The Year of Non-Fiction

I’ve always been a voracious reader, primarily of literary fiction. I’m the type to have multiple books going simultaneously via different formats. In recent years I’ve set myself a yearly book goal on Goodreads (a great site) and worked to meet it. My all time highs are 54 books read in 2012, and 48 in 2013. I used to have a book blog where I wrote just book reviews. Reading was a major way that I learned about and made sense of the world.

But ever since we moved to Atlanta, and especially since the election, I’ve had a hard time focusing enough to read a book. I can partly attribute this to the fact that I wasn’t very engaged in the last three fiction books I tried to read: Harry Potter and The Cursed Child (such a disappointment I can’t even talk about it), The Heart of the Matter and The Little Friend.  In the past I would have found a way to push through just to check a book off the list, or at least switched to something else. But this fall I just couldn’t make it through a book. And I know why.

With all the craziness going on in the world it felt somehow irresponsible to escape into fiction.

Since the election I’ve felt a responsibility to read and listen to everything I could get my hands on related to Trump, his family, his cabinet, his staffers and his shady business deals. I felt like I just had to read as much as I could so I could be appropriately knowledgeable about each new staffing change/political decision/executive order. Reading anything non-politics related felt like giving in to what was happening.

Each day I would read the news of the day, various commentaries on the news and then listen to podcasts with more commentaries on the news. Pretty quickly, however, this got to be too much. I felt emotionally exhausted keeping up with all of the bad. My tolerance level for Trump-related news was reaching its breaking point.

So I have backed off, to a point. Let’s say I’m reducing my Trump consumption for Lent (an idea I got from a blog post that I can no longer find, so sorry for no link). I’m still reading the news every day, but I’m no longer listening to news podcasts in addition. For the sake of my sanity I’m also trying not to seek out more and more and more commentary related to Trump.

I deleted my podcast app and switched back to Audible during my commute and while puttering around the house. I still don’t have a desire to read fiction. Instead, I’m reading non-fiction books on a regular basis for the first time in my life.

I’m working from a list on Goodreads called “The Post-Trump Big Questions Canon.” It’s exactly what I’ve been looking for. Regular readers know that the election was earth- and faith-shaking for me, as I know it was for many. These books are helping me hone and reshape my view of the world in the new America of Trump. (Or perhaps it has belonged to people like him all along?)

In 2017 I want to come to a more nuanced understanding of history, politics, race, class, gender and the intersection between faith and all of the above. So far, I’ve read:

Getting back to reading is helping me feel like myself again. Long live books!

What are you reading these days, dear reader? And have others felt the same desire to learn more about the forces that created our current political moment?

 

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Post-Evangelical Life

Back in December, I wrote here and at Patheos about how I was having a hard time attending my evangelical church after the election. That piece struck a nerve. To date it has almost 7,500 Facebook shares, making it the most read post that I have ever written, by far. This tells me that lots of other people are feeling the same way and struggling with the same things that I was in the wake of November 8th.

I wanted to tell the rest of the story – what happened after we left that evangelical church and started going to a “mainline” one. It’s not the story of theologically weak/watered down preaching that I thought it would be. For my fellow dissatisfied evangelicals who aren’t sure about leaving: there is light at the end of the tunnel.

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image via Pixabay.com
My family is now attending a Presbyterian church (USA) about five minutes from our house. I had always thought of the PCUSAs as the “liberal” Presbyterians, and they are, in a sense. This is the first mainline church that I have personally ever attended, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was probably not alone in having a mental picture of mainline churches as being kind of like this: wishy-washy, unfamiliar, lukewarm.

But…surprise: that’s not what I found at all. Our new church feels surprisingly similar to the traditional Baptist church of my early childhood: pews, hymnals, a full choir. All the children coming to the front for a children’s message.

There are some welcome differences, however – the associate pastor, music minister and youth minister are all women, in addition to other roles that are traditionally filled by women in evangelical churches, such as the children’s minister.

The church is unapologetically formal – hymns only, from an actual hymnal, no projection screen. A pipe organ. People up on stage wearing robes. This formality has taken a little getting used to, as I have attended contemporary churches since I was eight years old. It’s growing on me. I appreciate that they don’t try to thread the needle between traditional and contemporary, as many churches do, with the awful “praise team” approach that no one ends up actually liking. While I miss singing my favorite praise choruses I’m gaining an appreciation for the deep theology in the lyrics to the old hymns.

The main thing I was worried about was that a mainline church wouldn’t actually preach the Bible. I have found this not to be true at all. The sermons are very similar to the sermons at the evangelical churches I have attended all my life.

What makes our church special is that even though my family is new, and the church is large, the pastoral staff went out of their way to make us feel welcome immediately. I mean, really: Jonah and I went to one service in early December and talked to staff members briefly on the way out the door. The following week, I got a card in the mail from the pastor, Jonah got a postcard from the children’s minister, and the pastor added me as a friend on Facebook and Instagram. On our next visit, staff members somehow remembered my name, and Jonah’s name. That’s the way it’s done, folks. I have never felt as welcome anywhere.

By way of comparison, at the last church we were visiting, the pastoral staff and their families had a special section to sit in during the service. (Maybe it’s not nice to link and put them on blast – but I think they should know how they came across, amirite?) Unless someone outside of the section went up to them, I never saw them interact with anyone besides other staff members. No staff member other than the children’s minister ever even looked at me, let alone spoke to me. Not once, over the course of three months.

Regular readers will recall that I was looking for a church that wasn’t filled with Trump voters and that would speak against him. The first Sunday we visited our new church happened to be the first Sunday of advent. The pastor spoke about the difference between happiness and joy, and mentioned that attendees might not be feeling very happy this Christmas season. Though he wasn’t explicit, I took this to be a tacit reference to the election. I’ll never forget it. I knew I was home.

Everything has not been perfect on this point. This previous Sunday I just felt sure that the pastor would mention the Muslim/refugee ban from the pulpit. When he didn’t, I was pretty disappointed. There was talk about divisions in the country and reaching out and spending time with someone whose life is radically different than yours, and a prayer for justice and against oppression, but nothing explicit.

But here’s what’s different from the past: even though I’m not a member and haven’t been there long, I felt comfortable enough to message the pastor and ask him about it. So I did. He was very thoughtful and transparent in a way that I am not used to ministers being, saying that he is attempting to minister to a diverse group of people, and while most members feel like he and I do, not everyone does. I’m going to quote him directly, as I appreciated his thoughtful response, and because this is anonymous:

“I probably missed an opportunity yesterday and I’ve struggled with that. I’m still processing the faithful response, in our community, to these days of chaos and outright hatred. I won’t always get it right, so I’m grateful for the gifts of grace and of community. I need voices like yours to speak your truth in love and challenge me to deeper faithfulness.”

I’ll take it. If things go the way they may with human rights abuses and outright evil from the Trump administration, however, I’m going to need a stronger response. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

How are you feeling about church these days?

(By the way, if any Atlantans are looking for a new church, please feel free to contact me, as I would love to share my church’s name so you can visit!)

P.S.: Please check out Dee’s comment below. She provides some excellent context about the obstacles facing pastors talking politics in a PCUSA church.

It’s Hard To Go To Church In Trump’s America.

This post was also featured on Patheos’ Unfundamentalist Christians blog.

It’s hard for me to go to church these days.

It’s hard for me to give up my precious, fleeting family time to transport my toddler across town, stand in a room with people I don’t know and listen to a sermon that’s just a little too long. It’s hard to go by myself with my son when my husband is working, and it’s hard to go as a whole family on my husband’s Sundays off, when we would really rather be doing something else together. It’s hard to make the effort. Especially now.

The truth of the matter is that it’s hard for me to go to an evangelical church in the wake of Trump’s election. I don’t think I belong there anymore.

I don’t belong with a group of people that by and large believes Trump is worthy of being president.

I feel uprooted, disoriented. Homeless. The evangelical church is the body into which I was born and raised, where I was educated and how I came to faith. I’m not sure where to go next.

Knowing that 80% of white evangelicals voted for Trump, I was interested to see how the leaders at our new church here in Atlanta would handle the election aftermath. Would they be silent about it? Call for unity? Reference it obliquely? Or speak out against Trump’s nativism, racism, mysogyny, etc.?

On the second Sunday after election day, the pastor at church preached a sermon on living out the gospel in everyday life. I was cautiously hopeful that he would reference the obvious elephant in the room, but he didn’t get any more explicit than saying something like “our current cultural context.”

He made the point that the first human occupation was gardener, not soldier, that we can’t force other people to believe the same things we do, but that we can live out our beliefs in our daily lives. All pretty basic stuff, but the phrase “gardeners, not soldiers” stuck out to me. At the time I interpreted that to mean that it is not Christians’ job to be culture warriors. And I found it vaguely reassuring.

But as I got to thinking about it later, I realized that this phrase also seems to be discouraging of Christians’ efforts to take a stand against the worst parts of this upcoming administration. Obviously, I strongly disagree.

If there was ever a time to fight like hell for things that are true and right and fair, it’s now.

Before November 8th, I already knew that I was more forward-thinking than most evangelicals, that I cared more about equity and racial justice and public education than most. But I have been absolutely shocked to discover just how far removed I am from the evangelical tribe. And even more, I am embarrassed.

I am so embarrassed that calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” wasn’t enough to get evangelicals not to vote for him. That mocking a disabled reporter wasn’t enough. Or saying that he would deport millions of people, including citizen children. Or wanting to create a Muslin registry. Or admitting to, and then being accused of, sexually assaulting women. And those are just for starters.

Because these things did not directly affect most white evangelical Christians, they were able to disregard them. And that attitude makes me feel ill. The privilege is breathtaking.

I know that evangelical ministers have a difficult task in front of them in this moment. Regardless of their personal beliefs, many are figuring out how to pastor ideologically divided congregations, what they can and cannot say to avoid offending different groups of people in their churches. But this timidity is keeping me from seeing much of Jesus at church right now.

Jesus is with the poor. Jesus is with the oppressed. He is with the marginalized. Jesus is with the groups of people that Donald Trump’s supporters mock, shame and attack, whose schools and places of worship they deface.

Instead, I am finding Jesus during restful moments at home with my family. I see him in my classroom, where children are making breakthroughs, learning to do things they never thought they could, and becoming moral people who care about others. I see him in organizations that work on behalf of the downtrodden, and those that work to protect the environment.

I’m not sure where all of this is leading me, and leading my family. For the first time in my life, I am pondering concepts like “spiritual but not religious.” I know that’s not the answer, though.

I want to belong to a body of believers, a place to study and worship and learn more about God. I just think the evangelicals have lost me, and I’m not sure what comes next.

For Those Who Are Not Ok

This post was also featured on Patheos’ Unfundamentalist Christians blog.

Well.

Donald Trump has been elected the next president of the United States.

How is that sitting with you today?

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image via pixabay.com

As regular readers know, I teach ESL to 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th graders at an “inner city” elementary school in Atlanta. My 45 students are all Latino but one, primarily 2nd generation Mexican-Americans. And this week has been, by far, the worst since I began teaching seven years ago.

I’m not sure which was the worst moment this week:

  1. On Wednesday, when 2nd graders who can barely speak English asked me why Donald Trump and other white people in America don’t like them, and one boy said brightly, “Mrs. Love, I’m white too, look!” as he held his arm up next to mine to compare our skin colors.
  2. On Wednesday, when my 5th graders asked me very detailed questions about when and how their parents (and possibly they themselves) would be deported. “How do we get papers for our parents? Is it too late now?” “What do we do when the police come to our house? Do we try to hide or…?”
  3. When I tried to offer reassurance that everything would be ok, these same students said, “You keep saying it’s going to be ok but it won’t be. It will be ok for you, but not for us.” And they are right.
  4. On Thursday, when multiple 4th graders told me their families were planning to preemptively move back to Mexico or Honduras before January 2oth. These are places these children have never known except through brief visits, if that.

As a reminder if you’ve been living under a rock, Donald Trump has promised to deport anywhere from 2 to 11 million illegal immigrants, and has said that citizen children of illegal immigrants could also be deported. Don’t believe he said this? Look here and here.

Every single one of my students is a U.S. citizen. Though I do not know the details, I suspect that some/many/most of their parents may not be. (Do you see how the upcoming Trump presidency is already making me scared to be definitive in writing?)

What I am hearing from my children is twofold: 1) We are scared of Donald Trump and what he wants to do to our families and 2) We are shocked that people in America, the only home we have ever known, are ok with this happening to us.

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image via pixabay.com

It is worth noting that I suspect my students haven’t encountered much racism in their lives up to this point. This part of Atlanta is overwhelming inhabited by people of color, and I had already guessed that that I was one of the only white people these children have known in real life. (Read more about that here.) Our school has two white students in it and three white teachers, including me. So this feeling of being an outsider in the place that is their home is entirely new for these children, and strange.

I watched the election returns in horror on Tuesday night. I will never forget the feeling of what a horrible, awful shock that night was – like a punch to the gut. I thought about *Maria, my 3rd grader who was so excited at the prospect of a woman president. I teach sheltered content 3rd grade Social Studies to Maria’s group, and our current unit happens to be on democracy and the three branches of government. Maria always draws a woman when asked to draw a picture of the Executive Branch. I thought about how disappointed she would be.

The nausea stayed with me for the rest of the week until about Friday afternoon. I had a hard time eating and sleeping. Wednesday was particularly bad. I cried off and on throughout the day.

And why was that? I know not everyone gets it. I’m seeing a lot of complaining on Facebook from conservative friends about “whiny safe-space liberals” and people being overdramatic. Even my husband, who is basically apolitical, bless him, encouraged me to try to relax and not tear myself up prematurely over something that hasn’t happened yet. I appreciate that.

But this is my response to those who can’t or choose not to understand why people are upset: If you have nothing to fear you don’t get to say that everything will be ok. Like my student said, we know everything will be ok for YOU. That’s not the point.

As a side note, I continue to be embarrassed by many of my fellow evangelical Christians, who overwhelmingly supported Trump. I just don’t get it. If a presidential candidate’s racism, sexism, misogyny and xenophobia are minor character flaws that you are able to look past, you are a) very privileged indeed and b) not at all looking out for the least of these as we are called in the Bible.

(Feel free to rail at me about how abortion is the worst evil our country has ever known. I am pro-life, for what it’s worth.)

So now what? That’s what I’ve been pondering since Tuesday night. I will be an ally. I will advocate for my students, their families, and the millions of others like them across this country. I will speak for them. I will write for them, starting with writing to my Senators and Congressmen this week. I will get more politically involved. I will be all in.

I will also hope and pray that everything will be ok, because I have this luxury. But I will work on behalf of those who fear things won’t ever be ok again.

*Name has been changed.

 

How Should We Respond to Our Privilege?

“Just because I’m privileged and other people aren’t doesn’t mean that’s my fault.”

This. This was said to me last weekend, word-for-word, in the context of a conversation about some people being unprepared to go to college due to poor literacy skills. I was trying to explain the root causes behind low literacy. (Ya know, because I work at an adult literacy agency and all.) When I stated that people like us who are born in middle-class families with long histories of educational success have a leg up in life, my conversational partner made the statement above.

What d0 I mean by privilege? “Privilege exists when one group has something of value that is denied to others simply because of the groups they belong to, rather than because of anything they’ve done or failed to do. Access to privilege doesn’t determine one’s outcomes, but it is definitely an asset that makes it more likely that whatever talent, ability, and aspirations a person with privilege has will result in something positive for them.” ~Peggy McIntosh. If you are white, if you are middle-class, if you are straight, you are privileged.

I walked away from the conversation, and I kicked myself later when I thought of all the things I should have said.

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I should have said, you’re right, it’s not your fault that you’re privileged, but it’s also not other people’s fault that they aren’t.

Rather than being merely a difference in where you happened to be born, attitudes that blame the less fortunate for their misfortune say this: You have a hard life because something is wrong with you. You (or your family) did something wrong and you deserve what you get.

I should have said that just because you, like me, happened to be born a white girl in an upper-middle class family doesn’t mean that you are somehow better than those who struggle.

I should have said that this statement ignores the existence of structural inequities in society that are oppressive to low-income people and minorities.

The”pull yourself up by your bootstraps” story that Americans idealize is a myth, most of the time. Ours is often not a country of equal opportunity, and to say otherwise is to ignore reality. For example, the gap between the rich and and poor is larger right now than it’s ever been. It’s much easier for people who are born with tremendous privilege to succeed than those who are born below the poverty level. This is just common sense.

I should have said that this statement absolves the fortunate from any responsibility to advocate for the less fortunate.

As Christians, we have a biblical responsibility to work for a just society. For racial justice, gender equality, equity of educational access, and in general, equal opportunities for all no matter the circumstances into which they were born. For gun control, so that people who are known to be troubled can’t walk into clubs and movie theaters and kindergarten classes and kill large numbers of people with freaking assault weapons.

Fellow Christians, we’re falling down on the job. Rather than saying, “I’m privileged and those other people aren’t, lucky me,” why not use that privilege to help those who don’t have it? To make the world better during the time that we are here? To tell people about Jesus, sure, but also to act like his hands and feet by making lasting changes in society?

I just can’t with the world right now.

Dreams, Hopes, Thoughts and Plans

The following post may be ill-advised. I’m going to write about a dream that Jonathan and I are developing for our family. We haven’t completely decided on it yet, and it has been more or less a secret. Not for much longer.

Writing about something is one of the main ways that I process it. This topic being one of the main things I have been thinking about recently, the time has come to write about it. Here goes.

Jonathan and I are thinking and praying about adopting a child from foster care.

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This idea developed in the way that a lot of plans do in our marriage. Jonathan mentioned something, I agreed, and I got to work on researching the details and the best way to carry it out. I’m obviously the planner in our family. (I kid you not, this seems to almost always be how we make major decisions. This is how we came to rent a house, get a dog, buy a house, get another dog, have a baby, and buy another house).

We have talked about adopting since before we were married, and I’ve read about adoption issues in the past, but we hadn’t discussed it recently. About a month ago, Jonathan mentioned in passing that we could adopt for Baby #2 rather than get pregnant again. “Why have another biological child when we could give a home to a child that’s already here and needs one?”

And so I began to research again. I decided pretty quickly that international adoption and domestic infant adoption weren’t for us, partly because of the expense, and partly because of the potential for ethical issues in these types of adoptions. (Especially international adoption).

Foster care adoption is not without its own ethical issues, but to me it feels the closest to finding parents for a child who needs one rather than finding a child for parents who need one.  I’ve been reading a lot, and I’ve learned a lot, especially from blogs written by and for adult adoptees. (Like these here, here and here). I’ve read some things that almost scared me off. That’s right: I’ve learned that adoption isn’t cut-and-dry, all positive happily-ever-afters. (I plan to write a post about all the things I’ve learned about adoption, and problems with the way many Christians discuss adoption, another time.)

But still I return to the idea: more than anyone else in modern society, infants and children in foster care need homes. They are truly the “least of these.” The statistics for those who age out without a family are horrifying. 

Do you ever feel like God puts an idea in your head, and then keeps pointing you to it to make sure you don’t forget about it? Rarely have I felt as strongly like God was telling me to do something as I have with this. Ever since we first began talking about it, something related to foster care or adoption has come to my attention at least once a day, without me seeking it out. One of many examples: I pulled up one of my favorite blogs earlier this evening and this post was staring at me from the front page. Alright, I get it, God.

So, yeah. This is what has been going on with us. I’m a little scared of it. I’m not sure exactly where it will take us, or when. We may decide now isn’t the time. We may decide to wait until our biological kids are grown and then to foster/adopt older children or teenagers. Who knows? What I do know is that God’s heart is here. And it’s where mine is, too.

I Support Public Education (And So Should You)

I’ve written quite a bit about being a former public school teacher. You might think that because I left teaching I have a problem with public schools. In fact, the opposite is true. I love public schools. I think they are the foundation for a democratic and equitable society. I support them, and you should too. More on that in a minute.

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First of all, a story. Growing up, I attended both private Christian and public schools, though I ended up graduating from a private Christian school. Here’s a brief summary of the state of the school options in my hometown (circa 2002-2006): expensive college-prep private, mediocre Christian private, and public schools containing mostly minority students.

When I say the private Christian schools were mediocre, I mean lacking options, like AP/IB classes, electives, even honors classes in most subjects–things the public schools had in abundance. Case in point: At the time that I graduated from my private Christian high school, there was ONE AP class offered–AP Calculus–that wasn’t doable for me. I entered college with no college credit, when other students had full years.

My parents were paying thousands of dollars a year for fewer options than I could have gotten at the local public school, for free. It boggles the mind.

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So why am I writing about this? Am I still bitter, ten years later, about not getting to take a few AP classes? Of course not. I’m writing about this because it matters, a great deal. The way people feel about public schools affects education policy at the state and federal levels–how much funding schools get, how public school teachers are evaluated, how (and how much) students are tested, etc. In the end, that affects all of us.

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Why are public schools worth supporting?

  • Public schools are legally required to provide all necessary academic services that children need, for free.

Did you know that public schools are required by the government to provide all services that children with various needs require to have equitable educational access? This includes services like ESL, classes for the intellectually gifted, a variety of special education classes, hearing and vision specialists, and speech, physical and occupational therapy, to name a few. One of my previous schools even purchased expensive cochlear implant hearing aids for all of its hearing-impaired students with district money. Do you think private schools offer all of these services? You would be very hard-pressed to find one.

  • Public schools are held to common state and federal standards.

All public schools are held to the same state and federal standards under which they are judged. Teachers are required to be highly qualified and evaluated for effectiveness at regularly-scheduled intervals. Money in the budget has to be accounted for. Curriculum is based on the Common Core standards. Private schools aren’t required to meet any of these standards. (In my nine years in private school, I don’t remember a single instance of a teacher being evaluated by an administrator while I was in class.)

  • Public schools expose children to those who are different.

It is a fact that many private Christian schools in the South opened during the 1960s and 70s as a way for parents to keep their white children separated from the black students in newly-desegregated public schools (see here, and here–the latter article is about my hometown). Most private schools remain overwhelmingly white. For example, there were maybe 5-7 black students in my entire high school of approximately 200.

As the average evangelical church is fairly segregated, your average white Christian child at a private school could conceivably go through his or her life and not interact with a person of color until adulthood. Personally, the first time I can remember talking to a black person was when I switched from private to public school in the 7th grade. What message are we sending to kids when they are constantly surrounded by those who look and act just like them? How do we expect them to feel and to act when they do encounter diversity?

Public school provides middle-class white children with the opportunity to interact and become friends with kids of different races, ethnicities, cultures and socioeconomic classes. This interaction (a) fosters empathy, (b) prepares children for the increasingly diverse United States that we live in, and (c) teaches children that they are not the center of the universe.

  • Public schools have the potential to be the great equalizer.

Theoretically, public schools have the potential to be true meritocracies, where all children enter on a level playing field and have the ability to succeed or fail based on their own merits and hard work. We know in reality that this is rarely the case. Even though no one is paying for an eduction at a public school, middle class parents are still able to provide extra benefits to help their children succeed, such as outside help and support, a knowledge of how the system works, etc. But the dream is there. Done right, public schools have the potential to be truly equitable in a way that private schools can never be.

 

So what is the point of this post? What’s a concerned parent to do? I’m not saying that public schools are the right choice for everyone in every setting. If I lived somewhere with a very low-quality school system Jonathan and I would perhaps choose private, too.

This is my point: Truly weigh all of your school options before automatically selecting a private school for your child. Make sure the private school really is a better choice, and has the services and options that the public schools do. Do your research. If your child won’t experience racial diversity at school, intentionally include it in your lives in other ways. Consider the fact that if more middle-class parents chose public schools, the school system would likely be better for everyone. Most importantly, don’t assume public schools are bad just because they contain a lot of black and brown children.