Stories: Shelly Ann

I have to begin this by identifying that I’ve typed and deleted my opening sentence half a dozen times… I feel the weight of the gift we were given this Sunday, and I deeply desire to honor the one who gave it. The gift Shelly gave us was not easy for her to give. While we needed to hear it in all of its interwoven grief and joy, she didn’t owe us her story. She chose to share her experiences, drenched in grace, and I have to acknowledge that before I write anything else. She gave us the gift of courageous vulnerability and a window into her reality–a reality that most of us in attendance will never understand for how much it differs from our own.

I know Shelly as my friend. I know her to be a woman of great strength who stands up for equity and serves many of the marginalized in our community in ways many people don’t know. I know her as a committed follower of Jesus who deeply desires to embody His love for all people. I know her as a friend who gives and gives… and then gives some more–from a heart that selflessly wants to help. I know her as a mother who would stop at nothing to provide an environment where her children can soar–but also understands the value of letting go so their wings can unfurl. She is a learner who asks hard questions–and doesn’t stop at easy answers. I know her to be feisty and fiery in all the right ways. Conversations with her can leave me doubled over laughing as easily as they can leave my eyes full of tears. This is a short summary of the Shelly I am blessed to know.

Shelly shared with us a couple of other descriptors of who she is. She is a twice-divorced mother of two, and she is an Hispanic woman. These are facts that make up part of who she is. Unfortunately, the world around her–including the part that lives within the walls of the Church–has failed to see beyond these two pieces that are only part of who she is…

She described being a single mom as overwhelming, a role marked with insecurity, self-doubt and second-guessing herself. She expressed that she “didn’t want to screw [her] kids up.” She talked about carrying the weight of all of the decision-making and not wanting to ask for help. “When you have to ask for help, you’re vulnerable,” she said. So she kept her two children in tightly clenched fists, and did her best to keep their world safe. Until she couldn’t do that anymore…

“I finally had to realize I couldn’t make my kids who I thought they should be…I had to give them back to the Lord and ask Him how to love them best.”

And so, in the vulnerability of asking for help, Shelly began to realize she wasn’t alone. She began to look for safe people who could speak encouragement to her and her children. She also heard a quote from Andy Stanley that shifted her focus as a mom:

“Your ministry may not be what you do, but who you raise.”

And I can attest to the fact that she has raised–and continues to guide–two incredible human beings who display the same love and light that is evident in their mother.

I mentioned that Shelly began to look for “safe” people for herself and her kids. It’s hard enough to be a divorced single mom. The struggle can be magnified by church culture that often ascribes higher value to married couples and “whole” families than to divorcees and their children. I spent half of my childhood as the daughter of a hardworking single mom. I saw the struggles my mom experienced and I felt the pang of our “difference” in our church experience, though there were certainly those who loved us well. What I cannot identify with–and never will be able to say that I understand–is the role that ethnicity has played in Shelly’s story. She didn’t only have to look for people who would be safe for a single mom and her kids–she had to find people who would be safe for an Hispanic single mom and her Hispanic children.

This is the part of Shelly’s story that makes me cry the most. It is also the part I feel most intimidated to write about. So I will share with you what she shared with us, and I invite you–especially those of you would identify as part of the majority culture (white people)–to listen. It took courage for Shelly to share her experiences–and those of her children–with an audience that has contributed to their pain. It is never the responsibility of those who have been stereotyped and marginalized by majority culture to teach us. It is our responsibility to do our own research, to learn, and–when given the opportunity–to listen with rapt attention to the experiences of our sisters and brothers without getting defensive or questioning the validity of their pain. Shelly chose to share with us–she didn’t have to. And it is our responsibility to see her, hear her, and allow her whole truth to move past our walls of ignorance and deflection into our hearts where it can mess with our assumptions and prejudices–the things we may not even be aware we carry. 

With the exception of two years spent in Southwest Texas, Shelly and her children have lived their entire lives in Casper, Wyoming. This is their home. Here is some of what they have experienced here, in the community they call home:

Assumptions that they’re from Mexico, and when they say that they were born here, they are often asked, “When did your parents come over?”

Racial slurs and “jokes” out of the mouths of teachers and coaches.

Assumptions that they’re on welfare and have no manners.

Assumptions that they all speak fluent Spanish.

Continually being treated as “less than”. 

Enduring racial comments and condescension from students within our own church youth group.

These examples are a smattering of the prejudice Shelly and her children endure on a regular basis. So when she shared that she needed to find “safe” people, that wasn’t an easy step to take.

Shelly also shared with us that it was about a year ago that she realized who she is. In her words,

“I am His precious daughter and I have worth and value. And I want my kids to know that about themselves before they’re 44 years old like I was.”

As she spoke these words through tears, much of the room cried with her. This precious, beautiful woman has experienced a world that has repeatedly left her feeling less than. A world that has made assumptions. A world that has refused to acknowledge our part in her pain, and has made excuses to try to justify our behavior. But after 44 years of life, she began to see her preciousness as a daughter of God. I am so grateful that she sees this deep truth and holds onto it, that she lives from that place and knows she has worth.

But Shelly’s identity in Christ does not replace the other parts of her identity. Oftentimes, we who are part of majority culture want it to, because it lets us off the hook. There is a real temptation, especially within Christian circles to subscribe to “colorblindness”. But as Daniel Hill wrote in his book White Awake, “Colorblindness minimizes the racial-cultural heritage of a person and promotes a culturally neutral approach that sees people independent of their heritage…The ideology of Christian colorblindness is fortified by theological truths that are unfortunately misapplied to cultural identity. The short form usually sounds something like this: ‘God did not create multiple races; there is just one race: humankind.”

This may sound good–it certainly sounds easier. But taking a culturally neutral approach strips all of us of the intricacies of the Imago Dei (the image of God) represented in all of our differences more than in our sameness. All of us bear the image of God–every tribe and tongue. It is problematic to choose colorblindness as a way of interacting with one another because we each have different cultural experiences, traditions, and ways of being in the world that make us who we are. It is also a problem because colorblindness will always most benefit the majority culture. It protects us from listening, and from repenting and lamenting the pain we’ve caused. It gives us an excuse to keep things “normal”. And it keeps us from seeing and hearing the beauty in experiences that differ from our own. We all have to be aware of the temptation to sacrifice pieces of how God fashioned us on the altar of our identity in Christ. Is our identity in Him the most important identity we carry? Yes, I believe that the Imago Dei is the defining characteristic of all of humanity. But the image of God is grossly misrepresented if we choose to subscribe to a monochromatic version of who He is, and then try to call it equality. 

In regard to Shelly, her ethnicity contributes to who she is, as much as her gender does. It is a beautiful part of who she is and should be regarded as such. It would be naive of us to try to separate this part of her from who she is. It can’t be done.

This story was especially poignant after a week full of hatred…

11 Jewish people are dead–gunned down in their place of worship… at the hands of a white person who hated their ethnicity. 

Two Black people are dead–gunned down in a grocery store… at the hands of a white person who hated their ethnicity.

Many other stories have surfaced recently that evidence a mentality of white superiority. There has been a rise in hate crimes and fear is running wild. Colorblindness is not the answer to the violence and hatred.

Embracing one another as image bearers of God, as human beings who have inherent value and dignity, and choosing to see the beauty in our differences–choosing to love and listen to and learn from those differences–is where love can begin to grow and overpower the hate.

Church, the Kingdom Jesus brought to earth is not a white kingdom. It is also not a colorless kingdom. Our Jesus took on a human form that was Jewish and brown. The Bible speaks of every tribe and tongue–distinct, yet unified under the banner of Christ and His love.

Shelly gave us the gift of her story, her life experiences. We now have the opportunity to let her words pierce our hearts, to repent where we’ve caused hurt, and to choose to live our tomorrows differently. When we operate out of our judgement, assumptions, and prejudices, we distort the image of God in others and in ourselves as those who proclaim to love a Jesus who doesn’t share or approve of our superior mindsets. Let us choose instead to acknowledge, honor, and uphold the image of God in one another.

–Laura

Laura wrote:

 It is never the responsibility of those who have been stereotyped and marginalized by majority culture to teach us. It is our responsibility to do our own research, to learn, and–when given the opportunity–to listen with rapt attention to the experiences of our sisters and brothers without getting defensive or questioning the validity of their pain. Shelly chose to share with us–she didn’t have to. And it is our responsibility to see her, hear her, and allow her whole truth to move past our walls of ignorance and deflection into our hearts where it can mess with our assumptions and prejudices–the things we may not even be aware we carry. 

I want to reiterate that it is not the role or responsibility of the stereotyped and marginalized to teach us about their experiences. It is costly to do so. It is our own responsibility to learn. There are wonderful books, fabulous podcasts, conferences, Facebook groups, etc. available to help us learn, but in order to learn, we have to be willing to face some uncomfortable truths.  Laura reminded us that it is our responsibility to listen without getting defensive or questioning the validity of another person’s pain.

This is where we get stuck. We get defensive. We push back. Some of us deny the valid experiences of others because they are not the experiences that we have. Some of us listen with sorrow, and then push back by saying “I’m not a racist, I see everyone the same,” which takes us back to Laura’s comments about color blindness. We can’t be color blind when it comes to people. It’s not realistic and it’s not Christ like. God made us in all of our wonderful diversity. We are to value one another–celebrate one another–learn from one another. Instead we “other” one another.

And Laura wrote: it is our responsibility to see her, hear her, and allow her whole truth to move past our walls of ignorance and deflection into our hearts where it can mess with our assumptions and prejudices–the things we may not even be aware we carry. 

…assumptions and prejudices that we may not even be aware we carry.  My prayer is that Shelly’s courage will bear good fruit, and we will begin to open our eyes and hearts to what many in our community, our nation, our world experience. I pray that we won’t just have our hearts open, but we will truly move toward making it different with the genuine love of God flowing out of us through the power of the Holy Spirit. I pray that when assumptions begin to appear in our thoughts, that we’ll take those thoughts captive and replace them with Imago Dei thoughts.

We must understand that racism isn’t just about individual behavior, it’s much larger than that. And please, please, please, please don’t jump to political categories as you read through the next portion of the blog. Please don’t see “liberal” and “conservative”, “right” and “left”.  Racism is about human beings created in the Image of God. It is a spiritual issue that matters deeply to the heart of God. We must be willing to go there.

In the article “Understanding Whiteness–Calgary Anti-Racism Education” (University of Calgary), they write:

…racism is the result of The power of Whiteness manifested by the ways in which racialized Whiteness becomes transformed into social, political, economic, and cultural behaviour. White culture, norms, and values in all these areas become normative natural. They become the standard against which all other cultures, groups, and individuals are measured and usually found to be inferior (Henry & Tator, 2006, p. 46-47).

Whiteness is multidimensional, complex, systemic and systematic:

  • It is socially and politically constructed, and therefore a learned behavior.
  • It does not just refer to skin colour but its ideology based on beliefs, values behaviors, habits and attitudes, which result in the unequal distribution of power and privilege based on skin colour (Frye, 1983;  Kivel, 1996).
  • It represents a position of power where the power holder defines the categories, which means that the power holder decides who is white and who is not (Frye, 1983).
  • It is relational. “White” only exists in relation/opposition to other categories/locations in the racial hierarchy produced by whiteness. In defining “others,” whiteness defines itself.
  • It is fluid – who is considered white changes over time (Kivel, 1996).
  • It is a state of unconsciousness: whiteness is often invisible to white people, and this perpetuates a lack of knowledge or understanding of difference which is a root cause of oppression (hooks, 1994).
  • It shapes how white people view themselves and others, and places white people in a place of structural advantage where white cultural norms and practices go unnamed and unquestioned (Frankenberg, 1993). Cultural racism is founded in the belief that “whiteness is considered to be the universal … and allows one to think and speak as if Whiteness described and defined the world” (Henry & Tator, 2006, p. 327).

Okay–take a deep breath. There’s a lot to take in and process on this journey. A lot of squirming and discomfort involved–a strong desire to separate ourselves from it because it’s ugly and doesn’t feel good, and we don’t want to be part of it or perpetuate it. I know. I’m on the journey too. I’ve been one of the people who’s pushed back with “…but not all white people…” and “I’m not that way…”. And while those statements are true, they completely overlook the fact that I am part of a system that began long before I walked this planet, that benefits me over others. That’s what we must be willing to see.

So, what do we do?

We bathe ourselves in prayer, in scripture, in the life of Jesus, we ask for the Holy Spirit to guide us–to show us. We educate ourselves about systems and policies and accurate history, we allow ourselves to feel the pain and suffering of others, and we use our voices to make a positive difference, and we step into uncomfortable spaces as He leads.

God’s heart for all people is consistent throughout scripture.

In Genesis we are told that he created male and female and gave them dominion over the rest of the created world…not dominion over one another.

In Exodus 22:21 God tells us do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.

In Leviticus 19:33-34 God says to us When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.

The Ten Commandments are all about loving God and treating others well, therefore Jesus could say that they are summed this way:  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Mt. 22:36-40)

In the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus makes it very clear that our neighbor is everyone. As a matter of fact, if you look closely at the gospels, often times the nationality of a person was mentioned…the Samaritan woman at the well (the disciples questioned the fact that Jesus was talking to a woman, and to a Samaritan woman at that), the Roman Centurion, the Syrophoenician woman (Canaanite) woman, and others.

The disciples struggled with prejudice, and Jesus called them on it. In Luke 9:51-54 we read  As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.  And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him;  but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?  But Jesus turned and rebuked them. Then he and his disciples went to another village.  Why is the Samaritan refusal to let them stay not reverse racism? It’s because they were the oppressed. Their frustration to the Jewish disciples made sense based on the way they’d been treated as second-class citizens through unjust treatment and systems that had been happening at the hands of the Jews since the Babylonian exile hundreds of years prior (when exiled Jews and Assyrians married). 

In the book of Acts, God continues to makes it clear that all people are precious to Him, it matters to him that the Hellenistic Jewish widows (those who had adopted the Greek customs and language) were being treated differently than the Hebraic Jewish widows in the daily distribution of bread. (6:1-7)

In the 10th chapter of Acts, Peter is confronted with his own prejudice- his own national and religious pride- and, quite frankly, it’s uncomfortable for him; however, he allows God to change his heart and teach him that God does not show favoritism (10:34).

Paul dealt with the type of racism that Shelly has received…assumptions were made about him that weren’t accurate and he was treated poorly as a result of those assumptions.

Acts 22: 25-27 tells us what happened:

As they stretched him out to flog him, Paul said to the centurion standing there, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty?” When the centurion heard this, he went to the commander and reported it. “What are you going to do?” he asked. “This man is a Roman citizen.” The commander went to Paul and asked, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” “Yes, I am,” he answered.  Then the commander said, “I had to pay a lot of money for my citizenship.” “But I was born a citizen,” Paul replied. Those who were about to interrogate him withdrew immediately. The commander himself was alarmed when he realized that he had put Paul, a Roman citizen, in chains.

I could cite example after example in scripture of the mistreatment of those considered different and/or less than, and how it is completely counter to the character of God–but here’s where I want to land-

If we are followers of Christ, Jesus is our model for how to live. Jesus loved the marginalized, the oppressed, the foreigner, the overlooked citizen, the Jew, the Gentile, even the Pharisees and Sadducees who caused him so much grief. He loved the rich, the poor, and His desire for all of them, for all of us, is that we love one another, and work for the flourishing of all people everywhere. That’s what His Kingdom looks like. It’s the restoration of the dignity and worth of all people–that they, like Shelly, come to know that they are beloved children of God. Everyone equally valued and loved.

If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right.  But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. (James 2: 8-9)

Remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering. (Heb. 13:3)

Do to others as you would have them do to you. (Luke 6:31)

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. (Rev. 7:9)

Let’s love our Lord well by loving His Image Bearers well. Let’s humble ourselves, listen,  learn, let’s be sensitive with our “humor”, with our influences. Let’s speak light into darkness, let’s be aware that the tongue has the power of life and death (Pr. 18:21). 

God has entrusted us with one another. Let’s live lives worthy of the calling we’ve received (Eph. 4:1) leveraging our lives for The Kingdom, and doing life the Jesus way.

–Luanne

If you want to learn more:

Books:  White Awake (Daniel Hill), The Myth of Equality (Ken Wytsma), Just Mercy (Bryan Stevenson)

Facebook Page: Be The Bridge (Latasha Morrison)

Twitter: follow Bernice King (daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. She’s amazing!)

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