6 may 2016: race, gender and the language of welcome

Early last week, on the way to a multi-day meeting in Eastern Kentucky, I was sharing a ride with a colleague and another colleague remarked that he would join us, “to keep Deb and Josh straight.” I noted, in a playful way, that “straight is overrated.” 

Yeah, yeah. It’s a line I stole from someone, and you’ve probably heard me use it. For me, it’s just a tiny reminder that language affects us. That we hear differently. 

During those same meetings, I was chatting breezily with colleagues with whom I was sharing a dorm, and in the conversation I said something like “what’s a little white lie among friends.” And was suddenly, painfully, aware of the blackness of both of these colleagues. My words stuck in my throat as I apologized. 

A few days before all that, in a worship service not at Woodside, the person offering the prayers used the common “traditional” prayer that Jesus would “wash us white as snow.” But the prayer was read by a black woman. Which gave me pause. 

You may think this is about being “politically correct,” which some folks say is ruining America. But when I try to hear the words from the perspective of the one who is not me, they sound different. What does it suggest when we say a white lie isn’t all that bad, but a black lie is awful? What does it communicate to hear a black woman pray to be washed “white as snow”? (I actually believe the prayers were pre-written by the worship planners, as our prayers are here at Woodside. I hoped the writer was also listening at that moment.) 

Even if we agree that language matters, fear of saying the wrong thing can keep us from talking at all. I get that. 

I’m telling you all this, not only because the work of understanding and healing isn’t done, but because we are embracing the next compassion journey here at Woodside and around the world. 

As I’ve written recently, there is a wave of legislation crossing America that intends to draw lines around the realities of our transgender brothers and sisters, lines that would keep some of us out, devalue our humanity, or dismiss our experiences. So-called bathroom bills are one way, but there are others. (I’m thrilled to note that in Michigan, the Secretary of State recently enacted a policy change that would allow transgender residents to change their gender on their drivers’ licenses without requiring any surgical interventions. She has said by this policy that we should believe people when they tell us who they are.) 

Sandhya Jha wrote, in her book we’re reading together, “If we don’t find a way to listen to one another’s stories across difference … we’ll keep rebuilding the foundations of the Beloved Community over and over again. … A lack of concern about one another’s narratives has led us to neglect of the load-bearing walls.” 

Woodside has a loving heart and a warm spirit of welcome. Visitors tell us this all the time. We mean it, and we work at it. And maybe it is partly a result of our having not been welcomed somewhere else. We don’t want to do to others what we did not like having done to us. That’s a great thing, and I love this congregation. But as I’ve talked with members and worshippers, I’ve realized that we lack language, awareness of each other’s stories, especially about what it means to be transgender. 

Recently, in conversation with an acquaintance who is transgender, I remarked about the trend toward “gender neutral bathrooms,” and he said “I’m not gender neutral.” 

It’s tricky. It’s sometimes uncomfortable. Sometimes we’re afraid of saying the wrong thing, using the wrong words, so we don’t talk at all, and that’s not usually helpful. So, I’m going to try to help. To invite us to talk even if we use the wrong words while we learn the right ones, and to help us find entre into each other’s stories. I’m going to urge us to listen to what we say, to imagine how our words may be heard by others, and to be willing to adjust our language to widen the welcome and minimize the pain. 

And I’m going to invite us to give one another the benefit of the doubt. To correct each other, to unravel more conversation that helps us get where we’re going, to assume that we are doing all this in the spirit of Jesus, a spirit of compassion and care. Understanding one another won’t always lead to like each other, but it will take us further along the justice road. 

And that, ultimately, is what it means to be resurrection people. 

With you on a journey to life, 

 

 

— pastor deb