Seeing Race Sideways

Explode of rainbow wold, by Matthew Fang
I’ve been talking with my friend Hannah again about race. She’s a white student in Africana studies, and talks to me about how race works in our society and what can be done to transform difference to a positive experience for us all.

Some of that comes from facing ourselves. Hannah read about whiteness for the first time as a young college student. She realized she wasn’t colorblind like she thought she was. Instead, she was blind: there was so much she wasn’t able to see. She talks about her professors in Africana studies; about whether a study of whiteness belongs in Africana studies.


A few weeks ago, I asked Robert about whiteness. “What do you think about being white?” I asked.

“I’ve never thought about it,” he answered, a bemused look on his face.

When I told this to Hannah, she exclaimed, “Yes, exactly! That’s how it is for us white people!”

But it isn’t true. Others deal from a young age with what it means to be white. I know I did.

When I was four, my parents moved from a white suburb in the midwest to a rural black area of South Carolina. When I got on the school bus, I was teased about my white skin. As I first learned how to live in society, I learned what it meant to be white – at school, at church, with friends. I realized I was poorer than the black kids: they had brand new clothes and I wore their hand-me-downs, they made fun of me and excluded me.

And being in kindergarten, I didn’t see my larger place in the world – just the present situation. So – maybe this is harsh – but I think that white people who come from nice backgrounds and all of a sudden are made aware of race are oversimplifying when they say that whites never have to think about race, are blind to it and always privileged over blacks.


And yet I am blind to race. As I mentioned in a recent post, it was a huge awakening for me to walk around with a beautiful friend who didn’t realize her own beauty, her own privilege and social capital. I could see it, but she simply couldn’t.

It’s as if I looked at the sky and said, “It’s purple.” And it really is, when I look at it. I search all the clouds, the grey line of trees, the shades of light and evening shadow – and I see purple.

Then Hannah looks at it and says, “It’s green!” and that’s really what she sees, and then thin, beautiful Lianna says, “It’s orange!” and she’s really seeing it, the intense orangeness, the bright and lovely sunset colors, wherever she directs her eyes.

What color is it? When I go out, read books, or watch TV I see the world in a certain way. I’m acutely sensitive to the ways in which some people–fat women, poor whites, Christians, entrepreneurs, nerds–are discriminated against.

But I can’t see the orange or green in the sky. I can’t see what Hannah and Lianna see. I look at the world, and I see a million beautiful and piercing shades of purple.

More accurately, I see a partial palette, and some colors more strongly than others, as the occasion warrants. The light comes at us, and our eyes prism it into an array of colors – red, yellow, orange. We see the colors that guide us across the world, north stars for every person and group, lanterns shimmering in mauve, warning lights in blinding fuschia. The colors we see tell us where we can and can’t go, the places we are welcome and the places we aren’t, the paths our lives are supposed to take.

And this is as true for the white as for the black, for the man as for the woman, for the rich as for the poor. Exclusion and generosity are real and mutual on both sides. We love and fear and hurt each other with inventive prickles, even as the consequences are more severe for some in the end.


Are we all condemned to be colorblind then? Shall I always see from my own position, defend my own group in these endless debates? Are humans meant to be in- and out-group, slurring those with privilege and negating those with less?

Surely not. Living with Lianna, I learned to see from a thin perspective, even as I knew how much of my world she could never see. I saw he slights she felt, the way that beautiful people are also negated and cut down by people like myself, jealous and hurting. I saw that her orange was real–really there. And I would like to think she learned from me to see just a glimpse of purple.

I can’t imagine a society in which everyone is equal – I don’t think it exists. I can’t imagine anyone could see the whole and full spectrum of color. But I am learning to see more colors. And I learn by sharing and listening.

I’ve never seen orange from people who yell, “Don’t you see orange?! It’s always you purples who don’t listen. Why are you negating this?”

Well, I’ve negated it because I can’t see orange, not really. I listened to you, and got my binoculars, and looked–but it wasn’t there. The sky was still purple, stronger and pulsing as you swore it wasn’t really purple.

I don’t see orange. Not the first time you say it, and not the twentieth time. The fiftieth time, maybe. Sometimes I catch it on the edges of my vision, when I stop focusing on my own purple. But the only way I’ve ever learned green or orange was from loving and prickly relationships like these. You can’t force a blind person to see, bella, or an purple-sighted person. We see when we trust each other and work to benefit all of us together, sharing the patches of sight we each already have.


Apparently I’m a Church Secretary…

A Secretary Bird
I’m studying at the local cafe, and it’s quiet this evening. Around six I heard Robert in the kitchen, rattling the pots and pans as he cleaned the dirty mugs left over from last night. A little while later, his girlfriend Natalie arrived. When I walked into the main room a few minutes later, they were sitting on the couch, she with her Organic Chemistry book open in her lap, he beside her, leaning back from his computer game, “I just got killed again!”

Earlier this evening, I heard their voices walking down the hall, “Oh, It’s just Celia!” Natalie says from around the corner.

“What do you mean, just Celia?!” I exclaim.

Then an old man in military gear rounds the corner, with Natalie behind him.

“This will do,” he says, and waves her off.

I’m seated at a darkwood laminate desk, typing excerpts from a library book onto my laptop. I look up as he walked toward me. “I just want to set this straight,” he tells me, “this is something I’ve been meaning to do … for a long time.” He’s very intent, pushing his voice forward and jerky with his movements. He smells like stale cigarettes with a side of stale sweat.

He goes to pull something out of his pocket and I freeze, is it a gun? He’s wearing some sort of beige jumpsuit, with a muddy blue hat and yellow boots, shuddery in his movements. He rustles around in his pocket — then pulls out a tri-fold cloth wallet, in forest camo colors.

I’m feeling excited, maybe I’ll get money, I think, and then I realize he thinks I work for the church next door. People get confused about this a lot. We’re in a Student Center, but shaggy-haired ladies walk in looking for the AA meeting, aunts looking for the daycare across the parking lot. .

And when he pulls open the velcro and starts messing around in the card section, I realize I won’t be getting any money. He pulls out a few identity cards, and tosses his drivers license on my desk. It lands right by my sunglasses and schoolbooks, my comb and earrings.

“I need to switch over my membership,” he says tensely, “I was at Trinity in Houston but I’m here now and I’m ready to make a commitment.” He’s talking in circles, like it’s life and death, and how he’s going on retired reserve, maybe leaving the country, going to a different city. He wants me to do something but I’m not sure what. He doesn’t know that I’m not church staff.

“Okay,” I say, “I hear you.” Years of female service work fall into place here. “Why don’t we walk over to the main building and see if there’s anyone there.”

I lead him out of the student center and around the corner to the main building. As we’re walking I ask his name but it comes out abruptly and he stares at me. He hands me his military ID card and watches me closely as we walk. I’m a few steps ahead and I can feel it.

“Let me ask you something,” he bursts out. I keep walking and nod. “What do you think about this parish? What’s the atmosphere like?”

“I’m mostly just around the students,” I apologize. I don’t say that I’ve never actually gone to the main service here. I come for the cookies and the coffee, the Episcopal students bantering and banging songs out on the piano, blasting music from their Ipods over the cafe speakers and studying in silence late at night, fixing spaghetti together and cramming for their exams.

He’s still at the edge of my vision, pulling at my attention. “What about the conflict–” he asks, “I’m sure you know about the division…”

He means homosexuality, I realize. That challenging issue that divides churches: go with 4000 years of thoughtful and heartfelt cultural tradition, or with the thoughtful and heartfelt cultural beliefs and human values of today?

I have no idea how this church feels on it. “I know,” I say, “I’ve heard about it.” I’m trying to sound sympathetic.

When I pull the door to the parish offices, it’s locked. After hours. Through the windows of a nearby building, boy scouts stand in front of folding chairs, clustered around their leader for the pledge. Beside me, the old man stands all in beige from the neck down to his yellowish boots.

“Just Boy Scouts,” I offer. “Perhaps you could check back tomorrow?”

He stops and looks at me intently, his eyes the same blue-green as his hat, cloudy and even. “Well, you’ll relay the message for me,” he tells me, “And what was the name of my church in Houston?”

I’m pissed at this. He’s testing me, I can feel it, like all sorts of customers and incidental old men do, sure that they’re the boss in a situation that’s not theirs. He sees me like some negligent secretary — he wants to check that I’m diligent, that I’m attentive to his every need.

“Trinity,” I mutter.

“Bingo!” He’s grinning at me. “Just tell them that I want to get my membership switched over, I’ve just slid away from the Houston church…” He’s rambling again, but implying that something is wrong with that church. Probably gay people.

“I’ll try to let someone know,” I say. He stares at me for a moment, nods and heads for his car… and I go back to the oh-so-clearly marked student center.

Piano Lessons from my Childhood

"Monochrome Diet Coke" courtesy of C. J. Vizzone on Flickr.

These Diet cokes, these soft crumbly cookies–they remind me of piano lessons with Grandma. Week after week in my early teens, I’d go into town on Fridays with her, from my house in the country. Every Friday morning she would honk her horn in our driveway. I was sitting on the couch, half-asleep, in my jean jacket, turtleneck, and flowered skirt. It’s shivery-cold outside, and I can see my breath. I go outside and she’s waiting in the driveway in her great squarish Volkswagon van, smoke puttering out the back. I pull open the heavy passenger’s door, and climb into the seat. The classical music station is playing, 89.9FM, and it’s on Rachmaninoff or something supposed to wake me up, but I’m grumpy and don’t say much.

I’ve got a peanut buttered slice of Sam’s Choice bread in my hands, and I pick at the edges of it, drinking from a glass of milk I’ve sat in the cupholder. My bag is filled with piano books: John Thompson’s third grade book (I’m in the 6th grade, and I’ve been practicing from this for two years), the Joy of Ragtime, and some contemporary worship music. I’m too tired to think, but Grandma is talking to me, about the news this week, and her pastor’s sermon. She asks how my church and youth group were, and warns me about the latest sex scenes in teen movies, and how I shouldn’t see them. I nod and blink my eyes. She carefully adjusts the heat.

We stop at the gas station in Marysville, halfway between my house and Delaware, where we take piano lessons. She climbs out of the van, and carefully shuts the door. The classical music is still playing, and as I sit waiting and doodling on the back of my assignment notebook, the car windows fog up. I can still see her outside, to the left and behind me, watching the gas meter. She’s wearing a floppy grey knit cap, with her silver hair pinned up under it, and a bright purple windbreaker.

When we gets back in the van, she double-checks her receipt and puts her credit card back in her wallet. She pulls a small notebook and pencil out of a corner of her door, and carefully writes down the date, prior mileage, current mileage, price per gallon, gallons, and total amount, all in slanty penciled writing, fifty characters crammed into one small line. She presses the odometer, puts on her seat belt, looks at the odometer again, and turns on the car.

We go on ahead, across the countryside, grass still frozen straight, past the junkyard where my first car would be towed when, at age seventeen, I flipped it into a soybean field, past Burnt Pond road and the industrial complex. She slows carefully to a stop at a stoplight, then mutters at some old guy in a tractor until he pulls over. When we reach the edge of Delaware, she slows down to city speed and we go on, over the railroad tracks, past small blue farmhouses now become antique shops and clothing stores, and onto the edge of the small college campus there. We turn left at Elizabeth street and she parallel parks, carefully, as near to the music building as we can get.

Then we go up the stairs, three flights, I think, in an immense whitewashed building, with long rows of offices, a piano (or at least a music stand) in each one, each desk piled high with music pamphlets and kitcshy plastic paperweights, with piano notes and instruments on them. Sometimes when Grandma’s taking her lesson, I go to the basement to peer in the vending machines, and if I have money I’ll buy Goethe’s caramels and a Snickers bar, for Grandma (but I usually eat the Snickers before her lesson is finished). I’ll run up and down the halls in the other floors, imagining I’m a princess, but I never see anyone, just sometimes hear a few notes. I read the cartoons on each door, and peer in the bathrooms, but it never changes.

On the very top floor, at the end of the hall, is my piano teacher’s room. Her name is Mrs. Hopper. She’s an old lady in a blue dress, with very fat ankles. She also has a pink saggy face, carefully powdered, pale thin lips, and powdery white hair, and I try to sit respectfully as she sort of quietly whomps across the room to her desk to check her schedule. Her room smells like paper and perfume, old building and old lady. She is from Cincinnati and skated on the Ohio river when she was younger. She is a concert pianist, Grandma says, and I must must not waste her time – I must practice every day. It hasn’t happened yet.

If I’m not running the halls, I sit outside her door while Grandma has her lesson. Mrs. Hopper’s door is made of dark-stained wood across dull glass which I can’t quite see through. There’s a yellowed comic, or a recital announcement, and always a poster of Uncle Sam, who wants me to Practice Every Day, and he frowns and points his finger at me, no matter where I stand.

When I sit in the plastic chair outside the office, I hear Grandma June playing her scales and her hymns, her ragtime and Rachmaninoff. I can’t imagine being as good as her, pounding and pedaling, with a few trills towards the end. She stops and murmers with Mrs. Hopper but I can’t really hear either of them. Instead, I’m reading the magazines Grandma checked out from the library last week: Time, U.S. News, Newsweek, World Magazine, Christianity Today. Sometimes there is an Architectural Digest or This Old Home, but I don’t like those very much. I drink the can of Diet Coke that she has brought for me, and eat one of those soft stale brown cookies – Chips Ahoy, or maybe Chips Deluxe. Once I’ve nibbled all through mine, I pinch bits off the edges of her cookie.

As soon as I hear her come towards the door, I fold up the magazines and put away her cookie. I’m ready when she turns the handle, and I go into Mrs. Hopper’s office. Hello, she says, how have you been this week? I sit down at the piano and pull out my books. I’m about five feet tall, stringy red hair and a splotchy face, wearing some flowered skirt and my prairie boots. I’m shy, but I love to read about Indian captives and imagine that I am a pioneer girl, dramatically captured by Indians, it doesn’t matter which ones. The Shoshone have a nice name, or the Cayute. I repeat it over and over in my head, Cayute, Cayute, Cayute. I imagine myself in a bonnet. When I look up, Mrs. Hopper is looking at me.

I hand her my little assignment book, with a sparkling cover, and scribbled notes front and back of each thin page. Every week she writes down the scales and arpeggios I am to practice, and we choose several pieces to work on. This week I have to play Curious Story, which I like, and some dull ploddy german piece, which I don’t like. Also my rags, probably the Felicity and the Maple Leaf Rag. I picked Felicity because it is the name of my American Girl’s Doll, and Maple Leaf because I live in Ohio, and even though it’s early March and the gutters are full of slush and icy snow, the maple leaves still peek out in patches, damp and brown, a memory of those giddy swirls of bright falling leaves, orange in the daytime and red in the evenings.

I look across Mrs. Hopper’s office at her file cabinets and laminate desk, all overflowing with sheets and books of music, dried flowers in a vase, dusty odorless potpourri, and bright ornaments and wall hanging from her students. These gifts are from all around the world, she says, the little straw men from Thailand and the woven hanging from Guatemala. Mrs. Hopper is a college music teacher, Grandma tells me, a concert pianist, and I should be very honored to take lessons with her. And it’s true, when she plays, the whole room thunders like the most dramatic sort of novel, and then the room seems lighter than ever, and I sit beside her, twitching my feet in amazement.

She has me run through my scales and rags. I place my fingertips on the smooth keys, wrists up, and then off, tangling my fingers one over the other in a meter all my own. I love the sound her piano makes, smooth or militant, soft or very loud. Louder, she says, and watch your time, and she’s tapping the pinno in the time I should be doing, and I press hard, and all of my energy goes out through my fingers and through the air, where it hits me in the ears again, note after note. When I finish I straighten up, lean back and almost scald my back on the hot water heater that burbles behind me, heat swirling through oblong painted rings, bolted to the wall. In front of me is the baby grand piano, vibrating to silence, very pretty, with long strings stretching out in the shade of the cover, toward the door.

Finally, we discuss Curious Story. I want to perform it for my upcoming recital at our homeschool group. “You’re not ready,” Mrs. Hopper says.

“But Bach is boring,” I argue, “I want to play something fun.”

“You’re ready to perform your Bach,” she says.

“I don’t care,” I say. My skin is starting to feel prickly, I’m flushing and swinging my legs into the piano.

“Stop,” she says. “Why are you coming here, if you don’t like practicing and you don’t like playing, and you don’t like the songs we’ve agreed on, why are you here?”

The lesson is over, and when we get up, she pulls Grandma back into the room and they talk.

Grandma comes out of the office again and says goodbye to the teacher, looking at me severely. We walk down the stairs again, three flights, and I run my fingers along the smooth carved wooden banisters, as Grandma admonishes me for a good ten minutes about my obligations to Mrs. Hopper. She is a world-famous concert pianist, Grandma says. You have got to be more respectful, she says, you have been very rude and your mother won’t like to hear this.

She digs for her keys in her purse, and pulls out the sandwich baggie with her cookie. She pauses and looks at it, then breaks a bit more off of the corner I already nibbled, and puts it back in her bag.

As we go out into the gardens surrounding the great music hall, Grandma starts to calm down, and I do too. It’s cold and drizzly, but there is fresh mulch around the trees, and the tips of the branches are starting to bud, and the beginnings of crocuses and hyacinth push through the slush. We walk on the damp footpaths and she points out the each plant’s growth compared to last week. I’m still tense and quiet, the way I get when my parents lose their tempers, or I talk too loud and the youth leader gives me a sharp word.

We get back in the car and drive to Mrs. Sanford’s house. She lives in some sort of nursing home, with a code or key for the door, narrow hallways, and dark walls. It’s very dark in her room, but we stop so that Grandma can wind her clock for her. She has a bowl of candy on the coffee table. She can hardly walk, so Grandma supports her down the stairs and into the van.

At the bank, Mrs. Sanford gets money and I get a Mystery Dum-Dum, which turns out to be a nasty blue raspberry. Then to the Buehler’s for her to buy groceries. She sets in a scooter-cart and discusses meat prices with Grandma, picks out some vegetables. I tag along at the edges, wishing I had money for some Lunchables. When we get back to her house and unload all her groceries for her, she always lets me take a candy from the dish, a Hershey’s kiss or Brach’s mint or butterscotch. I take four more when she’s not looking, and slip down the hallway and into the stairwell where I eat them all at once.

Grandma meets me in the hall, and I stuff the wrappers into my pocket. I’m sure she can tell, so when we get in the car, I’m silent, sweet acrid mouth, as Grandma stops to test the windshield wiper fluid. She turns and asks if I still want to go to Salvation Army. Of course I do! We drive several blocks to the west, and park in a great flat lot by the Salvation Army, across from the gas station and one block from the freeway. When we go in, we check the signs – blue tags are 50% off today. She goes to look at the old women’s blouses, and I the scarves and books. We look at shoes together and at the furniture in the back – Grandma is always looking for just one more piece so that she can rearrange her living room.

Finally, she carefully buys one pair of thick wool socks and a silk blouse – silk is best for summer she says, very lightweight – for $2.35. She already has drawers full of wool socks, all in neat little rows, and a dozen silk blouses, but you can never have too many. I buy a green cloth purse with plastic flowers on it, and then drop my last two quarters into the little red machines by the doors, and crank the handle so that nine Mike’n’Ikes drop out. The quarters came from mommy’s purse, hidden behind her coat on the yellow hooks in our laundry room. She never has change at the grocery store, and I’m always busy fingering the checkout counter magazines when she sighs and comments about it in the general direction of her five children.

Usually we get blizzards from Dairy Queen, but Grandma must know how much sugar I’ve had today. Instead, she suggests we check out several antique stores on the way home. I’m tired and dizzy – driving always turns my stomach and I don’t like to wait for Grandma to look over everything in the store – but I say yes because I like being with Grandma. There are pictures of stiff old people in large wooden frames, and lots of doilies and flowered woodware. This store has a roll-top desk, just like I want someday, and a spinning wheel. I want a spinning wheel very badly because then I could really be a Pioneer Girl, but some of the parts are missing. Also, it’s $325 and I only have $24.73 in my checking account. I tap-tap-tap with my prairie boots across the linoleum in the store, twirling my skirt carefully away from the vases, as I wait for Grandma to finish her look-see.

Lastly, we stop at the Dublin library, where I find a book about an Indian captive, and another about a girl who worked in a textile mill during the civil war. It sounds very dramatic. Grandma gets out some books about what those liberals are doing to America, and about the history of Christianity, and about how to solve World Hunger. She turned in a big stack of books and magazines when we got here, but I know she has another stack at home, with yellow sticky notes poking out every which way from the pages.

Most of the stickies aren’t sticky anymore, because she carefully moves them from book to book, so that nothing is wasted. By her reading couch there is a pile of yellow stickies on the lampstand (actually nonstickies) that are turning greyish, and a little stub of a pencil which she uses to write her notes about the books, always on leftover scraps of paper, always in cursive so small I can’t even read it.

After she checks out her books, I check out mine, hiding the one about the civil war because the girl on the cover looks suspiciously swoony. We get back in the car for another dizzy ride home. There, I run to check the mail, while Grandma stops inside to talk with mommy and see the drawings my little brothers have made.

And I don’t touch my piano books all week, except for once when I play my scales so I can use the computer, and one other time, when I flip through the pages to see where my library receipt has gone.

remember that you are dust…

Ash Wednesday, by mtsofan on Flickr


In classical Christian tradition, Lent is a time to give up worldly distractions and to take on spiritual disciplines that reveal our inability to be just and loving, and God’s merciful response. The season of Lent prepares us for Easter, so that we can appreciate what God has done through Jesus. (And, for my friends, fasting from sugar during Lent prepares them to more fully, umm, appreciate and binge on pink-sugar-coated Peeps.)

So this year, I decided to refrain from selfishness and negative words, meanin to love and encourage others. Since Ash Wednesday, I’ve realized that 1) I don’t know how to approach life without sarcasm, and 2) I spend most of my day plotting how to get ahead.

This is not good.


I’m not quite sure what to do about this, but hopefully I’ll see some change over the coming weeks.

Feminists in the Book of Life

Love Jesus, by thebigdurian, on Flickr

“Many years ago, Jenell . . . and I joked we were going to form the North American Evangelical Gender Studies Association (NAEGSA). If you’re a feminist — and your name is written in the Lamb’s Book of Life — and you were born again of water and spirit — AND you believe gender is largely a social construct rather than a biological or divinely-ordained reality — well, we’ve got a place for ya in our little club.” – HS

I’m there.

Serrekunda, Gambia

someone else's picture, but it expresses Serrekunda fairly well

We went to the beach with a missionary family and an aid family today. We bobbed in the waves and practised floating, and then I convinced all the kids to build a giant sandcastle halfway up the beach. I gathered flip flops and crab shells and wire and twine and styrofoam and glass from all over the beach, above the tideline, and the kids did the digging. It worked out well.

Last night, we went to a Thai buffet in the tourist area with one of the mission families. I was afraid I’d see Jimmy Fixer in the street, but I didn’t. The buffet was okay – a variety of asian-like food – but the best part was a delicious coconut custard for dessert. The power went out a couple times – it does that here unless you have a generator, and the tourists kind of squealed.

Yesterday we also went to Serekunda market. We didn’t see any other toubaabs while we were there, and people assumed we were Peace Corps. The market is a crisscross of streets and alleys, all in dirt, with trash and fabric scraps on the road, and stalls lining the sides. People sit by kiosks or lounge in the stalls listening to Arab music. We would go into a fabric shop, and the young men would be lounding on the farbric beyond the dark doorways, and they would get up and tell us how expensive their products are, and how valuable, and how the one we wanted was the most expensive of all, and Aunt Jan would say, who do you think I am, a tourist? She would tell them that she lives here, and that it’s good luck to sell fabric at the time of the new year, and then they would laugh and tell her a price, and she would start laughing and act horrified, and walk away, and they would cut the price in half, and she would haggle a little more, and we would buy the fabric. We also went into a bead shop where Nettie bought several strands of beads. When we came out, the air was full of smoke – it was a smoky day – and crowds of people chanting music walked by, filling the streets, and giving coins to beggars, and all for the new year.

Morning in the Gambia

panques and baobab juice

I’m filling up on sweet fried panques, which are like donut holes, but heavier, tasting faintly of sweet potatoes and oil, moist and heavy and even spongy. Tida buys them early in the morning, along the road, as walks here to work in the house as a full-time domestic. I’m also drinking a rather tepid coffee with powdered milk, and eating pumpkin seeds, and wayyy too many leftover Christmas cookies.

It’s midday in Kerr Serign, halfway through our winter vacation in the Gambia. Outside incessant birds chitter in the bougainvillea blooming on the leafclimbed walls. Hassan is watering the ivy with a hissing hose, and Tida carries buckets of laundry, mops the floor, puts all our shoes in their proper place. A colonial experience. Nettie lies on the couch drinking coffee and reading a children’s book. Later today we may go to the market to buy fabric and have dresses made.

And I’m surrounded by leftover wrappings from Christmas: a bright shiny purple ribbon knotted into a bow, scraps of paper, the Shrek cookbook with recipes for dull food with fun names and story pictures. There’s a blue iridescent bowl, mostly empty, with stale peanut skins and salted pumpkin seeds resting at the bottom. A coffee cup, a faux-old mug with a blue and white china pattern, made – of course – in China, probably at Xinjunsan factory, worker 2581, 5612, 66178 and 2004 having personally touched it, I’m sure.

I find it interesting that almost everything here is imported, and that very little that actually gets made in the Gambia, besides peanuts and unemployed “bumsters.” In the shops we find leftover food donated from all around the world – China, India, the UK, the Middle East. In the stores there are cheap dollar store goods sold for $5 each, presumably because here they’re “foreign.” I expected there to be so much to buy here – so many beautiful things – and instead, here we are in the world’s Dollar General.

Are We Just Making Major Contributions to Minor Needs?

day of the dead, by aplkmars on flickr

This evening in Houston, Catharina introduced me to a Smithsonian TV series called Light of the Mind, in which anthropologist Wade Davis speaks with Nepalese monks. One of his guests, a French microbiologist turned Buddhist monk, says that western science has made “a major contribution to minor needs,” such as healing cuts and bruises, or helping us keep our teeth and hair until we turn 100–but that Buddhism helps us with major needs, such as understanding suffering and preparing for death. And I think:

So much of anthropology is also this:
a major contribution to minor needs.

I’ve been studying ethnicity, ethics, ecology — and so many of the articles are bullshit. We sit and we theorize: does everyone have an ethnicity? Is it ‘natural,’ or constructed to fill the needs of society? Then we read about ethics – is it even ethical to study other people? And in ecology – how many calories do Yanomami warriors consume each day?

I’m sorry?

And on the side, I read stories by Frederick Buechner, who does as these monks do: speaks life and helps us to understand suffering and death. His essays are like a fresh mozzarella and tomato sandwich, a glass of wine, a mouth full of tears – after months’ worth of (anthropological) sawdust and hardtack. So this question:

How can people who purport to study humans spend so much time collecting meaningless statistics and constructing surveys that make a major contribution to understanding the things that are of least value?
How can we make even a minor contribution to major needs? What are the major needs of our people?

Bookstore or library? On christian “ministries”

church bookstore

What is a ministry?

In the April 2008 issue of Christianity Today, Cindy Crosby reviews the Christian bookstore business in both its freestanding and church-lobby forms. Again and again, the bookstore owners whom she has interviewed speak of their work in terms of “ministry.”

For instance, Geni Husley says: “If our bookstore is not doing ministry and only peddling goods, we have no business being inside this church.”

Yes. But while she is ‘doing’ ministry, she is not doing it well.

My home church has a bookstore, cafe, vending machines, and other commercial accoutrements. When I attend the youth service, my more affluent friends browse the bookstore and find a few more devotionals to add to their collection. Others, who struggle to pay rent, look on jealously from the sidelines.

I am one of the affluent. In my own house and in the houses of many of my friends, I see rows of Christian books which are slowly turning to dust. We may never read them, but we all own some devotional classics, some bestsellers, and the five most popular versions of the Bible. Perhaps the lower classes can only afford the Wal-Mart edition of The Purpose-Driven Life. But we are more committed, we can afford meatier fare.

Yet the call of Christ is the call to community, and to cooperation as a living body. The call is to make the gospel accessible, to live in a world focused on God’s economy rather than our human one.

I cannot imagine Jesus charging a cover fee for his Sermon on the Mount, and then telling his disciples to hawk $5 paperback editions of the speech the next day at Synagogue.

This is why I believe that Christian libraries (whether community or congregation affiliated) are more in the spirit of God. They would allow even the most marginal to have access to all the collected wisdom about God and the communal mind and heart of Christ and his followers. Christian bookstores, by contrast, limit access to the affluent.

There is nothing wrong with a ministry to the affluent – but a ministry to all is better.