A Pope’s Parade, A Teenager’s Funeral

Photo Thanks to Krzysztof Puszczynski

Photo Thanks to Krzysztof Puszczynski

Last weekend the pope visited the United States, and I’m glad that he came. He surprised and taught people by his unsettling edging toward the unseen even while speaking with politicians and other leaders.

Among my other reasons for gladness was the post-papal reflective moment I had when I read something about our propensity for godmaking. The article said we are compulsive in our godmaking. And I thought that we are also compulsive in our ability to leave the least mentioned and the unfairly mentioned least and unfairly mentioned.

A compulsion is a behavior that a person repeats without considering that behavior. It’s a repetitive unconscious gesture. We are compulsive in our godmaking, where we raise people and things to ultimate status. And we are, on the other hand, compulsive in our predilection for maintaining disinherited people at bottoms and edges of society.

There is a strange juxtaposition between the constant coverage of the pontiff and the unending stream of violence in Chicago. When I read that article, I thought just for a moment about how my friend and pastoral colleague was attending a funeral of a 14-year-old boy in the neighborhood while the pope was parading down East Coast streets. I thought about the terrible sounds of tears muffling used to be joy for a mother and a father whose child was dead before he understood how to open his high school locker with speed or how to drive or how to kiss his girlfriend or how to write a poem with that precise phrase.

TyJuan will never attend a college class, publish a memoir, see the pride on his mother’s face when he introduces her to his spouse or to his firstborn. And there will be no parades when he visits a city, no pictures when he meets a head of state, no tears shed when he blesses. Those tears at his funeral weren’t his mother’s last tears, but neither will nations get to weep because of splendid gifts he offers to the world. His brightness is dimmed.

“Something Must Be Said”

Originally posted on Intersections:

Thanks Aaron BurdenThanks Aaron Burden

Parents of black male children know that the world poses a much greater danger to our sons than they do to the world. We raise our black sons to be aware of their surroundings and to know how they are being perceived–whether they are shopping in a store, or walking down the street with a group of friends, or even wearing a hoodie over their heads. After hearing what happened to Trayvon as he was walking home from a store wearing a hoodie and carrying Skittles and ice tea, I was once again reminded of what a dangerous world this is for our sons. And I thought about Trayvon’s mother. She sent her son on a trip to visit family, only to have him fall victim to the unfounded fears and stereotypes grafted onto black male bodies. Something must be said, I thought, about what is happening…

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In Others’ Words, Pt. 4: Sheila & Alan Frost

When Michael asked me to be a guest author on his blog about fathering, my first reaction was raised eyebrows and a shake of the head. Nope, I thought, No way. I’m too busy… I’m not a writer… I’m not even a parent. Why would he even ask me to write on his blog?

Thanks Pexels

Thanks Pexels

The problem is that Michael has graciously helped me – without complaint or protest – on more occasions than I can recall. So I find myself in a position of owing him a favor. Well…owing him several favors. Besides, he didn’t really offer much of a choice. To quote his email directly: “Don’t tell me ‘no’. Tell me ‘yes’ and that you’re already writing.”

Well, now that I’m finally “already writing”, let me give a brief introduction. My name is Alan. I’ve been married to my wife Sheila for almost ten years. She’s pretty great, and much more thoughtful and sensitive than me. And I’m not just saying that because she’ll be editing (and improving) everything I write in this post. Come to think of it, for the record, let’s upgrade from “great” to “awesome”. She’s pretty awesome.

Three years ago Sheila and I decided that we wanted to expand our family through adoption. I won’t go into much detail here, but the adoption process can be fairly daunting. There are background checks, fingerprinting, countless hours of training, and strangers talking to you and visiting your home for the express purpose of judging you. In reality, they are simply evaluating our competency as future parents, but it can still feel like a long and drawn out process. When we tell friends that have become parents in the more traditional way about our journey, a common response is, “That’s a lot of work, we could never do that.” But Sheila and I just think of the process as our Paper Pregnancy. Yes, we have to do many things that people becoming parents in the traditional way don’t. But we don’t have to deal with morning sickness, maternity clothes, doctor’s visits, or hormones. And all of the tiresome chores of the adoption process have really helped to mentally prepare us to become parents.

Thanks Pixababy

Thanks Pixababy

However, even with all of the classes and training, I still don’t really feel prepared for the practical aspects of taking care of a tiny human being. No one has shown us how to prepare a bottle, or discussed sleep schedules, or taught us how to swaddle a tired baby. I’m 42 years old, and I have changed exactly one diaper in my life. It was a year ago, and I was the only adult available at the end of a long list of people called for emergency babysitting services. Our friends Arwa and Jeremy were scrambling getting ready for a cross country move, and needed someone to watch their delightful three-year-old son Aziz for the afternoon. As Arwa ran down the list of responsibilities before leaving for the afternoon, she casually mentioned that after Aziz woke from his nap that I would probably have to change his diaper. Having never done such a horrific task, I remained impressively calm on the outside as I projected an air of quiet competence. But inside I was panicking, and immediately broke out in a mental cold sweat. As soon as Arwa walked out the door, I was online reading articles and watching YouTube videos on changing diapers. (You’d be surprised how many diaper-changing videos there are.) After Aziz woke from his nap and the time came to attend to my duty, it wasn’t the poo-mageddon that I had built up in my head. It was just a simple wet diaper, which I was able to manage with a dampened forehead and slightly shaking hands, like a demolitions expert diffusing a bomb that failed to detonate.

Regardless of my fears, the diaper experience has shown that we will probably be able to figure out most of the practical day-to-day requirements of parenting. People have been raising children and figuring this stuff out for a long time. We have resources. We have friends and family that will help. We have YouTube.

But I suspect that practical day-to-day issues like diaper changing and bottle feeding are really only the tip of the adoptive parent iceberg. There are the worries and concerns over the health of a baby when you’re not directly involved in their neo-natal care. There are the challenges of open adoption and the difficulties of cultivating a relationship with the birth parents. There is the inevitable hurt of the teenage accusation, “You’re not my real parents!” But the issue weighing heaviest on my mind these days revolves around race.

Sheila and I are white. And we have decided that we are open to transracial adoption. As a result – statistically speaking – there is a good chance that our child will be of a different racial background than ours. We did not make this decision lightly; we attended adoption classes focused on race, we sought counsel from wise friends, and spent many hours in discussion and thoughtful consideration. In the end, we decided that we want to share our love with a child, and that we were willing to accept the additional responsibility of raising a child from outside of our cultural heritage.

This decision has raised another whole set of worries and concerns beyond diapers and birth parents. How do we respond to being a conspicuous family (a term used at the adoption agency); the stares, the questions, the assumptions that arise when family members with different skin tones go out in public? How do we instill racial and cultural identity? How do we help our child to develop a sense of pride in their heritage, while at the same time a sense of belonging within our white extended family? We know that the United States was built on a foundation of white supremacy. How do we teach our child about the injustices inherent in our country, when as white people, we benefit from privileges in the same system?

I’m worried about teaching my child about systemic racism and discrimination. These are realities that, as a white man, I have never experienced. How much do we shelter and protect? How will we balance keeping our child safe while simultaneously promoting independence and self-confidence? How do I prepare my child for discrimination when I’ve never felt it? How do I prepare my child for the same realities that faced Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and other young black men across the country? How can I teach our child to stand up for what is right without putting him/her in danger from those in positions of power? Or to simply exist without being in danger from those in positions of power?

There just aren’t that many YouTube videos on “How to Make Sure Your Child Is Not Shot by The Police Simply for Being Black”.

We feel absolutely unprepared to handle these concerns. And, like much of parenting, I’m not sure if it is possible for us to truly be prepared. But while I may not be able to look to YouTube for guidance, there are other resources. Most importantly, we have support. We attend a multi-racial church, where our child will see examples of loving men and women of many different cultures. We live in a diverse neighborhood, where our child will go to school with children from a variety of backgrounds. And we have truly gracious friends, like Dawn and Michael, that are willing to support us and our future child as we navigate the realities of being a transracially adoptive family. And lastly, as my awesome wife reminds me – we have a God that promises that he will make all things new, and will right all wrongs. It is with hope that we plunge into the next phase of our lives – parenting.

Thanks Pexels

Thanks Pexels

PS – We’re not necessarily choosing the child that we will adopt – instead, the birth parents are choosing us. Simply because we are open to transracial adoption doesn’t mean we are going to adopt transracially. There is also the possibility that we could end up adopting a white child. Regardless of the color of our child’s skin, we know that the topics of privilege, injustice, and race will be an essential topic of discussion in our family.

In Others’ Words, Pt. 3: Sonia Wang

I asked a friend, Sonia Wang, to comment on the current moment with a particular view toward our teachers and what she’d say to them. As she has before on this blog, Sonia gives us clear, translatable instruction for which I’m thankful.

Dear Teachers,

Our job is a complex tapestry of nuanced roles that impact and influence the young people we engage with on a daily basis. We teach, we counsel, we push, we heal, we redirect, we advise, we feed, we hold hands, we remain present. All the while, we ourselves grow in who we are as men and women because of the amazing young people who walk through our doors each day.

In the current state of affairs, where the lived lives of many of our students are marred by injustices from the minute they awake to the minute they rest their eyes at night, we have to ask ourselves, how do we best honor our students and their families? their lived experiences? And we make difficult decisions – what realities do we bring into the classroom, provide platforms for or safe spaces to come into? And how do we preserve our commitment to the words we say to each child through our own words and actions – that, when the going gets tough, we remain present?

Thanks to Ryan McGuire

Thanks to Ryan McGuire

We must anchor ourselves in aggressive honesty and expect nothing short of the most rigorous achievements of our children.

aggressive honesty

Our black and brown children are living in a time where they are seeing themselves in the media, and the message tells them clearly that they don’t matter. They may have learned about or been exposed to historical events or literary works that resemble their current lived lives.

As teachers, we need to first be honest with ourselves, in a “Come to Jesus” and aggressive manner that this is the reality. For some, it may not be our reality, but it must be part of our known reality, because it is our students’ reality. And thus, our curriculum, our language, our classroom structures, and our approach to relationships building must honor this reality. Now.

Why aggressive? Because our students don’t get back those eights hours from their day in school of being overlooked or denied of their lived reality. The time is, and must be, now. When we are honest with ourselves, we can be honest to our students in the choices we make. How awesome that we have the agency and power to impact students as they enter our classrooms.

And how much more awesome that we honor their voices in the very realities of their lives in their learning. (And yes, I’m thinking of all grade levels, considering what is developmentally appropriate at each grade.) You, teachers, do this. You can do this. Your students learn from you; we must learn from them to best teach them.

most rigorous achievements

Yes, our students come from broken streets. Violence pervades their walk to the bus stop. They see children who look like them being oppressed and wrongly persecuted. They belong to a city, a world in fact, that is comprised of too many broken systems that perpetuate privilege that does not bat an eye towards them.

Yet, our students are Poets. Mathematicians. Architects. Actors. Critical thinkers. Debaters. So, why do we succumb to the second class curriculum of drilling reading and math skills into their hungry minds in the name of closing the achievement gap? We don’t. Because we know who is in front of us.

We set high expectations for our students, and we make it clear that they are going to reach those goals with soaring achievements. We create inquiry and comprehensive units that explore themes and questions that are interesting. And we ask our students to think for themselves to get to your final objective for that unit. And then we scaffold the concept and the skill, we confer with our kids, pull small groups to re-teach, and we continue to push and honor their achievements when they have achieved them.

remaining present

And we continue to do this complex job because we know from our own lived experiences in our schools and classrooms, the deep joy that comes when our students gain those understandings, master the objective, show kindness to a peer, and stand up for an opinion of theirs.

Teachers, we are in the beautiful position to impact and influence. Which I often find immensely scary as well. But it is in this tension that we must remain: the tension of all the roles we play, being warm and demanding, of recognizing yet safeguarding from realities, of supporting through and pushing towards high expectations…

Our students deserve the empowerment that comes from knowledge. To have agency to make informed choices. We play a role in shaping these young minds and characters. And we must remain present to them – knowing that the strength to do so does not come from immediate evidence, because we know all too well that sometimes the fruit takes a few years.

And we also know it doesn’t necessarily come from our system in regularly honoring the amazing work of teachers. But my hope is that the strength comes from the deep understanding that we are part of a much larger tapestry – one in which the beauties we only get glimpses of are more perfect and frequent.

And so we persevere each morning, welcoming back each young person into our lives to reaffirm to them that they absolutely matter.



In Others’ Words, Pt. 2: David Swanson

I asked a friend, David Swanson, to respond to the “current moment,” particularly speaking as a pastor to our children, our church’s children, stating what things we might say. I’m grateful for his careful reiteration of a basic truth.

Thanks to Aaron Burden

Thanks to Aaron Burden

To Our Church’s Children,

In my sermons to your mothers, fathers, grandmothers, and the other adults in our church, I often tell them that, though there are many, many important things about them, there is one thing that matters the most: each of them is loved deeply by God. You are generally not in the room when I say this, but I know you hear it from the adults who love you and from the teachers who tell you the story of how God is rescuing this world through Jesus. Even so, I want to say it to you too. Of all the interesting, beautiful, and challenging things that make you who you are, the most important of all is that God loves you.

I know this might not sound so important. Most of you have people who love you and they tell you this. But if you could see what I see when I tell the adults that they are loved so completely and profoundly, you might begin to suspect that there is more to this simple statement. And there is, mostly because it is God and God’s love we’re talking about and whenever we talk about God we have to be humble about all we don’t know. We have to, in other words, admit that we will always be discovering new ways that God loves us. And we’ll be discovering for the rest of our lives how this love changes us and everything around us.

But there is another reason it is a life-long struggle to accept all of God’s love for us and this one is harder. We live in a country where it is normal to make people feel less worthy of love. There are many reasons given for this lie: girls can hear that they are less worthy than boys; children with darker skin can hear that they are less worthy than their friends with lighter skin. Does this make sense to you? I hope it doesn’t, but I need to tell you that for too many of the adults in this country it does make sense. I don’t want you to imagine that the adults you love actually think these lies are true, but this country finds so many tricky ways to tell us these lies that they begin to wiggle their way into our thoughts and our hearts.

These lies are the hard reason that we have to hear over and over again that God loves us. Because when we live in a place that lies to us all the time, trying to convince us that some people are more loveable than others, we have to hear loudly and clearly that we are loved. We need to know that the One who made everything, including us, loves us. He loves us exactly as we are, as boys and girls with hair that is just the right texture and color, with eyes and noses that are perfectly shaped, and with skin that can’t be improved upon. Look at yourself in the mirror and know that God loves you.

I hope you will spend the rest of your lives exploring God’s love for you. And as you do, as you experience God’s love as the particular person you are, I pray that you will make sure that everyone around you knows that God loves them too. Because the lies are strong and constant and most people you meet will believe them at least some of the time. But, as you will find out, the lies have nothing on the truth. And the truest thing in the universe is that God loves. God loves you.

In Other’s Words, Pt. 1: Aja Favors

I asked a friend, Aja Favors, to respond to the “current moment” and to reflect upon two of her roles in the world, those of mother and lawyer. I’m grateful for her wise, pointed words.

I’m a lawyer. Not long ago, I received a called from a friend asking what she might tell her son as it pertains to getting pulled over by the police. Her son is a freshman in college.

Before going into my normal response to such questions, I thought for a moment. I thought about being a mom. Even more than that, I thought about being the mom of an African American boy in a city that has been rightly or wrongly renamed “Chi-raq.”

My son is a baby—only nine months old. Still, the question I was being asked begged a response congruent with the mindfulness a young man’s mom might give.

After pausing far too long, I said…

“He should pull over. He should keep his hands on the steering wheel. He should be deliberately courteous and compliant. He should accept the citation (if issued) and go on his way. If they ask to search his car, he has the right to say, ‘no.’ There are a few reasons why they may be permitted to search it regardless. If he is asked to get out of the car, he should do so. And yes, the officers may pat him down if they have a reasonable suspicion that he could be a threat.”

I spouted out those instructions the way I had been trained to. Still, the justice-seeking, card-carrying NAACP member in me wanted to “beat my chest,” and talk about Sandra Bland, and Eric Garner, and Michael Brown. However, the mom in me wanted her son to make it home—to live to tell the story.

As a staunch supporter of “the struggle,” I believe and know that Black lives matter. I live in Black skin everyday. I’ve wrestled to elevate myself in a system flanked with those who have proven to themselves that I don’t deserve it…simply because I’m Black. Notwithstanding that reality, as a parent I believe and know that my son’s life matters.

I know that in order to protect him, in order to continue to lay my eyes on him—he has to be smarter than the system that makes it acceptable for him to be shot on sight, hanged with a trash can liner, or gunned down with his hands up.

He has to be smarter.

Thanks to Wellington Sanipe

Thanks to Wellington Sanipe

I’m not in favor of a world that makes Black men more docile, more compliant than their White counterparts, or more at risk because of their Black skin. But, I am in favor of a world in which Black children outlive their parents—a world in which one can be Black and die of old age and not from a police officer’s bullet.

Admittedly, what we tell ourselves as parents often contradicts what we tell our children. It’s true. I’d tell my son exactly what I suggested my friend tell her son.

All the while, on the inside I’m telling myself, “If anybody touches my child (police officer or common citizen), I will hunt them down. I will be neither deliberately courteous nor compliant. I will be vicious and vigilant. And, yes, at any cost there will be justice.”

“Exchanges Between Fathers and Sons”

Thanks to Patrik Gothe

Thanks to Patrik Gothe

I read John Wideman’s Fatheralong, and here’s a great quote:

The stories must be told. Ideas of manhood, true and transforming, grow out of private, personal exchanges between fathers and sons. Yet for generations of black men in America this privacy, this privilege has been systematically breached in a most shameful and public way. Not only breached, but brutally usurped, mediated by murder, mayhem, misinformation. Generation after generation of black men, deprived of the voices of their fathers, are for all intents and purposes born semi-orphans. Mama’s baby, Daddy’s maybe. Fathers in exile, in hiding, on the run, anonymous, undetermined, dead. The lost fathers cannot claim their sons, speak to them about growing up, until the fathers claim their own manhood. Speak first to themselves, then unambiguously to their sons. Arrayed against the possibility of conversation between fathers and sons is the country they inhabit, everywhere proclaiming the inadequacy of black fathers, their lack of manhood in almost every sense the term’s understood here in America. The power to speak, father to son, is mediated or withheld; white men, and the reality they subscribe to, stand in the way. Whites own the country, run the country, and in this world where possessions count more than people, where law values property more than person, the material reality speaks plainly to anyone who’s paying attention, especially black boys who own nothing, whose fathers, relegated to the margins, are empty-handed ghosts.

(From Fatheralong, 64-65)