Put a Hold On “Hope,” For Just A Second

Today, at the subway station, a boy was wearing a bulletproof vest.  He looked just shy of his early teen years and he looked like he was traveling alone. No one else had a vest on, but if he found this fact remarkable or uncomfortable, he gave no indication.

I try to imagine who gave him the vest to wear, and I picture parents who are afraid for their son. Who pass the same street corners that I do and take a second to ponder the clusters of candles, bottles, and hand-written posters that commemorate blurry photographs of youth. I imagine that they recognize their son in those photographs and have promised themselves that he would not be honored in this way. He would wear a bulletproof vest and he would not be killed. Not by police or gang violence, nor more slowly by systems of poverty, incarceration and the discrimination of resources. Because those are old, familiar stories that are no less fresh in the present. This fear of not being killed is in no way native to my neighborhood. I do not know this type of fear.

Ta-Nehisi Coates speaks of this fear in much of his book, Between the World and Me. He calls it “Fear” with a capital “F.”  To Coates, this Fear is a distinct and defining trait in his experience as an African-American man. In his raw and poetic words, he explains how the Fear has dictated the way he moves through the streets, the way he sees the world, the way he was raised, and the way he is raising his son. In the undertones of these explanations is a sense of loss, a knowledge of the divide between this life with fear and and the lives of those identified as white Americans who live without it. In contrast to this Fear is the “Dream.” He writes, “I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses and nice lawns…And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our back, the bedding made from our bodies.”

The heaviness to this text does not just come from the rawness of his writing and the loss underneath it. To his audience, he makes a point of not offering hope. He does not use his pages to mention change to the readers or a greater purpose for the loss of black lives. He speaks only of his reality. He explicitly refuses the comfort of the church, an institution deeply entangled in the ongoing story of white supremacy. I also get the impression that he does not want his loss so easily chased down by the language of heaven and hope.

In my experiences in the American church, and American culture as a whole, I have not seen much space for the rhetoric of hopelessness. In dialogues about the continuous fight for civil rights, conversations are often concise and controlled, ending with an action-step or an uplifting conclusion. In most of these instances, I assume this move is done to ensure that such heavy talk does not shut the participants down or digress them from belief in divine promises of restoration. In times of death, I often hear mention of  “the Bigger Picture,” “God’s Will,” or Jeremiah 29:11 with no context.

This community needs to do a better job at sitting with lament, of allowing each other the time to feel pain and recognize hopelessness before reaching for the language of “hope,” a word which can be used so flatly at times. Without this time of heaviness, we risk alienating ourselves from those who live with this fear and hopelessness. More dangerous, we risk giving ourselves opportunity to shirk past blame and the confessions we need to answer for by irresponsibly replacing talk of repentance and reform with mechanical Christian-lingo and condolences. It takes the burden off of the American church, the policy maker, the white Christian, to admit being part of the problem and to commit to making hard changes. Fixing eyes on heaven should not devalue anyone’s body and their life on Earth.

Coates does not believe in heaven. He calls “destruction of the body” the destruction of everything and he dismisses any cosmic explanation for the deaths of African-Americans. He distances himself from the hope that the church points to beyond death. What his writings do offer the church is an example of how to live present to the vast array of lives that we share the earth with. An example of how to better co-suffer: to lament the losses, the injustices, the inequalities, the killings. To lament in a way that recognizes hopelessness as a state of being, even if there is hope to offer and change to be made. So after walking past the street-side vigils and encountering the boy in the bulletproof vest, I do not think I should talk now about hope. First, I want to take the time to feel sad and hopeless. Sad for the loss of life, and hopeless that my own quality of life benefits from it. I need to take the time to pause every night when out of my window I hear the pop-pop of fireworks celebrating summer in the city. And I must remember that last week, at least one of those pop-pops were not fireworks but a round of gunfire that took the life of an eleven year-old boy a few blocks away. “A child shooting child” as my neighbors told me.

And I think it is wrong for me to talk about how to change these things and how to be hopeful in the middle of the process of grief and the assurance of a fear that does not belong to me. I think it is wrong for me to respond any further to the writing of Ta-Nehisi Coates because any word I say would only divert an extra second that should have been used to pour back over his writing and further surrender to the heaviness of his words. There is a time to offer hope, and this time is essential. There is a time to talk reform and politics, to protest, to act, to fight for difficult changes. But this should not substitute the time of lament. Time to sit in silence next to the vigils, or reflect on the life of an eleven year-old boy whose name I could not catch.

The Danger in “Then” versus “Now”

My thoughts on summer remain complicated –  unsure if I enjoy the temporary transformation of my usual life surroundings, people coming in and out, moving forward with their own personal agendas for a few weeks of freedom. Summer feels like a season where I consistently get stuck. What feels like being stuck in time, comparing what I was doing on this day exactly a year ago, how different things were then. There is a painful dissonance, a confusion that strikes each time I reflect. I find this to be true when I begin to think about my Type 1 Diabetes diagnosis. That is a constant place where the dissonance ignites, where I find myself disappointed and brokenhearted between the life I used to have and the life I have now. This holds true in many facets of life, including the work I am involved in this summer, with people with Alzheimer’s.

Vanier writes, “Throughout our lives there is the disorder created by sickness, accidents, loss of work, loss of friends… In human beings, there is a constant tension between order and disorder, connectedness and loneliness, evolution and revolution, security and insecurity. Our universe is constantly evolving: the old order gives way to a new order and this in its turn crumbles when the next order appears. It is no different in our lives in the movement from birth to death”. In summer, this heavy time of self-reflection, my abilities to find balance between the extremes grow more difficult. Vanier talks about how we try to control this transformation of time, something we all fall victim to. In my experience, this shows when I try to neglect my health and the current needs of my body. This never works out as I want and always leaves me unfulfilled.

I’ve found this to be true in the aspect of Alzheimer’s and aging as well. With my grandfather who has recently developed Alzheimer’s, there is this constant pull between before and now. Before he began to forget things and now, where things are so much more sad. This is absolutely not the case. It is about enjoying the days as they come, accepting them, and growing in its beauty and hope for tomorrow. That is one thing that I have grown to love about the Arts & Minds programs. Arts & Minds is a program that aims to live in the state of today, to enhance and to appreciate what any individuals have to bring to the table each day.

Vanier writes on the importance of this, saying, “to live well is to observe in today’s apparent order the tiny anomalies that are the seeds of change, the harbingers of the order of tomorrow”. Vanier is right. It is incredibly important to notice what we are offered today, to celebrate what ideas and emotions and memories might be present with us. Witnessing the act of living in the moment through the Arts & Minds programs have helped me to find comfort in the way things are now, not the way they once were, before any diagnosis or shift. Vanier’s texts have encouraged me to try and grow more comfortable with transitions between “old order” and “new order” by trying to break down that idea. Everything is fluid and we are just living.



Living in Proximity With 8.6 Million People

It has been over a week since I started the internship at City Seminary in New York City, a young seminary committed to questions of the city as a space of spiritual and theological growth. Together with other members of the gallery team, I have been helping to set up the newest art exhibition in the seminary’s Walls-Ortiz gallery.  The seminary uses this space as an opportunity to engage and invite neighbors in the Harlem community in relationship through the medium of art. This particular exhibition, titled “Planting for Peace,” draws attention to environmental justice and the tension between the earth under our feet and the urban systems that we created and rely on.  As I settle into the rhythms of this preparation, I am also learning the rhythms of the city, and applying my thoughts on theology to this context.

There is a certain feeling that often envelops me and I will try to describe it. It is attached to the recognition that at this very moment, the very moment that I write this and again at the very moment that this is read, over seven billion individuals will be experiencing their own moments at the exact same time. And all of our experiences of these moments must differ greatly. Is this thought not heavy? Some of us will be exposed to intense suffering, and others to immense enjoyment. For some, it will be an unremarkable moment, for others it will be life-changing. I am sure I am not the only person who thinks of this idea. But to me, this is a meditation on humanity.

The more I think about it, the more the awareness grows. There are always more stories to imagine. At the very moment I sit down for a meal, someone has not eaten. At the same time I lay down on a mattress, someone else sleeps on a sidewalk.

In a city like New York this awareness is much more than a feeling. It is palpable and real. It confronts me on every street and out of every window. With eight million lives stacked on top of each other in neatly numbered apartment blocks, privacy is somewhat impossible. Intimate moments intermingle with the mundane and the necessity of the A Train at rush hour. I hear couples flirting and friends fighting. I overhear business calls and children being chastised. On the street, I get the thrill of passing a woman robed in full West African glory: yellow yards of twisted silk crowning her head, dress flowing behind her. Another woman whisks around me in a wheelchair, another in a pinstripe suit.

The economic divide also looms in plain sight. On the blocks of West Harlem, where I spend most hours, new hipster coffee shops sprout around the barber shops and a Senegalese supermarket. A block away from the lines of Whole Foods, another line forms outside the food pantry. On the train ride home, a man who smelled of urine asked for change. No one acknowledged his request. No one even looked up at him.

It is easy to become desensitized by the sheer number of these encounters, full of personal moments and vulnerabilities. Desensitization is a common way of coping with the entanglement of lives in the city. When I witness these moments, I cannot help but feel small: an inconsequential piece in the scope of some greater cosmic narrative. I also wonder what responsibility I have to address the divide in the moments I encounter. Can it possibly be right to enjoy small luxuries knowing the expense of those who cannot afford to do so? How can I not feel contempt for those who live so lightly in the moments where I am in distress?

This kind of thinking may sound heavy, and it is rightly so. It challenges me to question a lifestyle that I can easily assume that I am entitled to. It challenges me with ever-evolving questions. What is my understanding of loving my neighbor? And what does the action of love look like when my neighbors and the moments that they live are each so diverse and so numerous? As a church are we prepared to understand humanity’s triumphs and trials as our own? Can we accept all of our injuries and injustices as collective and connected?

Yes, this is heavy, but it is essential if we believe that we see Jesus in the hungry, the homeless, and the marginalized. It can also be simple and freeing. To me, it is a meditation.  Thinking of these moments and witnessing some of them, I also feel gratitude. Not because I feel more or less fortunate than those experiencing life around me, but because I get to share in that existence. It is a reason to stay present.

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together”

– Lilla Watson, artist, activist, indigenous Australian

Looking Life in Its Eyes

“One day in Paris, I was accosted by a rather disheveled woman who shouted at me: ‘Give me some money!’ We started to talk. I learned that she had just come out of a psychiatric hospital; I realized quite quickly that she had immense needs and I became frightened. I had an appointment and I didn’t want to be late, so I gave her a little money and went on my way, just like the Pharisee and the Levite in the gospel parable of the good Samaritan. I was frightened of being swallowed up by her pain and her need. What is this abyss that separates people? Why are we unable to look Lazarus straight in the eye and listen to him?”

Jean Vanier writes this in Becoming Human, a book I have been reading – and have been repeatedly moved by – during my time here in New York City. It has been two weeks in the city and two weeks since I have begun my internship with Arts & Minds. To give some background, Arts & Minds is a program that aims to weave art into the lives of people living with dementia and their caregivers. Throughout the week, I attend a range of programs at a set of different museums in New York City. With each program, I am receiving answers to new questions. “How well does paint work on pieces of tin foil? Which train do I take to get to the Metropolitan?” I am confronting bigger questions, as well, like “How does dementia impact individuals?” In my interactions with people of varied ethnicities and backgrounds, I have found there is not a singular answer to that question. Dementia may make an individual more quiet, or more talkative, more sensitive, or more flirty. There are more logistical questions: How loud do I have to speak? Or how much can I say? These are questions that I may be able to get a bit closer to answering with experience and observation.  As an intern, I have the gift of this extended time.

Each Arts and Minds programs follows the same sort of structure. We set up art supplies in the workspace, go over the day’s program, and wait for the attendees to arrive. This is a time for greeting one another, for gauging the energy and days of both the individual with dementia as well as their caregiver. Once we make our way into the gallery space, time is given to observe the art, to question it and to have bigger conversations. Once the conversation in the gallery space is concluded, we go to the studio art space. Everyone has time to create their own work of art. And then everyone has their time to share it. I believe that the beauty of the program is rooted in the way that a voice is granted to each of the participants. Participants, both people with dementia and their caregivers, are often refused a voice; Arts and Minds restores that power to them.

The programs can pose discomfort and I believe that this is where the growth begins. When a person with dementia (PWD as they call it) might be having a difficult day, it is so much easier to look the other way. But what does this do? As Vanier observes, we are afraid to be touched. We are afraid to be tuned into the struggles that another is experiencing, but we are also tuned out of the beauty. Arts & Minds creates a space for both laughter and a space for seriousness. It is allowing me to be touched and encouraging me to question: why is it that we look away in the first place?

While the Arts and Minds programs allow me to get to get closer to new insights, I find myself leaving with more questions than I came with. These questions are not contained to the programs. You see, once I leave the program, I usually take the subway home. On the subway, it is not unusual for people to pass through and ask for money. On the walk home, it is not unusual to pass individuals on the sidewalk who are homeless. In fact, this is quite common. And it’s as if I hear Vanier asking me, “Why are unable to look Lazarus straight in the eye and listen to him?”

In the museum programs, I am able to look individuals in the eye and listen to them. But once I leave, why do I try so hard to look the other way? This is a crucial question to be asked. Vanier comments on the discomfort that people feel in the presence of disability, the fear and avoidance that persists. I am not exempt from this response. Vanier illuminates the beauty in keeping one’s eyes open, upon truly seeing the other, in much the same way that the Arts & Minds program teaches to me. As I move forward in my internship, I hope to seek out encounters and conversations, not only with Arts and Minds participants, but with the bigger community of those living around me in New York City.