Yes, There are Different Americas

After the election, my (white) liberal friends were shocked. They really, truly couldn’t believe that so many people would vote for Trump, a man who built his campaign around hatred of the other. They also couldn’t believe that there are still racists, not in such high numbers.

There are at least two misunderstandings here. The first is that all Trump voters actually liked the guy. If my youngish liberal circles are anything to go by, liberals don’t necessarily vote for the Democrat. If it’s someone like Clinton who is widely disliked, they may vote for Stein or Johnson, or do a write in, or leave that line blank. They insist that to do otherwise would harm their consciences. Conservatives, in my experience, do NOT do this. They feel a deeper urgency and have an enormous capacity to hold their nose and vote for the R. They may complain about it, but they wouldn’t dream of staying home or voting for anyone else. I know very, very few die-hard Trump supporters; I know lots of people who voted for him.

The second misunderstanding is that our country has overcome racism.

My temptation in the face of this ignorance is to yell “Are you f***ing kidding me?!” The signs of racism seem so blatantly obvious to me that I have a hard time believing that otherwise intelligent people can be so naive.

A conversation with my co-worker today made me stop in my tracks, however. He said that he had always assumed that of the crowds you see at the local Walmart, which for reference is in metro Atlanta, maybe one or two people were bigoted. So I shared only a couple of my foundational experiences of relatives being racist, and he was aghast.

I grew up in the very, very Deep South – not the quaint, Steel Magnolias and Charleston Deep South, but the redneck Honey Boo Boo South. There’s a town near mine that has a rattlesnake festival every year that features snake racing. It’s different. My parents didn’t teach me not to be racist – I want to die laughing at the thought of that happening. No, my early race memories were more like this:

  • The day my dad pointed out a black man walking across the street and said “Criminal.” I was about six.
  • When my granddad was telling my dad about a Dr. King march in Atlanta, and described the marchers as “a bunch of niggers, only some are white.” My dad thought that was hysterical. I was about eight.
  • At an early age, my vocabulary of slurs and put-downs included such gems as camel jockies (Arabs), sand niggers (also Arabs), jigaboos, jungle bunny, coon, porch monkey, welfare queen, crack-baby, and sambo, in addition to the garden variety nigger. Years later the term Canadian became popular, a code word for nigger that whites felt comfortable using in public. I never said these things, but I was very used to hearing them.
  • The first time I heard about a police shooting a black person on the news, my mom commented that she was so glad it was a black cop that did the shooting. “If he was white then they (black people) would just make it into a racial thing.”
  • My dad was incensed that my elementary school taught us a little song about Abraham Lincoln. Lots of Southerners view Lincoln as a villain, or at least a liberal statist who destroyed federalism and states’ rights.
  • My mom’s family was more genteel about their racism. My grandmama once commented on a little black boy that came in her kitchen while his mama was picking pecans and said “Juice! Juice!” “He hadn’t yet learned that he has his special role and place in life,” she drawled, to my relatives’ laughter. Blacks were the butt of jokes, oh so funny with their misunderstandings and mispronunciations.
  • When Obama was first running for president, one of my aunts sent us all an email forward in which a little girl asked her mama why Michelle Obama said that humans come from monkeys. Her mama explained that the little girl was created by God, but that Michelle was commenting on her people, who did come from monkeys.
  • Just the other week, when my uncle made me move my car because it was parked in front of their Muslim neighbors, and he thought I would get robbed.

The individual instances that stick out are just window dressing though. It’s hard to explain to someone from a different kind of place that racism can be in the air you breath, can be so pervasive and unrelenting that you don’t even realize how bad it is until you leave.

So no, I’m not shocked that there are people who saw Trump’s more incendiary messages as the main attraction. And if you do a little Google searching, you’ll learn that minorities aren’t either. They’ve been on the receiving end of too much hatred to be that blind. The word privilege is way overused, but yes, it is a sign of privilege to be shocked by racism.




Cultural Christianity: a Feature, Not a Bug

* in this post I will be conflating the terms “denomination” and “religion” with regards to Christianity. For cultural/anthropological reasons I think this is a more accurate way to describe the differences between, say, a Lutheran and a Pentecostal. They may both be Christian, and they may both be Protestant, but attending a service of either is a radically different experience.*

There are two mistakes with regards to religion that I see online and in real life, constantly.

The first is to erase all differences between Christian religious groups. “We all love Jesus so why make a big deal out of these artificial distinctions?” We’ve all heard this and maybe even said it. Liberal Protestants are the worst about this, because they see very few doctrines as specifically binding or important. Alternately, evangelicals attending a megachurch might say this, thinking that their non-denominational 2,000 member church isn’t really a religion, because it meets in a theater and doesn’t have stained glass, not realizing that “evangelical non-denominational megachurch” has its own religious traditions at this point. Both groups seem blind to the very real differences going on between Christian religions, or they think that if only everyone agreed with them that we could all get along.

The second mistake is one that you see most converts make, regardless of which group that they’ve converted to. We attempt to make religious identification all about doctrine and not about culture. (As a convert myself, I plead guilty).

Conversion is not an easy process, no matter what the altar call proponents may tell you. It’s messy, and often requires days of study and nights of emotional angst. Relationships are damaged, maybe destroyed. Protestant ministers lose their livelihoods to convert to Catholicism; Hasidic Jews are declared dead by their parents. The previously comforting cultural moments of religious holidays and family gatherings become fraught, even in loving families that try to understand why their son/ daughter lost their fool mind and joined this other thing. When you convert to another religion, especially if you’re leaving or joining a traditional one with high demands, you make a calculated decision to go where Truth leads, regardless of the sacrifice.

And all the while, the cradle members of the group you joined Just. Don’t. Get. It.

While you’re buying books and joining study groups in a fit of enthusiasm, they just live life, with religion tacked on somewhere in the background. Sure, they know when to kneel, when to stand, the words to say, what days are fast and which are feast, but do they know why the hell they’re doing it? When you ask what they think about the Eucharist, they offer some platitude about being in community with other Christians. They’re more concerned with the coffee hour rotation than they are about the effects of baptism. Maybe they’re Catholic but see no problem with birth control because come on already, it’s not 1950 anymore. Maybe they rarely attend Mass but think that should have zero bearing on whether their kid attends the Catholic school – because the parents and grandparents and great-grandparents “wore the plaid” and there’s absolutely no reason why their child shouldn’t either. Maybe they show more concern about the church’s capital campaign than they do about the poor members of the congregation. Whatever it is, you pull your hair with frustration, and sooner or later you say these words: “If you don’t really believe what the church teaches, you should leave.”

This was a new problem for me when I joined the Episcopal church. It’s not a problem you see much in small evangelical denominations, especially Calvinist ones. Folks that join Calvinist churches absolutely do not do so for cultural reasons. (Insert snide joke about a lack of culture). They do it because they read Augustine and Luther and Calvin, reread Romans and Galatians, and change their minds. People born in Calvinist churches that stay do so because they understand the doctrines and agree with them. Moreover, these denominations tend to be very recent break-away movements, so the folks who started them made their own significant sacrifices, and their children grew up hearing stories of the movement’s beginnings.

Older liturgical churches are… not like that.

A young Copt boy proudly shows his tattoo outside the church in Cairo
A young Copt boy proudly shows his tattoo outside the church in Cairo

I suspect that the older a group is, the more extreme the difference between cradle vs. converts, with the Eastern Orthodox being an extreme example due to ethnic divisions that reinforce cultural identity. Catholic converts and reverts complain about this constantly, and I’m sympathetic. I’ve spent plenty of time griping about country club cradle Episcopalians. One reason why I’m drawn to Anglo-Catholic parishes is that the members seek them out; we are a minority group in the Episcopal church, though one that’s quickly growing, and there are fewer members that seem to be there because it’s what they’ve always done. I suspect that the growth in Latin masses has the same impetus, because cradle Catholics now grow up going to Novus Ordo, and you have to consciously seek out churches with the Extraordinary Form.

I also think that this is a good problem to have, and that we proponents of doctrinal purity are missing the point in the same way that the “we all love Jesus” folks are. We are not brains in a jar, and our cultural differences are real. The “cultural Christians” born into a religion that stay there, that don’t seem all that enthused about doctrine or can’t explain exactly why ABC happens during the service, may still have a real faith and discipline, even if they can’t articulate it well.


We act as if the church is falling apart, as if Christians in ages past had intellectual rigor and a high level of understanding about their faith. In actuality, most of the people who came before us could not read or write. They had never read the Bible for themselves, let alone delved into commentaries. They probably had never done Bible studies or small groups or Sunday school or any of the other things we consider necessary for growth; they were too busy eking out a living in a world without indoor plumbing or running water. Europeans of the Middle Ages took communion once a year but, according to some historians, never actually ate the bread, choosing instead to plant it in the fields as a good luck omen. Catholic missionaries to the New World were wise enough not to attempt to tear the people from their local mythology, not when it could be easily folded into the doctrine of the saints.


In these times and places – some of which continue in various parts of the world – people fed their faith through cultural practices: from lighting a candle under the icon of Theotokos to baking king cakes. It’s human. It was a freeing moment when I realized that Jesus had particular religious and cultural experiences as a first century Jew. God limited Himself, in His incarnation, to a particular people and place and learned their practices, with all the local idiosyncrasies that might have been native to Galilee. Granted, we don’t want our faith to only be outward, but there’s something to be said for soaking in a cultural and religious environment.

Eventually, I stopped having profound emotional responses to every Eucharist. When I entered the church I automatically dipped my hand in holy water, crossed myself, genuflected at the pew, knelt on a kneeler. My thumb makes that tiny cross over my head, mouth, and heart at the Gospel reading in a flash, without having to overthink it. The responses come easily, like breathing.


Pray without ceasing.



What Can Moms Do About Racism?

Note: this is a response to Julie at These Walls. Last week she wrote a wonderful post entitled “The Post I’ve Been Waiting to Write on Race.” It’s also a response to comments wondering what individual people can do. I am not a mom, but I have many friends who are white Christian parents – many of them Episcopal priests or priest wives, because of my personal history. I know their struggles and have heard them wrestle with this question. The answers aren’t easy, but it’s too important to sweep under the rug.


To be more specific: what can middle class, white, suburban, Christian moms do?

You are in a rare position, possibly unprecedented in American life. On the one hand, you do not share the same racism that your ancestors likely did. You think that the Civil Rights Movement was good, that segregation is bad, that all humans were given rights by our Creator. You want to pass these beliefs on to your kids; you want them to judge a person on his or her “content of character” rather than skin color or national origin.

On the other hand, you are almost always in white only populations. Your church is mostly white, and many of the Latino congregants go to the Spanish language service. Your suburban neighborhood has one black family, a couple of Asian families… and lots of white families. If your kids went to public schools they would rub shoulders with people of other backgrounds, but they may be below school age, or home schooled, or attending a religious (and mostly white) school. You and your kids could easily go weeks at a time without interacting with anyone who isn’t white and middle-upper middle class.

Your exposure to anything regarding race or racism is Facebook posts which try to make you chose between protecting black Americans and protecting police. You begin to feel defensive, as if you are being blamed for something that your ancestors did. Above all, you feel helpless, because how can one person fight something that looks so entrenched?

The answer, or one of the answers, is in your children.

I’m not simply suggesting that you teach your kids that “racism is bad.” For one thing, they may not understand what racism is (maybe you struggle to answer that question as well?). For another, what I see advocated as the opposite of racism is color blindness, or an attempt to ignore race at all. I think this is a huge mistake, especially if your kids never actually interact with other ethnicities. As humans, we associate more readily with the familiar. If someone is brought up without any conversations about race, and only interacts with people who are white, it will be hard to understand American history, hard to understand current events, hard to empathize with the issues that still plague black communities.

The uncomfortable truth is that society as a whole does not treat black people as equals of white people. When someone brought up to be color blind observes quality of life differences between white and black communities, they conclude that black people must be at fault for these differences. It is a short walk from here to the conclusion that black people are dumber, lazier, more violent, etc, than white people.

Here is what I suggest instead: purposefully pursue relationships with people outside your race/ethnicity, for yourself and – especially – for your kids.

This is not an easy task if you live in suburbia, but it is crucial. Your kids need to spend time with people who don’t look like them. Charity work in the ghetto doesn’t cut it. They need to interact with black and Latino kids as peers. They need to have black adults who are authority figures: to be expected by their parents to obey and respect black adults just as they would white adults. This is one of the most important lessons you can teach your kids.

I’m going to be blunt: I don’t see this as something advocated by conservative Christians. If anything, I see the opposite: shelter your kids; monitor their friendships; protect them from the world. There is an element of truth there. Of course you must keep your kids from unnecessary dangers, and there are actual bad influences that need to be kept at bay. But it’s easy to take this too far. I’m dismayed to see homeschool moms deride the word “socialization,” to argue that their kids are better off without peer influences, that homeschool groups are plenty of socialization.

Take a hard look at your homeschool group, your church groups. Is there a single face there that isn’t white? Does it bother you to be in whites-only spaces?

If it does, that means that you were given a special gift: the gift of friendships and relationships with people of color. Your parents didn’t try to give it to you, it just happened because you lived in a more diverse neighborhood or went to public schools. However, your kids will not have that gift unless you make it happen.If being in a whites only space doesn’t bother you, it’s not cause to beat yourself up or feel defensive. It’s just an unfortunate fact that you probably grew up in segregated circles.

What matters is your response. You can make a generational change by bringing your children into integrated spaces as much as possible. You can make sure that they will be comfortable with black teachers, black coaches, black Bible study leaders. You can make sure that your children will have faces and names to think about when they hear about racially motivated killings.

You can make sure that they see the Imago Dei in people who don’t look like them.

7 Quick Takes: Puddleglum’s Remedy for Political Malaise


It has been forever since I’ve posted and even longer since I’ve written with any regularity. In my defense, life has been crazy. In the past year, I have moved twice, gotten divorced, had two different jobs, experienced the death of my last remaining grandparent, and tried to rebuild my life in the ruins. And I can finally say that it’s actually OK. I’m about to move into an adorable house in Atlanta with two other women in their twenties, so I’ll actually be close to friends and my wonderful church community. In the five stages of grief (since divorce is very like a death), I think I’m finally in acceptance.


Unfortunately the country at large is bat-shit crazy. This would be a fantastic time to be a political science professor. You would have no trouble keeping a class captivated.


If you’re like me it’s easy to get caught up in the politics and drama. It’s hard to remember that these things are passing away, that there are more important and lasting realities.


Those who’ve read The Silver Chair in the Chronicles of Narnia – because your childhood wasn’t sad and empty – will remember Puddleglum with particular fondness. (He is far and away my favorite Narnia character, even though he’s only in the one book). Remember how he defeats the Witch’s deception in the Underworld? She has convinced Eustace and Jill, with the help of drugged smoke and her harp, that the entire above ground world is a lie: there is no sun, no sky, and definitely no Aslan. Puddleglum retorts that even if there is no sun and no Aslan, that he will go on being a Narnian and believing in Aslan because his made-up world “beats yours all hollow.”


Many times I doubt, imagine that this physical world is all there is. The atheists are right, and there is no God, no angels, no supernatural. If anything has temporarily cured me it is this election and the surrounding news. As I look at the violence in Dallas, in Baton Rouge, in Orlando, in Nice; as I see video of a black man shot by a police officer while struggling to calm his autistic patient in the street; as I read about Syria on the BBC because our own news is too obsessed with an egomaniac’s convention to notice the children killed by our air strikes; I yearn for the above ground world. This might make me naive or stupid or a victim of wishful thinking. But even if it does, the Holy of Holies beats this world all hollow.


That’s one reason why I’m moving closer in-town: to be near my church, to be able to pop into the cathedral for adoration, to be able to attend Christian education on Sunday mornings without getting up at the crack of dawn (which for me just ain’t happenin.) I need to be closer to things that feed my faith, to lose silly excuses like “it’s too far.”


The St. Patrick’s Breastplate seems a fitting prayer for the times we live in.

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the Threeness,
Through confession of the Oneness
of the Creator of creation.

I arise today
Through the strength of Christ’s birth with His baptism,
Through the strength of His crucifixion with His burial,
Through the strength of His resurrection with His ascension,
Through the strength of His descent for the judgment of doom.

I arise today
Through the strength of the love of cherubim,
In the obedience of angels,
In the service of archangels,
In the hope of resurrection to meet with reward,
In the prayers of patriarchs,
In the predictions of prophets,
In the preaching of apostles,
In the faith of confessors,
In the innocence of holy virgins,
In the deeds of righteous men.

I arise today, through
The strength of heaven,
The light of the sun,
The radiance of the moon,
The splendor of fire,
The speed of lightning,
The swiftness of wind,
The depth of the sea,
The stability of the earth,
The firmness of rock.

I arise today, through
God’s strength to pilot me,
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s shield to protect me,
God’s host to save me
From snares of devils,
From temptation of vices,
From everyone who shall wish me ill,
afar and near.

I summon today
All these powers between me and those evils,
Against every cruel and merciless power
that may oppose my body and soul,
Against incantations of false prophets,
Against black laws of pagandom,
Against false laws of heretics,
Against craft of idolatry,
Against spells of witches and smiths and wizards,
Against every knowledge that corrupts man’s body and soul;
Christ to shield me today
Against poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against wounding,
So that there may come to me an abundance of reward.

Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

Remember to check out the rest of the blogs at This Ain’t the Lyceum.

How the Confederacy was Like Nazi Germany

If I had read that title as a child, it would have made me furious. Nazi Germany was the darkest, most evil society in the history of the world, and comparisons with Nazism should be used very sparingly. The Confederate South was no evil society.

Jews in the holocaust were crowded onto trains, packed like sardines without explanation. That didn’t happen to Africans, did it?

Jews in the holocaust were torn from their families, with no regard with keeping parents with children or husbands with wives. Nothing like that happened in the South, surely.

Jews were tattooed or branded, made to work back-breaking labor, living in constant fear, in poor living conditions and hunger. Quite different from slave conditions certainly.

Gentile Germans themselves faced reprisals and often death for helping Jews, but the South didn’t repress abolitionists or white Civil Rights workers.

The Nazis created an elaborate system for noting who was and wasn’t a Jew, involving one’s family history and physical features. The South did not create such a system, and it did not have words for people of varying degrees of African descent.

The Nazi ideology considered Jews to be rats or vermin, less than human. The United States never determined black people to be less than fully human.

Nazi Christians devised an entire theology devoted to the Cause: chucking out the Old Testament, saying that Jesus wasn’t a real Jew, blaming Jews for His death. Southerners never used Scripture to defend their peculiar institution.

In Nazi Germany, Jewish heritage was said to travel by the mother. In the South, a child born of white and black parents carried the status of the mother, who was black.

In Nazi Germany it was called the Jewish problem; Americans called it the Negro problem. “You have your lower classes, but we have our lower animals.”

Were they identical? Of course not. Not all black slaves faced conditions like those of a concentration camp. Most notably, the end-game differed: Nazis really wanted to kill the Jews, while American whites (in the North and South) profited from the free labor of blacks and had no intention of killing them off, not in mass anyway. Money was more important than mere racial theory.

There is another difference too, however, one more sinister. Children in West Germany (the history of East Germany being more complicated) have been taught, ever since the end of World War II, that Nazism was evil. An entire program of de-Nazification was undertaken by the English, French, and Americans. True, there are Neo-Nazi groups, and far right groups in Europe are growing larger, but as a whole, the German people shudder to think of Nazi ideology and actions. The Nazi flag is a sign of shame, and Holocaust denial is a crime.

This afternoon, I saw a Confederate flag – an actual flag, not just a bumper sticker – flying on a truck. It made me remember when I told a friend that I was proud of my Confederate ancestors who fought and died in the Civil War (we called it the War Between the States). It made me remember the signs around town in my childhood: join our chapter of the Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy! It reminded me of when Georgia changed its state flag to remove the “stars and bars,” and the hatred people expressed for our governor. How dare they defy our heritage.

Imagine if towns in Germany had chapters of the Sons and Daughters of the Third Reich. Imagine if individuals hung Nazi flags on their houses and cars and argued vehemently that it had nothing to do with being anti-semetic, because they were just celebrating their history. Imagine if school-children in Germany didn’t learn about how horrible the camps were, didn’t learn the numbers of those gassed. Imagine if every lesson about Nazi Germany included a piece about the good Nazis, and the ones who treated Jews not so badly in the camps.

In my Southern school, we didn’t learn about the Civil Rights movement in our town. We didn’t learn about the teenage girls who were kidnapped by police, without a word to their parents, and chained in a shed without toilets or food, for the crime of marching in a protest, in the 60s. We didn’t go to our town’s Civil Rights museum or learn anything at all about local history.

Simple ignorance would have been bad enough, but we were fed false information as well. It was hinted in my family that the first KKK, the one started by Nathan Bedford Forrest during Reconstruction, was actually good because it was defending white women from black criminals. (If you’ve seen Gone with the Wind, you’re familiar with this historical revision). It was just the renewed KKK in the 20th century that was bad. Reconstruction, we learned, was oppressive. In fact, it was a precursor to modern liberalism that tried to tell state governments what to do.

I am a Southern white who thinks Confederate flags have no place in any government buildings ever. I am a Southern white who knows that the Civil War was not a war over tariffs or states’ rights, except for the states’ right to own human beings as property. And I carry a heavy burden knowing that my own people perpetrated the greatest evil in American history.  If you grew up in the South, don’t be afraid to research. It sucks, and it will give you sleepless nights, and it will make you want to argue with your relatives, but it’s better to know. Those who do not learn their history are doomed to repeat it.

5 Favorite Rap Songs

In the Venn diagram of bloggers who listen to rap and read religious blogs, the overlap is basically zero. But we’re here, and you’ll take our hip hop from our cold, dead hands after we tell you for the nineteenth time that yes, it really is music, and not all rappers are gangsters. 

For those chilling with me in the middle of that diagram, here’s a sample of songs you can’t miss. (Fair warning, there is some sexual content and cursing  if that bothers you. Nothing violent or pornographic).


A Tribe Called Quest’s “Electric Relaxation”

Choosing just one ATCQ song was torture, because they’re all so good. You really should listen to all of The Low End Theory, The Love Movement, and Midnight Mauraders albums – right here, right now, on youtube. But Electric Relaxation combines the best of their talents: clever lyrics, delightful production and sampling, and “effortless” weaving between MCs Q-Tip and Phife Diggy. The effect is like listening to a good jazz jam. Keep bouncing.


OutKast’s “13th Floor (Growing Old)”

For those of you who think OutKast=shaking it like a Polaroid picture, let me educate you a little. OutKast put Atlanta on the map of hip hop, especially with their sophomore album Atliens. It’s a brilliant concept album, playing on the pun of Atlanta and alien, in both senses of the word. It shows the love/hate tension of one’s relationship with home, especially when your life is changing and making you see things differently. This song especially delivers a sweet pain.


Pete Rock and CL Smooth’s “T.R.O.Y. (They Reminisce Over You)”

Good music often tells a story. This story about a dysfunctional family still managing to love each other and keep going is one of my favorites, for deeply personal reasons.

Growing up, I felt deeply ashamed that my family didn’t meet the mix of Christian and middle class standards that were deemed appropriate at my church and school. My ghetto hood, my mom’s debilitating depression, my dad’s verbal and sometimes physical abuse, our chaotic finances, the roaches brave enough to crawl across beds – none of it matched the neat and tidy stories of what childhood is “supposed” to be. But I also have a lot of good memories of childhood and family members, with all the crazy characters involved. This song reminds me that life is complicated, and it’s OK to accept all its aspects.


Common: “The Corner”

There are many love songs to “the hood,” but none touch this one when it comes to truth and lyrical brilliance. If you grew up with “corners,” you nod and remember. If you didn’t, you learn something new.


Lupe Fiasco: “Hurt Me Soul”

The first verse explains that tension of loving hip hop but not loving the gangster culture. I laughed when I first heard these lyrics:

I used to hate hip hop, yep, because the women degraded. But Too $hort made me laugh, like a hypocrite I played it, a hypocrite I stated, though I only recited half. Omittin’ the word “bitch,” cursin’, I wouldn’t say it. Me and my dog couldn’t relate, till a bitch I dated. Forgive my favorite word for her and hers alike, but I learnt it from a song I heard and sorta liked.

As he continues, he dissects different pains in contemporary American culture, going beyond black culture and showing how “good” white culture has its own hurts. Lupe Fiasco has long been one of my favorite rappers: as someone who is religious (in his case Muslim) and loving hip hop and exploring all those incongruences.

It’s About Who You Know

“Are you having any luck?”

He laid down his sign for a minute, dug in his pockets. “Guess it depends on how you define luck. I got more than last week, but last week it was raining, so.” I nodded.

“You got to that church down the street, right? Do you know Sheila**?”

“I don’t think so” I said. But then again I was never good at coffee hours. The only people I knew besides the priest were the regulars at evening Masses and the folks in my catechesis class. “How do you know Sheila?”

“Everybody knows Sheila! How do you not know Sheila?”

By everybody, he meant all the homeless in downtown DC. I thought it was hyperbole, but they really all do know her. She started our church’s ministry of serving breakfasts to the homeless on Saturday and Sunday mornings almost 20 years ago, to fill in the gaps left by social services on the weekends. After years of practice, she had it down to a science. There were two routes that covered a decent area of downtown and Georgetown. There were certain spots known to have at least one person huddled against a grate or overpass or park bench, and those were the stops. It had to be early in the morning so that you didn’t miss people before they moved on. Every Saturday and Sunday morning required two drivers, and you really needed another person to tag along and help. There was hot coffee to pour into paper cups, and you needed a second person for the parks, where crowds would gather.

I didn’t know Sheila because she was almost always one of the volunteers on Sunday morning – sometimes Saturday too – and then she would attend the 9 a.m. Mass after returning to the church and cleaning everything up. My lazy butt went to the latest Mass.

During one route, she told me about how she discovered the church. Turns out she lived across the back alley in a little apartment. She would hear the church bells, and one day decided to check it out. Since she was always up very early, she went to the first service at 7:30. In a church known for its music, this service was simple and spoken. She laughed when she said that it took over a year for her to check out the high masses.

She had a grown son, so perhaps she was widowed or divorced. She didn’t like to talk about herself: she lived a simple life, working in a gift shop for one of the Smithsonians. She came to the evening Masses during the week too, and you might catch her in the kitchen helping run a parish-wide event. She was never conspicuous, except for the way that she would smile. I never saw anyone so full of joy, always, even at 5:30 a.m. in sleet. Best of all was watching her interact with the homeless. She remembered all their names, their stories, their family members, what needs they had, even down to how they liked their coffee. She delighted in them.

She wasn’t the type of church lady I grew up thinking I would have to be. She rarely wore dresses or makeup, and was often in jeans and a windbreaker. Her hair was naturally gray. She was practical, down to earth, and sincere about everything.

When I feel despair about the world, I remember hearing her pray as we held hands in a circle before going on the routes. “Remember all who are homeless due to violence, poverty, and oppression. Help us to see the face of Jesus in everyone we meet.”

** Name changed.

Advent Writing

In college, my writing professor said that if you can only write if you have something to say. It’s easy to convince myself that I have nothing to say, because honestly, at this point it’s all been said. So everyday I wake up and think to myself, is the writer’s block still there? And it is. Hello old friend.

Advent is the season I struggle with most. I don’t look forward to Christmas as much as I do Easter, and in the South it doesn’t even feel like winter yet. (The low this morning was 61. I wore short sleeves on Thanksgiving). Advent is, I think, the most counter-cultural of our church seasons. When everything around us says “The Holidays are here! Shop shop shop!,” and towns put up Christmas lights right after Halloween, who wants to wait? We don’t have to wait on anything anymore; that’s what our iPhones are for, to escape the tedium of waiting on anything.

Advent is not just hard for those who want to jump the gun. For those of us who always have laziness on our confession list, it’s a reminder to prepare. To be alert, ready, watchful. Real preparation is the antithesis of procrastination. Oh how I love to wait till the last minute, until panic arrives and I scramble. Advent says to get off your ass, put your house in order.

So how can we prepare? And what are we preparing for? Not just for Christmas, I learned in catechesis. No, we prepare for the kingdom of heaven, for the return of Christ the King. And what is the kingdom of heaven? What does Christ look like as king? How will He expect us to live in His kingdom?

There are very few people I’ve met who would feel at home in a kingdom ruled by Christ. During Advent I’m going to write about them. They are not famous, but they’ve inspired me, and I’d like to share something about how they live. No real names, obviously. I hope they bless you as they have blessed me. Peace.


We Who Left the Faith

I see a lot of articles about how to keep your kids in the faith. They speak to that deep fear that your kids will end up in hell, either in this life or the next or both, if they leave the faith in which they were raised. I’m not going to say that’s a misplaced fear. For one thing, I’m not a parent, so I have exactly zero experience with the many fears involved and exactly zero authority on how to process those fears. For another, because I can empathize. I can see how you want the best for your kids, and if you’ve found the best thing in the world, the secret of the universe, nothing would bring you more joy than your kids finding it to, and nothing would bring you more sorrow than seeing them leave it behind.

There’s a formula to those “keep your kids in the faith” pieces.The writers know that some parents assume that because they are Catholic/Calvinist/Mormon/Orthodox Jewish/Baptist that it would be apocalyptic if their kid came to a different conclusion. And for certain faiths, that’s intellectually honest. If you really think, as certain fundamentalist sects do, that anyone outside your faith will burn in hell, whether they’ve heard of your denomination or not, then you damn better make sure your own kids don’t end up in the dark, because you love them. It makes sense. What to do then? If you’re trying to sell something, tell those parents that you’ve got a magic pill, a prayer or a book or a parenting tip that will keep your kids tied to the truth. Some are actually abusive and some aren’t, but the end-game’s all the same. Push these buttons to program your kid, and try to forget about free will.

I’m a kid that left it behind.

In my case, “it” was the Reformed or Calvinist faith, with a Presbyterian Church in America flavor. It was informed by John Calvin, Martin Luther, and John Knox, but also by the fundamentalist movement of the 1920s, the 1980s “Moral Majority” as led by Francis Schaeffer, and the 1970s Presbyterian split between conservatives and liberals. It was a very modern, very American incarnation of Christianity, with pledging to the flag at vacation Bible school and tacit support of the Republican Party. If you’re in the thick of it though, it seems like the Only Way to Be a Christian.

To be clear, I didn’t just leave bits and pieces. I left things considered to be the very essence of the faith I grew up with, things like Sola Scriptura, once saved always saved, and substitutionary atonement. I added in heresies like purgatory and inclusionary salvation, and I became a “liberal” feminist supportive of women’s ordination and equality of the sexes. I learned science and that you could be a person of faith while understanding evolution. I started reading those Old Testament prophets and noticed how much they talked about poverty and social justice, and I read Jesus’ words as if He really meant them. I discovered liturgy, the Rosary, candles and incense, and the greatest secret of all, the Eucharist. I started believing that miracles happened when the bread and wine were consecrated, that I was actually, bodily participating in prayer with every saint past, present, and future with Christ’s own out of time passion and resurrection, and my mind still gets blown that it’s actually happening.

But there’s always a sliver of pain. I will never invite my parents to visit my church, because there’s a statue of Mary in the back and we do the Angelus (with Hail Marys!) at the end of services. They don’t know about that particular heresy of mine, and I don’t want to pain them unnecessarily. As it is, my mom has wondered out loud if I’ll really be in heaven with her, and she makes frequent asides about how I “know” that predestination is written all over the Bible. I don’t take the bait anymore, because what’s the point?  I used to tease her that at least I wasn’t atheist or Muslim, but she didn’t laugh. If I won’t say that all Muslims and atheists are definitely going to burn in eternal hell, then it’s almost as bad as if I myself wasn’t Christian anymore. We’ve reached an uneasy peace, but I don’t want to rock the boat.

It’s an uneven battle, because I have no plan of changing her mind, or the minds of anyone else I grew up with. I respect the fact that they strongly believe something different, though we pray to the same God, and that’s the end of it. I only ask for the same, but because of their view of salvation, that’s not on the table.

Sorry y’all, I don’t have something to say to wrap it up, to bring it home. I just wanted to write, to poke at some deep layers and see what came up. Now I’ve got to go help my roommate cook dinner for us and her two kids. Beef soup sounds good. Peace folks.










7 Quick Takes: What Fundy Kids Do on Halloween



If you were a normal American kid, you went trick or treating on Halloween. If you were evangelical/fundamentalist/Calvinist, this was not an option, but neither was mere inaction. See, when kids come knocking at your door yelling “trick or treat,” you may see this:


But fundies see this:


You gotta be hot or cold, or Jesus will spit you out of His mouth. And stumping around the neighborhood in a Frozen costume is clearly the same as witchcraft, which is evil. Do you compromise with evil, punk?


Even without compromising, well-meaning fundie parents still disagree on how to fight the power. Really hard-core fundies turn off all the lights, hide in a windowless room, and read Jack Chick tracts with flashlights. This is only for Hard Core Fundies, so leave this for the professionals. Reading Jack Chick without sufficient pre-brain-washing is known to cause uncontrollable laughter and/or vomiting. Proceed with caution.


Those of an evangelical bent prefer to fight fire with fire, and thus was born the “Tract or Treat” movement. Instead of passing out candy, parents pass out a tract. I couldn’t find stats of increased TPing in response to this bait and switch, but the Lord hath said that in this world we will face persecution.



As a Calvinist kid, I celebrated Reformation Day instead. God in His wisdom predestined that Luther would nail the 95 Theses to the church door on October 31, thereby providing His elect with an ironclad reason to avoid Halloween altogether. While the unchosen heathens comforted themselves with candy and costumes, we covenant children went to church for a festival. They tried doing a Reformation play about Luther, but even the adults got bored, so we stuck with roasted marshmallows and hay rides. Calvinists have gotten more hipster since I was a kid, so they probably have Luther-themed mixed drinks nowadays.

Reformation Day


Baptists got bored with Jack Chick and noticed the Presbyterians having fun for once. You know it’s bad when the frozen chosen party harder than you, so Baptists came up with the Fall Festival. It was held in the last week of October, and kids dressed up in costumes that weren’t scary, and there was candy, and everyone agreed that it Definitely Had Nothing to Do with Halloween. Obviously.


These days, the biggest threat to Halloween isn’t fundies – it’s overprotective parents. I hadn’t heard of trunk or treat until a few years ago, but now it’s taken over. They’re everywhere, with parents walking hand in hand with their kids from car to car in a church parking lot, without even the word “trick” to wreck their innocence. These tend to be held in the weeks before Halloween, which means that by the actual day, kids will be overcome in a sugar coma and won’t care. Which is perfect for parents whose biggest fear is their snowflakes being independent.


Dang Jack Chick, you got outdone by yuppies. You’ve gotta up your game.