Friday, September 5, 2014

Seeing Ferguson Unfold from across the World

I watched the Ferguson situation unfold from across the world, in another culture. I don't know the nuances, I don't know how is at fault, but I know one thing. We all see situations through the lens of our own experience. Here is mine.

I went to college in downtown Chicago. It was an area with a reputation for both street violence and police brutality. One day Isaac and I were coming home from having watched a movie and stopped at the McDonalds down the street from our school to grab a quick burger. We were sitting discussing the movie when a black man in a wheelchair with a cast or bandage on his foot started wheeling around the restaurant and asking for change. This was common - there was a homeless shelter around the corner and although panhandling in the restaurant wasn't allowed, it happened often.

A white cop came in to usher the man in the wheelchair out of the restaurant (also common). He told him to move along and the man grumbled and avoided obeying. The cop requested again that he move towards the door, and the man again sort of avoided and grumbled and complained, with his voice rising and people turning to watch. The cop reached down and took hold of the back of the wheelchair to move it forward towards the exit. The man in the wheelchair resisted, reached down and pulled the footrest off of the wheelchair and brandished it at the cop, yelling at him. Totally inappropriate behavior towards an officer of the law.

At that point the cop also lost it. He grabbed the footrest from the guy, pushed him against the wall, and began beating the man's leg (with the bandage on it) with the footrest. They pushed each other back and forth from wall to wall and there was blood from somewhere and as a woman screamed and said, "CALL THE COPS!", they pushed each other out the door and down the street. That was the end of what I witnessed.

When things happen like Trayvon Martin or the situation in Ferguson, I always think back to that situation. Sometimes people attack cops and often they are incredibly disrespectful. I also know that sometimes cops lose it and do things they should never do.  I tend to think that the burden of responsibility lies heavily on the police. They are officers of the law. They are, by definition, guarding against lawlessness. So it should come as no surprise when those that they deal with are unlawful, disrespectful, or violent. They are trained to respond appropriately. It is NEVER acceptable for a cop to lose his temper and explode in anger, even when they are being treated unfairly. How sad is it that in that situation we were in desperate need of an officer of the law, but the screams of the witness went unheeded because the law was already there and was escalating and beating rather than averting a crisis? I also know that most likely that situation was never publicized because, you know what, who is to know? If it's a homeless black man with no advocate in a ghetto McDonalds, the cop subconsciously probably thinks, "No one is going to report this."

There's another experience that provides me a lens through which I view these situations, and it's being refined right now, across the world from Ferguson. I mostly grew up among a minority people group in this country. They are black and they are of a different culture, race, religion, and just about everything than the rest of this country. I grew up surrounded by a very tense political situation as rebels fought the national government, often in very inappropriate ways. I heard the frustration of the local people as they felt different, unheard, unempowered, voiceless, systematically disenfranchised, scorned, and sometimes persecuted. They were sometimes afraid.

And now here I am, doing language school in the center of the majority people group. I have been having conversations about the diversity of this country. I am astounded by the entirely different perspective they have. These are good people here. They are proud of the diversity of their country. They see the minority as a part of the this beautiful nation... different but part of it. Where the Papuans would say that the money, power, and cultural superiority flows from here, the people around me do not see themselves as privileged. They know there has been a political struggle across the country but it is seen as separate. They would never view themselves as a part of the problem. Why? They respect the minority. There may be a certain stereotype of the minority as ignorant, lazy, and uncouth, but they aren't going to judge people by that stereotype.

It's been a bit shocking to realize just how different the two sides see the same situation. Because I am seeing this as the situation in Ferguson unfolds, I realize that I am seeing us in the mirror. This majority group is like us in the US. We struggle to understand that situation because, well, it is possible that some guy attached a police officer and the police officer shot him in self-protection. We DO NOT see the systematic struggle because we don't personally feel prejudiced and we live entirely separate from the reality that is everyday life for the minority.

I think that's the crux of what I'm realizing. We are clueless. See, here's the thing. Systematic struggles stay the way they are despite individuals being personally blameless and unprejudiced, because the system perpetuates itself. This is a great blog on that topic. Read it. We also don't realize just how much powerlessness feeds the abuse of power. We look and see poverty, crime, and educational problems, and don't realize how much that exact problem allows a cop to do something that he would never do across town in our neighborhood. We see a problem that is not OUR problem, that we aren't personally contributing too, and forget that in a society, every member of the society contributes to the system. If the system is unjust, then as a part of this society, we are a part of injustice. And we are, indeed, our brothers' keeper.

I don't have answers. I know it's complex. I just also really believe that we have to open our eyes and realize that we ARE a part of this, and it IS our problem.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Privilege and Responsibility as an American Overseas


I am privileged. I grew up with it, and then I simply took it for granted. I knew my family had more money than our neighbors in their wood slat houses, more money than the ladies with small piles of fruit stacked in front of them at the pasar, more influence than those around me at church who could do nothing but pay the bribe, bow to the will of the police and military, and just live with injustice. For the most part our lives were the same. Eat. School. Sleep. Parents. Romance. Marriage. Kids. Sickness. But in so many ways that I simply took for granted because I was a child, I had privilege simply because of the family/nationality that I was born into.

Then I spent my adult years in the US, enriched by the fact that I knew what life was around the world. So, I was entirely okay with at times being "poor" compared to those around me. I picked up dropped coins in college, thankful for a little more to pay for a train ticket. I paid my way through college. We paid for seminary, lived in small apartments, drove old cars, and struggled to pay our medical bills. We shopped at Walmart and Aldis and Payless shoes and Goodwill. It wasn't always like that, but it was at times.

And now here I am across the world again, and instead of being poor, I not only know I am rich compared to the majority, the people around me know it too. There is no denying it. Based on where I come from (the USA), pretty much no matter what sector of society I come from in the US, I am wealthy here.  It might take a good amount of money and effort to get here, but once here, I am wealthy even when I live on a very small US stipend. I have people who work for me to watch my kids and help keep the house. I could eat at the nicest restaurant in town without batting an eye. My "oh, I just got them at Payless" shoes are worth a week's wages for a laborer.

How do I live with that?? It weighs heavily on me and I find myself wanting to hide it. I am SO so thankful for the ladies that work for us that allow me to go to language school, but I feel guilty that someone else scrubs my bathroom floor. I can get most things at the local open air market but it is much easier and more comfortable to shop at SuperIndo where there is AC and carts and everything in packages. It's more expensive.... but we can easily afford it because it's still way cheaper than US prices. Do you do what you can afford? We have been living in a house without a shower, oven, or dryer, so we are living differently than most of the Westerners. But you know what, my friend lives with six people in a house with a dirt floor and a mat on the floor for living room furniture. Oh right. Perspective.

I sit in school and I recognize that my instructors are young women my age, with kids my age, and I see us as equals. They worked hard, they have a profession, they are doing well at their jobs and are blessing others. And yet when we talk about where to eat, shop, and relax, I realize that they are giving tips for the wealthy Westerners, and they live a different life. I am wealthy.What?

It's hard. Hah, did you hear that? It's hard? Ridiculous. Poor wealthy American girl, has a hard time knowing what to do with her privilege.

As I struggle to know what to do, I can't take a queue from the Westerners around me. They may be wrong. The wealthy measure themselves by the standard of other wealthy folks, and it's too easy to simply continue on as you were. I also sometimes want to hide my wealth, to pretend that I don't have this privilege, because I am not comfortable with it.

Instead I am going to open my Bible this year and read it differently. I'm going to read the many, many passages about money, wealth, and possessions and realize that I am the one that those passages are written for, and that I better sit up and listen and obey. Jen Hatmaker wrote something recently on her blog that was helpful.
Two things I want you to get rid of as soon as you can: first, that guilt. Really. You were born into privilege. You didn’t pick that, earn it, or deserve it – this is simply your lot in God’s sovereignty. The sooner you can quit lamenting your advantages and your distribution of them, the better. God is not engineering a Guilt Trip. Just go ahead and knock that off. He is giving you eyes to see a little better and ears to hear a little clearer, and you wringing your hands and mourning lost years is not helping. You did the best you could with what you knew. Now God is just giving you more to know, so off you go. Don’t be guilty; be grateful, be generous, be brave.  
That's what I want to remember. Guilt doesn't help anyone. Instead, now that I realize what I have been given, what do I do with it? How do I use what I have been given for good and for God's glory? It's not about me and what people think of me and how I feel.... it should be about obedience and love.

And so... I am reading and praying with new eyes.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Living in the Village

There was a blog post that went viral among my mommy friends over the past few months titled, "I Miss the Village." The fact that it went viral just highlights the isolation that mommas in suburban America feel. I felt it too. 

It's different here, so strikingly different. I'm IN the village everyone is dreaming about. Since I'm here, let me just say that I'm not sure you could hack it, Western mamas, if you were given the chance to create "the village" over there. You'd have to make major adjustments... to things that you value. Consider, what's more important to you? "The village", or your independence, the privacy of your family, your extra-curricular activities, and the security of your children?

It's so incredible in some ways, being here. I came home from the store with Elly in her wrap and the neighbor told me next time to just drop Elly off at their house while I go to the store. At the corner is another sweet lady who calls herself Elly's grandma and anytime I walk by she takes Elly and tells me to go work on homework... so I do. 30 minutes of free babysitting! The neighborhood kids all gather in little packs after school and can be found playing games or just hanging out in random corners of the neighborhood. The little ones are looked after by the big kids, and every local parent knows all of the other kids and is responsible for any needs that pop up when the kids are in their front yard. When I go to the store the employees take Elly and watch her while I shop. Hands free shopping! When we eat out for Sunday lunch, the family next to our table for the last two weeks has noticed that my attempts at eating while holding a wiggly infant are less than successful, and have taken her until I'm done. Judah wanders to the field beside the restaurant with other kids and plays while the adults eat.

It's not just with kids, either. We live in a small town but it's still the "village" in the sense of a small local community. Things are very local here, both as a culture and as a governmental policy.  Our neighborhood, maybe 40 houses, has a head guy that we reported to when we got here. The neighborhood plans holiday festivities, greets new members, divides up neighborhood watch duties, and attends to important neighborhood issues. It's as if your neighborhood association was actually the city council. At our first community meeting we introduced ourselves so that everyone would know who we were, where we live, where we came from, etc. If we are out of town for a couple of days or have someone staying with us, we let the community leader know. If someone dies, it's announced from the local mosque loudspeaker and immediately (as in like, within hours), the corpse is laid out in the home and the entire community gathers and sits with them, joins in mourning, and pays into the funeral expenses. On Friday everyone goes to mosque together. We've been here two months and we know half the neighborhood and gather with them for at least three official neighborhood meetings each month. In the US I would have probably just met the people next door.

So here's the thing. To get the village, you give up other things. You give up privacy. For neighbors to know each other, you can't have soundproof walls and gates and cars so that you pretty much get from your bedroom to the cubicle without speaking to anyone except perhaps someone at the Starbucks drive-through. Here, neighbors may well know when our kid is throwing a fit, what we generally cook, if we've had a fight, when bath time and bedtime is, recent purchases, when we go on vacation, etc. There's no keeping your house messy and no one knowing it, there's no having a pantry full of overpriced luxury goods or crappy dollar store brand but no one knowing it.  In the West we idealize the community support but then we really like to go home, get away from people, lock the front door, and know that we can squabble, discipline, and have a private family routine that is away from everyone else.  The more private you are, the less you live in the village. Which do you want?

It's kind of ironic actually because at the same time as the "I Miss the Village" blog was going viral, another blog was as well, about how moms feel constantly judged by each other and calling for an end to mommy wars. Here's the thing. If you really want the village, you're going to have to give up the desire to avoid critique. If other people get to help parent your child, they also get a say in how it should be done. Here I have received constant advice on how to dress my child, what to feed them, when to bathe them, school, play activities, safety guidelines, medical advice, etc, etc.  It can totally make me feel judged and like I don't know the best thing for my kiddos. Guess what. I may actually not know the best thing, and if I want to parent in the communal village, I best get over it.

Then there's independence. We like our cars because .. well... we don't know how to live without them. With them we get to the store, to church, to school. It gives us the freedom to get where we want to go, right? That way we can do all the extra curricular stuff we like to do. Sports. Church events. Art classes. Library time. Etc, etc. And then you can swing by your favorite store, drive to church on Sunday, and eat out at your family's favorite restaurant afterwards. Except, you know what almost every single one of the those activities do? Takes you away from the neighborhood. What if you used your car only to go to work? What if you only chose extra curricular activities you could walk to, ate only at restaurants within a mile of your house, shopped only at the closest grocery stores, and went to the church around the corner instead of across town? Could you do it? You have to give up the ability to choose your favorite things if you really intend to foster "the village". Church in the US attempts to recreate its own village through a host of community-building activities, but the down-side of that is that they are only attended by church people rather than people around you of all stripes, including different religions, ages, and socio-economic status.

It's the same thing with people. It's true that in the US we've lost some of the village, but the benefit is that you pick your people. You decide which groups your or your kid are in, but if you are limited to your neighborhood then, well, what if the guy next door is weird and the mom across the street is controlling and the kid on the corner is a bully? Are you still willing to live in that village? It'd be great to have others helping to raise your kid, but you also are giving all of those people your trust to guard your children and be an influence in their lives.

In the end, I'll take the village. I just think that the Western world needs to weigh their values and understand what they have to begin setting aside if they really want to foster that "village".

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Letter to Elly Bean

Elly Bean, as I write you are falling asleep next to me. I used to write letters to your brother when he was tiny too. You are nine months old and today we brought home your own actual bed for the first time, and you have yet to sleep in it. You've been in travel cots, car seats, bouncers, and our bed. At this exact moment, next to me, you're settling, but you've been wiggling and grunting and pulling my hair and holding on to my arm. You love people, and you love me, and that is incredibly sweet to see. Usually at bedtime when we put you in your travel cot you fuss or wail until I come in, and when I lean over you you reach up and grab hold of my hair and pull me to you so that we are face to face, cheek to cheek, my breath in your ear. There you settle, relieved little sighs with each paci suck, and are asleep within minutes. You wanted your mama. You wanted to be close, to be touched.

Your brother is like that too. He needs snuggles and hugs and so I sit with him, scratch his back, stroke his hair, sing him songs about how much I love him or about Jesus. You guys love each other too. He's figured out how to make you laugh and now when you're in your high chair he hides behind you and you twist around as far as you can to find him, and he pops out and you both giggle with delight. He's obsessed with driving his toy car around and he always asks for you to sit behind him. I make sure you don't fall off until he parks at "home" and asks for you to both get off and sit on the lawn, where sit side by side contentedly. He calls you "baby Ollie."

You're asleep now, little eyelashes on soft cheeks. Around here they say "kaya boneka", or "like a doll", but when we visited Solo last week one woman gasped and said you were like a little angel. You're still delighted with other people, and just generally joyful, with  a smile like sunshine and enormous blue eyes. It's hard not to laugh when you're laughing. When we're walking on the road people fly by on motorcycles they call out, "hallo Elly!" Everyone knows you, even if they don't know us, and whenever the neighbor ladies get a chance to hold you, they run next door to show you off to their friends.

You're moving in to solid foods and generally want to eat everything in sight, and make your displeasure known when I won't let you! You generally need an outfit change after eating anything solid, though, and between that and the constant drooling, we go through at least three outfits a day. All that drool and still no teeth, though! You also seem to want to skip crawling. You absolutely hate laying down and are desperate to get around, but seem to think that crawling is beneath you and thus you will go straight to walking. For real, I wouldn't be surprised if you walked first! You found the volume button over the last few weeks and constantly amaze your father with your ear-splitting shriek that can move to peaceful silence instantly if you are distracted.

It's kind of a crazy stage of life that you entered into, with our family in major transition, between cultures, language learning. I'm trying to parent two kiddos in the middle of it, and so often I feel like I have no idea how to be a good mother. I don't have it all together, baby girl. Not in the least. But in the middle of it, I want you to know that you are a delight. You soften my heart when I hold you and you wrap your arms around my neck and nuzzle in your head on my shoulder. Mama loves you, baby girl. So much.