Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Black Girl on the Birthday Card....and Other Lessons on Race

I worry about screwing up my kids.

Maybe everyone has that worry, but I think I've got more reason to.  My kids are Tanzanian by blood, growing up in Tanzania, but by American parents.  Where will they fit?  Will they be able to identify with Tanzanian culture?  Will they be able to identify with American culture?  I read the news and think, Will they be able to one day navigate African-American culture?  I look at my skin color and think, Am I adequate to help them figure all of this out?  

I've learned a few things by raising black kids.  They've helped me see the world through their eyes.  My daughter Grace received this birthday card from a friend earlier this year:

I've never seen my nine-year-old get so excited about a card before.  "Look, Mommy!" she shouted.  "This card has me on it!  That's me!  How did they find a card with me on it?"

I didn't have the heart to tell her that the drawing on the card really looks nothing like her.  But in that brief exchange, my daughter taught me a whole lot about race.  It only took brown skin and curly black hair for Grace to see herself.  I've learned that Yes, it's really important for kids to see themselves in movies, books, and billboards, whether they are black, white, Asian, or Hispanic.  It's a good thing that more of this is happening in our culture.

So in our house, we celebrate brown-ness and make sure it has a prominent place in our family's culture.  We love Gabby Douglas and Michaela DePrince.  Our favorite movie right now is the new Annie (which makes me tear up every.single.time) and my kids even have a Daddy who went to the movie theater and asked to bring home the life-size cardboard cutout.

Being mom of black kids has made me notice the subtle superiority of white-ness in my own culture.  Have you ever taken a close look at the make-up aisle in Walmart?  Most department store mannequins?  The color of standard band-aids?  The color of Jesus in most Bible story books?  How the color peach is often synonymous with skin-color?

Then I wonder, Is it really superiority that causes this?  Or it is just that we are from a white-majority culture that tends to be clueless?  I was recently bemoaning to Gil the lack of pre-teen chapter books that have dark-skinned main characters.  But he gently reminded me that this might not be an issue of racial prejudice.  It could just be that most authors are white, and people tend to write about what they know.  Is that true?  Or is there really a bias among publishers?  It could be neither.  Or both.  But is it right to assume the worst?

It's so complicated, isn't it?  We cannot deny that racism still exists in our society.  We cannot deny that minorities often have a right to feel angry.  I've lived as a minority in Tanzania for 11 years, and it's given me just a small taste of racial profiling.  Even yesterday, when I was in town, I was slapped with a big fine for an inconsequential traffic violation.  I felt very picked on for 1) being white and 2) being a woman.  I was absolutely furious, and it took 15 minutes of ranting to Gil before I calmed down.  I can't imagine what it must feel like to experience things much worse over a lifetime.

But at the same time, what is the answer?  Affirmative action?  More laws?  Diversity training?  Can we force people to think differently?  Our society has tried....but has it worked?  Maybe to some degree, but obviously not entirely.

Change has to come from the heart.  Not from the government, not from the schools, not from the newspapers.

So as a mom of black kids, what will I teach my kids about race?  How do I keep from screwing up their identities?  How do I make sure they understand their value, give them the confidence to stand up for themselves, and yet prevent a victim mentality?

I find my answers in the gospel.

1)  The Bible teaches that every person has value.  Every person is made in the image of God, regardless of race, sex, culture, country, whether handicapped, unborn, or terminally ill.  Every person has dignity.  Every person has an eternal soul.

I would challenge you to find one other worldview, one other world religion, that gives that kind of value to every single person in the human race.  There is none.  Of course, not every Christian acts this way (see point #2).  And of course, people with other worldviews can still believe it, but if they do, they will always be borrowing from Christianity.  The only way we can see every human as having equal value is by believing that we are created in the image of God.

2)  Every person, whether oppressor or oppressed, has a sinful heart.  All of us stand in judgment before God.  White America is not the only population to struggle with racial prejudice.  We see it in India in the caste system; we saw it in Rwanda when men and women slaughtered 1 million of their friends and neighbors of a different tribe.  We saw in it Liberia, when freed American slaves set up a colony in Africa and proceeded to oppress the local Africans.  And we see it in the New Testament, when over and over again, Paul and the other writers seek to break down the barrier between Jews and Gentiles.

This is our nature.  We must accept this.  Instead of pointing fingers, instead of looking for excuses, we must look inside our own hearts and see that the seeds of hate and prejudice and superiority reside in all of us.  We can't just assume, That's their problem, not mine, because it's all of our problem.

3)  The answer is found at the Cross.  I just don't see any other solution.  The Cross brings us all down to the same level--we all have blown it; we all need to be rescued from our own wretched hearts.  Not one of us has the right to think we are better than someone else.   We all need Jesus; we all need him to change our hearts and our thinking.  We need the love that only he can give to overflow to those around us.

4)  Our primary identity is found there--at the foot of the cross.  God gives us the eyes to see the value of every person.  The cross gives us the perspective that no one has the right to feel superior.  Yes, we can celebrate our cultures and our colors and the things that make us different, because God created culture and he loves it.  But that culture does not define us.  It is only secondary to who we are before God, and who we can become in Christ.

This is what I plead in prayer for my children.  Yes, I know they will be confused about where they belong in this world.  I know they will struggle with their identity.  But I pray they can begin to see that African-ness or American-ness or brownness or whiteness really does not matter when we are all at the foot of the cross.

I would want my kids to know that, no matter what color they were.   I hope you do too.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility. (Ephesians 2:14)

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Not Home Yet

A friend and I were discussing a new law in Tanzania that could impact how long foreigners are allowed to live here.  It's not even in effect yet, and we don't even know if it would impact us.  But it was a stark reminder that we are visitors here.

I thought for a while about where we would go if for any reason we were forced to return to the States.  It was depressing.  I can't think of anywhere in America that actually feels like home anymore.  My parents' house probably comes closest--but only the house, not the neighborhood or the city.  I love many, many people in America--especially California--but that doesn't make it feel like home.

Dar es Salaam is home now.  We've lived here 11 years.  For Gil and I, that's 11 out of 14 years of marriage.  All of our kids were born here.  Dar es Salaam is certainly not the most pleasant city in the world, or even in Tanzania.  I love a lot about it, but there are aspects to this city that I downright hate...yet it is a familiar hate.  My car goes into auto-pilot, even when dodging goats.  I know the secret to finding ravioli.  I've planted memories in a thousand corners.  Not much about this place surprises me anymore.  It is familiar.

It's strange, though, that I've made my home in a country where I have to renew my resident's visa every two years.  I could, technically, be deported at any immigration officer's whim.  I will never be allowed to own a house here.  I will never be able to vote.  I stick out on the street and am treated differently from everyone else.  A million events could force us to leave:  a serious illness, a closed ministry opportunity, political unrest.

It's disconcerting to come to that realization--that this is the place where I feel at home, and yet I will never totally belong here.  It's been the story of my life, starting in Liberia, then Ethiopia and Kenya, and now Tanzania.  My passport says United States of America, and it's still part of my identity, but I have no idea what I will do when one day I have to live there.

Sometimes it feels like I am floating five inches above the earth, my roots dangling aimlessly.  Then I remember, Fix your eyes on things above, not on earthly things.  My roots shouldn't go down into this earth anyway.  I am a foreigner in this country, but more importantly, I am a foreigner on this earth.

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands....While we are in this tent, we groan and are that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.  (2 Corinthians 5)

This life is a only a vapor, and when it is extinguished, that is when I will really go Home.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Behind the Smiling Photographs

My kids were relating to me the adoption story of one of their friends.  Well, adoption always starts with something sad, I reminded them.

Sometimes I have to remind myself too, because I tend to forget.  We are a happy family.  Josiah loves hiding behind doors and scaring people.  Grace is enthusiastic about everything.  Lily loves to be chased and has an infectious giggle.  We eat dinner together every night.  We love playing games.  We dance a lot.  There's a lot of tickling.

Of course, we have grumpiness and meanness and sometimes they drive me batty.  He's not helping!  She hit me!  I'm telling!  But it's all normal.  I forget, often, that my kids are adopted.  I forget that they have pasts that didn't involve me.

This school year, one of our children has been having some "incidents" of bad behavior in class.  It started out somewhat mild, but continued to escalate until January, when we knew we needed to really take action.  This child would be set off by certain triggers, which would turn into loud, long, and uncontrollable outbursts.

I was a teacher for 7 years before I became a mom.  All I could think was, Oh no, my kid is that kid.

So Gil and I did what we had always done with our children's sinful behavior, and what has always worked.  We set out very clear and significant rewards and consequences, and we followed through on them.  We made a behavior chart.  We had long, solemn talks with this child.  As a family, we role played school-day scenarios, which always ended with everyone laughing in heaps on the floor.

Unfortunately, at school there was no laughing.  Our plan did not work.  In fact, it got worse.  A lot worse.  During one terrible week, I broke down and cried.  I wasn't just concerned for my child.  I was scared.  We had been trying everything we could think of.  What else could we do?

In desperation, I wrote to Elaine, a friend of mine who is an adoption specialist.  I described my child's behavior.  Could this be an adoption issue?  I asked.

She wrote back almost immediately.  Absolutely, she said.  No doubt.  She answered my questions and sent me all sorts of articles and links to read.

Suddenly it all became very clear.  Of course!  I thought about my child's past.  I thought about how the school environment could trigger things from the past.  It made sense!  My child wasn't acting out of defiance; my child was acting out of fear.

My friend reminded me that all adopted children have experienced trauma.  Even if they were adopted as infants, there is still trauma.  A baby bonds with his or her mother while in the womb.  God's original plan is for children to stay with their birth mothers.  When that doesn't happen, there's trauma.  All of my children came from incredibly competent and loving orphanages, but they were still orphanages.  Children are not meant to be in orphanages.  Period.

Gil and I, along with our child's wonderful teacher, started looking at our child's behavior from an entirely different angle.  We made a different plan.  We are doing less fighting against the behavior and more addressing the underlying issue.  For parents like us, who tend to be no-nonsense and generally expect obedience from our children, this feels permissive.  It goes against some of our instincts.  But it's working!

It's been almost a month now, and we've had a lot less incidents.  I've noticed a confidence in my child that wasn't there before.  My child is happier and friendlier.  Most importantly, I feel so much closer to my child's heart.  I feel like I understand some of the behavior of the last few years...and I have a lot more compassion.

I realize that so far, our kids' struggles have been pretty mild compared to what some adoptive families go through.  But I'm sharing this story because I want to give other adoptive families hope, and because I want to encourage school teachers, Sunday School teachers, and coaches of adopted kids to also be willing to consider other angles as well.  Elaine told me to start at this website, and now I'm passing it onto you.

Adoption always starts with something sad.  But by the grace of God, that never has to be the end of the story.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

California, This is What Real Water Conservation Looks Like

The language learning pictures of the day were about washing dishes.  I learned the Kiswahili words for soak, scrub, scrape, rinse.  Then, as usual, Lucy made me a recording of the days' lesson.  Her recordings always keep me highly entertained, which is helpful since I listen to each one about a dozen times.

First, she made me laugh when she said (roughly translated):  "Foreigners always scrape their frying plans with only a plastic tool.  Because they are afraid of scratching their special pans."

Yep.  She's got that right.

She also said, "Americans rinse their dishes ovyo--carelessly--because water is cheap in America.  And they don't have to carry it on their heads."

Ouch.  Unfortunately, she's right about that one as well.  As I listened to this recording over and over, pushing the new words into my brain, I also thought about my home state.

I'm originally from California, which is facing a water crisis of epic proportions.  In fact, Lucy told me that she heard about the California drought recently on Swahili radio.  That's pretty crazy!  I know that Californians are upset about letting their lawns die and their cars stay dirty and their toilets stay yellow.  I get that--I would be upset too.

But here's a little perspective from my friend Lucy.

Lucy lives in a household of 6.  They are probably considered almost middle class for this country, because they own their own house and both she and her husband have dependable jobs.

Their house has no plumbing, along with most of the households in this city of 5 million.  A neighbor, about half a block away, has a outdoor spigot.  This is Lucy's water source.

Every day, Lucy buys 25 gallons of water from this neighbor.  Every day, she fills buckets and carries them back to her house on her head.  This much water costs about 15% of Lucy's take home pay.

Twenty-five gallons of water is what this family of six uses every day--for drinking, cooking, washing bodies, washing dishes, washing clothes.  And that's on the good days.  On the days when money is tight, it's only fifteen gallons.

And you know what?  Lucy considers herself blessed, because she only has to walk half a block to get water, instead of the miles that many women in Tanzania have to walk.

Just in case you're starting to feel way too judged, let me assure you that even though I write from the same city as Lucy, I'm much more in the category of Californians.  We do have indoor plumbing, and we probably use 10 times more water a day than Lucy's family, yet our water bill is only about 1% of our take home pay.

The average American person uses 100 gallons of water a day--400 gallons per family of four.  Every day.  In California, residents are being asked to cut that by 25%.  I know it won't be easy--it wouldn't be for me, either.  As an American, I am used to using water ovyo--carelessly.

Living in Africa has taught me to appreciate things I used to take such advantage of:  paved roads, electricity, libraries, Cheerios...and water.  Maybe this water crisis will do the same for Californians.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

We Are Not Safe

I was awake a long time on Thursday night, thinking about Garissa.

Thinking about 147 lives taken.  Kenya is a country where less than half of all young people attend high school, where less than 10% actually graduate from high school.  These students were the best and brightest of their country.  The hope of many families to escape poverty.  The hope of their country.  Have you taken a look at some of their faces?

Thinking about the trauma.  Mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters.  There were only 815 students at Garissa University.  17% were murdered.  Seventeen percent.  Every student knows someone gone.  Hundreds more forever traumatized, in a country where there is no team of counselors to rush in.

Thinking about how we live in the neighboring country south of Kenya.  Thinking about the Christian school my kids attend.  Imagining scenarios.  I am not a creative person, but it's amazing how imaginative I can be about terrorism.

Kenyans are justifiably angry.  They are demanding more security at their schools.  "We are not safe!"  Kenyan students chanted Tuesday.

We are not safe.  Was there ever a truer statement?

We like to think that we are safe.  We long for it, and we are lulled into it by the locks on our doors and the airbags in our cars.  We like feeling safe, and we like to pretend we are safe because it's just too hard to be afraid all the time.

Until something happens close to us.  Columbine, 9/11, Sandy Hook....they made Americans feel unsafe.  Garissa is too far away for Americans to be affected, but it's close to me.  So yeah, it makes me feel unsafe.  Terrorism accomplishes what it sets out to do, doesn't it?  Incite terror.

The funny thing is, nothing has actually changed about my life.  The danger I am in now is the same that it was a week ago.  It's just the facade of safety that has crumbled.  I see my world differently.  I know, from experience, that after a couple weeks with no other incident, I'll pretend once again that I am safe, and I'll feel pretty good about life.

Which is why these sorts of things are good for me.  They jolt me out of my cardboard fortress, and remind me of the reality of life.  I am not safe.  I never will be.  There is nothing I can ever do differently to make myself, and my children, entirely safe.  I live in a world that is completely out of my control.

I need this reminder.  Because it forces me to take my eyes off the waves and onto my Savior.

The Lord is my light and my salvation--
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life--
of whom shall I be afraid?

Though an army besiege me,
my heart will not fear; 
though war break out against me,
even then I will be confident.

My safety is in my salvation.  My confidence is in knowing this is not my eternal home.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

How It All Started

My parents are passionate about prayer, and the prayers of my parents have shaped my life.  Sometimes even when they didn't realize that the subject of their prayers was me.

In the mid-90's, my Dad was missions chairman of Hillside Church.  He had a vision for our church to partner with a team serving an unreached people group.  He prayed God would show him the country and the team, and it turned out to be a Reach Global group working in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

The partnership began in 1996, and Hillside began sending out teams to Tanzania (over 20 teams in a decade!).  My Dad led Team #1.*

My parents prayed that God would build and grow and train His Church in Dar es Salaam.  They prayed that God would shine His light on those communities that had never heard the gospel.  They prayed that God would send a Hillside member to be a full-time worker in Tanzania.

During that first exploratory trip, one of the things my Dad did was prayer-walk on the coconut plantation which was later to become Haven of Peace Academy's campus.  He stood by the giant baobab tree which bisected nothing but rows of coconut trees, and prayed for God's blessing on the fledgling school that had a vision of expansion.

In 1998, I was on Hillside Team #5 with three other college students.  We came to provide English camps for a group serving the Indian community in Dar.  We were also introduced to Haven of Peace Academy.  I always knew I wanted to be a missionary teacher, but when I found out about HOPAC, I was hooked.

My parents never, ever pressured Gil or me about any major life decisions--and they never intentionally planted the idea of serving in Tanzania in our heads.  They never prayed that Gil and I would be the answer to their prayers.

Yet in 2001, God led us to Tanzania.  He led Gil to join the team serving the Indian Community that I had joined on Team #5.  He led me to HOPAC--and later, Gil too.  And now God is using us to train His Church in Dar.

And it all started with my parents' prayers.

My parents were here visiting the last two weeks, and the time was filled with card games and water balloons and sight-seeing and long talks after the kids went to bed.  I am blessed that my parents are some of my best friends and my biggest cheerleaders.  I am incredibly thankful for their lives of service, sacrifice, and passion.

But today, I am mostly thankful that they pray.

*Special note for other RG and/or Hillside folks:  Ironically, for those of you who know him, Kevin Kompelien--the pastor of Hillside--was also on that first Tanzania team.  Kevin later became the Reach Global director for Africa and is now the candidate for president of the Evangelical Free Church of America.   Seems like my parents' prayers affected more than just us.