Bridging the Divides

My first offense happened at the Jewish Community Center in Indianapolis. I was 5 years old. We had joined the JCC because my Mennonite family was not really the country club type and the local swimming/exercise club had a history of denying membership to Jewish people and Black folks. My mother being who she was, did not stand for that because her mother being who she was, did not stand for that.

So, there I was, attending one of the many summer programs that the JCC offered, twirling around and singing my favorite song, “Jesus Loves Me.” One of the adult leaders caught wind of this and said, “You can’t sing that here!” I remember stopping in my tracks and feeling ashamed and confused. I don’t know if the counselor told my mother, or if I did, but I do remember the conversation that followed. My mother told me that Jewish people do not share our same belief in Jesus. I remember her iterating that this belief is good and okay, just different. She said that when I am in their space, I can respect their beliefs by not singing Jesus songs.

A few weeks later I was singing it at home, on the toilet and my grandfather walked by and said jokingly, “Hey! You can’t sing that here!” and then gave a hearty laugh. I was still a little confused. This became a sort of family lore for sometime. “Addie was singing Jesus Loves Me at the JCC” (enter laughter). Lately, and in light of our current political climate, I have been able to find the depth of this experience and the lessons.

Unless you are a straight, white, Christian, Cis-gendered, middle class/upper class, male, you are living in the crossroads or the intersections. Even if you have all of these privileged identities, you are still living in this system. For me, I am a female bodied, Queer, non-binary, white, middle class, Mennonite. I am living right up in the middle of all these intersections, with identities of privilege and identities of marginalization. Immediately following the election, I felt all the fragments of my multiple identities and a sensation of feeling trapped; on an island. I felt rage and anger towards many white men, cis-white-straight-women and gay white men. Basically, anyone with more identities of privilege. I just wanted them to shut up.

Meanwhile, I was feeling guilty, weary and insecure regarding my own identities of privilege. This, I believe, was causing me to make offenses left and right or at the very least creating some leaky boundaries. So, parts of me were rigid and angry while other parts flimsy and loose. What a fragmented and dichotomous place to be! I felt incredibly scattered and was experiencing a lot of mood swings.

One very odd experience summed it up, when I was trying to find a parking spot. Two white males, in a SUV proceeded to back up more then 30 feet, on a busy road. They did not look in their rearview mirrors and nearly hit me. I honked and swerved my little compact car, without looking in my rearview mirror and nearly hit an African-American man on his bicycle. He yelled into my car window, “What are you doing? Fuck you!” Without thinking much I yelled, “I’m sorry! I love you!” Sigh. We were all moving so fast.

In an age of tweets and outrage, action and reaction and 24 hour news coverage it can be hard to slow down. There was pressure to know what to do and everyone seemed to have an idea of what that was; what actions were wrong and what actions were right. One night I lay in bed and said out loud, “I don’t know how to bridge these divides.” I spent the next day wrapped up in a blanket, depressed and feeling isolated. Allowing myself to slow down, surrender and say “I don’t know” created an opening. I realized that the parts of me that were feeling flimsy and loose were in need of self-compassion, while the parts that were ridged, angry and judgmental were in need of more curiosity.

If you have an identity of privilege, you have made an offense at some point. For most of us in the liberal camp, it has more often than not, been unconscious. We live in a country that was founded on divides, on the displacement and murder of native people and the sociopathic ownership of other human beings. It is in our DNA. One of the best things we can learn how to do is how to recover from a trespass or an offense. For me, I have found that self-compassion is essential. Without this, I am looking to the person or group that I offended to make me feel better, creating those loose and leaky boundaries. If there is openness and consent about processing the offense, I own it and say “I’m sorry.” However, consent it crucial. It is okay if a marginalized person or group does not want to process with you and the best thing to do is provide space. In the space, I will sometimes light a candle for my continued healing around my own internalized oppressor identities.

In the past few months, since the election, my approach towards those with more privileged identities has softened. I have realized the need that we have for one another and I have a desire to bridge divides in this direction as well. It is hard to sit with the hypocrisy of a liberal white man, who claims outrage over Donald Trump, but then does not seem to listen when women, people of color or queer folks speak. At the same time, I know that I have committed these offenses. I too, have been guilty of white-splaining, I’m sure. It is easy for me to label them as hypocrites and dismiss them. What is more difficult is holding on to the complexity and even the innocence of an individual, while still acknowledging the impact of identity politics at play.

It is in these places of complexity and hypocrisy that I embrace the story of myself, 5 years-old, at the JCC. It is true that I needed to learn to respect the space of the JCC as well as learn the historical and generational trauma that likely yielded the reaction from the counselor. I needed to eventually learn about reverence and respect for different traditions, cultures and religions. And, at the same time, I was innocent. Following the election, I believe I lost sight of innocence. I lost sight of my own and the innocence of others. It is still a struggle, day in and day out. Some days I have more patience then others and that is okay. On the days when I have less patience is is just a signal that there is likely a part of me that needs to be tended to before I can tend to another.

The title of this essay might give false hope that I have the answer for bridging the divides right now. I do not. I am not in the business of telling people what to do, especially in such a difficult time. We are all coming at this from different places and I believe all lenses have something to offer. What I would like to do is offer a story, where I feel like I had a taste of what it might mean for me to be an ally in the intersections.

On the day of the women’s march, I was traveling on Bart to the march in San Francisco. I had my head phones on but felt an intuitive nudge that I was supposed to be engaged externally. Just then, a young man man began targeting a person who was gender-nonconforming, female bodied and a person of color. He held his hand up like a gun and mimicked shooting at their head. The targeted person became agitated and swiped at the young man. At this point, I just heard an internal voice say “move” and walked toward the conflict. I did not engage with the perpetrator, but was able to lock eyes with the targeted person. I stood in between them and engaged them in a soft smile. At this point, the young man began uttering all sorts of homophobic and transphobic slurs. Being that these were identities that I shared with the targeted person, I was no longer sure who was being targeted. At this point, I looked behind me and a cis-gender, white male, had followed quietly and was offering a layer of protection for the both of us. The train became silent and in a most amazing moment, the young man, who I believe was struggling with mental illness said, “I don’t know why I just said all that. I’m sorry” and he exited the train.

For whatever reason this intervention worked, on this particular day, at this particular time. There may have been a million different ways to handle that situation. For me, I was born into a pacifist religious tradition and I have never won an arm wrestling match in my entire life.  So, my interventions are probably going to look much like the one I chose.  We all need to listen for what we are called to do, at this moment in time, particularly around bridging divides. None of us are free of or can escape the healing needed internally and externally. May I, and may we, find moments of grace, innocence and of of course a fierce commitment to protect what needs protecting and embrace what needs embracing.

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