Sitting at my friend’s kitchen table, we talk about me writing this piece. I explain how “stuck” I feel and how I just don’t know where to start. I tell my friend that I’ve known Dr. Kim for many years; I preached for her ordination into the ministry through the Presbyterian Church in 2011. When she asked me to be one of the conversation partners on her book, Embracing the Other, I was more than willing. My friend, in her 90s, reads sections of the book while I wrestle. She reads, “The healing and restoring of the world is happening through the transformative power of love,” (141). She pauses. I look up. “What,” I ask. “Is it? Is transformation really happening? We’d love for it to be true, but is it?” she asks. For this healing to happen we need love. But we have to decide how safe it is to embrace people, she says. “Native Americans made that mistake. If they could have known how white people would treat them, they would have made a different decision.”
Her words stop me. I realize that I struggle to write because I know this book is aspirational and not predictive. It’s what we want, if we are Christian. We want to embrace those beyond our “tribe,” because we “ought.” In faith, we believe we are one in the Spirit, and that we are all created in the image of God. It is, as Kim describes, god-like. At least Trinitarian-like. It is the Spirit God’s work, Kim insists (151). And still, sitting with my friend, swapping stories about racial wounds and sexist hurts, I know Kim has written a “what we long to be” world into this book, a kind of prophetic spinning of possibilities. In fairness, she has not shunned the horrible truths that people of color, and Asian women in particular, have to face. She does not shrink back from what colonialism has done. She does not dismiss how being a “foreigner,” even in the land of one’s birth, leaves marks on the soul.
How will Grace’s aspirational theology for embracing Others happen, since, “white people are shielded” from so many painful truths? I think back to Sunday, July 1, 2017. I helped facilitate a conversation to address racism in LGBTQIA+ communities in and around Columbus, Ohio. At some point, late in the conversation, calls for action begin to sound like yet another list of “things people of color can do to be accepted by white people.” I felt my frustration rising. After taking a few breaths to calm myself, I ask, “What is the ‘white folk’ work in this endeavor for building a different community?” A white man stares at me with a look of confusion. “What do you mean?” he asks. I say, “All the ‘solutions’ are things people of color can do. What is the work white people need to do?” His look of confusion continues. Power has to be given up to be shared, I say. I wait some more. Finally, someone else who cannot bear this awkwardness asks whether non-profit organizations that work on behalf of LGBTQIA+ communities can expand their boards in order to welcome people of color to the table. I ask, “What if some white people resign and give their seat to a person of color?” I wait. This notion troubles the room. We move on. I tell this story to my friend as I fumble at the keyboard. People have no reason to trust us, to embrace us, especially if we wield power from dominating cultures, my friend says. “It is about power,” she says. “Uncolored people just don’t get it sometime.” Grace writes, “Embracing is not a verbal proclamation,” (151). “It’s more than a notion,” I think.
I love Grace’s work, but worry too that it looks like yet another call for us to “get beyond race” in a way that puts the onus on people of color. It doesn’t. But I realize that is my own reactivity to this topic. Grace’s question, “can I truly love Japanese people who occupied my country” is akin to my question: “can I truly love white people who continue to shield themselves from my pain?”
I reflect on Grace’s call for bravery to embrace the Other, through the power of Spirit God. We can only do it through this animated power, an erotic power in fact. “Filled with the power of the erotic, we can reject all that makes us numb to the suffering, apathy, and hate of others.” (141). Grace references Rita Nakashima Brock; I think of Audre Lorde’s iconic essay, “The Power of the Erotic.” We all have our canon. Numbness. Apathy. Hate. Those are just some of the feelings I struggle against as I do advocacy and justice work, and as I teach and lead. This brief paragraph does not do her theological reflection on the erotic—especially as it relates to sexism—justice. But as I read it, I think about my friend, a trans* man and a story he tells me about a specific moment of bodily dysphoria. I won’t repeat it here. But I know that sexism is not binary. I know it as I pray for the families of choice of trans* people killed every year, 14 already in 2017, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
I am a hyphenated woman. I am African-American. I am a hybrid woman. I am from the Deep South of the United States, and I live in the Midwest now. I live in Ohio, near one of the first stops on the Underground Railroad where people on the run, between bondage and freedom, stopped for respite and cover. I sometimes feel as if I live in between freedoms. I have never lived in Africa. I didn’t move here from another country, but another country—another continent—lives in my body. I am African. I have never run for my life with blood hounds on my tracks. But I know what it feels like not to belong. I know what it is to long for an elusive freedom. I am American, but I am not the kind of “American” people who say “I want my country back” mean.
Grace’s work provokes me to feel all of what it means to be the woman I am: a woman who longs for relationship with God and with Others, a woman who wants to embrace all creation. It also makes me pray for myself and for all of us because, as I struggle, I realize just how far I am from her aspirational call. “With restless hearts we long to connect with God, the Other, and the community of creation,” Grace writes (140). “May it be so,” I pray.
Valerie Bridgeman is Interim Dean and Associate Professor of Homiletics & Hebrew Bible at Methodist Theological School in Ohio. She also is founding president and CEO of WomanPreach! Inc., the premiere organization bringing preachers to full prophetic voice.
“Violence Against the Transgender Community in 2017,” http://www.hrc.org/resources/violence-against-the-transgender-community-in-2017.