies that they left in a pen on their lawn. Every morning on my way to work, I would drive past the pen of puppies, seeing them grow a little more each day.

My heart began to yearn for a puppy in the house.

I finally decided to stop and inquire. Four of the puppies were spoken for, one was a maybe. If the tentative owner pulled out, she would be mine. The puppies were beautiful dogs, with the traditional black and white markings and pointed nose of a border collie.

I would sit on my porch and pray about the puppy. That’s when the name came to me, dropped into my head with clarity, seemingly from nowhere. Lucy. Hmmm. Lucy? I didn’t really care for the name; being of a certain age, all I could think of was the 1950s comedy, “I love Lucy.” Then the name expanded on its own: Lucia. I looked up the word and saw that it meant light. Perfect, I thought. I prayed for the puppy, writing my pleas in my yellow journal. “Lord, if Lucia is mine, please let the other potential owner pull out.”

Yet when I checked back at the agreed upon time, the dog had been adopted. I put dreams of a new puppy on the shelf. My fiancé, Morgan, had since relocated upstate. Ours was a late-in-life connection. We were both 51 with three marriages between us when we, through a string of improbable events, met at an Assembly of God church in Granville, Washington County, New York. Both Brooklynites, we had coincidentally, both lived on Clinton Avenue in Fort Greene.

He and Neptune had become very attached, after an awkward and tentative beginning. Neptune recognized Morgan as his Alpha dog, and was sometimes more attentive and affectionate to him than to me. So a dog was no longer such a priority.

The years flew by. Once in a while, when Neptune proved stubborn and obstinate, Morgan would say he wanted his own dog, to train up from a puppy.

My Facebook friend Brenda’s dog had a litter of puppies two years ago: Border-collie – Aussie mixes. There were five, and they were quickly spoken for. I didn’t really covet any of them; although they were awfully cute. Finances were tight; there were a million other priorities before a new dog.

Two more years passed. Brenda thought Maggie, her border collie, was pregnant again. Then she confirmed: Maggie was carrying seven puppies. It was January, a little bit early for what I thought of as puppy season; but I began to feel a tugging in my heart. I told Brenda I’d be interested in a girl, but made no commitment.

When the puppies were six weeks old, I drove out “just to look.” Two of the puppies were already spoken for. Five were available.

Brenda and her husband lived in a log cabin on a winding dirt road. Inside, was a great pen right in the middle of the living room, with seven squirming, tumbling, round, puppies with various markings in black and white.

I sat on the floor overwhelmed by choice, as I am when I walk into a grocery store and am unsure of what brand paper towels to buy.

One puppy nuzzled close and ran off. Closing my eyes I did what I am accustomed to doing when I am unsure of something. “God, bring me the puppy I am supposed to have.” No sooner had the prayer been lifted, than a puppy with a funny-looking serious face, all black, save a dash of white on her chest and rear paws, climbed into my lap. For the rest of my visit, the funny-looking puppy clung to me.

“I guess I’ll take this one, since we’ve been hanging out together,” I said.

Four years after my desires had not been met for the first border-collie – Aussie puppy, I finally had met Lucia.

Morgan was settled in. He was soon to start a new more lucrative job (although we weren’t aware of that yet). Rough edges had been polished off our relationship. Finances were more plentiful. It was time.

With the excitement of first love, I began preparing for our new puppy. Soft new American Kennel-brand fleece bed. Toys from Petsmart. Smart new faux suede carrier. It was literally “puppy love.”

As I sat reading my journal recently, I re-read my prayers for a puppy named Lucia. I didn’t know then that there would be a four-year wait. It reminded me that in life, we don’t always get what we want … at least not immediately. In the Book of Galations in the New Testament, one of the fruits of the Spirit is patience. Sometimes God wants us to wait; for his own reasons.

But like fine wine, spring, and late-in-life love, some things come not a moment too soon or a minute too late. They come right on time.

This Time, It’s Personal: Reflections on the Charleston Shootings

Black&White CharlestonIn the last several weeks, we have seen two extremes unfolding in the saga of race relations in America.  On the one hand, was the amusing, but at the same time sad and puzzling story of Rachel Dolezal, who, apparently empathized with African Americans so much, that she slowly began to take on the identity of a black woman. However, her story was forced off the front pages by yet another signal event in this country’s bedeviled relationship with race.

This time, the script was more familiar. A young disenfranchised white male who apparently had been spending his time prowling the Internet’s racist sites and imbibing raw, unfiltered racism, decided that it was his duty to incite a racial war. Forget the fact that in the more than four centuries since the introduction of African slaves, there has never been a war between the black and white races on our shores. A large part of that has been because of the resilience and the faith of African Americans.

The church has long been considered the most important institution in the black community. Writing for The Root, Peniel E. Joseph, founder of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Tufts University, said:

“The black church’s radical humanism harbored a fierce resistance to slavery, a love of freedom, and a thirst for citizenship and equality that made it a hotbed of internal debates, discussions and controversies over the best course for black liberation in America… After slavery, the strength of the black church made it a target of racist vigilantes, with white supremacists turning a religious symbol, the cross, into a burning icon of racial terror.”

The African Methodist Episcopal Church is the country’s oldest black Protestant denomination and remains one of its most prominent. An outgrowth of a civic group called the Free African Society, Methodist evangelist Richard Allen founded the first AME church in 1794. When his segregated congregation in Philadelphia went as far as pulling black parishioners from their knees when praying, Allen knew it was time to establish safe, secure places where people of African descent could freely worship.

AME churches thrived in the Northeast and Midwest, but also eventually stretched below the Mason Dixon line. At one time, the dream was to remove African Americans from the US and to take them to established black homelands in Liberia and Haiti, but those plans eventually were foiled. (The denomination does now have branches in Liberia, Sierre Leone, and South Africa.)

My father, grandfather, and great-grandfather all grew up in the pews of the AME church. I come from a long line of AME ministers, and although my parents were non-observant, the imprint of my father’s AME past was passed on to him and his three siblings. Raised in a strict home as PKs, pastor’s kids, they were expected to achieve and serve. I see the influence of their AME upbringing in their striving for excellence, concern for social justice, and passion for education.

I saw glimpses of that ambition and commitment to service in the victim’s obituaries as well: distinguished graduates of historically black colleges, active in community organizations, faithful ministers of Emanuel AME Church.

I recall hearing stories from my relatives about NAACP meetings held in the church basement and the traveling civil rights leaders who visited. My grandfather, a presiding elder overseeing AME churches in Baltimore, ended his career at Washington DC’s Turner AME Church. Decades later, the congregation still remembers his legacy with a bio on their website:

“The Reverend Clarence Clyde Ferguson … was a spiritual and dynamic leader with foresight, wisdom and great pastoral ability. Under his leadership, Turner continued to grow and to develop rapidly. A parsonage, located at 509 P Street, N. W. was purchased. The church grew from a mission to a station charge. Reverend Ferguson served until his death in 1946.”

I think about how the late pastor of Mother Emanuel, Clementa Pinckney, will be remembered. Sadly, he too served until his death—at just 41.

But after months and years of declaring #BlackLivesMatter, why has this event been the one to stir more white Americans as well as blacks and their progressive allies?

Understandably, the Charleston shooting hits especially close to home, symbolically and emotionally, for African Americans like me.

Many African Americans, even those raised in the North, have ties to South Carolina. More than half of black Americans have ancestors who came as slaves through the state’s coastal ports including Charleston, according to historians.

Within my family, there are black Fergusons in South Carolina to this day. (Our branch migrated to North Carolina; my father was born in Wilmington. I grew up in New York, where my parents, Southern transplants, met and married.)

Even more significant, though, is Mother Emanuel itself. A historic black church, it represents both a force against American slavery and oppression and a beacon signifying the rights of African Americans to worship freely.

When I heard that Pinckney and the others were killed in their church basement, I immediately flashed back to my own memories of Wednesday night Bible studies, of being excited to welcome any new face who came.The young white man who visited Emanuel AME apparently considered it his duty to incite a racial war. We know, however, that our battle ultimately is spiritual, not physical. We know that the enemy comes to rob, kill, and destroy, but that Jesus came to bring life and life to the full.

I watched grieving in both black and white communities on CNN in the aftermath. Commentators marveled at the joy in the worship service, attended by both South Carolina’s black and white communities. I saw the mutual comforting and the tears. I heard the church bells that rolled across the historic city of Charleston in mourning for nine lives lost.

It brought to mind this Scripture: “Do not repay evil for evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:17, 21)

This time, the killing of black Americans going about their daily business, I suspect, became personal for white believers. Instead of a thug, they saw a pastor; instead of unfamiliar, possibly suspect blacks, they saw brothers and sisters in the Lord gathering for Bible study.

I pray they can remember how that feels—to assume the “other” to be one of them—next time an injustice occurs. That instinct can be a first step to bridging a divide, to loving their neighbor, to begin healing racial wounds.

My prayer is that brothers and sisters in Christ, be they white, black, brown, or any other color, would put down our differences at the foot of the cross. For as South Carolinians of every stripe demonstrated in the last several days, and as we sing in our churches: “He is our peace; He has broken down every wall.”

(A version of this article originally appeared in the Her.menuetics blog on Christianity Today)

Do Our Souls Have Gender? Musings on Caitlyn/Bruce Jenner

caitlyn-jenner-i-am-cate-01-770x513My hairdresser and I were discussing the respective men in our lives. We talked about communication styles and the methods we use to diffuse arguments when the men start getting hot under the collar. And how they can spend long phone conversations talking to loved ones, but neglect to find out the important things: is a sick relative feeling better, or a friend’s marriage on the mend? They don’t know the answers, because they were talking about cars.

We agreed that, even women who are childless usually are naturally nurturing: to nieces and nephews, to the children they teach in Sunday school, to people who are weaker (nursing used to be a traditionally female career), to pets and others. How being a female is about more than high heels and makeup; even though all those things may be fun. Yet many young moms barely have time to apply lipstick regularly and most women, after 40, struggle with 5- or 6- inch heels, learning to prefer comfort over style.

These musings were brought about by the recent media hoopla about the Olympic Gold Medalist Bruce Jenner’s stunning transformation, after three marriages and five children, to “Caitlyn,” a surgically enhanced, satin corset-wearing 65-year-old bombshell.

As the laudatory celebrity tweets rolled in; and dissenting voices were silenced, I don’t think I was alone in being disturbed by this news. Reading comments in center-left newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post, revealed that commentators, who are able to post anonymously, were, by a margin of about 3 to 1, critical of Bruce’s “new look.”

Jenner has claimed that he has always had a female soul. But can a human soul be misplaced? Can God, our Creator, accidently plant a female soul in a male body? Is there even such a thing as a “male” or “female” soul? We know the male and female psyches differ. Despite early feminist efforts to say there were no differences, or that those differences don’t matter, most people by common observation (which is backed by science) can see that generally speaking men and women have definite differences in behavior and the way we interact with the world. On a light note, we women sometimes wonder why our mates can be glued to ESPN or Monday night football or never tire of watching the Fast and Furious franchise over and over, when a good rom-com or drama would be so much more interesting. Or why my brother-in-law and nephew’s conversations on Facebook revolve around the cars and trucks my nephew seems to trade as if they were baseball cards.

On a more serious note, we wonder, why, when we ask our partners about a dear friend’s well-being when they get off the phone or home from a visit, they may reply, “We didn’t go into all that.” Whereas when two women get together, even in a new friendship, by the time an hour is over, we know the basic contours of one another’s lives.

We, as Christians, can definitely feel isolated in from our culture’s views of human sexuality, marriage, and gender identification. Sometimes we learn to keep our views to ourselves for fear of offending others, or just because we don’t want to argue or seem intolerant. But when I heard about Jenner, all I could think of was how sad he must be. Like the writer of Ecclesiastes, he has lived a life of wealth, notoriety and material blessings; with all the houses, cars and toys many Americans only can enjoy vicariously. Yet, there apparently was still a void in his life that riches and fame could not fill.

As the Bible succinctly notes at the end of Judges: “Israel had no king so everyone did what was right in their own eyes.”

Our times are similar. Many Americans have not submitted to the King of kings and Lord of lords, so all we can muster is doing what seems right for us: reveling in “our own truth.”

I like the opening line from a favorite poem, “Otherwise” by Jane Kenyon. She begins the poem with, “I stood with two strong legs.”

Didn’t we all? We “woke up” and were here. We did not choose our parents. We did not choose where to be born. We did not choose our race or ethnicity or the socio-economic group we were born into. And we did not choose whether we were male or female.

But God works through our particular circumstances: we can feel secure in the fact that he has appointed the time and the place where we are born; it was not a cosmic accident. And if we draw near to him, he will surely show us how our individual circumstances can be used for his purpose and for the purposes he has chosen for us to serve.

But we are mysteries to ourselves. Psalm 64:6-7 notes:

“The inner man and the heart are mysterious; but God will shoot them with arrows; suddenly they will be struck down.”

Jeremiah further says. “The heart is deceitful beyond all things; who can understand it?”

It is only through our relationship with God, and our daily communion with him, that we will ever understand our true natures and selves.

In the discussion of Jenner, a prestigious hospital that pioneered so-called sex re-assignment surgery, no longer performs these operations, after findings showed that many people were just as troubled after as they were before surgery. After a decade, the suicide rate for transgendered surgically altered people was 20 times higher than for those who did not have the surgery.

As Christians, we should have empathy for Jenner; although I don’t believe we can applaud his choice. Better, as the former head of psychiatry for Johns Hopkins said, is to steer these people into therapy, where they can explore why they don’t feel comfortable in their skin.

Every one of us has “issues,” areas that we struggle with daily; sins that we mightily strive to overcome. Failings and shortcomings and even physical and mental illnesses that we, however difficult it is, must deal with and run to God with every day.

It wasn’t for nothing that Jesus commanded his followers to “Take up your cross daily.” Because it was on one particular cross of suffering that death was overcome and new life given to all who come. Our crosses are often the very things God uses to purify us and make us suitable instruments for, and eventual inhabitants of, his Kingdom.

This story originally appeared in Christian Post

http://blogs.christianpost.com/guest-views/do-our-souls-have-gender-and-other-musings-on-bruce-caitlyn-jenners-transformation-25756/