What should I do in the face of injustice?

I have been processing this post for a while, uncertain of what I could possibly offer that hasn’t been said many times over. I want to hear from my friends of color, and want to be the listener. But I also know that I can use my voice to help draw attention to needs around me, and to invite others to join me in my journey of growth.  We are in an important cultural moment–a time full of division and confusion in many areas of life. I am not trying to address all the challenges we are facing; I am just offering a reflection on racial inequality.  I have been broken-hearted over the injustices we see in this country that are ingrained deeply into the cultural fabric. The consistent mistreatment of people of color, and the blindness to that very fact by so many.

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Art by my daughter Bethany

When faced with racial inequality and injustice, my constant question is “What should I do?” Some clear principles I have learned over the years are the following. Don’t close your eyes to it; instead be a learner. Choose neither passive silence nor aggressive defensiveness; instead, listen and seek to understand. Don’t think it is just a moment that will go away in a few months; rather, decide to be part of the long-term solution.

Those principles–grounded in humility and a learning posture–have been with me and given me wisdom as I seek to love and engage with those around me. But I also want to know what to actively do. For a while, it felt like the “thing to do” was to post on Facebook and represent yourself as an ally. Breaking “white silence” is indeed very important, but my impression is that, while that is helpful and encouraging to our friends of color, it alone is not what is going to produce a long-term shift in the culture that will bring change in each of our local communities.

So what will dismantle the long-embedded, deeply rooted systems that perpetuate injustice, sometimes without even the consciousness of the majority of community members? What leads to lasting change? It is critical to learn about and listen to history and facts.  But we must do more than that. Nor is it enough to enact policies or pass legislation or win court cases. That is necessary, but it won’t by itself uproot the underlying tendrils that weave injustice into the fibers of our communities.  We must get to the heart-level—my heart, your heart, each individual’s hearts.  This is because external behavioral change tends to dissipate when the external motivation is removed. Internal change, however, works itself out into our behavior in a lasting way. It changes not just our actions, but our side comments and our daily decision-making. Ultimately, it causes long-term generational results. Only internal heart change person-by-person will make our world a better place!

I have heard of big companies making very well-stated and powerful “public statements” in response to injustices like George Floyd’s death.  But I have also seen articles by weary people of color carefully pointing out that many of those same companies have been saying they care about empowering and giving more representation to people of color in their companies for years, yet their boards of directors and almost every layer of their leadership structures are still white.  These companies have the right external posture, but have not done the hard work of internal cultural change.

The same problem can happen to us as individuals too. We can (and I know I have struggled with this) say we really care about more equal opportunities, yet then still hesitate when it means our white children might have to sacrifice part of their privilege, their opportunities, or their access to the best school districts and teachers.

Lets go back to our question: what leads to lasting, real change? Maybe you are like me and you already feel overwhelmed by all the responsibilities you have in your life as it is (parenting, working from home, managing life with multiple children). When you hear about these systemic injustices, you say to yourself “wow, that is so horrible, but there is nothing I can do about it. I hope others are able to fix it…”  But if everyone says that, then we as a community largely passively ignore injustice once again.  That means we are ultimately complicit.

I don’t think we all have to be front-line activists, but I believe that if individuals (especially white people like me) all take individual steps to grow, learn, and act, it will cumulatively help to heal the fault-lines of injustice in our culture. One step then leads to another step, etc. Our communities, after all, are made up of individual people. The laws and structures are only as good as the people upholding them.   

For me, this journey started with friendship. Knowing people of different ethnicities and backgrounds makes me more sensitive to the challenges that different minority groups face. Hearing the stories of racism first-hand makes it harder to ignore or make excuses for behaviors that harm certain people groups.

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Meaningful relationships, however, don’t just happen without effort. I have pursued young women of color that I began to mentor and then I ended up learning as much from them as they learned from me. I continue to learn more every year.  In addition, we started our journey of doing foster care back in 2013, which led me to know the birth families of the children we cared for. That helped to break down stereotypes that I didn’t even know I had, so that I could grow in compassion and understanding of people from different socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds. I have also become friends with more people from different religious backgrounds and perspectives, and that has helped me to become a better First Amendment lawyer, seeking to advocate for the religious liberty of all people. Overall, my journey so far has involved listening and learning, and has led me to places of sacrifice and risk-taking.

It may take months and years to get down this road of internal change, but I guarantee it will bring lasting change! I firmly believe it is better than the most articulate post on Facebook. I believe that my engagement will look different as I walk through different stages of my life. But I commit to stay engaged!  I will continue to learn and grow, in my awareness, in my love, and in my advocacy. One step at a time.

My deep personal motivation driving me towards action is grounded in my faith. I long to help our broken communities begin to have lasting hope for healing.  My faith calls me to follow the example of my Lord and Savior, Jesus, and the words of the Apostle Paul, to look “to the interests of others” and to “in humility count others more significant” than myself (Philippians 2:3-4). Jesus calls us to live this way, not so that God accepts us (since he freely offers us acceptance through Jesus), but rather because it is the only way to true happiness – walking in love and towards unity!

Fear…

It was one of those moments when your breath stops in your throat and your heart tightens in fear. You feel peaceful and at rest, and then something happens in an instant that your brain interprets and then translates (or rather explodes) into your consciousness the thought, “this might just have changed everything…”

That moment occurred on our vacation, just last week. We had a lovely day up on Mount Bachelor, near Bend, Oregon. We took the kids up the ski lift to hike around and enjoy the beautiful views. We played in the old snow—the last remnants of the never-quite-melts-all-the-way snow that you find on mountain peaks in the summer. We laughed and slid down on our jackets and made a tiny snow man. We ate our snack lunch and didn’t really think about Covid-19 or the other stresses of life except when we put on our face masks to head back down the mountain on the ski lift again.

As we prepared to head back to our car, we passed the little mountain-biking skills course, a little rectangle of practice trails for mountain bikers. Some involved huge technical jumps; others were rather banal, just a couple low jumps or a little swerving trail curving gently down the hill. It was free to use that little section, so the boys decided to grab the bikes off the bike rack on our car, sign the release, and try it out for fun. Just a few times, we said.  The girls and I watched from the platform nearby and I took a few pictures. I was enjoying watching the boys. Just one or two more times, we said…

That moment came, however, as Isaiah came down the section with two little jumps. He had done it once or twice already, taking it nice and slow. This time, he went over the first jump—no problem, a nice slow plop down onto the dirt, letting the back tire just roll down after. Then he took the second bump—the front tire came down crooked, the bike lurched, and Isaiah flipped. It was like slow motion as I watched his body fly up and come down, head and left shoulder first onto the dirt. The rest of the body followed – slam! In my head I said “Please get up. Laugh at that crazy fall. Show us all your scrapes.” Then I saw him twitch and not move. I screamed and ran. I looked at his face – white, eyes rolled up, nonresponsive.

That is when fear truly gripped me. I turned away from him and fell on my knees, crying out. I breathed a prayer – please God… The other kids say I said something about brain damage. I don’t remember. I felt like a thousand thoughts went through my mind in a moment…broken neck, concussion, brain damage, broken bones…I wrestled with my thoughts. I had to come back. I had to get help and stay calm…it couldn’t be that bad, right? I turned back to engage.

Jeremiah came running too. He put his bike on the first jump to stop anyone from coming down and ran down too. He called out for someone to call 911; to get a medic. The little Urgent Care on the mountain was literally a few hundred feet from where we were, and the Paramedics came almost immediately.  They were amazing! God was providing. Isaiah was passed out, but only for a minute or two. He came to, they checked him for spinal injuries, and he knew who he was. He was confused; he was in pain. IMG_20200813_144832868

Over the next half hour he became more confused and agitated as the paramedics talked to him and they waited for the ambulance to come. I was with the other kids outside for a while, gathering our things and taking them back to the car. I tried to comfort them, but they comforted me just as much. My 12 year old brought us together to pray.  My sweet 8 year old looked up as she hugged me and said “Mommy, lets remember the names of God.” I had been doing a family devotional with the kids on the names of God all summer, and she was reminding me of the truths of who God is. I hugged her and thanked her, and we remembered some of them together. El Shaddai—God Almighty; El Roi—the God who sees.

Once Jeremiah came out, it was my turn to go in and see Isaiah. Then the ambulance showed up. I almost cried as I saw him getting wheeled over to the ambulance. He was getting more and more upset about the fact that he was restrained and had a neck collar on.  Seeing your child in pain is such a stressful experience!

Jeremiah went with him in the ambulance, and I got into the van with the other four kids. We decided I would return to the place we were staying so that we did not all show up at the hospital. But the kids and I followed the ambulance all the way into Bend from the mountain. As I stared at the back of the ambulance and my thoughts flew to how Isaiah might be doing, I willed my mind to focus on the road and driving safely. It required more effort than normal—reminding myself: “stay here. Be fully present…”  Bethany’s sweet singing voice interrupted my thoughts as she started singing some praise songs, seeking to calm herself. She had her arms wrapped around Laticia in the back seat. I took a deep breath. She then asked me what other songs we could sing. While I don’t often sing hymns, the two songs that came to mind were “Great is Thy Faithfulness” and “It is Well With My Soul.” My voice cracked as I sang “morning by morning, new mercies I see…” and “whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul…” Although I could barely sing, the music gave me hope and peace as it too reminded me who God is and that he cares for us even in the midst of hardship.

They expected the diagnosis would be a severe concussion and an injured shoulder, and this proved right. I am so thankful it wasn’t worse.

What do I do with this kind of fear? How do I not let it take over, consume me? It isn’t as simple as I wish it was. I can only speak to my own experience, but it felt like my thoughts were a bouncy ball, jumping around in my head. It was like I was trying to grab the bouncy ball and stop it, but then it would escape, keep bouncing, and I would have to grasp for it again…

My thoughts bounced to things like “we should have left earlier…if only we had….” And then to “I should have known that bike wasn’t good enough…” And then to “Jeremiah should have…” And then “why didn’t I…” I grasped at these slippery thoughts, willing them away and trying to focus on what I knew would be more helpful, more productive. I reminded myself: “No. Blame is not helpful. It is nobody’s fault. Crazy things happen…we live in a broken, messy, and difficult world…” I don’t know how many times I dragged my mind back to this thought over the next day. I couldn’t focus on much. When I opened the book I was reading, I had to read the same page several times.

In the hours after the accident, I wanted to settle my mind on trusting God…so I began to quote some old memory verses to myself. “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust” (Psalm 56:3-4). And “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;/ his mercies never come to an end; / they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. / ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, / therefore I will hope in him” (Lamentations 3:22-24).

Isaiah stayed in the hospital that first night as they watched him. Concussions are strange things—a bit unpredictable. His scans were clear; his shoulder showed only a hairline fracture in the clavicle; he was able to engage more in conversations and displayed his good old sense of humor in little ways.  He has been resting a lot, but now, a week later, Isaiah is doing amazingly well. Praise God!

I know many parents have experienced these same emotions kinds of emotions that I have described. I am not alone. Nor have I faced the worst by any means. But it was real. It is real every time for each parent or friend or child who goes through something similar. Human beings are so fragile and so strong—at the same time.

I don’t know how I will face the next heart-tightening moment like that. We never know in the moment how it will turn out. But I will decide to trust in God, and will ask him for strength to face each new day.