Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Set the Oppressed Free!!!!!

In Luke 4:18-19 Jesus Reads the words of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

I am the fourth daughter born in a family six children. I grew up in a country where girls are often left behind and overlooked. When choosing which children to send to school and which should stay home because of a lack of resources, the girls in my country are usually left behind.
From Haiti, we moved to an urban community where social problems were so many that empowering its girls and women was not on their priority list.

I attended a church who taught both girls and boys the words of God but when they grew older they only meant for the men to lead and not the women. We were taught the pulpit was a sacred place only men can occupy.  Even today, this is still the case.

I then went on to college where I was often the only person of color in lecture halls of hundreds. With no one to validate that I was ok, no one to whisper encouraging messages that I can be strong, that I can speak up and I was valued. No one to show me the ropes; I was on my own to either sink or swim. I swam vigorously as if my life depended on it. Well it kinda did.

These experiences and many others created in me what I call post-oppression disorder, ok I made up the diagnosis. But it should be a legitimate diagnosis.  The closest diagnosis to what I’ve experienced growing up as a black woman living in a patriarchal and racially homogeneous society is PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). (PTSD) is a severe anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to any event that results in psychological trauma.

Many people have confused oppression for a lack of self-esteem. The effects of oppression are greater than just a mere expression of lacking self-esteem. I remember a well-meaning friend attempted to address my "lack of self-esteem" by saying something like "we can't believe in you unless you believe in you". Thank you for the "encouragement" but she completely missed it. See oppression is the systematic control of a person’s mind which in return controls their actions. The dictionary defines it as: "Prolonged cruel or unjust treatment or control. The state of being subject to such treatment or control". Oppression makes one shrink, hold back, live in constant fear, it is debilitating and weakens the will to fight back.

This is greater than me not feeling confident about myself; this is an evil spirit that hovers over a person and once the job of taking over that one’s mind is complete, they are left incapable of pursuing future goals. Even when the systems that controlled this individual are no longer present, they continue to feel its spirit hovering and pressing them down. Once the stamp of oppression has been imprinted, it is quite difficult to undo.  Oppression is an evil that robs us of the precious gift of life. The longer the duration of the oppression, the harder it is to be free from its power. 

Oppression can occur to all individuals. A woman working in a man’s industry.  A daughter living in a house with a controlling father.  A minority living in the midst of a majority culture.  A husband, boyfriend or significant other exercising their power over their mate to intimidate and manipulate.  You get the picture.

I spent years under various forms of systematic oppression.  Systems that either overtly or covertly made it difficult to walk.  Systems that could not see my worth or value.  Systems unaware of their negative impact.

In Luke 4:18-19 Jesus Reads the words of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Yes!!  Jesus came to free the oppressed! 

All throughout the gospels he was lifting the heads of the oppressed.  The Gospel of Luke opens up with the most remarkable example of God lifting the head of the oppressed by allowing Jesus to be born of a young, illiterate, and poor woman who had been oppressed by her cultural of heritage.  And the angel said: “greetings you who are highly favored!” Jesus came to set the oppressed free.  He highly favors the oppressed.

This my friends is how we should attempt to “set the oppressed free”.  Don’t confuse it with a lack of self-esteem, it is more than that.  It is fighting for justice for the oppressed.  It is creating space at the table for the oppressed.  It is the giving of dignity to the oppressed.  It is being aware of the needs of the oppressed.  It is helping them stand tall.

I will never forget the men and women who did as Jesus did and drew me out. Those who took the words in Isaiah 61 seriously.  They knew what the oppressed look like; they sought me out and poured into me.  They loved on me.  They saw my gifts and talents and patiently helped me be more of who God created me to be. They gave when there was nothing in it for them. These men and women were Jesus in the flesh, continuing what he did while living on the earth.

Lord Jesus, help us be about what you are about and set the oppressed free.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The HIV+ Samaritan Woman

John 4: 16-17  “16 He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back. I have no husband, she replied. Jesus said to her, You are right when you say you have no husband. 18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”

One of my favorite biblical stories is that of the Samaritan woman by the well. On the surface she seems to be a loose, promiscuous home wrecker with no morals but as we look deeper into her life we see a different story marked by pain, suffering and rejection. The bible doesn't give us too many details of her life; the hows, whys, her family and friends are all missing. We basically use what's written in John 4 to help us fill in the gaps and understand this remarkable woman. 

The first question I often ask is: why is this woman drawing water during the hottest part of the day, alone?  Why? All over the world in developing countries women engage in a typical daily routine, drawing for water.  It’s usually the first thing they do in the morning.  And wells usually draw a big crowd because everyone in that community is in need of the same source of water. It is the place friends would meet and town gossips get shared.  This woman obviously did not want to interact with the rest of the community. She would rather draw water, alone during the hottest part of the day. Why?

The second observation is regarding the man in her life, her husband. She confessed to Jesus that she had none to which he replied I know you've had five husbands and the man you’re with now is not your husband.  The interesting part of this conversation is that Jesus would have known that every last one of those five husbands walked out on her.  In the days of Jesus, women had no right to ask their husbands for a divorce but the men can turn their backs on their wives and give them a divorce.  This woman had five husbands who turned their backs on her.  Five accounts of rejection.  Five accounts of humiliation.  Five accounts of disregarded. Five accounts of pain. 

Can you see her? Is she still just a loose, promiscuous woman with no morals?

In the past year I've come in contact with many modern day Samaritan women in my line of work. These are women who have been rejected over and over again.  Women who live with the constant reminder that they’re not good enough or worthy enough for a man to treat them with dignity.  So they hide in shame. No one gets to hear their stories because of fear of judgments.

I met one of these women about a year ago.  She has several children and I believe there are three different fathers and the man she’s with now, I’m not sure if they’re married or the status of their relationship. She didn't have to tell me what happened with the men in her past; they all left for “better” opportunities.  And the hardest reality for her to come to terms with is that one of them infected her with HIV.

Can you feel her pain? Is she still a promiscuous single mother with no morals?

If the Samaritan woman were to live in 2013 she would probably have HIV/AIDS.  That’s the reality of many women around the world; very little education, lack of resources, no voice to negotiate safe sex and the mother of many mouths to feed. They are the ones most vulnerable to HIV/AIDS.

The truth is: we need to look deeper at these women.  Jesus did!  Jesus sat with her and engaged her in conversation and saw her with dignity, when everyone else had condemnation. 

Lord, help us learn to love our modern day Samaritan women as you did.

Below are some statistics regarding women and HIV/AIDS

Statistics: Women and HIV/AIDS

In the United States 

Women account for one in four new HIV diagnoses and deaths caused by AIDS.
The proportion of AIDS diagnoses reported among women has more than tripled since 1985.
The vast majority of women diagnosed with HIV contracted the virus through heterosexual sex.
African Americans constituted 64 percent of women diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in 2009.
African Americans and Hispanics represent 26 percent of all women in the U.S. but they account for 82 percent of AIDS cases among women.
African-American women have an HIV prevalence rate nearly 15 times that of white women.

Around the Globe
Worldwide, women constitute more than half of all people living with HIV/AIDS.
For women in their reproductive years (15–49), HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death.
Women are at least twice as likely to acquire HIV from men during sexual intercourse than vice versa.
A study in South Africa recently suggested that nearly one in seven cases of young women acquiring HIV could have been prevented if the women had not been subjected to intimate partner violence.
In 2011, 57 percent of pregnant women living with HIV in low- and middle-income countries received effective drug regimens to prevent new HIV infections among children.
In sub-Saharan Africa, women constitute 58 percent of all people living with HIV/AIDS.
Among young people aged 15-24, the HIV prevalence rate for young women is twice that of young men.

Sources: UNAIDS World AIDS Day Report 2012; UNAIDS Fact Sheet 2012; Kaiser Family Foundation; U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Congratulations You're Feeling

For the past 13 months I have been in and out of Dallas prison working with women who have found themselves incarcerated for a litany of reasons.  Some days there are no signs of hope; it’s a dark kind of work.  But there are some other days where we have to stop and celebrate what God is doing and offering: Healing.  A few weeks ago, we did just that. We celebrated one of the women’s day of “feeling” alive. Of course she’s been living for 30 plus years but this is the first time since chaos entered her world that she’s walking into the land of the living with the rest of us.  Have you been there before?

She was complaining how everything was hurting, how difficult everything felt and how she was feeling bad all the time. This woman was in deep pain and suffering.

She went on and on and talking about her feelings and how she regretted so many decisions in the past and worst yet, how she sacrificed her children for drugs and alcohol.

And after we listened to her for a good five minutes, I asked the group to give her a round of applause.

We weren't applauding because she was in pain.

We were applauding because for the first time in her life she was feeling real feelings. You see this is the first time in her life she has allowed herself to sober up and “feel”.  This is the first time in her life she was alive and seeing her reality; in jail, lost her children and many burned bridges.

Life hurts and we need to feel the pain that accompanies those feelings.  We need to experience darkness in order to understand and appreciate the light. We need to feel pain

We often try to find things to numb ourselves so that we would neither feel the pain of our situations nor deal with the challenges of life. We use all kinds of distractions just so we do not have to deal with life. When what’s required is to surrender to the pain and let it develop us, mature us and take us to new heights in life.  Pain does not have to paralyze us and leave us empty with nothing to give to the world; pain can propel us to our life’s purpose.

Feelings are not the enemy; feelings are actually our friend. They alert us to different things going on in our lives and give us an opportunity to do something about them.  It is what we do with our feelings that can be the potential enemy.

Of course sitting in pain for long periods of time is a great evil that can rob us of life and joy but we need not be in too much of a rush to dismiss and bypass this important part of our development. 

If you're in a season where you are “feeling” congratulations you are halfway there, in front of you is an opportunity to heal from those wounds and pursue God’s purpose for your life.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Complications of Grief

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. James 1:2-3

The past few years I have been mourning many losses. Each one different from the other; each one with its own complications but every last one with a measure of darkness and pain that has left my soul with gaping holes no one can fill.  The most recent loss was the loss of my dad in October of 2012.  Though we’d been walking through the valley of death with my dad for two years, the pain of losing him has been more challenging than I anticipated.

One of the challenges stems from how my dad lived his life.  The truth is my dad caused us great pain while he was here on earth. When he first passed, I felt guilty grieving his loss.  I would constantly ask myself “Why grieve someone who did not live a perfect life? Someone who made selfish choices? Someone who struggled being a husband and a dad?”

Then God met me in the darkest part of my grief.  He led me to see my dad as a whole man, not the fragmented parts I was holding onto.  He helped me see not just the painful parts of my dad’s story but also the good and funny parts of my dad.  I remember when my sisters and I first came from Haiti and we could not read English and my dad went out and invested on reading programs so we can be proficient in reading.  I also remember the mornings he would show up from working as a cab driver bringing us freshly baked bagels, we would all run to the kitchen knowing he brought our favorite. Whenever I’m home (NJ), I would drive by that bagel shop just to relive those memories. 

So God in his grace and mercy has used my dad’s passing to help me see man, all man as whole people, the good, the bad and the ugly.  He helped me understand that there is not a man on this side of heaven who is perfect in every way; not his beloved son David or these other biblical patriarchs we highly esteem and whose words we live by. 

Just a few weeks ago one of my favorite professors passed away and at his funeral one of his children called him “a good enough father”!  What??  Not a great father?? Not the best father?? This is the man we know and love; this is the man who can dissect the scriptures like no other, this is the man when he speaks everyone seems to stop everything and listen and his son simply said “he was a good enough father”.  I applauded his words spoken in honesty because I understood from where those words were coming.  I understood that God was showing him to look at his father as a whole man, not too highly and not too lowly but as a broken and fallen man who’s had his share of mistakes and imperfections but also the man whom God chose to give him life.      

That’s when I fully entered the season of grief; without guilt, without shame.  So I grieve not because my dad was a perfect man; I grieve because he was my dad. God chose to give me life through him.  I grieve because a part of him is in me.

Grief has caused me to walk slower and look at life through different lenses.  I no longer look at life through immortal eyes but as a mortal man whose time here on earth is short. It’s forced me to face my fears and start living with passion and purpose.  Grief has caused me to look at love differently; it is no longer something I’m waiting for others to give me; I am now the distributer of love.  It has forced me to look at conflict differently, as we attempt to live life in community with others around us, we will hurt them and they will hurt us; it is imperative that we talk to one another and forgive and ask for forgiveness.  That’s the only way it’s going to work. 

Though grief is a complicated journey, it is a necessary journey.  It has the potential to produce our authentic selves. Because of grief, I feel myself becoming more of the person God created me to be. Perhaps that's where the joy in trials come in to play.