Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Prison Work is Messy Work

“On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Mark 2:17

After a few months of hiatus, I recently started going back to Dallas Prison to serve the women of Lew Sterrit prison.  In the past year and a half a small team and I have taught a number of life skills classes to challenge the women to start taking the necessary steps towards getting their lives back on track.  We’ve taught on healing, forgiveness, finding life’s purpose and this semester on HIV/AIDS, all taught with the word of God as a foundation. 

Every new semester comes with its own challenges and new faces.  Of course I want to see old friends but this is not the kind of place you jump with excitement when you see old friends.  Instead your heart breaks wondering of all the failed promises they made and their shame for failing.  And I believe, the excited while disappointed feeling is mutual; you can see it in the half smile on their faces that say: I’m glad to see you but I’m so ashamed because I failed.

When I describe inside of the prison to eager friends who can’t fathom being inside of a prison serving, they walk away with their mouths wide open in complete disbelief.  Well this time around, it was my mouth that was left wide open, shocked by where I was and what I was doing.  The entire time I was there, I was thinking: “no one will ever believe where I was and what I was seeing”. 

So let me paint the picture for you of that first day back into prison.

In the past year and a half we’ve been serving in a multi-purpose room.  And this room is connected to the pod, where the women sleep, with plexiglass doors on both sides, to the left and the right; virtually soundproof and a guard has to buzz the women in and out.

This year, however, due to an influx of volunteers, we were pushed into the pod to conduct our class.  Now when you walk in the pod from the multi-purpose room, the guard sits on a raised staired concrete slab area right in the middle of the pod.  Directly in front of the guard is the common area and surrounding the common area are two floors of bunk beds with no bars (sorry not the drama you see on TV).  To the right of the common area are showers, toilets and, I think, a microwave. 

On our first day of serving, we walked in to conduct our class and instantly you can hear all of the voices from the different activities going on.  Some were playing cards and others in their “rooms” with their bunk mates, guard talking to the ladies, and others were cleaning up.  We announced the class and we began pulling round tables together to set enough chairs for about 20 women.  The women were not required to attend but about 15 showed up. 

And so we began our class.

 This was by far the most bizarre condition in which I have ever taught a class.  It seemed after every fifth sentence, someone who was not a class participant, was in desperate need to use the toilet which was maybe 20ft away from our “class” and that toilet flush had to be the loudest flush I have ever heard.  And it was also around that same time several women decided this was the best time to take a shower which by the way has a concrete “door” that covers up to their waste.  Yes you got it loud bathroom flushes and butt naked women right in the middle of our class while teaching from the top of our lungs on HIV/AIDS in prison. 

Oh I love prison work…no other ministry has stretched me to go beyond the pleasantries and get comfortable with the messy.

It was so odd that right there, in the midst of the messy, was the presence of God.  Sometimes I find that God’s presence is more felt in these messy places than many churches I have visited.  There is that reminder that this messy group is why Jesus came.  It forces me to see my limited power and God’s supernatural power to save, heal and restore.  As much as I like going to the prison to serve, 99 percent of the time, I feel completely helpless without any answers for the enormous problems I hear but those moments force me to realize that I am not God and only He can heal, save and restore.  My job is to just show up.  I guess the only credit I deserve is for showing up; everything else is God. 

No other job has taught me to sit with the messy than prison ministry.  No other job has taught me of my limited power than prison ministry.  No other job has taught me to look at broken people with compassion than prison ministry.

Though it is messy, the presence of Jesus is there.  And wherever Jesus is that’s where I want to be. 
Please Join me in praying for us as we learn to sit with the messy!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Covert Racism is Unjust

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28

To everyone who so desperately wants to believe we live in a world of meritocracy and that racism is a construct made up in the minds of minorities who are trying to make a mountain out of a molehill, I want to tell you a little story.

I'm a foreign woman, born in Haiti. Race relations, in our country,  is also a complicated issue. However winning our independence in 1803 has helped alleviate some of the pain of the past; it has been a great source of pride for Haitians and in some sense, it has unified all of us; neg marrons (brown negros), mulatoes and whites. In America not so much. The history of the blacks is plagued not only by the brutality of the slave ships but being kept as slaves for hundreds of years and stripping them of all sense of dignity with no way out.  Unlike the slaves in Haiti, the slaves in America never "won" their independence. Every attempt was met by roadblocks by the very people who swore to equal rights and the pursuit of happiness; instead of self-pride they were taught to self-hate. Expectations were set very low. In my line of work, I've learned when you expect very little of people they usually meet those expectations.

Like many of you, I didn't get it. As a foreigner, I couldn't understand why a group of people could not just put their minds to accomplish great things like the whites. I mean, for God's sake, it was a free education, equal opportunity and equal rights, right?? In my country the biggest hurdle to receiving an education and advancing in life is the lack of finances and resources but here in America, everyone is loaded with money. Right?? That's how a foreigner looking from the outside thinks about race issues in America and I suspect many of you looking from the outside think about it in the same manner. Racism in America?? No such thing, it's a lack of effort that’s keeping minorities oppressed and chained in ghettos.
I've been following this racial issue in America since 1987, when I first stepped foot on American soil. And after 26 years of research, personal experience and hearing from both sides, I have to tell you it's a mess. For the most part, racism in America has transitioned from the blatant, in your face, overt type to the more insidious and emotionally harmful, covert type. It looks like not being called on in the classroom to answer questions, it looks like calling on your own kind for opportunities to advance, it looks like making decisions in social gatherings where minorities would never be, to get an equal opportunity, it looks like not believing that they can achieve, it looks like setting them up for failure and in the end say: "see I told you so" and it looks like a lack of praise and encouragement for work done.  Covert racism makes one seem and feel crazy; you find yourself depressed, shrink back in the presence of the majority and find yourself crippled by fear.  And never are you allowed to say “I may be feeling the effects of covert racism” because those thoughts verbalized would be met by great disregard and comments like: “whatever do you mean? Nonsense; We’re all equal in this place”. 

Racism is still a big issue and a big deal.  Two of the institutions that continue to remind us of this truth are the Church and the public school system. I'll save my rant on the church and racism for another day but if you guessed that Sunday was the most segregated day of the week, then you'd be right.
But as for the school systems, I've been following them for quite some time; as a student, then as a teacher and now as a parent. Racism exists, it is evident in the public school systems and it is blatant. You don't believe me? Go on your computer, type in your zip code, if you live in a community that's predominantly black, read off the standardized test results for the children in that community. Now if you live in a predominantly white neighborhood, I want you to compare those test results to that of your neighbors that live in predominantly black or minority community. Exactly! There's a huge gap isn't there?

Please, please don't tell me about effort levels.

As a mom of three black boys who started becoming aware of the covert nature of racism in America. I have had to work extra hard to educate my sons of the realities of this issue in America and around the world. I often tell them "racism is real. At some point you will sense that your teachers will treat you differently from the other children but that gives you no right to not produce your best work and respond with disrespect; keep working hard". When they were in "average" level courses, I would ask them "look around your classroom how many black children do you notice in your class?" They would say: "we're all black mom" "exactly" and we would discuss the different reasons why that was the case and racism was one of them! I have had to fight to get them into advanced placement courses and they did not always understand why I would challenge them to be above "average". This year my oldest sat us down to plead for us to lower our expectations of an 88 to an 80 and during his plea he said "mom, I have all AP courses and I'm the only black boy in my class and I'm working hard". His comment stung my heart and I was sad that he had to live through the realities of this world.  I don't understand why mostly minorities are found in "average" level courses and you can barely find them in the AP courses. I don't understand why black children are being left behind in the public school systems. If racism isn't alive then why does the huge educational gap exist?

So here’s the point; Racism is still alive.  Its fingerprints are seen in many of the institutions we love and trust.  Instead of denying its existence, let us fight the status quo and change the systems that continue to perpetuate such an inhumane system.  Let us join hands and declare that “every kid, regardless of zip code and color, deserves a quality education”.  Let us ask of the church, why? Why are Sunday mornings the most segregated day of the week?  Could we, the body of Christ, be continuing to perpetuate a system that Christ Himself came to destroy?

Let us never be silent in the presence of injustice.  Covert Racism is unjust!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Is Receiving an Education a Sin??

“The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor”.  1 Corinthians 12:21-23

A while back in one of my trips to Haiti, I met a woman that asked me a question that puzzled me. She prefaced the question by saying: "The Lord has placed a decision on my heart and you talked today about making good decisions, is it bad to make decisions?" That's not the question that puzzled me; but the full meaning of her question was: as a married woman am I allowed to make decisions?  I respected her and did not push her to disclose the decision she was anticipating on making. But I answered her as safe as I can, for all I know she could've been trying to tell me that she had decided to sacrifice her child or something as horrific. Hey you never know.  So I went through the list and shared with her that making a decision in and of itself is not a bad thing, as long as a) it is not against the words of God, b) that you and your husband have discussed it and come to an agreement and c) if your decision is serving a greater purpose. To which she smiled and said "good, good" and assured me that her decision lines up with my list.

She then went on to ask the question that left me speechless. "The decision I want to make is to get an education; Is that a bad decision? Is it a sin to desire receiving an education?" Her question moved me to compassion. She went on to say: "I'm an orphan; I have no family. I love my husband and he takes good care of me but I don't want him to keep feeding me fish, I want to learn how to fish. If something happens to my husband; I will have nothing left. That is why I want to go back to school and get an education."

I was close to tears while she was making her case for an education. I was saddened that she would see this decision as a selfish desire that would displease God.

The more we talked the more hopeful she became about her future and how receiving an education can help illuminate her path.

Unfortunately, these stories are not uncommon throughout the world.  All around the world, women are going without an education because culture has prescribed that it is better to have women learn to cook, clean and take care of a household than to receive an education.  And the sad thing is a portion of the Church, not God, has joined society in their devaluation of women.  It is time for us to send the message loud and clear that a woman desiring to get an education is not a sin.  I can’t believe I even have to declare this.  But just in case there are some groups in a hole somewhere who have not heard, when a woman is educated, everyone wins; her household, her husband, her children, her community, her employers, the world; everyone wins.

Women, now go and show the world that God has created you with a brain, with gifts and talents that will enhance the world.  If you do not use those gifts, you will become a part of the problem not the solution. Your gifts and talents are indispensable to the rest of the world. 

Now go….