Tag Archives: vulnerability

The inequalities that bind

La frontera
US-Mexico border, Agua Prieta, Mexico/Douglas, Arizona, 2003.  My photo.

This week we’ve seen children confined to cages, heard their screams as they’re ripped from their parents and witnessed our president bend to public and political pressure to amend his callous “zero tolerance policy” at the border. Yet, thousands of migrant children remain separated from their families, and I keep wondering if we’ve learned anything from all this. The government has wanted us to see a chasm between those families at the border and our own. In place of what could be a common humanity, a desperate dare-we-say American-like doggedness to seek a better life for their persecuted families, Trump and his allies have offered fraud, smuggling, and criminal behavior as self-inflicted explanations for migrant families’ plight. So perhaps what we’ve been faced with this week is the hearty evidence that not all families, let alone all childhoods, are created equal in America…

But isn’t this something we already knew?

We know that being needy makes you vulnerable in America, but whereas teenagers marching for “black lives matter” are vilified for lives lost, the white teenage activists from Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High are praised for their activism.  It seems what we’re encountering is something even more pernicious than the inequalities themselves, rather the realization that not even all need is created equal.  Since the election, I have been desperately sharing my own story to keep the lives of families with children with disabilities, alongside the lives of so many other marginalized families, in view; however, it only recently occurred to me that by telling our story, I may be rendering further invisible families like the ones being turned away at our borders.

You see, while my family’s need for life-sustaining Medicaid for our medically fragile child elicits incredible sympathy, that’s largely because my daughter’s disability is often viewed as an underserved tragedy that has befallen a white, educated, hard-working, affluent, heterosexual couple. But while so many other families on Medicaid (especially families of color), equally needy to mine, are belittled for their poverty, chastised or blamed for the presumed neglect, fraud, or abuse that put them into the system in the first place, a common response to my family’s vulnerability is not just pity, but often, congratulation. We are heralded for our love and our sacrifice for our daughter. Meanwhile, the very nurses employed through Medicaid who tend to our daughter, monitoring her heart rate, seizures, and breathing overnight, are immigrants like those being turned away at the border. They work in unsteady employment for low wages, rarely receive healthcare, and they have either already left their children behind in their countries of origin in order to provide for them, or they leave their children in the care of others, so that my family can sleep at night.

These migrant families are part of what scholars have called the global chains of kinship and reproduction, stratified care work that elevates some families on the backs of others. If you think about it, certain groups of immigrants, children who are “rescued” through inter-country adoption or born through international surrogacy, are uplifted, generously welcomed into our borders and our citizenship, while the families they came from, foster mothers, surrogates, nannies, and other care workers, languish in the shadows, families already torn apart yet silently, incrementally, with little fanfare. Thus, the separation of families at the border is but a visible demonstration of the invisible borders we often perilously draw around our own family lives.

The myth of the modern family and this tireless invocation of the need for “family values” suggests that each family stands alone. Yet, in articulating my family’s story of need I’ve become aware of the ways we are uncomfortably and unevenly indebted to one another. I’d like to believe that with the outcry on social media and the political pressure brought by the public upon the administration’s immigration policies, a new kind of family values is emerging that does not deny, yet makes visible these inequalities and the families who have endured them in the pursuit of wellbeing and freedom.

But the challenge comes in both maintaining our common humanity and acknowledging the injustices that bind and separate us from one another. We cannot afford to look away, for it will cost us all our humanity. But we also cannot afford to go on living our fictional, solitary lives while asylum is being criminalized, need is being stigmatized, racialized, and vilified, and children with families are being abused and institutionalized.  My family, likely your family, needs these persecuted families, whether we choose to admit it or not.  If we cannot break the global chains of inequality, perhaps we can at least qualify and dignify the emotional labor that families like mine benefit from everyday.  We can refuse to participate in the politics that slander the need of some to elevate and fulfill the needs of others. We can turn away from pity and charity and toward justice, mercy, and grace.

And we can demand that America must do better by all of its families, especially those who have so painfully paid the price of vulnerability, so that others can thrive.

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Fallen limbs and crevices

It hasn’t been a particularly harsh winter here in New Jersey.  I suppose it never is when you grow up in Wisconsin.

I hadn’t been out to one of my sacred spacesthe Delaware Raritan Canal pathmuch since Hurricane Sandy passed through these parts in October.  When my husband and I walked the canal path on New Year’s Day, I kept thinking of a friend of ours who took a walk with his toddler through the streets the morning after the storm.  When his son asked what had happened to the trees and if someone was going to fix them, he didn’t have the heart to tell him that the uprooted trees, the cracked bows, and the bare stumps were now a permanent part of the scenery, and that trees are breakable, fragile, and mortal, just like you and me.

Some local damage after Sandy.  All photos by Evan Schneider.
Some local damage after Sandy. All photos by Evan Schneider.

As I run on these slightly colder days down the path and my eye takes in these changes to the scenery, I think of how hard it is for we as humans to accept such destruction, and what kind of fear it drives into our hearts.  Suddenly as we look at the world around us, we feel everything’s brittle, nothing is for certain.  The bare insides of great trees are marked by great scars, and some of the loftiest, burliest ones plummeted in the storm.

If we can hardly trust that the same tree bows that framed these lovely paths won’t crumble above us, in what can we trust?  Is there no permanence on this earth?

Snow in Princeton, NJ this winter.
Snow in Princeton, NJ this winter.

My generation’s experience of such vulnerability is marked not only by storms (we’ve seen some of the greatest destruction done by tsunamis and earthquakes in our time), but also a terrorist attack on our own soil.  Shortly after 9/11, I read an essay by Rabbi Arthur Waskow in which he preached the scary truth that what the attacks taught is that not even the steel towers we stretch to the sky can protect us from destruction, heartache, and pain.

Waskow reminds us,

There are only wispy walls and leaky roofs between us. The planet is in fact one interwoven web of life. The command to love my neighbor as I do myself is not an admonition to be nice: it is a statement of truth like the law of gravity. However much and in whatever way I love my neighbor, that will turn out to be the way I love myself. If I pour contempt upon my neighbor, hatred will recoil upon me. 

When my husband and I walked that path on the first day of a new year, I grimaced at the branches laid bare and broken around us.  He remarked that animals and insects had found new homes in their fallen limbs and crevices.  Yesterday when I ran along the canal waters, the geese jubilantly honked at me and took to flight, their bulbous, awkward bodies somehow capable of both buoyancy and soaring into the skies.  Later a bluebird fluttered alongside me and took shelter in one of the tattered trees.

Fall on the D&R Canal, Princeton, NJ.
Fall on the D&R Canal, Princeton, NJ.

Life buzzes amidst the changed landscape with an audacious, oblivious vigor.  Where we see scars and imperfections, animals and insects make their homes.  Death will eventually give birth to new life, and yet, how we remove ourselves from this interdependence!  How we seek to believe that if we just build bigger, better towers, stronger, sleeker fortresses, we can insulate ourselves from the pain, the destruction–the humanity of it all!  

When we let fear drive how we live, we seal ourselves off from one another, from the fragility, yet also the incredible resilience of interconnectedness.  We forget that the lessons from nature, the way she rebuilds with the scarred timber, the tattered landscape something even more beautiful, are demonstrative of the fact that we need one another more than we know.

Summer on the D&R Canal.
Summer on the D&R Canal.

What if we accepted the fact that we can’t do anything to protect ourselves from storms and began to worship vulnerability rather than permanence?  What if we found salvation in the new life springing from brokenness and accepted brokenness as our common bond?  What if we found our strength in a God who offers us not permanence or immortality or insulation, but deep vulnerability, interconnection, and communion?

On language and faith

Despite the title, I don’t have anything groundbreaking to say this morning, except that fellowship breaks into the most unlikely of places, and that yesterday was a reminder of all the possibility that exists not just in thinking but in listening.

Downtown Nanning. Crowds watch the dancers in the square. All photos by Evan Schneider.

I had my first meeting with my new language partner.  It had been difficult for me to commit to finding someone to chat with in this language that means so much to me–it felt like replacing all the amazing people I’d met in one place, and the choice needed to be just right.

But I didn’t have the time for that or the money, and so I chocked this one up to the universe, letting the university arrange the placement for me.  And yesterday a woman who’s about five years ahead of me in life greeted me by the coffee bar with the abrupt, halting speech patterns only reminiscent of a Chinese speaker of English, and as she began to unload copious amounts of unsolicited advice despite what little she knew of me, something in my spirit leapt and my heart warmed.  

See, I may have mentioned that there’s a love language in China to do with giving advice–giving advice shows you care, and so people take and give as much as is humanly possible!  And as my new language partner and I settled so effortlessly into a pattern of her speaking English and me speaking Mandarin, each pausing to correct unfamiliar words, I think not only my ears, but my heart recognized something as familiar and began to open.

A couple dancing in the square.

Last night I read this piece from Amy Lepine Peterson, “Speaking Faith as a Second Language,” and it resonated so deeply with not only my cross-cultural experiences but the goals and hopes I have for the courses I am teaching next semester on culture and family ministry.  Peterson writes eloquently about the process of learning that neither her native language nor her faith truly belonged to her:

“I was also learning that English–though my native language and one of the great loves of my life–didn’t belong to me. It didn’t belong to me, or to America, or to England, or to native speakers. As a language, it is a tool to be used, not wielded in domination or colonialism, but used for negotiating meaning. Together. Yet the transformation of my English has forced me to realize something even more important: that the language of faith needs to undergo the same kind of reconstruction for me to love it and use it rightly.”

As my language partner so openly told me about her struggles with depression in this country, her indecision about having a second child, and the pressures of work and family, I had to marvel as the intimacy that simply being present for one another, speaking the same language, introduces.  I suppose because language-learning is essentially about vulnerability, being willing to stumble as you’re trying to express some of the deepest parts of you, it’s also about faith, as you surrender your dignity, and putter along like a child.

Children playing outside a school in Yunnan, Kunming.

When it comes to this course I’m teaching next semester and my partnership with my language tutor, the goals seem akin to Peterson’s:

“Letting go of your ownership of the language of faith can be frightening, unmooring. Instead of being the person with the answers, you become a person with questions. Instead of colonizing, you work to cooperate. But in seeking to agree on the most basic of things, like the meaning of the word ‘prayer,’ you find a simplicity of language which lends itself to coordinated action. Your words take on gestures, form and meaning in the real world, incarnating the love you once only spoke of. Surrendering ownership of the language of faith means recognizing that I can only speak it as a second, and learned, language.”

So letting go, relearning, and listening.  That’s what God’s got on my heart this morning…what about you?

On wealth and solidarity

When we first arrived in China, many of my posts took the form of earnest prayers that God provide security to us in this unknown place.  I struggled to trust God’s faithfulness when our apartment flooded, when the visa process loomed large and complicated, or when my dissertation research just seemed too impossible to complete.

And I’m thankful for a community of supportive readers who hear me out when I fear and when I complain, and the process of writing through these feelings and the fears has been immensely important and meaningful to me.

Lahu children in the mountains of Yunnan province.

But it’s nothing compared to what many in the world face everyday.

When I listened to This American Life‘s radio show on Americans in China, when I visit with my foster families who are struggling to make ends meet, and when I remember that despite China’s growing wealth, half of the population lives on a dollar a day, I am reminded that we in America, for the most part, are on the side of the rich and powerful.  Even I, as a graduate student, am rich by most Chinese standards.

Chinese men in a church in Yunnan province.

I recently met with one of my Chinese friends who is struggling with these dichotomies. “I notice a lot of missionaries come here and live very comfortable lives, all the while speaking loudly of their sacrifices, in order to keep a steady stream of support from abroad for their kids to go to good schools and so the parents don’t have to work,” she observed.  “But meanwhile it’s the Chinese people who are working in the trenches, making the real sacrifices, spending their own money and time, on top of their bills and their full-time jobs, and much judgment from their foreign partners who chide them for worrying about money and not spending enough time with their families.”

This whole partnership and solidarity thing is tricky.

And rather than a drastic move across the world or an elaborate ministry to the poor, I think any effort at solidarity or partnership with others first requires us to admit how powerfully our own wealth distracts us from the Gospel and hampers our ministry, and based on this realization, agree to play a minor, humble part that is based on listening, rather than a major one in doing God’s work.

You see, as Richard Rohr writes, we who hold the wealth, the prestige, and the power, have been in the driver’s seat for far too long.  “And in this world, there is still a whole mass of other people who have other insights.  The white man first raises questions of power and control.  The questions we pose to the Gospel are always questions that come out of this bias.” (Rohr Simplicity 163)

A young female minister in the church in Yunnan.

Rohr goes onto specify the types of questions we need to ask if we are to be free of ourselves, namely, “In what sense are we ourselves rich?  What do we have to defend? What principles do we have to prove?  What keeps us from being poor and open?  The issue isn’t primarily material goods, but our spiritual and intellectual goods–my ego, my reputation, my self-image, my need to be right, my need to be successful, my need to have everything under control, my need to be loved.” (Rohr 168)

It seems we’re quite incapable of welcoming Christ because we’re so stuffed full of ourselves.  The real thing we have to let go of is our self.  We aren’t really free until we’re free from ourselves.

—Rohr Simplicity p. 168

It’s a process–we can’t look the three demons in the eye: the need to be successful, the need to be righteous or religious, and the need to have power and get everything under control (174), until we recognize that material wealth has its limits and has taken its toll on our ability to know God and others.  And it is that toll, that ego, those demons, that hamper our ministry and our ability to know and understand others.

There are no easy answers here.

The author with a foster child.

But that’s the beauty of this challenge to be vulnerable with one another, to craft a life built on the promise of abundance, sacred things, and mutuality.  As Rohr writes, “But Jesus doesn’t offer us any certainties; he offers us a journey of faith.  Jesus doesn’t give us many answers; he tells us what the right questions are, what questions the human soul has to wrestle with to onto Christ and the truth.

Our formulations determine what we’re really looking for.  Our questions determine what we ultimately find and discover.  Answers acquire power too quickly; they often turn our words into ammunition to be used against others.  And answers make trust unnecessary, they make listening dispensable, they make relations with others superfluous.  Having my answers, I don’t need you in order to take my journey.  I need only my head, my certainties, and my conclusions.  It’s all private.  But Jesus said we have to live in this world so as to be dependent on one another.  The real meaning of a poor life is a life of radical dependency, so I can’t arrange my life in such a way that I don’t need you.  We can’t do it alone.

–Rohr Simplicity p. 162

And isn’t that the bare bones of solidarity and partnership–that we can’t do it alone?  That dependence on others requires us to rearrange our lives around one another, however inconvenient, humbling, and excruciating that process may be?  

I have a confession– I don’t think I’m there yet.  

Me and a Wa woman in Yunnan, 2011.  All photos by Evan Schneider.

But I desire to grow in Christ, and I pray that I am growing, not just with every year spent here in China, or every realization of the Gospel as seen through the eyes of my brothers and sisters here or in America, but in the quietness of my heart, where I admit that my wealth and my power have led me astray, where I find the willingness to ask questions and really listen, rather than rely on my own answers, and where I discover that I am my own worst enemy, that my needs for recognition, power, and control pale in comparison to the a life of dependence on Jesus and my neighbors.

And perhaps most importantly, I’m realizing that it’s not so much about me and my rising above all this, but about the faults and the wounds that I carry, in which others may recognize their own humanity, and we might begin to tear down these walls that divide us.